The Nexus Knight [Chapters 1-10]

Hey peeps!

In a few short weeks, the sequel to the Nexus Games will be hitting the shelves! The Nexus Knight picks up where the first book left off. We’re in a litRPG death game and two games have finished. Team 101 only needs to five out of the ten games to claim victory, but each game gets progressively more difficult.

Check out the first bit of the Nexus Knight to see Alex Kellan and Team 101 take on a challenge round before Game #3. o.o

Hopefully you all enjoy!

—Chapter 1—

—The Nexus Games Continue—

            Alex Kellan wasn’t the type of person who thought himself insane. Even though the last few days had been an Alice in Wonderland drug trip worth of crazy, Kellan was still convinced he had his wits about him. Everything had felt like a terrible nightmare. No—worse than a nightmare, if that were even possible.

            But he was still here.

            “Good morning, Fayetteville!”

            Kellan sat on an unreasonably large bed in the middle of a strange room. Rain beat the windows and the glass door leading to the balcony, creating a dreary atmosphere. Fluorescent lamps and overhead lights kept the gloom at bay, but the chill of the frigid weather crept inside regardless. Kellan took deep breaths, his attention on the waterfall of liquid washing across the otherwise clear glass.

            “Another day in the Nexus. Another list of bodies.”

            Kellan ran a hand through his short hair. The room had an 80-inch flat-screen TV mounted to the far wall, opposite the bed. And that was it. No other furniture. The TV screen flickered in and out, as though the wires were faulty. A bizarre news anchor sat at a rusty metal desk. He was the only person on the screen.

            “Don’t worry, ladies, gentlemen, and everything in between,” the news anchor said with a smile. “The Nexus Games are just getting into full swing. Only two games down! Eight to go! We have plenty more to see. The Arbiter is full of surprises.”

            The man on the screen wore a crisp, black suit and a white blindfold. His dark-red hair, matted with dried blood, was slicked back in a semi-professional manner.

            Kellan rubbed at his forehead, applying pressure to his eyebrows. A fog lingered on his thoughts, but he didn’t care. He forced himself to get off the bed. On your feet, soldier, he thought with a chuckle. People are depending on you.

            As per his training, he went through a list of known facts.

            It was sometime just after Christmas. There were worms in his body. He was a participant in the Nexus Games, an interdimensional sadistic event made up of teams fighting to gain keys. His team had…

            Maybe two? Out of five?

            Kellan wasn’t sure. He had lost consciousness during the last game.

            The news anchor slapped the desk and smiled widely, exposing his perfectly white teeth. The molars in the back were sharpened into frightening points. “Do we need a few instant replays? I think so! Look at this chump here. The one who accidentally stumbled across Dr. Davies.”

            The TV flicked and then showed a scene of a man walking into a mirror-covered hallway. The floor, walls, and ceiling were reflective—the man stared at his own haggard expression for a long moment, pointing at the blood splatters on his face, T-shirt, and jeans. The sweat under his armpits and along the back of his shirt betrayed his anxiety.

            A monster emerged from the mirrors, a scene straight out of a horror movie. It was a humanoid machine, large enough to eat someone whole. Its human-skull was chrome and just as reflective as the hallway, with bits of flesh stretched over its body like it was trying to wear clothing that was four sizes too small.

            The beast—a mechanical giant straight out of a sci-fi version of Jack and the Beanstalk—reached a clawed hand for the sweaty man.

            The man screamed and crumpled to the reflective floor, his arms up and shaking. The monster, Dr. Davies, slowly pressed its car-sized hand down on the man, the metal of its android body unforgiving. The man squished like a fat tick.

            The TV switched back to the news anchor. The blindfolded man chuckled. “Yikes. That chump had all the confidence and skill of a popped balloon. Doesn’t really make for great television, but it’ll make for one hell of a viral video!”

            Kellan shivered. He had fought the mechanical monster during the last game. It had been easy, but only because he’d had the help of Team 42.

            Which reminded him…

            I need to tell everyone about Team 42’s plans.

            Kellan stumbled forward, his body a bit weak. He recognized the sensation. Drugs. Something in his system. He took a deep breath and forced his legs to carry him to the TV.

            The news anchor cackled with laughter as another clip played, but Kellan couldn’t bring himself to watch. He slammed his hand along the side of the TV until it flicked off. The patter of rain on the windows was the only sound that remained.

            Kellan patted himself down, concerned with his well-being. He stared at his white T-shirt and black sweatpants. He rarely wore sweats, and he definitely wouldn’t opt for them in a strange environment. Even when he went to the gym, Kellan tended to wear shorts.

            He also didn’t have any socks or boots.

            I need my damn equipment. Kellan glanced around and felt the dog tags around his neck. They weren’t really his, but his name was on them—they had belonged to an Alex Kellan from an alternate dimension. After a short sigh, he ran a hand through his dark hair.

            Ice filled his veins as he stared at his own reflection in the smooth black screen of the TV. When he glanced down to stare at his left hand and saw the number 101 inked into his skin. That was the mark of his team—prominent for the world to see.

            Team 101.

            Sun Xiang was the leader.

            Husker Linis was the Straggler.

            Mavis Cartwright, Sun Sen, and Kellan were all members.

            Where were they? Kellan turned full circle. The room remained barren—a single bed, one TV. Nothing else. He was alone with the rain.

            A cold sense of urgency took hold of him. Kellan reached for his waist and then shoulders, looking for any kind of weapon. He hated the fact that he found nothing. Where was his rifle? His handgun? Kellan walked over to the bed and felt around, hoping to find a KA-BAR knife or something. But he came up emptyhanded.

            Mistakes were written in blood, and Kellan couldn’t afford to slip up during this deadly competition. Kellan rotated his shoulders, dwelling on his current location. Fortunately, he was inside the AVU Palace—an Oasis zone that prevented players in the Nexus Games from attacking one another.

            Priorities. Kellan inhaled and made a list in his head of all the things he needed to accomplish, in descending order of priority.

            “I need to find the others,” Kellan muttered.

            What had happened to them? Was Mavis still alive?

            “Hopefully they made it,” he said aloud as he walked toward the door in his room.

            Kellan placed his hand on the cold doorknob and hesitated. Wait, he thought. Something else happened. He closed his eyes and thought back. The news anchor had visited him in his dreams. Bitso. The news anchor was Bitso. A mysterious and deranged individual who served the Arbiter, the primordial dragon in charge of running the Nexus Games.

            Bitso had come to see him.

            With a sigh, Kellan backed away from the door. The rain intensified, battering the glass like it wanted to break into the room. Kellan ignored the storm just beyond the windows and instead walked back to the bed.

            In his dreams, Kellan had spoken to Bitso. The lunatic news anchor had said the Arbiter wanted to reward him for gathering gold arcana. It was strange—Kellan didn’t understand why he was being rewarded—but it seemed that no one else even really knew what gold arcana was, and Kellan was the only one collecting it. Everyone else gathered red arcana, a crystal-like material that emerged from the bodies of the dead.

            But gold arcana…

            It came from people who gave their arcana willingly.

            And the gold arcana had unlocked some sort of hidden magical abilities.

            “Goddammit,” Kellan murmured.

            He didn’t understand the ramifications of the situation, and it bothered him. Back on Earth—his Earth, not the Nexus-version of Earth—he had been a member of a Special Forces unit known as Delta Force. They always had intel on their targets, and the exact parameters for their missions. The Nexus Games didn’t offer Kellan that luxury. He was constantly playing catch-up. He didn’t know the rules, he didn’t understand magic, and he wasn’t sure if he was making the right decisions.

            But he also couldn’t sit around and do nothing.

            During the dream with Bitso, Kellan had asked for a reward—something to help him develop magic easier and cheaper.

            “And everyone loves cheap and easy,” Kellan said as he searched around the mattress.

            Bitso had said he would leave him his reward close by.

            It had to be in the room.

            The moment Kellan lifted his pillow, he found what he was looking for. It was a glass vial with a metal stopper. The insides were a glittering purple.

            Words flashed over Kellan’s eyes. Normally, that would be irritating, but Kellan had grown used to it. Whenever he stared at magical people or items, his Blitzkrieg Analysis offered him information that only he could see. The info had always been helpful, and Kellan was thankful that he at least had some ability to know what was going on.

            His eyes gave him more information on the vial.

Magical Item [Consumable]—Rare Hydra Corp. Serum

            A strange potion developed by the Immortal Megadonis, owner of Hydra Corp. The mage who drinks this gains access to meta magic and has a 20% reduction to the cost of ranking.

            Kellan picked up the vial. It was smaller than his pinky finger, and the liquid inside probably wouldn’t fill a tablespoon. Was that it? That was all that was needed? Kellan thought it bizarre, but he also wasn’t about to question it.

            The Nexus was a mysterious dimension too strange for him to fully comprehend.

            Who was Megadonis? What was Hydra Corp.? Why did they make serums? Normally, Kellan would demand the answers to all those questions before he did anything with an odd liquid, but in this circumstance, he knew he wouldn’t get another chance like this.

            He either drank the serum now, or he would likely lose it.

            Kellan undid the metal stopper and then threw back the small amount of liquid, swallowing everything without tasting it. The glittering fluid tingled as it went down Kellan’s throat. He blinked back the odd sensation and then shivered once it had reached his gut.

            Something had changed.

            Kellan closed his eyes. In the Nexus, everything was measured in numbers, right down to a person’s physical capabilities. If he focused hard enough, he could see his physical and mental attributes.

Alex Kellan

Magics: Eclipse, Body, Metal, Meta

Rank: D, D, D, E

Mana: 12/12

Health: 7/7

Unspent Arcana: 5

Strength—4

Dexterity—4 [Accurate]

Fortitude—3 [Tough]

Charisma—3

Manipulation—1

Intelligence—2

Perception—5 [Keen-Eyed]

Wisdom—1 [Broken]

Willpower—10 [Defiant] (Halved)

Abilities:

Personal—[Descended from Zenith]—The mage has the raw magic of Zenith in their blood and has no rank maximum. The mage can also develop one “unknowable” magic.

Personal—[Blitzkrieg Analysis]—The mage can see basic details of other magical beings and objects upon first glance without the need to spend mana.

Training—[Sharpshooter]—The mage adds a 50% bonus to gun damage.

Flaws:

[Greater Attachment]—The mage suffers greater from personal loss than normal. Whenever the mage loses someone close, the mage’s wisdom is reduced to 1 and their willpower is temporarily halved.

            Kellan wasn’t sure why the Nexus operated like this, but he had an educated guess. Since the Nexus had people arriving from multiple dimensions—some with magic, some with limited magic—the numbers were a simple way to convey information that almost everyone could understand. They weren’t vague or up for interpretation.

            It was the difference between saying this room has a few chairs, and this room has three chairs. They were both conveying information about the room and its chairs, but one sentence was definite and left nothing to the imagination.

            Kellan still didn’t like the numbers. Not because he hated numerical systems—quite the opposite. He just hated being left in the dark. So much about the Nexus, and the magic, was a mystery to him. While it was easier to see who was stronger based on a single number, or who had more health, or mana, Kellan wasn’t sure how personal skills or flaws were allocated.

            “One damn mystery at a time,” he muttered to himself as he rubbed at his eyes.

            Then he headed for the door. Without another thought on the situation, Kellan left the barren bedroom, intent on finding the rest of his team.

            Especially Mavis.

—Chapter 2—

—The Power of Zenith—

            Kellan entered a massive sitting room.

            Every team staying at the AVU Palace had their own personal area, it seemed. Team 101 had been graced with a suite, though Kellan had never seen anything like it. The sitting room had a giant couch and a massive TV hanging on the wall. Four doors led to individual bedrooms and bathrooms. And the balcony had a spa built into it. Well, not a normal spa, but a mana spring, a place for mages to quickly recover their mana.

            The suite wasn’t built for beauty, though. Most of the décor was black and dark red, like it had once been the set of a Dracula movie. It wasn’t Kellan’s favorite and didn’t instill within him a sense of home or comfort.

            When Kellan glanced around, he noticed the ambient magic. Information showed up across his eyes, explaining the aura around the building.

The AVU Palace Oasis

            You have entered an Oasis. While inside this non-conflict area, all mages are forbidden from initiating direct violence. Offensive magical abilities are limited. Any who attempt to circumvent this rule will answer to the Arbiter himself.

            He rubbed away the message. While he appreciated the fact that he was in an Oasis—especially since half the other teams wanted him dead—Kellan was already well aware that the AVU Palace was a safe sanctuary.

            Kellan’s Blitzkrieg Analysis didn’t seem to care, however. It provided information on anything magical whenever his gaze fell upon it, or whenever he seemed to actively contemplate the object. Kellan could dismiss the info, and sometimes he could ignore it, but the readout often interjected.

            Kellan went straight for the door out of the suite and stepped into the massive hallway. He rubbed his temple, trying to remember the layout of the palace. It was a bizarre place that gave Escher a run for his money, especially since so many architecture styles were used in the construction.

            As Kellan made his way down the hall, he had to shield his eyes from the bright lights. Rock-style techno music pulsed through the floor, the bass disturbing the Gothic paintings hanging on the walls. When Kellan passed by an open door, he took note of a bar and dance floor. Neon-colored lights blinked with the intensity of a strobe.

            No one was inside.

            The bar was empty, with no one manning the joint.

            No one danced on the empty floor.

            Yet the music and lights continued going, seemingly with a life all their own. Kellan didn’t understand, but then again, he figured this was another mystery best left unsolved. He quickened his steps as he made his way to a staircase leading down.

            When Kellan reached the bottom steps, he found himself face-to-face with two Pestbyters—machine servants to the Arbiter himself. Every Pestbyter seemed to be a floating ball of machinery with wires that hung limply from the underside. Antennae and odd radio receivers poked out of the top of the sphere, and the Pestbyters hovered in the air with powerful engines that hummed in a pulse-like rhythm.

            Kellan glanced at the first. The machine’s information was given to him in an instant.

Name: Pestbyter #36

Race: Semi-Sentient Construct

Magics: Metal, Eclipse

Rank: Impossible to Rank

Armor Rating: 5

Health: 20/20

Stats: Concealed

Abilities: Concealed

            When Kellan stared at the second, he received an identical readout, except the other was named Pestbyter #37. The two machines hovered near the foot of the staircase, their wires dragging along the red carpets of the palace as they moved a few feet back and forth. Were they pacing? Could semi-sentient constructs even get bored?

            Kellan walked past them, tense and unable to relax.

            The Pestbyters turned in his direction, each of them with camera eyes on the front of their spheres. The camera zoomed and focused, but Kellan ignored it. He hated the Pestbyters with a tiny passion.

            “Good morning,” one Pestbyter said in a sickeningly-cute girl’s voice. “Remember to follow the rules of the games.” It ended the statement with an artificial giggle.

            A shiver ran down Kellan’s spine. The machine was anything but innocent and pure.

            Kellan said nothing as he continued, opting not to engage the bizarre machines. The Pestbyter didn’t follow up its statement with anything else, or even pursue. It just resumed its pacing, its camera eye swiveling back and forth.

            The front double doors of the AVU Palace caught Kellan’s attention as he jogged by. They were comprised of two sets of double doors, each made of thick wood with designs of dragons carved into the center. The dragons themselves were made of cogs, gears, and pistons, amalgamations of myth and machine.

            Grand, sweeping archways dominated the ceiling, reminding Kellan just how large the AVU Palace was. Several football stadiums could fit within the many wings and ballrooms, and with each hallway Kellan hurried down, he found himself more lost than before.

            He had expected to see more people around as well, but to his bewilderment, he spotted very few. Mages milled about in some of the quiet rooms, and Kellan even spotted a pair in a room with soft jazz music playing from speakers mounted into the walls, but that was it.

            “Where the hell is everybody?” he murmured to himself.

            Normally, the AVU Palace was filled with mages.

            The absence of people put Kellan on high alert.

            Becoming increasingly anxious, he rushed into the next hallway and slammed open doors as he came to them, looking for anyone on his team. What if they had all died during the last game?

            No, Kellan thought. That can’t be right. If Xiang had died, the team would have lost, and I wouldn’t be alive.

            Which meant, at the bare minimum, Xiang was still around. Somewhere.

            Kellan slammed open a large, wooden door, the handle crashing into the wall. To his surprise, the room was occupied, but not by partygoers or individuals trying to relax.

            This was an operating room. The sterile tile floor and white counters reeked of disinfectant. The lights overhead shone brighter than any fluorescent bulb had the right to. The chair in the middle of the room was tilted all the way back, practically becoming a flat surface. A man sat within, but he was covered by operating sheets, including his face. Only a small hole in the sheets showed the man’s stomach.

            He was open and bleeding, his organs clearly on display.

            Standing on a step stool next to the chair was a little kid. The moment Kellan met the child’s gaze, Kellan was given information he already knew.

Name: Sun Sen the Puppetmaster

Race: Human

Magics: Mind, Body, Soul

Rank: Concealed

Armor Rating:

Health: 6/6

Stats: Concealed

Abilities: Concealed

            Sen stood over the unnamed man, a bored expression on his child-like face. Sen’s hands were coated in a thin layer of blood—the man’s blood.

            “Ah, you finally woke,” Sen said. He spoke with the cadence and vocabulary of a man in his thirties, but he had the voice, and height, of a seven-year-old boy.

            With slow and careful movements, Sen stepped down from the stool. Then he walked over to the nearest counter, dragged over another step stool, and climbed up to use the sink. He washed the fresh blood from his hands.

            Sen wore an outfit that suited his childish body, including kid’s jeans and a sweatshirt with the Power Rangers across the front—five multi-colored sci-fi sentai, each with a little helmet. It seemed comically childish for a series of magical death games, but Kellan wasn’t about to comment.

            “I’ve been meaning to speak with you.” Sen finished wiping his hands together before switching off the water. “But clearly, you needed to rest first.”

            Kellan strode into the room, his nose burned by the cleaning chemicals hanging in the air. With a sneer, he went straight to Sen’s side.

