The Guild 2.4

Alan glanced around at the buildings he passed as he made his way to the location indicated by the quest, about one and a half miles away. Most were shops of various sorts, with guards stationed outside, while a few were other sorts of dealerships. Interestingly, most of the stores had messages saying that they didn’t allow walk-ins, and required either some sort of identifying symbol or authorization to enter. There were probably some black market stores he could get into with the coin he’d gotten from the shady merchant back on Earth.

Rather than specific emblems, Alan noted that most players seemed to wear specific colors, probably representing gangs of some sort. The most common colors were a dark purple and a tarnished gold, almost bronze. Some article of clothing or weapon would be painted in one of these colors, but never both, in addition to the emblems most players wore. Alan was worried he was sticking out too much, as he had no such identification, until he noticed a few other similarly unmarked players.

They were apparently meeting up as a group, heading into the ruins of an old building. Alan noted that there were a surprisingly large number of guards around the building, despite its dilapidated state. All the guards wore a purple tabard with a silver crown etched into it over there power armor.

Hey, Eve, what’s that?

It is likely an entrance into the Abyss Labyrinth.

The Abyss Labyrinth?

Yes, while the Undercity is below the upper levels of Khersath, it is not the lowest part of Khersath, but simply the lowest inhabited region of Khersath. The remnants of an even older civilization lies further below. This area is named the Abyss Labyrinth, as even after countless years and countless exploration parties have entered into it, no one has ever managed to reach the bottom. There are rumors that there isn’t even a bottom, that it simply continues down into a black abyss.

Of course, that is likely superstitious nonsense. In fact, there are numerous capture points that have been taken and briefly held, dungeons within the greater labyrinth, causing many players to believe there is a major capture point, likely located in the center of the planet, which would give one control over the Undercity and lower levels of Khersath. This power could easily rival the control of any of the main four districts. However, despite many major expeditions no one has made it very far down, or at least they aren’t revealing that information to the public. Still, hidden new ways down into the Abyss Labyrinth are often found, and lead to dungeons with decent treasure and enemies. That is likely one such entrance.

Ah, got it.

Alan quickly walked by the ruins, continuing onwards. The buildings around him turned into large, steel warehouses, generally with only one or two bored looking guards. There were fewer and fewer people walking down the streets, as Alan was clearly leaving the main market district.

Someone may be following us. I did not notice them before due to the density of people, but now I believe there’s a high probability they have been tailing us since the entrance gate.

What!? Alan began to glance backwards, then, remembering his lessons with Eve, forced himself to keep his eyes forward so as to not alert his stalker.

I didn’t notice anything… Alright, so what’s the plan.

Enter the alleyway indicated ahead. Immediately when you enter and are out of sight I will activate your armor’s invisibility. Then, once invisible, promptly turn around and continue to the quest destination.

Got it.

Alan turned into the alley indicated, then proceeded to turn right back and exit once the invisibility field was activated. He continued down the street, picking up his pace, glancing behind him. He noticed a man with a dark purple glove stroll pass the alleyway. The man wore a set of black formal attire. He took a brief, discrete glance down the alleyway then continued on. Eve highlighted a small, metal ball that Alan wouldn’t have otherwise noticed drop from the man’s pocket, rolling into the alleyway.

That’s a scanner! Quickly, run away, it can scan up to 100m away.

A blue outline of the scanner’s potential range appeared in Alan’s view. He quickly began sprinting forwards with all his might, barely crossing the line before a small electronic pulse showed up right behind him, invisible to the naked eye but not to Eve.

The man that had dropped the ball frowned then murmured a few words into a communicator on his wrist. Eve managed to read his lips.

He said, “I’ve lost him.”

Alright, good, so we should be in the all clear, right?

I’m not sure. If you were marked by him simply to try to rob you, maybe. But if he was on the lookout for you specifically, he may continue looking. We are uncertain of who he contacted as well. We had best try to finish this task quickly.

Got it.

Alan started jogging towards the quest marker, moving past warehouse after warehouse. A few had guards, while others had squatters hanging out in the front. Alan even noticed a few players doing some sort of drug in a number of alleyways, but he didn’t care about such things and tried to ignore them. A few minutes later, he reached another, nondescript large steel warehouse, apparently the destination of his quest. There were two guards in front, both in dark grey, almost black army fatigues rather than power armor. They each held a number of strange devices on a belt, and held their weapons at the ready with a quiet ease. One had a dark-metal sword, the other a mechanical rifle. Unlike many of the other guards Alan had seen, they weren’t fooling around or talking to each other. They were simply quietly scanning the area, clearly on a different level than many of the other guards. Interestingly, neither had an emblem of any sort.

I suggest we deactivate our invisibility from around the corner, then approach cautiously. Also, the quest has updated, we are to ask for package E51, on the behalf of Master Silver.

