Chapter 6:

Am I Growing Wings?!

Draconia Offline

“It isn’t how it looks like!” panic seizes me when I perceive Erik’s turbulent emotions. Gosh, did I just say the cringiest sentence ever? What if he’s not going to believe me? But I feel too weak to properly defend myself.

Thankfully, Liana and Ingri appear from behind the corner and my sharp viceroy gets the gist of the precarious situation right away. Before I can even catch my breath, she’s already explaining how things really are and making peace with Erik while he forcefully tears me away from Fefnir.

“So we were together in a restaurant when suddenly Aefener got really sick and we had to carry him home,” she summarises.

“Aefener?” Erik blinks and clutches me more tightly.

“Oh, sorry, I meant Ryuuto,” Liana says my real name. “Aefener is his gaming nickname. I was under the impression you’re his boyfriend…?”

“I am,” he doesn’t deny it even though he promised me that we’re only sexually exclusive for now and taking it slow. I don’t oppose it. In fact, I kind of like how it sounds which surprises me. I thought I wanted to give it more time to process but right now it’s really comforting.

Erik is looking at me, not furious anymore, but still somewhat pissed and confused. He’s challenging me to read his hurt emotions. He wants to make me feel guilty for not responsing to his texts. And he’s successful, I do feel guilty.

“I’m really sorry, Erik, I’ve been kind of… indisposed,” I apologise properly and because we’re touching, I send my sincere apologises also in a form of a strong emotion.

His anger calms down immediately, now he’s only worried. He knows I’m not able to lie when we’re connected telepathically. Conveying emotions doesn’t work that way. I could maybe lie in my thoughts but never with feelings.

“You haven’t replied to my texts so I came here,” he says and touches my forehead. “Shit, you’re running a fever. Did you catch the flu? What happened to your hair?”

“Something potentically much worse, I’m afraid,” I cough because it’s getting really difficult to breathe with my ribs hurting so much.

“Let’s get you to bed then,” he helps me take out the key chip from my pocket.

He unlocks the apartment and we all come in. My place is pretty big for one person but it immediately gets crowded with four visitors. My first visitors ever.

Shit, I naively thought I left my apartment quite tidied but I didn’t. It looks pretty okay to me but judging from my friends’s facial reactions and emotions, they feel horrified. I turn red with shame. Do most normal apartments look like Erik’s neat home? Am I that bad?

“What’s with this avalanche of stuff?” Liana is inspecting my possessions all over the place; shelves overflooding with action figures, comic books and other merchandise. She’s half laughing, half shaking her head in disbelief.

“Gifts from fans and promo items from Draconia’s developers,” I try to explain.

“You get the latest gadgets as presents?” Ingri curiously picks one box I still didn’t find time to open.

“I also review stuff from time to time.”

“Your bedroom? You’re barely standing,” Erik pokes me, totally not interested in the merch.

“That door.”

“Seriously, Ryuu?” my boyfriend rolls his eyes when he walks me there. Oh, did I just call him my boyfriend in the thoughts? Did he catch that? Gosh, he did, he smiled!

The bedroom is even worse than the living room, merch literally everywhere. My bed is covered with comic books and VR gear because I like having everything I currently use near me. I’m used to it but, well, compared to Erik’s bedroom, it is extremely messy.

“How can you even sleep here?” he helps me sit down and starts to clear all the books and cables.

“Figured as much,” Liana and others step in and look around, amused. “No wonder you have to use digital backgrounds,” she comments while pointing at my 3D projector.

Erik finishes cleaning my bed and decides to help me take off my hoodie. I whine when he touches my ribs which startles him.

“Oh, right,” Liana stops inspecting the room. “Well, the thing is… Ryuuto doesn’t have the flu. He has… we don’t know what it is, actually.”

Erik stares at her, dumbfounded.

“Did you give him drugs or something?” he hisses. “Ryuuto, did you go to a bar when you left my place yesterday?”

“God, no!” Liana shakes her head. “We’re his ingame friends. My name’s Liana, that’s Fefnir and Ingri.”

Erik frowns, not approving of being told only nicknames.

“Erik, they really didn’t give me anything,” I grab his hand. “Do you remember when I mentioned that my back hurts?”

“Yeah,” he nods slowly. “What does it have to do with anything?”

“Everything, it seems,” I sigh. “Take a look.”

Erik purses his lips but he pulls my t-shirt up. And instantly freezes.

“SHIT! What the hell, Ryuuto?” he gasps.

“Is it that bad?” I ask. “Can you take a photo and show me?”

I’m astonished how calm he seems about it. I guess he must be used to much weirder shit at his work. Still, it takes him three attempts to unlock his phone because he keeps missing. Is he nervous because it’s me?

