-An Isekai Short Story-
I used to think it was impossible for people to change overnight.
Using my own life as an example here, I was always trying to change myself to fit in, but it never really worked out. On my first day of high school, I thought I could psyche myself into becoming a more outgoing person. But it got so exhausting trying to act peppy, and as soon as I let my guard down I reverted to my old introverted self.
That was what made me figure that it’s impossible to change who you fundamentally are. Change, if it happens at all, has to be slow and gradual. You can’t just go to sleep and wake up as a different person.
That’s what I thought, at least, until one day it happened to me.
I don’t know if this had anything to do with it, but I had a terrible time sleeping the night before. I was tossing and turning for hours just thinking about all kinds of dumb stuff. It might have been around two or three in the morning by the time I finally nodded off. I don’t remember having any dreams.
What happened to me after I fell asleep? I can’t exactly say. I’m a light sleeper even in the best of times, so I’m sure I would have stirred if someone had approached me in my sleep. I would always get woken up whenever my roommate showed up hammered from a party or whatever.
But that night, nothing of note happened. All I know for sure is that when I woke up, I wasn’t in my own bed anymore.
Instead of the single bed I was used to sleeping in, I was in a huge canopy bed. I could have laid down on it sideways without a problem. The pillows and sheets were remarkably soft as well, like I was lying in a piece of heaven.
It sounds nice when I write it down like that, but to be honest, the sensation was so foreign at first that I couldn’t help but immediately think that something was off, even before I actually opened my eyes. Like it was too good to be true. And when I did open my eyes, I was promptly confronted with a startling sight.
There was this weird guy standing over me, staring straight at my face.
My first impression of him was that he looked like someone at a Halloween party. He had a pale face, almost like a vampire, and he had wavy black hair. If that wasn’t enough to make him stand out, he was wearing billowing black robes like some kind of magician, except without a goofy hat.
But what really struck me about this guy was his blood-red eyes. If it wasn’t for the fact that he looked totally sleep-deprived, I would have thought he was kind of hot, I’m not gonna lie.
When our eyes met, he opened his mouth and said, “Hello.”
“Um, hi,” I said.
At the time, I was too groggy to really comprehend what was going on. Looking back, it was pretty dicey to wake up to some guy you have no recollection of ever meeting in your life. I’d heard horror stories about creepy dudes spiking drinks at parties or on dates, but that was obviously not what had happened here. Just what the heck was going on?
“It’s nice to see that you’re awake, I suppose,” said the man, mumbling.
“Where am I? Who are you?”
“Me? My name is Gilles. I’m not really from around here, but this is Chaldene, the 87th fief.”
What? Where the hell was that?
“So, do you know who you are?” asked the man named Gilles as he gazed at me with his half-lidded and tired red eyes.
Starting a conversation with such a philosophical question was just too unfair. My mind couldn’t keep up. I just stared at him dumbly and said, “Uhhh…”
The silence dragged on while I slowly yet steadily collected my thoughts. I was obviously not in my college dorm anymore. I seemed to be in some rich person’s room, although there was a quaint, old-timey feeling about the furniture design. Everything looked like it came from an antique shop or a historical building. Was this some kind of movie set or something?
“Well, my name is Julia Wong,” I said slowly. I told him the name of my college and that I was a freshman accounting major. “Are you from the drama club by any chance?”
It was a crapshoot, but it was the only thing I could think of – that this was all some kind of weird prank.
“Er, no,” said Gilles, dashing my hopes. “I’ve never belonged to a club in my life. Oh dear, this is so troublesome.”
He sighed, and I could practically feel the gloom radiating off him.
“Hey, are you okay?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Gilles, very miserably. “Maybe I will be okay eventually, who knows. But right now, everything is so very troublesome.”
“That sucks,” I said. “What’s the matter?”
Even though I was the one who had woken up in a completely disorienting situation, I couldn’t help but want to comfort the poor guy.
“Well,” he said, “judging by what you said, you’re from a different world.”
“Uh huh,” I said, nodding sympathetically.
“If you’re from another world, that makes everything all complicated.”
“Yeah, I suppose it does.”
I was about to say something generically comforting, until I actually processed what Gilles said.
“Wait. Another… world…?”
Crap, don’t tell me… No way…
“You see how it is,” said Gilles, shaking his head. “When they asked me to do the soul transplant, I didn’t think the only compatible soul would be from another dimension altogether. No wonder it took so much out of me. And I’m sure the client won’t be happy with this either, or you for that matter. What to do? What to do…?”
“Hang on, what do you mean by a soul transplant? Is that even a thing?”
“Of course it is a ‘thing’ as you say. It’s a way of reconstructing a soul that has been lost to the Void. Oh dear.” Gilles paused in the middle of his explanation to lament. “If you’re from another world, you might not even understand a single bit of that.”
“You’re right. I don’t really get it.”
“What a terrible dilemma. What a terrible dilemma indeed. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to explain it all to you right now. It’s all very complicated to begin with, and I’m not very good with words.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
It obviously wasn’t okay, but I didn’t want to be rude.
“Also, I’m really, really sorry about this, but from now on, you’re going to have to live in the body of this woman. She lost her soul, and yours was summoned to replace it. That’s the gist of the current situation.”
In other words, I’d been summoned into some weird fantasy world. That’s what this guy was telling me.
It was all so unbelievable. I thought I was in a fever dream. But there was one thing in particular that struck me about what Gilles said. As soon as he said it, a feeling of agitation came over me. I wanted to scratch myself all over, even though my skin didn’t feel itchy in the slightest. I wanted to scratch until all of my skin peeled off but I restrained the urge. There was something I had to do first.
From around the time I woke up, I noticed that there was a hand mirror on the bedside table next to me. Now was my chance. I picked up the mirror and held it to my face; in doing so, I was confronted with myself.
It wasn’t my face anymore. It was someone else’s face.
Because of what I saw, I had no choice but to accept the truth of what Gilles said.
