The Zone

A lone figure streaked through the forest in a moonlit night, pausing only slightly to check his bearing. The figure, a man in his early twenties, made almost no sound as he moved from branches to branches with surprising agility. He had an Italian appearance, with bright blue eyes and short blonde hair. The man was dressed in dark clothes, with black denim pants and white shirt beneath his black leather jacket. A katana was strapped on his back. On the ground below was his companion – a robotic wolf. Its metallic body gleamed under the moonlight.

The man stopped close to a clearing where a group of men gathered. They were bandits, although he could see two mages among them. The bandits were only lightly armed, and he calculated that their main firepower probably lay with the two mages. There were seven of them including the mages. Below him, the robotic wolf was ready to attack at his command.

The man lightly tapped the tiny headset he wore and whispered, "Eliminate: target Alpha and Delta."

The wolf locked at the two targets using its mounted rifles. A loud crack was heard, and one of the bandits and a mage slumped dead to the ground. The other bandits, realizing an assault, immediately picked up their weapons while the remaining mage prepared his spells.

The wolf let out a lout howl, and with a pounce it tackled one of the bandits closest to it. Before he had a chance to attack his throat was ripped clean by the wolf. The other bandits turned their attention to the wolf, and the assailant took the chance to draw his katana and jumped down from the branches, driving his sword deep into one of the bandits.

While the remaining two bandits tried to hold the robotic wolf at bay the mage turned his attention to the man, knowing that the wolf would cease to function if its owner was dead. The mage quickly conjured a defensive magic and threw a volley of fireballs at the man. Surprisingly, not only that the man didn't dodge his attacks, he actually blocked some of the fireballs heading towards him with his katana as he calmly stepped forward.

Knowing that he was clearly outclassed, the mage took a step backward as the man approached. Still, he wasn't about to give up; conjuring another spell, he summoned a lightning strike toward the man. There was a momentary flash of light as the lightning struck the man, but he wasn't hurt as his katana absorbed the blow. The man lowered his sword and walked closer toward the mage.

Not far from them, the wolf had already finished off the two bandits. It stood there, carefully watching its master as it waited for further instructions. Just as its master was about to deliver a deathblow to the mage however, a loud crack was heard not far from them and the mage fell dead to the ground.

The man, annoyed to be denied of his kill, turned toward the direction of the sound. From the edge of a clearing another man, also dressed in dark attire and a rifle strapped in his back stepped into the clearing. He had a smirk in his face as he glanced around, before turning his attention to the Datapad strapped on his arm.

"Cool, that one gives me just enough experience to level-up!" he said, as the dead bodies around him de-rezzed into thin air.

"That was low, Allan," the man said as he replaced his katana in its sheath walked forward. Behind him, the wolf let out a low growl. "I found them first."

"Yeah, but I killed him first," Allan chuckled, but it immediately died off when he saw the glare on the man's face. "Oh come on Raphael, cut some slack. "You're at least two levels higher than me; surely you can spare me some kills."

"Three levels," Raphael corrected. "When I agreed to let you follow me it doesn't mean I give you permission to take my kill."

"Yeah, whatever," Allan shrugged, and glanced at his Datapad. "Hey, I'm going to log off now. I need to finish off my assignment before crashing to bed."

Raphael sighed and nodded. "Okay. See you in class tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Allan replied, and pressed a button on his Datapad. "System: save and exit."

Raphael watched as a pillar of light appeared on where his friend was standing before, as the system saved his Avatar into the Core and logging him off.

"All that trouble, and he forgot the loot," chuckled Raphael as he turned around and began to rummage through the bandit's backpack.

x x x

Raphael took a deep breath as he removed the helmet that covered his head and slowly sat up on the coffin-like capsule he had been lying on for the previous three hours. Not far from him, a VirtuTech employee was doing the necessary checkup to make sure the system was functioning nominally. The employee, Zoë, let out a tired smile at him which he returned. They knew each other quite well; Raphael always used that particular terminal to log into the Zone unless it was occupied, and Zoë was always on her shift when he arrived. He knew that she had no boyfriend, but though he had taken a liking at her, he never had the courage to ask her out. Because of this their relationship was more or less platonic.

"Busy night huh?" he asked as he stepped out of the terminal.

"Yeah," she replied. "I can't wait until my shift is over. All I want to do when I get back home is to take a long soak in the bath and crash to bed."

"Hmm," he nodded. "Well, see you later."

Raphael walked out toward the parking lot and headed to his car. As he sat in his car, sipping the last of the canned juice, he shifted his gaze to the VirtuTech Industries building. He remembered what his father told him of the Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOG) thirty years ago: back then, people stared at their monitors and controlled their Avatars using the conventional mouse-and-keyboard or joypad configuration. Virtual reality (VR) exists only in science fiction movies and books, and the hit classic trilogy 'The Matrix' only brought the culture paranoia when it was introduced ten years ago. But people soon adapted to this new technology, and pioneer companies that offered virtual gaming like VirtuTech Industries profited the most. Although there were other companies offering similar services nowadays, VirtuTech still stood strong. Offering cheap and convenient monthly or yearly fees, hundreds of Zones to explore, the ability to customize minute details of a person's Avatar, the ability to use the same Avatar over different Zones in the system, as well as the ability to carry items from one Zone to another made VirtuTech a choice of gamers worldwide.

VR changed the internet, too. No longer were chatroom dull and text-based; people from different sides of the world could actually met over a virtual domain. Virtual libraries were now a replica of the actual library, things sold on online stores could actually be viewed from all angles…the list went on. Even the seedier aspects of the internet – pornography – evolved in the virtual realm. No longer were visitors limited to pictures and videos; they could actually take part in whatever was hosted in the site.

x x x

Raphael quietly entered the lecture hall and took an empty seat close to the front of the class. The class was only half-full; there was about half an hour before class started, and typically students only came pouring in about five minutes before that. There were other students besides Raphael in the hall, and some of them were doing a review of the topics they were going to cover that day while the others were talking amongst themselves. Raphael took out his sketchbook and began sketching his latest adventures inside the Zone. His sketching today was somewhat special, though: he was sketching his encounter with a rare race called the Draconian. The Draconian were human in appearance, except for their dragon-like leathery wings on their back. Their magical prowess were near unmatched by any other playable races in the Zone, and they were more than able to hold their own in close combat. High level Draconian had the ability to take a dragon form. While the Draconian could be chosen as an Avatar, the fact that it was exclusive to players who had been playing for over five years and the only class they could choose was 'Dragon Mage' (a class exclusive only to the Draconian race) made them a rare sight in the Zone.

Raphael understood the tight restrictions on choosing Draconian as an Avatar; the one he met leveled an army base all by her own. The Draconian who Raphael met was beautiful, with silver mane flowing between her wings and the deepest shade of violet eyes he had ever seen. There was a glowing silver rune on her forehead. She wore a battle armor of intricate design, and wielded a spear made entirely of energy. She saw him, but left before he could ask her anything.

Raphael was finishing up the sketch of the Draconian when Allan walked in. "Whoa, is that a sketch of a Draconian?" he asked as he took a seat next to Raphael.

"Hmm," Raphael replied. "I met her last weekend."

"No way!" exclaimed Allan.

"Remember the Balsinor's army outpost, the one that we planned to sneak in?" asked Raphael. When Allan nodded he continued, "Well, she leveled it to the ground with only a swipe of her spear. I was there; I saw it."

