(Y6, July 23rd)
The high-rank sector had lasted two days. More Meganthereon popped with depressing regularity, sniffing the pack of tasty morsels traveling through their territory. Other creatures of similar rank had been spotted from afar, but thankfully had left the large group alone.
Vantegaard never thought he’d be happy to move out of the plains and into a rank-25ish forest zone. The veteran expedition members could tackle the high-rank enemies without too much risk, but he and his two friends would have never made it. Even Vasili agreed that such a sector would certainly put a crimp on regular caravan travel between Alpha and Gamma.
The forest was less dangerous, but only relatively. While the expedition had no problems, he thought that the entire zone would still have been dangerous for a solo lowbie like himself. In fact, if there hadn’t been the higher rank sector in-between, it would be perfect for future groups adventuring out of Fanduk.
Exploring was how you found things like the small and perfectly circular clearing there. In the middle, the Pyramid looked like an idealized copy of an Aztec pyramid. A massive stone stepped construction, with a wide central stair on one side.
The entire clearing was covered in some kind of sparse moss rather than grass or anything else. The pyramid itself had no traces of vegetation as if it was brand new. The expedition members stared at the structure.
“Whoa. We probably have a major dungeon here.”
“The area is low enough,” interjected Maelia. “Shouldn’t be a problem if we want to clear it.”
She noticed Quandocor’s frown.
“No. I’m just… surprised. I have Lay of the Land that should tell me what’s interesting nearby, but this pyramid… feels like it has no items, no creatures. Nothing notable.”
“So, like a dungeon that’s empty?”
“So? Let’s see.”
As they were climbing the pyramid, Vasili remarked, “You sure have lots of unfinished places around.”
They reached the stair’s top and looked at the entrance.
“Empty. Just like I said,” noted Quandocor.
“Let’s go down.”
“Everything so far has been impressive. Completely deserted, but impressive. I agree with that part.”
The impressive part in the gigantic room at the bottom of five flights of stairs was a stone globe. A gigantic ball of stone, 12m in diameter. It was hovering above a central depression, supported by a ring of 6 polished balls of a bronze-colored metal.
Mastabasta put his hand on the globe and pushed. To his surprise, the globe moved easily, under the slightest pressure. There was barely a noise as the six ball bearings let the globe slide. The entire sphere seemed covered with a transparent crystal, with various semi-precious stones under it.
“You know what this reminds me? An Earth globe.”
Maelia and Vasilikulik looked at each other.
“But not Earth. Absolutely not Earth.”
The whole globe had wrinkled browns and greenstones. Half, maybe a little more was emerald, with a ring of white and a splash of brown in the blue expanse.
“Is that… Northworld?” asked Quandocor.
“It could be. Let me see…”
Vasili took over and moved the globe slowly. At one point he stopped and pointed.
“If I assume that this flat depression is Hell Flats… then… this ridge here is right where you’d expect the Drakespine. Glacier should be here…”
His finger followed a line…
“And that spike looks like Mount Badass. In Gamma. Near where we’re headed.”
He moved away, taking the whole globe in perspective.
“It is Northworld. The entire world.”
Maelia pulled her mapmaking book and started drawing furiously.
“Nobody ever had a full map?”
Vasili turned toward Birkathane to answer her question.
“No. Since we’ve started measuring and getting the latitude/longitude working, we’ve realized that we have essentially explored a bit over 1-2% of the entire world.”
“There’s something like maybe half, maybe two-thirds of a million Gaters on Northworld. We’re a drop over an entire world. Even the bits we know of are nearly as empty as Siberia.”
“And this is a map room.”
Vantegaard remarked, “Probably a bit more. I mean, we have five color-coded rings around the globe, and this looks like a control console, except it’s made of stone and completely blank.”
Wisuqkz coughed to get their attention and pointed. They all looked at the waist-high pillar with a half-meter marble ball on top.
“This, however, is definitively something with magic.”
Vantegaard startled, “Negative Aether? WTF?”
