“Just find an exit Nova,” I tell myself, slowly starting to inch along the outer wall, “one step at a time.”
I watch the center of the room warily as I move, Night still seems to be struggling with the monster in his head, but there are others too, at least five that I can count, all unnaturally fast and strong, their shadows writhing like caged beasts. They laugh, voices ringing with a static of something inhuman as they cut player after player down, relishing in the carnage of their own making.
Glancing up at the window I check my time,
[Shield of Peace: 00:21]
There’s a small tunnel ahead of me, more crawl space than a true tunnel, it would be uncomfortable, and I have no guarantee it actually goes anywhere, but I don’t have enough time to make it to one of the more traveled paths.
I push myself further into the wall as a man runs by, tripping over a suit of armor and tumbling to the ground with a loud clatter. He looks up at me helplessly as a girl, no older than 16, with a bright shock of green hair skips by me, great sword scratching a groove into the stone behind her as she drags it along. Cat-like ears twitch on the top of her head, a lion’s tail swinging behind her happily. She’s wearing a school uniform, that’s been stained by a dark red liquid. There’s a notable glowing crimson gleam in her eyes.
“Told you that running wouldn’t help~” she coos, before crouching down in front of the fear-struck man.
“Please! Please!” the man begs, holding his suitcase in front of him as a makeshift shield or offering, “I’ll do anything! Just don’t-,”
“Not interested,” the girl sighs, the shadow at her feet lunges for the man, he screams as the dark form twists up his leg, panic becoming pain as claw marks appear across his flesh where the beast has been. He tries helplessly to pull away, leg mangled beyond repair. “So noisy,” she complains, as with annoyed disinterest she easily swings her claymore, completely separating his head from his body.
Unbothered by the shadow currently seeming to devour the man she just murdered, she busies herself with cleaning her great sword with the man’s shirt. Carefully, I start to inch by. The tunnel is only five feet from me, the man was probably trying to reach the same exit I was. The thought makes me sick with something close to pity.
[Shield of Peace: 00:15]
Almost to the entrance. Just one more step-
A small crossbow bolt rolls out from under my foot and into a nearby shield. I hold my breath, every muscle locking in place.
The girl pauses, a frown slowly pulling at her face as she looks up, red shining eyes locking on mine.
“Why hello~,” she greets, smile wide and far too sharp, “going somewhere?”
I don’t stop to humor her with an answer, just dive headfirst into the tunnel.
“Hey!” she shouts behind me, metal scraping against stone, “Get back here rat!”
I get about halfway inside before a hand clamps onto my ankle, forcing me to stop.
“Got you!” she cheers as a darker voice echoes her glee with a laugh.
“Let go!” I protest, trying in vain to shake her off.
“Not going to happen honey~” and with far more strength than a woman of her size should have, she starts dragging me out of the tunnel.
[Shield of Peace Ending!] An angry yellow textbox warns, flashing red in my face, as I scramble to find purchase on the jagged rocks below me.
“Don’t worry,” she coos, tightening her grip on my ankle. I hiss in pain as her fingers dig into the flesh just above my sock, “I won’t hurt you too-,”
[Harmful intent detected!] A new textbox appears, as suddenly I’m no longer being dragged, [Shield of Peace activated, remaining time: 00:10]
I look back to see the girl staring confused as she tries in vain to grab my leg again, only for it to magically slip from her grasp. I rear back as much as the small space allows, she looks up in shock just fast enough to see my own smug grin as I land a kick straight to her face. Something snaps, and she recoils with a scream as blood pours from her now broken nose.
[Harmful action taken!] The yellow text box blinks, red at the edges, [Shield of Peace deactivated!]
While deeply satisfying, I probably shouldn’t have done that. I don’t look back as I hurry my way through the tight tunnel. Lose rocks cut into my forearms as I pull myself along and bang my head more than once on the low ceiling. Darkness slowly descends around me, so dark I can’t even see my own hands, but I press on. There’s no going back now.
Angry yells and frightened screams still echo in my ears, growing louder and more distorted the further I go. The echo of the cave makes them sound unnatural, twisted, and far closer than they truly are.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been confined to the tunnel before I spill out into a larger room. It feels like days, it feels like minutes, but either way, I know it’s been far too long.
Finally, I allow myself to stop. My hands sting and my knees are bruised and raw, the rough floor having long ago cut my pants and skin apart. My heartbeat pounds in my ears, drowning out the still echoing screams, adrenaline still surging in my veins.
I close my eyes even though I can’t see and rest my body against the cold stone.
I did it, I lived.
There’s no relief though, only a weird tugging sorrow.
‘Yes, I had lived, but how many others had died? What would happen to Night now? Had I helped him or only doomed him to die at the hand of one of his fellow possessed? Was death a better ending? If that was to be our future wouldn’t death be better than fighting tooth and nail to live? Why was this happening? Was there even a way out?’
Before my thoughts can spiral any further, a text box appears suddenly in the gloom.
[First mission complete! Leave the starting zone!]
All that death and carnage. For what? This stupid game had already taken so many of us, the survivors scattered and lost among the different tunnels, slowly being hunted by those that had become possessed by something unseen.
“What even is the point of this?”
The textbox does not answer, but the message does change,
It chimes with a happy ping, as I stare at the prompt with disbelief and mounting horror.
[Escape the labyrinth!
Time limit: none
Reward: beginner gear
“Why didn’t you just say death?” I mock the screen, burying my face in my hands so I don’t have to read the message anymore, I already felt like I was one breath away from falling part. I couldn’t look at it any longer, especially the notification it tacked onto the end like an afterthought.
[Number of players remaining from starting group 728b: 53/100]