“Welcome, Michael Fortner.”
In an instant, the world around me had changed. The room with bed had turned into a hall in the cave, and Sherry’s corpse was no longer here.
I felt a sharp pain in my head, and with a snap, all my memories returned back to me.
Yes, this was the real world. The world I had been in before was a fake one. Was that the Trial? Then did I fail, or did I pass? I have too little information to decide that right now.
And neither do I have the time.
“Your hands are shaking really hard; just what did you do in that world to get out?”
My eyes inadvertently went to my arms, and as that man had said, they were still trembling. The weight of killing Sherry, even if it was in a fake world, was simply too much for these hands.
“…………To get out?”
I asked the man with the peculiar appearance which I instantly recognised. After all, that’s the figure I saw every day in the mirror.
That………… thing, which had my face, body and voice, didn’t make any effort to get up from the ground.
“So the reason I got out of that world was because I killed Sherry?”
“Wait, what?” His eyebrows shot up. “You killed Sherry? Damn, that’s a pretty bold move.” He chuckled. “But you wouldn’t have killed her under normal circumstances, so that means…..”
“It means that you were ejected by that world.” He grinned.
Ejected? What does he mean by that?
“Let me explain it to you. That world is one which was formed around your desire. It showed you everything you want, or wanted, to do. Your goal was to reject that world by your own will and choose reality. Now, it seems that that world decided that you weren’t capable of doing that, so it kicked you out on its own.”
Around my desires, huh…… I see. That certainly makes sense.
“So by making me kill Sherry, it forced me out-”
“Making you kill?” He scoffed. “Did you hear anything I said? Didn’t I just tell you that the world was formed around your desires?”
“B-but, you also said something about-”
“Killing someone was the condition for you to escape that world, but that’s all it was. The decision to kill Sherry was yours, and yours alone.”
The scene of Sherry’s corpse lying in a pool of her own blood flashed before my eyes, and my body involuntarily trembled.
Killing Sherry was my own decision? Impossible! I wouldn’t even dream of something like that.
Yes, that world had messed with my mind by showing me one cruel scene after another. Then it made Sherry get in my way, because of which I accidentally killed her. Right, I never even wanted to kill her in the first place.
And if we’re going by that logic, then this man must be here to mess with my mind too! There’s a possibility that this is just another scene inside the fake world, or that this is just an illusion. Shit! I should have asked Samael to teach me his anti-magic spell!
But no worries, if this man is here to just fuck with my mind, then I won’t let him.
“Aaah aah, this is such a pain.” He suddenly groaned.
He sprawled out on the ground and sighed. With eyes that held no light within them, he looked at me.
“You know, Michael. I am actually you.”
He is me? Well, considering his appearance which is exactly similar to mine, I can see where he’s coming from.
“Don’t delude yourself. There’s only one Michael, and that’s me.”
“Is that so?” He snickered. “Actually, there’s more to my declaration. By being you, I also have every memory that you have, and can feel everything that you have felt. I essentially have the same personality as you.”
Everything that I have felt? Then why is he standing in my way? If he’s indeed me, then he should be helping me pass this Trial so that I can get the God-class weapon and get closer to Samael’s level!
And my personality? Seriously? I can get lazy, yes, but not so much that I’d lie on the ground like that.
“My goal in appearing before you is to confirm your resolve; to see whether you are worthy to be a Hero or not.”
“Say, are you really me?”
“Then tell me, am I really worthy?”
“Of course not.” He grinned. “You are the guy who let your closest friends die. Heck, even the Demon King is more worthy to be a Hero than you.”
I……… completely agree.
There’s no point in denying it. I have failed just too many times to be called a Hero. My shoulders are simply too weak to bear the burden of the title ‘Hero’.
“Your smile tells me that you agree.” He slightly shook his head. “But as Ms. Cecile always says; you are a Hero. So, even though I already know the answer, I have no choice but to conduct the Trial.”
Hmph, it seems he does have some similarities with me. As Ms. Cecile says, I am the Hero. I was the one chosen instead of Samuel.
This is just a ‘but’, but…………
I wish he had been chosen…………
But there’s no way my wish would be fulfilled. So my only choice is to clear this Trial, get that God-class weapon, and avenge Arthur and Susan.
And for that, I must not get caught up in my enemy’s pace. He’s here to fuck with my mind, after all.
“Hey.” I called out to him. “You said that while killing someone was the condition to get out of that world, the choice to kill Sherry was my own.”
“Precisely.” He replied with a nonchalant tone. “Because deep down, you also think that your classmates don’t deserve to live.”
“Well, don’t you believe this too? What worth do they have when Arthur and Susan are not here? It wasn’t just your fault that they died; if you were weak, then so were they.”
…………Is this guy really me?
