When friends feel like paper chains in the rain and the sky holds nothing but the promise of more storms, life is lonely. When all the girl wanted was a hand to hold or an arm about her shoulders and none comes, the world became cold and empty, a slow poison for the soul. It’s times like this she wished she could melt in the rain like those paper people, fade away, anything to stop the ever-present pain.
What exactly is solitude? That was a question that spiralled inside her mind.
For some, it is a quiet place, away from other human beings, where we are able to reflect on our day, contemplate a decision, listen to our thoughts and so on. We can find solitude in many places, including the privacy of a bedroom, a walk along an empty street late at night, and sitting on a bench in a peaceful, still park with maple trees.
It is a basic human need. And yet, too much solitude can lead to loneliness, which can result in despair, even death.
She thought to herself how important breathing was, and how soft her hands felt on her own skin while choking her own neck. The girl was scared, terrified. Yet, she started slow, then gradually harder, until panic consumed her and instead of being her own will, her own cowardice made her stop. The girl pondered out of mere curiosity what would her friends think if they knew she was doing such things.
However, the next day at school, she kept quiet and read a book under the courtyard lockers. Her friends had gathered in the main plaza during recess and were talking up a storm. She wondered what they were talking about. Whenever her brownish-green eyes took a peek out of the page, she could feel how their gazes struck her like bullets, making holes in her soul.
Were they talking about her? Mocking her?
Well, there was a simple answer to all of that: I could just stand up and go there.
Then again, she felt safe under the shade of the building and protected by words written in ink. Fair enough, nothing stopped her from reaching out to them, nonetheless, her heart ached and the fears consumed her.
If I go there, they will ignore me and change the subject, like always.
The bell rang, and she noticed she forgot to eat her lunch. In the end, it didn’t even matter. Her house was just a five-minute walk away from school, and food would be waiting for her anyway.
Taking out the copybooks for her next lesson, she noticed that one of her school materials was missing. Even deep inside the mess of that locker, she knew something was amiss. Yet again, someone had borrowed something just because she hadn’t asked for her locker to be repaired so she could actually use it and lock it up.
Once she made it to the classroom, her so-called friends hadn’t saved her a seat. She sighed, going inside and feeling completely numb.
Her friends were as vapid as the winter snow was cold.
Even after getting home, she knew she wouldn’t feel this solitude and loneliness disappear. Social media was just starting to become popular, and she knew what they did behind her back. Today was one of her friend’s birthdays, and she knew she wasn’t invited to the surprise party, even if she asked a few days back if they were planning something.
From their posts, she could see the smiles as one constant party, inside a home she liked to visit often. Every post fed her loneliness, hacked at the tenuous emotional connections she nursed. She used to only feel the cruel bite of isolation in crowds, now it followed her home, an ever-present reminder that she was a failure on every front.
Until a certain messenger app turned orange, letting her know that the only person that cared about her was willing to talk to her one more day. Her heart skipped a beat, like the fallen maiden she was, and clicked it.
All of the noise disappeared in an instant. It was like being stuck between two realities: one that was imperfect, but doable. The other was the vision where the girl pictured herself, the one she longed herself to be a part of. Was it a possibility to make that world into reality? The only thing that separated her from achieving the dream was herself: Being completely honest, I do miss this Wolfy person. I want to find them. And tell them lots of things. And then smile, as if everything had been a bad dream.
Everything happened in a flash. So, so fast, that the girl couldn’t even bask in her new appearance. However, all she could say, was what her heart desired.
“Phantasm Hikari is here, and I won’t stop until I reach the truth!”
The girl spoke from her heart, which was erratically beating.
Feeling a surge of energy flowing from within her soul, she knew exactly what she had to do. A hunch, you might even call it instinct, or rather her inner magical girl aficionado powers awakening after such a deep slumber.
“Rainbow Illumination: Azure Weather Stimulation!”
Sparks protruded from her fingertips, and her eyes closed. A myriad of colours, as if they were small fireworks blooming to life. Both Aria and the unknown girl, Liselotte, were gasping in awe, excited about what was going to happen in order to see the life-threatening black blob that was growing in size by the second be obliterated. Their hopes for survival were on fire.
And those same hopes came crashing down when smoke replaced the sparks.
Hikari opened her eyes, astounded.
“Rainbow Illumination: Azure Weather Stimulation!”
