The Heart is a Void: Ashes to Ashes

by

MOROSE

Chapter 52: Disapproval is the Real Spoils of War

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Crucis awoke on the soft, sandy ground of the Kruxol respawn area, and lay still for a few moments. As he slowly rose into a relaxed sitting position, he scrolled through the system messages in a box to his left, to catch up on what he had missed. He noticed an important announcement, in a striking red font:

[DeathGang have defeated the Kruxol Alliance in war! The Guilds who began the war must now wait for one week before the next war mobilisation. DeathGang have received valuable rewards for winning the war, and their influence over Kruxol has increased.]

Crucis smiled lightly. However, his body still felt wretched after the last fight, with a stinging sensation across his arms, chest and legs, and his upper body drooped slightly as if it was still coated thickly with blood. He continued reclining near the ground, and scruffily raised his shoulders to stare into the bright morning sky near the sun, in order to wake himself up slightly.

Glancing around tiredly, Crucis saw that few people were heading towards the East of Kruxol, because DeathGang had consolidated control over the surrounding area. Crucis would still have to reclaim the inventory from his corpse, though most of his opponents weren't carrying a lot. He wondered if he might have picked up anything from Arkyle.

As he slowly rose to his feet, he overheard a nearby conversation.

"Did you see what happened to Belfry?" said one player.

Their friend replied cautiously. "Do you mean the streamer?"

"Yeah, I was watching his stream from town during the war. You should have seen it, the way he died! Everyone was crying and screaming."

"Oh, yeah, I heard about that. Some DeathGang stabbed his throat with a spear, then tore it by yanking Belfry's head until the poor guy fell backwards onto the rocks."

"Yeah, yeah! Then a guy named OudNasser walks by and says, "Eat it! Eat the blood!" They force Belfry to swallow his own blood as he dies. Such an outrage. But I'm glad that the war's over, no point fighting those psychos. Let's just get out of the game in one piece."

"Since there was a war going on, it was a good distraction. I managed to get some good time grinding out West, until someone saw Hashin nearby and we had to run."

"Yeah. They said there were DeathGang down South and they were sending a bunch of players to fight there as well, 'cause they were strong enough to kill Aret. Don't think any DeathGang guys were found, though. So I was also out West, surprised I didn't see you."

"They killed Areté? No wonder these blighters won the war, they must be hacking or something."

Crucis yawned slightly at this conversation, but stretched his limbs slightly and managed to stand up, although with slightly drooped shoulders. He noticed that his sword was slightly dented, but still useable. He would have to get it repaired. Slightly dazed, he walked into the [Kruxol Blacksmith] building, and met an old, brown-grey-haired man named [Blacksmith Thomas].

"Hello, would you like anything repaired? For reforging equipment, go to the other room," Thomas said to him.

Crucis handed over the [Silver Wasp Sword] for repair. Thanking Thomas circumspectly, he left and jogged to the Storage building.

He withdrew the [Gridiron Gauntlets], and wore them carefully. His HP increased significantly. He scanned the miscellaneous store for items to increase HP recovery, but didn't find anything satisfactory. However, he didn't need high HP regeneration if he could avoid combat. Equipping the [Skeletal Dust Bracelet], which ran roughly across his skin like sandpaper before it fell into place, he chose to use half of his CON to boost his Agility. Since his CON stat had been increased by the gauntlets, this led to a large boost in Agility, of 500 points.

He now was unable to regenerate HP, which would generally be a significant disadvantage in combat. However, as he entered the large array of trees North-East of Kruxol, he darted between and under the greenery with ease and swept rapidly towards the scene of his previous fight.

He heard a few other players navigating the mist, though not many because DeathGang had taken ownership of the area and this made it unsafe. He wasn't in danger from DeathGang, however, as he still wore their Guile wristband. Nonetheless, as soon as he heard any players nearby, he quickly moved away from them to avoid unnecessary conflict.

However, as he was reaching the place where the map indicated his corpse's position, he soon heard a loud burst as a player forced their way through the leaves some distance ahead. The player seemed to trip a few times, and Crucis guessed that this player was being chased. Crucis slid behind a large tree's bark to observe. He saw that the player was level 35 and down to only 20% HP.

As this player hurtled through the woods, with two DeathGang members in tired pursuit, he screamed, "No! DeathGang, I saw what you did to my friends! No!"

However, he was surprised when a hand emerged through the mist and grabbed him by the shoulder left, then stabbed him with [Stunning Dagger] just beside the shoulderblade. A small burst of black smoke plumed into the air. He screamed as he saw a face emerging from the bushes which was just a gaping hole with threatening rows of shark-like teeth along the edges. A dagger flew effortlessly and plunged in deep high on back of his neck, just beneath his short hair. Crucis placed a [Chokehold] and thrashed the player's neck from side to side as the player died with a choked, whimpering scream.

