Ether: The Struggle for Life

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Pryde
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Ether: The Struggle for Life

Post by Pryde » Tue Jul 24, 2012 3:41 am

Chapter 1: Beginnings

Hirai stared at the box sitting on her bed, a part of her wondering why she even ordered it. Inside was a specially designed Neurosuit for a game called Ether, pronounced Ee-ther. It was supposed to be the next biggest thing in virtual reality simulation. With the help of the Neurosuit, a full body suit that covered the wearer from head to toe, one could instantly transport themselves to a virtual world. In this world one's thoughts could be translated into action. The suit interfaced with the user's brain in such a way that even subconscious thought, such as when to breathe, could be carried over. It was the kind of cutting edge technology that was way ahead of it's time.

Originally, the Neurosuit was designed for coma patients to give loved ones an opportunity to speak to coma victims in a virtual world. However, an independent company rich in disposable income bought the technology and began using it to create a game. Just reproducing the Neurosuit itself one time must have cost a fortune yet this company had been selling them for super cheap. That fact alone struck Hirai as a bit odd but she filed that thought away as an excuse for her to get cold feet. After all, it was Clara who told her she should branch out and try new things and shortly after Isis had suggested she try Ether.

Hirai had no money of her own so Isis paid for everything as a kind of pre-birthday birthday gift. Isis had had some experience with a game called N'evar which was supposedly similar but not virtual reality and because her duties as senator kept her busy she had no time for Ether. Though she did openly admit that she wouldn't be opposed to trying it if Hirai didn't like it.

I guess I should try it at least once, Hirai thought, carefully unraveling the box then removing the Neurosuit. The suit felt cold against her skin when she first put it on but it quickly warmed up to her body temperature. She fished around in the box for the helmet then settled it snuggly on her head. After reading the instructions she powered on the VR helmet and then patiently waited while the suit calibrated itself to fit her body. Then she was instructed to lie down, which she did after removing the box from her bed.

What happened next felt an awful lot like falling asleep. She closed her eyes, or at least she thought she closed her eyes since everything went dark and when she opened them she was somewhere else entirely. The land of Ether spread out as far as the horizon, dotted by towns and magical floating islands. A stiff breeze blew by and she was shocked by how real it felt against her skin though she knew that was just the suit interfacing with the parts of her brain that controlled sensation.

A title screen of the game appeared in the center of her vision and shortly after she was prompted to create a character. There were many different class choices to choose from but only one race which was not like N'evar at all from what Isis had told her. Hirai had chosen a class called "Samurai", she didn't know what a samurai was but from the picture alone she could see that it dressed like her and carried the same weapons.

There were other classes to choose from, of course, Meldshapers, which were the magic users of the game and Rangers, who wielded guns and had limited meldshaping abilities and others but the samurai fit her best. A samurai had no magical potential but she did have an almost inexhaustible amount of sword techniques. Which reminded her, she tapped on the marker for gender with her finger and switched it to "male".

Isis had warned her that there were a lot of perverts online who would hit on her if she played a female character. At first Hirai didn't understand what "hit on" meant but Isis was kind enough to explain it--in such a way that quite literally scared Hirai to death. There's no way anyone's doing those things to me, she thought, a sharp shiver running down her spine.

At last she was in the world of Ether and allowed to move freely. She appeared in the first town surrounded by other new players who were just beginning to take their first "steps" in Ether. A lot of them couldn't wait to begin and immediately rushed out to start the first quest. Hirai stopped to familiarize herself with the system, first opening up her inventory and checking her equipment. Then she tried to take her first step, realizing almost immediately that she didn't have to think about it as hard as she did.

The system responded fluidly and she was off running down the street in no particular direction. She had her starter gear equipped, a basic kimono, sandals and a single katana sheathed at her left hip. With this basic equipment she darted out onto the Fields of Fate, past one newbie after another and came to a stop at the top of a ridge. Down below three new players were battling a boar, each of them struggling with their weapons.

While the Neurosuit did interface with the user's brain to translate thought into movement in the game it didn't suddenly grant the user any actual combat expertise. For that there were class trainers spread throughout the town, Hirai had read about them in the manual. Visualizing a particular move did help in activating it but one would have to see it done right at least once to visualize it correctly. As it was players and their avatars were spread across the fields clumsily swinging their weapons at imaginary boars like children fumbling with sticks.

"Look out," someone called from behind and Hirai immediately turned at the sound.

