“Goodbye, child! So long, Greyvern!” Thoringar muttered, bowing to one grave, then the other. “
She looked young but felt old, closing her eyes in silence. The orange light of the falling sun hit her face, bringing out her tired, despondent self. A deep sigh escaped her as she looked up and gazed at the fiery orange clumps of cloud floating by overhead.
“You should have come to me earlier. If I had known about what was happening, things wouldn’t have ended this way.”
Standing behind Thoringar, Bloom lowered her head. Maybe she should have, but with everything going on, contacting the blacksmith had been the last thing on her mind.
Thoringar shook her head. The girl was just an outsider, but Greyvern? At least he should have...
Marcus was more important than any rules those people set.
She extended her hand at Bloom. “Let me see it.”
Bloom took out the items and handed them over. Thoringar raised an eyebrow at the books and the two unlocked items, giving them back to her.
“We will talk about them later. For now, keep them with you,” she said as she unfurled the roll of parchment and ran her eyes through it.
[Quest Accomplished: An Unwelcome News
- Deliver the scroll to Thoringar: Succeeded
- Inform Thoringar about the deal Ragnar talked about: Succeeded]
“Vogan, huh!” Thoringar muttered, rolling the parchment back. She pressed her temples, digesting what she read with a complicated expression. After living this long, she was no stranger to bloodshed, but the content’s of the scroll still made her skin crawl. It reminded her of the fall of Therusen.
Not something I wanted to remember.
Killing all the villagers and causing as much bloodshed as possible for 100000 gold; a lucrative offer for any bandit, but for Ragnar to fall for it too? She’d always known him as a headstrong, reckless man, but this?
Fool! What he did...
She shook her head regretfully. That thought could wait. Something far more concerning demanded her attention.
Her eyes scanned the village. Nearly twenty years and she never gave much thought about the oddness surrounding this place. She had no reason to. But now...
A circle of descent in such a far off place, the Nurmean ruins nearby, and no creature lower than level 10 around the village; being a sealing place for one of those monsters wasn’t far-fetched.
Should I ask those old coots?
Thoringar frowned. If possible, she really didn’t want to deal with them, but at this point, it wasn’t a matter of want or not. Despite all the difficulties Caramis threw at them, it didn’t deserve to face one of those monstrosities. Not if she could help it.
The cult! For everything they did, every life they destroyed, she hated them! Abhorred their very existence!
By Hagrath, if Vogan really is a part of it…
A sudden, ferocious fire erupted within Thoringar’s pupils. The air tingled around her short figure and singed the fringes of the dry maple leaves. An instant of violent pressure that passed as quickly as it came, before calm once again settled below the maple tree.
Thoringar bit her lips as fatigue seeped deep inside her, going far deeper than just her physique.
Bloom sat on a chair inside Thoringar’s house, staring vacantly at the smouldering fireplace nearby. Much like the hollow loss gnawing at her heart, a weird sense of weakness crept inside her limbs. And shifting in her seat didn’t help much.
“What should we do now?” she asked. “Do we confront this Vogan?”
“Confront him?” Thoringar scoffed, taking out her pipe and tapping it against the table. “With what? We have no proof against him.”
“The scroll,” Thoringar held the piece of parchment open, pointing at it with the stem of her pipe, “proves nothing! Vogan covered his tracks well. There isn’t even a mention of his name, nor about the...” She paused, unwilling to say the name. “It’s just a twisted demand for a massacre. A massacre that didn’t even happen.”
She shrugged, tucking the scroll away. “And even if by some stroke of luck he had been foolish enough to sign the damn thing who would be more credible to the villagers, a bandit? Or the friendly, charitable village chief they have known for years?”
“But what about you?” Bloom stared at the blacksmith as she flexed her back. The line along her spine felt oddly numb. “Don’t you believe this?” she asked.
“I’m not sure what to believe. Besides…” Thoringar turned her head, her scowl held a hint of grievance as she stared at the village outside the round window. “To them, the weight of my words would be far less than Vogan’s.”
“So we can’t do anything?” Bloom asked, frowning down at the floor.
Those two, they died... for nothing?
“For now, no,” Thoringar said, lighting her pipe from the hearth and sitting on her windowsill. “But with a bit of luck, we don’t need to. If Vogan really is behind this, he should take some action as soon as he finds out the bandits’ fate. We just need to wait for that chance.”
Bloom nodded. That made sense. Way easier than actively searching for evidence and stuff. A lazy path, but she was no Sherlock.
“Anything I could help—”
[You have received a voice message. Would you like to accept? YES/NO]
Bloom almost jumped from her seat. Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the message box.
A voice message?
She frowned for a bit before giving it a mental nod.
“Hm, should I speak now? Hello? Chitra, can you hear me?” Bloom’s eyes widened at the familiar voice.
“Father!” she whispered.
“You’ve been inside for 8 hours already.” Vikash’s voice carried a tone of worry. “Have you slept? You aren’t still playing, are you? Wake up quickly. I have to leave for work soon.”
Bloom’s cheeks twitched. She’d been inside the game for more than a day already!
She rubbed her temples, trying to soothe the dull ache spreading inside her head. It didn’t work.
“I have to leave,” she said, turning to Thoringar. “if you need my help...”
The blacksmith nodded. “You don’t have to worry. I will keep an eye on Vogan. You are stronger now, but only slightly. Not enough to help in this matter.” She got up, stepping in front of Bloom. Even with the girl seated, she had to look up slightly to meet her eyes.
