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Chie floated in her own mind, devoid of thought, weightless in the dark as the pain subsided to the throbbing of her heart. The aroma of sandalwood incense drifted throughout the space around her.
"Rose Crow," a female voice said. "Won't you ever learn to come when you're called?"
"Who's that?" Chie could only whisper.
"I am your teacher, Yuri Sensei."
One of the hackers! The one who swatted Ken! Calm down, Chie, don't blow up. Don't make the same mistake you did with their hatchet woman. You've got to play their game. You're in their world now. And the name of the game is to find Ken. "You trained Ken, didn't you? Is your job to train anyone who's new?"
"Yuri Sensei, I have her character sheet out now? Should I start filling it out?" the soprano voice of another woman said.
"Ai-chan, I've already started, come over and sit with me."
A rustling of silk. Sticky footsteps of tender bare soles on polished wood flooring. Ripples of incense smoke like skipping stones across a calm lake at sunrise.
"But I'm all ready," Ai-chan said with a catch in her voice, "and you promised."
"Ai-chan, please, I promised only if you were ready. Next time. For now, watch me, okay?"
"I'm more than ready! It's not like I'm an un-matured."
"Have you memorized her profile?" Yuri said.
"Not exactly, but... enough."
"Excuse me," Chie said, "but are you talking about me? What profile?"
"Indeed," Yuri said. "Instead of applying yourself to the prioritized tasks, you were watching the live feeds, weren't you?"
"Well..." Ai-chan said, "I have to do something to relieve the boredom. Being the one and only greeter is so astoundingly mind-numbing. You probably forgot what it's like. And there's only so many ways to tweak a system message—my other astoundingly important responsibility."
"Yuri," Chie said, "are you going to train me too? I'd really appreciate knowing about this game world and where I could find Ken."
"See, my student, our newest player reflects your own impatience. We don't have time for your issue right now."
"But it's been over two centuries—two interminable centuries of practicing—since I was matriculated as a matured," Ai-chan said.
"We've all been practicing for this momentous opportunity and each step must be executed perfectly. Would you want the Empress to be disappointed in us, Ai-chan?"
"No, of course not."
"Then, please observe."
"Yes, Yuri Sensei, I submit my quantum mind to your magnanimous tutelage." Swirling tendrils of smoke drifted in the darkness. The fading fragrance of sandalwood.
The sound of one hand clapping resounded in Chie's mind. In a sudden rush of static, like ocean waves washing up the sandy beach, the dark respired, exhaling gray points of dusk.
"Brace yourself, Rose Crow, you're materializing," Yuri said.
Her body dropped like she'd been thrown out of a plane. She screamed. Screamed until her throat was raw. Terror. Hyperventilating. She slowed her breathing. She hadn't hit the ground yet. She was still alive. Plummeting through gray clouds, the cold and humid mist dampened her hair. The mist began to thin and then she popped into clear air. Staring up at a ceiling a gray clouds stretching out into infinity all around her, she had no sense of how far she'd fallen. But the rush of air was accelerating. When was she going to hit the ground? Dare she turn herself to face down? Although her breathing was regular, she still felt light-headed. How high up was she? It's only a game, but I'd already felt the horrible pain of my wings bursting out of my back, both in-game and in the real. I'm stuck like Ken. From now on, I need to accept whatever happens as reality. No sense in trying to rationally figure things out and attempt to relate them to the rules of a world that clearly no longer apply. When I couldn't tell if the kappa was an NPC or a player, I took the pragmatic approach. She jerked and twisted her body around. Below her was complete and utter darkness. What if she kept falling forever? Icicles formed in her hair. Shivering, she rubbed her numb fingertips through her gloves. She'd freeze to death.
Then she saw it, barely. A speck of white dust, a mote. A mountain peak. She turned to face towards it, spread out her arms and legs, and tried to swim towards it. Am I even moving? It's hopeless.
"Extend your wings," from faraway, a woman yelled over the roaring of the rushing air.
Chie looked around her. "Yuri?"
"Your wings," Yuri said.
"But my back, it's not healed yet."
"Through her miko, the Empress works in the most wondrous ways."
