From my brief glance over the two buildings where our game was hosted this time, I knew the rough layout of the area. Unless one of the others had spawned on either the rooftops or the connecting stretch of road, this gave me a slight advantage. I knew the scope of the playing field.
At the same time, though, that advantage was miniscule at best. With the sheer number of ‘NPCs’ walking about, it was near impossible to tell which ones were the players. Every now and then, I would get suspicious of one that bumped into someone, but their expressions showed no change.
I could think of a few different strategies of how to win this game. Naturally, the easiest was if you were the designated Keeper. You could just find a safe place to hide and wait out the time. Going by my own experience, nobody had access to mana, or ki, or any special energies that would let them locate a target.
For the searching group, however, things were harder. Theoretically, they could capture everyone they met, and eventually they might get the Keeper. But doing so would make their activities obvious, and thus avoidable.
As I thought to myself, I continued walking alongside a harpy woman that I had encountered shortly after I left the top floor. To ensure that she wasn’t my target, I grabbed the back of her neck as soon as we had been out of sight of most possible observers. The method of capturing was simply to firmly grab any part of a target’s body, after all.
She stiffened briefly on reflex as she was grabbed, and I heard a faint whimper from her throat as I held the back of her neck. However, the round did not progress, so obviously this was not my target. The reaction did serve to remind me that these were all really people, each one simply playing the role that they were assigned. Surely, some of them had worries that they would be mistreated in these games.
“Sorry.” I whispered as I released her neck, and her tense body seemed to relax slightly. Once she seemed sure that I wasn’t going to do anything else, she began to walk away. This was when I started following alongside her. Her eyes betrayed the worry that she felt, but I could only shake my head.
“I just need a guide.” I spoke, but the worry did not lessen. However, she did not speak, as if that was against the rules of participation for these people. Or maybe she simply did not understand me. Either way, she continued to walk aimlessly around the first building. Sometimes she would randomly turn around and backtrack. Other times she would walk in circles in the middle of a room.
To me, it seemed that they had been told to move in as random of a pattern as possible, since I caught others behaving in a similar manner. However, as I was watching her I felt someone grab my wrist. “Caught you.”
Turning around, I saw that my ‘captor’ was a tall man with three rows of orange eyes and pitch black skin. Though, when he saw that the round wasn’t ending as well, he simply grumbled. Releasing my hand, he sank back into the crowd, his expression going blank as he followed the random patterns of the various inhabitants.
Shaking my head, I moved to leave the first building, heading over to the second. On the first building, the layout of each floor had been identical. A single, giant room full of cubicles, and a row of offices lining each wall. When I arrived at the second building, I saw…. That it was exactly the same.
However, as I entered the building, I heard a faint screech from above me, a cry of surprise. At the same time, time seemed to freeze around us. The motions of every person froze in unison, including my own. A voice echoed throughout this miniature world, the same voice of the companion that was hosting the event.
“Keeper SentinelSeven has been found. Time, sixteen standard minutes. Beginning next round.” Before I even had time to question how Kathy had been found, the world was washed away with blue light.
Now, I stood just over six feet tall, with a strong muscular build. I was no longer between two tall buildings, and instead I seemed to be in a zoo. Or at least, I assumed it was a zoo. There was a stone pathway with display cages on either side, some open and some enclosed. But all were empty, and the plaques the would identify the inhabitants were blank.
Once again, however, the area was populated with a wide array of characters wandering around aimlessly. It was at this point that I realized I really didn’t stand a chance at this game… Let’s not mention the fact that it was largely based on luck whether I even appeared near the target. For instance, in the first round I was not even in the same building, and had barely made it out of the one I was in before the round ended.
Aside from that, I had to read hundreds of faces at once and look for one that had even the slightest fluctuation while making sure nobody else could do the same to me. The game was by no means impossible, it was just an incredibly terrible match for my set of skills, compared to the others who have practice with it.
And sure enough… out of eight rounds, I did not catch the Keeper once. I got close one time, having found someone that looked suspicious and approached them. But by the time I got there, someone else had already ‘caught’ him.
When the game ended, and we were all sent back, I let out a sigh of relief that we were finally out of that game. “And the winner is… Trapperella!” The companion declared, pointing towards a human-looking Keeper male.
Shaking my head, I turned to walk out of the room before I heard Kathy’s voice calling out behind me. “Where’re you going, Dale?!” She called out in an almost panic, rushing over to catch up with me.
I let out a dry chuckle, turning around to smile at her. “Sorry, I don’t really think this game suits me. I was going to go try my luck somewhere else.”