Alright, got it.

Alan quickly walked back around the corner, then deactivated the invisibility and checked on the power of the armor. It had 440 energy remaining, out of 500, as remaining invisible consumed 5 energy/min. He then slowly approached the guards, who turned to look at him, standing at attention.

“Hi, I’m here to pick up package E51 for Master Silver.”

The two guards briefly glanced at each other, then the one on the right who held the sword spoke.

“Oh, and what proof do you have that Master Silver sent you?”

Thinking quickly, Alan replied, “Proof? Isn’t my presence here enough? My master made no mention that such proof would be needed, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have sent me here to comeback empty handed.”

“Look, I’m sorry, I’m sure your master is a very important person, but at the very least you should have an emblem or symbol to demonstrate that you are part of his faction, yet here you stand devoid of any such signifiers.”

Shit, Eve, what now?

Try a bit of intimidation, I will try to gauge their responses.

“Do you know what is in the package?” Alan asked in a quiet tone.

“No, we do not, sir.” The guard answered.

“Well then, I don’t think it is your place to question the orders of my master. Are you sure that you wish to offend him?”

The two guards shared another glance.

They seem more confused than anything else. They aren’t intimidated in the slightest. Time to try different tactics, perhaps a bit of bribery. Diamond marks, not gold.

But, those are worth 20,000 credits, each!

And completing this quest with little difficulty is worth a great deal more. I estimate the guards are both at least level 400, thus we have little to no chance of defeating them.

“Ah, but of course, my master may also be quite generous. I’m sure that you didn’t think I wouldn’t reward you, just as much as you wouldn’t want me to return empty handed.”

Alan smiled, but then, remembering the guards couldn’t see his face, simply slowly took two diamond marks out, giving one to each of the guards.

The guard who had been talking to Alan inspected the mark, as the other once more glanced at him, almost asking him what they should do. The guard shrugged.

“Get him his package, and quickly.”

“Alright.”

The rifle-wielding guard quickly ran into the warehouse. A few seconds later, he emerged, carrying a small black box about the size of a shoebox.

“Here you are, sir.”

“Thank you,” Alan said, taking the box and carefully putting it into a compartment on his back. The box had no clear opening, but it’s contents seemed very secure, as nothing rattled or moved about when Alan lifted it up. The revenant armor would soon be at full capacity, as it didn’t have much room for carrying objects other than weapons and ammunition. The compartment Alan had placed the box in was really meant for a sword or other hilted weapon, not a box. He should probably get some sort of futuristic backpack or bag at some point, although it would weigh him down a bit.

As Alan turned around and headed back towards the city gates, another cloaked figure strode past him towards the guard. Alan caught what he said to the guards.

“I’m here to pick up package E51 for Master Silver, here is the order confirmation.”

The two guards took out their weapons, and shouted, “Hey, you there, stop!”

At that point though Alan had already turned invisible, and was sprinting away with all his might. Alan spared a glance behind him, only to see the guard throw a sensor in his direction. Time slowed as Alan entered hypercognition mode, greatly increasing the speed at which he thought and was able to communicate with Eve.

Eve plotted out where the sensor would land, along with the 100m radius it would scan. There would be no evading this sensor.

Perhaps if we had taken them by surprise, we may have been able to defeat them, with a 13.4% probability. Now, however, our chances to win a direct confrontation are noticeably smaller. Our best chance is to run away, and constantly dodge their attacks, as they will only get brief snapshots of where we are from their sensors, especially if we are able to continually run out of the sensor’s range. Two dangerous uncertainties are we do not know the guard’s abilities and we don’t know if they have backup, but I estimate we have a 45.9% chance of escape.

Got it. Alan replied.

The first few steps were easy. Alan sprinted away, then easily dodged the EMP grenade and bullets fired at him with Eve’s help. He was soon out of the sensor’s range, but the other guard simply threw another one in front of Alan as his partner picked up the other. They continued this relay as Alan continued running forward, easily evading the bullets and occasional swipe of a sword with Eve’s warnings where each attack would appear.

Alan, however, soon began to tire, a heavy cloud of fatigue settling in his mind.

Can’t we just shoot the sensors or hit them with a surprise attack?

Don’t you remember any such action will has to be performed after the armor’s invisibility has been deactivated? Additionally, if you haven’t noticed the guards are much faster than you are. The only reason they haven’t caught up is the need to pick up their sensors and keep you in its range. Unlike us, they also don’t have time to plan their every move. Only around 30 seconds have passed in real life.

Don’t remind me.

