A small slither of steam escaped my knuckles, as they gradually cooled down from bright amber. Those coils dispersed into the air rapidly, and along with it came a deep sense of fatigue; I felt my eyelids grow heavy by several degrees. It wasn’t enough to knock me out, but I realized that this was the effects of what I had just done.
‘Exhaust’, the equivalent of ‘cooldown periods’ for a Fighter; energy was sapped, proportionate to how much ‘Stamina points’ I used. Although it was merely two skills I had used in succession, I had unconsciously injected almost, if not all of my Stamina Points into them.
This was the quirk that the Fighter class possessed, the control and allocation of your Stamina gauge; Beyond the minimum stamina points requirements to use a skill, true mastery of the Fighter class allowed one to surprise opponents with combo variations in the game. It made it harder for one to play the numbers game with an experienced Fighter, especially against control-type playstyles.
I wobbled uneasily back a few steps, and my vision shook back down onto the floor where I could see my pair of legs.
To my astonishment, I realized that my limbs were shaking, cathartic, thirsty even; As if my body had reacted to once trained instinct deep within me, like rusty gears starting to turn, creaking intensely from the rough metals grating against each other. Like ancient, unused machinery, my body discernibly felt the stress of that new burden.
What was this? It wasn’t like how it felt before when I experimented with them!
My body found trouble adjusting properly after the recoil, carrying buried volumes of pain along with a sharp adrenaline rush.
All of that seemed to drown away in a wave of migraine, as my mind was forced to focus on something beyond that incessant ringing in my ears, into the deeper clockwork that guided my spatial awareness.
Am I… losing consciousness? No… this is… slightly different.
I blinked once, and then a second time.
I gradually picked up a faint murmuring. It was a slow whisper buzzing with some kind of static, creating small ripples in a still, dark pond. I realized then, that my vision had turned red.
Why is this scene… so familiar.
And then I saw someone.
A shadowy figure, outlined with a streak of bright red standing in front… no, what was this?
The darkness cleared up, and I began to see him clearer.
From the back profile, I could only see his long, white hair. He was wearing that robe almost identical to what I had, and the way that person was standing, with his sluggish posture into what seemed like the after-motion of a weighty punch.
—Isn’t this… me? Am I… looking at... my own body? I thought.
Am I experiencing... some kind of out-of-body sensation?
But I noticed an important detail almost immediately. His hair was clearly white, a very big contrast to my own.
A hallucination? Leaving behind the strange feeling in my mind, telling me that time had slowed down considerably within this space, I hesitantly began to explore this strange sensation that I was feeling. Something told me that he was connected to me. I didn’t know what it was, but it was a seriously riveting compulsion. It was as if my thoughts were being driven solely towards that familiar, back figure alone.
And then, when I tried to move my fingers, I clearly saw it. That figure before me, twitched his fingers in the same exact way.
When I tilted my head, it moved again, just like how I wanted them to.
My suspicions were cleared. That person, was me?
Somehow, this weird perspective... felt just like a player controlling his game avatar.
Before I was compelled to explore those thoughts further, the haziness in my eyes cleared up, and all of a sudden, I was yanked back into the body before me!
Reason began to seep into my senses once more, and I found myself back in that stifling silence again.
Before me, was Vincent who’d just taken the full brunt of my punch. From the looks of it, he probably had no signs of waking up any moment now.
My face darkened.
I just… I didn’t... I didn’t kill him, right?
There were many repercussions of “using skills” to assault another human, for a good reason. Ascendants made up half the life of Insinity, but that didn’t mean this distribution was even amongst the races that populate this world. Narrowing down from the numerous human factions and borders, a city like Halvan would have, on average, someone from the common masses as its resident. No powers, no nothing.
When I felt my vision turn towards Evie behind me, I could feel her taking a small step back.
Of course, I had a feeling she would react that way. Like all the other common folk living here, the powerless would subconsciously feel fear towards those who had obtained the natural ability to ‘kill’.
