“Okay!” Bloom cracked her knuckles and put her hands on the oaken double doors in front of her. She’d been standing outside the inn for five minutes already, but instead of settling her heart, the door seemed to get even heavier.
But she had to open them, or...
By the way. She thought. What did Thoringar want?
The blacksmith had wanted to tell her something before coming here, but Bloom didn’t wait to listen. What did she want exactly?
[You should’ve waited. She might’ve had something important to tell you.]
Bloom glanced at the message, sensing a subtle hint of frustration from it.
What’s that about?
She shook her head. No time to worry about those messages. At this point, it was just delaying the inevitable. Since she decided to be the one to do it, she couldn’t chicken out.
“Just go in and tell her, “Your boyfriend’s dead.” Take her to the grave. Easy.” She nodded to herself. “Whew! I’m ready!”
No, I’m not.
She pushed the door open and walked in as the bell hanging from the lintel started ringing. Unlike what she imagined, the circular hall stood empty, with no sign of noise or merriment the taverns from stories had. Dozens of empty chairs lay scattered everywhere, no innkeeper or barmaids tending to the bar. Other than the smouldering fireplace at a corner and the pale light of morning coming from the windows, the room was relatively dark.
“They must be sleeping,” she muttered, instantly turning back towards the door. “Yeah! No need to disturb them right now.”
The smell of freshly made bread, warm and inviting, wafted in with a light breeze, along with the muted sound of voices from somewhere. Bloom sighed, looking wistfully at the street outside the door, before turning around once again.
You just can’t escape life.
“I told you not to bother me, didn’t I? I am working now!” The hushed scolding from the other side of a door made Bloom’s heart skip a beat. Elsa’s voice!
Does she know I—
“Oh, come on, Elsa, Don’t be like that! I’m just concerned about you.” The sound of another voice came through; a grainy, relaxed voice with a strange drawl.
So it isn’t me. Bloom's stiff shoulders relaxed, but someone else had panic written in her words.
[Oh, hell no! It’s him!]
She raised her eyebrow at the message, but once again, Elsa’s rising voice drew her attention.
“I told you it’s none of your business. Now please leave. The bell rang just now. Our customers must be here.”
“Don’t worry! They could afford to wait a little. Just tell me what’s bothering you,” the male voice said. “I could help you out.”
[Let’s leave for now.]
Bloom frowned. Leave? Why would she?
[Trust me, you don’t want—]
The door swung open and Elsa walked in with a basket of bread in her hand. “Welco-“ She paused, spotting Bloom in the middle of her speech.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said unenthusiastically, sounding as tired as she looked. Tired and strained. The heavy frown etched into her brows destroyed her childish charm. Her eyes also had dark bags under them, like she was suffering from insomnia. She sighed.
Great! Another immortal to deal with! Just what I need right now.
Following Elsa, Fazi stepped out of the door and looked at Bloom. “The newbie!” he muttered. Just when they were looking for her. Was he lucky or what? A pity Raina was still at that ruined bandit camp.
He opened his mouth to greet Bloom, but before that Elsa strode forward. “What are you here for? A room or a meal?”
“No.” Bloom shook her head. Taking a deep breath, she looked straight into Elsa’s eyes. “I’m here for you.”
“Huh?” Elsa frowned. Here for her? What was with these immortals one after another? What do they think she is? A candy?
“Hey, new girl!” Fazi called out to her. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”
Bloom looked at the ginger-haired man. Wasn’t he badgering Elsa a while ago? Though she wasn’t a fan of the type, maybe she could try to get to know other players, but now...
“Not now. I’m busy,” Bloom sounded a bit ruder than she intended. Though, she had neither time nor the state of mind to care about that. She gritted her teeth and reached out, closing her long, slender fingers around Elsa’s wrist, and pulled at her. “Let’s go.”
“Hey! What are you doing? Let go of me!” Elsa struggled, trying to free herself, but Bloom was a lot stronger than before.
