Before Nova could move, she felt something hard push her and she was thrown back. She fell down, her head bouncing on the stone floor with a loud crack. Everything turned black.
Nova wasn’t sure how long she had been out, but when she woke up, she was in a cave. She sat up, looking around her in confusion. A dark tunnel led deeper into the cave. When she turned to the other side, all she saw was a wall of fallen rock, closing up the entrance. She was trapped.
Nova turned, looking for where the voice was coming from. It took her a moment with the darkness all around her. She needed a light, before she could speak a light appeared in the right corner of the cave. She squinted at the prone figure.
“Mathius?” Nova said, hurrying over.
She immediately tripped in the darkness. Feeling around, she crawled over to the light. Until she finally reached the man. Mathius was lying on the floor, sweat dripping from his face. He gave her a strained smile.
“You’re alive,” he said with a laugh. “For a minute, I thought my attempt to save you just ended with your death.”
Nova shook her head and winced. Pain climbed up her head. She rubbed it. “No, I think I just knocked myself out for a second. How long have I been out?”
“Twenty minutes? Maybe thirty. I’m not exactly sure,” Mathius said and grimaced.
Worry danced in Nova’s eyes. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Mathius said and dragged the torch crystal down.
Nova’s eyes widened. Mathius’s legs were crushed under the wall of rock.
“I don’t know if it’s lucky or unlucky that it’s just my legs. I’m not looking forward to a slow death.”
“You’re not going to die,” Nova said firmly, staring at the rocks. “I’ll get you out.”
Mathius shook his head. “Not possible. If you move me the rocks will fall and I’ll be crushed regardless and you with me.”
Nova bit her lips. “We have the crystals. Maybe we can draw the rocks to the side.”
“Same problem. The rocks will fall and we’ll be crushed.”
“There has to be a solution,” Nova snapped, then immediately felt guilty. Mathius was in this position because he had pushed her out of the way when the ceiling caved in. “Sorry.”
“It’s not,” Nova said. “We can’t give up.”
Mathius laughed, bitterly. “You know, I’ve always been like that. I refused to give up no matter what. I just kept going. Helena said I would get myself killed if I kept going like that. Guess she was right.”
“Don’t talk like it’s already over,” Nova said, but as she looked at Mathius she had no idea how to save him.
“You know, you were pretty amazing back there with the tree,” Mathius suddenly said. “Never saw anything like that. You were glowing and had this army of ghosts beside you. I’m pretty sure even some of the Sanitation Guild ran off at the sight.”
“Not Oren though. He just waited,” Nova said.
Mathius snorted. “Oren is different from normal people. The man goes straight towards the danger.”
“You’re not much different,” Nova said with a half-chuckle.
“Yeah. I guess I’m not.” Mathius paused. “Do you still have that staff of yours? Or is it a scythe?”
“It’s both,” Nova said and scanned the dark. “It’s around here somewhere. I’m not sure where.”
“You should get it,” Mathius said and held out the torch crystal. “Take it.”
Nova frowned and dread gathered in her stomach. “You’ll think I’ll need it?”
“Yes,” Mathius said.
“Why?” Nova said. “Where are we?”
Mathius frowned and let out a deep sigh. “The dungeon. We fell into the entrance when the ceiling fell.”
“Shit,” Nova whispered and looked frantically around her. They were in the dark and any type of monster could sneak up on them.
“No monster has come yet,” Mathius said. “I think most spilled out of the dungeon and before that Korn was clearing the area. But…”
She already knew what he meant. They had waves. Eventually, monsters would pour toward them. Nova chewed on the inside of her cheek. She reached over and took the torch crystal from Mathius.
“I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be here,” Mathius said with a strained smile.
Nova gave him a worried look and then turned back into the darkness. The torch crystal was enough to give her a small radius of visibility but she was intensely aware that anything could be lurking on the outskirts.
She moved until she reached the place she had woken up from. No monsters leaped out at her but she didn’t spot her staff either. She found herself going deeper, moving wider in the cave. It was slow going and she grew more and more anxious. Finally, she spotted it, she reached down to grab it when she heard a noise beside her.
Scooping up the staff, she swung it just as a flesh seether leaped at her. She smashed it in the face. Her hand immediately went to her shards but she quickly realized that an explosion in the cave would be an extremely bad idea.
The flesh sether recovered during her scrambling and lunged forward. Nova swung her staff and the monster clung onto the end of the staff, biting down on it.
“I can help.”
A voice said and the staff began to glow lightly.
For a moment, she was disoriented as the images of a young soldier flew through her mind. In his hand was gripped a spear. Nova knew what she had to do. A wave of mana pushed through the staff and this time nature mana poured out. The rocks around her rose up and gathered around the mana, pulling into a form of rock until a spear tip appeared.
The flesh seether bit down on the rock forming in its mouth, trying to break it apart. Nova shoved the spear down, piercing through the monster’s mouth and through the back of its body. The flesh seether convulsed before going limp.
“Ugh,” Nova said as she shoved the thing off her staff-turned-spear.
As soon as the flesh seether was yanked off, the spearhead fell apart. The mana flickered and then faded out. A moment later, the staff glowed again and the ghost of a young soldier stood in front of her.
Nova eyed the soldier and then nodded to him. “Thank you.”
The soldier smiled and he looked even younger. Maybe only seventeen. Too young to have died.
“I want to help. You saved us.”
Nova frowned. “But you’re trapped again.”
The soldier shook his head. “No, we chose this. We want to fight again.”
Nova still wasn’t sure if what she had done was right but for now, she accepted his words. “Are the others okay?”
