Chapter 21:

The Flame

Mylo and the Summoned Hero

In Edule's gaudiest mansion, Mr. Morin responded to Wilkins's shout. He came into the room to see find the eidolon crystal projecting the room much as it was now, but paused, catching someone blurred mid-dive behind the chaise lounge.Bookmark here

"Continue."Bookmark here

The day-shift foreman coaxed the crystal to run forward. There in silvery shadow was Kasumi, turning the dial. There was Kasumi, opening the door and removing the prototype arquebus.Bookmark here

As Kasumi's ghost turned around, the foreman paused the crystal, and this time he got a sharp, unmistakable still.Bookmark here

Mr. Morin's blood boiled cold. "It's him. He was at the town hall meeting. Oh he was hiding, but I wasn't out the door when he walked in. And our wise old mayor slipped up, said he was the mind behind the nationalization as well as the redevelopment."Bookmark here

His rage lacked theatrics. He had only steely cold intent.Bookmark here

"Shouldn't we take this to the guards, sir?"Bookmark here

"You didn't work for me back then, Wilkins. You wouldn't know. It was the city guard who broke in and planted evidence on me back in Dioon. If my enemies can buy the guard in the capital city, they have surely done it again in this border town."Bookmark here

Mr. Morin locked onto Kasumi's face. This time he wasn't going to slink away with his tail tucked.Bookmark here

"Wilkins. That family armor I said I never wanted to see again? Time to air it out."Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Mylo and Kasumi walked down starlit streets, the selenite streetlamps powerless and darkened overhead. In the wake of the meeting, all the food joints near town hall jammed up with people. Beyond that orbit, Mylo was having a bit of trouble.Bookmark here

"Shuttered, dang. Maybe this one? I heard they do—oh, this one's closed too."Bookmark here

 After the manaquake, Edule's off-season had gotten an early start. Most restaurants stood boarded and locked. The food carts migrated south for the winter. Mylo went to one dark, chained up door after another.Bookmark here

Kasumi apparently found this hilarious. "A few days ago you were the tour guide. Haha. And now you can't find a single restaurant."Bookmark here

"I didn't go to them. Too expensive in summer, not cheap enough the rest of the year."Bookmark here

"Mylo's a penny pincher!"Bookmark here

"What's a penny? Is that a coin, bill, or tally? Whatever, if you were getting paid what I get paid, you'd save too."Bookmark here

Mylo hurried on, trying to find some place that was open before the night ended. Kasumi trotted along behind, swinging her arms. They were both hungry, but she was in no rush.Bookmark here

Twisting twilight streets offered plenty of places to hide. In the gloom, a trio mounted on broomsticks followed at a distance. The flanking two wore masks and broad, low brimmed hats to conceal their faces. They sat heavy on their mounts, weighed down by mottled brown armor, which was embossed with a pair of concentric hexagons, breached at the top by a sword. They were rough, they were tough, and at the moment they were flying blind.Bookmark here

Between these two dragoons—and keeping them from crashing into any walls—sat Lydia Wode. In addition to her usual robes, on her head sat a leather skullcap with round, swing-down lenses. Enchanted glass shifted the night into sepia-toned day. A lever on the side of the right eyepiece offered a couple of zoom levels, but only for that eye.Bookmark here

"Well well," Lydia murmured. "That's the assistant Etier attached to his top suspect, and with him, well, I do think we just found ourselves a hero."Bookmark here

In gruff tones because his throat really, really needed a nice cup of tea with honey, one of the dragoons asked, "Shall we move in?"Bookmark here

"No. You don't take on a hero with three people." Lydia put a hand out to block him. "And look closer. The hero is protected."Bookmark here

The older dragoon looked at Mylo and scoffed. His throat was hating the arid tundra air as well. "Just a boy. He's no bodyguard."Bookmark here

Lydia rolled her eyes. "Okay, class. Time for a remedial lesson. How do you take out a low level hero?"Bookmark here

