Chapter 6 – A Wild Riley Appears!
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“I’ve been thinking lately.”

“Unless it’s of an alternate plan, don’t hinder my mind with waste.”

“It’s more regret than solution.”

“Spill your grief to an-”

“Maybe he was right.”

- - - - -

“I-I’m gonna go find some clothes awhile.” I pointed a thumb in the direction of the (thankfully) nearby shopping district, scarcely keeping my nervous shakes at bay with a deep breath. Why’d we have to go here of all fucking places? Literally, anywhere else would have been better than this.

Jordan grabbed my hand before I could sprint off, “you okay? The fight shouldn’t take too long if that’s a problem.” She motioned toward Connor as he slapped something onto his wrist, signaling for his opponent to strike. Is that an urn fastened to his side? That’s... odd, for him.

Sputtering, I yanked myself out of her grasp, “J-just want to have time to p-pick out something I like, y-you know?” God, I’m gonna have a damn heart-attack at this rate. I have no idea how my siblings would react to me running a female character. Not a shred of desire in me exists that yearns to see that outcome.

Jordan seemed a bit thrown off by how I was acting, but she agreed to meet me ahead. Thanking the few lucky stars I had left, I sprinted down the wet street in search of a clothing shop to hide in.

Where there’s a Connor, there’s a Riley. When it comes to videogames, there are no exceptions to that rule. We used to play together, and there’s not a single memory I possess of them playing separately.

I burst into the market to be greeted with a mass of people far outnumbering those in the square. Lamps in a multitude of hues lined the rooftops. All of them complemented with the addition of a diverse set of flowers, each matching their nearby light perfectly. Purples, blues, and pinks were the dominant colors.

Small stands were set up on the edges, their owners hailing people over to them with promise of a great deal. People and creatures of all stripes lined the crowd, dwarves, orcs, regular humans, etc. Some displayed signs of decay, so the undead class is still very much present in this game.

“Why can’t you be empty?” I whined internally as I fought off the urge to curl up into a ball. I can handle small groups of people, but this is really pushing me over the edge. Five people are my limit.

I loathe crowds with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but I’m offered little choice right now. I need to kill time until Connor leaves. I only pray Jordan doesn’t invite him to our party. She sees my name as Ashlyn currently, but Connor will see the real thing. Well, unless they changed how the diamond reacts. Anything’s feasible.

I slipped into the crowd, dodging and weaving my way through person after person. Disgruntled “Heys!” and “watch it!” ensued, but no one sought to stop me.

I took a left, merging into a street rife with just as many people. Fuck my life, why’d we have to pick this town? I didn’t think it’d be so crowded...

This area was slightly different. As opposed to the stands they had out, they had actual shops set up for business. Each specializing in their own unique field. Medical, Alchemy, A blacksmith, and basic apparel. Wait, a clothing shop?! Yes! My temporary sanctuary has arrived!

Wasting nary a moment more, I rushed down the street and threw open the building’s glass doors with relief in my step. Now all I have to do is bide my time while hoping Connor doesn’t jo-

“Agh!” I mewled as I crashed into someone, essentially being flung backward from the force. Right before my head slammed into the pavement, I felt someone seize my hand and yank me back to my feet, holding me up via my waist.

“Ouch...” I winced as I massaged my forehead, slowly opening my eyes to a sight that ushered in trepidation’s glacial embrace. It happened in an instant. Any iota of relief dwelling within was ripped out and cast aside like a spent torch.

My gaze fell on the player diamond. One that spelled out Riley. That’s her real name... There’s no way she won’t see mine. Goddammit, I should’ve just logged out. She’s gonna say something.

“Ashe?” She smirked, eyebrows raised as if she was pleasantly surprised. “I was about to message you. I noticed you were in the beta.”

In a last-ditch effort, one that carved desperation onto my face, I began fidgeting. All the while, my brain began pleading with my heart to put us out of our misery.

“H-hey, calm down!” Shouted Riley as she flung a strand of black hair from her face, almost dropping me in the process. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself!”

“L-let go!” I thrashed around, her grip growing as steadfast as steel. She’s gonna think I’m weird. And that’s putting it lightly.

Riley wasn’t having it. She drug me inside the shop and pressed me against the wall with only a disinterested sigh escaping her.

She tried to get me to speak, but I sealed my lips shut and started scanning the shop for an escape route. Rows upon rows of clothing for basically any style lined the shop. A multitude of pastels, colors as black as night, and others as white as snow. If it existed, it seemed to be present. An elderly woman sat behind the front desk, her face jammed into a book. My only way out looks to be the front door and a backroom behind that woman. My best bet seems to be a quick log out.

