Chapter 22 – No Caller ID

Editors: genericIntent, Vincent, Shieldbasher, Scott
Author’s notes: It is a good start to the weekend; Chapter 22 is done and I have already started writing 23! You can look forward to chapter 23 as I have planned a lot to happen, with some much needed attention to Fen. What attention you may ask? Wait and find out! Wahaha! I will also start doing a second slice of life story here on my blog. It is a unique concept I came up with and it will not slow down progress with End Online. I will make a post on the information about it later! For now, enjoy the latest chapter! ^.^
Also, as another full chapter release. It is greatly appreciated if you can show your support to take a minute of your time to follow the link and vote for End Online at TopWebFiction.com!
Editor’s notes:…

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-Lost-

Removing the V-Link, I open my eyes to see the ceiling of my bedroom. My mind is still in a dream-like state as I roll my head to the side and read the time; 9:14 P.M. according to my bedside clock. I stare motionlessly for a while, watching the glow-in-the-dark second hand slowly wind around the clock-face.

One minute turns into the next, and then into the following; blurring into one long, thoughtless haze. Before I realize it, half an hour has passed. The room is pitch black, but like so many times before, I methodically drag myself across the bed and into my wheelchair.

I wheel myself to the bathroom while slowly shaking my head back and forth, but fail to clear the woozy feeling in my head. I make sure to flick the lights on as I go, squinting more with each new flick of a switch.

The sound of running water and a sharp icy feeling on my face finally bring me to full alertness. Dipping my hands once again under the running water, I cup another handful and splash it over my face.

I dry off with a freshly cleaned hand towel hanging from a small hook on the wall. Looking around the bathroom and not seeing a speck of dirt, I nod my head in satisfaction. As of late, I have been trying extra hard to keep my house as tidy as possible. I do the task exceptionally well, considering my abilities have become increasingly limited by my circumstances.

Despite rinsing my face with cold water, weariness returns shortly after. I decide to head straight to bed and sleep rather than read the ‘End Online’ forums. My eyelids start to become heavy and my vision gradually begins to darken.

***************************************************

I hadn’t set my alarm, but wake quite early nonetheless. Today is Saturday, the first day of the weekend. If I was still working full time,  I would definitely go back to sleep for a few more hours. But now that I have become a full time gamer, today is the same as any other day.

After a light breakfast, I go back to my bedroom. Just like so many times before, I place the V-Link helmet on my head and turn it on as naturally as I would blink. In the last moments of my vision, I glance once more at the time.

7:45 A.M.

The real world slowly fades away, replaced by grey mist. Usually, this would be when my locker materializes before me, but this time is different. Instead of dissipating, the mist remains and a message pops into view.

More than 6 months have passed since your last body scan.
Please return to your nearest center with the correct
equipment to renew your virtual image.

You will not be able to use this device again until you have
done so for health and safety reasons.

Thank you for understanding.

The message remains until I finish reading it, at which point the message and the mist disappear to reveal the real world. Clicking my tongue, I remove the helmet and place it down next to me.

I had hoped to be able to log in early and train some of my stats during the spare time before the party was scheduled to reunite, but now I have to go down to the local game store and get another full body scan. Just remembering the last one makes me feel uneasy and embarrassed.

While I am getting ready to head out, my mobile phone rings.  I’m startled by the call since I haven’t received even a single call in an extremely long time.

“I wonder who it could be?” I say aloud while dropping my eyebrows in consternation.

I move over to my desk and pick up the phone while looking at the mobile display. The call comes up as a private number. Feeling like this is some form of telemarketing ploy, I contemplate not answering the call. I have not even purchased phone credits for my mobile in the past three months as I have had no need of them.

Deciding that there can be no possible harm in answering the call, I press the ‘Accept’ button and hold the device up to my ear. Just as I think about hanging up if the person tries to sell me something, a familiar voice comes through.

“Holly…?”

I nearly drop the phone in shock, finally hearing a voice so precious again after such a long time.

“Shari?” I ask, doubting whether or not I identified the voice correctly.

“Holly! It is you!” She says with joy.

“What’s going on Shari? I haven’t heard from you in so long.”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Aunt Jude refused to let us call you. I tried and tried to phone you… but she caught me every time.” A few sobs escape from the other side of the line.

“Don’t feel too bad Shari, I’m sure she has her reasons.”

Deep down, I know her dislike for me is the most likely reason, but there is no way I can slander my aunt in front of my little sister.

“So why are you calling me now? I really do hope you are behaving, Shari?”

“Of course! Well, Aunt Jude finally let me call you.”

“That’s rather nice of her. Why did she change her mind?”

“She just l-let me call you. That’s all.”

I speak with Shari over the phone for at least half an hour. Apparently, she has started high school this year at a top-class school. She has made more friends than her older sister Joelle and really enjoys it.

After our long discussion on every topic we can think of, Shari puts Joelle on the phone. Joelle talks for just as long as Shari did, and complains that by the time she transferred into the new high school last year when they were taken away, everyone had already formed groups of friends and there was no room for her. As it turns out, she has made plenty of friends since then; Shari simply has more.

Schooling throughout our country consists of three levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The primary level is from grades one to six, and often simply called primary school. The secondary level is from grades seven to twelve, and called either secondary school or high school. Most people will begin grade seven when they turn thirteen, and conversely finish year twelve during the year they turn eighteen and are considered adults.

