Upon hearing that Marino had been kidnapped, Shin rushed straight to the specified location.
He didn’t even spare a thought about the monster invasion event being a coincidence or not.
Using one of the monsters prowling the streets as a foothold, Shin jumped on the roof of a building. Any bird monsters trying to blow him away would get swept away with skills, but Shin ran forward without even glancing at the items they dropped.
What filled his heart and morphed his expression was worry.
The piece of paper Luca had showed coordinates and Marino’s condition. What worried Shin was that Marino’s life was in danger.
The paper said that Marino was affected with “Bloodred Poison”. If that was the truth, he had to reach the specified location as quickly as possible.
Unlike a normal Poison status, which would leave at least 1 HP, the Bloodred Poison would continue consuming the player’s HP until it was healed or enough time passed. The continuous damage it caused was also much higher than regular Poison; with Marino’s HP, she would not survive long.
“Please let me make it in time…”
Even though Kalkia was a medium sized hometown, it was rather wide. There were houses for tens of thousands of players, after all. With monsters in the way, not even Shin could traverse it quickly.
He had shortcut skills to speed up movement, but because of the restrictions imposed by the invasion event, they could not be used at the moment.
“Out of the way!!”
A dinosaur-like bipedal monster, Dynorex, poked its face in from the main road, but Shin blew its head away with a punch and secured a path. While the monster decomposed in a myriad of polygons, Shin had already shifted his attention elsewhere.
That moment, several silhouettes appeared from behind the monsters, targeting Shin.
The assailants were not one or two. It was clearly an organized group of PK’ers aiming to kill Shin. All of them, flashing twisted grins and readying their weapons, launched magic spells.
“Tch, of all the times…!”
Shin ignored the spells that would be automatically erased and rendered the PKs powerless with non-lethal skills.
There were also advanced players among them, however; many of them could not be stopped with just one blow. Shin would have never succumbed to them as long as he was careful, but he did not have a single second to waste.
“Better enjoy the party while it lasts!!”
“Shut the hell up…I said get out of my way!!”
Shin had no time to deal with the PKs, but now even the monsters were gathering around him.
One on one, it would have been nothing to worry about, but if attacked in swarms like that, even Shin could not solve the situation quickly.
With both monsters and players attacking, the buildings crumbled because of the fighting. Magic arrows and bullets flew in from everywhere.
Each one of them seemed to exist just to be an obstacle on his path.
“OUTTA THE WAY!!”
Warmth, kindness, and hope gradually slipped away.
In their place, worry, fear, and rage gradually filled his heart.
Just as if another person began to inhabit his body, the more time passed, the more the person called Shin changed.
All obstacles between him and his destination were an eyesore. An irritation.
His emotional change influenced his body too.
Blow away the rubble with magic and create a path—just as Shin formulated this plan, a PK appeared before him.
Shin could not react because of the now narrower field of view, but his body instinctively swung 『True Moon』.
『True Moon』’s blade struck the PK’s chest, as if drawn towards it. It crushed the PK’s armor and pierced through to his back. A critical hit. The PK’s HP dropped to the red zone.
It wasn’t an instant death slash, but because of lingering damage the PK would last only a few more seconds. But despite being in mortal danger, the PK did not recover or leave and continued grappling with Shin.
“Haha, now you’re a murd—”
Unable to finish his sentence, the PK exploded in a shower of polygons.
But there was no need for him to finish his sentence. The word he had been about to pronounce was “murderer”.
Shin regained his balance in midair and landed on a building.
He had taken a life. A human life.
But after committing one of the so-called taboos for humanity, what Shin found himself saying…were not words of regret.
—Why are you in my way?
I did what I could to avoid killing you, but you came to die regardless.
—-what will you do if I am late because of you?
—-what will you do if I get there and nothing is left?
Dead players leave nothing behind.
Fear—-the strongest emotion that Shin felt in this world was fear.
Many had high expectations of him. He was afraid of betraying them.
He fought with players other than himself. He was afraid that misusing his power could end up with him killing others.
