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Reverse Fraction

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“Where were you when it happened?”

 

“I don’t know! I can’t remember…”

 

“Really? I can’t either, but…”

 

“…do you think we were at home?”

 

“I don’t know, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I can’t tell you.”

 

Seungcheol couldn’t remember what he had been doing when it happened either. One moment the server was still patching, and he was watching the countdown like a hawk. The Japanese server had patched an hour ago and there had been some problems, but…

 

…but he had logged in? He was sure he had logged in.

 

He carefully looked down at himself, then around. His fingers trembled in the ebony gauntlets; it felt as if his heart wanted to beat out of his chest as he saw that he was fully clad in the Einherjar armour he had won just last week. He could see it, feel it, touch it… scratch that, he could smell it, something that had never happened before. Being in the game had never happened before either, no matter how much he had wished it. There was grass underneath him and the remnants of a thunderstorm in the air, rendering it muggy and hot. There was… there was…

 

There was a voice in his head.

 

::Seungcheol! Seungcheol, can you hear me?::

 

He nearly wet himself with shock, which would have been a terrible thing in armour. It was Joshua’s voice, really in his head, not just programmatically as he had experienced before. The Summoner definitely didn’t sound his normal gentle self; hell, he sounded as shocked as Seungcheol felt.

 

How does one even speak in their head?

 

::…Joshua?:: It felt so strange, like a loud thought, but something in him clicked as if it had always done this. One hand lifted to ward light from shining in his eyes, and a menu appeared in front of his face. Ornate, golden, listing his stats an inventory, making his eyebrows arch.

 

Name: Choi Seungcheol

Class: Guardian

Spec: Juggernaut

HP: 10001

MP: 4918

Level: 87

 

 

::Oh thank you sweet baby Jesus, are you okay? Where are you? Still where you logged out last night?::

 

::I am… have you been able to reach anyone else?:: With a miserable feeling Seungcheol tapped his friends list, wincing at the number of greyed-out names, hoping against hope…

 

He sat down, exhaling hugely, when he saw the names of his guild all in green.

 

::I’ve been able to reach Jihoon and I woke up next to Minghao, we’re at that weapons shop we normally go to… I’m still working on the others, I’ve no idea where Wonwoo and Seungkwan ran off to. I…::

 

“Leader.”

 

A voice pulled Seungcheol out of his reverie, and he blinked up at a tall Ritian in front of him, the tallest, thinnest one he had ever seen. Black hair, a golden symbol on his forehead and imperious, cool blue eyes. Confused, he made for his feet again, leaning away from the bottle it was holding out to him.

 

::Jisoo, hold on a bit, there’s someone here…:: Firming his jaw, he looked him over again, from the tips of spiky black hair to the massive staff he had slung across his shoulders. “Do I know you?”

 

The man rolled his eyes but nodded, pulling him his stats as well.

 

Name: Jeon Wonwoo

Class: Cleric

Spec: High Healer

 

There was nothing beyond that, not that he expected it, but it made him boggle at the tall, tall man. “What the hell?” he got out. “The last time I saw you, you were barely up to my chest. Did you drink a growth potion, Wonwoo-ya?”

 

Wonwoo rolled his eyes again. “This is what I normally look like, barring the eyes and the runes on my body,” he said softly, voice much deeper than normal. “I’ve only been awake for a few moments, but it felt odd, so I went for an appearance reset potion. At least my limbs feel the correct length now. Here, I kept all the ones we originally got. This is yours.”

 

Seungcheol blinked again, looking down at the small bottle.

 

“You’ll feel less strange afterwards,” Wonwoo added. “We can’t be loitering around here. There’s trouble, and the longer it lasts the weirder it’ll feel.”

 

Seungcheol had no issue believing that their Cleric could feel the need for adjustment immediately. For whatever reason, he spent the majority of his time online in the game, and they had built up trust over the last year of raiding together. Shrugging, he took the potion and popped off the cork, slugging it down. ::I found Wonwoo, he’s here with me. Just keep the others there, we’ll come to the shop.::

 

His body felt odd, malleable for a second, before he became aware that the armour was resizing to him, not to mention the massive sword across his back; he stretched and turned until his back popped. “I told Jisoo we’d meet him at the weapon shop we frequent. I… what?”

 

Wonwoo’s mouth twitched into a small smile. “Just didn’t think I’d be taller than you,” he murmured, and turned so that they could stroll away.

 

Seungcheol was the one to roll his eyes this time, falling into step next to his cleric. “What’s the trouble?” he asked, before eyebrows arched the next moments. “And why is that staff on your back only giving me a row of question marks when I try to spec it?”

 

Hastening his steps, Wonwoo cast a quick look his way. “It’s Sacrament-class,” he explained. “It was attached to my account when I woke up, and it refuses to be unequipped. All that came with it was a note saying ‘You won.’ I don’t know what I won, or who I won it from, but the name I get is Gesshoku, so I think it’s a new item from the Japanese server.” He took a deep breath, breathing out on a small cough. “And the trouble is I can’t find Seungkwan-ah and my map seems to be gone?”

 

Seungcheol felt each fact like a body blow, grimacing at the end of it. “Let’s get to the weapon shop,” he said tightly. “It’ll be better to have everyone around.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, ensconced in one of the back rooms of the Magnolia Forest Arms and Armour, they huddled around the table.

 

“This is like one of those racial jokes,” the shortest of them said. “A Wolf Fang, a Human and a Ritian walk into a bar…”

 

Seungcheol felt his back teeth want to start grinding. “Not now, Jihoon-ah,” he murmured. Sitting back, trying not to feel emasculated because he was sipping water, he looked over his little guild. What was left of it in any case. “So it looks like we’re the only members of Crimson Crescent barring Seungkwan-ah…” He felt silent at the cleared throat from their Chinese member.

 

“Titan’s Snap,” Minghao reminded gently, and received a high-five of approval from Jihoon.

 

“Oh, come on, seriously…” Seungcheol began.

 

Jisoo smiled slightly. “You did lose in that contest,” he reminded gently.

 

Seungcheol grimaced. “Fine,” he got out. “Titan’s Snap. It looks like we’re the only members here in Seoul. The sooner we find Seungkwan-ah and find out what happened, the better. My friends list is decimated, I don’t think there’s more than ten percent online on there. Have you checked all your weapons and armour and skills?”

 

Minghao nodded. “Still the same,” he confirmed. “I was able to gank a boar outside the city by sheer brute force. Most everyone is wandering around like lost sheep though, and I’ve not been able to raise anyone on my home server. I’ve not even been able to go through the Gate to Beijing. If you ignore the way we’re actually in the game, it seems pretty much the same… beyond how everyone is walking around looking like they lost their lives.”

 

“They have,” Jisoo said gently. “As far as we know.”

 

Jihoon sat forward. “My stuff is more or less the same too,” he muttered. “But… well… look. Channie’s on the server too, and I’ve not seen him so far, and he’s not answering my calls either.”

 

Wonwoo frowned. “Channie… is he that Samurai you party up with sometime? The one that you said was a hard carry?”

 

“Yeah,” Jihoon agreed. “Because he’s my little dongsaeng.”

 

Silence fell as they sat absorbing that.

 

“Your dongsaeng?” Minghao finally asked. “I’m your dongsaeng too, what’s the issue?”

 

Jihoon squeezed his eyes shut. “No, he’s really my dongsaeng. Like… born to the same mother and father? He’s about three years younger than I am… 99-line. And he’s not answering, which means he’s being stubborn or far away, I don’t know which one. He had a habit of playing on the Japanese server, so thank goodness he didn’t get trapped there.”

 

Seungcheol took a deep breath. “Okay. Seungkwan-ah and Chan-ssi, then…”

 

“Hang on,” Jisoo interrupted, staring down at his lap. “I’ve got an idea. Wonwoo-ya, you said your map was blanked out?”

 

Wonwoo nodded. “I can’t get the minimap to appear.”

 

Jisoo frowned. “Nor me, but that’s where it gets strange. I don’t have the town map, but remember that map of all the jjimjilbang I once won in the Agate Island event?” He looked up at them, soft eyes large. “It’s still here on some kind of HUD. I was trying to call it up to see if I could see anything on the country map, and I noticed the names on there. Maybe it’s a mod thing?”

 

Wonwoo shot him one look before he scrambled out and went running outside, leaving them behind.

 

“…maybe he really wanted to go to get a bath?” Jihoon said sulkily. “Lanky, intelligent bastard… hey, I wonder if my DPS is still the same?”

 

“Can’t be,” Minghao said promptly. “You’re like a kid right now.”

 

Seungcheol pinched his eyes shut and started praying for guidance as the fight started.

 

It was still going when Wonwoo returned with a veritable armful of maps, but it was silenced neatly as he tossed them on the table, pulled more out of his inventory and promptly swayed, coughing like the blazes.

 

Seungcheol slowly slid his water over. “You went to buy maps?” he asked quizzically. “Why?”

 

Guzzling half the cup of water, Wonwoo took a deep breath. “Jisoo’s map is still there.” He paused to look at them. “Don’t you get it? Jisoo’s map, which is an actual item, is still there. We’ve always been too lazy to buy them, they were meant for Landers and noobs anyway. In-game mapping was far more superior. But now…”

 

Jisoo was the first to catch on. “But now, it might be that these are the only way to tell where you’re going, unless you have a Cartographer as a friend, and you’ve not drawn one in way too long.”

 

Wonwoo nodded furiously. “I cleaned out the shop of every kind of map he had, the highest quality he had. He was arguing with his wife, so I got a good price too. I just didn’t have space for extra supplies.”

 

Jihoon frowned. “The dude was arguing with his wife?” he questioned. “Since when?”

 

“Does it matter? Someone try and load a map!”

 

Seungcheol looked around their little circle, shrugged and sorted through the pile, picking up the first town map he saw. He opened it slowly, but it wasn’t even half-open before it fuzzed out of being, disappearing into mist. In front of his eyes, hovering like a map on a HUD, lines and names appeared, bringing up the familiar districts and shops and landmarks he had always known. “Map off,” he said with fascination.

 

It disappeared, then returned to a ‘Map on’. “It’s working,” he breathed. “Quick, sort them and learn them.”

 

The group dove into the maps, and barely a few moments later Jisoo gave a cry of relief. “Daejeon, he’s in Daejeon!”

 

Wonwoo breathed out a slow sigh of relief. “Can you try and contact him again now that you know?” he asked.

 

Jisoo promptly closed his eyes and concentrated.

 

Seungcheol, watching him, felt almost as if he could feel that attempt like a wave in his mind, lapping out further and further and further…

 

::..ng hyung hyung hyung HYUNG!::

 

From the look on their faces, everyone heard that.

 

“Got him,” Jisoo said smugly. “Took me a while to find the party channel, I added you in.”

 

Seungcheol:: Kwannie? Is that you?

Seungkwan:: Hyung! Oh thank sweet fuck, I’ve been calling for ages! Where have you been?

Jisoo:: Language!

Seungkwan:: Hyung I don’t care about language right now, I’m trapped in fucking Daejeon! Can you guys come and get me? I’m trapped in the Tombs of Time dungeon with a bunch of casuals, hyung, you should see them, they’re … really casual!

Jihoon:: How did you get there, Seungkwan-ah? The Tombs of Time is only level 80, you should be waltzing through there.

Seungkwan:: I don’t know, hyung, everything’s messed up! The bosses aren’t the same, the mechanics are messed up and every time we make a run for it we get killed and spawn back in the beginning of the level! Beyond one guy there’s no one that’s above level 80! I’ve lost all my money already respawning… and the ‘Call to Home’ spell isn’t working! And I didn’t just want to leave them here…”

 

“Daejeon,” Seungcheol said out loud. “We can make that in a day if we go griffin-backed.”

 

Minghao:: Why were you doing hard carry for casuals?

Jisoo:: Are they part of a guild? Can their guild mates maybe get them out?

Seungkwan:: I don’t know, I can’t remember why I’m in here! I’m just… in here! With them!

Seungcheol:: Kwannie, concentrate. Do they have other guild members that they can call to help them? We can get to you in a day, can they get you out faster?

Seungkwan:: Sorry hyung… Jisoo-hyung. I asked, this is all they have in their guild, they say they’re just a bunch of friends hanging together? They’re some kind of weird support guild. Atelier Destiny or something.

 

Jihoon’s eyes bulged out and he sat straighter from where he was going through his spell list on the sly.

 

Jihoon:: Atelier Destiny? Seungkwan-ah, is there a Bard with them, name of Lee Seokmin? Hell, I can’t remember what his in-game name was but he’s got a nose almost like a swordfish and…

Seungkwan:: Hyung, how did you know? Everyone’s looking at me like I’m an oracle now… is he family?

Jihoon:: He’s a cousin. Mother’s sister’s child. Shit, I didn’t even thing to check his name. Ask him if he’s heard from Channie.

Seungkwan:: Hyung?

Jihoon:: Just ask.

Seungkwan:: Hyung, he says no, but last he heard of him he was down in Busan doing the Tide King’s Palace.

 

Around the table eyes slammed open and the small group stared worriedly at each other. The Tide King’s Palace wasn’t a popular dungeon, nor was it extremely high-level, though it had some of the best weapon skin drops in the game. The place was too labyrinthine, too complicated… enough to put off most Adventurers despite the rumours of a phantasmal-class weapon hidden somewhere in it. There was only one recorded clear for it, a guild somewhere in Oceania; beyond them, no one had even cleared the second level.

 

Seungkwan:: Hyung. The guy in charge on this side, he’s a Hwarang, right? He says if you rescue us, they’ll go with us to Busan. He says they really need to get out of here because their Monk is having real problems with his legs, and he’s a Kicker…

 

“We have to,” Jisoo said softly. “We need to rescue Seungkwan anyway, and it’d be nice to have a guild owing us, even if they’re lower-level. They might not stay lower-level.”

 

Seungcheol, looking at the other three, received a round of nods.

 

Seungcheol:: Sit tight, Kwannie, we’re coming. We’ll be there in a day and fight our way down.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Hyungdeul,” Seokmin said as they rejoined them. “I’ve looked at your armour and mended what I could, and Hansol-ah did the same for the weapons…”

 

Minghao, who had been sitting next to Junhui quietly getting caught up in Mandarin, looked up and nodded. “A good standard of work,” he said softly. “Better than the weapon shop we normally frequent.”

 

Seungcheol blinked, impressed. Minghao was known for being highly meticulous, especially about his weaponry since that was his bread and butter in coaxing the high damage numbers out of his skills and attacks. “That’s quite good…”

 

“He made his own weapon!” Seokmin said happily, looking proudly at the black-haired boy still working on what looked like chipping equipment out of a thick layer of stone. “It’s phantasmal-level! Hansol-ah’s one of the best blacksmiths I know.”

 

Around the fire, Junhui nodded. “I specialise mostly in Chinese weapons,” he announced. “I couldn’t add much this time, but he’s the best of us crafters in any case.”

 

Seungcheol watched the boy’s ears discolour to a vibrant red and fought not to laugh. “Thank you,” he said.

 

Seungkwan handed his half-full plate back over. “It’s a pity I took Scribe and not Cartographer,” he mumbled around a mouthful of water from the pool Jisoo’s lovely Undine conjured up for them. “Wonwoo-hyung, can you draw us a few to fill up the gaps as well?”

 

Wonwoo nodded, eyes half-closed. “I’ll have to get a feel for it again, it’s been some time since I had to draw a real one. I only took the subclass because some of the treasure maps were getting ludicrous. Besides, if it’s like everything else is turning out to be, I’ll need some real materials. I cleaned out my inventory for the raid drops on Belphegor; I only kept the potions because I thought something was wrong right off the bat.”

 

That made Hansol shuffle a bit closer to the fire. “Belphegor?” he questioned with a hint of curiosity. “Last I heard, he still drops those fire scales, right? Did you haveany?”

 

“I did,” Wonwoo replied. “I had some in my inventory when I woke up, but I had to sell them to get space in my inventory for all the maps I bought. Also, I didn’t want to waste time going to the Guild Hall for money, there were Adventurers five thick around the banks when I ran past, so I used the money the scales got me.”

 

Hansol nodded as he looked down, chiselling out a particularly stubborn piece of encrusted armour. “It’s a pity, they’re excellent for boosting fire resistance and damage mitigation, or in fire-spells if you treat them right.”

 

Across the fire Jihoon’s head lifted, eyes gleaming in the light. “That so?” he said avariciously, lured by the promise of upping his fire-based spells. “How do you mean?”

 

“It’s a bit of a process, but there’s this one anvil in the Depths of Fire that you can use to process the ashes if you know the correct recipe,” Hansol explained. “It was like three expansions back, low-level and the recipe had a tiny drop chance even if you were a blacksmith, and it wasn’t considered being worth very much because all you could forge were the really bad Hell-daggers some of the devils in that dungeon carried, right? Pretty much everyone booed them because the skin was so ugly and the requirements were off the scale for wielding one.”

 

Jihoon nodded slowly, fascinated. “I remember… it just wasn’t worth it. It literally looked like someone had glued a twig onto a piece of obsidian.”

 

Hansol lifted his gaze. “But did you know there was a secret area in the dungeon?” he asked. “It was tucked all the way in the back depths, about as far away as you can get from the main areas in that quirky food preparation place, and if you entered it you found a clan of enslaved imps and if you helped them, they taught you the real recipe for working fire- scales and ashes.”

 

Minghao’s eyes nearly bulged out. “What?” he asked. “What? There’s been no rumours of anything like that, people would have noticed…”

 

“Mingyu-hyung found it.”

 

Around the fire, heads slowly rotated to Mingyu, some looking confused and some demanding.

