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One Last Game

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"You're really restarting? But your old account was so good! And it'll take forever for you to get back to level 31! Me and Hasu are going to be too far ahead…"

Bera Gu rolled her eyes at Kazu's whining. "Good? It was awful!" she said, never slowing the pace of hands over the computer's mouse and keyboard. 

"It was great!" Kazu shot forward from his seat and slapped a hand down over the keyboard. He ignored Bera's indignant cry and continued. "I'm telling you, you're making a huge mistake. You were rolling rare items all the time. Your gold drops were the highest of the guild! That kind of luck doesn't come around twice."

"It's not a mistake. Those rare items were useless. And yeah, I got a lot of gold drops, because I never got any good skill drops or stat boosts items! My character had to have been the weakest level 31 in the game. So I hope that kind of shit luck doesn't come around twice. Now move ." She swatted at Kaz's hand, and he instantly recoiled.

"Ow!" Kazu rubbed the growing red mark on his hand where Bera had slapped him. "Gah, do what you want!"

"Oh, I will. See?" She turned to face Kazu and smiled. Then without ever turning back, Bera twirled her hands with flourish before tapping down on the enter button. "All done."

The scene on the computer screen faded to black, with only the game's title, ONE LAST GOD, still emblazoned at the top. Then from the darkness, squares of light swirled and rose, constructing the character model in its path. It only took ten or so seconds for the character to finish being loaded. The avatar on screen cheered and waved to celebrate its own birth.

"Ugh, your tastes are weird as ever, Bera," Kazu said. "Her face is gross--ow!!" This time, it was Bera's foot that flashed forward to deliver a kick to Kazu's shins.

"I based it on my own!"

"Yeah….you sure did--ow! Stop doing that!" Kazu cried, hands covering his shins protectively.

Bera hmphed and swiveled her chair back to the computer screen. She may have been no great beauty, but Kazu didn't exactly possess any once in a century good looks either. As far as she was concerned, her character looked just fine. Bera watched the character animations loop a few times, and admired her handiwork. The avatar had her round face, her squat nose, and her head of wavy hair, albeit in a bright green. Her eyes drifted to the bottom of the screen and narrowed in confusion.

"Huh?" Kazu leaned in too. "Hey, Bera, why'd you name her Kubera? I know you want to be a triple Kubera class again, but it's a little arrogant to give her the name of a god, don't you think?"

Kubera: in game lore, the patron god of the striker class. In real life, it was also the test striker created when the game was first being developed. As such, the name was synonymous with the striker class itself. The account still existed, and belonged to one of the higher developers maintaining the game. It was put into use whenever a feature for the striker class needed to be tested.

Of the 12 classes in the game, players could choose to split their class makeup between 3 classes, but only those who played one class could gain access to a class' highest tiered skills. The striker class in particular was a subset of the fighter category along with knight and berserker. It was focused on close combat and self-buffing.

"Don't be ridiculous," Bera said, still peering at the name displayed in her character's name slot. "I named her Leez. Besides, the name Kubera should be taken up already. I couldn't name my character that if I wanted to! Ah geez, I don't want a conspicuous name like this at all…where's the back button?"

Ding! Kazu glanced at his phone to see a message from his brother, Hasu. Panicking a little, he snatched up the phone to hide the text from Bera, who was too busy searching for a way to edit her character's name to care. Everyone here!! it read.

"Too late, too late!" he said. "She's already been created. Let's just move ahead. Contact an admin later."

"I guess you're right…" Bera conceded.

"Yup. Go, go, go, I'll meet you at the guild!" Kazu pulled on his jacket. "See you in game, Bera!" And with that he bolted out the door. Bera heard his faint goodbye to her mother before the front door slammed.

Suspicious. He and Hasu lived next door. There was no real reason for him to be running like this unless…

Bera sighed. They should've picked someone other than Kazu to do it. He was too obvious.

She hit the continue button and selected Willarv as her starting world. All around her avatar, the world brightened and the scenery of the starting village faded into view. Bera smiled slightly. Ah, the nostalgia.

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Immediately tutorial boxes popped up and blocked the village from view. "Anddddd skip, skip, skip…" she muttered, closing the boxes as they opened.

After three minutes of battling with the tutorials, one final message popped up with a You're now ready to begin!

Bera snorted. She glanced at the name floating over her character's head, and was surprised to see that it now displayed Leez Haias. What a weird glitch, she thought. Did the game mistake her class for her name? No, that couldn't be right….it wasn't until level 15 that players could beginning selecting their first class allocations. It was impossible for the game to know that she would choose to be a triple striker again. She shrugged; it didn't matter anymore.

 


 

Although One Last God had some truly startling landscapes, even just within the land of Willarv, the starting village showed none of that. It was painfully generic. Plain, boxy buildings dotted the stepped hills. A single river ran through the center of the village. Kazu joked once that it's existence was just so that the starting village could have a bridge to be a landmark. The surrounding Mushroom Forest's only distinctive feature was the sheer amount of mushrooms that could be farmed. Most of them were white-grade common ones worth little more than a copper, but at times, it was known to spawn patches of orange-grade golden curry mushrooms.

However, real estate was cheap. Most of the big guilds could afford buying up space in more exceptional looking locations to house their members, but most of the smaller ones defaulted to buying a building in a village.

The nearest of the great guilds was Atera, situated among the red leaves of the Ember Forest on the hills overlooking the city of Atera. For that reason, recruitment posters for joining the Atera guild were plastered throughout the village. Bera ignored them all and headed straight for a nondescript building at the edge of the starting village. The casual eye would miss the Shroomtown Guild sign emblazoned over the doorway, but for Bera, it was a guiding beacon.

With few exceptions, the largest guilds with members numbering in the thousands were either guilds that were created when the game world was designed, or guilds backed by pro teams. The former were guilds that represented cities like Atera Guild or Rindhallow Guild, while the latter were guilds such as Gandharva or Garuda Guild. The majority of the guilds that fell into neither categories were those formed by friends for fun. Those typically had less than twenty members.

Shroomtown Guild was just one of many such guilds. Hasu had thought it would be amusing to name the guild as though it was one of the founding guilds like Atera, so the name was lifted from the surrounding Mushroom Forest.

As she approached the door, Bera slipped on the headset. She clicked on the door, and Leez knocked. A message popped up with the words do you wish to request to join this guild? Barely an instant after Bera had clicked yes a new pop up sprouted with a message reading congratulations, you've been accepted!

Bera chuckled a bit at this. Really, they were the even trying to hide it? She clicked on the door again, and Leez swung it wide open.

"WELCOME BACK!" a mass of voices bellowed from the headset, causing Bera to flinch and turn down the volume.

Half a dozen characters swarmed around Leez.

"Wow you really remade after all!"

"So it's 'Leez' now, huh? Gonna take some getting use to."

"Wow, you chose a pretty gutsy name!"

"Don't worry, you can leech for awhile so you can get back up to level quickly!"

"Ok, ok, everybody! Give her some space! Some space!" someone called out, causing the small crowd to disperse. When the crowd cleared, Leez could see the guild leader, Haas Lehn, waving at her.

In reality, Hasu Park was the infinitely more responsible elder brother of Kazu Park. And in game, Haas continued to be dependable support through and through. Originally, he had planned on being ranged support by playing single sharpshooter double machinist. Then it became evident that no one else in their guild was willing to be anything other than a hotblooded, rush-into-battle type of player. As a result, for his final class allocation, he chose to take up cleric instead of a second machinist.

As someone who played single allocations on Vayu, Brahma, and Visnu, Haas was only able to gain access to the first tier of abilities for each class, and as a result, he wasn't a player who would give flashy performances. But he was reliable, and he played the spread admirably enough.

"Welcome back, Bera!" Haas said. "Hope my brother didn't piss you off too much while he was stalling you."

"Oh, he did, Hasu. And he made it obvious he was stalling too," Leez said.

"W-what?!" Kaz Lehn stuttered. "How was I obvious?" 

Instantly, the crowd turned against him. 

"Ughhh, I knew we should've had Haas do it instead!"

"Was Bera even surprised?" 

Kazu's reputation was his brother's opposite: undependable. His character, Kaz Lehn, was a triple Kali--all three class slots went right into blood knight. The class was supposed to trade their life for strength, and drink the life of the enemy. Unfortunately, Kaz stopped at "trade their life" and received neither strength nor glory in return. Despite Haas' best efforts, Kaz was usually the first to die during dungeon runs.

As Kaz drew the ire of the crowd, Haas again swooped in to save him. "Hey! How about we give Be--Leez--her other surprise." 

"Oh! Right!" The crowd backed off from Kaz and turned back to Leez. Peil Sairofe, the only other guild member responsible enough to use one of his class slots to be a cleric, stepped forward.

"Uhhhh…" Leez stared. 

"Ok, so you've contributed a lot of gold--"

"Most of the gold," Leez corrected.

"Most of the gold," Peil amended, "to the guild. We know you've wanted better equipment for awhile now, and well...we figured since you were restarting from scratch, this would be a good chance to give you some equipment that could grow with you." 

"Wait wait wait," Leez said, excitement rising. "You guys didn't…"

"One of my relatives is pretty good at making silver equipment so--" Although Leez's expression didn't change, everyone could hear Bera's high pitched squealing as she screamed into her headset. Peil raised his voice. "We commissioned you some silver-grade cloth armor."

A notice popped up on Bera's screen. Peil Sairofe sent you a gift! She slammed down on the Accept button and jolted towards the screen.

 Silver-grade equipment. Specially commissioned silver-grade equipment. Bera squealed again. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!! "

She could hear the other laughing at her excitement, and Peil telling her that he would send her the instructions for upgrading the armor later, but it was all background noise to shining distraction that was the silver-grade equipment.

It was bright yellow cloth armor, colored like the down of newly hatched chicks. Despite appearing like a simple shirt and skirt, the defense stats were nearly double that of common level 1 cloth armor, and granted a strength bonus.

Items that could be found in dungeons or by killing monsters were graded white, green, blue, purple and orange. Silver-grade equipment was equipment created by player using raw materials collected in game. The blueprint for their creation was determined by the creator, and required extensive fine tuning and experimentation. As a result, most silver grade equipment was actually trash. But, unlike other equipment, silver-grade equipment could be continually upgraded, meaning that silver-grade equipment would never be outgrown.

For this reason, many tried their hands at equipment creation.  Few could create something better than blue or purple-grade equipment, and the the 0.1 percent that could create something surpassing orange-grade equipment closely guarded their secrets.

From the fact that there was already a stat bonus on the first level, Bera could tell that this was a creation by one of the 0.1 percent. Peil may have said that they used gold she earned, but she knew that whoever made it did it more as a favor to Peil than anything. All the gold in the guild treasury wouldn't have been enough to cover the costs of a commission like this.

 


 

Bera hummed as she had Leez wander into the Mushroom Forest, admiring the yellow cloth armor equipped on her. The day was promising great things. The entire guild was planning to help her level up quickly by letting her leech while they ran dungeons and fought in areas with high leveled monsters. All she had to do was get some mushrooms for potions, and they would be all set. If all went well, she would be able to level up to level 5 before dinner time, allowing her to wear upgraded armor. Kaz and Haas had even gone to Atera to buy the materials needed to complete the first upgrade for her silver-grade armor.

She could hardly remember the last time she had been this excited to play. 

Her good mood began to wear off after 10 minutes of searching and no mushrooms in sight. Without mushrooms, the already featureless Mushroom Forest became the even more featureless Forest.

"Damn big guilds, taking all the mushrooms," Leez muttered. "Just because dungeons refresh in an hour doesn't mean you have to stock up on that many potions!"

It wasn't impossible to find any mushrooms, but Leez was forced to wander ever deeper into Mushroom Forest. Traversing the forest wasn't difficult. The real problem was that Leez could only move so fast, and Bera was impatient.

However, Bera soon found no reason to complain. She saw it out of the corner of screen--a gleaming golden glow. 

Curry Mushrooms!

Orange-grade mushrooms for orange-grade potions! The day returned to being wonderful and lucky. Leez made a mad dash for the patch, head turning this way and that to make that no one else was around to fight her for the mushrooms.

Then she saw him; a player with icy blue skin and sea green hair, standing stock still in the middle of the patch. Bera cursed and forced Leez to a grinding halt.

"Hey, look," Leez said nervously. "We can split this patch, yeah? I'm not going to fight you for all of it..." As if she could as a level 1.

The blue player replied with a voice somehow even more blue than his skin. "What do you want?"

Bera was not the type to enjoy repeating herself. Intimidated or not, she could not help but let irritation slip into her words. "The mushrooms. What else could I be--look, I just said we could split the patch."

The blue player looked down at his feet. "Oh. These." There was a hint of surprise, as though he had no idea that he been standing on hundreds of thousands of gold pieces worth of Curry Mushrooms. "Take them all. I don't need them."

Bera nearly choked. "S-s-seriously?" Lucky day! Lucky day! She glanced at the name floating over the player's head. Gandhal: Level 50. "Gandhal, you're too generous! You ever need anything, you name it and I'll do it, I swear!"

"Don't act so familiar with me, kid."

"I wasn't, I--well...look these are super rare!" Was this guy a that dense? Did he not understand the significance of these mushrooms? Bera shook her head. She didn't hesitate to have Leez run around in circles to collect the patch, but it didn't feel right to not let Gandhal know what he was missing out on. "We're talking orange-grade here! One mushroom can make 5 full recovery potions. I'd eat my arm for one of these! No, I'd eat both arms!"

Suddenly, she heard Gandhal laugh. "You look like an idiot! Just running around in circles! Are you trying to make me dizzy?"

"Did you hear any of what I said?"

"Yeah, kid," Gandhal said dismissively. "Only little level one chickadees get this excited over Curry Mushrooms. You'll get used to it once you play more."

Bera nearly choked again. Use to it ? What kind player was this guy to turn his nose up at orange-grade materials? She instinctively felt that even if she corrected him and told him that she had already played for a few years, he would still scoff and think her inexperienced.

Gandhal sighed. "What a shame it would be if something awful happened on your first day." 

Leez froze. "What do you mean?"

"Quiet, I'm thinking," Gandhal said, sharp edge in his voice. Leez said nothing more and waited. "Hmmm...alright. Let's do it like this then. You should go to Atera for today!"

"Actually, I was planning to go back to the starting villa--"

A crackle of ice sounded and white mist drifted from Gandhal's hands; tell tale signs of the beginnings of an elementalist's spell. "Or you could be killed by me right here."

Not when she might drop her silver-grade armor. "Right! Atera! I should go meet up with my friends." Bera forced out a laugh and cursed herself for ever striking up a conversation with Gandhal. Leez turned tail and ran towards Atera. She only bothered with a quick "goodbye" when she was halfway out of sight.

Gandhal sighed again. "Oh, look how excited new players are." 

"You just let her go?"

"It's her first day playing." He turned to face the other player emerging from among the trees. "I feel bad enough bullying normal players like this. But a completely new player? It's shameful."

The other player's bright red and white armor stood out among the verdant plant life. He wore the heavy armor of a knight, wielded a long battle mage's spear in one hand, and had a enormous launcher's cannon strapped to his back. The name above his head read "Maruna".

Gandhal felt a little weighed down just looking at him.

"Well," Maruna said. "Let's just hope she wasn't one of the ones with the name."

Gandhal gave a short laugh. "The chances of that are slim. Besides, even if she was, we can always kill her and check another day. Enough about this, how is the sweep of the area going?" 

"We've finished up some of smaller guilds in the area. We'll be targeting the ones in the village soon enough, and there should be no problems there."

"I should hope not," Gandhal said. "This is supposed to be the easy part. The others haven't even deigned it worth their time. Atera will be much more troublesome with how many players are in the city."

 "Isn't that a good thing? We'll be able to find avatars with the name faster that way."

"Even we wouldn't be able to survive one vs one hundred. Especially not when the players could be coming from one of the great guilds. " Gandhal pauses, thinking. "No. As I am now, I don't think I could even survive one vs forty if it's against experienced players." 

"Is your hand still injured?" Maruna asked, concerned.

"Because of this avatar ," Gandhal said icily. "Don't be so quick to look down on me."

"...my apologies." 

"Did you look into Atera guild like I asked you to?" 

"Yes," Maruna said, relief for the subject change evident. "There were several triple battle mages with 'Kim' in their name." 

"List them."

"Bap Kim, Fried Kim, Flaming Kim, Babo Kim--"

"Enough. That's him. They're all him." Gandhal made a sound of exasperation. "He works on the game for a living, and he still plays this much? Why can't he just be sick of it like the others already."

"This isn't good. If he gets directly involved, it'll be impossible to disguise the kills as normal pvp. Worse, he could even pull in the company's involvement."

"I'll take care of it."

"You will?" Maruna couldn't help but sound taken aback, but even as the words spilled out he knew that Gandhal would take it as a slight. 

Sure enough, there was heavy pause before Gandhal replied. "He's a simple-minded idiot," he finally said. "I'm sure I can get him to look away for awhile. Regardless, Babo Kim will be my problem. You go take care of the players in the village."

 


 

" Go to Atera for today ," Leez mocked. "Tch. Why should I do what he said?" Her courage--and by extension, disdain--was directly proportional to the amount of distance between Leez and Gandhal. And there was a decent amount of distance between the two, hence her decision to double around back towards Shroomtown Guild. Still, she made sure to keep a wide berth from where she encountered him.

While she hadn't gotten the entire patch, she did manage to get a good number of the curry mushrooms. Overall, she found the trip to the forest satisfactory.

Her good mood had largely returned by the time she reached Shroomtown Guild, enough so that when Leez swung open the front doors, she let out a loud whoop to announce her arrival.

No one greeted her.

Leez turned round and round, and saw nothing but an empty room. "Hello?" she called out. Frowning, Bera guided Leez around the guild. There wasn't much aside from its plain walls and wooden floors. Any gold they made they poured into their avatars or on goods for the guild storage, not on the appearance of the guild. There were at least a few tables, under all of which Leez searched for signs of the other guild members.

Did they all leave without her? Was this another surprise?

With no other options, Leez glanced out the window. A single player, dressed in red, stood outside a fair distance away. Staring back at her. 

His avatar made Bera feel a little weighed down just looking at him.

The player lifted a cannon in his hands and pointed it directly at Leez. Bera heard the endless clicks of the gatling gun before she registered that she was being shot at. Simultaneously, she also realized that this skill would be enough to kill someone as low leveled as her. The camera spun as Leez fell and Bera became disoriented. It felt like minutes, but after a few seconds, Leez came to a stop flat on her back.

What a shame it would be if something awful happened on your first day.  

And now she had been killed. Bera laid there in shock, waiting for the screen to gray with death.

Waiting.

Waiting. 

"How long do you plan to lie there? That player is going to come over here soon."

Bera jolted at the voice. A player who died wasn't able to hear other players. The screen wasn't graying. Leez wasn't dead.

Leez sprang back up.

"Are you an idiot?" the other player hissed. "Get down so he can't see you."

Leez crouched immediately and turned to face the speaker. It was a player named Asha Raihiro . Just from a glance, Bera could tell that Asha was a veteran player. Already level 70, and wearing purple cloth armor with a unique appearance that could only mean silver-grade equipment.

Avatarss expressions typically did not change when a player was just standing still and talking, and it was only fairly recently that the company even added a feature where the talking animation would play if it detected sound from a player's headset. As a result, no matter what words were being said, the avatar's expression would remain the same as one of five default preset expressions.

Bera had chosen a friendly smile for Leez.

Asha's controller had apparently chosen the expression that was somewhere between annoyed and dead. Her voice matched it perfectly.

"I thought that a survivor would be at least somewhat interesting," Asha said, "but to think. You're just some level one fool who can barely even grasp the controls. If I hadn't knocked you down, you'd be back at the revival point right now like everyone else in this guild."

"Revival point?" Bera's surprise was too great to feel insulted. "That one guy out there managed to kill everyone in the guild?"

"Wasn't that obvious?" Asha sighed. "A level one fool who can't grasp the situation either..." 

This time, Bera did feel insulted. "I have a name. And I know you can see it since it's right next to my level ."

"To call you by it would be an insult to Rao Leez." Asha's avatar didn't allow for much facial variation, but her contempt dripped from every word. "It's arrogant of you to choose a name like that. Did you think someone like you could be like him?"

"First I had to listen to Kazu complain when he thought I named myself Kubera. And now you with Leez?" Bera supposed she should feel grateful to Asha, but at this point, she was too incensed to care about anything other than her desire to shock her into silence. "Well I doubt Rao Leez would care, since he's my dad."

The fact had the desired effect. Asha had no retort.

The beautiful silence did not last long. With a loud crash, the red player leapt through the hole left behind by the shot up window. Within that brief moment, he managed to spot Leez still crouched beneath the window, and Asha across from her.

Bera had hoped that he would leap past them, giving Leez time to distance herself. But in one smooth movement, he turned, spear tracing a thin red arc in the air--an arc that would certainly intersect with both Leez and Asha's heads.

Before even she understood what she was doing, Bera initiated a roll and Leez managed to just barely escape the spear's path. It swept over Leez's head and continued toward Asha's.

Bang!

The spear was thrown off its path. Asha held a sharpshooter's revolver in hand, pointed exactly where the spear had been. The moment she confirmed that red player's attack was interrupted, Asha took aim at him instead.

Knights barely flinched when hit, especially those with high quality armor. A basic shot from a sharpshooter's revolver would have almost no effect. The red player ignored Asha's attack and repositioned his spear to strike again. This time, the spear's head sparked white with a battle mage's skill: White Enforcement. The stun time would double if it connected. To avoid being dragged into a combo,  Asha stopped her attacks and leapt backwards.

There was at least some distance between the three now, and Bera could breath. She glanced at the red player's name. Maruna .

With the surprise of being attacked dissipating, and Asha's insults driving the blood to her head, Bera felt emboldened. Maruna. This was the person who killed all of her guildmates. This person, right in front her. Forget being level one, if she was going to die either way, where was the satisfaction in just running until the end? No, for the person who killed her guildmates, even if it was just the basic punch of a level one, Bera burned to strike him just once.

Leez leapt forward. Maruna turned at the noise. Asha made a sound that would've most certainly been the word "idiot" if she had the time to complete words.

One strike and Leez would be dead. But one strike, and she would also be satisfied. Leez swung.

Maruna dodged with ease, moving just far enough away so that she was within the ideal striking range of his spear. He was too fast; Leez could barely follow the spear tip as it stabbed towards her, much less react to it. Before he could make contact, several more gunshots rang out, this time accompanied by a whistle of wind.

The Vayu class's Sickle Bullet: with it's armor piercing effect, even Maruna's armor would be temporarily quartered in effectiveness if hit.

Maruna cancelled his attack and dodged instead.

"Idiot!" Asha said, now that she did have time to complete words. "Run!"

Given the amount of effort that Asha seemed to be putting in to keep her alive, Leez made the snap decision to listen and vaulted out the window. She broke into a sprint towards the forest.

Behind her, she heard more gunshots until there was a dull thud. Leez glanced back to see Asha rolling uncontrolled on the ground from the force of some attack, and Maruna ready to strike again.

Leez almost cried out until she saw a flash shoot out from Asha's still ragdolling avatar, hitting Maruna dead in the chest. The beam was strong enough that even with his heavy armor, he was knocked back several units.

Asha transitioned from her rolling to on her feet in the blink of an eye. In her hands, she had switched out her pistol for a launcher's cannon. "Keep running!" she shouted. She charged and fired several more shots towards the ground in Maruna's general direction, launching dust and debris into the air, obscuring them from view.

By the time the dust cleared, they were gone.

Maruna didn't move immediately. Ding ! The in-game chat popped up with a message.

Did you finish up?

He considered his options. He didn't enjoy leaving things incomplete...but after he had gotten a closer look, that was the player that Gandhal pardoned in the forest. 

Another message alert sounded. Hello?  

Maruna replied. Yes. I didn't find anyone.


 

 

"W-wait up!" Leez shouted. All characters in the game had limited stamina and could only sprint for so long. This didn't change even upon leveling up. Yet despite Leez's head start, Asha had somehow managed to not only catch up, but run ahead of her.

Asha stopped to wait. Before Leez could thank her, Asha spoke instead. "Pathetic. You can't even manage your speed properly. Are you really Rao Leez's child?" 

Ah, of course. How could she forget? Asha spoke in endless insults. "My dad hasn't touched this game in years," Leez said. "And it's not like being good at a game is genetically transferable."

"Clearly. Well, I suppose you can't be completely talentless if you managed to survive that first attack."

Bera blinked. Had Asha just only half insulted her? The latter part could almost be taken as a compliment. "Thanks…?"

There was a brief pause before Asha spoke again. "If you look at your status, does it show your name as Kubera?"

