(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
It sure didn’t feel like a long time had passed but when Damien woke up, it seemed a millennium slipped by while he was taking a nap, judging by the intense pain assaulting just about every fiber of his muscles. Immediately, he decided to forget about sitting upright for now and just take it easy, at least for a second or two. Or maybe even more.
He was happy to feel that ache, however. It was a reminder that he was still alive, and in one piece. This ache also did a good job of reminding him of the old days, back when he first started out as an Adventurer – back then, he often had to sleep on the hard, unforgiving surfaces, and as a result the following mornings were filled with these kinds of cramps and pains. Well, not exactly the same kind of pain but close enough.
Looking around, he saw the now-familiar pulsing blue lines on the metallic panels, casting a soft and eerie atmosphere over the quietness of the Sacred Acre’s interior. He grumbled his dissatisfaction at the obvious misfortune of being still stuck inside this damnable place. He also saw his companions nearby, in various states of resting, spread about the cavern. Right next to him was Phil, sitting by a small lamp as he performed maintenance on the blade of his sword.
“You’re awake,” Phil leaned over and spoke when he noticed Damien sitting up gingerly.
“Sorry for worrying you,” Damien massaged his temples weakly. “How long have I been out for?”
“Long enough,” said Phil as he passed over a waterskin. “Here, wet your throat.”
Damien thanked his friend and took a generous swig of the lukewarm water. Tasted lousy – still felt like a nectar from the gods, so it was all good.
He wiped the corner of his lips and frowned after recalling the moment when he blacked out. Returning the container, he asked Phil. “What happened to me? I shouldn’t have passed out like that.”
Phil knitted his brows and sighed. He hesitated for a second, searching for right words to speak. The experienced Adventurer had been trying to come up with a nicer way to break the news, but now that the person in question was looking back at him, he found it unusually hard to spit the words out.
Naturally, seeing this reaction Damien knew right away the answer wasn’t going to be rosy.
“Come on. Just tell me, Phil. It’s better to know. I need to know what the matter is.”
Phil nodded, and quietly spoke. “Well…. I’ve no better way of saying this. You and a few of the men got cursed.”
Damien expected something of this nature but still, a curse? He was shaken badly, but if it weren’t for him holding back the tide of emotions, he’d have a freakout right here, right then. He couldn’t stop a chill running down on his back, however.
“Taylor thinks the curse got in you through the wound. Those who got infected by the curse will turn into those undead Fiends, he thinks.”
The wound? Damien sucked in his breath.
That graze on his side!! He tried hard to remember when he got injured.
He was drawing blanks.
Phil continued his explanations. Few, if any, words entered Damien’s brain but he was able to understand the crux of the message.
He was going to die if not purified of this affliction immediately. No, it would be worse than that, as he would come back as those infernal undead Fiends. And threaten the lives of others, maybe even that of his family.
Such gloomy predictions of his future made it difficult to organize his thoughts but, after a short internal turmoil he somehow got his emotions back under control, more or less. Of course, he kept his expressions to a bare minimum – he didn’t want to show a sign of weakness in front of his men, not even for a blink of an eye. Right now, upkeep of the moral was far more important than ever.
Surviving the trip down into the murky disarray of the mind, Damien rearranged his thoughts quickly and prioritized the figuring out of the way to cure himself and those who were also affected like him. “Alright then, what are we looking at here?”
His voice was calm, just like his face. If someone were to look at him now, Damien was exuding an aura of unperturbed stalwart, a man who was not afraid of staring at the threat of death without flinching.
As an Adventurer, one was accustomed to the very fact that one could die at any moment. A life, a human life at that, was quite fragile and everyone in the trade knew that. Accepting one’s fate calmly, came naturally to those who had seen some unsavory things in the past, like Damien had.
But obviously, he was still a human and couldn’t fully shake off the fear taking root in his heart. He didn’t want to die. Not yet. He had too much to lose now.
“Miss Helga cast some Light Elemental type Invocation on you, and that supposedly slows down the spread of the curse. But it’s only temporary. She thinks…. no, she believes that we have to clear out the Sacred Acre in earnest if we’re to lift it from you lot.”
Blue lights from the panels created an unnatural silhouette on Phil’s face when he said those words. It was like, as if he was here, yet not here at the same time, speaking yet not speaking. A mirage of an image, almost surreal and not tangible, even though Damien knew that was false.
Shaking his head to clear the encroaching thoughts of irrelevance, he tried to focus on Phil’s continuing words.
And continue, he did. “She thinks the curse is related to the hidden Core of the Acre, the one we didn’t get to destroy back then. She further believes the solution is tied somehow with our original intention of retrieving this Aerinite. She got all of that just by staring at some walls here and there.”
Damien remembered Helga acting all excited at a wall prior to engaging the undead Fiends. That might’ve been that. Might.
It all sounded a bit unreliable to him, but then again, even he wasn’t privy to the boundless mysteries of the Sacred Acres. What the Invoker said may be true, or not. Regardless, the gist of the story was understood so there wasn’t a problem.