A large boar she hadn't seen raced out of nowhere and struck her, tossing her aside like so much meat. She hit the ground hard but was surprised to find that she didn't feel any pain. Her lifebar fell to half, though, and she knew if she took one more hit like that she'd be starting over at the beginner's town.

"Get out of there! Run," the voice cried out again only this time it was followed by a barrage of energy blasts as the man who had tried to save her fired his rifle at the boar.

The shots struck the boar in the side in a spread that was far too precise for someone with no experience. Her would be rescuer made the mistake of getting too close, however, and the boar made him pay for it. It slammed into him at full speed and knocked him aside, coming back around for another attack. It charged at him again and he desperately tried to raise his rifle and fire off a shot but there was just no time. The boar was on him in seconds and just when it seemed his health would be knocked to zero the boar's head suddenly came clean off.

Hirai had somersaulted over him, spinning around in the air and swiping her katana across the beast's neck. The blade cut through him with little resistance and then the boar disintegrated in a shower of colorful fragments. The Ranger stared at her in wonder as she skillfully landed and sheathed her sword.

"Sorry about that," he said, getting up and then dusting himself off (more out of habit than anything), "I mistook you for a beginner."

"I am a beginner," Hirai said and much to her surprise her voice sounded like a man. That's right, I chose to play a male.

The man was staring at her now, well not really at her but at a space above her head. "Hirai, huh? That's a funny name."

Crap. She forgot she used her own name instead of making one up. She didn't think anyone would be able to see it, though. Then she looked above the Ranger's head and bit her lip. His name and lifebar were portrayed there as well.

"I'm Strider, but I guess you already know that," he said holding out his hand. "So tell me, Hirai, how long have you been playing?"

"I--just started," she said, looking away from him and refraining from taking his offered hand.

Strider watched her for a moment then let his hand fall back to his side. "Just started," he repeated, "Then how'd you learn how to do that?"

"How'd you learn how to shoot so well," she asked him pointedly.

He smiled and shrugged. "You got me there. I actually work for CorSec in real life so I have some weapons training."

Which is why he picked the Ranger class, she assumed, eyeing the man's energy rifle. The game touted itself as the ultimate fantasy game but Hirai had been led to believe that fantasy usually meant something much more primitive than a laser rifle. Ether had a strange bit of primitive mixed with technology. There were classes that built robots to aid them in battle, others that wielded energy weapons like the rifle that Strider carried or even an energy sword similar to a Jedi's lightsaber. There were even classes that combined future technology with primitive tech, such as vibroblades or spears that could extend.

"What about you," Strider asked suddenly, crashing her train of thought, "Where did you get your training?"

"Um, in town," she lied and Strider gave her a critical look.

"You learned that from a trainer in town in just one day?"

Hirai shrugged, "I'm a quick study." It was mostly true--well, except for the trained in town part.

"Well, alright. I guess we've all gotta have our secrets. So whaddya say we team up for a bit?"

"Team up?" Hirai repeated.

Strider nodded. "Right, I send you a party invite and we help each other with quests."

Help each other, Hirai thought, she barely knew this man. She didn't even know if he was a man, he could be a girl playing a man like her. The whole situation just weirded her out. "I'm sorry, I actually need to go," she said, tapping on a space in front of her to bring up the game menu.

She cycled through the options for a moment then became very confused. "How do you log out," she asked suddenly.

Strider was confused as well. "What do you mean?" He said, "It's just right here...," he stopped suddenly when he realized the option to logout was removed. "Well, that's weird. It's probably a bug."

"A bug?"

"Yeah, you know. A glitch in the system, they'll probably fix it soon."

"How soon is soon?"

"I don't know, the game just released. There's bound to be other glitches they'll have to fix as well."

That wasn't very comforting, the last thing she wanted was to be trapped in a virtual world forever. "Isn't there someway to remove the helmet?"

Strider shook his head. "The Neurosuit transfers every command we give our bodies to movement in the game. Because of it our bodies are suspended in real life."

"Then let's go find someone in charge," she said, running back towards the town as fast as she could. Fortunately, she found that no matter how fast or far she ran she never got tired. She and Strider were about halfway back to the town of Providence when a light suddenly surrounded them both. Hirai covered her eyes from the blinding light and when she opened them again she was in the town square of Providence along with every other player who had bought a copy of the game, trillions in all.

"Greetings, players," a voice thundered overhead. "I am Amarant Kain, lead designer of Ether. By now I'm sure you've all noticed that the ability to log out of my game has been removed. This is not a glitch as I've done this on purpose."

