The Caverns of the Archives, The Great Duke's Archives, Floor 1, 4:50 p.m

Seriously, this place is amazing...

"Admire the view people, that's pretty much the only thing good we got going for us."

Don't worry Tatsumi, my eyes are having an orgasm at the graphics, dear God. Didn't know this game could get this beautiful... Why aren't all areas as detailed as this?

The walls covered in moss, although far off, can still be seen by the luminous glow of the mushrooms, giving the area a cozy warm feel to it. The terrain from what I can tell, ranges from smooth green plains, to high green hills surrounded by rivers and waterfalls, all while fireflies surround the area with its light. Green, blue, and more blue. Soothing to the eyes.

"Aren't any of you going to ask where we're going? I was hoping to pretend to be like a guide of sorts..."

Oh, my bad.

"Okay... Where we going then?"

As we walk across a small mossy cobblestone bridge, Tatsumi gave a smile at my going along with his charade.

"We are in the sacred lands that is most known to people as the Caverns. Amazing, I know. I've been assigned to guide the players to our base of operations, and that's where we're heading for right now. Won't be long now."

Kazuto took a break from gazing into the river to ask a question. "Who else is here with us?"

"Hmmm let's see." One by one he ticked off the names of the individuals with his fingers. "Yuuji, Shidou... Uhhh, I forgot the rest, but they're there. You'll see them soon."

Forgot the rest? You only listed off your friends names. You might be worser than me when it comes to names.

"Speaking of which, what are we supposed to do now that we're here?" Fujiyama asked.

"That I dunno. We haven't really received anything telling us what we should do. Maybe now that you're here, we'll finally get some sort of sign."

He had us go through a maze to bring us into this area. What the heck is he trying to do? He said something about giving us a chance to escape right? What does this place have to do with escaping? If anything, we're heading deeper into the archives. You trap us in a game, to trap us into an area in the game, to trap us into an area in the area. What the heck are you playing at?

A short tiptoe through the tulips later, we finally reached a place which I guess is our haven. A set of crumbled stones laying on the grass, surrounded by broken pieces of pillars. Typical, cliche, unoriginal. It really does look like a place to rest in RPGs.

"Well, this is it. Home sweet home."

Having said those words, Tatsumi turned towards us and stretched out his arms. "What ya think about it?"

Everyones expectations were silently crushed. It was so obvious. As soon as the wonder left their eyes, you could tell they were expecting something more grander than just a few pieces of rubble on the ground. Tatsumi seemed to have noticed this as well.

"Yes, just like what everybody else said. It looks like shit, doesn't it? And I was the one who picked it to... God Damnit.."

And as I expected, Minatsu attempts to reconcile with the crestfallen warrior class. "Well, I wouldn't say that... It's ummm, different from what I thought... I guess..."

He immediately turns his eyes towards me as if asking 'Was that good enough?' before giving a nervous smile at his weak attempt on a compliment.

Honestly Minatsu, if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything. Even if it's at a cost at man's confidence at picking base locations.

"Whatever, we can marvel at the base's beauty later. I just want to know where the heck is everybody else."

My question was immediately met with a frown.

"I... Don't really know. They were here when they asked me to head to the lift. Probably exploring? This place does go on for miles after all."

Half a quarter of the 3rd floor to be exact, which is quite big, wouldn't you say?

Cardinal again! There he is... Just a few feet ahead of us, floating up in a shape of that damn orb again. His sudden appearance caught all of us off guard, earning him the pleasure of seeing our surprised reactions.

"It's you..." Tatsumi whispered in shock.

Yes, it is me! What gave it away? My voice or my shape? Gee, I thought this disguise was foolproof!

"Enough playing games, damnit. What the heck are you planning to do?" He spat back, having regained his composure.

Planning? I'm not planning anything anymore. I've done all that I can here, it's up to you and the other players if you get out.

What the hell do you mean by that?

Yeah, you're all already probably wondering what I meant by that and I won't be surprise if I'm right. It isn't much of a shock really, like I said, I merely just want to trap all players with potential. And that's exactly what I did. Simple, no?

"Are you saying that you led us to this place, just to trap us here?"

Exactly, Kotaru Fuyijuma, exactly. You're all trapped here.

His words only further confirmed my suspicions. We are trapped here. I would be shocked, but after everything that has happened today, nothing can surprise me anymore. Honestly, I already lost all hope. But the others seemed to have really thought about escape, they're shock expression combined with their feeling of despair was almost too sad to witness.

"So where's the exit then? If you even placed an exit..."

Sora, finally decided to talk have you? I was getting kinda worried that you wouldn't speak to me.

"Your playful villain act really wants to make choke on my vomit. Can you stop that? Answer my damn question."