Instead, the real problem currently was his inability to focus. Without a prompt, his eyes wandered all on their own until a particular pulsing bit of blue lines caught them.
Outwardly, the light was nothing of importance; just that, in his current state it inexplicably drew him in. The rhythm of the pulse was proving to be rather hypnotic for him.
“Hey, you listenin’?” Phil asked after noticing he’d lost the audience quite unexpectedly.
“….Yes. My apologies,” Damien again shook his head briskly, trying to get his head on straight.
Phil ended his update here, considering that his friend had just woken up from a curse-induced blackout. Overwhelming him with various news all at once wouldn’t have been the wisest of choices after all.
In all honesty, if Helga was late even by a whisker in administering the Invocation, who knows what might’ve happened. The very thought alone had Phil sweating profusely. They’d already lost two other militiamen to the curse because of the fact that there was only a single Invoker capable of delaying the curse’s advancement. The damage had been done already – he couldn’t afford to lose Damien too, in a place like this.
“Do we know whether the hidden Core is residing in that area? Or is it placed elsewhere?” Damien asked as he looked around. He saw that most of the group were asleep, recovering the fatigue that had built up.
“Gillian’s looking for it. She will have something for us soon enough.”
Hearing this Damien nodded, while his eyes strayed onto Jonas, who was also asleep. The member of the Imperial Institute was looking rather content for some reason.
He felt like punching the bastard in the face, but held the anger down. It wasn’t the time for that. If they manage to survive this trip, then it’d be a good way to release some of the anger he felt. Still, he knew not all the faults lied with the man, but with himself instead.
Damien was regretting the decision of coming down here. At the same time, he was glad to be here as well. His friends needed him, and he was only happy to oblige.
After silently counting the number of the survivors he figured there were casualties while he was out cold. He couldn’t help but feel even more conflicted after that.
“What about the exit? Can we send for assistance?”
“Negative. The passage is completely blocked by the damned metal panels. The Acre isn’t planning to let us out, it seems.”
Phil said while making a deep frown.
Damien pondered for a second, then slowly got up. His muscles felt rigid, cramped up – he needed to stretch them for a bit, get some blood flowing in them. He did some quick rotation of his arms, and squats to loosen up his legs.
Shortly afterwards, he felt noticeably better. In the end, it seemed that he couldn’t just ignore the Adventurer blood coursing through his veins. Moving about was indeed the best kind of medicine for his ilk.
Breathing in deeply to fill his lungs with air, Damien reiterated in his mind the steps he should take. The goal was pretty much clear now, and turning back was not an option so in a way it lifted a load off his shoulders. The decision here was a simple one – exactly how he liked his choices to be.
Turning to face his old friend, Damien spoke.
“We’ll advance forward, when Gill returns. You should get some rest beforehand too, Phil.”
Smiling thinly, the older man replied. “Will do, boss.”
After the undeniably hectic morning, things got quieter by the afternoon around the Lomax household. The number of people visiting decreased by a whole lot too, compared to a normal day. Considering the news had spread through the village, the villagers wisely figured it wasn’t such a good time to seek healing from Lizbeth.
By Kain’s estimation, Kaleena should recover in a week or so – not that he had any firm medical knowledge to base such a claim on but, at least he could make an educated guess with the little girl’s subconscious interactions with that formless substance.
When she was half-dying, so to speak, the substance was really weak, thin, and barely identifiable. But now, it was more…. ruddy? It certainly looked like a sign that she was on the road to recovery, so there.
So Kain wasn’t worried about that, not at all. As a matter of fact, he wished for a speedy recovery.
Instead, what he’s worried about now, was his current situation involving a certain red-furred kitty.
While Lizbeth was taking care of her daughter, and Delilah taking complete charge of the domestic affairs, it became Rosy’s responsibility to look after Kain’s needs.
She wasn’t all bad at this particular job, but her inexperience showed every now and then – just like now, when she put on the diaper the wrong way and it chafed uncomfortably against Kain’s…. son.
That was painful.
But she got the temperature of the milk right so that was a plus. The minus was when she got all dewy eyed and tried to lick the milk for herself. Her facial expression was actually quite adorable however, so maybe at the end of the day it wasn’t a minus after all, thought Kain.
After that, Rosy started talking all sorts irrelevant topics, to a confused looking infant. She was babbling about inconsequential stuff, like boys that were giving her grief, or the time she forgot to take down the washing before the rain came.
And then, exhausted of stories to tell, she decided to read aloud a storybook. She had seen her mistress do it for her children and it seemed rather effective in putting the said kids in a coma-like slumber so she thought it would put the baby Kain in a more sleepy mood as well.
Only problem with her plan was, that Rosy herself wasn’t what you’d call a competent reader. Honestly speaking, it hadn’t been long since she was taught how to read, and there weren’t much opportunities for her to practice what she learned freely.
With inquisitive Kain on her lap, and the picture storybook opened to a page, Rosy began reading clumsily, stumbling and repeating sentences and words regularly. This presented an enormously great chance for Kain, because Rosy read slowly, on top of her repeating words.
How could he miss this golden chance? He was going to cash in as much as possible here and hasten the surmounting of this damnable language barrier. And learn to read well quickly, so he can take a good gander at that book on Invocation.
