Red Birthmark - Chapter 34 - Louadorable (2024)

Chapter Text

“They’ve been under for 20 minutes now,” Heathcliff observed the computer’s digital clock, his forehead furrowing. “I wonder if they’ve made any progress in there.”

The burly man spun around on the office chair to look at his friend across the room. Hong Lu was attempting to fan air into the sweltering room from the open window with a notebook he’d grabbed from the desk in hand.

His technique was questionable at best. Performing a sideways Mexican wave with the book, attempting to guide and encourage the cooler air in like a bull charging for a red flag.

The prince was clearly rather sweaty and hot from this ordeal. A glistening shine of sweat ran across his skin, and nasty wet patches appeared to be soaking through the armpits of his silken white blouse.

“Your notebook’s going to do nothing to cool this place down. It’s going to be hot in here no matter what we do.” Heathcliff bemoaned the futile effort he was watching. The man tapped the desk with his hand. “Come on over here and watch some videos with me. We’ve got to do something to pass the time.”

Hong Lu slumped his shoulders in defeat and sighed. He fanned himself with the notebook like it was his personal hand fan. “So long as it keeps my mind off this heat. Fine.”

This was worse than being stuck in a Backstreets doctor’s waiting room. Hong Lu remembered fondly how he used to be able to stroll into his family’s private doctor's office at his whims - which, considering the amount of STD scares and injuries he sustained from dealing for fun, was certainly a blessing. He’d rather have died from an infected cut than have to wait in a stuffy, boring room like this for an hour.

Hong Lu came over, tugging at his blouse’s collar to let out the heat, as he dumped the notebook back down on the desk’s stuck-on warning sheet. “We better be using incognito mode if we are going to do this. I don’t want us to get done, just because we left a trail on this computer.”

“Yeah, yeah that’s what I was planning on doing,” Heathcliff reassured him. The sitting man reached for the computer mouse. “What’s the worst they are going to see? A recommended video on how HamHamPangPang sandwiches are packed? That sh*t’s surprisingly interesting!”

Peering over his shoulder from the side, Hong Lu watched the Brit click on the web browser hidden underneath Nepenthe’s Elysium’s Launcher window.

Almost immediately, however, 8 pre-set tabs popped up within the search engine’s window. The wheels on each stab spun as they all fought to load at the same time.

Hong Lu and Heathcliff groaned at the sight,

“That’s going to take a while to load.” Hong Lu noted in dismay. Just scanning across their names with his eyes, it appeared most of these tabs were just boring school admin applications, such as the login for the school register or other junk like the ‘news’ tab for information across the VR school’s franchise.

“Must be a pain in the morning.” Heathcliff joked faintly as he began to click away the junk tabs. Not really paying too much attention to what he was doing as he hurried to banish them.

On accident, however, he missclicked. He pulled up something from behind the browser tab - another window.

“Ah f*ck.” He swore. The impatient man immediately went to bat that window away too.

“Wait.” Hong Lu noted, reaching for Heathcliff’s wrist to stop him before he reached the cross. “Are you seeing what I am seeing?”

It was a plain black square with lines of basic green text written on it.

"Yeah, it's like some sort of command sheet or something," Heathcliff muttered dismissively. "Faust probably added it to help port the game license onto here—" He paused, a realisation dawning on him. "Actually, it's probably not the best idea to touch it. I might just break everything if I send this into the void."

“No, have you actually read it?” Hong Lu insisted. The sweaty nobleman’s midnight-glinting eyes narrowed as he read through what the update log stated.

(Query Request) Would a person be inclined to try a new Komi-Bear soda flavour?

DiveGroup_873415 Ishmael: It already tastes like crap. I wouldn’t try it.

DiveGroup_873415 Yuri: Komi-Bear is just a cute bear face they shove on the cheapest crap they can find. No merchandise they sell is good. Beside the plushies maybe.

DiveGroup_873415 Faust: There is a dangerously high amount of food additives and colourings in most of the current line Komi-Bear sodas. It is not healthy for humans to consume, and Faust wouldn't personally drink unless it was absolutely necessary to maintain core life functions. However, this doesn't change the fact that a large portion of the City's population would be inclined to try a new flavour if released onto the free market. Further market research and data beyond Faust’s expertise would be needed to determine which new flavour would be most well-received.

DiveGroup_873415 ????????: Urberto always used to enjoy the blue-raspberry flavour we could get out of the lab’s vending machine. My favourite was always blackberry and apple. I think a combination of the two could be interesting to try.

(Query Request) How well do you think K-Corp handled the Glashimmel

Mall incident?

DiveGroup_873415 Meursault: Objectively? Excellently considering the conditions they were under. Subjectively? They made me wear a thong. It hurt.

DiveGroup_873415 Don Quixote: It was awful. Everything went so wrong.

(Query Request) How would you attack a Wings’ headquaters?

DiveGroup_873415 Yi Sang: It depends on which one. If it were N-Corp,I believe the simplest way would be to get the Inquistors to turn against the corporation. They are the largest faction by numbers within the corporation, and could easily overthrow the entire Wing within a matter of days if they were aware they possessed such a power. However, Hermann would be your biggest obstacle to controlling them. They see her as a messianic figure and would never turn against her. Any other Wing however? I would require more information on their circ*mstances to determine how best to break them.

DiveGroup_873415 Outis: How would I do it? Fake being a janitor or some sort of handyman and break in while a board meeting is occurring, with a small team between 6-10 people. From there, it would simply be a matter of taking the senior executives hostage and making demands. You want to make their junior staff members to panic and hand you over control. Do whatever you need to do, and then get out of that situation.

DiveGroup_873415 Sinclair: Why would anyone try something like that? It would just be a death sentence.

DiveGroup_873415 ??????: It would be pointless to attempt to attack a Wing, let alone its headquarters. Even if you could magically take over the entire building and kill everyone insid, you would get absolutely nothing out of it. You cannot take its technology without incurring the wrath of the Head, and you cannot become a Wing without the approval of the Head. But, let’s ask the more important questions here shall we? Who are you? Why do you want these answers out of me?

Hong Lu took control of the computer off Heathcliff and scrolled down the log-sheet. There were thousands of these strange queries displayed. Still constantly updating with new questions, as responses from the company members rapidly returned in flurries just as quickly.

Heathcliff must have also read them as well. The man’s mouth was partially ajar. “f*cking hell.”

The prince peered back over his shoulder to the slumbering ring of people. Hong Lu couldn’t help but fear they weren’t playing the game at all, and were instead stuck in some strange virtual purgatory answering these endless questions.

“It even reads like the lot of them too.” Heathcliff added from behind. “Those Sinclair answers are bloody uncanny to that lad.”

“I’ve certainly had my daily dose of discomfort from this.” Hong Lu turned back towards the monitor. He rested his arm against the back of the office chair, leaning in beside Heathcliff. “What do you think all this is?”

“Well, I’m not some big brain computer genius like Faust or Yi Sang. Doubt I could give you answer.” Heathcliff joked with a wiry grin, clearly trying to lighten the uncomfortable mood. “I dunno. Its like this thing is farming their thoughts.”

“Harvesting is probably more accurate.” Hong Lu reasoned, eyes narrowing as he focused on the screen. “These questions are coming in so fast. I can barely get a chance to read them.”

Heathcliff rubbed the bridge of his nose, squinting his eyes shut in thought. “Maybe this is some sort of malware someone shoved on this copy of this game? Who knows where the hell Faust got this copy of the game from. Could be pirated for all we know.”

"No, I saw her get it legitimately," Hong Lu said.

He had seen her enter a J-Corp entertainment branch office earlier today with Outis and Yi Sang at her side. They supposedly needed a licence code for their company's new 'recreational suite.' Clearly, with Yi Sang’s signature of approval, they had gotten whatever they had wanted out of that J-Corp clerk.

Hong Lu tapped his dainty fingers against the desk as he leaned in closer to the screen, eyes locked on the launcher window lurking behind the rest. “This software is indeed the real deal.”

Heathcliff suddenly pushed back with his office chair and echaled loudly, clutching at his sweaty forehead in shock. “This is far too freaky for me then.” He stated. “What the hell is J-Corp playing at having this kind of crap on their software?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest.” Hong Lu remarked. “Well… I have one idea. Don’t quote me on this, okay?”

“Alright, what’s your proposal Sherlock?” Heathcliff challenged.

Hong Lu turned and leaned back against the desk. His back colliding with it made the origami paper birds collapse onto their sides again. “Well, obviously, my family used to have dealings with J-Corp. We owned casinos and a few other business matters in their territory after all.”