Tertiary is the name for all studies conducted after secondary school. There are numerous universities and organizations providing tertiary study options. The only problem with tertiary programs is that ever since corporations gained more power than the government, all the funding for these courses has stopped. Only the elite, rich families have the option to send their children to these classes. The idea of being able to attend a university is only a dream for people like us in the outer district.

Once the phone call ends, I allow my mind and body to slowly empty itself of all my worries. For the first time in a long time, I feel at peace. However, the moment I begin seeing the world in brighter colors, my phone rings again. Picking up the phone, I see it is yet another private number.

My first thought is that the girls are calling me again, but I’m confused as to why they would be calling back so soon. Deciding that there is only one way to find out, I answer the phone.

“Hollis, this is Jude.”

“A-Aunt!? Why are you calling me?”

“How rude. Don’t you have any manners?”

“Sorry. It is pleasant to hear from you, Jude.” I deliberately avoid calling her ‘Aunt’, a petty way of saying that she is no aunt of mine.

“Tch. I don’t wish to banter with you over this, so I will make it quick. I want you to stay away from Joelle and Shari.”

“Excuse me? You can’t keep them away from me!” I had just spoken with them again after all this time. The mere thought of letting this woman take them away from me again fills me with loathing. Not just at her, but at myself as well.

“Shut up! I can and I will. You are a failure. You have gotten yourself nowhere, and you are heading nowhere. I am ashamed that I am in the same family as you. These girls are young, they have the chance to move up in the world and make something of themselves. They just need the proper guidance, which isn’t from you.”

“…”

“However, the girls have been quite adamant that they see you. Ever since I took them in, they have been showing petty little rebellions. To be frank, it is tiresome. I have agreed to let them speak with you once a week; on the weekend when it won’t distract them from their education.”

“How kind of you.” I say in a cold tone. I normally don’t have any particular hatred for the aunt who never speaks to me, but now I feel like I am about to explode.

“That is all. I am simply calling you to warn you that if you even attempt to sway them in any way, all contact between you will cease. I am the guardian of these children, so until they are adults, I will guide them as I see fit.”

“…”

“I will take your silence as your agreement. I will send you a message with my number if you need to contact me.”

With a light clicking noise, Aunt Jude abruptly ends the call. My previous good mood is now gone. I want to be able to do more and actually see my two little sisters, but it is like trying to fight with my hands tied.

I force my anger and regrets aside, focusing on what I have right now. I can now speak with my two little sisters, which is more than I have had for the past six months. Who knows what things will be like in another six months?

‘Although they didn’t tell me about how they have been rebelling against that woman to come see me. I truly have to thank them.’

Tidying myself up and pocketing my wallet, phone, keys and V-Link storage card, I roll myself out the front door. The fresh, crisp air fills my lungs to the brim, a feeling that no game can completely imitate.

I make my way to the local station, E-127442; a shameful six digit station. Boarding the first inbound train, I quickly arrive in the downtown district.

‘Apparently, Aunt Jude lives in the downtown district. I recall my parents mentioning it once in the past.’  

I hastily leave the station to get the the shopping center called ‘The Fort’. The mall is incredibly large, and being here fills me with nostalgia. The last time I was here is when I first learned of ‘End Online’.

Once inside, my wheelchair rolls along the polished-marble tile floor without any friction. My eyes are glued straight forward as I head to my desired location: the hair salon.

While I do need to update my body scan, I need a haircut just as bad.

“Good morning, sir. How may I help you today?” A beautiful young blonde girl asks me as I come into the shop.

“I would like to get my hair cut.” I give her a hearty smile.

“Of course, come right through. One of our hairdressers just became free.” Although she said to come through, she swiftly moves behind me and pushes me further into the shop. As soon as I am positioned in front of a large mirror, the blonde girls takes out a hidden brush and pair of scissors from her belt.

“So how would you like it cut today?” She asks, looking me directly in the eye through the mirror and causing me to blush.

“Oh, you are the hairdresser.” I murmur shyly.

“Of course, just became free!” She responds to my barely audible whisper like she has super hearing.

“I’m not entirely sure how I would like it cut. I just know that it has been far too long since my last haircut,” I pick up a few locks of hair and dangle them in front of my face. “I want to cut it off.”

“Any particular style?” She fiddles with my hair to show me where she can cut it at and how to make it look in the end.

“That one!” I almost shout at her when she displays one of her ideas.

“Not a problem, please bear with me for a moment.”

I end up getting my hair washed, cut, trimmed, and then washed again. After all the hard work is done, the pretty, blonde hairdresser blowdries my hair until all the remaining moisture is gone.

Looking in the mirror, I see a whole new person. With my bangs reaching just past my eyebrows, my hair has become much shorter. I run my hand through my hair. The rugged brown hair effortlessly slides in between my fingers as my hand passes through, falling back down to rest in its original position afterwards.

“Why is it, that whenever a hairdresser washes my hair, it always comes out cleaner than when I do it?” I ask curiously, marvelling at how clean my hair feels.

“That’s a trade secret.” A small giggle escapes her lips.

I lightly sigh as she takes me to the front counter.

“That will be twenty dollars.”

“Thank you,” I say, while paying with my bank card.

As she says she hopes to see me again, I put the salon behind me. Despite the size of the mall, I have no interest in all the brand name apparel, furniture, and electronic outlets. I have some interest in the shops selling household goods and kitchen necessities, but that is about it.

Slowly making my way through the busy passage, I finally arrive at the game store. I look at a few games as I enter the shop, stopping to see all that is available as I make my way to the counter.