As you might have guessed from my surname, my ethnicity is Chinese. Well, sort of, it’s complicated. I was born and raised in San Diego, but my parents were from Hong Kong.
I’d never been conventionally attractive by Asian beauty standards. At family gatherings, my relatives would sometimes flat out tell me I was fat. Objectively speaking, I was a little flabby around the waist at worst, but I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious whenever they commented on it.
Not that I ever did much to fix my appearance. I didn’t diet or go out of my way to exercise. I didn’t wear makeup or style my hair, either. I wore baggy clothes and dirty sneakers, and although my grades weren’t all that special, I probably gave off nerd vibes. I never entertained the thought that a guy would ever be interested in someone like me, so I didn’t bother trying to doll myself up.
Absolutely none of that was true of me anymore, though.
The new me bore absolutely no resemblance to the old me. I now had European-looking features, like double-lidded eyes and a longer nose. But I also didn’t look like any white person I’d ever met. For one thing, the color of my hair was light silver even though my face was youthful. With my long, flowing hair and unblemished skin, I was like a Tolkien elf except without the long, pointy ears.
Also, I was beautiful. It was almost unfair how effortlessly pretty I was for someone who had just gotten out of bed. Is it narcissistic to be attracted to your own face when it didn’t belong to you until you woke up that morning? Eh, whatever. I was just being objective.
At the same time, it didn’t feel right. Even if I didn’t like my old face, it was still my face. It would take some time before I pinpointed the exact source of my uneasy feelings about my new appearance, but suffice it to say that my first reaction was to be thoroughly weirded out. All I could do was just stare open-mouthed at myself.
While I was still processing what was going on, Gilles said, “Well, I suppose I should go report that you’re awake now.”
“Who are you? Why did you do this to me?” I asked, still not taking my eyes off the stranger staring back at me through the mirror.
“Don’t worry, it’s not like you’ve been abducted,” insisted Gilles. “The you from your original world still exists. You could say that your consciousness right now represents a different possibility of yourself that has been called into this world.”
“What? What does that even mean?” Was I like Schrödinger’s cat or something?
“Like I said, I don’t really have the time to explain it all right now. If I get the time later, maybe I’ll explain it to you then. Will you be satisfied with that?”
At least Gilles didn’t seem like a bad guy, but I couldn’t help but feel disgruntled about being left hanging like this. I frowned at my reflection.
“Alright,” I said with a sigh of my own. “I understand that you’re busy.”
“Sorry again,” Gilles said morosely.
He turned, as if about to leave, but then swung back in my direction.
“Oh, before I forget, I should probably give you some advice.”
“What is it?”
“If you value your life in this world, don’t tell anyone that you came from another world.”
He said that dead seriously. I looked up from the mirror, and our eyes briefly met.
There were still bags underneath his eyes, but just for a moment, the tiredness and gloominess around him was gone. His gaze was sharp and solemn. And there was this strange aura coming from him; it wasn’t exactly hostile, but it was still… eerie. It hit me that this guy really was from another world. If I stared for too long at those red eyes, I thought I would get swallowed by them.
I hastily broke eye contact and looked away.
“Well then, see you,” he said.
With that, he slinked off. When he closed the door behind him, I was alone.
I was all alone in this strange world.
“What the hell…?”
That was all I could say. I mean, how else was I supposed to react? This kind of thing wasn’t exactly a normal occurrence. I hadn’t reached the point where I was actively panicking about it, but if I’d stayed there alone in that bed for longer, maybe I would have worked myself up and gotten majorly stressed over it. I could practically feel my blood pressure rising by the second.
Mercifully, I wasn’t left alone to stew in my thoughts for long. After a minute or so passed, the door opened once more and a new guy walked in.
“Lady Julia?” He came up to me and said my name.
“Um, yes?” I said back.
“Ah.” For some reason, the guy looked like he was about to cry. “Thank goodness… You’re safe…”
The difference between this guy and the previous one was like night and day – quite literally. This guy was dressed in what looked like a white and blue uniform. He was clean-shaven and had a really straight-laced look about him. He had neat brown hair and an ordinary face, neither particularly handsome nor ugly, but just from a glance he seemed like a dependable sort of person. Or at least that’s how I felt, having no one else to rely on.
“Er, if you don’t mind me asking, who are you?” I asked.
The guy blinked once. I wondered if I’d offended him somehow because for a moment I thought he was grimacing.
After just a second, though, he smiled, put a hand to chest, and bowed in my direction.
“My name is Roland,” he said, smoothly and cheerfully. “I am a knight in your service.”
A knight, huh? He seemed like the type, I guess. Although he wasn’t wearing armor like your stereotypical image of a medieval knight, probably because this was indoors, he did have a sheathed sword at his hip.
“You must be rather confused right now,” the knight named Roland went on. His tone was sympathetic. “I was told that you might have lost your memory.”
“Lost my memory…?”
That didn’t sound right. I remembered perfectly who I was and what had happened the night before. This Roland guy had obviously mistaken me for the person I apparently resembled.
I opened my mouth, on the verge of telling him everything I remembered, but then I recalled what Gilles told me. Would something bad happen if Roland found out I was from another world? I had no idea who I was supposed to trust here.
“Do you remember anything at all?” the knight asked gently. “Let’s establish as much common ground as possible, and then I’ll try to fill in as many gaps as I can.”
I shook my head. For now, I decided to play dumb and see what I could learn from this guy.
“Hmm… Very well.” Roland pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed. This was obviously going to be a long story. “Let’s see…”
According to Roland, the name of the girl whose body I was in was Julia. It was the same as my Anglo name – I wondered if that was a coincidence. She was also eighteen years old, just like me.
That was where our similarities ended. This other “Julia” person was apparently pretty amazing – she belonged to the noble family that governed the local fief, which Roland also called Chaldene. Judging by the word “fief” and the general vibe I was getting from the furniture and fashion, I gathered that the world I was in was something like medieval Europe. This place definitely wasn’t like anywhere that actually existed on Earth, though, because the other Julia…
“You might not remember this, but you were very skilled with the magic arts,” Roland said.