            The kid had the honeyed skin and narrowed eyes associated with Asian features, but Kellan had come to learn that Sen wasn’t from Earth, he was from some sort of alternate dimension with an Earth-like world. A bizarre dimension. One where people practiced flesh-crafting, though Kellan didn’t completely understand what that entailed.

            Sen’s long, black hair had been tied back in a ponytail, likely to prevent it from hanging in his face while he had operated.

            Kellan grabbed Sen’s upper arms and jerked him close, practically pulling the kid to the edge of the step stool. Sen stared at him with wide eyes, obviously startled by the rough manhandling.

            “I need to tell you something, and then I need to ask a few questions,” Kellan growled, barely restraining his urge to yell. “And I don’t want any weird interruptions or sarcastic comments until I’m finished. Understood?”

            Sen’s shoulders bunched at the base of his neck, his eyes still wide, but his eyebrows lowered into angry slants. “What’re you—”

            Kellan tightened his grip on Sen’s upper arms. “Did we get the key from the second game?”

            Sen stopped his words and swallowed. Then he finally said, “Yes.”

            “And did Mavis live?”

            “Of course,” Sen said matter-of-factly.

            While that provided Kellan some relief, it wasn’t the only thing weighing on his mind. “Okay. Listen. I met with Team 42 during the second game. Since I was illusioned, they didn’t know it was me.”

            Sen lifted an eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing.  

            “They discussed things in front of me,” Kellan stated. “I know their plans. They’re intending to win the Nexus Games so that they can use the magic of Zenith to kill the primordial dragons and conquer the other dimensions.”

            For a brief moment, Kellan wanted to chuckle. A sarcastic, I’m obviously insane, type of chuckle. Never in his life had he uttered a more nonsensical and preposterous string of words. If this had been Earth—his dimension—he would’ve been locked away in an asylum.

            Sen said nothing.

            Kellan, who had expected more of a reaction, shook Sen once. “Can they do that? Is that possible? Or are they just crazy?”

            “Do what?” Sen asked. “Use the magic of Zenith to kill primordial dragons?”

            “Yes.”

            Sen pursed his lips as he mulled over the question.

            Zenith, as Kellan understood it, was another alternate dimension where people and mages dwelled. Unlike all other dimensions, however, Zenith was supposedly perfect. It was the most magical, most technologically advanced—and everyone wanted to go there but couldn’t.

            The only way to get to Zenith was by winning the Nexus Games. Victory in the games meant getting a one-way ticket to the perfect land of magic. Only the Arbiter could grant such passage, apparently.

            And according to Sen, the magic in the dimension was so powerful and amazing that nothing compared.

            “Primordial dragons are creatures of immense power,” Sen murmured, his gaze on the floor. “But the magic in Zenith is said to be absolute.”

            “Is this a Can God microwave a burrito so hot that he himself can’t touch it situation?” Kellan quipped.

            Sen frowned as he slowly lifted his gaze to meet Kellan’s. “The primordial dragons are strong, but Zenith is all strength. Therefore, I would have to say yes, it’s possible to kill the dragons with the magic acquired from Zenith.”

            “You’re not worried by this information?”

            “If that really is their plan, you should tell the Arbiter.” Sen smirked. “Perhaps they’ll be removed from the Nexus Games.”

            “I tried telling the Arbiter.” Kellan gritted his teeth, struggling to recollect everything. “I spoke with Bitso and told him all about Team 42’s plans. He said the Arbiter already knew, and that he didn’t care.”

            “When did you speak with that madman Bitso?”

            “While I was sleeping. He was in my dreams.”

            Again, Kellan reflected on the nature of his statement. He had never thought he would be having such a discussion. This is my life now, Kellan thought, half-smiling to himself, his own inner tone sardonic.

            Sen huffed. “Well, there’s your problem. Clearly, you should speak to the Arbiter himself and not one of his crazed minions. I’m sure the Arbiter would love to hear about how some of the Nexus Games players are plotting his death.”

            “There’s also a flestiss on Team 42, remember? One of those weird alien people.” The second game was a blur in Kellan’s mind, but the hideous crustacean-like body of the alien flestiss remained clear in his thoughts. “I think I saw flestiss machines during the second game. On the space station. They were harvesting arcana from dead bodies.”

            “You saw this?” Sen asked.

            “Yes. They were drowning people in cages.” Kellan tightly closed his eyes, remembering the arcana in the tubs, and then the jail cells where he had met the dying soldier. Then he opened his eyes again, his memories hazy. “I need to know—do you think it’s likely that the flestiss in the games will really follow through with invading other dimensions?”

            “I’m not an expert on the matter,” Sen said. “But yes. I think they would. The number of dimensions they’ve invaded is rather high, according to my sister.”

            The man on the medical chair groaned.

            Sen squirmed and pointed. “Have I answered enough questions?” he demanded. “Because I was in the middle of an operation.”

            Kellan released the kid and stepped away. With prim little steps, Sen got down from the stool and walked over to the one by the chair, ascending as though to a throne. The man groaned again. Sen touched the man on the shoulder, and the pained noises stopped.

            “What’re you doing?” Kellan asked. “Harvesting arcana from sad sacks who stumbled into the Nexus?”

            Kellan was well aware that arcana crystals came from dead bodies. Everyone was. The number of deaths during the games—simply to take the arcana—had been shockingly high. Was Kellan’s own teammate torturing people to take their arcana as well? It brought a disgusting taste to his mouth.

            Team 42 had practically made a sport of hunting down innocent people.

            Sen scoffed. “I’m not harvesting arcana, fool.” He slid his small hands into the bloody guts of the man, his fingers curling around a small portion of intestines. “First off, we’re in an Oasis. I can’t take actions to attack people here. This surgery—while painful and bloody—is meant to strengthen. Secondly, I’m helping our team by procuring us resources, thank you very much.”

            “How so?”

            “This mage is paying me in magical items.” Sen glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “I thought it was an appropriate use of my time and valuable skills.”

            Kellan stared at the bloody insides. Sen returned his focus to his work, his child-hand fidgeting with the soft organs. With careful movements, Sen molded the flesh of the man as if it were clay. He wove some membranes together and even reached deep enough to fiddle with the muscles. Chunk by chunk, Sen took bits from one area of the man and folded them into another, creating sturdier parts afterward.

            Everything seemed thicker afterward—corded and reinforced.

            It was like taking Play-Doh and kneading it together to make something new. Or perhaps like a surgery to remove fat from one area and stick it in another.

            Kellan glanced between Sen and the man covered by the medical sheets. “Aren’t you worried about anything I just told you? Team 42 is going to help the flestiss invade all remaining dimensions.”

            “If they win the Nexus Games,” Sen stated. He glared at the organs in front of him, rearranging them like mushy Tetris pieces until they were fitted back into place. “And I already told you the solution. Inform the Arbiter directly. You have plenty of time to do so.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “The games aren’t even halfway over. You need five different keys in order to access Zenith. Well, a number of keys equal to players in the team… but still. You get the picture. Team 42 needs five keys.”

            Kellan crossed his arms. “How many do they currently have?”

            “They have two keys. They gathered one from the Seek and Destroy game, and then one from the Infection game. That means they need three more. We have plenty of time to stop them or think of another plan.”

            After a long exhale, Kellan glared at the tile floor. He walked over to the medical chair and frowned, trying not to look at the spaghetti that was another man’s insides.

            “And we also have two?” Kellan asked, trying to make sure he knew all the facts and had them straight.

            Sen nodded once. “That’s correct. We also just need three more, and we’ll get access to Zenith.”

            “What if Team 42 tries to cheat?” Kellan turned his attention to the far door. The squish and slap of blood and organs was etched into Kellan’s mind forever. “What if they use travel magic to somehow teleport to Zenith? I mean, didn’t you take me from my dimension and bring me to the Nexus? You and Xiang?”

            Kellan wasn’t an expert on magic, but he at least understood the concept of jumping between alternate dimensions. That was how he had arrived in the Nexus. That was how everyone arrived—except for the inbred residents. Everyone else was from some other alternate reality.

            Sen shot Kellan a glare. “Don’t mention my sister’s travel magic in front of people.” Then he returned to his work. “We don’t want anyone to hear.”

            Kellan slapped the bare foot of the man on the medical chair. “I’m sure Corpse-Face here will keep our secret.”

            “There are others here who can shroud themselves in invisibility or shift their shape. It’s best to keep quiet about these matters.” Sen stopped his disgusting work. “And clearly, you still lack understanding of certain magical elements, so let me set something straight.”

            “I’m listening,” Kellan stated.

            He wanted to know more about magic, and it frustrated him whenever people tended to give him the CliffsNotes version of what was going on.

            “Traveling between dimensions is difficult. High ranks of travel magic can do it, but only in a limited capacity. It’s currently the Season of the Conflux, which means travel between dimensions is easier—think of it like weather. Right now, there are fewer clouds between dimensions, so it’s clearer sailing.”

            “Okay. Sure. I understand.”

            “In theory, a magical item could be used to gather people to the Nexus because that’s where the Conflux originates, thus making it easy to travel here. Some people come here accidentally because that’s how weak the barrier is between this dimension and others.”

            Although Sen hadn’t said it, Kellan now understood. Xiang had made an item that Sen had used to transport Kellan and Mavis into the Nexus. The Season of the Conflux made it easy, so high ranks in travel magic weren’t necessary.

            “No one can travel to Zenith,” Sen concluded. He resumed his work on the helpless man. “Zenith has the most powerful barriers around it. Perfect barriers, if you will. No one gets through, except for the Arbiter, who controls the gates. End of story.”

            Kellan turned on his heel and headed for the door. He had heard enough. Now he wanted to find the others and warn them about the same things he told Sen, and perhaps even speak with the Arbiter.

            “Where are you going?” Sen asked.

            “To find Mavis and the others,” Kellan muttered as he grabbed the door handle.

            “W-Wait! I wanted to speak with you!”

            Kellan glanced back.

            Sen, still bloodied and elbows-deep in another man’s guts, just frowned. “Give me a moment to finish this, and then I’ll travel the palace grounds with you.”

—Chapter 3—

—Should We Risk It?—

            The operating room smelled of copper and sweat.

            Kellan licked his lips as he paced along the wall, his eyes drawn to the white countertops. Syringes and scalpels were laid out on crisp towels, each clean and ready for use. Kellan gave serious thought to picking up a needle and taking it with him—perhaps it would come in handy—but he didn’t have his backpack, and his sweatpants weren’t suitable for carrying around anything sharp.

            “Where’s my gear?” Kellan asked.

            Sen glared down at the insides of the bloody man. “Husker likely has everything. My sister asked him to handle that.”

            Frustrated, but still antsy, Kellan slowly paced around the chair, watching Sen as he worked. The child placed the body parts back inside the man and then reconnected membranes so that the organs would stay where they were supposed to. Then Sen grabbed the man’s stomach and sealed it closed with his bare fingers. Every time Sen pinched the flesh, it was like closing raw pasta—it reminded Kellan of an uncooked ravioli.

            But moments later, the skin melted into itself and healed. The man’s stomach returned to normal. Kellan couldn’t detect any evidence the man had just been open and bleeding—other than the blood splashed around on the medical sheets.

            “What did you do?” Kellan asked.

            “I just rearranged the man’s physical nature,” Sen said as he carefully descended the step stool. “You see, the man was rather strong, but he had suffered the effects of a curse that lowered his overall wellbeing.”

            “You mean, his stats? Like, his stat for health?”

            “Correct. But also, not correct. Because I’m not talking about his health. I meant his physical stats.” Once Sen was on the floor, he walked around the chair and stood next to Kellan. “Shall we go?”

            Together, they made their way to the door. Kellan stopped when he touched the handle. “Aren’t you going to wake the guy?”

            “No. He’ll be fine in just a few minutes. He’s not a particularly interesting conversationalist, and I’ve already received payment.”

            Still, Kellan hesitated. He glanced over his shoulder and stared at the sheet draped over the man’s body. Nothing moved.

            “Well?” Sen said, motioning to the door. “Weren’t you in a hurry?” He shook his head. “You baffle me sometimes with your nonsensical demands.”

            “Hurry up and wait was the motto I learned in boot camp,” Kellan muttered. “How did you rearrange the man’s stats? And why isn’t health one of them? I want to know more about… everything.”

            Sen grabbed at his Power Ranger sweatshirt and tugged the collar around his neck down a bit. “Health is just a measurement of how much damage you can take before you die. Normally, a human has about seven or eight. Sometimes more, if they’re bigger, and sometimes less, if—”

            “They’re a child?” Kellan said with a smirk, staring down at Sen.

            The smaller man frowned deeply. “Moving on.” He cleared his throat and then continued, “Obviously, the more health someone has, the more damage they can take before dying. Altering health is different from other stats… Our fine fellow over here wanted to make sure he could live through more of the games, so I moved some of strength over to fortitude. You see, fortitude is a measurement of your endurance, both at running and taking a beating. The more fortitude, the less damage you take from a punch or a bullet.”

            “Uh-huh.” Kellan opened the door and stepped out into the hall.

            Learning about how much someone could take a beating sounded amusing. He hadn’t thought it would be quantified into a number, yet here it was.

            “Since I’m a master at fleshcrafting—” Sen smiled to himself as he held his head high, “—I offered my services for a price.”

            Kellan walked the massive hallways of the AVU Palace. “Can you do that with anyone? What if I wanted you to move some points of my charisma and put them into health?”

            With a stutter start, Sen struggled through his words, his anger a barrier to communication. “Are you insane?” he finally managed. “Do you really think putting chunks of your brain in your chest will help absorb damage?”

            Large windows with iron bars lined the halls. Rain streamed down the glass, distorting the view of the gardens outside.

            “You said you can rearrange stats,” Kellan replied, calm and unbothered by Sen’s child-like flailing. “Charisma is a stat. I have a number for it. Three.”

            “Physical stats! Physical!” Sen huffed and snorted and scoffed, as though he couldn’t think of another way of expressing his indignation. “Strength, dexterity, fortitude—they’re physical. Charisma, manipulation—those are social. The last few stats—intelligence, perception, and wisdom—are mental. I can’t rearrange everything. Well, that’s not true. I can. You’ll just become a vegetable. Which isn’t our desired outcome.”

            “What about willpower and health?”

            “Ah, well, those are more reflections of defenses, not really stats. Mind magic can use willpower offensively, but otherwise, willpower is a measurement of your will to resist. And health measures resistances to cutting, bruising, and breaking. I just told you that. Weren’t you listening?”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            Sen had to walk faster than Kellan, his stride much shorter. Kellan could’ve slowed to accommodate the man-child, but he opted to continue forward at a fast walk. He wanted to speak with the others as soon as possible. He didn’t know when the third game would start, but he knew it could be at any moment.

            The Nexus loved its surprises.

            “What we need is more arcana for you,” Sen said matter-of-factly. “Body magic can increase your physical stats, as well as your health. And since your perception is at non-magical human maximum, it would behoove us to up it as well. As soon as possible, really. You’re too weak at your current state.”

            Apparently, from what Kellan had learned, people from non-magical dimensions couldn’t have higher than a five in any stat. Two was average. One was terrible. Zero was either death or paralysis.

            Kellan did have a five in perception.

            “What happens when I get a six?” he asked.

            “You’ll have superhuman levels of perception,” Sen replied. He gulped down air as he hurried forward, obviously running out of breath. “You’ll be able to sense magic, and your ability to notice subtle changes in your environment will be heightened.”

            Kellan opened a door to a closet. Then a door that led to another hall. Then a third door to an empty sitting area. When he arrived at a tall wooden door with techno music thumping from the other side, constant and rhythmic, he decided to stop and investigate a little further.

            “W-Wait,” Sen said. He stepped close to the door, half-blocking the way. “I said I needed to speak with you, and I meant it.”

            Kellan lifted an eyebrow. “What is it?”

            “I…”

            But Sen ended his sentence prematurely. He turned his eyes to the floor, his jaw clenched. Kellan waited, but he was inches from just shoving the man to the side. I wonder what my patience would look like as a stat, Kellan sardonically thought.

            Sen took in a deep breath and then forced a smile. “I wanted to thank you for helping us acquire the second key. You basically did it on your own, and it was very much appreciated.”

            For a long second afterward, both Kellan and Sen were quiet.

            Sen then clapped his hands together once. “There. I said it. I hope you’re satisfied with your acknowledgement.”

            “That’s it?” Kellan asked with a snort. “You made it sound like it was a big deal we speak alone. You couldn’t have said that back in the other room? In front of the unconscious body?”

            Sen’s face grew red as he stammered, “W-Well, it was personal. Where I come from, mages of my status don’t just offer praise to their subordinates.”

            “Wow. I feel really privileged.” Kellan grabbed Sen’s shoulder and moved him to the side, trying desperately to keep all his sarcastic commentary to himself. Then he placed his hand on the door handle.

            Sen practically stumbled. He flailed his arms a bit to regain his balance. With a glare, Sen brushed off his clothing. “Listen, I’m trying to be agreeable. We got off on the wrong foot, and well, you did a good job, and you had a point about trusting you, so…”

            “So?”

            “So perhaps I’ve given thought to removing the Tyranny Worms in your body.”

            The mere mention of the worms made Kellan’s skin crawl. Technically, the worms infested his entire being, preventing him from dying. Whenever he was injured, the worms killed themselves and used their bodies to stitch his flesh back together—one health every six seconds.

            If that was all they did, Kellan wouldn’t mind them, but the queen worm was somehow inside of Sen, giving the man-child a bit of control over Kellan in a way that Kellan found insufferable.

            “Really?” Kellan asked with a cold and serious tone. No joking. This wasn’t a joking matter. “When? Right now?”

            “Once I have the tools.” Sen glared up at him, his little kid face screwed up into something serious, but it was difficult for Kellan to see anything other than a pouty kindergartener. “Soon. Very soon. If you continue to help us.”

            Kellan replied with a slow and sarcastic salute.

            Sen crossed his arms. “You’re not as funny as you think you are.”

