Shooting into the passage far too quickly, I get badly cut on the edges of the corridor. Rinn makes a lot of noise, but I can’t spend the bandwidth on paying attention to her right now. As we make our way through the connecting path, the energies twist us through the winding turns. As we finally pass through to the other side, I can feel the drain on my mana increase dangerously. Floating outside the gates was Huntex’s bleeding body. Telleran must’ve thrown him through before making his way back to us. I manage to grab him as we flow past, losing more of my speed than I liked. I begin searching the mists using my abilities, finding two separate tethers flowing out of the gates. Making a quick decision, I follow the strongest one. It’ll probably take me to the other exit, but I won’t have to spend as much energy tracking it. Checking in on Rinn, I find her sullenly nursing one of her arms. She must have caught it on an edge when we escaped. Handing her a healing potion, I continue our flight. Everywhere around us the mists are roiling. I catch glimpses of solid land around us, strange creatures shambling along the sparse environment. Whatever was happening with Basilisks realm seems to have transformed the local neighbourhood into a churning sea. I look to Rinn.
“Are you okay?”
“No. My arm hurts. Where are we now?”
Looking around, I point where the tether is going.
“Over there is the Prime plane. That’s where we’re heading. This is sort of a place between.”
“I want to go home now. I’m tired and everything hurts.”
I smile to myself. You and me both, sister.
“Don’t worry, as soon as we get to the Prime plane, I’ll find where you live. Do you remember the name of your town?”
“I live near the boardwalk, in Oxmis. I know my phone number too. The bad man said I wasn’t allowed to have a phone, although he did let me talk to daddy sometimes.”
I try to turn towards her in shock, bringing us into a spiral for a moment before I regain control.
“Wait, you’re from Oxmis? I’m from Oxmis! But you’re not a player, you’re an NPC.”
She looks offended.
“I’m not an NPC, I’m a girl.”
At this point I can feel the target portal coming nearer, so I stop my line of inquiry, filing it away for later. The breach site was thick with gore. Shadowy figures floated from place to place, dragging the saurian creatures around, tearing them apart. The fight must be going well for Erebus now. Unable to contain my speed, I dashed through the tear, entering the Prime plane with all the grace of a torn bag of bricks. Faceplanting hurt pretty bad. Rinn's weight on top of me made it a bit worse. Huntex careening into me moments after I’d managed to get Rinn off me was the worst part. My health took a serious beating as we tumble away. At least my mana is regenerating again. I try to call up my overview mode, only to find it inactive. All my powers as a champion are gone as well. I look up to see if the avatars are still battling, but all I can see is the night sky. I stand up as my regen takes hold, waving Rinn over to me. The area is littered with dead lizards, and she seems to be taking it all in, not really reacting to it. Maybe she’s going into shock. I hug her for a moment, shielding her from the worst sights. Undoing the clasp of my cloak, I wrap it around her shoulder. It’s big enough for her to hide in, leaving me uncomfortably uncovered.
Huntex is still unmoving. His body has taken a lot more damage than either of us, so I pour a healing potion down his neck. With a shock I notice he doesn’t register as a player either. I’m about to lift him onto my shoulders, when Rinn interrupts me.
“Can’t we just make a stretcher for him? There’s a lot of material lying around here.”
I stare at her for a moment, trying not to slap myself.
“That is an excellent idea, Rinn.”
We take a few moments to gather the stuff we need, my carpentry skill helping in getting it all together. In the end we have a pretty decent way of ferrying the big lug around. I roll him on, and we start moving. She helps me as much as she can, but her small frame hasn’t got enough endurance to keep it up, so I tell her to just stay nearby. As we walk, I tell her about this world to keep her mind off things, asking some questions of my own.
“And all the squirrels want to kill you now?”
“They’re not squirrels, they just look like them. They’re called Atrani. They won’t come looking for me, I don’t think, but if I ever enter their forest, I’ll be hunted down.”
She looks suitably impressed. I left out the part about running away.
“So tell me some more about your daddy, what’s his name?”
Her voice makes me regret dredging it up now that she was feeling a bit better.
“His name is Joshua, Josh. He’s really nice. Sings me songs at night and makes the best pancakes. He taught me how to use a bow and arrow.”
“Do you know what he does for a living?”
“I think he spends his time with people and makes them feel better about stuff. A therapist I think.”
“What’s your last name?”
I stop, dropping the stretcher. Turning to look at her, my eyes are wide. She backs away a step, unsure of what’s happening. I catch myself, relaxing my expression, squatting down to her height.
“Your dad is Dr. Peters?”
She brightens a bit.
“Yeah, that’s what the adults call him.”