That was a stupid thing to say. I'm going to die if I don't try something. "Equip wings," Chie said. Ripping through the back of her trenchcoat, black wings framed in razor-sharp bleached bones snapped out like switchblades. There was no pain or blood. Tensing her back and shoulder muscles, her body whipped around and up. Gliding towards the mountain peak, Chie searched all around her, but there was no sign of Yuri. "Yuri? I need to ask you where Ken is?"
"You're in the northern arm of the Great Abyss," Yuri said, her voice echoing in Chie's head.
"You trained Ken when he first logged in, didn't you?"
Yuri Sensei sighed. "We don't have an unlimited amount of time to chit-chat."
"Is this where Ken was?"
"No, he was spawned in the mountains of Tlön outside the city of Ishigumi."
"Why didn't you log me in there?"
"Your quest is to collect all of the shards of the Mirror of Truth and return it to the Empress in her fortress."
"How do I get to Ken?"
"After the Mirror of Truth is returned to the Empress and she restores it, then it can be used to return you to the real world." Yuri's voice sounded farther away.
"How do I get to the city of Ishigumi?"
"You can team up with as many people as you want. In fact, you could include all one-hundred alpha PCs, if you so desired."
"Won't you at least tell me the general direction of Tlön?"
Chie's eyeballs were tugged to the right.
"East," Yuri said.
Chie could barely hear her. "Don't go! How am I supposed to get there?"
"Remember, only twenty-four days to complete the quest." Yuri's voice faded away.
There was no answer.
Chie continued to glide towards the mountain peak. Dim light penetrated through the interminable ceiling of gray clouds. Below, stretched a blackness. It was as though she was trapped in a dank abandoned well, its top nailed shut with plywood slats.
After spreading her wings out to the position providing the most efficient lift, she turned her attention to the practical. "Attributes." Many times, the basic commands were still the same as in the Three Kingdoms, but with a stricter syntax and no error messages. No different from real life, where often the only corrective feedback was a quick smack upside the head, and, mostly, no permanent brain damage ensued.
Only fifty-one? It should be at least two hundred. "Basic stats."
|Name||Rose Crow||Wakizashi||Leather Armor|
|Sex||Female||Smoke Bombs (2)||Standard Equipment & Rations|
|Class||Shinobi||Glow Sticks (5)|
"Blood Tengu Wings." Nothing was displayed. "Wings."
Speed (Max) = 50kph
Speed (Endurance) = 28kph
Range = 32 hrs
CHI Cost = 1/5 min
STA Cost = 1/30 min
They're plain wings—not the Blood Tengu Wings. No kidding, who's going to get legendary wings at level zero?
Chi was the gating factor because it was five times more expensive than stamina. At a rate of five minutes per point of chi, she had four and a quarter hours to make it to the mountain. If she were lucky, she'd see land before she reached the mountain. However, she had no point of triangulation nor scale to figure out how far away she actually was. She couldn't go all out; she had to pace herself at the endurance speed of twenty-eight kilometers per hour, which would mean she could cover a total of one-hundred and nineteen kilometers.
She clenched her eyes shut and gasped. A shooting pain lanced through her head behind her eyes. She massaged her temples. She only had one more task to complete, then she could replenish her physical energy and switch her brain to auto-mode. Exhausted, tired, and terribly cold, she said, "Time." Nothing was displayed. She made several attempts, including 'clock'. "System time," she finally said.
System Time: 0Ɛ:09:4Ɛ:00 1210-09-17
Let's see, so that's hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds. The servers must be in a different time zone, but boy that date sure is messed up. All right, that's three oh-nine AM. I'll do a checkpoint in two hours. With a little more fumbling around she was able to set an alarm for five oh-nine AM.
She pushed her hands in their gloves deeper into her trenchcoat pockets and tied the hood as tight as she could around her head. Although the trenchcoat wrapped her legs like a sheath of down and her boots looked insulated, her shins and feet were freezing and her wings even colder. She kept stretching and shaking all of her limbs. Nevertheless, the standard equipment, including the internal frame hiking backpack, wasn't bad. She couldn't imagine being thrown into this harsh world with anything less than the standard equipment and rations. She reached into the small rations pouch inside her trenchcoat. She bit off a hunk of a rolled-up chapati stuffed with some kind of flour-based paste sweetened with dried fruit, chewed, and washed it down with a mouthful of water. More substantial than the energy gels she used to wolf down on her endurance rides. The gel hadn't given her that satiated full feeling. She kept stuffing her mouth and guzzling water. She reached into the small pouch again, searched around with her hand. Oh damn, they're all gone. Then she tipped the mouth of the metal canteen over her lips and poured the last few drops of water down her parched throat.