 

The chef blushed. “I… uh, I was horsing around and when I jumped off one of the tents there I tripped and fell through the wall,” he muttered morosely. “And they were just there… and we had to help them! They had a quest and they were looking so scared…”

 

Seungcheol stared as Jihoon seemed to burst into helpless, frustrated tears. “So you never shared the recipe or the area, I’m guessing?”

 

Jeonghan’s smile stretched devilishly. “It was a good place for us to quest through when we started, there wasn’t dungeon contention for it and it suited our level. And afterwards… well, most everyone looks down on guilds like ours, calling us filthy casuals, and I didn’t see the big guilds give out their recipes, so no. We didn’t. Our crafters are the source of most of our money, Seungcheol-ssi. It’s not like we had the correct levels to participate in the really big money-drop raids.”

 

Across the fire, Seungkwan’s ears reddened; Seungcheol felt his reddening from embarrassment too. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I… most of the time I thought like that too. I’m really sorry.”

 

“It’s one of the reasons I’m with Atelier Destiny,” a croaky voice from the back of the cave said. “Because all of us have heart.”

 

“Soonyoung-hyung!” Seokmin called, scrambling away from the fire to where the monk had been resting. “Hyung, how are you feeling?”

 

Seungcheol craned past the rest. His cousin was helping a guy up that looked remarkably normal at first glance: mop cut, brown eyes, Korean features, not too tall. There were signs of what he had been though – his hair was a dark, sultry black-red still, with odd all-black locks in it, and his eyes were truly like a tiger’s, narrow and angled acutely, packing an impact. His body looked much shorter than the tiger had been, perhaps his height, but strong through the thighs and legs, and he had that peculiar settled martial artist’s stance when he finally got his feet underneath him.

 

He spoiled it in the next moment by grinning like a mad idiot and bobbing a bow. “Kwon Soonyoung, pleased to meet Kwannie’s guild! Sorry for that, not sure what happened there, but it’s 10:10 time again!”

 

As one, Titan’s Snap turned to Jeonghan for explanation. “His eyes,” the guild leader said wearily. “They’re at 10:10 if you look.”

 

“Holy shit, they are!” Jihoon said.

 

“What?” Wonwoo spluttered. “What kind of crazy regen rate do you have, you had like fifteen thousand status conditions on you, how are you even walking now?”

 

Soonyoung hopped up and down on his feet, leant to the side to kick, then wiggled his shoulders and torso. “Dragon Hunter, bro, we have to recover fast as blazes.”

 

This time it was Wonwoo that looked as if he wanted to burst out crying.

 

Jisoo leant in for a better look, bracing one hand on Minghao’s shoulder. “You’re a Dragon Hunter?” he asked with fascination. “For real? What level are you even?”

 

Soonyoung’s stomach grumbled as he made for the circle around the fire with Seokmin’s arm slung across his shoulder, sinking down and accepting a plate from Mingyu. “Level 90,” he mumbled around a mouthful of insect stew. “Shit this is good, Gyu-gyu, another winner. But yeah, dragons aren’t that tough if you know how to kick ‘em when they’re down.”

 

“I don’t even bother healing hyung directly in shorter fights,” Mingyu added. “I mean… it really is crazy. He’s got the highest regen rate I’ve ever seen from anyone, and he can chain like no one’s business.”

 

Seungcheol silently tried to digest the fact. The more he understood of Atelier Destiny, the more interesting they became. It made him wonder what other secrets they had. “That’s good to know,” he said at length. “And it’ll help immensely in the fights to get you out of here. I’d like to plan a little bit anyway, but if it’s a straight DPS check kind of fight, I’m more than certain we can overcome that.”

 

Minghao and Jihoon gave each other satisfied high-fives; Jisoo just facepalmed.

 

“I’d like to take point anyway, given that most of your equipment is unusable at the moment,” Seungcheol continued, relaxing when Jeonghan gave him a simple nod. “Which brings me to the question of loot. We’ll give you what extra we can get now, but it’s not much, and until we trust each other I’d like Seungkwan to set out a contract with our terms. In addition, we’ll agree to stay out of the looting tables for this dungeon clear; it’s not like we were having much luck there in the first place, it looks like even that has changed.”

 

“Agreed,” Jeonghan said. “In exchange we’ll assist you in the dungeon down in Busan to find your dongsaeng. We’ll party up based around that.” He considered, then reached out his hand to shake Seungcheol’s. “Deal?”

 

“Deal,” Seungcheol said. “Kwannie, you have the necessary stuff?”

 

“Ye-eees~” Seungkwan carolled. “Let me get to writing!”

 

It took them a little time to knock out all the details, but a bit later Seungcheol watched as information started popping up in his party screen. Beyond Soonyoung, who was apparently a freak of nature that generally kicked dragons to death, they were all in the seventies, and an interesting mix of classes and subclasses. Most of it would fit well in the holes his own party had, creating a really solid line-up, with only the occasional overlap.

 

“A Fox Tail Hwarang?” he asked Jeonghan as he got a look at the leader’s stats. “But you’re not having any issues at the moment? You don’t need to adjust back?”

 

Jeonghan smirked at him; it was Junhui that answered. “This is what Hannie-hyung really looks like,” he said. “He’s got his own fanclub at university and everything.”

 

Seungcheol choked. Jisoo was the most beautiful person he knew, and it felt like disloyalty to admit that Jeonghan definitely had the edge; thinking of all that grace and beauty just falling on someone like manna from heaven made him feel really despondent for a moment. “Fair,” he croaked out. “I mean… fair. Okay. From what I can see of the stats, that means that Soonyoung and I will be tanking front-line – Soonyoung-ssi, I’ll try to lay down a fixed spot so if you can move attention to me that’ll be good, with Junhui-ssi and Jisoo to manage whatever aggro slips past, if any does.”

 

“Got it,” Junhui said, whilst Jisoo only nodded, well-used to the strategy. With his golems and other summons, he often off-tanked when a boss was particularly obnoxious.

 

Seungkwan shuffled closer, scratching out the room roughly. “The boss is here, there’s a stage he’s on, so main defensive line should be around here,” he informed Seungcheol. “There’s an open space before spaces filled with ruined chairs, like it might have been an auditorium or concert stage. There are still some of the high steps left at the back.”

 

Hansol narrowed his eyes. “I think I saw the exit underneath him once, like one of those trapdoors?” His finger reached out to point at the spot, slightly smudging a bit of ink. “Here.”

 

Seungcheol eyed the room, then took the pen. “DPS, you’ll flank around our main block here and here – Jeonghan-ssi, you’ll be with Minghao on the right flank… Mingyu-ssi, you’re a shaman druid?” At the tall guy’s nod, he smiled slightly. “I’m putting you on left flank with Jihoon-ah, since he has the most elemental resistances at the moment. Soonyoung-ssi, if you see someone short and on fire storm past you, just let him. We all try to stand a bit out of Jihoon-ah’s way.”

 

Jisoo smiled idly. “He’s a combat rage sorcerer-berserker,” he explained to Jeonghan’s blank look. “Way back when we first started, he didn’t want to accept that he couldn’t do high DPS and not have to stand in the back lines. So he doesn’t. He’s more the type to hold a titan’s mouth open with his body and fire spells down their throat.”

 

Seungkwan nodded unhappily. “He’s so MP-hungry too…”

 

Soonyoung laughed manically at that, narrow eyes glinting even as Jeonghan and the others looked just a tiny bit apprehensive. “That’s my kind of guy!” he called, smacking Jihoon on the shoulder. “You just run, shorty, and I’ll dodge as you come past!”

 

Jihoon sniffed. “Call me shorty again and I’ll send you to the Cathedral,” he drawled.

 

Seungcheol almost laughed. Though Soonyoung was looking just a little scared, Jihoon hadn’t shoved his hand away, nor wiggled away like he normally would – that was practically a ringing endorsement. “On the healing side of support, Wonwoo-ya and Kwannie, which means you’re on general support with Seokmin-ah, Hansol-ssi, unless you want to move to healing? And Seokmin-ah, you still prefer the Concertmaster build?”

 

The quiet boy shook his head. “I’m not much of a healer,” he admitted. “I have the spells, but I’m much better at ranged support and offensive debuffing. My range is really great though.”

 

“It is,” Seokmin agreed. “And yes, I’m still specced that way.”

 

Seungcheol filled the last bits of the diagram in and moved it to the centre as much as he could so that everyone could see. “I’m not the best long-distance tactician either,” he warned them. “I prefer leading from the front, it’s why I went Commander. Wonwoo-ya is our tactician, please regard his requests seriously in the battles to come. There are still three more, I believe, before we’re done with the tomb? At least three, from what I remember.”

 

Jeonghan looked at his guild, then nodded. “We’ll see how it goes in the first fight and adjust from there. Just bear in mind that we’re not really as highly-specced as you are and we might be slower to acclimatise than you’re used to.”

 

“Then let’s be off,” Seungcheol judged. “Let’s see how things stack up.”

Chapter Text

From a certain perspective, Seungcheol could see why the fight against the spirit lord had been a problem for the other guild, who had depended on good gear and their main tank to help them push through. Still, with the party properly filled out and set up, all following him into the fight, it had taken exactly two rounds to deal with the boss: one just to make sure the cycle continued and to get their best buffs and at least one attack from everyone in place, then one to go all out, during which Soonyoung-ssi had been kicking the old man in the face so hard he hadn’t even noticed Comet Jihoon and Minghao leaping on him, to say nothing of the way Jeonghan, maxed out by Seokmin’s buffs, had carved up what was left over.

 

The rest of them stood on the stage, looking just a little lost. Jisoo hadn’t had a turn to call his golems, nor had they been needed, and there had been nothing to heal for Wonwoo.

 

Currently, Soonyoung was going yeh-heh, yeh-heh over what looked like a set of spectral gloves, Jeonghan was rubbing his nose as if he had the world’s worst headache, and Hansol was assiduously gathering up scraps of spectral essence with Mingyu’s help.

 

“I don’t understand,” Jeonghan grumbled.

 

Jisoo meandered up, already balling up the insect cloak he had gotten and handing it over. “We’re about as high above the level of this dungeon as you are below it,” he said carefully. “And when it comes to DPS I don’t think you can find better than Jihoon and Minghao, they are so crazily competitive about it. It’ll be different going into real raids: more strategy, less time to recover and learn mechanisms, and a hell of a lot more effort to tank. At the moment you’re just under-levelled and your best gear is out of commission, that’s a bad combination to take into a DPS race like this.”

 

It was the same in the next fight, in the next three fights, and it was only at the last boss that Wonwoo even attempted anything like tactical aggro management. Atelier Destiny wandered out of the last exit of the dungeon loaded down with cash, items and better gear, and none of them look particularly pleased about it, like their egos had been majorly bruised.

 

Seungkwan, young brash and sassy Seungkwan, made it even worse, all without meaning to. “That wasn’t such a hard carry, you guys listened so well!” Still, he silenced with a look and raised eyebrows from Jisoo, mumbling a soft ‘Sorry…’ seconds later.

 

“I’ll go and make dinner,” Mingyu said tiredly. “God knows I didn’t have to do much else today. Jisoo-ssi, would your Undine perhaps help us with some water again?”

 

They scraped out a spot right at the exit, setting up a joint camp as best they could. It was time for healing and reflection, but at least half the party was grumpy and ashamed, and the rest too unfamiliar with them not to tread on toes, so it was a very quiet camp for an hour or so. This time, to Jihoon’s credit, he plucked out a large stack of Battle Cards, distracting Soonyoung and Seokmin almost immediately with a game.

 

Seungcheol counted his lucky stars and sank his head back against a stone wall, closing his eyes. Somehow in his mind he had worked the fight up to potentially be much worse; as much as it stung the others, he felt glad it had gone that well. He wasn’t sure how much later it was when he felt a thin body sink down on the same squared-off stone as his, but when he opened his eyes Jeonghan was already bathed in moonlight, and there was a healthier conversation going on around the fire.

 

God, he thought privately. It should be illegal for anyone to look this good, gumiho or not. “You ok?” he questioned, taking the mug the Hwarang handed over.

 

Jeonghan nodded slowly. “Just… it was just hard to take. We tried so hard to get through. Is this what it’s like being in a dedicated raiding guild?”

 

Seungcheol sipped at the hot, herby tea. It was unexpectedly delicious, and he wasn’t used to appreciating tea of all things. “Yes and no,” he said at length. “You probably had a more enjoyable experience of levelling, seeing the world and finding all those strange little nooks and crannies in places? We levelled mainly through sparring, dungeons and raids. It’s repetitive and it can get boring unless the mechanics are exciting, for instance when you’re doing a dungeon for the umpteenth time because the item you wanted hadn’t dropped yet. I think I did Aurialis of the Repentent Sinner over a hundred times to get Angel’s Bane here, but she was the best in-spec for me a few levels back.”

 

“I don’t think I want to do anything a hundred times over,” Jeonghan muttered. “I’d rather just sit somewhere in the sun and sleep. Besides, no offense, but most raiding guild members I’ve come across so far are dicks.”

 

Seungcheol looked away from his features, only to grin as he saw Seungkwan stick his tongue out for an apparently fascinated Jun and Hansol, showing off the rune tattooed on it. “There’s hefty competition,” he agreed. “My guild is probably a bit strange in that I’m lower-level than all my members barring Seungkwanie, and that’s only because he recently switched out characters. Take Minghao-ah and Jihoon-ah for example, I know they’ve received at least five offers of a buyout between them. Minghao-ah is arguably the most famous assassin on the Chinese server, he’s only on the Korean one because he heard there was a sorcerer here that put out higher DPS than he could as an assassin.”

 

Jeonghan nodded. “Junhui-ah is an exchange student at my university… Look, I just don’t want this to create problems between us, not until we’re through Busan and we have Jihoon-ssi’s dongsaeng rescued. We’ll try to level up faster, but there’s only so much we can do so fast. Last time we even attempted to get phantasmal-level equipment it was Hansol-ah’s bow, and that nearly broke the guild bank.”

 

Taking another sip, Seungcheol looked down at the cup in his hands. “Don’t underestimate yourselves,” he said softly. “Your crafters seem to be top-notch, you have a guy that makes a living kicking dragons, and Kwannie would not have helped shit people, no matter how much they paid him for helping to teach them dungeon patterns. No matter that he’s a little quick off the draw with his mouth most of the time, and no matter that he can’t remember. Besides, Jisoo likes you.”

 

Jeonghan’s voice sounded amused. “Is that the stick by which you measure? Jisoo-ssi’s gut feelings?”

 

“Jisoo’s been my second-in-command for so long I’d literally trust him through hell,” Seungcheol said. “I trust his opinion in all things, Jeonghan-ssi, even if he’s got the nasty habit of seeing how much teasing he can get away with. His gut’s more dependable and a better judge of people than most of the asshole raid leaders you see out there.” He smiled as he finished the cup of tea. “It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

 

Long moments passed before Jeonghan stood, offering his hand again. “It’s a deal,” he said, smiling broadly and looking particularly fey in the moonlight. “Please, just call me Jeonghan. I think we’re much of the same age anyway – 95-line, right? You can call me Hannie, it’s what I’m used to with my same-aged friends.”

 

Seungcheol, just a little stunned at the beauty of his smile, nodded and stood as well. “That’s my year, yes, so… okay? Let’s work well together, Hannie. Call me Seungcheol or just Cheol if you wish, like Jisoo does?”

 

Shaking on it, the two wandered back to the fire. They had some of the best kebabs he had ever tasted, everyone settled down for sleep with a guard roster in place, and before too long there was only soft breathing with the occasional snore to break it up.

 

In the morning, the party divided up to fit on Titan’s Snap’s griffins; barring Wonwoo and Hansol chattering about the strange weapon he had woken up with and some boasting from the others on their toughest fights so far, they arrived in Daegu with only a couple of hours passed. Though they dismounted and grouped up outside of the city, it was still a worrying experience entering it. Seungcheol, who came from the area originally, felt as if eyes were on him constantly as the group of twelve wandered into the swooping, mosaic-filled city; from the looks that Jisoo and Jeonghan gave him, they were feeling the same.

 

He wasted no time in getting to the closest inn, chivvying most of the two groups into the private room they booked, save Mingyu and Seungkwan, who had gone for ingredients. Even then, he could see the grey defeat on some of the players in the inn’s common room, the way most of them slumped, and the wounds on the Landers that ran the place.

 

“Something is definitely wrong,” Wonwoo said as he looked at Jisoo, who was still staring out the window. “It looks like some documentaries I’ve seen on the effects of PTSD and severe stress on people. Emotional numbness, hopelessness, self-destructive behaviour…”

 

Hansol cleared his throat. “Wonwoo-hyung, are you in the medical prog..pro.. career in real life?” His accent skipped, ears quietly red until Jeonghan softly whispered the word to him. “Profession, thank you. You sound very learned on the topic.”

 

Wonwoo’s lips pinched a little tighter shut, though his voice remained even. “I’ve just been through a lot of hospitals I guess you could say, and I love learning, so I watched a lot of documentaries. I can’t remember everything, but that’s clear in my mind. The subject came up in one of the reports I had to do for cultural history for the university, it was about Korean hibakusha and the effect of not only disbelief from the Japanese side, but even just the effect of living through a time like that.”

 

“It makes sense,” Jeonghan said softly. “None of us can log out, and players hosting on this server can’t get home to familiar territory, like Minghao-ssi or Jun-ah. Even this gate seemed to be offline.”

 

Minghao grimaced at the reminder, raking his hands through his hair from frustration.

 

“In addition,” Seokmin added, “life is really cheap here. It’s what… you can survive on thirty gold or so? That’s barely six low-level monsters outside the cities? Most people likely have enough money that they can survive for months, even years just sitting around, and for high-level players the thrill wasn’t really the money after a while, but the thrill. As much as I admire skill, I’m thinking Jihoon-hyung and the others would go spare if they had nothing to do. No wonder we’ve seen so much PKing already.”

