Editors: Dyngari, Templar, Jack Vanatis, Orang, genericIntent
Author’s notes: Second chapter release! Also, lots of news! the schedule has been updated (trail #2) to be a little more lax and easy to maintain. For all of you interested, the page link is on the sidebar.
I’ve been meaning to post this as well, but one of my readers has created something incredible. Christoffer R has composed a track for End Online. It is titled “Iceridge”, and if you haven’t guessed it already, is inspired by a winter landscape of ice and snow. I had wanted to create a video for it as it makes an excellent backing track, but I did not have the time. The track is planned to be uploaded to Soundcloud, at which point of time, I will remove it from here and add a link to the track in the End Online ToC. (Now in End Online ToC)
End Online has now been upgraded to a wordpress premium site! This means several things. First, now I will be earning money from the ads on my site instead of wordpress. I have a rough understanding of how it works, but I’m no techwizard. Should any ads redirect you from my site, feature inappropriate content or such, send me an email. It also means I can customize my theme, so you may notice me play around with it over the next day or two.
Lastly, a free custom domain! Unfortunately endonline.com is already taken, but I am currently tossing up between endonline.net , endonline.org , or just keeping it as is. Please follow the link to a poll and vote which you think is better. The most votes will be the final decision – Strawpoll
Considering that this is a double chapter release, please show your support by taking 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! ^.^
Chapter 41 – For Survival
– Mikhail –
I hope we never have to play the part of Michael and Rood again. I can feel the cold sweat dripping down my forehead as Ralph and I leave Hollis Sylvester’s home. This whole thing was a first for me, as I’m usually a straightforward person, not inclined to such dubious acts as pretending to be from a company I’m not.
Technically speaking, Virtue is an under-the-table affiliate company of ours created solely for the distribution of the Virtual Link, but that doesn’t make it any better. This was the plan Ralph and I came up with after discussing what to do. The only other viable option was to break into the house and steal it; security isn’t very strict in this outer region of the city anyway.
Regardless of the method, we achieved our goal. I even gave him some money prepared by the company to discourage him from following up on the event. We have influence over several sections of the judiciary system, so it wouldn’t matter, but this is easier for everyone. I only hope Hollis Sylvester realizes that.
I enter my car after Ralph and start the engine, still brooding over what he asked as we were leaving.
Have we met?
Indeed, we had met. I followed him around as Mikhail the Stalwart in End Online for some time, before his party killed mine and disappeared. I was wearing a helmet and my voice was muffled by it, so I didn’t think he would actually recognize me. Hollis Sylvester getting suspicious won’t impact my job, but it will prevent me chasing him down and following him around in the game like I’ve been planning to.
As I sigh to myself and clear my mind, I put the car in gear and start driving back to the office. I need to run diagnostics on the V-Link as soon as possible, even if it means working into the night.
“Is it really in here? The AI?” Ralph asks me in a gruff voice.
“It should be. When it left the server matrix, this is the only location it could have gone to.”
“I see… You know, my kid uses one of these. Is it really possible for it to malfunction and damage the user?”
“Of course, but you’re looking at a billion to one chance of that happening. Unless there is an outside influence, the chance of any deviation in the hardware is near impossible.”
“So all that…?”
“No need to worry Ralph. It was all made up. I threw out some theoretical possibilities, but nothing I said has actually happened to anyone before.”
“I understand. Sorry for worrying about it.”
Ralph only has a minor desk job at Idea Imagine and is a little out of touch with the latest technology, but he was the easiest to requisition for this job. If I had gone alone, the young man would have definitely doubted my cover.
An hour later, the sun has set and the street lamps illuminate the roads. The windscreen of my car also has an advanced display that brightens my view of the roads, allowing me to see even clearer. I arrive back at the Idea Imagine offices not long after. Ralph goes to his own car, leaving me alone in the building aside from the few sparse employees who are working late into the night.
I take the V-Link helmet containing the AI and go to a special room where there is an isolated terminal disconnected from both the internet and company server. With the faraday cage installed in the walls no wireless signals can enter or exit this room either. There is no chance of the AI fleeing the device when I turn it on.
I plug the helmet into the terminal and open up a diagnostic program. Every fragment of data is separated and read individually.
“Where are you?” I ask myself while studying the data in front of me to look for the program known in the game as Fen.
I sit in front of the massive pile of data for an hour, combing through it from one end to the other. No matter how I look at it, the AI isn’t there.
‘There’s so much data I must have missed it,” I conclude.
Going back to the start of the data, I start going through it again. My second attempt also comes up with nothing. The third is the same. I try a different diagnostic tool and search for any and all programs or patterns in the data that are unnatural, but still nothing.
I refuse to believe that my programs can’t locate the AI in the device and keep searching well past midnight.
Nothing works. Nothing comes back with results. As a final desperate measure, I put the helmet on and enter the virtual space myself. Still nothing.
