The bald worshipers cleared the room in a hurry, disappearing under alcoves located on the sides of the nave.
As soon as I was freed from the oppressive force, I brought out my status and added all the available ether to my classes in panic. Trying to maximize my profits was no longer the main focus. It had been replaced by simple survival.
The sudden increase in attribute values left me feeling stuffy but I dismissed the notifications, unwilling to take my attention away from the slithering form heading my way for even a second.
No longer dragging himself, the custodian looked like an obscene lizard as he approached me using his four arms and the amputated legs that came out of a dirty cloth kept in place by a rope-like belt. And he was gaining speed.
Trying to fight this monster unarmed was suicide, but seeing how my only weapon was a liability, I wasn’t planning on there being any fight. Escaping was the only sane option.
To hell with this dead god and its demands.
Even if the very monster I was trying to flee from was standing between me and the only exit I could access.
I attempted circling around the creature as it drew closer but even though I was much faster than I previously was, it wasn’t enough and I braced myself for the inevitable impact.
Cutting off my retreat like a predator, the Custodian growled and launched a clawed hand that I barely managed to avoid with a roll. His nails screeched against the stone I was standing on half a second ago.
But he didn’t stop there and chased after me in a mute rage I had severe trouble withstanding without deviating from my path.
Forget the door, he will never let me open it... If I stay still for a second I’m dead.
Leaving deep gashes in the stone, the creature’s yellow nails were like swords seeking my flesh. And I was becoming painfully aware that I would not be able to escape them for long.
And the worst thing was that I could see opportunities for me to go on the offensive passing by. Chances for me to slice and cut with the aid of Ikun Omi.
There has to be another way, I thought as I desperately looked around for any kind of passage I could have failed to notice.
There is no other way, my love, a familiar voice said in my head. There never was.
But I ignored it. Who knew what could happen if I did as she said? When would be the next time I’d be back to myself? Tomorrow? Next week?
What if I left the Undermine while still in trance? What if I went to the temple while the hallways were filled with children?
You are scared... That is understandable. But do not pretend that you are scared for them. The countless lies you tell yourself do not entertain me. Draw me.
Lies? Was this thing so removed from humanity that it didn’t understand the possible consequences of losing any discernment?
You have been tamed for so long that you forgot yourself. But I remember the eagerness you had when we first met, and have peered into your soul since then. Draw me, Edward. Stop fighting it.
My focus in shambles, I almost failed to dodge an incoming row of claws and in turn was unable to avoid the hand they were attached to when it came for a second swipe. It smashed into my body and knocked the wind out of my lungs.
There was a cracking sound and I flew over the room. I landed on the stone with enough momentum to drift for a few meters before staying still.
I could hear the ticking sound of the sharp nails on the stone as they edged closer.
You tried to restrain it and that is why you failed. The flood in your heart can only be guided. Draw me now, Edward. Or draw your last breath in this wretched place.
I chuckled despite the pain radiating from the right side of my body. My arm was bent in a way it wasn’t supposed to.
The flood in my heart? I thought. Why are you making it sound like I am the one responsible?
There was a pause I could tell steamed from surprise.
Do you mean to say that you are still unaware?
Unaware of what? She couldn’t possibly be meaning that I was the one who had been wanting to kill Ardos, could she? The one who had lost track of everything as they mindlessly destroyed face wearing monsters kilometers under the nearest real person.
It can’t... I know that-
You are losing sight of a simple truth. It couldn’t have been anyone but US! Now tell me, is this how we shall end?
I wasn’t scared of Death and hadn’t been for a long time. But while I couldn’t deny that the thought of what was patiently waiting for me on the other side made my skin crawl and my chest tighten, there was something I feared even more.
Something buried under decades of discipline and repressed memories. Something that the Sunken Dance effortlessly revealed.
I wasn’t scared of Death. Or the Death of others. I was scared of living as a beast, the same kind of beast that had taken the life of my family.
What I truly was, was just another face wearing monster. Maybe the Undermine was the ideal place for me after all.
It was me all along, I thought. It was my fault.
"Fault" is the wrong word, my love. Let me show you how beautiful you truly are.
She was in my hand before I realized how she got there. Warm to the touch and inviting. A promise of delights of the highest caliber.
Had she summoned herself out of the inventory or had I called her?
A wave of relief washed over me as I rolled over and jumped to avoid the pouncing beast. The impact was strong enough to break the stone, but there were already several meters between us.
Slightly modifying my stance to accommodate my limp right arm, I brought my weight to my back leg and let Ikun Omi rest gently on my shoulder. I couldn’t feel the pain anymore but was shivering with anticipation.
Anticipation to make the foolish creature pay.
It ran at me and swung at me with vulgar predictability. My muscles exploded with power and my blade met the claws with enough force to make them jerk away. I similarly parried a second attack and rolled under the beast.
Then with a kick of my boot, I shattered one of its middle arms' elbow.
There was a high pitched muted shriek of pain followed by a furious rampage, but I wasn’t the same as I was moments ago and only saw it as an unrefined tantrum.
My body spun, and as the ground around me was ravaged, the disgusting nails could never get close enough to deliver the death they carried.
I parried and sliced, and even though there was no blood coming from the pale limbs, the groans satisfied my need to make the creature suffer. But even that soon started to bore me.
