Chapter 2:



A man and a woman. Familiar. They're telling him something. Inaudible, yet his heart knew.

Taken. They're being taken somewhere. Somewhere far. Somewhere he couldn't… they couldn't reach. Must not reach.


Blank Mask awoke to the combined smell of antiseptic, coffee and shampoo. The place he found himself wasn't what he expected yet he's glad he's wrong.

The faint hum of apparatuses and the soft yet sturdy bed he laid down far too many times to count excluding today.

Soon enough, someone came over. It was a woman around her late thirties whose unkempt long, black hair robbed her of any womanly charms. Apparently, she always used dark blue highlights at the tips, implying she tried, but her lack of self care wasted it. Two sleep-deprived eyes peering behind thick glasses gazed at Blank Mask from head to foot.

She wore a loose T-shirt over a worn-out lab coat and a pair of bedroom slippers to match. At a glance, the woman seemed to be a bad cosplayer of the lazy genius trope but unfortunately, she was.

“Coffee?” She offered the mug she held. It's barely coffee and mostly water.

“Wow. That's it? No reaction from me finally waking up?”

“Sigh, finally. After two years,” She pulled over a swivel and sat. “There. Happy now?”

“That was a sigh… wait, did you just say two years?”

She took a sip to dampen her throat. Her voice became too raspy from dehydration. “Oh, you certainly shouldn't trouble yourself over the small details.”

He felt a little offended to where she looked at when she said ‘small’. “Tori, what—”

“Doctor Tori,” she corrected. “With that stupid stunt you pulled off, I'm pretty sure you'd have plenty of things to worry than the date. On second thought, you might want to check your schedule… and your bounty.”

He's confused. He knew Tori was joking about the two years—he's been out for only two ‘days’. They both played along since she knew he could just check with his mask, but what about the other part?

“I told you to call for backup or have some alternative if you're planning on using that stuff.”

“Oh,” He realized what she's on about. Tori referred to his emergency plan. “Gotta hand it to Qu Co, I guess. Their stuff's the real dea—ouchouchouch!”

She yanked the hair near his ear. Over and over. “Blank. Be more responsible and use that head more.”

After another five pulls, she stopped. Blank held the part she abused, hissing in pain.

“If it's just me, I could care less. Sure, I get to stave off boredom but she… Milleia… she hadn't gone to work for the last two, three days including today,” She took another sip. “Even a dumbass knows how worried she is, ditching work for her Concierge, heh.”

Milleia. His partner. He ran a finger on his face—or rather, his mask.

She seemed unperturbed by the change in atmosphere and said, “I didn't remove your mask. Milleia administered everything concerning your face on her own. What I only did personally were the prosthetics… and the scalpel-work of course.”

Operations? Plural? What's the deal with this woman? Suddenly, despite not feeling any stitches, Blank felt unsafe, threatened.

“Try to buy her something good later, if that wasn't on your list yet,” Tori added. She downed the rest of the coffee.

As if on cue, a buzz came in from the door.

“Oh, speak of the devil,” She stood up. “I'll leave you two and get some shuteye.”

There's some small greeting happening around and, after she broke the news, hurried footsteps were coming towards Blank.

The girl wore a mask of a demon while a shawl hid her hair and neck. Her dress almost left no gaps for any skin to be shown despite the usual cloak covering everything anyways. Blank had specifically instructed she could wear something cooler especially on hot days yet it seemed she won.

Tori placed a jar of candies nearby the two. “These are the edible ones,” She looked specifically at Blank. “One more thing, noise-cancelling or no, kindly mind yourselves. Milleia, in case that idiot tried swiping ‘my’ candies again kindly beat the living shit out of him for me.”

She munched on some of the candies, testing if she served the correct jar, before trudging out of the room.

After being left for themselves, the girl finally removed her demon mask and showed a face that would leave anyone speechless. Healthy, unblemished skin, clear brown irises, even the proportions of her features were great. Then, her soft lips parted to speak. “Blank… what the hell were you thinking, going off like that?”

Blank evaded her glare. Despite her gentle voice, the girl was anything other than sweet. “Well… you see…”

“Look me in the eye and talk.”

He obeyed, but he couldn't keep his cool for more than three seconds when he's staring straight at her. Milleia was simply… too intimidating. “Y-Yes, my lady.”

She sighed. “Honestly, what do I do with a reckless Concierge like you. Going off on his own like that… you were supposed to sell it for some quick cash and come back and not… become a headline. Sigh, now, I'm being suspended. Don't know if I'd be able to find a decent job up there again.”

