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It was still dark. But Esper knew it was time to leave now and, shaking her arms out one after the other, her fingers now more ready to let their vice-like grip on the rope loose, she reached up higher on the thing and pulled. A fresh stinging pain shot through her wounded arm and her torn hand, as she strained to move up the rope. It didn’t feel like she was moving.


Letting loose she exhaled and felt the rope lower down again just an inch, which was all she had managed to raise herself up by. Again, the girl hoisted herself upwards to no avail. Her arms alone weren’t strong enough to pull her weight up towards the branch. She looked towards the tree and wondered what she would do.


The idea hit her however, as she once more wrapped her hands above her head and pulled. She pulled just hard enough that the bit of slack she had earned could be clamped between her legs. She clamped them tightly shut, so that the rope couldn’t slip and they tingled painfully in return for her efforts. Again she repeated the motion hoisting herself up another few inches, raising her legs up high as well.


Several times after, she repeated this motion. Soon the branch was just above her head and she realized that she faced a new challenge. She would have to hoist herself up onto it. Her mind boggled at the concept, until she managed to formulate a fresh plan of action. Twice more she shuffled up the rope, as before, until she felt the thick branch just above her chest with only about a foot of rope left between her and it.


In one fearful, fluid motion she flung one of her arms over it, the other still clinging to the rope. A moment later she let go of the rope with the other and with a bout of strength that she didn’t know was left in her, pulled herself up and flopped over the branch with her stomach. Facing now head first, down towards the void was a frightening prospect and she quickly clambered sideways, facing now lengthwise towards the tree.


Proud of herself, Esper wondered if she should rest here, to which the voice in her mind clearly answered with a succinct and emotionless “No.” So as before, clambering tightly onto the branch, she crawled forward. The rope was still attached to her waist and rubbed between her skin and the branch, but she didn’t dare to undo the knot until she was back on solid ground. It was smarter to just bear this pain too, along with the rest.


Worming forward bit by bit, she felt the branch beneath her grow wider and thicker as her arms and legs had to slowly spread further apart to hold herself onto it. The inky blackness surrounding her slowly let way to a gentle gray and she knew that daylight was soon to follow. The silhouette of the tree began to become clear to her, it was close, she was just in front of it now. Just a little more.


Crawling forward again the girl threw an open palm against the trunk of the tree before her and then the other palm as well, sitting now upright and embracing the giant heartwood. “Thank you! Thank you. Thank you-,” she muttered over and over to the tree for a straight minute. “I’m sorry if I hurt your arm,” she said to it and it swayed indifferently in the gentle breeze as response. A single leaf flew down, propelled by the wind, brushing against the side of her head before it sank into the darkness below.


The gray aura in the air slowly became lighter and lighter. Daybreak was still a long while away, but it was already bright enough for her to see vague shapes and silhouettes now. That was all she needed. Carefully, she rose up now at the base of the tree and, holding herself tightly against it stepped down, following the familiar pattern of branches. The rope was growing taut however and she knew it was time.


The ground would be below her now. She planted herself down on a branch, her feet dangling in the air and began with shaking fingers to fidget with the knot around her waist. She wasn’t even sure how she had tied it the night before, but it had held and that was all that mattered. Though it was a fair bit of work to undo that mess now.


Once the knot had given loose however, she took the rope and peeled it free, wincing as she did so. It had dug deeply into the bare skin on her legs, cutting into her flesh there and on her waist through her dress. It was sticking to her dried blood and she felt several cuts and scabs tear open as she peeled it off, gently lifting one tender leg after the other to pull it out and around.


Esper had freed herself from the rope and held it now tightly in her hands. It hit her now that she had no choice but to leave it behind. At first she thought that papa would be furious, but she stopped to think and decided that he would understand this time. Nodding to herself, she let loose of the bottom of the rope which fell to the ground below. However its own weight soon pulled it out and she watched as it slid out and fell back into the abyss. The top end still tied to the branch like an empty hangman’s noose.


Climbing down from the tree, she felt the thick grass beneath her toes and felt her eyes grow wet in gratitude, as she planted herself onto it with both feet. With her back to the tree, she slid down against it, her hands and feet digging into dirt below and she closed her eyes. The ache and pain of her body, her exhaustion and desperation all hit her at once and within that instant, her eyes fell shut and she felt her mind going blank. Sleep.


