“Nim! Nimue snap out of it!” I heard Kirk’s distant voice and I just ignored him. There was another booming voice and then pain exploded into me as my entire body convulsed. I found myself laying on the ground staring vacantly at blurry figures around me, very concerned figures who were all peering wide-eyed at me. “Uh… anyone get the name of that skimmer that just hit me?” I grumbled. Groaning, I tried to roll over and pawed weakly at the ground.
“I think the guardian gave you a zap.” Kirk was peering from me and into the sky. “Never saw it do that before unless someone committed a crime…” He trailed off.
“What the heck is up with you?” Kirk said and I pushed him away angrily as I stood up and stumbled forward, clutching at my pounding skull, my stomach twisting in rebellion to the spinning waves of dizziness. “Just leave me alone!” I cried as dust pooled and swirled around me, energy crackled up and down my wrists along my tattoos and I turned and stumbled away from the practice courts, just wanting to get away from people, I wanted to be alone for a bit.
Kirk finally tracked me down an hour later as I watched the salvagers returning from their day’s efforts. More of them had made it back this time, and I watched them happily congratulating each other and picking through their haul as they dumped it onto the tables for the clerks.
“Look… I’m sorry…” he said sheepishly and I shook my head.
“I’m not really angry with you… I’m just trying to… figure something out.” I trailed off lamely as he kicked the dirt next to me, and leaned back on the wall I was slumped against. “What is it then? You not able to make a new character or something? I have the same problem… for me it’s back to earning a wage when I’m not streaming my runs through the labyrinth anymore.” He said and sighed as I looked up at him.
“You’re a streamer?” I accused and he shrugged.
“Not like a constant one. I make casts of my progress, and I do earn some money on the side from my work, not much, but I get by.” He grinned.
“Its one reason I ran the practice maze today, to have something to toss to my viewers. They like you by the way.” He said and I laughed, and shook my head.
“Why would any of your viewers like me? I’m nothing here, just a stupid noob, or a fishie. Take your pick.” I grumbled and my shoulders slumped.
“Your really pretty you know, and a bit terrifying sometimes. I recorded you during that meditation earlier and people on my channel went wild… they want to see what you can do. Do you actually know just how rare players are with your powers?” His voice was upbeat and encouraging.
My heart sank. Just what I needed. More people trying to kill me, I knew how it went with these streamers. There were always people trying to get attention by sniping the streamer, or greifing the progress of their casts. I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of it.
“You streaming now? Recording me?” I asked, fury in my voice and he shook his head. “No! I’m not, and I’m… sorry for not telling you earlier. Most of the other vets here know by now and some even follow me. What’s really good about streaming my runs through the labyrinth is that people can’t really mess with me while I’m doing it, not unless they can keep up.” He grinned.
“I do it for fun, and because people like to see the strange stuff that goes on in the labyrinth… it really is an amazing place.” He had a wistful voice.
“You really do like it, here don’t you?” I accused, my familiar anger at being trapped here bubbling close to the surface. Kirk nodded and sighed as he stared off in memory.
“I hated it at first, I mean it is a prison after all. But… the more I tried to puzzle out the labyrinth, the more I… began to appreciate how interesting it is. There is more to just surviving in it, there is something else… a deeper mystery about all of it.”
“Well good luck! At least you have the time.” I said bitterly and he just gazed at me.
“You want to talk about it? Not really any of my business, but if you don’t want to work with me, I’ll understand, I’m… not really used to having a partner.” He said and I stared at him.
I wanted to tell him, wanted to have someone to talk to, but I didn’t want to burden him with my personal baggage. Also… I was scared. If I told him that I would eventually die in the real world I knew he would write me off as a lost cause. Despite everything I wanted… desperately wanted him as a friend and I knew, deep down inside that he only cared about how useful I could be to him.
“I’m pretty? You know how lame that sounds?” I said and he gave a chuckle. “You didn’t really work on your character’s appearance much?” He asked and I shook my head.
“Actually… didn’t do much at all with it except add hair.” I said and blushed. My hair had usually been shaven off to accommodate long term immersion in nanotherapy pods that helped slow down the progress of my disease and reverse the damage in a slowly losing battle.
“Add hair… huh?” He inquired, then he paled as he realized what that meant, and he began to put a few pieces together. I had told him I was disabled after all. “Sorry!” he waved his hands up as my expression darkened and I saw the look of pity on his face that made my anger rise again.
I had to wonder just what was happening to my real body at this very moment. Gentech hadn’t really discussed the details of this testing other than that the VR dive capsule I was in was also treating me medically, but they hadn’t giving any guarantees so I knew it was also a temporary measure. I knew I was dying, and I didn’t want his pity.
We watched the salvagers disperse silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts for a few minutes until he stood up, backing away from my glare. “Get some rest… a bath wouldn’t be a bad idea; sleep will make you feel better.” He said and smiled at me as he walked off shaking his head in the direction of the chow hall, greeting Gazzy as she pranced over to him tossing him her flask of booze. I shook my head at how easily he bantered with the woman, as if it came second nature to him. It made me a bit envious. I couldn’t figure that sort of thing out, and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to.
