Chapter 10 – (but sometimes) nothing is what makes us something.
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Such a wonder, this candle is. It dribbles and drips and trickles and combusts and smolders and burns. Never once does it acknowledge the thought that it may require replacement. Neither its body nor its purpling crimson flame seemed to pay much mind to its fate. The fate it was bestowed upon birth.

Its wax progressively dripped over the shrine beneath it. A silver shrine, one now wholly tarnished with tormenting corruption.

“Do you ever intend to restore it?” The miniature statue asked, its tongue laden with the bitter nectar of curiosity and sympathy. 

“Of course,” I spoke softly as I drew a gray wool blanket up to my chin. The dark around me was slowly swimming inward, ready to drown the will of the last remnant of light in this place. Licking my dry and cracked lips, I whispered to the statue resting on the nightstand by my head. “I’ll restore it when I wake.”

“That’s not what I meant.” It sighed in disappointment as a glob of wax shrouded its face. “I was referring to the square, you know this. Don’t play coy.”

“Oh, that?” I took a deep... hollow breath as a laugh escaped my scratchy throat. “I will, in due time. A cloud has, at last, left us. I have hope now.” It’s been so very long. I never thought the day would arrive.

“Sooner rather than later?” It queried as its flame flickered, barely staying conscious. “It’s imperative that you restore it. Use it as a message.”

“Patience is a virtue,” I assured it as the night’s wind began pounding on the cracked circular window.

“We’re beyond the point of virtue, you fool.” It scoffed as a smile broke the foundation of my face’s apathy. “Restore it yourself. Not out of celebration, but out of anticipation for the intoxicating taste of triumph.”

“Restore it myself?” I mumbled as the flame’s life was asphyxiated by the dark’s weight, my eyelids slowly drifting shut. “My, how very narcissistic.”

- - - - -

Ashe

Are they made out of flowers? Something’s not quite right about their body. It’s whole, but there are gaps in it. Similar to a chink in one’s armor. 

They’re not paying me any mind. They’re merely sitting in an open circular window, staring blankly into the setting sun. I’d describe their face, but they have it covered via a hood.

I took a step forward, a twig snapping beneath my foot. That snatched their attention with ease.

They glanced down at me, nodded slowly, and tilted their head as they peered back at the sun.

“H-hello?” I stuttered, inching forward with a wave. “Do you have a name?” I asked, noting the door beneath their window. If it’s not locked, I can talk to them directly. Assuming it comes down to that.

“Why don’t you go first? You seem to be a guest. Rude of you not to.” A gruff masculine voice sounded off behind me. I spun around, expecting to see someone, but nothing? Was I just hearing things?

My potential delusions were discredited as quickly as they had come. I turned back to the figure, realizing they were glancing down at me as if expecting me to continue.

“O-okay,” I nodded with a deep breath, feeling a chill run up my spine. I don’t like the way they’re staring at me. “My name’s Ashe. Ashe White. It’s nice to meet you, um...” I signaled for them to fill in the details.

“If I told you the truth, you’d only vie for their lies.” A woman’s frail voice broke the deafening silence, an unhinged laugh appending it. “And I only harbor disdain for liars.”

I looked around again. Still nothing? Not a single sign of anyone else being here. They’re still peering down at me. Did both voices come from them?

“I’ll take my chances.” I insisted, growing slightly annoyed (and somewhat worried). If you’re going to ask for my name, the least you can do is give me yours.

A sigh echoed around me as the figure shook their head, snapping their fingers.

“The hell?” I mumbled, my index finger igniting with a bright sapphire flame. Wait, that color? Am I still in Viicirne? That’s impossible. Why would they design an area like my hometown? Do they have something set to do it automatically? Maybe my character just gets placed in my dreams? But then why did I start as a boy?

Before I could speak, a menu popped up, confirming my suspicions.

Item(s) Added: Brime Berry x 1

I dismissed the menu and only grew more confused. Is this a start to a quest of sorts? And why are my fingers not going out? They’re supposed to be linked to my menu.

“I’m tired of staring at a lie.” A shrill feminine, almost child-like voice sounded off. Why do they keep going on about lies?

“What lies?” I pried as they exhaled, seemingly in frustration. My question was stomped into the dirt with what followed that breath. The flower petals gliding through the air all simultaneously stopped. They fell to the ground in the blink of an eye.

Plucking one from my hair, my eyes widened a bit, “it’s rotted?” The flower petal, it’s all black... black and withered to near nothing.

I heard a thud, drawing my attention back to the figure as the sparkles in the air followed their flowered allies into decaying oblivion.

“Are you okay?” I called out, alarm wriggling its way under my words as I realized they had faceplanted into the brick road. Thankfully, their body, despite being made out of flowers, wasn’t rotting. If this really is a quest, then talking to them should lead me somewhere.

I started making my way over, stopping almost immediately due to the bone-chilling words that left them.

“What just happ... I fell?” They whined... in a voice identical to mine as they writhed around on the ground. “God, why does it feel like I haven’t walked in years?” Those words... how are they?

I staggered backward, nearly falling, but somehow catching myself. At that moment, the sun did more than just set. It faded so fast it was as if its light was stolen. In an instant, I went from daylight to the area being submerged in a black so dark that the mere act of breathing now felt forbidden. Even the ground was gone, stranding me in a void.

“What's wrong with the?” I muttered, flabbergasted as my eyes fell on the moon above. It was damaged. A series of cracks ran through it. What happened? It’s not offering me any reprieve from the shadowed void either. It’s emitting just enough light to stay visible. Aside from that, only my finger kept me from falling to the dark. It emitted a small flame, its light flickering as it reflected off the ground.

“Can you hear it?” A young boy asked, his voice cracking as it echoed around me. I kept backing away. That’s my voice as a child. If this thing’s trying to be friendly, then Jesus Christ, I pray I’m not around when it gets mad.