In this world where monsters, and the curse of demons plague the earth, there is little to stop someone from actually causing a crime with these powers.
That was why I had this unsettling feeling from a long time ago, the fragility of this ‘peace’, because Ascendants would keep themselves in check, and focus on the greater evil that is the monsters, and the Demon King.
I could pick up on these primal, instinctive fear embedded within the subconscious of what’s ‘normal’ in this world.
— That what I did, was akin to pulling the trigger of a handgun in public.
But even if I knew all this, even when the seed of hesitation had once frozen me in place, I still had knowingly done this.
The majority of the people present in the restaurant must’ve seen this as a crime. As I glanced around me, all I met were eyes filled with distrust, and terror.
Even Eric had shifted his daughter behind his back, glaring at me as if he was preventing her from associating with me anymore. Sharon too; the woman was cowering below the counter with a pale face, trying her best to not attract my attention.
But… even then. I wanted to justify myself. Thoughts swirled within that fish-bowl, desperately seeking an outlet for release.
You guys, you guys saw what he was about to do, right? He was in the wrong, ...that’s right, he’s the bad one here!
So please… d-don’t look at me like that. Don’t look at me, with those eyes.
My body tensed up, and I felt sick in the stomach.
Eyes pierced through my skin, torched me even, like my bare body was full on display, nailed on a stake.
N-No… I hate this… I hate this feeling…
At that moment, I could feel my social anxiety, plastered with band-aids, being peeled off one by one.
I did a good thing, right? Surely, that guy harassed you before once right? So when he reached out to Ruru, I… I too, on everyone’s behalf… a-acted out of self… -defense….
“...Master.” Ruru calls me, as she staggers up slowly and reaches towards me. The way she looked at me, even her, even Ruru who I’d called companion for a considerable time.
I felt that connection, that thin thread melting into dribbles of wax.
I felt sick. My chest was painfully throbbing, and all I knew, was that the longer I stayed here, the more this stinging feeling would deteriorate further.
“Ru...Ruru… l-let’s get out of—”
My hands caught the air, and I felt myself being dragged apart from Ruru in that instant.
I heard a click on my wrists, and suddenly a powerful pressure weighed down on my body, causing me to face plant on the floor.
“Don’t move. Stray White.”
Disoriented, I struggled to raise my head to meet that voice. Standing there looking down at me, was Heinesia. Plastered on her face was an expression I have never seen before.
Cold, unempathetic. As if she was looking at a stranger.
“?!” A sharp pain struck my back, and I felt my head ring heavily. This time, it was different from what I felt earlier. This felt more like some kind of siren, a deliberate shrill that froze the activity in my body like an electromagnetic pulse.
Why was she saying all these cruel words?
A-Ahaha… Heinesia, that way of calling me… it-it's really not... f... ...unny...
She meant her words, didn't she.
I became alarmed.
I tried to move, yet it served not much purpose. My limbs felt like they were being taped together, causing me to writhe uncomfortably on the ground.
What did she do to me, why can’t I move? Poison? Or some kind of skill?
It didn’t matter, because it was taking my all to simply keep my will to resist the paralysis I was experiencing. Confirming that I was put out of commission, Heinesia clicks her heels towards Ruru, and then when she came close enough, grabbed her roughly to reveal the clear black collar attached to her neck.
Heinesia held out a white wristband and placed it next to the collar. Words began to form on the collar like a digital display. As if seeing the result that she needed, Heinesia exhales deeply and frowns in dubious derision.
“...Haah, I knew this was the case.”
Almost as if expecting what was coming, my body trembled.
With a flick of her fingers, a few soldiers clad in armor immediately entered the restaurant. The plodding of their heavy footsteps didn’t alarm me, because… because I knew.
My world, my almost peaceful world… was beginning to crumble before my very eyes.
The guards pulled me up violently from both sides, and I could do nothing but meet with Heinesia’s accusing glare.