I pick up the stretcher and keep walking. This is too much of a coincidence. Either she’s a wildly convincing AI, or something much worse. I spend the rest of the walk in silent thought, only speaking when she asks a question. After a while, she picks up on my mood and her questions slow, then stop altogether.
As we arrive at the Weke village, we find it a complete mess. A large breach in the defences meets us on the approach. Strewn around are the bodies of saurians, all dead. As we get near the opening, figures on the palisade wave torches at us, calling us to stop. I lift a hand, the other on the stretcher. Rinn lifts both hands, showing them to whomever remained behind the walls.
“Who goes there?”
I’d never heard the voice before. One of the guards, probably.
“It’s Shae Doomflinger. Who the hell are you?”
More heads pop out from behind the palisade. Each one more wide eyed than the last, quickly popping back down. Soon, a small delegation comes running towards us. I recognise the limping form in the lead.
“Loe, you survived.”
As he reaches us, Rinn hides behind me.
“Nobody gonna get through us. Close call however. Just as the breach happened, thunder struck. The big dragon in the sky roared and ran away. Then the other monster roared, and the shadows went away.”
“That sounds about right. I managed to damage Basilisks home pretty badly before I came back.”
I call for a few Weke to take care of Huntex’s body while I chat with Loe.
“How many died?”
He looks down.
“Almost 50 Weke died in the fight. Men and women, guards and warriors. We saved the children.”
I put my arm around his shoulders.
“Good. At least it wasn’t for nothing. Scragh and Hakat?”
“Both resting. Scragh was badly wounded, and Hakat was forced to go back due to exhaustion.”
“What about Spinvil?”
“He is taking care of the wounded. Doing a good job. We couldn’t have survived without his help.”
Loe joins me as I head to the heal hut to check in on the patients. Inside I find Scragh and Spinvil, along with a bunch of other wounded.
“What’s this, commander. Sleeping on the job?”
He opens his eyes, focusing them on me for a moment, then closes them again.
“I had a dream about our illustrious leader running away to save the world, and never coming back. It was so realistic I nearly injured myself in bewilderment when the Basilisk was defeated.”
He smiles, opening his eyes again.
“I don’t know how you did it Shae. Erebus must have been on his last legs, he was taking so many hits. The enemy was swarming our village, we couldn’t keep them out. Many guards were lost to prevent them from rampaging through the entire place.”
I sit down next to him, telling him about my adventures, introducing him to Rinn. Afterwards I approach Spinvil.
“You’re still here?”
“Still can’t leave then, I guess?”
“Nope. No ripcord.”
He looks at me with hopeful eyes.
“Did you find Telleran and Jakoph?”
“I found Telleran. He was captured by Basilisk. I freed him, but he stayed behind to secure our escape. We could only get this guy out, but I think he’s not entirely there anymore.”
He looks saddened as I point at Huntex.
“And the little girl?”
“I don’t know what to make of her. She doesn’t feel like a player. But neither do you, and neither did Telleran after he became a champion. I think I need to talk to Erebus to figure this one out.”
“Okay. I’ll look after her until you get back. She seems to get along well with Scragh.”
The old Weke was telling her a story involving a lot of hand motions, and stealing her nose apparently. It was a bit simplistic, but she squealed with joy at one point. It seems to be what she needs right now. I tell her I’ll be back soon and to do what the adults say, then head to Hakat’s.
The store is nearly bare, anything useful taken for defence of the village. Hakat himself groggily meets me at the door when I enter, somehow predicting my arrival. We exchange some words, and he sells me a new cloak, dark grey outside, soft leather inside. I thank him as I leave, heading towards the barn.
There are no guards outside the dilapidated building. The earthquakes have nearly destroyed it now. I manage to retrace my steps around the building to find the chamber of the elders. The floor is covered in their fog. A part of their pool seems to have cracked, or dissolved, and their fluids are at a low level. The place is quieter than I’ve ever heard it. I approach from the side, carefully avoiding any pools on the floor.
There’s a faint stirring in the pool. I move closer.
“Are you still there?”
A whisper breaks the silence.
“We are still here. Did you complete your task?”
I can’t make out which one of them is speaking.
“I’ve defeated Basilisk. I went to his seat of power and broke it with the remaining Moonsilver roses. He’s left the valley, and Erebus is in charge now.”
There’s a moment of quiet before the fourth voice answers, more clearly than the other one.
“You stupid insect. You didn’t throw off the scent, you brought them closer to us. You made us more visible than ever.”
I’m taken aback as a figure rises from the pool. Humanoid form, completely hairless. It’s eyes were black, it’s skin mottled, mouldy.
“Who the fuck are you?”
He looks directly at me, a shiver going down my spine.
“I am the elder one, the first. I am Asphani.”
