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"Do you really think it's safe to make a fire and eat right now?" Keith asked as Nathan made the fire. "It might attract monsters that aren't hindered by the darkness, like the boars, phantoms, and shades. And if we eat, we'll need to rest more."

"We'll be fine," Nathan told him. "Splashy's back, and with him and Ichtvar, we'll be fine."

"I already told you," the phoenix glared at Nathan. "I'm a healer, not a fighter. Against things this strong, it'll take me a bit to break through their Health."

"Sure," Nathan lit the fire, then began cooking the two slabs of meat he'd cut from the boar, using seasonings he'd stored in his cards to add a little flavor.

As those cooked, Nathan fiddled with one of their gun projects and Keith napped, waking only once Nathan woke him. They ate, then rested for another hour before Nathan put out the fire and the two of them began moving again, keeping a slow, but steady pace.

They kept their magical sight on, just in case something else drew near, but for the most part, things were silent. The elemental's attack on the shades acted as a small deterrent against those and phantoms, and the boar seemed to be the only other creature around at the start.

"What kind of people do you think lived here?" Keith asked after several hours of searching the paths and canals. "These roads – even the bridges across the canals are at least twenty feet wide."

"The kind that aren't here anymore," Nathan answered. "But able to craft fine things, if you look at the pillars lining all of the paths. Possibly humanoid, unless the phantom took on that form after seeing us."

"Most of the middle species," Ichtvar said. "Are humanoid. There are humans or human-looking things on most worlds. Then there are dwarfs, elves, and beastkin."

"Gnomes?" Keith asked.

"Never actually seen one," Ichtvar answered. "Nor heard about them, so I wouldn't know."

"But you've seen and heard of others?" Nathan asked. "Even though you're Earthen?"

"I can use the pathways," Ichtvar informed him. "I've left Earth a few times. Sadly, you are always drawn back to the world you originated from. It's impossible to set up a permanent home elsewhere."

"You are?" The teens asked.

"Yes," Ichtvar answered. "And it's not necessarily by will at times, either. You'd have a few months, maybe a year at most, in your native world's time, before you'd find yourself returning home. I've seen people open the gates themselves, I've also seen the universe tear open and forcibly send them back. In the end, however, they always return to their home planet."

"What about going home, then returning?" Keith asked.

"Wouldn't work unless you returned home for awhile," the phoenix answered. "The longer you're away from home, the stronger the pull to return is. The longer you're gone, the longer you need to be back home before the pull lessens. I've seen people try to mitigate it. A day or two at a time, then return home for the same, then again, switching back and forth. In the end, they find themselves returning home within hours or even minutes because they aren't at home enough to make up for it."

"Why?" Nathan asked.

"No one knows," Ichtvar answered. "It's simply one of the innate laws of this particular universe."

"So our plan to create-"

"It will work," Ichtvar interrupted the warrior. "People will come and go, journeying to new worlds. They will also return home, then return again sometime later."

The phoenix stopped suddenly, then looked off to their right.

"I'm detecting a powerful magical presence over that way," he said. "It's inert, fragmented. It might be the talisman fragment you're looking for. Maybe fifty feet."

The pair of them walked over to the edge of the canal, and before Keith could consider if they should continue until they found the next bridge or turn back so reach the previous, Nathan had grabbed him.

"What are you-Naaathaaaaaan!" He screamed as the warrior tossed across him the twenty-foot gap.

Nathan jumped across the gap, landing in a roll and springing to his feet.

"We'll continue working on your falls," Nathan helped Keith to his feet.

"A little warning next time?" Keith asked. "Please? And you're lucky the canals are consistent in width. What if it hadn't been?"

"Splashy probably would've caught you."

Keith looked at his familiar, who was still 'wearing' the boar's tusks as if they were horns. The elemental gave a wiggle that could be interpreted as a shrug, and the magician sighed.

"Come on," Keith said as he looked around. "I think I found it."

The pair of them walked towards the item Keith had spotted. When they were within ten feet of it, a phantom rose up out of the ground, and the enchanter fired off a slash of light. The phantom dodged, finding itself clipped in one arm. The creature wailed, causing the teens to cover their ears as it fled into the darkness.

"It's gone," Ichtvar told the teens after a few moments.

"Are you sure," Nathan asked, gripping his lantern with intent to swing if the thing came near again.

"Yes," Ichtvar responded. "You two can relax. I don't think it was expecting someone to be able to hurt it. We're not like our poor friend over there."

Nathan and Keith looked in the direction Ichtvar indicated, where they spotted the skeletal remains of something humanoid. Keith examined it as Nathan held the light out so they could see it.

"The ears are too high up," Keith muttered, touching the skull. "Otherwise, it's just like a human's."

