Update, Announcement, and Recruitment

Being such an important title, I have deemed it to deserve its own post. There are three topics I want to bring up with all the readers.

First of all is an update. It has been over a week since I began as a full time author, yet I still haven’t had the time to fully focus on writing! This is because despite leaving my job, a large job came to me that has had me working Monday – Friday and coming home void of energy.

The weekend gone was my first free time, and with my motivation being above normal, got stuck into writing. Within a 48 hour period, I actually wrote 12,000 words. I will never shut up about such an enormous effort, so feel free to refer to me in the future by my Roman name, Gloatius Maximus! ^.^

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Chapter 31 – Voyage on the High Seas(2)

 Editors: genericIntent, Scott
Author’s notes: There were some major changes to this chapter post the writing stage. I ended up rewriting the first 10% which had our loyal genericIntent swinging a Flaming Fist of Carnage in my direction. Nonetheless, we both believe it to be for the better and hopefully you do too. You will be able to get an idea of the original in this chapter plan on my Patreon page. This is also the last free chapter plan release and all the following releases will be exclusive for everyone who donates $1 or more a month. ^.^ 13 more days and I will also be a full time author! (This does NOT mean the chapter releases, they will be posted here as usual until the entire novel is finished.)
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! Votes are reset weekly so even if you have voted before, please do so again! ^.^
Feel free to have a look at this chapter’s chapter plan at my Patreon page. There were some interesting changes that you may or may not find of interest.
Editor’s notes:
Final note: What happens inside the “dungeon” is going to be the bonus chapter of the next volume. We also discussed the option of posting chapters pre-edit and keeping the edited versions for the book release. We will not do this as discussed by reasons in the most recent “Weekly Update” coming in about 20 min.

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-Aunt Jude-

Mr. Johnstone has been frequenting my house as of late. I used to see him just once or twice a month, but now he visits weekly. His demeanor has become more docile as well.

“Jude,” Mr Johnstone says with an unblemished smile, “I truly admire how you manage to maintain your position in society so stably.”

I raise a cup of coffee to my lips and sip the beverage while maintaining a calm face, “I will try to take that as a compliment.”

“We have known each other since our days in school and I have always noted that aptitude of yours with respect.”

Indeed, we have known each other since school. But knowing who a person is and actually forming a relationship with them are two completely different things.

Liam Johnstone was in my freshman year at school, an individual who came from a smaller house yet was filled with more pride and haughtiness than many of the nobler families. It was an attitude which put distance between him and everyone else.

I had no personal qualms with him back then; he was simply a person I heard rumors about that I didn’t concern myself with. The following year, however, he ended up in my class. In the seat directly next to me.

In normal circumstances, this would be the beginning of a good friendship. I admired how hard working he was in class, and all he would have needed to do was turn his head and say a greeting. Yet days, weeks, and even months passed and he never did this, always diligently looking forward. Despite being from a family much higher in society than his, my impression of him continued to improve, despite never sharing words.

This all changed when he confessed his love to my older sister a year later. I took it as a flat out rejection, and I was filled with burning jealousy and anger.

‘Why is it always her? What makes her so much better than me?!’ I feel foolish about it now, but those were my thoughts back then.

I envied my sister back then, but that doesn’t matter anymore. My school years passed before I knew it and everyone I had known graduated, beginning their own chapter in life.

Several years later, I visited my sister who had just given birth to a young boy. Liam also happened to be visiting the same hospital in regards to his sister giving birth to a young boy called Chrona Axelle. This is how we reunited and kindled a new friendship through to today. I had once thought of pursuing him as a love interest, but always held myself back.

“Jude,” Liam Johnstone continues speaking, “I don’t know if you recall, but I currently have a nephew who is the star of our family.”

“Indeed, I recall you having a nephew, but I have never heard much about him. Why do you bring him up?”

“I will be direct with you. Would you be interested in arranging a marriage between my nephew and one of your nieces?”

I expected him to ask this, so I take in his words with calm resolve and pretend to think about them.

“Arranged marriages aren’t exactly uncommon in the current world.”

“That’s exactly it.”

“Let me think about it for a while, my nieces’ happiness is of the most importance in such a matter.”

“I understand. I hope to receive good news in the matter,” Liam gives me what appears to be a gentle smile, but I can see beyond his false façade.

He stays at my residence for the next half hour before taking his leave. As the girls are at school, I busy myself with the family business. Our family restores antique items and then sells them off for much higher prices.

My parents have long since retired, old age crippling their minds with dementia and forcing them into a retirement village. They were the ones who started this restoration business, and passed down a large quantity of items they acquired ranging from the Victorian era heritage items to ancient relics from times long lost. Some are put to use after being sold, while others that are valued much higher become collectables and decorations.

