As I take in the vistas in front of me, I realise the Ethereal plane is different from anything I’d imagined. Spinvil called it the plane between the Physical and the Essential. Between the godlike and the worldly. Behind me stood the portal back to the comforting stability of the Prime plane. Steeling myself, I begin to move forwards, leaving sanity behind me.
Everything here seems like it’s floating. There’s no land anywhere in sight, nowhere to stand or rest. Just the endless expanse of velvety, floating mists. The immaterialness of the place makes me feel small, inconsequential. I force myself to remember the reason I came here in the first place. Closing my eyes, I spread my senses out, feeling for whatever traces were left of Basilisks passage. Several minutes pass before I find the threads. A bunch of silken cords loosely bound by energy. The more I focus on them, the clearer they become. Almost like the solid tethers I’d seen fleeing Spiders realm. They wove a path thorn the swirling nothingness, leading me.. Somewhere.
I could feel myself drift, slowly at first, constantly accelerating. On the way towards the distant point, the scenery barely changed. No landmarks to speak of, no way to find my way back. A problem for future me. As time passes, I notice my mana depleting much faster than I thought it would. My stock of potions aren’t unlimited, but conserving them isn’t really an option either. I know too well what happens when I run out of magical power. Lost in thought, I nearly miss the entrance. As I slow down, I couldn’t help a sense of dread coming over me. A large gate, easily ten meters tall, 4 between the posts. Carved of stone, ominously glowing glyphs inscribed along the frame. I didn’t have to speak the language to understand what they meant.
‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’
I approach the gates carefully, placing my hand on the left post as I move towards the center of the gate. There’s another breach here. Not a fresh wound like the one I entered the ethereal by, but an old, dry injury. Extending my sense, I felt along the edges of the crack. Wide open, essence of pure evil wafting through from the other side. Once more, I push through it all. The burning fear, the chilling evil, the membrane between planes. It felt almost welcoming.
The passage through was turbulent, violent. I felt myself being tossed from side to side, my mind, body and spirit torn in different directions by the strange winds. The jagged edges of the passage felt like razorblades of ice slicing into my being. A few moments felt like hours before I was unceremoniously dumped onto solid ground. In a light daze, I scan my surroundings. A forest? Seems a bit simplistic for an evil realm. Nice and calm actually. I move to the largest tree I can find, and summon my dark powers to ascend it. Nothing happens. My mana is dropping slower here than in the Ethereal, but it should be more than enough for a quick jump up a tree. I guess Erebus isn’t able to reach this place. At least I’m familiar with the process of getting up trees. I start climbing, hoping I won’t meet any evil squirrels. At the top, I get an amazing view of trees in all directions. They go on for about a kilometer before darkness covers the trees, cutting off line of sight. There’s no movement anywhere, and no trace of the seat of power. Getting comfortable, I summon Ephraim.
“How may I be of assistance?”
His disembodied head, tinted green and just a little bit enlarged seemed chipper enough.
“How do I find Basilisks seat of power?”
He considers for a moment.
“Not enough information for accurate reply. Inferring. Basilisk is an avatar of Evil. Legends speak of a future echo reanimating people from this era to punish anyone who knows about it, but isn’t working hard to bring it about. Have you seen any indication that this Basilisk has a desire to punish people or reanimating the dead?”
“No, not really.. He summons lizard things to fight for him. Small, angry ones and larger saurian ones.”
“Hmm. So demonic monsters who aren’t actually demons? We could be dealing with a ‘Prince of Lies’ type evil. Often associated with darkness.”
“I guess… but he hasn’t really lied a lot either. He’s been hiding, I think, but once called out he just kinda started swinging.”
“I see. And his domain seems to be a forest. We could be dealing with an older kind of evil.. Imagine the first humans wandering around in the light. Somewhere there’s a deep, dark forest where monsters live. If you walk too far into it, you’ll never be heard from again. In daylight or in groups, they’d walk safely enough, unless they encountered wildlife. Wolves and bears and giant cats, oh my.”