“Excuse me, is there anything I can help you with today? Oh, it’s you!” A scrawny man with large glasses and freckles covering his face says while raising his eyebrows. How could I ever forget him; immediately recognizing him as the nerdy store clerk from last time.

“I would like to update my full body scan.”

“Haha, it’s that time already, is it?”

“Yeah…”

I start to get incredibly nervous as he pushes me towards the familiar changing room. I pass him the storage card from my V-Link, allowing him to insert it into the machine and push me in.

What happens next is like the recurrence of a nightmare. The clerk removes my clothes before I get the chance the object, and a faint glimpse of my naked body is visible as he exits the pod.

‘She saw me! That lady just outside the shop definitely saw me!’ My face turns crimson in embarrassment.

A slight humming reverberates through the walls of the machine and a thin stream of light passes up and down my body. It only takes a couple of minutes until the process is done. The store clerk quickly appears in the room, helping me into my clothes and back out of the pod with such efficiency I question whether he is human or not.

“I have already adjusted your body scan to hide the scar on your back. The same as last time.”

I give him my gratitude, hurriedly paying the sixty dollars for the scan and leaving the store as fast as possible.

While I am out, I decide I should also restock the kitchen now instead of later.

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A little after 2 P.M., I arrive at home, tired and exhausted. I make a mental note to do more exercise in the future as today has made it abundantly clear how much my fitness level has fallen.

The shopping all goes to it’s rightful places and I casually turn back to the V-Link. Placing the helmet back on top of my head while lying down on my bed, I enter virtual reality without any further issues.

Passing through my locker and straight into the game, I appear in a small little outcrop of acacia trees shrouded in darkness. I spot the moon hanging high in the sky, indicating it is roughly the middle of the night.

“Fen,” I say to the wolf girl staring curiously at me from the side. “Let’s fight. It has been a long time since we practiced like this.”

She nods in response and several dozen shards of ice immediately form in the air. The strange thing about companions, I happened to learn a while ago, is that they are incapable of attacking you, no matter the circumstance. Yet, somehow, Fen doesn’t follow this ironclad rule.

This is possibly the best practice for training, but I need to make sure I select the option of having a ‘friendly’ duel with her in my menu. Doing this nullifies 95 percent of damage we cause to each other.

She launches her ice bolts at me all at once. I immediately send several throwing knives to intercept as many ice bolts as possible, while nimbly dodging the rest. In an instant, I traverse the distance between us as I charge forward at high speed.

Perhaps the wolf girl has come to know a little about my abilities, because she raises up a wall of ice the moment I start moving. As a result of this and my sudden boost in speed from having my hood down, I collide spectacularly into the wall and the afterimage of me five meters away instantly disperses.

‘Tch. I guess that couldn’t work on you forever.’ I give a silent commendation towards Fen’s adaptability and craftiness.

“Backstab,” I call out, only for nothing to happen.

Realizing I must have my direct sight on the target and be within a certain range, I hastily jump back. Almost as if she can read my mind, Fen flies over the ice wall at the same time. She is holding a single shortsword of ice in each hand, poised to stab down as she lands on top of me.  I can use my sacred arts to escape, but it occurs to me that I should practice being able to do so without calling upon the system.

I extend one of my legs and allow my body to slacken. My extended foot comes in contact with the ground first, and the unexpected contact causes me to lose my balance. The world revolves and I hit the soft grass with the flat of my back, bouncing awkwardly and veering off my trajectory enough to escape Fen’s deadly descent.

When my body finally comes to a stop, I shakily climb back onto my feet and look toward Fen, who is currently facing the opposite direction. Forgetting about my speed increase in a rush to take her unaware, I push off from the ground as hard as I possibly can.

My velocity increases at an astonishing rate and completely surprises me. Everything in sight flies past fast enough to turn into blurs of red, yellow, and green. Paying the smallest amount of attention to the the blurring colours around me causes an incessant buzzing sound in my head, accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling.

With something so unexpected happening, my body seizes up in shock. Fen barely has enough time to adopt a surprised expression before I collide with her and cause us both to fly through the trees in a tangled mess.

We end up flying straight out of the western side of the grove like a gust of wind. Fen and I finally land on the dry, water deprived grass, barely losing any momentum as we slide along the ground downhill in a tangled mess.

We leave a path through the knee high grass a little over a hundred meters long from our landing. I stare at the narrow corridor of flattened grass, dumbfounded.

“…Mpfh…” A muffled groan sounds out from next to me.

Rolling my head to the side, I see Fen face-planted in the ground. Her snow white hair is a mess and her red halter dress has been pulled up to her naval. I can’t help but glance at her long and slender legs, which shine with a milky white radiance.

“Blue…” I mindlessly say aloud, hastily looking elsewhere while standing up to try and hide the fact that I saw.

Fen also gets up at roughly the same time, adjusting herself as she does. As soon as I stop hearing any noises behind me, I deem it to be safe and turn around. Fen is standing there while tilting her head curiously at me.

“You were… too fast…” She stares intently at me while speaking.

I have no response to her, only feeling the paranoia of her knowing that I saw her exposed undergarments. I slowly start to head back toward the small acacia grove that my speed caused us to catapult out from. The wolf girl silently follows behind me as I feel her icy stare digging into my back.

“Is blue… good?” The dreaded words sound from behind me and my heart stops.

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-Mikhail-

“Sir, I am terribly sorry about this.”