There are no scientifically proven bloodline traits even today, yet our family does indeed have one. Every single member of the Sylvester family has had a vested interest in the archaic. Not only are we naturally skilled with handling and preserving antique items, but with practice we are also able to calculate the approximate age of the items. These inborn talents give us the advantage in the field and are what has helped our family prosper in the past.

Despite living a mediocre life beneath others, my sister also had the same blood running through her veins. Three and a half years ago, she dragged her husband off to an archaeological ruin to see it up close and personal. It still pains me to think about how she is gone. Despite all of the questionable life choices she made, she was still my sister.

My distracted thoughts cause me to slip and cut my finger on the knife in my hand. Despite being nearly two thousand years old, it still remains sharp enough to leave small cuts. It is some form of ceremonial, ceramic weapon. As such, there is no rust on it. Careful polishing, using light chemicals to break away the hard packed dirt and stains, and repeating this process slowly brings back the edge it once had.

This is extremely delicate work, as the years have caused the materials themselves to deteriorate and become brittle. I also can’t remove too much, as the value and authenticity of an ancient weapon is in that ancient patina. An artifact of this age, but with the appearance of something manufactured recently would cause endless speculation and claims of fraudulence.

By early afternoon, there’s still a small blemish on the leather hilt of the weapon. Perhaps, once upon a time, it was blood. The leather wrapped around the handle has long since become petrified and is extremely brittle if restored incorrectly. With a cotton swab, I dab a droplet of mildly acidic solvent that should lighten the stain.

An alarm quietly goes off on the watch I have next to me on the table. It’s time to leave to pick the girls up from school. Placing the dagger down in front of me, I quickly make some adjustments to my appearance before heading out.

An hour later, I am out front of Jordan Grammar Academy. The academy is in the middle district and is split into two sections. One for the junior students, grade one to six, and one for the senior students, grade seven through to twelve. The sons and daughters of many prestigious families from all the way up in the Upper District attend here, which is precisely why I had my nieces enrolled here. Connections formed now will be with them for life, and I am sure they will one day thank me.

Enrolling the girls in such a high class school would normally be impossible for me as someone from the Lower District. Yet I managed to call in a few favors, and the usually upturned noses accepted my girls with smiles on their faces.

Joelle and Shari walk out of the school gate with one of their friends, stopping momentarily to look around for me. It takes them awhile since I am parked amongst all the other parents and even a few butlers, but they eventually spot me standing next to my car expectantly.

Joelle says her goodbyes to her friend, who also heads off toward his own parents. Seeing who his parents are, I immediately know his identity.

‘So, he is a Lord,’ I think to myself with a sigh.

I don’t mean he is a lord as in royalty, but as that he is someone from the Lord family. They run an investment business, managing the purchases and sales of assets on others’ behalf. The family is quite successful at what they do, but that industry is full of top class businessmen where the ruthless dominate the weak. It is truly a dog eat dog world to be in.

“Auntie, we’re here,” Shari says enthusiastically upon reaching me, as if I did not know they had arrived.

“Yes, I trust you enjoyed school today? Now, hop in the car and we will head home.”

“We always enjoy Friday,” Shari continues, speaking for both herself and Joelle as they get in the car. “That’s because we get to speak to Holly tomorrow!”

“Oh, is that so?” I can’t help but frown as I get into the car.

These girls are far too obsessed with their brother, but that does have merit in itself. Their love for that failure of an older brother is something I can use to make them obey me. I must teach them consider the Sylvester family’s heritage and future as their responsibility, no matter the actions necessary. They may blame me for it, but I know that one day they will come to understand.

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

-Mikhail-

As soon as my spies spot Lost and his party leaving Swordbreak, I immediately make my move to break out of the confines of the guild that was created around me. No, created around my soul bound skill. The former guild leaders, now elders of the new guild, are incredibly cunning. They constantly set traps and post guards in inconvenient locations to prevent me from escaping. My title of guild master is a prison.

I only have one chance to escape. I have memorized the movement of the guards. When they are posted, and where. After this attempt, the deployment will inevitably change to prevent it from happening again.

I have secretly been training a skill in crafting cloth items; mostly clothing. I craft a makeshift rope with this skill, vaguely similar to what the princesses use to escape their confinements in commonly known children’s stories. The thought of escaping like this is degrading, but the ploy will be all the more effective due to being unexpected.

Waiting for nightfall and the midnight shift of the guard, I silently bide my time. Once the hour approaches, I quickly extend the cloth out the window and down five stories to the ground. I slide down the rope at a speed which may cause some people to become dizzy with vertigo.

Once I reach the ground, I slip into the nearby shadows and change my equipment to that of dark grey cloth to further evade any wandering eyes. I slip behind a building and into an unlit alley, rapidly escaping from the guild headquarters.

