Tiandi was a world of vast oceans, expansive deserts, colossal mountains and great forests. Small towns and cities could be found almost anywhere, but between them there were often large, uncontrolled areas filled with danger.
They took a lot of effort to maintain and weren’t profitable, so the owners often simply sat back with popcorn while their creations were destroyed by rampaging monsters.
No matter how often they were destroyed, eventually, somebody else would rebuild the settlement. Humans were as tenacious as weeds!
Along one particular beaten forest path a few miles from the Dark Lord’s stronghold was one such example – a small and inconspicuous inn built into the side of a mountain. Torrential rain buffeted the copper tiles and trickled down weathered wood, falling incessantly as it had for the past week.
The inn stood in the middle of a raging tempest. Fierce winds howled across the vast expanse of trees and grass, occasionally ripping leaves and twigs from the ground. A maelstrom of bloated storm clouds throbbed above the mountain’s peak like some strange organ.
The waters broke. For an instant, even the drumming of the rain was drowned out by a massive, booming thunderclap.
CRACK! It was as if somebody has suddenly lashed out with a nine-tailed whip! Without warning, an intense white light flared within the sky’s murky depths. A dazzling streak of lightning blazed a trail through the atmosphere!
The immeasurably strong force ripped into the air like a nail drawn through silk, shredding everything in its path with thin veins of lightning. For a moment, it resembled the roots of a giant tree, its tip branching thousands of kilometres from the summit to the sky.
Light bled through the ruptured fabric of the world, pierced by countless needles. The leading bolt roared like a flying dragon, embodying the raw grandeur and violence of nature. A blindingly bright bolt struck the ground before the inn, bathing everything in a brilliant radiance…!
It was a completely ordinary scene.
There was one thing that this world’s native inhabitants were unaware of: Tiandi was a game. A massively popular and well-constructed virtual reality, but a game nonetheless.
Whenever a hero talked to an NPC about the topic, the NPC would just assume that they were crazy. After all, they all believed that heroes were just like them, but had received strange new powers after baptism.
Everything was fake? How philosophical!
Heroes came from another world? Indeed, the gap in power was worlds apart!
Programmers created everything? Surely they were talking about the gods, right?
The lightning vanished abruptly, leaving only rolling thunder in its wake. A glowing, kneeling figure materialized within the blackened epicentre of the blast; a lean youth in white and blue armour, carrying one sword by his waist while a large tower shield was strapped to his back. He appeared to be every bit the high-level hero in his ensemble.
The entire theatrical sequence was simply the result of logging in.
Anyway, for players to spawn here meant that they were almost exclusively experienced veterans who raided the nearby castle fairly often, and this person was no exception. He was an expert who had gotten this far by playing with caution and cashing in on acceptable risks.
Kenjin had a status that most people would kill for… but at the moment, that was the farthest thing from his mind.
He released a somewhat depressed sigh. After acquiring a key quest item, he’d thought that he and his friends would be the first to finish one of the many epic questlines in the game… but this could be his last gaming session for a long while.
Various issues weighed heavily on his mind. For example, his grades were dropping because he was gaming so often… no, that wasn’t important. His parents were getting divorced and he might end up in the countryside after his father lost the battle for the house.
Who knew how many years it’d be before he had the opportunity to play again?
He and his friends had planned to finish the quest today, he had various affairs to take care of. It began with quitting as a guild leader due to inactivity, then he’d have to retire his adventuring license, notify various contacts and so forth.
He couldn’t be negligent – he only had a few hours left.
Today… was impossible.
Frustration clouded his face as he wondered what kind of expressions they’d make upon hearing his news. Part of him hoped that they’d be incredibly upset, but the other part of him prayed they wouldn’t care. He bit his lip unconsciously; it was pointless thinking about what might happen.
Steeling his resolve, he took a deep breath, then pushed open the wooden door and slipped into the inn.
The interior was fairly unremarkable, with various potted plants hanging from the ceiling and crudely crafted furniture arrayed around the room. A few players and some NPCs were dressed as waiters, carrying dishes to and fro, while footsteps from the ceiling alerted him to the presence of other players in the rooms on the upper floor.
