Entin materialized on his back, lying on a stone slab in the city’s cemetery. He let out an annoyed breath and sat up, scaring a school of Timberwood Spiritfish.
They swam through the air—glistening dark blue and purple scales in the fading sunlight, fins bright red—and dove into the ground, growing flowers in a swerving trail.
So cogging close!
The treasure room had changed.
He got through the Osaylas entirely undetected—which was a feat all by itself—though the treasure room’s challenge was different. Not altogether different, but different nonetheless.
The tiles fell in a new pattern, creating far more pathways that led to dead-ends. And the snake wasn’t just a giant boney distraction. It came crashing through columns, sending bits of marble flying every which way.
It was terrifying. But even so, he should have succeeded. It was always just one tiny misjudgment, one imperceptible mistake, one second longer when it should have been shorter, that ultimately led to his failure.
Did the challenges get harder every time the treasure was stolen?
Well, now he knew.
There had to be an easier way to secure a victory here, a way to trick the dungeon. Exploit it? Yes. That was, in fact, what he was already doing.
Dungeons were filled with monsters meant to be killed by adventurers, not be entirely avoided. He was a dungeon thief, a cheater, the type of player who broke all the rules.
But this wasn’t a game. It may well look like a game and feel like a game, though ultimately, this was their new reality, a reality where everyone slowly starved and lived in misery.
Entin jumped off the slab, which was only one of many throughout the cemetery. No gravestones or mausoleums—not even a monument for all the lives lost in the real world—just many slabs set in alcoves filled with flowers, trees, and trickling water.
The place had all sorts of spiritfish drifting through the air like this was an aquarium. Beautiful as they were, they were skittish things. And even if you did manage to kill one, they made for terrible eating, from what people have said.
Out of all the flowers that grew here, covering the curving walls and tree branches in color, there was one he hadn’t seen before, which was dumbfounding given how many flowers Bailey had shoved in his face.
She really did love flowers. . . .
This one was almost neon green with a scattering of black dots and smelled of pickles. The Information Box said it was a Lencheyen. Hmm. He plucked it. At least he wouldn’t return completely empty-handed.
Entin followed one of the winding stone paths out to a street. This was the first time he had actually respawned at the cemetery. One would expect a priest or something, though it seemed abandoned to the fish.
Apparently, the cemetery was placed near the Upper West Bench. Rich people want the convenience of a shorter walk. Not that they even used it. For some reason, people—especially people of means—preferred not to fight terrible monsters to the death.
Odd, that. . . .
He marched down the street wearing his default clothing, feeling exposed, naked, and judged. In the morning, it wasn’t half as bad, not with most of the city asleep. But now? People were lining up in front of restaurants early, wanting the first choice at the dwindling menu options.
Those same people stared at him as he walked by. Maybe they were afraid that in a few days or a few weeks, they’d be as pathetically underdressed as him.
It was his choice to go without items, but darn did he hate how people saw him. They pitied him like that older woman in the Wilds. He was just another fallen member of society that couldn’t afford clothes.
Speaking of which, there were others in brown shirts and shorts huddled along the walls and shops. Some held out their hands, asking for copper chyps or food. When he passed, they ignored him, treating him as one of their own: worthless, penniless, and desperately hungry.
He made his way through the market toward the orphanage. Adventurers were bartering whatever goods they managed to find out in the Wilds. Runners yelled that they were coming through, running against some invisible timer that would determine whether or not they ate tonight.
Eizel and her many friends weren’t out at their usual spot. Part of him yearned to see her. Another part was sickened by that desire.
In only a few days since Bailey confessed her feelings, things had changed.
First, it was practically impossible to avoid her for long. They lived together, ate together, and up until he became a Dungeon Runner, worked together.
Second, as blindsided as he was by her affection, he did like her. Perhaps that was the secret to love, to first become best friends. Then all it would take was a spark of a moment to transform the relationship.
Thinking of Eizel felt like cheating, and he didn’t know how to deal with that. He may now be bits of ones and zeroes, but he wasn’t a robot. He couldn’t just turn off feelings he had nurtured for years, even if Eizel were all the terrible things that Bailey said she was.
