Two years ago
Wind howled as Bohriam trudged across the pathless slope, legs dragging through a foot or more of snow, with only the clouded light of the Dancers and his sword to guide him through the darkness. Icy sharp snowflakes plummeted from ahead, slamming into him and pinpricking his skin like daggers too small to avoid. He grit his teeth as another furious gale roared against him, threatening to rend him into oblivion.
The chill of eternal winter tore into Bohriam’s flesh. He had known the Skavian Mountains would be a struggle for someone in his condition, but he never truly comprehended in his core how merciless it would be. Now, his core was little more than a numb heart pumping frigid blood through frostbitten veins. But he couldn’t turn back now—not when he had already managed to come so far.
Shivering in the face of unimaginable cold, Bohriam looked up. In the distance, he could still see it—the glowing purple Greatstone that propelled him, calling to him like fire to a moth. Its violet haze shone bright from the nearest mountain peak, just as it did since long before he was born, and just as it would probably do for long after his death. Senses reinvigorated, he pressed on through the howling night.
For six days now, Bohriam had been scaling the mountain. It was the farthest he had ever been from home, the farthest he had ever traveled without someone else to protect him. His standard-issue Aegis armor weighed on him, impeding his movement just as much as the wind and snow did—and his own additions to the armor only added to the burden. But to take it off at this point would mean certain death. It was the only thing keeping his warmth—
A screech from behind a nearby outcrop of stone. A giant, five foot tall scorpion skittered out, jumping off the rock and landing in the snow in front of Bohriam. Its black carapace glistened where snowflakes melted against it. The creature’s eyes were twin points of soulless yellow instinct. Shrieking once more and flexing its razor-sharp mandibles, it lunged for Bohriam.
He had only seconds to dodge. The scorpion snapped its jaw shut in the space where his torso had just been, with enough force to crack a boulder in half. Bohriam felt the whip of the displaced wind like a clap that sounded right in front of his face. He was only inches away.
The creature howled its animal fury. Its pupilless eyes refocused, finding Bohriam in an instant.
Bohriam gasped for breath, but the frozen air did little to chill his scalding nerves. He had to act fast—one successful strike by the beast would be enough to send him to an early grave. He didn’t have the HP nor the DEF for a prolonged battle—but he also didn’t have enough AGI to flee.
Blazing electricity filled Bohriam’s sword. The scorpion’s front legs and pincers cast menacing shadows on its vicious form. It hissed at the light, squinting with dual layers of perpendicular eyelids. Moving almost too fast for Bohriam to keep up with, it thrust at him with one of its giant, hardened claws.
Bohriam swung his sword out to block the oncoming strike. He parried the claw away, the sword bouncing off the scorpion’s carapace with an echoing clink as if he had hit solid stone. The scorpion shrugged off the slash like it had taken no damage whatsoever—and it probably hadn’t. It repeated its attack multiple times with alternating claws, forcing Bohriam to defend, driving him back one step at a time.
All the while, Bohriam used what little concentration he could spare to channel more power into his sword. It glowed brighter every time the scorpion bashed its armored claws against it, absorbing Bohriam’s energy until it had gone from a blazing torchlight to a blinding lightning bolt in handheld form. He waited for an opening, and… Now!
Between claw strikes, Bohriam pointed his blade directly down the creature’s ravenous, bristled throat—and he unleashed the full fury of the sword’s lightning in a single devastating bolt.
A storm of electrical energy slammed into the scorpion’s face—a direct hit. Arcs of lightning seared brown scars into the creature’s chitinous exterior. It ceased its attacks, raising its front legs and standing still until the stream of lightning ended and darkness again filled the night.
There was a moment of calm. Bohriam uncovered his eyes, which he had covered to protect against the blinding backlash of his own attack. The scorpion still stood in front of him, scarred and momentarily dazed, but otherwise completely unharmed.
No… It’s an Earth-aligned elemental. Bohriam’s heart sank. If the full power of his lightning sword couldn’t damage the beast, there was little chance that anything else in his inventory could win him the battle either. But little chance was not zero chance. He couldn’t give up now—not after coming so far.
The scorpion was recovering from its daze. Taking quick mental stock of his inventory, Bohriam came up with a plan.
Not a second later, the scorpion shook itself free from its temporary paralysis. Bohriam cached his lightning sword back into his inventory—and in its place, he retrieved a wooden bow and a quiver of arrows. He drew an arrow from the quiver right as it materialized on his back. Jonakan Dak Fay’s advice rang out in his memory as he pulled the arrow back on his bowstring.
Remember—it doesn’t matter how much armor your enemy is wearing. No matter how much metal lies between you and them, there’s always the one weak spot we all share. They always need to be able to see.
Bohriam hoped he had enough DEX for this.
He jumped backward, evading a crash of giant claw into snow that sent reams of icy particles spewing up like a cloud of dust. He could barely see through the veil of snow, but the pale yellow glow of the scorpion’s eyes provided all the target he needed. He fired—and the arrow missed entirely, whizzing off into the unknown dark.
