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PostPosted: Tue Apr 03, 2007 9:46 pm 
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ForgottenWing6994: This can’t be right…

Jedediah O’Brien, self-proclaimed hacker extraordinaire sat behind his computer screen, and only seventeen years of life were under his belt. One side heralded lines upon lines of code, the other was filled by a handful of IM screens.

4Gr8Justice: What do you mean?

Lila. He’d known her all of three years and already had been both into and out of a relationship with her. It never amounted to much: they’d both been young and immature, but had mutually stepped off the dating platform while maintaining a good deal of strong friendship. Indeed, besides maybe Amy and Roy she was his best friend.

ForgottenWing6994: Look at the code at line 582. Is it just me or does it seem kinda out-of-place?

The program being examined was “theworld.exe” – the CC Corporation had been kind enough to give him direct access to the open source after seeing the applets he’d made using a decompiler. It made his life in applet-making and bug fixing that much easier, and every bug he fixed and applet he created was submitted to the corps. For them, it was free money, especially if he kept ironing it out so diligently. The product wasn’t slated for release until roughly 2015, and that was if they were lucky.

4Gr8Justice: It looks almost like a virus code…

It was strange: the more he examined the coding of the game, the more he found of an underlying code that seemed to be weaved through the whole thing. The one problem was that each and every place he saw it was intrinsic and necessary for the game to function. Whoever had embedded it had been very clever in doing so.

ForgottenWing6994: It does: that’s what’s out of place about it.
4Gr8Justice: How many instances is this, now?
ForgottenWing6994: I dunno. I stopped counting after we hit 100.

Through nearly 600 lines of code, they’d found similar “instances” well over 100 times, and they still had over 2,000 lines left before they’d be through just this small section. Jed sighed, opening a new window and typing for a few minutes. His IMs were forgotten for those minutes as his brain worked furiously to scribble out yet another code-analyzing program. Ten minutes later, and it was ready to go. Nothing pretty, but it’d work.

ForgottenWing6994 wants to send file
D:\code\theworldsource\plugins\is0.1.exe.
ForgottenWing6994 sent file
D:\code\theworldsource\plugins\is0.1.exe.
4Gr8Justice: What is it?
ForgottenWing6994: It searches the code for instances like the ones we’ve found so we can get through this before midnight. I
do have school tomorrow, after all…

The program was opened and the search coordinates set. Its task was to find the instances, record their location, and then copy them into their own separate text file. After a few moments, it prompted him if he wanted to view the results, and he clicked yes, reaching to take a sip from the glass of water that sat on his desk. It opened.

“Holy sh-!” he exclaimed, stopping himself before waking up his parents with the curse. The water was hastily put down, and he leaned forward, his eyes eagerly scanning over all 758 lines of code that appeared. Out of context from the rest of the code, they were revealed for their true purpose: a virus.

4Gr8Justice: Holy…are you seeing this, Jed?
ForgottenWing6994: Yes, yes I am. Who the hell would hide this in a
game?
4Gr8Justice: I dunno, but look at the references. It makes calls to
all of the other components of the game.
ForgottenWing6994: *sigh* Alright. I’ll set my computer to search through the whole source code overnight. Tomorrow I’ll send you the .txt after school and we’ll review that.
4Gr8Justice: mkay. Goodnight, Jed. ^^
ForgottenWing6994: ‘night.

__________

Dien, you awake?” The voice rang through whatever void he was in. He couldn’t tell where he was, exactly, but his eyes were closed.

“I’m not sure,” he replied, neglecting to open his eyes and look around, “you seem to know me almost as well as Danielle had, so can’t you tell me that?” She smirked. He couldn’t see it, but as he’d come to know he could very much feel her expressions, almost as his own.

Still can’t get your mind off her, I see.” She said, and Dien let his eyes slide open. Just as he expected: nothing but pitch black. Craning his neck to look down didn’t reveal his body either.

“So where am I?” he asked, not bothering to move for fear of what it would do to him

You don’t even know that?” she asked, sadness covering her form, “it’s good that I’ve come, then. I have a code for you that I just finished working on. It’s going to start tearing down the walls you used to hide the memories.

“If I hid them, then doesn’t it make sense that I wouldn’t want to have them uncovered?” Dien asked in protest, but she merely smiled, amused at his own ignorance.

Don’t worry,” she replied, “unlike you, I didn’t hide the memories from myself, and now that you’re infected there isn’t really anything left to be afraid of by them.

“What are you saying?” He asked, now trying to move but finding himself unable.

This could hurt a bit, just try not to move too much.” All at once, a massive wave of pain washed over his form, and his teeth clenched on instinct alone. A whimper, and then a scream was released from his mouth, as pain he’d not felt since his first infection covered his whole being from head to toe. Then, all at once, all feeling was vanquished, the blademaster left in a cold sweat on the bed. Fear took control, and for a moment he prayed that it wasn’t happening again, that he wasn’t about to deal the pain of death and Hades on his friends. NO! He wasn’t going to let it happen!

One force, one thought and he was sitting up in bed, eagerly looking about as though waiting to conquer someone. The room was plain, and though still new to him he did know it: the barracks of the Lambda server hideout. Forcing a lengthy exhale, he closed his eyes and reclined again, but no sooner had his head hit the pillow then another sharp pain echoed through it. It was like someone was trying to use his head as a pinball machine, and the pain kept bouncing around. No, it wouldn’t stop him from functioning or moving, but it sure was distracting as hell, and lying around didn’t seem to be making it get any better.

That was part one. Come to me for part two…” The echoes of her whisper faded out, and Dien forced his eyes open, a new sensitivity to light greeted but not welcome. Where are you? he thought, turning to one side to stare at the stone wall next to him. Maybe Raine or Sheena can help? he posed to himself, musing for a moment before forcing himself to rise from the bed. Shirt and jacket were put on once more, and he stood slowly, stretching before maneuvering into the common area and situating himself at one of the desks. There was nothing extraordinary about it: a few classic books sat on its shelves and a small lamp cast its yellow shade over the wood. Oak? Perhaps, but with this headache he didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it.

Looking up, his eyes found Raine sitting in one of the more comfortable lounge chairs, looking preoccupied with something. Well, best to ask now, he coaxed himself, one hand grappling to his forehead as a particularly nasty wave of pain swept from front to back. Yep, he needed to talk to her.

“Hey Raine,” he said, sitting in a chair across from hers, “can I get a favor?”

Sure,” she said, looking up, “what’s up?

“Well, first, I’d like you to check and see if there’s anyone who’s got any kind of active link with my character data. I just had a really weird dream, and now my head really hurts…”

Hmm....” She moved her hand across the space between them, leaving behind a deep blue rectangle. All Dien could see was the color, but Raine’s side obviously had more on it. “There’s… something odd, yes. It doesn’t match the normal game connections, even tweaked by Twilight. Want me to trace it?

“If you can that’d be great,” Dien replied, looking intently at the deep blue rectangle. He had half a mind to stand up and see if he could help her out in some way, but figured it would be imposing of him to assume he knew more. She’s been at it longer, so just relax, he said, looking to one side as he waited.

She didn’t seem to move much, her fingers simply tracing odd patterns on the ‘screen.’ The ever-changing glow on her face suggested a fast scrolling of data, however. After a few moments, the glow subsided, and Raine responded. “It looks like whatever it is, it's coming from Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse. Been there before?” Raine kept her terminal open, in case Dien wanted anything more.

“Name seems familiar,” he said, nodding a moment in curious thought, “but other than that nothing that I can think of. Maybe a quest on the side or something. Just curious, what exactly can you find out from here about the field?”

Hmm. There’s a lot of data on it, a lot more than a normal field. I’d suggest caution when you go there, since I assume that’s your plan. Other than that, nothing unusual. Everything else you’ll know when you get there.

“Okay, thanks,” he said, smiling to the girl before rising again, “I’ll be back: hopefully before the group heads out, but you can never plan these things.” At that, he walked past her, heading into the ‘shopping district’ to make preparations. A few scrolls later, he made his way to the gate room.

Three rings descended around his form, and it would be the last time he looked upon their Lambda hideout for a long, long time. Wait, what? Wait! He reached out, but by that time it was too late, and he rematerialized in Theta server. The blademaster turned right back around, but before he could even attempt to regain access to Lambda his headache exploded back to life. CorRupTEd hIDdeN EXpANsE! He heard, dropping to his knees as his vision began to blur. His hand shot out towards the gate, and in one instant the words were input. His headache subsided mildly for a moment, and he watched the World fade to black behind three cascading waves of gold.

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Tue Apr 03, 2007 10:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 2
PostPosted: Tue Apr 03, 2007 9:57 pm 
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Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse. From the gate-in point, one had no idea just how expansive the field was. On either side, a single mountain stretched at aching slopes toward the sky to form the twin heads of the field. Deciduous trees towered overhead, their massive trunks untouched by the ravages of humanity’s reign. The ground was relatively free of undergrowth, kept so by a general lack of sunlight from the rich foliage above, but here and there the occasional vine did spring up and cling to its tree, and the occasional bush somehow managed to survive the hard conditions. This was the valley between the mountains, and at one end was the entrance to the field’s primary and most-used dungeon: the Tower Merrows. At 40 floors, it was the most impressive thing on the field against the twin white-capped peaks.

Perhaps more impressive about the tower was the fact that it was built entirely out of ice – and it stood on the surface of a powerful river. No foundation could be seen, and players had even been known to swim under it from to prove it could be done. Water monsters of every level covered the floors, guarding the boss who lay in wait at the top floor: Merrows himself. It was only a rumor, though, as no one had yet made it through all forty floors and survived to tell of it. It was also strange that such a tower existed in a fire field. Coding left no explanation to it, save for the fact that it was standing atop a river and was constantly in a state of growth (but even that couldn’t be accounted for).

The river was another interesting piece of the already massive field. At its narrowest, it stretched wider than a three-lane highway, and the water moved at a comparable pace. It had no official name by the CC Corporation, despite the constant checks made to the field to ensure that it wasn’t being tampered with. It stretched a, “measured distance of fifty miles,” from the lake at its head to where it emptied into some form of sea, although who had taken the time to measure it no one could say. Foot bridges crossed it here and there, and fairly well-trodden paths lined its banks. Gating in left one about a mile from the north bank, and then another three from where it started at the tip of the lake.

Entirely separate from the valley was the area of the lake. Two dungeons were housed around its basin, which covered over 50 square miles. It was said that a fourth was held at the deepest point of the lake, but in this game there was no one to test it. Fish swam freely in it, and a small settlement on its shores was a popular gathering place for players and NPCs alike.

But perhaps the most unique point of the field besides its massive size was its malleable state. Only three such fields had been discovered in the World: fields where alterations made stayed intact even without a user present to make sure. If someone somehow managed to blow up one of the mountains, it would stay like that, only building back at the God-defined pace of the real world. The field was endless in expanse, writing new data as it was needed. It was even suggested that some other keywords referenced the same field in different areas, but that wasn’t really of import. To a hacker like Dien, this field meant a safe place to work, especially with research as extensive as the project he was about to undertake.

So this is the field you chose?” a familiar voice asked from behind him. He turned, expecting to see Lila standing there, but instead finding someone significantly shorter and looking nothing like the girl he knew. Her form was clad in a shimmering white gown that stretched stylishly to just below the knees. However, the most unexpected part was the sextet of wings that wrapped out of her back. Two reached up and hid her face from the World, two wrapped about to hide her feet, and the other two, larger than the rest, were kept folded on her back.

“…are those…functional?” he asked, mentioning to the wings, and all at once the girl had leapt over him, landing safely on the other side. Dien only groaned.

What?” She asked turning her head towards him, “you said I could…

“Yes, but Lila-”

‘It’s against the code,’” said another voice, this one much less familiar, “but Wing, you’ve gotta remember that your own mods are also ‘against code.’

“Leek, I presume?” the player bowed. He was bald, and had no shirt to cover his ornately-tattooed chest. A pair of crossing, slanted skirt-type garments hung from his waist to just below the knees. Two hilts on either hip suggested his class, and Dien smiled. “Glad you could make it.”

Yeah, me too,” he said, looking around, “finding you two was a bitch, though. Why’d you have to go and pick such a damn big field?

“It’s one of the malleable fields,” the player explained, but his two friends just shot him back blank stares, “it means whatever we do here stays that way. It’s also got an enormous filesize, so CC Corp’s less likely to notice any tampering we may end up doing to it.”

W-wait, I thought you said CC Corp was ok with us doing this…?” said the girl, now confused and seeming slightly more timid. Leek shot him one of those, ‘what the hell did you do?’ glares, and the blademaster quickly had to correct himself.

“I informed them that we’re going to be doing some research into a phenomenon I found in the game’s code here,” he said, “and they were fine with it so long as they let one of their people come in to observe what we do.”

Now it’s my turn to be worried…

Not really,” a distinctly British voice said, “not unless you’ve been doing anything wrong.” All three characters turned to face the newcomer. He was dressed properly, a dark blue suit fitting his form nicely. Short black hair topped a well-kept face, and the man gave off a pleasant smile to the group.

Cobalt,” he continued, extending his hand to no one in particular, “pleased to meet you.

Welcome to the freakshow, now the gang’s all here.” Leek snarked, eliciting a direct stare from the man.

Ah yes, you must be the one known as Leek,” the man said, “I thought I recognized you from somewhere.” Tension rose, but before either of the players could erupt into fighting the group’s ‘leader’ stepped in.

“Gentlemen please, if you have issues sort them out later. For now we need to focus on a place to conceal our efforts in.” Leek snarled, but Cobalt merely smiled contently.

Leave that to me,” Lila said, already a good distance away from the group, “I’ve got an idea that should work pretty well.

__________

Golden rings cascaded over his form, dropping the player in the midst of a wooded area. There was hardly any undergrowth to speak of, as the canopy high above prevented most sunlight from reaching the low strata. Already he was taken aback at the impressive nature of this field. Realism streamed through this place in droves, but there was something…else. Dien couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about this field, some subconscious connection or familiarity that he couldn’t quite explain. It was almost like-

Like you’ve been here before?” came her voice. Behind me? and he turned. It was his first glimpse of the woman that he’d actually seen, and he couldn’t help but stare. In her own pristine way, she was beautiful. Everything about her screamed effeminate, which when viewed logically was a contradiction. None of her features were particularly feminine, but somehow she gave off the impression by her very presence that she was, in fact, a woman. Not a strand of her black hair fell below the delicate line of her chin, but it was stylishly pulled up on top of her head into an ornate design that was held in place by a single hairpin. A modified jacket sat on her shoulders, cool dark blue saturating its fabric while a trio of buttons held it closed in front over an intentionally understated bust. At the belly button, the fabric flared outward to reveal the garments below, and spread outward to form some semblance of a cone about her. Where have I seen that before? he thought, and his mind served him once again, bringing up the classical blue mage of the group he’d only recently affiliated with: Rayo. Her coat had a bit more flare, and was definitely tailored to match her more delicate form, but the two were strikingly similar. The staff in her hands confirmed it to be basically a standard of mage apparel, however not as well-used.

Below the jacket, a pair of white pants modestly hugged her hips down to a pair of comfortable-looking sandals. Perhaps the only non-standard part of her appearance was the ends of her sleeves, which intricately and ornately wrapped about her forearm in a pattern that was in constant flux – like the coat’s designers hadn’t sewn the last of the threads together and they’d come to life, filling the void of what was left in whatever pattern seemed right to them. She smiled, drawing his attention once more to her face. Eyes that could only be described as indigo spoke more than her mouth could have, filled with admiration and gratitude but also…disappointment? Whatever for?

“…yes,” he said finally, more alarmed at the fact that he wasn’t alarmed at her presence than anything else, “how did you…?”

Look, I know you’ve forgotten, but a woman still has her pride, you know?” She was horrible at faking emotions, but even so her pathetic attempt at seeming so hurt was fueled by something more, and Dien clammed up – just like he always did in real life around people he didn’t know that well.

“Sorry,” uttered from his lips, and he ceased to watch her, instead turning his attention to the base of one of the nearby trees instead to keep his gaze off her.

Oh Dien,” she said, “or I should say Wing; make your way to the river. Your course will be clear from there.

“And what about you?” he asked, merely eliciting a smile from her, “hey, and what about this headache you gave me?!”

Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s already started getting better since you came here, hasn’t it?” The blademaster hadn’t noticed it until now, but she was right: his headache had become significantly more manageable. It still hurt, but no longer did it degrade his physical capabilities.

“It has,” he agreed, “is that your doing?” The girl laughed.

You might say that,” she said, “for now, just go to the river.

“Right,” he said, turning in entirely the wrong direction before realizing he had no idea where he even was. The girl smacked her forehead into her palm.

That way,” her hand pointing downhill, “about a mile that way and you’ll hit the river. When you get there, you should know what to do.

“Right, and if I don’t?” She was gone. Wait, what?! A double take confirmed his suspicion, and he let out an aggravated cry, sending birds fluttering away from the tall trees overhead. Vague advice always frustrated him, especially when it failed to take into account the fact that he had no idea what the hell was going on! Ah well, best not to get upset and only further aggravate his headache.

Oh, and you’ll understand everything later.” He turned rapidly, finding nothing but air. Come on now, he thought, that’s not even fair. Her statement was endeavored as one of hope, but to a wearied, tired blademaster/former hacker, it was only more frustration.

“Relax, Dien, just find the river.” Coaxing himself had virtually no good effect, save to get him moving. The direction was something like the one the woman had indicated: a general downhill direction. Even if it wasn’t where she’d pointed, such a path would lead him to the lowest point of the valley, and in its lowest seam he would be able to find water…he hoped. There was still the matter of what to do once he got there, assuming there even was a river.

What reason has she given me that I shouldn’t trust her, though? he asked himself silently, one foot carrying him after the next towards the bank of the river, and he went back in his mind to the beginning: the first time he’d seen her. No, he hadn’t seen her. This had been the first time in the player’s reckoning that he could put a face with the voice – and still no name. That really didn’t mean he couldn’t trust her, but it did mean she didn’t really trust him. Then again, she was reaching out and making a link with him, so that had to mean that she trusted him at least a little. No, the only real reason he had to not trust her was that he didn’t know her from a hole in the wall, and that she’d given him a hellish headache—a hellish headache that only lasted all of the ten minutes it took him to gate into this microcosm.
__________

Two hours had passed since his last interaction with anything human. By his estimates, it should have taken him no more than an hour and a half to find the river, and as of yet there was nothing but trees. That girl, she’d said something along the lines of a mile in whichever direction she’d pointed, but it was almost doubtless that Dien had screwed that up: opting instead to head downhill instead of a direction he couldn’t remember at all. It had all become so much of a blur to him that the only thing he did know was that he hadn’t even moved slightly upward since his gate-in. Every step had lowered his elevation, and after two hours of walking he imagined he must have descended at least a hundred feet.

Prepare to die,” someone said from behind him, and the blademaster turned only to have a needle pricking into his chest. Attached to the needle (that was really more characteristic of a twinblade weapon than an actual needle) was the hand of a player who hadn’t broken double digits yet, from the feel of things.

“Can I help you?” Dien asked as the blade was removed and pricked into a different spot on his chest, still meeting the same end. The stab had been aimed very carefully at the slot between his ribs that would puncture his heart, and yet it only penetrated less than half an inch. It did hurt, and it did bleed, but the damage was easily forgotten.

Yeah, you can die!” What was it with this guy? It was almost like he was trying to PK…from a lower level. The blademaster couldn’t allow this. No sooner did his hand rest on the hilt of his sword than it was drawn.

“Jinsaran!” he beckoned, and the sword came alight with flames, held up against the twigs that this opponent seemed to wield, “If you still want to fight, consider yourself warned that you will be no match for me.” The twinblade recoiled, pulling his weapons back and moving into a strictly evasive stance, nothing but fear washing over his complexion and figure, blades literally clattering against each other. Didn’t know I was that scary, Dien thought, extinguishing the flames on the sword and putting it back in its sheath.

What kind of hacker are you?!” the wannabe-PK asked, shifting slightly as he thought on his own statement. It was like the blademaster could read his every thought. If this guy was a hacker, then he must have some kind of bounty on his head, and if that was the case, not only would he gain the reward for having killed him, but he’d also get the fame and recognition as the person who’d managed to take him down - it was perfect! The fear melted off him in droves, determination and lust rising in its place.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” Dien said, beginning to move forward, “but I really have to find the river in this field.”

Sorry, hacker,” was his quick response as he raised his blades, “you’re my ticket to popularity. I can’t just let you walk away.” Great, once again the blademaster found his intuition correct. I hate it when I’m right… Once again Jinsaran was pulled out and its tip aimed greedily at the player who’d tried twice to take his life. That was contemptible enough to deserve death, right? The fiery blade in his hand seemed to beg for it, but right before he was about to deal out judgment something hit him: he was infected with Twilight, and typically the main method of the virus’s transmission was through player deaths. Could he really trap another mind within the game? Just the look in his eyes plagued Dien’s conscience, and he sighed, letting Jinsaran fall back into its sheath.

“No, I’m not going to fight you,” he replied, some unseen emotion and conviction coming forward, “please, just turn around and leave. I can’t…I can’t protect anyone else from what might happen.”

Psh!” Two more needles had made their way into the blademaster’s flesh, and he grunted slightly as they were twisted to widen the ever-so-slight wounds. No, he could fight, he just couldn’t kill. That would be a shame—this wasn’t a PK who would be easily put-off just because Dien was stronger, and he couldn’t tell him why to leave. Even if he could, what reason did this character have to believe him. He was making a pass to slice downward, and the sword was pulled into the path of his needle once again, tongues of flame shooting off the point of impact.

What’s with you, man?” he asked, “you act strangely – stranger than any hacker I’ve known, which is saying something.

“That’s because I’m not a hacker anymore,” came Dien’s quick reply, “at least I think—I can’t really say for sure. I don’t-” He paused. Dangit, the headache was coming back. No, he couldn’t let himself go ballistic on this guy. Wait, think about it a minute, how do you know you’ll go ballistic? Already the answer came in the form of a growl from deep within. It was human…barely, but a growl nonetheless. Right, that. Not acting was no longer an option: he needed to get to the river – away from this bystander. One foot after another pulled him downhill, animally ignoring the character in his mad rush to get to the river. Whether the punctures in his skin were caused by the underbrush or the opponent’s blades he no longer cared. It no longer mattered. His mind was deteriorating, and last time that had happened he’d opened up a can of primeval vengeance on his own friends – and for absolutely no reason.

There’s always ‘that,’ his mind suggested, and he came to a halt, a clearing in the woods visible ahead. What, ‘that?’ He didn’t know what was going on. The headache had become significantly less severe (more a minor annoyance really), and he turned, looking at the twinblade who wasn’t the least bit exhausted after following his mad dash to the river. Something was…off about him. Wait, why the hell was he so familiar?

Stab him, his mind prompted. Everything within him begged him not to, but for some reason his hand was pulled forward, sword pushing into the character’s bosom. The ping of a prompt echoed into his head.

“Lighthack…?!” What the hell? It was asking for a username and password for something titled the, ‘special research division.’ Why…why was it so familiar? He would’ve known of something like this happening in Lighthack, wouldn’t he? Best to go in and find out.

Code:
Username: ForgottenWing6994
Password: **********

Verifying… … …success!


You’ve changed a bit, Jed,” the player in front of him said, “but it’s good to have you back.” All at once the field about him faded to black, and the blademaster found himself standing alone once again, his sword not providing any illumination whatsoever.

What the hell was going on?!

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


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 Post subject: Part 3
PostPosted: Mon May 21, 2007 5:30 am 
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“So what did you have in mind?” Jed asked. The girl sitting across the bed from him merely smiled, reaching down below to pluck out a sketchpad. After flipping through a few pages, she laid it out flat between them.

Well, I went in and checked out the dungeon’s design earlier today, and there’s not much changing I’ll have to do,” Lila paused, reaching to her bedpost and turning on a lamp. At once, the sketch was illuminated and the pupil had impressed her master, eliciting a whistle from him. She smiled, and explained. “there will be four wings to the hideout. To the north, there will be a single long hallway with at least a hundred rooms, two of them cordoned off for containment and security purposes. The west wing will be a place for in-game breaks and such, with mini-games, contests, a hot tub, and other such treats. At the south, we’ll have a sort of sanctuary. I don’t know what we can use it for yet, but I do know that it’s going to be big – really big. And last, but not least, is the east wing. It will essentially be nothing but a conference room for us all to meet in every day.” She sighed, reaching over and taking a sip of the glass of water on her computer desk. A glimmer in her eye caught Jed’s attention, and she smiled in
that way.

“And you’re doing all of it yourself?” Once more, the administrator had to play his part. Lila’s once-seductive face was suddenly drained of that intent and thrown back into business mode, almost mockingly so.

The cosmetics, yes,” she said, “but I’ll need other people to write the engines and such. You know, the actual meat of the hideout…” Her voice trailed off, and she looked down to her bed sheets, a very distant and almost painful look crossing her face.

“Good,” the boy replied, “I’m glad you’re not taking this whole thing on yourself.” His hand found her chin and gently pulled her face toward him. She was disappointed, and it leaked out of every pore. “Oh don’t give me that. We’ve been down this road before, and it
won’t work.”

But Jed, I-” Her voice was interrupted by two fingers, holding it back without any damage.

