The next part in the Seven Realms of Steel series. If you are new, please check out Part 1 first. Clicking the Seven Realms of Steel tag is also quick way of getting the list of all 7RoS content.
The judge's ban on VR ended one week before school started. All I wanted to do was to forget about my back-breaking, sweaty, bruise-filled summer slaving away for Avery's martial arts society *cult* whatever. I wanted to play and, more than anything, I really wanted to get away from “Lord Soaring Dragon” for a while.
Training the stone (newb) squad at Avery's house had started out super-creepy given how he had all the girls to himself. Though he never did anything inappropriate that I could see. This made taking issue too hard for me, so I ultimately let the situation slide.
I had my own problems biting my butt anyway. Since I had to spar with my trainees to teach them, I lived in constant terror of a lucky hit sending me into a frenzy. On week two, it happened exactly as I feared. Avery and his bodyguards gang-piled me before I murdered anyone yet there were still two shattered ribs and a broken arm by the end. Avery covered it up, but I didn't think my sparring partner would be coming back.
You'd think that Avery would have reigned things in a bit after that, but he plowed forward by adding two new stone-squad recruits. As the summer went on, he grew more and more impatient with everyone. I told the recruits that it was because what we were doing was dangerous and that he needed them to reach the cloud-realm so they could learn Iron Skin and Revitalization. Toughness and accelerated healing were vital corner stones of our training regime and secrecy.
But if I had to be honest with myself, which I frequently wasn't, I'd say that the real problem was that Avery and I weren't progressing in our Ki training at all. Between group and solo practice, we were both working 7 days a week on meditation, fighting techniques, and body-training all so that we could inch along the progression through the Cloud-Transcendence realm. As of now, I really did believe the game's lore when it said that masters took a decade to ascend from the clouds to the Sky-Realm.
In hindsight, the reason was pretty simple-- we had no one training us and we had zero external sources of soul energy, which were where 70% of our cultivation normally came from in-game. But IRL didn't have soul gems or magical medicinal treatments. All we had was our natural daily ki generation, so we carefully hoarded it and purified it as much as we could. It was like collecting water in the desert in the end.
The gasoline on our frustrations was the fact that the recruits all made splendid progress. By the end of summer, the Mountain-Squad girls were all in the Cloud-Realm too. They were just below us in ki though not in battle skills. The Stone-Squad made it to mountain-realm under my drills as well. I started calling them the newb-squad because I didn't want to constantly change their name as they progressed.
So yeah, everyone but us was doing awesomely. Let's just say that Mr. "Supreme Leader Soaring Dragon" didn't take it well. There were a lot of tirades and temper-tantrums as our failures mounted.
I longed to retreat into a week-long 7RoS binge and to be temporarily freed from our dashed dreams of becoming demi-gods on Earth. Sadly, my simple wish was just a dream--for today I was logging in not to play, but to work. The newbs had all been doing physical training and VR training. Avery and I had been banned though, so we were physical-only all summer. Today that changed. I slapped on my helmet and logged in to see what train-wreck awaited me.
The sonorous oriental music of Seven Realms of Steel was sweet nostalgia on my ears as I landed in my main character's body after so long. The sunlight of the Imperial City shone down through crystal clear air unlike anything I had around my smoggy home. I grinned as I looked down from my seven-feet of height and flexed my now massively muscled arms.
It felt so. dang. good!
My thick plate armor gleamed with power. I summoned my River Dragon's Naginata to my hand with a wave of jade magic. The ornate weapon radiated energy in my hands. Normal life was so muted compared to this! Looking around the colorful banner-strewn central market place, I inhaled the scent of chrysanthemums as an overwhelming sense of relief washed over me.
In 7RoS I had no worries about my true nature. I couldn't hurt people at all in the Imperial City as PvP was disabled. Outside it, well, PvP was encouraged and no one actually died. In this place, I was free to be myself. A smile spread across my face for the first time in months and the knots in my shoulders relaxed.
"[From Soaring Dragon] Get to the Jade Mountain Temple pronto," the message binged in my chat window. "Event starting in five."
"[Reply] Right o, boss," I said, letting the game's voice-to-text handle the messages for me.
And there was the work. I sighed as I said good bye to the mouth-watering aroma of the near-bye dumpling carts and walked towards the serpent-master to buy a flight. I hadn't made it half-way down the market road before another message came in.
