The portal at his virtual door led to many places, but Zen ignored everything for now. His mind was dead set on only one place - the store!
With 11,300 credits, he had to be the wealthiest student in the academy. Even rank #1 was only awarded 10,000 credits, assuming they did not receive any transfers or sponsored credits from the Godfather.
It took a little while for the store to load in, but Zen did a double-take when it finally did. Was this really suitable for teenagers who weren't of legal ages yet? He could understand the Godfather theme with the whole dim lights and soft mature jazz music in the background. But did it really have to be a bar? What about his cool futuristic game cyberpunk type of store where robots and flying drones rule? What about cute virtual pets and animal NPCs that give the player some emotional relief from the hellish outside world? Wasn't this what VR was all about?
Instead, the store turned out to be a very classic bar with no customers. Perhaps this is a private world? Was this a self-service type of situation? He didn't see anyone around.
"H-hello? Is this the store?" Zen asked cautiously as he walked to the bar counter. Surely, someone had to be here, or there would have been some guide for him to look at. He wanted to buy game highlight clips. Where could it possibly be in this bar?
As he got closer to the bar counter, Zen could hear someone humming and polishing shot glasses. He couldn't see them and felt slightly spooked. There shouldn't be ghosts in a VR game, right? Even if this was the half-baked 'blood' awakening in him, it shouldn't be possible to listen to inner voices transmitted virtually over a shared network, right? It didn't make sense.
Curiosity won over, and Zen found himself walking over to the bar counter where the noise was coming from. Even at this distance, he couldn't see anyone.
"Perhaps this really is a ghost?" he whispered and almost at once, the humming stopped.
A blur flew from behind the counter at a speed that Zen couldn't follow and smack him on the head. Zen wasn't expecting an attack in a safe zone and flew back from the impact, crashing into the wall behind. Thankfully, the bar had no customers. It would have been highly embarrassing to see him fall over his head with his butt up in the air.
Zen quickly righted himself and scurried back to the portal entrance. Whatever that thing was, Zen had no chance of winning it! What kind of store tries to kill its customers?!
The blur that attacked Zen was faster and blocked the portal entrance before Zen was halfway there. The short figure smirked and waited calmly with hands behind their back as Zen skidded to a stop.
"An old lady?"
The bartender and store NPC was indeed an old lady. Yet, there was no realism in this store. The old lady was hardly more than half a meter. She wore a familiar VR headset and had her white hair tied into a neat bun. Despite her advanced age, the old lady bartender was a lot fitter than Zen could ever be with his frail gamer body. Was this the power of virtual reality? Even NPCs are stronger than players!
"What are you staring at?" the old lady in black uniform snapped.
Zen couldn't help it. She was wearing a very confusing black outfit. While he knew what a business suit looked like, he became confused if that was a business slack or a skirt. It somehow looked like it was merged together. Closer inspection told him she was wearing business slack with a black half apron over it. How confusing!
"Are you the shopkeeper NPC?"
The old lady huffed. "It's a bar! I'm the barkeep! Shopkeeper? Don't lump me on the same level as the part-timers. What do you want? You look a little too young to be here."
Zen deadpanned. You don't say? Whoever made this as a store probably had a thing for breaking the law. Sure, many teenagers didn't care about being underaged when it came to smoking and drinking. In fact, Zen bet that half of these mafia heroes and heiresses already did them before the age of twelve! However, the law was still the law. In a normal situation, Zen wouldn't be allowed into any of these establishments. However, he was now in a game, and the same rules shouldn't apply.
"I'm just the right age, actually. The right age to be playing this game of death, I mean. Old lady, do you have any game highlight clips that I can buy? I read that the store sold it."
Again, Zen was sent flying with a stumpy kick to his face. He could feel the pain, but there were no injuries. Just like any other game, the messed up interior started to repair itself almost instantly, and Zen wanted to cry. This was so unfair! If there was a gamemaster, he would report a case of NPC violence against players!
"It's Vera to you, twerp! How dare you judge a character by their appearance! We're NPCs here, mostly. Didn't you read the school guidebook? The VR store is operated by a shift of rotating invigilators."
When Zen heard that, he paused. "Does that mean you're actually a man? I've not seen female invigilators in the academy so far."
Vera gave him a flying roundhouse kick this time, and Zen didn't even bother defending against it. Her movements were so fast that it was no use. Instead, Zen groaned and climbed back onto the high stool by the bar counter.
"Don't be sexist! Female invigilators exist in the academy as well! We're also more than capable of disposing of twerps like you. Spill, why have you come? I was about to log off."
Ah, so that's why this NPC was in such a foul mood. While the invigilators took on the roles as rule observers and system admins, they didn't like what they were doing. Heck, nobody would enjoy this sort of treatment after getting thrown in here against their wills with a ticking time bomb planted in their necks.
Yet, Zen had business here, and the invigilator was obliged to fulfil his request. He was the paying customer after all, even if customer service was foul.
"I want to buy game highlight clips from the first death game of all hundred survivors, including myself."
Vera stared at him for a long time. "Are you sure?"
Zen nodded and swiped his control panel to show her the credits he had. The barkeep didn't comment about it when she saw the ridiculously high number. Instead, she narrowed her eyes.
"Boy, do you even know what you're ordering? This is a bar. Our products are expensive, and some customers have low alcohol tolerance."
Annoyed that the NPC was keeping very strictly to the roleplay, Zen sighed. "Look, Grann- Vera-san. I have the money to pay for it. It's 100 credits for one clip, right? I have more than 10,000 credits to pay for everything. As a barkeep, shouldn't you give what the customers want instead of judging them by their appearance and wallet size? If this is how you do business, I'm not surprised the store doesn't have customers."
Hearing this, Vera only smirked. Zen was surprised why she didn't become angry instead. Didn't arrogant characters with violent tendencies like her usually get mad over such remarks? Maybe he judged her wrongly.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," Vera went behind the counter and Zen wondered what she was up to. "Young chicks like you don't learn until you've experienced it the hard way. Have it your way then, a hundred game clip highlights. Try not to die."
Zen didn't know what she was talking about, but the old lady moved swiftly behind the counter with the help of several ladders. About a hundred different drinks were lined up neatly on the bar counter in the flash of an eye.
"A hundred shots. Each one contains a different game clip highlight. Once you drink it, you'd be able to see the highlight, but the side effects are horrible. At best, you'd get a terrible hangover for the next twelve hours. At worst, you could lose your mind and life. Do you want to back out?"
Zen gulped when he saw the drinks lined up. He started to question his body's alcohol tolerance level, but he didn't want to back out now that he came so far. He really needed information, so Zen toughened up.
After paying for the drinks, all hundred of them, Zen asked for the first drink.
"Which one belongs to rank 100?"
Vera raised a brow. "You're not starting with rank 1? You might not be able to finish all hundred drinks even if you paid for them. Don't worry, purchased items don't despawn. You don't have to do it in one sitting if you can't."
That last part sounded like a taunt and Zen let her have this win. If he could, Zen would also choose to savour the drinks one at a time. Yet, the Egg Hunt was in two days. He did not have the luxury of time. He needed to know all hundred candidates to formulate a good strategy.
Rank 100 was a simple coke with rum. Zen liked cola, so he didn't overthink and downed it all in one go. From behind the counter, Vera's eyes twinkled. She knew she wasn't wrong about this young man. Compared to the other candidates, he held the most promise of them all despite his clumsiness.
The liquid burned as it made its way down Zen's throat, but that wasn't the thing that bothered him most. His vision was growing hazier, and the last thing he saw before he let his head fall onto the hard wooden surface was Vera's smirk.