"I am proud to announce that you are all now guinea pigs in my galactic experiment. From this moment on dying in the game will mean dying in real life. If your health bar reaches zero the helmet attached to your Neurosuits will fry your brain. The same thing will happen if someone from the outside world should try to interfere and remove the helmet from your body."

A quiet murmur rose up amongst the crowd, many people finding it hard to believe that this was real. "By now I'm sure you're thinking that this is fake but I assure you it is very real," the voice continued, "I designed this game to cull the weak for only the strong deserve to influence this galaxy. I sold Ether to as many homes as I could for this purpose alone."

"Why would I do this, you might ask? I do it because I can. Become strong and clear the hundredth level of my game and you will be free. Or remain weak and die along with the dozens or so who have died already, it is your choice. And to add a bit of flavor to your experience the pain protocols have now been activated. From this moment forth you will feel every cut of the blade as it strikes your body. Those who fear the pain will die like the rest, it is what you deserve..."

And then the voice was gone and immediately after every player gathered in the courtyard became surrounded by a glow of light and as soon as it dissipated everyone's appearance changed. Hirai looked down at herself, her body had returned to normal, even her face which she could see by gazing into the fountain at the center of the square. She looked over at Strider and he too appeared different though he was still a guy.

He smirked, "I had you pegged for a woman the moment I saw you."

"What? How?"

"Just the way you move, darlin', and because of your name."

Hirai ground her teeth, she knew she should have picked a different name. "Well, that's besides the point now. I think we have more important things to worry about."

"You think he was telling the truth?"

She looked at the crowd gathered around her, a mixed group of Rodians, Bothans, Zabraks and other aliens along with a great deal of humans. Everyone was in a mixed state of shock and disbelief. Some had chose to ignore the warnings while others began asking around about the others who supposedly died already. "Only one way to find out," she said, drawing her sword and pressing the blade lightly against her arm.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

Hirai drew the blade across her arm and grimaced as the pain arched up into her skull. The cut felt real, almost too real. It even bled. "He's telling the truth," she said, "He's trapped us in this virtual world and he's planning to kill us one by one."

"So what do we do about it?"

"We find a way out," she said, sheathing her sword again.

"Then we better get started."

Hirai just gave him a blank look.

"If we're going to clear this game we need to level," he explained, "I know a few good spots out in the fields where we can get some quick XP."

She shook her head and adamantly refused. "No, if you want to play this madman's game suit yourself. I'm going to find another way out."

"How," Strider asked, "I hate to break it to ya, sweetheart, but we're in Amarant's world now. He's not going to let us out until we play by his rules."

"And what are the odds he lets us out?" Hirai said, fixing him with a sharp stare.

Strider realized then that he didn't have an answer for that. "I'm going to get out of here," she continued, "And when I do I'll find that man and kill him. Then I'll free everyone."

She started to walk away and Strider stood his ground. "It's a waste of time, Hirai! He's not just going to leave a back door for people to escape!"

I don't care, she thought, I'll keep looking until I find it. And then she rounded a corner, losing sight of Strider entirely. She didn't like the idea of leaving him behind, he was the only person she met in this world but if he wasn't going to help her then he would only be a hindrance. Hirai would find a way out on her own, there had to be something, some way. She wasn't about to be killed for some madman's ambition...

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Re: Ether: The Struggle for Life

Post by Pryde » Wed Jul 25, 2012 12:08 am

Chapter 2: The Providence Showdown

Hirai turned the corner and walked into the bazaar. From what she understood the word "bazaar" meant market though she couldn't figure out why someone wouldn't just say "market" or even "store". That's what it is, isn't it? The bazaar took up a large chunk of the town of Providence and was filled with many different kinds of shops. Some shops specialized in selling weapons and armor while others sold magic. Hirai still only had her starter gold which wasn't enough to buy much of anything. So she watched as people came and went, conversing with the shopkeepers and buying weapons and items to keep them alive. It seemed like everyone was still treating this like a game despite the fact that their lives were on the line. Or was it that they just resigned themselves to trying to beat Amarant at his own madness?

