This monster invasion event created more casualties than any previous such event.
Starting with PKs disguised as town defense corps, it culminated in an invasion of monsters with much greater numbers and levels than usual.
Thanks to the efforts of many players, the assault could be dealt with in a relatively short time, but many players with production-related jobs as well as those who had chosen to stay in the city had lost their lives. Many players just stood speechless before the stores and homes that were reduced to piles of rubble.
The bad news, however, continued.
A high-ranked member of the guild that was in charge of the town’s defenses had been killed by one of the PKs that went on a killing spree during the monsters’ rampage. There were also many casualties among the members closest to the guildmaster, meaning that the clearing of the dungeons would surely go slower.
Both production-type and fighting-type jobs had suffered incommensurable damage.
And the same thing happened at the orphanage too.
Because of the barrier’s destruction thanks to Gargalla, the orphanage had lost its protection and had been severely damaged due to the battles between players and monsters.
Emil’s expression after returning from the temporary shelter was dispirited. The children, too, stopped in their tracks as they arrived on the premises.
Despite knowing how futile it was, Emil looked for Holly, who had remained behind to buy time for her and the children to escape, and stepped closer.
Soon, she found a man leaning against one of the orphanage walls – Shadow.
“Shadow!! You’re safe! I was worried, you know?”
Even after the monsters had been wiped out, Emil could not make a chat connection with Shadow.
Shadow barely glanced towards Emil, but showed no other response.
His answer left no doubts. Emil could not say anything more.
Even though she had already a suspicion of Holly’s death before asking Shadow, she still had to ask to make sure. When a player in the friend list died, their names changed from white to semi-transparent.
“Shadow? Where do you think you’re going?”
Emil tried to stop Shadow, who stood up and started walking away, silently. He was clearly very different than usual.
“Hey, listen when—-”
Emil grabbed Shadow’s shoulders as he walked away and forcefully turned him towards her. The sharpness of the light in his eyes, however, left her speechless and unable to move.
Emil herself was a competent fighter. She had fought alongside Holly and Shadow before and knew the severe expression he had when fighting.
However, she had never seen an expression like this on his face before.
The chill she felt while looking at him froze her.
“….take care of the kids.”
Saying only this to the immobile Emil, Shadow left in the opposite direction of the children.
His ragged equipment and unstable pace, coupled with the atmosphere surrounding him, made him seem like a ghost.
Chilling whispers came out of Shadow’s mouth.
Unable to say anything or think of any other response, Emil could only watch him leave.
”(I’m going to kill him, no matter what.)”
As he walked away, Shadow left a short message, filled to the brim with fierce killing intent, which to Emil felt more like a roar.
After burying Marino, Shin teleported back to Kalkia and went to check on the orphanage. The barrier he had put up to protect it would have easily stopped the monsters that invaded Kalkia; it was supposed to be one of the few safe locations in the city.
What he was greeted with, however, were the cries of the children in front of the broken down building.
“The barrier…is gone?”
Shin had a bad premonition because of this anomaly and examined the partly destroyed building. Doing so, he then found Ryohei and Teppei sitting against a door.
The ever-energetic Teppei looked now completely spent. Shin looked from Teppei, looking down quietly, to Ryohei, who, in a barely audible tone, whispered: “Ms. Holly’s dead.”
“…I see. Where’s Shadow?”
“Dunno. He’s not here, at least.”
Shin simply repeated, “I see.” He then opened the orphanage’s door. There, he saw Emil along with the older children trying to calm down the endlessly crying younger ones.
Emil noticed Shin coming in and quickly approached him. Maybe because of the heavy atmosphere the orphanage was enveloped in, her expression looked tense too.
“You’re all right.”
She had reached him, but seemed to not know what to say.
“I heard…Holly died.”
“…yeah. You…well, I don’t know what to say..”
“Don’t worry about choosing words, please. She didn’t have much time left anyway.”
