The orcs dragged them through numerous tunnels with no notable features, saying nothing and ignoring the questions and abuse hurled at them by their unhappy captives, until finally depositing them into iron cages lined up against a wall in a large cavern, rolling them out of the nets so they spun across the floor and banged into the rusty iron bars with dull clangs.
The orcs locked the doors using enormous padlocks that looked far more technologically advanced than the rest of the somewhat makeshift prison. The complex mechanism made a resounding clunk as it snapped shut.
Their weapons weren’t confiscated, they weren’t searched or bound in any way. The orcs didn’t seem to fear magic users employing spells to escape or to attack the guards. Two orcs fell into chairs at the other end of the cavern, placed their heads on the tabletop and immediately fell asleep, snoring loudly. The keys to the padlocks lay on the table between them.
The other four orcs stomped out without explanation or farewell.
There were placed in pairs in adjoining cells. Britta and Lin were in one, Kupa and the girl, Little Claw, were next to them. Convenient Local Shop and another fighter called Red Panda were the other two captives.
As soon as the orcs had left and there was no movement from the sleeping giants, the Chinese players began testing the cages for signs of weakness, but nothing had much of an effect. Weapons bounced off metal bars, numbing the wielder’s hands. Pushing and pulling, lying on the ground and using legs to force gaps wider between bars, none of it made the slightest difference.
The orc guards ignored the banging and slamming going on and continued to catch up on their beauty sleep, which was certainly needed.
Red Panda, who had a bow, tried firing a few arrows at them, which Britta considered a little reckless. But they bounced off their armour causing no damage and not even waking them. One swatted at the air with his eyes still closed, as though waving off a fly. Blue orcs, it appeared to Britta, were not to be trifled with.
Eventually, the captives sat down and mulled over their situation. It was not what they had expected.
“What’s going on?” said Little Claw. “No one’s ever reported something like this. Blue orcs on the first level, the first encounter! How are we supposed to deal with something like that?”
“We aren’t, obviously,” said Shop. “We were supposed to be captured. Why? So we can escape presumably. The keys are invitingly left out in the open. We just need to get to them.”
“How?” said Red Panda. “We don’t have any way to get through these bars. I can’t even reach around that giant padlock to try and pick it. And even if we do get out — blue orcs? No, no, no. This is ridiculous.”
“We have no choice but to wait,” said Kupa, easily the most relaxed about their situation. He was sitting with his back against the bars, staring into the adjacent cage where Britta and Lin were. “This is a scripted event. We aren’t supposed to beat those orcs, we’re supposed to think our way out of here.”
“Wait?” said Red Panda. “I didn’t come here to wait. I’m leaving.”
“Stop,” said Shop. “Don’t—”
Red Panda collapsed and lay there like he was sleeping. Shop bent down to check on him. “He logged out.” He kicked him and got no reaction from the body.
“Looks like it won’t let us out of here unless we work out what we’re supposed to do,” said Kupa. “He’ll come right back here when he logs in again.”
“We should leave him here when we leave,” said Little Claw. “Make him…”
The body faded away, leaving behind a few pieces of equipment.
“Deleted himself,” said Shop with a shake of his head. “Level 28.”
“You really think this is a hidden quest?” said Little Claw, her excitement unaffected by the loss of a comrade. “Did we get lucky?”
“No, not lucky,” said Kupa, sitting with his legs bent and his wrists balanced on his knees. “Something strange is going on. Can’t you feel it? The whole dungeon feels different. I think it’s because of her.” He lifted one hand just enough to point at Lin.
Lin responded by raising an eyebrow. The two of them stared at each other, neither blinking.
“You think she made this happen?” asked Shop. “How? She’s just a player.”
“Not just any player,” said Kupa, eyes still locked on Lin. “There’s been something off the whole time, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. This is my third time in this place, yours too.” He glanced at Shop, and then returned his eyes to Lin. “You can feel it, can’t you?”
“Those were scouting missions,” said Shop. “We didn’t go in very deep.”
“We never encountered anything like this,” said Kupa. “Not even a sign of a blue orc. And no one else has ever reported seeing them on the first level.”
“But that’s how a hidden quest is,” said Little Claw. “No one knows what triggers them, it’s just luck. We got lucky, and now we have a chance at a special reward. This is good.”
“If we defeat whatever the objective is,” said Kupa. He stood up and walked over to the wall separating his cage from Britta’s. He seemed taller than before. “What’s so special about your friend?” he asked Britta.
Britta looked at Lin and then back at Kupa. “Well, she’s very kind and generous, and she always try to help you if she can.”
Kupa frowned. “This is because of her, isn’t it? They made her character immune to damage, so the game is adjusting to deal with her, right?”
Britta hadn’t thought of it like that. He might be right. L-15 might not have anything to do with any of this, at least, not directly. Whatever the reason for the change in the dungeon, they were here now. Trying to work out the game’s reasons wouldn’t achieve much.
“How would we know?” said Britta. “Even if you’re right, this is our first time here. We didn’t make it happen on purpose.”
Kupa nodded slowly. “Okay.” He turned around and walked across to the other side of the cage. “I guess we have to find a way to escape.”
Shop walked over to him so the two men were facing each other, divided by the bars. “Yes. How?”
“We can beat the guards in a straight fight if there’s only two of them and we can take them by surprise.” Kupa’s gaze drifted across to the sleeping guards and back. “They fell asleep very quickly. That must be a sign.”
“We need the key to open the door, but we can’t reach the key without opening the door,” said Little Claw. “You have an idea?”
“Yes. Want to give it a go?” Kupa asked her in return.
“Sure. Why not? I’ll be able to leave if I die, no?”
Kupa shrugged and nodded together.
“What do you want me to do?” said Little Claw.
Britta watched them planning as Lin came and stood next to her.
“That Kupa,” said Britta, “is he the leader?”
“He’s interesting,” said Lin. “Not as smart as he thinks he is.”
“He realised it had something to do with us,” said Britta.
“With me,” said Lin. “No prize for being nearly right.” She looked down at Britta. “You want to wait and see how they get out?”
“Yes,” said Britta.
“And if they can’t?”
“I’ll just go get the key,” said Britta, like it would be as easy as walking over there and taking it.
Lin hoped the Chinese players would fail, just so she could see how Britta was going to do it.