“Isn’t that the whole point?” He frowned at my answer. “I was supposed to be their leader, which means that I was the strongest among them. I took that role myself, so it goes without saying that their lives were my responsibility. So the one who failed to protect them was me, and no one else.”
I should have known from the start that I was not suited for such a role.
“While that is indeed true.” He nodded in understanding. “Did you really take on that role by your own volition?”
Hmm? Ah, I know where he’s going with this.
“Sure, my friends encouraged me into taking it, but I’m also at fault for accepting it. Besides, they didn’t really have a choice; I was the strongest after all.”
Just, I still wasn’t strong enough.
The day we attacked the Demon King Solomon’s castle is still burned into my memory. His overwhelming power which brought us on our knees within seconds still sends shivers down my spine.
As a leader, it was my duty to lay down my life to ensure everyone’s survival. Yet, I wasn’t even given the chance to do that.
And that’s why, Susan and Arthur’s deaths are on me.
“Don’t you think that you are forcibly making their deaths to be your fault? The class is a system, and all failures should be equally divided among parts of that system.”
“That would work when everyone is absolutely equal in that system. But a class is different. We are all humans, so we have our own strengths and shortcomings. My strength was that I was the strongest among all the Heroes, and my shortcoming was that I was not fit to wield that kind of power. I was the leader of the group that invaded the Demon King’s castle. I should have accounted for a situation where he would be stronger than our anticipation.”
“And you mean to tell me you didn’t?” He narrowed his eyes. “You were prepared for that, weren’t you? That’s why you swiftly used that teleportation skill to get everyone out of there.”
“True, but my imagination was still limited. I hadn’t even dreamed that he would take all of us out within seconds. And then when I cast the teleportation spell, I didn’t include Susan in it.”
That teleportation was the dumbest failure on my part. I failed to include Susan and left her there. Then, instead of teleporting inside the castle, I got us to the front of the city gates. If I hadn’t made that blunder, then we could have saved Arthur.
Who else is to blame if not me?
“But the question is.” He grinned again. “Did you really cast that spell? We both know that your memories of the events of that time are fragmented.”
“Then who else could have done it? Don’t say Solomon.”
I’m now certain that this man is not me. He might know some things about me, but that’s all. He’s simply making pathetic attempts to shake my psyche and finish me.
Indeed, he must be a monster. Ms. Cecile did say that she knew nothing about this dungeon, so it’s possible that I have already passed the Trial, and this is just a monster that can mimic the appearance of people.
So all I need to do is-
“So all I need to do is attack him with my all without thinking anything to finish him off. That’s what you’re thinking right now. Right, Michael?”
“Impossible, did he just read my mind? Does he have mind-reading skills? What are the conditions? Is there a time limit? There has to be one. I must strike in that gap, or my moves would be seen through.” He finally made an effort to stand up, but failed and gave up. “That’s what you are thinking right now.”
This is ridiculous!
No, wait. If he does have mind-reading skills, then I must avoid thinking-
“I think you’ve trouble understanding what I meant. I am you, and you are me. I’m such a perfect copy of you that I could replace you and even the person closest to you would not notice.” He then grumbled. “Of course, they’re all dead now.”
That was the truth? No, that’s not possible! He must have some other trick up his sleeve!
“Let’s go back to Sherry’s death, shall we?” He finally stood up and started walking towards me. “When I mentioned her, you perhaps rationalised her death by thinking that the world first messed with your emotional state, and then made Sherry get in your way. Because of all that, you ended up killing her.”
Wha!? Since when has he been reading my mind?!
“Now, Michael.” He sneered. “Have you noticed the anomaly in your words?”
What is he talking about now? I still can’t decipher his true intentions.
“Yes. There’s something fundamentally wrong in your assumption.”
Wrong? No matter how I look at it, that’s the only possible explanation! I didn’t want to kill Sherry; I was actually thankful to her for staying by my side and sharing my grief. But then the world interfered, we got into a scuffle, and I accidentally killed her.
This makes perfect sense!
“Then let me tell you.” His grin vanished and was replaced by a sharp gaze that threatened to drill a hole through me. “You killed Sherry because she got in your way!”
Eh? What? What is he saying?
“It’s true that Sherry got in your way, but only because she didn’t want you to throw away your life. But you attacked her instead.” His voice became louder. “You attacked her with the intention to kill her!”
“T-That’s not true! I!”
“Then why did you use your sword?! You could have just pushed her away, couldn’t you!”
“N-no, I…. I didn’t mean to do that! It just happened!”
“It happened because somewhere in your heart you wanted to do it!”
“Nooo! You are wrong! I would never do it!”
How could I do something like that?!
“From the moment we came into this world, I have worked the hardest to protect them! I have sacrificed a lot of things just to make sure that none of them would lose their smiles!”
And this monster says that I secretly want to kill them? Utter bullshit!
