There had to be a way to get out of this forest.
Ragna drew her saber. She slashed against the air, and in the middle of her movement, the blade lost its momentum and stopped. Yet there was no resistance and no weight that forced her to halt. In front of them was a barrier that seemed to have a substance and at the same time not. It resembled a video game when one of these invisible walls blocked the progress of the player.
“So, what now?” Ragna concealed her weapon back in its sheath.
“I think it’s best if we return to the temple,” said Altera. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a connection. Plus.” She pointed at the red light that glimmered in the distance. “It’s the only thing we can make out in the darkness.”
All three pulled out their phones and activated the searchlight function of their devices. The faint light allowed them to keep track of each other and discern which path was open and which had a tree hiding in the shadows. The last problem they needed was a concussion from smacking their heads into the trunk of a tree.
Within the darkness that was the Rising Forest's nether regions, the neon illumination of the temple served as a lighthouse. The trees reached hundreds of meters into the sky, blocking out even the slightest specs of light.
Perhaps it was the doing of this creature? Whatever that being was, it was beyond human. She had heard that ancient Aes was brimming with beings so powerful that all seven Captains together would pale in comparison.
Supposedly, Aes had been an unforgiving death world abundant with natural Mana, where evolution had to get creative to keep up the pace. But this…this thing? It wasn't something natural. She wouldn't be surprised if this being could best the Allfather. If that was the power of a god, then it was only logical that humans would submit to it. What else could they feel but fear and reverence? In front of such transcendent creatures, one would readily forego one’s independence and emancipation.
She had never understood why humans used to worship things – be it gods, other humans, spaghetti, or cats – but seeing this creature's might with her own eyes, it became clear as day for her. If these beings had such an enormous amount of power, what would happen if one were not in their grace?
“Can we be sure that this thing doesn’t attack us again?" Ragna clung to Altera’s arm.
It was bad enough that they couldn't make out their surroundings. If they weren’t careful, they could lose each other in this maze of trees. How the Hel could people live in this forest? Was this some messed-up 'survival of the fittest'-mentality where the forest people had been willing to accept losing the "weak" for their overall prosperity?
“If it wanted to kill us, then it would have done that already,” said Altera. “I think we have proven ourselves to be worthy enough to live.”
“Then why are we trapped?”
“Perhaps it thought death was too easy.” Eric laughed and waved his phone around. “There are punishments worse than death.”
“Don’t joke about that.” Ragna gulped.
If this was a god, then it could afford to spend eternity tormenting them. Not even a day out of the city, and they had become enemies of the gods. If they made it out of the forest, what other abnormalities would await them on this journey?
“Gods are supposed to be fickle,” said Altera. “Their view of…everything is alien to us. At least that's what I've read. So, who knows what this being could be thinking?”
“Assuming it had trapped us in the first place,” said Eric.
“It's rather likely that it did. Listen.” Altera halted. She put her finger on her lips and pointed with her other hand at her surroundings.
Ragna closed her eyes. Trying to concentrate, she cleared her mind and focused. But her ears didn't pick up anything. There was no strange sound or any unusual noise.
She opened her eyes and looked at her companion in confusion. “I hear jack.”
“Exactly,” said Altera. Ragna and Eric tilted their heads in unison. “There’s no sound. We're in a forest. Insects and other animals should be everywhere. Yet we don’t hear a thing. And it’s not like there were no animals here. When we entered the altar room, we could hear the buzzing of insects.”
“So, the animals all have disappeared?” Ragna asked. “I mean, there was a fire.”
“Nothing really burned though”, said Eric.“They should have returned by now, and we should have heard their noises anyway. And I heard buzzing when the fire had disappeared.”
“So, what’s your conclusion then?”
“There are two possibilities, I think. One.” Altera raised her index finger. “This stag god somehow sacrificed all animals in this forest. Two.” She raised a second finger. “The animals felt that something was going to happen in this area. So, they escaped, like how animals can sense that an earthquake or a tsunami will happen. Eikthyrnir is supposed to be a guardian deity here, so I cannot imagine it killing the inhabitants. That leaves only the second option. The animals were all able to leave the perimeter successfully. Whatever this barrier is, it is in tune with the forest."
"So, you're saying that nature hates us?" Eric sighed. "So much for trying to live eco-friendly and being sustainable."
