Michael arrived at the eastern city gate just as the sun was about a third of the way through its descent to the western horizon.
“Afternoon, sir,” he greeted one of the guards at the gate.
“Afternoon,” the guard answered.
“I’m going to be leaving the city for a hunting trip. Is there a permit I need to purchase or something of that sort for my entry afterwards?”
The guard looked him over once or twice. When he saw Devil’s Cry’s badge where it hung, pinned to Michael’s chest, his expression relaxed.
“You must be a new member of the guild. Devil’s Cry members automatically have pass to enter and leave the city. So you don’t have to worry. Just make sure your badge is visible and you won’t have any issues at any of the gates either here, or at any of the neighbouring cities.”
‘How convenient,’ Michael thought, ‘However, I’m fairly certain you wouldn’t just give free pass for entry and exit to all the members of just any guild. Exactly what kind of relationship does Devil’s Cry have with the city and its rulers?’
Michael thanks the guard and passed through the gate. It was quite large, at least wide enough for three carriages to pass through side-by-side with some room to spare, and tall enough for three men to stand on each other’s shoulders, and still be unable to touch the ceiling.
The landscape outside was breath taking. Michael had caught a glimpse of it through the gate on his way here, but seeing everything stretched out in front of him was like having seen the sky from the bottom of a well for his whole life, and climbing out of the well for the first time. The view through the gate just didn’t do the full scene justice.
The landscape was a green mat which rolled gently from hill to hill. Forests dotted the landscape and covered the peaks of the most distant hills. A snake of tress also coiled through the landscape in between the hills, likely hiding a stream or small river within. It was early summer, and the second round of crops covered the hills closest to the city wall in bright, green waves. The hills from about halfway to the horizon and beyond were covered in green grass. Small groups of white and brown dots could be seen grazing on those hills. The hills just visible beyond the curve of the walls to the north were covered in vineyards, whilst to the south a wide, white, paved road burst into view from behind the wall, presumably from the southern gate, and extended southward. About two thirds of the way to the horizon it split in two; one of the branches continued south, while the other headed west, vanishing once more behind the curve of the city’s walls.
The road on which Michael was, whilst also neatly paved, wasn’t nearly as wide as the one that could be seen to the south. The roads appeared relatives newly paved, probably no more than twenty years ago. The stones were somewhat worn in lines where the most wagons’ wheels ran, but they hadn’t started cracking or weathering. It was clear they were well maintained as well, as no plants could be seen bursting through at the seams between the stone slabs.
The scene wasn’t exactly what Michael had imagined. There wasn’t a single large forest nearby, only smaller thickets on some hills and along the river. It would be at least two days’ travel to reach a large forest, which was likely beyond the horizon further to the east. Michael had some extra money, however, thanks to not having to pay entrance fees at the gates, so he hired a carriage to take him to the nearest big forest.
“You’re heading out on a hunt? You’re a bit young to be going at it in your own, aren’t you?” the driver asked as he took Michael’s money.
‘You ask that, but you don’t have a problem taking my money, do you?’ Michael asked under his breath.
“It’s no problem, don’t worry about it. I’m more capable than you’d think,” Michael pointed at his Devil’s Cry badge, “This should vouch for my abilities.”
“Hoh, a Devil’s Cry badge! I haven’t seen one of those in ages!” the driver said surprised, “Alright then, can’t argue with the badge. Hop on and I’ll have you out there by sunrise tomorrow!”
Michael hopped on to the carriage and it headed off.
He watched the landscape slowly crawl by as the carriage trotted forward. The world’s shadows slowly grew longer, and the landscape slowly grew ever more golden. The light eventually dimmed, and Michael could see the dark of night approaching them from the front. He had initially thought they would stop somewhere for the night, but even as the darkness surrounded them, the driver showed no intention of stopping.
‘He seems to be intent on keeping his word, I might really be at the forest by sunrise. Well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I really should get some rest.’
Michael closed his eyes, and let a different darkness envelope him. He didn’t log out, however. Instead, a moment after his vision went dark, a pop-up menu appeared.
Dear Player, it read, You are one of the lucky few whom have been chosen to experience Cosmos Gate in a whole different light. We have already contacted your family and gained their consent, so all we need is your approval to begin with the trial. Please read through the details below and tick ‘yes’ if you want to take part, or ‘no’ if you would like not to take part. Please rest assured that even if you choose not to take part in the trial, you will still have full access to the game, and will not be penalised in any way for opting out. We would, however, encourage you to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance!
‘Cool!’ Michael thought, ‘But what exactly are they planning to do that would require my family’s consent?’
The message hovered in the darkness in front of Michael for a few more moments before vanishing. It was replaced by a large body of text. The gist of the whole thing appeared to be that Michael would be one of a few dozen beta testers that would be given full access to the full capabilities of the immersion caskets. The limits on his other senses would be removed, it would be like he was truly in another world. He would also no longer be able to access to any of the user interface, nor would he be able to log off for a period of a week in real life. This meant that he would spend a full ten uninterrupted weeks in the game.
He would also be under perma-death, which meant that if he died, he would be kicked from the game and his character deleted. If he took part in the trial, there were some small health risks, as such a long immersion dive had never before been attempted, at least not on this scale. However, he would receive a considerable monetary reward for agreeing to take part in the trial.
‘I don’t have to do anything major for the next week. My university work is ahead of schedule, I’m not writing any tests or exams, my assignments due for the week have already been handed in… I don’t see any reason not to do it..’
Michael carefully combed through his memories to see if there was anything he might be forgetting, and read through the text several more times. Of course, the monetary reward wasn’t the only reason Michael wanted to take part in the trial. Doing something no one else had done before, or at least being part of the first group of people to do it, was a strong incentive in its own right. Michael loved the idea of adventure, of doing something new and extraordinary.
‘Alright, let’s do this.’
Michael willed it, and the ‘Yes’ box was ticked. The message vanished and a mass of information suddenly rushed into his mind. The world around him suddenly became far more clear. His sense of touch, smell, and taste were immediately on part with his sight and hearing. It didn’t stop there, however; once his three previously dumbed senses were on par with his sight and hearing, they all began to improve. His sight became about twice as good as it had been before, which was 20/20. His hearing became quite acute as well. His sense of touch became more profound; he could feel even the grain of the wood on which his hands rested. He was suddenly able to smell several different scents. The first to flood his nose was the scent of flowers, then that of wheat, and finally that of cow dung. The last smell made him sneeze a couple of times. It was unclear how much his taste had improved. He would have to wait until he had something to eat to find out.
Michael opened his eyes and looked at the world around him. Everything was clearer than it had been before he had last closed them. The most evident change of all was that the darkness wasn’t as opaque as it had been before. Though he couldn’t say that he could see in the dark, it certainly wasn’t as much of a barrier to him as it would have been before. He should be able to see clearly for about ten metres around him, and be able to make out shapes for about twenty metres, even on a cloudy, moonless night.
It felt like he had been experiencing the world through a layer of plastic before. He had been a groom whose wife had been hidden behind a veil, who had been forced to gaze at her through it. But now the bride had been unveiled and he could behold her in all her glory. The two of them had become one, truly united.
Michael suddenly felt very tired, however. His eyes were quick to fall shut again, and he fell into a deep, true, slumber.