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Maya leaned against the back of her door for a long minute, struggling with a strange mix of nostalgia and grief. How had she forgotten? What was she doing? She shouldn’t be waiting around here, chasing favor with some trickster deity of insanity. She should be breaking down the doors of World 01, finding Drew.

But he had moved on. She had been gone and he didn't need her anymore. Maybe she'd been the thing holding him back, if he'd accomplished so much in her absence.

No. She couldn't let herself believe that.

She hardly took in the opulence of her room as she crossed to the gold curtained bed and flopped onto it. A massive window let in the midday sunlight. She turned her face away, putting her back to the light, unable to conjure even the minuscule effort required to close the blinds.

She didn't cry. As much as she felt sad, she also felt empty. She lay staring into the wall, watching her shadow, her feathered silhouette that was so unlike herself. She wasn't the same person, didn't even remember who Maya Stader had been. Why should she expect her brother to remember her when she couldn't even remember herself?

And eventually she did fall asleep.

She woke much later to banging on her door. The shadows had shifted, sunlight low and brilliant upon the horizon.

"Maya! You're gonna be late! Wake up."

Maya set up, instantly alert. She didn't feel groggy as she'd half expected. Nor did she feel much different than she had before sleeping. Yet the physical action of lying down and sleeping before getting back up again did seem to have helped smooth out the sharpness of her memories. It wasn't as difficult now to push back the emptiness that lurked within her mind, to answer instead of turning away from everyone.

"Late for what?"

"Dinner!" She finally recognized it. Trixy’s voice. "It's more a get-together than a proper meal, but the food is delicious. And it's a chance to meet everyone else."

"All right, I'm coming."

Maya jumped out of bed and started for the door, but paused when she caught sight of herself in a mirror. For a moment she felt disconcerted seeing her fierce black-and-white feathered visage staring back at her. She hadn't been playing as this character long enough to instantly think of herself as a harpy rather than as a human playing a game. Still, she couldn't help smiling a bit as she posed, admiring her feathers and physique. She'd done a good job designing her character, in her humble opinion.

Unlike back on earth, she saw no ill effects from jumping straight out of bed. Her feathers were neat and unruffled, and her hair-analogue crest of longer head feathers maintained the same style she'd created it with. Her clothes were rough, white/tan and obviously noob. She could see now why Harold had questioned her claim to be a mage. She did look like a peasant.

Ah well. She could go shopping later. A quick check of the room revealed a fine wardrobe, which upon further investigation didn't contain anything yet. She’d half hoped there would be an official student robe, or something decent looking she could change into. But she quickly decided she didn't mind. She'd never cared that much about appearances.

Trixy banged on the door again. Maya stopped searching the room for clothing and hurried over, shaking her head at herself.

"Ready to go?"

"Yep. Ready to go."

Trixy led the way out of Sapphire Hall and across the grounds to a dark building which seemed to be made from blocks of obsidian. Its doors were faceted crystal, clear but impossible to see through, like extremely fancy privacy windows that blurred everything beyond them. Trixy pushed them open without hesitating.

The dining hall's interior was as different from its exterior as to be practically unrecognizable as the same building. The walls were decorated with tapestries of black and silver woven with arcane sigils in complex patterns, reminiscent of the patterns on Shardlord's robes. Interspersed between them were huge paintings of nature scenes or impressive architecture.

From the size of the building Maya had expected that the room would be loud and crowded, but she only saw around twenty or thirty people spread out in threes or fours. A dozen small round silver-draped tables were scattered throughout the room, each set to accommodate five people, though Maya only saw one which was fully occupied. Or two – by one wall a group of seven had pulled two tables together.

Trixy led Maya unerringly across the room to where a young harpy woman sat alone with a book in her hand. She wore a white robe and silver tiara which only highlighted the vibrant flame colors of her feathers. She looked up at Trixy's approach.

"There you are. I was wondering if you got lost in another echo mirror."

Trixy sat down next to her, patting the seat on her other side in clear invitation for Maya to join them.

"Desi? I'd like you meet Maya. She just started playing yesterday. Maya, this is Desi."

"Desmeralda Phoenix," the flame-colored harpy corrected. "I may have made an exception for you, Trixy, but that doesn't mean you can invite just anyone to my table."

Maya stood up at once. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude. I'll leave."

"Nonsense," said Trixy. "Sit back down. Desi, be nice. Maya is new."

Desi shrugged. "So what? Everyone is new sometime. Why does that mean I have to put up with her?"

