BIT 00: LOGIN
The character creation screen floated before my eyes, amidst a sea of morbid, icy, darkness. A dense fog hovered around the New Character button. Underneath that button, I make out another, obscured; hidden by the wisps. I waved my hand, trying to move it aside, but in this place, my body didn't exist. It took every ounce of my mental energy to click the hidden button.
Both options faded and became replaced by a LOADING screen. A few seconds later, I found my avatar, Zycuh Hunpo standing atop a rock, his long coat flowing in the wind behind him. The image blurred, and a crackling assaulted my senses, but only for a moment; everything then returned to normal. I hoped I'd only saw only a minor and temporary bug; I examined the character information.
Level 10 Blader—Zycuh Hunpo (Class Advancement Pending)
I didn't remember leveling to ten before logging out. It had to have been the boss battle with Lord Kilo that pushed me over the XP requirement.
As I searched for the login button, the image of my avatar blurred and crackled again, this time, blue zeroes and ones scrolled behind it. As fast as the bug appeared, it faded. A tightness struck my chest. Something seemed strange.
There was no leaving now. I'd entered the game, which gave me with one choice. I focused on the login and clicked.
The sensation the VR drive overtook me. A frigid wind rushed past as I fell. My entire body became visible, save the groin. Lightning struck through the air, and that crackling glitch attacked once more. I threw my hands over my ears and clenched my jaw, resisting the sound. Around me the blue ones and zeroes rained, striking my body, each one causing a ripple of pain.
"What the hell is happening?"
I and tried to block my face, but one struck my forehead so hard I saw stars. Electrical bolts whipped and wrapped around my arms and legs, holding them out and posing me akin to a da Vinci diagram.
A blue box with white text appeared before me. It read, please choose your Advancement Class. Two options appeared below, Black Knight and White Knight.
I knew nothing of advancement classes, but an arrow appeared and crept towards the White Knight choice. My brows furrowed.
I didn’t have control over the cursor. "Hey! Who's doing that?"
I received no answer as the cursor clicked White Knight, and another box appeared reading, "Thank you, you are now a Lv11 White Knight."
With the strength of a battering ram, I struck the ground. "Ow!" My head spun as I rolled onto my back.
My clothes, armor, and weapon hadn’t equipped, which left me prone and in my underwear. With my eyes, I opened the equipment menu and found it empty, no sword, no armor, and no clothes. There came a beeping, and a small window opened reading, New Message.
The sender name appeared as only a single letter; Z. With narrowed eyes, I read the message.
It was a pleasure dueling you back in Castle Kilo. I have figured out the reason you obtained such power and defeated me. Do not worry; I'll rectify the situation soon. Also, I would ask that you don't blame me for your lack of gear or equipment. The system data corrupted when you left and returned to the game. No one in their right mind would. But let me tell you a secret... I'm glad. This means we can cross blades once again, Mr. White Knight. With everything in me, I extend to you my deepest regrets on your mother's passing. And I extend these heartfelt words to you... Welcome back to Dark Day…Z.
BIT 01: NO RETURN
The message window floated before me, drawing anger and hatred from my core. I glanced at the DELETE button and cleansed my inbox. Then the hacker's message vanished, never to return.
"Dammit!" I slammed my fist into the dirt.
I raised my head. On both sides were small, grassy hills, forming walls around the road upon which I lay. Large boulders speckled both sides, giving ample places for any creature to be hiding. If something attacked, I'd die. I stood, naked of equipment, and without a weapon.
"This sucks..." I scanned the dirt road.
On the path behind, a large city loomed in the distance, Shadesburgh. Were my friends still there? I'd only left the game for thirty minutes max.
I summoned the menu before me and scrolled to my Guild List. My jaw dropped as horror filled my being. The guild list appeared empty. Did they kick me out? No, that made little sense. Again, I blamed system data corruption.
They still must be on my Friend list!