My informants let me know of Lost’s party logging out and where. This is possibly the best news so far as it will let me catch up to them quite easily. All that is left is to somehow integrate into the group and conduct my investigation into the party leader and that strange ‘Companion’.

Reaching the spot where they logged off, I also leave virtual reality and rest while my informants keep an eye on that location from a distance.

I start to become restless, expecting the call that they have logged back in at any moment. As a result, I end up having a poor night’s sleep and drowsiness affects me greatly the following morning.

They finally log back on, and I wait another hour before logging on and following them, using my spies to track them.

Lost’s party eventually reaches the coastal town of Trope, an area where it is much easier for me to spy on them from a close distance. I had once shown my face in front of Lost, when Mr. Lee confronted him in the outskirts of the Kingdom of Dalbe, so I make sure to cover it with a helmet that hides my appearance. It was only momentary, but I can’t risk him recognizing me by chance.

I follow them closely along the docks as they search for a ship to take them to some southern island. As an employee of Idea Imagine, I have a vague concept on the place, but I have never seen it.

Listening to others describe it as an island, I inwardly laugh. Being the size of a kingdom, I would hardly describe it as an island. It is closer to being a continent.

Following my targets into an unknown inn, I sit at a table nearby without letting my focus waver from them. When a pirate enters and eventually ends up taking up their commission to sail across the ocean, I finally see my opportunity to integrate with the party. It is almost like the opportunity is presenting itself on a silver platter.

I am outraged when the pirate asks for twice the amount of gold from me than anyone else, but that doesn’t last long. A hand clasps my shoulder, and a chill runs up my spine even before I recognize her voice. It is Moonkite, the leader of the original party who took note of my special skill and played a large role in the creation of the guild, ‘Hero’s Vanguard’.

The rest of the party is with her, plus another who I don’t know. This golden opportunity suddenly feels like the entire thing was one big trap to start with. While I was tailing Lost and his party, I never had the slightest inclination that I, too, was being followed.

Everything seems to go downhill from there, Moonkite adding me to their party and keeping a closer watch on me than ever before. It is only when we set out to sea, where I can’t possibly escape, that her eyes aren’t firmly affixed upon me.

Our voyage turns out to be full of strange surprises for me. The iron plating on the boat and the strange cannon and other crafted inventions are things that I, an employee of the game’s creator, have never even thought possible.

I have a conversation with Henry, my boss, about the situation. I hope he will interfere and separate the rest of my party from me so I can get closer to Lost and his companion, but am met with stubborn refusal. According to Henry, I simply have put up with it as outside interference could create needless suspicion from my targets. As such, I am once again trapped within the clutches of the guild.

I do quite enjoy the battle with the sea monsters, relishing it even more when one of my party members perishes. Looking in from outside the game versus actually being in it create two completely different sets of experiences.

I don’t need to worry about the attacks of the sea monster, since my real life expertise in martial arts is more than enough for me to survive anything short of the ship sinking. The ship sinking would create a considerable dilemma, given Lost’s party would also be sent back to their spawn point. I look at the kingdom insignia on the backs of their right hands, and frown at the thought of chasing them down again.

For the purpose of countering every possible outcome, I have some employees stationed near the spawn locations in both Grenton and Iceridge. If they do end up dying and respawning, my spies can quickly respond and continue tracking them until I catch up.

I notice Lost approach stealthily as I am talking with Henry. His eavesdropping may go unnoticed by a standard player, but I recognize his intentions immediately.

‘Does he suspect me?’ I inwardly worry as I move away from him and continue talking to Henry who is beside my real body.

The biggest shock comes during a storm that hits the boat late one evening. Four players are blown off the ship by the aftermath of a single lightning bolt. When they climb back onto the ship, they are all afflicted with a terrible cold from the icy waters of the ocean, even the companion Fen.

As the sickness overcomes and weakens the companion, a blinding light issues from her body. What is revealed from the light is not a girl anymore, but the body of a massive, snow-white wolf. Fragments of the red dress she once wore float about in the air, before the stormy winds catch them and carry them off into the sky.

Seeing the wolf, I immediately recall the day when Henry informed me about the ‘children’ that the master AI entity ‘Xilbril’ gave birth to. They have strange abilities, capable of affecting the game around them. Some are in the form of NPCs, while others play at being various monsters. What is to stop them from changing in between the two?

While thinking of how this child AI has attached itself to Lost in the game, my mind becomes blank and my heart turns cold.

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-Lost-

Fen’s massive wolf body causes the ship to list sideways as one side drops dangerously low, threatening to sink into the ocean. She is lightly panting and her eyes remain closed.