“Yeah, I’m already more than aware of that. The point being?” The Englishman hurried him.

“They used to often offer us that service of theirs. You know? The ability to predict the future? Of course, with ther singularity in hand, they were always correct about our business prospects. However, they always wanted us to present what we wanted out of the service in the form of a simple question.”

Hong Lu peered back over at the slumbering company members on the recliner chairs. “What if J-Corp are using the game as a way to farm predictions from its players brains?”

“Using gamers brains as computing power?” Heathcliff remarked thoughtfully. “Doesn’t sound too insane to me. Nice little set up too if that is the case.”

The Englishman crossed his muscular arms and turned his neck to look over at the sleeping ring of people. “You’ve got thousands of these nerds hooked in every day, and I swear I read somewhere that brains have more computing capacity compared to most computers. Guess if you’ve got enough fo them working on something, you could calculate anything. N-Corp’s probably single handedly running their singularity with all their bright-sparks playing this thing.”

“J-Corp should be paying them if that’s the case.” Hong Lu humoured. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they gifted N-Corp that VR rig Yi Sang used to play on.”

“Freebies, am I right?” Heathcliff likewise mocked.

He slapped his hands on his legs and rose from the office chair. It spun with the momentum of his rise. “I need a drink.”

The well-built man headed for the door. “Saw a little staff kitchenette down the hall from here. Probably should get some fluids down me before this heat takes me out. You want anything, Hong Lu?”

Seeing the chair become available, Hong Lu quickly seized the comfy office chair and sat down with a satisfying smack of the scratchy fabric-padded armrests.

“If that is tea you are talking about, I would much appreciate it, dear!” He replied with a smile. “But it better be the proper stuff. No milk or sugar. You’ll just drown the drink’s rich flavours by pouring that filth in there.”

“Maybe I like it creamy with a nice little kick, thank you very much.” Heathcliff remarked, reaching for the door handle. “But, as your delicate little taste buds require, your majesty!”

As the door opened, the Englishman cautiously peaked outside into the corridor through a small gap. Keeping a wary eye out for anyone coming or going.

When the way seemed clear, Heathcliff quickly snuck through the doorway and carefully pulled the door shut behind him, like a child trying to steal cookies from the kitchen at night.

Heading the gentle click of the door, Hong Lu leaned back in the chair. He puckered and licked his dry satin lips, trying to moisten them again despite the uncountable heat of this steaming-hot, sauna-like room rapidly draining them of life.

With a soft pop, his tongue retreated into his mouth, and the handsome man glanced back at the updating log sheet of queries.

Hong Lu couldn’t help but think how exhausting it must be for their brains to constantly be bombarded with questions at this relentless pace. Even the most brilliant artistic minds had their limits. Creativity could only sustain itself for so long before mental burnout became inevitable.

“Who thought gaming could be such an intensive exercise?” He muttered aloud, pulling the web browser tab back up and hiding the ominous command window from sight, smothering it.

Clicking to twitch over to incognito mode, Hong Lu tugged the rumbling wheeled chair forward towards the desk as he reached for the keyboard. He typed in the name of the video platform they tended to use.

Manipulating the scrapping mouse at his side, Hong Lu went to go and click on the website link.

There was a loud click of the door handle lowering.

Familiar with the way Heathcliff roughly opened doors, Hong Lu was startled by the sound. He hurriedly rose from the chair, just as the door opened abruptly and the teacher’s assistant walked inside.

“Oh?” The female teacher assistant looked at him in surprise. “Is everything alright in here?”

“No! Not at all, dear!” Hong Lu reassured her with a high-pitched voice. He forced a charming smile, hoping to smother his raiding heart.

Yet, she too was hiding something behind her amenable facade. He could tell. There was a fed-up, exhausted look in her eyes—not directed at him, but at life in general.

“Why aren’t you diving with the rest of your family right now?” She asked the handsome man, a concerned expression on her modest face. She glanced at the ring of recliners. “We have more than enough seats.”

The monitor screen behind his back felt like a boiling furnace searing his skin behind him with guilt.

When he didn’t respond, the young women took another step closer to the desk. .

“Ah well-“ The prince knew he needed an excuse. Quickly.

“I just didn’t fancy a dive today. See, I have this awful brain fog right now-” Hong Lu rubbed at his forehead, trying to massage it with his fingertips l. “- and so I didn’t want to anger the beast further by putting it under too much strain!”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The teacher assistant said, looking towards the central pillar radiating a constant heat into the sweltering room. She appeared suspicious.

“Oh, it’s fine! I am sure my brother is doing an excellent job teaching our younger siblings the ropes in there!” Hong Lu awkwardly laughed it off. “He’s more skilled at all this virtual stuff than I am.”

Hong Lu noticed a lanyard hanging from the woman’s shirt pocket. He was too far away, and the font too small, to read any information on it.

“It’s rather hot in here, isn’t it?” The young women observed and calmly headed for the computer. She was clearly aware something was wrong with the VR rig.

Hong Lu could read the intent behind her walk, however. In a panic, he puffed out his broad chest and slipped in front of the screen, maintaining a calm and charismatic demeanour on the surface.

“You have a very sad look in your eyes, you know?” Hong Lu noted, tilting his head with a sympathetic expression. “Has something happened?”

The teaching assistant paused suddenly, exhaling deeply with a downtrodden facade. “Does it really show so easily?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know unless you told me!” Hong Lu humoured softly.

The woman swiped back her fringe in a stressed way. “I broke up with my boyfriend yesterday. Caught him cheating with some bitch.”

“I am so sorry for your loss.” Hong Lu mourned, miming touching at his lips like he was a nail-biter.

“Yeah, well, it’s only 4 years of my life down the drain, hey? It’s not like I am ever getting that time back.” The teacher assistant remarked with barely repressed vitriol.

She rested her arm on the office chair’s headrest. “The girl was a flapper dancer. A pretty damn good one, too. She works at a casino down the street from here. Apparently, she was about to get promoted by J-Corp to work at one of their high-end casinos in the Nest. So, last night, my boyfriend packed his bags and planned to sneak out in the dead of night to ‘run off’ with her. He probably saw her as his free ticket out of here.”

Hong Lu sissily shook his head. “Well that isn’t very sporting. Did he not even plan to leave you a note?”

“No. If I hadn’t been heading to the loo in the middle of the night, I might have thought bloodfiends snatched him,” The teacher’s assistant sighed. “It would have felt better if he had manned up and told me in person that we were breaking up. But seeing him slink off like a coward who didn’t want to talk to me or acknowledge my existence just made me angry.”

The noble tutted like a girl she was spilling gossip to at a coffee shop, “What an awful excuse of a man!”

“Yeah, needless to say I feel like complete sh*t right now.” The teacher assistant admitted. She headed for the computer again. “But I’ve got bills to pay, so I couldn’t exactly skip out on work today.”

Abandoning the desk, Hong Lu swooped forwards and grabbed her shoulder. Stopping her in her tracks.

Ever the social butterfly, his well-attuned social mind quickly constructed a strategy out of this newfound information.

He leaned in, drawing his face close to hers, a sexy and intense smoulder crossing his features as his midnight eyes narrowed with gravitas.

“You are feeling bad about yourself right now, I can tell.” Hong Lu uttered in a sultry voice. “Your ex is clearly a sleazy man who values status over anything else. So why don’t we show him up, hm?”

The teacher assistant didn’t look too impressed by his attempt at seduction. “Excuse me?”

“I am available to do such a thing, you know? I can easily pass as someone far wealthier than what he could ever dream of.” Hong Lu swept his high ponytail over his shoulder. “I am probably more dashing than his mistress too-“

The creeped out woman gently removed his hand from her shoulder, as if she was tentatively putting gross junk into a bin, and dropped it down by his side.

“As much as I would like to be a vengeful bitch, I can’t with you. You are very handsome, I’ll give you that, but I’d get fired for eloping with a potential student’s brother.”

She buttered forward past him again. “Now can you move aside? I need to get access to that computer.”

“Why, darling? We’ve only just gotten started.” Hong Lu sung, trying to hide his rising wordy. He was losing this battle and he knew it.

“Sir, I need to check the status of the VR rig.” She commanded with stern authority, trying to dodgy around the tall gentlemen like a rugby player. “I don’t think you’d want to see your family members get their brains fried.”

The teacher's assistant managed to nimbly dodge around him and into the gap behind Hong Lu. She reached for the keyboard and mouse-

“Wait a moment!” Hong Lu yelped, grabbing a hold of her wrist in a panic. His grip tight and forceful.