            “Says the man who needs a highchair to eat at the big boy table.”

            “Need I remind you that I started this conversation by thanking you?”

            “And it ended with you reminding me that you control people with horror-show worms.” Kellan knelt, patted the man on the shoulder, and then stood with a smirk. “This is probably our best conversation yet.”

            Sen threw back some of his long, black hair, his eye half-lidded in a sardonic glare. “You’re strange. Work on that.”

            With no more words for the conversation, Kellan shoved the door and then stepped inside. A wall of smoke greeted him with open arms. Kellan coughed and waved a hand, trying to fan away the haze, but with little luck.

            Neon lights flickered from the ceiling, catching on the smoke particles in the air, creating visions of pink and blue clouds. Kellan squinted and glanced around. Fortunately, Husker was an easy man to find—the werewolf creature was nearly nine feet tall and wore a heavy trench coat.

            Kellan waded through the smoke. Husker stood next to a pool table, a black cigarette in his canine mouth. Husker’s hands were a mix of a human’s and a fox’s. Black pads covered his palm and five fingers, and red fur covered everything else. He held the pool cue awkwardly, his hands too large for the human-sized pool equipment.

            Didn’t seem to bother Husker, though. He leaned down onto the table, his fox ears laid back as he lined up his shot.

            The smoke-filled room reminded Kellan of a Moose Lodge—a type of old-school bar meant to cater to families of smokers and drinkers. There were tables, couches, darts, a drinking area, and even several TVs mounted to the walls. The room was the size of an apartment, but the thick wall of smoke obscured everything.

            Kellan didn’t spot other people. Husker was playing pool alone.

            Where was everyone? Judging by the thickness of the haze, dozens of people had been smoking in the room just minutes prior.

            “Husker,” Kellan said as he approached the pool table. “I’m glad I found you. We need to talk.”

            The giant of a man straightened his posture. After a long drag on his black cigarette, Husker exhaled a line of smoke. “Warrior Kellan, I’m pleased to see you conscious.” His gruff voice had the deep rumble of a growl. Then he glanced down to Sen. “You’re done with your fleshcrafting?”

            “Of course.” Sen walked around the table, but he was too short to really see over.

            The moment Kellan glanced at the smoke in Husker’s hand, his Blitzkrieg Analysis told him everything he needed to know.

Magical Item [Consumable]—Hane Cigarette

            The mage gains +2 perception and mana recovery while the hane remains in the mage’s system. Highly addictive.

            Although Kellan wanted to comment on Husker’s decision to use hane, he decided against it. Instead, Kellan went straight to his main point. “I met with Team 42 during the last game.”

            Husker’s ears stood erect. “Oh?”

            “They’re planning to win the Nexus Games so they can kill the primordial dragons and help the Flestiss Dominion conquer all other dimensions.”

            “Primordial dragons? Like the Arbiter?”

            “Exactly.”

            “Oh, shit, man,” someone else said between a short series of coughs. “That’s crazy, man.”

            Kellan turned on his heel. He reached for his sidearm, but that was just muscle memory. He still wore only a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. He didn’t have a weapon outside of his magic.

            Through the haze of smoke, Kellan spotted the mysterious speaker.

            An older teen reclined on a couch, his feet kicked up on one of the armrests, his head on the other. He, too, had a stick of hane on his lips, smoke streaming out his nostrils. The teen rubbed at his bloodshot eyes, though it seemed difficult for him to keep them open.

            “Who are you?” Kellan demanded.

            The teenager wore a purple baseball cap with the words Taco King across the front. He also had a white T-shirt and a button-up shirt over it, an odd style choice that wasn’t Kellan’s favorite. His jeans had holes over the knees.

            Technically, Kellan didn’t need the boy to answer. He already got his information.

Name: Robert Jameson the Friendly

Race: Human

Magics: Soul

Rank: C

Health: 7/7

Strength—2

Dexterity—2

Fortitude—1 [Tired]

Charisma—2 [Friendly]

Manipulation—1

Intelligence—2

Perception—2

Wisdom—1

Willpower—2

Abilities:

Personal—[Friends in High Places]—The mage has two additional familiar slots and 500% familiar growth.

            Kellan was unimpressed.

            The kid didn’t have anything over human average, even if he was a C-rank mage. The only high number was the percentage increase to familiar growth. And the man was a soul mage? Kellan wasn’t familiar enough with the magics to know what it entailed. All he knew was that Sen also had soul magic.

            After fixing his cap right, the teen replied, “I’m Robbie. Who’re you?”

            “Alex Kellan.”

            “Oh, shit, man. The Alex Kellan?” Robbie took a quick drag of his hane and then exhaled, coughing the entire time. He smacked his chest, his left hand marked with the number of his team: 79. “I’ve heard of you. I thought you were mute? Or something.”

            Kellan sighed. “No. I’m the other Alex Kellan.”

            The alternate-dimension Alex Kellan on Team 42 was mute, but not him, obviously. And how had Kellan missed the fact that Robbie the Taco King Worker was in the room? He had a five perception—they had just talked about this. The thick smoke bothered Kellan. With a wave of his hand, he tried to clear it away, but there didn’t seem to be much ventilation. The low beat of techno music wasn’t helping his ability to concentrate, either.

            Robbie wheezed, took another drag on his hane, and then said, “If the Arbiter is in danger, you should, like, do something about that. Sounds really important.” But he didn’t get up or encourage anything. He just continued to relax on his couch, practically mimicking the cushions.

            “We won’t take orders from the likes of you,” Sen stated. “What’re you? Some sort of lowborn food worker?” He squinted his eyes. “Or maybe… the janitor of a food establishment?”

            “Whoa, man.” Robbie lifted his baseball cap and widened his eyes. “I didn’t know babies were allowed to participate in the Nexus Games.”

            “I’m thirty years old, you buffoon.”

            “Oh, right on. You look amazing for thirty, bro.”

            Husker threw his hane down and stomped on it with his bare foot, the pads of his soles calloused. Then the claws of his toes scraped across the wooden floor. He pulled out a new stick and placed it in his mouth, his fangs holding it in place while he spoke. “Robert the Friendly is correct. We should warn the Arbiter and do something about Team 42.”

            Robert the Friendly. Kellan couldn’t stop himself from smiling. What a preposterous name.

            “Do you know where Mavis and Xiang are?” Kellan asked. Then he glanced at the mostly empty smoke-filled room. “Or where everyone else is, for that matter?”

            Husker tilted his hand back and forth. “Mavis and Xiang are at the Exchange. And I believe most teams have entered themselves into the challenge round.”

            “Challenge round? What’s that?”

            Robbie held his hand up with the enthusiasm of an elementary school student. “Oh, it’s this game that’s, like, optional, and people compete in it.”

            “Don’t listen to this idiot,” Sen said, waving his arms. “He’s as useful as a chocolate teapot. I’ll tell you everything you need to know about challenge rounds.”

            “I’m listening,” Kellan said. He coughed and waved away more smoke. “I don’t care who tells me what’s going on—I just want to know.”

            “Occasionally, the Arbiter will offer a challenge round in between games.” Sen held up a finger. “No keys are awarded, but arcana and powerful magical items are often the rewards. No teams are made to participate, but it’s advantageous to do so.”

            Robbie smirked. “So, an optional game? People compete in? I said that, man.”

            Ignoring their couch-companion, Husker walked around the pool table and went to the one of the TVs mounted to the wall. The 80-inch flat screen was caked in a thin layer of hane smoke. Husker used his large hands to dust the electronics.

            “Bitso is always relaying information about the games.” Husker snorted as he searched for the button to switch on the TV. “The Arbiter forces him to announce every detail and mechanic, and to show highlights of the games… He’ll provide all the details if I can just get this… this thing to function.”

            Kellan stepped close to poke the power button and the TV flickered to life.

            The TV was set to a channel with a children’s show. Kellan watched for a few seconds as some deformed kids ran across a green field chasing someone in a sun costume. The face of the sun—buttons for eyes, and a mouth stitched into place—seemed to be twisted in agony. Kellan wanted to know the context for such a show, and what the children were doing, but he quickly switched the channel to Bitso’s news program.

            Bitso sat behind a metal desk, a small screen behind him playing a cartoon of a maze. Not a paper maze, but a large, stone maze with walls as tall as a two-story house. The footage looped over and over again, showcasing someone entering the maze and a metal door shutting behind them.

            The news anchor poked at his blindfold—jabbing hard straight into the socket. Blood bloomed across the white cloth, making it seem like he had a red eye painted in place.

            “That’s right, ladies, gentlemen and everything in between. The challenge round is about to begin, but there are a few limitations. No team leaders or Stragglers allowed. The only ones who can play are the sad sacks who make up the hard-working backbone of the team. You know the people. The ones who never get the recognition they deserve.”

            Robbie sat up on his couch and stretched, his hane cigarette dangling from his lower lip as though glued there. “He’s right, man. Hard-working blokes never get their due.”

            Kellan ran a hand down his face.

            If he was going to survive the Nexus Games, he needed more arcana and magical items, there was no way around that fact. If the challenge round would give Kellan those things, he would have to join, wouldn’t he?

            But I should still attempt to speak with the Arbiter at some point, Kellan reasoned. In person. So I can explain the severity of the situation.

            “This challenge round is a bit of risk versus reward,” Bitso said, smiling. His white teeth seemed frighteningly sharp in the back. “You see, the deeper you go into the Catacomb Maze, the more arcana you’ll find. That’s right. The catacombs are filled with dead bodies. Beautiful, rotting corpses. Their arcana is just sitting there…”

            Kellan glanced over to Husker. With the eyes of a dog who was confused, Husker met Kellan’s gaze.

            “Yes?” Husker asked.

            “Arcana emerges from a body after a person dies… And then it just stays there? Forever?”

            “Not quite. Arcana eventually rots. That’s where yami come from. The rotted arcana is a form of corrupted magic.”

            Yami—foul monsters of twisted designs—were creatures Kellan despised. Vile cats, undead machines, robotic crocodiles… The list of yami beasts that Kellan had seen was quite interesting, if a bit unsettling.

            “I thought the Arbiter controlled all those yami monsters?” Kellan asked while Bitso continued on the TV, spouting off statements about arcana and corpses.

            Husker nodded once. “You seem surprised, but primordial dragons have a tremendous amount of control over their dimension. They’re connected to the raw magic—the Sea of Chaos—and that gives them some control over the yami.”

            Kellan rubbed at his chin, mulling over the information. No wonder the primordial dragons could prevent people from taking over their dimensions. If they were that in control of the situation, to the point they had influence over all monsters and magic, they were basically undefeatable.

            “And some of these alternate dimensions don’t have dragons?” Kellan asked, continuing to ignore the TV.

            Husker snorted. “They died. The old-fashioned way. Or fighting each other. Who knows anymore? Most of them died long before you or I existed. Those dimensions… the magic is less prevalent. Or gone. Like your world. A terrible fate.”

            It seemed weird to Kellan that the dimensions were similar yet so different. Not all of them, apparently, but enough that someone with his same name and general skill set could exist in one dimension while he existed in another.

            But all this information just reinforced Kellan’s desire to speak with the Arbiter. If the Arbiter controlled the Gates to Zenith, would that mean anyone could enter the “perfect dimension” once he was dead? Would the Flestiss Dominion attempt to invade that dimension as well?

            Kellan wasn’t sure of the limitations of aliens—or the magic, for that matter.

            He needed more information.

            It was a constant problem he couldn’t seem to shake.

            “But listen to this,” Bitso said with a laugh, drawing Kellan’s attention back to the TV. Bitso slammed his hand on his desk. “At the center of this maze is a Summoning Chime.”

            “A Summoning Chime?” Sen asked through a gasp.

            “Trust me, you want this item. Normally, it’s outlawed during the early parts of the Nexus Games because of the unfair advantage it grants… But the Arbiter is feeling generous. There’s one Summoning Chime for each team who makes it to the center.”

—Chapter 4—

—Risk and Reward—

            “Sweet, man,” Robbie said as he slid off the couch and stood. He threw his stick of hane on the floor and stomped it out. “A Summoning Chime is definitely worth gettin’ involved for.”

            Husker snorted. “Stragglers can’t participate.” He returned his attention to the pool table. “And I don’t want to watch the death circus the Arbiter has planned for anyone who risks themselves in a challenge round.”

            Without glancing at anyone, Sen hurried away from the pool table, muttering something excitedly under his breath. He went all the way to the door and then stopped. He counted things on his fingers, hesitating before reaching for the doorknob. 

            “What’s a Summoning Chime?” Kellan asked.

            “You get to call a mage to help you.” Robbie slid his hands into the pockets of his ripped jeans. “Ya know. For the games. And that person can be anyone. And they are forced to help you, controlled by, like, the magic of the Chime. That’s my favorite kind of help.”

            “Compulsory?” Kellan quipped.

            “Yeah, man. The kind of help where you know the person can’t betray you. Because reasons.” He fluttered his fingers around, jazz hands style, as he said the last word.

            Kellan glanced over to Husker, hoping for a thorough explanation.

            The werewolf man snorted, his long snout wrinkled as though disgusted. “The Summoning Chime does, in fact, compel someone to help you. It lasts for a mere fifteen minutes, but if you summon the correct person, it could turn the tide of an entire game. The previous Nexus Games gave out Chimes once, and Xiang’s mother used hers to win the final game.”

            Although Kellan wasn’t entirely sure who he would summon, he found it interesting that the Chime was so powerful that it had allowed Xiang’s mother to win. It sounded like the Chime was normally banned early in the games. For what reason? What mage could possibly be so strong that fifteen minutes of their support would be considered overpowered?

            Perhaps I should get one. Since Kellan wasn’t his team’s Straggler or leader, he could participate in the challenge round. But…

            The TV flickered as Bitso slammed his hand down on the desk. Then he pointed to the smaller screen behind him, the one playing the cartoon animation of the maze. Bitso practically leaned onto the screen and stroked at the lines of the walls. He put so much of his weight on the smaller TV that it cracked and tilted.

            Bitso pressed his face against it. “Listen to this. The Catacomb Maze is one of my favorite places ever. The coffins either have prizes or traps. The traps not only try to kill you, but they also lower the total time everyone has in the maze. Nothing gets everyone’s blood boiling like the incompetence of others!”

            The cartoon played childish animations of people falling into a pit or outrunning a gigantic, spherical boulder. Bitso chuckled the entire time, watching with crazed glee.

            “Everyone will have eight hours to dive into the maze and then turn around and make it out,” Bitso said through his laughter. “The Summoning Chimes will be located at the very center of the catacomb—but each time one Chime is taken, an hour will be subtracted from everyone’s allotted time.”

            “Whoa, man,” Robbie said, though there was no shock in his voice whatsoever.

            Husker clicked his tongue. “Tsk. This is what I’m talking about. The Arbiter has sick games in mind.”

            “This won’t be a PvP match,” Bitso said with an exaggerated pout. He rubbed the screen again, stroking the little cartoon image of a man in the maze. “No one is allowed to attack any other teams during the challenge round, which is disappointing, I know, but you’ll be racing against the clock in this one.”

            Robbie snapped his fingers. Then he nudged Kellan with his elbow. “I bet ya that whoever doesn’t make it out of the maze dies, dude.”

            “You’re probably right,” Kellan muttered. He was very familiar with the dangers of the Nexus Games at this point.

            “Whoever is inside the maze when the time ends will be crushed!” Bitso grabbed the TV mounted on the wall and then threw it to the ground, smashing the glass and cracking the plastic frame. Bits of electronics flew across the newsroom as the man cackled with delight.

            The lunatic-level laughter lasted a solid thirty seconds.

            “I love that man’s enthusiasm for his job,” Robbie said with a smile.

            Kellan walked over and switched off the TV. He had heard enough. The challenge round was about gathering arcana from the catacombs, all while making one’s way to the center to grab the Chime. It didn’t sound too difficult, but he knew that once a couple of people had Chimes, the possibility of exiting the maze would decrease.

            “How large is the maze?” Kellan asked, hoping someone in the room would be familiar with it.

            No one answered.

            Damn. Kellan gritted his teeth, hating how difficult it was to gather information at times. I need to find a library… or a Nexus version of the internet. Anything to get the Wikipedia page on all these locations.

            “What did you say about the death rates of challenge rounds?” Kellan asked.

            Husker extended black claws from his fingers and scratched at his furry neck. “The challenge rounds always have difficult puzzles, monsters, and traps. And there’s no chance of winning a key. Never worth it, in my opinion. Those challenge rounds are a trap meant to ensnare the greedy.”

            “That’s the talk of a loser, man.” Robbie turned for the door. “Ya gotta believe in yourself once in a while. That’s how you get great.”

            The low beat of the ambient techno music covered Robbie’s steps as he headed out. He tipped his purple fast food baseball cap to Sen as he stepped around and exited, smiling the entire time. Kellan glanced over his shoulder, still bothered by the copious amount of smoke, but intrigued that Taco King had the gumption to take on the difficult challenge round.

            How was Robbie even still alive? Two rounds deep into the Nexus Games, with the stats and demeanor of a dull sandwich…

            “Quickly, quickly,” Sen shouted. “We must find my sister before entry into the challenge round ends. We should participate.”

            Husker huffed, smoke streaming through his fangs. He adjusted his hane with his tongue. “You shouldn’t bother with this. It’s too early in the competition.”

            “Our warrior managed to gather the second key for us all on his lonesome. I think you underestimate him.” Sen dismissively waved his hand. “This will be easy.”

            “You forget that everyone has seen the extent of Xiang’s illusionary skills.” Husker leaned down onto the pool table, his tone casual. “Now that it’s common knowledge that her illusions fool lower-rank divination, other teams are going to start gaining abilities, forming tactics, or acquiring items to combat that.”

            “We don’t need to worry about that just yet. Xiang can’t even participate in the challenge round, anyway.” Sen huffed, opened the door, and then stepped into the hallway. “We need every advantage we can get!” He left without another word, flouncing as he went.

