“Pay proper attention to your studies. You made five mistakes today,” standing before the door, Chitra’s math tutor Miss Clara gave her a warning. She gave off a sterner vibe than usual today, though her voice still remained as interesting to listen to as ever. That French accent of hers was one of Chitra’s favourite.
She turned to look at the corner of the room, her hazel eyes studying the eight feet long blue and black capsule warily. Its sleek, seamless structure always made her heart a little restless.
“And do be careful with that game,” she said, trying to shrug off the feeling. “The mind is a delicate thing, and anything that can alter its perception this deeply is... extremely dangerous.”
“Thanks, Clara, I’ll keep it in mind.” Chitra smiled. “Though don’t worry too much. I understand the risk.”
“As long as you do. You are a sensible girl, so I won’t nag too much.” Clara sighed, looking at the girl. “Alright, I’ll be taking my leave now. Take care of yourself, Chitra.”
“Take care, Clara.”
The young tutor gave the capsule one last glance, shaking her head as she left through the door.
Chitra traced the advanced math theory book lying open on her lap. She read through the points Clara had highlighted, mulling over her words.
That’s two more than the last time.
Such a headache. Those thick textbooks were already a pain to wade through, and now this kind of result... It was kinda disappointing. She had to get her act together if she wanted admission to a good medical uni. But...
It isn’t easy.
Sighing, she closed the book and tossed it on the table. The wheels of her chair turned, driving her towards the capsule. She sat beside it for a moment, touching it with a complicated expression.
Clara called it dangerous, and not like Chitra never considered the possibility before. Though the things she went through inside the game gave her little time for those thoughts.
Should she just… stop playing? She’d just started with the game, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to let go.
Chitra shook her head. How could she? Even if she let go of her desire for sight, there was still...
No! She couldn’t stop. Instead, she needed to explore it more. She needed to make sure it was safe! Because if her conjecture was right...
No! It has to be right! It has to!
Chitra breathed out, relaxing her fists she didn’t notice clenching. Her father’s vacation would start two weeks later. Finally, after two whole years, she would be returning.
“I hope I’m right,” She whispered, leaning back on her chair. She wouldn’t be stopping anytime soon. Not because of some hypothetical danger that may not even exist.
Although not an entirely relieving decision, a stone lifted from Chitra’s heart. She smiled, humming a tune as her fingers inched towards the palm-sized, round start button on the side of the capsule.
Still an hour or so till her father returned from the office. Maybe she could play for a bit. She still had so much to do, after all. So much to see, so much...
Chitra’s expression soured in a second. She took her hand back from the machine and turned the wheelchair around.
After dinner it is.
[Bloom] swung her legs from the tree branch, overlooking the ruins of Greyvern and Ragnar’s battle under the light of a rising new moon. The branch of a tree was far from being comfortable; though she’d still taken a nap on it a few hours ago. She had no choice. Without Her, it wasn’t like She could book a room at the inn. And if she didn’t rest...
Wouldn’t She keel over from fatigue again?
It’d been more than a day since She left. Not being able to meet another person, only wandering around the jungle, trying her best to avoid the mobs and monsters; she wasn’t sure she enjoyed the freedom as much as last time.
When is She coming back?
A rumbling sound from afar drew her attention. “Horses!” she whispered, eyes widening. With a thrust of her hand on the branch, her whole body leapt into the thick cluster of leaves. Quietly hiding there, she peered at the trail that came down from the mountain and disappeared into the forest.
A group of ten horses trotted to a stop before the slope of the cliff. The creatures neighed and bulked. Their restlessness reflected their rider’s as they took in the devastating scenery in front of them.
“Well, damn...!” Fazi breathed out after some time. “So the whole ‘destroyed mountain’ part was literal, huh!” he turned towards Raina and asked, “What d’you think did it? An earthquake or something?”
Raina ran her eyes over the trees surrounding the cliff. They looked undamaged. “Can’t tell. I need to investigate,” she said, starting to dismount. But before she could, the Village chief’s butler, Argon, took action. He spurred his horse on towards the ruined hideout without waiting for the others.
“Let’s advance!” Vogan said, gesturing at them to follow Argon. His mood had already plummeted to rock bottom even before reaching here. “Search everything! Find me clues! I want to know what happened here.”
[Bloom] peeked her head out of the canopy, watching the riders hold up their torches as they slowly made their way through the ruins. Even though she’d only seen them once, she still recognized a few of them. The two players and the butler. They should be here to find out what happened to the bandits.
