“How long are we gonna wait?” Thena grumbled, crossing her hand over her chest as she stared at the huge tree standing in the middle of the city square of Grandarc. Smooth silver bark covered its 20 feet wide trunk and glowing red leaves spread over it like an umbrella.
“Wait just a couple more hours.” Kratos sighed, shaking his head as the 13 Stonehenges around the tree, all glowing a different colour, once again dimmed and a man wearing silver armour popped into existence. Not this one either.
“But it’s been three hours already. Shouldn’t she be here by now?” Thena’s big, round eyes sharpened in a nasty glare as another passing player stopped to admire her polished iron armour.
It was an eye-catching one alright. The red and silver metal platings curved around her body enticingly. But those weren’t the stares she had wanted on her. She really should have bought the other one. It was more modest, and the stats were slightly better too.
“It’s her first time gaming, so she should be figuring things out still,” Kratos said. “Just have some patience, Rose.”
“But Arun…” Thena trailed off, turning her head away. “I’m not being impatient. Just, I don’t think she’s coming anymore.”
Kratos forced his eyes away from the now dim Circle of Descent and frowned down at Thena.
“Yo Kratos! Wanna come dungeon exploring with us?” A voice drew Kratos’s attention away.
“Not today, Vespa,” he said to the short man with dark blue Ponytailed hair. He glanced at the screen floating above their team of four, just like many teams gathered around the square. “ “Recruiting members for eastern Nurmean ruin exploration”? That’s real bold of you. Are you looking to die?”
“Nah man, we’re not alone. Libra guild is leading the exploration.” Vespa said. “They are the ones who’ll be diving deep. We’re just gonna explore the surroundings a bit. Besides, anything with a Nurmean name is worth dying for.” He chuckled, looking at the dark grey cloak covering Kratos’s body. “It’s a shame. your trapper skills would be so useful there. Those ruins are chock full of traps.”
A slim woman wearing a scarlet, fire patterned kimono beside him nodded. “Yeah, the three of you have an excellent team dynamic; though, I still think Thena should have gone with the thief build rather than a guardian. She’s short and cute, perfect for a thief.”
“Hey! Do you want to fight, Yume?” Thena raised her fist at the other girl.
“Sorry, sorry!” Yume giggled. “Yeah, you’re too short-tempered for a thief.” Her eyes searched around. “Where’s Gandoff?”
“What d’you want with my brother? Are you gonna finally ask him out?”
“Not a guy who chooses a name like Gandoff,” Yume said, shaking her head. “Besides, I’m not into younger guys. Wasn’t he looking for a healing spell? We got a skill book recently.” a small white book appeared on her hand out of nowhere.
“Like, for real?” Gandoff walked in wearing a black and dark green robe. “You got it just for me? You’re the best, Yume!” he stretched his hand toward the book.
Yume drew her hand back. “Fat chance, kid! Fork out the gold if you want it.”
“Don’t have any. Those potion guys took the last.” Gandoff pointed his thumb at one of the various NPC stores surrounding the square. Players like him flocked at those stores for weapons, armours and other necessary items.
“Did you buy the entire shop? You guys should have enough gold from our last hunt.”
“Like, we got our equipment yesterday. Though sis took the bulk of it for her shield,” Gandoff said, tilting his head at Thena, who carried a huge red and silver heater shield half as tall as her and over three times as wide behind her back. “It was, like, the most expensive thing in our level.”
“Oh yeah? What about that robe of yours then?” Thena shot back. “That thing’s so flashy it hurts my eyes.”
“Oh, yeah!” Vespa said. “You guys were getting prepared for your class selection quest today. So why are you all standing here?”
Kratos pointed at the Circle of Descent and said, “A friend of ours is gonna start today. That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh? When’s he coming then? Haven’t you guys been here for a while now?”
“She, not he. And yeah, she’s taking more time than I thought.”
“Hmm,” Vespa shrugged. “Waiting for a friend is good and all, but you really should hurry and get your classes assigned. Or--”
Vespa stopped talking and opened his inbox to check the incoming message. “Fengshen’s calling us. Libra’s assembling the teams at the east gate.”
Yume furrowed her brows. “So soon? But we didn’t find anyone yet.”