“Uhm, so, ah, the noble…., uh, knight rode…., uh, proudly on, on his horse in~to the battle~field to resc…. rescue his love. Whew, this is more difficult than I imagined,” Rosy sighed and wiped the sweat off her brows. She apologized to her little master. “I’m sorry master Kain. But I’m so useless when it comes to things like this.”
He wanted to retort, Yeah, I’m sorry too, as I can only understand less than half of what you’re saying to me, but refrained. Not that he was able to say anything anyways – his vocal cord still was underdeveloped for that.
Rosy continued valiantly with the storybook. “The warr…. warrior duch…. duchess was, uh, surrounded, by the daemon soldiers, and had no means of, uh, escape. Seeing this, uh, the noble knight, entered with…. out, con~cern for his, well, being and, fought the enemy hero~ically.”
Oh man, this is killing me, thought Kain inwardly. Thanks to her reading it slowly I can more or less hear her but, man this sure is painful listening like this. How long do I have to endure this? God, if you exist out there, have mercy….
Then his ears perked on a word that didn’t seem right.
He had a bad premonition all of a sudden, hearing that word.
Don’t tell me, isn’t that another word for demons, right? Does this world have demons and stuff? Well, there’s magic, although it’s called Invocation here for some reason, so yeah, it shouldn’t be too surprising for demons and whatnots to exist too.
Ignoring Rosy who was still reading the story slowly, he instead thought about this carefully. It didn’t occur to him until now that monsters and demons were a part of reality in this new home of his. Why’s that happened he wasn’t sure, but it was a slip up on his part regardless.
That earlier bad feeling remained with him as he began imagining more nonsensical junk in his mind.
Whoa, this might get bad for me. In all those stories of reincarnated people, it’s always guys like me who winds up going against some evil Overlord or something.
He shuddered at the suddenly-appearing image in his head, of a shadowy, horned and menacing creature cackling and roaring atop a mountain of corpses, declaring the end of the world while drinking the blood of its victims.
Oh crap. Seriously now, do I really have to…. fight against a demon? Man, that sounds insane. I’m not a Hunter, nor am I an exorcist. Do I even possess an ability to do that anyways? I’ll probably die if I get hit once by a demon, that’s for sure. What should I do, to avoid a fate like that?
Kain silently mulled this new, profound insight of his. He knew himself the best – he did not possess a shred of heroic intent in his body whatsoever. Sure, he’d get miffed at hearing stories of injustice committed somewhere in the world, but he’d never, ever actively go out and uphold the law and order. He was a bit of coward actually.
….Well c’mon, think – what should I do, if that premonition ends up coming true? I don’t even know how to throw a punch for crying out loud.
Seriously, if a demon confronted him, he’d most likely try to go and hide in a corner.
It was depressing just thinking about how weak he sounded right now, but it couldn’t be helped – this wasn’t a game, where you could simply reload a previous save file and start over. There was no guarantee of safety offered by a high level or stats, as that’s a stuff for a web novel, not real life.
Oh wait a sec, aren’t I getting a little conceited here? Let’s not assume that I will automatically end up fighting against a Demonic Overlord or something. If anything, I’m just over-thinking this.
That seemed right, thinking of the possibility of him facing an Overlord of terrifying constitutions. Kain thought that, if a dastardly creature hell-bent on conquering the world existed, then the world’s major superpowers would gather and handily crush such a miscreant well before the situation gets out of hand. So, it was unlikely, of his destined meeting with a demon.
He was able to tidy up his thoughts, thanks to that chain of thought. The possibility of him being naive never crossed his mind, not even once.
Rosy was also getting to the end of her story, which was just in time, really.
“…Uh, ah, the no…. ble kni~ght finally van…. quishe~ed the evil daemons and, lived happily ever, after. Yes. Whew, that was tough.”
Rosy closed the book and wiped the fine sheen of perspiration of her brows. She didn’t bat an eyelid when fighting against dozen heavily armed men but when it came to reading a book, she was no good at all.
“Well, master Kain, I’m sure you’ll get better than me in no time at all. I can tell you’re whip-smart, see.”
Uhm, you think I’m smart? Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, I guess? But how can you even tell I’m smart? To be honest, you don’t look like a sharpest tool in the shed, you know….
“Oh right, I ended up telling you a scary story didn’t I? Oh my. But don’t you worry your little head, because those scary daemons don’t live in our continent of Noa no-more, see.”
Noa? That’s the name for this continent, isn’t it? I remember hearing it from others. Hmm. More importantly though, demons don’t live on Noa? What does that mean? Could they be extinct? So…. uh, I definitely don’t have to fight them, right?
“And lemme tell you right now, I’ll teach little master Kain properly so you can butt-kickin’ when you grow up!! Just wait an’ see.”
Did she just say she’ll teach me butt licking? ….I thought that’s something dog-related. Guess cats do that too….
“You have a great future ahead of you, master Kain. I know you’ll grow up to be a wonderful Lomax. I just know it.”
