Something was wrong.
He stood in a world where there was only white. A colorless ground with colorless sky as far as the eye could see. He was Haseo again, somehow. He was standing alone and it seemed like he was more than just a character in a game; he could feel his hair against the side of his face, warm and dry on the back of his neck, and the textured belts tight around his chest. It didn't occur to him to wonder how he could feel, or wonder why he was here without his friends or any of his weapons. But it did occur to him that he just felt so suddenly there, as if he had transported completely out of his own world and into this fake one.
"Hello?" His voice didn't echo more so than it simply bled into the air and fall away. He thought about walking forward but so no point in it. This had to be some sort of trick. A dream, even. "Hello?" he repeated.
It also seemed fitting for that man to do something mysterious like bring him here. Or maybe… "Shino?" No. "Atoli?"
Haseo pressed one gloved hand to his forehead. Why the hell would Atoli be here? Or Shino, for that matter? She was still in the hospital. And even if they weren't, he doubted they could hear him if they couldn't see him.
He closed his eyes, trying to think. He had seen places like this before, fields that were completely white and colorless. There was no music, no sound, no gates. Nothing.
He tried to think of a way to log out. And then something occurred to him – he couldn't even remember logging in.
A thread of panic. His blood ran cold for a moment. "What…?"
Instincts flooded him suddenly. He whirled around to face what he knew had somehow appeared there. And just as he opened his mouth whisper the bastard's name like a curse, another name came to him, soft and strange, almost as if it were breathed into his ear; Kite.
"Tri-Edge?" he said in spite of himself.
He was there, that creature. Right there in front of him, hair wild and white face looming. He could see both his eyes now, but they seemed different, almost thoughtful. Thoughtful insanity. He hated him. And at all at once his fingers seemed to itch. He wanted that cool metal at his fingers, wanted to tighten his grip on something sharp. He'd murder this thing. And then everything would be okay again.
"Tri-" he began again, but that strange whisper cut him off; No, not Tri-Edge. Kite. Azure Kite.
Is this it? The words floated to him like a spoken voice, but this it was different. And then he saw another monster in the room with him, a man whose eye were covered by a mess of white hair and with sleek wings that became something almost metallic. Again he spoke; This is the one that killed you?
Yes. The Azure Kite spoke this time, spoke without even opening his mouth.
Really… The winged man said, but again a different name came to him – Azure Balmung.
Balmung? Haseo thought, almost in a daze by the strangeness of it all. Where have I heard that name before?
Azure Balmung stepped closer, his strange wings floating behind him like a spell. One silvery hand snaked forward and caught his chin, pulling his face forward sharply. Haseo stumbled, startled, and looking up to meet the things stare he saw nothing but a calm insanity.
"Uh – " he began weakly, and he reached up to swat the hand away. Balmung caught his wrist easily.
Are you sure this is the one? Just like the Azure Kite, he spoke without moving his mouth. That voice was a sneer. He looks weak.
He is weak. Kite said from somewhere to his left.
How did he manage it? The fingers curled around his chin tightened slightly, and Haseo felt a surge of fear crawl through him. That touch was strangely powerful, as if his face would break beneath the pressure.
Skeith. Kite explained shortly.
Oho... A sigh. So he's with Morganna, is he?
I don't think so, Balmung. Haseo tried to glance toward Kite, but the winged creature's grasp was firm. For a moment he thought he had heard weariness in that voice. But how could that be..?
"Stop it." he heard himself say, and he hated himself for the weakness in his voice. "Get off me!"
Azure Balmung looked to his companion shortly. Kite's face was as expressionless as always. He turned back, and now the sneer was real. Haseo caught a flash of razor teeth there. He shivered.
What should we do?
Yes, what? Came a third voice, and the two demons looked past him and to where Haseo knew a third creature stood.
Orca. Balmung acknowledged gently.
So it's here, is it? Haseo couldn't see the speaker, but he heard the almost childish laughter in his voice. Scrawny thing, this.
What do you propose we do?
Kill it! Orca said as if such a thing were obvious.
Guys… began Azure Kite once more, and Haseo hated the apparent weariness in his tone. These things weren't human. They weren't supposed to sound like it!
I say we let it live. Azure Balmung said sharply, and he released the rouge suddenly, shoving him backwards with both hands. Haseo stumbled, and in an instant he felt two cold hands catch him. Craning his neck around, he saw a face that was only half a face, cold armor and an empty, colorless stare. He gaped wordlessly.
Let it live? The thing repeated, it's tone amused.
Yes. Balmung said hungrily. Make it suffer.
Ah. A shadowy smile. Indeed. I think Kite should get his revenge.
Revenge? Came the smaller one's voice. And now Haseo could see him clearly, his untamed hair sticking out, arms folded loosely.
Yes, revenge. Orca agreed. Might as well get some fun out of it. Make the thing scream.
Yes, scream! Balmung laughed eagerly. He looks like a screamer to me.
And no one here to save him…
Yes. The winged one's tone became sober again. Just as Kite was. It shall pay for hurting him.
Pay in blood! Orca said loudly, and Haseo felt his shoulders being seized by his cold hands. The faceless one shoved him forward roughly, and he found himself stumbling once more, looking up into Azure Kite's stoic face.
