A leaker. That word lands heavily, especially on Liana.
“Someone betrayed me,” she hisses. “Who would have the nerve…?”
“Who knew about the video?” Fefnir frowns.
“No one, I uploaded it myself in the security room,” Liana says. “Only Hana knows that I play Draconia and you’re my ingame friends but I trust her completely.”
“One of the other servants then?” Ingri suggests. “The video went viral and when they saw it, they must have recognised the guest room.”
“How many views?” I ask. I’m used to my videos having over million views but they’ve never gone truly viral. Hardcore VR games are popular but still appealing only to a specific target audience.
Erik hugs me in advance and slowly says: “Literally the whole world?”
“Until our video was released, the media were treating it as a strange anomaly, most probably a defect in VR helmets so not everyone took notice,” Fefnir explains. “Well… that changed even though lots of people still argue the video might be fake.”
“The leaker connected you to Laura Richter so your safe haven is no longer a secret,” Erik keeps hugging me which I really appreciate. I’m this close to a panic attack.
“I can still protect you just fine,” Liana reassures me. “AstraTech’s city district is an autonomous area, the EU government has only limited jurisdiction here. I was hoping to keep your whereabouts secret but right now I’m more concerned that there’s an employee I can’t trust.”
I open my mouth but I close it so quickly that nobody notices I wanted to say something. My immediate idea was to find the culprit with my telepathy but I’d reveal my telepathy that way.
I think they’d take it well, Erik says in his thoughts.
Maybe, but us transforming into our avatars is too much already, I answer.
Still, I’m surprised that I’m even considering it a possibility for the future. Could I eventually open up to more people than just Erik? But I’ve been hiding it for so long that I can’t just bring myself to tell them… at least not yet.
I suddenly feel sharp pain as my wings jerk violently. If Erik wasn’t holding me and I wasn’t sitting on the bed, I’d collapse.
“Shit, they’re starting to cut through the skin,” Fefnir checks my back and gulps.
“So soon?” Liana gasps. “The doctor isn’t here yet.”
“Y-you c-called a-a doctor?” I cough.
“Of course I did, dummy,” she shakes her head. “What’s the point of having the best healthcare possible if I don’t use it when necessary?”
“You’ll be okay,” Erik whispers into my ear and carefully lies me down. “We can do this.”
“Hana!” Liana calls the housekeeper. She appears in the door in a few seconds and judging by her expression she got the gist of the situation with a single look.
“I’ll fetch clean towels, hot water, bandages and a disinfectant,” she runs away.
“We might not have time to call an ambulance if he bleeds too much,” Fefnir’s hands are shaking. “I’m no doctor. I just do massages and tell people how to exercise.”
Everybody looks at Erik. He was boasting about having a medical training after all.
“Ehm… I’m a helicopter pilot, guys,” his voice cracks. “I have some basic training but I always sit in the cockpit flying to hospital while doctors do their job.”
I scream again. I wanted to grab Erik’s hand but I must have moved some muscles connected to the wings instead. It takes my breath away and I gasp desperately for air. My friends freeze but just for a fleeting moment.
Fefnir and Erik turn me on my stomach. Erik holds my right hand, telling in his thoughts to access his mind for comfort. I don’t. Instead, I close my mind completely. I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to contain my pain this time.
“Did I tell you that I’m afraid of blood, guys?” Ingri says in a high-pitched voice.
Liana tries to act like she has things under control but it couldn’t be further from how she truly feels right now. Fefnir is prepared to hold me by brute force if needed but he’s scared he will hurt me. Erik is assuring me that it’s going to be okay and is sending me tons of love. I hungrily gobble it.
These are the people I can trust I realise as pain grows stronger and stronger by the minute. If I survive this, I’ll take another step in my openness quest. I’ll tell Erik that I love him and I’ll keep telling him until it gets annoying. I’ll make friends in real life. Later, I might even tell them about my telepathy.
The door bursts open. I can’t see the person from my position but I can feel them.
“Sorry, the traffic was terrible,” a woman’s voice is panting and then she must see my back because she exclaims: “Sheisse! I didn’t want to believe you, Miss Richter, but it’s true?!”
“No time to explain things, did you see the news and the video?” Liana throws her a disinfectant.
“I did… in the car,” she gulps, takes off her coat and cleans her hands. “I have no expertise for this!”
“Nobody does,” Liana cuts her excuses. “You’re here to make sure he won’t bleed out. I’ll pay you triple… or whatever it takes to keep Ryuuto alive.”
The doctor sits next to me and with trembling hands carefully touches my back. Her emotions and thoughts hit me and I have to make an effort not to enter her mind.
“Bones… they’re really bones,” she gasps.
“Ah!” I scream because the wings move again.
