Despite a very active, blood-pulsing organ in Dhane’s chest—and the towering golem that was looking all too unkind at the moment—he . . . yawned.
Sleep was a demon trying to claw its way into his brain and turn out the lights. But in absolutely no way was he bored or unintimidated by the intimidating chunk of moving stone.
Nevertheless, the golem seemed to take issue with the yawn. It huffed a pink cloud of glitter, the sort of stuff that defiantly clung to every surface it touched.
With a bit of swagger and holding Dhane’s stare, the golem punched a fist into the wall to show its strength and mighty impressiveness.
Mana burst from cracks. When the golem pulled its hand free, it was no longer a hand but a large battleaxe.
With such spectacle, the golem earned its smug haughtiness. Of course, it really didn’t need the battleaxe to inject fear into the hearts of its enemies. Its grand size and bulging rock muscles did that already.
Unfortunately, and like all things with terrible timing, Dhane yawned . . . again. He wanted to shout, It’s not you, it’s me!
Knock, in all of his supreme wisdom, summoned a Cobalin sword and jumped out in front of the golem, yelling, “You no take shiny!”
And that confirmed it: Knock clearly didn’t have a self-preserving bone in his body.
The golem—pushed to its, without a doubt, teeny-weeny psychological limit and given an easy target—attacked.
This wouldn’t be the first time he had seen a Cobalin brutally murdered, but it might be the first time watching one get pulverized into microscopic soul bits.
The humanoid stack of physics-defying stone, swinging a physics-defying battleaxe, slammed the edge of it into the pathway and . . . missed. A rupture of energy crackled around the glowing blade.
Knock might be a bit on the stupid side, might be a bit on the immature side, but the one thing he had in spades—more than anyone Dhane knew—was an unthinking bravery when it came to battle.
The golem jerked and looked down. Knock had sprinted between its legs, leaving behind a soul-white sliver of a line glowing along the golem’s groin.
This produced such a small -4 in red text that it was hard to see. But what wasn’t hard to see was the health bar that scintillated into the air above the golem as pieces of color coalesced to provide mob information.
- Greater Construct Fighter · Lvl. 18
Oh, shit! This one mob had over two times more health than a Raging Mama Rabbit. And, as memory would serve, those were none too fun.
Or a lot of fun . . . actually.
Huh, this crazy world. . . .
Octoralis and all eight of her freaky legs shot forward. She projected an eagerness to protect the nasty green food, only and entirely because that was what Dhane had vowed to do.
The Quartz Guardian managed to tear its battleaxe of an arm from the ground just before Octoralis slammed into its side. It staggered backward and out of the doorway.
The outlines of large encroaching crabs, each about two or three feet tall, scurried in such a way as to not get squished.
Crabs were the spiders of the ocean, and these ones were unnaturally large because . . . why the hell not? Next, he’ll find giant hornets!
The only acceptable crab was a dead crab. Mmm, like crab meat hidden inside a deep-fried sushi roll with sweet eel sauce drizzled over the top.
That sounded delicious.
Did Olindale have sushi bars? Bah, if they did, they wouldn’t serve the terrible King of Shadows. The world should drop this war and have a sushi party.
Dhane smiled absently at nothing in particular. Saliva pooled in his mouth and dripped down his chin.
It wasn’t until an echoing battle cry from Knock that Dhane realized there were more important things to think about, things that were happening at this very moment.
It all just seemed like a blur of action and reaction. His thoughts trailed in the wrong directions, slow and muddled and exhausted.
If it wasn’t thoughts of mouth-watering food—when was the last time he ate?—it was how very nice it would be to climb into bed and pull the covers over his head.
Gah! Sleep can wait!
And what was sleep in heaven anyway? It wasn’t like they had real bodies that needed rest. They were souls pretending to be people. And yet— And yet. . . .
Dhane jerked at the realization that he was staring at the wall again. He sucked in a deep breath, forehead furrowed.
He summoned his phone because accessing his Character app’s information mentally was mentally draining. It materialized and revealed a new character train . . . trait.
You have not slept in over 36 (24 × 1.5 from Ring of Rest) hours. Cognitive capabilities have been decreased by 72.6%. To remove this trait, go to sleep!
- Debuff effect increases over time
- Minimum Sleep Requirement: 4 hours
So many big words. . . . What did cognitive mean again? Cogn was the root word to learn. It was used in words such as recognize and incognito.
No no no! His ability to hide his internet search history was severely being limited by his lack of sleep!
He thrust a finger at the pink crystal wall, brows pulled together in fierce determination, and made the solemn vow that he would not rest until he solved the problem.
Yes, that made perfect sense, except for how very heavy his eyelids were. And so he did the one thing that always helped in university.
He reached out with his hand and slapped himself! It was a full, palm-connecting whack that sent a bolt of stinging energy across his jaw and down his neck.
The trait faded, and so did his phone.
It wasn’t an audible click as if he had knocked a screw loose. It was the click of a metaphysical jigsaw puzzle piece sliding perfectly into place.
