I never realized just how insignificant my existence was, how small a part I actually played in this world of wandering billions. There exists a crevice, a meager gap in the ecosystem of society. That, there is my humble abode. I was the smallest, most indistinct being on earth and I never realized this.
Not until I started using my words. Not until I actually had something to say.
The click-clatter of keys, the icy chill of the air conditioning, the pure white glow from my monitor contrasting the darkness of night. There I was, wallowing in my obscurity, hoping beyond hope someone would come and take even the slightest peek at my crevice.
One hour. An hour of clicking, an hour of typing, an hour of posting. Posts after posts after posts, websites tabbed in the dozen. Any forum, any discussion board, anywhere, anyplace, I did what I could.
One hour of wasted effort.
I was so caught up in the weight of urgency, so frantic over the wick of burning time, never once did I stop to wonder how these posts would be viewed in the eyes of another.
And alas, I paid the price for it.
A rambling hater they called me. A troll with too much free time. It's either one or the other. Déjà vu came in written form on a trip back to previous posts on other websites. People are relentless with their assumption. I would know. I tried speaking the contrary, attempting to validate my claims.
April fools was three months ago, dude.
Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. Like how far up is your head up your ass to think someone would write all these warnings for fun? Seriously.
Despite it all, they held firm to their assumptions of me and went on with their lives. Overlooked and scorned, eventually, I too grew tired when everything I did amounted to irrelevancy.
They peeked the crevice and saw me. Then they scoffed and walked away. I was tired of it, I really was.
In hindsight, I should have seen this coming from a mile away.
My desk was no stranger to abuse, nor was my fist. But I don't ever recall bashing them together so hard that everything atop said desk toppled over.
Well, at least I toppled a record.
Among the items strewn and slanted, laid a sloping headgear, still as pristine as ever, whirring a silent mechanical melody, panel lights a steady pulsating green. Hadn't deactivated it since I left that world. Found that I couldn't, or maybe shouldn't… not an hour ago, not even now.
I remembered every night, the last thing in sight before slumber took over would be my headgear perched perfectly atop the shelf, just waiting, dreaming of the day I'd finally use it. Now that moment has come and gone and I can barely even stand looking at it for just a second before a completely nauseating feeling would stir my insides to a pitfall of jelly.
Where there was once excitement, now existed worry. Where there was once enthusiasm, now existed dread.
Where there was once a boy who knew nothing at all, now there was a boy who knew too much, way too much. And if it wasn't for his arrogance, he would have already admitted that he was scared, very scared.
Scared of failing, scared of trying, and most of all, scared that when the destined moment inevitably arrives, that he would forever blame himself for it.
That boy sure has got himself into such an unenviable predicament, I'm sure glad I ain't him.
Yeah, I so fucking wish.
I exhaled a sigh. I find myself doing a lot of that this past hour. Practically collapsing on my bed did little subsiding the trepidation growing with every wasted second. I don't even wanna see the world anymore. I just want to stay here, my face buried in white satin sheets and not think about anything anymore.
But even that small moment of placidity was withheld from me.
A faint click of a door handle followed by the squeaking of hinges. Then a small voice sounded through the ambiance of misery.
I didn't want to get up, so I replied with a muffle. "Yeah?"
Of course, it is. But how the hell can I eat at a time like this?
"Should… should I tell mom you're not hungry?"
Unsure, hesitant, nervous, and tittering on a stutter. I could almost sense the timidness wafting towards me. Even more when I finally turned an eye towards him.
For being only four years my junior, Minatsu sure looked a lot younger than what you'd initially perceived. His constant demeanor doesn't help his case. Every part of his body was closer than it should be like he was constantly hugging himself; A downcast gaze, rarely meeting yours. I didn't know what it was about the floor that's so compelling, but if I ever do find out, I'll let you know.
The most prominent features he possessed should be his bright blonde hair and deep blue eyes. Whatever it is about that combination, it seems many people can't seem to resist it, resulting in a lot of pinched bruised cheeks.