“Fengshen found two. That’ll have to do for now,” he said, turning to Kratos. “Well, that’s our cue. You’re really not gonna join us?”
Kratos smiled, shaking his head.
“Well, you do you, man. But someone who doesn’t care for your time isn’t worth waiting for. And if you don’t get to level 10 soon, you’ll fall behind others.” He led his team towards the road leading eastward from the square as he waved at the three. “Be seeing you then, ciao.”
“I’ll be generous and won’t sell the skill book to anyone else for a week. Get the money ready by then if you want it,” Yume said to Gandoff before following her team.
Kratos stared at Vespa’s retreating back with a disgruntled frown. “Doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“He’s right, you know,” Thena said. “Only one more level and we’ll be ready for our class selection. Getting that last level isn’t gonna be easy, especially cause we’re waiting for Chi since forever.”
Kratos glared at her. “I never expected you to say that. Did you forget Chi’s condition?” He turned his back towards her. “Go and get your level up if you want. I’m gonna wait here”
“I- I didn’t mean it that way.” Thena grimaced as she lowered her head. Her voice sank into a murmur. “And I never said I’ll leave. I’m also waiting for her, aren’t I?”
“Uh, I think we are forgetting something here.” Gandoff drew their attention. “Like, are you sure she’s gonna come?”
“Huh!” Arun glanced at him. “Not you too.”
“I mean, think about it.” Gandoff raised two of his fingers, wiggling them. “There are only like two more guys like her playing, and none of them is blind. What if it doesn’t work for her?”
“Uh!” Arun’s face sank, and he fell silent. It’s not like he hadn’t considered the possibility, he just avoided thinking about it.
“Hey! Don’t say that,” Thena scowled at Gandoff. “Don’t worry, Arun. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
Gandoff shrugged. “Also, even if she can play it, are you sure she’s gonna choose Grandarc? Like, we didn’t exactly tell her we were waiting here.”
“What’re you talking about? Everyone knows—” Thena’s eyes widened. “No way!” she turned towards Kratos, who also realized the issue.
He took a deep breath and said, “Everyone who plays games knows…!”
Gandoff spread his arms, shrugging.
Thena took a step, driving a light punch in her brother’s gut. “Why didn’t you say something before?”
He shrank back, massaging his stomach. “What are you beating me for? Even I forgot she’s a noob.” He said. “Like, you just know these things. We all do.”
“Shit!” Kratos clenched his fist. “Do you have her mail id?”
“Umm… nope” Thena shook her head. “don’t you?
Gandoff scratched his chin. “Does she even have one?”
The three stared at each other with helpless expressions on their faces.
“We, like, seriously messed up, didn’t we?”
Bloom zoomed through the depths of an infinite amount of water, rushing towards the surface at a breakneck speed. Her body broke through the surface, leaving her under an enormous glowing tree surrounded by 13 Stonehenge covered in vine and moss. Small, an inch or two long blades of grass spread on the ground below her.
The water she had travelled through was one of the many spawn simulations of the game, an exciting feature added by the head developer of Finitum, and owner of Desirecraft productions, M.
And now Bloom suffered the consequences of that excitement.
She propped her hand against the smooth silver bark of the tree, heaving in laboured breaths. She would’ve hurled if it was physically possible.
Not gonna go anywhere near deep water, not for a decade at least.
The enticing scent of freshly baked bread tickled her nose, along with a variety of other smells. They drove her dizziness away in a blink.
“That’s a relief!” she muttered.
The chatter of people, the cool shade of the tree… all her familiar senses, at least, those she could check then, were working fine. Now for the eyes.
She opened them wide at count three, glaring at the world in front of her with insatiable hunger, and the creatures gathered beyond the Stonehenge shrank back from it.
So those are humans?
Bloom shook her head at that thought. What am I? An alien?.
It was easy to tell, even if she didn’t use the implanted understanding. They looked similar to her figure from when she customised her character. Only their sizes and shapes, and in some instances, their colour varied. A bunch of green letters with a slight tinge of yellow floated above all of them.
So those were women like her, and those others were men.
