Episode 98 – Replica or Not

Previously:

The day of the practical exams is finally here. Kiel enters the 4th floor of Replica Dungeon to take the exam. The Replica Dungeon transports him to a large arena where his exam will be taking place. Out of 9 other exam participants, Kiel recognizes 3 of them, with the third one being Zor Arite.

Episode 98 – Replica or Not

As Kiel gazed at the imposing presence of Zor Arite, he felt his hopes of a perfect score crumble into nothingness. Zor Arite was a giant, impassable mountain crushing all hope. He was a monster among monsters, a person that had effortlessly managed to achieve a perfect score in the Muni exams 21 years ago. A person whose power was enough to annihilate all of the remaining 9 participants, Kiel included, even if they ganged up on him.

Saying that Kiel’s luck was horrid would be an understatement.

But, hey, at least it couldn’t get any worse than this, right?

Wrong.

It could get worse.

It could always get worse.

Kiel confirmed this as soon as his gaze reached the final participant in the exam, who came out of the room right next to his.

When Kiel’s eyes landed on that familiar face, his face stiffened, and his mind was overcome with all swear words in his dictionary. The man finally turned his head, his gaze locking with Kiel’s.

His eyes widened in shock, and he let out a disbelieving exclamation: “Huh? Little brother, what are you doing here?”

The person who stared back at Kiel was no other than his older brother – Rhur Rroda.

Or rather, it was a Replica of Rhur Rroda who took this exam last year.

Kiel remained silent as if he didn’t hear the question directed his way.

Look at the bright side, I always wanted to give Rhur Rroda a beating. Kiel thought, but as soon as the thought entered his mind, his face darkened further. Unfortunately, with my current skills I’m not qualified to give him a beating. Even winning a pyrrhic victory would be an issue.

Completely unaware of Kiel’s thoughts, Rhur’s shock quickly dissipated, replaced by a frown. He gently flew towards Kiel, stopping at arm’s length.

Kiel’s pupils contracted as he stared at the Replica of his older brother. All of his features were identical to Rhur’s. Even his aura felt exactly like the aura of the real Rhur. Not just his appearance and aura, even his scent was the same – Kiel could clearly smell Rhur’s favorite cologne.

Kiel was so preoccupied with trying to find a flaw that his mind barely registered Rhur’s voice: “Is this why you wanted to tag along with me and come to Ashar? To take the Muni exams? I must say that I’m impressed you made it this far. However, your efforts are futile. You haven’t finished high school yet, little brother. You can’t enroll in Muni.”

Kiel’s body suddenly broke out in goosebumps. When Elaru had told him that everything besides the soul could be copied, including one’s consciousness, Kiel was extremely skeptical.

The idea that there could be another him inside the Replica Dungeon that holds his memories, and thinks, feels and acts exactly like him, made Kiel’s hair stand on end.

Seeing the Replica of Rhur Rroda, made Kiel feel like he had been hit with a hammer.

How are Replicas mere flawed copies?! The person in front of him was in every way identical to Rhur Rroda.

There was simply no difference. Not even a minute one.

And worst still…this Replica of Rhur Rroda wasn’t even aware that he wasn’t the real Rhur Rroda. He thought that he was taking the exams right now!

Rhur Rroda believed that he was the protagonist of this exam. In fact, every one of the participants thought that they were here to take the Muni exam. None of them realized that they were merely Replicas of the real people who had long ago finished this exam.

Kiel took an involuntary step back, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. What was happening around him made him question the nature of his reality.

If Replicas were identical to the original, if they behaved and thought just like the original, then what if he was just like them? What if he was only a Replica of the true Kiel who had long ago finished this exam?

How would he know whether he was the real Kiel? Perhaps one of the faces he didn’t recognize was the real protagonist of this exam.

Kiel’s mind spun. Is he the real Kiel Rroda? Or is he a Replica?

Desperately he called out to Elaru. If he could contact her, that meant that she existed. And since she wasn’t inside the Replica Dungeon, if she existed, then it meant that she was outside, in the “real” world. And only the real Kiel could have a connection to a real Elaru.

If Elaru could respond to him, then, surely, he was the real Kiel.

The silence inside his mind was unbearable. Every second he spent waiting for the response seemed like hours. His heart kept accelerating, threatening to jump out of his chest.

And then, when he finally heard a voice respond to him inside his head, to him it was the most beautiful voice in existence.

“Yeah? What is it?”

Elaru’s melodious voice was simply the divine music. At this moment, there was simply no sound more wonderful. Her casual response acted like a soothing tonic, calming Kiel’s mind and heart.

“Uh, nothing. Never mind.” Kiel let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

I am real. I am not a Replica. Kiel inhaled a deep breath. Get yourself together! He ordered himself, yet his heart was still beating erratically, his mind was still running wild with possibilities.

He might be the true Kiel, but… what if what he thought as true wasn’t true at all? What if the “true” Kiel was also only a Replica?

Since he can’t tell the difference between the world inside the Replica Dungeon and the real world, then, how can he be sure that that which he called the real world was real?

The blood inside him ran cold.

What if the entire world of Halnea was just a Replica Dungeon on a larger scale? A world created by a divine artifact controlled by a being calling itself a god?