"Cat, maybe?" Nathan suggested. "I'd say monkey, but if the ears are too high up-"

"Why would you think-" Keith interrupted, though he cut off when he saw the tail bones Nathan was looking at. "Beastkin. We haven't seen something like this in a Dungeon before. By 'we', I mean in the records on Earth. No remains of other players have been found, even if someone died in a Dungeon and it was later revisited."

"Two possibilities," Nathan said, knowing Keith had probably figured them out as well. "The first is that the darkness is too strong here and the administrators gave up trying to find the corpse to remove. The second is that in a place this difficult, they don't care enough to find the remains of those who failed."

To add a depressing factor to the difficult Dungeons. And a warning not to take things lightly.

"Judging by the intact state of these bones," Keith said. "I'd say they were probably killed by an apparition-type creature. A phantom or shade, most likely. Possibly the phantom we just scared off."

"Possibly," Nathan stood, then walked over to the object on the ground.

He wasn't able to read inert magics yet, so he found himself starting at a fragment of what was most likely a disk of some sort made of an unknown, dark gray stone. It wasn't a large piece of the disk, but it did contain a portion near the center that had a yellow topaz set into it.

"Based on the edge of this," Keith examined the disk. "I'd say this is probably part of a disk half an inch thick and four in diameter. If all of the pieces of it are this large, we're looking at maybe three pieces? Possibly five if one or two are smaller."

"Any magics I should be worried about?" Nathan asked.

"They're all inert," Keith answered. "They appear to be some sort of trigger spell with a light-based enchantment. There's also a repairing enchantment set into it so that it'll mend itself. Unfortunately, it's inert, so if this is the talisman fragment, I don't know what we'll need to do to fix it."

Neither one of them had considered for even a moment that they wouldn't be collecting all of the pieces of the talisman, even if the quest was to locate the one. Dungeons were always multi-stage, and they would both find it odd if they didn't need to collect all of the parts of the talisman.

"The game might not care," Nathan told him. "If it's not something we can do. They may just want us to locate the pieces. And if we do have the ability to repair them, then it will tell us."

"Yeah," Keith nodded, and Nathan picked up the fragment.

The moment his hand touched it, a message appeared in their visions.

Talisman fragment located.
Locate another fragment of the talisman on that island. You may take as long as needed.

"So the talisman fragments are all on this island," Keith concluded as he scanned their surroundings with his magic sight. "I think we should camp here. There seems to be a lack of buildings on this island, if what my familiar said is true."

"That's more accurate than what Ichtvar said," Nathan snorted. "He said there were plants. And either a labyrinth of some sort or the ruins of a stone village."

"We could probably consider this a labyrinth," Keith looked around. "Though for him to think it was the ruins of a stone village? And plants? I think your phoenix was smoking something."

"I've never smoked anything in my life," Ichtvar huffed. "Not in that sense. And I was reading the magics to make that determination. There are sections where it's faded or missing."

"And the plants?" Nathan asked.

"I did say I wasn't sure," Ichtvar huffed. "You should be fine camping out here. Sparky can handle any shades that come our way, and you two seem intent on getting Experience."

"It's the only way we can progress," Nathan said. "We'll have to struggle for it, no matter if it's here or in a long Survival Challenge. Now go scout out the island. Try to find the other piece or pieces of the talisman."

"Whatever," the phoenix muttered.

"I have a one-pound bar of chocolate for each piece you find."

Ichtvar took off with a look of happiness in his golden eyes.

"Do you really?" Keith asked.

"In the cards."

"You made a lot of them," Keith said. "And stocked up a lot, but they still take time to make. Will we have enough to do tomorrow's batch of runs? Real-time tomorrow's?"

"We should," Nathan shrugged. "We'll be getting the food supplies, and since they oversend and we have Ichtvar to widen the doors so the-that's why they send so much."

"What?" Keith asked.

"So much food and supplies," Nathan said. "They do it because of the doorways. Players would need to carry it either in their Item Boxes, their arms, or whatever containers they find."

"Which means," Keith realized. "That they'd probably lose food and supplies, possibly not even manage to get all to their safe zones. They send extra to help, but since Ichtvar can warp space, we can just bring it all at once or one crate at a time."

The Tutorial was designed to weed out the weak, to leave behind only the strongest of the strong. They weren't sure why only eight were allowed to survive at maximum, but the 'only the strong' mentality was only around in the Tutorial.

Everything else was player choice, and the Dungeons – which they'd realized were designed to utilize the players to do real tasks for the administrators – were only available if it was manageable by the present team.

In addition, long-term survival runs were aimed at survival over actual combat. Sure, the players had to leave the safe zones to do certain things, such as do their laundry, use the restroom, or take a shower, but other than that, it seemed largely aimed at them surviving. If they wanted to leave later on in the runs, they needed to deal with monsters early on.

Unless the weaker monsters remained later on if they hadn't been killed, though the school would become packed enough it would be necessary to kill them.

