“I don’t think the host of this castle will be quite as gracious as your client,” Marcello added.
Michael’s expression was grave. “It seems we share the same sentiment.”
Your trial has commenced.
[Hard Trial Information]
Difficulty has increased significantly. Rewards have increased significantly.
Time Limit: 6 hours
Objective: Find the exit and proceed to the next area 0/1
Information: Castles are a common feature among the great Planes of the universe. Lords are often willing to negotiate and barter with worthy candidates, but the lord of this castle is not so merciful. Avoid the lord of the castle and his many servants, as you find your way to the exit. Fighting the lord is inadvisable.
“Ah,” Marcello said. “This lord doesn’t sound very friendly, does he?”
“Heh, it’d be boring if he just let us walk on by,” replied Troy with a big grin on his face.
Michael spoke. “Yes, it does seem that death is earlier on the menu tonight than hor d’oeuvres. What a pity too. Such a lavish and extravagantly decorated castle, and the lord doesn’t have an ounce of hospitality to match it.”
“How can you guys be so calm?” Alice asked. “This trail is so brutal that the system only expects two of us to survive out of eight people total…”
“We’re calm because we’re professionals,” Emma retaliated. “And you’re freaking out because you’re just an amateur. There’s a huge difference between us. The system is just trying to estimate a global survival rate by lumping everyone together, so it’s stooping so low as to consider you on the same level as someone like me. How ridiculous is that?”
Emma continued her rant as Alice shrank back towards the wall from the shorter girl’s chihuahua-like aggressiveness. “I think it’s pretty obvious that the survival rate for professionals is a hundred percent guaranteed without so much as a scratch, the survival rate for amateurs two percent if they’re lucky, and the survival rate for blondes with stupidly big chests is a big fat zero!” The volume of Emma’s voice got louder as she got more vicious.
Much to Marcello’s surprise, Alice plunged her head down in a deep bow, before raising it and looking Emma straight in the eye. “I-I’d like to be a professional too! Please teach me!” She must have remembered Marcello’s hint earlier that Emma was one of their better fighters, and a natural in combat positioning.
An inexplicably sadistic look appeared in Emma’s smiling eyes as she looked at Alice with a renewed light. “Oho, so you do know your place, little girl. That’s right, grovel at my feet and maybe I’ll consider teaching you.”
The normally silent builder Jason let out a chuckle. “It’s strange to see a girl call a woman clearly taller than her a little girl.”
Emma fluttered her eyelashes in annoyance. “I’ll let that slide because you’re a good fighter Jason, and I might need you. But maybe keep that to yourself next time, okay?”
“Oh, I’ll keep that in mind. But don’t forget, I’m not an amateur.” The construction worker in his late fifties smiled, but years of pain and hard work showed through his eyes, and even Emma could see a scary determination in Jason’s face to see his wife and kids again at all costs, no matter what. He could take a joke, but he most certainly was not a pushover.
Alice looked mortified that the short girl in front of her seemed to be picking a fight with a clearly dangerous man. She pulled on Marcello’s sleeve and whispered to him. “Are they always like this? Like, is everybody here always on edge and just about ready to fight each other at all times?”
Marcello nodded after mulling over the validity of the statement. Alice was right, and he couldn’t agree any more. “Yep, and you can include me in as well. We’re all about one hair’s breadth away from killing each other, but as long as that doesn’t happen we actually make quite a great team. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is the perfect team to tackle a trial of this kind of difficulty. A team held together not by something as flimsy as moral standards or charismatic leadership, but by the rock solid foundation of mutual respect for mutually assured destruction. Just like peace in the wake of nuclear power.”
“I see,” Alice replied, pensive about what she just learned. Her last group was far more normal, starting with a democratic vote for a de facto leader of the group so that they could delegate roles and proceed responsibly. Alice was voted that leader, and she did her best to take on her role professionally. In the end, there were no complaints, everyone played their part, and nobody died.