"Man, I wish I was there to see it," sighed Allan. "So did you get to talk to her?"

Raphael shrugged. "I didn't exactly have a chance; she was hovering about ten feet on the sky. She did notice me though."

They were about to continue their conversation further when Mr. Moser, their Statistics lecturer arrived. "We'll continue this later," Allan said.

x x x

As usual, Raphael went to the VirtuTech Industries that weekend. Allan had entered the Zone about an hour earlier and would be waiting for him at the location they had agreed. After he parked his car, he entered the building.

As usual Zoë was on her shift, and she smiled when she saw him, "Sorry, Raphael, but your regular terminal is occupied. The one next to it is empty though."

Raphael was a little miffed at that, but he shrugged it off, "Okay," he replied.

Zoë nodded and led him there to help him log on into the Zone. As soon as they arrived Raphael noticed that the person occupying his regular terminal was a woman. He couldn't discern who she was though because her face was hidden beneath the helmet. As Zoë prepared the terminal for usage, Raphael turned to her and asked, "How long has she been here?"

Zoë answered without pausing on her work. "Um…almost an hour now I think."

"I see," he nodded.

"Well, everything's ready," she said. "I trust you know how to do the rest."

Raphael stepped into the capsule and picked up the helmet. He lay down, and after making himself comfortable he pressed a button on a console next to him. The text 'Logging in to Zone: Aludra' followed by a ten-second counter below it appeared on his field of view, and as soon as the counter reached zero, everything went black.

x x x

The smell of the sea was the first thing Raphael noticed as soon he successfully logged into the Zone. When he opened his eyes he was greeted by the scene of a sunset at the sea. It was evening in the Zone, which wasn't surprising considering that Zone time was two times faster than in the real world.

A soft nudge at his legs made him look down. Flame, his robotic wolf stood by his side. He knelt and stroked Flame's head, and he was rewarded with a contented growl. Flame was a three-year participation gift from VirtuTech. It was meant only to be a pet, but with an extra fee Flame was 'upgraded' into an ally that he could call into battle. Of course, customizing Flame to be battle-worthy cost him hefty virtual cash; Raphael actually had to buy some of the materials he needed in another Zone.

After a while he stood up again and glanced around. Allan still hadn't arrived yet, and Raphael was getting worried. He tapped the tiny headset on his ear and said, "Communicate: Phantom Gunner." 'Phantom Gunner' was Allan's nickname in the Zone.

Suddenly the ground below him shook and toppled him to the ground. At first he thought that it was just an earthquake simulated into the system, until he remembered that there were no natural disasters in the Zone unless it was necessary for Zone Events. Before the ground even settled he heard a loud rumble from afar. On the forest beyond him, he could see tall rock-like pillars appearing from the ground, separating the forest in two. Beyond that, he could see a floating island shimmering into existence. Raphael saw the looming shadow of the waves from the horizons, and realizing that a tsunami was imminent he quickly made his way into the forest, using his Avatar skills to quickly move further inland. As he glanced behind him he could see naval battleships appearing on the surface of the sea, as well as space battleships in the air.

Around him, there was only chaos. He could see objects and buildings from other Zones appearing around him. Players and Zone Constructs from other Zones appeared out of nowhere, looking confused at the surroundings around them. In the confusion, Raphael didn't notice that his communication with Allan was open.

"What the hell is happening?" was the first thing he heard from Allan when he screamed in his ear. Raphael could hear that wherever Allan was, it was chaotic there too.

"Damned if I know!" yelled Raphael, trying to make his voice heard over the noise. "Where are you?"

"Just exiting Rosetta City," replied Allan. "Stay where you are; give me your coordinates and I'll try to make my way to you."

Just then, Raphael heard a loud explosion not far from where Allan stood. "Allan! You okay?" he screamed.

There was a momentary pause before Allan replied, "Just a minor bruise, but otherwise okay. Man, that blast…oh, sh–"

"Allan? Allan?" yelled Raphael, but there was only static.

In his worry about Allan's safety and in the confusion of everything around him, Raphael noticed too late the ground crumbling from below him. He tried to hold on to something, but there was nothing within his reach. When the ground gave away he let out a loud scream as he fell into the darkness.

x x x

Raphael didn't realize that he had been out until he felt himself waking up. The ground was still and not above him – that was good, he figured – and he was lying on the ground. The feeling of a blanket covering his body immediately made him sat up.

The first thing he noticed was that it was nighttime, and he was lying below a narrow valley of some sort. There was a campfire burning in front of him, and not far from him, Flame sat still on its belly as if it was sleeping. When it saw that he was awake, it stood up and trotted next to him. Raphael also noticed that all the pain in his body was gone; whoever had saved him had also healed him. He pulled up his stat screen on the Datapad and verified that all of them were in normal parameters.

"Ah, you're awake," called a feminine voice from behind him.

Raphael immediately turned around and held his katana in front of him in a defensive stance. He did notice, however, that Flame wasn't the least threatened by the voice, indicating that she was probably the person who saved him. He slowly lowered his sword as the owner of the voice stepped into the light.

She was a Terinzi, a bipedal feline race in Zone Aludra. While most of her features were human, with emerald eyes and reddish ponytail on her back, her ears were distinctively feline in appearance. She even had a tail that moved sinuously behind her as she walked. Her fingernails were slightly elongated, and Raphael knew them to be fully functional claws. The Terinzi was clad in an intricately-designed breastplate with shoulder guards over her shirt, and high-cut boots to protect the lower portion of her body. Around her head was a circlet with a single emerald at the center, and armguards to complete her attire. Raphael noticed that her right armguard was a Datapad designed to match her armor, indicating that she was a player and not Zone Constructs. Her left hand held a bow.

The Terinzi sat down next to him and set her bow on the ground. "How are you feeling?" she asked. Flame sat next to her, and she stroked its metallic body as it growled in content.

"Fine, I think," he replied, and looked around. "What happened?"

"Someone hacked into the Core," she began, "and whoever did it also locked VirtuTech engineers out of it. They have no access to the Core at all…well, extremely limited access."

"Well that's bad news," he shrugged. Glancing at his Datapad, he saw that the clock showed that it was two hours past midnight – he had been out for seven Zone hours. "Thanks for saving me, but I'm not staying here until they fixed the problem." He pressed a button on his Datapad. "System: save and exit," he said.

Nothing happened.

He pressed the button again. "System: save and exit," he repeated, but again, nothing happened. Wondering what was happening, he glanced at the Terinzi.

"Without access to the Core, they can't pull any of the players back out. It means that we're stuck here," she quietly said.

Raphael looked worried. "Can't they just unplug us?"

She shook her head. "The feedback from the sudden disconnect would leave the players brain dead. But that's not the bad news – the safety features have been turned off. Players aren't being automatically disconnected when their Avatars die in the Zone. It means–"

"If players die in the Zone, the feedback will kill them for real," he finished off her sentence as realization struck him.

The Terinzi nodded. "We've already had a dozen deaths on our center alone. You know how Zones are constructed, right?

Raphael nodded; virtually everyone who played in the Zone knew that they were living in a 'galaxy' generated by the Core, where each Zone acted as a planet. Traveling between Zones was done via spaceports that functioned similarly to airports in the real world. One noticeable difference was that the 'outer space' was also considered a Zone of its own.