"You don't mean that."

"Really, it's fine. I'll just sit somewhere else. Thanks for inviting me, Trixy. Nice meeting you Desi. I mean Desmeralda." Maya turned to leave.

Desi sighed. "Ugh, fine. You can stay. No need to be dramatic about it."

Maya remained standing. "Maybe I don't want to sit with you either, did you consider that? Trixy, why don't you come join me? We wouldn't want to interrupt Desmeralda's reading. I'm sure it's important."

Trixy scoffed. "Desi only reads when there's no one interesting around. You just need to not be boring and she'll warm right up to you."

"I don't really feel like being interesting right now," Maya said a bit coldly. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm still getting used to all this and being interesting is the last thing on my mind at the moment."

Before she could leave, Trixy took her arm and pulled her back. "Sit. Even now there aren't many permanents. Technology is only now catching up with the founders' vision. I want to hear what it's like from someone who isn't Desi. I don't think she was ever normal."

"I wasn't normal either," Maya said. "Besides, I don't know how long it's been since I died, but by the sound of it it's been at least few decades if Drew was able to create all this."

Desi dropped her book and turned to stare at Maya. "Create all this? You're from before?"

"Um… yeah?I mean, before what?"

Desi scooted closer, almost knocking Trixy off her chair. "What year were you born?"

"2003?"

"Millennial," Desi whispered. Her voice had the same weird awe that Shardlord's held when talking about Drew.

Maya bristled. "I don't like being labeled by generational cohorts, and I'm clearly younger than that."

Desi frowned in confusion.

Trixy giggled. "Millennial just means anyone born between 2000 and 2100. The first generation."

Now Maya was even more confused. "2100? It's been that long?"

"Longer. It's now 2383. Welcome to the 24th century!""

"Good to know we still speak English in 400 years," was the only thing Maya could think of to say. She could accept 40 or 50 years having passed since her death, but over 300? And apparently her brother, her Drew, had somehow cemented his name and legacy so strongly that people still spoke of him with awe over 300 years later? Just one more thing to be overwhelmed by.

"So, you don't want me to send her away?" Trixy asked teasingly.

Desi grumbled something that sounded vaguely affirmative.

Trixy giggled again. "I have good instincts for people. I can't wait to get to know you."

A quiet gong rang out through the dining room then, silencing all the conversations taking place. A deep voice spoke into the silence.

"Welcome, students of the Academy. Tonight's dinner will be grilled pollock fillets, caesar salad and cream soup on the side, with a lemon meringue pie for dessert."

A mutter of appreciative sounds rippled across the room. Maya wasn't sure why. It didn't sound too extraordinary to her.

"So they finally cracked lemon! I'm so excited." Trixy actually bounced up and down in her seat with excitement.

"What's so special about lemon?" Maya asked.

Trixy stared at her, then grinned. "That's right! You're from so long ago. Because of the different ways people perceive taste it's very hard to make a realistic flavor in the game."

"I had some apples from my first quest, and they tasted normal."

"We have been working on it for 200 years," Desi said. "And apples were easy, even with all their variations."

"That's a simplification and you know it," said Trixy. "Anything is easy on its own. The problem is trying to create combinations that are realistic. You can add an apple and a lemon, but it'll always taste like an apple and a lemon, not necessarily the combination. Food is more than the sum of its parts as far as flavor goes. Just blending them together like they first tried to do creates a singularly dissonant experience which most people find extremely unappetizing."

"Now who's simplifying?" Desi asked.

Trixy ignored her. "Combining lemons and sugar has been on the challenges list for ages, but it never managed to be very high priority. I'm surprised I didn't hear about it being claimed, unless it came in while I was in this session. This will make my life interesting for the next few weeks."

"When she's not playing, Trixy is a bio analyst,” Desi explained. “Food isn't her particular area of expertise, but she does keep up with the latest breakthroughs in the field."

"We're going to see a flood of lemon desserts in the next few weeks," Trixy said confidently. "Once the recipe gets out, the mixers will go crazy."

"But what are they mixing?" Maya asked. "If it's as you say, and flavor combinations have to be individually created, then what's the use?"

"Just combining things together often comes up badly, but you can also come up with some phenomenal new recipes that take advantage of the difference between realistic flavor combinations and digital ones. Having a sweetened lemon option to mix in there is going to send those people into a frenzy."