If the kidnapping incident didn’t happen, Marino might be still alive. There was the concrete possibility that a major stress had caused the attack.
It was pointless to think about that now, though. Even if players who died in the death game would wake up in the real world, this didn’t include Marino.
This kind of small hope didn’t exist either. Her death was something definite.
“Look, she’s over there.”
Emil pointed at Luca, sitting and hugging her knees. When she noticed Shin coming closer, she clearly gasped and ran up to him.
Luca’s gaze looked to Shin and then to the rest of the room, probably looking for Marino.
Luca stopped. She didn’t understand why Shin was apologizing.
Shin had no intention to hide anything, though. He knew that telling a small child like Luca about Marino’s death was cruel, but he didn’t want to lie.
“I…couldn’t protect Marino. Marino’s…..she’s not with us anymore.”
Shin spoke while looking Luca in the eyes. She was silent for a while.
As she understood Shin’s words, however, tears filled her eyes.
“Marino’s…not with us?”
“We can’t see her anymore…?”
Shin answered in a soulless voice. Every time he did, Luca’s expression twisted more.
The moment tears filled her eyes, Luca’s rejection of being separated spilled out.
Not a moment later, she started crying loudly while calling Marino’s name. Her voice was so loud, so filled with sadness, that the other crying children were surprised and stopped crying.
Shin didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to console poor Luca, who was wailing while still hugging him.
He had failed in his promise of protecting Marino, but Luca didn’t blame Shin.
Luca’s tears and crying contained nothing but sheer, utter sadness.
Shin’s whisper was drowned out by Luca’s wailing.
He didn’t move until Luca, tired of crying, fell asleep.
“Are you going?”
“Yes. Please take care of the children.”
Shin placed Luca on a bed, then told Emil that he wouldn’t be visiting the orphanage for a while.
Emil didn’t try to stop him: she just looked on at him, worried.
“I don’t know if it’s fine for me to say something like this, but don’t you go die. I’m sick of seeing people I know disappear.”
Shin smiled to reassure Emil and turned his back to the orphanage.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to die————-I’m going to kill.”
His last whisper did not reach anyone’s ears.
As he left the orphanage, Shin entered a deserted alley and concealed his figure with a long hooded robe. It was the superior Ancient-grade 『Hollow Shade Tatters』, with all bonus points spent on concealment.
Just like the name indicated, it looked just like a tattered old robe, but it had the effect of making the wearer undetectable by 【Analyze】 or other search-type skills, as long as the wearer had 100 or more DEX than the caster.
If Shin wore it, the number of current players who could detect him could be probably counted on one hand.
Hiding within 『Hollow Shade Tatters』, Shin silently proceeded through the alley.
After about five minutes, he came upon a wooden door. It looked like a restaurant’s backdoor, a perfectly normal sight for a back alley. Using an appraisal skill on it, however, revealed that it possessed a sturdiness unthinkable from its appearance.
Shin opened the door, which was actually made in a material sturdier than even Orichalcum, to enter in a dimly lit bar with soft music playing in the background.
The bartender was a man around 40 years old with ash gray hair slicked back. The atmosphere in the bar was calm and collected. The bartender was just as Shin heard and was the information broker he was looking for.
At a glance, the interior looked like a famed bar only true connoisseurs would know, but most clients were hiding their features with masks or capes. There was no board outside to signal the presence of a bar either.
This was a bar where all guests shared a common goal.
The bartender came closer to his seat and Shin ordered a cocktail after placing a coin on the counter.
The bartender took the coin, looked at the red coin under it, then at Shin again. After staring at the new visitor for a few seconds, he took out lime and a bottle of gin to start preparing the cocktail.
While the bartender was preparing the drink, Shin received a voice chat call.
“(Are you a hunter? Or a hound?)”
The call had come from the bartender in front of him.
Shin answered the question in one word.
The bartender’s shaker stopped for a second, only to move again immediately, as if nothing had happened.
“I apologize for the wait. Here’s your gimlet.”
