The party of five ran through the thick woods as fast as they could, vanishing between the leaves and the speckled moonlight.
'Where is the damn thing-?!' one of the group hissed, coming to a sudden stop and turning around, staring back at the way they'd just come. 'Liablo?'
The rest of the group froze, looking around. One was missing. They'd been a group of six. Mismatched, true, a group made of a two Elves, a Faerie, a Beast and an Imp, but they also had been in the company of a Marina, a type of creature most suited to swimming away from trouble, not running.
One of the Imps closed his eyes, his mossy-brown hair ruffling in the light breeze. Listening. Sensing. He pointed to the east, and flung upon his eyes. 'Get ready-!'
An immense creature that looked like the mutated offspring of a giant wolf and a crocodile burst out of the undergrowth, snapping its pointed snout, teeth glinting in the weak light.
Immediately, the group knew what to do. They'd gone over this previously. The Faerie and one of the Elves fell back, staffs in hand as they waited to fulfil their roles, while the Beast unsheathed a massive sword from the scabbard on his back. The other Elf nodded, and pulled out her own weapon, an iron cast bow. This close to the creature was a strange place for her to be, but she hadn't a choice. The healers were behind her, the monster in front. She could still fire a shot, even at this range. The Imp who had warned them of the incoming danger slapped a device on his wrist and disappeared from sight.
The battle had begun.
The Beast was, naturally, the first in the fray, letting out a wolf call of his own before swinging his weapon around. 'Eternal Dicer!' he yelled as the sword connected with the monster's giant paw. Immediately, the Archer Elf leapt backwards, out of the way of the raging, aggro beast, and let lose a volley of arrow bolts, one after the other.
The last one had a stun bolt in it.
'Mess with us, huh!?' the Beast lay into the monster, slamming his sword into its back repeatedly as it lay on the ground, twitching, the paralysis slowly wearing off. Slowly… slowly… off.
It leapt to its scaly feet, claws each as big as a fist slamming into the dirt as it launched itself at the Beast - and changed its mind, rushing the two weak members at the back. The Faerie went down first, his strangled warning cry cut short as the monster's claws sunk into his chest. Then the body of the dead one burst apart into blue tears that slowly spun around, until they faded away.
'Xeemon's dead!' the Elf armed with a staff yelled out, immediately flicking the switch on his belt. He was wearing a jumpjet, a metal contraption that would work like a jetpack. It's range wasn't much, but it was useful in a tight emergency, shooting him up into the air for a few seconds.
Just a few seconds.
Enough time for their Beastly swordsman to come blazing towards the monster, sword extended ahead of himself. The tip burrowed into the monster's chest and kept travelling through, while the Archer at the back desperately fired off shot after shot, cursing as she fumbled around with the quiver on her back. There were less and less arrows, it was harder to grab onto one.
And the disappearing Imp flashed back into view, a copper gizmo in his hand. It was a round bauble, shiny and pristine, with a little red light blinking on the top. That little red light didn't usually blink. He shoved it into monster's gaping jaws, yelling out in pain as the teeth clamped down on his arm and straight through-!
'Retreat! This is ridiculous!' the Beast announced, striking the monster to distract it, giving the Imp enough time to scramble to his feet and run away. But the Imp didn't run.
'We can take it on-'
'Are you kidding? How much health you got left-?'
'We're the strongest-!' the Imp jumped onto the monster's back, pulling a knife out of his pocket and trying to plunge the little sharp point through a thick tuft of fur. The knife didn't go in. It shattered in his hand. 'What-?' his eyes went wide, mouth gaping open. Ideas. Idea… I need ideas... I need just one, a good one-!
'Hades' Rainfall-!' a voice called out. An unfamiliar voice for all in the party, except the Imp riding the wolf-crocodile's back. 'Everyone else, fallback!'
The others scrambled to their feet and - confused - stayed where they were. Then a shiver went across their spines. Move it. Now.
Just as a sudden downpour of burning flames bombarded the monster - and the Imp still on its back.
And it was over.
The flames fizzled out, the monster's charred body thumped into the muddy dirt and burst apart into thousands of blue teardrop-shaped crystals. Small pouches of money bags and a number of items scattered around the area.
And the mystery newcomer revealed himself from the tree line. 'You guys are insane for taking on a scaly woldine on your own like that-'
'On our own!?' the Beast ran up to the newcomer, yelling and spitting into the Elf's face. 'You piece of trash, this was our battle-!'
'And you lost three of your party, well done, you're a fantastic leader.'
A groan came from the mud nearby, and the Elf amended his figure. 'Sorry, only two, never mind, that's immensely better. Up here, you're practically beggers, you should go back a few islands, Attami would be more your pace-'
'You jerk, Hoax!'
Hoax froze, blinking his red eyes in surprise at hearing his name being called.
The Imp who'd been on the scaly woldine's back now stood up, covered in mud and burn marks, missing an arm. 'Why'd you get involved!'
'I helped… DeadLock.'
The Beast growled, staring from one to the other. 'You two friends?'
Confused as to which said what, the Beast just stared, while the rest of his group - the two Elves, gathered their senses and stood next to him, weapons and staffs pointed and aimed at the interloper.
'This wasn't your battle!' the Beast announced.
'What's your name?'
Hoax raised an eyebrow, 'a simple name considering your appearance. Right… perhaps not my battle, but you lot got in my way and ruined my own hunt. Now cart your sorry selves out of here.'
'You, sir, are a loser,' muttered one of the Elves as they mimicked Hoax's clipped tone of voice with an additional sneer.
'And you're an idiot.'
The Beast growled again, then glanced at DeadLock. 'Why aren't you saying anything now? You led us up here-!'
DeadLock's eyes widened. 'I… that's not… well, to say… um…'
'Get the hell out of here,' Hoax grumbled at the rest of the party, 'stupid beggers, you shouldn't have gotten up to the first island yet if you're not-'
'Just leave them alone, I was meant to help-!'
'Yeh, great job, Lockie.'
The Imp breathed in sharply, and finally ran into the woods. Any longer there, he would have lashed out at someone, hit someone. Stupid…!
The Beast watched their guide leave, and stared back at the dangerous, menacing being before him, not registering the thick aura of hatred and pushing through with his own arrogance. 'I oughtta duel ya-!'
Hoax smiled grimly. 'Really? A nameless begger like you against the Hellfire Hoax?'
The Elves' took a step back. They hadn't heard his name until now. And now… they knew what was the correct reaction. Turn around, run away, and don't mention it. He was the most powerful…
At least now, the Beast also faltered, sensing that his backup was trying to backflip.
'Uh… so…? I'm one of the best swordsmen from the-'
Hoax drew out his sword, a thin rapier, and held it at the Beast's throat. 'You do realize in five more seconds, I can bring damnation on your head, burning flames, and your level is nowhere near DeadLock's - you won't be able to withstand it. Shall we try-? Four… three… two…'
The Beast grumbled his annoyance, and stepped away. 'Stupid… you guys at the top think you're so fantastic? Just watch, the rest of us will catch up soon enough… and we're not beggers!'
'Mm-hm, bye-bye…' Hoax muttered impatiently, showing them away. Finally.
He had a question to DeadLock, but the Imp had run off, probably activating an invisibility field around himself. Talk about stupid… well, DeadLock was also one of the "guys at the top". Maybe Mr Wolf Beast had a point about the stupid…
'Oi! DeadLock! Show up here in ten seconds or I strip your account so you've only got underpants left!'
The silence of the woods at night was rather loud, if you listened long enough. Creatures scuttled amongst the leaves, monsters like the woldine would be out on the hunt, and the breeze was starting to pick up, playing its own haunting tune through the treetops.
But in amongst it all…
'You wouldn't dare…'
Hoax smiled weakly at the knife being pressed into his back. 'Really? That little toy's not gonna do much damage-'
'Why'd you ruin that? I was trying to help those guys level up a little faster, they're in my guild-'
'I had a question-'
'You also almost burned me to a crisp, I activated a shield just in time, but that still stung-!'
'Yeh, sorry about that. I had a question-'
'I'm not sure you've actually quite noticed but-'
DeadLock froze. And stared at the Elf before him. That fearful aura about him had faded, now he just looked sheepish, scratching his cheek nervously.
'April's…' DeadLock pursed his lips as he thought about the answer. After all, it had only been two months since they had made a shocking discovery about Hoax, and she hadn't returned since then. He hadn't seen her, for two months… after finally telling her the truth.
'I didn't want to tell her for this exact reason, that I might hurt her more than-'
'She's fine… just busy, with work… we're showing a preview new sci-fi game at Comic Con this week… she's busy with that…'
Hoax nodded at the logic of routine. 'Oh, okay… that's… but what about… you know…?'
'Hm. Well, the creepy Imp doc guy is lurking around all the time now, he's fascinated by what sort of trauma she must be going through, so…' DeadLock shrugged. 'I dunno. I guess she'll be fine.'
