Chapter 25 - The Fog

I sat there, reminiscing about the bizarre month I had. Fighting monsters, gaining XP and equipment, leveling up - this was truly some RPG game I was a part of. I looked up at Betty, hovering amidst us. Her light had dimmed, I felt. How would she feel when we were gone? Perhaps she wouldn’t feel anything. Not that it mattered, she won’t be alive for long either way. I stared at her for a while, pondering on the existence of intelligent but unemotional beings, without blood and flesh. Was she ever truly alive to begin with? Aren’t I in the same boat as her, being a projection of myself in here? That was one rabbit-hole I skirted around many a time as I interacted with her. Yet even now, I was hesitant to dive deep. The knowledge that we would be leaving her to her unfortunate fate, helpless to do anything else, was not something that I could digest lightly.

And so I forced my thoughts to the more recent event of Class Upgrade. The tutorial was over. I was a level 20 Master Mage with an empty experience bar. The humans in this simulation must be quite something to have a “Master” as a baseline, leaving me curious as to what the actual experts would be like. Betty wouldn’t comment on that. Either way, the latest upgrade was more of a synergy between previous effects than anything new. Now, I could select multiple partial objects at range. Same for Runes - while earlier I had to look at a pattern and discern the useful part, now I could perceive it similar to a selection without having to see it. All in all, it neatly tied all previous upgrades together.

I did not take any crafter equipment from the latest haul, so I was left with just the ring and wand. I did take a new robe though. I must say, the designs of our new costumes were awesome. Each one was just as unique as the previous, following the same functional style, but the cosmetics were overhauled. I got a sick pitch-black robe with circular Rune patterns on the hood and back. Arya got a white and cyan color schemed dress with a golden pattern at the edges - which was entirely decorative. Carol’s robe was more shadow than cloth, with no visible Runes. I could feel them through my perception though. Divin replaced his baggy one with a new knight-specific robe that felt like it was armored in the right places. It felt like a sturdier and fancier version of Taro’s, who had elected to keep his last clothes on. Julie had kept her previous clothing as well, as the newer ones looked too “tight” for comfort. They gave proper bonuses as well.

About the wand, it identified as a crafters’ equipment alright. I was sure it had a connection with enchanting, but I couldn’t learn the trick behind it. Oh well. My health points were respectable now, enough that I wouldn’t die of any random hit. There wasn’t much relation between my spells and attributes though, beyond the range and mana point cost. The effects, and corresponding damage, was entirely based on what the program affected. An extension of my imagination.


¤ ¤ ¤


As I was lost in thought, my eyes wandered over to meet Arya’s. “Thinking up a new spell?” she bantered.

“You know, it is not as easy as it looks to just think up new things.” I countered, smiling, “Although if you have any ideas, I’m listening.”

“Why not try a healing-related spell? Could be helpful,” she proposed.

“Yeah. But I don’t know how it works. I’m gonna add it to my questlist though, seems worth looking into.”

“You have a questlist?” Arya, scrutinizing.

“It’s more of a to-do list…” I explained the way to make one.

While Arya was lost in her editing session, I glanced over our group. Taro and Carol were off in sleepy-land. Julie was peering over the entrance into the next level with a scowl. And Divin, he was staring right at me. I leveled an inquisitive stare back. Eventually, Arya came out of her pseudo-stupor and he averted his gaze, closing his eyes to “rest”. ‘What is his problem anyway?’

“I’m glad I got the notepad-thingy as well. It’s too convenient. And that was an awesome spell. You say you have trouble thinking up new things but I’m amazed at what you have come up with so far. Mage class suits you well!” Arya, gushing praises.

“Ah. Thanks!” I said, slightly embarrassed. I noticed Divin twitch a bit. ‘Wait, could it be…?’

Before I could finish that thought, Julie came over with a grumpy face. “I can’t see shit in there. It’s like that fog on level 4 but only ten times denser. Why is there another round anyway, haven’t we reached the required level already?”

