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大有
Possession in Great Measure

"You heard about Rose Crow, right?" the tanuki mage guard said to the kitsune shinobi guard. They were both on duty inside a gatehouse at the drawbridge to a fortress.

"Is that a rare artifact?" the shinobi said. As soon as he sat down at the table, he started shaking his leg.

"Are you a stupid noob? She's a legendary," the mage said and sidled over to the potbelly stove to warm his backside.

"Oh right, brain fart," the shinobi said.

The mage grabbed two hand-sized balls tied up in brown paper from the side pocket of his backback and unwrapped one. He took a big bite of a piece of maki sushi with a huge hunk of bloody fish flesh in its center.

+1 hit points
+25 chi
Duration: 24 hrs
Side effect: Foul Breath

"Want one?" the mage mumbled with this mouth full and started to hand the shinobi the other.

Staring at the raw red fish flesh, the shinobi grimaced and waved it away. "Why're you wasting the temp boost on the usual guard duty grind. Kill a few rats, easy XP, hey, might even get to confiscate contraband from some smugglers."

"Tastes good." A slender piece of flesh slipped out of the mage's mouth and hung over his lower lip like a live flipper.

The shinobi frowned. "Why anyone would pay extra for a websuit flap extension in the mouth is beyond me. It's only a game—"

"Only a—" The mage almost choked on a bite of his sushi.

"—I mean, why not concentrate on winning the quest, for Chrissakes?"

The mage guzzled down cold o-cha to wash down the clump of rice and nori stuck in his throat. "Full immersion," he croaked. "Listen up, asshole, what business is it of yours what I do and anyways I know a bunch more shit about gaming than you do, noob. I was ranked in the top ten in the Three—"

The shinobi laughed. "Hey, sorry, man, you're right." He bobbed his head up and down like a marionette. "I'm just a stupid noob."

"Anyways," the mage said. "She's back—and she's in the White Imperium. The Flaming Fox Brigade's going to fucking shit their pants."

The shinobi's eyes glazed over and stared back at the mage.

"You really are a noob, aren't you? I thought they only let experienced players into the alpha."

"Lucky, I guess. But from the moment I logged in here, I could tell you were a vet. You have that aura about you. In fact, you could almost be a legendary, yourself, right? I mean, look at the detailed moon power inscriptions on that magically enhanced trenchcoat." He stuck his hand out palm up and made a wide appraising sweep. "It must've cost at least a thousand standards, right?" He rubbed the stubble on his chin. "And check out your staff. No less than a level eighty-nine item, right?"

The mage stuck out his chin. "Ha! A level ninety lightning bolt staff, I'll have you know."

"Wow," the shinobi said. "Do you think... maybe, I could friend you?"

"Me? Friend a noob?" The mage narrowed his eyes and appraised the shinobi. "Well, sure, we all need friends." The mage stuck out his hand and the shinobi shook it. Their public keys and basic account information automatically transferred to one another.

"Hanzo," the mage laughed. "You really are a noob. I don't think I've seen a level zero in... I don't know, I can't even remember."

Hanzo eyes opened wide. "You can see my level?"

"Oh my fucking God, you didn't know? Whenever you friend someone, you can see each other's basic stats. Like handle, species, sex, class, and—" the mage doubled over in laughter "—level." He wiped the tears from his eyes and then grabbed Hanzo's hand and manhandled him in close to his body. "My handle says 'Digory', but I just go by 'Dig'." He smiled and then burped. Red and gray fumes emanated from his mouth.

Hanzo took an involuntary step back.

Foul breath. Character stunned. Minor effect. Recovery in 500 milliseconds.

Dig waved his hand in front of his mouth. "Sorry, Han—you don't mind if I shorten it, right? Everybody does." Dig didn't even wait for Han to respond. "I forgot about the power-up sushi's area of effect."

"So... Dig." Hanzo spread both of his hands out flat on the table. "Did you hear where she is?"

"Who?" Hanzo said as he pulled another power-up sushi from the same side pocket on his backpack.

"Rose Crow, it's kind of... important." Hanzo clenched and unclenched his hands.

"What? You wanna bone her or something?" Dig leered.

"She's married," Hanzo said, looking down at his hands. "But I was thinking of, you know, joining her party."

