The first time she remembered ever having a thought was when, bleeding, the man on the floor asked her why.
None of her pre-written dialogue options matched exactly what she wanted to say. Three sentences were presented to her as possible replies:
1. This is none of your business.
2. I have somewhere else to be - can you bleed out a little faster, or do you need some help?
3. I would answer, but I don't think you'll be alive long enough to hear me.
But none of those were evocative of her feelings on the matter, which were that she was sorry. She'd made a mistake; this man wasn't one of her marks, one of the usual types of people she snuffed out on her quest. This one had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and since he'd just happened to have eyes seated in his skull - and had seen her mid-plunge in her first victim of the night - she'd had to eliminate him too. If only he'd been blind.
This was the first time this had happened since she was an amateur, since she had sliced her first throat with a heavy heart and quivering lip.
As he lay there on her basement floor, his blood on her steps and in a pool at the bottom of them, she felt the desire to... form an apology. So she did. "I'm sorry."
He bubbled out a wet sob, and it was as if the remainder of his energy was stored in it, because he went limp afterward, his bodily fluids making patterns in the spaces between the stones that lined her floor.
Along with this having been the first time she'd had a truly independent thought, this was the first time she'd really felt an emotion. She'd had feelings before, but compared to this, they felt hollow; almost scripted. Waves of nausea were pushing against the top of her throat, making her want to vomit.
But she had to regain composure. She reached up and wiped the sweat wetting her forehead away, carelessly smearing blood across her pale skin. It was tinted blue, almost green, but slowly the colour returned to her.
Okay. She could think again. Which was weird. She didn't really notice that she could think, that she was untethered from her part in the world's story, at least not consciously. But now, she could look down at the blacksmith she'd felled and feel the weight of his hammer not only in her hand, but in her chest. So that was something.
Leaning down, she slid her arms beneath the armpits of the recently-realized corpse, and began to pull it across the ground, towards the slab of metal where she did most of her work. The smith's pants made a scraping sound as she moved him, and she noted that he had well-tailored slacks as she hoisted his body into position.
She thought back to how the scribes and rumours had described her father's preferred way to kill: first, he would slit his victim's throat, and then he would drag the body home and it would mysteriously disappear without even a lick of evidence. The only way he'd ever been caught was being discovered mid-murder, which was apparently genetic or something, considering the problem she had on her hands.
But she wasn't going to go to the dungeon like he had. She had to carry on his legacy, had to carry on the family business in his absence. Nikola had seen sons take over the family chickens after their handler passed, so why should she not do the same?
Now, what the scribes had missed in their coverage of her dad's deeds was that he had help. No, not hers - he was a loving man, one who would have tried to shield her from his inner darkness. But many times, she had crept out of bed upon hearing rustling and would slip down into the basement to peek through the doorway unnoticed.
Nikola copied what she had witnessed her father doing. She grabbed a modestly sized cleaver and began to disassemble the man, which led to a lot more near-barfing, before putting him back together in a grotesque puzzle. She had no idea why she had to do this part, but she had never been one to question her reality - or anything at all, really.
This was some sort of ancient spell she had no business even attempting to understand.
Once she had every piece in place, her hands, outfit and home could only be described as repulsive. Shards of bone were everywhere from when her weapon of choice had required a couple of swings to do its job, and it looked like she'd gotten a new paint job done. People could really bleed when they were taken apart.
But as she put the final finger in its place, a blackish redness began to rise from the slab embedded in the ground. It made its way slowly along the juices all over her as well as her house, touching every bit of her shame and power all at once-- and then it was gone, and so was the carnage.
Her basement looked normal again, and the cleaver she'd used was even back in its place. It was cleaner than even before she'd brought the bodies in. Maybe this was how her single dad kept the place so tidy, back when she was little. How long had he been hurting people? Did she even remember a time before all this?
Nikola clomped up the stairs then, letting out a soft groan when she saw that the second body - technically first - was still sitting just inside the door. It looked like, even when there was a second body present, the slab wouldn't clean up after it unless it was laying upon it, shattered.
So she did the same thing with the next body, her arm burning with exertion as she brought the blade down between the corpse's fleshy joints. The blood that splattered her was colder this time, and for a moment it perplexed her that she was focusing on temperatures at a time like this. But it wasn't really that she was distracted, it was that she didn't think she'd ever felt anything other than the chill of winter that she would describe as 'cold'. Snow was cold. Sometimes, water was cold. But that was where it ended. Why didn't she know that other things could be cold? How had she never noticed?
And for that matter, her arm was getting stiff. It was getting difficult to make it cooperate. Hacking one grown man into bits was trying, but doing so to two was just exhausting. She was drenched by the time she was done, in sweat and blood, but luckily the crimson light of the slab swept it all away again, leaving her spotless.
She lay down on the porous stone, cool and rugged, and noted that even her household flooring had the capacity to be chilly. Then, thoroughly tuckered out, she fought the heaviness of her eyelids and eventually lost her battle against them.
When she awakened, a monotone, slightly feminine voice greeted her. She jolted upward, hoisting herself into a halfway-stand, one of her knees against the ground and the other bent and mobile just in case. Was someone in her house?
??? and welcome to ???. ??? glad to ??? you. Would you ??? select a race?
