The war was bleak and signs that Valkyrie Dawn was on the retreat were becoming more noticable each hour that passed. Jacqueline in her mind would ask whether the armies of the Imperium slept but restrained actually voicing such comment. She knew that the most realistic answer to the Imperium's gain was down to their Guild likely having a good number of American players. Fantasia World Online was not designed with a world war in mind and as such the developers had not considered any consequences of allowing for a merged European and US server which now was causing so many problems. The Imperium advanced in the time Valkyrie Dawn members returned to reality and slept or worked which left a minority of members left online to fight the sudden and unexpected attacks by Imperium forces. The truth of the matter was that with all the factors at play and few variables battles were often smaller than one would expect on paper. With so few players online to defend territory the battles became one-sided with a hand full of holdouts and their hired computer guards fighting a larger number of enemies which would end with the defender more often than not being defeated due to a lack of reinforcements. Jacquelines mind fell back to early massive multiplayer online first person shooters where the developers promised huge open ended battles which could take a long time for a side to emerge victorious, and in the first days of launch that claim was true but as time progress and players returned to their daily lives or grew bored the total number of players online at a single time was smaller than initially and bases or outposts of little importance could be captured by a single player due to no one remaining online to defend it. This appeared to be the same case with FWO. Valkyrie Dawn could not fight a war against an enemy whose online peak times were hours behind their own and what the Guild captured would almost immediately be lost a few hours later but made worse by the Imperium pressing their advance forward.
When the war began Jacqueline had thought that the two sides would be locked in a war of attrition with both sides equals and no side possibly able to make a claim of victory, but this had not been the case as she could not deny it that the Imperium were winning. Superior tactics and discipline along with larger numbers of able soldiers online at one time and the benefit of time behind them ensured Valkyrie Dawn was going to lose this war unless a miracle happened. And a fresh report from an observer ship she had to follow the person she most hated had quite possibly found that miracle.
"You realise what he did was illegal." An officer informed Jacqueline who for one of the first times in some time was now smiling.
"You have no need to worry, I will make sure that nothing bad happens for this." She calming responded to him. The reason the officer was spooked was that she had only now become aware that a player crew member who had boarded the ship that carried Alice when the observer ship had docked with its target, had taken it upon himself to somehow hack into the game and create a backdoor link in one of Alices computer controlled crew members which allowed him to see and hear all that the NPC saw and heard. A perfect spy who could not be detected by Alice or her party as the program operated from outside the gameplay. Even if it was illegal Jacqueline would ensure the crew member was rewarded for his actions, before an anonymous report would be sent at a later date to the moderators when all benefits of the information could be acquired.
"A lost land which does not appear on a map" She thought to herself. If such a thing existed it was the break Valkyrie Dawn had needed. What would be the point of trying to hold onto territory you were going to lose when you could own a territory which no one would easily find or be able to co-ordinate an assault against due to a lack of geographical data available. However another thing did concern her. Her position in reality ensured she should have known more about this game than any other player yet this was something which she was unfamilliar with, this was a component of the game that she had no knowlege of.
Since the Black Reaper incident it appeared more and more impossible things were beginning to appear into the game.
It rapidly grew into sight. A shoreline with beaches which emitted a heavenly glow under the sunlight. Lumina knew such beaches did exist in parts of the other world and thankfully a good many of them had not been tarnished by humanity yet this was something else to behold. A beach in that world was created over time and was a random sequence of events which created beauty. This beach however was a construct, something created by an artist who had a vision of what they desired a true beach to be and had strived to portray what they saw in their mind. Looking at this at the present moment if someone were to ask which beach she preferred most she would immediately reply that it was this one.
"Too many trees, I can't see beyond the shore and there's no way for me to dock the ship," Hiragi informed with genuine concern. Their quest target lay before them and the only way to reach it would be for them to leave the ship and reach the shore by longboat. Seeing as all four members of the group desired to go ashore this would mean that the Heavens Mirror would be left unprotected and idle. Whilst it was unlikely some player would randomly pass by the ship given their location it still was something which had to be taken into account.
"We need to get on with it," Valentine said in a demanding tone. "Take whatever you need and get in that boat." He ordered whilst pointing to one of the longboats attached to the ship of the ship.
In the few minutes before departing the four party members prepared themselves. Lumina checked to ensure that her crystal sword was in fine condition and did the same for the armour. Her armour was quite revealing and disadvantaged when a person took into consideration that damage variables in Fantasia World Online were impacted by body part hit by an attack. This meant that her light metal armour which exposed much of her lower body was impractical for combat more so with her being a sword using class but she did not consider swapping out unless she had to as this armour type was another reminder of this world before it was engulfed by war. When players used whatever weapons and armour they so desire based on personal taste instead of what was assured to achieve victory. After being confident she was currently ready she made a quick check that she had reserve gear in her inventory in any event that her primary load out was lost.
