"So what if he's a kid," the wizard laughs, his fire hair turning a vibrant red as it sparks, “this is a battle of survival. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you have a useful skill you should use it for the betterment of the group!”
“Yeah! Use it for all of us!” his lackeys cheer.
“We don’t know what this tutorial is.” I try to reason.
“That’s why we are going to scout,” he explains, words poisoned with false sweet honey, “and to do that, we need the one person here with strong combat abilities.”
“I understand where you’re coming from son,” G says, voice dropping an octave and taking on a sharp firm tone, “but I’m not letting you take a child into a battlefield.”
The wizard huffs a laugh, toothed smile wide, “I’m not asking you to ‘let me’ do anything. I’m taking the kid.”
As if they had practiced beforehand his lackeys' weapons raise together, their blades and arrows pointed at us, “Now are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”
“Nova…,” Hero calls, tugging on my cloak, I push him back a little more, making sure he can’t wiggle out from behind me. I reach back with my left hand towards him and it's immediately laced with his own smaller shaking ones.
“It’s going to be okay,” I repeat, though the words are a lie, I still do my best to convince myself of them, “everything will be okay.”
“Do you really think a useless support class and an old man can stop us?” the wizard asks with a laugh as though he just heard the funniest joke. No one joins him in his mirth. “Shall we find out if we can kill one another, your sacrifice will go a long way into helping us figure out this place.”
“Boss,” John cuts in with a nervous glance towards us, “he might be an old man, but a Practitioner class is pretty uncommon, it would be useful to have someone with crowd control.”
The wizard hums looking back over towards us, “Well then how about we make a little deal?”
“A deal?” I echo, already not trusting a word he says.
“The old man and the kid come with me, and on the next trip we bring your girl?”
G nearly growls as he bites out, “Woman.”
He startles, taken aback, “I’m sorry?”
“Miss Nova is not a girl, she’s a woman,” G explains.
I can hear the wizard gritting his teeth as he glares at us, before remembering himself and fixing his face into one of overly false concern, “My apologies, I never meant any insult. But I don’t think you quite heard me right. You two come with me, or I kill both the woman and old man.”
I glance over at G nervously, the old man doesn’t even flinch, but worry pools in my gut. This man had almost the whole group wrapped around his fingers, going against him would be a death sentence, he had made that painfully clear. He was recruiting everyone strong under his banner, consolidating power. Hero might not be safe with them, but he would be safer than if he stayed with me. And I needed to remember what I was fighting for, my family was waiting for me, Zeke was somewhere, maybe here, maybe back in the car, it didn’t matter. I made a promise to always be there with him, I needed to keep that promise above everything else. Hero is a kid, and the same age as Benjamin, but he’s not my brother, I can’t be throwing away my life here to prove a point.
G glances back at me, his eyebrows furrowed. He scans my face, and whatever he sees makes his frown deepen. Shame floods my veins as I shift my eyes away. I knew better than anyone I was making excuses in my own head to justify this child’s life. Hero had willingly gone to my side in hopes I would protect him. But I had made up my mind, my goal was to survive and get back home, nothing else matters, even if guilt becomes something I will never be rid of.
“I understand,” G says turning back to face the gathered group, “I’ll come with you, with the boy.”
“Wait, Nova!” Hero protests, crawling out from behind me to stare up at me imploringly, “I don’t want to go!”
“Hero I-,” I choke on my words as I lean down towards him, he is only a kid, not even in high school yet and here he is being thrown into the fire of the unknown because of human greed to live. “It’s going to be-,”
“Come here,” and there’s a hand tugging Hero away.
“No! Let go of me!” Hero screams teeth barred and eyes a rich golden yellow. “Nova!” he calls reaching out for me. I reach back on instinct alone, until a sword levels itself in front of me.
“Hero,” G calls, moving quickly over to the wizard and grabbing Hero back from him, “please calm down boy. I know it’s hard, but we need to leave Nova for now.”
“No, you promised!”
“Hero-,” my voice chokes again, so many things I want to say, to justify my not fighting back. But fighting would only be death, and not even only my death. If I die here, no one will save Zeke, no one would be able to give my family closure. I had stared death in the face before, knew every time I got into a fight it could be my last, I had accepted my death a long time ago, but I’m not accepting leaving those I care about alone. Hero had wormed himself into my heart faster than he should have, trauma does bond people after all. He might not be my real brother, but that didn’t mean I needed to make this child suffer anymore. “Be good for G okay?”