As they came closer to the temple, the light grew. But it wasn't just the radiance of the temple’s light that increased. Moonshine leaked through the gaps in the leaves and trees, and as they stood before the temple, the moon stared at them in the night sky in its full glory.
“That is really a temple?” Ragna’s eyes scanned the building. She had not paid attention before, as their attempts to escape from the Clockwork Coterie and that abnormal being had been a more pressing issue. Now, Ragna had the time to examine its structure.
In the center of a clearing stood a cuboid reaching to the sky. Red neon light ran along its edges and in a circuit motion through the entire body. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought it was a computer tower.
What kind of people built such a mechanical structure to worship a forest god? And how were they able to do that? If its founders had created it to worship a god, it meant the building had to be several millennia old.
They entered the temple through an automatic door, and as they stepped into the inside, an aquamarine light flashed. It circled the walls and stopped over Ragna's head. Before they could react, a ray of light radiated at Ragna’s glove. Her glove flickered in the same light as the building, and the light disappeared.
“Administrator rights have been overwritten. New access has been granted.”
A female voice spoke through the room. And as it said these words, electric sounds sparked from all directions. If Ragna had to compare it to something, it sounded like a computer that had rebooted or a processor working at full speed.
“So, what just happened?” Ragna stared at her glove as if she had an artifact of doom in her hand, ready to enact the end of the world or smite rude shoppers trying to skip the grocery line. With her fingers, she imitated the legs of a spider.
“So, that means that you're now a representative of this god, right?” Altera observed the workings of the temple. When Eric and Ragna did not reply, she looked at them and tilted her head. “What? You're now an administrator, right?”
“Not an administrator for the church. Though that wasn’t that unlikely either”, said Eric. “She's the system's operator, I think.”
Altera cleared her throat. “Of course. Of course.”
Ragna narrowed her eyes.
Now that she thought about it, Altera had always insisted on training her in old-fashioned ways. She only used modern technology when it was necessary. Even her phone was an old Zobel.
“You’re not good with tech, are you?”
“Of course, I am. I strive for excellence in every area.” Altera blushed and marched forward.
“Now that I think about it,” said Eric as they followed Altera. “This might explain how this Clockwork guy controlled the prison cells. With him dead, we should have access to every area.”
“So, that means we have to search the entire buildings for clues.” Altera turned her head.
As was the case with the upper levels, three plateaus and two corridors divided the ground floor. The middle platform served as the staircase that connected it to the upper floors. Oak trees grew on the first platform – the entrance to the complex. The trees formed two unconnected half-circles that only left a narrow path towards the corridor on which they could walk. On each side of the entrance door, two statues of stag stood. They were metallic like the entire building.
Given all that happened this night, one would expect that they started to move and attack them with laser beams.
Ragna looked at them. As they stood at the entrance, guarding it with their majesty, it seemed their red eyes gazed back at her. She gulped and turned around.
“This place is giving me the creeps.” Her body shuddered. “Why couldn’t they make this look pink and cute?”
“So, you want a bunch of plush rabbits lying around?” Eric asked. “That would be creepier. Imagine all these black doll eyes staring at you from every corner. No thanks. I’m gonna stick with my robot statues.”
“Still, if this is a place for worship, then wouldn’t it be better to make it more welcoming? To get more believers?”
“That’s a more modern way of thinking. In the past, it was more important to respect and fear gods. It didn’t matter if one or a thousand worshipped your god. Ensuring to pass down the existence and knowledge to the next generation was more important. It was about one’s own relationship with the gods.”
“You know quite a lot about these topics,” said Altera, her hand caressing the bark of a nearby oak tree.”
“It's part of the job. The Archipelago has many temples from the old ages that are still around. And even a few descendants of those people who are keeping the traditions and knowledge alive. Though.” Eric raised his arm and pointed at the interior of the temple. “Nothing even close to this. All temples looked ancient, but this one looks modern."
“Anyway, I think we should start with the room there.”
Altera pointed at the door that lay at the very end of the corridor.
“That’s going to be a looong night.”
Eric and Altera nodded, and Ragna sighed.
Hopefully, there wasn’t a time limit, like if they didn’t manage to leave the barrier by sunrise, their bodies would turn to stone.
Zobel – A mobile phone model that sacrifices appearance for function. Its clunky design is known to withstand even bombing raids. It fell out of favor in the year 900 AR.