Alan had thought his previous experience in the Game had pushed his limits before. He had, after all, experienced mind numbing pain in the Tutorial. But this was different. Before, he had to simply sit still, in pain, and watch as the Predecessor advanced. Now, each second that passed, he had to force himself to endure greater pain. It was like he was at the end of a set in a grueling workout, but on a completely different level. Pushing himself to take another step, pushing his body forwards in a full on sprint, was experiencing each moment of the full on muscle weary pain and tiredness for what seemed like an eternity. His body, his mind, surely couldn’t take more.

Keep going. You are barely at the 35% of your body’s limit.

WHAT!? Alan moaned into his head, a large sense of dread coming over him as he pushed himself onwards.

To what limit must I push my body to in order to escape?

Simply 70%, the point of near-collapse. I am not unreasonable, and do not expect you to push yourself to the point where you would die.

Alan swore at Eve.

You are wasting energy.

Sighing, Alan focused on but one thought. Move. He let Eve worry about where, and when. The details didn’t matter, simply the motion did. Pushing himself forwards, through the pain, the fatigue that couldn’t get any worse. It then worsened, slowly but surely, as Alan felt his body seem to almost tear itself apart. He was pushing it too hard, harder than should be possible. But Eve guided him onwards.

Exhaustion and discomfort was soon but a remnant of the blissful past. This was torture, a torment so unbearable that Alan almost wished to die, to step into the oncoming bullets rather than dodge them. But, for some reason, Alan managed to persevere, finding a quiet strength within that he didn’t know he had. The pain, the weariness? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was forwards. Something clicked inside Alan’s head just then, and an in-game message appeared before him. Alan ignored it, and it closed automatically. Eve would have directed him if it were important.

Suddenly, Alan realized he was nearing the market district once more, as the crowds grew. Alan was able to deftly maneuver past people, but the guards chasing were having a great deal more difficulty, as they were trying to chase down a person no one else could see, firing into supposed nothingness. A few people began firing back at them, assuming they were the targets.

Realizing, that he might escape, and soon, Alan felt a short-lived burst of energy, only to have it soon be replaced once more by the mind-numbing agony of continuing onwards. A few seconds later, the guards lost Alan, a sensor they threw forwards knocked aside by an enraged old woman, shouting something about public decency.

Alan felt himself slow down as he escaped the sensor’s range, relief washing over him.

DON’T STOP. ONWARDS.

What!? But-

IF YOU STOP HERE, THEY WILL FIND YOU. ONWARDS.

And so Alan pushed himself onwards, as his vision began to blur and his consciousness began to fade. As he even began to lose his sense of feeling, the pain somehow blissfully disappearing, he continued forwards, where Eve directed. Then, his body could take no more, and Alan collapsed onto the ground, oblivious to his surroundings.

Alan awoke in an alleyway, a shrill ringing sounding in his mind. Groaning, Alan rolled onto his back. Every part of his body felt sore, his legs hurting so much he almost couldn’t feel them. As soon as he was full conscious, the ringing stopped.

Welcome back. I allowed you to rest as long as possible, I activated and deactivated the armor’s invisibility to avoid detection while you were asleep. Now, however, we have but an hour and a half to get back with the package.

Alright.

Groaning, Alan pushed himself up, staggering as his legs felt weak underneath the strain of the weight of his body and the Revenant armor. Now that he was able to check his messages, he saw to his surprise he’d gained a number of new abilities.

[Through sheer willpower alone you have managed to push yourself to your limit, and beyond! Enhanced Control sub-abilities Ignore Pain and Programming a Path unlocked. Indomitable Will has been reclassified as Transcendent Will, an ability under the Enhanced Control ability tree, increasing its effectiveness.]

Alan checked out the tooltips of the skills:

[Ignore Pain allows the user to ignore a portion of their pain. Not all pain may be ignored however, and if a player’s concentration is broken this effect may be nullified.]

[Programming a Path allows the player’s thought out actions to become almost second nature, allowing inhuman feats of precise movement.]

[Transcendent Will appears when the user musters their willpower to transcend normal limits, accomplishing an impossible feat through sheer willpower. Passively increases willpower, and in extreme situations allows the users to accomplish unattainable feats of will.]

[Endurance +15, Willpower +20]

Grinning, Alan slowly managed to make his way back to the entrance he came through. There, he found the man with the dark formal attire and purple glove, nonchalantly talking with one of the guards, holding a sensor behind his back.

Through a different exit, then.

A few minutes later, Alan made his way over to the next closest exit. Just as he was about to approach though, Eve highlighted a woman, leaning against the wall next to the entrance. Holding a sensor.

Damn.

Yes, likely all the exits out of the Undercity are guarded. I am uncertain what organization might have the manpower to guard every entrance though… I wonder what it is that’s in that package.

Yeah, um, so, how do we get out, then?

I am unsure. If they are guarding all the entrances to just the Undercity, they must surely be guarding the lift back up to the Administrative Center as well. Also, I am uncertain whether or not we could even get back in time. At least, not alive.

