Monster Slayer Online: Goblin King

Hey, followers. I’m slowly serializing a new novel I’m writing. It’s a breakout from my usual genre. My patreon followers get first dibs access to the alpha chapters, but I’ll be sharing them here too weeks later. This is what I’ve got so far. Hope you enjoy!

Monster Slayer Online
Goblin King
R.R. Virdi
Copyright 2017 R.R. Virdi
* * *
Prelude – The Present
Of Where It All Went Wrong
No one expects to die twice for their twenty-first birthday. Once in the real world. Once digitally. Two times too many if you ask me. ~ Devrim Bains, class: Slayer
Pillars of smoke billowed from thatched roofs, spreading into clouds of charcoal to blot out the world’s light. Bands of violent orange licked wooden homes and consumed fallen bodies. The tinge of fiery light washed away much of anything else in sight, leaving only nightmarish silhouettes of black, moving among the flames with singular purpose: Death.
An orange film seemed to tinge the sky, muting the greenish-blues of the world. The smear of hellish carmine from the fires didn’t help.
Devrim’s chest and lungs felt several size too small, tight from the acrid air clinging to his insides like a burning adhesive. His throat constricted as he tried to breathe and his limbs felt distant and unresponsive. He pushed away the fatigue, drawing on what little adrenaline he had left to clear his mind.
The fog lifted long enough for him to focus. Activate Slayer’s Resolve.
The world flashed pale white for a microsecond before and electric cold rush flooded his body, renewing his strength and clarity of thought. He felt as if he just woken and taken a freezing shower. An arctic static charge course over his skin.
Devrim gripped the antiquated katana with both hands, flexing his fingers in an effort to steel himself. The blade he’d named, Thirst, quivered in his hand almost as if excited for the oncoming monsters.
The crackling of failing wood and crumbling masonry deafened him to other sounds, but he shut his eyes for a split second, trying to take in what else he could.
Metal clanked, ill-cared for, sized improperly, and rattling constantly.
Someone ran towards him.
The sounds of heavy footfalls stomping over hard-packed ground, baked harder by the fire, graced his ears. And the noise splintering wood under unforgiving boots followed.
Sounds like one of them. He took a slow, calming breath and pivoted toward the source of the incoming creature.
A figure clad in irregularly-shaped armor leapt from a line of flames cutting through one of the dirt roads in the village. The creature’s body was hunched, with gangly limbs that seemed oversized for its torso. Its features were a horrible cross between simian and reptilian, like a gibbon had mated with an iguana to take on a bipedal form. Leathery, pale green skin took on a sicklier look under the firelight. The goblin’s eyes seemed to pull in the brightness from the surrounding inferno, deepening in their intensity. Its crooked nose twitched, and its mouth spread into a feral grin revealing countless serrated teeth.
Devrim loosened his hold on the blade before gripping it harder again. Come on. Come on.
The goblin shuffled a few steps forward, its armor rattling like the only thing keeping it on the creature’s body were the assortment of frayed leather straps and rusted buckles. The plating sported odd protrusions that served no purpose other than making the monster look larger and more intimidating than normal. The material seemed comprised of a blend of chitin and obsidian.
Not a lot of openings in that mess. Devrim slid his feet forward, keeping his center of gravity low as he advanced. His turned to the side to limit how much of his body remained exposed. The loose robes and scant lacquered plating over his body wouldn’t do much to protect him. It offered him superior mobility and little else.
The goblin threw its head back, releasing a whistling keen before lunging. It raised an arm to bring a spiked flail overhead.
Wait till it closes the distance, my skillshot has limited range. His teeth grated against one another as he ignored instinct to attack in favor of playing smart.
The flail blurred into a metal dervish with the sole intent of caving his skull in—more likely pulping it.
Devrim exhaled, counting his heartbeats in an effort to keep his mind on a singular track.
The goblin had crossed within five feet of him.
Now! The mental command he’d been holding at bay released, and he activated another one of his skillshots: Reverberating Strike. His body sped forward and he reversed the blade in his grip, arcing the weapon upward in a diagonal blow. The cap of the hilt crashed home at the base of the monster’s chin, lifting the goblin inches from the ground. A resounding smack echoed over the snapping of the fires.
The goblin reeled in place like it’d forgotten how to keep upright and balanced. It’d remain stunned for a short period of time.
Devrim resisted the urge to tear through his remaining skillshots to dispatch the creature, reserving them should the situation grow bleaker, which looked inevitable. He stepped forward, casting the blade in a horizontal strike at the paralyzed creature’s face. The basic attack dragged a long gash along the goblin’s forehead.
He repeated the blow, bringing the blade across from cheek-to-cheek.
The goblin staggered back, shaking its head free of the reverie it’d been forced into. Its lips peeled back, viscous saliva hanging from its gums, forming connecting bands between the upper and lower portions of its mouth. The convulsed, its eyes flashing garnet before it squatted. A rolling howl left its mouth as it rocketed into the air, spinning the flail with renewed intensity.
Crap. Devrim moved under an adrenaline-fueled panic, taking several long strides. His left arm exploded like endless shards of frozen glass had bitten into the flesh while being pummeled by a hammer. He stumbled to the side, losing his balance and toppling to the ground. Devrim winced through the pain. He hissed, coming short of breath as the world flashed a putrid, translucent green. The strobed faded before resurging, racking his body with thousands of pricks that lasted a nano second.
Poisoned. Dammit. The lost health was noticeable, but not detrimental…yet. Devrim gnashed his teeth and slammed the base of his weapon to the ground, using it to help get to his feet. He rounded about in time to see the goblin swing the flail toward his midsection. His recent experiences tangling with the monsters won out, driving him to close the distance to put him chest-to-chest with the creature.