As the two DeathGang members approached, they were both hesitant as they saw a vicious creature in front of them. However, one of these DeathGang players was Akshel, who recognised Crucis and waved tentatively.

"Hey, there, thanks," Akshel stuttered.

"Ah, you," Crucis smiled, "The snake dude who fought down Byron. It's an honour."

"You did what?" exclaimed Akshel's DeathGang companion.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Akshel said sheepishly, "Yeah, we ambushed Byron from GildedKnights. I grappled him down and did a lot of damage, but died in the end. It was kinda exciting."

"Now, come on, you did well," said Crucis, who approached the DeathGang members and patted Akshel in the back. "It's easy to die in war. Anyway, do you know where DicingDevil is? He said that he was planning to go North for dungeons and Hunting."

Cruxis felt like, if he had no chance to revive, the nomadic approach of the Hashin would be far preferable to the territorial DeathGang approach. Due to the elusiveness of the Hashin, it was difficult to declare open warfare on them. In war, survival wasn't on the agenda, as people put their lives on the line for Guild, God or country.

"Oh, I'm also coming," said Akshel, "So is BlazeKey here." He nodded towards his friend.

"That's good to hear."

"Meet us due North of Kruxol in two hours, and we'll depart. I'll be in Kruxol, you can meet me at the North in one hour and I'll bring you along." He drew out his map and indicated the place where they were planning to meet, North of Kruxol besides a large boulder.

"I'll join you in Kruxol, and we can set off from there," replied Crucis cheerily. He was starting to return slowly to his normal appearance. "Anyway, I'm here to collect belongings from my corpse, how about you guys?"

"We're also doing that, but also chasing away a few guys here and there," laughed BlazeKey.

"Good to hear."

The three of them began walking North, nearing the site of the battle with Arkyle.

"So how did the war wrap up?" asked Crucis, crouching down to search for his corpse.

"I was with the large force up North," said BlazeKey. "After we overwhelmed the opponents, they fled and were killed en masse in chokepoints. A few rumours of brutality began to spread. When the depleted force of the Kruxol Guilds made it North, they were tired and leaderless. A lot of the troops were mutinous, and when they saw the chokepoints littered with bodies they mostly decided to stay put. A few braver units ventured forwards and died painfully as they tried to step slowly over the corpses, then the rest mutinied and ran away back to Kruxol, surrendering the fight. Without leaders like Arkyle and Byron, their troops had very little motivation to fight, and their strongest players were fearing for their lives."

"Congratulations on being part of the victorious Northern troops," said Crucis circumspectly. "It's good to hear that our group also contributed to the war effort. Are there any celebrations planned?"

"Yes. We'll be parading around Kruxol with a coffin and lit torches this evening, when it gets dark."

"That sounds great, I'll be there," said Crucis. "Sec, think I've found the corpse."

He found his corpse, lying brushed and cut on the ground, and reclaimed his inventory. Since his enemies had probably not brought many items to the war, he hadn't looted that much.

He did manage to find a [Viper Strike Pendant], a necklace that could increase a weapon's movement speed if the enemy was poisoned. He didn't have that many skills which led to the [Poison] status effect, so it wasn't that useful for him, but he decided to hold on to it in case it could be useful at skme point. This had come from the small group of weak deserters that they had killed.

"You took a lot of strikes for someone who wasn't even in our Guild," said BlazeKey, looking with suspicion over Crucis' shoulder at the corpse, "What was your ulterior motive?"

"Hate," Crucis laughed. "That's all."

"Anything else?"

"Well, what can I say? I'm a bad dude, so I hang with a bunch of bad boys."

Akshel snickered, and said, "I heard you killed Arkyle, by the way. Was it a hate crime?"

"Tell you what, I don't know. We'll have to sort it out in court. Study the video evidence, check if, like, my face had an angry expression when I was killing him."

Byron hadn't left much of interest. Arkyle, however, had dropped a [Hermit Card]. Glancing at the card's description, Crucis recognised it from.Vladislav's earlier description: it doubled the user's Agility when their HP was under 10%. This might have explained why Arkyle was moving so fast near death. Crucis marvelled slightly at how difficult it would be to kill off Arkyle in conventional war: along with Arkyle's fast mount and high HP, level, and HP regeneration, Arkyle was also capable of fleeing or fighting rapidly at low HP to cheat death. However, in an ambush this was less effective.

As Crucis checked the card's description, he saw that its description when reversed was slightly different from what Vladislav had remembered. Not only did the card reduce an enemy's movement speed by 20% when the user is under 10% HP, but it also gave your opponent the [Yellow Bile] debuff which gives each of their skills a 10% chance of failing. This debuff was rare, but the reversed effect still seemed less useful in most situations. It was still of interest, as one of the few ways to cast this debuff, but, since it required the user to be under 10% HP, it wasn't a very practical way of doing this.

