Second Shot

Chapter 16:

Grudge

Seisaku blinks as the swampy field fades in around him. His other two companions from the Medic Union teleport in on his right and left and their silence takes on an aura of trepidation. The Medic Union often ventured into grassy areas from the Delta Server all the way to forested areas on the Sigma Server, but it wasn't often that they came to the marshy fields hosted on the Lambda Server. It wasn't just the fact that only strong, experienced players tended to come here, Seisaku knew that the areas were damaged in the Third Network Crisis and fewer of them had been repaired than the busier fields accessible to lower-level players.

The round beastman in white lets out a breath and glances to his two similarly-styled companions before setting out on the Medic Union's area patrol. There aren't any obvious signs of players, but some areas have quick respawn rates and there are no few players who know to be stealthy on servers where PKers can have levels in the hundreds. The team has to collect chims to lower a cobbled-together gate onto a sunken castle wall, but Seisaku only pauses long enough to note that the castle is Western-style instead of wide and rectangular like most Japanese castles.

The sunken castle gives them passage over a slimy-looking bog and onto another stretch of peat where a dying tree hunches over from a corner. At first glance, Seisaku thinks that the tree is wrapped in Anelosimus spider web, but as he gets closer he realizes that the pattern is even more irregular than the spinnings of the colony arachnids. There's almost a crystalline quality to it, but before he can observe more, Osamu lopes forward without fear. "Hey, what's that?"

The player behind Seisaku resists the urge to slap his palm over his face – that would unseat his aged M2D. "Osamu, don't just rush out! We're the medic union, not TaN's adventurers."

Osamu's loping pace slows to a stop and he turns around doing a remarkably good cross between a petulant child and a begging puppy. "Awww, don't we get to have any fun? How often do we get to check out swamp grounds?"

Something inside stirs, and a heartbeat pulses out from the tree – at least Seisaku would swear that something of the sort happened, he was looking right at it. He even felt something, more like a tremor through his feet than the corny vibration from his controller. Was it a brief earthquake? No, they were never that brief, and the timing was too close to the game to be coincidence. Maybe his long evening hours were getting to him . . .

Another heartbeat pulses, more heard than felt this time, and there is the distinct motion of something possibly the size of a cow inside the wrapped tree. Seisaku activates a fairy orb, and quickly decides that the map looks too undisturbed for players to be active here. "Maybe we should get out of here . . ."

Bu-dum.

Osamu slowly turns, a light now starting to glow from within the tree and clearly indicating solid shapes – limbs – shifting inside the wrapped tree. One of the limbs presses outward, and the wrapping stretches just like spider silk, but the sound is more like sandpaper scraping wood. The wrapping reaches its maximum tension point and suddenly stops stretching. A half second like the slow cracking of glass sounds before large polygons suddenly shatter like crystal, shards flying. One of them cuts through Osamu's left arm before he turns to flee, and sparks sputtering from the collision as the arm itself turns into a charcoal-gray monotone.

Then the dark thing slides out and drops from the tree. Its shape is somewhat like a tick, enlarged to the length of two meters, with translucent hexagons running down its flanks. Unlike a real tick, it doesn't seem to have any mandibles, but its bulging limbs seem to be threatening enough. Despite the lack of clear eyes, Seisaku is certain that it looks straight at him for a moment of stillness before it lowers its head and breaks into a charge.

He doesn't have to call for the retreat before he shrieks and runs for the nearest teleporter.

Yata strides into the Serpent of Lore, the shuffling of three administrators hard at work echoing through the indeterminately large space. A warlock in a draping yukata that would be impractical in the real world pauses his recording, a large black sphere several meters wide in a forested area.

"Master Yata," a baritone voice floats from the holographic workstation closest to the pedestal terminal. Yata looks over to see Hachi, a cyan-haired cleric in pontifical vestments and one of his most dedicated workers since Pi's resignation. He continues working, a sense of clicking that should be produced despite the silence in the virtual space with its holographic keyboards. "Seven new areas have been shut down since yesterday. No change on the last victim."

