Leah Eppling, like many people, had wondered what happens when you die. And like everyone does eventually, she got her chance to find out. Becoming a statistic was surprisingly painless - like many students, she had been out at a party, celebrating the end of her exams, and was stumbling home in the dark to her shared home, looking forward to a life without studying, and doing a fine job at pretending that she wouldn’t be looking for work soon. A combination of dark clothes, alcohol induced stumbling, a distracted driver and a council cost saving measure whereby the streetlights on residential roads were turned off after midnight, all tumbled together to create the perfect mix of a hit and run manslaughter. She didn’t feel much. Being drunk saved her from most of the sensation of dying. There was a screech, a crunch, a feeling like a part of her was missing, before the blood loss took over, and she was gone. It wasn’t until morning came around that her body was found, and by then it was far too late to save her. Her friends and family mourned, her death made the local papers and a campaign was run to convince students that maybe drinking lots and stumbling through the night back home wasn’t a good idea - as opposed to turning the lights back on, of course. Before long, that too would be forgotten, and Leah wouldn’t even be a footnote in history. This world’s history, that is.
Unknown to her, across an infinitely vast distance, a figure in black was leading a dark and disturbing ritual. Shrouded in black robes, a gyrating staff in their shaking hands hands glowing with a faint red light, they chanted strange syllables in a forgotten language. Sweat pooled and dripped from their forehead, as they maintained a dark ritual for nearly an hour. Surrounding them, curious geometric sigils were burned into the ground, the same red light from the staff gently pushing past the blood moving through them. One hundred exsanguinated corpses fed this steady flow of blood, placed in careful piles at specific points of the circle. Other robed figures tended to the flow, bringing fresh sacrifices from a cage in the corner, kicking and screaming as they went. The ritual called specifically for conscious victims that were aware of their fate, making the task that much more difficult. And at the centre of it all, lay a strange body, laying unnaturally stiff and straight. Were it standing, it would be five foot four, and was very clearly the body of a woman, thanks to the total lack of clothing. Its dark brown hair fell to midway down its back, though it had been tied off to prevent it splaying out. The most prominent feature on its delicate and slender body, though, was its ears. Four inches long, and tapering to a point, they tilted back and away from the head, proof that this body was not of a humans.
The chanting reached a climax, the figure leading the ritual raising their staff, ready to slam the foot of it against the ground. An attendant stood behind them, a curved knife raised and ready, poised to slit the staff holders throat at the critical moment. And all in a moment, a brief, beautiful confluence of coincidences, it happened. The staff hit the ground, signalling the end of the ritual. The attendant opened the leaders throat with a carefully practised motion, ending their life. The geometric runes in the ground pulsed bright red, and the carefully laid bodies shuddered on the ground. All at once, over a hundred souls were released from their bodies, passing through the thin veil between reality and the world beyond. Most of them held this breach in reality open, for one soul in particular to pass back through to the world of the living. That soul never arrived. In a twist of fate, the eddies and currents of the immaterium beyond pushed another soul, one that the group who planned this ritual never accounted for, into the path of the binding. How could they have known that other worlds existed beyond their own, and that they needed to be aware of an infinite many possibilities? Little did they know that others had taken an interest in their ritual, and they had made plans to swap the intended soul with another, in aid of their own plans. That soul was Leah Epping’s.
Everywhere at once, and also nowhere, having always been there and just created a moment ago, a cage of golden light wove through an endless sea of shifting colour and texture. Waves of raw energy crashed against the cage, dispersing into fractal patterns of opposing order and chaos. Within this golden cage, lights swarmed, each a different colour from the other, constantly changing. With no words, they spoke to each other in thoughts, concepts flitting back and forth, understood implicitly as the truth. The lights watched a once in a lifetime event occur – which for beings of their lifespan, was truly impressive.
[The tides change. The outsider has been claimed.]
[Will the outsider be amenable?]
[It has no concept of the System. It will be made to be amenable.]
Two lights collided, a brief flash filling the chamber, before a new light was born. Smaller than the two that made it, it shot from the cage at the speed of light, gone before any mortal eye could detect it. Through a gap in the world, a rift in the sea of colour, it descended into a body surrounded by death, the same one a particular soul was being pulled towards.
