Hooks and books . . . hooks and books. . .?
Click. Click. Click.
Entin snapped his fingers, trying to think. Then the obvious solution popped into his mind. “Open your game screen,” he told Bailey.
She nodded and swiped her index and middle finger up an invisible sheet of glass, trailing purple pixels. “Now what?”
“Do you have any contracts?”
“Check your communication screen, and make it so I can see.”
She tapped something and the blurred contents of her screen became clear, then she tapped the History tab of recent messages. “Nothin’. . . .”
“Dagnabbit! And you don’t remember anything else?”
“I- I don’t! I’m sorry,” she said, eyebrows pinched together.
Click. Click. Click.
“Boom, baby! First death!” Triton yelled, running into the room. “Did I beat Aayra?”
“Hardly,” Aayra said from the archway she had run through.
“You didn’t die?”
“There were no mobs, just another room full of books and no other hallways.”
“Guys!” Entin yelled. “This is a challenge chest. It has—”
A loud click! rang throughout the room, then the ground shook, turning and lowering at the same time. The desks crumbled and flaked away as if ash in the wind.
Bailey fell to the sand and Entin tried to help her, but lost balance and landed next to her, holding to the ground as it fell. A veil of energy, shimmering in pearlescent colors, shifted through them from below.
A moment later, the floor stopped moving. They were now in a dark underground chamber with offshoot tunnels and stone columns forming a ring around the center. Blue flames ignited from torches on the walls and columns, filling the expansive chamber with flickering light.
A whoosh echoed through the dungeon, then a crack!
There was something outside the glass orb way above them, something massive and black. It slammed against the glass, shooting cracks in every which way. Water sprayed through those cracks, raining down and stopping at the veil, twenty feet overhead.
The ceiling shattered.
Entin grabbed Bailey and triggered the second variant of Dash. They both shot forward into a blur of a world, then as reality snapped back together, something landed behind them, a monstrous abomination of crab claws and tentacles, flailing about.
A face emerged: large, ugly, half fish, half-demon with an assortment of green eyes of random size, and a mouth full of jagged shark teeth. It was as if the AI took every sea creature and blended them together.
It shrieked an ungodly sound and arched a tentacle—black, slimy, and a good two feet thick—through the air at Entin and Bailey. She Dashed away, though his Dash was still on cooldown. He triggered Roll, kicking up sand just before the tentacle slammed against the ground.
“What the hell is that!” Triton asked.
“A . . . monster?” Aayra said.
“A boss,” Entin said. It was the very first one he had seen. They were all supposed to be terrifying and powerful—check and check—requiring a full party of experienced adventurers to kill one. No one had ever done it before.
Wrapped around the ugly head, fifteen feet off the ground, shimmered a golden chain with a key at the end. And beneath the nightmare of oceans, was the epic chest. . . .
The half dozen dark tunnels lit up in a soft white glow from terrified flames. And in those tunnels were dozens of the Natambulo Guards, marching out. Unlike the apprentices, the fighters had jagged teeth, chomping at the air as if excited for battle.
“Triton, aggro the mobs!” Entin yelled.
Triton grinned and sprinted across three tunnel openings, yelling, “You stinkin’ fish can’t catch me!” And it did the trick quite nicely. They charged after him and he Dashed into a tunnel.
“Aayra! You’re on the boss.”
“Me?” She took a step back, shoulders tensed.
Entin jumped to the side as another tentacle slammed the ground, eager to squish him out of reality. He ran the fifteen or so feet to a stone column. Any cover would help.
He summoned information on the boss and a window opened.
No information is known.
All of the stats read (unknown) and there weren’t any active quests. Well, that was worthless. Not even a description to provide warnings of potential abilities.
The boss shrieked again and shot forward on dozens of thin crab legs. Entin triggered Dash, shifting behind the column, which turned out to be a terrible idea.
Stone exploded out from the column, following the projection of the Magnus, completely unfazed, snapping large crab claws in an attempt to catch him.
Rock chips sliced across skin, drawing frenzied pink damage marks. Little red numbers peeled away and drifted toward the ceiling.
