“Uh, let’s now watch how our two guests escaped that safe room,” the Maestro said after the audience’s laughter died down.
The stage went dark as the screen replayed our desperate escape from the rage elemental. It showed the scene from the point of view of the hallway, with the chopper bursting out of the room, screeching around the corner, Donut sitting high on the contraption. The audience roared their approval. Next to us, the Maestro screamed and ranted at some unseen producer. It was all muted. The large orc seemed to be out of breath and enraged.
“Carl, you scare me when you get that angry,” Donut whispered.
I reached over and scratched her head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not really as mad as I look. I’m just trying to make him angry.”
“It worked. Now he hates us. I don’t like people hating us. Our followers are going to go down.”
I grunted. “Yeah, I don’t think you need to worry about that. Look, Donut. The show isn’t over yet. See those two chairs over there. I think it’s…”
“Do you think it’s Miss Beatrice?” Donut asked. “Maybe her and her boyfriend?” She gasped. “Or maybe it’s Miss Beatrice and Ferdinand.”
“No, Donut,” I said. “It’s not going to be Bea and whoever the hell…”
“Listen here, pukes,” the Maestro said, interrupting. He smiled big, but his words held no mirth. He’d calmed himself, probably after getting some advice from his producer. The audience continued to watch the recap of our escape, oohing and ahhing at the explosions. They couldn’t hear this exchange. “This is my fucking show. You need to learn your place.”
“You were never a crawler were you?” I asked.
He seemed genuinely offended by the question. He laughed with derision. “You savages are all the same. I come from a civilized system. My family has a long history with the dungeon. We were there when the Syndicate created the crawl. We are of gods and royalty.” He indicated the tiara on Donut’s head. “If you pukes make it to the 9th floor, you’ll learn all about what my family can do.”
I looked at Donut’s small, jeweled tiara, trying to remember the exact description. I hadn’t thought about it for several days. The tooltip system didn’t work here, but I recalled part of it. It’s what gave her ability to imbue the Septic debuff. Because she’d put it on, she’d become a royal member of “The Blood Sultanate.” We could only get off the ninth floor if all other members of that family were killed, including the Sultan himself. I had no idea what any of that meant.
I remembered what Mordecai had said. That… That will be a challenge. You can always leave the party. That crown is on her head, not yours.
“Your family?” I asked. “Wait, are you guys part of the Blood Sultanate?”
He laughed again. “Do I look like a fucking Naga to you?” He sat straighter. “My family’s Skull Clan has been victorious six times out of the last ten Faction Wars. Top three every time. The pitiful Blood Sultanate is almost always the first of the nine to get eliminated. You idiots have been dead since the moment she put on that crown.”
I tried to ignore the pit of dread that had formed in my gut. “What about you? Are you going to be on the ninth floor?”
On the screen, Donut and I stood at the edge of the hole to the next floor down. The camera was positioned from the POV of the rage elemental. We looked tiny standing there, a trail of black smoke rising behind us. The entire crowd held its breath as the monstrosity charged.
“I will be there. I was of age last season, but the stupid Squim Conglomerate always plays Battle Royale, which doesn’t have a Faction Wars or Celestial Ascendancy segment. But I will be there this year. I’m on my way to your stupid planet right now.” He pounded his chest like he was a gorilla. “I will be War Leader Maestro of the Skull Clan.”
I nodded. It always astounded me how easy it was to get assholes to talk, as long as they were talking about themselves. “So, if you’re in the dungeon, what happens if you get hurt? Do you guys really die?”
He scoffed. “You think you could actually…”
The crowd went absolutely apeshit as the scene ended, and the lights snapped back on. Donut stood on her hind legs and raised her two front paws in the air. “That’s how it’s done!” she yelled. “Next time, we’ll kill that thing ourselves and send pictures to his mama! We’ll tell her to… what was it, Carl?”
“Suck it,” I said.
“Glurp, glurp! Glurp, glurp!” the audience cried.
The Maestro was back to his sneering, condescending self. His unseen producer was smart enough to explain that having a tantrum during a live program would make this spiral even further out of his control. I sighed. Whatever happened next, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Might as well get it over with.
The Maestro waved for the crowd to quiet down. They eventually did.
“So that’s how you did it. You used the dungeon’s rules to save yourselves.”
I shrugged. “That thing was level 93. We weren’t gonna kill it.”
