Introduction: I was originally going to post this as a .Hack/Sign fanfiction, but while it is also a virtual reality fiction, it's not really based in the world from that anime series. However, it does have a similar shoujoai plot line, so if you were not a fan of .Hack/Sign I would recommend skipping this.
"Come on," the warrior cried, leading the race through the trees, his chain mail shirt shining when the sunlight cut through the branches to light them up. Short black hair fell down into dark brown eyes, the sword that he carried gleaming as the handsome young man reached up to push a branch aside for his companion.
"Do you think we'll make it there, Shadow?" the slim blonde woman following him asked with a grateful smile, her long hooded cloak flowing behind her. The belt that she wore with her simple robes was lined with different sized pouches filled with many different ingredients and a wooden staff was carried in her hand.
"We have to Atheme," Shadow answered her, using his sword to cut through some dangling branches, "it's the only high ground in the area that we spotted."
"Look out," Atheme cried out as the figure broke through the brush.
The orc was clearly a scout for the larger party that was still chasing them, likely sent ahead to try to keep track of them. It was only the beast's bad luck that they had ended up crossing each other's path, but that had sealed it's fate. It was bulky and muscular, tusked fangs sticking out from it's lower jaw, a rusted sword clasped in clawed hands.
Shadow stepped forward smoothly, the young man meeting the thing's first strike with his own blade, the steel ringing like a bell. They stood there a moment, testing each other's strength, then Shadow smiled slightly. With a simple thrust of his powerful shoulders he forced the enemy's roughly made blade up and away, then he stepped forward to cut the orc down with one swift strike.
Taking a moment to clean the blood from his blade on the creature's stained garb Shadow asked, "How close are they?"
"Too close," Atheme answered as they heard the sound of branches breaking nearby, "I think it's time to slow them down a bit."
With that Atheme held her staff in front of her, murmuring softly under her breath as all around her slim body an orange glow rose up, shimmering as her cloak was blown behind her by the waves of energy. With a final word she made a throwing gesture and the orange light flowed together in a ball of pure destructive power, streaking off to where their pursuers awaited. THOOM! Not far away the forest suddenly exploded into fire and light, the shockwave ruffling both of the adventurers as they turned to hurry off.
"That was nicely done," a smiling Shadow admitted as they finally broke out from the thick greenery and found the base of the hill that they were running towards, "though I hope that you don't need that energy more later on."
The two of them raced up the small hill, swiftly taking up defensive positions there as Atheme looked up at Shadow and flashed him a very warm smile. "Then I'll just have to depend on your strong arm and valiant heart to protect me," she said.
A faint blush colored Shadow's cheeks as the young man met his partner's eyes and gruffly said, "You can rely on me."
From the greenery below them the sounds of greenery being violently forced aside, then the figures began to emerge at the base of the hill, gathering for the coming battle. Most of the band of brigands were orcs, but there were also a mix of wolves, large, stone-like trolls and other creatures of darkness there too. At the lead there were two fully human figures, and they could tell that both of the fighters were player characters.
"Just mid rank fighters," Atheme murmured to Shadow as the creatures readied to attack, "I wonder how did they enslave so many minor monsters?"
"Spent a lot of their treasure on buying control spells, probably," Shadow answered her as he raised his sword to the guard position. A grim little smile tugged his lips as he said, "Lets make it a waste of money, shall we?"
"Lets," a smiling Atheme agreed as the monsters charged up the hill to where they stood waiting, back to back.
Not long afterward there was silence on the battlefield, where once there had been the sounds of violence. The ground was littered by fallen foes, the numerous monsters and their human masters defeated soundly by the two champions of the light.
"Thanks," Shadow sat with his back up against the tree, Atheme gently wrapping a bandage around his wounded upper arm. Other than a nasty looking cut there the two of them had escaped the battle mostly unscathed, unlike their enemies.
"Considering you got hurt saving me from that troll," Atheme said sheepishly, "it's the least I can do.". She gently spread healing balm over the wound before finishing covering it up, tying the cloth bandage firmly. "So, what do you want to do now?" she asked him with a little smile, pushing her cloak away from her face.
"I've got to log off pretty soon," Shadow admitted, pushing himself back to his feet and while walking a bit stiffly went over to one of the fallen monsters. Smoothly he wiped the sword's blade clean on it's rough garment then slid it away with a flourish.
"Shadow?" Atheme's voice stopped him from walking away as she softly said, "I want to meet you out in the real world."
"Are you sure that's such a good idea?" Shadow smiled slightly as he looked back to gaze at her, a few strands of black hair falling into his face. Gently he pointed out to her, "I could be hideous looking in real life."
"Doesn't matter to me," Atheme answered.
