“Come on! That’s it! One more! Just one more!” Mr. Walters repeated for what felt like the ten thousandth time as he and his two sons, who had introduced themselves earlier as Lou and Arnold, urged Nick to do yet another deadlift.
“Come on, Dad,” Walters’ daughter said as she walked over. “You’ve been killing that poor boy and healing him back up for six hours now. Let him take a break.” She, unlike the two sons, had largely ignored Nick since he first got there, only now getting involved.
“Has it been six hours, Jen?” Mr. Walters asked as he turned to his daughter. “It can’t have been six hours. I thought the little tyke only joined a few minutes ago.”
“It has been six hours, and I’m hungry, and no I don’t want another one of those whey shakes. Can we please go get some real protein? I’m starving!” Jen complained. “We should have been eating dinner an hour ago.”
“Alright, meat it is,” Mr. Walters conceded, turning to Nick and his two sons. “You boys feeling like burgers or barbecue?”
“We got a new member, so we should get steak, right?” Arnold suggested.
“New guy’s treat, right?” Lou asked. “If so, steak.”
“I don’t care where we go. Let’s just go somewhere already,” Jen insisted.
“Welp, Nick, you heard the girl.” Mr. Walters said. “Where we goin’ to eat?”
Nick, who was still struggling to lift the weight up for his last rep simply wasn’t able to answer right away. By the time he finished the deadlift, he nearly passed out and fell over backward as the blood rushed out of his head.
“Ah, you need another heal to walk out of here? I got you,” Mr. Walters offered.
“Thanks,” Nick said as he felt the burly man’s glowing green hand slap his back, restoring his vigor and healing his burning, aching muscles nearly instantly. “I needed that.”
“No worries. Now where are we going?” Mr. Walters repeated.
“I’d love to go get steak with you, but I need to shower up and go see about a girl,” Nick replied, politely declining the invitation. He wasn’t lying either. After practically passing out only to be revived again over and over for six hours with the group, he found their enthusiasm for fitness charming and really did like them enough that he wanted to catch a meal with them, but he had to stay focused. He needed to find Maria.
“Ah, a girl, ey?” Mr. Walters and his three kids all chuckled.
“So is that why you’re working out so hard? Going to build a little stamina so you can go more than a few seconds in the sack, is it?” the daughter snickered.
Mr. Walters cut him some slack. “Well, if it’s a girl, we’ll let you slide. But you better join us next time. Lift together; eat together. It’s the foundation of a good guild, I say. I’ll see you as soon as you get out of school tomorrow.”
“Thanks for understanding.” Nick gave a small nod of his head, showing his appreciation before rushing to the locker room to get changed out of the borrowed gym clothes and back into his uniform so he could go find Maria, 1 strength and 1 constitution better off than he had been when he first entered the gym.
One thing he was surprisingly thankful for was the fact that Maria had constantly talked about the past. As he walked down the alleys and streets leading to her house, he could recognize every single building and landmark as if they were part of his own memories. He also couldn’t help but feel like he was having an out-of-body experience or a dream as he looked around at the beautiful houses, remembering clearly what neighborhoods looked like in the future: the destroyed walls, the collapsed roofs, the giant explosion marks where the heroes and monsters had fought. In his mind, the grisly image of the future seemed to overlap with the beautiful and serene world he was walking through as he approached the luxury apartment Maria had said she lived in.
What was the number . . . 319? He looked for Maria’s family name on the buzzer before finally finding it: Mendoza, Ste. 319. Feeling a little proud of himself for remembering such a tiny detail, he pressed the button immediately, only then realizing that he had yet to come up with a cover story. He had been so invested in reaching the location that he had completely forgotten that he needed to actually have a reason for being there. He wasn’t already friends with her, she didn’t know they needed to train together, and she would have no knowledge of the decades they had spent together.
“F—” He nearly let slip his favorite F-word before the buzzer activated and a woman began speaking.
“Hello! This is Grace! How can I help you?”
“Oh! Ms. Mendoza! It’s me, your daughter’s friend, Nick! I came because—”
“Oh?! That poor girl actually has a friend? Ha! That’s great, come on up. I’ll let you in,” Maria’s mother joked, buzzing Nick through before he could even finish lying his way inside.
