When I first saw the twenty-story tall grandfather pine tree perched above the entrance to Chronos’s cave, I was shocked nature could grow a living thing as tall as an apartment building back home. I’ve seen the ancients pictures of giant redwoods felled in the twentieth century but seeing such a tree in person is something else.
Now, I realize most of the tree dwells underground; as if it grew the massive trunk above as a token gesture towards the requirements of treehood. Two meter wide roots snake along the entry tunnel. I run my hand along the one on my left as we walk down into the earth after leaving Ram, Ross and Rupert. Large caterpillars poke their many-legged fronts out of circular bores in the root sides and fluorescent spiders skitter across their webs. The earthy aroma reminds me of being slide tackled while playing soccer at Lincoln Park. I stopped playing as soon as I could. I don’t like being covered in mud and grass, and the other girls ran all over me, literally.
Kuruk walks on my left; Doc, Leonard, and Dan follow us, three abreast with plenty of room on each side. The light from the entrance fades behind while a blue glow grows in front of us. The tunnel bends slightly to the right. Kuruk and I make the turn and then stop.
“Why’d you stop?” Dan says.
“Come up here and see for yourself,” I say.
Dan and the rest of the boys step forward, no one speaks for the next minute. The blue glow comes from the layer of moss covering the entire floor, or perhaps what’s underneath the moss, at the bottom of the chamber in front of us. Splotches of darker navy moss and dashes of sky blue cover the floor. More roots as wide as my wingspan run from the ceiling to the floor, some sections have been honeycombed by centipedes and small rodents that don’t stay still long enough for me to identify. The rodents’ chittering echoes off the wet stone walls. Over a dozen massive roots interlace at irregular intervals throughout the chamber, making it difficult to see the back of the twenty-meter wide chamber. I have no idea what’s in the chamber, how far back it goes or where we should go from here.
“Did y’all happen to see a big shape moving down there in the bottom of them roots?” Doc says.
We all shake our heads.
“Any of this familiar Bonesy?” I ask. Bonesy looks around from where I have him attached to my belt.
“Not at all. I couldn’t be bothered with mundane details like what turn to take in the caves. I had apprentices for that. I remember being annoyed it took so long to get to the ritual chamber.”
I roll my eyes. “Helpful as usual, thanks, Bonesy.”
“No place to go but forward. Let’s scale on down and see what we can see.” Doc says before facing us with his back to the cliff, kneeling down and starting to feel for footholds.
I bend down, plant my hands and swing my legs out over the drop. I look back down the ten-meter cliff; that’s a mistake. The room starts spinning slightly and I have to press my body to the stone. I glance up and see Dan grinning down at me.
“I kind of expected you to just jump off the cliff and hoping for the best, not hugging the rock. A bit of vertigo, Samantha? Scared of heights?”
Stupid Dan, I’ll show him. I scowl at Dan, get a better grip with my hands, look down at a promising foothold a meter below me and lower my body so my right foot can move to the next hold. It’s surprisingly easy. Those ten points I invested in Strength really make a difference. I take both my feet off the cliff face and hang there, suspended only by my arms. I have to weigh over two hundred and ten pounds at this size and my arms hardly strain. That’s pretty cool -- I wonder what will happen when I get to a hundred points or two hundred?
I look down again and notice Doc and Kuruk standing on a patch of glowing midnight blue moss, shifting from foot-to-foot. I start walking my body down the cliffside, with only my arms, letting my legs just hang. When I reach the ground, my feet sink into the moss. Pushing down heavily on my right foot sends an undulation through the floor, lifting my left foot slightly as if the moss acts as the skin of a giant bladder.
“Anyone think it’s a good idea to try to cut into the moss and see what comes out?” I say.
“NO!” Dan says.
I smile, he’s too easy.
“Is Leonard already scouting around? Leonard, if you can hear this, snoop and earn your bread. Where can we go and is there anything dangerous around?” I say.
“Are you planning Samantha? Not going to just run into that maze of roots and hit things?” Dan says.
“We’re in a creepy cave with glowing moss, strange rats and who knows what kind of bugs. I’m taking it slow. If you want to go bless a rat or heal a giant caterpillar you’re welcome to it. Did you see the one back in the entrance tunnel? It was as long as my arm” I say.
“That was probably a caterpillar train. Caterpillars often link together, the caterpillars in the middle of the train hide their head so it looks like one big caterpillar even though there are many of them.” Kuruk says.
We all look at him. “What? I like insects. Almost as cool as bears, did you know that a bear made the rank of Corporal in the Soviet army during World War II?”
