“Caught me already?” we asked, turning to face the Players that had stepped through; the three humans from before. The Noruk and the Thardos were missing, probably facing Devi. Three against one wasn’t ideal, but it was doable considering who these Players were. Lowlives, thieves, gangsters. That was all they had achieved with the vast power the collars granted them. They were too scared to go out and make a name for themselves and they were too weak to shape the world around them in a meaningful way. We didn’t expect much from failures like them.
“You think you are clever, don’t you?” spoke the man in the burnt robes. “Ain’t gonna lie, you look like a conceited prick. Bet those rumors about the mighty Mad Painter are all fake too.”
As the man talked his two companions had spread out on either side of him. The one on the left had a bastard sword that glowed around the edges, while the one on the right had two different mechanical devices attached to his forearms. The cleric in the middle wore seemingly no weapons. We dropped the chalk and teleported Soul Eater into our hand, shaped like a dagger.
“Yeah, you got me,” we said. “Most of those rumors are fake and I think that I’m clever.”
“Hah!” the man on the right guffawed. “He’s mocking you, boss. Didn’t you see what he did to the others at the maze?”
“Shut up, Sean. Are you blind? That was the Sylven and the Dungeon Core. The Mad Painter is weak.”
Talking was good. Talking meant that the twelve-second cooldown on our teleportation was going to wear off. The guy with the magic sword was pointing his blade at us, but none of the three was in a hurry to attack now that they caught us.
“That guy is right, Sean,” we said, pointing at the cleric. “My stories are made up. I have a bard to spread them.”
Sean laughed some more, but his boss didn’t find our remark funny.
“That guy is called Amit the Cruel, leader of the Serpents,” he introduced himself. “If you ignore me, you’ll—”
He yelped as Soul Eater spun toward his face, our throw deadly precise. Sadly the space in front of Amit twisted and warped and the black dagger sailed past his head.
“Sorry,” we said. “My hand slipped.”
They didn’t talk back this time—just attacked. Sean extended an arm and the device on it launched a glinting bolt at us, while the man with the sword charged with the all too familiar Lunge Weapon Skill. Before they could have reached us, we teleported ourselves to Soul Eater behind them.
First things first: bait out as many of their Abilities as we could. We threw Soul Eater at Amit’s head again. The air twisted around him once more, making the dagger miss, but this time it came much closer to hitting him. Our opponents turned right then, having figured out where we were from the direction of our throw, and we backed off as fast as our mechanical leg allowed. Lightning gathered around Amit’s hands. Sean aimed his mounted crossbow at us but didn’t fire yet. Hank’s shape blurred as he changed directions, dashing at us in a zig-zag pattern, moving so fast that he was barely visible.
We activated our armor’s power, teleporting back to where we were five seconds ago; on the other side of the group. It caught Amit and the swordsman as a surprise, but Sean fired a bolt at us as soon as we arrived. We threw ourselves to the ground to evade the projectile and pick Soul Eater up at the same time. As efficient as that move was, it cost us; our left leg buckled and it took precious seconds to get back to our feet.
Amit and the swordsman turned around, and by that time Sean was launching another bolt at us. Instead of dodging the bolt again, we decided to take a risk; we threw Soul Eater at Amit’s head and let the projectile hit us on the shoulder. Our dark armor flared with power, protecting us with a shadowy aura—but even though it negated the damage, we still stumbled from the impact.
At the same time, Amit ducked under the dagger and slammed both hands to the ground. He unleashed the torrent of lightning that surrounded his hands, which impossibly traveled along the surface of the stone ground—but not toward us. The lightning circled around Amit, shooting toward Soul Eater behind his back, anticipating us to teleport to the dagger like the last time. We teleported Soul Eater back to our hand instead and flung it at Amit’s head. The lightning missed, the dagger struck. This time there was only a slight distortion, which allowed Soul Eater to leave a gash on the side of Amit’s head, splitting his ear in two.
If we had to guess, he didn’t have his Domain anymore. We tanked another crossbow bolt while Amit screamed, clutching his ear. Hopefully the other two Players had just as weak defenses, because we didn’t have too many options to hurt them. Making Soul Eater’s blade incredibly sharp was about the only offensive power we had, and that was nowhere near enough against most Players. Amit and his friends had survived Devi’s Ray and the Dungeon Core’s fire, however. Their best defensive tricks might have already been blown.
The swordsman blurred forward, getting impatient with us. He came out of his movement Ability swinging his sword, so we activated our armor’s power and jumped back to where we had been five seconds ago—which, unfortunately, wasn’t very far. We managed to avoid his swing anyway, but he chased us with another Lunge. With our Abilities on cooldown and Soul Eater thrown away, we had no chance but to face him barehanded. We twisted our upper body out of the blade’s way, his searing sword passing right in front of our face, then grabbed his wrist with one hand and punched him in the face with the other. It was a solid punch, landing squarely on his jaw—and then we went blind.
