Betrayal. Something more common than one might think. It is seldom taken into consideration, especially with those deemed as a friend. But everyone differs in some way concerning their morals and goals. They may be minuscule, seemingly insignificant and accessible to compromise. It is these suppressed details which bring that first damned betrayal, and only then does the victim proceed with the utmost discretion if he should survive.
For Alphonse, this was his second time -- a second time where he found himself on the receiving end. The reason eluded him in his sorry state.
Alphonse pressed against the arced wall of the tunnel as one of his legs threatened to fail him. He grasped at his soaked thigh and grit his teeth as pain flashed over his vision. Dark crimson painted his fingers. The splotches of black ate through his undershirt and crawled down the inside of his leather armor. He'd managed to pull the arrow out, but he felt his body weakening. It was a drunken, drifting sensation that made his joints feel like rubber. At the time, he hadn't considered that the tip might be laced with poison. Letting it sit there for a while seemed like the best option so that the blood could seal around the wound.
A transparent screen had opened at the corner of his vision with his health bar flashing red. There was no explicit amount to indicate his number of hit points, but red was never a good sign.
He'd pulled the arrow out in a panic. Luckily, there was no excessive bleeding. It was just an unlucky spot that pierced the narrow crease of his leather armor at the thigh.
He reached into his satchel and rubbed some more curing ivy in the wound. He took a sharp intake of breath as it slipped into his body.
The health indicator appeared outside his peripheral vision once again and stabilized. It throbbed at a slower, even pace, indicating that he should probably drink a health potion or something of the like.
Alphonse locked in place and listened. The goblins and ogres that pursued him seemed to have lost his trail. It wasn't just luck. He'd placed his stat points into perception and sneak for a specific reason. He wanted to be a scout/assassin-type of adventurer when he entered this world. It was what he always leaned towards when the trainers back on Earth introduced him to role-playing game systems. He'd been adamant about it, and his unwavering resilience in the face of constant adversity paid off.
He waited a short while as the silence entered a comforting permanence. When it was apparent that he had lost his pursuers, he reached into a smaller compartment on his hip that held the vials containing healing and mana replenishment. The cotton slots on the inside prevented them from clinking together and making noise. He crafted it himself with the thought in mind.
He carefully twisted the elastic cork on one of the bottles to prevent it from popping and took a swig. The flashing red of his health bar dissipated and started turning a shade of lime-green. The only problem in this world was that even though health potions restored vitality, it didn't solve handicaps from injuries. He still felt the numbing pain in his side from where he'd taken the arrow. He applied a pressure bandage that mended part of this issue.
Alphonse's head jerked up at attention as a shriek echoed from somewhere down the tunnel back where he'd been previous. Goblins.
A set of stray pebbles bounced near his foot as the ground rumbled. Ogres.
Alphonse padded silently down the tunnel. He felt the vibrations run through his fingers as they trailed along the rough wall. A bit of dust and small debris showered around him as the quakes intensified. When he arrived at the tunnel's end, he saw a natural bridge spanning a chasm that stretched into unfathomable darkness. Another outlet in the wall across led somewhere unknown, but presumably deeper into the dungeon based on the angle. He didn't have the time before his party's expedition to scout further ahead, and there hadn't been plans to traverse this direction since it didn't pertain to their previous objective. Now, it was all about just survival and escape.
The adventurer steeled himself and started making his way across the bridge in a full-on sprint, ignoring the protest of his injured leg. Better to move fast without thinking instead of slow and tottering, worrying about the endless black below.
He made it a little more than halfway across when he noticed three individuals appear from a passage on the other side of the cavern to the right. A path hugged the wall and spiraled downwards like a staircase. After a few hundred feet it curved up at a sharp angle and inserted at a short ledge. This eventually merged into a platform dotted with tall stalagmites in a labyrinthine formation that ended at another tunnel traveling upward towards where Alphonse knew led to salvation. It would only take the three other adventurers ten minutes or so to find the exit.
The one leading the group was a young man about Alphonse's age, perhaps in his early to mid-twenties. He held a massive broadsword in both hands and cut down a pair of goblins that stood in his way. The heads of the foul, slimy creatures sliced clean off and sprayed the man's chestplate.
Alphonse swallowed hard as he watched his former party member.
