“…How did this even happen?”
Sisyphean Castle had undergone a dramatic transformation in recent weeks.
Firstly, after several days of tiresome renovation, its intimidating appearance had increased tenfold. Before, it had just seemed like an ordinary, ancient castle half-buried in the mountain – Tiandi was practically littered with them. Now, it appeared as if the god of the underworld had descended to corrupt it.
For example, the gates now resembled screaming jaws torn from the skull of a carnivorous giant, and thick lava gushed from holes in the steep walls. Stone pillars jutted from the surrounding land, and huge, tattered flags were hoisted from the various towers and ramparts within the castle’s walls.
Secondly, numerous monsters patrolled the area. Wyverns, giant bats, hellhounds, satyrs, armoured centaurs and imps… If one looked carefully, they’d be able to see the corpses of dozens of unlucky heroes being looted in every direction. Normally the roles would be reversed, but the monsters had grown far stronger in a short time.
Finally, an all-seeing eye swivelled and spun in the red sky as if it had been torn directly from a certain fantasy series. Floating above the incredibly steep spires twisting towards the sky, it resembled a glowing sun held in the grasp of a skeletal hand. Everything caught within its sight trembled and quivered as if their insides were laid bare!
Within a thicket of trees in the nearby forest, Kenjin stared at the castle in stupefaction. Around him, the other two members of his party could also hardly believe their eyes – it was a little too different from the description that they’d been given.
“I knew we shouldn’t have let you handle the directions,” said Reeds irritably. “Even if you were on a straight path, you’d still somehow end up walking in a circle.”
“Same to you. That’s probably why you grew up to have such a twisted personality.”
Kenjin rubbed his eyes in exasperation, re-evaluating the difficulty of the quest. Their target was a manhole a few feet away, leading to the sewer system beneath the castle. They would’ve been able to avoid detection… at least, if it had remained abandoned.
Continuous roars and howls could faintly be heard from below. Just how many enemies were waiting underground?
“Every single one of the monsters up here is probably only a little weaker than one of us, but if they were able to defeat this many players… then we must be facing swarm mentality,” he said, his throat dry.
Swarm mentality was the behaviour that one might see in a B-grade zombie movie. One monster would call another, which would call another, and before long the players would be completely surrounded. It was the absolute worst situation to fight in.
Beside him, Elyria also seemed to be thoughtfully considering their options. Her dress had been replaced with an armoured skirt of fine metal strands, but her trademark hat and pouch remained. As a thread-witch, she was required to carry around threads anywhere she went, otherwise she’d be helpless.
The class sounded weak, but in reality it wasn’t to be underestimated. After all, spider’s silk was renowned for its toughness, and synthetic fibers such as Nylon and Kevlar were incredibly durable in the real world. The class boasted the most flexibility of any class he knew, and Elyria had a truly flexible mind to match.
“Swarm mentality… it’d be in our best interests not to fight, or fight decisively. The quest becomes a lot more difficult if we choose to fight at all, so we’d need to focus on stealth. Letting even a single enemy escape could be a fatal mistake, but aside from that…”
Elyria continued to analyse their chances at completing the quest – he believed in her ability to choose the best option available. Even though they weren’t the strongest, fastest, or most intelligent players in the game, the two of them took immense pride in being the first ones to reach this point in the main storyline!
After all, they both had no life.
“It’s no problem, we still have the quest item. The quest can’t have changed much,” she concluded while glancing at the holy sword sheathed on Kenjin’s waist. It was reacting with an incandescent white glow which had only increased in intensity as they approached the castle.
Though hundreds of players attacked the castle every day, none of them were able to defeat the Dark Lord because they lacked this weapon. Since the quest item hadn’t become useless, they should still have a chance. In that case, it seemed like their original plan would be good enough.
“Reeds – your turn,” Kenjin murmured, shifting around the equipment on his back. A tower shield larger than his body weighed down on him, but he didn’t let even a single sign of fatigue show. The weight was nothing compared to the punishment that he’d be taking later.
Paladins were a very versatile class too. In fact, there were quite a few complaints of imbalance because they could fulfil the roles of clerics, tanks, and melee fighters. He was no different; with high physical defenses, healing abilities and access to holy magic, he was the party’s core.
Beside him, a certain side character was leaning against a tree with a disinterested expression. Zero enthusiasm. Reeds separated from the group and stepped into the shadows to do whatever an assassin did.