"A noob? Joining the famed Rose Crow team?" Dig strutted around the room. "The vanquisher of not only the final boss in the Red district"—he flourished his hand in a wide arc—"that was, by the way, the Blood Tengu boss, if you didn't happen to know." Dig continued his promenade around the guardroom. "Not only the vanquisher of the Blood Tengu but also the first clan to establish their district stronghold—in the Red district, that is—and which went on to become the capital of one of the three imperial provinces in the Three Kingdoms?" Having completed his circuitous route, he halted in front of Hanzo. "That Rose Crow, correct?"

Hanzo nodded.

"Good luck," Dig said and then burst out in loud laughter.

Suddenly, he stopped. "Did you get it?"

"Get what?" Hanzo said.

"C'mon man, at least get on the right newsfeed." Dig sat down in a chair next to Hanzo and projected a public window in front of them. "Check it out, it's the only live newsfeed you'll ever need: Dub-A Papparazi."

"Hey, Playerz!" a deep male voice said. Filling the screen: huge, bare bronze pecs pumped up, flexed, sweat dripping down and caressing rippled abs. An agonizingly slow pan up. Tanned, chiseled chin, dark sunglasses, sculpted wavy jet black hair. "Level up with Dub-A and get your breaking news and cheats, so your ass stays intact on your next dungeon dive."

In the background: blue sky, palm trees, white beach, light blue white-capped waves. Taiko drums beating a fast deep rhythm.

"Aloha, Bruddas and Sistas, A-O-K and A-K-O, here. Today, we're bringing you breaking news on the comeback of Rose Crow."

"Our very own, A-K-O, who is always hot!—with incisive commentary—is live at the Crow Fortress in the Three Kingdoms Red district."

Cut to a woman, honey brown eyes chiseled from her face, facets of an unblemished topaz. From a high collar, over her firm shoulders, and down to her ankles, a white dress hugged her body like a boa constrictor. Her biceps bare and bulging.

Hanzo jumped up out of his chair. "No way, that's Annie, the K.O. Queen."

"You know women's MMA?" Dig pointed his thumb at his chest. "Me too."

"How about Hiroko Tsugimoto? She's tops in my book," Hanzo said.

"Fuck yeah," Dig said.

They fist-bumped. An ad for preorders of the GA version of the websuit played.

"Fucking A, Annie Ko is such a hot dish, isn't she?" Hanzo said and grabbed his crotch. "Now getting a taste of her would be worth getting a mouth flap extension, wouldn't it?" Dig elbowed Hanzo.

"Maybe they'll come out with a form-fitting underwear extension," Dig said. Hanzo and Dig both guffawed and then turned back to the newsfeed.

The ad faded out.

"Enough of this crass talk," he blurted out. Sighing, he rested his chin in his hand. "She'll be perfect as digitized art."

"What'd you say?" Hanzo said.

Annie faded in.

Dig shushed Hanzo. "Listen to her mellifluous voice."

With a hand on her hip, Annie smiled and she began to speak. Her voice was a syncopated jazz melody emanating from her luscious pink lips. "Well, Alex, I'm outside Crow Castle and, sure enough, the lights are on, but nobody's home, nary a sign of Rose Crow or Yamabushi Rock."

"That isn't all you can tell us, right?"

"Funny you should ask," Annie said as she sauntered across the bridge spanning the deep but empty moat. "Like polite guests, we knocked and, lo and behold, the door was unlocked." The massive steel-alloy gates creaked open a sliver.

"But we haven't been invited," Alex said in the picture-in-picture window.

"What? And not take advantage of their legendary hospitality?" she said and grunted as she pushed the gates wider. "And don't worry, I disabled all of the traps before we came online." She peeked in. "Hello, anyone home?"

"Everyone's seen the interior of the famed Crow Castle, so let's skip the tour and teleport to their armory."

In a flash, they were deep in the bowels of the castle. Numerous torches burned bright, casting wavering shadows on the walls. Annie descended to the main floor of the armory. Her heels clicking on the stone steps echoed in the gloomy silence.

"Oh, what do we have here?" Annie said with a flourish of her bare arms. "An empty space where Rose Crow's infamous Blood Tengu wings should be hanging."

"And here." Annie stepped over to the alcove next to it. "Bare as well. No Negative Shield Naginata forged by the legendary mage Kato in the fires of the Naraka of Pestilence."

"That confirms it then," Alex said. "No one leaves behind their best equipment on an important new adventure in a—"

"New world," Annie said. "Especially one as mysterious as—"

"The White Imperium," they intoned together.

A thin smile spread across Dig's face, his eyelids hooded like a snake's. "It's exactly as she said," he whispered to himself.