In this glorious—and probably temporary—moment of comprehension, his questions had answers.
First, despite the name of the Quartz Guardian, it obviously wasn’t here to guard the diamonds. The massive stone doors, with their protective sigils, made that much clear. As did the urgent demands of the ancient entity, telling him to save them.
Second, the phenomena of self-drawing symbols had to have come from this ancient entity. Either it wanted to protect the diamonds for unknown reasons or because . . .
Third, the diamonds were producing mana, mana that just so happened to be quite vital for how it powered the thin barrier, a barrier keeping twenty-thousand leagues of water above—obviously an exaggeration, but damn, is it nice to have the mental capacity to exaggerate!—from crushing their fledgling village.
And so it made perfect sense that in no reality could they let the Quartz Guardian have the diamonds. Besides, losing the diamonds would lose the barrier, which wouldn’t be a delightful experience for the golem either.
But how did one broach such topics of mutually assured destruction with an animated chunk of rock?
All of this flooded through his mind in 2.7 seconds. The ability to think was such an underrated skill, and Sleep Deprivation was a dreadful trait. What were people without their capability of thought?
There was no knowing how long he’d have before the trait returned. Really, there was no knowing why a solid slap to the face would remove the trait in the first place.
Dhane ran forward, his brain latching onto all the tiny details needed to formulate some kind of plan, then he stopped. The floor the golem had attacked held a circle encompassing a dozen sigils.
It’s an inactive waypoint. . . .
A waypoint would have been most useful right about now, but this one had a newly added feature: a wedge-shaped fissure ran through the design, rendering it useless. That, and the surface waypoint was obviously locked.
There was nothing he could do about the waypoint, but he could message Devron to get his ass down here and bring an army of Cobalins with him.
Dhane went through the full process of resummoning his phone—messages were easier to send with a physical keyboard—before a dawning realization wormed its way into his brain. . . .
He had never exchanged contact information with Devron. In fact, the only contact information Dhane had was Penny’s, and Penny wasn’t exactly being responsive right now.
Octoralis stumbled and narrowly dodged the glowing pink blur of a battleaxe. She was out beyond the doorway in a cavern of curving walls that stretched a hundred or more feet above them.
The walls were rough and pocketed, featuring shallow oddly-shaped holes, almost like lava rocks but not natural. The stone was scraped and drilled and stripped of what had likely been crystals.
The only remaining crystals jutted from walls far overhead or hung from the ceiling or . . . grew on the giant crabs? Now that was a detail he had missed during his mental holiday.
Their carapaces were a wan yellow with jagged, sharp crystals to match. There were a good two dozen or more of the large critters scurrying to swarm Octoralis.
She was forced back next to one of the columns of stone that had formed throughout the cavern, drawing vertical lines in the dim light.
They were stalagmites and stalactites, caught in the oldest of romance stories: two sides, each reaching for the other across centuries, undeterred until they could finally touch.
The Quartz Guardian charged.
Octoralis shifted to smoke, desummoning herself back to Dhane’s soul at the last moment.
The golem crashed into the column, blasting chunks of heartbroken stone in every which way, turning unfortunate crabs into fortunate crab paste.
A single glowing pink crystal clattered to the floor, knocked loose from far above. It bounced and made a tinging sound, shooting spiraling lines of light out from it as it spun.
A group of crabs scuttled toward it.
The thought of crabs stirred up swelling anger from Octoralis. <Daddy, they bad bad bad! They pinch legs. I cannot fight mean rock with them always there!>
The Quartz Guardian whipped around. It angled those glowering eyes at Dhane and huffed a cloud of glitter before swinging its battleaxe onto its shoulder.
Octoralis jumped from his soul and materialized behind the golem. She took a bite out of its back, dealing backstab damage.
The Quartz Guardian’s health dropped to 537/744. A -158 in red slipped out from the two holes left behind.
The golem growled a deep rumble. It turned and swung its normal arm that whooshed through the air with enough power to explode a dozen Cobalins into a spray of soul mist.
But Octoralis had anticipated this. She was crouched and ready. As soon as the golem missed its attack, she sprung up, slamming against its chest.
The Quartz Guardian staggered backward toward Dhane. Its boulder-shaped feet grated against the ground until they caught the edge of something, and the towering body of stone toppled over.
Dhane quickly triggered Shadow Shift. After a very long second, the world fell away, replaced with rushing smoke. He snapped back into reality, forty feet away.
Octoralis was already on top of the golem, taking advantage of her prone enemy. But there was an army of giant crabs behind her, snapping their pincers almost in rhythm.
Where was Knock? Did the little Cobalin already die? Maybe he ran off to get help. In either scenario, the end of the world was being held off by a boy and his spider.
Great. . . .
Dhane called to the closest crab’s affinity.
- Small Beast Tank · Lvl. 6
If only he had a modicum of strength, maybe he could fight. But there was just no way he could deal with so many! Realistically, all he could do was aggro them somehow and keep them away from Octoralis.
Or. . . .
