Entin stood in the dark entryway of the orphanage, a place he was lucky to call home. He gently pushed the door until it clicked shut, not wanting to wake any of the children.
His Satiated stat read 23 points above max. Lourne—the short, burly man, leader of the party of adventurers—made up for Entin’s losses with a large dinner. He now had the Overate debuff, draining his Satiated stat 10 per hour instead of the usual 5.
That was what they wanted, an agile addition to their party. He didn’t have to be a market Runner anymore, a Runner for all the ungrateful vendors that drove them like slaves.
He crossed the room with a scattering of tables to his left. Scraps of paper of all shapes and sizes were covered in sloppy crayon drawings.
The game designers didn’t plan for an orphanage, or really, didn’t plan for orphans. While everyone eighteen and older received free housing and starting money, those without parents were given nothing.
Entin fell into the unlucky camp of being born two weeks late. Or was it a blessing? After everyone he cared about had been killed in the real world, he now had a new family, one that appreciated just how special life was and understood how fast it could be taken away.
Footsteps floundered in the hallway that connected to the bedrooms. “Entin!” Ohto yelled, laughing. He was no older than four with blond hair and hazel eyes.
He wore the default clothing all players were given: indestructible brown shorts and shirt, a mark of being too impoverished to own real clothes but functional nonetheless.
The kid was barefoot with little pink nubs for toes. His tiny hands grabbed Entin’s leg and slid around him as if to hide.
“Ohto!” Ausemnie whispered from the hallway. “You were supposed to be in bed, you little demon.” She held a candle as she walked, casting a flickering light. Her auburn hair was pulled back into a braid, contrasting her fair skin and warm undertones.
It was amazing how well she handled the orphanage. It was probably the only reason the place existed, and she wasn’t much older than the rest of them. Everyone had a part to play.
Entin summoned his inventory and materialized a single scyl. The silver disk glinted in the candlelight with a transparent, purple diamond shape at the center. It was enough money to feed a few of the kids for two or three days. He flicked the coin to Ausemnie, and she caught it.
“Doing Runs this late at night?” she asked, inspecting the coin.
“Got something new coming up. That was just the sign-on bonus.”
“Well, that’s exciting. You’ll have to tell me all about it tomorrow. Ohto,” she said sternly, “Entin is very tired . . . isn’t that right, Entin?”
Entin tossed the kid’s blond hair.
“Story! I want story!” Ohto said, his face full of excitement.
“Don’t think we have any books, champ.”
“Pretend, like last time.”
Ausemnie snatched the boy and threw him onto her hip. “It’s much too late for a story. But maybe . . . if you’re good, Entin can tell you a story tomorrow?” She looked at Entin when she said that last bit, and he nodded.
“For sure, Ohto. I’ll have the grandest of tales to tell.” A story about a dungeon, and it would, undoubtedly, thrill all the others as well.
“I don’t want tails,” Ohto protested. “I want story.”
Ausemnie laughed. “A tale is another word for a story. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.” She then nodded toward the balcony doors across the room. “I think Bailey is waiting for you, Entin. Hold on to your head, okay?”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow,” Ohto said, sticking out his lower lip.
“Yes, you little runt! It’s off to bed, so we can have fun tomorrow.” She spun twice, then carried the little boy down the hallway, echoing laughter.
Entin opened the balcony’s glass doors.
Bailey was leaning on the stone railing, looking out over the city. She twirled an orange and red flower that seemed new or . . . who knew with her. She had a different flower every day like her mission was to find one and pester him about it.
“Where’ja go?” she asked, then turned to face him, forehead furrowed. “Ya didn’t bring back my water vial. I hit Exhaustion twice! En since ya were gone, Hendrick forced me to do all the jobs. ‘If ya don’t Run today, ya won’t Run tomorrow.’ Ya left me with a coggin’ slave driver!”
“Oh. . . .” Entin had completely forgotten about the vials. He swiped left with two fingers and summoned his game screen to his inventory. With a few taps, the unused vial materialized in his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I got a new job, and . . . I guess I lost track of time.”
Bailey let out a breath and dropped her shoulders. She was never one for staying mad. She took the vial and placed it in her inventory. “So yer Runnin’ for a different vendor, now?” Her voice lost its edge, growing a bit uncertain.
“For dungeoneers!” Who would have thought he could use his Runner skills beyond the walls, outside of the market? He’d finally get to see a bit of this new world, see what was out there in the Wilds.
“The Wilds? That’s too risky!” she said in a loud whisper. Of course, she didn’t appreciate the job for what it was: freedom and opportunity. “What’s so wrong with bein’ a Runner?”
“Everything!” he said. “No one values us. They shortchange us whenever they get a chance. When there are risks, we are the ones that take the full brunt of it. I’m just . . . I’m just sick of being undervalued.”
“Ya don’t have to take those jobs. Take the normal ones like I do.”
“Bailey . . . look, we’re working all day just to buy ourselves some food and maybe give Ausemnie a little something to help the others. How long are we going to do this?”
Bailey shrugged and looked down the street. Lanterns glowed a yellow-orange, casting light on the few people still out and about.
The sky was filled with thousands of white dots that blinked here and there. It was the only time Entin could see a bit of their old life, back in the colony ship, charting its course among the stars.
Bailey didn’t say anything.
“I have to do this,” Entin said.
“It’s a dungeon,” she said. “Ya think takin’ timed Runs is a risk? Ya risk everythin’ in a dungeon. Moment ya step through the entrance, yer items will take on the Droppable trait.”
“I know how it works. And that’s why they need me. I’ll stay back and pick up the items. I’m the safest person in the group. And if they die and drop their gear, I’ll get it out of there.”
Bailey exhaled. “En if you die?”
“It’s not like I am going to take much with me.”
“Just yer clothes. Vendors aren’t going to hire someone who can’t afford real clothes. A Runner practically in underwear, ya imagine?”
“I don’t want to be a Runner!”
“Fine! Do whatever ya want. Maybe you’ll see how good we’ve got it when yer stuck in yer dungeon with no way out.” Bailey’s nostrils flared. “I . . .” Her voice cracked. She stopped and stared for a moment, then walked to the balcony’s glass doors and left.
What could he have said? That he needed this, that Eizel would never respect a market Runner? That the adventure called to him?
Things couldn’t—shouldn’t—stay the same.
He sighed and studied the stars. The constellations shimmered in all the wrong places, different shapes from the ones he used to study with his father. These were nameless and without stories, without memories.
A piece of him felt cracked without Bailey. They were partners in this new life, weren’t they? Partners ever since their families died.
That was a thought he couldn’t linger on. This was their world now. This was his family now. There was no point in dwelling in the past.
He would make a difference.
He would be someone important, someone who could provide for all the others in need of help. He’d make them smile and ease their pain.
Somehow . . . he’d just have to make Bailey understand that this was the way forward. And it all started in the morning.
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