After their journey to recover for the Five Supreme Blades in the island country of Hinomoto, Shin’s party returned to Black Priestess Shrine’s guildhouse.
Shin and Tiera shared part of their memories when they purified one of the Five Supreme Blades, 『Dojigiri Yasutsuna』; this spurred Shin to decide to talk about his past to her.
Tiera spoke while looking straight into Shin’s eyes.
“….tell me. I want to know more about you.”
“Got it. It’s going to take a while, but please hear me out—-at the time, I still didn’t know how evil people could be. I didn’t know that you could lose something important all of a sudden.”
Shin continued talking while also looking straight into Tiera’s eyes.
“What I’m going to tell you happened before the “Dusk of the Majesty”. When we used to call this world a “game”.”
One year passed since the MMORPG “THE NEW GATE” had been transferred to virtual reality.
What was supposed to be a game had become reality. There were two big changes that had affected the game.
Logging out was not possible and death in the game meant death in real life.
Very few could handle this absurd situation with a cool head.
It was said that the chaos and confusion caused more than 500 casualties, but no one could understand if that figure was high or low.
It all happened suddenly, but fortunately -if one could say so- the players’ stats had not been reset.
The stats and levels the players had spent long hours raising, powerful equipment and rare items, guildhouses, methods of contact with friends, all of those remained.
Hoping to put an end to the death game, one man was, today too, challenging a dungeon.
A crimson flash lit up the darkness of the dungeon, following the man’s war cry. It had been created by the swing of his blade.
The blade pierced the void, severing the right leg of the giant-type monster Gigantes Moss.
Having lost everything below the right thigh, the gargantuan monster fell to the ground. Its body extended for more than 5 mels and was studded with rocks and boulders, which caused a small tremor as the monster tumbled down.
The shaking ground limited the player’s action and prevented him from continuing the attack.
“30% HP left. About time it changes attack patterns.”
The man mumbled to himself while keeping the collapsed monster within his field of view.
His name was Shin.
His opponent was the boss monster that awaited players in the deepest reaches of the dungeon.
As Shin had predicted, the monster’s HP gauge had fallen into the red zone of less than 30%, causing certain changes in Gigantes Moss’ body.
From the base of its 2 battleaxe-wielding arms, a new set of arms grew out. At the same time, the ceiling of the boss chamber crumbled, bringing a longsword and a spear to the room below.
“So that’s your game.”
After calmly concluding that the change was a physical one, Shin activated a magic skill.
“Just in case, I better check if your weak points changed.”
Magic skills of all seven elements struck the monster after Shin spoke.
Bullets of fire and water, spears of light and thunder, and claws and fangs of wind and earth.
Seven spells that were usually cast on their own struck all at once. Too much for even the now four-armed Gigantes Moss to handle.
Shin had activated the skill 【Magic Boost】, to increase the offensive power of his magic, and the 7-type combination magic skill 【Elemental Blast】.
It was a combo attack used to determine the monster’s weakness while inflicting a certain degree of damage at the same time.
Depending on the elemental properties of the monster the spell is used on, it might end up healing them, but Gigantes Moss suffered damage. Based on the differences of inflicted damage, it was clear that the monster was strong against fire and wind but weak against thunder and darkness.
The problem was that the damage itself was infinitesimal.
“No changes in weak points, I see. Magic defense shot up though.”
Gigantes Moss was originally a monster strong against magic attacks.
For Shin, continuing this one-sided attack from a distance was not impossible, but because of the monster’s increased defensive power, triggered by the HP loss, even Shin’s spells could not inflict decisive damage.
The only method left was close combat.
“Well, so be it. I wasn’t thinking of whittling you down from a distance anyway!”
While keeping the monster busy with multi-hit magic spells, Shin grasped his trusted weapon, the katana 『True Moon』. The skill activation caused the blade to emit increasingly bright red ripples, before being covered in darkness. The next moment, deep red lightning shot forward.
Triple combination skill 【Black Flower Flash】.
Using the magic barrage as cover, Shin drew closer to the monster in a flash and circled behind its back.
Thanks to the high speed movement made possible by the combination of Movement-type skills 【Ground Shrink】 and 【Mirage Dance】, the Gigantes Moss lost sight of Shin.
Another probable cause was its limited movements, caused by the loss of its right leg. The monster, ignoring the spells striking its body, looked for Shin with its eyes.
Shin focused without letting out a word, then swung 『True Moon』 down on Gigantes Moss’ back.
The blade, clad in scorching hot darkness, rent the monster’s rock hard skin. Immediately after the slash, thunder struck the same point.
Gigantes Moss lost its balance and fell forward from the blow.
The monster tried to counterattack, screaming in pain, but its movements were even more stiff because of the short-term paralysis caused by the thunder element from the attack. The desperate attempt to attack made the monster fall to the ground again.
Shin would not let such an opportunity go. He had instead predicted the situation, and struck the monster from behind again.
It would not take much time for Gigantes Moss to be back on its feet. But Shin moved behind the monster and activated another skill much faster.
“This is the end!”
An orange-colored aura now enveloped『True Moon』; it was the Sword-type Martial skill 【Tyrant Beat】.
Many Katana-type and Sword-type skills could be used as long as one wielded a bladed weapon. Using Sword-type skills with a katana would cause their offensive power to drop slightly, but Shin focused more on skill effects, so he had stopped using only Katana-type skills even when wielding a katana.
The strike, aimed at the monster’s weakpoint -the back of its neck- saw its damage increase thanks to a critical hit. The skill’s effects also allowed Shin to continue a one-sided offensive.
It was just a matter of time until Gigantos Moss’ HP reached zero.
“Ngh! I shouldn’t be tired, but my shoulders feel stiff!”
With a yawn, the tension left Shin’s body.
After defeating the boss and clearing the dungeon, Shin returned to the entrance. He had been fighting in the dungeon since the morning, and when he went outside, he realized that the sun was setting already.
Physical exhaustion existed as part of the system, but it was already completely recovered.
Rather than that, he felt more mentally tired.
Even if the avatar was fully recovered, the mind of the player controlling it was not.
Death in this world meant death in real life. “THE NEW GATE” was now a death game, there was no turning back after dying.
No matter if the opponent was a boss monster or some small fry from beginner-oriented areas, the player’s life was on the line in every fight. It was obvious that long engagements would cause mental distress.
“Phew. With this, about half of the dungeons are left.”
The condition for clearing the death game “THE NEW GATE” was to defeat the boss monster in the last dungeon, “Gate of the Otherworld”. It wasn’t a certainty that they would be freed from the game or not, but all players made that their objective for now.
In order to enter the final dungeon, one was first required to clear a series of other dungeons. Clearing them would unlock sealed areas, allowing the player to get gradually closer to the final dungeon.
At the start of the death game, all players had been gathered in “Kalkia”, one of the hometowns, and could only move in its surroundings.
Shin’s map had already registered most fields’ geographical data. Looking at the map revealed that around half were displayed as transparent, which meant impossible to travel to.
The unlocked fields were proof of the courage and sacrifice of those who, like Shin, had cleared dungeons. It had already taken 4 months to reach this point.
“I can still do it alone. But the second half won’t be that easy…”
Shin sighed, then checked the items dropped by the monster. In some cases, items useful to clear the next dungeon could be found.
The items dropped were rare, but Shin’s equipment had higher specs, so they were of little use to him.
“….nothing special this time.”
His hands stopped scrolling the display and closed the menu screen. The items, other than equipment, did not seem like they could be particularly useful in the next dungeon.
Proceeding from the dungeon to the teleport point, Shin handled any attacking monster with just one hand, then looked up to the sky. The clear, cloudless sky brightened his spirits, if just a little.
“Oh! He’s back! How did it go?”
Once he returned to Kelgunsk, one of the hometowns, Shin was greeted by voices impatient to see him back. He had not hidden the fact that he had gone out to clear a dungeon, so they had likely obtained the information from somewhere.
“Finished without problems. We can go to the next field now too. I’m sure you know already, but be extra careful if you proceed. The dungeon boss changed in a way I never saw before after all.”
Shin answered while looking at the emblem engraved on the gauntlet worn by the young High Beast man he had become acquainted with a long time ago now, Lao.
The emblem, depicting a lion crushing a long sword with its teeth, symbolized the guild with the most clout at the time, “Savage Lions”. Shin remembered that the guildmaster was a lion High Beast.
“Sure thing. I’m not part of the Savage Lions’ Explosive Legs corps for nothing. If worst comes to worst, I’ll just hightail it out.”
Lao chuckled heartily, his cat-like ears pointing up, as he spoke, then disappeared into the bustling crowd.
The Savage Lions guild was composed of the Explosive Legs corps, who handled scouting and information gathering, and the combat-oriented Explosive Fists corps.
As fas ar Shin knew, Lao was a warrior not inferior in any way to the captain of the Explosive Legs corps.
Shin had no idea why such a person was awaiting his return though. He thought it was a job one of his subordinates could easily do, but would not stick his nose in the affairs of other guilds.
“Guess I’ll take a walk in the city.”
Thinking that he couldn’t just stand around the teleport point like that, Shin headed towards the city. Maybe because he just returned from putting his life on the line to clear the dungeon, looking at the town scenery made him feel relieved.
“Oh, ain’t that Shin. How did things go in the dungeon?”
Shin was stopped by the voice of the man behind the counter of a skewer stall. It was a player who had purposefully created an elderly avatar and role played as a street vendor.
His tone was overly familiar partly because of his character, but also because Shin often frequented the stall.
“Hey there. A new area has been unlocked. You could get more types of ingredients soon.”
After the start of the death game, when new areas were unlocked, items and equipment thought to be still not implemented in the game were discovered. Among them there were materials of excellent quality, and Shin too had gathered some.
“Well now, ain’t that some real good news. Here, this is on the house for the hero that braved a dungeon all on his lonesome.”
“Please stop it with the hero talk, sir.”
Shin grabbed the skewer the man offered to him, with an embarrassed laugh. He knew the man would not have accepted no as an answer.
Hero was the word some players used when referring to Shin. At the start of the death game, the players noticed that their levels, stats and equipments had not changed, so they immediately went to look for advanced players. They thought that the cooperation of advanced players was vital in order to clear the dungeons.
It did not take long for them to find out that a certain advanced player surpassing all the others was still logged in.
A member of Rokuten, the guild said to be the strongest, and a blacksmith that created equipment of the highest quality.