I bet she wasn’t expecting a reply, less so from Betty. “I’m glad you asked! The next level is not for any upgrade but is tied in with the main storyline of the scenario. You need not concern yourself with gaining experience points; instead, aim to find the exit portal as soon as possible.”

‘Wow, if that is not ominous, I don’t know what is.’ For a moment I wondered how many questions we had simply missed asking Betty. Not that it would help. I felt if she was a person, she would have given up long ago, annoyed by our pestering.

“Is that so? Anyway, I think we should leave now. We’ve rested enough.” Julie commented. I sensed she didn’t much care for the storyline either way. Too bad Taro was still asleep, he would have gobbled this up.


¤ ¤ ¤


We entered the fog in a slightly different formation. The visibility issues rendered having our Scout and Archer being at the front pointless. Instead, the Knights took point. Our Healer and I, a Mage, took the rear. With slight trepidation, we followed a rough animal trail and dared into the unknown.

The trial didn’t last long. Perhaps it would be better to say that it morphed into a road. A yellow brick-tiled road. Our group slowed down at this unexpected development, but no one commented. We may not be used to sighting out-of-context placement of iconic elements from our world out here, but it certainly wasn’t surprising anymore.

We progressed nonchalantly, our visibility was dropping to such an extent that I was barely able to make out the backs of our Knights in front. I watched as they slowed down, doing the same myself.

“What is it?” Carol hissed. Everyone was tensed to an extreme, even though there was no foe to speak of yet.

“Something is moving ahead. I can’t see it properly. Maybe we should move a bit ahead so Betty can cast more light?” Divin whispered back.

Carol and Julie immediately moved and flanked the two. Arya and I moved behind the Knights, to get a close look at whatever and ready to rumble. The movement of light that we expected, however, never occurred. I looked back. Betty was nowhere to be seen. ‘Bloody hell?’

“Betty’s gone,” I muttered. This level - if it even was a “level”, was unnerving. More so than any other so far. There was just something unnatural about it. Other levels were more or less meant as a grind to up our stats. This one though felt like revenge. The fog prickled on my skin, tasting of mindless hatred. The sudden absence of our assuring light only exacerbated the feeling. No one remarked, and soon I saw why.

Out front, a few meters ahead of our front-line in the exact middle of the road, was a Slime. To be precise, it was a head-sized crimson slime with a pulsating core. We hadn’t encountered such slime before. The blood-red color swirled around the body as if trying to overcome whatever original color it was made of. The core was beating in a heart-like manner, spewing out more of the red liquid. A fitting way to describe it would be a disease or an infection. The red liquid resembled an amalgamation of pure malice - a condensation of the fog. Maybe the Slime had stayed too long in this abnormal vapor. Or perhaps it was born from it.

It was rolling about elsewhere when it noticed our presence. None of the Slimes moved with such swiftness as this one, going at least twice as fast as its uninfected peer. It jumped out at us before we could form any plan. It struck Taro’s shield with a bang, dropped down, and jumped back again. This time we intercepted and destroyed it. The damage, however, was done. At the edge of our vision, we saw many other Slimes ambling towards us. We would soon be overwhelmed, god knows how many of these were out there. I looked back at the road, to ensure our escape route was safe. To my utter bewilderment, the road beyond had disappeared. I had no time to deliberate though; the choice was clear.

“The road behind is gone. We must leave. NOW!” I spoke out urgently. No point in whispering anymore.

To their credit, no one hesitated. We stayed in formation and advanced rapidly. Slimes, infected or otherwise, barely slowed us down anymore. Not a few minutes later, the slimes were joined in by Imps. A few came in now and then. Even the Imps were crazed, the mischief in their eyes replaced by acerbity. Still, we held up fine. Our robes were almost immune against their claws and teeth. We mowed through the deranged masses, coloring the yellow road in crimson fluids. I could be persuaded to believe that it was blood this time. Yet I had no time for idle thoughts. Pacing myself, casting on the ones who came too close, and making sure no one broke through our rear took all my attention.

At some point, the Slimes stopped entirely. The Imps were the majority of the mob, with a few vultures mixed in. I thanked my lucky stars that the crocs were too slow to crowd around us. ‘Hey, does that mean we will face all the creatures from all the levels? And they’ll all be raving mad? Damn it!’ “Move faster! We need to find the exit before we drown in all the creatures!” I shouted.

