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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2009 4:44 am 
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The first thing that he noticed upon entering the Rai Sector was the smell. The whole place smelled like metal, rust, and ozone. It was like the inside of a machine shop, or the depths of a scrap yard. In fact, when he looked around, that was essentially what it was.

The road he walked on was paved with metal plates, most of which were rusted. Some of them were rusted through in places, showing a ground made of soft red dirt underneath. That dirt, he suspected, was rust from previous plates the current ones had replaced.

To either side, the buildings he saw were also made of metal. Either large plates or smaller woven steel, or even a few thick fences of woven cable. Some of them were gray, some matte black, others a buffed up silver. Every building as far as he could see was made out of metal. On top of that, many of them were covered in jagged spikes or torn chunks of metal. All in all it gave him the impression of something post-apocalyptic, a wasteland where everything was pieced together with cannibalized chunks of metal and bits of appliances.

The one difference between this and an apocalyptic wasteland was that they had electricity here. They had a lot of electricity here. Half the spikes he could see, from the small ones on the sides of doorframes to the largest peaks of the tallest towers, crackled and flickered with crawling arcs of lightning. That, combined with the fact that many of the pieces of metal that made of some of the buildings, fences, and other bits of scenery were made of old weapons, made him almost laugh at how over the top it was. He thought he even could see a tree made of metal with steel leaves and fruits made of balled up swords. Here and there, even, were pieces out of character for the game. The World didn’t have exhaust pipes, for example, that were used as some of the larger chimneys and a couple of doorframes.

When it came right down to it, Nighthand could take a picture or a screencap of any portion of this sector, from any angle, and it would make an amazing death metal album cover. That was what he decided. All he would have to do to make it perfect was add some blood, maybe some half-naked women, and here and there a few skulls. Nope, he checked that one off his list, as he passed a fence where each spiked post was topped by a steel skull.

Shifting his gaze away from the buildings, he looked over the people. They seemed to take two divergent paths through their character designs. One half of them wore metal, in the form of armor, only much spikier than could possibly be practical. These tended to arc with electricity themselves, the power displaying to anyone precisely what these players did with their time. These, almost always, were heavy physical classes. Though here and there he found some twin blades, who had customized their knives to flicker with power as well. The axes and the swords with forks and spikes were equally impressively covered in lightning, and equally as impractical looking to fight with.

The other half of the population allowed him to tick off another item on his list. They wore very little. The women found the chainmail bikini and plate armor bras to be in style. The men wore various forms of boxers made of metal, thankfully all of which left everything to the imagination. The last thing Nighthand wanted was to be confronted with a plate armor crotch bulge. He was almost afraid he would kill the offending player if he saw him, just on principle of the thing. Of course, if he did, that would give him the blood he needed to toss his list entirely.

Another thing he saw as relatively prevalent in the Rai Sector was piercings, of all sorts. Ears that dangled chains that sparked when they touched. Nose rings that flickered with their own light. Lip rings that connected via wires to rings in the cheeks.

Nighthand shook his head and continued. He didn’t really have a purposed to wandering the area, other than that he could get the feel of the place if he did. He found himself moving unusually silently; his boots didn’t make as much noise on the ground as the metal boots and clomping chain covered feet of many of the other players.

Nighthand walked into a back alley where he didn’t see anyone and took to the air. From high above, he could see the layout of the Sector in its detail. Unfortunately, it was no less confusing. Even from above the place was a chaos of metal and spikes jutting in all directions. One thing was certain however. One place surrounded by spikes had to be the castle. For sure. He flew in that direction, and noticed slowly something odd about it. All of the spikes were pointing in, not out. It was almost like they were angled to symbolically keep something inside the castle, not to keep intruders out.

When he flew closer he could tell that this was, in fact, the case. The large open area he had spotted from above was a deep metal-lined pit. Spikes covered the wall on all sides, forming what would have been an easy to climb lattice ladder, had the spikes themselves not been covered with spikes, that were in turn covered in needle sharp edges and razor bladed points.

Nighthand dropped out of the sky and hide behind the edge of the pit when he spotted what was in the bottom of the pit.

Raikiri.

Fucking Raikiri.

Nighthand crept forward until he could just barely see over the pit and into the edge.

Yes. As he looked into the pit, he could see it, the demonic beast sitting on a metal spike-covered throne in the center. The beast had huge wings and was covered in shaggy dark fur that, upon closer inspection, was actually made of metal. At the moment, he wielded a pair of gigantic axes, each easily the size of Nighthand’s torso. One was held in each hand. They crackled with electricity beyond the simple cosmetic power of the players of the Town. This power was dangerous and deadly. Yet… Nighthand didn’t recognize the weapon. He had thought he had seen every weapon that Raikiri had to wield.

He opened his eye, his elemental sight active as always, and examined the power of the monster down in the pit. It was powerful, yes, but not quite the same. Then again, he hadn’t really had time to study the first time they had fought the lightning-themed monster, back when Rugudorull had ambushed them in the hot springs so long ago. Even then, they had barely been able to defeat him, and only by enraging him so much that Sheena had been able to call in Royce. Something that Raikiri had been about to unleash, something known as Demonic Heart, was so powerful Royce didn’t want it even used in a normal server. She claimed it would crash the server itself.

“What’s up?” Came a voice from next to him. Nighthand’s heart skipped a beat, and he glanced over.

The player that was next to him seemed far too casual to be so close to a pit with such a monster inside. Nighthand wondered, at the same time, what the lack of urgency was, and also what purpose Rugudorull could have for sitting so calmly in his demonic form down in the bottom of a pit.

The player was a woman, one of the chainmail bikini types. Her skin was pale and marked with tribal and lightning-themed tattoos. She had pierced ears, up to seven rings in each, and a pierced lip. Her hair was blond and spiked, short as it was. She had a wand in one hand, something that looked like a cane with a spiked metal fist as a topper. When he didn’t answer, she looked over at him. She was laying on her back, staring at the sky prior to this move. He now saw her eyes, yellow irises and pupils shaped like lightning bolts.

“Gonna challenge him?” She asked.

“What, are you crazy?!” Nighthand said, shocked she would suggest it. Sure he was strong, and looked it, but to challenge Raikiri solo? Madness!

“You look pretty strong, and you’re studying him. I figured you wanted to usurp him.” She shrugged. “Pity. It’s pretty fun.”

“What do you mean?” He asked her. He really had no idea what she was talking about at this point. “Fun?”

“Yeah. I challenge him every few weeks. I’ve snagged a few nice prizes out of it, too.” She lifted her cane, showing him. “This thing is pretty sweet, I’ve used it for fifteen levels now.”

“You mean he doesn’t kill you?” Nighthand asked. Raikiri was a violent monster. He didn’t have restraint. If someone challenged him, they would die.

“No… wow. Okay. So you’re new here.” She pursed her lips and, Nighthand swore, had there been gum in The World she would have smacked hers.

“Relatively.” He said grudgingly.

“Okay so.” She said, rolling over onto her stomach to look out over the pit. “That guy down there is Rikirion. He’s the Master of this particular area.”

That explained a lot in Nighthand’s eyes. This guy, way too calm, wasn’t Raikiri. He was Rikirion. Similar names, similar powers, similar form…

“Any relation to Raikiri?” He asked her.

“Yup. Rikirion admires Old Rugu and his abilities, and is doing his best to take after them. Obviously without the power of an Elite he can’t quite match it, but he does well enough for himself.”

“So why the pit? Why the challenges?” Nighthand was curious now, looking down at the monster below.

“Oh, he gets bored. Whenever he’s sitting in the pit, anyone who wants to jump in and challenge him to a battle is free to do so. If the challengers win, he offers them items, or weapons, or armor, or power, or status in his army. If they lose, and he wins, he beats them to within an inch of their life and casts them out of the pit. Then he challenges them to come back later and fight him again, once they’ve healed and leveled up some.”

“Sounds like a right battle-minded guy. How often do people beat him?”

“Not too often. It’s rare enough, anyways. If you beat him once and challenge him again, he’ll win. He learns really fast. Quite a challenge, he is. I don’t know how he does it; he has some kind of perfect knowledge of the abilities of anyone who challenges him, as long as he’s seen it before. I beat him by fluke once or twice, but he’s always ready if I try the trick again.”

Nighthand thought a while. “Isn’t he worried someone would come in and not stop when they win, and kill him?”

She chuckled. “I’m sure he is. The few times it’s happened though, he disappears. Up there.” She pointed at the other side of the pit, where a large tower covered in spikes, with no obvious entrances or windows, could be seen. When Nighthand looked, he saw why; the entrance was actually in the pit.

“So if he gets near death, he teleports home and lives to fight another day. Well, that’s insurance for you.”

She nodded. “Yup. Once, a group followed him into the tower. They never came out, and Rikirion was in the pit the next day, just like usual.”

“Sounds like they didn’t make it.” Nighthand said.