Riley withdrew her hands for only a second. That was all I needed. I seized my moment and swiped my hand down, summoning my lifeline. I-i’ll just log out now and come back later to continue my solo endeavors. O-of course, I’ll play dumb around Riley if she ever pays lip service to this day. If I keep playing this game, I’ll just switch to a guy, I guess. I actually enjoyed how I looked for once. My voice, too, I adored it. But I have to play the cards I’m dealt. Why’d I have to be dealt a shit hand?

“Not so fast!” She yelled with such fervor I jumped, missing the logout button as she batted my hand away, holding it in place. I followed through with my other hand, but she only intercepted it with more ease than the first.

I’m so fucked. The only thing I managed to piece together after that was a whimper laden in emotional pain.

“Now, Ashe,” she spoke gingerly, maintaining perfect eye contact with me. “I’m going to let go of your hands. Promise me you won’t run?” She slackened her grip somewhat, but I didn’t jump on my goal. She’s partly expecting it.

“F-f...” I stuttered, examining a rack of brightly colored clothing in the distance, wishing they could somehow swoop in and save the day. “Fine.”

Pressing a finger to my neck, she shook her head in disbelief, commanding me as her hands fell on my shoulders.

Hesitantly, I met her eyes as she cooed, “you need to calm down, alright?”

“Just let me log out, p-please?” I stammered, preparing to plead with her. “And please d-don’t say anything about this to anyone. I’m gonna see if I c-can’t chang-”

“Ashe,” she nodded slowly, giving me a gentle squeeze. “Deep breath, okay?” She flashed me a sparkling white smile.

“W-what? Dee-”

She cut me off once again, “Deep breath, on the count of three.”

I shakily nodded as she began counting.

“One, two, and three,” she signaled for me to follow as we both sucked in a breath of fresh air.

“Better?” Queried Riley, her sky-blue eyes studying me for any sign of distress.

“Better.” I nodded with a sigh as she pulled me into a loving hug, making me jump a bit. A hug? She’s treating me the exact same? She’s not going to say anything? That’s entirely contrary to what I predicted.

“W-what are you doing?” I questioned, a tinge of alarm in my tone, as I slipped into place, just under her chin. Evidently, she has the height advantage now.

“Hugging you like usual, doofus.” She let out a jubilant giggle as she started rocking us back and forth. “God, I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever. And it’s only been like two days.”

“You aren’t going to say anything?” I mumbled, sounding like I was entangled in a dream’s web. Am I going crazy?

Carefully nudging me back a bit, she nodded and placed a tender hand on my chin, “Oh, I am.”

“Riley...” I trailed as she seemingly began studying my face. “What are you?”

Smiling, she nonchalantly replied with, “you make an adorable elf.”

My face reddened. “Huh?” I asked, fighting the urge to let my jaw drop to the floor. That’s all?

“What? You expect me to make remarks about you being a girl?” She gave me a knowing grin.

“Yeah, kinda,” I muttered awestruck as I tore my face out of her grasp.

With a shake of her head, she snuffed out my worries in an instant with a laugh, “I don’t really care. You can play whoever or whatever you want.” Her face. She’s completely serious. She has literally nothing to comment on in regards to this.

“Really?” Not even a remark about that being strange?

“Yes, really.” Stated Riley as she waved me after her into a jungle of clothing racks. “Is there something you’d like to tell me? I can listen if you want.”

Arching an eyebrow, I followed after her with a befuddled, “what am I telling you, exactly?”

“Oh, nothing.” She whistled innocently, holding up a blue top in front of me as if to appraise our compatibility. “Should I still call you, Ashe?”

“That’s what my diamond says?” I replied, a bit thrown off.

Holding her hands up in mock surrender, she responded, “just making sure. I’m assuming by how you freaked out, you haven’t seen Connor?”

As her words registered, I felt anxiety wind up a punch and aim it right for my gut. I forgot about his reaction. I never know what he’s going to say whenever he decides to speak once in a blue moon. The only constant is he fancies teasing me.

“Ashe,” Riley flashed me a look of disappointment as she cycled through clothes, pressing each shirt up to me. “What’s Connor’s life rule?”

“Life rule?” I replied as I fell into a well of confu-oh shit, that’s right.

“Do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone, and preferably, don’t annoy me.” We both said simultaneously. At least I have peace of mind then. He’ll probably say less than Riley in that case.

“And what are you doing?” I asked as she went through shirt after shirt.

“Helping you pick out clothes?” She answered like it was a given. “I’ll pay for it. I made a fair bit of coin through duels already.” She let out a sigh soaked in nostalgia as if she was reliving the moment she first shut down a player.

