Chapter 8 – Quiet Like Snow.
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“It seem-”

“Shh...” I hushed her as I peered through the litany of holes in our decaying building, pressing a calloused finger to my lips. “Can you hear that?”

“No?” She answered deadpan, adjusting her beige backpack strap.

“Exactly my point,” I whispered as I let my eyes fall shut. Almost as if I was trying to absorb the scene before me.

No longer was the pale-skinned moon hidden. Night’s cruel blanket was finished smothering it, allowing it full reign to breathe in the region. The echoed sound of the silent still was all that lived among the deadened quiet.

It invoked a certain sense of peace, of tranquility. An ephemeral one, but one very much present. Not even the musings of the wildlife seemed intent on disrupting this moment. It was as if the world itself had decided to stop and take part in our fleeting moment of respite.

“Done?” Asked the hooded girl with a sigh, the moon reflecting off her grey eyes. “We’ve no time for sight-seeing.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to express appreciation for mother nature’s creation.” I smiled, signaling for her to look on in awe at the beauty before us.

“Two things,” she shook her head, clear annoyance under her words. “I’m basically blind genius. And I don’t need eyes to tell you how dark it is.”

“Then suck in the cool night air and lose yourself,” I continued, the rattlings of aged chains breaking the soothing quiet.

“I wasn’t finished.” She sighed. “We’re in a prison. Specifically, one used for some stupid war far before our time. I should admire that?” She asked, tilting her head to the side in curiosity.

Placing a finger to my chin, I nodded, mumbling, “fair point. Though, I was referring to the outside world. Not this...” I trailed as I glanced around, absorbing the distant images of the cages suspended from the stone ceiling. I adore my orange eyes, such a pleasing creation. They not only absorb light, but they also amplify it permitting me an unhindered view of everything. Be they bleached by sunlight or strangled by darkness, they can’t hide.

She trotted by me, barely avoiding the edge of our narrow rusted catwalk. This place is akin to a maze of catwalks, I swear. What a peculiar design, it’s a pity I’ll never be able to hold a conversation with this tower’s creator.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” I called after her as I jogged to keep up. “How did you find me without a guide? You were by your lonesome when we crossed paths.”

“Are you slow?” She queried, turning to face me with only apathy scrawled unto her as the soft song of bell chimes resounded around us.

Hm. I had assumed the jailers were out of commission by now. It appears I was gravely mistaken. Unfortunate. I pray they don’t stain my clothing. Perhaps white apparel was a mistake? Wait, what am I talking about? White clothing? A mistake? Laughable.

Taken aback, I clasped a hand over my heart, replying, “that was crass. Are all humans like that? It was merely a question.”

“A stupid one.” She sighed as if she was at her wit’s end with my inquisitive nature. “I said I’m basically blind, not that I am blind.”

“Pardon my correction,” I cut her off, exercising a step toward her. “But that’s what the term blind implies.”

“I use other living things to see. I can peek through their eyes, numbnuts.” She grumbled as if she had this conversation far too many times to count. “And are we late? I’d really prefer to not spend another night under the stars with you.”

Reaching into my undershirt, I disregarded the rude one’s remark as I retrieved an ancient ruby necklace. Its design emphasized a clock slowly ticking away in its center. The treasure was beaten and battered from generations of abuse and wear and tear. My ancestors could stand to take better care of these things...

And yet, its rhythmic ticking stood eternal and absolute. Never would it be persuaded otherwise. I’ll make sure of it should that reality have the potential to pass.

“We’ll possess three minutes of leisure at our current pacing,” I informed her, tucking the object away once more.

Her tensions seemed to dissolve in an instant. Does she loathe my mannerisms that much? Curious, this one.

“Then let’s pick up our pace,” she waved me along after her as she broke into a run. “I’m sure everyone thinks we’re dead by now.”

Muttering, I trotted along after her, “I doubt things are that severe. And allow me to lead if not for your sake!”

- - - - -

Ashe

The feeling washing over me right now. It’s so... peculiar? Is that the right way of describing it? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m not... ermh... opposed to it.

That strange disconnect I started with was uncomfortable at best and bone-chilling at worst. Something about it was just... wrong. But now? It’s like a good weird. As if this entire thing feels natural, correct even.

I slid my hand down but paused when the reality of the roaring crowd around me was hammered further in. The sight alone made my heart shrivel up, but I took a deep breath and sped off into a deserted side alley.

