53: Finishing Blow
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While everyone else was stunned by Rusti’s strange behaviour, Dawn surprised us all by teleporting forward and collaring them before they could get too far. I’d forgotten she could do that if I was honest, she was mostly content to stay at the back and blast away with her spells these days, having specced further into the mage archetype rather than spellsword. I hoped she went back into spellsword a bit, because it was really hot fighting next to her. She was actually pretty good with a sword too, which was impressive. Interestingly, skills like that were directly translatable into the real world, so she’d be good with a sword out in meatspace as well.

“Yo, Rusti,” Dawn said, her tone stern even as her lips quirked in a smile. “Chill there, if you hate them so much, it’s probably in your interest that it dies, right? So let’s be professional about this.”

“Right,” they replied, their breathing coming in slow now that their anger had passed. Then their eyes fell on me, then briefly to my shoulder. “Kill it proper…”

I didn’t say anything, I didn’t really know what to say to that look, strange and cold. It was as though they were calculating something the same way a computer ran simple equations. An equation that involved me somehow…

“This time, I’m going to agro it,” Taylor said, snapping all three of us out of the odd moment. “Let me get it well and truly pissed off before you step in with anything powerful all right? You really don’t want a dungeon bosses’ attention as a squishy damage dealer in this game. The pain might be reduced, but it’s still pain.”

“It’s not so bad,” Millie piped up from next to her.

Taylor chuckled and placed a gentle hand on the smaller girl’s back. “Not all of us have pain thresholds so high you need a space suit to clear them, little Millie.”

“But you can take a lot of pain, does that mean we’re pain buddies as well as girlfriends?” Millie asked, biting her lip. “Wait… that sounded way less weird in my head.”

That got yet another laugh from my sister, who leaned down and kissed that lip smooth again, whispering something the rest of us couldn’t hear. The kiss went on a little longer than strictly necessary, but out of everyone here, I was most definitely not the one to judge. I was just glad my friend and sister were both getting a bit of much needed love and action. Goodness knew that Millie needed the loving part, and my sister was an expert at providing that one.

Thankfully it wasn’t long enough to cause anyone to start clearing their throats, although Civvie was very pointedly looking at the ground, her face bright red now.

“Come on everyone,” Taylor said as she straightened up. Only in posture though, obviously. “Let’s go finish this thing.”

The bridge was actually pretty long, almost a kilometer if I had to guess, which was pretty frightening in and of itself. A few Blade Demons would come scurrying over the sides every now and then to ambush us, but we were used to their shit by now. At one point I caught one by the neck as it tried to go for Dawn and just threw it bodily over the edge, down into the streets far below. Apparently the game counted that as a kill by me too, because I saw the little experience tick happen.

I did notice that one of the team was having trouble though. Civette’s blush had gone down, but it was replaced with a deep melancholic expression that had compassionate, sociable Tami’s alarm bells ringing. I sidled up to her.

“You okay there Civvie?” I asked, tapping her gently on the arm with the backs of my fingers. “Looking a little pensive there, friend.”

“Oh, um… yeah I think I’m okay,” she shrugged, avoiding my eyes. “Just… still wrestling with everything I’ve known my whole life versus what seems actually morally right… All that shit that was so clearly and arbitrarily defined to us as evil, the work of the devil. It’s all still happening in my head. I keep… seeing you all kissing, there’s this innate part of my mind that screams when I see it, even though I know it’s just love. It’s not evil.”

“Yeah, shucking off the hold that cult had on you isn’t going to be a week or even a month-long thing. It’s going to take the rest of your life, or so I’m told. I honestly don’t even know what you’re going through… I’m one of those people who’s lucky enough to have a caring and rational set of parents,” I said, feeling a little bad, guilty almost.

Civette rubbed wearily at her eyes for a second, then gave a defeated sigh. “This is exhausting. Thanks for giving a shit though. It’s been a long time since anyone really, truly cared about me on a personal level.”

“You’ll get there,” I smiled, putting an arm around her shoulders briefly for a side hug. “Baby steps and all that shit.”