I couldn’t tell if they heard me over the din of Imps and vultures. But I need not have worried. Soon we started jogging instead of simply walking fast. Even so, our formation did not break. The Knights were doing most of the damage now, clearing the road ahead as if hacking through thick bramble in a jungle. Julie stopped shooting as well, choosing to use a dagger that Carol loaned her on the monsters that came within range. I was doing the same, except with Arya’s old staff.

Another few minutes of hack-n-slash and the Imps started thinning out. I expected grasshoppers next. I was not disappointed. In fact, the grasshoppers brought some friends along. The incessant humming of the damn birds, hissing of vipers, the rumbling of earth brought on by mammoth footfalls. I could not see out far, but I am pretty sure some demented panthers were stalking us, and a few frenzied dragonlings fly-hopping towards us. ‘The squid-face was already hysterical. In this fog, it must have gone berserk! Shit, we are done for. Some tutorial this is! Fuck. I don’t wanna die like this.’ I was heading towards a breakdown when I heard the sweetest words come out from Julie’s direction: “I see the exit! Straight ahead!”

“RUN!” Divin shouted, and just like that our formation broke. He did not wait for any reply, promptly making a break for it. Everyone soon followed. I was left behind again. For these maniac creatures, I was now the easiest prey. All the same, I sprinted hard and peered ahead. Divin was standing still at some distance, the ground beneath his feet glowing. Next to join him was Julie, who promptly notched an arrow and fired it at a vulture trying to rip my shoulder. Carol was next, quickly followed by Taro and Arya. ‘For a Healer, she runs damn fast. No fair!’

They stood there, waiting for me. I glanced at the ground, now glowing brighter by the second. I faintly noticed a circle of Runes on it. I did not have the luxury of identifying it though, with hordes of ravenous creatures converging on me. Just as I reached the assembly, the glow became bright enough that my vision turned white. Then I fell.

Interlude - Royal Duty

Princess Francisa Von Lohengramm was nervous.

She glanced around the assembled crowd. Her esteemed father - Lord Lohengramm, stood a few steps ahead of her. His back seemed impossibly large to her. What great burdens he carried, yet stood straight as if defying the heavens. To her side stood her lady mother, who looked at her and gave a slight reassuring smile. Francisa smiled back, feeling slightly at ease. If her lord father was the burning Sun, surely her mother was the soothing Moon. She did not glimpse behind, but she knew Captain of Guards and the Head Maid would be lingering close by. Despite the event being of the greatest import, each family brought only the most essential members of their retinue. Even her little brother was back in the place, sulking.

Other families, of which there were six in total, were standing at equal distance from each other in a small semi-circle. Every major clan’s head was present, along with one of royal offspring each. Although none showed it outwardly, she suspected they all were just as apprehensive as her.

She peeked at Anna, her bestest friend. They had known each other since childhood, being close in age and status. Anna stood behind her grandfather, the current head of her clan. Their eyes met and Anna shot a wink at her. Francisa made a shushing gesture but brightened up nonetheless. ‘Always so mischievous that one.’

Her eyes wandered over to the only other princess present, Priscilla. She was the youngest at 15, wily nature hidden behind an innocent facade. Many who knew of her nature aptly called her “Prissy” - behind her back, of course. Prissy was staring with poorly concealed hunger in her eyes on an otherwise expressionless face.

Her gaze did not linger long on Prissy. She was about to examine the remaining three clans and their princes but her attention was caught by the murmuring chants of Royal Mages. She gaped at the Teleportation Circle they had prepared before-hand, which started radiating a bluish-white glow. The glow became brighter, illuminating even the high ceiling of their large hall, casting off long shadows behind the pillars. Brighter and brighter it became until its brilliance was dazzling enough that she had to shield her eyes from the intense luminescence. She took a deep breath, ready to play the part she had been raised for. She couldn’t disappoint her father now, feeling the pressure of responsibility beginning to squeeze her stomach. ‘Here they come…’


¤ ¤ ¤


“Heroes?” she questioned, “What will they do?”

