A sad day indeed. The day the YGGDRASIL servers would shut down, the day the dreams of thousands would find their eternal rest.
One player, in particular, had decided to spend the last minutes at his favorite spot in Yggradsil, other than beside his friends. His formless figure standing solemnly on the edge of a cliff as he stared into a lake surrounded by forest, form continually moving and changing as shadows twisted around the beauty. He tilted his head to the sky.
Hraefn - debug tester, World Guardian, and longtime member of the guild Ainz Ooal Gown, having joined a mere month after the clan became a guild - gazed into a merciful void, glittering with a thousand stars. A far cry from the hell of a world he was trapped in. The seconds until his recapture ticked by, each one stabbing another needle into his skin as he wished he could feel something else, wished he could feel the artificial winds of Midgard as it blew through the grass, or the night's chill on his skin. Yet, he felt nothing. Technology had yet to reach that far, and it hurt more than anything.
As the clock continued to tick, a small prick of guilt stung the player's heart. He thought to his close friend and guildmaster, Momonga, sitting alone in their guildhall, watching over it in the final moments. Part of him felt that he should have stayed, especially after Herohero left, but as the other part reminded him of the bed, he would soon be bound to again, the thought vanished to the wind.
Momonga decided to end the game where his heart lay, Hraefn had simply done the same.
He wanted to treasure his last few moments of being free, of not worrying about whether he'd ever love a game like he loved YGGDRASIL. Not suffering over if he'd ever feel free again.
The clock struck midnight.
He closed his eyes on YGGDRASIL.
And opened them to a New World.
The tips of evergreens peaked into his vision, slight obstructions of the bright, sparkling sky. He blinked again, eyes darting around as he frantically searched for his UI. Where had it gone? It was just there. It had literally just been there.
Had the developers messed up? Did they only do a partial shutdown?
There had been thousands of players who begged the developers not to shut down the game. Had their prayers been answered last second? Was that why the UI vanished?
...But why would it make it disappear?
Perhaps it was the surprise introduction to YGGDRASIL II; however, something told him that it was unlikely. First of all, the likelihood of the developers allowing players to keep their old builds in the new game was low. It could alienate new players. Although, he could retain his one as he was a tester. Secondly, he wasn't read up on the laws surrounding dive games and virtual reality, but at the very least, he was sure that it was unethical for the developers to force players into a new game against their will. And finally...
He couldn't log out.
So it wasn't a new game. That left only one question.
What the hell was going on?
Surely he couldn't have been thrown into a plot ripped straight from one of those century-old isekai animes, that thought was far too ridiculous. More likely, it was just a bug, and everything would be alright.
In the meantime, Hraefn's best course of action would be to make sure he had his skills in order and find his way back to familiarity. Undoubtedly that was the course Punitto Moe would surely tell him to take.
It didn't take a genius like her to figure out another method of casting spells. There was the way the shows did it, calling out whatever spell he wished to cast.
He felt like a fool, shouting like that in the middle of a deserted forest.
Even still, he felt something flood out of him. Something had happened, hadn't it? He just couldn't see it...
In that case...
He pointed at a tree.
"Eldritch Blast!" His favorite D&D spell, something he'd picked up from some wiki archives after he heard that YGGDRASIL had taken inspiration from it. Though it was a simple first-tier spell, its effects looked nothing of the sort.
In a flash, four bolts of pure arcane energy shot forth. The first ripped through the tree. The second, the falling log, sending it crashing into another tree. The third went straight into the ground behind the tree, gouging it out. The final bolt eradicated what was left of the tree stump.
What else could be expected from Hraefn, Autarch of the Arcane? He'd earned that title through a highly specific build, only accessible through a debug menu.
It wasn't the best time to be patting himself on the back, Hraefn knew this and opted instead to just cross magic off the list of things he needed to check. Although, speaking of his debug menu...
"Debug. Debug Menu. Debug Console. Debugging."
He tried everything he could think of to bring up his console, cries, calls, waving his arms around, but it seemed nothing would work.
"Dammit! Open up already! System Access!"
Several menus appeared around him, each with various information displayed on them. One held his character build and options to change it, another his abilities and stats, and yet another held his equipment. He checked through the many screens and options, though he didn't test it, debugging would be no good if he didn't know where he was. Besides, the devs would absolutely murder him if he messed something up by playing around when he wasn't supposed to.
He finally found what he was looking for; a, not supposed to be greyed out, button labeled [Contact Developer]. He pressed it. He pushed it again. He kept hitting the button, complaining all the while, "Dammit, you can't break on me!"
...it was no use.
Ah, well, most of the interface appeared to be in working order. Hraefn was willing to take that for what it was. Next was his skills. His first thought was to use Heaven's Fall, but he immediately kicked that thought to the curb.
A passive skill, he'd start with a passive skill. Which one to pick... he needed something that could have immediate results. He'd turned off all his naturally damaging passives to avoid agro in his last few minutes of freedom; however, he didn't like the idea of potentially angering something stronger than anything YGGDRASIL had prepared him for. He didn't know what was out there, and though he'd stood at the peak of all YGGDRASIL had to offer, he didn't know what was out there. Then it would have to be something that didn't have the potential to screw him over.