It happened twice, it happened thrice.
“Why isn’t this working!?” Screaming her lungs out, she had tears in the corner of her baby-blue eyes, which then transformed into angry daggers towards the newest member of the scenario. “You said that everything would make sense after doing what you said but this is even more confusing than before!!!”
“Curious indeed.” Her voice did not falter, yet, her gaze which seemed to be directed towards Hikari wasn’t quite there.
“I know my girlfriend is cute, but staring so intently at her is a bit unsettling.” Aria casually mentioned.
“I see now.” Lieselotte closed her scarlet eyes and then proceeded to hold Hikari and Aria in her arms. Being taken aback, with no time to question what was insanity was going to happen next, they heard the following: “Tactical retreat!”
When it is foolish to stay, the courage for running away must be summoned for your survival.
The maiden ran, feet kissing the land. Perhaps a little while ago, the three of them would have baulked at the idea of running so far and fast, now they relished the prospect. Her feet were made to travel at speed and as light as the paws of a lioness. Breathing steady, heart strongーthis girl was born to run.
The surroundings became blurry as she went full-speed ahead. Not quite like a blue hedgehog but her speed was out of this world. Perhaps her stats were maxed out. Now that Hikari thought about it, was this girl an NPC? Was she another player pretending to be an NPC for some reason? And why did she act exactly like that girl she drowned in her heart under lock and key?
Questions would come later, though, since Liselotte had suddenly halted inside what seemed to be an abandoned house. Even if she wanted to remember, Hikari was so taken aback by what happened that she could not take the time to notice her surroundings which is why she had no idea if this supposed house was really abandoned, in the middle of a forest, in a secluded underground city, in a barren land… which was exactly whyーafter crashing into what seemed to be a bookshelf filled to the brim with dusty old books when Lieselotte finally stoppedーher first reaction was to assess the situation… and move Aria out of the way, her back was starting to hurt.
The place itself stood in a composed way as if it had chosen solitude as if residents were a luxury it could forgo. The floors had been a highly polished parquet, individual blocks lovingly placed and sanded to a smooth finish before the varnish was brushed on with fine bristles. The walls stood firm, the window frames strong, glass triple glazed and whole. All in all, it looked like a movie set, a place waiting for life to come. The only give-away was the odour, well, that and the dust. It was musty and dry, but nothing opening the doors and windows couldn’t solve.
Allergies, lovely. Long live modern virtual reality.
Basking in the ambience, Hikari illustrated the scenery.
The history that echoed within the walls.
Somewhere within, mixed with the pain, were images of soft flowers. Yet, if inside felt stagnant, just as a river, it simply needed to flow.
Her shimmering eyes opened and closed as quickly as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Taking a deep breath, the first thing she did was ensure that Aria was doing okay. She had quite rudely quicked her out of the way a few moments ago.
Hikari wondered once again: If I am confused, I can’t imagine how she must be feeling.
Before cautiously approaching an unconscious Aria, the girl took notice that Lieselotte had passed out after running at high speed. Her breathing was erratic, however, her peaceful breathing gave the maiden a sense of inexplicable security.
Basking into those red eyes she was unable to see, she etched each lock of her Prussian blue-coloured hair into her memory. Lovingly tied into high twintails, it flowed like a river downstream filled with life and the joys that water brings. Resting just above her shoulders, her short hair was shining as if it were daylight inside the gloomy house. On top of her head was a cute beret, accentuated with colourful feathers as if it were a rainbow.
Her chest area was exposed, alluring to men and women alike with a very peculiar mole atop her right breast. Her clothes were out of an old fantasy book, with a red ribbon and baggy detached sleeves leaving her shoulders uncovered and her hands barely visible. Her white dress was interrupted midway by a small corset, accentuating her feminine attributes, much to Hikari’s dismay. Nonetheless, it was cut short by a belt that carried a small pouch. The dress, however, opened up in the middle, meaning that it was two-layered. The inner part was shorter, while the rest was green as a spring meadow ending in white winter.
She is pretty beautiful.
Getting up from the floor, Hikari walked one step at a time, carefully. As if she were walking through broken glass in order to reach the girl that stole her heart. Caressing the silence and counting each pounding from her chest. Delicately, she kept advancing, until a mirror caught her eye.
Hikari finally saw her unusual appearance.