 

Jihoon grumbled and lay his head down on the table, mumbling into the wood. “I’m already going nuts, you have no idea… if it wasn’t for Mingyu’s food I would’ve already killed all of you from sheer frustration. I can’t even level up my subclass, it’s maxed out too.”

 

Seungcheol grimaced, reaching to pat him on the shoulder. “Something will have to be done,” he said softly and seriously. “I hate seeing Daegu in such a mess, I created my character here, you know? But it’s not really something a small group like ours can do, I’m guessing, I just…”

 

Hyung!” sounded from outside, along with a rapid rat-tat of running feet, and Seungcheol quieted as the two shoppers nearly stuck in the doorway trying to get through at the same time. “Hyung, you gotta come, this is bad…”

 

Reaching out, Jun pulled on Mingyu’s arm, catching the two as they finally popped through, and everyone made space for them at the table.

 

“Talk,” Seungcheol invited.

 

The two shoppers looked at each other, holding a quick round of kai-bai-bo that Mingyu won. He leant his elbows on the table and leant in. “Most of the shops around here have already been stripped of most ingredients, since they are the only things that still taste good,” he said softly. “Some of the Landers we talked to said they’ve not had food to sell for days, and wouldn’t have more until it came in from the farms…”

 

“Farms?” Jisoo interrupted. “I mean, we’ve all walked past them, but the ingredients always just magically appeared?”

 

Mingyu grimaced and nodded. “And that’s not all. We overheard some Adventurers talking about an Adventurer-only shop close to the guild building, so we went to have a look. There was a shop, and there’s a lot of food and stuff on sale, even the maps you wanted us to look out for, but everything was so expensive it was shocking, like inflation fifteen times over, right? And some of the stuff on sale, I nearly exploded.”

 

Seungkwan nodded uphappily, lifting wet eyes to Seungcheol. “Hyung, they were selling EXP pots too, for Adventurers that wanted to skill up quickly and take on whatever new content there was… that’s banned, hyung, that kind of pot-mining has been banned for ages! Which meant…”

 

“Which means that they’re getting it off the newbies trapped here with us,” Jeonghan said, expression ugly. “They’re exploiting them and making them perform like people in sweat shops make kids perform.”

 

“And!” Seungkwan said. “and they are blocking off access to the Guild building here, I couldn’t get in to the bank like I wanted to, so the poor guys can’t even leave the guild, and no new ones can be formed, and they’re spawn-camping.

 

Jihoon lifted his head from the table with a frown. “I’ve spawn-camped myself,” he said with irritation. “Whenever some asshole just didn’t want to get the message, having to run between corpse and Cathedral a few times can be an edifying experience.”

 

Soonyoung shot him a glare. “Did you do it right outside the city and use it as a method to cow people? They’re doing it to the newbies, breaking them slowly to make them fit in with the guild power structure.”

 

“What?” Jihoon flared. “I would never, okay? That’s contemptible.”

 

“It’s pain profiteering,” Seokmin said in a bell-clear voice. “Torture, nothing else.”

 

Seungkwan nodded. “And they’ve started to carve out hunting territories as well, so if you’re not in a certain guild you’re not allowed to hunt in certain areas for spawns, that kind of thing. And the violence against the Landers… it’s sickening.”

 

Wonwoo folded his hands together. “Degression into a prison-type society is a bad sign, a really bad sign. Hyung, we’ve got to…”

 

“I know,” Seungcheol said, mind working as rapidly as it could.

 

Minghao straightened from his small slouch. “As an Assassin, I could take out the ringleader if I have to? Or I can go gather more information, see if I can get some more specific clues.”

 

Seungcheol frowned. “No. What we need… what we need is a change of heart. Bullies rarely back down unless there’s public spectacle involved. How long do you need to gather some information?” At Minghao’s two raised fingers he nodded. “This is what we’ll do. Split up in twos, pairing up between the two guilds. Get as much information on who the biggest pain here is, likely that guy blocking guild hall access, and we’ll reconvene here in two hours to plan. In that time, take note of how much gold you have on you, pool as much as you can, and don’t get caught.” He looked around the group. “You clear?”

 

At everyone’s nod, Jeonghan straightened from his slouch. “You heard the man,” he said lazily. “Let’s get cracking. Two hours.”

Chapter Text

Two hours later, when everyone got back together, Seungcheol had to hire a bigger room. He stared at the long groaning banquet table; sure, he had been angry too, but it appears the players in the party had all taken the atmosphere and issues in the town as personal offenses, and had worked their absolute butts off.

 

He looked from the end groaning the most to a proud-looking Jihoon and Hansol. His shortest guildmember had apparently been fired up by Soonyoung’s angry glares earlier, but even so… “How did you bring a roc down?” he asked weakly.

 

Hyung was incredible,” Hansol drawled, looking proudly at the table and the stack of cash on it, along with all the parts like claws, skin, and what looked like a metric mountain of meat. “We used his griffin to fly out to one of the mountains and found a pack of them circling. Most of them flew away when they saw us coming, but he coached me how to assist him for max healing with what I could do. We were trying for one of the entrances into the Mountain of Woe, but one of the rocs dive-bombed us so we went for it instead.”

 

Jihoon cleared his throat. “We skipped the recruiting and hunting parties, but it’s true, it’s bad out there. If we hadn’t been flying, we would’ve been ambushed too.”

 

“You two are batshit crazy,” Seungcheol said flatly. “But congratulations. Wonwoo-ya, Soonyoung-ah?”

 

Soonyoung motioned to Wonwoo to go first.

 

“We didn’t make much money,” Wonwoo said quietly. “We mostly concentrated on the Landers though, because they’re so numerous. What I suspected has become true… the NPCs have turned into real people, but from their point of view, we’ve turned into real people and they’re not liking it a lot. I’ve had to heal so many abused Landers today that I’m practically mana-dry. Soonyoung had to step in a few times, forced recruitment is wild out there. We did manage to find out that the main guild that’s causing problems here is called ‘Logos’ though, they’re the ones camped around the Guild Hall entrance.”

 

“I knew it!” Jihoon snarled. “Remember at the beginning, I wondered why the NPCs were arguing?”

 

“And also the ones buying EXP pots from whichever guild is supplying them for their ‘Adventurer Store’,” Soonyoung added, clearly unhappy. “From what the Landers tell us, he’s been… well, he’s been pressing young adventurers into becoming concubines and servants for his guild as well. The age restriction on the game was 16+, but it’s a bad precedent to allow to flourish.”

 

Seungcheol frowned. “I don’t remember the guild Logos, really. Any of you?”

 

Heads shook around the table.

 

Minghao cleared his throat. “I didn’t know about them either, but from what Mingyu-ssi and I found out…”

 

“Minghao-ya,” Mingyu drawled. “I told you not to be so formal. Just call us all hyung too, okay?”

 

Minghao nodded, fingers lacing together. “Sorry, Mingyu-hyung and I found out that the leader’s name is Fakerr. The bad news is he’s a Monk like Soonyoung-hyung, I won’t be able to one-shot him. He’s got some very nice gear, and he’s backed up by an Elf Sorcerer named Decium. He’s got a very nice set of robes – you remember that Shroud of Ashes drop from the Fire Lizard’s cave, Jihoon-hyung?”

 

Jihoon grimaced. “Don’t tell me a bastard like that got those to drop. I’ve been through that dungeon, like, at least eighty times?”

 

“He has them,” Minghao confirmed. “He’s got better gear than his boss, so I’m not sure who’s the most powerful there.”

 

Jisoo, busy counting the piles of gold towards the end of the table still, looked up. “Perhaps it’s a sore point and we can exploit that?” he suggested to Wonwoo, who nodded.

 

“Seokmin-ah, Seungkwanie?” Seungcheol asked. “How did it go with you two?”

 

“We did well!” Seungkwan sat up and said. “Honestly, it seems very few people have been through the Tombs of Time in its new incarnation, so they were eager to buy some of the knowledge of the mechanics off us, and Seokmin-hyung did a really roaring trade when we made our way to the Lander armoursmith here. He let us set up shop there for a few hours as hyung helped with armour creation for them to sell at a higher price point. Also, hyung made a discovery!”

 

Seokmin smiled broadly. “I found out that if Seungkwanie prepared high-level supplies, I could bind some of my lower-level skills into scrolls for use.”

 

“Adventurers saw you create them?” Jisoo asked quickly.

 

Seokmin shook his head. “No, no one saw us, we were working in a back room and just experimenting. I lied and said we got it from drops, but that I wasn’t sure what odds they were on the loot tables. Still, they sold really well, and the good news is that the news about the revamped dungeon drew most of the higher-level unaffiliated adventurers off to go and try it.”

 

Jisoo nodded. “That was well done,” he approved. “And we have a little over forty thousand gold here, that’s a good start.”

 

“We wandered up to the guild building,” Jeonghan added. “They still denied us entrance, but it gave us time to look over their store, and I sold off that insect cloak Joshuji gave me. Since we were high-level and geared nicely – thanks for that, guys – they didn’t try to bulldoze us into entering, but the guy I spoke to offered to take us to his leader if we wanted an in. He said they were saving for taking over not only Daegu, but planning on reaching out to Busan as well since they have friends there. Perhaps even Gwangju.”

 

Jisoo grinned. “Hannie can charm like no one’s business,” he added. “In addition, the guy let slip that the guild they’re getting the EXP pots from is based out in Busan.” His expression turned ugly. “You’ll never guess who, Seungcheol.” His glance deviated to Seungkwan for a fraction of a second before he looked back to his guild leader. “It’s Primacy.”

 

There came a tinkling of coins as Seungkwan jerked, accidentally pushing over the pile he had been working on putting in a case, but he merely kept his head down as he straightened it, biting his lip.

 

Amazing, Seungcheol thought to himself, seeing the rage simmering deep in Jisoo’s eyes, not to mention Jihoon and Wonwoo. It’s been over three years, and I still feel like I want to chop those guys up into tiny pieces. I should have gone ahead with Jihoon’s offer to force him through a cheese grater.

 

Aloud, he tried to keep his cool. “We’ll deal with them once we get down there,” he said, moving along swiftly to spare Seungkwan the pain. “Jun-ah and I didn’t find out much of import…”

 

Hyung got an offer of marriage,” Junhui said from the side.

 

Seungcheol promptly turned red. “It was a joke,” he gritted as everyone perked up.

 

“She had massive tits,” Junhui said dreamily. “Said she wanted a husband to help her in her business.” Blinking lazily, he tilted his head a little. “You know that romance system with all the silly quests and stuff? Well, in whatever the hell that latest patch did, it also buffed that considerably. Apparently married couples can level up really fast together, there are some special quests and the like and get this… Adventurers can marry anyone. They can even marry Landers if they want to, the system supports it.”

 

Jihoon’s eyes rounded. “What, anyone?” he got out. “So if, like, I want to convince one of the Elder Dragons to marry me…”

 

Junhui wrinkled his nose. “Mayor said as long as they could pass peacefully into a city and could croak out ‘I do’ without being forced, because somehow the system detects that like it detects heavy fighting in cities, you could marry whatever you want. Even slimes. He’s not had any ceremonies yet, but it’s only time before the word spreads.”

 

Jeonghan grinned. “Homosexuality is no longer frowned on here?”

 

Seungcheol decided not to confront why he felt so interested, or overtly notice Jisoo’s thoughtful look. “I guess perhaps culturally still for a while, but if this is really a new world it’s more feasible to worry about whether a guy is going to drag in a rat-man rather than another guy. Especially if the rat-man can croak yes.” He paused, trying to decide how to word his next words. “Incidentally, we didn’t discuss it, but I also won’t have discrimination in either my parties or my guild. There’s enough pain without going looking for some more.”

 

Jeonghan nodded seriously. “Fully in support. We won’t need to split up over that.”

 

Jihoon, curled up small, turned and stretched out over Mingyu. “I don’t care~… Mingyu-ya, hyung is hungry… Can you make me some rice pretty please?”

 

“I’ll see what I can do,” the chef promised, patting him on the shoulder. “Just as soon as we’re done here.”

 

Seungcheol just shook his head. “From all the information gathered, it’ll be the easiest path to go there and challenge their leader – Fakerr? – to combat. If we show up pretending that we had to get into the bank and had gotten a large haul, they might attack us for it, and it’ll give me a chance to challenge him.”

 

Hyung,” Minghao warned nervously. “You’re a great Guardian, but you’re lower-level than he is, and he’s geared pretty well.”

 

Giving a skewed smile, Seungcheol shook his head. “People like that call for backup the moment they have a little trouble and try to crush their opponents. I don’t think he’d hesitate to call in reinforcements, and that’s when you lot can back me up.”

 

“If Soonyoung-hyung doesn’t mind going over skills with me as a refresher, I can plan it out,” Wonwoo added. “Especially if we hold some members in reserve, make them think they’re winning. It’s more about making them look weak and stupid in front of as many as possible as it is about a quick win.”

 

“One more thing,” Minghao added. “If anyone needed any motivation still. He’s sitting on a literal hill of money. I’m not kidding, it spilled out of the guild bank entrance, we’ll have to excavate the poor bank. That much money, spread around…”

 

Seungcheol nodded with a grin. “That’ll buy a lot of goodwill,” he said happily, noting Junhui’s sideways look. “Okay. Let’s start planning.

 

It took them most of the rest of the night to get the plan hammered out to Wonwoo’s satisfaction; with the sleep they had in between – Seungkwan had come to curl up in his bed with him – it had just gone ten in the morning when their advanced party sauntered up to the guild hall’s entrance. True to Minghao’ report, there was a literal throne on top of a small hill of gold and other treasure; the man that sat on it was massive and apparently disinterested in the view from his mountain of money, slouching as his servants poured wine into his cup and giggled as they adjusted a leather vest over his massive shoulders.

 

Fakerr, Seungcheol read from the info screen. Level 90, Monk. From the bars for HP and MP, not to mention the equipment he had on, it was going to be one of those fights.

 

“Holy shit,” Soonyoung breathed behind him. “Why didn’t anyone tell me he had Greed Gauntlets and Five-toed Howl Boots? Those are fucking pimp.”

 

Seungcheol cast a look behind him. They had decided on himself, Jeonghan, Jisoo, Soonyoung and Wonwoo for the initial challenge; the rest of the party was some distance away, concealed as much as Minghao could. “Concentrate first,” he warned Soonyoung. “Claim later.” Stepping forward, he cleared his throat. “Yah,” he called in a thick Daegu satoori. “The man up there with the fake fur collar. We need to get inside to bank our loot. This mess is goddamn disgraceful.”

 

Fakerr’s bloodshot, piggy eyes lifted to stare down at him. “Shut the fuck up,” he grouched in return. “Just leave everything at the bottom of the pile and see Decium for your requisition chits.”

 

“What do you think you are, some kind of fucking king from old? I’m not here to give you anything, you imbecile,” Seungcheol snarled, laying it on thick. “Are you from Gwangju, stupid? Get down from that fucking pile before I make you, you stupid fucking farmer.”

 

Seungkwan:: Hyung, why are you allowed to curse so much all of a sudden and you roll your eyes at me when I say damn? It’s not fair!

Seungcheol:: Not trying to be fair, Kwannie, just trying to get his attention.

 

It seemed to do the trick; Fakerr straightened and stared down at him, at the large bags the party was toting. “Wrong thing to say, stranger,” he snarled as he made to jump down from the heap, landing easily on the ground in front of it. “I’m gonna give you one more chance to kneel down and kiss my boots before I fuck your face up with them.”

 

Seungcheol could hear the whispers from behind him as Adventurers formed up to watch the spectacle.

 

“Oh my god,” Jeonghan drawled, leaning idly on one leg, running his hands through his long locks. “Your guy told us you were kinda slow, but I didn’t think you were this slow… we can’t fight in the city. You’re right, Cheollie, he’s stupid. Besides, he looks inbred too. He’s probably got some kind of water buffalo for a mother.”

 

‘I never said that!’ floated from the crowd and Fakerr glared the offender down. “Just outside the city green zone,” he snarled. “Team A, with me. You wanted a fight, little level 87 boy? You got it.”

 

They traipsed towards the nearby gate, two groups with a growing crowd of Adventurers looking for the next exciting thing behind them. Seungcheol could feel the change as he stepped out, though normally he paid no attention to it. There was a fine rippling feeling against his awareness, a hint that a numinous kind of protection was gone. What surprised him was that so many Landers were in the crowd as well, staring at them with sad eyes. It was easy to think of them as people, at least theoretically, but seeing that in bruises and dislike and dying hope was horrible.

 

Things sorted themselves into a large circle around himself and Fakerr, who was collecting a last round of giggles not only from the two ‘servants’, but from the six huge guys that had carried his impromptu throne outside the city limits with him in it. Shrugging – Wonwoo’s plan was specific in its instructions if not its timing, he settled to check his armour and Angel’s Bane, finding both polished to within an inch of their lives.

 

Seungcheol:: Thank you, Seokkie, Hansol-ah, these look very good. All of group two are concealed, yes?

Minghao:: Close to you, hyung. We’ll be there on time.

Seungkwan:: Fighting, hyung! Kick his backside!

Jihoon:: If you die here you’ll regret it when you come back to life, Cheol. I’ll help Jisoo-hyung and Jeonghan-hyung pluck your eyebrow hairs out one by one.

Seungcheol:: Yes right thank you for that vote of confidence.

