The story last night had all the kids riveted, peeking out from covers, candlelight flickering in their eyes. When all was said and done, they refused to let him leave.
“Osay-say will eat us!” Ohto had said. The other kids, even the ones that put forth their very best act of being tough and totally unconcerned, seemed to agree.
Maybe Entin had provided too many details of the floating black skeletons and the projections of their screaming souls. What made the story worse for all of them, no doubt, was how it wasn’t made up. Osaylas were real monsters in this reality.
To appease their worries, he had retrieved his dagger and left it in the window, tip pressed down into the windowsill, the blade catching moonlight, glowing a slight yellow.
And when that didn’t work, he sighed and slept with Ohto in his terribly small and cramped bed, feet sticking out over the end. Ausemnie appeared to think that was an appropriate punishment for scaring everyone, and perhaps it was.
The next day was a new day, full of possibilities.
The market buzzed in the early afternoon, the air cool. Gathering clouds overhead promised a bit of rain. Real rain. Everyone kept looking toward the churning masses of gray with eager anticipation.
Rain simply didn’t exist in the space colony. There were misters in the hydroponic chambers, their walls full of plants, roots hanging freely. But that wasn’t rain, not the real stuff that came down from the sky.
Everything smelled differently. Not a bad smell, though. Kind of like wet dirt. The air felt fresh, alive. Simply being outside filled Entin with a sense of invigoration.
Where the sun broke through the cloud cover, it shined in heavenly rays, painting rainbows out by the mountains where the rain had already started.
It was a good day and everyone else, even the most downtrodden, smiled more. Seeing them like that made him want to fix all the problems of this world so people could be happy.
Entin crossed a bridge—people already took up spaces at the sides, fishing poles out, lines in the water. He held Bailey’s hand, pulling her through the throngs of people out shopping.
Booths of all colors were covered in items, the vendors calling out their wares. A woman had her game screen open, motioning toward a manikin with a nice green dress. It turned slowly and every few seconds changed to a different dress.
Everything anyone could want, lined the street: weapons, armor, furniture, paintings, blankets, sizzling meat. . . . Just one, delicious piece cost 30 chyps. The prices were really becoming outrageous.
Bailey tripped and stumbled forward, grabbing hold of Entin’s arm. “I don’t get what we’re—”
“You’ll see. Got to find a new way, right?”
“Yeah. . . . But I meant we could go together. Why are we in the market?”
“Tell me, what’s better than two Runners?”
It was all obvious now that he thought about it. Sometimes he could be bullheaded, overly focused on the one true prize. Bailey wanting to help might have been the answer he was looking for all along. And should this be his last attempt, he’d go into that blasted dungeon as prepared as possible.
“Four,” he said, then pulled up short.
Triton—one of the most competitive Runners in the market—dove over a wall, hit the ground, Rolled, and Dashed through a group of shoppers. The guy was lean, fast, and always seemed to be smiling, as if running was all he had ever wanted to do, money or no.
He had a crate with a carrot symbol on the side, carried not with a backpack, but under his arm. An icon indicated that the crate—the Stack of items—was half full.
Triton slammed his hand down on a vendor’s table. “Ha!” He bowed to the left, then the right, tossing his vibrant blue hair about. “Thank you, thank you! I’ll take your brilliant bets any day, old man.”
The vendor scowled. He was a wiry man with a pale face of unkempt white facial hair. The man tapped his screen and the Stack of carrots burst apart to brown and orange pixels, then disappeared.
Triton turned and upon seeing Entin, smiled larger, showing off his white teeth that contrasted his light-bronze skin. “Well, if it isn’t the second-fastest Runner in the market. Beat your time to the Upper West Bench by a whole twenty-three seconds!”
“Oh?” Entin said. “And what were you carrying?”
“Well, ya know, just the normal: box of carrots from this old fogey.”
The vendor scrunched his brow. “I heard that!”
“Heard what? I said, ‘I’m looking for a nice long hoagie.’ ”
“Oh. You did? Wouldn’t mind a hoagie myself, now that you mention it. Haven’t seen many fresh tomatoes. . . .”
Entin crossed his arms. “Only twenty-three seconds faster? Talk to me when you start with a quarter of your Stamina and have two boxes of potatoes.”
Triton laughed. “Two! What the hell, man? You’re a monster.”
“So, where’s Aayra?”
