— 2 —
–This was when Nekomimineko was still in its infancy.
During this time, when not even Rapid Cancel Dash had been discovered, there had been a video that became the topic of discussion between Nekomimineko players.
The title of that video was “The Repenting Man”.
It was a very concise video of a man relentlessly smacking his head against the wall inside of a white room.
“It’s been a while since I’ve come here.”
While taking in the unique atmosphere of a church, I stepped into a room filled with the music from a pipe organ.
I hadn’t visited this place recently, even in-game.
It had been a great help early game, but the basic function of a church in this game was to cure abnormal statuses. In Nekomimineko, where it’s rather easy to learn abnormal status curing magic, players rarely continued using the church’s services past mid-game.
However, this time, I did not come to cure any abnormal statuses. There was one other function of this church that every Nekomimineko player knew about.
That was the reason for my visit.
I unhesitatingly walked through the church, and called out to a kind-looking sister standing inside.
“How may I help you?”
Her name was Marielle. She was a sister of this church, and she was also the one who watched over a certain room.
As her innocent smile somehow stimulated my sense of guilt, I decided that that was exactly the spice I needed in order to for this request to succeed. So, making up my mind, I opened my mouth.
“I would like to use the confession room.”
The confession room was, as its name suggests, a room where one repents by confessing their sins to God. Only, the one actually listening would not be God, but rather the priest, so it may be more convenient to think of it as a small partitioned room where the confessor and priest held a life counselling session through a small window.
It wasn’t clear why this game needed something like a confession room, but, apparently there had been a caption “Event contents are affected by karma! All new drama filled penance system!” in an early Nekomimineko promotion, so it could have been created as part of that.
But, in the end, Nekomimineko did not come equipped with a penance system of any sort. So, like the Pardoning Charm sold in the church (Cost: 100,000 Elements. Use: None), this confession room became something that was meaningless within the system. Still, it attracted a group of enthusiasts.
When they told the sister here, Marielle, that they wanted to confess…
“Have you come for a confession? I’m deeply sorry. The priest is currently out.”
She would turn them down like that.
It smelt like some sort of event flag, but if you decided to back down here then it would not be possible to use the confession room.
However, if you keep bugging her, then Marielle herself would enter the confession room and listen to the players, surprisingly.
In the real world, it might have been troublesome if a sister suddenly agreed to hold a confession without the priest, but this was within a game, and what’s more, inside Nekomimineko. No one would make a fuss about something like this.
Marielle was quite a beauty, and she was ultimately a sister, so having her was way better than having a priest in some ways. Because of that, there had apparently even been some players (mainly male) who came here to confess.
Just as a side note, but no matter how long one waited, the priest who had left never ends up returning to this church. Since he never comes back, many speculations and conspiracy theories were thrown around such as “the priest is actually the last boss theory”, “widow Marielle”, “Marielle = priest hypothesis”, or “the priest’s murderer is Marielle thesis”, but the nobody knew the truth.
To be cynical, I felt like the truth might have been that the character for the priest hadn’t been created so they decided to just gloss over the issue, but, in any case, the truth wasn’t important.
Now then, about the confession room. This was a special place that was clearly different from all other places.
According to Marielle, since the confession room was the place closest to God in this world, it was completely cut off from the impurities of this world. Well, I don’t know about God and the likes, but it was true that this small space was treated as special even by the game.
It would probably be okay to call this an absolute safety zone.
In here, neither HP, MP, nor stamina values change; even if you hit someone with a weapon, no damage would be done. Furthermore, weapon skills and magic could not be cast.
Movement skills like Step were the only ones that could be used, but, in a small room like this, you would undoubtedly bump into the walls or the ceiling and the skill would be interrupted.
Anyway, there was no real reason to use them. But, of course, even if you were to bump into the walls, you would take no damage here.
In this fantasy world of swords and magic, this was the only place with a different set of rules. It was as if this was truly a space ruled by God… That would be what a normal person would think. But, a VR gamer at heart would have a different thought.
…So weapon skills and magic can’t be used?
But you can use movement skills without losing any stamina!
…So, if you use movement skills, you would just bump into the walls and have them cancelled?
There was no impact damage, and the animation is cancelled so can’t you immediately cast the skill again?!
…So was there no reason to use movement skills?
Every time a skill is used, doesn’t its skill mastery go up?!
Everyone! Let’s charge into the walls of the confession room with movement skills!!
Something like that would happen.
Normally, in the early game, one could only use Step four times continuously before running out of stamina.
In addition, without cancelling, the time for one skill cast plus the after-cast stun was long, and it was normal to take close to 10 seconds for just four Steps.