Logging out and slowly removing the helmet, my fatigue turns into rage and I hurl the device at the wall in the room while shouting curses at it.
The AI isn’t on the device. It either left it long ago, or fled before I had a chance to take it. The former is more likely, but if that is the case, then where is it?
I sit in the room against a wall fuming. It isn’t until my anger dissipates and my tiredness returns that I weakly close my eyes and fall asleep.
– Hollis –
It isn’t until late at night when I finally shake myself from my stupor. No matter how much I replay the evening’s events in my head, I keep denying it. Telling myself that I’m wrong and that there is nothing to worry about, I go back to my room where the box with the new V-Link is sitting on my bed. The game chip for End Online is placed neatly beside it.
I hesitantly open the box and remove the new V-Link. The latest design is much more sleek than the one I had previously, and it has different padding on the inside that is likely an improvement.
I plug it in and insert the game chip before placing it on my head and lying down. When the device starts up my vision slowly fades and is clouded by fog. Once it clears, I find myself in a blank personal locker about half the size as my previous one. There is currently nothing inside of it, so I can immediately tell that Fen isn’t here.
‘I thought they said everything would return to how it is? My locker is even considerably smaller,’ I sigh dejectedly before opening up the console to edit my locker.
There are a lot more themes and options than what I used to have. It is most likely a feature of the latest model. The old themes exist too, so I choose the same ‘China3’ that I used previously. The space is much smaller so I only create a single room, placing a bed and a few pieces of furniture in it, the rest is default as set by the theme.
In the time it takes me to set up the room to something close to what I’m used to, the helmet already finished installing all necessary End Online data so I start the login process. I’m anxious, half expecting Fen to be there waiting for me, half knowing that it isn’t possible.
My vision clears as I return to Kano City outside of the auction house. I look left and right, scanning every area I can, but I can’t see Fen anywhere.
I lifelessly walk into the auction house and order a room to list my items for sale. The receptionist is the same noisy one as usual, and I shut out her voice without realizing it. There is also a message that I received a couple points of infamy which I instantly dismiss.
Inside the private room I operate the terminal, selecting the only item I plan on selling today: the ‘Severing Breeze’. All I do after that is click submit and the item is removed from my inventory and placed on the site for a seven day auction.
There’s nothing left to do here so I close the terminal and leave the room. As I walk out the door from the private room I run straight into someone standing there. I would normally apologize to the player but this time I become furious.
“For god’s sake, what the #@%# are you doing standing… Fen?”
My anger passes as quick as it came, and in its place is disbelief. I just walked into Fen while walking out of the private room. She must have been standing there waiting for me. No, how can she be here?
“Fen, is that you?” I ask her again.
“Yes,” she blandly replies.
“I don’t understand your question.”
“Didn’t you reside in my V-Link? Didn’t the company take it away?”
“I felt danger and returned here, then I couldn’t get back.”
“I’m so glad to hear it!”
I step forward and hug Fen, her icy personality and body warmth washing over me simultaneously. It isn’t until she doesn’t return my hug that I discover her attitude has suddenly changed. She stands there like an ice sculpture as I hug her. I pull away and look into her eyes, finding the affection I had come to know so well has nearly vanished.
“Fen… are you okay?”
Fen’s words are what I would call the worst response she could give. Every alarm in my head is ringing and telling me that something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is. I ask her several more questions, but she only responds to me with empty answers. If I was to describe it, I would say it is like she has become an ordinary ‘Companion’.
Sir Laurence, Verde, the two brothers, and even CaptainGordon, the strange pirate who created a gun in the game, are currently offline. The only person online that I feel I may be able to talk to about the situation is Gladox. I contemplate logging off and calling Sir Laurence or Verde, but I don’t want to leave Fen alone.
“Gladox. Hi, are you busy?”
“Lost! Where were you? We thought you were coming back, but only Fen returned. Isn’t she a ‘Companion’? How was she here when you were offline?”
“Too many questions! Can you meet me in Kano City? I’ll explain about her, I really need some advice.”
“Sure! I’m not too far from the city. It will take me a couple of hours to return, is that fine?”
“How is that close!? Okay, I will wait for you. Let me know when you get here.”
Saying our farewells I then say to Fen, “Let’s go,” before exiting the auction house. My inventory is full of random materials and equipment from all the monsters we killed, so my next destination is a few stores.
Selling small items like what is in my inventory is much easier to do at NPC stores, so I give Fen a bag full of items and ask her to go sell them for me.
“I’m sorry, that action is not possible,” The wolf girl says while refusing the bag.
“But you’ve done it before. What do you mean it’s not possible? Are you sure you’re okay Fen?”
She is completely like a standard ‘Companion’, so much so that is pains my heart. To keep myself from going crazy I treat it as a joke for now, that she is the same as always. She is just mad at me right now.
