The light faded into darkness, and Hitomi opened her eyes.
The stars twinkled overhead -- technically, they ought to be twinkling in all directions -- and Hitomi sighed.
"So it's over," she murmured, and then she froze.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
Hitomi blinked, and looked around. Assuming the forced logout from the end of the game was the same as any other logout, she ought to be staring at the World Tree as it floated in a sea of stars, with herself as an invisible observer beside her player avatar. There ought to be hotbars and menus at the edge of her vision, all the trappings of a DMMO-RPG.
"What the hell is this?"
There was no World Tree. There was a moon, though; much like the one she had been ascending towards just moments ago. Neither was she floating in a void; although she was clearly floating, given the lack of resistance under her feet and the darkness of the land under...
Wait, how am I even noticing all of this in the first place?
Her attention had been directed to the sky -- a starry expanse of night -- but at the same time she knew what was going on under her feet. To one side of her was a sprawling ocean and its sparkling waves, while on the other lay a range of mountains, all lit by the gentle light of the moon.
Somehow, she was seeing in all these directions at once. There was no need to turn her head; it was as though her field of vision had suddenly expanded to cover every single viewpoint which could possibly originate from her present location.
It was disorienting, of course; but hardly crippling. In fact, it felt so natural to see in all directions at once that she wondered if her vision had ever been limited to what lay in front of her.
No, that's not all, she mused, and then she froze.
She was looking at an eye.
It was clearly not a human eye. Human eyes did not have golden pupils, and neither were they vertically-slit and set into the end of a thick, black tentacle -- hang on.
In her second great shock of the night, Hitomi realized that the many-eyed being in white robes she was studying was actually herself.
He mind was awhirl with thoughts like "What the hell is going on?!" and "How am I looking at myself?" and "How come I never noticed those details before?" as she scrambled to feel her body and clothing.
There was tactile feedback from her body when the creature before her touched itself. That was either an incredibly unlikely coincidence, or certain proof that the body she was probing was, in fact, her own.
Hitomi studied the body which was presumably hers through the lens of whichever one of her eyestalks was observing herself. Sure enough, she was dressed like her game character -- no, she essentially was her game character, complete with mono-eyed face, mottled greyish skin, flowing black hair, elegant white robes and so on.
All the jewels and designs and patterns she had decorated her gear with were there, nearly picture-perfect compared to how they had been in YGGDRASIL.
Am I still in the game? she wondered.
Gross physical motions were easy enough to program and map to one's neural impulses -- in fact, they were downright necessary, due to YGGDRASIL's combat system -- but implementing fine physical motions like smiling or sweating and the like were considered too much effort for too little gain. And that was just considering humanoid-type players; the challenges of how a dragon would blush, for instance, were right out.
Therefore, the fact that Hitomi could see herself gasping in silent awe was very convincing proof that she was not in YGGDRASIL any more.
She blinked. Her central eye closed, and opened again.
I'm watching myself blink.
This was far too unreal for belief. This might not be YGGDRASIL, but it was not the real world either. As the rising tide of doubts and questions within her heart threatened to overwhelm her, Hitomi forced herself to focus and concentrate, taking a deep breath and quashing the pounding of her heart within her chest.
It was an old trick -- one she had learned to deal with exam stress -- but it worked. Her increasingly hurried breathing slowed down again, and the whirl of thoughts running through her mind subsided, leaving her calm and composed.
All right, all right... I need to calm down and figure out what's going on.
A few moments passed.
I have no idea what's going on. I thought YGGDRASIL would be over and I'd be dumped into the login screen, but apparently I'm somewhere else now.
She idly flexed her fingers as she thought, savoring the realistic sensation of her virtual(?) flesh as it compressed and relaxed under her snug-fitting dragonwing leather gloves.
More possibilities flooded her mind: this was some sort of secret level, someone had dosed her with psychotropic drugs, someone had hooked her up to an unlimited node...
That last one was actually plausible. YGGDRASIL was very realistic, to the point where people had trouble distinguishing between real life and fantasy. In fact, there had been certain limits placed on the types of sensory feedback one could receive while playing.
For instance, the sense of touch in-game was very crude; like feeling a dull push on your arm from having someone chop at it. This was done both to enhance player comfort (nobody wanted to feel themselves getting eviscerated) and to limit their utility for lewd activities (which would make YGGDRASIL violate a whole host of laws if it were not immediately reclassified as an 18+ game).
