Everything was darkness and pain. He thrashed against the pull of the Feral Artisan's wave. It was futile. He was slapped down instantly, right into the solid bottom of the pit.
Stunned, he was helpless as he was dragged against the bottom of the pit.
It was even a rough surface. Whatever process the Artisan had used to carve the pit had left the bottom covered in sharp ridges and thorny spikes. He felt them tearing into his fingers as he fought for purchase and into his uncovered shoulder as he was swept away.
Derrick quickly realized he could breathe, probably because of his mask, not because of some weird property of the sludge. He also knew this wouldn't help him as he was very slowly dragged down into... wherever this stuff was going.
He renewed his thrashing as he thought about that. It was technically possible that there was something as convenient as a sewer or large cavern beneath the Artisan and that's where the sludge was flowing.
In fact, that would be the obvious guess, but he doubted it was anything that mundane of safe. Ever since he has first approached the Feral Artisan, he had felt a low dread. The sense that something dangerous and wrong was nearby.
His instincts screamed at him that whatever was waiting for him at the bottom of the whirlpool was what he'd felt then, and it was more dangerous than anything he'd encountered so far.
As he tried to swim against the tide, he couldn't get the picture of a lamprey like mouth out of his head. His mind kept returning to the idea of being swallowed whole. Inevitably being sucked down and swallowed by whatever alien monstrosity awaited below. Melted, dissolved, chewed or ground down to nothing by gnashing teeth.
Mid thought, he was thrown, back first, into what must have been a car. He tried to grab onto it, but he could barely tell what direction was up at this point.
The only sense he had that was worth a damn at the moment was auril pulse and that was almost useless for detecting anything that wasn't alive.
Quickly pulled away, he tried to detect another car to climb up on with a series of weak auril pulses. It didn't work. Fighting desperately to escape, he could feel the circle becoming tighter and tighter until, for a single second, the sludge was still.
Just for a second.
Derrick screamed into his mask as he was pulled down into...
Derrick paused with his hand on the doorknob.
Something had definitely just happened, he wasn't sure what though. He'd just been walking down this hallway, about to open yet another door, when all of a sudden the hairs on the back of his neck had stood up.
The door and its doorknob were normal enough. Cheap but solid things, the kind you saw everyday. What had it been then? Had he heard something? He didn't think so.
It had been quiet since... A long time anyway. He was pretty sure he was alone here too. He frowned. Yes, this didn't feel like a place that people would be, for all that it looked like something built for them. Did that make sense?
He shrugged, opened the door and was unimpressed by what he found on the other side.
A clean, almost sterile hallway, exactly like the one he was in. Lined by doors exactly like the one he'd just walked through.
Wonderful, he thought sarcastically. Not that he'd expected anything different.
He cast a quick glance at the symbols on these new doors. They were weird things made of circles and twisting lines. They meant nothing to him but every room had it's own different collection, so at least he wasn't walking in circles.
No, not in circles, just through an endless collection of corridors that led nowhere.
He winced as the usually dim lights in the ceiling flickered into painful brightness, an explosion of light that stabbed right through his eyes and into his strained brain.
Also, that kept fucking happening. At intervals that made it impossible to predict. Even closing his eyes didn't help, as the light seemed to ignore his eyelids entirely.
There was nothing he could do about it, except find a way out. So, he picked another door at random, one with symbols that looked like a fish eating a lemon, and then entered yet another hallway.
Derrick sighed to himself. This was getting him nowhere. Literally. Usually, wouldn't there be clues or something? At this point he'd be happy to see math problems he needed to solve to escape. Even walls of formulae so complicated he couldn't hope to solve them. That would have at least implied that escape was possible.
There was nothing at all to suggest these doors and the hundreds of others he'd seen so far led anywhere but to more doors.
This place sucked and he wanted out. He had things he needed to do outside. Like...
Derrick paused. What had he been doing before this? He couldn't quite remember. It had certainly been important though.