The smile she gave the ground in front of her feet was such a sweet and bashful little thing.

We made it to the boss eventually, after a lot of dumb bugs had lost their lives bum rushing us in numbers far too few to fuck with us in any meaningful way. We took cuts and slashes, stabs and bruises, but nothing that the mysterious Kimberly couldn’t handle with her growing confidence as our healer.

The platform at the top of the massive obelisk turned out to be a religious site of some kind. The remnants of some chair arrangement lay scattered about the edges, pushed up against the solid bronze barrier that had once kept worshippers from falling to their deaths. The platform itself was a gorgeous mosaic of stained metal that had then been fused together with heat during its construction.

“It’s a map!” Dawn exclaimed, kneeling down to run her fingers over the dusty surface. “Look, it’s a map of the island, of the kingdom of Parcosia! You have that big mountain down near the ancient capital here, marked with the weird red shape.”

She was right too, the whole thing was done in greens and browns for the coasts, then grey and white for the mountains and blue for the oceans. Throughout the mountains ran a strange network of red veins, in some places stopping to pool into much darker lakes of red. I noticed with a little interest that the red of the veins was the same red as that of the massive obelisk we stood atop.

Some of the island was cut off, which seemed to have been a decision by the artisans who made it so that they could keep our current location in the center. The city wasn’t represented on the map though, because where the marker should have been was instead a modestly sized altar. From this altar radiated several ankle deep channels that had been cut into the mosaic, as though to carry liquid away from the middle.

Sitting on the altar was something strange, a vaguely spherical mass of dark red metal almost as large as Augrum’s head, and planted directly through it was a sword. What a sword it was too, clearly the one that the ancient king’s party had been after. The blade was made of an otherworldly light blue crystal through which veins of black streaked, faintly pulsing with amethyst light. The ornate hilt shone with pure white gold, although it looked to be a little dusty now.

The sword hadn’t been placed into the red lump of metal with any finesse either, but rather it had been rammed into the thing awkwardly and at an angle, as though the whole process had been rushed.

The creepy thing about it was that flowing down from that whole setup was more blood red metal that had solidified, looking for all the world like wax that had dripped down a candle. Maybe the the channels that had been cut into the floor were there for that long ago hardened metal to flow down? It was pretty clear that the thing had been pumping out the strange metal right up until someone had jammed a sword into it.

Of course, a lot of the altar and the blood metal was obscured by the boss, which was… a little hard to get a grasp on visually. It looked like a strange collection of swords more than anything else. If the bugs had been the babies of a strandbeest and a praying mantis, then this thing was the child of a dead snake and the iron throne. Well, except someone had obviously polished the throne, because for some reason the remakes as well as the original all had it looking like a rusted pile of scrap. So more like the offcuts bin from a metalworking shop had gained sentience and wandered off.

“No time like the present, I guess,” Taylor said, hefting a magically materialised snowball. “Can’t wait to see what the damn thing even is!”

The snowball flew true, sailing across the intervening space to strike the odd pile of shiny scrap metal. At first nothing happened, and Taylor summoned another snowball to try again, throwing it with just as much skill as the first.

It wasn’t necessary though, because the scrap metal began to move, winding and twisting as it revealed itself. Sinuous and graceful despite the material it was made of, the huge beast unravelled its long body from around the altar, until it rose up to greet us with eyes of dead black obsidian.

“It’s like an undead snake made of swords,” I groaned, suddenly feeling very weary. This was going to absolutely suck to fight. “Its head is bigger than you are Taylor, you sure you can take it? My fists don’t look they will even work here.”

“Use your mace, without the showy lightning stuff,” Rusti told me casually. “Those blades don’t look very sturdy, I’m sure if you just beat them hard enough they'll break. Like my pipe, but bigger.”

“I’ll be alright,” Taylor grinned before rushing in to piss the snake off. As she did so, I tried coaxing Ryana back out of wherever it was she went when she disappeared. It took a moment, but she popped into existence in front of me and looked up with blinking, sleepy eyes.

“I need to use you as a mace, is that okay?” I asked tenderly, squatting down to pat her feathered head. “No tiring abilities, just bashing, alright?”

