Chapter 23:

The Real World

The Swordmaster and the New God

     “We’re almost there,” Emilia said while walking in front of me. Her bright white armor reflected the sun, making it hard to look at her.

      It had been exactly one week since we had agreed to leave Palsu. Stone paths surrounded by oceans of grass had become a familiar sight to us, our travels taking us far.

      I should have seen it sooner. Every town we went into looked the exact same; the people all had similar facial features, every stone pathway had the same stone. The path was on a loop. Every one hundred feet or so, the stones would loop, looking the exact same as the rest of the path. It was like a simulation video game. Dragging the stone road onto the field over and over again, creating a pathway for the NPC’s to walk on.

      “You can see the edge now. Look for the shimmer out there.” Evelyn pointed towards the horizon, the sun starting to set. I looked closely, trying to discern anything wrong with the darkening blue sky.

      It took me a few seconds, but a shimmer caught my eye. It was like a giant veil was in front of us, shimmering in the wind. The barrier sparkled as the light of the sun passed through, its rays disrupting the fabric. The barrier was hard to pinpoint. It could have been a mile away or right in front of my face. It was disorienting, making you constantly check your footing.

      “Half of me was expecting you to be shocked looking at the barrier. Guess I should have known better, huh. You're not an average person with all the things you've seen.” Emilia sighed and turned her head to the horizon, stretching her arms out.

      “Not anymore. Thanks to this stupid world, I'll be shocked if I feel anything for a while.” I said, my voice calm. I didn't have much intonation in my voice these days. Most of the time, my voice didn't change in the slightest, like some sort of recording.

      “Oh, you'll be feeling something all right.”

      “What do you mean by that?” I asked.

      “I'm assuming you’ve figured out that your fear is turned off or blocked in a sense. When you go through the barrier, your fear will be released, and all that fear stored up in your brain will come hurtling down at you like a ton of bricks. You still feel fear in Palsu; it's just blocked, sitting in your brain, slowly building itself up. It’ll pass through your body fast, but for a minute or so, you will feel the fear of your time in Palsu, all at once. People have collapsed before from the shock.

      “I'll be fine. After what I've experienced, a little fear is going to be nothing. Those people were just weak.”

      “If you say so.” Emilia opened her mouth as if to say more than seemed to decide against it, closing her mouth and looking sad. It wasn't hard to guess why. She was used to the usual me, the one that made jokes about everything. I couldn't exactly blame her. I wanted that me back. I wanted to be happy, joking around with her, making fun of Kazuma while we discussed our next request to take. Running around Palsu had been fun, even with the dangerous stuff that appeared from time to time. Those days were gone, however. Wishing they would come back would be worthless. You can’t wish a dead man back to life.

      We walked in silence for the next few minutes. The wind blew softly through the grass, humming a peaceful tune. This would have been a pleasant evening in different circumstances, taking a walk with a friend while enjoying the grasslands. I should have done that when I had a chance. There were several opportunities I could have just relaxed, enjoyed what Palsu had to offer. I was an idiot, wasting my time while ignoring life itself, instead focusing on going from request to request or city to city.

      The shimmering veil seemed to be slowly getting closer, though it was hard to tell. At this point, however, it was obvious that something was there. The sky seemed to be covered in plastic wrap, the creases blowing in the wind. I felt that I could reach out and break the sky, entering the great beyond. Part of me felt drawn to it, while another warned of danger. It wanted to run and hide, get away from the unknown. I focused my energy on the part that wanted to run, crushing it deep inside of me. That would be useless out there.

      I looked up to see that Emilia had stopped. Her hand was stretched out, seemingly touching thin air. When she pressed forward, the sky bent around her hand, moving from the pressure. We were here, at the barrier.

      “I told you that most people want to stay in Palsu, right? What I did not mention was the part fear played in that. When you cross this barrier, there is no turning back. You can re-enter Palsu, anyone that has stepped a foot into it can always return, but it won't be the same. You can still use your skill for whatever reason, but other than that, you're removed from the system. You will feel fear, with no system to save you. Your strength, speed, everything will revert to what they normally would be. You will be human out in the real world, with no safety net to back you up.”