Along with this, Crucis would also have some valuable rewards waiting in the mail, as a reward for participating on the winning side.

Crucis stood up, and waited for Akshel to return from his own corpse. The [Hermit Card] would be a useful way to grind mobs quickly, but he would have to find the right place. The cave which DicingDevil had shown him, South of Kruxol, did have a few level 50-60 mobs in rooms near the false salamanders, so it might be a promising place to start. For now, however, he would soon be busy up North with the DeathGang group and would be safer keeping the card in Storage.

"Hey, you going back to Kruxol?" Akshel called through the mist.

"Yeah, when the red name ends. You coming?"

"Soon, have to check up on some guys in the Guild first. See you then."

Akshel waved and wandered away. Crucis walk back amongst the trees and hid in a thick bush for 15 minutes. While hiding, he looked through his quest log, and saw that several miscellaneous quests had been fulfilled. These tasks included 'Fight in a War,' 'Kill a player above level 65,' 'Fight on the Winning Side in a War,' and 'Kill the Leader of one of the top 20 Guilds in a War.' Claiming these gave a large EXP reward, sufficient for Crucis to rise to level 54. The last of these was a 'hidden quest,' a quest with requirements that were blurred out until it was completed. These quests could generally only be discovered once players had completed them, or through word of mouth. Not many of them were known.

Once his red name returned to normal, he darted back to Kruxol through the trees. Though there were a few players passing close by, he managed to avoid notice.

As he re-entered Kruxol, he heard a loud commotion from near the town centre. He walked quickly towards the noise, and saw that a male member of [Communion] was giving a tearful speech from atop a podium. The audience were watching as if shell-shocked and seemed to be moved by the speaker's mournful tone. Slipping into a nearby alley, Crucis overheard the speech.

"Open your hearts! We cannot allow the DeathGang monsters to claim victory, we cannot surrender the cause of peace and communion!" the speaker shouted hoarsely.

"We already won, idiot!" chimed in a DeathGang heckler.

The speaker frowned, but ignored him. "What everyone wants to know is why. Why must these monsters oppress us, why did they become such cruel monsters? Even if you weren't at the fight, you've probably seen videos, you've heard the stories! There was carnage, villains grinning as they tore into our noble troops. The DeathGang hordes have no shame!

"You are all wondering why you must suffer. Why has so much blood been spilled? Where is the love in this world? But we can't just look on these DeathGang scoundrels and think that they are OK! Our Guild is small, we never wanted power, we just want to finish our quests and level up in peace! Why must these DeathGang tyrants ruin things, unlike us?

"It's like the snake in the Garden of Eden. The Bible told me that he ruined mankind's peaceful, sinless existence in Eden. Why? I would ask him that. And not only have they abused us, they have doubled down and fought a long war to defend this cruelty. Why? Until it is answered, we must continue to ask this question. Your tears ask this question, ladies and gentlemen of Kruxol! It is noble, the way you mourn and cry!"

A cheer went up from the crowd. Crucis was unimpressed at the quality of the speech, but he still found it amusing. As he saw Akshel walking past from the North of Kruxol, he gestured the DeathGang member to come over and listen. Akshel joined him.

"This Communion pipsqueak is questioning the meaning of life now. Good fun," he whispered to Akshel.

The speech continued. "But instead of reminiscing about the war, I want to thank you all for the support. Soldiers, some of the tears you now shed in front of me are as noble as the battles that you have just fought far to the East. Why should we think about such far-off places, when there is such splendour right here? We shouldn't think about such monstrous things as we could never understand! Only God knows the evil in the hearts of men.

"Black is the heart that does not cry today! It is a time for mourning. We must mourn, for goodness has suffered at the hands of fiendish villainy! Empathy is the most brilliant human emotion: I suffer with all of you, and I smile with all of you. I am a part of you, a part of the communion. That is why we of Communion do not conspire against you in shadows, like DeathGang, but seek to give you hope and comfort in these trying times.

"DeathGang will boast that they are strong, but they do not have the courage to open their hearts! They fired at our troops from far away, like cowards. The killed the great Leader of our allies, Arkyle.

"What if they could feel empathy? Then they would hold back, their hands would weaken and not allow them to do such atrocities. They must learn to think with their hearts, and understand the great mass of tears shed today. A great light has died this morning, and our hope is gone! Your tears are the new hope. That is what my heart says."

"This guy is a buffoon," whispered Akshel, wearing a large smile.

"'Only a fool says anything in his heart," Crucis replied wryly.