"[From Soaring Dragon] Why aren't you here yet? Use a transport scroll already."
I rolled my eyes. "[Reply] Dude, those cost Imperial Talons, as in real money. I'm taking a wind serpent. BRT." Despite getting paid by Avery, my towering debt meant that I was still broke. Hell, I wouldn't have been able to get on 7RoS if the company hadn't given me a free subscription.
"[From Soaring Dragon] You have an expense budget for RMT now jackass," came the reply from Avery. "The event starts in two minutes and I want my feared Captain Iron Bastard here NOW." There was another 'bing' noise and I saw a notice about how I'd just been sent 2000 Imperial Talons by [Soaring Dragon]. Sweet.
"Fine fine," I messaged back. From there it was just tap-tap-tap and a golden glowing scroll appeared in my hands. Two more taps and a ball of swirling golden energy surrounded me. The world beyond the shimmering sphere blurred for a moment as I was transported half-way across the continental map. Then the energy vanished, revealing a towering forest of solid jade trees.
The entrance to the temple grounds was a round stone door, closed at the moment, set in a thirty-foot high wall topped with "Endless Mist (TM)" above it. The gathering area out front was a large courtyard covered in hexagonal gray-green stones, some mossy with age. Old weathered statues of lion-beasts boarded it's edges and the massive trees of the jade forest towered over all, their stone leaves blocking much of the sunlight.
A crowd of salty-looking players had all gathered here, clusters in their groups, waiting for the doors to open. Avery was leading one of those groups, and boy was he getting the stares, probably cause he'd brought all our people, regardless of that being a good idea or not. The nearby group from some black-and-gold-themed clan knew we were a joke-- they were laughing and making throat-cutting gestures. By the way one guy was moving his head all steady-cam-like, I could tell we'd be on someone's channel for later mockery.
"What they doing here?" were the first words out of my mouth as I approached. Getting close, I discovered that my character towered over Avery’s slender, black-clothed Shadow Master character. "Dude, did you forget that you and I are sky-realm in-game? Why'd you bring the trainees to our event? They're not gonna stand a chance here."
I could tell our height-difference bugged him. It was the subtle clue of Avery reaching up, grabbing the thick gold-embellished rim of my breastplate, and yanking me down to his snarling face.
"A crucible forges good steel and they are my soldiers," he said. "They will fight for my glory today and be bathed in it when we win the soul orbs."
"Have you asked them how they feel about this?" I said, seeing the apprehensive gazes the newb-squad was giving the other clans.
One of Avery's daggers came out and my leg blossomed in pain as he stabbed me. "Are you questioning my authority Captain Bastard?" he snarled. Oh snap, the pain filter had not been fixed. The sweet sweet pain flooded my system with adrenaline and I almost decked Avery right then and there. But, a summer of trying to not kill people must've done some good, for I held it in.
"No sir," I said. "Just point me at the enemy, I'm ready."
"See to your squad then," Avery said, smug like this was exactly what he'd wanted of me. "We're gonna get as many orbs as we can today."
Bong. The brass gong positioned above the temple gates rang-out sonorously, silencing the courtyard. A tall man, with black hair going down to the backs of his knees, set down the cloth mallet he'd used to ring it.
"I am Bei Wong," he announced. "Master of Ceremonies for the Jade Temple. Today, the Forest’s Mist has collected into five soul gems of exceptional purity. The head monk himself has decided to hold a competition for them so that the warriors of the seven realms may climb ever higher."
I took mental note of the important parts. Five gems. Exceptional quality. Damn that made this a hot event. I could already see the scattered groups texting or talking to remote clan-members. More people would be arriving to this place. They’d be late, but such was the sweetness of this reward.
"You will race to the peak of the mountain, where the cloud caves collect the forest's essence mist," Bei Wong continued. "The gems are for the taking for those strong enough to make it to the top first, and alive..."
Yeah, there were demon-beasts in residence on the mountain. I shot a glance at Avery, intending to roll my eyes at him as hard as possible. Demon-beasts meant that the larger our group was, the more trouble we'd attract on the way up. It was the game's way of keeping guilds from showing up with a hundred people to steamroll the whole thing. The other clan-groups were 4-6 people, all of whom were sky-realm characters and who practiced fighting together.
And here we were with 10 people, 8 of which weren't even through the clouds in-game yet, and we'd never fought in an event online together before. It was a good thing that I was already trembling with the coming thrill of battle. I just started laughing at the whole thing, causing the people around me to jump.