[Elsa’s affinity decreased by -5.]
“Uh, hey, new girl! You can’t just force her like that.” Fazi frowned. no nothing Rookies messing around is the worse sometimes; especially when they assault an NPC and end up in prison.
Besides, I had the dibs on her first.
Bloom bit her lips. She hesitated for a second before turning around and bringing her lips close to Elsa’s ears. “It’s about Marcus,” she whispered in a tight voice. “So please, come with me!”
“Markie?” Elsa’s exhausted eyes suddenly lit up. “Do you know where he is?”
“This isn’t the time to talk. Come.” Elsa dragged her and this time the shorter girl didn’t resist.
“Hey!” Fazi called out. Really, what was with both of them? Ignoring a handsome guy like him. “Hey, you… uh, what’syourname... Bubbles or something?” He quickly opened his option menu, making a few tweaks, and looked above Bloom’s head. His eyes widened. The girl was half a foot taller than him, but that didn’t dampen his shock.
That can’t be real!
He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but those two girls had already left.
“Hey, you! Boom! Wait!” He called out, running after them, but by the time he reached the door, Bloom and Elsa had already vanished from his sight.
“Fuck!” He scratched his head, surveying the twisted alleyways around the inn. Quite a few people were already out on the streets, but no sign of those two as far as he saw. He Sighed, opening the message interface, and connected to Raina.
<Guess who I met?>
<Who? Your mom?> Raina sent back.
Fazi raised his eyebrows. That was uncharacteristic.
<Why so cranky?> he asked.
<Why do you think?>
<Let me guess, you talked with Arslan?>
“Ooh!” He winced. Good thing he left that to her.
Dodged a bullet there.
<So who did you meet? Other than your mom?>
<I met the newbie.>
<Ah!> Raina paused briefly. <Congrats. What prize d’you want? A dance?>
<Don’t fuck with me, or I’ll block you!>
<Whoa! Calm down, alright? This is serious!> Fazi sent. <I just checked her level and guess who’s not a newbie anymore?>
<Did she level up?> Raina was surprised. Did she really? In Caramis?
<Yes, she did. And guess what her level is?>
<It couldn’t be more than 2, could it?>
<It is 2…>
<Oh! Not that surprising then.> Raina shrugged. The girl might’ve done one of those quests around Caramis. Usually, they weren’t worth the effort, but for a newbie...
<2 multiplied by 10. Oh! Also, throw in an extra 5.>
<What? Wait, a minute… 25?> Raina sprang up from the boulder she sat on.
<You got it.>
A few seconds after Fazi sent the answer, a message window popped up.
[You are receiving a video chat request from Raina. Would you like to accept? Yes/No]
“Yes, of course,” he muttered, accepting the call, and Raina’s face appeared on a screen before him. Her hair, today customized a dazzling blue, struck him first.
“Ugh!” He rubbed his eyes. “What’s with the colour? Couldn’t you choose red or something? I hate blue!”
“I know.” Raina twisted her lips. Why else would she choose such a colour? She craned her neck towards the screen, searching for something behind Fazi.
“You’re with her, right?” she asked. “Let me talk to her.”
“Uh…” Fazi looked away from the screen, staring at the cloudless morning sky.
Dammit! It’s blue too.
“...You didn’t!” Raina’s eyes cut into him like a razor blade.
“I- I kinda missed her? I mean—”
“You fucking moron!” She punched at the holographic screen, scaring Fazi back. The stupidity of this guy sometimes made her brain hurt. How could he let the only clue slip away? She’d already given Arslan one bad news earlier, and now...
Can’t be helped, I guess.
“I am connecting to Arslan now,” she said through clenched teeth. Her eyes fixed on Fazi, not letting him escape. “And you are connecting with me.”
Bloom dragged Elsa through the village streets, garnering a lot of attention from the passing villagers; though those cold, disapproving eyes had no effect on her. As for Elsa, her restless mind couldn’t care less. She fidgeted; the bad feeling weighing on her heart since Marcus disappeared had suddenly worsened to a new degree.
