The airship drew away from the seaport in all its metal-enclosed glory, beginning its journey over the waters with the gradual steadiness of vessels of old. Archaic round windows allowed its new inhabitants a glimpse of the heavens outside and the rolling clouds that, emblazoned with the fires of dying stars, tumbled into the waves they rode upon.
The sharp scent of gasoline and food wafted through the air. It wasn't a pleasant smell exactly, but the hustle of people around them gave QiLeren a peculiar sense of vitality; they weren't NPCs but living, breathing humans just like them.
He put aside his curiosity for the moment and quietly observed his fellow passengers. Most of them were young adults with few older and even fewer younger, more or less evenly split between male and female. They all seemed accustomed to life within this game, some conversing mildly with companions of recent spoils and incessant pleasantries while others sat alone in the belly of the ship and stared bleakly into the sunset with unseeing eyes.
They were at the peak of their youth, yet moved with the air of dead men walking.
Were their lifespans running low? QiLeren felt his chest tighten at his own hypothesis - he himself only had a mere ten days.
Following SuHe’s words, a horrified reutterance tumbled unbidden from Dr Lu's mouth.
SuHe cast his gaze out to the unending ocean, features aglow from the brilliant passion of a midnight sun. "Yes," he said, "lifespans. Every player is gifted with ten days upon clearing the tutorial village and it is in these ten days that you must gain more or meet your death. Without lifespans, everything is meaningless. Money, too, is worthless here.
"Perhaps time is just an arbitrary concept to those outside, something granted to them in abundance. Most pay very little mind to the value of their day and allow it to pass them by without a second thought. Here, time is the measure of life, the most precious resource of all."
SuHe’s voice was soft, but the steely glint of its implication was clear. QiLeren thought back to his aimless days spent lounging around, playing video games and accepting the occasional design work as a freelancer to maintain an income; the distant future was not something that had even crossed his mind, but now with only ten days left on his clock…what he wouldn't give to rewind all the time he wasted! In his hands was a mere whisper of what he had, but he…
He wanted to live.
SuHe returned with some bread and water and passed them out. "Some items from instances can't be brought into the overworld, which includes food. Here's something small to tide you over until we arrive." He smiled at the sight of his companions wolfing it down.
Under his composed gaze, XueYingying felt her cheeks colour. "Wh… What about you? Do you want some?" she stuttered around a mouthful of bread.
"It's fine, I can wait until we arrive," SuHe replied mildly. "You should save yourselves for the proper meal we're going to have as well."
QiLeren personally thought that it was more because the food was comparable to mouldy bread. SuHe seemed like someone with rather expensive tastes.
A passing passenger's cape brushed against QiLeren’s cup. As he reached out to steady it, QiLeren caught a glimpse out the corner of his eye as the man, whose cape was wrapped so tightly that his silhouette was almost shapeless, stopped by the corner of the room in conversation with another person.
There was a patch over his right eye, most likely blind from an injury, while his companion's prosthetic leg gleamed with reflected light.
QiLeren felt a peculiar precognition.
These two were fugitives.
Almost as if a trigger had been flipped, the Prosthetic Leg swung a heavy kick into the cabin door before slapping a piece of paper onto it, sending the quietened room a menacing smile as he placed a hand on his companion's shoulder. Eyepatch slowly pushed his cape aside, revealing the rows upon rows of explosives strapped to his body and a detonator clutched in his hand.
QiLeren stared in apprehension. Robbers?!
"You see, me and my buddy here, we're not doing so good," Prosthetic Leg rasped, voice stained with the colour of giddy mania. "Upsetting some folks we probably shouldn't have with my missing leg and his missing eye, our days are running real low - but guess what? We've decided that we're not gonna die just yet. We're not asking for much, just ten days from everyone on this ship. If you'll all just sign your name on this contract here, we guarantee you'll live to see tomorrow. If not…" Prosthetic Leg patted Eyepatch's hand. "I guess we can all die together!"
