“Sorry, I have to take it,” I stand up, suddenly pale. I was wondering if she’s going to call again. I’ve set my account to send her money every week for groceries, hoping she’d be content with that and leave me alone.
“Everything okay, Aefener?” Emi is worried.
“Y-yeah… it’s just my grandma,” I say.
“If it’s okay than why is your heart racing?” Emi narrows her eyes and touches her vulpine ears. “Super hearing as well, remember?”
“We’re not… exactly getting on well,” I say quickly and rush towards to door. If I kept her waiting for too long, she’d be twice as furious. Liana and Emi are looking at me with concern. I smile at them faintly, assuring them that I’m okay before I disappear from their sight. Erik follows me, of course.
We get into an empty briefing room next to Liana’s office, Erik closes the door and I can finally pick it up.
“Ryuuto, dear,” she starts unbelievably sweet which is even scarier than her usual shouting.
“H-hello,” I greet her cautiously. She’s much more unpredictable in her mania periods.
I’m surprised that she turns on her phone’s camera. She’s wearing a nice dress that looks quite expensive and light make-up. When she makes an effort, I can see the resemblance to my Mom in her but it only makes me even more anxious when dealing with her. She’s nothing like my kind Mom.
“So I’ve just had an interview… another one,” she says cheerfully.
“An interview?” I blink.
“This time for this online media press… I forgot the name, there’re so many recently,” she continues. “They’re so courteous, not like the EU. It was more like an interrogation than a conversation when they came to ask about you.”
My heart starts beating even faster. Liana actually expected the EU would try to contact my grandma to ask about me but gran doesn’t know about my telepathy, nor has any idea what my Mom was doing in Japan, so we decided to do nothing about it.
“They weren’t forceful or anything, were they?” I ask. I can’t help being worried about her safety. We might not have the best relationship but she’s still my only family.
“Oh, no, just pushy,” she shrugs. “Ryuuto, dear, why don’t you switch on your camera as well?”
“Are you sure you want to see me? Last time you called me…”
“I was in shock, that’s all,” she waves her hand. A bit too theatrically. “I’ve digested it already so let me see my grandson’s face.”
I look at Erik. He shrugs, also not sure what her intentions might be. I reluctantly switch on my phone’s camera and make sure it doesn’t show my boyfriend. Better keep him out of this.
“Oh,” grandma freezes for a moment. Her lips curve, I can tell she’s disgusted by my appearance. Celestials are closest to humans in body shape but we still look pretty alien. I think it’s especially our golden eyes that unnerve humans the most.
“Well, look at you,” she clenches her teeth, trying hard to play amicable.
“What do you want, gran?” I breathe in deeply. She never calls just like that.
“Are you coming home anytime soon? I need to fix a few things,” she says as if she doesn’t get what kind of situations the world is in right now. And especially me.
“Are you serious?!” I can’t believe my ears. Did she lose it after all? Maybe she stopped taking her medicine again.
She looks sideways for some reason before continuing.
“Look, I know that our relationship isn’t the greatest but…”
Erik can’t take it anymore and steps into the camera’s frame.
“Who’s with you?” he blurts at her which confuses me. What is he talking about?
“Oh, you’re Ryuuto’s friend, right?” grandma coughs nervously. “You’re all over the media as well.”
“I’m not just a friend, I’m his boyfriend and you know it,” he clicks his tongue. “You’re not alone, are you, Mrs Rehak? Who makes you say these things?”
Grandma grimaces and abruptly ends the phone call.
“Y-you think she wasn’t alone?” I gasp for breath.
“Obviously, Ryuu,” he rolls his eyes. “You’re too benevolent when it comes to her, excusing everything because of her bipolarity. I think either the EU or some media company is trying to lure you out of Liana’s skyscraper.”
“B-but if that’s true, isn’t she in danger?” I worry.
“Gosh, Ryuu, how kind are you?” Erik performs an exemplary facepalm. “Did she look in danger? It seems to me that she’s getting paid handsomely for those interviews. Stop sending her money, silly. You owe her nothing for all those years of neglect.”