The flail’s chain lashed around his waist and sent the head slamming into his lower back. He snarled, letting the added pain fuel him, and ignored his diminishing health. Devrim used his position to capitalize on the gaps between the goblins mismatched plating. He twisted, driving the chisel tip of the katana into one of the beast’s exposed armpits. Devrim gave the monster no reprieve, jamming the blade in a frenzy into whatever openings he find. He worked the weapon like a sewing machine into the goblin’s flesh.
The monster’s eyes lost their focus, and the bright reds dulled into hollow burgundy as the creature fell to the ground.
Devrim sighed, planting his blade into the ground to lean on it. He ignored the prompt telling him how much experience he’d gained from slaying the beast. Another counter updated below him.
Goblin’s slain count increased by one. 
He blotted the total from his mind, concerning himself with the deteriorating scenario around him. Devrim cast a look around the immediate area. Where’s my party? He shot another glance around the village. Nothing.
The world flashed again, leaving his muscles contracting in an electric seizure before dissipating. The poison’s effect would linger for a while yet. He hadn’t committed the exact duration to memory.
Devrim put a hand to the side of his mouth and hollered, hoping his shouts would be answered.
“Gama! Gama, where are you?” He grimaced, pulling on the blade to help haul himself forward before wrenching the weapon free. They’re still out there. They can’t be gone. I didn’t fuck this up that bad. I can’t have. He trudged on, moving through the nearest open path into another of the village’s small circles.
Every one of the nearby small buildings had collapsed into heaps of burning rubble. Several structures had toppled toward one another, leaving no openings between them. A ring of fire engulfed the area.
He spat, wincing through another sharp jolt from the poison. Watching his health diminish wouldn’t help. He pushed it from his mind and gave the area a final look in case he’d missed something the first time around. The air caught in his throat as he spotted a figure that seemed to be woven out of darkness cast within a set of flames at the other end of the circle.
The shadow stood several feet above him, towering close to ten feet.
Shit. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Devrim grimaced, brandishing his weapon. His body throbbed again from the poison. Dammit.
The figure stepped out from the flames, a few rogue tendrils still licking across his armor. If it bothered him, he showed no signs.
Devrim noted a lack of damage counters. Is he immune to fire? The hell did he pull that off?
The armor giant wore solid plating the color of dull charcoal. Each piece was oversized and reminded him of what an ancient samurai’s might be like if it had been exaggerated and geared toward being intimidating over practical. He wore crude helmet shaped like an elongated skull and painted the same grim black as the rest of his armor.
Devrim couldn’t make out his eyes, staring into the large holes in either side of the helmet only to see endless black. And knowing the darkness stared back at him.
A crown of miniature blades ran along the top of the giant’s helmet, seeming to be fashioned into the piece itself rather than separate. 
Devrim gripped his weapon in both hands, loosening and flexing his fingers over the hilt in anticipation as the figure neared. “Goblin King.” He let the words hang in the air.
The Goblin King said nothing, drawing his war club from behind his back. The weapon was nearly his height, sporting silver studs along its burnt umber body. It looked like a baseball bat on steroids to him.
Something blurred at the edge of his vision, prompting him to turn. Devrim spotted an NPC—non playable character—running out from behind one of the burning buildings.
The guard was garbed in nothing more than hardened leather and ring mail, wielding a small spiked mace. He shouted an incoherent battle cry and charged the Goblin King. “Come on, men. Come men of Hillside. We’ve got trouble to sort out.”
Devrim opened his mouth to warn the character away, shutting it just as fast. A cold calculation went through his mind. Maybe if enough of them spawn, they can whittle him down a bit. 
As if on silent cue, another guard materialized near the edge of the burning building. A third followed. Within seconds, half a dozen guards came to life, all armed with a variety of weapons. They broke into a roaring cry and charged behind the first guard.
Don’t do anything stupid. Sit. Watch him. Learn. He has to have some weakness.
Devrim’s theory went out the window as the first guard closed in.
The Goblin King twisted, swinging the kanabo-club in a single-handed strike to bat the NPC away with contemptuous ease.
Devrim watched the guard’s health plummet to a fraction of its total. Well, that’s insightful. New strategy, don’t get hit.
The Goblin King took a step toward the oncoming mass of guards and let the head of the club sink to the ground. As the first guard drew closer, he whipped it up, delivering the weapon to the base of the character’s chin. The guard rose into the air before the Goblin King brought the club overhead. He slammed it into the NPC’s back and drove him into the ground like a hammer on nail.
The character’s health depleted completely.
Devrim blinked as the Goblin King continued the onslaught without effort.
The armored giant twirled the club in his grip like it was nothing more than a stick. He sent it crashing into the side of another guard’s arm, sending him to the ground. A second strike followed, caving in the character’s skull. The third and fourth guard rushed him together.
They fared as well as the first bunch.
The Goblin King swatted them down, leaving them crumpled on the ground. He finished with the remaining two guards in a flurry of strikes.
The lone guard from earlier had finally recovered, staggering to his and raising his weapon. “For Hillside!” He pumped the short sword once in the air before racing towards the Goblin King.
Devrim shut his eyes and exhaled as a thunderous crunch filled the area. He opened them a moment later, staring hard at the black-clad warrior-king. “Someone’s been eating their spinach.”
The Goblin King ignored the quip, stopping in place to regard him. His chest heaved for a few moments as he tilted his head to stare at Devrim. “Ah, the little slayer.” He gestured to the surrounding circle. “Is this what you expected?” He shook his head more to himself than to Devrim. “I didn’t think so, but it’s the price for what you’ve started. The first price of many to be paid. And I intend to collect in full.” The Goblin King’s hand tightened visibly around his war club.