“Oh, you know, off on a Run somewhere. Haven’t seen her much. She’s saving up money for . . . well, you know her, it’s probably some new crazy idea. She’s Running for multiple vendors. Less per Run, but more Runs.”
Triton plopped down on the cushions reserved for Runners and triggered his inventory. A blurred window appeared, outlined in a braid of blue and silver. He tapped a few times and a vial of water materialized.
“And hi Bailey,” Triton said before pulling the cork and downing the contents. “Are you still not talking to me?”
“Remind me again what I did to offend you so much. Or would that break your sacred vow?”
“Like ya don’t know. You stole my Run. Twice!”
“I can’t steal Runs, girl. You’re either available or not. If Aayra was anything to go by, it’s pretty obvious that none of us are exclusive to anyone. Anyway,” he said, turning to Entin, “I heard you quit being a Runner. What brings you here today?”
“Quit?” Entin said, mocking surprise. “You heard wrong. I merely leveled up.”
“What you talkin’ about?”
Entin brushed imaginary dirt from his shoulder. “Oh, you know, Running the market just isn’t my thing anymore. The pay is terrible, no respect, and once you hit the top, there’s no way to advance anymore. Hey, Triton, you’re at the top of a dead-end job. Congrats!”
Triton narrowed his eyes and deposited his now-empty vial back into his inventory. “I can do anything you do. Try me.”
“Hmm, not sure you’d be up for it.”
“Stop laying the smack and tell me what it is!”
Triton coughed, then laughed. “You—wait, this is golden. You’re Running dungeons? How the hell does that even work? Some client want you to run to the end and back to feed their morbid fetish? They like watching the young and dumb die or something?”
“No clients, no contract times, just a boatload of coin.”
Entin swiped his index and middle finger in the air toward the left, opening his inventory screen directly. He tapped the dagger and held his hand out, letting the silver and yellow pixels of light materialize into cold steel.
“Got this on my last Run,” Entin said. Well, it was his last successful Run, though Triton didn’t need to know that.
Triton hopped up from the pillows and took the blade. He whistled and slid a finger along the edge, slicing a pink line through skin. “Owe, sharp!”
“Duh. . . .” Bailey said.
Triton Dashed toward the vendor. “Yo, Mentof, how much is this worth?”
The vendor pointed his fingers at the blade and twisted his wrist. The air in front of him distorted, then his game screen materialized in lines of yellow, the details blurred.
“Let’s see, let’s see. . . .” Mentof murmured. He tapped his screen a few times, which summoned other, smaller windows. “I’m no weapons vendor, you see? But I’ve talked with Naywell a few times; she really knows her stuff. Maybe you should ask—”
“Just ballpark it,” Triton said.
“Fine. Probably around fifteen . . . hmm, maybe twenty scyl?”
“Are you serious!”
Entin grabbed the dagger and it dissolved into pixels, finding a place in his inventory. “No tricks, Triton. Whatever we find, we split it equally.”
Triton looked at Bailey. “Bailey, too?”
She glared. “It was my idea to make a party.”
Triton laughed, nodding. He slapped Entin on the back. “You are a brilliant bastard, my friend, the second-fastest Runner, but a brilliant bastard. Time and place; I’ll be there.”
“With Aayra,” Entin said.
“Come on. Are you serious? Equal split is starting to sound worse by the second.”
“We need four for this. Just convince her to come, alright?”
“Fine fine, I’ll talk to her.”
Mentof yelled for Triton, saying something about a timed run. “You fail this one and you pay me back my last bet!”
“You got it, old man,” Triton said and turned back to Entin. “Send the info to my Mail. I’ll be there.” He grabbed a small crate of beats and Dashed away.
The vendor murmured something and slouched into his chair.
Bailey huffed, staring out across the market. “Those friggin’ goons are back.” She pointed at three guys who blocked the path between the market and the main street that ran south.
One jumped in front of a Runner, knocking the girl down. Her crate hit the ground at the corner and the wood splintered. -184 in white lifted from the wood before the Stack burst into pixels.
The girl knelt in the street, dumbfounded, her fingers stretched out to where the box was a moment before. She buried her face into her arm, shoulders shaking.
Entin ground his teeth. The girl would lose reputation for that. No sensible vendor would hire a Runner with a bad reputation. And just to make sure she hit rock bottom, the value of the items would be deducted from her account.