As he walked through the front gate and into the complex, he couldn’t help but admire how nice the place was. On the ground level between the buildings, there were tennis courts, swimming pools, and even a little restaurant for tenants to enjoy, and each of the suites in the building was twice as large as anything he’d ever seen when he was on Allen’s payroll.
While riding the elevator up to the third floor, he felt his phone vibrate. He checked the text to find a message from his worried mother: Son, are you coming home? We heard from Antoinette that you skipped school again! You better not have left your poor fiancée unattended so you could go out partying! You know that your cousins are just looking for an excuse to kick you out of the estate!
Nick nearly cried when he saw the message. He almost stopped what he was doing to call her right away. Even though his mother was fussing at him, and it was just another lecture, one he was sure she gave him several times a day, he couldn’t help but be overwhelmed as he thought about having the chance to talk to her again.
He knew she wasn’t his mother, per se. She was the mother of Nick from this timeline, not the mom that had died helping him escape their first bunker, but she was still precious to him. He couldn’t wait to see her as soon as he had a free moment. I can’t call her now, I need to get this done, he reminded himself as he stepped out of the elevator, but the moment I’m done here, I’m going to go home right away and do every dumb chore she asks just so I can spend some time with her.
After straightening out his thoughts, he sent her a quick reply so she wouldn’t worry: I’m not partying! I’m training right now with friends. Will talk to you when I get home mom. Love, Nick. Then, he put away his phone and walked up to the apartment.
When he reached it, he found the door already opened, and there, in the middle of the kitchen, was the spitting image of adult Maria, only this woman was taller with better curves and a face that didn’t have any of the wrinkles or scars that time, battle, and the madness of the apocalypse had given Maria in the future.
“Mga gagong pulitiko!!!” he heard the woman yelling at the screen, decrying the stupidity of the featured political figures. She then flipped over a pancake in a skillet with a grunt.
“Oo, ganyan sila,” Nick replied in agreement, using some of the Filipino that he’d learned from Maria in the bunker.
“What? Huh? You speak Tagalog?” Grace’s eyes widened in disbelief, her mouth parting as her eyebrows shot up.. Then she panicked as she seemed to remember she was in the middle of making pancakes. “Oh no! Oh no! I think I burnt them, and now they’re not going to taste good!” she blurted out as she quickly scrambled to flip the pancakes out of the pan.
“I can’t imagine anything of yours not tasting good,” Nick remarked with a smile as he walked in, his brain still racing at a hundred miles an hour as he tried to figure out how he was going to stop Maria from kicking him out for being creepy.
“Oh, you sweet talker.” She beamed as she grabbed a bottle of syrup and began to add it to the pancakes. “But even I can mess up, and with little Maria having friends over—for the first time ever—I wanted them to turn out right.”
“Did you just start them? It wasn’t that long of a walk up here . . .” Nick noted.
“Oh, well, I had already made the batch, what with little Maria heading off to that dungeon on Warren Street or whatever it was called.”
“Warren Street Dungeon?” Nick blinked. That dungeon was one that should have been owned by the Requiem Guild, and they would never let a lone, guildless adventurer like Maria in.
“Yeah, that’s the one, I think, that opened today or something,” Grace replied. “That has to be it. She said she was going to finish that dungeon up and get a few monster horns since someone was demanding a bunch of them at the store today. They’re paying way above top dollar apparently, so Maria wanted to go find a few to sell.”
“Horns . . . horns . . . Warren Street Dungeon, but . . .” Nick tried to rack his brains to understand how those connected. It made no sense to him. The more he thought about it, the more he started to remember something important about Warren Street Dungeon that he had forgotten. The name sounded incredibly familiar.
Then it clicked. Warren Street was the dungeon where, only a day after opening, nearly every adventurer who had gone inside had died. The dungeon had seemed like an easy, low-rank dungeon that even a level 1 noob like himself could handle, but once a few teams went inside, it was revealed to be the complete opposite. No one had survived the first two attempts, and it was only after a high-level party from the Requiem Guild went in there on the third attempt that they were able to even recover a few of the remaining bodies—or pieces of bodies—from the dungeon. They brought back just enough for a cremation but not enough to even think about a burial.
“No . . . no, it can’t be that dungeon,” Nick panicked. “You’re sure it’s Warren Street Dungeon? The one that opened today?”
“I think so?” Grace looked baffled. “Is . . . Is something wrong? Did they close down that dungeon or something?”