“Thank you for what you did for Greyvern and Marcus,” she said. “No one else in this village would grant them such affection.”
“No one else…” Bloom mouthed the words as a name chilled her heart from the inside.
“Elsa!” she grimaced.
“Ah!” Thoringar put a hand before her mouth. That one... she’d completely forgotten about her!
“This is going to be a headache.” She heaved a deep sigh. “You go home, I’ll break the news to her.”
Bloom didn’t move. The pouting face of the girl complaining the whole way as she guided her through the village hounded her memories. Her anxiety-ridden face when she last saw her...
“Could you go tell him to come see me?”
Her stomach lurched, a sudden attack of nausea making her limbs all jittery.
She didn’t want to face the girl. She really didn’t. But the one who saw those two off had been her, not Thoringar.
“I’ll do it!” she said in a hoarse voice. “I’ll inform her.”
“Are you certain?”
Bloom gave a firm nod. She placed a hand over her virtual heart to calm its battering and stood up, trying to visualize what she’d say when she met the girl. She took a step, but the ground beneath her vanished. The floor rushed up, meeting her face with a loud crunch.
[Damage Received: 3]
She reeled, gagging as an empty, sick feeling churned through her stomach. She drew a forceful gust of air through her nose and tried to get up again, but her body refused to follow her orders.
Thoringar dashed to her side, pulling her up from the ground and helping her sit. “What happened to you, girl?” she asked, but before Bloom could answer, a constant pinging sound started blaring inside her head like an alarm. She looked up at a new bar above her. It was empty, and unlike the health bar, came with a string of really worrying messages.
[Your satiety has reached 0%]
[You are suffering from the effects of starvation]
[All stats are halved until starvation ends]
[Your health regeneration has stopped]
[Your stamina is declining]
[You are fatigued]
[You are an idiot!]
Bloom rolled her eyes. The last message…. she could venture a guess at its origins. But that wasn’t important now.
“Satiety?” she muttered curiously.
“Satiety!” Thoringar frowned at Bloom. “Are you starving? How long since you last had a meal?”
A meal? Bloom looked up at the ceiling. If it was outside, well, since the dinner had ended early yesterday, it should be quite a while. But inside the game?
“Um, never actually,” she kept the tone of her voice even, but her cheeks grew hot.
Thoringar stared at Bloom with her mouth open. Just when she’d started appreciating this girl a bit! She ran a hand over her face. “Just eat something and go home.”
“Just. Eat. Something. And. Go. Home.” she hammered the words straight into Bloom’s heart, giving her no chance at all. “If you really want to be the one to inform her, you can do it after you come back.” She blew a plume of blue, peppermint-scented smoke as she returned to her windowsill.
“Believe me, I don’t envy you that opportunity.”
“You look terrible!” Vikash said, his voice tighter than usual.
Chitra said nothing. For a moment, she sat, gripping her fist and staring into the darkness. She’d expected it, but it still caught her so off guard, it was almost jarring! terrifying! And it suffocated her.
she didn’t wanna be here.
Vikash narrowed his eyes. “What were you doing? Were you still playing the game?”
Chitra frowned at the unusually long second it took to track down the direction of her father’s voice. How come adjusting to the old sensations was so... difficult?
“Chitra?” Vikash asked again. “What happened? Were you still playing the game?”
Sighing, the girl pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. A neutral face and silent treatment felt like the best course of action right now. No way was she showing any guilt here.
“Do you know what time it is? Counting both times, you spent nearly 15 hours inside the thing.” Vikash shook his head, more amused than angry at her behaviour. “Now I’m doubting whether buying the game was the right thing.”
Chitra turned her head away, crossing her arms before her. “Then you should just go return it.”
Vikash rubbed his chin as he studied her. She was usually so sensible.
A late rebellious phase?
“Um, let’s stick to our agreement for now,” he said. “But you should get some sleep after you’ve had some breakfast.”
“Breakfast.” Bloom grimaced. the dry ash-like taste of the hard bread still fresh in her mouth. It’d taken five of those disgusting things to end that starvation message. She’d had no idea how to leave the game either. That was another embarrassing struggle. That damn system A.I. really had a good laugh at her expense. But if it didn’t point out the [Log out] command to her, she was thinking of dying twice again.
“By the way, I heard you didn’t meet the three of them inside the game?” Vikash asked as he pushed Chitra’s wheelchair out of the door.
“The three of whom?”
“Arun, Rose and the other kid. Damn! I forget his name every time!”
“Yeah, that boy. They told me they would show you around in the game, but apparently, you weren’t where they thought you’d be.”
Chitra frowned. The little girl A.I. did tell her about people from her area, choosing mostly Grandarc as their starting place. Had they been waiting there?
She shrugged. “None of them said anything about that.”
“Unreliable kids!” Vikash harrumphed. He ruffled her hair playfully. “So, you’re enjoying it there, huh!”
Chitra leaned on the back of her carriage, the events of the game, everything she’d experienced...
Thoringar, Elsa, Marcus... Greyvern…
A parent and a child, huh...
“Chitra?” Vikash called out to her, a little unsettled by the shift in mood.
“Father,” Chitra hesitated a second before setting her jaws firm. “I want to visit mom.”
Vikash jolted, stopping in the middle of the corridor as a grim shadow passed over his face.