Killstreak Book One: Respawn - An Excerpt

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Killstreak Book One: Respawn

Chapter 1

            “What do you think?” Lord Kadorax Darkarrow whispered to his sole companion, a thin half-serpent with a scaly head and flat ears.

The bipedal snake-man’s gaze darted around nervously as his tongue licked the air. There were torches on the walls, but most of them had already sputtered out. Ahead, down a stone ledge slick with old moss, a ring of robed humanoid figures stood around an altar. “Five against two,” Syzak hissed. “And none of them are above your level, my lord, not even close.”

Kadorax nodded. “Good. Which one is the strongest?”

Syzak scrutinized the ring of priests once more, using his Detect Strength ability to read their stat sheets. “There,” he pointed with one of his three green fingers, “the one on the left is two levels higher than the others. That one is their leader.”

Again, Kadorax nodded. He was characteristically silent, taking every precaution to hide his presence as thoroughly as he could. As the head of the Blackened Blades, he valued stealth and secrecy above all else.

“Shall I take the leader first, my lord?” Syzak asked. He held a small crystal wand between the three fingers of his left hand, clearly eager to cast a spell and begin the fight.

For a moment, Kadorax called his own stat sheet to his vision, flicking his eyes downward to scroll through the myriad of spells and abilities he had mastered over the last decade. He had spent years training both his mind and body, and now he was the highest-level assassin-mystic hybrid in the entire realm of Agglor. Ever weary of traps, he focused his vision on the Discover Magic spell and viewed the proper casting procedure from his ability sheet. It had been years since he had needed the spell, and it wasn’t one he kept lodged in his brain for quick use.

Kadorax silently mouthed the words to the mundane incantation, having long ago earned the Silent Casting talent, and two areas of his vision lit up with brilliant, translucent color. The first had been expected. The humanoid leader—he still wasn’t positive what the priests actually were—showed a heavy aura of red magic encasing his form, likely a protective ward of some sort. The second area of magic came from a large circular rune inscribed on the wall behind the altar, and Kadorax didn’t know what it meant.

“Can you disable the leader?” the assassin whispered so faintly he could barely be heard.

“Of course,” Syzak answered with a smile.

Kadorax held up a hand. “He has a red aura around him, probably Stone Skin or Magic Armor, perhaps of a rank we have not seen before. Can you break it?”

Syzak’s serpentine eyes inspected the humanoid once more, but only for a few seconds. “I have Strip Enchantment, though it is a costly spell,” he said.

Handing the snake-man a silver shard of reflective metal, Kadorax nodded. “No chances,” he breathed. While most of the spells in Agglor could be cast by having them unlocked and either reading or knowing their incantational phrases, certain extremely powerful abilities required specific components which were sometimes incredibly difficult to obtain.

Kadorax’s Discover Magic casting was about to expire, so he flashed a quick successions of rudimentary hand signals to his companion, and then shimmied over the edge to begin his descent down the nearly sheer rock surface of the temple’s interior wall. His gloves, black silk constructions know as Cat Paws, silently gripped the flat surface beneath his fingers with all the strength of a well-muscled panther. On the temple’s floor, Kadorax melted into the shadows. The place smelled musty and damp, and the flagstones making up the ground were wet with stale rainwater.

Above the assassin’s head, a partially concealed flicker of purple light emanated from Syzak’s wand, shooting across the temple with blinding speed. The magical glob struck the leader in the chest, and Kadorax saw the humanoid’s red aura fade just seconds before his Discover Magic spell wore off, unable to be cast again for several hours.

Kadorax sprinted forward on leather boots as silent as the grave. He reached behind his back and grasped the bone handle of a dagger hidden in a sheath under his cloak. The bone was frigid in his grasp, ice cold even through his gloves, and the blade was so dark it actually dripped a steady stream of viscous shadows onto the stone ground between his strides.

He took the first robed priest in the back before any of them even noticed Kadorax among their ranks. The priest let out a muffled shriek as he crumpled to the ground. When his robe fluttered to the side Kadorax finally saw the head of a jackal underneath, its teeth bared.

Dogheads, Kadorax mused, using the derogatory term for the race. He had killed scores of the jackal-headed beasts throughout the years, and he’d never regret a single strike of his blade.