Shin’s existence grew larger among many players, who found hope in him.
His power, incommensurable strength that no one could even get close to, did pose the problem that other players would just be in his way, but it was a small one: everyone had great expectations for Shin.
Cooperating with other advanced players, Shin had cleared beginner-level dungeons in a flash, moving on to mid-level ones. The speed at which he moved was more than enough to increase others’ expectations.
Shin managed to clear even advanced dungeons on his own, which other high-level players had trouble with.
The dungeon Shin cleared that day too had been too much for other advanced players. It would not have been so if all advanced players were logged in, at present Shin was the pillar of dungeon clearing.
Because of this, people used to honor him and call him “Hero”.
“First they get expectant, then disappointed, all on their own…now there’s jealousy and envy mixed up in it all, I don’t know what’s what anymore…”
Yes, people “used to” honor Shin and call him “Hero”.
After starting to challenge advanced dungeons, Shin’s clearing speed visibly fell. As the dungeons rose in difficulty the monsters within them grew stronger, the traps and gimmicks became more complicated, making them more dangerous.
Even for Shin, clearing advanced dungeons -transformed in unknown ways by the death game- at the same speed as low-difficulty beginner level dungeons was not possible.
There were players, however, that did not understand this. Or rather, did not “want” to understand this.
Shin’s clearing speed was falling because he was taking it easy. He didn’t actually want to clear the dungeons.
Groundless rumors such as these started circulating around 2 weeks after Shin started facing the advanced dungeons.
The “expectations” many players had towards Shin.
The players who purely thought that Shin could do it, that felt a “trust” equal to “expectation”, players who truly knew Shin, were very few.
The “expectations” of the many players other than these were just them running away from their responsibilities and pushing them onto Shin, thinking that they didn’t need to do anything, he would take care of it all somehow.
“Tch, must be easy for him since he’s the only one with good equipment”
These words reached Shin as he was walking and eating the skewers.
He could find the source at the edge of his line of sight. Without moving his eyes, Shin noticed a player clad in low level armor, leaning against a wall in a back alley. Level 40 was really low.
Shin immediately understood that he was a beginner.
“You think I can give gear to just anybody, huh? Materials don’t come free, dammit.”
Shin walked on, ignoring the man, then spat out his honest thoughts when he saw his favourite sweets shop in the distance. The words he mumbled were not heard by anyone, soon lost in the noise of the crowd.
As Shin was a blacksmith, many came to him to ask for equipment. However, he was always rather strict in whom to give weapons to.
One reason was what he had muttered, that materials were not free. But the first reason was something else.
That was the existence of PKs, players who had not stopped killing other players even after the start of the death game.
If he just gave out weapons easily and they reached PK hands, unfortunate casualties would increase.
For this reason, Shin supplied weapons only to a very limited range of players: guildmasters and party leaders. That was only temporary, however; he would lend gear, not give it away. If a PK had mingled among them, Shin would take the gear back.
From the standpoint of ordinary players, however, it only looked like he was stingy with his gear.
It would have been impossible for Shin to craft gear for everyone after all. Despite this, there were rumors that he and other powerful players wanted to monopolize equipment: Shin was rather sick of the situation.
“What’s wrong, meow? Shimeow, you look down, meow”
Exhaustion requires sweet things. Shin was looking at cakes, trying to forget the rumors, when the owner of the “Lucky Cat” sweets shop, Catnip, called to him.
Cat like-speak was an unspoken rule of the “Type Cat Language Research Association” guild, apparently. Shin remembered refusing other acquaintances to call him “Shimeow”.
Catnip was Human, but thanks to an equipment set called “Beast Transformation” cat ears the same color as her orange hair sprouted on her head, as well as a cat tail, poking out of her miniskirt. She was a catgirl maid with high skin exposure, like you would find in a maid cafe.
All other clerks in the shop wore the same attire. Catnip was 160 cemels tall. Her clothes fairly exposed her bust, so from the height of Shin’s eyes it was hard not to look.
“Ah, nothing, I just came back from defeating a dungeon boss. That’s the reason, probably.”
“You pushed yourself too hard again, meow? You’re too reckless, Shimeow.”
While Catnip’s speech style did not make her sound serious at all, her expression was very much so.
“I know that. But if I don’t do this, we can’t hope to clear any time soon.”
“There’s no point in caring so much about what others say…but you’re so serious in a weird way, Shimeow. I suppose I meown’t have a choice…Shimeow, present for you.”
Catnip took out a card from her bosom. Item boxes could be used from anywhere, as soon as one focused, but Shin had never seen any player using it from that position. To him it looked simply like the card had come out of the cleavage of Catnip’s ample bust.
“Me-meow!! Catnip’s specially made cookies, meow! Eat’em up and cheer up, meow.”
“Thank you very much. I’d be happier if you gave them out more quietly, though…also thinking a little more about where you take them out of.”
“Did I do something bad, meow?”
Catnip was puzzled to see Shin sigh. It was clear that he wasn’t joking.
“People are looking at us weird. But maybe you did it on purpose?”
Her silhouette might be just an avatar, a temporary figure, but she was still a very pretty girl and would thus attract attention.
Most avatars were made by combining given elements together. It was something typical in many games, and of course did not mean that the players’ real appearance was anywhere close the avatar’s.
In contrast with such mass-produced avatars (albeit the large quantity of sample elements made it quite rare for two avatars to be 100% the same), some players used avatars reflecting their real appearance and figure.
Catnip was one of them.
The so-called “Full-scan Avatar”, real and fake at the same time, also presented the risk of the player being identified in reality. Most of such players, however, used the game as a tool to spread their popularity.
As far as Shin knew, such famous players had been scouted by corporations and debuted as idols. Catnip openly said that she aimed to do the same.
In “THE NEW GATE” the male:female player ratio was 7:3 or even 8:2; a truly pretty girl like Catnip was highly popular among all female players.
She was as famous as a real idol among male players. She had a fan club, though unofficial, and a slew of devoted fans.
Actually, even now Shin was being targeted by several hostile players. Several dots on the map had turned to the red color of hostility.
He felt bad for Catnip, who was worrying about him, but he prayed that no unnecessary trouble came up.
“Shimeow was my first, after all. You’re special, meow.”
Catnip held her cheeks with her hands, blushing.
Moments later, Shin felt fierce killing intent coming from the people looking at him. That was still supposed to be a game, but for some reason he felt something akin to an aura.
“You’re going to create even more misunderstandings…if I get ambushed it’s your fault, Catnip.”
“But I can’t think of anyone that could beat you, Shimeow.”
“It’s a game after all, if you find a hole in the system you could probably even beat more advanced opponents, and—-”
Shin stopped halfway through his sentence. Catnip had closed his mouth with one of her slender fingers.
“Don’t say that. I wouldn’t forgive even you if you made Marino sad, Shin.”
“Beat” was a word that, depending on the situation, could also mean “kill”. It wasn’t a problem before, but now things were different.
Catnip gave a stern warning to Shin for alluding to his own death, even speaking without the usual cat-like style. She didn’t like to hear anyone talk like that, even if they were joking.
“If you understood, then go home, meow. Today…hehe, something good might happen, meow.”
“I can’t say your expression doesn’t make me worry…”
Quickly shifting out of her serious expression, Catnip was now grinning. It was clear enough that she was plotting something, but she surely wouldn’t talk even if cornered.
Shin had a bad feeling about her last words, but left the store after buying some sweets to complement the Catnip cookies he had received.
Going back to the teleportation point, Shin headed to a different location: his home, Tsuki no Hokora.
“Welcome back. You have guests.”
Schnee’s usual greeting was a bit different this time. The “guests” Schnee mentioned were people allowed to enter the residential area of Tsuki no Hokora even if Shin was not present.
At present, there was only 1 person with such privileges.
“Ah, Shin…er, welcome back…”
The guest noticed Shin’s return and greeted him from the kitchen. It was Shin’s lover, the female player Marino.
As she turned towards Shin, her two waist-length ponytails drew a brown arc in the air. Her sky blue eyes looked at Shin, with some hesitation.
Shin was slightly curious about her unusual behavior, but his attention was soon captured by her attire.
“Shin? What happened?”
Marino shouldn’t have heard what Shin whispered, but she was slightly blushing as she asked that question.
A white blouse and a blue skirt with a yellow checkered pattern. A short mantle covering her from the shoulders to her back was Marino’s usual look. As she was cooking, however, she had taken her usual mantle off and was wearing a red apron.
“Ah, er, I’m sorry. I’m home. You were cooking?”
Shin, entranced by the apron-clad Marino, hurriedly replied. She tilted her head at his reaction, a bit confused.
(I wonder how can a single apron make her look so cute?)
Maybe because he wasn’t used to seeing girls wearing aprons, or maybe because it was Marino. Shin concluded that it was probably the latter, and was about to talk to her again, but Marino spoke first.
“Ah, ehm….welcome back home.”
“Hm? Ah, er, I’m home?”
Shin thought that they had just had that exchanged seconds before, when Marino said something unexpected.
“A-a-a-are you going to have a bath first? Or dinner first? O-o-or!! M-m-me!?!”
Shin needed a few seconds to grasp the situations. Despite having said the line herself, Marino was blazing red and frozen in place out of embarrassment.
She looked quite different from her usual cheerful self and extremely lovely. Then Shin remembered Catnip mentioning that “something good would happen”.
“….hey, is it OK if I choose you, Marino?”
Shin found himself giving this answer.
What came back from her was a whispered consent.
The moment he heard that, Shin put his right hand on her cheek, turned her face towards him and pressed his lips on hers.
Engaging in R-18 actions was a taboo within “THE NEW GATE”. But after the start of the death game, there was no management or GMs to stop any transgressors.
Because of the system, it was not possible to engage in “advanced” acts, intercourse included, but for players in a relationship or married, kissing was an important act to confirm their reciprocal affection.
Maybe because she had been holding her breath, Marino inhaled deeply when Shin released his hold on her. Her face was bright red, beyond the possibility of making any excuse.
“Anyway, why did you say something like that? I enjoyed it very much, but were you always this forward?”
“I was really embarrassed too, you know!! Don’t look at my face!! Don’t looooook!”
Still blushing fiercely, Marino pushed Shin to make him look the other way. She pushed her face against his back, making sure that he couldn’t see it even if he turned his head.