“Yeah probably not. Who knows, maybe they’re just lost in the tower. It’s not open to the public like some of the other Castles, so who knows what’s inside it.” She made the gum-smacking face again, and stood. “Well, nice talking to you. I’m gonna fight now.” She vaulted into the pit with a back flip and twist, leaving her facing Rikirion.

“Hey Rikirion! Long time no see!” She shouted at the demon, who then took notice of her. It grinned a toothy smile, full of jagged metal teeth, and rose from his place on the central throne. He hefted the axes into the air and shook them, roaring. The roar, Nighthand noticed, carried farther than it should have. Some acoustic property of the pit, perhaps. He saw a few players stop what they were doing and come to the edge of the pit, to watch. Figuring he was safe enough as long as he didn’t fall in, Nighthand did the same, crouching on the edge and watching.

“Yasmay! Long time no see!” The demon cried, his voice graveling but happy.

“Hey big man, today’s the day I beat you again!” She called out, waving her cane around.

“Really? With that thing? I gave that to you, or did you forget?” He laughed, brandishing his axes. Nighthand could see that in their posturing they were moving slowly closer and closer to each other.

“Oh, I remember! I just made some improvements, to it and some other things.” She grinned, flashing her own metallic teeth. “Let’s do this!”

She half-skipped forward in a move as fluid as a dancer, scraping the tip of her cane, the spiked fist, against the grit on the floor of the pit. The wave of dust picked up speed as if on a wind, and obscured what the attack really was. A series of spikes of metal jutted out from the ground, stabbing in a wave at the demon.

The great winged beast flapped those great wings, blasting the dust back into the girl’s face. When it cleared, the spikes were straining against the hand-axes as he blocked with the sides of them. He swiped his axes to the side, shattering the spikes, upon which they melted into the ground and disappeared. He laughed. “You need a new opening move, girl!” He copied the move with his axes, and sent a lance of electricity at her.

She slammed her cane into the ground and one of those metal spikes rose up a few feet in front of her, catching the lightning and grounding it at her feet. “So do you, big guy!” She danced around the spike as it melted and ran with a speed greater than that of a Twin Blade, even though she was a wavemistress. At least, she looked like a wavemistress. The only weapon she carried was a cane and she hadn’t cast any spells yet, at least.

She ran up past the demon, and under an arm that swung with an axe to catch her. She ducked and slid in the grit, and Nighthand, watching closely, saw her stop abruptly when metal spikes shot out of her feet and into the ground. Those same spikes continued to extend, pushing her abruptly into the back of the demon. Rikirion stumbled forwards and dropped his axes. When they hit the ground, a pair of Rai Don spells of high level, probably three from the look of them, slammed down at Yasmay.

The wavemistress had already anticipated the reactive attack and two more spikes grounded those spells as well. She clung to the back of the big man, his fur giving her ample handhold. That is, until the fur spiked up, forcing her to let go. Nighthand squinted, but couldn’t see any blood on her. He on the other hand, had matted fur where she had held on.

“Ahha! Fun times, big man! Come and get me!” She taunted him from a dozen feet away, sticking her tongue out at the demon. Rikirion roared and laughed as well, his axes abandoned. He reached onto his back where a sword would be if he had one, and the axes burst into lightning. The lightning arced onto his back and, when he swung, a large flamberge was gripped in the hand. He gripped it with a second hand and leaped into the air, coming down where Yasmay taunted. The girl ran from that spot, quickly and easily avoiding the attacks. He slammed his sword into the ground, and the whole arena began to rumble. Spikes of steel, not quicksilver like Yasmay’s had been, began to shoot up randomly in the arena. Yasmay herself discovered she was the target of the attack, and went into evade mode. Twice she almost was speared, and once Nighthand could have sworn one grazed her side, only instead of flesh it clanged off a thin layer of quicksilver. When had she applied that? He didn’t know, and next time he looked, it was gone.

Finally in her dodging, she drew close enough to Rikirion to slash across his back with her cane. A spike extruded from it long enough to be called a dagger, and it dug well into his flesh before he spun and backhanded her away. She skidded, and again more of those spikes came from her feet, and some from her hands, to drag her to a halt before she tumbled into the spike-covered wall. No matter how good your defense was, that razor wall would shred you.

The demon left his sword in the ground and clapped his hands together. The sword exploded into lightning and formed a sphere in his hands, which he brought back like the charge for a fireball. “Ground this!” He shouted, and thrust his palms forward.

A great beam of plasma shot from his palms to her location on the ground. The spikes forced her out of the way and she tumbled, rolled, and came to her feet already in a dash. Displaying speed Nighthand could only follow because of his long experience with people like Nall, she delivered punches to the backs of both knees of the demon almost simultaneously. His legs gave out from under him and he started to fall, his beam of plasma lancing up and out of the arena. It caught the corner of a nearby building and Nighthand felt a tingle in the ground of discharged electricity making it’s way even through to him.

Yasmay stood over the fallen demon and laughed. “How’s about I ground you instead, big man?” She smacked him across the face with her cane, and he roared. His massive hand reached out and grabbed her before she could dart away, and he twisted to his feet.

“Got you now.” He growled, and started to squeeze. Then he howled in pain and dropped her, his hand dripping blood. Nighthand caught at the last moment spikes from all over her body retracting into her skin. That quicksilver defense of hers was damn good.

“Sure about that Rikirion?” She taunted and smacked him again with her cane. He backhanded her again, this time high enough that she almost landed on the spiked walls before she managed to stop herself. “Almost!” She called to him.

She started dashing in a circle around him, faster and faster, tighter and tighter, kicking up dust with every step. Soon the arena was impossible to see into. He heard the sound of lightning striking and electricity crackling. He heard several clashes of metal on metal. Electricity sparked through the cloud, made of rust and particles of metal, making it an incredibly light show, if not a battle.

When the dust cleared and drifted away, Rikirion was panting, bleeding from a dozen new wounds. Yasmay herself wasn’t dripping blood, but she was panting just as hard. Nighthand was beginning to wonder if she even had blood to drip. Her skin was beat up, slashed and torn like a thin layer of paper. Beneath it he could see a shimmer of the quicksilver that seemed to rest just below the skin.

Then, slowly, Rikirion sank to a knee. The crowd started to cheer, and Nighthand found himself smiling along with them. He didn’t cheer, however, just watched. Rikirion growled, then grinned, then roared. The beast climbed back to his feet and slowly approached Yasmay.

“You have bested me once again, girl.” He said. “And once more, I shall grant you a boon. We shall discuss it upon my recovery. You know the way.” She nodded, clasping a hand on his massive wrist. Nighthand marveled at just how small she was compared to the hulking demon. He hadn’t noticed it when she was next to him on the edge, but she was easily a foot shorter than he was.

“Got it. Good fight, big man.” She turned, scanning the crowd, and raised her arm. The cheer went up again, though the crowd was already beginning to disperse. Nighthand looked down on her, his eyebrow raised. She smirked at him and jerked her head to one side. He nodded and started wandering through the crowd in the direction she specified.

On the edges of the crowd he heard someone muttering. “Stupid woman, defeating him so early in the day… How am I supposed to challenge myself now?” He glanced into the pit, and noticed the demon was gone. Returned to his tower to rest, no doubt.

Another voice caught his ear, barely audible over the crowd. He only caught fragments, and wasn’t sure he even heard it at all. “Kill him… tower doors… gotta recruit… next week.”

He turned, but whoever had said it was long gone, lost in the flood of people suddenly remembering they had business to attend to.

Not knowing how deep into the city Yasmay wanted him to go, he just walked in the direction she had specified. To his lack of surprise, he saw her some time later, sitting on a metal barrel on the side of an alleyway. She looked up when he approached, hearing the sound of his footsteps, quiet as they were here.

“So what’cha think?” She looked up at him from her perch.

“You fight well. Though that trick at the end…” He shook his head. “Hiding from the crowd, or hiding from Rikirion?” He knew she could have done it without kicking up nearly so much dust; he had seen the extra effort she put into sending it into the air.

“The crowd.” She said, unsurprised he had seen through her ruse. “He can see just fine in the dust. The speed was what threw him off; I wasn’t this fast last time.”

“So what did you do?” He asked her. “Anything specific? Or are you just hiding your speed?”

“A lady never reveals her secrets on the first date.” She said with a smirk. He looked at her, and could see that her skin had healed over in nearly every place. Only one spot he could see, on her shoulder, still had metal showing through.

“You missed a spot.” He poked her shoulder on the metal part. The metal was hot as blood, and he burned his finger, though he didn’t show it.

“Oh, thanks.” She moved her hand over the spot and, when her hand dropped to her side, the skin was healed. “Can’t be wandering around like that all the time.”

“So that’s your ability then, is it?” He noticed her cane was gone, no doubt in her inventory somewhere. “Metal under your skin?”

“One of them. Like I said, first date.”

“I dunno if we could call this a date. You never even told me your name.” He smirked right back.

