Chapter 7: Phase II Begins
Seraph followed the dungeon guide as she walked off into the gloom that surrounded them. With his eyesight boosted by his new racial attributes, he had no difficulty keeping up with her in the dark. After they had walked for some time, she held up her hand in a closed fist to get Seraph to stop in place as she pulled another item from her spatial storage and threw it on the ground.
Without any noise, an aged-looking brown door grew up from the spot in which she had thrown the item. She looked back at him as if to say, ‘Come along’ and opened the door. Though only darkness could be seen within that doorway, she stepped through it without hesitation.
Seraph looked at the door in suspicion; he had reason to hesitate. He had no way of knowing what he would find on the other side until he stepped through the doorway. He didn’t hesitate long. The only answer for him was forward, following behind her. As he passed through the doorway, his eyes were temporarily blinded by the sheer light that glared down at him with an intensity he had never struggled with before. He covered his eyes with his hands, trying to shield himself from the white glare and give his vision time to recover.
“Your eyes will get used to it,” remarked Sadie. “It’s the racial change. I’m sure you’ve found your eyesight in the dark has dramatically improved. This is a passive trait of all Fallen—you’ll find that you’re more suited for the dark than the light. Fitting really, considering your background, Seraph.”
Notification: Passive Unlocked – Due to your racial change to “Fallen”, you have discovered a weakness to light, manifesting as temporary blindness when exposed to light. Alternatively, you have discovered that you now possess “Dark Vision”, which grants the user limited vision in the absence of light and increased vision in reduced light environments”.
There it is again, thought Seraph as Sadie made yet another comment suggesting she may know his true identity. Seraph couldn’t rule out that she still had her memories from the other timeline. He couldn’t rule out that all the elves still had their memories from before.
Red flags went off in his head as the realization of the danger he was in hit him. “Blind!” he cursed. “This is the last thing I needed.” Seraph almost missed the sound of footsteps running toward him, pounding against the wooden flooring he felt beneath his feet, heading his direction.
In the absence of one of his senses, he knew a method to supplement his other senses, but he could not currently use it due to his low stats. But in this situation, he didn’t need better senses to tell him something was going to crash into him. He braced himself for the hit, unable to see what was coming his way and unable to defend himself.
“Can you help me, Sadie?” Seraph asked, assuming the dungeon guide might be responsible for assisting him in this situation.
“I’m just a guide, not a babysitter,” she answered in a cheery tone—a tone that no one but Seraph could tell was full of mockery. The message was received; he was on his own.
As the sound of running moved closer to him, Seraph resigned himself for the hit as the impact was upon him. But the hit never came. Instead, Seraph felt hands grab him and pick him up, wrapping him in a long extended hold, threatening to break his ribs. No, not a hold, he thought with a sigh of relief. Just a hug.
"Kiddo! This is amazing!" said a familiar voice—the voice of his father—and though Seraph’s vision was only just now starting to adjust to the bright light, he could make out the biggest smile on his father’s face. The man’s happiness was evident.
It was a good-natured greeting, and Seraph matched the smile. "It is pretty amazing, as I’m sure you can see for yourself,” he said as he tried to bring attention to his legs.
"Yeah, I noticed you’re upright and on two legs. I wish your mom could see this. I’m not so sure about the rest of these changes, though. They remind me of when I watched Powder with your mom, to be honest, Luca. Is any of that reversible?" he asked, still smiling as he wiped a few tears from his eyes on his outfit. He looked and examined Seraph’s new horns, the change in his skin tone, and the darkening of his pupils.
"You know this place really is something," Paul said, quickly changing the subject. Seraph could tell the man was uncomfortable with Seraph no longer being fully human, and Seraph didn’t want to spoil the overall mood, so as the subject changed, he went with it.
"It really is something. Everyone is going to get a chance at it," replied Seraph. “But what about you? I was positive you’d be an elf by now. You seemed very interested before. What happened?”
