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The Arousing (Shock, Thunder)

As the men carried Ken in a suffocating canvas bag, he twisted this way and that. But it was no use; the men held him fast. The gag muffled his screams for help.

Before being taken into the hidden passageways of the mansion, he'd counted seven of them. Four of them we're carrying him, two of them single file in front and one as rearguard, probably. He hadn't actually seen them, but that made the most sense.

After about thirteen minutes of walking, he was thrown onto some wooden slats. He rocked a little. A cart. Some light filtered through the fabric of the bag. Oh good, we're going somewhere else. At least they haven't killed me here and now. I have a chance at escaping. Didn't want to dirty up their floors and leave any evidence. I guess Mr. Johnson—oh excuse me, Calvin—is quite the fastidious one. I'll remember that when I make it back and kill you, you bastard. You no good lackey! "I'm not going to die, do you hear me! I'm never going to die!" He kicked and pummeled the canvas bag. If my body is, in fact, already dead, then I've only got this one life in the simulacrum—oh God, it must be the lack of oxygen, but my head's about to explode—thus, this simulacrum isn't merely any simulacrum but the absolute and singular true simulacrum—the Singularity. And I'm part of it, I'm a component in the Singularity. I've got to deliver this epiphany to the outside world.

"Stand down!" a female voice yelled. It sounded familiar.

The clashing of swords and the screams and yelling of men and women lasted barely a minute.

The top of the bag opened, light streamed in through the opening, and he blinked. Two brown eyes peered in. A ruby bindi. "Betsy?" he mumbled through the gag.

Betsy and another person pulled Ken out of the bag, untied him, and removed his gag.

"Betsy, thanks for saving me!" Ken coughed and gasped for air.

"Hey, that's Slicer Sarge, to you, noob," a young man with a loose ponytail and an impish grin said.

"Thanks, Slicer Sarge," Ken said. He started coughing again and then sat up on the edge of a wagon bed. They were in a stable. An animal shuffled about in an adjacent room.

Betsy wore beige hakama and a loose long-sleeve t-shirt instead of a blouse with lace and a long skirt. She still wore the same knee-high boots. Her hair was tied up in a tight bun instead of a pony tail.

Without responding or even a nod of her head, Betsy stretched out her hand to the young man. "Water."

He unlooped a flask from his shoulder and handed it to her and then she handed it to Ken. He gulped down the cold water.

"Let's move," Betsy said, tossed a grey cloak over her shoulders.

The young man did the same and then tossed a matching cloak over to Ken.

Both of them about-faced and started walking out of the barn.

Ken stepped over a body. Its hand was stuck to its neck in what had been a vain effort to staunch the bleeding. Critical hit. Ken walked past the six others gagged and tied up against the walls of the barn. To think that minutes before, they had been leading him to his execution.

The young man turned his head around to look back at Ken. "You heard the Sarge, c'mon, get a move on."

Right outside the barn doors, were eight others, who joined up with the three of them as they charged across the meadow towards the edge of the woods. Three others were waiting for them with mounts. They weren't horses. "Hey, noob, you can ride with me." the young man said as he jumped up on one of them.

Ken clambered up the side. He slipped and slid on its slick scales.

The young man grabbed his arm and pulled him up. "Get your foot into that." He pointed.

Ken stuck his foot into a stirrup and hoisted the other side of his body up and over the back of the beast. He settled into the saddle and held onto the pommel with both hands. He stared back at the dark mansion, its windows, empty eye sockets. They all bundled up in trenchcoats and started off. To where, he didn't care. They traveled at an easy gait in single file along a narrow trail. The rhythm of the ride and the shady cover of the canopy of the deciduous trees calmed him. The thick feet of the animals kicked up dust and decomposing leaves and he inhaled their aroma. The animals smelled like wet leather.

It had been a long time since he'd taken the family camping. He wiped the tears from his eyes.

No one talked.

"Hey, my name's Ken. What's yours?" Ken whispered.

