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Chie's throat was parched and her left foot was still numb. Flipping the hood back over her head and cinching its cords in a tight knot under her chin, she unclipped a shuriken from her belt, lay down on her stomach, and reached down over the edge. The freezing wind turned her nose red. Holding the shuriken, she hacked at a section of the ice lining the underside of the ledge lip. After five solid hits, it broke off. After crawling backwards away from the ledge, she sat up and shoved a corner of the hunk of dirty ice into her mouth. She bit at it and scraped her teeth along its cold, hard surface. Blood from her cracked lips streaked the ice in bright red rivulets. She felt something pungent and slimy on her tongue, like spoiled oysters. She spat it out and then looked at the ice. Part of a worm. From then on, she made sure to look before she bit. She picked out pebbles and sharp finger-sized rocks, but swallowed the grit and sand along with the water. Every few minutes she took a break to let her mouth defrost.

After thirty minutes of gnawing on the ice, her thirst was quenched, but she was nauseous from all the mud sloshing around in her stomach.

A message displayed.

Epic quest: Save yourself from certain death by making your way to an island in the Great Abyss.
Status: Completed.
XP = +500
New level = 3
Skills = +4 (Select 4 new skills.)
Attributes = +40 (Available for distribution between Mana, Chi, and Rep.)

Level three already? Four new skills and a whopping forty attribute points! But what's the deal? I can't add them to any attribute. If I were a mage, it'd be a no-brainer. What kind of spells are available? She stumbled through the voice commands but finally sorted them out. Although the commands were basically the same as in the Three Kingdoms, there were a few small differences.

"Mana spells."

Mana Spells:
Summoning (L1)
Shapeshifting (L4)
Possession (L25)

It would be an understatement to say summoning a flying beast to carry her would be lifesaver, but after checking out the details, the best she could do at her current level was a silly messenger raven. She slid her hands down her waist. Her body was still its endurance sports self, but she wasn't emaciated enough to saddle up on a raven without breaking its back. "Shapeshifting."

Player, this skill isn't available at your current lowly level. Contact the sensei responsible for your local area for assistance with this skill.

They sure like keeping players in the dark. Then again, it was an alpha. She clenched her jaw and pursed her lips. "I'm behaving exactly like some helpless child." Instead of wasting time asking Yuri about Ken, I should've been extracting as much of the actual mechanics I could wring out of that hacker neck of hers. This is not the kind of leader I was. Stop getting overwhelmed by emotion.

She brought up the help topic for Rep. It was the career track for leadership and shinobi weren't groomed as leaders outside of their own guild. She decided to dump it all into chi to power her wings. They might be her only way off this godforesaken rock.

Chi (updated) = 91

What should she do with her skills? She had the feel of the interface now. If she didn't use their exact terminology, nothing would come back. For a system so advanced, she thought they'd have better help. On the other hand, maybe they didn't want to help and that was part of the challenge, that is, to learn from others and a player's own mistakes like in the real world. No career skills. Perhaps players had to apprentice—again, like in the real world. Checking out the specific class and species skills, she found that the species and classes only added and subtracted from the skills. "Chi skills."

Chi skills:
Description: Spiritual ability and supply.
Armor enhancement (L1)
Long-distance running (L1)
Speed enhancement (L1)
Stealth (L1)
Unarmed combat (L1)
Critical hit enhancement (L4)
Healing (including medications) (L12)
Combat actions prediction (L25)
Flight (L25)
Poison and disease resistance (including medications) (L25)

There were the usual combat skills like unarmed combat, which included dodge, parry, sweep, frontal, joint locks, and so forth and were available at level one. Flight could come in handy if her wings failed or she ran out of chi, but it was only available at level twenty-five. Stealth was a shinobi skill, but it was reduced by the tengu-ningen species negative adjustment. Tengu-ningen were also dinged negatively for mages, but enhanced for warriors. Also, on the positive side, tengu-ningen automatically received shapeshifting—but only at level twenty-five.

That Yuri! Chie punched her fist into the palm of her other hand. She'd chosen my class and species for me. I'd have chosen human, which is balanced. But then again I wouldn't have received wings and been able to save myself. I'd had wings in real life. Was that why Yuri chose tengu-ningen for me?

Yuri did have a soft spot for that girl. What was her name? Ai-chan. A kid. Not an un-matured, but a matured? An adult? Not that flirt Aika? I can't make sense of it. It doesn't matter. Having a family doesn't change the fact that they swatted Ken and now we're both trapped in the game for the sole purpose of completing their quest. She shook her head. "It's so... so twisted."