Dhane summoned Web Wall, paying the 30 mana and dropping him to 68/110. The only problem with this sudden, improvised strategy was how there were no two walls close enough to attach it to.
But there were crabs.
He released the skill, letting the silvery strands of thick webs shift out from him, sticking to and wrapping half a dozen crabs to form a wall.
It was a triumphant use of his skill, a master strategy, and now Octoralis will be able to—
The webs disintegrated.
Shit! Apparently, attaching the skill to moving targets didn’t work. The skill hadn’t mentioned this little caveat, but then again, allowing such a use would have probably been overpowered.
Most of the crabs were racing toward the throw-down between the giant spider and giant golem. But others couldn’t be bothered.
These other crabs were dancing in a ring around the fallen pink crystal, snapping their pincers in an upturned U shape, growling at each other.
He had never known crabs to growl, but then again, he didn’t have much experience with crabs that weren’t boiled, their legs steaming on a plate.
He swallowed hard. Crab meat pulled from a red carapace and dipped in garlic butter. . . .
Dhane shook his head. He could feel the edge of his clarity dull. A weight seemed to settle on his brain, squishing his thoughts.
Act or die, he thought with such ferocity that the words seemed to growl in his head. He didn’t have to be smart to do what was needed.
And so it was on to Plan B.
Dhane sprinted toward the ring of crabs in their fierce standoff to see which one would get the crystal. He dove over the wall of snapping pincers, rolled, and snatched the crystal.
This had an immediate effect. While the crabs were very much against sharing the crystal with a fellow crab, they were downright murderous at the idea that something else might get it.
Before the ring of angry sea spiders could descend upon him, he triggered Shadow Shift. An eternity—comprised of a single second—was nearly long enough to experience a lovely bout of dismemberment.
Dhane shifted forty feet in the direction of all the other crabs. And once reality returned, trailing a line of smoke, he realized there was something terribly wrong with this plan.
What was he supposed to do next?
There had to be more to the plan, but his brain wasn’t doing that thinking thing again. Thankfully, the army of angry-looking giant crabs was quite accommodating in reminding him to run.
He became the squirrel to a pack of dogs, the mouse to a clowder of cats, the delicious glowing pink crystal to a cast of crabs. In other words, he was the most effective bait.
Now, crabs were a lot of things—ugly, freaky . . . delicious—but they were not slow. The whole swarm of them, seeing a crystal being waved about, diverted from Octoralis and gave chase.
There were over a dozen of the Quartz Crabs remaining, but all he had to do was . . . something. He’d figure it out once he escaped their pursuit!
Dhane sprinted across the stone ground past columns, listening to the clatter of tap tap tap from behind, a tapping that was surely gaining on him.
Tiny vibration lines swirled up from a few of the crabs, gathering into balls of a sort. They shot forward, slicing through the air in a glowing blue.
The crabs were spitting at him!
How very rude.
To show his dissatisfaction with their impolite behavior, he hocked a loogie at the closest of the crabs, the one that was intent on grabbing his leg.
It jerked back, acting all offended. It should be. He most certainly was. But the others continued their pursuit, unfazed by such discourteous exchanges.
He rounded a column and had a brilliant idea. He could escape the ugly things by giving them a distraction.
In a moment of clarity, he decided that crabs liked crystals, and at some point along the way, he had obtained a crystal clutched in his hand.
Unfortunately, such thoughts were too preoccupying, and he misplaced his foot, catching the edge of a jagged piece of stone.
In one moment, he was sprinting, and in the next, flying. . . . It was a surreal experience since he didn’t know he could fly.
This world never ceases to amaze.
Then he hit the ground.
He tumbled and rolled, which would have been it for him—a sprawling mess of pain for the crabs to chop, dice, and mince—but he managed to trigger Shadow Shift, paying the 15 mana and dropping him to 41/110.
The world dissolved into an emptiness, filled with only the rushing of smoke, hot and acrid. In a blurring burst, he appeared forty feet away.
Forty feet sounded like a decent distance, but that was only a few seconds to these things. The smaller crabs with fewer crystals on their backs that slowed the others were already there.
Dhane chucked the crystal down the enormous cavern where it slid and bounced and played an alluring, tinkling sound to the crabs. This diverted the army’s attention, and they flowed from him like a wave.
The leading crab reached the crystal, grabbed it, and right before giving it the kiss of death—sucking out the mana or whatever the hell these crabs did—the wall moved.
All the crabs immediately scurried in every direction. Some ran past their once mortal enemy—the crystal thief—paying him no mind, which should have been alarming if he cared to be alarmed.
The reigning crab champion, the one that clenched its pink prize in frozen pincers, held stock-still. The only thing that moved was its black eyes, twitching at the ends of their eyestalks.
A whole lot of something blurred in the air and slammed down on the little crab. It turned into a puff of silvery-white soul, so utterly destroyed beneath the end of a twenty-foot, teal and pink . . . thing, that there was nothing left except a dent in the floor.
Oh, mamma mia. . . .
This is the end of the sample. Thanks for reading!