Hanzo glanced sidewise at Dig.

The screen flipped back to Alex. "Remember! Tell your peeps you heard it first on Dub-A and follow us at [A-O-K] and [A-K-O] on Disjoint." He raised his hand and stuck out his thumb and pinky. "Hang loose and aloha."

"Wait, look at this," Annie said.

The screen flickered and then zoomed in on the floor of the empty alcove of the Negative Shield Naginata. Black, white, and green splotches of paint wavered on the stone tiles that made up the armory floor. Black tendrils like maggots wiggled on its surface.

"What the fuck is that?" Hanzo said, gripping the arms of his chair and rising halfway out. "Is it hair? Long black hair?" he said to himself.

"Annie, get back, get back, right now," Alex said.

"But there are words here." Annie leaned over closer to the writhing surface. "It says: 'The Great Abyss'."

The black mass bubbled up like a living vat of worms and, as though with conscious intent, reached out to Annie,

"It's going to boil over," Alex said.

"And over here it says: Tlön," Annie said, pointing, her finger mere inches from the simmering surface.

Then it happened. Black tendrils burst out and wrapped themselves around her arm and yanked. She fell down into the black muck, coating her white dress with globs of oil. Then it sucked her into the center of the black and green pool and down, disappearing into its gullet.

"Wow, that was some amazing shit." Alex said, staring at the black cesspool. "How did she do that? She didn't even tell me she was going to pull a stunt like that. This is going to be great for ratings." He turned and stared directly into the camera. "Let's check out Annie's apartment. She should have finished her logout sequence and be ready for guests. Sometimes it takes a minute or two for her to get reoriented in IRL. But—" he got up close to the camera and put one hand to the side of his mouth "—just between you all and me, the real reason is Annie likes diving in the buff." He made googly eyes and winked. "But let's be polite and knock first." Alex fiddled off-camera. After a minute, he said, "Hmm... she's not answering. Well, a long time ago, she gave me her admin password just in case of an emergency and I needed to get files or something."

The camera switched to the apartment interior looking in from the entry way. A loveseat had been jammed up against the kitchen table. "We have a surprise in store for you too," Alex said.

The camera panned to the living room. Ensconced on its steel alloy ring, a geodesic sphere filled the room from top to bottom. "That's it, boys and girls, the CVRG sphere and our very own A-O-K was chosen for the alpha. Websuit 0.ꜫ can interface with Three Kingdoms, so she wanted to try it out on our live stream before taking the real plunge."

The camera scanned the room.

"She's probably just hiding, waiting to pounce on us unawares."

"Hey, there's someone in the sphere, on the floor," Hanzo said, pointing his finger. "No, it can't be."

"Is that Annie?" Alex said and he switched to the sphere's interior camera. A motionless figure was lying on the ground in a websuit with their helmet still on. The camera zoomed in on the head. A jagged line of blood ran down from the neck just under the bottom of the helmet.

"Annie!" Alex said, "911—" The screen went dark.

Dig clapped his hands. "Damn, that was some show."

Hanzo buried his head into his hands. "Not again," Hanzo said.

"Get a hold of yourself, Han, that wasn't for real."

"Not for real? I saw it happen before," Hanzo said into his hands. "Websuit's purposely injecting the alpha players with a drug to enhance their addiction to the game. And then, somehow, they go into a coma and get stuck in the game."

Dig snorted. "Man, are you going to believe every little rumor you hear on the forums?"

"My friends are in there. Rose Crow and Yamabushi Rock. And I'm going to get them back out," Hanzo said and jerked himself out of his chair.

"Oh, they're friends of yours? Well, fucking A! I used to be on her team, back in the day. That's how I know all about the history of their clan. I'm privy to many more"—Dig cleared his throat—"intimate details, but it wouldn't be proper to simply blurt it out to someone I just met." He patted Hanzo's shoulder. "Even though I'm not sure if I really believe you about them being stuck in-game, I'm still going to help you find them if they are indeed in here," Dig said, slipping a ring on and off his finger.

Suddenly, Dig grabbed Hanzo in a bear hug.

Hanzo squirmed in Dig's embrace and finally extricated himself. "You don't have to, but if you really want to, I could definitely use the help of veteran such as yourself."

"I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I didn't help my new friend"—Dig cracked his knuckles as a thin smile spread across his face—"Masaru Hashimoto."

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A note from Alexs

2019-04-03: Corrected hexagram.


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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