Bailey balled her fists. “Why ain’t the guards doin’ anythin’ about it! They’re menaces!”
It was true, the guards didn’t seem to care. One walked by, a frown on his face, but otherwise didn’t say a word to the three guys terrorizing the workers.
Well . . . if the guards wouldn’t do anything, maybe the menaces could be useful for something else. Entin smiled, an idea forming. He told Bailey to stay put, then approached the guys with an offer they couldn’t possibly refuse.
Entin stood at the center of a small clearing in the forest just beyond the waypoint stone. Real rain sprinkled down from above, tapping leaves, playing notes that mixed with birdsong.
The Wilds always had the right smell of nature, of plants and dirt and flowers. It also carried the lingering risk of being attacked. But most mobs were further in the forest.
He once saw a Gunthek patrol riding Pa’unogs. The Gunthek were quite similar to yellow-bellied frogs that walked upright, wielding bone spears. Their warriors, however, grew thick scale, giving them natural armor.
Pa’unogs were muscular hoglike creatures. They grew nearly four feet tall, had several jagged tusks, and were green like their Gunthek masters.
Entin scanned the forest just in case, but found nothing. Or nothing aggressive. A Plusuk bug hovered its bulky self in the air on tiny wings that beat feverishly to keep it off the ground. It used an elephant-like trunk to gather nectar.
“Why did we have to meet in the Wilds?” Aayra asked, dismissing her golden game screen after, most likely, checking the time. It was late afternoon, the time most Runners slept on pillows before the big evening rush, and probably the only reason she agreed to come: nothing better to do.
Aayra was a thin girl, maybe seventeen or eighteen, and carried the poise of intelligence, noticeable by how her sharp, golden eyes evaluated the world, and—unlike Triton—how she never said anything she didn’t very well intend to say.
She was of average height with straight black hair and light-brown skin. In the physical world, she had thick glasses. Of course, such things weren’t needed here: no disabilities, no sickness, no real death. She, by anyone’s standard, was a real dork of a girl who always found her arcane projects more interesting than people.
Entin faced the small group. Triton had his hand up and Bailey stood a few feet to the side with her arms crossed. “If you can’t stomach the Wilds, there’s no chance you’ll handle a dungeon. Got to test your mettle.” He sighed and pointed to Triton. “What?”
“Why the hell are we naked?”
“You’re not naked,” Entin said.
Triton pinched his default tan shirt and pulled at it. “I feel naked. . . .”
“Can’t lose anythin’,” Bailey said, “if you don’t got anythin’.”
“Look guys,” Entin said, “what we’re doing here isn’t normal. What we’ll do in the dungeon has never been done before. So there are a few oddities and a few lessons I need to pass along.”
“Hell, if it gets us loot,” Triton said, “I’m game for whatever.”
Entin nodded, took in a breath, and talked about dungeons. He talked about how they changed after each reset, the different types of mobs he had seen, and how the goal wasn’t to kill but to get loot.
“Exploit. Extract. Exit,” Entin said, they were words he had been mulling over all day. “This is the motto of the Dungeon Runner. We’re not here to play by the rules, we’re—”
“— here for the loot, baby!” Triton said, grinning. “But if we’re not killing monsters, how do we get loot?”
“Dungeons have treasure chests all over the place. Some are hidden and guarded by a challenge—those pay out the best—though there are far more normal chests, often surrounded by mobs.”
Aayra slid her finger along her nose and nodded. “We’re dungeon thieves. So it’s about aggro and coordination.”
“Yes. And death. We’re going to die. In fact, it’s a part of the strategy. Don’t go into the dungeon thinking you’re going to live.”
Triton nodded enthusiastically. “Death doesn’t scare me. I could handle a few monsters without a sweat. Show me the money!”
“It won’t just be a few deaths,” Entin said. “The dungeon is built to kill adventurers. And adventurers have loads of armor, weapons, and know what they are doing. When we get in there, all of you need to follow my orders.”
“Yeah-yeah, that’s fine,” Triton said. “So when do we start?”
“Tomorrow. Morning is the best time. We’ll all have full Stamina, and if we wipe, we can try again.”
“Bah! You want us to give up a day of Running for this? Why are we even here, then?”