'Please tell her-'
'I'm not telling her anything from you. You didn't even tell me who you were, so why would-'
'I didn't know who you were, it's not exactly something I advertise to strangers-!'
There was no arguing that point. DeadLock nodded slowly, still trying to come up with some sort of comment to retaliate with, but his mind was blank. The nodding continued… and finally, he blinked, shaking his head and snapping out of the empty thoughts. 'Look, just… we're all trying to help her, honestly, she seems to be taking it better than expected. In the meantime, I still hate your guts, want to make it up to me?'
Hoax glanced down at the smallish Imp in sudden horror. 'What the hell-?'
'You've always hated my guts, why on earth would I be trying to make up for that, hm?' Hoax laughed at the notion, shaking his head and wiping tears from his eyes. 'Go home, Thomas, you're still an idiot…'
DeadLock shrugged his shoulders. 'Whatever, see you, loser,' he muttered, waving open his HUD and clicking the <logout> button in the bottom left corner.
'See you…' Hoax told him, just as he spun out into oblivion, a collection of shining golden tears, 'friend…'
'What about the new sci-fi game you guys said you're working on last year? Is it any closer to completion?' the speaker, a guy dressed in a Darth Vader costume, asked into the microphone, his voice shaking nervously but his question demanded an answer. He was clenching his sweaty hands in an attempt to grab more courage. Maybe he wanted to run away from the microphone and the limelight, but not the attention shifted away from him, towards the people whom he had just asked the question.
And I just looked at the rest of the panel. 'I guess I would rather leave that question with our lead games designer but he isn't actually on the panel here… we are still working on that project, but it's taking some time-'
'Rumours are that it's a lot of talk and not much actually done about it.'
For a nervous guy, he sure had guts. The hand clenching must've worked miracles.
'Yeh, well, all things considered, there hasn't been a lot of time to do anything, you know,' I grumbled back, biting my lip. Insolent Vader… but I didn't have to continue. Someone in the audience turned around and yelled at the interrogator.
'Dude, have some respect!'
'As a company, a small hiccup like that can't slow them-' Mister Rude Vader continued.
I couldn't help but look away. I wanted to yell, but this was a situation of earning the respect of the public. Having a panel at the local Comic Con was supposed to help us. Until this guy showed up. And a small hiccup!? My father's… his… he passed away only half a year ago. Hiccup indeed.
Vi-Real's cunning Products Manager, Baxter Onus, smiled at me, thick pudgy cheeks tinted pink. I wasn't sure if he was actually fuming, or finding the situation just embarrassing, but he took the microphone himself. 'Lord Vader, allow me, you're right, generally a situation like that shouldn't influence the company too much, except that David Caulfield, even as the CEO of Vi-Real, was in fact the source of many ideas for our video games and other projects. Since his passing just over half a year ago, it's been chaotic trying to make sense of the notes he had left us, and trying to combine it all with something that we could continue working on without his help. But the sci-fi game is well underway now, the story editor and script writers are coming up with a story line, the game designers are all pitching in and working overtime trying to get the project together.'
'In that case, can we have some sort of insider info about it? It's sci-fi, so what's it about? Has it got aliens-?'
One of the staff tapped Vader's shoulder, muttering something about him only having one question and that it was time to sit down.
But Onus was laughing. 'Let him have that one, I think many in the audience are curious… It will be humans only, although there is a lot of freedom in customization of an avatar, if you wanna be green-skinned, bald, long-limbed, whatever… but still, essentially, a human. No aliens. Unlike the maps in Coppion where you would have to walk or teleport to another region, this new project has spaceships and starhoppers, space-stations, different planets to explore and so on… It's all about space exploration, exploring an entire solar system, with career paths as opposed to the previous clear cut races and classes. So you could follow a path within the law, or outside, be a bounty hunter, or smuggler, or cosmic officer, whatever we name it. But we'll be releasing that information as we go, I hope that was enough to whet the appetite, hm? Who's next, I'm ready for the next question,' he glanced at myself and our creative director, Lexander Marr. 'You?'
We nodded. Vader could go blow up a planet now. Any planet. Even this one, we weren't picky, so long as he stopped this current conversation. After all, the thought of me being the one who slowed the company down for a few months since we lost my father weighed heavily upon my mind as it was. I didn't need someone pointing it out publicly. Stupid hiccup…
Someone dressed in jeans and shirt that had a lego brick printed on it came up to the microphone, clearing her throat. 'Um, my question was actually for, uh… the lead programmer, so… I'm not sure… uh…'
There were meant to be four of us on this panel, myself, April Caulfield, as of yet not quite sure what my job here is at all, plus the two I'd already mentioned, Baxter Onus and Lexander Marr. But the last one was missing. Thomas Lockheed as a no-show, his chair empty, his name card lonely and betrayed.
'You know, I've suffered enough lectures from him that there's an off-chance I might be able to answer the question,' I said with a weak smile. 'Or, at least, I'll give it a shot…'
'Oh, my question was about the programming of the Visiongear, because a virtual reality environment that you can interact with is difficult to program, and currently… basically… impossible. I'm actually a programmer myself, I was wondering how the Visiongear works, because I…' she looked away.
And Onus smirked. 'Tried to have a peek at the code, did you?'
She blushed and kept her head down.
'Relax, not attacking!' Onus laughed. 'But certainly judging. Seriously, well done for getting that far, I'd be tempted to ask if you wanted to work for us… as for your question, I think Miss Caulfield is indeed the person to answer that, hm…?'
I glared at Onus. There was only one answer. With a sigh, I looked at the programmer standing nervously behind the microphone in the aisle. 'The answer is really simple. And I'm afraid it was already given last time here. And the time before. We seriously don't know.'
'At all. Jonathan Williams wrote an entire new language to make Coppion a VRE as advanced as it is… but after he died, we lost all ability to really… I mean, he left us with a special program that allows us to make changes and adapt it, but the original code itself, nobody here knows it, nobody here can read or understand that language… sorry.' Thing is, I really wasn't lying.
After all, Thomas wasn't here. And that was information we didn't need advertised. For a moment, I was relieved that the idiot hadn't shown up. But…
There was some itchy silence as the next question arrived at the microphone, scantily clad as one of the Elves from our flagship game, Copper Dominion - more often just named Coppion. But the moment was enough.
I leaned over to Onus. 'Where the heck is Thomas?'
'I dunno… I sent him a text and everything…' Onus murmured back to me, careful to keep smiling at the audience even though I could sense he was about as agitated and worried as me. Thomas could probably barely find his way home from work, let alone to the convention centre. He was supposed to come with us from work, but he never showed and we assumed he'd already made his way here.
He wasn't here either.
'Idiot-' I muttered, leaning back in my chair.
'Smile, April, you're on camera… cameras…'
He wasn't wrong. Everyone had a camera in their hands, or at least it seemed like everyone.
'After this, I kill him.'
'In Coppion, thanks, I'm not covering up a murder…'
Onus was good. His sly, casually thrown comments that sounded just a little too sincere were what I needed to smirk.
There was a question waiting. So I smiled and nodded to the Elf.
She asked about the Island Skies expansion of our game and if we would be adding more to it or finishing with the five islands we'd already added. That was a simple one to answer. We all shrugged. 'Dunno,' 'see how it goes,' and 'maybe yes, maybe no,' were our responses.
Then, a bearded man grabbed the microphone, and for a moment, something about him unsettled me. Why? It took me a moment before it finally struck me. He was only staring at one person on our panel, and I'm pretty sure he'd been staring since earlier, too. He'd been staring at me.
I tapped Onus' knee under the table, my eyes still focused on the man, a false smile still plastered to my face. Please be fast enough, I thought to myself.
'So, my question's basically for the little girly there…' he scratched his butt casually. 'Coz you know, you're the only girl up there. So are you basically just eye candy to manipulate guys into buying Visiongear? Like those half-naked ladies on cars?'
'I don't see how in the year 2024, this could still be a reasonable topic to discuss-' Onus cut in.
'It's totally reasonable. There ain't much women in IT, right? Probably Missy Caulfield up there's the only one in the office with a-'
Marr suddenly stood up, his silence powerfully overwhelming. He didn't even say anything yet, just staring in wide-eyed shocked. The movement was distracting enough for the bearded man to stop talking.
My cheeks were burning red.
Onus started mumbling some sort of response that we do have women working in our company- but I stopped him, holding out a hand.
'Excuse me, Mister Onus, the question was for me… We have the best working in each department, and you're right, there still aren't that many women working in STEM fields, so if we take the best, statistics will skew the result to be mostly men. That said, our acting-CEO is a woman, four out of twelve lead roles in our company have women in them, as well as countless other programmers, artists, scientists and researchers, all working together. If anything, I think our overall percentage is far more even than most other companies. As for why I specifically am up here, that's because I was invited. I didn't buy my way in…'
I left the words hanging and glanced back at Onus when he snorted a laugh. My comment had been a subtle sting, if one thought about it.
