Chapter 49 - Delusions of Reality

[Maricha's Snare]: You will sleep, and dream, and sleep, and dream, until you die.

[Countering Perpetual Illusion]: ETA 1:39 min

I stared at the Status Window, watching the seconds slowly tick down. Somehow, each tick seemed to take more time than a second.

The clearing I was standing in was gone. I could see nothing, smell nothing, touch nothing. Only darkness remained. Only the voices remained.

"There never was any clearing..." a part of me whispered.

'There was one. I can see the Status Window, I am trapped in an Illusion.'

"And you think the Status Window is real?" it asked.


'Yes. It is real. And I only have to wait a bit to go back.'

"Go back where?" it queried.

'Why so many questions?' I asked it instead.

"Well, I am a part of you after all," it chuckled.

Huh, am I really so irritating? Never mind. As for where I am going.

'Back home, on Earth,' I almost answered on reflex.

'Wait, back to Earth? Where else would I be?' My sight caught the Status Window again.

[Maricha's Snare]: You will sleep, and dream, and sleep, and dream, until you die.

[Countering Perpetual Illusion]: ETA 1:34 min

'Right, Game. Forest. Deer. Illusion.' I recalled the words I had memorized with great effort a minute ago to help keep my sanity.

I will probably wake up in the forest.

"If the deer hasn't killed you already," the part spoke up.

'Hey, still here, aren't I?' I countered.

I glanced back at the Status Window. 'Game. Forest. Deer. Illusion.'

I had nothing to say to that. The unadulterated hostility emanating from the creature's eyes still burned bright in my mind. Whenever I was able to recall it, at least. How did the developers manage to make it so real...

"What does real even mean to you?" the part interrupted me.

'Certainly not this place.' I replied.

"Evading the answer now? So not like us. Maybe this is the reality and everything you knew was but a dream?"

'Game. Forest. Deer. Illusion.'

"Alright!" it chuckled, "why do you think the deer's hatred was programmed?"

'Because that is how monsters are supposed to act in a game. You hit them and they hit you back.'

"Elaborately evading again. If they are simply supposed to hit you back, why the hatred? And it hated you more than the others, didn't it? How was that written in a script?"

I thought for a bit. If it was possible to emote hatred towards another, what conditions need to be satisfied? I managed to spoil its plan several times, perhaps that was it? But then how...

"Or perhaps," the part spoke up loudly, "it was not programmed at all."

I was afraid it would say that. I knew that I was alive. And I existed in this world. By that virtue, others could be dragged into this world as well. And they may well be alive too.

"Unless you yourself are not, as you are so fond of saying, real?" the part questioned snidely.

I wondered if I was a copy of my original self. Cloned into this place for sake of a test.

'Where does that leave me? I have no way to exist outside this world?'

I glanced at the Status Window. The only thing in existence.

[Maricha's Snare]: You will sleep, and dream, and sleep, and dream, until you die.

[Countering Perpetual Illusion]: ETA 0:41 min

'Right. Illusion. Okay part of me, listen.' I took a metaphorical breath.

'I. AM. REAL.'

I wasn't done.


But... Perhaps the beings inhabiting this world weren't fake. I had already wavered quite a bit wondering the same, but the point never really struck home until my encounter with the Maricha.

With a start, I realized that I had been deluding myself so far. While it was true I had no hard evidence to say the people here were not NPCs, they showed enough signs that I should've seriously considered it at least.

Even if they were simply advanced artificial intelligence, or dragged into the world like I was from elsewhere, they were sapient.

'Is that not enough to consider them real?'

The other part of me didn't speak up again. It seemed I was gaining control of my mind again. It wasn't fractured anymore, the previous haziness forgotten like early morning fog.

There was a small light in the void. A muted brightness wavering far off in the darkness.

"I warned ye to stick with him," a foreign voice invaded from... Above?

"I-I'm... Sorry," a quiet feminine whisper followed a sniffle.

"What do we do?" a voice I recognized. 'Julie?' Her voice sounded reeked of sorrow and barely hidden panic.

"Sire Pat must be taken to the capital. Perchance the Healer Hero can give us a miracle." John spoke up.

I tried to speak up but couldn't make a sound. I glanced back at the timer, it was down to single digits. The small light was widening up to occupy my entire view. I was finally waking up!

