Rob and I start running from tombstone to tombstone, frantically rubbing the black slime off each engraving. We uncover dozens of names but none of the graves is Gwynn’s. Yet. There are too many. Even though we’ve split and are searching the opposite corners of the cemetery, it would be a while before we cover all the grounds.
Suddenly, I hear horses’ hooves thumping in the dirt and the screech of the cemetery’s gate being opened. I duck down immediately and signal for Rob to join me. He rushes towards me, darting from grave to grave and sinking to the ground behind each tombstone to avoid detection.
As soon as he finally joins me, I quickly throw the Invisibility Cloak over our heads and we huddle together underneath. Just then, a party of riders stomps by. I hold my breath as I recognize the Blue Knight at the lead. Randir.
Rob shudders next to me. I remember that he’s also come face to face with him in the Hungry Bogs. Randir’s huge stallion is covered in solid armor made of some black metal and blue flames flicker in the hollows of its headpiece.
About ten riders follow in Randir’s wake, each of them terrifying but not nearly as much as their master. I notice long braids swinging down a few of the riders’ backs. There are women in the Blue Knight’s horde as well as men. All of them appear human.
Rob nudges me in the ribs with his elbow and I stifle a wheeze. I look in the direction he is pointing and my heart drops. The last rider in the procession is leading our mounts in tow.
I can’t believe I’m going to lose Ician. His feathers are ruffled and dirty as if he’d struggled. As he passes near our hiding spot, the bird immediately senses my presence. Thankfully, he knows better than to let out my location. He just shoots me a gut-wrenching look and I realize I’m digging my nails into the palm of my hand to keep from calling out to him.
Randir and his party disappear one by one into the crypt. I wonder if this was the last time I’m going to see Ician before a small tombstone with his name on it sprouts in the mounts’ cemetery. Rob and I sit back on the ground and sigh. Neither of us is in the mood to speak for a while.
“This is his lair,” Rob says eventually, all life and will drained from his voice. I nod. “We stand no chance.”
“What if Gwynn’s still alive and is somewhere around?” I say, trying to sound hopeful. “We can’t just leave. At the very least we should check the rest of the graves to make sure.”
Rob seems so grief-stricken, I’m having a hard time even getting his attention. After all, he told me about his and Gwynn’s past, I don’t blame him. He is trying to come to terms with the possibility of losing his sister forever, both in the game and in the real world, and I’d understand if he can’t find the strength to keep pushing.
I, on the other hand, have no excuse.
“Wait here,” I whisper to him.
Rob’s eyes are glazed over and focused on an invisible point in the distance. I’m not sure he heard me, so I tuck the Invisibility Cloak snugly around him and venture out. Once I make sure I’m alone out there, I complete the search on my own. I go through every single tombstone. Since the graves are so haphazardly arranged, I even do a second round to make sure all engravings have been wiped clean — my way of telling if I’ve checked the site thoroughly.
“She’s not here,” I say, clutching Rob’s shoulders and giving him a good shake. “She’s not dead, Rob. We need to go inside. We can still save her.”
I know we’ll be walking into a death trap, but if we don’t, we’ll have to walk out into the Barrens and continue on foot. I doubt it would be long before we’re dragged back here. I can already hear Randir’s ravens cawing out there.
Rob finally comes to life again and makes room for me under the cloak. We shuffle towards the crypt’s entrance. The door is unlocked and we sneak inside (Why the hell did I need to waste space in my Inventory with that rusty key?). Torches light the way down a short entryway into a circular stone burial chamber that appears completely empty. Everyone, including our mounts, has disappeared. The only sound is the soft crackling of the torches.
As we move further inside, I finally spot a round hole in the center of the room. A stone stairwell leads down into the nether levels of the crypt. Rob and I exchange a look that says we both know we’ll be plunging to our death. I steel myself and enter, dragging him along with me. We need to stand close by if we want the benefit of the Invisibility Cloak and descending the stairs is a difficult task.
Before our eyes have adjusted to the gloom down here, we hear hollow steps echoing down the damp stone floor. Enormous weight, heavy scraping armor, harsh breath. It’s Randir and he passes only inches away from us. Rob and I press our backs against the wall and hold our breath.
Randir disappears into a room, leaving the door open behind him. We stumble over in the darkness and stand just outside the semicircle of light projected on the floor from inside the room.