“Let go of me right now, sir, or I am calling security!” She growled fiercely.

“It’s just very hot in here today!” The nobleman giggled sheepishly. “All this heat is probably just leaking in from the terrible weather outside! Urban streets really do trap the heat you know?!”

The prince courteously raises her hand to examine it, mentally buying himself time.

He stared at her nails, racking every synapse in his brain, desperately searching for another chunk in her armour he could go for. He needed to find a way under her skin here. Hong Lu felt so close to a breakthrough, he could almost taste it.

She was too impersonal to be love-bombed with compliments or sympathies. She possessed a strong wall around her, which was no surprise given her recent heart-ache.

She’s been wearing nail-polish recently. The stray thought dashed through his mind as he noticed the flakes of leftover matte peach pink near her cubicles.

Perhaps he could try and lure her to the kitchen, lure her away from the computer and have a drink and a chat about her personal life? Hong Lu imagined that would keep her away from the computer for a while. People loved to talk about themselves, and she seemed like she was in the venting mood.

Wait, no. He couldn't do that! Heathcliff was currently in there. And if she caught sight of him, it would only raise her suspicions as to why both of them were outside the dive.

“It’s only 12 degrees outside today. I saw it on my weather app earlier.” The Teacher’s Assistant asserted. She grimaced, watching Hong Lu hold her hand. “Is there something wrong with my hand?”

“It’s very dainty.” Hong Lu complimented. “Such slim and refined fingers.”

“Lovely.” She gulped in discomfort, going to pull her hand away from him.

Sensing he had nothing to lose, in an act of desperation, Hong Lu tried the only avenue he had yet to pursue. Bring freaky.

He went in and sucked her fingers with his mouth. Wet saliva welled in his mouth at the action.

Despite what some may think, Hong Lu was not normally a fan of whoring himself out like this with someone he barely knew. Doing something like this 30 seconds after meeting someone was a bit excessive, even for his standards. And given.. recent changes in his life, he’d been more restrained with his attitude towards these activities. But, if it was for the sake of the company’s mission, a gentleman must do as he must.

Hong Lu gazed up into her eyes and saw she liked this. The teaching assistant gasped with exasperation. Oh, she really liked it. Hong Lu smirked while sucking, her fingers still in his mouth.

So, she’s that sort of type then? How curious. I wasn’t expecting something like this from her.

The gentleman gently pulled his mouth away, but still held onto her hand. A coy smile spreading across his velvet lips.

“You liked that, didn’t you?” He spoke with a senuaul tone.

The teacher’s assistant suddenly sniffed the air, her nostrils twitching like that of a curious dog.

“You like my scent do you?” Hong Lu observed, drawing in closer to his prey. Their noses almost touching. “I haven’t used any perfumes today, you know? This is just my natural musk-”

The women sniffed again, giving a concerned side eye towards the pillar behind them. “Is something burning?”

She went to turn and the nobleman followed the action, holding her hand. The two looked over at the VR rig. There was a small trail of black smoke coming from the hanging wire connected to Yi Sang’s headset.

Primordial panic surged through Hong Lu at the sight. He couldn't bear the thought of Yi Sang dying—not just because Yi Sang was his boss, but because Hong Lu selfishly believed Yi Sang still had much to teach his shy protégé. He couldn’t let him die before he got to see him at his true potential.

The nobleman reacted immetately, rushing for the bright-red fire extinguisher located near the door. He pulled it from its rack, causing the mental holding it up to twang and vibrate from the force. Hong Lu then hurried sprinted over to Yi Sang’s side.

He frantically examined the extinguisher in his hands, scanning it up and down. His vision, blurred with stress, made it difficult to read the instructional drawings on the case.

Getting frustrated, and knowing he had little time to react, Hong Lu decided just to wing it. He decided to pull the tab-trigger on the extinguishers top like a grenade, pointing it at the Yi Sang’s headset.

In a misty gas, it blasted the slumbering director with a spray of white foam. The aftermath of which looked like Yi Sang had passed out in a snow storm and was now simply laying there in the bubbly elements. That, or a cream pie had been smashed into his slumbering face. Eyes cloaked by the chunky headset.

The teacher’s assistant came over to Hong Lu’s side. She grasped at his shoulders and peaked over them, clearly wanting to check if everything was alright.

Hong Lu slouched and lowered the heavy fire extinguisher to the floor with a clank.

“Can’t see the smoke anymore. I would imagine the foam must’ve cooled it down!” Hong Lu reassured the women, turning to look over his shoulder. “Must have just been a faulty wire overheating! Haha!”

There was a rumble of the worn down axis above them as the packed elevator descended down the cliff-face.

The dog boy was warily station behind most of the party. Benjamin intended on using their bodies as his personal shield, not wanting to be at the ropes edge that marked the boundary off into the abyss the other side.

However, peering over the shoulders of Ishmael and Faust, Benjamin couldn’t help but appreciate the majesty of the vast mediterranean city of Cascada below.

Built out the cliff-face fo a massive waterfall, the entire city was made up of several bustling layers. Each growing progressively larger and large closer to the bottom, akin to a wedding cake. Along the surrounding cliffs of the grand city, further urban sprawl had spread. Suburb towns, feeding into elevators like this one.

The yellow birck and red tiles of La Mancha permeated Cascada too. Yet, the city was much grander in its architecture. The roads possess murals built into them, visable- perhaps even deigneed to be seen from these gret heights above. Rich royal red cloth canopies shaded much of the city’s streets from the boiling rays of sunlight reflecting off the vast wall of water falling behind them like a glistening magnifying glass.

However, high-winds, descending down into the bottomless pit below the city, made the temperature bearable standing here compared to the boiling surface. Yet, it was clear to see the effects of the breeze wind shakin the rich green olive trees and ivory growing up buildings.

Benjamin understood now why Cascada was considered ‘The checkpoint to the Underworld’ as Sancho has called it on the way here. It made sense people could access the new expansion’s zone from here, and likewise explained why this lift was so terribly busy.

It definitely felt like they were a bunch of low level players that had stumbled into somewhere way out of their league. A place they shouldn’t be yet.

Around him, the adolescent could see and hear excited players chatting with their friend. Talking about the new expansion’s trailer they saw and tentatively theory crafting about it on the way down. Or, slapping their bosses shoulder and thanking her for putting all their fixer contracts aside for the next week.

Sancho, Dulcinea and the rest of Don Quixote's old band didn’t seem to be paying the blindest bit of attention to this blatant ‘real life’ conversation.

I wonder if they can even perceive such chatter now they are in their lobotomised NPC state. Benjamin thought morbidly, observing the crew blankly standing there. Sancho holding his Paladin’s helm at his side proudly.

It was a sad fate, he thought. Knowing full well that these kids, trapped in adult bodies, would probably be just as exicted right now as these nerdy fans around them, had J-Corp not imprisoned them here.

A lashing, wet tongue suddenly licked Benjamin’s floppy dog ear from behind, drawing his thoughts away from the men. It was disgusting, sticky and warm-set slobber sensation that was now rapidly cooling as it touched air. An unpleasant feeling to say the least.

The blond boy turned around to find Rocinante’s horse head hovering uncomfortably close behind him.

Benjamin didn’t exactly have the heart to scold the horse however, as the pony’s dark eyes looked happy to see the dog boy paying attention for him. Compared to that real world ‘Benjamin’ horse had to deal with, Rocinante was delightfully well behaved. Adorable even.

“Thank you, Rocinante. I needed a good clean.” Benjamin praised the horse, scratching the wirey stubble of its chin.

The teenager smiled as the horse happily swayed its brown tail further behind him. Horses really are like big dogs now that I think about it.

When they reached the bottom, the group strolled aside with their horses to let the main ramble of people traffic off the lift.

“Here we are! The city of Cascada!” Sancho proudly announced, throwing his arms wide.

“Thank you for assisting us this far.” Yi Sang said. The feathers of his shiny ebony cloak rustling in the breeze.

Sancho scratch the ears of his horse, his eyes fixed on the bird mage. “It was no problem for us. We just hope you find your Elf here.”

Dulcinea approached Don Quoxite in her newly repaired, shiny armour. Rocinante at her side.

The tall, blond muskeeter patted the horse on the back as the gaint knight awkwardly averted her eyes from him. She was clearly aware he wanted to talk to her, but believed by not acknowledging his existance it wouldn’t happen.

“Your tense, Sir Quixote.” Dulcinea observed.