            Once alone with Husker, Kellan walked over to his side of the pool table. “Do you have any of my gear, werewolf?”

            Husker shot him a glare. “Werewolf? You know I’m a rennic. There’s nothing were about me.”

            “It’s an affectionate nickname.”

            “I hate it. Call me that again, and I’ll assume that you want our relationship to be antagonistic.”

            “Very well. Do you have any of my gear, rennic?”

            Husker twitched his pointed ears. Then he resumed his solo game at the pool table. “Of course. It’s over there. By the circular table.”

            Despite the smoke, Kellan spotted the table to which Husker referred. Sure enough, his backpack sat near one of the legs. Kellan jogged over, picked up his bag, and slung it over his shoulders. His rifle sat on a chair nearby. When he picked it up, and grabbed the strap, he discovered the weapon had a distinct… feeling.

            Kellan shivered as he hoisted it onto his shoulder.

            It was as if the rifle had emotions that transmitted themselves to Kellan’s being.

Magical Item [Semi-Sentient Weapon]—Sevriss [Mk-17 SCAR-H Mode]

            A mythical weapon that is said to appear once in every dimension. Powerful and versatile, it transforms to match the preferred weapon-type of its wielder. It’s also cursed. Weapon damage varies depending on the weapon [SCAR, (7 + dexterity – target’s dexterity) and doubles the bonus from firearms-enhancing abilities and magical skills]. Has a 10% chance to double arcana when used to make the finishing strike.

            Sevriss…

            It had once been cursed, but after Kellan had gathered enough gold arcana, the negative effects had disappeared. Kellan patted the gun, and again, he was met with a bizarre feeling, like the rifle had missed him.

            Which was more than a little disturbing, but at least it wasn’t actively out to kill him. Kellan chalked it up as a win.

            “Husker,” Kellan said.

            The rennic lifted his head and stared with the intensity of a wolf. “Yes?”

            “Do you really think joining the challenge round is a terrible idea?”

            “Heh. Absolutely.”

            Kellan waited for a follow-up, but none came. Husker returned to his game, his attention on the pool balls.

            “I thought it was a bad idea bringing you here, though,” Husker eventually muttered. “Sen doesn’t bother listening to my advice. But maybe I’m not always correct.”

            Although that wasn’t the answer Kellan had been hoping for, he mulled over the information and decided to leave. Once free of the smoke, he coughed to clear his lungs. The long hallway was empty. Sen had disappeared.

            Irritated that he had somehow lost a small child, Kellan jogged farther into the AVU Palace, his attention on his surroundings. He passed three more doors, each open to reveal a small study. When he came to the fourth, Kellan threw it open, shocked to find a meat freezer. Carcasses of cows hung from hooks in the ceiling.

            The red muscle and white marbling of fat startled Kellan, but only for a moment. A mist of cold air rushed into the hall. Kellan slowly shut the door, shaken. He had almost forgotten how jumbled the Nexus could be. Every dimension apparently collided with this one, combining to make bizarre buildings and places.

            Shaking the thought from his mind, Kellan jogged down the hall. When he made a turn, he recognized a set of stairs. They led to the Arbiter. The stairs would lead him to the field where the giant hole was. Part of Kellan wanted to run there and tell the Arbiter, but…

            Two Pestbyters hovered near the base of the stairs. Their camera eyes turned to face Kellan, the wire tentacles hanging from their bodies jiggling with anticipation.

            Kellan stepped back.

            “You aren’t allowed to be here,” one of the Pestbyters said in a sweet, but mechanical, voice. “Please return to your quarters.

            Movement near the ceiling caught Kellan’s attention. He glanced up and caught his breath. A single eye protruded from the ceiling. It had an organic cover over the lens of the camera. Kellan’s own eyes gave him all the information he needed.

Magical Item [Semi-Sentient]—Eyes of the Arbiter

            An observation tool used by the Arbiter to keep tabs on the citizens of the Nexus. They appear across surfaces with electronic components. Can see through moderate levels of obfuscation. It’s rather creepy.

            Kellan stepped away from the Pestbyters.

            The Eyes of the Arbiter watched his every move. They watched everyone’s movements, no matter where they were, basically. Which meant Bitso was correct—the Arbiter already knew about Team 42’s plan to win the games.

            So why hadn’t the Arbiter acted?

            “I’m leaving,” Kellan said to the eye. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to break any more rules.”

            The eye blinked, much like a lizard. A transparent flap of flesh slid over the half-sphere of the eye, cleaning away all dirt.

            Kellan turned and left the hall, disturbed, but not as much as he had been when he had first arrived in the Nexus. The Eyes of the Arbiter had been everywhere during the games. Apparently, the Arbiter had blinded himself just to gain that ability—to watch over the games like a god.

            Satisfied that he had at least thought about the correct thing to do, Kellan hurried down a different hallway. He opened the first door, and more smoke wafted over him. Less than before, but more than he liked. Then Kellan spotted someone.

            Sun Xiang.

            The leader of Team 101.

—Chapter 5—

—The Challenge Round—

            Xiang was a woman with enough emotional baggage to wreck the Denver airport.

            Two of her ex-lovers were in the games and wanted her dead, her mother had disappeared after the last games, her brother was trapped in the body of a child, and she was apparently under the effects of a terrible hex. Any one of those things would’ve justified alcoholism in a normal individual.

            Despite that, Xiang stood in a room that reminded Kellan of a casino, confidence in her stiff stance. The lights were dim and large screens hung from the ceiling, displaying odds and probabilities. To his surprise, most were in English, but occasionally the words switched to other languages—alphabets he didn’t recognize.

            The blue hue of the screens tainted the smoke in the air, creating a turquoise fog. Xiang strode through the haze, her long, black hair fluttering behind her, her heels tall enough that they added six inches to her already statuesque height. She wore a tight dress, form-fitting to the point that, if she had any flaws, they would all be on display.

            But Xiang had no flaws.

            Her smooth skin, her supple lips, her inky hair, the noticeable curves—all perfect. When her stats came up for display, Kellan ignored the notification and instead kept his gaze on her. Xiang’s stats were hidden regardless.

            When she made her way to his side, Kellan smirked. “What is this place?”

            He motioned to the screens, and then the counters and bookie boxes. Robots—or maybe androids?—ran the place from behind the counters, each with screens for faces. They dealt in red, glowing crystals. Arcana. The magical material used for learning and improving magics.

            “It’s an Exchange,” Xiang said, her voice as beautiful as she was.

            Kellan knew it was all a lie, however. Xiang’s illusions fooled everyone, even Kellan’s Blitzkrieg Analysis. She could be anybody—or anything. Even her voice could be completely different, for all he knew.

            “What do people exchange here?” Kellan glanced over at the counters. The place was empty, though. No teams or players.

            “Magical items found in the games.” Xiang combed her silky hair with her fingers. She had the same Asian-style facial features as her brother, but just like Sen, she wasn’t from Kellan’s Earth. She was from somewhere very different. “Or sometimes individuals exchange familiars, or other people. It just depends. The Arbiter likes to purchase back anything not in use. The Exchange opens for everyone once the second game has concluded.”

            “Why are you here? Did our team find a bunch of magical items that I’m unaware of?”

            “No. But perhaps there is an item we can use.”

            “Time is running out to join the challenge round,” a polite, feminine voice said over the speakers. “All teams who wish to participate must register within the next five minutes.

            Xiang smiled, but it was brief and devoid of real emotion. “I’m pleased that you’re awake. That means Team 101 can participate in the challenge round. And while I’m still upset that my brother chose an alternate-dimension version of my ex-lover to join us, I’m glad that you’re at least competent enough to brave these games and win.”

            Kellan wasn’t sure if that was a compliment. He didn’t care.

            Then she touched Kellan’s shoulder—just as briefly as she had smiled. Xiang jerked her hand away, as though shocked by static. Then she rubbed at her knuckles, her eyebrows knitted.

            “You have meta magic now?” she whispered.

            Kellan turned his attention to their surroundings. Wouldn’t Sen and the others be upset if he suddenly started telling everyone about his rare magic? But again—he saw no one. “Yeah. I just acquired it.”

            “How?”

            “Bitso… gave me a potion. For doing what he had wanted.”

            Kellan found it difficult to describe the circumstances of the potion. Bitso had wanted Kellan to gather gold arcana, and Kellan had. End of story. Why had Bitso wanted this? Why did Bitso want anything? Kellan found it difficult to explain to himself.

            “What potion?” Xiang demanded, her voice edged. “What was its specific name?”

            “It was an experimental potion made by some guy named Megadonis. It was called Hydra Corp Serum.”

            Xiang crossed her arms and forced an exhale. Then she turned her attention away, her shoulders tense, her fingers gripping hard on her forearms. “Megadonis—that filthy ritual mage. Bitso must’ve had one of his potions…” She cursed under her breath and then glared at Kellan. “Well. I’m happy for you. Congratulations.”

            There was no happiness in her tone.

            “Really heartfelt,” Kellan quipped.

            “I still think you would’ve been better served learning travel magic. But since you refused to allow me to teach you, I suppose you should do everything in your power to master meta magic.”

            She said every word as though it were venom leaving her mouth. Kellan refrained from making another sarcastic comment.

            “Last call for the challenge round,” the woman over the speakers chimed again. “All teams who wish to participate must register within the next four minutes.

            The urgency in the robotic voice unnerved Kellan a bit. He didn’t like the constant pressure of evaporating time.

            “Xiang,” he said. “Do you think the Summoning Chime is worth braving the dangers of the challenge round?”

            “I think it’s worth having, but I do believe this is a trap.” Xiang rested her chin on the top of her hand. “The Arbiter intentionally put the Chime in the first challenge round to lure out rubes. Since the Chime was so crucial in the last games, naturally, mages now would want to get their hands on one.”

            “And the Arbiter just wants to kill as many people as possible?” Kellan asked, his tone dry.

            “Yes. I think this challenge round will be a bloodbath.”

            “And you still want me to participate?” Kellan scoffed, almost indignant, but what had he expected? Of course she would want him to risk himself.

            “You’ve proven yourself resourceful,” Xiang stated matter-of-factly. “You gained multiple keys in the first game, and then single-handedly brought our team the key in the second game. Despite your unorthodox methods, you’re doing something right. It’s early enough in the game that now is the time to push our luck. I have faith you’ll avoid the worst of the round.”

            Kellan wasn’t a fan of running headfirst into dangerous situations. All it would take was a bout of bad luck, and he could find himself dead. The Nexus Games had too many perilous situations—by design, obviously.

            “Just pushing our luck because we can… That’s a terrible strategy,” Kellan said.

            Xiang smirked. “You don’t understand. You’ve never seen the Nexus Games play out. We should—”

            But Kellan caught his breath, his attention drawn to a person walking through the smoke-filled Exchange. He recognized her immediately. Mavis. Her freckled skin, athletic form, and confident stride were everything Kellan had been hoping to see. She had a certain stride that betrayed her military training.

            When she spotted Kellan, her eyes went wide, and she smiled.

            Mavis jogged over—something she seemed to love doing now that her leg wasn’t giving her trouble, thanks to Sen’s fleshcrafting. Her purple-tinted hair was tied back in a ponytail, but it still fluttered as she moved. She wore a heavy jacket, a T-shirt, and jeans, all brand new, as if taken straight off a store rack.

            Xiang stopped speaking and turned to follow Kellan’s gaze. The moment she spotted Mavis, she stiffened. “Oh. Our other warrior.”

            “Kellan!” Mavis picked up her pace, ran straight at Kellan for the last few feet, and threw her arms around his neck. “You’re awake.”

            He embraced her back, holding her tightly against his body.

            Xiang watched with narrowed eyes, never bothering to return to her explanation. She merely watched with the passion and movement of a statue.

            “Where have you been?” Kellan asked Mavis, keeping his arms around her.

            “I’ve been trying to find things for our team.” Mavis didn’t move away, either. She kept her arms around Kellan’s neck, tightening her grip. “Sen and Xiang taught me about magical items, and curses, and other things we should look out for.”

            As if summoned by his name being spoken, Sen jogged around the corner and headed over to the group. His childlike appearance made it seem like Xiang was an irresponsible parent who allowed her kid to run through a gambling hall. Sen’s Power Rangers sweatshirt made everything more childish.

            “W-Wait for me,” Sen said through labored breaths. “Mavis!”

            Finally releasing Kellan, Mavis turned with an even wider smile. “Oh, sorry. Our team is assembled. It’s time to go.”

            The man-child reached the group, and then stopped and huffed. “Thank goodness… We need… to get that Summoning Chime…”

            “You’ll need to be quick,” Xiang muttered. She pointed to a far door. “And keep in mind that you can head for the exit at any point during the challenge round. If you’re running low on time, just turn around and leave.”

            “We need to leave enough time to get to the exit?” Kellan asked.

            “That’s right.”

            Sen formally bowed to his sister, bending so far that his long hair touched the carpeted floor near his feet. “Consider it done, my honorable sister.” Then he straightened his posture and headed for the far door.

            “We need to go,” Mavis said. She flashed Kellan a smirk. “You were sleeping for a while. I have new magic abilities to show you.”

            The constraints of time irritated Kellan. He wanted more gear and supplies—and especially information—but the clock ticked down, stealing his ability to properly prepare. Rolling with the punches was a strategy that only worked so long.

            Kellan followed Mavis to the far door, passing the many screens flickering with numbers. The androids behind the counters looked like old-fashioned silver robots, their arms tubes, their heads square and bulbous, like retro computer monitors. The bizarre androids waved their hands as Kellan rushed by.

            Once Kellan had pushed himself into the next room, the smoke cleared. It was a singular space with a counter and one of the old-school androids. Its monitor head flickered. A happy face appeared on the screen.

            “You’re just in time to register,” it said with the inhuman voice of a machine trying to mimic a child. “Please show me your team number.”

            Sen walked over to the counter and then struggled to get his left arm up high enough for the android to see. He showed the robot the 101 on the back of his left hand. Then he vanished from the room in a pop of displaced air.

            Mavis went to do the same, but Kellan grabbed her shoulder.

            “Are you okay?” he asked.

            She shot him a glare. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” She jerked her shoulder out of his grip. “We have to hurry, Kellan.”

            “Last I saw you… you were infected.”

            “Oh. That.”

            “Only thirty seconds remaining,” the android said sweetly.

            Mavis placed her left hand down on the counter, showing off her 101 mark. “This can wait. We’ll discuss it during the challenge round.”

            After the android had scanned her number, Mavis disappeared just as suddenly as Sen. A quiet pop and then she was gone. Kellan was the only human left in the tiny room with a counter.

            He walked over and showed his team marking.

            The android scanned it, the face on the computer screen flickering to something sad. “Oh,” it said, still upbeat in tone, even with the weird facial expression. “You’re that rule breaker. Please make sure to adhere to all the rules this time. Or else.

            Kellan forced a smile. “I’ll do my best.” 

            As soon as he spoke the words, a power gripped Kellan from deep within. His insides twisted as he was ripped out of the room in an instant. His lungs hurt as he was jerked from one location to a new one.

            This wasn’t the first time he had teleported, but this time felt more… painful. Kellan didn’t have an explanation for it, other than the Arbiter’s apparent love of torture.

            Kellan stumbled forward, breathing heavily.

            To his surprise, the room he had appeared in—the room he had been teleported into—was a tiny five-by-five square with no windows or doors. There was no carpet. No chairs or furniture. No ledges or bricks. Smooth cement walls. A plain, gray ceiling. A featureless floor.

            And no light.

            While Mavis and Sen glanced around, their eyes wide, their sight stolen, Kellan wasn’t in the same boat. He could see. All the horror-movie details were easy for him to spot, his magically-enhanced eyes telling him everything.

            “Kellan?” Mavis asked, her voice panicked.

            “It’s okay,” he said. “We’re not in any immediate danger. Except for, well, we might run out of air at some point.”

            Sen huffed. And then took a deep breath. Then he shot a glare in Kellan’s direction. “You can see? Everything?” Then he waved a child-like hand. “Of course. You’re an eclipse mage. You can see in darkness, can’t you?”

            “That’s right.”

            Kellan moved until his back was against the wall. He slung his backpack around and sifted through the inside. There wasn’t much. He had black cigarettes—hane—and a rule book for the Nexus Games. And that was it.

            “I can make fire,” Mavis said. She ran a hand through her purplish hair. “I keep forgetting I have magical abilities.” She shook her head. “Should I create light for us?”

            “Not fire,” Sen said matter-of-factly. “We’ll run out of air faster. Fire also needs to breathe. We should let our warrior handle everything.” He slowly shifted over to Mavis’s location. “Don’t worry, Mavis. As soon as the challenge round starts, we’ll be let out of this room.”

            Kellan briefly took note of Sen’s willingness to say Mavis’s name. For the most part, Sen never referred to Kellan as anything other than our warrior.

            “What if the Arbiter doesn’t let us out?” Mavis asked. “What if part of the challenge is getting out of this room?”

            Sen tugged on the bottom of his sweatshirt. “Yes… Well… That’s a possibility.”

            “Do you have any magical abilities that can get us out of the room?”

            “I… I don’t think so. Soul and body magic are about the soul and the physical being.”

            Mavis reached out with a shaky hand and touched the nearby wall. Then she vaguely turned in Kellan’s direction. Without focusing her eyes, she asked, “Kellan? Do you have anything?”

            Kellan closed his eyes and thought about his magical abilities. He was an eclipse mage. And a metal mage. And a body mage. He had powers. I should refresh myself before we get into the thick of it.

            “My eclipse abilities,” Kellan muttered.

            They flashed in his mind.

Primary Magic—Eclipse—Focus [Void Agent]

            The mage gains the C-rank power “Shadow Step” for free (the ability to step into the shadows, move their full distance, and then exit the shadows). Diving into the “void” of darkness only lasts 6 seconds, but the mage may travel anywhere that a shadow could fit through.

Illuminate [E-Rank Eclipse]

            An extremely early light-based power, this allows the mage to make an object give off illumination; it leads to far more powerful things later…

            The mage spends a mana, and an object is made to glow with light equal to a torch for thirty minutes.