Great, another insect freak. David still studies insects and animals in college. I don’t understand why. What is that knowledge going to do for him? Doesn’t make sense. Wait, is David pretending to be this Kuruk person? He said he was going to work his way towards the Brighthollow region when we talked last. Thinks he can outsmart me does he? We’ll see about that.
“No, I didn’t know that and I still don’t know that because I threw that useless fact out of my brain immediately. I can’t stand insects and animals, especially bears.” I say.
Kuruk brow tightens. “How about when a bear saves your butt? Do you like bears then?”
“Jeez, why so touchy? You’re not a bear, you’re a guy. I already said thank you anyway.”
“No, no you didn’t.”
“Oh...” I say. Kuruk looks at me, his brown eyes with flecks of yellow seem to be waiting. Not the same color as David’s blue, but that doesn’t prove anything. If anything, it just means David knows a good looking man when he sees one because this avatar he designed is certainly that. Kuruk looks at me still and I blush slightly, realizing I got caught staring.
Dan claps, putting his hands over his heart. “Touching, really touching, Samantha. Your graciousness is only surpassed by your encyclopedic knowledge of Incrementum.”
“Ha-ha. Ok, is Leonard back yet?”
“Nope, but check your map, it looks like it updates as he finds things. Must have given us permission to mirror his map to ours. Doesn’t surprise me none, Leonard’s always been a giver.” Doc says.
I open my map. I can see the long tunnel we walked down, and then a roughly circular chamber, with little person-shaped stick figure icons which I assume represents our location. Stick figures? Someone on the Incrementum development team has a sense of humor...or Leonard drew those. I see two short passages leading away from this chamber, one on the right and one on the left. Each passage connects to another chamber which is still mostly obscured, presumably Leonard didn’t explore far into them. I don’t see any other icons.
“If we show up as those stick figures, then shouldn’t any cave dwellers show up too? Leonard hasn’t found a single enemy of note? That seems odd.” I say.
“I agree. Let’s be careful. Which way do you all want to go?” Dan says.
“Doesn’t matter -- let’s go left,” I say.
“Right seems best. Lead the way o’ Tank of ours.” Kuruk says.
I sigh, “Sure right, whatever.” Kuruk, aka David, can be such an ass.
I walk farther to the right, around the first vertical root, my feet sinking several centimeters into the moss with each step. At first, I proceed cautiously, but there’s no movement besides the tiny blue-tinted rodents and omnipresent caterpillars. My bouncy treads take me into the right chamber. The ground feels solid here. I kneel down and grab a fist full of dirt, mixed with wiggling worms and small rocks. The rest of the team is close behind me. They all look at my handful of dirt, Dan starts to say something but a disembodied voice talks over him.
“There is no hope, no path, no air. Turn back, he will rise and you will fall.”
The voice keeps repeating.
“The guard said don’t listen to that right?” I say.
Doc nods, Leonard fading into sight beside him. Leonard lifts his arms and points his palms to the ceiling in the universal gesture of I don’t know. I look at my map again. The left most chamber is revealed now, but there are no icons inside of it and no path beyond it.
“Was there anything in the other chamber Leonard?”
He makes a hand sign like a mouth opening and closing.
“Another voice? Eh, might as well go listen to it.”
We all stand up and walk to the other chamber, through the maze of roots and springy moss. When we get to the other chamber, another voice speaks.
“There is hope, a path, air. Go forward, he will fall and you will rise.”
I rub the bridge of my noise. “That guard is an ass. They are saying opposite things. We can’t possibly ignore both voices. Any ideas? Bonesy?”
“None of this is familiar.” Bonesy says.
“Let’s inspect the main chamber more, there has to be something here. Otherwise why the guards? The warnings of corruption?” Kuruk says before turning around and walking out of the chamber.
We spend at least ten minutes going over every inch of the chamber. No inscriptions on the roots or the walls. No passages up the walls we could climb to, except the one we entered. No loose rocks possibly hiding something.
I’m getting real close to stabbing the floor with one of Leonard’s daggers and seeing what happens. Instead, I kick the root closest to me. My foot goes through giant root as if nothing is there. The inertia of my leg pulls the rest of my body forward and a land on my back, half my body now inside the root. I look down and see my waist cut in two by the giant root. I flex my abs and grab the ground above my waist when I feel myself start to slide farther into the root, as if there is no ground for my feet to rest on. I crab walk backwards, glad to see my legs as I pull them out of the root.
“Guys, I found something.” I say.
Dan, Kuruk, Doc and Leonard bounce over, looking at me lying on the floor.
“Put your hand through that root.”
