Chapter 2

Dungeon Runner 3

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The mission was a go.

Black crystals snapped to the corners of the portal’s doorway. The central crystal burst apart into teal liquid, forming waves that crashed against an invisible upright barrier.

Triton and Aayra were the first to jump through, one after the other, following a two-second count. They had the very important job of dispersing the mobs on the other side.

Entin and Ava waited for a solid uncomfortable minute. She bit her lower lip, studying the moss-covered ground. And he did his best to fill his chest with air and force out all the butterflies that fluttered within.

It was time to perform, and he really didn’t feel ready for it, not with his Stamina’s Current Max at 78. This would be a mad dash through the chaos of a harder dungeon. And all the mobs were ready to attack the second he entered.

His internal clock dinged, and he forced all of his doubts to the back of his mind and stepped through. The portal’s cold liquid enveloped him, then his foot landed on the firm green ground on the other side.

A disarray of massive curving vines looped around each other, up and down, with equally massive red roses, their petals glowing in the dim light, chiming to distant music.

Menacing thorns jutted out from every surface, wickedly sharp and as big as trees, filling the dungeon with an omnidirectional forest.

Pink flame guys hovered in glass orbs, drifting through the dungeon on a warm breeze. Their expressions held an edge of surprise and shock to see him again.

He snapped out of his wonder and quickly sidestepped just as Ava entered. The portal collapsed behind her, and he grabbed her hand.

Despite Triton and Aayra’s best efforts, a good dozen mobs still surrounded the portal’s entrance. Some were black beetles with long vertical spikes protruding from their backs. Others looked like leaf soldiers, wielding thorns that had been carved down into swords.

A gargantuan caterpillar turned back from slowly chasing the Distractors. Its bulbous form—as large as a tram—twisted around, happy to pursue the new prey to have walked into its world.

Entin triggered the second variant of Dash while holding Ava’s hand. His Stamina dropped to 58/78. They both blurred through the world, twenty feet from where they had stood. And the moment they snapped back to reality, Ava triggered her Dash, continuing away from the mobs.

The beetles made a high-pitched chittering noise before launching the spikes from their backs. The spikes shot upward and hit a transparent disk, angled to reflect the projectiles around obstacles. They made bell-like sounds, then sliced into the ground, which produced a milky substance.

The vine curved downward here, and Entin triggered the first variant of Slide, which allowed him to move faster than sprinting while the decline was greater than thirty degrees.

Ava did the same, and they shot down the vine as if it were the largest, most awesome water slide, ehh . . . without water. They moved away from the mobs trying to keep up but falling behind.

Once they broke through the aggro range, the mobs stopped chasing and started cycling through whatever passive animations they had while waiting for enemies to draw near.

Some of the flames cheered silently, making their glass orbs bob in the air.

“I died over there,” Ava said, pointing to where the green vines had turned a glossy black as if corrupted by something. The thorns there were long, thin, and arched like claws.

This also provided a fantastic view of the dungeon’s bottom. Or it confirmed what Ava had said, that there was no bottom. The vines grew out of the darkness. Falling would likely automatically kill anything that reached a certain depth.

“And your parents?” Entin asked, scanning the other vines for any sign of the adventurers. Her gear was the first objective since she’d be able to use it to help fend off any mobs. But saving her parents would garner the most reputation and, well, loot.

“They were with me,” she said, whipping her head around, her eyebrows pinched together. “They couldn’t have gone far. My pa said they were hiding where the boss couldn’t find them.”

Entin summoned his map—annoyed that he didn’t think to use it sooner—and it provided an overview of the section they had just run through.

Far to one side were the icons of Triton and Aayra, hidden beneath the black of unexplored space. Apparently, maps weren’t automatically shared between party members.

There was no sign of Dren and his wife, Lily. Then a chime resonated in Entin’s head, and he immediately knew what it was.

Message

Dren Becker

Thank the Maker, you guys made it! We just died. The boss found us hiding in a rose. It’s a crazy hum—

Ava grabbed Entin’s hand, and everything blurred. At the end of the movement, the world stilled, and they were twenty feet away from a giant hummingbird.

Its wings were a blur of red and green. Its chest feathers glowed white. And its eyes were a beady black, staring directly at them.

Despite how fast its wings were moving, they didn’t make a sound, which was how it had snuck up on him. The only thing the wings seemed to affect was the air, producing strong gusts that were likely meant to push careless adventurers over the vine’s edge.

The hummingbird zipped out of sight before reappearing a second later, weaving the wind. Streams of white flowed out from it and toward them.

Entin wanted to trigger Sprint, but his Stamina was already down to 48. Exhausting his primary resource would be stupid. So, instead, he raced forward without the help of his skills, towing Ava from behind.