"Huh?" Confused, Bera opened her character menu. The avatar's name was listed as Kubera. She closed the menu, and the name floating above the avatar's head still showed Leez Haias. "What the hell? I thought the glitch went away!" The surprise wore off, and suspicion settled in. Leez looked at Asha.  "How'd you know?"

"You mentioned that a friend thought you had named yourself Kubera during character creation. The same thing happened to a friend of mine, so I thought you might have the same glitch," Asha replied.

"Ah! How'd they fix it?" Leez asked excitedly.

"They contacted the company, but with everything that happened, the developers haven't fixed it yet."

"I guess a small glitch like this would be on the lower end of the priority list right now..." Silence fell again, but Asha didn't move away. Bera hesitated, weighing her pride against her politeness. Finally, politeness won. "Umm...thanks for earlier."

Asha continued to stand in silence. Bera shifted uncomfortably, and Leez cycled through her cheerful idle animations in complete obliviousness.

"Bera!" a muffled voice called, breaking through the silence.

At her mother's shouting, Bera scrambled to remove her headphones. "Yeah?!" she yelled back. 

"Dinner's ready!"

A perfect excuse to leave then. "Thank you, mom," Bera said under her breath. Then, louder, "I'll be down in a second!"

Bera slipped her headset back on and faced Asha again. "So uh, I gotta go now," Leez said. "Thanks for the help, and umm...see you again." She recalled all the things that Asha had said to her up to this point. "Maybe." 

"Do you want to get revenge on that player?" Asha asked suddenly. "The one who attacked your guild."

Bera dropped her hands from her headset. "...yes?" she said uncertainly.

Her thoughts drifted back to the player named Maruna. To how empty the guild had looked. How he had killed her guildmates for no discernable reason. How he had shot at her with no warning. How she burned to strike him even once. "Yes," Leez repeated. "Yes, I would."

"Then meet me in Atera tomorrow morning, in front of the city gates," Asha said. "Level up as much as you can before then.

"Alright--"

"And whatever you do," Asha said in a tone between warning and threat, "don't get yourself killed."

 


 

"--and then he just shot at me. I've never even seen the guy--mm! Wow, the beef turned out great, mom--never even seen the guy before, and he just shoots."

Rao Gu laughed. "Guess even after ten years, there's still players with nothing better to do than things like this."

"I've never met anyone so shameless in game before," Bera said, stuffing her face with food. 

"Just be glad you haven't met anyone like that in real life." 

"If she met anyone like that in real life, she'd be dead," An Gu said. Bera had inherited much of her looks from her mother, but in a strange, somewhat distorted way. An was generally considered quite a beauty, but Bera's appearance had relatives scrambling to append no offense to you when they commented on the the similarities to An.

Rao too, had a bright, pleasant face, so the same relatives couldn't even blame him. All they could say was what a shame . To which they were responded to with a door in the face.

"Slow down Bera, you'll choke eating that fast," An chided.

"Can't!" Bera paused to chew, swallow, then stuff yet more food into her mouth. "Gotta level up as much as I can tonight." More food. "This weekend is dedicated to my revenge!" And yet more. "This girl I met said that she'd help--oh!" Bera paused her shoveling. "Dad, she's a fan of yours!"

"Well I am pretty great," he said, nodding. "But specifically a fan of what?"

"Of Rao Leez!"

"Wow." An's eyes widened slightly. "Rao, weren't you only in the pro leagues for the first season?"

"To have made such a deep impression on her," he said, eyes half closed in concentration and a hand at his chin. "I should be more careful about the influence I have on others." An and Bera rolled their eyes.

"Anyways, thanks for the food mom." The chair skidded as Bera stood. "I'll be back with tales of victory!"

"Good luck," An said. "The dishes will be awaiting your return in the sink."

"Daaaaad," Bera whined.

"Fine, fine," Rao waved his hands towards the stairs. Bera grinned and without further prompting, ran back to her desk and slid in front of her computer. 

An explosion of alerts from the guild's chat room greeted her when she logged back on. All of them shared tales of their quick and awful deaths at the hands of the player named Maruna. The members were still complaining once Leez was back at the guild.

Peil rushed towards her as soon he spotted Leez. "Your armor! Did you drop your armor?" 

"I didn't get killed," Leez said.

"Oh good," Peil said with a sigh of relief. "You didn't run into that bastard."

"No," Leez corrected again, "I did." 

"What?!" Peil's shout drew the attention of the guild members. "How are you still alive?"

"No way, you survived an attack by that guy?" Kaz said, running over. "Geeze, and someone ," he glanced at Peil, "was just telling me about how they couldn't even catch a glimpse of him when they were killed."

"I couldn't!" Peil protested. "I'm telling you, that guy was good. He hid in my blind spots and comboed me until I died!"

Kaz snickered. "You always make fun of me for dying in dungeons, but you went pretty pathetically this time. Bera's level 1 and didn't die."

"Stop making fun of Peil, Kazu," Leez said. "I didn't survive on my own. There was someone else there who helped me escape."

"Must've been some expert...I kind of wish I could meet them," Peil said wistfully.

"No, you don't," Leez deadpanned. Peil and Kazu gave her a look that said didn't they save you?  "Trust me you don't." A pause. "But, you might anyways."

"Because…?" Kaz said. 

"Because I've decided I'm going to kill Maruna for this, and she offered to help me do it."

There were a few gasps around the room. Some muttered protests and warnings; others cheered for her success. All helped her level grind through the night, until Bera felt her eyes too tired to remain open.

The next morning, Bera barely logged on before a private message popped up.

Atera. East gate. Now.

Chapter Text

The first time she decided to play the game, it had already existed for 7 years. The pro leagues were in their 5th season and drawing double the views with every passing year. It was nearly impossible to meet someone her age that didn't at least have an account. Most played casually, and a good number played daily.

She often listened to friends discuss plans to run dungeons at an internet cafe after class. To socialize with complete strangers, it seemed like this or drinking was the best way to get started. After realizing that her drunk self was somehow even more withdrawn than her sober self, she was left with the game.

Bril Jung made an account under Brilith Ruin a month into her first year. As she wandered around the city of Atera, getting accustomed to the controls, she wondered how to proceed. Should she message someone? Hey, I started an account too! Add me! She chewed her lip, courage curdling at the thought. What was it that her mother had said? If you can become embarrassed, you're still too prideful. Yes, she was still too prideful. It was ugly.

She had phone numbers from many of her classmates, but outside of simple discussions to form study groups or questions about class, she rarely received or sent anything that didn't have to do with college. At first, she had been invited to drinking parties with the intention that she would pay ( your mother is loaded!) . She was awkwardly hit on several times--even had an uncomfortable date with someone who wouldn't take no for an answer--but in the end, a few times of politely declining to join on an outing were enough to stop the invitations all together. Soon her reputation had regressed back into what it had been in high school.

She almost stopped playing at that moment as she thought those thoughts. It had all seemed so pathetic suddenly, and a nagging voice at the back of her head kept repeating that it was all pointless.

"Heyyyy! Anybody want to party with us?! We need one more person!" someone was shouting. The same person was spamming the chat text bubbles over their avatar's head with a join button. Without thinking, she clicked it and was immediately added. The spammer cheered, and before she could understand what was happening, the city of Atera disappeared around her, swallowed by a swirling blue light.

The light stopped swirling and parted like a curtain to reveal the entrance to the dungeon in the Carnivorous Woods a little ways out from Atera. The plants in the area were colored with the same palettes as the beautiful pinks and vibrant reds of the Ember Forest that adorned the area around Atera. Unlike the Ember Forest, the woods were much more dangerous.

She mentally flipped through the beginner's guide she had read earlier. As the name suggested, the woods were filled with a wide variety of carnivorous plants. Game lore said that in ancient times, the people of Atera would bury their dead within the woods until the plants grew to favor the taste of flesh. There were few monsters to be found within the woods--the plants themselves were traps that would slowly deplete the health of anyone who didn't step carefully. Sometimes those who sank into the mouth of a pitcher plant would see half melted skeletons while the acid ate away at their health.

Many rare medicinal plants could farmed in the woods, but it was generally not suggested for those unfamiliar with the controls enter the area. It was widely acknowledged that traveling through the woods and finding the way to the dungeon was the first true test for beginners.

And now she was here, at the dungeon. Dungeons could be warped to after being visited the first time, and if the leader of a party warped, then the other members would warp as well.

"Hurry, hurry, hurry!" she heard the spammer call. His avatar was hopping up and down. "Get into the dungeon!"

Brilith quickly ran into the dungeon and she heard the sighs of relief as the message notifying that the party had started the dungeon displayed. "Alright, now we'll have this run, and 3 more attempts afterwards!" someone said happily. The time was 5:59 pm. A player could only run the same dungeon 3 times a day, and the number of times refreshed at 6:00 pm.

Including her, there were four others. She wasn't familiar enough with the classes to tell their specific class makeups, but there was an heavily armored knight, a priestly cleric, the battle mage who had been spamming, and some sort of gunman.

"Oh shit!" the knight said. "Bap, you idiot!"

"What? What did I do?" the battle mage said, confused.

"Ugh," the cleric groaned. "Look. Look at the person you had join the party."

Bril stiffened, and was glad that her avatar couldn't visibly shirk away until she shrank out of existence.

"She's only level 2!" the knight berated. His sword swept over the battle mage. They were within the same party, so the hit didn't do anything besides knock the battle mage to the floor. "This is complete waste of time. How are we going to run the dungeon with dead weight?"

Ah. Of course. This was a mistake. The call had been asking for people with experience. She had read the mood incorrectly again. There was no use in complaining--it had been her fault in the first place, so she should--

"It's fine, it's fine!" the battle mage said cheerfully. "Skill isn't the problem here, we just need luck! Besides, I spammed that message for over ten minutes, you know? We barely got together five party members to enter the dungeon in time. If she hadn't joined when she did, we wouldn't even have this chance right now."

The knight swung his sword a few times in frustration, and the battle mage scuttled away gracelessly. "How are we supposed to fight the boss like this? We barely scraped through when we had a gunner for DPS last time!"

"Don't worry! I'll put in more effort this time, haha--ahh!" The knight unleashed a Collapsing Light that split the earth at the battle mage's feet, sending him rolling. "Stop that! You're wasting your vigor!"

All special skills used up vigor. When vigor ran out, then the player would have to wait for it to be replenished before using any more skills. To have wasted a skill on a teammate who couldn't even be damaged by it--the knight was truly annoyed.

"Just let it go," the gunman said with a sigh. "We're wasting time. We still have three more chances after this anyways."

A few final grumbles later, the knight, gunman, and cleric began to walk forward. There was nothing left to do she supposed. If she died, she died. But even Brilith's meager damage output was better than nothing right? She breathed in. "I-I'll do my best!" she managed to say. The others didn't stop moving, or give any indication that they heard her.

"That's the spirit!" the battle mage said, leaping to his feet. "Sorry to put you on the spot like that."

"Ah, no, no," Brilith said hastily. "I should've known better than to accept at such a low level. I only started playing a few hours ago, so I'm not even that familiar with the controls yet…"

Both began to walk after the others. "Don't worry about it. Like I said, skill has nothing to do with our goal."

"Umm, what is your goal?"

"The witch's master!"

A mental flip through the beginner's guide drew a blank. After all, this wasn't an area for beginners.

Hearing her silence, the battle mage continued. "The lore of the dungeon is that the Decaying Witch, Rafflesia, is using the plants and corpses within the forest to summon her master. About 80% of the time, adventurers will interrupt her ceremony and the final boss of the dungeon will be her. But, the other 20% of the time, her summoning will succeed and the hidden boss will appear."

"The witch's master…?"

"Exactly! The Goddess Marut. She's a berserker that has a chance of dropping a greatblade. Even knights can use it, so that guy over there really wants it. We've been running this dungeon over and over again for the past three days."

"Goddess?" she said, surprised. "This dungeon is recommended for level 15 or so, and the boss is a goddess? The gods are supposed to be the highest bosses in the game!"

"Well, the summoning is only half successful, so she's not supposed to be at full power. Ah, but they do recommend level 23 or higher for the hidden boss…"

"Level 23?!"

"Don't worry, don't worry!" the battle mage placated. "We'll be fine. Besides, we don't even know if the goddess will appear. The witch herself can be taken down by those below level 15 with enough skill."

"Eh?" She glanced at the levels of the party. The battle mage was only level 18, but the rest were in their low-20s. "Umm, didn't he say that you guys barely beat the witch last time?"

"Ahahaha, well I did say with skilled players--"

The knight spun around, sword lifted threateningly. "What are you implying?!"

"Don't turn around now!" the battle mage said. "The first wave is here!"

His warning came just in time for the knight to turn back and glimpse a corpse covered in red flowers before a vine shot out and grabbed the knight's neck, putting him in a grapple. The knight swung his sword, and another vine wrapped around his arm. A double grapple. His defenses and speed were quartered. Three more corpses mobbed him, their strikes rapidly decreasing the knight's health.

Immediately, the cleric cast a healing spell, but it wasn't enough to offset the speed at which the knight's health dropped.

The gunman shot at the corpse. It continued to hold the knight, unfazed.

"Hit the flowers, remember?" the battle mage said, rushing forward. "The corpse is just a puppet!"

The gunman made a sound of frustration, then shot again. Two shots hit flowers, and one missed. That was enough to get the vines to slacken. The knight swung for the vines to free himself, then, he used a Collapsing Light to cleave through two of the corpses. Puppet or not, the damage was enough to make the corpse stop moving.

With the knight free, the gunman turned her attention to the incoming onslaught of corpses. She leapt backward to increase the distance between her and the incoming wave before shooting out several more shots, each whistling with wind that wrapped around the bullets like a sickle. The corpses staggered when the bullets sliced across them, wind pushing them back slightly.

The cleric bound the corpses within a Sacred Circle, and the Knight unleashed Light Slash after Light Slash. The battle mage didn't bother striking with any skills; instead he jabbed at the flowers with his spear.

One corpse managed to stumble out of the Sacred Circle, and leapt at the cleric. Not expecting a monster to move at full speed before the circle had worn off, the cleric panicked and jumped out of the way. The corpse's diving attack shot past the cleric, and it's aggro shifted to the new closest party member: Brilith.

She had been standing behind the rest of the party, unsure of what to do. Brilith had only killed weak slimes to complete her tutorial quests, and now there was a monster--at least level 10--baring down at her.  Bril's mind raced to remember the proper method of attacking. All Brilith had was a simple staff that didn't output much damage in the first place. Could she even do more than a single point of damage with the 8 level difference?

Hit the flowers.

The corpse dove to attack her. Brilith jabbed her staff forward, somehow managing to clip a flower  on the corpse's shoulder. The staff's reach meant that her attack hit first, but it didn't interrupt the corpse's attack at all. She flinched, ready to for Brilith to take a hit. She could only hope one hit wouldn't kill her.

A spear tip appeared in the the corpse's throat. The corpse almost looked like it was leaping into the air as the battle mage spun his spear and slammed the corpse back into the Sacred Circle. The party made short work the corpses after that.

"That was good!" the battle mage praised as they moved on.

"Huh?"

"It was an accurate shot. When you hit flower."

"Oh!" She hadn't been aware that he had seen that. But then again, how else would he have completed the Circle Throw? "I was lucky, that's all." Her avatar didn't show it, but Bril couldn't help a grin from slipping on her face.

"Still, that's the way to go. Keep calm; hit accurately. There's no need to be flashy. This entire dungeon was designed to test a player's control."

He continued to give advice then and again as they progressed through the dungeon. Jump like this to land where you want. The cool down lag for a basic attack is only this long so you can start executing another attack at this point. You can tell a trap is about to be triggered because the terrain looks like this.

The knight grumbled about the battle mage being a nag, but she found herself calming down as the dungeon started to feel more manageable. Brilith still stayed behind the main party, but she didn't die and got in a hit here or there. Most didn't do much damage, but a few hit in well placed spots. The controls were still a bit awkward, but she felt like she was getting better. Brilith even reached level 4.

They progressed steadily through waves of enemies and traps, until finally they reached a room dimmed with a black mist. Thin strips of something dripping blood hung out of the darkness. In the background, the sounds of buzzing flies made her scalp crawl. At the center, a figure was bent over a pile of detritus and flesh, swaying; chanting.

The Decaying Witch spun around to face them.

She heard the knight take a sharp breath in. If the witch laughed, then the summoning was successful. If the witch attacked, then it had been interrupted.

Rafflesia cackled.

The battle mage's laughter joined the witch's. "Ha! Looks like we brought lady luck with us!"

"YES!" the knight cheered as dark tendrils of energy swirled about the witch, wrapping around her, causing her flesh to redden and grey and slip from her bone. Rafflesia's flesh rotted away and her cackling ended in a strangled garble as her throat was ripped from her body and absorbed into the void.

"Wait, no...shit!" The knight cursed. "We're not ready for this!"

Bril looked at the other four's vigor levels. The cleric only had a quarter vigor remaining. The gunman had half. The knight a third. Only Brilith and the battle mage had the majority of their vigor in tact, and Brilith had barely done anything.

"Drink up," the battle mage said, tossing out three vigor recovery potions. They downed it, and their vigor rose by a quarter. She realized with a start that while the other three had used up their potions, the battle mage had gone through the dungeon without using a single one.

In the void, a new shape formed and solidified. The viscera slipped away, leaving behind the form of a beautiful woman: the goddess Marut, who drew her strength from decay. She sucked in the noxious air and seemed to grow lovelier with each breath.

Then suddenly, the air cleared. The void faded. Marut snapped from her calm trance and turned about in quick, jerking motions. Her gaze froze; sights locked on the party. Only half her face was fully formed--the other half still had tendrils of flesh half falling from the bone and sagging skin. Marut let out a guttural growl--her mind was only half formed as well. She leapt forward, closing the gap between the party in nearly an instant.

The cleric hastily cast a minor blessing on the party to buff their defense, and barely finished before Marut was upon them. Her greatsword flashed and struck the knight, who had managed to halve the damage with a block.

Brilith silently cheered. The battle mage was right about lady luck after all. Of all the party members, Marut had attacked the tank. The knight wouldn't even need to try to establish aggro--he'd just have to maintain it and sponge damage while the rest of the party attacked Marut. The cleric would focus on healing and buffing him, then the rest of the party could focus on attacking.

But...would that be enough? The gunman was level 22, so there wouldn't be significant problems. But what was left? A level 18 battle mage that had just started filling out his first tier abilities. Then even worse, a level 4 classless new player armed with a stick from character creation. Bril chewed her lip. Could the knight tank a goddess when they had barely beat the witch with someone that dealt more damage than Brilith could?

Marut's greatsword began to seep black mist, and the area where the sword made contact with his armor began to rot. The knight silently cursed and sidestepped away from the sword. The orange grade Sword of Decay was a powerful weapon with a useful armor breaking effect. If it wasn't so good, the knight wouldn't have wasted three days attempting to trigger this boss fight for a 16% chance at getting it as a drop. But in the hands of the enemy, it was a detestable weapon.

He swung at Marut with several Light Slashes to stabilize her aggro on him. "It should be fine now!" he said.

Immediately, the cleric cast a Sacred Circle to bind Marut in place. The battle mage finally used a skill and stabbed Marut with a spear that glowed with Blue Enhancement to cut her defense. At the spear's contact with Marut, a fireballs appeared near the battle mage and floated around him as he moved. The gunman had taken the time to charge a round in of Piercing Whistles in both guns, and fired all 12 shots at once. Brilith jabbed with her staff, but she knew that the screams of pain from Marut had nothing to do with her attack.

The binding wouldn't last long on a goddess, so the party took the chance to strike Marut during those few precious seconds. Flaming spheres continued to appear behind the battle mage with each strike of his spear, and his hands and feet seemed to start burning with the same flames.

"Get behind Marut!" he called suddenly.

Without thinking, Brilith immediately jumped to flank her. The cleric and battle mage did the same, but knight and gunman hesitated in confusion. Within that moment of hesitation, Marut broke free from the binding and slashed wildly.

The gunman was far enough to escape the reach of the sword slashes, but Marut had sent out Dimensional Cuts with each swing. The sickles of black energy flew through the air and slashed the gunman across the chest.

The knight was too weighed down by armor to escape the initial slashes, and was directly struck by the greatblade. The impact sent him flying into the walls across the room. Little yellow chicks circled his head. The rest of the party could hear the knight's player screaming curses into his headset, but the knight would not move.

With the knight stunned and far away, Marut's aggro switched to the only player within her field of vision: the gunman.

"Shit shit shit shit shit," the gunman said, shooting and running in a desperate attempt to maintain the distance between her and Marut. But Marut was fast--even faster than when the battle started. Marut raised her sword.

A fireball streaked through the air and struck Marut from the side, then a second as she fell to push her away from the gunman and towards the knight.

The gunman continued to shoot at Marut. "What are you doing? Send out the rest of the Prominence!" she yelled.

The battle mage was doing the opposite: he ran towards Marut instead to attack with his spear.

"Idiot!" the knight said. The stun wore off and he struck Marut's back, hoping to re-establish aggro.

Marut ignored the strike and continued to attack the battle mage. He slipped between the slashing sword and stabbed with his spear. On contact, more fireballs appeared to replace the ones he had sent out earlier, and the glow around his hands and feet burned brighter. His attacks sped up just slightly, but Marut's attacks grew faster at a greater rate. After a few more strikes, the battle mage failed to dodge and was struck away by her sword.

Brilith felt startled when that single hit did almost four times as much damage as the knight had taken just seconds before, leaving the battle mage at half health. A battle mage could only equip cloth armor, but the difference was still too great. The cleric cast a heal on the battle mage and a white glow surrounded him.

A black slash appeared on the cleric's head.

The cleric stumbled, and the healing spell was interrupted. The single strike took away a third of the cleric's health. Marut sent out several more Dimensional Cuts towards the cleric, who was still too stunned from the head strike to dodge. On impulse, Brilith swung her staff between the cleric and attack. To her surprise, rather than going straight through her staff, on contact, the Dimensional Cuts stopped moving and bloomed lesions across the staff. The staff shattered, but the cleric managed to roll away at the last second before the second wave of cuts arrived.

"Stop attacking for a second!" the battle mage called out. The knight and gunman ignored him. Marut's health dropped to a quarter and turned yellow.

Again, the cleric cast a healing spell.

Again, a black slash appeared on the cleric.

With two thirds of her health left, a single Dimensional Cut killed the cleric. Even with her amateur eye, Brilith could tell that in both speed and damage, Marut's attacking ability had increased sharply the moment her health had dropped to yellow.

"Wha--" A cut appeared across the gunman's body, and then she too was killed.

The battle mage a sound of annoyance before rushing towards Marut, sending two of the fireballs to knock Marut away from the knight. "This is why I said to wait!" he said as he stabbed Marut's head with a white enforced spear. "Beserkers get harder to deal with the lower their health falls! At least let the cleric heal first!"

"It's over!" the knight lamented. "We're going to have to try again!"

"Like hell we will!" The battle mage took the stun opportunity and execute several quick stabs. The spear tip blurred, stabbing with needle precision over and over again into the same spot on Marut's arm. "You think I'm going to do this for three more days? You're getting that sword now ."

Marut's stun wore off and she prepared to unleash another barrage of sword swings. The battle mage knocked her back with a red enforced spear strike, and the resulting swings were out of range. The Dimensional Cuts however, still shot out. Rather than dodging, the battle mage rushed forward.

Several fireballs flew ahead. The Prominence were dwarfed by the Dimensional Cuts, but on contact, the cuts stopped all the same and disappeared after destroying the fireballs. With the gap in the cuts opened, the battle mage managed to slip through and stun Marut again.

The knight now joined Brilith's do-nothing club. Marut's aggro was entirely on the battle mage now. "Y-you can't be serious. Even if you beat her, the drop chance is only 16%!"

The battle mage didn't respond and instead focused on again striking Marut's arm before the stun wore off.

His attacks were becoming faster and stronger as each strike made the fire at his hands and feet glow brighter, but Marut was as well. Each repetition of stun strike dodge increased the number of Prominence that the battle mage needed to deal with the Dimensional Cuts, and soon the reserves steadily fell. The battle mage was also several levels lower than Marut. Her health chipped away slowly, but one strike and the battle mage would be killed.

Finally, Marut hit red blood. She let out a scream that made the room tremble. The half of her face that had been so beautiful sagged like filmy clothe, the grey and red flesh below peeked through the gauzey skin. The black tendrils wrapped around her, turning her flesh to dripping tar where they touched.

She swung an arm forward, and the tendrils shot out towards the battle mage. He flitted out of the way. The tendrils hit against the ground with a sticky softness that blackened the earth.