As she leveled up, the effect of the species adjustment would be diminished. Stealth paired well with the critical hit enhancement for sneak attacks and speed enhancement for a quick getaway. It was probably a mistake to neglect armor enhancement at her low level, but she'd have to avoid open combat and large set battles. "Skill selection: unarmed combat, stealth, speed enhancement, critical hit enhancement."

Skill selection complete.

Now to figure out how to get out of the Great Abyss and onto Ishigumi. The Great Abyss must be gigantic, but all I need to do is to go east. But how do I get off this rock? How do players even get here? Fly, but they'd have to be really high level. And why would they want to? Well, it's a dungeon, and dungeon's have treasure, dummy. She went over and kicked one of the ropes. The rope disintegrated and a cloud of dust burst in her face. She coughed and spat. The rope had decomposed. The dungeon had already been cleared. That meant no treasure, which meant no magical items to help her get off of this barren rock. Still, it wasn't like she was going to roll over and die.

There might be a tunnel that goes up to the surface. She crouched down and felt her way to the back of the dark cave. Glow sticks. They had them in the Three Kingdoms. She pulled one out of her backpack and crimped it. The green light of her glow stick illuminated the darkness and she saw a crevice that was about two chest-widths. Bingo. Dungeon always equals tunnels, corridors, and passageways.

After fifty-two steps, she saw flourescent red and green lichen and algae coating the walls. The air was fresher. A warm breeze caressed her cheeks. She was heading in the right direction. After another twenty-three steps, she stopped at a narrow band of water that had flooded across the path. Spying a rivulet of water flowing down the wall, she filled her water bottle. After guzzling down the entire bottle, she refilled it again as well as a water bladder she'd found stashed at the bottom of the backpack. After one-hundred twenty-three steps, the crevice ended at a proper corridor with stone block walls and arched ceilings. A discarded glow stick lay against the wall to the right, so she turned that way.

She'd been walking for a couple of hours and it had been slow going with the limp caused by the frostbitten toes on her left foot. She'd stopped checking for traps because either there hadn't been any in the first place or they'd already been cleared. Call it intuition or experience, regardless of the game, after a while players could tell these things. Besides, she had more important matters to consider. Why am I at level zero? Well duh, it's a campaign. You always start at the beginning. You have to prove you're worthy. Who do these hackers think they are? Not only computer hackers but bio-hackers too. Or, like Ken said, the supernatural. She snorted at herself and shook her head.

Upon reaching a T intersection, she peeked around the left corner. Without any noticeable elevation gain, she was hoping to see stairs. Instead, at the end of the long corridor, she saw a large archway through which bright light was streaming. And she heard voices. She almost leaped for joy. They could help her get off this rock. Calm down, remember, there's obviously some confusion over whether the quest is a battle royale or cooperative and even if it were cooperative, there are more than enough greedy players too go around. And who's to say they're players. There's only one hundred. Meeting a chaotic evil NPC would be the absolute worst. Neutral evil wouldn't be much better. What was Yuri? Lawful evil.

"Execute stealth."

Executing Stealth.
Chi cost: 1/min
Contributing attributes
CHI = 51 * 0.05 = +2.55%
DEX = 88 * 0.01 = +0.88%
IQ = 90 * 0.01 = +0.9%
Species adjustment: -10% (Tengu)
Class adjustment = +20% (Shinobi)
Total adjustment = +14.33%

Chi is weighted an astounding five times as much as the other attributes. Even with the species hit, I still have an almost fifteen percent bonus, but who knows what the adjustments the target characters have.

She crept down the hallway and up to the side of the archway. As she shuffled her feet to position herself right next to the opening of the archway, she stubbed the toe of her left boot on a crate. She held her breath, but nobody noticed. Behind her was a shallow recess in the wall. Broken, rusted hinges and splinters of wood hung from its edges, a utility closet. She peeked around the corner.

Ten people were carrying boxes or crates onto a wooden platform at the other end of the room, which opened out to the sky. They all wore black, gray, or brown trenchcoats, skullcaps or balaclavas, and goggles hung from their necks or were strapped to their foreheads. A huge pole in the middle of the platform rose up beyond the opening and wide heavy fabric hung down from it. It was a sailing ship. Both fore and aft, sails of various shapes and sizes, some triangular, fluttered in the wind. But what in the world was a sailing ship doing here in the sky?

"Are we loaded up?" a woman from the deck of the ship said. A one-inch silver bar on the right chest of her trenchcoat glinted in the dim light. A matching one was mounted front and the center on her tan skullcap.

Twenty or so other people scuttled around on deck and a few climbed up the mast.

"Just the last crate out in the hallway." A man with goggles strapped to his forehead turned to walk in her direction.