In actuality, Reeds was a key component of their plans… no, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he was currently the most important member of the party. Now that they knew there were enemies, his role was to scout ahead and clear the path for them.
“Do your best! We’ll follow in five minutes,” called Elyria, her eyes focused on the manhole. Honestly, her encouragement was just wasted on that kind of character. Only a brief glint of light from a dagger betrayed Reed’s presence as he crept between the rocks and slipped down the rusty ladder.
“Your teeth are chattering.”
“It’s just your imagination..!” The girl in question couldn’t hold herself still. It wasn’t just her; he could feel himself displaying similar tension as he watched the small hole for the slightest movements. His heart raced as he couldn’t help doubting whether they were really ready.
What if all their efforts went to waste? This was the culmination of two months of work. Due to the severe penalties upon dying in this game, it was possible that they wouldn’t recover. Just the thought of failure, and the disappointment which would follow…!
No… in any case, they’d never get another chance like this again.
After several minutes of stillness, they stealthily made their way to the manhole to follow Reeds in. A malodorous odour drifted from the depths of the tunnel, and light faintly glimmered on the surface of the green-black water lying below.
“No way… I have to go down there?” muttered Elyria darkly, wrinkling her nose. Even though it was just a game, sensations such as smell and taste felt incredibly real. In fact, there were even some monsters which used smell specifically to attack.
He gulped audibly, highly conscious of her stare, and began to clamber down. Really, what happened to ‘ladies first’? As always, it was down to him to take the lead. The armour on his body clinked gently with each rung, and as he descended, numerous runes began to brighten on its surface until his entire being emitted a cold light.
After several dozen feet he finally alighted on solid ground. The passage was empty, aside from the watercourse in the middle… he squinted upwards, signalling that there wasn’t a single enemy nearby. Even though her face was just silhouettes against the sun, he knew how relieved she must’ve looked at that moment.
“Oh~ how fitting of a paladin to light a path through the shadows. You truly are a paragon of goodness in these dark times.” A sweet voice echoed towards him from above, and Elyria fell towards him with her arms bound by string, avoiding the ladder entirely. As always, she was making him treat her like a princess… he smiled in exasperation, catching her gently and setting her down.
“I think we’re good to go. Everything seems fine,” he said, straining his ears and eyes within the silence. No slithering, clicking, rustling, or padded footsteps could be heard – if anything, the stillness was more unnerving.
Some dungeons were so horrific that they actually changed the genre of the game. He prayed that this wasn’t one of them.
Reeds was ensuring that their main path remained clear of monsters, but occasionally they were forced to pause and hide while footsteps sounded from nearby side passages. More often than not, the offenders were other players… but in a minority of cases they barely managed to evade detection by roaming bands of monsters.
If that wasn’t enough, there were also numerous traps laid out for them – some which Reeds had disarmed, but many remained. Pitfalls, dart mechanisms, falling boulders, bramble-wires and quicksand… light became a necessity, as much as he would’ve liked to move in total darkness for stealth.
After several thousand feet, they reached a large circular room with dilapidated towers and pillars protruding from the floor. It appeared to be an atrium of some kind; countless floors rose to the high ceiling, and dozens of dark passageways surrounded them.
The numerous grey tiles lining the walls were pitted with countless grooves and small indents – he tried to ignore the disturbing impression that they presented. It felt as if he were looking at pockmarked, tallowed skin.
In any case, they had already endured an hour of non-stop walking, and Elyria seemed to be at her limit, so they took shelter in a ruined building at the center of the atrium. All the furniture had long-since been reduced to splinters and rubble; it was a true ghost town… but it was good enough.
“Oh, thank god. Honestly, can’t you just carry me the rest of the way?” said Elyria while sinking gratefully onto the floor. He smiled at her childishness and re-examined a tattered map of the sewers which Elyria had been using to navigate.
“This area should be… eh…? Looks like we still have another 3 hours ahead of us,” he said, trying to make sense of where they were on the faded paper.
“…Hey, you have it the wrong way up. We’re almost there,” said Elyria, rotating the map. Their location now made far more sense! He grinned sheepishly, causing her to pout and look away as if she were ignoring him. If it weren’t for Elyria, he’d probably be leading a heroic charge into certain death or something.
They had only rested for a few minutes before a pebble clinked unnaturally just outside the building.
Alarm bells pealed in his mind – he crept to the window, hardly daring to breathe. Numerous shadows stealthily approached from all directions, and the first of many green, humanoid monsters inched towards the doorway!