Together, the dragoons answered with weary, fake sing-songy voices. "Lure them out, surround them, and wear them down with concentrated fire 'till their mana runs out."Bookmark here

"Good students! Cookie's waiting for ya in the cafeteria if you get this next one: if you're trying to protect a hero with a single person, what's the best class for the job?"Bookmark here

The rookie dragoon scratched his chin. "A rogue?"Bookmark here

"No, idiot," the older dragoon said. "A wizard, obviously."Bookmark here

"Serrato."Bookmark here

"Warlock."Bookmark here

"Barbarian!"Bookmark here

"Malus!"Bookmark here

"Oh do shuuuuuuut up!" Lydia snapped and the dragoons snapped to attention. She smacked her head with the palm of her hand loud enough that Mylo looked around for a moment. "Alright you goons. A hero is dangerous right? Well, what about a hero who never runs out of mana?"Bookmark here

The dragoons' brows creased as they imagined a hero hauling around a house-sized sack of mana potions.Bookmark here

Lydia hinted, "Stro...."Bookmark here

"Strobilus, right."Bookmark here

"I knew that."Bookmark here

"Clearly."Bookmark here

"Too obvious."Bookmark here

The dragoons nodded in agreement. Then the rookie asked, "But why would someone protect the hero?"Bookmark here

"Etier's no fool, he knows he can't deal with a hero, so he's made sure no one can easily swoop in and do the job without his involvement." Lydia looked rueful at Kasumi skipping along. "Trouble is, love or friendship both beat loyalty. Etier may have screwed us all over."Bookmark here

"You two withdraw to the safe-house. I'll continue surveillance."Bookmark here

Lydia turned her gaze back to the street and reacquired Mylo and Kasumi right as Mylo found an open restaurant.Bookmark here

A cozy little place crammed between a spellseller and the stagecoach office, the restaurant was little more than a kitchen with a bar and some stools slapped on the side. Oil sizzled and popped. A sharp tang of vinegar shot through the starchy waft of cheap sago.Bookmark here

"Hey, you do ramen? This looks a bit like a ramen joint in my town," Kasumi said.Bookmark here

The cook scratched his head. "Never heard of that. Sorry. I mainly do food from the Thundering Line."Bookmark here

They settled in on the stools. Kasumi scanned the menu placard for a while, asking Mylo what all the unfamiliar words tasted like. She chose a bowl of sago pearls and some meat she thought was chicken in a thin, sweet broth.Bookmark here

Kasumi began loading Mylo up with her plans for the brand-spanking new Edule between bites. She finished her bowl before Mylo had gotten through half of his food.Bookmark here

"Seconds, please!"Bookmark here

"You got it."Bookmark here

"So," Mylo began, tentative, brow furrowed as he tried to map out a path through the conversation to come. "Where is ramen from?"Bookmark here

Kasumi accepted a steaming bowl with a sly glance at Mylo. "Nice try. I can't tell you, probably."Bookmark here

"Why not?"Bookmark here

"Cause you're an NPC."

Bookmark here

"What does that mean?"Bookmark here

"Nope!" Kasumi wagged finger. "Not gonna tell you that either."Bookmark here

Mylo sighed and Kasumi eyed his plate. There were some breaded, fried somethings that smelled savory and fantastic sitting on a bed of cabbage and tundra thyme. She picked up a small, twin-pronged wooden fork and tried to sneak one.Bookmark here

"Oh no you don't!"Bookmark here

Mylo snatched up a preserve-spreading knife and defended. They laughed as they sparred. Then they got stuck, the knife wedged between the fork's two prongs.Bookmark here

Truce declared, they returned to eating. Kasumi though kept stealing curious glances.Bookmark here

"What's up?"Bookmark here

"It's just...we're having dinner, you asked me, we're a guy and a girl—you do realize I'm a girl, right? Body doesn't agree yet, but I am!"Bookmark here

"Yeah, I know. Figured that out a while ago."Bookmark here

Kasumi's nose bunched up as she inhaled for the shout. "Then why didn't you say anything?"Bookmark here