And that was the real problem. Every Runner in the party would lose money by not doing their market job. Aayra seemed to be mulling this over, brows pulled together, calculating potential profit against risk.
“Why Triton,” Entin said, shoving his doubts under his figurative rug, “you didn’t think you could waltz right into a dungeon without practice, did you?”
Bailey groaned and pointed. “What are they doin’ here?”
Entin turned. The three goons from earlier stepped into the clearing, looking from side to side. They wore normal clothes, but no armor. “You found the place, good!”
“You invited them?” Bailey asked, forehead pinched. She put her hands on her hips and glared.
“Got a problem with us lady?” Frenk asked. He was the leader of the small gang and looked the part: tall, black hair, blue eyes, a strong jaw, and sandy white skin, wearing a black-leather jacket.
His two sidekicks—Seb and Theo—had matching black hair and eyes, as if they were all related, or only hung out with people that looked the same. They weren’t as full of unruly confidence as Frenk, though. Instead, they stayed back and let their leader do all of the talking.
“We’re already at four members,” Aayra said. “The dungeon is limited to six, and they aren’t Runners.”
Frenk grinned. “Looks like one of you will just have to get lost.”
“I invited them for a different reason,” Entin said. “They won’t be joining us.”
“What! You talked about a dungeon and said we were gonna make some coin.”
“No no no, I don’t think that’s how it went. I talked about a dungeon, sure, but I never invited you. I only said you could make some coin if you came here today. And I didn’t lie.”
He summoned the dagger and turned to Triton. “How much did you say this was worth?”
“Mentof said around twenty scyl, wasn’t it?”
“I think you’re right. I imagine twenty scyl could buy a bunch of food.” He swiped the game screen to the left, which brought up the character interactions screen.
“Alright, Frenk,” Entin said, summoning a contract, “I’ve got a proposition for you.” He entered the names of the three goons. A Blueprint appeared and he created a circle with a twenty-foot diameter. “I’ll wager this dagger—worth about 20 scyl—that you can’t kill me within three minutes or knock me out of the circle. You and your friends each get a try.”
“And what do you get out of this?” Frenk asked.
“A demonstration of how to avoid dying. And, if you can’t win, the contract allows me to sentence you to the city jail for a month should you mess with any of the Runners again.”
“Ha!” Frenk yelled. “Could be a year for all I care. Only the four of us can enter the circle?”
“That’s right. And you can use this dagger if you’d like.”
Frenk took the dagger and grinned. “And what stops me from keeping this?”
“You don’t know?” Entin asked, and when he only got a glare in response, he said, “The ownership record. I am the official owner of that dagger. If you take it, all the vendors will see that you stole it.”
“Whatever, I agree to your terms.” Frenk tapped the contract, then again when a dialogue box opened.
Entin turned to the others. “Don’t enter the circle or I’ll lose. In the dungeon, there is danger—”
“Entin!” Bailey screamed.
Entin whipped around just as Frenk thrust the dagger, grazing Entin’s side, spilling a red -67 into the air. A pink damage mark revealed where the cut got him, stinging like a tiny pinch.
Frenk laughed. “Am I ruining your demonstration?” He lunged, the Speed perk on the dagger aiding him.
Entin sidestepped the dagger and grinned. “Guess you’ve started the clock.” He stepped to the side again, dodging another jab.
Frenk growled, slashing the steel in large, uncontrolled arcs, over and over. He had no control over the weapon, no idea how to use it effectively. Then again, neither did Entin. Someone like Lourne would have made a concerted, focused attack.
Where Frenk lacked in skill, he made up for in sheer will or anger. He was a madman with a blade, swishing it through the air at all angles, nicking his prey a little here and there, but always coming up short of dealing any real damage.
Entin triggered the second variant of Roll, avoiding the last attack that would have pushed him out of the circle. He smirked and stood, facing Frenk, then started his movement back again, counting the seconds.
“Fight you little coward!” Frenk yelled.
“I’m not here to fight. I’m here to show your incompetence.”
“Cocky little brat. You don’t got a Redeemer’s chance in court, you know that? I’m going to take this dagger and you can go cry back to all the Runners I’ve bested.”
“Is that what you call it? You think this is a game and those people you’ve hurt are simply your opponents?”
“Of course it’s a game. Look around! This isn’t our world. None of this is real, so who cares if they fail some worthless job.” He charged and Entin jumped back. “You think you’re sooo smart, but you’re not even good with contracts.”