Her eyes shot open, actively resisting her body's cry to rest. No. She knew that there was no time, she had to get to work. It was unlikely that she would last another night like this one. Neither her body nor her new friend, the tree, would manage. Pressing down into the dirt, she pushed herself up onto her shaking legs.


Huh? She looked down before her at the thing laying there. An empty wooden bowl with a nicked edge lay overturned on the ground. She reached for it and picked it up, examining the odd thing closely in-front of her face. This was her bowl. The one she had given the old lady her porridge in. Oh. She had brought it back. Turning around toward the chasm behind her, the girl waved and shouted another “Thank you,” down into it for not having swallowed her tonight.
She would have to go to the landing. To find a new cloth. One that was dry and finely woven, so that she could try her plan again. It was her only chance, she thought to herself, turning left to go down the road with fresh determination now rising in her heart. Esper stopped however, as she felt the familiar sting of an icy needle below her neck and looked over her shoulder back down behind herself. Back down towards the way up the broken spiral path.


The girl wasn’t able to quite articulate why exactly in words or in thoughts. But she knew in that instant, that she had to go that way, towards the ruined part of the road; to the gap. Without thinking twice about it, she ran down the road on light feet, barely ducking or weaving, as the path filled with empty footprints, seemed to clear itself for her. The branches, which had once thickly obscured the way, now almost seemed to rise before the delirious child sprinting down the road.
Wet crunches rang out from beneath her, as she broke out from beneath the dark tree-line and held her arm out in front of her face, as the fiery orange light before her tore through her eyes. It only took a moment, but then she saw it. The large blurry silhouette of a person, standing across the gap on the far side. An orange lantern waving back and forth gently in the wind, illuminating the morning dew as its incandescence radiated all around them.


They both stood there for a time, both of them quietly standing opposite of each other. Esper raised her arm and called out to the blurry man. Hearing the girl’s call, the curious man rose to his feet, raising his eyes to meet hers. It was dark, but even he could tell the wretch before him was in grave unhealth and he stared at her curiously for a moment.
“Hello,” said the curious man. “Are you from Neuntel?” he asked inquisitively.


“Huh?” she asked. “I’m from the Burrow,” said the girl.


The curious man tilted his head. “I see. Where are your parents?”


Esper fidgeted uncomfortably for a moment. “They’re gone.”


“I see,” answered the man, the wind blowing his long cloak around his equally long legs.


“Where are your parents?” asked Esper.


“Huh?” replied the curious man.


“Where are your parents?” she repeated.


The man shrugged lazily, somewhat perplexed at the question. “Gone,” he said, matter of factly. Esper nodded. “Tell me, child. How can I cross this gap?” Esper couldn’t help but snort, as she tried to hide her laugh, but it soon escaped her, growing wildly out of control. She wasn’t even sure what was funny about it all really.


Once she finished, she shouted across “I don’t know, how can I cross?” and sat down on the ground beneath her, realizing how badly her legs were shaking.


“You look unwell,” mentioned the curious man.


“I had a bad night.”


“I see.” The man scratched the back of his head. The light was growing brighter now and Esper began to see somewhat more clearly, though at this distance the tall man was just a blurred shape.


“Oh!” She pointed in delight “You look like the sad man! Are you his brother?” she shouted towards him.


The tall man cocked his head, unsure of what that meant. “Ah, I see. No, I have no brother.”


“Haaah?”


Reaching towards his belt, he pulled out the somewhat tattered journal. “Tell me about this Burrow, child.”


“Do you have anything to eat?” she cried across the gap. The curious man stared at her perplexed for a moment.


“I do,” he replied cautiously.


“Can I have some?” asked Esper.


The man was silent.


“Pleeease? I’m really hungry,” pleaded the girl. He sighed. Kids were always such a pain, but this one was in bad shape compared to the fat boy from the town before. Had things really gotten so bad down here that they didn’t have enough to feed their children? Placing his pack on the ground, he dug through it and took out the wrapped sweetbread that he had been given.