“I thought—”

“It'd work out? You know it's tougher up there than whatever crazy shit you pull up down here,” She reached out and picked a pink colored candy. Even a simple action like eating sweets could turn into something elegant when she performed it. That elegance didn't translate well with her words though. “Especially with the Fair around the corner. How am I supposed to… sigh…”

“I'll pay Tori myself so…” His voice fizzled out upon meeting her gaze.

“Blank,” She heaved a heavy sigh, quite unsure how to deliver the next words better. “Take care of yourself, 'kay?”

“I… I'm…”


—But he couldn't say that.

“I'm sorry. I'll do better next time.”

Milleia stood up and put her mask back on. “Miss Tori told me. You should be just about fine now,” She reached out her hand. “Let's go.”

Blank ignored her offer and stood up on his own. “Fill me in on the way. I've been missing out on a lot of stuff.”

She seemed dazed for a moment before replying a half-hearted ‘Yeah, sure’. Then, with Blank leading the way, the two quietly locked the door of Tori's apartment.

It seemed to be an unoccupied, dilapidated building at first glance but apparently, that isolated area was where Tori lived. She's the very definition of a shut-in before she met them—a woman who had no relatives who rarely left the house even when starving to death.

Apparently, Tori preferred taking those dangerous candy-looking stuff than actually setting foot outside. It seemed to have no effect whenever she took it but Blank experienced firsthand how those were way worse than the drug he injected. Those ‘candies’ would kill even the worst junkie, yet Tori would have it, and several at one go, like its the most normal thing to do.

Even after being the go-to for prosthetic installation and maintenance and sometimes Milleia's checkups ever since they were kids, she never once charged them aside from running errands that's why they always brought her stuff from time to time, especially helping procure materials whenever something struck her fancy. She insisted there was no need but they maintained their mutual relationship with her anyways.

Milleia explained how Blank got delivered at Tori's doorstep that day, badly beaten and severely messed up internally. She said Tori had to do a bunch of reprogramming on his bloodstream and of course, the mask. Both showed signs of being tampered with, most probably with the aim of knowing the command sequence for the mask hacking but Tori was way ahead of anyone else no one would know even if she personally told them.

“Even my bloodstream, huh,” Blank muttered, to which she meekly nodded.

“…It's pretty bad according to Miss Tori. The nanomachines were no good she had to administer new ones.”

When they entered a more populated area, the two switched to radio communication. Using plain language over the wireless was stupid and most people—or so Blank would like to believe—used some sort of coding in their conversations. For them, it's about speculating prices at the Merkado. A common, everyday topic. Totally not suspicious. Additionally, even if spoken all of a sudden, it'd still make sense.

Meanwhile, Blank still haven't connected the dots. Questions like who in the world put him to Tori… well, that one primarily was his greatest concern. That dog mask officer was out of the question. He wouldn't miss the chance to give hints if he's not so loyal to the government, and he wouldn't attack him there. He couldn't just ask Milleia either, she seemed tired. Also, he doubt she knew anything.

“Don't lie, okay?” he said, changing the topic. “Are you eating properly?”

“I wouldn't neglect it even if you kill yourself. That's the plan.”

“Guess I'm still not worth anything if my life couldn't change any of your ways.”



“I wouldn't be so sure about that.”

“So you did hear…”

Having said that, she went ahead and stopped by a sensor. It's one of the mini gate things around areas that might be used by those in control to their favor. Usually, it's the gangs that owned it, but this one remained purely government property.

‘Required identity value for free passage met. Please pass through and disregard the coin box to your right.’

After a quick scan of her mask, the gate turned green and let her pass. Blank pretended to go near the sensor too but slipped in as Milleia passed the door. The automated gates seemed to be confused for a moment yet resumed operation after two seconds.

“Be more discreet. It's just a few Thetas,” Milleia said.

“What did it say?” he asked, oblivious to her comment.

“And there you have it. Not so useless at all,” She sent a screenshot of the virtual ticket the gate gave her. It contained mask code but with a bunch of X's and only a few numbers here and there. Naturally, it'd be visible with proper hacking skills that's why everyone evaded territories occupied by the gangs as much as possible.

He skimmed through the image and deleted it immediately. “Doesn't work for human guards though. Oh, by the way, it said something about fingerprint data.”

“I'd be surprised if it didn't. That's one of the reasons why I wasn't kicked out. Yet.”

“Tracking, huh.”

“More like policy changes. The Madonna seemed to be keeping tabs on Qu Co. That's their take up there.”

“Whatever. She'd still be their puppet no matter how hard she struggled.”

Blank was glad he lost his chance to ask about the other reason why Milleia was only suspended for a week. Unpleasant as both their moods were, it'd just make the atmosphere worse. Besides, he knew those Elites monitored Milleia's gate logs to check if her Concierge was truly injured or sick or whatever reason she put up.