Never mess with the Azure Knights. Balmung said dangerously from somewhere behind him.
Hmm. Azure Kite's hands snaked forward and closed around his neck. Haseo felt his breath constrict sharply.
He knew he was gasping, knew he was staring at what he had called 'Tri-Edge' in confused horror. How could he choke? How could he even feel their coldness? He was supposed to be in a game. How could he suddenly feel?
Scream, little one. Breathed Balmung with a tinkling laugh as he reached around Haseo's shoulder and began to snap open the broad buckles around his chest.
Suffer, 'Skeith.' Hissed Orca as he tore the leather belts away from his neck. Pay for harming one of our own.
Azure Kite's small, strong hands fell away from his throat at last, and Haseo drew in a stunned breath, touching the bruised skin at his throat fearfully. The first pangs of panic began to rise up inside him. This couldn't be – he couldn't get hurt in a game. His skin wasn't supposed to be bruising. It wasn't possible!
Azure Kite's demonic eyes moved slowly over his skin, slender fingers tracing the lines of the tattoo at his stomach. And he bent down with what seemed like a drugged slowness, so that he could only see the top of his capped head.
"What are you – !" he began sharply, but then Orca's large hands fisted in his hair and drew his head back suddenly. He felt a needle-like sting at his collar and cried out in spite of himself, trying to throw his fists at the bastard's face, but someone caught his hands and held them tightly at his sides.
"STOP IT!" he shrieked suddenly as a sort of claustrophobia set it. Balmung laughed with delight beside him. Yes, you'll pay! He hissed. You'll pay for harming one of our own.
But you… Haseo thought dimly. You did the same…you hurt one of my own, too. That bastard killed Shino!
Kite straightened back up slowly, his mouth wet with blood. Haseo felt his heart leap into his throat, willing himself not to look down at his chest and see the wound there. A strange look gleamed the thing's eyes. Orca's grasp on his hands tightened sharply. You're a fool. He hissed maliciously. Tri-Edge killed them, not Kite. Tri-Edge!
"But…" he said slowly. "You…you are…"
There was a sudden silence around them. Kite stared at him with listless eyes. The blood on his lips gleamed. He recognized that expression, that strange stare that seemed in itself almost a look of betrayal. It was the same look that was on his face when he had been defeated.
Haseo. He whispered. The name was foreign on his tongue. You're looking the wrong way.
I'll make you see, at least. He said. Understand that much, if nothing else.
Understand? Sighed Azure Balmung, shaking his wolf-like head. Really, Kite, you're too kind to him.
Perhaps. A silky smile, breath that was loud and heavy, almost like a threatening voice over a phone line, a voice you heard the darkness of your room, home alone at night…
He willed away that tiny blossom of fear, a spark of fire lighting inside him. He glared at that small, round face, at that unblinking eye, that flash of white fang teeth, and he willed himself to hate it. Hate it, god damn it it, hate it! Hate it for what it's done for you! Hate it for Shino!
But his piercing stare was like an arrow to the chest, killing something inside him in a way he hadn't ever experienced before.
"Stop it…" he heard himself whimper. It was almost like a leap back in time, shaky memories come to life, almost like trembling at the mercy of grinning PKers that had no intention of being gentle with him, almost like the laughing eyes of that sadist woman and her gleaming dagger, the humiliation, hating himself for crying out when he was hit, hating himself for taking up that snide offer of 'you may beg for your life, if you like' – and eight months of work that made him the great PKK Haseo fell away, leaving him as Just Haseo. Just poor, pathetic Haseo, the guy you go to when you're having a bad day and you need to hear someone scream for it. Just Haseo, who sat by and let one of his only true friends be murdered without even avenging her correctly. Just Haseo, like it seemed he had always been.
You're looking the wrong way.
"Then where?" whispered Just Haseo weakly. "Which way do you want me to look?" It didn't matter any more, none of this. He'd probably just wake up form another nightmare, or another battle, or find himself stranded on the streets of Mac Anu with his fingers tingling and his eyes scattershot. It didn't matter what happened. None of this made sense anyway. Why should it start to now?
Look nowhere. Like a damnation. He closed his eyes for a moment, loving the eternal blackness that substituted their grinning faces, and then he felt cold hands on his face again, holding him steady. Hesitantly, he opened his eyes, saw the bright, aqua stare of Shino's murderer, and looked somewhere to the white nothingness to his right, the place where neither the winged man nor the faceless knight stood leering.
Those hands appeared at his face again. At me, then. Came the hissing voice. Look only at me.
He raised his eyes, met the cruel, strange stare of the one he knew at Tri-Edge. What else could he do? He almost laughed aloud, thinking this guy was a PK like the rest of them. Why do I ending up in the same damn position every time? Please leave me alone, don't hurt me. He made such an idiot out of himself. And now here he was, continuing to do it. Stop touching my hair, stop staring at me with that blood on your lips - I don't want to see my blood on your lips. And he just stared back, like he was supposed to. I don't care anymore. You ruined me once, you can do it again. Do it again, go ahead. See if I give a damn. Do your worst.
