“Are you not entertained!?”
--Maximus Decimus Meridius, ‘Gladiator’
Chapter 220 - Incoming storm
It was as if a bomb had went off in Huang Ming’s head.
His mouth fell open as ‘Master Zheng Yen’ casually changed her posture so that she was sitting cross-legged on the straw mat flooring.
“This vessel is so inconvenient,” she complained as she moved, annoyed by the thick and voluminous robes she was wearing. She frowned when she noticed Huang Ming was still standing.
“Well, don’t just stand there like an idiot. Sit down,” she said imperiously.
Still with his mouth hanging open, Huang Ming slowly sat down like an idiot. There were a billion threads running through his brain, where was he going to start?
Of course, the word ‘avatar’ was still just a word. Perhaps it was all a coincidence that she had used it without knowing the true implication it held for Huang Ming. ‘She couldn’t be-’
“Your mind is too noisy, be quiet,” she interrupted. She waved a hand in the air and suddenly Huang Ming felt as if his head was encased in a fish bowl, dampening his senses from the immediate surrounding.
He gasped… and gasped because he couldn’t draw any breath. Huang Ming clawed at his face desperately… while ‘Master Zheng Yen’ was nonchalantly studying a fingernail.
After ticking off some inscrutable speck, she waved her hand again and the stifling sensation around Huang Ming’s head disappeared. He fell forward to his hands and knees and heaved.
“Enough?” ‘Zheng Yen’ asked airily as she gingerly touched her own face and feeling the wrinkles and imperfections.
Huang Ming did not answer as he was physically busy drawing the air into his lungs.
‘Maybe she’s a ESPer native to this world?’
‘Zheng Yen’ sighed in annoyance.
Before his very eyes, her face began to shed the years. The wrinkles disappeared and the skin became tighter and paler, her hair became darker and longer. The 40-year old woman became a sprightly teenage girl. She flapped the now overly big sleeves of her robes experimentally.
‘Maybe she’s a shapeshifter too.’
The de-aged ‘Zheng Yen’ rolled her eyes.
“Oh shut up,” she said, even though Huang Ming haven’t said anything.
She snapped her fingers and Huang Ming reflexively flinched.
Then he heard the wind outside picking up. He turned to look out of the window and he saw ominous dark clouds gathering in the sky. The weather which had been perfectly fine had turned forbidding and gloomy.
“Stop doubting your Patron, or do you want to see a Great Flood and for you to become Noah?” she asked peevishly.
‘Ok, I’m convinced.’
“Good. Now sit down, we have things to discuss,” she commanded.
Huang Ming obediently sat straighter, still unsure about how he going to deal with the situation.
“Just deal with it,” ‘Zheng Yen’ said brusquely.
“I don’t even know what to call you!” Huang Ming said exasperatedly.
She tilted her head in a childish gesture. “Miss Black?”
Huang Ming glared at her.
“My name is not important, Avatar. Just as your real name isn’t important,” she said breezily.
He was completely at a loss. How often had he dreamt of the improbable, that he would one day meet the Patron that was responsible for whisking him away from Earth and threw him on quantum leap journeys? He had a long list of questions and demands, yet at this moment he did not know where to start.
“Your mind is rambling again,” she scolded him. “Start from the beginning.”
Huang Ming took a deep breath.
“Why me?” he asked.
“Why not you?” she returned.
‘Maybe I should strangle her instead.’
“Don’t be absurd. This is just a temporary vessel. You would only be harming the owner of this body, not me.”
Huang Ming scowled, and she seemed to take some perverse pleasure at seeing him so irked.
“You were chosen by me because of the way you think,” she said.
“What? Why must you work in mysterious ways and talk cryptically?” Huang Ming grumbled.
She folded her arms and looked at him with undisguised frankness. “You seem to be under the impression that you are important. You are, but not really. You are unique, but replaceable.”
“Thanks,” Huang Ming said sarcastically.
She pointed a finger at him in an ‘aha!’ gesture. “See, that right there. Someone else in your position would probably be freaking out.”
“I did freak out earlier,” Huang Ming reminded her.
“Yes, but you could think while freaking out,” she said. “You have lived through multiple lives across many worlds, yet you longed to go back to your version of Earth. But that longing did not stop you from living those lives to the fullest.”
“Most of the time,” Huang Ming muttered.
“Most of the time,” Miss Black agreed. “I did not appreciate the stunt you pulled on Veralda.”
Huang Ming looked at her questioningly.
“The one where you jumped off a building right after you had arrived,” she said. “You did not even bother to find out who or where you were.”
“Ah,” Huang Ming said sheepishly. “Well, what did you expect? I was tired of it all. And if I’m not important, why do I keep getting picked?”
“You have thought of this analogy yourself, but I will confirm it to you. Imagine all the books you have read, all the movies you have seen, all those games you have played. Your ‘quantum leaps’ as you call it; are you jumping into such worlds. Sometimes as a new addition, sometimes as an established character. You know this yourself, and you live out those ‘roles’ the best you can. Your fellow Avatars call it ‘becoming the Main Character’, don’t they?”
“And you are someone who watches all that. A reality tv show of epic proportions,” Huang Ming interjected sarcastically.
“You longed to go home because no matter how thorough those ‘lives’ you had experienced, you still think that your life on Earth is the real one. But to us, your ‘real’ life is as illusionary as all the characters you have played and lived.”
Huang Ming’s face twitched.
Miss Black propped one fist on her cheek, the elbow on her knee. “I have watched you diligently, all of you. I can admire the things you Avatars have accomplished, I can become angry at the deeds you commit, I can even cheer for you. But remember the feelings you had when you finished a book or a game. You might feel dissatisfied, inspired, moved or irritated. Such feelings might last a few hours or linger for the rest of your life. And you out of your fellow Avatars have given me such feelings the most.”
“So it’s all entertainment to you? It’s really a Great Game? Why not tell us participants the rules and scoring system?” Huang Ming asked acidly.
“Not just entertainment,” Miss Black replied sternly. “There are things at stake… things that you cannot possible understand. There is no need for you to understand. You only need to live your life and you will be naturally guided to your opponent.”
“What’s in it for me? How does it all end?” Huang Ming scowled.
“It will end naturally. Don’t think about it too much, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“This seems all terribly inefficient,” Huang Ming said. “Why not just create a cosmic dueling ring and find the most powerful beings of each universe and have them fight it out for you?”
“It has been done. The novelty wore off,” she said flatly.
Huang Ming threw his hands up in disgust. “And of course, you’re not allowed to intervene in this ‘game’, am I right?”
“All I can do is to give you a like or dislike, using your Earth parlance,” she chuckled.
“Then why are you here?” Huang Ming demanded. “Are you going to give me some cheats?”
“Like what?” Miss Black asked, amusement in her eyes.
Huang Ming paused, his face hopeful. “You know, the usual. Like a menu system. Dimensional storage. See the status of everyone and everything. That kind of stuff.”
“This is not that sort of world.”
“I know! Which is why it would be called a cheat!” he exclaimed.
“You are already doing well without them,” she pointed out.
“You’re the one who said I should step up,” he shot back. “What exactly are you doing here? Giving me a pep talk while the other Avatar got here a full ten years before me?”
She smiled. “You are right: your opponent Avatar had arrived in this world much earlier than you. That is not supposed to happen.”
Huang Ming breathed in deeply. “So, it’s really the Princess of Jin?”
The dark skies outside rumbled threateningly. The weather was shaping up to a terrific storm for the ages.
“You can stop trying to impress me,” Huang Ming said.
“That wasn’t me,” Miss Black replied grimly.
And that’s when he knew,
There was no help from you.