However, in the confession room where there was no stamina cost nor damage, that was no longer a problem.
No matter how many times Step is used, you wouldn’t run out of stamina, and you wouldn’t even take any damage or feel any pain from cancelling Step by running into a wall.
Using this, a certain player uploaded a video of them activating Step at an impressive rate of four times a second.
The process was simple. Position your body close to the wall of the confession room, and repeatedly activate Step with the right timing. Activate Step, cancel the skill by bumping into the wall, activate Step… Doing that over and over again led to the skill mastery for Step increasing at an astonishing rate.
To an observer, it would look like an act of atonement through bashing one’s head against the wall.
Thus, the famous video “The Repenting Man” was born.
As soon as this video appeared, everyone rushed to the confession room to try to replicate it. Though the skills that could be improved were limited to movement skills, its efficiency was extraordinary, and there were no risks.
There was just one single, unexpected complication to this method.
In this confession room, the entrance was at the back, and in the front was the partition with a small table-like surface stuck to it, so you would necessarily end up using Step while pressed to one of the side walls.
Then, after you finish your long, repetitive training, you would inadvertently glance to the side, and notice them.
Motionlessly, constantly watching you hit your head against the wall, was a pair of eyes.
…That’s right. Calmly observing every single detail of your bizarre actions, was Marielle.
One needed Marielle’s permission to enter the confession room. That’s why Marielle was inevitably on the other side of the partition when the player uses the confession room.
Perhaps Marielle’s AI was just that simple, or perhaps due to an oversight in her thought routine settings while inside the confession room, Marielle would take no action whatsoever even when the player continued the ridiculous action of bashing his head against the wall.
The only thing she would do is, in response to the player having said nothing at all since entering the confession room…
“Do you have anything you would like to confess today?”
“It may be difficult, but talking about it is one way to get it off your chest.”
That was how she would try to prompt the player into confession.
Even that slowly turns into agitation…
“If you won’t say anything, then I won’t say anything either.”
“Were you lying when you said you had something to confess?”
“The exit is that way.”
That’s the last thing she says. That in itself was quite distressing, but the true terror is what comes after.
Having run out of preprogrammed lines, she begins silently staring at the player.
…How exactly is that a problem? You probably wouldn’t understand just from hearing it.
I didn’t pay much attention to it when I saw it on the net either.
But, you’ll realize its true terror when you actually try to raise your skill mastery in the confession room.
At first, it wasn’t any problem at all. I just felt a bit embarrassed being watched by a beauty.
But, at some point, when I noticed that neither her expression nor posture had changed one bit since a few minutes ago, a gear slipped.
Just by watching me and not doing anything else, I became intensely aware of Marielle’s existence. I tried incessantly switching the wall I was using, but, only at those times, her head moved.
Matching my movements, slowly, wordlessly, those eyes followed me.
This was a confined space without any distractions. Despite telling myself to ignore it, once the thought popped up in my mind, it was impossible. I couldn’t help but to be aware that she was watching me. I couldn’t focus on using my skills anymore.
Even if I had been able to focus and drive the thoughts of Marielle out of my mind, when I completed my training and looked up, I would end up seeing Marielle’s face while unguarded.
Then, I would realize.
I had been watched.
For the entire time, constantly, I had been watched.
Even when I was concentrating and had forgotten about her, during that time, she was always watching me.
…I was being watched.
…She was watching me.
And when I actually turned my gaze towards her, her eyes were looking at me, as expected.
Not blinking even once, with only a slim smile on her face, perpetually.
–She was always, always watching me!
Continuously repeating a monotonous task easily led to drowsiness, a state in which it was easy to fall prey to suggestion.
That effect may have been a factor in causing one-third of the people who took up this challenge to lose heart at Marielle’s gaze and end up escaping.
There were some who did not mind it at all, and even some who claimed that being watched was like a kind of reward, but, unfortunately, it seemed like I was more of the sensitive kind, resulting in a painful memory of running away from Marielle’s scrutiny halfway through.
This was the Marimite Dojo, where the player’s heart was tested alongside the raising of his skill mastery.
I am the only one who knows this world is a game, but, at the same time, this world is also reality.
As part of reality, one could create situations that could not occur in the game.
“Have you come for a confession? I’m deeply sorry. The priest is currently out.”
That’s why, this time…
“I understand. This…”
While Marielle told me that and was heading towards the confession room, I stopped her!
“Sorry. Um, I would like to have a quiet chat with God alone. So if you could lend me just the room…”
…Did it work?
I patiently awaited her reply.
“…Is that so. Then, please use the room as you wish.”
Marielle replied with a warm smile.
(I did it!)
My heart jumped for joy.