"The hacker modified the Zone protocols, so now instead of different Zones, all the Zones are merged into one huge Zone," she continued, and Raphael understood now why he saw players from other Zones appearing out of nowhere. "The hacker also inserted a floating island into the Core, presumably for his seat of power."

"So why lock us in then?" asked Raphael. "He got the Core; why involve us?"

"The Terinzi shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't realize the consequences of his actions. Maybe he wants to keep us as hostage, as he knows that VirtuTech won't just reset the whole system if thousands of people are still connected to the Core. Or maybe he just wants us here; after all, what is a kingdom without subjects?"

"The hacker is still logged on, right?" asked Raphael. He knew he was asking a lot of questions, but his life was on the line here. When she nodded, he continued, "Can't they just trace the hacker and unplug him?"

"The programmers are doing their best to trace the hacker," she answered. "But even if they found him they can't just unplug him. If they do that they'll still be locked out of the Core – meaning that we'll be stuck here permanently. No, they need to seize control of the Core from the inside before they can force him out of the system and arrest him."

Raphael looked at her skeptically. "How do you know all these?" he asked.

"I'm the one they sent in to regain control of the Core," she grinned, and he could clearly make out her feline fangs. "Well, not quite 'sent in', actually…more like volunteered."

"You went in anyway, despite knowing that this is a one-way trip?" he asked.

"I'm getting frustrated out there, not being able to do anything to help. And…" she paused, staring at him before averting her gaze. "Well, when I heard the programmers discussing about sending someone to repair the problem from inside, I volunteered to do it. They gave me a virus – a seeker program – to aid me in my task. I only have to deliver it at the Core and it will do the rest." As she said that, she took out an arrow from her quiver. It was an intricately designed arrow made of a silvery-black metal.

"The seeker program modifies itself to suit my Avatar profile," she said.

As she replaced the arrow back inside her quiver he asked, "So you're going to find this hacker and take him down, eh? Let me assist you then. Between the two of us I'm sure we'll stand a better chance against him."

The Terinzi turned to face him. "First off, I'm not even supposed to engage the hacker – I only need to deliver the seeker program to the Core," she said. "It's a task that I think I can manage alone, but thank you for the offer."

"Have you ever thought that the hacker, whoever he is, won't be far from the Core itself?" he asked. "And if he's smart enough to take control of the Core, I wouldn't put it past him to change his Avatar parameters to defy the Zone rules just to suit his needs. If that happens, you'll need all the help you can get – as diversion, at least – to deliver the program into the Core."

She pondered for a while before nodding. "Okay, you got a point there. So I guess we'll be working together then." She cleared her throat before continuing. "My name's…Sillarra."

Raphael raised her eyebrows; apparently whoever this 'Sillarra' was, she wanted to keep her real identity a secret. Very well; that was her right. "I'm Raphael. Or Silent Wolf in the Zone," he said, and gestured to Flame. "This is my companion, Flame."

"We best rest for the remainder of the night then," she said, and moved to one side of the campfire to set up her bed. "We'll search for the Core first thing in the morning."

x x x

After breakfast the next day, Raphael and Sillarra discussed their destination. "The arrow points east," she said, referring to the seeker program. The seeker program was designed to lead her to the direction of the Core. Before this the Core was placed at a Zone in the farthest parts of the 'galaxy' accessible only by the programmers, but with the hacker merging all the Zones together the Core was somewhere within this Zone.

"Is it possible to stop by Rosetta City along the way?" asked Raphael.

"I don't see why not; we might have to stop for the night anyway," she stated. "Why?"

"My friend Allan had just exited the city when the hacker struck," he replied. "I'm worried about his safety."

Sillarra picked up the small bag she used to store her items and slung it over her shoulder. Her bow was on her hand, while her quiver was tied with a leather strap across her waist. As she glanced at him she knew that there was a possibility that Allan might already be dead, but there was no need to tell him that. A distracted player was often careless, and careless players often died easily. And in the situation they were in, that wasn't a good thing.

The valley they were in turned out to the chasm that Raphael had fallen into the previous day. After they exited the valley they realized that their map was pretty much useless, for the landscape had greatly been altered by the Zone merge. There were no clear-cut roads anymore, and their paths were blocked by either a deep chasm or by the large pillars Raphael saw before. Raphael, however, couldn't help but feel a sense of thrill. He had been in Aludra for so long that he knew his way around by heart, and seeing the altered landscape almost made him feel as if he was exploring a new, unexplored land.

Sillarra revealed more about herself during their journey. While she revealed nothing that could compromise her identity, she did tell him that she was a student in Seraphim Polytechnic Academy – the same college Raphael was studying at – and she had been living alone since her parents' death. While she was quite well off from the inheritance, she took a part-time job at VirtuTech because she liked to play games. There were simply too few female gamers, she stated, and if other women saw her playing games, they might follow her example. Sillarra also told him more about her Avatar – she was currently a level 58 Sentinel (an archer who could cast healing and defensive magic), with specialization on bows. Raphael, in comparison, was a level 61 Hunter – a thief/assassin hybrid, with some knowledge in elemental magic.

Aside from the occasional battles with hostile creatures in a typical role-playing games (RPG) fare, their journey passed on without incident. After a while it was obvious that they were heading toward the direction of the floating island. Sillarra was an excellent hunter so food wasn't a problem, and being a VirtuTech employee she got a discount whenever they stopped by small towns or villages. There seemed to be more towns and villages now, but that was probably because everything was now one large Zone.

What Raphael never noticed, however, was Sillarra's feelings for him. She didn't say it out loud, but small things she did, like giving him an extra portion of food, packing up his backpack, and the warning glance she gave other women when they approached him – be they Zone Constructs or other players – made it obvious to those who noticed. She didn't mind if he didn't notice, though; it was enough for her to show her affections to him.

x x x

It was two Zone weeks after they started their journey when something interesting happened. Raphael and Sillarra were in the midst of a jungle then. It was evening, and they were resting after dinner when they felt the ground shook slightly in a rhythmic tremble. The jungle suddenly became deathly silent, and that brought them to attention. They slowly readied their weapons and prepared for an assault. With a silent command from Raphael, Flame entered battle mode and reconfigured its mounted rifles to shoot plasma beams.

The trembling became louder now, and the trees in front of them shook before a Tyrannosaurus Rex crashed into the clearing. A T-Rex was a creature that could only be found in hardcore areas in Zone Pangaea, so they never expected to encounter one of the strongest creatures in all the Zones. The T-Rex eyed the unmoving figures in front of it before letting out a blood-curdling roar. Raphael, seeing a chance, commanded Flame to blast its plasma beams into the T-Rex's opened mouth. The T-Rex staggered a little, but it was still alive – and angry.

"No way…that should have killed him!" whispered Raphael.

Sillarra distracted the T-Rex by jumping from trees to trees while firing her arrows to its vital spots. Raphael drew his katana and commanded Flame to support her, because she would be in great trouble as soon as her arrows ran out. Knowing that the T-Rex was immune to his ice elemental spells, he had no chance but to attack solely with his sword.

Between the three of them, they managed to wear the T-Rex down. However, it was still strong enough to kill them. Just then Sillarra's arrows ran out, and casting her bow aside she howled a Terinzi battle-cry and jumped on top of the creature, attacking it with her claws. She managed to injure one of its eyes, making the T-Rex threw its head upwards in pain. Sillarra, not having anything to grip hold on to, stumbled to the ground. Just as she stood up, the T-Rex swiped its tail at her and threw her toward one of the trees with a sickening thud. Raphael, seeing what had happened, rushed toward her.