She settled into a steady rhythm like when she used to ride her bicycle on Highway One for an entire afternoon. Breathing in the cold, fresh ocean breeze, her legs pumped up and down in an almost autonomous action. In the same way, she almost didn't have to think about moving her wings. She was so tired. It wouldn't hurt to close her eyes for a few minutes.
Chie's sticky eyelids peeled open. The mountain loomed ahead of her. Its snow-capped peak and crags towered at least a kilomoeter above her. Gray and glacial rocks covered its slopes. She still couldn't see the foot of the mountain, only an inky black. More freezing landscape, but at least I'll be able to rest. It was then she noticed she'd dropped in altitude. Sheets of ice coated the front of her wings. If I don't get rid of that ice, I'm going to start dropping like a rock and I'm so close!
She had no idea how long she'd been dozing and checked the system time again.
System Time: 13:46:39:09 1210-09-17
Oh my God, the alarm didn't go off! But that's more than ten hours. All of my chi should've been exhausted hours ago.
Chi = 3
Only three left! That means I've been flying for four hours and I only have fifteen minutes left! How could the system clock be so off?
She flapped her wings harder, but the ice restricted her movement and with its additional weight, she fell below the base of the mountain. She groaned as her muscles began to cramp. She slowed down and glided for a minute. Staring up at the peak from below, it was black, like it was empty. There was nothing underneath the peak. It was an island, an island floating in the sky, but why was she falling? No matter how hard she beat her wings, her fall kept accelerating. If only the ice would melt.
Heat. The smoke bombs! She removed her backpack and pulled out a smoke bomb. She tied a rope and grappling hook to it. She had to get it as close to the joint as possible. After lighting the fuse, she flung it on top of her right wing. It bounced off the ridge of ice on the main bone in front. She reeled the smoke bomb back in and while she was readying to throw it again smoke started billowing out of it. She coughed and her eyes watered. She stared through an opening in the smoke then tossed it underhanded. This time, the hook landed where the minor bone extended from the main joint and she set it tight. After waiting a few minutes, she flexed her wing joint to fold it in, but it didn't budge. She jerked the joint again as hard as she could. Crack! She jerked it again and the ice shattered, sending huge chunks flying off. She kept folding and unfolding it until all the ice had fallen off. Then she did the same for the left wing. Now, free of the ice, she felt almost weightless.
She only had five minutes left and sprinted for it. Putting all her power into it, she lunged upwards, towards the rocky underbelly of the island. Both wings cramped up, but she forced her mind to focus like in the championship. Nothing can stop me. She visualized Ken and Hayden clinging onto the jagged rocks and stalactites. Only I can save them. I have to save them. The freezing air rushed past her ears and stabbed her throat and lungs like thousands of needles. Her whole body was numb. She visualized reaching her hand out to them and they reaching out their hands to her.
Her wings stopped beating at the exact moment her hand latched onto Ken's. I made it. His hand dissolved into dust. The stalactite in her hand broke and crumbled. As she tumbled backwards, she grabbed another stalactite with her other hand and swung to a stalactite twice the width of her body. Gasping for air, she spied a ledge ten feet above her. She waited until she caught her breath, untied the grappling hooks from the depleted smoke bombs, and threw one of them up to the ledge. The fourth throw finally caught hold and she ascended to the ledge. Crawling away from the edge and then collapsing onto the hard rock, she pulled her legs up to her chest, wrapped her arms around her knees, and folded her wings around her entire body. Out of the path of the freezing wind, her shivering body warmed.
Having survived but with scant idea about where she was, she stood up and winced when the top of her head hit the low ceiling. It was a small cave. Appraising the area, she saw two rocks with frayed ropes tied around them. People had used this ledge before. She walked to the edge and examined the rock face to her right and left. The freezing wind ripped her hood off and whipped her bangs into her eyes. Ice, ice and more ice. Gray and white rock streaked with black: granite. She saw at least five crevices on each side similar to hers. It wasn't blind luck that had brought her here. Is this a bird colony? She shivered, envisioning hundreds of Blood Tengu bosses plucking the eyes out of hapless adventurers. Their diamond-tipped beaks coated with red, wet blood.
- 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)