Shadow stood there for a moment, studying her as he silently wrestled with what she had just said, then without answering the figure simply dissolved, the slim young man swiftly unraveling into a cloud of pixels that glistened a moment in the summer sun.
"Wait," Atheme started to say then trailed off, realizing that Shadow had logged off. With a sigh she disconnected as well, leaving the battlefield empty once more.
The real world was so different than VR, almost like night and day. Outside the bedroom window snow was gently falling down, covering the ground with a thick white sheet. The room itself was slightly crowded, a old desk, single bed and bookshelves taking up the space with only a bit of navigation room left over.
"I shouldn't have just logged out on her like that," Michelle muttered to herself as she pulled the visor and sensor gloves off. Known to her good friends as Miki and on-line as the dashing warrior Shadow, she bore a striking resemblance to her on-line self. Delicate black hair, a slim but muscular build, those were all the same but she was also quite clearly female.
Without letting herself think about it too much Miki sat down on her bed and then picked up her cellphone, dialing her friend's number from memory. "Hey Cathy," she sighed as her friend picked up, "Atheme wants to meet me in the real world."
Cathy chuckled at that and Miki could easily envision the redheaded firebrand sitting in her own room, looking amused as she worked on her own computer. "So why not do it?" she asked, "Or haven't you told her about your real life gender, yet?"
"No, I haven't," Miki admitted.
Cathy laughed merrily, "Well, that would be one way for her to find out!" A bit more seriously she continued on, "If you hadn't met her on-line the way that you did, you wouldn't be having this problem right now."
"Gee thanks," Miki flushed, remembering what had happened months ago....
Bone tired from work Miki sat down at her computer terminal, debating just reading a book, then logged in to the Gameworlds system. A series of servers that ran multiplayer role-playing games, Gamesworlds was one of her favorite off work activities. She signed in to the system and hit the bulletin board system, seeing if any friends had posted when she saw a unusual post.
"Looks like someone's in trouble," Miki murmured as she read the appeal for help. A player character who was badly outnumbered had put out a general appeal for help, a gutsy move considering it could also bring more evil-aligned characters down on her. She didn't recognize the name Atheme but clicking on her stats showed she wasn't just some noobie in over her head.
Her first instinct wasn't to get involved, but Miki was playing a heroic character in the game. 'And I never could let a damsel be in distress,' she admitted as she pulled on her gloves and visor then logged into the game scenario herself. There was a sensation of vertigo as the world around her faded away, then she swiftly found herself standing somewhere else.
The old stone tower stood on the misty plains, once part of a larger structure, now standing alone among the ruins. Abandoned by it's previous warriors Shadow had stumbled across it on one of his adventures and cleaned out the monster's den there. Laying claim to the place Shadow had set up a home there, fighting off one or two attempts by others to claim the place for their own.
The black haired warrior swiftly took off the simple shirt he wore and donned his chainmail, a enchanted set that Shadow had won exploring the dwarven realms. His tabard, the cloth covering bearing his family insignia, went on over that then he picked up his sword, slinging it over his back. Grabbing his pack loaded with the usual supplies and heavy cloak he went up the rough stairs to the second floor storehouse.
Here, protected by traps and mystic wards were all of the treasures Shadow had won in his quests, the artifacts, gold and precious gems he had accumulated. Fine tapestries, suits of armor, weapons, goblets and many other things were scattered about, but he was looking for only one thing now. Walking over to the great iron chest he opened it with a rusted key, searching about inside until he drew out the softly glowing crystal.
Warp stones weren't rare, exactly, but they were expensive or difficult to quest for. Shadow gad acquired this one a few weeks ago, battling a great wyrm, but in his mind such things were meant to be used. He raised it above his head as he visualized the worlds, seeking Atheme's location, then when he found it the world faded out around him.
The misty mountains were cold, his breath showing as Shadow heard the sounds of combat off in the distance. Moving quickly the young swordsman raced across the rough turf, drawing his sword as silently as he could, eyes narrowed to try and see through the thick fog. Once he saw figures ahead he slowed, moving forward a bit more cautiously to see what he was facing.
"Damn," Shadow cursed softly.
The five human fighters weren't going to be that much trouble, despite their attacking the lone figure, it was their companion who was going to be a problem. Towering above everyone else at over fifteen feet tall the giant watched with grim satisfaction. A burn scar ran down the side of his face and partially shut one eye, disappearing beneath battered armor, but other than that he radiated a dangerous sense of power.
"You thought you could hurt Gruu," the giant rumbled, the massive club he carried ready to be used, "and get away with it, witch, but you'll pay."
"Put it on my tab," the blonde shot back, the woman blocking a sword strike with her staff. Shadow saw the strain on her face, the tiredness, but she refused to give up or give in.