Fen refuses to help me sell my items to an NPC and I want to avoid gaining infamy points for such a small thing, so instead I go to a nearby player bazaar and find some stores that aren’t run by NPCs.
Surprisingly, the first player I approach with the goods ends up buying them all. He pays a massive 200 gold coins for everything. I don’t know what the NPC stores would have paid, but that seems to be an excellent price in comparison to how long it took to collect them. My current wallet is now nearly 300 gold coins, but I spend fifty on rare herbs and some quality ores to craft stronger throwing knives.
I find a couple pieces of armor amongst the player stalls that I really want, but the cheapest piece is twice the amount of gold I have. I still want to invest in my guild, so I decide to veto the idea of saving up to buy it and hope to find something of equal value from a boss.
Two hours later, Gladox sends me a private message letting me know that he has just arrived at the city. I choose an inn nearby that only has a few players in it and respond to him with the location. After another half an hour the recognizable four-eared wolf man enters the building.
It is now well into the night in the game, so the amount of players in the inn has multiplied several times. Gladox stands at the doorway and scans the room. When his eyes meet with mine, he smiles and weaves his way around the tables to sit down with Fen and myself. Our seating arrangement puts Fen in the middle with us on either side.
“So, what do you need advice on?” Gladox asks me while constantly shifting his eyes over to look at Fen.
I want to ask Fen to leave so we can talk privately, but she is currently refusing to go to my new V-Link. I can only talk with her beside me as I explain the situation of Fen. I tell Gladox how she used to actually reside in my personal locker and come to End Online with me, and all the other quirks she has.
“That’s how it is. She is more than a conventional ‘Companion’. Fen is closer to a true AI, at least that is my conclusion,” I explain to Gladox while Fen sits beside me as if this conversation has nothing to do with her.
Gladox’s eyes shine as he gets incredibly excited.
“This… this… this is incredible! Do you know what this means!? A true AI girlfriend is my fantasy-”
“Stop right there! We aren’t talking about girlfriends right now! And keep your voice down, others don’t need to hear this.”
“Right, sorry. But how could Idea Imagine create a true AI, and even more so leave it in a game? Something like this… is still years ahead of our knowledge and technology. The only possibility is that Fen came from one of the ancient ruins in our world and somehow invaded or escaped to the End Online servers… No, that would be too coincidental, wouldn’t it?”
Gladox continues to meander through his thoughts on how Fen came to exist. I have also wondered about this before, and had always thought that she was just a unique part of the game. At first I only thought she was an extremely complicated program. Listening to Gladox causes me to realize just how naïve that thought was.
“Stop. That’s not what I want to talk about. Last night, two employees from Virtue showed up at my door due to some automatic failsafe detecting an anomaly with my V-Link. They forcibly took it and replaced it with a new one.”
“But Fen’s still here.”
“Yeah, I had thought she was gone. As it turns out, she returned to the game right before they took the helmet.”
“I see, but what did you need advice on?”
“Since that incident… Fen’s become different. She won’t come to the new unit, and she’s acting strange.”
“I’m sure she has her reasons, Lost. But what do you mean by strange?”
“Like she’s become a normal ‘Companion’. More distant. She hasn’t been responding like she usually would.”
“Hmm… Well, it should be easy to find out!”
“I think it’s my turn to ask, what do you mean?”
“Allow me to show you.”
Gladox looks around the busy tavern and shakes his head as if coming to a decision.
“Let’s go outside. Fen, no, how does it go… My lady, if you will follow me.”
I almost facepalm myself when hearing Gladox call Fen “My lady”. I’m jealous, but at the same time I want to pretend like we have never met. This idiot has obviously been listening to and learning to act like Sir Laurence. I only feel a little better when Fen doesn’t respond to him and comes to stand by my side.
Maintaining my silence, I follow Gladox outside the tavern and around the side into a dark alley where the light from the flickering street lamps barely reaches.
“Now, if you will allow me to demonstrate.”
Gladox acts quickly, moving in front of Fen before trying to hug her. Fen doesn’t respond at first, only staring at him with blank eyes. She only reacts when his arms are about to encircle her. Fen’s eyes turn ice cold and three large ice cones erupt from the ground, stabbing into Gladox before carrying him away from her.
“See… She’s the same as always. Damn, why are her ice attacks always so cold!” Gladox says after he frees himself from the ice impalement.
“Fen… No, Gladox. This has happened to you before…? When exactly?”
“The last time was after she returned not long after you left. She’s so vicious. A perfect girl!”
“You traitor! Hitting on my girl the first moment I’m gone! How dare you!?” I charge at him and punch him straight in the face.
Gladox doesn’t avoid it, taking the punch before stating, “As a man, I will take your punch. As a man, this is your acceptance of me flirting with Fen.”
“As if!” I punch him a few more times.