It was so strange that she recognised things by sight now as if she had known them for years. This memory of understanding thingy was doing wonders for her at the moment. She really liked it.
Someone appearing in the Circle of Descent was a rare event for Caramis, the last being a few that appeared two months ago. That was why Bloom’s arrival drew much more attention than it would have in any other place. But no one came forward to greet her.
In that, Caramis, and the Bakhran kingdom it was a part of, differed from other places.
Only a few of the villagers who had stopped in the middle of their work watched her with curious eyes. The rest either frowned or glared. Some even avoided glancing at her.
Those weren’t friendly eyes at all
Their low and close-knit whispers and mumbles overlapped each other, a sound not so different from gibberish. Bloom only caught one or two words like ‘immortals’ or something. So confusing! Were they talking about her? She turned her ears towards the sound as she was used to, but her eyes also turned away from the people.
What the hell?
She tried again, this time trying to focus both her ears and eyes to the front, but at the next second, she slapped her forehead hard.
Wake up, doofus! That’s physically impossible!
She pinched her eyes shut, shaking her head like a rattle drum. The dizziness was here again. Adjusting to sound and sight at the same time was difficult as all hell!
She opened her eyes at the sound of a giggle. The crowd weren’t looking at her anymore; instead, they glared at a bald, plump man in his forties and a brunette girl the same age as Bloom. The plump man was pressing his palm against the girl’s lips, whose eyes darted here and there. She looked mortified.
Is she the one who giggled?
“Uh,” Bloom began and the villager’s attention snapped back on her. “Hey…” She raised her hand awkwardly. Would “nice to meet you” work?
This time discomfort was obvious on their faces, even those previously curious. All of them glanced at each other, and as if reaching an unspoken agreement, they all dispersed at once.
Bloom stood dumbstruck, staring at their backs with her mouth open.
They left? She frowned. What’s the big deal?
She took a step forward but stopped immediately. Slowly, she turned her eyes toward the ground.
They were standing! She was standing?!
Strength escaped her legs. She stumbled back, falling hard to the ground.
“What-what happened?” She put her hand on her knees. They convulsed as if struck by a hammer again and again. “No!” she growled, gritting her teeth. She pushed against the ground to make herself stand, but she couldn’t.
Again! The pain, the screeching car, all of it wreaked havoc in her mind again; just as it did every other time she had tried it.
“Her shock won’t be easy to overcome,” the doctor had said. “It’s a mental thing.”
“Why!” She punched the ground. This wasn’t supposed to happen! “I can see, so why?”
She grimaced. Her biggest hurdle should’ve been her blindness!
“Please move!” she pleaded as a sense of defeat covered her. She wanted to cry, but a virtual body was incapable of tears it seemed.
“Oh! There really is an immortal here,” a youthful voice said.
A boy wearing a long-sleeved blue tunic and a forest green cloak stared at her, his purple eyes brimming with curiosity. The letters above his head shone green, though a bluish shade lingered on them.
“Looks normal.” His golden blond hair, tied by a blue bandana, draped down the side of his face as he tilted his head to the side. He sidestepped a Stonehenge, entering the circle of descent and bent down before Bloom, sizing her up.
“How odd!” he said. “Can you… understand what I say?”
Bloom nodded absentmindedly. She still wore a miserable expression, her knuckles white from clenching her fist.
What enjoyment? She couldn’t even stand up! All the money her father spent, everything he did for her, wasted. It was so painful!
“Um, are you ok? Can you speak?” the boy asked with a worried expression.
Bloom shook her head, then nodded hastily.
“What’s that meant to mean?” the boy squinted, examining her. “Can’t stand up?” he asked after a while.
“No...” Bloom squeezed out through her teeth.
The boy scratched his head. He took down the huge satchel from his back and leaned it and his quarterstaff against one of the Stonehenge. He knelt beside her and extended his hand. “Here, hold me. I’ll help you up.”
Bloom swallowed. Should she trust him? She looked at her legs again, biting her lips. Could he even help her?
Her eyes darted from his face to his hand constantly. The boy seemed a year or two older than her, with a hint of fresh beard growing out of his slightly long chin. His round face looked honest enough too. Instead of the hand, she reached for his face instinctively, wanting to see it like she usually did.
