Chapter 17: Barrier

He rose from the bed after fifteen minutes, more composed than he had been. He needed to decide. Did he want to continue climbing, or take the stairs instead?

He looked outside and closed the door again. The demons were still there, at least six that he could see. If he woke them, he was dead.

He crept out, straddled the nearest demon, then slashed its throat with his weapon and his other hand pressed over its mouth. There was a faint hiss of expelled air between his fingers, the demon tried to unfurl its wings, but was blocked by Chris’ body. Then it sank back, dead.

Chris had his Slime mop up the spilled blood, both on the straw mattress and around the demon’s throat. He laid it to one side on the floor and flipped the mattress so there was no sign of a struggle.

He pressed his arm back around the dead demon’s throat, letting the Slime simultaneously staunch and absorb the blood. He carried the monster into the demon officer’s room and, after bolting the door, let his Slime feed on the body. It was hungry after dissolving all the stone, and only the demon’s legs remained once it was done. Chris couldn’t help but wonder where all the extra mass went.

Then, grumbling to himself, he crawled back out the window. He hated having to climb farther. The heights were already bad enough, and would only get more dizzying as he went. A fall might mean certain death if he continued, even with his improved constitution.

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Still, it was the better of two bad options. At least he knew he could climb the tower’s outside; it was just his nerves that would get in his way. He couldn’t guarantee that every floor he entered would be like the barracks, much less that the next floor’s occupants would even be asleep.

Gritting his teeth, he ascended, the ground falling away beneath him.

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He passed several more windows before he saw the first recessed balcony. He was tempted to check it out, but opted not to do so. Instead, he kept on going until he’d almost reached the tower’s top. He didn’t want to go any higher. He might be spotted from the elevator that led to the surface if he was unlucky. Better not to risk it.

The climb was easier now, the tower’s walls had begun curving inward, so the ascent became far less precarious. There was another of the recessed balconies, and this time he decided to go for it. It wouldn’t even require cutting into the stone to reach. The tower was sloped enough to allow proper traction.

He jumped, his armor ringing against the stone as his fingers seized the ledge and he pulled himself up. There was no glass here, the balcony opened out to a large room with a high, slanted ceiling that must be the inside portion of the tower’s peak.

He was on the final floor!

Chris looked around, at the center of the room was a white obelisk with purple runes, just like the one he’d seen in the clearing—except it was several times larger, and instead of the shimmering field at its bottom, the obelisk tapered down like the waist of an hourglass before widening again as it reached the floor. At the meeting place of the two tapered points sat a small multifaceted-crystal.

Why the hell did the System like crystals so much?

Either way, the crystal must be the Dungeon Core that was the optional portion of the quest. Depriving the obelisk of its core would seal the Dungeon. If it didn’t, then he was all out of good guesses. He supposed he had several options, steal it, smash it, or remove it. It had to be what was creating the Dungeon in the first place. Why else would it be called a Dungeon Core?

And there was something else, he could feel the Slime in his arm vibrating, just as it did when it sensed something it wanted to absorb. Best to get whatever that was first, he didn’t know how long the Dungeon would be around once he took the Core. He held his arm out and followed it to a series of tables with flowers and stones on it. Most of them the Slime was disinterested in, but it snapped up some of it after a moment’s hesitation. That didn’t seem to be what his arm was interested in, though. The moment it came near to a small flower with white pollen and golden petals, it was fixated. His arm ignored everything else as it homed in on the flower.

Chris obliged and brought it closer, rolling his eyes. The Slime stretched farther then he’d ever seen it reach, then enveloped the flower into its slimy, roiling bulk, before reverting back to a normal flesh and blood arm. He could still feel its satisfaction though. He could also feel something changing, as if the flower had become fireflies within his veins.

It didn’t seem to be doing anything bad, though, so he let it be. Time to get that damn Core and get the hell out of dodge.

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He approached the Core, arm outstretched—his non-Slime arm, he didn’t trust the other one not to eat the crystal as soon as it came in range.

A shape moved out of the corner of his eye, at the far end of the room. A hatch in the ground he hadn’t noticed raised and a robed and hooded figure appeared from below, carrying something. It spotted him. Chris reached for the Core.

The figure was quicker. Its hand shot out, and a glowing green barrier enveloped the lower half of the obelisk, throwing Chris away and encasing the crystal at the obelisk’s center in protective power. Magic!