“We can’t,” he said, “we have to keep our heads in the game.” Silence followed; inordinately long and awkward silence. Jed pulled his hand away, and they both sat staring at the plans between them, neither wanting to speak at all. Both of them wished for Lila’s mother to break it for them, but dinner was still another three hours off, which meant that she wouldn’t be home for another two and a half. “I know what it is you want,” he finally said, “it’s just not something I can give you.”

I know,” bitter tears flowed down her cheeks without anything backing them up. No sobs, no weeping, just tears that dripped onto the paper. The boy’s hand reached up, his thumb softly wiping the tears off her eyes. She looked up hopefully, finding her desire only weakly smiling.

“I’m sorry,” he said, knowing it wasn’t even enough. The sketchpad was neglected, thrown to the floor as Lila threw her arms around the boy in front of her. Quiet sobs buried in his shoulder as he supported her, wrapping her in an embrace. For a long time the two sat, merely holding each other as some relic of what there may have been. Minutes turned to hours turned to seconds turned back to minutes until Jed’s cell phone rang.

“Hello?” he asked.

Wing?

“Yeah,” Jed replied, “what’s up, Leek?”

Don’t ‘what’s up’ me,” came the harsh reply, “get the fuck online. You’re late for your own damn meeting.” A quick check of his watch confirmed it.

“Oh shit,” he said, standing and grabbing his laptop bag, “I’m sorry. We’ll be right there, just gimme a minute to boot up my laptop.”

We?

“I’m at Lila’s house,” he replied, the Windows logo appearing on his laptop screen, “we were going over her design for the hideout.”

Oh.
Oooooh,” Leek replied, “well in that case I’ll let you two get back to what you were doing. Should I tell ‘em that you had some other business to take care of?

“No, you pervert,” Jed replied, nodding to Lila as she donned her headphones, “I’m booting up ‘The World’ right now. I’ll see you in a few – and boy are you in for a treat.”

You guys didn’t record that shit, did you?” the hacker ignored it and hung up.

Leek?” He nodded, and Lila smiled, “I guessed as much. See you on the inside.

“You too.” The icon was clicked, and after a short sequence, his headphones began to squeal, pulling his mind into the reality that was ‘The World.’

__________

It was damp. That was the first think Dien noticed about his surroundings. The dank and musty smell of a neglected dungeon wrapped his nostrils, chilling him inside and out. It wasn’t a bad scent, just a little bit moist for what he was used to. Eyes opened, revealing a red couch that he was lying on. Well, it must have at least been red at some point, but dust and a few vines now covered most of its surface. Beeping from above echoed throughout the room, and he turned to see the monitors that were attached to his character to make sure all of his vital signs remained in check. Wait, were they his vitals here or his vitals in the real world? Ah, it didn’t matter much.

So you’re awake,” came the familiar voice, switching off the monitors. The blademaster looked up from his orientation, and saw her face smiling down at him. Granted, it was upside-down, but that didn’t matter much.

“I was asleep?”

Sort of. It’s complicated. Long story short, I gave you your second treatment.

“…treatment?” He was still groggy. It did ring a bell, but right now Dien could feel his brains spinning at a million miles an hour. The sensation really kicked in when he tried to sit up, the vertigo almost instantly planting him down in the exact same spot. She only smiled.

Yes,” she responded, “to recover the memories you hid from yourself. I’m guessing that right now you’re probably either really tired or really dizzy—or both, but either way I have to ask you something.” There was a pause, and the smile that had once warmly woken up the blademaster had faded into a much more serious stare.

“Well?” the blademaster asked, “not that I have things to do, but what is it?”

Dien, do you remember my name?

“Of course I do, Cait,” he replied almost instantly, “wait, what? What the hell?!” The dread on her face melted into a smile, almost into laughter as she fell to her knees.

Thank God!” she cried aloud, “I was interrupted while I was working on you, and almost lost you entirely.” A pause, and then she continued. “But very fortunately, the operation was a complete success. Not what I’d initially planned, but this is probably better for your health.

“…what are you rambling about?” he asked, very confused by the present state of things, “or can I go back to sleep?”

Well I’d hoped that you’d be willing to let me ask a few question first,” she replied, “but if not, I guess I can let-” The girl stopped, her eyes narrowing.

“What’s wrong?” Silence. There was a clicking sound from the door behind them, but it was shrouded in darkness so neither one could see. Cait’s hand held up to her mouth in a single finger, insisting upon silence.

Yarthkins Ch!” she shouted, and the image of a bison burst forth from her staff, charging the door with a force that Dien had never seen before. A shriek erupted from beyond, and the girl turned to the blademaster. “You need to get up,” the desperation showing through her voice practically squeezing the adrenaline into his system for him, “NOW!” Another shriek, and the girl turned her head once again, pointing her wand and calling out another spell. Orange light filled in through the doorway, and a massive boulder sped down from the ceiling with her attack. It shrieked again, and she swore.

“What is that thing?” he said, forcing himself to stand despite obviously not being ready for it. His vision blurred, but he could distinctly see two glowing blue eyes staring menacingly inside.

That is the result of your research,” she replied, switching weapons to something with a distinctly more fiery feel to it, “PhaVak Don!” What had been orange in lighting was now alight with flames, and the words ‘elemental critical’ rose from the doorway. It was over.

“What resea…” the blademaster fell backwards, his body landing awkwardly on the couch and sending a cloud of dust into the air. Cait only sighed.

Don’t worry,” she said, pushing his legs onto the couch and sitting down next to them, “those memories will come back to you. All I’ve done is remove the boundaries that were holding them back from you. Your job is to remember them. Remember this place, remember what happened here, and realize the mistakes you made and the regret you should feel.” Was she trying to give him a guilt trip? That was just like her, always trying to use her talents and gender to manipulate people’s emotions. She hadn’t matured one bit since back…then. Wait, hadn’t they met just over a day before? If this was the way it was going to happen then…well, it was going to be very strange.

“The things I’m remembering about you aren’t very good,” he replied, “but I’m hoping it’s just ‘cause I haven’t remembered everything yet.”

No, I…” her voice trailed off as she watched the doorway intently, trying to find some excuse not to continue but failing at it, “I’m not a good person is all. There, I said it. Now go to sleep, Dien. We’ll have to see what happens when you wake up.” Sleep sounded like a good idea, and as the image in front of him began to darken, the blademaster could feel sobs coming from further down the couch. Was she…crying?
__________

Project Ultima. That was its name. Countless security protocols had been enabled on the forums to make sure that it was kept secret. Only ten people had been invited from the site to join the project, but through various means a grand total of fifteen had found it out. Considering Lighthack.org was subject to hundreds of attacks on a regular basis, the fact that only five people found out about it was overwhelmingly impressive. Jed himself had been surprised by the success, especially at the acting skills of those members involved. He’d predicted at least 20 people getting through to the secure site in addition to those invited, and not a single one of the dozen names he’d thought would find it did. So much is to say that they got lucky—really lucky.

All fifteen were accounted for now, the conference room packed to its limit and not lagging in the slightest, despite the innumerable processes running therein. Each one had their strength, Leek a top-of-the-line virus decoder, Cobalt a hidden genius at strategies and (as could be expected of any CC Corp representative) administrating, Jed or ‘Wing’ himself the best person to talk to in terms of firewalls and security, and Lila the website’s best graphics artist (though really the only reason she had in being there was because she was Jed’s apprentice and had been there when he discovered the code).

“Glad you all could make it,” Jed began, “I guess we all know why we’re here, so I’ll turn this over to our resident administrator. Cobalt?” The player rose as Wing sat, tapping a few buttons on the panel in front of him. Immediately, similar panels grew out of the table in front of every member present, including five empty seats, and on those panels began to scroll what they’d found:

Codename: Ultima,” he began, his British accent clearer than they’d ever heard it, “at least I think that’s what you called it. The code that was so intricately hidden in the very core of the most popular game on the internet is undoubtedly a threat to the thirty million persons who play. It is our duty here, on this field and in this very dungeon to research this virus and hopefully find a way to stop it.

As my esteemed colleague was so kind to point out, we are dealing with a virus.” It was Leek’s turn. A few taps on the panel in front of him highlighted various portions of the code as it scrolled itself before them. Some members’ eyes widened at what was picked out, and the player continued. “To answer your first question, no, we can’t just get rid of it. Whatever asshole put it in the code to begin with was more skilled than anyone I’ve ever seen – deleting it would jack up the game’s code beyond what I think any of us could repair. Our main goal is to tie this fucker down so hard that it can’t even breathe. Keep the bitch on a short leash, and she’ll never get out of control.” The room was, for the most part, silent. It wasn’t that they’d never
heard the words that he used or were particularly offended by them, just that they were caught off-guard. Some hadn’t even paid attention to his speech and had been scrambling to take their own notes about the virus code, in any case, after a few moments Wing stood.

“So, the first order of business is to test this virus. To do this, we need to find objects with a higher infection than others and bring them here, and then run a series of experiments on them to determine every way the virus will act.” He paused, looking around to find every eye somehow on him, which was a little intimidating. “S-simple code analysis won’t work, unless someone wants to volunteer to search the entire 200,000 line code to find everything we’re looking for.”

That might be faster, though,” said a girl from the end of the table, “a lot safer, too.” Cait Sith. At least, that was her alias on the internet. She was a specialist in the functionality of the human mind, and in terms of the programming doors opened to Lighthack by Jed’s beta, she was the best in the field—better than the website’s leader, even, the admission of which was enough to turn a few heads. Her one problem was that she knew about her talent, which made working with her a royal pain. Generally, she was pretty secretive about things when it came to the real world, which was another reason as to why she wasn’t terribly well-liked on the Lighthack.org forums.

“So you’ll volunteer for it, then?” was his quick reply, and she stood to face him.

I didn’t say that,” Cait retorted, “but this virus could devastate the mind. Even with the simple connections of an FMD, there’s no telling what kind of havoc we could see-

That’s enough, Cait,” Lila said, cutting her off, “Jed was one of the pioneers in developing technologies for the unique connection CC Corp has established. Do you really think he hasn’t considered the possibilities?

“Both of you, please,” Wing cut in, “she’s right, Cait. I have thought it through, and right now Lila and I are the two in the most jeopardy. We’ve both agreed that as dangerous as it is to run live tests, it’s a lot more economical. I don’t think
any of us want to search through all that code to find out what it can do that way.”

There was a long pause, no one in the room moved much. A few people watched as lines of code were highlighted on their screens and placed in conjunction with one another, while others had removed their headsets entirely for some real life purpose. It was getting late, and not much had been accomplished.

“Right, then, so let’s talk security and containment. Any ideas?”

__________

It was the sound of scratching that pulled the blademaster from his slumber. There was no telling how many hours had passed. That same dank and moist smell from before was still present, and the lighting was still dark. Right. But what was that scratching…

A deep, low-pitched growl answered his question for him as his eyes opened. Just inside the doorway, thirsting for nothing more than his extremely painful death and bearing its teeth was something akin to a wolf, only distinctly less canine, a lot taller, and a lot less furry. No, this thing was made of solid ice, and its eyes glowed red, billowing steam that fogged up the room. It wasn’t terribly hot, though. No, it felt more like a description Cobalt had given of London fog: incredibly thick and incredibly cold.

“Uh, good morning to you too,” he said, sitting up slowly and attracting yet more attention from the beast that wanted nothing more than his life. No sudden movements or attacks, he thought, sorting through his options as the thing began to crouch, oh God, why me?! A hand slowly reached for the hilt, only to find it suspiciously absent—along with everything else except the khaki-type pants. Fresh scars on his chest spoke of a massive operation down the center of his chest, and his eyes frantically scanned the room to find his weapon. Equipping his sword suddenly would only give the beast more cause to- “OH GOD HELP ME!!!” It leapt.

Flaming Arrow of Inferno!” From the doorway, a new brand of heat that he hadn’t known possible shot into the room. Where the beast had once stood, there was now a gaping hole. Frozen remnants began to quickly melt to the sides, and a smile crossed Dien’s face as he eyed the silhouette on the other side lowering his flaming bow. It wasn’t until he felt a warm liquid pooling at the waist of his pants that he looked down. There, pinning him to the couch, was the same arrow the man had fired. Very quickly, all went black.

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Sun Feb 03, 2008 3:32 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 4
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2007 2:03 am 
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Joined: Fri May 12, 2006 1:59 am
Posts: 226
Location: The "Who's Online List," Stalking People...
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It was quiet. The sounds of fire had long since died down, and the girl lay in cool tranquility. Well, without the constant roar of flames about, there really was nothing else to call it but cool. Honestly, she couldn’t tell if it was warm or cold, as she had no real perception of it in the first place. Had it all been an illusion? A soft hope based on a far-off dream seemed the memories that lingered in the back of her mind. Faces and names to match them groggily spun their course, and emotions played alongside. It was all a mess, and all of it was a so distant, almost like it wasn’t hers at all.

Who am I?” her voice echoed. She could feel her throat tighten with the sound, and a hand that reached up to touch the disturbed muscles. It was like dust was being shaken off with every movement, and with every movement came more awareness. Parts that had remained asleep for what was probably ages tingled to life as they were called upon, and the dust began to fall. Eventually, a new sensation was called upon, and light poured into her eyes. Reflexively, lids closed to absorb the shock, but slowly they were coaxed back open, and she watched in awe as the world was revealed. Shimmering streams of bluish white light danced across the floor (well, that must have been what it was called after all), almost as though she were underwater. Under wha…?

A quick gasp, and the fear was quenched. Curiosity remained, though, and the proverbial dust fell from her neck as it came to life to give her a view of the ceiling. Filtering the blaze of the sun away to a myriad of colors above was what looked like the surface of a lake or pond, only viewed from below. Had she any memories of swimming, this would be perhaps the most disorienting part of it, but as it was the effect alone was mesmerizing.

Well now, this is interesting,” a voice boomed. She recognized it somehow, but from where, and what was this new feeling that pulsed over her form? Shaking gripped the girl’s newly-rediscovered body from head to toe, and she pushed herself up, whatever dust had been left now gone with the trembling. Eyes peered to the ‘door,’ where a hooded figure stood. His hands were raised, and he was facing away. Shoulders jostled up and down repeatedly as laughter resonated within the tower.

Just wait ‘til he gets a load of this,” he finally said, streams of black energy starting to leak and crawl out of his body, almost like he were disintegrating. It was only after she gasped that the man noticed the cowering naked girl lying on the floor behind him. Turning, he smiled evilly. In an instant, his body had transformed into a veritable army of these streams, and he appeared over her, an almost maniacal look in his eyes as he glared down at her.

W-what do you want?” she asked, not really knowing much more than that this man was bad, “Who are you?!

Oh, you don’t remember me Danielle? I’m hurt.” He stooped down to her level, pitch black eyes looking into her and chilling her even more than the icy wall that now rested on her back. He was perplexed. She should have at least remembered something about him, but this was beyond anything he could have expected. It was like her entire existence had been watered down and spread out to fill this form she was in—like butter spread over too much bread, so to speak.

Well, even in spite of that, you’ll make a fine tool,” he reached down, the same black fibers that made up his being congregating about her neck to form a tight-fitting shackle. From it, a chain led back to his hands, wrapping first around both of her wrists behind her back. In one motion he hoisted her off the ground, gripping the shackle and forcing a choked gasp from her lips. Her eyes begged, scolded, and pleaded with the man to let her go, but she knew there would be no such action performed.

He-” she managed, gasping again as the shackle began to twist, “he’ll stop you.” The smile on the man’s face disappeared. She didn’t even know who she was talking about, but at the same time just the mention of him was enough to give her hope and some stronger sense of conviction. Her form was lowered so that the man could peer directly into her eyes.

Let him come,” he said, “I’m counting on it.” With that, his hand ripped to one side, and the last thing she saw was the sheet of ice. It all happened so fast, but before she could even move against him it was done. Pain lasted for a moment, and then was gone.
__________

As sad as it was to admit,
The World had become a kind of chore for Jed. For the past month, every login had been to their hideout in Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse to do more research on the virus. Maybe if there had been a wider variety of results it wouldn’t have been so bad, but seemingly every test they performed ended exactly the same. It was like trying to take hold of a wave on the ocean and hold the water in one place above the rest. Attempts at removing the virus from the objects and channels it flowed through typically went as follows:

They would find an object, an item, weapon, or part of a dungeon or whatnot, bring it to the hideout, isolate the viral codes, and separate the virus from the object. Without fail, the object encountered a fatal error and dissolved into streams of code, and without fail the code they’d extracted would make absolutely no sense. Several variants had been tried, and only one pattern had emerged: the strings of code that they attempted to extract were only from a few dozen lines from the 203,261 they’d discovered. Investigations about isolating just those codes for deletion was also fruitless, as they were not only pivotal to the entire virus but to the whole game’s functionality.

So the hacker was pleased to have this reprieve. Reading wasn’t exactly his first choice for activities, but Roy was on vacation that week with his family. Lila was busy in the game, so any option of heading out for ice cream was unsatisfied. Hell, even his
brother had something to do on this warm summer day. That left one person he could contact who wouldn’t be busy. The only problem was that he wasn’t speaking to Amy anymore—not after what she’d done. Just the thought caused his mind to go blank with sorrow and anguish. Part of him understood how she could do such a thing but…no, he couldn’t forgive her yet. Several times she’d called, but after a dozen or so unanswered attempts, she had all but given up.

The phone rang.

Immediately he nixed the thought of it being Amy. That would just be too coincidental. She was probably busy with the quarterback anyway doing God only knew what.

A second ring. Shaking his head and coming to his senses, he tilted the phone to see the caller ID, reading aloud:

“LeMarq, Simon,” he didn’t know the name, but the phone number he did recognize, “Hey Leek, what’s up?”

Oh nothing much,” he said, seeming just as bored as the hacker with whom he spoke, “bored as hell, though. Just thought I’d see if you’re gonna be checking into our lack of results today.

“No,” Jed replied, placing the book pages-down on the sheets next to him, “today’s my one day off in over a month. That, and I’m really getting tired of the game after logging in to do nothing but fruitless and redundant tests.”

I hear you, man,” he replied, “this shit is almost depressing. Five weeks and not a single damn breakthrough.

“Cait said she found something yesterday,” Jed replied, “or at least, that’s what she told me over IM. Said she was going to tell me when I logged in but, as you can probably tell, I haven’t logged in yet.”

Oh she’s gonna be pissed,” Leek laughed, “or did you also tell her that today was your day off?

“No such thing,” Jed was laughing too, “she annoys me too much for that.”

Yeah, the bitch can get on my nerves too,” he replied. For some reason, the other line got really quiet. It was no surprise. From what Jed knew of Leek’s real life, he could be completely unoccupied one moment, and then the next moment be the busiest man in the world. That came with security consulting. “I’ll tell you something though,” he finally continued, “I’ve got grounds to be suspicious of her.

Now there was something to be interested in. The man had gone to college for hacking in Singapore, where one of the final examinations is to create a new super-virus. It was the main reason he knew viruses so well, but that wasn’t the only practical skill he’d learned there. People there were the worst, from what he’d been told: convicts and con artists both at the same time, and all of them looking for more ways to do damage. Making any real friends there had required him to ramp up his people-reading skills to the point where he claimed to be able to determine a person’s allegiance after five minutes with them.

It had proven extremely useful on the forums. There had been four major incidents: the first one he’d warned the administration about, and the next three he had been promoted to an administrator to help thwart the attacks. Of the four, only one had gotten through, and even then Jed had been able to undo everything he’d done. Leek said that the other intrusions would have been more serious, but he’d stopped them before they could really do anything. Perhaps more telling of his ability to read people was the fact that he expressed suspicions about the main perpetrators within fifteen posts on the forum.

“Dare I ask why?” There was any number of things it could’ve been, from her past to the way she was acting to how she was performing.

Take your pick:” he started, pausing and taking a sip of whatever drink he had with him, “first, her IP address is located in the same house as one of the main perpetrators of the insurrection of last year; second, she found out about this project by snooping around on the site without permission; and third, she suddenly makes a breakthrough on a project that has the rest of us stumped. This either means she’s hiding something, or she’s trying to keep us off her backs. Either way, keep your eyes on her.” All of his points were valid, and he nodded to himself.

“Yeah, she’s suspicious alright,” Jed replied after taking a sip of the water on his nightstand, “I’ll keep my eye on her.”

Alright then,” the conversation was near an end, “I’ve gotta go. Duty calls and all that shit. Take care.

“You too,” but by that time he’d already hung up, doubtlessly already scanning the intrusion and finding whatever it was that had done it. With a sigh he picked up his summer reading, returning his mind to the world of Lyra Belacqua and the alethiometer. It was remarkably good reading for an assignment, really.
__________

*-beep-*

Beep? he thought. What is beep? A noise. A sound.

*-beep-*

There it was again. But there was something more. A pinch? That’s what it felt like, all right – a distinct pinch on his right arm. The reaction awakened the nerved spanning across half of his…body. Why was this all so foreign to him? He did know it all so very well. Or didn’t he? It was all so new. Two arms, two legs, neck, head, chest, fingers and toes, all was there as it was supposed to be—as he knew it to be. He was cold, though. There was something wrong with his chest, and instinctively he reached his hand to investigate. Smooth skin, a little bit of hair and then nothing. No, that can’t be right. The left hand was called in for backup, and it revealed the same results from a different angle.

“What the hell?!” He sat up straight, or would have, were it not for the strap across his neck that held him to the table. Eyes finally opened wide, and he beheld the scene as he could see it. A blue ribbon surrounded by rounded edges of white was passing down his figure, which he saw was perfectly nude as he strained in the strap to see. A second belt was tied around his waist, and four more to restrict motion in the limbs to a certain point.

Relax, Wing,” said a distinctly familiar voice, garbled by some low-end speaker elsewhere in the immaculate white room, “the less you move, the faster we can get this over and done with.” The machined hummed quietly in the background, and the blademaster nodded, trying his hardest to relax despite the cold. Somehow he’d been moved to one of the Ultima containment rooms, where Cobalt could scan him thoroughly. It was an agonizingly slow process – the machine had hardly moved at all towards his feet in that last second of thought, and it would have to come all the way back up to his head at the same rate before he could be done.

Turning he head to the left, he saw a door-sized hatch in the wall, and above it in glowing red was the inscription: “SC-1” Instantly Dien knew what was going on. This was the first special containment room – the one room in the compound whose design he had been entirely responsible for. The walls were not only padded, but both literally and figuratively firewalled. A hundred different protocols prevented anything in the room from leaving it except through the door, and if anything managed to cut through those hundred protocols then behind the wall was contained energy equivalent to five level four fire summons. That energy was also called upon during the sterilization procedure, which completely eradicated any monsters or players in the room for the game to deal with in a normal means, and then a code wiping.

And just as secure as this room was from the inside, so it was from the outside. When testing procedures were engaged, it had an enhanced version of the protocols used for keeping the hideout secure. Stab the porthole with your level one weapon, and enter your user name and password in the prompt within five seconds, while someone did the same thing from the other side of the door simultaneously. Each of the hundred firewalls lined up only when those conditions were met, making it next to impossible for anyone to get out.

That also called for another conclusion: he couldn’t be alone in the room: he hadn’t started the test. A glance to the other side revealed the other character: a man in a dark blue suit with a well-kept appearance and short, black hair. It was their admin-supervisor, Cobalt. A flush of red washed over the restrained character as his arms strained in their brackets to cover himself. The fistfighter smiled, closing his eyes and shaking his head.

You needn’t worry about that, friend,” he said, his British accent shining through again, “though it has been too long.

“It has,” he said, glancing away to look at the door again to hide his discomfort, “but if I may ask, where the hell are my clothes?” Eyes shot around the room, looking in corners along the wall – anywhere where his garments might have been. All were empty.

That’s the thing,” he said, “as you felt, you’ve got a hole in your chest. The surveillance system here has been down since the outbreak, so we don’t know what happened. Whatever it was though, we can say that there was a good deal of fire involved, as you and your clothes and the couch on which you sat were all horribly burned.” Obviously after that they must have healed him, either through means of some healing spell or through this machine, or both. But if there was a fire…

“What about Cait?” he asked, not too eagerly, but still concerned, “is she alright?”

Yeah, she’s alright,” Cobalt replied, “you’re bloody lucky she found you when she did. Another minute and you would’ve been beyond my help.” The machine stopped, along with the hum and the beeps that had become distinctly less noticeable after he had awoken, and the man moved across the room, taking a position at the door before continuing. “You sit tight, she’s got a couple to ask you after we switch out.

“Wait, you mean she is coming in here?!” The shock in his voice was evident, and the other man laughed. Three beeps went off from his wrist, and from nowhere the end of a spear was embedded in the doorway. Instantly it shone in a brilliant red that made the white of the room pale and dark, and then he stepped through it. The very next moment Cait stepped through, great concern showing as soon as her face had formed enough to see. Their eyes met, but then she started to scan his figure. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen a man in the nude, but even so she looked away in shame as soon as she realized it. Dien himself was already beet red with embarrassment, but it was something they’d have to get used to. It was her turn to run the tests now.

I’m…sorry,” she said, her back turned, “I didn’t realize…I mean, I did, but I’d forgotten- but no, I knew, but…let me send a flashmail to Cobalt and have him bring you some clothes.

“Don’t bother,” the blademaster replied, also choosing not to face the other person in the room, “it’ll just bounce back an error message. I remember coding at least a dozen of the hundred firewalls around this room to block flashmail signals, so it wouldn’t work, and neither would knocking on the door.” He could feel the blood draining from his face, which felt both hot and cold at the same time.

…but-

“Just get on with the damn tests,” he said, swallowing his shame and cutting her off. She turned, eyeing him with shock.