The boy’s eyes narrowed as he drew his face back slightly. Bloom pulled her hand back, embarrassed, and went for his outstretched hand… and missed it by an inch, grabbing the air.
“Ah,” she murmured, “my sense of distance is a mess too!” But that was hardly a surprise by now.
“You’re a weird one,” The boy judged her with an amused look in his eyes. He reached, clasping her hand himself. “Must be true what they say, immortals are an odd bunch,” he said as he got up, pulling her with him.
Bloom pinched her eyes shut. You can do it! You have to!
The memories of that incident screamed in her mind, so distant but still dripping acid into her heart like a burning, festering wound. She clenched her teeth so hard that her jaws hurt.
For father! I have to—
“Well, you’re a tall one. Almost as tall as me!” The boy said. “Though you could do with a bit more meat.”.
Bloom opened her eyes. She was standing again.
Yes! She gripped the boy’s hand tighter. She was standing, though her legs were still like jelly. She could fall at any moment.
“Hold!” The boy tightened his grasp. “Need help walking?”
“Well, come on then.” He pulled her, leading her forward bit by bit.
Stumbling, Bloom reached the Stonehenge circle with him. She leaned on one as the boy gathered his belongings.
“Thank you,” she gasped out between heavy breaths.
“You don’t need to,” the boy shrugged. “I’m training to be a herbalist. I have seen a few patients like you before. Helping you is practice for me.” He stood up, slinging his quarterstaff on his shoulder and smiled at her. “So you’re helping me too.”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The boy pointed up. “Can’t you see? Pa said immortals could. Must be true because I see your name too.”
“What is…” Bloom glanced up, spotting the letters.
[Marcus Aurielle Therusea
“Oh!” she whispered.
She had been too occupied with people’s faces, completely disregarding the name floating above. She was stupid today.
“At your service.” Marcus bowed.
Bloom glanced away as heat climbed to her face, suddenly finding the Stonehenge more interesting than Marcus.
The Stonehenge was interesting all right, especially the few carvings hidden beneath the growing vegetation. Bloom touched the smooth leaves and the rough vines. The familiar sense of touch was more comforting than sight.
She pulled the vegetation away and revealed a few cursive runes inside. They weren’t any language she recognised, but if she stared at them, a buzzing voice at the edge of coherence spoke in the back of her mind, that disappeared if she focused on it.
“That’s God Speech,” Marcus said. “Each Godstone has different ones. Some old men are always poring over it. They say it tells of your coming. A prophecy—”
“Marcus! You’re still here? Do you want to spend the night in the jungle, boy!”
“Just a minute, Pa,” Marcus shouted back at a balding, diminutive man with clumps of snow-white hair sticking over his ears, who stood on a road beyond the town square. “I’ll be going soon.”
“Well, hurry up, boy! Times wasting.” the old man waved the hoe he carried at Marcus. “I’ll have to work the chief’s garden tonight. The faster you come back, the more help you’ll be.” The old man hurried away without waiting for an answer.
Marcus gave Bloom a worried look. Even now she could barely stand. Would she be ok if he left? He glanced at the passing villagers, most giving him a displeased glance as they passed.
Yeah, the folk here won’t be of any help. They and their…
A smile lit up his face. He raised his hand, calling out, “Ho Elsie! Here!”
Bloom looked at the direction he was waving. The brunette who had giggled hustled towards them, her plump lips now a thin line as her arched brows drew together in a frown.
“Have you gone bonkers?” she scolded Marcus as soon as she drew close. Glancing once at Bloom, she drew Marcus’s head down to her, whispering in his ears, “What are you thinking? That’s an immortal!”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I called you.”
“What would I do?” Elsa Ruze pouted. “Pops nearly beat me today cause I laughed. And it wasn’t even my fault.” She flicked her head toward Bloom. “She was the one making funny faces. What was I supposed to do?”
“That happened!” Marcus said. He shook his hand dismissively, “Anyway, forget about that. Would you help that girl out a bit? Show her around and stuff? She’s ill.”
“What’re you talking about?” Elsa said scandalously. “She’s an immortal, Markie, and you want me to be her guide!” She shook her head. “We don’t do that around here.”
