Bohriam tore himself out of the indent his body had made in the wall, nearly collapsing to one knee as he fell. He held himself up with his lightning sword, bladepoint digging into the stone floor. “I’m not going to let you hurt Ashleigh,” he declared. Trembling, he lifted his sword with both hands and prepared himself for battle.

I couldn’t bring myself to care or hope in the slightest. In my mind, I had written Bohriam off as dead the second Virulesse decided to use me as bait.

“You’re… a fair bit late for that, really,” Virulesse said with dismissive passive aggression. “Maybe if—”

“RAHGH!” Bohriam didn’t wait for Virulesse to finish her taunt. He swung his sword and a bolt of lightning arced through the air, scarring the floor and the ceiling both as it raced toward—not Virulesse—me. I shrieked and reflexively covered my face as the magic bolt passed through the iron bars of my cage, slamming into the wall to my right—and severing one of the chains that kept me bound, while blowing chunks out of the wall behind me.

Bohriam was already running directly at Virulesse, roaring. He launched another lightning bolt as he ran in front of my cell, with a sideways slash that sliced right through my bars and left a trail of molten iron that cut through every bar the glowing blade intersected. The slash ended in a furious burst of lightning that rushed toward Virulesse at blistering speed.

Jesus fuck, this dude was gonna get us all killed.

… And maybe, if we were lucky, that might include Virulesse.

In an effortlessly fluid motion, Virulesse raised one arm and lowered the other, and a translucent purple energy shield appeared in front of her. Bohriam’s lightning slammed into the shield. Thunder roared out from the impact of magic against magic, offense against defense, deafening and blinding and more than my exhausted senses could handle.

The lightning subsided, and darkness swallowed my vision—but I could see behind the dim glow of Virulesse’s shield that the Exarch was completely unharmed.

She unmanifested the shield and it shattered into thousands of shards of purple light before each one blinked out of existence. In the time that it took her to block the lightning attack, Bohriam had closed the distance—he was within sword’s reach of his target now—which also meant he was within whip’s reach of Virulesse.

She raised her whip just in time to block Bohriam’s downward swing. Energy crackled and sparks flew as the two weapons clashed. I still wasn’t sure if that whip was an actual physical object or just a raw magical manifestation—but whatever it was, it stopped Bohriam’s sword in its tracks.

“Your strength is impressive, for a Stone,” Virulesse said. She took a step forward, pushing Bohriam back despite how hard he was holding the sword against her. “Your resolve, even more so. Another few years and Ranks under your belt, and I would have been proud to have you under my banner.” The crackling glow of her energy whip intensified—and she overpowered him with a thrust that sent him flying backward. “You could have earned that uniform, instead of stealing it like a worthless thief!” She chased after him, ready to inflict her fury.

God, now she was doing gratuitous taunting—Virulesse really was an evil version of me.

While the fight raged on less than twenty feet away from me, I took fresh stock of my situation. Bohriam had freed one of my arms—a few feet of chain now dangled from my manacled right wrist. The door of my cell was open, but that didn’t matter as long as my left wrist was still chained to the wall. Except…

On the ground in front of my cell were two keys Bohriam had dropped. Two keys—not just the one for the door. I looked at the bottom of my manacles, where a single keyhole leered menacingly back at me. Something resembling hope started welling up inside my long-hollow chest. If I managed to flail around in just the right way, my free length of chain was long enough that I might be able to drag the key back to me.

Bohriam used his sword to parry whip strike after whip strike from Virulesse. She continued to gain ground on him, forcing him back another step every time she struck. Each lash unleashed a supersonic crack and a pulse of bright blue light, mirroring the thunder and lightning that Bohriam’s own blade was summoning every chance it could.

Bohriam swiped a whip strike away and transitioned into launching a lightning bolt at Virulesse. She summoned her energy shield again—and at the last second, Bohriam pivoted his sword around and launched the lightning behind himself, using its force to propel him forward at blinding speed into the Exarch’s shield—and through it.

Virulesse didn’t have time to react. With the sword fueling his motion, Bohriam rocket-punched the Exarch on the side of the head. Stray bolts of lightning scorched the outer wall as Bohriam drove the Exarch into the ground.

Virulesse kicked him back, following up by blasting him with another wide beam of blue energy. Bohriam only narrowly dodged—and the energy beam tore through the damaged wall behind him like it was nothing, obliterating bricks and opening a gaping hole to the outside world. Sunlight from across the Viskavian expanse flooded the chamber.

Or at least, flooded my part of the chamber.

I raised my arms together, trying to throw my dangling chain in such a way that it would land on Bohriam’s stolen keys. I had no idea how he managed to find them, let alone grab them and bring them here, but if this worked I would forever be in Bohriam’s debt. Smack—another miss. Fuck! This would be so much easier if I could just throw the stupid chain right from my hand.