I didn’t really feel like going into the boisterous and crowded chow hall, so I just bypassed it and headed for the baths. They were packed, filled with people, and I turned away when I saw a long line stretching into the street. I turned away from the familiar buildings, and threw out my senses for rushing water. I wanted somewhere comfortable to hide and sulk in peace.
I followed my senses, and wound through buildings, past unfamiliar sections of the hub until I entered an empty section that seemed abandoned. I knew the hub was massive, but only a very tiny part of it was occupied. There was for example supposedly four gates all around the hub, but only one was used, and most of the stuff players used was gathered around it.
The strange white glass buildings didn’t decay, but they were filled with dust and debris. I saw the remains of past habitation everywhere, old carts, furniture in buildings, and so many other little details that did spark a bit of my curiosity. I followed my nose, and my senses towards the sound of running water and stopped in my tracks as I found a massive fountain with statues surrounding it.
I wasn’t sure what the strange figures represented, but had the suspicion they were carved likeness of Endaria’s gods. None of them were familiar to me, upon a casual glance. I looked down at the cascading fountain that stretched across a plaza, lost in the gloom of the night cycle. There were waterfalls, little rivers and whirling pools that were decorated with carved script that glowed.
Walking next to a waterfall I laid back, my feet dangling down into the cool water as I stared up at the cascade, smiling at the prismatic haze that drifted off vapor surrounding the falling water. Here it felt like everything would be alright… that I was safe. Lazily, I drew power in from the environment around me, cycling it though my body to ease the aches and pains. My head cleared and I tried to make sense of my new feelings… was I really feeling what I had read about? Was it lust, jealously? I was sixteen, and most girls probably already knew how to deal with this. I didn’t have a clue what to do.
I haven’t even had to worry about a period. My own menstrual cycle was deeply repressed by my treatments along with so much else. I knew what it was supposed to be like, but most of the time I had never considered any of it in detail. What would it be like to be someone with a future? I had never considered it before. I had always lived from fight to fight, trying not to think about the end. A future wasn’t a luxury for me, it was something that had always been nonexistent.
My father had never groomed me to follow in his footsteps, I had been free to pursue my own hobbies without worrying about any sort of career to work for. Why bother training me to be his heir? There was no future for me beyond what minor medical miracles that occurred to keep me alive day by day.
I pushed off the edge of the fountain and stroked through the waterfall, letting the cool water splash across my face. The fountain wasn’t cold, but wasn’t warm either, that sort of perfect temperature that felt just right. It was peaceful. My robes tightened to my body into a swimsuit, as they shifted along with my shoes and I swam along the flowing waters of the fountain, following the drifting currents as I spun between the statues of gods that probably disapproved of me, mighty warriors whom I would likely never learn the names of. This game wasn’t perfect… but if I was going to choose the place of my death, I supposed there were worse fates even if none of this beauty was real. What would it be like? Would I just not wake up one day or would I just fade away suddenly?
I floated on the surface of the water, letting it carry me around in a weaving circuit that cycled in some sort of odd twisting knotwork of channels, the current taking me past three waterfalls, one after another. As I moved, I watched the strange streaks of light on the dome so high up that it made me wonder, if it was in fact the heavens of some tiny world, and this labyrinth was a universe all of its own. Endaria was supposed to be a game with more than one world to explore, and I had heard of stranger things within games. The thought made me smile as I wondered if I would ever make it out of this place, only to find that I had some new strange world to explore, that I was no longer on prime at all.
What would it matter? The whole point of the game was to have fun… it wasn’t anything more than that, just something created by advanced AIs, the most advanced in the world. I tried to contemplate just how VirtualDreams had made this game, and it was beyond me. None of this should be possible, but here it was and I was in this strange place, pretending to be some sort of magician or whatever. The concept was so absurd that I chuckled as I drifted along.
I was quite surprised when my own laughter was returned. Startled, I thrashed about looking for the source of the laughter and treaded water as I peered around the deserted area, suddenly feeling very foolish. The laughter had come from the top of a series of cascading pools in the center of the channel I had been drifting in. Glancing up I saw a blue-green form peering back at me. It smiled and I saw little fangs and a toothy grin.
“Of course, this stupid fountain was filled with things that probably want to eat me.” I grumbled, wondering why I hadn’t already been attacked. The creature leapt down out of the splashing pools of water and swirled around me, a long tail whipping back and forth like a shark. It had the upper torso of a young girl, but had hands ending in sharp nails and webbed fingers. Instead of hair, there was flowing layers of short scales, the rest of her face smooth, and reflected the expressions of a young child.
She peered with interest at me, as if trying to figure out what I was. I swam for the one side of the fountain and she blocked me, her arms crossed in anger. “You know this is sacred water… right human?” She grumbled and glared at me.