Her wolf form is slightly different than when I first met her though. Back then she was only about three meters tall and five meters long. Although she is currently lying down on her side, if she were to stand up she would be four meters tall and seven meters long; truly a queen among beasts.

Apart from Sir Laurence, everyone is staring at the wolf with their mouths open. The only sounds that can be heard are the whistling of the wind and crack of thunder in the sky.

“L-lost!?” Mason shouts out in disbelief, “Since when w-was she!?”

“S-She isn’t a player?” CaptainGordon stares stupidly and even forgets to speak in a pirate accent.

Seeing Verde’s dumbfounded look, I am now one hundred percent certain about her having amnesia. Sir Laurence spares a glance toward her as well, coming to the same conclusion. Suddenly, I have a small hope that seeing Fen in this form may actually help bring some memories back to Verde.

“W-w-what is s-she?!” Moonkite points her finger at the motionless wolf, stammering half from shock and half from the bone-chilling cold she must be feeling as much as I am.

A lot of eyes fall on me for answers, and I find myself unable to think of a response.

Taking a deep breath, I repeat the same explanation I once gave Mason, “She is a ‘companion’. I have a quest to find her missing father, or at least find out what happened to him. There are no specific clues as of yet, so we travel a lot in search of answers.”

Everyone stares incredulously, but still manages to accept my explanation.

“Lost, this may be able to help spark some memories in Verde. Can you make her small again?” Sir Laurence’s voice sounds in my mind as he sends a private message.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any more ‘Scrolls of Shrinking’. She took human form after I had run out of them so I never thought to buy more.”

Not being able to hear our exchange of words, the others can only see the prince frown while I sigh.

“This not be good!” CaptainGordon calls out in shock while examining the ship. “We be takin’ on water! All of ye need to go beneath deck and bucket it out else we all be sinkin’ shortly!”

I ignore the captain, leaning over toward Fen and placing one hand on her jaw below her canine ear. I can feel her breath, weak and restrained. My heart aches as if I can feel her pain transmitting through my hand.

“Fen, just hold on. We will get through this shortly and you will get better. I have the same status so I know it will only last three days.”

I offer a few more consoling words while sitting down next to her to remain by her side. I don’t even realize the others leaving to bail out the water still entering the ship.

CaptainGordon remains at the helm to steer the ship and doesn’t bother me further. He glances toward me a few times with curiosity, but doesn’t say anything. Or if he does, I don’t notice it.

Lightning strikes the mast two more times, but Fen’s body does not budge and the shock wave only pushes me tighter against her. After that the winds dull and the rain becomes a light shower. The ocean swells begin to calm and water stops entering the ship. We are safe from capsizing, but everyone is still busy removing the residual water.

Even the rain eventually stops and the skies begin to clear. Hundreds of thousands of stars become visible in the night sky, incomparably beautiful to behold. I am sitting down next to Fen, resting my back against her as I gaze up at the lights dancing in the sky. Occasionally, I offer a few words to Fen, just to let her know I am still here.

The eastern horizon begins to glow red and the stars dim as morning approaches. By this time, all the water below has been removed and everyone ascends to the main deck. Despite closing my eyes, I can still feel their attentive gazes as they emerge.

The sun peeks above the water and CaptainGordon retracts the spotlight from the front quarter deck as it is no longer required.

“Land ho!!” The pirate shouts out not even an hour later, rousing me from my lethargy and torpor.

Fen is still semi-conscious as I open my eyes and look at her with concern. I try asking her how she is feeling, and her ears twitch in response to my words, but her eyelids slide shut and she doesn’t respond any further.

Taking to my feet, I gaze across the ocean toward where everyone else is looking. A rocky land of red and brown stone with no vegetation can be seen several hundred meters away.  It gradually gets closer and it is a very small piece of land. The towering rocks inland of the island prevent me seeing deeper inside, but I suspect that the island is no more than a mile from one side to the other.

I can vaguely make out the shapes of some creatures on top of a few straggling rocks along the shore.

The shapes turn out to be mermaids. Electric blue, green and pink tails of crystalline scales extend from their bottom half. Pale skin as clear as silk is viewable on their upper half without a stitch of clothing. Their long hair covers their breasts, but the occasional gust reveals glimpses of their supple nature. Every single male on the ship, including myself, are currently staring at them wide-eyed in silence.

Their faces are incomparably beautiful. One of them giggles lightly to the others and a musical voice echoes across the waves, entrancing each and every one of us.

One of the mermaids notices us approaching when we get closer to them, points a finger and lets out a shrill cry like nails on a blackboard. This alerts the other mermaids and they all turn to stare in surprise and shock.

I can’t help but clap my hands over my ears to shield them from the noise. The mermaids quickly wrap one hand around their bosoms and spring into the ocean. The surface calms and the coastline is desolate, almost as if they were never there.