“Marauding goblins… twenty feet away,” he whispered, clenching his fist. Even though these monsters weren’t very strong, they were escape artists who always moved in groups. They were the equivalent of human bandits.
Fighting… wasn’t an option. Marauders were slippery and too organized, while they couldn’t allow even a single one to escape and bring reinforcements. However, they couldn’t escape either – the room they were in was a dead end…! He froze, at a complete loss. It was hopeless…
“Quickly,” whispered Elyria urgently from a corner. She was already pulling countless grey threads from her pouch, all of which quickly wove themselves around her to form a taut, stiff wall! Without a second thought, he quickly extinguished the light from his armour and scrambled to her side as quietly as he could.
Light from a torch streamed through the doorway mere seconds later.
They both held their breath while watching several blurry, dark-green figures through the blurry film of threads. The lack of light on their side of the fake wall meant that they were almost completely hidden, while they could just barely make out the goblins on the other side.
Their wiry bodies were covered in crude leather armour, and numerous weapons such as axes and cleavers glinted with a malicious light. If even a single one of them noticed, they’d be forced to fight… and with the enemy’s numbers, some would inevitably escape. Even before that, the sound of battle itself would attract a horde.
Since they were in a building, they were able to hide behind a fake wall and not appear out of place – it shouldn’t be readily apparent that the interior of the room was smaller than it should’ve been.
Unfortunately, if anybody paid a modicum of attention, they would easily notice that the wall was coloured just a little differently and lacked some of the detail of real stone. Elyria’s skills, or the goblins’ stupidity – which was greater…?
It was a high-level battle, no doubt.
One of the goblins stopped inches from the fake wall and crouched to examine a dusty footprint. Kenjin grasped the hilt of the holy sword, beads of sweat forming on his forehead as he studied its face for any traces of hostility. Without warning, it opened its mouth as if to shout…!
“Achoo! Gweeh… lavenders…” it murmured while sniffing audibly. Kenjin became intensely aware of the scent of Elyria’s shampoo, and she shifted uncomfortably by his side as his breath tickled her neck.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. He bitterly suppressed the urge to leap into the open.
Fortunately, after a long pause, one of the goblins barked roughly in a foreign language which sounded suspiciously like Cantonese. The marauders slowly trudged out of the building without incident.
The sounds of the warband’s footsteps soon faded into the distance, but to be safe they remained inside for several more minutes before Elyria lifted the veil. Kenjin breathed deeply to clear the tension from his body; they’d narrowly avoided a terrible ending.
“We should get going…” he said, glancing at a nearby tunnel. It resembled a giant throat, devouring both light and churning water. If they had been playing a horror game, it’d be the number one worst place to enter.
They carefully examined their surroundings for monsters while moving swiftly. The waterway beside them grew deeper and darker the further they moved, until it was more like an underground lake.
After a few hundred feet, a low growl drifted towards them from afar.
“There’s-” began Elyria before clapping a hand to her mouth. He followed her gaze and saw a pair of red eyes, gleaming with awareness, on the other side of the waterway.
The pupils flickered like baleful orbs of fire, floating in the air. Heavy, dull footsteps padded along the ground – lending form to the disembodied face.
It stalked out of the shadows with its head low, watching them intently. Pitch-black fur, a long, ragged mane, and almost bear-like proportions… a high-level hellhound. No, not just a mere hellhound – tufts of grey fur rested behind its ears, making it appear as if it were wearing a crown.
A hellhound king.
He breathed in sharply and grabbed at the holy sword, adrenaline coursing through his body. A fight was inevitable! Powerful muscles rippled along its torso, as if barely restrained by its fur; it could leap across the waterway in an instant…!
The hellhound turned its head as if disinterested and, with a brief snarl, bounded into the distance.
After a few seconds of silence, he relaxed and exchanged a wary look with Elyria. As expected, she looked equally confused. Just a single roar would’ve brought numerous monsters on their head.
Why had it chosen to back down?
“There might be an ambush ahead,” he whispered, squinting after it; Elyria nodded in agreement. Even though it hadn’t attacked, there was no doubt that it had seen them. Perhaps it might’ve been better if it actually had been aggressive.
Every fifty feet, the tiles on the walls grew visibly older and dirtier, and all ambient light was replaced by thick and smothering darkness. Ancient roots grew thick through the surrounding area and pierced the ceiling like stalactites, making it seem as if they’d wandered into a subterranean jungle.
