1 A Tragic End
The year 2150, in Manhattan, a royal suite at a skyscraper hotel.
The dim honey-colored light gently illuminating the room, and the low pitched faint orchestra emitted by the sound baffles positioned all around the apartment, created an image of harmony and relaxation. However, the person residing showed no sign of such. The gloomy atmosphere around him was thick enough to scare away even ghosts.
"Ahh, I'm such an idiot!" After a long moment of silence, the 28-year-old man exclaimed after a long sigh.
His name was Mark, also known as "God Speed Shesmu", one of the most popular players of the game Ashes of God, the most played VRMMORPG of the last 10 years. But today, Shesmu had lost all his hopes of staying relevant.
A new update to Ashes of God has been released, one that he, many pro players and team organizations actively tried to stop from getting out of the Beta servers to no avail.
PVP competitiveness was no more, and with it, Shesmu's relevance to the scene.
He was devastated, and even more disgusted by this turn of events. The slow shift of interest from PVP to PVE has destroyed the competitive teams of Ashes of God.
Looking at the cup of 2051 LeBourgeouis wine in his hand, his red reflection looked back at him before it got distorted and showed an incredible image to Mark. As if he was dragged across time, he began experiencing events of the past from bird's view.
"Black Moon! Black Moon! Black Moon!"
"Shes…! Shes…! Shes…!"
The crowd was cheering loudly, fervor engulfing their eyes as the final of Ashes of Gods League Championship of 2145 was coming to a close.
The battlefield was painted red by the blood of the players battling for glory. And in the middle of the battleground, two teams, one glowing red, the other blue, were orchestrating a symphony of death. Flashes of light from the swordsmen made the scene look as if it came out a painting, while the destructive might of the mages throwing one spell after the other gave the arena a ghostly atmosphere.
From the caster's desk, two voices were explaining what was happening on the battlefield at times, screaming the surviving teams' exploits to all listeners around the world through their microphones at others.
Caster 1: "Blue team is advancing through the bushes, their teammates keeping the red team busy using the dense forest terrain to their advantage to buy time. Shesmu and Seth are keeping their enemies at bay, buying time for their teammates to secure the True Sight Buff."
Caster 2: "Indeed, Black Moon is using their numerical advantage to secure the World Serpent buff. They left their two aces to keep the enemy team from coming close to the monster and contest it. They show absolute confidence, after all, they know that with Shesmu and Seth's slipperiness, they can easily stop the enemy team from advancing without being in any danger."
"Some might be confused on why doesn't Red Cross just ignore Shesmu and Seth and try to steal the true sight buff. However, look at the positioning of these two. With their Flash Dash and Instant Teleportation, if Red Cross ever dared to ignore them and go for the steal, Black Moon will just turn, bombard them using Omega's Area of Damage spells while Shesmu and Seth can cut their only escape route using terrain magic."
"Indeed, with the respawn time being so long this late in the game and the absence of any other buff in the map, it's hard for any team to come back from the loss of three members. Black Moon knows that fully and capitalize on their numerical advantage to get the true sight buff.
And, for anyone new to the game and doesn't know about the true sight buff and why it's so important. Basically, the buff gives all of your skills a slight homing effect. One can easily see how strong the buff is-"
"The World Serpent is getting low, just 10k hp left for it before it goes down. But what am I seeing? Red Crescent is preparing a Flash Beam attack. His teammates just placed a silencing array. Shesmu can't do anything to stop him, Seth can't do anything to stop him. Crescent is going for the steal, will he get it?"
Caster 1 and 2: "He gets it!"
"Red Cross! Red Cross!"
"Red Crescent for the win!"
The crowd went wild as Red Crescent got the steal from Black Moon, a game that was at first Black Moon's to lose now became anybody's guess.
However, as the crowd cheered and howled, a shadowy figure flashed then appeared before the four Red Cross players.
"Red Cross just gained the true sight buff, but Shesmu immediately Flash Dashed in, not leaving time even for his teammates to react. He uses Final Slash taking out half of Crescent's hp, side steps then blinks away using the 0.1 seconds of invincibility to dodge Red Cross' attacks, baiting out their skills! He jumps right back in using bloodlust jump and uses Ki Burst three times in a row, canceling their animation perfectly. He turns around, leaving his back to Blank predicting his use of howling growl, dodging the damage lowering active. Shesmu insta-kills him with a sword energy projection, showing him who is the boss. Shesmu, what was that!"