“What just happened?” Mason questions with wide eyes.

“They be mermaids!” CaptainGordon replies in equal shock. “Some say seein’ them be good fortune, others say it be poor.”

Seeing those stunning mermaids was definitely good fortune for every male around. The shrill cry at the end, however, was nothing if not foreboding. The females of our group staring at us in disgust is just as nerve chilling.

“Typical,” Moonkite glares at Mikhail more than anyone else while saying this.

“Despicable,” Verde spits out vehemently, but rather than at Sir Laurence, speaking directly to me.

The two girls turn around and form their own small group. Sir Laurence tries to join them, but is violently sent away.

We drop anchor along the shore of the island, and we all disembark. I make sure to speak with Fen a little more, asking that if she gets the chance, to log off. She should be safe here on the ship as long as it is docked according to CaptainGordon, but I am still deeply worried.

The two girls form one group on the island, still refusing to stand near the rest of us. We also form teams of two. Mason and Matrix in the first group, Sir Laurence and myself in the second, SomaHealer and Lockon in the third, CaptainGordon and Mikhail the Stalwart in the final.

“Lost, Verde seemed particularly irritated at you for staring at those bare mermaids,” Sir Laurence mutters with his usual coldness.

I can only get more depressed at being reminded, “…She did.”

“She has normally been very indifferent to us since she returned. Could this be a sign of her memory returning? Perhaps seeing Fen in her wolf form caused some sort of recollection.”

“I am not sure.”

“We need something considerable to spark her memories. Only, I don’t know what. I’ve tried bringing up conversation of when we first met you, but still nothing.”

“You have? Ah, well, I wonder what we can do…” My thoughts stray to when I momentarily forgot myself and kissed her in the goblin cave. My cheeks flush from the memory, but I quickly turn my head and pretend to look around the island to conceal my face from the man next to me.

Our conversation slowly dies off, each of us gradually bringing up fewer and fewer ideas to help jog Verde’s memory. The girls eventually stop rebuffing us by midday, and rejoin the rest of us.  When they rejoin us, we form back into our original two groups. Spending so much time on the empty ocean on a cramped ship leaves us with an urge to explore.

Due to the lack of Fen and one of the players of Mikhail’s party dying, we only have five people in each group. CaptainGordon spends some time in the middle not knowing what to do, before finally deciding to join our party. After he accepts my party invite, his status appears in the party window.

Lost
lvl: 214
Health: 2681/2711
Stamina: 913/913
Mana: 2004/2004

Mason
lvl: 199
Health: 2521/2521
Stamina: 589/589

Matrix
lvl: 204
Health: 2877/2877
Stamina: 600/600
Mana: 720/720 

Sir Laurence
lvl: 221
Health: 3308/3308
Stamina: 658/658
Mana: 797/797

Verde
lvl: 185
Health: 2290/2290
Stamina: 536/536

CaptainGordon
lvl: 168
Health: 1487/1487
Stamina: 235/235

-Companions-
Fen
lvl: 199
Health: 3803/3903
Stamina: 1097/1097
Magic: 580/1152

CaptainGordon’s status shocks me with how low it is. Recalling his class skill of ‘Combustion Engineer’, I realize the large difference between direct combat classes and the crafting classes. In a scrap between a player specializing in combat and another in crafting, the crafter will naturally die faster in an exchange of blows. At least I assume so, but there are always exceptions.

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The island becomes more difficult to traverse the further inland we get. The center of the island is virtually one massive mountain of carefully stacked stones; some as big as a person, others the size of mammoths. Fortunately, there are plenty of ledges to walk along and areas where we can climb further upward.

At least we don’t have to concern ourselves with strange and new monsters attacking; this island is completely and utterly barren except for the mermaids we saw earlier.

We lose track of time and don’t realize how far we have come before evening falls and the light from the sun dims. We have torches to fend off the dark, but descending the mountain with them will be increasingly difficult.

“Up there, isn’t that a cave?” I ask, pointing my finger at a bleak looking hole in the mountain of rocks further above us.

“How about we camp for tonight? I have plenty of wood in my inventory to build a fire,” Mason further develops my question.

Everyone decides that is for the best and we zigzag up the rocky mountain to finally reach the cave.

The interior of the cave is pitch black. A wind can be felt from deep within, but no sound follows. My initial thought is that this cave must run all the way through the mountain and emerge on the other side.

Mikhail and Sir Laurence, our two strongest players in terms of defense, take the forefront in venturing into the cave. They each hold a flaming torch, an oily rag on the end of a stick that is commonly used in the game, to light up the area around us.

I can see that the cave is formed completely naturally. There isn’t a sign of any mining or other unnatural factor along the walls of the cave. A few almost polished sections of stone leave me puzzled, but I think nothing more of it after a moment.