However, that also implied the existence of "unlimited" environments, where sensory stimuli were not restricted in any way. Those would require a ridiculous amount of processing power to fully stimulate the nerves in response to a user's actions, but if done right, someone would be able to perfectly replicate reality; at least, for one particular individual.
And indeed, that might even be the answer, if not for the fact that she was currently looking at herself biting her lip as she stroked her eyestalks.
Indeed, she had been surprised by her expanded perceptions, but she had also gotten used to it in seconds, so quickly that it had taken her some time to realize how naturally she was pointing her eyestalks around to get a better view of things. It felt as though she had been born with them, and even the worst mutants she had seen on certain urban curiosity sites only had one or three semi-functional eyes, not eleven fully functional ones.
Even if one could perfectly tailor a virtual world to seem like reality, there was still the challenge of not only wiring her brain to accept the input from the eyestalks, but making it all seem natural. She had spent the better part of a year mastering the manual controls for them in YGGDRASIL, and even then, the knowledge that it was an external, unnatural skill was foremost in her mind.
Instead, she was naturally controlling and manipulating her eyestalks while using them to see as though they had been part of her since birth (which might actually be the case?). Such a feat would require someone to essentially take her visual cortex apart and rewire it to accept almost a dozen separate visual inputs while also interfacing with the motor cortex and the cerebellum to govern conscious and unconscious control over her eyestalks and so on.
More importantly, it would require time to become familiar with them; and almost no time had passed for her.
In other words, her brain would need to be physically altered to the point where it would hardly resemble that of a human being's and it would have to be done with her full awareness and consciousness in order to get used to it.
Besides, why would anyone go to all that effort for me, anyway? Hitomi wondered. Not like I'm anyone special...
Her voice trailed off, and she continued her contemplation. She pulled off one of her gloves, exposing the slightly damp flesh to the cool night wind.
She could never have felt this in YGGDRASIL. This was either reality, or something close enough to it that she could not tell the difference.
"No. No, that's just imposs--"
Hitomi's voice cut off halfway, as she traced the curve of her single main eye and the unfamiliar cheekbones of her face.
This felt all too real.
It seemed absurd, but the other alternatives -- that this was a hidden part of YGGDRASIL or some hyperrealistic simulation -- had already been ruled out. A quote from a certain piece of classic literature came to mind: "If life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me."
"...This is real, and this is me. Which means that this is another world. I've been brought to another world," she muttered. She touched her face again; lips and cheek and nose, cupping her chin in one hand and tracing the curve of her jaw.
Her fingers told her that this was an alien body. The response from her flesh said that it belonged to her.
"Even... even my voice is different. My body's completely changed. And this... this eyesight. It seems I've become Hitomi on just about every level... huh."
Her eyestalks were fully functional. She was airborne and hovering -- most likely due to her racial flight ability. If she decided to focus, she could make out distant details with ease, which implied at least some of her class skills were still functioning. It would seem she did not just have the form of Hitomi, but all her powers as well.
Still, a nagging doubt lingered in the back of her mind. This all seemed too far-fetched for her. Then again, perhaps someone else might be able to give her answers to this.
"What about talking to a GM?"
That would be the most conclusive proof of whether or not she were still in YGGDRASIL. However, as she reached out in the practiced motions of summoning up the console --
"It's not there."
The translucent window of options she had expected did not appear. In its place, an instinctive knowledge of those same options sprang up in her mind; an invisible, mental construct that did the same thing, albeit one that was far more easily usable than manually hunting and pecking over a haptic menu.
While contacting a GM was as easy as sending a [Message] to the general GM help channel, actually getting to the spellcasting menu was somewhat more challenging.
In YGGDRASIL, the system console was a tool which magic casters had to master, much like how warrior-types had to know their strike ranges and weapon weights. The process of casting a spell in the game was a laborious process of opening one menu after another and selecting the desired spell before casting it. All this was much slower than just drawing a bowstring or swinging a sword, which was why most warriors tended to have the upper hand against magic casters once they got close enough to ply their deadly art.
Of course, with enough practice, a magic caster could swiftly navigate the maze of menus and select a spell quickly, but that required great focus and a distinct goal -- in other words, a clear idea of exactly which spell one wanted to use and the practice and wits needed to select and make full use of it under trying circumstances. Some might decry it as simple button pressing, but just like in real life, knowing which button to press and the right time to press it could make all the difference in the world.
Now, she could feel the same menus popping up under her mental manipulations, but she did so at the speed of thought, and with far greater accuracy and dexterity than having to physically waggle her fingers and limbs.