Jutting thorns were everywhere as if the two of them were running through a gauntlet of knives. Sharp things combined with a cogging wind-controlling bird was not great, not great at all.

Gusts of wind tore at his back. He lifted half a foot off the vine, feet running on nothing, then landed, only to have Ava rip him toward the curving side that dropped off to hundreds of feet of open air.

She screamed, crushing his hand.

He triggered a normal Dash to get them back to semi-flat ground.

This perfectly natural aversion to death motivated the boss to try harder. It made an earsplitting chirp, and gusts of wind pushed from all sides.

Entin’s foot slapped the blackened vine, sinking half an inch. It was as if it were covered in ash. Particles of black and glowing purple puffed. The ground grew slick.

Just ahead was Ava’s bag. It hovered above the curving black vine, turning slowly in the air, anchored by a thin white line.

Another chime resonated in his head as if he wasn’t doing enough, as it were. “Grab your bag!” he yelled to Ava over the wind and let go of her hand, choosing to grab a sharp thorn instead.

The pain was immediate but dull. Negative 72 in red lifted above, unaffected by the wailing winds. Luckily, his stubborn desire to not fly off into the void had maintained the boss’s attention, keeping it away from his client.

It zipped around, chirping annoyed sounds and blasting him with wind that forced him to hold tighter to the thorn and take more damage.

In between blasts, he chanced summoning his game screen only to find that both Aayra and Triton had died already. They had five minutes. Dren and Lily wouldn’t be able to re-enter for another three minutes.

Cogs! They weren’t going to last three whole minutes, not with how fast he was losing health.

This was what he was afraid of. They weren’t ready to tackle this dungeon. But sometimes—or really, most times—he just had to hit the wall to understand his limits.

This was one of those situations.

Hello, wall. . . .

Then he had the cogging worst idea. Truth be told, Dungeon Runners were expendable. And this was a good moment to utilize that.

A pink flame guy rushed past, caught in a gust. It looked to be screaming as it whooshed around the vine and out of sight.

Entin let go of the thorn. His health had dropped to 334/1,000. The wind immediately tore him toward the side, his feet sliding on the slick blackened ground.

Ava was seconds away from reclaiming her items. He yelled, “Stay alive!” Then jumped off the side, throwing his arms in an attempt to do a 360-degree spin in a hurricane. The first 180 degrees spun him around to face the bird, watching his descent with glee, no doubt.

He triggered the second variant of Dash, angled at the bird. His Stamina dropped to 18. A mere second later, he reformed, and the spinning motion he had started, continued, turning him around to land on the bird’s neck.

This was probably a bad time to realize he had never once ridden a bird before, or any animal for that matter. If only he had a rope or something to string around the avian beast, it might have worked.

But he didn’t. . . .

Entin made up for this lack of resources and planning with sheer will. He clung to the creature’s vibrating body, tearing fist fulls of feathers out as it zipped left and right in an attempt to dislodge him.

His legs slipped free, and he fell forward, reciting in his mind that death was a mere cycle of this eternal life. It wasn’t something to be afraid of. And since he was a Dungeon Runner, there was nothing to lose.

But that didn’t stop his heart from ricocheting in his chest, believing for all it was worth that these were the last seconds of Entin Soroy, death by hummingbird.

He frantically and blindly grabbed for anything he could possibly hold to survive a handful of seconds longer and managed to wrap his hands around something unexpectedly firm: the hummingbird’s beak.

It tried to chirp its distress but only managed to produce a muffled sound as his body swung around like a flailing monkey.

He pulled his legs in and wrapped them around the beak, cementing his hold, then gave it his best and most loving full-body hug.

His weight, compared to that of a typically lightweight animal—despite its size—offset its balance and angle. It flapped and flapped, doing its best to vibrate him free, turning his brain into a fizzy drink that felt ready to burst from his ears.

The only thing he was cognizant of was their descent. The bird didn’t seem so gleeful at its own potential demise into the black below and fought with all it had to stay upright. This included ramming him into a long thorn that sliced across his back.

He grit his teeth, health dropping to 93/1,000. Another thorn, and he would burst into shards of light, freeing the bird to return to Ava.

Entin arched his neck back, doing his best to see the blurry world. They were heading straight toward a long purple thorn near the bottom of the dungeon, the black looking almost like a veil, a barrier of no return.

He let go of the beak with his arms while keeping his legs locked. His body unfurled, allowing him to focus his aim downward, then he triggered Dash.

The world blurred. And much to his relief, when it snapped back only a mere few feet below the sharp end of the purple thorn, he was still attached to the boss.

The bird fluttered wildly before crashing into the black. It splashed like water that clung to whatever it touched, tearing health away.

The hummingbird made one final, desperate chirp.

Then they both died.

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