Just as Frenk said it, someone grabbed Entin’s left arm from behind, then his right. Seb and Theo were in the circle, flashing wide grins like they had found bubblegum—stuck to the bottom of a desk—to chew.
“That ain’t fair!” Bailey yelled. “Supposed to fight one-on-one!” She stepped toward the circle.
“Stay back!” Entin yelled and Triton grabbed Bailey before she could cross the line.
“Yeah, stay back little lady,” Frenk said. “Watch me cut your boy toy up with his own dagger.” He shook his head. “You Runners really are quite stupid, aren’t you?”
Frenk plunged the dagger into Entin’s stomach. It burned and he let out a breath, bending forward, arms stuck as if in blocks of cement. A -119 in red text rose from the frenzied pink damage mark.
The brute pulled the blade free and jabbed it in again, then again and again, forcing small spasms of pain through Entin’s stomach. The pain was only there to let him know he was hurt, that he had lost health. It burned and stung only for a moment.
But that sensation, as weak as it may be, meant he was losing health, fast. A Flash message revealed his health as 183/1,000. Two more hits, or maybe even a critical blow, and he’d be gone.
“Oh, come on!” Triton yelled.
Aayra stood next to him, glaring, but remaining silent.
“In a dungeon,” Entin said, “you’re faced with impossible odds. It’s never fair.” Frenk pulled the dagger free. “Life’s not fair.”
“Yeah, you stupid cocksucker,” Frenk said. “Thanks for the dagger.” He turned the blade in his hand and hooked it downward for a headshot.
Entin kicked the ground and pulled his knees in. His body angled upward and he triggered Dash. 10 Stamina drained away and the world blurred. The moment reality snapped back into place, he twisted around, now two feet above Frenk, and landed on the guy’s neck.
Frenk staggered backward three steps.
“Nope, not that way!” Entin yelled. He threw his weight to the side and back, making Frenk turn, then triggered Back Handspring. The skill’s automation took over, and Entin pitched both hands onto the dirt.
Back handsprings required a lot of force to spring back to one’s feet. In this case, though, Entin still had Frenk clamped between his legs. All the force ripped the leader goon backward and at the apex of such a motion, Entin let go.
Frenk yelped. His body crashed into Seb and Theo, and the three of them crumbled to the ground. The circle shattered into thousands of blue pixels that faded away.
Bailey jumped up and down, clapping. Triton wore his natural grin. And Aayra pinched her chin, nodding slowly, then wrote something down on a pad of yellow paper.
Entin stood and retrieved his dagger. It burst apart, finding a place in his inventory. “The lesson here is, to be a Dungeon Runner, you need to accept that life isn’t fair, that pain is a part of it, and you always have to think outside of the box to win.”
“Wait!” Frenk yelled, shoving Seb off of him. “It’s not over. We still have time!”
“You left the circle,” Entin said with casual indifference.
“You didn’t say anything about that!”
“I thought you were contract savvy, the smart one. Maybe read the contract next time.” Entin summoned the contract and it materialized from streams of white pixels, wrapped in a little blue ribbon. He handed it to Bailey.
Frenk stood, face darkening, eyes slanted into wedges like some evil cartoon villain. “I’m going beat all the red numbers out of you and see how you like that!”
“Oh, you’re telling me you want to go to jail?” Entin asked, feigning surprise. “I don’t think that’ll suit you well at all.”
Bailey grinned mischievously, waving the contract. “If you so much as sneeze on a Runner, you’re all goin’ away.”
“Not happening!” Frenk yelled, shaking his head. “My dad is the captain of the City Watch.”
“Contracts are contracts,” Entin said, shrugging. “You agreed to the terms. Your daddy can’t fix that. You’re simply going to have to get along without being a dick. That’s such a terrible way to live. . . .”
Theo grabbed Frenk’s arm. “Let’s get gone, man. I don’t wanna go to jail.”
“Let go of me!” Frenk yelled, then thrust a finger at Entin. “You think this is over? Just you wait, cocksucker. You’re gonna regret this day a thousand times over.”
And with that, he turned and marched away.
“That, was, BRILLIANT!” Triton yelled. “And I’ve gotta say, Dashing upward? Didn’t know that was a thing. So now what?”
“Now?” Entin asked. “Now we practice.”