Nephthys leaned forwards; his eyes gleamed in a nostalgic light. Eric meditated; his concentration maxed out. He didn’t move a muscle and was sitting in that position for at least 15 minutes. Anything less than giving all Eric had wouldn’t suffice. If Eric wanted to walk out of this level, he had to wager his soul.
Nephthys knew it all too well. The day one bonded with their guardian spirit and received its power, only a few moments in life could hold a candle to such fulfillment. It was like one had achieved their greatest dream or found the person one was meant to be with. Afterwards, one couldn’t live without it. These spirits were the definition of a soul mate. They were beings that were part of one’s soul. Without them, one was incomplete.
Nephthys looked at his palms. With his finger, he tipped his chest.
His life before he had found his soul spirit...It felt like a bad dream, a nightmare he would never have to dream again. Those days when he had to suffer because he didn’t behave like how a man should, he would never return to those.
But of course, there was no joy without pain. One would never receive something beautiful without having to offer something of equal value. Pain, sorrow, anguish – to find a modicum of bliss, one had to suffer, and those who never suffered would never know happiness. Sadly, that didn't apply to the opposite case. Those who suffered wouldn't always know an equal amount of joy.
“How will you suffer?” Nephthys smiled, revealing his teeth. “Like Altera and Ragna, you’ll have to confront your flaws. But unlike them, the source of the confrontation won’t be external. The one, who challenges you, knows everything about you. Your Fylgja is you, and it's not you. The things you must do to proceed to the next level will be much harsher. You probably have gotten the hardest task.”
Nephthys stopped smiling and remembered the recordings of Ragna’s and Altera’s level. Both confronted their flaws and reached the edge of their mental limits. They didn’t act as Geißel had expected or wanted, but they still proceeded to the next level. “And while you can’t technically die during the trials of the tower, this one’s different. If your Fylgja wants it, you’ll die. You can’t afford to lose. Win at all costs.”
“That would be easier if you stopped talking.” Eric's voice turned to growl, his eyes still closed. “Seriously, I can’t concentrate.”
“Sorry…” Nephthys chuckled in a sheepish tone.
Laughter thundered in the hall, filling the temple in its cacophony.
“It’s here.” Nephthys didn’t bother to conceal his grin.
Eric opened his eyes. He gulped visibly, and the frequency of his breaths increased, that one would think he was freezing in the arctic tundra. Savage wolves surrounded him, just waiting for him to make the first mistake so that they could assault him and, with their teeth, gorge his flesh and bones out of his body.
“Don’t be like that.” A voice interrupted the laughter, pounding like a hammer shattering one's skull over and over until it became powder. “Let us have a witness, for this may be your last day.”
The pupil of the cosmic eyes opened to a vortex. It started to swirl like a maelstrom, its color darkening – red like a wilting rose, red like a ruby, red like a warning, and red like blood sacrificed to the altar.
Out of the whirlpool, a hand reached out. Its claws pointed at Eric, waiting to grab and drag him to the other side. The rest of the arm followed. They were as dark as the vortex. The arm crawled, runes erupted like a geyser, too fast as that he and Eric could have read them, and twisted to the dance of the vortex. A second arm reached out. Then, a torso followed, and soon, the entire being was standing before them, covered in the same dark-red liquid.
No, not just covered – made of blood. It formed into a titanic yet humanoid being, dripping and oozing from the main body. The being had assimilated the vortex. Stretching its body, it swirled around the temple until its torso was next to Eric. The creature leaned over Eric’s shoulder and spoke. “Hello, Eric-boy.”
“So, you’re my Fylgja.” Eric didn’t look at it. He stared into the endless abyss in the sky in front of him.
The Fylgja laughed. His laughter roared like the voice of a legion, and specks of blood erupted from his body like solar flares. “Is that how you treat me after dragging me into this godforsaken land? It is almost as if you don’t want me.”
“What gave you that idea?” Eric asked with a wry smile. “I didn’t choose this place, and I didn’t choose the time.”
“Ah, so you're Eric’s Fylgja.” Nephthys tilted his head and stared at the Fylgja like a tourist would at a statue. He skipped from one place to another, observing the Fylgja from various angles. “I’m Nephthys.” He offered the Fylgja his hand. “Ehm, how can I call you?”
“Nice try, Miss Mukhtar. Our little Eric-boy has to earn that name himself.” The blood on the Fylgja’s round head stirred. It boiled and bubbled and transformed into a bowler hat. “But nevertheless. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Inflating his voice to an absurd degree that a blind person might mistake him for a stiff upper-class gentleman, he raised his hat.
“Likewise." Nephthys raised his hand to a salute. “But how do you know my last name?”
The hat disappeared, and the Fylgja pointed his long finger at Eric. “I’m his Fylgja. Everything he knows, I know. I’ve been with him since he was in his mother’s womb. I was there when he was born. I was there when he walked his first step. I was watching him get rejected when he confessed to Octavia Crawford in fifth grade. I watched him masturbate way too many times.”
“You could've kept that one to yourself,” Eric grumbled, and Nephthys snickered.
“My point is,” the Fylgja said. “I know you better than anyone else does in this world. And I watched how you talked to these two girls you call friends.” He sneered. “So, I ask you this question. Why should I lend you my power for this laughable farce?”
“Because it’s my power. I decide what to use it for.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk.” The Fylgja sighed and shook his head. His mouth transformed, depths and furrows dug into the liquid. The blood grew into shark teeth. He opened his mouth, and his voice deepened to an earthquake. “How insolent. Such a wrong answer. Why don’t you try again? I won’t punish you, but…”
Two tentacles extended from his body and sharpened. Their stinger-like ends pointed at Eric’s wrists.
Nephthys’ eyes widened. “Hey, wait.”
Before anyone could act, the Fylgja whipped its tentacle. The stingers sliced Eric’s wristbands. Blood rivered out of it and connected to the Fylgja’s tentacle. The tentacle grew as it absorbed the fluid that leaked out of Eric.
“There is a time limit. Give me a sufficient answer, and I will give you power. But if it runs out, I will devour you. So, I ask you again. Why would I lend you power? What reason could there be that you need my power.”