Entin jumped and triggered Wall Kick, dealing 35 damage, though more importantly, pushing himself back five feet. He landed and triggered Roll again—paying the 5 Stamina, now at 110/130—barely escaping under a second claw.
“Aayra!” he yelled, finding his feet and using Sprint to give him just enough oomph to escape another attempt to be grabbed and snapped in half. “Draw its attention! Bailey, hide until I saw otherwise.”
Aayra nodded, jaw clenched, hands wringing together. She finally grabbed a piece of broken stone and chucked it at the boss. “Hey. . . .” she yelled . . . softly, voice cracking. “Co-come get me.”
The Magnus spun and growled a low, reverberating sound. Its throat seemed to add a clicking noise. It opened its mouth and long, thin . . . things reached out, grasping the air.
Aayra shook her head so violently, she started looking like one of the apprentice fish, casting a spell. She turned and ran, and the boss charged.
“What are you going to do?” Bailey asked.
Entin rolled his neck, took in a breath, then said, “I’m getting that key.”
Triton triggered the second variant of Dash, blurring through the small army of enraged ugly fish people: Nata-something or rather. The world snapped back and he charged down the hall. “Boom! That’s right, ya bastards!”
These small legged, walking piranhas had nothing on the fastest Runner. And just as that thought occurred, he reached the end of the tunnel.
They weren’t tunnels at all. They were more like caves that went in about thirty feet and then abruptly stopped. Yeah-yeah, so he was a little stupid at times, so what? Maybe he could have looked before he Dashed. And what fun would that have been?
The biggo boss boy crashed into a column outside, sending stone flying about. In all honesty, he’d rather be in here with his stinkin’ fam than out there with that thing.
Luckily enough, Entin was a brilliant leader and knew all the things a leader should know. Smart guy, that. Aayra could handle anything, so it was all logical and stuff. Now, Triton just had to keep the fish-munchers busy.
He grinned, a little thrill crackled like energy, spiderwebbing through him as if he had taken a sweet drink of water. He ran straight at the leading scaly munchkin and jumped, crashing, feet first, through it and the dozens like it behind.
This sent the fishies flying back, tumbling like bowling pins—oh how he missed bowling. The moment his back slammed against the white sand, he triggered Roll, focusing his intent backward, and finished the movement with a Back Handspring, paying 10 Stamina overall.
Then, like all the action movies he loved—and, he realized, all the action movies he’d never see again—he reached out a hand, palm up, and signaled his foes to advance.
Aayra triggered Sprint and ran like the wind. Cliche. She ran like a girl being chased by a very scary monster. Too literal. She ran! And that was all that really mattered.
The boss monster had four, five . . . six? tentacles that seemed to hover in the air, glossy black with dozens of gray suckers underneath. It was a poor creature with a salamander head, shark teeth, octopus upper body, and a giant crab for a lower body, all entangled, broken, and pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle gone wrong.
Ah, that was good. . . .
One of those giant crab pinchers swiped for her. She triggered Slide then Roll to push herself forward and back to her feet.
The boss crashed through a stone column, spraying chipped rocks everywhere. A few pieces sliced thin pink damage marks across her skin, and she had to do everything in her power to focus, to not let the fear take hold.
There were fourteen stone pillars, two destroyed. The boss had two big pinchers and . . . way too many legs to count. They all seemed to bend at the wrong angles, more legs than any crab she had studied about in Marine Biology. It was a miracle it could even move, but move it did.
She triggered Wall Kick off another pincher attempt, then used the second variant of Dash to get through a column. The world blurred and snapped back together to the chaos of stone spraying everywhere.
Aayra sucked in a startled breath.
Out from the dust and chipped rocks, a pincher clamped around her waist, like a girl being killed by a monster.
Too literal. . . .
Entin ran toward the middle of the room.
The Magnus was now entirely enthralled with the idea of consuming Aayra. It chased, and she used every Runner trick to avoid death—Dashing, Rolling, Wall Kicking, Sliding. The only thing that touched her, cutting away bits of health, were pieces of flying debris.
Bailey ran out from her hiding spot behind a column, sprinting toward the next.
“You’re supposed to be hiding!” Entin yelled.
She motioned behind her where a small army of Natambulo Guards were charging her, running on little fish legs, waving about their sharpened coral sticks.
