—An abandoned sanctuary. Xu Mingling woke, his eyes snapping open. They narrowed shortly after, irritated by the bright sunlight which poured from the flower-shaped holes in the dome ceiling.
He sat up, his hands falling on and crushing soft white flowers. The stone altar he'd woken on overflowed with them. Frowning, Xu Mingling swept the white petals off of his unclothed body.
Zhong Huang had told him that the first thing to happen was character creation. The Goddess bestowed a Drop of Aether, the material of the world, upon the player. The player used this drop to create their character. Depending on the character's species - for example human, magical beast, elemental, or others - they would begin at a starting location belonging to their faction.
Yet Xu Mingling had immediately found himself here.
Did he accidentally skip character creation? Turning his head, he looked over his body and found that it was exactly the same as his own. Only, his hair had changed. His loose black hair had turned into a foreigner's. The pale blue-silver hair's texture was slightly wavy, and its length was so long that it uselessly dragged on the floor. Xu Mingling irritatedly bundled up the curtain and swept it around his shoulders.
In any case, the hair was only a minor inconvenience. As long as Xu Mingling was human, he would spawn somewhere in the Morgrea continent. After passing the tutorial, he could quickly meet up with Zhong Huang and begin the search for Xu Mingling's father, Xu Wei.
He got off the altar and looked around. Carvings and statues befitting a cathedral decorated the hexagonal space. There were no walls; pillars supported the ceiling, forming the shape of an elaborate open-air gazebo. Lush green plants swayed in the surroundings.
He allowed himself five minutes of marveling at the technological prowess needed to make such a startlingly lifelike world. By all accounts, Xu Mingling felt he was truly standing here in the open air, surrounded by beauty, completely naked.
Xu Mingling searched around the gazebo for items, finding nothing.
"..." What a terrible way to treat a new player. Did Gateway Media have it out for him...
"Log out," he tried saying aloud.
But nothing happened.
Nothing, and nothing.
Xu Mingling cursed. Zhong Huang should have told him more about how to actually navigate the game! Now Xu Mingling had no choice but to wander around without any clothes or weapons to defend himself. Fuming, he set forth from the gazebo. There was nothing to be gained by shyly hiding away at the starting point. Besides, it wasn't as if he felt shame over his own body. If someone wanted to look, let them look!
He followed a stone-paved path through a garden-like forest. Flowers hung over the sides of the path, glowing like street lamps. Without bothering to admire the scenery, Xu Mingling carried on. Over the line of trees he saw a faraway cathedral, enormous and towering. That was his destination.
It took an hour and a half of walking to leave the forest's boundaries. At a cliff, the road had turned into a downward hill of hundreds of white stairs. Sighing, Xu Mingling climbed down the steps and observed the cathedral. The building was so tall that even at the top of this cliff he had to crane his head upwards to see view it. A plaza of white stone covered the area in front of the cathedral, divided by large square gardens which occupied the four corners and center of the plaza, the leaves of elegant willow trees providing shade over the surrounding stone benches.
Despite the area's beauty, not a single person could be seen.
Xu Mingling ignored the temptation of the benches. While his legs ached and his feet were sore, he couldn't relax just yet.
The cathedral had no gates, its gigantic entryway inviting all to enter. Without hesitation, Xu Mingling strode inside. Even if all he found were monsters, he would welcome them. Should he die and get kicked out of the game, he could tell Zhong Huang his character's whereabouts and order the ex-servant to bring some clothes.
The large corridor opened to the cathedral's main room. Light filled the spacious area which could easily hold tens of thousands of people. Xu Mingling paused next to one of the gigantic columns which held up a decorative arch. He was an ant compared to its size, the column being as thick as twelve of him lined up.
In games, people didn't have to worry about construction costs. How much time and money would it take to build something of this scale in reality? The Europeans took hundreds of years to create cathedrals half this size. Here, all it took was a team of designers and 3D modelers to work for a few months.
Even so, the sight stirred Xu Mingling's respect.
"Hello?" he called out. "Anyone there?" His voice echoed in the vast space, but found no reply.
Xu Mingling clicked his tongue. No one again! Even though this game reached unprecedented popularity, why were there no other starting players here! Was this area such an unpopular spot? Considering its aesthetic value, shouldn't it at least attract a few tourists?
While Xu Mingling raged inwardly, at the far end of the room, the air around the domed apse shimmered. The painted murals along the dome's ceiling glowed, and light gathered around the altar on the raised platform.
Sensing the change of atmosphere, Xu Mingling turned around. "Oh? At the altar... is someone else creating their character?" He unhurriedly walked toward the circular end of the cathedral, stopping a few meters away from the staircase.
The gathered light, which had expanded to a sun-like sphere, contracted. It formed the undefined shape of a figure. Though it had no face, Xu Mingling somehow felt that the figure watched him.
"You there," An indistinct, watery voice echoed in the air. "Are you an adventurer? No..." The figure of light wavered and appeared in front of Xu Mingling, rays of light traveling the distance like a sparkler's afterimage. "You're the first!" Delight sounded through the ambient voice.
"Hah?" Fearlessly Xu Mingling said, "Speak clearly. What do you mean by the first? And also, what manner of being are you?"
Happily, the figure of light wavered. Sparks flew off like fireworks. "The first Celestial! The first of the Celestial Kingdom!"
Annoyed by the display, Xu Mingling snapped, "Stop writhing about!" The figure stabilized. Xu Mingling let out an unimpressed harrumph. "So you're a Celestial. With that kind of respectable name, shouldn't you act with more refinement?"
