A single rocky mountain towered over the grassy plains. In its shade a young boy and girl talked with one another.
“Our situation, huh,” Aileen muttered while she traced her pink lips with the tip of her finger.
“It’s a unique situation so I can’t really say much, but I can think of a couple reasons, I think.”
“Okay, go ahead. I’ll do you the honor of listening.”
It seemed like Aileen had regained Andrei’s energy once more.
It was enough for Kei. Smiling, he held up one finger, “Well, it isn’t anything that special. Firstly, we are still players inside 『Demondal』.” He held up a second finger, “And secondly, for some reason we were thrown out of the game and are now in a different place.”
“Well, that sounds about right.”
“See? Nothing special. But that’s as far as my imagination can go.”
“Really?” She chuckled smugly, “I happen to know a third possibility.”
“Oh? Speak if you so desire.”
Aileen smirked knowingly and held up three fingers. “Third. I fell asleep while playing 『Demondal』and all of this is just a dream.”
“…I see. It’s possible, but an unexpectedly straightforward idea.”
“Hey, what do you mean by unexpected?!”
Kei nodded while going, “Hm, hm.”
Aileen looked a little upset, but didn’t actually seem to mind it much.
It was possible that it was all just a dream.
With the sensation of the light and warmth of the fire, a thought crossed his mind. Have I ever felt a dream this real?
But compared to the second possibility that he brought up, hers was much more plausible.
To test whether or not it was really a dream, Kei relied on a classic method.
“…What are you doing?”
“Am’t hyou tell? I’m pimching mai heek. (Can’t you tell? I’m pinching my cheek.)”
He used all his might. This was the true power of his high strength.
“…Hm. That really hurt. But I didn’t wake up, therefor this is not a dream. Q.E.D.”
He moved his hand from his bright red right cheek and wore a very serious look as he said, “…At the very least, this isn’t my dream. That was already made clear though, huh.”
Amazed, Aileen concluded, If this was a dream then it wouldn’t have hurt, she thought regrettably and drew a throwing knife from behind her back.
Kei asked in a surprised voice, “Woah, you’re going to use a knife?”
Aileen methodically rolled up her sleeve, as if she were going to inject a needle.
“Well. A long time ago I pinched my cheeks in a dream and still didn’t wake up. If I don’t at least go this far, we may never know.”
“No, no, no, if you’re worried about the intensity then I can do it for you. It hurts you know?”
Looking at the bruise forming on Kei’s right cheek, she quietly refused, “…No, it’s fine. I’ll handle this.” She muttered meekly, “Besides, getting hurt again…” and moved to push the knife into the inside of her arm. But…
She just motionlessly stared at her arm. “It’s… it’s nothing.”
She didn’t look like she was afraid, but she gently unrolled her sleeve and instead removed her left-hand glove and immediately let the knife creep across her palm.
“It seriously hurts. It’s even bleeding.” Drip, drip. Red drops fell from Aileen’s hand. “Well now, aren’t we in trouble, Kei? This means that it’s impossible for this to be a dream.”
“Well, I did think that this probably wasn’t a dream in the first place… That aside, are you okay? You cut yourself pretty deep.”
“Y-yeah… Honestly, it cut my skin easier than expected. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t cut my arm instead.”
The cut on Aileen’s palm was several centimeters long. It hurt just looking at the straight cut ooze blood.
“Wait a second, I should have some bandages somewhere.”
“It’s all right. I want to try a potion.”
Kei reached toward the bag that hung at his hip, but Aileen stopped him and faced the darkness behind the rock and clicked her tongue.
In the shadow of the large egg-shaped rock two horses were laying on the soft grass.
They were Kei’s horse Mikazuki and Aileen’s horse Sasuke.
Sasuke heard Aileen clicking her tongue and raised his head as if to say, “You called?” It looked at her with its cute, round eyes.
When Aileen woke up in the plains, Sasuke was lying down and leisurely grazing. After a little she realized that it was just her and her horse in the plains. Kei was nowhere to be seen. At first, she was quite shocked, but Mikazuki came gallantly cantering toward her before guiding her to the rocky mountain where Kei lay unconscious.
In a way, Kei and Aileen owed Mikazuki a heavy debt. But the person(?) himself seemed to practically not care and left it at that. Even now, he continued to munch on the grass without even acknowledging Aileen.
Aileen met Sasuke halfway and pulled a High Potion out of the leather bag attached to its saddle.
