When Luna, Astrid, and Anna arrived at the guild headquarters, Lyria and Amelie were already there with another new person. She was a girl with short blonde hair, the same shade as Amelie's.
The moment they entered the front door, Amelie immediately got down on her knees and hugged the guildmaster's legs. "Astrid, please let twinnie join the guild!"
"Twinnie?" Astrid was confused.
"This is Christina. She's my twin 'cause we have the same name and hair color." Amelie pointed at the short-haired girl. "We met her while farming. She wants to join the guild."
"I see you have a new recruit too," said Lyria when she noticed Anna, who was in euphoria. "Is she alright?"
Anna was drooling in happiness.
Astrid laughed nervously. "She's perfectly fine."
Anna started mumbling to herself. "This is too much for me to take in. I have to control myself or they're all going to ostracize me for being strange!"
"I'll go make food for a welcome party!" Amelie rushed to the kitchen.
The bard's self control broke immediately. "Yes! I will gladly eat the cooking of the princely beauty even if it kills me!"
"Princely beauty?" Amelie tilted her head.
"Chris, the princely beauty!"
Amelie smiled. "You called me Chris! I like you!"
The words struck Anna's heart deeply like a harpoon. She began grinning like an idiot. Ahh! The princely beauty likes me!
Astrid laughed. "Well, I guess things are going to get lively from now on. Welcome to the guild!"
That night, Astrid laid out the ingredients for strawberry cake on the dining table while everyone else was asleep in the bedroom. She carefully reduced the amount of noise she made while preparing the materials.
"Astrid!" Someone suddenly called out her name in a whisper. It was Luna.
"Luna, you scared me."
"Listen, I need to talk to you about something." The lady knight sat at the dining table.
"It's about today's hacking incident." Luna paused. "Just before the first preliminary round, I ran into Tank who was chasing after a hacker. I helped him out, but the hacker unfortunately escaped."
"Tank?" Astrid suddenly recalled the secret note Sphinx gave her at the arena during the single battles.
Don't trust the Knights Alliance.
Luna continued, "That player dropped a handkerchief." She took it out of her inventory and showed it to Astrid. "During the celebration party when we sat at the same table as Black Rose, I found out that Jasmine had the exact same handkerchief. She claimed to have made the design."
Astrid nodded. "Garth told me he heard a rumor that there was a hacker within Black Rose."
"Do you think it's Jasmine?"
"Someone could be framing her."
Luna sighed. "Do you think something like today is going to happen again?"
"There's a huge possibility. We have to be careful."
"Alright." Luna's gaze landed on the ingredients on the table. "Are you baking something?"
The guildmaster blushed a little. "I'm just practicing."
Luna smirked and nudged her. "Are you making food for Garth?"
"Well, if it turns out well, I might give him some."
"Good luck, Astrid! I'll head back to bed now. Thanks for listening."
When Luna entered the bedroom, she saw Christina near the door. Christina looked extremely calm the moment Luna bumped into her.
"Which way is the bathroom?" Christina asked with a smile.
"Oh, just go straight and enter the last door."
How long has she been standing here? Did she overhear our conversation? Luna thought.
She watched Christina exit the room before going to bed and shrugging the thoughts off.
The next day, the girls continued farming for pizza ingredients. They took a break during lunch time. Astrid teleported to town and walked around Lamont's square looking for Garth. She held the gift-wrapped box of cake she meant to give him.
"Hey Astrid!" Jasmine waved. She was sitting alone on a bench. "Looking for someone?"
"Yeah. Have you seen Garth around?" Astrid replied.
Jasmine giggled. "He's at the town outskirts. He should be sitting under a tree."
Astrid walked through the town gates and went around searching for the guildmaster of Black Rose. She climbed up a tall tree to have a better view of the area. It wasn't long before she found him sitting under the same tree she climbed. As she positioned herself to move back down, she made a lot of noise. Garth cast a wind spell by reflex, causing Astrid to fall off the tree.
"Ouch..." Astrid brushed off the bits of grass on her clothes as she slowly stood up.
"Astrid." Garth's eyes widened in surprise, then returned to its usual sleepy state. "Sorry. I thought you were a monster."
Astrid laughed awkwardly as she got up. "I made you something."
"I hope the fall didn't ruin it." She opened the box to check. The strawberry cake was still in one piece. She sighed in relief.
Garth recognized the scent of strawberry. "Is that cake?"
She nodded and gave him the box with a fork, which he received.
"Thank you. It smells really good." He took a bite.
"How is it?"
He smiled. "Delicious." He pat the patch of land beside him. "Come sit."
She sat down on the ground. "So what are you up to?"
"I'm just thinking."
"About this world... about the life I used to have in the real world..." He looked up at the leaves above him. "At first this world was just an extension of the real world. A place for play and enjoyment we occasionally visit. Now, we're completely immersed in this world. We're living as if we've lived here from the beginning. Do you ever think about these things, Astrid?"
"Is this the direction human life is supposed to be taking? Is it alright to remain this way? I keep asking these questions, but I know there's no one who can answer them." He paused. "I also want to know the Astrid from the real world."
She smiled. "The Astrid from the real world isn't a very interesting person."
"The Garth from the real world also isn't very interesting, but I'll still tell you about him."
"Thanks." She leaned back. "In the real world, I liked reading books and playing videogames. I didn't go out much, unless I had school. I only had a few friends."
"Do you ever miss the real world?"
"Sometimes I do, but I'm having too much fun here."
"What about you?"
"Occasionally, I remember my old life, back when I got to see my parents and my brother every day. It never occurred to me that we'd get separated like this."
"What will you do if you find your brother?"
"I don't know yet." His face looked a bit serious. "That depends on what kind of person he became after the time we spent apart."
They both fell silent and just enjoyed the sound of leaves rustling.
"Garth, something happened at Mir." Astrid broke the silence and began narrating to him about the incident.
"So it started, huh? Thanks for telling me."
"Do you know anything about this?"
"The only thing I can say for certain is that someone probably reprogrammed that NPC. I know nothing about the culprit and the motive yet."
"Another thing I find strange is that no valkyrie or moderator showed up to stop that NPC."
Garth paused to think. "Perhaps there's a line of code in the hack that prevented them from noticing. For example, they could cut off a certain area of the town from the automated patrols by treating it as part of the void."
"The void is basically nothingness. An area of space in this world where nothing exists. It's like a blank canvas. Normally, players wouldn't be able to access it, but it might be possible to go there through a teleportation hack."
Astrid recalled what she knew about artificial world development. Artificial worlds started out with a base layer, very much like how Garth described the void. From there, super developers could build their desired world. It was somewhat like a blank template, ready to be filled with unique content.
"I see," said Astrid. "There's one more thing you should know." She told him about the hacker that dropped a handkerchief similar to Jasmine's.
"Jasmine?" Garth's eyes widened.
She nodded. "We still don't know the exact connection yet."
"I see. Thank you for the information." Garth summoned his menu tablet to check the time. "Sorry. I have to go back now. I'll see you around. Thanks for the cake, Astrid!" He waved and teleported out of sight.
Astrid remained seated under the large tree. A leaf fell on her face as she looked up at the leaves above her. As she took it off her face, she felt its texture with her fingers. It felt real. Everything in that world felt real even if they were artificially made by humans.
She closed her eyes and took a short nap, dreaming of the old world that now felt far away.
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