Chapter 31:

Ghost in the Machine (Part 1)

Tales of Virtual Shopkeeper

Isn’t it strange how there’s always one player in the hero’s group who has the role of a Shopkeeper? Haven’t you ever wondered who, in a world of endless possibilities, would ever choose to play the mundane role of a Shopkeeper? …That would be me, Yuu Watanabe. I get tons of customers with interesting tales to tell. The smiles on their faces as they tell me all about their latest quests and achievements is the greatest high in the world. And that is why I chose to be a Shopkeeper in Utopia Online... Of course, as I’m sure you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t spend all of my time playing this game. When I’m offline, I’m just your typical everyday third-year highschool girl.Bookmark here

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Nagisa and I seem to be friends again, although this development came at a cost – The death of GaRam Mul, Nagisa’s father and the man largely responsible for the creation of Utopia Online. Although I’m not sure what Nagi has against the game, I had promised to stop playing Utopia Online if it would help make him feel better. However, there was something that I had to do first.Bookmark here

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I stood in front of the door to the Fantasy Shoppe’s storage-closet. If there was even a chance that that girl really did know something about the serial killer who took Jackie and Mister Mul’s lives, then I had to talk to her. I opened the door and stepped inside.Bookmark here

“Hey, zashiki-warashi,” I called out, “We need to talk… about Watashi.”Bookmark here

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The girl who claimed to be the ghost of murder-victim Mayoi Oda appeared in front of me, seemingly materializing from thin air. Her open pink furisode swayed around as if caught in a sudden gust of wind, yet the surrounding air inside the closet was perfectly normal.Bookmark here

Mayoi Oda – Bookmark here

“So, you came back to see me?” the doll-like girl asked, “Did you finally realize that I was telling you the truth?”Bookmark here

“I still don’t believe that you’re really a ghost,” I sighed, “But the last time we met, you asked me if the police had figured out what connects Watashi’s victims. It sounded like you knew something?”Bookmark here

“Yes, I suppose it did sound like that,” she muttered, rubbing her chin.Bookmark here

“Do you know something or not? Look, if you’re just going keep acting so needlessly cryptic, I’m going to have to leave.”Bookmark here

“Don’t leave, Yuu Watanabe,” the ghost girl said, floating closer to my avatar as she lowered her voice to that of a whisper, “I have the information that you seek.”Bookmark here

“Alright then,” I said, folding my arms together, “Let’s hear it. What do you know about Watashi?”Bookmark here

“It’s not safe to communicate like this,” she stated ominously, “You never know who could be listening…”Bookmark here

“Haha. Very funny, Mayoi,” I scoffed, rolling my eyes, “How else could we possibly converse?”Bookmark here

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For some reason, the phrase ‘like this’ had echoed in my mind just now. Even stranger, the words were spoken in her ghostly voice.Bookmark here

‘Of course they were spoken in my voice. I’m the one talking to you, genius.’Bookmark here

“Wait, wait, wait! Is that really you, Mayoi?” I questioned, “But your lips aren’t moving! Are you talking to me through my mind?!”Bookmark here

‘Oh, did I forget to tell you that I could do that?’ the voice that was currently inside my head asked, ‘Telepathy is one of my many ghostly abilities.’Bookmark here

“But that’s impossible,” I sputtered, “You really are a ghost?!”Bookmark here

‘Well, duh! That’s what I tried to tell you,’ her disembodied voice retorted, ‘Now quit talking out loud, Watanabe. You can reply to me through your mind. I can read your thoughts you know?’Bookmark here

Oh, really, I thought, prove it then.Bookmark here

‘Is this proof enough for you?’ the girl’s telepathic voice replied smugly.Bookmark here

OK, I believe you, I said in my mind, now then, tell me what you know about Watashi.Bookmark here

‘Alright. But first let me tell you a bit about myself and how I became the zashiki-warashi that stands before you.’Bookmark here

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‘It was a night like any other. I, a 12-year-old girl, was playing Utopia Online with my friends. Out of the blue, I suddenly felt something pierce my body, even though nothing had actually stricken me in-game. At the time, I had just shrugged it off, but when the moment came to stop playing Utopia Online, I realized that I couldn’t remove my VR headset. And do you know why that was the case, Yuu Watanabe?’Bookmark here

Yeah, I thought, it’s because you were murdered, right?Bookmark here

‘Precisely,’ Mayoi’s voice affirmed, ‘I didn’t realize it at the time, but the thing that had pierced my body was the weapon that led to my death. I hadn’t detected the killer’s presence due to the fact that I was wearing my ImagineTech headset, but as it turned out that was actually a blessing in disguise – While my mortal body had perished, my consciousness was currently inside my virtual avatar. If I wasn’t wearing that headset at the time, then my consciousness would have perished too.’Bookmark here

So you’re stuck here, living out the rest of yours days as a zashiki-warashi? I thought, I’m so sorry, that must be so hard for you.Bookmark here

‘Don’t worry about that now,’ her words echoed, ‘This isn’t about me, Watanabe. This is about Watashi.’Bookmark here

Of course, carry on.Bookmark here

‘As the years passed, I started to notice more and more players with glitched Levels and Classes appearing in Utopia Online, that is to say more players like me – Zashiki-warashi. That’s when I started to piece it together, the thing that links all of Watashi’s victims…’Bookmark here

What is it, Mayoi? What’s the link?Bookmark here

‘…They’re all people who play Utopia Online.’Bookmark here

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I stood still, completely dumbfounded. It was as if I had just found out the meaning of life. The feeling of shock and surprise was comparable to that of a person from the 14th century finding out that Ferdinand Magellan had just proven that the Earth was round. Mayoi had to be mistaken. Maybe it was just conformation bias? Utopia Online is a widely popular game after all, so it would make sense that some of Watashi’s victims were Utopia Online players.Bookmark here

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I couldn’t help but think back to the accusation that Homura had made earlier that day – That Nagisa was Watashi. Nagi did seem to have an unusual hatred towards Utopia Online, but that wouldn’t drive him to commit murder… would it? Watashi’s been eluding the authorities for years! Had I been unknowingly conversing with a serial killer all that time?Bookmark here

“That’s impossible,” I yelled, “There must be something else--”Bookmark here

“You think that your friend is Watashi,” Mayoi stated, reading my mind, “Perhaps you should tell the authorities?”Bookmark here

“N-no! Nagi would never--”Bookmark here

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-DINGALING!-Bookmark here

It sounded like someone had entered the Fantasy Shoppe. Mayoi Oda and I stared at each other in complete silence for a few seconds.Bookmark here

“I’ll go see who that is,” I finally said.Bookmark here

‘We’ll talk about this later, Watanabe,’ the zashiki-warashi said telepathically before vanishing into thin air.Bookmark here

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Nearly every story has an antagonist. But little did I know, I was about to meet the villain of this tale. As I exited the storage-closet, I saw an unfamiliar man sitting in the swivel chair – A Therianthrope with large curled horns and wool all over his body. His avatar’s face was adorned with a skull mask, not unlike the kind that one might wear during the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos.Bookmark here

“Hello there, Shopkeeper,” he spoke with a deep, obviously synthesized voice, “It’s a beautiful day for a murder, is it not?”Bookmark here

綿死 – Level 4 Therianthrope [TL note: 綿死 = Watashi.]Bookmark here

“I-it can’t b-be,” I stammered, “Are you r-really…”Bookmark here

“That’s right,” the killer laughed, “I am Watashi. But you already figured that out, didn’t you, Yuu Watanabe? Or should I call you…Bookmark here

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Yui Shiotani?”Bookmark here

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END OF PART 1…Bookmark here


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