"So we meet again." a familiar voice roused him to consciousness.
Frey was sitting on a posh wooden chair, in front of a tea set perched on a white-mantled table. There, sitting opposite to him, was a woman he'd rather not see in the morning.
"Greetings, Frey Alcott. How's the game going for you?" Victorina said. She grabbed the porcelain tea kettle on the table and poured herself a cup of black tea. The fragrance that wafted about reminded him of Earl Grey, but was distinct in a way he couldn't explain.
"Slow. Full of setbacks." Frey answered.
The purgatory was bright gold, basking in the daylight flooding from the thousand arch-shaped windows lining the walls.
Victorina took a sip on her cup. "Are you talking about Player 7?"
"You should've killed her."
"Right? But I didn't."
"However if you had killed her... How do you think you would see yourself then?"
"No worse than how I see myself now." Frey said.
"I wonder about that." Victorina smiled. "You would've beaten yourself over and over about it. You might've even gone insane. That's how you are."
"How would you know?"
"I know a lot of things."
"Sure you do." Frey reclined on his seat. "So, do you also happen to know why the hell I'm here again?"
"Isn't it because you wanted to see me?"
"Are all goddesses as sexually-frustrated as you?"
"No, all of them are frivolous." Victorina remarked almost with disdain in her voice. "They don't know the pain of having to stay in this place, observing the game from above, for eternity."
"You mean all you do is watch us play all day?"
Victorina's well-endowed chest rose and fell as she heaved a huge sigh. "That is what I do."
"Who even put you in charge of this?"
"Deira. The council of the gods. They said since I was the Goddess of Death, naturally I should be the one supervising you."
"Because we're already dead?"
"That is so." she held the cup to her lips.
So even gods have problems of their own.
"But then, I get some enjoyment out of watching the Players. They are amusing sometimes, the choices they make, how they struggle so much." saying this carved an impish smile on the woman's face.
"You enjoy watching people suffer? Sadist." Frey rolled his eyes.
"At the very least, I do not enjoy risking myself for others." Victorina retorted.
"You are amusing yourself, Frey Alcott. More than you imagine. I wonder why?"
Frey woke up to the chirping of birds. Raw sunlight filtering through the canopy of tree leaves made him squint. He threw his body up and sat.
He checked his booklet first thing, as per his routine. Not much has changed, but two Players have been added to the list.
Player 64 - Eliminated
Player 29 - Eliminated
Frey wondered who they could be. How did they die? Was it by the hands of another Player, or was it because of something else, a monster, or perhaps nature itself?
In any case, the game has ended for both of them. They have lost their stake at second life. Frey hasn't. He was still Playing. He hasn't yet lost.
Frey pocketed the book and got up. He should probably hunt for breakfast.
He was going deeper into the forest when he heard faint noise coming from the direction of the road. He snuck to the roadside and strained his ears. Steel clashing and shouts. It was coming from up ahead.
Probably something he shouldn't get into. But he thought it didn't hurt to look so, skirting along the roadside, sneaking behind trees with his sword drawn, he went to see the commotion.
It was a bandit attack. At least it looked to him. From behind a tall shrub he watched four Redel soldiers fend off six, uncouth-looking bald men. The soldiers had their backs against a wagon pulled by two horses. Whatever was inside it, Frey couldn't see, as the wagon had roof and walls made of cloth supported by wooden frames.
Yep, something I shouldn't get into. Frey thought at first.
But, the direction in which the wagon was facing caught his eye. It was heading to Redel. If he got to hitch a ride on the wagon, he might get to the city faster than he would have on foot. It was a tempting prospect, one that made fighting bandits seem worthwhile.
"Oy." Frey heard behind him. He turned around to see the glint of a sword coming for his head.
Instinct kicked in and he rolled back, dodging the attack. The only problem is he rolled the wrong way, out of the cover. He rolled out onto the road, and the only sets of eyes that weren't trained on him were the horses'.
There was no backing out.
Bandits and soldiers had stopped fighting to look at him, confused, but that only lasted a mere second as the bandit who attacked Frey charged out of the foliage, looking angry as all hell with a pirate cutlass raised.
"Kill him." the bandit said.
Frey raised his katana and parried the strike of a bandit. It didn't matter which bandit, they were all bald and ugly. He threw the enemy's force to the side and, as the bandit cruised past him, Frey barred his neck with an elbow.
The bandit writhed on the floor, holding his neck with both hands as his mouth frothed.
Another enemy came swinging. Frey sidestepped his attacks and circled behind. With the hilt of his sword he pummeled the bandit square on the noggin, knocking the lights out of him.
Seeing two of their friends already down and the playing field leveled one is to one, the remaining bandits scampered like rats into the forest.
Two of the soldiers seized the bandits Frey incapacitated, while the other two walked up to him, smiling.
"That's good skill you have there lad. What's your name?" the one asking was old, with thinning gray hair and a wrinkled face. Santa's beard hung on his chin, and you would mistake him for a drunkard if not for the eloquent way he spoke.
"Frey Alcott." he answered.
The man held out a leather-gloved hand. Frey took it, flashing the old man the best smile he could manage.
"I'm Hugo, and this is Gren." he pointed at the thin, young soldier beside him. "I must say lad, you've done the kingdom a great service today."
"You see that wagon over there? It has expensive cloth for the royals. Those nobles don't like getting their fancy clothes delayed, so had we been ransacked by those scalawags, a lot of tailors would've been whipped. You know what I mean?"
"Ah. I see."
"More than that, we would've died." It was Gren who spoke, scratching the wild curls of his red hair. "Those were the Southern Robbers. They don't take prisoners, from what I heard."
"Then it's probably a good thing Frey here came along!" Hugo cackled with genuine mirth. "We were outnumbered back there. It would've been a real miracle if we all got out alive."
"I don't think I've done too much." Frey said.
"Ah, there's no use being humble. Would you join us for a drink?"
A drink in the middle of the day? Frey shook his head. "I'll have to refuse. I am currently traveling, you see."
"Oh a traveler. Well, you wouldn't be anywhere near these parts if you weren't one. Where are you heading?"
"Redel, huh? Well lad, good deeds get paid. Hop on the wagon, we'll take you there."
"Really?" excitement shone in Frey's green eyes. Though of course, he had planned all these from the beginning.
"Yes. It's the least we can do." Gren chimed in.
Frey bowed with a "thank you", but deep inside his head was screaming "mission success".
"We done hauling the bastards, sir." one of the soldiers reported to Hugo.
"Good. We're leaving, I don't want an earful from the Count and his ill-bred daughters." Hugo turned to Frey. "The inside will be cramped with the prisoners and the cargo in. Will that be alright with you?"
"It's plenty fine." Frey replied. Beggars can't be choosers.