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2 Exit, Stage Lef

    If, seemingly all your life, you've been working your hardest to achieve a certain result...

    If, even beyond your wildest expectations, you succeeded...

    If, for good or ill, you now face the fullest consequences of all you strived towards...

    Would you be afraid? Would you back away? Or would you grit your teeth and reap what you f*cking sowed?

    Standing on a walkway carpeted in red, surrounded by cameras, lights, and a cheering crowd, the actress Yong Fan Shu had not been thinking any of these things - at least, not so coherently. Utterly calm, she watched the steady approach of an unknown man.

    From his simple but stylish suit, she guessed that he was a reporter. Even though he had left his place among the entertainment news crews in the sidelines, no one else was paying him any attention. He took unhurried steps to where Yong Fan Shu stood, locked within the arms of Jia Hui Liang.

    Moments before, the watching crowd had witnessed when the other actress suddenly enclosed Yong Fan Shu in a tight embrace. She then inexplicably swung them both so that their places were switched.

    Even though they were confused by that move, the crowd couldn't help being mesmerized as well. The sway of Jia Hui Liang's white silk gown, the glimmer of Yong Fan Shu's dress which was studded with black gems... when the beautiful women wearing these clothes half-spun together, the image was absolutely breathtaking!

    But... what exactly was going on? Was it a publicity stunt?

    Tonight was the premiere of a movie sequel wherein three superstars reprised their now-iconic roles. Two of the three were newcomers when the first movie came out, and while most viewers never suspected a thing, people in the industry knew: it was veteran Yong Fan Shu's extreme believability as the villain that brought out the stellar performances from the protagonists, making the movie what it was.

    Now, after Yong Fan Shu's decision to play the same character twice when she turned down other requests for sequels in the past, it was almost guaranteed that the three's stars would never fade, not just hers.

    Just a few minutes ago, her male co-star had warned Yong Fan Shu to "watch out for snipers." Though she didn't take it seriously, she knew Jiang Heng had not been joking, and his concern for her safety was as real as it was deep.

    Who would not worry? The twenty-seven-year-old actress had played numerous evil characters over her long career, and each of them had inspired enough hatred to last her several lifetimes.

    Some of Yong Fan Shu's haters were mentally disturbed, and it didn't help that she had a habit of playing her current detestable role even during promotional events. To date, she had received dozens of death threats from individuals who could not separate make-believe from reality. Fortunately, only a handful made good on their threat, and none had been levelheaded enough to plan well, let alone succeed.

    Still, there was always dumb luck, which was why the security measures for this premiere were a lot tighter than the norm. Not one would-be attacker from beyond the grilled partition would get past the closely spaced guards, who were watching the crowd on the other side like hawks.

    After their positions had been switched, Yong Fan Shu saw the exact same thing Jia Hui Liang did and came to the exact same conclusion. She now understood the younger actress' actions. Recognizing the threat for what it was, Jia Hui Liang had instinctively placed herself between Yong Fan Shu and the man who could only be an attacker.

    While their dresses were still swaying, Jia Hui Liang also called out, "Security!"

    It was far too late, however. As the man steadily crossed the remaining distance, his blazing eyes were clearly saying, 'You damn b*tch.' If the reporter had shouted those words, he'd have alerted the others to his true intent. But he didn't make a sound.

    And of course, no one had expected danger to come from the inside. They were all part of the industry, they were all supposed to know better. Most things in their world were only make-believe.

    Unfortunately, the slim white-bladed knife that the reporter took out looked... real enough. Because if it got past the metal detector, the material must be made of something else. Plastic, maybe?

    'Would that kill me?' Yong Fan Shu wondered absently as she gathered her strength, intending to break free of Jia Hui Liang's desperate embrace. She'll be damned if she showed her own back to an attacker, but what kind of "Big Sister" would she be if she allowed this brave but foolish junior of hers to serve as her shield? How could she be sure that the man wouldn't just harm her too?

    Getting enough room to loosen the other woman's hold, she grabbed Jia Hui Liang by the upper arms and pushed her towards the other reporters, the ones who were not insane. If the appearance of the knife hadn't already clued them in to the situation, the actress falling on top of them did. People finally began to move, but...

    'Was I this good at being bad?'

    Even in that moment, watching as the man overflowing with hatred for her closed in with his weapon raised, Yong Fan Shu felt triumphant. She almost laughed at herself at this sick realization, but she held it in and stood her ground.

    Because even in this crazy situation, to break out of character in front of others... it was simply not something she could allow herself to do. Instead, she met the man's eyes and smiled scornfully.

    There was no helping her anymore.

    Yong Fan Shu heard it when Jia Hui Liang screamed "Sister!" while trying to get back on her feet. Past the attacker's shoulder, she caught a glimpse of Jiang Heng running headlong towards her, looking desperate. She watched until that knifepoint drew so close that she could no longer see it. She felt it when the tip touched the skin of her neck.

    Until the very last moment, however, not for one millisecond did Yong Fan Shu think she was actually going to die.

    Then the surprisingly sharp edge broke through her flesh.

    [Transfer initiated,] said a voice she could clearly hear despite the deafening noise around. [No need to stay for the rest, jeez-zus.]

    Before she could fully register the words, Yong Fan Shu's mind just... blacked out.

    She'd never fainted before. She had no way of knowing for certain if this was what happened to her now. But then, if she had "lost consciousness," how come she was still capable of thought?