Devrim sucked in a breath through his teeth to help steel himself for what was to come. He dragged the chisel tip of his blade along the ground, drawing a faint line. A quick leap back put him a foot away from it. “See that? Do not pass go. Do not collect two-hundred dollars.” He flashed a lopsided grin at the Goblin King.
The armored king stared at the line in silence before staring at Devrim. Despite no visible eyes, he managed to give off a look of befuddlement.
“It’s the line in the sand—the one you don’t cross.” Devrim winced in anticipation of another body-encompassing twang of pain from the poison. It never came. He breathed a minor sigh of relief in that it had dissipated.
The Goblin King stood immobile, silent, enough so to make statues seem lively by comparison.
Creepy asshole.
“Then, by all means, come to me.” The armor-clad king beckoned Devrim with one hand. “I can wait. Can you? The village burns. Your friends are out there…somewhere, as are my goblins. Who do you think will come out of this? If you want to save them, you’ll have to get by me. Stand there, rooted in fear, for as long as you’d like, but the village will burn until ash and echoes are all that are left. Can you survive that?”
Devrim didn’t answer, but the implication was clear: The Goblin King was telling him all that fire wasn’t a threat to him. Maybe not, but my sword sure as hell will be. His hands shook on the weapon, and he gritted his teeth as a fire seared the marrow within him. Fine, I’ll bring the fight to him.
He focused and trigged another skillshot: Fleet-footed. A chilling current rushed around his feet, making its way through the split-toe boots, and into his flesh. He felt like he were walking barefoot over ice. Devrim bounced once in place to reassure himself of his lightness and increased speed. His feet touched back to the ground and he sprang, pumping his legs until acid burned his sinews.
The world rushed by as he moved at a speed that would shame competitive sprinters. Orange tendrils of fire blurred into a single, crackling mass of jarring light. Time to find out if this freak’s got eyes. He closed the distance, focusing on the black hole in the helmet where the Goblin King’s right eye would be. Thirst hummed in his grip, quivering in a fashion almost as if the blade had a hungry will of its own. A few more steps. He was within reached, twisting to launch the katana in a thrust that’d skewer the king’s eye.
The Goblin King bowed his head at an angle, catching the tip of the blade and sending it skittering off the helm. A bar flashed to life above the king’s head, blipping once in a minute amount that would have been almost unnoticeable.
He took damage. Renewed by that, Devrim lunged again. The tip of his weapon jabbed against the armored giant like jackhammer with no reprieve. An endless succession of stabs peppered the black plating, chipping away at the Gobling King’s health. A string of obscenities flooded his mind as he tallied the damage per strike. It’s not enough. He pivoted, sending the sword into a cast toward the king’s throat, hoping he would trigger a critical strike.
The Goblin King surged into motion. He hunched forward, releasing a cavernous bellow that shook loose stone from the ground, reverberating through the air for an untold distance.
Devrim’s strike faltered, contacting the twin protrusions, resembling small blades, at the base of the king’s helmet. The katana struck with an echoing twang. His muscles refused to obey him at the speeds they had moments ago. He felt like he was moving through brackish water, and that his body was too distant from him his mind. That’s not good…
He took the momentary risk to blink, focusing on his character status. Shit. The roar had stripped him of his speed buff, negating the benefits to the point of detriment. He’d been slowed—intimidated by the monstrous howl.
The Goblin King capitalized on his temporary lull. He lashed out with a foot, crashing a black-steel boot into Devrim’s stomach.
He lurched backward, nearly tumbling before the Goblin King’s hand snatched the front of his robes, hauling him close. Devrim shook within the iron grip. He couldn’t break it.
The king snapped his head forward, bringing the crown crunching into the front of Devrim’s skull.
Carmine light flashed through his vision. The world blurred at the edges, and he could see a faint outline of a reddish bar diminishing. Everything sank as the Goblin King raised him up and hurled him to the ground. A single throb encompassed his whole body, leaving him feeling like he’d been beaten by countless clubs at once.
The health bar flickered before him, a jarring white outline strobing outside what little red was left.
“Ready to die, slayer? There won’t be a second chance this time. No new world to escape to. I’ll make it permanent.” The Goblin King raised the war club overhead in both hands. “Any last words?”
Devrim spit near the king’s feet. “Yeah, why do asshole villains always talk so much?” He gave him a toothy grin.
The Goblin King swung the club toward him.
How the hell did it all go wrong?
The weapon sailed toward his head. His vision swam, blackness encroaching from the corners of his vision, and he wondered if he’d wake again as consciousness slipped. 
Chapter One – The Past
The Penalty for Being Born
A faint trilling grated his ears, jarring him from sleep. Devrim blinked several times, smacking his palms to his eyes and grinding them in hopes of getting them to open. He turned his head to glare at the translucent rectangle of viridian green on the opposite wall.
The current time scrolled along in blocky white lettering.
Devrim narrowed his eyes at the information panel, hoping if stared long enough, it would stop. Two-thirty in the freaking morning. Why wake me up? 
The trilling intensified for a moment.
He sighed.
The noise died and a secondary message rolled across the screen: Happy birthday, Devrim Bains. Twenty-one years old today. You have reached your allowed life expectancy. Make a wish!  His heart lurched, feeling like it was caught in an endless loop of somersaults with the intent of lodging itself in his throat. He twisted in bed, reaching for a heavy book resting by his leg. He snatched and sent it into a tumble in a swift move.
The book passed through the light display, banging into the metal wall behind with a hollow thunk. The text flashed by once again before blinking out of existence.