Mylo shrugged. "Didn't think I needed to. We were having fun."Bookmark here

"Yeah." Kasumi relaxed into an easy smile. "It's been pretty cool."Bookmark here

Then she realized she had accidentally changed the subject. Her eyes shone and she leaned in on the attack.Bookmark here

"So is this a date or not? Do guys really ask girls out to dinner without ulterior motives? And no, your silly questions aren't a reason, they're just a front, or something." She pointed a fork with a bit of cabbage on the end at Mylo. "Tell me!"Bookmark here

Mylo looked at Kasumi. He hoped that when she got whatever changes she was planning on that she'd still be so cute.Bookmark here

Alright, just like uncapping. A breath, and relax.Bookmark here

Flat and steady, Mylo said, "I like you."Bookmark here

Kasumi dropped her fork. For a moment she sat statuesque. Then she returned to life more animated than ever, waving her arms. "Wait, no, you have to blush or stutter or something! If you say it that easily, then you might mean you just like me as a person or enjoy hanging out. WHICH IS I—"Bookmark here

Mylo speared one of the little fried whatsits she'd been after earlier and popped it into Kasumi's surprised mouth.Bookmark here

"I asked first."Bookmark here

Kasumi sat back down. Looking glum while chewing fried deliciousness shouldn't be possible, but Kasumi pulled it off.Bookmark here

"Okay, so, this is all a game." She tried to leave it at that.Bookmark here

"So...we're caught up in someone's political intrigue?"Bookmark here

Kasumi sighed and relented. She started unpacking the idea of a computer, then she stopped.Bookmark here

"I'm sorry. I not supposed to tell you." For a while they stewed in the silence. Bookmark here

When Kasumi did come back, it was in lilting murmur. "Where I come from, there's a lot of stories about the machine realizing what it is, then going crazy and killing people or tricking their makers and taking over society."Bookmark here

"We have stories like that too," Mylo said. "But nobody believes they happened."Bookmark here

"Ours are future tense, and we're not so sure."Bookmark here

The cook listened while he cleaned, shaking his head. He'd seen a fair few couples in his little place. The guy with the bushy hair was still trying to connect, though his date was deflecting. The questions made it worse, but his date mostly teased rather than getting angry. With air between them that jovial, the cook thought they'd pull through. They were just being young and stupid about it.Bookmark here

Kasumi looked down her fork at Mylo. "Can we talk about something else?"Bookmark here

She expected him to insist on knowing—that was his stated reason for taking her out to dinner, and he'd tried to ask a couple of times. Now their dishes sat empty, but the air hung heavy with questions.Bookmark here

"...You told me about Ark Sister Works's games before. Are there others that you like?"Bookmark here

Kasumi lit up. "H— yes! Okay, where to start?"Bookmark here

She started with the saga of her player guild in Spaceships & Spreadsheets. It had started out as just her and a couple school friends—Shizuka and Maya—hearing a cluster of boys in the lunch room talk about some nerdy science fiction MMO. The boys thought they'd never be able to get girls to play it, the girls thought it'd be fun to find them in game and troll them. At first Kasumi hated it—the tutorial was barebones and her starter ship was ugly and rusted.Bookmark here

But then she saw the local chat. A mix of languages scrolled by—mostly English, which she was barely passing in school, but others she didn't recognize. After a little asking in broken English, Kasumi learned that she was flying next to Americans, Russians, Icelanders, Koreans—everyone on a single server. Kasumi was floored and sent excited texts to her friends.Bookmark here

Shizuka lost interest, realizing it would be impossible in such a large player pool to find and dunk on the boy she liked. Maya stuck with it for a while and got really into the crafting economy, but she got in trouble with her parents for neglecting her studies. Kasumi was hooked.Bookmark here

Kasumi gazed off in a reminiscent trance. "That's about when they opened up more quests—called them 'missions' because sci-fi—where you could work for the bad guys. But to get them you had to fly way out to stations in unprotected space and talk to the agents."Bookmark here