“Boy!” Hendrick yelled from his booth. “Leave my service a week, now look at’cha. Wandering the cogging streets with nothing! You could come back, yeah? Make some money.”
Entin hadn’t the time nor energy to waste. He marched right on past Hendrick and took the stairs to the Southern District. Having nothing would be better than doing Runs for that greasy cog.
Someday, Hendrick would work for Entin, not the other way around. Sell his stuff, fulfill his orders, get the bad end of his contracts. And the man would do it with that greedy smile of his, whether he wanted to or not.
People were out in force, yelling at a tavern where the developers were given free rent and food for the first year. What would that be like, to not have to worry about anything?
The crowd chanted, “NPCs have to go. NPCs hear our pleas!”
Huh, they weren’t protesting the developers but the Lumarians, the people that built the city. They were controlled by advanced artificial intelligence and worked a lot of the mundane jobs.
“The Lumies aren’t even human. They aren’t real!” one guy yelled, pointing to a girl trying to get through the crowd. She had bright pink hair, matching eyes that were larger than a human’s, and little pink swirls around her neck. Lumarians weren’t that tall, usually around four or five feet, and had oddly pointed faces, almost heart-shaped.
“They are eating our food!” a woman yelled, and the crowd murmured their agreement. Even if the NPCs were fake people, they had to eat like all other creatures in the world.
Entin shook his head. If it weren’t for the Lumarians, none of the real people would have homes or food. In truth, the imbalance was entirely due to real people not contributing, not farming, not adventuring. What did people do, anyway?
The girl’s eyes were wide. Some old man grabbed her arm, and she shrieked. She tugged and tugged until a guard said something, and the man let go, letting her fall to the cobblestone street.
The girl was so lifelike, so real, and the display of her frantically scampering away stoked a fire Entin hadn’t realized was there.
Maybe the fiery rage was because he couldn’t do anything about it. He was powerless. He couldn’t even earn money for the orphanage, which in any other perfect world, wouldn’t need to exist.
The developers had a lot to answer for, but the Lumarians? If people weren’t going to get off their lazy butts and do something, they had no right to complain.
Entin forced himself to turn away and continue down the street. This perfect new world of theirs was falling apart. It was supposed to be their second chance.
Maybe everyone got too accustomed to having everything given to them that they forgot what it meant to work. And yet, all he could do was focus on his problems, the problems that he could control.
The orphanage was in the poor district. It was one of the only taverns in the area and the only one without ale. People kept their distance.
Pity had turned into some form of worthless currency. Everyone felt bad for the other but was entirely unwilling to do anything about it.
Entin pushed open the large front door and stepped inside. Laughter filled the main room beyond the entryway. Kids ran out from the hallway, tossing a small hay ball. Little Ohto crashed through a chair and slammed his head on the table’s base. It made a loud thwack! A -144 in red lifted above his head.
The other kids giggled. Ohto pushed himself up, frowning at them. “That hurt!” He then charged the boys and a girl, Tayla, barely a year older than him.
Ausemnie caught Entin’s eye, silently asking the only question that mattered. He shook his head, and, for the briefest of moments, the flicker of disappointment touched her eyes. She smiled and nodded, never one to make others feel bad for their ineptitude.
It wasn’t like Entin hadn’t given them everything, including the spherical emerald he was so determined to hand over to Eizel. Unfortunately, other than looking pretty, it wasn’t worth a lot. Shiny rocks weren’t edible, so the only people who had the spare coin to buy them were those on the Upper West Bench.
“Children, settle down,” Ausemnie said. “We’re going to eat. Go clean up and take your places. Yes, you too, Joia.”
“Food?” Joia asked, her voice a squeak. She had hopeful large brown eyes and pigtail braids.
“Yes, it’s dinner time. Ziera?”—Ausemnie flagged down her sister, a girl about eleven years old and always helping with the kids—“can you help Joia?”
Entin maneuvered through the room of bodies. He made it to the hallway and to the small room that he shared with the other boys that were older. They had one Stash chest between them, which was more than all the kids had.
He tapped the Stash and pulled his clothes into his inventory. With another few taps, he selected the clothing and equipped them. Such a small thing, though it was like donning armor.
He shouldn’t complain since none of the kids had their own clothes, but to him, it was his identity, it was respect.