"Sillarra!" he yelled. The slow movements of her chest told him that she was still breathing, but from the amount of blood seeping from her wound, he knew that she wouldn't last long. Rosetta City was close enough for him to get help, but could she survive for two Zone days?

In his panic he didn't notice the T-Rex had stopped struggling in pain, and attracted to Sillarra's blood, it was advancing toward them. Flame did its best to hold it at bay, but it was a losing battle for its plasma ammo was running out. Still, it stood between Raphael and the T-Rex, intent on protecting its master to the very end.

"Man, how much HP does this thing has?" whispered Raphael as he stared at the T-Rex. It must have taken several hundred thousand points of damage, but it was still standing. After gently placing Sillarra on the ground, he picked up his sword and prepared to fight. If Sillarra expired, then the task to deliver the seeker program to the Core would fall to him.

He was about to launch an attack when a powerful beam of energy descended from the sky and hit directly at the T-Rex. He shielded himself from the blast, and when he opened his eyes he saw that what was left of it was a smoking crater. He looked up and saw a figure floating down from the sky. She was a Draconian, but what surprised him was that it was the same one he saw before. For a few moments their eyes met, but she broke eye contact when she saw Sillarra on the ground not far from them. In a flash she was crouching next to her; before Raphael could ask anything the Draconian placed her hand over Sillarra's body and cast a high-level healing spell. Raphael could see the wounds behind Sillarra's head closing.

"She's fine now, but she won't be awake for a few more Zone hours," the Draconian said and stood up. She stared hard at him and asked, "Now, do you know what the hell happened? Everything goes haywire in the Zone, and I seem to be able to log off from the system!"

Raphael debated not telling her the truth, but she saved his and Sillarra's lives; he owed her that much. "You better sit down," he said, and when she did he took a deep breath and said, "Someone hacked into the Core…"

Fifteen minutes later, Raphael had told everything Sillarra told him. The Draconian was shaken at first, but it was soon turned into rage when she realized what the hacker had done. "So you see, if you haven't saved us, everyone will be trapped here forever," Raphael finished.

"Let me aid you in this quest," she said. "You need help accessing the floating island anyway, and that T-Rex just gave me enough experience to unlock my Dragon Form ability."

He nodded. "We'd appreciate that. Having someone powerful as you will greatly aid us in our quest. By the way, I'm Raphael, or Silent Wolf in the Zone. The wolf is Flame, and the Terinzi you saved is Sillarra. Don't ask me what her real name is though; she never told me."

The Draconian smiled. "My name's Fiona – both inside and outside the Zone."

Raphael placed a blanket over Sillarra before returning to sit in front of Fiona. "So," he began, "tell me about yourself."

x x x

The first thing Sillarra noticed when she woke up the next morning was that all her wounds had been healed. She wondered who treated her, for she knew that Raphael didn't have any healing spells. She glanced around trying to find Raphael, and found him sleeping not far from her. She slowly got up and walked closer to him to wake him up. With an embarrassed smile she thought of waking him up with a kiss if he didn't stir. Flame, who was sleeping next to its master, sensed her intentions and quietly slinked away to give her room.

"Raphael, wake up! It's mor–"

She paused in mid-sentence when she saw that he wasn't alone – there was a female Draconian next to him. They slept facing each other, and their hands were touching. "No…" she whispered, a tear formed in her eyes. With that, she turned around and ran away.

Fiona, who was woken up by Sillarra's voice saw her running into the forest. At first she wondered why, but when she saw their sleeping position she smiled and muttered, "Oh my…it seems I may have disturbed something."

Sillarra didn't return to the camp until mid-morning, and when she did, the cheery Sillarra was replaced by a quiet, sullen one. Even her actions became forced and mechanical. She either spoke in monosyllables or ignored them altogether, and when Raphael asked what was wrong with her, he was replied with an uncomfortable silence. When he asked Fiona about it she just smiled and giggled, but said nothing. For Raphael, the two-day journey to Rosetta City was pure nightmare.

It was late in the evening when they reached Rosetta City. Though unspoken, everyone agreed to directly head toward the nearest inn. Everyone was tired from walking – even Fiona, who insisted to walk with them – and all they wanted to do now was rest. At Fiona's insistence they rented two rooms, with Raphael having one room as his own. No one argued though, so they went to their rooms to clean up, and agreed to meet back in one hour for dinner.

"Aah…feels good to sleep on a bed for once, isn't it?" exclaimed Fiona.

"Hmm," replied Sillarra shortly.

Fiona watched in frustration as Sillarra put away her items. She was still mistaken about her and Raphael, and she didn't even allow him to explain.

"Say, Sillarra…" Fiona began. Sillarra paused on what she was doing, but made no move to turn around to face her. "About that morning…it's not what you think. After I defeated the T-Rex, Raphael and me…well, we got to talking. He explained the situation, and later we talked about ourselves. I guess we both must be really tired for I didn't remember drifting off next to him. Nothing happened, honest. If I knew you and Raphael had that kind of relationship I would never have fallen asleep next to him. Besides," she smiled and continued, "I'm already married."

"I see…" replied Sillarra. She sat still for a while before turning toward Fiona with a cheery smile on her face. "I'm going for a little walk; you just rest here, okay? I promise I'll return for dinner."

And with that, Sillarra left. "What was that all about?" asked Fiona, confused.

x x x

Sillarra wandered aimlessly inside Rosetta City. The whole city looked like it had been hit by a hurricane, with crumbling buildings everywhere she looked. She could only imagine the death tolls in the city. Sure, most of them were from Zone Constructs, but she was quite sure that there were quite a number of player deaths, too. She knew that the Core wouldn't easily replace Zone Constructs because the Zones were created to be as realistic as possible. Two Zone weeks had passed since the Zone merge, but she could still feel the pain and suffering of the surviving inhabitants of the city. Indeed, her Terinzi scent could even still sense the lingering smell of fire on the destroyed buildings. She could see people sleeping in the corner of a destroyed building, huddling together for warmth. Not far from where she stood the cry of a baby echoed through the night. As she passed the hospital she could see rows of bodies covered in cloths – player Avatars, no doubt, for Zone Constructs de-rezzed when they die.

She glanced up to the sky and saw the floating island looming over the shadow of the full moon. She estimated that it was only about a kilometer away from the city. "Tomorrow…" she whispered, "tomorrow everything will end."

As she walked she tried to forget the sorrow around her for a little while and concentrated on her problems. She knew that Raphael did nothing wrong, but she was just too stubborn to admit it. Furthermore, it got in her nerves when Fiona became too friendly with Raphael when Fiona saw her ignoring him. And Raphael! Why didn't he ever notice what she had been doing for the last two weeks? Was he really that dense? Maybe she should have taken a bolder approach, but she didn't want him to think her as easy when they met later in the real world…

Sillarra was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn't notice someone following her until it was too late. She was about to turn around and faced her stalker when he grabbed both her hands. She saw that he was a big man, and he had a friend with him. The man holding her clamped her mouth to prevent her from screaming. She looked around to find help, but the place was deserted. The big man's friend took out a syringe and jabbed it at her neck. She tried to struggle, but she found that her strength was fading fast. She let out one desperate struggle before slumping limply on the big man's arms as she passed out.