If another person was looking, they would simply think that their flirting was continuing.
“….did you calm down?”
“Yeah…but you’re too unfazed, that’s kind of annoying.”
After around 5 minutes, Marino’s voice was back to its usual tone, even if it sounded muffled because her face was still buried in Shin’s back.
“So let me ask again, why did you do something like that? Was today a special day or something?”
“That’s not it. A little before you came back, Catnip contacted me, saying that you were tired. I also thought that I wanted to do something for you, since you looked kind of down lately. Then Catnip said that….a-any man would love that…so…”
Marino started blushing again. Because of one of the game’s effects, steam started rising from her head.
Shin thought he heard a cat-like voice chuckling in his head.
“I see…that explains Catnip’s evil smile.”
Shin did not neglect sending his gratitude to Catnip, in his heart.
“So…do you really feel better because of that?”
“Honestly speaking? I feel a whole lot better. Now if Marino hugged me, that’d be just perfect.”
“Wha!? Ah, ah….alright already! I c-came all this way, I’m not going to pull back!”
Shin had said that half as a joke, but Marino reacted more positively than he expected. She hadn’t really calmed down completely, it seems.
Marino spread her arms wide, as if saying “I’m ready when you are!!”.
(…..I could go like this, but maybe I should wait and…)
Shin, feeling mischievous, slipped behind Marino without a sound. She had closed her eyes and had not noticed his movements.
Feeling that she had already waited long, Marino opened her eyes: that moment, Shin hugged her tight from behind.
Marino ended up flinching from the surprise.
“Uuh, you meanie…”
Keeping that stance, Shin sat on the chair behind him. Marino was on his lap.
“This is so embarrassing…”
“Marino is going to spoil me today, after all. I’m going to enjoy myself today, to my heart’s content.”
“Why do you talk like that!? Aaah, don’t blow in my ears!!”
“It was on purpose, of course.”
“That’s even mean—-aah, no, I’m weak there… you’ll pay for this…”
For the following 30 minutes, the distance between the two was zero.
“OK then, what’s on today’s menu?”
“Ox hamburg steak, soup, and salad. There’s bread and rice too, but which do you want, huh?”
“Ah, I’ll have rice, I guess.”
Maybe because Shin had “bothered” her while she was cooking, Marino was now slightly cold towards him. He had offered to help, but was turned down sharply.
Still, she was continuing to cook for him, so she was probably not really angry.
Now they only had to wait for the steak to finish cooking, so Shin waited quietly.
Marino’s cooking skills were still low, but Tsuki no Hokora’s kitchen had cooking skill bonuses and also shortened cooking times. Because of that, even Marino could make sufficiently delicious food.
“Here you go.”
Marino came out of the kitchen, carrying a tray with the hamburg steak still sizzling on its iron plate. The rice and soup were steaming too.
After Marino had removed her apron and sat down, Shin took fork and knife in hand and set to eating.
Shin cut the steak, revealing its juicy insides and spreading its delicious aroma further in the room. It was a rather high degree of realism for a game. It could be said that the level of realism had increased even more after the start of the death game.
“It’s really great that they implemented the sense of taste too. It would be pretty sad if this just refilled the stomach bar.”
Good food gives energy needed for tomorrow. Eating tasteless food items day after day would get one’s spirits down soon.
“Hm? What’s wrong, Marino? Is there sauce on my face or something?”
Marino was contemplating Shin’s face as he happily ate his meal. Shin felt his nerves calm down thanks to the peacefulness of that atmosphere.
“No, I was just thinking that you really look happy when you eat…that’s all.”
Marino’s expression also showed how Shin eating her handmade food made her happy.
“Eating good stuff would make anyone look like that, no?”
“I wouldn’t feel this happy if it was anyone else.”
Marino directly conveyed her feelings to Shin.
For Shin, eating while she was looking so intently was a little awkward, but saying that would turn Marino’s mood sour again, so he refrained.
It wasn’t too much of an annoyance since Marino was the one looking, actually.
After a while, Marino started eating her part too. Shin asked for seconds of rice and soup, then after the meal they sat together on the sofa.
“You’re finally back to the usual Shin.”
Marino talked while leaning on Shin’s shoulder.
“….did I look that horrible?”
Shin felt the same as always, so his reply contained some surprise.
“When you think too much or hit a dead end…your face gets gradually tenser and tenser. Your eyes get so sharp too. That’s how you were until just now.”
Marino herself was concerned that mentioning this too much would have ended up burdening him.
“Don’t worry so much on your own…I end up getting down too just by looking at you.”
“You can say it anytime, you know? I can’t notice it myself, well in fact I didn’t, so…”
“Choosing the right timing is not easy…a long time ago, I messed up while trying to do that.”
Marino replied while wrapping her right arm around Shin’s left. Normally Shin’s attention would focus on the softness of her feminine parts, but this time he was more concerned about her looking down.
“In real life, you mean?”
“Yeah. I was yelled at, like “what the hell do you know about that!?”…”
Marino rarely talked about real life, but evidently she felt like she could now.
“OK, I’ll take a slower pace with the dungeon crawling. That will help in the long run, and I won’t worry you either.”
Frustrated at his inability of saying something better to ease her mind, Shin tried to sound as cheerful as he could.
Even without physical fatigue, mental strain could cause failures at important times. Shin would hate to make Marino worry because of things that normally would never happen.
“This could delay our return to the real world though, sorry.”
“Your safety is a lot more important than that, Shin.”
Marino smiled faintly.
“Hey, Marino, the dungeon clearing has reached a good point now, so can I go with you tomorrow?”
Because of her relatively low stats, Marino worked in a church in the first hometown, Kalkia. The city also housed an orphanage, used to give shelter to very young players. Since Marino worked in the orphanage, Shin had helped modifying it, so now it was a structure different from the average.
“That’s fine by me, but it’ll probably be boring, you know?”
“That’s OK. After all, I just want to look at you working.”
Shin grinned and looked at Marino. His tone was a teasing one, but his expression was very serene.
“Aah, if you make a face like that I can’t even stay angry, can I?”
Marino seemed unsure whether to get angry or to calm down because of Shin’s conflicting words and expression, especially because lately Shin always seemed down.
“Hm? Did I make a weird face?”
“Aah, if you don’t know then never mind. Rather than that, if you’re coming too you’re going to help me with the kids, ok? They love games too, so it’ll be easy for you, I bet.”
“It’ll probably be OK with the boys, but the girls are all yours. Our philosophy towards playing games is totally different after all.”
Shin knew out of experience that most female players, like Marino, preferred to focus on cooking skills, communicating with tamed monsters, and knitting, all skills he had barely touched.
Because of that, he wasn’t able to keep a conversation with them at times. Not even Shin was knowledgeable about all sorts of skills and items.
“Well, you’ll have to talk to them first. OK, let’s get to bed soon to be ready for tomorrow. I’ll clean up here, so why don’t you get a bath first, Shin?”
“I will, thanks. Oh, I got some cookies and madeleines from Catnip’s shop, should we bring them to the orphanage?”
“Oh, that’s a good idea. The kids will be really happy.”
Shin left the rest to Marino and went to the bath.
Dipping in the hot water-filled bathtub filled him with an inexplicable feeling of liberation.
“The high level of realism can give a lot of trouble, but I really am thankful that they replicated this feeling too…”
It might be strange to say, but even if one’s body was dirty or smelled the game gave no penalties, nor did bathing increase the avatar’s specs. Even so players, especially female ones, wanted to bathe regularly.
In real life, only particular hot springs gave considerable effects, but in this world bathing after a battle seemed to give an even greater feeling of relief.
“Life itself feels cleaner after a bath” was a very apt way of putting it.
Shin got out of the bath, gulped down a bottle of milk from the fridge, said goodnight to Marino, and proceeded to his bedroom.
He had to be more exhausted than he thought, as his consciousness slipped away as soon as he lied on the mattress.
Some time later, Shin woke up and felt something strange on his right arm.
He looked at it and found Marino, wearing pajamas, snugly gripping his arm, sleeping peacefully.
The option of carrying her back to her room did not emerge in Shin’s half-asleep brain.
They were lovers since before the death game and now, at least according to the system, they were husband and wife. Was there anything wrong with sleeping in the same bed? It was easy to accept the situation.
Shin thought that he might as well go all the way, removed the right arm that Marino was grabbing and hugged her with both of his arms.
Relishing in the happiness blooming in his chest, Shin fell again into slumber.
The following morning, Shin woke up after feeling something tremble. Something was moving in his arms.
Like the day before, he looked in the direction of the noise and found Marino, blushing fiercely. Shin had apparently woken up because of her attempts to slip out of his embrace.
“Ah, ah, er…”
Words wouldn’t come out of the embarrassed Marino’s mouth, so Shin thought he should say good morning, for the moment.
“G-Good morning…sho…so, why are you hugging me?”
Shin smiled gently because of Marino’s cute stuttering and replied.
“You slipped under the covers yesterday, so I used you as pillow.”
“I-I-I guess I was half asleep and g-got the wrong room…”
“We’re husband and wife, at least according to the system, so isn’t it fine?”
“It’s embarrassing!! Aaah, I bet you looked at my dumb sleeping face too…”
Marino must have been really embarrassed, as she covered her face with her hands and squirmed after Shin freed her from his hug. Her bellybutton was in plain sight because of her wriggling.
“Sleeping face? Haven’t we both seen each other’s a lot already?”
“Today was not OK! Not after the dream I had…I bet I looked so dumb…”
Shin only remembered seeing her smiling peacefully. Marino would probably not believe him, though.
“I see, I see, a dream…what kind of dream was it?”
Shin decided to press further.
“I CAN’T SAY IT!!!”
After firmly planting an uppercut on the grinning Shin’s chin, Marino rushed out of the room.
Left alone, Shin reflected that he might have gone too far, while massaging his unhurt chin.
“My deepest apologies. I teased too much.”
“You think that if you apologize like that I’ll forgive you, right.”
Shin lowered his head at the breakfast table, but Marino’s reply was just jaded. Shin knew from experience that honestly apologizing was the quickest way to obtain Marino’s forgiveness.
Marino, of course, had already seen through Shin’s attempt.
“OK, OK. In exchange, you’ll have to work plenty today.”
“Yes, I shall work my hardest, ma’am!”
“Enough already! Eat your breakfast, come on!”
Spurred by Marino, Shin rushed through his morning meal.
