“OK, shall we go? …is what I want to say, but…”
“Meow? What’s wrong, meow?”
Shin’s words elicited a response from an all-too-sweet female voice.
After breakfast, Shin was all ready to go to a dungeon, but he wasn’t alone; Catnip was standing next to him. She was wearing her cat ears maid costume, just like she did at the shop.
The only difference from her normal shop attire was the Baghnakhs equipped on her hands. Because of Catnip’s appearance, these platinum gray-colored claws looked just like a cat’s. Their grade was middle Mythology, their completely not cute name being 『Stray Cat Fever』.
“So, what’s with the getup?”
“Shimeow, you’re going to a new dungeon, meow? I want to come with you, meow!”
As players unlocked new areas, they would be the first to add those locations to their maps. As some time had already elapsed since Shin had liberated this area, a good degree of additional exploration had already occurred.
Since Shin hadn’t completely explored the area he had unlocked, he had to fill in his map with information purchased from information brokers. Using information provided by those players who had fully explored the region, Shin had a completely updated map of the area.
“Er, yes I am going, but…were you waiting for me all this time?”
The daily activities of players varied depending on their mood. Shin was proactive in clearing areas, but even he would not visit them every day. Even if one waited beside the teleport point, there was no guarantee of meeting.
“Marimeow told me. She said that you’d definitely go to a dungeon, so I’ve been waiting since this morning, meow.”
Marino had completely seen through Shin’s intentions.
“You keep saying things like that, and your fanclub will start sending assassins after me…”
“Hehe, meow! No blushing, meow!”
“I’m honestly not joking, you know?”
Shin subtly tried to make Catnip aware of the presence of the fanclub members behind her, but to no avail. Was it on purpose or was this just how she was? Catnip was smiling broadly, but Shin couldn’t help feeling tense.
“….ok, setting aside whether or not we are going together for a moment, why are you the only one here? What happened to your usual party members? They wouldn’t like to know that you are coming with me by yourself, which is frankly quite scary too.”
“Ah…actually, when they went looking for ingredients the other day, they were attacked by PKs, meow.”
As far as Shin knew, Catnip’s area for collecting ingredients was close to the hometown. It would have been a big risk for the PKs too.
Shin remembered what he had heard from the grocery stand owner; PKs had started becoming more active lately.
The other people in the store did not seem to notice, but Shin switched to chat and relayed this information to Catnip.
“(Sorry, meow…I got a little scared. But like I said now, I’m going to avoid going outside as much as possible now. But if I do that, we’ll run out of ingredients, meow…so please let me come with you. Think of it as helping me out, meow.)”
“(If that’s the reason, no problem at all.)”
Exploring areas was not necessarily any less dangerous than venturing into dungeons, but considering the known monsters’ levels and the field’s conditions, there would be no problems in bringing Catnip along.
Shin, too, had not always explored alone, even after the death game started.
The only problem could be that Shin and Catnip had different goals.
“(I mainly explore unmapped areas, though. You’re going to collect ingredients, right? Wouldn’t it be prudent to go with some other players?)”
“(Not really, meow. In the unmapped area now, there is a place I used to frequent before the death game, meow. I’m not sure how it’s changed neow, but I might be able to find the items I’m looking for there, meow.)”
If the area was as she remembered, Catnip’s knowledge would surely help Shin. If the area had changed, they would simply proceed as in exploring a normal unmapped area.
“(Anyway, staying by your side is the safest route, meow. With your support characters, you could flip any boss on their backs, meow.)”
“(Why would I even flip them on their backs!? Well yes, I suppose I could protect you without a problem, but…)”
Catnip was an advanced player herself; she wouldn’t just be riding Shin’s coattails.
“(Your store is an oasis for all players after all. I’d be happy to contribute too. OK, I was thinking of leaving right now, what will you do?)”
“(I can go anytime too, meow. The party members know already, so no worries, meow)”
Shin nodded, albeit wondering if they were really convinced of Catnip’s need to accompany Shin alone.
Being seen teleporting together would surely spark a never-ending series of trouble, so Shin said that he would wait at a specific place and teleported to Tsuki no Hokora first. They also decided on a time, to avoid missing each other.