Even then, he was in his usual stance, visibly unsure of himself or what he just waltz into. I mean to his credit, I'd be mildly cautious too seeing a physical imprint on my brother's desk, only to find him sulking face first on his bed. Doesn't take a genius to put two and two together.
Fatigued and dispirited as I was, I still decided to bless him with an answer.
"Just tell her I'll be down shortly."
Minatsu nodded his head, looking rather relieved that whatever happened to me beforehand didn't result in me yelling at him to buzz off.
"Were… were you playing just now?" He asked, spotting the headgear on standby with peaked interest.
I followed his spark of enthusiasm. "Yes…"
"Are you going to play again?"
Blinking. Pausing. Hesitating. I spoke.
"N-no… I don't think I will."
"Oh, I see." He sounded rather disappointed.
Usually, by now, he would have walked away. Lingering around for longer than a minute was an unprecedented event in our lives, but it seems even the status-quo longed to be crumbled in this day of unprecedented events.
He mustered a breath. "After dinner… do you mind coming to my room for a moment?"
Ew, gay Minatsu, gay. But like hell, I can say that. In all seriousness though, our spectrum of interaction only ranged from "Breakfast's ready" to "Dinner's ready", any others besides that were an absolute rarity.
"Huh? What for?"
"I have a surprise to show you… if you don't mind... that is."
Immediately a suspicion came rousing, and I made sure to him it was apparent, "Did she tell you to do something?"
That sent him to a fluster, eyes visibly flinching to meet mine. "N-no… um, Mom has nothing to do with it, I promise. I… I just want to show you something nice."
"Really? Cause she tends to have a lot to do with things she has nothing to do with."
"I'm being honest this time, I swear."
Minatsu's the worst liar. Live with him long enough and it's as if his thoughts and intents were inscribed permanently in his eyes and his mannerisms. No dishonesty was happening here. None this time, at least.
I let the silent fester, before answering again.
"I'll think about it."
Lax shoulders, raised head, glowing eyes. Yup, just like an open book.
"Okay," Minatsu said, reaching for the door handle, "I'll go tell mom you'll be down soon."
The clack of a closed door was my cue to resume doing my best ostrich impersonation. Though even that too wasn't exactly authentic. Ostriches don't think. Ostriches don't worry. I did. Therefore, I wasn't an ostrich, no matter how much I want to be right then.
There was an indent of frustration that remained on the bed when I finally got up. Look close enough, you could just barely discern the eyes, a gouge where a nose had pressed in. It was pathetic looking.
If it had been someone else if it hadn't been my burden to bear, just how well would they fare? I doubt they'd go about it as badly as I have. Probably would have succeeded in preventing a notable amount of unjustified anguishes by now rather than idling, crestfallen, contemplating futilely on "what ifs" that'll never resolve anything.
Yeah, if only it was someone else, if only I could pass these reins onto someone else… maybe someone well-known, whom many held in high regard. Someone reveling in the limelight, someone influential… someone… someone…
That's an idea. A semblance, a small portion of one, but an idea nonetheless. The idea was brewing and it's not stopping. It took hold of me and I found myself once again, plopped in a seat, basking in the glow of my monitor.
One more website. One last place to check.
This idea hinged on a single factor being present. A single thread staving off its collapse among the rubble. She better be live-streaming or I swear to God, I'm gonna throw my brand new headset at the wall. Misfortune had pelted me long enough, Lady Luck's merciless scorn had to dwindle at some point, and it had.
She was streaming.
Something swelled inside me then, a hefty enough swell to compress the infestation that plagued me. The apprehension, the anxiety, it didn't feel as imposing as it did before.
Was it courage, confidence?
Whatever the swelling was, it played a significant role suppressing the hesitance to put the headgear back on. Still, I managed, and I laid back on the bed, the illuminated ceiling solely in sight.
I let the headgear's foamy interior envelop me. It was soft, cozy, caressing the slightest fidget made, like the stroke of a gentle loving hand, imploring you to stay, to indulge in its comfort, to embrace the many things it had to offer.
Such a design that hides well a sinister truth.