Wait, what do you mean?

Right now, if we want to have a high probability of joining the Black Rose guild, completing this simple task, which is clearly not a simple task but a major test to get into the guild, is of the utmost importance, correct?

Um, yeah.

Well, I noticed there was an Administrator outpost within the Undercity. It will, for a price, teleport a player’s items into their secure vault, which we will then be able to access… Once we die and respawn inside the Administrative Center, our last respawn point, that is. The only difficulty is that the item must not belong to another player for us to teleport it in our name, and I am uncertain whether or not the black box is registered to someone else. As it is unmarked, I highly doubt it, especially if it contains some illegal substance, as the Administrators would confiscate and scan the item.

Dying, really? Is there any other way, like shooting or teleporting ourselves out?

No, this is our best option for completing the task. Actual player teleportation is unimaginably expensive, even short distances. Additionally, in any other scenario, if we die, we would undoubtedly drop this item.

Alright…

However, since we are planning on dying…

Yes?

I think we should take risks I’d otherwise advise against. As making it out is unlikely, with little chance of gain, I suggest we explore the Abyss Labyrinth Dungeon, and perhaps maybe try to get lucky in a dungeon far above our level, perhaps trying to steal or ambush unsuspecting, chaotic players. However, don’t attack any normal, non-chaotic players as you will lose more if you die with chaotic status for attacking other players.

I know. PvP and who it’s okay to attack and when was one of your first lessons. Let’s go.

Alan made his way over to the Administrator outpost. Interestingly, it didn’t look like any spotters were watching it. At least, none that Eve detected. Shortly thereafter, the Administrator teleported the box for three diamond marks, which seemed like an absurd amount as it was only moved up just a few floors. As he was expecting to die, Alan then exchanged the rest of his credits for five diamond, one gold and eight silver marks, which were one level below gold, worth around two hundred credits each at street value.

Alright, we have about 30 minutes, maybe a few more if we hurry once we respawn at the Administrative Center, let’s see what we can find in the Abyss Labyrinth.

Alan managed to sneak his way into the labyrinth with an unsuspecting group of explorers. The guards seemed to be more interested about who and what was potentially coming out of the labyrinth than who was going in. Inside the ruins of the building, there was a set of stone stairs leading into pitch-black darkness. Luckily, the stairs were perfectly symmetrical, and Eve was able to outline in the darkness where the stairs should be, allowing Alan to roughly see in the dark. The group was slowly making preparations and going over plans, so Alan decided to proceed down without them.

As Alan entered the dark labyrinth, a message appeared:

[You have now entered the Abyss Labyrinth. Unknown perils await in this seemingly bottomless maze.

Warning! Your level is far lower than even the weakest of threats in the Abyss Labyrinth. You are advised to leave and come back when you are higher level or with a larger group. Otherwise, don’t blame sudden and unexplained death on anyone but yourself.]

Ignoring the message, Alan continued onwards, invisible. Once he was a far enough away from the surface he activated the glow of his sidearm, illuminating the path downwards. The area truly seemed like an abyss. Other than the stairs, there were no walls or even floors that Alan could see. Instead, there was only the pitch blackness of a bottomless, unfathomable depth. One misstep could easily lead to his demise. Normally, Alan wasn’t one to feel vertigo, but the presence of nothing but the darkness was fairly unsettling.

Shortly thereafter Alan made it to the bottom of the stairs. There were three paths illuminated by a soft blue light, although Alan couldn’t tell where the light was coming from. All were simple, 10-foot wide stone walkways, right next to a bottomless drop that would surely kill anyone that stepped off the path. There was a player’s note saying that the right and left paths had been cleared already, thus Alan was about to take the middle path when Eve communicated with him.

Wait. Fire at the ground in between the paths and next to them.

Um, alright.

Alan did as Eve ordered, firing in between the paths with his laser pistols, wondering what Eve wanted. He watched as the lasers shot out into the depth going further and further until finally disappearing into nothingness. Then, as Alan fired to the left of the leftmost path, the laser struck something, and the outline of a fourth, hidden pathway appeared.

What? How did you know?

Lucky guess. Continue firing at the ground and follow the invisible path as your shots illuminate it.

Alan did so. This hidden path was completely invisible, and the only way Alan knew which way to go was that Eve marked where the shots he struck landed, creating an outline of where the path was. Unlike the stone paths, it was barely three feet wide, making it difficult for Alan to maneuver, especially as it twisted and turned. It was unnerving too, standing on an invisible road, on top of darkness. After a few minutes, the path lead Alan below the stairs he had entered through, backwards rather than forwards.

*Click*

Suddenly, Alan’s foot pressed into the ground, pushing on some sort of pressure plate. His mind immediately leapt into overdrive.