Pierce the Darkness [E-Rank Eclipse]

            Mastery over light and dark includes the ability to pierce the shadows…

            The mage can always see in the dark.

Void Knight [APEX, E-Rank Eclipse]

            The mage understands that light is tiny and insignificant when compared to the darkness that spans the infinite universe. While shrouded in shadows and void, the mage becomes more powerful.

            Whenever the mage is in darkness (less than 1,000 lumens per 100 square feet) they are empowered, gaining +5 to all physical stats (strength, dexterity, fortitude), +2 to their armor rating, and immunity to all shadow-tendril attacks or grapples from other eclipse mages. Gain the title “the Void Knight.”

            Once taken, the mage may never acquire “Solar Scion.”

            “I can step into the shadows and manipulate them.” Kellan ran a hand down his face. “And I can make light.”

            “And see in the dark?” Mavis asked.

            “Yeah.”

            “Make us some light.”

            Kellan thought for a long moment. His power, Illuminate, required an object to turn bright. What did he have? A T-shirt. Sweatpants. A backpack. Some cigarettes. A book. A rifle.

            No shoes.

            No handheld objects.

            With a sigh, Kellan reached into his bag and spent a mana. He illuminated a small hane stick. It glowed brightly, with an intensity that almost hurt his eyes. He held it high, and it lit up the small room.

            Mavis squinted and then glanced around. “No windows? No door?” She turned her attention to him, her brow furrowed. “What other magical abilities do you have?”

            After a second of shallow breathing, Kellan thought about his metal abilities.

            They showed in his mind.

Mold Metal [E-Rank Metal]

            The most basic metal mage power, and one that is quite useful. This power represents control over metal in its most limited form; the mage can shape it.

            The mage spends a mana, and for thirty minutes, they can mold metal as though it were clay.

Intuitive Tech [D-Rank Metal]

            The metal mage quickly understands how machines, vehicles, and foreign computers work…

            The mage spends a mana, and for thirty minutes, he has a “phantom” understanding of machines. He can temporarily pick locks and use most vehicles, firearms, planes, and computer terminals as though he has trained with them before.  

            “I can mold metal and learn how to operate or use foreign or strange technologies.” Once Kellan spoke, he realized that sounded less than impressive. And it wasn’t going to help them.

            “You’re a metal and eclipse mage and you haven’t learned to use lasers?” Sen snapped. He used a hand to shield his eyes from the intense glow of the hane stick. “Eclipse mages can shoot beams out of their hands—laser beams. Metal mages can do the same. These powers stack. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, imagine simple addition. One plus one is better than just one, right?”

            Kellan forced a quick sigh. “I’m sorry. I was focused on survival, and blasting everything with a laser didn’t seem like the best solution at the time. As soon as I get some more arcana, I’ll try to build that up.”

            “Good.” Sen turned his back to the light. “I’m glad you’re finally listening.”

            “Do you have anything else?” Mavis asked. She stepped closer, her eyes squinted so much, they were almost closed. “Anything at all?”

            “I have body magic, same as Sen,” Kellan muttered. Then he offered a shrug. “I think I have some minor abilities…”

            They flashed in his mind.

Ignore Pain [E-Rank Body]

            Body mages learn to control the autonomous functions of their body, one of the simplest of which is pain.

            The mage spends a mana to ignore agony for thirty minutes. This power ceases if the wound itself disappears.

Heal the Body [D-Rank Body]

            This power is the simplest manifestation of the body mage’s well-known ability to heal others.

            The mage may spend a point of mana to heal another of three points of damage.

            “I can ignore pain and heal people,” Kellan finally stated.

            The other two were silent, like they were waiting for more. But that was it. Kellan had nothing else.

            “You can heal people?” Sen turned on his heel, his eyebrows knitted in obvious frustration. “I told you specifically not to do that! I can heal people! We don’t need two mages who can do the same thing! That’s a waste. We shouldn’t have overlaps.”

            “I needed the ability to heal,” Kellan stated. “So I learned it. End of story.”

            “None of that is going to get us out of this room,” Mavis said, motioning to the cement. “What’re we going to—”

            Before she could finish, the far wall shimmered like a desert mirage. A metal door, built with heavy rivets, appeared as though hidden behind a blanket of invisibility that had fallen to the floor. An electronic speaker was mounted to the top of the doorframe. It shook as someone shouted into the room.

            “The challenge round has begun! You may now enter the Catacomb Maze.”

—Chapter 6—

—The Catacomb Maze—

            Sen turned to Kellan, a slight frown on his face. “Well? You go first.”

            Before Kellan could head over to the door, Mavis reached into her jacket and withdrew a Desert Eagle, a semi-automatic pistol. Kellan was familiar with their design, though he wondered where Mavis had gotten it.

            “Didn’t you have a rifle?” he asked.

            Mavis nodded once. “Yeah, but some crazy shit happened during the second game. I had to fight someone, and I lost it down a vent.” She motioned to the door. “You want me to go first? I have shoes.”

            With a smirk, Kellan shook his head. “By the way, you should know what I found out during the second game. It’s about Team 42.”

            “Sen told me.” Mavis held her handgun close. “Team 42 is working with aliens to kill primordial dragons so they can invade other dimensions. Right? And they’re going to use the super-powered magic of Zenith to do it?”

            “That’s right.” Kellan glanced over at Sen and then back to Mavis, the light in the room irritating his eyes. He closed one and said, “We should talk about it at some point.”

            There was only one other person who Kellan trusted in the Nexus Games, and that was Mavis. She had come from his dimension, and they had started this journey together. Kellan wanted to ensure they were on the same page with what needed to be done.

            Team 42 could not be allowed to win the games.

            Kellan had come to that decision when he had seen glimpses of the aliens—the Flestiss Dominion. He needed to discuss it with Mavis, to make sure she knew the horrors, and to confirm that he could rely on her to help with this self-imposed mission.

            No team would emerge successful unless all the members were on the same page and working toward the same goals.

            “Does Xiang know?” Kellan asked, glancing down at Sen.

            The child crossed his arms. “I told them both at the same time, thank you very much. My sister said she suspected they were up to no good when they registered with one of the flestiss on their team.” Then he pointed to the door. “Now we need to go!”

            With a huff, Kellan walked over to the door. The cold metal handle practically burned his palm. He held his rifle close before shoving the door open and stepping into the maze.

            His right forearm burned, and Kellan glanced down at his skin to see a new number emerge.

            It read…

            07:59

            Their remaining time. Seven hours and five-nine minutes. Kellan wished they had been provided seconds, but apparently the Arbiter wasn’t that precise.

            The speaker in the room shook again as it spoke. “Whenever you’re ready to leave the Catacomb Maze, enter your designated room before your time runs out. You will be returned to the AVU Palace, along with all your prizes. If you fail to return to your room with remaining time on the clock, you will die. Thank you and enjoy!”

            Fantastic.

            Kellan glanced around at the maze. A long hallway stretched before him, one of stone bricks, and decorated with cobwebs and dust. A chill ran down Kellan’s spine when he spotted one of the tiny spiders. He didn’t have arachnophobia, but the Nexus Games had given him a whole new healthy respect for avoiding spiders.

            “The Kuji aren’t in the maze, right?” Kellan asked.

            Sen, who remained in the safety of the room, shook his head. “Of course not. Stragglers aren’t allowed to join, remember? Get your head in the game.” He shooed Kellan into the hall with a wave of both his hands. “Check for traps.”

            Kellan returned his attention to the hall. They were underground, obviously—all catacombs were—but he didn’t understand how a straight hallway could be considered a maze. With a slow step, where he kept his attention on his surroundings, Kellan walked forward.

            The metal door behind them was etched with the number 101. Obviously, it was their escape room. They’d have to remember where it was in order to return to the palace.

            Sen crept out of the room and followed a good ten feet behind, his hands clenched together in front of his chest. Mavis walked behind him, her weapon up and ready. She, too, remained vigilant, checking behind them occasionally, even if there was no place for an enemy to come from.

            They had left an empty room, into an empty hall.

            Kellan’s bright hane was their only source of light, and it illuminated their path for a few feet. They continued at a steady pace, the stone bricks uneven and rough, as though the walls and floor had been assembled by amateur architects.

            Two minutes of walking, and Kellan hadn’t seen a single door or turn. They just walked forward, at a steady pace, never encountering anything but the spiders on their webs. Then Kellan’s right forearm burned. He gritted his teeth and glanced down.

            07:47

            “Our time went down?” Mavis asked, staring at her own arm. “Why?”

            “Someone triggered a trap,” Kellan muttered, thinking back to Bitso’s explanation of the game. “The time goes down whenever that happens.”

            “Seriously?”

            Kellan nodded, and as the sting of the numbers slowly faded, he was struck with another burning sensation on his right arm. When he glanced down a second time, he was shocked to find the numbers had changed.

            07:37

            “Another person triggered a trap?” Kellan balked. “What’re these delta-bravos doing?”

            “Delta-bravos?” Sen asked, frowning. “You’ve said that before…”

            “It’s code for D-B, which means douchebag.” Mavis glared at the number on her arm.

            “Seems needlessly complicated for insulting someone.”

            “This maze seems needlessly complicated for killing people,” Kellan sarcastically muttered. “I’m just sticking to the Nexus theme.”

            “Keep walking! We’re running out of time!”

            Sen’s shouts echoed throughout the hallway. Kellan took in a deep breath, asking for whatever gods were listening to grant him the patience needed to find his way through a death maze. He moved forward at a quicker pace, trying to find something that indicated it was a door or another pathway.

            He didn’t see anything.

            The hall seemingly went on forever. In one direction. No turns. No escape.

            There weren’t any enemies, thankfully. No monster yami, or traps with buzzsaws, or bizarre imps out to kill people.

            Kellan’s arm burned a third time. The numbers had decreased again, more than with just the normal passage of time.

            07:25

            “We lose ten minutes every time?” Kellan shook his head and tried to think of how often it would occur. How many people were in the maze?

            Mavis touched the stone brick walls, running her fingers through some of the cobwebs. “How are they triggering traps? We haven’t found anything yet. We can’t even add to the incompetence.”

            “There must be illusions over the walls,” Sen said. He walked over and felt the hall walls, never sullying his hands by rubbing the dust or webs. “If we all work together, we’re bound to find something.”

            Kellan was familiar with illusions. Xiang had created them repeatedly in the last game. That didn’t help much, however. All he had learned about illusions was that he couldn’t see through them or detect them. Well, he had also learned they weren’t tangible. They only seemed tangible.

            Which gave Kellan an idea.

            “How do we see through illusions?” Mavis asked, her volume increasing with her obvious frustration.

            Sen stopped his searching. “Mind magic and soul magic have abilities to see through invisibility and deception.”

            “You’re the soul mage,” Kellan stated. Then he waved his hand around the maze. “See the way.”

            “Y-Yes, well, I’m too low rank. You see, you must be equal rank or higher to see through such abilities. Whoever made the maze—likely the Arbiter himself—is high rank. Perhaps A, S, or M. Which is, unfortunately, outside my capability to handle.”

            “Then why did you even bring any of that up, ya piece of toast?”

            Sen’s face reddened, then his ears. He pursed his lips, his eyebrows knitting downward into a glare. “How dare you. I’m using our valuable time to instruct you on the rules of the Nexus, so that you can use your two functioning brain cells to hopefully live through the rest of the games and this is how you repay me? Insults?”

            Sen’s shouting was legendary. It filled the hallway, bouncing off the walls.

            But that was exactly what Kellan wanted.

            Ignoring Sen’s tirade, Kellan moved forward. He closed his eyes, listening to the echoes.

            “You’re leaving? Disgraceful!”

            “Kellan!” Mavis added, her own voice echoing down the halls.

            As Kellan ran down the straight hall, he paid careful attention to the sounds. A few feet forward, he heard it—the sounds echoing in a different direction. Off to his right. Kellan, without opening his eyes, turned to face the faint sounds disappearing down another tunnel.

            When he opened his eyes, Kellan saw a stone brick wall, just as he had thought he would.

            “You will return or else!” Sen shouted, his tone harsher than before.

            Kellan tensed. When he turned to face Sen, he fought the urge to end this once and for all.

            With gritted teeth, Kellan said, “I found the illusions.”

            Sen opened his mouth, as though ready for another tirade, but Mavis grabbed his Power Rangers sweatshirt and twisted her fist, practically yanking Sen off his feet. “Stop. No more threats. We’re in the middle of an operation. We don’t need this.”

            Sen huffed and then sharply turned his head to the side. “All right, all right.” He dismissively waved his hand and then tugged his way out of Mavis’s grip. “But next time, articulate your plans, lest you risk angering me.”

            Kellan balled his free hand into a fist several times, willing himself not to succumb to rage. A feeling of bloodlust and revenge emanated from his rifle, of all places. He glanced down at the black metal; he occasionally forgot that the weapon was semi-sentient. Did it want to kill Sen?

            In a perfect world, Kellan sarcastically thought.

            “Yes…” a haunting voice filled Kellan’s mind. “In a perfect world…

            He flinched, surprised by the dark voice, wondering if it had actually come from his rifle.

            Sen sucked in air through his teeth and grabbed at his shoulder. He whined as he hit the ground on his knees, his eyes scrunched closed. Mavis touched his back, her brow furrowed in confusion.

            “Sen? What’s wrong?”

            He shoved the sleeve of his Power Rangers sweatshirt up past his elbow. With deep breaths, he touched at his arm, his small fingers sliding down to his wrist. A bulge writhed around, something snake-like under his skin.

            The Queen Tyranny Worm.

            “Jesus,” Mavis said as she leapt away, her eyes wide.

            Kellan held the glowing cigarette up a bit higher, staring at the wriggling worm moving around Sen’s arm. “Maybe next time you’ll use protection,” he quipped.

            “Enough of your pathetic jokes,” Sen hissed, his voice strained. He gripped his arm, closing his fingers around the wiggling worm, and the disgusting creature eventually calmed down. “This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for you. Whenever I… think about them… the queen gets agitated. She hates that I haven’t used her children…”

            “Yeah, it’s my fault you puppet people. Airtight logic.”

            Mavis walked over to his side. In a low whisper, she said, “Kellan, please. I think Sen can be reasonable. He fixed my leg, remember? Let’s just… try not to antagonize each other. Not here. In the middle of a death game.”

            Kellan exhaled. “He’s testing my patience.”

            “I understand. Let’s just try to solve this civilly.”

            Kellan wanted to point out that Mavis had just yanked the kid around by his sweatshirt but opted not to say anything. Mavis had leapt to his side when it had seemed Sen might have been trying to start something. She just didn’t want Kellan to act in the same manner as the child.

            “Fine. I’ll try.”

            Mavis returned to Sen’s side. “Are you okay?”

            With a huff, Sen shoved the sleeve of his sweatshirt down. “I can control it.”

            A hint of hesitation laced Sen’s child-like voice. Kellan recognized it, and he wondered if he should be worried. But Mavis was right. Now wasn’t the time to deal with the problem. Their time was quickly dwindling away.

            Mavis glanced at the wall. “Kellan, you said you discovered the illusions?”

            Still disturbed by the rifle, and the argument with Sen over the worms, Kellan ran a shaky hand down his face. They had a new way forward. He shouldn’t waste it.

            “That’s right.” Kellan walked over to the wall—the place where he had heard the echoes. “This is it. But…”

            He knew if he touched the wall, the illusions would mess with his mind. Sure enough, when Kellan lifted his hand, his knuckles grazed the rough bricks. It felt real, even though he knew it wasn’t. He would act as though he were touching something physical, which would prevent him from just walking through.

            “How do we get through now that we know it’s an illusion?” Kellan asked.

            Sen swallowed and then managed to get back to his feet. He pushed his sleeve down to his wrist. “Just run through. Or have somebody shove you through. The illusions will stop you if you’re hesitant and unsure, but if you’re confident or merely thrown into one by accident, the illusions will crumble.”

            There was a long moment of silence. Then Kellan’s right arm burned yet again.

            The numbers…

            07:10

            They only had a little over seven hours remaining, despite the fact that they had only been in the maze for a handful of minutes. At this rate, we’re just going to die in the maze, Kellan thought.

            “Should we head back?” Mavis asked.

            Sen waved his arms. “No! People are just being brazen because this is the beginning of the maze. We haven’t even gathered any arcana. We need to keep going. Come. Shove me into the wall. Let’s continue.”

            “This seems risky,” Kellan muttered.

            Was the Chime worth it?

            “We can’t return to my sister empty-handed.” Sen clenched his jaw and said nothing else.

            Kellan hesitated. Then he glanced back at the wall. They still had plenty of time…

            “All right. Let’s go. But quickly.”

—Chapter 7—

—Coffins—

            Kellan, with force and confidence, walked forward into the wall. He basically threw himself through it, the illusion incapable of offering any resistance. He stumbled into a new hallway, this one with a four-way intersection a few hundred feet from his location.

            And holes in the walls. Holes filled with coffins.

            Kellan stopped and glanced around, taking in as much information as possible. Twenty coffins from here to the four-way intersection. He glanced at the coffins, his rifle at the ready. They didn’t have names—neither on the coffins nor engraved into the bricks of the stone shelves.

            But there were words.

            Percentages.

            Kellan stepped close to the first coffin, his eyes narrowed. Burned onto the redwood were the words:

            Arcana 80%

            Trap 19%

            Other 1%

            For a long moment, Kellan just stared. Was the coffin… randomized? Was that percentage the likelihood of the contents? The majority percentage indicated arcana. If he opened the coffin, would the contents most likely be arcana?

            Sen and Mavis stumbled into the hallway a moment later. It seemed as though Mavis had thrown Sen forward and then charged forward herself. The two almost tripped over each other as they entered the coffin-lined hallway. In an attempt to stop himself from falling, Sen grabbed hold of Mavis’s upper leg.

            With the speed of a reflexive action, Mavis smacked Sen off and then stumbled into the nearest wall. “Watch it,” she hissed.

