The last tuskling to fall was different than the others. She was a level 8, a “Tuskling Dominatrix.” She fell after being crushed under Brandon’s hammer.
The music stopped, and the lights returned to normal. The world froze. The Winner! notification appeared. Behind me, Chris fell to his knees, and he hung his head low. We just looked at each other, nobody saying anything. Imani fed Yolanda a health potion, and the woman sat up, wobbling, holding the side of her head. Agatha shuffled toward me, shaking her fist.
“Give it back!” she cried.
“Here,” I said. I pulled the shopping cart into existence a foot off the ground, and it crashed down loudly.
“Hey,” she cried. She clutched an Ikea bag off the top and peered inside, as if afraid I’d stolen something. She poked suspiciously at the pink flamingo at the end of her cart.
“You know, you can put all of this into your own inventory,” I said. “You don’t need to wheel it around.”
“She hasn’t gone through the tutorial,” Yolanda said. The small woman, who still had blood all over her own face, pulled a cloth and cleaned off Agatha's. "She doesn't have an inventory yet."
That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that Agatha was level two, not one. How had she done that? She wasn’t in the Meadow Lark party. That meant she must have killed a mob. I wondered what the story was there. Actually, no, I realized, looking at the woman now. She’d hit level four, thanks to the boss. She hadn’t done anything, but she’d been in the room, and that counted for something at least. Donut and I were both now level 10. Halfway to 11. We’d received a ton of experience, more than I’d expected. Imani was level 11 now. Chris and Brandon skipped level seven all together and were level eight. Yolanda had jumped from five to level six.
I didn’t even want to think about how all that experience was distributed. It seemed there were a dozen different calculators running all at once to figure it out. It gave me a headache.
“We need to find whatever the boss dropped,” I said.
“It’s over there,” Donut said. “The Dominatrix lady has it. I already got mine.”
For the first time, I looked about, taking stock of the damage we’d dealt. All of us had managed to survive relatively unscathed, but this section of the room and everyone in it looked like someone had spilled a giant can of Spaghetti-o’s on us from above. The crushed and disemboweled tuskling bodies lay everywhere, mixed in with the shattered pieces of our fortress.
“That didn’t go as expected,” Brandon said. He shook his hand, spraying blood everywhere.
“We’re alive,” I said as I reached down to loot the persistent item from the tuskling’s corpse.
The AI seemed to be doing a whispery David Attenborough impersonation as he read the description of the item:
Borough Field Guide.
Ahh, look at you. The intrepid explorer. Alone. Lost. Afraid.
But there is no reason to be frightened. Not today, not now. Not when the trusty field guide has added monster types to this area of the map. Now when you gaze upon the unknown, that fear is somewhat lessened. Instead of delving into the strange, mysterious dark, being devoured by an unseen horror, you will now know exactly what it is as it chews upon your tasty innards.
I blinked at the description, then I pulled up my minimap, zooming it out. Sure enough, now the individual quadrants were outlined. Most of my screen was filled with the large arena, but the very edge of a few adjacent quadrants ringed the exterior of the map. I mentally hovered over one to the far southeast, in an area none of us had ventured. The fog of war obscured the hallways themselves, but when I hovered over it, a tooltip popped up.
Mobs Level 2-5. Axebeak.
That would be extremely useful, but like with the neighborhood map, the area was limited. Plus one had to actually get to the center and kill the boss to get the information. I wasn’t certain exactly how big a “borough” really was in this game, though I suspected the area shrank the lower one went.
“Hey, are you kids doing okay?” a voice called. It echoed in the large chamber. I turned to see an elderly man edging his way into the room with his walker. The walker made a click, click, click each time he pushed his way further into the chamber. “We heard a loud noise, and the gate disappeared! Oh my, it smells something awful in here.”
“Randall, don’t come in here,” Yolanda called, jogging toward the man.
I turned my attention back at the carnage. I gazed at the hoofed feet of the tusklings and sighed. They had no shoes, and their legs were much too short. I picked up a loose tuxedo jacket. It was like a tent, and it was covered with blood. It smelled like hot diarrhea. I put it into my inventory.
Brandon came to stand next to me. The guy looked shell-shocked.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” I asked, indicating the carnage. “They’re from another world. They’re aliens, right? But they’re wearing tuxedoes. Tuxedoes are from earth, not wherever they’re from. I don’t get it.”
“I asked our guildmaster, Mistress Tiatha, the same thing,” Brandon said. He reached down to pick something up from the floor. It was a sharp tooth. “One of the mobs we had to fight early on were little, fire-breathing monkeys wearing lederhosen. You know what I’m talking about? That weird German pantsuit shorts things with the hats. They look like waiters at an Octoberfest tent?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said.
“Well, anyway. She said the Synd…” He paused, looking at the ceiling dubiously. “The big guys, they not only seeded our world with the people millions of years ago, but they keep people here the whole time. Sometimes they’re actual humans, but from other worlds. And these guys were steering culture. Inventing stuff, writing books and songs that already exist. She said every world comes out with their own unique culture and language, but some things are universal.”
“But why?” I asked. “What do they get out of it? It seems like so much effort.”
Brandon shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they think we’ll integrate better if we already have some sort of common ground, but I don’t know. We probably won’t ever know. We only see what they let us.”
I looted the corpses of the tusklings I’d killed myself. There was some jewelry that wasn’t enchanted including a ruby necklace that seemed pretty valuable according to my inventory list. I took that weird leather thing from the woman. The system labeled it as a Pig Harness. There wasn’t any other loot in my pile. I saw Imani holding what appeared to be an enormous strap-on dildo with two fingers. She dropped it on the floor with a look of disgust. Donut hopped over and took it into her own inventory.