Future, huh. Kain mused bitterly after hearing the word. Now and then he wondered about what his future might hold, the kind of uncertainty faced when in a foreign land where everything familiar was no longer within his grasp.
What kind of life will I end up having? What should I be doing when this body grows up?
He had no quick answers.
Initially, he wanted to go back to his previous world as quickly as possible. But after a careful consideration, he felt that might not be the cleverest thing to do. He was a baby here – which means, there was a decent chance that he had died on that side, and somehow reincarnated over here. Whether through luck or by design, he didn’t know yet.
His soul, or consciousness, going back and commandeering his dead body certainly didn’t sound all that advisable a thing to do. It wouldn’t be much fun to walk around as a zombie, for instance – for obvious reasons he didn’t much fancy becoming the Patient Zero or some such.
And there was no absolute certainty he’d find a way to go back either.
Besides, was there anything to go back to?
Well, there was his job, working in that forgettable IT company. His family, consisting of a father, who was an insurance salesman; his mom, a typical suburban wife working part-time at a real estate agency; and somewhat unfairly popular older sister who shined like a star, no matter what she did.
He didn’t really miss his job, even though he had to swim in the murky waters of Joblessness for years before landing ashore. He originally wanted to become a programmer, a coder of some kind, but ended up in sales and marketing instead. Talk about life taking unexpected turns.
He wasn’t close with his father for some reason. Not sure when the rift started, but it was there. By the time the sucking-bed thingy happened, they had not talked for a long time. Kain had tons of things to get off his chest but now, that was impossible to achieve.
His mom? She’d survive. She’d survived the Second Subprime Mortgage Industry Collapse of the year 203X, emerging from the still-burning ashes with her head held high so, Kain was reasonably sure of her pulling through the death of her child in the end.
As for his sister…. he felt a sudden pang of guilt in his heart, for not saying “thanks,” for all that she’d done for him over the years. Just like it was with his dad, he’d never get to say to her all the stuff tumbling around in his soul.
…. This sucks donkey’s ass.
Kain sighed dejectedly.
Damien and his men advanced towards the final chamber of the Sacred Acre. They hadn’t encountered the two “missing” bandit-c**-undeads yet; while one or two members of the expedition held a glimmer of hope for an eventless journey until the end, most were under no illusions. They knew what was waiting for them at the end of this tunnel.
The walls narrowed as they went deeper. The ceiling became lower too. And the oppressive Aeterna became thicker and thicker with every steps taken.
The blue lines, still pulsating on the walls seemed to guide them forward, into the unknown. The overall topography of the underground Acre hadn’t changed since the previous time but the lights made it so that the familiarity was no longer there.
Not helping the eerie atmosphere was the scratch marks left on the metal panels on the walls. These unknown metal were harder than a diamond, and thus nigh impossible to leave any marks on the surface yet, in front of their very eyes, the clear evidence.
Everyone who saw the marks knew that they would have to face the Fiend responsible. They also knew that today might be their last day as a living, breathing humanoid.
Even Helga stopped paying attention to the sigils carved into the walls. Left behind by the ancient, forgotten civilization who had seemingly built the various Sacred Acres dotted around the world, these mysterious symbols were yet to be deciphered in full by the researchers.
What drew Helga’s attention back then, when she was nearly pierced by the flung arrow of Gillian, was this, a sigil that hadn’t been seen before. As a member of The Imperial Institute, a discovery of unknown sigils would allow one’s status and prestige to shoot up through the clouds in an instant. Moreso, if it was decoded even partially.
But now, survival came first. The curse that were afflicted on Damien was something she had not heard of before, and the general Light Elemental Invocation to ward off any undesirable status didn’t leave much of an effect. This meant they were pressed for time, a fact even she understood well.
“We’re nearly at the last chamber,” Gillian whispered to the group following her.
“This is the final place where you can rest. Inspect your equipment, and make sure you have enough salves.” Damien instructed the militiamen as they arrived at an area that had widened a little before a dark, ominous looking passage ahead.
The wordless rustlings of people moving about were heard right after; from Jonas, to Vagas, all carefully checked the edges of their blades, checked for cracks on their armors and shields, and counted the number of healing items stashed within their respective pouches.
There were feelings of sluggishness and some form of lightheadedness still present that was bothering Damien to no end. To get his mind back on track, he stretched his limbs once more, and while going through warming up exercises, he visualized the forthcoming battle.
Going by the examples of the previous encounters, the methods of subduing the undeads so far remained quite orthodox – and he hoped this stayed as so. But life wasn’t that kind, and he had to prepare for an unseen eventuality.
The opening under his chestplate was another thing that bothered him, as that left a hole in his defense but since he neglected to prepare an extra set of armor, the fault was with him. He had to mind the gap while on the offensive from now on.
His saber had a small chip. Damien wasn’t sure where he had done that, but overall, his weapon was still in a serviceable state. In hindsight, he should’ve brought his favorite saber, Frostbane, with him.
That sword was like a family heirloom – no, it was an heirloom at this stage. When his kids grows up, then one of them were going to inherit it for sure. Anyway, he really thought that it didn’t seem right to take such a fine weapon on a seemingly easy job such as this.