“What do you know about magic?” I immediately asked.
Obviously, I needed to learn about magic in order to understand how I ended up in this situation. But also, I will admit, the concept of magic is inherently cool.
“Well, to be honest, I don’t really know much about it,” Roland confessed with a sheepish smile. “I don’t have any gift for it myself, so…”
“So not everyone can use magic?”
“That’s right. Only very few seem to possess the ability. However, you…” Roland seemed like he was about to say something, and then stopped.
“What is it?”
“Well…” The guy hesitated before he continued. “Your skills in particular are beyond that of even the most skilled mages. It’s like… a miracle, you could say.”
“Wow, okay.” Nothing about what he said seemed the slightest bit real to me. “So how do I use magic? Do I snap my fingers? Wave a wand? Chant something from a spellbook? Say ‘Alakazam’?”
“Erm… As I said before, I don’t understand how it works, so you’d have to ask an expert about it…”
“Oh, okay. Thanks anyway…”
Just for an experiment, I tried imagining a fireball appearing in my hand. If I were a hotshot magician, that kind of thing would be a piece of cake for me, right? Unfortunately, nothing happened. I didn’t even feel a speck of “magical energy” or whatever. Maybe the other Julia could use magic while I couldn’t, although it was too early to make assumptions just yet.
Meanwhile, Roland continued talking about the other Julia and how she was so amazing. Not only was she smart and good at magic, she was kind and noble and always looked out for the common people. From the way this guy gushed about her, it totally sounded like he was embellishing. The other Julia seemed too perfect to be real; I felt like I was hearing about a fictional character. Not to mention that I could already tell from looking in the mirror that my appearance was gorgeous.
It was lowkey starting to unsettle me. Oh god, what if this Roland guy had the hots for her?
This was getting awkward.
“Hey, um…” I interjected, when Roland paused for breath in the middle of his spiel. “This is all kind of overwhelming…”
Roland blinked twice and made an apologetic smile. “I’m terribly sorry, I shouldn’t have said so much at once. Shall I leave it here for now?”
“Um… There’s one question I want to ask you.”
“Yes? What is it?”
Look at this guy, so eager to be helpful. Just from being asked a single question, he visibly perked up.
“What if I never get my memory back?” I asked.
When it comes to serious things, I’m not good at looking people in the eye. So I didn’t try; I kept my eyes down.
Roland was quiet for a moment.
“…Lady Julia,” he said my name – no, her name – gently. “I’m sure you may find it hard to accept this from a person you don’t remember, but… Even if you were to never get your memory back, I would serve you to the end.”
Hearing such heavy words, I couldn’t help but involuntarily look up. Roland was smiling at me. I hastily looked back down; it was a hard sight to face.
“I swore a vow,” he said, “that I would be your ally. That will never change, no matter what may come.”
I couldn’t say it. I definitely couldn’t say it.
He was still talking.
“What matters is that you’re safe and well. I could ask for nothing more. So please…”
He reached out his hand, and for a moment I thought he was going to put it on my shoulder, but then he pulled back and clenched it against his chest.
“…I just want you to take care of yourself.”
Conclusion: I’d woken up in the body of another person, but it was impossible for me to become her.
There was no way I could become as wonderful or as competent as Roland seemed to think. My personality was all wrong to begin with. It probably was for the best that I didn’t reveal that I was a different person from another world, because there was no guarantee that he would help me out if I wasn’t who he thought I was. I understood why Gilles told me to stay quiet about where I was from, but I still felt crappy about it, like I was taking advantage of Roland.
For the moment, I asked the knight to leave me alone so I could mull over some things, but there was one other thing I asked for, just to confirm something.
An hour or so later, I lowered the paintbrush in my hand and carefully appraised my handiwork on the canvas.
It wasn’t my best work for sure since I’d done it in a rush, but the painting definitely matched my art style. And the feeling of painting was certainly not much different from what I was used to.
They say that when it comes to creative skills like drawing or playing an instrument, the more you do it, the more it activates certain parts of your brain. In other words, my skill at painting was directly tied to my cognition. Even if the other Julia was as good at or better at art than me, no two artists would instinctively draw in exactly the same way.
There was probably no point in thinking too deeply about the science because I had only a surface-level understanding of the topic, and plus there was apparently magic involved, but at the very least this affirmed that it wasn’t just my personality that inhabited this body – my cognitive abilities had carried over as well. It was further proof that on a fundamental level I was still me.
It was a lot to chew over. This new body of mine was very similar to my old one in terms of height and proportions, so honestly it didn’t take much to adjust to it. As long as I didn’t look at myself, it didn’t “feel” wrong to be in this skin. Even when it came to something as finicky and delicate as drawing a sketch and painting, it only took a few minutes before my brain got used to the subtle differences between her slender fingers and my old ones. But it was precisely because my mind felt no different than normal that it was surreal to see myself as a different person.
I’d changed, but at the same time, I hadn’t. I wondered if I ought to be relieved at that.
I was shaken from my thoughts when I heard a voice at the door.
“Julia! May I come in?”
It was a woman’s voice this time.
I quickly covered the canvas and put away the paints. “Sure,” I called out, all the while steeling myself for my next encounter. Meeting so many new people in a row was seriously exhausting.
It was a good thing I was mentally prepared, because as soon as the door opened, the woman came flying at me. Before I even got a look at her face, she flung her arms around me and crushed me to her chest.
“My dear Julia! I’m so glad you’re finally awake!”
“Just seeing you again brings a tear to my eye! My precious child! My sweet pumpkin!”
“Lady Heather, I think perhaps Lady Julia is finding it difficult to breathe.” I heard Roland’s voice coming from somewhere beyond the abyss of the lady’s bosom.
Oh my god, thank you Roland. My knight in shining armor.
“Oh dearie me!” cried the lady, finally letting me go. I gulped up some delicious oxygen and finally got a look at my assailant’s face.
