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Nathan and Keith stared at Ichtvar as the phoenix looked at them in confusion.

"What?" The phoenix broke the silence of their shock first.

"Can you repeat that?" Nathan requested.

"Repeat what?"

"What you said."

"About those being well-crafted gates?" The phoenix asked. "They are. They both went to another dimension, the same one. Unlike this temporary dimension, those were in an actual dimension of our realm. The gates into the dimensions are unlike any I've encountered before. The time bubble the sand place was in was curious as well. The creatures in those were real, though the demon-like entities here are crafted entirely by magic. The amount of mana being poured into these is unlike any I could dream of being drawn upon. There must be a dimension out there that's abundant with mana in a way no other is, to power such a feat."

"Time bubble?" The two teens asked simultaneously.

"Yes," Ichtvar shrugged. "That entire world was cloaked in one, sealing it in time, except for while we were there. There was an interesting, and powerful, barrier surrounding the portion we were in, preventing both entrance and exit. I doubt even Master Torzin would have been able to breach it. I'd like to see how it is they're able to supply all of this power."

The teens looked at each other. That confirmed Nathan's theory: they were being used for certain things, and the Challenges and Dungeons were a part of it. Both came to the immediate conclusion that some Challenges that they pick may match up with Dungeons as well. Nathan's Survival Challenge could have been them using him to clean out some of the monsters. As he thought on it, both of his previous Challenges, the monsters didn't fade away.

Mentally cursing at not paying attention to that detail, Nathan pointed his pen at the phoenix.

"Every time we enter a Challenge," Nathan told him. "Inform me if we pass into a real or temporary dimension."

"Okay," the phoenix shrugged. "I can teach you how to tell the difference, though it will take a long while for you to get the sense down."

"Keith," Nathan pointed his pen at the magician.

"Already asked my familiar," Keith said. "He mentioned that the Dungeon we entered was a real dimension, and he'll let me know the same as Ichtvar."

"Good," Nathan tapped his pen against the table. "Let's get back to designing this thing."

Nathan and Keith continued working on their project, Ichtvar giving some input every few minutes before flying off to do whatever it was he was doing as Keith's familiar dealt with the monsters.

The next several days passed without incident, other than Samantha insisting on being able to use the restrooms or showers without Nathan or Keith escorting her – something she failed to succeed in convincing them of each time. Nathan used up the last of his mana crystals on the prototype version of the magazines, equipped to the cannons, then sighed, knowing they'd have to wait until they left the game entirely to receive more.

The tenth day they were there, they received another Food Supply Drop, as expected, and just as expected, it was as full of food and supplies as the first. They sorted through it, then went about their day, training body and magic, wondering when their first Optional Challenge would appear.

A question that was answered after they finished eating breakfast the next day, their eleventh day in the Survival Challenge.

Optional Challenge 1 will begin soon!
Optional Challenge 1 will be a Slaughter Challenge. Completing it will award +10 Stat Points, +10 Skill Points, and +100 Points. It is not mandatory. There is a time limit of 6 hours. There is no penalty for failing to participate or complete it. All players must be within the cafeteria in 15 minutes. Please recall any familiars not in there.

"A Slaughter Challenge," Michael grinned, resting his hand on the hilt of the sword at his hip. "Finally, something for us to do that isn't just training."

"No," Nathan looked at Samantha.

"But-"

"Elise, come here," Nathan said, and Elise approached.

Nathan slammed his fist into her gut while using Impact, sending her flying into Michael.

"Even if I have Health, that fucking hurts!" She exclaimed. "Health doesn't protect against everything! If the force is great enough-"

Elise cut off in realization of his point as Nathan stared at Samantha, hoping he didn't need to use words to convey the meaning. When he used Impact and all of his Strength in a punch, he could actually damage someone, even with Health protecting them. Elise would likely have bruising from that strike.