"Alex," he muttered, the name a bitter taste in his mouth.
The two other individuals were around a similar age. Another man wearing a hood and cloak trailed to the rear of the group with a longbow slung over his shoulder. A pair of daggers flashed in his hands. The one in the middle was a woman with long black hair wearing a grey healer's robe, clinging to a staff like it was her very existence.
Alphonse slid to a stop on the bridge and instinctively drew his bow. He notched an arrow, pulled back on the string and aimed at the adventurer with the dual daggers.
You fucking bastard!
His fingers trembled with hesitation. The draw weight started to wear on him as he considered whether to shoot or not. Alphonse had some confidence in his abilities with the bow, but one arrow probably wouldn't kill his target. A headshot was nigh impossible. Back on Earth, he'd practiced with a bow for years. The level points he put in his dexterity stat would probably help too, but it wasn't a certainty. He hadn't been in this world long enough to figure out what stats complimented other real-world, natural ability.
He glanced over his shoulder and counted the number of arrows in his quiver. Six left. Not worth it.
The rumbling of the cavern spurred him on. He spat a curse as he lowered the bow and rushed the rest of the way across the bridge.
He wasn't sure how much time passed. It felt like at least a day went by, but the absence of the sky and endless darkness of the dungeon played with his senses.
Alphonse hunkered down in a rocky alcove as a squad of goblins rushed by on the trail above. So far, the sneak skill he raised with his stat points was a godsend. He was certain it saved him more times than he could count on both hands.
He had also gained two levels and, in desperation, placed his stat points into more perception. It seemed easier to determine enemy locations in larger areas based on the number of sounds and distance. The gibbering, harsh cacophony of the goblin language didn't mess with his hearing as much as it used to either.
He wasn't about to win many engagements. The sheer number of monsters, his injuries and sheer exhaustion were too many factors working against him.
Alphonse froze as his stomach suddenly complained of hunger. He gritted his teeth and pressed his hands down in a desperate attempt to quell the sound.
Shut up! Shut up!
He thought his belly was loud enough to wake an ogre on the opposite side of the cavern. It wouldn't have surprised him. He'd already eaten some of his rations a few hours ago, but the physical duress and sleep fatigue made his body demand more.
The last of the goblins passed without hearing his stomach's insistence. Alphonse breathed a quiet, relieved sigh and lowered his hands.
Alphonse waited a full five minutes. No other sounds. Clear.
He pushed himself up and examined the canted wall behind him. It would expose him to the path above on one side, but he saw little choice other than backtracking. The latter was highly undesirable, as he'd barely snuck past the ogres guarding the previous area.
He climbed the lower portion of the wall and settled himself into a narrow crevasse. He pressed his back against it, rested his feet on the other side and shimmied up the rest of the way. The rock dug into his back, and he felt a warmth crawl down his skin as an old cut reopened.
Alphonse ignored the pain and forced himself to continue on. He pushed off and gripped the ledge on the opposite side. His breath caught in his throat when he hoisted himself over.
A few yards away slept a number of strange wolf-like creatures. They definitely weren't like the wolves he'd seen from his world. Spikes trailed their spines and stuck through matted fur. The curved nails on their paws were like those of a large reptile.
He considered sneaking past the sleeping monsters when a low growl came from somewhere to his right. Alphonse slowly turned his head and saw one of the beasts lowered to the floor with its snout curled into a snarl. He stared dumbstruck for a short while until the monster raised its head and howled at the cavern's ceiling. The signal was obvious. The deranged shrieks of goblins joined in from somewhere, and the rest of the wolves roused themselves from sleep.
Alphonse didn't think. He dropped back down into the gap as the beast leaped forward. Its jaws snapped at the empty air a second after its prey vanished.
The adventurer climbed out of the alcove and made his way to the path above. Already the goblins were rushing in from the tunnels on either side. They waved their clubs wildly and readied crude bows. The heavy thuds of ogre feet shook the ground.
Nowhere to go. End of the line. The wolves stared down from above with what seemed like a satisfied smirk as they panted and howled.
The only means of escape was the gaping pit on the opposite side of the path. All that greeted Alphonse's eyes was darkness.