What if what he called “grass”, “wood”, “steel”, “rock”, what if all of it was just a copy of a material from a higher realm?

What if everything and everyone he knew were only Replicas?

Kiel stared unblinkingly at the minute changes of expression on Rhur’s face. Rhur didn’t seem to be too pleased that Kiel wasn’t responding to his questions, yet he still tried to be as perfect of a nobleman as he was supposed to be in public.

A strange thought entered Kiel’s mind. Would it even matter?

Would it matter if that which he thought as “real” wasn’t really “real”?

In fact, what is “real”?

If he can smell it, touch it, feel it, interact with it in every way as if it was “real”… If there is no difference between that which is “real” and that which is not, then that which is not “real” would become real.

What is real, what is true, what is unreal, what is false – all of it is a matter of perspective.

If he was a Replica in a world of Replicas, this false world of Replicas would be his reality. To him, the existence of the original would be “false”.

What is real is up to me to decide. Kiel’s mind finally settled down. For me, this Replica world I am in is just as real as the outside world. Both worlds are just as real.

That’s right. Kiel’s mind cleared. Replicas were just people from an earlier time, not much different than him. Like an image stuck in the past.

A loud sound of snapping fingers woke Kiel up from his thoughts. “Are you alright, little brother? You zoned out on me.” Rhur looked at Kiel with his eyebrow raised. “It’s ok to be surprised… but get yourself together. We are in the middle of a battle royale. If your moment of distraction ends up causing you to get eliminated, grandfather would be livid. ‘Dragging the Rroda name through the mud’ and all that.”

Rhur chuckled softly, his voice carrying affection and worry of an older brother that only Kiel would be able to recognize as completely fake. Personally, Rhur would be the first one to gloat if such a thing happened to Kiel.

Kiel’s eyes narrowed, and he finally responded. “Thank you for your reminder, older brother. You know better than anyone how livid grandfather becomes when he considers something as ‘dragging Rroda name through the mud’.”

Rhur’s soft smile stiffened. Wasn’t Kiel implying that Rhur often dragged the Rroda name through the mud and thus made Venric angry?

“You’re welcome. We brothers have to stick together. Infighting would cause others to laugh at us.” Rhur beamed yet his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Luck is on our side today, little brother. Let’s show them the combined might of the Rrodas.”

Is he suggesting we team up and beat down other participants of the battle? Kiel’s expression showed no surprise. He and Rhur might be on bad terms, however, infighting, when confronted by a common enemy, would be simply stupid.

Since there were ten people participating in the exam, a single person would find it extremely difficult to beat everyone by himself. Especially if other participants teamed up when fighting against them. That’s why it would be beneficial to have an ally in such a situation.

Well, Rhur could hardly be considered an ally, however, Kiel could trust that Rhur wouldn’t pull any underhanded methods as long as there were common enemies to fight against.

There was an unspoken rule in every noble family that should never be broken – infighting was only allowed if it didn’t negatively impact the interests or the honor of the family. It was absolutely the greatest of humiliation if an outsider reaped benefits at the expense of their family because of their infighting.

It was the greatest taboo that could easily lead to one getting expelled from the family by the family head.

If Rhur knocked his own brother out of the competition while there were other competitors he could have targeted instead, in the best-case scenario, people would look down and him and talk trash behind his back. In the worst-case scenario, Venric would be absolutely livid.

No matter how much Rhur internally wished Kiel would receive the lowest score possible, showing that desire outwardly or contributing towards it would be unsightly. And besides, even if it weren’t so, Rhur wouldn’t go against his own interests no matter how much he hated Kiel. What mattered the most to the Replica of Rhur right now was to perform well in this exam. If he could use Kiel to increase his own score, then he would unhesitatingly do so.

Thus, Kiel could trust him to a certain extent.

Kiel glanced at the other examinees. No one had started fighting yet; they were warily looking around themselves, waiting for someone to make the first move.

“There are three other people we should be wary of.” Kiel pointed them out one by one. “The golden eyed guy should be avoided at all costs. My information says he is stronger than both of us combined. The other two that are dangerous are the brown haired elibu and the ginger.”

“Eh?” Rhur mused. “Where did you obtain this information?”

Kiel looked at him like he was an idiot. “From the D.I.” Duh.

“You are well prepared, little brother. Then let’s avoid those three and take out the other five first.”

“Agreed.” Kiel nodded.

The ten participants continued to warily eye one another, trying to determine which one of them would be the easiest prey. However, the stalemate didn’t last for long.

It was broken by the actions of Zor Arite.

Unlike the rest of the participants, Zor Arite didn’t seem wary at all. He looked around himself leisurely, seemingly not putting up any defenses. After inspecting every participant, unexpectedly, he sat down cross-legged and closed his eyes, as if he was completely disinterested in this exam.

Everyone looked at him strangely. What kind of person would choose to sit down leisurely in a middle of an exam?!

 

Coming up in the next episode:

Only when his body hit the floor did his head separate from his neck, slowly rolling off, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.

In a split second, Kiel’s mind considered his options and settled on an optimal course of action.

One large spike ended up embedding itself in the thigh of the man while another one passed right through his shoulder, its bright red tip dripping blood on the other side.

Unaware, his neck approached the sharp tip of the poisonous dagger, it was so close, almost touching the short hair at the back of his neck.

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