“Kurva,” I swear in Czech and my head spins when I see it. I’m glad my stomach is empty because I’d probably throw up again. “Is it… a tumour?”

The swelling got even bigger, it’s really huge now. I can see that my back is swollen in two distinct places, right under my shoulder-blades.

“Tumours don’t grow in a matter of days,” Liana assures me but her tone is anything but sure.

“Will someone explain to me what the hell is going on?” Erik demands.

“We don’t know either,” Liana sits on a chair in front of my 3D projector. “We all play Draconia Online—I’m sure you at least heard of it—and two days ago weird things started happening. First, there was unnatural tiredness, then physical symptoms.”

“How can some fucking game do THIS?” Erik dramatically points at my back.

“Let me take a look,” Fefnir offers. “I study physiotherapy so I might discover something.”

“You’re not touching my boyfriend!” Erik acts defensive.

Oh, I see why he doesn’t want Fefnir to touch me. He’s concerned that I might project my emotions to anyone who would touch me. He’s so cutely protective. I just love him.

“Oh, come on now,” Fefnir grows impatient. “First, just for your information, I’m 100% heterosexual. Second, I do professional massages. Third, I have basic medical training.”

“SO-DO-I,” Erik cuts every single word and to prove his point, he touches my back.

The pain is so intense that I scream and collapse—luckily on my soft bed. Erik winces, startled.

“He needs to go to hospital!” he insists. “Why didn’t take you him there in the first place? Do all gamers lack common sense or what?”

“Because he’s scared… we all are,” Ingri gulps.

“Erik,” I pull him by his sleeve when the shock of pain mitigates. “Let Fefnir do it. He might be able to find something out.”

Plus, I can’t go to hospital, they could find out about me, I tell him telepathically. He finally realises why I’m so against it and bites his lip. Don’t worry, I’m in control now, I add.

“I should be able to tell if it’s just a normal swelling,” Fefnir says, confident. “So far we think that our symptoms are purely psychosomatic. The brain is confused from VR and does funny things. If it’s just a rash, however ugly, it should be okay in a few days of rest.”

After a short consideration, Erik finally allows him to sit next to me on the bed. But he keeps holding my left hand. Now that I can also enter one’s mind, not only ‘feel and listen,’ I’m afraid I might project some of my pain into him. I want him to let go but he clutches me even tighter.

“Don’t worry, I can take it,” he whispers into my ear. From my friends’ points of view, it probably looks like he gives me words of encouragement.

“Do you have some cream, Aefener?” Fefnir asks. “Any lotion will do.”

“In the bathroom locker.”

Fefnir runs off. Erik cleverly uses that brief time to kiss me, not caring that ladies are watching. I feel a surge of excited enthusiasm from Ingri. Once a fangirl, always a fangirl—I’d actually laugh if I didn’t feel so miserable and scared.

“Okay, I’ll be gentle, but brace yourself,” Fefnir warns me. Erik isn’t happy that he has to take off my t-shirt completely in front of three unknown people but it’s necessary.

Fefnir’s touch is indeed professional, certainly not as clumsy and sharp as Erik’s, but it still hurts like hell. But it’s somewhat bearable. If I know when to expect pain, it’s easier to contain. Fefnir is inspecting my whole back extremely carefully and he’s using the cream as he would oil so it does resemble a massage. Even though he’s acting tough and rather carefree, I can feel he’s as panicky as the rest of us.

But it’s not Fefnir whom I’m craving. I access Erik’s mind and it sooths me. I try not to send any of my pain to him and it seems to be working. Erik is aware that I’m hurting but he doesn’t perceive it as his own sensation so he’s fine.

“So?” Liana grows impatient.

“I… I’m not sure,” Fefnir shakes his head. “I’d swear I can feel something hard under the skin. But it’s too low so it can’t be a shoulder-blade. A cyst maybe?”

“That would be a reasonable explanation I guess,” Erik nods. “We get lots of these in the hospital.”

“So… it’s not a tumour?” I sigh out, relieved.

“Most probably not, tumours really don’t grow in a matter of days,” Erik reassures me. “Or it might be inflammation?”

“But I can feel strange tickling as well,” Liana reminds us. “Ryuuto said it started as tickling at first. How can we have the same symptoms?”

“These things can be psychosomatic,” Fefnir suggests. “VR helmets could have stressed certain parts of our brains that sent confused signals to the rest of the body.”

He presses my back again. This time I don’t expect it and the pain startles me. I let out a suffocated cry and something under my skin suddenly moves. I can’t see it, of course, but Erik and the others do. And they widen their eyes.

“W-what the…?” Fefnir flinches. “Cysts don’t move.”

God, what if it’s a parasyte? We’ve had some cases, Erik is thinking frantically. He doesn’t say it aloud in order not to scare me but he forgot I can hear his thoughs when he’s touching me.