He hastily released a clasp attached to his waist and removed a thick length of rope with a set of three curved, steel appendages at the end. A grappling hook. He loosened the string tied to the appendages that kept them from swinging against his leg.
He didn't know how deep the pit was, but he figured releasing at a lower angle was his best option. If he managed to swing himself sideways while jumping, he might be able to reduce the impact hitting the opposite wall. He examined the tip of a stalagmite piercing the darkness that the grapple could hook to. It was a major gamble, but he saw no other options. He had one shot.
Alphonse steadied his hands and twirled the end of the grapple in a controlled circle. He released, and a satisfying clank echoed as it hooked to the stalagmite. Alphonse followed through with his hand forward to keep the tension and gave the rope a few quick tugs. It appeared to be attached solid enough.
A volley of arrows missed their marks and clattered at his feet. One glanced off his boot and dared him to jump. And so he did.
He managed the correct angle for his descent. The edge of his boots scraped against a massive stalagmite that had been hidden within the darkness, but it managed to work in his favor. His momentum slowed somewhat, and he collided with the opposite wall. He let out a gasp as the air forced from his lungs. Some protruding rocks scraped his skin and tore off flesh on one elbow.
It hurt. Bad.
He swayed back and forth a few times before going still. The tall stalagmite, as well as the accompanying dark, concealed him from the path above. Below he saw nothing but more inky blackness. He considered what threats might be lying in wait. Perhaps the ground was riddled with nothing but sharp rocks. Maybe there was an underground water source home to some creatures like alligators. Maybe it was simply far enough to break his legs or make him go splat.
Alphonse started to wish he had crafted some climbing tools. But one could only carry so much in this world. Unfortunately, there was no magical, convenient inventory system that let him expand the number of slots for holding gear. No special holographic menu for bringing items into existence. Adventurers could only carry what their body allowed them.
The transparent screen that warned him of his health appeared. It hovered a few inches from his face and pulsed an insistent yellow.
Yeah, I get it. I'm hurt. He willed the screen away and ordered it to stay that way.
He remained suspended there for a few minutes. Soon it would be pointless. His arms would give out, and he'd drop anyway. At least if he dropped now he might have some energy left over in case more monsters showed up. He started to wonder if a path winded down from the tunnels he'd already traversed. He cursed himself as the thought dawned on him. The monsters could be waiting for him right now. He'd fall right into their greedy, nasty little hands.
Alphonse let go of the rope and fell into the darkness.
Three days now, he guessed.
Alphonse limped through the suffocating blackness. He'd been in the accursed dark ever since he took that daring, desperate plunge.
He'd been lucky. The wall had curved slightly as he fell and turned into a more natural decline. The end result was less lucky. He'd slammed into an outcropping of rock and a sharp spear of stone impaled his left leg.
He had screamed. A long, angry scream. There was no point in suppressing it. He needed to scream - not because of the catastrophic pain. He screamed for his terrible situation. He cursed his betrayer and the friends who left him behind. He raged at the realization that his chances of survival were next to none.
He didn't want to go back Earth. That world died long ago for him, before it started lacking resources and descended into chaos. It died when there was no longer a place for him to call home.
I-I'm not going back. Alphonse took the final swig from his waterskin. He choked and was racked by a terrible, rasping cough as sudden bile mixed with the fluid. The heat rose in his throat, and the rations he ate a few minutes earlier splattered on the cavern floor.
"God-fucking dammit," he gasped as he wiped a hand over his mouth.
He laced his fingers behind his head and stood straight to assist his airways as he took deep breaths. A few minutes later, after his breathing calmed somewhat, he moved on.
The lack of weight on his person was palpable. Supplies were limited. The damage done to his armor and the missing portions of his gear made him feel naked.
When the pain in his leg became too much to bear he sat against the wall and started running a check on his inventory: one healing potion, a few grams of curing ivy, a short sword and another day's worth of rations. No arrows, and it didn't matter if he scavenged some since his bow had splintered after that brutal fall. His grapple was gone. It didn't work like in fantasy stories where the hook attached and detached. It was a length of rope with a piece of metal stuck into whatever it latched to. In real life, it was sometimes a one and done deal.