"Ray," he said. "Now no talking until we get to the camp." He pulled the trenchcoat's hood over his twitching triangular ears.

Ken settled into his saddle. They were some kind of an NPC band and Betsy was their leader. That's right, their in-game function was to rescue adventurers like himself and Betsy must be an AI NPC, a legendary warrior, exactly as he'd suspected. He watched Ray's back sway back and forth. Ray too. He must be an AI NPC. After about an hour, they crested a low ridge and descended into a narrow valley near a stream. Fifteen tents were arrayed in two neat rows up slope from the shallow stream. They passed a couple of sentries, one had a hairy face—it was so dense it was almost fur-like—and a slight snout like Calvin. Then they dismounted in front of the tents within a clearing.

He walked up to Betsy. "Excuse me, but do you think we could talk about the quest?"

She raised her eyebrows. "Now? I don't know about you, but after that workout, I'm starving."

"I'm not—" His stomach growled.

She walked to the front of the line and he got in behind her. In spite of his stomach growling, he still didn't feel hungry. It was because the websuit didn't extend to the nerves in his stomach.

"Hey, buddy, don't say 'I'm with her' 'cuz that don't cut it 'round here," a guy with a beard and only one ear said and he stuck his thumb out, pointing to the back of the line.

Ken walked to the back of the already long line. The guy in front of him was in the group that had saved him.

Ken tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, I don't know how to express my gratitude, but—"

"Don't mention it," the guy said and he turned back to face the front of the line.

Why doesn't anyone want to talk to me? NPCs are supposed to be helpful. I'll have to do my own research. The cook was the same race as the sentry. "Help race," he whispered. Nothing. "Help species." Four species came up: Kitsune, Tanuki, Human, Tengu. Right, they're tanuki, dog raccoon people. "Help tanuki."

Information displayed:

Tanuki-ningen
Alignment: Unaligned
Traders. No large empire because it was destroyed by an alliance between the Kitsune and Tengu.
Class Effects
Mage+
Shapeshifting+
Warrior-
Ninja-

No wonder Calvin was a merchant.

On his way over to talk to Betsy, Ken wondered if the Analyze command still worked. "Analyze dish," he said.

Wild boar yakitori (Chef's Special of the Day), satoimo taro curry, millet gruel.

Sergeant Parikh's table was already full. He looked around for Ray, but didn't see him. The cook and some others were laughing it up, so he jaunted over to them and gave them his biggest smile.

The cook flourished his yakitori stick in the air and then stabbed it straight at Ken's grinning mouth. "And then Sarge says, 'Fleecing the common folk? Now that's not honoring The Empress!', and lickety split she trussed up that sorry-ass excuse of an MP upside down like a wild turkey plucked clean."

"That'll teach 'em!"

"Ha! Shoulda heard him cuss up a storm. His face was beet red from all of the blood rushing down to it."

"Hope his balls froze off!" said one.

Everyone guffawed.

"Hi!" Ken said.

The laughing stopped. Unsmiling, they all turned to stare at him.

"Mind if I join you?"

Then, as though synchronized, they turned their eyes away from him.

"Well, did they?" the woman next to the cook said and elbowed him.

The cook scrunched up his face at her.

"His balls." She reached down and grabbed her crotch. "Did they freeze?"

"Before or after," the cook said, "his teeny weenie fell off?"

Everyone roared.

Ken sat his bum down at an empty table.

"What's up?" Ray said as he slid onto the bench on the other side of the table.

"Hey, Ray!" Ken's face lit up. "So..." Ken was nervous because Ray might give him the silent treatment too. "Why doesn't anyone want to talk to me?"

Ray stuck a spoonful of curry into his mouth and chewed. "You're a noob."

"But NPCs like you are supposed to help noobs."

"I shouldn't be telling you this," Ray mumbled as he shoved another spoonful of curry into his mouth that never stopped chewing. "But I'm one of the few NPCs here."

