The panic was immediate.
Screams and confused yells echoed around the room. The dust causing most to cough and hack even as they cried. Many were starting to pray, out loud and to themselves. A few tried to calm the situation, but no one was listening.
“Everyone please!” an older woman was yelling over top of the panic, waving to get everyone’s attention. She was wearing a handmade name tag and carrying a folder that was covered in stickers, an elementary school teacher. Like everyone else, she was no longer fully human. Her ears were long and pointed, a pair of fluttering butterfly wings at her back, with a bow tucked awkwardly under her arm.
“I know this looks bad-,” she starts as yells and shouts of “of course!” and “bad?! This is horrible!” rang over top, but she steadied her breath and waited as the room quieted once more, “we need to calm down and think this through,” she urges, voice steady and even.
The tension and fear still hung thick and heavy, but slowly people were starting to breathe a little easier, the panic morphing into worry and uncertainty. I didn't know what to think, a void of numbness replacing anything that would have been there. Distantly, some part of my brain seemed to be still working, ignorant or ignoring the rest of me that was grieving. This woman seemed far more concerned with the general well-being of the group than the wizard from before, but I was still frozen in place, staring at the collapsed tunnel. I had only known them for an hour, maybe even less, but the feeling of loss still gutted me. Hero was just a kid, 13 and-and- …he was gone.
‘He might not be dead’, a desperate part of my heart whispered, still refusing to believe what had just happened, ‘only the tunnel collapsed as far as we know, he and rest of the group could be alive and well!’ That’s true, I didn’t see the tunnel collapse on top of them myself, but even if they are okay, if this tutorial was going to be anything like what I feared, it would only be a matter of time. And that was only if G managed to keep the kid in line enough to not offend the wizard.
“First-,” the teacher was continuing, voice steady and calm, “is anyone hurt? Do we know if we have medical supplies?” she questions the group, who only responds halfheartedly with mumbles of uncertainty. “Let’s start taking stock of-,” her voice abruptly cuts off, as hysteric screams and yells for help echo around the room.
I snap my attention over and join the rest of the room staring in horror at the scene before me.
The woman was still standing, hands clutching around her midsection that was rapidly staining red. She was uselessly trying to push the blade embedded in her stomach back out of her. The man behind her laughed, the culprit of the attack, as with one harsh move the sword slipped out of her and she collapsed to the ground gasping and struggling to breathe.
“Who says we have to listen to you!?” he laughs, mania clear in his eyes, as he turns his attention to the rest of the gathered crowd. “Wizard man tried playing nice and he got squished like a worthless bug,” he states, enunciating his point by stomping hard on the woman’s arm. She screams as a loud “SNAP!” echoes in the fear-stricken silence, limb now bent at an unnatural angle.
“God, help us,” someone says in the quiet, their voice carrying over the still crowd.
The man sneers, face twisted with disdain and glee, “God can’t help you here,” he promises, shaking out his sword, causing specks of blood to splash on the still-frozen people below him. “Now we rule on power. Just like how the holy man upstairs intended right? Law of the jungle and all.”
He laughs again, a cackling distorted glee, “But if any of you want to die, then go ahead.” And he levels the crowd with a piercing stare, something dark and unnatural twisting over his shoulders in the shadows of the room, “Run.” He orders, kicking the now dead woman off the platform, her body stiff and lifeless, blood painting the stone below her, “I love it when my prey squirms.”
Fear settles over the room, oppressive and thick, everyone too afraid to act. I’m not sure who moves first, but it’s like a chain reaction, as soon as the first person backs up an inch, the room explodes into chaos, people scrambling and shoving just to get a bit farther.
“So, we’re going to do this the hard way!?” He asks with a laugh, jumping down off the makeshift platform and looming over an older woman who had been knocked down in the panic, “Then let me show all you rats who’s king!”
I force my eyes to look away, but I can still hear the sickening sound of tearing flesh. I choke on a gag, covering my mouth to force down the need to vomit.
Screams and cries for help and mercy echo off the walls, discordant and deafening. But even above the panic, the manic laughter rings the loudest.
“I need- I need to leave,” I reason with myself out loud, even though I can’t hear my own words in the chaos, “I need to leave.”
I stumble to my feet before my legs give out and I crash back to the cavern floor. Pain flares in my right knee, but the guilt and shame stings worse. Hero just walked to his death, Zeke was still waiting for me somewhere, and I can’t even force my body to move from an actual threat.
“Damn it!” I curse, trying again to push myself up, but everything is numb and shaking. Tears sting my eyes, but I force them down. I need to leave; I need to leave now before-
[Hostile enemy approaching]
The white text box warns.
[Do you wish to activate the ability [Shield of Peace]?]
“What ability?” I ask, so confused I momentarily startle out of my panic.
The blue text box appears overtop with an unnecessarily happy chime,
[Shield of Peace: Unique Acolyte ability. 1 cast per day, mana cost five. Duration 1 minute.
While using the ability, [Shield of Peace] the player becomes invulnerable to all damage. This effect will be broken if the player engages in a harmful action or tries to cast another spell.]
“Invulnerable?” I question in disbelief. Sure, it might sound overpowered, but I couldn’t do anything with the shield up and it only lasted 1 minute. What good would that-
[Enemy approaching.] The white box warns with a violent buzz, screen-filling with static. [Ple-] Whatever it was going to type, the words glitch away, and the blue textbox takes over instead, [Activate Shield of Peace?]
“Well, well.” A familiar voice says from behind me, “Sorry pretty lady, but I need to send a message.”