“It’s Yasmay.” She said.

“I know. I heard Rikirion shout it a few times.”

“Oh.” She actually seemed at a loss for words, for an instant. Then she hopped off her perch and headed deeper into the sector. “Come on this way.”

He followed her, through a few twists and turns, though nowhere near as complicated as Velvet had tried to run him through earlier that day. He could easily find his way back out. She stopped at a doorway and slid it open. It had no visible hinges, rather it slid on a rail like a Japanese style doorway. They entered and walked through a straw-mat covered floor and paper-hung walled room. The sound of their footsteps on straw mats instead of heavy metal was so different Nighthand did a double take. On the other side, another sliding door opened for them, and they passed into and through a stone-walled room covered with an elaborate array of hanging chains. The chains seemed quite dungeon-like, and Nighthand eyed them warily.

“Cozy place you’ve got here.” He said, keeping humor in his voice.

“Oh I never use this room any more. Too much fall out. I’d remove it, but I don’t have the ability to myself. I also haven’t gotten around to hiring anyone to do it for me. I just ignore it, really.” She seemed to ignore it as they passed through, at least, and that made Nighthand feel somewhat safer. That is until they reached the next room, which was also simple bare stone walls and floor and ceiling, with a single large metal vat in the center of the room. Glancing in as he neared it, the vat proved to be full to the brim with quicksilver. He reached to touch it, as it exuded no heat, but her hand on his arm stopped him.

“You don’t wanna touch that, guy.” She shook her head.

“Why not?” He pulled his hand back anyways.

“I’ll show you.” She turned slightly, and plunged her hand into the stuff. He could hear a slight hiss and see as it frothed around her arm. Perhaps it truly was hot, or maybe just acidic. Either way, Yasmay seemed to pause, a smile playing across her face. She seemed revived, more energetic, when she pulled her hand out. He thought at first that it was still covered in the quicksilver, but on closer examination, that was simply her real hand. The silver outside and the silver inside her had burned through the thin layer of skin so they could meet. She looked recharged, revived, and Nighthand grasped the concept.

“So you’ve got that silver inside you, and you recharge here. I got ya.” He smiled and stepped away, examining the room for other doors. There was one, which he assumed led to her living quarters. When he looked back at her, the skin over her hand had returned and she looked normal again.

“Sometimes I swim in it. I lose days that way.” She eyed the pool wistfully.

“I don’t have days to wait for you.” He pointed out.

“Yeah, I gotcha. So! Come on. This was only a pit stop basically.” She led the way back out of her room and, sliding the door closed behind her, they walked back the way they had come and soon were near the pit once again. Nighthand glanced in, but Rikirion wasn’t there. Of course not, he’d been beaten already. He’d be in his tower resting, perhaps.

It occurred to Nighthand as they walked that he did a lot of following in his career as a heavy blade in The World. It wasn’t a coincidence. From the very first day he had logged on he had been following Nall around. Now Nall was down for the count, it seemed, and while he was on the mend now, he wouldn’t be fit to lead them for a while. Nall had the power to lead, but he had need of the love of his people, to put it poorly. Nall may have had the bad habit of luring people into his group with the promises of rare items, but he was a rare item hunter, and he knew what it took to lure in his own kind. He gathered able warriors and he explained to them what was going on, and those that decided to carry on with him and continue fighting the good fight were given the powers and strengths they needed to survive over time.

On top of that, though, Nall had always relied on the respect and hope of his party members to succeed. If the party hadn’t trusted him, they would have all died long ago. He thought about the party in the sad state it was in now. So many leaders, too many. Sheena led only to get Nall safe. Raine was a leader in the sense that she sat back at home base and gave them information for their missions. Even he himself was a leader, in battle, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. The party, now, for lack of anyone better, had been following Demorian around simply because he had the largest body of knowledge of the Town and the surroundings, the Wastelands and the prison and the towers. He knew more than the rest of them combined, or at least than the rest of them cared to share. Sheena might know more, Raine wasn’t able to talk to them, and Nall was unconscious. Nighthand certainly didn’t know much about the town, though his body of knowledge for the hacker Elites was surprising. At least, surprising in the sense that he knew so little even after knowing so much.

He thought about it as they walked. He knew so much about the Elites, and yet he knew nothing about them. He didn’t know any of their real names. He didn’t know if they were even the same gender they were on the outside. He knew they were supposedly all the original coders of the game world, though how many other coders existed he didn’t know. Or maybe just Nall, Garaa, and whoever the Master was, were the original coders, and the rest of them were lackeys and hangers on. He didn’t know where any of them were from. He didn’t know if any of them had bodies on the outside that still lived, still functioned. He didn’t know if they wanted to return to their bodies as much as he and his party did to theirs. They would give up their massive power to do so, but did they yearn for it? He realized with a start that they would be just as unable to as the rest of them without the aid of their companions. Which of the Elites would consent to sending one of their number back to the real world? More likely they would deliver them into the hands of the Admins. Anyone who chose to leave such a position of power would more than likely be a traitor and be worth killing. Who knew if any of the elites they wished to kill simply wanted out themselves, but couldn’t escape?

He looked around. How many of these people were stuck in the Game and really wanted to get out, but had no way to do so? How many of them would be freedom fighters if given the chance? The need for secrecy, especially in the enemy home base, was too great to go recruiting. The risk of being seeded with a double-agent or a spy was too great. Being called out, being trapped, being sent to their deaths, these were all very valid concerns. He also wondered how many of these people could possibly be people. There were so many. So many souls wandering around Yamiyo. How many of them were regular players and script kiddies, just waiting to be stuck in the game? How many of them were legitimate hackers somehow having avoided the stuck fate? How many of them were actually stuck in the game, like Nighthand himself and his crew? How many of them were AIs or bots wandering around, acting like people? How many of them were stuck in the game, but had dead bodies they could never return to?

That last one was a possibility he didn’t really want to think about, and yet he did, all the time. He had no way of knowing between check ins with his father whether or not his body was still alive. Even if it was still alive, it was horribly atrophied by this point. Here, in the game, he could fly. He could jump dozens of feet. He could run faster than a player could even register seeing. He could swing around this massive plate of steel as if it was nothing.

Outside the game, he would spend months or years trying desperately to train his body to even be able to walk again. His leg muscles would barely be able to support his weight. His arms would barely lift anything. His mind wouldn’t even know how to control a body that didn’t have all these extra abilities. He didn’t need a controller to access his menus, to select and target people and monsters, to swap out items and activate hacks. This was all subconscious, was second nature. To be back in the real world and have to talk to people to find out their name. For them to not have classes, not be focused on battle. To not have to judge them immediately in the form of whether or not they would be a threat. It was all too much.

Then there was the fallout of having to care for a body. Injures wouldn’t be able to be healed by a simple expenditure of a few SP. He would have to wait and let it heal over time, and anything more dangerous than a couple hit points worth of damage from a paper cut would take a long time to heal, and potentially be life threatening. The injuries he routinely took in battle here in The World were more than life threatening outside the game. The proof was the fact he had died so many times. Any one of those times, the injures he had sustained would have killed him in real life. Not to mention the needs he didn’t have here. The need to eat, especially, though he could do that here if he wanted. It was simply the digital taste here, not the need for sustenance.

He was pulled from his reverie by Yasmay when she stopped, putting a hand on his chest when he almost walked past her. She knocked on a door nearby Rikirion’s tower. He could see it over the rooftops some distance away. The door swung open and she entered, her hand gripping his coat and pulling him forward and in before the door closed.

Inside it was dark and gloomy and cold, the metal all around holding no heat. The only vague light that lit the corridor came from what looked like glow sticks embedded in the wall.

The pair walked through similar corridors for quite some time, until they came upon a room at the end of the halls. It held only an altar with a single spike on it, and nothing else. “This is it.” She said. “Rikirion’s prize.” She walked up to the altar and, without a moment of hesitation, plunged her hand down on the spike. Nighthand moved to stop her but she jolted, her body suddenly arcing with electricity. He backed off, not touching her. Several minutes later the electricity died down and she collapsed, her hand sliding off the spike. There she lay on the ground, twitching occasionally, with a smile on her face. For several more minutes she lay, lost in a haze, and Nighthand watched over her. Once, experimentally, he touched the spike on the altar, but it did nothing. Either he would have to plunge it into himself, or its power was drained. When Yasmay opened her eyes and pulled out of her stupor, Nighthand looked down on her.

“You’re a power junkie.” He said simply.

“Sure.” She said dreamily, holding out a hand. He pulled her to her feet and she fell against him, wobbly on her feet. “Rikirion’s abilities are the best.”

“He’s a drug dealer you have to beat before you can buy.” He shook his head. “And who has no qualms about beating you.”

She shook her head. “No one wins as much as I do. He gives me a power and I take it and run with it, so I can use it in ways he doesn’t expect. It’s a game.”