I bow my head in shame, but he lets out an exasperated sigh and tells me to stand up straight.

“Look Mikhail, it isn’t your fault. But, I’m curious as to what exactly happened here.” My boss, Henry, furrows his brow as he speaks.

“We can just overwrite the data and send me back to where I was before, but I am afraid that the party we are following and investigating will have already left the area.”

“As I said when you told me half an hour ago, that is a concern. But there are chances they are still there. Did you query the player data tables for their current location like I asked?”

“Sir, I did. The bad news gets worse. It is not just ‘Lost’ and NPC ‘Fen’; it is now coming up with empty results on all the party members.”

“What do you mean? All the players?!”

“Yes, every last one of them.”

I can see confusion riddling Henry’s face. This is understandable, considering something is definitely out of the ordinary here.

“Mikhail.”

“Yes?”

“Quick, log onto ‘End Online’! We will manually adjust your player settings while you’re in the game!”

I quickly move to the room next door while Henry grabs his laptop and storms off to the server room. Grabbing the custom developer V-Link, I turn the system on and watch the world fade away through the visor.

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I eagerly wait outside the church in Swordbreak for Henry to contact me. The V-Link does not stop people from hearing external sounds, so it is quite easy for someone to contact the person in virtual reality or for them to know something is happening to their real body. The only downside is it is difficult for the person in virtual reality to respond.

This is where the company’s custom V-Links are different. They are the only model that does not block the outgoing speech signals from the brain. Thus, any sounds I make in the game will be reproduced by my real body, but the stereo effect of hearing my voice from my real body and from within the game is somewhat nauseating.

“Mikhail, can you hear me?” I hear Henry’s voice through a receiver in my V-Link.

“Sir, I can hear you.”

“Good, I have accessed the main system and brought up your player data… Heh, nice name.”

I hear my boss snickering to himself. My forehead breaks out into a cold sweat as I secretly hope the name doesn’t become a trend in the office.

“Your player data has clearly been converted to that of a player. But, it’s strange… you have a skill that is just a jumble of code. It doesn’t appear to have any purpose to its existence.”

I glance once again over the skill ‘False Aura of Confidence’. There is nothing strange about the skill from the in-game side, except for the fact that it cannot be unequipped.

“Okay, your player data has been altered. Refreshing the cache and you should notice the difference in three… two… one… now.”

Looking down at my hands, I don’t feel any different. Opening my menu also reveals my administrator controls to still be missing as well.

“Sir, nothing is different.”

“What? Your data has clearly been updated. It is right here in front of me.”

“I’m positive sir, nothing is different.”

I hear curses coming from the other end of the transmitter in my helmet.

“Sir?”

“I just refreshed the data again. It has completely reverted to what it was before I updated your data. What the hell is going on here?”

“Something is up with Xilbril. It is almost like she is directly interfering with us.”

“We will try connecting our virtual bodies with the array. If we can talk with her directly, surely we can reason with her.”

“Sir, she hasn’t spoken back to us since the early stages of development. What makes you think she will now?”

“I think she will because she must. Given what happened to Verity Lee and your recent reports, something is going on behind the scenes. It could also potentially be related to the AI ‘child’ that escaped to an external source.”

“What should I do for now? Shall I assist you in approaching Xilbril?”

“No, you must continue monitoring the targets. No matter the method.”

“But how, sir? This character is too weak to travel any distance from the city and they are on the move!”

“Then go level up! And do it fast!”

“Sir, your level in ‘End Online’ doesn’t necessarily indicate your strength. There are multiple factors that influence it. Such as equipment, stats, and-“

“Then go get stronger! Whatever you want to call it! Do it, and track down that party of players!”

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-Lost-

I am currently sitting on the fallen tree near where everyone logged out nearly 24 hours ago. One by one, everyone logs back in and, except for Mason, are all here about half an hour before the scheduled time. Everyone shows moderate surprise when they notice me with my hood down and a semi-pleasant expression on my face. After all, it may not be the first time they’ve seen me without my hood, but it isn’t a sight they see often.

Verde takes a step back and looks away in a hurry while Prince Charming gives a satisfactory grunt, not commenting any further unlike last time. Matrix appears to be surprised at my new look, but lets us all know that his brother is on the way.

“It’s DONE!” Mason shouts out the moment he logs on.

“W-what? What is done?” I ask him in surprise.

“The video of rescuing the elves. I had about a hundred hours of footage recorded and obviously I can’t just put it up as is.”

“So you have spent this entire time doing that?”

“Well, apart from sleeping, yes. Setting the right angles in each scene to be used and choosing ambient background music for the battles takes a really long time! Especially when the video is two hours long!”

I can hear the excitement brimming in Mason’s voice, so he must be incredibly proud of the final product. Just at that moment, Prince Charming twists his head around and joins the conversation.

“Elves? What are you talking about?”

“Oh, right,” I say as I realize his confusion. “After Verde disappeared and you left, we got mixed up with an elven community and ended up travelling to liberate their capital city from bandits.”

I condense the entire adventure into a single sentence, causing the prince to scowl and shake his head while turning away.

“Sorry, after I disappeared?” This time Verde expresses confusion. “How long ago was that?”

A vague sense of uneasiness comes over me. I recall that furious middle-aged man mention something about his daughter’s condition and accuse me of causing it.

‘Is it memory loss? She definitely seems different, but she still remembers us. Wait, does she?’

