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"The spider weaves his web in the palace of the Caesars."

Atreas prepared the finishing stroke, a sandstorm that would inflict colossal damage on his opponents - and possibly also on his own Guildmates. As per the plan, his warriors were tanking and blocking off the opponent's melee fighters in the centre of the dusty arena, leaving the mage Atreas in solace some distance away from the action. His massive INT stat, ranked 3rd among all players, meant that a sandstorm summoned in the centre of the fight would deal enough damage to basically overkill the players trapped in the middle of the rushing sand. His tanks would also be sacrificed to the maelstrom, but such consequences weren't considered important when the plan was set out by the Guild leader, who happened to be Atreas.

The fight pushed slowly towards the opposing team's half of the arena, with his heavily-armed warriors gaining the upper hand over an enemy who were mostly DEX-based, stealthy fighters more accustomed to using daggers and small swords. It felt like a mismatch, and Atreas decided that the time was right to end the fight, signalling to his team-mates by raising his hand and using his mana to shove an opponent to the ground. An ally of his rapidly surged forwards, using his secondary weapon - a scythe - to target the opposing mage. The [Reaper's Pull] skill activated, dragging the mage towards the centre of the arena and throwing him to the ground. The skill was a special ability linked to scythes, and allowed the user to grab distant or fleeing enemies and pull them closer while grounding them. It was an effective way to prevent weaker enemies or ranged units from fleeing when attacked. In this case, it was used to drag the mage into the path of the sandstorm.

Atreas began to cast the [Sand Maelstrom] spell, costing 200 MP. The spell was highly powerful, but required 5 seconds to charge and would fail if the caster took damage during this time. He waited as the 5 seconds elapsed: 5, 4, 3... Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye he saw a stealth fighter, dressed in the usual black shinobi shozoku of the Assassin class, materialise behind his line of tanks and quickly bound in his direction. The Assassin must have used his 3-second invisibility ability, [Stealth Cloak], to sneak past the rest of the fight, though it was difficult to pull off in fights like these because it would fade if the user was struck. It must have taken quite some agility to bolt through the thickest part of the fight without taking a stray hit.

Atreas shrugged slightly - it was too late for this Assassin to prevent the sandstorm, so this sudden show of bravado seemed inconsequential. As soon as the Sand Maelstrom spell was cast, Atreas quickly cast [Earth Shield] towards the Assassin, causing a wall of earth to rise and form a rock-like shield in the direction that the Assassin was quickly approaching from.

The Assassin nearly ran into the wall of earth, but made an agile rightwards twist away from it to avoid collision, then rolled quickly on the ground into an alert, standing position. Atreas could see now that this Assassin's username was [Crucis], and he seemed to be smirking lightly at Atreas. The Assassin's HP was at 60%, due to the skirmish earlier. On the other side of the arena, one of Atreas' team had clumsily managed to escape from the sandstorm with heavy damage, but the rest of the players were struggling in vain to move as the raging sandstorm's damage overwhelmed them. A few bodies already lay on the ground, with no HP remaining.

Tense, Atreas waited for the Assassin's next move, but the Assassin just seemed to stand still, watching out for attacks. Impatiently, Atreas cast [Dust Missile], gathering the sand together into a sharp, conical projectile that he aimed at his opponent. The Assassin saw this coming, and quickly activated [Speed Demon] to raise his speed as he rolled out of harm's way. The remaining allied warrior, named [KingDuncan], had nearly reached Atreas, which would probably make seeing off this Assassin easy. However, Atreas glanced and saw that he had only 100 MP remaining himself, not enough for sustained combat.

The Assassin sprung into action just as the armour-clad warrior was done lumbering back, aiming a firm strike at Atreas with a pair of daggers. However, Atreas had already prepared to deal with sneak attacks in this battle, equipping an amulet that gave him a 100% Agility boost for 5 seconds when attacked. Though it had a cooldown time of 1 minute, he wasn't expecting many attacks to slip through to his secluded position. He quickly jumped out of the way of the attack, and used [Mana Push] to keep distance from the Assassin by pushing the attacker away lightly. While there was a trait that made Mana more effective at moving opponents, he had not taken that and preferred to strengthen his earth spells. In any case, the Assassin didn't seem to make much effort to continue the attack, so Atreas was safe for the moment - albeit with only 80 MP.

