Kei absentmindedly dreamed.
A dream of playing outside with a friend from his childhood.
It looked innocent and fun.
Maybe it was tag. His younger self ran around.
Just like sand it smoothly melted away until it disappeared.
A white room.
From the window he could see a bird flapping away with outstretched wings.
He merely followed the bird’s flight in the clear sky with his eyes.
Atop the clean bed, he lay motionless. Entirely motionless.
He gently closed his eyes.
Everything was dyed blue.
The world ebbed and surged with a light blue hue.
It wasn’t hard to breathe.
That’s just how things were.
He wasn’t even scared.
He was sinking. Sinking into himself.
Deeper and deeper―
― He continued walking for what felt like a while.
Directly in front of him was a mirror.
A mirror that didn’t reflect anything.
No, he could see something if he focused his eyes.
Black hair and black eyes rose to the surface.
Subtly ornamented leather armor.
A feathered headpiece.
A single saber next to a quiver on someone’s hip.
And a vermillion bow in his left hand.
His murmured words resonated clearly.
As soon as he recognized it, the form became clear.
So he had once named himself.
Up until now, his two selves had lived alongside one another.
He made a fist and squeezed.
His hand steadily unclenching and relaxing. The blood coursing through his veins. The tingling of his nerves to all his extremities.
He firmly felt it all.
Before he knew it, the mirror disappeared before his eyes.
In its place was a long path stretching on.
Somehow his surroundings felt lively.
A horse prancing about energetically.
A girl wearing a robe of feathers.
It was almost like a revolving lantern.
The illusions of shadows whispered to no one in particular, “Let’s go.”
And Kei took the first step forward.
 Revolving lantern: A lantern that spins and casts different colors of light and shadows based on the design.
(Best explained with a video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmhn5u55Exs )
Someone was yelling.
“Get up! Hey, Kei! Get up already!”
Kei’s ears complained about the incessant noise as he lolled from being shaken.
Kei remembered this kind of discomfort.
It was nostalgic somehow.
It felt similar to when he was younger and got very seasick while riding on a ship.
“…Knock it off, don’t shake me.”
While moaning and fighting off the nausea he opened his eyes a little.
The world he was thrust into was dyed orange; it was probably the sunset colored sky. Then there was the person worriedly looking down on him; a black shadow.
Blonde hair and blue eyes. A black iron head guard and black clothes that enshrouded the figure.
It was a “Ninja.”
“…Where are we?”
Realizing that he was lying down on his back Kei slowly sat up. He looked around. The grassy plains were dyed vermillion.
Turning around, a huge, rugged, rocky mountain stood towering above the surroundings.
Putting aside the grassy plains, Kei had no recollection of this mountain.
“…Where the heck is this?” Kei muttered quietly, his thoughts still hazy as if he’d just woken up in the morning.
“The hell if I know!” With a thick Russian accent the ninja replied in English, “Before I realized it I was here… B-but look at this! This! It shouldn’t be like this!”
The ninja spoke as he pulled out the grass right at his feet and showed Kei. The dirt clinging to the roots broke off in little bits and fell to the ground.
Kei’s absentminded expression suddenly became alert. Wide-eyed in surprise, Kei also reached out for the grass in front of him.
He carelessly ripped it up.
He could feel the light tearing of the fibers on his fingertips. The smell of grass mixed with dirt distinctly filled his nose. Kei tried licking the grass juices stuck to his fingers.
Of course, it was bitter.
“…This can’t be.”
The grass, ripped to pieces in his hand, didn’t even disappear.
His five senses all conveyed its existence.
Even each individual speck of dirt could be made out.
“See?! Strange, right?!” The ninja wore a desperate expression as he pressed Kei a little hard for an answer.
“Y-yeah.” Kei nodded.
Even though 『Demondal』boasted the world’s fastest physics engine, there were substantial restrictions on interactions with game objects such as dirt and plants.
That was because if the system tried to calculate the movements of all the small pieces, data processing would become too much of a burden and would fall behind.
Therefore, only specific items within the game are exceptions. Dirt and plants are set as 『Non-Interactable Objects』which are also known as 『Indestructible Objects』.
―At least, they should have been.
What happened to that?
The ripped-up bits of grass currently in Kei’s hand were certainly there.