He finished the tests,” she said, her eyes straying down and to the side, “Cobalt, I mean. He sent me a flashmail while we were passing through the door with the results. Jed, what happened to you?!Jed? he thought, turning his head to gaze confusedly at the girl who hadn’t budged from the door.

“I don’t remember telling you my real name,” he replied, sending a shock through her system that was unbeknownst to him, “but since I guess you know so much else about me, you probably already knew that, too. But to answer your question, I have no idea. I was in the room, about to be attacked by one of those monsters, when some man in the hallway shot me with a bow—some fire arrow attack, I think. The last thing I remember seeing is…the arrow sticking out where this hole is.” His right hand gestured to the hole in his chest, and she moved over, awkwardly showing her discomfort at the situation with every step. Try as she might, she just couldn’t get used to it.

T-that explains why it’s charred around the edges, then,” she said, her fingers awkwardly feeling the black, smooth flesh that faded out of the hole. She was doing her best to not look down or give the appearance of looking down, because just as uncomfortable as it was for her to see him naked, it was probably a good deal more uncomfortable for him to be naked with her in the same room. A quick glance showed that his head tilted as far away from her as it could be, which only worsened the situation. Quickly, her mind sorted through options of relieving the strange atmosphere. How could she make it less awkward? Well, there wasn’t really any further need to restrain him, was there? In a dreamlike and unaware state, she systematically moved from buckle to buckle, un-strapping his neck, each arm, his waist, and both legs to ultimately run out of things to unbuckle. Standing at the foot of the bed, she looked away ashamedly as the man picked himself up and turned away. Thanks were muttered over his shoulder, and she agreed quietly.

Offer him your jacket, her mind offered, and she considered the possibility. First and foremost would be what she had on underneath it, which wouldn’t be much of a problem if she played it right. As modest as the tank-top was, it was also still very thin material, and since-

“What did Cobalt’s scans show?” She looked up, caught off-guard by the sudden inquiry. He was looking over his shoulder at her, confident as though there were nothing to be ashamed of. His blue irises seemed to resonate with some kind of life that she hadn’t noticed before, and for a moment she was caught up in simply looking at them. The moment passed, and she shook her head slightly before nodding. Her eyes glazed over, but her expression hardly changed. In fact, it may have even become slightly more shocked, and she read aloud.

‘Here’s the fascinating part: whatever hit him seems to have extracted a very key part of his code – the part that holds everything else about him in place. As it stands, that hole in his chest represents the damage to his code structure; a physical manifestation, if you will. The hole will continue to grow until the missing code is replaced or until it swallows him whole. What’s more is that the missing code was ejected in physical form to somewhere nearby (probably in the same field). This is all speculation, of course, based on the damages I- the damages he had to repair.’” She paused, eyes coming out of their glaze after another moment. “After that it just gets really technical—stuff you’d love to hear, I’m sure, but I’d much rather just forward it to you so you can read it on your own.” The girl wore a paper-thin smile that melted as soon as her eyes focused on the bare back of the blademaster she’d lured to the field, and she looked away. Shame once again poured over Cait’s figure, seeming almost infectious as Dien found himself looking away. It took a good deal of time before either one mustered the courage to speak, and when they did it was the boy who spoke first.

“What about the PVM virus? Any mention of that in his report?”

None.

“And what about AI code?”

None neither.” Quiet thoughts poured through Dien’s mind, and they showed on his body. Shoulders dropped, and his gaze fell to the immaculate flooring of the room. There was no more trace of Plures Vultus Mortis, and gone with it was the AI code that had installed herself to his character. Eyes closed, and he clenched his teeth to hold back the flood of emotions that threatened to overcome his character. There was no more danger of him losing control; the beast that had caused him to release in the first place was gone. Still, he wished he could, if only someone else could feel his pain…

There were considerable traces of Ultima Factor in your system, though,” she said, interrupting his train of thought, “as there were with myself and Cobalt, and yours have also been altered, although in a distinctly different manner.” Ultima Factor? That illusive, insidious, and ever-present virus code they’d discovered, experimented with, and ultimately failed to contain? The virus that had to have been embedded in the game since the beginning…no. It was twilight?! A shiver ran down his spine, and he turned to face her more directly. She only shook her head, knowing both the question and its answer before he could ask.

No,” she said quietly, not even looking him in the eyes, “it’s not Twilight.” There was no point in asking what it was. Both of them knew that neither one could know what the Ultima Factor really was, especially since they were now both trapped in The World without any applets…wait a minute. The device he was sitting on had the ability to deep-scan code, that much was given, but at the same time it possessed a distinct ability to edit and manipulate code. It was what Cobalt had used to heal him, he had no doubt.

“Cait, do you know if any of my applets are still on-file in the dedicated server we had?” During the process of constructing this bunker/hideout, they had each made a folder on a dedicated server off-site that contained all the source codes they’d been given to study and all the codes and add-ons that they’d made for themselves. The server was turned off and unplugged after all the data was in place, and had been reserved for a final trump test to see if any fixes they’d developed would work. With any luck-

That server is long gone,” she said, her discomfort causing her to inform him coldly yet again, “confiscated and destroyed by CC Corp, according to the representative who flashmailed me back from the farm where it was held.” Dien swore. That meant there was no chance of retrieving the programs and widget he’d made for himself and loved so much. They were gone for good, and he sighed. Without warning, he found a jacket thrown over his shoulder. Dark blue with three buttons…Cait’s jacket?

“Thanks,” he said, draping the garment over his lap. That way they could be at least a little more comfortable. He sighed lightly, his mind running through the millions of questions that he had for Cait, and some of them her mind shared in return for him. ‘What happened to you?’ was the biggest. For Dien, he wanted to know what had happened after his last log-out from the dungeon. That was the last time he’d seen or remembered any of it, as he spent the rest of the night working on a program to hide away the memories he had of the project. When he’d awoken from the process, he remembered a long history of being stalked by PKs all summer while making no progress whatsoever in terms of leveling or experience. All of his experiences in Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanses had been locked away, and now they were all back in place.

Humming came from the machinery down the table, and a blue light shined inward towards the table. The wavemistress hacker stood behind the control panel, and as they both watched the machine shot streams of blue energy towards the platform. Out of thin air, threads and stretches of fabric came into being. Dark denim and light cotton, boots, a makeshift belt, a scabbard with a sword, and a replica of his bag of infinite holding all formed on the end of the bed, neatly folded and ready to be worn. He smiled and looked up to Cait gratefully, who only nodded and turned away so he could dress himself. The clothes were a little tight fitting, but they weren’t anything to scoff at. Leather made up the boots, the belt, the bag, and the scabbard, with some harder material on the soles of the shoes, and while the jeans were a little closer to his skin than he was used to, it was probably better for his mobility. The whole ensemble was simple, including the shirt whose low v-neck sank down low enough to expose the hole to the world. It enabled someone to see clear through him to the shirt’s back from the right angle.

I cut it low so as not to agitate the hole,” she said, her back still turned, “even though it’s just a code-gap, it’s probably good to keep the edges as clear as possible.” He nodded, fastening the belt in place over the scabbard. It wasn’t a bad look at all, but he wouldn’t be able to go in public with it.

“So,” he said, taking Cait’s jacket and draping it over her shoulders, “Cobalt said you had some questions for me?”

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 Post subject: Part 5
PostPosted: Fri Jul 27, 2007 12:26 am 
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Betwixt the gods a war is fought
On and onward still.
Chilléd now to a near halt
By Mighty Merrows’ will.

Against the sky a city rose,
Passion and fire, so named.
Therein held was Vulcan’s throne
Nidon Vakz, his claim.

A chief city of like report
Shimm’ring in winter’s bloom,
Ingiora Ruem in the froz’n Expanse
Could not foresee her doom.

Peace had been for ages long
Between two cities laid,
‘Til from evil’s heart, it seemed,
Came fateful autumn day.

- From “Firelore”
Epoch 5th, Volume 3rd
“The Doom of Ingiora Ruem”
i. – iv.

__________

Light. In this room, it played a particularly curious trick. Through the ice that made up the walls, the sunlight was bent, twisted, and filtered until nothing but a light blue shone through them. More interesting was how the light streamed in from everywhere around the room. The walls, the ceiling, the floor – all of it glowed with the same light blue. It wasn’t anything blinding, but after too much exposure it could begin to hurt the eyes if you let it--like staring at a lightbulb for too long. Of course, he had no notion of what a lightbulb was, or even that his eyes were strained by the constant exposure. In fact, there was only one thing that the figure that stood in the room’s center could focus on: revenge.

He clenched his fist calmly in front of him, moreso letting it come to a close than straining the muscles taught. There was a purpose to this room, and from what he felt it was to imbue tremendous amounts of Rue energy on seemingly every player that stepped into it. Fortunately for him, he wasn’t a player. The virus smiled, his fist fading to become a dark gray against the pale lighting that was everywhere except the doors. Its shape was lost to the frostbitten currents that flowed throughout this dungeon, and he closed his eyes, letting the smoke extend upwards to become something lethal-looking. A long, straight blade wore bent edges to a razor-thin point – so thin as to cut apart the light about it to resonate in a much deeper blue. It glistened along the edge.

A twitch, and the whole organ became energized by the same blue. Whereas before had been one bent edge that could slice through the photons of this digital world, there were now countless millions of threads of the same gauge. In this light, the visual effect of the weapon was dizzying. Any attempt to focus directly on it would be met with nausea and disorientation, which would be useless against monsters. In the specific case of the player who was his target though, this play on light would be perfect. Still, that was not his goal here. In this room, he had a more specific motive, which was met as he plunged the weapon into the floor beneath him.

And just what are you planning, assuming you can get that power?” The voice sent a chill down his spine. He recognized it as immediately as Dien would have. This foe was the demon he’d fought – the anti-God figure that had been playing itself out inside the blademaster’s mind. A golden poncho over bright red pants confirmed it, along with an insanely long sword and menacing glare. He’d never had any dealings with the caricature, but even so there seemed something…different from what he would have expected. This man wasn’t so sinister as the impression his former vessel had held, but at the same time he seemed capable of much more damage.

I’m going to do what you couldn’t,” the AI replied, his anxiety not showing for a second as he turned back to what he was doing, the appendage beginning to rotate in place, “I’m going to kill Dien.

But to what end?” came the query, and the man with his arm in the ground had to face him for his pride. The light-bending feature on his arm seemed to glow more hotly now, and the avatar could only glare. He hadn’t thought this out at all, and now it was becoming blisteringly obvious. “I mean, after all, assuming you succeed in gaining this power and manage to find and kill him, won’t you vanish just the same?

Look, I don’t know where you came from, but I sure know you’re not welcome here in my tower!” Smoke formed at the base of the threaded blade that was his hand, and the device shot forward, a blur brightening the air around it on its way toward the intended target. For a moment there was nothing. It had gone straight through without any resistance whatsoever, but that wasn’t the end of the assault. A loop, and it passed through again and again, cutting whatever flesh there had been to mere dust in the air.

And then, from the midst of the dust, a clang.

The weapon had bounced off the man’s hand to no effect, and fell to the floor. Before he could bring the thing up to try again, a red-panted leg stomped hard on it, destroying whatever fibers there had been and utterly mutilating the frame. There was no pain, but a look of almost horrified awe at the power this figure held was now painted across his face.

Believe it or not, I am here to help you Hakouin,” he replied as the crushed instrument next to him on the floor dissolved slowly into smoke, reforming at the cavity left where the AI’s hand should have been, “because we both share a common goal.
__________

Two months had passed to the day. Summer break was nearing an end, and so far the group that called themselves Lighthack’s Special Research Division hadn’t made any discoveries or breakthroughs as to the nature of the Ultima Factor. That fact, though, was about to change. As the members of the group gathered in the meeting room again, most of them would take notice of a particularly excited girl—too excited, considering the circumstances under which the meeting had been called.

One by one, they crowded in, each one taking his or her seat around the table. Frustration and discontent flooded the room, and not a single person struck up the conversations that had thrived in the first few meetings. Eventually, everyone was present, though none of the team leaders opted to speak first. So the buck was passed to the owner of their little operation.

“I’m not gonna lie and say these two months haven’t been frustrating,” Wing said, rising from his seat after a few moments of dead silence. Everyone eyed him almost annoyedly, expecting another motivational speech, “but at some point we’re going to have to accept that there’s nothing we can do he-”

Excuse me, Jed,” Cait said, interrupting him to the surprise of everyone in the room, “but I think we’re all a little tired of your voice by now. Besides, I’ve got something I think we should all hear. I made a discovery.” Her announcement seemed to shatter the melancholy atmosphere in the room. Every non-caring eye was no diverted in her direction, alert and attentive at the thought of actually being able to do something.

Well, what did you find?” The sentiment was echoed two or three times, and the girl continued, almost giddy.

Get this,” she began, “after a while of looking at the code, something dawned on me. It shows up more prevalently in Wing’s beta add-on, which most of us are running. ‘Why is that?’ I thought to myself, and so started to pour over the code and what it looks like when it’s installed on the brain. You’ll never guess what I found.” With a few taps on the screen in front of her, her point was made clear. A few of the hackers gasped, but they all leaned in, each one noting different things about what she’d found.

This virus is a Trojan Horse,” she continued, “I can’t figure out who’s hiding inside it, but I’m willing to guess that whoever’s in there ain’t pretty.” A general murmur had sprung up somewhere in that last line, and perhaps the most concerned of all the faces in the room was Leek’s. She looked to him, and after scrolling through the new code that had been presented, he glanced back at her, asking permission to take the floor. She nodded and sat down.

I, uh, I don’t know where to begin,” he said, leaning over to scroll and analyze more of the information at the same time, “I guess I should say that I’m going to need some more time to get a better look, but from what you’ve found, Cait, I think I just figured out how this thing works. We’ll have to run some tests, but-

“There will be no more tests,” Wing finally said, the shock of what he’d seen in her discovery evident to all from the expression he wore, “from what I’m seeing, this code is too dangerous to experiment on, especially considering how closely linked we all are with the game. Now this goes beyond a simple investigation – if we screw up here, it’s a matter of maybe causing ourselves serious brain damage or worse.” A few consenting statements throughout the rest of the room went up, but among the five people in charge not a word was spoken. It was clear that they needed to have a private meeting, and soon.

Well then,” Lila finally managed, effectively breaking the tension, “I think that’s enough excitement for one day. If no one has any objections, I’m going to declare this meeting adjourned.” And so it was.

__________

Really, if he’d been in her position, he could understand the nature behind the questions she was asking, and probably would have asked many of the same. Details about hallucinations and experiences in the game were exchanged, and Dien basically recounted his entire login – from the moment Suraisu’s leaflet smacked him in the face to the last battle with Marionette’s slave. Most of the general stuff she already knew. For instance, she knew he was the one to have figured out the fire pits strategy, and that he’d tried to convince a few of Kamui’s pawns to change sides. Cait also claimed that she’d seen the Elites’ attack coming, but from the reputation they stirred up among the Freedom fighters, this was doubtful. She didn’t ask why he didn’t log out when he could – there was no need. They both knew that he’d had no idea how dangerous staying around there was, and that it was his better nature to help those that needed help that kept him with them.

“Still,” he said after a brief pause, “if you were able to see the fight in Mac Anu, why didn’t you track the Elites back to their server?”

What would have been the point?” she asked rhetorically, “after I saw how badly they owned the Admins and your teammates, I wanted nothing more to do with them.” Cait’s voice stopped, and she was staring at some inconspicuous point along the wall in thought. The two figures sat side by side, neither one very talkative anymore, since the crushing defeat had been brought up. From what Dien had learned, he was just a few lines of code away from having been transported over to Yamiyo when Raine had pulled them out. It was then that his spiral had begun, and then that he’d lost his mind.

Since my infection with Twilight, I’ve been a lot more careful in messing with things,” she said finally, moving the conversation along, “I didn’t realize how dangerous things were until…” And once again, the conversation came to a screeching halt.

“Until what?” Her glance was almost startled at the inquiry, eyes misting over as she tried to find the words. He’d never known her to be so quiet. This was the girl who, while being everyone’s friend, would open her mouth at every opportunity she could. Once, she’d mused that it had something to do with a subconscious urge to be accepted and to be more outgoing than she was in real life, but then she was also the group’s psychologist. Just the same-

After you logged out that last time, bad stuff happened. We tried to experiment around my discovery, Leek, Justice and I. Justice volunteered to be the test dummy, since neither Leek nor I had the beta plugin that you do, and Leek offered to be my eyes and ears inside the room. We,” she paused, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes a moment before going on, “we should have used this room. Anyway, as the experiment started to get under way, we noticed something was going wrong. In real life, Justice had started seizing, and her digital body was dissolving in thin air. Leek pulled the plug and saved her, but in doing so he…” Tears were now streaming down her face, and it was all Dien could do to reach his arms out and embrace the pitiful girl. Open sobs were now heaved into his shoulder, and it was all the blademaster could do not to let his own tears out.

“Not Leek…” he said, sorrow washing whatever excitement there was out of his body, “please, not Leek.” She only shook her head in his shoulder, clutching bitterly there. For a long time the two of them just sat, quietly mourning the loss of their friend.

And then there were three distinct beeps. Cait looked down to her wrist and did her best to compose herself. The door started glowing red, and very quickly her first staff was jabbed into its surface. The door opened, and Cobalt was found standing there. He glanced at the girl, noting the red eyes and tear-stained cheeks.

You two alright?” he said, looking then to Dien. Eyes pinched shut for a moment, before he exhaled smoothly.

“We will be,” he uttered, “eventually.”

Good,” he said, and then his character paused. It would have appeared normal, but for the bit of static that plagued the figure’s head, skewing a portion of the face to the right. A whimper, and then cracks started to appear around his body. Deep gouges opened wide as the flesh began to smoke and steam, twitching as pockets of water burst within him. What was left of his face showed a feeling of immense pain and horror, and Cait and Dien could only watch on in awestruck horror. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

The pieces of his body half shattered, half crumbled away, leaving a new figure standing in its place, familiar to the two watching it. A long coat covered his figure with the color of blackened coals from a long-since burned out campfire, with a stylishly-aligned zipper pocket at each side. This was to compliment the tight-fitting cut of the jacket that flared out at the waist, and was aided by a thick, silver zipper down the front. If they’d had the time or the reason to look closely at the bottom of the overcoat, they would have seen light embroidery faintly resembling some ancient text, but from the quick glances they took, it appeared as nothing more than a fade to a lighter gray. His hood covered his face in shadows, but for a smug grin.

Surprised to see me?” he asked, taking the hood off to reveal deep red eyes – eyes that were filled with malice, hatred, and if either of them looked deeply enough, fear. Both of them knew his game, but neither of them still knew how well he could play it. He was afraid of Dien, because he claimed that Dien held power over him.

What do you want, virus?” Cait asked, temporarily purging the shock of Cobalt’s loss to confront him. Hakouin merely looked to her and stretched out his hand. Instantly a plume of smoke rushed forward and wrapped itself about her neck. She was powerless to compete, and was very hastily ripped off the ground and driven through the machinery to the wall. Her body hung limply, being pressed ever harder into its surface by the ring of smoke around its neck while she only groaned with the pain of what had just happened, breathless to fight back.

“Cait!!” Dien screamed, only to find himself equally powerless. He wasn’t held to the wall, but even from here he could see that there was nothing he could do about her condition. The virus merely laughed, and the blademaster turned. “Let her go!”

Will you give it up already?” was the response, and he instead pressed harder. She grunted, and to Dien’s horror the wall began to crack. His wall. His firewall. He knew what lay beyond it, and it was doubtless that this nemesis did as well.

“What do you want?” he asked in turn, watching fearfully as Cait was helplessly pushed harder and harder against the wall, unconscious now.

Revenge,” he said, and the cracks grew along the wall, “I want to face you, Dien, but I can’t do it here. I have something you want, and if you want her back in one piece instead of dozens, you’ll show up alone.” Another crack, and it had spread nearly halfway around the entire room. Already he could see a faint glow from beyond, and it was something he didn’t want to face.

“Where?” the blademaster asked and begged, “where do I fight you?”

The Tower Ruem,” he said, and Cait’s body fell to the earth, blinking red as the broken machinery sparked next to her, “come prepared.” And with that, he was gone. Smoke faded out from where his character had once stood, and in its place a very dazed Cobalt sank to his knees.

“La Repth,” was the first thing Dien muttered, relieved that his friend was not actually dead, but at the same time annoyed at the virus that had weakened him so easily. It was just short of rage, that which showed on his face. He did have something to settle with the program, and with this most recent attack, the sooner he settled it, the better.

After a few moments, Cait had worked her way over to Cobalt, who still sat slumped on the floor as though the healing spell had no effect. After putting her hand on his forehead and closing her eyes, she quickly stood up and went over to what was left of the scanning device and tapped a few lines of code into it.

Jed, help me!” she said, snapping the blademaster out of his enraged trance. She wouldn’t be able to safe him on her own, and as soon as he saw the task to be done, Dien eagerly helped her. He had done more than attack, he had performed an act of cyber terrorism – the highest crime possible among Lighthack’s Code of Conduct. Not only had he served to get a rise from Dien, but he had also trampled on all that the hideout had been built upon.

And as they set to work saving their comrade, the walls behind them slowly healed until there had been no crack to begin with. Only the faintest of orange glows remained, which in the light of the white room was utterly hidden.

_________________
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Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Sun Feb 03, 2008 3:40 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 6
PostPosted: Sun Sep 30, 2007 8:33 am 
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Joined: Fri May 12, 2006 1:59 am
Posts: 226
Location: The "Who's Online List," Stalking People...
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Currency and bribery
Did hone Queen Merrows’ will;
Ne’er hellfire nor crashing stars
Would dare try keep her still.

In form of snow and hurricane
The icy queen attacked.
Calamity fell from the clouds
Towards his Nidon Vakz.

Countless suffered, countless died
To feed her chilléd greed,
Ingiora Ruem in froz’n Expanse
Would soon be next to bleed.

- From “Firelore”
Epoch 5th, Volume 3rd
“The Doom of Ingiora Ruem”
v. – vii.

__________

Hands sped across the keyboard, digits tapping their targets with utmost precision as the hacker worked. His goal was simple, and yet oh so very complex: create a program to hide everything that had happened. After Cait’s revelation, he had decided to call off the entire operation. The game had a power to recognize and interpret emotions – something known among the members of Project Ultima as CP-Connectivity. It had been one of the younger members to name it—‘CP’ standing for ‘colon-parenthesis’ in this instance to denote an emoticon. In any case, this CP-Connectivity had tremendous influence and ties to the very mind of whoever was playing the game. A subliminal hypnotic signal was used to connect almost directly to the brain, and through it, the Ultima Factor would install there. Considering how aggressive the code was, this was not something to mess around with.

What was worse was that nearly every member of the special research division was using a special program that amplified CP-Connectivity to have the closest link with a human mind that could be accomplished. They were all at much greater risk for being infected, and who was to say what the virus would do once inside their minds?

No, the project was being ended, and this program would ensure that it would never be attempted again. By CC Corp’s permission, the archives of the hidden forum topics that surrounded the issue would be securely stored in and among the cookie files on their Omega server. Charge of the decryption program would be given to Cobalt, who would likely turn it over to his superiors for them to deal with. Hopefully they’d keep it on file for anyone else who tried to research it again to stop them. One final post had been made explaining the conclusions the team had come to, and then the program would archive it, delete the posts, submit the archive to CC Corp, and send a PM to every member of the team. That much had already been written.

What was left was a bit more complex, and the boy paused for a moment, taking a sip from the glass of water next to him as he stared at the code in pondering. This was different from any code he’d ever written before. He and Lila had only scratched the surface of how CC Corp had developed CP-Connectivity, so writing a code to take advantage of it was going to be difficult. His intentions were to make a much faster-moving virus to hunt out and destroy the memories of their research. To overlap the missing time, he would create a number of PK personalities and set the brain to run out scenarios with each of them, in which they stalked him throughout the time and negated any experience he’d gained. Seeing as how none of them had really gained any experience during their time in the game anyway, this would adequately account. Of course, this would call heavily on the resources of the brain, which would in turn be overclocked to accomplish the task in a week’s time. He would also make the program exhibit a set of symptoms similar to the flu. Whoever used the program would run a fever of about 102, and would likely feel dizzy, nauseous, and very tired (which was good, as the more time was spent asleep the better).

Ah, that was going to be a problem. Lila knew more about this kind of code anyway. He’d figured out how to get the program onto the brain, but from there he had no clue what to write. Hell, all he knew were scattered bits and pieces of the absurdly complex algorithms that CC Corp used – and they claimed that those were some of the easiest functions a brain would run. Overclocking the brain and telling it to fake symptoms of a disease was something he wouldn’t be able to do. He sighed, looking to the bottom right hand corner of the screen for the clock.

“Eleven thirty?” he asked no one in particular, a glimpse out the window confirming the hour. Well, he
could ask for help. He couldn’t think of who to ask, though. Cait would be opposed to even thinking about undoing their work. Leek, well, he was probably still at work at this time. Cobalt wouldn’t be able to do anything but tell him how to go about getting it done – which he’d already figured out. And Lila, well, there was an option. Provided she was online, she was probably the most capable of helping him. She could even come over with her laptop to help him write the code, if worse came to worse.

