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The Pearl of Peisinoe

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the night was truly beautiful in soul and kings - brightly lit stars interrupted the inky sky while the soft, rhythmic sounds of various creatures filled the air. they called out to any heroes brave enough to go forward, beckoning them to the adventures that awaited them. the breeze that flew through jaebum’s hair and shifted his robes when the wind picked up was almost enough for him to forget this wasn’t real.

that the grass beneath his feet wasn’t genuine. the sense of accomplishment jaebum felt as his sword lead his party to victory was only a poor imitation of what pride really was. this feeling that crept through the warrior’s mind, the sense of discontent filling his thoughts, as well as the words of the game’s creator, inched along as he spent more time in this world. it was starting to worry him.

what exactly anchors the human mind to reality?

the peculiar phrase had lingered from the day jaebum started playing soul and kings. the creator of the game - the one who had hired jaebum to test out the various features of the game’s highly immersive atmosphere - had questioned the players as they were getting ready to log on to the game. he asked them to keep that phrase in their mind as they jotted down whatever had caught their interest during their explorations. other than that, the creator had little to say about the game itself, only giving short instructions about it before the players put on their headsets

that was over a month ago, and jaebum was starting to blur the lines: he knew for a fact that this strange, interesting world was not real. but the sights and the feelings that accompanied him throughout this expe -

“ jaebum hyung ! “ a booming voice called out to him, shattering whatever inner monologue he was having. one of his party members had arrived. “ hyung - did you fall asleep ? you weren’t answering our group chat,” jackson drawled out over the connection, whining as if jaebum could actually see the monk, “mark scouted ahead and found those skeletons in the caves - we have ‘bout ten minutes before they respawn.”

“ ah uh - um sorry jackson, i’ll be right there. can you get yugyeom to do his mage shit for quicker cooldowns?” jaebum muttered as he began to scroll through the drop box menu before quickly teleporting to the location where his party was headed.

his feet stumbled upon landing, the sudden upheaval was something that jaebum could never get used to. the warrior found himself jostled forward, bumping into yugyeom as he struggled to find his footing. the mage snorted and tried to hide his amusement as the so called leader of the party fumbled. Jaebum clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes at yugyeom before wedging an elbow in his side.

“ ouch, hyung, come on i have to cast a spell i can’t do that when i’m hurt.” the youngest whined. his staff shone in the night sky as he rubbed his side and a pout surfaced on his lips.

jaebum scoffed, watching as the younger’s hp bar remained at full length, “ shut up, there wasn’t even any damage, and we can’t feel pain because it’s a game, in case you forgot.”

before yugyeom could retaliate with whatever bullshit excuse, a flash of black appeared before the party’s eyes and signaled the arrival of the group’s assassin.

“ i’ve disarmed the enemies in the closest areas to us right now, let’s get started before they spawn again.” mark’s tone didn’t leave much room for argument, and jaebum let out another sigh before ushering his team into the caves.

“ y’all know the game plan right ? I’ll go in first and then Jackson get in behind me and yug try not to use any magic unless needed.”

--

coming out of the caves with dirt on his face and sore muscles, jaebum began to wonder why he hadn’t just picked the merchant class in the beginning. he could have made more money than a mere adventurer, and the idea of actually having a home in game instead of paying to stay at random inns throughout town was more appealing.

but it was too late now. a grimace twisted his lips as he and his party made their way into the inn centered in the nearest town. god, he was going to have to pay for his avatar to get a bath at the inn. the dirt stuck in his hair made him envious of his short hairstyle in real life - he thought it would be cool to base his character off of a joseon military official but the long hair was more constricting than he’d hoped.

jaebum opened the door of the lodging and a thin boy with black hair falling messily across his forehead, as though he was in the midst of cooking or cleaning, greeted them. pointed, leaf-like ears peeked out from underneath his untidy locks. jaebum had to hand it to the creator, the character designs were always .. erm, top notch. but this was the first time he found himself thinking an npc was cute - god, he was really becoming a shut in. thinking a game character was cute ? that was too far.

maybe he’d been logged in too long, he needed to take a break and bring his focus back to his real life.

the innkeeper smiled cheerfully as he studied their group, halting his bookkeeping to give them his full attention.

“ hello! welcome to the hogwash inn! my name’s jinyoung, how can i help you travelers today ?”

jaebum found this aspect of the game a waste of time - needing your avatar to eat and rest made the gaming experience a bit too real, but he supposed the old man wanted the game to be as challenging and realistic as he could make it.

and oftentimes it was helpful for newbies, as these npcs gave out hints on how to level up, as well as informed them of various quests that helped rookies gather rare items quickly.

but that didn't stop jaebum from ranting about it every time a report was due from the old man. it was just a hassle since no one could skip the dialogue like in older games.

so he made no effort to speak to the npc. instead, he headed towards the board positioned on the nearest wall to look at the quests the townspeople's had put up for passing adventurers.