Something about swimming and jumping? That didn't seem like him. He wasn't much of a swimmer. Couldn't remember the last time he'd gone swimming in fact. Any memories of water seemed distant.
Something was definitely off here. He felt a creeping sensation of wrongness stir and grow inside him. All the more terrible for the lack of a source or reason.
“I drowned for a long time,” a familiar voice whispered in his ear and caused him to flinch.
Startled, he looked around, but still saw only empty corridors.
Well, that was fucking creepy, he mused to himself, feeling more awake than a few seconds ago.
The well-lit corridors seemed a little more dangerous to him now. Spurred to action, he began to run through doorway after doorway, hoping to luck into an exit. After a few dozen, he stopped. It was an exercise in futility, nothing had changed.
He was still trapped in this stupid forest.
Stupid trees. Stupid rocks. Stupid endless branching paths. Stupid weird trail signs.
He thought about leaving the dirt path but decided against it. The forest seemed very uninviting. All dense scrub and rocky ditches. The sides of the path might as well be walls.
There was a total lack of anything living but plants too. Not a single woodland creature to be found, not even any birdsong. It was a bit unnerving. He shivered and tried to focus on escaping. Who cared about birds? He was a city guy anyway, not a hiker. He'd just get lost off the path.
Well, even more lost anyway. If that was even possible, he was pretty fucking lost.
How had he even got here? He tried to pick up his discarded thoughts from earlier. It was distressingly hard. His mind seemed to unravel as he tried to think, dropping thoughts unless he made an effort to hold on to them.
Had he been drugged? Was it an allergy to something in these woods? Was he in danger?
That last one was probably a stupid question. He could feel danger. It was hididng from him but it was everywhere.
He froze. He'd heard something. Ah dammit, he thought as he recognized the rustling of leaves. This again.
The sound quickly grew louder and louder, until it filled his ears. He didn't try to cover them, he knew from experience that wouldn't work. He twitched as the sound reached crescendo and vanished.
Derrick massaged his ears and was concerned but unsurprised when his hand came away with a small smear of blood on it.
He frowned as he examined the tiny smear of blood.
He was pretty sure this wasn't how forests worked. Even if he was in some special canyon that channelled the wind, he shouldn't be in pain and bleeding from the ears.
Something was very very wrong here.
He'd thought this before, he realized with mounting dread. More than once.
Fuck. This place had trapped him and was killing him. He needed to backtrack, to find how he got here in the first place.
Channelling his fear, he tried to remember his path. Umm, left path, right path, centre path, third door on the left? A series of escalators.... a winding creek he'd navigated using a paddle boat?
Well, fuck. He was deeply and truly lost.
But wait, the incredible journey he remembered in his head was impossible. There was no way he'd actually just wandered through such a diverse group of locations and never encountered anyone.
This wasn't real. It was all too dreamlike to be real.
“This is a dream,” Derrick realized aloud.
Did that help him though? He'd never been a lucid dreamer, capable of waking on command. If anything, this just made his struggle more pointless.
No matter how far he travelled, there was no way out of a dream.
Maybe if he killed himself, he would wake up?
He felt a wave of despair wash over him. It was probably better to just forget about this and choose a...
With an act of will, Derrick dragged his thoughts back onto a productive course. It wasn't easy. It fact, it was terrifyingly hard. This place, this dream, was eroding his will. He couldn't even be sure this was the first time he'd realized this wasn't real. As if in response to his thoughts, the world around him blurred and wavered.
He closed his eyes, shuttign out the ephemeral landscape around him. He couldn't let it drag him back into the delusion. He needed to fight it. But how? He needed a strategy, to help him remember that this place wasn't reality. A few ideas came to him
First off, he would name this place.
But what did you call a place like this? Now aware of his environment, he could see how flawed it was. It was more like a shitty painting of a forest than a real forest. Which was probably his fault. As it must be pulled from his mind and he didn't spend much time in forests.
Just his mind taking what it knew and painting over a blank...
