Ken awoke with a start but didn't dare open his eyes. His hand clutched at a soft silk quilt like the pink one on his own and Chie's bed instead of the rough wool blankets at the dingy inn in Ishigumi, a village in the country of Tlön. He knew that when he opened his eyes he would see all of his friends around him. He was safe and so were Chie, Hayden, and Mas. He smiled.
A bell tower tolled the hour. But the only one within hearing distance of his home was The Campanile and they'd decommissioned its bell years ago.
He opened his eyes and stared up at the cobwebs in the bare rafters of the inn.
He had been dreaming about what had happened mere hours ago—except for the part about being rescued—how Yuri had avoided his strike with ease and then thrown him out of the cave. Then, he'd finally he'd made it to Ishigumi, one of the safe zones.
Feeling a warmth over his heart spreading outwards, enfusing his whole body with energy, he opened his eyes.
A woman was bending over him. Her white hands and each of their six spindly digits were splayed out across his bare chest. Her long black hair cascaded all over his upper body and hid her face. The wide sleeves of her white kimono spread out over the gray blanket.
Letting go of her silk sleeve, he pushed himself up onto his hands. "Wh—what are you doing?" He backed himself against the headboard and pulled his shirt down.
Standing up at the edge of the bed, she flipped her hair back over her shoulders.
Her thin pink lips spread across her face in a warm smile. "I was helping you regenerate."
He pulled off his shirt. Sure enough, the open cut on his shoulder had healed up into a scar. "Thanks." He squinted at her. "But who are you? You can't just barge into someone's room." He probably hadn't even bothered to lock the door. He was still in his dirty, bloody t-shirt, pants, and laced-up boots. Dry clumps of mud littered the blankets. He hadn't remembered taking off his trenchcoat, but it hung over the back of a chair pushed up against a small table next to a potbelly stove.
"I apologize for my unannounced intrusion," she said, but she did not bow, not in the slightest. Her dark eyes spoke with authority and they sparkled in the moonlight streaming in from the open window on the other side of the bed. The window framed twin rabbits peeking out of the two moons, bathing the room in a twilight aura.
She made a sweeping gesture with her hand, palm up, towards the other side of the room. "But the window was unlocked."
She pushed a wide silver hair band inset with black onyx gemstones deeper into her lush hair. The gemstones were set in four rows of twelve each, although the fifth and sixth rows were without gemstones, only empty recesses. Each gemstone was in the shape of a perfect gō stone and polished to such a gloss that it reflected a mirror image of the two moons.
"Although belatedly, allow me to introduce myself." She raised her chin and looked down at him. She was at least six feet tall. "I am the Empress."
Wow, the Empress of the White Imperium. At first, Ken's jaw dropped, but then his eyes narrowed. As a player, she could notify the admins and they'd log him out. Heck, she might even be an admin herself. But would she believe him? Would she believe that he couldn't log out? If he was straight and determined, how could she not? She might even contact Chie for him or make a voice call.
Fat chance. What was he thinking? They're the hackers behind the swatting. But the Empress did heal him. Who knows? Yuri could have been pretending to be the Empress's minion. I never did actually see or hear the Empress when Yuri was supposedly talking to her. It could've all been an act. Damm that bitch Yuri. Why did she attack my family? If anyone's hurt, I'm going to find Yuri and whoever else was involved, even the Empress, in the real world and make them pay.
He rubbed the stubble on his chin. Should he confront the Empress or let her make the first move? For one thing, he didn't know anything about her, but she apparently knew a lot about him. To paraphrase Miyamoto Musashi, 'unless you know the character of others, you can't know yourself.' That is, how could he know how he should respond if he didn't know what kind of person the Empress was. One thing he did know was that, whoever they were, they sure loved their role-play. Here we go again. He wasn't sure about the exact protocol, but the most ingratiating position of a supplicant was most likely par for the course, considering that the Empress would deign to visit him and even heal him. Ken jumped out of bed on the other side and bowed down on his hands and knees. The flimsy floorboards creaked under his weight. "Forgive my impertinence, most exalted one! If I had known—"
"Perfectly understandable, please rise."
After standing up, he asked, "To what do I owe the honor of your visit, I have so many questions."
"Indeed, all of your questions will be answered in due course, but we have only a limited time. First, the purpose of my visit."
A freezing wind blew in from the window. Her white kimono fluttered in the wind like a butterfly and chimes tinkled as ice crystals shook free from the kimono's folds and danced across the floor.
"Allow me inform you about your quest."
"I've spread false rumors that one of the shards of the Mirror of Truth is in the Greater Southern Archipelago. Now I shall bless you with the one true hint: the first shard is across the Great Abyss."
"What's the Great Abyss?"
"Remember, this is a contest to the death."
"And what's a shard?"
"The more contestants you kill, the higher your final ranking," the Empress said. The right sleeve of her kimono shimmered and for a moment he could see through it to the window behind her.
"What? Is this a battle royale?" he said.
"Finally, the most important rule of all: only one player can deliver all the shards."
"But the quest announcement said it was the usual shared party win."
"And if you win the quest, you'll be able to log out," the Empress said. "But you have to complete it in twenty-four days."
What the hell? I'm not going on any quest when I can get her to help me right now!
"Ganbatte," the Empress said. Making a loop around the bed, she walked towards the window. The hem of her kimono swished across the floor, ripping deep cuts into the wood. Loud sawing noises echoed off the walls.
This isn't working. "But wait, I have one question." He stretched his hand towards her. "Why can't I log out?"