            Sen hit the ground, unable to steady himself in time. Then he rubbed at his face as he got to his feet. “I assure you that wasn’t a tasteless attempt at human contact.” He brushed himself off with a huff. “For your information, my child-like body comes with child-like limitations. Such as the inability to be intimate.”

            “You can’t get it up?” Kellan snorted and half-laughed. “This is the first time I’ve legitimately felt bad for you.”

            The cold breeze of the coffin-filled hall slowly wafted by. A chill ran down Kellan’s spine. He glanced back, trying to keep his attention on everything around.

            “For your information,” Sen said matter-of-factly, “men are capable of erections as soon as they’re born. However, the ability to consummate a relationship isn’t possible until the testis swells during the early stages of puberty. And since my body has—”

            “Stop,” Kellan interjected. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”

            “Really?” Mavis smirked. “I thought men always wanted to talk about their junk?”

            He returned the smirk. “Speaking of junk, I’ve already gone through puberty, and everything works just fine for me.”

            With a blush, Mavis nodded once. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

            Sen sighed loud enough for his voice to carry down the hall. “Yes, rub it in. The shame of my situation doesn’t hurt enough.”

            The thought that Sen had somehow lost that much of his physical capability did bother Kellan. He glanced over at the child-like man and half-shrugged. “Sorry. I’ll keep the jokes to a minimum.”

            “I’m so fortunate.” Sen crossed his arms.

            Then Kellan motioned to the nearest coffin. “I think these contain arcana. Mavis, why don’t you open it?”

            She walked to the nearest coffin and frowned. Then she grazed her fingertips over the words etched into the wood. “Percentages?”

            As if to answer the question, the timer on Kellan’s right arm burned. He glanced down and stared at the remaining time.

            06:58

            Goddammit, he thought. All the other teams are triggering traps constantly. When Kellan glanced back at the coffin, he took note of the nineteen percent associated with the trap. How many coffins were the others opening?

            Kellan turned his attention to the other coffins in the hallway. If he opened all twenty, he would, most likely, trigger four traps, which would subtract forty minutes from the overall time. But if they were going to acquire arcana… They had to open a few coffins at the very least.

            “Are you sure?” Mavis asked. She grabbed the side of the coffin’s lid. “What if it’s a trap?”

            Kellan hefted his rifle. “If it’s a yami, I’ll handle it. If it’s poison darts or something similar, we have two healers, right?” He motioned to himself and then Sen.

            Before Mavis opened the coffin, she stared for a long moment. Then she inhaled and closed her eyes. Her exposed skin shimmered for a second. Pebble-like formations appeared across her skin, hardening like armor. They shifted with the pale tone of her complexion, becoming nearly invisible. Kellan still noticed the scale-like texture across Mavis’s body, but it was subtle.

            “I have this ability,” she muttered. “Magma magic apparently lets me create natural armor.”

            Her statement reminded Kellan of his own armor. He touched the back of his neck and slid his fingers down his spine until he grazed a small object injected straight into his skin. While he was still wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, the armor he had discovered had been connected straight into his body.

            The armor had once been cursed, but not anymore…

Magical Item [Armor]—Shadow of a Dying Star

            Uniform armor worn by the stealth gunners of the Flestiss Dominion. Sturdy and reliable, this piece of armor attaches to the mage’s spine and requires a mana to activate. Once activated, the armor covers the mage completely and grants +2 “living shadow shell” armor defense, and +2 armor rating. The mage can deactivate the armor at will.

            The armor rating reduced damage off the top, and the living shell was some sort of shadowy health source beyond his own. Kellan would’ve surely died in the last game if he hadn’t been wearing his armor.

            “Ready?” Mavis asked, drawing him back to the present.

            “Do it, soldier,” Kellan said, readjusting his focus to the coffin.

            Since it cost a mana to use his armor—and since he only had twelve mana in total and had already lost one—he decided to hold off on using it. There would come a time he needed it later.

            She shoved, and then grunted and finally—with considerable effort—managed to push the coffin lid off and reveal the contents. The inside glowed with a sinister red, the hue enough to briefly light up the hall. Kellan’s glowing hane stick almost didn’t compare.

            But the red glow faded just as quickly as it had appeared.

            Mavis held her breath for a long moment. Then she glanced down at Sen. “Was that a good sign or a bad one?”

            “Look in the coffin,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Since you weren’t attacked by anything, I would say it was good.”

            Kellan didn’t typically associate red with good, but this was the Nexus.

            After a hesitant moment, Mavis leaned forward and stared at the contents of the coffin. Kellan moved forward as well, curious as to what was inside. He leapt back as soon as he caught a brief glimpse of the corpse inside.

            The dead body was half-preserved. The skin was wan and sunken, the eyes nothing more than pools of jelly, and the clothes stiff with dried fluids. Thin hairs were everywhere, and the scratches on the inside of the wooden prison told Kellan the man had been alive before the coffin had been stuck into the Catacomb Maze.

            Kellan didn’t get many more details. He turned away too quickly to really know who the man had been.

            “There’s arcana in here,” Mavis muttered. She had to push the corpse to the side—her face twisted in a grimace the entire time—but she managed to gather up a single glowing red crystal.

            She held it up for a brief second.

            Arcana…

            It sparkled with inner power, crimson and mystic.

            But then it melted into the palm of Mavis’s hand. She shook out her arm and then wiped her hands onto her jeans. “That was disgusting.” She flapped her hand in front of her nose. “And that corpse reeks.”

            “Most bodies decompose into a set of gases,” Sen said, holding up a finger. “Cadaverine and putrescine smell like rot, whereas the gas, skatole, often smells of feces.”

            “I don’t think that knowledge is gonna help us in this situation,” Kellan muttered. He glanced over at the next coffin. “We’re only getting one arcana from these? Some of the magical abilities we can obtain require a lot more. In order for me to rank my magic, I need at least ten. I only have five, currently. At this rate, we’ll trigger several traps before we’ll gather enough.”

            “That’s because this is the early portion of the maze.” Sen pointed to the four-way intersection. “This is a risk versus reward challenge round. That means the more we risk, the greater the gains. The center of the maze has the ultimate prize, and all the coffins around it will likely have plenty of arcana.”

            Both Mavis and Sen turned their attention to Kellan. He glanced back at them before turning his attention to the four-way intersection. They had to go deeper? The time was the biggest factor. He couldn’t account for what everyone else was doing. Would they continue to trigger traps until they all died?

            No. The other competitors had already lived through two games themselves. That meant they were clever enough to make it through some of the Arbiter’s tricks. They were probably just taking risks because their time was so high.

            Once the time was lower…

            Would they stop risking themselves?

            Or perhaps the other competitors would leave the maze before the time became an issue.

            “Let’s go deeper,” Kellan said. “Forget these coffins. One arcana isn’t enough incentive to trigger traps and decrease our time. Let’s head straight for the center, and on the way out, we’ll check these death boxes.”

            “Sounds like a plan,” Mavis said. She readied her handgun and motioned for Kellan to take point. “I’ll cover the rear.”

            He nodded in acknowledgement.

            As a group, they ran to the four-way intersection. The whole catacomb was just as Kellan had imagined it would be. The dark halls, stone archways, and many coffins were the things of nightmares. Instead of running down a random hallway, Kellan stopped in the middle of the intersection and glanced around.

            “What’re you waiting for?” Sen asked. “We don’t have a map. Any pathway is as good as the next!”

            “Shh.”

            Kellan rummaged around in his backpack. He pulled out a stick of hane and then threw it down. He stomped on the black cigarette and smeared the contents on the stone floor.

            “What’re you doing?” Mavis asked.

            Kellan motioned to the hall they had come from. “I’ve marked it. Now we know how to get back.”

            Her eyes went wide for a moment. “Oh. That’s a good idea.”

            “Now can we go?” Sen asked.

            Kellan held a hand up, silencing his teammate. He glanced down each hallway, trying to decide which path to take. Some paths had spiderwebs… and others did not. Had someone been through here already?

            Then Kellan turned his attention to the coffins in the holes in the wall. Some of them had been opened on the route with no spiderwebs. People had been down that way. But should we follow them? Kellan narrowed his eyes. Or should we take our own way?

            This wasn’t a PvP game, which meant the players weren’t allowed to fight each other. If Kellan ran into others, they wouldn’t be struggling for their lives, but that didn’t mean strange things couldn’t happen. Kellan had had his key taken from him in the first game…

            We should avoid everyone else if we can.

            Kellan pointed down a hall that hadn’t been traveled. “This way.”

            He jogged forward, keeping his attention focused on the way ahead. Sen and Mavis followed without saying a word, agreeing through their actions. The stomp of Mavis’s shoes was the loudest sound they made as they hurried into the dark and gloomy hall.

            The spiderwebs grew more numerous as they went. Kellan had to wave his arm to clear them away, the gentle tickle of their presence more of an irritation than anything else. When Kellan stopped to glance at the coffins, he was surprised by the numbers. One coffin read:

            Arcana 60%

            Trap 39%

            Other 1%

            The percentage for the traps went up?

            Mavis stared at the coffin as well. “What is other?” She pointed to the last category.

            “I’m sure that’s for magical items or other useful objects,” Sen stated. “Sometimes the Arbiter likes to put in random gifts for the participants in the Nexus Games.”

            “Will these coffins have more than one arcana?” Kellan asked. “Why else would the percentage shift so drastically like that?”

            Sen had to stand on his tiptoes to even look at the percentages etched into the coffin. “That would be my guess.” He stood back on his feet and crossed his arms. “I say we test this theory. The other teams have already stolen time—it wouldn’t hurt if we did it once.”

            Kellan motioned to the coffin. Mavis stepped close, tucked her handgun away, and then grabbed the edge of the coffin.

            “Ready?” she asked.

            Kellan lifted his weapon. “Let’s see.”

            After another grunt, as well as some effort, Mavis shoved the lid of the coffin off. But instead of crimson light and a corpse, Mavis stared down at a dark hole that seemingly led into the ground, like a hole that just went straight down.

            Before they could discuss what they had found, Kellan’s right arm burned. The numbers changed.

            06:43

            And then a scream echoed up from the hole in the coffin. It wasn’t a cry for help, but a wail that chilled Kellan’s blood. Mavis flinched away and drew her gun.

            A mass of hands—human hands—like a centipede had been stitched into existence out of human corpses, jutted out of the coffin and scrambled around. The fleshy centipede screamed again as it dragged most of its body out of the coffin and slinked into the hall, its movements fast enough to rival a viper.

            “Kill it!” Sen commanded. “And don’t let it touch you!”

—Chapter 8—

—I Thought There Was a Problem—

            The disgusting corpse-centipede was made exclusively of human body parts. The arms and hands writhed in formation, and the body of the creature was several spines woven together, like a rope. Three human heads made up its face, and the tail was complete with a stinger formed from broken and sharpened bones.

            Kellan’s Blitzkrieg Analysis gave him basic information on the horrific monster clawing its way into the maze.

Name: Carrion Centipede

Race: Lesser Yami

Magics: Body, Entropy

Rank: Impossible to Rank

Armor Rating:

Health: 20/20

Stats:

Strength—4

Dexterity—8 [Fast]

Fortitude—2

Intelligence—1

Perception—2

Willpower—1

Abilities:

Diseased—The yami infects everything it wounds with Shaken Sickness. This disease can be resisted with 6 or higher fortitude.

Undead—The yami is immune to poison and gas. The yami does not need to breathe or eat to survive. Additionally, the yami feels no pain.

            The monster had snaked its way out of the coffin with lightning speed, but Kellan was ready. He fired on it. The Nexus—a world with rules and exact dealings—gave him information on his attacks. The notifications came quickly and were somewhat distracting, but Kellan put up with them.

[Alex Kellan] shot [Carrion Centipede] for 6 damage. (3 + 100% (50% Sharpshooter Modifier x 2 Sevriss Bonus))

            The entire string of information was like an equation done for him. On his Earth, there weren’t quantified numbers for what happened. Kellan just shot and whether he hit or missed depended on factors he couldn’t really describe outside of his own aim. The Nexus took into account the speed of his target, the power of his gun, his own training, and even Kellan’s dexterity—all to calculate an exact amount of damage dealt to the target.

            Kellan understood that if he shot at specific points on the body, different numbers would be added to the equation—a weak spot was always more vulnerable. But outside of that, his bullets did a near fixed amount of damage.

            They ripped through the corpse centipede, but the undead monstrosity was barely affected. Its “health” seemed derived from the fact that it had multiple body parts worth of flesh.

            Kellan continued to fire, no need to worry about ammo.

            He dealt out another chunk of damage before the beast whipped around its tail. Kellan rolled out of the way. When the yami attempted to hit him a second time, Kellan threw his light source and then ducked into the shadows.

            He could move a short distance while protected by the darkness. He “dove” into the shadows like they were water only he could enter and then emerged a good ten feet away, resurfacing in the hallway. Kellan took a deep breath when he stepped out of the void. He couldn’t breathe while under.

            Mavis shot the creature with her handgun.

            There were no notifications for Kellan.

            He suspected it was because he wasn’t involved in any way. The Nexus only provided information when it applied to Kellan, somehow.

            Perhaps a magical ability would allow him to know everything happening in combat? If there was one, Kellan didn’t have it.

            Sen clapped his hands, and a pinkish rose barrier shimmered into existence around Mavis.

            The carrion centipede lashed out with its stinger tail. The broken bones broke through the barrier and struck Mavis across the shoulder. She cried out and fired again.

            Kellan unloaded with his rifle. His many bullets ripped the creature apart from behind. It tried to turn—tried to hurry over to Kellan—but it had already taken too much damage. The beast screamed and then collapsed to the floor, its corpse body decomposing faster than Kellan had ever seen before.

            Soon, it was just a mass of bones and liquid body parts. Blood bubbled, and the skulls of its three heads were scarlet from the mucus.

            One arcana appeared out of the gore. Its red shimmer lit up the hall a bit.

            “I see now,” Sen muttered. During the fight, he had pressed his back up against the wall. Now that the danger was gone, he pushed himself away and walked over to the edge of the pooled blood. “The yami in these catacombs… They’re likely traps all their own.”

            “What do you mean?” Kellan asked as he approached the open coffin.

            He glanced inside. There was a hole leading down, with a ladder mounted to the bricks. The creature clearly hadn’t used the ladder. What was it for? Other people? Were they supposed to go inside the coffin?

            Kellan mulled over the situation and backed away from the bizarre container.

            “Shaken Sickness is a disease that limits your movement,” Sen said. He turned his attention to Mavis. “It usually causes shivers, and gradually lowers your dexterity. Which would prevent people from easily escaping once the time was low…”

            Mavis tucked her Desert Eagle into the waistband of her pants. She exhaled, her hands shaky, just as Sen had said. When she turned to Kellan, she frowned. “You said you can heal people?”

            He nodded and then walked over. When Kellan touched her, he used his Heal the Body ability.

            Kellan spent one mana, and healed Mavis of three damage. The power felt warm and inviting, and the scratch on Mavis’s shoulder stitched itself up. The blood on her T-shirt didn’t disappear, though.

            And Mavis’s shaking didn’t stop, either.

            She stared down at her unsteady hands. “Wait… I’m going to get shakier as we go along?”

            Sen stepped close to her side. “That’s correct. I suspect most of the creatures will have that unfortunate disease…”

            After a long moment of just staring, Mavis slowly wrapped her arms tightly around her own body. Her fingers gripped her upper arms as she glared at the floor.

            “And healing won’t make it go away?” she whispered.

            “His healing won’t,” Sen stated. With a scoff, he added, “I told him not to pick up healing abilities. It requires investment. Healing damage is fine—perhaps even useful in the right situations—but the ability to heal poison, disease, genetic defects, and permanent magical injuries requires a lot of body magic, which requires a lot of arcana. Our warrior should focus on combat abilities, rather than trying to pick up all the healing abilities there are out there.”

            “Body mages can heal genetic defects?” Kellan asked, almost in awe. “Like… what?”

            Sen shot him a glower. “What did I just say? Don’t think about those abilities! You don’t have enough time, or arcana, to properly invest in becoming a legendary healer. I’m already there!” He pulled back his volume to add, “Well, not all the way there. I’m very good.”

            Mavis’s fingers twisted into the sleeves of her shirt as she tightened her grip. “Wait, can you heal me of the disease?”

            “Yes. Of course.”

            “Well?” Mavis knitted her eyebrows and frowned. “What’re you waiting for?”

            “We should wait until after we’ve made it a little deeper,” Sen said matter-of-factly. “The ability requires that I spend mana, so if you’re going to get struck by the enemy a few times, I should wait to use my healing until we absolutely need it. Understand? Your shaking shouldn’t be too bad right now. It’s a disease that gradually takes effect. In a few minutes, it’ll take another point of dexterity, and then a few more minutes, another.”

            Kellan examined Mavis for a moment. She wasn’t shaking too bad, but it was obvious enough. She could probably continue without any healing, and they would be okay.

            “Just heal me right now,” Mavis said, her tone cold.

            “I told you. That’s a waste of mana.” Sen sighed and rubbed at his temple. “I go to great lengths to explain things, and I swear no one listens…”

            “I heard what you said. Heal me anyway.”

            “We shouldn’t—”

            “I don’t care about that,” Mavis snapped, her voice bordering on a shout.

            The echo of her anger traveled the hall in both directions. Kellan glanced around, hoping nothing was around to mess with them. Fortunately, he saw and heard no movement. He returned his attention to the conversation, confused by Mavis’s sudden outburst.

            “What’s wrong?” Kellan asked. “Is something happening?”

            Mavis inhaled, obviously calming herself. Then she just stared at the floor as she replied, “I just don’t want to be weak again, okay? Please. Heal me now. I’ll avoid the monsters better in the future.”

            Not weak again…

            Sen had been the one to fix her leg. Before then, she had walked with a notable limp. Mavis had hated it, but Kellan hadn’t realized how much.