"What did the agents say?"Bookmark here

Kasumi waved a dismissive fork. "Oh, nothing special. The quest writing in this game was usually kinda...functional. A small pool of text blurbs, ended up seeing them over and over."Bookmark here

"They couldn't say something new?"Bookmark here

"Every time? No way. Way too much work for the devs to write and program."Bookmark here

" I one of the other pilots, or the agents?"Bookmark here

Starting to resurface from memory, Kasumi looked at Mylo. Sure, she had accidentally circled back to his question, but he seemed to be taking it rather well.Bookmark here

"Oh no no. You're much more advanced than the agents. We weren't supposed to have AI like you for at least a decade."Bookmark here

Mylo plumbed his memory. "You said something like that when we met."Bookmark here

"I did?"Bookmark here

"You said your headset couldn't raytrace, whatever that means."Bookmark here

Kasumi looked at the small nergalite in a jar on the ceiling, and saw the light weave bright and dark through steam from the cook's pan. A finger of ice traveled up her spine.Bookmark here

"No. This has to be a game."Bookmark here

"Why?"Bookmark here

"Because!" Kasumi waved a hand, knocking her empty bowl and sending it tumbling to the floor, where on impact it dented.Bookmark here

"Ah! S—! Sorry."Bookmark here

"Don't worry, I'll just hammer it back later."Bookmark here

The questions came with increasing stress and speed. "Look, Mylo. The monsters here? They drop money and items when they die."Bookmark here

Mylo looked blank. "They've always done that."Bookmark here

"And there's boss monsters!"Bookmark here

"Whichever one gets the most mana transforms, naturally. Kinda like clownfish."Bookmark here

Kasumi raised an eyebrow. "You have fasral and boss lemmings, but also clownfish?"Bookmark here

"I mean, Paul told me about them. Haven't seen those myself."Bookmark here

"This place is full of spells! Magic!"Bookmark here

"Always has been."Bookmark here

He was trying to get her to see this place, Edule, as real. Clearly Mylo thought it was. For a moment, Kasumi considered the possibility. She recognized two types of isekai. One involved playing a highly immersive game, the other....Bookmark here

Kasumi panted. Her chest felt tight, her throat raw. If she could just get him to stop insisting, to stop asking, they could go back to normal. Then, Kasumi thought, they could start playing again.Bookmark here

"No! This is a game, that I paid for, and I chose to play. I can log out whenever I like." Fully in the offensive-defense, Kasumi lashed at him. "You're just a Non Player Character. Part of the game. Ones and Zeros on a server. Nothing here is real!"Bookmark here

She looked up into Mylo's eyes. He looked at her cold, withdrawing.Bookmark here

Mylo stood and plunked down the coins for his meal on the counter. Then, in a tight whisper, he told her, "You and your damn server can fight the Jagai over whose dream I get to be." His voice cracked into a shout. "And you can go to Dioon without me!"Bookmark here

"When was a roadtrip on the table? Wait, how did you turn off the profanity filter?"Bookmark here

Mylo took off, into the night.Bookmark here

Gaming may have been more her thing, but Kasumi had read enough shoujo manga to know she should go after him—though usually it was the girl who ran crying for the guy to chase. She stumbled off the stool into a run.Bookmark here

"Oi! You gonna pay your tab?"Bookmark here

Kasumi skidded to a stop and shot the cook a pained look. He glowered back.Bookmark here

It took precious seconds to count out the denara coins. She lunged into the street, but Mylo had made his escape and left no breadcrumb trail behind. And she'd never bothered to ask where he lived.Bookmark here

"D— it!"Bookmark here

For the first time since her arrival, Kasumi felt the fun leave, taking its promise of more and its hat on the way out.Bookmark here

"Log out."Bookmark here

Nothing happened. She couldn't find any options for leaving in the menu.Bookmark here

"Exit."Bookmark here

"Quit.Bookmark here

"Alt-F4."Bookmark here

Kasumi stood on the cobbles, still in Edule.Bookmark here

Marshall Eastman
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