The golden pocketwatch kept ticking stubbornly upwards, marking off the seconds, heedless of her gaze. 'A server pushback?' was her first thought, even though there had been no global announcement – and then she breathed in. No matter how advanced, how real – or even better than real – the graphics, no matter how precisely-mapped the tactile sensor nets, no matter how rich and well-planned the soundscapes or how sweeping the orchestral score, no game had ever pretended to replicate smell.
It was – along with taste - a sense out of the reach of current technology; oh, there were designs in the pipeline, undoubtedly, but nothing out of the experimental stage. Everything else could be fooled, but the nose?
She breathed in, again, experimentally, and the heady perfume of roses and the bougainvillea that twined around the balcony filled her nose, sweet and heavy with all the promises of summer. Hot on its heels came the shock, bright-edged and glittering, threatening to overwhelm thought.
No logout option, no login screen.
Her menus, even the radial master menu, all of them had quietly vanished, somehow, and she couldn't get them back, try as she might with the habitual commands, the motions becoming more frenzied with each failure. She even tried the emergency disconnect, the legally-mandated hard exit that her VR set could never countermand or co-opt – a purposefully-uncomfortable set of motions that the suit's motion-interception tech ignored and which physically disconnected the power supply from the unit.
All that happened was that her arms – beautiful white-and-gold arms, with slender beringed fingers and wickedly-sharp brass nails – moved in a faintly ridiculous manner and her shoulders – powerful and heavy with the weight of eight shining white wings – shrugged vigorously, the motion setting her feathers all aflutter.
Tiny dust-devils skirled fitfully in the balcony corners from the manoeuvre – another thing that hadn't been in Yggdrasil before – even as thoughts scrambled for the emergency exit in her brain. 'What the fuck is going on?' echoed in the vaults of her mind, squirrelcaging around and returning itself to the forefront of her thoughts again and again.
Almost dreading it, she raised her hands to her face – or rather, to the serene mask that boosted her charisma, melding seamlessly with the armoured shell that was every angel's outer integument. It felt like cold metal – but also as sensitive and as responsive as flesh, a dichotomy that was hard to reconcile.
More than that, though, it moved under her questing fingers, and she felt it change with her own reflexive expressions – wide-eyed surprise and shock, then a gamut of grotesqueries as she tested it, still disbelieving.
But she was an engineer, a scientist – rationality had long ago sunk its hooks deep into her very soul. Accumulate data, accumulate facts, be ready to revise and review at any point – whatever remains at the end, no matter how far-fetched, has to be the correct explanation. Test and verify.
Experimentally, hardly daring to chance it, she opened her hand, palm-up, and laughed involuntarily in delight and giddy shock as a globe of pale pink light obediently popped into existence in accordance with her will, bringing with it a stronger scent of roses.
A Rose-Globe, one of a myriad of purely 'flavour' cantrips with no combat application, rarely used except by roleplayers – but here, now (wherever that was), impossibly and gloriously, it produced a sphere of shining light and all the scents of summer.
Magic didn't exist, several centuries of human progress was screaming it at her, and yet, clearly, it did. Here, anyway – wherever that was, exactly. Rationalist she might have been, but to disregard her own experiences would have been to fly in the face of that philosophy and all it stood for. She'd felt an energy, a pool of might she'd not tapped before, move through her when her will had crystallised into the desire for a Rose-Globe, spilling out into the world and rewriting it to her pleasure.
“There are more things in heaven and earth...” she murmured, the ancient quote seeming particularly apropos, even as she tried to wrap her mind around the engaging impossibility, distracting herself from the changes in her form, her body, who she was. It would hit her later, and hit hard, but for now, she was six years old again and the world was full of a magic and wonder it had lost as she'd grown up.
It was in this state, gazing at her slender fingertips and the cheery pink glow of her cantrip, that the servants of the Arce Bellum found her, the silver guards bracing to attention with their gauntlets crashing against their argentine cuirasses in a ringing clash of metal on metal.
“By order of the Grand Lieutenant-” Morningstar started in surprise and whirled, her wings rippling in agitation and buffeting the guards with displaced air, her face no longer serene and distant. NPC speech was another change; text had never managed to capture the rich and living timbre of a real voice “-all members of the guild and any remaining outsiders – begging y'pardon, Serenity – are to assemble in the throne room at once.”