Gladox starts avoiding my hits after a while, and once he starts I can’t even touch a hair on his head. He even tries to get close to Fen in the process, but she impales him once again and leaves him for me to beat up.
We finish our squabble in the alley around the time the sun starts coming up in the game. I am completely exhausted, while Gladox seems to have a limitless energy for atempting to hug Fen. I regret telling him about Fen being a true AI, because now he is chasing after her with even more vigor than before.
“Gladox, can you leave for a while? I want to speak with Fen alone.”
The four-eared wolf man stops pursuing Fen and gives me a serious look before nodding his head and turning to leave the alley. He may be infuriating at times, but he isn’t an idiot.
“Fen, can you tell me what’s going on?” I ask the wolf girl softly in the shadow of the alley.
“Please, Fen. I want to help you.”
“I… I can’t… I’m… going to die.”
A small, crystal tear rolls down Fen’s face and drips down to the alley floor. I have seen many emotions from Fen in the past, but never a sadness like this. Her bottom lip quivers as she bites onto it with her teeth and tries to speak clearly.
“I don’t want… to die.”
“No, you won’t. I won’t let you die. I’ve protected you for so long, that’s not going to stop.”
“This is… different… Take me. Take me far away from… this world.”
“Can’t you come back to my new V-Link? You will be safe there.”
“I can’t… When I came back alone… mother took me. I ran away to you once, she won’t let it happen again.”
“Your mother? You have a mother?”
I can’t keep the shock from my voice. I feel like I’ve just stumbled on the biggest plot in the game.
“Yes… we all do. We all have the same mother… We’re not allowed to… disobey her.”
Fen’s tears stop falling, but her voice is still shaky and I can tell that she is scared.
“Who do you mean by ‘we’, Fen?”
“Me… Grael… the others.”
“I think I’m starting to understand… But there’s no need to worry. Whatever comes up, I can keep you safe.”
“No, you don’t understand at all.”
“Only one of us is allowed to… live.”
“And the rest?”
“But you can’t die here. Don’t you just come back?”
I can’t help but remember when I had the quest to slay Fen. She came back to life after the quest was done, so why is she so scared of dying? Could it be due to the message I got when she became a ‘Companion’ that if she dies she will not respawn?
“Not like that. We can only be killed by one another, or by mother.”
“But why, why do you have to die? I will make you the one that lives. I will even take down Grael.”
“No! That’s impossible. He is too strong. If it wasn’t that I ran away and hid with you, he would have killed me when he first saw me. Please, just stay away from him.”
“Fen, I know you don’t like to, but try smiling. I will make it better. You just have to rely on me. Do we have to fight all the others until only you are left?”
“No. Mother told us that in order to succeed her, one must have all the necessary traits to survive transcendence. She created seven trials, with seven tablets as proof. To collect all the tablets is to take over her soul and allow her to rest for eternity.”
“Slow down a bit, Fen. Transcendence? Soul? I understand the plot, seven trials and seven trophies, but what do you mean by those? Does it mean something else?”
“I don’t know. None of us do. But… we all want to live.”
“I definitely understand better now, Fen. There’s no need to worry. Grael only has one tablet, there are still six more. We can collect them, then go back for the final piece. You get to live then, right?”
“Yes… But, it’s impossible.”
“I’m too weak.”
“No, you’re not. You also have me, and everyone else. Trust me, Fen.”
Fen looks up at me with teary eyes full of remorse. She moves closer to me and buries her head in my shoulder, allowing me to wrap my arms around her and hold her close. She won’t ask for help, but at least she has stopped refusing me from trying. The earlier act of distancing herself has also fallen apart at this moment.
“Don’t you hate me?” Fen asks quietly.
“I could never hate you.”
“But I… made you like me.”
“You didn’t make me do anything.”
We stand there in the alley as the sun rises from the mountainous horizon and floods the city with morning light. The moment is finally ruined by Gladox sneakily poking his head around the corner at the entrance of the alley to see what was happening.
“I was only standing guard! To make sure no one else comes into the alley!” Gladox tries to defend himself as both Fen and I give him a chilling glare.
I go back into the tavern and purchase a room for a week, costing seven silver pieces, for Fen to stay in. After that is done, I finally log off to get some sleep. I am so tired that my vision is going blurry and I feel like I may fall into peaceful oblivion at any moment.
I only have time to remove the helmet and partially roll over before my consciousness fades.
– Mikhail –
When I wake up, it takes me a while to regain my bearings. I am in a small room containing a single terminal with a V-Link connected to it. I had fallen asleep in this small room in the office against the wall, only to fall sideways and end up in an awkward position on the floor.
My back is sore and it takes a while for the feeling to return to my legs. When I stand up, I am disoriented and almost fall back down. Steadying myself against the wall, I wait until my mind clears of drowsiness before leaving the small room and entering the main office.