No, not just blind; our hearing and sense of smell were gone too. The only thing we could sense was the Mark of Replacement that we had left on the swordsman’s jaw. Aside from that, we were in the dark. Something slammed into our back, throwing us forward. Another crossbow bolt? The swordsman moved, but we teleported to Soul Eater before he could have stabbed us. We got to our feet, backing off and trying to map our surroundings from memory. Another bolt hit us, and we had no way of telling how long our armor would be able to protect us.
Landing a blow on the swordsman apparently robbed the offender of their senses. How long would this blindness last? Surely it wouldn’t be permanent—that would have been too unfair. Unfair, just like our powers. Yeah, we didn’t have the right to complain here. The Waking World was an unfair one where the strong triumphed over the weak, and this Player-system had no intention to make it any less balanced.
Another bolt hit us, this time on the middle of our forehead. It pushed our head back abruptly, threatening to break our neck. The mark on the swordsman approached us in a zig-zag pattern, and we used our armor to teleport back to the other side of the square. We crouched, holding Soul Eater close, shaping it into a wide shield. Another impact, this time on Soul Eater. And this time, we heard a faint clang.
We sighed in relief; our senses were coming back. We broke into a run along the perimeter of the square. We just had to keep moving, had to buy more time. The swordsman attacked us with what we assumed was a Lunge, and so we turned with Soul Eater and caught his blade—knowing the Weapon Skill, it was easy to imagine where the blow would land. Our head was exposed in our current stance, and so we raised our shield and caught another sword strike that predictably went for our face. We then teleported back to where we had been five seconds ago, creating more distance. Soul Eater’s teleportation would be up again soon, and so we shaped it—no, we couldn’t shape it. Part of us tried to, but part of us wanted to keep using it as a shield.
“Let me handle the fight!” we growled.
“Together,” we said, clutching our head. “Think together.”
A crossbow bolt hit us.
“He’s really gone mad,” a voice said with a mocking laugh.
We had to focus. Our hearing was returning slowly, perhaps because of our sunglasses; they were supposed to enhance our senses, after all. The cheap headgear was pretty useless though, unable to counteract the swordsman’s curse. Our ears were filled with an ominous static noise. Another bolt hit us, and we were increasingly alarmed by what Sean was doing. So far he hadn’t done anything extraordinary, not counting the unreal reload time of his crossbow. Was he toying with us? Why did he keep shooting normal bolts at our armor?
The swordsman chased after us, and we threw Soul Eater as a dagger to avoid him. We were getting too predictable, however. A moment later we found out what the static noise was; our whole body convulsed as lightning ran over our body. Soul Eater fell out of our hand and only our Boots of Stability kept us from falling. Our armor was either ineffective against this lightning, or it couldn’t absorb all of it—whatever was the case, we were momentarily paralyzed. If we squinted just right, we could see the bleary silhouette of Amit walking toward us, speaking.
“—careful. His Domain is yet to go off, so let me handle this.”
The stone beneath our feet became soft and we began to sink. Our muscles just weren’t responding properly and our mechanical leg was useless. The swordsman ignored Amit’s warning, performing another Lunge at us. We teleported back to where we had been five seconds ago.
Something slammed into our chest and we were lifted off our feet, knocking our breath out of our lungs. The offending object kept pushing us back, slamming us onto something hard, a portal disk or a building perhaps, and we heard the stone behind us crack from the impact. The dark aura of our armor flickered. We tried to twist aside but the projectile in our armor was lodged too deep. While we struggled another bolt slammed into our head, which was finally too much for our armor. The bolts punched right through us, activating our last line of defense: Shadeform. Our body became intangible as our Ability threw us halfway into the Astral Plane, though it lasted only for a moment. We fell to our knees as soon as the projectiles were out of our body. Corporeal, dazed, gasping for air.
“Damn,” Sean said. “I was so sure that would get him.”
Another bolt flew at our head, but we teleported Soul Eater to us and deflected it. Our senses were returning, but we were out of options. Our defenses were gone. Perhaps we could teleport some more—but what good would it be now? Our opponents were already aware of our tricks.
“Nice work,” Amit spoke. “I got this.”
“You got this?” Sean asked, sneering. “You’re useless, Amit. There is no way I’d hand the Core over to you.”
“What? We had a deal.”
“You had a deal with the other leaders. Here’s my deal: whoever kills the Mad Painter gets the Dungeon. I bet that was Hank’s plan too. That’s why he kept chasing the Painter while you just sat there with your bleeding ear, being useless.”
“You dare— You’re my subordinate, you bastard!”
“Not anymore. Hank, let’s decide—”
I cleared my throat loudly, drawing their attention back to me.
“Guys, there’s no need to go this far. If you wanted the Dungeon Core, you could have just asked.”
I held out a hand, summoning the indigo orb into it. The Dungeon Core felt as if it had a significant weight now, its smooth surface cold against my sweaty palm. The three Players looked leery yet transfixed.
“See, I value my life more than this thing. I renounce my claim on this Dungeon.”
The collar around my neck flashed with a notification that signaled the end of ownership, but I didn’t read it. My attention was on my opponents, watching the greed grow in their eyes. I put the Core down, then gave it a slight nudge so that it slowly rolled toward them.
“There you go,” I said. “The first person to touch the Core becomes the Dungeon Master.”