Another bolt of purple magic sailed over Kadorax toward the doghead leader, catching the jackal fully in the chest. At once, a rigid shell of stone grew up from the temple floor to encase the beast, locking it in place in a dark, constricting prison that was as terrifying as it was effective.

Kadorax didn’t waste any time. He spun from target to target, whirling his black blade between the two nearest living enemies and rending them to bloodied bits.

While his compatriots were dying, the final jackal had run a few steps backward and drawn a small crossbow from underneath his dark robe. The weapon clicked and thrummed, and the steel bolt held in its track sprang forward.

Kadorax quickly whispered the words to Shield Maw, and a fiery dragon’s head sprang to life in front of his body to consume the incoming missile. He didn’t need to use such flashy magic—his Expert Reflexes would have easily moved him out of the way quickly enough to dodge the bolt—but he hated doghead scum. He wanted the remaining jackal to fear him, to contemplate its own death before he gutted it, and the dramatic spell certainly did the trick.

The jackal only spent a few heartbeats trying to reload its crossbow before it gave up and turned to run. Kadorax chased after it, clearing the distance almost instantly and sinking his dagger into the fur-covered doghead. The creature shuddered, but it did not die. It slumped to the ground and mewled, its bounty of experience points flashing in yellow just above its head. Kadorax stepped over, letting the congealed shadows surrounding his blade drip onto the doghead’s chest. The shadows themselves were harmless, but the psychological impact they had on a dying foe was certainly palpable.

“P—”

Kadorax stomped down on the creature’s throat, silencing it before it could speak a single intelligible syllable.

With a faint rumble, the experience Kadorax gained from the swift battle sifted into his body, adding to his already staggering total. He brought up his sheet again to check his progress toward the next level, but he knew more or less what it would be. The jackals hadn’t been worth much. He was still more than fifty percent away from level seventy-three. His next talent, Exceptional Void Strike – Execution: Rank 7, was still frustratingly far away. He would have to kill hundreds of dogheads to even make a dent in the total.

Then a rumbling from behind snapped Kadorax’s thoughts back to the present, and he dismissed his stat sheet with a thought. The leader was still alive, and he was finally breaking free of Syzak’s stone prison.

Seeing his eviscerated companions, the jackal’s eyes went wide, but he was still quick on his hairy feet. The jackal rolled left behind the stone altar, drawing a slender sword from his robe and rolling his wrist with practiced ease. Kadorax had never learned the Detect Strength ability, but he could tell the jackal leader was far beyond the mere underlings lying dead around the altar. Repeating the words to his most frequently used spell, Kadorax felt the familiar rush of adrenaline brought on by Slaughtering Surge filling his veins. He sprang forward with lightning speed, twirling his lightless dagger downward for a quick killing blow, and met the jackal’s adept parry with a ring of steel.

Flurry of Strikes pumped through Kadorax body, moving his right arm as quickly as it could physically go, putting on a dazzling display of violence made possible only by the assassin’s maxed out Agility stat. Shockingly, the jackal matched his relentless pace.

The jackal leader ducked his shoulder and used a talent, Armor Break by the look of the yellow sheen on his weapon, charging forward with power akin to a stone giant fueling his legs.

Kadorax staggered backward. It was the first time in over two years his Strength had been matched, and the sheer surprise of it broke his concentration for a split second. The jackal was relentless. The creature’s slender blade came in from every angle, slashing at Kadorax’s face over and over again.

Growling with sadistic pleasure born from a true challenge, Kadorax summoned his character sheet to the corner of his vision and searched for Pull from the Void, repeating the order of the required words several times in his mind before attempting to cast the spell. When he finally let it loose, a shadowy hand of pure magic erupted from his chest and sailed toward the hidden ledge where Syzak waited. The small snake-man latched onto the hand and rode it back down, flinging a rapid barrage of lightning and fire from his wand all the while.

Some of Syzak’s magical bolts managed to hit their target, but the jackal leader wasn’t particularly fazed. His red aura returned, now visible without magically enhanced vision, and it absorbed the energy of the magical assault almost fully. Kadorax had never seen the defensive enchantment before, and he had seen almost everything, or so he had thought.

