Chapter Nine: Immortality

"Grah!" the masked man snarled as he kicked at the ground outside, cursing his own clumsiness. "She's in there somewhere, I'm sure of it!" He glanced up at the now bustling village square from the shadows behind the inn. "I took too long; there are too many witnesses out here, and that cat-vulture is probably not far either…" The man took off his cloak and turned it inside out, changing its color from red to green.

" I'll just have to- Hmm?" As the man slid the cloak back on, he saw an arrow on the ground with a paper wrapped around it. He took the paper and scowled. "A message on an arrow?" The arrow was on the side of the inn that faced the pastures. "The last child is definitely here," The man mused, anger and slight unease in his voice, "and she is acting as a little informant. Kain, is this your doing?" The man pocketed the note and arrow before turning to the pasture. "I'll have to come back for her, but now that I have a clue about Kain's whereabouts, I have to take care of him now." The masked man began walking calmly out of the village, avoiding direct eye contact with most of the villagers.

"Curtis!" Clovis shouted as the boy ran towards the innkeeper's picnic. "What kept you, lad?" When Curtis made it to the group, he was gasping for breath with a scared look on his face, and he clutched a flame-cooked fish on a stick in his left hand. "Where did you get that?"

"I saw… a thing… at the training place," Curtis explained between breaths. "There was a man cooking fish, and he gave me one. Then he started saying weird things, and he knew my name, but I didn't tell it to him, so I ran."

"This man, did he have black hair?" Stanley asked, assuming the the man to be Jude.

"No, er, I don't think so. His hair looked kinda brown, or something." Curtis looked up at the others. "Why?"

"I met a black-haired man the other day," Stanley answered. "After helping me solve a personal problem, he said he had a score to settle with someone. I thought it might have been him." After a few moments, Stanley asked another question. "What kind of weird things did the man say?"

"He asked if I was ready to go home, but…" Another throb of pain surged through Curtis's head as he tried to remember what he thought was his home. "Ow!"

"Curtis!" Clovis's wife shouted. "Maybe we should take you back to the inn so you can lie down."

"O-Okay," Curtis said, wincing in pain.

"Where did you see this man exactly?" Stanley asked. Curtis pointed to a nearby hill. "There? I see. Clovis, I'll go check it out. Can you two take Penelope and Curtis home?"

"Yeah, but what are you going to do?" Clovis asked.

"If the man was going to hurt Curtis, he would have done so, but instead he shared his meal with him. I have a few questions to ask the man, if he's still there," Stanley explained.

"Oh, alright," Clovis said with a sigh of relief. "Just don't stay out too late, okay?"

"I'll be fine," Stanley assured the innkeeper, who nodded and led the other children to Ruranis. Go home? Stanley thought to himself as he gazed to the forest. Does he mean outside the game?

Stanley cautiously made his way to the site Curtis had mentioned, occasionally feeling for the dagger he took from the Raiders. When he had arrived at the site, he noticed a fire had been burning in the area, but, save for the same type of flame grilled fish over the remains of the campfire, there was not a sign of any specific person there. Same kind of fish… Stanley glanced over the site carefully. Some faint tracks led from the site to the forest, but as Stanley began to inspect them, he heard a loud roar above him. He glanced up to see a Raider flying around the forest. In a panic, Stanley ran into the forest and watched as the gargoyle lazily circled the field. The Raider dove down onto the extinguished campfire and swiped up the fish, but before it could take a bite, a blast of wind knocked it back. It glanced up and, once it saw who attacked it, wasted no time in getting away. Whew. Good thing the others went back to town.

"Stanley McKnight." Stanley froze at the mention of his name. He turned around to see a man covered in a heavy cloak. His brown hair marked him as the man Curtis had met before, but Stanley could see this man seemed far less friendly than expected.

"Who are you?" Stanley asked, trying to muster his most intimidating voice.

"I am Kain Robinson, from the outside world." Stanley gulped at the mention of the real world. "So you know what I'm talking about. Curtis didn't. Do you know why?"

"He was attacked by the Raiders," Stanley argued. "He probably got hit on the head or something."

"I had tested the effects of nearly every possible injury that led to passing out," Kain reasoned, "but every time, my mind was completely intact. Even severe cranial injury can't do anything past knocking you out temporarily. A mental effect like that could only have been deliberate." Kain paused for a moment before renewing his questioning. "What did Jude tell you?"

"How-" Stanley took several steps back, but before he could escape, Kain grabbed him and pushed him into a tree. "Agh!"

"Right now, I've been led to believe that you and Jude did something to that boy," Kain said, his frown slowly turning into a scowl as he drew a short sword with his free hand. "I don't want to hurt you, but unless you tell me the truth about what happened, I will have no choice but to force you to tell me."