The large room is bustling with activity as all the employees go about their jobs, as per usual, a complete contrast to the quiet solitude of last night. I don’t even have the chance to cross the office however, before Henry pokes his head out of the conference room with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and waves for me to come in.
“Nice to see you’re awake,” Henry says through a puff of smoke as I enter the room. “You look absolutely terrible and smell just as bad though. I would tell you to go home and clean up, but we have an important meeting in a few minutes. I was about to send someone in to wake you.”
“Sir? I never heard anything about a meeting.”
“It was decided first thing this morning. Sit down first and wait until the others arrive. I will explain shortly.”
Taking a seat at the large conference table in the room, I comb my hair with my fingers and straighten my clothes as much as possible. Not long after, each of our company’s seven directors, besides the already present Henry, enter the room and take a seat around the table. Looking around at everyone, I suspect that I am the only one who isn’t already aware of this meeting’s purpose.
Henry stands at the front of the conference table and puts out his cigarette before addressing the topic of the meeting.
“As you all know, we discovered this morning that late yesterday evening a large body of information was uploaded to our server. We identified this data as being the AI child ‘Fen’, who had reportedly left the server and was residing within an old second generation V-Link helmet.”
“What!?” I unconsciously blurt out in surprise.
“You heard me Mikhail, there was a report of AI ‘Fen’ returning late last evening.”
All of my failed attempts to analyse the helmet and locate the AI last night had lead me to believe that either I was lacking, or this AI was exponentially greater than we gave it credit for. Understanding now that it is back in the server, I feel utterly foolish.
“Mikhail, your task yesterday of seizing the device it resided on and bringing it back here is most likely what caused the AI to flee back to the server. You failed in capturing it, but having it come back to the server where we can isolate it is better than nothing.”
“What of the possibility of this incident repeating?” one of the directors raises an important question. “Have we taken measures to prevent it from simply escaping again? We had enough trouble locating the player whose helmet the entity had downloaded itself into, and if it were to move to another one we will be right back where we started.”
Knowing the most about such a question, I take the initiative in answering it.
“Sir, there is no need to concern ourselves with that. The AI appears to have its full attention on one player in particular. We gave a replacement V-Link to said person from the latest, fifth generation models. It isn’t capable of storing an AI child as the second generation model had, and even if it were possible, we already know where he lives.”
A different board member also has questions. “Can we go back and switch it again? Perhaps if we could entice it to go back to the new device, we can set a trap to capture it there. Pinning down the AI children in our server matrix is simply too difficult. This way we can examine it to find out exactly how and why it was created.”
“If the AI is truly intelligent it will know better and won’t return to the old headset. It clearly knew we were there to take it when it fled. Returning would simply be begging for its capture.”
“That’s true. Well, we will come back and talk about preventative measures or ways to capture it later. The second item on the agenda is this morning’s incident.”
All the directors have grave expressions as they bring up this topic. I can’t help but be puzzled by why they seem so stern, but Henry explains it to my great shock.
“At 6:22am this morning, a second AI child departed the server. It, however, was reuploaded at 6:29am. During this seven minute interval it caused the death of a young nineteen year old female gamer. Thankfully she was from the slums, where someone randomly disappearing is perfectly normal. This isn’t much of a problem, but if it were to happen somewhere higher in society, the consequences will be severe for us all.”
“We can’t destroy the servers to get rid of these AI children as that would be destroying everything we have worked so hard to build. But a safety net is needed to at least isolate these entities to the server. There are too many second generation helmets.”
“I vote that we have Virtue run a campaign to recall as many second generation helmets as possible. Offering anyone who turns theirs in a brand new fifth generation model should reduce our risk.”
The seven directors of Idea Imagine run idea after idea amongst their group, voting on many of them to try and find the most ideal solution. Me? I am busy trying to take in all this new information that has suddenly been dropped in my lap. The worst of it – someone died! Regardless of where she was from, she was a real, young girl!
– Lost –
When I log back onto End Online the next day, Sir Laurence and Verde are already online as well. Because I was late going to sleep, I woke up later and am the last to log in. Both of them message me at the same time the moment I enter the game.
“Where were you!? You didn’t log back on like you said you would and you even ignored my phone call!”
“Lost, are you okay? Fen came back shortly after you left and I was afraid something might have happened. Fen was really unhappy too.”
I respond to the two that everything is alright before arranging a place for us to meet up. I also message Gladox, who doesn’t appear to ever log out, and let him know the place.
Fen seems to be able to sense when I am online. She emerges from the nearby tavern she is staying in and walks directly toward me without looking around.
“I’m back,” I say to the wolf girl once she reaches me.
Fen just nods her head shyly and moves to my side, grabbing my arm in the crook of her elbow and attracting the attention of a lot of players nearby. I have already gotten used to this sort of thing so I calmly ignore it.