Well, he was properly reflecting on his conceited behavior now – although it was debatable if that’d do any good at this point in his life.
Phil asked around, and received a few positive nods of heads, and some silent but resolute stares.
“Alright. Let’s go and greet our fate, shall we?”
Jonas stood up with a tense countenance, taking a long, deep breath. He took a glance towards Damien, turning his head away before making an eye contact.
What was that about? Damien pondered for a moment before shaking the thought out of his head. Now wasn’t the time nor the place to speculate on matters such as that. After he’d survived this ordeal, then he would get around dealing with whatever the fallout of this ill-prepared sojourn might snowball into.
Once everyone stood up and got ready, they approached the corridor up ahead. Within this part of the Acre there weren’t any Lazulites offering a dim but still much appreciated lighting, and it came down to the explorers being proactive and coming up with solutions themselves.
As he possessed prior knowledge Damien was able to ready a decent number of oil-soaked torches. However, they were ultimately not needed as the pulsing blue lines on the walls, the floor, and the ceiling created enough illumination, albeit in unnervingly eerie, pale blue shimmering instead.
Soon, they arrived at messes of what looked like tangles of worn out drapes, hung loosely from the ceiling. They were quite different from the common spiderwebs or any fabric known to men, their transparency and elasticity something not even the most skilled Invokers could imitate with spells, never mind the craftsmen with decades of hands-on experience.
Brushing past deceptively light curtains – they looked as heavy as chain mails at first glance, see – the party slowly, cautiously poured into the so-called Final Chamber.
It hadn’t changed much. The dome shaped arena the size of a decent athletic field, with smooth metal panels lining up on the walls, the mere sight of this place brought about one too many unpleasant memories back from the depths of Damien’s mind, ones he’d rather not recall.
But not every part of the chamber remained the same; on the far opposing wall from the entrance, there were no metallic panels. Instead, they were scattered about on the ground, as if they’ve fallen off some time ago.
Near them, a pile of dirt, and some digging equipment like shovels and pickaxes.
And a hole in the wall, where the dirt had come from – a passage big enough to let two people walk across together appearing after that.
The blue lines on the floor were, depending on how one looked at it, either originating from somewhere inside this passage or were converging into the area beyond it.
That wall’s been dug up recently, Damien grimaced as he noted the relative freshness of the dirt. Did the bandits excavate the new passageway?
What a coincidence this was turning out to be. So there was a hidden room beyond the final chamber, it seemed. If Damien and co. knew back then, they would’ve properly explored it. They had no way of suspecting it however, and there was no point in chastising himself for this apparent blunder.
There was one more difference facing the group in this chamber. Right in the center, there was a simple, slab-sided stone plinth, a bit taller than a height of a man’s knee. It was an altar-like piece of earth, and on top of the flat surface, a huge and rusting greatsword was stabbed into it at a slightly oblique angle.
A chain dangled weakly from the pommel, and a faint reflection of light came from a jewel hanging at the end of it. In the middle of the rather plain cross-guard, or the quillon-block, there was an insignia of something clearly carved onto it.
“That’s the weapon of the bandit’s boss. I recognize it from the wanted posters,” Phil noted quietly.
Isn’t that a crest of one of the fiefdoms up North? Hmm, which one was it? There are just too many of them up there….
Damien dismissed the sword’s decorations and maintained his alertness. So far there hadn’t been any sign of the boss yet, and that was actually worse for one’s heart. The anticipation – and the dread that came along with it – was causing him to sweat a lot.
Not just him though – pretty much everyone felt the same.
“There’s nothing here,” someone from the back muttered.
It was true – there was not a soul in here, undead or otherwise. There was that suspicious-looking passage though. It looked wide enough so anything could’ve pop out of there without warning at any moment. Damien silently hoped for none of that.
As to deliver a kick in his nuts, Gillian alerted everyone with a hurried whisper. “Something’s coming from that opening. It’s big. Get ready.”
They were already ready. Damien imagined hearing the sound of leather on the hilts tightening under the intense but nervous grips of men around him, including his own.
A rough outline could be seen; indeed it was on the large side. A form of a humanoid no doubt, but it moved while making not a single rustle.
And as it emerged from the passage, its appearance made everyone gasp out in shock, even the most experienced of them.
“What the hell…. is this monstrosity?”
Jonas shuddered involuntarily. The rest was doing their best not to fall on their feet but reigning in their quaking bodies were a hurdle too high to overcome.
Phil was swallowing a lump of unwilling saliva down his throat. Before him, approaching the middle of the domed chamber, was a creature with the unmistakable visage of the missing bandit boss. It may lack the eyes of a living person, and its left cheek was hollowed out in gruesome fashion but, it was the face that had adorned the numerous wanted posters plastered across many walls for sure.
In the poster, it was said the boss was a hulking giant of a man, apparently strong enough to crush a person’s head with nothing but his bare hands. The creature walking towards him certainly fit the bill as far as the size was concerned. It was at least eight feet tall, and its shoulders seemingly broader than that of a bull.