"Are you feeling any better, Curtis?" Penelope asked as she eyed the empty potion flasks. "I could ask the potion lady for help." As the girl made the offer, the town was nearly a stone's throw away.

"Bah, I think those potions are overrated," Clovis grumbled. "It's healthier to just get a good night's sleep. Huh?" The group slowed as a man in a green cloak and a mask made his way out of town and approached them. "H-Hello there!" Clovis greeted warily. The others were too distracted by Curtis's headache to notice the masked man.

"Huh? Oh, of all the-" The masked man spun around away from them and placed a hand over his mask. When he turned to face them, his mask was gone and his face was clear to see. "Hello there!" He pushed his black hair out of his eyes and flashed an uneasy smile. "My name is Jude. Have any of you seen a man with brown hair, likely wearing a brown cloak?"

"Y-Yes," Curtis grunted in pain. "He talked about weird things. Agh!" Curtis clutched his head again.

"Curtis!" Clovis's wife shouted. "Sorry, sir, but we have to take this boy back to the inn. He needs to rest."

"Wait!" Jude shouted. "That man you mentioned, where is he?"

"He was near the edge of the forest, last I heard," Clovis answered. "The little girl's brother went to check it out, but –"

"That's not good," Jude grunted. "That man is dangerous. It's a good thing this kid got away when he did."

"Oh no!" Clovis's wife exclaimed. "Should we ask Nami for help?"

"No! Er-" Jude coughed back his disapproval, "I mean, after the last incident, it would be unwise to trouble her further. Besides, I'm after this man too. I can keep the kid safe."

"Are you sure?" Clovis asked. "You say this man is dangerous!"

"Yes, but I have a bit of a secret weapon. That man has no chance of besting me," Jude boasted. "Just go home and relax, and I'll take care of this."

"Okay," Clovis said finally before extending a hand. "Nice meeting you, sir."

"The same," Jude said with a smile as he extended his arm to shake Clovis's hand. The innkeeper eyed the man, taking note of the unusual color of his cloak's interior. "Have a nice day."

"We will! Tell my brother I said hi!" Penelope said.

"I'll pass the message right along," Jude said with a smile. The man gave a nod and walked off, leaving Ruranis behind him.

"…Let's get back to the inn, kids," Clovis said, not taking his eyes off of Jude until the cloaked man disappeared behind the hills.

"So that's what Jude told you?" Kain asked, his sword already put away. "And as a result, he erased Curtis's memories of home through hypnosis, and you did the same thing to your sister?"

"Yes," Stanley answered, sitting on a log. "He said that if I become strong enough to protect Penelope, we can stay here forever."

"Forever?" Kain grunted. "No, that's not possible."

"Why not?" Stanley asked. "I already told you why I can't go back! And I'm learning how to cast magic, too! Watch!" Stanley turned to the nearest tree and began to focus. "Ice Shrapnel!" To the boy's surprise, the icy shard stuck fast in the tree. "See! I just started using magic, and soon, I'll be able to fight off any threat just fine!"

"I see that, and to be honest, I don't blame you for wanting to stay," Kain said as he rested a hand on the tree, "but the fact is the system keeping you kids alive can't last one lifetime, let alone several. As it is now, there are only enough raw nutrients in the machine to support you kids for about five years, ten tops. Even if your life is bad now, it would be better to live a full life outside than a short one in here." As if to punctuate the doctor's point, the ice quickly melted away into a tiny puddle that disappeared into the ground almost instantly.

"So there's no hope," Stanley groaned. "Either in here or out there, Penelope's just going to die."

"If Delilah is as bad as you say, a word to the proper authorities will keep her from hurting you or your sister ever again," Kain suggested. "Once we get outside, I'll make sure that she answers for her destructive behavior. For now though, I'm actually more worried about Jude."

"Why?" Stanley asked, remembering the man who told him not to fear this world.

"He designed and tested this machine more than any of us. In the reports, he made the drawbacks and limitations of the system well known. Why would he do all of this, why lie to you and erase Curtis's memories of the outside, when you can only live in here for a few years?"

"Do you really want to know, Kain?" a voice called out, startling the boy and the man.

"Jude!" Kain growled, drawing his sword. "Why did you do all this? You… you were behind Mahlrana's outburst, weren't you?"

"You got me," Jude sneered. "But you still don't see the whole picture, do you?"

"Jude?" Stanley shouted, surprising Kain. "Did you lie to me about being able to live in Lore?"

"Of course not!" Jude shouted back. "You kids can live here forever! Kain is the one who's wrong."