The two men looked around to see if the coast was clear before dragging her into one of the alleys, never realizing that a lone figure on top of a building was watching them.

x x x

"Where's Sillarra?" asked Raphael when he found Fiona waiting alone at the tavern.

Fiona looked up at him. "Huh? Oh, she went out for a walk," she replied. "Why don't we order our dinner while we wait?"

Raphael sighed and took a seat at the table. After the waitress had taken their order Fiona said, "So, tomorrow's going to be the big day, eh? We defeat the Sauron wannabe and save the world – or at least, the Zone."

"Hmm," he replied, not really listening to what she was saying. She noticed that he occasionally glanced at the entrance as if expecting someone to walk in. Fiona let out a sly smile.

"Raphael, can I ask you a question?" she asked.

"Hmm? What is it?" he replied, trying to sound interested and failing.

"Do you like Sillarra?"

Raphael blushed at the question and looked away. "Wh-what do you mean by that? I'm only aiding her on her quest, that's all."

Fiona slowly understood the situation now: while Sillarra was clearly in love with Raphael, he was dense enough not to notice it. That was why Sillarra was irked when he asked what was wrong with her. However, his reaction just now showed that he had feelings for her too, and that was the irony of the situation.

The waitress had returned back with their order, so she just shrugged and concentrated on the food. After a while however she noticed that Raphael barely touched his food and kept glancing at the door with a worried expression on his face. After a while, it frustrated her.

"Go," she finally said.

"Eh?" he muttered, glancing at her.

"Go, I know you're worried about her," she said.

"But–" he tried to reason, but she immediately cut him off.

"She loves you, you know – or haven't you noticed that yet? That's why she's so pissed off when she saw us sleeping close to each other the morning after I arrived. She's out there somewhere, Raphael – weaponless. I'll actually be surprised if nothing happens to her yet."

Raphael hesitated.

"Go," she repeated. "It's not like you need my permission."

He stared at him for a moment before nodding. Picking up his katana from the table he stood up. "Flame, let's go," he said, and headed directly toward the door.

x x x

Raphael ran through the city looking for Sillarra. He didn't know where she had gone to, so his only hope was to ask everyone he met whether they had seen her. Flame was also a great help; it recognized Sillarra's scent and was able to guide him as he searched the city. He ran around for almost half an hour, until he found an old man who was sitting outside with his wife.

"A Terinzi girl, eh? I think I saw one passing this way a little while ago. She was heading toward the Slums District, I think," the old man said, and the wife nodded, confirming his story.

After thanking the old couple Raphael headed directly toward the Slums District. It was the poorest district in the city, and it was no doubt filled with thugs and thieves waiting in the dark corners in hopes of making a little buck. If Sillarra really was headed here, then there was a chance that something bad had happened to her. Raphael was alert and Flame was in battle mode as they stepped into the district, preparing for any assault. The alleyways and buildings seemed empty, but being a Hunter he could sense the presence of others around him.

Raphael walked until he reached a dead end. Several alleyways on his sides branched from the main road, and he was about to choose a random path when he sensed a presence not far from him.

"If you're looking for the Terinzi, she's not there," the figure said.

Raphael drew his katana. "Who are you?" he demanded.

The figure stepped into the light. He was garbed in black, with long overcoat with a cowboy hat, and a rifle strapped on his back. There was a robotic hawk perched over his shoulder. Raphael could see him smiling as he took off the hat, revealing a very familiar face.

"Allan!" exclaimed Raphael. He sheathed his katana and walked closer to him. "I'm so good to see you again, my friend."

"Same here," Allan replied. "What happened? When I woke up at the hospital I saw many people from other Zones are treated there. Communication seems to be down, and I can't even log off. I figured venturing outside the city isn't safe anymore so I stayed here, hoping that you might come here." He grinned and continued, "And here you are."

"You're right; it's no longer safe outside. Someone hacked into the Core, and not only he locked us in he turned the safeties off – so if you die here, you die for real," he said. "But I'll explain later. We need to save Sillarra."

"The Terinzi?" asked Allan. When Raphael nodded he said, "I saw two thugs caught her unawares and drugged her before dragging her into that alley." He pointed to an alley opposite to the one Raphael was about to take. As they stepped into the alleyway Allan continued, "I tried to track them, but I lost them when they went down into a sewer. I figured she must be traveling in a party because she carried no weapons, so they must be bound to search for her sooner or later. But I never thought she's traveling with you."

Raphael only listened as he began to search for clues on where Sillarra's captor headed. Flame scouted ahead to see the possible paths the kidnapper might have taken. After a minute, Raphael turned toward Allan and said, "They tried to cover their trail with magic, but that only turns to our favor – Flame can trace the magical residue back to its source."

"Cool," remarked Allan. "It sure makes our work easier."

"Yeah…too easy," said Raphael. He drew his katana and advised, "Careful, this might be a trap."

"Got it," Allan replied and cocked his rifle.

The two of them carefully navigated the winding alleyways with Flame leading the way. There were several traps, no doubt set by the captor to slow down any pursuers, but Raphael's skills proved useful in disarming them. Soon they arrived at a small overgrown garden of a seemly deserted mansion. They stayed close to the shadows as they scouted ahead for any guards. Allan's hawk, Wraith, proved useful in this situation; like Flame, Wraith was an upgraded 'pet'. It was equipped with a stealth generator avoid detection while scouting, and it could provide a real-time tactical map of the area through a camera that was connected to Allan's goggles.

There were several guards stationed in the area, and Allan effectively took some of them out with his rifle. The rest was handled by Raphael who stealthily moved to their position and slit their throats with his dagger. After all the guards had been taken off, they entered the mansion.

The mansion seemed empty, but Raphael detected the presence of several guards hiding in the darkness and took them out before they had the chance to alert the others. The trail of magical residue soon led them into the basement, and as they stayed in hiding near the entrance they saw three people. Two of them were Sillarra's captors, sanding in front of the table where the third man sat. He had the look of a bandit leader, although the black breastplate he was wearing told Raphael and Allan that he might be more important than that. Lying still at a corner was Sillarra, still unconscious. On her neck was a magical damper; apparently whoever planned this must know of her spellcasting abilities.

"Does she have the arrow with her?" the leader asked.

"Uh…no," the large man replied. "She was weaponless."

"You fool! I told you to make sure she has the arrow with her when you caught her!" the leader snapped, making them flinch.

The smaller man, trying to appease his boss, carefully said, "We can try and sneak into her room tonight and steal the arrow."

"Hah! You can't even find your way around in broad daylight!" the leader retorted. "Besides, her companions must be on alert when they realize she's missing. No matter," he said, and stood up. "I need you two to watch her until Lord Vincent arrives tomorrow. Make sure she never escapes. And do not harm her – Lord Vincent needs her unharmed."

With a silent command from Raphael, Flame reconfigured its mounted weapon into rifles and took aim at the two lackeys. With a loud crack the rifles discharged, sending two bullets at the back of their skull. As they fell to the ground the leader scrambled to reach his rifle at the wall. Just as he was about to grab it a shot rang out from beside him, hitting the wall next to his hand.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Allan calmly said as he stepped out of the shadows. His rifle was slung over his back, and on each of his hands was a revolver with mounted laser sight aimed directly at the leader's forehead. "Hands on your back," he commanded.

At first the leader hesitated, but seeing Raphael stepping out from the shadows in front of him with a drawn weapon and Flame by his side, he obliged. Allan unbuckled the bandit leader's sword belt before throwing away it at the floor.