“Oh..” Kathy gave a small nod, seeming to understand. Glancing back towards the room, she turned her head to face me again. “Well, can I come with you? I don’t really have a whole lot of friends in these meetings.”
That made me raise an eyebrow. “Why not? I figured that you would have joined a guild rather quickly.”
Kathy puffed her cheeks out, crossing her arms in front of her as her spider legs clicked and clacked against the stone floor. “I got invited to join the Gilded Branch, but they sound too much like a business. I just wanna have fun, you know? I was going to start up my own guild, but it takes a bunch of points to do, and I don’t have those kinds of funds…”
I shrugged my shoulders, shaking my head with a small smile. “Well, no reason you can’t join me. Not sure what game I’ll head for next, though. I’ve got to try to earn some points to get myself ready for the games.”
Kathy nodded her head quickly, a bright smile on her face. “Alright! Well… in that case, you could try your luck on the big game.” She suggested with a knowing smile. “There’s this one game that the guild always has, that is only a single player game. They call it the Trials of a Keeper.”
As Kathy spoke, she led me out of the room, and down towards the very end of the hall, to the door that sat alone at the end. “You get thrown into a set of problems, and have to come up with a solution using as few points as possible. If you pass the trials, the guild awards you five thousand points. Of course, you can only get the reward once, and they won’t let you try again even in another meeting.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle knowingly when I heard that. “Did you try to run the trials again to get more prizes?”
However, unexpectedly, Kathy chuckled in embarrassment. “No… uh… I never managed to pass the first time. This is just what they explained to me back then.”
I glanced at the door, and then back to Kathy, but she only waved for me to go in. “Come on, you said you needed points urgently. I’ll just wait out here for you.”
I gave a brief nod, opening the door and stepping inside. Like she said, this was a single player game. The purpose wasn’t to beat other players, but just to pass a test. Inside, the only other occupant was a female human with green hair down to her waist. Her body was covered in a silk toga, the right side of her chest on display. Yet, she did not seem embarrassed by this outfit at all.
“Are you here to take the Trials?” She asked in a serious tone. When I answered with a nod, she continued. “Have the rules been explained to you?”
“Somewhat…” I told her, before repeating what Kathy had told me about this test. I didn’t want to run the risk that she left out a vital piece of information. And when I was done, the woman nodded her head.
“You will not be allowed the use of a companion during this test. All answers must come from yourself. The maximum score is ten thousand points. The passing grade is five thousand. For every point you spend to solve a problem, one point will be deducted from your final score. For one thousand points, you may ask for a hint. There is no time limit to these Trials.” Taking a deep breath, she looked directly at me. “Are you ready?”
I nodded my head sharply, processing the rules that she had explained. Since I knew the scoring mechanic, then I would have an idea of how to proceed. The only problem was the fact that I did not know how many Trials I would have to face. If there were a hundred, then even spending an average of fifty points per test would eliminate me.
As soon as I confirmed that I was ready, I was moved into another room. This room appeared to be the same one as I was in when I had watched Bihena. Or at least, it was identical. The only difference was the display on the wall, which now showed a map that I was unfamiliar with. Along the bottom of the screen was a blue window of text, no doubt my objective.
Along the map was a series of red dots in various sizes, each one pulsating. These no doubt represented the supervolcanoes. At the side of the screen was a series of windows, listing my available assets. Things such as gods or goddesses, what races were on the world, and any special systems that may be able to help me.
Unfortunately, there was no god of fire, earth, or volcanoes. Or anything remotely similar. So it wasn’t just a matter of commanding them to do their job. Father? This isn’t actually happening, right?
I was surprised to hear Leowynn’s shaky voice, as I had expected my connection to be cut with her for this game. No, this should just be a simulation, like all of the other games. I debated taking advantage of this unexpected twist to bounce ideas off of her, but shook my head at the thought. Most of these scenarios would no doubt be beyond the scope that Leowynn was used to dealing with.
Anyways, the answer to this trial was still fairly easy, and there were a number of ways to go about it. I could communicate with the world to have them take shelter from the coming eruptions, but that was risky. It was possible to just stop the eruptions manually, but doing so would require ten points per volcano… Given that there were twenty-three in total, I didn’t want to spend so many points.
Searching through the market, I quickly found what I was looking for. A mineral with the property of absorbing heat. I had a feeling that there would be something like this, since I remembered the presence of the lightning ore. Spending fifteen points from the trial balance, I chose to purchase the ore and place veins of it throughout and beneath the twenty-three volcanoes.