    She definitely felt it when that knife pierced her skin - there was a brief resistance, followed by a barely painful feeling of invasion. That was most likely only the prologue to a whole world of pain, but she had been... cut off from all her senses before she could be served the full course.

    That's right - even now, she had no access to any of her senses. She could "see" nothing but blackness. She could "hear" nothing but her thoughts, which didn't count. She could "feel" nothing.

    In this uniform blackness where her consciousness was seemingly just is, where she had no perception of space, not even of time passing, she did not feel fear, or anything else for that matter, because she had no physical body with the capability to feel.

    She had no body.

    That was it.

    Which could only mean...

    [Transfer complete.]

    She had no idea how much time she spent in the blackness. It could have been anywhere from a second to an eternity for all she could determine. Then, all at once, sensations came back. The experience was a nasty cross between having floodgates opening inside her, filling her to maximum capacity in the blink of an eye, and having her external self plunged into a pool of dense liquid.

    Shifting from one extreme state to the other without so much as a warning was enough to make anyone lose their grip on sanity. So Yong Fan Shu did not attempt to fight it nor accommodate it. She simply let go of her senses and, for real this time, fainted.

    If she thought she was finally going to catch a break, however, she was very, very mistaken.

    [Debriefing initiated.]

    "..."

    [...]

    "..."

    [Fine way to start your next life, nearly getting yourself killed again.]

    ***

    The blackness this time was not the same as before. Yong Fan Shu instinctively knew that she merely had her eyes closed. She could feel the length of her back lying on a cool, hard surface. She anticipated pain, or numbness at least, but there was none. Also, not that it's important, it seemed she could hear properly now.

    [You were riding a horse just now, just so you know. Big shock, when you fainted, you fell off.]

    She opened her eyes and saw... whiteness. She couldn't help frowning in disdain. Was it a coincidence or was someone being heavy-handed with the black-and-white motif?

    She sat up, noting in passing that her entire body was clothed in a pristine white bodysuit. Recalling recent events, her hand flew to her neck. There was no wound. She looked around only to discover that she was inside a room made entirely of white walls measuring 5×5 meters each.

    There was nothing else to see. She was the only thing in it.

    [You're not gonna like waking up later to a bruised head.]

    Well, maybe not quite the only thing.

    Without anything else to hold on to at the moment, she gave in. Before, she was hearing that drawling male voice inside her own head. Now, it seemed to be coming from any number of speakers embedded all over the room.

    There were still the questions of what the hell this room was and how on earth she got there in one piece, but for now, that voice not being a clear symptom of her insanity was enough to satisfy her.

    "In case you haven't noticed," she began in an even tone that masked equal parts fear and annoyance, "I've been trying to ignore you."

    [No. Really?] the voice replied, his tone one of mock surprise. [How's denial working out for you?]

    Her eyebrow twitched. It was not working out too well, she had to admit. And this massive prick of a voice was not helping. Earlier, he had dropped bombs on her one after another, as if they were nothing.

    Her next life?

    Nearly got herself killed again?

    She was riding a horse?

    Waking up later?

    She had not been living under a rock. As an actress, her world revolved around stories - all sorts of them, in any form, from every conceivable source.

    So, yes, she knew about reincarnation and transmigration stories, where a person who died mysteriously gets another chance at life, either as his or her own younger self or as someone else, often in an entirely different world.

    As for stories with a "system" that directs and helps its "host" achieve specific ends like, say, conquer the world...

    Yes. She knew about those too.

    Piece all these together and what do you get...?

    'Sh*t.'

    It was too much, but aside from fear, it was impossible to identify what else she was feeling.

    The biggest surprise of all, however, was how her mind seemed to be holding up fine... somehow... all things considered. By rights, she should be banging her head against the wall any moment now. But no matter how much it may look like it, she was neither crazy nor warming up to be.

    'This is really happening,' she thought shakily. Aloud, she said, "I thought for sure that toy knife would just snap."

    [If you must know,] the voice replied in a disinterested tone, [that blade was ceramic. Most definitely not a toy.] There was a loaded pause. [Not gonna ask if you're really dead?]

    Yong Fan Shu's mouth fell open. Just who had been casually dropping hints earlier that destroyed her concept of common sense?

    "Do you have a face I can slap?" she said past gritted teeth.

    [Course not or I wouldn't be so unpleasant,] the voice answered. [Not curious about why you died?]

    "No. I know why," Yong Fan Shu replied crisply; she was in no mood now to engage.

    The voice snorted. [Being your own death's engineer and all, I guess you would. Not wondering about anything else?]

    By that, Yong Fan Shu gathered he was itching for her to ask about him or this System she somehow found herself possessing. What did she even do to "deserve" such an honor? Was Jia Hui Liang actually a daughter of heaven? Were the dual gifts of a system and another chance at life a "reward" for saving her?

    No, that doesn't make any sense - in the first place, it was never Jia Hui Liang's life that was in danger.

    Then what? Was this world in need of an experienced villain to face-smack residents every ten seconds? Did she just happen to die at a convenient moment then slipped into the body of a maltreated person who also just died?

    If so, she supposed she'll be expected to avenge the body's original owner. Even if it would technically make her a hypocrite as she'd be going against her fellow antagonists, this second explanation seemed far more likely.

    Before she could voice any of her speculations, however, the prick made it clear he could hear her thoughts as he dropped the mother of all bombs on her.

    [Actually, it's like this...] he began, his tone as dry as a desert. [You have not come to 'possess' this System, which I'm not, by the way. You've been inside it all along.]
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