"How did you get past my men?" he asked in a calm voice.

"I'll do the questioning around here," said Raphael. "Now, why did you kidnap her?"

"Why should I answer you, punk?" the leader replied, and he immediately screamed when a bullet from Allan's gun shattered one of his knees. He fell kneeling to the ground in pain.

"I meant to shoot there. I want you to know that, and I don't miss," Allan said calmly. "Now answer him."

"She was alone, and I figured she'll fetch a good price in the slave market," the leader answered as he gritted his teeth in pain.

"And this 'Lord Vincent' is your buyer?" asked Raphael.

"Yes," he replied.

"Who is Lord Vincent?" Raphael quickly asked, not wanting to give him the time to think.

"I told you, he's a buyer," the leader answered.

"Wrong answer," said Allan, and fired another shot at the leader's meaty arm.

He screamed in pain.

"Who is Lord Vincent?" Raphael repeated.

"I don't know!" the leader screamed. "He just appears in my office one day and told me that a Terinzi girl will be arriving at the city soon. He said I'll know which one because one of her companions is a Dragon Mage. He said the girl is carrying a magical arrow, and he wants me to capture the girl and retrieve the arrow."

Raphael stared hard at the bandit leader. He speculated that this 'Lord Vincent' is the hacker, and somehow or another he caught wind of VirtuTech plans to restore the Core. That was probably the reason he wants the seeker program, or the 'arrow' as it appeared in the Zone. He noticed Allan glancing questioningly at him, but he ignored him for now.

Suddenly the bandit leader grinned and said, "Kill me if you wish, but you'll never get the girl." Allan and Raphael were puzzled by his words, but Flame's sudden growl made them turn around to see two of the bandits behind them. They seemed to have escaped detection and were taking Sillarra out of the basement. One of them was carrying her on his shoulders, while the other held a gun as he shifted his aim between Allan and Raphael.

Raphael's image seemed to blur, and suddenly hand of the bandit holding the gun was chopped off. Before he even had a chance to scream, his head was severed from his body. The other bandit was then stabbed in several quick successions, and before his body even touched the floor Raphael was back at where he was standing before, only now he had Sillarra slung over his shoulder and a bloodied katana in his hand.

"You were saying?" he calmly asked without even losing a breath. Allan stared at him, amazed by what he had done.

Seeing an opening, the bandit leader charged at Allan and knocked him to the ground. Raphael seemed to have anticipated this and stood still as the bandit leader reached for a knife hidden in his boots and charged toward him. He never had a chance to reach him however when a shot rang out, shattering his skull.

"You got off easy," Allan said. He slowly stood up as the bodies around them de-rezzed.

Raphael crouched next to Sillarra, and with his dagger he cut off the magical damper on her neck. Allan walked next to him. "She okay?" he asked.

"A little roughed up, but otherwise okay," Raphael replied. "Come on; let's head back to the inn."

x x x

When Sillarra came to, she realized that she was being carried on someone's back. Her first reaction was to panic, but she immediately relaxed when she realized that Raphael was carrying her. On their side was Flame, and a few steps in front of them was a man she didn't recognize.

Raphael sensed her initial panic and quickly said, "Don't worry…you're safe now."

"You saved me?" she asked.

"With the help of a friend," he answered. "How are you feeling?"

"Still a little dizzy, I think," she replied.

He smiled. "I guess this means that you owe me a date, at least, for my troubles."

Though he didn't see it, he could feel her smiling. "I guess," she quietly replied.

There was silence between them before he asked, "Can you walk?"

"Yes, but…" she trailed off, "if you don't mind, can we stay like this for a little while longer?"

"Okay," he replied, and she snuggled close to him with a contented purr.

x x x

The party woke up refreshed the next day, and after breakfast they exited Rosetta City, heading toward the floating island. After making some distance between them and the city, Fiona asked everyone to stop. They all looked questioningly at her.

"The floating island is close enough, so I think it's best if we continue the rest of the way by flight," she explained. "It will give us enough time to prepare for any surprises up there."

"Makes sense," Allan noted. "This way we don't have to fight anything on the ground around the floating island."

Fiona nodded, and gestured for everyone to stand back. "I'm going to use my Dragon Form ability. I don't know how this will work since I never had the chance to practice, though."

After everyone had stood in a considerable distance, Fiona clasped her hands and murmured a spell. As she did so she was encased in a bright light that soon changed form into a dragon. When the light dissipated Fiona was gone, replaced by a dragon that stretched more than fifteen meters from snout to tail. It was covered with gleaming silver scales that looked almost white at certain angles. The dragon peered at the others with the deepest shade of violet they had ever seen. Huge, powerful wings adorned the dragon's back.

Suddenly an odd, but strangely familiar voice echoed in everyone's mind. ' Wow, I never thought this form would be so…powerful!'

"Fiona? Is that you?" asked Sillarra.

'Of course it's me, Z-I mean, Sillarra,' the dragon answered, and they could hear her chuckles in their minds. 'Oh sorry; I guess that means I gain the ability to read minds too in this form. Come,' she said and lowered her wings. 'Climb on my back; I'll carry you to the floating island.'

Knowing that the dragon was actually Fiona helped to ease their fears a bit, although it didn't help much. Dragons were a trademark of the fantasy realm; it even existed in Zone Aludra, although one had to actually search for it to fight one. It was generated by the Core as a challenge to hardcore players, and the rewards for taking one down was beyond anything they could ever imagined. Furthermore, the player would gain the title 'Dragonslayer' as their nickname prefix, and would be able to choose the Draconian Avatar the next time they created a new character even if they didn't fulfill the five-year participation requirement.

After everyone was safely on the dragon's back, she leapt into the air before using its powerful wings to push its body through the air. Everyone held on as Fiona made her way toward the floating island. Because of the speed at which she was going, the floating island soon filled everyone's view after about fifteen minutes.

The top of the island was a typical archetype villain setting – a dark, looming castle complete with cark clouds swirling at its highest tower. Perched around the tower were several black dragons; some of them eyed the newcomer approaching their domain with hatred in their eyes. At the courtyard were hundreds of monsters from all Zones, ranging from the weakest to some of the strongest, and they were all waiting for them to land. Some of the flying creatures were already attacking them, but between Sillarra's arrows, Allan's rifles, and Flame's plasma blasts, they were able to hold them at bay. It seemed that the hacker had anticipated their arrival and had prepared a suitable welcoming party.

Fiona circled the courtyard, trying to find a safe place to land. When she found none, she took a deep breath and let out a stream of fire that fried a portion of the monsters to crisp. Amidst the charred courtyard she landed, and the others immediately climbed down and jumped into the fray. Sillarra had her quiver enchanted so she had a supply of unlimited arrows and Allan had his weapons enchanted so that he would never run out of bullets the night before, and the enchantments proved useful now.

Fiona, still in her dragon form, fired a volley of fireballs scattering throughout the courtyard and ripped anything that came too close her claws and talons. Sillarra nicked arrows after arrows at the opposition, stopping only to replenish her defensive spells. Raphael unleashed his ice elemental magic, freezing monsters on its tracks before slicing them with his katana. Flame reconfigured its mounted weapons to fire magnetically-accelerated nuclear slugs that tore through the monsters' ranks. Allan covered the air with his rifle, taking down any flying creatures that threatened them. Between all of them they slowly inched closer to the entrance of the castle. The opposition, however, didn't seem to thin out; with every one killed, another stepped in to replace it. It was obvious that the hacker was using the Core to generate monsters to prevent them from reaching the castle.