“How’d it go?” Bailey asked from behind.
Entin turned. She was leaning against the doorframe with that smile of hers. She had blonde hair that bobbed down to her chin and wild blue eyes that said no matter how bad things got, she’d be excited and happy. It was that constantly positive energy of hers that he liked the most.
“Nothing this time,” he said. “Except. . . .” He summoned his inventory with a sideswipe and tapped the only item there. The neon green flower with black dots materialized from matching pixels. The fragrance—somehow stronger—filled the room.
Bailey laughed. “Pickles!” She grabbed the flower and stuck her nose in it, then squinted one eye, turned her head, and coughed. “It’s a bit strong.”
“It’s a Lencheyen,” he said. “Len-chey-en.”
“I’m not the one who always forgets!” She tucked the flower above her left ear and grabbed his hand, pulling him back into the crowded room full of children.
The tables were now pushed together into one long table with chairs tucked around it. The older kids, some of which were Runners, helped get kids into their chairs.
Ausemnie summoned little plates of food for each child. The contents were quite small: a quarter of a potato and a few strips of some kind of meat.
Someone triggered the hearth’s fire. It blazed to life, casting warmth throughout the room, and started the default tavern music. Grenden and Isan, two Asian brothers around nine years old, tossed the hay ball. Ohto tried to catch it, spilling his cup of water.
“Not at the table!” Ausemnie said sternly. “You two know better.”
Bailey had Entin sit at the far end of the table and grabbed two bigger plates for Runners before joining him. He summoned an Information Box for the meal.
- 1x Potato
- 3x Wolf Steak Strip
“Ausemnie got the meat,” Bailey said and took a bite. She sat close to him, her arm touching his, the strong pickle fragrance trying to burn his nostrils. She didn’t seem to care about the smell.
“It’s got to be pretty expensive,” he said.
“She hunted it herself.”
“Ausemnie?” That was a surprise. She was going out into the Wilds? “But when? She’s always here.”
“Saw her leave a few nights ago. Said she was huntin’ wolves with some guy named Vay. We’re all doin’ our part, ya know?”
Entin nodded. He ate and listened to the kids. Ausemnie sat at the center of them, talking about the new world and the old. She had them count their potatoes, and if one miscounted, another would chime in with the correct answer.
Dantic was at the far end of the table, pushing the food around his plate with a total lack of care. He had umber brown skin and short black hair, permanently spiked like he had it in real life.
Hendrick was a real rag, a cogging sprocket. Not only did he kick Dantic out, but he also marked the kid’s reputation down. No one would hire him for at least a week, and no matter what Entin did, the kid wouldn’t talk to him.
When each of them finished their meals—eating slowly to prolong that sensation of chewing and putting something into their stomachs—their dishes and utensils dissolved into pixels.
Unlike the real world, meals were crafted by combining the right ingredients with the right amount of heat or using a special item. Plates and utensils were simply provided by the System. There was no need to craft them or wash dishes.
Ohto finished with a frown. “Can I have more?”
Ausemnie opened her mouth, then closed it. Her eyes carried the weight of someone three times her age, heavy with concern and too much responsibility. And despite all she was doing, she clearly didn’t think she was doing enough.
She tossed Ohto’s blond hair. “I’m afraid—”
“You can have mine,” Entin said. He stood and handed his half-eaten meal to the boy. The kid smiled and grabbed the dish.
Ausemnie’s concern didn’t seem to go away, haunted by what she had to know: this couldn’t last much longer. No one else appeared to have noticed. Their laughs and energy returned as if nothing had happened.
Entin left the room through the balcony’s glass doors, and Bailey followed. The sky had turned gold and red with a few of the brighter stars already out.
“Got somethin’ for ya,” Bailey said. “Well, it’s not a somethin’ ya can hold, though it’s a somethin’ nonetheless.”
She wiggled her way under his arm and pointed to the first stars appearing in the east. Seven stars ran together: one at the top and two curving lines of three stars beneath it.
Bailey drew a curve with her finger as if tracing the lines. “Found this constellation last night. I’m callin’ it the Runner. It’s for everyone. Don’t much matter if they Run markets or dungeons.”