I think about this. I guess it makes sense. It’s light enough now, and the forest is quiet. Sooner or later, the darkness will come around, and monsters begin traveling openly.
“In that case, where do you think the seat of power is?”
“Well, if we’re following this imagery, the seat of power would be in a sentient mind. The forests were never actually evil, just mens perception of it. If we’re being more practical, I’d guess you’d find it in the deepest part of the forest, a place where the monsters can frolic even in the brightness of day.”
“That’s marginally helpful, I guess. I mean, at least I know I’m probably running out of time, and can run into massive beasts at any time.”
“Atta girl, glass half full.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Was that a joke? I thought you’d lost most of your personality after the thing with Spider.”
“I did, but after harboring the queen, I borrowed some of her mind to repair myself. I’m not who I was, but the worst deficiencies in my self have been repaired.”
I smile, we exchange some more thinly veiled insults, and I dismiss him. Time to move.
From my vantage point, I can’t see anything indicating where the deepest parts of the forest could be. Anywhere outside the circle of relative light could hide the right spot. Or it could be underground. But if his more artistic interpretation is correct, maybe my mind sense can help. I down another potion, glancing at the 6 I have left. Running out of time.
I extend my sense of mind. At first, the forest is a silent wasteland. The trees interfere with the range of my power, blocking progress just a little bit. Pushing to extend my range costs me more than I can afford. I try again, letting my mind flow over the trees instead of around them. Much more efficient. Slowly, the forest comes alive with small sparks of mind, wandering slowly through the underbrush. There’s a much higher concentration in one direction than in the others. As good a place to start as any I guess. I shut down my extended sense and descend the tree carefully, stalking towards my goal. As I wander, I begin thinking about about the people I’ve met on this adventure. The real ones that is. From the weird little herbalist to Spinvil. I really didn’t like any of them, but I wondered sometimes whether I was missing out. Then I thought about Huntex, Jakoph and Telleran, the worst of them. Huntex had embraced his hatred so much that Chaos had taken an interest. And Telleran became a champion of Good? If he was the benchmark for being good, I suddenly felt much better about staying in the Dark. That made me pause though. I’d accepted being a Dark champion. Clearly, dying while being one of those wasn’t good for your health, as it were. Telleran had been eaten by one of those creatures. Is that what awaited me when Erebus was finished? Whatever else he claimed to be, I knew he wasn’t good.
My train of thought was interrupted by a branch breaking nearby. I throw myself against a tree, hoping my stealth was high enough to avoid whatever came through. A monstrous creature, a mix between dog and lizard, wanders slowly across the path I was going. I stops right where I would have been walking right now if I hadn’t heard it, looking around, sniffing. It’s eyes were sunken, adding to an overall skeletal effect. I analyse is while I wait for it to leave.
Sin eater. - Native to the realms of Evil and Darkness. Willful creatures poorly suited for watchdog duty. Intelligent and cruel.
It continues walking, passing out of sight soon, and I hide until I can no longer hear it. As I continue walking, another thought hits me. The ground is really clean here, for a forest. I’d expect more branches, rocks, leaves or other debris. So what the hell did the dog creature step on?
I encounter several more of the creatures. They nearly catch me many times, but I manage to hide just in time. Crawling through underbrush, flat against a tree, climbing high enough to avoid them. If I had a working heart, it would be racing. I suspect my lack of breathing and autonomous body functions are helping me get away, as there’s no way all these encounters are by accident. After another close call, I decide to climb up and get my bearings again. One of the beasts came up right behind me as I was on my stomach in some bushes. It sniffed around the tree I was just at, and I swear it was about to lift its leg when a loud crack came from nearby. It perked up, growled and ran towards it. Four other creatures shot out of the surrounding area following it, nearly trampling me. A change of scenery felt necessary.