“It would have been about three weeks to a month ago. Don’t you remember? You said that you had some other business to take care of for a while, but you didn’t come back after.”

I don’t know why I just lied about what happened. The time she disappeared is true, but I made up the rest to test her.

“Oh, yes! I remember that. My father required my assistance with his work for a while. Sorry, it took longer than I expected.”

The words roll off her tongue as if they are the truth and I almost believe her, but my stomach still sinks as I realize that her memory has indeed been affected. I feel particularly dejected about the situation, but I decide to go along with the charade.

‘I don’t know why she is hiding it, but I probably shouldn’t be prying.’

“Mason,” I call out to the elder brother of the party, “two hours is unprecedented from what I have seen before. How many views has your video gotten so far?”

“Sorry, it isn’t live just yet. Due to the size of the file, it is going to be uploading all night.”

“I see…”

I had wanted to talk more about the response to the video; I am quite interested on the viewership of videos and the money that they bring in. I don’t have the skills do it properly myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested.

“Now that we are all together, let’s head off to Swordbreak!” I call out to the gathered party.

With the change of subject, everyone drops what they were doing and comes over to me. We form our party of six and quickly head out of the acacia grove. Travelling downhill and away from the mountain range behind us, the brothers comment on the excessively long path of flattened grass. No one pays it much attention, but the reminder causes me to feel awkward.

Fen hadn’t cared that I saw her underwear. If anything, she had genuinely wanted to know my opinion of them, even going as far as to ask if they were not good enough and if she should remove them.

I don’t know if this game censors genitals or not, but I am not particularly interested in finding out.

Even now, the wolf girl is walking a little too close for comfort. Ever since the incident I have been trying to create distance between us to alleviate my awkwardness, except she always manages to be right there when I look over my shoulder. I keep trying to create distance and she keeps trying to get closer. The result is a strange kind of stalemate.

Eventually, I give up and she takes the opportunity to hook her arm around one of mine and stick to me like glue.

Dry, yellow grass, as high as my knees, cracks and falls to the ground underneath my boots. I feel small thorns from the grass attach to me and pierce through my clothes. I lead the whole party as we calmly walk through the wide open savannah.

It is a shame that there are so many players around, but at the same time it is a blessing that we don’t have to deal with every enemy in our path. A few lions are within the effective area of my intimidating aura, suddenly sprinting towards me with a bunch of angry players trailing close behind. Although when I easily finish off the enemy in a single attack, the players finally back off.

It takes three hours to pass through the savannah, and not one section of the area is less crowded than the rest.

Past the savannah is an area of small hills covered in red ash and paperbark trees. The hills also have large rocks jutting from the ground, making some areas difficult to pass directly through.

There seem to be fewer players in this area, though that may be due to the lack of enemies and wildlife. While we stop for lunch, Matrix expresses great fascination with the paperbark trees, pulling off large sheets of bark and then peeling that into even thinner layers.

I feel a vaguely familiar feeling, similar to a spark of inspiration. It is the feeling I get when I am looking at an area where there are herbs available. Focusing on my supernatural sense to locate herbs, I get the impression that I should be looking to the top of one of the nearby hills. The location I need to go is not on top of the hill, but directly after.

Dinner consists of some wild animal meat freshly caught mixed with a few herbs. The lack of extra flavoring causes the meal to taste rather average, but I have gone too long without replenishing my stock and can’t afford to waste what little I have left.

***************************************************

The next morning, I walk towards the spot where I feel some herbs should be growing. As soon as I reach the top of the hill, I spot a pocket of trees hidden from view by surrounding hills.

The grove is full of paperbark trees and the ground is littered by fallen bark. Grass still grows here, but there is clearly more bark than grass. I walk into the grove and hear the sound of bugs clicking and buzzing around me. The canopy of the grove is quite thick, preventing most sunlight from entering except for the occasional ray of light penetrating the foliage to shine onto the ground. The golden rays create a soothing atmosphere in the grove.

I have been in enough areas with herbs growing to know where to look. Brushing all the loose bark on the ground aside, I begin inspecting the ground for something to harvest. Just like beneath the snow in Iceridge, here there are herbs hidden under the paperbark.

Fen joins me in searching for herbs but only leaves them exposed for me to take. She has long since learned I get mad when she harvests the herbs. She doesn’t have a harvesting skill and ruins most of the herbs she comes in contact with.

Two hours later, I have covered half of the area of the grove and replenished a large quantity of a few types of my herbs. Perhaps it is due to the different climate, but I can’t find the majority of the herbs that I am running low on.

I do, however, find a few new types of herbs. There are small, orange, berry-like herbs called ‘Simmering Hip’, small yellow flowers known as ‘Gilded Meadow’, and a few thorny, grey, four leaf clovers named ‘Despair Clover’. The latter of which I am disinclined to test.

I would like to continue foraging the area and stock up on more herbs, but the rest of the party is beginning to get restless. I doubt they will wait around for me for much longer.

With a needle of regret in my chest, I put the small paperbark grove behind me and lead the party further west.

The amount of players in the surrounding areas doesn’t change much from the savanna. Sometimes it appears that there are a few hunting spots available, but they quickly fill up. Over the next three hours, we finally leave the surrounding player-infested areas and arrive in a small village not large enough to be registered on the world map.

There are a quite a few villages and towns other than the capital cities registered on the world map, but there are also ten times as many that are not registered. The world map isn’t something viewable from inside the game, but is an image of the entire continent released online by an unknown player who travelled the entire continent, mapping it as he went. No one has any clue as to who this player is, but from what I gather, they are from a different server than mine.