I focused, trying to ignore the chaos of Virulesse and Bohriam’s combat. I had been missing mostly to the left so far, so if I turned my body a little to the right… Clang—direct hit! The coveted key slid a couple inches closer to me. Yes! Now I just had to do that five more times.

Bohriam continued to block Virulesse’s whip strikes as she pushed him back. He manifested a metal orb—a Kineosphere, I realized—and sent it hurtling toward the Exarch with a gesture of his hand. She destroyed it in mid-air with her whip—and it exploded into a cloud of black smoke—which Virulesse quickly blew away with another blast of energy—while Bohriam simultaneously manifested another Kineosphere and charged Virulesse while her whip was down.

Rahgh!” Virulesse screamed as she defended. “Why do you have so many Artifacts!

I held the end of the dangling chain in my right hand, forming a loop with the other end attached to the manacle on my wrist. The chain didn’t reach as far anymore, but it didn’t need to—all I needed was one more toss and… Swipe! Yes!! I reached down and grabbed the key, the best tiny prize I had ever won. Now I just had to flail around to unlock the manacles while holding the key between my knees.

At that moment, a door at the end of the hallway slammed open as Vaxal rushed in. “My lordess! I came as soon as I heard the—” Vaxal took one look at the smackdown Virulesse was currently giving Bohriam, and at me with the key halfway into the manacles’ keyhole, and he decided I was the more important target.

Vaxal ran at me with inhuman speed, charging right through my cell’s bars, grabbing me by the neck and lifting me up right as my manacles clicked open and granted me freedom. “We gave you every chance to cooperate,” he snarled, his eyes already starting to glow a vicious bright white. And though I couldn’t see them, I could feel that my own eyes were glowing too. “Know that you have earned this punishment. Tell me, Null-rank: WHAT DO YOU MOST FEAR?

And that’s when I enacted my master plan.

So if there’s one thing you should know about me by now, it’s that I’m really damn good at rationalizing my beliefs—no matter how illogical they may be. So when Vaxal threatened a while back to ‘bury me in my deepest fears,’ I asked myself: what can I rationalize into being my deepest fear, that might possibly make Vaxal regret asking?

We lived in an infinite multiverse—or at least, a multiverse with so many worlds that it may as well be infinite. Which meant that just about anything you could imagine would probably exist out there, somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. So out of all possible things that could be imagined, what deepest fear would be most dangerous to unveil? Out of all possible things that could be thought of, what thought would be so lethal, so destructive, such a virally potent meme that even the mere glimpse of it would drive the glimpser mad?

Vaxal clawed his way into my mind—and I thought of Cthulhu.

The image of the eldritch abomination formed in my mind’s eye, starting as a vague outline and magnifying in detail as Vaxal dragged it out with his magic—first the visuals and then all the context of what it was and what it meant—and then taking on a life of its own, separate from either of our minds.

The creature in the shared vision shifted forms, casting off its Earthly skin like a costume it had been forced to wear, morphing from its infamous tentacled visage to a more abstract, more visceral avatar of the raw concepts it embodied. Hate. Indifference. Boundlessness. It leaked these and impossibly more complex emotions like a sieve that tore through time and space—like it wanted us to know that even with the barest drop of its power, it could still reach through all 12,776 worlds from Era to The Unmade and destroy us just for having dared to dream its name.

And even though it knew that I was the one whose folly it was to whisper at the Sleeping Gate, it also knew whose magic it really was that shouted blindly into the abyss—and then it turned its gaze onto Vaxal.

Vaxal lurched away from me, screaming, holding his head with both hands, gauntlet claws digging bloody holes into his flesh. I fell to the ground, panting like I had just run a marathon, no longer a part of the vision. Vaxal shook his head violently, trying to free himself from an unseen demon. “NO! NO, NO, NO! GET OUT! P-PINK ELEPHANTS! PINK ELEPHAAANTS!” Hands covering his face, he ran wildly forward, straight into the wall—and then, still screaming incoherently, bashed his skull against the wall until he knocked himself unconscious.

I watched the entire affair with indescribable horror. My plan… My insane gambit of a last ditch plan had actually worked. Vaxal was down. A shiver crept up my spine as the full implications hit me. Eldritch abominations existed. Multiverse-spanning entities that could drive someone mad with just a twitch of their metaphysical attention. They might not go by the names we gave them on Earth, but they existed—and they knew I existed.

My deepest fear wouldn’t be changing any time soon—and I was pretty sure that was just how the denizens of The Unmade preferred it.

Meanwhile, Bohriam and the Exarch were still locked in dead heat. Bohriam had switched his sword out for a shield, crackling with the same electrical elemental energy that his sword carried. Virulesse was closer to me now, standing between my cell—what was left of it—and the gaping hole in the wall.