Chris heard glass shatter as whatever the robed creature had been carrying smashed below it. The obelisk flickered; the light of the purple symbols carved into its side began to die. A screen started to manifest before his eyes, hazy and indistinct.

The creature pulled itself up, revealing its body. It had six limbs—four arms and two legs. The robe extended down to its knees, where it cut away, revealing knobbled knees, thin, gangly legs, and sunset-red skin.

The demon threw back its hood—exposing a hairless, humanoid head, crowned with curling black horns. It waved all four of its arms and chanted slowly and precisely. The green barrier wavered, then reformed. The purple runes along the obelisk’s surface flared back to life.

The demon staggered after casting the spell, then straightened, brushing its robes.

Chris saw the screens fade again. The obelisk was suppressing the System!

He picked himself up from where the barrier had thrown him, then ran behind the obelisk, putting the barrier between him and the sorcerer demon.

He was still in a state of shock. He’d low-key known that magic was real, but being on the receiving end of a spell really brought it home. He was so screwed.

He cursed the System again as he fumbled at his rope belt, releasing his mace and shield. He brought them into his hands and began slamming the weapon into the barrier. Given how the demon mage had gone to great lengths to keep the obelisk functional, it was definitely important to the creature. It had clearly drained a lot of its power to allow the effect to continue through the shield.

Chris’ goal was to exploit the mage’s wish to protect the Dungeon Core at all costs. He continued bashing at the green barrier, watching as it flickered around each strike before refocusing.

The demon mage growled and jogged around for a better angle. Chris moved with the demon, always keeping the obelisk between him and the angry wizard trying to kill him. He was quicker and had a smaller distance to move. He kept on hitting at the barrier, watching cracks start to appear.

The mage began casting again, the barrier became enshrouded in writhing blue worms of electricity. Chris wasn’t able to hold back his strike in time and was blasted backward as his limbs seized.

He smelled burning, like that time he’d tried to poke the fairies on the other end of the electrical socket with a paperclip. He lay there, groaning in pain as he convulsed. That wasn’t fun.

As he regained control of his spasming muscles, the mage moved around and gestured.

A bolt of black power shot toward him and he rolled away. Chris wasn’t fast enough. It hit the side of his armor and while most of it splashed against the floor, a blot of corroding darkness began to spread over his armor.

Chris stood and ran back to the barrier as the demon mage began casting again. Another dark bolt shot at him but he made it behind the barrier in time. He paused for a moment, wondering what to do. He hit the barrier with his shield.

An electric shock still travelled through his arm, but it was weaker than Coors Light, he also thought it was about as refreshing. His mace was metal all the way through, it conducted the electricity perfectly into his body. The shield was pure bone, and dry to boot. He still felt a shock, like touching a metal railing on a sunny day, but it was nothing compared to the unbottled thunderstorm of his previous contact.

The edge of his shield, however, began to blacken and flake as he whaled on the barrier. It was starting to falter now, the cracks widening with every blow—no longer refocusing at all. His bone shield was in bad shape too. Chunks of charred bone dropped from it with every strike and the shocks intensified as there was less shield to resist the massive surges of power from the barrier.

With a shout of outrage, the demon mage drew three curving daggers from its robe and charged.

Chris ignored it. He was faster than the demon. He continued to circle the barrier as it chased him around futilely. Whenever he’d put enough distance between them both, he paused to strike the barrier.

The electricity was fading with the barrier, Chris could see it only had a few strikes left. But he was injured from his first shock and the corrosive darkness on his armor had finally eaten through the metal and now attacked his tissues. He didn’t want to risk the barrier going down, only to get a faceful of deadly darkness. It was better to heal up rather than trying to penny-pinch potions.

Still running, he transferred his mace to his shield hand, retrieved a potion from its tattoo, then let the Slime consume it. He felt his aches diminish as the potion rushed through his veins. It didn’t stop the darkness clinging to his side, but, just like the barrier, that spell was weakening too.

He adjusted the arm straps of his shield, so that he only connected to it by the grip. He had a cunning plan he wanted to carry out. The barrier was a wan green now, no longer vibrant and powerful. And the tiny threads of lightning looked as potent as those from a Van der Graaff generator.

Keeping his shield free, he slammed his mace into the fading green barrier. It was time to end this.

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