The village is situated on the top of a hill, but with a semi-broken wooden wall for defense and ramshackle buildings.  I cannot say as to whether the terrain advantage will save them if an invasion comes.

After camping outside for such a long time, my body desperately craves a real bed. Of course, I can just log out and sleep in my real bed, but that leaves me at the risk of oversleeping and holding everyone else back.

“Excuse me,” I say to a passing resident, “I am looking for someone to sell my goods to, and an inn.”

“A t-traveller?” The NPC responds fearfully. “O-of course. If you continue up this street and turn right at the top of the rise, an inn is down that road. As for a trader, a local peddler comes to this town every Saturday. If you wish to sell goods, please wait until then.”

‘Tch, that’s still four days away. I suppose I do have a high enough strength stat that I could carry more items.’

I ignore the NPCs reaction to my intimidating aura and the extra ten points of infamy. My mood is too good after hearing from my two precious little sisters to be brought down by that.

Following his directions, we walk down the hard packed dirt road and quickly arrive at a two story building with a sign hanging over the door indicating this is the inn. Given how quickly we got here, I decide that walking from one end of this small town to the other will only take about ten minutes.

“This place…” I frown upon looking at the inn.

The ‘Joy Inn’ sign is hanging diagonally by a single chain. The building has multiple broken windows and a lot of the timber posts supporting the walls and roof have begun to rot. The paint has faded and the atmosphere exuded by the building is the complete opposite of ‘Joy’.

There is also the low moaning sound coming from the building that should only be the wind, but send a cold shiver up my spine nonetheless.

“I-I saw it! There was d-definitely a ghost in that window over there!” Verde suddenly shouts.

“Well, it’s important to try new things at least once, right?” I cheerily try to persuade the others.

Fen, at the very least, appears to be on my side.

“Actually, I have been running rather short on gold lately,” Mason turns away from me. “It will be better if I save my money and, as much as I don’t want to, sleep outside tonight.”

“This town is f-full of men that keep staring at me,” says Verde, biting her bottom lip. “I can’t possibly sleep in a place full of people like this. But I promise, it has absolutely nothing to do with this inn…” Her voice trails off as she hurries off in the direction Mason went.

“My lady! I will protect you! Allow me to be your shield.” Before I even have the chance to respond or register what is happening, the prince goes charging after Verde.

“…” Matrix simply says nothing, running his hardest to catch up with everyone else.

‘Unbelievable! What kind of team are you!?’ I feel a twitch of irritation rise and cause me to release a small amount of dragon’s bloodlust.

The sudden change in atmosphere causes the few NPC’s in the surrounding to quickly flee, leaving behind only two players with confused looks on their faces.

“Well Fen, looks like it is just you and me.”

The wolf girl nods her head slightly and pulls herself slightly closer to me. I walk into the inn with determination, telling myself that the others are missing out. Looking over my shoulder in the hopes of being able to give a smug glance at the rest of the party, the only players in my line of sight are strangers. They look surprised as I walk into the inn, but I pay them no mind.

***************************************************

“Lost,” Mason says timidly, “How was your night in the inn?”

“It was great!” I respond sarcastically.

Despite saying how good it was, the red rings around my eyes speak otherwise. I did not get a single wink of sleep and the entire night is a memory I wish I didn’t have. It also made me realize how fully lifelike this game can be.

The only positive side is that after three hours of being in that haunted place, I did manage to receive a new skill.

Haunting(Slvl 1, 0%) - Active
You can deceive the target and cause them to perceive the
sound of your voice to be originating from directly behind
them.
Only works on a target within 50m and with a direct line of
sight.

Slvl 1:
- Speak from directly behind the target for up to 0.5sec.
- 10% chance of paralysing the target for 2sec.
- Cannot be reused for 60sec after use.

At the first skill level, I can only manage to get out one syllable in that half second, but the duration should increase as I raise my skill level. I vowed to use this skill on the rest of the party members who ditched me, but I need to strengthen the skill first.

We leave the village and continue west. Some of the lower-level areas surrounding us have fewer players, but still a lot in my opinion. I pass by several entrances that appear to be dungeons, but I don’t stop to inspect them.

‘If there are this many players outside the dungeon, I hate to think about how many players are inside. There must be lines similar to those of amusement parks!’

It isn’t all bad news though, I use my newly formed haunting skill on as many players I pass as possible. I glance in their direction and focus the origin of my voice to be directly behind the player’s head. I start off with single syllable words such as ‘die’, ‘move’, ‘fall’, and ‘run’. I practically shout the words out, causing more than one player to jump in fright or make a mistake and suffer an attack by the enemy.

It is a remarkable skill, because apparently, only the target can hear my voice. I also make sure to cover my mouth or turn my head away to prevent the rest of the party from seeing my mouth moving. I intend that my new skill will be quite the surprise for them.

I repeat this for three full days in real life, eventually leveling up my new skill to a point where I am ready to set my plan in motion.

Haunting(Slvl 8, 32%) - Active
You can deceive the target and cause them to perceive the
sound of your voice to be originating from directly behind
them.
Only works on a target within 50m and with a direct line of
sight.

Slvl 8:
- Speak from directly behind the target for up to 4sec.
- 10% chance of paralysing the target for 2.8sec.
- Cannot be reused for 68sec after use.

