Before the city officially awoke, Entin stepped through the west gate and into the Wilds for the first time. He had seen the Wilds from the walls before: long stretches of green land on the west side that eventually touched a sprawling forest, and a sizable lake on the east side.
A few dozen fishermen hiked to the lake each morning. If they were lucky—meaning, they didn’t aggro any roaming monsters and die—they’d return by midday before the value of their catch would spike for dinner.
A large portion of daily trades revolved around food. Every day, it got a little bit worse, given that food was one of those oversights when converting this game to a life simulator. Somehow, the developers didn’t think to provide safe land for farming.
Entin loved the smell of early morning, the slight dampness that formed on everything, and the quiet of it, a time when everyone slept, allowing the city to sit in a moment of peace. There was an unspoken rule about disturbing that peace. Those who routinely worked before the sun rose, knew it well.
People walked through the gate and eyed him, the newb adventurer splashing in the shallow waters of the Wilds. Was it amusement or concern that creased their brows?
To the side of the main road lay a round platform tiled with stone. Blue crystals were mixed within the stonework to form an arrow. It pointed westward to the forest.
“Ah, good!” Lourne said. “You found the right waypoint, and you’re on time.” The man stood a foot shorter than Entin but made up for his small stature with a full beard and muscular chest.
Following close behind the party leader were Jantonon and Ruben, two very different men who had only been available for a few minutes last night for introductions.
Entin nodded. A bit of nervous anxiety ran rampant in his chest. “Runners are pretty cognizant of time and place.”
The three adventurers came equipped with leather armor and weapons, ready to fight real monsters.
Lourne carried a short sword and dagger, both sheathed at his waist. He seemed better suited for a tank role but was equipped as a rogue.
Jantonon held his polearm tilted back against his shoulder. The tip of the polearm curved into a thin blade while the opposing end was capped with a metal ball that nearly scraped the ground.
And Ruben—the spry man with long red hair—had a bow strapped around his chest and a quiver at his waist.
Entin’s chest tightened. He had that sickly feeling that maybe he had agreed to all of this too readily. They were all very prepared. A good thing, all things considered, but drastically different than what he brought: basic clothes and a vial of water.
Lourne smiled. “Feeling under-geared?”
“Well . . . we are going into a dungeon,” Entin said, restating in his mind that his job was to stay out of trouble and run, should the party get in over its head. Wearing equipment would only increase his risk of losing it.
“You’ll be the safest in the group. And think of this as a test run. You’ve never seen a dungeon before. Going in armed to the teeth, that just wouldn’t be smart. Maybe, after a few trips to respawn, we can invest in some gear for you.”
Having real adventurer’s gear could provide all manner of benefits, from increased Stamina to different skills, not to mention protection.
Lourne walked to the center of the waypoint and summoned his game screen. It was green with twisting vines that acted as its border, the contents of the screen blurred. After a few taps, a dialog box in transparent blue materialized in front of Entin.
Lourne has invited you to his party. [Accept/Decline]
Despite all the misgivings that twisted through his stomach, he wanted this, to finally be something more than a common Runner, not to mention all the benefits it could bring to the orphanage.
He tapped the Accept button and a chime resonated in his head. A contract icon materialized with a green checkmark, satisfying Lourne’s only requirement when he paid the sign-on bonus while promising more.
The burly leader flashed a smile, wiggling his eyebrows, then pressed something on his screen.
The world . . . stopped.
The sound of a thousand people inhaling pressed in from all sides. The colors of the gate, of the green field, and of his new party, shifted and elongated, then snapped back together.
Entin fell to a knee as a gust of forest-scented air brushed over him. Through the outstretched tree branches—and quite small—was the city’s tall walls, spires and domes and flags peaking out from behind.
The far off lake shimmered a burnt golden color, reflecting the early morning sun. And . . . ha! There, in a line, were a few dozen dots: fishermen, carefully working their way out to where they’d cast their lines and hopes for expensive fish.
A massive Land floated beyond the edge of their world. Chunks of rock as big as mountains rotated around it. He had forgotten just how majestic the Lands were.
Being nose-deep in the city didn’t give him time to see the wonders of this new reality. And to think, there were thousands of the world fragments to be explored if anyone could actually figure out how to get to them.
Entin stood. This platform was old, covered with leaves and dirt. A soft yellow glow radiated from the edges, and a notification alerted him to the fact that he was invulnerable for the next minute.
“All clear, boss,” Ruben said after turning in a full circle. His eyes were green, glowing like emerald fire. He seemed to relax. Whatever skill he was using ended, returning his eyes to their natural brown color.
Lourne nodded and stepped off the waypoint stone, breaking the circle of yellow light. Pixels scattered where his foot passed through, and like a wave, the other fragments of light dimmed to a gray and faded. The Invulnerability trait abruptly ended.
The party moved down a path that cut through the forest. To them, this was a stroll out in the market square, a place of familiarity. But to Entin . . . this was the Wilds. . . .
Birds fluttered overhead, insects buzzed, little animals skirted the strangers in their domain, jumping between branches, knocking leaves to twirl downward. It was so full of life!
Something snorted beyond the trees to the right, something big. It was a wall of brown fur with tusks, chomping on a bush.
The others paid it no attention.
There were flowers of all colors, mushrooms, and— Were those berries? He hadn’t had a berry for years, in or out of the game world. He picked one, a plump purple thing with swirls of pink, and tossed it to his mouth.