"Knock it off, Jude!" Kain snapped. "If they try that, they will eventually starve!" Kain turned his head towards Stanley. "Go back to the others, and I will try to straighten all this out."

"…" Stanley did not respond, but ran off towards Ruranis.

"Hmm ha ha ha!" Jude laughed as Kain grew even angrier. "Really? Is that what you think? Remember, you said it yourself; I tested the system more than any of you. Let me tell you what really happens when the timer runs out."

"All right, we're back," Clovis announced as he neared the door. "Curtis, you can head right up the stairs. My wife will bring you-" Clovis froze as he heard the sound of someone weeping. "What in the world?" Clovis rushed inside at the sound of the crying. "What's wrong?"

"Mr. Clovis?" a girl replied as she crawled out from behind the counter. "Is he gone?"

"He who?" Clovis asked.

"The man in red," the girl answered between breaths. "He- He-"

"It's okay," Clovis's wife said in a calming tone. "Wherever he is, he's long gone now. You're safe."

"But he's going to- Uncle Kain," the girl sobbed. "The man in red is going to kill him."

"That man," Clovis muttered, before kneeling down to the girl. "He had a red cloak, right? Did he also wear a mask?"

"Hah!" The girl stared up at Clovis, but said nothing.

"I see," the innkeeper sighed, the shock on the girl's face answering for her. "I need to take care of something." Without another word, Clovis walked outside and picked up an unlit torch and tossed a blue powder onto it, sparking a blue flame that shot out of the torch and sailed into the sky. "Please see it…" After a minute of uneasy waiting, Clovis sighed in relief as Nami floated down to him.

"Clovis, is something the matter?" Nami asked. "I was chasing a few of the Raiders out of the area. Did they attack again?"

"No, it's something else," Clovis said with a frown. "I found that shy girl hiding in the inn, crying about an evil man."

"What?" Nami gasped. I thought Dr. Robinson said there were no wicked humans in Lore. She thought to herself, Could this be the intruder the Queen is worried about?

"That's not all. She said the man wore a red cloak and a mask. On our way back, we met a man that wore a green cloak who also had a mask, but the inside of his coat was a dark red. It was very likely that was the same man. I think he went to the forest-" Clovis nearly fell back in shock. "That other boy is there! He's in danger!"

"No!" Nami gasped. "I can't fail again. Keep the others safe until I return." The girl did not wait for the innkeeper's response, and instead chanted her spell of flight and flew towards the forest as fast as she could.

"What do you mean 'when time runs out'?" Kain barked.

"You see, Kain," Jude began, drawing his own sword, "there was an unintended extra function that the Nutri-System is capable of. Remember how we stored emergency nutrients in the machine?"

"Yes," Kain responded, pointing his sword at Jude, ready to strike at a moment's notice, "we put raw food in a separate pod, and the machine broke it down into raw nutrients for us to work with. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Exactly," Jude sneered. "It's a bit pricier than the sludge that we normally use, but it comes through in a pinch." Jude lunged forward and swung his sword downward, but Kain quickly blocked the attack. "After a few other tests, I found out some very interesting details about the Nutri-System. Tell me, what do you think would happen to the kids in here when the nutrients run dry?"

"They'd die!" Kain shouted as he threw Jude back with a swing of his sword. "They wouldn't notice that their bodies were starving in the real world until it's too late."

"You're half-right, Kain," Jude replied, giving the doctor a condescending grin. "They won't notice their bodies waste away on the outside, but that isn't going to kill them. Instead, they'll just go about their business as normal. Meanwhile, the machine would break their bodies down in the same manner as the raw food."

"But that would kill them! How would they survive that?" Kain argued.

"Funny, that you'd ask that," Jude said, his smile fading. "I'm not entirely sure of it myself, but from my testing, I had a theory. You know how some people go on about 'life after death' and such nonsense, right? As a man of science, I tended to disagree with the notion."

"And now you don't?" Kain guessed. "Pitfall!" Kain threw his arm forward, causing a depression to form under Jude. The black-haired man quickly jumped back to avoid the trap.

"No, I still believe that once you die, that's it," Jude responded. "But one theory did interest me; in many religious circles, it is believed that the physical body is only one part of a human being. I had found out that there is actually some truth to that belief." Jude raised his hand to the air and spoke words Kain could not understand, and before the brown-haired scientist could react, vines extended from the trees and wrapped around his arms and legs, holding him in place. "That's better. It's hard to talk and fight at the same time."

"Grr…" Kain grunted as he struggled to free himself. "Dare I ask how you tested that theory?"