Marut moved like scenery among strobing lights; flickering in and out of existence, each blink bringing her right to her target. The battle mage could only dodge, strike her once, and attempt to distance himself, but it was all for naught. While he was fast, Marut was much faster.

He sent out the remaining Prominence as Marut rushed towards him yet again. The Prominence were having less and less of a effect, but the the remaining number was enough to stop her attack. The tip of his spear was distorting like a mirage in desert heat. He stabbed.

At first, it seemed as though it was a normal attack, just like all the others he had done. Then, as he withdrew, white steam seeped from the wound until it covered her shoulder. The flesh still visible distorted and flickered just as the spear had. Marut screamed and her grip on her sword slackened.

With a clang, the sword fell to the floor. The battle mage didn't wait. He stunned Marut one more time, and stabbed her until her health became nothing.

Marut's death mirrored her summoning. The black tendrils took her apart and then all that was left to show she had ever been summoned was the darkened earth and the small pile of loot dropped from defeating her.

The knight ignored the pile and ran for the sword. "You actually got it to drop!"

"Yeah, thank god," the battle mage said, sounding slightly tired. "I was afraid we really would have to try for a few more days."

They collected the drops and warped out of the dungeon. The gunman and cleric were waiting outside.

"What happened? Did you win?" the gunman said.

"Well...take a look at this ." The knight brandished his new greatsword and basked in the oohs and ahhs of the cleric and gunman.

"Ok, ok, let's split the drops everyone," the battle mage said, dropping the loot onto the ground.

"Ah, brother expert, you should really pick first!" said the knight, suddenly sweet as sugar.

"Brother...expert…?" the cleric repeated.

"Yeah! You guys should've seen it! Bap took down Marut by himself at the end! I thought he were just some idiot for these past few days, but he's good!"

Despite the knight's enthusiasm, the gunman remained skeptical. "Good? Bap Kim? After how he did against Rafflesia in the last run?"

"Hahaha, I put in a little more effort this time, that's all," the battle mage said. "I can just take the leftovers."

"No, no, no, brother expert must pick first!"

"Please stop calling me that."

"Well I'm taking the herbs for potions," the cleric said. "And the Goddess Shroud." The drop pile shrank.

"Oi! Brother expert--"

" Please stop calling me that."

"If she's taking that, I'm taking the Netherworld Essence and acid," the gunman declared. More items disappeared from the pile.

"I wanted the Netherworld Essence!" the knight whined.

"You got the damn sword. Stop complaining."

"Well...then I'm taking the shield!"

"Oh? What happened to letting brother expert pick first?" the cleric sneered.

"What about you, Brilith?" the battle mage said before the knight could retort.

She blinked. "Huh? I didn't do anything."

"Nonsense! You lent us your beginner's luck and summoned Marut."

"That's not what happened at all," Brilith said with a laugh. "Besides, I already received some gold from the other enemies. That's enough for me."

"If you say so." With that, the remaining few drops were picked up by the battle mage. "At least let me give you a new staff. After all, we dragged you into a dungeon like that. I should still have a starter one stashed away at my storehouse."

Brilith was surprised, but accepting a starter weapon wasn't too greedy. "Oh! Sure I--"

"Great!" A notice popped up with Bap Kim has left the party . Then almost immediately afterwards, a personal message popped up on Brilith's screen saying Bap Kim invited you to join their party . She clicked accept. "It was nice dungeoning with you guys for the past few days. Bye!"

"Wait, brother expert--" That was the last Brilith heard from the knight as the blue teleportation light filled the screen.

The two reconstructed in Atera in front of one of the storage companies. A character had a limited amount of space to carry weapons and items, and too much would weigh them down and decrease movement speed. Most would join a guild and use the storage provided there, but those who played guildless would have to store items with a storage facility. The battle mage walked to a door and opened it to reveal a small closet crammed full of items.

" Brother expert . Ugh." The battle mage put up a disgusted face in a chat bubble. "Makes my skin crawl after he spent the last 3 days complaining about me."

"You were very good," Brilith said earnestly.

"Good?" He let out a laugh. "You should watch some pro matches! The players there? That's what 'good' really means."

"I haven't watched a pro match before, but you really were good! I liked watching you!" As soon as the words tumbled from her mouth, she felt herself burn with embarrassment. Mercifully, the battle mage swept past it.

"I'm flattered. Oh, here it is!" With a ding a message popped up asking her to receive a gift from Bap Kim.

It was a purple-grade staff. "I can't take this!" she protested. "You said you were giving me a starter staff!"

"It is a starter staff. It's only level 3."

"It's rare!"

"Well...I took a spear for my basic weapon when I created my character," he admitted. "This is the only staff I have that you can use. Anyways, don't worry about it. It's not like I'm using it."

"But you could sell it…"

"A level 3 weapon isn't worth that much, even if it is purple-grade."

She hesitated, guilt battling with the fact that she had already accepted the item. Finally, she sighed and acquiced.

"And that's that," the battle mage said cheerfully. The storage door closed with a slam.

"Umm…can a staff be used by a battle mage?"

"It can! Battle mages can use staffs or spears. Why?"

She had been hoping that he wouldn't ask why. It was silly to be embarrassed, but she was all the same. "...I was thinking about choosing battle mage as a class allocation."

"What? Really?"

His blunt doubt only deepened her embarrassment. "Yes…"

"Ah, don't get me wrong," he said quickly.  "You just didn't strike me as a battle mage type. You seem like the kind of person to observe and only execute actions when the opportunity is best. To be honest, a cleric or elementalist would suit you better. A battle mage is all about oppressing an opponent from beginning to end."

"You mean it takes someone more direct." Someone who didn't shirk away.

He laughed nervously at the unhappy edge in her words. "Ah, well, I don't know--"

"Even if it doesn't suit me," she said. "I'd like to try."

There was a long pause. She felt nervous again from his uncharacteristic silence. Had she said something wrong?

The silence ended with another laugh from him. "I guess I'm the last person who should lecture someone about playing a class that doesn't suit them. If you haven't joined a guild yet, I'd suggest joining the Atera guild. It has a good number of battle mages since one the city's patron gods is Agni. Plus, that guild will accept anybody, regardless of skill level."

"Ah, alright." Then, with a sudden rush of daring. "Umm, could I ask you for advice in the future?"

"Me? Sure, give me a second…"

The response came so easily, her embarrassment recursed on itself and became embarrassment for being embarrassed. A few moments later, a friend invite appeared. " Babo Kim?" Brilith read, confused.

"That's my main account!" the battle mage said. "I made Bap Kim to try a different battle mage build. I'll probably stop using this account for a while to be honest. Ugh. Brother expert. "

She laughed quietly. This person seemed to genuinely enjoy being treated like an idiot.

"Ah!" She jumped at the sudden cry. On the other end, Bap Kim was suddenly nervous. "Ummm...things are compiling?"

She blinked in confusion. "Excuse me?"

Somewhat faintly, she could hear someone ranting, "Then go review someone else's! Or work on something else--!"

"Uh, I gotta go," he said, panicked. "My boss isn't happy…"

"You're playing at work?!" Before could even finish her sentence, Bap Kim had logged off. She stared at her screen. This person...was most certainly an idiot! The name Babo Kim was painfully appropriate. She supposed that at the very least, he was self aware.

It would be for the best if she didn't become someone that obsessed with the game, but even so, she couldn't deny that she admired his abilities. Just a little.

Bril smiled slightly as she logged off.

She had only played for an evening, and already she had gotten through a dungeon, received a rare weapon, and even added a single friend. She supposed that there may be something to beginner's luck after all.

And so three years passed.

 


 

Atera was one of six major city locations within the land of Willarv. Each city had the patronage of two gods. For Atera, these were Shiva and Agni--destruction and fire. Perhaps because destruction was a somewhat difficult to concept to design a beautiful city around, the influence of Agni was a much stronger on Atera's appearance.

Atera was a city of eternal autumn, and some even said it looked as though it was touched by fire with the Ember Forest's pink leaves dancing in the wind. It's white walled buildings stood out among the red tinted stone of the surrounding mountains, and the domed red roofs were so bright that they still popped.

It was also the city nearest to the starting village, and thus typically the first city reached by new players. Some would attempt to reach Mistyshore first, but the high leveled monsters would usually kill them before they could. Bera knew that it was impossible for Leez to reach any other city at level 5, and suspected that Asha chose the city as a meeting point for that very reason.

As she approached the city gates, Bera spotted Asha instantly--she simply stood out too much amongst the many players in low leveled starting gear.

"I'm here!" Leez said.

"You're late," Asha replied dully.

Bera rolled her eyes. "I got here as soon you told me to. So, what's the plan? We going to hunt him down? Set some traps? Gather a mob?"

"Hunt him down? When you're only level 5?" Asha let out a long sigh that had sadly become very familiar to Bera. "New players," she said with a tone that left Bera sure that Asha was shaking her head behind the screen.

"I'm not a new player," Leez said, annoyance slipping into her voice. "This account is new. I had a level 31 account that I had been playing for most of the year, and I used to play around on my dad's old accounts."

"And I hope some of his lessons stuck," Asha replied icily. "Regardless, you're only level 5. Good enough after one night I suppose, but far from ready to take on that player. Tell me, what class allocations are you planning to take?"

"I play triple Kubera!"

"...fitting. Unfortunately, even if you were 10 levels about that player, you'd still be beaten badly with that class make up."

"Really?" Leez said, doubtful. "Is he that good?"

Another sigh. "You couldn't tell? The skill gap is too great to even comprehend for you anymore, I suppose."

"Look if insist that it's hopeless, I'm not just going to stand here and let you insult me," Leez shot back.

"If you can't stand people telling you your weaknesses we're not going to get anywhere," Asha said, completely unruffled. "Let's break this down, shall we? Tell me, what do you know about the Kubera class?"

"Uhhh…." Bera stopped, not expecting the question. "It's...one of the three classes under the fighter family. Umm...no heavy armor, no weapons. Just get in there and uh...hit? Lots of buffs and uhh--"

"The Kubera class is a classic striker," Asha cut in. "They only wear cloth armor and use no weapons except their fists. Compared to the Surya class knights, their defenses are cut since no heavy armor is equipable. But the base speed of the Kubera class is the highest, even among the other 3 class families. Over half of their possible skills are self buffing abilities to help make up for the lack of defense and range. Unlike the Shiva class, these skills can be used at anytime and is not tied to health. Although a berserker's damage output and speed surpasses that of a striker when their health is low, prior to that, the Kubera class is unmatched in close range combat."

"I knew that," Leez muttered.

"Then tell me, what is the weakness of the Kubera class?"

More prepared this time, Bera's answer was much smoother. "If they can't get within range, they're pretty much useless. The Kubera class doesn't get any long range attacks. They have a few mid-range skills at higher tiers, but every attack is close range otherwise."

"Good, so you at least know that much," Asha said without much approval. "Now let's look at that red player's class makeup. A knight's heavy armor, a gunner's cannon, and a spear. Many classes can use a spear, but he used a battle mage skill, so we can rule the rest out. Most likely, he's playing single allocations across Surya, Indra, and Agni."

"Single allocations and he's still that good..." Bera couldn't help but feel a little awed. Although single allocations allowed for greater flexibility and more varied abilities, they lacked definitive finishers or impressive skills from the upper skill tiers. In the hands of a pro, the flexibility provided an edge, but among the regular player base, it was much easier playing with a triple allocation. Many still attempted to play multiple allocations in order to emulate the pros, but the majority of the strongest players in game were those who built avatars with triple allocations.

"It's common at higher levels of play," Asha said. "But first, consider this spread. Surya for close range, Agni for mid-range, and Indra for long range. As a triple Kubera, with only the option for close range, how would you fight him? He'd control the flow of the battle completely."

Bera paused to consider. "A Kubera's base speed is higher than any other class, so at the beginning of the fight, I'd have that advantage at least. So I guess, I'd rush in?"

"Of his three classes, only battle mage has above average speed growth, while gunner and knight are known to be among the slowest classes. That means that his speed will be average at best, that is true. However, what makes you think he won't shoot you down while you're running towards him? And if you do manage to get close, his Surya allocation will guarantee that he can fight longer than you, even if you hit harder."

Bera had nothing left to say, so Asha continued. "Keep your distance, and he can shoot you down. Get close, and he can either drag out a head on confrontation or create distance to shoot you down again. A triple Kubera is too straightforward to fight this kind of class make up."

"Ah, wait!" Leez said. "But if I wait until my third tier allocations, my skills will be powerful enough to overcome the Surya allocation and surpass him in close combat! In that case, I may only have a single choice, but he does too--he'll have to make ranged attacks."

"That's assuming his skill is lacking in close range, and that his long range attacks aren't enough to kill you," Asha replied. "Let's assume for a second that your skills are a match. Even then, his three class allocations still gives him more flexibility and combinations. The unexpected elements are enough that your straightforward Kubera build won't be enough to deal with him."

It was Leez's turn to sigh. "Ok, I get it. Should I abandon the triple build then?"

"Not necessarily," Asha said, to Leez's surprise. "The update has started to change the metagame. Even in the pro scene, players with triple builds are beginning to perform better, and there's an ongoing re-evaluation their strength."

"But you just said--"

"Because he's that good." Asha voice was becoming impatient. "Do you truly not understand what kind of player that was?"

Bera had a suspicion, but it made no sense to her. She was almost certain that Asha would snap if she gave that answer. Still, she didn't have a better one. "...he's not a pro player, is he?"

"Yes, he is."

Bera felt dread pooling in the pit of stomach. Her? Beat a pro player? "That's impossible!" she said aloud, thoughts spilling into words. "Why would a pro player even be in the game like this? There hasn't been a level update! They don't train in game! Don't they have better things to do than go around killing normal players for fun? And...and how am I supposed to go against a pro?"

Asha made a sharp noise of disapproval that pricked Bera with shame. The next words cut her pride deeper. "So you were fine with taking revenge against someone weaker, but if they're a challenge, you give up?"

"Th-that's not it!" she protested. "I'm fine with fighting someone stronger...but...but a pro?"

"I plan to do it regardless," Asha said coldly. "I had some hopes that this could go differently, but if this is as far as you're willing to go, then--"

"Wait!" Leez shouted. Bera took a deep breath. "Look, I was just...surprised. I still want to teach this guy a lesson, but the next season starts after summer break. If he's a pro, then he'll disappear from the game once the pro season starts. I don't think I can get to a point that I can fight him, much less beat him, in a month."

There was a long silence. "You can, if the conditions are right," Asha said at last. "Perhaps only once, but that's enough for you, isn't it?"

Bera blinked. "That is enough...but, how?"

"Simple. You do what is unexpected. He's a pro, but he's not good enough to be on a main roster, not yet," Asha said. "If I'm correct, he's most likely a young player that's still in the training camps but about to be promoted onto the reserve team. At best, he's someone who has just started on the reserve team."

The knot of dread began to unravel itself. When she thought of pros, players like Ananta or Vritra had formed in her mind. Someone still in the training camps sounded much more manageable.

"Bear in mind, a pro is still a pro," Asha warned. "But, he's green, and most likely proud. His playing won't be as a stable as a veteran, and heavily affected by how he views his opponents. He probably doesn't expect much a challenge from the normal player base."

"He wouldn't take me seriously," Leez said.

"Yes. And that's our advantage."

"Is that enough?"

"No, it's not," said Asha. "But, it's a start. The second advantage...is to make a triple Kubera unexpected."

Leez made a noise of confusion. "You just said that triple Kuberas are too straightforward."

"Yes, that is the perception that most people would have. It's completely correct too. However, that just makes any change to it all the more unexpected. Tell me, what is the last thing that anyone would expect a triple Kubera to do?"

Thrown by surprise again, Bera answered with the first thing she could think of. "Shoot a gun?"

"A ranged attack, yes." Bera barely suppressed words of shock at Asha's affirmation. "If you had that option open to you, then you would become someone that he could never expect to encounter."

"But triple Kuberas can't have ranged attacks," Leez said.

"What if you had the Sword of Return?"

The Sword of Return was an orange-grade weapon. However, it was among a division of equipment that surpassed even the best silver-grade equipment. In a sense, it was a silver-grade weapon--it was a one of a kind a item created in the workshop menu using raw materials. The difference was, it was created by the developer who had once controlled Kali. Who could hope to craft better items than those who created the game itself when they intended to? These unique orange-grade equipment were often called god-level items. All god-level items, regardless of the developer who created it, were put in game at max level, but lacked a minimum level requirement on its user. Furthermore, any modifications made to them would be automatically undone when the item was passed to another player. Other than those similarities, the specific abilities of the item would vary depending on the personality of the creator.

The developer who once controlled Kali was known to be unpredictable. Everything from her interviews to her career trajectory made that clear. In game, her items and the class she created reflected this. The god-level items she created all had strange properties. Often, the items had a detrimental effect to the user, but provided great power in return. This was a pattern that matched perfectly with the flavor of the the blood knight class she developed. However, the Sword of Return's twist was shocking even for her.

It could be equipped by any class--even classes that could not otherwise wield swords.

Furthermore, it had several skills built into it. Including ranged skills.

Bera's mind raced. "Well?" Asha said. "Is that enough of a chance for you?"

 


 

Atera Guild rested on the hills on the outskirts of the city, pillars decorated with intricate carvings of the city's associated deities. It was ornate in a way that only guilds created by the developers could be. For many new players, it was a gateway guild. It's reputation was that it was particularly tolerant of new players, and it lacked the selectiveness of the other great guilds. As a result, a large portion of the guild's population was made up of new players.

Compared to the pro guilds, the city guilds had a lower portion of veteran and expert players. Many of the players good enough to be accepted by another great guild wanted to directly support their favorite teams by joining the team guilds. However, city guilds had a much higher population. It was hard to resist the benefits of having two gods supporting the city guilds--that was twice as many stat boosts as non-city guilds. However, even among city guilds, Atera's number of expert players was considered low. Atera didn't light up the world rankings during events or dungeon runs as much as the other great guilds, but there was a certain warmth to it that made Bril stay.

Yes, if it had been any other guild, Bril was almost certain that she would've quit being a guild leader a long time ago.

"--so we weren't able to get into the top times for dungeon runs for the Water Channel this time either." The disappointment was evident: records were one way to show a guild's might and signaled better items in the guild storage. It was vital to raising a guild's prestige.

"That's fine, Tara," Brilith said calmly. "Airi is still away and Lorraine was busy, so that wouldn't have been our best time anyways." And the real expert would never run a dungeon run for a record.

"But Ruche was there," Tara protested. "I wouldn't have thought we would make a mistake like that…"

"Ruche works best when Airi can keep her in line."

"Mistyshore managed to get a new personal best…"

Ah, there was the real problem. Although the city guilds lacked the team based outrage against each other that the pro backed guilds were known for, there was still a certain rivalry amongst themselves. Atera and Mistyshore had both been dropping in prestige recently, but Mistyshore had a higher number of experts to begin with, so as far as Bril was concerned, it was inevitable that Mistyshore guild would be able to keep themselves together better than Atera could. Still, she knew that that wasn't what she should say out loud. "The theory should be sound. Let's just try again with Airi and Lorraine there. If I can get the time, I'll go too."

"Oh!" Tara's mood brightened. "That should be fine then. Ah, there's also a problem with who will lead some of the new members on their first dungeon run. Two groups are covered for, but one of the people signed up to lead a group backed out…"

"What about you?"

"Sorry, I have plans. I need to go in a bit…"

"Praul?" Brilith asked again.

"Already running one of the groups."

Brilith resisted the urge to sigh. "Well, I suppose--" Ding! Bril glanced at the notice. Your friend Babo Kim has come online. Instantly, she opened up a chat window and typed a single word: help .

Yes? Yes? he responded.

Lead a dungeon run with the new players. No one else will do it. She sent a crying face.

Ooooh, sounds fun. Which Kim do you want to show up today??

"Ummm, Brilith?" Tara said. "You suppose…?"

"Ah! J-just wait a bit. I thought of someone who might be able to help."

Doesn't matter! Just pick one and come!

You can choose Flaming Kim. New line. Fried Kim. New line. Bum Kim .

"Really? Who?" Tara asked happily.

Pick oneeeeeeeee, Bril typed.

He continued as though she hadn't typed anything. Bap Kim. Artsy Kim .

Idiot!

Ok, Babo Kim it is!

She sent a fist in response.

"Babo Kim," Brilith said calmly. "He can lead a run."

"Who?" There was a silence as Tara pulled up information on him. "That guy...that guy's fully leveled, but his dungeon times are just middling. And that name. Shouldn't we have someone a bit more impressive do it to make a better impression on the new players?"

Bril wanted to laugh and cry at that. If there was anyone who was truly an expert in the guild, she knew it was him. Even after running dungeons with the best of the guild, she had yet to witness a level of play that impressed her more than his. When he was serious at least. Most of the time, he was content to play in an ordinary manner, doing nothing flashy or attention catching. If any of the other players noticed that drops seemed to be better, or that runs seemed to be smoother while he or one of his alternate accounts were in the party, they didn't say anything.

He refused to put in effort when a record was at stake, but he'd give it his all if someone asked for advice or a good time was to be had.

"I'm sure the new players will enjoy the dungeon run if Babo Kim is leading it," Brilith said. "And I think that's just as important as dazzling them, Tara."

"Of course! Of course!" Tara said hastily. "I'll tell the new players to meet him at the temple entrance in ten minutes then. Ah, also…" Tara sounded apologetic. "Can you book keep the guild storage today? I didn't get a chance to and--"

"Of course."

"Thank you! I gotta run now." With a chime, Tara's avatar disappeared as she logged off.

Bril wanted to curse and groan in frustration, but all that seemed foolish when no one would hear it. She wanted people to hear her complaints even less. A guild leader shouldn't whine--especially not a guild leader from one of the great guilds.

"Ah ah, how selfless. Taking stock of the guild storage? That sounds awful."

Brilith spun to see Babo Kim waving at her from corner. In addition to the name Kim, every one of his avatars had a messy mop of red hair and were dressed with the same sense: best stats and cheapest price, appearances be damned. In contrast, Bril had taken pains to make sure Brilith was dressed elegantly and beneficially, price be damned. She supposed that was why he could have so many alternate accounts when she had to pour all her efforts into one. He only owned a single piece of silver-grade equipment, and that he put on Babo Kim. She was almost certain that it's stats and effects were equivalent to a green-grade piece at best. It was the stupidest piece of silver-grade equipment she had ever seen: round glasses with sharpie swirls drawn on the lenses. When she asked what they did, he happily responded, "Nothing, I just think they look cool, haha."

She was grateful to see him. "It is awful," she said. "I don't have that much time to play in the first place, and I have to do everything except play when I'm online!"

"Managing big guilds are a lot of work. That's why there's supposed to be two for the city guilds, you know."

"I know, I know! I just wish someone would be the Shiva guild leader already." She let out a long sigh. "Ahh, I want to run a dungeon. Kill some monsters. Anything ."

"Then let's go run a dungeon!" he said eagerly. Ding! And invitation to join his party arrived.

"You have to go lead a group of new players, remember?"

"Yeah, and what could be more thrilling than seeing the wonderful guild leader running the dungeon with them?" Babo Kim said. "They'll say wow, Atera is great! Even the guild leader will run dungeons with us even though we have no idea what we're doing! "

Bril laughed, but she declined his invitation. "I can't, I already promised to take stock of the guild storage to see what materials we need. Then I have to make plans for what dungeon runs to concentrate on…"

"Just tell me what the guild needs, and I'll get it!"

"And then what we can do to improve run times…"

"I'll help you look at the recordings of old runs!"

"Where are you even getting all this time from?" Brilith said. "You're not still playing at work are you?"

"No comment."

Bril made a sound of exasperation. "How are you not fired yet?"

"Hehe, I'm not just some part-timer anymore, so don't worry. Plus, I've got way better excuses now!"

If someone was a genius, she could accept that. If someone worked hard, she admired that deeply. But Babo Kim's lack of care, she couldn't stand. "You really can be annoying."

"Sorry, sorry," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "I'll make it up to you. Those new players are going to have so great a time, they won't ever think of leaving the guild!"

"Thanks…" she said, not sounding thankful at all for his reminder that the guild population was dropping.

"In exchange, let's go run a dungeon some time."

"I already told you, I can't --"

"Not today. Anytime is fine. You need to take a break from guild work."

She sighed again. "You're right, I know. I've just been on edge lately."

"Oh really? Why?"

Bril hesitated. Unloading her complaints about game issues were one thing, but this sort of talk wasn't related to the game at all. "It's nothing. You should go meet your group at the front gates."

A pause. "Alright. I'll bother you more after I get back then."

"You--!"

"See you later, Brilith!" he said, already running off.