He would ask what to do at the orphanage on the way there. There was nothing in particular they had to bring with them.
“Have a nice day.”
“I’ll leave the rest to you.”
After greeting Schnee, Shin and Marino teleported to Kalkia.
Walking through the crowd, Shin felt several pairs of eyes on him. His equipment was different, but evidently his face was recognized by many. He did not mind anymore, but when going into town this happened often.
“Ah! It’s big sis Marino!”
They heard a boy’s voice when they arrived at the orphanage. Two boys came running towards them from the square next to the orphanage. Both wielded sponge blades, equipment that did not cause damage.
Both kids were around 150 cemels tall and looked like elementary or junior high school students.
Their faces still looked childish, probably because they hadn’t edited their avatars. Setting avatars to automatic mode would make their appearances change according to one’s age.
“Who’s this person?”
“His name is Shin, he will help me today.”
Marino introduced Shin to the boys, ignoring the boyfriend suspicion.
Shin had already visited the orphanage several times, but had not met the two boys before.
“I know you can see it with 【Analyze】, but I’ll introduce you just in case. The boy with black hair is Ryohei, the one with brown hair is Teppei.”
“Nice to meet you”
“Nice to meetcha!”
Ryohei greeted Shin a bit timidly, while Teppei sounded more energetic.
According to Marino, sometimes they hunt low level monsters in the forest, accompanied by an advanced player. Because of their natural “vigor”, they are a bit infamous as the orphanage’s troublesome duo.
“Inside! Luca is crying again, you know.”
Marino asked about the player that managed the orphanage and said she would go greet them as she went inside the orphanage.
“Hey, hey, mister! Have you ever been to the frontlines of conquered areas? Big sis Emil says it’s dangerous and won’t let us go!”
“If you want to go, you have to raise your levels some more. Or you’re going to die even if you get grazed by a punch, kids.”
“Teppei, you can’t go. You’d run off and get killed right away.”
After Shin’s answer, Ryohei added a snarky comment, while shrugging his shoulders.
“If you can’t beat me even once, you have no chance!”
Apparently Ryohei was higher than Teppei in the orphanage’s hierarchy.
As the kids forgot about him and started play fighting, Shin looked around, thinking about what he could do.
He then found a small shadow at the edge of his line of sight. Looking towards it. Shin noticed the face of a very young girl subtly peeking from behind a tree.
The moment her eyes met Shin‘s, the little girl quickly retreated behind the tree. But, poor thing, she couldn’t hide her animal ears and the Type Cat-like tail. Both seemed to be monitoring Shin’s presence.
Shin held his chin with one hand, acting deep in thought. And slowly moved closer to the tree. He would stop when the girl peeked, then move again when she hid.
(She’s not afraid of me, is she.)
The girl should have noticed Shin’s approach, but did not try to run away. He thought that she was wary of him because they had never met before, but that did not seem to be the case.
Her slightly spacing out expression kept poking out and hiding again. Soon enough, Shin reached the tree behind which the girl was hiding.
Shin tried a greeting, which was returned by a whisper. It wasn’t clear if the girl really wanted to hide or not, as only her face came out of the shade when she looked at Shin.
She was leaning forward, so her shoulder-length hair hung in the air.
“Er, I think this is the first time we meet. My name is Shin, I came to help Marino. What about you?”
“Luca, I see. Well, nice to meet you.”
Luca nodded slightly and stepped out of the shade. Her height was about 110 cemels. Her animal ears, the same color as her hair, sometimes flicked and moved.
Because of the game’s systems, the avatar’s height was based on real life height. Shin thought that she was a bit too small, as in a bit too young, to play a game like that.
“Ah! Luca! Teach was looking for you!”
Shin looked back and found Teppei and Ryohei, along with Marino and another person, a woman wearing sister-like clothing.
After hearing Teppei’s voice, Luca flinched and hid behind Shin. Her hands, gripping her sleeves, were trembling.
“Teppei, you’re too loud. You’ll scare Luca away.”
“Ah, I’m s-sorry.”
Teppei apologized right away: he had no intention of scaring Luca.
“So you were here, Luca. I was looking for you.”
Luca replied while looking at Marino, who had caught up to them.
“Come on, let’s go back to the orphanage first. Ryohei, Teppei, you two especially!! You haven’t prepared to leave with Garozzo, right!? Quit standing around and go get ready!! Move it, brats!”
After getting yelled at, the boys sprinted back to the orphanage, as ordered by Emil, the orphanage’s supervisor. A very beautiful woman, she had waist-length light blue hair and emerald-like eyes.
Her nun-like attire made her look like a devout believer at first glance. Her personality and speech, however, were quite far apart from the common idea of a nun.
Emil’s speech was coarse and she was rather quick with her hands. On the other hand she was very reliable and caring towards the people around her.
Looking at her taking care of the orphanage kids, Shin thought she looked more like a tough mother than a nun.
He never said it to Emil herself, of course; it would only make Emil’s basic equipment, a nail bat, cry for blood. It was not a weapon feared not for the damage it caused, but for its horrifying look.
“Marino, you and Luca take care of the usual work.”
“OK, leave it to me.”
“Luca, you better do what Marino says, got it?”
“Ok, got it.”
The “work” was handling requests given by NPCs. It was a precious source of income for the orphanage, since many of its players could not go out in the field and hunt monsters.
Marino had already done them many times, so it was unlikely that she needed help.
Luca also firmly nodded to Emil’s words.
“Guess I should go over there?”
Shin looked towards the square where Teppei and Ryohei were play fighting before. A group of boys with sponge blades were waiting.
“Yeah, you’ve got our spunky brats to take care of. They have energy to spare after all. Let’em go wild enough to make them stop thinking of sneaking outside. I’ll be the coach.”
Shin visited the orphanage irregularly, so Emil decided what task to give him each time. Naturally, most of the time it was taking care of the kids.
The only rule was for Shin to not go hunting or to use skills to gather items or Geyl.
—-If you have to go hunting for the sake of the orphanage, take a rest instead.
—-Rather than that, make sure the kids can go back to the real world as soon as possible.
That was the opinion of Emil and all other orphanage collaborators.
They had accepted that Shin would sometimes give them a hand, for a change of pace.
“OK, today your opponent is me. Don’t hold anything back!”
It was not the first mock battle for Shin and the boys: they charged at him without hesitation.
Ryohei and Teppei, who were supposed to prepare to leave, mingled among the other boys at first, but Shin quickly flicked them back towards Emil, who grabbed them by the neck and took them away.
“Well, that’s about it.”
About 2 hours after the battle between Shin and the spunky army started, the little valiant warriors clearly showed signs of exhaustion, some lying down on the ground.
This exhaustion had no visible gauge, like HP or MP. Players with high HP or VIT would not get tired as easily, so it was said to be a hidden stat.
Exhaustion caused several demerits; attack power and movement speed decreased, while received damage increased. It could be healed via recovery magic, so it wasn’t a big problem, but the only user present at the moment -Emil- did not do anything, so the square looked like a battlefield of fallen soldiers.
“Crap, you’re too strong…!”
“Adults can’t fight seriously against…kids…!”
The unperturbed Shin was met with praise and complaints from the kids, but they were all too tired to complete their sentences.
“Got it, brats? Out there it’s packed with dangerous monsters that would send even battle maniacs like him flying. Don’t you ever dare go out on your own!!”
“We’d die for sure…”
The kids’ answers were really exhausted too, to the point that one would wonder how much they had really understood of what Emil said.
“OK then, Shin, your next job is….hm?”
“Is something wrong?”
Emil stopped halfway through her sentence and looked towards the door leading to the garden; Luca was peeking from behind it. Next to her, Marino was laughing, a bit awkwardly.
“She did that this morning too…is Luca always like that?”
“Nope, not really? She’s always scared shitless of people she sees for the first time, especially guys like you. She came here only a while ago though, so there’s still plenty we don’t know about her.”
Emil then added “Never seen her like that” and motioned at Marino and Luca to come closer.
“See, Luca, let’s go?”
Thanks to Emil’s gesture and Marino’s encouragement, Luca finally came out of her hiding spot behind the door. While walking, though, she skillfully hid behind Marino and stared at Shin at the same time.
“Er, we meet again.”
Shin spoke to Luca, a bit awkwardly, and for some reason she stopped hiding behind Marino and grabbed Shin’s trousers.
“Ah…er, what is this…?”
“Hmm, seems she took a liking to you. Pretty rare.”
Shin was even more confused because of Luca’s behavior, while Emil commented with a grin.
“What’s the matter with Shin, Luca?”
“….looks like my brother.”
“Is that so.”
Marino’s answer to Luca’s words was somewhat dry.
Shin wondered why, when he received a voice chat message from Emil.
“(Luca’s brother is already dead.)”
Luca, originally, was only logged in because her brother needed a certain number of players to create a guild.
Learning that she was only 5 years old, Shin understood the circumstances. Even elementary school students played VR games now, but he couldn’t imagine that a girl of pre-school age would want to play a game where PKs existed.
In the small time until she logged out, however, the world had changed.
Her brother and his comrades had departed, leaving Luca in a field for beginners, to never come back, as Emil explained.
“(How old was her brother, by the way?)”
“(He had just entered junior high, it seems)”
“(…I don’t know if I should be happy or not.)”
You look like my junior high school brother —-having similar height or facial features would be one thing, but if their mentalities were similar it would be pretty shocking for Shin.
“We might as well have Shin take care of Luca today.”
“That’s a nice idea. Here!”
Emil apparently came up with the idea on the spot, but Marino caught on immediately and put Shin and Luca’s hands together.
Luca’s hands were soft and very small, even more so when compared to Shin’s.
Rather than holding hands, it looked like Shin’s hands were wrapped around Luca’s. Shin realized again how young she was.
“OK! Today you can count on me!”
Luca’s hands gripped Shin’s tightly.
Shin, Marino, and Emil smiled at her reaction.
The scene was a lavishly decorated room. In this exaggeratedly luxurious chamber, two young men could be seen.
One sat on an ornate chair, a glass of wine in hand. His intricately decorated clothing suggested that he was a member of monarchy or nobility, and on his hand was a ring with a large ruby sparkling.
A longsword with a gemstone-studded scabbard was propped against the man’s chair. An expert would have noticed that it was the unupgraded version of the Ancient-grade weapon 『Excalibur』.