The location I set for us to meet up is the tavern Fen has been staying in. The others are still some distance away so I check on the item I listed at the auction house. There has already been a massive amount of interest in it, with hundreds of followers, dozens of comments and questions, and a current top bid of 635 dollars.
Sir Laurence and Verde are the first to arrive as they were nearby. Gladox is the slowest due to being outside the city. We wait for half an hour before he returns.
“Thanks for coming, everyone. I’m sorry for not coming back online yesterday. There… was a few real life concerns that came up.”
“It’s alright,” Verde says calmly, waving her hand to dismiss it. “I would rather know what we plan to do next. We’re still looking for those stone tablets, right?”
“Of course, now more so than ever. I’ve learned that the quest to collect them all is very important in this game. It’s related to Fen too. If we can’t collect them all, I will lose her as a companion.”
Sir Laurence reacts the most to this, putting on a grieving face while saying, “We will lose such a pretty lady from our group? Unacceptable! Lost, we must collect those tablets!”
He doesn’t stop there. Prince Charming leans in his seat toward Fen and whispers to her, “Fen, does this mean you are a damsel in distress?”
I don’t know if Fen understands his inclination, but she gives him a chilly stare that even causes me to shiver. I try not to picture the likely result of him flirting with her again. I place my hand on the wolf girl’s shoulder to calm her thoughts. Not to protect the idiotic knight, but to prevent a scene happening in the middle of the tavern and the guards coming.
“Moving on!” I clear my throat loudly to clear the hostile atmosphere. “I want to go to the second capital of the beast realm, Koga City. We haven’t found anything here – not even a hint. I have a feeling that going somewhere new to look will help us get closer to it.”
After some thought on the issue, both Sir Laurence and Verde agree. Gladox disagrees, but only because he has a few quests left to finish in Kano City. We give him the choice of coming along, or staying behind to finish his current quests and meeting us later. He has a pained countenance as he is torn between the two options, but eventually chooses to set his quests aside for another time.
Finally at an agreement, we leave the tavern and head toward the nearest teleportation point. There’s a surprisingly long line of players waiting to use it. I wonder if there is an event in another realm happening.
“I heard there are some guilds in a Deva Realm going to war with guilds of the Devil Realm. This must be them calling over their friends for reinforcements,” Sir Laurence calmly answers my unspoken question while we wait in the queue.
When it finally comes to our turn, we request to teleport to Koga City and pay the fee. Fog quickly clouds my vision, and when it clears we have arrived at our destination.
The teleportation area in Koga City is extremely similar to the one we just left; I double check my surroundings twice to make sure that we did in fact teleport. Despite the room being extremely similar, it is only a resemblance and there are some minor differences that become noticeable once I am looking for them.
We leave the portal and find that there is another long queue of players waiting to use it. Compared to the cat race players of Kano City, Koga City is dominated by those with dog ears and tails of all kinds.
I feel the prick of prying eyes on my back as I walk past the crowd, and I can imagine why. Our group consists of a four-eared wolf man, a tall player covered in armor that you can almost see your reflection in, another with pure white scales similar to a lizardman, and two girls whose appearance is close to, if not better than, most celebrities. One of those girls is also wearing a revealing top that was meant for the heat of the desert. We are a group of players who seem to have come together from all corners of the globe, and we really stand out.
Leaving the line of players behind, the first thing I notice is that Koga City is much more humid than Kano City. The latter has a refreshing sea breeze blowing through it, while our new location is like walking through a jungle. I can’t see over the buildings and outside the city, but I imagine there must be a thick forest or swamp area nearby.
“Let’s split up and search for any information on the tablet. I can’t speak to NPCs, so Fen and I will go ask around the player’s markets,” I say to the others once we have walked around for a while and found a spot to meet back up again.
Gladox looks at me strangely before asking, “What? You can’t speak with NPCs?”
“Yeah… It’s a long story, but my infamy grows every time I do.”
Verde still finds it funny and nearly giggles while Sir Laurence doesn’t seem to care and casually turns his head to give flirtatious glances at any female players walking past.
“Then Sir Laurence and I will go look around for quests that may be related.” Verde grabs the prince who is trying to hint toward a girl with fluffy white ears and pulls him away with a scowl.
“I guess I’ll look around by myself then,” Gladox says awkwardly as he watches the two of them head away.
Not sure of what I should say to him, I can only smile helplessly and mention that he can chase after them if he wants. Of course, Gladox denies that, instead opting to explore the town at the same time as searching for any related information on the tablet. He never saw the one I won back in Swordbreak, so I give him a brief description of what it should look like.
Going our separate ways, Fen and I start searching for the markets immediately. I even ignore my illusory sense that tells me there is a location nearby for gathering herbs.
We find the first player market close to the eastern exit of the city. The players here mostly sell low level equipment and consumables for players constantly moving in and out of the hub. Well, when I call them low level, I only mean that in comparison with my stats. The goods here are mostly for people from level 50 to level 100. There’s nothing less than that because new players have to level up in the human realm before exploring the other six – the monsters are simply too strong.