I scrolled back through the menu bar and clicked on Friends List. To my delight, I found their names listed. JokerAlex, Orion, Chyld of Pandora, and Zimea; highlighted. They were online and alive. Below those names were others; darkened... BDog, Bianca, Scara, and Susie-Q. My heart broke, seeing them. Each died, no, the proper word? Murdered; stolen away by a psychopath's crazy game.
Bianca still existed. The last I'd seen her, she'd become a Vampire imprisoned in Lord Kilo's castle. But with the curse of Vampirism, she no longer connected to her body. The possibility existed that they'd taken her off life support, and if so she'd never return to the real world. My fists clenched tight.
"I'm coming guys!" I marched the road to Shadesburgh.
As I walked, I noticed the city didn't look as dark. The dense miasma that surrounded the castle towers and even the outside walls had diminished. By defeating Kilo, we'd stopped part of the hack. If that were the case, Bianca's curse might lift.
I broke into a sprint. The dirt was icy under my bare feet as I thundered. With every ounce of speed, I ran. Several minutes later, the drawbridge to the eastern entrance came into view.
"Almost there." I panted.
I leaned into my wild dash. Upon coming to the drawbridge, I found it lowered. The bodies once strung on the walls by barbed wire and rope no longer hung. It seemed the city now knew brighter days.
I slammed into something and flew back, tumbling through the dirt. The force sent my world spinning, and a sharp pain radiated from my forehead.
"What the hell?" I grabbed my head, trying to stop the throbbing.
Several moments later, I lifted my eyes. Just a lowered drawbridge and no wall in sight. The path was empty.
"Okay, what's going on?"
I stood, wobbling, and still feeling somewhat dizzy. My hit points lowered by twenty. Something had knocked me back, but what? With my hands in a defensive pose, I awaited the next attack. An airborne beast? Or maybe it turned invisible.
My eyes shot back and forth. "Come out, already!"
When no creature answered my challenge, I lowered my arms. Dark clouds floated above, but otherwise, the skies were fair. A monster would try to finish the job. Which meant only one thing; A wall existed, and I wasn't able to detect the damn thing.
A moment of hesitation passed, and I walked forward and held one hand in front of me. As I reached the drawbridge, before I set foot on the wooden planks, my palm landed on a smooth surface. My class was now Level 11 Mime.
I ran my fingers along the invisible barrier. "What's the deal?"
Both hands forward, I pressed hard. I found a force field held firm and spanned the entire length of the bridge and a few feet further on each side. I looked over the edge. Far below, a moat surrounded Shadesburgh. Part of that moat surrounded Castle Kilo, and it didn't take an in-person encounter to remind me of the monstrous Murk Gators that lived under the surface.
While possible to jump from the ledge to the bridge, I wouldn't chance it. If I fell in, death would find me.
I sighed. "Dammit."
I stepped back and stared at Shadesburgh. There'd be no way through it. Without being able to enter to Shadesburgh, I had one direction to go.
I brought out my menu and clicked the Map; the words, Dead Plains, sat on top along with my coordinates on a graph of the zone. The map didn't show much since I hadn't gone further east, but I'd have to head that way, no matter how blind and defenseless.
"Well, if my friends are in Shadesburgh still, they'll catch up, I guess. No use in hanging around here, waiting to die from hunger, thirst, or at the claws of a monster."
My hunger and thirst stats blinked. The green vertical hunger bar sat at full, but the yellow vertical thirst bar had dropped. It rested at ninety percent.
I rubbed my eyes. "Why did they have to add survival meters to this damn game?"
Time ticked by, urging me to move forward.
With summoned courage, I walked back the way I came. As I trekked, earth-shaking thunder boomed. The air was muggy and hard to breathe. Before long, a lightning bolt cracked through the sky, snaking its way into the distance. Strikes of lighting sucked and were fatal. To my dismay, I saw no shelter, and only a few boulders and hills were taller than myself. Those factors made me a decent lightning rod, so I ran.
