Adventurers had bad days. For Cease All though it felt like every bad day on her calendar was happening to her at once.
“I got killed by a bunny!” Smash Brother Homer was running beside Cease, just as ghostly as she was, and just as determined to fix that small problem. Where they differed was that Smashy was clearly ready to throw in the towel, while Cease knew they had to find out more about what was going on.
“I’m keenly aware of that,” Cease said. “Or did you miss the part where it decapitated me first?”
“It’s. A. BUNNY!” Smashy said. “One. One Bunny. And it TPK’d us!”
“To be fair, it’s a [Chaos Storm Reiver],” Swiftsong said, as she effortlessly glided along beside them. She was just as dead as they were but [Wind Elves] got special animations as ghosts, something Cease hadn’t bothered to envy until recently. “I mean, the bunny look is kinda cute, but I don’t think your average rabbitoid critter can vomit black holes like that thing can.”
“That’s what I’m talking about though,” Smashy said. “Fighting a bunny is embarrassing enough but how are we supposed to deal with attacks that ignore our defenses?”
“Oh, what? Like that’s new?” Cease said. “The devs have been throwing janky cheats like that at us since the [Shatterzone Depths Prison].”
“This isn’t like that though and you know it,” Smashy said.
The [Heartfire] they were racing back to was still one level above them but they’d taken the route so many times now, Cease was sure she could do it in her sleep.
Or at least she was sure of that until the [Hound of Fate] appeared in the passage in front of them.
Ghosts don’t have mass or momentum so when she froze in place it was instantaneous. Between one spectral footfall and the next, she went perfectly still.
None of the others asked why.
They all saw the Hound too.
And they’d all gone just as still as she had.
The [Hounds of Fate] weren’t supposed to appear in dungeons. Not low level ones were new players might legitimately not know where to go, and definitely not level capped ones like the [Emerald Rock Hells] Cease had brought her guild into.
“It’s not howling” Swingsong said. “Is that a good sign or a bad one?”
“When is anything to do with the Hounds a good sign?” Smashy asked.
“I don’t know,” Cease said. “This one isn’t moving either. It’s just standing there. Watching us.”
“Which isn’t creepy at all. No siree,” Swiftsong said.
“You guys ran into a Hound? Here?” Malevolent Sugardrop asked on the party channel. “How? We just got to the [Heartfire] and we didn’t see any Hounds anywhere. Did you take a different path?”
“No we didn’t take a different path you idiot,” Smashy said. “Do you think we’re sightseeing here?”
“I think it’s looking for something,” Swiftsong said.
“Yeah! Us!” Smashy said.
“No. She’s right,” Cease said. “Check it out. It’s not moving much but it’s ears are slowly moving. It’s listening for something.”
“Is it a blind one?” Malevolent asked. “Can they be blind?”
“I don’t think it’s blind,” Cease said though being sure of that when the creatures eyes were inky pools of darkness seemed like an uncertain bet at best. “I think whatever its listening for is far away.”
“I thought they wanted our souls though and we’re right here,” Swiftsong said. “So what’s tastier than us?”
“Maybe a killer death rabbit?” Smashy obviously didn’t mean for the suggestion to be taken seriously, but the idea stuck in Cease’s head nonetheless.
“Maybe it is. That rabbit’s not supposed to be here. We all know that. I mean we came here looking for freaky stuff and we definitely found it.”
“Three cheers for us,” Smashy said.
“So what if the Hound is here for the same reason?”
“The death dog wants to chase the death bunny? Really?” Smashy asked.
“No, she’s got a point,” Swiftsong said. “The Hounds are supposed to catch players who are out of place right?”
“They’re supposed to force us back to the [Heartfire] not drag us off to hell or wherever they take us,” Smashy said. “And they’re not supposed to be in dungeons at all!”
“Okay, so these aren’t exactly like the game’s Hounds, but the point is they’re sort of a troubleshooting system,” Swiftsong said.
“Right. We know things are going wrong here. There’s not supposed to be a death bunny in the [Emerald Rock Hells] and definitely not one that can kill an entire party of us. We came here to figure out what’s going on with the mobs leveling up though right? Maybe this is part of it.”
“Maybe. It still hasn’t eaten us,” Swiftsong said. “So maybe it’s not here for us at all?”
“We could find out if we tried to move,” Smashy said. “But I don’t want to move.”
“Me either,” Swiftsong said.
“I don’t think we should,” Cease said. “Not yet at least. Hey, Mal, if you guys have respawned can I ask you to do some kiting for me?”
“Sure! Uh. Wait. What do you want me to kite?” Malevolent asked.
“The death bunny,” Cease said. “If we can draw it closer, maybe the Hound will catch its scent easier.”
“I like that thought,” Smashy said.
“Yeah, there’s just one problem with it,” Malevolent said. “The bunny is seriously fast. I can try to pull it from a distance and then kite it out of the [Lava Warren] as fast as I can go, but it’s going to catch me.”
“That’s okay,” Smashy said. “The Hound seems like it can almost sense it now. If you can get it any closer it should be able to pick up the scent no problem.”
“Yes, but I’ll be dead too then,” Malevolent said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Swiftsong said, kneeling down slowly to get a different perspective on the [Hound of Fate].
“Thank you!” Malevolent said.
“You won’t be any worse off than we are,” Smashy said.
“No, it’s not that,” Swiftsong said. “I mean, I don’t think distance is going to matter. Look at it, the Hound’s not really moving it at all.”
“What you mean, it turned its head right there. It’s not dead. Or, you know, it’s not inanimate,” Smashy said.