Today, at this moment, I had overcome the greatest obstacle of Marimite Dojo!
Being seen off by the smiling Marielle, I entered the confession room.
Of course, Marielle was not there watching me from the other side. It felt different even though it was a familiar place.
(Alright, I can do this.)
Approaching the wall, I took my place.
Since this was now reality, I didn’t know how long I could use this place for. I had slight reservations about using movement skills against a wall, but I shook off my hesitation and used a skill.
Boom, a dull sound reverberated in the room as my head collided against the wall. However, despite the painful noise, my body felt no pain.
It’s working. Even in this world, I can train my mastery without any problems.
(Step! Step, Step, Step!)
–Boom! Boo, boo, boom!
The dull sounds that echoed off the wall reported the success of my skills.
Pleased with that result, I slowly increased my speed.
(Step, Step, Step, StepStepStepStepStep!)
–Boo, Boo, Boo, Boobooboobooboom!
Along with the rate at which Step was being used, the impact sound also increased in frequency.
This was actually becoming fun.
I became absorbed in the task.
The only thing in my mind was Step.
How can I further accelerate the rate of my Stepping. Only such thoughts filled my mind.
Everything except Step disappeared from the world.
What laid in front of me was a world without anything superfluous, just me and Step.
I can do this. With my current concentration, I can overcome my limits.
I can go where no one has gone before.
Transcending the ceiling of four times a second, I’ll reach five skills a second, no, even more than that!
Beyond the limit!
All the way to the other side!!
“Uhm, a worshipper was complaining about strange noises coming from here… Wh-What are you doing!!”
I felt like I had heard some noise, but something like that wouldn’t be enough to break my concentration.
“I-I don’t know what kind of sins you’ve committed, but please stop! Y-You won’t solve anything by hurting yourself. I’m sure God would rather you repent properly… That’s not the point! In any case, stop this now!”
The fact the the noise was starting to bother me was a proof that my concentration was still imperfect.
I have to focus harder on Step, and only Step.
“Stop! Please, stop, this…!”
Suddenly, the sensation of something soft and warm enveloped my body.
This was a huge trial. But, I won’t lose!
“Could he be so entranced in the act of atonement that he hasn’t noticed me yet? What a strong conscience and piety! But, if that’s the case, then even more so, I can’t let this person continue with his acts of self-harm!”
If distractions were bothering me, then I just needed to overcome those distractions.
The moment I stop feeling even this bothersome softness would probably be the moment when I would reach the peak of my concentration.
“Someone! Please come! Come to the confession room–!!”
Ahh, I can see it. I can finally see it. I can see the next dimen–
“Please reflect on your actions!”
I had been torn away from the wall and was forcefully dragged to a room in the back by Marielle’s group, and made to reflect on my actions. Apparently the sound of my head hitting against the wall was rather noisy.
If there were things that couldn’t be done in the game world that could be done here, then there could also be things that could be done in the game world but couldn’t be done here anymore. This concept seemed obvious now in hindsight.
Still, it must be a pretty rare experience to be forced to repent about going into a confession room, but I didn’t feel happy about that. It would be troublesome if I couldn’t use Marimite Dojo anymore.
So I tried to explain myself, “It’s something that I absolutely, really need to do no matter what!” while crying, and, surprisingly, she was the one who gave in.
With two conditions, I was allowed to use the confession room. As long as it was after 9pm where there were few churchgoers around, and that I did my headbutts on a sound absorbing mat that will be installed on the wall of the confession room.
I wasn’t really doing headbutts, but it seemed like a pain to explain so I let it slide. After all, even there were conditions, I had gotten permission to use the room, so I had no reason to complain.
“Thank you very much!”
I left the church after giving Marielle a big bow.
But man, even though I had caused such a commotion, she was still kind to me.
Even to a nuisance like me, she kept glancing over with sympathetic looks after her lecture ended, carefully reaching out with warm words until it felt like she was overdoing it.
As expected of one who serves God, she really had a big heart.
…There was just one thing.
“More than anything, God wishes for man to live their lives to the fullest.”
“There are still many joys in this world that you have yet to discover.”
“As long as you continue living, something good will definitely happen!”
I found it a little annoying that she kept throwing around preaching words like these, as if she was trying to change the mind of someone contemplating suicide, but I guess I should have expected them. She’s a sister after all.
Anyway, with my preparations for the future complete, I felt rather refreshed.
With a cheerful mood, I opened the door of the church…
“I finally found you, Souma– Ehhhh!?”
Seeing a familiar face nearby, I dashed at full speed in the opposite direction.