The bartender, who had prepared the drink in silence, offered the glass to Shin.
A piece of paper could be seen poking out from the coaster under the cocktail glass.
Shin downed the drink and took the piece of paper. Pretending not to notice the bar’s occupants eyes on him, he quickly left.
Shin exited the alley and arrived into a crowded street, then entered the first eatery he could find, ordered something, and finally opened the piece of paper. The piece of paper was wrapped a small, 1-cemel square card that contained a set of coordinates pointing to somewhere in Kalkia.
“It disappears after you open it, huh.”
Shin memorized the coordinates, but before he could discard the piece of paper, it had already vanished in a myriad of tiny polygons. The small card was still in his hand. While honestly admiring the intricacy of that method, Shin checked the presences in the surroundings, but did not find any relevant responses. No one was tailing him, apparently.
Shin wolfed down the food he had ordered and immediately headed for the location pointed out by the coordinates.
The location, near a teleportation point, looked just like any other two-story general store.
Shin knew, however, that the appearance was just camouflage. The store was lined with items, but other than the clerk no one was inside.
Shin took a random item and brought it to the register. When he paid, he handed the card to the clerk too.
“….please go inside.”
The clerk was surprised an instant after seeing the card and reading Shin’s name, but quickly returned to his former blank expression.
Shin proceeded in the back of the store, as the clerk had told him to. The corridor led to a room used for negotiating with customers. The clerk silently pushed a table aside and lifted a large floor tile, which revealed a set of stairs leading downwards.
“Please proceed by yourself.”
Shin acknowledge the clerk’s statement and descended the stone stairs.
The barely lit stairs formed a spiral; following them for a while led to a sturdy-looking door just like the one at the bar’s entrance. Shin touched the handle and the door opened surprisingly easily.
All the players in the room beyond the door expressed their surprise at Shin’s arrival, either through their expressions or gestures.
“So you came too.”
Just as Shin was thinking what to do, a man wearing the same tattered cloak spoke to him.
Shin turned towards this familiar voice and found Shadow. Shin had heard from Emil that he had gone missing after the monster invasion event. Finding him here meant that the reason behind his disappearance was the same.
“I imagined you would be here.”
Holly had died to buy time for the orphanage children to escape from the PKs’ attack. It was not strange then for Shadow to be here, a base of the PKK guild “Avidya”.
When “Avidya” was first formed, it was apparently a community for players whose companions had been killed by PKs to exchange information, but now it was composed of members who exchanged information and raised funds and others who actively hunted down PKs; a guild specialized in tracking and killing PKs.
As long as one followed the two rules: no betrayal and no hesitation of getting one’s hands dirty, anyone -women and children included- was allowed to join.
Of course, there were players who, like Shin, belonged to other guilds too.
The players who had created a guild with close friends, but were now alone, were many too.
As players could not belong to more than one guild at the same time, they were not official members but assisted the guild with information gathering, fundraising as external supporters, or as field troops.
The question the bartender asked Shin meant if he was a Hound (rear support) or Hunter (field trooper).
Whether one was allowed to join the guild or not, however, depended on the guildmaster’s judgment. If a player was refused they would never receive any information from “Avidya”, no matter how much they pleaded.
“If you ever get information about a man named Gargalla, tell me.”
Shadow spoke with a hate-drenched tone Shin had never heard from him before.
“He’s the one that…?”
“Yeah, I will have my revenge.”
In the guild, players used their information, money or fighting power as currency to have others exact revenge for them or to obtain information on who they wanted to take revenge on.
Advanced players like Shin and Shadow would surely join the field troops. Even if facing against opponents they didn’t know or never met before, as long as they were PKs they would swing their blades without hesitation.
“Then if you learn anything about a man named Vlad, please let me know.”
Shin’s information network had not found anything about Vlad’s whereabouts.