At first it sprinkled but then turned to a torrential downpour. The road became waterlogged, and my feet slapped and slung mud in my wake.
The rain warmed and then became hot. My vision turned red as the rain got into my eyes.
"No way." I skidded to a stop. I held out my hands before me to find them stained red. My stomach twisted as I realized it was blood, not water. I wanted to vomit, but held back, I didn’t need to become more dehydrated.
I burst into another sprint, sloshing with each step. The mud on the road turned thick, I sank deeper. Before long, I slowed. I pulled each leg up with a gross thwock.
"This is not a good day!"
But my terrible luck seemed to flip.
Ahead, between two boulders on the left side of the road, I spied a large hole in the side of a hill. Shelter, the thing I needed most.
I rushed towards the large burrow and crossed the threshold. A loud bang sounded from outside, and I turned around to see lighting retracting from the road where I'd just stood.
"Holy crap." My heart raced. That could have been me.
I conceded and turned to the cave. I didn't have a light source, so it remained dark. But the cave extended deep. Any manner of foul beast might hide inside such a place. The pitch-blackness scared me. No, more so, terrified me. Not as scared as when the Titanic Zombie chased my group through the catacomb tunnels back in Shadesburgh but terrified, still.
After many moments of deliberation, it seemed my best bet at survival would be to stay near the front of the cave. That settled, I sat near the entrance and watched the blood rain fall. I brought my knees to my chest as I shivered. Did a flu status effect exist in Dark Days? I didn't want to find out.
A half-hour passed before my nose itched, a huge sneeze exploded out. I covered my face and held my breath. I brought up the menu and looked at my status. It didn't list illness anywhere, but my nose and throat itched. My heart sank as I saw my hunger bar decline by ten percent, and my thirst continue to drop. It now rested at eighty-three percent.
I had to do something, but what? Outside, fell rain and deadly lightning bolts, while inside, I faced an unknown menagerie of monsters.
I glanced back into the cave. For a moment, I thought I saw a shape hovering just a dozen feet away. Lightning flashed and lit everything. To my relief, no creature existed anywhere in sight.
"Hold!" A voice from outside shouted. "I see a cave! We can get out of the rain! Yes!"
My hairs stood on end. At least two other players were heading my direction, and it wasn't my friends. I had no way of knowing if they were player killers akin to ClarissaX and Keffex, or friendly. I didn't need to get myself killed by a murderous PKer. With caution I rushed into the darkness and pressed myself up against the wall, wanting to become one with the stone; hidden, if lightning flashed again. My heart thundered as I edged my way further back.
A shadow appeared in the cave entrance. I couldn't make them out, guy or girl. A second ambiguous figured walked up beside the first.
"Awesome, sweetheart!" the second one; a female.
"See? I told you I'd take care of you, baby doll!" the other, a guy, had a thick voice.
"Let's set up our fire and get dry. We can strip down and make out. How's that sound?"
"Perfect, my love."
I took several steps back as the guy kneeled and a campfire appeared before him. It didn't produce much light; less than I'd figured. I could swear a spell of darkness existed inside the cave.
I tripped and landed with a thud, my head banging off of a rock. My HP dropped another fifteen points, but I held in my cry of pain. As soon as I recovered, I kneeled behind the large stone that tripped me and peeked. An hourglass shaped female stood in black panties and a lace bra. The name, VixenQueen22 hovered above her head. The guy stood before her, in tighty-whities; his name appeared as Muscleman22. I breathed a sigh of relief when I spied his class title. A Lv22 Paladin. He couldn't be a PKer. The girl, a cutie, had shaggy blue hair and the class Lv11 Cleric. A pair of good players. I thanked my lucky stars and went to move from the rock but froze.
"Ow!" He recoiled as Vixen leaned in and wrapped him in a hug.
"What's wrong, Aaron?" She reared back.
"Dammit, Jessie. I think I have a broken rib from that Blader we killed in Shadesburgh."
My heart stopped, and I ducked behind the rock.