Dan walks over and puts his hand into the root. He teeters forward not ready for the lack of resistance but Doc grabs the top of his leather breastplate before he falls. Dan presses his hands in different places on the trunk carefully. He finds that a doorway sized space on the root isn’t really a root at all. I walk forward and put my head through the fake root area. I look up and see only blackness, but below me there are three archways of light, each five meters above the other. If the shaft continues passed the last archway I can’t tell from here. There are clear hand and foothills on the inside of the root shaft, intended for a person to descend.
“Well guys, looks like we’re climbing again.”
I clamber into the root and descend to the first archway. The blue glow shining through the entryway comes from the moss that also covers the ground on this level. I step in and look around. It seems to be exactly like the chamber we just exited. I wait for everyone else to descend and then look at my map as Leonard explores. Yep, same darn thing. Two side chambers, a bunch of roots.
“Ugh, anyone else want to climb to the bottom? Maybe there’s something more interesting down there.” I say.
“No, we should really be thorough.” Dan says.
I shrug and we search the main chamber on this level. Nothing. Again. We go into the side chambers. Voices, again, saying the same thing.
“There is no hope, no path, no air. Turn back, he will rise and you will fall.”
“There is hope, a path, air. Go forward, he will fall and you will rise.”
“You guys really want to do this again or should we just go to the bottom?” I say.
Dan sighs, “Fine, let’s just go.”
We head back to the central root and climb down to the final archway, skipping the third floor and going all the way down to the fourth. It’s solid black below us; I don’t want to find out if the shaft keeps going, especially after the blast of cold air. I climb into the final chamber and immediately grab my staff off my back. There’s a brown robed figure standing directly in front of the root exit, a couple meters from the edge of the room. The figure faces the rocky wall. His shoulders are hunched over and his hands are resting on something but I can’t see it from where I’m standing.
“Ah, this is familiar, welcome to the ritual room. Reginald? Is that you?” Bonesy says.
As the figure turns, the brown robe parts, thankfully revealing a skeleton and not some seriously unwanted nudity. The skull resting atop the skeleton smiles, “Decaide, you old dog! How nice to see you. Did you bring the final sacrifices?”
“Not exactly, chap. These are my good friends Samantha, Dan, Kuruk, Doc and Leonard. Might we try completing the ritual without the sacrifices? I know it’s not proper but these are the times...”
“Without sacrifices? You told us the only way to incarnate Chronos was with ample human sacrifice. There are fifteen souls in limbo here, waiting to fuel his coming. We gathered this power under your orders.”
“Ah, yes, a sacrifice is always a good way to ensure you have the power but not technically necessary in this case...”
“NOT NECESSARY? Lara poured her soul into this Decaide -- that was not necessary? She could have been here with me this whole time? Some thought you abandoned us when you asked Decrepit for your unending life Miracle, but I thought it a master stroke. Now I see, you care for nothing but yourself. Sacrifices when they weren’t required! If we don’t need the soul’s power to bring Chronos to this world, perhaps I can use them to force you to leave it.”
Reginald raises his arms and looks up, to the ceiling in the center of the chamber, slightly behind us. I turn and look at the blue moss surface above us as it starts to crumble and fall, dusting our shoulders and hair. The collapse of the moss exposes a churning blue mass, pushed by some unknown current. In the middle of the ceiling, between two massive roots, one of which we climbed down, a vortex starts to form, it’s as if we are at the bottom of the ocean floor looking up into a whirlpool, vicious enough to suck even modern ocean liners under the surface. Blue liquid drops from the center of the vortex, splashing between the two roots. The spontaneous blue goo spout dumps so much muck onto the floor of our chamber that it reaches my knees in mere seconds. The liquid completely covers the root we climbed down and appears to be hardening into a dark blue, almost black shell. I step forward several paces and hit the shell with my staff as hard as I can as goo keeps falling all around me. The shell rings and I drop my staff from the vibrations. I quickly grab it before it sinks into the growing morass at our feet. Kuruk chops into the shell with both axes and nearly cuts his own leg off when the axe blade deflects off the now hard material.
I look up again, and see the next floor up is starting to drop. I glare at Dan. “We should have cut into the first floor, Dan.” I say. Each floor that falls drenches my hair with more blue goop.
Kuruk points back towards Reginald and says, “That doesn’t look good.”