I back up as he gets closer. He doesn’t seem very quick, but I’m not taking any chances. I kick myself internally for not getting a new weapon from Hakat.
“You were supposed to attack the altar with physical force. That would have been enough to call Basilisk back. From there, Erebus would have been able to run away, lick his wounds, and everything would be back to normal. Detonating that amount of power on a seat of power. There’s no telling what damage you did to the avatar itself, but to the admins, the energy would be a beacon.”
As my back hits the wall, I freeze. Nowhere else to run.
“Why can’t I leave the game? Why can’t Spinvil or Rinn? Are you holding us here?”
He stops in his tracks, looking me over again.
“You’re not registering as a player. How very interesting. No, I’m not holding you here. If I had to guess, I’d say the avatars messed around with your tethers. Very big no-nos. But it gives me an idea. I think I can see a way out of this now.”
His smile is as creepy as the rest of him. All that decay on one person, and perfectly white teeth.
“The only avatar who can restore a tether is your old friend, Spider. You’d have to convince him to let you out. Considering the way he captured you previously, I’d suggest you do your convincing quickly.”
I shake my head.
“Wait a minute, what if I just wait for the admins to find this place. They’ll get us out, they have to. I’ll hand you over, you can fuck off, and I can go with Rinn to find out what the hell Dr. Peters is up to out there.”
He ponders this for a moment.
“That sounds like an excellent plan, really it does. I mean, these people who have total control over the game would probably welcome an opportunity for the world to see how out of control it’s AIs really are. I bet they’d give you all a reward, throw you a party and celebrate your successful escape while they pave this entire valley and make a new tutorial zone out of it. The Weke will be noob mobs, doomed to be killed over and over again.”
I think about it for a moment. It could be true. If this is some kind of experimental headgear, and we were all somehow tricked into this, it would probably be much easier to kill us off and blame it all on a scapegoat, maybe even Dr. Peters. I’m going to have to find my own way out of this before they have a chance to pull the plug.
“Fine. Then how am I supposed to convince Spider to help us. As you said, I’m not on great terms with the bastard. Why wouldn’t he just trap me and do whatever he wants with me?”
“Spider is all about Law. Not human law, but the Law governing the Below. He’s an older avatar with far reaching powers. One of his domains is balance. The way champions and avatars seem to be strewn in your wake, I can’t imagine the balance looks very good anymore. All you’d really have to do is show him evidence of the troubles you’ve been through. He’ll be so grateful he’ll restore the lot of you, giving you the chance you want to escape.”
He’s clearly setting me up for something. His entire bearing stinks of mouldy villain, his smile could sell Cadillacs and he seems to have a vested interest in getting rid of me. I did get out of his last trap, however. And I don’t really have a lot of options. My body must be pretty reeking out there by now, and there’s no telling what shape Rinn or Huntex is in. I sigh, defeated.
“Tell me what I need to do to get there.”
His grin widens as he gives me the tools I need.
|Skill increased: Planar Mastery|
By the time I get outside, I’m mentally exhausted. As I move about the village, I avoid everyone as much as possible. Getting to the healers hut proves to be simple. Everyone is too busy to notice me anyway, with all the repairs and cleaning. I can hear soft snoring from inside. Sneaking a peek, I see Rinn asleep in Scragh’s arms. Spinvil is doing some experimenting by the cauldron. I stalk inside, getting his attention, keeping him quiet.
“I need some more potions, quietly. All the mana you can spare, some health and endurance, and a couple of acid ones. No questions, I don’t want to wake them up.”
He looks at me for a moment before he nods, fetching what I need. Twelve mana, five endurance and health, two acid.
“I’m going to go away for a while now. If I don’t return, make as much noise as you can. Leave the valley, talk to other players. Make sure everyone knows who you are and that you can’t leave the game. Hide Rinn, and don’t contact the admins, they may not be trustworthy. And keep an eye on your ripcord. If it works, she pulls it first, then you. Got it?”
He agrees, and I shake his hand before sneaking outside. I find the spot that used to be Perot’s grave, sitting down for a moment.
“Erebus, are you there? I can’t help noticing I don’t have your powers anymore. Can you hear me?”
“If you don’t respond now, I’m going to assume our arrangement is over and act accordingly. Do you understand?”
“Fine. I’ll take your silence as compliance.”
I stand up and begin focusing. Unlike before, I was going to have to create my own tear this time. It was going to be messy, and it would cost me a lot of mana, but there was nowhere I knew I could find a portal to the astral plane. I reach inside myself to find the strings of Magic that keep my body animated. Crudely, I extend a small blade from the stuff, holding my own existence in my hand as I stab reality. Tearing through, I create a rift my own height, falling to my knees when I’m done. From the breach I can feel a fresh breeze, the most wonderful scent I’ve ever smelled. I feel invigorated as the astral winds blow over me, filling me with mana. I step through, careful not to hit the edges. Once past the event horizon I spend some time securing the tear on this side to prevent anyone else from wandering through.