Working quickly as he cast, Syzak brought forth a Wall of Frost in the narrow gap between Kadorax’s boots and the jackal’s furry paws. The shaman augmented the spell with another talent activation, one Kadorax had only seen him use a few times, and the wall that erupted from the ground reached far over either combatant’s head. Kadorax scampered backward to catch his breath and scour his character sheet for an answer.

“He’s fast,” Syzak hissed, keeping his wand ready and a spell at the front of his mind.

Kadorax didn’t waste his breath on a response. The jackal was quicker than any opponent he had fought before, and he needed something unexpected, something obscure, to turn the tide.

“The wall will not hold much longer,” Syzak said. “Should we flee?”

Eldritch Fire!” Kadorax yelled as he completed the spell. A burst of blueish-black flame licked out from the end of his dagger toward the ice wall. A quick activation of Perfect Timing let him flawlessly judge the expiration of Syzak’s conjuring. Snapping his wrist forward, a burst of black fire cascaded through the falling, dissipating ice, and fully engulfed the howling jackal.

Kadorax lunged forward with his blade, shielding his eyes from the painful mixture of fire and ice raining down on his shoulders. At rank ten, the highest available to any spell, Kadorax’s Eldritch Fire was nothing short of a cataclysmic conflagration—and it worked. The jackal only avoided part of the blast with his Improved Reflexes. His mangy hair danced with flames, and the jackal howled as he spun through the temple, slapping at the licking flames in vain.

Coup de Grâce!” Kadorax yelled, activating his Assassin’s Superior Talent with a brilliant flourish. His blade danced in his hands, flinging thick globs of shadow to every corner of the room, and the burning jackal could only offer a meager attempt at a parry. In a blur of speed, Kadorax appeared to the jackal’s left, then his right, and finally he was behind the beast with his black dagger held high above the creature’s spine. He drove it downward with all his strength.

The jackal leader’s experience flashed in yellow above his head as he died. The formidable foe had been worth just over three thousand experience, and that brought Kadorax noticeably closer to level seventy-three, though he was still roughly thirty-five percent from leveling again.

Sweat poured down Kadorax’s head. Next to him, Syzak tucked his wand back into his belt. “Where’s the loot?” the snake-man asked. He nudged the jackal leader’s corpse with his boot, pushing aside the front of the robe to inspect the body for treasure. He found nothing.

“Use Detect Hidden, Syzak,” Kadorax panted, thoroughly exhausted. Part of why he had risen to be Agglor’s highest-level assassin had been his choice of battles. He never fought more than one heavy encounter in a day, and he preferred to only test himself once a week if he could, being as frugal as possible with his rewards specifically to allow himself the most meaningful respites. Due to his style, he hadn’t taken many of the endurance-related talents, so he had no way of reducing his recovery time with magic.

Syzak uttered the words to the simple spell. “Oh, shit,” he said almost at once.

Kadorax skipped backward on the balls of his feet, dagger at the ready and chest heaving from exertion, scanning the temple for some new threat he had not seen.

“The inscription,” Syzak explained, pointing to the magical symbols behind the altar. “There’s a door. The jackals were summoning something, not imprisoning it…”

As if on cue, the wall behind the altar shook forcefully. Something was breaking through it with heavy fists. Something massive and beyond powerful. Something unknown. Something.

“Lord Kadorax, I feel it unwise to remain here,” Syzak implored, his serpentine eyes full of terror.

“We haven’t gotten any loot yet,” Kadorax growled. He scanned through his list of abilities, quickly reorganizing them so that his unused spells and talents appeared at the top of his character sheet. “Whatever it is, it’s guarding the treasure. We stay.”

A few bricks fell out of the wall, and Syzak glimpsed something dark—and enormous—pounding away at the stone on the other side. “Kad! We can come back later!” he screamed. The snake-man turned to run, but Kadorax caught him by the arm.

“We’ve defeated worse,” Kadorax reminded him.

“Have we?”

The wall crumbled inward.

A giant, horned head emerged from the rubble, quickly followed by four muscled arms, each the size of tree trunks. The thing roared, and then it wrenched the rest of its body free, coming to its full height in the high-ceilinged temple.