Ken's metal fork clattered onto the table. "But aren't you all in an NPC party that's supposed to rescue adventurers?"

"Geez, didn't you hear what I said." Ray rolled his eyes. "This is an adventurers party, you know the kind that go on quests? They don't make it a habit of picking up every little stray."

Any one of them could be a PKer. "Oh shit, everyone knows I'm a noob, a player. How many are there? Who's a player?"

"I can't reveal that. You need to wait until they reveal themselves."

Worse yet, they might believe he's a PKer. He had to clear this misunderstanding up before it was too late. Ken shoveled the rest of the curry and gruel into his mouth, swallowed pieces of yakitori whole, and quaffed down his cup of water in one swig. After scrambling up on the table, he thrust his arms up in the air and shouted, "I'm not a PKer! Please believe me!"

Some of them sitting at Betsy's table raised their heads to glance at him and then went back to scarfing down their curry and gruel like it was their last meal. Without the slightest interruption, Betsy scooped up steaming forkfuls like a well-maintained waterwheel. Nobody at the cook's table even batted an eye as they continued their bawdy banter; their raucous laughter grated on Ken now more than ever.

Deflated, he slumped back down on the bench. Then, he slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. He had to go to the top. Betsy. Even though she was an NPC, they had to trust her as their leader. Besides, she wasn't your run-of-the-mill NPC; she was an AI NPC and a legendary heroic character at that. She was his only hope, in more ways than one.

He rushed over to Betsy's table. "Excuse me, but we have to talk."

"Right now?" Betsy looked up at him and scowled.

He nodded.

"Well, I guess I'm done." She stood up and motioned with her arm in an arc over her shoulder. "Follow me."

Ray jogged to a tent in the middle of the first row and went inside.

She walked over to to the water jugs, poured water into her hands, splashed it all over her face, and then dried it with the bottom of her loose jerkin.

They walked into the tent, but Ray wasn't inside anymore. A map was laid out on a large waist-high table with metal tube legs in the center of the room. A jagged black scar comprised most of the map. Various shades of brown, green and white spots marred the blackness and ivory arrows curved and curled in complex patterns. They looked like islands and ocean currents. She motioned to a fold-out canvas chair on one side of a low square folding coffee table positioned in the back of the tent.

After sitting down on the other side, Betsy poured an orange tea from a white porcelain teapot decorated with red hibiscus blossoms and blue irises into two matching teacups.

"Sergeant Slicer, I'm not—"

She held up her hand and then using a small pair of tongs, she reached into another matching bowl. "Sugar?"

"Oh, no thanks." Ken didn't like his tea sweet.

"Cream?" She lifted up a delicate cup with a spout and cover.

"Yes, please."

As she poured, her face brightened.

He waited until she served herself and picked up her teacup.

He picked up his teacup by its tiny looped handle through which he couldn't even slip his pinky.

He had urgent business. His life could be in danger. But nobody would PK him in the leader's presence or even in broad daylight. They'd wait until he was asleep or alone. He calmed down. If this was Betsy's ritual, he surely didn't want to offend her. After all, she'd rescued him from certain death. It was pleasant to be able to sit in silence without having to feel like he had to talk. Like meditation. He distracted himself by contemplating on the flavors of the tea. "Analyze tea," he subvocalized to himself.

Orange pekoe.

He liked its mild yet distinctive flavor. Then again, he couldn't really taste it. He was only going on memory. The Indian restaurant a few blocks away from his home served chai but it was too sweet. He liked Red Label. Most people would say it was cheap—and it was—but he still found it refreshing.

While she sipped her tea, she watched him. She didn't stare, but after each sip she would look at him, sometimes at his eyes, sometimes at his hands, and sometimes at his shoulders.

He was almost down to the bottom. He thought she must be about finished too.

She set her teacup down on its saucer and rose from her chair.

Wait, we didn't even get to talk. He set his teacup down too and was just about to blurt out and tell her he wasn't a PKer and to tell all of the other players too. She turned around and walked to a chest in the corner of the room. She took out a brushed steel rectangular box. She sat back down, placed it in the middle of the table and pried off the cover. Inside were three rows of identical cookies.