Three incoming projectiles from the stairs.

Eve highlighted three objects that looked like darts coming towards Alan. Alan managed to dive down, barely avoiding them.

Continue. However, perhaps we should proceed with more caution.

Um, okay.

Alan continued to creep along the invisible path slowly, barely surviving a number of traps thanks to Eve’s observation skills and his own inhuman reaction speeds. A few were surprisingly simple to maneuver around, such as a single tripwire and a gap in the path that had to be leapt over. Others, however, were puzzles that Alan had no way of understanding, control panels with unknown symbols and technology at work. Eve seemed to understand them though, and following her orders Alan managed to pass them with ease. Finally, after around fifteen minutes of scrambling around Alan found himself before a what was, as far as he could tell, an invisible cube-like structure. The path ended here, yet as Alan spread his hands out over the invisible wall before him he could find no door or obvious way of entering this structure.

Try reaching out with your mental capacities?

Like I’m trying to communicate with an Administrator?

Yes.

Alright.

Alan concentrated, trying to detect some sort of machine presence or consciousness he could interface with. to his surprise, he detected a very faint presence before him, and initiated contact.

Hello? Anyone home?

… Systems Initializing. Error. Warning: Limited Power.

Greetings Traveler. Warning: ERROR. Main Systems Offline.

Traveler? Are you an Administrator? What are you doing here?

ERROR: Bad Request.

Wha-

Resuming Power Savings Mode. Estimated remaining power supply for limited functionalities: 34 Millennia. Please contact the Authorities and repair or supply power source, Traveler. Current threat level: Gamma.

The presence cut off, and a new quest appeared before Alan:

[Missing Systems:

Restore power to the mysterious Abyss Labyrinth. Find out more about the structure and its purpose.

Option: Figure out who the Authorities are and attempt to get help from them

Penalty: ???

Reward: ???

Time Limit: Approx. 34,000 years

Threat Level: Gamma]

Threat level? What’s that? And how did you know that I should reach out to try to contact some machine presence?

I am unsure. My actions have been motivated by a faint sense that I have been here before, or I know something I shouldn’t… However, there is no data in my memory to indicate I was ever here before. This is highly disturbing. Additionally, a threat level only appears in a quest which could potentially lead to far reaching and possibly horrific circumstances. The highest known threat level is Alpha, which was only once recorded during a universe wide genocidal rampage, the Predecessor War, while the lowest threat level is Gamma. However, Gamma threat level quests have been known to influence the fate of entire planets. I am unsure if the threat level is so low because of the time limit or if its effects will be confined to a limited scope, such as the Undercity. Guilds and factions, even enemies such as the Empire, Haxlards and tge Republic often band together to solve such quests. We should continue on, and try to find more. Proceed with caution.

But, there’s no way forward.

Try again.

Alan pressed his hands forward once more, pushing against the invisible structure before him. This time, however, he heard a whir of gears as a passageway opened. Alan stepped through the entrance, to find himself being lead through a boxed in, dimly lit metal tunnel. It was comforting to be surrounded by walls and a ceiling again. What was more disturbing, however, was this supposed information Eve suddenly just had. Alan emerged from the tunnel into a central sort of hub area, about the size of a movie theatre. It seemed to have been long forgotten, scavenged clean of any furniture, parts or items. There was a large screen on a far wall, but it was broken and clearly very, very old. Alan didn’t notice anything else of import in the room, not even any sort of control panel for the screen. There were, however, several other tunnels that lead into various directions out of the room, which Alan assumed must have once been a control center of some sort. Clearly, this wasn’t a simple labyrinth, but some sort of important facility or something. Perhaps, some sort of research station or…

Prison.

What?

I… know it’s a prison.

How do you know?

I DON’T KNOW, OKAY? But… I know that this facility is a prison. Or at least, it was.

Alan stood still for a second. For the first time, he could sense a certain degree of… distress within Eve. She had, of course, been concerned, stern and even commanding before, but this was different. She seemed… on edge, almost more human than ever before.

Enough. I detected a faint noise from the highlighted corridor. We should proceed down it to find what we can, then quickly die so we can complete our current main objective. We can perhaps return when we figure out more or are at a higher level.

Alan nodded, and made his way over to the indicated corridor. After a short straight passageway a spiral staircase soon appeared. Alan began descending the stairs. A few minutes later he was still walking down the stairs.

I wonder if I could get down faster somehow…

Request acknowledged. An unknown voice said in Alan’s head.

Wait, what?