“From the moment you came into this world? Ha!” He scoffed. “Who are you kidding, Michael?”
No no no, I must not listen to a single thing this monster is saying! They are lies spouted in order to confuse and defeat me!
“If you actually had done that, then Arthur and Susan would have been alive!” He shouted and pointed his finger at me.
I could feel my fingernails digging into my palms, but I couldn’t care any less about that right now.
“I don’t care about your bullshit, so just stop and fight me like the monster you are!”
“Don’t care? Don’t CARE, you say? Just like how you don’t care about all this Hero bullshit, right?”
“That is not true!”
I don’t care about being a Hero? How dare he! When I have lost two of my important friends, when the lives of others still ride on my shoulders? How could I not care?!
“Ah, right. You have started to care now. Back then-”
“Stop.” My heart was screaming at me to just take out my sword and kill this bastard right here and now. “Don’t say another word, or-”
“Or what? You will kill me? Just like you did Sherry?” He shook his head exasperatedly. “Your eyes tell me you really would. Did my words anger you? They must have. After all, you still regret not taking things seriously back then.”
“……I said stop.”
Do not trample on my feelings, do not dredge up my past mistakes.
Do NOT deny the man I am now just because of what I could not accomplish before!
“Oh, and why should I? So that you can continue to hide from your crimes? When you arrived in this world, not only were you happy that Samuel had disappeared, but you also thought that you got a new game to play.”
“I said SHUT UUUUUUUUUUPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!”
I quickly lunged at him with my sword to shut his trap, and he met my sword with his own. I pulled back a little and struck again, only to be met with a hard sensation again. We did this again and again, but my sword didn’t reach him.
“What happened, Hero-boy? Is this all you can do?” He suddenly vanished, and then I felt an impact on my stomach which sent me flying. “Hmph, nothing more than trash. The way you’re now, you will never even touch me.”
I smashed into a boulder and fell to the floor. But before I could get up, he appeared in front of me and stomped on my chest.
“What do you say? Was what I said the truth?”
“Ah, right.” He hit his forehead with his palm. “You didn’t rejoice on Sam’s disappearance; you.” He bent down till I could hear his breathing, and stared straight into my eyes. “You lamented it. Right, Michael?”
Lamented it? I?
“It’s true that his existence irritated you to no end, but you also saw him as your dear friend.”
Friends? Me and Sam? Hah, when hell freezes over.
He narrowed his eyes and put more strength into his foot.
“Then what about all those things you did for him? Like the surprise birthday party you planned for him with Susan and Chloe?”
“T-that was for Susan…”
“Uhuh.” He nodded in an exaggerated manner. “You do remember that you volunteered by your own will, don’t you?”
That was because I thought that Susan won’t be able to handle it alone. Yeah, that’s it. I didn’t do it because I wanted to do it or something.
“You even paid a significant amount out of your pocket to buy his gift. Then there are those times when you covered his absence in the class by lying to the teacher. And how many times have you helped resolve the fights between him and Susan? You also introduced him to the class so that he could make more friends. On many occasions you have slept late just so you could help him in grinding for materials in games. You have done homework together, gone out to eat with just the two of you, shared countless memes. Would you really have done all that for an enemy?”
“T-they were all situations that occurred due to Susan!”
“All of them? Dude, at least make up a better lie.” He chuckled. “Let me give you an accurate description of what you felt when you came to this world.”
“You were immediately saddened over losing Sam. You felt that you could, and should, have taken his place into doing that job for that God. You were disappointed that your fear had stopped you from even stepping forward during that crucial time. In your grief, you didn’t take this world as seriously as you should have; you half-heartedly did your part thinking that someone else would take charge. But not only were you made the leader of your classmates, you also failed them horribly and ended up losing Arthur and Susan to laughable mistakes.”
“Yeah, laughable.” He sighed. “If Samuel were to hear about them, he would laugh at you. Don’t you think so?”
He…………………………………………… is right. If Sam were to see me in this condition, he would laugh.
“Yeah……… even after the deaths of Susan and Arthur, he would be able to laugh.”
“Aren’t you exaggerating? He wouldn’t laugh over their deaths-”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you really sure that Samuel Hayden will never laugh at their deaths?”
“I-I mean, why would he? They were his friends too.”
“Yeah, but he’s still capable of that. Surely you must have sensed it too.”
Sam, laughing at their deaths? I-I, no, he- I…………
“I-I don’t think he’s that kind of person.”
“Really? The guy who abandoned you just like that is not that kind of person?”
“Didn’t he abandon you, Arthur and Susan, and took that job?”
“He did that to save our lives!”
Why else would he leave us so abruptly? No matter how despicable he was, he still wasn’t that kind of man! I’m sure that he treasured our relationship just as much as we did!
“Then why didn’t he say goodbye?”
