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.

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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 worse. Why is there another level anyway, haven't we reached the required upgrade 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.

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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 or panicked. 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.

Chapter 24 - End Game
Interlude - Royal Duty