She allowed herself one more sigh. She did miss the days before she became guild leader. The game had been a fun escape where she could stop thinking about anything else for a brief hour or two. She only needed to worry about getting better, or how to kill a boss. She suspected that Babo Kim had only joined the Atera guild at her request to run dungeons or party with her, and she couldn't help but feel guilty that she no longer had the time for that. But what could be done? Now playing came with its own set of worries, especially when she lacked a co-lead to split the work of managing the guild. But that couldn't be helped either. It was too soon, and the Shiva spot still tainted.

Bril shook herself. It wouldn't do to waste time. She wouldn't be able to stay online much longer. Summer vacation or not, she still had work to do for university.

Brilith headed towards the guild storage, and another player nearly ran into her.

"Ah! Leader, I was looking for you!" he said.

"What is it?"

"We've been getting some strange reports about a player killer in the surrounding areas…"

 


 

She had started the day thinking that it would be filled with blood, sweat, and tears as she and Asha struggled against mighty foes.

Instead, she was jumping up the same tree over and over again. She felt like she had memorized every red leaf on model's branches.

"It's still not accurate enough. Do it again."

Bera swallowed her complaints and had Leez jump back to the ground. She understood why this was done. If she wanted to match a pro even for a second, then she had to train like one. Training meant monotonous exercises that practiced speed, precision, and accuracy. Unlike pro teams, there was no way that Leez had access to specialized training software, but Asha had found locations and actions in game that roughly approximated what training software attempted to accomplish.

She understood why . But that didn't mean she had to like it.

"Hey," Leez said. "Didn't you say you had to run these drills every day? Why aren't you doing them?"

"I already did them while I was waiting for you," Asha replied. "Now, it's more important that I make sure you're doing them right. Be grateful."

Bera took a deep breath to suck in any words of discontent. Again, Leez leapt up the tree by the branches. She stumbled a few times, but made it to the top.

"You're still too slow in your thinking," Asha said. "You're not calculating accurately enough. Even if you can't, if you stopped hesitating and jumped immediately, you would waste less time losing balance. Do it again."

Leez jumped from the tree. "Isn't there any other drills I should be practicing? I'm not going to get this on the first day. It's a waste of time to have me keep repeating this until I get it right before showing me how to do everything else."

"You're saying you'll practice without me watching you?"

Bera wanted to respond immediately with an affirmation, but in her heart of hearts, she would really rather do anything else. "...yes."

Asha stared at her in silence.

Bera sighed. "Yes!"

"...fine. Follow me." Without another word, Asha began to run.

Bera narrowed her eyes. This was the same as the day before. If she didn't pace properly, she would lose Asha. Was this some sort of test as well? She huffed and Leez ran after Asha. She was determined to not lose Asha today. Carefully, she watched when Asha switched from running to walking and observed her stamina. Soon, she felt comfortable enough to stop pouring all of her attentions into it.

"So…." Leez said, silence becoming awkward now that she was no longer solely focused on keeping up with Asha. "You were a big fan of my dad, huh?"

"He came from a team that was bottom of league. He fought against someone whose team was widely considered the favorites to win that year. The opponent's avatar was in another class altogether. Still, he won. Of course I'd admire him."

Bera was somewhat surprised by how easily Asha admitted that. "Oh...well, he's very flattered. He only played in the pro leagues for the first year. We were surprised you remembered him."

"His team was the team established in my hometown," Asha said. "Everyone who played followed them closely."

Again, Bera was surprised. Asha was quite sentimental.

"Of course, the team was complete trash." Ah, there it was. The insults. "Even in the first year, they never won a single match. The only gem in the mountain of trash was Rao Leez. Every point that team received, it was received from his efforts. He was the only one anyone could be proud of." Asha paused for a moment. "Everyone looked forward to what would happen in the second season, after the team had been relegated. Everyone was sure he'd join a better team, but instead, he quit."

Now Bera felt awkward. She knew exactly why Rao had stopped playing. Back in those days, the esport scene was just beginning. Good sponsorships, money, prestige, acknowledgment….none of those came until a few years passed and proved that the pro scene had staying power. It was hardly the career for a father trying to support a family, especially for one that had barely graduated from high school.

"I can only hope you're similar to him," Asha said. "That's what I've bet on."

"I'm telling you now, my play style is entirely different from my dad's," Leez warned. "He played triple Vayu. I like triple Kubera. Sharpshooter and striker are about as opposite as it gets."

"Play style means little. Ability means everything. So." Asha stopped running and Leez followed suit. They were still within the Ember Forest, but in a clearing where the streams converged into a towering waterfall. Mist from the falls covered the grounds, making Leez's feet look like spectres behind a veil. The falls defied logic. This was the source of the stream water, but the source itself seemed to appear in thin air. There was no mountaintop for the waterfall to cascade from--the falls simply existed. Floating stones circled it slowly.

"This is a quest location, isn't it?" Leez gazed up. She couldn't see where the water ended. "I need the Flying Machine from the first part of the Heaven's Falls quest to get to the top."

"It is, but you don't need the Flying Machine." Asha took out her gunner's cannon and pointed it at the ground. "Watch." Bang!

The recoil of the shot launched Asha into the air. Just as Leez though she would fall, one of the floating stones seemed to appear just in time for Asha to land on it. She had barely set her feet on the stone before she launched herself again, this time disappearing into the mist.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Over and over again, Leez heard the cannon fire and saw a faint flash accompany the sound. Each time, it was a little more distant.

Then, the bangs stopped. Leez waited.

A little black smudge appeared and grew larger and larger as it fell. The larger it became, the more human it looked. The closer it fell, the more obvious that it was Asha.

Asha fired one more shot as she neared the ground to break her fall, and landed on her feet. In her hands, she held a Paradisical Flower. It was a strange pink plant that grew in the waters at the top of Heaven's Falls. It's thin petals seemed to flicker like fire in the lightest breeze.

Bera gaped. "You got all the way up there."

"Yes. And so will you." Asha pocketed the flower. "I was hoping to wait until you had mastered the basics before throwing you into doing something that would test it all. But, if you were someone who became so impatient after I barely ran you through 3 of the basic drills, I figured you wouldn't be the type to patiently practice jumping on trees or dodging the needles from an enemy over and over again."

"Hehehe," Leez laughed nervously. "So what do you want me to do?"

"Simple. Get to the top. Bring back a flower as proof. If you can do that, I'll move beyond basic drills."

"But I don't have an Indra allocation...I can't use a gunner skill like that. I don't even have a Kubera allocation yet!" Leez protested.

"No, but you should have a few zero tier Kubera skills already. I showed you one method of getting up there, now figure out how to get up there with what you have. I guarantee you, if you're skilled enough, you can do it. In the meantime, send me the list of materials needed to upgrade your cloth armor. You're already level 5, you should be able to equip the first upgrade already."

"Oh...that." Bera flushed. After some efforts, Kaz and Haas had managed to scrape together the materials needed for the upgrade, but during the actual upgrade progress, they had miscrafted one of the upgrade materials and ruined the entire process. All the materials were lost, and the silver-grade armor fell back to its base level. Fortunately, the base level was where it had been before the upgrade attempt, but the experience had terrified everyone at the guild. What if they had managed to upgrade the cloth armor to level 45? And then on the upgrade to level 50 they messed up the process? The cloth armor would just fall back to level 1! All those materials used to upgrade it from level 1 to 45--wasted! And this had been with a blueprint already in their hands. What if they had been trying to research creating a new silver-grade weapon?

The three of them had shuddered and agreed that those who developed silver-grade equipment were terrifying geniuses.

This was the appetite of silver-grade equipment. It was a small wonder that even pro teams needed the materials gathered by the in game guilds to help sustain the growth of their self-made equipment.

"You tried and failed didn't you?" Asha said flatly.

"Yeah…"

"I'll help you do it next time. Just give me the blueprint."

"Am I...allowed to do that?" There was always an unspoken rule of honor: don't freely release blueprints of silver-grade equipment. Anyone who did would be blacklisted by the network of crafters.

"I'm not going to share with anyone else. Do you want me to help or not?"

"Yes!" Leez said. Bera quickly pulled up the blueprint and sent it to Asha.

"Hmmm…" Asha's avatar stood still as her player read. "Not bad. Artram goods. Surprised your guild could swing for it."

"Peil has a cousin who runs the brand."

"...of course." Bera couldn't help but feel that Asha sounded just slightly bitter. "Well then, let me know when you've succeeded." Asha's avatar shone with a blue light and disintegrated.

Bera turned back to the waterfall. Asha had made it look easy, but…

She gazed up towards the top of the waterfall. From the ground, it was like trying to see the end of the endless.

 


 

Gandhal gazed down at Atera. It felt somewhat strange; it had been some time since he visited a city in game. "Have you spoken to the others yet, Maru?"

"Yes. They said they'll come in game to start with everything three days from now," Maruna said.

"Alright, we should finish scouting the cities before then. The longer we take once we start, the more likely we are to be found out."

"I agree…but…"

Gandhal glanced at Maruna. "What? Out with it."

"How exactly do you plan to deal with Agni's account holder?"

"What do you mean? He's a fool."

"I don't understand how that helps," Maruna said helplessly.

"He's simple-minded and straightforward. If a story is sad, he'll cry. If someone means something as a joke, he'll laugh. If the game is fun, he'll play it, even if every reasonable person should be burned out. It's easy to control how he'll act."

"I'm still not sure I--" A cry cut him off. They turned to see two players caught inside a Sacred Circle. They had at least one gunner allocation from the cannons strapped uselessly on their backs. Four more players stood around them, brandishing weapons. From the looks of it, the one who cast the Sacred Circle was a mix of cleric and elementalist, two more were some sort of knight mix, another was a necromancer.

"Yes! Caught some!" the cleric said.

"Have a taste of your own medicine!" said another.

"Maru," Gandhal said leisurely. "Aren't those players in the circle from the Garuda guild? They're about to be killed. "

Without a word, Maruna lifted his cannon and fired at players surrounding the Sacred Circle, each shot accurately avoiding the two trapped within. None of the shots killed their targets, but it did draw their attention.

It was troublesome, but however distantly, the guild members did help the team by gathering rare materials for their use. Maruna supposed that it was only right that he defend their members.

"Tch, more from the Garuda guild?" Black pentagrams appeared in front of the necromancer. Maruna calmly charged up and shot him in the head. The black pentagrams faded unimpressively. The necromancer was sent rolling, and Maruna continued to hit him with blast after blast.

With a shout, the two blade wielders rushed towards Maruna, who completely ignored them to finish off the necromancer. Gandhal waved his hand. A wall of ice crystallized and froze the two blade wielders in place.

The cleric-elementalist prepared to fire off an ice attack of his own, but when he executed the commands, he found that nothing happened. In fact, he could hardly even move. He glanced at his feet.

A Sacred Circle had appeared where he stood. "Shit!"

"Now then," Gandhal said. He waved again and a loud crack sounded as the ice wall split from the ground. With another swing of his hands, the ice wall shattered on the bound cleric, and sent him and the two blade wielders tumbling away.

Maruna had already been charging a blast--the instant all three were freed from the ice and tumbling as one, he fired. The laser pierced the three and cut their health to the red.

Still alive! They barely had any time to sigh in relief before several spears of ice descended and stabbed through the three of them. For a moment, their corpses laid there, skewered together like an unsightly kabob. If avatars could show tears, it would've surely been streaming in rivers down their faces. Fortunately for them, the system mercifully disintegrated their bodies after a few seconds and sent them back to the revival point.

The Sacred Circle binding the two launchers disappeared. Both ran up to Gandhal and Maruna immediately and started chattering over each other like excited chicks.

"That was incredible--"

"--couldn't even touch you!"

"--ruda guild is filled with--"

"--ah, brother experts, where are you guys headed--"

Maruna stood stock still, however Gandhal had a feeling that Maru was sinking into his seat. His abilities as a player were outstanding enough to graduate him from the training camps to the official team, but there was still a problem with his mental fortitude. Whether it be chattering fans or another team's trash talk--Maru was affected too easily.

"Ah, we were just planning to head to Atera," Gandhal said cheerfully, hoping to stop the chattering. "Have some business to attend to there."

"Blue brother expert...aren't you from the Gandharva guild?"

Gandhal laughed a short, but hysterical, laugh. "Yes. I am."

"Wow, and you still helped us!" one said.

"Ah, stupid! We got nothing against team Gandharva. It's not surprising at all. We're enemies of team Ananta!" the other retorted.

Maruna felt a small prick on his pride at that. It was enough to spur him into talking. "You two sound new--"

"We are!" they said together.

"We just started playing two weeks ago--"

"--and our big sis helped us join the Garuda guild with her to support the team--"

"--and because the best players are from the Garuda guild!"

"Ah, no insult to you blue brother expert!" one remembered to say.

"None taken," Gandhal said with amusement. "Now run along and stay out of trouble."

"It's not like we look for trouble," one protested.

"Yeah!" chimed the other. "Red brother expert, some of these people just attack us just because we're in the Garuda guild!"

"Blue brother expert, does that happen to you?"

"I imagine that happens to most players in pro backed guilds these days," said Gandhal. "Give it time. It'll pass. It always does."

The two gave a final "Ok!" and waved goodbye.

Gandhal waved back at them, but Maruna continued to stand rigidly. "You know," Gandhal said, "You're going to have to get use to this someday."

He heard Maruna sigh. When he glanced over, Maruna was waving as well. "So...how are you going to deal with Agni's player?"

"Don't worry about the details." Gandhal stopped waving. "Your job is  just to wait for my signal, then cause a little disturbance." The two were out of sight, and Gandhal turned to start walking towards Atera.

"Well then, wish me luck."

Chapter Text

Jump up and land on the stone. Jump again before the slip effect occurs. Land on the next--the stone moved out of range from her jump, and Leez crashed back to the ground.

Leez ground her teeth in frustration. Damn rocks. Why'd they have to move and have a slip effect attached? One or the other she could deal with, but both at once? She had been jumping and falling for over an hour. It was clear that the developers had wanted to gate the top of Heaven's Falls to special items like the Flying Machine. How was she supposed to get up there with only the zero-tier Kubera skill?

In the midst of her thoughts, a message alert drew her attention. She clicked it excitedly, hoping it was Asha offering a hint or some sort of suggestion.

Kaz. You an expert yet?

She couldn't tell if he had the best or the worst timing. Either way, his messages often had maximum impact on her mood for better or worse. In this case, worse. She slammed the message shut and let out a shout of frustration.

 


 

 

"--believe we beat the witch like that! That final attack did so much damage she didn't even get a chance to hit red blood!"

"You guys did great!" Babo Kim said. "I almost died the first time I tried running that dungeon. It was good that you put so many points into the amplification skills."

The four new players chattered among themselves animatedly, reliving their first dungeon experience with remember whens. A single Laser Shot engulfing the horde of corpses! The perfectly timed heal right as their witch was about to be knocked out! Getting the orange grade Shadow Staff to drop!

"And we got so many materials to give to the guild too!" one said. "Our guild points are going up for sure. Maybe if we gather even more materials in the forest, we'll even hit the third--"

A loud cry rang out, causing the four new player's avatars to suddenly jolt in strange directions as their players jumped in surprise.

"Th-th-there's no strong monsters at this level are there?" the cleric asked shakily as he moved closer to Babo Kim.

"Nothing worth screaming about," Babo Kim replied. "You guys keep following the path back to Atera. You're almost out of the woods."

"Ah, wait--!" But Babo Kim had already ran off and vanished into the mists of the deep woods.

 


 

"--AAAAHHHHHHH!!!!" Bera screamed. Her throat shook; the vein in her head throbbed. "I HATE THESE STUPID FLOATING PIECES OF BULLSHIIIIITTTTTTTTT!!!!" Her breath ran out, and Bera was forced to stop and draw breath instead.

On the breath out, her heart was again filled with serenity.

"Alright," she muttered, throat slightly hoarse from her outburst. Leez turned back towards the floating stones. "One more time…"

"Wow, was all that noise just from you?"

Leez spun to see a player with a mop of red hair waving at her. Her first thought was that some unemployed college graduate bumming in his apartment playing video games and living off of instant noodles had played for too long and been absorbed into the game. The player's cheap cloth armor that looked little better than a bargain bin hoodie and his pair of opaque spiral glasses dropped his style from zero to negative 1000. His spear was strapped to his back, blunt end up, making it appear as though he had stuck a broomstick onto his body. To her surprise, the player, Babo Kim, was already at a maxed out level 70.

"Oh, you heard that?" Leez said, somewhat embarrassed.

"Whole forest must've heard that. Some pair of lungs you got there." Babo Kim's head turned this way and that. "Doesn't look like anything worth screaming about."

Bera laughed nervously. "No, I wasn't being attacked or anything. I was just trying to get to the top of Heaven's Falls…"

"Hmmm?" Babo Kim did another survey of the area. "Where's the Flying Machine? You should've gotten that before being told to go to the top of Heaven's Falls for the quest."

"I'm trying to get up there without it," Leez explained.

Babo Kim's wandering gaze snapped to focus on Leez. "What? You can do that?"

"I was trying, " said Leez. Her mood dropped thinking as her failures came back to the forefront. "But I can't yet. I watched someone do it though."

"How?"

"They used their cannon's aerial recoil to jump from rock to rock."

The speech box above Babo Kim's head exploded with shocked emoticons. "With just aerial recoil? That's amazing!" He let out a laugh. "Players always find a way."

"Yeah," Leez said with a sigh. "and I'm supposed to do the same."

"You?" Babo Kim circled Leez. "But you don't even have a cannon. You couldn't use aerial recoils if you wanted to."

"The person who did it told me I should be able to do it with the zero tier Kubera skills, so I've been using Strengthened Force to up my jump height and speed, but I still can't do it." Frustration poured out of Leez. "I even tried to calculate when the stones would line up properly so I could get them in one go. I've been able to get up the first set of stones this way, but the mist makes it impossible to see the stones in the upper levels. I drew diagrams . I don't even take this many notes in class! I--"

"Ah, ah, ok I get it," Babo Kim said placatingly. "You considered using Flash Step yet?"

Bera stopped short and blinked. "Isn't that a Vayu skill?"

"It is, but it's a staple of anyone who plays close range classes. That friend of yours said Kubera skills right? Each class only has a single zero tier skill, so they must've been including the zero-tier skills from other classes that are staples for building a triple Kubera."

"...your username is very misleading," Leez said. Bera buried her face in her hands.

Flash Step would allow the player to teleport in any direction up to two units away. This wouldn't be enough to teleport from stone to stone, and cooldown meant that she couldn't carelessly spam the skill, but it was an additional two units of flexible movement midair. While it wasn't a guarantee of success, it was a skill that would make the task much simpler. Why hadn't she thought of this earlier? No, why had Asha phrased her conditions so misleadingly? No...wait...was this some sort of secret test--

"I kind of want to try now," Babo Kim said, cheerfully oblivious to Bera's agonizing. "Already got a few skill points in Flash Step, hmm, nothing for Strengthened Force, guess I'll move one of my guild skill points over aaaaand...done!" He did a few short hops. With a loud whoop, he ran towards and leapt onto the nearest stone.

And promptly slipped off.

His body smacked the earth head first and ragdoll rolled until it hit Leez's feet. Babo Kim laid spreadeagled face up, opaque glasses reflecting Leez's face.

"...that was slipperier than I thought it would be."

"...pfft." The first laugh that slipped from her lips was like a beach ball deflating; the ones following it burst out in booming pops.

"Hup!" Babo Kim rolled back onto his feet. "Well, if you want to make this more exciting, I'll race you to the top."

"Haha--yeah--ha--sure as if you--hahahahah--could get to the--ha--to the second stone," Bera gasped out between laughs.

"Hey, hey, that was my first time!" Babo Kim said with mock hurt. "Bet I could get up there faster than a level 5 noob at least."

That stopped her laughter. "I'm not a new player!" Leez said defensively.

"Oh, are you playing on a side account?"

"This is my new main account. My last one was awful ."

"Meaning…?"

Leez sighed. "All I ever got from quests was junk like Varuna's Tears or Mythril Rings--"

"Whoa whoa whoa, those are all orange grade," said Babo Kim. "Are you bragging or complaining?'

"Complaining!" Leez snapped. "I never got any of the skill books or weapons or armor!"

"A gold farmer would kill for your kind of luck…"

"I'm not a gold farmer, and I don't plan to be."

Babo Kim considered for a moment. "Hmmm, I guess not. No one tries to practice on something like the falls if they're just after money. With the slip effect and movement, jumping up to the top of the falls with just basic skills would repeatedly test precision and snap decisions. The pros would have specialized software for this kind of thing, but this is a pretty good approximation of that. You trying to get yourself to a pro level?"

Once again, Bera stared at his username, trying to make sure that she was reading it correctly. "...your username is very misleading."

"Hehe, it's actually an old nickname of mine. Either way, you're not going to get to pro level just standing around. I'm not that good or anything, but I bet I can at least beat you to the top."

"What are you betting?"

Bera heard him make a strangled sound over his microphone. "Wait, you actually want to bet something?"

"You're the one who offered!" Bera said, lips curling into a sneer.

"Uhhhhhh….hmmm...I got three Curry Mushrooms on me--"

"Deal!" Leez shouted as she simultaneously leapt onto a passing stone.

"You--!" Babo Kim started, cutting himself off to focus on timing a jump onto another floating stone.

Leez stopped paying attention to Babo Kim the moment her foot landed on the first stone. She knew she had less than a second to decide where to jump next. She had managed to get to the fourth stone with just Strengthened Force, so she it took barely half that second before she jumped again.

It was as though the stone floated perfectly into place. Leez stepped lightly onto it, and she launched herself again onto the third.  Below her, she heard a faint "gah!" and thud as Babo Kim tumbled back onto the ground. Bera grinned: the past hour might not have been a waste after all.

The fourth landing was successful. Bera breathed in and jumped again. As expected, her jump just barely fell short of the fifth stone. Right before she began to fall, Leez flickered out of existence and blinked back in two units forward.

"Shit!" Leez cried. The Flash Step had been miscalculated: she had teleported to where the stone had been and forgotten to take into account the stone's movement. The scenery blurred as Leez plummeted to the ground. As she passed an ascending Babo Kim, she saw his speech bubble display a toothy grin. Before she could display a fuming face in her own speech bubble, Babo Kim slipped and fell as well. "Ha!" The speech bubble over Bera's head filled with laughing emoticons instead.

While her speech bubble laughed for her, Leez scrambled back to ascending the floating stones. Her display was laughing, but her heart was hurting, just a little. Babo Kim had fallen on the third stone.  It was vexing, but after a mere handful of attempts, he was already starting to match what had taken her an hour to accomplish.

She smoothly jumped until the fourth stone and once again jumped and executed a Flash Step.

Leez teleported to the edge the fifth stone. Bera's heart leapt, half from finally landing on the fifth stone, and half from the fact that Leez was starting to slip and fall twice as fast as she would've had she landed properly on the stone's center. In her panic, Leez blindly jumped again.

Luck was on her side--the sixth stone floated into place as though it was destiny that she make it. Below her, she heard another frustrated shout from Babo Kim. Bera did her best to ignore it and focus on ascending. She made it up several more before she slipped again. The world blurred and before she knew it, Leez was on the ground again.

She glanced up. Babo Kim had managed to get to the sixth stone. Bera grit her teeth and directed Leez back towards the stones.

Jump. Jump. Jump. Flash Step. Jump. Jump. Fall.

Over and over again, she went up and fell down. With the repetitions of the race and of the previous hour, the rhythm of the stones' turning began to drive itself into Bera. Her progress stabilized, and she inched forward.

She was getting close. Just a little more…

Unfortunately, Babo Kim was also getting close. He was ascending above her. Somehow, Bera had a feeling that this could be her last chance. His movements were quick and confident--he would make it to the top soon. If not on this attempt, then on the next attempt. Her only hope was to make it to the top this time, otherwise, she would lose the bet.

Just as she thought that, she miscalculated a jump. Bera's heart sank faster than Leez fell, and her hands reacted to the sudden pang quicker than her mind could think. She blindly activated a flash step.

Miraculously, Leez landed on a stone just a few below where she had fallen.

Bera couldn't even take a breath of relief before she had to have Leez jump again. She was several stones behind Babo Kim now, but there was still a chance!

Fall. Fall! FALL! she cursed mentally, willing Babo Kim to slip.

Babo Kim continued to jump smoothly. All Bera could do was gnash her teeth and do her best to increase her pace.

Three stones from the top…

Two stones…

Just one more and he'd be there!

"Gahh!" Babo Kim's sudden cry made Bera execute a jump early, forcing her to Flash Step onto a stone. In her brief moment of reprieve, Leez glanced upwards just as the slip effect caused Babo Kim to tumble from the stone. Hurriedly, Leez jumped again before the two second window had passed and she too fell.

