After bringing down Ouroboros, Shin returned to Avidya’s headquarters.
As he entered, the eyes of all present turned to him. While there were some individual differences, most gazes were still turbid and sullen, but much less than they were a month before.
“Welcome back. I see you’ve kept your word.”
Calmia’s tone seemed brighter than usual.
“Not exactly, our side suffered losses too.”
“….so that’s why he’s not there by your side.”
Shin’s expression didn’t change as he spoke, but Calmia stopped breathing for a second before talking. She didn’t know about Shadow’s death yet, apparently.
Probably because they had heard the conversation, the surrounding people started whispering among themselves.
“Did he get his revenge?”
“Yes, he looked really satisfied.”
“I see. That’s good, then. That’s the reason we all gathered here, after all.”
Calmia looked sad, but relieved at the same time. Avidya was a guild formed by members that swore to exact their revenge. Even if they died in the process, as long as they had achieved their goal, guild members would praise them rather than mourn their loss.
“Are you alright?”
“What do you mean?”
Calmia asked Shin after taking his hand. Her expression suggested that she was worried about him. From her hand, however, no warmth could be felt.
“When the person next to them falls, some stop going forward. There is not much I can do, but consoling such people is one of my duties.”
Shin understood well enough what Calmia meant by “consoling”. She “could not do much” because of the restrictions imposed by the game.
“No problem. Shadow carried his convictions through to the end. I’ll just do what I set out to do.”
Shin’s hand, that Calmia had placed against her ample bust, was pulled away with enough strength as to not seem unkind. Even though his beloved, Marino, was no longer with him, he didn’t feel the urge to approach other women.
Shin lightly glared at Calmia, who quickly apologized.
“I’m sorry if I bothered you. You probably don’t know, but Ouroboros was responsible for my little brother’s death too. I’m really thankful to you for what you have done. This is pretty much all I can do to express my gratitude.”
Shin now understood the reasons behind her actions. Although her hands were pushed away, Calmia looked straight at Shin, tears welling up at the corners of her eyes.
“We’re just using each other. There’s no need to express gratitude or anything.”
“Even so, I want to.”
Shin’s expression was still unchanged, but Calmia smiled at him. Shin clicked his tongue and turned away.
“Well, I suppose we went off topic a bit too much. I have something to tell you today.”
“You should have said that first.”
“I’m sorry. I was honestly shocked by what happened to Shadow, and I wanted to give my thanks to you for avenging my little brother.”
“Fine, fine. So, what do you have for me?”
Calmia’s expression turned completely serious when she answered Shin’s question.
“We are still in the middle of investigating Vlad, but we found Robin in the process. The priority’s lower than Vlad’s, but you were looking for him too, right?”
After starting the PK hunt, Shin’s hostility had focused so much on Vlad that he had almost forgotten about him. After hearing Robin’s name, the aura enveloping Shin suddenly changed.
Despite being inside a game, several members felt this abrupt transformation and flinched.
According to Avidya’s research, Robin did not belong to any PK guild, so it was clear that he had not killed any players yet.
Robin had kidnapped Marino and handed her to Vlad though. Because of this, he was one of the people Shin wanted to take revenge against.
“I’ll go right now. Where is he?”
The words coming out of Shin’s mouth sounded completely different from before. His expression didn’t change, but his tone now sounded much darker and fiercer.
“Calm down. The hounds are keeping track of him, so if something happens I’ll know right away.”
Shin learned of Robin’s whereabouts from Calmia, materialized his katana and left the guildhouse.
With his figure concealed, Shin walked through dimly lit streets and back alleys, like a wandering ghost, like a god of death.
Guided by the information obtained from Calmia, Shin arrived at a woodland area to the north of Kalkia. The woods were quiet, the low-leveled monsters within prowling about silently.
It was a location that rarely saw strong monsters and did not have any particular events associated with it, so it only contained a few lodges and nothing more.
“Robin is apparently using the third lodge as his base. No one knows what exactly he’s doing though, as he never leaves it.”
”I see. I’ll go by myself, please stay out of this.”
“Of course. There’s no one in Avidya that would get in your way now. Just let me stand by here, in case anything happens, all right?”
