An ominous aura exuded from the gate standing before me. The size of it as well as the patterns and designs sculpted into it—depicting the circles of hell and the demons that reside within—made it slightly intimidating to those who sought entrance.
Only slightly, because whoever made it here would’ve to go past all those things depicted on the way. Redundant.
「 Here we are, brat, 」 my companion told me. 「 Once you go through, there’s no going back. 」
I glanced at the raven beside me. The black bird, easily twice the size of its species, tilted its head as it spoke, 「 Once you go through, there’s no going back. 」
I kneeled in front of him so that our eyes were the same height. You said that twice.
「 Only because it’s important. 」
I nodded at that. It really was important.
I ended up staring at the gate for a bit too long, processing what it all meant, even when I thought I’d made up my mind a long time ago. I ended up filling my head with random thoughts, like how saying it was a ‘gate’ would only be accurate in the aesthetic sense per se. Rather, calling it a gateway or a portal would be more fitting.
I shook my head. The most critical part of my long journey, and I was distracted.
「 You don’t have to go, you know?」 the raven said, sensing my doubts, 「 I know this is what you’ve sought for, but you really don’t have to go. 」
Yes, I do. I don’t have anyone here I can trust–
I stopped myself short and stared into those crimson orbs of his. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Was he offended by my remark, or did he simply not care? I didn’t know which of those was worse.
I looked away and turned my attention back to the gate. What will happen in there?
「 You will be judged. Your sins will be weighed against your retribution, or so how it should be, but you’re a unique case. There’s no value in punishing someone who doesn’t remember their sins. 」
I furrowed my brows at him. Aren’t you like that as well?
「 …No. 」
You told me that you don’t remember anything. Remember that? Back when we first met?
「 I remember. 」
I know you do. Was that a lie as well? Was everything you ever told me just one, big monstrous lie?
I waited for him to answer, but the silence told me enough.
I trusted you. You guys were like my family.
「 That’s only because you don’t know what real family is like. 」
So it’s my fault then? I said. If I had a voice, I’d have probably choked up on those words.
「 I’m so sorry, brat. I really am. 」
A sudden tightness in my chest urged me to hug him, but I knew that if I did, I could compromise myself, flood myself with feelings that could overwrite my decisions. I didn’t have a choice either way because he was the one who approached me instead, drawing and wrapping his large wings around me.
「 Don’t cry, brat. 」
I’m not c– I shut my eyes tight.
「 I said don’t cry. 」
「 Be strong. 」
I’m n– I will.
「 And be brave, because you’ll be on your own for now on. 」
「 Now please stop crying. You make me feel all weird when you do. 」
Damn you, Hadda. I answered his embrace, grasping a fistful of feathers in my hand.
I’d sworn to never trust him again, but he always had a way to play with my feelings like that, even though I knew he didn’t mean to. I’d hated him for that.
We didn’t stay like that for long before he drew away. 「 You should go now. We’re not safe here. 」
We weren’t safe, true, but the real danger here was him changing my mind, and the longer we stayed together, the greater the chances of that happening. Even now, I felt hurt when he drew away.
I’m sorry too. For everything I’ve said.
「 Hmph. Your forgiveness doesn’t mean a thing.」 He looked away. There was no spite in his voice despite him trying to sound otherwise.
Can you tell the others that as well? That I’m sorry? Please.
「 They get it, brat. We get it. 」
I nodded, stood up and faced the gate once more.
It’d been a long and arduous journey, but now that I was right before the end, I realized I never really thought about what came after. Even if I was absolved, what then? Would I go on to live like a normal person? What was normal in the first place? The thought of the real world suddenly terrified me more than the possibility of staying.
I was working up my courage when something prickled my hand – the bird had pecked me with his sharp beak.
「 Just go already! 」
I– I’m going!
With just a tiny push, the gate opened on its own as if triggered by some form of mechanism. What lied ahead was a wall of impenetrable blackness that marked the extremities of the portal. I took a step forward and tendrils of darkness reached out, trying to cocoon me. I let them.
「 Hey, brat. 」
I looked behind and saw the darkness blotting out his figure.
「 You were like family to us as well. 」
…Thank you, for everything, I said, but he was already gone.
Welcome to Λεϖελ Ζερο
The black mist dissipated. I was in a different location now. I’d have taken a look around if my eyes weren’t too blurred to see anything.
No more crying, I said to myself as I wiped the moisture off my eyes. I had to be strong, and I had to be brave. Just like he said.