 

They were out of time. Fakerr jumped into combat, definitely not a duellist, and as much as he was a bastard Seungcheol could admit he was fast. Monks were one of the classes he understood the mechanics of the least, so…

 

“Dual Fist!” Fakerr roared as he sped forward, manifesting a golden glow around his bracers, and it was all Seungcheol could do to get Angel’s Bane in the position it had to be; seconds later he took five claw slashes straight to the chest, each finding little weak spots, each passing through with little resistance. He nearly choked on the pain, it felt as if someone ran a dagger into him again and again. “Resilence,” he managed to choke out as Fakerr fell back to sneer at him. It didn’t offset the pain, but it healed him a little, though it was a drop in the bucket next to what that attack had done to him.

 

He cast a quick glance upwards at his interface, seeing that his health had dropped almost by a thousand.

 

“What’s the matter, is the little Guardian afwaid?” Fakerr taunted, patronising him as he clicked his claws together. “You don’t have such a big mouth now, you bitch, do you? Phantom Step… Aura Saber!” The words were barely out of his mouth when he burst back into being almost right in front of Seungcheol, one leg already coming down in a powerful swing aimed at the ground right in front of him. “If your healer can’t be bothered to heal you, I’ll just render you down to meat!”

 

“Counter Break!” Seungcheol roared back as he swung Angel’s Bane into the fray; it was risky to use so early in battle but it had a massive countdown, he’d rather get it over, and if he didn’t damage Fakerr soon their plan would start falling apart. No one with an ego as massive as that would call for help if it wasn’t really needed. He swung as hard as he could, stabbing Angel’s Bane directly into the path of the blow and felt the energies of the blade howl as they activated.

 

The large sword ate the attack, keening with pain, but not a sliver of it passed by, and a fraction of a second later it spat the entirety of it out again, right into Fakerr’ amazed face. The howling vortex of power twisted black ribbons around them, causing a massive flashy aureole of energy. He had barely pulled it out to fall back when he spotted a glimmer of silver threaded through all that black rage. Grinning like a loon, he swung Angel’s Bane around again. “Iron Bounce!” he roared, coaxing the automated counter-attack into being, and gleefully fell back as he watched the monk bowled away across the impromptu ring by the second attack.

 

The crowd hissed with reaction, especially the Adventurers, as they watched Fakerr’ health meter fall. Five hundred, then a thousand, before the black energy ate him down over two thousand HP and made him land flat on his back.

 

“Don’t just stand there!” Fakerr coughed as he straightened to his feet, reeling for a moment. “Get him!”

 

“Castle of Stone!” Seungcheol roared, falling back into a defensive position, and saw the attackers’ eyes widen as his body took on the familiar golden glow, shedding the damage in their attacks like rain. Sword-and-board Guardians were the overwhelming majority; most tied that skill to their shields, and most forgot that it wasn’t a skill linked to shields specifically.

 

A figure clad in dark grey stepped up behind Fakerr, looking contemptuously at Seungcheol. “He can’t move for another twenty seconds. Wave A, concentrate on his party, whittle them down whilst he watches.”

 

Decium, Seungcheol identified in back of his mind. The mage might be more dangerous. He thinks like a weasel. Unlucky for them…

Chapter Text

All he heard was a dopplering scream behind him as Soonyoung jumped into the fray, released by the act of Decium committing other fighters against the party. He was the first to land, though Jeonghan was scarcely a second behind him with his crazy speed; from the corner of his eye he could watch as the tiger-haired monk not only roared “Dragon Saber!” loud enough to be heard on the other side of the city, but to land it improbably against the Swashbuckler somehow instead of the ground itself. It ripped the Swashbuckler over and up into the tornado of energy his kick caused, sending him flying over the city’s wall, only to de-rez into gore that rained potions, equipment and money over a few unlucky houses.

 

“It’s the Tiger of Namyangju!” a guy in the crowd shrieked. “It’s the Dragon Kicker! Watch out… run!”

 

Jihoon:: Oh sweet Jesus that’s sickening. I’m gonna hurl.

Seungkwan:: He did just kick a guy over the wall so hard he exploded, hyung…

 

Seungcheol saw the cringe set in on Jeonghan’s face as the Hwarang’s movement pattern rippled around him, stinging one of his most persistent attackers. “Snake Bites!” he called out in a somewhat-high voice as he curved his body around another blow, then took the energy from it to rapidly fling himself to Decium. He caught the mage just in time, slashing at him with a light sword-thrust angled up at his face. “Razor’s Edge!”

 

Though Seungcheol couldn’t see it, still nailed down and shedding damage, he heard Jisoo’s gentle step forward perfectly, so preternaturally attuned he was to it. They had practiced the timing of this so often…

 

Jisoo stabbed his short sword towards the ground, calmly incanting in a language Seungcheol still didn’t understand. The “Summon Follower – Golem!” came out perfectly though, and he felt the obdurate stone in his body fade just as the golem roared and leapt forward, taking his place as he rolled back and out of the fray.

 

The massive creature roared again, nailing all attention on him, and Jisoo’s dry, wintry little smile did not bode well for their opponents.

 

Fakerr, apparently pushed past his temper if not his endurance, surged back into the fight, heading right for the golem. “Logos!” he roared. “To me!”

 

Seungcheol:: Time to party, guys.

 

The shriek that came sounded odd, whistling through the air with a keening, warbling tone. A single arrow impacted in the middle of the ground, and the moment it touched an intricate seal array spread out from it, splitting off into four more that rotated counter-clockwise to the central array. “Trap Art: Retribution of the Five Gates!” he heard from Hansol’s direction. The first ranks from Logos stumbled into it, too used to coming when their boss bellowed, and fell right into the jaws of it. Black tendrils lashed from the ground as unaffiliated Adventurers stumbled backwards to get away from it, taking the Landers with them from sheer pressure if nothing else.

 

Across the circle, Decium’s eyebrows arched. “Interesting, it’s rare these days to get a Medium still focused on the non-healing arts. Genpo, Aries…” Two rake-thin Assassins materialised out of nowhere. “Take care of the bow user,” he ordered. “And bring me the bow. Healers, take care of Fakerr.”

 

There was a huge free-for-all in the midst of the circle as Fakerr went up against Soonyoung and the golem. Seungcheol was a little amazed; the Monk’s phenomenal gear and inherent brutality kept him going, moving much more quickly than the slower, more Strength-orientated dragons Soonyoung generally fought. Magic effects and skill auras howled and tore against each other, so loud that he missed it when the foremost rank of healers on Logos’s side simply collapsed and disappeared, sent back to the Cathedral by Minghao.

 

The sound of the golem exploding was louder still, causing Jisoo to fall back, and Soonyoung had to jump from the blow that nearly disembowelled him, but all Seungcheol did was stand up and grin with a bloody mouth as his reset times wore off, knowing what was coming.

 

“Get down!” he heard Wonwoo yelling to the Adventurers and Landers still standing in the circle. “Get down!”

 

Seungcheol rushed forward, rejuvenated for a second. His first step was alone, his second had a slim, small body on his side. “Covering!” he yelled into the massive confusion, and Angel’s Bane spun a blue dome around him which Jisoo and Jeonghan retreated behind.”

 

“Crimson Nova of the Demon Empress!” Jihoon roared, body enveloped by flames that sped him on as he ran, jumped, and fell like a bomb right in the midst of the fray. The earth around him shattered, shooting up lava through the cursed net Hansol had woven; the small sorcerer’s hands lifted, curled and slammed down again, and it was all over. The lava exploded as he manipulated it outwards, clinging to everything in sight like sticky fire and it burned, it burned.

 

“Cheol…” Jeonghan’s urgent voice called.

 

“It’s okay,” Jisoo soothed as Seungcheol concentrated on the barrier. “Watch.”

 

“Infinity Force!” Seungkwan’s voice came, and Wonwoo lit up like a supernova of gold.

 

The healer straightened, spun his staff around him and the charms on it rang once, audible even over the massive confusing and screaming. “Infinite Aurora Heal,” he incanted, spooling it out around the epicentre of the attack. The damage was fierce, but none of it reached the onlookers, it simply healed too much for the attack to stick.

 

Silence fell as Jihoon’s spell finally ended and the chaos fell to silence. Fakerr was down on the ground, hovering on fifteen HP. Decium was nowhere to be seen, and the lesser members of Logos only present in the form of their valuables and money scattered on the suddenly-whole circle of ground. Most of the Adventurers’ faces were filled with shock. The Landers, Seungcheol judged, looked as if they didn’t quite believe the hope that stared them in the face.

 

“Logos’s reign here is ended,” he said as he pulled himself straight, helping Jeonghan and Jisoo up too. He paused for a second as Hansol and Mingyu prowled from the circle, dragging two sleep-mazed assassins with them, before looking at the crowd of faces. “Titan’s Snap and Atelier Destiny lay claim to their assets immediately…”

 

He was interrupted by a groan from Fakerr, and paused just long enough for Jihoon to put the boot in. People often thought all to the sorcerer was rage and eating capacity; very few knew how much Soonyoung’s words yesterday had needled at the soft heart he kept locked up tight. “Shut the fuck up,” Jihoon gritted out, slamming his face into the ground over and over again. “You’re fucking disgusting, you piece of shit. If you can’t listen to your betters talk, then just go back to the Cathedral.”

 

Fakerr popped almost delicately for such a big man, and a grief-stricken wail from a young Lander woman acted like a fuse for the crowd. Conversation erupted, confusing Seungcheol at the sudden outburst of tears.

 

“No,” Jisoo said as he leant forward, shackling him by the wrist. “No, let them have this, they’ll find out soon enough about the money and valuables.”

 

Seungcheol felt silent and nodded, letting wiser heads prevail.

 

In the end, it was Mingyu that rescued the day; he cheerfully cooked up a feast in the main square, producing so much food from the hoarded ingredients that that it was a feast fit for kings. Adventurers and Landers alike queued up for the food, but left with so much more: money, tools, ingredients. The gear they kept; Jihoon practically threw the Greed Gauntlets and Five-toed Howl Boots in Soonyoung’s face, which led to the elder chasing ‘Little Grumpy Bear’ around the main room, trying to hug him in thanks.

 

Wonwoo was so tired from the effects of Seungkwan’s spell that he couldn’t move from bed; channelling that much healing had really taken it out of him, which led to Seungkwan practically waiting on him hand and foot, and Mingyu popping in every so often to try and heal him a little.

 

Of them all, Seungcheol felt the happiest when he saw Jun saunter into the building over an hour after the fight had ended. “I was right,” he said without much ado as he sank down at the table across from Seungcheol. “When I made my way past the gold and into the guild building itself, it was still business as normal. All our funds were still available. If we want to join up into a single larger guild, it’s possible. I put most of the items we didn’t want in the auction pile, so that’ll still come in.”

 

Seungcheol grinned. It had really surprised him when Jeonghan explained that Jun was doing an odd double-major in finance and sports medicine because he wanted to open his own series of clubs and that it was due to him that their guild’s finances had prospered so much. “Well done,” he said. “Sorry for keeping you out of the fight.”

 

Jun grinned broadly at him. “You kidding? Stealing that overblown Guild Hall Fakerr needed for his ego was one of the best pranks I could have pulled. Besides, it wasn’t as if this was Ohiro of the Thundering Prisms, you didn’t need four tanks in the fight.”

 

Jeonghan lifted one hand as Jihoon demolished his third bowl of rice and leant sideways to curl up over his lap like an insistent cat. “So that went through? I wasn’t sure if the rules would allow it.”

 

Jun nodded. “The second their assets got claimed I pulled it into Atelier Destiny’s account. It’ll be there waiting for us if we ever want to merge the guilds. It’s kind of filthy though, we’ll have to hire like fifty Maids to help us clean it.” He reached for a hotdog. “But something interesting showed up,” he mentioned idly. “The guild vendor was so happy I was throwing money at him he mentioned that his best buddy was looking for sales as well.”

 

Seungcheol frowned. “I’m still not used to all these sudden relationships the Landers have… who’s his best buddy?”

 

“The estate agent,” Jun said around a mouthful of food. “Turns out players with enough money can purchase buildings now, even on the Korean servers. I took the opportunity to take a walk with him whilst the party was on and make a few small investments, since you gave me access to your guild bank.”

 

Seungcheol boggled. “Buildings are for sale now?”

 

In response, Jun swallowed and treated them to another huge grin, upending a bag that rained keys down on the table. “Happy Whatever,” he intoned. “I got as many as I could with the money our guilds got from Logos; in fact, I think we own like a quarter of town now. I thought we could hire them out. It’ll be a steady stream of income whilst we go and rescue this Chan.”

 

Seungcheol broke out in laughter. It was the best, sneakiest trick he had seen anyone pull since the Cataclysm.

 

They rested for the rest of the day and the whole of the one next, making deals and turning away people that wanted to join their guilds and gearing up for the trip down to Busan. Wonwoo recovered, albeit slowly. Seungkwan was chained to a desk the whole day, creating contracts and stipulating arrangements and a thousand other things. The Chinese duo prowled through the city like hunting cats, wiping out the last few pockets of resistance whilst Soonyoung and Jihoon took it upon themselves to go and gather ingredients. Jeonghan and Jisoo were thick as thieves, politicking and meeting with other guild leaders and Seungcheol…

 

Seungcheol sat down in the small meeting room surrounded by the leaders of the Lander community, trying not to feel uncomfortable as they heaped thanks on their two guilds.

 

“Honestly, it’s been so difficult adjusting, and you guys are so much sturdier than us, it’s been difficult dealing with all the raw aggression. It’s not like Silla or one of the Kingdoms, we’re just a small free city,” the mayor mumbled. Around him, the guild leaders nodded in a chain. “If you hadn’t stepped in…”

 

“No, please don’t thank us,” Seungcheol muttered through his discomfort. “It happened now and the power should be more or less equal again. I’m sorry that it got so bad… you should get along better with the support guilds and supply guilds now, since they have to negotiate with you on space use… please stop mentioning it.”

 

One of the blacksmiths, a man with more muscle on his frame than Seungcheol had ever seen, gave him a firm nod. “You’re a good man, sonny,” he said. “With a good heart. We might not mention it, but we won’t forget it either. You heading on down to Busan then? Gonna do the same?”

 

Seungcheol wavered a hand back and forth. “We’ve got to rescue a friend from a situation down there, the last we heard he was in the Tide King’s Palace, and he’s not speaking to us.”

 

The men around the table looked at each other, faces growing slightly worried. “We can’t be much help there, the water races haven’t spoken to us in centuries, and that’s a nasty place. I can provide a letter though, over my seal, to inform the Busan Landers of what you did for us,” the mayor said. “We can get you cheaper prices, perhaps, and free lodgings. It’s not much…”

 

Seungcheol shook his head again. “It’s more than enough,” he said, sincerely happy about the offer. “Thank you, sir.”

 

On the other side of the table the Guilds’ accountant pinched his lips together. “Hold on a moment.” He stood and disappeared to the confusion of the men, before returning a few moments later with a small, delicate shell pendant. “This belonged to my great-grandmother,” he said, resting it in front of Seungcheol. “Perhaps it will aid you still in the watery depths, as it once aided her.” He hesitated, looking at the circle of grim faces. “Thank you. For rescuing my daughter from what that piece of trash wanted to do to her.”

 

Oh, Seungcheol thought queasily. Oh. Perhaps the one that started crying so much? “I’ll treasure it,” he said out loud, clenching it gently in his fist. “And we’ll use it well.”

 

That night, he handed it to the gentlest person that he knew, sunshine Seokmin, in the hope that it would have a better legacy going forward.

Chapter Text

Compared to the flight from Seoul to the Tombs of Time, thence to Daegu, they had barely gotten on the griffins before Jun motioned for them to circle, then strike out over the ocean and approach the little island of Yeongdo-Gu from the south. Contrary to what it looked like, this one was a spiralling pearl fantasy of carved coral and spiral shells that offset beautifully against Busan’s sprawl. The city was all glass and chrome and futuristic roof gardens, looking far better from the air than it would from ground level.

 

The griffons landed on a small patch of green, shaded grass on the island; Seungcheol very carefully didn’t comment when Mingyu swung Wonwoo off his griffin into his arms. He had been pulse-healing the Cleric for most of the trip; Seungcheol wasn’t sure whether it had been because they were in the game now, or whether Wonwoo’s Ritian body was especially frail for some reason, but Seungkwan had taken one look at him this morning and flatly refused to cast the spell on him until he was well again. He was on strict cartography duty for the day.

 

“…let me know how that goes for you, Hansol-ah,” their Enchanter said as he peered at the inscriptions he had made on the bow. “I don’t know if it’ll hold, but let’s hope, okay? We just have to keep trying the new things!”

 

Soonyoung strutted forward like the tiger he was internally, looking up at the spired, brilliant palace ahead of them. “I’ve never been through here,” he drawled, leaning from side to side to stretch himself warm. “I’ve heard the lower levels are a good place to mob-mine if you want.”

 

Jihoon sauntered up to him; somehow, on him the Shroud of Ashes looked like a simple knee-length robe with anthracite-dark pants on underneath. “It’s in three different areas,” he shared. “A lot of people got through the first stage, even some solo players, but the second area is miserable with mechanics and all sorts of checks. No one on this server’s gotten through to the third part yet, the weapon drop tables were just not worth it. It’s a hell of a long slog, days of being in water up to your ankles and nastiness crawling out of every hole.”

 

Soonyoung whistled. “And you think your brother’s in there? You haven’t even gotten a peep out of him?”

 

Looking away, Jihoon grimaced. “We weren’t friends, okay? I mean, he wasn’t on my friend list nor I his, he was mostly over on the Japanese server practising his language because he wanted to go there as an exchange student. We mostly coordinated via voice-chat.”

 

Seokmin popped up at his other side. “He was on my friends list!” he shared. “But he’s not answering me either, so I don’t know if he just wants to do this on his own or he can’t somehow.”

 

Looking sideways at Jihoon’s unhappy face, Soonyoung continued quickly, skipping over the obviously painful subject. “So what’s the last area? Some kind of super-boss, I’m guessing? I wonder if this changed too.”