'I think I'm impressed,' Shadow thought, taking a deep, steadying breath. With a smooth motion he tossed himself out from his cover and raced towards the fighters as he boldly called, "I'll give you one chance to surrender!"
The fighters were badly startled, distracted enough that the woman could slam the end of her staff into one of their faces. Then Shadow was there, shattering his enemy's sword even as the stroke continued, cutting the tall man down. He raised his sword warningly to the other fighters as the blonde retreated behind him slightly.
"I had almost given up hope of rescue," she murmured into Shadow's ear as she warily eyed the giant, "thank you. My name is Atheme."
"Shadow," he replied crisply, his thoughts racing. "You hurt that giant badly once," Shadow asked, "can you kill it if I buy you time to cast a spell?"
"Yes," Atheme answered him firmly, "I only spared him the first time out of misplaced pity."
"You won't do that again," Shadow said wryly as he blocked another clumsy sword strike. He realized that three of the fighters were computer constructs, only one was a player character. "All right," he redoubled his attack, "let's do it!"
As Shadow drove the four fighters backward Atheme began to chant, the feeling of magic rising up across the battlefield. It was like static electricity, skin tingling and senses fully aware, something the giant clearly didn't like. Gruu lumbered forward, raising his club, eyes narrowing with irritation and just a little bit of fear.
'I'd better try and slow him down,' Shadow thought. He switched his sword over to his left hand, striking out awkwardly at another fighter even as he pulled one of the slim blades that he usually concealed in the lining of his cloak. As the giant neared he threw, watching the blade cut through the air to lance right into the giant's good eye.
"Ouwwrrr," Gruu howled, massive hand reaching up to cover up the spurting wound. He staggered about wildly, roaring out his pain like some kind of animal, then looked around for who had done it, "Little worm! You die now!"
"Monster!" Shadow roared back at him, "Face me! I am your opponent!" Gruu charged towards him, his expression murderous as the surviving fighters quickly decided that this was not the healthiest place to be. 'I hope you have that spell ready Atheme,' Shadow thought, 'or this is going to be a very short little fight.'
He needn't have worried. With a cry of "Fireball Charge!" the flaming bold soared past Shadow to strike the giant dead center in the chest. Before he could move he was aflame, the intense fire consuming the massive figure in only a few moments. Atheme ran over to his side, the blonde looking at him worriedly, "Are you all right?"
"No problem," Shadow sheathed his sword smoothly as he took a better look at her. Atheme wasn't as perfectly beautiful as many player characters were, instead she had created a more realistic look, with flaws an imperfections. Oddly that made her more appealing, not less so.
"That was insanely brave," Atheme said softly, smiling. She looked at him thoughtfully, "Do you always do things like this?"
"Only when needed," Shadow answered, finding himself smiling back at her.
'I only planned to travel with her to the next town,' Miki remembered, 'but one thing led to another and we decided to become partners.'
"You have to admit, you made an impression on her," Cathy laughed.
"You're right," Miki finally conceded, "and maybe I should have told her about me long ago." A short pause before she softly added, "Atheme offered to cyber-sex with me, once."
"You didn't take her up on that," Cathy said confidently.
Miki raised her eyebrows despite the truth of what Cathy had just said. "And how did you know that?" she demanded.
"I know you too well," was Cathy's smug answer. Softly she added, "You know, sometimes I think you and Shadow have too much in common."
"We do not," Miki protested.
Cathy just chuckled in reply.
There was a soft beeping sound from her computer and Miki saw that a pop up window had appeared on the screen reading, 'You have mail.' She walked back over to the computer and sat down in her old chair, keeping the phone to her ear as she clicked on the icon and asked Cathy, "Did you email me something?"
"Sorry, no," Cathy still sounded amused by the whole situation as she asked Miki, "do you want to place a bet on who it's from?"
"No bets," Miki smiled to herself wryly, seeing Atheme's email address. "You mind if I...?" she trailed off uncertainly.
"Get back to your cyber-girlfriend," Cathy answered, "and maybe you should think about being honest with her?"
Before Miki could answer that remark Cathy had hug up the phone, only leaving a dial tone in her wake. A bit nervously Miki clicked on the mail icon, the new message file opening up on her screen in barely a second.
I guess I just got a bit carried away, Shadow. Once you told me where you lived and I realized that the two of us were in the same city I've wanted to meet you, but I shouldn't have pressed you. I understand that not everyone is comfortable meeting in the real world.
"Damn," Miki sighed, and hit the reply button, typing quickly.
If it's anyone's fault it's mine.
I guess I'm just skittish... I like you, and I think you like me, but there are things you don't know about me. I don't want to disappoint you, if we do meet in real life.
After she clicked send it took only a few moments before Atheme returned her message, the girl had obviously been waiting for it eagerly.