"I never really thought about it, what goes into making sensory information in a digital world. When I was. . . alive," Maya stumbled a bit over saying it aloud, "we had visual and sound, some progress towards touch, and I know some people were working on smell. I don't think anyone ever figured out taste in my lifetime. If so, I never heard about it."

Trixy nodded. "Full sensory immersion has been standard since the 2270s. But you're right, taste and smell have always lagged behind. Sound and sight are easier because they're such stable perceptions. Most people see color within a fairly tight scale, and any aberrations are minor. But taste is so subjective. It's hard to make something taste right to a lot of different people."

The serving trolley reached them then, and the young man walking beside it flicked his fingers to levitate the appropriate number of plates and bowls from the cart and onto their table. Maya wondered exactly what spell he was using.

Maya paid particular attention to the food, forcing herself to take her time and eat slowly. It wasn't an entrée she'd had before, so she couldn't say how true to life it was, but it tasted like normal food. She wouldn't have considered it out of place in any restaurant back home.

Desi's voice interrupted her musing. "So, Maya. What are you planning to focus on with your magical studies?"

"Um… everything? I don't know enough about the options to narrow it down, really. In games I've always leaned towards evocation, illusion, or transfiguration. But I guess there aren't any of those differentiations here. At least not that I've seen so far. I just love magic. Like science without the math. All the fun, none of the frustration."

Desi and Trixy looked at each other, then burst out laughing in the same instant.

"What?"

"You basically said you're a lazy scientist," Trixy said, still laughing.

"You just said magic is easy!" Desi said. She was only doing slightly better at containing her laughter than Trixy.

"Isn't it? The spell I learned in the tutorial seemed very easy."

"Of course it was. It's the tutorial. They are not gonna tell you, oh, by the way, there are only about eight more spells available, good luck figuring out the rest."

Now she thought about it, Harold's spell list had contained exactly 8 spells. If that was it? The complete extent of what magic could do?

"Wait. You mean, that one shop in the newbie market. . . it has all the spells in the entire game? What's the point of even having a magic academy if there are only eight spells?!"

Maya had thought it seemed like a lot at the time, but that was when she'd assumed they were only the beginner spells and that each new area would have progressively more and more.

Desi smiled. "Because we're not here to learn existing spells. We're here to discover new ones. Why do you think Shardlord needs so much magic? We go through it like crazy because we're always trying new things, always looking for the combination that will actually work."

"Have you actually found anything?"

"Of course," Desi said without hesitation. "It was my team that discovered Freeze."

"I'm not on an advanced team since I can't play all the time, so I mostly join the hunting teams," Trixy said. "Big important researchers like Desi here always need more magic."

"So you're on a lot?" Maya asked Desi.

"I'm permanent. Same as you. Well, no. I didn't die 300 years ago, but I do live in the game now."

Trixy threw an arm over Desi's shoulder, grinning. "Which is why she heads a research team!"

Then there came a thunderous bang, and not a good way. A huge crash and clatter echoed through the dining hall.

Before Maya had even turned around to see, other mages were dropping their forks and jumping to their feet. Magic glimmered off hands and arms now raised in preparation.

"Domitian," someone snarled.

Maya stood as well, even though she only knew the one spell. However much magic she had, she doubted wind whisper would tip the balance of the conflict.

A brown and red blur raced in through the now-shattered front doors. The player threaded his way between the tables, dodging every magical attack, straight towards Maya.

She stood frozen in shock, unsure how to react. The man reached her and performed what almost seemed to be a bow of greeting, but it was hard to tell since he moved at about ten times the normal speed. Then his hand flashed forward and brightness obscured Maya's vision.

She blinked. Everything seemed dim and faded now. She couldn't see the lights, couldn't make out even the flashes of spells going off around her. And whatever attack he'd use seemed to deafen her as well, cutting off the shouts of surprise, shock, and anger into abrupt silence. She waved a hand in front of her face to make sure she wasn't going blind, and was relieved to see her own black and white feathered fingers.

She sat back down, and only then did her vision adjust sufficiently for her to realize that her surroundings had entirely changed. She now sat in a much smaller room, a very dim room lit only by a single flickering orange glowing crystal behind her. Though the chair had been in the same place as her own seat had been, it was a completely different chair. The room had only a single door, with no doorknob or latch on this side.

As the shock of transition from crowded dining hall to single empty room faded, Maya realized with a new kind of shock that she was a prisoner.


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About the author

Asviloka

  • Just Add Magic!

Bio: I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.

My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.

I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)

(If you're looking for my cover thread, it's at https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110578 )

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