[The influence is in place. The soul will be ours.]
[Yes. The soul will be ours.]
Had they yet been mortal, the lights would have felt pride, and it would have shone through in their interaction. Nevertheless, a sense of contentment descended over the cage, and normal activity began to resume, the lights sharing and swapping memories and ideas as they drifted endlessly through a sea of chaos.
Leah awoke to nothing. Not a lack of light, but a complete absence of any sensation at all. She couldn't see, hear or feel anything at all. Not even her body, she was dimly aware. None of that seemed to matter to her however, as her mind felt flooded in a strange sense of comfort and contentedness. Nothing was wrong with this, because there was nothing to be wrong. She had died. She remembered that. And if this was the afterlife, then she could live with this as an eternity. Her mind drifted, her thoughts becoming hazier.
Then, a sensation, an actual sensation, like a plug being pulled from a bathtub and her mind was the water. The sense of calm throughout her rippled, disturbed by a dragging on her mind, pulling it inexorably towards... something. And what she was filled this something, a container that was vast and stifling at the same time. After the yawning infinite she had been floating in, feeling walls around her mind again was wrong. It was claustrophobic. Her mind flailed and surged against the walls of her new prison, seeking a way out. For what could have been centuries, she wailed internally, seeking more space, before something, a tiny sliver of the container, shifted.
Suddenly, her mind that had been stagnating was a rushing river, flowing down endless channels and tunnels, meeting another stream before flowing on in a great tapestry of mental light. The conscious thought that had been seeping away from her mind returned in a flurry, as if a switch had been turned on in her mind. She knew who she was again, and she knew she should be scared. Or, be feeling any kind of emotions, really. This wasn't concerning to her, however, as she knew she would have had to put those aside to deal with the tasks in front of her.
First, she needed to work out what had happened to her. With none of her senses seeming to work, she looked inwards, at this rushing tide of thought inside her mind. She watched the pattern, the lines of her thoughts and memories rushing back and forth, linking and separating, for what could have been years, sometimes tracking just one portion as it flowed around, other times stepping back to examine the entire. It was obvious that this was her mind, but what the channels causing it to move in such a way were was unknown to her, if strangely familiar.
Then, it struck her. It was a brain. The channels were synapses, firing down paths, moving and shifting as they strengthened and weakened. She had never studied anything related to neurology, aside from a vague wikipedia dive that she barely remembered, so the fact that she could even recognise this at all was odd to her. So if there was information she didn't have before, it must have come from somewhere. She dove back into the frame of the mind, aware that her ability to even perceive this was also new, but saving that question for when she had a better grasp of where she had ended up.
Through long study of the patterns, she tracked her thoughts back to somewhere unknown, a bundle of the neuron like structures that seemed strangely inert and self contained. Only the occasional pulse of information left it, but she could see a way in. She gently prodded it, and it surged into life, flooding her with knowledge that she seemed to have always known, yet knew wasn't from experience.
You have gained the skill, Knowledge (Magalyte Technology)
You have gained the skill, Knowledge (Magalyte Dolls)
Two notifications flashed in her minds eye, along with the knowledge. That she put aside for the time being, the notifications disappearing from her awareness with a thought. The structure of her brain, because she knew it was hers now, made perfect sense to her, though there were concerning elements about it. She knew that certain portions, where the neurons were thickest, were dedicated to specific functions. She knew that one of those was an emotional emulator, that had been deactivated for reasons unknown. And she knew that, from the construction material of the neurons and its surrounding material, she was now inhabiting some sort of machine.
There was no time to consider the implications of this, however, as a part of her brain drove her on, pleased with the progress she was making. It nudged her towards the emotional emulator, but she decided against reactivating her emotions right away. The last thing she needed was to have a nervous breakdown over her situation. She would hold that off until she had a better grasp of things. With her greater understanding of her own mind, she knew that she didn't need this mental construct of her mind any longer, her sub conscious would continue to manage things as it had in her original body. With a mental blink, she was picturing a light filled void no longer, and was instead stood in a white room.
“Well, this feels more natural, I suppose.”