She jerks her hand away, astonished and a little bit disgusted. I guess it’s not a nice sight to see something unnatural moving under the skin. I’m really glad all I feel from Erik is love. Others are scared but I don’t feel any disgust from them either.
“D-document it!” I manage to say but it irritates my lungs and I start coughing.
“Ryuu, no!” Erik violently shakes his head. “It’s too intimate and…”
“Do it, Li!” one syllable words are easier to pronounce.
Liana nods, she was just waiting for my permission. I was determined to shoot my transformation since our first video and she suspected it. The world has to know what to expect. Or not the world, screw the world—the players have to know.
My gaming friends… and even players I don’t know. People like Ingri who play just for occasional fun and are now becoming a totally different species. People who aren’t lucky like me to have a loving boyfriend and a rich CEO to help them.
The wings jerk violently and their joints start pushing against the skin. I can’t imagine going though this alone. I would either bleed out or go crazy.
“They’re coming out!” I scream and squeeze the pillow under my chin. Ingri gives me something to chew on so that I won’t bite my tongue.
My wings are pushing and pushing and every second feels like an hour. When they finally rip the skin, the world blurs and I feel warm blood dripping down my back.
They try to speed the process by helping my wings out because they’ve only partially emerged. Liana and Erik keep pulling, Fefnir is holding me down, Ingri is pouring disinfectant onto the wounds and the doctor is trying to stop the bleeding.
“Pull them out! Pull!” I hear Liana shouting but it’s the last thing I hear.
Hungry, so hungry. Exhausted. My whole body hurting, my back is sore. A weird sensation of new limbs. Twitching. Pins and needles all over my skin. A strange pulsating energy inside of me.
Ryuu, Erik kisses me on my forehead. Open to me again, please.
I do. I’m confident I can contain my pain now.
Did I manage…?
Obviously, he laughs in his head.
I slowly open my eyes. Erik is hugging me carefully, the doors are open and I can hear the news on.
“Majority of Draconia Online’s players are experiencing mild pain, redness around areas of extra limbs they have ingame and great hunger every few hours. Symptoms of the person in the video are very advanced and might indicate a likely future for others if it’s truly genuine.”
“The players claim that the person in question must be Aefener, one of the most famous VR streamers.”
“According to an anonymous source, Laura Richter, the owner of AstraTech, is currently harbouring Aefener. Their personal connection is still unknown.”
Erik, are my wings…? I’m afraid to ask.
Beautiful, he assures me with a kiss.
How long was I out?
Eleven hours, you had us worried.
We keep kissing, hungry for each other.
“Ryuu’s up!” Fefnir looks into our room. “Eh, they’re at it again. Don’t they ever have enough?”
“There’s never enough of boys’ love,” Ingri’s head appears in the doorway and she giggles.
I imagine my transformation must have been quite nasty but the sheets on our bed were changed for clean ones and I survived which is all that matters. Plus, Fefnir and Ingri joking must be a good sign.
Erik sighs as he’d like to have more private time together but there’re much more important things right now than cuddling. I need to eat… and see my wings!
Liana joins us, eyeing me. I try to turn my head but I’m too weak to move a muscle. Hana discreetly enters the room and kindly positions a big mirror for me to see.
“Oh,” I let out a sigh of relief. “They are…”
“Cute,” Erik finishes for me, grinning. “Really, really cute.”
The wings… I expected them to be all dirty, wrinkled and ugly without feathers but they’re surprisingly pretty. No blood and no wrinkled skin. Feathers need some time to fully grow but my wings are already covered in white fluff. Only the bandaged areas around them are a reminder of how rough it was when they came out.
“I washed them while you were sleeping,” Erik says proudly. I thank him with another kiss; it means a lot to me. My boyfriend washing my wings… he really isn’t repulsed by my new limbs!
Erik then puts the mirror in front of me so that I can check my face. My eyes are completely golden now and hair continues to grow quickly. It looks a bit funny having two colours. I guess I’ll need a haircut soon.
“Is the golden meaningful?” he asks.
“Celestial eyes are adjusted for bright sun,” I explain. “On the other hand, we don’t have very good night vision. Clawfangs and Dragonkin do.”
My stomach rumbles, painfully.
“I’m sooo hungry,” I lament.
“Sure, sure,” Liana nods happily and calls her servants to heat the food for me.
Erik gently pulls me to sit and hugs me on his lap. The door opens again and a woman wearing a white coat steps in. I didn’t have a chance to see her face yesterday but I can tell by her telepathic imprint that she’s the one who stopped my bleeding.
“The patient is awake,” she smiles, relieved. “How do you feel?”
“As if I’ve just run a marathon,” I say truthfully. “Doctor…?”
“Julia Stein,” she introduces herself. “I hope you don’t mind I took some credit?”
