“Secret alpha tester No. 44. Time elapsed: 317 hours, 18 minutes. Cessation of neural activity confirmed. As per procedure, requesting dispatch of disposal team.”
“Secret alpha tester No. 62 and No. 71. Time elapsed: 317 hours, 20 minutes. Confirmed logout from mental collapse. As per procedure, requesting transport to the collection facility.”
“Secret alpha tester No. 99. Signs of mental collapse confirmed after evolving to the second stage.”
The 7th research center was monitoring the alpha test subjects within the MMORPG, World of Yggdrasia. Monotonous announcements of the test subjects’ terrible fates rang out, one after another.
At the 100 hours mark, ten percent had dropped out. Once the subjects began to reach their first evolutions, the number of survivors plummeted.
It was the 13th day since the start of the experiment. Seven subjects died from cessation of brain activity. Thirty-one in a vegetative state after their mental collapses and subsequent forced logouts.
“Oh wow, a bunch of them at once.” Brian said, bemused.
This man was the deputy director of the 7th research center. The actual director was an ex-politician appointed to the position through a revolving door, and so the facility’s leader was effectively Brian himself.
His secretary-cum-researcher nodded and replied softly, “Our psychologists proposed the following theory to explain for the occurence: these particular subjects had chosen to start with demihuman and animal-type avatars, which had basic actions programmed. However, upon evolution and reaching the second stage, their avatars lost most of the programmed actions, only retaining the bare basics, due to their shapes and range of movements being incongruent to normal living beings. The mental pressure compounded with the Disconnect to elevate their distress and fear, and this could have quickened their collapse of the psyche.”
“Right. So did the doctors mention any solution?”
“Yes. According to the medical team, the easiest solution would be medication, or log the subjects out and stabilize their minds. The game development department suggested analyzing the action feedback from the subjects in order to update the programmed movements for monster avatars as soon as possible.”
“So only impractical solutions, then,” Brian chuckled.
Investigating the limits of mental stress that the human mind could handle was one of their purposes, that was true, but not the most important one.
Put a person with a broken ego into a monster vessel, and chances are high operation of the avatar would be near optimal. To investigate how much mental stress resulted from what actions, it was most efficient to push the subjects’ minds as much as possible. Nearly 40% had dropped out after just 13 days, despite the original plan calling for half a year. At the same time, the results they gained was commensurate. The top brass was very satisfied with their progress.
The project’s next test subjects would be actual soldiers. Partially to prepare for them, and partially since the center had managed to acquire test subjects with no official presence in society, Brian planned on squeezing every last drop of science from the orphans.
“Right, aren’t there still a few stable ones?”
“Yes, Deputy Director. We retain seventeen relatively stable subjects. However, the majority of them were laying low, far away from human civilization, only barely active.”
“Well, we can’t have that. Ideas to deal with the problem?”
“Reports from the data processing department said they’ve been leaking the testers’ locations to the local adventurer’s guild in-game, plus several online forums and wikis anonymously. Shall we keep it going?”
“Yeah, that’s good. Keep it up. That reminds me, what happened to the berserkers?”
“Over half have been killed by beta testers. 6 subjects had deteriorated into mental collapse from the fear of being hunted by humans.”
“Any of them stable, active, and evolved?”
“Yes. Their stabilities varied, but No. 01, No. 08, No. 13, and No. 17 have been actively entering combat, and also reached the third stage, the rank-up,” the secretary said. She looked at the screen showing the surviving subjects and continued, faint admiration in her words. “The first twenty-three truly lived up to expectations. Only five had dropped out, and it looked like they’d been making good use of their inborn abilities.”
The elves had left for a new land, and the boy had given me a new name as the guardian spirit of this forest.
But I was a demon, not a spirit. And I didn’t even live here!
[Shedy] [Race: White Ghast] [Low Demon (High-Rank)] ・A low demon made of dust and gases. An intelligent spiritual lifeform. [Magic Points: 303/303] 3↑ [Total Combat Power: 333/333] 3↑ [Unique Skill: Reroll] [Racial Skill: Fear] [Simple Identification] [Humanoid Form (Crude)]
Oh, whatever… I’d have to drop my real name sooner or later, anyway.
In hindsight, picking that fight was a pretty harebrained idea, but it turned out well in the end. I got so much stronger compared to the first day of the game.
I was quite sure I had reached the top of the food chain in this forest by now. Even killing black caterpillars only gave me a pittance of power. And not just that, they were running from me the moment they sensed me, now. Considering all that, I supposed killing humans really was the most efficient way.
Or maybe the bugs were running away because of the new skill I got from the rank-up…
[Racial Skill: Fear] ・A passive skill of the demon race. Terrifies the weak.
…wow, how the hell did that boy not run away from me?
Could I still disguise myself with the cloak? If someone with good presence-sensing skills was to see me, wouldn’t they feel the fear?
Damn it, this was the most obnoxious skill ever. At first glance it might seem useful for combat, but it only worked with enemies so weak as to be inconsequential in the first place, and anything I wanted to hunt would just run away from me.
I supposed I really should leave, then.
But it’d be really awkward to pop up in front of the boy again after that tearful goodbye, so I traveled in the other direction. Those elves cleaned up everything belonging to the slavers I killed. All I had was the usual cloak and my miscellanies.
Floating for a while reaffirmed my realization that yes, I had to focus my mind on something, otherwise the discomfort would rear its head again. I had been forcing myself to believe that the discomfort and everything wrong I felt was just the brain’s hallucinations, but reality’s never as easy as you’d like.
