1 Prologue

Former Guinsant Alliance Territory, Marfall Continent

Eighth Circling, Year 9125 After the Shattering

7 years after the Quake


The forest was quiet; something had disturbed its song. Three people burst into a clearing, stopped. They eyed the meadow festooned with summer flowers in a flamboyant riot with wary suspicion.

"It's hunting us," said the youngest of them, bitter fury and fear in his voice.

The other two, older by nearly a decade, glanced at each other.

"The others have probably gotten far enough by now," said the only one among them with furry wolven ears. Said ears were twitching, pointed in alertness and twisting in alarm.

"Stonesharks are native to Amvard Continent," mused the older human, visibly uneasy. "How did they cross the seas to Marfall?"

"What does that have to do with anything, Scare!?" The other human was nearly shouting, but noise was irrelevant. The predator that was after them hunted by using the vibrations of the earth.

"They're earth elementals – they shouldn't be able to cross large bodies of water." The man called Scare tapped his fingers on a thigh restlessly as he spoke.

The wolfman tightened his grip on his glaive. "Shall we be heading for the swamps then?"

"Earth elemental," muttered the youngest, finally calmed down. "Probably the upheavals in the planet's geography, a land bridge appeared maybe? Or they fell through the cracks in the crust and went deep enough to avoid the water. The swamps aren't too safe, but not as dangerous as open ground. That's also Siren territory. Poison?" He tilted his head. "There's a traptree near here. Those are the ones with the poisoned bonespikes right?"

The wolfman smirked at Scare – the other's distraction had worked. Scare returned the smirk, eyes laughing. "We better get going. They won't be happy about you knowing where their crazy trees are, by the way."

The youngest of them looked up at the imposing wolfman with deliberately wide eyes. "But, Gazzy, I'm a hunter. I'm supposed to stalk things, occupational hazard, see? It's not my fault I saw a Siren acting suspiciously and she didn't see me?"

Scare snorted. "They all act suspiciously, Fin."

"An infinitely suspicious race, the Sirens." Gazzy's ears swiveled in amusement. He stiffened. "Three o'clock."

They fell silent to save their breath and decisively changed direction, running in a more westerly direction toward the swamps. Humor took a backseat but the group looked slightly less stressed than before.

It was futile to run, really. Even if they were running on tree-branches, their footfalls would be felt by the stoneshark. It would follow relentlessly.

They entered the bounds of the swamp and paused for breath on a mat of swamp vines weaving between branches.

"Tell me again," Gazzy groused, "why we had to be the distraction and not the guys with flight movement skills?"

"There was no one with flight? And the Skywalk move skill is still sold by VanHels Clan at exorbitant prices?" Fin nearly tripped over a root, nudged upright in the last moment by a casual nudge of a clawed hand.

"Bastards, useless holes," Gazzy growled.

They all had the Wind-water Steps that imparted speed and weightless movement, but it wasn't enough to outrun a stoneshark that moved through earth like an actual shark did through water.

Scare noticed their largest companion look around uncomfortably. Understandable. The swamp wasn't like the woodland – the sound of running waters and the incessant insect noises echoing through the mist would impair enhanced hearing.

Fin caught his eye, looking worried. He'd noticed too, and Gazzy's senses were how they'd been evading the stoneshark until now.

"Where is this traptree again?"

Fin pointed. "Maybe a hundred meters."

"Let's go, then."

It took less than a minute to see the traptree. They all looked warily at the seemingly innocuous tree, a swamp alder that bulged about the trunk, crooked, looking like an obese humanoid attempting to reach its toes in vain with crooked branches growing along its spine. Vines drooped from the branches, hiding most of the trunk from view.

Gazzy growled briefly and swept a hand through the curtain of mossy vines, disappearing into the depths.

Fin shrugged at Scare. "Vargvir are naturally more resistant to poison than humans. We'll just have to wait for the screaming."

Right. The vines were probably poisoned.

Scare turned to look behind them, scanning the shadows and the swamp waters lazily curling around exposed roots and mossy boulders. The swamp wasn't as quiet as the forest.

But dread hung closer about it.

Scare turned, stepping closer to the water and triggering the Lesser Listener Spell. Mud squished unpleasantly under his feet. The shushed sound of running waters magnified in his ears, was that rustling the sound of crocodiles brushing against reeds?


He flinched at the warning, Gazzy's roar like thunder inside his brain, magnified by the Spell.