He decided on darkvision.
Although it was an inherent and ingrained racial ability, thanks to his 'job class' as a debug tester, Hraefn could effortlessly turn any and all of his skills on or off. Something told him that calling it out wouldn't work this time, so he focused his attention inwards. Trying to feel it out, Hraefn thought about his task. Would he need to pull up his debug menu to do it? Certainly not when he'd been able to do it from the regular. That was what he thought. Still, he didn't allow himself to falter, and he was awarded for his persistence a mere twenty seconds later. He felt something within him click, turn off, and his vision went much darker. A familiar sight he knew from his window.
Repeating the process restored his vision, and his perfect sight returned once again.
Now then, what about his item box...
The tests continued for some time as Hraefn tested out combinations of skills and spells, exploits within them, and checking if all his debug commands were in order - of which, he appeared to primarily have just lost the ability to teleport. Experimenting always through him into a loop as he tried to figure out what he could do, which would inevitably lead to a question of if he could do something else. In the end, it was only when the sun broke the horizon that he stopped, realizing he'd never in his testing bothered to survey the surrounding area. He mentally kicked himself, thinking
it foolish that he'd leave himself so vulnerable without knowing if he were safe.
He needed to focus on the outside world now that he was confident of his own ability.
Flying was much more fun with the wind rushing past you, Hraefn decided, diving down to zipping through the trees after becoming comfortable with the ability once again. The first hit of perceivable wind resistance was a shock to his system, but now he enjoyed it. It was something to take into account when he flew, it was a game.
However, although he felt alive flying, freer than ever before, the clear blue sky thrilled him like nothing else.
It was nothing like the smoke he saw every damn day outside of his peaceful bubble, nothing like the smog he knew billions had to slug through in suits they could hardly afford. It wasn't broken or dead or killing the world.
He'd always assumed the white clouds he'd seen in the media were a lie, a wish even the people of old had held dearly, but the fluffy cotton in the sky told him otherwise. He'd spent almost an hour at its level, trying to understand it all, commit it to memory, before finally convincing himself to return closer to the ground before someone saw the formless black body in the sky.
It was beautiful.
And to that thought, white-hot rage bubbled in the pits of his very soul as the vision of smoke billowing into the sky came into view. It enraged him enough so that he didn't think for even an instant that he should asses any potential danger before he shot out of the sky.
That recklessness saved a child's life.
Everything was so hot. It burned. Why was it burning?
Mommy was yelling and begging. "Run, Asena! Run as fast as you can!"
Mommy didn't beg. Why was she begging?
Hands that ordinarily guided - gently nurtured, taught, and loved - shoved Asena towards the collapsing back wall, crumbling under its own weight. Mommy kept begging her to run. She couldn't understand.
Yet as an ax broke through the front door, she found that she didn't need to.
Little feet pounded against the ground, one propelling to the next across dry, dusty land, kicking up the dirt with each thud. She didn't know anything about the screams, the cries. Asena didn't know anything about the cruelty of the world. But running? Running was something she knew from the start.
Sometimes Gregory wondered why everyone didn't go into banditry.
Pillaging was such an easy job. Villagers, frightened, pathetic, weak little things, seldom put up a fight, instead preferring the monotonous option of bribing bandits away. Not that they could put up much of a resistance, even if they all worked together. Their two or three pitchforks and dull kitchen knives were nothing against a well-prepared assault and the captain's enchanted dagger, but it always made it more fun. But it was fun. It was exhilarating. Yes, pillaging was everything Gregory Altras lived for!
He lived a good life, the second-in-command to his beloved elder sister, Alice. Always had he craved the feeling of ax through bone, the bashing of a club against heads, the screams of children crying for their mothers, or their parents, begging, pleading, 'Please, do whatever you want with me, just let them go!' As if dying to the wolves or starvation would be better than the quicker, albeit just as painful, bludgeoning. Not that their thoughts mattered, the opinions of ants were inconsequential. And the ants themselves? They were meant only to be squashed.
Of course, even insects could be bothersome, especially parents. Gregory had almost missed the child running down the path outside the village. If she'd been the slightest bit smart, she'd have run into the forest where she'd be concealed, and perhaps he'd have assumed her crying to be resounding from the village. As things were, his interest and gaze zeroed in on the sobbing child, running for dear life.
He ripped his ax from the skull of the girl's mother, a sickening squelch bringing nothing but a smile to his face. The woman's last tears still ran, her body kept warm by the burn of the flames.
Children were always more fun than adults. You could make them believe they had a chance to win the game.
During playtime in the village square, Asena had always been the slowest in her little group of friends. Perhaps she wasn't the slowest runner in her village, not like Johnathan was, but she wasn't fast. It
made her lose a lot of games.