Saying this, the Hound concealed himself. Shin’s detection field registered his presence, but there was no need to point that out. Shin turned his back to the man and headed towards the lodges. The area was outside any hometown, making buildings and players susceptible to attacks.
In Shin’s map, the players inside the lodges were showed clearly. They were not friends or support characters however, so their names were not displayed.
The Hound’s information was surely correct, but to be completely sure Shin started from breaking down the 【Wall】 and 【Barrier】 erected around the lodge.
“Type V, huh. I guess it’s enough for a place like this, but it’s still too frail.”
Shin’s hands did not need to reach 『True Moon』, hanging from his waist; his left hand cut through the air in a rough motion and, with the sharp sound of glass breaking, the barriers protecting the lodge were destroyed.
A player from the neighboring lodge, alarmed by the sound, came out to see what was going on.
“W-what are you doing?”
“Taking my revenge, you got a problem with that?”
“…..leave my lodge alone, all right?”
Maybe because he had sensed the aura Shin emitted, the player who had come out trembled and quickly turned back to his lodge after meekly voicing his request to Shin.
The player in the lodge on the opposite side had probably heard this exchange, because he closed the windows without the smallest protest.
Looking at the map, Shin noticed that a player was exiting the lodge on the side opposite to where Shin was.
Without saying a word, Shin moved his right hand through the air and struck. The lodge crumbled on the player who had attempted to escape.
Shin walked closer to the wrecked lodge and found Robin under a fallen log.
Robin had likely realized that the man standing before him was Shin. His expression warped with fear.
“You know what I’m here for, don’t you?”
“I-I had no other choice!! I would have been ruined, you know!! I have a family to raise in the real world. That man was the only one I could trust to change things!!“
“First of all, where is Vlad?”
Shin’s question utterly ignored Robin’s desperate excuses. Robin had cooperated with Vlad, so he might know about his whereabouts.
“I d-don’t know anything…I haven’t met that man…Vlad, since then. He won’t answer my contacts either…we were never close anyway. He just u-used me!! I’m a victim here!!”
Seeing that Shin did not move an eyebrow while listening, Robin hurriedly changed the subject. His eyes darted everywhere, frantically looking for a way to escape.
The weapon at his waist was still in its sheath, untouched. Shin, however, could kill Robin faster than the latter could take out a crystal and teleport away.
Either Shin allowed him to go or someone else had to act as a decoy while he escaped. In all other cases, this was the end of the line for Robin.
“You have no idea where Vlad could be?”
“I, I, I didn’t know something like that would happen!! He didn’t tell me that he would kill her!! We even had recovery potions for the status ailment!! If you would have just accepted—”
Robin’s excuses stopped abruptly, followed by the acute sound of a katana resting again in its sheath.
Judging from Robin’s behavior and the current situation, it was clear that he had indeed only been used.
If so, there was no point in leaving him alive another moment. With his head detached from his torso, Robin disappeared in a burst of polygons, but Shin didn’t spare a glance and turned away from the pile of rubble that used to be Robin’s lodge.
As Shin was leaving, a bright voice, in strident contrast with the location, stopped him.
“So the rumors were true! You’ve become pretty good at cutting people down.”
Shin turned towards the voice without a word. There he found a petite, young-looking girl with short white hair and big, round eyes.
She was wearing an oriental garb with rather high skin exposure. This stressed the mounds on her chest, which were already too pronounced for her physique. However, what stood out the most was the giant poleaxe, almost as long as the girl was tall, wielded by her tiny hands.
Shin didn’t need to cast 【Analyze】 to know who this unique combination was.
“Long time no see. When was the last time we met, three months ago maybe?”
Milt approached Shin with a friendly smile.
Milt herself was a PK, but a rare case; she was not included in Avidya’s target list. The reason was that she killed only in self-defense or during duels to the death that both parties agreed to.
She was treated as a PK because, if her opponent agreed to fight to the death, she would kill without any hesitation.
“What do you want from me?”
“I heard you were looking for Vlad, so—”
Milt stopped halfway through the sentence; Shin had closed in on her in a second, grabbed her by the neck and pushed her down to the ground, 『True Moon』’s cold blade on her neck.
“If you know anything, talk.”