And Mr Beard didn't get it. He just continued his rant, peppered with expletives and claiming that my presence on the panel was merely for eye-candy. Finally some security showed up and dragged him away. The staff apologized to the microphone, just as someone else in the audience quickly hopped up and took it from the staff.
'Could I just say, that guy's opinion is totally not the opinion of most of us here, we understand Vi-Real's had a few setbacks recently and it's just taking time for everyone to find their feet again. Also, we understand your role, Miss Caulfield, in the non-gaming projects Vi-Real has now started working on such as the Sekai Gallery and Yuno Mall, both awesome ideas, so, on behalf of everyone in the room right now, that guy's a jerk, sorry…'
The audience seemed about as confused as I was. Then, some started to clap slowly, their way of agreeing with his sentiment, but puzzled as to what nerve gave him the strength to say it. That was… nice… I smiled at him weakly. 'Thanks…'
'April-!' a voice yelled out from the back of auditorium, and I saw the flash of black cloth and red scarf that ran down the aisle and powered for the stage. Staff were too slow to react and the madman jumped up onto the stage, almost slamming into the table right in front of me. 'April! Someone was actually cosplaying DeadLock!! How awesome is that-!?'
'Get down-!' one of the security officers started, but the insane fool just showed him his ID pass and kept telling me of his awesome misadventure made up mostly of him getting distracted the whole time.
'Thomas Lockheed, everyone!' Onus announced, pointing to the latecomer who seemed to have suddenly realized that he'd been pointing his backside at a massive room full of people. Face flushing pink, he nervously turned to face them, giving a sheepish wave before hopping over to the other side of the table and taking his seat next to me.
'Feel like a superstar…' he muttered to himself, grinning as people applauded him.
I just stared. 'Where've you been…?'
'Ah…' his face went pink. 'I… got held up…'
'Mm… Lucen Pora, on Kalitha…'
Kalitha? I rolled my eyes. Sky Islands. There were five in the game; Attami, Jantha, Kalitha, Louna Atoll, and Kitto's Peak - this idiot was late because he was playing a videogame. Unfortunately, this wasn't surprising. If anything, I was annoyed with myself for not including such a possibility.
The panel continued.
The questions continued, but thankfully, nobody like the bearded man appeared again.
Comic Con… that had been my first time on the panel. I remember a couple years ago when dad did that, he was up there with Onus and Marr, as well as Markus Wong who has been the lead VR interface designer ever since I could remember. Full-immersion virtual reality was difficult enough on its own, and we were the only company to have succeeded. If not for Wong suffering a massive flu, it would've been him, not troublesome Thomas, sitting as the fourth member of our panel.
I used to dress up for this thing, I kinda miss cosplaying… I'm too busy now, I thought to myself as I wondered around the stalls, looking at all the products and books and CVCs on sale. One stall was selling DVDs and people were poking around just for the nostalgia. A shiny disc that was easily scratched and damaged? What on earth were we thinking back then? Everyone had switched to the digital cinematic video cards now.
I paused. The voice was soft, gentle, and out of place. Out of place, because I knew it, and this was not the place for it to exist.
'Hm… I was in the hall, saw the commotion… some people are rude…'
My mouth dropped open and I stared at him. 'You did not just say that-?'
I shut up. Milo was difficult. He'd taken an interest in some recent trauma of mine and now he wouldn't leave me alone. He was a psychiatrist, a fancy title to his fancy name, Doctor Milo Eustacius Donavon, and with his calm, gentle manner and beautifully handsome facial features, he tended to attract a lot of attention. Not even yet thirty, good-looking in a gentlemanly way, stylish sense of clothing, incredibly intelligent, and highly successful, I often thought he'd taken on all the talents every mediocre person missed out on. Except for one thing.
He was, first and foremost, the nastiest person I'd ever met.
'Hmph. Anyway, why are you even here? Can't imagine you being interested in most of this stuff,' I muttered, waving a hand at "this stuff" - a collection of virus and bacteria shaped plushies that happened to be on the table beside me. Oh, maybe he would be into something like that, being a bit of a bacteria himself… no, bacteria are living. He was a virus, a creepy thing that mimicked life and injected itself where it didn't belong… ah that sounded more lewd than I meant. I grimaced at my mental description, thankful that I hadn't spoken it out loud. He'd never let me live it down.
'Mm, the twins wanted to come… folks sent them up to me, so I'm supposed to be watching them-'
'Then one major flaw in that,' I pointed out. 'You've misplaced them already.'
'Nuh, they're just waiting in line for some autograph… one of those people who played in the last Star Wars movie… I didn't pay attention, but anyway, they're over there… figured I'd have a walk…'
'Take in the sights…?'
A half-naked woman walked past us at that moment, whatever character she was dressed at would quickly die of hypothermia, I figured, considering there was a light chill in the air outside. My eyes quickly darted up to Milo's keen, deep blue gaze.
He was watching the barely-dressed lady a little too intently, and the corner of his lips curled up into a sneer. 'If I wanted such sights, I'm sure there are plenty other places for me to go where the sight would be… better…
And there it was. I was wondering where he'd misplaced his venom.
Our conversation had been too amicable so far.
'Anyway, you'd best look after those twins, hm? I'm off, got stuff to do, panels to talk at and-'
He had the event program in his hand, and gently tapped my forehead with it. 'Liar. That was the only panel you have. The others are staying, I assume you are, too. I'm bored so-'
'I don't want to-'
'I didn't finish saying anything yet…'
I grimaced. I didn't want him to finish talking. Please let me go. Please don't bother me. Please go annoy somebody else, why do I have to be the one who knows you're a mean person? Any of those would be great. But I said nothing. He had a point, and I wasn't sure how to argue it without betraying my thoughts.
'Anyway… I said, I'm bored. It's past lunch, and the only food I've seen so far was pocky sticks and bottles of ramune, I need something more substantial… you haven't eaten, either, I'd guess. Where's some actual food?'
Captured prey. I lowered my head. 'Fine… it's this way…'
Lunch was hot bowl of chips, thickly cut with chicken salt sprinkled across it. For a tiny café like this, and a meal as basic as bits of fried starch, it was surprisingly good. Even Milo had to agree on that point.
But then he was promptly back to normal, watching people milling past, his eyes judging them to pieces before tossing them aside like refuse. I learnt quickly, he hated people. Certain people. I don't think there was anything more disgusting on the planet to him than "plebs".
'You don't know for certain…' I suddenly said, fed up his painful glare.
'If they're just losers or something… you don't know. They could be important people. Or awesome people… or even just… good people…'
He nodded. 'Of course. Individuals may have a reason to a second glance, but on the whole…'
'Why are you a psychologist, then? You help people, but you condemn them…'
'Hm. I help them because I've condemned… I suppose. I have my reasons, and it is an area of interest for me… a scientist who studies viruses probably doesn't particularly want to actually get a virus, I would assume…'
'I should've bought you one of those virus plushies at that stall…'
That made him smile. 'Hm. I could put it in my office.'
'Seriously, won't your brothers be looking for you? Or did you lie about them being here?'
He shook his head, holding up his phone. There was a message from someone called Remi; <oi buttface we still waiting. plz buy me somethin cool oki???>.
Milo shrugged. 'Younger brothers. Crazy younger brother, in particular. He renamed everyone, his twin is Other Me, oldest sister is Missy Nice, younger older sister is Missy Mean, and… I'm Buttface… I sometimes wonder if he honestly doesn't know our names…'
'Like Thomas honestly doesn't know where he lives…' I giggled a little at the joke that I keep battling against. I shouldn't say that, really…
'Still sleeps in his lab?'
'Hm. He's looking thinner… does he remember where food is at least?'
I grimaced. I noticed that, too, recently. But I thought maybe it was just me, that I imagined it. If Milo said it, though, then as much as he was a pain, I have to admit that he's probably right.
My silence closed down the conversation, which for most people should be an uncomfortable experience. Anyone else would've tried to restart the dialogue a couple of times, gotten tired of their own voice and looked for an excuse to leave.
Not Milo. He answered my silence with his own, eating the last few chips before wiping his hands with a napkin and taking out his phone. I couldn't imagine him being one to spend much time on facebook, and with his usual professional aura, I figured he was checking him emails.
The silence continued.
Now I definitely felt awkward.
'I should probably go,' I muttered, getting to my feet.
'See you…' replied the unattached and disconnected man, not even looking up. 'Oh.'
He handed me his phone. 'Well, would you look at that…?'
My cheeks flushed red. He wasn't checking emails after all! He'd gone onto the paperfan site and sifted through pages and pages of Comic Con posts from when I was a teenager. And sure enough, he found a few photos of me in costume. And of course the one he felt compelled to show me was a particular wardrobe malfunction during my attempt at dressing as Sailor Moon... when my skirt fell off. I didn't realize that photo had been immortalized in some dark, distant corner of the internet.
'Really…!?' I yelped out, grabbing the phone out of his hands and trying to - I'm not sure. Obviously I couldn't delete it off other people's pages, so maybe I just wanted it out of his hands. 'And… and why were you even looking that up!?'