Where was Triton? He had disappeared into one of the tunnels and was still gone. If he died . . . would he be able to get back? Actually, if any of them died, would this dungeon then be over for them?
More of the guards and apprentices emerged from tunnels. Oh . . . no. . . . They weren’t tunnels. They were summoning rooms like in other games. Until the boss was defeated, the lesser enemies would probably keep spawning.
Unlike adventurers, they didn’t have a way to kill the mobs. With time, they’d be completely overrun. Dagnabbit! It was a race against the clock.
“Bailey! You wanted to be a Distractor, now’s your chance. Keep the Natambulo away from Aayra. And don’t die!”
She nodded, then shouted something at the swarming army of scales. They made clicking sounds, seemingly enraged and eager to kill the invaders within their home.
The Magnus crashed through another column, and Aayra screamed. She was pinched in one of those large crab claws, legs kicking the air. Damage numbers slipped out from her middle.
Entin charged the back of the boss, its tentacles waving about. He wanted to tell her to use Dash, but that would only attract unwanted attention, and she didn’t need him to tell her what to do. If she wasn’t using it, she had a reason: cooldown, Stamina, something.
Aayra gave him the opening he needed. He jumped and used Wall Kick against the boss, dealing 35 damage. The force sprung him six feet off the ground.
Tentacles immediately attacked.
He angled himself backward and triggered the second variant of Dash, slipping through tentacles. The world shifted and blurred, then once it snapped back, he hung in the air, just above the large brute’s head.
His feet connected with the slick, rubbery blubber of the Magnus, and slid. Crap! There was absolutely no traction! He grabbed anything he could, hands gliding over soft tissue until he touched something hard, metallic.
Entin grabbed hold of the chain that wrapped the monster’s neck, the chain that had one very important key on it. He pulled back, using his knees for balance.
The Natambulo Magnus reared up, shrieking an earsplitting sound. A tentacle slammed against Entin’s back, dealing 234 damage and shoving him to the side. The chain twisted, forcing him to hang there, back-to-back. A Flash message indicated his total health had dropped to 571/1,000.
The shimmering, fractured light of what only could be Aayra, shot toward the ceiling and was gone. Bailey had a whole swarm of the fish warriors chasing her, flashes of blue light from apprentices, pelting the walls.
Another tentacle raised up and whipped downward.
Entin threw his weight to the side. The chain slid and a second later, he knelt against the squishy chest of the Magnus, two feet away from a giant mouth full of putrid rot.
Something inside slithered like thin fingers, longer than his arms. They snapped out and grabbed him, yanking him forward. Large shark teeth snapped shut, slicing his right hand cleanly off . . .
. . . and the chain, too.
He fell backward, left hand holding to the chain like it was a lifeline, a lifeline unattached to anything. His back crashed against the ground and a flicker of dense pain speared through him before dissipating completely.
A Flash message revealed his health to be 193/1,000.
There was no time to lie about beneath a disgusting, misshapen creature bent on consuming each piece of him, part by part if it had to. He triggered Roll and narrowly avoided a scraping crab claw.
“Bailey!” he yelled, then threw the key the best he could with his one remaining, non-dominant hand.
Bailey ran around a column of stone, an army of stupid fishy-fish with freaky little legs and arms, giving chase. They were snapping their jaws open and shut with each wiggle of their fins and webbed toes. Eww!
She had nothing to complain about, nothing at all. Right? This was her idea to be here, after all, and though her heart was a frantic, nervous wreck of a thing . . . it was all kind of exciting.
“Bailey!” Entin called from across the room. He threw something that caught the light: a golden key. He got it? That’s my Entin! My Entin? Well, he certainly wasn’t Eizel’s Entin. That girl wouldn’t be caught dead one step out of Creannan, let alone in a dungeon.
But then there was Aayra and her blushing over some simple praise Entin gave. Eh! This ain’t the time to get all jealous. There was a job needin’ doin’, and she’d do it.
The only problem was these thirty or so fish-walkers chasing her. The moment she dove for the middle, they’d be on her like bees on flowers. Hmm, except these bees wanted to chop the flower up into bits of fish food.