She also had a cute beret on top, scarlet red. Her bed-hair had defied all laws of physics and went right through it. An endearing ribbon was attached to the small french hat, mainly white in colour with soft sakura pink layers. Short chestnut light hair greeted her, with an adorable hair clip that had the shape of three little cats, each a different colour: yellow, green and coral. Her turquoise eyes were glittering, making that precious stone fall to shame.
A baggy coat reached just above her knees, being quite comfortable and soft. On the right sleeve, it had a small stitched lace, whereas the left side had two perfectly sewn ribbons. The light blue coat had golden embroidery, as well as round golden buttons. Underneath, she wore what seemed to be a plain white blouse with a red necktie. Her legs were exposed since she was wearing black shorts. Hikari made a sigh of relief, she felt more comfortable in shorts than in skirts. However, to her dismay, she was wearing quite a unique pair of socks. They seemed to work like stockings, but not quite. They were half opened, leaving the right amount of thigh out.
Subtly blushing, she peeked at her shoes: a classic pair of brown mary janes.
Hikari looked at herself once more and was taken aback after seeing a crimson butterfly-shaped ornament on her coat. After that, she raised her wrist to see if the famous Communication Connector was as fancy. Unfortunately, it was a rather lacklustre metal strap with a huge round screen.
“For what it does, it clearly lacks some impact.” The girl muttered to herself.
Resuming her walk, she went straight up to Aria who was regaining consciousness.
“Ouch, that kinda hurt…” she muttered under her breath.
“I think I went too far.” Hikari sat down beside the girl. “Regardless of that, how are you feeling?”
“Me? Well, this is... How can I word it… hectic, I guess.”
“That’s a unique way of putting it. Then again, how are you feeling?”
“Besides the crippling anxiety it gave me after logging out from a Virtual Reality Game just to see my girlfriend peacefully sleeping on her seat and not reacting after being shaken at least ten times and then coming back to see her perfectly fine, I’m doing great.”
“I’m sorry about this.”
“Hey, not your fault. We came here for a reason and with a mission, right?”
“I guess. However, nothing makes sense. I just want to know who this Wolfy person is. Why is all of this happening? Why could I randomly transform into a magical girl? Why are enemies trying to end our life, apparently?”
“I suppose that girl has the answers we’re looking for but she’s totally passed out.”
Aria pointed towards the sleeping maiden with her chin.
“Regardless, let’s see if we can find out something on our own until Sleeping Beauty wakes up. If I recall correctly, we should have a map function.”
Focusing, Hikari managed to boot up the map. You see, Phantasia had a pretty unique system where, instead of pressing invisible buttons to bring up functions, the user themselves had to concentrate their minds to manifest their inventory and item menu and only they could see it. Imagine this: you boot up a computer. The CPU is the mind, and the screen is your eyes. After a single blink, Hikari’s screen turned on and she booted up the map.
The map itself wasn’t grand. It seemed to have several functions undergoing maintenance, and many areas blurred out. It reminded her of Magical Impact, where many areas were locked behind timely updates. However, something was off. The area where they were located currently was completely blacked out, with several points they could activate to unlock the map and get a clear view of it. The girl could see the map limits, so apparently, they were in an area below Phantasia itself, either an underground dungeon or a faraway island.
Nonetheless, it didn’t make much sense. Hikari tried to recall as much as she could what she saw before that strange enemy went to attack them. Their surroundings were sand. Endless sand. Probably a desert. Still, if it was an island like Magical Impact’s Platinum Pear Archipielago, they would have seen some vegetation so that was out of the question. However, she remembered that Lieselotte ran absurdly fast so maybe she brought them to a new area using a transporting device.
“This is pointless. I can’t know where we are.” Hikari sighed and took Aria’s hand. “All I can get from this is that we either are in an unexplored area or we just broke into a CBT area.”
“CBT?” Aria tilted her head slightly. “You mean a Closed Beta Area?”
“Mhm. Regardless, I think we should explore this place a little bit. Might give us an idea of where we are. Since Phantasia just launched, I don’t think any new areas have been announced for the version 1.1 update. Which means this is 1.2 territory or an exclusive upcoming event map.”
“You take the lead, you know this game much better than I do.” Aria smiled softly, giving Hikari a little push from the back. “Let’s go.”
Nodding, the chestnut-haired girl took the first step.