“Stray White. You are hereby under arrest for a first-degree case of assault. Clause eight: disturbance in public, misusing skills as an active adventurer, ...as well as the illegal ownership of an unregistered beast-kin slave.”
My heart sunk from those words that commanded and decided my fate. Seeing Heinesia chanting some kind of spell under her breath gave me a bad feeling of what was to come.
“P-Please… n-not her… please...” I could feel wetness under my eyes as I stammered so.
“O’ Light, become a reflective wall.「Light Screen」.”
A reflective shine enveloped the diner, and while some turned to look away, Heinesia’s eyes remained locked onto Ruru’s body, almost as if she was determined, sure of herself that she was hiding an important fact.
...And then, without a surprise, the reaction fluctuated and rose in volume in the venue. Gasps could be heard in the restaurant, while some had stood up loudly from their chairs to get a closer look.
—The illumination had successfully distorted the hidden features of Ruru, her ears and tail exposed before the many eyes around her.
This unnatural sight began to instigate scorn, and even deeper, hateful eyes.
The soldiers who had my arms locked too, revealed bitter looks of disgust towards Ruru, who was clearly feeling increasingly disturbed.
No… Not Ruru… you… you fuckers… where are you looking. Don’t look at her that way…!!! You bastards! You bastardsss!!!
Scorching fire began to race into my head. I felt my blood boil strongly, and that streak of redness I had seen earlier began to trace itself back into my subconscious.
I tried to struggle free, but one of the soldiers struck me from the back, causing me to lose all my strength again without much effort.
“Ruru— Urgkkk!!” I was struck down again before I even got the chance to reach out to Ruru…
Pathetic… I’m so pathetic!!! Goddamnit, move!
"Shit! He's crazy! Pin him down!"
"What is this strength!?"
Never before had I felt the compulsion to push myself even further. But it was useless, whatever Heinesia had done to me, seemed to have walled off every ounce of effort that I was putting in.
Heinesia scoffs at me, and points.
"You idiots. He's a Stray, if you don't take this seriously he'll escape! Restrain him with all your power and don't hold back!"
My eyes winced. That one struggle had burnt through almost all my remaining energy.
If only. If only I could use my skills again!
The same thing is happening again.
"Arrest that beast-kin as well." Heinesia demanded coldly.
Ruru, looking as helpless as she was before, seemed to have already curled up into a ball as the guards corralled on her.
...That was when I felt my heart break.
Once I, her bridge to co-existing with humans had collapsed, her fears must’ve resurfaced. My efforts were beginning to evaporate into nothingness. Her trembling figure, that look of despair. Ruru was unwilling to look at anything that even resembles humans.
Including me, who promised to protect her, who promised to be with her.
She didn’t want to look at the human who had broken his promise.
That’s not it. I wanted to tell her that I did my best. I tried my hardest for her. I wanted her to continue believing in herself, in us. To remain brave. But I was already long disconnected from her mind, enclosed and distant the longer I was away from her... until, I could no longer feel that intimacy between us. So easily, like blowing onto a feeble candle flame in the wind.
I finally understood that I was deceiving myself the entire time, just like how Ruru was deceiving herself. What we had… was so fragile.
Checking what seemed like a guild official’s appraisal card, Heinesia continues, “It’s still not too late, at least. It seems that Vincent-sama’s HP hasn’t reached 0 yet.”
Approaching Vincent, she extended her palm as a white glow enveloped his body. “Wounds, repair yourself.” The spell slowly worked its effect as Vincent’s body began to twitch.
To my astonishment, his eyes slowly opened, as if he had merely fallen asleep before.
Hope rekindled within me. He’s alive… that bastard’s alive…!
As I was feeling visibly relieved about this fact, I noticed then, that Vincent had been looking around right after regaining his consciousness.
And as if he was expecting to see me, Vincent’s eyes locked on to me almost immediately. At first, I thought he would lash out at me as soon as he saw me.