PKs were originally all experts at hiding. Vlad was especially skilled; when Shin had met him in front of the orphanage Vlad had mentioned the name of the Savage Lions’ Lao, leader of the Explosive Legs corps, but the latter said that he knew no Vlad.
Apparently traitors had infiltrated the “Savage Lions” and Lao was now busy with finding the rotten apples.
“Hey there, you’re the new guys the guildmaster talked about?”
After talking with Shadow, Shin was thinking of asking around for the method to gather information, when a man with black bandages covering most of his face approached him.
Shin immediately activated 【Analyze】, but because of the building’s restrictions the skill did not display any information. The store apparently also functioned as guild house. In a guild house, all skills other than combat ones had their usage restricted.
“….yes, no mistake about that. Should we say our names?”
“Nah, we don’t use character names here. Members generally identify themselves using numbers. I’m called Six, I’m kind of in charge of the field troops. Your number will be One, the guy there gets Three. Use that from now on.”
“Do the numbers mean anything?”
“This is where field troopers gather. Numbers here obviously mean power rankings, right? …well, normally I’d have you show me how good you are, but you two are pretty famous. Especially this guy here, I bet it’s rare to find players who never heard of you.”
The man speaking to Shin and Shadow had clouded eyes, but it did not seem to be because of greed or other desires. Based on what he said, he seemed to know about Shin too, despite the 『Hollow Shade Tatters』 concealing him.
“My face is hidden, though.”
“You said your name to the bartender, didn’t you? He’s our guildmaster, Garanagal.”
The guildmaster himself was in charge of evaluating new members.Thinking about it, the bartender’s piercing gaze had that much intensity in it.
“There must be a One and Three already, no? If you keep changing names every time someone new joins, no one will know who’s who anymore.”
“No worries there. The rankings don’t change easily, and if they do we get noticed. One and Three were empty slots anyway. There are plenty of our members who went to attack a PK lair and never came back, after all.”
The two empty slots apparently belonged to two members who had left this world. Before doing so, however, they had apparently taken down a great number of high-ranked members of the PK guild “Ouroboros’ Hollow”. Six added that while they had failed in slaying the guildmaster, the guild’s scope of activities will likely decrease.
“So where can we get information about PKs?”
“Ask the woman over there. Her name’s Calmia.”
Six pointed at a woman wearing a light purple veil and Arabian-like clothing, who smiled as Shin and Shadow looked at her. Among all the players wearing equipment geared towards fighting other players, the high skin exposure of her attire stood out exceptionally.
On the table in front of Calmia was a crystal sphere the size of a bowling ball, which made her look like a fortune teller.
“I know little of the rules here. If you say we are field troopers, does it mean we’ll move following your orders?”
“Nah, that only happens when there’s a large-scale battle. Generally we move in small numbers to surround and beat down small groups, but that’s what the members with low fighting prowess do. For guys like you, others would just be in the way, I’d wager. Our Two, Four and Five are the same too.”
In simple terms, do as you like. Shin wondered if it was okay for the rules to be so loose, but it was the best situation he could have hoped for. He could leave the information gathering to them and just go around cutting down targets.
As Shin was pondering such thoughts, Six formed a fist with his hands, which seemed to shake slightly.
“All strong players went to capture dungeons and won’t cooperate with people like us. I don’t mean to say that I’m happy about your misfortunes, but I am excited that strong people like you joined us. Now I can finally…have my revenge too.”
Six’ voice was trembling too. Looking around, Shin saw other players exhibiting similar reactions.
In this world existed an absolute standard of strength, the player’s stats. This meant that strong players were untouchable by many others, a source of endless frustration for weaker ones.
Shin nodded to Six and, together with Shadow, went to Calmia’s table.
“You’re the new One, then. Six probably told you, but my name is Calmia. I organize all the information the hounds send us. If there’s anything you want to know, just ask.”
Calmia’s calm, poised tone matched her alluring avatar very well. She had apparently been allowed to join Avidya thanks to her information management abilities.