Oh, I think I've gotten to know you pretty well, partner, and I'm a big girl, I can handle surprises. So, I'll put the ball in your court. Have you heard of the internet cafe, Mahora? I go there Saturdays for
coffee and surfing, usually after 2 p.m. Look forward to seeing you there.
Miki sat back in her old chair, rereading the message again and thinking how odd things could be. She was a Mahora regular, too, usually coming in once or twice a week after work for their fine coffee and to spend time with other geeks like her. 'I might have even been in there with Atheme before,' she mused, 'and not even know it.'
"So," Miki muttered, "what do I do now?"
Going to work the next day was a welcome distraction, physical activity and conversation with the customers helping keep Miki busy. The DVD shop was located not far from Mahora itself, and as the customers came in Miki looked for familiar faces that might be heading over to the little cyber cafe, who might really be Atheme. Finally she finished her shift and headed outside into the chill of winter, her steps leading her right over to the cyber cafe.
The bell above the door rang out as Miki entered, and she could feel many eyes resting on her for a moment. 'I wonder if Atheme is here yet?' she mused as she headed for the front counter. She paid for her usual one hour session then went to her favorite terminal, logging in even as she pulled her visor and interface gloves on. A quick search of scenarios showed her where Atheme was, then she signed in to that environment.
The summer sun beat down over the ruins, an oppressive heat that weakened both the body and spirit, the desert plane stretching out all around the two battling figures. Atheme blocked the swordsman's attack with her wooden staff, her blonde hair a bit messy and her cloak tossed back to reveal her pale, strained face.
"Sorry I'm late," Shadow rushed forward to join the battle, forcing the warrior back who was attacking Atheme. A quick check of the personal profile confirmed that it was a player-character he was facing, but thankfully still a low ranking one.
"Don't interfere," he scowled, swinging to clumsily attack Shadow with his longsword, "or you will face the same fate she does."
With practiced ease Shadow deflected the heavy blade, stepping in close to the surprised player. "Atheme is my partner," he growled out, "don't ever threaten her again." With that Shadow struck, hammering at his foe's defenses before ultimately 'slaying' the player and in the process resetting his experience points back to zero.
"My hero," Atheme surprised Shadow by throwing her arms around him from behind, laughing happily.
"I would have been here sooner," Shadow said to her sheepishly, a blush coloring his cheeks, "but my replacement was late."
"If he hadn't had a protective charm against offensive magic, I wouldn't have been in trouble," Atheme softly admitted.
"You would have thought of something," Shadow said confidently.
"Thanks," Atheme tossed him a smile. She looked more serious as she tentatively asked him, "So, are you at Mahora?"
Shadow swallowed, suddenly feeling nervous as he admitted, "Yes, I am."
"Then let's log off temporarily," Atheme had already begun to dissolve into pixels as she finished, "I want to meet you."
The cyber cafe was comfortably warm as Miki took off her cyber-rig, looking around her nervously. There were several people who wearing similar rigs in the many rows of terminals, making it harder to guess who Atheme might really be.
Before she could get really frightened an instant message popped up on her terminal, "Where are you sitting? I'd like to go over to where you are, if you don't mind." Beneath it was just signed, "Atheme." Nervously Miki typed in her location, her heart pounding in her chest as various nightmare scenarios ran through her mind.
In a moment Miki felt the presence come to a stop right behind her, then a gentle hand was put on her shoulder. Turning around Miki looked up at the slim redhead, the young woman's eyes filled with a gentle warmth. "Hello, Shadow," she clearly noticed Miki's femininity but it didn't seem to bother her much, "my name is Shelly."
With a sudden surge of relief Miki answered with a smile, "My name is Michelle, but my friends call me Miki."
"It's nice to meet you, Miki," Shelly laughed. She reached out to take Miki's hand as she continued, "See, that wasn't so hard."
Miki laughed, "Guess not."
Author's Notes: Yes, the title is taken from a novel by Lois McMaster Bujold, part of her Miles Vorkosigan series. This started out as an idea that I had for a manga story but I decided to go with something else. The world they're playing in is based on my old D&D games, some RPGs for the Playstation and various fantasy novels I've read over the years. Below are the descriptions I started out with thinking about this story....
Shadow (m): player character of Michelle a.k.a. Miki. Visually, think Clamp style male, a bit delicate but still strong. Wears leather armor, carries sword across the back. A bit moody, but basically nice on-line, also in real life. Her real-world self is very average, quiet and shy. Brown hair, scholarly type, wears glasses, has few real friends.
Atheme (f): player character of Shelly. Good-looking but not overly so, wears robes usually in dark colors. Carries a staff, throws energy, fire, etc. Very outgoing, pleasant in real life, but unsatisfied with her life. Is looking for something, and is surprised to find it on-line with Shadow. She is the one who suggests a meeting.