Leez rose, Babo Kim plummeted. She heard a dragged wail that sounded awful like a generic cell phone ringtone trailing after his falling body.

A few more stones, and she made it. Leez made the final jump onto the floating lands at the top of Heaven's Falls.

The sight from the top of Heaven's Falls was truly beautiful. The clear waters cut through what looked like clouds, but upon closer inspection, was actually a field of wispy white grass. From there, she could gaze in all directions and see the lands spread out before her. The reds of Atera's forests faded into the badlands, and in the distance, the white speck of Mistyshore nestled against the ocean like sea foam.

Bera breathed out, half from disbelief that she had finally made it to the top, and half to take in the view. The top of the falls was meant to be a one time event--the sight was a rare treat. Although, she supposed she could make it up here any time now.

Yes, she had made it to the top. Bera's face split into a grin. She had made it to the top .

Bera couldn't contain it. She let out a whoop and kicked at the floor, sending her chair spinning in circles. The wires connecting her headset to the computer snapped her earphones off her head, turning her cheer into a cry as she flung herself under her desk to retrieve what she hoped was her minimally scratched headset.

The fright brought Bera back to reality. She quickly picked a Paradisical Flower from the field, and leapt back down.

Babo Kim was waiting at the bottom. "Congrats, congrats!" he said.

"Don't think I forgot about the bet," Leez said.

"Tch, show me the proof!"

"You just congratulated me!" Leez argued, but she pulled out the flower from her inventory anyways.

Babo Kim grumbled, but soon enough, a notification stating that Babo Kim is sending you a gift appeared on Bera's screen. "Hehe, how's it feel being beaten by a level 5 player?"

"Shut up! Don't suddenly pretend to be a new player!"

"Yeah, yeah." Bera confirmed the three Curry Mushrooms were in the gift and put them into her inventory. With that safely tucked away, she asked, "So what was that at the end when you fell?"

"Just a coworker," said Babo Kim dismissively. "I'm on call today."

"Uhhh, shouldn't you get on that then?"

"No way, this is my first day off in two weeks!" he cried. "Besides, I play at work and it's alright, so taking care of this a bit later won't be much trouble."

"...you play at work?"

"Hmm? Yeah, what of it?"

"Mister, I hope I never become an adult like you," Leez said.

"Ouch! I'm not old enough to be called mister yet! Ah..no...wait...maybe I'm at the cut off already…" Babo Kim trailed off into a mumble and Bera snickered. "Anyways!" he said, forceful again. "It's not like I'm being irresponsible! I'll have you know I work on the game."

"Ah, no wonder you know so much," Leez said. Bera thought for a moment and frowned. "Wait...how does that excuse you to fool around in game during work hours? Are you going to tell me that 'Babo Kim' is a test account now?"

"Gah...no...it's not," he admitted.

"Then it still stands: I hope I never become an adult like you," Leez deadpanned.

A crying face appeared in his speech bubble. "Young lady, I just helped you get to the top of the falls!"

"And kindly gave me Curry Mushrooms!"

"Oi, don't rub it in!"

Leez laughed. "I know, I know. I'm grateful, really. I'm glad you stopped to help."

"Well I'm glad you have some politeness after all…"

Leez flung out a punch that landed with a satisfying thwack in his stomach. His health nudged downwards by just a smidgen.

"Why you little--" he started, more from annoyance than true anger. The complaints died in a choking sound on his end and became a cry of surprise. "It's already this late? Ahhhh, Brilith's going to sign off soon. I have to go! I'll see you around!" As suddenly as he had appeared, Babo Kim disappeared in a flash of light.

Leez stared at the space where he had been. So he had been planning to meet up with someone. What an idiot. He deserved his name after all.

Leez began to walk towards the road back to Atera. It was already nearing the evening, and Bera hoped to report her success to Asha before being called to dinner.

Ding!

Kaz again. Sooo? You an expert yet?

Bera considered for a moment and smiled. A little closer to it.

 


 

She didn't know why she was bothering to wait for him at all.

Brilith had rushed down to meet him when she saw his dungeon team return. As expected, the new players had nothing but good things to say about the experience. They had even managed to get Rafflesia's weapon! They were so giddy that Bril couldn't help but smile a little. She thanked them for their contributions to the guild storage, and decided against revealing just how many of the witch's staff they had managed to accumulate thanks to Babo Kim.

When she had asked where he was, they could only say that he had run off during the return. Bril had let out a long sigh. There was no point in trying to message him when he was like this. He'd just be vague about "needing to do something". All she could do was wait and hope he'd return in a timely manner.

Which he rarely did, now that she thought about it. She sighed again.

Taking stock of the guild storage was going slower than she had hoped it would. The talk had also taken longer than expected, but more than that, the subject of the discussion bothered her. Under ordinary circumstances, she'd be able to finish in half an hour. Now, she was too distracted and kept doubling back to correct her mistakes.

A group of player killers had appeared, and a skilled group at that.

Bril had felt dread creeping up and taking hold as the guild member gave her the reports from the smaller guilds. In a single day, not one of the small guilds in the surrounding area had made it out unscathed. Around 95% of players of those guilds that were in the area had been killed.

Players fighting and killing each other was built into the game, but it was typically considered rude to do so outside of fights for world bosses or in the arena. Just a single kill was enough to make the perpetrator the target of a revenge kill. Even worse was the cities. If anyone could simply go wild while in the cities where the cramped quarters and the sea of players made it difficult to dodge and avoid attacks, then who would have fun going into the city? People would avoid populated locations like the plague, trade and sales in the districts would fall, and the entire point of cities would be lost.

There was a sort of balance that had to be kept to ensure that no single person could ruin the fun of many others. Bril wondered sometimes if the developers purposely neglected to include any safe zones in the game just to see how the population of players would behave.

In the end, the responsibility for keeping the balance fell on the city guilds. If there was some troublemaker in the area, the general populace expected the experts at the city guilds to keep the peace. The pro-backed guilds couldn't be counted on--they were too busy fighting with each other over resources for their teams. The only real authority then, fell upon the only other guilds that had any significant number of experts.

But this was a scale of player killing that had never been seen before. A methodical slaughter, as though every other player was a checkbox to be ticked with the mark of death. The small guilds were furious. Atera Guild would have to deal with this, or else their standing would plummet into nothing.

Bril didn't wish this upon anyone, but she couldn't help but feel that the player killing would've been better dealt with had it occurred near Eloth or Rindhallow instead. Their guilds had several times the number of experts that Atera guild had. But she supposed that the player killers were thinking the same thing: go for the easy targets with the guilds established closest to the starting village.

Who could really be depended upon in Atera guild?

Lorraine? More interested in equipment creation and gold farming than getting into direct fights.

Airi? Loved to fight and would be thrilled to go after the player killers, but failed to be online consistently.

Ruche? Talked big, but tended to shirk away when trouble brewed.

Tara? Praul?

No, in the end, she felt that Babo Kim was the best option. Not only was he the best player in the guild, he was also online every day, and--although she hesitated to put much confidence in the fact--liked her enough to do as she asked, even if getting him to do it properly was a pain in itself.

Still, as she doubled back yet again to correct her stock notes, becoming more and more distracted by the second, she wondered why she was putting such faith in him. She should've been signed off and doing work for university over an hour ago. Instead, she was still here. Waiting, doing pointless work, and getting so anxious she was certain that she would not be able to concentrate on anything else until the problem had been dealt with.

"What are you doing?"

Bril felt as though her stomach had leapt past her throat. She scrambled to pull off her headset and turn around. Something was still caught in her throat, choking out her words. She was forced her to stutter out a greeting and settled for bowing her head.

Her mother stared down on her with her usual blank expression. If Bril had never seen her smiling, animated face when she interacted with investors and business partners, Bril would've thought that her mother's face was a smooth kaksi mask.

Many praised her mother as a bright beauty, but the praise that trickled down to Bril had always been more subdued, delivered through tight smiles. Pale imitations could never live up to the original. That was simply how it was, but even knowing that, Bril could never shake her awe of her mother even after 22 years of being alive.

Bril chanced a glance up and saw that her mother was looking at her computer screen. She flushed. She hadn't planned to still be idling away, she had planned to start doing proper work an hour ago. Bril opened her mouth to explain, but the excuses felt too feeble to say.

"Still wasting your time on pointless things," her mother said evenly. "Little wonder your rankings have dropped. I suppose I should've expected as much."

A simple statement. A turn. A click as the door closed.

And her mother was gone. Her mother had always been efficient. Bril admired that about her. Never a wasted word. Never a wasted action.

But what of her? Graduation rapidly approaching, rank slipping from top 5 to merely top 10. Only mediocre internship experiences where the only possible explanation for her positive references was pure pity. She wasn't even fit for the lowest entry level position in her mother's company, and instead of doing anything to improve herself….she was playing games.

Her fingers dug into skin as her hands curled into a tight ball. Worse still, she was unable to even manage a game guild properly.

What was she doing?

Her fist tightened, then eased with her breath out. There was no point in sitting there and doing nothing.

When she turned back to the game, Babo Kim was waving frantically at her. His repetitive greetings blared out at her the moment she slipped her headphones back on.

"I'm here," she said, cutting off his chant.

"Oh good. I thought you left and accidentally kept the game open."

"I was supposed to log off over an hour ago."

"I know!" Babo Kim said cheerfully. Bril twitched at that. "Guess you must've really wanted to see me, huh?"

"Where were you?"

"Oh, I ran into this player in the forest! She was trying to get to the top of Heaven's Falls without using the Flying Machine." Bril's teeth clenched tightly. "Did you know you could jump up there with just zero tier skills? I tried it myself, and it took me awhile to get the hang of it, but it's doable!" Annoyance buzzed in her head. "I bet the girl that I could beat her to the top, and I almost won, but then my coworker just had to call with something--"

"Must be nice," Brilith said.

"Hmm?"

"Must be nice," she repeated, words punched out from between clenched teeth. "You can do whatever, go wherever, and everything just works out. You're not even trying, but everything turns out fine."

"...ah, I mean, I'm not that good at the game or any--"

"I'm not talking about the game!" she spat. Immediately, her jaw locked back together, shame at her outburst already beginning to fill her.

"Then...what are you talking about?" Babo Kim asked slowly.

Not for the first time that day, Bril almost let the rest of her thoughts tumble forth. Almost. Instead, she kept her mouth clamped shut until the urge passed.

"It's nothing." Brilith said at last. She let out a short laugh. "I don't even know why I care so much. Talk to Ernst. He can tell you about the player killings. I...I need to go." Bril didn't wait for his answer before closing the game. Already, she was regretting saying anything. Why couldn't she simply pass on the information instead of snapping at him? It wasn't as though he was at fault for her own inadequacies.

For a second, she considered opening up the game again, brush off what she said and laugh and make things right. Make things simple, as little hobbies like this were supposed to be. But in the end, she knew that she wouldn't be able to face his carefree personality again so soon.

Ding! The chat message alert made her heart jump. Did she forget to close the in game chat somehow?

It was the school chat for a competition over summer break.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry! the message began. Kneeling images popped up one after another.  Bril felt a headache forming.

What is it? she typed back.

A little image of someone twiddling their thumbs. I'm actually pretty busy this weekend. I thought I could do my part of the research for the competition, but it might be too much for me…

Bril took a shaking breath. She really should've started working earlier.

 


 

Despite Leez's plans to find Asha before evening fell, Leez had not only already finished dinner, she was settled back into Shroomtown Guild.

"--Vasuki definitely should've been named team captain instead!" Kaz said. "I guess Sagara is more marketable since Gara Sa is so pretty--"

"Why do you say that every time you talk about her?" Haas interjected.

"--but skill-wise, Soori Bak is way better!"

"Doesn't really matter who they pick if you ask me," Leez sighed. "No one's going to be able to replace Namtae An so easily." Just thinking about it made Bera's heart ache. He had been the core of Team Ananta, and naturally, as Team Ananta was based in the district where she lived, Bera and the brothers had supported them wholeheartedly. The team's utter dominance meant that there was nary a painful moment to be had. That was, until Namtae An announced his retirement at the end of the last season. Right on the heels of Team Ananta's 3rd championship title too. It was a bitter pill to swallow after the sweetness of victory. "Ahhh, the glory days are over!"

"It's not as though the rest of the team is weak," said Haas comfortingly. "I'm sure it'll take some time for them to get readjusted, but they'll get through the rough patch."

"But I don't like losing!" Kaz whined.

Peil joined in on the whining. "Not like my team is much better off. Basi Wu retiring...Gandeol Kim uncertain...next season is going to be awful."

"It certainly does feel like all the old legends are starting to leave the scene," Haas admitted.

"I bet it's because of the update," Peil said, "Even Ryeoda Ga is talking about trying out an avatar other than Garuda."

Bera's jaw dropped. "What?! Where'd you hear that?"

"It's just a rumor--"

"It's impossible! They're Team Garuda, he can't just decide to stop using Garuda ."

"Who cares about Team Garuda," Kaz dismissed. "I'm worried they'll get rid of Ananta . I mean, can anyone else in the league play the build like Namtae An?"

That gave Bera pause. It was unthinkable just a month ago, but now that Kazu had mentioned it, it seemed likely. Some characters were too fine tuned to their original player to find success with another controller. In those cases, rather than tarnish the avatar, it was better to retire them with the player. Team Yaksha itself hadn't had Yaksha since season 2.

A message alert broke through Bera's pondering haze.

Atera. West market district.

Asha. Short and to the point as usual. "Gotta go."

"If that expert of yours upgrades your armor, come back and show us!" Kaz said. Bera sent out a grinning face before teleporting to Atera's city gates.

In the blue of the night, Atera seemed to be dyed violet. Only the yellow lanterns that hung from the buildings revealed the warm reds of the day.

Leez pushed through the night crowds that sprung up in the markets. Players just coming online, players that had spent the day gathering wares--the cities filled to a bursting at this time of the day. Bera frowned. How was Asha expecting her to find her like this?

In Atera. Where are you? Bera typed.

The answer returned with surprising speed considering how long it took for Asha to respond previously. Outside of Creation & Origin.

Bera blew a low whistle. Creation & Origin was considered one of, if not the best silver equipment creation groups on the Willarv server. Was Asha planning something extra for her armor? Bera scarcely dared to believe it, but the chance of it put a spring in her step.

When she approached the shop, Bera quickly realized the reason for Asha's speedy reply.

A sharpshooter with dentist green hair was chattering animatedly at a completely still Asha. Chat bubbles with emoticons and hearts showered the area around them until the clusters partially blocked even their avatars. Bera could just barely make out the name Ruche Seiran floating over her head. Something about the name seemed familiar.

"--and then bang I shot the snake dead in eye! It was such a good start, but then Tara had to go and mess up the third boss fight. I'm telling you, Atera Guild really needs better management. Well, I am management, but more good management. You should join Asha! Brilith and Lorraine are in the guild and you run dungeons with them. Speaking of dungeons, you've been quiet lately. Where's the records? Hahaha, come run a dungeon with us--"

Bera's head spun. How had this girl not run out of breath? She wondered if Asha was tired of listening yet. "Asha!" she shouted.

Asha didn't react, but the the green haired girl did. Immediately her chatter cut off, and the chat bubble barrage popped away.

"Can't you see we're talking?" the green haired girl said testily.

"Good, you're here," Asha said. Without another word, she brushed past Ruche, towards Leez, then past Leez as well. Seeing that Asha wasn't planning to stop, Leez turned to follow her.

"WAIT!" Ruche ran after them. Her bright green hair bobbed between the hordes of players. "Weren't you here too see Lorraine?"

"She's not here." Asha didn't even glance back.

"We can wait for her together!"

"That's alright. It wasn't important. I'll talk to you some other time, Ruche."

"Ahh! Waiiiiit!!" But the crowds were relentless and soon the waves of players pushed her away. Her distant wails drowned in the hum of trades and sales.

"Who was that?" Leez asked.

"Someone from Atera guild."

Atera guild? "Ah!" Bera snapped her fingers together. "Ruche! Isn't she one of the experts in the guild?"

Asha snorted. "Expert is stretching it."

Bera supposed that Asha looking down on an expert from one of the great guilds was inevitable since she even dared to challenge the pros. Still, she felt a little thrown off by how quickly Ruche had been dismissed.

Then, again, realization struck. "Wait a minute...that Lorraine you were waiting for. Were you guys talking about the founder of Creation & Origin?!"

"Yes," Asha replied, still calm and flat as if a waiter had asked if she wished for her cup to be refilled.

Bera's excitement made up for Asha's lack of it. "You know two experts from one of the great guilds!"

"I know the guild leader too."

Leez almost stumbled in the crowd at that. "Do you...do you know all the experts in Atera?"

"Most of them. Stop being so shocked," said Asha, cutting apart Leez's next expression of surprise before it could begin. "Their level is nothing unreachable if you'd just practice a bit." Suddenly, Asha stopped and turned to face Leez. "You did practice today, right?"

"Of course I did. I told you I got to the top of the falls. See?" She pulled out the Paradisical Flower.

"How many times?"

Bera had a bad feeling about this. "Umm...once?"

Asha's silence affirmed Bera's bad feelings. When she spoke again, Asha sounded exasperated. " Once ? I gave you the entire day to practice, and you only went up once? Did you stop trying after you made it to the top?"

"You never said I had to get to the top multiple times!"

"It's a practice drill ! How is it not obvious that you're supposed to do it multiple times?"

"You're the one who refuses to explain things clearly!"

There was another stretch of silence. If Asha was groaning in frustration or otherwise expressing her displeasure, it was drowned out by the crowds. "From now on," she said at last, "everything like that that I tell you to do, you do over and over. Practice. Don't forget that."

"Fine, I get it." Leez said. "So...what now? More practice?" Please no.

"Not right now," Asha replied. Relief filled Bera. "It's about time you upgraded your cloth armor. Silver grade equipment is worthless if it isn't allowed to grow."

"You weren't going to ask Lorraine to upgrade it, were you? The cloth armor was made by Artram."

"How stupid do you think I am? Of course not. You're going to do it."

Leez froze. "Uhh….I thought you said you were going to do it. You remember how I failed, right?"

"I said I'd help you do it. And I will guide you, but this is something you should learn how to do on your own. I already got two sets of the materials needed, in case you fail again."

Two sets of materials...just a single set had almost made Kaz weep at the cost. Bera was speechless. Wasn't this too generous? "I….thanks."

Asha didn't respond. She suddenly entered into a storage facility so quickly that a dazed Bera almost failed to follow her. Once they reached Asha's storage location, Bera's eyes bugged out looking at the contents.

Gold. Rare materials! Rare equipment!! Riches covered every inch and stacked every shelf inside the storage room. It was more than all the riches that Shroomtown Guild had ever amassed several times over.

Bera was grateful, but for Asha, she knew that two sets of the materials were like coppers thrown to a beggar.

 


 

Babo Kim was well aware of why he was called Babo Kim.

He was born a fool. Even as a child, he was always acting on impulse and getting into scrapes. Quick to anger, and even quicker to throw a fist. It wasn't until a few years later that he had learned to be a little more observant and realized exactly how troubling he was to others.

And this time, he had messed up. Again.

He could imagine hundreds of different ways this could've all played out better, and he had somehow managed to do none of them.

It was obvious that Brilith was becoming overwhelmed taking care of Atera Guild ever since the Shiva guild leader had been forced to resign, but there was something else clearly bothering her as well.

Brilith kept her life compartmentalized. After three years of nearly daily interactions, she had never told him her real name nor gave a hint of who she was outside of the game. He had even given her his LINE id when he had planned to be offline for a week--just in case--but she had never used it once.

It was a little disconcerting in a way, like befriending a well-programmed NPC. A very nice NPC that seemed to know exactly how to sound and act to be sure, but still one that felt like a phantom with no form in reality. At times he almost felt like he was playing with a ghost, but then he would shake himself from those thoughts. There was no need for him to think so deeply on it, and if keeping online and offline matters separate was preferable to her, then he would follow suit and do the same.

Recently, however, she was slipping up. The frustrations of her offline life bled into their interactions online. He was almost a slightly glad for it, even knowing that the fact that the walls of her tidy boxes collapsing meant that she was truly troubled.

There wasn't anything he could've done about her reality, but he could've helped with game matters. It had always been his policy to not show too much favor to a single guild, but he had already joined Atera. There wasn't much of that policy left unbroken.

At the very least, he shouldn't have gotten sidetracked for so long. Especially not after he had bragged about helping her with guild matters before he left.

What was done was done. She wouldn't come back online today.

Apparently, neither would Ernst. Babo Kim had wanted to ask about the player killings Brilith had mentioned, but Ernst had already signed off by the time he returned. Again, he cursed himself for getting sidetracked.

Nothing much he could do about Ernst either. Instead, Babo Kim finished taking stock of the guild storage and headed into the city. Even if he couldn't speak to Ernst, if the player killings were notable enough to reach a guild leader, it would either be widespread enough for outsiders to know, or be specifically targeting the guild. In the case of the former, information could be easily gathered in the city.

The two people he wanted to speak with were signed off, but the city still buzzed with activity. He looked at the crowds fondly. Despite the recent upheavals at work, at least it seemed like the general player base was still strong. It was a pain to be working through weekends, but if it could make players happy, he supposed it was worth it.

Happy. He wondered if Brilith would be slightly happier if he showed a little effort and returned tomorrow with a plan. Maybe she would be touched if he acted serious for once...

"Finally, you're here. Do you have any idea how long I've been waiting, Babo Kim?"

Babo Kim wanted to hit himself. Did he forget another meeting? He turned around and prepared to apologize even though he still wasn't sure what he should be apologizing for. When he did, he didn't recognize any of the players.

He looked left.

He looked right.

He turned all the way around once more. Still, he saw no familiar names.

"Here, you idiot," the voice said.

He turned yet again, and this time, he spotted a spellcaster named Gandhal waving at him.

Gandhal...Gandhal…

"Uhh……."

"You don't recognize me do you?" Gandhal said flatly.

"Uhhhhhh…" Babo Kim hummed with greater intensity.

Gandhal...Gandhal...Gandhar….

...Gandhar...va?

His hums of confusion stopped, but Babo Kim's mouth did not close. It hung freely as confusion swirled about in his head.

Some said that his hand was injured. Others said he retired. But for the past two months, not a single person knew how to contact him, so no one could be sure of anything. That is, except one thing.

Due to his absence, Team Gandharva fell from top 5 to mid-tier.

And now, here he was, as though he had never disappeared.

"Gandeol Kim!"

Gandhal sent out a mocking clapping emoticon. "Oh good, you do remember me after all."

Chapter Text

"How about we head to the arena?" Gandhal said. "With things like this, I'm sure you could easily defeat me."

That snapped Babo Kim from his daze. "Then...are the rumors true? You're injured?"

Unseen to Babo Kim, Gandeol's smile tightened and his fingers clawed into the sides of his computer keys. "It's not so bad for the day to day tasks." He gave a dramatic sigh. "Ah, to think a day like this would come. With a mere 20 level difference, I still can't crush you."

"Oi, don't make it sound so one sided," Babo Kim said. Gandhal supposed even that idiot had pride to pricked, regardless of how meager it was.

"Wasn't it?" Gandhal replied with mock doubt. "How long did it take for me to beat you the first time? Couldn't have been more than ten seconds--"

"It was thirty!"

"You were awful. Trading health for blows...did you think you were a triple Shiva? I suppose you've gotten a little better at being a battle mage since then, but can you imagine if you hadn't?" Gandeol let out a short laugh. "An Agni who was terrible at being a triple Agni. What a joke."

"Enough." There was a breath of anger mingled into Babo Kim's tone, though he hadn't raised his voice at all. That made Gandeol pause. "Stop trying to change the subject. Your team falls apart, and you still keep up your disappearing act. I don't know what happened, but if you have time to be smurfing in game like this, couldn't you contact your team?"

"My team? I already quit." Gandeol said lightly.

"At least Neeka Mae then! She's been looking for you everywhere."

Of course she was. Gandeol could imagine her frantically trying to contact anyone who knew him. Neeka's face floated into his mind, and for a moment, he was filled with a desperate desire to see her.

He grit his teeth. Not now. He didn't want her to see him like this. "You can tell her I'm doing fine."

He could only imagine the face that Babo Kim was making. "...what happened?"

Gandeol's smile was frozen on his face. "The bone didn't set properly. I can eat with it, I can hold things…nothing has changed." His fingers twitched. "Except how quickly I can move my fingers. It's odd. I knew how fragile this career could be, but to think, just a little fall like that could end be the end of everything."

"Gandeol Kim…"

It was pity that dripped from Babo Kim's voice now. Pity from a fool who had been chasing his tail for years. Pity from a fool that he had laughed at and derided from the beginning.