Hirai wasn't going to fall for that, surviving the game was a fool's errand. Amarant designed this world and controlled every aspect of it, what made any of these people believe they stood a chance? She leaned against the wall and sighed. Almost at the same time her stomach growled again, the first time it happened it surprised her. She wondered if the Neurosuit was so deeply interfaced in her mind that it transmitted that subconscious thought into the game or if it simply knew she was hungry because she'd been thinking about food all this time. It had been three days since the game began and in that time she knew her body wasn't getting anything to eat. She was sure there wouldn't be much time left before she died from lack of water or food.

Her stomach growled again and she tried to ignore it, though she still couldn't get her mind off food. "You should eat something," a voice said from beside her.

Hirai turned at the sound and saw a young man staring at her. Above his head she saw his life bar and the name, Aaron. "Eat what," Hirai asked, "Nothing in this world is real."

"I know," the boy said, "but eating food in the game triggers an automatic response from the Neurosuit to inject the nutrients you need to survive into your body. The system even records what type of food you're holding and assigns a taste and a texture to it, so it's not like you're just eating air."

It can do that? "How do you know about this?"

He shrugged. "It was in the manual. You did read the manual, right?"

Of course she did--mostly... "Alright, so where do I buy food?"

"From the tavern, just head down the street and turn left. You'll see it on the right. Do you want me to take you?"

Hirai shook her head, "I'll be fine."

Without waiting for a response from him she pushed off from the wall and walked away, heading in the direction he had indicated. The tavern was right where he said it was, down a side street on the right. She entered the building and stopped at the entrance, finding the brightly lit interior and colorful patrons a stark contrast to the seedy cantina's she was used to. In fact it was a seedy cantina much like this that she had met Garrett Granth in. She thought that man would enjoy getting his hands on Ether and dissecting it from the inside out, but part of her hoped he didn't already have. Garrett didn't have any combat ability and probably wouldn't last long in this world if he had to play by its rules, which was most likely since the only law in this land that was supreme was Amarant's law.

She sat down at a table and one of the simulated serving girls came over to take her order. Hirai didn't know what she could get or even what she could afford so she just asked for bread and water. The girl scurried off into the back and returned some time later with a loaf of bread and a glass of water. Hirai stared at the bread after the girl had left, feeling entirely foolish for even considering eating something that wasn't real. The sound of her stomach growling again erased that embarrassment, however, and she lifted the bread to her mouth and took a bite. Much to her surprise Aaron had been right, the bread actually tasted like bread and biting into it felt as real as it should. For a moment she almost forgot that this whole thing was taking place inside her head.

Chomping down the rest of her bread she grabbed the glass of water and downed it all in nearly one gulp. Much to her relief she didn't feel hungry anymore and her throat was no longer parched. She didn't understand how the system worked but at least she knew she wouldn't die of thirst. With one problem solved she left the tavern to continue what she had spent the last three days working on. Rumors that were being spread around Providence indicated that somewhere in the city existed a special orb and stepping into that orb forced a log out without killing the user. Hirai had been determined to find it but after spending three days searching she found nothing. She had covered nearly every inch of Providence and it never once occurred to her that the rumor could be false.

Out on the street she heard cries of alarm and quickly drew her sword. Following the sound she found three low level players being beset upon by players who were a much higher level than them.

"You're just going to wander out there and die anyway," one of the assailants was saying, "You might as well just give all of your gold and items to us so they won't go to waste."

"Yeah, or we can just take them from you," another of them added.

"We worked hard for these items and we shouldn't have to give them up," one of the lower level characters, the bravest one from Hirai's assessment, said.

"Here's the thing," the first assailant said and he swatted the boy aside with his broad sword, "You don't have a choice."

He raised his weapon again to deliver the final blow until Hirai's sudden cry stopped him. "Stop right there," she shouted, "There is no honor in attacking those who are weaker than you!"

The boy lowered his sword again and looked at her. "Level 1," he said, "You probably haven't even left the town yet, have you?"

"What does it matter," Hirai asked, closing the distance with them.

"Hmmph, just what I thought. Another coward."

Hirai's expression sharpened. "We'll see about that," she said and she charged in for the kill.

The boy took one swipe at her but she ducked out of the way and slashed her sword across his abdomen. He took a step back from her and clutched at his stomach in pain as his life bar lowered a fraction of a step. Hirai stared at the life bar in shock, she had dealt a lethal blow to him and that's all the damage she had done?

"You bitch," the boy cried and he planted his fist into Hirai's stomach, knocking the wind out of her and leaving her kneeling on the ground gasping for air.

"Should we kill her, boss," one of the other assailants said and the boy shook his head.

