3.3 Phase One
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"Defend your position..."

"Hm?" Jean was still distracted by the system's announcement when she heard a whisper.

She turned the head and saw Alice disappearing. No, wrong, the small girl leaped from the throne faster than the redhead could follow with her eyes. Astonished, Jean blinked.

"Where are you..."

A yell was from Robert and right after she heard very fast-paced footsteps. When Jean looked over, three shadows including Nomad were already at the main entrance of the throne room.

"Wha-"

John lifted his hand after, powerlessly dropped it a few seconds later and exchanged bewildered glances with Jean and Sage. The latter squinted, corrected glasses on his nose and suddenly exclaimed,

"They think 'defend' means now. Yes, yes, I remember Scarlet had to fight against... what it was, centipedes? the moment she got into her dream."

"Right," Jean agreed and suddenly felt really unsafe with two guys she knew had not-combat classes.

"I think we should follow," added John with a righteous and just a bit shaky voice.

The moment Alice had read the system's message she felt her certain parts finally moving into their places and strange impetus driving her out. The girl didn't think much when she flipped over Jean and landed between Rob and Nomad with her glaive assembled and ready. A moment later she was already at the exit, the courtyard before her. She heard a shout and two guys hurrying over.

Then react fast, the girl noted and swept around with a glance.

The wide place was surrounded by walls and bared from any vegetation just like she had seen from above. The dark soil under Alice's feet was mixed with rocks of a long ruined road to the castle gate and outside.

"What is it? Enemies?"

"Monsters?"

Alice looked at the two sideways. To their credit, Rob had his long straight sword and triangle shield in his arms and was observing the courtyard instead of staring at her while Nomad stood behind the two of them with a strangely crooked right hand as if lifting something invisible, yet heavy.

"Shaman..."

"...yes?" Nomad blinked at her after a confused pause.

"Nothing. Thought out loud."

To hide her blush, Alice shook the head away.

"I didn't feel any danger if you want to know. I just felt like running out."

"When why did we run after you?"

"How would I know?" Alice smiled at Robert's foolish question.

"..." The guys exchanged glances.

"I was attacked the moment the first phase had started back then," added the girl.

Her senses seemed to rise with every step as she walked forward slowly. With naked feet, she felt Jean and her escort coming. In her eyes, hundred of suns in the sky grew clear and splendid.

"What a view."

"Um."

"Teach, we are down here!!"

Alice twitched and turned on the extremely loud yell echoing through the castle, 'here, -ere, -e..."

Was that necessary? Although it would be bad if teach separates...

"Jesus. Do you sing? I bet you can shout down a whole opera house!"

Seeing Rob's deliberate enthusiasm, Nomad scratched his head:

"Something like that."

"So, where is the danger?" John cut in. The big guy was nervously rubbing his palms, thick brows were writing a genuine concern, his dark brown eyes jumping left and right. Feeling gazes from Sage and Jean, Alice nodded with a straight face,

"False alarm."

Two snickers on aside the girl ignored. John shook his head,

"This place is too big to watch over by ourselves."

"Um."

"True."

"I agree."

"Guys? Weren't you two passing tower trials?" Jean asked suddenly.

"Yeah," Rob followed her raised finger and got lost in thought.

"Right... it was named 'tower'. I was inside all the time. It had floors, but no windows." Nomad spoke slowly, a great frown on his face as well.

"Anyone sees windows on this thing? Cause I don't."

Good point, John, Alice didn't say, too busy observing said tower.

The smooth structure was white in colour, perfectly round and made of perfectly even stone blocks. From above Alice had thought it was a watchtower near the gate or something, but looking closer... The castle had a number of small adjoined buildings, actually, all of them built from large blocks and worn out by time, yet the tower looked brand new.

"It's like it was photoshopped into the wall," Nomad said suddenly.

Everyone marveled at the accuracy of his words, including silent Sage. The tower indeed seemed to be inserted instead of whatever the castle had in that place and then left without a finishing touch to stick out like a sore thumb.

"There is an explanation."

When a bit nostalgic voice rang out, Alice didn't even flinch. She had heard steps through the ground after all.

Professor Melissa Lauster lifted the brim of her pointed hat and smiled at them.

"If not an explanation, there is always a theory."

Under her armpit, there was a system's notebook.

After a series of greetings, everyone returned to the throne room. Ms. Lauster placed the notebook on a chair and coughed.

"As you know, the system changed once during phase one. Now was the second time. My system shop was completely transferred to this terminal. It also contains a list of objectives, which is for the best. After all, 'activate system facilities' task is rather vague."

System shop, Alice tried and shrugged inwardly.

The professor remained the same as the girl remembered her. A woman in her late twenties aka looking younger than she was, classic blonde beauty with sky-like eyes and all curve and perky places, well, in place. Melissa easily made Jean look as exactly who she was: an immature teenager with a promise, and Alice... the latter was a middle-schooler regardless of comparison.