The man’s name within the game was Aldo.
“So, where’s that guy fighting now?”
“It appears that as of yesterday, part of the Houzand continent has been liberated. At present, roughly 40% of the continent has been liberated.”
The other man answered, while kneeling before the first. Based on his dark green hooded mantle and easy-to-move-in boots, his job appeared to be a hunter rather than a magician.
His name within the game was Robin Hood.
“Tch, his clearing speed really dropped this past month. What’s he wasting time for? He’s supposed to be a maniac whose only talent is playing games!!”
Aldo shouted while pounding his fists on the chair. His brownish blonde hair became slightly disheveled.
“Considering the increase in difficulty, I would not consider it to be strange that his clearing speed decreased, sir.”
“Player skill means being able to do something about that, right!? Hmph, even with all the money and time they waste, this is all they can do, I suppose.”
Aldo clearly looked down on players. The reason was that he was not a “pure” player himself.
The avatar Aldo used had been created and provided by the management. It used data from an event monster, Arthur Pendragon.
Its stats were 800 on average, and its equipment -while of basic rank- was all Ancient-grade.
It was something completely excessive for a THE NEW GATE beginner.
(The last dungeon too was usually conquered only in parties… he really has no idea how incredible it is to clear it solo.)
Robin mumbled to himself. Having played normally, he fully understood how incredible Shin’s feat of clearing the dungeon on his own was.
Unlike Aldo’s avatar, Robin’s avatar was an ordinary one. He had focused his stat points on AGI and DEX and specialized in reconnaissance. His fighting style was mainly attacking from a distance with his bow and poison.
Even so, while he could sneak into dungeons, he did not think of challenging bosses. He had no chance of winning.
“Hey, Hagiwara!! Are you listening??”
“Ah, yes, my apologies. I am. However, even if we wanted him to hurry up, it would be all for naught if he ends up dying.”
Robin gave a serious answer, keeping his annoyance at being called with his real name to himself. Aldo insisted that they should just push him harder, but anyone would understand that such a method would not increase the dungeon clearing speed.
Aldo and Robin’s relationship, simply put, was that of superior and subordinate in a company.
Aldo was the son of a patron of THE NEW GATE, who provided the game’s management with capital. Thus, Robin was once again forced to listen to Aldo boast about the avatar that the management had prepared for him.
Aldo had overheard Robin talk to other players about the game in the company and coerced him into becoming his attendant.
Robin never regretted his carelessness more than that time. How liberating would it be if it was only the death game trapping him. His stress level was high enough to make him think such ridiculous thoughts.
“Hmph. Bring him here then. If he’s a gamer, I’m sure dangling some kind of clearing reward in front of his eyes will make him work harder.”
“Would it not be easier for us to just let him proceed as he wants?”
“I’m getting sick of waiting. I want to return to the real world. Do you know how many months have passed since this situation started!? I can’t even enjoy a woman with this body. The alcohol just gets you halfway drunk, and the cigarettes are terrible too. Who could put up with this crap!!”
Aldo became irritated while talking, and pounded on his chair again.
Robin gritted his teeth, barely managing to avoid shouting, “You go and clear dungeons too then!!” to the man on the throne, and let out a small sigh without Aldo noticing.
“I will try to talk to him, but please remember that I can’t do anything if he refuses.”
“Do SOMETHING! Or you’re getting demoted! No, fired!!”
“U-understood, I will go convince him!!”
Robin left the room, cursing and lamenting his relationship with Aldo under his breath.
He wanted nothing more than to tell Aldo to go do it himself, but he could not afford to go against him now. In the real world, Aldo was a high-ranked executive whose word had great importance within HR, while Robin was nothing but a rank-and-file employee.
Surviving in this world was important, but so was keeping his career in the real one.
He had a family to sustain; for their sake, Robin had no choice but to swallow his pride.
“But there’s nothing I can do about this…”
Robin had heard much about Shin, who stood on the frontlines of dungeon clearing.
In the first month after the Death Game began, it was even possible to visit Tsuki no Hokora, but now, it had changed locations and no one knew where it was. The only options were to find him in a city and talk to him, or to ask an information broker.
“I want to see Rie and Emi…”
Whispering the names of his wife and daughter, Robin’s silhouette was lost within the town’s crowds.
On the other hand, Aldo was now alone in the room, still indignant.
He gripped his wine glass with a bit more strength, and shattered it. Thanks to the room’s self-cleaning function, the spilled wine and glass fragments sparkled and disappeared.
“Shit!! And after I managed to use my connections to play easily!! What the hell’s this death game!!”
Aldo still didn’t regard the game world as reality. Despite his high level stats and equipment, he had left dungeon clearing and boss fighting to others, so he had no idea that fighting on the frontlines meant to stake one’s life.
He had only ever fought low-level monsters, such as slimes and goblins. Because of the stats difference, even if he received an attack, the damage would be zero, while the damage he inflicted was completely overkill.
Such one-sided beatings would have never made him think that the risk of death was very real.
“Okay then, what to do until he comes back… hm?”
Out of the blue, a bell signaled the arrival of guests. The maid he had created as a support character had already gone to greet them.
Aldo’s menu displayed two individuals.
One was a savage-looking man in dark brown armor. The armor and its decorations were riddled with cuts and damage that increased his wild appearance even more. His hair and beard were unkempt. He looked just like the boss of a band of thieves or mercenaries.
The other was a handsome-looking man in silver armor. With blonde hair tied behind his head, and with features normally only seen on TV or in magazines, he has the appearance of a knight, completely contrasting with his companion.
Looking at their strangely realistic faces, Aldo thought that they might have used the full scan avatar feature, which replicated the players’ real appearances.
No matter how one looked in real life, however, they wouldn’t stand out much in the game world. Handsome or beautiful characters were a dime a dozen, to the point that some players even deliberately twisted their looks.
The menu screen displayed names, levels, and jobs of the two men.
“Gargalla and Vlad? Never heard of them before. Both level 255. Jobs are Magic Swordsman and Dragon Knight, huh? They seem to have pretty good gear, I guess they’re game maniacs too.”
Players could pay real money to obtain equipment, but such gear came with the penalty of never matching the players’ level and stats.
Aldo’s 【Analyze】, also provided by the management, showed that neither Gargalla nor Vlad’s equipment had such penalties.
(“Shall I let the guests inside?”)
“I guess they’ll suffice in killing some time. Yeah, let them in.”
Aldo chose “YES” from the “Authorize entrance? YES/NO” window that appeared on his menu. A short while later, the two guests entered the room led by the maid.
“I thank you for allowing us to visit you. My name is Vlad, pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“No need for useless greetings. What do you want?”
Aldo replied in rude manner to Vlad’s smiling greeting and Gargalla’s cold self-introduction. It was hardly proper behavior to welcome guests, but Vlad did not seem offended in the least.
“I saw Mr. Robin leave here with a rather serious expression, you see. I was wondering if we could assist you, good sir.”
“You should have just asked Robin then.”
“I thought talking with the person giving orders would be quicker. Besides, I might be more useful in case of secret orders, you see.”
A friendly grin appeared on Vlad’s lips.
Secret orders. Aldo’s eyes narrowed at these words.
“Please, don’t be alarmed. I apologize for gathering information without permission. But my comrade and I share the same goal as you.”
“Indeed. You wish to go back to the real world quickly, yes? And for that, you want that man, who’s taking his sweet time, to hurry up. Am I wrong?”
Aldo did not think it strange that another man thought the same thing as himself. On the contrary, he thought that it was absurd that other players didn’t say anything to Shin.
Hearing the words “go back to the real world”, Aldo was now convinced that he understood the reason why Vlad had shown up.
“And you people are able to do that?”
“We can. We have reached a rather high level, if I may say so, and therefore if we contact him as “dungeon clearing partners”, I doubt he will ignore us. And if he does, we have other ways to force him to listen to us. Gargalla here is an expert in such methods.”
What Vlad alluded to were unsavory methods. As Aldo glanced at Gargalla, the latter cracked a slight grin.
“I’m a specialist in that field. Plenty of experience, yeah?”
Gargalla’s expression brimmed with confidence.
Normally Aldo would not have had the guts to dirty his hands with illegal activities, however having been trapped and unable to log out for such a long time, what little patience he had quickly ran out.
Aldo thus nodded without hesitation, sparing no thought to the fact that this would pass the burden to someone else.
“Leaving this to just Robin will accomplish nothing so I’ll be counting on you two as well. And so, what do you want from me?”
Even if their goals were the same, Aldo didn’t believe the two guests wouldn’t ask for a reward.
The two guests’ smiles widened at his words.
“Please let us take care of the dungeon clearing affair. As for the reward, I would like you to procure some weapons. Of course, that is after we succeed in spurring that man to action.”
“Hm? You have yours already, don’t you?”
“It is embarrassing to admit, but there are few blacksmiths capable of forging rare weapons. And that man is the most skilled of them all. I also do not have a death wish. I apologize for such a rude request, but could you please accept it?”
Vlad gave a courteous, deep bow, which pleased Aldo very much.
“So be it. But it will only be done if you succeed, remember that.”
“I am very grateful. We will act right away, so if you will excuse us.”
Vlad bowed again, then headed towards the exit of Aldo’s home.
“Wait! I have not heard that man’s request yet. I don’t want to listen to any illegal requests later. So, what is it?”
“Hm? Ah, me.”
Gargalla turned only his head back and smiled defiantly.
“I just want to fight against Shin. Not his current half-assed and slacked self, but when he’s really serious..”
Gargalla said nothing else and followed Vlad outside.
“….tch, creepy fellow.”
Gargalla’s smile had given Aldo chills.
Outside Aldo’s home, Vlad quickly hid his face with a helmet. Gargalla then caught up to him.
“Hah, to think that he’ll let us handle the case with an explanation like that. Having a superior like that would surely be tough on the subordinates.”
Vlad knew about the relationship between Aldo and Robin. They had visited while Robin was absent precisely because he had collected this information.
His words of understanding towards Aldo’s plight concealed Vlad’s disdain for the man. Gargalla also shared similar sentiments.
“That Aldo too, if he acted himself, the dungeon clearing would surely become at least a bit faster. That avatar is such a waste on him. If only there was an avatar exchange function available, I’d make very good use of it.”
“Right, the guy inside is total shit. Nothing remotely interesting ‘bout him.”