“I think this spot is as good as any,” Mason says about twenty steps into the cave.

We still have a decent view of the crimson and yellow sky outside the cave, while the breeze coming from further inside the cave is pleasantly cool. Under the light provided by the two torches, Mason starts to remove small logs from his inventory and pile them up to form a pyramid.

There is no need to pile the wood up in a particular way or have any dry grass to start the fire in the game. Just a few logs of wood and a single spark will have a thirty percent chance of starting a fire. This may increase if the spark lands on dry leaves, but nobody I have talked to seems to be concerned with such things.

Once the flame catches the logs, the fire takes a few minutes until it is fully ablaze. We all find rocks resting against the walls that we can roll over and use as chairs. Sitting a comfortable distance from the fire, the increasing chill of the night is warded off by the flame.

“So, who has ghost stories we can tell?” Mason’s eyes light up in anticipation.

“Bein’ a captain on the seas, I run into a few thin’s,” CaptainGordon speaks up first, taking the limelight. “‘Owever, I never be so scared as the time I ran ‘cross a ghost ship. Wit’ sails torn white, and more ‘oles in the ship than should be. It should not even ‘ave been floatin’.”

The pirates voice becomes lower, more sinister, “First the ghosts invaded me ship, ethereal beings tha’ a single touch ‘ould suck a piece of ye soul out. They appear from nowhere, disappear when ye look at ’em. But jus’ as I be tryin’ to save my neck it came. Pale as death itself, rags for clothes billowin’ in the wind as it just floats there. Then it open its mouth… Out of its mouth came-“

Just at this moment of thinking about my experience in the ‘Joy Inn’, a sinister thought comes to mind. Locking my consciousness on SomaHealer, I activate ‘Haunting’. Taking a deep breath and covering my mouth with my hand as if yawning, I let out a screech as high pitched as possible. Of course, under my skill, the sound appears to be coming from just behind SomaHealer.

Everyone hears the scream and pales slightly, but SomaHealer is the most affected. He shouts and curses as he falls off his rock in fright and onto the ground. The least influenced are my party members, who stare at me shocked.

‘Who would have thought that skill would have such a practical use,’ I think to myself in self satisfaction.

Mason explains my skill to the terrified individual who is still looking around for the source of that noise to no avail. Upon learning that it was me, he glares at me in humiliation and anger. CaptainGordon, on the other hand, has since recovered from the initial shock and finds it to be highly amusing.

I cough lightly, trying to maintain an innocent expression.

“Did you two… Did you, plan that out?!” SomaHealer exclaims incredulously at CaptainGordon and me.

“We did not,” The initial humor begins to fade and I easily keep a straight face. “I merely… saw an opportunity.”

“It be as Lost said,” CaptainGordon says amidst laughter before his eyes flash in the firelight. “Anyway, I be tired of ghost stories, and I don’t be thinkin’ we can top Lost’s screech. Who be up for explorin’ this ‘ere cave?”

Everyone else gives it some thought before agreeing to the idea. I walk to the entrance of the cave in thought. From my high vantage point, I can see the ship dimly lit by a full moon in the sky above. Fen’s figure seems to reflect twice as much moonlight as anything else, making her white figure clearly visible. By focusing on her figure, my class skill activates and creates a telescopic effect to see Fen much better.

She is calmly sleeping on the deck of the ship, her breathing also much more vigorous than earlier. Seeing her slowly recovering makes me feel much calmer. Returning to the campfire, I am the final person to agree to the exploration.

Splitting back into our respective parties, Sir Laurence and Mikhail once again lead the formation with torches. The cave we are in is a strange formation; some parts are wide enough for all eleven of us to walk side by side, while others are so narrow we practically have to walk in single file. After walking for barely five minutes, we reach the end to the cave.

Instead of the night sky, however, all I see is endless darkness. Something does not feel right. We all hesitate for a moment, before once again walking forward into the darkness.

Once within the darkness, the path beneath my feet slopes downwards along a winding path. Our torchlight lights up the area around us, and I can see sections of other paths extremely similar to the one we are on. On the wall nearby is another cave, almost exactly the same as the one we came out of. The cavern is enormous, so much that our torches can only light up a small section of it.

This mountain must have multiple caves snaking through it, all leading to this central area.

There are only two other things visible in this grotto: a formation of hundreds of thousands of crystals on the distant ceiling, and an enormous set of doors against the far wall. The ceiling gives off a faint light, but nowhere near enough to shed light on the cavern. However the doors at the far end are different, emitting a bright luminescence that reveals a wide area around them. They stand a full fifteen meters tall, and twenty meters wide. Intricate green and blue polished gems are inlaid into the doors in some kind of formation.

