Around noon the next day, the raft reached the so-called ‘Seofen islands’.
But the scenery wasn’t what they had expected it to be.
The Seofen islands were supposed to be three small islands neighboring the towers; they hosted a few villages that lived off of fishing and trading.
Sofia and Alith had noticed for a while that something was very wrong. But seeing it from afar wasn’t the same. There were no islands. Only three large banks of sand turned glass, riddled with burnt holes. Nothing else. Did a sudden meteor shower destroy everything here? The islands had been pummeled flat by some extraordinary power.
It gave them the chills. At least they found some rain water accumulated in the craters, which allowed them to drink, but this wasn’t the sight they had signed up for.
It was foolish to think anything other than water, sand and glass could be found in this hellscape.
“So much for having a celebratory meal and buying new clothes…” Alith seemed more dejected about the lack of food when she technically didn’t even need to eat.
"Looks like a natural disaster of some kind," Alith guessed, she stomped on the ground, causing small cracks to form on the layer of glass.
"More like a Dragon attack, there's nothing left at all of the islands... Weren't there supposed to be like eight hundred people living here? Did something try to destroy the towers?"
"Is destroying the system's things something that people do? I guess you could stop people from leveling up if you broke them, if you want to keep all the top spots. Or it's maybe people who reject the system?"
"Never heard of anyone rejecting the system, doesn't really make sense, would you reject breathing?"
"Just saying. People where I'm from liked to reject stuff a lot. But, whatever happened, doesn't change that we're stranded here."
“The towers are our only out at this point… Better pray they survived whatever that was. Kuli did say we couldn’t really bring anything in there anyway. I don't think I’ll survive for long here without food... Maybe our level 100 skills can give us a way out.”
“The towers aren’t anywhere to be seen though? What if they got destroyed like the islands?”
“Then we’re fucked? But the message still says it’s right here, forty meters away…” She moved around to figure out in which direction exactly, “On our right? That’s in the water.”
“Alright then, going for a swim. What could possibly go wrong?” Alith sighed and was going to enter the water, but she stopped herself.
“Actually I’ll float there, should be in range, you wait for me here.”
Just like that, Alith turned incorporeal and flew away at a leisurely pace, that Sofia knew to be her max speed. She went forward like this for a little while.
Alith had still been visibly floating through the air just a second ago. Now she was nowhere to be seen, did she phase out of existence? Her life points didn’t budge… She reappeared an instant later, and was standing in place, signaling for Sofia to come.
“Turns out I’m the one that’s going for a swim…”
At least the water isn’t too cold…
The half gambeson that was tied around her waist didn’t survive the trip. She could only helplessly let it sink.
Alith had disappeared again. She reappeared to check on Sofia's progress.
“Hey, what happened to-” Alith started.
“Don’t look, ok!” Sofia cried out, momentarily stopping.
“Ok, ok, just come, you’re almost there. And I’ll have you know that your lower half was regrown by my very own healing spell. And your makeshift skirt didn’t land there by itself either so-”
Alith shook her head and disappeared again.
I’m never riding another boat again after this! The sea sucks!
Her inner complaints were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the towers. Sofia involuntarily stopped swimming again. She had crossed a boundary, she couldn’t feel it but she knew from the view ahead.
That’s the ‘towers’ ?
She blinked several times, not believing what she was seeing. If Zangdar already looked out of this world, these three towers looked straight up fictional. They were made of clear white stone and featured incredible architectural details, arches, statues, spikes, pillars, all lined in gold. The walls were so detailed one could spend a lifetime looking at them and not be done observing it all.
But the wildest feature was undoubtedly the dizzying fact that they seemed to have no end. Like three pillars placed in a triangle formation, piercing the heavens and the space beyond. How something like that could even exist was beyond Sofia’s understanding, let alone how they were hidden behind an invisible boundary.
Sofia looked at Alith then at the towers again.
“Doesn’t that shock you too?” she said, pointing at the sky.
“Very shocking, almost like being summoned from another world or something. Never experienced that. I’m left without words,” Alith deadpanned.
Each tower sported a closed double door just above sea level, as well as a few steps leading there from the water.
“Well, let’s do this. We go as planned,” Sofia broke the silence.
Sofia swam to the farthest tower and Alith followed. It was the Saint’s tower. Since Alith’s level was tied to Sofia’s, they thought maybe they could stay together and cheat the system. She was technically a part of her skillset after all. And they both felt that it was unsafe for Sofia to go without Pareth, but they couldn’t source a complete skeleton stranded at sea like this…
They opened the doors, a large round hall bathed in darkness awaited beyond.
Alith tried to go first but she was denied entry. A system message said so.
They could only have a parting hug and pray for each other’s success.
“Whoever comes out first waits here for the other. If Kuli didn’t lie, we’ll be out around the same time in a few weeks... Don't come out too early and die of hunger or something. To our level 100!”
“To our level 100!”
They shared a last firm handshake. Sofia watched as Alith floated back to another tower. She had tried going through the walls but that unsurprisingly didn’t work.
Sofia stepped into the obscurity of the hall.
The heavy stone doors closed behind her.
[You have entered : Saint’s Tower of Vakeragon]
As she hesitantly stepped forward, the walls lit up with golden magical light. It started from the floor and progressed up the walls.
So it’s hollow…
The sound of her bare feet hitting the ground echoed through the tower as she approached the center of the empty hall.
Sofia’s sight lost itself in the distance, her eyes followed the light as it rippled all the way to the end of her vision up the tower. The light faded like it had come and Sofia once again stood in the dark.
Going by Kuli’s explanation, she would lose consciousness now and that would mark the start of the trial. She sat down in the center of the hall and braced herself.
Has my broken class messed with the tower too?
A light came from above this time. An unnerving, cold, blinding light. And it was coming closer.
Sofia scrambled to get up, she stepped back all the way to the door, she even instinctively tried to open it and escape but it wouldn’t budge. She couldn’t stop her gaze from shifting towards the light.
Something had descended.
It was a blurry humanoid figure made of golden light. Points shone like stars from inside its translucent body. It was shaking and twisting. Appearing and disappearing. It was like it existed in several different positions at the same time, none making sense from a human's anatomical point of view. Merely looking at it was giving Sofia a piercing headache. Broken parts of its blurry silhouette popped in and out of existence. She only knew one fact for sure. IT; was looking at her.
This thing made Sofia feel like her entire understanding of the world had been wrong. Like the universe wasn’t actually what she had thought it was.
The thing’s appearance only evoked one feeling. Dread.
Every fiber of Sofia’s being told her that. This creature. Whatever IT was. Shouldn’t exist.
She had the intuition that IT could erase her with a single thought.
She used [Identify], again and again, but it was also acting up. No matter how many times Sofia asked, it only said one thing.
One terrifying word.