Realizing that they were no closer to reaching their destination, Fiona leapt into the air and using what little time she had to change back to her Draconian form. She then summoned her energy spear, and muttering a quick spell, she swung her spear toward the entrance of the castle. A beam of energy burst forth, and any monsters that were in the path of the beam were instantly disintegrated.

"Go!" she screamed. "I'll hold them off until you get inside!"

Without waiting for another second, the others ran toward the entrance as the monsters' ranks closed behind them. Fiona swooped down, and using her spear she began attacking the monsters. They pushed the door open just enough so that one of them could enter at a time, while the others held the monsters at bay. Just as everyone stepped inside the castle however, a black dragon swooped down toward Fiona, throwing her a few feet away.

"Fiona!" screamed Raphael when he saw what had happened. There was nothing they could do to save her however; they had to close the castle door to prevent the monsters at courtyard from following them.

Sillarra wanted to go back out to help her, but Raphael stopped her. "Don't," he said. "She may have given up her life to ensure that the Core is restored. Don't waste it by going back outside."

"But…but…" she stammered, before crying in Raphael's arms. Behind them the castle door thundered from the pounding of monsters outside, but it held.

Allan stared at the two of them before slinging his rifle and took out his guns. "Come on," he said, "the Core awaits."

x x x

The castle was surprisingly empty, for most parts. There were several guards stationed at the entrance of a room or roaming through the hallways, but they were easily disposed off without any trouble. Raphael couldn't help but chuckle at how the hacker fell back to stereotypical arch-villain; off all the monsters he could use as castle guards, he still chose Orcs. Sure, the ones he used as guards were bulkier than normal Orcs and wearing fine armors, but still. The seeker program pointed upwards, so up the stairs they went. Luckily the way up wasn't that tough; they found several magic-powered elevators along the way. Apparently the hacker who designed this castle wasn't fond of stairs either; perhaps he designed them just to torture his guards.

Soon they came to a large door. The Core was on the other side of that door, and they were certain that the hacker was there, too. "Well, this is it," Raphael said, and everyone readied their weapons. Just as they were about to push the door open however, it opened by itself. Cautious of any danger, they stepped inside.

Beyond the door was a large hall made entirely of glass. At the center of the room was the Core – a swirling ball of red several meters across floating a few feet on the air. The light from the Core cast a red hue over the area. On one end of the hall was a tall throne, and it wasn't empty. Realizing that the figure was the hacker, they immediately readied their weapons.

It was hard to make the details of the figure that sat on the throne until he stood up and took a step forward. He was tall, with reddish hair and a well trimmed beard that had a black streak down the middle of it. His face was somewhat handsome, except that his eyes were two dark pits. The man wore strange clothes that were primarily black, though they had red trim and bits of gold metal.

"Welcome to my castle," he began, eyeing each of them curiously. "I must say, I am impressed by the way you get through my welcoming party. I expected your kind would send someone after me…" He smirked. "I have been expecting it."

"Who the hell are you?" Allan demanded.

The hacker looked annoyed, but he quickly covered it up. "Forgive me for not introducing myself…you may call me Lord Vincent."

"Lord my ass," Allan spat. "You're probably just a thirty-year old virgin who haven't had a lay before in your life. Do you think you can have everything now that you control the Core? Well get this, 'Lord', we're gonna take you down!"

Without warning Allan cocked his rifle and fired several shots toward Lord Vincent…only to be reflected by a glowing magical shield in front of him. Lord Vincent raised his hand, and a flash of red lightning shot out of his palm, hitting Allan and sending him flying a few feet away with a loud yell.

"Allan!" screamed Raphael, and he and Sillarra quickly went to Allan. They saw that he was unconscious, but still breathing. Sillarra wanted to heal him, but Raphael prevented her from wasting any more energy. From the looks of it, Lord Vincent wouldn't go down with a fight.

"Hah! You think that mere weapons can defeat me? I control the Core; I am invincible!" he screamed.

"He's delusional," whispered Raphael, and drew his sword. "I guess this is it then." And with that, he launched himself toward Lord Vincent.

Lord Vincent deflected Sillarra's arrows with the magical shield while casting his spells at both Raphael and Sillarra. The two of them expertly dodged his attacks, and with Sillarra and Flame distracting Lord Vincent, Raphael was able to get closer. Soon Raphael was in a range where spells were ineffective, so Lord Vincent summoned a sword of fire and was quickly engaged in a duel with Raphael.

It took only a moment for Raphael to realize that Lord Vincent was much more powerful than he was…much more. There was no doubt that his magic would outclass the most powerful spells they could cast, too. From the smirk in his face, Raphael knew that Lord Vincent was only toying with them, waiting for them to tire before finishing them off. Lord Vincent deflected all his blows, and in trying to find any weakness Raphael noticed that the Core dimmed for a few moments whenever Lord Vincent cast a spell. Because he controlled the Core, he could draw on the limitless energy of the Core to cast any of his spells. If the seeker program could restore control of the Core to VirtuTech, then Lord Vincent would be vulnerable.

"Sillarra!" yelled Raphael as he deflected one of Lord Vincent's blows. "Fire the seeker program at the Core!"

As soon as she heard that, she immediately pulled out the arrow – the seeker program – and nicked it at her bow. Just as she was about to release it however Lord Vincent screamed, "No!" and summoned a lightning bolt at her. She let out a loud scream before falling to the floor.

"Sillarra!" screamed Raphael. He quickly broke contact from Lord Vincent and rushed toward her. Sillarra was battered; she suffered multiple burns, and her armor was almost charred to black. Her body was limp when he held her in his arms. He could see that she was still breathing, but barely.

Sillarra coughed blood as she slowly opened her eyes. "I'll be okay…" she rasped.

"But Sillarra…you're injured! How can you say that?" he asked, tears began to form in his eyes.

"Stop him…restore the Core," she whispered, and gave him a weak smile. "I guess I can't go to that date after all." And with that, she closed her eyes.

Burning with rage and sorrow, Raphael picked up the seeker program and slowly stood up. He stared at Lord Vincent's smirking face in hatred. "I won't forgive you for what you have done," he said, and concentrated. Sillarra once said that the seeker program took a shape that suited her Avatar profile, so maybe he could change it to suit his, too. Immediately the seeker program changed shape into a katana, retaining the texture and feel of the arrow it once was.

With a loud snarl, Raphael charged toward Lord Vincent. Lord Vincent was confident and blocked Raphael's slash with his magical shield, but it did nothing to even slow down the blow. The slash went right through the shield…and sent the blade cleanly through his shoulder, separating his body in two.

"How…" he trailed off as realization struck him. "The seeker program…"

Raphael watched coldly as Lord Vincent's body flopped like a fish before lying still on the ground. He then turned around and walked toward the Core. He stared at it for a few moments before jumping and plunging the sword deep into the Core. The seeker program seemed to be sucked into the Core, and the Core started to glow blue instead of red before it imploded.