Both teens came to the realization at the same time.

The longer survival runs were intended for training, just not for the kind of exploitation that Nathan and Keith intended. That was why they were stable in scenario to where the students could reasonably predict how tough things will be in the near future during them and know the layout every time. That was why it had food supply drops based on how many monsters were killed and often, it was a form of reward for training. That was why there were Optional Challenges in them.

It was all for additional training the players could utilize.

They knew that despite Master Torzin not being aware of it, there had to be worlds that knew and utilized this. If not entire worlds, at least some regions of them. Since he'd made it clear he hadn't stayed very long on worlds with the System in place, or even in those dimensions, it was unlikely he'd stayed long enough to learn that or find people who knew it and used it.

"But," Keith shook his head. "Wouldn't that also mean others exploit this detail as well? There's no way we're the first."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded. "Hm."

The two of them though it over as Nathan fiddled with more of his gun enchantments, Keith resting. After almost half an hour, the phantom from before attacked again, and Keith launched a counterattack as Nathan pulled out a laser pointer and aimed it at the phantom. A red dot formed on the phantom, but nothing happened.

"Tch."

He picked up the gun he was fiddling with, inserted the magazine, aimed at the phantom, and shot straight at the head as Keith's second light slice cut through its arm.

Target -7,892 Health

The phantom shrieked in pain as it flailed around, and Keith stared at Nathan.

"What?" The warrior asked. "I need some way to fight these things. Are you going for the kill?"

As the phantom continued to flail and shriek, Keith summoned another light slash and launched it at the phantom, killing the creature.

"You made light enchantments on bullets," Keith said.

"Yes," Nathan responded. "I made two magazines of these bullets, to be used against phantoms and other intangible things. Since attacks pass through them-"

"Health doesn't stop it from damaging the bodies," Keith finished for him. "Which also drains the creature's Health."

"We can use the tangible things for actual Experience," Nathan commented. "Since I doubt my current bullets would be effective against them."

"Probably," Keith shrugged. "Thanks. Are those just light, or holy light?"

"I can't figure out how to get the holy aspect factored in," Nathan shook his head. "So I'm going back to working on something reachable soon."

He returned to working on his gun enchantments as Keith sat down and rested some more. Using light magics was tiring, especially since it wasn't something he was familiar with and had to figure out what to do on the fly.

The magician could understand Nathan's desire to make a bullet that would hurt the phantoms. Something quick and easy, even if it wasn't as effective against most things they would face.

A packet of chips, another of gummy bears, and an apple flew at Keith, the latter of which smacked him in the chest while the rest hit his face. Only the bottle of apple juice did he manage to catch, before giving his teammate a glare.

"You're five feet from me," he said. "You couldn't have warned me? Or, y'know, just handed them to me?"

"Oh," Nathan said. "I could've, couldn't I have? Well, it got your attention and has you awake and alert, so that intent worked."

Keith rolled his eyes at Nathan's antics. There were other ways to grab his attention, ones that didn't involve pain.

"Did you want me for something?" Keith asked.

"Yes," Nathan slide the enchanted gun over to him. "Can you review that?"

"Ichtvar," Nathan reached out to his familiar, who was quite a distance away. "You mentioned that you can use the pathways of the universe-"

"No, I can't leave this world," Ichtvar interrupted. "And just bypassing the barriers on the ones here to leave the area around the islands would be difficult. That's why I'm not bothering to figure out if it's even possible. Someone's sealed the pathways in this dimension, using their artificial gates and artificial pathways-oh, found one. Wait, never mind. That's a rat. Delicious."

"So you can't use them to even travel between the islands here?"

"I probably could," Ichtvar responded. "But the mana cost would be astronomical because of the seal they made. Oh, this one actually is the thing. Do you want me to bring it to you? Or will you two come pick it up?"

"We'll go to it," Nathan responded. "There's no telling what the System will do if we 'cheat' by having our familiars do the work for us. Even if they want this work done, they may be picky about who does it. Come back to us, Ichtvar. I'm not that comfortable with you too far away."

"Admitting fear?" The phoenix chuckled.

"Nerves," Nathan responded. "I feel like we're being watched again. And by more than one thing. And considering how Keith and fared against a single boar, I'd rather not risk something too powerful."

"Even with Sparky there?"

"Even with Splashy here."

"I'm on my way."

Ichtvar didn't mention it, but demigods had dangerously strong senses for danger. If Nathan was nervous about danger even with his forged soul's fearlessness and the presence of the heavenly storm elemental, then something powerful was nearby, and the phoenix knew of only three types of creature outside of the gods which could provoke that kind of feeling.

Members of the Ultimate Trinity.

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About the author

Matthew Thorne

  • A very dark place.
  • Lurking Dragon

Bio: I think I see a light. It keeps flickering in and out.

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