Hehehe, I was wondering if I'd fall victim to your sharp tongue, looks like I have. Well, if you really want to know so bad I'll tell you. No, I'll show you.

It took a moment, but after that, the words 'Look above' appeared at the top of my HUD. And by the looks of it, I wasn't the only one. One by one, we lifted our head higher, pointing us at the ceiling far above. What the heck? It's the ceiling... That's not an exit. Unless the exit is...

Up. Way up high. If you haven't figured it out already.

The words soon vanished and once again, I found myself staring at the orb.

"How high?"

5 floors high.

5 floors?!

"Are you mad?! How the hell are we even supposed to get up there if we haven't even beaten this floor's boss?! We can't even go and defeat him from over here!" The shouts of Tatsumi were filled with both utter astonishment and disbelief. And I can't say I blame him. I surprised he isn't shocked into silence yet.

Ah ha, that's where the other players outside come in. I'm sure you all had enough time outside to know at least a couple of brave individuals. I'm sure that if you call for their help, they'll do all they can to defeat the floor boss. Or maybe not. Here, I'll give you all 5 minutes to contact someone in your friend's list, I'll remove that restriction on your menus now.

There was a restriction on contacting people? No wonder no one was contacting anyone in the chamber...

"But-but the others in here! Why are you only telling us this? How about them?!"

It isn't my fault they all decided to wander off at this exact time. If you hurry, you might just be able to tell them.

He began to grit his teeth, giving the orb a look of an extreme hatred before dashing off to find the others, screaming and shouting along the way.

"Kazuto, Fujiyama, go help him, Minatsu stay, you'll just get lost no doubt about it."

"But-" Minatsu began.

"Stay!" I shouted, cutting him off and at once he fell into silence.

"How about you, Tatsuya-San?" The old man asked.

"I have a couple of questions to ask of this scumbag, just go."

After a quick unsure nod, the two of them began to run off.

"And if possible find someone in your friends list that can help!"

Quite the commander aren't you, Sora?

"Don't get comfortable with me. I hate acting like we're in a bad movie."

Fine, fine. Now, what is it do you want to ask me?

Crap... what do I ask him? I just said that to have a reason to stay here since I'm too tired to start running... Whatever, time to make something up.

"First question, why do this?"

Gah, so cliché but a good one to start with so it's fine.

Because I was bored.

That's it? That's a shitty reason.

And because again, to make sure none of you beat the game.

"If that was it, then you could have simply killed us off like you did with the exploiters and hackers."

True, true. But none of you did any wrong now, did you? I wanted to give you a fighting chance for your lives and if you win, I'll leave you all alone and move on to another group of players.

"Where are the other ten? Are they here with us?"

Down. While you go up, the others go down. Their situation is just like yours. Their exit is five floors down. Just like you all, their survivability relies solely on the players outside competence and ability to clear the floors below as soon as possible.

"Yeah and that, what makes you think the players outside would even care about our predicament? For all we know, they could be ignoring our messages and by the time five floors have been cleared, we would have already starved to death."

Simple. I don't know. It's all on chance. Like I said their bravery is your only chance.

"You call this our fighting chance?! How is any of this fair?"

It isn't fair. It's no longer a game of stats and meta builds, Sora. It's survival, it has always been since day one. I'm just simply a game master having a little fun.

"You're a bitc-"

3 minutes Sora, better find someone in your menu before I put the restriction back on.

"Like I give a shit, I have no one in my friends list anywa-"

Oh my god, stop tugging on my sleeve Minatsu! What do you want? Can't you see I'm busy?!

The urgency of his look threw me off, it seems to be important. It better be important enough to warrant the interruption of question time Minatsu. Or else I'm going to slap you silly.

"My friends list. Rei-San, I added her."

"Excuse- what?"

"Ayako is in my friends list! We can message her!"

It took a while for his words to finally set in, but when they did. I really did wanted to slap him. All this time, he added her and he didn't even tell me...

As if sensing danger, Minatsu backed off slightly and spurted out: "Y-you didn't ask so I didn't tell! It isn't my fault, Sora!"

Well there you go, someone to seek help from. I need to go and pay the players down below a visit. How are their going to react, I wonder? Probably similar to yours.

Before I could say anything, the orb disappeared into nothingness, as if it was never there...

"So uhh..." Minatsu began "Do we message her or-"

"Of course message her! What else do we do, watch anime? God, Minatsu... You're killing me."

"It was just a question..." He muttered, opening his menu.

"A stupid question! You might as well have asked me what's the meaning of life. No, even that question makes more sense than yours."