I don’t say anything to that and just lower my head.
“You know…,” Erik says extremely slowly. “When that psychologist arrives, maybe you should go see him. To resolve your… ehm…”
“Low self-esteem?” I finish the sentence and sigh because I know perfectly well what he’s hinting at. “I know. Maybe I should.”
“Oh, Ryuu,” he hugs me. “I get it that you lack confidence after growing up with such a hag but we have to finally start working on it, okay? We can’t have an Emperor who doesn’t believe in himself.”
I kiss him to deepen our connection and try to see myself through his eyes. He could always boost my confidence, at least temporarily. I know that I shouldn’t depend on him that much. I realise it painfully well. Erik’s right, I should seriously go see that psychologist when he gets here. I think I might gradually open up to him if he’s a Draconian.
But that’s for the future. Right now, I’m not able to do any of these things so I delve into the mind of my loved one to find refuge once again. Am I addicted to him because of my telepathy or because of my insecurities? Hopefully, I can work on my insecurities but if the telepathic craving is natural to my mutated brain… what will I do when Erik gets tired of me?
“What do you mean ‘when’?” Erik pinches the soft skin under my feathers because he gets annoyed with what I was thinking right now. “Even if you rephrased it with IF, I would be offended.”
“Ouch,” I whine. “Pinching a Celestial under feathers, that’s nasty, you!”
“Well, you kind of deserved it,” he caressed my feathers, tenderly now. “You were thinking something funny again.”
“Because my telepathy might…”
He doesn’t give me a chance to finish that sentence, though. He silences me with a kiss and doesn’t let go easily. He tries to patch my sadness with his love and it seems to be working. His mind is so stable, unlike mine. I can lean into him and trust that he will hold me.
“I love you,” I whisper between kisses.
I know that he can feel it from me but I promised myself during my transformation that I won’t be afraid to say it aloud. My first step to complete openness. I’m willing to work on myself. For me and for him.
A cough takes us both to reality. Fefnir is standing in the door with an amused expression. I turn red because I realise Erik has managed to seat me on the table and his hand is under my robe, between my wings. And for a Celestial that’s pretty much as if he was reaching into my trousers.
“We have work to do, boys,” he says matter-of-factly, not at all bashful about the position he found us in.
“R-right,” I push Erik away and straighten my crooked robe.
Erik grins at me and leaves the briefing room. Fefnir plugs in his laptop, I switch on the 3D projector and we start calling the Dragonkin ruler Deminas in Russia. He picks up almost immediately, expecting us.
“My liege,” Fefnir greets him and I feel deep respect coming from him. It’s not an entirely human emotion because it goes way beyond casual respect to one’s superior.
“Fefnir, Aefener,” Deminas nods.
His transformation progressed again. Fefnir’s did too, of course, but it’s harder to notice when I see him every day. Deminas’s horns are almost twenty centimetres long now and his head is starting to look really dragon-like.
I glance at Fefnir to compare them. He’s only a few days behind the Dragonkin Patriarch. And damn, he’s big when I really pay attention to our differences. Fefnir’s hands are three times my size, he must be struggling typing on keyboards. He could break my fragile bones with a single move. I look tiny sitting next to him.
“How are things in Russia?” Fefnir asks, oblivious to my inner monologue.
“I’m leaving my hideout in a few days,” Deminas informs us. “I offered my place as a temporal refuge to a few people from my guild but it’s just a family cottage. I can’t possibly accommodate more Dragonkin here. The neighbours are starting to get suspicious.”
“Should we ask Liana to transport you here?” Fefnir suggests.
“That’s not wise,” Deminas shakes his head. “We shouldn’t concentrate all rulers at one place. Firstly, we would potentially be easy targets. Secondly, we have our people all over the world and most of them can’t reach the EU. Moreover, those with supportive families have no reason to.”
“Where will you go?” I ask.
“I was offered a better suited place by a guy from another guild,” he says. “Funny, ingame we were rivals, now we’re more than happy to cooperate. He even calls me his Patriarch even though we used to be exemplary frenemies before.”