I lock eyes with G, his eyes are sad, but he gives me a solemn nod. It would seem I’m not the only one who suspects I won’t really make it out of this alive. But at least G understands, protecting the kid comes first.
“Stop being such a noisy brat,” the wizard growls moving to reach for the kid, before G blocks him with his staff. The fire elemental huffs before turning around sharply, “Follow me, old man, we’re heading out.”
One of his lackies sends me an untrusting look, “And the girl?”
The wizard glances back at me, I can see the dark face of cruelty hang in his eyes for a moment, but then he scoffs as though I were nothing but a minor eye sore. “Leave her,” he orders, turning his back to me, “she’s not even worth learning about the system from.”
I grind my teeth to stop myself from saying anything, my pride was bruised, and I hated letting the bully get his way, but this was the best possible outcome. He was going to kill me, I can’t say anything stupid and make him change his mind. I can’t do anything yet, he was right. The acolyte was a trash class, until I leveled, I wouldn’t be much help to anyone. So, I should get stronger, if I became a real healer, no one could speak to me that way. But I needed to be patient, grow my power and abilities before I started changing things.
The wizard snaps as though commanding a dog, “Let’s go.”
Hero watches me the whole way he’s marched toward the biggest exit in the room. And even though the warriors have long since stopped holding me at blade point, I still don’t move. As much as I hated to admit it, they were right. I was a useless buff class with zero team support. Once I leveled it would be a different story but-, but who knows how long that would be.
“Everyone we have gathered the first scouting party team!” the wizard announces gesturing to the 20 people scattered around him, Hero and G two of them, though they noticeable stand further away. “We shall return as soon as we have learned more about this situation!”
The people – salary men, teachers, students. A homeless man with a broken bow, the construction worker with a wand, the stay-at-home mom with a sword too big for her to lift, and the old granny next door holding a shield like a plate. Ordinary people. People who are scared and just want to find a way home, just want to believe in something when nothing makes sense. They cheer, even if they suspect something is wrong, because they have nothing else to believe in. So, no one questions his choice to drag a child into the unknown, nor his open threats to murder. They just close their eyes to it, call it the greater good, and hope they aren’t found lacking next. Humans are inherently selfish creatures after all, it would be foolish to expect anything else.
There are five exits out of the cavernous room. The scouting party takes the largest one, a tunnel thirty feet wide and nearly as tall. It is the only exit marked with torches. An almost too obvious way forward. But no one questions the choice.
Hero keeps looking at me, even as G keeps his arm around him and leads him out with the rest of the scouting group. I force a shaky smile to my lips and give a bit of a wave. Hero’s face morphs into one of anger, he glares with yellow eyes and turns sharply away from me. Not the result I was hoping for, as my heart pangs at the obvious distrust, but at least he’s not afraid anymore. Fear is helpful, but anger is a better emotion to survive whatever was going to be thrown at him. And maybe in the long run the anger would be easier for him instead of the pain.
The gathered crowd starts breaking away into smaller groups, some start picking through the piles of junk, trying to find more useful items, others just stay in place and whisper among themselves glancing at the other tunnels in the room. A few start trying to give orders for watches and supply gatherings, with little success. I just keep watching G and Hero’s backs, they are small blurry figures now, obscured by the lingering dust in the air and the dark tunnels they are starting to walk through.
I’m the only one still watching the scouting party leave, so I’m the only one who sees the wizard bring the group to a stop once they’ve entered the next room. He singles to someone on his right and they raise their glowing staff back towards the starting room and-Hero whips around, lurching out of G’s hold- “NOVA!”
The whole cavern shakes. I crash painfully into the uneven stone floor. Pain flares up my legs and I can almost feel the cuts and bruises forming across my skin, but I can’t even think past the overbearing ringing in my ears. Everything is blurry with dust and debris clouding the air. Causing me to choke on my own breaths as faint screams and calls for help echo around me. I stumble to my feet, using my spear as a support as I quickly scan the area, looking for the scouting party, for G, for Hero-
The tunnel collapsed. Nothing but a pile of rocks and smoldering torches.
The scouting team was gone, crushed underneath a mountain of debris. All the strongest fighters, the best classes, our biggest shot at survival, gone before the first day, before the first hour had passed. There were a 100 of us when the game began, now there is 80.