“Did he bid you guys farewell before being separated?”
“No, no he didn’t. B-but that must be because-”
“Michael, Michael, Michael.” He wagged his finger and smiled wryly. “Can you describe to me his expression before you guys parted ways?”
Before we parted ways?
I still remember that day clearly. Before he stepped into that weird magical formation, he turned to us and-
“He………… was smiling.”
Ahh, maybe that smile was his final farewell to us?
“Correct.” He clapped. “And now, can you tell me, exactly what type of smile that was?”
“What kind? What-”
Oh. My. God.
No wait! Maybe I’m remembering wrong. Yes, that’s it; my memories are jumbled! That has to be it! Because if it’s not-
“Allow me to spell out your thoughts. That was……………” He frowned, and his glare sharpened. “A smile of amusement.”
No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no!
That’s not possible! There has to be some mistake! Surely, even Sam wasn’t that twisted!
“Ironic, isn’t it?” He laughed dryly. “To him, that event was nothing more than something interesting.
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! He’s wrong! Samuel sacrificed himself for us! He put his own life on the line so that we could live! And I failed him! Those are our correct roles!
“That makes more sense, actually. Aside from an empty joke, he put up next to no resistance to the God’s demands; he actually went ahead with them. To him, our continued existence was just an added bonus; he accepted that job because he thought it was interesting!”
“NOO! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!”
Don’t sully him, don’t sully our friendship! Don’t trample over our feelings! Don’t defile the sanctity of his actions!
I grabbed his leg and tried to twist it to get it off me, but it didn’t budge.
“Denying won’t get you anywhere. It’s the truth. You saw him as your friend. You laughed with him, played with him, helped him, you mourned for him. Till this date, you continue to rue not being able to take his place. And what did he do? He cast you aside the moment he found something more interesting than you.” He stared at me with cold eyes. “To you guys, Samuel Hayden was your world. But to him, you were nothing more than just ways to pass the time.”
“Stop………… stop……… Please.”
Please, just stop. This cannot be true; this must not be true.
Because if it is………… then about Susan’s feelings? What about Arthur’s feelings? What about my feelings? What about the emotions and tears and cries and wails of all those people who considered him precious?
Were they all for waste? Did they amount to nothing for him?
“In the end, you were right, Michael.” He lifted his foot off me and turned around. “Samuel Hayden was never worthy of your friendship. The hunch you had when you first met him, proved to be right in the end.”
Ahhhh………… I did feel something like that when I first met him in the gaming arcade. My gut was telling me not to trust him, but I chose to ignore it.
Should I have listened to my instinct?
Maybe………… I should have.
“In the end, you were the only one who truly loved your friends, who stood by their side till the very end.” He faced me again. “You were their only friend.”
Yeah, that is true, isn’t it? I did everything I could for them, didn’t I? And all Sam did was play around; he abandoned us when we needed him the most. If he had been there instead of me, then perhaps Arthur and Susan wouldn’t have died.
“But do you know that another Samuel Hayden has appeared in your life?”
“It’s your teacher, Samael.”
“H-how is he like Samuel?”
“Why don’t you tell me your impression of him?”
What do I think of him……?
“I think he’s a good teacher, who cares for us. He has been paying attention to all of us, and has helped us improve our abilities-”
“Cares for us?” He snorted. “Have you forgotten how brutally he beat you guys on your first training session?”
“He looked down on you and condescendingly turned all of you into half-dead just to prove his point. Not only that, he also lied and manipulated you into using your strongest skill back at the tournament. As Cecile had told you later, the barrier was not as strong as Samael made it out to be. In that sense, he’s uncannily similar to Samuel.”
……………Now that he mentions it, that’s true, isn’t it? Samael might appear to care for us on the surface, but we are mere toys for him. He’s playing with us because it’s interesting, and when he gets bored, he’ll throw us away.
Just like Samuel did.
“We cannot let him become important to your friends. Their hearts will not be able to handle another parting like that. Don’t you think it’s your duty to protect your friends from him?”
“Yes, it is.”
Who will protect them from Samael if not me?
“Before he becomes any more precious to them, we must take the matter in our hands and take him out of the picture.”
Yeah, that’s true.
“But how will we do that?”
“It’s simple; just kill him.”
What? No, that’s………… that’s……………… the only way, isn’t it?
“B-but will I be able to do it? Isn’t he stronger than me?”
A slight smile appeared on his face, and he started walking towards me until we were face-to-face.
“Don’t worry.” Suddenly, his smile turned into a wide, toothy grin. “I’ll help you.”
His body started glowing, and then disintegrated into light particles which were absorbed into my body. I felt strength coursing through my body while mana swirled around me.
“So let’s go, Michael.”
A heard a voice inside my head, followed by a snigger that seemed to be full of glee.
“Let’s go and kill Samael.”