It’s the Blue Knight’s armory and it’s impressive. I’ve never seen so many weapons in one place. I bet the Inventory restriction doesn’t apply to him just the way he didn’t need to start the Challenge from Level 1. I still have no clue how that’s even possible.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end when I hear a familiar clicking. I look up at the vaulted ceiling and see dozens of bats huddling in the niches of the stone arcs. With a sweep, they all fly down and start circling around us, giving out ominous shrieks. Randir turns around at once.
The Blue Knight’s flaming eyes bore into us despite our protective cover. He raises his sword and with a swift jump, he’s by our side, slashing through the Invisibility Cloak. We appear before him, hunched over and shivering like a couple of scared kids.
There’s no time to run. Randir herds us inside the armory and I hear the door thud closed behind our backs. Death trap, indeed.
The welcome rush of adrenaline brings me back to my senses and I cast my Sunfire spell at once. I launch the fireballs at Randir and at the very least distract him for a moment, so his sword falls right between Rob and me, failing to cause any damage.
I can see Randir’s health suffer a bit, but he quickly takes some potion and it’s restored to full again. My mana, on the other hand, is almost depleted. At least I see that our enemy is not invincible and that gives me a sliver of hope. Unfortunately, I can’t use Sunfire for a while now.
Randir appears irritated by my little stunt. He grunts and vapor hisses out of his helmet’s mouthpiece. He stuns me with some prickling spell and I’m only watching helplessly as he goes straight for Rob.
Rob tries his own stunning magic, calling upon his clutching roots spell, but as soon as the gnarly vines start springing from the floor and weaving around Randir’s legs, an orange glow appears around the Knight. The roots crack, break and scatter lifeless on the floor. Randir has produced some sort of earth magic resistance shield.
I scream as I watch Randir plunge his enormous sword into the terrified Rob. The impact is so profound that another such hit would kill my friend. The blow doesn’t come though. Instead, the Knight knocks Rob over with his gauntlet and pins him to the floor with his spiked metal boot.
I’m only a pathetic witness to Rob’s agony. Blood is gushing out of the wound in his chest. His eyes are rolling back in his head and I know his end is near. I try to flex my fingers but the stun is too powerful. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing Rob in the throne hall of Mistral Keep not too long from now.
To my dismay, instead of digging his sword into Rob’s exposed chest again, Randir kneels by his side and, still holding him down, starts whispering something in his ear. I doubt Rob even hears him at this point.
Meanwhile, the spell that renders me immobile wears off and I’m free to move again. I grab my sword, fully expecting Randir to turn and face me, but it looks like he’s forgotten all about me. I’m not going to waste this opportunity, so I bring down my weapon as hard as I can over his impenetrable armor. I cause a shred of damage, but the Blue Knight doesn’t budge. He keeps droning into Rob’s ear as if nothing has happened.
What the hell is he doing? Is he chanting? Sucking the soul out of Rob?
Whatever it is, now seems like a good time for me to show some bravery. I grab my Northwind Dagger in my free hand and start stabbing Randir in the back with both my weapons. Though it increases my attack speed, the dagger has miserable stats and is only eating away at Randir’s health like a mosquito. My sword does slightly better. I see I’ve managed to cause as much as 4% damage. Randir’s armor is too good.
The fact that one of my hands is moving at regular speed and the other one at double that is slightly disorienting, but I’m getting used to it. I’m hacking away at my enemy, consumed like a madman. Still, Randir pays no attention to me.
Rob’s eyes are nearly closed now. The blood coming out of his wound has slowed to a trickle. Randir’s chanting has become even more insistent. The bats are flapping their wings above my head, screeching. I’m sweating profusely. I feel like I might get sick.
Just before the last bit of blood seeps out of Rob, I see him nodding weakly at Randir. Randir pushes himself up to his feet again. Rob is dead under his boot. In the next moment, his body is gone. My stomach heaves.
What did I expect? That we’d be able to defeat Randir? Or that he’d treat us any more differently than any other player lying out there in the graveyard?
I feel the weight of all my disappointments crush me. I’ve come all this way for nothing. I’m simply a lab rat, running along the corridors of a maze and believing that my decisions and actions actually matter and have a bearing on the outcome. The Challenge was a lost cause from the very beginning and I’ll never find out why.