A truth that I knew. A truth I was gonna show.
The swell erupted, surfacing through the depths of indecision, it sounded aloud.
When I next opened my eyes, I found I was already moving, running. The crackling crunch of tall grass under my heavy strides swiftly transitioned to the coarse surface of a trodden dirt path.
The damn monolith of a weapon I was so honorably bestowed upon I buried deep in my inventory. Since when? Just then. When I decided to do so. And I did do done it done quick.
I had no confidence in my stamina, absolute zero faith. There wasn't doubt fatigue would come barging in on me like an earthquake to a burial. To hell with it though, to hell with concerns, time was an extravagant luxury I didn't have no more.
Three guesses who's to blame for that. Three guesses who's trying to reconcile for that.
65,000 concurrent viewers watching her. I hadn't a clue percentage-wise how many players are watching her stream in-game but it's safe to assume word of mouth would eventually cover the rest for me.
Her stream I had opened in a minuscule rectangular border at the top right of my HUD. The frenetic bobbing of my head meant I wasn't able to enjoy the finer details of her stream, yet just discernible enough to garner a guess on where she might be.
Up ahead, a gargantuan tower amplified in size as I grew closer. Stream-sniping at its finest, folks. Watch how the amateur does it.
Speed was at a gradual decline. Less than forty-five minutes. I maintain running. A sharp stitch in the chest conveyed a warning of my limits. I ignored it. Fatigue had finally come, like a leech on a wound. It dripped sweat, it constricted the lungs, it began admonishing my efforts. Didn't care, kept running, each overtly perpetual step on the seemingly endless stretch of road, like a treadmill of time, slowly ticking away the minutes, the seconds.
The rustled whistling of passing wind would slowly diminished, outdid by a rampant gasping that also went disregarded. But it did make me wonder how strenuous physical activities in such a place even works. Does my body recognize the effort? Placebo effect, maybe? I swear, I better get out here looking absolutely fresh or I'd scream injustice. We all know I deserve it.
Then, finally, the inevitable happened - I collapsed. Wheezing away the impending explosion in my virtual lungs. I turned over to face the starry sky, a much-needed intermission, or else I might actually die before I could do anything.
Nevermind the steppings of a dozen passing me on both sides. Nevermind the weird and frankly, quite rude stares of other players walking about. Nevermind some of their hushed remarks, nevermind how I look right then. The open entrance of the dungeon tower emitted a chilly wind brushing the top of my head. I made it.
Break time's over. I got up, glancing once at the stream and eyed down the entryway. A soaring construct of stone and more stone. Expansive would be an understatement to describe it, even a viewpoint judged solely from the exterior would derive almost scaleless surroundings. I read an article once, supposedly a floor's dungeon consisted of even smaller floors that connect to a spiral staircase joining in the middle. Meaning there could potentially be over seventy or so rooms in an entire dungeon, spanning across a multitude of smaller floors inside the floor itself.
Ultimately, also meaning that if you would, for some reason or another, enter intending on finding a certain somebody, it'd be like trying to find a player that plays a healer.
Thirty minutes left. I stepped in. Deeper, and deeper, crossing paths with other liken individuals entering and leaving. It's surprisingly crowded here. But that was just another clue if the stream is anything to go by, so far, only one other person in the stream can be heard apart from her. She was someplace isolated, closed off from the majority. Where?
More players came into view. Level 3s, 5s, sometimes 7s, even encountered one watching the stream leaning against a pillar further in. So many people in one place, so many contented looks, smiling faces... in half hour's time, to simply dissipate. I have to hurry.
I took larger strides, I cranked my head more occasionally, I paid utmost attention to the stream for a landmark. Nothing. Neither here nor there. I was also nearing the boundary where hostile mobs would start spawning. If I get killed now the plan goes bye-bye.
Eventually, I reached the spiral staircase, interlinking it was a cross-section of branching paths. Apparently, someone had the brilliant idea to convert this diverging point to a gathering hub for parties because not a single space was left unoccupied. So many people in one place. There were kids, there were teens, there were adults, they were mixed, they were intermingling - it was all very claustrophobic.