Someone with a powerful avatar, equipped with Ancient grade equipment, that had not participated in clearing any dungeons.
For players who were earnestly striving to clear the dungeons, Aldo was an infuriating existence.
He could have at least been more helpful with clearing the dungeons that were currently being conquered.
Instead, Aldo spent his days doing nothing, entrusting even the smallest tasks to Robin.
Vlad had concealed his feelings in Aldo’s presence, but he despised him. Gargalla, on the other hand, found him utterly boring.
“Well, since we’re going to use him, the dumber he is, the better.”
“Yeah, for your actual job.”
Vlad was a scammer in real life. Because of this experience, he knew that Aldo planned to use him and Gargalla.
I would never be cheated, I could never be used by others. Vlad had seen through the fact that Aldo was rife with such groundless confidence.
“Well then, time to start then. My just duty is to set him free, after all.”
“As creepy as always, man.”
“I’m not seeking your approval.”
With those words trailing behind, Vlad disappeared into the bustle of the city.
“Haha, a High Human…! I hope this will be a lot of fun…”
Gargalla then walked away, in a different direction than Vlad.
Unbeknownst to Shin, ominous shadows were drawing closer.
Shin had been tasked with caring for Luca; they knitted and took naps together, surprising everyone around them with how well they got along.
Marino and Emil would sometimes drop in to check on them, but Luca was never unmanageable.
Although she was a bit shy at first, by the afternoon she had completely opened up to Shin.
“What can I say? It’s pretty surprising.”
Holly, a female player, expressed her surprise upon seeing Shin interact with Luca. As one of the advanced players who collaborated with the orphanage, she was also on friendly terms with Shin. Soft-spoken and serene, she was especially popular with the younger children.
“Eh? What is?”
“Well, kids like Luca are pretty hard to care for if you’re not used to it, you know? Especially for a man, like you. Or so I thought anyway.”
It was now an hour past noon, signalling nap time for the children.
Lying down together with them, Shin watched over the sleeping Luca.
“Yeah, that could be because I have a little sister too.”
“Oh really? Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into your real life circumstances.”
“That’s all right. I have two brothers, one older and one younger, and a little sister. Looking after our little sister is our duty, right? My brothers and I took turns taking care of her. Compared to Luca, however, my little sister was quite the handful as she was always wandering off.”
Perhaps due to similar ages, Shin’s little sister was most attached to their little brother. Despite that, Shin was relatively experienced in taking care of children because of her.
“You said it before, right? That your brothers never played THE NEW GATE?”
Marino, who was caring for the other children, noted that she had heard about the topic before.
“My little sister did. But luckily she wasn’t involved in this mess.”
“If she had, I bet you would have rushed to look for her.”
“Oh, I’m sure she could survive easily, so I wouldn’t really be worried.”
“Is she really strong too?”
“Frankly speaking, yes, very much so. Not only are her level and stats high, but she also has high movement speed.”
Shin’s little sister also played THE NEW GATE, and because of her ability, had become rather famous. The two siblings had kept their distance within the game, so few knew of her connection to Shin.
“She can make even you say something like that? Is she as powerful as my husband?”
“Yes, well you could say that I’m biased since she’s family, but my sister is probably superior, as far as player skill is concerned. Though, Shadow’s player skill is amazing too.”
Shadow was Holly’s husband and also famous for his skill.
Shin’s words surprised Marino.
“Better than Shadow? Your little sister is amazing too, then, in a different way from you. Are your other brothers this special too?”
“No, they don’t even play THE NEW GATE, after all.”
All of Shin’s siblings loved videogames, comics, and animation, but his oldest brother was busy with work and did not partake much in such pastimes anymore. Shin’s little brother liked comics more than videogames, so the only one to play the same games as Shin was his little sister.
She wasn’t that interested in comics or animation either. Even within the same family, likes and hobbies were all different.
Shin looked back towards Luca, who shifted slightly in her sleep, and realized that her right hand had somehow started gripping his left. She was still asleep though.
“Looks like she wants to keep you close even while sleeping.”
“My, I’m afraid you won’t escape easily, big brother.”
Marino smiled and Holly lightly teased Shin.
With an embarrassed laugh, Shin’s gaze turned towards the hand Luca was holding. He could have escaped her grip all too easily, but he did not feel like moving away anytime soon.
“Holly and I will take care of the other kids, so Shin will stay with Luca. Is that ok?”
“Of course. And Shin, when Luca wakes up, be at her side, ok? This morning she threw a fit because you weren’t there.”
This was what Teppei and Ryohei had mentioned when Shin and Marino arrived at the orphanage.
Luca had lived alone for about 2 months after her brother and his party disappeared. There was no one she was familiar with among the people around her, so she was deeply afraid of losing someone she knew, as Emil had told Shin in secret.
Emil had slept with her the previous night, but had woken up early to prepare the children’s food, leaving Luca alone in the process. There was no one with her when she woke up, so Luca started loudly crying.
“OK, got it. If I have to go somewhere, I’ll let someone know first.”
There were other players in the orphanage other than Emil, Marino and Holly. Shin was acquainted with them all, so he wouldn’t have trouble calling someone if necessary.
The game world did not require using the toilet so unless there was an emergency, Shin would have no trouble staying with Luca until she woke up.
“OK, I’ll leave her to you then.”
“Take good care of her, all right?”
Shin watched them head off, then looked again at Luca’s face and her hand, still holding his. He then added a little more more strength in his grip.
As if in response to that, Luca’s expression became more serene.
Luca opened her eyes around thirty minutes later. Naptime was always half an hour, so apparently her body had memorized it.
She was still in a daze at first, but when she saw Shin next to her, she felt slightly embarrassed to have her sleeping face exposed, despite her very young age.
“Afternoon is free time, right? What do you want to do?”
Making children work too much felt wrong, so either mornings or afternoons in the orphanage were always free activity times. Today, they all did as they pleased after waking up from their afternoon nap, given that they had already worked in morning.
Incidentally, the energetic group Shin had “fought” in the morning would help with simple jobs in the afternoon.
“I want to take a walk.”
“Outside then? Well, staying cooped up inside all day would be boring after all.”
The orphanage was pretty vast, but even going slowly it would only take a minute to walk a lap around it.
In town, it was generally not possible to reduce players’ HP and kill them. But as was the case with everything else, there were exceptions due to which the orphanage made sure that when the children ventured outside, they were always accompanied by someone who could hold their own in battle.
“No, a change of pace would be nice, after all. Wait a moment, let’s try asking Emil.”
Shin contacted Emil via chat, and was asked to do some shopping as well. He agreed and raised a thumb in Luca’s direction.
Luca raised her little thumbs, excited.
Thanks to the item box, there was no need to physically carry things. If anything happened, Shin could react immediately, so there would be no problem.
Shin heard from Emil that the other children would stay within the orphanage grounds, so he and Luca left right away.
“Oh, you’re going out?”
The two bumped into Marino as they were opening the orphanage doors. Shin explained that he was going out for a walk with Luca and to do some shopping.
“She’s always been inside lately, now that you mention it. Yes, I also think it’s a good idea.”
Marino agreed with a smile, when Luca suddenly grabbed her hand.
“Marino come too?”
Marino looked at Shin, silently asking him if something had happened.
Shin shook his head.
“Hmm, okay, I’ll ask Emil. If she allows it, I’ll come with you guys.”
Unlike Shin, Marino was one of the orphanage’s central members because she often helped out there. She couldn’t just leave without a word.
Marino went quiet for several seconds to use the chat, then raised her thumb just like Shin had previously done.
Luca repeated the same gesture again.
“OK, let’s go. Luca, don’t let go of Marino’s hand, okay?”
Shin had Luca take Marino’s left hand, so she would not get lost in a crowd.
“The other hand is yours then, Shin.”
In response, Marino put Luca’s right hand on Shin’s.
With both her hands being held, Luca beamed with joy. Shin and Marino smiled at each other.
After leaving the orphanage, the trio first headed to the grocery street to procure meat and vegetables. The street was crowded with players who had agricultural jobs, offering the products they grew to other players coming to buy ingredients for dinner.
“—–yes, please give me the usual. Ah, but I need one more of that meat.”
Shin had been entrusted with the shopping, but Marino carefully selected what to buy. She always shopped like this for the orphanage, so the store owners treated her with familiarity and also responded well to her bargaining.
“Big sis Mari, wow…”
“Isn’t your bargaining skill already active when you start shopping? You’re also using a real negotiation skill.”
Shin and Luca were impressed by Marino’s skill.
“—-agh, I can’t just say no to you, can I! Consider this a thank you for always buying my goods! I’ll give them to you for 70. Now get lost!”
“Thank you very much!”
“By the way, are those two with you, missy?”
“Yes, they are, why do you ask?”
The owner looked at Shin and Luca, then grinned and whispered to Marino.
“Well ya see, shopping while holding hands with a kid… doesn’t that resemble a couple of newlyweds? You’re gonna make single dudes like me green with envy, darnit!”
“N-Newlywhat!? What are you saying!?”
Marino stuttered in response, unable to say the full word.
“Anyone would think so, little lady. But yeah okay, enough jokes for today.”
“You can’t just joke about things like this!!”
“You didn’t really hate it though, didja. You were grinning, missy!”
Marino abruptly hid her mouth with her hands. Incidentally, Shin heard everything.
He came closer, thinking it was time to lend Marino a helping hand, when the owner’s expression turned deadly serious.
“I’m not an information broker or anything, but you’re a precious customer, so I gotta tell ya. Make sure the little girl don’t hear.”
Shin gently pressed his hands on Luca’s ears, who had tilted her head after hearing the man’s words.
“Yeah, I’ll be quick. They say that a bunch of PKs started being active again lately. Ever heard of “Ouroboros’ Hollow?” Even some advanced players have fallen victim to them. We’ve been told to keep alert.”
“I’ve heard the name, yes. Their members all have pretty high stats, or so I heard.”
“Ouroboros’ Hollow” was composed solely of PK players.
The players who were only acting out that role in the game and had no intention of truly killing had long left the guild. The ones who remained were actual murderers.
The guild that killed players for fun had now turned into a true assassins’ guild.
“I have no idea what they’re thinking, but some of em’ even target small kids. Which yer’ orphanage has a whole bunch of. Better stay on your toes, ya hear me?”
“Thank you for giving us such important information.”
Marino thanked the concerned owner.
