But you know what I DID have?
Tentacles. Four of them, each thicker than a can of beer and sheathed in black armored plates. And as soon as I drew in my first breath, all of them began whipping around like out-of-control fire hoses.
“What in the donkey-loving FUCK is going on!?” is what I tried to yell, but it came out more like ‘HHROOORGH! RRRAAAGH!’ and then ‘PFFFT HHHHERRRRK!’ as they pitched me onto my face and I inhaled a lungful of sand through my… muzzle?
After a few minutes of flailing around on my back like a monster straight out of some Japanese porno, I realized I couldn’t get my feet under me because I had four legs, not two. After figuring this out, I struggled upright, swaying as I tried to get my bearings.
First things first: the beach. Waves lapped the shore to my left. The wind slithering over my skin was warm and humid. There was an outcrop of limestone bluffs to my right, elevated land vanishing into a dense wall of virgin jungle. As beaches went, this one was pretty nice. Crystal clear water. White sand. The kind of beautiful untouched place that no longer existed on Earth.
My sense of reality continued to disintegrate as I pawed at my face and found a bullet-shaped snout that ended in not two, not four, but SIX nostril vents. I had claws. I had thin, whisker-like spines that grew between the armored plates that hugged my decidedly not-human flanks. I had a long, whippy tail that ended in a flattened, sword-like blade. All of this led to one inescapable conclusion. Something was severely, monumentally fucked up. Not only was I not human, I couldn’t remember a goddamn thing before waking up. I must’ve had a name, a job, a life… but when I searched back for memories of a time before ‘now’, there was nothing but a big black pause.
“Okay. Take a deep breath. You’re alive… kind of. No reason to be a skittish little bitch nugget.” I wobbled on my feet. “This is a VR of some kind. It has to be.”
Just as I thought that, a bright green bar appeared in the corner of my eye, showing I had just 148 out of 1495 HP. Other holographic meters appeared below it. A Stamina bar, slowly filling up from zero. A teardrop-shaped Hydration meter and a steak-shaped Nourishment meter, both half-full. There was a temperature gauge beneath that. It was 88 degrees in sunny Wherever-The-Fuck this was.
I was a digital native, half-raised in virtual environments. Logic dictated that if I had a Heads’ Up Display and stats, there had to be a system interface for this… game? A menu, an access portal, something. I tried to speak with my shark mouth, but all that came out was a garbled growl. Next thing I tried was calling it telepathically. “Show menu!”
There was no menu at first. Instead, blazing lines of holographic text appeared in the air in front of me, read out by a cool, genderless voice.
[Welcome to the The Jungle, <Gladiator>.]
[Now you have awoken, you have one choice to make.]
[Fight and survive, or die.]
“Fight and… now you just wait a goddamn minute! I ain’t choosing shit until I learn who I am, why I’m here, and why I look like a Xenomorph that fucked a panther!” I snarled, then sneezed. As I did, the forest of armored tentacles shot down around me like spasming harpoons. The damn things hit the ground so hard they both scared the shit out of me and threw me off-balance. Staggering to the side, I pitched onto my face and ate dirt a second time.
“HHHAAACK!” The sand sure tasted real.
The text was visible even when my eyes were closed, and as I picked myself up, two large holographic buttons appeared. They were red, crawling with hot embers. One read ‘Sorvive’. The other read ‘Die’. Yes, they really had spelled ‘Survive’ with an ‘O’.
I stared at the buttons for a few long moments. This time, I tried thinking at them. “Server information. What is this place?”
There was no response. The ‘Sorvive’ and ‘Die’ buttons hovered patiently.
“Server Information, motherfucker! Where the hell am I?!”
[<Gladiator>, if you do not accept the Terms and Conditions, you will be erased in 9.9 seconds.]
A timer leapt up, and my oversized heart stuttered.
“AUK!” When I tried to reply aloud, all that came out was a deep honk. I scowled, pulling my gums back from my teeth. “Fine! I WILL sorvive! And you better believe that as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive!”
The Sorvive button crackled with flames, then flared with white light and vanished. The Die button crumbled away into pixelated dust. A three-panel screen appeared in their place. The right panel was a picture of ‘me’ with some empty tables. My xenomorph-panther analogy was actually pretty close on the money. I had a muscular streamlined body, as dense as a shark’s, with dexterous clawed ‘hands’ and feet made for climbing, gripping, and slashing. Narrow, glowing blue eyes set behind the twin grilles of nostrils, three to either side of a smooth bullet-shaped muzzle. Hinged jaws, like a snake’s, filled with tapering, needle-sharp fangs. And tentacles. Don’t forget those.
Prime Element: Body
Mundane Element: Psionic
Hidden Element: Poison
Vitality: 148/1495 HP
Carry Weight: 81kg (180lb)
Just what the world needs: a killing machine that disappears into thin air.