"Shesmu just styling on Red Cross bringing them down from cloud 9 after their steal to the deepest abyss of hell. Seth finally finishes casting his Tier 4 magic Hellfire forcing the last 2 players of Red Cross to blow their instant teleport. They stay alive but it is no use as Black Moon makes its final march to victory."
"Indeed, 2 of Red Cross' members have a 70 seconds death timer while three still need 40 seconds before respawning; Black Moon only needs 15 seconds to reach the enemy team's flag and another 5 to capture it. With only 2 members left on the map, it's looking like it's over for team Red Cross that loses the match to Black Moon after another impressive genocide from Shesmu."
"Red Crescent truly surprised us with that Serpent steal from 100 meters away, igniting hope in the heart of the many Red Cross fans. However, it's a shame that the team he was against had the demonic being known as Shesmu, with his incredible speed and kinetic vision, he truly deserves his nickname: "God Speed Shesmu".
"Indeed, even after 5 years, Shesmu is still showing his incredible talent, demonstrating again and again that individual performance can still win you matches in this team dependent meta that the game has been on for the past 2 years."
As the caster was finishing his talk, his voice became distorted and so did the image. Mark's eyes returned to look at his reflection on the glass of wine before he took a sip and went to the bathroom.
Looking at his reflection on the mirror, Mark couldn't help but notice the big bags under his eyes. His lack of sleep and constant stress made his health rapidly deteriorate, even affecting his performance in-game.
Remembering the speech from government officials, he fought hard the urge to puke. In the end, he couldn't hold it and threw up. Due to his lack of nutrients, the vomit was mostly made up of stomach acids. Finishing throwing up, Mark looked back at the mirror only to find that his already pale complexion became even paler.
His eyes drifted to the pool of water on the sink and he couldn't help but remember the government representative's speech.
"Our world is no longer what it was. With the birth of Artificial Intelligences and the Singularities, humanity has become much more advanced than it ever was. Thinking about it, it has been only 30 years since manual labor was still the most consistent way to secure funding for a financially safe life. However, right after the birth of the first singularity, manual labor became useless, and we as humans had to collectively change our mentality from that of a worker to that of a supervisor. In the past hundred years, we experienced an exponential rise in our lifespan reaching an overwhelming average of 200 years. We defeated cancer, Aids and the many chronic diseases that spelled death before. We did so much in so little time. However, when we look at our left and see the progress that AIs made in a fraction of that time, we cannot help but feel pressured and fret about our future. Compared to them, we are simply too slow.
"The world government has been looking for solutions to this problem for the past three decades. There have been many solutions proposed to us, however, most of them were either lacking in performance or couldn't survive the passage of time. 10 years ago, a certain proposition was sent to us as a solution to fight this one problem. At the time, everyone thought that it was interesting, but no one believed that it could work. However, now, 10 years later, we are able to say for sure, that we found the solution to the AI problem, our gateway to evolution: Ashes of Gods. This game that received the attention of the world has proven to be its beacon of hope – hope for evolution.
"We have been keeping a close eye to the more dedicated players and were able to see a mind-blowing improvement in terms of thinking speed and richness of their neural network. A player that plays everyday Ashes of Gods has 2 to 3 times the neural connections of an average human being. Since five years ago, we have been supporting Ashes of Gods both financially and with manpower, and today, we're going to announce the branching of governmental facilities to the world of Ashes of Gods. We humans need to evolve, and the world government will support this agenda fully. You do not have to worry about a stable life while playing the game anymore as the government will offer job opportunities inside the game. Once the governmental facilities have been exported to the virtual world, you can quit your job and enjoy the world of Ashes of Gods fully. For Humanity!"
As the voice of the representative faded away from Mark's mind, he couldn't help but think.
What "For Humanity" bullshit… Doing unnecessary things without taking us pros into consideration-
Mark couldn't even finish his train of thought before the urge to throw up overwhelmed him. Whatever fluid that was left in his stomach was thrown out.