I squeezed on through the chatter and leisure, reaching the foot of the stairs. Some of them were clearly lacking in manners, their voices were practically bouncing across the walls, echoes even.
Echoes... voices... stream.
Another idea implanted itself. One lacking any shred of shame but doused extensively with boldness. Suffice it to say, boldness is the last thing you'd call me, like seriously. Am I seriously going to do this? Have I finally reached the point of desperation where no other options were viable?
Don't answer that question. I know already, shut up.
I breathed in the musty air, the air overflowing with the joy, the bliss of other players. I took it all in, all that I could gather until I couldn't anymore. Then I let it all out.
The shout overpowered every single voice. It reverberated, it echoed, it drew attention. A silence fell, one that roused every eye in the vicinity to focus onto me. I felt them all, like a thousand prickling needles stabbing my body. It took everything to ignore those goddamn stares, it took everything to focus my eyes on the stream with such intangible pressure permeating the atmosphere.
In the agonizing seconds that followed, another echo sounded, a tiny faint shout. One barely hearable - she clearly didn't hear it, but I did. Even through the compression of video playback, there was no mistaking my voice in there.
My embarrassment wasn't for naught, after all. With that in mind, I ran up to the next floor, already mustering another breath to be vocalized.
There it was again, slightly louder. I kept at it, running from place to place, zooming past the growls of goblins, the rattling bones of skeletons, screaming like a raving lunatic about the place, guided by the ever-fluctuating intensity of my voice through the many twist and turns. Up, down, left, right, left, right, up - I ran around enough pathways to input a cheat code.
Twenty minutes left.
I yelled my loudest yet. My voice had long since broken through the barrier of audibility, she had heard it at some point and had started to question it. I was getting closer.
Another skeleton as I rounded a corner, unexpected, it took a swing and hit - hard, despite it, I didn't stop to pay heed.
Level one running amok the first floor dungeon. Not the greatest combo in the world. I watched my health bar deplete to half, no more chances, another hit like that, and it'll all be over.
Urgency constricted my chest tight, the sweat that trickled down my face was mixed with exhaustion and panic; virtual, fabricated, all of it, yet the danger made it real. The fear in my next yell was real.
But then, the stream answered my call with an almost equivalent ferocity. A few steps later, I heard a voice from close, clearly annoyed.
"Seriously if I hear that screaming one more time, I'm ending the stream, clearly whoever's doing it is trolling hard."
Another voice responded to hers.
"Ignore it, he'll give it up soon, I'm sure. Idiot's probably got nothing better to do."
Okay so clearly, I did not give the best first impression. Honestly, though, I couldn't care less. I found her.
I turned the final corner with the last of my limits and there she was, a level 8, donning an armor set only available only in the deluxe edition of the game. Her avatar resembles her physical self with dark brown eyes that compliments well her long raven black hair, flowing gracefully down her slender figure. Oh yeah, there's that other guy beside her too. I don't know the other guy.
I took a few feeble steps towards them, noting well, the very suggestive looks on their faces before I collapsed on my knees in exhaustion. What an entrance, Sora, very cool.
I heard her feet shuffling towards me. "So I'm gonna garner a guess here, are you the one yelling non-stop for ten minutes straight?"
Exhaling deep, breathing hard, I stood back up and met her eyes head on. I tried to speak yet nothing was uttered. Apprehension restricted my voice - I mean, this is a top streamer here, I watched her for so long. To suddenly meet her face to face straight outta nowhere… it's a little intimidating. Not to mention, she clearly hit the golden drops in the genetical loot box draw.
Taking a breath, I tried again, finding the words towards my goal.
"A-Ayako, I need your help, I need you to help me warn people."
"Help? Warn? You screamed your head off all this way just to ask for my help?" She gave a giggle, "Could have just donated and said what you wanted there. No need to track me down like some stalker."
I felt myself go beet red. Not because she was right but because she laughed as if she was.