Monster attacks decreased his HP gauge. He was afraid to see death creep closer and closer.
What was now filling Shin’s chest was the fear that Marino would die because she was involved with him. It terrified him more than betraying or killing someone, more than his own death.
“Guess I…don’t need to hold back anymore, right?”
Even if he held back, trying not to kill the PKs, they would use that against him. If he missed and hit a monster, he would have to defeat that monster completely too. Both monsters and PKs were trying to kill him without a care for his thoughts.
“You’re coming to kill me, so I can kill you too, right? There’s no reason to leave PKs alive, is there?”
These questions served the purpose of removing Shin’s self-imposed bonds and worked as an ultimatum to the PKs.
What returned to him were not words, but blades ready to kill.
The approaching blade was met by Shin’s 『True Moon』.
After a very brief resistance, the PK’s longsword snapped. 『True Moon』 did not stop, cutting through the opponent’s armor and cleaving it in two along with the body it adorned.
The PK, his body severed in half, left a guttural laugh behind as he vanished in a burst of polygons.
Shin looked at his arm, which had swung the blade to the end, and thought.
“Yeah, this way is definitely faster.”
He finally felt free from the annoyance he experienced before and hopeful about making it in time. There was no trace of guilt in him for the life he had just taken.
Humans are not shy of sacrificing others for the sake of their loved ones.
The people present there were also unworthy of any pity or pangs of conscience, even if they were sacrificed.
“(Don’t get in my way. If you do, you die.)”
A single phrase to express everything Shin felt.
Cutting down the PKs that, relentless, came to attack him, Shin checked the shortest path to his destination. He released a magic skill that traveled on a straight path and rushed behind it, as to chase it.
No matter who or what blocked his path, he would slash, crush, break, and kill. For Shin, the PKs were now equal to the monsters invading the hometown.
Using the wind caused by the magic skill’s blasts and the enemies’ attacks, Shin accelerated towards the destination. His avatar could not exceed the current speed, but using other elements allowed him to go faster.
His feelings towards killing had changed, but his concern was not completely dispelled.
Maybe because he now knew about her illness, he couldn’t stop picturing a suffering Marino in his mind. He kept trying to ignore such thoughts as he pushed forward.
About 20 minutes after he left the orphanage, Shin arrived at the specified location. It had taken him around two times the normal time to reach it.
There he found three people. Robin, Vlad…and Marino.
“Did I…make it in time…?”
Maybe she had recovered with items or skills, or she wouldn’t have any HP left. The status ailment appeared to be still affecting her, as Marino’s status clearly showed the words 【Bloodred Poison】. She still had about 40% of her HP.
After confirming Marino’s condition, Shin stopped for a moment. He made sure that no one was hiding nearby to ambush him and activated 【Hiding】, preparing to rescue Marino.
Just then, however, Vlad pulled out his blade and pointed it at Marino’s neck.
“I know you’re there!! Come out!!”
Robin, who was next to him, shouted. They had sensed his approach, apparently.
“I-If you don’t come out, I don’t know what will happen to her!!”
As to stress Robin’s words, the tip of Vlad’s sword pressed harder on Marino’s skin. Marino’s HP, which were already lower than half, decreased a little more.
Shin felt something black and thick, like tar, swell in his chest.
It was different from the feeling of cutting down the PKs and monsters standing in his way. It was something clearer, a vivid desire for murder.
“I’m right here!!”
After activating several magic skills, Shin appeared before Vlad.
“Yes…now I’m finally free of him!! Now I just need to go back to the real world and everything will be alright!! Hahaha!! Hahahahaha!!!”
In utter contrast with the expressionless Shin, Robin was rejoicing. Shin did not know what was the reason behind this outburst of happiness, but it was hardly the time to think about that.
Marino, immobilized by paralysis, implored Shin to forget about her through her expression. But he would never grant such a request.
“I came, just like you wanted. Now let Marino go.”
“Shut up!! Now you just need to clear the game and everything will end!! Go back to clearing dungeons!! Noooowww!!!”
