Underworld Playerchapter 81: the stairs

"...So, you got lucky when neutral creeps showed up right inside your home? Two of them, you say?"

As he walked up the stairs toward the sixth floor, listening to Temperance Gentleheart tell her story, Bai Zhi could not help grimacing. He'd only asked Temperance how she had achieved such a high level out of casual interest, but got an unexpectedly earnest and detailed answer in return.

To think she had been someone who had joined as a new Player the same time he did, and even completed the Newbie Run with him. Meanwhile, he had been desperately searching high and low in the city for supernatural entities, going so far as to catch an early taxi to Prosperity Mall specially to participate in the Game there, and even gotten sent on a detour to the Underworld, of all places... and still barely managed to squeeze his way up to Level 5.

If not for circumstances forcing him to order a food delivery, leading to his encounter with—and subsequent dispatching of—the supernatural entity known as the Crazy Delivery Dude, he would not even have enough experience to reach Level 5.

Bai Zhi was completely flabbergasted.

If I had such a hard time leveling up, how could Temperance Gentleheart, who did so poorly in the Newbie Run, end up outleveling me?

He had thought Temperance would be hiding some sort of secret, and was never planning on asking any probing questions, but she seemed to have placed incredible trust in him, and not only shared exactly how she had leveled up so quickly, but even let him know all about her skills and her stat points...

To Verified Players, the importance of skills could not be overstated. Oftentimes, the first Rare skill that Players obtained from their Newbie Run ended up being a core skill that enabled them to survive even at higher levels. Thus, a Player's skills were virtually their biggest asset, and their biggest secret.

Even Lin He, who had told Bai Zhi about his skills back then, had done so as a ploy to earn his trust, after all, which was why, when Temperance Gentleheart openly shared her skills and stats with Bai Zhi, he couldn't help feeling a little shocked.

From Temperance Gentleheart's perspective, she was worried about experiencing a repeat of the Newbie Run, where the lack of transparency had nearly cost them everything. Besides, there was no hiding the effects of her skill as soon as she used it, so she figured it was better to be open about it from the start.

But to Bai Zhi, all her words and actions amounted to a big neon sign that said "carry pls"*.

Indeed, the only reason she had achieved a higher level than him was not because she had gone on to hunt down and defeat several more supernatural entities, but because one day, she had simply woken up... and found two neutral creeps in her room.

As special creatures that provided a high amount of experience and chance to drop loot when defeated, neutral creeps represented an important and rare resource. Even the single Blue Koopa that Bai Zhi had only encountered after spending a whole day running up and down the streets had been quickly appropriated by the Concerning Department, leaving him empty-handed for all his efforts.

Meanwhile, Temperance just woke up and had two neutral creeps land into her lap... This kind of good fortune was like playing a gacha game**, pulling for the first 10 drops and having all 10 turn out to be SSR rarity. "You must have saved an entire galaxy of people or something in your past life.*** The luck to have neutral creeps just show up in your own home, and two, at that!" Bai Zhi scoffed in disbelief as he continued walking up the stairs with Temperance Gentleheart.

They had parted ways with Traveler's team on the third floor, so they were currently alone in the stairwell.

Even though the stairs hadn't been maintained for some time and showed clear signs of age, it was sturdy enough. The slit windows in the walls where the stairs passed between floors let in sunlight, which shone on the handrails in uneven bands of light.

The well-lit environment encouraged the Players to let down their guard. Despite there being no definitive proof that supernatural entities were afraid of the light, the dazzling luminance granted by the bright day outside raised their spirits immeasurably.

Rather than the creepy epicenter of a supernatural entity incident, their present surroundings looked more like a leisure spot that one might visit on a lazy afternoon.

Suddenly, Bai Zhi stopped in his tracks. "...Do you remember how many floors we've climbed?" he said, turning to Temperance Gentleheart.

Looking up through the middle of the stairwell, Temperance replied with some hesitation, "Uhh... I wasn't counting. But we should be there soon, right? There are only six floors in the building, after all..."

"And yet, we've gone up seven," said Bai Zhi blandly as he met her gaze. "We're in between floors right now, so let's try going back down."


Soon, the two of them made it down a flight of stairs, but to Temperance Gentleheart's surprise, they ended up an nothing more than an empty landing, and no door to access any floor in sight.

Bai Zhi narrowed his eyes. "Let's keep going."

The next flight of stairs ended the same way.

No matter how far down they went, they kept seeing the same thing over and over. Even when they split up and went in different directions, they bizarrely ended up meeting each other on the same landing.

Temperance Gentleheart looked around her, frowning. "Did we get ghostwalled^?"

Finally, she walked toward the window, hoping to estimate how high up they were by looking out of it. Finding the window just above her head, she calmly retrieved a stool from her Inventory and used it as a step. In some ways, Bai Zhi seemed to have rubbed off on her.

Through the window, the sky outside could be seen, all white clouds floating across a cornflower-blue background, idyllic as could be. It was the perfect kind of day for going outside.

As Temperance got nearer to the window and got to observe it more closely, she saw something that sent an icy stab through her heart, and her whole body stiffened up. After a brief silence, she turned to Bai Zhi with some difficulty.

"...It's painted on."

Even though it had all looked completely real, when Temperance got within inches of the window, she was able to clearly see the telltale signs of brush strokes. It was as if the window and everything visible through it... had been artfully painted on by some master artist!

The optical illusion was so skillfully executed that, seen from a distance and without scrutinizing it too closely, it was difficult to see it as anything but the real thing.

But if the window was never real, then... where had the light shining "into" the stairwell come from?

*From multiplayer online games, where some weak players completely rely on stronger players to do the heavy lifting while they reap the rewards without lifting a finger.

**A video game that implements the gacha (toy vending machine) mechanic, e.g., Genshin Impact.

***Implying Temperance accrued a massive amount of good karma, which explains her good luck.

^Chinese concept of getting turned around without knowing, attributed to "ghosts" making "walls" around someone to keep them trapped.