His eyes stared hungrily at it through the mask, but he knew that he had a job to do and that it took priority. He sighed and turned towards the girl sitting across from him. “You can have this if you promise to answer my questions.”


“Okay,” answered Esper, delighted at the prospect of food. “But I only have a little time. I need to work before daylight ends.”


The man nodded, satisfied at the arrangement, “That seems fair.” Taking a half step back, he arched his arm and lobbed the cloth wrap across the gap with decent enough precision, landing right before the girl perched on the dirt.
Esper looked at the odd thing. “Is it dead?” she asked him.


“Huh?” he replied with some confusion.


“It’s wrapped up like one of the dead,” she said, as she picked on the edges of the cloth.


“It’s just a cloth to protect the bread, girl.”


“Haah?” she picked apart the wrap. “What’s bread?” she asked and the man wasn’t quite sure how to answer that.


“It’s food.”


The answer was good enough for Esper. The cloth unwrapped and she looked at the crumbled chunks of brown matter before her. The smell was the first thing that she noticed. It was unlike anything she had ever smelt before. It was sweet, so sweet. Her eyes shot wide in disbelief as the fragrance hit her. The aroma of nuts and fruits that she had never known existed all wafted together in one warm, earthy scent.


Without thinking, she took a large chunk of it and took a ravenous bite out of it. Her body shook, as she tore into the sweet bread. It was crumbly and sticky, yet held a moisture inside of it. The nuts baked inside of the dough, releasing a sweet, earthy aroma which mingled with the tart fruits that were littered throughout the body.


Esper's mind was blank as she swallowed the first bite, then the next. Quickly forgoing chewing and the experience of eating in order to simply devour. Her body was screaming in delight at the food, her mind alight with an explosion of flavors never experienced before. The curious man, somewhat troubled, watched as the child tore into the bread, it was like she hadn’t eaten in days.


The light was brighter now and his sharp eyes shining through the mask saw the girl’s tattered rags, bloodied wounds and face. Mud and red coating her cut and scratched body from head to toe, dried crumbles of the mixture falling onto the bread that she was shoveling into herself. He pulled out his journal.


“Do you see a lot of the dead, child?”


Esper looked up to the blurry man curiously “Don’t you?”


“No, I can’t say that I do these days.”


“Papa was a gravedigger. And he left. So I do it now.” A scratching came as the man wrote into his journal.


Staring at it for a moment he looked up to her again. “You are the gravedigger for Neuntel?”


“Yes, I guess? But it’s the Burrow not Neuntel.”


“Does the magistrate know of this?”


“What's a magistrate?” she asked in return. More scribbles and the man scratched his head somewhat puzzled.


“I see. Tell me, child, you don’t know how to cross this road correct?”


“Uh huh.”


“Who would then?”


Esper shrugged, forgoing words to make room for more sweet bread. The man scribed once more into his book. “What’s wrong with your face?” asked Esper. The curious man looked up towards her.


“My face?”


“Yeah, you’re like the sad man. It’s all… stiff.”


The man knocked on his face. “It’s a mask, child.”


“A what?”


“A mask” repeated the man, the girl's eyes were bewildered at his strange appearance. She clearly didn’t know what a mask was. The scribbling continued.


“Returning to my questions, if you please. How many people live in this town, the Burrow, I believe you called it?”


“Ah! Wait!” she cried with excitement. The girl counted on her fingers “There’s me. And mama. And papa. And-”


“I thought you said they were gone.”


“They are.”


“So they can’t live there if they’re gone.” Esper stared at him confused, watching his hand dart from side to side as he did something in his book.

 

“I had a book too. But then someone took it.”

 

The man nodded somewhat indifferently. “And my question?”


“Hah? I was counting but you wouldn’t let me finish!”


“Because people who are gone can’t live somewhere anymore.”


“But thats wrong!” protested Esper. “Mama and papa and everyone else are still there.” Furious scratching “-they only come out when it's dark though.” The scratching stops.


“They what?”


“Mm!” nodded Esper in affirmation. “They sleep all day. I saw mama last night, but she seemed kind of mad. I think she found out I lost her book.” Esper turned her eyes down away from his. The man turned down to his book in turn, the quill in his hand bending from the pressure he was forcing down to it. Once he had finished he held his book out before him at arm's length and waited for the text to dissipate, but it never did.