Yes, that could work.
“This isn't real,” he shouted at the unnaturally still trees. “This is a Canvas.”
There, now that he'd given it a catchy name, it should be harder to forget what it was. There was more to this place than just a normal dream though. The persistent theme of travel and being lost was clear.
Was his brain trying to tell him something? Or was something stranger at work here.
The rustling began again. Building up, until the pain it caused was all he could think about. His eyes wide open, the ground seemed to buckle under his feet and the scenery wavered. He didn't think that was just from the pain. There was something going on. It felt like pressure building up. Like something poisonous trying to flow into his mind.
He wiped his ears and found a little blood under both of them this time. It was getting worse, he realized. This was also not something normal dreams had in them. He was distressingly sure that whatever that had been, it would kill him unless he could escape. So, he needed to wake up, right the fuck now.
He tried to will himself awake but nothing happened. He closed his eyes and pictured himself waking up. Nothing changed, he was still in a maze of alleyways. Well better just pick one at rando....
“Canvas,” snarled Derrick and slapped himself on the face. “Canvas. Canvas. Canvas.”
This place was insidious.
He eyed the dirty alleyway he now found himself in. With litter on the ground and dumpsters up against the brick walls. It was basically every alleyway from a crime movie he'd ever seen. In fact, that was probably exactly what it was.
That didn't give him any clues a how to escape though. His choices were walking down a branching alleyway or trying to get through a tiny, barred and unlit window.
On the walls, the ever present symbols were written as graffiti. Derrick narrowed his eyes at them. They must mean something. They did seem familiar, but that was an untrustworthy sensation in a place made of his own memories.
“Canvas,” he said aloud, for good measure.
He examined the graffiti. Maybe now that he was lucid, they would make more sense. What did they remind him of?
Two spiders dancing? Hmmm, not helpful. The other just looked like a burning fence. Next was a web? No, not quite that. Like a wheel being held by dozens of hands.
Derrick shivered as recent memories returned to him.
It reminded him of the Feral Artisan. Which was probably a good thing. As it had created the trap he'd fallen into. Nothing to do but head that way. He couldn't think of a way to exit, except the way he got in, and wandering around the Canvas till his brain exploded was not an option.
The alleyway soon split again and Derrick chose his path based on which way was marked by a symbol that reminded him of the Artisan he'd 'fought'. He suspected it hadn't been much of a fight for the Artisan. Just him becoming annoying enough that it had bothered to swat him.
Each symbol was different and yet the association to the Feral Artisan was clear to him every time. Some times it was just a tiny part of the Symbol, but there was always something.
“Canvas,” he said after every decision and slapped himself. Painful for sure, but it seemed to work. A dozen or so decisions later, he had found something. A big steel door, tagged with the most elaborate symbol yet, one that looked to Derrick like a painting of the Feral Artisan.
The monstrosity was just as unsettling as street art as it was in the 'flesh'. There was a strange weight to it. It pulled at him, demanded his attention.
He hesitated at the sensation but pushed the door open. Or at least he tried. The damn thing was jammed shut.
After all this, the door was locked. Fuck that. Enraged, Derrick kicked the door and it budged. Just a hair, but it definitely moved.
He tried again, but it remained shut. Next, he rammed it with his shoulder but only managed to hurt himself.
It was jammed. Maybe he should find ano....
“Canvas,” he swore. He'd almost lost himself there.
This place was not real. It did not follow the rules of reality. A stuck door was not just a stuck door. It must mean something.
What mattered in a dream?
Emotion. He'd been angry when he kicked it. That must be it. He just had to hulk out.
Derrick balled his hands into fists and tried to summon anger. It was a spectacular failure.
OK, so he needed something to get angry about. Obviously.
Dammit, why was he such a calm and controlled person?
He stared at the offending door and tried to think of something that angered him.
Feral Artisans? A little, he guessed. Not much though, too impersonal. Mostly he was just scared of the creepy thing. He wasn't even sure it was alive in a conventional sense.