The sound of water sloughing off stones washed across the echoes of the roaring. He whirled. The stoneshark opened its mouth, swamp water dripping off it like small waterfalls. Rows of teeth, and red red red.

Scare thrust his sword instinctively.

Another roar pummeled his brain. Not Gazzy. He ended the Listener Spell and leaped away. The stoneshark followed, its bulk clearing water as fast as a striking snake, open mouth, jaw unhinged to show even more teeth in pursuit of him.

The Lesser Listener couldn't hear what was going on under water. And for Gazzy, it was easier to hear earth moving and breaking under their feet as something moved underground than parse which running water sound was the sound of a stoneshark unexpectedly using water to hide its movements.

Had it noticed that Gazzy directed them away from it every time it nearly broke through the ground surface?

Truly, an intelligent hunter.

This was probably not the time to be admiring of the fearful symmetry of monsters.

Scare steadied, jumped high. The stoneshark stopped, confused.

He triggered one of his two major combat Spells, and braced himself. "Skystrike!"

He bore down on the sword as the Spell slingshotted him toward the monster beast. The sword bit deep between the stone plates of the opponent's head at the same time that a bonespike, tainted green and black, embedded itself in an eye.

Gazzy, as a vargvir, was a natural huntsman. The pained roars of the stoneshark from both their attacks echoed in ripples around the swamp.

It wasn't enough.

The stoneshark flicked its head to the side. Scare let go of the sword before his arm broke. Unbalanced, he slipped off the beast. He flipped, using a stone plate jutting out of the monster's side to right his position, but that meant the head swiveled back and a falling Scare was right in the path of its maw.

Idiot! He mentally yelled at himself. He didn't even have time to gasp.

He heard his name yelled, a dual roar and scream. But pain struck, a dozen dozen dull knives tearing into his flesh and sawing into his bones.

The stoneshark opened its mouth again, tossed its head to better position Scare's body in its mouth.

Too much pain to scream.

The prick on his arm was nothing in comparison. A numbing sensation spread on his arm. He turned his head weakly. Blurry sight saw a bonespike tip embedded in the flesh of his upper arm.

Fin, a part of him howled in outrage at his pseudo younger brother. You missed, you little shit! I'll get you back for this! But also, a cold and calm part of his brain engaged and he grasped the spike. He couldn't see anymore, but did it matter when everything was pain?

He could feel the direction of the teeth in the monster's lower jaw, embedded in his body. He weakly directed the poisoned spike upward just as the monster closed its mouth again.

Scare smirked as he felt the weight on the spike and the sudden slacking of the stoneshark's jaw strength.

Good. A single spike wouldn't do that. So the weakening of the monster only meant that Gazzy and Fin were still alive.

And safe.

His sightless eyes closed.

Finally, he felt nothing.


Since the birth of the age of computers, even before the age of the internet in the 1990s, people have been dreaming of interfacing technology into human biology. Prosthetics, neural implants, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, all the philosophy and greed of tech transhumanism.

Each leap in the advancement of technology changed the face of the world – the internet in the 1990s, smartphones in the 2010s, augmented reality in the 2040s where urban safety innovations forced transport safety signals to be integrated mandatorily into personal hands-free tech, artificial intelligence in the 2050s when the code to high-end artificial general intelligence units was streamlined enough to become available for personal use.

It was the breakthrough in high-end artificial intelligence that allowed the promise of virtual reality to be realized. The year 2058 saw the first viable virtual reality dataspace. But even then, it took twenty years before commercial VR technology became cheap enough and safe enough for the general population.

Of course, the first incarnation of widespread mainstream VR tech was a game.

The VRMMORPG called Halfworld 10,000 BC, registration opening in 2079 CE, was a virtual planetary representation of Earth that was half the size of the real thing. The theme was building and exploration. The goal was to advance the world to a spacefaring civilization in-game – a playground for history buffs, sociologists, and technogeeks alike.

It was a massive success.

VR tech started to bleed into other industries.

There was VR tourism, which governments endorsed to lessen the foot traffic at historical sites. There was VR conferencing, which businesses jumped at. There was VR mining control, which became standard in all space-mining platforms.

The 2080s was the launch of the first space-based businesses, but that's another story.

Sixteen years after the rise of Halfworld, in 2095, the game that would save the lives of one hundred and fifteen million players from the devastation of the human race was upgraded with an expansion called Redlands: Masters of War.

It was a year and six months before the destruction of Earth.


Nearly eight years after a mega-earthquake destroyed the planet, the player Scare died on another world and woke up back on an Earth he never thought he'd see again.

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