Level 1000


What would it be like if someone were trapped in their favorite video game as if it were real life?

Dina is about to find out…


He was beautiful. Not even a 75-inch OLED could have defined Arathiel like she was seeing him with her own eyes. His black hair fell around his shoulders in loose long waves. His olive skin was sculpted with light and shadow from the lowering sun, and his simple, loose clothes flattered the natural poise of the mer’s lithe body. Dina stretched her hand without thinking. She touched him, her fingers sliding across his cheek.

Arathiel’s eyes closed at her touch. He turned his face into her caress. His breath was warm on her wrist, as warm and light as a kiss.

“You’re not enchanting me, are you?” Dina asked.

A small smile quirked his mouth at her question. “What if I am?”

Dina tensed. This wasn’t in the game. It was too early. They hadn’t reached the Gaurdian Hills yet, and that was where their first romantic interaction was supposed to happen, when the companions took refuge from a Level 20 sand demon. That was when Dina would choose conspicuously to sit beside Arathiel, and the mer would open himself to new conversation paths. But ever since the Temple of the Mer, Arathiel had seemed peculiarly active. Some perilous feeling was hovering at the edges of his mood.

She pulled her hand carefully from him. “What’s wrong?” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

His dark eyes lifted. “Do you know what I am?”

Dina relaxed. This was familiar. She had played this dialogue a thousand times. But before she could answer, he interrupted.

“Do I amuse you?”

 She hadn’t meant to smile. She was just so relieved. “I—uh—”

“I see.” His lip stretched over his teeth. “So is this what I am. Entertainment. Aye, I see the way you look at me. You’ve known my kind before, haven’t you? That’s why you seem to ‘know’ me. What happened to the others? Did you pretend to be innocent with them and let them exercise the purest of their magic to win you? What do you do when you’re finished with us? Do you cut out our hearts and place them on the stone of Visku-Munr?”

The blood drained from Dina’s face. “I haven’t—”

“You used my blood.” The words left him in a harsh whisper. “You cursed me for the sake of your quest. You let that illusor cut me and offered my blood to our oppressor.”

Dina’s voice was taut. “It was your idea!”

“And you didn’t hesitate.” The venom in his voice was in his eyes as well, poisonous and cold. “But it’s nothing to you if I’m a damned outcast. You see so far into the future. Is this what you spared me for? To be your toy?”

This was so far left of field that for a moment Dina was speechless. She had never guessed the anger he had disguised from them all. She had never imagined the natural fear that must have followed his defiance of mer tradition, or the resent that would feed on that fear. But now his dark eyes were fixed on her, and the fire in them was agonized. Arathiel had always seemed so carelessly invulnerable. To see him like this made her ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t know. I do see the future, I guess, and sometimes I get mixed up. It’s hard for me to believe all this is real.”

He stared at her. His voice was incredulous. “Does this not seem real, human?” he asked. “Will it be real when you, too, are forced to suffer?”

When he turned, she reached for his arm. “Wait.”

He stood still.

“Can I see your hand?” asked Dina.

He knew what she was asking. He gave her his left hand and she unwound the bandage across his palm. His wound was obvious but healing, the closed cut showing no infection. She traced the red mark lightly before clasping his hand between hers. She scrubbed her brains for the words. She had the Allaver blessing memorized but for some reason the words were out of her head.

“God bless you,” she said. “May this hand that has bled be healed under wings of light. May you never forget the freedom that is your right, with life.”

She let him go. She expected him to say something mocking. But when he spoke, the mer’s voice was soft.

“God,” he said. “Is that a name for Allaver?”

She nodded.

“No one has blessed me before,” said Arathiel.

Dina took a deep breath. “You asked me if I know what you are,” she said. “In the game—well—in my visions—you ask me that question, too. That’s why I smiled. I’ve given the correct answer hundreds of times. I have your reply memorized. But I don’t want it that way, not anymore. I don’t want to know you through a script. Whatever you are to the world, to your own people, you’re my friend. I saved you because I couldn’t live with myself if I let you die.”

His dark eyes rested on her.

“You are not a usual human, Dina,” he said. “If I were not mer myself I would say you are my own kind. Your magic is very tempting.”

Dina tried to smile. Despite her revised prompt, he had said the exact words she remembered. Despite its realism, this was still pretend.

The mer’s motion was smooth. He captured her lips in a swift kiss. His intent was needful, and Dina gasped, her hands tightening on his arms. His sweet taste wooed her, and his passionate closeness was overwhelming. He turned his face and his lips touched her ear, gentle and light like a butterfly’s breath.

“Allaver be with you, seeker of fortune. May the roads of the wilderness bring you to the one road home.”

It was the blessing she had forgotten. She looked up at him, and his dark eyes were mischievous and bright.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked quietly, smoothing his hair between her fingers. “You have to tell me when you disagree with anything we do.”

His lips brushed her forehead. He stepped away, and his reply was mocking and evasive. “I didn’t disagree,” he said. “I wanted to do it myself. What do I care for a human custom? It was your silence that troubled me, not the trouble itself.”

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