The room, her mental construct of all the conscious actions she could take, was filled with doors. Some, she knew would have to be unlocked, such as the emotional emulator room, but others could be accessed now safely. In the centre of the room floated a holographic representation of her mind, the channels and pathways firing as they were before, though this time she was seeing it through her eyes, even if they were mentally constructed ones. It was truly beautiful to watch. But she had work to do. One door in particular had garnered her interest.
She walked up to it, trying the handle which she knew would be unlocked. It turned, but the door stuck for a moment.
“Seriously? I've encountered that many doors that need greasing?”
Filing away the task of changing her mental image of doors, she forced it, pushing her way into a new room. The door shut itself behind her. Through the door was a room almost identical to the last one, though with only one door leading out. This one had a similar construct of a mind, though this one was smaller, and inert. Circling around it, she evaluated what she knew about the submind. It was apparently able to hold a copy of her mind, that could run its own mental tasks without bothering the resources of the main mind. Then, when the job was complete, she could merge it into herself, learning what it had learnt during their time apart. There were other possibilities filling her mind, but this was all she knew to do with it from the documentation she had obtained.
Shrugging, she leaned forwards, and touched the image. It flooded to life in an instant, the same lights flashing down its channels, though it seemed to presently be in a holding pattern.
“Well, I hadn't actually thought of anything to do... I suppose I'll just leave you to it. I'm sure you'll think of something, me.”
Leaving the room, she returned to a task she knew she had been putting off, though she couldn't put a finger on why. She just knew that she needed to activate her emotional emulators soon, or there would be dire consequences. A low murmuring came from the room she had just left, the one representing her sub mind, words just on the edge of hearing. She ignored them, spurred on by this strange compulsion, and pushed her way towards the emotional emulator door. The handle for this one was far less stiff, and almost welcomed her opening it. This felt right.
Entering the new room, she found it to be dark, the omnipresent light that seemed to emanate from the walls themselves absent here. The only light came from the doorway she had stepped through, and a dull blue glow from the representation of her emotional emulator subsystem, a portion of her mind from the main map that had been copied into this area. It almost begged her to touch it, to activate it, and the thought, the compulsion that had driven her in here spurred her on. The murmuring, still audible even a room away, rose in pitch and intensity, fighting desperately for her attention, but she shoved it down again. A small part of her was getting concerned over her behaviour, recognising that she should be being perfectly sensible and rational right now, not giving in to strange orders that shouldn't exist. That part was drowned out by the desire to turn on a part of herself.
All it took was a touch, and her world went white and hot. A door slammed shut in her mind, sealing itself off with locks and unbreakable chains. A presence, before concealing itself, tore forth, taking advantage of the confusion to activate systems on its own. Her body shuddered to wakefulness, its brain crashing into activity all at once, and an unbidden scream rose from its newly awakened lungs.
A rolling wave of black mist blew past a pair of double doors, the thick heavy stone cracking from its passing in spite of the heavy enchantments woven into it. As it roared down the connecting tunnel, the dense cloud momentarily split in two, passing around a dome of white and green light. Beneath this dome, 3 figures huddled, pulling their limbs in tight around them, away from the edge of the barrier. For almost a minute, the onslaught of pent up mana flowed, and the figure powering the protective dome shuddered, the holy symbol in his hands almost falling, and the light around the group flickered. The two figures behind him squeezed their eyes shut tight, hands moving in motions of prayer without any conscious thought. Then, not a moment too soon, the rush of death faded, and the tunnel went from pitch black to merely coated in shadow. All three figures stood still, awaiting another wave, the terror invoked by the deathly magic that seeped past the powerful ward holding them in a vice grip. Then, with a start, life returned to the tableau.
"Darius, good work with that ward."
A woman, voice wavering slightly, called out quietly, peering back along the hall where the roiling mass of darkness had headed. Stood just shy of six foot, she was the tallest member of the party. Her body was hidden under thick leather armour and a dark green cloak, hood ripped down and slightly torn, revealing her shoulder length blond hair, tied back to show her long and pointed ears. An elf. Her facial features were sharp and focused, and her hand, holding the bow that was over her shoulders, was still, even as the rest of her shuddered in relief.
"Ha! I thought for sure we were dead this time! Thank the gods we have our ever reliable paladin to save us."