“Oh, come on! I know you have two immortals staying at your inn.”
“No Markie, that’s business. All the other shop people would also treat them nice when they fork out money. Doesn’t mean I’m gonna drag her around with me!”
Elsa shook her head like a rattle drum. “No! I won’t hear of it.”
“Elsie!” Marcus held her face, making her look at him. “Please Elsie, do it for me.”
Elsa glowered at Marcus. Why was he forcing her into this? What would the villagers say if they saw her walking around with an immortal? They already looked down upon shop owners for dealing with the few immortals that had appeared here, however lukewarm that treatment may have been.
“Um, it’s ok if she doesn’t want to,” Bloom spoke up. “I’ll be fine. I’ll just take some time before looking around.”
Marcus shook his head. “You don’t want to be walking around in Caramis with that condition. Trust me, you need help.”
Elsa sent a nasty glare at Bloom. Who was that woman anyway? What was she to Markie?
She wanted to say no.
“Please!” Marcus said again, bringing his face even closer to Elsa’s.
She wanted to, but as she stared into his pleading eyes, she just couldn’t find it in her heart.
“Okay, I’ll do it!” Elsa said, pouting.
Marcus smiled and took a peck at her cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t say no. You’re the sweetest girl, Elsie.”
Elsie’s rosy cheeks turned beet red. “I- I didn’t say I’ll do it for free!”
“Really?” Marcus raised his brow. “What do you want then? Tell me.”
“Bring me those pretty velvet roses. A whole bunch of them.”
“Sure, I’ll bring you some. It’s not that far from the herb garden.”
Marcus turned toward Bloom. “She’ll show you around the village. Lean on her if you still have difficulty walking.” He pointed at a black trail of smoke twisting towards the skies at one end of the village. “If you want some good weapons and armours, you should head to aunt Thoringar’s. Her smithing’s far above anything you’ll find in those shops. Though she can be a bit… eccentric.”
You have acquired the location: Thoringer’s smithy. Check your map for further information.
Bloom frowned at the ‘Ping!’ sound. The appearance of the message was unusual. It wasn’t so much as a visible or audible experience, the appropriate way to describe it would be, she knew it.
It was disconcerting.
She pinched her temples, nodding thanks towards Marcus.
“I’ll be taking my leave then,” Marcus said, giving a flourishing bow while holding the hem of his cloak to the side.
“Farewell, Bloom, Elsie!” with these last words, he turned around, leaving the two girls alone.
“ [It’s the best place for you! Trust me!]. Such an innocent little girl she is.” M Clapped. “Props for acting, Loki! How did it feel to trick a newbie?”
[Pretty good, actually.] Loki was brimming with enthusiasm.
“So... Caramis.” M’s smile was a hard one. “You straight out skipped censorship, pain moderation and a bunch of other settings—”
[Well, she didn’t ask.] Loki said. [All other players know about these things. I’m not obligated to inform her.]
“—and you chose Caramis.” M still didn’t stop smiling. ”Finitum has a 100% physical sensation transfer rate. That’s a lot of pain. And a shower of blood and gore each time she gets injured or kills something.”
[I want to see her experience the game. All of it!] Loki’s voice was serious for a moment. [It’d be like the real world to her.]
[Yes, the real world.] Minerva sighed. [Let us hope she does not abandon the game because of it.]
[She wouldn’t do that, would she?] Loki sounded worried. [Should I go change the settings?]
“No, leave it. She can do that herself ingame if she wants.” M chuckled. “But Caramis, huh. So you’re serious about choosing her.”
“You do know how slim the chance is, don’t you?” M asked. “I won’t stop you if that’s what you want; though I won’t allow any direct or indirect help. Not even hints. I don’t have the resources to waste on a handicapped person.”
Loki shrugged. [If she fails, she fails. Nothing I can do about that. But I have a good feeling about her.]
“Well, let’s hope your good feeling is spot on.” M leaned on the worktable. “Considering the audience of the game, someone like her, who never played games before, would just be stumbling around.”
[Don’t worry!] Loki said smugly. [I personally redesigned the guide of Chitra's system interface. She’s not a Passive anymore, but an Active. She’d take care of her.]