"That's what you get Mr. PKer."
"You should try killing." He chuckled. "It's fun."
"I know you keep telling me that, but I don't like violence. I couldn't do the deed."
He sighed. "You know which deed I want?"
"What's that, sweetiekins?"
"Oh, you know!"
She giggled. "Shame we can't do that."
"When the hell is Z going to implement the patch into Dark Days?"
"Soon." She nodded. "In the next update."
"I can’t wait!"
Both of the players laughed and then their voices muffled as one must've kissed the other. I sighed and put my back to the rock. I found myself trapped while they made out. Somewhere around an hour later I grew so annoyed I almost threw myself out for the Paladin to kill. Instead, a sudden sneeze came from my nose.
The make out moaning stopped, and Vixen gasped. "What was that?"
"A monster?" Muscle lifted his head. "Or if we're lucky, a little peeping Tom who is about to get his ass handed to him."
"Oh, goodie!" She cooed. "Make a mess with his insides. I do so love it when you do that!"
"That's the plan baby doll, that's the plan."
If my plight couldn't have gotten any worse, something moved in the shadows, just several feet away. This time, I was sure of it. A soft clucking sound followed, but then heavy footfalls came from behind. Death had found me.
BIT 02: A-DOODLE-DOO
The Lv22 Paladin stalked closer. He thought he was of the stealthy sort, but that wasn't true. His foot kicked rocks and his feet scraped the ground. I wondered if he tried to draw me out of hiding. He was making so much noise I was panicking. Either way, soon he loomed over my four-foot high hiding spot.
"Aaron, please!" VixenQueen22's voice trembled. "It was just the wind! Come back, and we can finish."
Although Aaron could've reached over and grabbed me, he stopped.
"Jessie, babe, can't you see I'm busy? There's a noob in the shadows!"
"It was the wind!"
He grunted. "Since when does the wind sneeze?"
"It wasn't a sneeze?"
"It was! What in the VR world else?" His annoyance grew.
"I said, the wind! Just come back over here! I'm telling you; this whole situation has me on the verge of a panic attack!"
"Oh, get over yourself!" Aaron mumbled.
Vixen got on her knees. "Excuse me? You know my panic attacks are bad!"
"It's always panic attacks! Every time we get into battle, or I'm about to kill another player; panic attack this and panic attack that!"
"You insensitive prick! I don't care if it's raining blood! I'm leaving! In fact, I want out of Dark Days; as far from you as possible!"
"Babe," his voice lowered. "I didn't mean it. I don't want you to leave. Plus, you can't. We signed up to be part of Z's army. We're stuck in the virtual world forever."
She crossed her arms. "I miss my friends and family! I even miss school!"
"How can you miss school?" He laughed. "That was the worst thing ever! I wanted nothing more than to come home every day and play video games!"
A loud cock-a-doodle-doo exploded from the shadows, just feet away. My eyes widened as a red health bar appeared with the name Cockatrice Lv13.
Aaron cried out as something small cannonballed its way into his chest. I spun around and onto my knees as he skidded. To my amazement, he now held the form of a chicken in his arms. He stared at the bird, amazed that he'd caught the beast.
The bird wasn't as amazed. It cawed so loud that the sound hurt my ears. Then it leaped into the air, kicking and raking at the Paladin's face.
"Ah! What the hell?" Muscleman22 swung his arms, trying to fend off the attack. His life bar dropped by a small sliver. The bird didn't do much damage. He'd make short work of the monster. I needed to find an opening to escape.
The PKer struggled. "Jessie, my sword!"
I peeked over the edge of the rock to see the female cleric grab a longsword with a nasty serrated edge. She climbed to her feet and threw the weapon. Aaron tried to snatch it, but the Cockatrice pecked him in the eye, drawing forth a screech. The sword flew past him and skidded, spinning around as it landed in the dirt, a few feet away. The name SawTooth hovered over the weapon. I needed such a powerful blade to survive. I crawled on my knees toward it, but in the mad flurry of thrashing, Muscleman22 stepped on my hand. Gasping in pain, I pulled my it free as soon as he moved his foot.