 

Hyung,” Hansol said softly, petting Seungkwan’s griffin one last time. “I don’t think it’s going to matter soon, I think we have company.”

 

Jun, alighting, drew his fans with a nod. “You almost have elf-eyes, Hansol-ah,” he praised. “Boss, the mobs are starting to flock, eleven o’ clock.”

 

Jeonghan looked and sighed, brushing his robe down fussily; Seungcheol looked as well, and muttered as he saw what looked like an army of crabs crawl over the nearest dune. “Look alive, everyone!” he called as he ran forward. “Let’s see how quickly we can get through this! Remember how to kill them for the ingredients!”

 

Five hours later, barely past the first half of the first stage, the group lay in one of the resting nooks, each one trying to recover their energy as fast as possible.

 

“I could…” Wonwoo began.

 

Groaning, Mingyu shook his head and raised his staff, planting it into the ground. “Heartbeat healing!” he got out loudly, though his own MP dipped near to the dregs of his pool. “You’re not… well enough…”

 

Wonwoo bit off something that sounded like a curse.

 

Seungkwan, pushing himself upright against Seokmin, groaned. “This dungeon is crazy, so many mobs! That last wave was fifty? Sixty? How do solo players even get through this?”

 

Minghao cleared his throat. “Slow and quiet,” he said snarkily. “Much easier to sneak around. But someone keeps pulling them in waves…” He turned just enough to give Soonyoung and Jihoon, who had been treating it as a personal competition, the evil eye.

 

“You’re just salty because you can't handle much AoE,” Soonyoung jibed back as he twisted and crunched, trying to unkink his spine. “This is refreshing! Besides, it’s not like we can make a beeline for the higher levels, we have to check every corner to see if the kid’s holed up somewhere! Come on guys, it’s just been a few hours! Take a catnap or something, I’ll keep watch!”

 

Jisoo, drooped over the convex curve of a shell-looking couch, fought one eye open to look at Jeonghan. “Really, how do you deal with that energy on a constant basis?”

 

“I don’t,” Jeonghan grumbled back; he shifted to get comfortable, which made Jihoon give a little growl as his nap was disturbed. “I just point him at dragons. And why am I the designated pillow suddenly?”

 

Seungcheol prayed for wisdom and patience, then for hard alcohol. Neither materialised. “He just does that.”

 

“Like knows like, you’re both lazy, hyung~” Seungkwan muttered from the side, though he had his head on Seokmin’s thigh and seemed disinclined to leave.

 

“Okay, enough!” Seungcheol said hastily as a fight threatened to break out. “Two hours downtime. Soonyoung-ah, thank you, please time us. Wonwoo-ya, if you’re itching to do something sit down and concentrate on healing yourself and updating the map. I don’t want to hear that cough again, or a sound out of anyone else. Sleep.”

 

Silence fell between them, broken only by Soonyoung’s footsteps as he wandered and kept guard. Even those stilled after a while, and sleep gently came for them. In the distance, as the mobs circled on their spawn paths and the tide slowly receded, the white-noise rumble of the waves sounded muted in the pearl-grey fog that rose through the corridors.

 

Seokmin woke up some time later, feeling tired and cranky and worse than he had when he fell asleep. There was something warm on his lap, and a questing hand soon sank into warm hair. He opened his eyes muzzily in the room, blinking slowly. It did nothing to drive away the nacreous, glowing fog that lay thick in the room. He couldn’t see much beyond an arm length; when he sat up, groaning, the others were still out cold.

 

He blinked again, trying to help Seungkwan to sit up. The younger guy didn’t so much as budge, not even when he managed to drape him against the wall. He creaked when he stood, moving to check the others. Jun, then Jihoon and Hansol; all out cold. Seungcheol, Jeonghan and Jisoo lay in a tangle together, so quiet that he panicked at first, not seeing their chests move. The others lay scattered on the sandy edge between inlet beach and ankle-high, lapping water. Jeonghan’s long hair lay in it, drifting slowly like seaweed, and everyone he checked felt cold and clammy to the touch.

 

Panicking despite his weariness, he dragged them as high onto the little beach that had been flat, somewhat-comfortable ground only hours later. It was impossible to tell time from the room itself, and he had never had a spell to tell time. He called up the party menu with trembling fingers, frowning at the paua shell blue that hung over everyone. The fog was thick with it and he felt the pressure against him again, softly encouraging him to sleep, to dream of things not of this world. Though the pressure was soft it felt immerse. His knees buckled as he tried to fight it, but to no avail. He fell over Junhui’s long legs, nearly crashed his face into the sand and landed on his side with a dull grunt.

 

The menu screen wavered in and out in front of his eyes as he tried to remain awake. There was something hard against the curve of his cheekbone, something irritating beyond the soft sand and the immense, nostalgic pressure.

 

He breathed out, tried to shift away, and landed with his ear on the hard object.

 

It felt like someone ripped a veil from his senses. Instantly he was as clear-witted as normal and the fog was just cold, just mystifying, not a beacon of lassitude. He could move his limbs and did, reaching one hand beneath him to find whatever pressed against him. Cautiously, gently, he pulled it out and stared down at the shell of the necklace Seungcheol had given him for safekeeping. It was pulsing ever so faintly, feeling warm and smooth in the curve of his hand. Wondering, he raised it to his ear and closed his eyes at the song coming from it.

 

It was low and sweet and drugging itself. The singer had an odd timbre to their voice, until even his trained ear couldn’t hear whether they were male or female. It seemed the exact counterpoint to whatever was in the fog. Praying desperately, he clasped it to his chest and began to softly sing with.

 

It wasn’t like the bright shimmer of notes he could normally coax from his bardic songs. Instead, the magic that flowed dropped and swirled in a pool on the ground, slowly chasing the fog away. It flowed up and over the small beach, folding over his friends like a golden blanket. Sifting in through their skin, he watched as the magic of the song revived them, pushing their HP and MP up. They stirred slowly in a bundle as he fought not to cry, keeping the song up as they knuckled sleep out of their eyes.

 

Seungkwan’s gaze found his, pure gold for just a fraction of a second, before he inhaled to start singing with. His voice was smoky-sweet in his chest register, not quite as trained as Seokmin’s, but still beautiful. They meshed together effortlessly, creating a conduit of magic that flowed from one to the other as the Enchanter spun out magic for the Bard to use in his cleansing song. It finally pushed the fog back, flushing it from the cavern, and revealing that they had somehow been moved in their sleep.

 

The little inlet beach was tiny against the far reaches of the cavern, and beyond a thin barrier reef of jagged rocks lay a deep, dark pool. Something was churning at the water and as they watched, horrified, a thing crept out of the water onto a spit of rock in the middle of the pool. It was both massive and not, mouth filled with broken teeth and hair lanky strands of ugly brown seaweed. The body was fish-nibbled enough that none could say whether it was male or female.

 

“That voice!” it hissed as it scrabbled for purchase, mad purple eyes glinting. “That accursed voice! How dare you bring that here!”

 

Wonwoo’s voice sounded even as he was pressed back by his fellows to the back of the group. “Level unknown!” he called to warn them. “Optional boss, all I get is the name, Hado of the Pelagic Depths! No information on resistances!”

 

“Buffs!” Seungcheol yelled as looked around for his armour, eyes widening. “Our gear, where’s our gear? Jisoo, golems now!”

 

Twelve panicked faces looked around; of all of them, only Seokmin seemed still to have his on.

 

Seungkwan stepped forward, clapped his hands together and pulsed magic through the space between. “Astral Bind!” he yelled as a lash of pure white energy struck out at the Witch. It latched onto the misshapen body, twining around it, and yanked it down onto the spit of rock. “Hyung!” he yelled as he kept channeling the spell. “Five seconds, it’s resisting!”

 

Jihoon leapt up, mana coiling around him as he ran towards the crown of stone teeth protecting their little inlet. His hair flashed white, his eyes silver as he cartwheeled over it. “Blizzard!” he roared out as he came down, releasing the spell as his boots touched the dark water. Ice burst into being as he channelled the spell not at the Witch but at the water, flash-freezing a small path to the rock.

 

Soonyoung didn’t pause to thank him. Instead, accelerating as he ran over the ice, he jumped almost to the ceiling of the cavern and came down with boots blazing. “Wyvern Kick!” he shouted as the force he gathered impacted against the Witch’s body, kicking it clean off the little spit of land. It snapped the last strands of Seungkwan’s Astral Bind as it went, allowing the Monk to land on the precarious jut of rock.

 

Hyung!” Minghao yelled as he ran over the thin bridge of ice, already flickering into shadows. “There on the other side, look!”

 

Seungcheol’s head snapped around. “What?” he asked Jun at his side. “What, I can’t see what he means!”

 

Jun narrowed his eyes as a large whirlpool started in the water. “There’s a chest there! It looks… it looks… I can see Angel’s Bane!”

 

“Everyone, quick!” Seungcheol roared as he struggled through the water to the bridge, boots thudding on it. “Jihoon-ah!”

 

From behind a scream as Jeonghan slipped and fell into the dark water, limbs flailing until he could haul himself back again. His skin looked red and boiled as he crawled to safety. “Acid…!” he gurgled. “The water is acid!”

 

Mingyu sank down at his side, hand glowing as he cast a healing spell, though his eyes were focused on their weapon users running over the shrinking ice.

 

From beneath, what looked like ten diseased kelpies came, hungry hands reaching to try and pull them into the water. Jihoon dodged, sank down and rested his palm just above the water as Soonyoung stood over him, protecting him for a second. “Black depth of the moon, icy rays that weep like tears…” he mumbled, trying to hasten through the casting time.

 

“What the ding-dong fuck?” Mingyu yelled at Wonwoo. “Why is he incanting, why doesn’t he just cast and go!”

 

Their Cleric bit his lip, ignoring the Druid for a moment. “Seungkwan!” he yelled as Jisoo’s golems phased into being and sat at the ridge of teeth, making an impressive shield for the back row. “He’s going to draw deep!”

 

Mingyu watched, concerned, as their Enchanter sank down on his knees in the shallow pool of water at the edge of the safe zone. He watched him bite his lip, close his eyes and stick his bare hands in the acidic water. “Soul Sublimation,” he whispered, and the world lit up around them.

 

It felt as if he ripped every single ounce of mana out of the atmosphere around them. The rocks bleached and crumbled, the water dessicated, and his own reserves dropped like a stone as Seungkwan started channeling mana. It was none too soon; over on the spit of land, Jihoon did precisely the same. “… open the golden heart of the Nightmare Realm – Invocation: Ninth Layer of Hell!”

 

The vapour and ice and leftover water in the room sublimated as a dark howl came. It breathed ice into what was left, sheeting so fast over the depthless lake of acidic water that the two barely yanked their hands free in time. Further it grew, forming like craquelure crystals over the kelpies that screamed and froze, until the room darkened and set into place and they seemed locked in an inverted dome of glittering black crystal. The two magic users fell back, both clearly spent, but they had bought a moment for their party to get ready.

 

“Seungkwan has always been gifted at manipulating mana,” Wonwoo said distantly to Mingyu as he watched the Medium go and heal the Enchanter’s tattered and blistered hands. “You’ve heard of that group on the Japanese server, the Debauchery Tea Party?” At Mingyu’s hesitant nod, he sighed softly. “At the height of their prowess, there were few guilds that could stand with their clear times; of those on our server, the Keleni whose symbol was a poppy bleeding red, was their only real competition.”

 

Mingyu grimaced. “I’ve heard of them. There were rumours that they used exploits to achieve their clears, and the leaders had a really bad name amongst the community but nothing could ever be proven? When the game creators suddenly disbanded them months later and negated their clear times, there were rumours that the police had to get involved. That was... just a few months before the ninth expansion rolled out?”

 

Wonwoo grimaced. “Yeah, shortly after that enchanters got that massive nerf into Taoshi in the ninth and the real-life auction house was removed to ‘help balance game dynamics’? The player behind Keleni’s guildmaster totally lost it when his main source of money dried up. Made a lot of guesses and threats at the time.” His eyes found the back of Seungkwan’s head. “Two months later he made good on those threats and tracked down the boy in his guild that reported on their activities, and he nearly killed him before his mother came home from work. The game developers heard, and reverted the boy’s account as an apology.”

 

“What? But…”

 

“Even then he couldn’t touch a PC for years. Jihoon-ah used to tutor him offline for hours. He and Seungcheol only recently got him to play again, and now this happened. Regardless, he’s the only true Enchanter left on this server and even then, Seungkwanie is extremely good at it. However, that group selling the EXP pots, Primacy? They’re the leftovers of Keleni. He's frightened out of his mind, but he's still fighting, and he's fighting hard because for once, he trusts us.”

 

Mingyu’s heart felt as if it wanted to crumple; his eyes wanted to water but he angrily dashed them clean and stepped forward to help heal instead.

Chapter Text

They moved quickly to the other side of the large, iced-over cavern as something kept banging in the depths, making it boom like a drum. When they got to safety, everyone equipped instantly, leaving the two spellcasters right at the back of the group. “Our DPS is going to be lower,” Seungcheol said, shrugging on armour. “Seokmin-ah, Hansol-ah, you’ll have to concentrate on buffing and debuffing as much as possible until we find out what sticks. Wonwoo-ya…”

 

Wonwoo frowned. “I can manage healing for one fight,” he said stoutly if quietly. “Especially if Soonyoung-hyung tanks, he’s more of an evasion tank in any case.”

 

Just beyond them the ice creaked and cracked and buckled, but did not break, despite the increasingly furious blows from beneath.

 

Jeonghan pulled his robes straight and pulled Wisteria Switch as Jisoo tied his hair back for him quickly. “With Jihoon-ah out of the picture Minghao-ah’s our best chance for massive burst damage,” he muttered as he examined his weapon. “We can deal with any mobs that show up, and keep up damage, if you can swing it around to a position favourable to him.”

 

Minghao, never the loudest, marched to the edge of the beach to look around quickly, frowning. “There,” he said, stabbing his finger towards where a jutting piece of crystal made a small perch. “I can get there quickly enough and wait.”

 

Seungcheol nodded at the quick plan and looked around, smiling at them. “Guys, we can do this,” he said earnestly. “I firmly believe we can do this. We’re working well together, and we’ve already accomplished so much in this new world...” He paused as the crystalline ice creaked and groaned. “I know we’ll do fine, without returning to the Cathedral, okay? Three-two-one… fighting!”

 

“Fighting!” the others roared as a patch of ice on the far side of the room splintered and finally gave up the good fight. Minghao disappeared, footsteps without sound, and the tanks rushed out onto the remaining ice to go and face Hado.

 

“You know,” Jeonghan said to Wonwoo, waiting for the signal for DPS to rush in. “I’m not sure what pisses me off more, that he’s so good at leading or that he’s so sincere about it. This would have been vastly easier if you lot were all assholes.”

 

Amidst the sounds of ‘Anchor Howl!’, ‘Rainbow Arabesque!’ and ‘Purification Barrier!’, Wonwoo took a moment from party management to grin at him. “Too late to turn back now. You’re up, Jeonghan-hyung!”

 

“Come on, Mingyu-ya,” Jeonghan grinned as he moved to charge over the still-standing ice. “Let’s go and show these raid-heads how it’s done.”

 

Hado of the Pelagic Depths turned into a nightmare fight. It was only the ice of earlier that kept them on a level playing surface, and it had several attacks that nearly wiped the party, including an attack with tentacles that flailed up from the dark, which cracked more and more ice as it went on, and a dark ink attack that not only blocked their sight but stung at every bit of exposed skin with a corrosive fervour. Soonyoung and Jun were starting to look like lobsters; it was when the monk visibly flagged for the first time Seungcheol ever saw him that he motioned him back a step or two, switching back in again with Angel’s Bane already glowing.

 

“Castle of Stone,” he roared, stepping between Jeonghan and an attack, and closed his eyes. We can do this, he prayed to himself. We can do this, we can. I believe in us, in all the guys behind me…

 

The tentacles tore at his absolute defense; he wasn’t going to last long, but he had faith in his people, faith… he could hear Hansol frantically cleanse debuffs from Soonyoung and Jun and it bought him a moment of clarity, just enough for a thought to traipse into his mind. Wonwoo had been too busy healing in tandem with Mingyu, the last few minutes had been crazy. Perhaps Seokmin…

 

Seokmin.

 

Seungcheol:: Seokmin-ah, try that song that you heard earlier! Can you channel your magic as you sing it?

Seokmin:: I… hyung, are you sure? I’m barely keeping ahead of the buffs here…

Seungcheol:: Just try it, Seokmin-ah, I think it’s the catch for this encounter, seeing as no one else ever reported it!

 

For a moment Seokmin’s voice stopped, faltered, but picked up again, swelling low and sweet and powerful. It reverberated over the noise of the fight in a peculiar fashion as Seokmin sang. Slowly, so slowly they almost missed it, the pendant around his neck started glowing as well, radiating a powerful golden light. Hado screeched and spat, but the golden mist started weighing its limbs down, pushing it further and further into somnolence. From the ice below spirits rose up, rippling between aqua and pale pink, creating a tight shell around it.

 

From far above, clinging to one of the crystals like a cat, Minghao leapt down as if possessed, boss finally in the right position. In his hands the thin, slim spear he fought with flashed with all the colours of nacre separating out into three prongs of white light. “Assassinate!” he yelled, voice larger than his Ritian body should have been able to accommodate, and the sound when he struck Hado in the back of the neck was immense. It belled out, resounding in the cavern as he cut down through the diseased body. As it exploded, a white ghost-image lingered, showing a beautiful woman for barely a second before it disappeared.