She was a middle-aged lady wearing a green medieval dress. Although she referred to me as her child, she had ordinary chestnut brown hair rather than silver hair. In fact, her features seemed downright normal, not really that much different from the kind of white lady you’d imagine seeing at a knitting club.
“How are you feeling, Julia? Do you need anything?” she chirped.
“Uh, I’m fine, thanks.”
I still felt disoriented, and there were plenty of things that I needed, but in the face of someone this overbearing, my automatic response was to say nope. Roland had been a bit overly eager to be helpful, but he was nowhere near this bad. Speaking of which, I glanced in his direction; he was standing stock still with his arms behind his back but with a slightly sheepish smile on his face, as if to say, “Yes, sorry, that’s what she’s like.”
After fussing over me for a few more minutes, the woman – I think her name was Heather – finally got to the point of the conversation.
“Roland told me that you’ve lost your memories and don’t know how to use magic anymore.”
Heather took on a serious expression at my response. It looked like magic was very important to the identity of the other Julia.
“What a concern. You must be so worried about it, darling! Gilles, examine her, please! Is she still capable?”
Heather raised her voice and let out an order. Gilles emerged from behind her, his shoulders slumped like a moody teen forced to attend a boring family gathering. I hadn’t even noticed him this entire time. I guess he didn’t have much presence…
“Don’t mind me…” Gilles said with a sigh as he approached me. “Could you give me your hand, Miss Julia?”
“Okay…” I said, extending my right hand. He took it and placed two fingers over my wrist, like he was checking my pulse.
It was a pretty clinical way of touching me, so I thought nothing of it, until Gilles drew closer until our faces were almost touching.
“Wh-whoa!” I drew back, startled.
“Sorry about that. You have to invade someone’s personal space to examine their mana gate and circuits. I really hate it too. Especially when people do it to me… ugh.” He scowled and shuddered. “Anyway, please hold still for a moment. It’ll be over soon, don’t worry.”
“If you say so…”
I stood still while Gilles shuffled up to me and pressed his forehead against mine. As soon as he did, I felt my entire body tingle with a strange warmth. Come to think of it, this was probably the first time I had ever been this physically close to a guy around my age… Was this magic or just hormones?
A few awkward seconds later, Gilles pulled away, and just like that, the tingling sensation cut off entirely. Okay, so I guess that was magic… although my heart was still beating a little faster than normal, maybe from the embarrassment.
“Well, I have good news and bad news,” Gilles announced.
“Say it,” Heather ordered.
“The good news is that her circuits are fully functional, and she’s got an extraordinarily high amount of mana circulating inside her.”
“That’s good to hear. And the bad news?”
“The bad news is that her gate is shut tight, so she won’t be able to access her mana without a catalyst.”
“Hmm… I see… And what would it take to open her gate?”
Heather and Gilles were discussing the matter very soberly and dispassionately, as if the subject of the conversation (me) was not even there. Honestly, I didn’t even care that much about whether or not I could use magic. It sounded neat, but I wasn’t going to get hung up about an ability that I’d never possessed in the first place. So it was weird to see other people talk about it so seriously on my behalf.
“Well… Just from the glance I did, I can’t really diagnose the entire problem,” Gilles said. “I’d have to examine her closer, and that sounds like a pain, to be quite honest…”
“Just do it already, Gilles. I didn’t pay you handsomely so that you could slack off.”
“Lady Heather,” Roland interjected. “Why don’t you ask Lady Julia what she thinks of this?”
At some point, the knight’s expression had become stern and impassive. He was pretty warm and affable before, so the contrast was somewhat chilling.
All eyes turned to me. “Well?” said Heather. “What do you think, Julia?”
Honestly, my main feeling right then was resentment towards Roland for putting me on the spot. “Um, well, I don’t really know…”
“That’s only natural, my dear,” said Heather sympathetically. “You’ve lost your memories, so you don’t know what’s important to you anymore.”
I didn’t really know what to say to that.
“Even so,” Roland cut in. “I think we should allow her to decide what she wants on her own terms, instead of forcing ideals onto her. Lady Julia might have lost her memories, she’s still herself.”
Oh, crap. Shit. His words made me wince.
He was completely mistaken. But I…
“Come now, Roland,” said Heather sharply, interrupting my thoughts. “I’ve always valued your input on various matters, but in this case, aren’t you the one forcing your own ideals onto Julia?”
Roland blinked. “No, that’s not it, I just…”
“Kindly stay out of this matter, Roland. You might be her friend, but I’m her mother. The sooner Julia understands who she was, the better. Do you understand?”
“…Yes, Lady Heather. My apologies for overstepping bounds.” Roland turned his eyes down.
I didn’t quite understand what was going on there, but even I could tell that the atmosphere in the room had become tense. And it was all my fault, in a way. They were arguing about the wellbeing of someone based on a lie. Fundamentally, it all had nothing to do with me, but that thought also made me feel terrible.
I cast a glance at Gilles, but I couldn’t grasp what he was thinking. He had a disinterested look on his face.
“Now that that’s settled,” Heather said with a satisfied nod, “Gilles, do what I ordered.”
“Sure thing, ma’am,” Gilles said with a shrug. “Could you leave me alone with the young miss while I examine her?”
“Alright. Call me when it’s done. Come, Roland.”
“Right.” Roland made to follow Heather out the door, but just before he left, I noticed him cast a sharp glance at Gilles. His eyebrows had furrowed into a frown.
Gilles, for his part, seemed unperturbed. Or maybe it was more accurate to say that there was nothing that could bring his gloomy mood down further.
Gilles waited until the door was shut and the sound of footsteps had completely receded before he turned to me.
“This is why I hate complications,” he muttered.
“Why don’t you just tell them the truth, then? That I’m from another world?”
“That wouldn’t do,” Gilles said grimly. “There are certain things that the people of this world are better off not knowing about.”
I couldn’t help but stare a little at Gilles, at his jet black hair and red eyes.