Took them long enough.
[Bloom] smiled, squinting her eyes to watch their activity. But as the riders went further, other than the dim glow of their torches, she couldn’t make out much of the details. She slithered down the trunk of the tree. Taking cover in the darkness and the rocky terrain as she followed them.
Fazi rubbed his palm on one side of the huge ravine dividing the ground. So smooth! Almost like glass.
Fuck me! That can’t be normal.
He jumped up from the crevice, walking towards Raina who knelt beside the corpse of a bandit. “I’d thought some kinda natural disaster hit the place.”
“Yeah,” Raina said, pushing a lock of hair behind her ears as she stood up. “It’s an unnatural disaster.”
“You still have time to joke!” Fazi shook his head, exasperated. “This looks like an end-level boss fight! One way beyond our level.”
Raina nodded, holding something up for Fazi to see. “Whoever attacked the hideout wasn’t alone, though.”
“An arrow?” Fazi squinted, using his [Night Vision] skill to examine the object carefully. He looked at Raina with some doubt in his eyes. “Isn’t that just a captain level bandit’s arrow?”
“It is, but I found them stuck inside more than one bandit.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Infighting?”
“I wouldn’t know. But this?” Raina twirled the arrow between her fingers. “A bandit didn’t shoot it.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an NPC.”
“Not an NPC? Then who?” Fazi stared at her. “You don’t think a player did it?”
“Yea, I do.”
“No fucking way!” Fazi shook his head, pointing at the ravine he’d been studying. “Not even Arslan can do that. And he’s the best goddamn player in the whole game!”
“No, not that. I’m guessing the player tagged along with whoever attacked the place. He only picked off some stray bandits.”
“How can you tell?”
Raina pointed at the corpse she’d been checking. “Some of them don’t have any gear on them. Mostly the ones the archer killed.”
“What does that—”
“Gee, you dumbass! The ones he killed got auto looted. The rest...” Raina raised her torch to reveal a few dozen bodies half-buried within the rubble; though there should be way more than those scattered throughout the ruins. “I mean, most of ‘em still have their equipment.”
“So one of those loonies who don’t loot the dead,” Fazi nodded. “Talk about a waste,” he said, starting a search for the unlooted bodies. It didn’t take him long to start emptying their pockets.
“Who d’you think was it, though?” he asked after one round of search and retrieve. “We’re about the only players in the area.”
“There’s another one,” Raina pointed out. “Remember that girl?”
“Girl? Which girl?” Fazi frowned. “Oh! You don’t mean that newbie?”
Raina nodded. “She—” She stopped, noticing Fazi stare hard at her forehead, making a peculiar face. “What are you doing?”
“Checking you for brain damage,” Fazi said, thumping his chest. “You don’t know, but I have a degree in psychology in the—” He snapped his head to the side, dodging the arrowhead Raina thrust at him by a few inches.
“Fuck!” He spat, glaring at the black smoke-like energy coiling around the tip of the weapon. “Did you just use [Assassinate] on me?”
“Yeah. And let’s hope there’s no next time.” Raina’s lips curved in a sweet smile like poisoned honey. “Cause I don’t miss often.”
Fazi gave her a nasty look. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” he said. “You’re suspecting a level one. If that’s not crazy talk—”
“So what? I never said it’s her. But she is the only one here other than us.”
“Oh, come on! There’s a reason they are called noobs.”
Raina shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to look into it a bit, does it?”
“Well, all right! If you really wanna,” Fazi said, throwing his hands up. “But I don’t wanna deal with a newbie, so let’s just tell Vogan to keep an eye out.”
[Bloom] hid behind the charred remains of a house. Watching the two players head further into the ruins where the others had gathered, she exhaled slowly.
So they are suspecting Her.
She shook her head. The information was useless to her. After all, with the shackle of rules all around her, she had no way to Interfere.
She couldn’t even leave Her a hint.
“Might as well,” she whispered, stepping out of the ruins. She could, at least, follow these guys a bit. Maybe learn something useful. Who knows, she might even get a chance to help Her out somehow.
She tailed them, keeping out of their sight as she had been. But in the darkness of night, one of her feet struck a small stone hiding in the shadows. [Bloom] stopped in her tracks, clenching her fists as she stared at the object roll down the rocky slope like it was a live grenade.