"Well, you know, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to pick. I was mostly afraid of misunderstanding the prop I selected. I didn’t want to dress up as like a dragon and end up having to role play as a lizard man. I figured everyone else would want to be an elf, and that's boring. But I do have a surprise. You might be able to walk now, but I can do one better. I can walk on the air."
"Oh, really?" asked Seraph with genuine interest. "How is that? Show me."
With a huge smile on his face, and not waiting for any further prompting, Paul proceeded to jump into the air. It wasn't an impressive jump as such, but rather than fall back down, his feet seemed to catch on something, like a piece of resistance in the air, and he pushed off again, repeating the process before falling back to the ground with a heavy thud.
"A double jump? That’s going to be really useful later," said Seraph with envy. Whatever the arena, mobility was always a strength.
"Not quite, kiddo. This isn’t a double jump. This is my new passive ability. Here, I’ll show you." Seraph wasn’t sure what Paul was doing, but he made sure to pay attention in case he had learned something he didn't. Paul seemed to reach out to grab an invisible prompt and threw it toward Seraph. Seraph had never before seen this share-based mechanic, but he did what he thought might be the most appropriate, and he tried to catch it."
PASSIVE Ability - To the Top - The holder of this ability is able to create temporary stairs of air that fade after being stepped on. This is limited to 5 steps + total levels.
"Amazing right?" Paul said and laughed. "I’m assuming since I decided to stay a regular guy, the powers that be decided to give me an ability to make up for it. Aside from a few questionable cosmetic changes, did you get anything else out of your orientation?”
Seraph didn't really want to say he likely wasn't given an ability because of the abilities he had unlocked as a matter of balancing. He didn’t want to divulge that he had instead earned the Mana Body passive ability and the Thousand Hands active ability. Information about one's capabilities shouldn't be given so freely.
Seeing his hesitation, Paul lost some of his good humor and frowned, suddenly very concerned. "They didn't do anything weird right, Luca? Or something wrong? I know this is all so unbelievable. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it for myself. It’s OK to tell me what you got; I promise no judgments here. I’m sure they hooked you up with a good ability.”
Seraph looked at his guide for clues on how to react. She only shrugged and put the responsibility back on him. Though what his father had said made sense, it was also hard for Seraph to get an idea of the best course of action to take, and his father wasn’t the only one listening. Though he had foreknowledge, his foreknowledge was limited. He had not done this tutorial previously, and with this many changes occurring so quickly, there was no guarantee that his limited foreknowledge could even be useful here.
As for his father… well, the man appeared to have already accepted and adapted to some impossible changes in his life. It was something Seraph felt was unbelievable, and it made him wary of the man. One thing he had always known to be true, and had always proven to be true, was that people changed with power.
Eventually, the pause between them grew awkward, and Seraph continued to not respond. Sadie finally intervened, "The general manager was prepared to offer this boy an ability the same as the rest of you have been provided. However, as I manage Phase I of this tutorial, what you might refer to as the orientation, I have sole discretion on whether he receives anything, and this boy has enough advantages. It's generous enough that we've allowed him to walk again."
Seraph was hardly surprised by the answer. For whatever reason, Sadie had deemed herself to be hostile to him, though he was unsure if she was his enemy as well. But the rage on his father’s face in response to her was intense. His hands shook in anger, and his skin turned an obvious shade of red as his blood boiled to match his fury. Paul leveled his finger against the elf woman in accusation, but before it could escalate, a young elvish man pushed past him, getting between Sadie and Paul and trying to prevent the situation from getting out of hand and out of control before anyone did anything they might regret.
This man instinctively knew something that Paul did not. Something that Seraph knew firsthand. This Sadie, the elf who was their guide, was not someone any of them could lay hands on and live to regret later. The elves of the dungeon were currently far beyond them, though Seraph knew this would not always be the case.
"You know that decision isn’t right. It’s not fair. Would you perhaps reconsider?" asked the elvish man. From around the room, Seraph could see another elvish man and elvish woman nodding their heads in agreement—all familiar faces he had seen during preregistration, and all faces now sporting pointed ears. "We’ve all got abilities, so why didn't he get anything? Where do you get off on that?"