Some of the grass in his palm blew away with the plain’s breeze.
The sound of grass rustling came with the earthy smell of grass and dirt.
The grass twirled and danced in the wind. Dumbfounded, Kei just followed it with his eyes.
He raised his gaze to the deep-red dyed rocky mountain. The rock face seemed to twinkle here and there. Some of the exposed minerals reflected the light of the setting sun.
Looking up further, the evening sky hung overhead.
The slowly changing clouds couldn’t have been any reused graphics.
Somehow it had become very real.
More overwhelmingly real than ever before.
It was too overwhelming, there was too much to take in.
―Yes, it was almost like it was…
No way, he denied that explanation right off the bat.
If this was reality… Then just what was this body?
This bracer and leather armor and this saber as well. Even the vermillion bow at his feet; all of it belonged to “Kei.”
The ninja’s voice shook as he said, “…The menu screen won’t come up. No matter how many times I try it.” He clenched his fists like he was trying to endure something unpleasant and stared at the ground.
Bewildered, Kei looked at the ninja.
It was an important piece of information that the menu wouldn’t appear. But, the person covered in black clothes only added to Kei’s confusion.
“…? W-what’s wrong, Kei?”
The ninja became aware of Kei’s silent, cold gaze as Kei observed him as one would a stranger.
“Um, you know―” Kei tried to speak but then kept quiet.
He hesitated for a short while.
“…The heck, what’s wrong?”
Gathering his resolve, Kei asked, “Who… are you?”
What in the world is this guy talking about, thought the ninja.
Taken aback, the ninja said obliviously, “―Hey, did the shock knock something loose in your head? Gimme a break, Kei! It’s not like I don’t understand though.”
He sure got me, was written all over the ninja’s face. He lightly tapped his forehead and said, “Andrei! Andrei the Ninja! …Don’t tell me you forgot or something?”
Like a puppy abandoned on a rainy day, Andrei, filled with anxiety, faced Kei.
That was the answer he was expecting.
Well, that much is to be expected.
That’s not it. That’s not what I really meant, Kei thought and knitted his brow.
To begin with, calling him “Kei” so casually, furthermore, covered entirely in black with a sabre on his back—only one person Kei knew fit the description.
In fact, out of all the 『Demondal』players only one person fit the description.
But, even so.
The ninja in front of him wasn’t the Andrei that he knew.
There was just one difference between them.
Kei raised his head and sternly looked directly at him.
“W-what is it?”
“Well, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.”
“There’s just one thing that I want to ask.”
“…What is it?”
“This is just for reassurance, you know? That is…”
“It’s a little hard to say…”
“…Quit beating around the bush, spit it out!”
It wasn’t like Kei to be so indirect or to say Andrei the way he did.
Still bewildered Kei nervously asked, “…Why are you… a girl?”
“…Huh?” She stupidly spoke for the second time. Andrei froze up.
“…What are you talking about?”
“No, well, you see…”
Following where Kei pointed, Andrei looked down.
It was her chest.
Or more accurately―the bulges on her chest.
She made a strange sounding, “…Wha?”
Andrei’s eyes widened. “Eh? Why? Eh?”
Sort of timidly, Andrei grabbed her own respectable chest.
“…I-I have boobs,” she muttered in a daze. And then with a small gasp she looked like she just realized something. Just like that she reached her hand between her legs.
“…I-it’s not there.” Something. Something was there. “…Why?”
“How should I know?”
The cosplaying ninja was a girl.
† † †
In reality, starting a fire with a flint wasn’t very hard.
If there were some well-rubbed out hemp cloth, dried kindling, and a striker to top it off, there wouldn’t be a problem. As long as the correct process was followed even a child could easily make a surprisingly large fire.
First, hold the kindling and the flint in one hand. Then, with the striker in the other hand strike down against the flint. If the sparks land on the kindling, wrap it with the hemp cloth and blow air into it while lightly shaking.
White smoke should rise, and after another ten seconds or so, once a flame began to burn, the fire was started.
Before the fire went out, the final step was to feed the fire with twigs or dried leaves that were set aside beforehand.
“There, all done.”
The heat of the flames felt comforting. Satisfied, Kei nodded.
He put the flint set into the pouch on his waist. While rubbing his hands together he looked up overhead.