In actuality, the inn ran a fairly decent service and generated significant revenue due to its exorbitant prices. For just twenty gold, you could have several cute waiters talk to you for two minutes…!
Incidentally, it was only five gold for an overnight stay.
His gaze wandered over the unfamiliar faces before finally settling on a distinctive white witch’s hat, bobbing around animatedly by a bench near a window. Idle chatter filled his ears as he approached; the hat’s owner was holding a conversation with some random person.
“Elyria, I’m here~”
Upon hearing his voice, the hat’s owner abruptly turned to face him. From under the oversized hat, two round amber eyes met his gaze and the girl smiled daintily. She had shoulder-length, curly brown hair and wore an almond-coloured specked with white.
By her waist was a small leather pouch from which several strings trailed, instantly giving her away as a high-level thread-witch. She was a truly powerful player… but her oversized hat made her look even more childish than she really was. Ahh, Elyria really was cute.
She was too charming… unnaturally so. He’d never asked about what she looked like in real life because it seemed too rude, but sometimes the question consumed his thoughts. He shivered when he imagined how she could be some fat, balding old man in real life… or even an FBI agent.
After all, there was an age restriction on this game.
“About time you arrived,” she said, popping a strawberry into her mouth. Satiety was a constant issue; many players struggled to earn their daily bread and turned into salarymen both ingame and outside. However… Elyria ate simply because she felt like it.
Taste was perfectly reproduced ingame, and eating virtual food had been proven to be an effective means of controlling appetite in the real world, but this was overboard. A wry smile grew on his face when he saw the assortment of food on the table.
“A feast for a giant, as usual… where does all that food go?”
“Rude. My body converts it all into pure happiness,” she replied while nibbling on a cherry. “Here, you have some too.”
Oh, how considerate of her. He reached out to grab a heavily-buttered croissant, but his hand stopped just short as he realized what he was doing. This was a trap! The moment he began eating, she’d burden him with the bill, just like she’d done in the past!
“Heh. Nice try, but I’m not falling for it this time!” he declared proudly. Elyria recoiled as if she’d taken a big shock, and began to stare at him with tearful eyes. Those heretical pupils would rouse the protective instincts of any man who saw them!
Kenjin began to feel a twinge of guilt gnawing at his heart. How could he be so petty? What did a little bit of money matter to him, considering what lay in his future? He might as well indulge her…
Before he realized it, the croissant had somehow ended up in his mouth, and his jaw opened and closed in a daze. High-level hypnotism! She continued to stuff food into his hands with a sinister gleam in her eyes, ignoring his muffled protests.
“Hey. Are you done playacting?”
A cold voice rudely interjected, and Kenjin turned to face the random person who’d been talking to Elyria before him. The speaker had his feet propped rudely on the table while casually twirling a jack-knife in one hand. Wannabe delinquent.
He was a youth with a wide forehead and somewhat stern, uncompromising eyes. Long, jagged locks of black hair jutted stiffly from his head, giving him an abrasive appearance. His mouth was concealed under a face mask, and he looked to be the perfect example of an assassin…
It wasn’t too surprising to Kenjin that he’d completely forgotten about this person’s existence – after all, the fellow had absolutely zero presence. Not because of their class, but simply due to a lack of any redeeming personality. No matter what, the two of them would never get along.
“…Oh, Reeds?” came Kenjin’s unclear acknowledgement after a slight delay.
“You. Did you just pause to read my name?”
“Don’t tell me forgetting somebody’s name is a crime now… Reeds.”
“Whatever. Not my problem if you’re going senile.” Reeds turned away, looking out the window as if he were admiring nature. In reality, cruel dreams of carnage and burning hells were probably running through that unstable mind.
Assassins were all at least partially insane.
Kenjin swallowed the remainder of the croissant as if it were his pride. Neither of them liked each other, but it was a good opportunity to explain his circumstances. He searched for an explanation which wasn’t too apologetic, nor too casual…
“Don’t you have things to do?”
In the end, the words that left his mouth were entirely different to the ones he’d imagined. Reeds snorted in derision and responded, “I was just leaving. We’re just travelling together, so don’t try forcing your schedule on me.”