"You don't know?" She whipped around in place to face him, her glowing figure spotlighted by moonbeams like a star celebrity. Her kimono from the waist down shimmered like poor television reception. "That's why you only have twenty-four days. They must've given up on you. Did you know? When your loved ones don't believe in you anymore, when they stop waiting for you, then the portal won't open. And after twenty-four days, it closes permanently."
"What are you talking about? What I meant was: why can't I log out in the first place?" He stood up and planted his hands on his hips. "And can't you stop role-playing for just one minute?"
She laughed hard and her eyes crinkled up into stars. "Isn't life one complex role-play? A splendid and unique mask for every occasion, like being able to switch to the next fancy ball with a snap of the fingers." She smiled and fiddled with a wire necklace cord around her neck.
I guess we're back to the role play again. "Look, uh, you wanted Chie on the quest anyways. So if you could help me get back to the real world, then I'll tell her, okay?"
The Empress creased her brow. "Chie... why would I..." Her face took on a faraway look, then she chuckled. "Oh, of course." She smiled at Ken. "But I don't really need her anymore. And neither do you. She's given up on you anyway. Hayden and Mas too. Why do you even need them? Remember, it's a battle royale. You'd have to kill them, eventually—or they'd kill you." First the Empress's face flickered, then her entire kimono.
What's happening? Is she disappearing? "Wait!" He grabbed her arm. It was still solid, but it was as cold as the snow outside of the cave. "You've got to help me!" He tried to grab her other arm but his hand slipped through.
"You dare touch me!" Twisting her arm out of his grip, she leaped backwards up onto the windowsill. In one smooth motion, she slid a kwaiken out of her sleeve pocket and unsheathed it. Its smooth blade glinted like ice in the moonlight.
"I—I'm sorry!" He clasped his hands in front of him and bowed. "Please, please, help me get out."
"It's your own fault, you know? You wanted to get into the game so badly. And, well"—she cackled—"your wish is my command." She raised her forefinger up in the air in front of his face and looped it slowly around in a circle. His eyes followed her finger around and around.
His mind was turning to mush. What's happening? He shook his head to clear it. "You're a cracker, aren't you, what do you want?" He clenched his jaw. "Money? But if you wanted money, why did you swat my family?"
After hearing himself say it again, tears started to well up in his eyes. He ground his teeth together. "If you hurt Hayden, I'll hunt you down and bring you to justice!"
She laughed, her mouth wide open. "What do I care about one un-matured being out of hundreds of millions of them. There are so many here, you don't even cherish them. Where I come from, we're lucky to have even one in a millenium."
Crazy talk... Don't let her derail you. Stay focused on the goal. Eyes on the prize. If it's not money, then what's their motivation? Revenge? It must be revenge. "I don't know what I did to you, but tell me and I'll make it up to you. Please get an admin."
"Jake's an admin," she said.
"Jake Robertson, the CEO?"
She waved her hand in dismissal. "I see, you know him too. I apologize but even though I could easily call him—I have his ear, you know—I choose not to accede to your request." Resheathing her kwaiken, she pointed a finger at him. "This is your punishment. Complete the quest."
I was really losing it there, grasping at straws, but now we're getting somewhere. "So, what did I do? I mean, I'm sorry whatever it was and I'll do whatever you want. Just call Jake Robertson."
"Didn't you notice?" Balancing herself on the windowsill, she lifted both arms up from her sides. The wide sleeves of her kimono hung from her arms like snowy owl wings. She snapped them. A sharp crack resounded throughout the room and echoed back out into the freezing night air. A barrage of snow erupted from the sleeves and blasted him like a tsunami.
His feet lifted off of the floor and his body flew backwards through the air. Hitting the floor, he slid five feet and then his head slammed against the door. Shit! He got up on his elbows and licked his lips. Cold, freezing cold. Then, refreshing water. Mixed with iron. He smelled it too, the pungent iron aroma. He touched his lips with his fingers and they came away bloodied. He rubbed his hands all over his face and it stung like hundreds of razor blade nicks. Droplets of blood sprung out of micro-cuts all over the back of his hands and sleeves.
"Oh my God, why did you do that?" He sat up with his back against the door. A searing pain spread all over his skin like he'd been doused in a bucketful of hydrogen peroxide.
"See?" she said.
"See what?" This was the end. He'd lost. He couldn't win her over. "That you're a sadistic sonofabitch!" He shivered in pain.
The Empress got a faraway look. "How did it taste? Snowflake brushed with blood?" She tilted her head to the right and stared up at the cobwebs. "Don't you find it strange?"
In a flash, she was right in front of him and lifted him up off of his feet like he weighed no more than a down pillow. She flung him against the door and then grasped his cheeks in her two hands. They were so cold they could've been made of dry ice. His cheeks were going numb. She was a full head taller than him. Her hair glistened with snowflakes and small icicles of frost. He stared up into her eyes like black pools of water. He was swimming in them. His feet were frozen to the floor and he couldn't even think.
"I really like it here. At first, I didn't, but then I realized how much better it was than my old world, even though it was the same. You'll like it here just as much, in time." She leaned in close to his ear and whispered to him, "You see, your body is dead and now you're like us."
A gust blew in from the window and her form shimmered. Then, her entire body disappeared leaving only a pale white face, obsidian eyes, and lush hair spiraling out like tentacles of dark energy. "... and in time, you could become exactly like us—lesser daemons."
Her face and hair faded away like fog under a summer sun.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)