Nighthand nodded. “I suppose. Are you done here?” She nodded as well. So he threw her arm over his shoulder and he helped her, as her legs could barely support her enough to walk, until they made it back to her small dungeon-like home. She bid him leave her in the antechamber, with its semi-comfortable straw pads, and so he did as she said. The Heavy Blade left her leaning against the wall. “I’ll be going now.” He said over his shoulder.

“Wait, a moment please.” She said, calling him back. He turned.

“What is it?” He asked.

“Just hear me out.” She smiled. “This thing I do.”

“Yes?”

“It’s not like you’re thinking. If anything, I’m addicted to the fight, not the reward. Too inconsistent.”

“You seemed rather able to beat him.”

“Got lucky this time, he was slow. I lose more often.” She shrugged. “You’d see the scars if I still had flesh that scarred.”

“I meant to ask you about that.” He said, suddenly more serious. “What precisely is it? Your power that is.”

She shook her head. “Metal blood? I hardly know any more. I’m more power than person.” She stared at the sky. “The things I’ve done in the name of power…”

Nighthand watched her for a moment longer, and she turned her gaze on him. “I just wanted to say that. You know? I’m not all bad. I’m not a junkie.” He shrugged.

“I know.” Then he turned and left, sliding the door closed behind her, leaving her in a dim straw-padded room. He didn’t look back.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2009 4:45 am 
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Some small time later, Nighthand was crouched on a street corner in the Juk Sector of the Elemental District, a small black box sitting open in front of him. He had, for whatever reason, suddenly had the urge to entertain. Mostly himself, but, as he saw it in his thoughts as he walked from one sector to the next, why not make a little side money with it?

So that was why he found himself lost in thought sitting on a street corner of the Juk Sector, his small silver flute to his lips, playing songs both long and low. It was melancholy, and minor key, and somewhat different from the standard fare that seemed to be played around the town. Most players seemed to stick to folky tunes and celtic themes, with only a few classical representations of popular songs on the outside. Many of those he didn’t recognize save for their different style; several years in the game had skewed his knowledge of fads and trends, which bands were popular and which were out of style. It was all okay though. Nothing he played was a real song. He just improvised, made it up as he went along. He knew enough about music theory to do so without screwing things up and making them sound bad, though his songs tended to be long and meandering performances. It was alright, however. It was all for his own enjoyment, not that of others.

Still, a number of people had stopped to listen, and a few had even taken seats to listen and watch until he was done. He had accumulated a few thousand GP over the course of the last half hour, the box acting as an interface feeding it directly into his store. It was an interesting little artifact that a passing musician had given him, when he saw the heavy blade didn’t have such a thing already. That way Nighthand wouldn’t have to worry about someone passing along and stealing his hat, so to speak, and wouldn’t have to pause his performance for paying.

Nighthand lingered on a long low note, and slowly let his song fade. When he brought the flute away from his lips, a scattered round of applause erupted, and he stood to bow. The box disappeared into his inventory and he stretched. “That’s all for today, folks.” He said, and turned, and walked away.

His mind had wandered over the course of his playing, absorbing all the things he had learned. He knew that the thunder elemental master was a battle fanatic now, and he knew that he could perhaps even defeat the man. He had his own series of abilities, none of which Rikirion would ever have seen. He would have gone to challenge him immediately, save for the fact he had already been defeated once today and was likely not going to be out in the pit again. Also, the last thing Nighthand wanted was to get trapped in the tower as he climbed up after the wounded man. He had no worries about being able to defeat him in the pit. It was the tower after that concerned him.

He knew Yasmay wouldn’t go with him. She was a junkie for the battle and the power, he knew; not one or the other, but both. In fact, if she knew he was going to challenge the tower, she probably would try her hardest to stop him. She wouldn’t want her source challenged, taken away, or destroyed.

Nighthand wondered what the rest of the party would think about challenging the thunder master. He thought it was very possible to kill the man, but what would that accomplish? He was certain a new person would come in, stepping in as the new thunder master. Then what? Would they repeat the cycle over and over? Killing the master wouldn’t likely get them any closer to killing Rugudorull either, except perhaps bringing the Elite to town to discover what was happening to his subordinates. He had to admit to himself, though, that the idea of a thunder-themed throwdown in the middle of town would be entertaining. That way, too, they could even draw out other players, those who would like to rebel but had no way to contact anyone else, or fight the fight on their own, or find some underground. Ironic, he thought, that there could very well be an underground in this town, which itself was the underground.

While he thought, he walked, and he found his feet were carrying him once more into a sector he hadn’t visited before. A quick glance with his elemental eye confirmed the suspicion his regular normal eye had told him when he looked around. This was the Rue Sector.

Where the other sectors were dirty and dark and dingy, the Rue Sector shone with a light he had rarely seen before. Everything was white. The roads were paved in white marble or granite. The buildings were made of crystals and quartz, decorated in ivory and diamond. The roads were paved well, ornately, the spirals of bricks bringing a beautiful pattern to the ground. The road rose and fell with small bridges, under which streams ran. These small streams took the form of ditches on either side of the road, the water flowing freely even up small inclines when the lay of the land called for it.

On every street corner, and lining the streets, stood statues. Hundreds of carven figures of all kinds, everything from monsters to people to replications of famous art, to abstract pieces. Everything was carved from white stone and crystal, everything shining in the ambient light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. No one here cast a shadow, for the rock itself seemed to cast the soft light. Many of the statues at all angles were fountains as well, he noted, their streams of water feeding the streams in the ditches.

The people who wandered this area looked more like students and teachers than warriors. In fact, as Nighthand wandered, he felt distinctly out of place. His black form was illuminated by the white all around. While this place wasn’t his opposite in elemental terms, it was his opposite in physical from. While on the other hand, a section of his mind called out to this place. The air was that of an academy or a school or university. People wandered in small groups, heading from one section of the sector to another, many holding books or some other form of school-like implements. A few small groups stood camped in street corners, hawking awareness for their respective groups. A training school for young water mages, here, and an awareness of status effects seminar there.

Nighthand wandered, passing buildings of all sorts. Some looked like large classroom-filled buildings, the kind you would see on any college campus. Some looked like auditoriums, and one was even an outdoor concert hall. One restaurant was populated thinly, given the number of players who would want to eat in game was limited. A few taverns sat here and there, some with normal looking patrons, others with more disturbing patrons. He saw a few players walking around with water-themed edits. One woman had hair that was made of water, flowing out of her scalp and down her shoulders until it vanished in a puff of vapor around the small of her back. Another, male, walked down the street looking like a fish, gills on his neck and blue skin accenting the long line of a mouth and wide bugged eyes.

Nighthand stopped in front of one large building on the corner of an intersection that looked larger and more ornate than any other he had passed just yet. It was a hub of activity; a lot of people walked into and out of it freely, so he joined the throng. A few pushing-free minutes of waiting and he was inside, only to find out the building was a library. A very, very large library. Like, several stories tall, with wings that stretched into the distance almost seeming larger on the inside than it was on the outside.

Wandering through the halls and the corridors and the shelves, he studied the book titles. Everything was here. Everything. It looked like anyone could write something and have it filed away. In fact, he figured exactly that was happening, because he came across an entire shelf dedicated to the life and times of one dude he had never heard of before. When he cracked open one of the books to see, he could tell it was written by someone with, at best, a sixth grade comprehension of the English language. He put the book down and moved on.

There was an entire wing dedicated to fan fiction that he passed up in favor of other things. It seemed, as he climbed a set of stairs, that the drivel was at the bottom of the library, while the cream of the crop was floating to the top. A floor up and he was immersed in essays for college that people had submitted, and short stories that looked like they came from fiction classes. Another floor up and he had class discussions and threads that looked like they came from the game BBS boards, even if they were at least the upper class versions. There was far more reasonable discussion than there was insults and first posts.

Another flight up and he was reading treatises on the Elites, and various in-depth analyses of the elements and their interactions with the rest of the game at large. One book he flipped open had a detailed list of every item, weapon, and armor in the standard game, complete with their stats, their skills, their level and rarity, and even what percentage the various status effects had of working. He put that book away; too much information and not enough of it worth knowing.

Nighthand found another staircase, leading up, but this one was blocked. The door was barred and a sign posted saying only registered users with the right privileges had the ability to unlock the door and proceed to the top. He tried, wondering if he might have those rights by default, but he found the door wouldn’t budge. Shrugging, he moved on. What information might be at the top, he wondered.

“This place would be a gold mine if anything here was truly worth knowing.” Silverblade said, suddenly walking beside him, albeit a foot tall. “Those books about the Elites were good, but they only told me information I already knew, or just info that was guesswork on the part of someone who had, quite frankly, never even seen one of them in person before.”

“What, you can read these books?” Nighthand asked.