“I’ve been wondering this for a while,” I said slowly, “but are you not from this world either?”
For the first time, I thought I saw a ghost of a smile show up on Gilles’s face.
“I’m from the Library at the End of Worlds,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” I said, frowning.
“It doesn’t mean anything to most people, because only I can come and go from there.”
“So what kind of place is it? This Library at the End of Worlds?”
“It’s quiet and still. A place of nothingness, really.”
He fell silent after that. I guess he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Uh, sorry for making things awkward,” I said.
Maybe it was because he was the first person I met in this strange world or because he didn’t seem to belong here either, but I’d been feeling a kind of one-sided kinship with Gilles. But it was probably wrong to feel that way about someone I knew practically nothing about, who came from a world that was so different from my own. In my eagerness to form some kind of connection with someone who saw me as me, I wondered if I’d asked a selfish and insensitive question.
“Don’t worry,” said Gilles flatly. “I don’t mind it. Honestly, I quite like it.”
He let out a heavy sigh. What kind of emotions were contained in that sigh, I wondered? This time, I didn’t have it in me to ask.
“Anyway,” he said, changing the subject. “I’m supposed to activate your mana gate.”
“Why even bother?” I asked, sighing myself. “It’s not like I can become that Julia, anyway.”
There we were, two grumps sitting together. I guess we were kindred spirits, in a way. Or maybe his gloominess was just contagious.
“Oh no,” he groaned. “Don’t you start being pessimistic. I hate pessimistic people.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing that from Mister Downer himself.”
“Nobody likes hearing other people complain about things. Take it from me.”
“But I like complaining,” I said.
“That’s your own problem,” he said.
I know he was basically just bitching at me, but in a weird way, I felt better just talking to him. This guy didn’t sugarcoat anything. He probably didn’t see me as a friend in the slightest, but I still liked him anyway. (It did sort of help that he was cute, as a guy.)
“Look, but seriously,” I said. “The other Julia sounds like a perfect human being, so there’s no way I could become like her even if I tried.”
“Hmm… I don’t know about that,” replied Gilles, looking at my face.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if your soul ended up in her body, then the two of you are compatible. Your personalities might be more alike than you think.”
“Wow, I doubt it.”
His claim did make me pause to think for a moment, though. The only things I knew about the other Julia were from second-hand sources. I had no inkling of what she thought of herself or how she saw the world.
“What exactly happened to her?” I asked. “Do you have any idea?”
“I have my suspicions, but it’s nothing concrete yet.”
“What kind of suspicions?”
“Well…” He peered at me thoughtfully, as if he was trying to make up his mind about something. “All I’ll say is that she wouldn’t have ended up in this state if a forbidden magic wasn’t involved.”
“A forbidden magic?”
I’d ended up in this situation without any context whatsoever, so I had no idea what level of danger I was in, but maybe there was something darker going on than I realized. It made me wonder if I was even safe here.
“Void Magic,” Gilles uttered simply. “Those words don’t mean anything to you, do they?”
“No, not at all…”
“That’s good. The less you know about it the better.”
“C’mon, don’t leave me hanging! Didn’t you promise that you’d explain things to me?”
I knew I was being pushy, but it kind of felt like my life was at stake here.
“This is why everything is so troublesome…” Gilles moaned.
“Then don’t just say mysterious things without following up!”
“Fine, fine, I understand,” he said sourly. “It is your body now, so I suppose you do deserve to know about this much. But it isn’t for anyone else’s ears, got it?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die. Now lay it on me.”
“Ugh… If you insist.”
And with his characteristic gloomy sigh, he began his explanation.
Of all the kinds of magic in the world, it was the most powerful and the most dangerous.
Most magic was associated with the elements: Earth, Fire, Water, Wind, Light, and Dark. With the elemental magic, you could manipulate the weather and other natural phenomena. But Void Magic was unique in that it existed outside of the elements. With the highest levels of this magic, you could even gain the power to manipulate the fabric of space-time itself.
For example, if you used Void Magic you could remove all traces of someone’s existence. By rewriting the timeline, you could make it so that person never existed to begin with. Every timeline or world that was erased in this way was consigned to the Void, from which nothing could ever return from. You could essentially become a god with that kind of power.
That was why all knowledge of Void Magic was sealed away in the Library at the End of Worlds, where Gilles hailed from.
Holy cow, was my first thought upon hearing all of that.
From the perspective of someone who came from a world without magic, everything about magic sounded awe-inspiring. Even modern human technology couldn’t hold a candle to magic that could alter the weather at the snap of a finger. Yet even considering all of that, Void Magic sounded insanely broken. If you were to use it in a role-playing game, you could skip the final boss altogether and resolve all the conflicts without needing to do anything.
Perhaps you could change the world to accomplish anything you wanted.
It was the part about the Void that piqued my attention the most. The idea that you could use magic to erase someone entirely from existence put shivers down my spine. If you did that, no one would ever know that you erased them, and the world would go on without them. There would be no pain, no grief, no sadness. There wouldn’t even be memories of that person to weigh others down.
It was the kind of magic I’d always dreamed of.
“I knew it,” said Gilles all of a sudden as he stared at my face. “You…”
He didn’t finish what he was saying, however.
Because at that moment, the bedroom door flung wide open.
“Villain! I’ve heard enough!”
Startled, I swung my head around to face the intruder. It was Roland. His normally calm expression was contorted with fury. He seemed almost like a different person entirely.
His hostile gaze was directed not at me but squarely at Gilles.
“Oh no, you were listening?” said Gilles with a moan. “How troublesome…”
Gilles was complaining like usual, but his attitude seemed weirdly unflappable considering the sheer rage emanating from Roland at that moment.
Instinctively, I froze up, and my thoughts ground to a total halt. All I could do was stare, open-mouthed, at the confrontation that ensued.
“I was suspicious of you from the start,” Roland declared through gritted teeth. “But to think you dwell from the Shadowlands…! Fiend!”