Ignoring the others, Sadie looked at Paul and said with a tone of pure ice, all traces of her previous upbeat characterization gone, "Be thankful this man saved your fool life. It doesn't matter who you are or what you think you’re owed, if you ever think of putting your filthy human hands on me again, I’ll cut you down like the animal you are."
Sadie then turned to respond to the man who had asked the question, and as she spoke, she turned to look at Seraph. "It's bad enough how many allowances have been made for a cripple; he needs to prove himself. If he can't manage with what he has at this point, what’s the use of pandering to the weakest among you? Right, Seraph? The weak should be culled if they can’t rise above it?"
Dismissively, and without waiting for a response, she turned around and opened the door behind her, stepping through it without a second look. She shouted as she went in her cheerful and mocking voice, “Good luck, pretenders!” The doorway she had summoned slammed as she walked through it, closing behind her. As it closed, the doorway began to disappear until nothing remained of it, leaving five new adventurers alone in what appeared to be a high school gymnasium.
Seraph realized as his eyesight finally returned, the light that had blinded him wasn’t even the sun. He would need to be careful, and as soon as he could, he would have to find some protection.
"Wow," said the elvish man who had stepped between Paul and Sadie, "that was just a bit terrifying. I don't know what you did to make her so mad, but without a doubt she hates you. I'd watch your back around her, if you ever see her again. That said, I'm Jack." The man held his hand out to shake with a good-natured smile. "And though we haven't been introduced yet, this is Erin, and that’s Alexander," he added, pointing to a woman dressed in a gray smock, who smiled and gave a small wave at Paul and Seraph, and a man with a crew cut wearing an olive jumpsuit.
"I'm not really sure what her deal is either," replied Seraph. "But this is my father, Paul, and I’m Luca. If you followed any of that exchange, I’ll admit it right now. Up until today, I was in a wheelchair, and now I’m not. If that seems odd to anyone, let’s work out the details now.”
“A wheelchair? And now you can walk? That’s pretty amazing, but I'm more concerned that you decided to dress up as every emo kid I ever knew growing up whose parents didn’t love them enough,” commented Erin with a laugh, eliciting a smile from Jack and Alexander. Seraph noticed Paul tried to hide a ghost of a smile on his.
“You think it’s like that for everyone who comes in here? Do they get fixed like you did?” asked Alexander. “Like do people get magically cured by just being here?”
Seraph shrugged. He wasn’t really sure. In the other timeline, those who had lost the use of arms and legs regained them once in the dungeon. “It probably depends on what it takes to get somebody into fighting shape. I think that’s what this place is all about. Fighting and growing,” Seraph responded.
"Alright, that’s enough, guys. Let’s all circle up for a second and compare notes while we’ve got a minute," interrupted Jack. "Alexander, you've been here the longest right? Who brought you here?"
Alexander thought for a second. "I think I’ve been here now for longer than a few hours. If I was to try to pin it down, I’d say I’ve been here in this gym for five maybe six hours, and it’s been almost a full day since I entered the dungeon. That same crazy broad that just left is the same one that first dropped me off here. I’ve seen her bring and drop off the rest of you guys, just like she did with me.
"That's impossible, though," said Paul. "I only got here a few minutes before my son did—maybe a ten to fifteen-minute max overlap—and I’ve been in the dungeon now for only a few hours.
"I can see how you would think that, Dad," Seraph said. "But it’s been less than an hour for me since I even entered the dungeon, and I’m guessing if we let the other two talk, there’s going to be some further time irregularities."
“I can confirm some of that,” admitted Jack. “The same elf brought me here, and I saw the same elf bring both Erin and then Paul here, and then Paul’s kid.”
Jack and Erin both nodded their heads.