“I’ve seen those. There are three dungeons near Glacier that have one of that type of device, although each looked different from the other. It’s called an Aether switch.”
Zaccali asked, “What’s an Aether switch?”
“A place where you can stuff Aether to activate whatever. It’s normally a lock for some gate. You just need to push enough Aether to cancel the missing part and blam. Open. It's like a vacuum seal for magic fields.”
“600 Aether sounds a lot. Can you do it?” asked Vantegaard.
“My base is just under that. But you have your über Meditation skill. Can you fill yourself enough to push that amount?”
“Hmmm, how do I do that. I don’t have an Aether skill to push into switches…”
“That one’s simple. You put your hand on the switch, and it will drain you since it’s in the negative and you’re not. It will do some damage once you go below your base, but that’s very light damage, less than 20% health per Aether. We’ve got healers for that.”
“Ok. I’m going to try.”
Vasili moved to Wisuqkz and whispered while Vantegaard was readying in front of the Aether globe.
“Really? Less than 600?”
“I’m not sticking my hand on this one. Switches do open doors, but there’s no door here. I hate surprises.”
“You know it’s probably just activating that console, right?”
Wisuqkz shrugged, “Better him than me.”
Vantegaard grunted as the switch started to drain his stored Aether. It felt like his palm was burning on a too hot plate out of the microwave. But the drain was fast, 20 Aether per second. The sensation did not last long, and as the switch sphere reached zero, the burn started to fade. Birkathane was already restoring his health.
“The console remains empty.”
“Maybe it’s not a console. Maybe it’s a sacrificial altar,” speculated Mastabasta.
Vasili moved to the blue circled hologram projector. The humanoid visible looked like someone making a drawing of an alien from James Cameron’s trilogy based on an incomplete random critic’s description. A black-blue skin, completely hairless, scarecrow thin. The arms and legs looked weirdly proportioned, with the joints at the wrong place. And the hands had six fingers with two opposable thumbs.
Fully naked, it seemed obvious that this was a male. It had the right type of organ in the standard place, although it – he – didn’t seem to have external gonads to go with it.
“The furry one isn’t much better.”
The one over the green disk looked like an upright mixture of wolf and cat. The eyes were set too far apart, and the striped black-white fur gave it the look of a zebra. This one was female looking if the 2 pairs of fleshy, furry protrusions were indeed breasts.
“Human! There’s a man shown here!”
The black disk had a floating picture of a normal-looking human. A naked man, with a thin, short beard that looked well-groomed. The tan, the face shape, made Vantegaard think of a Latino. But why would have this room a hologram of a person?
Vasili frowned. The man seemed somehow familiar, but why would he be…
“Fontana,” he breathed
“What?” asked Warander.
“That’s… Fontana. Arnoldo Fontana. I’ve met him once.”
“Why would this pyramid have a hologram of someone random guy you know…” asked Quandocor.
“Fontana isn’t some random guy. Fontana is the First Gater.”
“The first to find a Silvergate. The first to enter Northworld. That’s him on this hologram view.”
Quandocor expressed everyone’s thoughts.
“The others are First Gaters too? Alien First Gaters? Is that…”
“I have no idea. No one’s seen anything like those humanoids.”
Zaccali interrupted “With good reason.”
They all looked at the globe and gasped. The crystal cover of the Northworld globe now had a colored haze in places.
“The black color blobs seem…”
Maelia completed “… in the proper places for Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.”
Vantegaard peered closer.
“There’s even a small black smudge right there. That’s where Fanduk is, I think.”
“So, the closest block on another color…”
“It is the blue one. The N’avi’s bad cousins. They have two large blobs, and one is, I’d guess, 500km east of Beta.”
The green color for the furry female was way southwest from Gamma, bordering Northworld’s single ocean. It looked like a contiguous bar, thin and long. The red color – a leathery humanoid male whose general appearance suggested some lizard-like creature – was a smattering of a dozen individual territories, including one nestled between the two blue ones. The white blobs – a whiteish, silky-haired, red-eyed humanoid with six limbs, a pair of legs and two pairs of arms and no obvious sex – were far away from everyone else’s, close to the location of the south pole.