At first glance, it was a palatial hall with no lights, decorated with great pillars made of glass connecting the floor to a ceiling so high it was hidden in the dark above. On one side of the room, there were sets of steps leading to a desk that rose high above my head. Behind that was a large seat worthy of a monarch, its headrest crowning into a twists and roots that bloomed into some sort of demented, hellish flower. A throne, maybe, or a judge’s seat, except nobody was sitting on it.
I stood still as I tried to think of the next step. It used to be that after every transfer, our first priority would be to find each other. Well, I say find each other, but it usually ended up with them finding me. Then we would collaborate and suddenly it didn’t matter what the death mechanisms were or what monster roamed, because together, we were invincible.
Like a family. I smiled, picturing a mom, a big brother with mood swings, and a grumpy uncle, all bitter with each other, but still working together to find the lost me.
And they did find me. Always.
I was tearing up again. I had to focus. They weren’t there anymore and I had only myself to rely on. First things first: analyze my surroundings, identify immediate threats.
Nexy, what is this place?
Λεϖελ Ζερο. Navigation label: The Court.
It wasn’t a throne nor a palace. The pillars, and everything else in the room aside from the seat’s decorative ‘flower’ had an utter lack of vibrance. Walls were in monochrome and corners were cut and shaped in ways that made me think of a giant concrete cube with no windows, which made me wonder where the light was coming from. Just like the other levels, this place shared a common theme of sight-prohibiting darkness, and I could only hope that monsters and lethal traps weren’t included–
I snapped my body around to see a man sitting on the steps leading to the judge’s desk. I’d been sure no one was there a second ago.
“We finally meet.” He stood up and walked down the steps, his eyes fixed on me. He was an aged man donning a black suit that matched his hair. My instincts jumped into danger mode, telling me to run away despite his fairly plain appearance.
He stopped a few feet in front of me. I assumed it was more to give me a feeling of safety rather than him being cautious of me.
“I’m guessing you’re here for your absolution,” he said. His voice sounded younger than he looked – animated, brimming with amiability.
You’re him, aren’t you? The one they call Thalvos.
“It’s a pity you can’t speak. I would’ve loved to hear your voice.”
He smiled. I took a step back.
“No need to be wary. I could easily hurt you if I so wanted and there’d be nothing you can do about it.”
I frowned. Was that supposed to make me feel better?
“Your only sin is to appear in my purgatory without permission. To be honest, I have a zero-tolerance policy against intruders. I did try to erase you, but you’re quite an indelible one, aren’t you?”
I froze. The feeling of the air moving without wind, as well as the hair at the back of my neck standing on ends, were sensations I was all too familiar with. Slowly, I turned my head and saw the darkness growing behind me, swirling at the corners of my eyes like a living thing.
The Grim. You were behind it.
“Don’t worry, it’s not here for you,” he said, noticing my anxiousness. “You’ve suffered enough. You’re free to go. Unless, if you don’t me asking for a small favor?”
No, I shook my head, just send me on my way.
I had a hunch, or an instinct, that listening to whatever he had to say would lead to something bad, and ‘bad’ had a different standard in this place. One example of ‘bad’ was the nightmarish thing behind me. I kept glancing at it to make sure it stayed in place, not that I could do anything if it was to make a move.
He grabbed his chin and made a childlike smile that pronounced the lines of his face. “No deal? Let’s see, you’ve been here for seventeen lunar cycles. That’s nearly three years.” He clapped his hands, so sudden I’d nearly jump in my own boots if I’d been wearing a pair. “How about a little motivation? Seventeen moons, once that same amount of time has elapsed for you in the real world, I’ll send this one to execute your friends.”
‘This one.’ The Grim.
No. No, you can’t. They did nothing wrong.
He still had that smile, which almost disturbed me more than the actual creature of dark materializing in that very room.
He raised his brows, “It’s all just and warranted. See, they helped you, an intruder, wreak havoc in my facility. Like I said, zero tolerance.”
Just. Warranted. His words sank in.
I should’ve known. Even if I was free to go, I would never be ‘free’. Even if I’d agreed to help him, then… then what? What kind of favors would he ask of me?
Genocide? Something even worse?
How far would I be willing to go?
“Well? Your answer?”
He was still smiling. I looked down and noticed my hands were curled into fists, cutting the blood flow to my fingers.
Fuck. Holy fuck.
I did as told only because I was out of breath. Even something as trivial as that, doing things as he said, made me feel sick to my gut.
“Like a family, were they not? Do you care so little for them?”
Fuck you. That moment had been intimate to me. A precious memory, which he corrupted with just a single sentence. What else had he seen? How much of us had he intruded upon? How much of me?
