2. Inside the Fog
It was a milky white world as far as they could see.
“It’s so thick…”
While slowly moving forward on their horses, Kei had his bow readied to fire an arrow at any given time. The atmosphere around them was filled with tension.
Thanks to the sunlight pouring down from overhead it wasn’t dark, but the world around them grew hazy. Things didn’t look too good.
It was difficult to see more than five meters ahead of them, and they could hardly see anything ten meters away. The silhouettes of trees appeared suddenly from the milky white veil, startling Kei repeatedly.
Each and every particle looked detailed to the point of illusion. Even their heads felt dizzy in this hazy world. It was an unpleasant sensation.
“Andrei, you following?”
“Yup. I lose you sometimes though.”
“…Don’t get lost.”
“I’ll be careful. That would be a pain anyway.”
Is he really okay? Kei thought and looked toward Andrei who followed closely behind him. Andrei looked at the surrounding area with interest as he swayed atop his horse with his saber bumping against his shoulder.
“This fog is something else, ain’t it? I’ve never seen anything like this, even in reality.”
“…Is fog common in your country?”
“Uhhh… No. Not much fog, but it’s always snowing instead.”
“Yeah, I’m in Siberia.”
“Huh, Siberia… sounds cold.”
“Our winter hits minus 30 Celsius on a good day.”
“No thanks. I’m no good with the cold.”
They stopped talking for a moment.
“…Think it’s a spell after all? It feels like it’s too thick to be natural.”
“Yeaahh. But even if a mob used a spell, it would have hostility, right? In that case, your 『Sixth Sense』should react.”
“Which means, it has no threat… No, accounting for our magic resistance, this density shouldn’t have zero threat.”
“It could be real fog rather than 『Illusionary』too, ya know?”
“…If so, then it’d have to be a pretty high-ranking spirit. It’d be a good deal if we made a contract with it… But fighting with just the two of us doesn’t sound very appealing.”
“…I hope it’s not an aggressive type.”
Andrei took up a pose of hopelessness. Suddenly, his face stiffened with shock and he pulled out a throwing knife from behind him with his left hand.
“What’s up, Andrei?”
In a flash Kei felt Andrei’s sharp bloodlust and he stopped his horse, readying his bow as he looked for the cause.
Andrei wore a baffled expression while holding the throwing knife in his left hand. He sighed as he said, “…I heard a voice.”
“…A voice?” Kei frowned unintentionally.
Kei’s ears weren’t as good as his eyes with their『Enhanced Sight』 crests etched in them, but as an avatar with the highest possible stats they were still remarkably sensitive.
But he didn’t hear any voices.
“…What… What was that just now…”
“…Calm down. Something feels off.”
Like a broken machine, Andrei looked around restlessly. The inexplicably nervous Kei was perplexed at the words he himself had spoken.
Something feels off―
He wanted to push away such ridiculousness with a laugh.
There certainly was the system of getting the chills, 『Sixth Sense』, in 『Demondal』, but it only reproduced a goose-bumpy kind of feeling.
It shouldn’t have actually made him feel uneasy. It shouldn’t have directly affected his emotions.
But the fact was, Kei was struck by the feeling of something unbeknownst to him crawling up from below his feet.
“…Andrei, I didn’t hear any voices.”
“That’s impossible! There… It’s there again!”
With a slightly panicked expression, Andrei said in a shrill voice, “You can hear it too, can’t you?!”
“…No, I don’t hear anything.”
He truly didn’t hear anything. However, clearly this wasn’t the case for Andrei.
“Liar! Why are you lying?!”
“I’m not, just calm down.”
“Why can’t you hear it?! There, aga―”
Suddenly, as Andrei was trying to speak, his eyes opened wide and he went stiff.
Andrei looked around with his saber raised and screamed, “Who’s there?! Where are you?!”
“Who?! Why, why―” With an expression filled with fear Andrei screamed, “―why the hell do you know my name?!”
“…What?” The heck is this guy talking about, thought Kei for a moment.
“…Andrei, just calm down would y—”
Andrei spun and faced Kei.
At that moment, a bead of cold sweat ran down Kei’s back.
Andrei was looking straight through him.
His eyes were clearly not focused on Kei. Andrei’s face was as white as a ghost, and he was as expressionless as a noh mask. Having a top in-game avatar had no effect on the very real chill that ran down Kei’s back, as if something repulsive were there.
Without a word, Andrei raised his left hand overhead. The throwing knife glinted.
