A strong wind blew past. Eric pressed his hand against his hat, lest it flew off into the distance. He looked around. Pillars raged into the sky like spears. Platinum and silver twisted around to give them a metal-like form.
Eric scratched his temple.
Where did he end up?
He walked forward. With every step he took on the night-blue stone plateau, bells tolled, either to announce the arrival of a deity, to foretell a looming doom, or both.
“Why is it even ringing?” Eric asked himself. “There are no bells around.”
“That’s a good question.”
Eric jumped up and shrieked. “What the Hel?”
He turned around. Nephthys was leaning against a pillar and ate a banana in all the wrong ways.
“You almost gave me a heart attack!”
Nephthys grinned. “I’m full of talents.”
“Do you have any useful ones?” Having recovered from the little shock, Eric looked everywhere but Nephthys, who savored the banana with her lips, and in response, Nephthys intensified her gaze.
“Many men say I am good for ramming. She took a deep and long bite. “Though I’m not good at ramming.”
“I would facepalm.” Eric sighed. “But my skull’s starting to hurt. Why are you here?”
“I’m the overseer of this level.”
Eric didn’t respond. He turned around and faced the edge of the plateau. Going by the wind and his gut feeling, it seemed they were at a high altitude. He walked towards the edge to confirm his theory and looked down. Indeed, they were high up. A rugged landscape full of smaller mountains extended from his point of view, and no ground as far he could see.
Did that mean they were on the top of a mountain?
“Hey, wait.” Nephthys ran to him and reached with her arm. “I know your life sucks, but there are other options.”
Eric rolled his eyes and turned around. Don’t feed the troll…
A pair of stairs on the platform’s center led to a raised podium, giving a full view into the night sky. No, that description wouldn’t do it justice.
Eric’s body came to a standstill, refusing any actions – except to look at the phenomena in front of him.
He was gazing at the void, the entity that existed between worlds and planets, outside of Aes’ atmosphere. A fluorescent conglomeration of alien substances and particles. Dark yellow, green, and azure formed together into a circular shape, and in their center glowed a red dot. It was nothing but sheer beauty. He might be staring at the eye of a god, and the eye gazed back. Stars glowed around him like million fireflies, and on the horizon, nebulous ravines and cliffs grew from the sky in a wide array of colors.
It felt like he had entered the center of all creation and the cosmos’ core. Before his own eyes was a portal that allowed him to see beyond this world's existence. If he walked towards the podium, would he be able to touch it, a deity?
He had never been piteous. For him, gods used to be a tool to understand the past and human civilization. They fascinated him, but that was only scientific and archeological curiosity. There was no difference between a god and the diary entry they had found in the temple. Yet, gazing at this marvel of the void, he could fall on his knees and revere.
“Where are we here anyway?” Eric knocked against one of the pillars “Is this place even real?”
The structure resembled a temple, but that didn’t have to mean anything. From what he had gathered about the two other levels, how real the worlds were, was unclear. If what Ragna said was true, then the tower seemed to mix the truth with lies. She had to do a mission in a replica of Castle Gimli, but the events and people were fake or made-up. And how accurate Gimli was, Ragna couldn’t tell either. Since she had refused to elaborate when he had asked for further clarification, he had to take her word for it. Altera’s level was just an empty white room, but the people were real. And here? He had no idea if the temple did exist anywhere in the world or if it was a virtual setting the tower had generated.
“It’s totally real,” said Nephthys. “We’re on top of Mount Yama.”
“So, is this some kind of mountain in Utgard?”
Nephthys shrugged. “Maybe?”
“How can’t you know?”
“I’ve never been here before. Only heard what Priest Shirou told us.”
“That priest again…,” Eric said. “So, let me guess, this is a temple for this Ymir?”
Nephthys nodded. “Priest Shirou said that the people of Ymir’s tower went up Mount Yama to meditate or communicate with Ymir.”
“A mountain to meet god.” Eric blew his nose. “Reminds me of how the First Kaiser supposedly received the word of Twice or the Pharaoh Raa’s message. Religions sure like to copy.”
So, somewhere in the depths of the Mana Realm loomed this temple. A building for Ymir. It would certainly fit. Though, why had the Mana Realm any kind of landscape? Weren’t volcanos and tectonic activity the reason for their existence? Then those had to exist here too.
“You’re really into archeology, right?” Nephthys asked. “You should talk to the priest one day. No one knows more about Ymir than him.”
“We talked, actually. He entered the tower and stayed with Ragna and me while Altera had to do her task.”
That priest didn’t reveal much, but at least, he told him that Ymir was supposedly the “God of the Void” or the “God of Both” – whatever that was supposed to mean. There were similarities between Twice and Ymir, and the two were two sides of the same coin. The light and the dark, so, to speak. Twice was life, order, and Aes. Ymir was death, chaos, and the void. At least, that’s what people used to believe. Back when they had thought of Twice as a deity that had always existed. That was probably the reason for Ymir’s disappearance in the annals of history. Twice the God had died, but they could establish themselves as an almighty human being. The same didn't apply to Ymir. Thus, the entire cosmology around them vanished, and with that, Ymir too ceased to exist.
“You don’t sound too happy.”
“Nah, I’m grateful,” said Eric. “But I can’t fact-check his stuff. He could tell me Ymir was born because some cow licked him into existence, and I've no way to know whether it would be true or not.”
Eric looked at Nephthys.
Come to think of, how could he know anything here was true? What was a representation of reality, what was real, and what was fake? Nephthys said the temple existed and that this was an actual mountain. But how could he know if she wasn’t a projection of the tower? It seemed that she had entered this level like him, but that could be a meta-level deception.
“Hey, Nephthys.” He called out to her. “Are you real?”
Nephthys tilted her head. “Of course, I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” She became blue with shock and looked at her fingers. “Do you mean that I’m fake? Has my whole life been a lie? Everything’s a dream. I’m a figment of imagination created to fill space in a system. Nooooooooo.” She dropped to her knees, facing the eye in the sky. “I’m in despair. The fabrication of my reality has left me in despair.”
“Your idiocy has left me in despair.” Eric sighed.
His gut told him that Nephthys would remain real until the day he died. It was time to clear the level. He should be activating his Fylgja if he remembered correctly. Strange that he was further than Ragna. She had experienced severe trauma, and the child of parents with a Fylgja had an easier time activating theirs. Yet Ragna wasn't anywhere close to hers. What ability would she get?
“Don’t be.” Nephthys performed a backflip. “You still have me.”
Eric walked towards the temple’s center. “What am I going to do with you?” On the raised podium, he sat down and crossed his legs, assuming the classical lotus-position.
“Me?” Nephthys pointed coyly at herself and hopped through the temple. “Just ignore me. Pretend that I’m not here.”
“That would be easier if you were not here.”
“Geißel said I’ve to confirm if you pass, and in case things go haywire, contain you.”
“Can you do that?” Eric looked at her, imagining how the frail Nephthys would be able to stop his Fylgja. Then, again, if one looked at Ragna, one wouldn’t believe that she could shoulder throw a giant like Grendel. Lately, the number of girls who could kick his ass had increased. It didn't feel bad, though.
“Don’t worry. I’m a pro.” Nephthys grinned. “Even if I can’t defeat it, I can always run.”
“That’s not reassuring.”
Nephthys tilted her head. “Huh? Why?”
Well, it didn’t matter if she could stop it or would run. The Fylgja wouldn’t escape, and he would be dead anyway. In the end, there was no other option but to trust Nephthys. He had to concentrate if he wanted to connect to the deepest parts of his soul, where his Fylgja lay.
Eric exhaled and closed his eyes.