Her last group’s normality and good work synergy were such a breath of fresh air in hindsight compared to the dysfunctional mess that counted as teamwork in this black door raid squad. Alice felt like everyone here would probably just do their own thing, and if nobody died it would be due to the sheer skill of the individuals in spite of their dramatic personality defects and possible insanity rather than a collaborative team effort of responsible and sensible adults.
The group no longer talked in hushed tones ever since Emma raised her voice earlier, as they grew comfortable with the eerie silence that characterized the rest of the castle.
That fragile comfort was shattered when the creak of a door followed by a pair of footsteps came from somewhere close to them, specifically from the connecting room to the right of the great hall on the first floor. Everyone’s chatter ceased immediately as they all peered through the vase shaped marble balusters under the second floor handrail.
Marcello quietly drew his shortbow alongside Troy and Nolan’s longbows. His refillable quiver had fifty arrows, more than enough to pepper whatever the hell was coming their way five times over.
Whatever it was, it was coming towards the great hall. And by the sound of the footsteps… so light, barely hitting the ground with any impact… female?
That question was answered in the next moment, when a pale faced woman with long black hair walked into the great hall and craned her neck towards them. At first, she looked human. But her eyes were sunken and black, and her red lipstick painted mouth opened especially wide to show rows of sharp teeth. And that neck of hers… it began to extend like a snake, tilting her head to an impossible angle. A mist of black evil mana surrounded her entire body.
The sight was enough to make a grown man wet himself.
“I’m scared,” said Alice, the words just barely able to leave her mouth as her lips were shaking in fear.
“Me too, Alice. Me too.” He was in no position to lie. Truth be told, he could hardly keep his hand off the Scroll of Summon Ice Elemental.
He used Identify on the ghastly female figure.
[Banshee – Level 12 Lord’s Servant]
Not good. She was only one of the lord’s servants and already higher level than the hobgoblin from the last round.
“My lord was not expecting guests…” said the banshee, her head extending forward like a snake. “What a delightful surprise! He has always been fond of... humans…”
Nolan let loose an arrow from his longbow down from their second floor vantage point. The arrow landed on the banshee’s ragged cloak, causing her to open her mouth and…
It let out a bloodcurdling wail the likes of which Marcello had never experienced before. He felt every fiber of his body scream with it, sensing a malevolent aura so strong that his entire body froze up in fear. The aura seemed to be wrapping around him, constricting his movement and suffocating him with an encroaching iron sheet of malicious intent.
And yet he felt another force, one within him, surging up like a glowing hot sun to repel the rappels of darkness that tried to coil around his mind. The force within him appeared to have taken offense to the banshee’s mental attack, treating the existence of the malevolent mental force as an infringement of its territory. This force within him broke free like a broken dam, gushing out and violently pushing away the coils that the banshee tried to wrap around his mind. That force was what Marcello now knew to be his Inheritance, Despair Intuition.
Offers protection against mind afflictions.
The effect directly counteracted the banshee’s wail, wrestling control away from its coiling grip. But Marcello could feel that that was not all that was helping him right now.
Presence was always a strange stat. It started out with a value of 1 when all of his other stats started with a value between 7-9, and it did not increase for each level of his race unlike his other stats like strength and wisdom. Marcello ended up disregarding the stat, regarding strength and constitution as far more important for the challenges he would face in his early levels.
Even when his Inheritance gave him an additional +10 presence boost, he didn’t think much about it. Sure, by normal standards it would take a hundred levels to get ten stat points. He was aware that presence was not a normal stat either, and gaining points in it could be far more challenging than simply leveling up a hundred times.
But the damn stat didn’t have a tooltip and he felt very little difference after receiving the +10 buff. He’d put the damn thing on the back of his mind as a novelty, something nice to look at when he opened up the status screen but otherwise too ambiguous to do anything meaningful.
For the first time, Marcello got a taste of what the presence stat did. When the banshee’s aura engaged his body and restricted his movements, his own aura burst out from within and combatted it, unable to push it back but standing its ground. Presence meant a projection and aura of one’s self, enabling someone to stand tall in the face of a downcast shadow engulfing everyone else in the vicinity.
Two seconds after the onset of his full body petrification, Marcello alone was able to break free and re-enable locomotive control of his body.
