The flight to Daejeon was as quick as they had hoped, though they skipped the main city and circled around it to the park that Gyeryongsan National Park would have been in real life. In the game it looked much as it always did, littered with dense forest and mist, said to be the last breath of a giant who had died on the spot. The Tombs of Time was in the middle of it, in a dip of valley marked only by a pair of monuments, and all of them felt the chill in their bones as they dismounted and dismissed their griffins.
“Minghao-ya,” Seungcheol said softly. “You’re the best scout we have. Take the front and call back if you see anything strange. The others, Battle formation B.”
Nodding, the group fell into the well-practiced stance of many hours of dungeon trips: Seungcheol second from the front, between whatever danger their tracker might stir up and the rest of the party, Jihoon just to his side, and Wonwoo and Jisoo bringing up the rear. Passing through the crumbly entrance of the place, they ventured down the long corridor that sunk into the depths.
The longer they walked, the more depressing the place seemed to become; there were small fights aplenty, but nothing that drove them past the point of having to heal up too much. About two levels down the corridor changed appearance to something insectile, curving oddly, and a strange, heavy amber musk filled the air. There was give to the floor, a slight sponginess that made walking uncomfortable, and Seungcheol was halfway to ordering a stop when Minghao flashed back.
“There’s a new boss,” he muttered as they huddled. “Some kind of insect popping out egg larvae? Pools of a weird goop on the floor, like honey but it stinks like acid. The exit’s on the other side from what I can see, but it’s walled off behind a layer of wax in the middle of the… nest situation going on.”
“Jisoo? What does Seungkwan say?” Seungcheol asked. “They must have come through here, right?”
The summoner nodded. “Straightforward fight from what I’m hearing. The only curve ball is the maggots the main boss is popping out. He says not to let them get to the acid pools or they mutate and become a lot tougher. It gave them a little trouble initially, but apparently their Medium is quite good at what he does? They’d come and get us, but their Monk collapsed. He’s complaining he can’t walk. Otherwise apparently a straight tank-and-spank, especially as we’re higher-level.”
Seungcheol nodded thoughtfully and hauled Angel’s Bane off his shoulder. “Alright then. Tank and spank.”
Five minutes later, boss properly spanked and entrance to the next level melted, they stood for a moment to recover. Jihoon was holding up a large bug leg with a grimace, Jisoo had gotten a light butterfly-like cloak that made him see like an insect and Seungcheol… well, he had gotten gold and goop all over himself from the queen exploding from that last blow. Grimacing, he tried to scrape his face and hair clean, only for it to stand up in a coif.
“Hmm,” Wonwoo said with the patience of one that didn’t have to get bug guts all over him. “This is fascinating, it’s like the loot table mechanics might have been changed. I can’t tell if Seungcheol-hyung didn’t get the leg because of bad rolls, or because they liked Jisoo-hyung and Jihoon-ah. Regardless, this is pretty shitty loot, even if you consider that we are perhaps ten levels above this dungeon.” He paused. “Jihoon-ah, can you stand a little further away? You smell like bug guts.”
Jihoon tried to smile, but it was a struggle. “There are so many places I can stick this leg,” he tried to threaten their Assassin. “Minghao, you bastard, you purposefully aimed that for us!”
Minghao, the only one beside Wonwoo to be clean, if only because the insect exploded away from his finishing blow, gave him a stunning, insincere little smile. “Ritians know the value of cleanliness, you know?” he murmured as he snuck through the hole melted in the wax.
Jihoon made a gargling sound and made to run after him, wielding his impromptu weapon.
Seungcheol spat discreetly to the side before snagging Jihoon by the collar of his (very messy) robes. “Enough,” he said wearily. “Keep it for the rest of the dungeon.”
They forged forward, getting back into the normal ‘Tomb’ quarters soon enough, and fought their way down to the third level. Two turns after the last boss, a ghost lord of some sort, they spotted a hand waving at them from what looked like a wall. Seungcheol led the way in, passing through the illusion into the resting room beyond. Each dungeon, especially raids, had something like it, a nook where Adventurers could hole up to catch their breath.
He had barely passed through before Seungkwan threw his arms around him and hugged for all he was worth, only to stagger back seconds later, grimacing at the slime on his robes and the musky, unpleasant odour.
The two parties stood there, grimacing uneasily at each other. Finally, unable to bear the stench of his armour Seungcheol simply started removing it, leaning Angel’s Bane against the wall.
“Oya,” the blonde in the far corner drawled. “Rescue and a show, aren’t we lucky?”
Seungkwan jumped in before Jihoon’s eyes could do more than threaten to flame. “Hyung, these are Jeonghan-ssi, Junhui-ssi, Soonyoung-ssi, Mingyu-ssi and Hansol-ssi,” he rushed to explain. “You know Seokmin-ssi?”