“We don’t have the luxury to quarrel among ourselves about nonsense,” Fefnir shrugs. “We have to unite no matter what. Our personal differences aside.”
“Exactly, my Viceroy,” Deminas agrees and looks back at me. “Do you know what they are saying about Celestials in Russia, Aefener? Religious people, I mean.”
“Ehm… no?” I say and don’t like the vibe I’m getting from him. “It’s Ingri and Fefnir who are analysing public opinions.”
“That you’re real angels and apocalypse is upon us,” he says darkly. “It sounds ridiculous, I know, but lots of people are starting to incline towards it. You doing miraculous magic isn’t helping.”
“That video five days ago was an accident, I didn’t know I was being filmed,” I explain quickly. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“Be careful, Aefener,” he grunts. “You Celestials are the only race with a religious reference whether you like it or not. We Dragonkin might look like humanoid dragons which is intimidating but that’s pure fantasy. Your race, on the other hand, even if looking most human, won’t have it that easy when persuading common people that you aren’t what they take you for.”
Deminas then starts to discuss with Fefnir their developing Dragonkin abilities, training methods and possibilities for creating a friendly reputation with humans. I’m trying to pay attention, yet I find myself pondering.
Erik was happy that I transformed into a Celestial who indeed are the closest to humans in outer appearance. What he still doesn’t realise is that if one was comparing mentalities of new races, we would come out as the most alien ones.
The Dragonkin are phlegmatic and a friendly bunch when you get under their thick skin; Clawfangs seem too wild but they generally like people and are very extroverted; the Earthborn kind of live in a world of their own and wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s actually my race I’m concerned about.
It was evident in the morning in the cafeteria. They were totally detached from the other three races and were feeling… a bit above them I guess? What if our darker racial urges wake up as well? How do I handle a race of magic-wielding winged people hungry for conquest?
“Are you listening, Aefener?” Fefnir pokes me. I can tell he’s carefully controlling his strength when he’s around others.
“S-sorry, what was the last sentence?” I apologise.
“Training the Dragonkin and Clawfangs as our own security force,” Deminas repeats. “I know that Liana has a private company guarding all of you at the moment but we shouldn’t depend on humans if we don’t have to.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Fefnir agrees. “You can’t have Clawfangs doing paperwork, they’d go crazy. They’re too hyperactive to sit in one place for too long. As for my race… we might not be as restless but we do love using our muscles. Vice versa, the Earthborn and Celestials are too frail to become bodyguards. Your magic is amazing but it requires time to prepare.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I nod. “Divide jobs among ourselves should be easy enough considering how different and mutually balanced we are.”
We finish in half an hour and then return to Liana’s office. I’m surprised that Erik isn’t there. I could have noticed that I don’t feel him near but I was too absorbed in dealing with the Dragonkin Patriarch. Still, I feel he’s still somewhere in the building so I relax. I have to stop being so dependent on him all the time and I can start right now with that.
“Okay, let’s go training,” Liana gets up energetically. “It’s too early to call our friends in the US and Brazil anyway.”
“Can we actually go outside?” I ask.
“Nope,” she shakes her head. “I allowed Emi her morning jogs if she takes my security and behaves but I don’t want anyone recording our training again. We’ll use the gym on the fifth floor.”
“What doesn’t this building have?” I wonder.
“A pool,” Liana shrugs, not catching that I was being ironic.
She acts confidently but I notice she freezes for a second before getting into the elevator. I hesitate for a few seconds, contemplating if it would be inappropriate if I caught her hand. But there’re only our bodyguards inside as Fefnir and Emi stayed behind and I bet they’re sworn to secrecy. I clutch her palm and she looks at me with gratefulness.
Do you want to try my telepathic communication? I tell her softly, not wanting to startle her. We’ve never actually had a proper dialogue without spoken words before.
She sends me a mix of jumbled emotions and sentences so I have to spend a few seconds trying to show her how to do it.
It is better? she asks after several attempts. She got the hang of it very quickly.