I glance over my shoulder into the face of a killer. There’s an unnatural red gleam in his eyes, something that screams wrong and evil. His grin is too wide for his face, showing more teeth than a normal person should have, and his shadow moves separately from him, forming the outline of something inhuman. He’s dripping in blood, none of it his. “I’ll try not to make it hurt too much~”
Blindly I reach behind me and slam the text box.
The sword swings down. I flinch away, closing my eyes, unable to look death in the face. There’s a long moment of nothing, no screams, no mocking laugh, no pain.
I blink my eyes back open and look down. Covering my body like a ghostly second skin is a silver mist, not unlike the faint light of the little stars in the character creation menu. A text window hovers in the air,
[Shield of Peace: 00:60]. I activated the ability in time.
The man frowns, a growl echoing not from him but from the thing pretending to be his shadow. “That’s a neat trick,” he notes swinging again, there’s no more false politeness only a driving intent to hurt. I flinch away, instinct driving me even if I know it won’t do anything. He hits the silvery mist, and something-something that could only be called magic redirects the blow, sending the blade swinging off course, sliding harmlessly across the silver light instead of into my chest. I don’t even feel it.
The shadow growls again, twisting and writhing along the floor. It moves to make a reach for me, but hisses once it touches the silver light, snarling like a cornered animal. The man tilts his head as though listening before his frown deepens and he glares, hatred entering his eyes. “So, you’re a blessed one,” he states, there is another voice to his, something static and deep. It is not a question only fact, somehow, he knows, or rather the thing in his shadow knows.
“It won’t last forever girl,” he promises, stalking around me with slow even strides, “whatever god you are pledged to can’t interfere here,” again it is a statement, he knows something I don’t, waving his hands around the cavern, “the tutorial hasn’t even really begun yet,” he laughs, mania bleeding back into his face. “How long are you going to make me wait before I gut you?”
I don’t grace him with an answer, just reach behind me until my hands find the spear I dropped earlier. I know I can’t attack him, that would break the spell keeping me safe, but I can’t just stay here either.
Indecision weighs on my shoulders like a heavy cloak. I could run, but he would follow, that I was sure. He had some personal stake in my death now, most likely from the thing whispering in his shadow, he would hunt me till his blade tasted my blood.
“Want to say one last prayer?” he asks as the time slowly ticks by, his voice is a burning fire, all mocking jagged things, meant to hurt and tear.
“Hard to pray to a god who isn’t here,” I quip back, even as my hands shake around the spear. Anger and jokes are always easier to process than the true hurt hiding behind them.
He smiles, teeth too sharp and voice echoing around the edges, “Shame you ended up one of them, you would have been a nice teammate girl.”
“Nova,” I correct as he raises an eyebrow. “If you’re going to kill me at least know my name.”
He laughs, something scratchy and barely human that slowly bleeds into a more normal chuckle, “first time someone I’m stabbing has offered their name,” he wipes the tears of mirth from his eyes, smearing blood across his cheek, “I’m Night if you wanted to know.”
“Like the time of day or the one with shining armor?” I should not be speaking so casually with someone who is actively trying to end my life, but there’s a weird calmness in my veins, maybe I’ve accepted this is how I’ll go? There’s an emptiness in my chest, I’m not sure of anything anymore, much less what I’m feeling.
“Time of day,” he clarifies crouching down, hand propping up his chin, sword stabbed into the ground to help keep his balance. He looks me in the eyes, they are no longer a crimson red, but a dull maroon, “Do you want to live?”
“That’s a stupid question,” I snap back, his eyes narrow, a flash of bright red gleaming within, “but-,” I start hastily as the red dims, “yes, I would.”
He studies me, emotions openly waring on his face, the red flickers in his eyes. He’s fighting something I can’t see, something inside his own head. I glance down at the writhing shadow at his feet, a monster desperately trying to claw its way back into him. I gingerly reach my foot out, sliding it to stop next to him, he looks down confused as the shadow howls and recoils.
He blinks, and the red of his eyes scatters like a broken pan of stained glass, revealing the true sky beyond. Night’s eyes are blue, light and sparkling like a spring dawn, his face twists into horror and fear, there is no weird growl to his voice or mania in his tone, only heart-breaking desperation, “run.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper over the clash of steel and echoing screams that still surround us. I don’t know what I’m apologizing for exactly, maybe for the fact I’m leaving him, maybe for this whole situation, or maybe that he’s bound to something that will only harm him while I’m destined for something that will only help. I don’t know, but it feels right to say.
He clutches at his head in pain as the shadow howls, angry and hungry, “Go!” Night urges in a broken yell, “Nova run!”
I scramble to my feet, tripping over myself as I do, but this time I remain standing, fear still twists in my veins but the desire to live has ignited. Dust still chokes the air making every breath a struggle, but it’s now accompanied by the too sweet scent of blood, slowly morphing into the rotten smell of death.
The little blue screen hovers just in my line of sight,
[Shield of Peace: 00:33]
It hadn’t even been 30 seconds, for some reason, I feel like laughing, maybe I’m going insane too? Maybe Night or the thing in his head was right, how long did I really have anyway?
Stumbling to a stop, forcing my lungs to take in air, tears stinging my eyes, from the dust or sorrow I don’t know, but I refuse to let them fall. I lean against the outer wall for support, steadying myself against the uneven stone, even as my legs ache and my hands shake. I needed to survive, even if I came out a monster in the end I needed to live, there was still someone waiting for me; I can’t go out like this.