Now it wasn't a game. If it were a game, everything would turn out okay, but it wasn't! She wanted to scream and cry louder than the involuntary sobs that tore from her chest. Footsteps were behind her, the chaser was coming. Slower than hers, but heavier and ever closer. She hated playing with adults, they couldn't lose.
Maybe if she pretended it was all a game, a play gone wrong - horribly, horribly wrong - she could pretend everything would be alright. Perhaps she could pretend everything was as it should be.
Everything was okay.
It wasn't okay.
Searing pain tore through her back.
She couldn't comprehend it, it was too much, too much! It absorbed everything.
When Asena awoke, she knew she was dead. An angel stood before her.
The girl had just begun to wipe her tears when he swung.
He'd been worried it would get boring with how slow the kid was, he didn't think he'd be able to give her any hope. Gregory couldn't justify going too far from the village, after all, his sister ran too tight a ship for him to mess around too much. However, none of that mattered.
The splat of blood reinvigorated the fire in his eyes, the scream had it burning brighter than the village. It was beautiful, wonderful, incredible!
Her little body unable to handle the pain, the girl collapsed to the ground, whimpering, shivering. She couldn't even consider escaping an option. Now he could tell why people thought kids were cute. It was a shame she had to die, he felt as he circled the girl, it looked like she had the potential to become a beautiful lass, one fitting to be his whore.
He allowed himself a few more moments to bask in the pain of his victim, coming to a stop in front of her, a madman's grin splitting his face in two. Yes, what a beautiful sight. More than any whore.
The view of the good dying young.
He raised his ax, rusted thoroughly with the blood of countless victims, once again above his head. The sun gleamed off it, the last light of life.
Searing pain tore through his chest.
The ax fell from his now loose grip, landing blade first in the ground right beside the girl's unconscious form, scarcely missing her arm.
As if dropped, Gregory's gaze fell to his feet, and the void itself stared back. A tendril of inky blackness, almost like a blade, had run through his chest. He couldn't look away, hardly even registering the shadow over his body.
Distantly, he recognized that it shouldn't have been there.
And then it wasn't. Torn out of his body without a hint of tenderness.
One hand shot to his chest to pressurize at least one side of the wound, his other shooting out to steady himself as his bearings rushed back to him in rapids comparable to only a tsunami. Something was behind him. Something dark, nightmarish. Something incomprehensible, its mere existence exuding an enchanting fear.
As if possessed to do so, he turned his head to face his adversary, movement choppy and uncoordinated, lagging behind his mind. It took hardly a glance for the realization to come crashing in.
This entity, this being, it didn't even think of Gregory as an opponent. An enemy, perhaps, but no threat.
The formless mass of void loomed over him, blocking out the sun, its erratic, inconsistent, inky form stretched up into the sky. An aura of darkness, darker than dark, surrounded it, striking horror into Gregory's very soul, and yet... something about the creature still charmed him, beckoned him closer. Perhaps it was the call of the void, the allure of the abyss, but he could not help but be enthralled by the darkness. Something primal within him longing to be swallowed up, to catch a glimpse of the being underneath.
Perhaps he could have run.
What a degenerate, delighting in the death of a daughter.
Hraefn bothered not to use a single skill on the monster before him as he tore him in half, part of him distantly recognizing that everything had gone silent, save the child's ragged breath. Was it already over?
A beat passed. Then a cry of celebration, a dozen voices.
It seemed it was.
But not, he noted as he stepped over the monster's body, for the girl at his feet. She was injured, an injury that surely could have felled her, yet she hung on by a thread. Something must have been driving her, a powerful connection to life. What it was, he had no way to know. A final wish, perhaps?
It didn't matter, Hraefn supposed, a child was dying in unconscious agony, and he had the power to save her. There was only one decision any half-decent individual could make at that moment. His knees hit the dirt at her side as he knelt, clawed hands reaching out of shapeless shadow to cover the tear that split her back in half.
She was whole again in an instant, the blood remaining but already drying. A sense of relief, perhaps contentment, flushed over Hraefn's hidden form. She was safe. That was good enough for him.
...but what now? He didn't dare assume that anyone on her side was among the celebratory cheers.
Perhaps he could bring her to a nearby village or town, find someone to take her in, or even just drop her off by an orphanage. Somewhere could take care of her, he was sure of it. Things would be just fine.
Although, her waking up to see the form of a heteromorph looming over her would probably make things less so. Hraefn thought to himself for a moment, how much responsibility did he want to take for this child? The thought of leaving her there to rot was more than enough to send disgusted shivers down his spine. Too cruel, the mere idea of it caused a sour taste in the back of his throat.
Which left his first option and his first option alone.
He sighed in defeat and braced himself to change forms to his - albeit more familiar, he was sure - humanoid form. He never used it back in YGGDRASIL, it had been a bait form he'd designed with the help of Bukubukuchagama and Peroroncino. It hid his true stats from divination but allowed high leveled players to divine his true nature, coaxing attackers to confront him with their guards down. The brother and sister duo had taken the project seriously, actually getting along on it after the initial fighting, the concept something they could both agree on; a half-elf trap and the very definition of bait.
He hoped it would be alright.