Devrim sighed, easing himself out of bed to retrieve the book. He placed a hand against the cold wall and thumbed the paperback over. His world consisted a small room of unforgiving metal that reminded him of the old pictures of submarine quarters back on Earth.
Wish I could’ve gotten to know it. He pushed off wall, flipping through the mythology text. Reading was the only entertainment left to him in a life consisting of daily hard labor without pay. The administrators considered being allowed to live payment enough.
He gritted his teeth at the thought, twisting to send a fist into closest wall. The cheap metal sheeting layered over the actual wall deformed as dull pain radiated through the small bones in his fingers. The knowledge of his impeding execution clung to him, sending his mind into a hive of activity, and his heart jackhammering. His fist pistoned into the wall until his hand quaked and felt distant.
Devrim exhaled, turning to rest his back against the wall and sinking to the ground, the book still splayed open in his good hand. He scanned over it mechanically, finding solace in the variety of fictional creatures and the stories they originated from.
Anywhere’s better than this shit hole, even if it’s not real. Why’d the people before us have to wreck Earth before we ever got a chance to see it?
A succession of heavy thudding emanated from the door.
Devrim sprang to his feet, sending the book hurtling onto his bed. “Yeah, what?”
“You know what.” The speaker sounded like they’d swallowed a fistful of ash along with a bottle of hard liquor. Their words slurred and came out strained—dry.
I do. Guess that’s why he’s loaded. Can’t do this job, at least this part, sober. Devrim shut his eyes, taking a long breath to calm himself. “Maybe I’m not as smart as I look. Tell me what’s going on that you’re at my room before my shift?”
“You don’t look smart at all, Dev. And we know you’re not that dumb.”
We. There’s someone else there. Someone keeping quiet.
“You don’t have a shift today… Sorry to say it, but you’re not going to have any ever again. You know the rules, kid.”
He flexed his fingers. An array of pinpricks burst out through the hand he’d pummeled into the wall. “Yeah, the rules I didn’t make. None of us did. We just got stuck with them. Punished for the mistakes of others.”
A long sigh came from the other side of the door. “Take it up with your parents, Dev. They weren’t supposed to have you. One kid too many. We have population rules for a reason. The station just doesn’t have enough room. It’s about all of us, not just you.”
“Fuck your reasons! We’re not stuck in this crap because of me or my parents. We’re here because people generations before us screwed our planet till nothing could live on it.”
Silence fell, holding out long enough for the only audible sound to be his heartbeat going through his skull. He breathed in what felt like tandem with the pounding.
“We know, Dev. Everyone does. It’s not right—it’s definitely not fair. But, it’s what it is. We’ve got a job to do.”
He shut his eyes tight for a moment, drawing a deeper breath before exhaling. “Then come do it. I’m not coming out to you. Not for this. Screw that.”
Another long count of seconds passed without sound.
“Okay, Dev. Just remember, you’re making it harder. Not us.” The squeal of protesting metal filled his room as the pair outside likely turned the hatch wheel.
I’ve got a few seconds. He sucked in a few short breaths, rubbernecking to find something of use. An adjustable wrench lay atop his the cubed metal protrusion in the wall that served as a low nightstand. Well, it’s not like I’m going to need tools for work ever again. He lunged, snatching it up before diving onto his bed.
The deadbolt to his room clicked open with a soft echo of a metal impacting metal.
He grabbed his book, grimacing at would come next. I just need to get past them, through the door, then maybe I’ve got a shot at getting to the maintenance halls. I could stay there for a while. Pull some panels and hide. Maybe find a way to sneak onto a tether pod between stations. Start over somewhere else. Worst case, take a chance and find a way down to the surface.
The door swung open with enough force to damage the hinges. Two figures stood there in identical outfits. They wore antiquated football helmets, the protective facemask having been removed for a full plastic shield tinted black to obscure their faces. Padded vests were fitted over their baggy canvas overalls. Bulbous, round plates clung to the knees and elbows to protect their joints. An extendable club, nearly the length of his arm, hung in each of their grips.
One of them stepped forward. Their posture was hunched more in fatigue and exertion than to appear looming and intimidating.
Dev heard the laborious breathing, letting him know the closest guard was the drunk one.
“I’m sorry,” said the inebriated guard.
“No…you’re not.” Devrim hurled the book past the teetering guard, striking the faceplate of the one in back.
They reeled, pawing at the air in shock.
He leaped from his bed, springing toward the drunk guard in a shoulder tackles. Dev pushed him back a step before twisting and lashing out with the wrench. Plastic cracked from the impact, and the guard staggered to the side. Devrim shoved him hard, pushing him into the second sentry.
The pair toppled into the wall.
Dev released a minor huff of air and raced through the door. Pain exploded along his forehead like he’d taken a hammer to the front of his skull. Pinkish-red strobed across his vision and the world appeared to slip away into the distance.
A black-gloved hand reached out, fingers digging into his hair with a sharp tug.
He winced, blinking as fast as he could to clear his vision. Devrim found himself wishing he hadn’t. He counted eight guards, near mirror images of the ones in his room, surrounding him in the hall.
“Maybe you are dumb, kid,” said the slurring voice from behind him. “You’ve always been trouble. But, come on. What did you expect?”
Devrim’s face twisted in anguish. No. The hell with this. It’s not right. Not fair. He tensed and batted at the hand holding him, freeing his body from the grip.
The guard who’d been holding him lashed out with the lengthy baton.
It was like a hard-plastic whip, bending a bit as it smacked into the flesh of his left arm. An electric-charged fire spread over the area. The skin felt like it had split from the strike. He howled, staggering to a knee as he clutched the area.