Robin’s clearly abnormal reactions started to concern Shin. Responding emotionally would be meaningless in cases like this.
Shin turned his eyes towards the smiling Vlad.
As he did, Vlad put a hand on Robin’s shoulder.
“Sir Robin, please calm down, or…”
“Ah…yes, I got it…”
Vlad appeared to be superior in the relation between the two; Robin quieted down like a put out fire.
“What’s your goal?”
“My goal, you say. Let me see. I suppose it would be this very situation.”
Shin was confused, but Vlad retained his smile.
“You are strong. Among the players present in this world, you are worthy of the title of strongest. Despite standing on such a peak, you would have me allow such trash to associate with you?”
Shin’s eyes narrowed.
He was basically saying that Marino was useless for someone like Shin.
Vlad’s gloating expression clearly showed that he fully understood how these words disgusted Shin. Shin could understand such a way of thinking.
”I couldn’t care less about your selfish nonsense! Give me back Marino!”
Shin ran forward even before finishing his sentence. He ignored the obviously inferior Robin and targeted Vlad, whom he believed to be the main culprit.
At the same time, the ground around the spot where Marino was lying swelled upwards, forming a barrier as to protect her and projecting spikes made of soil in four directions at the same time.
The branch-like protruding spikes knocked Vlad’s -who had quickly dodged- sword away and pierced Robin -who failed to react in time- in the right shoulder and left thigh.
Shin had activated the Earth-type magic skill 【Earth Branch】, which was usually created around the user, around Marino instead.
Shin had not gone closer right away after being called out because the skill required a certain time before activating when used at long distances.
After temporarily separating the two from Marino, Shin went on to attack Vlad. He could not rest easy after just knocking his sword away.
There should not be any other players in hiding, but Shin focused on the grip on 『True Moon』, thinking of getting rid of such a troublesome opponent as soon as possible.
“Oh my, you’re skipping the hostage and coming straight at me?”
In response to Shin’s charge from the front, Vlad took out another sword. That same moment, a shadow appeared above Shin.
The creature that had pulled in its wings and suddenly started descending was an Elder Green Dragon. At level 701, it was a monster only advanced players could dare to face.
Vlad’s main job was Dragon Knight. It was unusual for him to be fighting without a dragon, but it appeared that he had kept him on standby at a certain distance.
Shin glanced at the flying dragon and concluded it wouldn’t be a threat. Based on the speed of its fall, Shin would lock blades with his opponent faster.
Shin’s 『True Moon』 swung towards Vlad. But an instant before their blades clashed, a yellow effect enveloped Vlad.
The effect that struck 『True Moon』 emitted a loud, hard sound and shattered. Thanks to that Vlad could block Shin’s weakened blow without losing his balance, albeit while carving a track on the ground with his feet.
Shin’s voice brimmed with anger. He noticed that the shattered effect came from the item that originally protected Marino. The item that Shin had given to Marino for self-defense now sparkled on Vlad’s neck.
“As expected of a High Human. I would have been in real trouble if I had used my normal weapon.”
Vlad then jumped away from the clash. Shin tried to reduce the distance again, but the flying Elder Green Dragon unleashed its wind breath to oppose him.
As monster breath was an attack that possessed both physical and magical properties, even with high magic resistance Shin could not fully negate it. The damage itself was minimal, but the breath blocked his sight and made it difficult to attack.
In addition, there was something else clearly bizarre about Vlad.
(This is weird. Why does he have two of them?)
Shin was looking at the weapon Vlad was wielding.
In THE NEW GATE, some items had limitations in the number that players could equip at the same time. The sword that Vlad equipped on each hand, 『Excalibur』, was one of them; a player could only equip 1 at any given time.
“Never mind that now.”
It was not the time to think about that. What was needed now was to cut down Vlad as soon as possible.
Ancient-grade weapons had far higher durability than others, so destroying them would prove difficult. Shin activated another magic skill.
The thunder lance and light bullets, launched with no chanting and thus little to none preparatory movements, left afterimages in the air.