Seeing that this very fight might be my last one in the game ever, I decide to at least give it my all. Who knows whether I’ll be able to ever scrape together enough money to buy another avatar. For all I know, I’ll end up on a fishing boat or a seaweed farm.
Gathering every bit of courage I have left, I raise my sword again and charge at Randir with a scream. He doesn’t as much as touch the handle of his own weapon. Instead, he holds out his palm and gives the air a little push with it.
Immediately, I’m seized by an invisible force and thrown into the nearby wall. I slump to the floor with a moan. My sword clatters on the stone floor. I’m reminded of my fight with the Wife of the Rowan Tree. Only, there are no bubbling cauldrons to save my life here.
Randir’s figure looms over me as I struggle to rise. The sharp blade of his monstrous sword gleams as he brings it down over me. I only manage to roll out of its way with the last bit of strength I have. I know it’s hopeless but still I persist.
At that moment, the door to the room swings open and Rob charges inside, his staff pointed at Randir. How on earth is that possible? Why is he not back in the Hanging City? Has Randir turned him over to his side? Is that what he was chanting into Rob’s ear? An incantation?
I get a partial answer soon. Rob jerks his staff up and down and the vaulted ceiling starts crumbling, pieces of stone and plaster raining on top of Randir. I recognize the same magic spell that Rob first used on me when we met. So, my friend is still on my side. I’m only confused about how the hell he appeared out of nowhere now.
Randir doesn’t lose his composure for even a second. He raises his gauntlet again and with a single move stops the downpour and directs it back at Rob. My friend stumbles backwards and falls down, the rocks almost burying him alive.
After effectively eliminating Rob with barely any effort, Randir turns to face me again. I’ve just managed to grab hold of my sword again when he pins me back to the wall with his intense blue stare. His eyes are flashing directly into mine. I can feel his icy breath as he steps closer. My head aches as if a vice squeezes my skull.
Suddenly, I hear a deep, guttural voice in my head and it makes me shiver with terror.
Would you like to bind your soul to the Soulburn Tombs?
Where is this coming from? Although his mouth is covered by a mouthpiece, I can still see that Randir’s lips aren’t moving. Is this what Telepathy feels like? I’m about to dismiss it as a hallucination I’ve got as a result of being so over-wired when I hear it again.
Would you like to bind your soul to the Soulburn Tombs?
“No!” I say out loud. “No, no, no,” I continue to scream like a lunatic.
I’ve just realized what really transpired between Randir and Rob. Randir’s was whispering this same question to my friend. Only, even without saying it out loud, Rob agreed. His soul is now bound to the cemetery. That’s why he appeared so quickly after he died.
Although I’m paralyzed with fear and feel my resolve weaken every time Randir repeats his question, I still have enough rational thought to know agreeing to his proposal can’t be good. If the Blue Knight is so insistent, I doubt he’s doing us a favor.
Would you like to bind your soul to the Soulburn Tombs? I hear again.
“No!” I cry again and calling on all my willpower, I rise from the floor. Randir’s blue eyes flare. He’s enraged. His sword is hovering above my head again. I equip my Panflute as a last resort. It’s done well in the past to get me out of a tight spot.
The worst case scenario follows. I start dancing around to the tune of the Panflute, while Randir casts yet another magic resistance shield and becomes immune to the effects of the music. I feel incredibly dumb twisting my hips and shaking my shoulders in a frenzied rhythm. At least I’m a tricky target as Randir tries to chop off my limbs and head mid-dance.
He does hit me once and almost kills me but backs off.
Would you like to bind your soul to the Soulburn Tombs?
It appears that my agreement is more valuable to him than claiming my life.
“No,” I say breathlessly in the throes of my hopeless dance.
“You will eventually,” Randir says and leaves me be, turning to Rob again.
He starts hitting him with his sword again and it’s painful to watch. With only his magic on his side, Rob is a pitiful opponent to Randir’s multiple strengths. Watching the uneven fight, I finally understand how the Blue Knight permanently kills all players. I also know that it won’t be sword fight that would help save Rob from leaving the game forever.
“Wait!” I call out desperately.
Randir pays no attention to me and continues slashing at Rob.
“I work for you!” I shout. “Out in the Peapods! I’m Finn Lumberjack from Battlesden. Rob is like a brother to me. Leave him alone!”
Randir’s gauntlet, poised to bring down his heavy blade down the middle of Rob’s skull, pauses mid-air.