He plucked the phone back, smiling weakly. 'I have to amuse myself somehow.'
'How on earth is that even amusing!?' I fumed, but we were in public. I wanted to slap him. Instead, I barely raised my voice, letting my eyes do the slapping for me. If looks could kill…
And Milo's lips curled into that usual sneering smile of his. 'Trust me, the photo's a catalyst for something amusing. Anyway, you were planning on going somewhere?'
'Yes, of course, ladies' toilets, see you.'
There were ladies' toilets nearby and I walked briskly like my bladder was really dependent on the speed of my feet - though my only urge was to get away from him. Even he wouldn't go into the ladies' toilets… would he…?
After waiting ten minutes in the queue, I finally used a toilet, and in the quest to wash my hands I managed to slip in between an overly armoured character from a show I didn't recognize and a larger-sized girl who honestly probably didn't realize how much room she was taking up to reach the sink. My face was still burning pink from embarrassment but everyone else here looked flushed enough from either the chaos or the struggle of using a toilet while in costume. I was camouflaged, stranger in the crowd, just part of the scenery.
Bearded man's comment was still going around in my head. Did I wear the wrong clothes? I sighed. I was wearing a t-shirt with a few of the Disney princesses printed on it, but they were all dressed up as Jedi. I thought this sort of place would justify themed shirts, but my mind kept going back to the bearded man in the hall. He wasn't the first to accuse me of something like that.
Recently, I'd been hearing it a lot.
As if the moment I try to just be me, I have to be condemned by others. Because it's wrong, or something. I don't even know what exactly they're condemning.
In any case, time had passed, and I slipped out of the bathroom, sighing with relief that Milo had gone. There were panels I wanted to go see, too, and the Artists' Alley was always interesting to check out. That, and a friend of mine was supposed to get here eventually, too, I just had to survive until my phone rings.
Survive in a crowd?
I was better off in the toilet stall.
I was waiting for my friend, Hilary, to arrive, and I managed to walk right past her without realizing. She'd dressed up in a massive blue ball dress and had a blue top hat with a blue organza veil that hid her face. I was looking for her to be in something pink. Even though she was a few years older than me, she had a constant obsession with bright pink things and tended to dress like a kid. Overgrown, plump kid, aged twenty-eight and wondering why everyone seemed to question her sanity and maturity. I learned quickly that judging her by her cover didn't work, and today I managed to fall in the trap yet again.
'What…?!' I stared at her. 'What are you-?'
'I'm the TARDIS! I saw this dress, it's definitely TARDIS blue, so I simply had to! And I made the hat myself, look, there's a little light at the top!'
I blinked. Then shook my head in disbelief. 'That is…'
'I've already photodumped on paperfan, got so many stamps on it… might even make the hall of fame, soon!'
'Whoever made that site knew their target audience, that's for sure…'
'Mm-hm much better than the old ones, I think it overtook tumblr almost instantly… too many normal people on tumblr at one point, they didn't understand the rest of us…' she said proudly, and I couldn't help but smile.
'At least you know where you stand…'
Admitting that the "normal" people didn't include yourself was an interesting deal, and being proud of it was even more intriguing. But that was Hilary, what did she care what other people think? Other than the fact that she was scarred by what people think. I always worried about her. She wasn't obese, just a little on the chubby side, but the constant bullying about it since she was young made it her single weakness.
'Mm, sorry, I missed your panel, I was stuck in traffic, I can't believe I was late…! Anyway, what shall we do now?' Hilary was still asking me the question while already pulling out her program and answering it herself, telling me where we would be going and what we'd be looking at without waiting for a reply.
I just smile and nodded. Every occasionally, it's good to have a break from thinking. I followed her around as she went from stall to stall, searching through books and manga and CVCs, and at some point buying half a dozen posters in the Artists' Alley. I was the pack mule, carrying everything for her while she looked at posters and plushies and bobbleheads and other collector items.
'Bet you wished you didn't run off now, huh?'
I grimaced. 'Milo-'
'Milo?' Hilary spun around, bursting into a grin. 'Hi! I didn't know you'd be here!'
'April didn't tell you? We had lunch together-'
Hilary stared, confused, glancing at me. 'No… she didn't mention…'
'Did you find your brothers yet?' I muttered, staring at the floor. This was embarrassing, and annoying. And… I wanted to go home already.
Milo pursed his lips sharply, his keen eyes narrowing. 'Hm…' then he shook his head, the usual gentle mask slipping back over his features. 'They went in to watch the Cosplay Parade, I thought I'd take a walk in the meantime… check if you're okay…'
'Aw…' Hilary smiled warmly. 'He's so sweet, April-'
My eyes went wide. Why can't you think these things quietly in your head…! I wanted to shout. I did sometimes wonder if she had a problem internalizing her thoughts. Most of them seem to escape her head and out through her mouth. She wasn't wrong though. At first glance, I think even I would be enamoured by Milo's gentle kindness and warm, friendly demeanour. But I knew that it was only skin deep. Under that, he was cold, despised humans en masse and was sub-zero cold. He just faked niceness because it made life easier.
Our crowded group got worse once Thomas managed to find us, complaining to me that I'd disappeared before he'd gotten the chance to talk to me. Apparently he was running late because of something very important, and my anger over boiled.
'You were playing a video game!' I squeaked back at him, my face flushing red.
He nodded. 'Yes. I know. Sorry, but I was talking to him…'
My heart felt like something had grabbed it and squeezed suddenly. Suddenly Milo was standing behind me, holding me up, while Thomas bit his lip nervously, glancing at Hilary and wondering how to politely ask her to leave.
I didn't care anymore if she knew or not. 'I… and… so…?'
'He asked how you're going, April… I didn't really know how to reply, but seriously, you haven't been back in Coppion for like a year-!'
'Half a year…' I corrected him, my eyes going to Hilary.
She was nodding at that and for good reason.
'The kids have been asking about you, they thought maybe they scared you away from our guild,' she told me quickly.
Great. Now I felt worse.
Actually. I did feel worse. My heart was still thumping madly. 'Not again…' I murmured, closing my eyes.
'April, he's lonely in there, and… he didn't tell you because he was worried he'd hurt you or something, but you already broke anyway and you should-' I managed to note that Thomas' eyes went to a spot above my left shoulder, and I heard Milo clear his throat. Thomas shut his mouth and stared at the floor. 'Sorry…'
'Come on, April. I'll take you home-' Milo murmured, still supporting me.
'I'm fine-!' I grumbled, pushing him away, but my knees were weak. I hadn't the strength. Damn my own body! I cursed myself, trying to regain my balance, only to have Milo grab my shoulders again.
'Obviously not… let's go find the first aid room, they should have a spare bed you can lie down… just for a few minutes...'
Years ago, I knew a genius called Jonathan Williams. He created my current fortune, what a strange thing to say… the company my father had run for so many years became the leader in the field of virtual reality gaming, currently we had no rival there. Full-immersion VR, too. But just over four years ago, Jonathan was in an accident.
I tried to be strong, I didn't mourn.
Then father passed away, and again I tried to be strong. The stress had taken such a toll on my body that I was only starting to recover recently, but sometimes a small trigger, a small bit of stress, would already through me into a state of light panic. Of course, there was a twist in events, something impossible happened.
I was just starting to mourn him, and I was introduced to a player in our game, who had only ever logged in once. And never logged out again. Jonathan's mind lived on in Coppion, through his own genius and a twist of fate - and my stupid father making a drunken error.
Milo stayed around out of curiosity. Was I mourning? Rejoicing? What emotion is this?
Honestly… I don't know.
And as I discovered, stress is an ugly beast.
'You okay?' Milo brought over the glass of water and set it down on the table beside the bed, nodding at the first aid officer who had just glanced around the corner to see if I was still there.
'Yeh, I'm fine… was just a… a bad... turn…'
'Hm. Explains why you won't go back to see him, if you're ready to collapse just at the mention…' he trailed off and sighed, shaking his head. 'This is ridiculous. Each time I log in, you know that he keeps following me and pointing out to people that I'm nearby? I can't do my job like that… When I told him off for it, the message was the same, he was asking about you, and wants to talk to you…'
I smiled inwardly. If I could, I'd probably do the same. Milo had a special job, working as a psychiatrist who would spend time in Coppion, observing people and commenting about the effects of VR technology and the game itself on people to several government authorities, mental health institutes, and us. But due to his job being based on observation, his best skill was to hide out of sight and watch situations unfold… and there was Hoax - I mean, Jonathan - following the creep around and announcing his location. I wish I could do that. I could imagine people throwing random attacks at Milo for that.
'He has a strong sense of right and liar… hates liars…'
'Hey, I'm basically… P.I. Milacius, you said it. It's my job and he's becoming a pest. I can't even fight him back because he'll just get mad and PK me in an instant-'
'He won't PK you-'
'Fine. He'll leave me with 1HP and march off like a proud peacock, hm? Not much better, really… which, I'll point out, staying invisible and watching… that is my job. Are you getting in my way?'