            “Very well,” Sen finally stated. He stepped close to Mavis and placed his hand on her side. “There. You should feel better any moment.”

            The use of his magic seemingly had no visible component. Sen had just touched Mavis, and a few seconds later, her shaking stopped. She stood still for a long while, as if making sure the shiver of weakness wouldn’t return.

            Once she was convinced that she was cured, Mavis smiled widely. “Thank you.”

            “So much drama,” Sen said, rolling his eyes. “No one thought you were weak. We all knew it was the work of the disease, not your lack of courage or willpower.”

            “That’s what you say.” Mavis stepped away from him and readied her handgun again. “But after I was injured while on active duty, a lot of people who I thought were my friends just abandoned me. Even…”

            Her significant other, Kellan thought, recalling their conversation on the matter.

            It seemed her scars hadn’t healed completely. At least, not the ones on the inside.

            In order to change the subject, Kellan motioned to the coffin. “There’s a ladder down.”

            “Oh?” Sen glanced over. “Well, go down there.”

            “Alone?”

            “Of course alone.” Sen sneered. “You’re an eclipse mage, aren’t you? The darkness is your kingdom. Slip in there, search around, and then come back to us.” He clapped his hands. “Chop chop.”

            After a long exhale, during which Kellan gave serious thought to just continuing their trek, he turned his attention to the coffin with the ladder that led deeper underground. He hoisted himself up on the brick ledge of the hole in the wall, and then crouched over the coffin in order to get an even better view. He stared down into the pit, thankful he noticed the floor. It wasn’t too far down.

            After a deep breath, Kellan dove into the darkness and quickly traveled as a shadow along the wall and then to the floor. When he emerged, he was greeted by the stench of rot and decay. He covered his nose and glanced around, his eyes watering.

            There wasn’t much. No glowing arcana, no obviously magical objects. The room wasn’t even large—it was the size of a household pantry at most.

            But he did see a lump of flesh. Not just a rotting bit of decayed human, but a pulsating lump—something akin to a mole on someone’s skin. It writhed around, reminding Kellan of a hamster. It was no larger than his fist, and when he knelt to pick it up, the little lump practically leaned away from him, as though sentient.

            His ability gave him information, though he almost wished it hadn’t.

Magical Item [Raw Material, Permanent]—Crafting Clay

            A rare material dropped from primordial dragons when they molt and slough their old scales for newer ones.

            A body mage with the ability “Fleshcrafting, Rank II” may use this clay to add +2 permanent physical stats to their being (increasing different categories, not adding both points in one stat) OR may correct penalties resulting from “Gift Grafting” OR may add a bizarre physical feature (wings, tail, additional arm, horns, claws, etc.) to their person. This feature isn’t genetic and will not pass to offspring.

            Dropped from primordial dragons, huh?

            Kellan was surprised he had found anything at all. Hadn’t the centipede been a trap? Or had the ladder and the room below the coffin been a secret hideaway that most would miss because they wouldn’t have bothered to investigate the resting spot of a monster? Kellan was convinced it was the latter.

            The Arbiter seemed to enjoy hiding special rooms around the game arenas.

            It took most of Kellan’s willpower not to just leave the disgusting tumor-chunk alone, but he knew he had to show it to Sen. But the thought of touching it…

            This is the Nexus. The thing could be secretly diseased. Kellan mulled over the situation for a few seconds. Then again, the description didn’t indicate it was negative. Still…

            Kellan removed his T-shirt and used it to scoop up the jiggling lump. Then he used the ladder to leave the hole, just in case diving into the shadows would cause him to lose the bizarre flesh. He emerged from the coffin, the odor of death following him as he went.

            “You somehow lost your shirt down there?” Sen frowned. “Unbelievable.”

            Kellan handed over his impromptu sack of flesh by just dropping it on the ground. “I found something. Probably for you. This looks like a thing you’d get excited over.”

            With an eyebrow raised, Sen knelt and unwrapped the flesh. Then he gasped—both hands on his cheeks.

            “By the might of Hakael! Do you know what this is?” Sen reached for the flesh with hands shakier than Mavis’s had ever been. “It’s so beautiful…”

            Mavis stared at the disgusting tumor, her eyes narrowed. “Why did you bring this up the ladder?” She turned to Kellan. “Was this supposed to be a joke?”

            Without the Blitzkrieg Analysis ability, Kellan suspected that Mavis couldn’t tell the flesh was actually magical. He considered that a moment before answering.

            “Are you seeing Sen’s reaction?” Kellan motioned to the kid, who was now petting the blob. “I figured he’d be excited. That man goes on about being a fleshcrafter more than a room of attorneys go on about practicing law.”

            “This is Crafting Clay!” Sen declared as he held the flesh above his head. He might as well have been holding Simba. He smiled widely and then hugged it close to his chest, the gooey flesh sticking to the Power Rangers on his sweatshirt. “This isn’t as good as Langarren Clay, but it’s just one step below! With this…. I can repair some of my body.”

            He practically rubbed the tumor against his cheek, as though caressing it.

            Kellan couldn’t stop himself from frowning. “I’m so… happy for you.” He didn’t know what else to say. “But we should probably keep moving.” He pulled his shirt back on and brushed off the front.

            He glanced at his arm.

            06:32

            “We’ve already lost an hour and half.”

            “I agree, we should go,” Mavis said.

            Sen, clutching the lump of jiggling pale flesh as though it were his own baby, hurried over to grab the lit hane stick off the floor. He held it in one hand and the flesh in the other. “Fine. Let’s hurry along. The sooner we can get out of here, the better.”

—Chapter 9—

—Crypt Widows—

            Kellan ran down the length of a hall until they came to another four-way intersection.

            Shouts and screams echoed around them, traveling down the narrow corridors from every direction. They were the other teams—Kellan was certain. Phrases like Stop and This can’t be real reached him like faint whispers. This time, every pathway was cleared of cobwebs. The other teams had been through here—even some of the coffin lids were shoved to the side, exposing empty insides.

            I need more of a strategy here, Kellan thought.

            He closed his eyes and went back to his basic training. His field manual had stressed the importance of methodical testing to gain intelligence on the enemy. He needed a plan—one that he could stick to until they found their way out. Or in case they were separated.

            How could they find a way out of a maze?

            In theory, if someone placed their hand on a wall and followed it through all the twists and turns and dead ends, they would always find their way out of a maze. The only exception was if the maze had an “island” of walls, meaning the wall cluster didn’t connect to anything else in the maze. But even then, if Kellan marked the floor, went along the entire wall, and found it to be an island, he could just switch to an outside wall and follow that.

            Eventually, by keeping a hand on the walls, he would find a way out. It worked every time to escape a maze.

            But that would take too long.

            We’re going about this the wrong way. Kellan gritted his teeth. If there were illusions in the beginning, there are likely illusions in other places. But how will we find them if we don’t have any abilities that see through their tricks?

            “Which way?” Mavis asked, her handgun at the ready. Her eyebrows knitted as she glanced down the other three directions. “We shouldn’t just stand here.”

            Struck with an idea, Kellan jogged forward and grabbed the lid off a coffin. He threw it to the ground and fired at it with quick bursts from his rifle, making sure to angle his shots so that the bullets ricocheted down an empty hall, away from the teams. The redwood lid shattered into hundreds of pieces, the splinters twirling through the air.

            His gunshots added to the noise of the maze, mixing with the shouts from other teams.

            Once the cacophony had ended, Sen stepped forward, hugging the lump of flesh close. “What’re you doing? The coffins won’t have arcana! There’s no reason to destroy them.”

            Kellan knelt and gathered up bits of wood. Then he passed out pieces to Mavis and Sen. The occasional splinters irritated him, but to his fascination, the slivers of wood were pushed out of his fingers by the Tyranny Worms. He spotted their wriggling, yellow bodies as the wood slipped out of his body, as though even they were irritated by the splinters.

            Sen and Mavis examined their bits of wood.

            “Why?” was all Mavis asked.

            “Throw them at the walls as we go along,” Kellan said. “If there’s an illusion, the wood will pass through. If the wood bounces off the bricks, obviously, it’s real.”

            Sen slowly smiled—almost a smirk, but not quite. “Clever. I wasn’t expecting that from our warrior. No wonder my sister is enamored of your alternate-dimension self.”

            Kellan held back a sarcastic remark as he walked into the first corridor and threw a bit of wood at the wall. The coffin fragment bounced off the rough bricks. Then Kellan did the same for the other side. Again, the wood clattered against the wall and then tumbled to the ground.

            This might take too long. We’ll have to run and throw if we want to keep a decent pace.

            “Mavis,” he said. “You throw at the right wall, and Sen, you throw at the left. I’ll carry extras. Just tell me when you need more.”

            “We’re not going to pick them up?” Mavis knelt and gathered up the two bits Kellan had thrown. “We won’t need more if we just collect what we’ve thrown.”

            “It’ll take too long. Let’s just focus on moving forward.”

            “Are we going to open up any other coffins along the way?”

            “No.”

            “Why not?” Sen interjected. “We need the arcana. And what if we find more clay? I need more. At least one more. Maybe two.”

            Kellan shook his head. “The coffins are a trap.”

            “Some are.”

            “No, you don’t understand. They’re meant to slow us, and they’re not even worth it. Remember? We’re here for the Summoning Chime. We need to get that first and then come back here and check coffins. If we search these halls looking for coffins with good percentages, we’re just wasting time.”

            The Risk Versus Reward game became clear in his mind. They needed to prioritize getting the Chime, and only then could they risk fighting monsters or triggering the timer to hit zero.

            “Let’s go down this hall.” Kellan threw another stick of hane on the floor and crushed it. The mark remained—both on the bottom of his bare foot and the bricks. “This is so we know what way we came.”

            He hurried forward, his weapon ready, his attention on the darkness within the hall. The shadows didn’t obscure his vision, and if he was ahead of the light, he could take advantage of his eclipse magic.

            Mavis and Sen followed after him, each tossing bits of wood at the walls.

            As they ran, Kellan glanced at the coffins. The percentage numbers on each were slightly different, and he could see how he could waste an inordinate amount of time checking the lids of each and every one.

            One coffin had:

            Arcana 30%

            Trap 50%

            Other 20%

            That was the highest he had seen for an “Other” category.

            Another coffin read:

            Arcana 80%

            Trap 19%

            Other 1%

            Kellan almost stopped for that coffin, but he didn’t want to deviate from his plan. All of his field training told him that he shouldn’t alter the articulated plan unless absolutely necessary, and he was determined to stick to that.

            “Kellan!”

            He stopped and whirled around on his heel, his rifle up.

            Mavis and Sen stood by a wall. She pointed at the bricks and then tossed another piece of the coffin lid. The chunk of wood sailed right through the wall—as though it didn’t exist. Kellan had been right. There were more illusions, and the pathway to the center was likely filled with them.

            “Good work.” He ran back over and then went headfirst into the wall. When he stumbled through, and found yet another corridor of bricks, webs, and coffins, he smiled. “C’mon. It’s clear.”

            Kellan ran forward, but he slowed, his attention on his surroundings. The bricks, the shadows—the very walls—seemed to be moving. Subtly. Slowly. It was hard to describe. It felt like small pieces were shifting around, not whole bricks at a time.

            When Kellan stepped forward, something squished between his toes. The slimy sensation reminded Kellan of a peeled grape. He glanced down and his chest tightened.

            Spiders.

            Hundreds of spiders.

            Not normal spiders—with normal black bodies and eight legs—but spiders with an eyeball on their abdomens. A human eye, open and staring, unable to blink. The eyeball protruded from the spider’s body, practically jiggling.

Kellan had stepped on one, the juices of the eye gushing between his toes and across his foot. He swallowed hard as he took a step back.

            All the movement on the walls and the floor was nothing more than spiders. Each arachnid had a human eye on its back, but also a pair of giant fangs that hung from its mouth, so swollen with venom, it seemed as though the creatures couldn’t tuck them in.

            This was some sort of hallway decorated in nightmares.

            Mavis and Sen entered the hall.

            Then Sen lifted the little light. Its bright shine cast away the darkness, and with it, the confidence of the spiders. They scurried away, to the edge of the illumination, their pupils constricted into tiny black dots.

            Some of the eyes were blue. Some were green. Some brown.

            “What is that?” Mavis asked, her voice breathless. “Was that… were those… Were those spiders?”

            “Yes,” Kellan muttered.

            Although his gun had infinite ammo and didn’t need to be reloaded, he didn’t have enough bullets for all the disgusting creatures that lined the corridor.

            “Are they magical?” Mavis asked.

            “I can’t see anything magical about them.” Kellan narrowed his eyes, hoping they’d provide some information, but nothing happened. But they had to be magical. A spider couldn’t possibly have an eye in its abdomen.

            “They’re Crypt Widows,” Sen said matter-of-factly. “They’re quite magical, but easily killed. Their venom causes paralysis, and once you’re immobile, they steal body parts.”

            “Like eyeballs?” Kellan asked with a sardonic edge.

            “Precisely.”

            “Why can’t I tell they’re magical? My Blitzkrieg Analysis usually provides me with something.”

            “Creatures with eclipse or mind magic can sometimes hide their basic information.” Sen stepped closer to Mavis, his eyes locked on the distant spiders that writhed around in the darkness. “Crypt Widows use eclipse magic to remain quiet and hidden and sometimes use the shadows to travel to their victims at frightening speeds.”

            Mavis shuddered. “Well, I vote we go back and find another way.”

            “No.” Kellan shook his head, trying to undo the knot of anxiety in his chest. “This is definitely the way. The spiders are meant to scare us—or actually paralyze us. Slow us down. I say we run through here and keep going.”

            After shaking her hands out, Mavis glanced down at Sen. “You can heal disease… Can you heal poison and venom as well?”

            “Of course.” Sen huffed and then petted his flesh lump. “I’m a skilled healer, thank you very much.”

            “Will the paralysis happen immediately if we’re bitten?”

            “It’ll take hold of your whole person after thirty seconds, roughly. For a child, however… Much sooner.”

            Some of the eyeball spiders ventured into the light, growing bolder the longer Kellan and the others stood in the hallway. The eyes stared at them, the pupils constricting and dilating as they watched.

            Kellan suspected a few would grow daring enough to attack.

            He knelt and then motioned to Sen. “Here. Get on my back. Mavis and I will run, and you just make sure we don’t collapse.”

            Sen’s eyebrows shot to his hairline. “Run down the hall? I wouldn’t trust you to run a bath, why would I trust you to run with me down the hall?”

            “I carried you through the last bit of the first game,” Kellan stated.

            The statement almost acted as a slap. Sen gripped his flesh lump tighter, his lips pursed. But he gradually relaxed, his distant gaze on the floor. “Yes. You’re right. You did… carry me through most of it.”

            “And I’ll carry you here. Get on.”

            The statement seemed to change Sen’s demeanor. He glanced up, his brow furrowed. Then he slowly walked over to Kellan. Before Sen climbed onto his back, he carefully tucked the Crafting Clay into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, while also holding the brightly lit hane. Sen wrapped his arms around Kellan’s neck and pressed himself against Kellan’s backpack. He held on tightly, his fingers lacing together in front of Kellan, like an odd bowtie.

            Kellan hefted Sen up higher as he stood. “See? I got you.”

            “Let’s not speak of this.”

            With a chuckle, Kellan nodded. “Fine by me.”

            “And don’t let any of the Crypt Widows touch me.”

            “Spoiler alert: That’s the plan.”

            When Kellan was carrying someone, he wouldn’t be able to dive into the darkness and travel as a shadow. But this way, he could protect Sen. If he was bitten, Sen would have the capability of healing him before anything could be stolen by the spiders…

            “Are you sure about this?” Mavis whispered.

            “I’m confident.” Kellan offered a smile. “Are you with me, soldier?”

            That got her smiling. “Well, if you’re that confident. Yeah. I’ve got your back.”

            The Crypt Widows leapt into the light, three and four at a time. They scurried closer and closer, their fangs prominent. Before they could reach Kellan’s bare feet, he grabbed Sen’s legs and then rushed forward.

            Their light, made by Kellan’s eclipse magic, seemed to frighten most of the spiders in the stone corridor. But there were hundreds of spiders, and some of them had more courage than others. Kellan stepped on several as he ran, the squish of their fleshy bodies—especially the eyeballs, which popped like bags of water—sent shivers up and down his spine.

            But one leapt from the ceiling and landed on his face. Kellan acted out of instinct and smacked it away, but not before the disgusting monster could sink its fangs into his cheek.

            Kellan grunted, his jaw clenched. The sting of the venom was immediate—the stuff burned through his face, straight to his sinuses, and then to his ear.

            Sen touched his fingers to the front of Kellan’s neck. Warmth spread outward from his touch.

[Sun Sen] used Purge to heal [Alex Kellan] of all poisons and venoms of B-rank and lower.

            The relaxing sensation allowed Kellan to breathe easy. He smiled to himself as he picked up the pace, the splat of spider bodies under his feet almost a delightful reminder that he was taking his revenge.

            Mavis kept close, and when a spider leapt for her arm, she stumbled. But when the tiny beast tried to bite her, its fangs couldn’t seem to pierce through her magically pebbled skin. Mavis swatted the spider away before it could find a soft spot.

            Then Kellan saw the end of the corridor—a flat wall.

            A dead end.

            The Crypt Widows clustered over everything, their swarming bodies making it difficult to see. But they weren’t on the far wall at the end of the corridor. Why? Because they didn’t want to climb across the dead end?

            Or because they can’t. Because it’s another illusion.

            “Hang on,” Kellan shouted.

            And then he ran at the wall full tilt.

—Chapter 10—

—The Center of the Catacomb Maze—

            Sen gripped the collar of Kellan’s T-shirt and yanked back, practically choking him. “What’re you doing?

            But Kellan didn’t slow. He closed his eyes right as he was about to go face-first into the stone bricks. Instead of giving himself a concussion, Kellan flew through the wall, just as he had expected to. Sen, physically shaking, obviously hadn’t expected that result.