Only, the Fiend in front was not a normal undead. The usual, blue-light emitting metal panels were stuck onto the monster just like the ones before, and so were the rotting flesh peeking out from the gaps of the plate and leather armoring.
What differed significantly, was the presence of another head, seemingly melted onto the chest of the Fiend, its slack mouth moving slowly as it chewed on the meat of a snake while moaning out a pained whimper.
It possessed four arms, with one muscular pair in where you’d normally expected them to be, and the others sprouting out from the right hip and somewhere on its back.
Then there was the secondary pair of legs, with one rotting, uncovered leg attached to its left shoulder and the other, on the left hip.
The loose and torn flesh danced all over its body while it walked. The stench of dead and rotting, which the group thought they had gotten used to, renewed its disgusting assault once more, and coupled with the unbelievable sights, three men lost the contents of their stomachs through the mouths.
Vagas trembled in fear and thought, if, if we’re to die here, is that going to be our fate? Oh god Luminos, please save us!
The undead languidly walked over to the plinth, and after climbing on top, it grabbed the hilt of the greatsword in one smooth motion. The jewel at the end of the chain then shone in a sickly blue light.
This light ascended in the air, splitting into two, and began spinning around in clockwise direction for a brief moment before it entered the hollow eye chambers of the undead.
The lower mouth screamed. At the same time, the upper mouth roared.
Both sounds were awful to listen to. Harpies had prettier singing voices then the racket this Fiend was making.
The blue lights in its eyes were now firmly locked onto the intruders of its sanctuary. It stopped roaring after a while, but then it began to growl like an angry lion as it gripped the greatsword harder.
“Oh hell, what are you all waiting for?! Attack it before it pulls out that damn sword!!” Jonas cried out.
The cry snapped all those who were fallen into a despair-induced daze. Some had already crumpled onto their knees from the overwhelming pressure the Fiend had released, and they struggled to stand back up.
Of those who were the least affected, they managed to quickly release a volley of arrows, while Taylor and Helga began the chants for their respective Invocation spells.
The initial barrage of attacks landed on target, but it produced little to no effect on the Fiend. Hell, it didn’t even flinch from the spot, nor made any attempt at fending them off. Unbelievably, the metal panels on its body had shifted their positions at the very last second, deflecting the incoming attacks away.
This caused shocked hesitation from the vanguards. This was an unexpected problem. Not knowing how capable this new defensive tactic of the enemy was going to be, Damien decided to engage it upfront to figure out the extent of its strengths and weaknesses if there were any. So, he signaled the other melee attackers then rushed forward, causing them to follow.
Quickly surrounding the unmoving monster, the militiamen thrust their various weapons in perfect harmony, their sharpened blades and tips trying to pierce the openings. Some landed while many others didn’t, the metal panels again shifting around to block them out. Of those that landed, they were far too shallow to cause any serious damage.
The growling Fiend didn’t even flinch. It just tilted its head and surveyed those around it, sending out deathly stares at those poking it with puny toys of war.
Then the corner of its lips curled upwards.
Damien automatically felt a warning bell ring inside his head. “Retreat, everyone, retreat now!!”
A moment too late.
A sudden surge of Aeterna spooled out of where the Fiend’s heart might be, shooting through its limb, past its hand gripping the sword, and down into the thick, dull blade.
Damien only had enough time to take two steps back and shield himself, before the stone plinth exploded powerfully in everyone’s faces.
Vagas weakly stumbled about in the hazy aftermath, unable to grasp his current location.
The explosion had deafened him, and a cut in his forehead caused blood to obscure his vision. He had no feeling in his left arm, which used to hold a round wooden shield. In his right, a spear. Well, he was supposed to, as both of his armaments had gone missing.
He raised his hands to see a couple of fingers bent in a wrong direction. They were definitely broken. There were blood on them too, but somehow, it didn’t seem like they were his.
When he looked around, there was a twitching figure lying next to him, with a sharp piece of debris sticking out of his chest. It had pierced past the chest protector with ease, fatally wounding the man.
A light of recognition flashed in both Vagas’s and the dying man’s eyes; they knew one another. Desperate not to die, he reached out and grabbed the boy’s leg, his eyes bloodshot. He mumbled his inaudible plea, his face turning pale.
Dazed, Vagas just stood there, watching the sliver of light leave the man’s eyes. The fingers gripping his pants’ leg weakened, and fell away.
The boy couldn’t figure out what had happened. How did that man die? It was possible. It just wasn’t.
Then he heard a scream.
No, he heard multitude of moans, groans, and screams, but only now had he noticed them.
Searching for the origins of the pained cries, he searched but couldn’t see anything. The hazy smoke hung in the air like a thick miasma and blocked everything.
He desperately stumbled about, trying to find the others in this dimly lit chamber.
Eventually, he found a slight silhouette not too far away. Vagas rejoiced in his heart, and tried to rush forward.
He took only two steps before coming to a complete halt.
The silhouette revealed itself to be of Damien, engaging the huge undead Fiend. He had Phil and his group of Adventurers as his back up.
Right away, Vagas could tell that he didn’t belong there.