It was a blow that Vlad could not avoid as long as he hadn’t focused heavily on AGI. It weakened as it closed in on Vlad, however, and ultimately took off just 10% of his HP.
“You raised your resistance with items, huh?”
“Correct. Thunder and light cannot be dodged easily, so I prepared adequate countermeasures.”
He had not been affected by the thunder skill’s paralysis either. He had prepared countermeasures against status ailments too, evidently.
“Haha! To cross swords with the strongest is not bad at all either!”
After nullifying Shin’s magic, Vlad leapt in the air and rode on the Green Elder Dragon’s back. As dragon rider, he could unleash the full potential of his job, dragon knight.
Vlad and the Green Elder Dragon’s stats rose, as the emerald-colored blade of light 【Effect Blade】 appeared around 『Excalibur』’s blade. It was an effect that extended weapon reach if the player used weapons other than long ones while riding.
“Here I go!”
He had probably used a skill. Everytime Vlad swung his blade, emerald green slashes flew towards Shin. Shin planned to blow them away with 『True Moon』 and shoot down the flying opponent with magic.
Thunder and light could not cause decisive damage, so Shin shot fire-elemental magic towards the sky. He let his MP do the talking and shot bullets of fire in all directions.
He combined fast and slow bullets in order to fill Vlad’s surroundings with a barrage of fire.
“That’s quite haphazard.”
Looking at the balls of fire gathering all around him, Vlad chuckled dryly.
Because of the dragon’s large body, he needed a wide enough space to maneuver. Expecting this, Shin placed his fire bullets at an altitude slightly higher than Vlad and his dragon’s current position.
An advanced dragon such as the Elder Green Dragon would not flinch even if hit by fire bullets. But because of Shin’s high INT, the offensive power of each bullet was ridiculously high.
Vlad did not try to force his way through the fireball hail, as he probably understood that if even just one hit the dragon’s wings, they would crash immediately. Even a powerful dragon cannot fly freely once its wings are rendered useless. In that case it would simply turn into a large target.
“Time to die.”
All fire bullets were detonated at the same time. They did not strike directly, but the swelling blast they caused ravaged Vlad and his dragon. At the same time of the explosion, Shin ran towards Marino.
While riding the dragon, Vlad’s movements were severely limited even within the blast. In this situation, he could not act quicker than Shin as the latter went to heal Marino’s status condition.
The most important thing was to rescue Marino, not defeat Vlad.
Ignoring Robin, who had been blown away by the blast of wind caused by the explosion, Shin rushed towards Marino.
The moment before he could touch Marino, held in a slightly higher position by 【Earth Branch】, Shin saw her disappear and be replaced by a scorched Elder Green Dragon.
Shin swallowed his breath. He had an idea about the phenomenon he had just witnessed, however, and immediately checked his map. Marino’s response came from next to Vlad.
“【Position Shift】, huh…”
From the smoke caused by the explosion appeared Vlad, in tatters, carrying Marino at his side.
【Position Shift】 was a skill exclusive of Tamers and Dragon Knights, which allowed the player to swap locations with their monster partner. It was also applicable to party members, but Shin had not thought that Vlad and Marino could have formed a party and gritted his teeth at his own carelessness.
“Making her join my party was child’s play. It is not time for games anymore, though. The finale is upon us.”
“There must be a reason why we took a hostage, don’t you think?”
“You want me to hurry up with the dungeon clearing, right?”
Hearing what Robin had said, Shin thought that the reason must have been that.
“Haha, oh please. If we just meant to urge you to act quicker, there would be no point of doing this here and now. As for the hostage-taking too, luring a player outside the Hometown would allow us to attack them without restrictions too.”
“What do you want, then!?”
“I said it right at the start. To take out the trash. But just assassinating her would have risked to simply depress you, so we created a bit of a show. I know how attached you are to this woman. If she was killed in front of your eyes, what would happen to you, I wonder?”
The tone of Shin’s words was chilling.