“It’s not a parasyte!” I exclaim. Just a second later I realise I aswered Erik’s thought in front of everyone. Shit, will they think I acted weird? Fortunately, it seems they were thinking the same.

“I’ve seen a documentary with under-skin parasytes,” Ingri gulps. “It wasn’t nice.”

“Say no more, Ryuu is scared enough already,” Erik stops her.

“Try touching it again,” Liana proposes.

Fefnir nods and presses against the swelling again and under both shoulder-blades at the same time. I gasp and now I feel like I’m actually moving something myself. Fefnir presses harder which makes me streighten my back.

“Shit!” Fefnir yells, astonished. “I think I saw… a bone structure?! Erik, did you see it too?”

“I did… see something,” he says slowly. “It definitely wasn’t a parasyte.”

“Guys… don’t think I’m crazy but… it kind of looks like wings!” Ingri whispers.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Erik purses his lips.

“Well… he does play as a Celestial,” Liana is thinking out loud. “And Fefnir complains about his tailbone.”

“What are you talking about?” Erik is completely lost.

“Celestials have wings in the game and Ryuuto and I play as Celestials. Fefnir plays as a Dragonkin, they have tails,” Liana explains briefly.

“And I feel tickling in my palms and feet where the Earthborn have rooty tentacles,” Ingri adds. “So we all feel strange in spots of our virtual limbs?”

“If I didn’t see it myself, I’d think you’re crazy conspiracy people,” Erik’s voice trembles.

There’s a solid silence for at least a minute.

I wait for Erik to have a hysterical outbreak because he’s totally freaking out in his mind—I’m not far from it myself—but he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he lies and hugs me, careful with his hands around my swollen shoulder-blades. His tenderness calms me.

“What kind of creatures are Celestials?” he finally speaks again, his voice cracked. “Draconia is a fantasy game, right?”

“We don’t like that term but basically angels,” I try to explain as simply as possible.

“Oh, good… I was afraid you’d change into a dragon or something like that,” he almost sounds relieved.

“That would be me.” Fefnir, strangely, doesn’t seem that worried about his prospects. “Dragonkin don’t have wings, though. We’re too heavy for flying.”

“Ach du lieber Himmel!” Liana swears in German. My always rational, always reasonable, always practical viceroy. She loses it.

“Wissen Sie was… Do you even get what that means?” she screams.

I’m really thankful that my apartment is soundproof now. She looks at everyone in disbelief.

“No, you don’t. At least not fully yet,” she shakes her head violently. “WE ARE CHANGING INTO OUR AVATARS! FOR REAL!”

Fefnir nervously giggles. Oh, so he’s lost it after all. He certainly has a funny way of showing it. Ingri sits down, leaning towards the wall. She hides her face in her palms and starts to sob.

Surprisingly, the first person to calm down is Erik. He caresses my hair and kisses me. For a while, I get lost in his mind but from the outside it probably looks like a long kiss.

With a deepened intimate connection I get to understand why Erik isn’t as freaked out about the whole thing as he should be. After my confession about telepathy, his bar for strangeness got much higher than normal.

“And your white hair?” he asks. “Hard not to notice.”

“My avatar has silver hair,” I say but I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. My consciousness sinks into darkness.


When I wake up, Erik is still by my side me but I must have been out for quite a while because my gaming friends made themselves comfortable in my apartment. Liana is watching news using my 3D projector she connected to her laptop, Fefnir sips coffee from my favourite mug and Ingri took off her corset. I feel that their emotions are much calmer. They think rationally again.

“He’s up,” Erik announces when I twitch.

“Did I fall asleep on you?” I yawn. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be, more like passed out,” Erik kisses me, indifferent to three other people in the room.

Ingri must have been crying for some time because her eyes are still red and puffy. However, she seems to enjoy watching my intimate interaction with Erik. I guess it helps her to get some emotional relief so I don’t mind her staring at us.

“Careful, your… ehm… wings have grown again,” Erik helps me to sit up. “Their structure is now clearly visible from under the skin. I’m still finding it hard to believe but there’s no doubt. See for yourself.”

He takes a quick photo of my back and shows it to me. Damn, it’s no mistaking it now! And is there on my skin… what is that exactly? White pointy dots, two small patches of them around the swellings.

“Oh, that itches!” I whine and try to scratch it. Erik catches my hand and doesn’t let go. No scratching, Ryuu, he says in his thoughts.

“We think they’re calamus, we looked it up online,” Fefnir suggests, “they started popping two hours ago. You’re most probably growing feathers which is only understandable considering… you know.”

“How do you feel?” Liana asks. “Your fever won’t go down.”

“Ravenous,” I say, able to think only about food now. “Erik, what about those dishes you brought? Can I have it now? I hope I won’t puke this time.”

