The cabin swayed, its slow rhythmic undulations complimented the constant slosh and rustle of the open seas. Gandoff enjoyed the sensation, kinda like the swings he used to play on as a kid. He glanced at the round window beside him, but the tiny flame dancing above the candle in front of him couldn’t penetrate the seamless darkness of the waters outside. Only when an occasional sea monster or two passed below the surface of the waves, their bioluminescence gave the dark waters frequent sparks of red or blue or yellow.
It was night. Both in the real world and the game world.
He had come back to the game alone after his sister fell asleep. Well, remembering the fit she threw after logging out… good riddance!
That [Sea Sickness] debuff, she hadn’t taken it well at all. Not that any other affected player took it well either. That’s why they’d hurried to log out as soon as the symptoms started showing up. The forum post about the debuff said getting it was improbable. A one in a hundred chance, like winning the lottery. And about eighty per cent of the players had been lucky enough to win.
As for the remaining unlucky twenty per cent? He and Red.
And that especially rankled his proud elder sister. After all, how could He be ok, when even she got the debuff? She’d left quite a scathing comment in the reply section of that forum post. And by the look of the comment section, most of their companions today had also joined in.
A good prank.
Gandoff smiled and looked at the small table in front of him, the only furniture in the room except for a chair, a bed, and a small wooden chest.
On the table’s round wooden surface, just beside the burning candle, lay a leather-bound spellbook, not unlike the ones on the shelves of the spell stores of Grandarc.
A spellbook of [Heal].
It wasn’t offensive, nor was it defensive; i.e. not a favourite choice among mages unless they were going the saint route, which he certainly wasn’t. But that didn’t matter.
Spells! There are so many varieties throughout the game! What could be more fun than collecting all of them? Sadly, even now his pocket wasn’t deep enough to buy spell books from stores. He’d only got the default spells from his character creation and class change. This was his first spellbook ever! How could he miss out on it, especially with the bargain price of ten golds?
Luckily Yume didn’t need it.
“Like let’s get this over with!” Gandoff rubbed his palms, extending one of them, and tentatively placed it on the velvety white cover adorned with golden vines and flowers.
Do you wish to learn this spell? YES/NO]
A flash of blinding white spread from the spell, drowning him as it filled the entire room.
[A subject has activated one of the keys of Esteriel.] Minerva’s soft voice buzzed inside M’s mind, louder than the rotating blades of the pilotless antique. A helicopter.
“Oh?” M’s eyebrows shot up. “Which subject?”
M frowned. “That’s pretty far down the list. What’s the subject’s profile?”
A screen popped up before M, showing an image of Rahul and all the information about him. [He has a decent factor count, enough to put him in the first hundred.] Minerva began.
“But he also has a nice and functional family,” M finished for her, gazing at the rising cluster of sand spinning with the wind from the rotors. They surrounded the vehicle like walls of yellow and brown clouds as it slowly ascended above the dry, scorching desert.
“I see why he’s so low on the list.”
[So should we approve the key?]
“Are you kidding? Of course not!”
[I know he has attachments—]
“A father and mother, both with decent jobs and enough time to spend with their kids, and a sister he cares about,” M said. “That’s a few attachments too many.”
[Yes, but,] Minerva said after a moment of silence. [He is the first person to get his hands on a key of Esteriel. With how hard they are to find, who knows when the one time would come.]
“This isn’t a first-come, first-serve thing. If I planned on handing them over to just anybody, I wouldn’t arrange such an elaborate selection process. If not for her factor count, even Chitra Mukerjee would be a better choice than him.” M’s eyes narrowed into a slit. “Besides, he’s low enough on the list, so why are you advocating him, anyway?”
[You just mentioned the name of the reason.] Minerva’s reply had a hint of a smile. [Chitra. He is one of her only friends.]
“Her friend?” M’s eyes widened. “Wow! Now that’s some coincidence. But how do you know? There wasn’t anything about that in the profile.”
[He and his party members are the only people Chitra contracted inside the game.]
“You mean you’re even tracking her contacts now?” M’s tone wasn’t a pleased one. “Now that’s going a bit too far. Watching her I can still accept, but eavesdropping—”
[Hey!] Instead of Minerva, this time the reply came from the voice of a little girl. Loki. [I didn’t eavesdrop! I was just curious about who she contacted. After all, she’d never contacted another player before. Can you blame a girl for being curious?]
