“My, how very narcissistic.”
- - - - -
“Ew...” My face scrunched up in disgust as the repugnant scent of rotting meat filled my nostrils. I glanced down and saw our point of interest. A half-eaten cow-like creature, now thoroughly decayed with only the occasional hunk of meat stuck to its bones.
At this rate, though? The relatively thick cloud of flies is going to finish it off in no time. Ugh... I hope this cave doesn’t have a bunch of rotting bodies or something. This place is filthy enough as is. I’d prefer to not test out the newly implemented gore censors.
“So, what are you going to say when we finally meet up?” Nat asked for the thousandth time as she stepped over the animal’s carcass, her roaring torch throwing back the shadows. Thankfully, that creature’s been dead for a while. Whatever’s killing this guy’s cattle is not something I want to meet in a dark alley.
“Ugh...” I groaned, rolling my amber eyes at the sound of that annoying goddamn question. “I know what to say to Ashe! It’s not rocket science! I kinda know what I did wrong! I still don’t think it’s enough to quit a game over it, but I said I’d apologize.”
Her ruby red eyes twitched as the words left me. And she’s irritated again, great. A very special thank you to me, myself, and I for making this quest just a little bit more hellish.
“Do you realize how much that must’ve hurt him?!” She snapped, tapping her fingers against the grey cave wall in an endeavor to keep her nerves from deteriorating further.
“He was fucking tearing up after you said that!” She screamed with so much force that the popping of my eardrums was a very pressing concern. “I saw his face when he was logging out!” She continued, jamming a finger in my face as she flung the torch around. I hope I have high fire resistance and just don’t know it.
I sighed, batting her finger away, “look, I know it was fucked to say that, but I was a pretty pissy fifteen-year-old. I’ve matured somewhat,” I paused for a second as skepticism overtook her glare. “And I wanna make things right, I mean that. It’s just... from my perspective, I don’t let things get under my skin, so I would never have cared if someone said that to me.”
Looking like she was holding back the urge to slap me upside the head, she growled, “well, your perspective is wrong. What mattered was his damn reaction, you piece of shit.” She’s always so pissy as of late. I’m praying getting Ashe back makes her a touch more bearable, but I don’t see why the guy’d be willing to pair up with us after that.
“Yes,” I facepalmed as I got to my feet, smashing a fly that decided to say hi. “I get it. When do we meet up with him?”
She started her walk down the shadowed tunnel, shouting back, “hopefully before the labyrinth opens up! I’m messaging him after this quest! He was just online!”
- - - - -
“Blue,” I repeated for what felt like the thousandth time. I was effectively a broken record by this point. The astonishment flowing through my veins was too much. It was growing difficult just to process other thoughts.
Blue, my eyes can’t be blue. They’re brown. They have been since my inception. My brain has to be screwing with me. Making me delusional or something so I’m happier.
Contacts! That has to be it! I put colored contacts in, and it’s slipping my mind! I do own a pair... just to see what I look like with blue eyes. Is that sad? Probably. S-stop it... Not the point, Ashe!
Cautiously, I touched a finger to my eye and started feeling around for any signs of the lens. A few pained seconds later, and I was met with nothing. Wait, nothing? That is, in every imaginable stretch of the word, impossible.
Eyes just don’t change color at the age of sixteen! I mean, they can to an extent, but not to this much of an extreme! I’m going insane, I have to be. That’s the only plausibl... a dream.
Letting out a sigh coated in anger, I started rubbing my temple in some piss-poor attempt to disarm the ticking timebomb known as my rage.
I peered into my reflection’s eyes with only hostility glaring back. I detest when my mind does this.
With a deep breath, I seethed at the mirror, commanding myself with an authority I generally lacked, “I am going to make this clear. Stop. Dreaming. About. That.” There is no material benefit to me having dreams like that. Sure, it was nice when I was what? Seven? But now? Its only purpose is spitting in my face, a reminder of what I can’t have.
“Might as well find a clock and enjoy the rest of this dream.” I shook my head as I slammed the bathroom door shut behind me. Time is typically fucked up in my dreams. Both digital and analog clocks won’t display correctly. I can use that to annihilate what small hope of this being reality that I have left.
“Mew.” Is what I heard echo through the hallway. At least there’s a positive to this. Ruby should be in my dream if Smokey’s here. I always dream of my pets in a trio. There’s never a case where only one of them is present.
“I’ll feed you then,” I replied out of habit, making my way toward the clock mounted at the top of the stairs. I’ll get to see Ruby. That goes a long way to shine some light on this shit dream.
I trotted down the hallway, accompanied by only my irritated mood and the scratching of Smokey’s paws against wood as he sprinted to catch me.