As the man had said, the orphanage was a prime target, because of the weakness of the players inside and the grave consequences such an act would cause. It was also a fact that there were those who preyed on the weak with no particular reason.
“Don’t mention it, missy. It’d be really sad for a face I know to disappear…ah, you can let her go now.”
After the owner’s words, Shin took his hands off Luca’s ears.
“You finished talking?”
“Yeah, sorry for covering your ears all of a sudden.”
“….no, I have been defaild*…you must take responsibility!”
(T/N: defaild* Defiled was misspelled on purpose, Luca is supposed to not know what she’s saying)
To Shin’s apology, Luca put her hands on her hips and puffed up her chest in protest. The gesture itself was quite comical, in complete contrast with the very serious tone of her objection.
“Hey hey man, what are you teaching to a little girl like that…?”
“Like I would!! Really though, where did you learn that…?”
“Teppei said it’s a good thing to say to boys. It isn’t?”
“Of course it isn’t. It’s better not to use those words much.”
Luca didn’t actually know the meaning of what she had said, so she honestly nodded.
“Well then, guess I’ll have a little “talk” with Teppei once we get back.”
“That’s true. Better inform Emil too.”
“You’re smiling, but not happy…?”
Marino and Shin’s lips were smiling, but their eyes weren’t, which confused Luca quite a bit.
“Hahaha, nothing to worry about, Luca.”
“Yes, we’re going to take care of everything. OK then, shopping’s done, so let’s go for a little walk. Have a nice day, sir.”
“Sure, you lot take care!”
They bade farewell to the shop owner, then Marino held Luca’s hand as the trio walked on.
As Kalkia was one of the hometowns, players had set up all sorts of shops.
Commodity stores with healing medicines and everyday goods, open-air stands with handmade equipment, eateries with waiters running around taking orders. The great variety of shops and people made it entertaining just to look at them.
Luca, happily walking between Shin and Marino, enjoyed the sights too.
“We’ve been out a while already, better go back.”
Fun times go by quickly. When Shin checked the time, it was already past 4 in the afternoon.
THE NEW GATE included a season system too; seasons would change roughly each month. The current season was autumn, so the sun would set early. It was already noticeably darker compared to noon hours.
“We go back, already?”
“Yes. If it gets dark everyone will worry.”
Luca seemed disappointed, so Shin promised that he would take her on a walk again.
When they returned to the orphanage, the children who had left to help with work had come back too. Some girls who noticed Luca’s return invited her to play with them.
Marino would often sleep over at the orphanage, but because she would stay at Shin’s place for a while, Marino went to report to Emil.
Waiting for Marino to come back, Shin was at the orphanage’s gates, lost in thought while looking at the sky.
There, one man approached him.
“Excuse me sir…could you tell me if you really are Mr. Shin?”
“….yes, I am, and you are?”
Shin turned towards the man. He quickly activated【Analyze】, which displayed the man’s name as Vlad, his level 255.
“My apologies. My name is Vlad. I hoped to visit Tsuki no Hokora and happened to see you here, so I took the liberty to approach you directly.”
Vlad’s polite speech and demeanor did not seem particularly suspicious.
“Is that so. What exactly brings you to me then?”
“I am actually in the middle of clearing another dungeon, and the area before the boss contains some very powerful poison. I thus wanted to ask if you possibly could share some recovery items. The parties involved in this clearing effort are composed of members from the guilds “Savage Lions” and “Yatagarasu”, led by Lao of the Explosive Legs corps. I have heard that you are acquainted with Lao, so if necessary you could contact him.”
The strength of the poison probably made it impossible for the players to cure it fully using their skills.
Shin asked about details of the area and quickly figured out what the man was referring to.
“That must be Bloodred Poison. It’s true that very few players in the whole game can recover from that, I think it can’t be helped.”
Bloodred Poison was a particular negative status with far worse effects than normal Poison. Players with INT less than 900 could only mitigate its effects through skills. This status also lasted for a considerably long time, so defeating a boss while under its effects was hardly doable.
“Understood, I will prepare some recovery items for you, but wouldn’t it have been faster if Lao just sent me a message via chat?”
“Lao is now heading to the dungeon. He did not want to burden you, but the other leaders decided that prolonging the mission would be difficult because of scarce resources and the members’ morale diminishing. As such, I have been entrusted with delivering the message.”
Lao said that he would have contacted Shin if the current dungeon clearing mission failed, at least according to Vlad.
He had approached Shin now probably because there was a high chance of failure at present.
“I shall take my leave then. I thank you for your assistance.”
Just as Vlad had turned to leave, Marino came out of the orphanage.
“Sorry for the wait, Shin.”
“No, you came just at the right time.”
Shin welcomed Marino with a smile.
“Er, did I interrupt you?”
“Please do not worry, as I was about to leave. Farewell, then.”
Vlad gave a small bow and left.
“Tch, I had heard of her, but…what’s with that woman!?”
After leaving Shin, Vlad slipped in the crowd, then quickly turned into a back alley.
He couldn’t help blurting out his annoyance and was relieved to see that no one was around to hear.
“Filthy player trash parasitizing Shin…should just go die already…”
Vlad continued cursing with a menacing tone that he had completely concealed when talking to Shin.
A member of Rokuten, the strongest guild, and the only player who had achieved max stats.
Vlad could barely imagine how much time, money, and dedication it took to achieve such a level.
“Aah, but to cleanse the trash heaping around him is my noble duty. Gahaha, it’s supposed to be a chore, so why do I feel so excited?”
Shin was a player that Vlad admired. The glorious sight of Shin sweeping through the opposing team by himself in a guild vs guild battle had moved Vlad’s heart, despite the fact that it was just a game.
When he first started playing he focused on raising his level and stats, but now that his avatar was stronger, he only spent his efforts on things related to Shin.
“The strongest shine the most when they are alone at the peak. The cursed star that shines the brightest within Rokuten…I shall bring back your true brilliance.”
An insane laugh echoed in the alley, without reaching any ears.
“Hey, who was that person?”
“Hmm? He’s from a party that’s currently clearing another location. It’s a bit of a nasty place, you see. He came to request some recovery items. I know the leader, so I’ll ask him for details.”
“What’s wrong? You’re making a weird face.”
Marino’s expression had drastically changed; she now looked concerned as she stared in the direction Vlad had gone.
“Something wrong with that man?”
Assessing Marino’s gaze, Shin guessed that Vlad was the reason of her worry.
“I’m not too sure, but, he was glaring at me with a really cold look.”
“He glared at you?”
Shin frowned. He could not think of a reason why anyone would resent Marino.
Despite it being widely known that she worked in the orphanage everyday, there were whispers that she received preferential treatment as Shin’s lover. Such groundless resentment was already a thing of the past.
“I guess we should be careful.”
“I don’t think they’d do anything in these parts though.”
In the city, a Player’s HP could not reach zero under normal circumstances. No matter how high another player’s stats or what skills they used, it would be impossible for them to kill a player within a city.
In the game, some burglar players targeted stores, but it was only stores set up outside of the protected city limits by players such as Shin. The town was a safe location for all players.
“Normally, yeah. There haven’t been any monster invasion events lately, so I’m a bit worried. During such events, even in the city…”
It’s possible to kill.
He didn’t say it outright, but that was what Shin feared the most. Monster invasion events were the reason why towns were not absolute safe havens for players.
During an invasion event, if the town defenses were breached and the monsters penetrated inside, the rule preventing players’ HP from being reduced below a certain threshold value was removed. In other words, during such events, it was possible to PK even in town.
It was a fact that became largely known after the invasion event that happened two weeks after the start of the death game. This event had generated several casualties.
“It’s going to be okay, don’t worry. Even if an invasion event starts, we just need to make sure the town’s defenses hold up.”
“Well, yes, that’s true…”
After the first invasion event, many players and guilds invested heavily in protecting the towns. Clearing dungeons was, of course, important, but without a place to return to, it was ultimately meaningless.
Thanks to the upgraded town defenses, monsters had successfully invaded towns only during that first event. It was not strange for Marino to say that there was nothing to worry about.
“I’m more worried about you, Shin. You’re clearing dungeons by yourself, so no one would be there to help in case it was necessary.”
“Hey, I’m always making sure it’s safe enough to go on. I didn’t max my stats for nothing, ya know?”
Not even Shin would go face bosses without scouting first. Based on the strength of the Gigantes Moss, the last boss he fought, he answered rather optimistically that there were no problems yet.
“Even if you say so, I’m still worried! Listen well now, in the next dungeon, and the one after that, and the one after that too, you absolutely must come back safe and sound, okay!? If you die I’m joining you as soon as I can, got it!?”
On the other hand, Marino was dead serious. She grabbed his lapel and looked straight into his eyes, while hers brimmed with tears.
“O-okay, I’m sorry. I don’t want to die either. I’ll always come back!”
Struck by Marino’s seriousness, Shin made his promise. Hearing her say that she would join him in death, he couldn’t ignore her plea.
After Shin confirmed the promise, Marino slowly backed away from him, albeit still pouting and angrily glaring at him.
“You mustn’t die, okay? We’re all going back together, all right?”
“Yes, I know. I keep my promises.”
“…no matter what, okay?”
“Yes, we made some good friends after all. It’ll be nice to meet in real life too.”
Apparently satisfied with Shin’s answer, Marino affectionately squeezed his hands tightly.
“…let’s go home.”
Relieved to see Marino smile, Shin started walking again. With fairly bad timing, though, the silhouette of a person appeared before them.
“Found you at last. I am truly sorry, but could you spare some time for me?”
Protecting Marino behind his back, Shin confronted the man.
“My name is Robin. I came with a request for you, Sir Shin.”
The player who introduced himself as Robin bowed his head to Shin.
“A request? What is it?”
“I know this will be really rude of me to say, and I apologize in advance. But could it be possible for you to increase the speed of your dungeon clearing?”
“My dungeon clearing?”
Robin raised his head, showing his distressed expression. Seeing this, Shin sensed something different from this man compared to other players who had irresponsibly urged him to hurry up in clearing the dungeons.
“Wait a minute!! Shin is doing his best, you know!”
“Wait, Marino. He seems different from the others so far.”
Marino had witnessed such scenes many times in the past and was ready to fly off the handle at the man, but Shin talked her down, continuing to talk with Robin.
“Believe me, I am going as fast as I can…did something happens?”