“Fefnir ate it all three hours ago, you’ve been out for five hours in total,” Erik says but adds quickly: “But don’t worry. When we found out there’s next to nothing in your fridge, we’ve ordered. We have noodles with chicken, vegetable curry rice, three pizzas and some pasta.”

“A cheese pizza, please,” my mouth starts to water.

“I’ll heat it for you,” Ingri offers and swiftly leaves for the kitchen.

“How do you all feel?” I ask in a meanwhile so that I don’t focus that much on the pain. They must have been discussing things the whole time I was passed out.

“Our symptoms are progressing as well but, luckily, we’re still a few days behind you,” Liana says.

“A few days? Why is it so quick in my case?” I frown.

“We’re guessing your immersion ability,” she suggests. “By the way, most players of Draconia all over the world are experiencing the same symptoms in early stages. It’s on all conventional broadcasting platforms and viralling on the Internet.”

“But VR developers, scientists and doctors still don’t know what it is,” Fefnir says. “Players only experience fatigue, redness and tickling so far. They still think it’s purely psychosomatic.”

“Oh, shouldn’t we share the information, then?” I’m surprised they didn’t already when I was asleep. “Everyone must be panicking, we have to help.”

“We should. The problem is,” Liana sighs, “even anonymously, it’ll be probably very easy to link it to you specifically.”

“How come? Take a photo of my back only, not my face.”

“They put two and two together an hour ago and concluded that the speed of progressing symptoms is tied to one’s immersion level,” she explains. “And while you’ve never publicly confirmed the fact, it’s no secret that your level is, or rather was, 100%. Draconia’s developers have your address, right? They send you promotional stuff and fan mail, after all.”

“Oh, right,” I realise but I’m too hungry to think what it entails for now. My empty stomach rumbles. Thankfully, Ingri returns with my pizza. I gobble each piece, not worrying that I must look very messy.

Erik, so far looking dead serious, smiles. “Nice to see you eat so enthusiastically for a change, skinny.”

“Oooh,” I drop back on my bed, full and content, when I finish the whole meal. “That did the trick. I hope I’ll hold it in my stomach this time.”

“Okay, listen now,” Liana sits on the edge of my bed. “We’ve been thinking that your apartment isn’t a good place for you to stay.”

“She’s right,” Erik nods. “They explained some things to me about the game when you were asleep so I agree with your… ehm… viceroy.”

“We’re not ingame, she’s not really my anything,” I oppose but I’m too stuffed to move. I’ve always had a tiny stomach.

“You still don’t get it,” Liana tweaks me, quite hard. “We are changing into our avatars! It’s really happening! Soon, you will have wings in real life. And so will I. Fefnir will have a tail, horns and scales. And Ingri… whatever the Earthborn have, I have no idea how it’s officially called, to be honest. Can you even imagine that? And what if it won’t stop at a purely physical level? What if we’ll have our skills and magic even here?”

“Magic? You serious?”

“Total serious,” she nods. “But even without any actual magic, we won’t look human anymore. Whatever is happening, it’s changing our very DNA.”

“Right, time for another photo shoot,” Erik grabs his phone and takes a photo of my face this time. “Look.”

I freeze for a moment. My hair continues to whiten from the scalp, does is actually grow really fast? I’d swear my hair is at least four centimetres longer. And my eyes, my originally dark eyes, start to look much brighter.

“We can’t know if our ingame levels will mean anything here, probably not,” Liana continues. “Even if we develop mana, we’ll have to learn everything from the scratch. I doubt just saying a made-up fictional word will actually produce a spell. But it seems immersion levels have a significant effect and yours was the highest.”

“You could have mentioned you’re the Emperor ingame,” Erik pokes me. “Liana told on you while you were asleep.”

“Just a glorified guild master,” I set things straight. “A VR celebrity, nothing more.”

“Anyway, we must presume that the developers together with doctors and various scientists will be probably very interested in examining you and other race rulers as well when they find out what’s really going on,” Liana says. “So unless you want to become their lab rat…”

“But where should I go?” I feel desperate. I’ve always considered this apartment to be my safe haven. And now it’s not.

“You can stay at my place,” Erik offers readily. “There’s nothing connecting me to you. They’d never find you.”

“Actually, I was thinking about my place,” Liana coughs. “Sorry, Erik, I know that you’re Ryuuto’s boyfriend but you can’t protect him if it comes to the worst. If the government decides this is a matter of national security and Ryuuto’s quick transformation can help their scientists to crack it as soon as possible, they won’t hesitate to take him by force.”

“And you can?” Erik is offended. “Who are you, anyway? Liana, a fake nickname. A fictional viceroy in some fantasy game. That’s all we know about you.”

“Oh,” Liana smiles mysteriously. “I’m just the owner and CEO of AstraTech, one of the richest and most influential people in Europe.”