“Yes, I love you too.” I sighed, the beginnings of joy taking hold of me. He started rubbing my legs for attention and well... I can’t stay mad at anything when he’s like this. I lack the capacity.
“I have to remember to check you for injuries,” I mumbled, my brow furrowing in solicitude as I started combing through his fur. I know that checking him technically accomplishes nothing, but he’s my cat. I can’t resist him even in my dreams. Especially if he’s hurt due to my stupidity.
I finished inspecting Smokey and walked up to the clock wit-Woah, wait a second. It’s showing me the time. Specifically 4:37. A few minutes after I logged out.
“What’s...” I shook my head, staggering back a bit as confusion’s icy tendrils ran up my spine. Is this... truly not a dream? I’m so many different shades of conflicted about that.
On one hand, I’m bewildered as to how this is even remotely feasible. On the other, the buddings of joy are starting to sprout. The possibility of my eyes being blue is enough to almost bring me to tears.
“Just calm down, Ashe,” I told myself, taking a deep breath in some vain struggle to keep my torrent of joy back. At this rate, it’s going to fail. I can feel it, the dam wants to break.
Wiping away the beginnings of tears, I sniffled and trudged into my bedroom, mumbling, “has to be fake. Don’t get your hopes up, dumbass.” My phone will confirm it. Electronics scarcely function in dreams. When it doesn’t turn on, I’ll just start my expedition to find Ruby.
Trembling, I staggered into my bed, almost throwing myself into it. I rolled over and clutched my pillow so tightly to my chest; I felt like I was trying to kill something.
Sinking my teeth into my quivering lip, I sputtered, “b-be real, p-please.” I started bottling up my fear in some desperate attempt to keep it at bay. It was damn near ineffective, but I was slightly better off. This is the closest I’ve ever felt to having one of my wishes granted.
Before I could make my move, my phone went off, cementing the reality of my situation.
“My phone... works,” I whispered, my tone inundated with the touch of wonder. “This is real. My eyes are actually blue.”
I sat up and snatched my phone off my nightstand. Right when I went to turn on the screen, tears started falling. The euphoria I felt at that moment... it was like someone physically injected me with the emotion. I could feel the puncture of the needle and everything...
My doubts withered away to near nothing as I tore them asunder and tossed them to the wind. All the while, the fiery beginnings of a smile were forged onto my face.
“Thank you...” I trailed as I sucked in air so fresh it was liberating. Tears were dripping off my face at such a rate my text messages were unreadable, but I didn’t give the slightest beginnings of a damn.
I cleaned off my phone, trying (and failing) to hold back the waterworks as I scrolled through them. One from Ryan, his friend Kyle and my sister-in-law, Olivia.
“Sorry in advance, Ashe. I tried to get him to stop believe me. I did all I could. He was deadset.” - Kyle
“Since Riley started the trend, I figured I should follow suit. Happy early birthday, Ashe. <3" - Olivia
Ryan’s was the strangest. He typically sends texts so long they come in the form of multiple messages. This one, though? Two characters packaged with a video.
":p" - Ryan
My tears subsided to near nothing when the realization of what this is clicked into place. He better not have done it. I am going to murder him if he did. It was supposed to remain a joke!
I pressed play to be granted the sight of a massive roaring crowd. He’s dead. He’s fucking dead. It’ll be difficult since he’s far stronger (and more nimble) than he appears, but I’m gonna find a way.
The camera focused itself, centering on Ryan bent down, his arms firmly wrapped around a girl no older than five. He let his daughter go with him? I’m baffled Olivia allowed that. She’s fiercely protective of Ella. She was always worried about Ella hurting her ears there.
“Alright,” Ryan laughed, patting Ella on the back a few times. “how’d you like it?”
Nodding ecstatically, Ella practically bounced around backstage, darting in between and around the musical equipment littering the area. “Dad, it was awesome! I didn’t know you could do that!”
Grinning, a twinkle of mischief sparkled in Ryan’s piercing blue eyes as he shook his head with a smile. “Gonna be honest?” He chuckled, rubbing his fully tattooed arm. “I didn’t know I could do that either until about three months ago.” Wait, did he get more tattoos? Okay, it’s no longer up for debate. He’s getting more to piss Dad off. Or he has an addiction.
His arms have so many you can barely see his skin, but he somehow fit another on there? I still remember the first one he got. Dad had no reservations about telling him how ridiculous it looked. His response? He came home with another one not long after.
“Alright, the camera’s rolling then.” Laughed Olivia as she zoomed in on Ella. “What do we say?”
Ella seemed confused for a moment, but her blue eyes went wide with realization.
