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“Hmph,” Michael replied contemptuously. “I’d rather be a living snake than a dead dog.”

“I’ll show you dog,” Troy jeered, stepping into Michael’s face until Jason broke them apart.

“I’m getting tired of this,” Jason grunted. “Look behind you guys. That Agnis fellow is in the process of turning this whole goddamn area into a bloody trial room, and some other folks are starting to get rowdy too. Let's go through the door and get the hell out of here before everyone starts killing each other. No point in wasting time.”

It was true. With the estimated survival rates so much lower for the current round, everyone in the dome was on edge, and Agnis just set the tone for what was the new norm. Fights looked like they were about to break out across the dome.

“Old man is right,” Marcello said. “Let’s go.”

“Um… Marcello?” Alice said in a low voice, her eyes flickering to the black door, then back to him. “I’m not sure this is a good idea anymore… the black door has a 20% survival rate this time...”

Marcello turned around to face Alice, looking at her seriously. “Listen, I’m only going to say this one. I am going through that black door, whether you like it or not. That is my final choice, and I will not change it,” he said in a firm voice. “Whether you choose to come with me or not is up to you. I don’t care what you choose.”

Her hesitance annoyed him. The chaos unfolding behind them only reaffirmed what Marcello had figured out since the first area. No matter how high the risks were, he needed to take the black door. In a lawless brave new world where strength determined everything, he was willing to risk it all for the power to decide his own fate, or die trying to obtain it.

Alice seemed shell-shocked by Marcello’s bluntness, but he honestly didn’t care anymore. It wasn’t his job to babysit this girl he just met an hour ago and make sure she was emotionally stable and shit. Whether she wanted to come join them in a 20% survival rate room was entirely her own prerogative.

Jason grabbed the handle of the door and yanked it open. “I’ll be going first,” he said, stepping into the darkness.

“Hey, I wanted to be first!” Emma whined, following right after.

Nolan followed right after, and then Michael.

“Man, you really need some lessons on how to treat girls,” Troy said before skipping into the room. “You’re kind of thick in the skull, you know that Marcello?”

“Shut up,” Marcello replied, following him in. “I don’t want to hear about being thick-skulled from a guy with bleached hair that laughs like a hyena.”

Sarah entered right after, and then much to Marcello’s surprise, Alice entered as well. Alice looked like she was about to cry the moment she stepped through the door, her fearful gaze mesmerized the entire time she was walking by the letters that spelled out HARD right above the door. Honestly, Marcello could relate. He had the same sinking feeling when he entered the room last time, the feeling of knowing that you may have just signed the rest of your life away for a silly gamble into the unknown.

Despite the feelings of dread and despair that resigning himself to a 20% survival rate challenge elicited, he felt a sense of confidence from his previous triumph in area 1’s 50% survival rate challenge. Surely, this challenge couldn’t be all that much worse, could it?

Sarah closed the door behind them, finally drowning out the wanton chaos that was unfolding back in the area two dome.

Soon, their surroundings began to warp, as seven survivors from last round and a new visibly shaken blonde healer found themselves standing in unfamiliar terrain once again.

--------

An hour after that Marcello’s group entered through the black door.

Agnis slammed the black door shut after pushing someone in.

Daphne laughed while watching her beau Agnis. “That’s the third one already. I wonder what’s taking them so long for this entrance?”

The reason why Agnis shoved three people through the black door entrance was to gain advanced intel on what the room was. The previous hard challenge was quite a tough one, and his team lost half of its members. With the challenge upped from 50% survival rate to 20% survival rate, the hulking man was taking extra precautions.

He chucked the first one in as an example, an elderly man who defied him and refused to surrender all his points to Agnis in the form of items from the tutorial shop. Agnis figured that the old man would crawl back out through the door by using his [Exit Pass], and he’d be able to gain some information on the layout of the next HARD room.

Five minutes passed, and the old man didn’t come back out. That senile old man forgot how to use his [Exit Pass], Agnis thought.

Seeing that the old man was a lost cause, he chucked another person in. This time a woman, roughly forty years old. He specifically told her to use her [Exit Pass] this time as well, then gave her a good smack in the ass before throwing her in.