As I did so, naturally, that acquaintance of mine, Train Girl, chased after me. What’s more, she was as fast as ever. If she kept up this pace, she might actually catch up to me, but because I chose a bad direction to escape towards, there weren’t any tall buildings that I could climb onto with Sky-piercer nearby.
I would’ve liked to use Rapid Cancel Dash, but, in my current situation with my skill levels still rather low, I would probably run out of stamina in no time.
Even if I had only spent a short time there, taking advantage of the Marimite Dojo should have reduced the stamina expenditure for Step. But, the expenditure for Slash, which would need to be used for cancelling, was still unchanged.
Rather than cancelling with Slash, Sideswipe might be slightly better since I had been using it on the torch, but that had its own problems where one bad activation could mean an innocent passerby being sliced in half.
It was too dangerous to use it in town.
“Why are you running away from me!”
“Because you’re chasing after me!”
Without stopping our feet, we yelled at each other.
“In, in that case, what would you do if I just stopped right now?”
“I’ll remember a sudden emergency and run away!”
“Then aren’t you still running away in the end!”
Well, that certainly was true. Still, it was also true that I was running because I was being chased. I wouldn’t have any need to run away if Train Girl just gave up.
“Why are you following me around anyway! Do you still suspect me of being a dark cultist?”
At a loss of words for the first time, she stopped moving.
I probably could have escaped with that chance, but that wouldn’t solve the problem.
Making sure to keep my distance, I stopped as well.
“This morning, didn’t you say you were following me in order to monitor me or something?”
I asked a rhetorical question, and unusually, she answered with a slurred mumble.
“That’s, right. But, really, I already believe you, Souma… Ah, I don’t really understand the difficult stuff like the Demon Lord’s seal, but I had a feeling, that you’re probably not a bad person, um…”
She was being unclear, which made me lose my patience slightly.
“Then, why are you still chasing me?”
“Eh? …Um, I mean, you’re my savior, and, ah! I’ve never met anyone like you before, so I need to observe you…”
What’s going on?
Doesn’t that mean she had no actual reason for following me?
Suppressing my rising annoyance, I tried to talk to her as rationally as possible.
“Sorry, but I’m trying to get stronger as an adventurer here.”
She brought up an unnecessary agreement, but I ignored it.
“There are some things that only I know, and battle techniques that I don’t want others to know about. If possible, I would like to stay away from others for a while.”
“I, understand… S-Still!”
Sensing that she was still reluctantly trying to hang on, I steeled my heart and laid it to her straight.
“…You’re a nuisance. If you’re only following me out of curiosity, could you please stop?”
Hearing my words, she completely froze.
Guilt seemed to be consuming her. I was sure that she was only chasing me out of curiosity. If that wasn’t the case, what other reason could she have?
Did she fall for me at first sight because of some sort of player bonus or life-saver bonus?
Those kinds of things only happened inside manga or games. Well, this is a world based on a game, but, even back within the game, something like that never happened in Nekomimineko.
“Th-That’s not it. Please wait.”
Even then, she still tried to call me back, but…
“You’ll be fine by yourself. If you’re really troubled, I’d be willing to lend a bit of my help if you visited the inn.”
Paying no heed to her, I turned my back and started walking away.
After all, she didn’t need any help. As long as I, the player, did not dawdle in a field for a fixed amount of time, she would not end up being chased by that many monsters.
Furthermore, even though she introduced herself as a beginner adventurer, enemies above level 30 didn’t usually appear in the fields around Ramlich.
I had no idea what kind of party she belonged to, or how much demand there was for dagger users, but with her current ability, it shouldn’t be hard for her to get by in this town.
However, even then, she desperately tried to stop me.
“Wait, please. I, I…!”
But I had already decided that I would not stop no matter what she said.
In university, I was a loner.
It wasn’t as if I had especially wished for it to happen, nor did I particularly wish for it not to happen.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone, but when you had something to do, you wouldn’t go out of the way just to deal with other people. The fact of this reality was that I could cut off my human relations with much less hesitation compared to others.
At the very least, I had no need for a connection with her at the moment. Unless she was really in deep trouble, I had no obligation to lend a hand.
That’s why, this was my farewell to Train Girl.
However, that resolve…
Was smashed into smithereens by the phrase she uttered.
“What, did you, say…?”
It was as if those words were magical.
Those words contained enough power to cause me, who was basically disinterested in others to a point where I earned the nickname of The Phantom of the Class, to stop in my tracks.
Actually, maybe it was because I was such a person.
“Could you repeat that, one more time?”
After I turned around and said that, she, in a slightly embarrassed voice, spoke those words once again.
“–I don’t have any friends.”
Ahhh, how could this be?
I looked towards the sky and muttered in my heart.
–Train Girl, you’re also a [loner] huh?