“Now, let’s see how this goes shall we? If it were a game then I should feel bubbly and be healed in an instant…”
Aileen returned to the campfire and sat down on top of the flat rock again before skillfully pulling out the cork one-handed. She gently tipped the bottle over her palm. Rather intrigued, Kei came over to watch.
A viscous light blue liquid trickled onto the wound. Then—
Tsssss!! It sounded like meat sizzling after being thrown onto a hot stove. The wound began to foam.
Aileen jumped up and made a weird sound, “Vonya—!!!” The potion flew out of her hand, and Kei caught it in an instant. It was missing the stopper so a little bit of the liquid spilled out. “AHH—! ~~~!!!”
Her screams strained her voice. When she finished she silently held down her wounded hand with the other in agony. The level of her pain was extremely abnormal.
Kei got up and walked over to her, “Hey, you okay?” He hesitated for a moment before slowly rubbing her back.
It looked extremely painful when Aileen cut her hand with the knife, but part of it may have been his imagination. The way the potion bubbled on the wound closely resembled disinfecting something with hydrogen peroxide. The in-game potions that Kei knew would make a nice and refreshing sound when applied and the wound would be healed.
Ten seconds or so passed.
Cold sweat ran down Aileen’s back and she was breathing hard. Kei rubbed her back and asked, “…Have you calmed down?”
“So, what did it feel like?”
“Awful. It hurt like hell.”
“Anyone could see that. I’m asking about the wound.”
She timidly opened her hand. “It’s healed, but…”
“…There’s still a scar.”
The wound had closed, but a white line stood out on the new skin.
When one hears “potion”, what comes to mind is a complete recovery without any scars left behind.
The atmosphere around them was very delicate.
“…Well, it’s not too bad. Your hand is better, right? It doesn’t even stand out much.”
“It doesn’t still hurt, does it?”
“No, it feels like the skin is stretching a little, but it’s not a problem… I suppose I cut a little too deep,” Aileen grumbled quietly as she clenched and opened her left hand repeatedly.
Leaving her side, Kei sat down on the opposite side of the fire again and curiously looked over the potion in his hand.
“…I wonder what would happen if someone drank this.”
“It’d recover their stamina,” she gave an anticlimactic reply to Kei’s musing. “…Probably.”
“Don’t look at me like I’ll do it!”
“Aileen. You’re a doer, I believe in you.”
“I’m no guinea pig!”
“No, not ‘Che’! Enough with the human experiments!”
Kei sighed audibly, “What a spineless person…”
“I’ve already done my part, now it’s your turn!”
Since she was justified in saying he should be the one to test it, Kei took a sip of the “poison.”
He only drank a little of the potion, but made a bitter face. Aileen looked somewhat excited and asked, “How is it?”
“Hm… Honestly, I can’t tell if I feel any different. My body feels somewhat warmer, particularly my hands and feet. Also, my butt hurt from sitting on the rock, but it’s more comfortable now. It might have even done something for my lower back pain or stiff shoulders.”
“Is this some sort of old man’s review on an herbal remedy?! No, it’s not! Well, that part is important too, but…! The taste, what does it taste like?!”
“…It’s a lot like the licorice samples from old VR shops. Aside from the sweetness, I think if mint and ginger were mashed together then it would taste like this? Also, it’s a little bitter. I don’t know why, but for some reason it’s sort of carbonated. It was bubbly the moment it touched my tongue. What’s going on with this thing being both carbonated and thick?”
“It sounds terrible.”
“Yeah. It tastes terrible. Super terrible.”
Moreover, it was the type that left a long lasting bad aftertaste in the back of his mouth. Still wearing a bitter expression, Kei replaced the stopper on the potion bottle.
Aileen trembled with fear and prepared herself, but Kei’s, “Why don’t you try it?” never came. The potion was so bad that he didn’t even feel like teasing her.
Kei played with the potion bottle and slowly began to speak, “…Now then, Aileen.”
Aileen sensed the change in atmosphere and let out a small sigh. “…Are we finished messing around now?”
“Yeah. Sadly, we should take this seriously or it could be bad.”
It had become entirely dark out. Kei looked up at the night sky with a serious expression.
“Aileen. I just realized it, but I found an important clue as to where we are.”
“Since when? Well, what is it?”
“It’s that,” Kei indicated above him. “『Hasuniiru』, 『Waadona』, 『Niruda』,” as if he was tracing the sky he moved his finger along, “『Domina』, 『Kashinaato』, and lastly『Iarishin』.”