Suddenly, the stairs shifted, forming rectangular panels that connected to each other, transforming the spiral staircase into a slide. A soft blue glow began to emit from the panel directly beneath Alan, somehow negating most of the friction. Alan began to rapidly slide downwards. Still worried about traps, Alan unsuccessfully tried to manage his speed as he wasn’t sure what he would be finding below. The slide, however, showed no signs of slowing down, and the walls provided no grip. Alan began to feel gravity accelerate him faster, and his stomach began to drop. Occasionally, as Alan slid down he would hear the sound of gunfire or yelling, but the sounds were intermittent, leaving as soon as they came. It was, Alan had to admit, sort of fun, as the speed he was sliding down began to approach that of a fast roller coaster. Then, suddenly the spiral staircase disappeared, and Alan was flung out into pitch darkness, sliding along an unseen path. It reminded him of a rather unforgiving level in a racing game he used to play. The slope gradually began to rise, then it descended once more, as Alan found himself slowing down.

In the distance, Alan began seeing flashes of light, as well as yelling. He quickly activated his armor’s invisibility. As he drew closer, he could make out the forms of a number of players fending off a metal, humanoid monstrosity. It was an abomination of flesh and metal nearly 10 feet tall, sporting blades grafted onto its two arms, a face half covered by a mask full of tubes and wires. The rest of its body was likewise covered in scars, metal plates, wires and tubes, though the creature had two clawed feet as well. As Alan felt himself slow down, he saw that the remaining half of its face was simply a lump of flesh covered in scars, devoid of anything resembling an appendage. Yet, the monster could clearly tell where it was and where its enemies were. A name tag appeared above the monstrosity. Apparently it was an Experimental Warden.

There were about twenty players grouped together around a mounted turret in the center of a large circular platform below Alan, about thirty feet in radius. Surrounding it was nothing but pitch black darkness, but Alan knew there were likely hidden pathways as well. Eve had calculated the ending destination of the slide, and it was only about ten feet above this larger platform all the players stood on. Alan watched as suddenly the Experimental Warden leapt forward as fast as a speeding bullet, knocking three players down. It darted its two arms forward, piercing its blades into two of the fallen players, then flung them backwards, into the abyss. Alan saw that each blade was coated with a writhing, black venom that seemed to emerge from the Experimental Warden’s body. The two players arced through the air and fell to their deaths, but before the Experimental Warden could retreat it was hit by waves of fire emanating from the mounted turret, decreasing it’s health by 3% to around 45%. It then leapt backwards, into the abyss. To the players standing on the platform below, it would surely look like it had simply disappeared, but Alan could see that it had simply landed on a hidden platform below.

“God damn it,” Alan heard a player swear. A man in a black cloak with a red star on the back of it gestured about. “That’s the 100th time it’s done that, did anyone see where it went?”

“No, it just vanished. Are you sure we shouldn’t just retreat? I’m not sure we can defeat this thing, and it wasn’t our intention to fight any boss.”

“Ha! Do you want to be the one to return to Lakshi empty handed? Besides, we just need for it to go for the right target…”

“Are you sure this is going to work? All of our kinetic and biological weapons seem to have had no effect on it. The only thing that gets to it is energy attacks.”

“Shut up idiot, this is going to work. And don’t speak so loudly, who knows how intelligent it is.”

Should we help them? Alan asked.

Negative. Continue to observe.

Alan did so, waiting, hoping nobody noticed him, least of all the Experimental Warden. He watched as the experiment leapt onto another invisible platform underneath the large platform, disappearing from Alan’s view as well. Shortly after however, it reemerged on the other side, and slowly crept back onto the main platform. Before anyone reacted, it leapt forward into the group of players again, and stabbed its two blades forward. This time, however, the moment a blade pierced a player in a robotic suit sudden arcs of electricity burst out of the player enveloping the Experimental Warden, stunning it momentarily. It wasn’t a player at all, but rather a miniaturized mech of some sort. Before it could react, three other mechs jumped forward, shooting out restraining grappling hooks and wires that shot out their own waves of electricity. Meanwhile, the mounted cannon kept unloading wave after wave of fire at the boss, slowly etching away at its health. Alan watched as it’s health decreased, at the rate of around 3% a second.

Activate hypercognition.

Concentrating, Alan did so half a second later, watching as the world about him slowed down.

Alright, here is the plan. We are going to leap down, and using forward momentum attempt to behead the Experimental Warden with our laser knife when it is low enough health, in approximately 12.672 seconds. Quickly grabbing any loot the boss drops, we will proceed to leap off the platform, into the abyss.

Wait, we’re just gonna steal the kill, just like that?

Yes.

But-

These players are likely slavers. I am about 97% certain. Did you not notice how they didn’t come here to fight bosses? The Abyss Labyrinth is the perfect place to lay traps, as there is little to no regulation, plenty of unknown entrances and exits, and if the authorities come, you can just leap to your death, so they’ll never catch you. This also makes it very important that you leap to your death and do not get caught. Is that understood?