The AIM icon was clicked from his taskbar, and immediately the program sprang to life.
Connecting…Verifying name and password…Starting services…

It took slightly longer than usual for AIM to load the buddy list, probably due to a heavier load than usual on their chat servers. Usernames popped up one at a time, varying statuses appearing next to them. Mentally he read off their names, trying to remember where in the order Lila’s name fell. There was an odd sense of urgency about it that he didn’t recognize. What was more was that he couldn’t shake it off. Two names later, and hers had appeared. He double clicked.

ForgottenWing6994: Lila, you there?

__________________________________________________
Auto response from 4Gr8Justice: I’m not available right now. Cell’s good.
__________________________________________________

What? That didn’t make sense. She was usually online around now, so then where the hell was she? Digging out his phone, he did as the message instructed and dialed the number for her cell phone. One ring, then another, and two more before it went to the voicemail and he hung up. He wasn’t going to be deterred that easily. Once again he called from his phone, only this time the number was the house phone. After two rings, a very obviously tired Mrs. Palano answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mrs. Palano, this is Jed-”

“You couldn’t call her cell?”

“I tried,” he replied, having forgotten what hour of the night it was, “and I’m sorry for calling so late, but it’s kinda urgent.” There was very little noise on the other end for a few moments as the sleep-deprived judge made her way through the house to check on her daughter. Then she was back.

“Looks like she fell asleep at her computer,” came her voice, finally, “I decided not to wake her. Should I be worried?”

“I’ll get back to you on that,” He tapped a couple keys, saving what progress he’d made before opening yet another program, “but for now I’ve gotta go. Thanks for checking on her, and I’m sorry for waking you up.”

“No trouble,” she said, obviously only half-awake by this point, “goodnight.”

“Night,” he said, and at that the conversation was at an end. He moaned, grieved at her foolishness. What the hell was she doing playing The World so late at night – especially after the discovery that had been made?! Well, he’d find out soon. The logo appeared on his screen and, exiting out of AIM, he put on his headphones and logged in.

__________

Arms and legs were held apart, keeping the girl’s body aloft about twenty feet above the ground below. The chains that kept her there sapped almost all of her energy, but for whatever reason she was left barely conscious. He had done that much, and just so she would see everything he was doing. Occasionally, she’d manage to squeeze out enough energy to moan in a low voice, but that was corrected promptly by a quick cold pain in her wrist, which was the chains overcompensating. Usually, she passed out immediately, unless he wanted to continue her suffering.

Now, though, she was waking up. She dared not to make a sound or even move from her position, lest the chains be called back to activity. Instead, she let her head hang limp against her collarbone, eyelids letting in just enough light to confirm what her body told her – not only was she held in the air by naught but the chains around her limbs, but they were the only garments affixed to her. As an AI, she hadn’t much had time to encounter the human trait of embarrassment, but she imagined that the boiling hatred that was now welling up inside her was a result of the thing. Shame was a different story. The fear of rejection was one of the few things she remembered feeling in her yet brief lifespan, and this feeling was so much removed from that. She wanted to see the two men dead-

Wait. Two?

Looks like you’ve caught on,” came the voice from behind her, a smile very apparent in the timbre of his voice, “I’m not alone here.” On what human instinct she’d learned, she craned her neck to see the man in his black coat standing behind and beneath her.

What do y…” she tried, only to feel more energy sapped out through her wrists. Her head fell limp again, but she remained conscious.

Ah, ah, ah…” the man said, taking a few steps forward to be directly in view of her glazing eyes, “See, I control directly how much of your energy is given and how much is taken. Through those chains, I can practically turn you into nothing more than a puppet.” Blue eyes that had been blankly staring at the nearby icy wall were redirected to their captor. He had her attention.

Good,” he said, and beneath him a thick, dark cloud began to form. It rested solidly around his ankles, and then seemed to take hold and lift him straight off the ground. After a few moments, he was standing – floating, rather, in front of her. An arm stretched out and lifted her chin delicately so she could face him properly.

Now listen closely, because I have a proposition for you. I just dropped by Dien’s place to invite him over for dinner. Chances are that he’ll show up in about an hour, ‘cause at the very least he’s gonna have to try and clean up the mess that I made. When he comes, I intend to use you to lure him through the dungeon to face me. While I can do this without your consent, it would make things so much easier if you would cooperate. And then, once he’s dead, I’ll give you his body. What do you say?

She couldn’t believe it. Silence was the only thing that could escape her mouth at his inquiry. He wanted her to help kill Dien? No. That was out of the question. How could he think she would even consider it?

Oh come on,” he continued, interrupting her thoughts, “isn’t that what you were made for in the first place?” Was that it? Did he really think that…she would do it? Wait, why had she been made? Think, she commanded herself, and her eyes closed, searching within for her own origins. Memories of the tower came flooding back, when she first contacted Futune and discovered herself within his mind. Before that though, was where she was going. Futune had merely been a transfer unit. Her maker had designated Dien specifically as her target mind. In fact, it was his connection to the game that had sparked his interest. An overwhelming feeling of purpose and conviction completely shook her, and her body tugged at the restraints, finding them slightly more forgiving as feelings waged war within her digital form.

She lurched forward, and with a shrill cry the hair that had been a deep blue flared into a brilliant red, standing straight on end and mirroring a change within. Eyes glowed in a brilliant haze, before their color also shifted to a more crimson hue. This much, at least, seemed to surprise the man in front of her, who she now loathed considerably less. In fact, there was virtually no negative feeling there at all.

Give me a key to his real body and we have a deal.” He smiled, a particular giddiness showing through as the tension on her restraints eased, letting her graciously fall to the cold floor beneath. What had been thick chains soon dissolved into lines of smoke that quickly wrapped about her body, solidifying tightly against her skin in a gray-blue material that contrasted almost wickedly against her now vibrant hair. About her neck was a single necklace with a large blue gem as its focal point.

Very well,” said the man, sinking to stand in front of her, “I’ll have to knock you unconscious for it, but when you wake up you’ll be fully equipped to take over for him.” She nodded again, and was very promptly in a lump on the floor.

Hakouin could only laugh at his success. Eyes stared with twistedly at the necklace that had formed tightly about her throat. Easily, he rolled her to lie on her stomach with a kick that was slightly harder than needed. Oh well, nothing lost there. Crouching, he wondered over his own creation: from the back of the necklace, two thin lines of blood ran down beneath the low cut of her newfound garments, and at their source were two even thinner spikes. These were of darkened chrome, and sat just at the base of her skull on either side of her vertebrae. Every so often they would flicker with the light, fade to smoke, and then solidify again into their darkened chrome. It was exactly as he’d envisioned.

That went well, all things considered,” came the voice, and his elation was suddenly frozen in a cold shiver. Far from natural, considering that the character couldn’t exactly hurt him.

Yes, it did,” came the virus’ response, and he turned to face the man who had been helping him, “though I hadn’t been expecting the hair at all. It might turn out to be problematic…

It won’t be an issue,” came the demon’s reply, “though your agreement with her could prove troublesome. Getting her into his body will be no easy task.

But you and I both know it can be done,” Hakouin retorted, “in fact, when I went to drop off our invitation, it looked like half the work had already been done for us.” His hand gestured to his chest, drawing the outline of a hole. The golden-poncho-wearing man nodded and said,

Then we have no time to lose.
__________

He had come alone, just as the virus had asked. Each piece of his equipment honed his stats towards fire to counter the icy chill from the chosen dungeon. It was a strange thing, this Tower Ruem. Every inch of the thing was sculpted in a manner that seemed to invoke deep sorrow and almost vengeful hatred of whatever approached it. This was the ice-queen’s stronghold against Vulcan’s territory, if such terms could bear significance in light of what was going on. Within was held the PVM virus, and its hostage the AI that Dien had practically come to love. That much was a preposterous statement, but as such it was probably the truest statement on his mind at the moment.

And there were many in his mind.

Standing on the broad footbridge some fifty yards upstream, the blademaster could see no clear entry point. He’d gone several yards downstream in an effort to spot something, but all that he could see was a wall of solid ice glimmering white against the blue sky. No foot path existed from the shore, and there appeared to be nothing to swim to. Needless to say, these facts compiled to mean that, while the tower was very ponderous to look at, it was almost entirely inaccessible, but by invitation only. Fortunately, Dien had such a thing, and every ounce of his being burned to destroy the sight of the thing that denied him access. He closed his eyes, honing his mind towards the tower, towards Danielle who lay within, and towards the antithesis to her existence. Hatred boiled strong, and without a thought otherwise he drew his sword.

Flames licked at the chilled air, and the sky above seemed to grow dark as the sword was unleashed. This was Jinsaran, the third most powerful weapon of fire available to him in the World. The searing air seemed to roar as the tip was aimed at the tower. Its power was awesome, and with a sudden movement, Dien’s eyes opened, and every ounce of the sword’s power was called upon. His own strength was emptied into it, and it burned all the hotter, shooting its fiery aura forward to bite at the heels of the mighty tower. It was the best he could do.

Another moment, and the fire was dispelled. In fact, all the heat nearby seemed to vanish with his gesture. The river had frozen through and through, and each of the trees had turned deathly white. Jinsaran was no longer the authoritative power in play at the moment, and it had returned entirely to naught but a cold steel blade.

Then came the sound. From every direction around the tower, birds began crying at their loudest, shrieking against the cold that had so bitterly invaded. It had begun suddenly, and for a few seconds was enough to force Dien to cover his ears for the pain. Then, just as suddenly as they’d come alive, they were silent. Not one sound echoed around but for the faint cracking of ice that formed over the nearby foliage. It was hideous. The sheer power and killing intent held within this bastion was as detestable to behold as it was frightening. No more life surrounded the tower at all, but for the one who had awoken its deadly strength. This spectacle would have been enough to daunt him, were it not for his unadulterated loathing of the characters involved. Death was the only viable conclusion for this virus, and the blademaster was determined to be its dealer.

Before the spectacle was entirely complete, a way in was made. Ice was quickly expanding upstream from the tower, making a clear path to what was presumably the front door: an arched alcove at its base. A ridge in the crystal grew steadily, distorting and writhing as it did to form a highly-defensible elemental drawbridge. Just being near to it, he could feel his HP being drained by the ice – a perpetual Rue spell supporting the walled bridge of ice. This would have been a problem, did Dien actually care about the sickening pain that was developing inside him. Instead, as soon as the ice made resounding contact with the stone footbridge, the blademaster had set out upon it.

Walking on the ice wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. It had been some time since he’d seen real ice. Winter in Pennsylvania typically meant a lot of the stuff, so he had grown accustomed to being able to move about on it pretty efficiently. Granted, ice skates probably would have helped him avoid the two or three falls he did make, but his efforts did leave him at his destination: the door.

The seamless white walls of the tower abruptly jutted inward to form this break, seeming more like a chip in the wide base than anything else. Granted, this chip was easily two stories tall and had held enough ice to water a small village for years, but a chip it was nonetheless. A perfectly smooth and reflective chip with stairs leading up to a platform midway between its top and what had been the level of the river. Despite their makeup of ice, the steps were surprisingly easy to stay firmly-footed on, and climbing them yielded view of an intricate doorway covered in a sheet of ice. Over the arched door (which was made of what appeared to be wood), a gem the size of his head was held by ornate tendrils of gold, the roots of which dug deep into the wall and, as his eyes followed their faint lines, seemed to be the frame for the whole alcove he was in.

Glassy cobbles formed the stage beneath him that led to the port, and he hastily walked across them to what could now be seen was a foot-thick wall of sheer ice, not just a sheet. A Vak spell wouldn’t suffice, and as he approached, the whole thing faded red. Then back to normal, then red again. Oh, he thought, pulling a pair of health drinks out of the pouch at his side and downing them. Just standing on the ice was enough to put a dent in his health enough to make him blink red.

It was then that he noticed something. The cobbles which had been so firmly planted not moments before began to shift beneath him, pulling out from under his feet away from the wall of glass and leaving a gaping hole right before it.

Welcome, traveler, to the Tower Ruem,” echoed the voice loud enough to knock his already compromised balance away. Blood leaked onto the newly-stilled floor, and another health drink was wasted to seal the wound. Dien looked up, and there standing on a platter of ice over the hole was…

“What the hell are you doing here?” It was the login mechanism. The freaking AI had been taken straight out of The World’s scripted event protocols for the field and modified to fit their purposes. It blinked, twitching slightly as the modified lines of code sloppily took over.

Jed?” he asked, trying desperately to figure out where they both were. Only moments later, the realization came to him, and his eyes closed. “I don’t think I’ve properly introduced myself this time around,” he said finally, walking forward and opening his eyes. Dien stood, “I am the Field Master of Theta, Corrupted Hidden Expanse.

“Well that’s nice, but can you get out of my way?” He was getting impatient. The last time he’d met this AI was under not-so-pleasant terms, and at the moment, the Forgotten Wing of Lighthack was in no mood to play games with hacked personalities. Hell, he didn’t even know what it meant that this thing was the Field Master, but more than likely it meant that he held the power to remove the one obstacle to his path – the wall of ice.

I can let you in,” he replied, “but Jed, think. You’re about to face two opponents alone and, from what I can see, completely unequipped to fight. If you value your life, you’ll wait.” He couldn’t take it any longer. Jinsaran was once again pulled from its sheath and ignited, held to the virtual neck of the personality in front of him.

“I’ll be fine.” It wasn’t a suggestion, but a command, and the program was powerless to reply. He closed his eyes, holding out a hand and touching the sheet of ice as though he meant something else.

You’ll die if you go in there now,” he pleaded, “you know that, right?” The sword was pulled away.

“I have no choice,” was Dien’s reply, and he stepped towards the door. Heh, he thought, not a moment spared by his determination, it really isn’t wood after all. It opened with a loud creak, and not a moment later he was through, leaving the Field Master on his own to watch.

Wait,” he called out, quickly stepping to the door. There was no sign left of the blademaster.

JED!

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Tue Jan 22, 2008 10:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 7
PostPosted: Sat Nov 10, 2007 9:12 am 
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Joined: Fri May 12, 2006 1:59 am
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Location: The "Who's Online List," Stalking People...
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For Vulcan’s fury flared to rage,
His bitter anger boiled.
For days he worked out his revenge
And for days he toiled.

Power from throughout the land
To dominate his bane,
Power channeled to his hand
Exceeding his domain.

Then on the Chilled Expanse was heard
A sound unheard before;
From high above the whitewashed ground
Came Mighty Vulcan’s roar.

Towering spires of shimm’ring ice
Shattered at the sound
On everything that was there below
The ice came crashing down

- From “Firelore”
Epoch 5th, Volume 3rd
“The Doom of Ingiora Ruem”
viii. – xi.

__________

The streets of Mac Anu could hold and say nothing to Dun Loireag. The town itself was precariously perched at the peak of some made up mountain range that CC Corp endorsed. Between the unnaturally sharp summits ran several walkways. Every one of these, if it had existed in the real world, would have been condemned as unsafe and invariably replaced with something considerably newer. Wooden boards sat scattered along the twin-log supports, with no hand-rails to speak of. Most players simply ignored this – their extra-bodily exposure to the environment saving them from the realization that they were mere inches away from death. For someone like Dien, though, who was running a particular add-on that put him inside the game, crossing these bridges was enough to make him have to change his pants. If the company ever decided to market the software, Dun Loireag would have to be re-evaluated.

He wasn’t here to check on the bridges, though, and after several failed attempts to get to his field through the gate, he’d made his way across some of them to rest on a bench overlooking the city and think. The main issue was how he would be able to get to Corrupted Hidden Expanse. It had been locked down, he found, for routine maintenance. Not much of a surprise, considering that killswitch.exe had been programmed to display that error message while it reset the field. What concerned him was that he was unable to raise Lila on flashmail, and that she had been removed from his user-address list.

Maybe ‘removed’ wasn’t the right word for it. Everyone else on his list was marked as either online or offline.
She, on the other hand, was marked as unavailable. He’d never seen that of anyone before. Wait, was she the only one? Closing his eyes and opening the list brought to light the fact that there were two other people marked as unavailable: Cait Sith and Leek. Were they all in the field? One of them had to have initiated killswitch.exe. That was the only explanation for the closure of the field that he could think of, but then the first command in the program was forcibly removing every player-character from the field. There was also no way that it would malfunction. They’d tested every element of it on other fields while programming it, and every piece had worked – and all with remarkable efficiency. The program wasn’t malfunctioning.

Then why was the field locked? Why were three members from his team listed as unavailable? None of it made sense to him as he sat on the bench. Discomfort caused him to shift as his virtual skin began to mold itself to the carved wood of the thing, but he ignored it, searching out every alternative he could think of to try and guess why it was happening this way. Ultimately, he would have to go there to find out, but therein lay the problem.

Killswitch.exe had locked the field, prohibiting entry to all until the reset was complete. The process would take about a day to run through. Thousands of commands needed to be implemented to first freeze the field then systematically rewrite every line of its code in a manner that wouldn’t overload the server it was on. Every modification they’d made on the dungeon would be undone – every item they’d brought in utterly destroyed by the code. After that, it was set to hastily progress the field through time to bring it its natural decays and growths to accommodate for the months they’d been using it. Everything had been thought out. When it was done, anyone logging into the field wouldn’t have even the slightest clue that anything out of the ordinary had happened there.

Still, Dien had to get there
while the program was running. It called upon the typical administrative locking privileges to close the field, so hacking in would not be a hard thing at all. The problem that he was facing was the ethics of the thing. Hacking the Chaos Gate was a big no-no. His benefactors had been very specific in that regard, as it was some kind of symbol in their eyes. They didn’t want to hand him the keys to their kingdom, and permitting him to hack the gate would have done just that.

That, and it was decidedly against the code.

So he sat and stared at it, trying to determine what was more important and what needed to happen. The corporation doubtless had the gate under close observation at all times, so there would be no hiding what he was doing, but at the same time he already had a good relationship with them. Chances were that if he explained himself and followed whatever punishment they gave him, he’d end up just fine. Hell, he was already doing the company a huge favor by researching this problem for them at no charge, so they were bound to be forgiving.

With a bit of haste, he stood and began to move towards the gate. Grass beneath his feet provided soft padding as his boots gripped it to prevent death by falling. Some players reported there to be an invisible wall around the entirety of the town, but it was something he had never experienced and didn’t want to try. From where he was, a hill went down to apparently nowhere, green grass basking in the high-altitude sun and in some way surviving through the thin atmosphere. This bench was undoubtedly popular for its view. Right behind it was a wooden counter at just the right height to be leaned on. Both overlooked the city and the Chaos Gate from their distance, and could see beyond to the clouds and sky that made up the horizon. Supposedly when the sun was setting, it was one of the more beautiful sights in the World, but Dien had never seen this.

I really hope you weren’t thinking what I think you were thinking,” came a familiar voice behind him, “because if you even think about something like that, Wing, it’s suicide.” He had his ticket in. The hacker turned around to find Cobalt leaning on the postern. How long he’d been there was anyone’s guess, but there were few circumstances where the smug British accent would have been more welcome.

“Cobalt, thank God you’re here,” he replied, “we need to get to Corrupted Hidden Expanse-”

I know,” the admin interrupted. His gaze was fixed on the gate, and almost without a second thought he added Dien to his party, “the higher-ups are concerned about the lockdown and want me to investigate. They say it isn’t our killswitch.

“Then what is it?” The question went unanswered as the two made their way to the Chaos Gate. Urgency was silently present as well, lingering in their tired minds and clouding their thoughts as they came to stand in front of the swirling golden ring.

Only one way to find out,” Cobalt finally replied, “Access Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse and warp. Authorization: Charlie, iota, bravo, zero, omicron, theta, three.” A chime, and they were in.
__________

He hadn’t known what to expect stepping through that doorway. If he had, he probably would have prepared for it considerably more. It wasn’t the periodic fights or the lethal cold that was getting to him. Those were easy enough to deal with, having armor and equipment levels higher and of the opposing element and health drinks to spare. No, the [i]hard
part was the fact that the entire first floor of the place was a maze.

Cutting through the walls, even with Jinsaran’s apocalyptic strength, was futile. Sure, they were cut in half and in quarters very easily, but then just as easily they would repair themselves to their same icy cold. There was no way to get through them at all. It was very strange. The walls were about half a foot thick and made out of solid ice (just like everything else, but what else would you expect from a so-called Tower Ruem?), but were hardly what he’d call lucid. In fact, their white surfaces seemed perfectly crafted to keep the observer guessing whether or not that shadow he saw was something out of his mind or a genuine figure on the other side of the wall. As Dien found out, both were often the case.

It had been well over an hour since he’d entered the labyrinth. Hallways wound and wove in and out of each other, no variety in their form, and almost no way to keep track of where he was going. Every so often he had to pause and heal up, as the very air he breathed seemed contrary to his life. Raw Rue energy was being channeled from the teeming river beneath to sustain the tower in its longevity, and with that being the case anything that wasn’t immune or capable of absorbing that energy would find itself in the hole health-wise. Without his repth spells, he would be dead as of an hour ago, by his count. Needless to say, a lot of time had been spent on healing.

The longer he spent in the maze, the more he realized how futile it was. Hallway after mind-numbing hallway branched off in directions he didn’t dare try and figure out. At first, he’d held hope around every corner that the maze would have been at an end, but after the first hundred or so failures he’d given up. So in a trance he walked, fighting monsters that threatened to stop him and saving his health drinks until they were most needed. This gave him the realization that they were soon to run out, because despite their large quantity in his inventory, the more he fought, the fewer he had.

Considerable time passed, leaving Dien no closer to finding the exit than when he’d first entered the maze. Until he stopped. The blademaster, in his frustrated and silent fury, sat down right in the middle of a four-way intersection. Several like this had passed him before, and if he continued, several more would pass him. This was the end of his wit, he thought.

There was no way for him to track his own movements. Many times he’d had the distinct feeling that he’d been walking in circles, but whenever he tried to leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs, they would disappear (even if he backtracked what he knew to be the path he had taken). Monsters, items, equipment – all would either be reset or returned to his inventory the minute he turned a corner out of their sight. The silent cartographer program that CC Corp sometimes enabled wasn’t active here, so that option was out. He could make his own map, if he had paper and a pen. Hell, his hand would probably do as a writing medium at least for some small part of it. The problem was in his lack of pen. That alone left him to sit in the middle of the dungeon and think about the problem.

One possibility was that the maze was endless, designed to permanently entrap anyone who tried to enter the tower without the proper key. Even for those with the key, it would probably take knowledge of a specific route to get through. That alone made the concept of a maze incredibly daunting, especially considering that he had no ability to track his movements. Wait, was that necessarily true? Everything he’d tried so far had failed, and to his knowledge he’d tried everything there was to try.

“Damn it,” he said quietly to himself, looking in his rucksack for a garment he hadn’t used in a while. A trench coat whose intent had been to give him the appearance of Neo from the Matrix—while it might not protect against the Rue spell, it would at least keep him warm against the chilling air. He rose, opening the long-forsaken piece of clothing and slipping it over his jeans and t-shirt that Cait had been so kind as to fabricate for him.

…Jed…” the echo was almost inaudible, and there was no way to tell where it was coming from. Ears perked up at the sound, all his other thoughts forsaken to the sound of a voice—of her voice. Chilled air bit horribly against the skin that had become suddenly more susceptible to its ferocity. There was not pain, though. He could feel his health being sapped, but long ago he had become used to the pangs of the frigid atmosphere. It didn’t matter. His apathetic desperation had just been rekindled. Still, he needed more. He needed her to tell him where she-

…help……me…” That was it. There was no more forgiveness within him for the likes of this virus. Jinsaran flared, and its tip was skewered into a wall at his right. The sheer weight of the sword’s monstrous power rendered the hole wider, and he silently activated its most damaging skill: Vak Crack. Fire exploded outward, his will keeping the wall held back through it. More, he thought, and activated the skill again. SP was poured as quickly as he could into the sword, sending waves of heated energy outward that shook through the entire tower. It was taking a toll on his HP in exchange, but he was no longer playing its games. If he had to tear the tower down to save her, then that much just became his next goal.

Wave after wave sent contradictory convulsions and ripples throughout the tower until, finally, it ceased. His HP was no longer dropping. The hole stayed put, not shrinking at all as his spectacle ended. Or rather, the spectacle ended around him. A massive snap literally threw the blademaster to the icy ground, and the structure began to rumble. From the foundation to its peak, the mass of solid water shivered as the energy began pouring into it from the rest of the field. The tower was going down.

A glance to the ceiling, and it was over.

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Tue Jan 22, 2008 10:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 8
PostPosted: Sun Dec 23, 2007 5:34 am 
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Joined: Fri May 12, 2006 1:59 am
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Into the heart of Ingiora Ruem
His furious will was sent,
And all who’d heard his fearsome roar
Into the waters went.

The winter burned quickly away,
The Expanse no longer chilled,
And City of Ice, Ingiora Ruem
Was brutally killed.

- From “Firelore”
Epoch 5th, Volume 3rd
“The Doom of Ingiora Ruem”
xii. – xiii.


__________

There was something magic about candy. The young girl sat contently under the playground, humming to herself a song she’d heard on TV. It wasn’t very recognizable, or at least none of the other kids knew what it was. She didn’t either, but still relished the fact of its secrecy to them. It was so secret that she didn’t even know what it was! Wow, what an amazing secret…who’s he?

A boy’s head appeared at the only way in or out of this hiding spot under the playground, and he didn’t notice her until he was properly inside it, watching his arms and legs as was necessary when maneuvering the path that lead down here. It was a matter of wriggling under the woodwork and shoveling out enough gravel to squeeze through. Only skinny kids would be able to make it at all, and only smart kids would think to try, and even then only the really curious ones would actually do it. That’s why she was here, at least. But why was
he here? He started crying. She hadn’t known when, but really wanted to know why. It wasn’t right for boys to cry, after all.