Still, it was a huge change from the ingrained muscle memory Hitomi had from YGGDRASIL. Her mind had to parse the changes between the old and new ways of menu access and selection.
While she waited for the [Message] to connect, another thought came to Hitomi: if she could cast that spell, what other powers from YGGDRASIL did she possess?
That was swiftly followed by two more thoughts: Am I the only one from YGGDRASIL who came here like this? and If there's someone else, are they hostile?
That last one made her freeze. She was quite high above the ground, but she was fairly certain that she was still in the range of dedicated sniper characters. While her passive danger-sensing skills had not activated yet, it might be that her opponent was using some other skill to mask their targeting or that the skill itself was not fully functional.
More to the point, being so high up meant that she was an incredibly obvious target to anyone who cared to look.
Think - what should I do?
The old reflexes -- hard won over years of simulated combat -- came easily to her.
Break contact. Secure a better position. Observe, orient, decide and act.
"[Perfect Unknowable]. [Night]."
A pale golden ring glowed on Hitomi's brow as she faded into the air, and then the ring too, disappeared. She could still see herself, but only as a ghostly image. Most others would not be able to see her at all.
In YGGDRASIL, the most powerful creatures could not be deceived by simply turning invisible. In addition to visual acuity, they often had unusual sensory modes to draw upon; such as echolocation, tremor sensing, scent... the list went on and on. All these forms of perception ignored their targets (in)visibility to normal vision, and they had foiled careless mages and low-level thieves alike.
However, [Perfect Unknowable] was designed to defeat most of these senses. Not only did it render its user invisible, but it concealed their scent, rendered all their actions silent, prevented them from leaving traces and even hid their presences, just to foil certain ki-using classes who relied on those to detect ambush. There were a few specific weaknesses to the spell, but for the most part [Perfect Unknowable] deserved its place as 10th-tier stealth magic.
In contrast, the Night aspect of the Anima Power skill concealed magic itself. Ordinarily, one could easily detect someone hiding with magic by using [Detect Magic] or a similar effect. The invisibility spell would practically shine to magic-attuned eyes, even if purely material ones could not breach it. It would be like trying to stay unnoticed while wearing neon light tubing in the dark.
The use of the Night aspect eliminated that flaw, just as it erased all direct sensory traces of a spell it enhanced. A [Fireball] enhanced in that way shed no heat or light, but its victims would feel pain and their surroundings would be burned. The scorch marks would be visible, as would any secondary fires started by the [Fireball].
When used in tandem, Hitomi was effectively invisible to everything short of certain illusion-breaching spells; spells which did not have a sufficiently long range to reach her from the ground. Of course, there might be invisible watchers, or some kind of super-tier magic which alerted the owner of this airspace to her presence.
Hm. It might be best to get behind solid cover. Speaking of which...
She focused her attention downwards. Several clouds drifted across her field of vision, but they might as well not exist after taking her powerful eyesight into consideration.
Thus she saw what was beneath them; a densely-packed region of trees with occasional clearings where water from the mountain streams had pooled into miniature lakes. Hitomi had never seen a proper forest outside of an online article or picture before, so it was only natural that she mistook the swamp for one.
I don't think anyone'll see me if I went down there...
Hard cover always helped, and if the visibility in there was accurate to what she had read online about forests and jungles, someone would have to literally run into her in order to see her.
Well, I'm heading down, then, Hitomi thought as she began her descent. On the way down, she contemplated the differences between its handling in the game and in this new world...
Even among the heteromorphs of YGGDRASIL, Gazers were quite a rare breed.
When Gazers had first been made available as player options in YGGDRASIL, many people had flocked to them. After all, they could fly and barrage their foes with a series of eye rays, whose effects included charming the opposition, wounding them, turning them to stone or outright disintegrating them.
However, that popularity faded within a few weeks.
The reason for that was because Gazers were very hard to use.
YGGDRASIL was a game where advantages were balanced out by disadvantages, and the shitty devs (as the players affectionately called them) had a taste for the ironic when it came to their work. "Yes, I will give you all this power," they said. "But be careful what you wish for."
In this case, being given eleven individual eyes meant having to juggle eleven points of view at once. Most people could not handle that, not while managing the complicated joystick which controlled their innate flight ability and remembering which eyestalk fired which eye ray, while having to deal with whatever challenges the game posed at the moment. As one player commented, "learning to play the race is harder than actually playing the game".