Don Quoxite suddenly snapped to attention and put on her peppy fremont, waving it off with her gauntlet. “Oh sorry! Zoned out for a moment there! I’m totally fine, Dulcinea.”

“You’re sad to leave us again, aren’t you? I can see it.” The dashing man discerned, peaking out from under his wide-brim elegant hat. “You may have been able to hide your gender from me, but you’ve never really had a good poker face.”

Don Quixote's brow furrowed. Benjamin could tell she didn’t like to be caught out like this.

“Once you have finished your quest with these people, you can always return to us. Our band is always open to you. I, for one, would love for you to stay! Maria could probably do with having a girl her own age around. She’s always surrounded by us old folks and men. I imagine she has a lot of pent up feminine rage she needs to get out!”

“I don’t think I would be of any help, Dulcinea. I’ve always been closer to boys myself, so I’m pretty much in the same boat as her.” Don Quoxite admitted with a nervous chuckle. “Besides, I’d be terrible at giving advice.”

“Oh heavens no! Dulcinea, that would be a terrible idea!” Sancho exclaimed humrously, coming over to the pair. “We definitely don’t want Sir Quixote giving Maria ideas! She’ll started forgetting the stairs and instead slide down the bannister and break her neck! Need I repeat that incident with the duke’s son?”

“Oh, I remember that!” Dulcinea recalled with fond nostalgia. The dashing man chuckled, clasping at his sides. “That poor boy. The scream he gave when he saw your ragdoll of a body on the floor will never not be funny to me! Or the awkward conversations we had to have after! I could barely contain the tears in my eyes from laughter while talking down that frightened child.”

“You guys remembered all that, huh?” Don Quixote remarked with hopeful surprise. She nervously rubbed at her rosebud lip. “Poor kiddo, I probably gave him nightmares for months! Still glad you guys managed to fetch me that durid to fix me up though. I would’ve been stuck on the floor for days otherwise…”

The fond memories of their old adventures seem to instil a sense of bravery into the girl. Perhaps sensing that her old friends were still in there, Don Quixote raised her eyes to meet those of her companions. A painfully honest expression spread across her youthful face.

“I’m sorry, I can’t stay with you guys.” She expressed. “My.. duty lies elsewhere these days, and.. an old friend wouldn’t want that of me.”

Sancho looked puzzled. “Who would that be? It’s always been the three of us, Sir Quixote!” He smiled faintly, glancing over his shoulder at the other band members. “Well, and the others, of course. Did one of them—”

“No. It’s... no one you would know, Sancho,” Don Quixote dissuaded, her voice heartbreakingly soft. It reminded Benjamin of the voices you’d hear in care homes when speaking to an elder who’d lost their mind.

“I just can’t stay here. Even if the temptation to do so still lurks in my heart…” She rubbed Rocinante’s long mane down the animal’s neck, crawling back into herself again. “I hope you two are okay with that.”

Sancho strolled up and hugged the heavily armoured knight. Their mental chestplates clanking upon contact. “I am okay with that. I just hope you will be happy wherever you go.”

Dulcinea walked around and hugged the shy knight from behind. “A part of me accepted a long time ago that you weren’t coming back.” The muskateer stated. “This was all hopeful thinking on my part just now.”

The golden-haired man pressed his chin into the girl’s scalp. “It doesn’t mean it won’t still hurt me to see you go again. To this day, I still don’t know why you left to go on that personal quest of yours all those years ago. I never saw you go. But knowing you are alive and well, and to be able to give you a proper farewell this time around, is enough to allow me to be at peace with it at last.”

Watching his friend’s emotional face disintegrate at his words, Benjamin could tell Don Quxoite was about to cry again.

So, in the spur of the moment, Don Quoxite hugged Sancho tightly. She raised her head high over his shoulder plate and yelled; “To the Impossible Star!”

“To the Impossible Star!” The rowdy knight band cheered back. “Hip Hip Hurrah!”

Even if he never knew any of these people personally, Benjamin felt emotional just watching this bittersweet farewell. A melancholic feeling drowned his being with a faint sense of depression, as though he was watching a pet be whisked off to be put down. Never to be seen again.

"Yi Sang, if we ever had to bid farewell like this, what do you think you would say?" Benjamin's question spilled from his lips before his mind could comprehend the horror of such a tragic scenario.

He glanced up and noticed Yi Sang looking a little frightened by the question, his face frozen as if he had seen a fierce ghost.

"I had never considered such a possibility," Yi Sang admitted.

His words oddly comforted Benjamin.

"I don’t know what I would say," Yi Sang confessed. "Probably nothing, if I had to be truthful. I don’t think I would have the words."

"I can understand that," Benjamin responded wistfully ."If I could never see you again, I would simply wish for you to be happy, wherever you ended up."

He stood there, watching Sancho holding his young friend.

Just like the original Sancho wanted for her.

Their first stop on their journey through the city was the registry building in the administration quarter of Cascada. Stumbling up the shallow steps leading up to the grand building, Benjamin got the impression that if this one was a bust—which the boy got a nasty gut-feeling would be—it's off to the different inns.

Entering into the building, on the central floor inside the reception, there was a Roman-style mosque of wolves resting by the waterside of a river, that Benjamin felt bad for trousing over. It was such lovely artwork, and appeared rather delicate with all its tiny tiles placed into the sediment.

As they approached the large reception counter, Benjamin noticed Yi Sang and Outis exchanging glances, as if silently asking, "Who's going to be the one to talk to the receptionist?" In the end, it was the robotic woman who took the lead.

Suddenly, the teenager felt a tug at his arm. It forcefully guided him over to a wooden bench in the middle of the foyay.

"It's going to take the Director and Outis ages to get anything out of those registration clerks. They work at a snail’s pace in here," Don Quixote stated softly. The girl was still clearly emotionally recovering from earlier. "Trust me, I know from experience."

Benjamin gently sat down on the wooden bench. He noticed that Don still hadn’t let go of his bicep, her hand curled around it tensely like a lifeline, as she sat down beside him. “I thought you said never bought a house here. Is it just all the registry offices are slow?”

The one in the starting city had taken awhile. Although, admittedly, the NPCs there had been kind enough to diligently search their records for Haniel’s name. Even if it had turned up nothing, Benjamin could still appreciate their efforts for going above and beyond for them.

Don Quoxte smirked weakly. “‘Course I didn’t. You know I had better things to be doing with my gold.” She stated. Head tipped down, her mop of fair hair obscured her soft features. “I used to come here to deliver Señor Augstin’s paperwork. Boring tax stuff to do with running the inn and stuff. The old man couldn’t really make it here anymore due to his back issues.”

Her fondness for the memory abruptly slipped away, a frown quickly replacing her smirk. “Did the game force such a crippling disablity onto him just to entertain me?”

Ishmael sat down the other side of the knight. “Of course it did. It's a game after all. Gotta make the NPCs interesting somehow-”

Benjamin shook his head with a pleading expression that seemed to silently implore, ‘Oh Lord, please stop’ while gesturing a cutting motion at his neck with his hand.

The squid’s bright-orange tentacles dropped down in confusion witnessing the erratic young man acting out. “What’s the problem, Sinclair? I’m just saying the obvious-”

Benjamin leaned over Don Quixote and her bulky armor, whispering to Ishmael. “The NPCs are people, Ishmael. How else do you think they have such advanced mannerisms and behavioral patterns, while looking human, without violating the AI Ethics Agreement?”

The blond boy quickly leaned back again, noticing the awkward way Don Quoxite was still clutching onto his upper-arm. Her hand’s grip having too loosen to compensate for his movement.

Ishmael glanced over at the NPC at the counter nearby. The gears clearly turning in the oceanic-girl’s head as she studied them—the way they moved and talked so naturally to Outis and Yi Sang.

“Oh, that does make a lot of sense.” The country-bumpkin uttered, a dawning look of horror crossing her freckled face. Her head quickly snapped back to the two teenagers. “Does that mean every enamy in this game is a… you know…?”

“Probably not those spiders back in that forest I would guess.” Benjamin reasoned. “They’re non-human, so they aren’t going to violate the agreement. Humanoid NPCs however…”

Most likely a yes, but Benjamin didn’t want to consider the implications. Sure, there were main quest NPCs that died frequently, according to Don. But, to be assigned a role against your will where you were killed and farmed for sport? That was far more disturbing.

Ishmael seemed to be able to read between the lines however. Tilting her head back so her nape was resting against the curled backrest of the glossy wooden bench, she stared up at the ceiling.“Imagine getting put on generic bandit duty and get ploughed in the the face everyday.” She scoffed.