Sparks flew when the weapons clashed, and bodies were shoved back by the sheer brute strength of the monster. Damien skillfully turned his saber at an angle to deflect the incoming hit, but he was grimacing every time there was a contact.
His right eye was closed shut, blood leaking from the corner of the closed lid. The other Adventurers were also not in a good shape either, but by working together they were able to keep the Fiend in check.
So this is how a Gold-ranked Adventurer fights, Vagas gulped silently as he watched the battle from the sideline.
The boy held a dream, an aspiration, of traveling to Lafayette and becoming an Adventurer one day. His father once told him that the meaning of his name in the Ancient tongue, meant “to wander”. It sounded quite romantic to him as he grew up, especially when he was stuck in a small farming community, that seemingly had no future other than that of plowing land endlessly for a cart full of wheat.
Five years ago, when Riverfield was managed by a retired soldier who carried a Honorable Peerage of a Divine Steel Knight, Lady Valette, the Sacred Acre first appeared near the village and caused a big headache for the residents.
Vagas was too young to know at the time, but normally the Empire would dispatch a platoon of her finest warriors to deal with one if an Acre popped out near a settlement, but due to a behind-the-door political wrangling, it was left to the lord of Lafayette to grab a hold of the situation.
Since the Acre itself was new, it was deemed not as threatening, and only a pittance was allocated as the budget for the conquest of the dungeon. The Lafayette lord commanded his vassal, Lady Valette, to take care of it.
She hired the Adventurers for the job. The thing was, the village back then lacked a sufficient fighting force, seeing that the residents were either too young, or middle aged farmers with nary a combat experience to share between them. So the external help was brought in, rather reluctantly.
Vagas could clearly remember the day the group of Adventurers, which were called a Guild, arrived at the village as if it happened yesterday. It left quite an impression on him.
That was the day when Damien, Lizbeth, Rosy, Phil and his colleagues came to Riverfield for the first time.
Their Guild was called Hummingbird for some reason but, no one dared to mock them of the weak-sounding name. They simply exuded strength from the every pore without even trying.
Vagas so badly wished to become an Adventurer too. They looked so valiant, so honorable, so…. handsome. Never mind they looked like a motley crew of misfits, Vagas wanted to be just like them.
And so, when Damien became the new lord of Riverfield after attaining the noble peerage of Baron-hood, he enlisted to become a member of the newly-formed village militia right away.
He worked so bloody hard since then. Adults laughed at him, scoffed at him, took pity on him – he went through whole lot of that, all the while growing in strength everyday. All in the hopes of standing as tall and shiny and righteous as them from that day.
But the fight happening right in front of him opened his eyes to the truth. The thing was, the finish line in the distance was so, so very far away. He couldn’t even properly follow the movements of the Adventurers, nor could he understand the significance of each and every strikes, feints and blocks they performed.
It all looked like an elaborate dance of the mad gods, seen through a hazy veil of fog deep enough to obscure, well, everything.
Even then, Damien and the lot weren’t emerging as the favorites. The giant undead Fiend was deceptively quick and calculating. Utilizing all of the limbs and the shifting metal panels at its disposal, it was able to parry, block, deflect, and counterattack all of the blows coming its way, Invocations included.
One swing of its heavy arm, and even sturdy-bodied Gordie was shoved back with force, making him slide along the floor as if it was nothing. Others, like Ben, Phil, and Damien, they were trying very hard not to make contact lest they lose a limb or some such.
Vagas felt his face getting hotter. His thoughts swirled in his head, asking him just what the hell he was doing until now. All those harsh training he went through, all the sneers he had to endure, all the pride he felt after finally earning recognition from the other adult militia members, it all seemed so much a waste of time, if it all amounted to him doing nothing but standing around totally dazed and scared when he should’ve mattered.
He tried to take a step forward, but his feet wouldn’t listen. He begged it to move, just an inch, maybe even less, but like an obstinate pack mule they didn’t budge.
He screamed so hard inwardly, sending all his willpower down to his legs to make them go forward. But instead, they moved back, when he saw the Fiend swing its massive weapon horizontally in a huge arc, blasting all those near it away.
It followed that up with a gut-wrenching roar that shook Vagas’s ear drums. It was a small miracle that they didn’t burst from the pressure.
While the Adventurers were stumbling, the Fiend took on a weird stance suddenly, withdrawing slightly from the position it was in.
Then a blue flame began to form in the mouth. No, not the one in the head, but the one in the chest. It started as a small spark, but almost instantaneously, it grew into a size of an earth drake’s egg, shimmering like a boiling water.
“Careful, it’s gathering Aeterna!!” Taylor shouted out, while reaching down to help Ben up who had fallen nearby.
Damien was the first to recover; he tried to disrupt the Fiend and thus, rushed forward with his saber trained squarely at the undead’s neck.
His swing was accurate, and it dug into the rotting flesh beneath the slender gap, exposed between the metallic panels. But again the cut was too shallow, and it didn’t go through. Instead, Damien’s blade was now stuck there, and he couldn’t pull it out.
The Fiend grinned, as if it was happy. To say it was the single most unnerving smile anyone had seen in their lives would have been one hell of an understatement.