They seemed to be names of some kind.
Aileen tilted her head slightly. “…What are you talking about?”
Kei gave a clear and concise reply, “The stars.” He looked into the far-off distance, at the countless twinkling stars and planets and elaborated, “The constellations… the positions of the stars are exactly how they were in 『Demondal』.”
Aileen reflexively looked up at the night sky. But even if she looked at the entire star filled sky, it was just a “starry sky”. She had absolutely no clue what the differences were between the starry skies in 『Demondal』and on Earth.
“Yeah. That green star over there is called 『Hasuniiru』. It’s the center of the『Great Sword』constellation. The red star next to it, 『Waadona』, and the orange stars around it form the 『Mysterious Talisman』 constellation. 『Niruda』, the blue star over there, forms the 『Wand of Protection』 constellation if you connect it in a straight line with the other–”
“Yes, yes, I get it. Enough of that… But why do you know so much about it? I haven’t seen anything about constellations on the official forums or even the wikis.”
Though Aileen said that, she may have just overlooked it because it didn’t really interest her. She focused on the starry sky.
“That’s to be expected. I only heard about it from a hidden quest. I probably don’t know as much about the constellations or the reasons behind them–in other words “Astrology”–as the magicians do.”
“‘Astrology’? Rather, what’s up with the hidden quest?”
“You know the woods just north of 『Dariya Prairie』 near 『Urvan』, right? On the far side of the woods an old female NPC lives in a small cabin. If you cure her lower back pains with either a potion or medicinal herbs, she teaches you about astrology as thanks. In actuality, it seems like events and weather are linked to the stars. In the game, my weather predictions were fairly accurate.”
Thinking back, Kei’s weather forecasts were usually right. She thought that he surely predicted it based on the direction the wind was blowing and the clouds. To think that the stars held such a secret.
“How cruel of you, Kei! Why didn’t you tell me about this?!”
In the face of Aileen’s rage, Kei wore an utterly surprised expression. “I tried to? But you just refused and said, ‘I’m not interested,’ you know?”
Aileen froze up involuntarily. She frantically searched her memories, but she couldn’t recall a single time they talked about astrology in her two years with Kei.
“…Really? I don’t remember that.”
“I think it was about a year ago. At the pub in Urvan I said to you, ‘Hey Andrei, do you want to hear about the law of the mysterious stars? The truth about this vast universe is yours to uncover.’ Then you told me, ‘Not interested in that stuff, try someone else.’”
“That’s obviously your fault!! What are you, the founder of a new religion?! Yeah, it was that time. I remember now. I thought that it was just another one of your hard to understand ramblings, so I ignored it, dammit!” She cursed at him while scratching her head roughly. She sighed, “Well, whatever. And so?”
“…I,” Kei hesitated for a moment. Then he clearly said, “I think that, maybe, this place really is 『Demondal』.”
“…Sounds like another breakthrough. So, this place is so similar to 『Demondal』that this may be a parallel world?”
“You could say that, yes.”
“…I’m pretty sure this happened in a recent anime. While playing the game the characters were sent into the game world. Did you see that one too?”
“No, unfortunately I don’t really know much about anime.”
“Heh, it’s weird that a Russian person knows more about anime than a Japanese person. Oh well. After that, the game world became reality for them. I think that maybe… we’re like those players. If you think about it, having a major update could drastically improve performance and at the same time cause the system to malfunction, preventing us from logging out… It’s quite possible.” Aileen said this with an earnest expression that said, of course, she still wasn’t satisfied with much of the explanation.
Rather than disagreeing with Kei’s opinion, she brought up the possibility for the sake of the argument.
“I’ve thought about that too. However, Aileen, because it is realistic I don’t agree.” He stared at Aileen. “Aileen. Is your VR system ‘External’ or ‘Implant’?”
Confused, she answered his abrupt question. “Huh…? It’s the typical ‘External’ one.”
VR machines fell under two general categories: ‘External’ or ‘Implant’.
Just as the name implied, ‘External’ VR systems performed their functions on the brain and nervous system from outside of the body. This system specialized in customization. By changing out certain parts, one could freely adjust the functionality and ability of their machine.
On the other hand, ‘Implant’ VR systems were embedded directly into the user’s body and connected to the cerebral nerves. They were electronic machines that mimicked the nervous system. Their flaw was that the hardware on the hybrid computers embedded directly into the body was difficult to change out.