Vasili called everyone to confer. Maelia was still doing quick drawings of all the information from the Northworld map.
“Okay. So, it appears Northworld has not just us, but maybe five Gaters species total on it. That’s huge. World-changing. First Contact and all that.”
“I thought there were sapient natives,” said Birkathane.
“They’re not just primitive, they’re absolutely, completely bonkers. They will attack you, every time. Everyone considers those as monsters like the rest of the native life. And none of those built the ruins we’ve been finding. Believe me, I’ve seen the warrens for the half dozen different humanoids around. Cavemen at best when we're talking about Pumilus.”
“Should we report home?” asked Vantegaard.
“I’m leery of doing any form of Recess in the middle of an unknown structure.”
“Why is that?” asked Quandocor.
“First rule of respawning: never leave your spawn in a place where you think you might be under threat. When you use your Silvergate to look at Northworld, you see the place where you’ll spawn, but never enemies or people. That’s why you never flee a dungeon using Recess – you’ll spawn straight back in it, and whatever was trying to kill you is probably still around waiting for you.”
Quandocor objected, “but you’d survive.”
“Yes, but you’d be exiled. You couldn’t get back to Northworld. Not unless you can get an expedition organized to clear your spawn point, then get the news back on Earth and finally get back there. So it's a last resort.”
Vasili added, “plus of course, the 1mn it takes to actually respawn to Earth, and nearly anything you do stops the Recess and resets your Recess timer to 9 days. Plus the adaptation sickness that immediately hits you if you try to spawn too soon after respawn and you’re still somewhat attuned on Northworld. So, if Maelia here gets to report back on Earth, we’re stuck watching over her spawn for at least 20mn. A lot can happen in 20mn.”
He concluded, “So, no. We report once we’re clear.”
Vantegaard suddenly did a double-take.
“Wisuqkz? Is that normal that the Aether switch is now filled up?”
“Uh? No. Once you’ve got the aetheric hole filled, it stays there at zero. Presumably, it starts to drain again after the door or whatever closes.”
Wisuqkz examined the marble sphere, and said, “Uh Oh.”
Vasili asked immediately, “What’s going on with the switch?”
“It’s now at 470 Aether and still filling up. 1 Aether per second, from the look,” answered Wisuqkz.
“Don’t you Aetherists blow up things when surcharging them with Aether?”
“Yes, but I’m not feeding it anything. Vantegaard?”
“Not me. I’m not losing any Aether like when I was feeding it. So it’s not still draining me.”
Vasili called out, “That’s it. We leave. Now.”
He gestured toward Maelia.
“Hope you’ve committed all to memory because it’s too risky now.”
They had barely entered the next hall with the side rooms when a loud clang was heard. Then, a rhythmic lesser beat started.
“That sounds like… an alarm.”
Wisukqz added, “I was trying to count, I think it started once the switch should have been at 600 Aether. The same amount it had missing before.”
“That’s interesting, but I’m more concerned about what that alarm sound is intended for.”
“Stairs up to the front.”
The first thing that came out of one side room looked like a metallic version of a human skeleton. Chrome bones held together by glowing wires. But unlike a classroom skeleton, this one held a massive curved sword.
Zaccali called out, “Rank 100, normal Elite. Hostile.”
“So, the pyramid was guarded after all.”
“And we’ve triggered the whole thing.”
The entire group unloaded debuffs on the animated skeleton. The thing moved toward the exit stairs, then turned and started toward them.
“It’s trying to cut us off.”
“Don’t overload yourselves. Except for our meditators, you can probably sustain the output. I’m guessing there’s more coming out.”
As if called, another metallic skeleton came down from the stairs, sporting a similar wicked sword.
“Rank 95 Elite,” called out Zaccali again.
Vantegaard got lucky as the Psychic Reading triggered.
“Weak point is the shoulder blades. That’s where you get the most damage.”
An enormous ax materialized out of nowhere in Vasilikulik’s hands. He moved toward the first skeleton, pushing away the sword and swung the ax toward the arm's attachment points.