"Forget it, wouldn't be worth it. She's still wearing her starter gear, probably doesn't even have any gold, either. Stupid coward," then he and his companions left to go find more prey.

After they had gone Hirai managed to catch her breath but remained kneeling in the street. This had been her second defeat and it was much worse than the time she lost to Raii. This time she lost to an untrained swordsman and was even humiliated in front of a crowd.

"You got some nice moves there," the boy from before said, kneeling down next to her, "But strength in Ether is measured by level not by how skilled you are."

"Then how do I level," she asked him, unable to raise her eyes to meet the boy's gaze.

The boy thought about that. "You could do quests, kill monsters or even train in town. The class trainers will at least get you to level five but after that you'll have to do quests or go hunting out in the fields."

Finally she stood then turned to leave. "Hey, where are you going," the boy called after her but she didn't respond, "We never got to say thank you for rescuing us!"

Hirai couldn't hear his words as she walked away, all her thoughts were focused on one singular goal; becoming strong enough to beat the man who defeated her...

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Re: Ether: The Struggle for Life

Post by Pryde » Thu Jul 26, 2012 1:43 pm

As the last boar exploded into a mist of colorful fragments Hirai stumbled a step and fell backwards onto the ground. She knew in real life her body hasn't move an inch since starting this game but after nearly a day of leveling she felt as though she'd been working out for hours. All around her other players were just finishing up clearing out all the boars and the Fields of Fate was packed with avatars. It took her nearly an hour just to find these three enemies to fight and she couldn't imagine taking another hour to find more.

The trainer in the town had gotten her to level five just as the boy had said but she couldn't level up anymore past that by that method alone. So she headed out onto the fields, only she didn't account for the sheer number of players who were here before her. This isn't working, she thought, standing up and then sheathing her sword. She needed to find somewhere else to hunt, somewhere no one has yet ventured to. With a flick of her hand she opened up the main menu and brought up the world map. There was a forest nearby for level ten characters, it would be risky but at least there would be no one there.

Closing the menu she took off at a run heading towards the forest. It took her nearly the rest of the day to reach the end of the Fields of Fate and as she crossed the threshold into the forest a name appeared in front of her; "The Darkwoods." The place had an atmosphere of foreboding to match its foreboding name but Hirai ignored all that and pressed forward. Just as she suspected there were no other players here which meant if she got into any trouble she would have no way out. The mobs in this forest were five levels higher than her, not quite as big as the gap between her and the level fifteen punk she fought in town but enough to make a difference.

Question was, though, where were all the monsters? As far as she could tell the forest was empty but there shouldn't have been anyone else here. So who killed all the monsters? A step or two deeper into the woods brought her answer when a hand suddenly burst through from the ground and grabbed her ankle. Hirai let out an uncharacteristically girly yelp of surprise and fell on her rump almost immediately as a skeleton covered in rotting flakes of flesh forced its way out of the ground. Hirai stared at it in horror, she'd never seen such a monstrosity before, and when the creature reached for a broad tipped scimitar and a flat circular shield she quickly realized the mortal danger she was in.

Kicking her foot free she rolled backwards onto her feet and drew her sword. The skeleton advanced on her, faster than she expected, and cut at her with the curved blade of its scimitar. Hirai dodged the downward swipe and stabbed at the fiend, causing a little damage but not much. As she suspected, because of the level difference her maximum damage would be minimal at best. At the same time one successful hit from the skeleton would end her life completely, but Hirai wasn't about to let that happen. She refused to be humiliated twice in one day and certainly not against something that wasn't even real.

The skeleton took another swipe at her then another. Hirai parried both attacks and cut at the skeleton's midsection only to have her sword blocked by the monster's shield. She dodged out of the way again as another cut nearly took her head off and she continued her forward momentum, tumbling around behind the monster and cutting across its back. That attack did a little bit more damage but the skeleton still had half its life left. The battle was far from over and Hirai took another step back as the monster closed on her again, slashing at her with its sword again and again.

Hirai was quick to parry each attack but the monster had forced her on the defensive. She backpedaled furiously until her foot caught on a root and she fell backwards. The skeleton was quick to capitalize on this opportunity and Hirai barely managed to roll out of the way as the monster's blade cut deeply into the dirt where she had been only a moment ago. As she stumbled to her feet, though, she was knocked to the ground again when the skeleton turned and bashed her with its shield, knocking her life bar down to half. This time Hirai couldn't get out of the way but she did just managed to get her sword up just in time to have the skeleton fall on it as it tried to attack her.