“Sweet solitude.” I sighed in relief as I glanced around the darkened alley, my only light being the lanterns lining the rooftops. The area was still mostly submerged in darkness, but there was light. Just enough to make out the silhouettes of objects.

I plopped myself down with a splash. I didn’t really care about my clothes getting wet currently. I came here to test something. I don’t need people to see me feeling my body up. That’d lead to a bunch of assumptions I’d rather avoid.

Sliding my hand down, I gulped as I felt anxiety’s cold breath on my neck. I’d really prefer not to experience what I felt during character creation. It could’ve just been a trick of my mind. That’s the only plausible explanation.

It’s just... I need to see for myself. I’ll be more comfortable that way.

“H-here goes nothing,” I mumbled to myself, my voice an octave higher from discomfort alone.

“Sorry?!” I squeaked out of astonishment, a sense of reprieve washing over me. I can’t feel it anymore? Only that?

My brain’s not providing me a single utterance of anything male down there now. My nerves are telling me it’s all-girl. I’m so confused. This is almost as strange as my new eye color.

“At least...” I trailed, my words nearly succumbing to the vacuous void. “At least I won’t have to feel whatever that was during character creation now.” I smiled. That’s... assuring. I was somewhat concerned about unintentionally grazing my breasts and being slapped with my original body’s sensations.

But how’d they do it? I was only logged out for what? Fifteen minutes if that? This scenario isn’t exactly something you can just hotfix. People have been complaining about it for as long as I can remember. Developers included under that umbrella.

In their words, it’s “immersion-breaking.” And yet, after all these years it just st-

“Ashe!” Riley’s voice pierced the veil of my thoughts. How’d she find me? Was she waiting for me to get back online? I can’t recall for the life of me if I permitted her tracking of me. We’re not in a party, so that’s off the table.

“There you are!” She exclaimed, her shrill voice reverberating through the alley.

“They called it if you couldn’t tell.” I smiled with a small wave, slowly pulling my knees to my chest.

Making her way over, she stood above, looking down on me with a sigh. “You could’ve messaged me, you know?” She shook her head in mock disappointment.

“Was going to eventually,” I assured her as I rested my head on my knees. “Just spawned in a crowd, so you know.” I shrugged.

“Right,” she nodded with a tone of revelation as she plopped down next to me.

“So what ‘cha doing?” I questioned, doing my best to sound casual as she started sorting through her woodland themed menu.

You’ve received a party invitation from Riley.

“Oh,” I chuckled as I tapped yes. That’s why. I don’t see why she had to sit down for that, but somedays I can’t hope to begin to understand her motives and reasonings.

Riley - Level 4

Trees: Berserker, Blademaster(1/23), Wraith (2/23)

Oh, Connor and Jordan are already in her party. It looks like Connor and Riley paired up immediately.

Connor - Level 4

Trees: Elementalist (1/23), Dreamweaver(2/23), Lucrecia

I have some catching up to do. I just never anticipated to be in a party this quickly, let alone one featuring my siblings. Rest in peace, my solo ambitions, I hardly knew you.

“Okay, dork,” Riley perked up, jumping to her feet as she offered me a hand. “Let’s get going. We have grinding to do. I wanna be one of the first people to smash into that labyrinth!” Oh jeez... the look in her eyes. This is gonna be one hell of a beta.

I grabbed her hand, her enthusiastically yanking me to my feet. “We already got some quests, so no need to worry about that.” She assured me with a smile.

“You aren’t streaming, are you?” I asked, my eyes narrowing in suspicion. It slipped my mind during that clothing shop ordeal. I’m praying that’s not the case. I really don’t need the whole world to get a glimpse into my private affairs.

“No,” she grumbled, annoyance quickly overtaking her face. “They disabled streaming for this beta.” An irritated sigh escaped her. “Unfortunately.” Thank god for small miracles. She doesn’t exactly have a small audience.

“Good...” I trailed off as relief rained down upon me.

Failing to ward off her bubbling excitement, Riley shouted to the sky, “now let’s kick some ass, sis! Just like old times!” Did she just call me?

“Wait, wh-” I attempted to question only for her to yank me forward and drag me off into the night.

- - - - -

“Hurry it up, slowpoke!” Riley shouted, somehow more eagerly than before as she pulled me through the densely packed street. She’s going to explode from enthusiasm at this rate.

“Just wait a second, jeez!” I whined, planting myself into the ground. Luckily, my hand slipped out of hers, so I wasn’t horribly maimed. It still feels sore, though...

“What’s up?” She spun around to face me, tossing a nod to the stand behind her. “I told Connor and Jordan we’d meet up here.”