“Happy birthday, uncle Ashe!” She beamed so brightly it was contagious... and I definitely fell victim to its charm. She’s always so full of energy, I don’t know how she does it.
“There we go!” Ryan nodded triumphantly as he darted out to the stage.
“Ashe is gonna kill you!” Olivia shouted after him, amusement under her voice.
He spun around for a quick retort, shouting to the night sky, “I know! Won’t it be great!?”
“Oh my god...” Sighed Olivia as he reached the microphone. He better be screwing with me!
Tapping it once, he cleared his throat as he leaned into it, “hello! We have some time to kill yet, but,” he raised a finger. “I have a special announcement before we really get into the thick of things!” He laughed with a dash of malice to it as he spun on his heel, tossing the microphone in the air.
His arm lurched forward as he snatched it, continuing, “to a very important person in my life. And arguably, one of the people most critical in me doing this.” He better back off at the last second. He better be thanking his pet goldfish!
“My youngest brother,” he kept on, raising his hand in some sort of symbolic toast. “You didn’t know it at the time, but you were the encouragement I needed. So thank you, Ashe. And happy seventeenth, even if it’s early.” He bowed as the video cut off, my face now flush with embarrassment.
“I hate you...” I whimpered as I tossed my phone aside, falling into my pillow straight after. He knows I abhor having attention drawn to me! He’s such a dickhead. Even if that was heartfelt, he’s still an asshole. He’s lucky I have my eyes to deal with, or I’d be bitching him out right now!
I guess I can’t despise him entirely. He’s the reason I got a hold of those albums. He even agreed to get everyone to sign them. I’m just glad Aidan was happy with them.
“Right, my eyes...” I laughed with a giddy smile. Yes, they’re actually blue! I don’t know how, but I don’t care anymore! This isn’t a dream, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that!
Wait... one of my wishes came true. Does that mean? Yeah, I’m doing it. I don’t care how it sounds.
“If someone’s listening to this,” I mumbled, crossing my fingers. “Bring Ruby back to me, please. I miss her.” I let my eyes drift shut in some hope I’d open them to her loving gaze. I opened them, and surprising no one, she wasn’t there.
It was worth a shot.
“Check school in the meantime.” I thought as I grabbed my phone, navigating to the school’s website to be met with a delightful surprise. We’re canceled. Hell yeah. Winter break is almost upon us too, so I’ll get to really grind this beta out.
Smokey gave me a parting “mew,” as I threw the headset on.
“I’ll be out at 6:30 or 7:00. The time when you normally eat, alright?” I assured him with a smiling nod as I hit the power button.
- - - - -
My eyes shot open to an explosion of blue and gold. At first, I was stranded in the dark, never more confounded. It only took a second for me to realize what was going on. My room had finally loaded in.
Banners, indicating my achievements during raids, rolled down from the ceiling to cover my flanks accompanied by various furnishings. Couches, tables, and even a bed if you wanna take a breather here. Numerous paintings and sketches of my own design, themed primarily around fantasy, filled in the otherwise barren walls. Everything was draped in shades of gold and a velvet blue.
And finally, a calm post-rock instrumental serenaded the room’s residents. Ryan composed it for me to use, and it still hasn’t lost its charm. As the gentle strums of a guitar entered my ears, I felt myself mellow out. How does he do post-rock so well?
Passing by a litany of pictures, I glanced into them as I tore my menu out of the void.
Aside from my typical fantasy jargon, one stood out in particular. It was a screenshot of my old group. Specifically, Natalie and Taylor.
We were coated in scorch marks thanks to the modifiers that week, but we were elated when we finally reached the top of a tower with only three people. The recommended for a tower ascent is a full party, six. But we started looking into it and noticed that, mechanically, it was possible to accomplish with three.
Nat had her head jammed in between Taylor and me. Taylor had an unamused look plastered onto his face, but you could see a smile slipping in. That was one hell of a day. I healed my heart out. So much so I broke a few personal bests.
“Maybe I’ll message her then.” I smiled as I selected my game library and hit continue. I just hope she’s willing to part ways with Taylor temporarily. If I try hard enough, I can still feel the hatred for him I had when I cut him off. I’ve never gone for a teammate with the intention of taking their life except maybe then. It was a first for me.
The impact from my... forget about it, Ashe. What’s done is done. The piece of shit is in the past now.
With only the sharp crackles of fire and the delicate murmurs of music, I tapped on Viicirne.
“Viicirne, play,” I said aloud, my voice echoing back to me as my vision gave out.
- - - - -
“What?” I blinked a few times, rubbing my eyes to make sure this was real. Where the hell am I? This isn’t the town I logged out in.