Back up in the trees, I noticed I had no idea where I was, or where I was going. Everything looked identical to before. The darkness had moved as I did. I was pretty certain I hadn’t gone in a circle, I’d been marking the trees as I went along. Swigging another potion, I begin sensing the nearby area again. This time, it takes me less than a minute to locate a different kind of mind. Brighter, but softer. Sleeping. None of the monsters were in the immediate vicinity of it either. There was, however, a large group of them behind me. Just a few hundred meters. More than a dozen of the dogs were just waiting there, like they were expecting something. I descend, keeping my enhanced senses going to be able to avoid them more easily, but they moved with me. They definitely knew where I was. Were they playing with me? I wasn’t too far away from the new ping, so I threw back another potion and ran for it. A moment later, the entire pack began moving too. I push away bad memories of a similar situation. As I wildly run towards the target, trees begin thinning a little. The first real change in scenery since I got here. Slowly, a clearing appears around me. It hadn’t been visible when I was looking from above. I can hear running water nearby. Two large stones were standing in the middle of the little field, with a fireplace between them. On the ground next to the fire was a person. My pursuers had stopped, a sad chorus of howls coming up from throats all around the clearing. I turned off my mind sense and stalked closer to the little camp.
A young girl was on the ground. Couldn’t have been more than 10. A bit chubby for her age, dark hair, normal human. Not a player. I froze as the implications fell in place. Was I going to have to kill her? Or enter her mind some way and destroy her like that? As I was contemplating my options, she woke up.
“Mmmh.. daddy? Is that you?”
She turned around and looked at me with eyes red from crying. When she managed to focus on me, her hopefulness shattered, an empty husk without even despair to keep her company.
“Oh. Did the bad man send you? Did he want me to be punished again?”
Her words broke my heart. I knelt next to her.
“My name is Shae. I’m here to save you. What’s your name honey?”
She blinked in clear confusion.
“I.. I’m Rinn. How did you find me? You’re the only person I’ve seen for forever.”
I smile at her. It makes her recoil a little.
“I’m here to stop the bad man from hurting anyone else. But I have to find where he’s strongest before I can do that. Do you know where he gets his power?”
She scrunches up her face in thought.
“I’m not sure. He only whispers when he’s here, and then he treats me bad. He never feeds me, all I have is the water in the river. What happened to your face?”
Oh, my darkness isn’t covering anything here.
“I was born this way. It’s okay, because it makes the bad people scared. Does the bad man stay here with you?”
She thought really hard about that for a moment.
“Sometimes he comes here and sends me to the dark place for some time. I think it’s because he needs to rest without me or something. When I come back, he tells me to stay near the fire, or the monsters will get me.”
I try to comfort her, handing her what little I have in my pack to eat. She seems happy with the feast, giving me some time to explore. The rocks are the obvious objects to investigate. Impossibly smooth, equidistant from the fireplace, straight line between them. Made from a dark, glassy material. Obsidian? As I lean in and try to look into them, only darkness meets me. I tap each of them with the pommel of my sword, a deep, glassy sound emanating from deep inside. By now she’s done eating, watching me. I try to sense if there’s any mind stuff in them, but nothing more than the background noise from the two of us registers. My planeswalker abilities are overwhelmed by the amount of Evil in the area, giving me nothing useful. I have another potion, leaving me with three. I sit down with her, staring at the flames.
“When he puts you in the dark place, what exactly does he do?”
She looks uncomfortable.
“It’s the only time the fire goes out. Then the monsters come closer, howling really loud. After a while, he starts whispering, and then he lights the fire again. I don’t like it.”
I stroke her hair carefully, and her eyes boggle at my fingers. She decides not to ask about it this time.
“I think I have to turn the fire off sweetie. Can you be brave for me?”
She looks at me, white with fear.
“Can you get me home to my daddy?”
I swallow heavily.
“I’ll try, Rinn. I promise I’ll do my best to bring you back home, wherever that is.”
She nods seriously, her eyes quivering a little.
I use my light manipulation skill to lower the visible flames. Collecting the light there, and all the ambient sources, I create a small ball nearby. The light is much harder to work with here. Heavy with the evil energies in the area. I never thought I’d see evil light. The darker the area becomes, the closer the ever present howls come, until I hear them splashing in the river nearby. As I’m nearly forced stop to chase the monsters away, the rocks around us light up. Inside each is a glowing orb, floating in a galaxy of fireflies. The monsters are kept at bay by the shining power. Rinn gasps at the wondrous sight, reaching out to touch the nearest rocks.