“Ha, haha! The Shin I see now will be OK, I guess”
“Don’t leer at me like that. I’ll tell you everything.”
Milt let go of her poleaxe and raised both hands. When Shin withdrew 『True Moon』, she let out a sigh.
“I’m sure you’ve looked everywhere too, but he won’t be found easily. Because he probably has no intention of attacking anyone now. It’s not possible to catch him in the act again.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well, he managed to warp his greatest prey with his own hands, after all. He’s not going to risk killing others and have their deaths overwrite that experience.”
Milt talked of something Shin could not comprehend. To burn people’s deaths into your memory was already far too depraved for him.
“Vlad was obsessed about you more than anything. He’s likely been observing you and gloating, I guess. You’re in a state close to what he called ‘the ideal’ last time we talked after all. He’d probably be glad even if he’s found and killed by you.”
“You don’t need to understand people like that, you know.”
Milt’s shoulders dropped as she talked. Shin had no intention of understanding either, so he urged her to continue.
“Vlad’s keeping track of your movements. His main job, Dragon Knight, is one that stands out easily, but his sub is Ninja. He switched main and sub job now, to hide better. Ninjas have the best concealment abilities among all scout-type jobs, after all. He’s using all sorts of items and equipment to hide, so he won’t be easy to find.”
“You mean that he’s watching now too?”
“Probably, with binoculars or something like that. Well, that would mean the plan I thought about would work though.”
Milt spoke plainly. Shin tried to extend his detection field to the max, but could not find any players other than Milt and the lodge players whose presence he had confirmed before; no trace of Vlad.
As Milt had said, if he was using items and skills specialized for seeing long distances, it could be possible to observe locations even from outside detection fields.
Milt’s theory was not too bizarre after all; it could not be discarded as improbable.
“What’s your plan, then?”
“For me to join up with you. I’m pretty strong myself, but still nothing special compared to you. If he sees someone like me getting all close and personal—.”
“He’ll come to stop it, huh.”
“Bingo. Shin stopped hunting PKs to flirt with some broad. Vlad wouldn’t stand for that, I’m positive.”
Milt’s plan was to use Vlad’s obsession against him, to lure him out in the open.
“Won’t he be more alert if you’re involved?”
Unlike Marino, Milt could fight. If that was the case, Vlad might not think that Shin had given up on fighting for flirting.
“I was good friends with Mari, actually. We never really talked about it, so it’s not strange for you not to know.”
Shin furrowed his brow at Milt’s words. He had never heard anything of the sort from Marino.
“Yes, it happened by chance, because our situations in real life are pretty similar. We couldn’t say anything openly…but we talked a lot just between the two of us. Mari was sick, wasn’t she? In real life, I’m actually stuck on a hospital bed too…but the only other one who knows about this is Lucky Cat’s Catnip.”
“Is that so…”
Catnip knew about Marino too. The “Milmeow” she had mentioned before was Milt, then.
“Vlad had researched Mari thoroughly. I don’t know how he found out, but he knew about the connection between us. He asked me about her himself, so there’s no mistake about that”
Milt knew so much about Vlad because she had used the PK’s information network, not the normal players’ or the revengers’. The PKs were wary of her though, so she could only obtain limited information. Shin’s PK hunt had caused serious damage to the network.
“He shouldn’t find it too weird for me to take Mari’s place then. It could provoke him even more. I don’t dislike flirting in public, so there’s that too.”
Saying this, Milt tried wrapping her arm around Shin’s, but the latter stepped back to avoid her approach and thought about what to do.
Avidya’s hounds hadn’t found any useful information about Vlad. It was originally difficult to retrieve information about PKs not belonging to any organization. He could have asked Calmia could act as his partner in this operation, but in a dangerous situation, she couldn’t protect herself.
“If it means hunting him down, I can do this.”
Shin concluded that it was worth trying even if the plan would turn unsuccessful and agreed to Milt’s proposal.
“OK, I don’t mean to ask for this in return, but I have a request too. May I?”
“After Vlad is taken care of, I want you to fight me. To the death.”
Shin peered at Milt with surprise and suspicion in his eyes.
Milt said “to the death”, but as long as she didn’t pull off a series of incredible feats, she had no hope of winning. A duel to the death would have been suicide for her.