“I can’t blame you for being curious, huh?” M nodded. “I see.”
[Yeah, you can’t. As for their friendship, he activated the key, so we only did in-depth research of his background like we’re supposed to.]
“Hmm...” M frowned, falling silent as the helicopter slowly made its way westward, towards the sun that had started its dip into the horizon. “What do you think, Thanatos?”
[I have no opinion on this matter.] Thanatos’s voice was stoic as usual.
[Yeah, of course, he has no opinion.] Loki mumbled in annoyance. [Nothing’s going to happen if you ask him.]
“Hmm...” M fell silent for a minute or two, contemplating. “For now, only approve the connective state. The full integration would have to wait until further observation.”
[Noted.] Minerva said. [Should we make contact?]
“Not for now. But we do need to put in some restrictions. Start the initiation process. I’ll be there in a minute.” M issued some mental instructions to the Passive piloting the chopper.
The copter stopped, hovering in midair as the antique landing skids drew back into its body, with four black semi-spherical objects taking their place beneath it. Each of them emitted an intense pale blue light that made the surrounding air hazy. Parts of its body segmented and rearranged, becoming more aerodynamic as the two blades above it halted mid-rotation and lowered to the sides like wings. Shedding all its camouflage, the vehicle floated there for a second, then in a flash of blue, it disappeared.
Gandoff frowned. Each skill or spell in Finitum took time to learn, depending on their level of difficulty. That was why they had to be done while in the [Rest] mode. Common spells shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes, but it had already been an hour with no sign of anything happening. None. For the seventh time, he tried moving his body, but it remained entirely still. He couldn’t move, couldn’t even sense his limbs. As if he was frozen in time.
His doubt deepened further as he once again tried to squirm. Finitum was famous for its no bug gameplay since its launch, but did he discover the first one? The game didn’t crash, did it?
Those… ‘trapped inside a game’ stories always began like this.
Panic bubbled in his heart, intermingling with a strange sense of excitement. He’d been hesitating to log out and waste the spellbook, but now...
[Warning: Logging out now would cancel your current action, and the activation item would be lost. Do you wish to proceed? YES/NO]
Gandoff sighed, mostly in relief, though there was also a tinge of disappointment. As he suspected, there was that warning, but he could log out, no doubt about it.
No point in waiting anymore. A pity about the spellbook, but they’d at least compensate him if he reported the bug, right?
[The spell disguising the book unravels, revealing the truth hidden beneath the surface]
The flashing light in front of him suddenly gathered inward, forming a single golden ball of light where the book used to be. Glowing white and blue runes orbited the surface of the ball as it pulsed, matching his heartbeat.
Warning: An ability with one chance learning opportunity. Upon declining, returns to the original spell it was disguised as.
Do you wish to acquire this element? YES/NO]
Mouth hanging open, Gandoff gawked at the window, his heart beating faster and faster.
An unique [Element]! Not to mention, [Unspecified] grade.
He couldn’t believe it! Although he’d heard of [Elements] other than the starting seven, they were rare. As for [Unspecified] grade? There’d only been two or three players among the entire player base.
Two or three among literally millions.
Yume didn’t know!
The realization doused his burning heart in a bucket full of ice water. If it was some other high ranked spell, like [Special] or even [Unique] grade, it wouldn’t matter too much, but anything higher than that, not to mention a [Unspecified] grade…
Too valuable not to sour their “friendship”.
Looking at the warning, Gandoff clenched his teeth. If only he could consult with Rose or Arun. Or at least Chi. She’d always been good at advice and stuff.
His eyes narrowed as he stared at the ball of light.
Is she still playing?
Bloom ran for the third time today with pursuers right on her tail. This time, it was a repeat of the same ‘chased by deer herd’ scenario. Only now, some all-powerful being turned the setting into the night and cut the number of deer by half.
Her heart was still on a roller coaster ride, but the look in her eyes... instead of panic, they shone with determination and anticipation.