"No you don't understand, this is something that can't be said over by some donation text-to-speech program. I really do need your help. You gotta warn the players online, tell them to get off the-"
The other person stepped in. "Not to be rude, but you're kinda interrupting the stream here."
"Nah, the stream can wait, now I'm a little curious… not everyone who stream-stalks me asks for help afterward." Ayako said, much to the other guy's dismay.
I got tired of referring to him as "other guy" so I stole a glance at his username and felt the surprise of reading it jerk my eyebrows upwards.
"Wait, 'Ragnarok'... wait aren't you the head level designer? Jin Furukawa?" I asked.
"So you do know me." He said. "And you still interrupted the stream despite it."
Honestly, I do not know the reason for the stream or why he's so irked by my abruption. Whatever the case, having him here was a stroke of good luck, this would make it easier.
"Aw come on, Jin," said Ayako, turning towards him, "The level showcase can wait a bit. Besides, the chat also kinda wanna hear what he has to say."
There stayed a hint of displeasure when he next looked at me, grumbling, "I guess… fine then. Well? What is it you have to say that's so important?"
Head level designer, a popular streamer, an eager chatroom. It's as if the stars have aligned just for this one moment, this one opportunity. I better not waste it. I took a breath.
"We're all going to get trapped here. There's someone out there, I don't know how, but he's going to trap every single player in the game, there's like eighteen minutes before he does it though, so we still have a chance. I need your help to tell everyone, anybody, try to get them out, we need to go now before it's too late."
I paused to give them time to process, but it didn't take long before the pressure and the anxiety forced my lips agape once more.
"You need… you need like... Like a sort of forced server log out, a total server shutdown, just until the problem is fixed. Jin, you're a mod, right? Some sort of admin, can't you do something to um- I don't know- stop this from happening? Cause, you'll need to act now or else-"
"I'm going to stop you right there," said Jin, his hand stretched to an open palm, incredulity written across his face, "Trapping players? Eighteen minutes? Shutdown the serv- What the hell am I hearing?"
Ayako looked to share his sentiments, equally as befuddled, "Yeah, sounds like a bad April's fools joke to me. Except it isn't funny, and it isn't even April."
"Look, I'm telling the truth here. The hell would I scream my ass off just for a joke?" I said, feeling the scale of failure start to tilter.
"Boredom's a hell of a drug," muttered Ayako.
"Look, kid," Jin began, brows forming an impatient arch, "Good acting, great excuse for it too, but I heard it all before. You're not the first and sadly won't be the last. Some dude, unsatisfied, didn't like the game. I get it, we're doing all we can to fix it, alright? No need to ruin any others experience with it."
I seriously wanna take his assumptions and starburst stream it up his ass. Instead, I gritted my teeth, I haven't relented, not yet.
"What's good fixing it if you won't be able to leave the damn game? Look, I have no agenda, no ulterior motive. Heck, I'm barely reaching level two with a goddamn wooden sword as a-"
Interrupted. A reminder flushed away the aggravation, a trinket. My inventory screen flashed open faster than minimizing an open porn tab.
"Oh? Has the defendant procure any evidence to support his claim?" exclaim Ayako in a tone of authoritative fakery.
The iron sword materialized with a luminous white glow, but like hell I'm gonna wield that heavy lump of metal again, it dropped atop the chiseled stone at our feet, its reverberating clanging brought all eyes downwards.
"You see the stats? See its requirements? "The person who's gonna trap us gave that to me. Said we're gonna need more like that if we're gonna… if you're gonna get rid of him." I said as they both assess the sword in silence, "But you all don't have to do that, just convince everyone to leave the game. Better yet, just log us all out. Do it, and you'll be avoiding a lot of misery."
Ayako was the first to show a response, hands on her hips, face in a frown.
"So what's the verdict, Your Honor? Guilty as charged? I say five years would do him good. Hacking's never made anyone happy" She said, turning to Jin.
"I didn't hack it in!"
"Dunno, carrying a sword like that is pretty hackery if you ask me." Ayako said, pursing her lips in doubt, "Pretty cool though, I'll admit. Mind teaching me a few tricks?"