Much better. Gosh, claustrophobia is the worst, right?
You tell me about it, I’ve never had a phobia before. It’s as if my very Celestial nature is struggling against being confined in a metal box.
The same as when Ingri couldn’t stand flying.
How did the meeting with Deminas go? she asks.
He proposed that we should employ the Dragonkin and Clawfangs as our new security in near future. What do you think?
That’s actually a great idea. It’s been barely a day since Draconians arrived and I’ve already received several complains from human employees. Our people are restless.
I want to ask what her thoughts on Celestial behaviour are but the elevator stops at that moment and we can finally get off. I let go of her hand. We can’t be publicly seen like that even if everyone knows my sexual orientation.
“Oh, wow!” I’m nicely surprised when we get to the gym.
“They adjusted it to our needs,” Liana smiles and lets me inspect the room.
It’s evident that it used to be a fitness suite full of equipment but everything has been removed so we got quite a spacious area. There’s nothing easily inflammable here and one side of the room is even covered in flame-proof material. The only things left behind are several weights, no doubt for training our telekinesis.
“Good morning,” Julia enters the room just a minute after us. “Please, don’t mind me. I’m here to document everything and tend to your injuries should there be any. Don’t let there be any, please.”
“Thanks, Julia, it’s actually reassuring to have you with us,” Liana appreciates her presence as she must have arranged for it.
“Always ready,” Dr Stein proudly shows us her medical suitcase. “Still, don’t burn yourself again, okay? Even if you do heal faster.”
“Oh, I totally forgot about your burnt hand, Aefener,” Liana slaps her forehead. “And… also about those bruises I caused you during my transformation.”
“That healed ages ago, don’t worry,” I wave my hand. “And it wasn’t that horrible to begin with. Only… it seems we Celestials aren’t good at enduring pain.”
We start with revising basic level 1 spells and it turns out we pretty much mastered them. Liana and me can confidently cast all elements, except for the earth, of course. Only when it comes to water, we can’t make it out of nothing in the real world but instead control existing liquid.
“Niiice,” Liana produces three water bubbles and plays with them in the air.
“So is the incantation necessary or not?” Julia asks, watching us from some distance.
“When you’re learning the spell, it seems to help a lot,” I say. “When you master it and can concentrate properly, you don’t need to speak it anymore. But it might be necessary for high-level spells that require a long preparation. We’ll see.”
“Are you moving the bubbles with water magic or telekinesis?” Julia continues her interrogation.
“Hmm… hard to say actually,” Liana says, loses her concentration for a second and water splashes onto the ground. No harm done, the place was adjusted for this kind of purpose.
“Maybe all magic is just an application of our telekinesis?” I suggest. “It’s still difficult for me to accept that such a fairy-tale concept as magic.”
“You do have mana, though,” Julia remarks.
“Mana… pure energy… call it whatever,” I shrug. “It can have a scientific explanation, right? Just as my telepathy is simply an advanced ability of my mutated brain.”
“Don’t call it simple, Aefener,” Julia rolls her eyes. “There’s nothing simple about it.”
“Heya!” Liana tries pulling one of the weights up. “Damn, that’s hard!” she whines and the weight falls down with a loud thump. “How much is it?”
“Ten kilos,” I look at the weight.
“I could hold it only for three seconds,” Liana laments. “It felts like it was resisting me.”
“There’ll probably be a limit to how much you can lift off with your telekinesis,” Julia ponders.
I try lifting it as well but I manage only three seconds as well before it falls down.
“At least something is normal for me,” I’m actually glad I wasn’t able to do it.
“You’re far better at delicate manipulation like lifting several objects as once,” Liana says. “How many things can you levitate at the same time?”
I focus on light objects like Julia’s laptop, her medical suitcase and a few others things and I manage to levitate seven of them.
“Damn, I can do three at maximum,” Liana laments.
“I think it’s something you can train,” I try to encourage her. “Come on, you’re the second-best caster. You can do it! You’re already way better than the rest of Celestials.”
“And I have to stay that way if I want to remain the Viceroy,” she sighs. “Working hard and training hard.”