In many ways, this world felt like a fantasy. He had a mana pool to cast magic, even though he had no spells to cast at the moment. Strange creatures wandered the world. There were stats like in video games that were still not entirely understood. They supposedly assisted with natural abilities. But that seemed the extent of it. Reality reared its ugly head the rest of the time.
Alphonse's eyelids went heavy as he considered these thoughts. He wanted to stay here. Even after all the hardship, he didn't want to let go.
Sleep beckoned him.
A floating orb of light woke him from a dreamless rest. In this empty place where time eluded him, even a few hours felt sufficient.
Alphonse attempted to raise his hand to shield the light, but found that he was still too weak to muster the effort. His battered leg refused to obey his will.
And so, the outworld adventurer from Earth simply sat there and waited.
The orb moved close enough to reveal a shape behind it. He could tell that it was something vaguely humanoid, an individual too tall to be a goblin. Far too short and skinny to be an ogre. He doubted that there was an adventurer like himself stuck so deep in the dungeon. In a place like this, he could only assume it was something come to kill him.
So that's it, Alphonse thought. I lose...huh.
A tear trickled down his cheek. He finally submitted to his deepest fear: going back to that broken Earth.
The silhouette behind the floating orb stopped about a dozen feet from him. Alphonse could make out the shape of a head, two arms and a hand held up flexing five fingers. Every movement suggested a human, until the figure took a few steps closer.
Alphonse started questioning his eyes as a pair of ears seemed to stick out the top of the person's head. They flicked a couple times. The head tilted. The figure moved a few steps closer again.
He had a grasp of what he was seeing. It was definitely humanoid, very much akin to a human in almost every aspect. He could also tell that he was looking at a young woman, perhaps around his age. She wore a set of armor with a chestplate that shaped to the contours of her body. A fine cape was clipped to her shoulders with brunette hair trailing the layered pauldrons. A battle skirt was attached to tightly knit chainmail over her stomach. Long black, thick stockings covered her legs.
Alphonse was first drawn to her pretty face, but then the movement on top of her head seized his attention.
Ears? Wait...cat ears?
She pursed her lips and analyzed him with blue eyes and thin pupils. A brown tail swayed behind her and brushed the ground. If not for those ears, eyes and tail she would've looked like a regular, attractive human female.
“Native or Outworld?” she asked. Her voice was soft and pleasant, but also held a bit of a disparaging tone.
Alphonse opened his mouth to speak, but words eluded him. A mix of exhaustion and wonderment took over his senses.
The young woman frowned. “You look awful.”
Whether it was his own will or her blunt tone, Alphonse wasn't sure, but something spurred him to speak, “Y-yeah. Been running.” It was all he could think to say. He knew the words sounded dumb as soon as they left him, but he didn't even have the will to care.
“Where are your friends?” she asked.
A humorless laugh escaped him and he fell into a coughing fit before he answered, “'Friends?' Ha! Left me. Used me as bait.”
Her frown deepened and flashed a side of teeth. One sharp tooth overlapped her lip with the movement. “Disgusting. Pathetic.”
He waited for her to say more, but she just continued to stare at him, as if he were something to be pitied. The way she gazed at him started prodding at his nerves. It encouraged him to ease his back against the wall and use it as support. He shifted his legs underneath him and managed to stand.
The catgirl's frown reversed upon seeing this. “Well now, that's better.”
Alphonse managed a tired grin. “Yeah. I assume you don't plan on killing me?”
“That would be a waste.”
“Is that right?”
Her matter of fact tone kept him on his heels. He didn't know what to think of this girl. Questions assaulted his tired mind: Was she a monster? What was her game? What was she doing down in this godforsaken place?
She seemed to read the look on his face and raised a hand. “Save your questions for later. Lady Rinka will answer them.”
The catgirl approached him until she was mere inches from his face. Alphonse attempted to back away, but the wall held him in place to face her.
“No questions. Save your strength."
He held his hands up in defeat. “Okay, sure. Whatever you say.”
She slid next to him, grabbed one of his arms and slung it over her shoulders. He almost instinctively pulled away, but the fog of fatigue suggested otherwise. Being so close to her, he noticed a spiked, tan mark that traveled along her cheek. A similar one was on the other side.
It wasn't until a few minutes later that he realized he was being saved. He might make it out of this place. The warmth in his chest built up and filled with hope.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Yeah, sure,” she muttered.