The pool directly in front of Reginald separates into five mounds. Something pushes from inside of each, like a tent pole erecting a collapsed tent. The liquid on the leftmost shape stills first, revealing a short blue woman, carrying a bow, her facial features like a dark pane of glass. The other four are men, two with swords, one with a club and another with an axe -- all made of the same blue substance. I look at them closely and see red lettering above their heads:
Soul Essence Warriors
I guess we don’t have to worry about drowning if the liquid turns into Soul Essence Warriors, but how many will there be? I don’t have to wait long. Fifteen Soul Essence Warriors in total rise from the goo. The three archers, one from each group of five, draw back their bows, aim directly at me and release their bows. The other twelve warriors surge forward. I try to dodge, with some success, only one blue arrows sinks into my side. I grunt and step forward, holding my staff. I perform Flurry of Blows, attempting to poke the rushing attackers and keep them stunned. “Give them hell! I’ll try to keep them busy, back up a little bit so we’re between these two main roots.” I say before shouting at the Soul Essences, “He will stay in the ground and your sacrifices will be in vain! That’s a terrible shade of blue, you’re all ugly, red is a much nice color.”
Slur to Spur must have worked because the half dozen warriors that weren’t headed directly for me detour, lining up in two ranks trying to get to me around the climbing root that I positioned on my right side. I hit any of them that get close to me with my Flurry of Blows, trying to keep them stunned and far enough away from me to prevent damage. I know I won’t be able to keep them stunned for long. Flurry of Blows loses its effectiveness over time, each second enemies affected by it get a 5% higher chance to avoid the blows and hit me themselves.
I hear the penetrating roar of Animus see Kuruk Bear-Paw one of the Soul Essence Warriors, shattering it into thousands of sharp blue glass pieces. I close my eyes and notice my health bar dip farther. Great, shrapnel. I’m not going to last long if those archers keep firing, I’m already at 80% life after one arrow and shrapnel.
Kuruk steps back and starts chanting. I can feel a warmth on my back right before Doc says, “Down!” Three blue and white fireballs rush over my crouched head, melting the glass on the torsos of the three closest sacrifices, staggering them but not putting them out of the fight. Doc says, “I think they are resistant to fire, those fireballs should have done a lot more than 25% damage.”
“Just light the ground underneath them on fire Doc, they can’t get around these roots and they should burn over time,” I say as I stand back up and restart my Flurry of Blows. Before I can connect with the closest five enemies, one warrior manages to sink his spearhead into my thigh, dropping my Hitpoints to 50%.
His attack doesn’t interrupt my Flurry of Blows archerand I manage to stun the five warriors before any more of them can land blows on me. The archers that are still all the way at the edge of the cavern by Reginald draw back their bowstrings again, preparing to fire. I see Leonard materialize behind the rightmost archer, stabbing one knife into the back of each of the archer’s kneecaps, he walks the knives up the archer’s back, first in her buttocks, then back, then shoulder blades; pulling himself up her blue body until he can reach her knape and stab his right dagger into the vertebrae between her shoulders. The archer collapses and the two others drop their bows, drawing daggers. Leonard fades again, but I see both the archer’s heads tracking in the same direction, they must be able to see him.
My luck runs out, a warrior with a sword dodges one of my blows and steps forward sending his sword into my arm. I’ve been performing Flurry of Blows for too long now, its chance to stun is too low. I step back slightly and try to start spinning my staff with both hands as fast as I can, hoping with two hands I can do better than One Handed Spin.
The ground below the mass of Soul Essence Warriors lights on fire, embers and flames starting to melt the outer layer of their legs but still not dropping any of our enemies. My Hitpoint bar recovers to 90% and I feel Vitalia’s presence in the air around me. Thanks, Dan.
It doesn’t help for long. One warrior manages to cut my calf when he feints with his spear towards my head and then spins low to sneak his weapon below the circle of my spinning staff. Another takes advantage of my momentary distraction and stabs several centimeters into my left shoulder. My Hitpoints are down at 50% again.
“You’re taking damage too fast Samantha. We should have leveled you up before coming in here, crap.” Dan says.
I giant brown bear slams into the left flank of the Warriors. Two swipes from his massive claws throw one Warrior to the ground, its arm and chest cavity reduced to piles of blue glass dust. The five remaining warriors behind the front line stay focused on me.
Leonard fades back into sight, this time feinting towards the archer on his left before spinning and throwing one dagger at the right archer’s face. The dagger misses, but he’s already closed the distance between himself and the off balance archer. He rips his other blade through the archer’s hamstring then pushes the archer’s torso backward, letting him slam his blade into the archer’s throat. He turns his head as glass splinters fly past him. I assume the other archer will be taken care of shortly.
Ten warriors still stand in front of me, five within reach. I block one reaching axe but then four warriors swing their blades at once, one for each of my limbs. I miss the block on all four weapons, feel sharp pains in each of my limbs, and then my vision fades to black.
I see a death message for the second time:
Your avatar has been expelled from Incrementum for thirty minutes while its energy is restored.