A short but excruciating amount of time later

Done. I'm done typing my message. It wasn't easy either. Turns out I can't type it in myself because it isn't my menu. So I told Minatsu to write it out as I say it. But even that was a shitty idea. Every time he's like "How do you write that?" Or "Where's the letter for it?" So instead, I took hold of his fingers, and began typing it out for him. Which would have been easier if he would stop being so stiff!

"I can't help it Sora! It feels weird letting someone use your fingers."

"Really? I think I'll have better luck telling puppets what to do. And they're not even alive Minatsu! They're not even alive!"

"But-"

A notification appearing in his open menu interrupted whatever useless thing he was about to say.

"Yep, it's from Rei-San."

Saying that, he clicked open the message as I move in closer to see.

From: Sakurako

Subject: S.O.S

Lead the Black Knights again? For what? And what the heck are you doing over there?

Wow, 3 questions in one line. How the heck do I explain all of this to her in time? Minatsu is about as useful as a broken ladle and we only have 2 minutes... Welp, time to control the stiffest fingers on earth again.

"Minatsu, fingers."

"Again?!"


Lead the Black Knights again...

For some odd reason, Ayako could feel a sense of urgency going through her, almost as if something isn't right.

Why?

Not only that, but the archives... archives. She had heard of this location before, but where? She distinctly remember it was used for something... But what?

The Great Duke's Archives...

She continued staring at Minatsu's location beside his name. Tossing her brain around her head hoping it might refresh her memory.

"You done messaging? If you are, I'll call an eagle to send us to the archives."

She heard him but didn't respond, she never really was much for remembering stuff like this. And when she does need to remember, which she does a lot, extremes amount of concentration was required.

Duke's Archives, Duke's Archives, why do you feel off to me?

"Umm Ayako? You okay? Oh, concentration mode... That explains it." With a sigh, her friend Tomoe, begins to stare into the distance, waiting for the time for when Ayako might someday come back to him.

That is until, he too was alerted of a message. He didn't think much of it at first, he was after all, the temporary leader of the Black Knights, probably just another recruits list or a daily report. But seeing the contact's name, just moments after learning about what he had done, he already began clicking open the message faster than a heartbeat.

He's getting it from me, he's so getting it. Friend or no, he would teach him a lesson. Whatever the message say, whether it be just a simple message or a request, he won't reply back. He is after all heading straight to where he is now.

The Duke's Archives. And once he finds him...

From:Ragnarok

Subject: In a pinch

Tomoe, buddy, I'm going to need your help. You probably already know this, but I'm in the Dukes archives. This might mean nothing to you since you were one of the later beta testers. But this place is in fact a removed area in the game. Me and I think 19 others are trapped here in some sort of survival game bullshit. The only way out for us from what I heard, is clearing 5 floors below us and five floors above us. I need you to assemble the Black Knights and start getting to work. Please man, I'm begging you. Also, if you find Ayako... Tell her I'm sorry alright? You probably have no idea, but if you find her she'll tell you what happened... Try not to think too badly of me once you hear it... Though that's impossible. Oh yeah, tell her her friend Sora is trapped in here too.

What load of bullshit is this? Tomoe was both amused and confused. One at his weak attempt at an apology, seriously 'Sorry' that's it? And the other at this survival game thing he's talking about.

Whatever, Ayako and him are going to head over there anyway. He'll find out what he's talking about. Just as soon as Ayako comes back down to earth...

"Oh, that's right!"

Her sudden burst of realization caught him off guard and as a result, shifted his attention back at her.

"What's right?" He inquired.

She looked at him, her face a mixture of multiple emotions, the main one, as far as he could tell, was confusion.

"The archives! The place Ji- he is at! It isn't supposed to be in the game."

Her eyes shifted to his open menu, a message was sent to him.

"Who's that from?" She asked, walking closer to him to get a closer look.

"The devil himself."

She took a moment to read it all. But once she was done, she took a step back and rubbed her forehead. That was too much information. What's a removed area doing in the game? It was the first area they've designed for the game and originally it was supposed to be a sort of mini tower and there were supposed to be in every few floors. The players would enter the tower and the only way to access further up top was to beat the floor's boss.

Each tower was five floors high, with the exit being on the very top. Along the way each new floor of the tower would be drastically different from the others. One floor could simply be a library then in the next a maze. It was removed because she deemed it too confusing for new players. That, and the other developers didn't want to make it. So it was left to rot in the inaccessible files deep in the game's folder. At least, that's what she thought.

Also that apology... Sorry? That's it? After all he has put her through? Just sorry? Whatever, she has to calm down... No use getting exasperated right now.

She thought about it. Real, real hard. The only way for them to leave was to beat five floors down and five floors up. Ah yes, no wonder the archives was familiar, it was the only one that's ten floors high with the entrance in the middle.