How many times that had he beaten down Babo Kim and his aliases? His personality was gratingly cheerful. Over and over again, he would challenge Gandeol, and each time he would be defeated. Endlessly, as though he didn't know what defeat was supposed to mean, he would ask for another match, always with no bitterness.

He was receiving pity from that fool.

Pity from that lucky fool who had known better than to tie his life to something so easily lost. Gandeol felt nauseous. "Save it," he said with more bitterness than he intended. "I didn't come here for your sympathy." Gandeol drew himself up. "I came here to warn you out of the goodness of my heart."

"Warn me? What are you talking about?"

"Haven't you been giving too many favors to one guild lately? Really, joining Atera with all those accounts--"

"Wait, does this have anything to do with the player killings?"

Gandeol felt his heart thump. Babo Kim already knew about the player killings? No, how did Babo Kim know so quickly that this was connected to that? Gandeol scrambled to collect himself lest his silence guide Babo Kim closer to the truth. "Player killings?"

"They were being reported to the very top of the guild."

How much did he already know? That was difficult to tell, but ask too much, and Babo Kim would be suspicious. Gandeol took a breath. He would have to take a chance. "So you're at least a little aware of it. Hardly fair for a developer of your level to be taking sides so strongly." Babo Kim said nothing to refute it, and Gandeol's confidence increased. "Tsk tsk tsk, you didn't think that other guilds would fail to take notice, did you?"

"There was a friend who needed help once and--agh! I'm not helping them set guild records or fight for bosses. What does it matter that I'm in the guild?"

Relief filled Gandeol. Whatever Babo Kim knew, it had nothing to do with anything outside of Atera. He won the gamble. "Really? You never once used your knowledge to benefit Atera guild?"

Babo Kim stayed silent.

"That's what I thought."

"Which guild?" Babo Kim asked.

"Client confidentiality, I'm afraid."

"C-client confidentiality?!" spluttered Babo Kim. "You're... working for someone? Doing this ?"

Gandeol's smile turned wry. The demand existed, so the work existed. But player killing as a profession was a market viewed with even more disdain than gold farming. It was the most unbelievable thing he was trying to convince Babo Kim of, yet, also the one closest to the truth. "Unfortunately."

"...what the hell are you thinking?" All pity was gone from Babo Kim's voice now. "Of all the things to do because you can't play professionally anymore, you pick this? None of this makes any sense!"

Yes, Gandeol had to agree. How did it all come to this? Still, it had come to this, and he wouldn't fail. He sent a single word to Maruna: start .

The sky above the market seemed to glow red. A murmur rippled through the throng of people beneath it. Those who knew what it meant shouted for the crowd to disperse.

The Indra class's ultimate: Crimson Dawn.

The skies split apart, and a single beam of light shot down and swelled until it swallowed an area ten times the radius of the initial strike. Like the guild, a significant number of those in Atera were low leveled players with the health to match. Those struck by the first beam were vaporized on the spot, and the masses caught in the expansion disintegrated soon afterward.

Babo Kim spun around towards the direction of the light. Waves of players began to rush towards them as the sky lost it's red hue. Babo Kim stood like a stone among the screaming flow of white water rapids. He stared at Gandhal. "You--"

"For fools like me who've done nothing but play games for ten years, what else can I do?"

  


 

Bera had never moved her mouse so slowly before. Her hands tended to move faster than her thoughts, and it showed plainly in her style of play. The delicate work of item creation was the opposite of her specialty.

The fact that this was the tenth and last time she would have to thread the spider silk through the mythril rings before the upgrade was completed only made her more nervous. It had already been an hour. Bera wondered if Asha was feeling as impatient as she was, although Asha's voice had remained smooth and even as she told Leez how to follow the upgrade steps outlined in the blueprints.

Bera chewed her lip and steadied her hands. The last threading and…

The cloth armor glowed once and made a heavenly chime.

Success! Bera let out a cheer and immediately opened the inventory to check it's stats. +3 increase for physical and spirit defense, and a new +1 for the speed stat. More impressively, the physical defense stat bonus it granted all other equipped cloth items had increased from +1 to +4.

"Not bad," Asha said, having apparently looked at the cloth armor. "Well worth whatever you paid."

"I gotta thank Peil again," said Leez happily as she closed out of the item workshop screen. "On my last account, I didn't get gear with these kind of stats till around level 15. I can't even imagine how this will be at higher levels."

"It burns through rare materials like it's nothing, so I suppose it must have some returns."

Bera winced at that. She didn't want to rely on Asha for all the materials, but she couldn't imagine feeding the appetite of the cloth armor otherwise. "Uhhh, so for the other upgrades--"

"I can help you farm, but you'll be doing most of the material gathering. Even my stock would be depleted quickly given your lack of skill in upgrading…"

She wanted to retort, but Asha wasn't wrong. Bera could already see herself failing and making the cloth armor plummet back to level 1. She pulled open the blueprints for the second upgrade. "Hmmm...looks like I'll need 3 goddess shrouds, 10 curry mushrooms--hey I got that already!--40 flower insect teeth--

A boom sounded in the distance. Immediately afterwards, a low roar of panic rose.

Leez turned towards the sound just as the reddened sky over the marketplace began to fade back to black. The red sky could only mean one thing. "Someone fired Crimson Dawn? Here?" Bera shook her head. "Are they crazy?"

Asha watched the crowds bustle down the street. "I doubt it was a mistake."

"But to do it right in front of Atera guild...isn't that reckless?" Leez said doubtfully. "The range of Crimson Dawn is long, so they can run away for now, but the ones who are killed get a notice that tells them who killed them. The guild's not just going to sit quietly once people report the id."

"I wonder…" Without another word, Asha vaulted out of the window and began running towards Atera guild.

Leez jammed her head out the window and gazed after Asha's rapidly shrinking figure. Bera wondered if she should chase after her. It wasn't as though she knew the members of Atera guild, but her gut told her that it was better to follow. With that thought, Bera had Leez jump to the street after Asha.

It had been somewhat troublesome to weave through the crowds in the city even before panic had started to spread, but now players' movements were filled with clumsy mistakes. Bera felt annoyed. What had happened had happened, but was there a need for the mob to act this terrified after a single shot?

Right as she thought this, she heard another echoing boom behind her. Leez swiveled to see Crimson Dawn's spreading light walls swallow another section of the market district. Bera's eyes widened.

The amount that Crimson Dawn spread was dependent on how long the user charged it during the red sky phase. Too long and players would have enough advanced notice to escape the attack, but as far as she could tell, these Crimson Dawns were all charged to their fullest. It would almost never be done one on one, but the player firing the shots was clearly taking advantage of the packed marketplace.

Leez turned back towards Atera guild. Multiple shots. Whoever it was wouldn't be able to even claim accidental skill use even if they tried.

In front of her, Leez caught sight of Asha using aerial recoil to launch herself over the crowds and onto a roof. It was certainly better than wasting time weaving through other players as she was doing now, so with a Strengthened Force enhanced jump, Leez did the same.

"Asha, wait up!" As she expected, Asha did not stop. "Tch." Bera had Leez Flash Step forward in an attempt to shorten the distance, but to Bera's frustration, now that she was out of the crowds, Asha began doing the same. The gap remained.

The crowds were beginning to thin out slightly as more players managed to cram themselves into buildings, but the majority were still forced to head to the larger buildings away from the marketplace.

Unlike maps and locations built for dungeons or matches, persistent data from player damage on buildings and environment set pieces was too much of a pain to synchronize between the hundreds of thousands of players online at once. As a result, buildings and other barriers were unbreakable shields that stopped any attack. In a crowded city, the best way to avoid an AOE skill like Crimson Dawn was to duck under somewhere with cover.

Unfortunately, One Last God did not allow for multiple players to overlap. Once a building was full, there was nothing that could be done but try to rush to another building and hope that Crimson Dawn wouldn't fire overhead while you were doing so. 

Bang! Another shot of Crimson Dawn rung behind Leez, this time close enough to cause a slight tremble on the ground beneath her feet. She glanced backwards. The fading sky patch was much closer than it had been before. When she turned forward again, she was surprised to find that Asha had stopped moving forward.

A message from Asha reading hurry up popped up. Without replying, Leez executed another Flash Step and quickened her running pace.

To her continuing surprise, Asha waited without a single movement for Leez to reach her. "Don't fall behind until we reach the guild," she said. Asha sighed. "You should've stayed inside the storage center." A party request popped up on Leez's screen. Without another word, Asha turned and began to run towards Atera guild again.

Unwilling to fall behind, Leez quickly accepted Asha's party request and sprinted after her.

Atera Guild stood before them, white walls stark against the night sky. The floating lanterns were concentrated the strongest around the guild. They drifted about calmly despite the explosions in real life would've certainly sent them flying from the shockwaves.

By chance, Bera glanced upwards.

The sky was red. A crack of light appeared.

Bera didn't have time to think. Leez Flash Stepped, and immediately kicked at the ground upon reappearing with Strengthened Force. She launched forward, shooting herself and Asha just out of the initial descending beam from Crimson Dawn. Two bodies rolled until they hit the high walls surrounding the guild.

Asha reacted quickly, positioning herself in front of Leez and pointing her cannon at an angle towards ground. She charged until the expanding beam of Crimson Dawn almost reached them, and fired.

The recoil sent Asha and Leez flying over the walls.

The landing was graceless for Leez and ended with her ragdolling until Bera was thoroughly disoriented. Asha managed to land lightly on her feet, giving her the opportunity to watch Crimson Dawn's expansion be stopped by the guild walls.

"Damn, you two cut it close," someone said from above Leez.

Leez looked up from the ground. The player who had spoken had already turned away from her and redirected their attention to Asha. "...if it wasn't for the walls…"

Bera reoriented Leez and looked around. Atera guild was divided into two sections: the public plaza within the high walls, and the private guildhouse that sat atop a wide stairway like an ancient temple.

The guild's distance from the marketplace meant that the crowds were thinner here, and the size of the plaza allowed plenty of space. However, the Crimson Dawn that had practically fired on top of the guild itself had caused a wave of panic to rise that made everything seem to close in.

"Shit! Did you see that?" she heard someone say.

"Who the hell is firing all these Crimson Dawns? I'm carrying a good weapon today too!"

"Oi! Do something!"

"Yeah! Isn't this supposed to be one of the great guilds?"

The sentiment rippled through the crowds until the indistinct shouting began to consolidate around one point: why wasn't Atera guild doing anything? The crowd drifted up the stairs and towards the guildhouse.

A hapless striker with curly blonde hair stood at the guildhouse doors. "Ah, everyone please wait. We're doing our best to deal with this matter…"

Asha shoved her way through the crowd. Leez brought up the rear, apologizing with "excuse us" along the way. "Tara!" Asha said, voice rising over the crowd.

"A-Asha? What are you--ah, please excuse me a moment everyone..." Without warning, Tara re-entered the guildhouse, leaving the crowd to increase in fervor. As the other players gathered even more tightly around the guildhouse gates, Asha turned back to return to the plaza.

Leez followed her out of the crowds, down the stairs, around the corner, wondering all the while where Asha was headed until she saw Tara's head peeking over a corner. Tara waved her hand to motion them over.

"I got your private message--eh? Who's this?" she asked, glancing at Leez.

"Doesn't matter," Asha replied flatly. Bera begged to differ but kept her mouth shut. "What's going on? Why hasn't anyone been sent out to find the person doing this?"

"I can't get in touch with Brilith at all!" Tara cried. "Usually, she handles this…"

"Of course she does," Asha sighed. "Even so, gathering a group to deal with this shouldn't be hard."

"Lorraine is offline. Airi's offline. Ruche...who knows what she's doing but she won't answer my messages. I just came on to check up on things, and it's a mess!" said Tara despairingly.

"There has to be someone--"

"Brilith usually finds someone to do things at the last minute, but I have no idea where she pulls those players from. Right now, there isn't a suitable group of people to deal with this." The crowd's cries seemed to get louder, making Tara let out a cry of frustration. "It's not like we're pro-backed guilds! We're not paid to manage the guild for a living!"

Bera felt her estimation of Atera guild get steadily lower. The great guild looked prestigious from the outside, but was held together by rotting threads within.

"But nonetheless, Atera is one of the great guilds," Asha said, "and someone has to deal with this." A pause. "Do you at least have a name?"

"Huh?"

"A name. I'm saying I'll go find the player doing this."

Tara's silence stretched for another moment as Asha's offer sank in. "Ah! Yes...I'll ask Praul…"

Ding! Bera jumped from the message alert. The preview that popped up in the corner of the screen showed Kaz's icon and read I got killed…

Immediately, she clicked on the popup. I got killed! ToT That Maruna guy from yesterday got me while I was in Atera. One shot!! Damn it isn't his Crimson Dawn a little too strong?! 

Bera stared at the name. So. That guy wasn't satisfied with just the pickings around the beginning village.

"There's no need to ask," Leez said. "It's Maruna."

 


 

 This time, it was a second Crimson Dawn that snapped Babo Kim from his daze.

"...did you tell someone to do this?"

"Does it matter?" Gandhal replied carelessly. All warmth had seeped out of Babo Kim's voice, and in a reversal, had gone into Gandhal's.

"Call it off!"

"I don't see why I should."

Babo Kim grit his teeth. Conversation was rapidly becoming useless. He could feel the blood rushing to his head, red hot and threatening to light the fuse of his temper. Drawing a cooling breath just barely allowed him to reason with himself. If Gandeol Kim refused to do anything, then he would have to.

The Indra class had the best range of the 12 classes. Crimson Dawn could be fired a great distance, making the firing location difficult to pinpoint. The fact that there the user was almost certainly moving between shots only widened the scope of the search.

The second shot had been closer to the guild than the first. It was something to go off of, but Babo Kim did not like the conclusion it was pointing to.

With a few clicks, Babo Kim hopped onto the roof of the surrounding building for better movement and a better vantage point. He turned directly towards Atera guild and ran forward.

Only to be stopped by a wall of ice.

"Hey, this is no good," said Gandhal behind him. "I wasn't done talking to you yet." Another Crimson Dawn fired, even closer to Atera.

The fuse was lit. Babo Kim spun around, spear shooting out towards Gandhal.

Gandhal leapt back and with a wave his hands, formed another ice wall in front of Babo Kim. He prepared to crush Babo Kim between the walls, but before he could, a slash appeared in the ice wall before him. A spear tip--flickering with a heated haze--melted through the ice, releasing steam into the air.

The next thing Gandhal saw was the spear tip breaking through the mist and stabbing into his shoulder. The world spun as Babo Kim completed the Circle Throw and slammed Gandhal into the ground.

The instant he hit the rooftop, Gandhal executed a quick recover. He was still crouched and prone, but that was better than being flat on his back and prone as Babo Kim struck forward with several more strikes.

Unfortunately for Gandhal, the recovery he made was negated when the first stab of the combo was enhanced with White Enforcement, doubling his stun time. The next strikes carried defense cutting and damage raising enhancements as well, making the ending of the combo carve out large chunks of Gandhal's health. Fireballs appeared behind Babo Kim with each hit.

This was too crude of a method to suppress a player like Gandeol Kim, and Babo Kim knew it. It had all gone better than he expected but…

He heard the crackle of ice behind him. Without even bothering to turn and look, Babo Kim twisted to the side and executed another Circle Throw to take Gandhal with him.

Ice spears shot forward where he had been to strike thin air. Gandhal once again quick recovered at the end of Circle Throw. From his crouch position he motioned with his hands and the trajectory of the ice spears changed to fly towards Babo Kim.

Babo Kim sent out the Prominence to intercept the ice spears, determined to continue attacking Gandhal, but that moment of distraction was enough. Gandhal placed his palms to the rooftop, and ice spikes burst from below Babo Kim, sending him into the air.

Gandhal drew an arc, and a sickle of ice struck Babo Kim midair. Babo Kim managed to twist and slightly deflect the ice sickle with his spear, reducing damage, but not reducing the knockdown effect in the slightest. He fell with a crash onto another nearby rooftop.

A warm light shined around him. "Tch." Babo Kim glared at the Sacred Circle that surrounded him.

"So violent," Gandhal said. He fired several more ice spears at Babo Kim.

While within Sacred Circle for the ten seconds it was active, his movement speed was quartered, and he could use no skills, but that didn't mean he was completely vulnerable. Babo Kim struck down the ice spears one by one with basic attacks.

Under the cover of the shattered ice, Gandhal closed the distance between him and Babo Kim. His arms was frozen over in a blade of ice. Babo Kim attempted to strike with his spear, but Gandhal managed to slip through and cut Babo Kim with the ice blade.

The ice spread on contact, rapidly crystallizing until it covered Babo Kim's entire body. Sacred Circle faded, but now Absolute Zero Point prevented him from moving.

"Aren't you a little too worked up over this?" Gandhal mocked.

Too worked up? Babo Kim let out a laugh. He was too involved in the first place, in his opinion. His gaze was drawn to the reddening sky near Atera Guild. Again, Crimson Dawn flashed from the heavens.

Don't get involved in guild matters--that was always Babo Kim's prerogative. It just didn't seem fair if he did, given his position in the company behind One Last God. Playing and helping individual players was one thing, but guild affairs often ended up dragging in large swaths of the player base into its problems. Atera guild wasn't a pro-backed guild, so at least money was moving the problems behind the scenes, but it was one of the major organizations within the game nonetheless.

But Brilith had asked him to help with the guild. Brilith, who seemed to him would rather collapse under the effort than bother others for help, had asked him . He always found it hard to refuse her of much and before he knew it, he had already joined Atera guild.

So what was a little meddling? He was already involved; might as well throw himself into it.

Too worked up?

"Not at all," Babo Kim said. Steam rose around Babo Kim's form. Absolute Zero Point prevented any movement, but unlike Sacred Circle, it didn't prevent the use of skills.

The first step of Crimson Dawn required the user to shoot a signal beam into the sky--the place where it hit would turn red and Crimson Dawn would fire from there. This time, he managed to catch a glimpse of that signal beam. The user would certainly move again, but he had an idea of where they were now.

A wave of heat burst forth, knocking Gandhal away and burning away his health. The ice melted around Babo Kim, and he wasted no time closing the distance between him and Gandhal.

Gandhal quickly cast a heal spell on himself before sending out several waves of ice. Babo Kim retracted his spear. It began to glow, and at the peak of its brightness, he stabbed it towards the waves of ice. The light shot forward, streaking off the spear and twisting into the form of a fiery serpent that crushed through the ice as though they weren't there at all.

Mist shrouded the area from the contact of ice and fire. As it cleared, Gandhal looked at the spear tip pointed at his throat. Even a basic attack was enough to drop his health to zero now.

"Ahhh," Gandhal sighed. "20 levels of level suppression really is too much for me against you. I couldn't block that at all."

"Your instant heal is still on cooldown," Babo Kim said, "so make this quick. Call it off or don't try to stop me anymore."

"Even if I gave up, it wouldn't matter. I told you, I'm just a hired hand…"

"A hired hand for this?! Gandeol Kim, what the hell are you doing?" Babo Kim let out a strangled cry of frustration. "That little sister of yours wouldn't be happy seeing you like this either."

A chilly silence fell. "Don't," Gandhal spat, voice colder than Babo Kim had ever heard it.

Babo Kim blinked, anger dissipating somewhat. "...does this have something to do with her?" Gandhal said nothing. "Gandeol!" Still silence.

Another Crimson Dawn fired in the distance. Babo Kim turned in the direction of the sound. There was no doubt now: it was heading in the direction of the guild. He removed his spear from Gandhal's throat as he began to head towards the guild. If Gandeol Kim refused to say anything now, then he would just have to find him again later.

Ice spears pierced Babo Kim's back and pinned him to the rooftop.

"I'm sorry," said Gandhal, "but I really can't let you leave so easily."

 


  

In hindsight, it should've been obvious that it was Maruna. Hadn't he just finished a large scale player killing the day before? Bera had been too focused on the fact that Crimson Dawn could only be learned those with triple Indra allocations and forgotten that there was pro-player in their midst. There was only one team that specialized in silver-grade weapons that had Crimson Dawn built into them: Team Garuda.

Team Garuda that took away Team Ananta's chance for a record setting three back to back championship titles four years ago. Bera cursed them then, and she cursed them now for spawning Maruna.

Which was why Bera was trailing Asha despite Asha's fervent demands for her to stay in Atera guild. Bera could hardly call herself a true fan if she didn't cause some trouble for whatever it was that a member of Team Garuda was doing. The fact that she was already seeking revenge only made her burn to get in Maruna's way, and the additional fact that it he was doing something despicable like player killing was the cherry on top.

Asha had ran off after the last Crimson Dawn fired. Bera guessed that Asha had spotted the signal beam that started Crimson Dawn. Now that she had a name, face, and rough location, it was only a matter of time before Asha found him.

Leez peeked over a wall. She couldn't have Asha spotting her, so she was forced to sneak and hide, and pray that she wouldn't lose Asha.

As she did now.

Leez looked all the way down the street and around the rooftops, but Asha had disappeared. She stepped out from her cover to get a better view.

"I told you to stay in the guild."

If looks could kill, just from the tone of Asha's voice, Bera was certain that Asha could murder through her computer screen, even without a webcam. Hesitantly, Leez turned her view upwards to the roof to see Asha standing directly overhead.

She laughed nervously. "I mean, there's no harm in seeing the guy I'm planning to beat more, right?"

"You could get yourself killed!"

"I'd just respawn," Leez mumbled.

"I already told you yesterday," Asha said, patience clearly running on fumes, "whatever you do, don't. Get. Yourself. Killed."

Oh. Right. "But it's not a big deal!" she protested. "Look I'll switch out my silver-grade armor for my starter amor…"

"It's not about dropping your equipment!" Finally Asha snapped and shouted. "Get back to the guild. Now!"

Bera opened her mouth to protest further, but at that moment, she caught sight of a red player carrying a large cannon in their hands running along the rooftops. She leapt onto the rooftop in one motion, landing next to Asha.

"It's Maruna!" Leez said.

 "You--!"

 Leez bolted after Maruna. His cannon and heavy armor weighed him down. Even without the speed growth boosts from taking a Kubera allocation, Leez's average speed combined with Flash Steps was enough to chase after him. Without any ranged weapons, she lacked the ability to hit him until she was practically next to him, but this would be true even later on unless she managed to get the Sword of Return. That was no guarantee. Futile as it was, facing Maruna head on now and getting a feel for his onslaught would be good practice later.

She didn't bother hiding her chase, so it didn't take long for Maruna to notice her behind him. He turned and Leez could see the cannon's muzzle glow with red light. Without thinking, she blinked from existence using Flash Step at the same moment he fired the Crimson Burst. The attack flashed by and faded, and Leez flickered back into existence just a few units from Maruna.

Wasn't that a little too impressive? A grin slipped onto Bera's face as she imagined the expression that Maruna must be making.

Whatever expression, it wasn't enough to cause him to miss a beat. With Leez so close, he immediately swung the cannon back onto his back and pulled out his spear. In the same swing, the spear swept towards Leez.

Leez leapt over the spear, taking the chance to execute a kick right into Maruna's face. She was sure it would connect, but instead, Maruna managed to jump back. His spear tip glinted; ready to stab, and midair, Leez was a perfect sitting duck.

Bang! Bang!

Two artillery shells flew towards Maruna, forcing him change his target from Leez to shells. In the span of time it took for Leez to land, Maruna had stabbed both shells out of the air and destroyed them.

It was Asha. Leez was certain of that even without looking behind her.

A Crimson Burst fired at Maruna, forcing him to leap to the side. The attack harmlessly went through Leez, who was in the same party. With Maruna distracted, she took the opportunity to circle behind him.

Maruna reacted quickly, spinning around with his spear before Leez could get her bearings straight. In a panic, she rolled backwards, dodging the spear but completely losing her orientation as she fell off the roof. Bera grit her teeth. She had been too naive.

Asha's onslaught continued. She closed in, firing off skill after skill all the while. Just from a glance, it was easy to see that she was a bigger threat than Leez. Maruna turned his focus onto her instead, weaving between artillery shells and bright beams.

Leez jumped back onto the roof to see Asha blocking Maruna's spear with her cannon. To her surprise, Asha dropped her cannon and shifted to the side. With the loss of her heavy cannon, her movement speed increased, allowing her to regain distance from Maruna. In the meantime, she equipped her revolvers and fired whistling shots at Maruna.

The small bullets bounced from Maruna unimpressively, but there was no denying that they were doing damage. Maruna activated the Surya class' Guard, reducing knockback to zero. Then, he too dropped his cannon to rush Asha.

Bera gawked.

Too fast! Wasn't this guy supposed to have below average speed? Without the cannon, even wearing heavy armor compared to Asha's cloth armor, his movement speed matched hers.