“This is why I hate it when the people here find out I’m from another world. It’s always such a pain…”
“Answer me this, demon…!” Roland suddenly turned his sharp glance towards me. It made my heart jolt to see such pure, undistilled anger directed at me, if only for a brief instant. He turned back to Gilles and roared: “Did you not use your forbidden magic to possess Lady Julia with your devil’s spawn?!”
“Do we have to go through this? Geez…”
There was the harsh sound of steel as Roland unsheathed the sword at his hip.
“G-Gilles,” I whispered feebly. Roland was freaking me out, and I didn’t understand Gilles’s attitude either. Yet between the two of them, I found myself instinctively wanting to shrink up in Gilles’s shadow.
“Hey,” said Gilles with a sigh, still completely calm even with a sword pointed at his face. “You don’t want to fight against me. I could erase your existence anytime.”
“It’s a fate worse than death, in a way. No one would remember you, so no one would ever avenge you. Are you really prepared to fight against an opponent like that?”
Gilles spoke with a nonchalant, faintly mocking tone.
Ah. I shivered.
That eerie, unsettling aura I sensed from him once before, it was back again.
The knight facing Gilles must have felt that aura too. He stiffened, and for the first time I saw something like fear glimmer through his hatred.
“I-impossible…!” he breathed. “You’re lying!”
“I’m certainly not lying. Not that I like to use the ability, but I am perfectly capable of it. I’m what the people of your world call the Shadow Lord, I suppose.”
Just that mere name was almost enough to make Roland completely break down. His eyes went wide like saucers, and his breathing suddenly became rapid – it was almost like he was hyperventilating. Just what kind of horrors did the knight associate with that name?
I noticed that the sword was shaking violently in Roland’s hand.
Yet he still kept it pointed at Gilles’s impassive face.
“So then… you… you erased Lady Julia…!”
“I didn’t do that,” Gilles stated calmly.
“B-but you just said…!”
“If it were me doing it, you wouldn’t remember a thing. None of your feelings for her would exist at all.”
“It was an incomplete job,” Gilles declared. Coldly. Calmly. Almost cruelly. “Done by someone with immense magical talent, but without the knowledge.”
“No…” Roland let out a strangled, weak cry.
The implications of what Gilles said were obviously not lost on him.
Nor were they lost on me.
Kind, competent, perfect Lady Julia. That was how Roland saw her, but in actuality…
“The girl tried and failed to erase herself from existence,” Gilles said bluntly. “I have no proof of it, but that is my theory.”
“No… No! No! No! No! No!”
Roland was practically screaming. It looked like he’d completely snapped.
“That can’t be true! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”
Wildly, he lifted the sword to swing it.
At that moment, it was like something in me jerked into gear. I couldn’t stand by passively any longer.
“Roland, no!” I cried, springing into action.
“Hey, what are you-?!” Gilles began, startled for the first time.
I pushed Gilles out of the way as the sword finished its arc by connecting with my shoulder.
Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain.
It felt like my flesh was on fire.
I was going to die. I didn’t want to die. It hurt, it hurt, it hurt, it hurt…!
In the midst of all the seering agony, I didn’t know where to look. I could see Roland’s wide eyes in front of me as he realized that he had hit the wrong target. As the truth seemed to dawn on him, he mouthed in horror.
In that moment, however, the wound hurt too fucking much for me to even care how he felt about it.
Eventually, my eyes found its way to the sword, which was still wedged in my shoulder. Just seeing the wound for what it was somehow intensified the pain even more. Shit. This definitely wasn’t a dream. Fuck.
But for some reason, I wasn’t bleeding.
I wasn’t bleeding.
While I was staring in morbid fascination, the sword suddenly vanished entirely. Like it had been sucked away into a void. One second it was there, the next it was gone.
“Idiot!” Gilles fumed beside me. He had his arm stretched out, pointing in the direction of where the sword had once been.
I didn’t really care about that, though.
All I could do was stare at the wound which still existed even after the sword was gone.
There was no blood. Nothing like that at all. Underneath my severed flesh, I could see frayed gray wires poking out.
What? What the hell was this?
Was I… Was this body actually a…?
“Here, let me heal you,” Gilles said roughly as he put his hand over my gaping wound. Before my eyes, the wires stitched themselves back together, and my smooth pink flesh covered it all. It was as if I’d never received a wound to begin with.
And just like that, the pain went away too.
Still, I was so stunned at what I had seen underneath my flesh that I could hardly even react to the wound going away, let alone thank Gilles for healing me.
Even without any pain assailing me, I felt all the strength in my knees leave me. Before I knew it, I’d collapsed to the floor.
“What have I done…? What have I done…?” I dimly heard Roland gasp over and over as he stood there above me, as if he still couldn’t get over how he had stabbed the girl who looked like Julia.
Gilles turned his gaze between the two of us and heaved a gloomy sigh.
“How troublesome…” he moaned, like he always did. “This is all so very troublesome…”
I used to think it was impossible for people to change overnight.
And that was why I hated myself.
Even though I should have known that I couldn’t simply will myself into becoming a different person, I repeated so many stupid mistakes, again and again and again. My latest: picking a major that I wasn’t actually interested in, thinking it wouldn’t upset my parents if I picked something “safe” as a career. Even though they were the ones who told me, “You should do what you want to do,” I didn’t believe them; I thought it was just a platitude. No way was I going to rack up years of college debt for my hard-working parents while I did painting and worked at McDonald’s.
Boy, did that decision of mine backfire. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get into accounting. My brain simply rejected all the information, and in the end I couldn’t even find it in me to attend the classes. When I left home to go to college, I thought I could also leave my bad habits behind. But in the end, I shut myself up inside my dorm room just like I shut myself up inside my bedroom back at home. My god, I was such a fucking loser.
That night before I got transported to the other world, I was tossing and turning in my bed, wondering how the hell I was going to break it to my family that I’d failed my course. My parents weren’t the stereotypical “Get good grades or we’ll disown you” Chinese parents, but I was sure they’d still be disappointed in me. Anyone would be disappointed if their kid wasted so much of their time and money.