But my expectations were betrayed, as slowly but surely, a crooked grin spread across his face.
—A smirk that seemed to imply that everything had all been a part of his plan.
The realization soon dawned upon me at once, as he turned to look over at Ruru, already being taken by the guards who were clearly taking advantage of the situation to wrestle into a very compromising position around her body.
Before my anger even overtook my body again, I felt a chill.
The way Vincent licked his lips, as if he was savoring something delicious, somehow… I began to connect the many dots in my head—
A set up? I had been set up?
I had thought it was strange, that Vincent had allowed me to beat him up without even retaliating… From what I’d heard, Vincent was already at Level 9, and he should’ve been relatively resistant to the damage my skill dealt.
That’s right, in the first place, there was a numbers disparity. In this world where even a single stat point could substantially change the physiology of a person’s potential, how did I not notice that sooner? Vincent chose not only to take the hit, but he also made it seem that my attack had actually wounded him heavily, knowing full well that Heinesia was around to heal him immediately! There was no real risk of him dying, because just like me, he was a fellow Ascendant.
I had been too caught up in the realization of my own actions, that I had overestimated the damage I could’ve done to him! Just because he looked like a stereotypical villain who looked weak at first glance, I thought he was an easy picking?
And… and the way he was looking at Ruru…
My mind raced into an even darker thought.
Did he already know about her existence? How? How did they know about Ruru? I never brought her out once! Unless they’d snooped around my apartment, which he wouldn’t have possibly…
—The words at that time, that conflict where I experienced my first beating... Mat had said to me before suddenly surfaced in my mind,
‘This isn’t over.’
No. No no no...
… ...The reason why they had been silent for such a long time. Did they actually manage to stalk out where I lived?
...Then it would’ve made sense. Ruru would always greet me at the entrance. It would be easy for someone to notice her, if they had been close by, watching us, observing my daily life. And for Vincent, it wouldn’t be strange in the slightest for someone of his caliber to pay some petty cash to street thugs who would do the dirty work for him. After all, he was always often associated with the bad company stalking within the underground of the city.
...Shit…! Vincent and those guys, they were in cahoots together! Was this what they were planning? To force me into this situation?
I sobered up, and immediately tried to speak to Heinesia, whose back had turned on me. That’s right, as long as I explain this all, I can fix this!
“Th-This is all a set-up!! Heinesia-san, please hear me out, I’ve been—”
I couldn’t finish my words before I was struck again. I had finally caught her attention, but it was clear that the terms were no longer favorable to me. With a finger on her spectacle frame, Heinesia narrows her eyes, and regarded me for the last time. “I can’t bear to look at you anymore. ...Drag him away.”
“No…PLEASE, LISTEN, PLE...UGH!!! PL...EASE! LET GO, LET ME GOOO!!”
I was pulled even further away from Evie… from Ruru… from everyone I thought I had a connection with.
None of them stepped forward to save me.
None of them wanted to save me.
Because in their eyes, I was rightfully a criminal.
Ha... Hahaha... Hahahaha...
Managing out nothing but broken laughter, I saw Evie, and everyone else off with a deranged smile.
Ruru, I'll come back. I'll come back for you I promise. So until then...
At least this ring, the Proof of Ownership would-
"-I almost forget about this." Heinesia speaks from behind.
Following a painful cry, the ring... our bond... shattered.
Ruru sounded like she was choking, in so much pain and distress. And it hurt me, hearing those cries, yet unable to do anything about it.
"Looks like you were even holding onto an illegal contract huh. Fucking criminal, I always knew you were one." I heard the soldier say.
But they didn't register in my head.
...More importantly, the slave contract... It was... destroyed? But Ruru had... huh? How-
"Oh no you don't."
I was hit from the back of the head before I could catch another glimpse of her.
It was already over.
Why was I seeking answers at this point.
That deep pit of despair was the last thing I felt before I was dragged into an eternal darkness.