In Tsuki no Hokora, Shin added four of his five support characters to the party.
High Lord Filma and High Dragnil Shibaid in the front, High Elf Schnee as mobile unit. Lastly, the High Pixie Sety in the rear. Girard possessed a fighting style similar to Catnip, so Shin decided to let him hold the fort this time.
After checking the members’ equipment and items, Shin set the AI strategy to focus on defense. The AI could not make complicated decisions like players would, so this setting was for insurance.
“As long as I make sure our HP doesn’t go below a certain level and they support us, we should be OK. All frontline members can use taunt skills too.”
If necessary, Shin would have his support characters use their aggro-gathering skills and act as decoys while he and Catnip would flee. That was one reason to bring them along. Shin had never used this strategy before, but many players were saved because they used it
He had no intention of stepping in overly dangerous areas, but anything could happen in an unmapped zone or dungeon. One could never be too safe.
“OK, It’s about time.”
Shin went again to the hometown, then teleported to the area for the exploration.
The teleport point reminded him of a stone cathedral, it was an orthodox type. In order to avoid inconveniencing the other players, Shin waited for Catnip a short distance away.
About 5 minutes later, exactly at the specified time, Catnip teleported in.
“Sorry for the wait, meow.”
“I didn’t wait long, really. Let’s go.”
Shin and Catnip headed towards an unmapped zone. The thick woodland area outside the teleport point made it difficult to observe one’s surroundings. Shin decided to have Schnee go on ahead to scout the road as they proceeded.
“How is it? We just arrived, but is it as you remember?”
Shin asked while checking his detection skills.
“I can’t tell yet, meow. But the atmosphere of this woodland is the same, meow.”
The cathedral-like teleport point was exactly the same as she remembered, Catnip added.
“….Schnee has already found monsters. A level 388 Sneak Boar. That’s exactly the type you mentioned, Catnip. This info hasn’t been released to the public yet.”
Shin checked the information received from Schnee through the menu. Information about monsters appearing in unmapped areas was publicly available, but the Sneak Boar was not listed in it.
“Really, meow? But I knew about that, meow. It’s a rare monster that’s not found easily, meow.”
“I see we can expect great things from you, miss Catnip.”
Overconfidence was a taboo, but knowing what monsters could appear would let them prepare with suitable countermeasures.
“I hope the monster I’m looking for comes up too, meow.”
Shin ambushed the Sneak Boar, quickly felled it, and checked the item dropped.
Catnip was looking for Sugar Unicorns, monster that dropped sweet-type items.
If she could find some she could make new creations for her store, so Catnip eagerly searched for the monster.
“Now that I think about it, you did say that you would have become a pastry chef if you hadn’t become an idol, right?”
“Yup, meow. I think it’s nice to have a lot of dreams. I’m also doing my best, meow.”
Catnip flexed her muscles, a proud look on her face. She was probably trying to show her biceps, but her thin arms just made her pose look cute.
“What about you, Shimeow? Is there something you want to do, meow?”
“Hmm, well…I’m in university now, but I’m not exactly striving for this one thing I want to do…I like games, but if I was asked if I wanted to make one, I’d probably say no…”
“I see, meow. What about Marimeow? Has she ever talked of such things?”
“I know about her disease, meow.”
Shin was not sure how to reply. Catnip surprised him and said something unexpected. Shin was so stunned that he froze for an instant.
“Only people very close to her know, meow. As far as I know, only I, Holmeow and Milmeow know about it.”
More people knew about Marino’s condition than Shin expected. Incidentally, Holmeow was Holly, but Shin didn’t know who Milmeow was.
“I just heard about it recently, though.”
“That can’t be helped, meow. Some things are difficult to say to those truly dear to you, meow. Marimeow was really worried, thinking about if and how to tell you.”
Some things were easier to say to other girls or adults. Catnip added this conclusion.
“Hehe, meow. Shimeow, not being the first shocked you, meow?”
“Gh, right where it hurts…”
“But not telling was the right choice, meow. If you knew right away, you would have rushed in the dungeons without thinking about your safety, meow.”
Catnip looked straight at Shin, not smiling anymore.
“….I can’t deny that.”