Troy, Jason, Alice, Michael, Nolan, and Sarah were completely petrified, their minds and bodies bound and paralyzed by the banshee’s mind-shattering wail. Only one other person could even think straight.
Naturally, it was the only other owner of an Inheritance, Emma. She had received the same +10 presence buff upon the awakening of her inheritance, but without the addition of the mind affliction protection that was unique to Despair Intuition, all she could manage to do was protect her own aura from being fully engulfed by the tremendous influence of the banshee’s malevolent spirit, and the spine-chilling fear that its harrowing wail produced.
The banshee took a breath, then began wailing anew.
The good news was that the banshee could not move or attack during her wail. The bad news was that her wail was going to attract the attention of every other lord’s servant in the castle, and possibly the attention of the lord itself. Marcello knew he had to shut her up before the whole castle turned into high alert.
As the only person who could actually move during the banshee’s wail, Marcello raised his short bow, pulling back on the bowstring while taking careful aim at the ghastly and pale sunken eyed woman wearing a white translucent shawl. He held his breath, making sure that the arrow aligned with her head.
Then he let loose. The arrow whirred through the air, striking the banshee in the shoulder. He really needed to work on his aim, but the arrow did its job regardless.
The spell was broken as the banshee recoiled from the arrow. The monster screamed, but its mental power was far less than before without the imbuement of mana and concentration that the other wail had. The initial wail seemed like a specialized ability, while the current scream was akin to someone yelping after accidentally burning themselves, albeit magically imbued by the monster’s innate affinity for producing status inflicting sounds.
He shot another arrow, the bolt whizzing past the handrail and landing smack in the banshee’s stomach, as it began phasing up the stairs while leaving a ghastly trail of black mist behind it.
Thankfully, the rest of the survivors were awake now that Marcello broke the spell. “Huh?” Troy asked, staring at Marcello with a quizzical expression. “The hell did you just do to get out of that spell?” Just like the rest, he was aware of Marcello breaking free of the banshee’s wail, but his brain just wasn’t able to issue the command to the rest of his body to move due to that black haze and he could only start to remember what happened during that hazy period after the spell was broken.
It wasn’t just Troy that was confused. Sarah, Michael, Alice, and Jason were also staring at him now, dumbstruck. Hell, even Emma was taken aback by how he managed to break free of that ability. The only person that paid absolutely no mind was Nolan, who had a one track mind to find the exit back to the second area. After experiencing the banshee’s mind melding ability, he decided that the difficulty was insurmountable this time around and fleeing was the only option for him.
The banshee phased to the top of the stairs and craned its neck towards them, boring its eyes into the party while carrying an insidious energy around its body that seemed to originate from the castle itself.
“Mana bolt!” Emma declared, sending an arcane blast of energy towards the malevolent fey spirit. The blast connected with its torso, an attribute to Emma’s uncanny accuracy with magic without even the help of a staff or mage robes.
“The exit!” Nolan shouted. “It’s gone!” He was right. Behind them, the black door that they came from was no longer there. The party could always count on Nolan to be the first to scope out retreat paths, for better or for worse. The nervous young man did not look all too interested in fighting such a horrifying creature like a level 12 banshee, and more that had yet to be seen.
“Stop yapping and shoot more, you fuckin’ coward. Die, you medusa bitch!” Troy cursed.
Arrows whistled over the heads of the survivors in front as Troy and Nolan peppered the banshee with arrows. With escape not an option this time around, Nolan attacked with a reinvigorated energy.
In Alice’s hands was the spear she bought at Marcello’s behest back in the tutorial store, since she currently could not contribute to the fight as a healer. Healers were a strange class, being simultaneously indispensable and also worthless based on which stage the fight was at. Marcello was sure glad he did not pick that class.
He elected to have more agency in his life, to seize victory with his own merits. With that thought in mind, Marcello stepped forward down the narrow corridor and knelt down to the ground, placing his hand on the red carpet as he prepared an ability of his own. Bear Trap. Now he just needed a second and a half to crank the damn thing.