Kei had the illusion that Andrei’s black clothes swelled up. “Wa―, hold up a sec.”
His left arm blurred.
Kei felt Andrei’s sharp bloodlust hit him like a knife. In a panic Kei stooped over. The knife whistled as it cut through the air, the silver knife barely grazing his head.
“Hey! Quit screwin’ around, Andrei!!”
He unintentionally yelled angrily, but Andrei paid no heed and kept looking around suspiciously.
“Fuck, where. The hell did he g― aahhhh, ah, ah, ah, disappear, disappear.”
While he seemed to be muttering incoherently, he sat on his horse and hugged his arms to his chest, perhaps because the cold chilled him. His body shivered lightly like someone with hypothermia.
At the height of Kei’s worry he nimbly slipped off of his saddle and tried to approach Andrei.
At that exact moment, Andrei suddenly stopped shivering and pulled another throwing knife from behind his back.
Here it comes, Kei thought, preparing himself for the hit. But Andrei turned the complete opposite way.
Andrei threw the knife and it whistled through the air.
Of course, a knife that was thrown at nothing wouldn’t hit anything. It disappeared into the milky-white veil.
Normally, one would expect to hear the knife stick into the ground, or bounce off of the cliff side, or some sort of noise. But, the world inside the fog was eerily quiet.
“Again, again, it’s gone…”
Andrei hung his head and looked like he was about to cry.
Kei sympathized with him, but then in the midst of this ridiculous situation he remembered his anger. Unable to hold back, he mustered his strength and shouted from his diaphragm, “Hey, Andrei! Get it together!!”
Startled by the voice Andrei raised his head.
Andrei shouted back, but he turned around.
―There’s no way that Kei was over that way.
“Kei! Where did you go?!”
Andrei heaved a somewhat relieved sigh.
“Seriously, scaring me like that…”
“Yeah, that’s right. I heard some strange voice earlier.”
“No, it wasn’t a hallucination. It really was real.”
“Forget about that, where did you go? I got pretty scared, ya know?”
“Huh? You were here the whole time? Liar. There’s no way you were here.”
Andrei laughed loudly.
―This isn’t a joke.
“Hey… Hey!! Andrei!!!”
The sight of Andrei enjoying a conversation with only himself made Kei’s hair stand on end.
“Just who are you talking to?!”
Andrei whipped around and looked his way. Andrei’s eyes weren’t focused.
“…Hey, did you hear that voice just now?”
Andrei looked around. “Hey, Kei… Kei?”
Andrei turned around again and let out a confused, “Huh?”
“Hey, where the hell did you go this time, Kei! Would you quit screwing around?!”
“You’re the one that’s screwing around! I’m right here!”
“…! Over there!”
While looking in the wrong direction Andrei gripped the reins and spurred his horse. The horse whinnied and took off running.
“No! That isn’t me! Stop, Andrei!!” Kei screamed desperately, “Andrei!!!”
The fog engulfed Andrei.
Kei could still hear the sound of hooves moving farther and farther away― and then they were gone.
Kei could only stand dumbfounded and alone.
After a few seconds, or maybe longer, he suddenly regained his senses.
I have to go after him, he thought.
However, it felt wrong. In this strange, unknown situation Kei wanted to log out or change to a different character.
But, Andrei would never leave Kei in this kind of situation.
Kei had a hunch that something was definitely wrong.
“Shit, that idiot.”
While cursing Andrei for causing so much trouble, Kei pulled the reins of his horse and tried to get on.
But the reins didn’t budge.
Kei tilted his head and followed the reins up with his eyes.
“…Mikazuki? What’s wrong?”
While saying its name, Kei felt something was off and turned to face his favorite horse.
Still gripping the reins Kei looked at the horse’s― Mikazuki’s face. Mikazuki looked like it had been stuffed, it didn’t so much as twitch.
Kei waved his hand in front of Mikazuki’s face. Usually, a pet would follow its owner’s movements by moving either its eyes or head. However, Mikazuki kept staring perfectly straight without a hint of movement.
“…What’s going on?”
Maybe it’s a bug? Kei sighed. I should have logged off after all.
I really want to get out of here―
Just as he was thinking such things, Mikazuki snorted and shook its head, almost like a computer restarting because of an error.
“Oh, you’re back. Good.”
“Bururu, bururu.” Ignoring Kei as he sighed in relief, Mikazuki snorted.
“Bururu, bururu, bururururu.”
Kei realized something was wrong right away.
Mikazuki shook its head up and down as it continued to snort.