Seungcheol nodded tightly, not because he was irritated, but because the goop was drying to a hard shellac. “Seokmin-ah… good to see you’re okay.” His eyes travelled from him to the monk that lay sweating in a corner, the one Seungkwan had introduced as Soonyoung. A fucking tiger feline from what he could see, dressed in monk’s robes, with what looked like white bone strapped onto his shins and feet. “Wonwoo, can you see if you can help? If the leader… ah, Jeonghan-ssi? If you are ok with that.”
The blonde sighed and nodded as he stood, tugging his impeccable Hwarang hanbok straight – even after this much of a dungeon he looked unfairly pretty and put-together. “Please,” he said, nodding to Wonwoo. “We’re at our wits’ end, and with him out of the picture we simply don’t have enough DPS or aggro handling to break through. The boss heals faster than we can take him out. We have some crafters – Jun-ah and Hansol-ah can look at your weapons. Mingyu… can you make us some food?”
The tallest man of the lot stood, looking worn-down but with a staff larger than he was, what looked like a branch of the legendary Yggdrasil. “Can I have the leg, please?” he asked Jihoon, who had been dragging it along if only to threaten Minghao with it.
Jihoon wrinkled his nose. “Okay, the regular food already tastes like shit, I don’t even know how you’re going to make it palatable, but knock yourself out,” he mumbled.
“This is Jisoo, Wonwoo over there is our healer, and Jihoon and Minghao are our damage specialists,” Seungcheol introduced.
Jeonghan nodded to each. “If you have an easy method of getting water, you’ll want to wash that stuff off as soon as possible off your gear. Most of our stuff is already out of commission; it doesn’t look like much, but the next fight has a mechanism that hardens it until it feels like solid rock. It’s some kind of spectral wave and it’s nasty. I lost most of my good gear that way; Hansol-ah’s been able to chisel some of the stuff out, but it’s going to take a while, according to him.”
Seungcheol tilted his head. “Are you your group’s strategist?”
Jeonghan’s expression pulled into a tired frown. “Dude, we’re just a casual party of friends teaming up together. We don’t have strategists or tacticians; we don’t even have a dedicated tank now that Soonyoung’s taken out of action. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for our supports and healer, we’d not even have made it this far down.”
“It’s true, hyung,” Seungkwan said earnestly. “This is nothing like the old Tome of Time dungeon, it’s like they took some weird insect hovel and copy-pasted it over the boring bits. The next boss should have been the Lady of Pain, you know? But she’s not there, it’s some old spirit casting this weird attack from a book that makes the room get all misty, and if you don’t knock him down a significant portion of health he heals back up from the souls of the dead and we just die over and over again. I lost… maybe about fifteen thousand gold already?”
Jisoo made his way to Seungcheol’s side, lips pressed together. “It’s okay,” he said to Jeonghan. “We’ll get you guys out of here and to Busan… any new dungeon’s bound to drop some good loot, so you can sell that if you don’t have money left. We’ve got enough, so we can drop out of the loot rolls and just support you. Besides, I’m a Summoner. There’s an Undine I know, she’ll be able to give us fresh water at least so that we can sit and plan this out.”
Jeonghan looked doubtfully from him to Seungcheol.
Seungkwan, biting his lip, looked at Seungcheol with an expression like a puppy dog.
Seungcheol gave a long-suffering sigh and nodded, trying a smile. “Just help us locate Chan as well and we’ll call it even,” he said, holding out his hand to Jeonghan to shake. “And I…”
“Oh sweet Jesus, what is that smell?” Jihoon interrupted, stomping forward from the corner he had been cleaning the gunk out of his hair with what looked like the Summoning Robe of Princess Eunji.
“Ah,” Jeonghan brightened, reaching to shake Seungcheol’s hand. “Well, we did make a small discovery down here…”
An hour later, cleaned and sat around a fire that Jihoon had started for them, Seungcheol stared down at the bowl passed his way. The stew looked amazing and smelled even better; the last they had tried food on the way down here it had been bland like unsalted rice porridge. This tasted even better than it smelled, even if a part of him already knew that it came from an insect. “…I still don’t understand,” he said faintly. “These taste better than the doenjang-jjigae from my favourite place in Hongdae.”
Jihoon wolfed down his last bite of rice. “If you’re complaining, hand them over here,” he muttered, making grabby hands.
Seungcheol held his bowl out of reach, fighting not to growl. “Back off,” he advised. “Mine.”