The ‘Implant’s’ main feature was its accurate information relay. However, customizing the machine was rather difficult to do. Also, while using other devices in conjunction with ‘Externals’ caused some interference, ‘Implants’ couldn’t be used with other devices at all.
Currently, ‘Externals’ were the more common system due to their better performance. Many people were having their ‘Implants’ removed and changed to ‘Externals’.
—Aside from a small fraction of people.
“I have an ‘Implant’,” Kei continued. “Specifically, it’s the ‘IMBI-Type P’.”
“‘IMBI’, and a ‘Type P’ at that?! Isn’t that the first model of VR systems?”
“Yes, it’s old. But sadly, I’m still using it.”
“…So that means…”
“Well, I do think something is wrong, but…” Kei breathed shallowly. “I’m bedridden with a disease called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva—a rare disease that changes muscle into bone. I first showed symptoms about 15 years ago. About five years ago, I stopped being able to move.”
Aileen was overwhelmed and kept silent, but Kei’s story didn’t stop there. “Right now, I’m a lump of growing bones and a nervous system. I took part in clinical trials 12 years ago, and the results were outstanding. I helped implement VR systems for a practical use—but, the components of it were larger than anticipated. It fused with my nerves so now I can’t change it out. Since then they’ve kept a close eye on both the hardware and the software, and somehow they’ve managed to update it. Although the last update was three years ago.”
“That’s right, that was the year 『Demondal』first launched.” A fleeting smile flashed across his face.
“I jumped at their slogan, ‘A reality like never before’. The most important part for someone like me, who spent all their time in virtual reality, was human interaction. It was worth it, so I underwent surgery for the machine’s installation. My family, the doctor, the supervising college professor, they all were against it. It wasn’t clear if my already weak body would be able to handle it or not. But I selfishly told them, ‘At any cost, I want reality. Living any more idly than this would just be more painful.’ They all gave in in the end.”
Kei continued telling his story with dream-like eyes. “Honestly, 『Demondal』’s reality was amazing. The wind over the grassy plains, the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, even the warmth of the sun felt real. Plants and animals, NPC behavior, the feeling of my own body, everything that I could see, and everything that I could touch, seemed real. 『Demondal』’s ‘reality’ was on an entirely different level than any other game. Almost everything that I needed, 『Demondal』had available—but, there was a limit.” Kei met Aileen’s eyes and quietly smiled. “My machine is optimized for 『Demondal』. Even though I’ve worn it out, it still has some life to it; it still can run the game. But, it’s at its limit, Aileen. No matter what kind of major update, no matter the technological innovation–” Kei scooped up some of the sand at his feet and watched it fall through the cracks between his fingers. He resolutely stated, “–My machine wouldn’t be able to handle the information processing.”
Aileen said nothing.
“…Well, that turned into a dark story, but enough about me. What I wanted to say was that we’ll soon find out if this world is inside the game, or if it is a parallel world. Of course, even my machine could easily handle a major update for a time. I would just be waiting for the system to falter and terminate the program. So, what I suggest is—Hey, wait, are you crying?”
“I… no, I’m definitely not…”
“No, you’re obviously crying, aren’t you?”
Kei walked over to Aileen, who was covering her face with her hands, and patted her back while wearing a wry smile.
“There’s no reason for you to cry. Long ago, I may have cried too. But, because of this virtual reality technology, I’m not really unhappy, you know.”
“Y-you’re wrong. It’s not… like I’m pitying… you…”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
Kei hugged Aileen from behind and gently stroked her head like one does when calming a baby.
Why am I consoling her? He thought it funny and couldn’t hold back a snicker.
“…I’m sorry. I’m good now.”
Just a couple minutes later Aileen calmed down. She gently stroked Kei’s hands, which were still on her shoulders. With two more pats on her shoulder, Kei returned to sitting in front of her.
He made eye contact with Aileen over the fire and she looked away, seemingly embarrassed. “…It’s not what you think. I wasn’t crying because I felt bad for you.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, well… that’s how it is. So please don’t worry about it.”
Kei returned her denial with a small smile. “Enough, let’s continue from before.”
“Alright. So, what was it that you were going to suggest?”
“It’s nothing special. What I was going to suggest was that we should treat this as a parallel world that is similar to 『Demondal』. If this is inside of the game and the system malfunctioned, then there would be a fix within a few days. Aileen, it’s a little personal, but do you live by yourself?”