She looked up at me. “Everything, right?”
I nodded. “Everything.”
I salvaged all the ninja stars I could find and all the remaining pieces of the redoubt. I had a new tab in my inventory labeled Worthless Garbage.
I also spent a few minutes surreptitiously looking around the arena for the remains of the party that had gone before us. Their X’s didn’t appear on the map, just as they hadn’t with the elderly folk Imani had killed. I didn’t know why. There was probably a tight time limit on that sort of thing, but I didn’t know for certain. This game had so many damn rules, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Finally, Donut and I approached the stairwell. The forcefield was gone. The timer was at five hours and counting.
I looked back over my shoulder at the others. Brandon was talking quietly with his brother while Yolanda and Imani had started bringing the others into the large room. Chris jogged off as I watched. I knew exactly where he was going. He was headed toward that safe room. He’d tell the 30 folks waiting that they could leave if they wanted to.
“What do you want to do?” I quietly asked Donut.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“We’re going to go down those stairs, and it’s going to be a whole new floor with new challenges. We can either stick with these guys, or we can keep doing our own thing.”
Donut looked up, her large, yellow eyes boring into me.
“Oh, Carl. How is it I know what you’re going to do before you do?” she asked.
I looked at the gathering group of elderly folks, and I nodded. Shit.
“Goddamnit, Donut,” I said. She was right. Of course.
What was the point of living, if I couldn’t live with myself?
“I suggest we do what we’ve been doing,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other option. We set up a place for them to remain safe, and then you and I go out and do our own thing. We can keep our own party and set up a group chat with the others. I know how to do it now. When we find the next set of stairs down, we go get them and bring them with us.”
I grinned down at the cat. “I knew there was a good kitty in there somewhere.”
She bristled. “If it were up to me, I’d leave them all. But I know you’re a softy. Besides, if we get them down to that third level, we’ll need someone with thumbs if you’re going to turn into a cat.”
“I’m not turning myself into a cat,” I said. “I couldn’t even if I want to, anyway. Mordecai said so.” I went to a knee and patted her. She let me.
“By the way,” I asked as I stroked the cat. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. Who’s Ferdinand?”
Donut pulled away at that, her tail swishing. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Whoever that is, he sounds like someone awful. Wait… where’s Agatha?”
I looked about for the woman. I didn’t see her. Had she gone outside? I turned toward the stairs, and I noticed they weren’t stairs at all, but a long ramp. Shit. The woman is going to get herself killed.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” I said to Brandon later, after we finished examining the stairwell. “We’re going to go down there and make sure the area is clear for you and your people. Do you need our help with your people?”
“No,” Brandon said. “We got it. You don’t want to go and open your boxes first?”
“I do,” I said, “But the closest place to do it is pretty far, and I don’t want to tempt fate. We’ll go down and try to find the closest safe room. Our guy said they’re just as easy to find on the second floor as the first. Once we do, we’ll carve a safe path to it.”
“Okay then,” Brandon said. He held out his hand.
“Thank you. I mean that.” I shook it. He then went to his knee and scratched Donut. “You too, Princess Donut.”
“Of course, sweetheart,” she said, pushing her head against his hand.
“Oh,” Brandon said. “And try to find Agatha if you can. She’s a crazy asshole, but she’s our crazy asshole.”
I nodded. We turned, and we headed toward the stairs. I looked at Donut. “You ready?”
She flipped her tail, and I followed her down the ramp.
At the bottom of the stairs was a door almost identical to the one we’d used to enter the dungeon. I stared at the giant carving of the fish man. Go fuck yourself I thought as I put my hand against the door. I pushed.
But instead of the gate opening like last time, there was a flash of light. A moment of disorienting nausea followed by a quick feeling of falling.
And then suddenly Donut and I were standing in a plush room staring at a strange, round door. All of my status bars had disappeared. I turned in a circle, bewildered. There was a couch that appeared to be made of blue crushed velvet. I stood upon a soft, thick carpet, also blue. There was a strange sense of motion to the room, and I immediately knew we were on a boat. I could tell right away from experience that this vessel was large, but not huge. Maybe 100 feet. At the far end of the room was a bar with an honest-to-goodness fruit basket sitting on it. Sitting next to the basket was a stemmed bowl filled with what seemed to be cat food. Instinctively, I made a fist, and my gauntlet appeared. Only partially relieved, I unsummoned my weapon.
“What the fuck is this?” I asked.
But the second the words came out of my mouth, I knew exactly what this was.
Donut was literally hopping up and down, her tail ramrod straight. “Carl, Carl! It’s happening! It’s really happening!”
Just as my addled brain was coming to terms with our sudden change of scenery, the door irised open. A woman wearing a simple black dress stepped in, clutching onto a tablet. She was human, but clearly not from Earth. She was absurdly thin. Not anorexic. She just seemed more squished than a regular human. She stood about five foot five, so a normal height, but her head was only about 3/4's as wide as it should be, making her appear almost elf-like, but without the prerequisite pointed ears. She seemed to be about my age, and her features were Asian, but with long, blonde hair she kept in a tight bun.
“Hello Carl and Your Majesty, Princess Donut,” she said, speaking in Syndicate Standard. Her voice was light and musical. Almost cartoonish. “My name is Lexis. I am an associate producer for the program, Dungeon Crawler After Hours With Odette. Congratulations on that last battle, and congratulations on making it down to the second floor. Odette would love to interview you two, on-air, regarding your progress so far.”
Donut squealed with pleasure.
End of Part One.