The orange-garbed PC nods. "Not unexpected. I'm sure the corp will want to move him into one of our hospitals. What about the candidate for the sixth epitaph?" The cleanup of the Third Network Crisis required months of work from Yata and what remained of Project GU, but after Haseo had his online party, most of the players were done. Many went their own separate ways and never returned to their characters. Losing Endrance, possibly the most skilled Epitaph User, was a blow to Yata's attempts to understand the evolution and purpose of the Avatars, but at least GU had narrowed down Macha's possible carrier to a mere handful of players.

"I haven't been able to find anything conclusive since my last observation report," Hachi responds, still typing away. "However, I believe that Rachel shows a number of the same traits that existed in Endrance. Her time spent on the world has also increased lately, making it easier to make observations." He pauses and looks up at Yata. "If I may ask, sir, why are we waiting for Reynart? Data streams clearly indicate he must still be an epitaph user—"

"Reynart has his own reasons for coming back to the world after ceasing to use Haseo." Yata answers, adjusting his PC's glasses. "His level of focus in building exploration and combat skills has to mean something, but despite my earlier invitation he has almost distinctly avoided coming here. He is definitely trying to prepare himself for something, but whether it is Awakening or something else I can not yet be certain."

He smiles as he looks back at Hachi's screen and notes the two party members with Rachel. Sometimes things just come together.

The elegantly stoneworked city of Mac Anu fades in around Kaede with the slight jump like a lagging computer catching up with its processes. It always happened when she transferred from the Netslum, and by now passing it off seems like second nature. She considers stopping by the market square, but fails to muster any enthusiasm about what she might find there. The World has been getting . . . tedious. Telling herself that she needs to watch over Zelkova has rung hollow since she opened up to Haseo – or whoever had been the new man behind the character. Zelkova is capable of watching himself, and she's not sure why she's disappointed at that.

She never really knew the old or 'real' Haseo, but the man who came back into The World had been something new and interesting. He listened with a patience that was refreshing after a long day of delivering lectures to university students who glanced at the clock as often as the whiteboards. The Haseo she grew to know would ask questions about the oddest of things, and for some reason she found herself looking forward to what unusual direction his curiosity would take their conversations. It took a few days for her anger at the deception to dissipate, but he never did outright claim to be the same Haseo, and he'd shared a few personal details as well.

Of course, there was also the matter of what Pi – no, it was Astrid now – said about him. Kaede went back to her later to clarify the details and learn that the new player was a hacker convicted in a large computer and identity theft case, and even served prison time. That was probably more unsettling than the realization that somebody new was behind Haseo. She'd never met anybody who'd even been to jail, the worst she ever knew was the dean of instruction who went to the city court to try to argue his parking tickets. She always thought that anybody sent to prison had to be . . . slimy, ruthless, and outwardly wrong. Not nice if slightly socially awkward, strangely insightful, and mildly humorous.

She hadn't seen him online since Astrid's revelation, but maybe one of his friends would know what he was doing. Silabus and Gaspard were both online . . .

Rachel flips her long ponytail over her shoulder and holds her longsword into the air in a pose worthy of postcards. "No beast of the darkness shall stand against the champions of mankind!" she proclaims. Her black and orange, midriff-baring dress ruffles in the windy mountain field, red armor pauldrons glinting in the area's setting sun lighting. Her green eyes gaze across the escarpment that previously contained the boss, now fading away. Karl hefts his halberd against his shoulder and smiles at the display.

Reynart Azu doesn't even look up from his crouch as he finishes hunting for materials from the fallen beast, then stands. "Quest complete, now let's head out."

Rachel stamps her foot, a vein distending as she breaks out of her thematic niche. "You have no sense of dramatics. Why play a role-playing game if you're not going to role-play?" She closes her eyes and settles back into a pose, sword held out and angled down.