She thought back to Sora's message. Leading the Black Knights again... Can she do it? As she thought of this, she turns back to Tomoe. Can I do it?

"Tomoe..." She began.

"Yes?" He simply said.

"Who's leading the guild right now?"

"No one, I'm just temporarily leading them right now. I'm still thinking about who to appoint. The guilds is in shambles, no one's doing anything."

Great, that makes it even harder.

Sora... Sora is stuck in there as well. So is Minatsu. How the hell did they even get there in the first place? Last time she checked, Sora was still in bed, recovering and then suddenly he's trapped in a supposedly removed area in the game. And he called her bad luck!

That idiot.

She needs to do something. She needs to rescue them. Heading to the tower would be a waste of time, they're trapped in there which means they can't get out. Which also means they can't get in. So the only way to set them free is to-

"Lead the guild."

Tomoe looked at her in confusion. "Huh?"

"I'm going to lead, or at least attempt to lead the guild. Just until I get them out of there."

Seeing his surprised reaction, she immediately began typing a message back to Sora.

"H-huh? Lead the guild? You? Earth to Ayako, do you remember what happened last time you tried to lead?"

"They scoffed and ignored me as they continue to do whatever they were doing." She simply said, typing out her message.

"Exactly! Do you want that to happen again? Not only that, but this is the same guild that placed a bounty on you. You! A former leader!"

"They were lied to."

"Yeah! Lied to by the exact person you are trying to save! Look, it isn't our problem, just step back and walk away. God knows you need a break.

"I'm not saving that idiot, I'm saving my friend. To whom I owe my life to, so it is partly my problem." And with that, she hit the send button and faced Tomoe once again.

"Look, I don't know why you're so against it. But there are players, innocent players might I add, that are trapped in there. I can't for the life of me, as a developer, just leave them like that. So, I'm going to let bygones be bygones and lead the guild. Understand?"

He stuttered and sputtered before finally finding his words. "You're human! How on earth are you going to beat ten floors before they starve to death or something?"

At that, all she did was lifted her arm and pointed directly at him. "With your help, of course. You are my friend, aren't you?"

Silence was all that he could give, he knew that Ayako was right in saving players, but if she were to die... She might be a developer, but even she overestimates her own abilities. Not only that, but she's absentminded, loud at times, horrible as a leader and downright useless in convincing people. So why on earth must she also have a heart of gold? He wish she would just walk away from it, it isn't her or his problem. So what if this Sora guy dies? It isn't like he's important or anything. No, only him, Ayako and a few others is what matters.

"So, are you with me or do I have to beat the floors all by myself?"

He stared at her, he thought back to when he first met her. Oh how lucky he was to be working with such a hot person. He also soon found out what a joy she was to work with, she was funny, charming, smart and again, hot. Slowly he got to know her as a person, and soon after, they were the best of friends.

Sometimes Jin would show up and attempt to win her over with remarks and passes but he didn't care, in fact, he rooted for him. He was even the one who tell him Ayako's favorite haunts and food. Funny, how things changed so fast.

"Hello, Tomoe, bro, you still with me?"

The hand on his shoulder brought him back, staring at Ayako's face, patiently awaiting his answer.

I want to keep you safe. That's all I want for now.

With his mind made up, he gave a sigh and finally, he gave his answer.

"You know I can't deny you. So it's a yes, whatever, it's your funeral. But that doesn't mean I'm going to help lead, I'm terrible as a leader."

And in the first time in a long while, he saw her smile and felt his heart at ease.

"Awesome! Knew I could count on you, okay let's go then."

The smile still remained as she beckons him back towards the town, imitating a soldier's march. He stood still for a bit, watching her go, before walking after her, his goal in this survival game finally found.

I will protect that smile.


Okay let's see, That's an "O" "N" then we hit the spacebar...

Beep!

"Sora, I hear a message pop up."

Oh what?

At the corner of his menu, I directed his fingers over to it and lightly tapped on it.

From: Sakurako

Subject: Help will come

Okay I got it, I read another guy's message and I kinda understand your situation. Five floors below and five floors above right? Got it, I'll start going up first, then I'll worry about below. Try not to die until then, okay?

...

"Hmm, Sora? Something wrong?"

Oh nothing Minatsu, it's fine. I'm fine really. It's not like I just painstakingly wrote a bloody novel telling her everything only to then be told 'Nevermind! I get it now! Hahahahah lol'. It's not like that, not like that at all...

Author's note: First things first, I understand that this was way overdue and it's all because i had exam and couldn't write... In fact I still do have exams and am writing this in the middle of a study session. Anyways, the next chapter might be a little early it all depends. As always, let me know what you think of this chapter and remember to follow. Thanks.