For one brief moment, I thought about killing myself, but I immediately rejected that. I was too wimpy about the pain, and the idea of dying terrified me. I didn’t want anyone to grieve over me, either. It would be better if my entire existence was erased, so that no one would ever have to know about what a massive screw-up I was. Everyone’s lives would be better if I had never been a part of them to begin with.
That’s what I thought, back then.
“There. Have you two calmed down now?” Gilles asked, sighing with exasperation.
Through magic or some other means while I was unaware, he had prepared two cups of herbal tea, one each for me and Roland. The strong scent dug deep into my nose, as if anchoring me in reality.
“This is… I can’t accept tea from the Shadow Lord!” Roland gasped beside me.
“Get over yourself,” Gilles said, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like it’s poisoned. Look, the girl is drinking it just fine.”
Roland cast a sideways glance at me, who was gulping the tea down because it genuinely tasted quite good.
“Hmph… Well… If this is your idea of a truce…” he said hesitantly, as he brought the tea to his lips. His eyes widened.
“Good, isn’t it?” I said.
The guy still looked majorly stressed out, but a little bit of cheer seemed to have returned to his pale face.
“Sorry for all the trouble,” I said, thinking that now might be a good time to apologize. I didn’t know what exactly I ought to be apologizing for, but it seemed like a good start. Someone had to say it, at any rate.
“To be honest,” said Gilles, “I’m not happy that there was so much drama, but I will admit that part of it is my fault too. I really should have kept my mouth shut.”
“No, I think it’s a good thing that you told us the truth,” I said.
Now that my head had cooled down a bit, I was able to think rationally about everything I’d learned.
About the other Julia and what she’d done to herself.
“You must have come to that conclusion about her because of me, huh?” I asked, glancing up at Gilles but not being quite able to meet his eyes.
“That’s right. Because the two of you share quite a lot in common,” Gilles said. “When I told you about Void Magic, I saw the interest in your eyes, and that’s how I knew that she had probably attempted the magic herself.”
It was kind of unnerving for someone to see through you like that, but I couldn’t argue with Gilles’s logic, so I didn’t muster anything in response.
“I still can’t accept this,” Roland interjected. Instead of his heated anger from before, his expression was kind of muted now, and his voice came out weakly. Poor guy. He really had been through a lot.
“I’m really, really sorry.” That was all I could think to say for now. I mean, where was I supposed to begin in consoling him? I was never good with this kind of thing…
“No…” He shook his head. “It’s not your fault. You were just a bystander throughout it all. I’m the one who should apologize to you. I let my anger get the better of me, and I… I wounded you.”
I’d been genuinely spooked by the intensity of his emotions before, and the truth was that he had resorted to violence a little too quickly, but still… I didn’t think Roland was a bad guy at heart. I could at least understand where he was coming from.
“Oh? Are we all taking turns at apologies? I’m still waiting for the apology from you, Sir Knight,” Gilles said, looking almost as if he was perking up a little.
“I won’t apologize to you, Shadow Lord,” Roland declared bitterly.
“Ah, it figures… I’m always so misunderstood…” Gilles had his usual droopy atmosphere about him, but at the same time, I got the impression that he wasn’t that hung up about it. Maybe he had really low expectations of people. It was kind of sad when I thought of it like that.
“Why are you so hated, Gilles?” I spoke up, genuinely curious.
“The Shadow Lord sows loss and misery wherever he goes,” Roland answered for me. His expression was stiff and his manner was still subdued, but I could detect storminess brewing in his eyes. If he wasn’t so exhausted right now, I got the feeling that he would have spoken more vehemently.
“That’s how it is with you people, always mixing up correlation with causation,” Gilles said with a sigh. “Shadow Lord, Demon King, Evil One, Calamity Bringer… People call me by all sorts of rude names. Of course I go wherever there is loss, because I’m the Librarian at the End of Worlds.”
“And what does the Librarian at the End of Worlds do?” I asked.
His red eyes flickered at my question.
“As the keeper of Void Magic, I try to maintain the secrets of the techniques. Yet even so, across the many worlds that can possibly exist, there are people who discover such powers on their own. People who seek to rewrite and destroy. Only I, as the keeper, will ever know about the things that have been lost.”
He closed his eyes, and finished his explanation.
“So I record the things that have been lost to the Void,” he said quietly. “Worlds that have been destroyed, people who have been erased, futures that can never be…”
He trailed off there, falling into morose silence. It made me wonder what kind of things he had seen with his tired, blood-red eyes.
I don’t think I’d ever be able to imagine it all.
Still, it might not have been much, but just the idea that there was someone out there willing to record it at all brought me comfort somehow. Within the nothingness at the End of Worlds, there was a library to prove that it wasn’t all meaningless after all. It was a library that only the keeper could reach, but still.
“…You…” said Roland beside me. He looked up, and I could see that his face was torn. “You’re not an enemy?”
“At the very least, I don’t see you as one,” Gilles responded evenly.
“…I see.” Roland closed his eyes momentarily and frowned. When he opened them, his eyes were watery.
He bit his lip and quivered.
“Will you record Julia’s story too?” he asked.
“Of course. Even if it’s troublesome, it’s what I came here to do.”
Gilles spoke with complete and utter sincerity. There was no way I could doubt him, after everything I’d seen him do in spite of his personality.
“I see,” said Roland once again. “I see.”
A tear rolled down his cheek, and he quickly covered his face with his hands.
“…Thank you,” he said in a muffled voice. Those were the only words he mustered before he broke down into helpless sobs.
Later on, after Gilles left us for whatever duty bid him next, Roland told me about his history with Julia.
They’d grown up together, as commoners from the same village. Back then, Roland used to pull on her hair and tease her, because he was just a dumb kid with a crush. But everything changed when people discovered that Julia was a magic prodigy. After everyone found out that she could make rain at will, she quickly became the talk of the town. When the nobles of Chaldene found out about her, they adopted her into their family to claim her magical ability as their own.