“Why, save the world, naturally!” her tutor answered.

Little Francisa liked the history tutor more than the others. She did look stern, with a tightly held bun of graying hair and unsmiling lips, but as soon as the lecture started, her eyes shined with excitement - one that Francisa shared. Today’s topic concerned the ancient prophecy of their world’s salvation.

“Six heroes shall rise to legendary levels, ridding us of the unending malaise and bringing forth eternal peace,” she continued, “We shall get to see history made with our very eyes! You shall even take part in it; and should you do well, Lohengramm clan shall rise to glory once again!”

Francisa’s 7-year-old mind did not dawdle long on the latter part. She had heard it for so long from so many that she automatically brushed it off. She WILL play her part and do it well. But that was far off in the future. Now though, she was intrigued.

“Is that what the prophecy says? How will they save us? Will they kill off all the monsters? What does malaise mean?” she shot doubts one after another.

“Hum, the actual prophecy is lost to time. Thankfully, the interpretations remain. What I mentioned was simply the very end of it. It starts off with how the malaise - which means an ailment, disease, or sickness, by the way, will begin to spread. How it will affect the world and its denizens, then goes on to describe the time and place that the summoning will be conducted to usher the heroes. Eventually ending with eternal peace,” the tutor concluded.

“Oh… And what is a legendary level? Will I reach it as well? What about -“ Francisa’s curious mind bubbled forth many queries that her tutor was happy to address.


¤ ¤ ¤


“You will cease this nonsense at once!” her lord father ordered. He waited for Francisa’s meek “Yes father” and stormed out the door.

Tears threatened to erupt at any moment. Her father had never raised his voice at her. Ever. She had always been a dutiful daughter. She didn’t understand what she did wrong. Hands gripping tight the folds of the frilly dress Anna and she bought together, she sought the comfort of her mother.

“Aw… Come here, daughter. It’s okay. Father was just shocked to hear about it, he won’t be angry for long. Don’t worry. There there…” her mother patted her head as she snuggled into her bosom.

“I-I don’t understand… Why…” she sniffled. She was just going out with her friends for a stroll. Anna, Fredrick, and Hamilton were probably waiting for her even now. It wasn’t like she had done anything. Maybe she had a slight crush on Fredrick, but she wasn’t in love or anything and had never acted on it. Well, nothing beyond dressing up a little. And holding hands that one time. But she didn’t plan to do anything more. Yet her father had somehow caught whiff off it and scolded her wits out.

“Francisa, look at me,” her mother spoke softly. “I understand, this must feel illogical, cruel even. Especially at your age. But you must understand, you are a princess of Lohengramm. Our duty is harsh and responsibilities heavy, even so, you must stiffen up that upper lip and carry it out. For you are the only one who can. Your brother is too young. The very fate of our clan depends on it. Oh, dear daughter, how I wish I could ease your distress.”

“But I don’t… How do I…” Francisa sputtered. She considered being close to Fredrick would give her experience to do the act when it mattered. She justified her actions as a learning mission. Yet she couldn’t raise these points in front of her vexed father. In her mind, she knew she had erred. Almost jeopardized their future while at it. Shame burned in her heart now. She felt like she did not deserve the loving embrace her mother graced her with. Yet her maiden heart soaked up that love in its entirety. Then and there, she swore to never bring disgrace on the Lohengramm name again. She shall fulfill her role, no matter what. Her resolve hardened as the tears dried up. “I’m a princess of Lohengramm. I shall do my duty.”


¤ ¤ ¤


The light blinded her for a few moments, even with her hand raised to block most of it. As her vision returned, she saw the six heroes. Just as the prophecy promised, three men and three women.

One of the women was wearing the apparel of a priest of the Church of Luminaris. Her great-grandmother had been one, she had seen the portraits. The Church no longer existed. The pure white visage with cyan Circles and golden trims begged immediate attention. ‘A Healer then?’