"You've got it wrong. I should be saying that to you..." the figure said, its watery voice sounding disappointed. "You are the Celestial. The very first of your kind to be born in this realm." A heavy sigh blew through the air. "Ahh, even though the looks are so good, the personality is twisted as hell..."
Xu Mingling spat blood. With this randomized hair he looked like an angelic fairy, but his personality was indeed that of a black-bellied devil.
The figure continued to speak. "Oh well. I'm so generous, I'll explain things to you even if you're an ugly-hearted young woman."
Xu Mingling spat blood again. Who was a young woman! His little brother was openly displayed for anyone to see!
"You came here from the world of humans, yes?" The figure lazily floated around, its excitement having ebbed away. "Celestials are aesthetically similar. Two hands, two feet, ten toes... Anyway, what makes Celestials special is their affinity for life. Healing, salvation, and miracles, they naturally excel at all of these things. This is because of their pure and generous hearts and their understanding of the flows of the world. That is a Celestial! But I suppose there are exceptions. Looking at you, I really don't know what went wrong."
"What a joke. So they're a race of pacifistic clerics? Who would want to live such a self-sacrificing life?" Fuming, Xu Mingling cursed Gateway Media for whatever glitch made him miss doing his own character creation. "Certainly no one, considering I'm the only Celestial here. Even this was not my own choice!"
"So you say," the figure said blandly. "You don't even realize... It's not that no one wants to be a Celestial. If people could choose, who wouldn't become one?"
Xu Mingling scoffed. This figure, whether a programmed welcome NPC or an employee, was biased to the point of blindness. In this game you were only able to make one character. No one worth mentioning would waste themselves on a full support role. You would be eternally dependent on others to carry you through dungeons, and would have no way of securing drops and treasures for yourself. Always the hired help! Never the hero! Only the soft-hearted would want such a faint life.
"Ah, well. In any case, I think it's time for you to join the rest of your fellows. You've noticed that no one else is here - that's because this is the territory of Celestials, and until now, no one has been able to open it. I myself knew its location, but I couldn't enter until you showed up," the figure said.
"Rejoining the rest of the players should wait until after I get a set of clothes."
The figure made an 'ah' sound and nodded in agreement. "True. Go to that altar over there, and it should give you some offerings. The portal to leave is right outside. I'll investigate a little more while you get ready."
The figure faded away, wisps of light curling up into nothing.
Xu Mingling pursed his lips. Looking over, the altar had absolutely nothing on it. Still, he walked up the steps. The moment his foot met the platform, light shone from the center of the domed ceiling onto the altar.
Intrigued, Xu Mingling approached. The light coalesced and formed a tunic, golden accessories, and a strange glowing sphere.
He deftly donned the white tunic made of draped, flowing cloth. It ended prematurely above his knees, almost resembling a skirt. Xu Mingling curled his lip, but reminded himself that this was better than nothing at all. The golden accessories included an elaborate neck piece with a large oval jewel in the center, a thin belt for his waist, and a hair ornament. Xu Mingling twisted his worthlessly long hair into a loose bun and pinned it with the ornament.
Finally, he was somewhat dressed. Unfortunately, the system didn't see it fit to bestow upon him some footwear.
He collected the mysterious orb, which pulsed in his hand. Experimentally he said, "Identify." Like before, nothing happened.
"Ah, the system won't work here," a voice resounded. Xu Mingling turned and saw that the figure had returned and floated above him. "Once you go to the colonized areas, it'll be fine. I think that jewel on your collar is some sort of storage device, so you can put the orb base in there."
Xu Mingling deduced that by 'colonized areas' the figure meant places with player access. Through some bug, Xu Mingling must have gone through a randomized character creation, resulting in this unfinished Celestial race with no player support for its starting area. Whatever the result, it didn't matter overmuch to Xu Mingling. He just needed this character to search, not to play.
However, what did the figure mean by 'I think'? Shouldn't you be sure about the items in your own game!
"This orb, it's the base of what?" Xu Mingling asked instead, internally criticizing the carelessness of Gateway Media's employees.
"A weapon, of course! You need something special to channel your Celestial power. You'll need to find decent physical materials first, so I'd recommend storing it until a later time."
So this orb was a crafting material. Xu Mingling raised it to his chest. Remembering how characters in Chinese fantasy novels described using their interspatial storage rings, Xu Mingling thought about storing the orb and flicked his hand. The orb disappeared and he got a sense that it had entered the jewel.
Leaving the cathedral through its other corridor, Xu Mingling saw the portal. The floating oval frame spun around in place over a grounded monument. The figure appeared next to the monument and beckoned Xu Mingling to stand underneath.
"This thing here is complicated to use, and needs an operator to send people over. Luckily for you I'm here, otherwise you'd be trapped on this plane until who knows when. Where do you want to go? Do you even know?"
"Cape Town, Morgrea continent," Xu Mingling demanded. Zhong Huang said he'd wait for Xu Mingling there since it was the most easily accessible city from all of the human starting locations.
The figure made a disinterested sound. "Okay, the transfer is started. It'll only take about thirty seconds. By the way, what's your name?"
"Xu Mingling." Happy to be finally leaving, Xu Mingling figured he would grant the figure the right to knowing his name.
"Clear Bell? Even your name is so misleading... You can call me Luz. We'll probably meet again sometime, but hopefully not any time soon. Ciao!"
Before Xu Mingling could correct the figure on his name, the world warped and eventually faded.