The two rode a cheap and crowded suspension train. Hover cars were way out of their league despite being a common sight at the Elite's layer. Only available to a select few Commoners, those who worked as chauffeurs above made extra working for the rich gang families. Blank considered driving as a stable job yet his identity as the infamous Mask Stealer prevented him from having any ties with anyone, especially the wealthy and influential.

The train was designed to be overloaded that's why it's still fast. Speed, most often than not, attracted danger, and with that in mind, Blank shifted their position so as to shield Milleia ending with him pressing against her. Despite the lack of personal space, the protection was highly appreciated.


“Forty points for politeness.”

“Minus sixty points for trying to sound like a know-it-all.”

Upon hearing her retort, Blank realized something. He messed up. He knew he just did.

He cleared his throat. “Uh, Milleia? Just double-checking, but you bought us tickets to the Tower, right?”

“Yes, silly. Where do you think we'd go for today? Mope around at home? Trust me, I wouldn't pick this place out for a date either.”


When the blur of tall buildings cleared up, a massive cylindrical building whose diameter might as well be considered a wall itself came into view. The Tower wasn't that building. It's the central pillar supporting the Elite layer from crashing down on them. However, near that area wasn't the hustling and bustling mess of the city nor the pitiable neglect of the residential district; there were these green things called ‘trees’ and ‘shrubs’ and ‘plants’—the very definition of a fairytale.

Milleia's growing unease was evident as the train descended. She's always like this whenever the time comes.

“What's wrong?” Blank said. She's trembling and it felt like it's not just because of the locomotive.

“…Nevermind me…”

“Just making sure it's the normal reaction,” He looked at the scenery before the tall buildings and flashing neon lights blocked the view of nature. “Aren't those tree things supposed to be therapeutic?”

“They will be.”

Her reply ended any further discussion. She wasn't going at this half-hearted. Instead, Blank sensed her glare. I wasn't here to fool around either, he thought. Everything he did and would do in the future was for her… their true objective.

They rested somewhere less populated while Blank carefully patted the sweat off her. From afar, it looked like two lovers nestled together but they're way past the point of embarrassment; in fact, both thought that it'd be a surprise if one could still manage to make the other embarrassed.

Perhaps due to the guilt of holding him back, Milleia caught Blank's hand that's supposed to wipe her neck and said, “It's fine.”

“You mean, you're fine,” Blank became anxious all of a sudden when the idea hit him. He haven't thought about it until now. But since there might be no other time to do it, he said, “Wanna go somewhere before we head to the Tower?”

She slowly shook her head. Just when Blank was about to get embarrassed, Milleia spoke:

“Save it for when I get admitted.”

The two, not affording to waste any more time and money, opted for some water and drank it on their way to the Tower. Milleia had been on a water fast for a week now, just in time for today… for the entrance ceremony.

The line was already long when they arrived. It coiled into a great spiral with a giant black pillar in the middle serving as the destination. Technically speaking, that thing was the Tower, but in reality, it wasn't. According to sources, the Tower had a very peculiar way of letting people in but he had no idea to the degree of peculiarity.

The duo waited for four hours before making it midway and it'd be way longer if Blank haven't made some necessary payments earlier. Apparently, he wasn't the only one who had the same idea and it's also evident they had the pockets to back their plans.

Throngs of hooded cloaks shuffled their boots almost in a synch… robotlike in a sense. Despite the façade of some pairs coming off, no one had the interest on sabotaging anyone anymore. People collapsed from fatigue, or lack of oxygen, because a concentration this big would require a redirection of the O2 supply which could be intentional given the situation. They wanted to weed out the unprepared and the weak first. Thankfully, the duo had prepared for the scenario among other things so the scalpers selling their overpriced wares were unnecessary for now.

The line moved around every twenty minutes or so, and because of the slow whirlpool centered around the jet-black Tower, Blank remembered a story Milleia told her, that long ago, people also circled a similar object as part of a religious rite. Now that he thought about it, it looked like they practiced that culture in a different yet related goal: to enter a realm higher than their own, in this case, the Tower.

Milleia had been quiet all the time, taking sips from the water flask every now and then to prevent dehydration. She also seemed to be sleeping often; inconspicuously leaning to Blank, sometimes her soft snores heard over the radio.

Must've been tough, taking care of an incompetent Concierge, he thought. It should always be like this, with her being taken care of. Her pride might not allow it, but Blank hoped she'd at least trust him this much.

Rest well, my princess. You'll need every fiber of yourself at the main event.

