Prologue – Serpent Swallows The Sword

 

Dark fantasies raced through Serah’s mind almost as quickly as she sprinted to the forest’s edge.

The first bastard that touches me is going to get stabbed in the dick. The second one? They’ll get stabbed in the dick too…if I live that long. 

She had been fleeing her pursuers for two days. She had no idea what they wanted with her, but none of the possibilities seemed pleasant. They wouldn’t have chased her so aggressively just to sit down and chat. 

There were three of them, all male. They wore faded leather armor that was obviously second-hand. Judging by the bloodstains on the gear, Serah was reasonably certain these guys hadn’t acquired their outfits from willing donors. Just another reason for her to get away from them as quickly as possible. But being out here in an open stretch of grass wouldn’t let her shake them off. She had to make it to the trees for a chance to lose them.

“Ea, can you estimate how long until I make it to the forest? How long before the leader catches up to me?” Serah asked her AI.

[With a Dexterity of 1.3, you will reach the forest’s edge in ninety seconds. The fastest pursuer will reach you in sixty seconds. The other two will reach you in sixty-five and sixty-nine seconds. That is assuming none of them have speed-boosting abilities.]

Yeah, definitely stabbing the first one in his junk; that might make the other two think twice. If I can deal with the first one, then maybe the others will back off. I can handle them one-on-one, but not all three at once.

Serah let Ea plot the fastest course to the treeline while turning her head to gauge how close they were. Although Ea could tell her the exact distance, Serah still wasn’t experienced enough to judge that without checking it with her own eyes. She’d only fought a couple of monsters and was still a new cultivator. Her only advantage was that these guys had even worse gear than she did.

Four days ago, she had set out from Dawn. Her aunt had given her a beautiful Blood Obsidian rapier that almost matched the shade of Serah’s waist-length hair. The sword wasn’t particularly strong for a cultivator weapon, but it would perform better than mundane steel. Serah wore the horsehide vest and pants she’d had made from her first kill.

The Equinir. The beast that had set her down her path.

Serah didn’t like thinking about the encounter. The horse-like creature had been an abomination. It looked very much like a horse except for the head. Gray flesh covered its face, and it had no eyes, ears, or nose– only a too-large mouth with glistening teeth.

The equinir had almost taken a chunk out of her shoulder with those teeth. She had taken a strike from its rear hooves and broken three ribs before planting her steel sword in its heart. She’d never killed anything before. She’d never imagined a body could be so hard to pierce. Like every cultivator’s first kill in Moonless Labyrinth, she had relied on luck just as much as skill to survive that encounter. Many would-be cultivators fell to the first monster they had to fight.

[Thirty seconds until interception.] Ea’s warning shook her from her moment of distraction. Why couldn’t these assholes have died fighting their first monster? Is my whole journey out of this godless Labyrinth going to be spent running?  

 

She knew what she had to do. She had a long road ahead of her if she was going to reach the exit to this prison. She was going to have to be harder, smarter. Crueler. She couldn’t afford to let every cultivator she met think she was a rabbit to be caught and devoured.

Serah slowed her pace a little, trying to make it seem like she was running out of stamina. How did that look? Was she supposed to hobble a bit, or act out of breath? She put on her best ‘I’m tired, come and catch me’ act while preparing to draw her sword. It wasn’t too hard to pretend– she really was growing weary.

Her pursuers didn’t disappoint. The fastest one saw Serah slow down. He was close enough for her to see the hungry look in his eyes. Definitely not here for a chat, she thought. She let him close the distance a bit, waiting for him to get into range of her sword. 

Serah began the summoning. As a fresh Summoner who had only just recently captured a Spirit, she was still vulnerable to the creature’s psychic retaliation. Their bond was still new. It would take time to tame the wild creature, to make sure it knew who was riding who. She put up her mental defenses as Ea had taught her. She was in control. She would direct the monster’s soul and manifest it as she wished. She could feel it fight her guidance. It wouldn’t break free, but it would contest her authority. Serah couldn’t let it influence her too much, or she would lose her humanity. 

She didn’t want to imagine that thing running around wearing her like a suit. But she needed its might. 

“Hey, sweet thing! Why don’t you just give up? We both know you can’t keep this up. If you surrender, it won’t be so bad. Spend the night entertaining my friends and me, give up that nice sword, and we’ll let you go in the morning. I promise to be gentle,” the soon-to-be-dead cultivator said as he ran. He was already thinking of what it would feel like inside her, not knowing his prey was also figuring out where she would plant her sword.

Serah flushed, though she wasn’t sure if it was from anger or embarrassment. She knew she was attractive, but these were the wilds of Moonless Labyrinth. Death was around every corner. Did this asshole really have nothing better to do than have these kinds of rapacious thoughts? She felt her mental shield slip as her anger built. The equinir spirit was pulling against the reins of their bond, her rage feeding into the beast’s bloodlust. 