She pulls back just as hundreds of fireflies started floating towards her finger.
Standing between the stones, I extinguish the fire completely. Rinn jumps back, shouting in fear. A beam of energy shoots from each rock, meeting right in front of me. A blinding moment later, the world has gone back to it’s pale light. We’re still in the clearing, but something has changed in the scenery. Between me and Rinn is an altar, a grooved stone table, intricately carved. On each of the stones surrounding us hangs a shackled person. On my right, Huntex, head lolled to one side. His eyes are open, a steady drip of drool coming from his mouth. On my left is Telleran. Not the proud scout I saw in our first fight, or the glorious champion. Just a scared boy, around my age, warily looking around himself. A rough leather gag in his mouth. Rinn runs to my side, holding on to me tightly. Telleran makes a muffled sound, then an arc of electricity shoots through him, silencing him. I move a little closer.
“What happened to you? What happened to him?”
He looks up at me, defeat in his eyes. He shakes his head.
“Speaking means pain, yeah?”
He nods. I look at his shackles. Solid. Not so much welded shut as forged on. I smile, making him flinch. I dig through my pack.
“Don’t be such an ass, I’m not you. Here, a gift from your buddy Spinvil.”
I hold the green potion up to his eyes, swirling the contents around, before I move to his bindings. Tackling his feet first, I’ve never seen anyone so still. Once the acid frees his feet, I go for his arms, finally letting him down. He removes the gag himself, working his jaw for a while before he tries to speak. I give him some water to clear his throat.
His body is wracked by a bad cough.
“How did you find me here? And why?”
He looks at me questioningly.
“Pure accident. I think I’m looking for this.”
I point to the altar.
“I’m supposed to destroy it, somehow. Any ideas?”
He shakes his head, eyes never leaving me.
“I’ve been bound here since we fought last. The creatures ate me, transporting me here. I think Basilisk was using me as some sort of power source.”
“Why would an Evil avatar need a Good power source?”
“How could an in game entity prevent a player from leaving the game. Is your ripcord functional?”
I shake my head.
“So we’re both stuck here.”
“What about this guy? Huntex?”
He looks over to him.
“He’s been like that since I got here. I think his mind is gone.”
“He was the first person I fought in this game. I’m not sure he deserved this.. Whatever this is.”
I have Telleran free Huntex while I investigate the altar more closely. The groves are shaped like canals, designed to flow away from the a central depression running the length of the table. I pour some water onto it, watching it flow to the edge, pouring onto the ground.
“I’m supposed to break this with a massive influx of power. Do you have anything like that?”
He shakes his head as he catches Huntex, slowly laying him down on the ground.
“I’ve got an idea, but it might not work. If it works, we have to be ready to run. I doubt this place will last long if I break the seat of power.”
He turns to me.
“What should we do about these two?”
I hunch down, wiping a tear from Rinn’s cheek.
“I’ll carry her on my back, you carry him. There are monsters around, so I need you to be ready to fight as well. You have some skills in fighting, right?”
He shoots me a cocky grin.
“You could say that. I specialize in close combat bows, but if I’m carrying this lug around, a sword would be better. You’ll have both hands free, right?”
I nod, handing him the sword. He takes a few practice swings, admiring the sword.
“This is Jakoph’s blade, isn’t it? Is he alright?”
“I don’t know. He was killed by a pretty powerful mob in the marsh. Spinvil says he was offline, but he was unable to exit the game as well. I half expected him to be here with you.”
He looks down.
“Jakoph could be an ass, but he was solid, got the job done. I hope he’s alright.”
I snort derisively.
“He slaughtered my friends, enjoying every moment of it. After I killed him, he came back and took another one. I hope he’s alive, but I don’t care if he’s alright.”
