“You can open your eyes again,” said Quin.
“Is it okay?” Eric asked.
“Don’t worry. We have become part of the tower’s system. As long as we observe the system from inside the system, it can continue to exist. Quite a fitting tower for a god. If you see it, it cannot exist.”
The party opened their eyes and gazed upon a spiraling staircase, glowing in red light.
“It reminds me of the temple in the Rising Forest,” said Ragna.”
“Their differences might have led to them genociding each other,” Eric snarked. “But at least, they agreed when it came to their tastes in interior design. Makes you want to believe in humanity again.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Nephthys grinned and patted Eric on the back.
“We're not alone.” Altera drew her partisan, and her companions' eyes wandered through the room.
Monks wearing dark hoods came from the staircase. Yet, they didn’t descend from the first level. Through an invisible gateway in front of the stairs, the monks had entered from a neighboring room. The monks dispersed and positioned themselves alongside the tower’s wall. They raised their hands and moved them in an arithmetic rhythm, ceramists performed to mold pottery out of clay.
“Don’t panic. These are just the tower’s operators.”
“Doesn’t make them any creepier. Not at all,” said Eric.
“What are they doing?” Altera asked.
“They are trying to complete all eight disks of the tower. Has been going on since...well, forever.”
“Are they even human?” Ragna drew her saber.
The operators stood at their positions and ignored them. They performed their task, every action resembling an afterimage or the movements of ghosts.
Quin shrugged. “I’ve no idea. They creep me out too much for me to take a closer look.”
“What happens to them if you observe the tower, and it stops existing?” Altera’s eyes maintained their focus on the monk’s movements. “Or us, for that matter. Do we stop existing as well?”
“Don’t worry about that. While the tower stops existing, it also never stops not existing. Its natural state is the culmination of all states. That is, observed and unobserved. In other words, at any given moment, the tower both exists and doesn’t exist. This paradox prevents our erasure.”
“So, the tower’s a cat in a box.” Nephthys cheered, earning a look of bewilderment from everyone else.
“And you’re an existence that is thinking, and at the same time, not thinking,” said Eric.
“But what’s the purpose of all this?” With her free hand, Altera circled the tower. “Why are they building this tower for a god no one follows?”
“I couldn’t begin to imagine,” said Quin. “But our research on the tower found out that when these monks complete their task, the world will end.”
A cold shudder overcame all of them.
“But don’t worry,” said Quin. “They have been doing this since forever. This tower is older than the three kingdoms. A lot older. It might take a thousand or a million years before the tower completes. For all we know, Aes might die a heat death while they still build their tower.”
Ragna didn’t relax her stance.
What kind of god would one day destroy the world? Wasn’t that the epitome of evilness?
“As I said, don’t worry about that. I think it is time I explain to you the nature of your task. You see the staircase?”
“The staircase leads to eight disks. Each disk of the tower is a level you have to clear. How you clear the level is different from disk to disk. But usually, you'll find out the conditions at the beginning. I will warn you right ahead, the mystical nature of this tower means that the task can be anything and not bound by the laws of Aes. So, abandon all logic, ye who enter here.”
Quin paused, letting the information sink into their brains and allowing them to comment. When they remained silent, Quin continued to talk. “You can only progress to the next disc if you clear the task. If you want to continue your journey, you have to clear all eight levels. So far, everything clear?”
The party nodded again.
“Each level will also have one examiner. Whether you pass or not is also up to them. Sometimes, the examiner will be your ally, sometimes your opponent. The levels are divided into four segments. The first segment has three levels. One person can do only one level, and they must be cleared alone. The second segment has one level. Here, all three of you have to work together. In the third segment, you have three levels again. There, you work in teams of two. You can only use a combination once.”
So, that meant first, each of them had to do a task alone, then, all three of them together, and then, she had to team up once with Eric and once with Altera. So far, that sounded like a video game.
If they worked in familiar territory, the possibility of making mistakes decreased. Eric might be an avid gamer as well, and Altera might figure out everything she needed to know.
“And as for the fourth segment, it contains the eight and last level. I can’t tell you anything about it, besides that Geißel will oversee it. You also don’t have to worry about food and drinks. The monks will provide that. Running out of Mana won’t be a problem either. This dimension consists of Mana, and so do you. You can go all out, and you will have to. This tower is dangerous, and you can easily die. That said, I will give you one piece of advice. I shouldn’t be doing this, but I don’t care. Is anyone of you close to activating their Fylgja?”
Eric raised his hand, and Quin smiled.
“Good. I recommend that you try to complete the third level."
“Sure. But while I wait for the others to finish, can I explore the tower? I am interested in its history and this Ymir.”
“Suit yourself.” Quin stomped on the ground. A vein-line marking appeared, and the monks stopped the construction of the tower. “There is one more thing regarding the nature of this tower. This tower is a bridge to other worlds. Like a dream, it connects to worlds that exist and those made up. Each level will be its own world. A world of your reality, of a different reality, and our dreams. As you enter the staircase, you will enter the realms beyond.”
The veins spread until they had assimilated the ground floor like cancer cells. The tower blinked – on and off, communicating its language of zeroes and ones. Symbols and numbers flashed across their eyes. Again, they couldn’t understand the eldritch language. They danced and swirled. A tornado grew as the blinking patterns of the tower increased its usage of symbols.
Was this the language of the gods? No, that wasn’t possible. Even the gods of Aes used the Futhark. That was its purpose, why Twice had gifted it to the Trutner siblings. So, that humanity could speak the language of the gods and progress further.
Did other gods exist beyond the realms of Aes? In the void, beyond the cosmos with its planets and stars, on the edges of their solar systems and the infinite space humans couldn’t explore? Gods outside reality. Fake world and opposite truths.
One monk stepped forward from its circle. The arms of its robe slid down, and mechanical limbs frenzied to a non-existent dance and song. It grabbed a letter and another, pressed them together, and grabbed more until it had a string or symbol.
The monk let go of the string. It floated towards the staircase and replaced the first step. Under its hood, the monk’s cyclopean eye gleamed a blue light. His feet took another step. The monk crouched, and its arm’s rhythm changed. A second monk came forward. It began to dance as well, imitating the first’s moves, grabbing symbols, and forming them to a string of letters. It floated and replaced the second step.
A third monk came to the forefront and copied its predecessors’ actions. And once it finished, the next acted until all monks had acted and built a staircase with words as steps. Forming a second circle, the monks continued to move and dance in their standstill.
“The path is open, and your trial begins,” said Quin. “Clear the levels and climb Ymir’s tower to its pinnacle. Ragna, please be the first.”
Without saying a word, Ragna walked towards the staircase of words and ascended.
The first level was about to start.