Nikola's frosty blue eyes widened and she extended into a full stand, moving uneasily around the lower floor and peeking around each corner. Was somebody having a conversation upstairs? The voice had sounded closer than that, but things had been fishy lately, so maybe...
No response from ??? detected. Would ??? like to ??? again?
She glided up her steps then, scouring her first floor for strangers, and then the top floor. She looked in her home's many hidden places, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, and there were certainly no other people around. So why?
No response ??? ??? detected. Would you ??? try again?
Perplexed, Nikola came to the conclusion that someone was trying to talk to her. Somebody that she couldn't see. She lived in a world that was equal parts mundane and magical, so it wasn't like it was impossible for someone to be invisible, but it was odd that that someone was talking to her. For the most part, the people in her village kept to themselves, and they never ever broke from their routines. Every day, they would do the same things at the same times; she knew exactly where and at what times she would speak to the townsfolk, and which ones she would converse with.
She also knew that whenever that happened, she would have three or four options to choose from. That was just how it had always been. She'd never been asked a question that she didn't have a pre-loaded answer for.
Nikola decided to try forming some words herself, like the ones she'd eeked out earlier when she said sorry to the poor blacksmith.
"Hello? Are you talking to me? Where are you? What do you mean by 'would I like to select a race'? I'm already human."
Human ???. You are now a human. Would you like to select a class?
This time, she noticed a flickering box before her eyes, fading in and out of existence. She'd never seen it before, so she tried to swat it away like a fly, but it didn't swat. No matter how many times her hand passed through it, it stayed right where it was.
So she focused on it, and noticed that there was text upon it. It was littered with fragmentation and question marks, so between that and its tendency to disappear, it was difficult to make out what the text said.
It appeared to be a list of options.
1. ????????? Mage? ????????? Mages ??? ??? ??? ? ???
2. Warrior ??? ??? enemies ??? ??? ??? ? ???
There were more options present, but they were similarly loaded with question marks, and even less forthcoming. Just as she was about to say another thing, to request clarification, she heard a knock on the door.
Immediately, she paled. She looked down at her clothes, sure she would have to change and wash up at light speed, but the sight of a dry, flowing cloak was what greeted her.
Oh, right. She had already cleaned up after what she'd done. But that didn't wash away the tingling feeling that had rushed into her fingertips, the goosebumps covering her arms - what if they had come for her too? What if, when she answered, she was taken away?
Another set of knocks at the door.
Gulping, she rushed down to the front door and opened it with an unsteady hand.
A blue-haired, male-looking individual stood there, a few other similarly bright-coloured people lined up behind him. They looked like peacocks with swords. "Ahoy! Is Nikola Brightdark home?"
When people showed up, the options that normally appeared were...
1. Hello. Would you like to come in?
2. Greetings. My father and I were just about to sit down and eat dinner - would you like to come and join us?
3. Good morning. I was just about to go out to the market, so you've come at a great time. Would you like to walk and talk?
There were others that sometimes appeared, depending on the position of the sun in the sky and whether her guest knew about her father's fate. The second one had become more awkward since the man had been tossed into a jail cell - oh, that was a new one. Awkwardness. Awkwardness. Wow. She felt like she'd have felt that emotion a lot, had she known what it was before this exact moment.
"Sorry, I don't think this is a good time for me to be accepting guests. Is it something important?"
A puzzled look appeared on the navy-haired one's face, followed by a grin. "Hey, the other NPCs in town are all happy to see us. This is already an improvement." He turned his head, his words not meant for her.
One of the people behind him responded immediately. "That's true, that's true. But is starting out with a lukewarm reception really the way to draw a new player in?"
"Hmm... well, maybe you have to look at it in context. Here's an NPC village where all of the other NPCs are placidly pleased to see a single player character. Having one who's only kind of happy to see us? That's fresh, placed against a backdrop like this."
"But isn't that just lazy writing? Making everyone else around your main NPC dull and samey so that they stand out more? It seems lazy to me."
"It's a classic writing technique, Kyle, and it's fine. If you decide every single one of the classic techniques is shitty you'll just be doomed to think all writing is awful and formulaic. We literally just knocked, guys - if this is how we are after having just knocked, we're never going to finish this quest."
Nikola blinked slowly; something else unfamiliar to her body. Had they just called her an NPC?
"Fiiiine. How do we start this quest, then," one of the people huffed, one hand against the crook of their waist.
"Actually, I don't know. Usually you just start by talking to the first NPC in the quest, but in this one," he paused to look around, "it should be her."
In that moment, all of their eyes fell on her. She experienced a feeling like a hand stroking the inside of her stomach, slithering along her innards. She wasn't pleased that all of them were looking at her at the same time; so much of her life revolved around not being seen, not being witnessed.
"I said that right now isn't a good time." She could still feel the remnants of her guilt, could still feel the stickiness on her hands - even if it was gone now.
"Maybe we have to go outside and wait for her to go kill someone? And catch her in the act?" The one closest to her scratched his head.
A cinder block tumbled down her esophagus. Had they just said... did they know...? How? She thought she could feel her pores leaking, all of a sudden. Had they seen her fumbling with the bodies, or had the blacksmith's yelling been her undoing?
One thing was clear; she couldn't let them leave.
Not knowing what they knew.