The scorpion’s other claw came in for a smash attack. Bohriam dodged it, rolling to the side, blisteringly cold snow getting caught in his armor and running down his neck. He fired three more arrows in quick succession. The first and second bounced impotently off the scorpion’s exoskeleton. The third one drilled into the monster’s left eye.
The creature howled in agony, a vile chittering sound that echoed across the mountain. It blinked back tears of orangey red blood and thrashed aimlessly with both its claws. Bohriam used the opportunity to put more distance between himself and the scorpion, launching more arrows at it whenever he had a clear enough shot.
The scorpion swatted the arrows right out of the air with its giant tail. It finished its thrashing and located its prey once again—and without missing a beat, it launched its stinger-tipped tail directly for Bohriam, faster than he could even see.
Distance was the only thing that saved him. Just a few feet stood between Bohriam and brutal death by impalement. But distance wouldn’t be able to save him a second time—the scorpion was already leaping toward him.
This was it. Bohriam dropped the bow and retrieved his lightning sword, on the slim chance that he might be able to deflect the scorpion’s sting. He knew it was a fool’s hope. But if he didn’t at least try, then he may as well already be dead—
There was a deafening caw from above as two gargantuan taloned feet clasped the scorpion in the middle of its mid-air leap. The scorpion screeched and flailed chaotically as it was carried right over Bohriam and higher into the sky. Through the fog of the blizzard, Bohriam could faintly make out the silhouette of an owl at least thirty strides tall.
The caws and the screeches faded into the night as the mega-owl carried its bounty to some unseen distant peak. Breathing heavily, heart racing, Bohriam could only watch and thank Yonos for his undeserved fortune. He wanted to cache his weapons and collapse into the snow and rest until the frost claimed him as its own.
Instead he rekindled his sword and continued his lonely march up the mountain. In the distance, his destiny was waiting for him.
Bohriam stepped onto the plateau of the peak just as the morning’s warmth began to reach his eyes. His gait was unsteady, hampered by a sleepless night and untold hours since he last fearfully checked his remaining HP. But he was here—he had done what no one thought he could, least of all himself.
Twenty feet away, at the top of a pyramidal wooden tower, the purple Greatstone’s fierce glow was diminishing as night transitioned into day. Even so, it was the brightest light Bohriam had ever seen short of the sun. He took a moment to thank the ancient monolith for guiding him this far, before advancing to his true destination.
Beyond the beacon, the snow of the last seven days receded in a circle around a large temple built of light gray stone. Seven wide pillars lined the front of the structure, with the seventh pillar chiseled into the shape of a faceless, featureless person strenuously holding up the ceiling above it. Bohriam passed through the archway that was the building’s entrance.
The temple hall was dark, illuminated only by the sparse sunlight that crept in around Bohriam. But at the far end of the hall, he could make out a lone figure in deep purple robes kneeling before the altar. Bohriam walked deeper into the sanctuary, his voice wavering as it echoed down the chamber. “H-hello? Are you the Guardian?”
The robed figure stood up and turned around, the movements slow with age. He pulled back his hood, revealing a face that could have belonged to Elder Hammond in his prime. Hardened eyes examined Bohriam, scrutinizing him as if judging him from his very core. The man was broad-shouldered, though most of his frame was hidden under the robes that covered his entire body. A beard of short white hair covered his chin and upper lip.
“You’re carrying a small arsenal on you, my boy,” the man said. “Lightning greaves, Kineospheres, a sword of power… Yet you don’t seem like the religious terrorist type. Who are you?”
He can see into my inventory… Bohriam forced himself to hide his shock. It was dangerous to show weakness in front of strangers, he had been told. “My name is Bohriam Sen Kahl of Gostrey. I carry all these Artifacts because I’m so weak on my own without them. I’m… just a Stone-rank, only Level 16.” The confession left a bitter taste in his mouth, as it always did. He hated having to admit to his worthlessness.
The man nodded, apparently satisfied by Bohriam’s introduction. “I am Ekaizal Dakfin, Guardian of this temple. You shouldn’t have come here alone—this is a dangerous journey for someone at your Rank. Why are you here?”
Bohriam bowed to Ekaizal. “Honorable Guardian—I’ve come seeking answers.”
“Why at the Temple of Void?” Ekaizal asked. “With all the Lightning-based Artifacts in your possession, why not go to the Temple of Lightning?”
“Void is the element of the Bards, and Bard is the Class of the prophets.”
“Ah—so it’s your future you’re after. Sorry, my boy. Prophecy isn’t something that we Bards can just behold at will, to bestow upon any wayward soul who crosses our path.”
“No,” Bohriam said, “I don’t care about my future. I mean—I do, but that’s not what I’m here for… I’m here for guidance. Um, if you’re willing to grant me your counsel.”
Ekaizal concluded his long examination of Bohriam with a smile and a short chuckle. “Bohriam Sen Kahl of Gostrey, you might be the first person in ten years to visit the Temple of Void in search of true wisdom.” He sat down on the steps in front of the altar, patting the space right next to him. “Why don’t you have a seat and we can chat?”