After twisting my body in the nick of time during a feint that caused one of the hands to slide right in front of me, I made Ikun Omi sing and cut the arm right off.
Dylarel bellowed openly for the first time, letting out a gut-wrenching scream that probably echoed all the way to the surface. The black sand he had been trying to keep inside gushed out of his mouth like a dark geyser.
I swiftly circled around the creature and plunged my blade into its chest. The wounded beast fell, trashing against the ground, vomiting its dry bile all over the deserted church.
I watched the scene with disdain and let it play out for a while, unwilling to rob the dull thing of any of the pain it very much deserved.
Before long, the intensity of the twitches decreased and the sand stopped flowing. It was time to end it.
I approached, and the monster recoiled in fear. That sudden movement stirred the sand and revealed a shining object that seemed to also have been rejected.
At its sight, the Betrayer froze. With a shaking hand, he grabbed the object and brought it close to his face and I saw what it was. Shining prayer beads.
“Yes,” Dylarel said with the voice of a gentle old man. “I remember now. You have come too far, haven’t you?”
His demeanor changed and, using his stumped legs and unbroken arm, he started raising his upper body.
“Oh, but I know... I know very well how the secrets beckon so sweetly, my child. And how they bind you.”
He now stood straight like a wounded minotaur. And despite the severed arm at his side or the broken one that couldn’t support his weight, he radiated an air of dignity.
There was still a glimmer of insanity in his eyes, but he was no longer a vulgar beast. He was Dylarel the Custodian.
“Only... an honest death can save you now.”
Ikun Omi whistled as I swung her to his neck, but the Custodian raised the hand holding the rosary, flickered his wrist, and disappeared as my blade tore through emptiness.
He hadn’t become invisible. He had ceased to exist only to reappear at a respectable distance from me.
But I was already sprinting in his direction.
With another flick of the wrist, he created a purple orb that immediately shot at me with high speed.
I dodged it with a snort, only to see it change direction and fly after me.
I heard the sound of the beads hitting each other again, and saw two new projectiles coming from the front.
I had no idea of what would happen if they came into contact with anything, and I wasn’t willing to test it.
Though my progression toward Dylarel was slowed, my dance carried me through the homing spells with jumps and flips.
The ability to simply add new life seeking orbs was a dangerous one, but it seemed that each one required a longer casting time. And I was too fast for the limping Custodian to get away.
Right as he entered my range I saw the pale hand about to move again, but the dark blade sang and the rosary fell to the ground with fingers still tightly wrapped around it.
Completely disregarding me and the fight, Dylarel extended his last functioning arm toward his rosary.
I took the gesture as an invitation and spun to accept it. Dylarel’s head fell with a soft sound long before the rest of his body collapsed.
+ 900 ether.
You have received 50 Glory.
You have received the Custodian’s Prayer Beads.
You have received the Dancer’s Belt.
Custodian’s Prayer Beads and Dancer’s Belt have been moved to inventory.
My breath was ragged and I winced as the cold and pain all came back to me.
We had won, but this felt more like kicking a can of worms open than a victory to me. But I figured that the existence of the can of worms itself was probably part of why I needed to be saved from my karma.
I heard the whispers of what laid behind the ancient veil in my head once more.
“Once again, you have done well... mortal. Dylarel was cancer threatening my second coming. Now, give me his rosary as an offering, and I shall greatly reward you.”
Surprised by the request, I brought up my inventory and read the item's description.
Custodian’s Prayer Beads.
Item given to the Custodian by a cherished individual when he entered the church. He used it for the rest of his life, and some of his secrets have seeped into it.
Grants Insight to user.
Weakens effects of divine words on user.
Scales with Int.
Yeah, you can go fuck yourself, I thought as I summoned the item and put it around my neck without the slightest hesitation.
There was a silence, then the Keeper of Secrets spoke again.
“You have decided to refuse the invitation of an old one... but that is of little importance. I am still bound to grant a reward for succeeding in the quest I gave you.”
You have received a ring of bestowment.
Ring of bestowment has been moved to inventory.
“Now leave. And never return.”
The purple priests slowly walked out of the alcoves they had been hiding under, moving between me and the veil.
My grip on the sword tightened.
I was wounded and exhausted, but even then I knew that if I left now, there might never be another opportunity to destroy this being. It would bide its time, gather its strength, then free itself from the shackles confining its influence to the dungeon.
It might happen in a hundred years, but at some point, thick miasma would burst out from the ground and color the valley purple... And who knew what its plans were.
If I left now.
But what if I somehow manage to kill it?
Wouldn’t that mean also killing the host of the Dungeon it guarded? The Undermine would disappear and the miners would lose the way they made a living. The only way for them to gather enough coin to escape the fog they so much feared.
I would be condemning most, if not all, of them to death.
What was I supposed to do? Simply turn around and save the people of today or risk my life to save the world of tomorrow? A world I wasn’t even sure was worth saving.
Kirby appeared and I commanded him to repeat my word.
“Do not take away the miners anymore,” the artificial voice said.
Those words seemed to amuse the voice.
“Those were the actions of the Custodian. You have dealt with him, and I do not intend to harm mortals any more than it is necessary for my protection.”
I frowned at the wording but figured it was the best I was going to get.
So I turned around and left.
I need to deal with my arm.