The Astral plane is vastly different from the Ethereal. Situated between the Physical and the Magical, you could say I had an affinity for it, granting me much greater control. There were no rolling mists here, just an eternal, clear ocean going on forever. Above me the infinite skies, cloudless and blue. Mana infused every part of my being, and I felt almost alive here. Propelled forward by my planar mastery, I began flying at greater speeds than ever before. Rushing past strange, aberrant creatures with more heads than eyes and tentacles spilling out of every orifice. Avoiding things with teeth and wings and nothing more. I could even see a couple of players stumbling around. The veils of this world prevented them from seeing me even when I flew by with meters to spare. In the distance, I could even see the Source of all magic. A floating blue sphere, occasionally crackling with energy, feeding this entire game with one of the Elements that made it so amazing. I keep flying for a while, until I find an entrance to Spiders realm. An old stump in the middle of nowhere. I had followed the heavy influence of Law which suffused the nearby area, and a spider web blocking an opening confirmed that I’d found the correct lair. Carefully breaking the web, I reluctantly crawl through the passage, leaving the invigorating Astral plane.
The path through was much easier than the one to Basilisk’s realm. A quick look around made my skin crawl, however. Metallic walls floating in nothing, suspended by thick webbing. Above and below, there’s nothing. There’s still a lot of ambient magic, but here it’s controlled, structured. I can’t access as much as I’d like without drawing undue attention to myself. As I float towards one of the boxes, I can see that one of the edges is transparent. Inside, I saw what I expected. A lab, a chair, some equipment. This is the realm he brought to. A noise makes me look up, just in time to see a giant ball of webbing heading towards me. Using my illusion skill, I leave an image behind as I dodge around the lab, hiding underneath. I quickly follow one of the strands of webbing, using it for cover as I get away. A thunderous voice fills the realm.
“Stand still. We will continue the tests.”
I do no such thing. I find a nice place underneath one of the other labs, perfect for hiding, before I reach out with my mind, broadcasting my thoughts.
“We need to talk, Spider. And you owe me an apology.”
A nearby line begins vibrating, and I fly off in a different direction, trying to keep the strand between me and it. I can see the giant shape looming over the box, slowly moving to catch me where I was.
“We do not need to talk. You are not allowed to roam free. I will catch you. Surrender now.”
I nearly run into a bulbous growth forming at an intersection of webbing. Tumbling in the air, completely exposed, I can see his myriad eyes locking on to me. Faster than should have been possible, he leaps. I scatter, sending an illusion in each direction, hiding myself on the other side of the webbing from where he is. Floating right next to a tarsus, I let one of my clones fumble and show itself, making the spider leap again, far away from me. I fly off to another box to catch my breath.
“The balance is broken. You’re the only one who can fix it.”
The room goes quiet, and I sneak to the edge of the box to see what’s happening. Tens of smaller spiders are marching along the webbing, standing sentry. He’s no longer playing around with me.
“The balance deals with itself. I only fix the outliers.”
I suppress a growl as I have to run away again. I manage to distract a couple of sentries by sending an illusion behind me, luring a bunch of them towards the wrong hideout.
“Basilisk, Erebus and Ashlad have all chosen champions. They fought, and only Erebus is standing. He’s claiming their portfolios. You have to listen.”
I’m out of time, out of places to hide. I cause a distraction far away from me, and fly towards the exit.
A translucent web was covering the exit. Unable to avoid it in time, I’m hopelessly entangled. As I hang there, fuming, Spider takes his time coming to collect me.
“Asphani is the one who told me to come to you.”
He stops right in front of me, giant legs manipulating my body, covering me in silk. When I’m restrained, he lifts me to his face.
“Asphani, a really old guy. He was hiding in a pool of goop in a valley hidden in the code.”
God I hope this isn’t condemning everyone.
“The admins are going to wipe it all out unless we can restore the balance somehow.”
His gaze tickles me in a strange way. Using my Planeswalker ability, I can see him probing me with strands of elemental stuff.
“What happened to your tether, little mortal?”
“I don’t know! I’ve been unable to log off since I was made champion of Erebus. Now he’s abandoned me, and I still can’t log off.”
It takes me to a box in the centre of the web. Inside is a nice couch. One of the walls is a large TV screen.
Like I have a choice.
I summon Ephraim to keep me company as I wait. He looks around for a moment, then turns to me, a look of exasperation in his eyes.
- 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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