The Reaper is a Legion that terrifies even the bravest Gladiators. An eight-limbed ambush predator with light-bending stealth abilities, the Reaper’s extreme speed combined with its high damage, multi-limb attacks, armor piercing spines and three dimensions of mobility make this Body/Psionic/Poison Greater Legion a formidable foe and an even more formidable thrall.
The Reaper has two elemental evolution paths. The Stalker path generates kinetic mines and is armed with formidable Psionic ranged attacks. The Nemesis can drain the abilities, stats, and life force from other Legions with its key ability, Soul Drain, as well as dealing powerful melee attacks with its poisonous fangs and spines.
I took all that in with a growing feeling of disbelief. The The Jungle was a video game… but I didn’t rightfully recall going through any kind of upload, let alone a character creation process.
“Jesus Christ. If I’ve been Isekai’d, I’m going to punch a baby dolphin into the sun.” I irritably swiped through the other menus, trying to figure out what I’d gotten myself into: and how.
The central panel of the menu had all my active game information. There was a blank space labeled ‘Lives’. Beneath that were numeric HP, hydration, nourishment, fatigue and stamina bars. Underneath those were an EXP meter, Equipped Item slots, and a Hotbar for me to insert quick-use items. I also had a small gear panel with three slots: Saddle, Saddlebags, and… Collar? The fuck did these people think I was? A horse?
The left-hand pane featured a very esoteric-looking sigil:
Underneath that was what looked like some kind of skill tree, currently greyed out and inaccessible. I tried to close the menu, but instead of shutting down, the narrator resumed speaking in its pleasant, calm, ‘call center operator trying to calm a pissed off old lady’ voice:
[Welcome to Survival of the Fittest, <Gladiator>. You have awoken in the Fifth Realm: The Island of The Jungle, otherwise known as The The Jungle. It is the arena in which the game of life and death is played.]
[I am the AI who oversees this world. My name is Chorus. It is my duty to inform Gladiators of the rules.]
I sighed. As AIs went, Chorus seemed about as sophisticated as the shitty menu UX and badly spelled buttons. “I don’t want to hear the damn rules. How do I log out?”
A chill tightened my chest at that simple, firm reply. “Then why the fuck am I here? Because there’s no way in hell I’d have logged into something I can’t leave.”
[You are a Gladiator, and the The Jungle is your testing ground. It is the vessel in which Champions are forged.]
[To leave The Jungle and ascend through the Five Realms, you must find and slay the Daeva, servants of Demiurgos, the false god who has imprisoned you here.]
My eyes narrowed. This just kept getting whackier and whackier.
[Gladiators must battle the Daeva in single combat, without the help of other humans. However, you share this world with the Legions, powerful monsters who may fight by your side. Enslave Legions and train them to suit your purposes, defeat the Daeva, and you will claim rewards beyond your wildest imaginings.]
“ENSLAVE?! Now you just wait a hot damn minute!” My back arched up like a cat’s.
[Gladiators may have two Legion companions: one Greater Legion and one Lesser Legion. For a Greater Legion to realize its true potential, it must be paired with a Lesser Legion who enhances its combat abilities. This synthesis between your Legions will ensure victory—or failure.]
[All Legions are cunning and dangerous. They will not obey cowards. If you wish to command a Legion, you must battle and subdue it in single combat, then attach a Command Collar. All players are issued two Soul-Bonded Command Collars. You will find them in your Inventory.]
[The only time that rules apply to combat are in Arena battles. These are formal, Legion-only battles with guidelines which must be obeyed. My Arena battle sub-routine, the Colosseum Master, will advise you of these rules.]
[If you achieve the impossible, arise through all Five Realms, and defeat Demiurgos, you and your Legions will Ascend. Your reward is eternal paradise on the Platinum EdenFRAME of your choice, in perpetuity.]
[There are no other combat restrictions. Other Gladiators will try to stop your rightful ascent. Kill or be killed.]
The chill gripped my heart and spread to my legs as that statement sunk in. An EdenFRAME?
If this was an EdenFRAME, then I was dead.
[Every gladiator has nine lives. There are no exceptions. When you lose your last life, you will be extinguished.]
[Survival of the Fittest does not reward weakness. If you do not fight, you will age at ten times the normal human rate and die permanently, even if you still have all of your lives.]
[You are also being watched. Survival of the Fittest has over a fifty million Spectators accessing the servers every day. Grow your audience, gain Patrons, and earn their favor. Their gifts may mean the difference between life and death. Learn more about Sponsors and Tributes in your Channel tab.]
[Your first task is to survive. Good luck.]
“Wait! Who sent me here?” I took a step forward, even though there was no one there. “How did I die to end up in this place!? Chorus!”
There was no reply. The bitch—or bastard, I still wasn’t sure—cut me off.