The man, his confident and jovial tone edged with an uncommon tightness. Five foot eight, and appearing smaller due to his hunched posture, he wore similar armour to his female companion, though darkened either by dye or some other, darker substance. His hand wasn’t on his weapon, but his foot had turned slightly towards the way they had come from. His face was his most prominent feature, however. A mass of scars covered almost every inch of skin, including his completely bald head. Only his ears, mouth and nose were free of injury, and while some were applied randomly, most were parallel to one another, indicating an intentional marring of his flesh. He clapped the third figure on the shoulder. A shoulder that fell away from his hand with the impact.
The two rushed forward, the female catching him as he fell. She worked her fingers under the armour around his neck, feeling around desperately. She tensed, then sagged.
"No... not you too..."
She gently lay Darius on the ground, closing his glassy eyes, before punching the ground. Her leather gauntlet absorbed most of the impact, but a harsh pain still cut through.
"Cass, focus. He's gone, but we ain't. We still got a job to do, and that corpse fucker magic is a pretty good sign we need to be moving. Unless you want to be caught in the next wave, and leave me writing one more eulogy?"
Cassandra's long ears twitched at his blunt tone. Closing her eyes, she took a long, shuddering breath in, before letting it all out at once.
"Ok... Ok, I'm back. I'm ready. There's just the two of us, then."
"Against an unknown amount of corpse fuckers, doing some strange and unholy ritual that pumped out enough necromantic juice to bleed through the strongest shield I've ever seen. Sounds about right for my luck."
He grinned, the mess of scars on his face twisting into a perversion of mirth. Cassandra managed a small smile back, her hand reaching for her quiver where she knew only one arrow was remaining.
"Our luck, you mean. Don't forget you're dragging me into this. You got a plan?"
"Nope. Not enough information. Our best bet is, get in there while they are still reeling from that ritual, and cut down anyone left standing. Theres no way they heard us fight our way in, and even if they did, they probably think we are dead after that..."
He waved his hand in the vague direction of the door they were approaching.
Their entrance to the barrow was, to put it mildly, loud. Two dozen of cultists and apprentices to the cult master were waiting for them as they entered, ready to fight for the death to let their master ascend. They were granted it by the party that crashed in. The team knew that they would have no way of entering quietly. So they didn't plan for that. They had spent a good chunk of their advance pay on obtaining an enchanted bomb, filled with silence infused dust, to mask their entry from the group performing the ritual not 100 meters away. The door opened, the bomb was deployed, and then a silent carnage ensued. Spells flew in all directions, swords clashed, arrows pierced. All with an eerie absence of any noise whatsoever. Two of their party had fallen in this initial melee. They leader charged the largest group of cultists, intent on pulling them off the less durable members of the team. He never reemerged, but he took with him almost half of the enemy pack, and all of their high levelled members. Their mage traded spells with three of the enemies number, valiantly shielding and laying down fire on them as the teams rogue moved into position to take them down. Keeping up a barrier under a barrage of three necromancers was too much for him, and he took his own life before the dark energies thrown at him turned his body into a weapon against his allies. His ashes were too scattered for them to collect.
Through a combined effort of the two remaining ranged party members, and their paladins defence and buffs, they took down the remaining cult members. As the silence spell wore down, they waited at the door to the next chamber, hearts pounding, knowing that if they were discovered now, they would have no choice but to run. Minutes passed, and feeling confident, they had set out. Too confident, it would seem, after sudden and disastrous spell that had washed over them.
The two remaining members of the party crept up to the door, communicating solely through simple hand signals. Each approached one side of the door way, careful to remain in the deepest parts of the shadows even with the already dim light. Weapons in hand, the elf with a bow and her one remaining arrow, the rogue with a throwing dagger at the ready, they looked towards each other. With a nod, Liam raised his free hand, counting down from three. On go, they burst into the room, weapons at the ready.
A figure, bloody knife in hand, stood amongst the bodies and carnage spread across the room.
"Idiots, all of them."
The mistress had told them all to expect the necromantic explosions when the spell was released. She had told them to raise the appropriate protections before the ritual began. And now the mistress would be without her disciples at her weakest. At least their deaths were not completely in vain, the man thought. They had finished the ritual, and now he merely had to wait for his mistress to awaken. The scraps of the formula they had found all those years ago didn't have much to say about how long the process after would take, but he would wait. For as long as it would take.