“I don’t need help.” I shot back, attempting to sprinkle on some assertiveness. Riley’s a little... unrelenting on particular topics. I’m sure she knows she’d only have to press me a bit, and I’d topple like a house of cards. I always do. Why can’t I just tell her no?

“I know you don’t.” She smiled, breaking into a cheerful hum. Oh no, she’s getting into it. “I just want to help you pick out something cute.”

If I said I went along with that without argument, I would be lying. On the contrary, I insisted I was fine, but Riley conveniently “missed” that and went on to aid me in my hunt for, in her words, “cute clothes.” At this point, I couldn’t care less about the cosmetics of my clothing. I’ll save that for when I’m not freezing. However, to her credit, she did help me find a top and pants I was fond of.

“You wanna keep looking for something else while I pay for that?” Riley suggested, throwing a thumb to the front desk.

I pulled the dark blue shirt over my head, questioning, “What else would I... actually yeah. Thanks.” I just remembered I’ll need a coat. It’ll help in this region alone. Not to mention this game likely features some frigid areas.

I slipped into a pair of black pants and paused when I pulled them up to my waist. Huh, that’s sorta weird. I didn’t expect these clothes to feel much different. Maybe it’s just the style? They’re a snugger fit. So far? Consider me a fan.

I moved through the maze of clothing toward the back where they had some winter clothes on display. The coats back here, much like everything else was categorized by price. Their size seemed irrelevant as they just tailored themselves to your body, provided it was within reason.

“Hm?” I said aloud as something piqued my interest on the far end. Curiosity in toe, I trotted over and started cycling through some of the coats they had, only to have something shine so intensly I was forced to squint. Somewhat annoyed, I felt my breath escape me as I located the culprit.

A golden circular shaped locket with hints of silver blended through it. The color was perplexing, but that alone isn't what sold me. It opened, which means one thing. A slot for a picture. That means I can... Perfect. Most apparel doesn’t feature a cosmetic slot for screenshots.

Eagerly, I took it off the rack and tried it on.

I opened my menu and tapped customization, praying I still had pictures of her.

Menu Theme

Messaging Seal

Weapons Skins/Ornaments

Gallery

I touched Gallery and felt a pang of sorrow run through me, accompanied by a lone tear running down my cheek, falling onto the walnut-wood floor.

I clicked through the collection of photos I had taken through the years. My pictures, both an assortment of real-life and the many games I’ve went through. Viicirne took the crown for the number of photos. Well, for videogames anyway. 

My pets held the throne overall. Out of them all, one, in particular, Ruby. She was an American Fuzzy Lop. Her coat, primarily white with black strewn through it. She had tiny black ears, and one of the most loving stares I’ve ever seen.

Every day I’d walk into my room, and she’d be there to greet me. I’d sit on my bed, and she’d happily plant herself in my lap as I started grooming her to keep her fur from matting. Then she’d hop away to go mess with Smokey or Kirra. After that, almost without exception, she’d find her way next to me at night. 

Why do things have to die?

I tucked the photo inside a slot for a brief preview and felt a smile dawn on my darkened mind. It’s perfect. I hope this necklace is still here when I get enough cash.

“Ashe! Can you come here?!” Riley called out, shaking me from my mournful abyss. I looked over to her and noticed the lady at the desk waving me over. I obliged, only to be stopped by a set of words that planted a seed of confusion.

“Bring the locket too, dear!” The woman hollered with a warm smile, her honeyed voice the definition of calming. Was she watching me? Why does she want me to bring it? I hope she doesn’t think I have the money for that. I’m not having Riley buy it for me either, I’d feel awful. The price is enough to make my heart sink.

“You like it, hm?” She gestured for me to set it down.

“Yeah, it’s beautiful.” I’d be able to hold a picture of Ruby inside it.

“May I see what you slipped inside?” She pried, partially popping it open.

“Um...” I trailed as my eyes fell to the floor. “Go, uh, go ahead.” Riley’ll find out I haven’t gotten over Ruby eventually. The only reason she hasn’t noticed is that Ruby hasn’t actively been on my mind. She’s pretty on the mark when something’s bothering me. Pair that with the fact that she lacks the ability to bite her tongue in regards to me.

“Ashe...” Riley whispered, her voice laced in sympathy, as she noticed the memento.

“She’s a gorgeous hare, dear.” The woman grinned as she closed it.

“I don’t have the money for that,” I spoke with contrition before she could continue. “I figured I should tell you that upfront.”