Alarmed, Damien let go of the sword and retreated. He didn’t get to go far, before the Fiend grabbed hold of his left arm and pulled him in. It turned its body and faced the struggling man with the expanding blue flame.
Damien’s face lost all color; even he could feel the dense, cold Aeterna accumulating in front of him.
The Fiend opened its jaw and cackled. The light grew even brighter, and colder.
The death beckoned Damien. He could not avoid it. Unless….
Desperate to aid their comrade, other Adventurers rushed in, attacking, trying to divert the Fiend’s attention from its hostage but it had only a minimal effect. Using its other limbs it swatted away the attacks nonchalantly.
But it was an opening Damien wanted. He unsheathed the back-up dagger tucked up in his boots and slashed at the Fiend’s hand that was grabbing him.
Rotting fingers were cut off promptly, and he was able to feel freedom, but only for a blink.
Because at the precise moment he got free, the blue flame shot forward, like a breath of a dragon.
The resulting explosion was loud enough to deafen all those present, causing the settling dust into another ferocious, blinding maelstrom. Vagas was several steps from the arc of the breath attack, and was uninjured, but was still blown away by the shockwave. He crashed hard onto the corpse with a piece of debris stuck in its chest with a thump, coughing out a mouthful of blood.
When he raised his head to see what happened, he expected the worst. Damien was right by the point of the blastoff, and it was horrifyingly obvious he’d have taken the brunt of that attack, not even leaving behind a bone to collect.
But no – that didn’t happen. Damien had tumbled away past the blast’s radius. Not unscathed, mind you, but he was still alive. The one who wasn’t alive, was Gordie who had jumped in at the exact moment to tackle his friend out of the way, and in the process, receiving the full force of the attack face on.
Damien was missing his right arm up until the elbow, cleanly sliced off by the destructive blast. By the time he realized what had happened to him, Gordie was already dead, his eyes unblinking, forever open and cold, missing his entire lower half from the chest downwards. All gone, no traces left anywhere.
Damien screamed Gordie’s name out. Not only him, but the others too. Didn’t matter they were disorientated, bleeding from the ear canals, nor their limbs twisted cruelly, they screamed.
The Fiend turned towards Damien who was clutching the dead torso, trembling like a wet dog. The blue flame reared its cold head once more, coalescing into a single spot just as before.
Damien held his right arm, what was remaining of it, to stem the flow of blood, and glared at the Fiend. But he was weaponless, exhausted, injured, and out of options. He couldn’t carelessly dodge to his side, unless if he wanted to change the target of the attack to those behind him.
All he could do now, was to attract its attention while the others concentrate all their offense at it, hopefully defeating it in the nick of time.
Ben swung his halberd with enough strength to cleave an oak tree in half but it simply clashed and bounced off against the metallic panel. Gillian rapidly fired arrows but they had very little effect, not even making the Fiend to flinch. Phil slashed at the back of the creature, at its limbs, all to no avail.
Taylor fired off Invocations after Invocations, but the spells’ power were dropping fast as he was nearing his own limit.
By this time, militiamen and Jonas’s group had recovered enough to participate at some capacity. Helga too had begun to cast her spells, and hers were more effective than that of Taylor’s – bringing down the Fiend to his knee when a Light Elemental type Invocation’s white radiance wrapped around it.
It may have buckled, but it was far from defeated, as evidenced by its low growl and a struggle to stand back up again. As if to mock all those who had been assaulting it, the Fiend let out another crazy-loud roar, that shattered the bright white light that were pressing it down.
The knock-back effect of the spell failing caused Helga to vomit out a pained groan and a sliver of blood from the corners of her mouth, while the militiamen that were hacking at the creature were once more pushed back.
This was hopeless. No one was able to land a decisive blow to finish it off. At this rate, all were going to die, even if the fatigue doesn’t get to them first.
The blue flame resumed coalescing, and again, the Fiend was facing Damien. It was growing bigger, ready to fire at any given time.
The faces of his family were flashing by; Damien gritted his teeth until it hurt out of frustration. He willed himself to stand, to move and do something defiant at the onslaught of death’s embrace. He wasn’t going to go down like this.
No way in hell.
Vagas watched his leader confront the impossible beast head on. He was not giving up against the Fiend that personified death. The young man felt a powerful stirring in his heart, seeing the burning flames of strength in Damien’s eyes.
His hands felt the coldness of a metal handle. Turning his head to confirm what it was, it belonged to a fairly large warhammer, that used to be a weapon of choice for the now-dead militiaman Vagas was leaning against on.
He didn’t feel fear, nor did he feel one iota of hesitation. He grabbed the hammer, and summoning all his strength, he threw it hard.
It flew in a magnificent ark, flying straight and true, and just before the Fiend opened its lower mouth, the one in its chest, to fire another breath at Damien, the hammer struck the condensed blue flame.
What followed was an almighty explosion, even louder than the one before.
The dust cloud kicked up this time settled down much more quickly, allowing all those who were still alive to see just what had happened.
What greeted them, was the most welcoming sight of victory.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.