Sometimes she would also use her good looks to infiltrate enemy territory. Of course, for someone with little fighting power like her to penetrate PK-controlled areas meant that there was no guarantee she could come back alive.
“Differently from the much rarer hunters, there’re plenty of substitutes for the hounds. Plus there’s no such things as truth serums in this world, so unless I talk, there’s no way to know the information I hold. I would die before spilling anything, of course.”
Calmia’s smile vanished from her lips when she answered Shin’s question if it wasn’t dangerous for an information broker to join infiltration missions.
Others could fill in Calmia’s function. Even if she disappeared, there would be no real damage to the organization as long as she didn’t spill anything.
Depending on the situation, she wouldn’t hesitate to become expendable. It was clear that she, too, was prepared for the worst.
“Now that we’re done with the self introductions, I’d like to know about PK locations. Places where a lot of them gather are preferable. If you have a list, give me one and I’ll just start picking them off from the top.”
“…I suppose I should have expected that you’d say something like this.”
PKs usually held bases outside hometowns. Because of that they often fought against monsters and had high levels and stats. Shin plainly stated that he wanted to face and defeat multiples of such opponents at the same time, which prompted Calmia’s incredulous reply.
“After I start hunting I won’t be able to come back here for a while. How can we keep in touch?”
“Just register me as a friend and call me through private chat. I’ll attach the list to a message card and send it to you. What is your friend there going to do?”
“I’m going to go with Shin. Gargalla and Vlad were together, right?”
“Yes, that’s right. There are several witnesses…no, I suppose I should say victims. We have the information. They belong to the guild “Ouroboros”. It seems that Gargalla is one of the top members of the guild. Vlad’s an expert in sneak attacks, on the other hand. Cheating and luring others, apparently sometimes he doesn’t even get his hands dirty.”
Shin would have wanted such information earlier, but it was too late to think about that now.
“That’s more than enough. Shin, will you lend me a hand?”
“Of course. He’s the one that attacked the orphanage, after all. I meant to hunt him down after I was done with Vlad.”
Vlad was a higher priority, but Shin thought that Gargalla required more caution. He had destroyed his barrier, after all: Shin expected that he would be stronger than Vlad, who he had faced in battle.
“These two are rather famous, but we don’t have much useful information about “Ouroboros” itself. I’ll tell the Hounds to gather information about them as top priority. Also, this is the list of PK guilds’ bases and members that we are aware of at present. You two will probably be all right, but not everything will be as the list says, so make sure you stay sharp all the time..”
“We know that well. We won’t let even one escape.”
“They’re all going down.”
“I was talking about your own safety….but I guess that’s too late.”
Shin and Shadow thought that Calmia meant to say not to let a single PK escape, and replied accordingly. Hearing such replies, she couldn’t help laughing bitterly.
We are valuable advanced players for Avidya. She wouldn’t want us to die easily, or so Shin thought.
After leaving the store Shin and Shadow checked the list right away. They would crush PK bases starting from the closest one and proceeding in order.
“Let’s go, then. Will you change weapons?”
“No, please just give me a boost. The only weapon I’m going to use is this…the weapon I got from her.”
Shin proposed to offer Shadow a stronger weapon, but the latter refused with a stiff expression. Even if it could lead to his death, he didn’t want to use any other weapon.
“Please take this, then. It will surely come in handy when fighting against Gargalla.”
Shin gave Shadow an armband decorated with red gemstones, which had the effect of preventing instant death by leaving the wearer with 1 HP if they were hit with a blow that would reduce their HP from more than 30% to zero.
The item would just prevent death when a large amount of damage was inflicted in one blow and would not prevent instant death caused by blows to the head or heart, which ignored remaining HP.
Shin would have preferred to give Shadow items that prevented instant death in all its forms, but he could not equip them because of lacking stats. THE NEW GATE’s system allowed players to avoid accidental death more and more as their level increased.
Shin made sure Shadow equipped the armband, then they headed to the first location reported by the list.