“No. I live with my family.”
“No need to worry then. Once it’s time to eat your family should pull off your machine if you don’t go. Unlike anime, the machine won’t fry your brain if someone tries to interfere with it.”
“Hey, you lied saying that you don’t know much about anime, didn’t you?”
They giggled together.
“Well, with that said, as long as this is inside the game there is no reason to panic. Although, if this does happen to be a parallel world…”
“We should panic a little.”
“That’s right. We should act as though it’s the worst case of the two theories,” Kei concluded and gave a small sigh. He was parched. Telling his long story made him thirsty.
“…Aileen, do you have any water?”
“Water? I think I have a canteen in Sasuke’s saddle pouch.”
“‘Well prepared means no worries,’ huh.”
“Nothing, just talking to myself. I’m going to take a drink, I’m thirsty.”
Kei got up and approached Sasuke, who tilted his head as if saying, “You called me?” He went through the contents of the saddle pouch.
Aileen called out to Kei, who was still searching for the water, “So, what are we going to do now?”
“Hmm. What should we do?”
“We can’t just stay here forever, right?”
“We’re thirsty. Our butts are sore. We should search for some sort of civilization, shouldn’t we?”
“That’s what it comes down to after all.”
Sure enough, the canteen was at the very bottom of the pouch. Kei pushed aside the potions and grabbed hold of it. Thank goodness, he thought to himself. Without even shaking the canteen to check, it felt decently full. It was difficult to find words expressing his fortune that Aileen carried a canteen around, since he would rather not quench his thirst with a bad tasting potion.
He removed the cap and slowly poured the water into his mouth. Kei thought, It’d be really hard to believe this is a game… He felt the water flow down his throat. He didn’t believe that the realness of this feeling could possibly be replicated through VR technology.
Earlier, Kei said that they should move on the assumption that they were in a parallel world. However, Kei was already half-certain that it was a parallel world—he even wished it was so.
I wonder why this is happening though, he thought, as he held some water in his mouth. If I’m not mistaken, before we got here we picked up the『Dragon Stinger』 from the coastal town of Kitene, then we fought off the brigands that attacked us. I wonder… what happened after that? He couldn’t recall.
“What were we doing just before we got here? On our way back from Kitene, those brigands attacked us, and then we turned the tables on them. That’s as far as I can remember…”
“Now that you mention it… Why did we forget?” Aileen put her hand on her chin in thought. “…Beat the brigands… Only went a little… at ‘Urvan Valley’…”
All at once, they both remembered and simultaneously said, “The fog!”
Just why did they forget?
That’s right, a mysterious fog at the valley. Then they entered the fog together. After that—
“…Shit, I can’t remember,” cursed Kei.
Something. Something was there. He couldn’t say exactly what, but something was there—
Kei snapped his head up at a snort from Mikazuki.
Up until this point Mikazuki had been in his own world, eating grass. He stood up and looked around. His ears twitched and his eyes narrowed in anxiety.
Kei knew what was coming. This expression, these movements. They were the same as Mikazuki’s AI when it had been a game.
—It was when an enemy was nearing them.
Kei heard something whistle quietly through the air. Chills ran down his spine.
His body moved before his mind. As if trying to avoid the chilling sensation he doubled over backwards. Not even an arm’s length away, something flew by. An arrow smacked the face of the rock and rebounded.
—Someone shot at me.
—Why did they attack?
—How many? From where?
Such thoughts flooded his mind, but the sound of something flying through the air interrupted him. He felt the chills run down his spine again. However, in that moment he realized that he wasn’t the one being targeted.
He looked toward where the bloodlust was aimed. Straight ahead was a blonde girl.
Thud. The heavy sound of hitting muscle. An arrow sprouted from the right side of Aileen’s chest.
“…Eh?” She murmured, her eyes wide in disbelief. She looked toward Kei, ‘What?’ written on her face. “Ah…” She slumped over.
—Like a marionette that had its strings cut, she fell.
 Q.E.D.: Stands for the Latin phrase ‘quod erat demonstrandum’, meaning ‘which is what had to be proven’.
 (?): The word 本人 (honnin) was used here to refer to Mikazuki. Honnin is used with people, but Mikazuki is, well… a horse.
 “‘Well prepared means no worries’, huh.”: Kei is saying an idiom in Japanese that translates to the dialogue. But Aileen doesn’t understand the idiom.