The Maestro grinned. “Nobody, not even me, can say you don’t have the balls of a Taurin. But a lot of my piglets seem to think you have had it too easy. Some say you’ve been stumbling your way through the dungeon, only surviving because you’re the AI’s pet. That happens from time to time, that the dungeon turns a crawler into its bitch.” He reached over and scratched at his hairy chest. His fingernails were disgusting.
He continued. “I have two surprise guests for our VIPs. You have any guesses who they might be, meat?”
I put my hand on Donut before she could say anything out loud. The last thing we needed right now was to give the Maestro ammunition to mock her.
“Can they see us now?” I asked, turning to look at the empty chairs.
“They’ve been watching this whole time,” the Maestro said. “And man, they do not like you.”
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who this was. Other than Brandon and crew, we’d only come across one other group of crawlers. I’d been thinking maybe it was Rory and Lorelai, the goblin shamankas. I didn’t know if bringing mobs out of the dungeon was a thing. But I remembered that Zhang and Li Jun had waved at them, and I doubted they’d have reacted like that toward a pair of scary-looking goblins.
“Hi Frank Q. Hi Maggie My,” I said. “I see you didn’t find the present I left for you. That’s too bad.”
The Maestro smiled huge, and for a terrifying moment, I thought I had guessed incorrectly. Could it possibly be Beatrice? No, I decided. No fucking way.
“Watch this, piglets,” he said. “Let’s see if they’re right.”
The video started, and I relaxed. It was a recap of Frank and Maggie’s journey so far.
I watched as the two player killers stumbled into the dungeon. But curiously, they had someone else with them. A teenaged girl. It showed them coming into a tutorial guild. We watched as their guide—one of those floating brain Mind Horrors—sat the three of them down and told them the only way to survive was to kill other crawlers. The guide had a deep, rumbly voice, unlike anything I’d heard before. It was terrifying. The teenager wept as the guide explained what had to be done. Maggie clutched onto the girl, hugging her tightly.
The scene switched to the girl on the ground, injured and crying. We hadn’t seen what had happened. It looked as if she’d maybe been hit with a glob of Bad Llama lava. Frank was also injured, convulsing nearby as blood pooled around them. The woman, Maggie, sobbed as she went to her knees in front of the girl.
“Mom,” the girl said. “It hurts.”
“I know baby,” Maggie said. She reached down, and to my utter astonishment, she wrapped her hands around the girl’s throat. She choked her own daughter until she died. When it was done, Maggie leaned against the dungeon wall and wailed.
“What the hell?” I asked, astounded. I turned to the empty chairs. “You didn’t have to do that. She wasn’t dead. She would’ve recovered.”
The recap continued. We were being shown these scenes out of order. This was now something from before the daughter’s death. We watched Frank and Maggie and the daughter come across a much larger group. This group included Rebecca W and several other men. Frank and Maggie introduced themselves as a married couple, and the teenager was their daughter, Yvette. They waited until the others’ backs were turned, and Frank and Maggie ambushed them. They pulled their guns and shot them all. Yvette cried for them to stop. Rebecca and another man fled, and Frank chased them. It showed the man running directly into some plant mob thing I’d never seen before, and of Frank finally tracking Rebecca down, cornering her in the quadrant with the scatterer bugs. The screen split, showing Yvette screaming while Maggie tried to calm her. One of the other men they’d shot wasn’t dead. Maggie put a gun in Yvette’s hand, told her to shoot the man, to get the experience. The girl refused.
As I expected, Frank’s entire backstory was complete, made-up bullshit. I still didn’t know if they were cops or not. I suspected they were. Either way, Rebecca W hadn’t been some sort human trafficker. She’d been someone like me. Afraid, and at the end, alone. She’d been betrayed and hunted down by a fellow human. I thought of the woman’s naked, stripped-bare body. I shook my head in disgust.
The two had received multiple loot boxes from being player killers, including a ring that gave Maggie an area-of-effect stealth ability and a potion that imbued Frank with the ability to track down nearby crawlers.
I noted that Maggie’s stealth ability worked like my Protective Shell. It cast in a static, semi-circle area. It didn’t move with them. That was good to know.
I watched as they hunted several other crawlers, most of them people wandering about on their own. Most of them appeared to have been homeless, some elderly. All of them were afraid. All of them had been so happy to see someone else before they were murdered. Yvette was in some of these scenes. She wasn’t in others. The girl never participated in the killings.