The guard with baton grabbed him by the hair again. “Just stop. We don’t want to hurt you.”
Dev slumped and let the resistance leave his body.
“Hold him down! Don’t let him try anything.” The guard shoved him to the ground, bashing his head onto the cold tiled floor.
Bastard! He trashed before the middle of his back cried out as a padded knee jabbed into it. The sentry’s weight held him in place, cutting off any movement he could make to shake free. His vision faded out as another blow struck the back of his head, numbing him to everything else. A second followed. 
“Take him,” said a garbled voice.
A final thought echoed through his mind. Happy birthday to me.
* * *
Coolness, along with the faint tingle associate with antiseptic washes, worked over the back of his head and down his back. He blinked, shutting his eyes instantly against the halogen bright lights in the clinically-white room. A Neanderthal-esque grunt left Devrim’s mouth as he tried to squirm. He took a peek again, letting his vision adjust. His arms were pinned down at the wrists by thick straps. A similar band held his head to the table. Dev’s breathing quickened.
Crap. They’re gonna kill me.
He struggled harder, wrenching with whatever weight he could throw behind his limbs, arching up to strain the straps. Fatigue built, searing his insides. Devrim exhaled and went slack against the metal table.
“Struggling’s not going to help.” The voice was flat, tired. The speaker came into view at edge of his eyesight. His medical robes matched the same color as the walls in the room. Deep crow’s feet lined his eyes like he made a habit of getting little sleep. The tiredness hung in his face, making his skin seem paler as well as dulling the green of his eyes a bit. A few strands of gray hair peeped through the disposable scrub cap atop his head. Overall, he looked like he could have been someone’s elderly uncle. He had a kind mannerism about himself.
“Not struggling won’t help either. I can’t not do anything. I can’t. It’s all I’ve had to do my life—nothing. Nothing but what the administration’s told me and the other kids.” Dev jerked against the bindings again.
The doctor clasped his hands, leaning forward to regard him. “You’re not really a kid anymore. Twenty-one’s an adult. And, the admins don’t have easy jobs.”
Yeah, neither did I. Hard, unpaid labor for the crime of being born. Fuck you.
“How do you manage a station where we’re running out of room? All of them are. We can’t keep up…even with our technology. Advances in one realm don’t mean they permeate to all others. You know that.” The doctor gave him a sympathetic look that came off more as chiding.
Dev turned his head as far as he could to the opposite side.
“Look, there’s only so much we can do. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve been doing my part. If you’ll bother indulging me with a talk, I can tell you what that is.”
Devrim snorted. “Yeah, what? Painless execution. Whoopie. Oh, wait, let me guess…you’ve got a way to sneak us doomed souls off the station. Maybe you’ll send us down to the planet, huh?” He bit down on his tongue, trying to keep the hint of hope that entered his voice at the thought from being heard.
The doctor shook his head. “No, sorry.” He gave Devrim a weak smile. “Earth’s still, by estimation, pretty radiated. At least, that’s what I heard at the last report. Not my sphere of specialty.”
“They call murder a specialty?” Dev glared at him.
“I can’t tell you, because I’m not here to kill you.”
“I’m a digital architect of sorts. I’m—was—the understudy Adam Grant.” The doctor stared at him for a long moment as if waiting for signs of recognition on his face.
Dev matched the look, unblinking in the hopes the doc would explain.
“He’s the man who pioneered the SR—simulated reality—interface systems we use aboard the stations to teach, share information through small, portal rooms, and test out scenarios in what limited space we have. Over the last few years, I’ve been doing my best, along with my team, to push that technology further. I’m happy to tell you that we’ve succeeded.” The doctor stretched a smile of self-satisfaction across his face.
Dev found it to be more a shit-eating grin than anything else.
“We’ve found an alternative to the, um, rather uncouth population control methods we’ve had over the years. How do you feel about video games?”
The question threw him off. “What? I, I never got much time to really play them. We were allotted an hour a week to play through a few. I picked the stuff with monsters, fantasy, mythology and things. Why?”
The doctor inclined his head. “ What if I could offer you a second chance at life? All of those up for execution on the next bloc? A chance to explore and live in a video game. An endless expanse, no more prison labor, no more guards?”
Sounds too good to be true. His thoughts must have shown on his face, because the doc held up a hand for him to hold on.
“It’s a perfect escapes, isn’t it?” The doctor’s smile vanished. “It’s not really. I am sorry in that I have to admit the game—the world—is a tad too wild. It’s primitive in some ways, but with tons of potential in others. You’re going to have to fight to survive. Hunt. Craft. Build. You’re starting in a savage world. There are places of refuge programmed in, but a lot is going to be up to you. Then there are the risks.
“You see…we’re not sure how safe it is. We need testers. And no one is volunteering. Now you see the problem. I can put you up for execution if you want. Or, if you’d like to help pave the way—help us find a way to save every other person ever put up for death, you can do that. Help forge a new haven where space isn’t an issue. How’s that sound?”
Dev didn’t hesitate. “I’m in.”
“I thought you’d say that. Good.” The doctor produced a syringe. “This’ll put you into a medically induced coma so we can operate. Your body’s going to be implanted with a neural interface chips that will allow us to map your mind and conscious in one of our SRICs—Simulated Reality Interface Cradles. You’ll wake up in a new world with all of your memories and personality traits. You won’t feel a thing. I promise.”
A new world where I’m in charge of my life. My mind, my skills, my control. “Do it.”
The doctor stepped toward him, sinking the needle into the meet of his right shoulder.