KingDuncan finally made his way to the fray, but with only 20% of his HP remaining after barely escaping the sandstorm. Atreas spent 50 MP healing KingDuncan with [Greater Healing], restoring them to 80% HP. When the Assassin approached again, KingDuncan's large broadsword stood in the way. Atreas had already buffed the warriors, who had greatly enhanced Strength and some additional Constitution. When KingDuncan's sword met the Assassin's daggers, the Assassin was pushed firmly away and landed crouching at the leftmost edge of the arena.

Atreas was cautious because of his low MP, even though it was slowly regenerating. However, impatient to end the fight, he spent 35 MP on another [Dust Missile], hoping to strike the Assassin when he was distracted by the advancing KingDuncan. However, to Atreas' surprise, the Assassin saw the missile but did not dodge it, instead standing passively and holding his arms out towards his sides as if wings. With a thud, the missile collided with him and sent him falling to the ground. KingDuncan walked up to him, then raised his hand firmly in the air and brought down the broadsword through the Assassin's chest, reducing their HP to 0. "Too little, too late, ninja," taunted Atreas. The battle was over, and he saw that the Assassin's sneakiness had got them nowhere.

The more you see, the more you do.

Atreas was slightly taken aback by the Assassin's late resistance, but thought back with satisfaction - and a hint of hubris - on the success of his tactics in killing most of his enemies in one fell swoop. His team had just won the semi-finals of a tournament, and if they won then the reward was a rare, powerful artifact. Even better, they had fought down a team from a widely-hated, sadistic Guild, which made Atreas feel peace of mind. His Guild tended to specialise more in dungeon crawling and PvE rewards, but he was relishing this turn to PvP and was convinced that they were favourites going into the finals. The finals would be in two hours, giving time for team-mates to respawn and for all players to equip themselves for the match.

He trudged up the rocky, uneven stairs besides the arena, towards the surrounding building. Finding his way to the room he was assigned for the final stages of this tournament, he sat down on a small bed and meditated to restore his MP. Players couldn't currently leave the game, though hope was spreading of that being fixed soon, so he would have to relax here. He closed his eyes peacefully, satisfied that even the unruly Assassin had been easily tamed.

"Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil."

As he sat in meditation, due to indiscipline and slight nerves he broke off to inspect his Character Summary, the game's display of his username, level, and the stats central to his class:

[Atreas, level 153.
Class: Mage.
Subclass: Geomancer.
INT: 4520.
MP: 450.
MP regen: 25 MP per 15 seconds.
HP: 9000.

Equipment: Staff of Tiresias | +500 INT, +5% to hydromancy spells, +10% to geomancy spells.
Oceanic Robes | Doubles the amount of mana regenerated.
Light body armour | Increases CON by 200.
Helskor shoes | Increases AGI by 50, and INT by 200.]

 

***

Once his meditation was finished, the wizard Atreas prepared to set out his equipment for the upcoming fight.

Before doing this, he made sure to do some quick research on who his next opponents would be. Curiously, these opponents were from the same Guild as his previous, stealthy opponents, a guild known as [#Sin]. It seemed that their Guild's stronger players would be in the upcoming fixture, but he thought that perhaps they ran multiple teams in case one of them could luck their way into winning it for the Guild. He knew that [#Sin] was widely hated, and were known for preying on weak and new players. However, even though their team in the finals was stronger than the last he had faced, they were still mostly of a lower level than his team, and he had checked on the game's rankings that the opposing team's mage, Cael, was of lower level than him and had a lower INT stat to boost his magic.