She didn’t come out either. When he realized that she also didn’t seem to be coming out, Agnis repeated the process with a few people, this time changing up his strategy by throwing them in one-by-one through the white door instead of the black one. By putting them in solo, they had no choice but to run back out through the exit.

Agnis already beat the information out of a few people that the previous round’s EASY and HARD challenges were relatively similar, the only difference being the number of goblins and the presence of a hobgoblin at the end of the round for the HARD challenge.

About fifteen minutes ago, he got his first answer about the secrets that lay beyond the white and black doors. Unfortunately, it was just a girl he kicked through the white door. Nobody came back from the black door yet.

“It’s a hallway!” a mage coughed, having consumed her [Exit Pass] to re-enter the second area. She had no choice, since Agnis stuffed her in alone. The mage could never have survived the 50% survival rate white door challenge solo. Not without that three thousand point mana regeneration amulet, at least.

“I saw a row of suits of armor to the right, and when I looked down at the first floor I saw a great hall staircase, the kind of staircase that takes up the whole middle of a huge hall where you can walk up both to the left and the right sides.” The girl in dark mage robes spoke quickly and frantically, afraid of getting beaten again by Agnis. Her eye was blackened already from a beating. “I left through the white door a few minutes after entering. For some reason, the white door was on the second floor, and I really didn’t want to go down those stairs.” She began to sob. “I was so scared!”

Agnis frowned, pondering the information she just gave him. He looked like a meathead from the outside, but the man used to be one of the head brothers in a crime syndicate. Some matters could be solved with strength, but others required a more delicate touch. Combining roughandling with a good brain was what got him to the top of the food chain. Those kind of smarts were what led him to realize that he could get people to scout the rooms for him.

But what the hell were the use of scouts if they never came back to report? Right now, no amount of manhandling would solve this problem for him. Why was nobody coming back from the black room? If the setting was a castle and the entry point was an empty hallway with nothing notable besides a suit of armor on the second floor, he couldn’t understand why the people he sent to the black room weren’t coming back. They could have just taken a look and turned around immediately.

Agnis couldn’t figure it out for the life of him.

--------

Ten hours after Marcello’s group entered through the black door.

Not a single soul was left alive in area two ten hours after the loudspeaker announcement. Leftover food items and trash were all over the floor, and several corpses were slumped over on the ground with dried blood all around them. Only the tutorial store in the middle still had a bit of life in it, with its lights on. Other than that, the whole place was dead. The entire area was about to shut down soon, so all the surviving players moved on through the doors to the next area.

Just then, the black door creaked open and a lone survivor stepped out, finally having cleared the HARD challenge from area one, the original area. His expression was not that of relief, but of profound anger. The short survivor had healer robes, the originally white robes nearly unrecognizable with the amount of blood and grit on them, and on his nose sat a pair of glasses slightly bent out of shape when Agnis hit him.

If someone were still left in area two, they would be absolutely shocked after using Identify on the scrawny bespectacled teenage boy.

[Gabriel (alive) – Level 9 Healer]

He had reached Level 9, an absurd level by all measures at this stage, after solo clearing the 50% survival rate hard challenge. His name was Gabriel, his mother naming him after an angel because she wanted to instill within him a benevolent and kind spirit. His mother’s teaching stuck with him. Despite being a pushover at school for being scrawny and nerdy, he was always a sympathetic guy, and he ended up choosing the healer class because he genuinely wanted to help people.

When that preacher had his hand cut off, Gabriel was the first to rush over, trying his best to heal the man with his newfound powers. Unfortunately, that action led to his demise as that maniac Agnis tossed him into the black door and then kicked him unconscious.

By all rights, Gabriel should have died in there. He was alone and defenseless, in an empty room with monsters out to kill him. But it was only after he woke up that the grate opened and the goblins poured through. That gave him enough time to shake himself awake and start running for his life.