Alice was the only person who did little preparation, her source of power was from her characters base attributes and knowledge of an array of spells rather than any specific piece of equipment, she did not need a stave in order to be a dangerous person to fight as the weapon only helped to provide additional channelling and more potency to a spell, without it she could still cast a spell which would harm any foe.
Lumina glanced at Hiragi who had equipped a set of light chain mail armour which covered all of her skin ensuring that she was not exposed or vulnerable anywhere on her body with the exception of her head which lacked a helmet. She had an Iron Short sword connected to a her belt as her main weapon should they run into any enemies. Lumina could not help but feel sorry for Hiragi who she believe was no seasoned fighter and would not perform to her own or Alices level of ability. Lumina just hoped if they were attacked that the chain mail earned its keep as unless any enemies on this unknown land were low level then the weak sword Hiragi kept close would be useless.
The short feline Tabithan player Valentine favoured a small silver Dagger as his weapon for dealing with foes. Lumina could only guess that he was some Shadow class type as Daggers were not a preferred weapon for Blade classes due to the lack of demand and skills which focussed on Daggers when weighed up against those of swords or two - handed weapons. Max had geared himself in light leather armour which he then hide beneath a long black hooded cloak. The reasoning behind his load out was simple, the stealth system in Fantasia World Online required a player to enter cloaked mode in order to sneak around. This meant that Shadows in order to effectively carry out their role were required to give up heavy armour in place of smaller, lighter pieces compatible with a cloak.
It was only when the four players had entered a longboat that it dawned on Lumina what a mismatched group they really were. In terms of combat skill she was the winner as her equipment and countless hours of training against monsters and players alike made her the perfect fighter, however the parties overall strength deteriorated from here. Whilst Alice was a competent fighter who could use her magic effectively to attack slay a foe or support her allies she was too spread out which made her a jack of all trades, master of none type. Max was a Shadow and she knew from when they stole the Heavens Mirror he could fight if needed too, however, he obviously struggled to defeat a single Imperium soldier in a straight up fight. And the final player in their party, Hiragi, was just simply unprepared for any form of combat although she would stop being judgemental their given her lack of seeing the girl actually fight.
"What do you think we will find on treasure island I wonder" Alice muttered to herself as she monitored the beach cautiously.
"Gold would be nice. But if I am honest, I'll take anything that has some value." Hiragi replied without actually being asked for what she wanted. "What about you Lilly?" She asked.
Lumina turned around instantly at the mention of her other world name. "I don't mind trinkets, all I want is something interesting to make this worthwhile." She informed Hiragi smiling causing her to laugh. "Lilly I get the feeling that any man who marries you won't have to worry about their wallet." She jested causing Lumina to pout.
"I'm not getting married to any man." She defended. Alice glanced at her with that familiar joker like expression on her face.
"Perhaps the little madame much perfers the company of women?" Alice questioned causing Lumina to suddenly blush at the thought and grab the womans shoulders shaking her around in her seat repeatedly.
"Gah, die Alice" She shouted childishly making Alice and Hiragi laugh before Lumina also joined in. Max did not decide to participate in the fun and maintained eye contact with the beach, ever waiting as the boat drew near.
"I could get used to this place," Lumina remarked as they progressed through the jungle from the beach. Even if the only thing to see right now were trees and likely more trees the tranquility of this untouched part of Fantasia World Online overcame Lumina as her eyes darted back and forth admiring the scenery.
Alice walking ahead of her nodded in agreement. "I think this is what the real world looked like before man plagued it," she remarked whilst stepping over a large rock in front of her.
Valentine suddenly interrupted. "At the end of the day this place is just a developement teams fantasy, it's even in the name." It seemed he was hostile to the idea of becoming to immersed into the world around him and still clung to the other world as she once did.
"Someone once told me, reality is what you make of it. I was against that idea one time but now I have come to realise that there may have been truth in what she said," Lumina replied defending her way of life.
Alice was always ever paying attention and picked up on the word Lumina had used in her response unintentionally. "Was it the Black Reaper who said that?" She asked clearly insisting on receiving an answer.
Lumina sighed and stopped in her place causing the others to do likewise the moment they realised she was no longer moving. "Yes, it was," she answered with some hesitation. Hiragi raised a hand to ask a question, "What exactly was the Black Reaper incident about and why did that Captain call you the Green Reaper?" Lumina knew that at some point she would have to provide an answer to this and now appeared to be the best opportunity.