            Kellan forced himself to come to a halt. He wasn’t sure where he was running anymore, and he wanted to make sure Mavis kept up with him.

            Slight movement caught his attention. He turned, but he was too slow.

            A muscled man lumbered forward, at least seven feet tall, his fist cocked. Kellan’s first thought was to dive into the darkness to avoid the incoming strike—but Sen’s presence prevented that. Kellan only managed to take one step backward before the man slammed his fist into Kellan’s noggin.

            Kellan was hit so hard, he forgot cursive.

            His vision went black for a split second, and when he regained consciousness, he was leaning against the rough stone wall, his breathing ragged. The warmth of healing magic spread from his neck through his busted lip and nose.

            Kellan didn’t even remember seeing a damage notification after getting struck. But when the second swing came, the haze over his mind was sufficiently cleared enough that he managed to leap out of the way.

            The muscled man—so buff that his neck had disappeared into the mountain of his shoulders—moved with the speed and force of a steamroller. He slowly turned, his T-shirt straining to keep itself together, practically ripping at the seams. Kellan didn’t know why, but the man also wore bicycle shorts, a bizarre and unsettling combination that left little to the imagination.

            When the man lifted his fist again, Kellan ripped Sen off his neck and threw him to the ground. The man-child hit the stone bricks with a grunt.

            Their attacker swung, and Kellan dodged under. Then he jumped to Sen’s side, grabbed the glowing stick of hane, and crushed it in his palm. Kellan’s eclipse magic responded to the sudden darkness. He felt as though it were strengthening him—without any light, the shadows reigned supreme.

            Kellan’s Void Knight ability increased his physical stats by five each, elevating him to superhuman levels. Like some sort of fucked-up vampire high on coke-laced blood, Kellan jumped, kicked off the wall, and then roundhouse kicked his attacker.

[Alex Kellan] struck [Gero] for 6 bashing damage.

[Gero] reduces damage of each hit equal to his natural armor rating of 2.

[Gero] takes a total of 4 damage.

            The muscled man—Gero—slammed into the wall. In one clean motion, Kellan unslung his rifle and struck the man across the face. Blood exploded from his nose and mouth. The man crumpled to the floor, crashing like a tree. He gargled down air and then lifted an arm to shield his face.

            The man only had one eye.

            The other had been… dug out.

            That wasn’t the worst part. The man only had four fingers per hand, each digit awkwardly shaped and of varying lengths. They weren’t injured or scarred—the man was just deformed. Even his neck—thick as a trunk—wasn’t just from muscle.

            How much health did the man have? After the two strikes, Kellan was certain he had done more than seven points of damage, which meant Gero had more than seven health. But probably not much more. He was at death’s door.

            “It’s one of those inbred Nexus residents,” Sen shouted. He felt around on the floor, his gaze unfocused. “Kill him! We need to continue on our way.”

            Kellan hesitated.

            The residents of the Nexus were distant, inbred children of the Arbiter. Their misshapen bodies were just as twisted as their dimension. Kellan had met a couple of residents during the first few games, and each had seemed frightened, at a disadvantage, just looking to avoid death at the hands of the Nexus Games participants.

            And since Kellan’s eyes didn’t offer him any information on Gero, it was likely he wasn’t a mage—just a mortal who loved lifting weights, apparently.

            Mavis stumbled through the illusion wall, finally joining them. She shivered and patted at her arms, several Crypt Widows scuttling over her pebbled skin. When the arachnids fell to the floor, Kellan jumped close and crushed them with his bare feet, trying not to picture the eyeballs exploding, but unable to block out the squishing noise they made.

            “You okay?” Kellan asked.

            “Yeah.” Mavis reached out and grabbed his shoulder. “Why is it dark? What’s going on?”

            “I need to handle something. Just stand here.”

            Kellan turned and found the inbred resident getting to his feet. Kellan aimed his rifle but waited with his finger on the trigger.

            “Don’t move,” Kellan commanded.

            Then his arm burned. Kellan sucked in air through his teeth and glanced down at the timer. The numbers read:

            05:19

            His heart sank, his whole body tensing with realization. Someone picked up a Summoning Chime. An hour had disappeared from their collective time.

            Goddammit, Kellan thought, glaring at the numbers. We shouldn’t be wasting time.

            “If you let me go, I’ll tell you the way to the center of the maze,” Gero said, his voice gurgling, as if he had cobblestones in his throat. “Please. I have a family.”

            “Do you live here?” Kellan asked.

            “I… No. I came here looking for information.”

            Information? Kellan wanted to inquire about that, but the sting on his forearm remained—reminding him that other teams were already collecting their chimes and heading out. Did he have enough time to interrogate a Nexus resident and make it to the center of the maze?

            After slowly lowering his weapon, Kellan sighed. “Gero, right? That’s your name?”

            The question took a long moment to sink in. Gero’s one eye was wide, his mouth slightly open as though the words wouldn’t come. Had he heard? Why was he so stunned?

            “Who cares what his name is?” Sen asked. “Let’s just get the information and hurry on!”

            “My name is Gero,” the Nexus resident said.

            The darkness was too thick for anyone but Kellan to see. He wanted to point to the illusion wall and tell Gero to get out, but that was pointless. Instead, Kellan just said, “Look, if there are other residents in this maze, gather them all up and leave. Once the time on this challenge round is over, the Arbiter intends to kill everyone here.”

            The statement didn’t meet with an immediate reaction. Gero stared with his one eye—his empty socket swollen, puffy, and red.

            “At least have him tell us the way,” Sen shouted. “He offered! What’s wrong with you? You spurn all our advantages!”

            Gero stood to his full height. His impressive seven feet brought his head close to the stone ceiling. He used his four-fingered hand to smooth his shirt. “You… I’ve seen you on the TV. You spoke before the Arbiter. You’re… Alex Kellan the Void Knight.”

            Kellan smiled to himself. At least it’s not Alex Kellan the Rulebreaker anymore. “That’s me.”

            With a sigh, Gero said, “Merry Christmas.”

            “Wait, what?” It only took Kellan a second to remember all the things he had said to the Arbiter. He had said Merry Christmas on TV, and then later Bitso had explained it was a phrase that meant: Thank goodness I’m alive.

            “Right,” Kellan stated. “Merry Christmas.”

            The man didn’t move. He swayed on his feet, likely dizzy from the many strikes to the head. Then he waved a large hand and pointed.

            Kellan glanced around. They stood in a long hallway. Down one end was another four-way intersection. Down the other end was a T intersection. The illusion wall that led to the spiders blended perfectly with everything around them. Kellan marked the floor with a smear of blood from the spiders on the bottom of his feet.

            Gero continued to point, but his arm shook.

            Knowing that everyone else needed to see, Kellan reached into his backpack and withdrew another stick of hane—the black cigarette was thin, and when he spent another mana to activate his eclipse power, the hane glowed brightly, illuminating the area.

            Everyone squinted against the light.

            Kellan lost his improved strength, dexterity, and fortitude. He felt weaker—like he hadn’t slept in weeks—and regretted brightening the area for everyone else.

            Gero waved his arm forward, more confident. “I’ll take you to the center of the maze. This way.”

            “I just told you everyone is going to die.” Kellan glanced down at the timer on his arm. “You should just tell us the way and then leave.”

            “It’ll be faster if I show you.”

            Although Kellan didn’t like this outcome, he turned to Mavis and Sen to see if they would agree. Mavis brushed back her purplish hair and nodded once. Sen, still upset and brushing himself off, was more concerned about the lumpy tumor in his sweatshirt than anything else. He pulled out the Crafting Clay, whispered things to it as he patted it off, and then returned it to his pocket.

            “Carry me,” Sen said, his arms up. “I don’t trust inbred lunatics, but since you seem so determined to make friends with these genetic defects, I guess I’ll go along with it. However, if we start rapidly running out of time, we need to head back to our room.”

            Kellan sighed, knelt, grabbed Sen, and then headed over to Gero. “Lead the way.”

            Gero lumbered forward, walking with an odd gait. He favored his right leg—which was slightly longer than the other. Kellan took note of that as he stayed a short distance behind the man. Mavis stayed close as well, but she kept grabbing at parts of her clothes, itching and patting, as though looking for more spiders.

            Without hesitating, Gero led them to the T intersection, and then took a right. A few feet down the new corridor, he turned straight into the wall. The illusions didn’t seem to bother him. Kellan followed, trying not to get too far behind as he cautiously watched Mavis over his shoulder.

            “You helped us before,” Gero said through huffs of breath.

            “Us?” Kellan asked.

            “The residents of the Nexus.”

            “Ah.” Kellan thought back to the children he had helped. The ones who had died. “I wouldn’t say I was that much help.”

            “You didn’t kill me for arcana.”

            “Hm.”

            Gero turned into another wall, seemingly at random. He passed through another illusion, and Kellan dashed after him. Mavis stayed close, but her attention was on her surroundings and less on Gero. Whenever Kellan glanced back, he wasn’t so sure what Mavis was staring at.

            Another illusion wall.

            And then another.

            Kellan stepped into a third hallway and found more Crypt Widows. Gero covered his face, and Mavis crushed them at every opportunity, either with her shoes, or her fist. When she struck one, it exploded like a blood-filled water balloon.

            The moment they ran through another illusion, Kellan found himself in a large, stone room. The rot of dead bodies hung on the stagnant air, stinking the place up worse than a morgue. He coughed back the noxious smell.

            The room wasn’t large—a mere ten feet by ten feet—and Kellan noticed something lingering in the corner like a hobo lingered in an alleyway near a dumpster. What was it? At first, Kellan thought it was some sort of monstrous yami, but before he could throw Sen off his back, he managed to make out all the details.

            It was… two people.

            Two people melted together, their bodies seemingly twisted into one being. The thing had two heads—one looking forward, the other looking behind. Its chest was giant compared to its three thin arms and two stumpy legs. It wore clothing only through the liberal application of belts and strings to keep everything up and in place.

            Was it a man? Both heads seemed masculine, and there were no feminine features, but the skin was twisted and shiny, as though it had been melted for a few moments like a partially used candle.

            Kellan hefted his rifle.

            His gun seemed eager to kill the beast.

            “What’re you doing, Gero?” the two-man shrieked as he held a hand up over one set of eyes. He squinted and pressed himself into the corner of the room, the second head trying to crane around enough to see what was happening. “Why have you brought players here?”

            “Alvo, Juan—this is the man from the TV. The one who helped.”

            Gero lumbered over to the two-man fusion. Then he pointed at Kellan.

            “The Merry Christmas fellow?” one head asked.

            “Yes. He let me live. I’m taking him to the center of the maze.” Then Gero turned back around, his one eye large. “This is Alvo and Juan.” He gestured to each head. “They’re twins.”

            “They’re an omelet,” Sen quipped.

            Mavis shot him a glare. Then she placed a finger over her lips. “Shh.”

            “This isn’t the center of the maze,” Kellan said, his rifle still at the ready. “Why did you bring us here?”

            “Alvo and Juan need help escaping the Catacomb Maze. They have important information.” Gero stomped over to Kellan and then placed a massive hand on Kellan’s shoulder. “Please. If Alvo and Juan try to leave by themselves, one of the other players will find them. I… I was out trying to find a clear path, but everywhere I looked, there were either traps or Nexus Games players.”

            And the players would definitely kill them for easy arcana…

            Kellan sighed. Then he lowered his weapon.

            “Are you insane?” Sen hissed into Kellan’s ear. “These defenseless boobs are worth a single arcana each. At least. The blob-man might be worth two, I’m not sure…” Sen tightened his grip around Kellan’s neck. “We don’t have time to help them.”

            “What kind of help do you need?” Mavis asked.

            Gero slapped his hands together. “Alvo and Juan must make it to the AVU Palace. They must speak with Nosferatu. He’s another player in the Nexus Games. Please.”

            Nosferatu? Kellan knew the name. Some high-ranked mage—a resident of the Nexus. He was the leader of another team.

            Before Kellan could answer, Gero pointed to the far wall. “There’s an illusion. Walk through, enter the main corridor, and head to the left. The center of the maze is right there.” Then he turned back to Kellan, his one eye screwed into half a glare. “But please. Return here afterward and take Alvo and Juan with you to the exit.”

            “Xiang would hate this idea,” Sen said matter-of-factly.

            That made Kellan want to do it now even more than before. Although he didn’t know Gero, or the twins, he knew that helping the residents of the Nexus had been beneficial for him in the past. And murdering a bunch of defenseless individuals never sat right with him.

            “I’ll help,” Kellan stated.

            Mavis turned to him with a smile. She said nothing, but the brief look got Kellan smiling in return. It was only Sen’s loud groan of irritation that ruined the moment.

            And then Kellan’s arm burned again. Even Mavis sucked in breath this time as they all glanced at their forearms.

            04:01

            The challenge round was halfway over, and they hadn’t yet found a Summoning Chime, yet two other teams had.

            Goddammit.

            Kellan gritted his teeth and ran for the illusionary wall. “I’ll be back. Get ready to run.”

            The residents said nothing. Kellan ran by them, dove through the stone wall, and then tumbled out into a large corridor—one larger than all the others. The ceiling was at least twenty feet up, and the walls were lined with holes containing coffins. But the stench of rot was far worse in the corridor than anywhere else.

            Kellan held a hand up to his nose as he glanced at the coffins.

            One coffin read:

            Arcana 90%

            Trap 5%

            Other 5%

            While another read:

            Arcana 5%

            Trap 90%

            Other 5%

            This is the corridor with all the highest reward, no doubt, Kellan thought, his heart beating harder than he liked. But his musings came to an end when he stared down the hall. He caught his breath, the mystery of the foul odor finally solved.

            A mountain of bodies blocked their path.

            Not recently dead bodies. Flesh fell off the bodies in gooey chunks. The skulls were sunken in, the hair was mostly missing, each body stiff with rigor mortis.

            Kellan glanced away, his breathing becoming shallower with each second the image remained in his mind’s eye. The pile of bodies had been disturbed—corpses littered the ground, and there was a path through.

            The wall of bodies blocked the way to the center of the maze, and some teams had just dug their way through, no care for the decomposing flesh.

            “What’re you waiting for?” Sen asked. “Go! There’s a way through.”

            Kellan had to force himself to find the words. He glanced at Mavis, careful not to look at the bodies. “Can you… clear more of a way? And then can you carry Sen through? I’ll go after through the darkness.”

            “Is everything okay?” she asked. “You look pale.”

            But Kellan found it difficult to articulate the problem. He just motioned to the wall between them and their goal. “Please. I just need you to do this.” Then he knelt and allowed Sen off.

            The man-child glared up at him. “Why are you hesitating? This isn’t like you at all. You’re a man of action and quick decision. This isn’t even a monster—it’s just fleshy debris.”

            “I don’t want to touch the bodies,” Kellan muttered.

            “Why not? I’ll cure you of any diseases.”

            “I’m not worried about diseases.” He pointed ahead, keeping his gaze down. “Just go. I’ll catch up.”

            Sen frowned. Then he crossed his arms. “I told you about my inability to be intimate, and you can’t explain why a few rotting husks have you spooked?”

            Kellan ran a hand down his face, clearing away the sweat. It hadn’t been so long ago that he had carried corpses home after a botched Delta Force operation. Since then, bodies left him a little shaky.

            Although he didn’t want to talk about the experience, even Mavis stepped a bit closer, her attention fixed on him rather than their grim environment. The chill of the catacombs added to Kellan’s unease. They didn’t have time to recollect, either—but Sen had made a fair point.

            “Listen, two Special Forces soldiers died on one of our assignments,” Kellan said, his words forced. “I carried them home. Like a good soldier should. But… it took days. I just… I don’t want to handle dead bodies.”

            For some reason, the undead monstrosities of the Nexus hadn’t rattled him as much as the inanimate ones. Perhaps it was because the undead monsters were moving—Greer and Jones hadn’t moved after their deaths—and that made things easier.

            “I understand,” Mavis said. “I… watched a few of my friends get torn apart by homemade grenades.” She stepped close to Kellan and hugged him briefly. It was quick—almost cold—but she seemed stiff herself. “I’ll take Sen, and you go across however you need.”

            “Wait, that’s it?” Sen asked. He huffed and shook his head. “You carried a couple dead bodies? Pfft. I was expecting something more… horrific.”

            It hadn’t just been the dead bodies.

            But Kellan found it hard to describe the terrible, suffocating weight of the guilt.

            He had been the only one to survive the operation. And for days, all he could do was stare into the blank faces of men who had depended on him. Men who wouldn’t make it home.

            How could Kellan articulate the twisted barb of anguish he felt when he thought of it in those terms? A barb lodged in his mind, threatening to poison his thoughts.

            Sen sighed. “Never mind.” He dismissively waved away his own comment. “I know the perfect solution. We’ll fiddle with your head, perhaps remove the memories, and you’ll be fine.”

            “No, thanks,” Kellan sardonically replied. “I’ll keep my head how it is.”

            “You clearly have a flaw. Everyone does, but yours is an easy fix.”

            “I said, no.”

            The putrid odor caused Kellan to gag. He motioned them away, hoping to end this as soon as possible. Then he handed Sen the little light.

            But Sen stepped forward, like he wanted to continue protesting. Mavis knelt and scooped him up. Then the pair ran toward the barrier of bodies. Mavis hurried over the corpses, her feet finding unsteady ground when she tried to climb the pile. Kellan didn’t watch much. He heard her gag a couple times before finally disappearing over the cadavers.

            Kellan closed his eyes and then sank into the darkness. With the cold protection of the shadows—and no odor to irritate his stomach—he slid across the ground, then through the cracks between rotting bodies, and hurried down the corridor. Once on the other side, Kellan emerged from the darkness as though stepping out of a pond.

            He stood in the center of the Catacomb Maze.

            It was a massive burial chamber, complete with statues of kings, pharaohs, and dragons—a gigantic, circular stone room dedicated to all things great, whether they be fantasy or reality.

            And then Kellan saw members of the other teams.


THE NEXUS KNIGHT can be pre-ordered now. Please look forward to its release on June 28th!

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