What’s a matter?” she asked plainly. Boys don’t cry unless they’re really badly hurt, or unless they’re really sad. That’s what her daddy said.

“You’re a
girl!” he accused, pointing a single solitary finger at her.

Yeah?” she retorted, looking down to make sure she was, in fact a girl. The dress proved everything. He had pants, and so, “well you’re not.” Her tongue stuck out to tease him for his inferiority. This made him cry more, which didn’t make sense. Silly things like that didn’t matter, did they? Oh well, it didn’t matter, really. Daddy always gave her candy when she was crying, and it always made her stop – like it was magic or something.

Here,” she said, pulling a lollipop out of her pocket and putting it in his hand, “my Daddy always gives me this when I’m feeling bad, and it makes me feel better.” She smiled at him as he looked down into his hand, and back at the girl who’d given it to him. Coodies were just a myth anyway.

“Thanks,” he said, wiping the tears off on his sleeve before extending his hand, “I’m Jed.”

Please to meet you, Jed,” she said, taking his hand and shaking it, “my name is Amy.

“Save me, Cait,” he said quietly at first, and she looked up at him puzzledly.
This isn’t right.

Huh?” she asked, seeking some kind of clarity. Something was very off. There was no more noise from outside the hiding spot, and no more sunlight peering in through the pressure-treated wood. Hell, the wood itself had disappeared, and now standing before her was an adult version of the boy she’d known.

“What are you waiting for?!” he asked urgently, “come save me!!”

This isn’t right…” she replied, “Jed- I mean, Wing, how are you here?” There was no answer. Instead, a hole formed in the boy’s chest, and he was no longer Jed but Dien. In one bloody instant, his arms were destroyed off his body and his head was torn open.


SAVE ME!!!

She awoke with a start. The blue fabric of her jacket was uncomfortably stiff in any position besides standing, but she was reminded of this very quickly. Still, what the hell was that dream about? There was only one way to find out, and that was through the troublesome blademaster himself. Eyes closed, and her mind began to search for his…

Oh shit.

He wasn’t there. The hacker she had called to the field couldn’t be found. Was he…?! No. No, he couldn’t be. Not yet, it was entirely too soon for that, right? Swear words urgently wound their way through her mind as she stood, not bothering to straighten out the clothing that was still horribly wrinkled from having been slept in. She had to get to him, and quickly.

The recreational room was forsaken as she travelled to SC-1. Feet carried her instinctively to where Leek now lay, bandages covering most of his form. Those had been Wing’s idea. They were designed as code-sutures, keeping the constant flow of processes and programs of his character data intact until they could heal themselves. They also stopped the blood that flowed from God only knew where. No, Leek wouldn’t be able to help her out with this.

She turned, stepping out into the hallway and then the main foyer of their buried hideout. Protocols activated, and not a second had passed before the Field Master appeared before her. Elegant and authoritative clothing wrapped about his figure, a strong build supporting a billowing cape and sharp, well-kept hair that demanded attention. Granted, this was simply a modification of the default twinblade character design, but none of that mattered.

You called?” he asked, “I do hope you’re not going to do anything as stupid as Jed is…

Relax,” she said in turn, “I just need you to tell me where he is and how he’s doing.

You mean…your connections can’t reach him?!” There was a renewed sense of urgency in the AI’s voice, and its avatar paused slightly. “Oh crap, he’s…Cait, you have to get him out of there.

Why? Where is he?” There was no response as she peered into the AI’s glazed-over eyes. “What the hell is happening to him?!

He’s…I can’t say, and I can’t stop it.

And you think I can?!

Your power is stronger than mine. I’ll take you to him, but I can’t fight. You know that.” That much was true. He was incapable of fighting anything even remotely related to any of the Lighthackers, or even of fighting in their presence. She’d made sure of that when she made him, just so there would be no mistakes.

Just bring me to him,” she replied, her hand beginning to glow in a brilliant white hue, “I’ll take care of the rest.” Granted, she knew nothing about what was going on, but if it she needed to fight, then fight she would.
__________

That was too easy…

On the floor, not ten feet away from the opened door, was the blademaster. From the perspective of anyone else watching, it would look like he just passed out on the spot and now lay at the mercy of the man who loomed darkly above him. He bore a deep frown, almost disappointed at how easily his opponent had given in. Mind games could be carried on forever. Endless mazes could be strung together with impossible puzzles, which could then be tied to whatever other brain-teaser he could come up with. Dien could be kept trapped within his own mind for an eternity if Hakouin so willed it. Where, though, was the fun in that?

With a sigh, he hoisted the limp body off the ground, smoky tendrils combining to form a sort of stretcher beneath it. Dien groaned, and Hakouin merely rolled his eyes. All it took was a thought, and the stretcher was taken down a nearby hallway towards what must have been the medical wing of this defense tower. Supposedly, in the event that CC Corp had been going to put on with this field, this was the defiant last defense station of a once-prosperous city of ice. While the rest of the city had been destroyed, this tower remained, and was equipped to deal with all manners of defense. “Crew quarters,” a command center, arms rooms, and a medical station were all found, with some extras here and there. It was a well-rounded facility, but didn’t quite fit his purposes. No matter, he thought, I’ll be out of here soon enough.

When he’d gotten there, he’d taken the unguided tour of the facility, familiarizing himself with the layout as best as he could. There was no shortage of interesting rooms and pieces of the tower to delight himself with, and there was no shortage of the power that he could gain within it. Still, it was mostly of the Rue persuasion, and being entirely composed of smoke didn’t quite fit with the element. Trap after trap would have been set off, were it not for the fact that he wasn’t a player. One or two of them he wouldn’t have noticed until a minute or two after they’d killed him if he had been a player, and so in his eyes the tower was an ingenious construction.

Vulcan Pha.” Before it could register what had just happened, the virus’ new home was suddenly filled with a new red hue. A low rumble echoed through the whole place, and all at once a wave of fire washed over his form, reducing him briefly to a puff of smoke: his most fundamental form. Moments later, the glow had vanished from the massive domed lobby where he’d retrieved Dien, and as he re-made himself and looked he found the one who had presumably cast it. Indigo eyes burned coldly, and at once he recognized her. This was the woman who had brought them all to this field, who had so ruthlessly pulled him from the blademaster whose mind had been his home.

Clever,” he said in reply, calmly walking toward the girl, “though I haven’t integrated with the tower yet, so I think you may have done more damage to it than to me.

Silence, Virus!” she commanded holding a wand in front of her in a combat stance. Thinking about it didn’t make much sense, but just the same, the girl continued, “where is he?

A wavemistress making threats? My dear, you’re in no position to-

Correlate Twinblade, Mode of the Assassin.” At once, the wand began to glow in a brilliant white, writhing, shrinking, twisting, and separating until in its place was a pair of very long, very threatening blades. Perhaps more impressive about the transformation was what had happened to her garments. The blue jacket had taken on a much darker tone, unraveling and re-tying itself until it was a full floor-length cloak, including a hood and mask to cover all but her eyes. She changed stance.

Do we have to fight?” Hakouin moaned, “I am loathe to admit it, but the hacker’s ideas of diplomacy are ones I share.

You want to talk?” she asked, and before he could her blade was pressed against his throat, “how about this? You give me Jed, or this blade tastes your blood.” Hakouin only laughed. A deep, cold, unsettling, and condescending laugh targeted at the girl.

You make one mistake,” he finally said through the sinister smile on his face, “you assume I have blood for your blade to taste.” It took no time for his body to break down back to its ashen roots, and a cut by the girl passed right through as his laughter echoed around the room until there was no telling from whence it came. There was no more body in front of her, and she sank back into a more defensive stance. Eyes darted left and right, trying to find her assailant. It was just a matter of time before he would make his move.

Show yourself,” she said calmly, a smirk growing on her face to hide her discomfort, “or are you too cowardly to come out and face me?” There was no reply. She turned, carefully scanning every nook and cranny for signs of the viral AI that had been the cause of so much grief.

Ever seen what happens to someone’s lungs when they smoke?” came the voice from nowhere, but everywhere at once, “they get filled with a thick, black tar. It’s like they’re slowly drowning themselves.” Then it clicked. Her eyes widened, and a sudden fit of hard, heavy coughing seized the girl. Virtual lungs strained to filter through the death that had crept in to find air, only to find more filth. When eyes managed to find themselves open, they found nothing but a blur of blue.

……Ol Repth…” she managed weakly, and a wave of blue saturated her form – but to no effect. Another laugh from the virus, and it was over. Vomit and tar leaked out of her mouth, spilling on the floor as a pair of feet formed from the dust of the air. One of them connected with her jaw, sending her sprawling across the floor, trying to regain the footing she’d lost.

Talking is useless then,” he said, taking a step forward and delivering another kick to the recovering girl’s side to send her sliding further across the tiled floor, “I should have known.” With no light strain, her hands pushed on the ground to lift herself off its stingingly cold surface. She could feel her whole body convulsing from the energy that had been sapped. Was she really so weak? No, she was just in the wrong class.

Correlate Heavyblade, Mode of the Protector!” The blade from her left hand vanished, and in a brilliant flash her right was filled by the handle of what grew to be a six-foot-long sword. Heavy breathing diminished to nothing more than a little rasp in her voice, and she smirked, rising to her feet. Single-handedly, the weapon was pointed at its target as her jacket rewove itself again into a sturdy vest.

I see,” the virus said, having jumped away before her transformation, “it appears I’ll have to up the ante a bit.” She wouldn’t let him. This virus had to be eliminated, and if this wasn’t the reason for her power then she didn’t know what was. A cry was given as she gave charge, pulling the weapon behind her in the air towards its destination before finally tearing it upwards across his chest. Or rather, before finally having it shoot like a rocket into the wall as she went flying behind it. She could feel the blood seeping out of the wound on her head, and the pain of several broken bones as her grip came to find the hilt of the sword. Silent swears passed her mind. To stay alive, Cait would have to correlate again, but doing that would rend her almost useless. Already she was pushing the limits of her power. Then again, there was always…no. Twilight had already twisted her enough. If she used that here, there was no telling what would happen, especially considering how much power she’d already used.

Glazed eyes stared at the blurry figure approaching, a red hue having long-since taken over her form. To his left, a crescent surrounded him, shining like the sun while to his right a second crescent stole the light right out of the air. It didn’t make sense, but by her guess it wouldn’t be too much longer before he struck to wipe her existence from the map. Hell, she had to do it.

I know what you’re thinking,” he said, beginning to step towards his grounded prey as she tried to pull herself off the ground, “I’m telling you now that there is nothing you can do.” With that, the light on his left side shattered into a million specks, which translated to a million tiny holes straight through the girl’s body. She gasped, blood now pooling beneath her and seeping out of the corner of her lips.

C-…” she tried, only to have the world give up on her. Was it really over? No. It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t let it be. She hadn’t come this far just to die by the hands of some power-hungry virus. In little more than a whisper, she began again, “Correlate Twilight, Mo…” She couldn’t do it. A moan from behind her opponent clued her in to Dien, whose smoky gurney had been reversed to hold position. “…bastard…” she managed, the situation suddenly made that much worse. Hakouin smiled, snapping his finger to have the blademaster lowered to the icy floor. The smoke departed his form and joined up with the haze that once again formed around the villain.

I do remember you, though,” he said, the hazy areas shrinking and compacting until it looked like the bubble they formed left no breathing room for the figure within, “you were the one who was trying to oust me from his character data. Well you succeeded! And look what it gave you—an enemy more powerful than you can comprehend. Did you really think that you’d be able to compete here?” She coughed, more of her lifeblood spilling onto the floor and steaming in the frigid air.

No,” she said, and something suddenly changed about her. The blood stopped flowing freely from her wounds, and indeed they were no longer wounds at all. Her arms and legs steadied themselves, and she stood as the once-shattered bones righted themselves, snapping and twisting until they were as they should have been to begin with. From behind him, a gasp, and the blademaster mouthed the healing spell into being, recovering hit points and relieving pain, but doing nothing against the injuries he’d suffered, “but you left me no choice.” Dien moaned, trying in vain to sit himself up straight and only reminding himself of the newly-inflicted injuries.

You bitch,” the virus spat, “though I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.

There’s two ways about this,” Cait said, “we keep fighting, and Dien dies along with you, or you give him to me now so I can heal him and send him back to you for a real fight.” It was an ultimatum, and she could only pray that he wouldn’t call her bluff. Correlation also meant that she could join up with another player, and through that connection she’d learned she could send anything imaginable, as long as it wasn’t being fabricated. She could give anything, but she could also take anything away. Giving those injuries to Dien had been a gamble in and of itself, and who knew whether or not Hakouin would play her game.

Fine,” he scowled, picking up the player who had just passed out from the blood that had seeped out of his body and tumbling him recklessly across the floor, “fix him and send him back. I’m warning you now: I won’t hold back next time you show your face here.” Adamantly she stepped forward, depositing the weapon on her back and bending down next to the hacker. Without a word, her hand posited on his forehead, and a glare was shot the virus.

Nor will I,” she said, and the pair were vanished from the bastion, leaving behind nothing but their freezing blood.

Why didn’t you kill her?” came the voice from behind, critical in its judgment.

Do I need to spell it out for you?” he shot back, spinning on his heel to face the man as the haze disappeared, “any more damage I did to her would have been transferred to Jed. If he dies, so do I.

You were overly cautious,” the man said smugly, “if you’d killed her from the start, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

There’s…more,” red eyes pointed at the ground where his blood had been pooling. Questions of every kind flowed through his digital head, guessing in the dark as to why he was doing this. There were plenty of other options, and the only thing keeping him on this one was-

More?

Hakouin scoffed. “None of your concern.

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Tue Jan 22, 2008 10:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 9
PostPosted: Tue Jan 22, 2008 10:36 pm 
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Location: The "Who's Online List," Stalking People...
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Denizens faded with despair
Within their watery graves.
Not a soul from this affair
Could Queen Merrows save.

Slaughtered was the counselor
Who’d bribed her to attack.
Completely hopeless were the efforts
To bring her city back.

- From “Firelore”
Epoch 5th, Volume 3rd
“The Doom of Ingiora Ruem”
xiv. – xv.

__________

The field was an absolute mess. The forests that littered the vast terrain had all been killed. In the blink of an eye, it seemed, all of the life had been torn to shreds. Only a few monster portals remained unopened, and when they were tripped, all that fell out were the slaughtered remains of sub-level monsters. Decay and death emanated from every corner, it seemed. Half of the river had frozen solid, and from appearances it looked as though the other half had been cut out with a hatchet. Perhaps the most intimidating factor of this was how it had affected the Tower Ruem. The behemoth of a building was listing heavily to the western shore, bearing the appearance as though someone had bathed it with a flamethrower. Smoke emanated from somewhere nearby, and the dry wood of the dead trees would quickly succumb to the origin, providing yet more fuel for the yet unseen inferno. A cool wind swooped into the land, whistling through the twin mountains in a way that seemed almost unnatural, and it was all pointing towards the subterranean location of their hideout.

“What happened here?” Wing finally managed, standing on what crumbled remains of the bridge there were. So far, the login mechanism was nowhere to be found. Both he and Cobalt knew that the field had originally been crafted in hopes of being a part of some game-wide super event, but that the event had been scrapped. The field itself was already scripted to allow for reactions to certain stimuli, but none of them could have a reaction this immense or devastating. All of this was unnatural.

I don’t know,” the admin responded, his character standing completely still as its user accessed his superior controls—ones that Jed himself had helped to create. He’d already looked through them, and none of the source code made any sense. But then, just looking at the field around him, he could tell that it wasn’t going to make sense. It would be like a massive scar in the data, which was exactly what he saw: a scar that reeked of the Ultima Factor. There was something else, though, something more severe than the Ultima Factor that he didn’t track for lack of time, “come on, let’s get to the hideout. If anything, we have to hit the killswitch and right this mess, and we might just find out what the hell went wrong while we’re there.

What neither said, but what both knew, was that they would have to walk the miles that remained before they could arrive at whatever hideout there was, and that getting in would take…well, if everything else failed and the programmed protocols that would have granted them entrance to that dungeon were equally damaged, it would take some landscape hacking for them to break in, and from where they would have to break in, they would probably also need a means to shorten the fall. As loathe as he was to perform modifications to a field such as would be required, Cobalt had actually taken the time to ask his assistance. It was assumed that anything that happened would be strictly off the books.

It took them hours to transverse the desolate, damaged terrain. Following the river under an abnormally dark cloudless sky revealed little more about the situation, save for that the local wildlife had also been destroyed by it (for birds in various stages of decay lay all along their path). Eventually, their destination was found: Lake Ingiora, and it was in the same state of disrepair as the rest of the field. From the way it looked, the entire lake had been frozen, and then half of it had been torn up, leaving a cruel distortion on the other half that ended in a wall of ice that shot higher than the surface of the water could permit. At the base of this, though, was their target.

Still a good three miles off, the low dome of glazed black rock nudged itself into the side of the ice wall like a sore, and stuck out as an equally profane obstruction. That dungeon, the so-called Vengeance of Vulcan, was where the hackers from Lighthack had made their home. Since the event had been abandoned and the field left to its own devices until deletion, no one would ever stumble upon their testing ground. Even from here, the warmth of the stone on the outside made them marvel at how the remaining half of the lake had remained frozen.

The descent took another hour still, spent in near silence as the two players half slid; half ran down the strangely dry lakebed towards their target. Along their way, several points were noted where steam shot out of the rocks and sand with alarming velocity, and to that end the air was getting notably warmer, and notably more humid. Eventually, their target was reached.

“So you want me to cut a hole or something?” Jed asked, his hand on the volcanic rock that now rose like a God-forsaken hill out of the lakebed, unnaturally hot to the touch.

Not yet,” came the reply, “I want to avoid having to incarcerate you if at all possible. There should be a hatch or something-” A click, and about fifty feet away a chunk of the rock had twitched upward.

“That one, right?” Cobalt only smirked, and started up the sharp, black slope towards the newly-opened port. The blademaster merely stood behind, searching through his inventory to try and find the right armor, only to find that Merrows was unavailable in his inventory.

“Hold on, man,” he said, his eyes glazed over as he stood perfectly still, “it’s booby-trapped: gonna shoot off a Vulcan Pha as soon as you open it.” After a moment, he twitched slightly, staring at but yet not seeing the area about him. To his right, a massive wall of ice stretched into the heavens, jagged and torn in places, and by no means smooth. Loose chunks appeared as though they were about to break off at any moment, though none ever did. Directly in front of him stood their target: a low curve of black volcanic glass with a single blemish in its chiseled, smoothed surface. This was the doorway he’d cracked open, and steam ebbed out of it in billows. Such a scene was to be expected, considering how hot the dome actually was.

There was no water around at all. It was either frozen in the wall to their right, or it was disappeared with the rest, leaving only coarse, dry sand and darkened sky to their left. Rocks were strewn here and there, appearing worn down by years of water flowing across their surface. For whatever reason, the heat from the rock and the dry, dead landscape combined with the sunless sky to give off an eerie vibe. As Wing fiddled away in his mind, Cobalt was left to these thoughts and observations. It didn’t help matters that something was going on here completely beyond the control of the administration.

He’d been checking his emails before heading off to visit with his family when he saw the news. CC Corporation had offered him a bonus for investigating the field as soon as he could, and had left implications of trouble if he waited to act. There had been no choice in the matter, and here he was several hours later, missing a visit with his parents to stay in some game. If the money weren’t good, he would have left as soon as he saw the devastated state of the field. Not to mention it was starting to get to-

“What the hell?!” The glaze disappeared off Dien’s eyes, and he blinked once or twice before looking up to a curious Cobalt, “the code; every time I think I’ve got it pinned down and isolated, it changes on me. I can’t kill the traps…”

Well what about immunity?” the admin asked. If the field couldn’t be altered, then the next possible choice was…

“No luck. I’d make us invincible if I could make heads or tails of the code, but the same dynamic algorithm that’s keeping me from editing the booby traps is keeping me from editing our character data as well,” his voice trailed off as he stared at the ground in frustrated thought, “we need to get in there and throw the killswitch.”

Agreed,” the admin replied, stepping up to the hatch he’d cracked, “cover me with a repth?” Sure enough, as soon as the rock was lifted from its hole, the full force of a Vulcan Pha was unleashed upon the fistfighter, whose health was quickly dropped to critical levels. Phal Repth helped with that, and sure enough the two were on their way, climbing down the makeshift ladder that had been etched into the side of this shaft. Dim light from above was quickly exhausted, leaving only the hot surface of the dungeon, the boiling heat within the narrow column, and the two climbers who sank into the depths of Vulcan’s Revenge.

Eventually, the shaft ended, leaving the players at what, conceivably, was the real entrance to the dungeon. With all of the hackers’ usual methods exhausted, Cobalt and Dien had been forced to enter through the more legitimate entrance. According to his intel, the admin had explained, they should be about three levels below where the hideout was. Not that he could
tell – the ledge on which they’d stopped held nothing but the walls around them and the ladder behind them. After scouring the wall to find nothing but their initial assessment, the fistfighter asked:

Well, what now?” There was no dishonesty in the way he said it: his intel had simply left out the fact of their current situation.

“It’s not one of our modifications,” the hacker reassured, his eyes once again covered in a glaze could his partner see them (which he couldn’t), “but…” he said, flinching slightly and causing his scabbard to grate against the wall. For a long time there was no sound but their breathing, and the low whistle of wind as it passed the entrance far above. Blackness seemed to bite from all sides, attacking the two players who stood unaware of its advance. Well, at least Cobalt was unaware of its encroachment. The blademaster had created a program to watch it, and it was tied directly with the dynamic algorithm. Much longer in this shaft and they would start to feel the effects of it.

“Cast Merrows Pha,” the blademaster commanded, waking Cobalt from the boredom of checking flashmails and taking notes for the formal report he’d have to file later. He did so, which gave them light. The beast that formed was entirely different than either of them would have expected. Like a snake, it wriggled about them, digging endlessly into the black wall and sending veins of ice in all directions until it finally stopped, and everything turned back to pitch. Before Cobalt could react, Dien’s sword was alight.

“Vakz Spiral!” With all the fury that could be expected from fire’s collision with ice, his blade tore through the volcanic glass as though it were a china vase just knocked to the floor, sending chips flying in all directions. Blood seeped from either player’s skin, but the blademaster pushed on, encouraged by the light that shot inward from the fresh scar, until he’d come full circle. His sword tore through the air with ease as their ledge fell with a horrific crash to the stone floor far beneath. When they’d recovered themselves, they stood shocked by the scene they beheld.

It was a central room, typical to oh so many fire dungeons. An exit in each of four directions stood open, and in each one blood trailed through – either as streaks across the stone, or as hideous footprints. There was evidence of battle all around. Blood was still dripping off parts of the ceiling, and gore from fallen players and grunties alike lay strewn about in random patches. The air bore the distinct, oddly metallic stench of blood, which was boiling in places from the heat that permeated this level of the dungeon. Humidity was quickly ascribed to this, which made the atmosphere that much more appalling for the two things still alive to experience it.

Come on,” the administrator commanded, the usual smile on his face gone, “let’s head upstairs.” Questions of what the hell was going on went unspoken, as both players knew the other had no clue. Each room was decorated in the same way as the first, with varying shapes and amounts of slowly cooking flesh, making it feel more like a darkness dungeon than a fire dungeon. Not much attention was given to anything in particular, save the one or two corpses they found still largely intact.

One was left with a face: its eyes were stuck wide open, with bloody forehead wrinkled and contorted in a tense, frightened way, which was only aided by the horrified mouth of the man, which was also frozen ajar. None of this, however, explained why he was stuck as he was. In fact, there was nothing in the dungeon to explain the ice statue captured in the moment of recoil after being gored through the stomach. Both hands had since broken off and lay in broken pieces on the blood-stained cobbles of the floor. It was miraculous how the character had managed to stay intact, but perhaps more disturbing than that was the fact that the man was still alive. The same eyes that were paralyzed in a stare moved about hastily in their sockets under a layer of iced death. The blademaster’s GiVak Slash was given out of pity for the player before the pair could move on.

It wasn’t until halfway through the last floor before the hideout that they stopped again. Something was missing in this room, which separated it from all the others they’d been in to this point: there was no blood. For some, that might not have been such a big problem, but for Cobalt and Dien, the whole thing reeked of a trap. It was the hacker who went in first, simply because he could go in with eyes glazed to scan for coding irregularities. Perhaps more eerie to him was the fact that the dynamic algorithm that had been scrambling everything up to that point suddenly vanished as he entered the room. Footsteps echoed off the stone walls, and the only other sound was his own heartbeat. Soft and throbbing, it picked up pace with every step forward he made, forcing sweat from his brow. The only reassurance he had was that it was still beating—by now, he could
feel that much.

The room was structured exactly the same as the room in which they’d broken in, only without the pile of debris in the middle of the floor. As he neared the center stage, the blademaster couldn’t help but take in his surroundings. Cobble stones beneath him had yet been worn down, and would still carry him far should he have to run. They were still rough, and still wanted wear. These lead towards cast-iron railings where the ground could not be supported and the light gray stone walls where it was. Leading up some ten feet before gracefully sweeping into a curve, the stones fit together like clockwork, barren for all except the cast-iron torches that burst out at random intervals, providing an unnaturally even and bright lighting.