“Money?” The woman questioned, visible confusion scrawled unto her face. “Dear, it’s on the house.”

My head shot up so fast whiplash was soon to be a reality. “Sorry?”

Handing it to me, she nodded, “it’s free of charge. You seem to be fond of it, and I couldn’t bear keeping you two apart.”

“B-but it’s so expensive. I c-couldn’t take this for free.” I stuttered as she shoved it into me. “Is there anything you need? I’m sure I can help.”

Calmly tapping her fingers along the counter, she answered, “if you insist. They’re simple requests, really.”

“Y-yeah,” I nodded eagerly. “Anything.”

“First, I need to procure some frigus wire. Do you know what that looks like?” Quired the woman as she retrieved something from below her mahogany desk.

“No, sorry.” I bit back a sigh as she set out a spool of reflective thread. I hope that still puts me in a place to assist her.

“No need for disappointment.” She assured me as she pulled off a piece of the razor-thin thread, stretching it out for demonstration. “It looks like this. Its source appears to resemble a bush, precisely, if it were composed of a spindly material. It hails from the coldest regions in this land. Do you think you can get me some?”

“If I come across any, I’ll bring it here straight away.” I accepted, following with, “do you need anything else?”

Opening up her leather-bound book, the woman simply replied, “keep your head held high. That’s all I ask.”

“Keep my head held high?” I asked, voice rife with uncertainty as I draped the pendant around my neck.

“No,” she snorted as she turned a page. “You aren’t mistaken, darling. I meant that.”

“B-but...” I tried to speak only to have my words crumble to dust. She doesn’t get anything out of that. She barely knows me, so why that, of all things?

“I’ll keep it brief as I’m certain you’re busy.” She glanced up at me, eyes briefly resting on my ears. “There’s nothing that pains my weak heart more than a soul who yields to hatred. Wayfarers to some are heroes, ones to be revered in the annals of history. But to others?” Her words faded from existence for a moment as she winced with an anguished shake of her head. “They’re a poison. Wholly responsible for a land’s blight. In their vile tongue, they refer to it as the bastard’s curse. Provided their ire remains in the form of words, don’t succumb to their misplaced wrath. I, and many others, realize you’re a last hope.”

“I promise,” I answered, suddenly finding I was out of breath. “I’ll keep my head up.” That means NPCs privy on the idea of hunting players. They’ll probably be a difficult fight.

“Thank you,” she nodded, her solemn gaze falling back to her book. “You were a blessing to speak with, do come back soon.”

“Sure thing. Thanks again,” I mumbled, turning away to follow Riley out of the store, opting to pick out a coat a later.

- - - - -

Riley and I were silent, dead silent. We hadn’t uttered a single syllable since leaving the store, and we were almost back to the square. She’s contemplating on asking me something, that much is clear.

“How you feeling, by the way?” Riley spoke up, shattering the atypical silence we were ensnared in. “If you don’t mind sharing.”

“About Ruby?” I replied, already fully cognizant of the answer.

“Mh-hm” She nodded, inching closer. “You can cry if you’re still caught up on it. We’ll find somewhere secluded if you want.”

“No,” I shook my head, forcing a slight smile. “I’m still upset, but I wanna avoid crying. She wouldn’t want me to.” The truth is I’ve been losing sleep over her. I can’t bring myself to tell Riley that. She worries enough about me as is.

Pulling me in for a quick hug, she whispered into my ear, “let me know otherwise. I’ll lend a shoulder if you need it.”

“Thanks, Riley.” I fended off a dumb smile as she continued.

“By the way,” she spoke quietly, but excitedly. “When we get enough money, we’re going shopping together.”

“Excuse me?” I asked, dumbfounded as a group of people passed by us.

“We’re going shopping together,” Riley repeated, shaking her head as she looked me over with disappointment. “The clothes you picked out, minus the necklace, are boring, and I’m changing that the first chance I get.”

I didn’t even get a chance to decline. After that exchange, she darted down the street, waving me along after her.

Riley slowed to a stop as the square came into view, letting out an aggravated groan. “Really, Connor? What have I told you about doing that?!” She shouted before picking up her pace once more. What’d Connor do? From this angle, he’s just sitting on a fence next to Jordan. Is he smoldering?

We both came to a halt by Jordan as the scent of rain was quickly conquered by that of singed hair. Staggering, Connor shambled over to us as he started sparking. Wait, sparking?

“You idiot!” Scolded Riley as she let out a growl. “We aren’t exactly loaded with meds, genius! I told you to not electrocute yourself!” Okay, so that hasn’t changed at all. She still holds no qualms about lambasting him in PvP.