The steps were old, unvarnished and slippery. The maiden grabbed the rail with her free hand and both girls move up gingerly, and for the most part in silence. She takes a small piece of wood that was lying on the floor and cast it through the darkness, if anyone’s in there they’ll startle.
Nothing. Guess there’s nobody after all.
The place lives as if under a constant shadow as if the sun keeps reaching for those walls that shrink away. And so its windows stay black without the rippling effect of the light, never knowing that the dust that clings could so easily be washed away. The walls are so cold to the touch, stealing the heat from their warm fingers.
Once they made it to the lowest floor, all both girls could deduce was that they were somehow in the attic when they arrived. Most likely Liselotte ran all the way through the stairs and locked them there for safety.
After an eternity, Hikari decided to give another step in what seemed to be a reception; whose broken, dilapidated walls and bent, decayed roof offered protection. She staggered, and onto the comfort of its rotten, wooden floor, which bent and strained under the weight of her foot. Catching her breath, she tried to ease her restless beating. Strange objects were lined up on shelves, scientific-looking to say the least. Beakers, tubes, even a Bunsen burner. A container was piling up dust on a corner, and a worn sofa had what seemed to be a fairly new quilt.
Aria reached towards the quilt and touched it: it was warm.
“Someone was here or someone is here.” She whispered her main concern.
“I’m surprised I still can’t find a light switch.” Hikari tried to make her way through the dim-lit room. “Hopefully that someone is friendly.”
“I hope they are.” Aria turned around and walked a little more, just to end up screaming. “Dear God.”
The green-haired maiden sensed her neck muscles straining as her head arched back in the path of a downward parabola. Her torso was no longer there, anchoring her legs to the ground. Where even were her legs?
Her eyes were now open all the way like someone was prying her eyelids apart. She attempted to contort her body to a position where she could turn her head to see what was beneath. She could now suddenly see her legs. They were rising, her two feet like two kites on her thin, wiry legs, slowly rising out in front of her, and above her head.
There was her abdomen, splayed out ahead of her. Aria was unable to make out the edges of her waist because of the fluttering of her dress in the wind, as she fell. The realization had dawned. She could feel nothing under her. Even the air was nowhere. Her hands were flapping by her sideーtwo noodles she had no control of.
Aria, chest tightening, breath speeding, managed to force her eyes shut, bracing for impact. She was powerless versus gravity; falling.
“What are you doing inside a cauldron?”
Hikari turned around to see the over-dramatic fall of her girlfriend. Thankfully, the cauldron itself was empty.
“Is this a witch’s house!?” Aria yelled. “I’m not a fun a jumpscares I hate them, Phantasia isn’t one of those games right?!”
“Oh, come on. Jumpscares are stupid. They are predictable and pretty laughable.” Hikari’s face was one of a sly fox. “Regardless, either this place is an abandoned facility where someone comes to sleep or we are inside a boss’ lair.”
“Fantastic,” Aria said with a sarcastic tone. “Now what?”
“Not much. After that ruckus you made, hopefully, Sleeping Beauty upstairs woke up.”
That was when Hikari heard something.
She heard the shuffle of footsteps, the scrape of metal.
The air felt thick with a sense of anticipation and the silence hung in the air. All around her, in each and every corner of the tight room, high and low, the shelves were staring back at her. Something was wrong. Desperately wrong, and her instinct told her to stay put. With a small, nod, Ari understood that something out of the ordinary was going on, and managed to get out of the cauldron. Back to back, both maidens were ready if an enemy decided to attack.
Sure, Hikari felt she was powerless since she had no idea what class she was in this game, and Aria hadn’t had the time to fully explore what hers could do, but they could manage. They had made it out of tighter spots before even in real life due to Hikari’s quick temper and Aria’s logical thinking.
And then, a wall opened.
“I truly need to fix this door. I need to talk with the blacksmith… and then I need to fix the lights… oh, but I also need to make the place more nice-looking so people come. Doing this moving by myself is tiresome. Wish Lypse could lend a hand.”
It was the voice of a girl. A sweet, honey-like voice that made the ambience turn velvet soft.
She was carrying many boxes, and her petite stature didn’t help. After dropping them onto the floor, she turned on a small oil lamp she took out from her purse and checked her surroundings.
That’s when the twilight sky met the turquoise ocean.
Hikari thought that finally, they had encountered some kind of hope. Something to look forward to in this strange cybernetic world. Was she also a player like them?