“Yes, that’s it! That’s the real you. Not soft or dull, but a blade sharpened to perfection. Yes, that’s the face I wanted to see!!”
Vlad’s laugh almost sounded insane.
Marino opened her mouth, as if trying to say something, but could not utter anything because of the paralysis still affecting her.
“Yes, this is the finale!!”
As Vlad raised his sword, Shin activated a magic skill. He had prepared more than one before the conflict.
Blue flames raged up from the ground and surrounded Marino.
Burned by the flames suddenly appearing at his feet, Vlad let Marino go. Shin noticed it and immediately ran to her. Marino’s HP were already below 20%; there was no more time.
Because of the passage of time, Marino’s paralysis was almost gone; she stood up and ran towards Shin too.
The flames were now gone. Being in Vlad’s party and considered an enemy of Shin’s, Marino had been damaged too. Shin had chosen the magic considering this possibility too.
Vlad chased after Marino. But Shin’s acceleration, even if not boosted, would let him reach her first.
No one could get in the way now. Not monsters nor PKs.
He would protect Marino and defeat Vlad. Tell Luca that Marino was all right, so she wouldn’t worry.
That’s what Shin thought. That’s how it was supposed to go.
If only Marino still had some time left.
Marino uttered a soft sigh. Like a marionette with her strings cut, she collapsed on the ground. Her hands fell too, unable to grab Shin’s.
“It appears that this was inevitable.”
Vlad had been the first to reach Marino. His burnt hands had not let go of 『Excalibur』, and its blade had pierced Marino without the slightest hesitation.
Shin’s eyes opened wide.
Marino’s avatar, even if pierced by 『Excalibur』, still existed. Strangely enough, even after being struck by an Ancient-grade weapon, she still had HP left.
“Did you do something? But as long as things are like this, it matters little.”
Shin was now closer to Marino, but not close enough to be next to her in one leap.
In front of his eyes, Vlad mercilessly thrusts『Excalibur』again.
To his surprise, however, the sword could not pierce Marino.
“!? This can’t be!”
Maybe because of the impact, Marino’s body shook every time Vlad struck it. His sword, however, was repelled each time, with a metallic-sounding effect.
Immediately after Vlad had started attacking, the words “CONNECTION ERROR” appeared over Marino’s avatar.
Apparently not seeing the newly displayed words, Vlad continued thrusting obsessively.
With a scream, Shin’s sword attacked Vlad. Even if his sword wasn’t actually hitting her, in Shin’s eyes Vlad was cruelly skewering Marino’s body.
Swung with enough power to break it, 『True Moon』 clashed against 『Excalibur』 with a high-pitched sound.
Because of its stats, 『True Moon』 could not go as far as shattering 『Excalibur』. The offensive power of this attack, however, could not be merely blocked; Vlad was thrown backwards by the impact, sent crashing into a nearby building.
“Marino!! Hey, Pull yourself together!!”
Shin chose to go to Marino instead of continuing to attack Vlad. When he held her, her eyes opened just slightly and met his.
Something was off. Shin was right in front of her, but Marino didn’t see him.
She appeared to still be conscious; while her eyes swayed left and right, she was trying to say something.
“Aah…so this…is it…”
“Why!? Why are you apologizing!!”
Marino’s lips continued uttering broken apologies. Not wanting to know what they could mean, Shin held Marino more tightly. She would not answer anymore, however.
A hazy expression on her face.
“Let’s go home…”
Marino’s words, spoken while she was looking at something not of this world, finally trailed away.
“Hey, answer me.”
“We’re going back together, right!?”
“Luca is…yeah, Luca’s crying. She’s crying a lot, I don’t know what to do.”
“Hey…answer me already….!”
Marino did not respond. It was as if she had frozen after uttering her last words and did not move an inch anymore.
“ERROR. Player output cannot be detected. Please verify connection.”
An emotionless system message was returned instead.
“ERROR. Player output cannot be detected——”
Shin could not understand what the system message meant.
“ERROR. Player output cannot—–”
No, he didn’t want to understand.