And that was when she had—as that stupid Triton would say—a brilliant idea. She might not be a thinker like Aayra, but she was far from dumb.
With that thought, she veered into a tunnel.
Triton didn’t need no stinkin’ weapons. He might not be one of them adventurers with all the fancy gear—or any gear, even if Entin said it would be okay—but he had fists and feet and elbows and knees, all very dangerous weapons when used brilliantly.
And he was brilliant at being . . . brilliant.
He spun, pulling his leg through the air in a roundhouse kick. The side of his bare foot collided with the flat portion of Mr. Bubbles’ face. It made a slap! sound that was oh-so gratifying. Almost as gratifying as watching the funny thing flip-flop around, knocking into all the other fish, tightly packed like sardines. Ha!
The next one, identically eager to the last, pushed forward.
“You are Mr. Slimeface,” he said, naming his opponent. The flames on the wall all cheered silently. “I accept your challenge!”
Then something different happened, something completely, bafflingly unexpected, a massive army pushed into the cave, led by the one and only Queen of Grudges: Bailey.
“What the friggin’ cow is this!” Bailey shouted, alerting all the smashed-together fishies to her approach, and ruining all of his hard work. He was given a job and he was doing it. She wasn’t supposed to be here.
A wisp of smoke and Bailey blurred through the very stuck, very unhappy, scaly mobs, all yapping quietly except for how their gray lips smacked together.
“Bay, what the hell?” Triton asked, then kicked the closest fish like a football—oh how he missed football.
“You’re askin’ me? You’re supposed’ta be the Distractor, not me!”
“I am distracting them,” he said and pointed to the swarm of busy-bodied fish now climbing over each other, then subsequently falling into tiny gaps, legs kicking toward the ceiling.
“They keep spawnin’ and you’re in here playin’ with them.”
“Give me a break, girl. How was I supposed to know that? So why are you here?”
“Entin got the key, though there are—”
“He did? Boom! That’s my man. We’re going to make some coin!”
“The place is covered in these stupid fish mobs. I was gonna get them stuck, then Dash through them, but I can’t get through all of this!”
Triton nodded, then did a leg-sweep. With the Natam-things having such small legs, it wasn’t much of a difference from a roundhouse kick.
“You bring me problem, I give you solution!” Triton said, then grabbed Bailey’s hand. “I Double Dash, then you Double Dash. Got it?”
Bailey had no time to respond to Triton before he Dashed forward, pulling her along. Stupid! Her Dash was still on cooldown. And so the worst possible thing could have happened. . . .
At the end of the Double Dash, smack dab in the center of an already impossibly tight fit of sixty or seventy mobs, they burst into reality. From a nice, open, breathable space, to having the sticky eyeballs of fish rubbing up against her cheek.
“Dooooyuuurrdashhh,” Triton said, a fish biting his lower lip.
The seconds ticked on by, feeling like an eternity in a wet, slimy, briny sort of hell.
Then the cooldown was done and they shot through. Reality reshaped and Bailey sucked in a breath. “Why’ja do that!”
“Me?” Triton asked, tearing the fish from his mouth and dropkicking it into the cave. “You’re the one who waited so long.”
“I had just triggered Dash to get to where you were. There’s a cooldown, ya know!”
Triton grabbed her shoulders and turned her toward the chest. “Yeah-yeah, yell at me later. I’ll distract these guys. You get that brilliant loot!”
He shoved her forward and she ran. Not more than a few feet from the chest was the key, just sitting there. But where was Entin? Maybe more importantly, where was the boss?
It didn’t matter, did it? The chest was right there, and so was the key. She triggered Sprint and ran straight to it, grabbed the key, and slammed a hand down on the chest.
The red lock burst into streams of red pixels, then an inventory screen opened.
- 8x Natambulo Fish Meat · Durability 400
- 1x Golden Fishing Lure · Epic
- 1x Fish Bag · Uncommon · 6 Slots
- 3 gyl, 53 scyl
Bailey swiped the items to her inventory. A gyl! She had a whole friggin’ gyl in her inventory. And not just only, but three! It was more money than she had ever seen in this new world.
Just as that rush of exciting positivity flooded through her, all it took was one tiny, innocent thing to ruin it: a droplet of water tapped the treasure chest.