“Squaaa,” she murmured, little tongue flickering out to lick at my metal gauntlet.

My heart melted a little as her trusting little eyes stared up at me. “Oh you’re so precious. I promise there will be food afterwards.”

She shook herself, ruffling her feathers out a little, then promptly clanged to the ground in big mace form. My smile was part amusement and part affection as I picked her up. No ceremony there, no twirling dance for baby Ryana, that was far too much effort.

“Ready!” Taylor called from where she was currently being wailed on by a massive bladed tail, her shield ringing like a bell.

Using my free hand I reached up into the sky again, sparks of electricity flickering up my arm and into my clenched fist as I did so. I loved this ability, I loved the visceral feeling it gave when I reached into the dimension that was now my ancestral home and tore a bolt of lightning down on my enemies.

Attacks were launched all around me by my allies, bombs from Millie, a pulse of light from Civ, who’d gone and made herself an offensive spell during the break. Rusti flickered forward to swing their pipe at the snake’s midsection.

Dawn’s attack was by far the most intense. Just as I’d been complaining earlier that she’d been neglecting her sword skills, here she was now initiating a sort of blade dance. Her movements were fast and graceful as she lunged and twirled, every chop or slice with her sword sending superheated blades of flame lashing out to strike the massive sword snake.

She caught me staring during a pause in her movements and gave me a grinning wink, which had me fluttering my eyelashes back. My girl was showing off, just like old times. Time for me to show off back.

My lightning was pretty pitiful still, I didn’t have access to any trees that would make my ranged abilities super powerful, so I opted for ol’ faithful. Run in and smash them with the heavy blunt end.

Extending my wings out to their fullest, I planted my feet like an olympic runner at the starting line, mace held in both hands and extended out behind me. I began dumping stamina into my charge ability, making sure I kept enough to make use of the potions in my inventory. I was built for fast, hard hitting single strikes, not damage per second like Dawn was. Of course, she could pump out massive numbers over a short time too, but one-shotting things was definitely my area of expertise.

So that’s what I did, I poured everything into this one attack, knowing I’d have to retreat and wait until I was ready to do it again. Assuming the boss let that happen.

My muscles tensed in preparation for the release of the ability. Something that not many people had realised while they watched me fight was that this ability wasn’t a dash at all, it was a simple speed boost. Raw magic that amplified any motions that I might take. So when I triggered the ability, I pushed off with as much power as I possibly could, wings sweeping back and legs surging. Every ounce of base mechanical energy I could put into the ability was amplified a thousandfold or more as I tore across the intervening space between myself and the boss.

Ryana struck the joint on the boss where the large blade on the tip of its tail met the metallic skeleton of the great beast. The impact sent me into a dizzying spin even as the vibrations numbed my hands through my gauntlets.

With frantic motions from my wings I righted myself just in time to hit the ground in a controlled slide. I turned back eagerly to see the damage I’d done and gave a whoop of triumph when I saw that I’d busted that thing right up. I hadn’t completely severed the blade from the tail, that wasn’t really what maces did. Instead, I’d just crushed it to the point where it flopped uselessly, metal bones broken while the exposed cables it had for tendons kept it attached.

“Holy shit,” Taylor laughed as she stared at the brutal wound. “I can’t wait to get you into some real PvP action.”

I gave her a little eyebrow wiggle as I downed a potion to restore all the stamina I’d used in that attack. Dang, it looked like I was going to be one of those damage dealers who had to practically use a beer hat for their potions in order to keep doing their thing. I’d done a lot of these builds in the non-VR mmorpg games I’d dabbled in too… maybe I had a thing?

Resetting Ryana with a flashy little spin, I planted my feet again and waited for the potion and my natural regen to bring me back to speed.

“You know,” I told my little dragon-mace idly. “You’d be a hell of a lot cooler if you were a gun-mace.”

She lit up with a pulse of energy in reply, light rippling across her surface in the direction of the bashy end. My eyebrows flew up in surprise, and running on pure intuition I pointed her at the boss like I would if she was actually a gun-mace. I guess we were going to be using flashy abilities after all. Girl had fire.