Devrim opened his mouth to comment about the chemical cocktail being faulty, but tongue refused to obey his commands. Cement seemed to fill the inside of his skull, and his eyes fluttered shut.
Chapter Two – The Past
Class Restricted
A gentle pressure built around him, something like a gelatinous fluid clinging to his body. Devrim woke to a sea of blackness. Where am I?
He looked down, biting of a curse when he couldn’t see his own body.
“Welcome player.” The voice carried an artificial note, a hollow tinge under the female tone.  
Devrim whirled about to look for the source, but nothing came into view.
“You have been selected to enter Monster Slayer Online. In the world of Lorian, monsters roam free—untamed, and a grave threat to the safety of the citizens. Your task is simple: Survive.”
That’s all I’ve been doing my whole life. I’ll be fine. He gritted his teeth.
“The world is unbalanced—wild—needing a firm hand. Fiefdoms spring up with the rise of powerful feudal lords. They conquer and claim. Battles rage over domains ripe with creature to track, trap, and slay. Be brave and ruthless in your quest to kill beasts and craft the tools to prosper in Lorian.”
An unseen hook latched to his navel, jerking him forward through the black expanse at ballistic speed.
“Holy crap!” He flailed, reaching out to the source of the pull to find nothing to grip to. His body snapped to halt, jarring him hard enough to worry him about brain damage. “Well, that sucked.”
“Character creation. Shape yourself for the trials to come. Choose wisely.”
A three-dimensional wireframe figure burst into life before him—featureless.
“There are many races, each with their own gifts to better navigate the world. Take a moment to sift through them.”
Pallenfael (Pale Elf) The elves of the Shivering Spine—the mountain range that lines the edge of the known world. Coming from a cold and unforgiving place with little agriculture, they’ve grown to become excellent trackers and hunters. Keen eyesight helps them better navigate their tough terrain and spot prey. This class is suited for Tracker or Trapper classes.
Not bad. He stared at the tall, lithe figure of the elf. Its skin was the color of polished marble. Hard, angular features made up its face. Yellow eyes. It was built like a sprinter; lean slabs of muscle no doubt earned from its mountainous life. Next?
Another panel flared to life with a matching character display.
Trawladar (Half Troll) The scion of a troll and mankind. These creatures have the cunning intellect of men, with the strength and savagery of their troll bloodlines. Uncanny dexterity with heavy muscle makes them effective for Trapper and Lancer classes. Unspoken ties to their mystic ancestors gives them a minor potential for the Sage class. 
The troll’s skin was a powder blue, and a slider to the side indicated it could be changed to other pale hues along a selective color palette. The half-breed creature carried thick, ropey muscle like the kind found on men doing hard labor. A pair of sawed-off tusks sprouted from under its upper lip. It had no pupils, only red sclera. 
Cool. Not for me. Next.
The artificial voice returned. “It seems as if you’re having some trouble deciding. Beginning personality and knowledge assessment test.”
He waved a hand in futility. “What? No. I’m fine. Stop.”
The program ignored him, bringing a new prompt to life before him.
This fire-breathing creature is a mixture of a lion, goat, and snake. Some culture have viewed it as an omen of disaster. Is is:
> Administrator Cowlan
> The Echidna
> The Sphinx
> The Chimera
Devrim mentally selected the last answer. That’s a bit too easy.
Yeah, no shit. He had spoken too soon. The questions increased in difficulty, forcing him to rack his mind, dredging up every obscure bit of mythology he’d read over the years. A random personality-based query would interject itself every few prompts. He answered as honestly as he could, trying to keep his patience. The process lasted close to an hour.
“Congratulations. Class recommendations have been—error, list cleared—”
“Wait, error?” He blinked, reaching out to grab at the display prompt on nothing more than instinct. “Hey!”
“Mythology and lore test score: one hundred percent. Class restricted by founding parameters.”
What the hell?
“Slayer class unlocked—selected—locked. Race selection bypassed. Slayer race selected.”
“Uh, no, I didn’t pick any of that. Hey, doctor? Can you hear me? What’s going on?”
No answer.
The computer went on as if he hadn’t protested at all. “Prepare for injection into Lorian—Monster Hunter Online. A final word of warning: Hunt…or be hunted. Good luck, Slayer.”
The hell?
The world flashed into white light, forming into pillar that enclosed him. Pressure built around his legs and yanked him below.
Another prompt appeared: Now loading… … … 
* * *
He slammed into the ground, the impact rolling up his shins to settle in his knees. Ow.
Gray stone, pitted and stained by age and weather, made up his surroundings. It looked the insides of a castle…or dungeon. A lone, rusted gate barred the way out of the cell.
Great. I’ve traded one prison for another.
Another prompt flashed before his vision: Please inspect yourself.
He stared at the command, considering how to do as it asked. Inspect self? A rectangular display came to life before him. Faint, gold lines bordered the black screen. A portrait of a recognizable figure hung on the left. Is…that me?
He wore a set of Japanese-inspired robes, stained a deep carmine with burgundy hints. Grimy patches stood out in select places, as did frayed and tattered portions of the clothing. Dirty gauze bandages wrapped his hands and feet.
His bodily appearance had mostly remained the same: The same dark hair, now longer and pulled into a ponytail. His height clocked in at six-foot-flat. His skin, originally a light fawn with fleck of gold, now sported a shifting undertone he couldn’t make out. One instance, a pallid green tinged his flesh, another moment later, soft red. He stared until something else broke over his skin. Black lines crisscrossed over him, taking shape like minute scales, fading just as fast as they’d come.
“What the hell?”