I stare wide-eyed at the doors as we make our way through the darkness toward them. Upon reaching the doors, I can see that there is not a single flaw in them. They are the products of exquisite, masterful crafting.

“What is it?” I ask while closely examining the door.

“Most likely, the entrance to a raid.” Mason says completely stunned. “Though I have never heard of this one.”

“What do you mean by raid?” Verde asks curiously.

“My lady, have you never played other games before?” Sir Laurence asks politely but she only shakes her head, before he continues to explain. “A raid is similar to a dungeon, except several parties of players participate together to fight through the dungeon and defeat the final boss. A raid is also vastly more difficult than an ordinary dungeon, too.”

“How many parties can participate?” I am unfamiliar with the raids in End Online, so I can only ask the others.

Mason takes the time to respond, “Up to six parties, regardless of size. Although if a single party is over six players in size, the rewards and experience from the raid practically vanish. This means that 36 players is the maximum you should take on a raid.”

“You’re forgetting. For new raids, the more players the better. It is best to first get to understand the raid so you can formulate strategies. Even if it does forfeit the reward,” Moonkite corrects Mason diligently, even as she stares up at the doors with equally wide eyes.

“Is that all that’s different?” I ask the two, this time Moonkite answers my question directly.

“No, dying is also different. Death in a standard dungeon or in the overworld will cause you to respawn back at the temple of your origins, but death in a raid will cause you to respawn outside the entrance of the raid. The death penalty still takes effect though. You also can’t enter the raid again until it is either cleared or all players have died.”

“Hrmm, I see,” I nod my head in understanding. “So, shall we give it a try?”

CaptainGordon immediately agrees, while the other seem a little reluctant.

“There are are three of us that are currently weakened. Do you think that is a good idea?” Mookite asks while shaking her head.

“We are already too short on people, so successfully clearing the raid is impractical. We may as well have a look inside. Perhaps we will still get a treasure or two,” Mason reasons with undeniable logic.

Moonkite seems to ponder for a while, before coming to her own conclusion, “This effect will last three days. We can just wait out that time, unless anyone has a potion or spell to cure this effect? Lost, your companion can join as well then. She seems quite strong.”

“Sorry,” I reply immediately. “Fen won’t be joining us on this one.”

Bring Fen into a place where she is practically guaranteed to die along with the rest of us? Never.

“Sir Laurence, I know you have a few healing spells. Do you have one for curing sickness?” I ask the knight.

“Not for something like this. Poison, yes, but not diseases or sickness though. The closest thing I have is to recover vigor, increasing a player’s endurance and maximum health by ten percent.”

“Something so incredible? How could you have not used that on the rest of us before?!” I almost cough up blood as I realize he has such an impressive spell that he has not once used for us.

“Waste of mana. It’s never been necessary,” he says while giving a stone-cold harrumph.

“Do you think you can use it from now on? Especially during the boss fights!”

“If necessary.” His answer is curt, but at least he will give us a few boosts.

My party finally agrees to enter the raid after some discussion, while Mikhail’s party eventually joins in so as to not be excluded.

Mikhail and I, acting as the party leaders, place our hands on one door each. I push with all my might to open the door, but the door swings open with no resistance at all. Once the opening is wide enough, we all walk in and begin the raid, the door silently closing in behind us.

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

I lay panting against the entrance to the raid, my head throbbing with an increasing migraine. I am not the only one here, everyone is resting sprawled out in the area. In a ranking of ‘last to die’, I took third place.

“We, we got pretty far, didn’t we?” Mason says, laughing in ill humor.

“Two bosses. We definitely did well.” I answer weakly, still trying to catch my breath and shake off this persistent headache.

Our group is engulfed by silence, only the sound of breathing echoing through the cavern. We all earned a few valuable rewards from the dungeon, mainly from the boss drops. I personally managed to get a ‘Unique’ enchanted longsword and an ‘Epic’ golden upper leg armor, which I traded with Sir Laurence for an ‘Epic’ broad axe which should sell quite nicely. Needless to say, Sir Laurence covered in silver armor with a pair of golden upper legs is quite the humorous sight.

There were plenty of other miscellaneous items and loot I obtained; including ‘Ordinary’ tridents, curved swords, armor pieces, fish scales, 200 gold, and a few new herbs. But none compare to the main items I got from the boss drops. Opening my inventory, I look at the stats of those weapons once again.

Violet Flame Shamshir
A weapon forged by a mystical, violet flame. The steel
has the properties of this flame trapped within it. A
skilled warrior once used this weapon to dominate the
seven lands.
The blade is 83cm long.