And confidence! After all that meticulous preparation, it should—
<Hey, Chi! Like, thank god, you’re still playing.>
Bloom stumbled, catching herself before she fell, and started running again.
<Rahul?> She messaged back, mentally thanking the [Acrobatics] skill. <I’m busy. What d’you want?>
<Busy? Like with what?>
Bloom ground her teeth, adjusting her course a bit to the right. She could feel her speed slowing down, no doubt due to the messages.
<If you’ve got nothing to say, I’m hanging up.>
<Like wait a minute, Chi. I’ve got a question!>
<Make it quick!> She increased her pace, heading for a patch of grass that seemed incongruously low compared to the others. Her steps extra light before she reached the patch, like treading on a tightrope when Gandoff began his explanation.
<Like...> His words piled up like a wall. Trying to make sense of them brought back the panic she’d warded off in full force. Her speed was decreasing, the deer were catching up, and one misstep would take her down for the count.
Shit! This is long! Is he taking revenge on me for mimicking him? Her heart hammered her ribs. I should’ve hung up!
She crossed the last few meters in one breath, stopped, crouched, took out her bow, and turned around, ready to take action. The long grass hid her from the deers’ searching eyes. The darkness, her lifelong frenemy, offered its help too. She waited, muscles strained with impatience, but the closer the herd approached, her nerves calmed down instead. The deer stampede, though discordant, somehow harmonized with the beat of her heart.
<So like what should I do now?> Gandoff asked.
Eh? Bloom frowned. Oh yeah, he’s still here.
<Explain again. Be precise. And cut off the ‘like’s.>
<Uh...> The speechless Gandoff gave her a blissful few seconds of silence on the messaging window, but in front of her, the mayhem had only just begun.
The hooves of the three forerunners fell on the patch, and the ground below them vanished. The shallow, a foot and a half deep pit overshadowed a hundred feet fall with the speed of their sprint. Gravity pulled them down too fast to react right into the waiting embrace of tens of six-inch-long iron spikes.
[Damage Dealt: 38]
[Damage Dealt: 43]
[Damage Dealt: 32]
The three deer wailed as the red bars above them reduced with each stab. The other deer skidded to a stop right at the edge of the pit. Watching the impaled deer thrash their legs, trying to push themselves up, a twinge of guilt marred Boom’s sense of achievement. Did this make her… a bad person?
<Like I... uh, I- I got this spell.> Gandoff began, putting a timely stop to her introspection. Bloom kept some attention to the content of the message, but the uninjured deer on the opposite side of the pit captured the bulk of her focus. Thanks to the sacrifice of the first three, more than a dozen didn’t fall for the trap. And though a few were pacing around the edge of the pit, concerned for the injured ones, most had all four of their eyes scanning the nearby grass, searching for her.
The situation wasn’t ideal.
She just had to wait for them to either leave or... do something, so she put some more focus on Gandoff’s message. When she understood the gist of it, her eyebrows slowly rose. That situation... wasn’t that the same situation with Greyvern’s skills?
What the hell? Are they watching me or something?
The thought creeped her out. It was irrational, but her head turned around almost instinctively to glance at her surroundings. A small movement, but enough for the deer’s watchful eyes.
One of the deer screamed, looking straight at her. It didn’t take a second more for the rest to join in on the cacophony. She had an instant to react as the first beast to notice her leapt over the heads of its companions stuck in the pit. Her arrow flew, catching the beast in one shoulder. The impact plucked it out from the air right on top of one of the injured deer, but the harm was already done.
The others raised an outraged ruckus. They reared up, ready to jump. Bloom pressed her lips thin, glancing at the shaft of her bow. Archery was her favourite.
But right now...
<You won’t be able to return the spell even if you give up.> She sent to Gandoff, the weapon in her hand changing to one of the bandit’s swords she’d kept in the inventory.
<You’ve only got one chance.> Tongues of Red flame snaked down from her grip, swirling along the blade, gathering, concentrating on its razor-sharp edge. The herd of deer stopped for a second, almost afraid. But rage soon overwhelmed them as more than ten of them jumped forward at once.
<Don’t waste it.>
Bloom closed the message box, her sword drawing a horizontal arc through the air.
The blue bar above her plummeted to zero and a sea of red flame roared, submerging the world ahead of her.