Until the girl opened her mouth.
The unknown girl let out a piercing screech and summoned a staff out of thin air. She started moving it wildly with her eyes closed, utterly terrified. Meanwhile, Hikari and Aria were presented with a one-woman comical show of the girl just moving a stick up and down.
“Excuse me…” Hikari stretched her hand, slowly.
“Ghosts, ghosts! I knew something was wrong when Teacher offered me her abandoned workshop, I knew it!!!!”
Hikari’s smile lost its patience.
“Alright, Aria. Help me grab this kid outside.”
“They’re gonna eat me, no!!!”
Once outside, Hikari could feel the sun kissing her skin. She’ll explore the landscape later. What she wanted right now was for the girl to stop moving her staff so no one got injured.
“Could you please open your eyes again?” Hikari asked.
“I don’t listen to ghosts!”
“Well, if we were ghosts, we would be unable to touch you and take you outside,” Aria added.
“I know a ghost that can do that! They can go through objects but get all touchy when they want to!”
“Alright then, ghosts shouldn’t be able to go to sunlight right?” Hikari was losing her patience again.
“I know a ghost that can do all that you’ve both said!!!”
What kind of ghost has she met before, sheesh.
“What can we do to prove to you we’re not ghosts?” Aria asked calmly.
“If I throw you a bomb and you don’t get injured then you’re not ghosts.” The girl calmed down as if having the greatest idea of the century. She started rummaging in her purse. “Found one. It has the Ghost Repel trait so it should be one-hundred percent effective against ghosts. Oh, and Spine-Chilling trait. Gotta have those broken debuffs.”
“Are you trying to kill us!?” Hikari’s anger was about to go behind her limit line.
“Can’t kill what’s already dead, so you have to make sure it stays dead.” The girly smiled.
“She has all the traits of a future cold blood murderer that’s for sure…” Aria gasped.
“Alright, so is there another way instead of bombing us to death?” Hikari was trying her best to avoid losing her temper.
The girl went silent.
“I asked a question.”
“A ghost would try to avoid their ultra death!” She retreated a few steps, with the bomb on hand.
“How did we end up from running for our lives to another death-threatening situation!?” Hikari had lost it. “I’m going to give that girl a piece of my mind.”
However, before she could do anything, the girl threw the bomb without further warning. Aria a Hikari had no idea what to do and wondered if that explosion would nuke everything around them as the girl previously stated how dangerous it was. Closing their eyes, they hugged each other awaiting their doom, until Aria had the idea to log out.
“I can’t do that, you dummy!” Hikari cried. “And that would make her think even more we are ghosts by suddenly disappearing!”
“Then what are we supposed to do!? Where would we respawn!?”
“I have no idea, but why is this NPC so stubborn!!!”
“Well, good tidings Miss Apoca.”
Sleeping Beauty had come to the rescue, holding the bomb in midair. Hikari and Aria stared astonished at what they had just witnessed.
“H-Huh? Miss Lieselotte?”
Do they know each other?
“This girl right here is the lovely alchemist of Aystaria, the underwater city!” Liselotte smiled happily, glad introductions were done. “Although her teacher was the previous, formal alchemist, she just stared, isn’t that wonderful?”
“She tried to kill us,” Hikari said blatantly.
“Relax a little. She isn’t called the well-minded and beautiful thinker maiden for nothing.”
“She tried to kill us,” Hikari repeated herself. “That isn’t something a well-minded person and someone who actually thinks would do!”
“Let bygones be bygones.” Aria suddenly intervened. “If those two know each other, that means this misunderstanding can finally end.”
“So you’re not ghosts?” The girl blinked.
“No, we’re not.” Hikari crossed her arms.
“Aw, you should’ve said so since the start!”
I’m this close to choking her.
“I’d like to make it up by brewing some tea and synthesizing a pie but currently my workshop is… not open to the public.”
“Yes, we noticed.”
Now that I think about it, I remember that the promotional Phantasia art featured a girl named Apoca but…
“They look nothing alike, and for an NPC she behaves like a human,” Hikari muttered to herself.
Maybe I’m tired, I need to compare the image and the girl and…
“Then how about we go to an actual café?” Lieselotte made a wild suggestion.
But before Hikari could finish her inner thoughts or Aria could say a word, the four of them vanished into thin air.