Elated, Bohriam joined the Guardian on the steps. “So, it’s about my Stone-rank Personal Quest. I got it two years ago, right around the same age that everyone gets it. But for mine, I have to…”
Bohriam told Ekaizal all about his impossible Quest and the social hardship he had faced since receiving it. About all the people he used to call his friends, who had turned their backs on him. About being left behind as everyone in his year advanced to Iron and some even to Bronze. About all his fears of never being able to reach his full potential—of already being at his full potential.
The words poured out of him, two years worth of pent-up insecurities flowing out almost as smoothly as they would have against Elder Hammond’s scripted Eye of Easing.
“… and so I came here,” Bohriam concluded. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders—as if the mere act of telling Ekaizal about his struggles was enough to fill the void of his solitude. “I just don’t know what to do anymore. I want to get stronger, follow The Path like everyone else, but I’ve been cursed with this farce of a Quest. So… What should I do?”
Eyes closed, Ekaizal took a deep, steady breath, then sighed. “That’s a question that can only be answered from within oneself.”
Despondency washed over Bohriam like a blanket that stole all warmth. He tried to hide his disappointment—and failed completely.
“But as for getting stronger…” Ekaizal turned to face Bohriam. “How did you come to acquire such potent Artifacts?”
Bohriam shrugged. “With a whole lot of saving and spending, and a couple lucky breaks at some ruins near my town.”
“And how did you come to reach Level 16?”
“The same way as everyone else, I guess… By fighting and surviving and gaining enough experience to level up fifteen times.”
“And how did you come here?” Ekaizal asked. “How did you reach this zenith of the Skavian Mountains, and the Temple of Void thereon?”
The light of realization ignited behind Bohriam’s eyes. “By committing to the journey and doing it… By packing enough supplies to get me there and back, and following the shine of the Godlight no matter how hard it was to keep going.”
“Were you Level 16 when you set out from Gostrey seven days ago?”
“No…” Bohriam said, astonished. “I was Level 15.”
The Guardian of the Temple of Void smiled. “Bohriam Sen Kahl of Gostrey, you think yourself weak because you have not yet made yourself strong. But The Path doesn’t lie in the advancement of Ranks, but in the advancement of the self. You are a Stone, and yet you have accomplished a journey that even many Irons would be hesitant to take.
“Truth be told, I don’t know if you will ever complete your Personal Quest. ‘Save the life of someone from another world…’ A rather curious Quest by any measure, whether such other worlds exist or not. But it is not your Rank that holds you back—nothing is holding you back. As long as you have the resolve to keep going, you will always continue to grow.”
“I… understand,” Bohriam said, and he truly did. How could he have been so blind? It was all so clear to him now.
Ekaizal continued. “You think you’re weak right now—and you’re right. Right now, you are the weakest you will ever be. But that’s the beauty of the System. Every day, you’ll be stronger than you were the day before. Remember that, if nothing else: The Path goes only forward.”
“Thank you, Ekaizal—I understand now what I have to do.” Bohriam stood up, full of energy like he had just heard his Stone-rank Personal Quest for the first time. He knew what he had to do: keep fighting, keep pushing himself, keep struggling until he could match his agemates once again—and then keep going until they were pebbles in his wake. It would be hard, especially as they continued to advance—but hard didn’t have to mean impossible.
Ekaizal rose sluggishly. “Remember—every diamond starts as stone. No matter how far a person has advanced, we all start from the same lowly mould: Class-less, inexperienced, and with a 1 in every stat.”
“If you don’t mind me asking… What Rank are you?”
Ekaizal chuckled. “My boy, if you knew what Rank we Guardians of the Godlights are, you would be terrified.”
Bohriam pondered the statement for a moment, then his eyes went wide with absolute awe.
The Guardian exhaled, weary but content. “Go forth, Bohriam Sen Kahl, and prove to the world that you are every bit its master as I am.”
Bohriam nodded, smiling proudly, ready to seize the day—and tomorrow, and every tomorrow after it. He had wasted so much time pitying himself these last two years, fallen so far behind his peers. He would have to work tirelessly to catch up to them. He bowed once more to Ekaizal. “Thank you again, honorable Guardian. I won’t let your wisdom go to waste.”
When Bohriam left the Temple, the sun was high in the air. The ancient Greatstone that was the Godlight of Void had faded to a deep, dark purple, still radiating heat despite the lack of glow. It would burn bright again as soon as daylight’s embrace abandoned it, just as it had for thousands of years before.
Bohriam looked out across the vast horizon. All of Viskavia lay before him, and the entire world lay beyond that—a world full of possibilities and opportunities and destinies that were ripe for Bohriam to seize. He breathed in the air of eternal winter, and his lungs burned with excitement. He had a long journey ahead of him, starting with the seven day return trip to Gostrey.
Bohriam challenged himself to make it back in six.
End of Arc 1