"These monsters probably aren't that strong," Samantha said. "We're only in Beginning, and according to you and Keith and the few monsters we've seen while out, they're only in the H's still. Even if they were in the G's for this Challenge-"

"If Elise were pregnant," Nathan said. "What would be the odds of her still being pregnant after that punch?"

Samantha's eyes widened, then looked over to the witch, who was using a healing spell on her stomach.

"You didn't need to do a physical demonstration," Keith sighed.

"It drives the point home," Nathan said. "I've let Ichtvar know, is Splashy returning?"

"Yes," Keith responded. "You could have just brought that up, and she does have a point, Nathan."

"I am not letting the risk to my baby exist," Nathan stated. "She stays. Samantha, we will return for more after you give birth. From what we know, it doesn't affect your real body for the milk to spend a lot of time in here, even if it does advance your pregnancy. The only way anyone else here is gaining Experience is through these Challenges. Only Keith and I are from the monsters outside of them, and we're barely gaining any. We are not here for the Experience."

"But you're still gaining from the Optional-"

"No is no, Samantha," Nathan stated. "End of argument. You will get to do Optional Challenges later. If it bothers you that much, you, me, William, Keith, and Katie can come do a Survival Challenge with Optional Challenges enabled."

"You, William, and Keith will then double up and-"

"We don't have to stay with each other," Nathan said. "And while I am the most dangerous, tied with Keith, I am the weakest."

"But your magical power-"

"Is lower than Keith's," Nathan growled, though he knew it wasn't in a straight comparison. "Even if our Mana is around the same. He's a prodigy who's been training in magic for years. My Strength is lower than yours, William's, Michael's, and Mitchell's."

"You're comparably stronger than Elise."

"Elise is only part of this because she's Michael's girlfriend," Nathan said. "She doesn't count."

"Ouch," Elise said. "Way to hit me in the gut again, Nathan."

"Deal with it," he glared at her. "I was opposed to you being here. You're talented with that sword, and you were decent enough to work as part of the group and make it into the Top Eight in the Final Challenge of the Tutorial, but I don't like you."

"Let's not get into an argument here," Keith held up his hands, trying to diffuse the situation. "We all know Nathan can be difficult-don't glare at me like that, you know you can be-and doesn't like people.

"Samantha," Keith continued. "I'm going to agree with Nathan on you staying behind, and not because I'm scared he'll break my arm if I don't. He's concerned about the baby, and if you set foot out there and there's actual danger to you, he's going to throw himself at it. It's best to not let that become a habit before there's actual danger. We all know that by the end of this, we'll likely be facing F-Ranks and possibly E-Ranks regularly, since the monsters are tougher the more time that passes.

"And don't," he said. "Try to protest saying we'll get an unfair advantage in power over you. It's not a competition between us. I barely get any Experience from weaker monsters in the first place, that's why we were only able to do three Challenges, remember?"

Nathan's gaze turned to the wizard as he realized why they hadn't done a fourth Challenge. Keith wasn't Level 100 yet, which meant he could only do three Challenges in one run.

"What Level are you?" Nathan asked.

"Eighty-four," Keith answered. "I was Level 83 when we entered, though. Something my familiar killed during breakfast brought me up to Level 84."

Nathan nodded, curious about why they had that restriction. Why could they only do so many Challenges at a time? Was there some external restriction he wasn't aware of? Why would the game restrict them on how many Challenges they could do per entry?

"Samantha," Nathan looked at her. "Stay. Here. You can fight to your heart's content once he's born. And not a day sooner. We're here to get you through the pregnancy faster in real time, not for Leveling."

"Then why did you accept the Optional Challenges?" She countered.

"I think the pregnancy hormones are already affecting you," Nathan said. "Calm down, or I'll strap you down."

"As if you have something that would work," she snorted.

"I have Ichtvar."

"Leave me out of this," the phoenix said from the table he had landed on.

"If she tries to leave here during the Challenge," Nathan told Ichtvar. "Stop her. Do not let her leave. And do not let my baby get injured."

"Or else what?"