Then there was the fact that their signature eye rays were tragically underpowered for the level at which players could access them. Charm and domination rays were easily blocked with [Mind Shield] and easily available mental defense items. Telekinesis and negative energy rays did not do enough damage compared to normal attack spells. Petrification and disintegration eye rays were both stopped cold by magic items that made their wearers proof against external transformation. The dreaded [Slay Living] ray was rendered useless by the life-protection gear which was nearly universal among high-level players.
In addition, it was not just players who resisted them; most strong monsters were resistant or immune to their effects as well. Said monsters were the ones against whom those rays would be most useful, and they were the most commonly-fought class of opposition. Thus, even if someone actually trained to master the Gazer, their reward was to be useless against any decent opposition.
Thus, most people abandoned the Gazer, preferring a race that was easier to handle. Only a few remained to try and master it, despite the difficulties of doing so.
Hitomi was one of them.
There were various reasons why she had clung to a race that most had given up on, but one of them was sheer stubbornness; she liked it and was determined to make it work, one way or another.
To that end, she had invested a significant amount of time and effort into fine-tuning her character build and learning the ins and outs of the very complex race and class combination she had chosen. The results had been quite impressive, and quite satisfying considering the sheer amount of effort she had put into achieving them.
It was only after coming to this new world that she realised exactly how much time and effort she had spent on it. Now that this place was... real, for want of a better word, it was quite likely that her survival depended on how well she could (re)master all her abilities.
On the one hand, it would seem that using her spells and skills were innate, like muscle memory. On the other hand, this worked against her. Everything she did felt so ingrained and natural that she had no conscious knowledge of it. Even moving her eyestalks had been the work of pure coincidence; and that was when she had an actual physical appendage to manipulate.
When one did not understand how a process worked, it was very difficult to practice with and improve it. After all, there were not many ways to improve on trial and error.
Therefore, the crucial first step was to figure out what she could do, so she could move on to the second step -- making sure she could do it well. As a legendary martial artist once said, "I do not fear the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once. I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times."
In other words, a skilful use of limited resources was better than randomly pushing buttons and using abilities willy-nilly.
Well, as long as you're not massively overpowered by your opposition. There comes a point when there's no point being tactical about fighting and you can just trample a weaker opponent without fear.
Of course, the same might well apply to her.
There was no telling what challenges this world had to offer, but it would be best to overreact and assume that the foes she faced would be more powerful than in YGGDRASIL, than assume the opposite and be destroyed.
After all, if this new world was real, then she would only have one life -- no.
Since her high-tier spells had carried over; it stood to reason that resurrection spells -- which were of a slightly lower tier -- might function as well.
The main problem was that in order to test that, she would have to die, and if she was wrong about those spells working, well, she would not be around to regret her naivete.
Best not to put it to the test, Hitomi thought. Just like the best defense is not getting hit in the first place.
It was then that Hitomi reflected on the results of her little experiment with her flight ability.
Just like in the game, Hitomi had complete control over her orientation to the ground. She could lounge in the air, walk as though descending a flight of invisible steps, run in circles parallel to the ground or simply float inverted with no ill effects.
That was much like how it was in YGGDRASIL, where Gazers could fly in complete defiance of gravity. While they were not as fast as winged fliers like, Birdmen or Dragons, they were far more maneuverable, given that there were no inconvenient wings to get in the way while in tight quarters.
In many ways, it was like the [Fly] spell which arcane magic casters could use, only it could not be dispelled and it did not vanish in areas which negated magic.
Even if she were subjected to some spell which specifically disabled flying ([Undeniable Gravity] came to mind), she would still land as softly and gently as a falling feather.
One could say that as long as her opponents were not faster than her, she had complete air supremacy. Depending on the terrain and the speed difference in question, she might even be able to overcome that as well.
Hitomi was still descending as those thoughts ran through her head. There were clouds underneath her, but they posed no obstacle to her potent eyesight.
Below them was a large... forest? Odd to have a forest growing up to the edge of the sea, but then again, this was a new world, and she had never been good in geography anyway.
More importantly, the forest(?) looked very dense. This meant a lot of cover... which meant she might be able to experiment with her less... subtle abilities. While she had not detected anyone observing her so far (through the grace of another one of her skills), making big, noisy, earth-shaking explosions might draw unwelcome attention.
That's better avoided, she mused. While she did not wish to plunge headlong into combat, her opponents might not give her that choice. When the time came, it would be better to know how to use her abilities for self-defense than to perish with unused skills -- and being interrupted mid-training would surely lead to that.
As she made a list of things to experiment with, she quickened her descent; slightly at first, and then she plunged like a falling star as she grew used to flinging herself at the earth.