Things were looking grim when the monsters first entered the room. Gabriel had no means of fighting against the goblins as a lone healer. He thought he was dead for sure. But his body would not let him die. Running around like a cornered rabbit from the maniacal killer monsters, Gabriel accidentally knocked over one of the torches that were lined up on the walls. Seeing the flames fall to the ground and flicker out of existence upon contact with the stone and the goblins’ panicked responses when that occurred gave him an idea.

Gabriel ran around the room and pulled torches out of the wall, one by one until every single one was uprooted. He threw every single torch to the ground, muting the only source of light in the large room until not a single torch was left.

After that, he could only hide and wait. Just like humans, goblins could not see anything in the pitch dark that encapsulated the dungeon arena after Gabriel snuffed out all the light in the room. The goblins ambled around searching for their prey, swinging and mutilating each other by accident when they ran into one another in the pure darkness.

Gabriel simply bided his time, zoning them away by drawing his healing staff in a radius around his body to detect any goblins. Once he sensed one, he crawled away in the opposite direction as fast as possible. The entire dungeon began to reek of guts and blood after a while, and Gabriel could only do his best not to retch, knowing that making any sound would blow his cover.

Strangely enough, each goblin that killed another in confusion counted towards his own experience, and so he accumulated quite a large amount of experience for his suffering.

This cruel existence went on for hours, until he reached level five. As a threshold level, level 5 meant that he could select from a new batch of skills. All of the skills offered to him were run of the mill healer fare except for one strange addition to the list.

[He who hides in shadows (epic)] - Born out of necessity, the caster delves into the shadows to survive against beasts that hunt him. Removes the caster’s presence when in the darkness.

It was a skill of epic rarity, when the rest of his skills were all basic rarity. Gabriel took the skill and activated it immediately. A few minutes later he accidentally bumped into a goblin with his staff while doing his rotational scouting. Because of his new ability, the goblin barely took notice and just walked away without attacking. Normally, after he bumped into a goblin with his staff the goblin would furiously stab the ground where it felt the impact.

Even after that loud and intimidating boss goblin came out, Gabriel was able to mask his presence with [He who hides in the shadows] and managed to avoid the boss goblin as best as he could. He followed the side of the arena, tracing the perimeter in the darkness until he reached the corridor from which the goblins first came. Passing through there, Gabriel crawled slowly to the end, where his hand felt the outline of a door.

He exited the black door, successfully completing the hard trial as a solo party. That achievement granted him a huge amount of experience, propelling him all the way up to level 9. It also earned him a title.

Title Earned: [Master of the Hard Trial]

[Master of the Hard Trial] - Survive and beat a hard trial in a solo party. +2 to all stats.

Gabriel understood that a +2 to all stat bonus was absolutely insane since normal human leveling gave 0.1 per stat. But as he stepped through that door into the second arena, the only feeling he had in his mind was uncontrollable disgust, and a bottomless fury towards the man known as Agnis that had thrown him into the hard dungeon by himself. His benevolent soul died in the dungeon that day.

-------

Two minutes after Marcello’s group entered through the black door.

The party of eight stumbled around, regaining their balance after being transported to an entirely new area. They were standing in a hallway of some sort, with a polished suit of armor to the right. On the left hand side of the hallway was a handrail with balusters, overlooking a giant chandelier and carpeted entrance hall. With two stone gargoyles on each end of the main door leading outside, a red carpet led the way from the main door up the grand two-way split staircase and up to where they were currently standing.

An ominous silence hung in the room from the get-go, only broken by Alice’s whispering voice.

Alice cupped her mouth with one hand to whisper as quietly as she could. “Where are we?” she whispered.

“This looks like a castle,” Marcello replied in an equally hush tone. “Just look at all the tapestries around.”

Several tapestries of strange landscapes were hung across the grand entrance hall, with a particularly large one depicting a scene of war draped across the largest side-facing wall.

Michael nodded, keeping a low voice. “It is a castle. I visited one a few years ago when visiting a wealthy client in Monaco–”

He stopped, as all eight survivors felt a chill down their spines from the presence of something within the castle.

“Unlike my client, I don’t think whoever lives here is interested in opening a hawaiian shirt clothing line,” he said gravely.

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HereBeTreasure

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