She immediately knew what it was, immediately understood that the energy veil above trapped water perfectly. No droplets should exist. Unless. . . . Unless there was a big, ugly monster slipping down from the ceiling, fractions of a second away from killing her.
Everything moved at once.
She triggered Roll and her body dove to the ground, hitting her shoulder perfectly in order to—
Something crashed into the sand and a sharp pain shot up her leg. The moment she felt it, it was gone . . . and so was her leg. Everything below her knee had dissolved into pixels of skin color, leaving behind a stub of shimmering pink damage marks.
She couldn’t breathe. A staticky sense of panic buzzed at the back of her brain. For a single second that stretched on for way too long, she thought her leg was gone forever and that death was real.
Then Triton grabbed her before a large crab claw could. “We’re doing the Double Dash again. You ready?”
She nodded, her words stuck somewhere in her throat.
The Natambulo Magnus shrieked, thrashing black tentacles about. The treasure chest was crushed, splintering to pixels. An army of fishy mobs charged from all sides of the room.
Triton jumped with Bailey in his arms, angling himself upward. The world blurred, then the moment reality snapped into place, Bailey triggered the second variant of Dash.
They both plunged upward into water.
Bailey pushed away from Triton and they both frantically swam up toward the enormous orb, books sinking, fish swimming, little white flames screaming something inaudible.
She kicked and kicked, finding that having a missing leg really sucked. Stupid friggin’ boss! Then, as if summoned by her thoughts alone, something—a thing she very well knew what was, but refused to acknowledge—crashed into the water from below, sending a current of force upward.
Triton turned to block its path, to distract it.
As far as she was concerned, it worked. There were sounds muffled in the water: screaming, pounding. All she could do was focus on moving up up up.
A shimmer of light shot past her, and at that moment, she knew she would be next. The water rushed. Bubbles ascended faster than she could swim. The archway to the portal room was there, maybe twenty feet away.
And . . . Entin? He was pounding on that veil of energy, screaming something that was lost to the water, muffled. He seemed to be saying the same thing the flames were.
A large claw thrust in around her and clamped down. In blind instinct alone, she triggered Double Dash and shifted toward the archway, an archway still a few feet away.
She kicked and kicked, fingers reaching out. . . .
Entin pounded on the veil of energy that was somehow very solid now. A light red X barred his entry to the main orb and the boss fight below.
One little mistake. It was always one little mistake. He died and respawned, finding Aayra pacing in front of the smooth-cut portal-stone. Now they waited in the glass tunnel.
“There!” he said. The water shifted up, carrying pieces of paper with it. “Something is happening.” There was a lip that hung out about ten feet, making it hard to see anything down the hole.
A shimmer of fractured light shot up and out of the glass orb. It seemed to carry all of his hope with it, a shooting star that was anything but lucky.
“You think anyone else is alive?” Aayra asked, brows pinched together. She was blaming herself for his death, though none of them were prepared to face a boss.
“Yes!” he said, pointing. Bailey swam over the edge, frantically kicking, part of one leg missing. Directly behind her was the boss. “Behind you!”
The Natambulo Magnus in the water was an entirely different beast. It cruised like a missile. In a second, it was up next to Bailey, her eyes scared, panicked. . . . He hated that look on her face and would dive in there and die a hundred times so she didn’t have to.
He pounded fists on the wall, yelling.
The boss grabbed Bailey with one of those large crab claws. She blurred into the End Plane and shifted ten feet forward, then kicked all the more frantically, fingers stretching out toward him.
The boss shrieked, sending ripples across the water and scaring schools of fish away. It shot forward, all the more eager to kill the last of his party.
Bailey’s hand slipped through the veil. A tentacle wrapped her remaining leg. Bubbles escaped her mouth and she thrashed.
Entin grabbed her hand and triggered the second variant of Dash. A fraction of a moment later, they snapped into reality and Bailey fell into his arms.
Aayra, being very much not like Aayra, blocked the tunnel. The boss grabbed her with those thin things in its mouth and chomped down on her head.
Entin lifted Bailey and carried her, sprinting to the portal room. He turned the corner, triggered the portal, and jumped through.