"The Black Reaper was a player who killed people using something they called the Skeleton Key which killed a person in the other world." Luminas mind drew back to her fight with Tara where she had considered cutting that girls throat in revenge for Charlene and the others murdered. Lumina struggled with the next response knowing that it would be an admission and one which would have her killed on the spot if Hiragi, Valentine or even Alice found her at fault. "I knew the Black Reaper in the other world and was a close friend, she killed all those people for me thinking she was helping me and because of this I guess people say I'm to blame."
Looking at the faces of her party members she could see they were seriously thinking over what she had told them and were drawing their conclusions. Luminas heart sank at the thought that they would condemn her too and also hold her to blame, however that was not the case as Alice spoke. "Jacqueline blames me for the war as much as she does you and I know that you are a good person Lilly" She said using Luminas other name. "You can't control what other people do and because of this I see no reason why anyone should blame you," Valentine said further supporting her. Hiragi smiled and nodded in agreement, "You are not to blame Lumina but I don't think that hiding in FWO is how you should be dealing with this." She told her whilst also putting forward that she had realised Lumina was someone who was effectively living in the game rather than the other world.
Hiragi was right and Lumina knew it, the main reason she had considered this place to be reality and that other place to be false was simply because she was too scared to face the consequences of that world after the Black Reaper incident. In that world the only person she considered a friend was no someone she hated which then left her alone in that world. Fantasia World Online was simply an easy option for her to escape to a world where she had friends and could easily make more by simply being herself and growing into a strong character rather than limiting herself and conforming to the expectations of that other world. She knew that she would at some point be forced to go back to that world and had been surprised that no attempt had been made to forcibly log her out of this reality by her mother already. She would need to eventually return to the character known as Lilly and carry on living in that type of existence but for now she simply wanted to enjoy her remaining time in this world.
Valentine clapped his hands together. "Well if you're done can we please continue to explore this place. Trees are hardly worth anything," he requested causing Alice to become confused. "What do you mean worth anything?" She demanded an explanation. Valentine refused to answer and instead chose to carry on walking away leaving both Lumina and Hiragi equally confused at what he meant.
At least a half hour of real world time passed before the party came upon a large structure in a clearing from the treeline. The structure appeared to be a stone dome with an archway entrance that was beginning to show signs of becoming a ruin with numerous broken pieces of stone scattering the ground. A breeze blew across the clearing causing Alices and Hiragis characters long black hair to flow with it. Lumina did not feel her short green hair move that much but something was strange about this wind, she felt as though a voice was being masked by it as she swore to have heard a soft voice behind it.
Lumina stood idle waiting to see if another breeze would come to satisfy her mind. The wind blew again and again she was certain to have heard someone or something within it, however she chose not to voice any of this and continued to walk towards the building as the sun showed signs of going down already. The party decided not to admire the scenery too much and to get inside whilst they could as there was no way to know whether monsters would spawn in the darkness or whether there were any environmental penalties brought about by being outside at night.
The inside of the dome was mostly dark with a few odd green glowing spheres located in the centre of the room offering some light and revealing a door on the far side. The room the party found themselves in had some moldy wooden chairs and tables turned over with some cups and dishes on the ground in the middle close by the sphere light source. This was not such a surprising sight in the world as many dungeons and caves had furniture and objects placed around in such a manner usually to offer up some background to the location such as monsters overran the occupants or a falling out occurred, generally anything to provide an explanation to the place the player was in so that it would not be a generic location without interest.
"This place is creepy can we go" Hiragi moaned whilst examining one of the chairs laying on the ground.
Lumina suddenly felt uneasy. It was a feeling that within the boundaries of this world would be brought on by the targeting and high amount of observation by something around you whilst in the other world it would be called the feeling that you are not alone. She reached for the hilt of her sword prepared to draw it at a moments notice if the nagging feeling was correct.
Valentine glanced at her and strangely nodded in agreement. "I felt it when we entered this place," he whispered to her whilst grabbing his own dagger.
"Oh right," Alice stuttered saying before looking at Lumina. "If you could hide anywhere in this place to ambush someone where would that be?" She unexpectantly asked.
Lumina turned her head and looked around the room before suddenly realising the point she was making with the question. "I would hide in the darkest part of the dome," She drew her crystal sword in horror. "The ceiling" She yelled.
The ceiling was swarming with the outlining shadows of moving creatures. It was too dark to count how many there were but it was more than Lumina felt confident facing. Suddenly one of the creatures finally understanding that it had been spotted let out a blood lust roar before lowering itself by its tail down to the ground and letting go dropping the remaining height.
The creature drew comparisons to a centipede however it had a large tail which suddenly changed from being flat to becoming scythe like. This monster was not large compared to an average height player but it was no less scary and worse still there were more moving on the ceiling.