As he flailed, he kicked the sword, still trying to defend himself. His HP had dropped fifteen percent, but he still couldn't fight off the bird.
Again, I spotted the sword giving off a faint glow in the dark. I needed that weapon. With every ounce of my speed, I dashed, staying as low as possible.
Muscleman22 stomped his foot. "Hey! I see you, you son of a bitch!"
My blood chilled as I dove for the sword. I hit the ground and reached, but an ironclad grip engulfed my ankle and pulled me back.
"Let me go!" I tried to twist around to kick him in the face, but I couldn't while lying on my stomach.
The bird continued to screech and caw as I rolled onto my side. Muscleman22 had caught the Cockatrice by its throat and held it aloft.
"Well, well, well. I caught both a monster and a player. From the look of it, you, Zeekuh Hoonpo, aren’t a beta player. Hell, you're as naked as I am! What were you doing in this cave like that?"
I furrowed my brow and twisted hard, spinning out of his grasp.
"My name is Zycuh!" I lay on my back staring up at my executioner.
Still, he held the flailing bird which could do nothing to escape. He squatted in front of me and grinned from ear to ear. The firelight cast dark shadows over the contours of his face, making him look wicked and evil.
"What should I do with you?" He chuckled. "Only a Level 11, White Knight. You have no chance against me, without weapons or armor, and even if you landed a critical blow, my lovely Vixen back there would just heal me, anyway."
Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I searched around, trying to grab SawTooth.
"Just do him in already!" VixenQueen22 pleaded. "I'm still having an attack!"
He shook his head. "Oh my god! Stop it already!"
As he turned his head to glare at the girl, whom I was apologetic for, my hand landed on the sword hilt. I wrapped my fingers around it and swung the weapon. Muscleman22 screeched as a bright red line appeared along his wrist. His hand opened, and the bird fell. It landed, and no sooner did it scramble away, back into the shadows.
He held his arm, and I noticed the weapon had taken a good twenty percent of his health from one swing.
"You'll pay for that; you piece of—" His voice cut short.
A pair of red eyes glowed from the darkness, and he stared right at them. His mouth hung open, and he didn't move. In fact, he seemed frozen in place. His eyes unblinking, he drew no breath.
Vixen crawled on her hands and knees. "Sweety? What's wrong?"
The Paladin didn't respond. I watched, incredulous, as his eyes turned gray, and the shade spread outward, encroaching his flesh, his neck, and wrapping around his torso. It spread along his arms to his fingertips. From his chest, it continued, into his underwear, and then to his feet and toes. When the gray had nothing left to engulf, the Cockatrice's eyes stopped glowing red, and it gave a cluck of satisfaction.
I climbed to my knees and stared at Muscleman22. He stood as still as a statue, because he'd become one. I reached and touched his arm as his HP bar faded into thin air. His flesh was as icy as stone.
"Sweety?" Vixen's voice raised. "Answer me!"
I shook my head. "He can't."
A cock-a-doodle-doo came from behind, and I spun. The Cockatrice slammed into my chest, knocking me into the Muscleman22 statue. My hit points dropped by at least twenty percent as we crashed to the ground. The stone Paladin hit hard, and with a loud snap, his head rolled and rested beside me.
I gasped and scrambled back to my feet, gripping the sword tight. The Cockatrice leaped into my face and kicked its legs.
"No!" I ducked to the side, spinning around behind it.
It cawed and jumped back, landing in the middle of the distance between VixenQueen22 and myself. I glanced over, and her skin appeared ashen, and tears streamed from her eyes. She gasped over and over, trying to catch her breath.
The bird of doom turned to face the sound, and its eyes tinged red. Her eyes locked onto the bird's, and she stopped gasping and became still.