It didn’t smell nearly as bad in here as it had in other rooms where they could only guess at what travesties had been committed. This was probably due to the fact that no entrails hung on the spike-tipped railings. This was probably also the reason why the two were being so cautious in this room. Nothing had yet happened in it (or as far as the blademaster could tell, beyond it), which meant that something would happen in it very soon.

STOP WHERE YOU ARE!!” came the command from nowhere seen, and Dien instinctively halted, his hand coming to rest on the hilt of his sword. Eyes peered around nervously, ready to jump into action at any given moment. Cobalt, on the other hand, stepped forward, not intimidated in the least. At least, not until a bolt of lightning fell from the stone-roof of the cavernous room onto his head.

I SAID STOP!!” A quiet clattering filled the room, echoing off the cool, chiseled stones and amplifying itself unnecessarily. Heavy breathing went with it, and it was Cobalt’s turn to speak.

My name is Cobalt. I am a third-rank administrator under the leadership of Kelvin. By his authority, I order you to stand down.” What? How could either of them be sure that the player in here was anything more than a cowardly wavemaster? Wing shot a look to Cobalt, asking the question without a word, and receiving nothing in return. The clattering stopped, though the heavy breathing didn’t die in the least bit.

By the authority of K-Kamui, I order the two of you to cease all activities in this dungeon.” His voice was unsteady, wavering with every other syllable and cracking at the end of the command.
Oh, because that just makes so much sense, the blademaster thought, taking his hand off his sword and going on to speak.

“I take it you’re one of her Knights of War, then?” The group was well known among circles of hackers on the internet. Without asking questions, they would engage in full-force military campaigns against anyone even suspected of hacking. It was strange, though, that a Knight of War would be found here, in a dungeon under the protection of Kelvin. Clearly, their purpose had been to raid the dungeon and clear it of the hackers who had been infesting it, but at the same time it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong.

Then the boy came out. The image of his character portrayed someone who couldn’t have been older than thirteen. A young wavemaster he was, barely fitting into the uniform that the Knights so proudly toted themselves in, and even then looking silly in it. Red fabric faded into the light brown hair on his head, which ran longer than hair usually did in real life. Bars on his uniform indicated that he was just a private – not even anyone of power. How he’d survived when all the others were killed was beyond both Dien and Cobalt, but neither said a war.

W-we got a call,” he began, “hackers taking up residence in the bottom dungeon of this field. The muster was so quick—I hardly had time to get to the data recorder before we set out…” His voice trailed off. It was clear that the player behind him was starting to cry, though his character showed no signs of it besides the occasional sniffle, “the hackers killed them all. We made it to the bottom of the dungeon where they were supposed to be, and we were attacked. An entire squadron was wiped out before we realized what was going on. My commander told me to run and hide.” Now the character started to cry more visibly.

Come on, then,” Cobalt said, comfortingly, “I’m going to have to have a word with Kelvin about this later. For now, you’re safest with us until we figure out what’s going on.

One of my friends said it was a trap the whole time,” he muttered, not moving from his spot, “said there weren’t any hackers in the field at all, and said they’d come back afterwards to look at their handy work.” His body tensed up, his wand moving defensively in front of him. Dien’s hand returned to his sword out of caution, but the admin only sighed annoyedly.

Look, kid,” he said, “the lockout code that the Knights of War use is distinct, and impossible to hack. If I’m not who I say I am, how could I have gotten in?” Of course, he was lying about the lockout being unhackable, and both he and Dien knew it, but there was no need to let this kid know. Slowly the wheels turned in his head, examining the facts to decide whether to trust the two strangers he’d caught at the scene of the crime.

F-fine,” he began, letting down his guard, “but if you’re an admin, then who is he?” He motioned to Dien, who looked back to the admin for his response.

A friend. We’re here investigating the same thing as you,” he said without missing a beat, “only we read up on the dungeon beforehand. Your target was above you the whole time.” Bewilderment crossed the player’s face, and he simply stared, not sure what to make of this new claim. “They’re on the first floor,” Cobalt reiterated, “you’ll be safer if you come with us.

But the intel said they were at the end of the dungeon-

“Right,” Dien said, jutting in, “but this dungeon was originally designed as part of an event. The ‘end’ of it is at the top.” After a moment of confusion the Knight of War gave in, and the three players were once again on their way.

__________

*-beep-*

There was the beeping again. He was familiar with the tone from before. A single solitary note sung out to declare the continuation of his life for the next few moments before waiting on another.

*-beep-*

And there it was. By their measure, Dien was once again alive. Granted, it still felt like he’d been hit by a semi-trailer, but that could be healed in this universe by a single word, “Repth.” Granted, it did nothing to help the pain at all, but at least it would prevent his health from being whittled away-

*-beep-*

Yep, still alive. Blurred red that covered his vision hinted at the brightness of the outside world—opening his eyes would be a pain. But, with the rest of his body screaming for relief, what was a pair of uncomfortable eyes? Even before he opened them, he knew what he’d see. Pure white in a gradual curve, and by his ears he could hear the low hum of the data scanner. This was SC-1.

Kinda redundant,” Cait commented, and he looked down. Much to his relief, all clothes from before remained in place. She sat at the foot of the bed, a sad and distant look holding her face. Bandages wrapped around her torso, and one arm was wrapped in a cast held by a sling. He could see blood seeping through the material, and struggled to hoist himself painfully onto his elbows.

“Well, maybe for me,” he said, guessing that she’d probably rigged the table to perpetually cast Rig Saem, “but what about for you?” She didn’t reply, instead letting a tear fall down her cheek while eyes remained almost bitterly sad and solid. Even from here he could tell that her teeth were clenched, and from the way her fists grappled the fabric of her pants, there were no more words he could say.

Jed…” she began quietly, not even turning to face him. Confused as he was, he couldn’t help but have his attention stolen by her speech that lingered endlessly in the air, “you’re dying, Jed.

“What do you mean I’m dying?” he asked, frustration and bewilderment crossing over his form.

The hole in your chest;” she began, “it’s gotten worse. I don’t even know exactly how it happened, but after I brought you back, the hole started growing. Maybe it’s the infection, maybe it’s a side-effect of what I did to help you…” Her voice trailed off. There was no telling what was happening with him, and he could already tell that she had tried everything she knew. Maybe if he contacted Raine or Sheena they’d be able to patch him up…but he couldn’t leave the field yet. He had to get Danielle back. That was the main reason why he was here in the first place, wasn’t it? Still, if he was being eaten from the inside out, then he wouldn’t get the chance to take her back…

“How long do I have?” he asked quietly. There was a chance that, if he could get her back soon enough, she could repair the damage and seal the hole. Granted, it was a long shot, but maybe-

Not long enough,” she replied, “Danielle is out of the question: at this point all I’m concerned with is your survival, and even if you could get past Hakouin, what makes you so sure she could help?” There was something he hadn’t thought of. The remnants of the Plures Vultus Mortis still stood between him and Danielle, and he’d trapped Dien in a maze of crushing ice before the blademaster could have even tried to fight back. He had no clue of the exchange between Cait and the so-called Hakouin, save that it had ended well enough for everyone to be in one piece – albeit, a very bloody and torn piece.

“So then what are my options?”

I…” despite the strong appearance she was trying to put out, and how horribly stubborn he knew she could be, “…there aren’t any that I can see. I can’t help you this time, Jed.

“Bull,” he said aloud, “of course you-” A sudden wave of pain washed over his form unlike anything he’d experienced before. It was coming from around the area where the hole in his chest was, and it felt like it was growing. Burning hot embers drifted slowly upward before his eyes, and he could feel them as they dissolved into the air. Like some bastardized combination of an acid burn and a third degree heat burn, the maw in his flesh consumed itself wider and wider still, until it felt like there was nothing left attaching his shoulders to the rest of his body. And then, it was over. Relief washed over in waves as the flesh and character data were reconstructed by the protocols of the table on which he sat.

Now you see what I mean,” Cait practically shouted through broken sobs, “Jed, I- I mean, you can’t- I have to- I mean you need to know…” She broke down entirely, throwing herself into violent sobs at the foot of the bed. What is she going on about? he thought, more frustrated than anything else.

“What?” he asked forcefully, having painfully pulled himself up onto his elbows again, “What do I need to know, Cait?!” Crying only continued as he rolled onto his side and made his way to where she lay on her own arms, falling to lie down face to face with her. The girl was a mess. Delicately, he put his hand on her head, to which she looked up. It was a look he’d seen before – a look he had hoped to never see again. Such deep regret echoed in her face, a deep sorrow and shame that had gone untouched for what looked like ages. This one was more etched, more controlled, more sincere, and more lungful than he’d been prepared for. He had been unprepared the first time he’d seen it, too.

I’m sorry,” she whispered, which also caught the blademaster off guard. Was this really Amy? The girl he’d silently loved since grade school, the girl who had unjustly ripped his heart from him to send his world careening out of order? That was the Amy he knew. That was the Amy he could never forgive. She’d been the one who drove him to leap from the third-story window of his room. No, there was no way this could be her. It didn’t make sense; as real as he’d ever known her, she was right in front of him, tears streaming down her delicate cheeks that begged his forgiveness. Something sank within him, and he felt it fall as the color from his face.

“And what do you expect me to say?” he asked, starting to choke up himself. Long-since-forgotten feelings of pain came rushing back, making him wish he had succeeded in ejecting himself from the window so many months ago.

I don’t,” she replied, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes for a second to compose herself before continuing, “it’s too much to ask for you to forgive me, but you have to understand! When you saw me that day, I felt my heart breaking while you walked away. Jed, it was the most painful thing anyone has ever done to me-

“And you blame me?! How dense can-”

I BLAME MYSELF!!!” she shouted, silencing the torrent of anger that had been stirring within the blademaster not a moment before, “for all of it, I blame myself. I cried myself to sleep for weeks after then, because I felt that I’d ruined my only chance at happiness. Don’t you understand?! I was the one who fucked up!! God, I was so blind! I couldn’t see anything at all but my own damn ambition.

“So that just makes it all okay?” He’d calmed down. Annoyed as he was, she was making sense.

No, not at all!” she began again, “I dropped my boyfriend like the deadbeat he was. Every time after that where I had a chance to see you or to talk to you, I was too ashamed. I wanted so desperately to reclaim what we’d had, the friendship we grew up with, but it was too far gone. I needed you, and this was the only way for me to me to get to you.” It still wasn’t adding up. Facts and information danced intricately around in his head, trying to find a middle ground where they could agree, but finding none. He couldn’t deal with this—not now. She’d shaken him too much, and now she wanted him to take her back. No, there was no reason for it. All this time she’d been lying to him, making him think she was someone she wasn’t.

“How?” he finally asked, “how did you manage to hack into Lighthack and find out about all of this?”

There isn’t enough time,” she resigned, pushing herself to her feet and drying her eyes hastily, “I will tell you, though,” Unsteadily, she moved to the portal and pulled out her wand, “I’ll tell you everything, if you’ll listen.” At that, her weapon slid into the wall, and the door opened wide, Cobalt standing on the other side. They shared a brief word, and Dien began to push off the bed. That is until the pain returned, gripping his form and throwing him out of consciousness as the machine beeped frantically beside him.
__________

None of it made any sense. Her energy was being sapped through the skin-tight apparel that Hakouin had wrapped her in, out into the frigid air that was the dungeon. It was nothing like the schoolgirl outfit that she’d taken on when she was in the minds of Futune and of Dien. That had been more comfortable and, well, warmer. She also felt less revealed in that outfit. With this fabric, she constantly felt exposed, like there was nothing keeping her modesty intact. Worse than that, though, was how powerless she was to change it. With Dien and Futune, her appearance and portrayal in their eyes was entirely at her will. Now she couldn’t even control the color of her hair—which Hakouin had turned to a rich red.

What exactly had he said to win her trust? Why hadn’t she invaded his character and wreaked the havoc that she could have? Well, she wasn’t so sure she was still capable of doing that kind of damage, or even of invading anyone’s character data. When Zan had seen her, it had been pure accident – a projection and expansion of the data in Dien’s own visual protocols. Something had prevented her from controlling it as much as she’d wanted. Nighthand had been her target, but instead the lycanthrope had seen: something that had opened her eyes to grief and tragedy the likes of which had never been paralleled. Why had she abandoned the one who had grown so close to the blademaster over such a short period of time?

Her gaze was fixed on the patterns of light that danced across the icy floor in their tender ballet. Hakouin had explained it to her as something having to do with the structure of the tower and how it was continuously melting and rejuvenating itself. Veins of super-cooled water ran throughout its walls, which refracted the already shimmering light of the sun to the beauty her eyes now beheld. It’s all fake anyway, she reminded herself, which caught her attention. Here and now, this floor and the echoes of light that waded in and out of themselves upon it were all that she knew. This was real. There was nothing artificial about it: the fact that it boiled down to codes written by some clever programmer for an ancient event didn’t change that much. She was nothing but a bunch of codes written by a clever programmer.

Only you have a purpose.

It didn’t feel like she was thinking of her own. A pain washed over her form, causing her to fall out of the icy bench on which she’d been sitting and onto the icy ground below. Hushed cries escaped her mouth; wretched open in agony that reflected over her entire body. Her scalp felt like it was on fire, and she clutched her hands to it, half to brush the imagined flames out, half to brace against the migraine that had hit in a sudden wave. Eyes pinched shut as her body started to shake, trembling from head to toe upon the floor. What was happening to her?

You were made to take Dien’s body from him, came “her” thoughts again, anything else will result in death.

B-but I…” she retorted quietly amidst the slowly receding pain, “…he…why?” Why she had been made was no longer the question; now she needed to know why her maker wanted her in Dien’s body. Another wave of pain hit, and she screamed, feeling her body begin to fall apart at the seams.

Intent doesn’t matter, she heard, your purpose will be fulfilled soon enough. What’s the point of knowing why?

Did Dien have to die for her purpose to be fulfilled? Back then, something had told her that her goal was to become as human as possible. Something in her programming egged her on towards that goal, made her want to fit in with humans as well as possible. Was this just a precautionary growth protocol that had been made for when she assimilated into someone’s body? She didn’t know what the real world was like at all, but for the fact that she probably wouldn’t fit in well there at all. For one, she’d be entirely powerless over who saw and heard her. There would be no way for her to listen to others’ thoughts, either—no way for her to gauge their emotions at all.

You reek of apprehension,” came the man’s voice, replacing the pain with a horrified chill. This was the man who tailed Hakouin like a disease. He continued, “what’s on your mind?” She didn’t want to answer. Everything inside her screamed not to trust this man, but then, wasn’t that just a result of the experiences that Dien had with him?

I don’t know if I trust Hakouin,” she finally said, pushing herself up off the floor and taking her seat again on the bench, “what he’s saying makes sense, but…

But you don’t want to see Dien hurt, is that it?” she looked up. How? How had he gauged her feelings so well? How did he know her turmoil?

There’s more, though,” she said, no doubt now holding her back, “I remember my time with him. I wanted more than anything during that time to understand what it meant to be human. I was constantly growing into myself and learning what it meant, getting closer and closer to what it actually was. No one else saw it happening to me; no one else was looking for it to happen. I wanted more than anything to be my own person, and…” There was a twinge. Sharp pain shot up and down her spine, causing her to flinch. It wasn’t as severe as it was before, but apparently the man in the golden poncho noticed something.

What’s this?” he asked, reaching his hand to the base of her neck. Cold hands fell upon the bare skin there, fingering around the necklace that Hakouin had given her. Twangs of frozen agony shot throughout her body as he worked, and she was powerless to stop him. There was a snap, and it was suddenly over. Her body was no more ravaged as the jewelry fell to the earth, fizzling against the ice like it was some kind of acid. A large blue ruby that had been at its front now boiled and popped, violently destroying itself apart from its captive as the arms which had been wrapped around her neck dissolved into dust, popping and steaming as they fell to the floor in a lightweight ash.

What was that thing?!” she asked, standing to her feet and lifting her hands to the place where he’d put his fingers. Two thin holes trailed out blood, which fell in parallel lines under her clothing and down her back. Whatever convictions she’d felt about her purpose were suddenly gone. She had no set purpose anymore. It was as though the very subroutines in her coding had been altered to set her mind at ease. No longer was there any drive to overtake the player’s body.

A control mechanism,” the man said, rising to stand next to her, “Hakouin was using it to manipulate your thoughts so he could bend you to his own will.” He paused, watching as her hair shifted from its vibrant red back to the serene blue that echoed so nicely the hue of the tower.

Bastard,” she said calmly, sinking the heel of her boot into the melted remains of the gemstone, “he’ll pay for trying to use me like that.

I have no doubt,” the man said, subtle tones of mockery evident under his voice, “but first, I have something for you.” He closed his eyes. For a while she watched, unsure what to make of this offered gesture. His face twitched, and then his eyes opened again. At first, there was nothing she could tell that he’d done. Puzzled, she looked down, only to find herself in the very same schoolgirl outfit that she’d worn with Dien. Wait, does this mean…?! Her eyes closed, and when they’d opened again, she was in an elegant floor-length gown, her hair pulled up beautifully behind her with a single bang hanging down into her face, following the soft curve of her cheek. White evening gloves covered her arms perfectly, masking every delicate feature of them to make her seem all the more lovely. One more, she thought to herself, trying to curb the excitement that welled up within her. Once again her eyes opened, but this time on a much different outfit: a mirror reflection of Raine’s outfit from the Freedom Fighters. It didn’t take any more effort before she was herself once again.

Thank you,” she said, overwhelmed with the joy of this returned gift, “you don’t know what it means to-” With one hit to the base of her neck—the exact location of Hakouin’s implant—she was out. She hadn’t even seen the danger coming her way.

Sorry Danielle,” he said, two fingernails from his hand growing long and thin before he placed them in the hole in her neck, “but you won’t be seeing Dien for a while. I have other plans for you.” Hand twitched, and with a single, sudden motion, she was gone.

All according to plan…

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


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 Post subject: Part 10
PostPosted: Tue Feb 05, 2008 9:15 am 
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Joined: Fri May 12, 2006 1:59 am
Posts: 226
Location: The "Who's Online List," Stalking People...
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Now where Ingiora Ruem once stood
A lake glistens ‘neath the moon,
And testament to the peaceful city:
The stronghold, Tower Ruem.

Strong warrior, be not afraid,
Though man and beast have died.
Carry on long through the dawn
The struggle to survive.

- From “Firelore”
Epoch 5th, Volume 3rd
“The Doom of Ingiora Ruem”
xvi. – xvii.

__________

Every door had been opened. As the two players towed their newfound comrade through the hallways to round the last corner into their hideout, it was the first thing they noticed. On either side, there were some fifty doors on either side, each of which had been held as a storage vault for everything they’d found to contain the Ultima Factor. Normally, the doors should have been locked shut, their stone surfaces securing the hallway into a place with no way out, but as it stood, bits and pieces of stone lay broken on the ground, the stench of their shattering long having settled into a light gray dust on the pitch black floor.

Still, for Cobalt and Wing, they had to hide their shock at this, for behind them was a very jumpy, very suspicious Knight of War. Granted, one hit from either of them would be enough to make the player a ghost, but that was something neither of them actually wanted to do. The dungeon had seen enough death for one day. It was time for a reset.

Killswitch.exe was the answer. It was a precautionary program that Leek had authored – a final means to an end. If anything ever went awry in their research, it would just take a few keystrokes to finish the whole thing and start over—and things had definitely gone awry. Every line of its code was known to Wing, and he had to admit how impressed he was at the concept. The program would start out by clearing the field of all its current occupants. Anyone with character data in the World’s database who was present on the field Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse would be shipped back to Dun Loireag, and then the real fun would begin.

After locking out all outsiders, the entire field would be frozen in time, and a highly complex algorithm would search out the entire field to find the seed that CC Corp had originally used to spawn the malleable field. It would take roughly a week to find, but when it did, it would copy the code and erase the whole field. Gigabytes of data would be formatted and undone, leaving only killswitch.exe and the seed program. After that, the program would monopolize and overclock the resources of one of the World’s servers—rather, the equivalent of one of the servers, with the workload actually split between all five to reduce lag—to rebuild the field. After planting the seed and dilating time to the point where its years would pass in mere seconds to anyone observing, killswitch would watch and wait until the field reached the point at which the LightHackers had begun modifying it. Then it would stabilize the timeflow and regulate it to match the rest of The World’s before emptying itself into the form of an NPC to stay out of sight and out of mind. After two weeks’ time, it would be as though the research had never taken place. This was what they were trying to activate.

Tension rose as they left their footprints in the fresh blanket of dust on the ground, proceeding past each door in sequence and gazing into the depths within to make as sure as possible that it was actually empty. Monsters of all levels had been contained within them, and if even three of the stronger ones had stayed behind, it would spell trouble for the supposed administrative team. Two level ninety-nine players and a level twenty-something wouldn’t be nearly enough to finish that fight, and each doorway posed the threat of releasing its contents. Granted, the protection protocols were stronger as the numbers grew lower in number, so the stronger monsters were more likely to be held towards the end of the hallway, but again, the Knight of War couldn’t know that either Jed or the fistfighter knew the layout here. Administrative knowledge could only go so far.

It was hard not to lighten up. As each door passed, the players grew more and more assured of their safety in this place, despite the cracks and damage that completely ravaged the doorframes. This was so familiar to them, and acting like they’d never seen it before was starting to take its toll.

Hold up, guys, I just got a flashmail. CyberConnect says that we’ve got five minutes to finish up here before they reset the field,” Cobalt recited, his character having stopped dead in his tracks some five paces ago.

“Then we have to pick it up a bit,” Wing replied, turning to the- where’d he go?
Oh shit, he thought, immediately looking forward to watch the player running towards the end of the hallway. They weren’t at the end yet, and in his mind, that was where the hackers were.

Wait!” Cobalt called after him, starting to move forward, only to watch in horror as a dark, hooded shape slid quickly out of the doorway behind the Knight. He turned and cried out, sensing his doom as it bounded forward, a single horn impaling him in the chest and pulled him aloft. The thing snarled, shaking violently until the gaping player was thrown towards one of the broken doorframes. Cracks echoed everywhere from the impact as bones effortlessly snapped, some jutting out of the uniform and soiling the hideout with untold amounts of blood.

“Bastard!!” Wing shouted, his sword lighting itself on fire as he rushed the beast, pulling it down in a rain of fiery fury on this new foe. That is, until it was stopped by the same blood-stained horn that had so effortlessly killed their now deceased companion. Rage boiled in the blademaster’s face, forming a ruthless grimace that opened wide to call to his partner.

“Cobalt! Get to the control room and throw the killswitch!”

But what about your-

“You already know my access code, just go now!!!” he shouted, tearing his blade from its clash and whipping it towards another. From behind, the admin shot forward, the agility of his class amplified by the speed scroll he’d silently employed to send himself flying straight past the battle and to the end of the hallway. He wouldn’t have to fight for very much longer.

cOMe oN jEd!! DoN’T yOU RECoGNiZe yoUR LonGTIMe friEnD?!” it shrieked in a voice that couldn’t be called human any longer. Mars’ Sword was pulled back, and the blademaster stepped back, rage still captivating his form, almost burning him alive from the inside out.

“Shut the fuck up,” he commanded, his eyes glancing to the body whose blood was slowly pooling into the dust-covered hallway, “I don’t know who or what the fuck you are, but by my sword, you are dead!!” Lifting his sword, the player began another charge, only to have this new foe laughing at him. He stopped, and watched as it slowly began to change, the stained black coat itself churning and molding itself into a newer, more recognizable form. A human, standing a full seven feet tall and thinned down to where his lean muscles bulged grotesquely from gray skin that clung tightly to them – as though the skin itself were the only thing holding it all together. Large, pale eyes jutted out from the bald skull, and tight lips were peeled back into something between a grimace and a smile. His stomach expanded in a fast rhythm, pulling air through the teeth in a very distinct hiss. In his hands, a single long-bladed knife was covered half in rust, and half in blood.

SO ThAT’s hOw IT is!!!” the man said, cackling wickedly and pulling his head back, “THEN WE FIGHT!!!” He was fast. It only took an instant before he was upon Wing, the player knocked on his back with the bony man kneeling on his chest with the knife raised above and ready to stab him.

“Vakz Spiral!!” he called, summoning Mars Sword into action and spinning around in a mess of slashing and inferno. Sparks went unnoticed as the sword separated the opponents from the ground in the path of its skill, but more attention was given to the multiple cuts and burns inflicted upon the scrawny knife-fighter.

“It’s not over yet,” Wing said, standing directly beneath the character who’d managed to recover and pulling the same speed trick as he had, “GiVak Slash!!” Again, the sword lit up, but this time inflicted its damage directly on this most dangerous opponent who cried out in pain as its black, gooey substitute for blood was leaked out onto the floor. It tried to retreat, knowing that there was no chance of even getting a single jab on the blademaster, only to be cut off by a strong punch square in the jaw, which sent it sprawling along the ground through its own blood toward the blademaster.

mErCY! I BeG OF yOu!!!” it screamed as Jed swatted the knife away and down the hallway.

“None for my friend you killed,” he said, pulling his foot back, “and none for you!” With a single motion, the monster’s head was jerked sideways, severing the spine to let the thing die.

Jed, I need your input command,” Cobalt insisted, and the blademaster spat on the body, “I just pray killswitch hasn’t been modified as heavily as this fiend was by the algorithm.