And in an instant that cold mouth was pressed against his mouth and his own blood was hot against his lips. Those damned fang teeth touched his for a moment, sharp as any blade, and he felt his skin break out into gooseflesh. A pause. That leering, sighing noise again. And then those small, even razor teeth sank his lower lip.
Haseo squeezed his eyes closed quickly, then forced himself to open them again. Look only at me, that voice said, and somehow it seemed like the only thing he could bring himself to do. He felt the blood well up inside his mouth and choked on the taste of it instinctively, pulling away, hissing, but the thing's gloved hands grasped his face firmly, jerking him back, forcing his mouth open. More blood against his tongue, his teeth scraping against the inside of his cheek. He grimaced, swallowing that thick, metallic taste before it suffocated him. The distant ring of the other two's satisfied laughter echoed around him.
No… And it once it seemed he had a voice like theirs, a voice that tore right out of his head and out into the open air as theirs did. No, stop.
Not yet, little rogue.
Yes. Whispered Balmung.
Yes. Echoed Orca, and he felt the faceless one's large hands encasing his wrists, pulling them high and holding them still on either side of his head. Azure Kite pushed him forward ever so slightly, and suddenly he was trapped between the two of them. Trapped, and fighting away the awful familiarity of it.
God, it really was like getting player killed. The way they toyed with you, made you bleed. The way they laughed. Only now it seemed they had transported him to another world, and he could taste the blood instead of just see it, or he could feel the claustrophobia instead of just sense it. And that was just fitting, wasn't it? Because these creatures didn't play by the rules of the game either.
Let me go! It was almost a sob, but he forced his mental scream to be steady, demanding.
Not yet. He repeated.
Stop it! He tried vainly to free his wrists, only to feel Orca's broad fingers merely tighten. Let me go or I'll…!
Or you'll what? Came the snide voice of Balmung. What could you possibly do? We have more than just levels on you, little rouge.
He floundered for a come back, closing his eyes to escape their threatening press. Please. He willed them at last. Stop.
Please? Mimicked Balmung.
Yes. He heard the Azure Kite say, laughter in his voice. "Please."
He looked past him and into the dark stare of Azure Orca. And gradually, Haseo felt Orca's grip on him fall away. His hands fell back to his sides, lifeless. Yes, lifeless, that was the word. As if that biting kiss had drained something from him.
He was being forced to his knees by three pairs of hands, trying to will himself to fight back but feeling as if there was no more energy in his body. Defeated. He could see the white stitches in Azure Kite's costumed clothing like jagged pen strokes, wondering how he ended up like this, how the fire had somehow been snuffed out. Doesn't matter. Don't care. Kite had one hand on his shoulder, holding him still. The other tapped his head for a moment, almost with a sort of listlessness. And then it shot up into the air and he heard the familiar whoosh of something being summoned.
Haseo forced his heavy eyes upward, a note of panic shooting through his brain. And sure enough, there it was, a strange, fractured appearance to it, bright colors standing out beside his open hand. Data Drain.
And as a sudden, searing pain tore through his body for the second time, he threw his head back and screamed. That strange color filtered over him, green flowing over his body like a sickness, covering him as it did before, cutting off all air. It was real death, now. It was murder. And there was no other noise besides the steady rise of sound that the Data Drain caused. That and his own shouting. No, you bastards, no! NO!
And then the drain finished it's deadly spread and froze him. He saw from a distance his body hitting the floor. He saw the winged one pick him up by his hair and hold him like a prize before his small, red-clothed companion. He saw the one he called Tri-Edge look him over with eyes that were the very essence of insanity. And then he saw nothing at all.
Mac Anu had a different look to it his next log in. It almost seemed that every pair of distant eyes were locked on him. Knowing. He hadn't said a thing to anyone on his party, not Silabus or Kuhn or Pai, and certainly not to Atoli. And though they would sometimes give him weary looks or turn the other way when he glanced at them, it seemed nothing in their lives was very much different.
The hunt was different. The game was different. Somehow, different. But it was only with him, it was only him that noticed the colors seemed a little dry, or the people around the gate were a little too exhausted looking. He moved on as best he could, the energy flowing back into him over a matter of hours. It felt strange to sneer again, even though it was something he didn't dislike doing. It felt strange to glare at people when all he could seem to think of was that strange thing he could only bring himself to think of as a nightmare.
But there were some things it seemed he couldn't bring himself to do. And one of them was perhaps the most basic. Standing with his arms folded, listening to Yata's monotone drawl, he had shrugged his shoulders at last and said; "Fine, whatever. But remember, any information on Tr-"
He paused. Yata was silent, watching him. He thought of that leering face, of the blood on his lips, the taste of it on his mouth. He thought of those wide, grinning eyes, and the name died on his lips.
"Yes?" Yata asked him, perhaps sensing something new.
"Nothing." Haseo snapped, and he turned on his heel and headed for the exit.
He was feeling like a dead thing at the first few steps. He was feeling like an idiot in the follow seconds. He was feeling like a damn girl by the time he reached the door. But by the time he was out of the guild and back on the streets, he was beginning to feel like himself again, and in the long run, that was really all that mattered.