34 A Test of Courage
Everyone gathered at the flower garden at the back of the building. An NPC attendant stood beside a glowing magic circle on the ground and proceeded to explain: "Whoever wishes to participate in the Mount Alto Trail of Fear challenge, please step on the magic circle. You will be teleported to a random starting point in the map. A maximum of two people can step on the circle together. Your goal is to locate and reach the cave at the top of the mountain. There, you will take and bring back a token in exchange for a prize."
"So, which one of you ladies wants to be my partner?" Yaya and Frisk said in unison. They looked at each other and glared like rivals.
"As if I'll let you take my lovely ladies, Frisk!" Yaya told Frisk mentally with her blazing eyes.
"Humph! They're going to be all over me after seeing my beautiful body a while ago!" Frisk replied telepathically with a smug.
As the two flirts were busy staring each other down, Anna raised her hand. "I volunteer!"
Frisk grinned happily, but once Anna ran to Yaya, his grin disappeared in a flash. He clenched his fist as his rival scored a point against him.
Magnus was about to ask Lyria to be his partner, but Lyngvi got to her first. He cursed himself silently for being too slow.
While the others were busy looking for partners, Astrid stared at Amelie, who was still looking glum and quiet at the side. Pairing her up with any one of the remaining Noctis Noir members could end in disaster. She drew a sigh of relief when Sed surprisingly came up to her and asked her to be his partner.
"Tank, do you want to do the challenge together?" Luna built up her courage to ask the Knights Alliance guildmaster who was just standing idly at the side.
"Sure. Why not?" Tank replied.
Anna and Yaya stepped into the magic circle first and were quickly teleported. The other pairs soon followed, leaving only Astrid, Garth, Sphinx, Magnus, Frisk, and Pio.
Sphinx smirked. "I can do this one alone." He immediately stepped on the magic circle.
"So can I!" Frisk followed, hoping he could impress the ladies by completing the challenge alone.
Magnus shook his head and folded his arms. "I refuse to be part of their childish competition."
"Do you want to pair up then?" Pio asked.
Magnus shrugged. "Sure."
After everyone else left, it was just Astrid and Garth left standing. They didn't bother asking each other about partnering up.
"Fast run?" Astrid asked.
He nodded. "Fast run."
They immediately rushed to the portal, which teleported them to a starting point. They ran all the way up the mountain path while clearing every obstacle that prevented them from passing through. They wasted no time making idle chit chat.
The Mount Alto Trail of Fear was set in an area near the top of the mountain covered with dead trees and thorny bushes. Its soil was dark blue, as well as the uncut grass covering the whole place. There were only a few sources of light: the moon, fireflies, and the rare iron lanterns left lying around. It would have been a completely gloomy sight if not for the black flowers that grew along the path. Planks of grey wood served as stepping stones to guide players to the top of the mountain and a few hidden traps.
"If you ever feel afraid, Milady, you are welcome to stay close to me," said Lyngvi as he and Lyria walked through the creepy forest.
Lyria started laughing at the grotesque-looking ghost monster nearby. "What is that thing? He looks hilarious!"
Lyngvi was surprised by her reaction. "Nevermind then. Let's keep going."
The priestess wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes. "Sorry. The girls and I used to play a lot of horror games together, so I'm kind of used to this."
"Ah. That explains it. It must be nice playing videogames with friends."
"Yeah. We used to sleepover at each other's houses and do all-nighters trying to clear survival horror games. Amelie would be the first to fall asleep. Then, Luna and Astrid would draw on her face or take pictures of her sleeping. Sometimes, we'd cook dinner together." Lyria fondly recalled the memories. "I miss those days."
"You're lucky. I never got to properly spend time with friends like that back in the real world. I was always busy that we ended up drifting apart. Plus, I noticed their gradual change in attitude ever since I debuted as a singer. Eventually, they stopped inviting me. I just spent time with whoever was available at that time." Lyngvi maintained the unbreakable calmness on his face. "There were nights where I just sat in my room reading fan letters to pass the time."
When Lyria heard the word 'fan letters', she remembered the ones she wrote to him. "Did any of those fan letters ever catch your attention?"
He paused to think. "Not really."
"Ah wait. There was one letter that did stand out. There was even a funny drawing of me."
Lyria's heart beat faster. It sounded like her letter, but it was possible that there were numerous other girls who also did the same.
He continued, "Isn't it strange how people can just say that they love me? They don't even know me. How can they just suddenly decide that?" He stopped himself. "Sorry."
Lyngvi remained quiet, which worried Lyria. She felt as if she came across a different side of him. Was it the real him? She wasn't sure.
Suddenly, they both heard a chilling scream echoing through the dense forest.
"AAH!" Pio screamed a bloodcurdling scream the moment strange wisps suddenly jumped out from behind a bush. They circled around him.
"Calm down! It's just some kind of lighting effect. We're not even being attacked." Magnus stood behind him with his arms folded. He stepped forward and a low growl came from up ahead.
"W-What was that?" Pio moved closer to Magnus, invading his personal space.
Magnus twitched uncomfortably. "Don't stay too close to me! It was probably nothing."
"There's something there! I heard it make a sound!" Pio pointed at a large boulder.
"Get off me, Pio!" The mage tried to tear the priest off him. When he finally did, a grotesque-looking zombie dog appeared on top of the boulder and proceeded to chase them. They screamed in unison, running away instinctively.