“My…superior in real life told me to make you hurry up. I’m truly sorry, I know very well that the dungeon clearing parties are staking their lives, but if I oppose him my real life will be in jeopardy…to be honest, I can’t stop worrying when I think about how my family might be doing right now. My superior told me to urge you, and won’t listen to reason…”
There were other players with situations like Robin. Shin was still a student and did not have a family to nurture.
Even so, thinking about his life after returning to reality worried him. While trapped in this world, there was no way of knowing how the real one was changing.
Because of this, Shin could understand Robin’s feelings, at least to an extent.
“I’m sorry. As I already said to others, there are new traps and unknown monsters in the dungeons that weren’t there before. Boss fight patterns are changing too. I’m trying to clear them as fast as I can, but it’s just not possible to proceed as quickly as I could with beginner or intermediate level dungeons.”
“….yes, of course. I’m sorry for approaching you out of the blue like this.”
Uttering these final words, Robin left. His distressed expression persisted until the end.
“Will that person be okay?”
“I don’t know. It’s been four months since we were trapped in this world… There are a plenty of people like him who are worried sick about the real world.”
There were no counselors or similar professions in this world. Some people stood back up on their feet, supported by others, while others fell into despair.
“There are many like him who want nothing more than to return to the real world and then there are people like PKs, who want to stay here forever.”
Marino commented with a difficult expression as they went back.
“That’s true…well, everyone’s different. What else can we say.”
“Yes…you’re right. Everyone has different circumstances…”
Marino’s expression was still clouded, but a bit clearer than before.
After returning to Tsuki no Hokora, Shin took a bath, as per Marino’s suggestion.
Dipping in the hot bath gave him some relief. He felt that it wasn’t an illusion and closed his eyes.
While Shin was in the bath, Marino prepared dinner. The menu was white stew and salad.
She deftly cut the ingredients and brought them to a boil, displaying the skill of someone used to cooking.
“Going back to reality…huh…”
Focused on cooking, Marino spoke her thoughts out loud. In reaction to hearing her own words, her movements came to a halt.
“Huh…? What was I…thinking about?”
What she had heard were her own words, but she felt like they had come from somewhere else.
When she realized the truth, she also fully noticed her real feelings. When she heard about the PKs, she was supposed to be angry. But at the same time, she thought “Yes, I can see that”.
“This is weird. Why do I….”
Marino knew that, like the PKs, she also harbored a certain dislike towards the idea of returning to reality. In fact, Robin’s desire of returning had not moved her heart in the slightest.
“This is just strange. I wanted to go back too, didn’t I?”
Too weird. This couldn’t be.
The emotions swelling in her own chest confused Marino.
That very moment, something disrupted her field of sight.
She thought she heard a thud-like sound, from far away.
Her body wouldn’t move.
Just like a sudden scene change, she saw the floor, the racks, then her own arms dropping down.
Then, she finally understood what was happening to her.
She had forgotten a long time ago and tried not to think about it since.
She thought that things would continue like this forever.
“So… Time’s almost up.”
The end was drawing near. The time limit drew closer.
“A little more. Just a little more…”
She tried to move her arms.
They moved, as if it was a dream that they didn’t just moments ago. She could now stand by herself. It was another attack, probably.
“…I have to tell him. I can’t cause any more problems for Shin.”
Words which didn’t come from her heart. The words of a good girl who always did what she was told.
Disappointing the person who loved her was terrifying.
But all she could leave him with were items and equipment; she felt that she had no right to be with him, that Shin would probably leave her. A girl with just a little time left to live…was nothing more than dead weight.
“But I don’t want to leave him…”
Even if her mind understood, she couldn’t accept it.
Marino’s reason and emotions completely opposed each other.
“I finished bathing!”
Shin’s voice reached her.
Hearing the voice of her beloved, Marino made her decision.
After bathing and eating dinner, there was not much to do.
For entertainment and ways to kill time, THE NEW GATE only offered some minigames, the chance of listening to the in-game local news, which consisted of an indistinguishable mess of lies and truth, or just checking the information exchange bulletin board.
Just as Shin finished browsing the bulletin board he always checked, Marino entered his room.
There were many other rooms and plenty of beds available. Despite that, the two would sometimes sleep together, so it was not strange for Marino to come in.
However, Shin noticed that there was something unusual about her.
Marino, now in pajamas, hesitatingly sat down on the bed. She took Shin’s big pillow and hugged it tightly.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling sick?”
“No, I’m okay now.”
I’m okay now. Shin felt something off with those words. He imagined that what had happened on their way back from the orphanage still occupied her thoughts.
“I’m going to bed soon, what will you do?”
“I will too. We have to work hard…tomorrow too, right?”
With a slightly forced smile, Marino slipped under the covers. When Shin lay next to her, she timidly gripped his arm.
It was not strange for her to cuddle like this. But this time she seemed tense, unnatural.
“Can we…talk a little?”
Marino spoke while pressing her face against Shin’s arm.
She was going to talk about something very important. Shin quietly consented.
“…Shin, do you think you want to go back to reality soon?”
“Well, yeah…I think that I want to go back. But, though I know it feels wrong to say, I also think that my current lifestyle is pretty fun. We don’t know who we are in the real world, and…I mean, I’m not asking for you to tell me. But in the real world I couldn’t sleep with you. So while deep down, I feel that I want to go back, a part of me also enjoys this life.”
Shin could feel like this because his level and stats weren’t reset, and because of the items and equipment he had retained.
Marino trembled a little to Shin’s answer.
“Life for me feels really fulfilling now. I wake up in the morning, work, prepare dinner. You return and I welcome you back home…I sleep feeling your warmth close to me. Such a life makes my heart beat faster…gives me happiness…everyday.”
Marino’s grip tightened. It felt like she would not let go anymore.
“Listen to me, Shin.”
Marino stopped Shin mid-sentence and raised her head.
She had probably been crying as there were traces of tears. It silenced Shin.
“My real name…is Masaki Rino. I’ll turn 19 this year.”
During their whole time together, Marino had rarely talked about her real life circumstances.
She didn’t have to say that she didn’t want to talk about it for Shin to understand. He knew her well enough to.
That is why he felt he had to ask, after Marino suddenly revealed such information.
“…is it okay for me to know?”
“Yes. I want Shin to remember.”
“I see. Then I’d also like you to remember my real name. I’m Kiritani Shinya, a 21-year-old university student…”
Shin also revealed his real name. He hadn’t said it in a long time.
“I said it at the orphanage too, but when the death game ends, why don’t we all meet up and go out drinking or something? We could book Holly and Shadow’s place or something.”
“…yes, I’d love to.”
Marino was now smiling next to him, but there was something strange with her today.
Shin had made her laugh many times before, that’s why he knew.
Her words suggested that they would never meet in real life, that their relationship was limited to this world.
“Marino…no, Rino. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“The real me…is sick. The doctor said that it’s a disease with no known cause or treatment.”
Marino explained that the reason why her time within the game was limited and she never spoke about real life was because of this. She did not know when her condition would worsen, so she thought it would not be good to get too close to other people.
“Why did you get closer to me, then? I know this is just a virtual world, but you did tell me a lot about yourself.”
“Yeah…I wonder why?”
Her voice felt calm now. Even if her words were in question form, she seemed to know the answer already.
“I can say this now, but…at first, I had no intention of getting too involved. There was no way I could get a boyfriend in real life, so I wanted to try what it felt like being in a relationship, even if virtually. You’re the first one that approached me in this world, so I chose you. That was the only reason, really.”
There was no real reason. So said Marino, but her sighs made it also feel like she was just trying to convince herself.
“Yes, that was the only reason, and yet…”
The words expressed her feelings of surrender towards what had happened against her will.
“Talking, adventuring, winning and losing with you…before I realized it, I was always thinking about you. I didn’t realize that I was falling in love, until a nurse pointed it out. I have never even met you in the real world, and yet…”
Marino said that she really didn’t understand.
“The me in the real world could die at any moment. I sometimes wondered what would happen to the me here if the real me died. Then once, I wondered…how good would it be if time just continued on like this?”
“It won’t. If I die in the real world, the me here will just disappear. I know it. Despite that…I can’t help hoping. My attachment to the real world, my desire to go back, is very weak.”
Shin did not say anything. He had plenty of reasons to want to return to the real world.
But he could understand Marino’s feelings. Shin also found the current world pleasant to be in after all.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to tell you that I’m sick, but I ended up blabbing about stuff I didn’t even…I guess I’ll go sleep in the next room tonight.”
Maybe she felt bad towards the now silent Shin. Marino got out of the bed and headed towards the door.
But he would not let her go.
Shin firmly grabbed her thin arms and pulled her towards him. He pulled her rather abruptly, so Marino’s body fell towards him, putting her in his arms.
Marino was confused by the sudden development. She didn’t understand what Shin’s actions meant.
“I’ll come to you.”
“Even in the real world, I’ll stay with you, Rino.”
In the original world, Shin was just a university student. He couldn’t cure Marino’s disease.
There was but one thing he could do: to be by her side.
Not out of compassion. Not out of pity.
He wanted to be with her. Even if there was little time left for her, he wanted to spend it together.
Nothing more, nothing less.
“I’ll be with you, until the end.”
Shin didn’t know how Marino would react to his words.
Logical or not, those were Shin’s real feelings.
“But I’m…a real burden of a woman, you know? I’m spoiled, Shin…Shinya, if you talk with other girls I get jealous right away. I also don’t have much time left to live. Don’t you understand that I’m going to die, leaving nothing but my selfish feelings? You’ll just waste time with me, Shinya…”
Responding to Shin’s declaration, Marino nervously listed off all of her faults.
Despite her words, however, her arms were now around Shin, her forehead pressing against his chest. Movements that expressed her intention of never letting him go. Shin responded by gently patting her head.
“Hey, should I believe your words or your actions?”
“…You know it already. Dummy.”
Marino raised her head a little and replied while glaring at Shin. The room was barely lit, but Shin did not fail to notice Marino’s flushed cheeks.
“If you don’t say it, I can’t be sure though, hmm…”
“You…tease. And I was so decided and all.”
Still glaring, Marino went silent for a few seconds, then whispered.
“I don’t want to be separated from you. Not in this virtual world, nor in the real one.”
“Yes, I promise. Even if this world ends, I will come meet you, Rino.”
The two then slept together in the same bed.
Wrapped in a peaceful sense of happiness.