He slashed through Asha with a Collapsing Light, stunning her. Immediately, he swapped to his spear and stabbed her again with White Enforcement. Then, he stabbed over and over again, his spear tip dancing with multicolored lights as he executed skill after skill.

Asha's health sank like a leaking boat. Finally, she managed to twist away from him, ending the combo.

20 hits.

In the span of a few seconds, he had hit her 20 times. Bera watched, transfixed, with a mix of fascination and fear. She had watched pro-matches for years, but watching an opponent play at that level was completely different from being an observer in the audience.

Throughout the entire exchange, Bera couldn't see a single opportunity to attack.

 


 

"Even if you kill me, it won't do you any good," Gandhal said. "It won't end today."

"Meaning?" Babo Kim spat, anger rooting him to the spot even more than the ice spears.

"The company has to be putting you on overtime. I'm surprised you find any time to play the game at all. You happened to be online this time, but will you be every time? If they keep causing trouble like this, Atera guild's standing is going to drop no matter what anyone tries to do…"

That seemed to give Babo Kim pause. Even after the ice spears melted, he didn't try to attack. He didn't even turn around. He simply stared at Atera as one more Crimson Dawn fired.

Gandhal's instant heals came off cooldown. Sneakily, he healed himself, but Babo Kim didn't even twitch. That was fine with Gandhal. His lips curled into a bitter smile. As things were now, Babo Kim would win without much difficulty no matter how many times Gandhal tried to fight him. Unlike that fool who could challenge Gandharva and lose thirty matches, Gandhal couldn't be bothered to waste his time.

"What happened to your sister?"

The question came from the blue like a sharp stab in his gut. Babo Kim's comments from earlier rushed back to him.

That little sister of yours wouldn't be happy seeing you like this either.

Of his entire family, it was Shakun who always supported him in his decisions. Shakun who wrote to him and secretly sent him her allowance after he had run away from home. Shakun who took pride in him even in the early days of the pro-leagues when money was scarce.

Shakun who he wanted to keep the truth from the most, even though she would be the one least likely to jeer him.

The big brother she was so proud of resorting to things like this. And fighting with Babo Kim? She'd be unhappy, even though this was all for her.

"That's none of your concern," Gandhal said.

Babo Kim sighed, and finally turned. "If something is wrong, I want to help--"

"What could you possibly do?" He sneered. "I haven't fallen so low that I need to beg a careless idiot like you."

 "...if that's how you feel, then there's not much I can do." Babo Kim paused. When he spoke again, his voice was much more even. "Fine then. Targeting Atera guild is because I'm in the guild, right? I'll leave the guild. So call off the attacks."

Gandeol released a breath. Finally, back to more comfortable subject matters. "And what about all the other Kims?"

"...I'll make them leave too."

"Well!" Gandeol clapped once, laying his pleasantries on thick. "That would best for everyone involved. Oh, and I don't try to make a new account. There's plenty of eyes watching you…"

It was Babo Kim's turn to let out a mocking laugh. "All this just because I got involved in a guild? This is too much."

Gandhal couldn't help but laugh a bit alongside him. "Things have changed quite a bit from when the game first opened, haven't they? Can't walk two steps without stumbling into some guild politics." Gandeol shook his head free of reminiscing and continued. "It might be best to not play for awhile. Even if you're not in the guild anymore, they'll still think you're helping. Just lay low for a week or two."

"Fine," Babo Kim said, sounding tired.

Gandeol felt the stress flow from him. Everything had gone as well as he could've hoped.

A spear pointed at his neck snapped him back on guard.  

Babo Kim's voice hardened. "I'll admit, perhaps it was my own fault for getting involved in a guild. I'll leave this time. But if whoever the hell hired you causes any more trouble for Atera guild, I won't let this go."

Gandeol's heart thumped. This was the last thing he wanted. No matter how skilled a pro-player was, in the end, they weren't the gods of the game. Gandeol could decide who lived or died in match, but the ones who could wipe player accounts from existence were the ones who managed the game itself. They were the ones who could look at the data and comprehend the world in a way that he could not. Gandeol was certain that if Babo Kim looked too closely, he would be realize what had been planted into the game.

He swallowed and forced himself to calm down. "You really are getting too worked up over this," Gandhal said lightly.

Babo Kim laughed as he lowered his spear. "Not at all."

 


 

Asha was accurate. Not a single movement was wasted.

But Maruna could execute more attacks, and had better equipment.

Bera stared. She had thought Asha an impossible barrier in equipment and skill, but the gap was laid bare in one on one like this.

Asha's sharp, clean movement gave the illusion of speed, but her hand speed, Bera realized now, was actually quite slow. Maruna was the worst type of direct opponent for her--his hand speed was ferocious, making even his heavily armored avatar dart about with surprisingly alacrity. No matter how accurate Asha's actions were, even though Maruna was rougher, the fact that he could execute multiple actions in the time it took for Asha to do one meant that overall, Maruna still had the advantage.

Asha's health dropped to yellow. The color jolted Bera with a flash of lightning. What was she doing? She couldn't let Asha die like this!

Right as she thought that, Maruna's onslaught ceased. He stood still for a moment, giving Asha time to switch her revolvers out for a short blade and send out a Dimensional Cut that knocked him backwards. She rushed forward to continue her attacks, but to her surprise, Maruna simply picked up his cannon, turned tail, and ran.

"We...won?" Bera muttered as she watched Maruna escape. He was running to the closest edge of the city. If he was planning to leave, then it didn't seem like he was planning to cause any more trouble.

Asha scoffed. "What 'we'? You didn't land a single hit."

Leez laughed nervously. "You! I meant you…" she corrected, internally cringing a bit. Even if they weren't Namtae An, a pro player was pro player. It wouldn't be simple at all. She had naively ran in, and when she couldn't handle it, had to have Asha step in. If Asha had died and lost a piece of equipment…

"I've still got a long way to go," Bera sighed.

"...as long as you know that." Without another word, Asha walked over to the cannon she had dropped and picked it up.

Bera's eyes widened. She was being let off that easily?

"It's good you didn't die," said Asha.

She was! She was being let off that easily! Bera didn't know whether she should be relieved or cry, because this time, she felt like another biting remark was deserved.

Chapter Text

On the first day of her second year, Asha Lee could already feel the inevitable problems creeping up.

She didn't know why she expected any better. She supposed she had thought that a few more years would be enough to allow everyone to get a hold of their hormone addled brains. Reality, as usual, was disappointing.

It was always the same. Some rich, spoiled heir blessed with wealth that preened at being the center of attention. The stupid insects drawn in by their lure. The flies that resented the attentions. Grating, pointless collisions buzzing all around.

"--don't even think about it," one of the students next to her scoffed to his friend. "Yeah, she's hot, but do you know how many guys are after Bril Jung? You know how many she's said yes to? Her standards are high ."

"Yeah, I know she dumped Mr. Rich and Perfect," the friend said, eyes still ogling the girl sitting several rows in front of him.

Bril Jung continued to make conversation with the adjacent students with what Asha was certain was a feigned obliviousness. A natural sort of beauty, high background, and just enough ability to be a class flower and not a flower vase...yes, there was no way that Bril Jung didn't know what she was doing.

Asha grinded her teeth and willed for the professor to hurry and start the class before the ramblings of the buzzing insects rotted her mind. Were these people here to learn? Did they think of anything else besides flirting? They were all older than her, but then again, so were the people in high school, and they weren't any better.

"...how far you think he got with her?"

"Give. It. Up. Bet you she already has some CEO's son lined up."

The flirt smirked. "I don't mind a challenge." His face actually wasn't half bad, but at this moment, the smugness overrode any positive features.

The professor finally walked to the whiteboard and introduced himself. The two next to Asha suspended their conversation, or at least restrained themselves to whispering imperceptibly while the professor lectured.

Asha herself half tuned in. The subject matter was basic. The theories she already long understood. She didn't even bother to take notes; there was nothing of note to write down. She sighed to herself and allowed her mind to wander to One Last God.

It was about time she started trying a new build; her current account on the Carte server had already run its course. Lorraine had promised to help with equipment creation if she would go over to the Willarv server, so all that was left to decide was what build she wanted to try next.

She was firmly settled on the Vayu class; she supposed even she had childish attachments to things. However, this time she had wanted to try the Indra class well. The Vayu class was a mid to long range attacker, while the Indra class almost purely long range. What it lacked in flexibility, it made up for in it's unrivaled reach. It's control possibilities were fascinating, but that was two long ranged classes. She wondered what her third allocation should be. A close range class to cover all her bases? A class with support and buffs to increase her control of the field?

As she pondered this, the hour passed quickly. Before she knew it, the professor concluded his lecture with a "until next time" a full five minutes before the hour was up, and the class pounced on the chance. Amidst the shoving and cramming, the professor suddenly walked back to the podium.

"Sorry, almost forgot!" he said cheerfully. Asha did not feel nearly as pleased. She knew what was coming next and had been dreading it. "This class is a project oriented class. Your final presentation will be worth half your grade, so let's get started now! We'll get into groups of four--" A girl's hand shot up. "--that I've already prepared." The girl's hand sank down. "I'll post the syllabus for the project tonight, so I highly suggest you start meeting this week. The groups are as follows…"

Asha prayed for the group to be halfway decent.

As usual, luck failed to favor her.

The flirt. His friend. And the target. All in one.

The flirt laughed a laugh that was intended to be charming but sounded like a braying ass to Asha's ears. "How lucky! We got the genius and the beauty." He sidled closer to Bril Jung. "Ah, I'm not sure if you remember me, but let me introduce myself…"

"Oh, of course I remember you. Seo Il, right?" Bril Jung replied pleasantly, a gentle smile on her face. That made the flirt puff with pride and Asha roll her eyes. It was too obvious. This was how lures strung along the insects. "Junho Kim…" She turned to Asha. "And Asha Lee."

The fact that she remembered all their names made Seo Il deflate a bit, but he trudged on anyways. He opened his arms in a gesture that put an arm not quite around Bril Jung, who didn't step away. Were they going to do this the entire term? Asha's teeth would be ground to dust by the end of it. "How impressive! You're pretty good with names, aren't you?"

"Not at all, not at all!" she said, waving her hands in front of her. "A-anyways, we should set up a date to meet."

"The sooner the better!" Seo Il said. His arm snapped closed around Bril Jung.

She twisted away, leaving Seo Il's arm hanging over nothing. He had overstepped the bounds the lure had set, and he was burned for it. The atmosphere turned a little awkward. "H-how about on Thursday, around noon? At the library?"

Seo Il agreed immediately, eager to smooth things over. Junho Kim agreed as well, and Asha hmmed to approve.

"We should exchange numbers!" Junho Kim said. Asha spotted Seo Il giving Junho Kim a thumbs up behind his back.

Bril Jung agreed readily and fumbled in her purse for a bit. It was a luxury quality bag. Brand name and probably cost more than a month of Asha's rent. Her clumsy fumbling was a good opportunity to show it off. Asha shook her head and turned to leave.

"Wait! We need to exchange numbers!" Bril Jung called.

"Thursday. Noon. Library," said Asha. "I got it."

"Tch, typical Asha Lee. What a brat," she heard Seo Il say as she walked away. "All IQ and no EQ…" 

Better to have one than neither, Asha thought.

She rounded a few corners until she reached a lounge area. There was still another hour before her next class. She might as well enjoy it before being stuck in another mindless lesson. She took out her laptop and opened up One Last God.

She had just started on character creation when she heard clicking heels stop behind her. "Oh! I play that too!" Great. Bril Jung. "I've played for a year already, so if you need any advice--" Asha turned ever so slightly to throw her glare. She was satisfied to see Bril Jung wither.

"Let me make things clear," Asha said cooly. "I have no intention to get caught up in your little games or problems. So let's just get this project over with and leave things at that." Without waiting for a reply, Asha turned back to the game. She plugged in her headphones and slipped them over her ears.

In the screen's reflection, Bril Jung stood frozen for a moment before she hastily turned and walked away.

 


 

Bera woke to a loud thud, the sound of glass cracking, and a cry of "Oh shit!" in the groggy distance. Her eyes fluttered open.

"Why would you throw a rock that big?!" she heard Hasu say with exasperation.

"I-it didn't feel that big when I picked it up," said Kazu, voice stuttering from fear. "Shit, shit, shit. Mrs. Gu is going to kill me."

Bera glanced at the clock by her bedside. 10 am. She flipped and groaned into her pillow. She had ended up grinding until 4 am so that she could reach level 10 the previous night. Now, she wanted nothing more except to fall back into the sweet embrace of sleep.

As the fog closed in comfortingly, Kazu's grating "BEEERRRAAAAA" broke through. With a scream of frustration, Bera sat up bolt right and stomped to the window.

"Ah--wait," Hasu said nervously, "Bera careful with the window--" BANG!

She slammed the window open and heard the glass crackle from the force. That made her glance at the window pane, and it was then that she saw the fissuring glass in one of the lower panels. "KAZU PARK!" she screamed, neighbors be damned.

"Gah, let's not start a shouting match so early in the morning. I-I'll pay for the window!" said Kazu, suddenly placating. "Your doorbell's still broken, I just wanted to wake you up. Let us in!"

Oh, she'd let him in. Bera seethed all the way to the first floor, stomping so loudly that if her parents hadn't already gone to work her mother would surely have given her a day long lecture. She threw open the door and came face to face with Kazu.

Before she could open her mouth to yell at him, Kazu said, "Hurry, hurry! Namtae An is going to start his press conference soon."

Whatever words she was about to spit, Bera swallowed. "Wh-what? Team Ananta isn't scheduled for a press conference--"

"Not Team Ananta," Hasu said. "It's just Namtae An. It was announced this morning."

"Yeah, the stream quality sucks and our parents don't pay for the esports channel so--"

"What time?!" Bera shouted.

"Now, actually--"

All her anger converted itself into the energy she needed to bolt to the living room and turn on the television. Hasu followed behind calmly while Kazu muttered to himself, calculating how he was going to pay for the cracked window pane. By the time they arrived in the room, Bera's attention was fully snapped onto the television.

Ever since he announced his retirement a month ago, he had disappeared from the public eye. Bera imagined that most fans of Team Ananta were glued to the screen, maybe even sniffling a bit at the sight of their lost hero.

Namtae An was there as though he had never left. His still had his long hair tied back in a low ponytail and his face still bore the same airy smile; but rather than the jacket of Team Ananta, he was wearing a simple white button down.

In all eight years that he had participated in the pro-leagues, he had been known as the best player. Only the first controller of Vritra had truly rivaled him, but after she retired at the end of season 2, the one who inherited Vritra could never reach the same heights. Since then, Namtae An was the undisputed number one. He was already 26. It wasn't strange for him to retire, except no one was ready to accept it because the quality of his playing hadn't dropped in the slightest.

"--been a lot of speculation regarding your retirement. Does the new update have anything to do with it?"

Nametae An tilted his head. "Hmm? No? Why would it?"

"O-oh," the reporter stuttered. "Well there's been talks that the new abilities for the third tier are shifting the balance of the game…"

"What's that guy suggesting?!" Kazu said indignantly. "As if Namtae An would be afraid of something like that!"

On the television, Namtae An continued to smile calmly. "Yes? And?"

The reporter's question stuttered to a close. What was he supposed to say? If he continued, it would sound like he was accusing the undisputed number one of being too weak to adapt! Bera felt her lips curl upwards at the familiarity. Some players were preferred by reporters because they could take a question and run with it. Namtae An was the opposite. He couldn't be relied upon to pick up suggestions--only direct lobbings would give the barest morsel of an answer.

"What was the reason behind your retirement?" asked another reporter.

"It felt right," said Namtae An. The same vague answer he had given when he announced it a month ago.

Another brave soul stepped up. "What exactly is the purpose of holding this press conference then? Are you announcing a comeback?"

"If I was announcing a comeback I would have appeared with the team…"

Namtae An trailed off. The reporters remained silent. The seconds dragged on. Then why?! Then why?!! The reporters cried in their hearts. Answer the first question!

Suddenly, Namtae An blinked and sat up straighter. "Oh! Right, why I'm here…" The reporters sighed in relief. "I just wanted to dispel any rumors, that's all. I'm not coming back to the pro scene." His calm smile turned distant. "There is no chance that I'll come back."

No one knew how to respond to this. To Bera's shock, the one who picked up the conversation and ran with it was the one who never did so before.

Namtae An continued speaking. His words no longer addressed the reporters. "This will be the last time I appear before you all. Everyone, for the past 8 years, I'm grateful for all the support you've given me. But, all I can hope for now is that you continue to support the new Team Ananta. Gara Sa is the captain now, and wholeheartedly agree with the decision. Please continue to cheer for them, even if it is without me, and even if it is without Ananta."

That triggered a wave of questions. One reporter was picked to speak, but the question was the same as the one on all their minds. "What do you mean 'without Ananta'? Are the rumors true then? Does Ananta lack a successor?"

There was a moment of silence. Bera, Kazu, and Hasu all unconsciously leaned in. Namtae An's gaze had shifted from the cameras to the table. Slowly, he began to speak. "When I first signed on to Team Ananta, I refused to sell the account to the team. The equipment created through research paid for by the team was returned to them, but Ananta is still mine." A pause. "Was still mine."

The weight of the silence grew in the room as the implications of his words sank in. Namtae An took a deep breath, and turned his gaze to the cameras. His eyes looked steadily through the television screen as he spoke. "There is no chance of me coming back, because I've already deleted Ananta."

 


 

Babo Kim had left Atera Guild.

"Sick" and "busy" group partners, Atera being attacked…

Of the mountain of bad notifications that had managed to pile into her morning, that was the piece that left Bril Jung staring at her computer screen.

It was written in the clear, to the point style that the game always used, but even so, she read the notifications over and over again. The words made no sense to her.

Bap Kim has left the guild.

Flaming Kim has left the guild.

Artistic Kim has left the guild.

The Kims repeated until….

Babo Kim has left the guild.

She tried to recall every word she had said to him the previous night. Which part of it had been the word that went too far? When she cursed his success? When she stormed off after leaving him with a task that she had assumed he would be willing to do?

She had always been careful with how treated others, but she had gotten too use to Babo Kim's willingness to accept everything. He had never gotten angry no matter how many favors she asked of him, no matter how many times she called him a fool. She had forgotten to consider that he had a line to cross as well.

But of course he did. Everyone had a bottom line.

"Brilith, you're online!"

Bril closed the notifications to see Tara standing in front of her. "Just for a little bit…"

Typically, she didn't sign on until the evening. But after her group mates had somehow all become busy, Bril couldn't stand the growing headache any longer and laid in bed for another hour instead of starting her work. Even with the extra rest, when she had pulled herself to her computer, she couldn't get into the mood of doing school work. Finishing up the storeroom task from the previous day miraculously seemed appealing at that moment, so she had opened up the game instead.

Instantly she had been barraged by messages that had piled up. A player killer was attacking in the city. Pleas for a plan. And then...the notifications about Babo Kim leaving the guild.

Bril shook herself. The player killings. The attacks on the city. That was what she needed to be concerned about. "Tara, what happened yesterday?"

"It was awful!" she cried. "This player called Maruna kept firing off Crimson Dawns in the city. Ah, we've received numerous complaints already. I couldn't reach you, so I wasn't sure how to deal with the situation…"

Bril flinched. Atera guild's reputation had already been in freefall ever since her appointment as the Agni guild leader. She had only been in Atera guild for a little under two years when she was confirmed as the next Agni guild leader. Some had laughed that Atera guild was scraping the bottom of the barrel to pick a player that new to lead the guild, but the reality was that she had been picked over several veteran players. There were more than a few higher ranking members that were angered by the decision. Worse than the jeers, it was the loss of support from those experts that hurt the guild the most.

Natasha had sworn before she left that Brilith would lead Atera guild into the grave. Brilith had thrown herself into guild work to try to make sure that wouldn't happen, but what was the result? It was just as Natasha had said. Under Brilith, Atera guild went into decline.

A few months after the old guild leader quit her position and Brilith officially took over, it was revealed that the Shiva guild leader had been secretly skimming rare materials from the guild and giving it to Vritra Guild. Atera had always been the first of the great guilds encountered, so it was inevitable that it would get many overexcited beginners. It was equally inevitable that a large portion of them would choose to leave once they realized they didn't have to stay at the first guild they found. The high turnover had always been a slight mark on Atera guild's reputation, but the scandal with Shiva guild leader turned that blemish into a bleeding wound.

The guild that couldn't even keep it's guild leaders loyal.

They lost the Shiva guild leader, and the spot remained empty since then. The shame of the event made even more experts unwilling to associate with the guild any longer. No matter how much she pushed, without the veteran players to support her plans, there was only so much she could do to prevent their fall in boss hunts and dungeon records.

It was as though she was a curse on the guild. So many experts had left under her time as guild leader, and she had only managed to bring in one.

And now…

Bril took a deep breath and forced herself to focus on Tara. "How many players were killed?" she asked.

"It was fired into crowds, so it's hard to say," said Tara. "But we've received at least thirty complaints about how slowly we reacted. Uhh, don't look at the message boards, ok?"

The headache was coming back in full force now. Bril buried her forehead into her hands and rubbed her temples. "How was it dealt with in the end?"

"Oh! It was Asha!"

"Eh?" She lifted her head. "Asha? Asha Raihiro?"

"That's the one!" Tara sounded excited for the first time. "It's been months since she was online, but she was online yesterday. She volunteered to go after Maruna and managed to chase him off." Tara gave a happy sigh. "I wish I could've seen that fight…"

Bril felt slightly dazed. Asha had managed to graduate at the end of their third year and moved back to her hometown a few hours south. They had at least had semi-regular contact in game, but after a month, Asha had disappeared in game as well. All Bril had managed to glean from Asha's slow replies offline was that Asha was playing on another server, and that she wanted to save some money before moving back to the city.

Asha had never been particularly communicative, but Bril had still felt her absence after her departure. It had been nice to have a friend in school.

Even if it wasn't in person, talking to Asha in game was better than talking to her offline. At least the morning had one silver lining.

"If she comes online while I'm not here, please tell her I want see her," Brilith said.

"Sure, if I'm online…"

"And Tara?"

"Hm?"

Bril wished she could make Brilith bow her head. "I'm sorry I wasn't here last night. I'm grateful that you handled what you did. I'll take care of the complaints."

"No, no, no, it was nothing!" Tara said hurriedly. "I can't expect you to be online all the time. We're supposed to have two guild leaders guild leaders for a reason…"

Two guild leaders. Bril smiled bitterly.

Tara signed off soon afterwards, leaving Brilith alone once again. Brilith stood still as a statue as Bril contemplated her next move. She decided to deal with the guild storage first; at least then she could tick one entry off her to do list.

To her surprise, someone had already finished taking stock of the guild storage and written notes regarding what materials to prioritize. Brilith scrolled to the bottom to see who had last edited the log.

Babo Kim.

She had no idea what to make of it.

 


 

"For the last time, I'm not a fan," Babo Kim said, exasperated. "I have something important to talk to her about, so just put her on the phone--"

"Mmhmm," the woman hummed sweetly. Rottingly sweetly. "Of course, Miss Mae considers all her fan's words important, don't worry. However I'm afraid she's too busy at the moment. Thank you for your support--"

"I'm not a fan!"

"--please continue to cheer her on--"

"Don't hang up--"

"Goodbye!"

The phone flatlined and so did what remained of Babo Kim's patience. He let out a cry of frustration and threw his phone into the lounge chair in front of him. Neeka Mae's fool of a boyfriend had already left him frustrated and angry, and now Neeka Mae's overprotective manager was pitching his mood into the pits.

"Stop yelling in the office hallways," a man deadpanned behind him.

Babo Kim turned to find Yeong Ma glaring at him disapprovingly. His messy brown hair and bagged eyes betrayed how little rest he had been getting lately. “What kind of example are you setting for everyone else?”

“You’re one to talk,” Babo Kim snorted. “Picture of professionalism you are. Your shirt’s not buttoned right, by the way.”

Yeong's head snapped down down, and sure enough, each of his buttons were off by one.

Babo Kim shook his head with mock worry. “We finally got a day off yesterday, so why do I feel like you didn’t sleep at all?”

“Not everyone can be as carefree as you,” Yeong said.

"Why do people keep saying that lately?” Babo Kim sighed.

“Because idiots don’t worry about anything.”

“I was yelling, so clearly I was worried about something," Babo Kim retorted.

“What? You finally realized you’re getting—“

“I’m not getting catfished!”

Yeong’s lip twitched. “I didn’t say you were.” He waved his hand. “Forget it. Come on, everyone’s in the room already.”

“Not gonna fix your shirt?”

“Shut up.”