“What did you just call me?” I asked, massaging my aching arm. Why did she have to be so rough? Like damn...

“Slowpoke?” She replied slowly, tilting her head to the side ever so slightly. I had to have misheard her.

“Before that,” I stated with a tinge of authority, waving her on.

“Alright,” she trailed as if she were reluctant to allow her words freedom.

“Well,” I kept up the push, inching closer.

“I called you sis, okay?” She mumbled, averting my gaze in such a way it seemed like she was waiting for me to start throwing corrections fueled by discontent.

She actually called me that? She’s not joking with me?

I was quiet, quiet, and staring. Why am I okay with her calling me that? I’m a boy, so I should be at the very least bothered.

Right?

Come to think of it, that dream of Jordan earlier. I wasn’t bothered by being a girl in that dream, just thrown off.

“Um... Ashe?” Riley spoke up, caution in her voice.

“Hm?” I raised an eyebrow.

“I take it that since you’re smiling right now, you’re okay with it?” She asked hesitantly, pointing an index finger at my face.

“I’m not...” I went to protest but stopped as my words were burnt with the fire of my now sweltering face. I really am smiling?

“And she’s blushing!” Riley guffawed as she gave herself a high-five. “Riley took a gamble, and it paid off!”

“Shut up! I am not!” I snapped, growling with the ferocity of a feral animal.

“So is that a yes?” She swiftly followed through, “you’re okay with it?”

I sighed, deliberately making sure I didn’t smile. “Yes, I’m fine with it. J-just... keep it between us, okay?”

“Let me know otherwise,” She replied in song as we made our way to the stand.

There was a small miracle in our cards already. Our destination was devoid of people, minus the owner, when we got there, so no lines. Luckily, everyone was ensnared with the charms of nearby trinket shops.

“A map of Magnus then, points of interest included.” Riley requested, spilling a small pile of copper-looking coins onto the wooden stand.

The shopkeeper, a boy who appeared to be in his early teens, glanced up at us with grey eyes enamored in apathy.

“Okay,” he rolled his eyes as he bent down behind the counter and tossed a map up. “Anything else?”

“Yes actually,” Riley beamed as she handed me the coarse yellowed map. “Just look it over a bit before we get going, alright, sis?” She redirected her gaze back to the stand. Is it okay to like when she calls me that?

“Sure thing,” I accepted with a smiling nod, making my way to a nearby bench as I brought the map up to my face.

Thankfully, we’ll have something to go off then. No pointless wandering while we get a feel for the area. The region looks enormous, though. If the entire beta is like this, then they’re going to eclipse the base game with ease.

Okay, let’s see... a few landmarks, locations of wildlife minus their names, other towns, and what seems to be some type of crypt in the mountains.

I dragged my gaze over to the key to be blessed with a welcome nugget of information.

Leper - Active Autumn Hours - Midnight to 4:00 in the morning.

So a leper only comes out during a specific time frame? That’s incredibly useful. Doubly so if they hibernate when not out and about. I do fully intend on killing one just to see what loot falls from its corpse. That one from earlier, specifically.

You don’t mess with me about animals. And you definitely don’t fuck with me about my pets. Especially not so soon after... Stop it, Ashe. You’re just gonna cry again.

Barely managing to tear those loathsome thoughts to shreds, I got back to the map. Sorry? These squares weren’t here before. What the hell just happened? I looked away for a half-second.

The map, it featured two light blue, luminous squares at the top. They were pulsing as if they were excited? They were normal at first, but they sped up drastically when I looked directly at them. Each one seemed to be beating independently as if they were each in tune with their own song.

I glanced up to see what Riley was involved with but opted against saying anything when I saw what she was doing. She was still talking to that kid behind the counter. She could just be trying to get a quest or a better price.

“Tell her after,” I mumbled to myself as I pressed a finger against the left square. It stopped beating?

“Shit, that’s bright.” I jumped internally, squinting my eyes at the new “star” before me. It feels... sated? Satisfied that I gave it attention?

“What’s going on?” I muttered aloud as I tapped the other shape, it responding in identical fashion.

Why are they so damn bright? They might as well be burning themselves into my mind at this rate.

“Ngh...” I whimpered as a violent jolt of pain shot through me, resting in my temples. Wh... what’s going on? The base game was never like this. Pain never once got this severe.

“S-stop, please,” I whispered in screaming anguish, my lip trembling from the torture. In some desperate but likely fruitless, plea for peace, I began kneading my temples.