“Right, but look at its feet,” Swiftsong said. “It hasn’t budged from the spot where it’s standing.”
“It’s not searching for something,” Cease said. “It’s waiting for something to come to it.”
“What? Like us?” Smashy asked.
“Maybe?” Cease could only shrug. Nothing about what was happening made sense, so anything seemed possible.
“It’s going to waiting here forever then cause I am not going anywhere near that thing,” Smashy said,
“So you’re going to stay here as a ghost then?” Swiftsong asked.
“Better than being doggie kibble,” Smashy said.
Cease wondered about that. An eternity stuck in this one corridor frozen in fear seemed like one of the less pleasant afterlives that she could imagine.
But were those really her only options? To become a ghost statue forever or to get ground up into spectral dog food?
“If we wait, it might leave on its own,” Swiftsong said.
“Can’t you all just go backwards? It’s only blocking the path in front of you, right?” Malevolent asked.
“Sure, because running away from a predator always works out well?” Swiftsong said.
“If we need to move, we’ll go backwards,” Cease said. “We won’t turn around and we’ll go slow. But not now. I want to see what its waiting for.”
“If I try to go, it’s going to wake up and eat you two isn’t it?” Smashy asked.
“We don’t know what it’s going to do,” Cease said. “That’s the point.”
“So I should try?” Smashy asked.
“If you don’t mind the chance that it’ll chase after you for being the one who moved first,” Swiftsong said.
“Yeah, I’ll just stay here,” Smash said.
“I’m going to try the bunny kiting,” Malevolent said. “Everyone else can hang back out of aggro range. I’ll snipe it from the entrance to the warren. With [Rapid March], [Diving Roll], and basic sprint I should be able to get it a lot close to you.”
“Can you see where we are?” Cease asked.
“Yeah, your markers are still showing up on my map,” Malevolent said. “I can cover half that distance with movement abilities. As long as I’ve got a headstart from there I might even be able to get the bunny to the Hound itself.”
“I don’t like this,” Smashy said. “Just because we’re screwed doesn’t mean you should be too.”
“I know, it’s so stupid right?” Malevolent said. “Turns out I can’t leave you hanging though.”
“Yeah, that is stupid. You don’t have to go down with us just because we had some bad luck,” Smashy said.
“Stand together, fall together,” Malevolent said. “That’s how we’ve always rolled.”
“Yeah, but not like this,” Smashy said.
“We can help too,” Cease said. “If the bunny does catch up to Mal, we can start moving. Worst can, that’ll draw the Hounds attention, but in that case we can at least lure it away so there’ll be a clear shot to the [Heartfire].”
“And if the Hound doesn’t move at all?” Malevolent asked.
“Then we leave it alone and respawn at the nearest unguarded [Heartfire].”
“This is a terrible plan,” Smashy said.
“Right. That’s how you know its one of ours,” Malevolent said.
“I hate you,” Smashy said.
“Yeah, I know. So are we ready to do this?” Malevolent asked.
“Wait, I think it’s found something,” Swiftsong said.
“Uh, bad news,” Malevolent said. “I think the bunny’s noticed me. Or it’s at least looking at me real funny. Screw it, I’m sniping. Be there in three server ticks.”
Cease wanted to run too, but she had no idea which direction to go.
Away from the Hound? What if she managed to escape it though only for Mal to run face first into it instead.
Towards the Hound? But it was still too soon. She could get gobbled up and Mal would still be out of luck.
A low growl filled the corridor and Cease’s ghostly stomach plummeted past her incorporeal knees.
Something was making the Hound mad.
The Hounds didn’t get mad though. Their howling was a signal to the other Hounds as much as it was a warning to ghosts to get back where they were supposed to be. A friendly warning Cease decided, at least by comparison to the sound the Hound was making as its hackles rose.
Cease had a moment to wonder what primal sin she could have committed to rouse such a deadly ire from the beast before she finally saw what the Hound had been looking for.
All consuming static.
It was a pinprick in space to start with but looking into, Cease felt a tidal current with the force of a galaxy pulling her in.
Pulling her apart.
It was wrong.
It was the end of all things.
No. Not even the end. The erasure of the beginning.
A raw violation of existence and it was spreading. Tearing apart space. Shattered her vision. Her mind. Her soul.
Then a bunny hit it.
“I lost the rabbit,” Malevolent said. “It zoomed right past me.”
“It’s here?” Swiftsong said, sounding as dazed as Cease felt.
“It’s kicking, uh, something’s butt?” Smashy said.
Cease didn’t want to look. Her mind felt ragged, but she forced her gaze up anyways.
The static was spinning around the edges of one of the [Chaos Storm Reiver’s] black hole attacks. Blue radiation crackled off the static and that made it easier to gaze upon.
“Stay back Mal,” she said quickly. “I think we know why the Hound and the Bunny are here. They’re fight…” Cease wasn’t sure what to call it or even how to describe it.
“The end of the world,” Swiftsong said.
“What? Like some kind of [Armageddon Elemental]?” Malevolent asked.
Cease saw the static bind and twist, writhing in the grasp of the black hole, and something more.
It broke free, but retained the swirling buzzsaw shape the blakchole had spun it into. Twirling through the air, it swung back to slice at the [Chaos Storm Reiver] faster than the bunny could dodge.
But not faster than the [Hound of Fate] could move.
With a single deft flick of its head, it grasped the bunny’s scruff and launched it away from the static.
The bunny spat another black hole out at the static as it bounced off a wall and resumed it’s attack.
“They’re fighting together,” Swiftsong said.
“Then their not going to be fighting alone,” Cease said. “Come on, we need to get to the [Heartfire] now.”