“Credit?” I don’t understand so I try to check her intentions telepathically. When she came, I felt only fear from her but right now what I perceive is… pride? Enthusiastic anticipation even? Fascination?
“We posted the video of your transformation and Doctor Stein insisted she doesn’t want her face blurred,” Erik explains quickly.
“It’s a truly historic occasion I can be part of,” she grins and I feel no regrets from her.
“Dr Stein came to terms with the situation pretty fast,” Liana sighs. “She demanded it as her payment.”
“And paid it did,” she says. “I had countless video calls with other doctors and experts. The world is going crazy over your case.”
She stretches her hand to touch my wings but I twitch on reflex and manage to move them. I gasp, it hurts like hell but at least I know I can indeed move them.
“Fascinating,” Stein’s eyes widen. “Controlling entire new limbs so soon? Contemplative studies agreed that even if we could grow something new, an adult brain wouldn’t probably be able to handle it.”
“It feels the same as ingame,” I murmur.
“There were people who could never learn to move their virtual extra limbs,” Fefnir says. “I think I once read almost 20% had to quit playing because of that.”
“That’s a lot but no wonder,” Dr Stein shrugs and finally touches my wings.
I shiver and get goosebumps. She’s examining me like some exquisite specimen and thanks to the direct touch I can clearly perceive her thoughts.
What a fascinating mutation. How is such a thing possible? Is the human brain more potent than we’ve ever thought imaginable? Will he be really able to fly? Damn, I have to move him to my clinic. This can earn me a Novel Prize if I crack it!
“That’s quite enough, doc,” Erik softly slaps Stein over her hands because he feels my raising anxiety. “Ryuuto has a phobia of doctors and you’re scaring him.”
“I’m just examining… doing my job,” Stein opposes.
“Examine me then,” Liana offers herself instead. “I guess I shouldn’t take long either since my compatibility level was 95%. I’m starting to feel dizzy and my back is pretty swollen already. And my hair stars to change colour,” she points to a few millimetres from her scalp turning violet.
“I tried VR a few times,” Dr Stein comments. “I could barely connect and hated the experience. To be honest, I’d never suspect you’re a gamer, Miss Richter.”
“Let’s go to my room, doctor,” Liana gets up and takes the woman with her. The doctor gives me one more eager look before they disappear.
I don’t like her! I shout in my thoughts towards Erik.
I don’t like her either, he agrees. The moment she overcame the initial shock, she started plotting how to use the situation to her advantage.
“Oh, Deminas is calling me through Vortex,” Fefnir announces, holding his tablet. “Do you mind if I put him on screen and switch on the camera?”
“O-okay,” I nod and Erik quickly wraps a blanket around my chest.
An elderly man appears on the projector. I’m surprised. I suspected the Dragonkin Patriarch has to be older than most of us but I didn’t expect him to be this old—he’s in his sixties. There aren’t that many older people who can handle VR and that well on top of that.
“Hello Aefener, hi Fefnir,” he greets us.
“Lord Deminas, my liege,” Fefnir grins and cannot help himself to role-play a bit just to ease the atmosphere.
I stare at Deminas and only a few seconds later realise how dumb I must look with my mouth open. Celestials look pretty human in the face but the Dragonkin are totally non-human. Deminas’s eyes are starting to look lizard-like and that on his face… is he developing scales?
I turn to look at Fefnir properly. I was passed out for many hours since we arrived to Liana’s mansion so everyone’s symptoms must have progressed. I notice Fefnir’s hands are reddened and his eyes a bit… more yellow? And he sits awkwardly so I guess his tailbone must be swollen.
“Deminas, did you manage to hide?” I ask, worried.
“I did,” he nods. “As soon as your video went viral, I fled to a cottage owned by one of my close friends. My wife is also with me.”
“Hi there,” an elegant lady briefly shows in front of the camera and waves at us.
“But seriously, Aefener, your wings are out,” he stares at me. “I saw the second video but I still couldn’t fully believe it.”
“Deminas, do you have someone with medical experience to help you with the transformation?” Fefnir says.
“My niece is a nurse,” he nods. “But I don’t think the Dragonkin will have it that dangerous. I’m not saying less painful because our skeleton is quite different from humans and it already hurts terribly but fortunately we only have a tail that has to come out from under the skin.”
“Was my video too nasty?” I gulp. “I didn’t see it myself and I don’t think I want to.”
“A bit gory, yes,” he admits. “But the players had to see it. Especially Celestials because it was evident you wouldn’t manage it if you didn’t have help.”
I shiver. So it’s true, I’d be dead without my friends. As I know myself, I wouldn’t bring myself to call an ambulance and… die in my apartment? Erik catches what I’m thinking about and shivers as well. You wouldn’t call even me? he asks. I don’t answer.
“Anyway, I’m currently contacting all members of my guild and trying to get in touch with other guilds as well,” he says. “I’ve talked to Twyla and Werden but no luck contacting Emi.”