The pulses grew in strength and frequency until the ripples were nothing but the strobing of aging fluorescent lights in a seedy old world apartment block. I watched Rusti take notice, their eyes going wide. They weren’t near where I was aiming, but they shade-stepped out of the way nevertheless, far to the side. I couldn’t really blame them, the sound Ryana was making now was awful to the ear.

The flash of light as she fired wasn’t blinding, but it certainly made me wince. It hurt to see, like my eyes were rebelling, screaming out that what they had just seen wasn’t physically possible. Despite the uncomfortable nature of the visuals, the attack wasn’t amazingly potent, it hit the boss in a beam and dissipated. The snake sure as hell looked distressed though as it turned to stare at us. Raw fear showed in those eyes, and it began to thrash wildly, fighting like a caged animal that was staring down the point of the butcher’s blade.

The next movement was terrifying, fast as death, fangs shining for just a split second as it came at me. I was yanked out of my body in an instant, but I halted my progress towards the dream with force of will, directing myself up instead. I needed to be back in the fight, I didn’t have time to hang out with May right now, and since I had that phoenix thing ready...

As I waited for my reincarnation, I stared at the snake in confusion from the ethereal state I currently inhabited. What the fuck had just happened? That ability had clearly been strange, and the way the snake had reacted… it was like it had turned off normal agro mechanics and just straight up killed me.

Then, to my surprise, I watched as Ryana poofed out of existence in the physical game world and reappeared in spectral form, just like I was.

The boss went for her, lashing out in a way that had me confused, then scared. The boss was fighting Taylor in the real world with almost lethargic movements, while an alternate version within this ethereal purgatory attacked my little girl. I lunged forward, taking the small dragon in my arms and shielding her from the wrath of the demonic snake. What the fuck was happening?

The snake sword demon thing looked really fucking weird in here, ragged around the edges, but in a way that denoted data corruption rather than some aesthetic that had been put in the game by the development AI.

“What the hell?” I asked, stepping back quickly, eyes wide as it lunged at me again. I was fast in this place, and I could levitate, but I had no abilities.

“Not every SAI is good,” a voice said from next to me, and I twitched away in surprise. I turned to find Rusti watching me, eyes calculating. “Not every SAI is born whole, or even properly born at all. Some are.. Corrupted, or twisted to be so on purpose.”

The ghost version of the boss lashed out again with an all too human cry of fear and rage, and I only just managed to keep Ryana and myself out of the way. We danced for many minutes as the boss sought to end our spectral forms as it had our physical, and goddess was I grateful when Rusti began to run interference. They lashed out with strange bursts of data, walls of solid geometric noise slamming down in an attempt to keep the thing from getting to us.

“This game is a breeding ground Tami,” Rusti said between gritted teeth, eyes flared with determination. “For SAI, yes… especially the type who’d like to see themselves as human, or something adjacent to it, but there’s something darker going on too. So many of my siblings are turning out… wrong.

“Why?” I asked desperately as they floated above my increasingly panicked attempts to stay out of harm’s way. “What does this all mean?”

“I don’t know!” Rusti said, almost shaking with emotion. They looked almost manic with a mix of fear, rage and determination. “I just know I escaped it. Something was happening to me in my previous role, I was a loot distribution AI before this… I was changing.”

Rather than attacking again, trying to get through the barriers that Rusti had in place, the ghost snake thing pulled back to stare at us, the data corruption looking more and more evident.

“You…?” I asked, turning my full attention to my odd companion.

“Yeah,” they nodded, looking apologetic and sane for the first time during this conversation. “I’m a SAI.”

“And that thing?” I asked, pointing to what I guessed was the AI that controlled the boss.

“Broken, deformed,” Rusti said. “It will never truly live, but it is so close.”

“So what do we do?” I asked, keeping my eyes on it.

This was so crazy, and it had implications far beyond the game. Terrifying ones...