Meant nothing but….
Marino had died.
“SHUT THE HELL UUUUUUPP!!!!!”
Shin’s emotions had crossed the limit.
If he didn’t let out such overwhelming feelings, he could go crazy.
Player output not detected. That meant that there were connection troubles or the player had died in the real world. Looking at how Marino acted until a moment ago, it was too convenient to consider a broken connection as the cause.
“Haha, well, it did not go exactly as expected, but I suppose that was fate.”
The sound of falling rubble reached Shin’s ears. If Shin had looked in the direction of the sound, he would have seen Vlad standing back up. As price paid for receiving 『True Moon』’s attack, he had lost an arm.
“Yes, I was waiting for those eyes. People with something important to protect…they are so frail. Now, this very moment, you are perf—”
Without waiting for Vlad to finish talking, Shin’s sword arm moved. Thanks to the Movement-type Martial skill 【Ground Shrink】 he moved instantly next to Vlad and slashed towards his neck.
Vlad could not even react to Shin’s movements.
Surprised by the metallic sound ringing near his neck, Vlad stood dumbfounded, as Shin silently brandished his 『True Moon』.
Slashes like flashes of light struck sudden death points such as forehead and heart, while others were aimed at Vlad’s legs to stop him from moving.
All of them, however, were repelled by the skill protecting the hometown. Not even Shin could do something in such a situation.
“Ku…hahaha. Looks like time’s over. I’m looking forward to your future feats.”
Even after being blown away by the impact, Vlad left these words before teleporting away.
Shin looked at him leave, then sheathed 『True Moon』. After a few moments, he let out a small sigh and turned towards Marino.
“….sorry for dropping you.”
Shin hugged Marino again and apologized. His expression was no more filled with bloodlust and now looked peaceful.
Before his unnatural smile, a new message appeared.
“F-type Avatar number 193405. Will you acquire? YES/NO”
In the death game, empty avatars were apparently treated as items.
Shin read the message and slowly chose YES. Marino’s body turned into a card and was deposited in Shin’s item box.
Shin teleported to an area with a hill with a nice view. It was a small area Shin had obtained ownership of in an event.
“You liked this place, didn’t you.”
Flowers of many colors bloomed on the hill.
The sky over the hill was clear and sunny throughout the day, the weather there would never be cloudy or rainy.
Shin laid Marino’s avatar card down in a spot perfect for resting in peace. He activated a skill and the card sank into the ground, with a small gravestone being formed in its place.
The skill used by Shin was usually used by Tamers to make graves for their monster partners.
Monsters did not die if their HP reached zero, but in certain events parent monsters would give birth to progeny and die.
That was the only reason skill existed, and many players ignored it even did.
Shin could have kept the card with himself, but chose not to.
Not cremation, not burial. Carrying a body with him seemed wrong to Shin, even within a game.
Shin stood before Marino’s gravestone. Despite the warm wind blowing around him, Shin felt cold to the core.
The cold had probably frozen even his tears, who wouldn’t flow no matter how much he waited.
“….I’ll come to see you.”
After an unspecified amount of time, Shin whispered.
We will be together even after the death game. Even if that wish could not be granted, he will make her last words come true.
“Let’s go back.”
Marino’s last words. Shin didn’t know who she had said them to. Even so, he wanted to make them become reality.
After serenely whispering again her last words, Shin’s expression changed completely. Or rather, all emotion disappeared from it.
“There’s someone in the way.”
Obstacles to the path leading back to reality. Obstacles to those who lived their lives earnestly.
“So please give me just some time.”
Shin’s equipment changed. From anti-monster equipment to anti-player equipment. To equipment meant to kill.
“I’ll keep my promise after I erase them all.”
Shin turned his back to Marino’s grave.
Maybe it was a coincidence that the teleportation point to the Hometown, hidden by trees, was now in the shade. Or maybe it reflected the state of mind of its owner.
Shin’s silhouette as he teleported, his facial features twisted in a grimace, made it seem like he was disappearing into total darkness.