The sword punctured deeply into its chest, doing some damage but not enough to defeat it or even slow it down. And there was still the problem of its sword hand being free and able to attack. There was no way Hirai could free her sword and get out from underneath it at the same time and that final attack was on its way. As the sword fell she reached up and caught the skeleton's arm by the wrist, pushing with all her might to hold it off. Then she got both of her legs up underneath the skeleton's sternum and with one painful heave she kicked as hard as she could, eliciting a sharp cry from her lips as her muscles strained against the pressure.

Another push and she was free, her sword came loose and the skeleton had stumbled backwards. Hirai quickly rolled to her feet then and as the monster charged in to attack she leapt up over its head, twisting her body around midair and slicing clean through its neck with her katana. She collapsed when she hit the ground, her legs giving out from under her like so much jelly but she succeeded in bringing the monster down. The skeleton collapsed on its knees then exploded into sparkling dust. A window appeared in front of Hirai, awarding her experience, nearly enough to level, some gold coins and two items; a potion of healing and a new sword.

Hirai equipped the sword and was surprised to find another katana and not the scimitar the skeleton had wielded before. This katana did more damage than the one she started with and was sure to help her level some more, but after that battle she just had all she could think about right now was resting. Reaching into her kimono she pulled out her teleport crystal and held it out in front of her. "Take me to Providence," she said and in an instant a globular field of energy surrounded her, nearly blinding her. When she opened her eyes again she was in Providence right outside the inn. Stumbling to her feet she headed on inside to rent a room. Tomorrow she would make more progress and close the distance between her and those high level thugs, she was sure of it...

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Re: Ether: The Struggle for Life

Post by Pryde » Sun Jul 29, 2012 12:48 am

There is a bulletin board in Providence frequented by nearly two hundred players at any given time during the day. This board was connected directly into the holonet and regularly displayed news broadcasts from GNN concerning the deaths that were caused by Ether. It was a stark reminder for all those unlucky enough to be on the ground floor of this galaxy quaking game that losing in this world meant everything. Hirai visited this board at least once every day, she didn't know why she would or if she even cared but she would watch the newscasts and dread the day she would hear a familiar name. Ether was killing people, of that she had no doubt, but she was determined not to let it kill her.

Steeling herself she turned from the bulletin board and pushed her way through crowd. She was climbing in levels now but she still had a ways to go before she would match the thug that beat her. When she had walked past the last line of people standing around the bulletin board she reached into her kimono and withdrew her teleportation crystal. A second or two later she materialized at the center of the Darkwoods and took off at a run heading east. By now the danger posed by the monsters in this area were minimal at best so she needed to push forward into a new area with stronger monsters. Today she would make that push. There was a canyon just beyond the woods that was said to be filled with level fifteen to twenty monsters. Not many people had yet ventured beyond the woods so she couldn't be sure if that information was reliable.

Since it was the next area beyond the Darkwoods, however, Hirai figured that there wasn't any reason to doubt what she was told. So she ran as fast as her legs could take her, dispatching a few enemies along the way as her path winded down into a narrow valley. Cliffs of solid rock ascended into the sky on both sides of her nearly forty-five feet apart. A river ran down the middle of the canyon leaving only five feet on either side of it on which she could walk. With one hand on the hilt of her sword and the other sliding along the cliff wall she cautiously made her way deeper into the canyon.

The cliff walls steadily rose up higher around her and her eyes constantly shifted from the path ahead to the cliffs above searching for any signs of danger. It wasn't long before she heard a sharp squawk echoing from the canyon walls. She immediately stopped dead in her tracks, her eyes searching everywhere for the source of the sound. Another squawk followed, the cry sounding as though it was coming from everywhere, then a large bird rose up from a shelf of rock hanging over the river far above. It swooped down at her, striking her at about the same time her blade came loose from its scabbard and cut into it. The bird's health by dropped by a fourth while Hirai's life bar dropped well below half. She was also thrown backwards by the force of the blow as the bird shoulder charged into her. She rolled a few times before coming to a stop, taking additional damage but not enough to kill her. Meanwhile the bird was climbing up and then turning around for another attack.

Hirai gritted her teeth against the pain and pulled herself up to one knee. She looked up just in time to see the bird charging down at her but could do nothing more than raise her sword and hope for the best. The bird was nearly on top of her when three shots echoed across the canyon and tore into the creature, killing it instantly. Hirai turned at the sound of gunfire and saw Strider running down towards her, a tendril of smoke curling up from the barrel of his rifle.