Those last six words sounded like a veiled threat, and I stared at him in alarm, wondering what on earth was happening inside his head. Then I wondered if I even dare to know.
It's safer not to.
'Personally, I think you should see him. It's a rare situation-'
'Unheard of. It's… like Lazarus got stuck in the cave on his way out or something…'
'April. You should see him. You made yourself sick the way you carried on the past few years, but… if his computer… thing… uh…' Milo knew next to nothing about computers. He hadn't even been much of a gamer until father kept him on as the last of the ingame observing psychs. 'That thing he made up… if he is still in it, and I mean the old him, the Jonathan you knew… my guess would be that he's had a lonely past few years… lonely, resentful, angry… I don't know how much any computer program or system or whatever could replicate human emotions, but I know for certain that he is ruled by anger. April, let me be myself, I don't give a damn about you in particular right now, go see him for his sake. Okay?'
Nodding weakly, I agreed, though in my mind I told myself I wouldn’t. I can't do that. I don't know how to do that. What do I even say?
'And, if it helps make it easier…' he sighed, grabbing my hand. 'I'll go with you to see him.'
I pulled my hand free. 'How would that make it any easier?'
'It'll make it easier for me to know that you actually went and saw him.'
Oh, I hate his guts, seriously… I glared at him. I mentally destroyed him several times over, and I could feel my cheeks burning as my anger swelled. My glare was ugly, my face red, my lips curled out in disgust.
He noted my reaction and smiled coldly. 'Cute face. It'll get stuck. Probably suit you better though…'
I looked away. Damn him. I couldn't even show my anger without an insult.
'Well, if you're pulling faces at me and stuff, I suppose that means you're feeling a bit better? Where were your meds? I thought the doc gave you some propranolol or something to help calm your heart if you start getting an attack-'
'Left at home… doesn't help much anyway…' I admitted. 'How did you know-'
'Your desk at work…' his phone started ringing and he sighed, holding up a hand as he answered it. 'Hey, Lupus, you guys out? Mm-hm. I went for a walk…' he looked down at me as he stood, waiting a moment, listening. 'No, nothing interesting. Not much, anyway…'
'Hm. Okay. I'll meet you by the main entrance in ten minutes then. Think you guys can make it?' his eyes went momentarily wide. Then he looked at me and shrugged, holding the phone away as he hissed quietly, 'the little one just started arguing with a security guard, I've gotta go rescue the both of them. Call Thomas or your walking TARDIS to come get you…'
I stared as he walked out of the room, still talking on the phone.
'No, tell Remi, don't…! Ah, too late. Heard that. Hang on guys, I'll be there in a moment…' his voice faded away, and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
I just wanted to get home.
Because home is safe… and sleep is good…
He was the top player in Coppion, but he certainly wasn't alone in clearing the latest Sky Island, Kalitha. The rolling hills of dense, lush forests were difficult to navigate, and he was the main informant for the region, giving the lower level players information in exchange for gold or items. And on the very rare occasion, he did something spectacular. Hoax was known to be anti-social.
'Wait for me…!' groaned the other player, a Beast Bard with fox-like features. His name was ChopChop, and in Coppion, he was basically a super star. He had four hands and played the clavier, a piano-like instrument. The game's own laws and rules bent back on themselves as players discovered new possibilities, and ChopChop had managed to train his brain to control those four hands separately yet together, playing duets all on his own.
'Lake Langair isn't much further, we're almost there…' Hoax told him, pausing as his long, elfine ears twitched at the sound far away in the forests, but moving swiftly towards them between the trees. 'Ah. Incoming… sounds like a hazbat…'
'Oh, what's a hazbat?'
'Walk as slowly as you are now, you'll find out soon enough.'
That had been a recent oddity, when high-levelled players who hadn't reached the very top ranks started calling those level 100 or higher with a prénom of "Master". Half the time it was from awe, the other half was sarcasm. Right now, it was indignation.
Hoax had been asked to accompany the level 65 Beast up to the lake house temple, a floating island of a building in a region that usually required at least a level 110 to navigate safely.
'If you have any support skills, get ready to use them,' Hoax told the other, shoving him behind a tree just as a bat-like creature the size of a large dog, with leathery wings and dripping fangs flew down from the tree tops and screeched at Hoax a terrible noise. It was deafening, and Hoax saw ChopChop accidentally drop his baton and clamp one set of hands over where his human ears would be, and the other set over his furry fox-like ears.
When the game had been far more fantasy based, Bards would have to chant out spells like anyone else, but as the game left that that realm and tried to hybridize elements of steampunk and general science-fiction into an already established world, Bards ended up with batons or Theremin sticks.
'Never mind, I'll deal with it myself,' Hoax muttered, shaking his head and holding out his staff. His class was the most difficult with the newer changes. He had been a Mage, and still was, but his staff had gone from being a clearly wooden thing to being a device with a long, thin, wooden handle, and a metal ragged hook thing on the end. A glowing orb was suspended inside the turn of the hook, and there were copper wires spindling about the end as if it was some technological feat that allowed him his powers.
The hazbat screeched again and came in to attack, aiming its face and vicious fangs towards the wood of the staff. Attacking the weapon first. Clever, if not useless. Hoax held the staff clear away from his body, his free hand going under his cloak as he waited for the creature to get closer.
'Stunner Slash!' Hoax yelled the attack, yanking out a sword from the scabbard at his belt, the blade slicing through the air and glowing brightly as he called out the attack name again. Swinging a sword around was one thing, but with different skills to activate, it was easier to shout out the specific one you wanted. The glowing slash marks travelled and hit the hazbat in the face, stunning it, allowing Hoax the time to stab it through the chest with his blade. 'Could use some help, super star!'
'Um…' the shy pianist waved the baton in a steady rhythm, 'Sostenuto Cast…' he mumbled feebly.
'How the hell did you get to level 60…?'
Hoax paused, frowning. That made a lot more sense to him than it might to anyone else actually. 'Fair point.' Playing in a party required skills that would help others, teamwork, knowing what to cast and use and when. Right now, even, with ChopChop tailing him through Kalitha, they hadn't joined as a party because Hoax never did that. Playing by oneself was more difficult, undoubtedly, but at the same time it was easier. You only had to rely on your own skills, your own defenses, your own boundaries and ranges… and if you were shy, it was peaceful and there weren't any team politics to navigate.
For Hoax, there was an added benefit. Nobody looked at his information because they couldn't access it. They couldn't know that he'd never logged out since this game first came out well over four years ago. They also couldn't see his health bar…
The blade in the bat wasn't enough, and it suddenly reared up, the stun effect wearing off. Such a violent move caught Hoax off guard, sending him sprawling to the ground, and his sword was knocked away as the hazbat decided to come in for a second go. Great. Although… it only had a few HP left… Hoax grabbed his staff and swung it in front of him, using the metal gizmo-looking end as a bludgeon.
Thwack-! The hazbat froze, weakly flew backwards a little, then fell to the ground. HP went to zero, and the creature exploded into a swirl of blue teardrop shaped lights. And it all disappeared, leaving only a few items and a bag of coins.
'Sorry…' came the feeble voice from behind the tree. 'I wasn't sure what to do…'
'What's your secondary weapon?'
'Hand-held cannon… the mini one...'
'Point and shoot, huh? You could've joined in…'
ChopChop nodded. 'I guess… thought you might yell at me if I did…'
That made Hoax pause. Why did this guy think he might yell at him? Because he'd be angry, because he'd get in the way? Why would that even come to mind…?
'You know, the… uh… nickname is a bit… much.'
'Oh…' that made sense.
Hoax had gained a nickname, some may misconstrue an explanation based on Hoax's flame red hair that was long and tied back in a ponytail, or else his blood-coloured eyes would mislead them. But there was a simple reason why he was called Hellfire Hoax. He was powerful, and at times if he used his skills near regular players, the strength of them was downright frightful.
None of this was on a computer screen, after all.
If he unleashed his famous Brimstone Downpour attack, even in a safe zone like a town, the impact of the blast could knock a person down. Safe zones - as it turned out - only annulled about 80 levels worth of power in terms of what players felt. Only their HP was safe. At 120, his attacks in town felt like level 40, but the fact was they should barely tickle anyone. Sure, anyone else over level 80 could also fight in a town and have some weak effect on others, but most people didn't. They behaved properly, nicely. Usually…
Hoax had a temper.
A roaring, hellish blaze of a temper.
'Anyway, come on… the lake's that way…' Hoax led the way, with the clavier genius close behind him.
Coppion had developed its own community - as any MMORPG would - but it was to such a far extent that it began to act and behave like a real life world. There were leaders in each town, there were people fully engrossed in setting up their businesses here, there was a bit of an economy using flukes and flaws in the game, such as paper from a couple of logbooks that doubled up. Every player had one just simply for existing in this world, to track their progress and quests, but a couple of people received a random spare. They used the blank pages to write advertisements or their own manuals and stories. ChopChop wrote his music on it and had an entire box worth of notes minimized into his inventory that way.