“Crud! Sorry, Grace! You look absolutely beautiful enough to eat, but I gotta run!” Nick darted out of the door, ran past the elevator, and started down the stairs. It wasn’t until halfway down the stairs that he realized the awkward and potentially massive mistake he had made when saying goodbye. He hadn’t meant to say Grace looked good enough to eat but rather that her food looked good enough to eat. He didn’t have time to run back though. Cursing himself, he pulled out his phone and grabbed the nearest car service he could find to the dungeon.
Nick slammed the door behind him as he bolted out of the car before it even came to a stop. He could feel his heart pounding a hundred miles an hour as he rushed down Warren Street toward the dungeon up ahead.
As he rounded the corner leading to the gated-off area where the dungeon was, he could see the heavily fortified entrance with high concrete barriers. Security checkpoints were set up around the entrance as well, manned by heavily armed adventurers from the Requiem Guild checking IDs and had a list of who was authorized to enter the dungeon. The dungeon entrance itself resembled a swirling ten-foot-wide blue vortex, embedded half-way into the ground.
Even though the dungeon was already secured, Nick wasn’t deterred. He knew it was still just a recently discovered one, and that meant that there was no way the guild in charge would have been able to do anything more than throw up a few surface-level protections. The only thing he needed to do to get to that portal was to go underneath it, and fortunately for him, the tunnels to do so had already been created.
From all his years living underground after the monsters took over the surface of the world, he knew the tunnels, and he knew exactly which one he needed to take to use the bottom half of the portal.
Nick made a beeline for the closest convenience store, grabbed some supplies, and slapped a twenty on the counter as he ran out. He stuffed his jacket pockets with the chili peppers and instant coffee he’d bought as he ran another two blocks, eventually reaching his destination: a rundown, abandoned-looking auto repair shop.
The place was a mess with little mechanic work actually happening, and given the clues that had been left on the bodies Nick had discovered when he had raided the place for supplies with Allen, it was probably some gang that had built the tunnels he was planning to use to smuggle things around the city by connecting to the old railway systems and service tunnels.
Before approaching, he quickly knelt down next to a car on the street and rubbed his hands on a tire, dirtying him and the clean shirt he was wearing, then quickly walked up to the gates that surrounded the shop, waving at the guy standing outside the building.
“Hey, you guys open? My car broke down a couple blocks away, and I need some help.” Nick said as he held up his grease-covered hands.
The man’s face was weathered by sun and time, and his accent was thick and unfamiliar. He started to say, “We’re not ope—”
Nick was already flashing a stack of cash when he interrupted, saying, “Man, my dad just got me this car, and if he learns I already broke it, then he’s going to kill me.”
“Well, when you put it like that, I think we can arrange something.”
“Sweet! Thank you so much!” Nick handed the man half the stack of bills. “I think this will cover it, but if it’s more, I’ll be glad to pay. I just need this thing fixed ASAP.”
The man looked down at the money, eyes wide but with a smile on his face. He quickly stuffed the money into his pocket and looked up at Nick. “Just tell me where your car is, young sir, and I will take care of everything.”
He lied about the location of his vehicle, and the mechanic scurried away to investigate. Nick wasted no time as he ran into the garage, his heart pounding faster with each step. He knew that his ruse wouldn’t last long, but he didn’t need it to. He ran into the garage grabbing a plastic bag and a few tools that were lying around: a box cutter, a hammer, and a roll of duct tape. He peered under a raised car, his eyes searching the shadows, until he spotted the familiar faint outline of a doorway in the inspection pit beneath it. He climbed down into the pit and cautiously opened the door, revealing a dark staircase that descended into the tunnels.
His phone-light the only source of illumination, he followed the dark cinder-block tunnel until it reached a junction. He thought he had a pretty good sense of direction and turned right and then left at the next intersection. He was as anxious as he could be, worried that he’d made a mistake since it had been so long since he used these particular tunnels, when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. It was the blue glow of a portal at the end of a tunnel. His heart leapt into his throat. A sliver of light, no more than a hand’s width, illuminated the darkness, but it was unmistakably the entrance to a dungeon. His palms slick with sweat, Nick raced toward the glowing blue swirl of energy. The air around the entrance hummed with energy like a live wire buzzing and sparking ever so slightly. When he touched the sliver of the entrance, it shot an icy chill through his body like a lightning strike, and the world around him disappeared.