“Miss, we’re running out of food… You need to go home or else we won’t have anything left for the rest of our customers,” the restaurant owner NPC says as I continue to shove spoonfuls of food in my mouth. I glance up to meet her tentative gaze, noticing she’s wearing glasses, has short brown hair and a black tray clutched tightly against her chest, as if my hunger terrifies her and she thinks she’s next on the menu.
As much as I should stop eating, I can’t find the will to. Based on what Mnemosyne said, I couldn’t eat foods rich with lactose, but the same couldn’t be said for the other foods I couldn’t normally eat in reality. Saltiest fried foods, acidic pickled vegetables, spicy chicken ramen, and their sweetest chocolates… all things I’d learn to eat plainly to avoid flare-ups of my annoying colitis. Back at home, Maê refused to season anything out of fear that too strong of a flavor could send me right to the emergency room. And I enjoy my three-year streak of not going to the hospital.
“When you’ve got colitis, then you can start telling me what I can and can’t eat,” I say to the NPC before picking up a bright red stick of fermented bamboo shoots. A satisfying crunch resounded through the restaurant as I bit down, guzzling all of its refreshingly tangy and spicy flavors.
“Why am I not surprised this is the first place you go to?” a familiar voice cut into my eating. I turn my head to meet Yumi’s amused gaze, her hands on her hips as she shakes her head at me in disbelief. Her username, Yumiko, floated above her head, along with her level 1 label. Behind her back, she has a plain brown bow and quiver, which tells me she chose the archer class. “Only you would think to go to a restaurant for food when you’ve just found out we’re all trapped here until someone beats the game.”
“I’ve got to keep my stamina high. What good will I be if we starve to death?” I ask with a nonchalant shrug.
“How can you eat at a time like this, Mai? It doesn’t matter how much food you eat in game, your body needs real sustenance. Or have you already forgotten the two basic things a human body needs to survive? We need to get out of this game quickly or our parents will worry,” she replies, glancing around the square nervously for enemies we don’t have.
I sighed in exasperation, allowing my spoon to drop onto my plate with a loud clang. “Would you relax? Enjoy the game a little. We won’t be here longer than a day in-game.”
“How can you be so sure?” She furrowed her brow at me in confusion.
“The beta testers are probably hard at work trying to get us out of here. They exist for one purpose only. To ensure the game is fair. To do so, they prove the game is winnable. If they beat the game in the test run, they can do it again,” I explain, wiping my mouth with a napkin an NPC server handed me. My appetite disappears as soon as Yumi voices her concerns. If this game is meant to be a prison, it’s no different than the life I’m living. Hell isn’t so bad if you’ve been living in it, the cynical thought passes through my mind.
Yumi falls silent. I shift my gaze back to her and notice she’s afraid of something. Her eyes dart around the area nervously, her hands trembling at her sides.
“What is it, Yumi?” I ask, the silence sending a shiver down my spine.
“Mythic Kingdoms doesn’t have beta testers, Mai,” she admits, and I feel the blood leave my face in shock. “Why do you think they gave us the SoulDive for free?”
“Because we’re the beta testers,” I murmur in astonishment, thinking back to the high-level people I saw when everyone arrived in the Plaza of Memories. What if they aren’t players at all? It all makes sense now. The advertisements for Mythic Kingdoms, its discounted sale rate, the free giveaways of the SoulDive. It all leads up to this moment. But it begs the question: why? Why risk liability for trapping millions of players around the world? People would sue the moment they leave the game. Unless they have a failsafe.
“Somebody, help!” an anguished player’s cries echo from the plaza.
We rush over to find a crowd of people huddled around a female bard with brown hair and a dark-haired boy with a cracked sword, his eyes shut. Blood covers their blue guild uniforms, and I notice the large gaping wound in the boy's side. His chest fails to rise and I know he’s dead.
“What happened?” I ask, reaching the front of the group.
“We were ambushed by some high-level people dressed in black cloaks! There were too many of them, we couldn’t fight them off,” she explains, her tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’m too low level, so my heals did nothing to save my husband.” She clutches onto my hands, gripping onto me like I’m the only thing keeping her grounded. Her eyes widen with a madness begging to be released. “If he dies in game, he’ll be okay, won’t he?”
“No, he’s as good as dead,” an ominous stranger replies.
My head sharply turns to face the danger. Instead, I see a group of concealed individuals wearing a pendant with the symbols V and H around their necks. The dark cloaks they wear offer enough security to keep their faces hidden. Three have quivers hanging on their backs, their bows unseen. I also note four bards, three swordsmen, two tanks, and one mage with a book that is all-too familiar. I scrutinize the book, recognizing its distinct color, width, and spine. It’s the Book of Fate.
The person holding what appears to be the Book of Fate notices my scrutinizing glare. Their ghostly smile appears out of the shadows of their hood before they say, “Familiar, no? Don’t worry. It’s not what you think. Not that you’ll find out. You’ll die just like that man and when you die in this world, you’re dead in reality, or at least, you’ll wish you’re dead. That’s the beauty of the SoulDive. It’ll strip you of your freedom and sanity, until there’s nothing left but a withering flower.”
“We die in real life if our characters die?!” a player exclaims.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore!” another player shouts.
“What will you decide? Quit and stay trapped in this game forever? Become strong enough to challenge us and the Masters of Darkness? Or give into the darkness in your hearts and help us achieve our goal? The clock is ticking. Your bodies can only sustain you for so long,” the leader says before they disappear in a cloud of gray smoke.
“What should we do, Mai?” Yumi asks, gently grabbing my arm for comfort.
“We’ll just have to beat the game,” I reply, my heart racing with anticipation. Although this experience would prove to be the toughest, there’s no sense whining about our predicament. We would do what we could to win because our lives depend on it. Images of my mother swirl in my mind, filling me with guilt over how sad she’d become if she discovered I’m trapped in this cursed video game. Would she really miss me? I clench my fists, finding the strength I didn’t think I had, resolving myself to have a proper talk with her once I escaped this nightmare. I’ll show you just how strong I am, Maê.