And he was famous.
He wasn't the only one. There was a Marina who would write short stories on the logbook paper, and sell them to people. It was an interesting idea, as there was no way for the players to take that story out of Coppion and into the real world. In its own, twisted way, Coppion was real, a standalone world. The people there were merely borrowing some time in it.
The gathering at the lake house in Kalitha had been organized by a level 102 Faerie Archer who had decided to invite anyone 100 and above for a massive party. All the top players were invited, along with the Elf Leaf Dance Troupe Guild, and ChopChop, for entertainment. Being higher levels, it goes without saying that money-wise they were also amongst the richest players. Lavish food and fanciful decorations adorned the lake house's main entertaining area, and ChopChop couldn't help but feel a little self conscious. He'd never been past Attami, the first of the Sky Islands. And even then, it wasn't for quests, but to visit a café in the first city.
'Well, well, if it isn't the legendary ChopChop!' the Faerie Archer flew over to him the moment he and Hoax entered. 'I'm Pymm, thanks for accepting the invite! Who'd you find to escort-?'
ChopChop pointed at Hoax, already moving off to the side. 'Him.'
'Ah… oh…' Pymm's smile faltered, his sparkling violet eyes momentarily worried and disgusted at the same time. 'Him…'
'He was the only one who was willing to help me out and arrive here later, I still had work so I couldn't come any earlier…' ChopChop quickly explained. 'And… um… well, he's over level 100 so he was invited, right…?'
'Actually, I never get invited amongst these fancy folks, I was just gonna get you here and wait outside for a bit,' Hoax admitted with a casual shrug.
Pymm grimaced. 'Um… it's not that you're not invited, you just… tend not to accept anyone's invitations so… after a while, people forget to… remember…'
'Remember?' Hoax smirked, then nodded. 'Good one. I'm easy to forget. 'Scuse me, ChopChop, I'm gonna go sit outside… maybe my tricks and skills can dry out this lake, hm, leave the lake house in some mud-'
'No, Hoax,' Pymm grimaced, debating what would be the worst thing to do; force Hoax to leave or dare let him stay. 'Look, it's fine… stay, I want you to stay, okay? I feel bad for not… well, honestly, I actually invited everyone at the Full Moon Bash last month, you weren't there, it didn't cross my mind to try and tell you, sorry…'
'I know when it's awkward to have me around, no need to try and save face, I'll just go-' Hoax froze, staring past him. 'H-hey…! Lockie!'
DeadLock looked up from the buffet table, a roasted swamptoad leg sticking out of his mouth while he packed his plate with some of the fancier delicacies made by a high level Chef player hired for the fancy soirée. 'Hm!?' he froze. And shook his head, taking his plate and rushing to the other side of the room.
'Excuse me, I guess I'll stay a moment after all, thanks for the invite, Pymm,' Hoax muttered quickly, nodding to ChopChop once and then rushing after DeadLock. 'Oi, Lockie, hold up-'
'Stop calling me Lockie!' DeadLock hissed, wiping bits of food from his face with the back of his sleeve. 'I'm DeadLock here, no stupid nicknames-'
'I wanted to call you Thomas but that seemed worse, so I didn't… that and you don't really look like Thomas…'
DeadLock rolled his eyes. 'What do you want…?'
'I…' Hoax froze. That was a good question. He hadn't thought it that far through. This was a friendly face… well, maybe not friendly. Familiar. No, wait. Not familiar, either. But this person, he used to know…
DeadLock stared at him, still expecting an answer, and possibly waiting to be told off for the snarky comment. He received neither, just Hoax standing before him, awkwardly staring at the floor. He wasn't even asking about April this time…
'Listen…' DeadLock paused, frowning. 'How about… join me tomorrow, go for a few quests… maybe clear a path to the next Sky Island, huh?'
'I don't do parties-'
'Why not? Worried people will realize you spend way too much time here?'
The gleam in Hoax's eyes simmered and boiled away. 'Oh…'
DeadLock - Thomas - already knew everything. Perhaps this one thing, he could also know. With a sigh, Hoax motioned him to come closer. There was a secret, a real reason why he never let anyone else join him. DeadLock listened a moment, then his eyes went wide. He stepped back, staring at Hoax as the other stared guiltily at the floor.
'You've got to be kidding…?'
'No… I've tried myself, even got Mister Caul… uh… Lord Bridges… asked him a favour, still didn't…' he trailed off, shrugging sheepishly. 'So… yeh…'
'But, is that a bad thing? I don't understand-'
'Imagine you're working in a team… my first party I ever joined, we went on a quest and… they didn't find out but… if I stay in a party long enough, or if something happens, people might find out. Then they'll really start to wonder…'
'That's a weird glitch-'
'It's not a glitch. I think my little project was a little more genius than I ever imagined…'
'Well, if I know, but I say I still want to join a party with you, then… that should be fine, right? I won't hold it against you if that happens… when that happens… whatever…'
Hoax nodded, agreeing. A smile spread over his lips. So long, he hadn't smiled in so long. That action felt strange, foreign. 'Thanks, Lockie…'
'You've been weird ever since you found out who I am…'
'You've been avoiding me ever since you found out who I am, so…' he shrugged. 'Everyone has, actually… well, April, you… even that Milacius guy-'
'Ah, well him, yeh. He's fascinated by this case. Wonders what sort of psychological trauma this entire mess will cause April, and if she can even recover from something like this. The creep's got a thing for illness, such a pain. But April, she's been really sick, the stress of it all…' he trailed off as he saw Hoax's eyes widening. 'Ah, that's not just because of you! I mean, maybe it is, mostly, but not entirely…? You know…?'
'I need to clear my head…' Hoax announced, bowing a farewell and leaving DeadLock standing alone, confused, and silent.
I said too much, he thought to himself. Then he cursed himself for that. Far too much… he didn't need to hear any of that last bit, now he'll only worry more…
It was lonely. Four years, no, over four years… not able to see April, even Thomas… David Caulfield knew, and purposefully made himself a pompous avatar, named it LordBridges, and would hang out in Coppion every chance he got, just to make sure that Hoax… Jonathan… wasn't alone.
Am I really Jonathan anymore? He wondered to himself as he walked down a jetty, glancing at his reflection in the clear water. It was late evening, but there was enough light to still see the pale skin, the flame red hair, the elegant, aquiline features of his face and those long Elf ears on either side of his head, sticking up like antenna… in his mind they were rather like antenna, at least. Faerie ears stuck straight out of one's head, Elf ears started in the same spot on the skull, but stuck straight up.
Where was Jonathan in that face, anyway? He had an elegantly slim face back then, but otherwise, his hair was brown and scraggly, barely kept, and his chin was covered in stubble because he never really bothered with personal appearance. It's what's on the inside that counts, isn't it? Except now, all that was left of him was that elusive inside.
He didn't like it.
Mostly, his temper matched his appearance, roaring like a fire without much cause. Jonathan had been so good at hiding that, wrapping it up under layers of silence and cold distance so that nobody had to suffer his anger, but here…?
He looked down at his clenched fist, at the flames already surrounding it, licking his skin. He need only thing about something annoying, and his skills would activate. Really, there was no need for him to shout most of his attacks and skill, and most of them didn't require the staff, either. He kept up appearances here, just for peace of mind. Elusive peace, which wasn't his to have.
He had promised to wait for ChopChop, but pacing back and forth wasn't calming him down. Any moment, this pier would catch fire. Sure, in most videogames if you destroyed an object, that object would promptly return so that the game generally stayed the same. But this wasn't any videogame.
It ran an advanced software program called the Consequence-System - change something in the environment, mess something up, destroy it, and that change would remain until somebody fixed it or came up with a solution. There were creatures and monsters being born extra angry, or extra slow, due to players fighting in the area. Trees remained charred, the grass taking time to grow back. The Killing Fields were the best example of this - the grass was always being burnt and trampled, enough that it didn't grow back anymore. The Killing Fields became a sand pit, and the creatures living there would aggro quicker, and from further away, as if annoyed that their home had been irreparably damaged.
This pier linked the lake house to the land. If he destroyed it, it would be a nuisance to the party goers. ChopChop in particular, as he hadn't ever bothered to get some sort of flight system for himself. He had no jumpjet, nor mechanical wings. And he wasn't a Faerie or some sort of flying Beast so as to have wings naturally.
So either way, I stay and wait… Hoax took in a deep breath. It was an odd thing that fire had become so much a part of his character. Sure, the fire skills were the most powerful when he first ended up in Coppion, so he focused on those. It was still strangely representative. In that case… if I'm fire, what would Thomas be? Air-headed like the wind, or as dense as the earth? Both, maybe. Though he was steady in his own way, rock-solid in being himself. Earth, then, certainly. And April…? Oh, April… he smiled sadly. She's æther, something heavenly and indescribable, magical and beyond reach… she doesn't even know it…
'Hey! Master Hoax, there you are, I'm good to go back oooff…!' he heard a thud and turned in time to see ChopChop trip and faceplant onto the wooden pier. 'Oich…'
'Hm… I learnt to use my arms well enough, but…' he stood again, and smiled weakly. 'You know, IRL, I've been in a wheelchair recently due to some… health troubles. Walking, is… erm… I'm out of practice. Not something I thought I'd ever say about walking… like… being out of practice for asthmatics on how to breathe or something…' he froze, blinking in surprise. 'That sounded worse than I thought it did in my head.'