Beside her stood a Mage with dark robes and wine-red Circles. The quality of cloth looked slightly above-average but the Circles themselves were superlative. She could identify a boosting Circle on the hood, but the machinations of the one on the back were unknown. Besides, she only saw it for a second before he turned around to face in her direction. She wondered in what state they were before they were summoned. He glanced around the congregation, his sight colliding with hers, raising an eyebrow at her stare. She quickly turned her gaze, slightly flush due to embarrassment.

She almost missed the shadowy figure in the midst. Scrutinizing closely, she noticed another woman with reddish hair hidden underneath the hood. A Scout, she surmised. The Scout was surveying the hall as if expecting a monster to pop out at any moment.

She saw her father take a step ahead. She knew what came next. Quickly inspecting the two Knights and an Archer, she heeded her father’s words.

“Heroes, welcome!” he began, “I am Siegfried Von Lohengramm, head of clan Lohengramm and current leader of the Clan Council.”

He paused for effect. Francisa puffed her chest, her father always projected a majestic aura. She also noticed varying expressions on the Heroes’ faces, from caution to elation. Yet relief was common among all. Only now that she was taking a closer look, she noticed their slatternly state. Rumpled clothes with small cuts here and there, uncombed hair and unwashed faces, dragging muck with their stained shoes. Her father must not have expected them so, yet he simply buried his thoughts behind the courtly face, and his next words assured the matter taken care of - the long speech he had prepared cast off without hesitation.

“Please, do not worry, everyone here is an ally. These are my peers and fellow members of the Council. Our representatives will lead you to your rooms to take care of subsistence and repose.”

That was her cue. She was a step behind Prissy and another prince, Johnathan. Prissy had glued on to the young Knight, while John went to the Archer. She looked between the remaining Knight and the Mage, then looked at Anna. ‘Damn, we should have divided them up beforehand. Now the heroes must think us buffoons.’

Anna nodded at her, then made a beeline for the dark Knight. She stowed away her awkwardness and charged ahead with head held high and a forced smile. “Greetings Sir,” she curtsied, “I’m princess Francisa Von Lohengramm, at your service. May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”

The Mage hero looked at her with slight amusement in his eyes. He did not curtsy back, she noted.

“I’m Pat. Nice to meet ya. Guess you’re stuck with me, eh?” he lightly jested.

Francisa straightened up, matching his gaze and curled her lips. She did not feel anything, good or bad. It mattered not though, she would do what was necessary. “Oh no. It is an honor, Sir… Pat. Please, follow me. I shall guide you to your room.” And she stiffened her upper lip just as her mother taught her. No matter what the hero asked of her, she will brave it. She was a princess of Lohengramm. Such was her duty.


¤ ¤ ¤



title: Volume 1 - Tutorial part: 1 —

Volume 1 - Tutorial

Prologue

I opened my eyes to a dark sky. ‘Not a cloud in sight, must be late at night. Oh, no stars even in this dark? Interesting…’ I thought. ‘Wait… Why am I looking for stars? Where the hell am I?’ There was diffused lighting about, the kind you would get on a late sunny evening, but I couldn’t pinpoint a source. My wandering hands found hold of dry grass beside my prone body. Now I was worried. I quickly got up and looked around. Some sort of plain landscape surrounded by what looked to be high cliffs on all sides but one. There were some people gathered there, so that was where I made my way.

As I sauntered over to the group, I saw a figure floating in the air. I did a quick double-take. ‘What the hell!?!’ There was a woman in Egyptian-esque costume floating off the ground, her eyes closed. Surrounded by 5 more people. Thankfully, the people were quite grounded, and looked as confusing as I felt. From the looks of it, they had gathered quite recently as well. Just as I was about to ask what the fuck was going on, the floating woman opened her eyes, looked over us all as if making sure we were paying attention, then exclaimed:

“Welcome, to the Grand Simulation!”

The Cleopatra look-alike continued after a slight pause, “Congratulations! You all have been chosen as test subjects for acceptance testing of Grand Simulation v389.12.425. My name is Betty, and I am here to answer any and all the questions you have. Please ask away!”