"Do I look like a cheater to you?" I said.
She raised her eyebrows, "Sure you want me to answer that?"
"I'm not a hacker!"
She lifted her finger to her lips, again with fabricated sternness, "Hush criminal scum! The matter shall be decided swiftly and justly. What say the jury, any thoughts?"
I took a brief glance at the chat.
-THROW HIM IN THE SLUMS
-WE'RE BRINGING OUT THE ELECTRIC CHAIR BOYS
-HANG THE BASTARD
I love the internet.
Looking back up, Jin held the sword in his grasp, gaze never etching away, even as he handed it back to me.
Expectations I had at the time were more doubts, more adamant dismissals, more stubborn refusal and I was prepared to fight them all but this… he stiffly turns towards me, his eyes omitted of unwelcome displeasure, utter grim manifested in his expression, solemnly, he asked in a whisper.
"What was the name of the person who gave this to you?"
The gauntness he imposed was palpable, he knew something and he displayed it well. Something unknown to me, it only doubled the ominousness.
"His username was Sukuinote."
He simply shook his head, the fear in his eyes, resembling close to my own.
"That's impossible." He said, almost breathless.
"What the - my stream just got cut off," Ayako informed, confused, undoubtedly directing her silent inquiries at Jin.
I too was hoping for an explanation, but there wasn't time.
"That isn't a good sign. It might be happening anytime soon." I opened my menu once more, "I'm leaving now, look, just log everyone out."
Fingers inches away, my window to escape, swatted away. The menu closed, then blinding light, a strong force slammed me hard on the coarse dungeon wall, a massive pressure kept me there, my eyes finally opened.
"What the hell are you doing?!" I bellowed, hands opposing the arm against my chest.
Jin replied almost at once, "You're not leaving."
"Jin, what's going on here? Explain," said Ayako, running to our side.
He released his hold, walking steps back, and opened his menu, "None of us are leaving."
I reclaim the air that escaped me, breathing hard, "Like hell I'm staying."
"You don't have a choice." He said, typing away at the translucent white border.
Ayako finally verged the point of panic, "What the hell is going on?! Are we really going to get trapped? Answer me!"
No answer. He kept to his own.
Ayako mirrored my own confusion and mirrored my intent as well. Almost simultaneously, we opened our menus and scrolled.
Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling…
I scrolled up, I scrolled down, again and again, and again and again, feeling the beat of my heart thunder more with each agonizing second.
It wasn't until Ayako spoke the words that I feared most that I finally accepted the reality of it all.
"Where's the logout button?!"
Fear, terror, dread, horror, panic, all towards him, everything I had swirling inside I directed at him, I screamed, the high pitch of timidity consumed my voice, I didn't care.
"WHAT DID YOU DO?"
He heard me, he turned, he met my eyes, I met his. It was a mistake, I made a mistake, this was a mistake. I shouldn't have done it, I shouldn't have tried.
He turned away, and spoke to the border of white, softly, resolutely, and submissively.
"Attention all players… it is with deep regret to inform you all, that you are no longer allowed to leave Medieval Centuries Online. Access to the logout option has been completely prohibited, and will be and only be accessible upon completion of all one-hundred floors..."
Each sentence, each word, each syllable he uttered, hammered my feet firmly in place, rooted, beyond stunned, only able to helplessly pay heed as he continued on; the person whom I hoped would help resolve, sealing away our fate without any hesitation.
Only Ayako could react, only she could speak out, baffled, "You're not serious. You can't just trap everyone against their will, you can't just keep us here. Someone outside will notice, someone will find out what's happening and you'll-"
"Let it be known, it is not mine nor any of the developer's will to enforce this situation upon you. I could give a thousand sorries, a million even but that doesn't change the fact that, to be absolutely blunt: This game is no longer ours. If you die in here, you die forever. In no less than fifteen minutes, the game will restart. Everyone and everything will be reverted to their original state. Make no mistake… this is no joke… this is no event… the quicker you accept what I've said the better. Because from this point forth, you'll no longer be playing - you'll be surviving."