'I had a skiing accident…' ChopChop trailed off, grinning sheepishly and scratching the back of his head. 'Well! I suppose that's what happens when a couch potato musician tries to be exciting and adventurous!'
'Suppose it is… sounds like a bad accident…'
ChopChop nodded, staring down at his four seats of hands. 'At least I can still practice throughout my recovery… it's in the brain, isn't it? The doctors mentioned it…'
'Brain map of the body…? You're thinking neuroplasticity, right?'
'That's it… uh, I think…'
'The Visiongear bypasses the physical body and accesses your brain's view of the body…' Hoax agreed. 'So if you haven't used your legs in a while, it might feel a bit weird… while the brain gets used to it...'
'Hm. You know the other day, I tried to brush my teeth with an arm I don't have IRL. Exists fine here, but I tried to without thinking… how 'bout you? You try to scratch your ear and it's not there, not pointy enough?'
Silence. Hoax looked away. 'Uh… sure…'
'Hm. Virtual reality… it's not really, though, is it? It's become its own reality… I think that's cool.'
'You're a lot more talkative now, you know..'
'It was nice to see someone else struggle with the social side of this place…'
'Ah, kindred spirits?'
ChopChop nodded quickly. Then smiled weakly. 'You're not as bad as the rumours make you seem…'
'You're not as brave as you look on stage.'
The sun was definitely setting now. ChopChop accepted the comment, agreeing with Hoax's observation, then he looked out at the darkening forest. 'I can't teleport from here, where would I have to get to-?'
'Couple of options. I've got a teleport-bomb, nasty ride, but it'll get us back to Attami, then you'd have to head back down to Coppion on your own… Otherwise, you could just log out now, but… when you log back in, you'll still be at Cedar Tahl, that was the last town we passed through but that's still up here on Kalitha. Otherwise, we walk back to Elith Peak and catch a ride from there…'
'I have a jumpjet. How to say, short walk and a long fall? I can take your weight though, stop before we hit the ground. Of course, if I miss the timing-'
'Ah, no thanks! I'll… opt for walking back.'
Hoax nodded, motioning the fox-Beast to follow him. Odd, really. You can't die here. Well, you could, but you'd end up at the Platform of Rebirth in your designated home city. In ChopChop's case, that would be Vandé City…
Which… would be an easier way to get back. But dangerous. And ChopChop would lose random items from his inventory. Unless he banked most of it…
'Hey, there's a quicker way home for you,' Hoax told him. 'Suicide out. You end up back in Vandé almost instantly.'
'Did you empty your inventory like I told you?'
'Yeh. I only had the baton and bow… some gold… not much.'
'You don't have teleport access to most of these places like me, I can take whatever gets dropped and bring it to you in Vandé, you know, dying safely-'
'You don't like travelling with people, huh…?'
Hoax paused. 'Oh… I thought you were just keen on… getting back… quickly…'
'No, no, I'd rather walk the long way, thanks… I don't like dying…'
'And yet, it's just a game…'
ChopChop shook his head quickly. 'N-no, a game is on a screen, or, or even if you roleplay, it's… you just pretend, but here? If I die here, I feel the pain, and I experience something that really… I can't, I hate it. I hate it, I hate PKs, I hate the… that… that's… why I left early…'
Hoax froze. It had taken him a while to realize that this entire time, ChopChop had been rambling away and searching the forest around him. He was looking for something, waiting for something.
'Three seconds to tell me, muso, what's going on?'
Startled eyes went wide as ChopChop slowed his step, and hung his head ashamedly. 'The… that guild, the top PK guild…?'
'They call themselves the Bloodied Blade Guild for a reason…' Hoax frowned. 'And they're amongst the top players. I think I saw their Marina friend-'
'All three are there, the top of the guild, they were all there…' ChopChop grimaced. 'I was gonna stay but they threatened me… told me to leave… I didn't wanna hang around-'
Hoax slammed his palm against his own head. 'You idiot!' within a moment, he had the sword in his hand, and waved the staff towards the forest. 'Illuminatum!' magelights floated out from his staff and travelled away, a collection of about ten glowing spheres that gently drifted through the air, lighting up the forest around them.
'Ah, you caught us,' a figure stepped out from behind a tree. He was a huge Beast, almost twice ChopChop's size. It suddenly struck Hoax that ChopChop had chosen a rather diminutive size. Maybe he was small in real life, too. But this Beast before them now, baring his fanged teeth amidst his sadistic grin, was big, and was comfortable being big. Muscles rippled along his arms and legs as he stepped forwards towards them, taking the axe from his belt and casually testing it out on a tree before continuing to step towards them. 'I've been meaning to get my revenge on you, Master Hoax…'
Cynical. That time, the "Master" tag was definitely cynical. Mostly because the tag applied to Foxhunter007, too.
Hoax pushed ChopChop behind himself. 'Hey, remember that "die safely" plan? You might find it a better option at the moment than staying around here-'
'Oh, Master Hoax is ready to fight all alone?'
'Against the both of us…?' another voice asked, the speaker flying into view and landing gently on the ground, their aquamarine wings still flickering gently.
Hoax grimaced. This kid. Figmus was a Faerie Assassin, skilled with throwing blades and darts, but his secondary class was also Mage. He had already reached level 119 with both classes. If Hoax could have one true rival in this world, Figmus was it. With Foxhunter in on the battle though…? Hoax closed his eyes, thinking quickly. How would this work out? Foxhunter would try first, and use Figmus for Mage-based support skills. And if Hoax did manage to overpower the Beast, his HP should be severely depleted by then, in which case Figmus would be ready to finish him off. At least, Hoax knew that would be their plan. It was the most logical strategy in this case, and one they'd commonly used before on other victims.
'You done dying yet?' he asked ChopChop over his shoulder. The longer the other was here, the more troublesome the situation would become.
'I don't want-!'
'Because if you don't, I'm gonna destroy everything here and if I have to kill you to do it, so be it! Get out of here-'
ChopChop ran - and suddenly froze as ice shot up over his feet, cementing him to the spot. The last of the top three members of Bloodied Blade stepped forward. She was a Marina, her glittering bluish skin speckled with shimmering scales while her hair morphed around her head like living tendrils of delicate seagrass. 'Hon, did you forget Desminara?' she asked in a sultry voice, stroking ChopChop's chin. 'I did tell you we'd catch up with you later…'
ChopChop was shivering. Not only was he partly encased in ice now, which was still creeping further up his body. He was also scared. This lot weren't just known as a PK guild. They were worse. 'H-Hoax, what do I do-!?'
'Shut up!' Hoax yelled back, still eyeing up Figmus and Foxhunter. Prey caught in a trap. This was great. This felt great. Plenty of options… each worse than the last.
'Figmus, stand back-' Foxhunter announced - confirming Hoax's mental plan - and swung the axe at him. So Hoax jumped up, out of the way, one foot planted firmly on Foxhunter's huge clawed hand. Pushing off, he launched himself backwards, somersaulting away from the swipe of the Beast's massive deadly blade. The movement was fast.
Figmus stepped forward, wide-eyed, staff extended before him. 'Begger's Cord!'
A rope suddenly appeared, twirling around Hoax as if to entangle him - he brought his arms close to his body, head down, muttering the simple 'Flaming Coffin' command as fire danced around him, swirling around like a barrier, incinerating the cord before it could ensnare him.
Figmus swore and yelled another command-
'Superstar, what do you think now? Ready to die-?' Hoax turned to stare.
The ice had crept up to ChopChop's neck now, and Desminara was leaning casually against his prison, stroking the frozen water encasing him. 'Doesn't matter much now, does it-!'
'Hmph…' Hoax looked back at the two dangerous ones. Dangerous? No… nuisance. Biggest nuisance. Well, the biggest one here would be ChopChop. 'I thought I already taught you a lesson, Foxhunter, when you went after that little Faerie-'
'Rumour has it that's a girlfriend for the cruellest, coldest heart in the game!' Foxhunter spat out, 'might borrow her for myself-'
'Get over it, occasionally I do a favour, that's it-' Hoax looked over at Figmus. The Faerie Assassin had been too quite, and Hoax suddenly realized that he was looking at a mirror figure - an Assassin skill which creates the illusion of the player standing somewhere, while they safely moved away. Damn it. I can't do anything without killing ChopChop along the way. Stupid idiot doesn't want to die… but that's the safest way out of… wait.