Lumina gave the monster no chance to strike by taking the initiative and charging forwards impaling the creature with her sword, it roared in seemed to scream in pain gathering the attention of the others which then began to lower themselves down. Alice responded by yelling an assortment of words which produced a large ball of fire that raced to one of the creatures engulfing it in flames and placing the ignite status on it ensuring a continuous stream of damage would follow. The creature despite being on fire and burning did not stop and instead dropped down close to Alice flailing is sharp tail which caught Hiragi in the back sending her skimming across the ground whilst the creature advanced on Alice.
"It hurts," Hiragi suddenly tearfully screamed in pain as she collapsed back to the ground after struggling to her feet.
"Nami!" Valentine cried as he rushed over to her not caring about the creatures between him.
Lumina did her best to cover him by charging ahead of him swinging her sword repeatedly in both directions cutting anything to her sides and killing at least one of the creature through a lucky critical hit. It still did not help the situation as the waves of monsters seemed to be endless, they were pouring from the ceiling desperate to kill the party. The biggest problem that had to be dealt with was Hiragi, she was still on the ground with Valentine trying to help her up, she appeared to be in pain which should not have been possible, however, she received confirmation about the worst case scenario when one of the creatures caught a lucky hit in her ribs with its tail making her tumble onto the ground. Agonising pain darted across her body, the strike felt real as though she had been hit with a thrown brick in the sides, she breathed heavily as the pain continued to pulse in her body.
"We need to leave now"" Alice advised as she launched multiple ice spikes towards creatures which were advancing on the incapacitated Lumina. She reached down and put her arm around Lumina who did the same and together the pair limped for the other door followed by Valentine who carried Hiragi.
Alice cast a fireball behind her as Valentine opened and then closed the door behind the party preventing the creatures from entering this new room, or they hoped at least. They found themselves in a long hallway that had more of the green spheres illuminating it, on the far side was yet another door although this one appeared to be in prime condition unlike other parts of the dome. These advanced slowly to the door and passed through it entering a room that was decorated in such a way it could serve royalty. The ground was covered in a soft looking red carpet with the walls were covered with a rich quality wood that Lumina had only seen some wealthy players own although the players usually only had this wood used for decoration and furniture such as chairs and art due to its rarity as it was too expensive and hard to find in order to cover a whole room in such a way. The centre of the room had a small fountain piece with clear water pouring down that for some strange reason had a small table and chair inside its boundaries as though whoever occupied this room enjoyed sitting and working with their feet in the water.
"This place is more creepy than the last creepy place." Hiragi mumbled as Valentine laid her down onto a bed within the room.
"Does it still hurt?" Valentine asked with concern, she struggled to nod. "You took a hit too how about you Lumina?" He immediately asked her.
"It still stings" She replied holding her side no different than she would do if this were the other world.
Alice seemed to ponder on what had happened and spoke when Valentine gestured for her to voice her mind. "Virtual reality gear exists to separate the mind and body allowing for the mind to be placed into an artificial construct." She pointed out although this was simple common knowledge that the mind was the only real part of the person being used by VR gear. "This however does not simply mean that you can be put into a virtual reality, the main obstacle is the minds ability to process information given to it and create reactions based on what is receives, feeling, smell, sound, the mind tells you how to react to anything which uses these. Including pain"
"It's a state of mind." Lumina interrupted reciting a quotation used by the Royal Marines.
Alice nodded. "Precisely, that saying was in fact one of the founding basis of the security functions used by VR gear." She paused for a moment looking at Hiragi who was still in obvious agony. "Pain is in your mind and because of this the biggest problem encountered with VR technology was that the mind genuinely believed it was in reality and as such would respond to requests made on the nervous system, this would obviously be a problem as it meant along with the basic responses that were needed you could still be harmed in a virtual world which is why a system was needed to separate the body and mind from itself."
"Nerval bridge," Valentine stated.
"Yes, Nerval bridge suppresses your bodies natural response to a request on your nevous system and instead replaces the response with a set of artificial senses carefully designed so that they cannot cause your mind to harm your body in any way."
Hiragi raised her body up slightly and looked at Alice. "Then how could those monsters hurt me and Lumina?" She asked before Lumina had the chance.
"I am not sure if it is the game entirely or just this immediate area but to be blunt it appears Nerval bridge has malfunctioned" Alice replied whilst pinching her arm and letting out a small murmur as she felt pain.
"That is incorrect Alice, Nerval bridge is operating at its most optimal functionality now that data blocks deemed unecessary have been removed" A voice suddenly spoke. A character suddenly materialised inside the water of the fountain, she was an average height Elf with pointing red hair. But this was impossible Lumina thought to herself stepping back as her targeting function identified the player, Alice had a similar reaction when she did so too.
"Charlene?" Lumina asked as the person smiled stepping out from the fountain.