She yanked her head back behind the wall. The crate. His footsteps were coming closer. She didn't know if they were friendly or not and she turned to run for the intersection down the hallway. Her boot caught on the crate and she toppled head over heels. She broke her fall with her hands, but the sound of them slapping the cold stone floor resounded throughout the hallway. Her body was mostly inside of the utility closet, but her boot stuck out, clearly visible.

She heard the man pick up the crate and walk away. "Man," he said, "I can't wait to get off this hunk of rock. Pirates won't like it if they find us pilfering their supplies."

Minor skill use: Stealth successful.
XP = +50

No kidding. "Quiesce status messages," Chie subvocalized as she stood up and crept back to the archway.

The woman with the silver bar turned to the others. "All right, everyone, man your stations. We're casting off."

What? They're leaving! "Exit stealth." Chie walked out into the open, stretched out her arms, empty palms up, and gave them her biggest smile. "Hi! I'm not a pirate."

The man stopped dead in his tracks, dropped the crate, and reached for his katana. "Oh shit, who the hell are you?"

Everyone turned to stare at Chie. The woman rushed down the ramp to Jim. She held her katana out in front of her.

"I'm Rose Crow. It looks like you're all leaving and I was hoping I could hitch a ride with you. I have a hundred standards, but if that isn't enough I could work for passage." It didn't matter where they were going. Any place was better than this island in the sky out in the middle of nowhere.

"We don't need any help," the woman said.

"Yeah, we don't need any NPCs," the man said.

"But I'm not, I'm a player." Were they players or NPCs? Chie took a step forward.

The man and woman shuffled backwards several feet, but always kept their eyes on Chie.

"I'll hold her off, " the woman said. "You, get on the ship."

Chie had to get on that ship too. Dropping to her knees, she clasped her hands together. "Please, take me. I just joined the game and I was dropped into the sky. I was falling and barely made it to this island."

"Hey, Captain," Jim said, "She seems kind of different. Maybe she's not an NPC."

"What the hell are you drinking? Don't you remember what happened to Mai the last time we picked up a straggler?" the captain said.

A woman climbed up from below decks and ran up to the other side of the captain.

"What did she say her name was?" the woman said. Tufts of blue-black hair stuck out from underneath her skullcap.

"Rose Crow," Jim said.

"The legendary Rose Crow?" the woman with blue-black hair said. "That's a real player handle, you know. From the Three Kingdoms. I was in her clan."

"Then you can ask her something only she would know," the captain said.

"Nothing that isn't public knowledge," the woman said and then rubbed her chin with one hand and examined Chie. "But she looks kind of like her real life pictures."

"C'mon, we can change our looks anytime we want and AI NPCs can do even more. We learned our lesson the hard way and don't tell me you've contracted a sudden bout of amnesia." The captain glowered at the woman. "Besides, what player is going to come to this deserted hunk of rock? The dungeon was cleaned out ages ago."

They were sure acting like real players, but if they were PKers, it might be all over for her. She checked her stats and she'd recovered all her stamina. She could run and hide from them and then when they left, she could grapple onto their ship and stow away somehow. That was plan B, but it was very risky. She hoped they were moral. "I am Rose Crow, my real name is Chie Shibuyama. I live at—"

"It's not going to do you any good," the captain said. "We can't verify it."

Chie threw herself prone on the hard stone floor. "Please, I'll do anything. You can chain me up. Just take me with you. I've got to find my husband!"

"Geez, why didn't I think of this before," the woman standing next to the captain slapped her hand on top of her head. "Why don't we have her pass control of her char sheet to us?"

"You can do that?" the captain said. "We could've tested that berserker and Mai wouldn't be—"

The woman jerked her hands up in front of her. "Me and Ronnie got it figured out only just this morning."

"Sorry, Solaria," the captain said, her shoulders bowed.

Solaria laid her hand on the captain's forearm. "We all miss her."

The captain straightened up and pointed her katana at Chie. Jim and Solaria unsheathed theirs. Together, the three of them formed an impenetrable wall of razor sharp steel between Chie and the ship.

The ever-vigilant group leader Chie battled with her intuitive assessment of the captain and her team. Was it even possible to pass a modicum of control to another player? Even exposing your entire char sheet, treasure, equipment, weaknesses and all was reserved for your closest teammates.

"Not so eager any more, now are we? You'd better give me control." The captain's cold blue eyes bored into Chie's. "Or get the hell out of my sight."

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A note from Alexs

Revision History

2019-03-13: This chapter now has 2 parts instead of 3, so that we can return to Ken and Betsy's arc.


About the author

Alexs

  • San Francisco Bay Area
  • Quantum Katana

Bio: Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night

Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.

Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/asato

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