He paused and placed an armoured hand against the sides of the passage to keep his bearings, feeling intensely uncomfortable when a strange mucus coated his fingers. They were probably directly under the castle’s garden, which was normally packed with monsters.
It was by far the safer route, but… he couldn’t see very far at all; visibility beyond a few feet was extremely poor because of all the tangled subterranean growth. How on earth would they be able to fight if the situation called for it?
“Let’s take it slow. There shouldn’t be any enemies in this region, I think…” Elyria produced hundreds of glowing threads which drifted in all directions, then unexpectedly clung to his arm. Her face seemed oddly flushed, puzzling him somewhat.
It was like holding an adult’s hand so that she wouldn’t get lost, wasn’t it? This was only natural.
For a few minutes he could only hear the faint thuds of their footsteps along the stone floor, along with miscellaneous splashing sounds from just barely out of sight. Twisted roots and ruined stones interrupted their movements constantly, appearing abruptly within the small halo of illuminated land surrounding them.
One thousand, two thousand feet. Step after step, the two of them wandered in the darkness almost blindly – no, rather, Elyria was really the one guiding them. Kenjin sighed inwardly; he’d been reduced to a walking torch for now.
Three thousand… he lost count. The light from his armour seemed to grow dimmer at every corner. At times he caught himself dozing off, almost falling over while walking. One foot after the other, he was constantly forced to look down so that he wouldn’t trip over the rough terrain.
It was an experience akin to being trapped in the illusion of a vast, dead stomach.
The darkness was overpowering in its weight; it rapidly became difficult to breathe. It almost seemed as if the small light that remained would easily be snuffed out. Shining runes on the surface of his armour blinked like failing fluorescent lights, almost hypnotic –
“There’s a monster ahead of us. Sleeping, I think…”
Elyria’s voice pulled him back to reality, and she peeled away from him as he strode forward to investigate. The threads were gathered on something ahead like glowing spores, outlining a boulder-like shape.
Just beyond the range of his light, there was something lying on the floor. He could faintly make out its dog-like form; blood surged to his head as cautiously shuffled forward.
A crushed neck. A dying snarl. Shattered bones and chunks of flesh were violently strewn up to several feet away from the corpse. Glazed, dead eyes stared up blankly; red pupils lacking any life or emotion. Blood matted unkempt fur, steadily pooling beneath the carcass.
Well, he’d seen worse.
Quite a few players never ventured past the confines of the starting zones because of the depth of realistic violence in this game. Instead, they continued to bully slimes and rats despite being dozens of levels higher. Seeing this, he felt that he could sympathise.
“Uehh… what is this.”
Elyria stumbled away from the corpse while pinching her nose. A sour, acrid smell rose from the hellhound’s exposed ribcage – caved in as if by a hammer blow. Not just the pink flesh, but even its bones and thick fur sizzled as if they were cooking.
“What killed it? Other than paw prints, there’s only…” said Elyria while pointing at a trail of blood leading to the waterway. He frowned and crouched beside the corpse, inspecting its wounds while trying not to breathe too deeply.
“There’s no blood on its claws or fangs. It clearly died recently, and from what I can tell, it’s the same one we saw earlier. An instant death from blunt-force trauma, followed by an application of powerful acid.”
Whatever it was, it was in the water… and the hellhound king feared it. That was the only explanation that he could come up with which explained why they hadn’t been attacked earlier. He turned away from the corpse, unable to prevent himself from looking around –
–It was an unchanged, alien scene. Even if something was watching them, he wouldn’t be able to tell.
The characteristics didn’t fit any monster he knew of. A poisonous fish? A squid? No – it would’ve have had to been both fast and strong. A hellhound king should’ve easily been able to escape, but this one had died without even successfully retaliating…
…No, not just a hellhound king. There wasn’t just one corpse –
“Elyria… stay quiet and move carefully,” he said, realizing that there were multiple limp shapes in the distance. A hellhound king, and its subjects. Perhaps there were even more bodies lying out of sight… and there was no guarantee that Reeds wasn’t one of them.
That guy had some serious problems if he was able to walk through here by himself.
Elyria gulped fearfully while looking around, and the two of them stealthily, but swiftly, left the area. The longer they stayed in the dark, the more danger they were in.
After some pacing, light appeared in the distance. Both of them felt the air change; their pace quickened, and finally they arrived at the end of the underground tunnels. Now, they were only a breath away from entering the castle.