His eyes shifted in color. The whites turned orange, morphing to encompass the rest of the organs before changing to complete red, consuming his pupils along the way. They shifted again, taking on the milky gold associated with reptiles, his pupils becoming vertically slit. Another second passed and they returned to normal.
What am I? He navigated the reticle until he found a compendium of information. Devrim focused on it, opening the section. An entry flickered with a subtle light, indicating it hadn’t been addressed. He selected it. New text scrolled along his vision.
Slayers: A lost race of human-hybrids created through forgotten dark sorcery. Not much is known about them apart from their bloody history. Brought to life to be the ultimate hunters and warriors, their unquenchable blood lust eventually got the better of them, driving them to relentlessly slay man and monster across the world of Lorian. The varying fiefdoms rose up, rallying to exterminate the race until only hushed whispers and scattered bits of lore remained. It has been rumored that this race possessed a hidden ability tied into their shocking proficiency for dispatching man and monster alike. Kill more things to find out.
Well, that’s not creepy at all. Only part human, huh? He closed the menu, deciding he’d learned enough. Right, focus here. I need a way out of this cell. He snorted as another thought crosses his mind. Maybe there’s another pair of drunk, and chump-like guards here.
Dev searched around the cell, hoping something useful would be hidden nearby. A small mound of dirt revealed a sliver of metal. Its tip was notched and set at a flat angle like a chisel. A few serrated edges ran down the blade before it ended wrapped in leather strips.
Discarded Shiv: This crudely fashioned weapon was made from refuse lying around. Not great for slaying monsters. Possibly useful for killing an unsuspecting chicken. For the weaponless, it’s just above your own two hands.
He glanced at the makeshift weapon, turning it over in his grip. Well, they’re not wrong. It’s better than nothing.
Footsteps echoed outside the cell.
He perked up, rushing to the gate to get a better look. The poor lighting within the hall kept him from getting a good look at the source of the noise. He couldn’t see past the second cell across from him. Damn. Devrim placed his free hand on the metal bars, shaking them.
The door held firm despite its age and wear.
“Eh, who goes there?” The speaker hadn’t entered his field of view yet.
He reeled from gate, brandishing the shiv in one hand.
The hollow thwaps of the footsteps increased in noise and speed as the source neared. They stopped before his cell, dressed in simple, mismatched leather, all sewn together to form a patchwork shirt and pair of breeches. A dented metal coif covered the man’s head.
He stood an inch shorter than Dev. Pale, beads of sweat peppering his face and scraggly, russet beard. His eyes appeared glassy and unfocused. “Oh-ho. A new prisoner. You’re not getting out of here.” The guard waved a finger in admonishment. His other hand fell to his waist, patting a ringlet of keys.
Devrim’s eyes homed in on it. A wide smile crossed his face. Don’t need more than a guess to figure out what those are for. He turned his attention back to the guard and opened his mouth to speak.
The world froze, and he found the air in his throat frozen by an invisible force.
A new prompt appeared before him: All living beings within the land of Lorian, and Monster Slayer Online, possess a unique and dynamic way of interaction. They are governed by the A.P.M. (Adaptive Personality Matrix). They don’t function as cold, robotic characters with preset responses and interaction choices. They think, feel, react, and behave as you would expect of any real creature. They learn. You’ll be hard-pressed to tell some of the more advanced ones apart from real players and beings from the real world. Keep this in mind.
The prompt vanished.
He bit down on his tongue, keeping himself from saying what he’d planned to. Guess I better reconsider how to play this fool. “Hey, I’m not really a prisoner. I’m here to help this world. I have to make it a safer place for us all. I can’t do that stuck in here, can I?” He arched a brow, smiling at the guard.
The unnamed character stared at him for a moment before throwing his head back and laughing. “You? What, with your dirty clothes? No, I don’t think so. Prisoners don’t save anything in Lorian. They rot.” The guard waved at him, turning in place as if he was going to leave.
Shit. No. He had no idea how long before the guard would return to repeat the encounter…if he even would. There was no way for him to know if the scripted routine was set to occur more than once. The idea of adaptive characters had thrown him. It was a new concept, but made sense for the sort of world the doctor had hinted at wanting to create.
The warning from the character creation buzzed in his mind. Hunt…or be hunted.
This isn’t a fucking joy ride. I was told to survive. That means I’m going to have to make even harder choices to do so. He took a breath and lunged, sending his left hand through the gap between the bars. His fingers closed around the back of the guard’s leather jerkin. He hauled him back, bringing his other arm through gate. Devrim worked the shiv with mechanical efficiency, plunging it into the man’s exposed throat.
A rectangular bar appeared in front of him. The field of red within it quickly diminished with each strike from the metal implement.
The guard ceased struggling after a moment, slumping against the bars.
Humans slain count increased. Kill more.
Dev recoiled from the man’s body, his eyes going wide as his deed set in. His stomach constricted like cold chains wrapped around it. He hadn’t eaten, but he felt as if something would come up any moment. He placed a hand to the area, hoping the simple gesture would help him settle the sensation. It’s just a stupid character. Nobody cares. It’s not real.
The warmth over his hands convinced him otherwise. The blood stained his gauze wraps, some of the droplets seeping into his robes. Another prompted appeared in the corner of his vision and flashed twice.
He mentally addressed it.
The inventory appeared, displaying his attire.
Freshly blood-soaked robes and wraps. The old clothes gain a renewed sense of purpose after bathing in the blood of fresh kills. Though old and tattered, it’s been said these clothes can be restored to their former glory somehow. Discard them, or hold on, who knows what use they might come to have in the future?