      “Nothing you say will get me to change my mind. There's no reason for me to stay. All that's left here is bad memories and regret.” I said.

      “I'm not going to lie; life is harder when you leave Palsu. Sure, real magic exists, but I can't guarantee that you will be good with it or be able to use it at all.”

      “I'm leaving Emilia. Stop trying to talk me out of it.” I had a bit of steel in my voice, the only thing I could put into it with little effort at this point.

      She smiled. “I figured that would be the case. You can't say I didn't warn you, though. Can I see your sword? It's easier to get out with one.”

      I unsheathed my sword, handing the hilt to her. She grabbed the sword and stood before the barrier. Rings of energy appeared around her arms, covering them until there was no visible skin left. When she swung the blade, the land seemed to shake from the blast. A giant crescent-shaped projectile shot out of the sword, taller than any building in Kobe. It cut through the veil, disappearing into the sky of the real world. The veil shimmed and folded away from the cut, sort of like stage curtains being drawn back.

      “Thanks for that.” Emilia handed the sword back to me.” That's the signal for people to come and collect us. Normally, you could just cut the barrier with your sword.”

      “No problem.” I sheathed the sword as I gathered myself. It was only a step away, the real world, outside of the simulation that was Palsu. I should have been excited. But, instead, nothing came to me. It felt no different than opening a random door. Was that because of the effects of Palsu, or my own mental state? I couldn't tell.

      I took that fateful step, crossing the barrier and entering the real world. Instantly, my head started to pound. I collapsed on the ground with a thud as the fear started to wash over me.

      I couldn't handle it; images kept flashing through my mind. I was afraid, terrified. No No No... Kazuma’s death kept flashing before my eyes. The life kept leaving him, eyes growing dim. I saw his blood pouring out, the smell of death emanating from his body. I wanted to cry out, scream. My whole body convulsed in terror. I wanted to leave my body behind, go away, escape. I couldn't take it! I was wrong!

      Then, as suddenly as the fear hit me, it went away. I was curled into a ball on the ground, breathing heavily. I could feel white froth trickling down my mouth onto the dirt path below. My whole body was still shaking, making me unable to move.

      “So you'll be fine, right?” Emilia was looking down at me, concern in her eyes despite her comment. I slowly breathed in and out, calming my body down.

      “I was wrong. I need to stop being so idealistic, or idealistic at all for that matter.” I slowly got up, my body returning to normal. When I got attacked by the fear, it felt like part of me came back, a part of me that had been gone for a long time. At this point, though, a part that small wouldn't do that much. I was missing too many parts of myself at this point.

      “It's not like being idealistic is bad, you know. People need to dream. You lose one of the reasons for living if you don't.”

      “How’s a dream going to help me defeat the Demon Lord?” I started to walk off before she could respond. I wasn't moving in any specific direction, just wandering in circles until Emilia’s people arrived. I felt like I needed to do something, anything other than standing around and doing nothing.

      We were in a grassy plain, much like the ones in Palsu, only this grassland was real. Trees randomly poked out of the ground, swaying in the gentle breeze that surrounded us. The dirt path we were on wove itself through hills, several of them showing rocky backsides. The grasslands here felt real. Once I saw the real thing, Palsu felt like a cheap copy. The difference was astounding. Everything here was vivid, lifelike. Palsu was like a shadow of the real world, a distorted imitation.

      Before I could go far, I felt a presence behind me. It was like the Child’s, a being of pure power. I felt whatever was behind me look into my very being like it was analyzing me. The aura felt different somehow. The Child’s felt like it viewed me as less than an insect. This thing seemed to view me as a human. Whatever was behind me didn't reach far into my essence, only going where it needed to, or so I felt.

      I slowly turned to see a scythe made of earth pointed at my neck. It was being held by a woman, staring at me with her stern brown eyes. She wore a form-fitting brown dress with a slit around the thigh, revealing her left leg. Long black hair flowed down her back. She didn't wear any shoes, but her feet were spotless. Looking at her, she didn't seem to have a single blemish anywhere on her pale white skin.

      When she spoke, she had a deep, feminine voice. “Hello Austin, my name is Terra, one of the Children of God, and you're not supposed to be alive."