“As a matter of fact,” I mumbled, glancing around the foggy void. “This isn’t much of anything... let alone a town.”
I can’t even begin to make out the slightest semblance of an object in the distance. Everything’s submerged in a blanket of dense white fog. It was so severe it was making the mist during character creation look like child’s play. Each breath I took came with a mouthful of warm moisture. Usually, something in that vein would make me uncomfortable, but for some reason, I only grew more relaxed.
As if I was supposed to be here. As if this place was some sort of exclusive club meant for the eyes of a chosen few.
I took a step forward, my necklace jingling with my movement as an infobox came forth. Its blue fire being the only thing to part the dark.
Pendant: In ancient Magnian culture, the joining of gold and silver symbolizes unity: the gold, their own addition to the luxurious accessory, its body. The silver, the concluding touch of another, an ally, be they forgotten or otherwise. The question lingers on the tongue of the inquisitive, however. Is it a glimpse of what once was? Or perhaps, a fool’s faith in the potential an unwritten future carries. Traits: Broken Clock.
So it had a trait tied to it? That helps explain the price. I’m still amazed that woman gave this away for free. I need to get her that frigus wire if it’s the last thing I do.
“Hello again,” A familiar voice spoke up from out of the blue, scaring me shitless.
“Fuck!” I jumped so high I looked to be leaving orbit. In an instant, I spun around to be face to face with Jinn. It’s just him? How did he get here? I didn’t even feel his presence.
“On edge today, I see.” He smiled with a partial bow, his diamond appearing over his head.
“H-how did you?” I sputtered, pointing to various spots in the fog, hopeful I could locate his path.
“I woke up here,” he nodded, briefly resting a hand on my shoulder as he waved me after him. “I told you Iolas’ blessing should take hold when you awake. You haven’t forgotten, yes?” Shit, that’s right. I didn’t expect this to be what he meant. I wonder what bonus I got. Does that mean I’ll have to start advising him as well? That could be a positive. I’ll get to actually see the individual I’m aligned with.
“Captivating necklace by the by.” Remarked Jinn as he slipped into a light hum, his lantern’s golden light parting a surprising amount of the mist. I still couldn’t make anything out, the ground itself was pitch black.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, clutching it as I popped it open to sneak a peek at Ruby. I need to check on her grave later. Mainly to keep it clean. I’m not letting it fall victim to the touch of decadence.
“I presume you hold a memoir of sorts within?” He queried, adjusting his sword strap as a silver statue came into view. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, my tone sounding like I had been awake for days.
“I won’t push into your affairs any further.” He replied, casting me a glance dyed in sympathy. “We’ve arrived.” He gestured to the figure.
I peered up at it just to realize my eyes wouldn’t be helping me decipher the statue’s identity. It was encased in a fog so thick I could only see its hooded face. That was of little use. Either the figure had no face, or the combination of fog and hood rendered it invisible.
Not another word left us. Rather, a metallic box with silver borders popped up.
Iolas’ Advisor: Rank 1
They’ll see that they were wrong as this night is long and lonely.
Reward: Item(s) Added: The Tinkerer’s Tincture.
Next Rank: Archstone Fragment (0/3)
“It appears this is where we part ways.” Chuckled Jinn as I looked up at him, noticing the sparkling amethyst butterfly fluttering around him.
It landed on his finger, its wings fluttering in a fashion that insinuated it was happy to see him. With a growing weakness, it crawled up his arm, coming to a rest on his shoulder.
“Relax,” Jinn shushed it as it started to twitch, its light flickering. “You’re safe now.” The creature listened to him? It came to a rest as its wings sulked, seemingly lacking the desire to move.
Offering me a hand, Jinn nodded with a hint of repentance lurking in his eyes. “I apologize for my earlier demeanor, and for leaving you like this. I neglected acquiring clothing for you as well in spite of my word.” He sighed as a gust of frigid wind blew by.
I accepted the handshake, replying, “it’s all right. Your weapon helped enough. How’d you get that, by the way?” His hand? Something’s off about it. It gives me a certain feeling of warmth, safety even. Maybe because we both serve the same god? It’s exactly like when I touched that flower.
“Time reveals many answers.” He repeated as he broke off the exchange, turning to tread into the fog’s depths. “I pray I meet you here again. Prithee be careful.”
Before I could call after him, the scene was hastily overtaken by visages of the rainy town square.
“Vibrant as ever...” I muttered at the sight of the roaring crowd encompassing me. Something feels strange...
Out of a newfound sense of burning curiosity, I brought my hand to my chest.
I gasped with a breath as sharp as a knife right when my hand made contact. My chest, the disconnect, it no longer exists.
This body, it feels like it’s mine, like it's real.