Players were now used to the situation and could retain a certain calm in their hearts. But that was not the case in the early stages of the death game. Obsessed about returning to reality, some players relentlessly urged Shin to clear the dungeons.
Thinking back on that period, Shin realized that Catnip’s guess would very likely have turned true.
“Things were really hectic then.”
“Yup, meow. When I opened my shop, some told me that I was being disrespectful, meow.”
Doing things unrelated to going back was “evil”. Such a mood reigned over the players at the time.
“Few say that now, though. A few days ago I had someone come up to me and say it…but he had his company’s boss here, who keeps nagging him about that. Looked like he had it pretty tough.”
“The people that rely on others without doing anything themselves either shut themselves in their homes or just wait, meow. But having company relations reflected in-game is just the worst, meow…”
Shin had no intention of answering to the summon, but felt compassion towards Robin’s situation. After hearing about the man’s circumstances, Catnip’s expression turned sour.
“Hmm? Catnip, there’s a monster pack ahead.”
Trying to return the conversation to the right track, Shin opened the menu and saw a message about the appearance of a monster pack, composed of 4 units. Maybe thanks to Catnip’s earnest wishing, it was a pack of Sugar Unicorns.
“I’m looking forward to your new creations, Catnip.”
“Meow!? Did you find them, meow?”
“They’re 4 in all. Let’s catch them all.”
Shin ordered Schnee to standby and changed equipment in order to boost item drops.
The card he pulled out changed to a black bow with thunder-like decorations. It was the Ancient-grade longbow 『Surging Thunder Bow』. Its shots consumed MP, and one could adjust the attack power by regulating how many MP were consumed.
The finely crafted arrows were imbued with lightning, the target hit had a high of probability of being subjected with the Hi-Paralyze status.
“I’ll stop their movements. You give the final blow, Catnip.”
“Leave’em to me, meow.”
Shin ordered the support characters not to interfere and prepared to fire 『Surging Thunder Bow』.
A half-transparent blue line appeared in his line of sight; it was a support function for aiming.
Then, Shin activated the Bow-type Martial skill 【Multi Arrow】. Blue lines stretched towards each of the 4 Sugar Unicorns.
As Shin released the bowstring, lightning-like arrows zig-zagged through the trees, towards their targets. Splitting in midair, they all cleanly struck the monsters.
Without wasting time, Catnip jumped towards the collapsing monsters.
The 『Stray Cat Fever』 Catnip equipped emitted an orange glow.
“【Greedy Claw】, meow!”
Orange-colored arc-like effects extended from 『Stray Cat Fever』’s four claws.
Unable to dodge, the Sugar Unicorns were crushed by Catnip’s 4-hit consecutive attack and vanished.
“Item drop increase, meow!”
Catnip’s words confirmed that 【Greedy Claw】’s effect had activated.
Most weapons had skills with Greedy in their names, which had the chance of increasing item drops from defeated enemies.
“Looking good, meow!”
“That’s right. Hopefully we can find the dungeon too.”
The duo continued to explore the area’s unmapped parts. They met monster packs several more times after the Sugar Unicorns.
“Shimeow, isn’t there something strange here?”
“You’re right. The monster encounter rate is too high.”
After the game had become VR-compatible, a too large number of monsters would be impossible for players to deal with, so the number of monsters appearing in a designated area had been reduced. Because of this, it was rare to encounter several monster units in less than 5 minutes.
“Could it be an event, meow?”
“There was no announcement, though. I would understand if they were bug-types, but…”
Bug-based monsters like ants and bees would appear in great numbers close to their nests. But the monsters Shin’s party had been fighting were mostly animal or human-like.
“I have a bad feeling about this. It’s dangerous to go on when we don’t know what could happen. Let’s go back for now.”
As they turned back, carefully checking monster presence in the surroundings, Shin’s map showed a player icon.
“Catnip, stay alert. There’s a player coming this way.”
“I see it on my map too, meow. They’re alone, meow?”
A single icon was heading towards them. It proceeded straight on, ignoring the monsters around it.
It was probably using a concealment-type skill or item. Shin prepared for a confrontation and switched weapons to his 『True Moon』.
“My my, I am sorry, did I make you wait?”
After about 1 minute, a player appeared before Shin.