Well, that’s macabre. The momentary fixation on the item description eased the knotting of his stomach. He took a handful of deep breaths to calm himself further before dismissing the menu. Right, keys. He fell to a knee and reached through the bars to retrieve the ringlet. Devrim didn’t bother scanning it through the inventory, choosing to thumb through the keys and jam them into the lock. The first two refused to budge. The third twisted with a heavy click.
He pushed the cell door open, stepping over the guard’s body.
Another prompt.
He shut his eyes, waving it away. I got it. I’ve played enough of these to know. He crouched and searched the guard for anything useful. Dev rifled through the NPCs belongings, frowning that nothing fruitful turned up. The character had carried worthless clothing that had no in-game monetary value from what he saw. For whatever reason, Devrim couldn’t find any weapons on the guard. Weird, you think they’d arm him to do his job. Unless…I’m supposed to do this to get out of here.
He pushed away from the fallen character, brushing his hands against his sides to remove the last traces of blood that hadn’t dried against his skin already. Okay. Focus and find a way out of here. It’s a game, this is clearly a tutorial or something. That means there’s a way out. Logic. He shuffled toward the nearest corner, taking pains to minimize the sounds of each step. A quick peek around the edge revealed another darkened hall.
“Well, that’s always a good sign. A long hall with no one or nothing obviously in sight.” That’s how you get ambushed. Years of prank attacks and surprises working in the lowlight conditions of the maintenance tunnels back on the station floated through his mind. Every prisoner needed to keep a second set of eyes on the back of their heads just in case someone else decided to take out some pent up frustration on them. Fights didn’t last long if one was caught unaware. It was an easy way to lose ration cards and end up in a cast.
He gripped the shiv tighter for a moment before loosening his hold. Another glance down the hall allowed him to pick out the recessed sections in the walls where likely other cells stood. Which means other prisoners. And I have no idea if they’re locked—possibly not. Devrim ground a foot in place, rocking back and forth. Something skittered nearby.
He glanced down at a stone, the size of his thumbnail, he’d inadvertently tapped while twisting his foot. Let’s see what kind of mechanics this game has. He bent, scooping up the stone, snapping his wrist. The rock struck the ground with a snap and shattered into small pieces.
A low drone echoed out from the dark cells lining the hall ahead.
Oh, that’s always great.
A figure with an emaciated build stumbled out of the closest cell. It stood with broken posture, resting too much of its weight on bent knees and a crooked back. Its arms were furled like it couldn’t extend them properly, and the entirety of its body was wrapped in bandages that had long since yellowed where dirt didn’t cake them. It could have been a man at one point, but now it looked like a mummy.
Several more creatures of the same sort shambled out of the neighboring cells.
Good… Good… Just what I needed. What the hell are those things?
Another golden rectangle pulsated in the corner of his vision. He sighed and opened it. The menu flickered by of its own accord, navigating to a new section: Bestiary.
Ragmen: It’s been said that when the unwanted, the wronged, and the forgotten die, their suffering lingers and keeps their bodies burning with the last vestiges of the spark of life. Brainless, arguably lifeless, all the remains of these people are frail husks kept together by the rag bandages now wrapping their forms. Hollow—aimless, they wander dark places moaning in agony, attacking unsuspecting spelunkers and dungeon dwellers. Be warned, in great numbers they can conquer unwary hunters and leave them to become Ragmen in the decades to come.
Oh, wonderful. Zombie mummies. He released a drawn out breath through his nostrils, trying to keep the exhale as quiet as possible.
One of the ragmen twisted its head at a canted angle that should have been impossible. It held the stare in Devrim’s direction.
He gripped the shiv harder until he could feel its base digging into the soft flesh of his palm. Come on. Think. There’s a way past them. I don’t have any weapons past this tooth pick. No obvious abilities or skills yet. It makes sense that I’m not supposed too—
The ragman raised its head, throwing his arms as wide as it could manage with its limited mobility. A warbling howl left its throat followed by a puff of dust as the creature hacked a violent cough. It lurched forward toward him.
Shit. There goes that theory. He stepped away from the corner, refusing to backpedal any further.
The ragman’s foot broke past the cover of the corner.
Devrim sucked in a breath, stilling his body as best he could. Just another second.
The ragman rounded the corner.
He pivoted, lashing out with a hand to grab the creature by the bandages binding its chest. His fingers dug in and he hauled. A quick twist of his arm sent the monster slamming into the wall. Devrim plunged the shiv into where the creature’s right shoulder blade would be. He didn’t relent, pulling the weapon free before sinking it into the monster’s waist.
The ragman’s health bar depleted at a steady rate until less than a quarter remained.
Devrim pulled back to strike with the next set of blows, but they never came. His arm felt like rebar shot through his joints and muscles, leaving them unable to move freely. The air in his chest seemed to dissipate without cause, and his lungs felt like they’d been wrung by invisible hands. He collapsed against the wall, fighting for breath.
A green rectangle strobed above his ahead. Gold lettering ran atop saying: Endurance depleted.
Of course there’s a mechanic for that. He growled, chest heaving as he waited for the bar to regenerate.
The ragmen recovered and reached toward him. Its gnarled hand flexed as it drew closer to his face.
Come on, come on! A hint of green surged through the bar, quickly overtaking an eight of it. It’ll have to be enough. He sank into a crouch, grimacing through the sudden ache in his knees. Devrim slammed the blade into the ragman’s leg. The blow drained the last remnants of the creature’s health, leaving it shuddering as it pressed its hands to its chest.
The ragmen released a final rasp before tumbling into a pile of dust.
Ragmen slain count increased.
Devrim found no reprieve in the moment, bracing himself for the rest of the group that had perked up at his first encounter. He heard their shuffling feet beat across the stone floor as they made their way toward him. Here comes round two.
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