A hand caught it and squished it. “Oh-ho!” Ruben said. “These buggers will cut your Stamina in half, man. The debuff lasts a good two hours. Ab-so-lutely delicious, though probably not the best snack before a dungeon?”
“Oh. . . .” Entin said, already proving himself a fool. Stamina was what made him valuable. Everyone else had weapons and primary abilities for attacks—four primary skills that used Resource and two secondary skills that used Stamina. He, on the other hand, had six secondaries. Halving his Stamina would have been disastrous.
“You and me, we stick’n together,” Ruben said. He wrapped an arm around Entin and pulled him along. “This’ll be your first dungeon, then?”
“Right. . . . Well, we all gotta start somewhere, ay? Given that I have a bow, I avoid being in the thick of things. Just stay back by me en everything should work out fine.”
“How many dungeons have you guys completed?”
“Completed?” Ruben asked. “Like official en all? Can’t say we’ve completed any. I think you gotta kill a dungeon boss to complete a dungeon, and they’re none-too fun. You see a boss, you get out’a there.”
“There’s no buts about it. Bosses are mean little dulicks.”
“I mean,” Entin said, “if you’re not completing the dungeon, then what’s the point?”
“Loot, man! Got the lesser monsters to kill and treasures to find.”
Up ahead, Lourne stepped aside and let Jantonon take the lead. “We’re almost there,” he said and opened his game screen. “I’m assigning all of our loot to drop for Entin. We can split our finds later. Just make sure that if any of us dies, grab our items so they’re not lost.”
Entin nodded. “What if I run out of inventory space?”
“Oh, right!” Lourne snapped his fingers. He swiped his screen twice and tapped something. A blue and black bag appeared in his hand. The black parts were flaking away like ash in the wind. “Go ahead and equip this in an open bag slot. It’d normally have fourteen slots, though the curse removes four of them. Should still be helpful.”
Entin took the bag and summoned his game screen. The fourth screen held his equipped gear, which only showed his clothing. He placed the cursed bag next to his default bag of twenty slots, giving him thirty inventory slots altogether.
With the two bags equipped, he could add four more, should he ever find that many. Last he heard, no one knew how to craft equippable bags, or if they did, it was a carefully kept secret.
“Look,” Lourne said, “none of us want to die down there. However, out of all of us, it’s vital that you stay alive, you got that? If you survive, then we’ve mitigated the biggest risk of dungeoneering. So I’m just going to say it guys . . . I’m brilliant!”
“Brilliantly obvious,” Ruben said.
“Obvious? If it was so obvious, why isn’t anyone else doing it, hmm?”
“Cause we gotta split the loot.”
“Bah! Don’t be small-minded. For how often you die, we could have paid a dozen Runners by now.”
“You wound me, boss, wound me good!”
“Oh!” Lourne said, raising a finger. “And that’s not even the best part. Since he doesn’t have a weapon, we don’t split kill experience. Brilliant indeed. I think I may be a savant. A savant of . . . dungeoneering.” He said those last words in a grand proclamation to the Celestial Plane above, then cracked a smile. Everyone—except for Jantonon—laughed.
Entin turned to Ruben. “What’s the story with Jantonon?” To which Ruben shrugged and said the man was just different, not a gabby fellow.
The trail turned rocky with streams of water trickling between crevasses. Green lichen coated the sides of stones. The terrain shifted and rose at the sides, creating a path between walls of dirt.
Gnarled tree roots twisted out from those walls, then looped back into the dirt. Purple mushrooms formed like wine glasses, tasting the moisture in the air, and receding as the party neared.
After another five minutes, the ground leveled for twenty feet and stopped. A sheet of perfectly cut stone blocked the pathway. Wisps of white and gray seeped from the smooth surface and churned like clouds, slipping upward and evaporating in an endless pursuit of the sky above.
At the center of it all, hovering a foot out from the stone, was a radiant white crystal in the shape of an octahedron. Four similarly shaped black crystals—but much smaller—floated out from the center a few feet, each angled at forty-five degrees.
“There it is!” Lourne said. “Go at it, Entin, summon an Information Box.”
Entin pointed his index and middle finger at the white crystal and rotated his wrist. An Information Box displayed, outlined in gold and silver that twisted around each other to form flowers.
- Dungeon Reset: 3d 18h 24m
- Treasures: 5/5
- Leaderboard: Unclaimed
- Modifiers: None
At the bottom center of the Information Box was an emerald square. The square indicated a Rank 1 dungeon, and the color denoted its rarity as being Uncommon.
Another dialog window materialized.
Activate dungeon portal? [Accept/Decline]
Entin tapped Accept, and the screen fell away into a flurry of pixels. The four black stones snapped to the corners of a forming doorway. The white stone spun and dissolved to rippling waves of teal and blue, glowing and shifting. The waves crashed against each other, a tempest in a box, oblivious to gravity.
“Here we go!” Lourne said and stepped into the portal.
Jantonon made no comment and followed.
Ruben slapped Entin on the back and grinned wildly. “Remember,” he said, pointing, “it only feels like you’re dyin’.” He winked and stepped backward through the liquid.
Entin stood there, alone, the portal’s colors shifting across a myriad sea of blues and teals. This was what he wanted, to show others—to show himself—that he could be more.
He thought of Eizel: her smile, her confidence, her willingness to take hold of this new reality and make something of it. He’d do the same, and it started here.
He took a deep breath, held it, pinched his eyes shut in anticipation of whatever torturous pain that accompanied entering a dungeon, and stepped into the portal.