“Wait… so if someone else surpasses me I don’t have to become the actual Emperor?”
“You already are one, stupid,” she shakes her head, annoyed. “Ask Ingri who’s monitoring not only the social media but also the current mood of our people. No one, I repeat NO ONE, doubts that you should be our Emperor even in the real world.”
“And they have no idea about his telepathy,” Julia points out.
“It better never get out or the EU government won’t think twice about using brutal force just to get you,” Liana says darkly. “It’s the public that protects us, Aefener, not my security.”
“N-no?” I’m taken aback. “But I thought that…”
“My security is making sure no one gets inside to sabotage us,” Liana’s tone is dead serious. “Or try luck, looking for loopholes. But do you think I could resist the army if they really decided to storm the place?”
“Oh… I didn’t think of that,” I admit and shiver.
“The EU is afraid of riots, we’re kept safe by the current fragile peace,” Liana continues to lecture me. “They know that should any of us be harmed, they can expect civil war.”
We don’t pursue the topic any further because there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment. Instead, we go back to training as everyone is waiting for our progress and more instructional videos on spellcasting. Preventing magical accidents is also essential.
“Damn, it’s difficult,” Liana’s level 2 ice spell keeps boiling the water instead of freezing it.
“Well, we’re changing the water’s state, it’s bound to be advanced,” I say. I managed to produce a few snowflakes but I’m struggling as well.
“Shit, I can’t go on,” Liana is panting in the end. “Too hungry.”
“Me too,” I second after I accidentally break one of the glasses.
“It has been pretty much confirmed that Celestials refill their mana through calories from food,” Julia speaks up. “And rest, of course. Do you feel like totally out of mana?”
“Not totally, but at the same time I feel like continuing wouldn’t be pleasant,” Liana says. “We didn’t do that many spells, though. I hope our mana capacity will grow because this is pathetic.”
“Actually…,” I’m trying to analyse our training session, “I think we’re just clumsy channelling our mana. Remember when we were training our basic flame spells? If we gave out too much mana, the spell exploded. When we gave out too little, nothing happened. I guess mastering new spells is tricky because we never know how much energy is needed.”
“Can you describe how having mana feels like?” Julia is ready with her fingers above the keyboard.
“It’s like an omnipresent vibrating sensation I feel in my whole body,” Liana says after a short consideration. “It’s strongest in my spine and wings.”
“Which reminds me to measure your wings again, Miss Richter,” Julia realises and takes her laser measuring tape out of the medical suitcase. “I measured Aefener’s when he was at my infirmary but I have yet to examine you properly.”
“I prefer Liana, doctor,” she reminds her and obediently spreads her black wings.
“Right, sorry,” Julia nods and scans Liana’s wings. She puts the number into her laptop and spends a while studying the data.
“As I thought!” Dr Stein exclaims.
“Though what?” we lean towards her to see the screen.
“The growth rate of your wings is gradually getting faster,” Julia explains, pointing her finger at the statistics only she seems to understand.
“Faster? How come?” I’m confused.
“I reckon because your inner transformation is almost over so your bodies can accelerate the rest,” she guesses. “It’s actually similar to the Dragonkin whose horns are starting to grow much more quickly now. And high-level Earthborn are reporting being able to change colours.”
“What about Emi and Clawfangs in general?” Liana asks.
“Emi has been avoiding me like the plague,” Julia sighs. “And the second-ranking Clawfang Gin is still in hiding. But I bet their outer transformation is also accelerating.”
“Hmm,” I spread my wings and look at them lovingly. “I can’t wait to be able to fly.”
“Me too,” Liana agrees. “Dr Stein, can eating nutritious food help speed up the process?”
“I would imagine so,” the doctor nods and looks at me sternly.
“I know, I know. I’m doing my best,” I want to assure her but then I realise that I left my croissant in the office. There goes my snack, Erik will certainly notice and will be pissed.
“It’s half past twelve, let’s go for lunch,” Liana suggests. “We can have our brainstorming after that. To be honest, normally I’d push myself but it’s in my own interest now to eat and rest properly.”