This was going to be a bloodbath, ours. Well, I was at least ready for it. I eyed the black-and-golds like a hungry lion. Six damn months of watching my fists had filled me with a sort of bottled-up violence that felt like a volcano now.
"Captain?" asked a timorous voice behind me. "What's the plan?"
Oh right, the newbs were mine to command. I turned around and they all stepped away from me. It was probably the wolf's smile plastered on my face.
"You guys are mountain-realm," I said. "That's two realms too low for this event. Everyone here has way more skill and power than you do. So stay by me and focus on defense. When you attack, all of you attack the same target. Maybe you'll get lucky and overwhelm them."
A hand clad in the crappy brown-and-green armor of the mountain-realm came up in the back of the squad. "What if we die?"
"Run back in," I said. "Soaring Dragon would expect nothing less than your all for the duration of the event. Also, if you hang at the graveyard you'll get PK'ed for lols by the people who spawn. You need to stay by me as much as you can manage.”
They all nodded and pulled out their shabby looking plain-steel weapons. I could feel the black-and-golds laughing harder and making more crude gestures of what they were going to do to us.
"Yo, boss," I said loudly. "You spearhead ok? I've got my opening move planned already. We'll bring up the rear while you get the soul orbs."
Avery smiled as he put on his face-covering night-demon's mask. I could tell he liked this plan as he gave me a thumbs up. "Teach our enemies the terror of the Iron Bastard," he said.
I saluted, then turned and gave the black-and-golds my most bloodthirsty grin. On top of the temple, Bei Wong picked up his cloth-covered mallet. I summoned my Ki and set my stance, weapon forward. My ki emerged from my center with a warm rush and spread to my whole body. The world became sharper and I felt so alive that I was positively crackling.
That was new, the game hadn't had this sensory experience before I'd been banned. But patch 5.4 had dropped while I’d been banned, so maybe i’d just missed out. It too bad I didn't get a chance to introspect the phenomenon more.
"Let the competition begin!" Bei Wong decreed. Bong! He struck the brass instrument once more and the gates of the temple began to grind open.
Everyone launched forward towards the gate and the jade trees flashed rainbow as dozens of players activated long-distance movement techniques such as Flowing River Feet and Fire Dances Through the Forest.
But not me. I fired off the "Downburst Movement!" technique and wind from my lower-legs blasted me off like a rocket. The short-range movement skill sent me flying straight at the black-and-gold clan group. The fools were already moving towards the gate, so their backs were all open. I guess they thought I cared about getting a soul gem today like a sensible player or something.
I howled in murderous glee as my naginata's curved blade plunged into the first one's back and I activated "Surging Tide Explosion!" By triggering it after I hit, the blue-water ki carved through his chest like a knife, pushing my blade through his heart and out the front.
My victim cried out "Fuuu-" before he vanished in a burst of energy dispersal. Confusion swept through his allies as they were suddenly forced to choose between dealing with me or risking getting away so they could stand a chance at winning the race. Two turned my way, which made them threats, but I ignored them.
Blood. I wanted more blood and the other two black-and-golds had decided to keep running which meant they still had their backs to me. They were the easiest prey and it was finally time to rampage to my heart's content.
My ki leaped up to my command as I started the motions for my techniques. Normally, I'd have programmed a voice-activated a macro to launch a combo attack, but now I just pulled up wind-ki from my arms and water-ki from my legs, combining two abilities on the fly like never before.
"Spiraling Winds! Crashing Waves Throw!" I called out, sliding to a halt as I buffed my naginata with the wind technique, then launched it with the water technique and a whole-body throw. The weapon flew from my hands in a horizontal tornado of water and wind. The two on-coming players were blown to the sides as the waternado raged past them to strike my target in the back. His ornate black-serpent armor did nothing to stop the drill-like attack as it took him off his feet and blew a foot-wide hole in his chest. I crowed in victory as another victim vanished into a cloud of essence. It would be ten minutes at least before he was rezzed.
The remaining three players in the black-and-gold dressed clan all focused on me. I guess I was a good-enough threat after all.
"Thunder Crash Blow!"