Riley hasn’t noticed what’s going on with me, and I’m not sure I want her to. God, why does this hurt so mu-agh! It feels like two scorching nails are being jammed into my head!

Trembling, I let the map drift into the lightly flooded street as I laid on the bench, narrowly combatting the urge to curl up into a ball and sob.

“P-please,” I stuttered as agony drove her nails further in, slamming my eyes shut. “Go a-away... “

“Ashe?!” Riley’s voice cracked in alarm. “What’s wrong?!”

In seconds, I felt her lightly shaking me, her panicked mumbles ensuing, “grass... what kinda grass do I have on me? Half-moon? Is that a heal or anesthesia? Yes, it’s both!” She shouted, her tone speedily yielding to jubilation.

I felt her shake me with a little more force, cooing, “sis, can you hear me?”

Slowly, I nodded, keeping my eyes shut so tightly the darkness within was promising to be a permanent fixture.

“Ashe, can you open your mouth for a sec...” The sound of her voice was crushed to nothing as the pain overwhelmed me. The only thing I knew at that point was my tortured nerves and the scent of fresh pine filling my nostrils.

Wait, pine? The pain’s gone now? It just stopped, as quickly as it came about.

Half-anticipating it to return, I pried open my eyes to the sight of a well-lit cabin? How did I get here?

I looked down and saw the boy from the shop?

The boy was sat at a glass table in the center of the room. Sunlight was spilling through the small square windows in droves, making the roaring fireplace behind him almost unnecessary.

“Hey,” I called to him, but he only ignored me? He seems to be working on something so intently he’s not paying any heed to me. His pencil’s moving so fast I wouldn’t be surprised if it combusted spontaneously.

That thing he’s working on, is that a map?

“Elija,” a gruff masculine voice spoke up, throwing the quiet to the fire.

“Hm?” A boy looked up, curiosity and concern battling it out behind his eyes as a man passed by me. “Do you need something, Dad?”

The man replied, a pinch of regret lacing his tone as walked toward the oak door, “I have to leave again.”

“Yeah,” the boy mumbled, his pencil rolling off the table. “Mapping again?”

“Yes,” nodded the man as he gently nudged open the door, scratching at his brown beard. “I’ll be mapping the outskirts of the crypt a few hours out. I make my return in a week.”

“Stay safe,” the boy let out a frustrated sigh, propping his head up with his scrawny arm.

Nodding, the man adjusted the sword sticking out of his sizeable brown backpack, doing his best to add compassion to his speech, “I love you. Take care of your mother while I’m gone.” He didn’t stay to further their exchange. Instead, he let the door fall shut behind him as he treaded into the blinding day.

Sluggishly, the boy got to his feet with a scowl as he snatched up his pencil. “You have a funny way of showing it.” He muttered, wiping at his eyes. “You’re never home.”

I wanted to say something. Maybe attempt to comfort him in some way, but the scene changed in a flash.

When my vision cleared, I was presented with the image of a campsite. Three brown tents, seemingly composed of cloth, stood high and without injury around a doused firepit. Mother nature’s current purpose was subjecting the shelter to a full onslaught of rain with little show of it offering mercy.

Two men surrounded the firepit. The man from earlier was present, bent down, and inspecting the muddied earth with worry sketched into his face.

“Where do you th-” The other man asked, only to be cut off by the father.

“The scent leads inside.” The father winced as he retrieved something from the pouch strapped to his side. “Maziid likely rests within.”

Shuddering, the other guy stumbled backward, nearly falling into the mud. “T-that’s impossible. He’s not that dumb. He w-wouldn’t go in without us, right Anri?”

Shaking his head, Anri replied, seemingly with the weight of the world pushing down on his words, “Poor bastard likely had little say in it. I’m doubtful he’d do it of his own accord.” He explained, rising to his feet with a cerulean blue box resting in his hand.

Pulling a purplish pellet from its confines, he placed the ball on his tongue, asking, “do you know what this is, son?”

“V-vaguely,” the guy sputtered, pointing to the cave, “w-where not going in there, are we? We’ll get k-killed!”

Eyes narrowing, Anri spat at him in disgust, “some show of loyalty. You’d prefer to throw Maziid to the slaughter if it spares your life. Go back to town, I’ll do it myself.”

Attempting to defend himself, the guy shot back, “h-hey! I’m not a good fighter! It’s called working with your strengths! Let’s go back to town, and we’ll c-come back with help! Maybe see if the wayfarers finally arrived? There was talk of them at the inn yesterday.”

