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Its time to be the hero you've always wanted to be. Diving into a revolutionary new video game, Marcus and his friends escape a stagnant society, entering into a world that defies their wildest imaginations. But from the moment that he logs in, Marcus finds himself separated from his friends and thrown into remote village under attack by a horde of goblins. Forced into battle, Marcus rallies the beleaguered villagers and with their help, manages to drive off the invading creatures. With the village in ruins and their supplies spoiled, the survivors desperately turn to Marcus for help in rebuilding the village. Realizing that this game is nothing like he's ever played before, Marcus is swept up into a whirlwind of adventure as he struggles to defend his new home, quickly finding that marauding goblins are the least of his problems.
Tuesday, July 2nd, 2047 – 9:00 a.m.
“Three, two, one, pull!” The words left my mouth in a rush, my heart already pounding in my chest while my hand tightened its grip on the rope before me. This was it. There was no going back now. We were committed.
A realization that was made all the more poignant when I felt gravity grab hold of me as we went over the edge.
“Oh, this is going to suck,” I heard a voice mutter from behind me as we fell, the clipped statement ending in a stifled yelp. In any other circumstance, I would have turned to offer a comforting word to the man behind me, assuring them that everything would be alright. But this time, however, they were right. Well, that and the fact that there was simply no combination of words in any language that humanity had ever created that would allow me to convince him otherwise. So, instead, I did the next best thing as we plummeted into the grotto and focused on my job, which right now was to ensure that we didn’t splatter ourselves across the hard stone floor beneath us. Oh, and also that we had a proper greeting for the grotto’s current occupant, whom I saw was already rising to meet us.
Well, aren’t you eager today, I thought as I watched the sinuous head of Soh-Khan The Broodmother appear before me, her dark, pitch-black eyes instantly burning with rage at our intrusion.
Just as I knew she would, which, in turn, prompted my hand to sharply squeeze the rock that I held in my free hand, feeling it shatter in the process.
“Spellstones out!” I announced, already feeling the stone’s stored magic begin to take effect.
In a blink, it had us falling at a controlled speed, steadying and evening out what had been an almost completely uncontrolled plunge. It was a change that brought us exactly level with the Broodmother’s face as she finished her ascent, the rest of her colossal body shifting and uncoiling from its slumber below.
“Hold one!” I shouted as I dropped the now useless stone fragments and gripped the rope I’d been holding with my now empty hand, pulling back on it ever so slightly while shifting my weight. Instantly, I felt the angle of our descent shift, aligning it to exactly where it needed to be. Now all I had to do was—
Soh-Khan opened her mouth, hints of obsidian lightning appearing within.
“Fire!” I shouted, my entire body shuddering a second later as The Beast unleashed a heavy, Æthertouched iron bolt that sped through the air towards the creature.
Crossing the distance between us almost faster than the eye could follow, the bolt vanished into the colossal behir’s mouth and sent it reeling backwards with a screaming wail as it found flesh. Nor was it the only one of its kind either, as no sooner did the first bolt land so too did a volley of others from all around me, filling the air with a thunderous crack of artillery.
Arriving en masse, the barrage thrust themselves into the creature’s body, splitting scales and parting flesh with ease. It was enough to cause the already screaming roar of the broodmother to reach new heights as it reverberated off the stone walls now surrounding me. Not that I really even heard it, or even processed hearing it, my mind having already moved on to its next task, which was to leap free of the siege engine that I had just ridden down from the sky. Landing on the ground ahead of the machine and breaking into a run, my hand managed to close itself upon a glowing golden shard that hung fixed in the air. I drew it back into myself before I heard it, and all the other ballistae accompanying us, land behind me.
So far, so good, I allowed myself to think as I felt my reclaimed soul shard flow back into me, wiping away a layer of mental and physical fatigue that I had forgotten was even there. It was so much of a relief in fact that I felt good enough to risk a look upwards instead of blindly continuing my sprint, doing so just in time to see a tidal wave of burning magic unleash itself from above and fall upon the roaring form of Soh-Khan, momentarily blotting her from sight.
So far, really good, I corrected as I turned my attention away from the descending cloud of spellcasters trailing the siege weapons and back to what I was supposed to be doing.
Which was to continue closing in with the now truly enraged monster.
<How is it going over there? Any luck?> I asked, reaching out to my other half as I ran, paying just enough attention to where I was placing my feet to avoid stepping on one of the countless shattered weapon or armor fragments that littered the ground around me. All of which had continued to build and build with each of our failed attempts.
This time is the charm, though, I told myself right as I heard Amaranth’s voice fill my mind, sounding particularly excited.