The three black-and-golds came at me, each of them rolling in with a big-hit style of attack technique. Normally those kinds of moves sucked against players, cause they were easy to see coming, but three-on-one it made sense for the odds of me blocking all three were low. On another day, even I would have gone for the Nine Points Vital Defense against this as it would have blocked two of the three. I'd have survived the third and eaten the knockback force of the two.
But today I didn't care even my normal smidgen about dieing. Today, pain was my lover and all that I wanted was focused on was how I was going to smash the next target.
Besides, Shadow Masters are much faster than any other class, so this wasn't actually a coordinated attack. The ninja-like player in the middle reached me first by several whole seconds. He emerged from the darkness at my feet and drove his blade through my stomach. Searing pain shot through my guts and radiated up my rib-cage. I coughed with the intensity of losing half my health from the critical hit.
Now normally, I'd never be able to catch the super-fast shadow master bare-handed, which is why I'd let him hit me. My hands landed on his wrists before he could snap the blade free. He cried out in panic as I dropped to my back, pulling him down with me--and directly into the path of his two friends' super-big, oh-so-wonderfully-slow attacks.
Thunder Crash Blow landed on the Shadow Master's head while he took the Venom Lash to the back. My guts untwisted as he and his sword vanished in a flash of dispersed ki. I landed on my back and stared up at two opponents coming down at me. I reveled as frustration and anger twisted his friend's faces.
"Howling Vortex Defense!" I shouted, circling my hands to activate it. A small tornado of wind-ki surrounded by a disc of winds appeared in front of me, just like it had at school. The incoming players with blades-in-hand ignored the anti-missile defense technique though, and rightfully so. At least, until the vortex part of it grabbed them on their way in and slammed their heads together.
This was so glorious! Can I take a minute to say how good it felt to really use my ki? I'd spent the last six months trapped in the stupid real world where I am, miraculously I'll admit, stuck at the cloud-transcendence rank. The rank where I can sorta feel my ki and sorta use it, but it's always murky and unreliable. Oh but now, I could feel it! Like never before in-game or out, I could fully feel my ki and I could use it as I'd practiced. This was the best!
Kicking up to my feet, I felt like a god. Albeit a god at half-health who now had to face down two savvy opponents. They'd been overconfident to start, but now they activated their big cooldown class-stances and wreathed themselves with auras of power. I knew that these guys were gonna stop falling for cheap tricks and instead get to the business of mincing me to pieces.
Still, I couldn't stop laughing in bloody glee.
"We gotta help Captain Bastard!" came the cry from behind me. Then five brown-and-green clad shapes ran past me to assault the guy on my left.
"Breaking punch!" "Sweep!" "Falling Strike!" "Twin Slash!" "Ax Kick!", newb-squad's technique activations sounded off in a chaotic chorus of yells. The five of them swung and stabbed frantically at one of the enemy players.
"Snake Slips the Mongoose," came the dry reply from their sky-realm level opponent. Wreathed in green ki, he stopped parrying them frantically as he started swaying and bending around their attacks with ease like some kind of lone dodge-ball hero.
I'll give newb-squad credit for bravery. They didn't let up for a second, even when their opponent's defense avoided everything and a "Venom Lash" attack took out one of them despite a pretty good parry attempt. Yeah, they weren't going to last long. I focused on my one remaining guy.
Looking at the man in black-and-gold, who had long white hair and wielded a lovely pair of high-end Sun Talon clawed-gloves, I saw my naginata laying on the ground behind him. Man, bare-handed vs a claw-user was the worst. He was literally specialized in tearing up guys in my situation. I'd even disarmed myself, saving him the trouble. From the knowing grin on his face, this dude knew it too.
Fire-ki exploded beneath his feet, launching him at me, claws out. There were no good defensive skills, bare-handed ones at least, that a Weapon-Master class character like myself could use here. So I reached out my hand towards him and said, "Wind Weapon Retrieval."
As sun claws raced towards my face, a tentacle of wind nabbed my naginata and yanked it towards my out-stretched hand. The point of the blade flew straight towards his unguarded back. That was cool but, this skill had only marginal force behind it and I would be totally screwed relying on a trick like this normally. But now that I could really control my ki, all bets were coming off. I flexed the wind tendril like a muscle and my long-bladed spear accelerated so fast that it whistled through the air.
"Thunder Crash Blow!"-- he called it out at the last second. Sun claws flashed with lighting as my enemy incorporated his lunging attack as the physical activation component of Thunder Crash Strike skill. That took his simple lunging attack up into deadly territory.