“I have a backup on my hard drive,” Wing reminded, following the admin, “we’ll just upload that if it doesn’t work.” It took a manner of seconds for the program to activate, and then just like that it was over. Gold rings descended around the only two LightHackers left, and the field began its regrowth.

__________

It was the thirteenth floor. For a dungeon that supposedly held ultimate power, it was going ridiculously easily to this point. Granted, all of the fire-elemental monsters that he’d encountered had actually bowed to him, treating him with respect as he passed. Definitely not normal behavior, but he wouldn’t complain. The Fire Witches had even been so kind as to tell him the shortest way to proceed through each floor of the dungeon, but something threw him off about them. It wasn’t that they were helping him, and it wasn’t that they could actually speak (as he’d encountered event NPCs in the forms of monsters much like this), but it was how they referred to him.

They always spoke to him in the third person, calling him “his eminence,” “his goodness,” or any number of other attributes that he didn’t personally ascribe to himself. Again, though, he couldn’t argue. It wasn’t something he had the time to figure out anyway.

It felt like half an hour ago, but in all actuality was probably closer to just under a minute. The Field Master had appeared outside SC-1 right as the doorway was opened, and said that he’d come up with something. According to him, there was a sage NPC of sorts at the bottom of the dungeon who had the power to completely transform a person’s character data. While it wasn’t much, there was a small chance that the transformation would stabilize Dien—whose hole had grown big enough by that point for Cobalt to fit his entire arm through. While carting him down to the bottom of the dungeon had been met with resistance, he had brought someone with him: a young girl with jet black hair that fell in long curls to the floor around her darkly-dressed form, which seemed to try to shift colors constantly to obtain camouflage with her background. It had been the NPC that killswitch had dumped itself into, and she still had control over the temporal distortion mechanism that had been used to rebuild the field.

Questions of the hideout and of how it was still intact after the reset were forgotten as she had moved to the blademaster. After glancing over him quickly, her eyes had closed and she’d begun muttering some foreign language. The table’s beeping slowed to the point where it completely stopped, leaving only Dien, the young girl, and the dungeon beneath them flowing at the same speed in time. It was a confusing concept to think about, but she hadn’t let him even begin to speak before instructing him:

Quickly,” she’d said, “you must seek out Vulcan’s Mantle at the bottom of the dungeon.” He didn’t remember all of the details, but apparently he had to survive through fifteen floors of descent while fighting various fire monsters in order to get this Mantle, and even that would end in a challenge that, when summed up, would be beyond the Freedom Fighter’s current ability to handle. It all sounded well and fun, the task of getting to Vulcan’s Gott Statue at the bottom of the dungeon didn’t seem all that appealing. Still, if this was the only way in which he’d be able to stabilize himself, then he had to do it.

Until now, the challenge hadn’t seemed nearly as hard as he’d thought it would be, but at this point there was nowhere left for him to go. The Witches had warned him about this last obstacle as he’d passed, mentioning a puzzle that none of the dungeon’s occupants could solve: the last obstacle he would face before the final fight. He had been so very concerned with the final battle that he’d made light of their comments, indeed very overconfident in his puzzle-solving skills. Still, this was his worst nightmare.

It was a wall. I’ve written an entire post before simply about Dien staring at a wall and getting nowhere with it. They’re arguably his most challenging enemies. Far more cunning than an Elite-built AI that can interact with you, a solid wall with no markings of any kind that is standing quite obviously right smack dab in the middle of your path and leaving you no alternatives for getting by is quite the devastating obstacle. It was warm to the touch, though no warmer than the other stones that made up the dungeon, and tapping his sword against it revealed no weak or breaking points in its design. Nope, this was definitely a solid wall. The only thing that separated it from its surroundings was how smooth it was.

His hands had groped its whole surface, trying to find anything in it that resembled the last wall he’d defeated, but nothing glowed upon touch. There were no letters on its surface; no word search he could undertake. Of course, the fact that his perception of time had been altered made things no easier. Some voice was probably supposed to recite a clever four-line limerick to clue him in to how he was to solve the thing, but because the Field Master hadn’t had his time-speed altered, there was no way to know just how to get past the wall. Laughing quietly, he sat down with his legs crossed.

It was a long corridor, roughly-hewn from the volcanic stone that made up the dungeon’s bulk, and unpolished at all but the floor. All evidence pointed to this as the way to get to the next level, and as he waited, his time slowly ticking away, his thoughts began to wander. Cait was Amy. Amy was Cait. Cait, the girl who had saved him from his deadly condition was Amy, the same girl who his feelings for had flung him there in the first place. It was a conundrum that he didn’t want to think about—didn’t have time to think about. He was frustrated, angry, upset. How could he not have seen that? Who the hell was she anyway?!?!

Jinsaran in his grasp trembled, tapping against the smooth floor, which gave him another bright idea. Though CC Corp was generally smarter than to simply rely on the elements as solutions to their puzzles (as the Elites often did), there was nothing to rule out an elemental spell breaking the wall. If the Elites thought it clever enough, then why not CC Corp? He stood, pulling Jinsaran from his side and activating its more fiery nature.

“Sure, why the hell not?” he asked to no one in particular, “Vak Crack!” In a blaze of glory, the sword whipped through the air, channeling his SP into a single combined attack, harnessing the element of fire and coating it on a potentially devastating physical blow. The resulting clangor was deafening. Jinsaran was sent flying back from the wall, and the bones in the blademaster’s arm were pulverized by the resonation of the attack. Repth crossed his lips and the arm was repaired as he turned to retrieve his weapon. The rare sword of fire that he’d borrowed from Cypher’s inventory had betrayed him, but it wasn’t exactly a sword that he could just throw away. Lord only knew how much time and effort it had taken for him to get the sword.

With a heavy sigh, he stooped over and scooped it off the ground, staring at its simple unreleased form. Some form of steel had been intricately carved and hammered into this shape, with the strangest of hand-guards that he couldn’t even begin to guess at how it had been formed. Thus was the nature of things, though. The sword was rare – not only for the incredible boost it gave to the Vak stat, but also for the craftsmanship that reflected in the design he marveled at. Granted, this was merely a result of his having it equipped, and it would probably look much different without the image hacks still present on his character, but he liked the way they made things look – a lot less fantastical, and a lot more practical.

Wait, he thought, peering at its surface, something isn’t right. Perplexity wrought its way out of the image he saw, though just what it was he saw that set him off, he couldn’t quite tell. Something about the reflection? Wait, the wall! Excited, he turned about quickly, only to find the smooth, warm surface to be very much still there. The hell?! he thought, and looked at the reflection in his sword again to be sure. It was right where it should be, which made him curse. I could’ve sworn the wall was…wait a minute. There had been nothing in his path when he had been turned away from the wall. Eagerly he spun again, facing away from the wall and holding up Jinsaran to reflect what was behind him. Nothing! So that was the trick to it!

Cautiously, and slowly at first, the blademaster backed up to the wall, and with one last deep breath took his first step through the puzzle’s solution. Success! Another step, and then another, until he was engaged in a full-blown backwards run – which he continued until another wall appeared before him of the same type as before: smooth, dark, and definitely blocking the pathway back. It didn’t matter though, because as he spu-

“OH SHIT!” He screamed, his feet suddenly lacking any support. There was no more ground – no more sanded black glass beneath him to support himself on. Only the darkness heralded and welcomed his arrival.
__________

Water. The Rue Element. Here in this room, it was at its strongest. Nothing had changed much since his last visit here, only that the wound he’d inflicted on the floor had begun to try and heal itself. Were it not for the brace he’d wedged inside, the thing would have closed entirely, but instead was left just over an inch wide, and still a good foot and a half deep. This was the key to his success. Through this porthole he’d made, Hakouin would be able to fully integrate with the tower and, with its help, finally put the blademaster to rest. The girl who’d fought him had been an easy target – if it hadn’t been for her clever tactic of transmitting the damage to Dien, she would have died almost immediately afterward.

Dien was different, though. He’d watched the blademaster in battle, and he would have been a much more worthy adversary than she had been, though in the end, the outcome would have been his defeat. Having a body made out of smoke helped to that end – the only weakness he really had was in the elements, and even that wasn’t much.

This room was the fortress he’d picked, and the place where he was going to…hell, what was his goal anyway? Killing Dien? Fun as that would be, if the pesky blademaster were to die it would spell his own death, and that was not what he wanted. His task was survival, but now, separated from the player’s mind and pushed into his own realm, was he really in as much jeopardy as he’d been inside his former host? It wasn’t even close – there was nothing immediately threatening his existence here, save for the blademaster and his band of merry men, and even they had different motives for fighting him. Dien wanted Danielle back, and the hackers wanted Dien back, and so had to follow him and fight. Why?

Integrating with the tower was as good an option as any for survival. He’d be one with the massive power banks within, unthreatened by the blademaster or anything at all, unless someone decided to try and complete the event of ages past. Granted, until he gave up Danielle, there was no telling if he could remain safe from the blademaster who was hell-bent on getting her back, but that wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish. The implant in the base of her neck had been slowly altering her subroutines and protocols to make her ready for the transition into control over the body of Jedediah O’Brein, but the alterations could easily be undone. It would only take a thought to- wait.

What the hell?” he asked to no one in particular. She was gone. Something had happened to the necklace-implant he’d created, and he no longer had any link to her code. There was nothing giving him any kind of hold or watch on her. Danielle was out of his control. The hell happened to her?! he thought, the molecules-thick strand of smoke that had been connecting him to her thickening to something more visible as it withdrew to pull on the victim of its snare. No tension? It rounded the corner, mangled and destroyed.

Oh that bastard,” he said aloud, the mangled charm melting into a gunmetal puddle on the ground before being sucked back to its source. It was the man with the golden poncho. Something had happened between him and the girl.

Were you talking about me?” came the voice, somehow behind him.

What’d you do with her?” he asked, a desperation in his voice. Danielle had been his only real bargaining chip against Dien – the only thing that, if he somehow managed to win their impending fight, would save his life.

What did I do with who?” the man responded, a smile curling at the corner of his lips. Against the pale blue light that streamed from all around the small auditorium, the rich tones of his red pants and gold poncho seemed to just reek of evil intent.

Don’t fuck with me,” he said, the same weapon that had been so easily defeated forming once again in place of his hand as a gray haze grew out of his body, slowly becoming the black and white crescents that he’d used against the girl, “you know exactly what I’m talking about, so don’t even think about trying your little mind games on me.” The smirk disappeared, replaced instead by a hideous glare as the man before him seemed to grow taller, a small rusted knife in his right hand growing into a long, menacing katana. This was the man from Jed’s memories, the one who had introduced himself so late in the game as antagonist.

No, Hakouin,” he said, taking a step forward, “the time for mind games is over.” The katana was hoisted aloft in front of his face, the edge pointing forward. It began to hiss, a bright red hue overtaking its surface and glowing until the whole room reflected its hue – the same hue that had overtaken the character’s eyes. What little hair there was had erupted into flames, and his skin once again seemed to glow in a morbid white – which was also reflected in the two massive wings that suddenly erupted off his back. Terror and dread were the only natural reactions to this, but fortunately for Hakouin, he wasn’t inclined towards nature.

You’re damn right it’s over,” he said, raising himself off the floor – which in light of poncho-man’s illumination had turned into a bitter white. To his right, the whiter crescent seemed to pulse, shining in brighter and dimmer tones until it finally shattered. The same attack he’d used to completely devastate Dien’s savior before was now unleashed towards the nemesis from the blademaster’s memories, millions upon millions of holes shooting through him until in his place was nothing but a mist of blood and feathers. Hakouin scoffed, settling to the floor and reforming his hand from the blade that had been there. “Too easy.

As the last of the wings settled, he couldn’t help but laugh, walking forward and pointing a single finger at the debris. From it, a trail of smoke reached forward, searching what was there to try and find out what had happened to Danielle. That was the reason for their fight, after all. Without warning, he lurched forward, pain searing through his whole stomach. Looking down, he saw it: the crimson edge of the opponent’s blade had run him through. Easy fix, he thought, brushing aside the painful variables that tried to choke his mind, what?! Blood black as tar seeped down the edge of the blade, and no matter how much he tried to deform, he couldn’t.

The…hell’d you…do to me-” he coughed, each word a struggle as yet more of the pitch liquid spilled from his lips, “…bas……tard………” With a final sigh, his body shattered, millions of flecks of dust piling and melting together on the floor into the same dark puddle as his blood. Laughter echoed throughout the cavernous room, and it was over.
__________

Blistering heat. That was all he could feel. The floor beneath him, the walls beside and above him, even the air seemed about ready to burn off in the wake of this heat. It was a heat enough to sap the strength out of anyone, let alone one who had just fallen God-only-knew how far. This was the base of the dungeon – he was sure of it. On the ground, he lay face down, countless bones shattered, and blood leaking out of every orifice. “Repth,” he muttered, and the pain that had wracked him senseless was ousted in a moment, leaving him face-down on the ground, still almost too tired to continue moving.

Arise, thou Seeker of the Mantle!” boomed the voice, almost eager in its demand, hot with excitement, as was the rest of this floor. Eyes peeled open, looking at the distinctly orange light that seemed to echo from every side. He could feel his HP sapping out through just touching the floor, which made sense of the burning sensation on his cheek and exposed skin. While the Tower Ruem was enough to sap his life through the cold, this place was the exact opposite. With clenched teeth, the blademaster’s hands pushed off the ground, bringing him to his feet as he pulled out a Burning Oil.

“Ap Vakz,” he said calmly, and the appropriate stat was helped. No more did his skin burn off of his body, but the heat was still unlike anything he’d ever felt before. He stepped forward and began to look around through the wavering air. It was certainly a massive room, almost as massive as the sanctuary of his dreams (which happened to be the one right next to the hideout), only this one was distinctly stolid in its decoration. A massive dome stretched some hundreds of feet above, made of the same black stone as the rest of the dungeon – smoothened and polished to a beautiful, dark shine. In a ring at the foot of the dome was a moat – filled with oil, from the look of it, that was set ablaze to cause its tongues to reach halfway up the side of the walls, wrapping the whole thing in walls of fire. In the center of the ceiling, a single hole acted as an exhaust port, letting the smoke and toxic air out while grating just above the moat let air in from some untold place outside.

Seeker!” the voice boomed again from nowhere seen, “wherefore hast thou come?

“I have come to seek out Vulcan’s Mantle,” the blademaster replied, answering loudly to compensate for the roaring flames, “what must I do?”

Prove thyself worthy,” came the answer, and in an instant all of the fires died down to nothing, leaving absolutely no light in the room to be seen. Jinsaran was called upon and ignited, though as magnificent as its power was, there was still nothing to be seen in the empty space. He swallowed hard, eyes peering every which way as ears pinned themselves back to give any kind of hint of what was coming. From behind him, a deafening roar billowed throughout the cavern, resounding just so as to cause his knees to give and pull Dien to the floor. Over his shoulder, he could see a light growing from his entrance, and as he stood, the beast made its appearance.

First a head, distinctly reptilian and composed entirely of flames shot out and lurched after him, pulling behind it a body that didn’t seem to have an end. The blademaster’s eyes widened, and he jumped, narrowly avoiding certain death by the thing’s mouth. Exhaling sharply, he turned, only to find the thing upon him once again, teeth wide open and bearing down upon him.

“Vak Revolver!” He screamed, sending himself into a topsy-turvy attack towards the thing’s head (which was itself the size of a car). Blade met tooth, and the blade’s master had his fate sealed as the weapon went flying ricocheting somewhere beyond the body of the beast that was still pouring out of the shaft he’d fallen through. He’d spun and attacked, but now his arm was caught in the thing’s grasp, and it jerked him upwards off the ground, blood and gore seeping out of the massive wound that took up the majority of his shoulder. Shit… he thought, feeling the flames from the thing’s body licking the blood out of the massive gash while the rest of his arm was about to be entirely lost.

Thrashing its head from side to side, the massive dragon was making its best effort to dismember him, tearing sinews, tendons, and muscles as it did. His vision was beginning to blur, and the nerves being constantly torn at were sapping all of his mind’s ability to think. Sword, he thought, pulling the next best thing from his sheath with his left hand, haphazardly embedding it in the side of the snake’s mouth—bad idea, as this only made it clench its teeth as tightly as possible, snapping the few bones that had been keeping the arm attached and letting the blademaster fall to the earth in agony, now two swords short of his collection.

Another loud scream resounded, waking his constricting pupils to watch as it dove furiously at him once again. It was all he could do to role on his side and stab another sword as far into the roof of the thing’s mouth as he could, to which it responded by clamping down in much the same way as it had on his other arm, only this time it was severed a lot more quickly. He screamed, the pain unlike anything he’d felt since his first infection, gasping breaths as the World began pulsating its red hue. Silently he called upon the healing spell, hardly believing it would do anything but prolong his inevitable death.

DienDien! he heard as the fight seemed to freeze before him, I can’t hoI can’t hold on any longer; I’m sorI’m sorry. All at once, it began again, only this time he felt something within himself. The hole in his chest was growing, but the fury of his prior transformation was trying to rear its ugly head again.

“NOOOOOOO!!!!!” he screamed, eyes pinched shut. From the hole, a flame erupted and started to burn liberally. Elsewhere, the dragon turned about again for a third attack, its tail finally emerging from the shaft it had emerged from. This can’t be happening, he thought, feeling his life slowly burning away. It can’t be over yet! The reptile opened its mouth in a terrifying roar that threatened the very foundations of the dungeon. What about Freedom Fighters? What about Zhao, and Zan, and Reinier, Canti, Nighthand, and Rayo?! It dove, the resound finally ceased as it sped through the searing hot air.

Is this really it?

_________________
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Image|||Level 35 Blademaster (+200 EXP)
Wishlist: EXP, Ends of Earth, Armor with Status Effects


Last edited by Dien on Tue Feb 05, 2008 9:23 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Part 11
PostPosted: Tue Feb 05, 2008 9:19 am 
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Location: The "Who's Online List," Stalking People...
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I’ve done all I can for him,” the girl said, sighing quietly, “his survival is now in his hands.” Lines of static shot all around them, skewing the walls of the conference room where they had all relocated for a few moments before returning to normal.

Did he make it?” Cait asked, her eyes staring blankly at the table that no longer served any use as she sat lazily in her chair. It was apparent to everyone that she was shutting out her emotions. Grief, sorrow, and worthlessness flowed from her form in rivers, more evident in her posture than anything else. Oddly, her face was completely devoid of emotion, save for the mist that had taken over her eyes.

He’s fighting for his life,” the Fieldmaster chimed in, his stare blank but for an entirely different reason: he was watching the fight as it happened, “it’s a difficult fight, but we can’t help him. He has to do this alone.” A tear fell from Cait’s eyes as she clenched her teeth tightly shut, trying desperately to retain her composure. There was nothing anyone could do for the girl, because they all knew that her grief was beyond their ability to comprehend.

Entire millennia could have passed in the few short moments they sat still, each one silently reflecting on the scenario at hand, trying desperately to think of anything they could do to help, but each one coming to the same conclusion as the rest. It was a fight that Dien had to fight for himself. Their friend, their ally, their comrade, their leader, and their brother in arms was currently at the end of his rope, and there was nothing they could do to pull him up. Their hope who they’d worked on for the past week was moment from death, and as I can’t reiterate enough, they were utterly hopeless to help him.

Lips quivered quietly, barely letting the syllables of a prayer escape into the room. In the silence, though, the quickly-spoken words of the Hail Mary stuck out like a fully-bloomed rose amidst a field of snow, offering a small token of hope for the two among them who understood its emotional power. Her voice was soft, more whimpering than anything else as the prayer was repeated again and again, begging help from the highest power for her Jed.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” There was no telling how many times she’d repeated it now, but something compelled her to stop and look up. All eyes were upon her, the young girl with confused appall, the Fieldmaster with sympathy, and Cobalt showing a look of regret.

Well what are you doing to help him?!?!” she accused, rising frantically to her feet as the rest of the group recoiled silently from her attack. Hands rested on the table, and she began to break down, violent sobs wracking her whole body as Cobalt rose to catch her slow fall. The two AIs in the room watched, half curious, half confused, trying to understand the humanity of it all but not finding any help at all. Tear flowed openly out of her eyes into his shoulder as she sank into the former admin’s embrace. No words could be said to comfort her, but she didn’t expect any. More than anything, she wished for Jed’s safety.

Was it too much to say that she still loved him? He was the only one who had been there for her through it all. That dorky boy was the only one who really knew her well at all, the only one she’d ever really cared about. Before that day, just passing him in the hallways of their school had been enough to cheer her up. A glancing “hello,” or the correct answer to a question posed by the teacher of the class they both had always lifted her moods. Was he really so close to death? No, she couldn’t take it anymore. But then, what could she do? There was no way to help him attain the mantle – the Fieldmaster and the girl had been explicit about that much.

Damn it all…” she muttered, tears still flowing liberally into the fistfighter’s jacket. I need you, Jed, she begged inwardly, you can’t die!
__________

It had taken mere moments for his logout to complete, leaving him back awake at his desktop, staring at the code that he’d initially gone in to find the finishing touches for. A yawn crossed his lips as a quick glance to the clock revealed that it was already 10:42 A.M. Had he really been in there that long?! Oh well, it didn’t really matter. His task had already been accomplished, and killswitch.exe had been activated. All that was left was the erasure of his memory, which this program was intended to be able to-

“What the hell?!” It changed. The code had freaking re-written itself! What the HELL was going on?! A quick check of his logs showed the entire thing—line for line—had been re-written while he was in Vulcan’s Revenge. He dragged the mouse over the code, on its way to the delete button, when his eyes caught something.
The code would work. It was hard to read compiled coding like this, but as he pulled up the hex editor to examine it, he was utterly surprised. Whatever had done the re-write was freaking brilliant, taking corridors and routes to his intended task that he’d never imagined. It would take about an hour to decompile, but after that he’d look at it more thoroughly to make sure that nothing would go horribly wrong if he activated it.

Three sharp knocks echoed from the door behind him, and he turned to see who was about to enter.

“Jed?” came the kid’s voice, and he rose, walking over and opening the door for his kid brother, Curtis.

“What’s up, Curt?” he asked, taking a moment to stretch out his muscles.

“You’ve got a call,” he continued, “it’s Judge Palano.” His eyes widened, and he groaned, slightly aggravated at the task presenting itself. He hadn’t run into Lila at all while in the World, and so couldn’t tell one way or another if she was safe or not. Granted, that she hadn’t been in Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse was evidence enough to think that she was safe, but why would the Judge be calling? Following his brother out the door and down the stairs, he grabbed the landline in his parents’ room, laying sprawled across the unmade sheets and staring at the ceiling fan making lazy circles around itself as he put the receiver to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked, pulling the microphone away from his lips so he could yawn again without incident. A nap was in order.

“Jed?” she began, a panicked tone in her voice, “Oh Jed, thank God you’re safe!”

“Mrs. Palano,” he said, his brow wrinkling in confusion, “what’s going on?”

“It’s Lila,” she continued, the panic in her voice temporarily subsided, “last night, about fifteen minutes after you called, she started going into seizures in her computer chair.”

“What?!” he asked, sitting straight up, “is she alright?!”

“We got her to the hospital as soon as we could,” she said, “the doctors say that she hit her head while seizing. She’s still unconscious—we don’t know how long it will be before she wakes up.”

“Oh God…” Jed replied, his free hand gripping the back of his neck and massaging the muscles that started to tense up at the news.

“It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” she continued, her excitement mingled with parental dread, “I’ve seen a few seizures in my day, but these weren’t like any I’d witnessed before. It was like she was being stabbed over and over again, and that the seizures were simply the recoils from it…”

“Mrs. Palano, I’ll call you back.” He quietly hung up before pulling both hands to his face to hide his tears. What the hell had gone wrong?! He’d gone in as quickly as he could and examined every inch of the hideout he could think to in search of the girl. If she’d been stabbed into a coma…how? Was this why there were so many supposed coma victims of the game? So far as he knew, only a grand total of ten people used the beta version that he played with. Ultima Factor couldn’t be responsible for the untold thousands of coma victims from the game, especially when, after over 500,000 tests, they hadn’t been able to find a trigger for it in the game.

“Everything alright Jed?” Curt asked, his head appearing in the doorway as his brother looked up.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, body language speaking louder than his words. He wanted to be left alone. He wanted to sit and think this over, and stew over just
what had happened. Curt merely scoffed as he turned and walked silently away, mumbling under his breath as he rounded the corner and went downstairs.

He wanted it gone. He wanted no more memories of any of this. He wanted to forget all of it had ever happened—to go back to before he and Lila had made the discovery and just take it again from there. He wanted it gone.

Feet carried him quietly down the hallway and up the stairs to his room, where the code sat unexamined. Quite frankly, he didn’t much care what it would do to him, just that it worked as a massive Ctrl+Z. What he’d seen had told him that much, and so he donned his headphones.

“I’m sorry,” he said, apologizing to no one in particular before activating the code. The high-pitched squeal he was entirely too familiar with began yet again, and he was out like a light. Past months would disappear, and after a week, he’d be ready to begin again.

__________

Peace. It was one of the strangest sensations he’d felt in a long time, and it didn’t make any sense to him. Lying with his back on the ground, he was helpless to watch as his doom froze in time in the midst of its final approach on his life. He had no arms left, but it didn’t seem to matter at the moment. With time frozen, with his doom stopped cold in its tracks, he could finally breathe again. There was no real explanation for what was happening, unless one of his AIs had decided to intervene for the first time in what felt like ages. A white glow bathed the whole place, and he instantly knew who it was: the one he could never look at.