Around sunset, we enter an area that is quite arid and dry. We have been drinking a much larger amount of water thanks to the temperature, and with the lack of water sources, we are finding the thirst attribute in our satiety levels is dangerously low.

“Please… water.” Mason moans while scanning the surroundings.

Just a few hours ago, I had tried to have Fen create some ice and then melt it into drinkable water. I almost cried when the ice melted directly into steam.

My cloak has some weather correction abilities, but it is not omnipotent so even my throat is feeling parched. We steadily climb the hill in front of us, desperately hoping to find some water on the other side.

Stumbling up to the top of the hill, the only thing here is a large, ancient tree. But the view from here brings us new strength and steadies our legs. The daylight is rapidly failing, but we can clearly see large town barely half an hour’s travel away.

***************************************************

“So… much… better.” Mason speaks in between swallowing large mouthfuls of water.

“It is. But where are we? This place is quite large.” I ask curiously.

Verde answers my question while Mason is kneeling over and coughing from drinking water too fast.

“I think this is the town of Firz. It is much too large to be a small village.”

“We are finally near our destination then!”

“It is still a full day’s walk away. We should get there tomorrow.”

I have already seen two of the capital cities so I am excited to see what the last one looks like.

“Well, why don’t we spend the night here at an inn?” Mason asks with watery eyes.

Everyone quickly nods their head in agreement, overjoyed at the thought of spending the night in a comfortable bed.

‘It’s only been three days and not one of you has a guilty conscience about leaving me to go into that inn alone! Just you wait…” A cunning smile appears on my face to mirror my thoughts as I nod my assent as well.

We walk through the town and I take note of where I can sell all the useless items I collected from killing mobs in the ‘Lords’ Cathedral’.

After ten minutes of wandering, the flames of the street lanterns flicker to life one by one. Slowly, other players begin to filter away to unknown locations. Following a group of three players with poor equipment, we finally find a three story inn called ‘The Wayfarer’.

Inside the inn are a lot of drab looking players huddling around low wooden tables sharing quiet conversations. There isn’t a single spare seat in the whole common room so it is lucky we are not looking to drink. We weave our way through the room, squeezing between a few players to reach the bar.

The innkeeper is a man with the shape of a barrel. Only, not a single ounce of his weight is muscle. He is dressed is lavish blue clothes with gold trim that shows he makes quite the living. I don’t see how he would not make a lot of money with this number of players filling up his business.

“Excuse me!” I call out to the overweight innkeeper, “I would like a room for four.”

I only ask for a room for four because Fen can log out if need be and Verde is a girl so she will get a room to herself. We may all be adults, but it is a matter of etiquette. Four is generally the maximum number of beds in a room anyway. I think it has something to do with the influence of the old role-playing games where a party of four was common.

The man pauses for a moment when he notices me, but quickly moves over to attend to me.

“Sure, that’ll be 32 gold.” He responds indifferently while holding his hand out.

I nearly cough up blood at the exorbitant price. I hesitate for a moment that only rewards me with the innkeeper giving me a grumpy expression.

“If you can’t afford it, then don’t ask for it!”

“Sorry! No, the price is fine. Here is the gold.”

I hastily hand over the gold and notice that his hand is shaking slightly. In the blink of an eye the money disappears and a bronze key is placed in my hand. I barely have time to curse before a message appears in front of me.

You have extorted a room from a hard working innkeeper for
below the standard cost. Word of your infamous deeds quickly
spread. Guards and other NPC's will be more hostile toward
you.

Infamy + 10

Total infamy: 205

‘Damn it! I never asked for a cheaper price! Wait, how much is it usually?!’

I hear the whispers of other players questioning why I get a better price than all of them, but my mood is already ruined so I don’t bother listening to them.

“You all owe me eight gold each,” I extend my open palm to the other men of the party.

Seeing my grouchy mood, they silently hand over the coins. Just as I am putting the coins in my pouch I hear Verde raise her voice next to me.

“What do you mean you have no more rooms?!”

“Sorry miss, all the rooms are currently booked out. The last one was only moments ago.”

“…”

“My apologies, truly. There are several other inns in the town that you are welcome to try, but they usually fill up faster than I do.”

Verde turns around and gives us a stubborn look. She bites her bottom lip and her cheeks flush a light red. There are a few players around us that notice her and they suddenly go silent as they stare at her. They begin to notice Fen at about the same time and give her more than one lusty look.

“I-I will be staying in your r-room tonight.” She stammers out, staring intently at me in particular while speaking.

The entire common room turns silent this time and I feel the hateful glares of every single male in the vicinity. It also does not help that at Verde’s declaration, Fen practically attaches herself to me.

I am used to a lot of angry players from when my intimidating aura causes enemies to become aggro’d toward me, but that is barely a whisper in the wind compared to this hatred.

I stand there like a statue, unsure as to what to say. I don’t know whether to say I should be thankful or not, but Verde moves first. She moves past me and hastily walks up the stairs leading to the rooms.

“Was she, umm… saying that directly toward you?” Matrix asks innocently, yet his voice echoes through the soundless room.

‘Don’t say that! This situation is already bad enough as it is!’

Just as I feel like crying, an acute pain shoots up my arm as Fen digs her fingers in. Her face is void of all emotion, but I can feel an intensity coming from her that is even more frightening than everyone else combined.

“S-she was just saying that because I was the one to book the room!”

“Of course, that has to be it.” Some of the hatred lessens as a few people come to the same conclusion.