Atreas concluded that his opponents should be easily outclassed, but knew that the [#Sin] Guild had unlocked this tournament's prize, a rare artifact that enhances Mana Regeneration significantly for the Guild. He expected that they wouldn't give it up easily, since their dungeon exploits had resulted - accidentally or intentionally - in the artifact being revealed. Nonetheless, the game generally began a tournament whenever a rare artifact was discovered, and if the finders wanted to keep it then they would have to fight any strong, interested players in the area.

Atreas had laid a few different amulets on a table, to choose between. His guild was far in advance of others when it came to raiding, and his rich options displayed that. He inspected a few, laying his hand over them lightly to see text describing their powers.

[Amulet of Jade | Grants +15% INT]
[Amulet of Tiger's Eye | Grants +10% damage]
[Amulet of Silver | Grants +10% HP to all allies nearby]
[Amulet of Bronze | Grants +10% ATK to all allies nearby]
[Amulet of Topaz | Grants +100% AGI for 5 seconds when attacked. CD: 1 minute.]

He smiled lightly, remembering his recent use of the topaz amulet. However, the opposing Guild would probably expect that now, so he decided that he should try to surprise them instead. His team would be relying on him to do most of the damage, while his sword-wielding allies would tank the enemy and obstruct its spellcasters. Hence, an ATK boost would mostly benefit his melee fighters, but he would rather an INT boost for a more deadly blow. That might not be necessary, however, as he already had higher INT than his opponents could match, and if he could get a strong attack in then it would be enough even without an INT buff. He pondered between his extravagant collection of amulets, indecisively.

His eyes strayed over the Amulet of Silver, something that he had mostly used when his Guild were grinding or were struggling through large dungeon mobs. In dungeons, it was often important to keep different amulets ready, so that they could be switched once a boss's weaknesses were found. Here, however, amulets could not be switched during PvP, and he figured that the increased HP might help his allies to tank more easily and hold the tougher opponents back. All the same, he was still hesitant to buff the rest of the team rather than himself, as he didn't consider them to have the same importance. He hesitated for a moment, deciding between the jade and silver amulets.

Suddenly, he was shoved hard to his left, and fell to the ground. Looking up, he saw an Assassin quickly swooping in for the kill, and used [Mana Strike] to push the Assassin backwards onto the wall with mana. Another Assassin, who had also found his way in, dropped almost effortlessly down to perch next to Atreas and struck the Mage with a dagger to the face, before leaping back to his feet and stepping away as he saw Atreas preparing to cast a spell. Atreas had been planning to use [Hand of Stone], a low-cost spell which uses earth magic to harden the user's hand into a stony form and punch the opponent heavily, but the Assassin was now out of reach.

"Begone, intruders!" Atreas shouted, quickly getting to his feet. One of the Assassins laughed lightly, but Atreas' vision was still slightly blurred after the surprise attack and he couldn't make out which it was. He wasn't sure how the Assassins had managed to get in here, as the guards outside were programmed to one-shot intruders, and the hallway leading up to the room was too long for even a high-Agility Assassin to realistically sneak through in the few seconds of stealth they were allowed. Yet there was no sign of the guards.

Unable to use most of his elaborate earth magic in this room, Atreas tried to use another [Mana Strike] on the second Assassin. However, the Assassin rolled out of the way of the strike almost instantaneously. Atreas frowned, as he had never seen even high-level Assassins who were able to move that quickly. "Give up, wizard," said the Assassin, whose mouth seemed to turn up in a slight smile.

As Atreas got his bearings, he could see that this Assassin was named [Dr1fter], and was unsurprisingly from the [#Sin] Guild. He could recognise the player's name from somewhere, but at the moment his thoughts were hazy and he didn't recall where. The Assassin who Atreas had shoved into the wall had 88% of their HP remaining, and leapt at Atreas again, brandishing a dagger. Atreas could see that his name was [Awww8]. He was also moving very quickly, but Atreas managed to summon a small [Earth Shield] by dragging a rocky patch of the wall into a protective barrier in the way of the attack.