“Sure, why not? They’re data, I’m data, all I have to do is access it, and I can access and interpret data a lot faster than you can, since you’re forced to use a graphic interface and imprint the information artificially on your mind. Then again, that brings up an interesting question…”

“I suppose you could do that, huh. You accessed my memories just like that a long time ago.” Nighthand remembered the mental images of Silverblade sitting in a library, reading books that contained Nighthand’s memories, from before The World. Only the stuff in The World itself was given to the man when he was created; the rest was inaccessible.

“I do wonder. Could I work out a way to deliver data directly to your mind? I don’t know. Your mind right now is technically data, albeit a very complex selection of data interpreted heavily by Twilight. Maybe Sheena could help me on this.”

“Hey now, I don’t want you messing with my mind without telling me.” Nighthand protested. “Though I admit, the idea of learning and memorizing without having to read and practice is tempting.”

“See? It would be an incredibly efficient means to transfer information. If I could…” He paused, disappearing for an instant, then returned. “There. I absorbed the books I could find on monsters and equipment. If I could add this to your mind, you’d have an encyclopedia in your head.”

“And I’d be able to tell anything we needed to know about any monster we found in the game, so long as it was in those books.”

“Yes. Same with weapons and armor. If you see it equipped on a guy, you’d be able to tell what skills it has, and what weaknesses.”

“So… You want to talk to Sheena about it?” Nighthand asked. “Maybe when we get back to the safe house. I’ll be okay with it, so long as, you know, you consult me before you do any sort of experiments that might leave me comatose.” He laughed lightly at his own joke. “Seriously though, don’t fuck up my brain.”

Silverblade disappeared as Nighthand wandered the library, picking books at random and looking into them. None of them seemed to have anything worthwhile in them. He was somewhat disappointed, and headed down the stairs. For something as popular as this, he supposed it was the trashy fiction and the submission aspect that people came for. Most of the players were concentrated on the bottom floors, after all, and very few ascended as high as he did to see the truly scholarly items.

Once back on the streets, Nighthand followed the flow of the roads, that he noticed were all gently curving. He walked, and walked, and walked. More and more buildings grew more and more ornate, until every building he passed was covered from baseboard to rooftop in carvings. Even those grew progressively more ornate and intricate the longer he went on. Until he reached a gigantic plaza, one that was bordered on all sides by dozens of roads leading inwards. From there, he could tell that the entire sector was designed like whirlpool, leading all the roads into the central dip. This central dip, as he now discovered, was the Master’s Mansion.

That was the only thing it could be, this building in the center of the plaza. It looked like the Taj Mahal and the White House combined, with a touch of Parthenon. Great columns supported a massive roof from all around. The walls were lined with windows on all sides, on several different stories, of all different shapes. Many of them were stained glass, varying shades of blue, white, and clear making up patterns such as skyscapes and seascapes, weather patterns and rue-based figures. One, he thought, looked quite a bit like Kuja had, before he and his group and killed him.

The place had a set of double doors made of white stone, which hung open. Every surface of the doors was covered with tiny intricate carvings. Everything was there; small animals preying on smaller animals, people hunting and playing and fornicating and killing. Buildings and monuments and weather patterns and great storms. Depictions of outer space and of robotic creatures. Everything he looked at was a tiny representation of some concept of the world and The World. Everything centered on each door around a large and ornate version of the water wave symbols and runes.

The rest of the building was covered in carvings as well. Some of the sections of wall were almost, but not quite, transparent with large slabs of crystal. Somehow the inner structure of the crystals deflected the light around such that they acted more like mirrors than they did windows. Some other sections of the walls were carven figures that spouted water from mouths, eyes, ears, and so forth. These fountains cascaded intricately down the walls in patterns that Nighthand abruptly recognized as another variation on the water runes and symbols. Whoever had designed this building had put far, far more time and effort into it than any of the other master castles he had come across.

The plaza was filled with people, many of whom were like Nighthand. They walked in slow circles around the palace, admiring the carvings and seeing interesting things, pointing them out to each other as they passed. Some others, who had often been here before he suspected, walked in and out at ease, talking with each other and generally ignoring the tourists.

Nighthand walked into the building on the heels of another group, listening to them talk.

“The Masters have been out a lot lately, hmm?”

“Yeah, definitely. I wonder what’s up?”

“Maybe something about the role of Elite.”

“I dunno. Without the item we can’t have a new Elite, can we?”

“Maybe they recovered the item.”

“Then again, Melzas is still alive. Both of them can’t be the Water Elite, can they?”

“Who knows? Those Elites, pulling crazy shit all the time.”

So there were two Masters of Rue, Nighthand now knew. One, presumably, would be for the position of Water Elite, while the other would eventually end up Ice Elite. With both of them noticeably absent, he wondered what was going on. Was one of them being groomed for Elite status while the other tagged along? He doubted he would find out here, not without some serious questioning, so he backed off a bit, letting those he had tailed in wander off their own way.

Inside the mansion, it seemed, was a lot like an academic building. There were a lot of rooms, a reasonable layout, and most of the rooms were empty. Some were locked, and some were closed and full of people. Nothing seemed to be happening, though, so he didn’t really find himself doing much more than checking out the carvings inside the building.

“When I’m admiring the art, it’s probably time to leave.” He muttered to himself. He turned and, without further ado, started the trek out of the water capital of The World. Seriously, what was up with this place? It was full of people but none of them were doing anything important. Writing fan fiction? Sitting in classes? What the hell.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2009 4:46 am 
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In the plaza, Nighthand was walking lost in similar thoughts, when he bumped into a large, wide, linebacker-thick chest. He looked up, which was a feat, at a player who had to be at least seven and a half feet tall. He was dressed in a deep blue suit, as were his three near-identical buddies who now surrounded the darkness heavy blade.

“Not from around here, are you guy?” The leader, whom he had bumped into, asked. Silverblade meanwhile, replaying memories quickly, noted something. “He stepped in front of you Nights, they planned this. Not your fault.”

“Not from around here, no.” Nighthand said. “Where I’m from we don’t have time to deal with overlarge chumps.” He grinned up at them.

“Oh ho!” The leader laughed. “So the little black bat thinks he’s something. Well let me tell you something, little bat. You’re in the water now, and you’re nothing.”

Nighthand shook his head and rolled his eye. “Seriously guys, are you going to steal my lunch money or something? I mean, feel free to try. You’re big, I got that. Probably,” He opened his elemental eye and saw the three of them shining bright blue with water powers. They looked strong, but not that strong. “Yup. Water based powers. Maybe ice. Same difference.” He shrugged. “So, you’re going to try to attack me, I’m going to beat you into the ground, and we’re going to go about our days. Right?”

The three big players broke out laughing, and Nighthand eyed them. “Right!” The leader said. “Only instead of you leaving, you’re going to be beaten and thrown into the wastes.”

“Ooh, goodie!” Nighthand laughed. “I’ve only been there two or three times.” He shook his head. “Come on guys. Let’s find a place we can fight without wrecking all these statues.”

He turned away from them and started walking, but a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. “We know a place.” The leader said. The three of them circled him again, and started walking in unison. Nighthand, given the choice between following them or flying away, chose to follow. After all, if he flew, they would probably try to shoot him down with water spells, and while he was good at avoiding attacks in the air, he wasn’t three-dudes good.

A short time later, with Nighthand attempting and failing to banter with the trio, they arrived at a large warehouse-like building. The doors were locked, but the leader produced a key made of ice that opened the door for him. The four of them entered the building. Nighthand had to give them props for the setup. The warehouse was icy on the inside, and cold. His breath puffed up in white clouds in front of him. The leader locked the door behind them, putting the key in his pocket. Nighthand studied the floor and noticed that the floor itself was ice, and slippery to boot.

“You guys have this all planned out don’t you?” He said. In response, the three of them produced identical axes, made of ice with flowing water on the edges of their blades. They seemed to glide over the ice, almost like they had ice skates attached to the bottoms of their feet. “Well then!” He said. “Let’s get this started!”

Nighthand jumped into the air just as one of the men slammed his axe into the ground where he had been standing. It erupted into a geyser straight into the air that nearly blew Nighthand out of the air. Wet and annoyed, Nighthand skidded out of the way and faced the three. Two. He ducked an axe that swung where his face would have been, and swept out a kick that tumbled the man to the ground. He rolled out of the way of another axe slam, complete with geyser. So when the axes hit, they forced water up and out around them. Interesting. Another axe swung down at a diagonal on him, and it, too, he rolled out of the way from. As of yet he hadn’t even drawn his sword.

A water rune appeared under him and his eye flashed open, identifying it immediately as a level 2 rue rom. That was it? He reached out and grasped it (10) and twisted it to the side. It went off near the wall, further than he planned, but doing no harm. Another rune appeared, and another, one after another. He had his work cut out for him. One spell, a Zot, exploded under him when he failed to redirect it (4), throwing him off his feet. As he fell, he twisted a Converge spell (15) into one of the other men, where its icy chunks slammed into his skin with little effect. So. They were tolerant to their own element, huh? Easy then. No need to redirect the spells with any accuracy, just get them out of the way. (17) As Nighthand landed from the one spell, he stood, feet rooted to the ground as he deflected the magical assault. The next Zot was flung out of the way, erupting from the wall. The next (19) actually puffed out of existence. It simply never went off. Another Rom (11) went somewhere behind him.