The soldier nodded. “They can’t come out. There isn’t much mana left.”
Nova’s eyes widened in alarm. “The staff is running out of mana?”
The soldier smiled. “It’ll recover when you recover. I should go, but…”
Nova waited. “Go on.”
“I could scout ahead. To see if there are more monsters.”
Nova blinked. “You can do that. I thought…” Well, she thought that they were stuck in the staff.
“I can’t go far but I can scout a little further.”
Nova nodded. “All right.”
The soldier brightened and then he shot off. Nova watched him go, a soft ghostly light in the darkness. She turned and began making her way back to Mathius. When she got to him, Mathius had fallen asleep.
“Here I thought you would be worried about me,” Nova mumbled, but it scared her to see him asleep. What if he didn’t wake up? She reached down and shook him.
A moment later, Mathius blinked drowsily and stared up at her. “Nova?” He frowned. “I fell asleep?”
“Yeah,” Nova said. She didn’t bring up what that probably meant. “I got the staff.”
“Good. You need to protect yourself. I won’t be there to help you.”
“I told you to stop talking like that,” Nova said. “I’ll get you out.”
“We both know that’s impossible,” Mathius said sadly. “Even if you could, my legs would be crushed. I would only drag you down. You have so much to accomplish, Nova. I can’t hold you back.”
“You brought me here to make that damn guild of yours, so you better stay alive to see it out. We have a contract!” Nova felt pinpricks at the corner of her eyes. She ignored them.
Mathius looked at her and for a moment his expression was gentle. “I was a true asshole to you, Nova. I shouldn’t have forced you into this, any of this. I…should have treated you better. I’m sorry.”
Nova’s lips tightened. “You’re supposed to prove I can trust you again. That was the deal.”
“I suck at deals,” Mathius said with a chuckle.
Nova’s eyes widened. “Wait! Trixie!”
Trixie get your ass over here.
Nothing happened and then a voice poured out of the darkness.
“So rude. I’m not going to listen to a thing you say if you can’t be polite.”
“We need help,” Nova said.
Trixie looked at her nails, bored.
“Please,” Nova gritted out.
“The magic word!” Trixie looked up with a wide smile and then floated over, glancing down at Mathius. “Now this is a pickle. You two have been having so much fun without me.”
“Can you help?” Mathius asked, a hint of hope in his voice.
Trixie huffed at him. “Don’t rush me. I’m enjoying the moment.” She floated around the two. “Such a wonderful dilemma. The summoner pinned to the ground. The wrong move and he’s doomed to be obliterated in a rain of stone. The Soul Traveler, alone, in the dark, wandering a dungeon filled with monsters. Mhm, now this is the sort of entertainment I signed up for.”
Trixie settled on the ground with her legs crossed. “I don’t see why I should deprive myself of watching this play through.”
“Damn it, Trixie! Just help us,” Nova demanded.
Trixie just looked at Nova owlishly.
“What will it cost?” Mathius said quietly.
Trixie’s smile grew so wide, her pointy teeth were on full display, making her look every inch the predator. “Now you have grabbed my interest.” She hopped off the ground, rubbing her hands together. “Shall we make a deal?”
“Another 10 percent of my mana pool,” Mathius said.
Trixie frowned. “Now you’re just being stingy. How much is your life worth? You should at least offer me an additional 20.”
“Fifteen,” Mathius said. “That’s my final offer.”
Trixie crossed her arms. “You’re not really in a position to negotiate.”
“If I die, you get nothing. I think I’m in a good position.”
Trixie’s eyes sparkled. “Oooh! You’re getting better at this, Mathius. Well done!” Trixie rubbed her chin and began to pace. “This could be so much fun. So fun. But, there’s a cost.”
Mathius frowned. “The 15 percent is the price.”
Trixie waved her hand dismissively. “Not from you, from her.”
Trixie pointed one long nail at Nova.
Nova glared back at Trixie. “I’m not giving you anything.”
As soon as she said it, she felt guilt eat at her but forced herself not to look at Mathius.
“So aggressive. But it’s a simple thing. No mana involved.”
Nova felt herself waver. “What do you want?”
“A simple thing. So very small it’s not worth even mentioning.”
“Just spit it out,” Nova said, tightening her hand on her staff.
Trixie grinned, a look of pure pleasure spreading across her face. “I need you to cut off his legs.”
Nova’s eyes widened. “What?”
Trixie laughed with pure glee. “You want to free him, yes? You have to cut off his legs.”
“He’ll bleed to death,” Nova shot back.
“He will, without me or without my connection,” Trixie said and she spun around. “Mathius will summon an associate of mine and when he does, it will come and replace his legs for him. But it can’t replace them if they are still there.”
She leaned in close to Nova. “That’s where you come in.”
“No way,” Nova said.
“Okay,” Mathius said.
Nova looked at him in bewilderment. “You’re willing to do this?”
Mathius nodded. “If it’ll give me a chance to live.
“Cut it off! Cut it off!” Trixie chanted.
Nova clenched her teeth. “This feels like a trick.”
“I know,” Mathius nodded. “But this is our best shot. Please, Nova. I’m sorry to ask this of you, but-“
“Fine,” Nova said. She looked away from Mathius and glared at the demon. “But I’ll need to recover first. I don’t have enough mana to call my scythe.”
“I can give you a boost,” Trixie said, her eyes bright.
‘No,” Nova snapped. “We’ll wait.”
Silence spilled over the cave.
“Thank you,” Mathius said, his voice tiny in the darkness.
Nova didn’t say anything. She sat down and waited. Waited to cut.
The End of Book 1
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