I take my phone out of the robe. Ingri thought of everything when she was designing our clothes and all our robes have a practical pocket in the binding.
Lunch, yay! Let’s meet in the restaurant.
You forgot your snack, dummy. *rolling eyes emoji*
Julia excuses herself, telling us that she has a packed sandwich in her office and still needs to analyse the results she got from the newcomers. We leave the gym and four bodyguards that were waiting outside re-join us.
“Do we really need four?” I whisper to Liana. “I totally don’t underestimate the possible danger but we’re inside your skyscraper.”
“I was actually thinking we might need more soon,” Liana shakes her head. “And not because of danger but because our own people can’t seem to leave us alone.”
I can’t oppose that, the morning cafeteria is still fresh in my memory. Are they so crazy about us because we’re celebrities or because we’re their rulers?
We get into the elevator and use this opportunity to train our connection again. It’s much different than with Erik since Liana’s mind is Celestial.
Can I maybe later… connect to you more deeply to explore in which aspects your mind is different from Erik’s? I ask carefully. No pressure if you don’t feel like it.
It’s okay, I want to do it. It might say a lot about our transformation. Besides, I trust you won’t look where I don’t want you to.
I’m honoured that she trusts me so much but at the same time I’m a little bit unsettled. Sure, we’ve known each other for over five years but does ingame friendship have the same value?
It does for us, Liana answers in her thoughts. It was the only place we could be ourselves, remember? I could forget about my everyday worries with leading the company and you could… do whatever craziness crossed your mind. Like going solo to the hardest dungeons.
I realise I might be one of the lucky few who get to know the real Liana—not Laura Richter. She let her true self be expressed in our game. Can it be another contributing factor why our bodies started changing? That we believed so much in it that Draconia became reality?
Which reminds me that I have to ask Julia if she knows whether all players changed. What about those that just barely started the game? Or stopped playing months ago? I doubt that brains of those people were convinced enough to initiate the mutation.
We get off the elevator on the twelfth floor where the restaurant is. It’s my first time being here but Liana sure knows her way around her huge property. We’re both a bit nervous about what awaits us and it turns out our worries were justified. Even though the dining hall is huge, it’s cramped with Draconians.
“We couldn’t stand out more, right?” Liana remarks because our monochromatic wings are instantly recognisable. In addition, we’re the only ones wearing Celestial robes.
We’re spotted immediately and especially Celestials flock around us. We’re trying to smile and greet everyone but it’s cringy. Not even Liana, who must be used to social occasions, feels comfortable. Our bodyguards are trying to keep Draconians from touching us at least but still too many hands reach our wings.
Damn, this is definitely not normal behaviour, I use the commotion to brush Liana’s hand. This is beyond crazy, Li. Did Celestials go nuts?
They might be influenced by our mana capacity, she suggests. And our status perhaps? We’re the Emperor and the Viceroy to them after all. Can you imagine meeting the president of your country just like that in a restaurant?
Good points but still…
“Sorry, but can you let us through? We’d like to have our lunch,” Liana says aloud and tries to sound both kind and urgent.
Fortunately, they do listen to her. The crowd starts to make us a narrow passage but just as we think that we can finally pass, I feel a new hand on my left wing. The mind of that stranger flows into me and I recognise that it’s an Earthborn. I sigh, mildly annoyed. I don’t feel any bad intentions, just pure curiosity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not rude.
But I decide to let it slip and twitch my wings to fold them closer to my back so that they’re not so tempting. However, as I do so, I suddenly feel sharp pain and an ominous sound of something tearing. It lasts only a second but the shock is enough to water my eyes. The painful sensation is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
I get goosebumps under my feathers and for the first time get really angry at someone. Wrathful even…? I can feel something awakening in me. I violently turn around and see a bluish Earthborn staring at me with one of my white feathers in his palm.
THAT JERK DARED TO RIP OUT MY PRECIOUS FEATHER?
I hit him hard with telekinesis and send him flying across the room.
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