Shaking his head, Anri started toward the crypt, “you can do that. I’m not gambling with Maziid’s life. For each moment we waste, he grows closer to death. You can bring those cowards with you should you wish. Hopefully, we aren’t dead by the time you return.”

“Shit,” the guy cursed under his breath as he drove his foot into a rock. “I won’t be able to d-deal with two p-people dying...” He trailed as his body erupted with a violent shudder, “not again.”

Before Anri vanished into the darkness of the crypt, the man called out, “Wait! I’m coming!” He started into a jog after him, evident fear in his step.

“Do you have a plan?” He questioned as Anri handed him a pellet.

Resting a hand on his shoulder, a smile cracked Anri’s impassive face, “Pray to your stone... and pray it desires our safe return.”

My vision cut off milliseconds after they were engulfed by the shadows.

Taking a deep breath, my eyes fluttered open as my spell was broken. Why am I out of breath? I feel like I just came up for air or something.

“You good?” I heard Jordan ask as I met her worry-filled eyes.

“Mh-hm.” I nodded weakly, the reality of my sand-like mouth setting in. “Riley?”

“She went to go look for some medicine.” She smiled, folding our now soggy map away. “Largely for you.”

I eyed it for a second, regret’s icy fangs sinking into my neck. The shit’s soaked now... great. I’m hoping it’s still legible or that it added the info to our menu.

“Sorry about the map.” I coughed, getting ready to start apologizing profusely. I don’t have the money to replace that thing.

“Don’t worry about it.” She beamed with a gleaming white smile. “Riley’ll just be happy you’re safe.”

“She okay?” Asked the boy, Elija, disinterest sprinkled behind his words. “I kinda have a shop to run. Can’t afford to have people pass out in front of it.” I need to ask him.

Groggily, I sat up somewhat barely catching Elija with my raspy words, “Anri came back, right?”

Elija stopped dead in his tracks when my words reached him. Turning to face us, he looked me over with a face that held the despondent ramblings of skepticism and rage within.

“Who’s asking?” He asked curtly, hand darting to the dagger fastened to his leg.

Raising a hand in surrender, I assured him with a weak smile, “just someone who wants to help. Can you tell me if he came back?”

Our eyes met as he began his inspection. It was apparent what he was trying to do. He was inspecting me for any signs of lying.

Seemingly pleased, he let out an alleviated sigh and shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter at this point. He should’ve returned home yesterday evening if you must know.” He forced an irritated laugh. “Why? What do you want with him?”

“I want to help you find him. I think he may have entered a crypt, and something happened to him.” I stated earnestly as Jordan helped me sit up fully. She looks all sorts of confused by what I’m saying right now, but I’ll explain it later to her. If I can... I’m not quite sure what I just saw.

Elija was a kind of quiet I didn’t know was possible. His gaze spelled out everything, however. His face had gone a ghostly white. His eyes frantically glanced between me and Jordan, desperately looking for some sign of us deceiving him.

“Entered a,” he mumbled, sprinting back to his stall. He bent down out of sight and began a hunt for something.

“How’d you hear about his dad?” Jordan whispered, leaning in close.

“I’ll explain later.” I batted her question away, the boy frantically sprinting back to us.

“Here,” he panted, offering us a box oddly akin to what Anri had. “You said you’d help him? Were you serious?” He questioned, handing me the box.

Popping it open, my eyes were met with the sight of those purple pellets. “Yes, we’re serious. Do you think he’s alive?”

The boy’s brow furrowed in scorn as he spat back, “what? Of course, he’s alive! Don’t you dare suggest otherwise!”

Jordan and I were taken aback, but she spoke up before I could take my chance.

“How can you be sur-”

“Do you have a body?!” He screamed, his voice cracking as he drew looks from a nearby crowd.

“Well, no, but wha-” Jordan attempted to speak only to be struck down just as swiftly.

“Then he’s not dead.” He concluded, emphatically gesturing to his stand. “Rescue him, and I pay you. Plus, I’ll toss some of those maps your way. Free of charge.”

“Y-yeah...” Jordan trailed, reluctantly nodding, “Sounds good. We’ll leave in a few minutes.”

She wasted no time after that back in forth. Rather, she signaled for me to follow after helping me to my feet, quietly saying, “I guess it’s time to grab some weapons.”

Stumbling along, I glanced back to the boy to be met with a gaze that solemnly implied, “thank you.”

I paused for a second, doing my best to ease his worries, “We’ll get him back, safe and sound, alright?”

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