Meursault smiled, standing off to the side of them. “I fondly remember my basic training. Every day was practically like that.”

Outis nodded in thanks to the clerk, Yi Sang doing the same in delay. The two came back over to the group assembled around the benches.

“Good news. Haniel’s in Cascada.” Outis’ synthetic voice informed the company. “He’s got two properties registered here. A house and an apartment.”

Don Quoxite whistled. “Well, he’s certainly a wealthy elf!”

“Whether he will actually be at his houses is another question.” Yi Sang forwaned, lowering his feathed hood.

“We could always ask around for his location, see if he’s in Cascada right now. I don’t think there is any harm in that.” Benjamin suggested. He could feel the tingle of his fluffy tail raising behind him.

Yi Sang crossed his arms, sighing. “We do as we must.”

They arrived outside the apartment Haniel owned.

Located on the upper ring of a balcony, of a roofed commerce area, its entrance was tucked away into the circular a deep burgundy-red brick wall.

Benjamin held onto the brass metal railing as he walked around the tight, single-file balcony. He looked down to see the crowds walking around, the sound of the chatter below rising up to his ears. Rich green ivory clung to the brickwork around the central area, falling like a natural waterfall, shading from the sun pouring through the stain glass dome above them.

Rocinante had been left with the group dispatched to the proxy house, as Don Quoxite had rightly assumed her beloved steed wasn’t going to make it up the tight steps to get up here. It made Benjamin wonder if she had traipsed through these little hideaways before.

At the front of their congo-line, Ishmael went to go knock on the door with her knuckles.

There was no answer, only silence.

With a sigh, the squid-girl turned back to the rest of the group Her trident’s pointed tips scaping against the brick ceiling with a painful screech. She grimaced at the sound. “Guess he’s not in.”

“Maybe we could wait out here till Lord Elohim gets back?” Don Quoxite suggested. Her jousting lance’s tip precariously hovering near the ceiling’s brickwork, even if the seasoned player was deliberately hunched over to prevent such a collision.

Benjamin sighed. “That could take all day to happen.”

“Why don’t we take shifts to leseen the burden.” Meursault reasoned from behind the canine boy. The tall man ducking so not wack his head. “Me and Sinclair could wait out here for 2 hours, while you two go and ask around for Haniel’s location at the market downstairs. Repeat, vice versa.”

However, as he was speaking, the snowy-witch in white Faust nimbly squeezed past Ishmael and headed for the apartment door. She keeled down onto floor and unbuckled her tome from her belt. The witch gently left it to hover in the air, as though she were handing off a delicate butterfly, before tracing the shiny doorknob with thumb and started muttering something under her wide-brimed witch hat.

“Hey, hey, hey! What are you doing there, Faust?!” Don Quoxite remarked with concern.

“Given the tight confined of this space, it would be better to wait inside rather than loiter out here.” Faust specified in her soft voice. “It will look less suspicious this way.”

The prodigy witch returned to muttering her gibberish lines of magic code-words.

“That’s way more suspicious, Faust!” Ishmeal noted in exasperation.

Faust didn’t seem to care though. She peered at the lock intently, squinting one eye shut like she was attempting to see through some tiny hole. The snowy-haired women leaned in closer to the door.

“Faust assumed no one else here possessed the capability to lockpick. Faust is the only magical character around after all.” She gloated smugly in an entirely monotone voice. “It is up to Faust to break this seal.”

“Maybe don’t pick the lock at all?!” Don Quoxite squealed. The young knight looking caught between running in and shoving her assied from the lock, and associating herself with this criminal before her. “Faust, there’s like an entire player-run court system in this game if you get caught doing this! You’ll get sent to jail!”

Meursault’s burly hands suddenly grabbed ahold of Benjamin’s shoulders and pulled the two of them back. He turned the boy so he was against the wall, the frenchman’s giant form shielding him from sight.

“We do not know these people, Sinclair. We are simply two aquaintances standing here partaking a friendly conversation.” Meursault not-so-subtly recommended.

“Wha- Why are you doing this?” Benjamin asked with surprise.

“Call this a favour for keeping quite about the Director’s…” The masculine man rolled his moss-green eyes in a subtly way to imply what he needed.

“I certainly appreciate this. But, I don’t think we really need to go this far.” Benjamin responded awkwardly, trying to peer past him at Don and Ishmeal.

“Wait, its entirely play run? Like the judge is a player? The jail guards are all players?” The Squid asked.

Don Quoxite nodded eagerly in exasperation. “Yeah! Which ever guild runs the city deals with the local regions judicial system! And trust me, they can be a corrupt or harsh as they so see fit!”

Ishmeal facepalmed, shaking her head and squirming tenticals in panic. “Oh, Wings save us. We’re never going to win over a jury if Faust gets tried. They’re probably going to think she’s insane, or the world’s most devoted roleplayer.”

Faust couldn’t have cared less for the girls panic as with a click, the door suddenly cracked open. The witch rose to her feet and grabbed the doorknob, with one cracked and bruised fingernail as sacrifice. Her book still floating up beside her.

“Faust could easily defend itself against any legal claim. Faust is skilled in studying vast amounts of information. Should Faust need to learn new laws or customs, it would be no issue. It is a simple task to predict what arguments an opponent could use against Faust.”

The witch opened the apartment door. “Come inside now. The quicker, the better it seems.”

“Hell no, I’m not doing that.” Ishmael refused. “Do what you want Faust, but I’m not slumming it in some medevil, rat infested jail cell!”

Don Quixote waved her hand in dismay. “It would be going against my knightly code to commit trespassary!”

With the click of a lock, a light-blue toned elven woman in a cloak walked out of the neighbouring apartment into this mess, swinging her keys around her finger. She caught sight of Faust holding the open door, her foot-halfway inside the apartment, and stopped stopped dead in place. Staggered.

Don Quoxite’s face was a sight to behold.

“We aren’t with her!!!” She yelped, holding out her hands in innocence.

Ishmael pointed with both her fingers and tentacles in the direction of the witch. “Our friend’s an idiot who’s entirely acting out of her own free will. We got nothing to do with this!” The country-girl exclaimed.

“Wow, Sinclair. I cannot believe the deal I saw downstairs.” Meursault stated, entirely deadpan. He squeezed the boy’s shoulder like a reliable dad.

Oh we’re so screwed. Benjamin bemoaned in horror.

“Faust was simply carrying out an apartment inspection on behalf of the cities guild. You may continue on your way.” Faust defended herself, not moving an inch from her incriminating pose. The sheer gaul of this witch to remain so calm was astonishing.

“This about Haniel?” The blue-elf asked, clutching her keys in her curled hand. “Go in if you like. No one’s really living there right now anyway.”

“How come?” Meursault asked, looking over to the rouge-ish elf. “If Haniel Elohim does not live here, what does he use this apartment for? You seem to know him well enough for this not to simply be a case of sub-letting.”

“Nah, its nothing like that. Haniel’s got this bear friend who uses this apartment as her home when she’s got time to play. However, she’s pretty busy with medical school right now, Haniel just pays the tax on it under his name so she doesn’t loose the place.” The neighbour explained, while affixing her keys to her belt. “The pair of them are nice enough, though.”

“So this is just a dead end then?” Benjamin noted with a frustated exhale.

Meursault touched his chin in intrigue. “Our proxy is rather young then. Not a skilled professional like I was expecting.”

“Your not part of the city’s guild, are you? You're not wearing their colours.” The elf wisely observed, looking at the awkward band of adventures. “If you are looking for Haniel, you aren’t the first to have come around here. You’re probably already too late, to be honest. I saw an announcement earlier from ‘Templar-Union’ saying he’s going to get publicly humiliated at 3pm today.”

“What?!” Don Quixote cried. “For what crime?”

The blue-elf shurgged - Benjamin assumed she had to be some sort of dark elf or sea elf? Was that a thing? “It didn’t say, but the guild are normally pretty fair about things. So it’s probably not great.”

“Where is this public humiliation going to take place?” Faust asked.

The elf sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “They’ve got a few different locations depending on what they want to do with him.” The rouge wandered over to the brass barrier and gestured down to the market blow. “They’ve got some fliers up in the market down there, advertising it, if you want to get the full details on it. Its always an entertaining thing to go and watch.”

Don Quoxite gave the women a salute before heading for the railing. “Thank you my fair lady!”

