“I have a question for you, Syl,” Blackfeather said, my name coming out of his mouth as though it were an insult.
“Uh, yeah?” I asked meekly. “I’m listening.”
“How?” he said, as though the word was heavy.
I stared at him, partially confused but also sort of realising what he was asking. He wanted to know how I was the same in and out of game, complete with magical abilities.
In the interest of buying time, I stalled, “How what?”
“How are you… how do you have, powers,” he said, stepping closer. As he did so, something odd happened with his face. His armoured dudes were all focused on keeping the fighting away, they weren’t paying attention. Otherwise, they would have seen the mask of leadership slip from Blackfeather’s face, they’d have seen something else, an expression I had seen before on another’s face.
Desperate fear and self loathing.
“Juliet?” I gasped, awe and disgust mixing in my stomach like some sort of obscene cocktail.
Blackfeather gulped, but he didn’t deny it, but he also didn’t confirm it either. He just stared, waiting for an answer to his question.
Holy shit, they were the same fucking person. I had thought that Juliet of all people, given how vain and uptight she seemed… I had figured that she would pick a character that was attractive and female. Instead, here she… he… uh, here they stood. It was obvious, now that I was looking for it. Just a hint of feminine affectation in his speech, as well as the way he seemed adjusted but not comfortable in his movements.
I shuddered as the idea of running around in a guy skin in this game hit home. How the hell did Amra and Juliet do it? I sure as shit didn’t know, and I had done the same thing for like, sixteen years before I met Feslia.
For some reason, possibly because of the realisation of who was behind that face, I found myself answering him.
“My first day in uh… in Pellan. I was wandering, alone and almost naked… I fucked up in the character creator. Anyway I stumbled on this shrine in the forest, ancient and destroyed. I relit the fire on the altar, for warmth,” I explained quietly, so that only he and I could hear the words over the battle.
His expression turned to surprise when I actually began to tell him my story, but he didn’t interrupt me. He just listened, quiet and alert to my every word.
“That fire summoned the goddess, her name is Feslia,” I continued, more confident now. “My magic is in her colours, gold and blue. She’s the goddess of the bright sky, or so she told me. Anyway, she uh… she told me that there was a dissonance between my um, my soul and my body. Except she wasn’t talking about the fact that I was uh… I didn’t look like this character outside the game. She was talking about my body out there, my real one. She was saying that my soul and my earthly body were at odds…”
“And?” Blackfeather asked, any semblance of masculinity fading as the girl inside forgot to keep up her act.
“She just, she changed it,” I said with an uncertain shrug. “I don’t know how she did it, but she did. She reached out and she changed my body to match the one I had made for the game. Ever since, the two have been linked in some way. Any magic I learn in here, I can use out there.”
My adversary’s face fell. “Why?”
It was at this moment that I understood what had motivated Blackfeather, motivated Juliet, and horror spread through me. Horror for the person in front of me, for what I was about to tell them, for what it would mean for… well, just a relatively normal sixteen year old girl.
“Because this world isn’t digital,” I whispered, the sound probably only barely getting to Blackfeather’s ears before the sounds of battle muddied it beyond recognition. “Because this game isn’t digital, it’s real. Somewhere in the milky way galaxy even, although when we look up at night we’re seeing it from a vastly different angle.”
“No,” he said, the Blackfeather mask slamming back down. “No. No no no no no!”
He screamed the last few denials, stepping back with wide eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I told him quietly. “It’s true. Just ask Karen’s sister.”
“Karen’s… who?” he blinked, turning his eyes back to mine.
“The girl over there, the one with the horns,” I said, nodding in my girlfriend’s direction. “Her sister was one of those who vanished in the Victoria incident. We found her again.”
His face crumpled further, and gone was Blackfeather again. A sixteen year old girl slumped to her knees on the ground. A sixteen year old girl began to cry.
“Please tell me you’re lying,” she whimpered, staring up at me with imploring eyes. “Oh god, please tell me you’re lying.”
“This world and all the people on it, they’re real,” I said slowly, methodically. This time, it was my words that felt heavy as steel when they fell from my lips. “All those people you tortured and killed. They were real.”
Blackfeather’s guards had noticed now, a lot of people had. The fighting nearest to us had slowed, many stepping back to stare in utter confusion as the leader of the attackers sat on their knees in the dirt and cried soft tears.
“They told us it was just a game,” Juliet said, voice aching around the obvious lump in her throat. “Just a game, play how you want.”
“They lied,” I explained with a sad, lead filled heart.
Yeah, Juliet and I hadn’t liked each other. Yeah, Blackfeather and I had fought to the death twice now. But really, truly…? From her perspective, it had just been a game in here, a way to take out frustrations from whatever problems she had in life.
We were both just kids caught up in a world-spanning spell created by an ancient and desperate race of dead aliens. A spell that had gone on to be twisted and turned into a sick and disturbing game by the artificial intelligences that had been created to stand watch over it.
The worst part was that really, truthfully? On the scales of civilisation and life as we knew it? It was all justified, because the thing that Pellan had been created to combat? That was true horror. Cosmic malice beyond human comprehension.
Cosmic malice? I do not hold such trivialities as malice within my heart, dear child, dear shard. You will see, one day. You will understand in that sweet, succulent moment before assimilation.
I cried out and shoved at the thing that had invaded my mind. Get the fuck out!
As you wish.
I stood there, breathing heavily for several seconds before I realised that Blackfeather was doing something. Too late, I realised what that thing was.
He held a red, glowing arrow, hissing with malevolent energy… and he plunged it into his own chest. He twitched, then screamed as the magic began to do its work. It was fast, red energy eating away until there wasn’t enough left to sustain life, leaving only dust in its wake.
The battle paused. Blackfeather’s elite guard stared in confusion. Their leader had just killed himself, but why?
And that is about when Karen arrived, or more accurately, her sword. At speed.
It carved through the steel and leather of a guard’s armour like it was made of nothing but pressed bamboo, killing the guy inside it instantly. Izzy came next, claws flailing and feet kicking. They didn’t stand a chance, not in their dazed, confused state.
The battle was disgustingly one-sided after that, with many of Blackfeather’s people simply surrendering rather than fight on. Everyone was confused over Blackfeather’s apparent suicide, however brief it would be. He was a player after all, he’d respawn.
“What happened?” Karen asked as my friends all gathered around. “Why did he do that?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but then… then I closed it. I didn’t want to tell them. Not even Karen. None of them would really understand why I didn’t hold any of this against Blackfeather, against Juliet. They didn’t truly understand the whole scope of what was going on out there. The only person who would… was Nia.
“I need to log out, and I can’t… I can’t tell you why,” I said finally, letting out a weary sigh. Time was of the essence. I had somewhere to be, and a damned dragon to drag along with me.
“Why not?” my girlfriend’s expression was hurt.
“Please trust me,” I told her, cringing internally at the hypocritical nature of asking that after I had decided not to trust her with Juliet’s secret.
Her beautiful eyes searched mine for several seconds, and then she sagged slightly. “It’s crazy magic shit, isn’t it?”
“Yeah… it is,” I said sadly. “I’ll be back… well, I’ll be back pretty soon. I just need to do something out of the game. It’s sort of time sensitive.”
She pulled me into a hug, she agreed, “Alright. Just be safe.”
I gave her a kiss, just a small one on the lips, then a smile, then I logged out. I had a girl’s life to save. If Juliet had the courage to do what she’d just done here in order to get away, she might have the courage to do the same out in the real world. I needed to stop her. Then… well I guess I’d try to help her, but really, that would be on some professional’s desk. I was not at all qualified to deal with that level of emotional storm.