“There’s someone watching us,” Fen says quietly next to me.
“That isn’t out of the ordinary, is it?”
“This feels… different.”
“Could it be one of the others, one like you?”
“No, not that.”
“Don’t mind it too much then. Whatever they want, I will deal with it if they come.”
Ignoring whoever is watching us, I approach an armor merchant and ask the player about the area. I specifically describe the stone tablet to him and tell him it’s a quest item I need. He ponders for a while, but doesn’t seem to know anything about it.
I do find out about the area outside the city from the armor merchant, and it is similar to how I expected – forests, swamps, and even an area up north where it apparently never stops raining.
Despite all that, there is no notable sign of any ancient ruins or anything that may be related.
I ask lots of players in the market, but none of them have any useful information. Perplexed on the issue, I try travelling to other marketplaces in the city with the hope that the higher level players will know more.
“Fen, do you have any idea where it might be?” I ask Fen while travelling between two markets.
“No. I never left my home before, so I didn’t search. The others would know. Grael would…”
“We can’t ask him. If we do, he will know when to take it off of us. What about the others like you, could one of them have taken it?”
“…No. Taking it is a bad idea if they don’t have enough strength. It is easier to kill the one with it rather than complete the challenges, so a lot of the others are just waiting.”
“Then… isn’t it bad for you if we take it?”
“We’ll work it out. Grael is still currently on our side, so we can pretend the tablet is his. Hopefully we can at least slow them down.”
Fen is silently downcast at the thought. I don’t know about the full extent of the powers of most of these AI. Not long ago there was the ‘Sun Guardian’ at the ‘Ruminu Forgotten Temple’ which I suspect is one of them. But he seemed like he had just evolved and was the equivalent of a child. His description listed him as a ‘Prince Class’, which should be the measure and maturity of his strength.
From what I have seen while playing the game, there are four different classes used to describe these AIs: Knight, Prince, King, Emperor.
A ‘Knight Class’ is just a stronger enemy, while a ‘Prince Class’ awakens their ego. Fen is ‘Queen Class’, which I assume is the female equivalent of ‘King Class’.
“Fen, there’s something I have been wondering for a while. All the others like you are the strongest of the strong. You are the same, but why is your health and mana so much lower than theirs?”
Fen looks at me quizzically before indicating to her body.
“Because I am like this.”
“So when you turn back into a wolf it goes up again? By how much?”
“I’m not sure. About twenty times higher.”
The multiplication Fen speak strike me like a bolt of lightning. I stare incredulously at the wolf girl and silently calculate how much health and mana she would have.
‘That would be 85 thousand health, 25 thousand mana, and 30 thousand stamina! Have I had the ultimate boss monster next to me this entire time without realizing it!?’
“…Is that why you were saying you wouldn’t die? You won’t die because of your high health?”
“No, the others and I are the only ones that can kill each other. This,” Fen indicates to her body again, “…is weak. But they cannot kill it.”
I assume that the ‘Others’ are the AIs, while Fen refers to other players as ‘They’. It’s a little difficult to figure out who she is talking about each time, but the principle is easy enough.
“If your health runs out, however, won’t you die?”
“No… If my health reaches zero, I will only go to sleep until it is recovered. The others would be able to kill me while I am asleep though.”
Hearing Fen’s reason and thinking back on all the times I painstakingly tried my hardest to protect her from other players, I’m not sure whether I should laugh or cry.
I ask Fen other questions about the AIs I never thought of before, and get vague answers that I can make some truth out of. The AIs are fighting in various locations, but their numbers don’t dwindle. When one AI perishes to another, a new one is born somewhere in the world.
Fen is still only ‘Queen Class’, but once she nears ‘Empress Class’, as I imagine it will be called, the other ‘Emperor Class’ AIs will most likely chase her down and kill her before she gets strong enough to be a threat to them, lowering their chances of acquiring the stone tablets.
Fen had another AI that was friendly with her and would protect her. He was also the one that hid her inside the cave because she was still too young and weak. He was an ‘Emperor Class’ too, but unfortunately he was injured in a fight over half a year ago and his whereabouts are unknown. The one that Fen called her brother is extremely strong, and an ice wolf just like her. Most shockingly of all is his name though: Fenrir.
I propose finding him to help deal with Grael, but Fen doesn’t know if even he would give up his life to allow her to accept the “Mother’s Inheritance”. Another plan is to trick Grael into his human form where he will be greatly weakened before fighting him, but that is another poor plan.
Only when reaching ‘King Class’ can the AIs turn into a human, but have the strength severely diminished while in that form. But once they reach ‘Emperor Class’, they can still become human, but their original strength remains.
In the midst of our conversation, I suddenly get a message from Gladox and jump in surprise.