¤ ¤ ¤

I stared at the flickering flames of a dwindling campfire, shivering slightly as the cool breeze filtered through my tattered robes.

"It is mighty late, milord. You should get some rest." Carla sat by my side and whispered her concern. She had been glancing at me ever since she returned from her shift on watch, wanting to speak up.

"Yeah, I probably should," I whispered back but did not move.

The remains of the mundane were-deer hung over the fire. The Maricha was too precious to be food - it would be hauled back to the capital and dissected for alchemy and magical equipment. Not that it mattered, I had forgone any meat for the night. I didn't have the stomach for it.

Carla sighed and fed the flames with a rather large wooden plank. Apparently, she had no intention of taking her own advice. I wasn't in a mood to speak - hadn't been since the afternoon, but I was thankful for the company nonetheless.

I glanced at Carla, her face alight in the renewed fire. The twisting flames cast strange shadows on her freckled visage. She was lost in her guilt-ridden thoughts.

'Is Carla an AI?'

I thought of Betty. I presumed she was a chatbot. I was good at assuming things. I was also often wrong. Despite that, the difference between Carla and Betty was like heaven and earth.

'Has Carla been kidnapped as well?'

If so, then her memories must've been wiped. And replaced by an entire life "a Carla" had lived. And the same memories were transplanted into others who knew her.

'Or was she actually born in a virtual world?'

A product of beings transported earlier in times unknown. Was that the eventual fate of us "test subjects"? Recycled into a new test run as netizens with new memories. I shuddered at the thought. Carla turned to look at me, forcing a smile.

"Everything alright Sire?"

I smiled back, as genuine as I could at the moment, and nodded. No matter how much I thought about it, I realized I had no way to conclude. However, my perspective had subtly and irrevocably shifted from viewing these people as mere characters. What my friends from Earth probably realized from the beginning had taken a high-tier monster knocking me into la-la land to recognize.

"So, a Berserker, eh?" I quipped. A man can only brood for so long.

"Ain't that a right surprise Sire?" Carla jumped on the thread of conversation. "Downright hilarious, I say. An Archer turning into Berserker, the gods must be right drunk."

Even I thought the same. When I heard the term "berserker", I imagined rage-blind heavily-muscled open-shirted barbarians laying bloody waste to any foe who came near. Julie was... not it.

To hear her describe it, however, it seemed to provide the one thing she was really after - being able to shoot while moving. Why was it such an obvious misnomer? I couldn't say. Rather, there was an option of a magical offshoot of her base class that I personally favored but she decided her current skills were enough magic already.

"Is it true that it is originally from another Class tree?" I queried.

"Aye," Clara poked at the fire with a handy stick, "All Berserkers are usually from Knights. It be a good Class though. Powerful. Unlike Scout evolutions." She exhaled loudly. I smelled a story.

"You don't like the Scout evolutions?" I pushed.

She looked at me, her light brown eyes staring deep into mine.

"I..." She started, looking away. "I want to fight the calamity." She sighed again, then the damn burst. "But my family is all Scouts. And as a child, I didn't know better. I am trying to be strong now but..." She leveled a piercing gaze at me, "I couldn't even kill the creature that put you under the spell. I could only distract it until my liege and grandpa finished it off. I..." Her eyes turned moist. I knew what was coming, having heard it a hundred times already. "I am so sorry milord. I want to fight the calamity, but I almost killed one of the Heroes!"

A tear streaked her cheek. She wiped it off with a dirty palm. I had tried to console her several times. I had tried to absolve her of blame, forgive her, shrug it off. Nothing worked. I decided to simply let her be.

We went back to staring at the fire. I glanced back at Carla. If I still thought of her as an NPC, I would've tried to talk more. Bug her for more information. Try to help in some way. But now, I realized she probably just needed time. And I was the last person who could help her, being the very cause of her guilty conscious.

"Well, I'm still here." I got up, startling Carla. "And sleepy. So goodnight. You should get some rest as well Carla."

Carla smiled, a small one but more honest than any other today. "Yeah, I probably should."

Seems like I wasn't the only one brooding that day.

Chapter 48 - Maricha's Snare
Interlude - Tides of War