 

The sound in the cavern shattered the ice crystals that still lingered, creating a flurry of mana. The shell on Seokmin’s chest, still glowing, channelled it back into itself and cleared their view, revealing a small, beautiful lagoon with a staircase leading up to what looked like the next level. The water, no longer acidic, brightened to something that looked like the tropics, washing gently against the pearl staircase. Along its length, the sinuous shape of golden bodies complete with long, fishy tails caught the light of the setting sun, sparkling like a dream.

 

“Uwhaaaaa,” Mingyu exclaimed as he straightened, supporting a limping Soonyoung. “Oh my god, that’s so beautiful.” Jeonghan, Hwarang robes rustling in the gentle breeze, turned and turned, hair reflecting the sunshine colours as Seungcheol clapped Minghao on the shoulder.

 

“Dude,” Jihoon choked out, standing for the first time since the massive expenditure of magic earlier, and went to do the same. “Dude, that was awesome.”

 

Hansol, returning to Seungkwan’s side, frowned at the paleness of his skin and took slim hands in his, examining them for blemishes from the earlier acid. “Next time don’t be such a show-off,” he muttered, and got a weak eye-roll for his trouble. “I almost couldn’t heal that.”

 

Jun, examining the chest that had appeared at the bottom of the staircase, paused and looked up, shading his eyes against the dusk light as he did so. “Hey!” he called behind him. “Jihoon-ah, Seokmin-ah, look up… there, do you see what looks like the second level, that section of chevron glass? Just beyond it, does that look like a guy fighting a merman?”

 

Jihoon and Seokmin rushed him, heads craning as they tried to see the spot he was looking at. It was a little difficult, especially with Jun’s elf eyes, but Jihoon’s indrawn breath was all Seokmin needed to know.

 

“He’s… he’s alive,” their sorcerer said. “Oh my god, Channie’s alive…”

 

For the first time since the groups melded together, they saw Lee Jihoon cry with sheer happiness as Junhui gently wiped his tears away.

 

Jisoo leant down to touch the chest gently and sat back on his haunches as it faded away. In its place, stacked neatly, lay a large pile of gold, a lot of ingredients from pieces of shell to pearls, as well as a pair of light gloves in a celadon colour, intricately stitched in seemingly random patterns and a scrolling pattern of waves around the edge. “These are new,” he murmured, picking them up. “Celadon Gauntlets,” he pronounced. “They increase MP flow and shorten spells that involve water somehow. Anyone want them?”

 

Mingyu, nodding, took them from him and very gently tucked them into the back of a crying Jihoon’s belt. “He’ll want them later on,” he defended his choice.

 

Turning back from his stretch, Jeonghan glanced over the water to the futuristic city of Busan behind the palace. “I think this is a true safe point,” he said. “It even looks like we can fly back to the city from here?”

 

Wonwoo meandered up to his side. “I agree… most raids have them anyway, as resupply points if nothing else. This is one of the most sprawling dungeons ever developed, especially the lower chambers, so it makes sense even if we skipped all the other bosses down there.”

 

“Do we resupply, or do we push on?” Seungcheol asked. “How’s everyone’s inventories?”

 

In a rare moment of safe party management, the two groups sat down and sorted through all their things, cleaning up and consolidating all the ingredients they’ve been able to get. There was more than enough fresh fish and octopus and eel for Mingyu to make a few days’ good meals, and enough space that everyone agreed to push on for now.

 

The staircase up to the second level was refreshing even though Jeonghan complained about the number of stairs, to the point where Seungcheol just piggy-backed him up there to make him shut up. They had lovely views the whole way up, right to what looked like an ornately-gilded balcony that had odd-looking chairs on one end and an entrance into the castle on the other, currently filled with filmy curtains.

 

Minghao was the first to near one of the windows to the inside, peeking through. “This room is empty. It’s not familiar, but… some of the angles seem almost Chinese?”

 

“To be expected,” Hansol said as he peeked into the room. “Rococo as an artform and a style of architecture, which this is, was partially influenced by chinoiserie, which was largely a European interpretation of Chinese and other East Asian artistic traditions. It’s mainly a style known for its decorative excess, but I guess it fits with the location, even though I like modern lines better… what?” He looked around at the faces staring at him. “What?”

 

Seokmin stared at him with big eyes. “I think that’s the most we ever heard you say, Hansol-ah, how do you know what this is?”

 

Hansol coloured. “I had to take a few additional courses for my journalism degree,” he mumbled. “History of Art and Architecture.”

 

Seungcheol’s lips twitched with mirth and he shook his head as he led the way into the chamber. From the inside, the floor sloped inward noticeably; the room itself seemed more a decorated passageway than an actual room, and at the far end there was a large, sinuously-twined golden archway. He cautiously led the way through the room – some kind of gallery – and to the archway, motioning Minghao on inside with a jut of his chin before he peeked in as well.

 

The room inside was massive, seemingly the entire core of the palace’s structure, and filled with water like an aquarium. There was light everywhere, lent both by twinkling globes of magic as well as the refracted beams of dusk, and reminded him of nothing so much as a gigantic aquarium. A look down showed him no end to the depth – it seemed to go through into the real sea – and a look up had a domed ceiling with intricate paintwork depicting some kind of sea god surrounded by a lot of fat cherubs and all kinds of mythical sea life. From his angle, through the water, it looked almost as if they were moving slightly, hair floating serenely. Down below something bobbed, looking like a gigantic, submerged clamshell.

 

Jisoo peeked past his shoulder at the slow, stately way the kelp in the water danced in a pavane. “I wouldn’t like to fight in there. It’s going to be a pain in the ass to stay afloat. I wonder if that’s what the balconies are for.” Softer, almost whispered, “What was that between you and Hannie earlier?”

 

“Perhaps,” Seungcheol muttered, giving a quick touch to his waist before pulling back. He didn’t answer the second; instead, looking around for Jun and Minghao, he motioned to them. “Jun-ah, in which direction did you see the two fighting from here? Minghao-ya, will you scoot ahead and tell Chan-ah that we’re on our way and ask for him to wait, please? I don’t know if this place is anything like the Tombs of Time, but it might be he’s also stuck in a resurrection loop here.”

 

Jun craned his head and nodded, pointing out the direction to Minghao, who disappeared immediately.

 

The main group carefully slipped into the empty room, staying on the balcony. They spread out a little, two-two, identifying the other exits out of the room.

 

Hansol, bow in hand, was the one that found the main staircase leading down hidden behind a pair of ornate doors, and opened them on a crack to look back. “There’s a whole courtyard out there,” he said. “Different gardens and little sitting areas, but it’s deserted, and the place still hasn’t reset appearance, someone went through there with a great deal of extreme prejudice.”

 

Soonyoung padded over and peeked through beneath his chin. “Normally the server would just spawn an additional instance for each group. I guess that’s not happening any more, or it takes more time? Pity.”

 

Hyung,” Seungkwan sniffed. “You’re crazy.” He bent down to mark the exit with a sigil, stepping back afterwards before catching a glimpse and crowding close. “Lemme see?”

 

Hansol obligingly stepped back a little, nudging him into place next to Soonyoung with a touch to his waist. “See?”

 

“Mm,” Seungkwan agreed. “It looks so pretty, perfect for picnics. I wonder why mermaids need a normal garden though…”

 

“Guys,” Jeonghan called across the large room. “Come on, I don’t want Minghao-ah too get too far ahead of us.”

Chapter Text

They followed along in Jeonghan’s wake, trailing deeper into the building. It was quiet as they went, but signs of battle became clearer as they went on, until they caught up with the main party at a crossroads.

 

“…you get an item off the guy in this room,” Minghao said as they rocked up. “The guy left through the left-most door just as I entered, but when I tried it, it was locked. I don’t know if we’re going to get the same with the way enemies don’t seem to be spawning. We might have to… what are you doing?” he stuttered to a stop as Soonyoung meandered up to the leftmost door, considering his foot, then the door. “You can’t just…”

 

Soonyoung kicked the door again and again; on the third, most furious kick it simply split in half, hanging sadly off its hinges on one side.

 

The rest of the party stared at him, wide-eyed.

 

“Skeleton key,” he explained with a happy, squinty-eyed grin as he wandered through.

 

Jisoo, hanging back, stared at the door, then the devastated-looking Minghao, then Jun’s laughing face. “Out of sheer curiosity,” he said softly as the party streamed through. “He doesn’t know that he’s not supposed to be able to do that, right?”

 

Jun slung an arm over his shoulders as they wandered forward. “Oh, Soonyoung-ah might act like he’s thicker than two bricks put together, but he’s really not. It wouldn’t have worked on a real server, but we’re not on a server anymore, are we?” His brows knit. “Or are we? Things are confusing. But regardless, he probably saw room damage and just decided to go for it. I… whoa, that’s a big crab.”

 

In the next room, which seemed oddly large, a massive crab lounged in the midst of a rockery, belly flat on beach-sand and humongous claws relaxed in front of it. There was no boss information on it either, just a little sleeping animation over its head, with two staircases leading up and around towards the next level. Behind it, pressed into the furthest corner of the room, a small treasure-trove of gold and gems, with an item stuck in the pile here and there. Just to one side of that, a small pond that changed into a stream as it flowed out of the castle’s closest balcony, turning into an impromptu, never-ending waterfall.

 

The party huddled close around one edge, staying as far as possible from the crab.

 

Mingyu:: Are we attacking or sneaking around? I have plenty of supplies, but that’s a lot of gold…

Jihoon:: How did it even get up here in the first place?

Hansol:: What does it live off?

Jeonghan:: Off adventurers. We don’t need that much gold.

Seungcheol:: Well… not exactly true…

Jisoo:: We spent most of it on the buildings back in Daegu. We’re going to need a lot of money if we want to do the same here.

Seokmin:: It hasn’t done anything to us, hyungdeul. Perhaps we should go around and get to Chan a little quicker... we just need to wipe out the last boss, right? We can skip all of these.

Seungkwan:: Not all the time, sometimes bosses can attack you if you try to bypass them, or they drop an item that you need to defeat them…

Wonwoo:: It didn’t wake up when we entered despite the noise so it’s likely asleep by magical means. We really should just go around. Only problem is the noise if Soonyoung-hyung has to kick that door open again.

 

Grimacing at each other, the party did a quick round of kai-bai-bo which Jeonghan won, so the Hwarang motioned them up and around. They snuck up the one staircase as quietly as they could, not daring to employ any skills that could cause it to aggro, and had almost reached the door when a whisper of sound came.

 

Minghao:: There’s a staircase up the outside here if you jump over to the next balcony. It’s not that far, maybe two metres.

Seokmin:: Oh hell no. No no no.

Jun:: I’m with him. What if we fall?

Seungcheol:: We still have Adventurer bodies, but it’d be a pain to have to get up. Rather come back, Minghao-ah.

 

Minghao was sulking just a little when he joined them again, but Soonyoung tiptoed to the door and tried to open it sneakily. There was no creak. What there was seemed to be a young mermaid, who took one look at them and screamed her head off. Behind them, the crab woke suddenly with a rushing sound of gold tinkling off to the side. Soonyoung, wide-eyed, tried to slam the door back shut but Jeonghan and Jisoo put their shoulders to the back of the crowd, pushing them into the mermaid’s room and slamming the door shut.

 

They rushed off to the side and her balcony, tumbling out onto it in a huge knot of people; when Seungkwan nervously turned to bow and babble apologies Mingyu wasted little time in hooking him closer by the collar, shutting the balcony door as well. Hearing the crab flail and thrash about in an attempt to get to them, they stumbled up the balcony’s staircase, hands tight around the railing as the tower shook. Right at the top, rushing into what looked like a playroom of sorts, they collapsed still in that knot, trying to get their breath back.

 

“I don’t ever want to… Seokkie, what is it?” Jeonghan asked as he stared at the wide-eyed Bard, who was looking out one of the large windows across the room from them. There, stretching from the main body of the palace to the one they were in, was a thin, silvery-blue bridge. The longer he looked, the more it dawned on him that it was a glass bridge, intricately carved and decorated, with nothing likely holding it up but magic. “Oh. Oh, well that’s something.”

 

Hyung,” Seokmin whispered. “No way. I can’t.”

 

Rolling to his feet, Minghao went to investigate. Seconds later he started jumping up and down on it like a bug, likely to test its give.

 

Jun whimpered and looked away.

 

Seungcheol frowned and hunkered down to Jun, cupping the nape of his neck with one hand. “Hey,” he said softly. “Hey, it’s okay…”

 

“Shit,” came Jihoon’s voice, sounding deeply impressed. “He’s actually tumbling along it.”

 

Sometimes, Seungcheol thought longingly, I wish I could give them all a firm kick. Out loud, still clasping Jun’s neck, he sighed. “Rest here for a while,” he decided. “Just a little while. We’ll cross on the griffins if we have to. Minghao-ah…”

 

Hyung, it’s totally safe!” Minghao called as he hopped to his feet and did the same set of cartwheeling tumbles back to delighted applause and laughter from Jihoon. “Look!”

 

“Come back here!” Seungcheol called. “And come and sit down like a normal person, we have to wait for everything to de-aggro first!”

 

They spent some time there, waiting fifteen minutes before they made their way across the thin bridge. On one side, holding tightly to Hansol, Jun crossed with his eyes shut; on the other, Seokmin was so nervous that he kept babbling about dying, hiding his face in Soonyoung’s neck as the monk piggy-backed him across to the accompaniment of Minghao’s jeering ‘Just die then!’. Grateful to be back in the trunk of the main palace again, albeit a lot higher than last time, they snuck inside and through into what looked like a delicate lady’s solar, filled with soaring windows that had only gauzy blinds in front of them, pink and green wall panels that contrasted with the nacre of the palace walls, and the longest, strangest couch any of them had ever seen.

 

Jisoo wandered over to it, pressing slightly on the curve of it. “It feels like memory foam,” he murmured, pulling his fingers back and rubbing his fingertips together. “But wet too, and warm, like it’s enchanted to keep one temperature. Perhaps for the frills that don’t have very good blood temperature regulation? Whatever this liquid is, it’s not water, it feels more like glycerine… ah, no no no,” he muttered, pulling Jeonghan back from it. “No sleeping right now.”

 

Jeonghan gave him a haughty ‘I wasn’t even thinking of that’ smile and edged away from the couch. “You’re so mean, Joshuji, so mean and so wrong…”

 

In front, peeking through the door that led into the next room, Junhui frowned at what he could see.

 

Junhui:: The room’s some kind of dining room from what I can see. There are these tanks along the side, with sea creatures in them like at those upscale restaurants, and a sunken table with a hole underneath and strange harness-chairs? They look like they’re meant to hold merfolk upright whilst they eat. There’s only a … watch out!

 

The room they were in swirled, doors opening and water surged forth from the room beyond to drag them in. In a flurry of limbs, they spun around the room trapped in the undertow, until the room’s water cleared and they could get a better view.

 

“Welcome,” a voice said from the side. “To the Mad King’s Banquet. I’m Commander Bathys of the Pelagic Depths, and I’ve had the kitchens prepare a special meal for the Adventurers that defeated my sister.”

 

Seungcheol tried to lurch forward, only to be held back, and he looked down at the chair that held onto him with fear.

 

“Damn,” Minghao groaned across the table. “We just had to go and trigger an Event.”

 

The merman that had spoken sneered down his nose at Jeonghan; he slowly glided off the ramp at one end of the room as music swelled, haunting and lovely. Around the edges of the room the water in the aquariums began to swirl as well, slowly growing darker and darker. Off to one side, almost exactly across Seungcheol’s spot, Hansol leant closer to Jisoo. “Hyung,” he muttered. “What’s an event?”

 

Jisoo, eyes on the merman’s slow approach, spoke from the corner of his mouth. “Sometimes in dungeons and raids, you trigger special content because you met conditions previously in another dungeon or a raid instance. They’re called Special Events. People try and trigger them on purpose because they generally have better loot and rewards, like Mingyu probably triggered that one when he got into the hidden cooking area and you guys got that extra recipe. In this case, likely because we were the first ones to kill Hado.”

 

Seungcheol let the words flow over him as he eyed the merman still gliding closer to them. He had a typical fighter’s build, strong shoulders and muscled arms; where his waist moved into his tail the muscles moved oddly but still beautifully, showing off small, glimmering scales. He had an impressive set of armour on, intricately chased and decorated, neatly sashed with an intricate silk wrap low around his torso. Instead of the warrior’s weapon he would have expected, there was only a single extremely decorated dagger thrust through the sash.

 

A feeling of cold wetness made him look down, and his eyes rounded as he saw the water they hung over slowly start rising up from its previous level at their ankles. There was movement down there, the suggestion of shapes darting like little fish…

 

…no, wait. They were fish; less the fish that ate dead skin from feet and more the type to eat whole feet in seconds, like those little ones you found in the Amazon. “Feet out the water!” he yelled at his party, curling his legs up to rest them on the table itself. Some found it easy, like lanky Jun. Others, like Jihoon, yelped and writhed as they tried to get some kind of purchase for their feet. He grunted as the holds of the chairs bit into his torso. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite…

 

“Don’t bother to fight,” the merman sneered. “It’ll only hasten your death, and I want to play first. And don’t think you’re going to resurrect, you worthless scum. When my fish eat you, your souls will be lost forever!”

 

His eyes widened as Minghao curled improbably upwards, torso so thin that it seemed to slip free; it was only when he saw him perch on top of the chair, body outlined in a dark purple glow, that he realised the Assassin had used one of his shadow skills to get free from the trap. He struggled anew, trying to bust through it from strength alone, when he heard a short, quick scream of pain. As the descending merman laughed, his gaze flashed to Seungkwan, who had accidentally slipped his feet back into the water, and paid for it with strips of flesh raked away from them.