With troubled eyes, he turned towards the child who still had a fistful of the greasy cake in her filthy hands. “I apologize. Please. How many of you are in this village of yours?”


Esper nodded and began counting again, this time her voice muffled by a mouthful of the cake. She went through the motions several times and placed the chunk of bread back down onto the cloth. Raising her hands to the curious man she gestured with all ten fingers, then closed her hands and did it again. Thinking, she repeated the motion one more time and then only with one hand.


“Thirty five?” asked the man.


Esper shook her head and said “No, this many-“ and repeated the gesture again.


“That’s thirty five, child.”


“Haah?” she stared at her hands, as she wiggled her closed fingers up and down a few times. Something dawned on her and she placed her hands together at the wrist and repeated the motion. Looking back up to the man, her eyes wide and hands held in front of her flapping “I saw a bird yesterday!”


“I see.” The troubled man neglected to write that in his journal however. “How many of you are awake during the day?”
“Just me,” said Esper, realizing there was still a little bit of the sweet bread still left before her. She closed her eyes and smiled as she took another bite out of the steadily shrinking cake.


“Just you? For how long now?”


“I don’t know,” she replied shrugging. “A while. I guess.”


The puzzled man wrote for a time, once he seemed to have come to terms with what was in his notebook, he looked back upward. “What's your family name?”


“I’m Esper,” she called out to him.


He shook his head. “No, your family name, child. What was your mother’s name?”


She thought for a while “I don’t know.”


The man scratched his head. “Your mother had a book, yes? Did she write anything in the front?”
“In the front?” asked Esper, her eyes raising up towards the ever brighter growing sky. Visions of the many worn pages flew through her mind. The many creatures, plants and visages, until she landed at the front page, before the picture of the man she didn’t like.


“Hexblut,” she said, shrugging.


The man scribbled now more furiously than before. “Are you sure?” asked the man with great interest.


She nodded. “It was in the front of the book.”


The man's eyes shone with intensity as his quill ran furiously over the pages, occasionally stopping only to dip it into a small canister hanging loosely off the side of the booklet. “Child are you of witchblood?” the man asked fervently.
“No, I’m Esper!” she laughed at her joke.


The man looked around. “No, was your mother a witch?”


“What’s a witch?”


“Do you know any magic?” The man asked.


“What's magic?” she replied.


He snapped his book shut and placed the clip back onto his belt. Kneeling down he reached into his bag and took out a piece of paper.


Esper stared now with greater curiosity looking at the strange symbol that the sheet of paper had drawn on it with many colorful inks. “Oh!” she replied at the sight of the paper, though she couldn’t decipher the symbol exactly, it was like her own in a sense. A spell. The man uttered a few words that Esper couldn’t understand and placed his hand on the sheet. The lantern hanging off the man's pack from a rod, which had previously died out, now clicked audibly and exploded with an intensity to rival the daylight hours, forcing Esper to turn away from it and shield her eyes.


A dull click echoed through the air again and the light died down a moment later. Esper jumped up to her feet. “That’s really nice! I wish I could do that!” The thought of eternal daylight raced through her mind. She looked around. “I only know this one, but don’t tell anyone, okay? Mama said I wasn’t supposed to do it in front of others.”


The now greatly curious man nodded and replied with a simple “Okay,” as he rose back to his feet, the parchment having vanished into thin air.


Full of fresh energy, the exhaustion of the night leaving her for the time, making way for this new excitement, she bent down and etched her own sigil into the still wet dirt of the road. The curious man watched with great interest, as the child traced her hands crudely through the mud. He had never seen the pattern before, it was crude and followed few geometrical patterns, opting rather to weave around inside of the circle like the many roots of a tree. Though his curiosity peaked, as her fingers broke the circle, dragging the lines of the roots outside of it.