And it was still growing.
“Hey!” her voice shook a little as she pulled on Bloom’s arm. “Tell me what’s happening!”
Bloom opened her mouth, but the words died before they could reach her lips. She clamped her jaws shut and increased her pace, making it difficult for the other girl to keep up, and it raised Elsa’s anxiety further.
“Hey! Tell me, please!” she pleaded, stretching her neck to peer at Bloom, and her heart dropped into a pit. That pale expression of hers…
Something was wrong! Very wrong!
Has something happened to...
She pinched her eyes shut, trying to cut that thought off, but she failed. It clung to her mind like the root of a weed, burrowing ever deeper.
“You’re here, at last.” The stout, yet childish voice made Elsa want to run away. Aunt Thoringar!
Like many children of the village, the fairy blacksmith had always scared her. After all, as the tales go, fairies brought good luck, but they also took away little children to their world to clean their castles.
She was all grown up now! No need to fear!
Calming herself, Elsa looked around with alert eyes. They’d arrived in front of Greyvern’s hut. Her eyes lit up. Just as she thought. Marcus must be back! She turned towards the door of the hut, but it was still bolted shut from the outside.
“They… still aren’t back.” She felt disappointed, but there was also a sense of relief hidden in her heart.
“Elsa,” Thoringar called, becoming her to come closer.
“A- aunty,” Elsa’s shoulders stiffened as she tiptoed forward. After studying her carefully, Thoringar couldn't help but shake her head.
The girl still hasn’t told her.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she gently asked her.
Elsa looked at Bloom, but the taller girl refused to look at her. She stood with her eyes closed. Her scrunched up eyebrows twitched, reflecting the intense struggle inside her.
“Um... she told me it’s about Marcus,” Elsa timidly said, turning to Thoringar. “Do you know where he is?”
Thoringar glanced at Bloom once before sighing. “He—”
“Come with me,” Bloom said, interrupting her. She dragged Elsa towards two patches of fresh dirt below the maple tree beside the hut. Yesterday, when she came here to search for Marcus, she’d also seen those odd, rectangular patches of raised earth. Though they were a bit small, she’d thought they were new vegetable patches Greyvern made.
Bloom pulled Elsa towards those patches. Her fingers tightening around the other girl’s wrist drew a pained frown from her.
“He’s…” she began, gesturing at the patch on her right that looked slightly older. “He’s here!”
[WELCOME, VIKASH MUKHERJEE, PROXY OF CHITRA MUKHERJEE]
Registering his identity, Vikash touched the blue gear icon of the settings menu on the capsule. He lowered the opacity slider from the options, turning the liquid black lid transparent. Chitra lay on the soft, dark blue surface. Various luminous spots ran all over her body, following strange pathways and creating various circuits. Even with her eyes closed, some signs of distress still showed up on her face.
Vikash frowned, consulting the transparent user manual tab in his hand. According to it, some in-game events might evoke strong emotional responses within the player. Generally, they were harmless, but if the stress became too much for the user to bear, the machine had safety measures against it.
He narrowed his eyes, looking at Chitra’s face once again. He’d guessed it from seeing the rise in her heartbeat, but something was definitely stressing her out. What was she experiencing?
He sighed. No matter how it worried him, he could do nothing short of dragging her out of the game to help her. And she definitely wouldn’t be too pleased if he did that.
Besides, he had another thing to worry about.
Though he’d been delaying it, he knew the day would come sooner or later.
And now it’s here.
He exhaled, looking at Chitra’s face. The holiday was for three days, but since he had enough holidays saved up, maybe he'd stretch it to a week. She deserved at least that much. And when they reached there…
A sudden bout of nausea assaulted him. Gritting his teeth, he increased the opacity slider and concealed Chitra’s face from his view. When they reached there, he had to be ready.
Ready to break her heart once again.