 

Seungcheol fought in earnest, but couldn’t get free. Even Soonyoung, physically the strongest in the party, couldn’t break the restraints on them. Minghao was trying to free Jun, the closest to him, but no matter how he hacked at the restraints of the chair he couldn’t get them free. The merman sidled closer, reached to his waist to pull the dagger, and Seungcheol saw black, trying so hard to wrestle free that it felt as if he faded out.

 

No, those are the restraints, they’re squeezing in, the tiny logical portion to his mind said. It must be a special condition, one only Assassins can get out of…

 

Through his darkening vision he very faintly heard the sound of Minghao trying to go one on one with the merman, but all that caused was the sound of a body hitting one of the tanks and a scream as it broke, sending water all around them. More screams from the less-armoured members of his party, and the faint, horrible desire not to die, despite knowing logically that he’d wake up in the Cathedral... If the guy had been lying, and there wasn’t some strange non-resurrection thing going on.

 

He closed his eyes gritted his teeth, fighting fiercely against the restraints with all his might, desperate to save his party. There was a strange roar in the air, a snarl of rage he hadn’t heard coming from himself in a long time, and an almighty crash as someone shouted out Japanese. He paid it little attention, digging deep, calling up all the willpower that had once been the only thing keeping him alive.

 

The restraints shattered like a cannon exploding as he roared, bursting the coral off him. The blackness faded slowly, but it didn’t matter. He could feel his people in the strings of his heart, in the protect-protect-protect of his instincts that thundered. He tasted it in the blood that flowed over his tongue. No, it insisted adamantly. Protect my people. I have to protect my pack.

 

Down in the depths of his being something stirred, opened red eyes, and roared up past the control he normally kept on his instincts.

 

“Heart of the Mountain!”

 

The darkness exploded away from him, everything seen dimly through a red haze. He howled, Angel’s Bane already shrieking as it swung over his shoulder, and he jumped for the bastard that hurt his people. There was another figure there, one he didn’t recognise, but it hastily got out of the way as he locked eyes with the small, dark, falling figure.

 

Minghao looked at him in that endless second and nodded, feinting from attack to a trap that pulled the merman open for a split second.

 

Seungcheol’s lips formed around words he had never spoken before, but often felt in his heart.

 

“Pack Leader’s Price!” he roared as he sliced down-down-down through the merman’s astonished face, catching the dagger with his flesh and bones. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel pain, but that he didn’t value it above the pain and safety of his pack; that came first.

 

The merman exploded, rocking the room, and the entire grisly setup disappeared as he landed in the parts that clattered and splattered to the floor. He fell in it too, hard enough that his knees slipped and his cheek and lupine ears slide through blood and gore as he lay there, trying to understand what had happened. His mind was absolutely blank – he had no idea how the dagger still in him got there, or what had made the room look like a devastation zone, or… or… or who the people were? There was a short guy kneeling next to him frantically unlacing his armour, clad in what looked like Japanese armour right down to the little split-toed sandals.

 

He curled his lip and flinched away, snarling with the pain.

 

Another guy clattered down as, improbably, a tree of what looked like light grew in the midst of the ruined room. This one had kind eyes and a summoner’s robes on, and when he stretched a hand out to Seungcheol the smell of familiarity overwhelmed him.

 

Pack, something in him insisted. Pack. Friend. Brother.

 

Memory roiled sluggishly, but spat up a name. “Jisoo…?” he managed to get out, spitting out blood. “Jisoo, what happened? How did I get here?”

 

Behind Jisoo Jihoon-ah had the strange young man in a headlock, hugging the stuffing out of him.

 

“Holy shit,” a very tall man breathed, eyes wide. “Holy shit, what was that?” Mingyu.

 

Jisoo helped Seungcheol up as his memories slowly ebbed back – names, at least, if not what had happened.

 

“That was a Final Strike,” Minghao said through quivering lips, coming around to help him into a standing position with Jisoo’s help. “I’ve never seen an Adventurer do it before.”

 

Seungcheol struggled forward, trying to get to Seungkwan, something insistent that he had been injured. Between one step and the next he passed out, utterly tired.

Chapter Text

Seungkwan whimpered and crawled to his knees, trying not to move his feet too much. The tree of life was healing him in pulses but it was still sore as fuck, and he knew if he looked at it he’d see bone and fat and muscle, not just skin. Everyone seemed in shock, not just himself, though Jihoon-hyung had long since recovered enough to go and hug the Samurai that had appeared. It was gone, the hideous nightmare of flesh and cutting pain like knives, but for a second he had been back in a small apartment, a middle-schooler trying to defend himself against a grown man with a knife and a grudge.

 

Never again, a sweet voice inside him promised. We protected you, myself and the Guardian. Never again, my little Seungkwanie.

 

He was on the verge of screaming at the voice to stop when hands folded around his shoulders. He looked up, lip starting to wobble as he saw Wonwoo’s concerned face. He was the exact opposite of him, quiet and intelligent, but there was genuine worry in his eyes, and at a whisper from his hyung the pain started fading away a little more. Tears threatened thick and fast, but he bit savagely at the inside of his cheek to suppress them.

 

“Kwannie,” Wonwoo-hyung murmured, reaching out with thin hands to cup his too-round cheeks. “Are you ok? Does it still hurt?” As he spoke he spooled out power, healing Seungkwan’s feet faster than before.

 

He couldn’t tell him why it still hurt, so he mutely shook his head and accepted the hand up, carefully putting weight onto his feet. Yup. Definitely still painful.Hyung,” he whispered as they held back from the giant conversation-slash-argument in the middle of the room. “What’s going on?”

 

Wonwoo smiled wearily, only too happy to stand aside for the moment. “Somehow Seungcheol-hyung found the strength to call up a Final Strike,” he explained softly. “You know, those insta-kill manoeuvres that some bosses have? I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he did. I can’t quite tell, they’re being very noisy over there but that’s Chan, Jihoon-ah’s dongsaeng, arguing with him. I think we’ll get more information out of things once we get a rest and Jisoo-hyung talks everyone down. Seungcheol-hyung is out cold anyway. I want to go and check on him, will you…”

 

From Seungkwan’s other side Hansol showed up, slipping close and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. “I’ll watch him, hyung,” he promised with a straight face. “Too noisy for me anyway.”

 

Seungkwan vaguely recalled days earlier, when he hadn’t known the Medium at all and just thought of him as a burden, and his ears coloured red with guilt. He couldn’t find the words inside him now either, mind spinning too much with what had happened. Instead, hesitantly, he reached out to snaffle a bit of Hansol’s loose robes in his fingertips, clutching it for the grounding it gave him. Just a little pinch of fabric, and he looked forward without glancing sideways. “Thank you,” he muttered.

 

“No problem,” the Medium said easily. “If your feet still hurt when we leave, I can piggyback you. I…”

 

“Everyone!” Jeonghan’s voice called. “Get ready to move out to the next safe area!”

 

“I don’t mind,” Hansol completed.

 

Seungkwan took a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m your hyung, I should be taking care of you.”

 

Hansol tilted his head as he looked at him. “I’m born in February ’98,” he said. “You’re January, right? The sixteenth? I’m only a month younger, we can just be same-age friends.”

 

Blinking, mind still stumbling, Seungkwan just nodded. They were at the end of the pack that cautiously travelled out after the Samurai, and his heart squeezed with embarrassment at being enough of a burden to be carried.

 


 

 

In a room that looked like a larder, with only one defensible exit and that barred, the group gathered in as tight a circle as they could, Seungcheol in the middle and the strange Japanese Samurai on the open end. Seungkwan watched as he put down his helmet, then slowly went through the process of taking off pieces of the silk-stitched armour, until he could finally sink down for a seat with only a set of seriously impressive Phantasmal-level swords in front of him. He ruffled faded brown hair, looked at all of them and gave a quirky little bow.

 

“It’s a pleasure meeting you, I’m Lee Chan, a ’99-liner. I’m…”

 

“I’m not the maknae any longer? Yes!” Hansol carolled quietly, punching the air.

 

The youngest gave a quick grin, one that disappeared when Jihoon got him into a headlock. It was difficult seeing the relationship between the two; Seungkwan didn’t know whether the Samurai had taken the potion already, but he was a little taller than his brother, about as tall as he himself, but vastly more powerfully built.

 

“You little shit,” their Sorcerer growled. “Apologise. Right now.”

 

Chan reached out meekly to accept the rebuke and forehead-flick that came through before he was allowed to slump down. “Sorry, hyung,” he muttered.

 

Seokmin wiggled closer. “Why didn’t you answer me, Channie?” he asked.

 

“I didn’t…” He sighed. “This is a Japanese account, I was only hosting on the Korean server as an advanced scout, so I think it’s patched differently than yours? I’ve been having problems with the interface as well.’”

 

“Oh no,” Seokmin murmured sadly. “That sucks so much to be cut off like that…”

 

 “I’m tired of this place,” Jeonghan said briefly, almost spitefully. “This larder isn’t going to hold forever. Minghao-ah, scout us somewhere where we can lay low for a day or so. Size doesn’t really matter, safety does.”

 

Minghao, glancing once towards Jisoo, nodded and flashed away, disappearing as he moved into stealth. They waited no more than a few minutes before he returned and beckoned them onwards, scooting past one disabled trap and thence around into a small room, one built into the spiral of the main palace with a single large window to the outside on the far end of it. “It was the closest I could find,” he apologised softly. “I thought we should have an exit in case we need to flee.”

 

Jisoo managed a nod before he motioned to Soonyoung. “Put him down here,” he murmured. “Wonwoo-ya, come and have a look.”

 

Jeonghan sunk down next to Jisoo, spreading out a cloak to put Seungcheol down on. “Hansol-ah,” he instructed seamlessly. “Take care of Kwannie’s feet if they still hurt. You, Chan-ssi, come over here.”

 

It felt like some kind of clockwork as the rest sorted themselves out, dividing into guards for both fronts with the injured in the middle. Soonyoung marshalled the others into setting up wards, shields and illusions, building up the safe space as much as they could.

 

It was all Seungkwan could do to hobble into the little space in the centre. He felt like crying like a baby; his feet were absolutely killing him and his hands hadn’t quite recovered from earlier, despite the fact that Adventurer bodies were supposed to be much stronger than normal Lander ones. Gnawing on his lower lip, he closed his eyes as Hansol tugged off his shoes. They were in shreds; whatever those fish were, they had gotten through them in seconds flat, which would have amazed him if he didn’t hurt so much from being too prideful.

 

He felt himself fade in and out as Hansol prodded at his feet, spreading clean water over and gently washing them. At his side somewhere he could hear Wonwoo chanting over Seungcheol’s body, and over in another direction Jihoon was scolding his little brother…

 

It’s ok, a small part of his mind insisted. You’'re safe with them.

 

His concentration scattered as Hansol picked something out of his foot, losing that connection he had had, and sheer shock curled out of his throat into a low moan. The pain took him back to middle school, to the awful day the man had found him, and something in him sharpened before he lost it in a wave of queasy, dim grey light.

 

“Wonwoo-hyung,” Hansol called. “I’m going to need your help. There’s…”

 

That’s as far as Seungkwan got before he passed out, slumping very gently into arms that reached to catch him.

 


 

Wonwoo, drawn from Seungcheol’s side, cursed as he skidded closer on his knees, propping the fainted boy up. One look at his feet made him wince, as did the bloody residue and tiny little teeth still stuck in one bite. It might – would – still have been ok if the wounds didn’t have an unhealthy purple cast to them, one confirmed when he accessed Seungkwan’s party screen with a curse. The status effect blinked on and off slowly and sluggishly, not only halting any regeneration Hansol had tried to impart, but ate backwards at his health.

 

“What’s going on with him?” Jun asked quietly as he hunkered down at Hansol’s side. “Did he expend too much energy again?”

 

Wonwoo bit on the inside of his cheek. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Mingyu-ya, did you take any of the fish from the dining room for provisions?”

 

Their druid lifted his head. “Hyung?” he queried. “No, we hurried out of there too quickly. Besides, it was a bit gross…?”

 

“Come and see if you can get rid of this status effect.”

 

A few minutes later, they were forced to admit defeat. The effect didn’t shift, not even when they tried in concert. Hansol, sitting with Seungkwan’s feet on his lap, grimly did all he could in washing them clean and removing the little teeth; Wonwoo, irritated, shuffled back to Seungcheol’s side. “Not good,” he said shortly to Jeonghan and Jisoo. “Unless any of you have heard of an effect called ‘Talion of the Bounding Main’ before.”

 

Jisoo shook his head as he combed locks of sweaty hair off Seungcheol’s forehead, checking his temperature afterwards.

 

“Why are you doing that?” Jihoon asked as he came closer, leaving a chastened-looking young Samurai behind him. “Channie says that there’s only the last access gate ahead; the last time he snuck through, he didn’t trigger the event, but he heard it and came back for us.”

 

Jisoo looked up at him. “Why am I doing what?” he asked, looking slightly baffled.

 

“Why are you taking his temperature? We’re trapped in a game, right? It’s not real?”

 

The bafflement increased on Jisoo’s fine-featured face. “I… what? Jihoon-ah…”

 

Jeonghan reached over and smartly pinched Jihoon on the inside of his arm, adding a vicious twist, hard enough to make him yelp and scuttle back. “Feel that?” he asked idly as Jihoon yelped and nodded. “Pain is pain here, even if you have good healers. And even then it’s about comfort as much as healing.”

 

Hansol turned away to ignore them, looking up as Mingyu scooted into the space Wonwoo had left. The druid had a worried look on his face, but then he had been one of the first to form a bond with Seungkwan. He watched him pale as he looked at the wounds and the purple cast to it, and his fingers ruffled the guy’s sweaty fringe off his forehead. The two of them are good together, he thought uneasily. Mingyu-hyung is tall and kind, and Seungkwan is annoyingly loud and naggy, they’ll get on well as friends. I wish I could make friends as easily. We’re the same age, it would be good to be friends…

 

If Seungkwan woke up, his mind reminded him, and he bit his lower lip on the inside not to say it out loud.

 

His gaze trailed around, looking around vaguely for something to heal his comrade with, fighting the need of his mind to flee as it sometimes wanted to. It was part of the reason why everyone thought he was a stoner, part of the reason why…

 

His mind hiccupped as he looked at Jun and Minghao in the corner, knowing he’d have to go and help set traps soon. Frowning, he scooted away on his butt and closer to the quiet Chinese assassin, who broke off the stream of Mandarin as he came closer. The both of them looked at him, one quizzically, one warmly.

 

“Hansol-ah,” Jun greeted. “We could use some of your arrows here.”

 

“In, um, in a minute, hyung,” Hansol muttered, choosing to focus on the assassin instead. “Minghao-ssi…”

 

The assassin tilted his head. “You can call me ge if you want? Or hyung?”

 

Hansol swallowed and nodded. “Minghao-hyung, um, you’ve worked with poisons before, right?” At Minghao’s slight nod, he looked over his shoulder to Seungkwan, then back. “It’s something that the dude with the tail said. About preparing a special meal. It reminded me of that fish that people in Japan eat because it has to be especially prepared. I don’t know much about it…”

 

“Japan?” a cheerful voice said at their side. “What about Japan?”

 

Hansol barely remained in his hunker; he hadn’t heard the new maknae of the group even walk up to them. “Um… that fish that they serve in Japan that’s so poisonous.”

 

The guy blinked. “Fugu?” he asked easily. “Pufferfish? The chefs train for years to serve it safely.”

 

“Yeah,” Hansol said slowly. “Like bokguk? But I was thinking, what if poison works differently now that we’re, um, here? So I thought I’d ask…”

 

Chan took a deep breath. “You think he’s been poisoned by fugu? I thought he was bitten! But wow, that would be an awesome kind of thing, right? The revenge of the oceans! Fish finally rising up to throw off the heavy hand of the mam…” He broke off to a cough as the three of them looked at him, wide-eyed. “I guess? But it’s pretty statistically unlikely, and wouldn’t your healer be able to lift a simple poison effect? I mean, you guys don’t suck that much, right? Ani… hyung’s guild is good!”

 

Hansol slowly scooted away, feeling excessively stupid. “I guess. I’ll… um, I’ll go and take care of the traps.”

 

Minghao’s hand lashed out to catch at his sleeve, eyes still on Chan’s smiling face. “Not all poisons are straightforward,” he reprimanded. “Especially if it’s concealed as another type of status effect. Wonwoo-hyung!”

 

Hansol, still snagged, watched as Titan’s Snap scooted together. He felt Chan’s eyes on his neck, gave him a shamefaced grimace, and looked away.

 

“Let’s be good friends, Hansol-ssi!” the samurai said brightly. “I like your eyes, they have power in them. You see a lot others don’t, huh?”

 

Mumbling a vague agreement, Hansol fled to go and check traps. Don’t wanna be nasty, but this guy’s a creep. Sorry, Jihoon-hyung…

 

Chapter Text

Seungcheol felt weariness sink into his bones as he slowly drifted to consciousness. He had been dreaming of a black and white world, walking there with someone important, but it faded as he attuned to the world around him again. It was quiet but he could distantly hear the guild’s breathing around him, and his head was propped up on something a little less hard than the ground. Still a little bony, but he was warm and comfortable and for a minute he relaxed like that, letting normality soak back into him.

 

There was a bonfire’s heat in his stomach; if he had been younger he would have thought it arousal and not the strange banked bonfire it was. He propped one eye open against the desire to go to sleep again, eyeing the length of thigh close to his face.

 

Jisoo, his senses insisted. Head on his lap. That’s Jeonghan’s blonde hair in front of me, he must be asleep as well. Jisoo?

 

No murmurs came as he sat up straight in the huddle of limbs. Jihoon was quite close, wrapped protectively around a young man he didn’t know. Mingyu, Seokmin and Seungkwan were curled up in a pile like puppies. There wasn’t enough light to see the others, only a spark of it as the guard turned his head from the window and luminosity sparked off his eyes like a cat’s. Soonyoung. It wasn’t odd to see him on watch duty, somehow. Though the guy’s body was slightly smaller than his, Seungcheol didn’t bet on his odds if they were fighting one-on-one, not with his crazy regeneration.