Once she had finished, she placed her hand onto it and whispered the word. The girl said it as quietly as she could, not wanting to reveal mama’s secret, but the man heard it nonetheless. “Anheischig.” Something shifted in the air and the curious man took a step back. Daylight had begun to arrive, yet something dark shivered in the air around her. It was as if the lightless murk, that had retreated below for the time, had taken corporeal shape and now seeped upwards from the recesses of darkness and out, wrapping around the girl like a shell. Like a shadow consuming her. It didn’t fit into the bright world. It was out of place. Wrong.


A gentle wind flew over the path and the wary man shivered, as he saw the ominous inky swirl floating around her in an upwards spiral. It had something unpleasant to it, something unnatural, it was as if the space before him had simply been consumed by a bubble of the night. This was not something meant to be seen in the daylight hours he thought to himself, the hairs on his neck risen. Quickly however, as if sensing his unease, it dissipated, melting away into the air as the black particles were swept away by the wind desperately trying to hide her revealed secrets.


He didn’t know this magic, but he knew in that moment that he had a great dislike for it. There was dark magic, but this wasn’t that. This was something… something deeper. He stared at the girl, who was now waving to the wind, carrying off the remnants of her spell “Byyye!” She turned back to the curious man. “Like that?”


“Yes. Like that.”


“Mm!” she nodded again in affirmation. “Can I go now?” she asked. “I need to find a burial wrap so I can fly across the road.”


The curious man looked at her. “You are leaving your home?”


“I don’t want them to eat me and I can’t stay at home anymore. So I have to leave.” She kicked the dirt. “Oh!” She picked up the cloth and shook it out. “Your cloth!”


The curious man raised his hand with a lazy sweep. “Keep it.”


She looked at it. It was finely, cleanly woven material; the smoothest that she had ever felt. “Are you sure?”


The curious man nodded.


“Thank you!” She called out waving the cloth in the air before stuffing it into the torn pouch on her belt. “Anyways, I have to g-”


“Do you have a rope?” asked the curious man. Esper looked at him for a time. “If you have a rope, you could throw it to me. I’ll tie it here, you tie it there,” he proposed, turning his right hand up into the air. The mechanics of the situation ran through Esper’s mind.


“That’s a really good idea! Yeah! I can get a rope!” The curious man nodded. “It’ll take a few minutes though! I have to go get it!” said the girl with some inspiration now in her voice. The curious man nodded and waved his hand lazily towards her, shushing her away, and off she ran.


He took a moment to breathe in and out deeply, processing these strange events in his mind. Sitting down, he went through his journal and waited for her return. The rising had apparently been suppressed and contained here. He pondered the girl's age. The rising happened nine years ago, so was there another? Or did the original simply never end down here? Her magic was strange and would be of interest for the capital, he should take her with him. Too many thoughts came at once and he didn’t know where to begin unraveling them.


The way she spoke made it seem like they lived a normal life, before the dead rose anew, so there must have been a second wave that never left Neuntel. He nodded, satisfied with his own logic of past events since transpired. Raising his arms into the air, he stretched his body out and felt a mighty yawn come through him. This was big news, well, not big news, but big enough that he would have to bring word back to the capital immediately. Thoughts of leaving the abyss brought him great joy and his mask shifted upwards from his smile. What luck! But more importantly, if what he saw and heard was right then-


He jumped up to his feet, as his keen eyes spotted something across the chasm in fear. A lone figure, dangling out over the edge of the abyss. There she sat, the odd wretch of a girl, perched on a branch several meters out into the void, fiddling with something. A bead of sweat trickled down his brow at the sight and he felt his legs grow wobbly at the prospect.


However, the fascination was too great and he had to keep looking, so look he did. She sat there, perched on the branch for several minutes, fumbling with something. Soon however, she began scooting back towards the tree. Once she had reached the base of it, the girl vanished into the foliage of the road and the curious man found himself falling back towards the ground himself as his legs gave out.


A little while later Esper emerged from the tree-line. Once more shielding her eyes, as the daylight hours had begun. “That’s some place to keep a rope,” said the wobbly man.


Esper replied with shock “You could see me? You must have super eyes!” she said with excitement. The curious man wasn’t so excited and once more rose to his feet. Though only slowly this time, his hand braced against a tree next to him.


“It's okay, I spent the night there last night, so it wasn’t so bad now!” She lied, seeing the man's legs quiver. “Don’t you like the pit?” she asked.