Meursault distanced himself slightly from Benjamin, observing with dismay as the girl prepared to mount the barrier in her bulky armor. "Here we go again," He groaned.

With a rallying cry, Don Quoxite jumped down from the balcony. Benjamin pushed passed Meurault in the confined space, and peered over the railing to check if she was okay. She, of course, survived the ridiculous drop. Her well-built silver armour maraciously tanking the worst of the blow.

But, she almost crashed into some poor person who was just out the range of her collision. They screamed with surprise and ran away from the knight.

“Ah! Sorry!” Don Quoxite yelled awkwardly, given an apologetic wave that the fleeing person couldn’t see.

The large knight then sprinted over to a nearby poster, hanging nailed to a stall, and ripped it off. She examined it in her hands, from underneath her opened visor, large nutmeg eyes swiped left to right as she read.

Lowering the tattered paper, she tilted her head up towards the rest of the party above.

“I know the location! Its a bit aways from here!” She yelled up to them, cupping the side of her mouth like a megaphone. “What time is it though?”

Meursault swiped down his man to summon his menu. The tap hovered in the air, just shy of digging into the dog boy’s backside.

“2:50!” Meursault called back.

“Oh bugger! The tomatos are getting hurled at him at 3pm, apparently!” The knight shouted, looking back to the paper in her gauntlet.

“That’s really not good!” Benjamin yelled back down to her in the middle of the busy market plaza.

“You’re gonna have to be quick about getting down here then!” Don Quixote exclaimed, getting stange looks from those passing by the shouting knight. “Jump down! It will be faster than the stairs and all those narrow corridors! We haven’t got time!”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?!” The dog boy screamed back, clutching the railing. “I’m pretty sure a drop like this would kill us at this level!!!”

And his stomach felt queasy just looking at that massive drop down there. The teenager’s vision spinning the longer he stared down into that gaping drop.

If it were simply a matter of loosing some redness from a health-bar, Benjamin wouldn’t maybe the risk. But this game was so painfully realistic in all aspects, it felt too real to him. The drop felt too real. The knowledge that he would feel the excruciating pain in his legs and his bones shattering as they hit the floor, just like in reality, made him squeamish.

Benjamin simply couldn’t bring himself to jump. He'd rather start running down the stairs right now, not caring if he was losing time, than do something so terrifying.

“You need not fear, Sinclair.” Faust said from behind. When he saw her, it appeared she had already gotten out her witch's staff.

The pearly-robed witch slammed her staff into the ground and started casting. The pages of her open floating tomb beside her, rapidly flicking as runes began to print and burn into the ground.

“There goes the carpet.” The elven neighbour grimacing while watching the act.

When Faust stopped her incantation, Benjamin was suddenly felt all the weight drain out of his body. Then, he felt his feet rising from the floor. The petrified boy stared down in shock—he was floating, unable to control himself.

Gasping in panic, he grabbed the brass rail and held onto it for dear life, like he was about to get sucked out into the vacuum of space otherwise.

“Faust?! WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!” Ishmeal yelled, likewise floating up into the air. She pawed the empty space with her hands unable to reach anything in her frenzy. The squid girl’s hair-like tentacles floating around her like she was an open umbrella in water.

Calmly floating up herself, as her little finger rotted and dinstingrated into dust when the laws of equivalent exchange took hold, Faust faintly smiled at her flying party-mates. “A levitation spell. Faust saw this combination in its spellbook!”

The snowy-haired woman stowed her staff behind her, then twisted midair and kicked off the nearby wall. She snagged the collars of Ishmael and Benjamin as she flew past them, dragging the panicking pair down with her.

The boy only caught a brief glimpse over the brass railing before Benjamin had to close his eyes, screaming as he fell- well, floated down rather fast. It felt like he was attached to a bungee cord that’s not tied down. It was terrifying.

“Sinclair, there is no need to continue to scream.” Faust remarked suddenly. “Sinclair is simply hovering above the ground right now. A 4 cm drop will not lead to death. At worst, a fracture of the nose cartilage could occur with clumsiness.”

“Huh?” Benjamin cautiously peaked his eyes open. She was right. He was simply sprawled out floating in the air centimetres above the ground. Benjamin could feel his fluffy tail floating up into the air behind him like it had a will of its down. His hair too frankly, as though his long curls had been frazzled by electricity.

Reaching his palms to the market floor, covered in dark green ivy leaves they had torn down with them, Benjamin felt weight return to his body as he gently lowered to the ground.

The relieved boy rolled onto his side. He could see Don Quixote grinning ear to ear with amusem*nt as she stared down at him and Ishmeal laying there. Meursault came in to land beside the knight, his form structured and well practised as the well-groomed man stylishly came to kneel in a superhero landing.

Don Quoxite clapped her gauntlets together eagerly, the metal making a racket. “Okay! Let’s get going people! Follow me!” She encouraged before running off. “We’ve got an elf to save!”

Benjamin groaned as he dragged himself up from the ground, then sprinted off after the knight through the bustling marketplace.

The cliff face was surrounded by pubs. Lots of people had gathered on the balcony decks with ales in hand, overlooking a courtyard below them —an entertainment ground for putting on plays, as Don had mentioned on the way over. However, currently, it was cleared of any stage.

What Benjamin presumed to be the Cascada’s ruling guild had a bunch of uniformed players running the event. They store red tunics with gold accents, a large black and red tarten scarf drapped over their shoulders like a poncho. Some were standing down their prepping their sacrifice, while others jollyly went around the pub’s decks holding boxes full of fruit and vegetables to sell —likely to be punted at today’s victim.

The victim in question, their proxy in the flesh, was standing there in his dark brown leather underware. He was a lean young man, with long shamrock green hair that cascaded down to his lower back and pointed ears peeking from it. He had quite a hollow and long face, with a slim nose. He wasn’t ugly, but reminded Benjamin of one of those untamed stoners from fiction. A distinctive cut across his right eyebrow having stripped it of much of its hair.

His hands weren’t bound in anyway, but there was a scratchy, thick hem rope tied to metal clips attached to his undewear. The rope connected back to a heavy wooden chair beside him. A regal throne really, the type you’d find in some medevil council room than some crappy bar chair. Haniel looked resigned to his fate, sighing as someone approached from behind him and poked their twinblade polearm against his naked back.

Carefully leaned back against the stone wall leading down the staircase to the courtyard, Benjamin cautiously observed the situation from afar.

“Doesn’t that sort of look like that nudity exploit Yi Sang mentioned the other day?” The boy piped up.

“Seems like it.” Ishmeal agreed, likewise peering over at the affair. “He wasn’t wrong about it literally being a chair, a rope and a cliff.”

A herald of the guild suddenly raised the golden trumpet resting at their side to their lips and blew loudly. A rowdy cheer erupted from the pub's crowd.

A charismatic male fae with ethereal gusty-green wings came out and waved to the crowd. He wore a pair of gilded glasses.

"Hello, everyone! My name is Gale Hembrook! Thank you for coming to today's event! It wouldn't be much of a humiliation if no one showed up!" He yelled to the masses.

“He is wearing fancier armour than the rest of those people.” Benjamin pointed out to the group. “Guess he must be their superior.”

“Our star of the show today is Haniel Elohim, who has been tried for high treason and leaking important guild secrets to Templar Union’s enemies! An annoying and immoral crime at the best of times, but especially egregious before an expansion launch and a new siege season!” The fae man announced.

“Yeah, dick move dude!” Someone yelled down the the decks.

The fae-man gave a thankful nod to them, coughed and continued. “He was found guilty on all accounts by our courts and has been sentenced to public humiliation! Therefore, his punishment was passed to me as the guild’s chief law-enforcement to enact. Since the new expansion’s just come out, I thought I’d be a little more dramatic give all you new folks have arrived town! Instead of throwing him into the usual stocks, today, we are going to be throwing Haniel off this balcony until his pants come off!”

The dainty fae enforcer chuckled to himself, glancing over the cliff edge. "Given the low chance of this exploit actually working, we might be here for a while! So, enjoy the booze, music, and food! And have a great time everyone, in Cascada and the new expansion!!"

Exited cheers and clapping followed the end of his speech from the crowd of players watching on.

The guard poked fed-up Haniel over to the edge, and forcibly shoved the wood elf off the city’s grand balcony into the abyss. The thick rope tethered to him flew forward, and the heavy chair screeched painfully across the ground until it collided with the protective wall around the courtyard, the rope pulling taut.

Benjamin watched with baited breath as he touched the warm stone wall. Unsure whether he had just witnessed their proxy had just fallen to an unpleasant death. Outis really isn’t going to be happy with us if she learns we let this happen under our watch. He thought, nervously biting his plump lip.