<They fall before us like the frightened prey they are. None will come to their mother’s aid this time.>
<Good,> I replied simply, breathing both a sigh of relief and sorrow at the news. The first because I was happy that the surprise that spelled our end the last time was no longer a factor, and the second because of the loss that it entailed.
But that’s just war, isn’t it? I asked myself silently as looked up at the colossal beast ahead of me, the once-majestic behir that had saved us all, now just a shadow of its former self.
Quite literally at that, I noted with bitter irony as I channeled a surge of mana through my body and shaped it into a spell. A heartbeat later, I leapt high and into the air, the move giving me my first clear look at the broodmother since the battle began. A look that much like every other time that we had faced her caused my heart to quiver when I saw the result of what my orders had wrought.
No longer the resplendent creature, the force of nature that I had seen tear through the invading orc horde, Soh-Khan The Broodmother was now a true monster in the making. A monster borne and twisted of corruption.
Where before the mighty creature was adorned in pristine shining scales that caused the sun’s light to dance across them, they were now pitted, scarred, and rotting. Where before her eyes blazed with the unbridled fury of the storm, they now only held an infinite well of darkness that freely wept tears of corruption, sending black lines streaking down her face. Where before Soh-Khan had been the herald of nature’s ferocity, of life itself, she was now its end, her very presence warping and twisting all that here was around her.
Which is why we need to do this before things can get any worse, I thought as I drew Savagery free of its sheath while sailing upwards, my eyes focused on my eventual destination. Because if we don’t...
It was a thought that I forced myself to abandon as I wove another spell, this one as familiar to me as breathing. That was why when my vision blurred into a spray of colors for a brief instant, I didn’t even so much as flinch. Instead, the sight simply served as a marker for me to begin swinging my sword forward, already knowing what I would see when it faded.
Which was to say a snarling face filled with pure hatred unlike any I’d seen before.
Lashing out the instant that it appeared, I had just enough time to capture the flash of surprise that appeared in the broodmother’s eyes at my arrival before my sword struck. Connecting perfectly with the creature’s snout, the blade effortlessly parted scale and flesh alike as my momentum carried me towards the looming eyes ahead. Eyes, which, in turn, were the focus of my third spell, the mana that I had gathered unleashing itself as a torrent of flame from the jewel that hung in the very center of my free hand, stoking its already potent power to new heights.
Rushing forth faster than the creature could hope to react, the Flameburst seared the glaring eyes with such an intense heat that its entire head rocked back, followed by yet another agony-filled roar echoing through the grotto. Then, as soon as it all had appeared, it was gone, with my flight through the air taking me past the broodmother’s head and neck and down towards the rest of its body below, my part in the opening stanza finally over. I didn’t even need to wait for my successor to take over, my feet barely even landing upon Soh-Khan’s back before I heard a thundering voice call out over her scream.
“Hey there, Big Mama!” I heard Drace’s voice shout right as something violently struck the colossal creature with enough force that even I felt it under my feet. “Remember me? I’m here to give you another round of indigestion!”
It was a challenge that was promptly answered by the broodmother as it quickly recovered and unleashed what was its first attack of the battle. Already running along its spine to get back into position, I arrived just in time to see a colossal claw slash downward as it moved to crush Drace, the warrior shouting wordlessly as he raised his shield to receive it. And receive it is exactly what he did as the descending claw was abruptly stopped, slamming into the half-giant with enough force that the stone floor beneath him shattered, yet left him standing completely unbowed despite the strength behind the titanic strike.
“Haha! You’re going to have to do better than that if you want to put me down this time!” Drace shouted right before he went on to do what all of us would have considered impossible just a handful of weeks earlier.
He shoved Soh-Khan the Broodmother backwards.
Heaving with a strength that the creature had never seen before, the mighty juggernaut all but threw the Behir’s claw off of him, the force of which unbalanced the colossal creature, prompting all six of its legs to scramble wildly in order to steady itself. It was a distraction that I took full advantage of as I leapt past the creature’s now-flailing neck, coming just close enough to carve a burning line of fire through the rotting scales and flesh that armored it. I could have done more if I had wanted to. In fact, I could have paused right there and then to burn every single point of mana I had on the creature, saving just enough to blink away when the broodmother finally recovered.
But if I had done that, then I would have been most assuredly killed in the aftermath of the call that echoed out a second later.
“Volley Two, fire!” Sierra’s voice commanded right as I touched back down on the ground beside Drace, the warrior already having turned to rush away from the staggered broodmother alongside me, having fulfilled his task in our carefully choreographed dance. The two of us managed half a dozen steps before the grotto was filled with another cacophonous crash, this one even louder than the first, which had started off our battle.