"Are you alright," he asked, kneeling down next to her.

Hirai tried to open her mouth to speak but the pain was just too much and she collapsed into his arms. Three more people showed up all around her though Hirai did not recognize any of them "Give me a potion," Strider said to his companions.

"Here," someone said but Hirai's vision was too blurry to make out who. The man opened up a trade window with Strider and traded him a potion. Strider accepted the trade and a bottle filled with red liquid materialized in his hand. He popped the cork from the bottle and force fed it to Hirai. A moment or two later her health bar filled to max and the pain suddenly went away.

"Do you have a death wish, Hirai," Strider shouted at her, "This area is way above your level, just what the hell are you doing here?!"

"Hey, Strider, you know her," one of the others asked.

Strider nodded, "Yeah, but I thought she had more sense than this."

Hirai angrily scrambled to her feet. "Well, I didn't ask for your opinion," she snapped, "And I certainly don't need your help!"

"No," Strider agreed, "you've already proven capable enough to get yourself killed on your own."

"What do you want, anyway?" She demanded, her cheeks burning red hot but she tried to change the subject anyway.

"We were pushing on to the next town when we found you. This area's for level twenties, Hirai. Just what were you thinking?"

"I need to get stronger," she said, averting her gaze from him and staring at the river. "There's someone I need to beat."

"Who," Strider asked, scratching his head as he wondered just who it could be that would drive her to such lengths.

Hirai used her left hand to rub the elbow of her sword arm and her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. "A boy back in town," she said sheepishly, "He--beat me in a fight and then humiliated me. I have to get strong enough to beat him."

"This boy," he answered thoughtfully, "His name wouldn't happen to be Zaine, would it?"

Hirai thought back to the day she had the fight. She saw the boy's life bar, stared at it for a good second or two before he struck her. "Yes, I think it was," she said.

"You know Zaine runs with a guild, right? He and his whole crew are player killers."

"Player killers?" Hirai repeated, "Guild?"

Strider sighed, "Hirai, you really are a newb... A guild is a group of people who band together to form a large party and player killers are exactly as it sounds, players who kill other players."

Hirai was shocked at that. "Isn't that murder?"

"It is," he said, "and you're dealing with a whole guild of them. I'd suggest you stop now while you still have your life. You try to go up against Zaine and his boys and you'll just end up dead."

"That isn't an option," she said firmly.

"Hirai--," he started to say but she interrupted him.

"No! I will not let a second rate swordsman make a fool of me and get away!"

"So you are trained," he said, his expression becoming softer. On some level he knew what that felt like to be beaten by a person less talented than he, but even so Hirai was setting herself up to be killed. "All that training isn't going to amount for bantha-shavvit if you have to take on the whole guild. Eventually they'll overwhelm you."

"If I die I'll die avenging my honor," she answered with a determined look in her eyes.

Strider stared at her a moment then shrugged. "Fine, then at least let us help you. Four more swords at your back will even the odds."

"No, Strider, this is my fight. I cannot accept the aid of others, I have to finish this alone."

"Damn it, Hirai! You're not alone! There are a trillion other people playing this game and if we all want to survive then we have to work together! You'll never make it out there if you try to go it alone."

Hirai said nothing and looked away. Strider had thought that he might have gotten through to her but her body language suggested that she wasn't backing down. Again he sighed. "If that's how you want it," he said and he and his party walked past her deeper into the canyon.

"Strider," Hirai said suddenly, stopping them in their tracks, "that sword at your hip and your shield. I don't remember Rangers being able to use those."

"I cross trained as a Knight," he explained, "I thought I'd pick it up for the extra defensive capabilities."

But Knights use those abilities to defend others at a cost to themselves, she thought, remembering the description of the Knight class from the character creator. Knights fought with a sword and shield which they used to defend their companions, effectively taking the damage that was meant for someone else. "You are a much better person than I," she whispered then she headed up the path back towards the Darkwoods.

Strider spared a glance over his shoulder at her, feeling a pang of regret deep in his heart. He wondered if he was doing the right thing by letting her go and he hoped beyond hoped that somehow she'd survive...