“If you just want to die, do it somewhere else.”
“I want you to be my last, Shin. Because I don’t want to go back to reality.”
“….let’s go to Tsuki no Hokora first, then talk more. This isn’t the right place.”
Shin temporarily formed a party with Milt and returned to Kalkia via teleportation, then chain teleported to Tsuki no Hokora.
Schnee welcomed Shin home, but Shin walked passed her without a word, had Milt sit down in the living room, and started preparing tea.
“Ah, er, you look quite used to it, I was just thinking.”
Milt was slightly surprised to see Shin prepare tea for them both.
“Anyone can make tea. Rather than that, let’s pick up where we left off.”
Shin took a sip of tea, then urged Milt to continue.
“As I said before, I’m stuck in a bed in real life. I can’t live if I’m not hooked to machines. I can speak, but my arms and legs won’t move like I want them to. I had to come to this world to finally understand how freely a body can move. But no matter how much I move here, reality doesn’t change. No…maybe because I had a taste of freedom here, reality became even harsher for me.”
For Milt, just staying alive meant having to pay expensive medical fees.
She could live on, thanks to her parents’ hard work, but looking at her parents growing thinner and more emaciated as she grew up, her heart couldn’t stand it anymore.
“We were never rich, so paying the hospital fees to keep me alive has always been a huge burden on them. Mom and Dad are always smiling, but that made it all even more painful. I…I could feel it. Their hands caressing mine…growing thinner and weaker over time.”
Modern medicine couldn’t cure Milt’s disease. Either her parents would reach their limit first, or Milt would.
“I have a little brother too, but it looks like he’s unhappy with my parents caring about me so much. If I’m not around anymore, all their love will go to him. The financial burden will also disappear — good things all around.”
“In a documentary on TV, I saw parents say that they’re happy just to see their child alive. From the standpoint of someone being kept alive, it’s not like that?”
“I don’t mean to say that everyone sees it like I do, nor do I think so. My head’s the only thing working perfectly, so maybe I think too much…making them sad would be painful, of course, but….”
Milt was asking to be killed, but there was no sadness in her view.
“If you think so, then wouldn’t suicide be an option? It might be impossible in real life, but in this world you could end your life yourself.”
“I thought about it at first, but…but thinking of killing myself with my own hands is too scary. So I thought about having someone do it for me.”
Milt wished to die, but death was still terrifying. Milt herself admitted what a contradiction that was.
“I can forget about that fear in battle. I want to die while feeling truly alive.”
That was one reason why she had continued seeking duels to the death.
“…you won’t regret it?”
Shin released a wave of pure killing intent, which blew through Milt’s hair like a gust of wind.
“Yup. I couldn’t do anything myself…but this, only this, I’ve decided it on my own.”
The killing intent unleashed upon Milt was enough to make any average player turn pale and shake violently, but she did not even bat an eyelash.
Even PKs, used to end others’ lives, saw fear rear its ugly head when death approached. Milt had mentioned being scared of death, but to Shin, it seemed that she had completely accepted it.
The emotions he felt from Milt contained imbalance, yes, but also great tranquility. Somehow, she reminded him of Marino.
“Got it. Once we’re done with Vlad, I’ll be your opponent.”
For Marino and Milt, death has always been very close. They had had a longer, deeper relationship with it than Shin ever could.
Shin had killed a great number of PKs. One more wouldn’t be a problem at this point.
“Thank you. Let’s get the plan moving right away then! Back to town for some lovey-doveying!”
After thanking Shin, Milt’s enlightened atmosphere vanished somewhere as her mood turned to hyper excitement.
She now grabbed Shin’s arm firmly, determined not to let him go this time.
Shin, silently watching Milt holding his hand and guiding him, teleported back to Kalkia.
Eager to show their intimacy as clearly as possible, Milt had wrapped her left arm around Shin’s right arm. Leaving the choice of their destination to Milt, Shin contacted Calmia via chat.
“(I have something to tell you about.)”
“(Oh my, it must be the first time you sent me a direct chat.)”
Shin couldn’t go to Avidya’s guildhouse with Milt in tow. As they wanted to pretend that he had given up on revenge, visiting that blood-drenched place was out of the question.