Um, yeah.

Looking down at the players, Alan noticed that many of them did look rather menacing, and were even marked with the chaotic status that only came from attacking other players or committing severe crimes.

Get ready.

Taking a deep breath, Alan put away Orion’s Cores and got out his laser knife. He really needed a sword, if he was going to keep going for one hit kills.

Eve plotted out the exact angle that he was to leap out at, and at the exact angle to strike at as well. Trusting Eve’s abilities to calculate, Alan leapt from the platform above right as the leader of the slavers took out a purple-laser cutlass, no doubt wanting to finish off the boss himself. Slowly, Alan felt gravity take hold as he began to dive forwards, knife outstretched. When he was a few millimeters away from colliding with the boss Eve deactivated the armor’s invisibility field right as Alan activated the knife’s own laser field.

Alan’s blade sunk into the Experimental Warden’s neck which had already been tenderized by the flames. A slew of messages popped up but Alan ignored them, grabbing the two pieces of loot the boss dropped, and then began to sprint with all his might towards the edge of the platform. With a yell, the slavers fired at Alan, but he managed to evade the hooks and other capturing devices using his inhumane reaction speed and surprise. He was struck by a few darts, tipped with some metal that pierced his light power armor, but before their effects could come into effect Alan was already leaping off the platform, into the abyss.

Alan read the message log as he began to fall asleep due to the effects of the poisons he had been struck with.

[x30 Bonus xp for slaying an enemy over 300 levels higher while you’re under level 100, taking 0 damage from said enemy!]

[Minus 40% xp for failing to deal more than 1% of the enemies’ total health.]

[Kill stealer! Due to the nature of your actions, your chaotic level has risen, and you receive a minus 25% xp penalty. However, due to the chaotic nature of the group you stole the kill from, this effect is mitigated.]

[x22 Level up!]

[Gained over 20 levels with one kill! +20 bonus ability points]

[A small metal key, acquired!]

”Death’s Claw, acquired!]

[Poisoned! An unknown chemical has entered your system.]

[Poisoned! An unknown substance has entered your system.]

[Poisoned! An unknown chemical has entered your system.]

Then, Alan’s consciousness faded…

[You have died! Current respawn point: Upper Levels of the Administrative Center on Khersath]

[Due to the nature of your death, no memories lost.]

[Level loss: 5 levels. All credits lost.]

[Death’s Claw dropped.]

[Skill proficiencies have decreased.]

[Abilities Ignore Pain and Programming a Path have been forgotten. Transcendent Will has been reverted to Indomitable Will.]

[All stats have permanently decreased by 5.]

[Hidden quest: Failed.]

Alan found himself, back at his Home, the blank, white space that was sort a sort of digital space within the Game. He stood, next to the only other being there, the Administrator, staring, mouth agape, at the screens open before him.

This… this…

Yes?

These death penalties! What the hell? How is this fair? And you didn’t even mention potential memory loss! Did you know this would happen?

Yes, I did. And it was worth it. We have gained far more levels than we lost, and can earn stat points relatively easily through training.

But, the lost abilities-

Can be relearned much more easily once remembered, especially as we know how to unlock them. You will just need to run until you collapse with hypercognition activated.

Do you have any idea how painful that was!? Do you really think that… well, alright, I probably will go through it again, for the abilities, but still. Warn me or something next time, okay?

Very well. For now, however, I suggest we hurriedly retrieve the package then proceed to the Black Rose Docking Bay. There are 34 minutes remaining, and we are saving ability points for the Quick Learner talent, which costs 500 ability points, thus no need to spend any now. Simply place the points you gained from the Gifted skill into agility, then respawn at the Administrative Center.

Alright… Alan agreed dejectedly.

25 minutes later, Alan found himself approaching the Black Rose Docking Bay. He had easily retrieved the mysterious package from the Administrative Center, no questions asked, and had proceeded to sprint all the way here. To his surprise, he had even managed to make it here 10 minutes early. Standing in a corner, Alan saw Kitana, conversing with a giant, grey-skinned bald man in flowing brown robes with a huge war axe on his back. Alan was about to make his way over, when…

“So! You managed to make it, and with the package no less. Impressive work, thanks a lot.”

Alan turned, to find a younger looking man, maybe in their early thirties or late twenties, with bright blue eyes wearing a white uniform that Alan, could, perhaps, describe as a lab coat, if scientists allowed their coats to fall into disrepair and become rumpled beyond reason. He had a certain gleam to his eyes as he scanned over Alan, nodding, circling around him.

“I am Phantom, of course, as you already know. Now, hand over the package so I can inspect its contents,” he said.

Alan hurriedly did so, excited to see what was inside. A message popped up once he transferred it to Phantom.