Lord Kadorax Darkarrow felt his heart catch in his chest. He had fought dragons on several occasions and lived to tell the tales, but those encounters had always been with dozens of other high-level adventurers. With only a single shaman at his side, powerful as they were together, he knew he was outclassed.

The beast, whatever it truly was, stood over twenty feet tall. Its skin looked like rock, but it flowed and moved with such ease that Kadorax knew it was organic—some sort of hardened carapace—and its head was covered in a circular pattern of bulging black eyes that reminded the assassin of a scorpion. It had four arms, each vaguely humanoid and rippling with muscle beneath its thick armor, though it did not wield any weapons in the traditional sense.

“W-what is it?” Kadorax stammered. He tried to access the dungeon boss’ character sheet, but all he saw was a series of question marks highlighted in deep crimson floating near the top of his vision.

Before either hero could speak, the boss reared its hideous head. “I am your undoing!” it announced with all the strength of a world-ending earthquake.

Kadorax flew through his list of abilities to find the one that would take him and Syzak farthest from the temple in the least amount of time. “Teleport!” he yelled, grabbing his companion with both arms to ensure they traveled together.

Nothing happened.

The four-armed beast laughed, its voice so loud the Kadorax had to cover his ears to keep the pain at bay.

Teleport!” the assassin tried again. Still, his feet remained firmly planted on the temple’s stone floor.

Shadow Step!

Nothing.

Fade!

Nothing.

Kadorax flew through his list of mystic abilities, searching for something that might work in the boss encounter. He settled on Smoke Leap, a low-level ability designed to vault him upward and forward by about thirty feet while leaving behind a decoy made of smoke, but the ability did not function properly. Something blocked it.

“You cannot run, puny human,” the massive boss taunted. “No one can escape their own grave.”

Kadorax had encountered enemies in the past with similar magic-preventing abilities. Typically, the dampening field was generated by an enchanted ring or amulet worn by the user, but the towering beast featured nothing of the sort.

Slaughtering Surge!” Kadorax finally yelled, bringing a fresh wave of adrenaline to his arms and legs.

Syzak summoned forth a shell of protective energy around the assassin, and then a burst of brilliant light shot from the snake-man’s wand. The spell landed on the boss’ head, but it did not have the intended effect of blinding the creature. In fact, it didn’t appear to have any effect whatsoever.

When Kadorax reached the horned beast, it was ready for him. Arm after heavy arm came hammering down into the temple floor like boulders dislodged in a landslide. Each strike was enough to turn Kadorax into dust, and his Expert Reflexes were all that kept him alive. Swerving between the arms, the assassin brought his dripping blade of shadows in with all the strength he had left in his body, slashing furiously at the creature’s exoskeleton covering its segmented right leg.

Kadorax’s blade clicked loudly off the boss’ armor. From his position between the beast’s legs, he could just barely see into the room from where the horned thing had emerged, and it was full to the ceiling with treasure—more than the assassin had ever seen before. Piles of glittering gold shone in the torchlight, and iron-banded chests were stacked in neat rows as far in as he could see.

Breaking his greed-fueled reverie, a huge hand swept Kadorax up from the ground, crushing all the air from his lungs. On the ground, Syzak used every ounce of obscure arcane knowledge he had to rain blow after blow on the creature, though none of them had any visible effect. Even spells like Void Prison, an incredibly high-level magical assault designed to immobilize even the most magic-immune foes, simply did not succeed.

The boss brought Kadorax up to its huge maw. “I am your undoing, human!” it yelled. Its breath smelled rotten and old, like the beast had been chained in its prison for hundreds of years with nothing but dead adventurers to fill its belly.

Kadorax saw a hint of yellow coming down from the top of his vision. It was his experience total—the amount the boss was about to claim for itself. “I’ll see you at the spawn, my friend,” the assassin called to Syzak, his voice shaking.

The snake-man nodded. “In the next life,” he answered. “In the next life…”

Laughing all the while, the dungeon boss squeezed. It didn’t need to activate any ability, and it didn’t even bother to watch. In an instant, Kadorax’s chest caved in on his organs, squishing the life from his body like a bug caught beneath the hoof of a horse.

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