Two guild members came over and thankfully fished Haniel back up, still in his underwear. The elf was wincing, and bleeding from a nasty gash on his forehead. He’d likely hit a jagged stone on the way down.

From the crowd above, people begant ot throw bottles, plates, tankards and frit and veg at the newly arisen man. Before long, the elf was covers in foul liquids and solids like he’d passed out in the backalley of some crappy backstreets shop on a bin night. Haniel layed on the floor panting and look very sad, taking the punishment like he was a lifeless slug. His damp shamrock hair sprawled out across his back like sea-weed.

One of the guards prodded him with the blund side of thier twin sword blade, treating him as though he were roadkill. When their ‘enocuragment’ failed, one of the guildsmen spat on him in frustration and delivered a kick to his side.

“Get up!” They yelled.

Beside him, Benjamin noticed Don tense up at the sight. Her steel gauntlets curled into fissts as she witness their proxy in such a helpless state. Her soft round face twitching with anger and disgust at the indignity of it all.

“This is too much for such a small crime.” She rennounced. “I can’t stand to watch such defilement!”

In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Don Quoxite suddenly slammed down her visor and started to stride forwards, pulling her jousting lance from her back.

“What do you think you are doing, girl?” Meursault asked.

“Its not like I’m coming back to this game after this!” The knight uttered with determination.

As they went to throw the elf off again, the giant knight stormed over to the guards and punched the one who had spit on the elf in the face. She then headbutted the other guard in ana uppcut to their chin with her metal helm. It looked painful.

The drunken and celebratory masses cheered as the PvP battle started. The Law-Enforcement Captain drew his weapon at the sight of this. A etheral light-green spectral greatsword summoned out of the aether.

“You from the Yavine guild?” He questioned the knight, greatsword over his shoulder.

“Nope. Just defending an innocent from a cruel and unsual punishment! “Don Quoxite proclaimed, likewise sifting into a battle stance with her jousting lance.

“So just a random then? Alright!” The fae man, Gale, accepted, proudly pushing back his glasses. “I’m pretty good a PvP, so you’ll be a fitting way to christian in the new siege season!”

It was a 4 vs 1 battle - so long as those running the festivities above didn’t jump down and help their fellow guildmates - and Don Quoxite was 20 levels below all of them. Benjamin wasn’t sure what her chances were going to be against them.

Meursault strolled forwards with commanding authority. “Evacute the proxy from the battle scene. This should be our main priority while the girl distracts them.”

“Aren’t we going to get desimated if we go anywhere near that?” Benjamin warned.

There levels were so pathetically small, they would just get pounded into the ground by the simplest breath from these people.

"Just focus on extracting our target. Ignore everything else," Meursault commanded stoically, his green eyes narrowing as he observed Don and the Enforcer circling each other like wild animals. "It doesn’t matter if we die here. We'll respawn in this city now anyway, if what the Director said earlier is true. So long as we get our man out, that's all that matters. Who knows if that guild will whisk him away to somewhere 'safe' if we fail. It will only make matters more difficult."

“Faust agrees with this assessment.” The elven witch spoke up, unclipping her book from her belt. “Faust will attempt to cover the party as best it can. No harm must come to Haniel.”

Benjamin groaned in acceptance. “Alright. Let’s go and save the elf man.”

As Don went to plough the first strike in towards the Enforcer, the group ran in.

Benjamin understood that speed was his only salvation. Even if he ended up getting struck down, fully aware of the pain that awaited him, he trusted that Meursault would likely succeed in extracting Haniel regardless.

Turns out, out of sheer flightiness and panic, the dog boy was much faster much faster than the rest. He was the first to reach Haniel. He slid to the ground, attempting to help the naked elf man up.

“Hey, get up. We are going to get you out of this mess.” Benjamin encouraged.

The slimy and wet elf didn’t even attempt to rise. His cheek sullenly pressed into the ground as he sulked.

"Don't bother. I'm okay with this," Haniel spoke in a boyish yet lifeless tone. “They will stop pestering me if I let them do this.”

Feeling anxious as he heard the sound of weapons smacking behind him, Benjamin shook the stubborn elf’s shoulders determined to make this work. Pawing like an attention-seeking dog. “Our group has been looking for you, Haniel. We really need to talk to you!” Benjamin stated. “Please come with us. I don’t think we have long to make our escape. We’re on a time-limit here!”

Laying in a mess of disheveled hair, Haniel groaned in dismissal. “If this is about the Ring thing, I have nothing to tell you. I don’t know how they managed to find out about that transfer location.”

Benjamin was surprised. So other people have come here before us to find out about that?

“This is.. somewhat related to that?” Benjamin said, being careful with his words. Another loud smack occurred uncomfortably close to his ears. He couldn’t hear the others behind him. Had they already been killed? “We really need to get going! It can’t be pleasant to be covered in all this disgusting stuff.”

Haniel sighed deeply. “Only if you guys buy me a pint after this. Sure.”

The youthful elf in his underwear pulled himself up from the icky ground, the blond boy quickly rising with him.

However, as the pair did this, the Fae Enforcer backflipped over Don Quoxite and casted a spells causing an almighty breeze to blow up. It blowed both her, Haniel and Benjamin away from him in a shockwave.

To Benjamin it felt like being hit by a high force hurricane gale, and he felt himself being lifted off his feet. The force threw him and the elf backwards off the cliff-face, past the stone railing.

The teenager was in such a panic, Benjamin barely registered what was happening until a large branch protruding from the cliff-wall slammed into his stomach. The impact winded him, as if he’d taken a hammer to his abdomen, and he gasped in shock.

Desperately, he clung to the branch like driftwood in the ocean, dangling precariously above the abyss. The drop beneath him seemed endless as Cascada’s mighty waterfall loudly descended into its depths nearby.

He glanced beside him and saw Haniel placing his hand on the branch. The druid seemed to be attempting to grow the branch thicker and wider to support their weight. Pumping as much magical growth steroids in as he could.

Above him, Benjamin could hear the swell of another blast of wind hitting the cliff face. Two shadowy black blurs, the bodies of the two guildsmen flopped like ragdolls as they fell down into the great abyss behind them. Followed by the heavy chair flying over the railing and falling, still attached to Haniel.

The messy-haired elf’s expression shifted to one of concern as he grasped the impending danger about to befall him, but it was too late. The chair pulled him downward like an anchor.

Acting more on instinct than his rational mind, Benjamin rushed forward and grabbed Haniel’s hand, barely managing to catch the young man before he fell.

However, Benjamin quickly realised this was a mistake. He could hardly hold onto the elf and cling into the branch. The weight both Haniel and the heavy chair exerted on Benjamin’s pathetic and flimsy wrists was unbearable.

“Help! Someone please help!!” Benjamin screamed up above. “HELP!!!”

Yet, all he was met with was a sudden explosion of black ink dancing in the air. They were all too busy in combat to even think to try and assist them. It made Benjamin worried and upset. He couldn’t bear this responsibility on his own!

Feeling helpless, the bow growled in frustration and pain, but all that left his mouth was a high-pitched whimper. This is unfair. Why do I have to be the one to deal with this? We’re going to die. We’re going to die because no one cares about us. Because I am going to fail to hold us both up!

“Just let go and let us fall,” Haniel said in an unnervingly calm voice, despite the chaos around them. “We’ll just respawn anyway.”

Rationally, Benjamin knew Haniel was correct about that. That’s how the laws of this fictitious game world worked. But-!

“I don’t want to know what falling to my death feels like!!” Benjamin screamed hysterically. “You are way more comfortable with that idea than you should be!!!”

He was scared, truthfully. The cliff-face felt as real as if he were hanging off a skyscraper in reality. The adolescent could feel the phantom sensation of his back breaking, his bones shattering into pieces as he thought about it.

The hanging elf glanced down at the abyss below them. “Yeah, it’ll hurt,” he admitted. “But if we land on our spines the right way, we won’t feel a thing. My friend taught me that cool fact-”

“That’s besides the point, Haniel!!!” Benjamin screeched, voice breaking.

The hysterical dog-boy was really struggling to maintain his grip now. He awkwardly flexed his clawed fingers, trying to avoid digging his nails into Haniel's flesh, while his hands were stretched to their very limits. He could feel the muscles under his wrists twitching with strain. It was horrible.