Crap! I'd forgotten people could do that now! Stupid patch 5.4! Stupid me for being out of the meta for six months. I was gonna get nailed by a stupid big attack with no defense up, like a total freaking moron.
I twisted away late, far too late. The golden blades sank into my collarbone and then lighting poured over my body. I screamed in delicious agony as the electricity ripped me up inside and out. My health bar dropped to zero and the world plunged into gray-scale.
At least my naginata slammed into my opponent's back at the same time like a missile. The impact knocked him over and he fell face-first on my corpse. Sucker.
It wasn't good enough damage though. As the game whisked me away to the nearby graveyard, I saw him twisting around to pull the River Dragon Naginata from his back. I huffed that I hadn't killed him with that hit. Then, out of the blue, someone from the newb-squad nailed the guy in the throat with a cheap-ass, vendor-sold throwing knife and he collapsed. I couldn't stop laughing at that one. Damn, I wish I'd been recording this.
As I was now stuck in the graveyard with the other ghosts, I watched the battle between my newbs and the last standing member of the black-and-golds. It was three-on-one now, but even five newbs hadn't been sufficient. I had to watch them nobly die fighting against superior techniques and a guy they just couldn't damage well enough to really take down.
After another minute, we were all in the graveyard together, waiting on the spirit keeper to finish his once-per-ten-minutes cast which would resurrect us all at once. It was then that I noticed that something was wrong with my squad. Very wrong.
One of my guys was hugging himself and shaking. Another newb was sitting on the ground with his knees to his chest, rocking back and forth. The others looked similarly traumatized, gazing off into space. It wasn't the kind of stare that people got when checking their social media while dead either, it was this vacant stare at some nothing in the distance.
Ghosts couldn't talk, and I didn't want to use party chat as Avery was busy screaming orders in it. So I quickly invited them all to a private group chat channel.
"Hey guys," I said. "You all did amazing out there. What's wrong?"
They looked at me with haunted eyes, which was bonus creepy since we were all ghosts wearing white clothing right now. Only one of them managed to look me in the eyes.
"It hurts so much," he said.
"My whole body is still throbbing with the pain," another replied.
"I think I peed myself IRL," said a third "That was so scary and awful."
"What?!" I blurted out. "What are you pain filters set to?"
"0%" came the reply from all five. "Soaring Dragon's orders, Captain." I boggled at this answer. Setting it to 0% meant they felt full, realistic pain for everything we'd just went through.
Oh, I was mad now. This was not cool. Avery had made them do the client-side hack which let players set the pain filter to below 60%. Near as I could tell, Avery and I were the only ones crazy enough to do that voluntarily --and one of us was a masochistic lunatic.
"Turn that crap off," I ordered. "Right now. Go into settings and crank the filter up to at least 80%, you can do 100 if you want even. I don't care so long as you aren't running full-pain."
No one moved on that score. "But Supreme Leader Soaring Dragon said--"
I cut him off with a wave of my ghostly arm. "I'll deal with Avery. This is wrong."
Still, no one moved. I saw no hands making the tell-tale mid-air gestures of anyone using the game's touch-interface screens.
"You can’t do this guys," I said. "You're not like me. You're gonna get PTSD or nerve-damage, or something, if you try. It's gonna mess you up."
All five members of newb-squad shook their heads. "We cannot disappoint Lord Soaring Dragon," said the tallest of my squad. "If we can't handle this much in-game, we've no hope of being useful IRL. We all want to climb to the heavens with him."
I'd never heard that turn of phrase used when I was around. Nor had the thrice-a-week group-training sessions in Avery's basement given me a hint of where this attitude was coming from. Up till this point, I'd felt like the whole Society of the Seven Realms thing we'd been doing was still in the zone of "kids playing army in the basement."
I watched my squad of traumatized underlings pick themselves up. They gave a shake, or clapped their face, as each tried to banish the fear and damage they'd just taken. I took a step back involuntarily in the face of their terrifying resolve and the realization that I hadn't been brought on-board with everything Avery's Society was about.
I had to ask, "What has Soaring Dragon been doing with you?"
The End (for now)
"The Seven Realms ring with the clash of steel as warriors strive for their dreams. Whose dreams and wishes are strong enough to propel them to the Throne of the Heavens?" -Ad from the Game.
If you like my short fiction, please check out my book Forever Fantasy Online.