The sink was automatically flushed out and Mark turned up to look at the mirror. His already very pale complexion became even paler, his face turning close to a white sheet of paper. He then washed his mouth and went back to his bed.
Putting the Vr goggles on, Mark connected to the internet. Just using his thoughts, he was able to browse the web. He then rechecked for the last time the content of the new patch.
The patch was a major one, so it was expected to be big. However, compared to all previous other major patches, this one was at least 3 to 4 times bigger; naturally, the patch notes took too long to read.
The patch notes mentioned everything. From minor bug fixes to balances changes, items and abilities being nerfed and others being buffed, cosmetic emotes and war cries. However, the most important of all of the updates was the introduction of a new planet and some major changes to the rules governing the avatar of the players. The first one meant that the major guilds will start an engineering war to win the space conquest war. A new planet meant double the possibilities, being the first one to reach it would, of course, give birth to many opportunities. As for the second one, the developers specified that it was now possible for players to change their body structure in-game through a process called augmentation. It's a skill acquired by a variant class of Engineers who have as a side job Alchemist called Augmenters. It has been hinted that the changes will not be limited to only the four body systems available to the four base classes of Ashes of Gods but one can even replace them by ones unique to certain races in Ashes of Gods.
Reading these notes, Mark fought hard the urge of throwing up again; succeeding this time. These changes might mean nothing to a casual player, but to pros, this was the equivalent of a death sentence. One has to know that pro players didn't focus on their bodily systems that much, as the effect of those was nerfed in tournaments. If swordsmen used the ki they gained from cultivating to battle in the arena, they can easily one shot the enemy team just by pumping every last drop of ki they have into one slash that would raze the map. There is no skill in that and it's not fun to watch. Same goes for mages, priests and assassins, all of them have the destructive potential of a nuke. If they were to be given full freedom of their abilities, it would become a battle of who would pull the trigger the fastest.
This is the reason why Mark didn't focus on his Ki cultivation for the past 4 years, it's because the use of it was banned competitively and thus was no longer important in his eyes, nor the eyes of the other pro players.
However, Omega9, the company behind Ashes of Gods gave them a gigantic punch to the guts. With these new updates, it was now possible to change the meridians and Ki path structures of Swordsmen to one that is similar to Dragonkins'. The same goes for all the other classes as you can change the mana path structures of mages to replicate that of Elementals, the assassins will replicate the shadow nodes of "Shadows" and Priest will copy the soul cores of Angels.
Plus, with the world government shifting the focus from the competitive scene to the world of Ashes of Gods itself, things went from bad to worse. While pro players didn't focus on their bodily systems, that doesn't mean that others didn't. In fact, all guilds had many top-tier players who focused solely on raiding dungeons and wild bosses. To fight against these, things like animation canceling and strategy didn't mean much. What was important was firepower, and what better way to achieve that other than putting all your time into cultivation and leveling long cast-time skills? Now, with this new shift in perspective, these players will become the new overlords of the game. In fact, they will attain even higher heights by changing their bodily systems so as to achieve even more explosive power. In no time, they will leave other players in the dust, including the pros.
And he, Mark, will suffer a similar fate, slowly fading away from the limelight as he tries to make sense of all the techniques and ways to gather ki, or call forth mana in the most efficient way, not even daring to change his meridian structure or mana paths for a long time, lest he loses most of his power trying to make sense of the new structures.
"Ahgh! If worst comes to worst, I'll just disappear for a year. Meditate, train, and understand my body. Then, I'll come back stronger than ever. I refuse to believe that with my talent, I can't come back from this setback."
Manhattan does not sleep. The world outside did not show any sign slowing down, even past midnight. The light of the many vehicles circulating through the city was apparent to Mark, as the room he frequented had see-through windows for walls.
At this point, Mark would have been long asleep. Having a disciplined sleep schedule is fundamental for any e-sport athlete, as lack of it makes the neural network system deteriorate and thus lowers one's abilities in the game too. However, the frustration he felt was so great that it gnawed at his heart for the whole night, while he twisted and turned in his bed. Finally, his eyes slowly shut off and he departed to the realm of dreams.