“ ignore our fearless leader - he’s more feline than human at this point - he gets grumpy when he hasn’t had his nap,” jackson said as he strolled in moments after jaebum. even with dirt and grime, the monk still seemed as cheerful as he did when he had first logged on.

He knew he shouldn’t allow jackson to shorten his fuse, but jaebum was finding it hard to focus on a farmer’s call for help with the goblins in his garden, and he found it impossible when he heard jackson’s rambunctious laughter fill the inn - the monk had zeroed in on the innkeeper. “ wow, you’re a cute one aren’t ya.”

jackson pushed forward and leaned against the desk. he took out the party’s money pouch and sent jinyoung an easy smile on his lips. jackson always got a kick from speaking to the npcs ever since they had started the game. “ four single rooms please, and can we get some baths with that ?”

his gaze returned the innkeeper, watching as he broke into a polite smile. his eyes crinkled like the crescent moon that decorated the sky outside. he found himself irritated at how jackson was able to smitten the innkeeper, as if the boy’s reaction wasn’t programmed, handed out to whatever traveler arrived in his presence.

Jaebum slammed down his jeonrip in irritation as he watched jackson’s exchange with the innkeeper. jinyoung seemed to be the only one who noticed the sudden noise, glancing in his direction before he quickly returned to his books and gave jackson the price for the four rooms.

a familiar laugh rose beside him, starling jaebum for a moment. his fingers settled on the sword attached to his hip. mark rolled his eyes, the dagger in his hand swinging as he, too, watched the scene with little interest. “ you’re on edge today aren’t you ? why ? something in real life got you bugged ?”

jaebum only shook his head, unsure of what was causing his sour mood. he answered with a question of his own. “ aren’t you jealous ? seeing jackson flirt with all the npcs ? “

mark’s dagger stopped spinning, the aloof expression never leaving his face. “ why would i ? it’s not like they can flirt back.”

--

the tavern was located on the first floor of the inn and wasn’t as crowded as the ones in other towns, which was understandable since it was one of the lower-leveled towns. though nearly empty, there were a few familiar faces in the room and jaebum found himself sitting amongst old allies. they sat around the tables and discussed plans and strategies.

“ jaebum come on, the quest would be a lot easier if we had some more hands on deck.” sungjin, a fellow adventurer, urged. he drank as they spoke about the most recent mission that the old man had patched into the game a few days prior.

“ there’s these new sirens by the river of ai, and i heard from one of those npcs that if we’re able to pass by them we’ll be able to gather some contracts with the friendlier ones - we’d be granted such an advantage before the game even opens to the public.” jae added, absently plucking the strings of his guitar.

‘ i don’t know about that man, how can i put my party on a quest that hasn’t been prepared thoroughly ? i mean i know we go in blind since we’re supposed to be testing things out but yug has exams soon, we’re not at our most accessible right now.” jaebum sighed. his fingers tapped against the wooden table and his eyes shifted as he watched the innkeeper from the corner of his eye. jinyoung was busy pouring drinks for the other patrons. “ i’m sure nayeon’s girls would help, i heard they’re looking for a new quest last time we spoke. “

his face pulled into a frown - the throbbing in his head was starting to get to him. maybe it was time to log off after playing for nearly three hours.

“ listen sungjin i’ll talk to you about it later or something, i’m gonna log off.” he said with a wave of his hand, ignoring the complaints on his companions’ lips. he spared one more glance at jinyoung, who, by then, was finished pouring drinks and had returned to his station at the desk.

only sungjin responded to his goodbye, though he was obviously miffed at the rejection. he turned his attention back to his party members.

jaebum’s mind buzzed with mundane troubles as he walked away from the other adventurers. the image of his empty fridge was the most prominent picture in his mind as his vision slowly faded to black.

-

it was blurry when his vision returned - his fingers grasped at his bed sheets. they were rougher than he remembered. but this wasn’t his bedroom, nor was it the lab where the old man sometimes conducted their trails.

aside from the bedding on the floor, there was a single bowl of water with a damp towel at its side. the walls were almost paper thin with various paintings decorating the wall, like the rooms in historical dramas he sometimes watched.

this wasn’t his room - where the fuck did he wake up?

panic began to run through him - the realization that something wasn’t right filled the air. his vision cleared enough for him to notice someone else in the room. the innkeeper from soul and kings ? jinyoung’s face was full of worry. his brows pushed together as he watched jaebum come to his senses.

this wasn’t possible, he logged out ? he should be offline now, why was jinyoung here ?