Still the speech dragged on. "These people must develop their characters! They need to feel more emotion, becoming like all of you, this deep, emotional canvas in front of me. Many of you fought, and you tried your hardest for your Guild and people. That is good enough, and you should be satisfied. But DeathGang have robbed you of this, just like they robbed all of our small players! Our small players were just trying to explore and adventure, now they must fear for their lives. I tell you, DeathGang are no good!

"When your hearts have opened, a new world will be born in your Deluge flood of tears. Keep fighting for justice after this, keep fighting to bring this world to pass. It is dangerous out there now, and darkness crows of victory. But all is not lost. Have you seen Star Wars? Luke Skywalker lost many times, and faced a whole Empire! But he was good, so he won in the end even though he was a loser! How about Eragon, did anyone read that? I don't remember what happened, but I'm sure it was similar.

"Some DeathGang members in the audience are jeering. But this only hides their deep guilt! Are you a brave soldier? Did you lose loved ones? Are you a DeathGang murderer consumed by guilt? Consider joining the rest of us in Communion, in weeping for the sorrow of Kruxol."

As these speech ended, there was light applause from most of the audience. While the speech was coarse, they still appreciated any words of reassurance and praise after the unexpected loss. However, this applause was quickly drowned out by a group of four DeathGang hecklers chanting, "Waaah!" like football fans.

After twenty seconds of this, the DeathGang players left, with one calling out behind him, "Mates, y'all better show up for our victory parade this evening! It'll have candles and coffins, it'll be a blast!" He laughed, as he shuffled away with the rest of the DeathGang group. The crowd around them had already begun to disperse, and still seemed slightly shocked by the recent events.

Crucis walked away from the site of the speech, and saw Akshel bound away to the North. In order to blend in with the anti-DeathGang townsfolk, Crucis walked up to a despondent, crying level 25 female named [LadyMarie]. She looked no older than 20 years old, with blue eyes and thick dark-brown hair drenched with tears. He began to speak in a soft tone.

"Awful day today. Everyone else is telling sad stories, but you've been quiet. What happened to you?"

The female replied through the tears. "My husband didn't come back from the war. Neither did my father. They both worked for a big gaming site, I hope it reports the truth about this game, heads will roll!"

"That's terrible. And that DeathGang are going to hold a parade to celebrate, what is wrong with people in this game?"

"I wish I knew! But it's not just DeathGang, I told [The Fountain] Guild about it and they just said it was a myth, players always respawn. They said to check in Sanra, imagine that! We'd never gone there!"

"They shouldn't lecture you like that. They say they're on our side, but I think they're trying to hide a lot from everyone."

"Exactly!"

"But nobody trusts [The Fountain] much any more, they have no reputation left. Whichever Guild replaces them, I hope it's more honest."

"Yes, exactly. You have no idea how it feels, I just lost my father and husband and now people are denying that it happened! One guy even said that I had imagined the relationships!"

Crucis hid a smile. "I'm sure they're just trying to feel better about this situation, they don't want to face the grim reality. But it's still awful to treat you like that. You're right, people can't understand your situation. But at least they can show you some compassion."

"Definitely. By the way, my name's Marie. A couple of my friends are planning a funeral for the dead in the flower fields up North, even though [The Fountain] told us not to do it because it was 'spreading panic.' If you want, you can join us, we'll start gathering in five minutes."

"Sure, I'll try and find it. See you there," Crucis replied with a smile.

As he walked away, he heard Marie giggling slightly.

Crucis looked around Kruxol, and soon found an elite member of [The Fountain], who was consoling some defeated troops. Crucis walked up to him, looking worried, and asked, "Hey, a few guys said they were planning to hold a funeral up North, they said that their family had died in the war and weren't coming back. Do you know if that can really happen?"

"Oh, them," the Guild elite sighed, "Yeah, there's some conspiracy theorists who have been bugging us for days, ever since they were trapped here. It's all nonsense, everyone will be fine. I'm a bit busy now, but I'll get the guys to sort it out in a bit. When did you say they were starting this funeral?"

"In about 10 minutes?"

"That fast? I'll try and come in 20 minutes, hopefully these attention-seekers don't spread too much demotivational crap before then."

"Sure thing. Thanks for the reassurance!"

Crucis knew that, after the many casualties of the war, it wouldn't be long before the Guilds were forced to acknowledge that people were losing associates and loved ones. However, the Guilds - spurred on by GMs like FGRT - had been cracking down against such 'conspiracy theories' for a few days already, and were still entrenched in their position for now. It had only been a short time since the war had ended, so the fall-out hadn't yet become apparent.

Crucis walked over to the Storage building, and deposited the [Hermit Card]. As he left the building, he heard a loud commotion towards the South-West of Kruxol, and bolted over to take a look.

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MOROSE

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