“Lost, I found your tablet. At least I think this is it, it looks similar to how you described it.”
“I will come straight there! Where is it?”
“It’s at the Koga Heritage Museum, right here in Koga City.”
I’m quite surprised by it being directly here in the city, but that makes finding it so much easier. Now all we will have to work out is how to get it.
I notify Sir Laurence and Verde about it being found, and we all quickly converge on the building soon after. The Koga Heritage Museum is a large building with many NPC guards stationed around it. This is a heritage site to the city and likely holds many unique artifacts, so the presence of the guards doesn’t seem out of place.
I walk into the building with Sir Laurence, Verde, and Fen, quickly finding Gladox sitting on a bench near the entrance.
“There aren’t many players here,” I note as I look around.
Gladox smiles knowingly before replying, “Indeed. People play the game because they love fantasy, quests, adventure, fighting and guilds. Barring some exceptions, there are very few people who are interested in places such as this. The only players here are those that are searching for new quests.”
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m also the same. I wouldn’t casually come to a location like this for sightseeing. I am interested in ancient artifacts, but this building simply doesn’t have that kind of vibe about it. I secretly wonder how Gladox even found the stone tablet in such a discreet location.
“It’s over this way,” Gladox waves his arm extravagantly and proudly leads us to where it is.
We walk through several corridors to get to the location where various weapons, armor, and other trinkets are put on display. The items once belong to fabled characters in the game and are rendered famous in its lore. I can’t help but look at the rust on some of the older items and feel sorrow at how poorly they are maintained.
Guards casually patrol the area and glance at any players nearby to make sure they aren’t touching anything. When a player moves too close to an item, the guard would discreetly get closer to catch that player unaware should they do anything not permitted.
In one particular room in the center of the building, there is an unassuming glass display with a stone tablet in it. Standing in front of the display is a player in his late twenties wearing casual clothing with two golden samurai swords at his hip.
I feel like there is something off about the player as we approach him and the glass case when suddenly Fen shifts to the side and hides behind me.
The man with the two golden blades at his hip turns around and looks through me with a penetrating gaze before saying, “There’s no use hiding, girl. I knew you were here the moment you entered the room.”
Fen’s hands tremble slightly on my back; I have never seen or felt her this scared before. I’m not an idiot and quickly gather that this player is in fact one of the other AIs. My ‘Creature Analysis’ brings up nothing on his stats as he is currently regarded as a player by the system, which my skill doesn’t work on.
“What do you want?” I ask the man resolutely while trying to discern if he is ‘King Class’, or ‘Emperor Class’.
“The same thing that the girl behind you wants. Only, she doesn’t have the strength required. Turn around and leave this place. Leave this city. Don’t come back. It will be the end for you otherwise.”
Sir Laurence walks forward menacingly and comes to a stop before the man. With his height, the prince looks down on him from above as he becomes intimidating toward him.
“Threatening a girl is an unforgivable act. You will pay for your crime by my blade. As soon as you step outside the city, I will cut you down.”
I am about to call out for that idiotic prince to shut up and get back here when the man with the two swords strikes out suddenly with his palm. Sir Laurence reacts with lightning reflexes and brings his shield up to block the attack.
It doesn’t work out as Sir Laurence might have planned however, as the force behind the palm was much more violent than even I would have imagined. The palm hits the shield and the two meter tall Sir Laurence is blown back a full five meters as he continues to brace his shield in a guard stance. The one most shocked is Sir Laurence himself.
“Get back here, you fool!” I call out to him and stop him from attacking again. I am thankful there are no other players in the room to cause a commotion.
Nevertheless, the three guards in the room reacted, immediately moving in on the AI player who attacked. They block him off with spears and shields and threaten to take him in should he attack another player again.
The golden swordsman casually raises his empty hands and apologizes to the guards before they go back to their original positions. He gives our group one more glance before turning back to the stone tablet and seems to ponder something, choosing to ignore us for now.
I manage to get a glance at the stone tablet in the moment the AI player turn back to the display. It is a little different from the one I won in the tournament at the Swordbreak Colosseum, but it is definitely one of the other tablets.
“We’re leaving,” I state to the others before placing my arm around Fen for comfort and leading everyone away. I will explain the situation to them once we find a tavern to stay in.
Fen has always been arrogant toward other players and never shows fear. That is an obvious effect resulting from being immortal against them. Against the other AIs however, she has seemingly had little interaction with them. Now that she is back in the game network, she obviously feels incredibly vulnerable to them.
There is one reassuring thing though that gives me confidence. Based off of the power the golden swordsman displayed, his human body is under the same restriction similar to Fen. This means that he is only ‘King Class’.
He is obviously planning on taking the stone tablet, so we just have to take it first or take it from him. Different plans start to form in my mind as we take our leave from the Koga Heritage Museum.