“No. No I do not.”


“Haah?” she asked.


“Take one end of the rope and tie it into a big knot,” said the curious man dryly, having had enough. Shrugging Esper sat down and did as was told.


Esper randomly tied the end in several different ways until a rough ball of sorts established itself. “Like this?” She held it up in the air


“Yes. Very good. Now take the other end and tie it to the branch behind you.” Esper turned around and looked at the small red tree behind her and rose to her feet once more.


Wrapping the rope twice around a thinner part of the branch, she tied it off with another knot. “Okay!” she called out.
“Okay. Good. Now, come closer and throw the rope as far as you can to me.”


She nodded, now beginning to understand his plan. “I don’t know if I can though, my throwing arm is hurt,” she motioned to her bandaged arm.


“Just throw with your other arm.”


“That’s hurt too.”


The man sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Just try your best…”


Esper nodded. “Okay!” she flung the ball with her left arm as hard as she could. It flopped against the side of the wall and dangled down back towards her.


“Try again,” said the curious man.


Pulling on the rope, she hoisted the ball back up towards herself and went as close to the ledge as she dared. A gust of wind rose and she felt something tickle her skin, looking down she saw a bit of the fine cloth from the bread dangling out. The memory of the man throwing it to her returned. Nodding to herself, she replayed the same motion as the one in her mind, as the image of him throwing. Taking a step back, before leaning forward and putting her weight into the throw. The ball soared across the gap towards the man and he, with both arms open, caught it. “Good job!” he shouted across and the girl smiled with a wide toothy grin at the rare praise.

 

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*~+---SPECIAL THANKS---+~*

Shadowsmage, The Grey Mage, Spencer Seidel, Slime girl chapters 4 lyfes, chp2001, Shaoraka, James_is_Playing, Collin Love, SageDiu Lei Lo Mo, Lord DragonRose, MetusZerum, Pike, ItsCool, Beowulf, Yenin, Darastrix, Chymor, Sebastian Viller, Chotley Ferguson, Matthew Forlines, Lasse, Harley Shockley, Halima, Colin Clark, Anna Turner, Dontspam Meho, David G Ross, Steven Lindsay, Missus Mouse, Imran, Indigo, Stefan Mensink, James Panao O'Connor, Igors Zvaigzne, Zikarioa, Dionisio Trigo, Ingo Wiarda, Michael Maddox, S T, All-In-Vane, Autonomous Spaghetti, Alex, Nick Tinsley, Michael Lau, Mackintackin, Jose, Tzucaza, Neil Dube, Alexis Lionel, Carlos Ramirez Guerra-librero, Jo Gucoka, Matticide FOWD, Matthew Orenstein, Popper369, Boohya, Enleed, Oliverthms, Ignatius Colotta, Christian Kenney, Andrew B, Casel002, Tomas Wood, Chris Meeker, Ivan, Patterson, Scryde, Krimson Fox, Jacob Imming, Zaire Mudu, Slippery.John, Tom Meda, Zeruke, Joshua Shon, Mark Baitinger, Christie, Vikram Valame, Alex, Sonny C, Pieter, Yates!!, Kris, Benn, Victor, John J Riggan, Chris, Howard Roark, Niraada, Deane L Uptegrove


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About the author

Razzmatazz

  • Floor 69 of the metaphorical-dungeon
  • Novice Writer
  • https://dmrhodes.com/

Bio: Socially awkward witches, sad hugs, dramatic adventures, spooky stuff, and comfy dungeons: My name is D.M. Rhodes, but I love to write about those things under the moniker 'Razzmatazz'. (Hopefully full-time, one day soon!) I’m a hobby occultist and, more boringly, I’m an XR expert, as well as a government-trained media and information specialist.

The main genres that I write in are litRPG-fantasy, action, adventure, romance, tragedy, horror, and slice-of-life. I seriously vibe with religious and occult overtones mixed in with super obscure story concepts. °( ~ )°

Thanks for taking an interest! Because of supportive readers like yourself, I can keep following my socially unacceptable dream! (I'm going to become the wizard-king.)

– Always open for feedback!

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