The sword rotated on its own in the hand grasping it, realigning toward Vasili and the skeleton swung back the heavy blade. Birkathane struck it, deflecting it away and the blade barely shaved Vasili’s arm. Then Mastabasta bypassed the two, moving toward the second incoming skeleton.
Warander’s shout got Vantegaard’s head turned back. A third chrome enemy was coming out of the globe room’s corridor. He looked more… streamlined. Like a slightly stretched version of the previous ones.
“Rank 95 Elite” called coldly Zaccali.
“We’re going to get swarmed,” said Mastabasta.
“Move toward the entrance. We do a mobile fight rather than a standing one.”
Birkathane warned, “Can’t move during meditation, so it will be harder for me.”
“Call out if you’re out of lifeforce.”
“They don’t seem to be alive, by the way. No extra regeneration.”
Vantegaard confirmed, “I can’t Drain Living Aether from them.”
Wisuqkz interjected, “Can do a Draw Spirit, so they’re classified as spirit creatures. Or a hybrid spirit. But they have barely 30 Aether.”
Vantegaard replied, "I'm overflowing, you can drain me safely."
The Aetherist was fondling a pair of glass globes with a small rock embedded.
“Fire in the hole.”
The first globe went to the new attacker, blowing it back when it exploded in the middle of its torso. The animation pulled itself back up and resumed coming toward them, despite the blackened marks on its chromed bones. Vantegaard noted that it hadn’t relaxed his grip on its sword… and had six fingers.
They reached the bottom of the stairs, and Mastabasta shoved the skeleton away from the doorway, risking a quick peek.
“Stairs clear to the first turn.”
The group filed away, Vasilikulik and Mastabasta keeping the two swinging skeletons busy. Birkathane dropped a quick heal and regen while Vasili pushed a drain.
The top of the stair gave them a surprise. Another skeletal construct was coming out. This one had six limbs, suggesting more the “red” humanoid. It also had a metal sphere instead of a chrome skull.
“Rank 95 Lesser Elite,” was Zaccali’s evaluation.
Wisuqkz added, “400 Aether base. This one’s loaded.”
As if triggered, lightning started to play on the sphere’s surface, then a huge spark jumped toward Quandocor.
“Fuck. I hate electric shocks. Notably, those that do 280 damage.”
Warander started to distribute absorption shields, while Birkathane was quickly trying to pump back the necromancer out of the dangerous health zone.
“The first melee is down,” called Vasili.
“Second nearly done. The third is just behind,” called out Mastabasta.
A new six-limbed skeleton came out in the hall. That one had a normal head and held two barbed pikes on each side.
“Rank 90, Lesser Elite as well.”
“Hopefully, the higher we go, the weaker the guards,” said Maelia.
Everyone had focused on the caster skeleton, and it fell rather quickly to the strikes. Apparently, using Interrupts worked on its lightning tesla coil-type head. But the other two melee skeletons were relentlessly pushing.
The group managed to reach the end of the hall, and Maelia called out the stairs as clear. They rushed up but stopped as soon as they reached the next level.
The skeletal construct coming toward them looking more like a multi-limbed centipede, if a centipede had reached 2 meter’s width. It had a lot fewer legs than a centipede – "only" 14 was Vantegaard’s quick count – but large spikes jutting out of all articulations.
“Rank 100, Greater Elite. Watch out.”
Vasili kept guard at the rear, alternating between the two pursuers. Mastabasta moved on to engage the new menace.
“Starting to go low.”
“I’m healing. Nearly out of lifeforce.”
“Meditate. We’ll try not to move unless strictly necessary.”
At that moment, Mastabasta yelled. The skeletal caterpillar’s spine had split, and a huge metal spike projected through the mostly empty head, impaling the swordsman's shoulder. The spike retracted, dragging the man into the skeletal head, and the six mandibles "bones” closed, with a loud crunch.
“Critical! Heal me!”
Birkathane unloaded all her lifeforce into every health spell she could pump.