“Don’t you have any attacks, little bat?” the leader called. “You’re easy prey like this!”

Then he noticed that only two of them were casting the spells. The third had disappeared. Instinctively, he dove to the ground, just as the axe passed through his neck’s airspace. He twisted, looking up at the man, who recovered quickly. Another spell, Rom this time, went up around him. (3) His hasty attempt to remove it only made it explode between them. He used the momentary spread of mist to roll to the side and grab a scroll from his cloak. He activated the level 2 fire spell and (16) released it in the face of the man, the chunks of flaming rock blasting into him from all sides. He fell to the ground, charred, but not defeated. Nighthand dove back, getting all three on one side of him for now.

“Seriously guys? Didn’t build up a resistance to your opposing element?” Nighthand laughed, as the man he had charred climbed slowly to his feet. “This will be easy pickings, then.”

While the three regrouped, Nighthand filtered through his inventory and found the sword he had been looking for. He had wielded it for quite some time, before obtaining his smiling blade; the weight and shape of it was familiar to his hand. Even though it was a huge slab of steel and little more, it glowed with an intense inner fire and its heat made the air around it condense into vapor, leaving a smoky trail where it swung. The Corona Blade made its appearance once more.

“We’ll see about that, bat!” The three men started to swing their blades. The tips dug into the ground as their underhanded swings passed, and the scrapes triggered the geysers, all directed horizontally at Nighthand. The heavy blade shifted to speed, using the state shift ability, and dodged the first three with ease. Then he found it impossible to stop on the ice and slid into the wall heavily. He rolled out of the way to avoid another beam of water, and another, and another. He jumped into the air and another lanced past him. This was getting ridiculous.

Nighthand shifted to strength and slammed his blade point-first into the ground. It lodged in good, and he forced his shoulder against it. A geyser struck it full on, and it rocked with the force, but the water split against it and flowed to either side. A second and a third joined the first. Nighthand pulled out his smiling blade and jammed it into the ground right behind the Corona blade. That sword he returned to his inventory. Then, when two more geysers struck, he shifted to speed and disappeared.

All three men shot geysers simultaneously, striking the sword at once and bowling it over. The steel clattered across the ground and disappeared as Nighthand returned it to his inventory, pulling the Corona blade back out. While the three were half-gloating, half-wondering where he went, he drove his blade with all his strength through the torso of one of them. The man sizzled from the head.

“Vak Divider!” He shouted, dragging the blade out and up and over with all the force the skill could muster, literally slicing the water-based man in half. His halves fell to the ground, his form ghosting before it struck the ground. Nighthand swung through, but found his sword blocked by one of the axes. While that man held it, the other man swung down over head. Nighthand ducked and pushed up, slamming axe into axe and disrupting both attacks. He drove into them with slashes, pushing them back and sending them on the defensive. Each time one of them pulled aside to attack, he found himself the target. Then, suddenly, another Vak Divider and the second man fell.

“Well… Shit.” The third man said, the vocal leader of the group left for last. “You’re stronger than you looked.” Nighthand shrugged.

“No, you’re just worthless. Vak Divider!” He cleaved through the man’s axe and through his body, melting a swath of the icy floor. Putting his sword away, Nighthand looked at the three ghosts. “Seriously guys. Don’t fuck with people. You got nothing out of this except shame.”

Nighthand found himself blocked from exiting by the door, locked with the key still on the man’s corpse. Rather than retrieve it, however, Nighthand just rolled his eye. “Vak Divider!” He called out, and cleaved the door apart. Kicking it open, he emerged onto the street in a puff of steam as the chill air inside met the warmer air outside.

A player in a blue-themed military uniform, a blademaster judging by the rapier he carried, approached. Nighthand eyed him warily. Another bully to kill? But no. When the man stopped, he was excited and happy. And low level.

“You did it!” He said excitedly.

“Did what?” Nighthand asked, looking around.

“Defeated the Sharks!” He cried. “They’ve been terrorizing this part of the Sector for weeks, and no one was able to do anything about it!”

Nighthand looked at him strangely. “Seriously? They weren’t even that difficult.”

“They staunchly avoided anyone of obviously higher power than they were and anyone lower power was at their mercy. When we tried to hunt them down in groups, they just disappeared. They’re good at hiding. I was only able to find this warehouse because I saw them accost you and followed.”

Nighthand looked back into the warehouse where the ghosts were arguing with each other. No one would resurrect them, not for a while. He grinned. “Those fools were barely worth my time. What do you want?”

“Just to congratulate you.”

“What, no tent full of items?”

“What?”

“Nothing. Well you have fun with those morons. I’m out of here.” Nighthand shrugged and started to walk. The military man called after him.

“Thanks!”

Nighthand raised a hand in reply, and made his way out of the sector.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2009 4:46 am 
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Nighthand soon found himself on his way back to the Gan Sector. He had explored almost everywhere else. The Vak Sector he had ignored, for the time being, but he figured there were other players better suited to exploring that right off. In fact someone else probably already had. Not that he wouldn’t go to a place someone else had already been to; that was fine. He just didn’t want to run into anyone just yet.

Rather than head directly back to the safe house, Nighthand instead started wandering around the Gan Sector. The place bugged him, a little. It was dirty and dry and dusty. The buildings were made of old stone, crumbling adobe, and patches of plaster. Everything was in muted shades of brown and gray and white. There was no water, no vegetation, nothing to make the place more hospitable than Death Valley. So many of the players there took after Jett with stony armor and bulky physiques that he wondered where the normal players were. Then again, there were hardly any normal players in Yamiyo, were there? As he expected, he encountered a lot of earth elemental players here, everything from people that looked like fantastic four’s the Thing, to a heavy blade using a chunk of a stone column rather than a sword.

Peering through the clouds of dust, Nighthand wondered where the Castle was. He didn’t recall seeing it when the walked from the wastelands to the safe house. Then he noticed the sand seemed to be rising into the air in the distance. He was worried about a sandstorm, but no one else in the area seemed bothered by it, so he decided to head that way. If it was a sandstorm, he could weather through it, and if it wasn’t, it was probably something more interesting.

Trekking in a direct path through the twisting and turning maze of streets and alleys in the Gan Sector was a trick to learn some time in the future, Nighthand discovered. No less than three times he got turned around and found himself heading the wrong way, when he finally found enough open sky to spy the storm on the horizon. He could fly, he knew, but here he’d be making his base and he didn’t want to make himself as intrusive as that. A few short hops, maybe, but nothing so much as flying directly into a giant sandstorm.

When he finally made it to the storm, it confirmed his growing suspicions. He exited an alleyway into a road that in turn opened into a plaza roughly as large as the one in the Rue Sector. It was large, and open, and empty of people. The reason for that was obvious. The Castle in the center of the plaza was as different as one castle could be from another, from the Rue Sector Mansion. Where the Rue was made of alabaster and diamond, the Gan was made from granite and slate. Where the Rue was ornately carved, the Gan was devoid of decoration. Even the doors, closed tight, were lacking anything more ornate than handles. Where the Rue Mansion was covered in windows, the Gan Edifice was lacking in anything more than a few scattered holes, covered tightly with shutters that looked like they hadn’t been opened in decades. Where the Rue Castle was in open land and open sky, the Gan Castle was surrounded by a huge tornado of sand, a perpetual Gan Rom of epic proportions. The Sandstorm was a marker, a defense, and a deterrent all in one. And while the Rue was crowded and open to the people, the Gan was closed off, the plaza guarded by the same gate guards that had fought with them in the Wastes. Nighthand actually spotted the guard captain, talking to a couple of the guards, and walked over to him.

“Hey, Captain.” He said.

“What is it?” the guard asked, looking bored.

“What’s the deal with this castle?” Nighthand asked. Why not try the direct approach?

“It’s the castle of the Master of Gan, that’s what.”

“Why the sandstorm?”

“Keeps tourists away. Anyone who doesn’t have a strong purpose in being there usually is forced away by the storm. It keeps the peace.”

“Who maintains it?”

“What, the storm? The Master himself. We would do it for him, but he’s worried about us being bribed or paid off or turning against him, or something.”

“Would you?”

“Hell no! We’re loyal to him and to this place.”

Hmm. Nighthand wondered about that. Loyal to the place, perhaps, but to the person, or just the rank? With such a paranoid Master, one who set up such defenses with so little trust, he wondered if they were loyal to the man himself. Nighthand sure wouldn’t be. Then again, his own loyalties were a bit skewed. He was loyal to a man who had directly been the cause of his own coma.