“The best part is coming up,” the Maestro announced.
The video, finally, showed a much-abridged version of Donut and me coming across Frank Q in the saferoom and of them attacking us, of them getting frozen. It showed me putting the dynamite in the rat corpse.
But then, I saw something unexpected. My heart sank the moment I realized what was happening.
“Mom?” Yvette asked, coming out of the bathroom. The girl stopped in horror upon seeing both of her parents frozen in the safe room.
Oh. Oh no, I thought. She’d been there. Yvette had been there the whole time. She’d been hiding with her mother under the stealth field.
I see you didn’t find the present I left for you. Now I knew why the Maestro had smiled so big when I said that.
I held my breath as the two murderers and their daughter approached the rat corpse. Maggie yelled at Frank not to loot it. He did it anyway. If I remembered correctly, we’d left five items in its inventory: a hunk of rat steak, a skin, a lit smoke bomb, a lit stick of dynamite, and an unlit, unstable stick. Frank only pulled out one item. The lit dynamite stick. He dropped it in surprise, and all three turned to run. A moment passed, and the dynamite went off. Shrapnel blasted the three crawlers. Yvette went down, and so did Frank. A hunk of dislodged rock sheared the man’s hand right off.
A llama hadn’t given those horrible injuries to the teenaged girl.
The scene ended, the lights switched on, and Maggie and Frank emerged to our right.
Donut hissed. The crowd’s response was mixed. Half cheers, half insults and screams, as if they weren’t sure whose side they were supposed to be on. I spent the moment observing the two crawlers.
Frank was missing his right hand. But that wasn’t all that had changed about him. The man had a hollowed-out, 1000-yard stare. He looked as if he’d aged ten years in just a few days. Do I look like that? His missing hand wasn’t a rounded, healed stump like one would expect. It was a straight cut, like he was a mannequin whose hand had been removed.
The woman, Maggie, glared directly at me.
I returned her stare. “You didn’t have to kill her,” I said when the audience finally silenced. “Why did you do that? To get the experience? She would’ve healed. Your own daughter? Jesus fuck, lady.”
“You don’t know,” she said to me, spitting the words. “You don’t know anything. You didn’t get the whole story.”
“She wasn’t dead yet,” I repeated. “She would’ve healed.”
“Fuck you,” Maggie said. “You don’t know what we’ve had to do to survive.”
“Survive? Your daughter is dead. But it’s okay, because you got credit for the kill. I’m sure she’d be so fucking proud,” I said.
Maggie leaped from her chair, pulling a black dagger that glowed with a purple halo. She lunged at me.
I didn’t flinch. Her jab passed harmlessly through my throat. The dagger dropped away as Maggie cried out in pain, clutching her hand. She’d likely just stabbed the invisible wall of their production trailer.
“Children, children,” the Maestro said, plainly enjoying this. He was back on familiar ground. “Clearly you guys have a beef with one another.”
Frank whispered something to Maggie, who returned to her chair. He tried to put an arm on her shoulder. She pushed him away.
“As far as I’m concerned, any business I’ve had with these two has already been transacted,” I said. I turned toward Frank and met the man’s eyes. The man had changed significantly since the last time we’d seen each other. He looked away and down. “I’m sorry about what happened to your kid. But fuck you. Fuck both of you. She deserved better. We all would’ve been stronger together. Your game guide is a piece of shit.”
Maggie growled. “I am going to find you, and I am going to watch you die. You and the fucking cat.”
“Oooooh,” the crowd said, like we were on an episode of the goddamned Jerry Springer Show.
“Don’t bring me into this,” Donut said, raising a paw in defense. “I’m not the one who went all danger dingo on my own kid.”
The crowd screamed with laughter. I had to hand it to her. Donut was oftentimes caught off guard, but she was highly adaptable. She knew how to read a crowd, that was for sure.
But as much as I disliked these two assholes, they weren’t the real enemy. We needed to end this. This bullshit didn’t serve any of us.
I turned to the Maestro. “Congratulations. You’ve reunited us. We all know how she feels about the matter. I’ve said my piece. If that’s all, we’ll be going now.”