Entin smiled and tightened his grip on her shoulder. He breathed in and choked at the pungent smell of pickles, then laughed. “You don’t have to wear the flower, you know?”
“I like the flower.”
“I like pickles, too! Haven’t had a pickle since. . . .”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. Since the bombing. Since their world was turned upside down. Since their families were torn from them.
Maybe it wasn’t a bad flower after all. It was like the new constellation, a fragment of a world out of reach: a memory.
They stood in silence as the sky changed and darkened. The golden clouds slipped into a dark orange, mixing with purples and blues. More stars flickered to life, and for the first time, he actually looked for new constellations. Before, they were just empty shapes, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t make new memories or write their own stories.
“Lost a bonus contract today,” Bailey said, her voice suddenly on edge. “These stupid guys are messin’ with the Runners. Grabbed my package and wouldn’t give it up until a guard saw. They didn’t even lose reputation! Got a stern talkin’ to, like that’a do anythin’.”
“Probably rich kids.”
“Nah, but they’re not terribly off. Think they tried being Runners and got screwed.”
“Maybe they’re jealous?”
“Of us? That’s stupid!” she said and gripped the handrail. “Ain’t got nothin’ to be jealous of. We’re coggin’ slaves.”
Entin laughed. “Now you’re starting to sound like me.”
“Is that bad?” she asked and turned. Her eyes seemed to glow, catching the light of the setting sun, a fiery orange swallowed up by the End Plane of ocean. She breathed, her lips wearing some type of balm he hadn’t noticed before.
“I . . . almost had a treasure,” he said, looking back at the sky as if the stars were somehow more interesting. “Closest I’ve gotten after half a dozen tries.”
“Don’t ya think—”
“Ya didn’t let me finish.”
“But I know what you are going to say. I don’t want to be a market Runner, Bailey.”
“I know. I-I do! It’s just . . . goin’ out with those adventurers is good, but makin’ money only once a week ain’t enough. Think everyone knows things aren’t gettin’ better for a while. If the cost of food increases our rent, we’ll lose the orphanage.”
A pang of guilt ran through him. He could do market Runs again, might even make a decent bit extra. But compared to a dungeon? 14 scyl was in his inventory; twice. That didn’t even count the items.
After a few minutes, Bailey took a step away and held his hands as if trapping him right then and there, stuck in the moment, demanding his attention. “Entin . . . there are things we want and things we need. Is Runnin’ a dungeon somethin’ ya need?”
He started to say Yes; it offered the greatest payout. But it wasn’t just the money, was it? The question summoned forth thoughts of ego and pride. He wanted to prove everyone who thought him to be cogging idiot wrong.
Was he being selfish. . .? If he did market Runs between dungeon Runs with Lourne, maybe the kids would have more food on their plates, maybe they wouldn’t have to worry about losing their home.
When he didn’t answer, Bailey said, “Ya need to find a new way.”
“A new way?”
“Take me with ya. Two Runners gotta be better than one.”
Two Runners. . . . That wasn’t such a bad idea.
“But, Entin,” Bailey said, sliding her fingers between his and holding tight, “if this doesn’t work, promise me you’ll do market Runs again, okay?”
“Eww!” Ohto yelled from the door that hung ajar, only his eye visible. “She has cooties!”
“Ohto! It’s bedtime,” Ausemnie said from inside.
“But, story! I want story.”
Ausemnie pushed the balcony door open, then sighed. “You did promise,” she said to Entin, “and it’s been a few days.”
“He did. He did!”
Entin laughed and grabbed the kid, carrying him upside-down before swinging him up to hold him.
“Okay,” Entin said, both to Ohto and Bailey. If he couldn’t make a dungeon Run work with more Runners, then it was time to be practical, responsible.
That thought sprung a swirl of emotions: happiness, he’d be helping everyone more; relief, knowing the pressure to make the impossible possible would be gone; but also forlorn.
Dungeons were exciting places to explore with endless potential. They were fun, challenging, and something new, always changing. One Run could make all the difference. But a hundred failed Runs would do nothing.
He adjusted Ohto onto his hip. “Have I told you about the evil Osaylas and the giant undead snake?”
“Well then,” Entin said, taking on the air of a storyteller, “I have quite the story to tell.”
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