With a forward leap, I activated my Blader skill, Hellcharge. I thrust SawTooth right into the bird's behind, and it exploded out the other end. The enemy’s life bar depleted in an instant, then with a red flash that lit the entire cave, the Cockatrice vanished, leaving only red shards of light.
VixenQueen22 gasped for air and grabbed at her eyes, covering them and shaking her head.
I held out my hand. "A-Are you okay?"
The Cleric sobbed as loud as I'd ever heard. She fell onto her side and grabbed her chest. Before long, she cried so hard; she dry heaved.
I took a careful step toward her. "VixenQueen. You can atone for your sins. How about we join into a party? I'm trying to find my companions and—"
"Do you freaking think I'd want to party with you?" she screeched.
As she lowered her hands, she glared at me with deadlier eyes than the Cockatrice. Although I didn't turn to stone, her stare made me freeze.
I scowled. "I saved your life."
She balled her hands into fists. "And you killed my boyfriend!"
"I didn't do it! The Cockatrice turned him to stone!"
"You crashed into and broke him! A spell might've turned him back! But you broke him!"
I hesitated and glanced back at the statue that now lay in pieces. Another player had lost his life, a Beta PKer. I couldn't say I was sorry for him since he'd belonged to Z's army and wanted to kill me. But I had a tinge of sadness for VixenQueen22.
She grabbed her chest and sobbed again, breaking into even more tears.
I frowned. "Look, I'm sorry, I didn't—"
Her hand flashed up, and in it, she held a crucifix. "Just die!"
I held up my arms in defense, but a few seconds ticked by and nothing happened. When I dared to take a glance, I found VixenQueen had grabbed her clothes off the floor. They appeared back on her body as she equipped them. Still sobbing, she stepped towards the mouth of the cave. The girl fell to one knee and clutched her chest.
"Let me help you!" I reached for her.
"Stay away from me!" she screamed at the top of her lungs. "Don't think I'll forget this! I won't ever forgive you! Even though I haven't the guts to kill you myself, I will see you so dead you can't be alive anymore!"
She burst into a sprint, leaving the cave behind and racing the road east.
I cocked my head. "So dead I can't be alive anymore? Not great at articulation, was she?"
With that said and done, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The pile of Paladin clothes and armor was on the cave floor.
"I guess I get his equipment!"
I retrieved each piece of white garment and equipped them. After a moment, I had the entire Paladin's getup, from the gray boots to the white steel breastplate. It didn't weigh as much as it should've, but I didn't complain.
As I went to sit, I saw something sparkling amidst the dust of Muscleman22. I crawled over and picked up a small leather sack. A menu appeared asking me to open it. With nothing to lose, I clicked yes, and a submenu appeared listing the contents of the bag:
Mega Health Potion x3
With a grin, I moved the loot to my inventory. Next, I pulled out a stick of jerky and a waterskin and sat next to the fire. I ripped a piece of the jerky off and chewed it. Flavors washed over my tongue. Unable to place the spice of the dried meat, it still tasted amazing. I devoured it, and then another, watching my hunger gauge fill. Tempted to go through the entire supply of jerky, I held back. To further that, a loud belch escaped my throat. I covered my mouth.
"Excuse me!" I laughed. Why be polite? No one was watching.
I took a loose stick, and with it, I probed the fire, moving the wood. It made me warm and toasty, and I almost wanted a nap. If I didn't move on, more PKers or creatures might come. Twenty minutes later, the downpour of blood rain stopped.
As I left, the ground was drying. The mud solidified before my eyes, and the dirt road existed once more.
I turned to the east, and a massive feeling of dread fell over me. Now that the storm clouds dissipated, I'd expected there to be bright sunlight. Instead, I could see the sun, but the rays didn't reach the ground, as if someone posted a shaded filter over the world.
Up ahead I spotted a wooden signpost. I approached and read the sign. "This way to the Black Desert."
One last glance at the road made fear tickle my throat. "Well that's not ominous one bit.”