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Pryde
Pryngles
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Re: Ether: The Struggle for Life

Post by Pryde » Sun Aug 05, 2012 1:28 am

The relatively peaceful night was interrupted by a sharp scream coming from a dark alley. Zaine and his guild mates had found more prey to exploit and were up to their old tricks. "Give me everything you have," Zaine was shouting at the top of his lungs while threatening a pair of young players just recently returned from adventuring. The players had made it no secret that they found a rare item and were now paying for their ignorance.

"Never," one boy shouted and he charged forward with his sword raised high.

Zaine ducked under the boy's attack and slashed his sword across his abdomen. A second later the boy exploded into a shower of glistening fragments as his friend looked on in horror. "Now it's your turn," Zaine said, turning his attention to the boy's friend. This one was a young girl and she panicked and tried to run but was cut off by Zaine's companions. She turned back to the boy as a dreadful realization dawned on her, she was going to die.

"Now then," Zaine said, raising his sword...

"That's enough," a new voice shouted and everyone's attention turned to the source.

Hirai approached them calmly, her sword still sheathed in its scabbard. Zaine recognized her almost instantly and started to laugh. "I guess the first beating I gave you wasn't enough," he said, "I guess I'll just have to beat you again, only this time I won't hold back."

"Neither will I," Hirai answered and she charged straight at him.

Zaine made the first move, cutting down at her with his large broad sword. Hirai simply side stepped the attack then nudged her katana out of its scabbard with her thumb. Gripping the hilt of her katana she drew the weapon from its sheath, cutting deeply into Zain's chest and straight through to the other side. Zaine stared at the virtual wound in his chest in stunned disbelief. His life bar started to fall and it showed no signs of stopping.

"There's--no way," he said, "You couldn't have leveled so quickly."

"You gave me the motivation," Hirai told him without turning around to look at him. "And now you get what you deserve."

Zaine's lips curled up into a smile but he said nothing. Shortly after his body exploded into fragments and Hirai turned her attention to his remaining guildmates.

"I can't believe it, she killed him," one of them was saying.

"What do we do?"

"Attack, obviously. She can't take all of us at once!"

"That's right! We'll attack her at the same time!"

Swords unsheathed all around her and the thugs charged in for the kill. Hirai only had a second to open her inventory and as the first blade fell a second katana materialized in Hirai's left hand. She parried the attack with her left hand then cut across the boy's chest with her right. Then she pivoted on her heel, twisting to her left just in time to raise both weapons and parry an attack. She caught the blade of the second boy's sword in between both of her own and dragged it down. Then she spun to her right and slashed her katana through his neck. Two of the boys exploded into fragments and the others just stopped. At this point it was clear she outmatched them all in terms of skill. They could try to continue the fight and maybe score a hit on her but eventually she will have killed them all.

"Forget this," one of the remaining three said and he took off running down the alleyway.

"This ain't worth dying over," said a second and he too took off at a run.

The third boy hung around momentarily, bravely standing his ground. Hirai lunged at him but made no effort to attack. The motion itself was enough to cause the boy to drop his sword and take off running. All that was left was the girl who was now kneeling next to the fallen sword of her companion.

"I'm sorry I couldn't save your friend," Hirai whispered and the girl shook her head.

"I didn't even really know him," she said, "We met in the plaza the day the game launched. He said he would look after me and keep me safe."

A random stranger she just met said that? Hirai thought, wondering why someone would take such an interest in someone they didn't know. Chances were she would never understand the reason behind his words but one thing was clear to her now.

"Now you'll have to look out for yourself," Hirai said, "You can't rely on anyone's strength but your own."

"But I'm no good at these things," the girl cried, shooting to her feet and staring at Hirai. "If I try to go out there alone...," she left the rest hanging in the air.

"Then join a guild," Hirai answered, "and learn to stand for yourself. If you keep thinking the way you are now this game will destroy you."

The girl thought about that a moment then nodded. "You're right," she said, "Thank you. I will go out and join a guild right now."

"Just pick one that is better than his," Hirai said, pointing to where Zaine's sword had fallen with the tip of her katana.

"I will," the girl replied and then she turned to run back to the more public areas of Providence.

Hirai sheathed both of her weapons at her hip and smiled. She beat Zaine, her honor was restored. Now she could get back to finding a way out of here, though by now it was beginning to dawn on her that the back door she'd been looking for was not real. Whether she wanted to or not she had played Amarant's game and was beginning to understand. The only way out was forward and she still had a lot of catching up to do. On top of that she had already begun to build a reputation, though she wouldn't realize it at first. The story of her heroism in saving that girl's life would spread and bring with it another kind of headache she would rather do without...

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