My blood curdled at the thought of him peering on me at my weakest moments. What did he see then? What was reflected in his eyes when his realm broke me, both spirit and body? Was he watching with that same smile?
I took a deep breath. My friends were at risk and this was no time to get distracted by… by unimportant things.
Regardless of my decision, I had to know what I was getting into. I needed more information about him. His abilities, his weaknesses, anything that could help me deduce the kind of person he was.
Nexy, identify him.
Error: access restricted
He laughed. “Did you just try to use the Nexus on me?”
He disappeared – and reappeared right on front me. “How cute. Unfortunately, that counts as a sin.”
His hand was on my throat before I could process what happened. With ease, he raised me until my feet weren’t touching the floor.
“And this is your exoneration.”
He threw me.
Super strength. He’d flung me like a rag, I knew because I felt the corners of the stairway on my back, which was more than twenty feet away. He teleported again, this time popping out right on top of me.
“Dummy. How did you think I’m monitoring you in the first place?” he said, before sending a kick into my stomach.
I curled my body, partly from pain, but also to try and protect as much of my vital organs as I could. The next thing I felt was him stomping on my fingers, grinding them underneath his feet as if he was crushing some bug.
I grabbed his ankle and tried to ease the pressure. He took that hand and lifted me up by the wrist, then let me hang at a point where our eyes were level.
“I told you, didn’t I? I can hurt you as I wish and you’re powerless to stop it.”
He let me fall back down. I turned my orientation around and crawled up the steps if even to buy one extra second. He was too strong. I couldn’t do anything against him physically, but there was something else; one last trick up my sleeve.
He stepped on my back, pressing my down.
“Stop crawling like a worm and take it. It’ll all be over soon,” he said, pushing down harder. I could imagine my spine breaking just like that.
One last trick. I’d been struggling so long to get to this point, and I wouldn’t have made it if my friends hadn’t discovered my talent. My power.
He grabbed on my hair and dragged me back to the bottom of the stairs.
I had my friends back then, but now there was only me. I was just the conduit. The mindless tool, or the battery that they could use to tap into powers I had no control over. But it was still me. I was the one with the connection that none of them had. It was far-fetched considering I’d never been successful on my own, but far-fetched was enough. Heck, it was better chances than what I had most of the time.
He started kicking me again. I let him, retreating into the back of my mind as I focused on the pain as well as the fear of losing my friends. Those feelings would’ve increased my chances of success if there was any. ‘Alignment of the will and the subconscious’, the bird had said, so many times it was ingrained in my brain.
“That’s it,” he said with a gleeful voice, whilst kicking me on the floor. “Reach out. Feel the aether with your soul.”
He’d seen through me. Of course he did. But it didn’t matter because I could almost sense it. The aether and all its might, if I had it, I could–
A sharp jolt of pain, like a sudden surge of electricity, broke all my efforts. My back arched in an extreme angle, my eyes forced shut as all thought processes stopped. It burned, and it spread until my whole being was on fire.
“Well done,” he said, barely audible between the screaming of every cell in my body as they were torn apart. “That’s as far as you go. Any more and your head will quite literally explode.”
When the pain started to recede, my consciousness was but hanging by a thread. My body was left trembling, paralyzed from the shock.
He kneeled beside me. Gently, he flicked away a lock of hair from my face and placed an ice-cold hand on my cheek, forcing me to stare into his dark eyes. “Hurts, doesn’t it? I want you to remember how that feels. That pain is proof of your sins having been cleansed.”
I gritted my teeth.
He’d planned this, provoked me because he knew I would resolve on the aether, knew it would backfire on me. For what? A test?
No. He was touching me freely knowing I couldn’t resist. I peeked at the creature on the other side of the room. It was dormant. Thalvos had no intention of using it here, so why was it here? From guesswork, it was to show how easy he was going on me, or as a reminder of the power he held.
Not a test. A statement. He had that authority over me and he wanted me to be aware of that.
Damn you. Damn you, damn you!
“Oh, that look on your face. Grief? Hatred? And here I’m offering you a chance to help your friends. I might even consider them absolved off all their sins and you all get to live happily together. Am I not a benevolent?”
You’re just– you’re just a bully.
I didn’t know why I chose that word. It sounded mean in my head.
He moved his hand and pressed against my forehead, reciting, “O’ nameless one, in the name of the Watcher and in the grace of the Goddess, you are now purged from your sins.”
I tried to reach for him, but all I could manage was lift a few fingers.
He leaned in, positioning his lips near my ear, “Find the true king. That’s the favor I’m asking you. Find that person, and don’t die along the way because remember; your friends are counting on you.”
Welcome to Mer