"Almost forgot the biscuits." She held out her hand, palm up. "Help yourself. Sorry, I don't have much of a selection. This is the last tin from the raid."

He thanked her and reached for one.

"Not that you'll be able to taste them, but they do look quite attractive, don't they?"

He stopped before taking a biscuit. "You know I can't taste things?"

She blinked her eyes.

"How much do AI NPCs know about players? Are they aware they're in a game?" he said.

She creased her brow and almost went cross-eyed. "AI NPC?"

"I mean this is my first time meeting one. I didn't really know what to expect."

"Me?" Pointing at herself, she laughed. "Amazing! My servant girl act really paid off."

"Obviously, it did. I would've never suspected you were a legendary NPC heroine."

"No, no, you're not getting it." She placed her hand over his. He flinched but didn't take his hand away. "I'm a player too."

He jerked his hand back and his brain started to spin, his thoughts racing along the surface of a mobius strip. Oh God, is she going to PK me, right here and now? Or is the AI NPC playing a joke on me? But why? Nothing's making sense.

"Don't worry, I'm not a PKer, nor is anyone in this party."

Slackjawed, he stared at her. He was on a train of thought and he couldn't get off.

"Why the hell would I have rescued you, only to PK you now?"

True. But why would an AI NPC lie and say they were a player? Maybe she really is a player? She could've even PK'd me on the way to Calvin's mansion. Yet, all along that road, she'd tried to hide her knowledge of the quest. I have to say that it was very clever to use the flirtatious servant girl to test me. Could even the best AI create an NPC as complex as Betsy? Had I been so enamored with the concept of 'AI so powerful the NPCs could pass the Turing test' that I'd fallen, hook line and sinker, for all the hype? He stopped the train and got off the mobius strip.

Slumping back in his chair, he let out a huge exhalation.

"What's your real handle?" she said.

"Ken—Kenji Shibuyama."

"Is that your real name?"

"It's my handle too," he said.

"No one uses their real name. I need your handle for the team."

"Okay, Yamabushi Rock."

"Kind of long. On the battle channel, you'll simply be 'Rock'."

My handle's 'Slicer Sarge'. 'Sarge' for the battle channel, if you didn't already pick up on that." She held up the tin of biscuits to him. "Here, take one."

He took a bite of the biscuit, chewed it, and slid the mush all over his mouth and tongue. A smooth buttery texture. Not too sweet. "Hey, I can taste—"

She held up her hand. "Did you ever wonder why I bothered rescuing you, another alpha player on the quest? After all, there'd be one less competitor, no?"

He almost jumped out of his chair. Oh my God, that's right, she's a player, but not any run-of-the-mill player. She didn't reveal herself right away and now she's plying me with food and drink before springing the 'hey, there's this one little thing I was hoping you could help me with' line. "To be honest," he said, "at first I thought you were a band of NPCs whose function was to rescue players, but since it's only been mere minutes since I found out you're a player, I haven't really had time to process it all, but if I had to take a wild guess, I'd say out of the goodness of your heart?" He hoped.

"Bingo." She clicked her tongue and pointed her finger gun at him. "I couldn't let another player—let alone a noob‐get knocked out of the running so soon. Then again, a noob lollygagging around in a safe zone isn't really a threat." She chuckled and poured more tea. "Please." She motioned with her hand, palm up. "But not many are so noble these days, don't you agree?" She took a dainty sip.

He took a sip too.

"There is this one little problem," she said.

"A little problem?" he said.

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A note from Alexs

2019-02-17: Moved the beginning of the next scene to the beginning of the next part, where it belongs.

2019-02-24: Switched chapters 7 and 8 so that the reveal doesn't occur too soon.


About the author

Alexs

  • San Francisco Bay Area
  • Quantum Katana

Bio: 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)
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/asato

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