A rush of wind washing over us from above accompanied the sound as a renewed hailstorm of ballista bolts flew over our heads, this time even denser than the first. It had taken us weeks to map out the adjoining tunnels and caves that led to the central grotto, let alone the ones that were large and smooth enough to accept siege weaponry, but we’d done it. It was a fact that I couldn’t be more grateful for as I saw the dozen other ballistae we’d sent through them lined up before me, their well-practiced crews already reloading the machines without waiting to see the results of their volley—as they should have, considering we all knew by now what still awaited us.
“Casters, unload!” It was Halcyon’s turn to shout, the wizard’s voice calling out loud and clear over the screams that echoed out from the broodmother. “Push her to transition!”
And unload is exactly what they did the seconds that followed the man’s words, a nigh cataclysmic storm of magic firing out en masse from all around us. It was so intense in fact that it completely blotted the broodmother from sight as it fell upon her, even going as far as to completely cut off her scream, filling the air instead with the raging sounds of the elements. Had I been any less experienced, any less hardened to the behir’s power, I would have thought that was the end of the creature, considering it impossible for anything to survive such an impossible barrage of might and magic.
But now… well, now I knew better.
That was why the instant that I saw a hint of darkness appear amid the well of magic where Soh-Khan had stood, my heart barely even registered it, the once surprise it hinted at having lost its effect ages earlier. Instead, I simply turned my head and nodded towards Drace as the two of us rushed to our assigned spot directly beside the beast, all while shouting, “She’s phasing! Defensives up, everyone! Blast out in five!”
No sooner did those words leave my mouth than waves of defensive magic rose up all around me, appearing as a multicolored cascade of light as spell after spell was layered on top of the other. There were so many that I eventually lost count of them all, their effects eventually blending into an all-encompassing feeling of warmth and protection.
Protection that I knew all too well would be put to test when a high-pitched scream filled the air and the very ground shook.
“Blast coming out!” I shouted a second before everything around us turned abruptly dark, courtesy of the black cloud that suddenly exploded outward from the broodmother to fill the entirety of the grotto. As it did, it slammed into the half-dozen barriers, auras, and protective seals that had been created around us, each successive layer cracking and failing in turn until only one remained, which flared brightly under the wave but stopped just short of breaking, leaving all within completely unscathed.
Just as I had calculated it would have, barely paying attention to the chorus of relieved sighs and cheers that sounded out around me.
Instead, I listened for the voice that would set off the showdown that I had been waiting for, my nerves having grown steadily tighter and tighter with every successive checkpoint we passed and only continuing to do so when Halcyon called out once again.
“Dispels out! Clear the area!” he called out, his words barely having time to reach my ears before the thick miasma that had filled the room abruptly vanished as if it had never been there.
“Now the real battle begins,” Drace whispered as he cast a glance my way, raising an inquisitive eyebrow in the process. “You gonna be okay, Lyr?”
“I’ll manage,” I replied despite giving the man a shrug, my nerves far too wound up to let me do or say anything else. “See you on the other side?”
“You bet,” the half-giant answered in a confident voice, the two of us then leaving the shimmering remains of the protective circle that had survived the broodmother’s corrupting blast and beginning our mad dash back towards her.
<Where are you?> I asked Amaranth as I scanned the battlefield, pleased to see that all, if not everything, had gone well so far. <We’re up next.>
<On my way,> my familiar replied. <I will meet you right as we strike.>
That was all I needed to hear before I turned my focus back to the broodmother, seeing her enraged form silhouetted through the cloud of dark corruption that she’d unleashed, having finally had a chance to rise to her full height. Roiling angrily, the storm of blackened energy around her spun with fury as it dissipated, revealing the incredible toll that our attacks had taken. Everywhere my eye landed, I could see shattered scales, rent flesh, exposed bone, and more ballista bolts than I could ever hope to count in the time I had protruding from her body. But despite the sheer quantity of wounds, they weren’t at all what I was looking for as my eyes ran across her ravaged form. Rather it was the pitch-black well of darkness upon her chest that they sought, the very same one that had begun to spew forth a steady stream of corrupting miasma.
And there it is, I thought the moment I saw the corruption’s source, its appearance a sure sign as any that we had truly pushed the broodmother into her next—and hopefully final—phase. A transition that meant that the source of the corruption that had been responsible for warping and changing her so drastically had been exposed.