Grey Legion? Dicks for sure. They had killed those Users and set him on fire... He remembered that sensation and pushed pressed his palm into the door.
It moved an inch before stopping. It seemed like that was all he'd get from that subject.
Something else then. What angered him?
Not the Spore Tyrants. Who got angry at mold?
Greta. With her weird conspiracy theories to justify shooting him. He'd brushed that off at the time, for practical reasons, but now the anger flowed easily. He wouldn't forget about her, he thought as the door moved another inch. He would get out of here and even the scales, he promised.
He smiled as the door gave ground.
Which brought him to Blake. Blake was an asshole. His ally though and assholes were common enough that it didn't really anger him.
The door failed to move.
Hmm, the well was pretty empty at this point. He hesitated. Well, not quite empty. There were a couple of things he'd rather not think about. But what choice did he have?
Kate, he thought and felt the door move a hair. His anger at himself for liking her and the fact she'd just left on her own. Plus, of course, the fact she'd almost surely stolen from him.
He felt his pulse quicken. At the same time, he felt the natural atmosphere of this place, the dreamlike moroseness pull at his emotions. The anger was a shield, it barely affected him.
She had taken those auril hearts from him when he was asleep. Why? He was the type of idiot that would probably just have given them away if she asked. As much as anything, the ambiguity of the situation angered him. Did she steal them? Why? Was it something he'd done? Was she in trouble? Perhaps he should have killed Greta to protect her? Should he steal something of hers to even the scales?
“I'm not afraid of dying,” a memory whispered. “I'm afraid of not living, of not being worth remembering. So, ya. Stay behind me.”
He blinked and remembered where he was. He noticed the door was open a couple more inches.
He stared at it, hesitating. He could think of only one thing that angered him that was left. It was not something he could just deal with though. He wavered and the ground began to shake so very slightly.
Even the dregs of anger fled as panic filled him. His eyes darted around, trying to find the source of the movement.
The streetlights began to flicker and as they did so, they began to buzz. A heavy drone, that together with the terrible brightness, pierced right through his brain.
The world shuddered and flickered. For a single second it failed and even as he tried to resist it, he beheld the blank form of what he had so blithely named the Canvas.
When the ground grew still, Derrick was a gasping wreck, sprawled across the ground. He could feel liquid running down his cheeks and didn't think it was tears.
Fuck. He'd been very wrong about this place. The dream wasn't a trap. It was the only thing keeping him alive. His brain's desperate attempt to shield him from something so terrible it would destroy him to know it.
Feeling weak, he stumbled to his feet and looked to the only possible exit.
This was no time for half measures. He needed to get out of here. And yet... he still hesitated. This was not something he could just undo. It would have consequences, dragging up a part of himself that had not seen the light of day in years.
He wanted to live though.
The anger came surprisingly easy, considering how old the wound was and how hard he had worked to bury it. It bubbled up, a toxic madness that threatened to overwhelm his control. Made him want to strike out, to hurt something, anything. Hate aimed at everything.
HE WAS NOT GOING TO JUST VANISH. HE WASN'T GOING TO JUST OBEY.
He didn't remember touching it, but the door flew open and impacted against the wall with a deafening crash. He had to dodge it, as it bounced back towards him.
Derrick twitched and tried to put the memories back in the box. He knew from experience that he couldn't function with them. You couldn't go through the motions of everyday life with something like this bubbling away under the surface. You couldn't hide it. Couldn't appease it.
It was an embarrassment really. It wasn't like his life had been particularly hard. He'd had a small inheritance, enough to put himself through college and people who looked after him, if not loved him. For sure, thousands of people, even in the modern world, had less then him. Never mind the suck that was most of human history. What right to complain did he have?
But still, it was infuriating. Maddening. That people, people who he loved, could be erased in a single moment from a supposedly kind universe? An entire family removed from this world and life just went on? Just back to the grind? He had been wronged. All that expectation to be a good little orphan and get over it? To move on? Oh, just an accident. Happened every day. Well, OK then. What the fuck was the point of it all if...