Mastabasta tried weakly to pull himself from the spike embedded in his body. But the spike and mandibles held, and the swordmaster could not free himself.
Vasili called out, “We’re going to wipe. Try to pull him out, then start running.”
He added to the expedition, “Myself and the three lowbies are locked out of respawning, but all of you get ready to use it. When we reach the top floor, start the process, and run down the stairs. Hopefully, you’ll be in the clear.”
“I thought you never started a Recess in a dungeon?”
“It’s almost a full wipe. You might be exiled, but I think the Cartographers are going to mount a raid to get back to that map room. I hope we four survive, but in any case, Maelia will notify the Guild. You have your forum access, report, and they’ll coordinate for a safe spawn.”
“If that’s possible. But better some survive than all die.”
They dragged the swordmaster after a pair of Deadly Punches managed to break the stranglehold of the caterpillar. The man was bleeding out, and Birkathane managed to slip one last buff, trying to stave the damage.
At that moment, another sphere-head skeleton came climbing up from the stairs.
“Rank 95 Lesser Elite.”
Birkathane tried to pull Mastabasta, but the man batted her hands, shaking its head.
“Done for. Get out alive.”
The eight expedition members ran up, while a few clanking noises down indicated a last few sword strikes by the doomed swordsman.
They had reached the top of the stairs and the last hall when Warander screamed. A massive flame blew across the top of the stairs, singeing Vantegaard’s hair.
Zaccali risked a peek while Warander was whimpering, weakly batting the flames on his clothes.
“Two. Rank 90 Greater Elite, rank 95 Lesser. The Greater is probably the ranged flame thrower, it's got that sphere head.”
“Start Recess now. We’ll try to keep them busy. It’s been good knowing you,” was Vasili’s stoic reaction.
“I have a wildcard left. Psionics. Mind over Matter. I…”
Zaccali and Maelia popped their heads up and unloaded a few ranged attacks before dodging another fireball.
“Mind over Matter. I can open up into rock and stone… if the walls aren’t too thick, I might make a hole. It’s a massive drain on my psy power, but we can…”
“Time?” asked Vasili.
“I can channel that psy up to 2s. 3 maybe. If it’s thin enough, maybe 4.”
“Do those walls look thin to you?”
“Well, no. But that’s an escape route, maybe. Got nothing else.”
Zaccali moved up a couple of steps and launched a pair of arrows.
“It’s coming down. And Recess has reset. I’m stuck here.”
“I said get out. Not reset.”
“It doesn’t matter. If I didn’t lock it out of casting, it would wipe us before we can respawn.”
Maelia and Wisuqkz called out from below.
“Incoming. Looks like another caster arrived.”
Vasili’s breath was ragged.
“Ok, Vantegaard, on my mark, you try to open up your door… here. The pyramid side is probably too thick. Everyone, cram. And if it materializes back while we’re in it… at least it will be quick.”
Zaccali knelt next to Warander, who was trying to get back up. She didn't look back.
“Go. I’ll cover you.”
Maelia announced, “14s to respawn.”
“Ok, on my mark, in 12…”
Vantegaard counted down. At 3 he started focusing on the wall in front of him as Vasili, Birkathane, and Quandocor closed in. Zaccali was firing away arrows every second, keeping the upper floor attackers at bay. Maelia and Wisuqkz were slowly backing, readying themselves to jump in the wall opening.
At 2, he felt the Aether in the hall below start mounting, telling him that something large was readying. Wisuqkz's scream of pain told him who was the unwitting source of all that Aether.
At 1, he tensed, trying to evaluate how much matter he had to banish from existence. It felt… just… barely… within…
A 50cm wide opening appeared in the wall. Birkathane rushed in, Quandocor following. Vantegaard felt a slap and almost fell. The psy power was draining at horrible speed. He turned and saw Vasili swinging its ax, with Maelia’s body at his feet, bleeding out on the floor. Zaccali was screaming her defiance somewhere in the background.
Then all the psi was gone and the stones of the wall were back, and they were left in silence and darkness.
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.