Taking this as an opportunity to escape, I hastily move through the room and up the stairs. Our room turns out to be on the top floor; a sturdy pair of gilded bronze doors for the entrance.

Inside the room are four single beds lined up in a row. I ponder over the sleeping problem about who will be forced to sleep on the floor when Mason answers my thoughts.

“This is quite the situation… But, you know, this game has quite a lot of investment in being able to interact with the world.”

We all look at him curiously, wondering exactly what it is he is inclining.

“Sir Laurence,” Mason continues, “would you be so kind as to give me a hand?”

“I am willing.”

Together under Mason’s instructions, they tip all the beds over and move the frames into one corner of the room while lining up all the mattresses on the floor in a line.

“Technically, a single bed can hold a person and a half. This way, we can have up to six people sleep here.” Mason says proudly.

“Then why not just butt each bed up against each other?” I ask, thinking that would surely have been easier.

“The bed frames will cause a slight gap in between the mattresses. It doesn’t appear to be much, but it can be incredibly uncomfortable for anyone trying to sleep over it.”

“I see…”

We all shuffle in and choose our spots along the long line of mattresses. It isn’t overly awkward as this is only a game, yet we are all nervous. Surprisingly, no one decides to give up and log out. I feel a little warm at how close our party is to each other.

I ask Fen to log out, but she refuses with a cold glare at Verde. I also feel the chill and concede, simply telling her not to cause any trouble.

Going from left to right, the order in which we lay is as follows: Verde, Prince Charming, Matrix, Mason, Fen, and then me.

I had wanted to use my new skill to seek my revenge on everyone by speaking curses into their ears to cause them to get no sleep at all. With Verde in the same room, it is almost like destiny is working in my favour by lining them up. But after the recent events down in the common room, I have lost my urge for vengeance and decide to forget about it.

With the knee of a certain wolf girl resting on my thigh and her cool forehead against my shoulder, my consciousness gradually enters oblivion.

***************************************************
***************************************************

For all you wondering what happened overnight at the inn, that will be the bonus ‘Chapter 22.5 – Three Hours of Joy’ in the paid version on amazon. You don’t HAVE to read it as it does not contain any new characters or plot item. It is just a little extra I plan the thank all of you who purchase my work.  ^.^

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26 Comments

  1. Hello, two more typo’s from me (I’m not specifically looking for them or anything, I just stumble over them and spend a minute going over and trying to wrap my head around it… not even exaggerating… a full minute).

    The are numerous universities => THERE are numerous Universities
    lets us all know that his brother in on the way.=>all know that is brother IS on the way.

    I’m envisioning some fun pranks with the bloodlust. Follow one guy around and continually flash the bloodlust to clear the streets around him and hiding in an alley so he can’t see you. Or more troll-ish, trying to scare away quest givers from a specific player, although they’d probably be a bit more persistent than average street walkers.

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  2. I just noticed an inconsistency (or at least potentially unaddressed) with regards to friendly fire. Here, sparring damage is ignored while in the Vexl chapter, he lost most of his hp in the big horde fight due to “fen’s careless rain of ice bolts”. Does this have to do with the game being able to recognize a full-combat situation and a sparring match?

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  3. [“A-Aunt!? Why are you calling me?”

    “How rude. Don’t you have any manners?”

    “Sorry. It is pleasant to hear from you, Jude.” I deliberately avoid calling her ‘Aunt’, a petty way of saying that she is no aunt of mine.]

    This seems like it would make a lot more sense if he answered with “J-Jude!?” instead of “”A-Aunt!?”.

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  4. Thanks for another awesome chapter! And I really wish that Lost would just hurry up an accept the fact that Fen has some sort of emotional attachment to him (whether it’s actually love, idk for certain; but she definitely is acting like he’s her mate or something lol).

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  5. **** A traveller?” The NPC responds kindly. “Of course …. ***

    Sorry that scene is not making sence. He is still putting everybody at a push. So no NPC would answer kindly to him but more like +affraid+.
    Also I have no real Picture of that inn, so I am not understanding why everyone was looking for some other spot to sleep.

    Sorry for my not to well english, but I am German.

    Darion X

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    1. I re-read the scene and still I am not getting it.

      The inn is broken, but I nowhere see if it is been open or closed.. Now it is be down *broken windows, paint dropping from the walls etc.*

      But nowhere I see why it is so bad in the end. Is it lice or bad looking people (murderer, thiefs etc in disguise) going in and out or more like a feeling of a haunted house.

      I am sorry but I don’t see any reason for the group to run away like if hell is on their 6 catching up.

      Darion X

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    2. Indeed! He is an NPC so he shouldn’t respond kindly! I will fix that when I get the chance!
      As for the inn. It isn’t running away like they have seen hell and are afraid of the inn itself. It is running away from Lost with the excuse “I would like to, but I can’t today.” They simply wish to not give Lost the chance to try and drag them into a place they would rather not be.

      I know I wouldn’t want to stay in a place that looks like it could be full of bugs and god knows what else.

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      1. Sorry had no time before but wanted to come back to the Scene with the house. I understand what you wanna tell there, also it is clear that the People aren’t running because they have no Money but don’t want to stay inside >> that << house.

        But it is not clear why they won't do so. Possibly some thought showing about: *Wow, more lice than on the neighours dog to be awaited, and that … *

        SDonething to Show why they don't want to stay.

        Darion X

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        1. I see. I have one more revision for edit on a a part or two of this chapter. I will give it some thought as to describing why they don’t want to stay for that edit.

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