"You're a hopeless romantic with delusions of a theater audience," Reynart snaps. "This is a computer game, not the acting club," he adds with the same weary tone betraying a person who's been awake for too long.

Karl shakes his head. "I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean it. He was a nice guy the first time we met, and Gaspard doesn't speak highly of just anyone." The partisan in black doesn't notice Reynart cringe at that mention, and is about to put away his halberd when he notices three new players sprinting up the slope. "Hello, folks. I'm afraid we got to the monster first—"

"Plectra Bullet!"

With his hit points already low from the fight against the boss monster, the gunner's arte brings Karl to his knees. A speed-up spell flashes through the adventurers. Rachel braces behind her sword and blocks the jump-smash attack from a broadsword-wielding girl wearing a pink cap with four rubies in the corners. Rachel doesn't have time to try to counter attack, having to parry a slash from a slender, dark-clad swordsman with a look very similar to Karl except he holds a longsword just like her and has gray hair covering his eyes. He slashes again and she manages to fend off a couple of the blows before his body starts to glow with the activation of an arte.

"Zan Rom!"

A brief, rising cyclone springs up beneath the swordsman and interrupts his arte. A green sparkle rises as Reynart uses a healing item on Rachel, and then he steps in front of her. "I think you're going for the wrong target, Iyoten."

The PKer snarls. "You bastard! Do you have any idea what posting all of my stats on the public forums has done to my reputation?"

"A little less than this ambush is doing to my opinion of your intelligence?" Reynart ripostes. He points his tessen straight at the swordsman, gaze steady as stone. "There's too much to do in this game to make it entirely about attacking other players. I know there's PKKers who level combat skills to fight fire with fire, but I've never been a fan of playing other peoples' games by their rules when I've got better methods."

Iyoten powers a slash down at the kitsune who neatly sidesteps and leans just enough to avoid the attack. The PKer makes a low reverse-swing that Reynart hops over, and then tries another rising slash. Too close to completely evade, Reynart leans and uses his tessen to parry the blow just over his head. Reynart considers mentioning that dancers are one of two classes with innate evasion bonuses, then decides to let the PKer figure it out. Kenji glances up at the GUI to confirm that his SP is still depleted – his compatriots went through hit points and energy relatively evenly, but being a dancer meant he stood back doing more healing and status effects through the boss fight his party just finished.

Iyoten looks like he's fresh and ready to fight, and still over a hundred levels over the kitsune.

Reynart funneled everything he could into training agility, but that's still not enough to cover the level gap and it's only a matter of time until his luck runs out. Remember: don't play their game by their rules, Shinichi's voice echoes in his head. But how else can he win this fight? No way can he back down, not without inevitably handing over his friends on a silver platter.

Reynart slips and Iyoten plants a powerful kick into the kitsune's gut, smashing through his hit points and sending him tumbling backwards. Rachel breaks away from Asta and casts Rip Maen, but instead of simply restoring the dancer to the fight, it draws the PKer's ire. "You just made a mistake. I guess taking you down isn't quite enough, I'll have to turn your friends into chop suey." Iyoten trips Rachel, and his predatory grin gleams as he lifts his longsword at the PC trying to scuttle back on the ground.

Reynart snaps to his feet with an echoing howl. His twin tails, puffed with anger, start to glow with lines as if a magic pen were drawing a strange pattern down their length, and his eyes glow with crimson. A tone like a tuning fork sounds. The entire area skips once, lag slamming into every connected computer, and static flares across screens. When it fades, blizzard-level winds have sprung up and the mountain is gone.

Iyoten's scream is the last sound before the gale-force winds suddenly cease, and static flashes across the screens again.

Author's Notes: Tessen are the reinforced "war fans" used in Japan and rather popular through the Warring States period because they were allowed where conventional weapons were not. I refer to them by their specific Japanese term "tessen" because "war fan" is an extremely crude translation that I think lacks the ability to distinguish the folding arc fans with a lot of other types, like the signaling fan that Takeda Shingen famously used to defend himself against Uesugi Kenshin.