“(If there are any guild members with grudges against Vlad, I want you to tell them something)”
Shin explained to Calmia about Milt’s plan and the circumstances leading to it, lastly asking her to relay this. He had talked with Milt and decided how to finish Vlad.
“(—I see. Your method will definitely be really humiliating for Vlad. I’ll tell them.)”
“(Please do. I’ll contact you if there are any movements.)”
Shin cut off the chat and asked Milt where they were going. He had been focusing on the chat, his legs moving to automatically follow Milt.
“Catnip’s place, there are always a lot of people there after all. Perfect for rumors to spread.”
“Aah, I see.”
Catnip’s store, Lucky Cat, was a favorite destination of Shin and Marino’s. Many players there knew Shin’s face, even if they weren’t aware of his strength. Being a confectionery, most of the visitors were female players. If he went there, hand in hand with a female player other than Marino, rumors and conjectures would surely spread very quickly.
Shin didn’t think that Vlad was observing him at all hours; but if he caught wind of such a rumor, whether he acted or not, he would surely become restless.
“OK, will he move then?”
Shin felt that it would be great if anything was born from this. He had listened seriously when Milt talked about her situation, but not even the Hounds had managed to pick up any hints about Vlad, so he doubted Vlad would exhibit the kind of careless behavior Milt suggested.
For the current plan to succeed, that was a necessary condition. If Vlad had already lost interest in Shin, the plan would be completely useless.
Shin had whispered to himself, but Milt replied with confidence. Shin didn’t know what exactly made her so sure.
“Obsession is something that doesn’t just go away, not even if you think you’ve had enough. He staged something so huge for you and saw you change, he’s not going to be able to just turn the page on it.”
Milt stated her thoughts firmly, a serious expression on her face.
At the same time they had arrived at the Lucky Cat, so before Shin could say anything Milt had opened the door to the store.
The interior of the store was mostly the same as Shin remembered from his last visit, crowded as usual by female players.
Among them, wearing cat ears and tail, Catnip was serving her customers.
“Meow meow!? Shimeow and Milmeow, now this is a rare duo! Long time no see, both of you.”
Catnip noticed Shin and Milt and approached them with her usual “cat-like” talk.
Her gaze towards Shin, despite the peppy tone of her voice, was melancholic. She knew what he had been doing for the past month, surely.
“We talked via chat, though. We haven’t met face to face like this since about one month ago, maybe?”
“Because you never stay in one place, Milmeow. Finding you would be a miracle, meow…but more than that, I’m more interested to know why you two are so friendly, meow? You look just like lovers, meow?”
“Hehehe…that’s exactly what we are!!”
Milt squeezed her body even closer to Shin and made this declaration with a louder tone of voice. Shin felt multiple eyes on him and looked around, noticing that most gazes were fixated on his arm.
Staring at his left arm were all the (few) male players present and some of the female ones.
The male players’ stares burned holes in Milt’s watermelon-like assets pressed on Shin’s left arm.
Shin considered Milt’s presence as just one part of the plan, so he decided to smile in order for the rumors to spread even more easily.
“Meowhat!? So even Shimeow fell to the charm of Milmeow’s breasts!? Open your eyes, meow!! Small girls with watermelon chests don’t exist in real life!! I know the truth, meow. That chest is a lie!”
“You’re horrible!! Let me dream in this game world at least!!”
“What are you two saying…”
Shin gave a tired look at the two and the absurd conflict they had started.
“(I’ve heard everything. I’ll do what I can to help.)”
Shin had noticed that she was acting far too strange, and his suspicions were confirmed when Catnip sent him a chat.
It was difficult to imagine from the noisily meowing silhouette before his eyes, but the voice that reached his mind was cold and dry. Her melancholic eyes also contained a somewhat cold streak.
“(Catnip, you shouldn’t make eyes like that.)”
Shin was not in a position to tell others, though. Catnip, however, was someone Marino had been friends with. Shin himself felt that he had become less liable to emotional changes after Marino’s death, but he felt that he had to say it.
After showing off for a while, they purchased a few items and left Lucky Cat.
The rumors were probably already spreading; Shin felt more and more eyes fixed on them.