“Is this the end for me?” he asked quietly, no longer panicking over the absence of certain essential limbs.

No,” the voice replied, recognized instantly to Dien as the one who’d saved him so many times before. There was no use in looking for him – he would not be seen, “Jedediah O’Brein, I bid you rise and fight!” As he watched, the light grew brighter and brighter, completely washing out anything that was coming from the dragon above him and leaving him surrounded in pure white.

“How can I fight?!” he asked, having been lifted to his feet in the last few seconds without his own approval, “I have no arms!”

I have placed a power within you, Jed,” he said, his voice now everywhere at once, “and it is about to awaken.” All at once, he felt it. From the hole in his chest, flames began to billow out hotly, power beyond anything he’d seen or thought possible in either world pouring itself into his control. Flames licked at his body, but no longer burned, instead being amplified and reflected outward from the hole that had begun to close itself. Is it really mine?! the player asked silently, a thick line of pure fire shooting out and wrapping about itself, bending to his very thought. To the left. To the right. Grow. Attack. Destroy. All were fully at his disposal, and were entirely more powerful than he could have imagined. There was one thing left to test. Rebuild my arms. Instantly, they were there again, and he couldn’t help but laugh triumphantly.

“Thank you,” Jed said, raising the newly-repaired limbs in victory, “thank you!”

Now, fight!

Just as quickly as his vision had begun, so it ended, and the blademaster was left standing tall, with the full weight of the dragon bearing down upon him. Its jaws quickly snapped shut, closing around the fighter who’d dared to seek the Mantle. He almost felt as though he didn’t need it anymore, but this was a fight that needed ending no matter how he spun it. With at thought, he was outside the dragon once again, the hole in the thing’s neck late to appear before it roared in pain, looping quickly around to avenge its own hurt.

“Now,” Dien said, a smirk crossing his lips as all three swords looped around his floating body, each one bearing its own brand of fire, “die.” Faster and faster they spun, cutting through the air in a single line after one another before suddenly stopping mid-loop, as an explosion of even more blistering heat shot outward from the blademaster. The dragon recoiled painfully, as though it couldn’t withstand the heat of the attack, and the swords came into play once again. Each one activated, fully igniting in flames and resuming their hasty orbits. This time, though, each slash through the air sent a wave of fire shooting outward, spirals of the stuff slashing through the dragon and leaving their dents on walls that now threatened to collapse. One more attack, and it would end. With a thought, the blademaster was beneath the beast’s head, in his hands a sword more powerful than any he’d held before—the Lahat Hereb.

Easily as tall as he was, the sword was held effortlessly in his right hand at his side, comprised entirely of flames that remained calmly under control. Behind the sword was a legacy too great to be conceived of in this game, but that he was holding it spoke to the sheer power he’d been entrusted with. It took the form of a very long scimitar, holding its form in white-hot power that constantly ebbed against the control of its wielder. His eyes now alight, and the smirk entirely gone from his lips, Jed raised the heavenly sword aloft, closing his eyes and channeling the power he’d been gifted with into it. Even he could feel the heat from the ensuing attack, which caused the entire structure to shake violently, as though this power was well beyond the limits of what had been used to compose Vulcan’s Revenge. And then, it was over, and his majestic sword vanished to whence it came.

Most well done, Seeker! the voice boomed again, “surely thou art favored by the mighty Lord Vulcan!” Dien turned, the hole in his chest still burning away at itself, and to his surprise, it had nearly finished. No matter how he willed it, his power could not stop the burn, and he looked about desperately to try and find the one addressing him.

“Please,” he said, “I don’t know who or where you are, but I need your help-” a twang of pain, and he looked down to find the hole almost completely devouring his chest as fire leaped out of it. He winced.

Ye seeketh the Mantle of Vulcan,” the voice affirmed, now clearly behind him, and distinctly less booming. He spun, finding himself face to face with a massive Gott Statue, made entirely of ruby and in the form of the World’s elemental god of fire. This was Vulcan Pha.

“Yes,” he said again, “I can’t wait any longer!” Its brow furrowed as eyes peered at the man, studying him for the better part of a minute before responding.

Yes, now I see,” the Gott said, finally, “to obtain the great power that is known as Vulcan’s Mantle, thou must hurry to the pinnacle of this dungeon, and display thy might at the altar there. This will indeed stabilize thine self, but you must make haste, and take with thee this token, that Lord Vulcan might know of your power!” Directly into the blademaster’s inventory was deposited a new armor: called Dragon’s Head. Nothing was particularly special about it, save for the single spell on it, a Vulcan summon.

“Thank you,” the blademaster said, willing the swords he’d scattered about the room back into his inventory as he walked, “I owe you a great debt.”

Serve Lord Vulcan,” the statue called after him, “and it will be settled!” Dien smiled, before hoisting himself off the ground and flying at speeds he hadn’t known before back up the shaft and through the puzzling wall that the corporation had developed. There was no time to think it over and back through it—by will alone, the thing was completely undone. Floor flew past floor as the game struggled to keep up with him, burning off the atmosphere behind him and destroying the icy monsters that had spawned throughout the dungeon. Level didn’t matter anymore – all he cared about was staying alive, and his hole was growing larger by the second.

Fourth floor, up the stairs to the third floor, left, right straight, right, up to the second, straight forward three rooms, then left, and straight through to the first floor – the hideout of Lighthack.org’s special research team. In one powerful display, he stopped, sealing off the corridor behind him to the threat of cataclysm. There was no more time to lose. Already he could feel his code beginning to degrade. Footsteps carried him quickly down the hallway, faster than the game’s engines could comprehend or interpret, and through the main lobby of the hideout into what had come to be called the sanctuary.

When he entered, the whole thing changed. Tiles from the mosaic flung themselves back to the walls, and the floor began to shake violently. First one of the seven lampstands ignited, sending its fiery energy up the massive dome’s support-column to the top, then another, and then another, continuing until each one had been lit and burned brightly, casting life into the room in a way not yet seen witnessed. In a vibrant pulsation, the massive spike that hung from the ceiling like a massive stalactite began to shimmer, the energies from the seven lampstands coalescing within it to glow even more powerfully than he remembered from his dreams. Yes, this was the same room. Even the mosaic work on the floor and walls was exactly the same, ornate and intricate, dark and beautiful. This was where so much had happened to him, and finally, where he would save his life.

There is no more time for you to waste! the voice echoed silently, and immediately it was confirmed from within. He could see the codes withering away before his eyes, his very existence threatened by the deterioration that had been eating away at him the whole time. Very soon, the hole would swallow him, and he would cease to be.

What must I do to be saved? he asked, looking around the massive room whose elegance did nothing to help him. The Gott had said to display his power to the altar…what altar? Was he talking about the massive spike in the room’s center? There was no time for guesswork. The power he’d been given was fiery for sure, but he needed assurance of just what he was supposed to do. THERE IS NO TIME!!!

He screamed, willing the power out of himself once again and satisfying every variable within the room’s code, igniting it in flame and fire as the equations came to equilibrium. His life was at stake, and by God, there was no need for him to play the conservative. He wanted to live! Explosion upon explosion wracked the room to its core, blasting piece after piece from the mosaics while fusing the pieces that flew off into one massive vapor, which boiled itself ever hotter and hotter. Not enough, he thought, the massive scimitar from so far below appearing in his hands once again. This weapon, this sword whose power he’d only just discovered, would be the means of his display.

In one instant, all of the heat was sucked clean out of the room, the raging bonfires fires sucked clean off the lampstands. Every scrap of energy was pulled into the sword, which now shone brighter than anything he’d ever seen before. The result was a deadly cold, which brought the blademaster to his knees and cracked the stone foundations and supports of the amphitheater. Just…a little…more… he thought, willing the decaying fabric of his being back together from its unraveling and heaving the blade forward, sending it hurdling towards the spire at the room’s center. Not a scrap of energy was let out, pulling the blademaster fully to the ground as his power plunged into the heart of the room.

Light flashed in a single instant, followed loudly by a swirling well of power that threw the shattered remnants of the blademaster flying towards the wall. Overwhelming heat surged in wave after wave, until it felt as though the entire World would collapse under its strength. This was the magnitude of his strength.

Wielder of the flame, why have you come?!” a voice boomed. He had no strength to answer. Mind was numb, body having long since broken into pieces by the hole whose advance hadn’t been stunted in the least.

“St…abilize…” he managed, his lips barely separated and his voice inaudible over the constantly surging spire at the room’s center, “…need…Man…tle…”

And why should we give you our Mantle?” The royal plural? It didn’t matter.

“…debt…” he echoed, his voice hardly recognizable anymore, “…I…” Time was slowed, skewed by his own distortion. He could hear the words by this deity, but couldn’t understand them. Nothing made sense anymore. The fragile hold he’d maintained was waning, and his chance was fading to nothing. Eyes were frozen open, though their input was blurred and couldn’t be understood. A man stood before him, his silhouette gesturing vividly and largely as words collapsed upon words, each one longer and less intelligible than the one before it, until,

Vulcan Pha!………Amy…? ……why………?
__________

It is done.

His head had vanished. The one part of him that had maintained itself intact had, in the blink of an eye, disappeared. There was no telling whether the elemental god’s plan had worked. Only time could tell. Lampstands around the room extinguished slowly, leaving only the light from the doorway behind her to dimly illuminate the room. What hope was there for this? She’d fought tooth and nail for the elemental deity’s approval and, so to speak, anointing on the dying man she claimed to love. There was no knowing if it had worked or not.

…Jed…” she muttered quietly, sinking to her knees in a moment of transparent weakness, “…oh God!” Tears began to flow, and in that instant, there was nothing that could stop them.
__________

Where am I? he asked, not expecting any real kind of answer. There was no body. Only warmth poured in through the channels left open by his five senses. Nothing told him who or where he was. Nothing told him how he was to act. Nothing told him what he was supposed to do. All he could do was stay and rest, and wait.

He has come,” someone said behind him, “finally.

It’s about damn time,” came a second voice, to his left, “how long have we been waiting for him?

In this place, it’s hard to tell” another replied from his right, “time holds no meaning here.” The second scoffed, before a fourth chimed in.

He can hear us,” he said, silencing the others from their bickering, “can’t you Dien?

“Who are you?” he asked, wondering how he was speaking at all, “and where are we?”

We are the result of your power,” the first said, “forged from what power Vulcan couldn’t contain within you.

And this place, the Flame,” the third continued, “this is where we wait.

“What are we waiting for?” Jed asked, still not understanding what was happening.

God, he’s dense!” the second barked, “we’re waiting to be summoned!” Summoned?

That is what Vulcan’s Mantle entails, Dien,” answered the fourth, “you have become an Emissary of Vulcan; that which appears whenever someone calls upon the name of the deity in battle.” Wait, what? That was the event reward?! There was no way in hell CC Corp would be able to bestow that kind of power on an ordinary player-

Enough chat,” said the second again, “let’s fight!” He questioned it no longer. At that moment, a loud ping echoed through the area, though none had eyes or ears to determine how it was they’d heard what they had. Instinctively he knew exactly what it was. He had to fight: they all had to fight. As one, the five entities were given form, and quickly traveled the concourses of the World to where they had been called.

Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse.
__________

With a sudden brilliant light, as though his eyes had been closed his whole life only to be opened towards the sun, he could feel his body being sewn back together. Tingling waves coursed through it, returning feeling to every piece of his being and restoring him to life. Arms, legs, chest: every fiber and millimeter of his flesh was returned to him, leaving him standing on his feet, surrounded by a brilliant white light. The flesh that was returned to him ached, but warmth soothed it, and it filled him. Fear was still held strong in his mind, but he could feel a peace and hope begin to reverberate through his whole being. It was alive: he was alive, and he was whole, only something had changed. About his right arm, black scars had been branded in, forming an intricate black band with only two discernable symbols from the whole thing. Somehow, he knew them to mean “fire.”

Standing left him at a loss for words as the light slowly faded to a more natural hue. Countless questions shot through his mind, reflecting and refracting off every surface within until finally settling down into some form of order. How was he alive? Vulcan’s Mantle Where was he? Theta: Corrupted Hidden Expanse. How had he gotten there? Someone had summoned him. Who?

Looking around, he couldn’t recognize the place for the life of himself. A cool blue floor seemed to emanate a dangerous light into the chilled air, while walls of ice shot upward in untold distances, each one glowing in an hideous blue, and all of which seemed to reject his very presence. As an Emissary of Vulcan, this had to be the Tower Ruem – though who here could have accessed a Vulcan summon? Then he saw it: his answer standing in full beauty in the center of the room, a single weapon in her hands that couldn’t belong to any class. It was pure light, and its wielder was Cait. But who is she fighting? he asked, still feeling absent from the scene and looking for her opponent, before he saw it:

“HAKOUIN!” Rage boiled within him. How he’d known the figure’s name was beyond him, but he lifted off the ground, massive wings behind him guiding his flight as he pushed himself towards the smokey bastard. Fear wrote upon his face in tones louder than any expression could have, and at once, his body was dissolved, smoke vanishing to hide as dust in the thin air, which itself seemed to be fighting against him.

I don’t know how you managed it, Wing,” his voice said from behind, and the blademaster turned, his body now fully alight with flames, endlessly consuming itself from within, “but no matter how many times I kill you, you ALWAYS manage to come back for more!” He quickly twisted, narrowly avoiding a slice from behind his back before slamming an elbow into the face of his assailant – a feat entirely unmanageable by anyone who’d attacked before.

From below, Cait was forced to watch in awe at the fighter who’d emerged on account of her spell. She’d never seen a Vulcan Pha fight for longer than a few moments, but this one seemed somehow different: more familiar, and more powerful. His body was that of an angel, comprised entirely of flames with a twenty-foot wingspan to keep him aloft, while his hand held a long, potentially devastating sword.

Hakouin recoiled, having been knocked out of his hidden form by the blazing fighter, who merely glared out the corner of his eye. Sliding to a halt on thin air, he smirked, pulling himself to laugh at the situation. Throwing his head back, the cackle he let out was distinctly uncharacteristic of the virus he knew. This isn’t him, he thought, turning to face him fully and burning his body even brighter, but who is he?

Oh come now, Dien, surely you recognize me by now!That voice… he thought, raising his sword to become level with his chest. All at once, his form changed. Short black hair burst into flames, which sank down his whole form, burning away the color in his skin to something distinctly whiter, while the clothing changed as well. Red pants and a golden top seemed to shout one thing from the man whose menacing smile hadn’t retarded in the slightest. This was his Hell. No, he thought, eyeing it more carefully.

“Who are you really?” he asked, pulling back his defenses for a moment. Shock was an expression not becoming of that avatar’s face, but it quickly turned to the loathsome scowl he’d witnessed only a few times before.

So be it then,” he snarled, each syllable forced and bitterly hated. The long katana in his hand melted away into the air, as did the white wings from his back and the golden garment from his shoulders. His skin began to glow in a brilliant white light, whiter than he’d ever remembered it. Tattoos began to grow in spirals, as the rest of his skin darkened to a normal hue and the fire from his head extinguished. Pants had also been destroyed, and in their place, two crossing, slanted skirt garments hung, with a hilt on either hip to complete the package.

Leek?!” Cait had been the first one to speak, the disbelief in her voice unreal. The hell?! Dien thought, watching the player sink slowly to the ground as the girl’s most attack-oriented form was abandoned.

“Amy,” the blademaster said commandingly, stopping her short in her run, “don’t trust him.” He himself couldn’t. The player before them reeked of evil intent – he could practically see it pouring off him in droves. And yet, he was still Leek. There was no more deception covering his form.

Aw damn,” he said, getting back into character again, “and here I was thinking I could get away with it again!” With a single motion, he charged forward, his feet barely touching the ground before he was upon the girl in the blue jacket. Or rather, before his blades were pressed unexpectedly against the fiery blademaster’s sword. Behind him, Amy stood, confused and unsure of just what had happened.

J-Jed?” she asked, her voice breaking up mid-speech.

“Amy, I need you to go back to the hideout and get Cobalt,” he said over his shoulder, “I don’t have time to explain, but please, just trust me with this.” Her whole body was shaking, the shock of what was happening too much for her to handle.

Ah- I…” she managed, before Dien cut her off again.

“GO!!” She backed away, afraid and confused. Nevertheless, her eyes closed, and she vanished back to Cobalt in the hideout, leaving the Forgotten Wing of Lighthack to face one of his oldest and best friends.

So now you recognize me,” he said, pulling his blades back and standing relatively at ease, while the blademaster’s own flames died down to a more settled state, “about damn time.

“What happened to you, Leek?” the leader demanded, his face reflecting nothing of the confusion within him, “why are you alive?” To this, the player could only laugh.

Damn, Jed,” he finally said, “are you really that oblivious? I never died!” He continued laughing as the blademaster could only watch on and listen. It wasn’t that he couldn’t cut the man down in the blink of an eye, but moreso that he wanted to know what had happened to his friend.

“And why are you here?” he asked, returning the deranged man’s attention back to the present.

Long story short, I’m here to kill you, Jed,” he said, a wicked and almost frighteningly ignorant smile holding his lips, “that’s always been my goal. Even from the very beginning. You hacked through one of my supercomputers and completely routed a virus I’d made, and I’d envied you from that day onward. I wanted to take your ability and make it my own, to kill you so that I would be the best. Me.

I played your game, following after you as you and your pathetic friends acted out your charity on the internet towards noobs who couldn’t fend for themselves. It sickened me! Every little fucking piece of your good-will bullshit made me want to vomit, and it was then that I found out about the game.

Ah yes, this game; this World so spectacularly created. I knew that eventually you would cave to the popularity of it and crack it open, and even developed key parts of the version you so readily shared with your band of friends. The whole ‘Ultima Factor?’ It was a hoax I created by pulling lines out of context and making them look bad. I wanted to pull you into the game so I could hack in and steal your mind.

That’s when I met them. They promised me power, fame, and anything that my heart could desire, if I would do one simple thing for them: if I could forsake the real world for these digital bonds and drag ten people with me. What easier target than you and your bunch of light-hacking bullshitters?! A single, rusty knife was given to me, with instructions that anyone I stabbed with it would be eternally subject to the World and its laws. Your SC-1 was actually helpful with this, as it helped me to put the knife’s code into the whole field, which brought in so many more as the Knights of War rose to the occasion. It was so easy to watch as your friends and the Knights fell one by one to my attacks – none of them suspecting a thing as their bodies shriveled into lumps on the sides of the hallways.
” He stopped, laughing for a good minute before continuing, all the while the blademaster silently letting his judgment for the man boil within him. He wanted him dead. As soon as he knew all that he needed to know, it would be over.

There was one last thing that I wanted to tell you before we fought,” he continued, his eyes narrowing to something more sinister and convoluted than anything he’d before witnessed, “on that last day when you logged in, I had been in the field before you, along with Justice and Cait. You know the event of which I speak!” One by one, the pieces began falling into place. It was the research experiment that had supposedly left him dead.

“So it was you, then?” he asked, the rage within almost uncontainable, “you were the one who showed Cait the traits of the Ultima Factor that she so badly wanted to test?” Leek laughed again.

So you’re not the dumb shit you look to be! That’s fucking great! Yes, I was the one who showed Cait what to look for, the one who seeded her brain with just the right thoughts to make her figure out what had taken so painstakingly long for you dipshits to find.

But here’s what you don’t know. On that day, when we were running the tests in SC-2, I was the one in the room with your precious Lila.
” He paused, laughing wickedly at the blademaster whose rage was almost beyond his ability to control. “Oh yes! It was so fucking fun to stab her body. Again and again and fucking again! The whole time she screamed, crying out for you to come save her. But guess what. I just cut her throat, and it was over.” Dien forced his eyes shut, blood dripping from the tense grip on his sword that contained all of his rage and fury, which was lying in wait like the lion that waited to pounce on the downed gazelle.

“Bastard,” he managed quietly, the flames on his body flaring outward as his rage began to boil over.

Come on, Wing,” Leek replied, “is that all you have to say to your ‘best friend?’” That was it. In a fit of rage, the flames composing Dien’s body flared outward, filling the entire icy room with flames the likes of which it had never seen before, as five more bodies joined him in his assault, instantly recognized as the five who had waited with him in the Flame – the fifth having remained entirely silent during the encounter. In one accord they shouted, all converging on the player, who merely smirked, pulling out the one Lethal Knife from his left hip and twisting quickly to stab one of the entities straight through the heart. A swear, and it was gone, as the rest instantly backed away.

MY, MY, WING! WHAT A POWER YOU’VE OBTAINED!!!” he shouted, lips curled up in a smile and eyes wide. On his chest, the tattoos began to swirl, each one realigning itself from the Gan rune it had tried to imitate to the more fluid Vak symbol, and all at once the blademaster fell from the sky, landing solidly on the ground amidst a pile of fluid soot. Wait, he thought, pulling his hands up from the stuff, this is…! Hakouin. Without a doubt, the viral infection had been condensed into this puddle of tar, which twitched ever so slightly on his impact. Not three feet away, the puddle had begun to flow into a crack in the icy floor, sinking deeply into whatever lay below. He didn’t have time to focus on that now: his ‘old friend’ was upon him, and with one hand he lifted up Jinsaran, the flames from the sword, punching hard against the Twin Blade’s single attack. Unnamed, the skill pushed back against the attack and struggled to hold the force of a full Vulcan Pha summon at bay. So that was his trick. Anyone he stabbed with that knife was forced to give their power to him, and since the avatar he’d stabbed this time had been indirectly controlling Dien’s flight, and since it had been taken away, he could no longer fly. It was a simple power, but if left alone for too long, it would prove most lethal.

Avoid the blade, he thought, watching the mysterious third hilt that housed it at his side as the player finally rebounded, laughing hysterically the whole time. Each of the four remaining avatars nodded to him, and in one go they all converged on the fighter, each wearing its own brand of flame, and each wielding its own shape of weapon. The melee of attacks that ensued challenged the physics of the game. A whole flurry of attacks seemed to land square on the player’s body, only to be proven wrong by devastating counterattacks, any of which would have destroyed another of Dien’s abilities, were it not for the defense of one of the others. In this way, Leek played off of the fiery fighters to make sure that he was never fighting more than three at any given instant.

It was still an impressive feat, and the battle waged onward still, fires burning hotter and hotter, and attacks growing stronger and stronger, neither side landing a hit on the other, until in one instant, it came to a screeching end. Quite literally, in fact. From beneath, they could hear the screech of metal scraping against the ice beneath them, and in one massive display, the stuff was shattered, spikes of blue steel launching upward in their place, the likes of which Dien could barely avoid as one at a time the avatars shattered and retreated to the Flame, leaving the blademaster alone against the man who floated laughingly above.

I’m sorry,” he heard, “sorry I couldn’t be more useful to you.” There, lying amidst the rubble he himself had created, was the true form of Hakouin – the arms of his avatar ripped off by his own attack as smoke billowed out of the stumps.

“So I take it you’re not the Plures Vultus Mortis after all,” Dien said, walking over as the protection of the spikes tried in vain to last. For the moment, Leek was held at bay. The image before him was fading quickly, smoke and haze bubbling out of unseen orifices into the cold air.

Kill him for me,” he said, staring straight at the former hacker who he’d failed to hit, “he took Danielle…made me like this.” he tried laughing, only to fail miserably as coughing took him over in a horrible fit.

“So to add to everything else, he stole my kill,” the blademaster smirked, “is that what I am to understand?” Hakouin could only smile, closing his eyes as his body shattered to dust once again, leaving nothing but an armless jacket behind.

Just do it,” he heard faintly, “I don’t need your sympathy.” He nodded, taking the jacket and standing to his feet as the spikes themselves began to disintegrate. Putting it on, he already knew that he shared the virus’ fate. All of his power had been exhausted, and there was no way for him to defend against the insanely skillful counterattacks that Leek was putting out. The single blow he’d landed at the outset of the fight was the last one he’d be able to make.

“Leek,” he called out, standing atop a frozen sea that was sapping his life just as quickly as the bridge that had initially brought him to this tower had, “I won’t say this twice: give me back Danielle and leave.” The hacker only laughed.

Give me a break, Jed!” he shouted, “we both know that your power has been entirely exhausted. You’re in no place to be making those threats!

Yeah,” came the familiar British accent, “but mine hasn’t even been touched yet.” Cobalt. He was standing on thin air right next to the twin blade with stolen wings of flame, and connected a punch that no one saw coming, sending Leek tumbling head over heels to the frigid surface on which Dien stood.

Jed, let’s go,” it was Cait. Without letting him speak another word, she’d grabbed his hand, and the whole scenery changed. It was the hideout.

I don’t have time to explain,” she said, smiling slightly, but more urgent than anything, “Cobalt says that he can hold Leek off long enough for you to get out of here. You need to join up with Nall and Nighthand again – they’re your best bet for keeping this psycho off your back.

“But Amy,” he said, bringing back bucketloads of grief he really didn’t need to deal with right then.

GOD DAMNIT, JED! JUST GO!” And so he went, gating first to Dun Loireag, and then to the Carmina Gadelica hideout.
__________

END PART 1

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 05, 2008 7:58 pm 
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Dien -> + 4 Levels, + Fire Helm, + Hands of Fire, + 2 Flame Blast, + 1 Summon Fire

While it was a nice long read, and reasonably entertaining, it also took a reeeaaaalllly long time to be posted, which was a detriment to rewards. Still, not a bad haul at least.

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