She found her voice – and, to her redoubled surprise and consternation, rather than the usual soft and lilting notes issuing forth, they were confident, strident and double-toned, echoing cadences that rang, bright and confident, in the air.
Exactly as she'd described Morningstar's angelic voice, long ago.
“The Grand Lieutenant? That would be Grey, then? He's still here as well?” The guards nodded, and Morningstar took a step forward – or tried to. Instead of the usual motion, the elegant economy of bunching muscles and smoothly-functioning tendons acting against a skeletal substructure to produce a step, the whole of her gently drifted forwards and upwards, effortlessly borne slightly aloft, the very tips of her toes a few inches above the ground, the hover perfectly maintained without even the slightest wingbeat.
The weight pulling at her shoulders and back – when starting down the path of the angels, she’d never thought about how heavy the wings would be - suddenly dropped to nothing and she casually slipped the unyielding chains of gravity; angels were clearly meant to fly, even if that flight had little to do with the effortful thrashing of feathered wings through air.
The return to the main hall reminded her of Reidy’s present, heavy and pregnant with explosive might in her hand, an intricately detailed dragon on the cusp of exhaling a blast of ravening dragonfire. Wrought in red jade and with an ominously short fuse - which she’d pinched out and carefully wound back into its jaws with one slender finger – it was a princely gift, even if she was half-sure the infuriating lycanthrope had intended it to go off in her face.
“Reidy!” her voice boomed and rolled like summer lightning across the hall, and she lobbed the unused Dragon’s Breath back to him, a gentle underarm throw that saw it arc in a graceful curve without her even thinking about it. Not for nothing had she been Sephirot’s artillerist; an understanding of trajectories came in handy, for a start.
Returning it seemed the right thing to do; magical items were her forte, and it had been a particularly impressive example. To use it merely for fireworks seemed a waste.
Now, anyway. “A princely gift, sir, but one perhaps best returned to your…eccentric…keeping, for the moment. I suffer no lack of firepower, and I should hate to think of you bereft and impotent at the crucial juncture.” A split-second flicker of a burning golden eye, underscoring the sardonic lilt to her ringing tones, another mark on the endless tally-board between them.
Not that there was much time in which to score points; she could feel, in a way that no game had ever managed to emulate, the anxiety – and, yes, awe – of the guards flanking her, born out of a conflict between the desire to see their orders completed and the knowledge that here was a powerful creature of holy might, whose regard might crush them, should they give her cause.
“Lead on, gentlemen,” she said – remarkably calmly, the double-toned nature of her voice hiding any nervous wobbles – “It would not do to be ungracious to our host. I will have a surfeit of time to talk to Reidy about his behaviour – and his idea of suitable gifts - in the future, I’m certain.” Whether that talk would involve words or rusty cleavers was another thing entirely, and not something NPC soldiery - if indeed NPC was an appropriate label anymore - needed to know about.
The trip to the throne room was a relatively short one, and she was one of the last to arrive, a meeting – of sorts – already underway, with the imperial staff looking confused askance at Grey, seated uncomfortably on the golden throne.
Well, perhaps that was just her own impression.
“I don’t presume to speak for your other guests, Lord Andal-” she’d heard Grey’s ill-disguised subtext clear as day “-but I, for one, am aware of the change in circumstance,” she said, drifting closer and leaving her silver guards standing, uncertain, at the entrance. Unsaid – and not something she was ever going to say – was the notion that anyone who’d managed to ignore the evidence of their senses up to this point was severely deficient in the brains department.
“Painfully so, in point of fact, although I cannot as yet divine the why or how. The usual Greater Powers do not casually answer my summons-” the GMs; the Message spell still lurked in the vaults of her memory, but singularly failed to give a response when she’d tried it “-and the standard contingency against failure is also...not a viable option.” The emergency disconnect, in other words. “On the plus side, I am currently much more intimately wound with this mortal world. Senses are…enhanced, even ones for which I have little need. I would be unsurprised if others have noted the same.”
Morningstar sighed, then, looking around at the players – in varying states of shock and rage, to which she was by no means immune, although something seemed to breathe calm serenity into her very bones with every breath, sapping the worst excesses of her emotions and granting clarity, if not actual peace – and the NPC staff lining the throne room’s pillared expanse, their expressions a varied refrain on worry and confusion. “Understand that I mean no offence to the loyal imperial staff, but might this not be a circumstance in which we would be better served with a private conference? I mislike speaking in circumlocutions.” For all that she was good at it.