“When I thought you were her and you said that you didn’t remember me, I wasn’t surprised,” Roland admitted with a self-deprecating smile. “It had been over five years since we last met. I didn’t expect that she’d remember me, even without amnesia.”
After Julia got adopted and carried away to the castle, Roland dedicated his entire life to becoming a knight. He never dreamed that they would become romantically involved or anything like that, but he wanted to become someone worthy of standing by her side. Unfortunately, by the time he received his knighthood, Julia had fallen into a deep sleep, one that she would never wake from.
“I always wondered if Julia felt lonely in this castle. I’m sure she was under a lot of pressure. At the very least, I’ve come to understand that Lady Heather had high expectations for her. I wonder… If I could have been with her sooner, if I could have been her friend, if I’d been kinder to her when we were children… would she have changed her mind about erasing herself? Was there anything at all that I could have done to save her?”
I didn’t know how to reply to that, because no matter how much I apparently had in common with the other Julia, I didn’t share her memories. I had no idea how she felt about Roland.
What I did think was that, if someone like him had existed in my own life back on Earth, I probably would have been glad to count him as a friend.
“I’m glad that she didn’t succeed in erasing her existence,” he went on to himself somberly, even after I failed to give him an answer. “Because no matter how much it hurts right now, I’m glad that there was a time when I knew her.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” I said.
The words sounded flimsy even to my own ears, but I meant them sincerely.
I wanted to keep the story of the girl who lost her soul close to my heart, as a reminder to myself, and because I wanted to remember her too.
Roland smiled a little at that. It was faint and strained, but I could see he was doing his best.
“So what do you plan to do after this?” he asked. “I’ll do whatever I can to support you in whatever decision you make.”
“I don’t really know, to be honest.” I’d spent a lot of time thinking about it, but whether it was in my old world or this one, it was pretty damn difficult figuring out what I wanted for myself. I had a tendency to overthink things and tie myself into knots. “Even if we have things in common, I don’t think I can be like the other Julia, and I’m not sure if I want to be like her. But I also don’t know who I want to be.”
“This is only what I think, but I think it’s possible for people to change,” Roland said. “When it comes down to it, people are capable of surprising things.”
Coming from Roland, that was pretty persuasive.
It made me wonder if I’d changed a little since coming to this world. It was hard to know, just from reflecting on myself, whether I’d changed. But I also couldn’t help but get the impression that I would be too dumb to notice it myself. I mean, it had never even occurred to me that my body was a machine. When I asked Roland about it, he seemed to think it was normal for human bodies to have wires in them, so that threw me for a loop. When it came down to it, even if my body looked completely different from my old one – even if I wasn’t even human – I still felt like me.
“I guess… I’d like to paint,” I said.
“I’d like that,” Roland said with a nod. “Your painting is very good.”
I’d shown him my painting when he asked me about who I really was. I’d done a self-portrait, you see. I guess in my own way, just like Gilles, I instinctively wanted to record the things that were lost. Even though my old life wasn’t erased to the Void and another version of myself was still back on Earth, somehow I had the feeling that the me of right now would never be able to return to the me of back then.
My old face. It wasn’t a face I particularly liked, but now that I’d lost it, I felt a dull sort of ache. You know, even if I looked Chinese, I’d never really felt the part. I sucked at Cantonese and my written Chinese wasn’t that good either. On those occasional trips to Hong Kong to visit my extended family, I’d felt like a tourist. But it wasn’t like I fit in that well in the States, either, even though my relatives were always remarking on how American I was. My parents mostly spoke English to me at home because they thought that would help me fit in at school, but in the end… maybe my personality just didn’t fit in anywhere in that world.
When Roland saw my portrait, he said I looked cute. I’m sure he was just being nice, and that my art embellished how I looked anyway, but I can’t deny that it made me happy. It made me think maybe the other me on Earth would be okay, somehow.
“But it’s not like I can spend my entire life here just painting, you know,” I said, returning to the conversation at hand.
“So is there something else you’d like to do?”
I furrowed my brow in recollection.
Before he left, Gilles had activated my mana gate, so now I could use magic whenever I wanted to. It seemed that in this world, at least, it worked a little bit like programming, like I was mentally inputting commands to the machine core inside me. It was the only time I felt like I wasn’t exactly human anymore. It was all pretty shocking at first, but you know what – after everything I’d seen I could roll with it. I could summon fireballs now so that was cool.
At the time, Gilles had looked at me quite seriously and said, “Make sure you don’t try to learn Void Magic.”
“But if I were to learn it,” I said, “would I be able to come see you at the Library at the End of Worlds?”
He looked at me, startled.
“Why would you want to do that?” he asked.
“I just thought maybe it’s lonely there, so you should bring a friend around sometime.”
“That would be troublesome,” he said. “It would be much too troublesome. If you learn too much about the Void, you’ll be tempted to fall into it, you know? And then you’ll never come back.”
“But if it’s to see a friend, I think I’d like to visit the End of Worlds at least once.”
“How very troublesome…”
He denied it profusely, but I didn’t think he was that mad about the idea. I think he was just worried about me, knowing what the other Julia, who was so much like me, had done. Maybe I was just being naive, but I thought: As long as I remembered her, I wouldn’t fall into the Void.
I swore that upon my heart.
“Are you ready?” Roland said to me.
“Yep. Just give me a moment to psyche myself up.”
I stood at the doorway, taking deep breaths to myself. Roland stood on the other side of it, facing me.
“Okay,” he said. “On the count of three: One… two…”
“Hey, no fair!” I cried, but Roland didn’t stop. There was a mischievous glint in his eyes, even as he maintained a warm and steady smile.
With a squeak, I leaped across the divide. Roland caught me and kept me steady while I worked to regain my footing.
There was a whole big world out there – many worlds, in fact. As for the one I was currently in, it was a land of swords and sorcery where automatons thought of themselves as human, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
There was so much to learn from here, but my story could only really begin when I took my first step outside.