He stared in fascination for a few moments before realizing that the Core wasn't the only thing that was imploding. In fact, everything was imploding. Before he could make any sense of it, reality – or what passed for it in the Zone – was suddenly torn out from underneath him.

x x x

Raphael opened his eyes to discover that it was dark. His head felt stuffy, and his body felt cold and numb. At first he thought he was dead and was lying in a coffin, but slowly reality began to reassert itself. He was lying in a coffin, but it was the one he had used to log on into the Zone. Obviously this meant that he was no longer there.

"It worked…" he muttered. Slowly he moved his arms and removed the helmet, wincing a little when his eyes were blinded by the bright light. He rubbed his eyes to as it slowly adjusted, and sat up. On his right hand was an IV drip, which wasn't surprising considering that he had been inside the Zone for over a week. After he carefully pulled the needle out, he looked around.

It was chaotic around him, with nurses and VirtuTech employees running around tending to people who were slowly waking up from the Zone. He could see people sitting up at their terminal and staggering around as if they had just awaken from a dream. He smiled at the sight, knowing that the seeker program had done its job. People were able to log out of the Zone.

"Raphael!" a voice called, and I turned around to see Allan approaching me. "Great to see you back, man."

"Yeah," Raphael replied.

"What happened, anyway? All I remembered was that Lord Vincent deflected my bullets and then knocked me out," he asked, and grinned. "But that isn't really important isn't it? You and Sillarra managed to restore the Core."

A dark cloud hovered at Raphael's face at the mention of Sillarra's name. But before Allan had a chance to ask a voice next to them spoke. "Raphael? And Allan?"

Both of them turned to the woman who was using Raphael's usual terminal before. Noticing the confused look in their faces she smiled and said, "It's me – Fiona."

The woman was in her thirties, and indeed, she did look like the Fiona in the Zone. Only that Fiona in the real world had jet-black hair and grey eyes. "Fiona? You survived?" asked Allan with a disbelieving look in his face.

"Of course I am!" she chuckled. "When the black dragons descended I almost thought I would be killed for sure. It was then I realized that in Dragon Form, I could telepathically communicate with other Draconian in the Zone. I explained the situation to them and they came to my aid. You should have been there; the sight of dragons dancing the dance of death is truly one to behold."

"Man, I wish I was there to see it," Allan shrugged. "But meeting a Draconian and having one in my party is a great enough experience for me."

Fiona, who noticed that Raphael had been quiet all these times, asked, "Raphael, are you all right?"

He glanced at her before answering, "Yeah, I'm okay, I guess."

Fiona, however, knew that he wasn't. "Sillarra didn't make it, did she?" she quietly asked.

Raphael glanced up again, this time with tears in his eyes. He slowly nodded and stifled back the tears, but when Fiona gave him a comforting hug the tears finally burst forth.

x x x

It had been a week since the hacker incident at VirtuTech Industries. Official records stated that the hacking was done by an ex-VirtuTech programmer who wanted to get back at the company. However he was dead a minute before the Core was back under VirtuTech control, so investigations were only a formality before the authorities closed the case.

The Core was taken offline, pending maintenance. After the seeker program removed the anomaly caused by the hacker the safety features came back online, and after saving their Avatars the Core kicked out everyone who was logged in. There were voices in the community that wanted the Core to be shut down permanently to prevent anything similar from happening in the future, but it was overruled by the government, reasoning that doing so would only be similar to banning the use of cars because it was accident-prone. However, VirtuTech was ordered by the court to strengthen their securities to prevent it from happening again.

As for all the players who were involved in the incident, VirtuTech Industries offered them compensations in several forms including cash and special privileges to their Avatars to ensure their loyalty to the company. As for the families of those who didn't make it out alive, the company offered their heartiest condolences and offered compensations in cash. Some players were burned out by the incident that they never wanted to do anything with VR again, and there were those who wanted to sue the company for what had happened. It was going to be several long, hard years for VirtuTech before they regained people's trust again.

As for Allan, Fiona and Raphael, VirtuTech recognized their participation in taking the hacker down and the restoration of the Core – they had also sent in an invisible camera in with Sillarra so they could monitor her progress. VirtuTech invited them to a special award ceremony to honor their effort. But while Fiona and Allan had confirmed their appearance, Raphael had yet to give any answer.

Things were more or less normal for Raphael after the incident. Sure, his weekly visits to VirtuTech Industries were halted at least until the Core was back online, but he still had classes and his life as a student still went on. If one didn't know any better one could say that nothing was wrong with him. But Allan knew that Raphael was in depression because of Sillarra's death. Lately, all his sketches were filled with images of Sillarra.

Allan wanted so much to tell him that he should move on; that Raphael didn't actually knew who she was so the emotional attachments shouldn't be that deep, but as his childhood friend he also knew that Raphael was the type who rarely loved someone, and when he did, he did so with all his heart. Besides, he did spend every waking moment during the two Zone weeks with her, so his feelings toward her must really did run deep. So Allan didn't say anything, letting his friend deal with his emotional conflict on his own.

x x x

Raphael sat alone at the cafeteria one afternoon. It was lunch hour, and the cafeteria was almost chaotic as students rushed to get their food before their next classes. Raphael didn't really notice his surroundings; he was engrossed in reading the assignment given by the lecturer that morning. On his tray was a half-eaten burger and soda, and he was slowly munching the French fries as he read. He didn't even look up to see who had placed a tray at his table and took a seat in front of him, because from the amount of students coming into the cafeteria, he wasn't surprised if it was some random stranger who took the only available seat at the cafeteria. The stranger's words to him, however, immediately caught his attention.

"I think I still owe you a date," the stranger said.

He stopped on what he was reading and looked up to see Zoë, smiling brightly at him. "Zoë?" he asked, confused.

"Well, the VirtuTech award ceremony is tonight, and I still don't have a date," she said. "And to think that I'm one of the guests of honor…" She stared at him and asked, "So are you going or not?"

"I…I don't understand," he flustered.

"It's me, silly," she chuckled, but when she saw he was still confused she stated, "Raphael, I'm Sillarra."

At that moment, Raphael stared at her in a new light. Now that he thought of it Zoë did look a lot similar to Sillarra, if you discounted the feline ears and tail. He wondered how he had missed that fact all these times.

"You're Sillarra?" he asked.

She nodded. "Surprised?"

"But…I thought…you…" he stammered, not knowing what to say.

"You thought I was dead," she quietly said. "I understand, Raphael – I almost thought so too myself. But even as I stumbled into oblivion I tried hard to hold on, knowing that if you were able to restore the Core in time I should be saved. And you did." She smiled. "So here I am."

Raphael couldn't contain his joy. He grabbed Zoë's hands and held it tight. "Thank god," he said, wiping the tears of joy in his eyes. "I thought that I've already lost you…this past two weeks has been a living hell for me."

"I understand," she replied. "I don't know how to see you again after I heard that the Core had gone offline. I actually had to go to admin office and asked for your class schedule. But even after that I don't know how to approach you. I've always been a shy person, but watching you going down the stairs of depression from afar finally gave me the courage to meet you."

It took him a while, but he finally managed to calm himself down. Raphael stared deep at Zoë's green eyes and said, "I've always liked you, you know."

She smiled. "I know – I always liked you too, from the first moment I saw you. I guess we're both just too shy to say our feelings. You know, that's the reason I never told you my real name when I met you in the Zone."

They stayed like that for a little while before he asked, "So what happens now?"

Zoë smiled and moved to sit next to him. She kissed him fully in the lips before saying, "Be my date for the ceremony tonight, and we'll see how it goes from there."

- The End -