When Milleia came to, twelve hours had passed. The black pillar now standing before them, it became more like a wall than a building. They went inside only to find another pillar but with human-sized capsules around it. Anywhere but the central area was lit by dim lights so only a weirdly organized procession of cloaked individuals could be made out.

Once near to the sign that said ‘checkpoint’, an attendant with a mask bearing a character for ‘front’ came shortly. He scanned their masks then sent them a file containing the dos and don'ts and moved on to the next pair in line. Even with the speed of the receptionists' operations, the sheer number of Commoners was too much not to mention those who cut in line through their Phi.

It might be a better option to just sit and wait and use money only when absolutely necessary but objectively speaking, an approach like that wasn't all that bad. It saves time and therefore, the ‘freshness’ of the product wouldn't be affected. After all, even if someone like the Madonna patiently stood in line for hours here, she'd be so spent that her beauty might've already dropped by a significant amount.

“Batch 0522, kindly board your designated pods and follow the instructions on your virtual manual,” the PA system announced.

Milleia gave a short nod of affirmation upon sensing Blank's stare. Of course, there's no way to confirm given the masks, but the two quietly stood in the capsules which automatically closed.

A warm light shone from head to foot, as if scanning them. They knew it's a procedure to procure their avatars for the virtual Tower they'd enter. Blank tried sneaking a peek, but the sleep-inducing smoke made him black out.

Neatly trimmed green plants lined on either side of the stone steps the two found themselves in after the process. In any case, they had finally arrived. The Tower should be at the top.

As instructed, Blank didn't take the stairs. He only said to Milleia, “Good luck.”

With only their avatars here, there'd be no wireless signal nor any sort of tool available in the real world. He couldn't just hack his way through either; aside from being a stupid idea, any attempts for illegal access would warrant disqualification and an instant demotion to the layer below.

Instead, a figure with a mask painted with a character for ‘pure’ came over. He didn't sense them coming, but the manual said this was within the set of procedures for the ceremony.


“Von,” he answered.

“Mask fingerprint confirmed. Concierge ‘Von’, your Merchandise… Merchandise ‘Milleia’ will be granted access to the Tower. Any personal effects will be returned to you shortly. Value-affecting accessories can be retained, however.”

Blank almost let out a laugh. ‘Value-affecting’ it says. Milleia wouldn't need any add-ons to stay relevant. After all, she's raised by the best.

“Concierge Von,” the receptionist continued. “Please be reminded that this is the entrance ceremony to The Fair. Your Merchandise may or may not return hereafter. Do you wish to retrieve?”

The answer was obvious. “No.”

“Your Merchandise may return with or without damage, either reparable or permanent. Do you wish to retrieve?”


“You will be using… one attempt for The Fair. Remaining attempts left… one. Do you wish to retrieve?”


After a couple of minutes standing doing nothing, the receptionist asked yet another question. “Merchandise Milleia appraised… ‘inadequate’ for the entrance ceremony. Do you wish to retrieve?”

“That's just your pre-assessment, right? Just let her in.”

“Invalid response. Please answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

Blank shrugged his shoulders. “No.”

However, after he woke up minutes later, a coin pouch found itself in Blank's pocket with a note that read:

“Bird took three. Use when necessary.”

He didn't remember having three—let alone six Phis. Or…

Blank examined the note. It had a drawing resembling a chili pepper. There's nothing that came to mind save for the sinamak. It's strange though, when he remembered the officer confiscating it. Did the guy pay for it? Paying a criminal he's supposed to haul back in? Very convincing. And it's six Phis to boot. He's already about to sell it at four and now it became six?

“Whatever. It's sold so it's fine… but Tori taking Phis? Now that's weird.”

Following the exit line, it only took around twenty minutes to exit the area. Milleia, among the others who seemed to be Merchandise, weren't there anymore when they woke up. Apparently, they were taken to the real Tower in secret. Why, he asked, when the greenery was visible from the suspension train. Guess that's one of the strange things done.

He searched his bag and found his moldy repast. If not for the nanomachines in their bodies they'd become mushroom what with all the rotten stuff they ate. He peeled off the greenish foam from the bread and took a bite. Tastes funny but still leaps and bounds better than government goop.


He looked at his prosthetic arm. Although faint, it's vibrating. It wasn't because of the normal vibrations of mechanical parts, it's something familiar. He raised his flesh and blood left hand and saw the same.

Blank chuckled. “Even I baffle myself.”

“I wouldn't buy that, coming from you of all people.”

A pair of yellow eyes glowed from a dark alley. Blank turned to greet her.

Only wearing the hooded cloak sans the mask, the girl with eyes of a feline barred her fangs in a sinister smile. “Nyaa, Mask Stealer. Finally making a move?”