"Or I'll not feed you chocolate for six months."

"I could always sever our contract," Ichtvar snorted. "The government would go right back to giving it to me every few days, even if they'd grumble about the expense."

"See?" Samantha asked. "Even Ichtvar-"

"Do you care more about gaining Levels or my baby?" Nathan asked, and she opened her mouth to speak. "No, Samantha. Absolutely not. We can come in a do a two-hundred-day Survival Challenge if you want after he's born. But you are not getting into danger with him. That is why we're doing these two streaks! To prevent you from being in danger while you're pregnant! You can do all the Challenges you want after!"

Samantha sighed, then sat down. Nathan would not give up on it, something everyone there knew. She just did not like being idle, and would rather work on Levels than just sit there and do nothing.

A few minutes passed, and the timer in their visions reached zero. Immediately, a message appeared.

Optional Challenge 1 will be starting soon!
For Optional Challenge 1, you must kill 20 G-2 monsters and 50 G-3 monsters. You will have six hours to complete this Optional Challenge. Succeeding in it will award +10 Stat Points, +10 Skill Points, and +100 Points. There is no penalty to failure to participate or complete it. It will begin in 60 minutes, and until then, it will not be possible to leave the cafeteria.

Nathan let out a long, slow breath.

"Samantha," he rubbed his temples as he decided to try another tactic to convince Samantha to stop trying to put herself at risk. "Later on, when you're even more pregnant, you will be slow, you will get sick at times, and your movements and senses will be dulled. It is better to get into the habit of sitting back now instead of them, when a dulled sense or movement could cost you your life or the baby's. As soon as you're ready to enter again after you give birth to him, we can return and you can fight to your heart's content, building up the Levels you missed out on."

"When he's born," she said. "How do you know we won't want to spend every moment with him? How do you-"

"We probably will," Nathan admitted. "But we will also need to enter the game again and again. Though it will be days or months away from him for us, it would be only an instant for him. But we will have to return, whether we like it or not. The Mandatory Challenges ensure that. I don't like the idea of not being around my son for so long, but it is something we will need to deal with if we want to survive the Mandatory Challenges."

The others were staring at Nathan in shock as Keith fiddled with the amulet around his neck. Nathan was showing what was probably a form of weakness for him. They knew he was protective of his son, but they hadn't the slightest clue that he could actually care for his son in that way as well. To actually miss his son, even knowing that the son would feel no time at all while they were in the game.

"And that is why," Nathan said. "Keith and I are working on an enchanted orb to let us view out of the game. We plan on changing out supplies after the seven of us leave and perform an extended Survival Challenge again to work on and test the orb. If it works, we'll be able to check on the baby, frozen in time, whenever we want during the game, as long as the orb is intact. That should help us a bit."

He didn't add that the news that they actually were entering into other worlds sometimes changed some of the stuff they needed for the enchantment. They might need to do two orbs – one for created dimensions, such as the one they were in, and for when they entered an actual place. But he and Keith were determined to do it and make it work.

"Wait," Samantha said. "You and Keith are returning? Without us?"

"You'll be about to pop," he pointed at her. "And we want it done before the baby is born. The focus while in the Challenge that time will be creating the orb."

"Do you two even have the supplies to do that?" She asked. "To just keep experimenting?"

"Yes and no," Keith answered. "We'll probably have to leave and reenter several times to restock. Our main issue is mana crystals, most everything else is fine."

"Regarding that," Mitchell spoke up. "I overheard some others talking. We can only enter the game once in a twenty-four-hour period. So once you leave here, you'll need to wait a bit before you can come back in to do the other test."

Well, that explains why we have a limitation, Nathan thought to himself. It's probably to force a rest period for us beyond just what we'd get in the plains. Possibly to restock on things, too?

"Let's get ready for the Challenge," Nathan said.

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About the author

Matthew Thorne

  • A very dark place.
  • Lurking Dragon

Bio: I am the Master of the Guild, a collection of souls, lost or otherwise.

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