Really, when he thought about it, there was very little reason for him to be loyal to Nall, especially as loyal as he was. He liked the man. They had fought together, they had died together, they had rescued each other. They had teamed up to kill Jett, the Elite of Earth. He still remembered that epic event. While the rest of the party had fought the giant bird on top of the mountain, Nighthand and Nall had taken down the man in the Titan’s Armor. In the end it had taken quite a ridiculous amount of power to destroy him, but they had done it.

“Alright, thanks guys.” Nighthand said, staring at the sandstorm. He turned and left, heading back towards the safe house. What was there left to do? He could explore another Sector, but he was tired. He didn’t want to.

He thought about things in the past, and things in the future. He wondered how his father was doing. He wondered about Arra, trapped in her stone form. It had been a long time since he had visited the Soul Shrine. A long time searching for a way to get her out of her entrapment. He barely even remembered why she was trapped, other than it being his fault, somehow. That hacker, the one that had trapped him, the one that had created Silverblade… She had taken the brunt of his final attack. The one meant for Silverblade, and for himself.

He remembered traveling to the Soul Shrine with Silverblade, and letting the man face his own challenge against the master of that domain. He wanted to visit again, he longed for it, yet he knew better. To visit that place was to challenge the Seraphim, the All-World Entity, the master of that realm. To challenge the Seraphim was to seek a boon in your powers, in your abilities. Nighthand had gone there, and in return gained a new power. Silverblade, too, had come and gone, and returned with a new ability. Nighthand knew he could visit again, but he had no ambition, no drive, to gain new abilities. His abilities were enough as it was. To gain more power was to gain more infamy, and he didn’t need the attention that brought. So he couldn’t visit Arra, he couldn’t visit her replacement warden Verona. He was unable to seek out the shrine’s location in Yamiyo without arising suspicion, anyways. He also knew that to challenge the Seraphim and to lose, lacking the proper power and drive and ambition, was to die. Despite himself being the chosen warrior for the Seraphim and his shrine, Nighthand knew the master wouldn’t hesitate. It was more than a man, more than an artificial intelligence. It was, essentially, a primal force, a diety of The World. Not one anyone else knew about. Not one that affected the game as a whole. Just one that reigned with all the unstoppable power of a god.

Nighthand rubbed his eye, dried out as it was by the dust in the air. He longed for a home here, in The World, he realized. The hideouts had served, but they weren’t the same. The Soul Shrine was a start, but if he couldn’t visit it any time he desired, what good was it as a home? He realized he followed Nall in search of that. The man had become as best a foundation as Nighthand could get here in The World. Even his father didn’t suffice. The man had a stoic and impassive field of his own. By rights, Nighthand should be able to call that home. Yet he never visited. It wasn’t his own, it wasn’t his personality, it wasn’t under his power.

Perhaps he could buy something here. A contractor, a hacker to commission to build him a field of his own, or grant him the powers he needed to create one. He could get Raine or Sheena to devise a lock for the field only he could open, and those he keyed to let in. There were enough locked fields in The World that one more wouldn’t arouse suspicion. Players always found locked fields in day to day activities. They were glitches, that the Admins had to work out before they field keyword set could be opened. They were the domains of hackers, the lesser powered hackers that had nowhere of their own in Yamiyo, yet had the power to take over a field all on their own. They were the experiments and extra homes, the summer homes, of the Elites and the Masters and the other high powered hackers that could afford to control huge swaths of the game. They were experiments by the Admins, in ways to defeat the hackers. They were event fields that hadn’t been opened yet, or had opened long ago and closed. One more hacker’s personal realm, one more contractually hacked field, wouldn’t arouse an eyebrow, let alone the ire of the admins.

Besides, even if it did irk the administrators, he could always send a message to Kelvin, their ally on the inside. Perhaps that admin would be able to come to their rescue. He was powerful in game, and knew firsthand how dangerous the hackers were. He had been their prisoner, after all. Of course, there was no way to know. Was Kelvin stuck in the game? If so, it would be an interesting situation. Kelvin, he was sure, had the methods and the means necessary to be able to telecommute from inside the game. He could interact with the outside world from inside The World. If he was careful, and explained he was on an extended hiatus or something, GMing from a different location or admining from a different office, he could potentially keep the ruse going for a long time. It was a special effort to even realize that Kelvin was probably stuck in the game. The only people who would know for sure would be his family and those who knew he had fallen into a coma from the outside. Those who took care of his body, and those who swept it under the rug.

He wondered how CCCorp was handling the fallout. Three of their admins, Kelvin Zephyr, Kamui, and Balmung had all fallen into comas. Four, actually, when they considered Tritoch. Then again, that man, Tritoch, had so recently been killed by Nighthand and his own team. He wondered if they had monitored that. How much power did CCCorp even have over the game in Yamiyo’s server? Could they see it? Could they study it? It was an interesting question. If they had seen Nighthand and the group kill Tritoch, nothing Kelvin would say would be able to dissuade them from putting his group on the watch list, or the kill list. They had to know that Tritoch was dead. When a player was that deep in a coma, death was death. No one could get such powers, such abilities as Tritoch displayed, without being hacked in the dungeons of Yamiyo. He was definitely in a coma. That meant that when his group had killed the monster, and killed the man, they had killed the person as well.

Granted, that person was a sociopathic freak bent on the utter destruction of the Hackers, to such a deep extent that he would not shrug at murder. Nighthand suspected that in his quest to kill the hackers, Tritoch had killed dozens, if not hundreds of people. Real people, in the real world, died because of his actions. Not just killing a player, but deleting an account that held a player in a coma. The body count they had stopped with they defeated Tritoch would have been immense. With all of that power, if they hadn’t been in the way, he would definitely have gone on a rampage in Yamiyo, and who knew how many people he would have killed?

When viewed that way, Kamui almost wasn’t bad. She was still missing, as was Balmung. The pair of admins were little more than boosted regular players, priding themselves on not using much in the way of admin abilities or godlike capabilities inherent in their positions. That had ruined them in the end, when they had been blown apart by the Elites in Mac Anu. They simply didn’t have the power to face them. Then again, neither did Kelvin or Tritoch. Tritoch was too arrogant to know he needed help, and Kelvin had been mobbed at the end.

He wondered how many people had died because of this game. How many players were wandering around without bodies to go back to? What would happen to them when the Freedom Fighters gathered all the Twilight Items and released them from Twilight’s hold? He wondered if they would stay in their characters, essentially artificial intelligences until the end of time. He wondered if they would simply vanish, their characters left unoccupied until the end of time. He wondered what would happen to those who stuck around, if they would vanish when a server maintenance happened.

Nighthand found, when he looked up, that his feet had carried him to the chaos gate, rather than the door to the safe house buried in the Gan Sector. He pulled up the menu, browsing the options. Changing servers was out of the question. Going to a field on Yamiyo seemed exceptionally dangerous. Changing to another District… He decided. He clicked the appropriate choices and, as the rings descended, hoped his choice wouldn’t lead to more trouble.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2009 4:47 am 
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The rings descended in a space square foot or two, in the middle of a crowd larger than Nighthand had seen in a long time. When they cleared, and he was material again, he was immediately jostled around. He shoved his way through the crowd for a few moments, until he was near a wall and out of the way. He got a few dirty looks, but it was too crowded for more than that. Breathing heavily, he wondered how anyone managed to spend any significant amount of time here in the Bazaar.

He browsed the shops he found near the entrance, finding everything to be vastly overpriced and largely useless. From the way the shop keepers talked to the other players around, he guessed these shops were scamming new players, but offering valuable information for those in the know. He left, wandering through the alleyways looking for something useful.

Here, on his left, in a little shaded pavilion, a man in a turban sold pottery. On a closer look, the pottery was a selection of simple health potions with cosmetic additions. He passed on.

There, to the right, in a brick building clear of obstructions in the windows, a selection of level 99 items were for sale. He looked, and they all had unique skills and abilities, and maxed out stats. They also sold for several million GP per item. He wasn’t hacked to a high level, he couldn’t equip them. He moved on.

A book seller, little more than shelves lined with parchments, scrolls, and bindings, sold the drivel that accumulated in the lower level of the library in the Rue Sector. He ignored the fan-sold fiction and moved along.

A seller to the side, in an alleyway, sold normal scrolls for twice the value they were worth. Nighthand thought about killing the man, but decided against it. He would only ghost and come back later, and that didn’t do anything.

After another several minutes, he found a shop that seemed rather legit. It had an interesting selection, of which he bought much. He worried about being ripped off, but later he found another shop selling everything for half again as much.

Later he found a selection of high level summon scrolls and, despite not having much money, bought what he could. One of each, as it turned out.

His funds exhausted, Nighthand made his way back to the crowded center of the Bazaar. On his way, he passed a Halloween-town themed area and, nagging recognition tugging at his brain, explored.

He couldn’t remember where he had seen the place before, until he heard the sounds of cheering and the sounds of fighting. When he approached the high-walled coliseum, with its pillars around the outside for stands and its selection of barracks and side-buildings, did he recognize it. This was the location of Garaa’s dark tournament. From the sound of it, there was another tournament taking place right now.