"Alright, let’s review,” said Jack. “So, the time is all sorts of crazy here, and the same person brought all of us here, but our individual perception of time isn't the same. So, I’m guessing each of us was kind of kept in some kind of pocket dimension in like a form of stasis until all of us were ready to begin this stage. Likely, Paul and the kid have been in stasis the longest, and Alexander might not have been in stasis at all. At least, that’s my theory. It’s only a theory; don’t hate me for it. I'm not married to it. Additionally, even though the same elf appeared to take us all, I think we need to be open to the possibility of doppelgängers or even a splitting ability. That might not matter now, but it could later, so do keep it in mind."
Paul shrugged. "I mean, I don't have any better ideas to contradict what you’ve summed up. It’s already been a day full of impossible for me. It would be dumb of me to just discount anything at this point as being unrealistic. I'll just have to toss this one into the magic bucket and let it go. I’d rather not try to get too deep into these things right now to figure out where I draw the believability line.”
Seraph couldn’t fault that thinking. Many in the other timeline had lost their minds, their sanity broken by the trauma of the impossible existence that was the dungeon.
"Alright, guys, so if this is supposed to be a tutorial dungeon, we should learn a little more about what each of us brings to the table. I’ll start,” said Jack. "My ability is Chained Necrotic Pet. Basically, if I understand it correctly, I can reanimate a corpse that will follow me around, and any damage I might take, the corpse takes instead. It’s a little creepy I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t pick it."
Everyone took a subtle step away from Jack after that reveal, except for Seraph who held his position. Seraph was familiar with aspects of the ability; it was extremely useful. It was odd though that Seraph had no memory of Jack from the other timeline.
“Real quick,” interjected Alexander, “I know it didn’t come up yet, but I’ve had plenty of time to actually look around in here to see if there was anything to see. Basically, we’re all stuck. I’ve checked all the doors, and each is locked. However, it’s like no lock I’ve ever seen. It's more like a wall that’s pretending to be a door than anything.”
That sounded accurate to Seraph, but he chose not to say anything.
“Alright, thanks,” said Jack dismissively, ignoring the implications that they were effectively trapped until the dungeon decided otherwise.
Fool, thought Seraph in judgment. Knowledge is power, and dismissing what others know is also dismissing revelations on what they are capable of.
"Alright, Erin you’re up. We already know Paul's ability, and that the kid doesn’t have one. So, what’s yours?” asked Jack.
"Um… OK, well my ability is called Starcall, and the prompt said that I can choose a spot, and it will light up like a star for a few seconds, leaving all who look at it blinded," Erin explained as she bit on her fingernails in passive anxiety.
That’s a very useful ability, though it's being wasted on someone without any innate talent in combat, thought Seraph as he examined the woman and found no evidence of strength.
Though he knew plenty about this ability, he refused to add to the conversation with his own insight. He didn’t want to let on that he knew more than he should. That sort of attention would be detrimental to him and could be a hazard. If he couldn’t figure out a way to steal or harness that ability discreetly, he would need to find ways to help her grow and use it. However, if he could steal or harness it, he had no intention of helping her increase her strength with it.
"Alright, Alexander, that leaves just you. What’s your ability?" asked Jack, and all eyes turned toward Alexander.
Alexander looked at him, ignoring the question. "My ability doesn’t matter. It’s not your business, it’s mine. If I need to use it, I’ll use it, and if I need to use it to help you guys, I’ll use it. Otherwise, it’s not your concern, and it’s not open to discussion."
Jack looked at him pleading. "Come on, man, don't be like that. We are all in this together. If we work together, we have the best chance of getting through this, and that's going to require a little trust from you."
Alexander replied, "Yeah, that's not going to happen. I'm not sure if you noticed, but we started registration with eight of us, and now we're down to five. Little-by-little our group is being whittled down. Does that mean anything, I don't know. But what I do know is that I have an ability I want to keep to myself, and my ability is my trump card if I ever need one—and I’m pretty sure I will need one. Besides, aren’t you the one who just mentioned that people here might not be who they seem to be, with all that talk of splicing, clones, and doppelgängers?"
"Fair enough," said Jack, not wanting to push the issue. "I’m not sure what our next step is going to be, but I think we need to choose a leader of our merry band, then find a way out of here. For leaders, I vote for anyone but me. Rejection stings a bit, and I’m getting a sense that I won’t be getting many votes."