Strangely, being the only true adult in the room, the professor appeared the most committed to her class idea. Besides the signature witch hat, she wore a black formless robe with a high collar and dark leather boots. Alice wanted to seek out a cat to finish the image.

"Everyone is here," Ms. Lauster smiled and tapped the still closed notebook. "However, before we start to make any plans, I want us to reflect on phase one of our training. It would be interesting."

That was another weird thing... at least as far as Alice's reading experience went. Guys didn't try to insert themselves into a leading position (yet?). No one was talking bullshit or panicking around. Their group simply gathered around the only adult in their midst, which also was their former teacher, because it was a sensible thing to do.

Well, these guys are not alpha enough to grab power, he-he. 

"Wait-wait-wait. Everyone? I see seven people. We were eight."

"Eight? You are sure, Jean?"

"Yes! Right?"

The redhead didn't sound sure at all. Meeting a sly professor's smile almost everybody else faltered, too.

"You said I was the eighth." Alice suppressed the impulse to dodge focused on her gazes. "When I logged in the chat for the first time, you said I was the eighth, Jean."

"Thank you, Scar! See? I don't remember wrong!"

"I must confess, I'm damn confused right now."

"I kinda recall?"

"Eh..."

"I will explain in due. Sage, please, you must have many words to say." Ms. Lauster calmed the talky guys down and kindly beckoned to the one remaining silent. "Come on," she pushed.

Dunkan touched his glasses. He was perhaps different from his online persona, but who is the same before a computer screen and a living person? Alice knew his type. Silent, always avoiding eye contact and easily bullied, especially by girls.

Alice also usually avoided eye contact, but that was because she didn't like being observed upon down and periodically had an urge to break a knee to drag the observer onto her level.

"Our initial contact with the system was different and, in a sense, unique. Professor Lauster saw disturbing mathematical formulas. I read a... an embarrassing letter."

When Sage started to talk, he was started from a point. Jean supported him,

"Images of insects. Among others, spiders. Bweee."

"A movie I abhor to watch and my sis adores, the worst scene."

"My own obituary, starting words 'The nigga finally dies!'" John made a spitting motion.

"A poem I wrote to my crush. Four years ago. You won't see it. Not a chance." Nomad proved himself as a man of art and denied easy success when eyes landed on him.

"The system mocked me with a Savior test."

In her thought, Alice swore against the system and its tricks. The thing definitely knew some personal stuff and used it...

"My hypothesis is the goal was to raise tension. Adrenalin, heart rate, certain brainwaves. Resentment, possibly. Then the system showed us an illusion of time travel. This was the second goal, to plant an all-powerful image so we won't question the first phase."

Dunkan inhaled deep and nervously, sneaked a glance at the professor for an approving nod, and continued:

"The first phase was bollox. A great lie. It only happened in our heads."

The group was moderately shaken.

"I think there was some sort of transition to this castle. True phase one. Think, we all spent months alone. I'm used..." he paused, blinked, switched the topic: "It's not good for a human mind. Right? And yet when we woke up everyone felt normal. "

"How many times did you visit a bathroom? Once? Zero?"

"Yes, thanks, professor Lauster. Stomach pains. The randomness of the timelines I invented – of course, dreams move at a different pace! Oh, actual dreams! When I slept for the first time I saw a recollection of key events in my life."

This time Alice definitely felt a chill.

"After – not a single dream."

They exchanged disturbed glances.

"Yes," John said heavily. "My tolerance to spooky stuff is very low, you know. I am not joking, any horror would make me call mama."

No one laughed. Alice felt unwell, even sick.

"But I get used pretty fast. A day of 'what to do, what to do' and that's it. Make sense for a realistic dream."

"Especially if we doubted it somewhere deep," Nomad ended the thought. "But why not a real test?"

"Yes!" Dunkan grew more and more confident. "The answer is scale! It has to be! If you have thousands or millions of participants in this training the costs are much lower if they do most of the work themselves."

"I have scratches after this dream. My weapon is here," Alice waved her glaive. Her eyes were somewhat crazy.

"Mind can injure the body. The items can be created upon the transition," this time, Jean answered, while staring at her with a complicated gaze. "Sage, why would the difference be so big? Not-combat classes had to study their craft, these two had trials in a tower and Scar had... that freaking dungeon? Why so unfair?"

"My best guess, dream training is tied to our life experience and mental readiness."

Alice turned abruptly, walked away at a very steady and slow pace. Only her glaive's dull metal end was sliding and screeching on the floor.

"The second guess... the system initially gave us stimulus our brains knew how to simulate beforehand. Sight, touch, pain..."

"Shut up, Dunkan. Scar?"

He-he. Alice squeezed out a chuckle. She wanted to scream at Jean to stop her act so over-familiar, but what would that achieve? The girl tossed all exterior sounds, all words, all noise away.

She desperately wanted... wanted...

A long decayed sculpture caught her attention. Shapeless, yet standing so nicely.

Alice closed her eyes.

Somehow like this.

She kicked the statue into pieces.

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