“…It cooled down, huh.”
The sky became gloomy as it continued to get darker. The sun had already sunk beyond the horizon and the stars began to twinkle.
He looked out over the plains, near the rocky mountain.
Kei continued to set up camp in the shadow of a large, egg-shaped rock.
The flickering flames eating at the firewood caused the rock to cast a long shadow.
The occasional strong gust of wind presaged the chilling night to come.
Kei gathered the items in front of the leather cloak and sighed in relief.
“…All right then,” he said from the opposite side of the fire.
Andrei sat lightly on top of a flat rock, taking in the warmth of the fire.
Kei faced her and smiled awkwardly. “Are you cold, Princess?”
“…Stop it with the princess,” her thick Russian accent slipped into her English “R” pronunciation.
Disheartened, Andrei―rather, the blonde girl cosplaying a ninja―replied to Kei’s teasing. “…Also, I’m not really cold,” she murmured with a slightly discontent expression as she averted her eyes.
Even with just her thin black clothes and leather cloak she didn’t appear to be bothered by the cold, nor did she seem to be putting up a strong front.
Come to think of it, she is Russian, thought Kei.
On top of that she lived in Siberia, which had intense winters. She probably didn’t even consider this to be “cold.” Convinced, he replied, “Okay. Then it’s all good.”
For a while, it was quiet.
There was only the soft sound of the fire crackling.
Both parties wanted to talk about something, but neither side knew what to say.
The atmosphere held a tense feel of hesitation.
The fire began to quickly burn the firewood during their silence. They tossed in more firewood.
Any longer than this would just be a waste of time. With that thought, Kei slowly opened his mouth. “…Hey, don’t you think it’s about time we talked?”
“Hm. Yeah, I suppose so.”
“…Are you actually ‘Andrei’?” He once again asked the girl on top of the rock.
She sat hugging her knees to her chest and looking down.
“Aah, it’s that. I am ‘Andrei’,” she affirmed, speaking slowly.
“Then that would mean you were actually a woman using a male character this entire time, right?”
“Yes, that’s how it is.”
Hearing that, Kei let a deep sigh escape from his lips.
In the game, Kei met Andrei the ninja about two years ago.
Andrei was the one who approached Kei at the start. She was genuinely into ninjas, so Kei’s Japanese heritage tickled her interest and she made contact with him.
Since then, because they were both solo players and got along well, they continued to hang out together. However― “To think you were a woman, huh.”
It had never even crossed his mind that the person on the other side could actually be a woman.
―He had, however, thought Andrei was an effeminate guy.
“But, why did you intentionally make a male character?”
“I thought that since female characters have less physical strength, choosing a male character was the better way to go for being a ninja.”
“I suppose so.”
It was rare nowadays for games like 『Demondal』to have distinct differences in abilities between genders.
In the game, male characters had generally higher physical capabilities. In return, female characters had deft hands; but it was harder for them to improve their physical strength.
In short, if one wanted a pure fighting character, then choosing a male character would give them a clear advantage. Female characters, on the other hand, were great with craftsmanship. But some crafts such as carpentry required strength, so female characters couldn’t be said to be fit for all manufacturing jobs.
Of course, depending on the character’s race and lineage, a female character could have a high disposition to magic, among other things. There was a feeling of vague inequality.
Those discrepancies from avatar to avatar had incited much debate within the game. But, one could say that 『Demondal』’s choice to commit itself fully to realism instead of warping things and forcing a clumsy vision of equality on the world was quite in tune with its philosophy.
To be fair, male characters had their weak points too.
If hit between the legs they would take a large amount of damage and have a high chance of being stunned. This applied to male humanoid monsters as well.
“The other reason is that nothing good would come of me saying I was a woman. So I kept quiet.”
“I see. You were always popular as the other ‘Andrei’. If people found out that you were a woman then it’d be even more troublesome for you…”
“…Could you cut it out,” she replied, with a sad look.
The story of the handsome―or rather, the aesthetic Andrei–who had strong support from friends, and even had a fan club, was well-known throughout 『Demondal』.
It seemed to have been troubling her, but instead of disappearing and making a new character, she appeared to have become somewhat used to it and reluctantly kept going.