Both of them were bruised and bloody—Bohriam doubly so. He looked like he was hanging on by a thread, struggling to even stand up. But still he somehow found the will to keep going, no matter how much he panted for breath, no matter how outmatched he was, no matter how underpowered and underleveled he was for getting stuck with his joke of a Personal Quest. He raised his fists, ready to fight to the very end.

Thin streams of blood trickling from her mouth, Virulesse grit her teeth. She glanced into my cell and saw for the first time the inanimate Vaxal strewn across the floor. A new expression washed over her face—and after the infinitely complex emotions that seeped into me from The Unmade, this one was easy to interpret: fear.

It was quickly covered over by the same anger and hate that had been fueling her battle with Bohriam so far. Her heaving breath quivered as she looked around and realized all her plans for multiversal conquest were crashing down around her.

Shaking with rage, she turned back to Bohriam. “You can’t beat me… If I can’t have the Null-rank… No one can!” And then she raised her arm, pointing an open palm at me as elemental energy condensed in front of her hand.

The next second played out for me in slow motion. Bohriam screamed “No!” and dropped his shield, manifesting his lightning sword in its place. The Exarch’s energy ball widened, brightened, convulsed with uncontrollable power. Bohriam blasted a bolt of lightning behind himself, rocketing forward to intercept the Exarch’s death beam. She fired.

Bohriam flew in front of me—in front of the energy beam—with his arm stretched forward, summoning an energy shield that was a deeper purple than any I had seen so far, yellow lightning wildly crackling around the edges. The beam hit the shield—and exploded against it, rebounding right back onto Virulesse, blasting her backward off her feet, sending her hurtling out of the gaping hole in the wall and into the Viskavian sky.

I heard Virulesse’s trailing screams as she fell through the air—and then, thousands of feet below us, the echo of an impact.

“Boh!” I screamed, running toward him. He had landed on the floor in a heap of bloody limbs and battered armor. But he still breathed—he was still alive. He started pushing himself unsteadily to his feet, and I helped.

“Is she…” I asked, gesturing to the hole in the wall. “I mean, is there any way she could have…”

Boh stared out into the expanse, shaking his head. “No matter what Rank you are, you’re still human—no one survives a fall like that.”

Behind us, something stirred in the decimated remains of my cell. Vaxal rose to his feet, holding his head like he was recovering from a terrible headache. He took one look at me and Bohriam, standing triumphant with Virulesse nowhere in sight. He glared at Bohriam with unrivaled fury. “You… I am going to burn Gostrey and everyone you’ve ever loved TO THE GROUND!

He manifested an Artifact into his hand—a ceramic sphere about the size of his palm. Bohriam was already pushing me away, summoning a weapon of his own—but Vaxal threw the orb at the floor below him. It shattered, releasing a brief storm of crackling energy—and then Vaxal was gone.

Bohriam unmanifested the dagger he had summoned. Standing in the silent, smoldering wreckage of the dungeon, we were finally alone. “I did it,” Bohriam said, disbelief coloring his tone. “I…”

He froze mid-sentence. His legs—armor and boots and presumably everything inside it—were turning into stone. The transformation crept up his entire body, from his feet to his waist to his chest and down both of his arms.

“Boh? What’s happening?!”

He stared at his hands as they hardened into solid gray rock, locking them into place. He turned to me and opened his mouth to speak, but the transformation consumed his throat before he got a sound out. A second later, Bohriam was nothing more than a person-shaped statue.

Oh god oh god what the fuck it was the start of the horror story arc after all. Vaxal’s Artifact must have released a poison that turned him into stone, or—

The statue that was Bohriam began to crack, revealing a molten hot glow coming from within. The cracks spread, and the stone composition of the simulacrum transformed once again, solidifying into glistening metal—into iron.

As soon as the second transformation was complete, the glow reached a peak and the statue exploded—sending chunks of its iron shell flying out in all directions—and revealing Bohriam, unharmed, underneath.

All his wounds had been healed—cuts, bruises, even the dents in his stolen vanguard armor, somehow—and he stood up straight like he was full of energy. He stood above me at his full height, looking down on me with a firm expression of confidence—and then he spoke with the same meek voice as always, and my spell was broken. “Wow, I’m Iron-rank now.”

Oh Bohriam, ya big goof… Never change.

“Congratulations,” I said. “I’m guessing that Rank-up healed all your HP and stuff?”

“Yeah, but I really don’t want to stick around to fight whatever guards are gonna be coming next. They’re all gonna be stronger than the Exarch was.”

What the fucking shit. Why wouldn’t Virulesse be the strongest?? Whatever—I’d probably find out later. “Okay, then how about sneaking out of here before any of those assholes can catch us?”

Bohriam smiled and nodded. “Now that sounds like a plan.” He took me by the hand and started leading me down the hall. “Come on—let’s go the fuck home.”

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Virulesse, Vaxal, The Contempt