 

He exited the knot of sleeping figures as quietly as he could and made his way to Soonyoung’s side, sinking down in a hunker that made his bones crack. That close he saw something that surprised him; it hadn’t been obvious before, but the monk still had vertical pupils like the tiger he liked to pattern himself after. “What happened?” he asked softly, taking care to keep his tone low.

 

“After you passed out?” Soonyoung asked. At Seungcheol’s nod, he sighed. “Well, you missed seeing Chan come back for us, and the aftermath of the event. Kwannie was badly hurt, they only managed to cure him a little while ago. They had to cure him of a cursed poison or something… he’s okay now, but it was bad. Jeonghan-hyung and Jisoo-ssi were running things for a while. We’re still on the second level, the dining room’s barely five doors down from this one, but so far nothing’s come to bother us. Everyone’s trying to recover a little.”

 

Seungcheol nodded. “That Chan?” he asked, jutting his chin to the young-looking guy Jihoon was wrapped around.

 

Soonyoung spared a look. “Yup,” he said easily. “Lee Chan.”

 

Counting bodies, Seungcheol still only ended up at twelve, straining to see who wasn’t there. “Where’s…”

 

“Hansol-ah?” Soonyoung asked first. “Keeping guard in the corridor beyond,” he muttered, frown vaguely showing in the moonlight. “He volunteered.”

 

Seungcheol took a look at the door, tried to imagine the young medium sitting out there alone, staring down a corridor that could fill with enemies at any moment. “I don’t know if that’s the wisest,” he finally said. “He’s very quiet, isn’t he?”

 

Soonyoung turned his attention from the window for a moment, regarding him fully. “Hansol-ah has a very innocent heart,” he explained softly. “He’s a pacifist in a world geared around violence now. Sometimes it’s difficult to pin him down, because his thoughts are like a butterfly’s. He’s sturdy though, like a rock. You can depend on him. He’s just heart-sore.”

 

Seungcheol blinked, taken aback a little. “Soonyoung-ssi,” he said eventually, teasing. “You have the sense of a poet.” Sobering at the slight hue of embarrassment on the monk’s cheeks, he sighed. “Why are you with them?” he asked. “A dragon hunter, a monk that could stand on equal footing with the best, I would have expected you to be in a larger guild.”

 

Soonyoung gave him a puffy-cheeked hamster smile. “I like gaming with my friends!” He paused, face falling. “Speaking of, the maknae of your guild…”

 

“Kwannie?”

 

Soonyoung nodded. “He’s not healed. I mean, his body is healed, but I saw the ghosts in his eyes when he woke up. I’ve worked with children like that in dance outreach programs before. I’d keep an eye on him if I were you.”

 

Seungcheol grimaced and nodded, standing. He clapped Soonyoung on the shoulder and scooted to the door, slipping quietly through it. Hansol’s eyes were on him immediately, but he kept it to a small smile as Seungcheol sank down next to him.

 

“Hansol-ah,” he said easily, smiling at the small press of the medium’s shoulder against his. “How’s the bow doing?”

 

Hansol smiled down at the bow over his knees, fingers caressing the sleek curves of it. “She’s doing well,” he said proudly. “Still holding up well. The enchantments are holding up as well.” He cleared his throat. “I looked at Angel’s Bane for you as well, I hope you don’t mind. Um, the new guy wanted to take a look at it, since he’s a swordsmith, but Jisoo-hyung said you’d prefer me.”

 

Seungcheol clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I do.” A quick look at Hansol’s status screen made him smile. “And you levelled up in that last fight, I see? Well done!”

 

Hansol’s grin bloomed. “Thank you.” He looked back down the corridor. “You’re the only one that noticed straight off.” He paused. “You, um, you went down two. What happened?”

 

“I’m not sure yet… We’ll throw you a party once we’re out of here, ok?” Seungcheol promised. “I do have a question though. Why are you out here?”

 

Hansol looked away uneasily. “Less distraction out here?” he muttered. “I don’t know. Things just feel… strange. Back there. I’ll be glad when we get out of here, this place is evil. I had a dream earlier…”

 

Seungcheol frowned at that. The palace wasn’t fun, but he wouldn’t have described it as ‘evil’ in the way the medium seemed to mean it. “Hansol-ah, are you a baksu?”

 

Hansol blinked at that. “Am I… clap?” he asked, pronouncing it easily in English. “Are you asking me if I am applauding?” His voice screwed up, turned a little doubtful.

 

“The other baksu,” Seungcheol repeated wearily, reminding himself that most of his countrymen were as agnostic as the rugs they walked on. “As in a priest, or a shaman.”

 

“Well, it’s my class?” At Seungcheol’s shake of head, Hansol frowned. “I’m not… we’re not really religious, I guess,” he said uneasily. “My mother is sort of lapsed, and my father doesn’t care. If there’s anything like that, I’m not aware of it. I guess not?”

 

“Pay attention to what you’re feeling in any case,” Seungcheol said, crossing his fingers. “We’ll be out of here bright and early. What did you dream about?” He watched Hansol’s head droop tiredly and frowned, shuffling closer to give him the comfort of a shoulder pressed against his.

 

“It was about the Tombs of Time,” Hansol eventually got out. “But not where we were. Deeper. Much deeper, and then Fakerr and his heap of gold, and all around me the buzzing of insects. There was a guy with silvery hair, but I couldn’t see his face above the chains holding him. I… uh, woke up soon after that and came out here to keep watch instead. That’s about when the new guy woke me up for my watch shift.”

 

“Right,” Seungcheol said slowly. “Hopefully it just stays a bad dream, Hansol-ah, but I’ll keep on the lookout anyway.”

 

Hansol brightened, offering him a fist-bump. “Glad to have you back, hyung.”

 

Grinning, Seungcheol reciprocated. “Me too,” he shared. “But I’m gonna go inside and see if I can catch another hour or so. Don’t stay out here too long, okay?”

 

Hansol’s thumbs-up reassured him; when he entered the room again it was as quiet as it had been, smelling slightly of sweaty-salty guys. He ignored it to rest on the spot he had previously, falling asleep before he felt Jisoo’s hand come down on his head again.

 


 

Morning dawned.

 

Seungcheol woke up from voices shushing the others, and had to suffer through yells of happiness when he woke up. Between Seungkwan nearly throttling him in a hug, and the new guy smiling and bobbing a bow and Jisoo’s hand on his collar, his wits slowly rallied, helped by the cup of tea that Jeonghan miraculously produced by sweet-talking Mingyu. He sipped and listened, stood to stretch his spine until it cracked and looked around.

 

“First of all, I’d like to say thank you to Atelier Destiny for coming so far in helping us when the help we rendered didn’t measure up,” he began, earning an eye-roll from Jeonghan. “Especially for the last bit. Since we’re free to leave now though, I thought we’d scoot down to that exit point on the other side of Hado and get back to Busan? We can talk when we’re in an inn.”

 

“Hado?” Chan asked, visibly boggling. “You came through Hado to reach here?”

 

Seungcheol blinked. “Yes?”

 

“But… wow. Hado. Wow.”

 

“The power of brotherhood!” Soonyoung said loudly, pointedly leaning out of the way of the kick Jihoon sent his way.

 

Chan smiled uneasily. “I guess. And you wanted to just leave? You don’t want to finish this dungeon? No one’s made it on this server, you know, just a group in Oceania, I think. Your save point will go away…”

 

Seungcheol looked to Jisoo, then Jeonghan, and finally shook his head. “I don’t think anyone feels the desire to finish this. We only came to rescue you, Chan-ssi.”

 

Minghao cleared his throat. “Wouldn’t mind,” he said. “But then as the only thing to focus on, not as part of a rescue mission.”

 

“Chops is right,” Jihoon muttered. “We’re leaving, Channie. Our healers and supports need the rest. You’re coming with.”

 

Chan looked ready to argue a second more, but nodded with a sigh, lowering his head. “Okay,” he muttered, clearly unhappy with it.

 

They packed and left out the window rather than chancing the treacherous palace again; within fifteen minutes, they stood facing the light dawn playing over the waters and the high-tech city of Busan shooting daggers of light at them from the horizon. It was a passage of less than an hour; they were settled in a comfortable inn after a round of showers and changes into fresh clothes.

 

It was when Seungcheol checked in on the resources to be merged that he noticed it first, and looked to Jun. The fighter was seated very quietly talking about regional hot-pot with Mingyu; Seungcheol didn’t think he actually knew that he was massaging Seungkwan’s feet on his lap, the action seemed entirely unconscious. “Jun-ah,” he got out, trying to understand. “When you… when you bought all those buildings for us in Daegu and you sorted out the guild thing, did you perhaps forget to explain all the way?”

 

Jun looked up at him with big eyes, and Seungcheol had to remind himself again that no one, no one could get to the level he had gotten by being the fool he chose to portray.

 

Hyung?” Jun said. “I don’t get what you mean?”

 

Jisoo, peeking into the ‘ledger’ that had all the details of the guild’s holdings, frowned. “Cheol-ah?”

 

Seungcheol’s finger tapped on an entry low in the list, though he didn’t look away from Jun. “You said you bought quite a few places,” he said. “I just don’t recall a Level 10 guild hall on the roster. One of those is worth almost a million gold, what the hell?”

 

Jun tilted his head. “Oh? But I told you about Logos’ guild house, right? I remember telling you that we absorbed it into Atelier Destiny.”

 

Seungcheol felt gut-punched. “I thought they had some shitty little inn somewhere…!”

 

Hyung!” Seungkwan scolded. “Language!”

 

Seungcheol rolled his eyes at him before fixing Jun with his gaze again. “Where’d you even get a million gold?” he asked, half-scandalised.

 

Jun sighed softly, garnering a squeak of unhappiness as he stopped massaging Seungkwan’s feet. “I didn’t pay for it,” he said slowly. “I told you we absorbed it. We got all their holdings. Their actual gold went into buying out the other assets and some, um, ventures. Look, if this is about how little gold we have left…”

 

“You have over five hundred thousand in your guild bank!” Seungcheol moaned. “That’s not ‘little’!”

 

Jeonghan bothered himself to stir from across the table. “That’s little to him.”

 

“True,” Minghao piped up. “We've always been able to buy property on the Chinese server.His, um, guild owns the Golden River League back on the Chinese servers. That’s before he…” He broke off, looked at Jun for a moment, and cleared his throat. “Before he decided to play on the Korean servers.”

 

Seungcheol frowned, tilting his head. “You own a river?” he asked curiously.

 

“Cheol,” Jeonghan sighed. “The Golden River League’s actual area is about as big as Mongolia. Everything in the south of China stretching from Nanjing to about Hanoi.”

 

Seungcheol sat down, shakily rubbing at his face. “I can’t deal any longer,” he muttered. “I can’t. How do you even want a guild merger? You guys could probably buy assistance directly from anyone…”

 

The clink of a cup of coffee settled down in front of him. “We’ve already spoken,” Soonyoung said as he sat down, distributing his tray with coffees, two to a stomach-growling Jihoon. “You guys are decent, perhaps the first decent people we’ve met in some time. But we’re not Titan’s Snap any more than you are Atelier Destiny. We were thinking about a new guild. One for all of us, so we’re all in one group, not just two tiny guilds travelling together.” His eyes practically glinted. “I vote we call it Hoshi!”

 

“The cook was interested in how I made the coffee,” Mingyu said as he slipped into the booth as well. “Reckon there’s some kind of opportunity there. What are we talking about? Guilds? And… what? Hoshi?”

 

Chan, silent until now in a corner, perked. “I like stars,” he said happily.

 

“Er, no… Korean Hoshi, like a tiger’s gaze?”

 

Jihoon snorted from Chan’s other side. “You’re not a tiger,” he said around the two straws in his mouth.

 

“What?” Soonyoung called, standing to place his hands on the table. “I dare you to say that again, you mi…”

 

Seungcheol hastily yanked Soonyoung down. “It’s a very strong name,” he said hastily. “But perhaps something that fits all of us?”

 

Names were shouted around the table, one turned down quicker than another, before Hansol cleared his throat. “What about ‘Seventeen’?” he asked as they quieted. “Thirteen members, with three leaders, and one purpose?” He paused. “Well, I’m guessing that Seungcheol-hyung, Jisoo-hyung and Jeonghan-hyung will be our three leaders anyway. So…” He shrank bank as they stayed quiet. “Or you don’t have to, of course.”

 

“I like it,” Mingyu said happily. “What’s our purpose?”

 

“To go strongly forward into the future and becoming men our family and friends can be proud of,” Wonwoo said with gravitas from his spot next to Minghao. “With wisdom, and dignity, and courage.”

 

Seungcheol’s eyes prickled and he had to fight tears. “Seventeen,” he said softly. “I like that.”

 

Across the table Mingyu smiled a small, utterly sweet smile at him as he lifted his iced coffee. “To Seventeen!”

 

Across the inn, filtering into their booth, someone sang sweetly, accompanied by what sounded like a harp of sorts. No real melody to it, just a song that rose and fell, rose and fell.

 

Seokmin, chin in hand, tilted his head to it as he spoke. “We’ll have to register it at the guild hall here, if they’ll let us in. Or do we want to go back to Daegu and settle there?” He paused. “She really has a lovely voice,” he muttered, sounding half-envious; without seeming effort, he softly hummed a counterpoint to the song. “Did you know they only have a few songs? Sad, isn’t it?”

 

“Thank you for inviting me into your guild!” Chan said hastily, voice crashing over the soft song. “But I have a server to get back to, and…”

 

Seokmin broke off to smile at him. “The gates are offline, you know? We can’t really travel to the other countries unless we want to do so as actual travel, I think.”

 

The youngest frowned. “No way. But… but Japan is so close to here, we just have to get to Tsushima and then it’s almost just a hop across the ocean to Iki? That’s so close to Fukuoka it’s not even funny…”

 

“A hop that’s filled with raid-level boss fights,” Jisoo said around a sip of coffee. “It might also be easier to work out how to get the gates going again rather than cross the ocean. I’d rather not find out if I can drown in this iteration of the game.”

 

Jihoon opened his eyes from the place his head had slanted back against the backrest. “You’ll have to stay with us for now, Channie.” His lips pinched tightly as Chan’s mouth fell open to protest. “No excuses.”

 

The members around the table looked away uncomfortably, unwilling to face the suddenly tense atmosphere.

 

“We’ll go to the guild and register,” Seungcheol decided. “I…”

 

Fabric rustled as Seungkwan sat up straight, eyes focused on someone in the distance. “Hyung,” he half-whispered. “Hyung, look. It’s not possible, is it? It’s not, right?”

 

Seungcheol look and froze. The man standing at the bar was tall and elegant, with such pale skin that his red hair looked like blood against it; from the way that fangs flashed when he spoke to the bartender, it might as well have been. Though he was a Vampanella, there was no mistaking the angles of the face, aristocratic and smooth with a murderer’s craze deep in his eyes. Park Donghyun, his mind supplied with little trouble. How did he get access to the game again? I thought he had been banned after that incident, or has he stolen someone’s account? How is he doing this from prison?

 

“It’s Croesus, hyung, isn’t it?” Seungkwan’s voice came, cutting through the roar in Seungcheol’s chest to protect his pack. “Isn’t it?”

 

The last was too loud, frantically begging as it was, and caught the man’s attention. He looked around at them, first at Seungcheol, then at Seungkwan, and his smile went terribly bleak around the fangs.

 

Jihoon moved from slouching to lunging in what seemed a second flat; Seungcheol didn’t even try to stop him. That task fell to Minghao, who reeled him back in and practically sat on him as the Vampanella idled closer. With each step Seungkwan slid a little further in behind Mingyu’s tall bulk. Chan, smiling uncannily, watched the standoff as the man stepped closer and for a moment Seungcheol’s nerves buzzed with dissonance: the youngest practically had a slasher smile as he watched Croesus walk to their table.

 

Unexpectedly it was Jisoo that stood and wandered over to go and speak to him. Their conversation was quiet and hushed, but Jisoo had a face like ice when the man snarled and turned away, and it didn’t ease as he returned to his guild.

 

“Joshuji?” Jeonghan questioned quietly into the terrible silence. “What did he want?”

 

Jisoo shook his head. “It’s not important,” he said remotely. “Let’s go and get some sleep.” He reached across the table to Seungkwan, pulling him up. “Come on, walk with hyung. The inn isn’t far from here, I think. After that…”

 

Seungkwan pulled to a halt, eyes wide. “Hyung, has he formed another guild?” he asked bluntly. “Is he behind that mess in Daegu? Is he… are we safe?”

 

“Yes, he has,” Jisoo said softly, but with a hard voice. And then, again, “Yes, he is behind Primacy. And no, we’re not.” He lifted his head to stare at Seungcheol across Seungkwan’s shoulder. “And that’s why we’re going to go to the guild hall later, get everything done, and we’re going to take this city, and we’re going to fucking crush him.”

 

In the silence that followed, marked primarily by members of both guilds scurrying out to join Jisoo and Seungkwan, Jeonghan managed a grimaced smile to Seungcheol. “I thought he was a soft gentleman type?”

 

Heat burnt in Seungcheol’s chest, pride and appreciation and anger wrapped up in a complex knot. “He is,” he said equally as softly. “But then there’s his other side. You don’t harm Jisoo’s precious people. You just don’t. If I were a better person, I’d be feeling sorry for that asshole. But I’m not, so I’m not. Problem?”

 

“No,” Jeonghan said at length. “Just a little turned on, honestly.” He shot Seungcheol a devilish smile and wandered after, leaving the eldest to stand there and splutter.