“I didn’t see a sign telling me to stay out.” I complained but she shook her head, and I was reminded distinctly of the immature attitude of a child as she twitched one irritable webbed finger at me.
“Well there should be one!” She huffed and I rolled my eyes, no longer really that afraid of the small creature. She did have rather sharp looking fangs, but I had the feeling that one good zap would discourage any thoughts of adding me to the dinner menu.
“Fine, I’ll get out… ugh.” I pushed past the creature and lifted myself up out of the water of the fountain as the creature stared at me curiously, with slight consternation.
“Wait... you’re not scared of me?” She flashed her tiny little fangs at me and I rolled me eyes. Compared to most things I had encountered in Endaria’s deadly waters she was a pushover.
“Nope… need to let them fangs of yours grow a bit more…munchkin” I smiled at her and she huffed.
“No need to rub it in…” One of her fingers rubbed a tiny fang and she hissed again at me.
Walking back over to the waterfall I sat back down. I didn’t really feel that tired, and I did need to practice meditation more. If the creature wanted to interrupt me, well I’d make sure it regretted it. She watched me warily and when I sat down well away from the edge of the fountain. Seemingly satisfied evicting me from her fountain, she dived under the water and vanished.
Meditation was starting to come easier now that I was getting the hang of what technique worked best. I gripped my power and began to cycle it and, felt as if something was guiding me as I started to spin my power and concentrate it.
The roaring energy of the fountain was powerful, and pulsed in time with my heartbeat. The ebb and flow became a tide, but I resisted the urge to join the roaring, instead focusing inward as if it was second nature. My power began to whirl faster and faster, and began to condense.
A shining ball of energy began to expand into a core of rippling power inside me, that sparkled with lighting, howled with wind and resounded with the pounding thunder of water.
I condensed it farther with each breath, now falling into a rhythm like the flow of the tide, when I felt resistance, I began to push past it, condensing faster and faster, my core of power straining to contain the energy I was putting into it, I could feel pain, but I was becoming used to enduring pain now and I pushed it away.
Finally, I felt like it was time to back off and I pulled back out of my core and kept cycling energy through my body, and an image formed in my mind of a barrier around my core. I began to condense energy from my body around the burning core of power, and it dimmed from a burning sun into a spinning ball of energy, a blue ball with white and gold sparks. Slowly, I began to pull out of my trance, and I opened my eyes, and gave a yelp of surprise.
I was floating over the fountain, slowly spinning on a vortex of air and from below me the entire fountain glowed. All the statues around the fountain were watching me with eyes of radiant power, each one burning in a different color. My concentration broken; I fell shrieking from the air landing in the top pool with a splash, the wind knocked out of me from a perfect belly flop.
The roaring fountain pulsed, then a wave of water cascaded out and I was tossed squalling and choking, trying to get air as I was dunked from pool to pool until I landed in the bottom of the fountain, trying to tread water, but I found I was weak as a kitten, my entire body was unable to move. As I sank, my mind wanted to make my limbs move, but it was like they were stone.
I tried to hold my breath, but my lungs pounded, and I began to get light headed. Then, I felt little fingers gripping me and I was moving upwards. My head broke the surface and I gave a wheezing gasp. As my world spun from the sudden rush of oxygen to my body, I felt myself being pushed up onto the side of the fountain and I mustered enough energy to roll over, out of the water.
I lay there gasping, my body unable to move, my heart was roaring in my ears and panic began to fill me.
I wondered if I was dying. It felt the same as when my life support systems in my regeneration pod was having difficulty keeping up.
Distantly I could hear a bit of girlish laughter and I concentrated on it, then reached deep inside myself, to where I could feel that core of power still burning. I slowly pulled energy out of it, cycling it through my body, and I began to feel lighter, stronger.
Slowly, I sat up and looked around. The statues weren’t glowing, and the fountain was silent and dark. I must have been imagining it. But there was one thing that I knew I had done; I had formed my energy into a core. It felt powerful, and somehow… right as if this was how it was always supposed to be. Standing up I gave a whoop of triumph pumping my fist to the air. “Yahoooooo!” I felt my eyes burn with tears as I smiled.
There was a raspberry from below me and I looked down at the tiny creature that had saved me from drowning. I knelt down and grinned.
“Thank you...” I whispered and she blushed and twirled a bit before waving to me and diving out of sight, disappearing into the fountain.
I frowned as I realized it was a deeper dark than I had expected. Just how long was I meditating? I had to cycle more power from my core into my body as my weary limbs ached and I began to make my way back towards a soft bed.
When I arrived, even the card players were done, the baths were closed and the lights were dark. Sleeping forms turned and murmured. I was tired but I lay in my bed smiling to myself and feeling inward to my core of power. It felt strong, and rippled with energy. It took me some time until I was able to nod off and fall into a dreamless sleep.
Bio: I've been writing for nearly as long as I've first laid eyes on a word processor. In the last few years, however I've begun to focus on longer works and less short stories, etc. I have three complete books I'm currently revising in my Infernal Engineers series, and one spin-off project: Sky Drifters.