She indulged it. Channeling some of the beast’s power to her legs, Serah pivoted at high speed and trusted that the power of the equinir would prevent her bones from breaking under stress. She could almost hear her femurs groaning under the burden, but she made the turn. With the energy still in her legs, she pushed off the ground and raced towards her opponent. He looked surprised and began to backpedal. Good.

She’d already chosen her target. She whipped her rapier out, already prepping to redirect the equinir’s strength from her legs to the weapon. She tried to calm herself. This part was critical; if she moved the power too early, she’d lose her momentum and come up short. Too late, and the thrust wouldn’t have the power and accuracy to catch that scrambling pile of garbage off-guard. 

It flowed beautifully. The scarlet rapier began to glow as energy trickled into it. Serah couldn’t manifest her spirit yet, but she could feel the equinir’s soul flow into the blade. Its unbridled joy at getting to attack something merged into her own excitement.

She didn’t even realize she was grinning and baring her teeth at her opponent as she pushed her sword along its trajectory. Right into his dick.

Serah was a woman of her word.

The man had been on the backfoot when she struck. She didn’t impale him on her sword–she didn’t have the right angle–but she caught him in his groin and was able to get the sword a foot into his abdomen. He fell to the ground, frozen in pain. SHe didn’t let him get away, pinning him to the ground with her sword.

Serah raised an eyebrow at him. “Sorry, sweet thing. I guess my thrust isn’t as gentle as yours.” She held onto her blade as she loomed over her bleeding foe, gently twisting the blade. His scream was a refreshing rain, cooling her blood and bringing her focus back.

The slowest of her three attackers slowed down and chose to flee. Serah could see he used a greatsword. He definitely didn’t have the speed to keep up with her in a fight and had made the smart choice to leave with his life intact. The second runner-up slowed a little for a second. She was sure he was going to turn and flee like his comrade, but…something wasn’t right.

[Warning!]

The man’s legs shimmered as he surged forward. Crap, he’s got a speed skill! He was already closing the distance. “I’ll be back for you, sweet thing,” Serah said as she jerked her rapier back. She made sure to twist it again as she pulled it out. Maybe he’d bleed out and save her the trouble of finishing him off.

She didn’t have time to move any spirit back into the blade. Not that she had much strength left. Her pivot back there hadn’t broken her legs, but the muscle fibers were definitely torn. Readying an attack stance, Serah faced her last opponent. He held a steel dagger. Not even made from monster materials. Pathetic. 

She cut sideways with her blade, forcing him to cease his rush or find himself separated from his head. With his charge interrupted, Serah pushed closer. A few deft thrusts showed her that this man wasn’t much of a combatant. With how he had dashed suddenly, he should be a Summoner like her. Why wasn’t he empowering his blade? Was it incompatible with his beast soul?

Whatever. He didn’t have long to live anyway. With a flick of her rapier, Serah initiated an attack towards his groin. He’d seen what she did to his friend. He channeled power to his legs to dodge the incoming attack.

A mistake. Serah smoothly changed the angle of her attack, swinging up and piercing through the man’s throat. He fell almost as soon as she felt the sword tip pass through the soft flesh of his neck. This one would certainly bleed out.

The third man was long gone by now. It was almost a shame– Serah felt like she had enough energy for one more fight. And supplies were uncommon in the wilds. She was sure he at least had some rations on him. She couldn’t have carried the greatsword, but maybe Ea could have done something with it.

[Don’t forget; your first opponent is still alive. Do not let him get away.]

Serah strolled back to him. He was on his hands and knees, trying to crawl away, but he wasn’t getting very far. Blood had soaked through his pants and left a dark trail in the grass. She kicked him over onto his back so he could look into her eyes.

“You should be honored. You’re the first one I’ve used this thrust against. You won’t be the last.

“I think I’ll name it ‘Serpent Swallows the Sword.’ A little grandiose for that garden snake you’re packing, but a good attack needs a good name. It did strike a small target pretty accurately.”

She didn’t even wait for his reply. The sword came down and pierced through his neck. With the blood he’d already lost, he died almost instantly. 

After wiping off her blade and resheathing it, Serah began to rustle through the two mens’ belongings. She couldn’t take long; beasts would smell the blood for miles around and come rushing for a meal. She didn’t want to begin another chase. 

She managed to scavenge some basic rations and the other man’s steel dagger. It was a pathetic weapon, but she lacked a backup. It would do until she could scavenge something better later. 

The equinir’s spirit was already fading, returning to sleep as it restored its energy; Serah wouldn’t be able to count on its power for another few hours. She huffed and asked her AI, “Ea, how long until I reach the next Floor?”

[Counting time to rest and heal, you should reach the next Floor in 15 days.]

Not too bad. A couple of weeks to rest and get more familiar with her abilities was just about right. She’d tackle the next Floor at full strength. Serah stood and looked toward the nearby forest. 

I’ll escape this rotten Labyrinth or die trying.