The cook, Mingyu of the extremely tall body, gave them a happy smile across the fire. “Insects can be very high in protein,” he explained. “And I really like eating, I love it so much, but all my stored ramen was gone and everything from the menu was just off, so I thought what could it hurt to try? The peppers I had still tasted and smelled normal, so one chance later… besides, I’m a Chef, that’s my subclass, and I’m part of the culinary studies club at school, and our TA from overseas is hardcore into non-animal protein…”
Seokmin nodded. “It’s where we all met, hyung,” he murmured. “We all study at the same college, and we just got into the habit of partying together? It was just supposed to be a fun thing.”
“Seungcheol-hyung,” Wonwoo called from the unconscious Monk’s side. “Come over here for a second.”
Giving Jihoon a glare, Seungcheol put his plate on Seungkwan’s lap and scooted over.
Wonwoo had taken the Monk’s armour off and was examining his legs. They looked… well, they looked strange, as if they had suddenly decided not to be straight any longer. “It’s like I suspected,” his healer said softly. “His body is starting to rebel from the fight in his mind and the fight in his body on what a two-legged werecat should be walking like. Felines normally have digitigrade legs, you know? And I think it’s worse for him because he’s a Kicker, because they’re literally what he depends on to be effective. Jeonghan-ssi?”
Jeonghan scooted closer to them as Seungcheol frowned. “Digitigrade?” he questioned, trying not to sound dumb.
Wonwoo took a deep breath. “It’s a characteristic for how some animals walk. They walk on their toes, or digits. Humans are plantigrade. So what felines consider a foot is only their toes, and their ankles are much higher up their legs, what we think of as knees.” He spared a glance for Jeonghan. “He’s good, right? Does Soonyoung-ssi have any actual martial arts training?”
Jeonghan looked at him with a little frown. “He’s the best fighter in our party,” he said softly. “And yes, he’s part of the martial arts club at college… I don’t know how good he is though, hold on?” Tilting his head back, he looked to the people around the fire. “Junnie?” he called. “Soonyoung-ah is a martial artist with you, right? Is he good?”
“He’s very good,” the one introduced as Junhui called back. “He’s third dan in the international Taekwondo ratings; he was considered to be a real contender for the regional team this year. He was still telling me about his dance coach and his sports coach complaining and fighting over who gets more practice time. But yeah, he’s an assistant instructor at the club.”
Seungcheol whistled. He had taken Taekwondo as well, but only until the first dan rank. “Is that bad?” he muttered to Wonwoo, who had a worried frown.
“He lives very close to his body,” Wonwoo explained softly to Jeonghan and himself. “Just like… I have to pay close attention to my body as well, albeit for different reasons. I know how it really should feel, how it should move, etcetera. Our brains are… are in effect being forced to become closer to our bodies. Players of opposite genders might be experiencing problems too, as well as the beast races, like the werecats and the wolf fangs and so on. It’s one thing to play one. It’s another to be one. It’s why I asked you to take the potion right off the bat. All of us, in fact.”
Jeonghan frowned. “Potion? What potion? There’s a cure for this?”
Wonwoo shook his head. “It’s not a cure, just a… a correction if you will. It’s a simple Appearance Reset potion, but it’s not something I can force down his throat. I can’t make that decision for him. It will reset people to whatever the closest human appearance is that they can, even though it doesn’t reassign race, so to speak. He might have some quirks, like I still have runes on my body, but it should correct his leg issue. It’s just… I know what it’s like to be forced to take medicine, to have other people decide what’s best for your body. I literally can’t give him this. He’ll have to make the decision, or you will as his guild leader.”
Seungcheol sank back on his haunches, considering his healer’s words. It smacked of personal history, of old wounds, not something to be raked over in front of strangers. He pressed his lips tightly shut for a moment. “Do you still have any?”
Instead of answering, Wonwoo reached into his inventory and hauled out another potion. “The last one,” he said, handing it over to Jeonghan. Standing in a flurry of creaky knees and robes, he made for the fire and sank down there.
Jeonghan frowned down at the potion. “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted softly. “I mean, he’s not called the Tiger of Namyangju for nothing, he likes being this character. But on the other hand, its hurting him so much, and I don’t… I don’t… this was supposed to be casual. It was supposed to be a game. I couldn’t even get my guild out of a dungeon.”
“Being a guild leader is tough,” Seungcheol commiserated softly. “and I think it’ll be tougher as we try and figure out what happened.” He reached to clap the blonde on the shoulder. “But we’re the older ones around here, so they are going to depend on us. I honestly don’t think there’s much of a choice in this situation.”
Jeonghan grimaced but nodded and leant forward to administer the potion. It took the two of them to fight Soonyoung’s jaw open, but administer it they did, and afterwards Jeonghan covered him with a couple of cloaks before the two went to the fire.