Foxhunter looked over at the mirror figure, and smiled grimly. 'Lost track of him, huh? You'll feel his cold blade soon enough-'
'Maybe some other time,' Hoax ducked as Foxhunter took another swing, and lashed backwards on an instinct, his staff clapping straight into the side of Figmus' head as the small Assassin tried to sneak up on him. ChopChop was mostly facing the other way and he couldn't turn his head anymore, he couldn't see what was happening. No warnings…
The real problem, then, Hoax decided, is that swimmer. Bet she can't stand the heat… he trailed off that thought. Heat would burn the musician, too. What would lure her away?
'Come on, fish breath!' he yelled at her. 'This two on one thing's a bit weird anyway, don't you wanna take a stab at me, too?'
'What on earth does he think…?' ChopChop muttered, rolling his eyes. Wouldn't it be more logical to deal with two killers first, then deal with her, not… basically invite a piranha into a bloodfest?
The Marina certainly didn't seem amused. 'I don't have fish breath, actually-'
'Oh, yeh? It's kinda hard to tell, I just smelt something bad, thought it was you. You spend time in the water, swimming in ocean there, it's fish poo, right? That cologne…? Lovely fragrance…' Hoax told her, swinging at Figmus with his sword and ducking another blow from Foxhunter. He wasn't going to be able to hold this up for much longer. Come on, stupid fish girl, get over here…!!
'Fish poo!?' she pulled a disgusted face. 'How old are you? Six?'
'And a half. You? Bet you look real bad IRL, that's why the… fishy feet, feels homely having scaly skin, huh? But you made yourself slim, right? Unrealistic, bet you're-' Hoax tripped and fell face first into the muddy forest floor, a mix of compose and bugs. 'Ew… oh, I was gonna say fat, forgot to finish that thought…'
'You guys, hold that jerk still, I gotta-' Desminara pulled out her blade from a scabbard that hung off her belt. Suddenly Hoax felt Foxhunter's huge hands grasp his shoulders, keeping him in place.
'Ram him through, Dessy…'
Hoax closed his eyes. Three. Two. One-
'Leave them alone!'
He opened his eyes. That wasn't meant to happen. But at least the moment had gone mostly to plan - Foxhunter was behind him, Figmus only a metre away, and Desminara had been running towards him, stopping now to look off into the forest somewhere, looking for the voice that had split through their attack. Distraction. That's all he needed.
'Flaming Coffin!' he yelled out, the swirl of fire burning Foxhunter's hands and lashing out to strike Figmus as well. Free, he launched himself full pelt for ChopChop, grabbing him in an awkward hug and yelling only one more warning. 'Close your eyes, Muso, this'll sting-!'
The bomb went off.
The PK group stared in shock, Figmus rubbing the burn across his face while Foxhunter huffed and puffed onto his hands. And Desminara turned around to their distraction.
DeadLock stared at them. And swore. Then he jumped up towards the trees and disappeared from sight.
'Go after the Imp-!' Foxhunter yelled at Figmus, but the other looked around in confusion.
'I'm… blind… I can't see…'
Desminara replaced her blade and took out a long, thin, trident-shaped staff. 'Full Healing,' she said, resting the glowing orb of her staff over Figmus' head. 'It'll just take a moment to recover your HP and annul any effects.'
'I hate that guy…' Foxhunter grumbled. 'He PKed me once!'
'I'd point out, that was the only time I'd seen him walking around with a PK tag over his head… maybe you should feel honoured,' Desminara pointed out, frowning. 'Though… that says something about the Faerie he was with, doesn't it?'
Figmus nodded. 'Yeh. He'd been spotted before in Vandé with her, too. He changes his behaviour if she's involved. If you want revenge, Hunter, then get the girl.'
Foxhunter looked at his companions, and nodded his agreement. Definitely. The taste of revenge would be sweet. And he wouldn't do that same mistake like last time. Killing her in one go was too easy and not much fun - Hoax's fury scathed him that time, badly. Next time, he'd have fun first…
Define "fun"? It changes for each person. For some, it's not fun at all. Foxhunter bared his teeth in a low growl. For her, it certainly won't be…
Hoax and ChopChop - free from his ice-prison - slammed into the dusty ground.
'What…!?' squeaked ChopChop, suddenly finding himself unable to breathe. Or was it the shock of being able to breathe now?
'Eugh…' Hoax let go of the fox-Beast and knelt beside him, taking in deep gasps of air. 'That's… definitely not first class travel…'
'What was that?'
'Teleport-bomb… highly effective, but… incredibly awful means of travel… We're on Attami now, Ledgefall City. You can use a teleportation-gate from here, get back to Vandé… or wherever…'
ChopChop nodded shakily, sitting up and staring in alarm as the Mediterranean-styled city before him spun around, fuzzy and unclear. 'My eyes…?'
'Takes a moment… a teleportation-gate is nice, gives your mind time to adjust to the change in location, but the bomb…' Hoax stretched his arms and stood up unsteadily, pausing a moment to find his balance. 'The bomb is an instant relocation, which is a bit much for the mind to handle.'
'They'll know we teleported out-'
'Nope. It was a bomb. What they saw was us very bromantically suiciding out…' Hoax grimaced. 'Hope that doesn't start rumours… anyway… you okay?'
ChopChop shook his head, and his brain felt like it was spinning around an otherwise empty skull. He grabbed onto his head, holding his brain in place. 'No…! It's like a hangover-'
'Hm. That's why they're a device not commonly used… more commonly thrown out or traded for a few gold… I collect them, because as painful as they are, they are equally incredibly useful as a last resort…'
'I feel terrible.'
'You feel not-dead.'
That made the clavier genius freeze. Hoax had a point.
'Anyway, come on… café, maybe some coffee or something. They have an MP recovery drink that wakes you up after a teleport-bomb… uh, yeh, by the way, your MP might be a bit low after that as well… that's what it uses, instead of your HP…'
ChopChop waved his hand, thumb pressed against index and middle finger, calling up his HUD and checking the information in the top left-hand corner. 'Yeh… MP's less than half… stamina's down, too… Still, I've had worse stats and felt a million times better than this…'
The coffee helped.
It wasn't exactly coffee-like, but there was something nutty about the flavour of the swirling brown milk, warm and frothy. Even in the VR game, food still had a resemblance of taste. The miracle of primers. Smell and taste weren't things easily programmed into a computer system, but there had been a genius at Vi-Real some years back, and he used multiple ideas at once to trigger the senses correctly. Primers were images on a subverted layer of code, triggering the memory of a smell or taste in the player, but without usually being visible themselves. Subliminal messaging to the nose, it worked brilliantly.
ChopChop smiled at this as he sipped the coffee, feeling the travel illness settling down. Definitely not first-class.
Hoax was still nursing his drink, rubbing his temple the whole time.
'Got a headache from all that?'
'Hm. Too many visuals too quickly, maybe… or just a bit of stress...'
'Thanks for helping me, though…'
Hoax nodded weakly. And smiled. 'You're not as bad as I thought you'd be.'
'I thought you'd be a bit of an arrogant, pompous jerk…'
'Likewise. Uh… except…'
'Except you were right?' Hoax laughed mildly, unable to hide the mixture of displeasure at bad rumours, but equally pleased at the hype nonetheless. 'Yeh.'
'Actually… I was gonna say you seem sad… I mean, most people here, they're playing a video game, they're having fun… so they smile, or else they're determined to achieve something… you seem to be living your life equally, it's… rare here…'
'Other people just lie, about what's really going on in their lives-'
'It's not lying. Sometimes it's to protect themselves, because they honestly don't want to live like that.'
'Guess I don't have a choice…'
ChopChop finished the coffee, stood, and headed towards the exit. 'Thanks anyway. I gotta go…'
'Have fun at the gallery…'
That made him pause. 'You know-?'
'Everyone knows. ChopChop, Super Star of Coppion, is playing at the Sekai Soirée tonight… I wish I could go… Anyway, all the best…'
ChopChop nodded. 'Thanks… you, too…'
'And stay away from the Bloodied Blades. If they target you once, they'll probably try to take you out again…'
Hoax sighed, left alone in the café. This was his default, really. Left behind, left alone… alone? Like, whoever had interrupted Desminara… ah. A message popped up on his screen, and he opened it, frowning at the expletives. Yep. Whoops. He'd left DeadLock behind.
Then again, the Imp's presence was a surprise. He was waiting for a distraction and took the chance…
<thanks for helping me get the bard outta there bud> he tapped out the message on the HUD's glowing keyboard and clicked <send>.
He grimaced. DeadLock probably meant to spell <jerk>.
<wutev overheard sumthin, u prob don want april showing up here for a bit. BBG wanna get her as paybak 4 ur lil stunt today>
Yeh. He could imagine that… he pursed his lips as he stared at the screen. But I really want to talk to her… the last time I saw her, was when she found out who I was… she was forced to logout, Milacius said it was a panic attack, and now I just have to believe she's okay, because I haven't seen her again myself…
The Sekai Soirée…?
He smiled weakly. He had an idea, after all...