Nighthand, keeping his wings tight together in the crowd, made his way with as little fuss as he could through the crowd until he had made it to the stands. It wasn’t a very good seat, but it was a vantage point where he could see, and that was all he needed.

Down far below, two combatants were locked in combat. One of them was a blademaster, and each move he made sent waves of darkness, sharp as blades and black as shadows, flying at his foe. His opponent was a fist fighter, dancing around with a pair of heavy gauntlets that moved as though they were ten times lighter than they looked. The fist fighter bounced around on the ground, using moves full of kicks and spins, that could only be some variant on Capoeira. Each time a wave of darkness struck for him, a kick swept out and batted into it. Flashes of light and sparks came from each impact, and the darkness blades were deflected.

While both fighters were breathing heavily, neither of them seemed to sport open wounds. The blademaster, however, looked exhausted while the fist fighter was dancing easily and his breathing was more from excited exertion than from an end to energy.

As the crowd’s cheering reached a peak, the blademaster put his all into one more attack, a massive wave of darkness, a dozen different blades that arced out at all angles and moved to converge on the fist fighter. The fist fighter stood, hands in his pockets, as the blades converged around him. Then a hand pulled free and he fell backwards, planting the palm on the ground. He vaulted around and spun like a top, his feet kicking out and around, deflecting blade after blade. The last one crashed down and he kicked it aside, flipping backwards. He landed in a sprinter’s stance, and dashed with shocking speed. The blademaster, leaning on his sword, was done. The dancer leaped and spun, his foot twisting out in a flying roundhouse kick. The blademaster was struck in the face and, after a brief instant of impact, flew backwards. He tumbled across the ground and landed in a heap, unmoving. The fist fighter landed, stopped, and stood tall. His hands in his pockets once again, he turned to the crowd. The cheering erupted loud and high.

Then a black-cloaked form fell from the sky and landed in the arena. A deep booming voice shook the stands.

“The winner! Moving on to the next round, Jakyl! Let’s hear your cheer!” Garaa shouted to the stands, and his hood fell back, revealing the demonic head and toothy mouth grinning wide. His black skin stretched tight over a skull knobby with spikes and horns. His eyes swept the audience, slowly, raising cheer when they passed. They lingered, for an instant, on Nighthand, and fear filled his mind. He alone wasn’t cheering.

He knows. Nighthand thought, panicked and frightened. He knows and now he’ll track us down. We’re fucked, and it’s my fault. Visions passed through his head of Garaa singling him out for a challenge. He couldn’t turn it down, the Elites would be all over him, and in single combat when he won, he would be fought into exhaustion. Then they would capture him and force him to tell them where they hid, and then, with Nall asleep and Demorian out, Sheena would be their only defense. She couldn’t hope to hold off more than one Elite at once. They were well and truly fucked.

Then Garaa’s eyes passed, and the feeling passed, and the Elite hadn’t even noticed him. He looked up, at the box reserved for the Elites. They wore form-hiding cloaks, he knew, but his elemental eye could tell them apart. Garaa, down in the pit of the coliseum, was a radiant tower of purple shocked through with black. Up in the box, a brilliant column of blue showed the presence of Melzas. An equally bright glow of emerald proved to him that Xenobia stood watching, and as usual, the white glare of Royce watched the fights. Only those four, it seemed. Klive, presumably injured, wasn’t in attendance. With Jett and Kuja dead, that left only Rugudorull unaccounted for. What could he be out doing? And why were the Elites busy watching a tournament?

Of course, it came to him. With two of their number dead and one injured, they held a tournament, to alleviate fears. The population of Yamiyo would see them present and know they were as strong as ever. This was a morale play. They were here to demonstrate their power and their presence, and to prove to their followers that nothing was wrong. That four of their eight were missing wasn’t likely to add to their case, but it was better than being silent and left in mystery. Then Nighthand caught something else, mixed in the glare of the lights of the Elites. He closed his elemental eye, and what he saw almost made him laugh.

There on the pedestal, on the box, all seven Elites aside from Garaa stood. Recognizing them as he did, he could see Kuja and Jett standing side by side, with Klive and Rugudorull nearby. He blinked with his elemental eye, comparing before and after, and chuckled to himself. The four Elites not present had no elemental glow to them, just a slight hint of white. Nighthand smiled. Royce, her bracelet of mirages, her illusion powers, was making images of the Elites no present. Jett and Kuja, dead as they were, were only present in form, not face. For all anyone could see, they were simply two cloaked figures. Which meant, to the population at least, that there appeared to be new Water and Earth Elites. Only Nighthand would know better

Below, Garaa approached the fallen blademaster, who didn’t ghost. Nighthand remembered from his own appearance here, that ghosting didn’t happen. Something about the layout of the coliseum, or the power of Garaa present, kept the player from ghosting. They sat at one hit point, or zero, but wouldn’t die. They were, effectively, paralyzed. All so Garaa could approach and, as he did now, pick up the player in one massive hand. The player was coated in an orb of darkness and a scream filled the arena for a second. Then it was drowned out by the cheering. The orb shattered, and the player was gone. Deleted, remove from game, logged out, history. The man, whoever had once controlled and once lived as that blademaster, was now dead. The crowd cheered ever harder.

“Let the fights continue!” Garaa shouted, and jumped. His cloak trailed about him as he flew, until he landed on the box with the other Elites. Only Nighthand, watching closely, noticed the tail of his cloak pass through the torso of Jett.

“Who else will fight Jakyl! Challenger, step forth!” Jakyl, down below, scanned the crowd. His hands removed from pockets, he gestured at random players, calling them out, waving at them, insulting them with hand signs. Finally a man stepped up, jumping into the arena. “I will!” He shouted.

“What is your name?” Garaa called back.

“Grift!” He shouted up, waving a pair of twin blades shaped like hooks.

“Grift versus Jakyl. Let the fight begin!” Garaa’s sentence was no sooner over than Grift had thrown a knife, or shuriken, or something at the dancer. It was kicked out of the air and left to skitter across the sandy ground, while Capoeira man went dancing on the offensive. He hopped and swayed and spun and kicked, and the twin blade blocked a few kicks with his blades. Once, it looked like the hooked blade would catch an ankle and carve it off, but the kick pulled back at the last instant. Grift was pushed back further and further, until his back was to the wall below the Elites.

Then, without warning, he spun and ran. Loping like a wolf, his hooked claws digging into stone, he rushed up the side of the wall faster than seemed possible to climb. Jakyl was left alone in the pit as the twin blade capped the peak of the wall, flying up and into Garaa. He flipped over the demon and landed, kicked, and shoved off the ground pressed against Garaa’s back. The pair tumbled over the edge and impacted heavily into the ground. Garaa rolled and came to his feet with a roar, his mace appearing in his hand, already raised above his head to smash down.

A flash of light, and Jakyl was there, foot planted, spinning, his roundhouse delivered to the center of Grift’s back. The twin blade sprawled on the ground, and Jakyl cartwheeled into a handstand. He hopped and flipped to his feet, hopped again, and flipped, his ankle coming down heavy on the floored man’s neck. Garaa, lowering his mace, merely watched. Jakyl turned to him and cracked his neck. “The Show must go on!” He said, with a grin.

The crowd, which had gone to jeers when the twinblade retreated and silent when he attacked the Elites, raised its collective voice in cheer. Nighthand, shocked that someone so openly attacked the Elites, had been silent through it all. Garaa, below, grinned his toothy grin. “The show must go on!” He shouted, and with the same gestures as before, deleted the fallen twin blade.

When the call came again for challengers, the show moved to go on, and Nighthand turned to push his way back out of the stands. He had no desire to stand and watch Garaa’s sick entertainment, and the longer he stood there, the longer he risked being spotted by the Elites. He pushed clear of the stands and made his way back as quickly as possible to the chaos gate. From there, he gated to the Gan Sector, and found his way swiftly back to the safe house. Only then, exhausted, did he drop onto a bed.

It had been a long day, he reflected, as he stared at the ceiling. Even though he had only been gone for a few hours, and then a few more, with a break for handing out presents in between. Yet he had accomplished so much. He had explored half the city, getting a feel for the lay of the land, both geographically and politically. He had made an ally of the Mercenary leader Badger, and an enemy of a random dude in the Nature Sector. He had beat down bullies and watched a fight with the Lightning Master. He had learned that Shard was still alive, and could make his sword stronger. Yet all of it only took a short portion of the day. He yawned, closing his eyes. Maybe a quick nap was in order, after all. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Sleep. And so, after his night on the town, he slept.

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2009 4:51 am 
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And that, my friends, is how you write a 50,028 word, 104 page long solo in 26 days. For trivia's sake, here's the graph of my writing progress. The days the bar stays the same aren't days I forgot to update the word count. They're days I didn't write. So technically out of the 26 days, I spent 12 or 13 of them writing.

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