“…Even if you say that…”
Staring at the blond female ninja before him, he said calmly, “It does feel weird to be calling you Andrei while you look like this after all…”
With a somber expression she replied, “…Aileen.”
“Aileen. That’s my real name.”
She raised her head and looked Kei in the eye.
Her blue eyes stared back at him.
She had a small, delicate figure and a tall, thin nose.
She was reminiscent of a feline, looking up at him.
Her long, gorgeous blond hair was tied up to keep it from getting in the way.
Looking at her like this, she kind of looks like ‘Andrei’… No, ‘Andrei’ is the one that looks like ‘Aileen’. She must’ve subconsciously added traces of herself when making her character, Kei thought.
Aileen started to blush and looked away, “…Don’t stare so much.”
“Hey… what about you?”
“…What do you mean what about me?”
“Like your name or something.”
“Oh. My name is Keiichi. Keiichi.” He picked up a stick and wrote “KEIICHI” in the ground.
“Umm, it’s a little off. It’s Keiichi.”
“Just saying it slower doesn’t fix it. Ke-i-i-chi.”
“Ha―something like that.”
“…It’s hard to say. I like just ‘Kei’ better.” In one go Aileen rejected his actual name.
Continuing the pronunciation of an extended vowel like in “Keiichi” must be difficult for foreigners, thought Kei.
“I’m fine with ‘Kei’. Just call me whatever is easiest.”
But he held back from saying that he was called Kei in real life too.
He looked down at the fire and silence fell once again.
He wanted to talk about something, but he couldn’t get his thoughts in order.
While gazing at the flicking flames he thought, whatever happens, happens.
It felt good to just not think.
Looking up, Aileen was spacing out while massaging both of her calves.
The light of the fire reflected off of Aileen’s glossy blond hair. She quickly looked up, catching Kei’s gaze.
“…Your face didn’t change at all, Kei… I suppose it was always like that?” She questioned, looking a little hesitant, but it seemed she couldn’t hold off her curiosity.
“My face, huh…” He rubbed his cheeks.
He tried using the dagger on his hip as a replacement for a mirror, but it wasn’t as reflective as he expected, so he could only see a hazy image.
Regardless, if Aileen said that it hadn’t changed then it probably hadn’t changed. It was probably still Kei’s face from inside the game.
However, when he was asked if that was his face in reality he replied, “…I don’t know. Even in real life it’s been years since I’ve looked in a mirror,” he muttered with a distant look in his eyes.
Aileen’s face stiffened in surprise. “Eh?”
“Jap the Reaper,” Kei the archer.
He was the one known as Kei, whose marksmanship earned him the nickname of “Jap the Reaper,” and he was also famous for being the most prominent player.
Even from Aileen’s fairly obsessed perspective, Kei’s obsession was on another level. There hadn’t been a single time when she logged in that Kei wasn’t on. The rumors that he even stayed logged in for twenty-four hours straight may not be an exaggeration, she thought vaguely.
“I-I see…” Her smile twitched and her eyes darted left and right.
Aileen immediately started acting suspiciously and Kei unintentionally showed a bitter smile.
…Well, of course she’d be like that.
She pulled back from Kei’s unpleasant expression.
That aside, she was disturbed. Sympathizing with his situation felt like stepping on a major land mine.
Kei didn’t care much about what she thought of him… but a regular person would probably feel bad.
Although getting all this out of the way now might have been pretty good, Kei thought to himself.
At any rate, considering the current situation, they couldn’t avoid the topic any longer.
“Hn! W-what is it?”
“I think it’s about time we got around to the topic at hand.”
“Y-yeah.” In response to the serious atmosphere, her expression hardened and she fixed her posture.
He started to break the ice, “You don’t need to be that serious about it.” Kei unintentionally burst out laughing at her unusual reticence and timidity. As if it were contagious, Aileen too laughed a little.
It held no real meaning, but they laughed together before Kei finished up with, “Sorry about that.”
“And so, the main topic is our current situation.”
“…Where is here. Also, why are were here, right?”
That made things fast.
Not many words were exchanged, but it seemed that Kei wasn’t alone in thinking about such things.
 Revolving lantern: A lantern that spins and casts different colors of light and shadows based on the design.
(Best explained with a video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmhn5u55Exs )