But, well, I didn’t need to crawl along on the ground anymore. Just drifting along didn’t provoke the sense of disconnect too badly, and my mind didn’t melt as much. This was pretty much the only good thing in choosing the Ghast.
At least, it was a lot more comfortable than moving with legs.
…could I ever return to a normal human life? I wanted to get in some practice for shapeshifting too, but those rabbit ears just did not go away.
Fine, let’s leave [Humanoid Form] for later thinking.
Got a bit faster, too. I crossed forests and mountains at a power walker’s pace, and three days later, the scenery finally changed.
The thick, gloomy, broad-leaved forest gradually gave way to a bright, open woodland of needle-leaf trees. Far away, a humongous mountain range dominated the horizon.
…so turned out I just got even further away from human civilization.
Well, whatever. I slightly increased my scouting range and found a few magical signals, somewhat stronger than the monsters and animals living in that elven forest. Might be perfect for me as I was now.
I started to move towards them. The signal was rather fast, but stopped midway, as if to feed on something. Then I saw it.
[Horned Wolf] [Magic Points (MP): 58/70] [Hit Points (HP): 116/120] [Total Combat Power: 112]
Stronger than a black caterpillar, so it must give decent experience, right? High magic plus the horn meant it should be a monster.
I estimated around 5 to 6 experience points for each wolf. Thankfully, there were a lot of them. I could cover the quality with quantity.
…how did I get so much experience from humans when they were so much weaker? Was this why monster attack people?
Let’s think about that later. I snuck up behind the wolf, currently busy devouring a rabbit, and struck.
It howled in pain, struggling violently in my grasp, then chomped at me. Ouch! That hurt a bit more than non-magical attacks from humans.
[Shedy] [Race: White Ghast] [Low Demon (High-Rank)] [Magic Points: 298/303] [Total Combat Power: 328/333]
I was careless, relying on my physical resistance. Perhaps the claws and fangs of monsters were magical, like enchanted weapons.
The wolf kept on raging against its restraint and howling. Stop that already.
But well, as I was, the most it could do was just prickling me, so I kept with the absorption and desiccated it. The experience received was just as I predicted.
[Shedy] [Race: White Ghast] [Low Demon (High-Rank)] [Magic Points: 302/308] 5↑ [Total Combat Power: 328/338] 5↑
I wanted that horn too, but I wasn’t as corporeal as I used to be pre-evolution. I couldn’t exactly do physical attacks, and thus, couldn’t take the corpse apart.
Seemed like I’d gotten quite used to fighting and the gore, now. I’d managed to learn how to sidestep the constant mental ‘pain’, but I also felt more aggressive from time to time. Problematic.
Alright, anything else to kill? I re-expanded my detection range. A few magical signals were speeding towards me.
A chorus of howls answered me.
Shit, that was a wolf pack! More than ten of them. The howling when I was fighting that wolf must’ve had summoned the pack!
This was bad. Their hits could only scratch me, but considering the number, I’d be dead of a thousand cuts. And I couldn’t recover mid-fight like that time with the slavers – individual wolf kills gave me too little.
I ran, floating up high enough so their fangs wouldn’t reach me. Discretion is the better part of valor. I wasn’t going to die and get my magic cut in half again after all this work.
My best speed was just around a human runner’s. The wolves were faster. ‘But they should give up once they saw that they couldn’t reach me’, I thought, and that was when they started to run up a tree and follow me from the branches.
Oh that was just unfair. I could just about imagine them laughing at my thoughts. What sort of super-wolves were these?! They weren’t even scared of me. Was mob psychology bolstering their courage? Shit, what to do, what to do…
Then I heard another far-off howl, reverberating from the depths of the woods. I shivered.
Another wolf? The boss of this gang? But then, why did I feel like that howl came from two different voices? And even the wolves feared it. What was that…?
Some distance away from us, a tree cracked, falling to the side to reveal the beast.
It was an azure horned wolf with a flaming mane, twice as big as the others. But those eyes. They were steeped in dark hatred, cursing all of existence. Two pairs of eyes on two heads.
…what are you?
The two-headed horned wolf approached in an instant. And then – I couldn’t believe my eyes – it began to rip into and tear apart the other wolves.
The wolf pack scattered in panic. I was watching the carnage from above, stunned, when the two-headed wolf pounced at me, despite me being five meters off the ground.
No, shit, wait, owww!
[Shedy] [Race: White Ghast] [Low Demon (High-Rank)] [Magic Points: 270/308] [Total Combat Power: 310/338]
Holy hell! It took off ten percent just by scratching me! Right, what about you…
[Two-headed Horned Wolf] [Magic Points: 143/170] [Hit Points: 263/280] [Total Combat Power: 466]
What was this power?! That was fifty percent more than mine!
Nope. No fighting this. The normal horned wolves were still yelping, tails tucked between their legs. I immediately dove into the pack, mingling, trying to get the two-headed to target one of them.
Terribly cruel, even if I say so myself, but it wasn’t the time for that sort of thinking. Luckily it worked, and while the mad beast was ravaging the wolves, I took the chance to retreat as fast as I could.
I was out of the fight. I was pretty sure I didn’t have any sort of smell for it to track me, but I couldn’t take chances here. I kept flying, blindly, without a thought as to my destination. After a while, I thought I heard a howl of sadness, of resentment, coming from the distance.
…were you… an alpha tester?
I thought all the other testers were fine, considering how I had managed to endure… but maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe they were suffering.
I looked up at the moon, my mood introspective. A mental sigh resounded in my mind.
I just want my spot of solace…
Author’s Note: Main character’s pretty much the only one who seemed easy-going…