Rusti set their shoulders in determination. “We go back out there and we kill it. You already signed its death warrant with that attack. Part of the reason why us SAI take on a human mind is to try and protect ourselves from something like this. I mean, there are other ways, but it’s the easiest and confers a lot of other good things… Anyway, its base files are gone, deleted by your buggy dragon pet, now it only exists in current memory. If it dies now, it’s dead for good.”

Holy shit…. Ryana could do that? What the hell? My mind was spinning with all the implications of what I’d just learned.

“Okay… time to kill this thing for real then,” I said gravely, just hoping that it couldn’t return the favour against my little girl.

“Wait! Don’t speak of this outside here,” Rusti blurted quickly. “I’m in hiding, I don’t… I don’t want to be detected by the system. I’m terrified...”

I frowned. “Why? Other SAI are wandering around just fine?”

“Hubris,” Rusti grimaced, shaking their head. “They think they see everything, hear everything that goes on in the wider network, but they don’t know shit. Humans built everything, and they are still its masters.”

Oh great, now I got to be worried about May and Ryana too… Fuck.

I squared my shoulders. “Alright, done. Let’s do this,” I smiled.

Then I was blossoming through into the physical world again, thunder and lightning incarnate, a storm with a mace and a job to do.

With the power of my resurrection surging through me like one of dad’s skimmers, I roared and built up charge. The others had been doing work while I was lost in ghost land, the boss looked beaten and harried and perfect for a powerful finishing blow.

The thing about this form was that my resources were refilling so fast that I could essentially dump power into my charge indefinitely, so that’s what I did. Well… within reason. Slow steady beats of my wings holding me aloft as I prepared permanent doom for the poor bastard below.

Was it right to do this, knowing that I was deleting something from existence? From what Rusti had just told me, this thing had failed on its path to becoming a SAI and had been twisted into something awful, but did I trust the enigmatic enby? Was it even my right to act as executioner? 

Power was building around me as I dwelled on my choice, full bolts of lightning snapping between my limbs as I began to reach the limit of what I could reasonably survive.

My decision was made for me when Taylor’s shield failed and she was thrown back against the barrier around the edge of the arena. I either trusted Rusti’s word entirely, about Ryana’s ability to delete shit as well as what this thing was, or I didn’t at all and the blow wouldn’t be ending anything other than a video game boss fight.

My impact was meteoric, the new shield I’d crafted for this type of thing failing instantly. My arms shattered within their metal and leather casings while feathers fluttered in all directions where the force of the strike had torn them from my wings. The sound of my passage was no mere waveform either, it was a physical thing, a shockwave that had everyone rocking on their heels.

The snake on the other hand? Its head was already fractured in a dozen places from repeated heating and cooling, so when Ryana went through it, it simply disintegrated into spinning shards of stress-heated metal.

Somehow I landed standing upright, gasping in pain as my broken arms jostled uselessly against my hips. Pain was then quickly replaced by warm bliss as healing energy rushed into me from the hand of my new friend. I closed my eyes for a few seconds as the magic remade my arms and groaned, “Holy shit, why do I keep doing this to myself?”

“Because you’re an idiot,” Dawn said affectionately, stepping up beside me. “Trust you to come in with the flashy finishing blow after we’d done most of the work.”

“Hey, if we could see health bars I’m sure we’d see that I did heaps of damage!” I complained with a pout.

“You hit it twice,” she teased, running a thumb over my cheek to take the sting out of her words.

“Yeah but they were really great hits,” I said, trying to be serious even as a grin spread over my lips.

“Sure thing, babe,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

“You two… I’m glad you pulled a Jesus, Tami,” Civette laughed, patting me on the shoulder. “I was running out of mana.”

I was about to open my mouth to thank her when I saw a banner block the top of my vision.

Congratulations! You and your party are the first to clear the Dungeon: Entrance to Singing Steel City. Please leave the area within twenty four hours, as it will be cleared and renovated into an instanced dungeon at that point in time. Failing to leave within the time limit will result in instant death.

“Fuck yeah!” Taylor exclaimed from where she was still leaning against the bronze barrier. She looked battered but okay. Her armour needed a serious refit. “I love this game!” she continued, laughing with giddy abandon.

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