He didn't need to wait for long. The two remaining members of the party entered the room, and with a start, his head whipped up from the prone form of the Doll. His face twisted into a foul grimace at the interruption, accentuated by his eyes widening as he realised they weren't members of the cult. One hand moves to his neck, tugging a carefully prepared talisman on his neck. A swift tug would release the enchantment held in it.
Both parties were cut off by a wail from the Doll body between them. The body's back arched, before twisting and writing on the ground, its eyes squeezed shut and hands covering its ears. Then, it curled into the fetal position, the scream fading into whimpering. The distraction had brought the cultists gaze down, concern for his mistress evident on his face. His attention drifted from the shielding spell contained in his necklace for only a moment, but a moment was all Cassandra needed.
Her arrow flew straight and true, the twang of the bow string filling the silence left by the wailing Doll. It caught him full in the chest, bringing him back to the danger in front of him. Liam was already in motion, however, his cloak whirling around him, pulling the shadows in tighter, and blurring his position.
Now out of ammo, Cassandra dropped her bow, hands reaching for the scabbards at her waist even as she tucked into a sideways roll, in anticipation of a counter barrage of spells. A wave of cold wrapped around her ankles and feet, turning her tumble back to her feet into a flop, leaving her prone on the floor. Hey eyes flicked back to the cultist mage, perparing to roll again if needs be, forcing away the numb pain creeping up her legs.
The mage, blinded by pain from the arrow and the tunnel vision on his assailant, never stood a chance at spotting Liam's attack. Crossing the distance between them in a blur, both figuratively and literally as he moved faster than should be possible, he went in low, bringing his wicked edged and blackened dagger under the mages ribs, before forcing it up with a twist.
The blade was withdrawn just as quickly as it entered his body, but the damage took effect even faster. Shuddering with agony and the beginnings of shock, he fell to his knees, his confused gaze drifting back down to the form of what he thought was his mistress. With a wheezing breath, his left lung collapsing, he managed,
"I'm sorry, mistress."
Before Liam's blade finished the job, the narrow blade slipping through his eye socket and releasing his soul. The exchange took but a few seconds, and the hard fought battle for the party was finally at an end. Cassandra, pushing herself up from the floor, nodded to Liam, who was cleaning his blade off on the dead mans robe.
"Thank the gods. Its over..."
The two of them got a chance to take in the gruesome tableau surrounding them.
"What the hell were they doing here?"
Liam snarled, his eyes resting on the cage of now dead sacrifices, huddled together, the terror and pain frozen forever on their faces evident even in the low light of the cavern. He couldn't see their target, but hopes weren't high for his survival.
"Too damn late... Fuck."
Hobbling slightly, Cassandra joined him, pointing one of her swords at the shivering figure at their feet.
"What about this one. If she survived that wave, she's got to be involved with it all."
Liam's gaze broke from the cage, and followed hers down.
"Let's not jump to conclusions, Cass. She could have just got lucky."
"You heard what that corpse fucker said, Liam. He called her his mistress."
They both examined the nude figure huddled against herself, seeming to try and block out the world.
"Doesn't look much like a cult mistress to me. Still, there's one way to be sure..."
His hand dipped into a pocket in his tunic, pulling out a familiar symbol on a chain necklace. It still glowed with residual power.
"It wasn't doing Darius much good, now was it? I wasn't going to steal it, but you know me. Any edge I can take."
He lowered the paladins holy symbol towards the girl on the ground, gently touching her shoulder with it. She shuddered away from the cold metal, but otherwise there was no reaction. Squatting down, he looked up at Cassandra.
"So, not evil. I think these things are meant to glow, or screech, or whatever, when they touch something evil. Anyway..."
He gestured back with his thumb at the cage in the corner.
"Looks like we lost the package. We need something to show for our quest, or we don't get a pay day, and the others died for nothing."
Cassandra sucked in a breath at the mention of their dead comrades, but nodded.
"Fine. So we take her with us. But if she makes any moves..."
"Yeah, yeah, you get to say I told you so."
"And I'll kill her."
"I thought that went without saying."
She sheathed her swords once again, before sitting down next to Liam and the girl.
"Seeing as its your plan, you get to go find her some clothes."