The shaking got so violent toward the end that it blurred as if it were a broken toy. Its neighing sounded like the roar of an engine.
Kei timidly reached his hand out to the blur of a head.
Just before Kei’s hand reached its head, Mikazuki suddenly stopped shaking.
Mikazuki stared directly at Kei and it opened its mouth, “Mi–Ka–Zu–Ki–I.”
Kei’s deep voice cracked, “What?!”
Startled, he reflexively tried to jump backwards, but tripped over himself and fell on his butt.
It didn’t make sense. Still dumbfounded, Kei’s mouth was hanging opening like an idiot. He couldn’t even speak.
Normally, pets don’t talk.
That much is a given. It was a horse after all.
It wouldn’t speak, it couldn’t speak.
At least, that’s how it should have been.
Directly across from him, Mikazuki’s seemingly lifeless head fixed its eyes on Kei.
Its beady, marble-like eyes continued to stare at Kei without moving. Kei’s head started to spin. It felt like the inside of his mouth was drying up. That delusion assaulted Kei.
“…Bururu.” Just how much time had passed?
Once again, Mikazuki snorted and suddenly averted its gaze. Just like that it turned and left its owner, Kei, and galloped into the fog.
The sound of hooves gradually faded away into the distance until eventually, Kei could no longer hear them.
Taken aback Kei was left all alone.
A loud noise escaped his throat.
Kei hoarsely gasped for breath. He only realized just now that he’d been holding his breath.
For a little while he just sat there and took shallow breaths.
In the tranquil world of fog, Kei’s gasping and wheezing echoed, faded, and then disappeared.
“…Calm down… Calm down, calm down…”
He muttered quietly to himself.
Kei changed positions to sit cross-legged, and with his hand on his chest he took slow, deep breaths.
Finally, when his heartbeat slowed down he let out a big sigh. Kei pressed his finger tips to his brows like he was trying to fight a headache.
He meditated for a few seconds.
Kei decided to run away from this situation. It didn’t feel right, it was just too much.
With a pale face, Kei tried to open the menu window through the game’s mental interface.
If this were the same as always, he wouldn’t have to put much thought into it for it to execute. But this time it didn’t work.
However many times he tried to open it, the window just wouldn’t pop up.
“…Why won’t it pop up?” He whispered.
If I can’t log out… Then－
Suddenly, such thoughts flooded his head.
A bead of cold sweat trickled down his back.
No one else was here.
He was all alone in the fog.
His skin gradually grew hot, but his core grew cold.
“…Shit. Why won’t this just work.” While he muttered irritably he shook his head and tried the mental interface. Failed. Again. Failed. Again.
Just as his frustration and irritation was about to reach the breaking point, a semi-transparent window silently appeared before his eyes.
Like always the Real World Time, GM Call, and Logout options all appeared on the sterile white window.
He tried moving the cursor with his eyes, and as if all the irregularities up until now had been a lie, the menu showed full functionality.
It was as if everything was normal.
After seeing it in working order, Kei sighed in relief.
Truthfully, the situation was entirely too weird. Maybe I got mixed up in some psychic phenomenon.
These foolish feelings swelled up inside him, it couldn’t be helped.
“…Even though this is just a game.”
Putting up a strong front, Kei let out a snort of amusement as he reached out and pushed the 『Logout』button.
At that exact moment a voice came from right behind him, “No-Ka-Wa Ke-I-I-Chi.”
The deep voice cracked and carried such intense bloodlust that it would make one’s stomach churn.
Why his real name? The ominous voice? The tremendous bloodlust? Without understanding what was going on, Kei rolled to an upright position and kicked the ground hard to gain some distance. As he turned around he readied his bow, nocked an arrow, and drew back the bowstring.
But then he froze.
Somebody was there.
Its skin was practically as pale as that of a corpse.
For some reason, it was completely naked. No, could it be called naked if it had no genitals? Its body was smooth, almost like an alien.
There wasn’t a single hair on its head. Even though it had a humanoid body, calling it human would be a stretch.
It lacked any sort of facial features.
The only feature was the two black holes where its eyes should have been.
For just a moment before his thoughts went blank, a genuine question ran through Kei’s mind,
The hell is with this guy?
Just then, the place where the humanoid’s mouth should have been suddenly ripped open, “Yo-N-Ta.”
Kei’s head started to spin.
He fell to his knees with a thump.
Kei lost consciousness.
Noh Mask: Wikipedia
A mask used in traditional Japanese drama.