It was a young man with gray-silver hair and dark purple eyes. His waist-length hair was tied behind his neck. He talked to Shin with a pleasant expression and an innocent smile.
——-Hameln – Level 255 – Tamer
Shin’s 【Analyze】 saw through the concealment skill and revealed the man’s name.
“Do you have business with us?”
Shin asked the question while keeping a hand on 『True Moon』’s hilt. He also commanded Schnee and the others to be ready to battle.
Hameln was infamous for being a MPK – a PK that used monsters. He was said to possess very high stats.
During a guild’s PK extermination in the past, it was said that he had killed the whole group of players that had come to hunt him down. It would be foolish not to be cautious when such a person appeared.
“Oh, I would have never thought of seeing you in these parts, so I came to give you some advice, being the worrywart I am.”
“Yes. Right now, groups of monsters are advancing towards all hometowns, to invade them. Trouble could arise if you don’t go back right now, you know?”
Shin and Catnip’s faces grew very tense due to the unexpected information. But if something like that was to happen, it would have been announced.
“….despite that, I haven’t heard anything from my acquaintances.”
Even saying so, Shin felt that it was more likely to be not a bluff, but the truth.
Hameln was a MPK, a specialist in gathering monsters. Shin knew about Tamer skills to an extent, but not completely. It was plausible enough that Hameln could orchestrate a mock invasion event with items or skills that Shin didn’t know about.
“The chaos and panic prevented them from contacting you, I suppose. A short while before the invasion started, some PKs have been rampaging within major guilds, you see. Haha, I too wish to go see if the defense lines will hold this time.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m interested in seeing how you will act. Whether you will defend the town, go hunt the PKs, or prioritize your loved ones’ safety. Which will you choose, sir hero?”
With the same innocent smile, Hameln asked his question to Shin.
“Shin, I’ll handle Hameln, you go back to the hometown!”
Catnip dropped her cat-like speech and urged Shin to return quickly, while glaring at Hameln.
“This guy always comes out after things have already started happening. He wouldn’t lie about the invasion, Kalkia’s already under attack!!”
“But even so—”
“This is not a normal event!! There’s Marino in Kalkia. The orphanage’s kids too. Set your priorities straight!!”
Shin couldn’t say anything back.
He can’t protect everything. If he doesn’t focus on what he really wants to protect, he risks losing everything.
That was something Shin learned during the death game.
“(—-I’ll leave Schnee and the others here. Use them as decoy if necessary.)”
Shin related this to Catnip via chat, to not let Hameln hear, and poured MP into a crystal. Thanks to its effect of transporting the player to the nearest teleport point, Shin vanished.
“Hmm, he prioritized his loved ones, as expected. Well, this is entertaining too.”
“You didn’t try to stop him? Must be feeling very confident.”
Catnip, in her fighting stance, asked the question to the pondering Hameln, his chin resting on his hand.
“Dear, I do not have the slightest intention of doing anything to you either. I like Lucky Cat’s sweets too, after all.”
“Don’t get in the way of business then!”
Catnip kicked the ground and closed in on Hameln, swinging her claws. Hameln stopped her wind-slicing strike with his stick.
“My apologies. Watching people fight against absurd situations is what entertains me the most, you see.”
Continuous blows from both hands. Surprise strikes, kicks. Catnip’s relentless attacks were stopped by Hameln spinning his stick, sometimes parrying, sometimes deflecting, composure never leaving his face.
Pixies did not have exceptional STR or AGI, but Hameln possessed high stats thanks to the resurrection bonus, enough to bridge the stat gap between Pixies and Humans, Catnip’s race.
Catnip was not weak by any means, but the game system all too evidently expressed their difference in ability.
“Oops, I see that his support characters are on a whole other level. It would be a bit too tiring to face you all, thus I suppose I will take my leave. I came to replenish on items, after all. Let us meet again, then.”
Hameln used a summoned monster as a shield against Schnee’s attack from the rear and promptly left.
Catnip tried to chase him down, but was deterred by smokescreens and other summoned monsters. Schnee and the party, following Shin’s orders of protecting Catnip, did not follow Hameln but fought against the monsters.
“Please, make it in time…”
After defeating the monsters, Catnip headed to the teleport point with Schnee and the other support characters, praying.