We take another moment to get ready. Everything packed, Rinn securely seated on my back. Telleran nods, sword in one hand, Huntex draped across his shoulders. I take another bottle of acid from my pack. I pour a little on the altar. It starts hissing and steaming, but no damage seems to be done. I take my remaining Moonsilver roses from their box, holding them in my hand, feeling them. I take a deep breath, popping each of them into the bottle. I cork it quickly, give it a quick shake and leave it in the depression on the altar, then I leg it. I stop in front of the river to look behind me. The bottle has a vivid glow about it now, an intense golden green glow. I notch an arrow, take aim, and let loose.
“Come on Shaz, the beasts are coming.”
He was right. Glowing eyes were approaching us from the forest. I draw another arrow.
From behind me, I can hear the sounds of snapping branches, breaking bones. Those bastards make the sounds on purpose. They feed on terror, not flesh. Obvious in hindsight. The bottle is glowing stronger now. Another arrow.
Telleran shouts something, then the sounds of swordplay. A growl as one of the beasts die. Rinn puts her arm around my throat from behind, pulling, reaching. Grabbing the bow from me, she releases her hold.
“You’re not very good at this.”
She notches an arrow, awkwardly pulling the string around my head, loosing the arrow at the incandescent bottle. The sound of a fragile glass bottle breaking fills the world. Then a tsunami of light washes over us, throwing us to the ground. I blink away the daze and get to my feet first. Rinn is knocked out. I may have squished the poor girl. Telleran is better off, having been forced to his knees. Countless monsters are laying around us. I throw back a potion of mana, extending my senses around us. Using my telepathy, I push the information into Telleran’s mind as well. His eyes widen for a moment as he looks at me. I nod, and we begin moving.
I draw my club as we sprint through the forest. Through luck more than skill, I manage to brain a few of the dazed monsters before we’re out of the pack. We manage to get a few hundred meters before the howls begin. I can see the entire pack moving towards us as one. Telleran follows the marks I left on the trees, helping to keep us on track. His strength is incredible, even without his powers as a champion. The beasts are gaining on me slowly, as he’s pulling ahead. It takes me a moment to do the necessary calculations in my mind. He’s going to reach the exit soon. Then, not too long after, the monsters will reach me. I throw back a potion of endurance, not bothering to look behind me. As I look at the mind representing Telleran, he suddenly leaves the range of my telepathy.
The animals begin to catch up to me just as Rinn comes to. Panicking at first, she then takes my club. I’m not entirely certain why I’m able to keep my balance as she swings at the monsters who get too close, but I suspect my dressage skill is involved. I say a quick thanks to Rip as I keep going. Suddenly, I feel a ping coming from in front of us, moving towards us at speed. I throw back my second to last mana potion, extending my senses further in front of me. Telleran. I can feel him winking at me in his mind.
“What are you doing you asshole, get through the portal!”
“Shut up. No way are you making it with her on your back. Just keep running, I’ll take care of this.”
He comes running straight at me, sword drawn, Huntex nowhere to be seen. Just as I’m about to dodge him, he screams, jumping high towards me. I flinch as his feet clear my head, bowing just a little bit, unnecessarily. He lands in the middle of the horde, his taunt catching almost all of them. They fall onto him, and I keep running. I keep extending my abilities towards him, trying to give him a fighting chance, but there’s just too many of them. As he falls under the deluge, he sends me a final message.
“Don’t stop, dumbass. Keep going.”
I nod, swigging my last potion, drawing back my powers. In between the trees, I can see the breach. Wide open, ready to receive us. Rinn screams as we get nearer.
“Look behind you!”
Daring a brief glance, I up my speed, using the last of my reserves to get to the exit. Behind us, the skies are opening. Giant eyes are blinking in the void beyond, searching for something. Thunder crashing through the forest to clear the way. I don’t know if any of them see us before I finally reach the tear in the plane, launching us through to the other side.
- Stranger in a strange land
Software developer by trade. Games developer by uni course. Shopkeeper in a previous life.. don't ask.
I took a look at my life recently, and realised I read too much. I watch too much tv. I play too many games. I consume too much. It was time for me to create instead, improve the balance of things. So I wrote, and I wrote, and I managed to finish a first draft. Then I went back to the beginning and started rewriting it, while working on the sequel.
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