The cabin was deathly silent. Eventually, a young man stood and spoke up. "I need to have a look at the contract."
"It's right here on the wall, buddy. Sign your name, let us tie your hands together, go stand in that corner over there and we'll let you go when the ship arrives," Prosthetic Leg drawled easily.
The young man raised his hand in surrender and approached the contract under the robbers' cautious gazes. "By signing the contract below, Party A (signee) hereby agrees to provide Party B with 10 days of lifespan in consideration for the benefit of arriving safely on land," he read aloud. "Party B is not to harm any persons undergone the transaction…this kind of contract would never have been approved! This'll be ruled as fraud in no time and the only thing waiting for you then is death!"
Prosthetic Leg burst into laughter. "This isn't some run-of-the-mill contract, kid, what do you take me for? No, this is a demon's contract – I signed an agreement with Archduke Demon of Deceit so it'd be binding regardless of the legitimacy!"
The young man's frown deepened. "You…surrendered yourself to a demon…"
"I'd sell my soul in a heartbeat if it'd buy me another day to live! Fortunately for you, I'm not asking for your souls but a mere ten days. Great deal, isn't it? Are you sure you want to risk your life for ten days?" Prosthetic Leg placed a pen down before the young man. "Sign it."
The man signed crisply despite his dark expression before allowing his wrists to be bound and was ushered to the designated corner.
"Hurry up, who's next?"
QiLeren, Dr Lu and XueYingying shared a look of panic. Ten days may not be much for the veterans on the ship but to them it was all they had - handing it over would mean certain death!
"Excuse me, I have a question." It was the woman from the harbour, sitting one table away. "What should we do if we don't have enough days to give?"
Prosthetic Leg sent her a poisonous look. "Then you can go die."
The woman chuckled placatingly. "Don't worry, I myself have more than enough. The same can't be said for everyone on the boat, however; will you allow me to pay for them?"
The poison subsided, but Prosthetic Leg's tone was still cold. "That's fine."
Smiling like a cat that got the cream, the woman turned to QiLeren’s table. "Pay me back three times the amount within a month, deal?" she asked in a low voice.
QiLeren felt like he was dreaming. Was this person seriously doing business in this kind of situation…?
Beside him, SuHe let out a longsuffering sigh. "Businesswoman ChenBaiqi, you never miss any opportunity to make money, do you?"
"I'm honoured that you know my name, handsome. I have to apologise for not being able to return the favour, which is weird because a face like yours would surely stand out in my memory," ChenBaiqi mused, raising an eyebrow. Her warm demeanour was a complete one-eighty from their chilly encounter on the harbour, where she spared not a second glance at SuHe and looked at him as one'd look at a piece of rock on the sidewalk.
"I must say I don't find myself visiting Eventide very much," SuHe replied lightly. "Compared to the eternal sunset here, the scenery of daybreak is much more suited to my tastes."
"You settled in Aurora Village?" ChenBaiqi said, taken aback. "No wonder… I was a bit rude earlier, sorry about that." At this, she pulled away with her the girl she had been silencing with sharp looks for the past few minutes to sign the contract, retreating to the corner with not a further word about lending lifespans.
Aurora? From what little he could remember, QiLeren recalled that it was the other major stronghold for humanity whose standards of living were vastly higher than those of Eventide. To think that SuHe lived there…
During their short chat, most of the passengers had already lined up and signed their names. Some were clearly hesitant but ultimately decided that ten days was not worth the risk - the robbers had clearly decided on an ideal number.
SuHe turned so that his back faced the robbers and leaned in. "Don't worry," he whispered, "those two won't be a problem for much longer."
"You settled in Aurora Village?"
Aurora Village, a.k.a. Aurora, a.k.a. 黎明之乡 (hometown/countryside of dawn/daybreak). According to a commenter, it sounds edgy and way cooler than Eventide – which the author replied with “yep”.