“ what happened - why ?” he croaked out, his voice heavy with sleep. his eyes shifted as the panic continued to surge through his veins.

“ uh - ah, jaebum-ssi right ?” jinyoung’s voice was softer than it was before, the concerned look in his eyes made jaebum’s heart stick to his ribs. its frantic, heightened beating made jaebum frown before he managed a nod.

“ jaebum-ssi, you passed out in the main lobby. we brought you here to relax, you must have tired yourself out during your quest.”

yes, that was the protocol when they would overexert themselves and their avatar revived at the nearest inn.

but - he had logged out. why was he still here ?

“ ah thanks jinyoung-ssi but can you uh give me a moment ?”

the innkeeper was caught off guard by the request, but he quickly bowed, stood, then left the room after saying, “ if that’s what you need sir, but i’ll come back with a cup of tea in a few minutes. “

as soon as he left, jaebum quickly opened up the menu box. his eyes searched for the logout button, cursing when he struggled to find it. “ what the fuck, it was just here a few moments ago, come on, what’s going on ?” he continued to scroll up and down, scanning the menu for any sort of answer. his eyes widened when he noticed the messaging function was gone, too.

was he stuck ?

did this mean he was stuck in soul and knight ? no,no way.

“ shit shit shit, i gotta find jackson and everybody else. “

a searing pain ran up his stomach when he sat up - shit, what the fuck is going on ? his mind flashed to the last quest the team took: jaebum had sustained some damage when he diverted the enemies so yugyeom could cast a spell. jaebum felt another sense of dread wash over him as he realized this was the first time he had ever felt actual pain from an injury in the game.

but he couldn’t focus on that, he had to find his party. he grabbed his jeonrip and pulled on his hat. the beads swayed as he adjusted it. woah that’s heavier than he remembered it to be, but nevermind that. he needed to get out of this room.

the panic continued to fill jaebum’s mind as he pulled the door open to rush out. he bumped into jinyoung and the innkeeper nearly dropped the tray of tea on them both. jinyoung let out an exclamation of surprise before his face twisted into something jaebum had never seen on a npc before - was that irritation ?

“ jaebum-ssi ? why exactly are you running around my inn ? you’ve only just passed out, you should be resting in bed.”

“ uh, look jinyoung i appreciate you looking after me, but i got to find my party - i need to talk to them - i got t-”

jinyoung’s full lips fit into an annoyed frown. He wasn’t sure of how the npc would react any further, but instead of doing anything rash, jinyoung moved past jaebum and placed the tray on the floor next to the mats. “you’ve been asleep for almost a whole day, your party left a while ago to gather supplies , you’ll have to wait for now.”

but jaebum wasn’t paying much attention to jinyoung, too lost in his own thoughts.

jaebum couldn’t comprehend this. his party had left, the messaging system was down and the log off button was suddenly gone.

was he actually stuck in this game ?

he had to be dreaming. this had to be a dream, it wasn’t possible.

a breathlessness wrapped around him - as if the the oxygen in the room was disappearing, leading jaebum slowly and urgently to accept his faith. he tried to breathe in carefully, tried to calm the spinning in his head. causing panic in his own head was never a solution.

he forgot that jinyoung was still in the room and only remembered presence when jinyoung laid his hand gingerly on jaebum’s arms, almost warily. he gave the warrior a concerned smile. “ jaebum-ssi, please don’t worry - i’m here to assist you in anything you need while you stay here.”

his words were comforting, like a stream that ran through his mind, cooling whatever anxieties he had for the time being, though jaebum knew it was one of the many dialogues jinyoung was programed to say.

“ i don’t think you can assist me with my current issue jinyoung-ssi.” jaebum uttered, suddenly aware of an exhaustion washing over him. he paused, glancing at the innkeeper.

the creator’s question, of what anchors the human mind to reality, rose in the jumble of jaebum’s thoughts. his eyes glanced over at jinyoung and he thought of the clarity he felt at the npc’s touch - it made him suspicious of the fate of it all, both the question and his being trapped in the same game he was testing.

the line between game and reality had only became more blurred as he played. he had allowed himself to become increasingly attached the world he was currently stuck in, but as he noticed jinyoung’s worried expression, he was unable to give it more thought. instead he surrendered to the exhaustion that had been cloaking over him since he’d waken.

“ but i’ll take that cup of tea i guess.”