He took a deep breath and felt the anger fade to a manageable level. It did not disappear though. It was sustained by something else, Pride.
Who was he to be angry? He was a Fighter with superhuman abilities. A survivor of horrors and killer of monsters. He'd saved the lives of dozens directly, probably hundreds indirectly. He'd been thrown into the front lines of a war he didn't understand and flourished there.
Derrick the User was very different from Derrick; junior network engineer.
And with that realization came another. They were all gone or irrelevant, the User realized. The people that he needed to appease. All the people with petty power over him.
He felt an electric shiver run through him, straightening his spine.
His only boss was the System right now, he thought. Somehow, he didn't think it cared about his personal problems much.
Derrick stepped through the lightless doorway and felt, once again, the scenery change. It was different this time. Smooth and clear, like he was moving under his own power instead of being moved.
One second, he was in the dark doorway, the next he was standing on a black stone platform in a white void. The contrast gave the scenery a sort of chessboard feel.
His gaze was immediately drawn to the impressive sight before him. A familiar floating ring, turning silently and slowly above an overflowing pool of sludge.
Or maybe it was a different ring? It looked and felt like the same ring. The same endless circle of grasping hands was carved into it. It fel like... the unseen side of a coin.
The pool was just a stone basin about a foot high and thirty feet from side to side. It was being drained by a series of rough grooves cut into its walls and the floor of the platform he was standing on. The odd liquid flowed out from these flaws. From there, the sludge was carried by an elaborate series of channels across the platform and off the edges of the platform.
Derrick was kind of curious where it went from there. But he didn't go look. Instead, his eyes remained locked on another feature of this place.
The giant arms turning the wheel.
The only color they contained were their perfectly black fingernails. Marble pale and seemingly growing seamlessly out of the white void, they were hard to look at and harder to look away from. Four perfectly manicured and flawless limbs moved together in such perfect rhythm that they seemed more like a machine than anything alive.
A powerful machine, for all their delicate looks, they radiated a terrible strength and an unfathomable distance. For all they looked like he could jump up and touch one, he'd guess that was an illusion of perspective, like looking at the sun, seeing it and thinking you could hold it in your hand.
Even if you could reach out and touch it, it would incinerate you.
Looking upon them, Derrick felt minuscule and... simple.
The whole 'growing out of nothing' thing was messing his head too. It hurt to look at where they just blended into the nothing around them. Was their 'flesh' made of sky void or was the sky void made of their flesh?
It was mesmerizingly creepy. It made no sense. What was this? Was this all in his head? He was still dreaming right? That persistent unravelling of his thoughts was still there. It felt like a dream, now more than ever. He probably shouldn't think too hard about any of this, some part of him acknowledged. That could be dangerous here. He just needed to escape.
Carefully, he crept up to the pool and tried to put his hand inside it. He was, thankfully, ignored.
It was hard to get his hand below the surface of the pool, it was like forcing something into mercury.
He frowned. This wasn't going to work, he couldn't exit this way. If he tried to jump into the pool he would just bounce off. Which made sense considering it was flowing this way. Was all this for nothing?
He had no other plans. This had been it.
He considered doing some really stupid. Like trying to bargain with or attack the entity or entities that he guessed were the Feral Artisans.
All of a sudden something changed above him. He cringed and flinched, afraid of grasping hands from above.
But no, he wasn't under attack. They were still ignoring him. Yet, they had, with perfect flowing grace, moved the ring onto its side. Standing it up on its side, no doubt like when they had caused the wave that had swept him into this hallucinogenic hell.
He tore his gaze from the wheel and the hands that turned it. His mind taking in one even more important detail, the pool had stopped overflowing.
Huh, Derrick thought as he considered his lack of options. He gazed up at the terrible entities above him, the strange beings indifferently working towards their alien purpose.
“Bye,” he said and jumped into the pool.