One of the people standing about, a tall wiry-thin blonde woman, quickly asked: “Where the hell am I?” ‘Well, you took the words right out of my mouth there sister.’ Betty looked at the woman and answered without missing a beat, “You are currently in the Spawn Point for test subjects. The Spawn Point is located inside the Tutorial Dungeon. The Tutorial Dungeon is located in the memory region of the Simulation itself; it is, however, removed from the space and time constraints of the main program!”

The blonde had her mouth hanging open. I noticed that after I managed to gather my own slack jaws. Before anyone else could ask anything else, I spoke up: “How do we get back home?” Betty’s eyes, which were trained on the blonde so far, now bore into me. They seemed devoid of life for some reason. She spoke in her eerie voice again: “To get out of the Tutorial, and the Simulation as a whole, you must be deleted; in other words, you must die.” Not only did our mouths hang open again like a sinkhole, I felt several hearts skip a beat, or perhaps just mine skipping more than once. We all looked at each other, but no one spoke for a while.

“Anoo… How are you flying?” a black-haired youth on my left asked. He had been gawking at Betty for a while. ‘Quite the silver-lining kind of guy we have here; also she is not flying, just floating,’ I argued uselessly in my mind. Betty turned to him in her mechanical manner - I was glad she wasn’t staring at me anymore and answered: “It is a spell that inverses gravity until the mass of my body is balanced off by the pull in either direction at an elevation of 2.73 meters off the ground.” While that was a lot to chew on, I immediately caught on something - ‘float SPELL?’ Apparently, the kid did as well; he was practically shaking with excitement. “You can do magic?” he asked with obvious excitement. She replied again - perhaps it was only me, but it looked like she was expecting this question, “Why yes! Everyone in the Simulation can cast spells and do magic. Even you! Some Classes are restricted to only using said spells while other Classes can actively tweak other spells or create new ones entirely!” ‘Classes? Magic? What…?’

“Ummm… Is there any other way of getting out of this… simulation, besides, you know, dying?” a fair doe-eyed girl asked from beside the blonde. “I’m afraid there isn’t,” Betty replied and continued eyeing the poor girl as if mocking her. While everyone digested that, I put in another question, “What are we supposed to do here?” To which Betty replied after setting her glare on me, “First, you must complete the Tutorial to get to the base Level of human adults in the Simulation. Once you finish the Tutorial and enter the Simulation, you are free to do as you wish.”


¤ ¤ ¤


Betty wasn’t going anywhere soon; the blonde had confirmed that with her. So here we were, introducing ourselves at blondie’s insistence. She went first:

“You all can call me Julie. I’m a lawyer and I live in Berlin,” she said and looked around for whoever was going next. A slightly plump girl with a reddish hair-do by her side coughed slightly to get everyone’s attention.

I noticed that there were three women, all on my right, grouped up. And two guys standing some distance apart to my left. The curious kid and another slightly overweight guy. Everyone looked either around my age of mid-20s or younger. The girl continued her introduction since no one interrupted:

“I’m Carol, Irish. I am studying Uni.” With that, she did a slight nod of her head and stepped back. If not for the current situations, I could see her being the life of a party, or being mischievous in general. No one spoke up next, so I did.

“Name’s Pat. I’m a programmer.” I said my piece and stayed silent. No point in wasting words. The curious guy went next:

“Hajimemashta, my name is Taro. I am 17 years old, a high school student from Japan.” he said and glanced around with a carefree smile as if he knew some secret no one else did. ‘What I’d give to know where his cheery attitude comes from!’

“Divin’s the name, I am from Congo. I own a small business,” said the last guy in a deep voice. The only remaining girl had the attention of us all; she didn’t seem too keen on talking but spoke nonetheless:

“I am Arya,” she said simply. ‘To the point, are we?’

‘Good, now that’s done, back to getting the hell out of doge,’ I thought. Apparently, so did everyone else, as we all turned back to Betty for an in-depth interrogation session. ‘Please let this just be some weird dream,’ I prayed. If only I knew the kind of shit I was going to end up in, I might have prayed harder, a lot harder…