It had taken us dozens of attempts filled with nothing but trial and error to discover all the nuances of the fight before us. Dozens of attempts where all we did was fight to draw out the inevitable just so that we would be able to see another ability, another trick, another mechanic of the encounter. And after the attempt three days earlier, the one that we had lasted the longest in, done the most damage in, we finally saw all that we needed to see. That was why we’d committed so much this time. Why we had finally brought in the heaviest of our siege weaponry, and why we were burning through some of our most important resources and our rarest consumables.
Because this time, we were after the kill, and we needed every single advantage we could eke out.
That was why as I sprinted towards Soh-Khan for what I hoped would be the final time, I pulled a shimmering phial free of a belt pocket and downed its contents in one quick, practiced motion. Once it was gone, I simply let the glass fall from my hand, feeling my muscles surge with power as I channeled yet another rush of mana from my dwindling reserves, shaping it into a hardened shell of magic around me. One that I knew all too well that I would need in the moments to come.
But not for the claw that was rapidly scything towards me.
Having followed the impending strike from the instant that it had begun, I had all the time in the world to plan my move to evade it. Without so much as a breaking a sweat, I could have effortlessly angled my sprint to take me out of range from the coming blow, or if not, then to blinkstep or leap over it, allowing the claw to pass by harmlessly. But for all those options, only one of them brought me closer to my destination.
Which was to simply run faster.
It was a move that would have been suicidal in any other situation, for we had all learned firsthand that being up close and in front of the ferocious entity that was Soh-Khan the Broodmother was a place extremely dangerous to one’s continued health. But in my particular case, I was simply passing through on my way to somewhere else, a blue-furred creature joining me at the very last second, appearing out of thin air, right as I readied myself to leap.
<Here we go again!> I told the cat as the two of us then leapt up and into the pitch-black void that now loomed before us, only to have it practically drag us in the moment that we drew close enough. The last time that such a thing had happened, it had completely terrified me, leaving me in a blind panic as I was pulled elsewhere, to a place between places. A place of living shadows and darkness unlike any other I’d seen before.
But this time, however, I was ready. Ready for everything that the shadows had to throw at me—or rather who they had to throw at me.
“Sssooo, you’ve returned again,” an ethereal voice greeted me as I landed in a forward roll, using what momentum I’d entered the place with to dodge under the blow I knew was coming to greet me. Yet even despite that knowledge, I only partially succeeded, my Arcane Shield flaring brightly as it deflected a near-invisible strike away from me.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t, Zhul?” I answered back as I regained my feet and spun in the direction of the voice, hearing a vicious growl sound out, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting metal.
But if I had been truly expecting a meaningful reply from the shade that once been an orc warlord then I would have been disappointed, for it had been very clear to me the last time that I had been here that very little of what he once had been still survived. So instead, all I heard was a wordless hiss from the shadow that filled a ravaged and torn suit of armor as it staggered through in the air a short distance away from me, courtesy of the massive paw that had struck it. It was a distraction that allowed me just enough time to reach for the totem that hung from my side, a sharp tug followed by a flick of the wrist embedding it into the shadowed ground right as a spray of colors filled my vision.
Then the next thing I knew, I was swinging Savagery down in a vicious slice at a wicked-looking axe hewn of shadow before me, striking it with enough force that it caused my teeth to rattle. No sooner did I do so than I felt a surge of corruption rush into me as I drank in the energy that it held, feeling my body protest at its presence while simultaneously cheering as it devoured it, filling me with mana. Mana that I immediately spent, unleashing it back upon the being who had been the cause of all my stress, all my anxiety, and all my suffering over recent weeks. I saw fire, ice, and lightning fill my vision as I struck blow after blow on the creature, each attack rending armor and shadow alike, each attack filling me with an indescribable hunger.
A hunger that I embraced wholeheartedly as I took hold of the power that it offered.
It had been the only way that I had been able to come up with that gave us a chance to defeat the broodmother, to defeat the insidious corruption that had taken up home inside her, twisting both body and mind until they were shadows of their former selves. There had simply been no other path or option that had appeared in the time that we’d had. So, as it had countless other times since our journey began, it fell to me to make a difference. To be the one that always saved the day.
And that was exactly what I did when my claws were finally able to tear into Zhul’s armor, parting the damaged metal as if it were paper, thrusting themselves deep into the source of the shadows that filled it. There was pain along the way, of course, countless lashing tenacles of darkness whipping and biting into my flesh. But for all I cared as my hands closed upon something soft within the armored shell and ripped it to shreds, it might as well not have even been there. Nor was there any triumph in the moments that followed afterwards, even as my vision streamed with line after line of text. Instead, all there was as the hunger eventually receded was a deep and profound fatigue, followed by a single, all-consuming thought.
I am so tired.