Yeong pushed open the wooden doors to a brightly lit room. The door closed behind them, and instantly, any noise from outside the room disappeared. Compared to the other meeting rooms for general use, this one clearly had more money poured into it. Natural lighting spilled into the room from the floor to ceiling windows. The chairs were modern and high quality. The mahogany table could easily fit 20 people, yet only had 12 seats.

As Yeong had said, everyone else had already arrived. Even Bora Ma had arrived before them, which surprised Babo Kim. She skipped half the meetings, despite being the highest ranked person in the company. One Last God had been founded by four people, and of those four, only Bora Ma remained.

Kyungah Lee’s departure had been years ago at this point, but Shiwu Ah and Bisu Wu’s departure was fresh. Babo Kim glanced at the seats where they had once sat. Two young women sat in their places, bodies held rigidly. Still, they looked more comfortable than they had when they first took those seats a month ago. The company had operated for so long without Kyungah Lee that no one had ever been appointed in her place, but the loss of the other two couldn’t be ignored.

Babo Kim took his seat. His gaze naturally fell on the empty chair across from him. No one had been found to replace Shin Gu yet. It had only been a few weeks since he quit and there were still plenty of things to consider. He wondered who would be chosen…

“Good, since everyone’s here, let’s keep this short.” Bora Ma said. “The second 4.0 world expansion is still on schedule from my end, updates?”

“On schedule,” Yuna Bae said cooly. Probably on schedule because she had been taking the work life balance of those under her and throwing it into a grinder, Babo Kim thought. If people could produce that many pieces of quality art assets in such a short amount of time working normally, they wouldn’t have to wait for major version updates to announce world expansions. Then again, they were all in the grinder at this point…

“Fine on my end as well,” Yeonwu Suh said. That, Babo Kim could hardly believe. It seemed even the mild Yeonwu had resorted to keeping his team overtime.

Yu Bae nodded once. "All good."

“Cheondu, you found what's causing that crash yet?” asked Bora.

“Hm,” he grunted. As usual, Cheondu Ra's legs were kicked up on the table, and his expression bored. It was as though he didn’t understand they were in crunch time. Immaturity, Yeong had complained once.

Bora’s hand flicked in the air. A pen flew from her fingers and nailed Cheondu’s forehead. She ignored his cry of pain. “Get on with it, you little brat.”

A wave of snickers swept across the room, and Cheondu’s ears grew red. “It’s being caused by the terrain tool!” he snapped, cool broken. He glared at Subin Ah, eager to pass the problem.

Subin leapt to life, movements stiff and jerky as she snatched a pen and scribbled something down onto a notepad. From his angle, Babo Kim could see that the page was already covered in black ink. Subin's cramped notes merged into the sea of black letters.

Apparently, Bora had also caught sight of Subin’s extensive list of problems. “Forget it,” she said. “Cheondu, pass the bug to me. Subin, focus on finishing what your team already has.”

Subin flushed, embarrassed that she had to force Bora to personally take the problem. But she knew she lacked the resources to address it, and didn’t protest.

“Ruta, if you get overwhelmed, get Geunah to help.”

Babo Kim suppressed a groan. Ruta wasn't going to like this.

“I don’t need any help from Geunah Kim!” Ruta Ma protested. He hoped she didn’t.

“Just don’t let the backlog build up,” Bora said. “Geunah wrote a good chunk of the current server framework, so talk to him if you need to.”

Ruta threw a glare in Babo Kim’s direction. He shrugged helplessly. It was code he had written when he had first joined the company under Shiwu Ah two years ago. It wasn't as though he had any say in what his tasks were back then.

If Bora saw the glare, she didn't comment. “Guenah, how's the rebalance going?”

“Got through the mage family.” Babo Kim hesitated before continuing. “Are we certain this is how we want the abilities to be?”

“If you have concerns, raise them after 4.1 is pushed out,” she dismissed. “We’re short enough on time as it is. Yeong, your stuff should be fine, but how’s the security team?”

Typically, Yeong oversaw player moderation and user experience, but temporarily, he had been given oversight of Shin Gu’s team. Yeong's own work wasn’t overwhelming for the upcoming update, but with the work Shin left behind piled on top, it was a small wonder that he was still functioning.

"It's...being taken care of…"

"Huh." Bora raised an eyebrow. "How taken care of?"

"I've got a few people on my team that used to work on Shin's team," Yu cut in. "If you need more people, let me know."

A hint of relief filled Yeong's tired face. "I could use more people."

"You two get that sorted out," said Bora. She flicked a glance towards her watch. "If there's any problems, message me. Indu, take care of the rest." Without another word, she gathered her things and sped out the room.

The man who had been quietly sitting to her left, typing away the entire time, moved to take her place at the head of the table.

"Don't get any ideas Geunah Kim," Ruta said, gaze filled with contempt. "The last thing I'll need is your help."

Her hostility shot towards Babo Kim and bounced harmlessly off his layer of nonchalance. "Ok," Babo Kim said as neutrally as possible. That just made Ruta seeth even more.

"Stop it, Ruta," Indu said. His voice was calm and pleasant enough to clear air immediately. Ruta looked away.

Indu Ra had always carried himself with a sort of poise and confidence that naturally demanded respect. If he asked a distracted person to hand them their wallet, the person would likely do so and throw in their birth certificate for good measure. It was a quality that made him a good conman and an even better PR head.

"You and Subin are going to be under the most scrutiny in the upcoming quarter," he continued. "This period of time will be vital to determining whether or not you two can keep your positions as department heads. There should be nothing more important for either of you than the smooth completion of your parts in the update." Despite addressing both Ruta and Subin, Indu's gaze never left Ruta the entire time. "Do you understand?"

"Yes," Subin said. Ruta threw one more spiteful look at Babo Kim before nodding once.

Satisfied, Indu turned to address all of them. "The press conference the day after tomorrow will be even more important now. Subin, Ruta, this will be our first conference since Shiwu Ah and Bisu Wu's departure, and we'll be taking the opportunity to formally announce that you two will take over for them."

"What about Shin?" Babo Kim asked. "Has his replacement been decided yet?"

"It's been narrowed down, but we won't have a name to announce for the upcoming press conference," said Indu. "Furthermore,  the situation has worsened a bit, so I'll have to apologize to Subin and Ruta."

"Worsened?" Yeong's tired face became even more tired.

"Has everyone seen Namtae An's press conference from this morning?"

A murmur of yes filled the room. It had been impossible not to. Even if they themselves failed to catch the news, they worked in the company that created the game. Someone in the department would see it and share. How could Namtae An's presence be small, even if they weren't the company that handled the pro scene? Babo Kim had felt happy for Namtae, but he pitied the fans.

"Yeah, he deleted Ananta." Cheondu said. "What about it?"

“You’re underestimating the power behind that name,” Indu said with a hint of contempt.

Again, Babo Kim was reminded of Yeong’s claims: immaturity. Cheondu Ra was only 19. It was unbelievable that he was in this position at this age to begin with. At 19, Babo Kim was still an intern, and his rise to department head was already considered quick. Cheondu was doubtlessly a genius, but he was so use to being correct that he never thought to consider that there could be anything beyond what he knew.

But, at the very least, he understood clearly that he was being looked down upon now. Cheondu scowled. “It was just an account—“

“If Ananta is just an account, then Chandra is even more so,” Indra said. “Ask anyone about One Last God, and they may not be able to recognize the name Chandra, but Ananta? Ananta has been thought of as the “strongest” since the game first began, and that was only spread by the pro scene. His existence is as much a foundation of the game as anything else. The public perception of One Last God is already unstable at the moment since two of our CEOs stepped down. The pro scene has complained about the last update. You think that the most popular account in the game being deleted won’t tarnish our reputation even more? Especially with the old guard beginning to retire? What if the game loses its allure as an esport? We cannot allow the pro scene to dictate the direction of the game, but at the same time, if the pro scene dies, we’ll die with it. One wrong step and One Last Game could be scrubbed from the internet and disappear from memory within a year.”

Cheodu looked away, still scowling. Babo Kim could hardly blame him; the atmosphere had become tense. Satisfied, Indu turned back to the rest of them. “Well then, whatever we do, we have to justify properly. Those who will be taking part in the press conference behave exactly as I tell you to. I’ve also arranged for Neeka Mae and Basi—“

“Neeka Mae?” Babo Kim cut in. “Is she coming here? When?”

A muscle in Indu’s face twitched in irritation. The focused mood had been cut through. “As I was saying, I’ve arranged for Neeka Mae and Basi Wu to help us with advertising. They’ll be here tomorrow to discuss the specifics of what that entails. They’re also retired players that don’t lose to Namtae An in popularity…”

“That’s only because they have a pretty face,” Yuna said. “Their influence as players is completely separate from the influence that Menaka and Urvasi hold.”

“This isn’t for core players, their recognizability as players to the casual populace is far greater than Namtae An—“

Babo Kim felt his attention slip. PR had never interested him. He just wanted to make something that players enjoyed. He knew it was vital, but at the moment, he couldn’t bring himself to care about the specifics. All he could focus on was how one of his problem had been solved.

 


 

Leez jumped up and down from a tree. Kaz had laughed and called her a tree frog, which prompted Leez to punch him in the face. Members at Shroomtown Guild had offered to help her level up more, but she turned them down for the time being. It was more important that she run the drills that Asha had given her.

Bera couldn’t stop thinking about the fight between Asha and Maruna. No wasted actions; everything quick and precise. She would have to be like that too if she wanted to fulfill her revenge. Every drill bored her to tears, but remembering the exchange would snap her back in focus.

She was almost finished with the last of her drills when Asha sent her a message. In true Asha style, the message only contained five words: meet me at Atera Guild .

“Hey, be online tonight and help me level grind, ok?” she shouted up to Kaz, who had managed to slowly shimmy himself up the tree to understand what Bera was doing.

“Sure, sure.” Leez waved goodbye and teleported to Atera.

The marketplace was still filled with a sea of people. However, while the number of players did not seem to decrease, the most popular topic of discussion as Leez weaved through the crowds were regarding the attacks.

"--must've fired off something like 10 times! What kind of guild let's that happen in the city? If this was Eloth--"

"--reputation isn't enough anymore if someone is brazen enough to do this--"

"--dropped! And some damn scrap picker stole it! Can you believe that someone so shameless was waiting around--"

"--I see that Maruna guy and he's dead on sight, let me--"

The conversations didn't even die down when Leez reached the gates of Atera guild. A handful of players were gathered in the front, airing their woes to a purple haired player that Bera could only assume was a member of the guild. She slid past them into the guild plaza and looked around for Asha.

She found Asha standing near the steps leading up to the guildhouse. "I'm here!" Leez announced. "What's happening?"

"The guild leader wanted to talk to us," Asha replied.

"The guild leader?!" Falling apart or not, Atera guild was still one of the great guilds. While Leez felt that they paled in comparison to pros, compared to normal players, the status of the guild leader wasn't small. "I heard Atera's guild leader is only on at night…"

"I texted her, so she should be coming online."

"You...have her number?"

"She's a friend from school," said Asha.

Damn. Damn! Even her friends in real life were high quality players! Who did Bera know in real life in comparison? Kazu? Hasu?

Bera thought about Asha's reply a bit more, and did a double take. "Wait, you're a student?" It shouldn't have been shocking, but Bera had never fully considered that Asha was a real person, who had a life outside of One Last God.

"I graduated university in February," Asha said.

"So you're 21? 22?"

"...I'm 18…"

Bera's jaw grew slack. She could barely force them to close and open again enough to stutter out, "Y-y-y-you're only 2 years older than me...and you finished university?!"

"Yes," Asha said easily as though it were only the most natural thing in the world.

Who? Who divided up abilities in this world? They were too unfair! Bera could hardly even wrap her head around doing well enough at school to keep pace, yet Asha was running laps around her at lightning speed. Wasn't this too unfair? She was already this good at something like gaming, did Asha really need to be good at school too? If Asha had a good face too, then it was all over!

"Your face…" Bera muttered in her daze. "Show me a picture of your face…"

"Wha-- no , why would I do that?"

"Rather than a picture, it'd be nice if you'd show your face in person sometime," said a new voice.

Bera snapped from her back to reality. A battle mage with amaranth hair had walked over.

The guild leader. That could only be the guild leader. The equipment worn by Brilith Ruin was too well coordinated and distinctive to be anything picked up randomly in game. At the very least, her cloth armor was silver grade, but everything else was high grade as well.

Of course, the most distinctive piece was still the weapon: the Staff of Agni. It was a tradition for the guild leaders representing one of the city gods to receive a piece of god-level equipment from the corresponding god. For Atera, it was the Staff of Agni. Although she wasn't a battle mage, Bera was still filled with an overwhelming desire to zoom uncomfortably close to Brilith and take in every detail of the staff.

As if she read Bera's mind, Asha stepped between Brilith and Leez. "I'll visit before the end of the year."

"Eh, really?" Brilith sent out a grinning face in her chat bubble. "Make sure to come after November. You graduated before anyone could have a proper drink with you…"

"I'd probably be an even more boring drunk than you to be honest," Asha said.

Brilith let out a short laugh. "That's...not possible."

Bera stared. So Asha could act halfway sociable. The realization made her bristle. If so, then couldn't Asha act a little nicer to her?

"Is this a friend of yours?" Brilith asked, turned to look at Leez.

"She's just a player I agreed to help train up."

Bera's irritation increased. Did Asha need to deny it like that?

"Wow! I'm surprised, you've never agreed to do that before!" said Brilith. That made Bera's mood improve a bit. "You must be quite talented, Miss Leez."

Bera laughed sheepishly, hand scratching the back of her neck. "Well, I'm--"

Asha gave a derisive snort. "Talented? She was completely useless yesterday."

Immediately, Bera's shame from the previous night flooded her, suppressing the annoyance that threatened to flame up. It was true she couldn't do anything against Maruna; there was nothing she could say to retort.

"Ah, that's actually why I called you here!" Brilith said. "Do you have information about that player?"

She couldn't retort to Asha, so Bera diverted her anger to Maruna instead. "He's the same asshole who killed my entire guild!"

Brilith glanced at Bera's guild tag. "Shroomtown Guild...you're from one of the surrounding guilds aren't you? I see...so the player killer being reported is bolder than I thought. What was his build?"

"Agni-Indra-Surya," said Asha.

"Wait, is he someone from Team Garuda?!" Brilith's voice rose a pitch from surprise.

"Wow, you figured that out fast…" Leez muttered.

"Only Team Garuda knows how to give their weapons Crimson Dawn," Asha said. "It's normal to assume that someone that can use Crimson Dawn with a single Indra allocation is from Team Garuda."

The unspoken you idiot raised Bera's annoyance.

"A pro-player having fun over summer break then." Brilith sighed. "How troublesome. I've never heard of Maruna...a side account maybe..." Her murmuring trailed off.

The silence stretched until Brilith gave a small oh . "Sorry, I shouldn't be taking up so much of your time. I wanted to thank the two of you. Is there anything you need?"

"Forget it," Asha said. "It was nothing."

"Are you sure? I know you're well off in terms of materials, but isn't Miss Leez upgrading her cloth armor?"

Asha paused to consider. Bera hoped that she would accept. Although Bera couldn't say much since she contributed nothing to chasing off Maruna, she had looked ahead at the list of materials required by the cloth armor. The quantity of materials was staggering and she had been worried about how she would be able to amass enough materials to complete the upgrades even once. Not to mention having spares for when she inevitably messed up…

"Forty Flower Insect Teeth, five Spider Silks, and ten Goddess Shrouds," Asha said at last.

"You could ask for more…"

Please ask for more , Bera begged silently.

"No need. This will be enough for her to upgrade the cloth armor to level 10. It'll be good practice for her to farm some materials anyways."

"Goddess shrouds aren't easy to get at such a low level," Brilith said.

"Marut in the Carnivorous Woods should be doable for her soon," Asha replied, mercilessly stepping on Bera's hopes.

"You can't farm Marut!" said Brilith, voice between amusement and disbelief. "She has a 20% chance of appearing per run."

"The dungeon is a good place to practice accuracy." Painful as the concept of attempting to farm Marut was, running a dungeon as a drill did sound more appealing than jumping on trees.

Brilith sighed. "If you insist…" Within seconds, she sent the materials over to Leez. Bera couldn't help but feel a little impressed. Brilith had given her these materials as though it were some small favor, but even this number of materials would have made the coffers of Shroomtown Guild splutter and beg for mercy.

"Brilith!" Bera turned to see the purple haired player she had seen at the gates running towards them.

"What is it?" Brilith asked.

"A world boss spawned in Solaris Plains!"

"Is it the Whiteback Beast?" Asha said sharply.

The purple haired avatar jolted, as if its controller did a doubletake. "Whoa, Asha Raihi--"

"Is it the Whiteback Beast?" Asha repeated.

"Well, yes it is…"

"Do you need something from it?" Brilith asked.

"I need its fur."

"I see…" Brilith thought for a moment. "If that's the case, why don't you come along? We could use your help, and if we kill the boss, you can have first pick of the drops."

 


 

Solaris Plains was a level 55 area; much too high for a level 10 Leez. Bera had planned to return to her drills, even though the thought was disappointing compared to the thrills that a world boss would offer. To her surprise, Asha had directed her to go to Creation & Origin instead.

"Try updating your cloth armor without me," Asha had said. "If you need any help, you can ask the players at Creation & Origin for help. Tell them I sent you."

"But this is an Artram product--"

"The basic actions are still the same, even if the materials used and specific process are supposed to be kept secret. If you get confused about an instruction, you can ask the players there…"

Bera had to admit that having Asha walk her through every time would be a waste of their limited time together, so she had complied and headed towards Creation & Origin. She couldn't complain much. Creation & Origin was a tentpole name in the silver-equipment crafting business on Willarv. Being able to use the players there to help her upgrade her cloth armor not only boosted her chances of success, it also made her feel like a higher status player than she was.

The main building Creation & Origin looked painfully nondescript. It was just the plain white edifice of an Atera market building that a merchant would get by default once they had bought up the location. The only customization done to it was the wooden sign that bore the brand logo. The simple storefront was nothing like Artram's main building which had undergone extreme modifications to appear like a beacon of dazzling modernity in the fantasy setting. The owner of Creation & Origin was too cheap to upgrade her storefront, but in a way, that spoke to her quality as it meant that she poured all her gold into rare materials for her equipment research.

Among the plain storefront, the most eyecatching thing for Leez was the two players arguing in front of it.

"What do you mean Lorraine's not here?!" the one named Airi Yui shouted. She was yet another player with purple hair, except hers was twisted into twin rings. Her cloth robes and holy symbols suggested cleric, but her lack of immediately visible weapons meant that she had at least a single Kubera allocation. "I go through the trouble lugging all this here--fighting off a shit ton of people mind you--and she's not even here to get it from me?"

The player she was speaking too seemed to shirk away even though "shirk away" was not a programmed animation. Even his pink hair failed to pop as the creator had picked a dusty rose color. Eiraheeari Catroshife. It was like someone had sneezed over a keyboard and picked the letters covered in spittle to compose name. "S-sorry, but she left a little while ago…"

"Well I have to leave now . There's a world boss fight. I can't miss that!" Airi let out a strangled cry. "Forget it, take these items. I'm leaving."

"Wait!" Eiraheeari cried in panic. "Lorraine told me specifically not take these--!"

"I can't take them with me. The important one has a 100% drop rate if I die," Airi said impatiently. "Just don't equip anything. Take them!"

Bera supposed Eiraheeari must've relented and accepted the items, because in the next moment, Airi teleported out of Atera.

She was about to approach and call out to Eiraheeari when two shapes darted from around the corner and lunged at Eiraheeari.

There were two players. One was some sort of gunner mix, holding both a sharpshooter's gun and a launcher's cannon. The other was a mage type, but from the sickly bruise colored aura that surrounded his hand, Bera knew he had to have at least one Yama allocation.

"Stop!" she managed to shout. It wasn't enough. The mage reached out and grab Eiraheeari. Bera heard Eiraheeari give a whelp of surprise and in the next instant, he had collapsed onto the ground.

Foreshadowing of Death. Those touched by the ability would briefly be put in a state of "death" for 5 seconds. For the most part, the death state was like a 5 second stun; even for a normal player that would be enough to severely whittle away at an opponent's health. But it was what happened when the system registered the "death" that made the ability truly terrifying: the equipment drops that occurred when a player died would be triggered. In a one on one battle, that could mean a piece of armor was dropped, or a weapon was lost. Even after the stun wore off, the victim would still find themselves at a severe disadvantage until they could regain their lost equipment.

Leez sprinted forward with a shout. The mage's partner fired several shots at Bera, forcing her to slow down and evade while the necromancer quickly gathered the items that Eiraheeari had dropped. After he finished, he latched onto the gunner who immediately switched to her cannon.

BANG! The force of the shot launched them high into the air and over several rooftops.

Bera gritted her teeth and had Leez leap onto the nearest rooftop to continue pursuing them. Five minutes. That was the time she had before the Red Blood that marked those who had killed another player or carried a item dropped by a killed player wore off and the thieves were free to teleport as they pleased.

With her pace and practice, she managed to close the distance between her and the thieves. Just as Bera was feeling confident in catching up, the gunner finally noticed that someone was in pursuit. She lifted her cannon again and fired straight at Leez.

Leez quickly sidestepped and the cannonball whistled by, but the recoil of the shot launched the thieves forward, increasing the distance between them and Leez considerably. That alone already made Bera's blood boil, but then her movement speed slowed to a crawl. She glanced down to see a Sacred Circle at her feet, and when she lifted her head, she managed to catch a glimpse of the mage lowering his hands.

There wasn't much Leez could do besides keeping a close eye on the direction they ran while slowly inching her way out of the Sacred Circle.

Shorten Step. Rooted Foot. So many options, if only she were at a higher level.

She managed to make her way out of the Sacred Circle right as the thieves leapt over the city walls and towards the Ember Forest. Leez did her best to quicken her pace and caught sight of them making the mad dash across the grasslands between Atera and the forest. Jumping from this height would most certainly result in Leez losing health, but Bera was past the point of caring. She had to close as much distance as she could; they would be harder to spot in the woods.

Leez angled herself forward and activated Strengthened Force. With a powerful kick, she hurled herself off the edge of the wall. On impact, she quick recovered to avoid the stun effect and smoothly transitioned to a sprint.

The force from the kickoff carried Leez a good distance, but it still wasn't enough. The gap wasn't closing fast enough. Again, she thought of the skills she had yet to learn.

Shorten Step was reminiscent of Flash Step, except unlike Flash Step which teleported the user into the new space, Shorten Step simply made that single step cover a longer distance. As a result, the user would still hit any obstacles between them and their target location, forcing them to take damage. For this reason, Shorten Step was too dangerous to use in a place like Ember Forest, but she could at least use it to step immediately to the forest's edge…

Right as she thought that, a blur streaked past her.

Someone had the same thought as she did: Shorten Step.

Was someone else trying to catch the thieves? She focused on the forest's edge, hoping to see the player when they came to a stop, but to her surprise, they were barely paused at the edge of the forest before taking the second step of Shorten Step. It was as though they were just taking a casual stroll. The blur darted into the forest.

The player in the distance had been wearing a black cloak of some sort that draped itself over most of his body. His white hair had stood out starkly from the rest of him. Either he was suicidal enough to use Shorten Step within the woods in such quick succession, or he was that confident in his judgement.

Two screams rose in the distance. Leez had barely entered the forest. She cursed herself again for being such a low level.

Unexpectedly, one of the screams sounded as though it was coming closer. Bera listened for the direction, and turned slightly right towards it.

A few moments later, Bera could see the mage sprinting straight at her, in such a panicked state that even with Bera directly in his path, he was too distracted to change course. Further behind, the black cloaked player was calmly approaching as well.

Leez stopped and took a stable stance with her feet grounded and her arm thrown back. She activated Strengthened Force in her arm.

The mage was still glancing behind him at the black cloaked player. Bera typically did not enjoy being ignored, but this time, she was grateful for the opportunity. Just as the mage was about to run by, Leez threw out her fist and cracked it straight over the mage's jaw. She had merely been aiming to briefly stun him, but instead, the necromancer dropped to forest floor, unmoving.

His body disintegrated. Leez stared. How low had his health been that a level 10 player's punch could kill him in one shot?

The black cloaked player, Leez realized with a jolt. Airi had mentioned that she fought off many players to deliver the items--was the black cloaked player one of the hunters? If so, she had to escape with the items as quickly as she could.

Immediately, she dropped to a crouch and clicked all over the spot where the mage had lain to pick up the drops. Her speed of clicking was so fast, it was practically a vibration. There was no thought put into it.

That was why when a notification to equip an item popped up right under mouse, Bera clicked accept. She failed to fully notice the second notice that popped up afterwards.

You have equipped the Golden Knight.