Bits of electricity danced off his arm as he started massaging his temple. He looked to be debating on defending himself, but he begrudgingly opted against it and tossed her a coin pouch, intoning with little care, "I won, so shut it."

“You’re lucky Ashe is here!” She pointed, me throwing a wave in Connor’s direction. “She’s a healer, as usual!”

Glancing my way, he mouthed, “she?” as he trotted over to me.

Stopping before me, he peered down at me, fascination embedded into his face.

“H-hi, Connor.” I squeaked as I shifted uncomfortably. Did he change his rule? I don’t like the way he’s staring at me.

Glancing back and forth between Riley and me, he nodded and offered me a hand.

I accepted, jumping from the tiny shock he gave me. A smile cracked his otherwise apathetic face as he repressed a laugh. He’s cool with it.

I let out an alleviated sigh. Thank god...

“Wait, Ashe?” Jordan spoke up as Connor presented me his scorched arm. A streak of lightning ran through it as if he had gotten a tattoo. He really electrified himself... damn. I nodded and got to work. It was, thankfully, the same as before. A sunset orange glow emanated from my hands. One as warm as a summer breeze, permeating the air with the redolence of flowers.

“Is she your brother, Riley?” Jordan questioned, blinking a few times as if she was never more mystified.

“In the flesh,” Confirmed Riley, appending it with a bow in my direction.

As I was tending to Connor’s burns, Jordan froze in place, quietly staring at my player diamond.

“It changed?” She mumbled, scratching her head. “Could it always do that?”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, paying close attention to Connor as bits of his charred brown skin peeled away, revealing the white underneath. Okay, he’ll be fine. His nerves are coming back. It looks third degree, so he’ll probably start whi-

“Fuck.” He winced as he jumped forward before swiftly repositioning himself. There it is.

“It’s gonna hurt,” I prodded as his skin started restoring itself to its typical healthy appearance. “You severed some nerves with it. They’re coming back.”

“Hey, I know he said it already, but,” Jordan started, nervously fidgeting. “Aidan really appreciated your gift. Thanks for cheering him up yesterday. Oh, and for returning my sketchbook.”

“Don’t mention it,” I assured her. “I know a guy, so the albums were no issue.”

“Nice downplay,” Connor whispered under his breath, failing to bottle up his amusement. The one time he speaks, he does it to mess with me? Why is that not shocking? There’s not a day that goes by where he doesn’t tease me in some fashion.

“Quiet you,” I scowled, earning a smirk from him as I reduced the burn to naught but an uncomfortable itch. The sooner I level, the better. I’ll be able to heal much more efficiently.

“Where is he anyway?” I added, signaling that Connor could go.

“U-uh, what?” Jordan sputtered as her face went beet red.

Swiping my fingers down, I brought up my menu, replying, “He said he had a spare code. I assumed he’d be playing. Or is he not?”

Wrapping herself in a hug, Jordan squeakily replied, “he just had to help his parents out is all. He’ll probably hop in randomly.”

“Oh.” My eyes came to a stop on the clock, and I felt them widen a bit. It’s 4:30 in the morning already? Damn, time really flew.

Doing my best to sound apologetic, I turned to Riley, “I’m gonna hop off for a bit. I need to see if they canceled school. Sorry.”

“You can’t stay for a little while longer?” Riley sulked, her typical cheery mood being washed away in the rain.

“I’ll be on later if they called it.” I insisted as I pressed the Log Out button.

Quit to your room or exit VR?

“Dang it. Come back soon, okay?” She pursed her lips together, concern flooding her eyes.

“Yeah,” I nodded with a smile so bright the sun would be envious.

Without delay, I tapped exit and watched as the world was swallowed by a wave of white.

- - - - -

“Mh...” As my eyes fluttered open, I let out a yawn, instantly alerting me to the ferret peacefully snoring away on my chest.

“Hey,” I grinned as I lovingly ran my fingers through her fur, rousing her. She knew what was coming. Without contention, she slinked away into the corner of my bed.

“Sorry,” I frowned as she gave me what I could only describe as a tiny glare. She hates when I move her off of me.

I tossed the headset on my bed and made my way to the bathroom. Here’s hoping they canceled school due to the ice. I was genuinely enjoying Viicirne. I’m praying they take a similar direction with their future expansions. The characters there just felt so authentic, almost like each one held their own story.

I threw open the door and turned on the sink to splash some water on my face. Regrettably, I looked up out of a sense of animosity.

“W-what?” I stammered, gobsmacked as the reality of my reflection slugged me square in the jaw.

My eyes. They’re blue, sky-blue.

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