Seraph impulsively went to raise his hand. Who but him was better suited to lead? After all, he had the most experience in the dungeon and with working with dungeon teams? While that may be true, it was not experience he could pull from to gather support for himself just yet. At least, not until he was certain that enough of a gap existed that others wouldn’t pose a danger to him. He quickly banished the thought, chastising himself, and lowered his hand as quickly as he had raised it.
Paul raised his hand. "It might not be what you guys are looking for, but I did a little time in the service. Six years active and another two years on drilling status. If anyone objects, it doesn't hurt my feelings to pass it up," Paul said, looking at Alexander.
"Man, don't give me that look," Alexander said. "I just don’t know you guys. I'm tired, I’m annoyed, and I’m irritated, and I just don’t think it's okay to be prying at each other's secrets right now. I’m not out to be a dick or anything, it just is what it is. If you want to be in charge, that’s fine by me. You’ve got my vote. Happy?
“Also, just in case anyone needed to know, the bathrooms are there and there.” Alexander pointed to the farthest corners of the gymnasium—the right side and then the left. "You’re welcome, guys. Boys room on the right, and girls on the left.”
"Um, guys. If you’ve got to go, go now," Erin said, pointing upwards. The pregame clock had turned on, and the timer had been set to ten minutes.
"Alright, guys, you heard her. We’re not taking any risks here, though. Battle buddy teams. Sorry, but if you’ve got to go, take a friend. Erin, if you have to go take Luca," Paul said. "Here’s the chain of command. If anything happens to me, Jack takes over, and if anything happens to him, Alexander takes over, then Erin, and after that… well, Luca, just try to make it out of here. Alright, everyone, go. You’ve got five minutes and then it’s back here with weapons out."
"And… break," interjected Jack, but nobody seemed amused.
Event Notice: When the countdown stops, you must successfully defend yourself from a horde of monsters.
Reward: Access to the rest of the school.
Conditional Reward: +1 to all stats for the person who kills the most monsters.
“Stop!” yelled Paul. “Everyone, back here. Something is happening.”
Just as quickly as everyone was prepared to run away for a quick break, they stopped and retreated back toward one another, circling up as the lights went completely dark. A projector screen came down from the rafters, and a colored video flashed across the room and onto the screen. A cartoonish bard-looking man walked across the screen and looked down at the group. It was the same cartoon figure they had seen before during orientation.
"Great. This is perfect. You are all still here, at least. Well, those of you who made it this far. Phase II is going to start very, very soon. Now, when that timer hits zero, the doors to this gym are going to unlock, and let me warn you right now, there are some pretty scary and serious things on the other side of that door. But to move on and away from here means finding tokens that have been hidden throughout the area on the other side of that door. Be careful though, because the rest of the school is full of monsters—except for the office. That’s the designated safe zone if you need to rest. Remember now, you need ten tokens to leave the area and proceed to Phase III. Good luck to you all, and do try to stay alive.”
The projection ended, and the screen rolled back up as the lights turned on.
Notification: Quest Granted – Each member of the party must collect 10 tokens to advance to the final phase.
Reward: Transition into the Third Phase. 30 Experience, 10 Sol.
"Alright. Looks like we’ve got no time to work out any sort of strategy,” said Paul, a hint of concern on his face as the gym door started to bulge forward as if pushed by a giant force on the other side.
Seraph knew a bit more about survival in the dungeon. He knew that standing out in the open like this was a poor idea. He didn’t want to die either, and poor preparation was an easy way to meet a messy end. "We should retreat to the bathroom. It should be a smaller space, so we can defend it easier and not get swarmed by any monsters that show up. It’ll let us set up a kill point that everyone can go back and forth from to even out any experience gains.”
Paul nodded, examining Seraph and feeling that there was something more to the answers and his son's sudden insights, but he couldn’t quite put it into words. He hesitated. “OK, hold what you got. Everybody, run to the men’s bathroom. Let’s go get in front of this thing."