"Well, the first was purely accidental," Jude admitted. "I brought in a homeless man to do a test run. I figured that if something went wrong, he wouldn't be missed. Everything was working well, but suddenly his heart began to fail. Neither of us noticed until it was too late to bring him out and treat him. When I did realize what was going on, I felt it would have been cruel to drag him out just to die, so I just talked to the man about trivial things, hoping to make his last moments happy. After a few hours, I looked back to the pod to find it empty, but the man was still in Lore. That man is still alive, by the way, and he's actually doing well for himself in Mahl right now."

"So after that 'discovery,' you had to see if it was more than just a fluke," Kain snarled. "How many more did you test that on?"

"Three or four, but like the first man, they were all drifters who society ignored. Now, they are leading fulfilling lives here in Lore. One's an explorer, another, a scholar. One even became one of the Queen's personal guards." Jude put away his sword, convinced that Kain was no threat. "Much better than begging on the street or selling themselves for a decent meal, wouldn't you say?"

"I'd say that wasn't for you to decide," Kain said angrily. "Once we get you out of here-"

"Get me out?" Jude laughed. "I'm not going anywhere, Kain. Can you remember what happened just before you logged in to Lore? I'll tell you now, it wasn't just a dream."

I hope I'm not too late, Nami thought as she flew into the forest. As she went deeper into the forest, she began to slow down and find a landing spot.

"Nami!" a voice whispered to the fairy. Nami turned to see Stanley waving to her. "Over here." Nami ran to Stanley, who was peering at something from behind a tree.

"What are you looking at?" Nami peeked at the scene Stanley was witnessing, the fight between Jude and Kain. "Jude? And is that…"

"He said his name is Kain," Stanley answered. "He told me that if we stay in here too long, we'll die, but Jude said that we can stay in here forever.

"Kain? You mean that's Dr. Robinson?" Nami asked. "But why are they fighting?"

"I can't tell," Stanley said as he watched. Suddenly, the two saw Kain ensnared by vines.

"Oh no!" Nami nearly jumped out of hiding, but Stanley grabbed her hand in retaliation.

"Wait. I think they're about to say something," Stanley pleaded.

Was Dr. Robinson this intruder Jude warned us about? Nami thought as she watched the battle end with Jude sheathing his sword. But why would he try to hurt the children?

The two crept closer to the two men as Jude began to finish his story.

"So then, when you-" Kain's eyes were filled with fear as he looked on his former colleague. "Then you are-" He could hardly piece together his conclusion.

"That's right," Jude sneered. "I have rejected the outside world. I live here now, and this is life eternal. When I said the kids could stay in Lore forever, I meant it."

"That's madness! I don't believe you!" Kain spat back. "You're lying! You must be!"

"I don't care if you believe me or not," Jude laughed, "because you are in no position to challenge me. I am in a good mood, though, so I'll not finish you off yet. And I might be convinced into letting you go if you don't interfere." Jude reached for something in his robe. "Besides, I still have to deal with your little spy." Jude pulled out the note Jill wrote and showed it to Kain. "I found this attached to an arrow. Not the best handwriting, is it?"

"What did you do to Jill?" Kain fumed, his renewed struggling nearly snapping the vines that held his arm in place.

"Jill? That's her name? Wait." Jude paused for a moment, and a knowing grin appeared on his face. "You mean Fletcher's little brat? She's the last child? That makes things simpler."

"What do you mean?" Kain snarled. Jude simply smiled and began to walk away. "Jude! What are you planning? Jude!" Kain struggled to free himself from the bindings, but his struggling was in vain. "Come back," he huffed, but Jude was long gone.

"Dr. Robinson?" The man jerked in response to his name being called. Nami ran up to the man while Stanley followed close behind. "Are you alright?"

"Nami? Stanley?" Kain grunted as Nami freed him from his bonds. "What are you doing here?"

"I heard from Clovis that a dangerous man came this way," Nami answered. Nami paused for a moment, then asked a question of her own. "How is Mother?"

"Miss Blake?" Kain muttered. "The last time I saw her, she left Virtuon to think of a way to contact the game world. Why do you ask?"

"She spoke to me some time ago," Nami answered. "She said that the Queen acted against you, but while we were speaking, she was attacked by someone."

"I see," Kain sighed as he stretched. "We'll have to share what we know, but for now, we have to stop Jude before he does something terrible."

"But is he really so bad?" Stanley asked. "From what I could hear, he's just trying to live forever, and make it so we can, too."

"You didn't hear the whole story," Kain said coldly. "If what he told me was true, then he's wrong. He isn't immortal; he's already dead!" Stanley froze in his tracks as Kain and Nami continued towards the forest's edge.