“No, no, why so quick to leave?” For the next several minutes, the Maestro attempted to ask us leading questions. So why did you kill your own daughter? Carl, how does it feel to know you’re partially responsible for the death of another human? Maggie said nothing but, “Fuck you.” Frank hadn’t said a word this whole time. Donut would only talk directly to the audience, and I just grunted responses.
It was obvious that the orc wasn’t good at asking interview questions, especially with a group of hostile guests. The crowd grew restless.
Donut started making wisecracks. The Maestro tried to ask her something, and she just ignored him. She looked directly at the audience and said, “I once watched a cocker spaniel lick her own butthole for thirty minutes straight. That was more insightful than that question.”
Eventually the Maestro threw his large hands in the air and gave up. The orc had a panicked look to him. He knew this entire episode had been a dumpster fire from the start.
But then the orc’s eyes sparkled with one last glimmer of hope. I braced myself for whatever bullshit was coming.
“Well, I have parting gifts for each of the teams,” he said. “Are you piglets excited to see what we got for the crawlers?”
The crowd responded half-heartedly. A few of the audience members had already flickered and disappeared from the stream, leaving empty spaces in the crowd.
“Hopefully it’s a door so we can get back to the dungeon,” Donut muttered. The audience laughed. But she wasn’t fooling me. The cat was shaking with pleasure. Even now, Donut couldn’t contain herself. That damn cat loved her presents.
“Let’s give our VIPs their gift first, shall we?”
A box appeared in front of me. This was a literal cardboard box. I hesitantly reached forward, and it was really there.
“This is just a present for Carl. Sorry about that, Donut,” the Maestro said. He leaned forward expectantly. I could feel Donut deflate next to me. I realized I’d been stroking her back without thinking about it. “Carl, I know this is something you want really bad. We paid a lot of money to make sure you have the very best.”
I opened the box. You asshole. I had to laugh. It was a perfectly-chosen gift to troll me. I probably would’ve laughed even if we’d been on another show.
“Carl. You have boots now!” Donut said.
It was a brand-new pair of Bates zip-up tactical boots. They were identical to the service boots I wore on active duty. I picked one up. Sure enough, they were in my size.
“We even got you socks,” the Maestro said. “They’re in the box!”
“Thanks!” I said, pulling the box onto my lap. “These will be really comfortable when I’m in a safe room!”
Now that my soles had fully acclimated, me wearing shoes would put me at a massive disadvantage. I had several buffs and skills that only worked if I was barefoot, and the orc knew it. The gift was just him being a dick. He was expecting me to react, to rant and rave. He should’ve known by now that wasn’t the sort of bait that would snag me. The audience barely reacted at all. They either didn’t understand the intended troll or didn’t care.
“I love them.” I said. Then I added, smiling. “I hope they weren’t too expensive.”
The Maestro took a deep breath and gave me his best fuck you glare. He turned to Frank and Maggie. “And now, you two. Frank has a skill called Find Crawler, which shows you any crawlers within five square kilometers.” The Maestro waved his hand. “I don’t think that is good enough.” A potion appeared in front of them. Maggie snatched it up, looking at it. “That there is a Legendary Skill Potion, taken from my clan’s own stock. Either of you drink that fucker down, and it will upgrade your Find Crawler skill to level 15.” He turned to look at me, smiling again. “That means you can put in any crawler’s name, and it’ll tell you exactly where they are, no matter how far.”
“Wait, can I drink this? Frank is the one with the skill,” Maggie asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’ll take you all the way to the top level of 20 if you have the right class. But if you take it now, it’ll take you up to 15 no problem.”
I sighed. “So, are we done here?”
The Maestro seemed to be at a loss for words, pissed his gifts hadn’t gone over well with the audience. “Uh, thanks to my piglets. You know the Maestro takes care of you fuckers. You know what to do!”
The audience lukewarmly glurp-glurped.
“Well, we probably won’t be coming back on this show, pork boy,” I said, standing up. Donut jumped to my shoulder and waved vigorously at the audience. “But I imagine we’ll see each other again soon enough. I look forward to kicking your ass all over again on the ninth floor. That is, if you’re not too much of a puss to face me.”
Now that. That garnered a reaction from the crowd.
As the show ended, and the crowd cheered, finally happy to have something to holler about, I turned my attention to the two crawlers sitting next to us. Frank continued to stare straight down, a shell of a man. Maggie clutched the skill potion to her chest, staring at me.
For the first time, the woman smiled.