Elyria looked between the two of them with annoyance, but she didn’t raise any complaints as Reeds rose from his seat. “Have fun, you two. Don’t be late,” said the unremarkable assassin snidely as he stalked off. With a small creak and jingle of the bells by the door, he was gone.
In the end, he hadn’t managed to say a thing. Well, who was he kidding? Reeds probably wouldn’t care anyway. He grabbed an ear of corn and began to gnaw on it as if he were starved, making Elyria smile pleasantly.
“You’re going to get fat, you know.”
“No, no, I’m eating to fill the void in my soul. Wait, did you just hypnotize me again?!”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full!”
He smirked as Elyria frantically wiped her face with her sleeve. She was just like always… even a simple exchange could lighten his mood. However, his mood took a downward turn as he remembered what he’d come for. She made it a little too easy for him to forget himself.
“Elyria, about the quest…” he said, numerous thoughts churning about in his head.
It was Elyria’s business face! The maturity that she sometimes displayed was completely jarring with her appearance. “So, what about the quest?” she asked, pouting. “Don’t tell me that you’ve forgotten a detail or something?”
“That’s not it. I…”
The words caught in his throat as she looked across the table, giving off a reliable air similar to that of a librarian. They’d been preparing this journey for over two months – even Reeds was probably looking forward to it, if only because he wanted to cut something.
Could he really let the two of them down?
He leaned back in his chair and sighed, glancing down at a half-eaten apple pie. Not a single remnant of appetite remained; the realistic taste only reminded him that what he was eating wasn’t real.
Weeks of effort, for what – glory in a virtual world? There was something more important, he knew that. But…
“Infiltrate the castle, save the kidnapped victims, defeat the Dark Lord. I remember everything perfectly.” He trailed off while digging into the pie with his fork, slicing it into small chunks. At this rate he’d become Reeds. It all seemed so pointless, all of a sudden.
He knew it, so why couldn’t he just cancel the trip?
Elyria crossed her arms and closed her eyes thoughtfully. He secretly admired her reticent form, completely absorbed in thought; she didn’t know anything about his circumstances, but she always knew exactly what to say. What sagely words would she offer today?
After a brief pause, she opened her eyes and stared at him sharply. “Drop the emo act.”
She was the same as always.
“I understand. Something’s come up, right? You’d prefer to do something more meaningful than playing games. Sitting here, eating fake food, wasting your precious time…” She looked at his face questioningly, and he abruptly averted his eyes.
“You’re right. There are plenty of other things you could be doing. You could drop our plans and pay attention to your studies or something.”
“Brutally honest today, huh?” he said sourly. “You’re not trying to convince me at all?”
She clicked her tongue in irritation, then pushed more food towards him. “It’s important to differentiate between destructive and constructive escapism. You have things to do, but nobody will blame you for trying to put your problems on hold for a while.”
Escapism… it was true that playing games and treating his problems as if they didn’t concern him would be wrong. However, he strongly felt that this was entirely separate from treating the experience as stress relief.
“Think about this hypothetical scenario: if you were told that you had only a day to live due to cancer, would you struggle to the bitter end, trying everything in search of a cure? Or… would you try doing everything that you’d ever wanted to? There’s no wrong answer.”
Her words struck a chord in his mind, even if he didn’t really feel that the scenarios could be compared. He methodically chewed the last of his food, mulling over her words repeatedly.
Regardless of the difference in severity, she was right. He had enough to deal with already… was it so wrong for him to enjoy this last day as if there was nothing wrong?
“Thanks, Elyria,” he began with a grin, but she surprised him by jumping from her seat before he could continue.
“Ah, not good!” Elyria appeared shocked after noticing the time. It was almost the scheduled time for the trip, so naturally she had numerous things to do such as deposit her money, repair her equipment and organize her inventory.
“I hope you get over your incurable disease, or whatever it is. Later~”
He laughed as he watched her small form running through the aisles, then took a bite out of the neglected, cold apple pie. Like everything Elyria had ordered, it was incredibly sweet.
Once again, he was footing the bill.