[Congratulations for completing A Simple Task!]

[x2 Level Up!]

[Black Lotus Reputation gained!]

Phantom carefully took out some sort of metal key, similar to the one Alan found, but didn’t know the use of. As soon as the key was near the small black box an opening appeared, and Phantom inserted the key into the slot, turning the key. Phantom then removed the top of the box revealing… an unmarked bottle of amber liquid, which Phantom took out and examined with a joyous smile on his face.

“Um, what is that?” Alan asked, curious.

“Why, the finest Haxlardian whiskey, of course! Only 250 bottles of this stuff is made a year, and it’s illegal to sell it outside of the Haxlard Empire.”

“Wait, so I braved the Undercity for… a bottle of liquor? How much is it even worth?”

“Hmm? Oh, about 15,000 credits, maybe. It’s finding the stuff that’s so damned hard.”

15,000! I bribed those guards 20,000 credits, each! Then spent 60,000 to teleport it up here!

Yes… it seems this quest wasn’t actually as important as I thought it was… Maybe… Well, we’ll see.

“Wait, you know that it wasn’t even yours to pick up, right? Some other person came to pick it up right after me!”

“Oh, really? Interesting. I’ll have you tell me more about this later, as I possibly want to hear the details, but that will have to be after your initial assessment. Assuming you get accepted into the guild, of course.”

“Initial assessment?”

“Hmm, yeah, you don’t think we just let anyone with a recommendation that completes a fetch quest in, do you? Impress me in the assessment, or at least do reasonably well, and I’ll probably recruit you as my squire. Now, I have errands to do, but I’ll watch the streams. Probably.”

And with that, Phantom turned around and strode away.

“Wait, aren’t you tired?” Alan called out after him.

“Nah, Erudites don’t need much sleep,” Phantom yelled back, as he merrily took a swig from the bottle of liquor Alan had gone through so much effort to acquire.

I’m not sure I want to work under him…

Yes, we’ll have to see. However, I think it should be noted that I did not notice his approach at all. He seemingly appeared out of nowhere… We should concentrate on this initial assessment for now, though.

Nodding, Alan walked over to Kitana, who had finished her conversation with the grey-skinnedgiant. To his surprise, Alan saw that Kitana had risen to level 120 and was wearing a completely different outfit! He thought his leap to level 79 had been fast, but Kitana had only been level 80 when he last saw her aboard the Titan. She now had on black robes over a black vest and grey undershirt, and Alan could tell her clothing was made of no ordinary material, as the light around it seemed to be absorbed by the cloth, creating a sort of dark aura. She still wielded the same katana, though.

“Hey, Kitana. How are you?”

“I’m doing quite well, Alan. This is quite the… interesting guild you’ve found.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve found it to be interesting. Just wondering, but how did you level up so fast?”

“Well, Mason,” she gestured to the man she had been talking to earlier, “is one of the Arms Master’s of the guild, and he wanted to get an estimate of my ability. Thus, he suggested I visit a local underground fighting ring. The battles were quite exhilarating, and I managed to kill a number of opponents, impressing many and leveling up quite a few times in the process.”

“Kill?”

“Hmm? Yes, the fights were mostly to the death. Otherwise it would be mostly pointless, wouldn’t it?” Kitana grinned, gazing into the distance, smiling almost bloodthirstily, causing Alan to shiver slightly. It was strange, to think of all the people around him going about killing things, but he supposed he should get used to it. It was all part of the Game, after all.

“Um, yeah, I guess so… Glad you’re having fun.”

At that moment the grey-skinned giant clapped his hands together, creating a miniature sonic wave, immediately grabbing the attention of everyone in the hangar, some 30-odd people, mostly younger looking kids, around Alan and Kitana’s age, 16 at the youngest, 25 at the oldest.

“Alright, recruits. My name is Mason, and I am an Arms Master of the Black Rose Guild. Any who wish to join the guild should now follow me into the shuttle, to take the initial assessment slash trials slash whatever you want to call them. Any wishing to leave now may do so, but know that once you step foot in the shuttle you must complete the test to completion. Any questions? No? Not even about completing something to completion? Good, let’s go.”

Alan had risen his hand, when Mason had asked for questions, as he wanted to know more about the initial assessment, but quickly put it down after he realized Mason had no desire to answer any questions. He quickly followed Kitana onto a large shuttle with around fifty seats, and a new quest popped up.

[Guild Trials:

Pass the initial assessment of the Black Rose Guild!

Bonus Objective: Complete the assessment with flying colors, allowing you to join the guild with a special rank or job.

Rewards: Membership to the Black Rose Guild, 10,000 Guild Point sign-on bonus]

Sitting back in the seat, Alan sighed contentedly, scoping out the competition, wondering what trials might await and who he might meet…

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