The gusty wind blowing his curled hair any which way, smacking into his eyes, thoughts of terror shot through Benjamin’s head. What if I fall and don’t die when I hit the ground? Will I just lay there paralysed at the bottom of the abyss? Unable to move my hand to bring up the menu and log out? I’ll be trapped down there. What if no one finds me and I am just left to rot down there? They can’t pull me out from the other side!

With a sweaty grip, he tightened his hold on Haniel’s hand the last of his measly strength. I don’t want to die. Maybe I should just let him go and let him be doomed to that fate! I don’t want that to be me!

“Sinclair?” Suddenly, like an angel, Faust floated down and offered out a hand. Well, her good one. Her right one was deformed like a rotting corpses at this point. The two things that remained were barely holding onto her wooden staff.

“I can’t take that Faust!” Benjamin cried. He didn’t have the strength anymore to reach for it. He barely felt he could hold onto this log anymore.

Ornate book levitating by her side, Faust’s stoic features readujusted themselves into a semblance of sympathy for the strained boy.

“Lets try a different approach then.” The floating witch stated. “Let go of the branch and Faust will fly down to catch Sinclair and the elf.”

“What?!!” Benjamin yelped, golden eyes widening. She was insane! How was he meant to trust she would succeed?!

“A choice must be made soon. Faust can only remain afloat for a limited time. 24 seconds specifically remaining at this given time.” Faust informed him.

Panting heavily, and feeling pain rupturing throughout his strained arm, Benjamin had to come to the accept that he had little to no choice in this matter. It was a matter of survival - a leap of faith so to speak. If he didn't let go now, he’d just fall to his death when his strength gave out anyway.

From underneath his windswept hair, Benjamin stared up at Faust with begging eyes. “Please! Promise me you will catch us, Faust!” He pleaded.

“Faust does not fail.” She responded co*ckily in a blank tone.

It was good enough reassurance for the frightful boy. Giving a scared huff and a pained grimance, the boy allowed himself to slip free from the branch.

There was relief in his pained, sweaty hand, and fear shooting through every inch of his body as they entered freefall downwards into the abyss.

However, looking up at Faust, Benjamin realised they were falling faster than she could reach them. A vast, gaping distance between them and the snowy witch was forming.

Benjamin was amazed his real body wasn’t entering into cardiac arrest right now. The shock of knowing he was going to die, and that he had made a dumb decision hit him like an emotional truck. He gripped Haniel’s hand tightly, at least taking comfort in the fact they were both going to die together. He wasn’t going to be alone here.

With her big witch-hat somehow still maracilously glued to her head, Faust seemed to get annoyed at her lack of speed. So, suddenly, she clutched her staff close to her chest and started casting something in free fall. The white-haired witch then looked out towards a section of the lower city with narrow intent, searching for something.

Suddenly, with a swing of her staff out, she directed it towards something. A arcane blue lasso came shooting out its end and flew towards the land-locked area. At first, Benjamin assumed she was sending it to go snag onto a building over there. Perhaps her plan was to swing downwards and scoop the pair of them up, before dragging them to safety.

That was until he saw a blur of black hurtling back towards them.

With a squawk of shock, the wrapped Yi Sang ricocheted to Faust’s side. His feathered cloak’s hood flying back off his head.

In a flurry of twinkling light the lasso disappeared from around the wrapped crow-man. It appeared to only have a single use on it.

As her noses disintegrated off into dust, Faust offered a polite wave to the startled man. “Greetings Director.” She spoke in a nasily voice, so calm, almost as if she was unawares the four of them were falling. “May Yi Sang kindly assist Faust in fetching Sinclair and the proxy? Faust calculates Yi Sang will be faster in reaching them.”

His dark eyes meeting the pair as they both descended rapidly, Benjamin could see them widening in horror. At once, he spread his wings wide and curled them around himself, divebombing down to the pair of them.

Yi Sang scooped Benjamin into his arms, and then flew down further to stack the pant-wearing Haniel on top of him. The burden of their weights must have hit Yi Sang all at once as his decent suddenly stopped. His shiny ebony wings beat furiously like a helicopter rotor as Yi Sang struggled to stay afloat, holding the pair of them—and that damned throne chair strapped to Haniel’s pants still hanging on.

Looking up at his teacher, Benjamin could see the scrawny mage visibly straining. Feathers flew off his wings as he groaned in exertion, teeth clenched in determination.

Speaking more gibberish and casting runes in the air, a nasally and whistly Faust, falling towards them, cast another levitation spell on the lot of them. Benjamin could feel the weight drain out of his stressed body again, leaving only the throbbing ache of panic raw and exposed in his empty stomach.

“Director, propel one’s self upwards! The spell should assist you!” The witchy apprentice nasally yelled to her master.

The avian man did as she commanded. Sucking in a strained breath, Yi Sang kicked the empty air beneath him for strength. With the assistance of the spell, he shot upwards rapidly, escaping the abyss.

Yi Sang withdrew his hand from beneath Benjamin's back and swiftly grasped the forearm of Faust as they ascended past her. Startled and feeling unsteady in this terrifying moment with Haniel resting on his chest, Benjamin clung to Yi Sang's shirt desperately. He prayed he wouldn't slip from where his mentor had his arm wrapped securely under his legs.

There was suddenly a loud smack from below. Through squinted eyes from the intensity of the wind hitting them, Benjamin peered down to see the varnished wooden throne chair smashing to pieces against the creamy-yellow cliff-side.

The group soared above the battlefield and the bustling pubs below, before coming to land on the wooden scaffold of a church undergoing maintenance. However, "land" might be too kind a word for what ensued. It was akin to Yi Sang collapsing like a weary bird, drained of all energy, causing them to tumble onto the creaking planks below.

Despite his exhaustion, Yi Sang mustered the strength to catch Faust as she collapsed, preventing her from slipping off the scaffold, limp and helpless. Her entire right arm was disintegrating, the long sleeve of her empty robe billowing in the wind. Though she didn't vocalize her pain, the noseless witch visibly bore the strain of dismembering herself through magic.

On his knees, slowly coming from the adrenaline high as relief swept through his body, the frazzled blond boy looked down to see how the PvP battle was going.

Within the cloud of ink, Benjamin could see Ishmael and Meursault getting overwhelmed by the crimson-robed guild members. Meursault got one-shot with a lance through his chest, while Ishmael got smacked over the head with a club by a acrobatic.. Hobbit? Benjamin assumed as such, they didn’t exactly have the beard or heavy metallic armour to be a dwarf. Either way, the clubbed squid was on the ground in one hit.

As low level players, they never stood a chance against them.

Don Quixote, however, was still holding out strong against the Fae Enforcer. Gale appeared to be enjoying the 1v1 combat, and from the looks of her exaggerated mannerisms and occasional taunting gestures, Don seemed to be getting some fun out of it too. The two dancing back and forwards as they tried to exchange sly strikes against one another. The drunken crowd cheered the battle on, their voices floating upwards to Benjamin’s sensitive labrador ears.

“That was certainly eventful.” Yi Sang panted out. He tierdly looked to the limp witch collapsed in his lap. “How you managed to achieve that without getting banned for tool assisted hacking is beyond me. While I am not happy for the lack of forewarning, I cannot deny I am impressed, Faust.”

“Faust is simply better optomised than the average human.” Faust blankly informed him, peering up at her master from underneath her big witch hat. “Did Faust do well here?”

Her voice struck Benjamin as less assertive and more like a child desperately asking for praise.

“You have certainly mastered the magic system in this game far better than I ever have," Yi Sang remarked with an embarrassed smile. "I didn't even know the physics engine allowed for the levitation spell and my wings to work in tandem. In hindsight, it should have been obvious.”

The noseless Faust smiled proudly at this remark before flopping her head backwards against the wooden planks. “Faust, Mission Accomplished.”

“I am never introducing you to my old raiding party however.” Yi Sang joked, brushing his long hair out of his face. “They would probably kick me out within seconds if they witnessed what I just saw.”

He turned to look over at the bare Haniel lying next to a recovering Benjamin. “Haniel Elohim, I would presume?”

“You can read my name tag, can’t you?” Haniel responded sarcastically, faceplanted into the wooden planks of the scaffold like a grumpy cat, looking up at the Director. He sighed deeply, nursing his gashed head. “What do you guys want then?”

“This is Yi Sang, the Director of Limbus Company.” Benjamin informed the grumpy elf next to him. “We were the lot tasked with finding that serial killer.”

Haniel’s head suddenly shot up as he crawled up onto his knees. “Holy sh*t.”

Red Birthmark - Chapter 34 - Louadorable (2024)

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