Requirements:
~ Level 210
~ Dex 63

Weapon Type: Single Edge/long Sword
Attack: 184 - 203
Durability: 54/54
Weight: 6.2 lbs

Abilities:
~ Can cast 'Violet Fireball' 7 times a day.
     Remaining uses: 7
~ Can cast 'Violet Shield' 4 times a day.
     Remaining uses: 4
~ Can cast 'Violet Inferno' 1 time a day.
     Remaining uses: 1

Inflammation Axe of Carnage
The creator of this weapon poured all his heart’s
anger and rage into the gigantium axe head. If you
listen closely, you can hear screams of fury when this
axe takes a life

Requirements:
~ Level 195
~ Str 57
~ Agi 34
~ Dex 31

Weapon Type: Single Edge/Axe
Attack: 257 - 281
Durability: 48/48
Weight: 19.4 lbs

Abilities:
~ Attacking with this weapon has a 20% chance of doing +30%
  damage.
~ All successful attacks have a knockback effect on the
  target.
~ 2x durability damage to any armor/shield when blocking
  this weapon.
~ User may increase their movement speed by 50% for 2min at
  the expense of -50% movement for the next 5min.

Both of these weapons came from the boss ‘Flame Elemental Guardian of the Deep’. The second and final boss we successfully managed to kill.

“Perhaps we should, umm, try this raid again. With more people.” Matrix speaks up shyly, clearly expecting to do it again.

“No. Let’s not,” Sir Laurence grumbles.

“Why not? Isn’t that place like a paradise for you?” I ask the knight in shining armor, a sly grin spread across my face.

Prince Charming doesn’t respond, but Mason does, “I hate mermaids.”

“Aye, they definitely be bad luck,” Even CaptainGordon is fed up with those vicious creatures, not that I blame him.

I reflect on the events of the raid. The mermaids were the most troublesome indeed. They have a strange ability to afflict the target with a charmed status by making eye contact. This isn’t the charm effect like in the old RPGs, where the target can no longer attack that enemy and will often attack an ally.

The mermaid’s charm is similar to an aphrodisiac, and the target of each person’s infatuation is the nearest ally. This effect not only shut off our hearing and narrowed our vision, but took no consideration of gender when making the affected player attempt to grasp onto the nearest ally and kiss them profusely. Much to Sir Laurence’s dismay, I got paired with Verde first. I don’t know whether to find that fortunate or unfortunate. At least it was with someone of the opposite gender.

‘You! This! You’ve done this before!!’ I repeat Verde’s words in my head, rubbing the spot on my face where she initially slapped me as the kiss finished and the charm effect wore off. She wasn’t under the effects of the charm at the time, but surprise stopped her from preventing the kiss.

Fortunately for me, everyone else had fallen under the charm effect and had their hearing sealed so they didn’t hear I had kissed her already before. A few of the other party heard, so I hope they don’t discuss that before we find land and I have the chance to leave them.

I am genuinely surprised at Verde’s reaction though. The surprise on her face, and other indescribable emotions, showed that she truly remembered the kiss. What I don’t know is that if she has slowly been remembering things already, or the memory suddenly came to her at the time.

Amidst my wandering thoughts, I can’t help but glance over at the others from time to time. If anyone was to walk into this cavern at this moment, they would be greeted with the shocking sight of eleven bodies lying haphazardly in the limelight of the raid doors like corpses.

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

The sun glares down from directly above us as we finally set sail away from the cursed island. The heat at noon is the polar opposite of the night time chill, causing most of the people to be panting for air and consuming twice as much water as usual to keep their satiety levels up.

I sit down next to Fen again, talking to her about my experience in the raid. Feeling vaguely guilty, I avoid detailing the mermaids and their risqué appearance, instead describing them as twisted, cruel creatures.

Our journey continues in peace, not encountering a single sea monster in a strange kind of luck. Eventually, the three days of being sick pass and not only do my stats return to full values, but Fen’s eyes open.

The great big wolf hastily stands up, causing the ship to rock violently in the process. She loses her balance from the movement and falls against the mast, bending it slightly. CaptainGordon shouts out curses as his ship gets damaged for no reason, even losing a level in speed.

I realize Fen can’t return to her human form at the moment with her dress in tatters, so I plan to buy her a new one as soon as possible. She nuzzles her nose against me, causing me to get more wet than when Fen drools in her sleep. I feel a little irritated about it, but soon let it pass. How can I be angry with her as soon as she recovers?

Two more days in the game pass, and eventually an unfathomably large landmass is viewable on the horizon. At first glance I can tell that this is the rumored island.

As we get closer, I make out the shape of the island and cannot withhold my shock, “It’s a desert!!”

The others are equally surprised, but don’t remark on the land. They stare wide-eyed at the enormous dunes of sand that go as far as the eye can see. Just by looking at the island, even I feel like the temperature has increased significantly.

The ship is so slow it still takes another day before we finally reach the island, leaving the ship and stepping onto the burning hot sand.

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