At that moment, Dr1fter stepped and seemed to almost disappear, then turned up right next to Atreas' shoulder. Grabbing Atreas by the shoulder, he used the [Suppression] ability to lift the shoulder upwards and twist Atreas to the ground like a corkscrew. At this point, he signalled to Awww8, who swiftly rolled to the side of the Earth Shield and threw two knives at Atreas. They struck the wizard in the chest, as [Dr1fter] stabbed him harshly in the neck. These combined attacks took out 40% of Atreas' HP and left him with only 30% remaining. He was surprised at how much damage these Assassins were able to do. "How'd you fancy being a pillory?" wisecracked Dr1fter, who was keeping Atreas down by the shoulder.

Angered, Atreas used [Dust Missile] to convert the Earth Shield into a rocky projectile, casting it at Dr1fter. Despite the proximity, Dr1fter rolled away, to somewhere near the entrance of the room. Atreas felt a harsh [Forceful Kick] on his back from the other Assassin, and was shoved in the direction of the door. While the damage from this attack wasn't as high as other kicks, it was mostly used to push opponents firmly away from the user. Atreas used most of his remaining MP to cast [Pillar Strike], converting the stony walls next to the doors into a pillar-like stream of stone hitting Dr1fter repeatedly in the chest.

This pushed Dr1fter out of the door and into the hallway, where Atreas was pleased to hear the guards shout as they aggroed on this intruder. However, Atreas felt another [Forceful Kick] push him out into the hallway as well, while he was still casting the spell. Dr1fter stabbed him harshly in the chest with a skill named [Dire Stab], and sent him raggedly to the floor.

The guards were coming after Dr1fter, but stopped briefly to notice the situation and proclaim, "Two teams fighting before a match means that they are both disqualified. The prize shall go to the strongest losing semifinalist. Shame on you!" Atreas realised where he recognised Dr1fter's name from, it must have been one of the opponents in the team that Atreas was supposed to face in the finals. Atreas briefly regretted being seen by the guards. However, Dr1fter was reduced to 20% HP by Atreas' pillar strike, and to Atreas' delight was soon killed by the guards, who walked back to their positions. His corpse lay on the ground, unable to be plundered by others for 5 minutes.

Atreas was prepared to follow the guards for safety, but he felt an invisible arm grasping his shoulders, and a sharp blade against his neck. Dragged back into the room, he heard Awww8 whisper, "It's too late now, wizard." As the [Stealth Cloak] faded, the Assassin used [Black Spot], an ability that slit Atreas' throat and caused it to bleed. The bleeding would inflict enough damage over time to kill Atreas. Awww8's grip began to loosen, seemingly satisfied.

Desperate, Atreas used [Mana Push] to shove the Assassin a short distance, then prepared to cast a simple [Sand Strike] to cause damage with the debris thrown up by his [Pillar Strike]. However, as Atreas begun to cast the follow-up spell, the Assassin had already recovered from the push backwards and was standing right in front of Atreas with a hand on the mage's neck. The Assassin skipped behind Atreas' right shoulder in under a second, and used [Suppression] to push Atreas to the ground again, disrupting the spell. He held Atreas to the ground with his arms while placing a [Chokehold], and watched as the Mage's HP drained out from the bleeding. Atreas could barely move, and felt almost cleithrophobic.

He tried to cry out, but felt severe pain due to the chokehold, and his body shuddered as the cry died in the throat. While the game blocked out pain inflicted by battles and offensive skills, it did not prevent pain from trying to talk or move. Due to the effort, he found himself choking on blood, and was forced to swallow it painfully. He felt the grip around his throat tighten, and his face and throat were lifted roughly away from the floor like a hanging. In agony, he saw his HP drain to 0%, and then blacked out. As he prepared to wait for respawn, he could lightly hear the Assassin get up and rummage through the amulets laid on a table.

(suffer)

"That's the life you lead, that's the time you feed, that's the dream you let go anyway."
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