“Emi,” I whisper. The Clawfang Alpha—one of my oldest gaming buddies. I hope she’s okay.
“You should check your Vortex profile, Aefener,” Deminas reminds me. “I know you were indisposed until now but I bet lots of people are trying to contact each other through you since your profile is public.”
“Right,” I agree.
“Staying in touch then,” Deminas says and ends the call.
“Where’s my phone anyway?” I try to look around but every tiny movement hurts like hell.
Ingri passes the phone to me, she was apparently made the head of communication by Liana.
“Oh, Gotrid is calling again,” Ingri says, checking Fefnir’s tablet. “I was texting with him while you were passed out. He’s worried even though I assured him you’re okay.”
“Who’s Gotrid?” Erik raises his eyebrows because he feels something strange from me. Shit, my double-edged telepathy is working against me!
Too late, Ingri pushes ‘answer via a video call’ button and positions the tablet in front of us.
“My Emperor, are you okay? I saw the video, it looked torturous!” Gotrid blurts the moment he sees my face. What’s worse—he’s sitting on his bed, half naked.
I swallow and my face turns red. I feel Erik getting pissed.
“Who’re you?” he almost spits.
“Who’re you?” Gotrid repeats, only with different intonation.
“I happen to be Ryuuto’s boyfriend if that isn’t obvious,” he clutches his teeth and holds me tighter.
“Damn, figures my cute Emperor would already be taken!” Gotrid whines dramatically which makes Erik fume.
“I’m okay, Gotrid,” I try to make myself sound like him being half naked is nothing special and I don’t stare at his chest. “How do you feel? Do you have someone to help you with the transformation? It’s too dangerous to go through this alone.”
“I contacted my gaming buddies from New York, we’ll try to establish a support group for those who dread hospitals and don’t have relatives willing to take care of them,” he says. “We’ll manage somehow, Your Highness.”
“S-stop addressing me like that,” I flinch. “Now that we can’t connect to the game anymore, I’m nobody’s Emperor.” Crap, does Erik feel I actually secretly like being teased by him?
“But I’m looking at the Celestial Emperor right now,” he smirks. “You look exactly as the lore says you should. And if you become the best magic caster and flier even here…”
“Talking about magic is premature,” I stop him. “First we have to make sure that nobody dies during the transformation itself.”
“Mr Ryuuto, your food is here,” Hana enters the rooms and finally brings me something to eat. My mouth immediately waters.
“Ryuuto is busy. Bye!” Erik rudely ends the phone call.
I want to berate him but the smell of the dish in front of me makes me forget everything else. It’s a bit weird eating purely vegetarian now but I don’t crave meat anymore and so far everything I tasted in Liana’s mansion was super delicious.
“Do you want a bite?” I offer Erik part of my dessert.
“You know I don’t really like sweets,” he shakes his head. “Besides, I ate when you were sleeping.”
Liana and Dr Stein return when Hana takes away empty dishes.
“Li, how do you feel? How far are you?” I ask and she sits on my bed.
“Feverish,” she says tiredly. “We roughly estimated I’m five days behind you.”
“One percent of previous VR compatibility possibly makes a day difference?” I deduce.
“I think the transformation might have started at the same time for everyone but the speed of progress is individual,” she nods. “It’s likely high-levels will have it very turbulent while lower levels will have more time for their bodies to adjust.”
She gently pets my wings, thinking frantically. She’s trying to imagine that in a few days she’ll become a winged person herself and it scares and excites her at the same time. Nothing will be the same, nothing. I’m this close to a mental breakdown. What will my employees say? How will the world react to us? Can I stay Laura Richter? Will I become Liana?
Fefnir, who went back to checking the news after the phone call with Deminas, increases the volume on the holographic projector that’s been running the whole time in the background. There’s a debate between one of the experts and the commentator.
“There’s no mistaking it now. Even those who argued Aefener’s videos might be fake have to accept the truth now. The research proved that the players of Draconia Online are really turning into their virtual avatars. If it means only a purely physical change or also their ingame abilities remains unsure.”
“But how is such a thing even possible, Professor?”
“Truth to be told, we have no idea. Examining patient zero could tell us something but Laura Richter refuses to release him into our care.”
All of a sudden, the commentator stops talking and for a few seconds listens to someone speaking to him through the headphone in his ear.
“We’ve just got more breaking news!” the commentator says excitedly. “The real identity of streamer known as Aefener is Ryuuto Rehak, a 24-year old university student from Prague. It seems the information was released anonymously after a hacker attack on Draconia’s servers.”
My real photo taken by TV producers from a school register appears on the screen.
I freeze. My heart starts pounding wildly and I feel like I can’t breathe. My limbs go numb, including my wings. A panic attack seizes me.
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