“I asked you a question, Ashe.” It chuckled in that same voice.

“H-hear what?” I stuttered, trying (and failing) to keep myself composed as the nervewracking sound of petals crunching under feet reverberated around me.

“Of course, you can’t.” It sighed, seemingly disappointed with me. “Maybe when you do, we'll talk about it. Until then...” It trailed, my eyes desperately searching for some remnant of light in the distance. My fingers aren't enough. I need something I can use to see it.

“Would you like to hear a story?” An elderly man’s voice reverberated around me as I bumped into what felt like the twisted tree in the cen-wait. The tree in the center? Yes! That means there’s still stuff here! I can find the exit and book it home. I’ll lock myself inside and tough it out until I wake.

“It’s a tale of a liar. His friend killed a dragonfly. Perhaps you’re familiar with them?” The creature let out a pained laugh, followed by a series of coughs. Its voice? Our escort to the crypt?

To double-check, I swiveled my gaze to the tree and felt my stomach churn at its sight. That’s not a tree. And that means I’m no longer near my house.

It’s Berith. I bumped into his leg.

“Berith?!” I shouted out, failing to suppress the worry (and slight relief) in my voice. His presence delivered me both distress and confusion on a silver platter. If he’s as protective as I think he is, then dealing with this... thing should be child’s play.

He just needs to show me he’s not actually a statue. Provided, he’s a living creature in the first place that is. My eyes fell down to his leg, and I only grew more concerned, my heart nearly skipping a beat. That wasn’t there when I first saw him.

Don’t Go. Save me from the truth that haunts me in the night. My failures that fill me with so much fright.

It’s engraved into him.

It was only then that I noticed it. The void was silent. No longer were words leaving that thing’s mouth. I could still feel its presence. It was there, watching me, waiting for me to move.

“Where?” I practically hissed as my eyes darted around the void, hopeless to pinpoint any sign of its location. Cautiously, I gradually backed up until my back was pressed against Berith’s leg, my eyes fervently scanning each inch of night.

“Berith, can you hear me?” I whispered, slapping his leg in an effort to rouse him from his petrified slumber.

A single snap shattered the silence. One so deafening, it felt like it was bouncing off the very essence of my being.

I glanced down and felt my breath get caught in my throat. My menu’s back? I never opened it.

“How is it?” I sputtered, trying to shake Berith’s leg as I dismissed the menu. “If you’re there, help me... please!” I mumbled, my ears picking up a sound I was dreading. More footsteps... now just ahead of me, outside of my cone of light.

“What?!” I squeaked as my arm lurched forward, seemingly on its own. I tried putting it back down, but it refused? It’s like it’s being held in place. My body's not co-operating? No no no... why can't I move right?!

My index finger and middle finger slammed together, my arm shakily drawing a fiery blue line downward. My menu came forth... except this time it lacked flames. Only the light of my fingers made it readable.

“I told you I hate liars.” A raspy voice echoed from behind the blanket of dark, the creature stepping forward. “Stop pretending you don’t know.” Its body? It's rotting like its siblings. My eyes weren't playing tricks on me. Its arm? It's mimicking mine. Or is it forcing me to mimic it?

I felt my heart start pounding on my ribcage as I tried to turn my head, but to no avail. It simply shook its head, dragging its finger along as mine followed after.

Hovering over Inventory, I was forced to press my flaming fingers down. The embers greedily swallowed every inch of aged paper. Without delay, Brime Berry was selected.

Much to my surprise, an ordinary-looking red apple appeared in my free hand. My fire reflected back to me off its shiny exterior, a sense of liberation spreading throughout my arm as if I was just untied from something.

“Do,” Its voice started out female, quickly shifting to male. “it.” It sounds... almost fed up with me? Does it know me or my character through some means?

“Eat i-it?” I pried, my lips quivering somewhat.

It nodded.

I don’t think I have a choice. Berith’s not coming to my rescue. The sheer venom dripping off of its words would be enough to make me flee if I wasn't certain it could catch me. Maybe I can fake it out?

Shakily, I brought the apple to my mouth as it snapped, yanking my hand back to its original position.

“Wrong.” It let out an exasperated sigh as it drug my fingers overtop the stem, slowly pressing it down into the fruit. With a squish, the apple popped open, revealing a row of light red berries lining its insides.

Our “binding” slackened immediately, allowing me ample room to pluck a berry.

With a deep breath, I brought the berry to my lips and tossed it in my mouth.

Before I could even attempt to fake a chew, it forced me to bite down, unleashing a torrent of varying flavors into my mouth. Wait, what? It actually tastes good? That’s not just good... it’s heavenly. Good god, that’s phenomenal. It’s like someone made a smoothie out of a myriad of berries before combining them into one.

A storm of exhaustion rained down on me moments after I swallowed. My legs gave way within seconds, sending me sprawling forward. I tried to prop myself up with my arms, but they only collapsed with just as much ease. What'd that berry do?

I heard the crunch of plant right next to my ear. Normally, I'd panic, but whatever that thing did to me was causing me to feel all sorts of lethargic.

With a growing grogginess, I glanced up as it leaned down next to me, pushing the brime berry back into my palm. The fruit? It has a glowing red square with a tinge of blue to it... just like Ruby's footprints.

“Force the liar to see again, even if he wishes to stay blind.” It cooed as my eyes fell shut.

- - - - -

“It worked...” My thoughts trailed off, almost wholly succumbing to my mind’s encroaching apathy. “I did it. I saw it.” I smiled weakly as I sank to the lake’s bottom, throwing up a thick dust of dirt. The sluggish mind is a side-effect, I believe.

“My doubts are gone now...” I laughed to myself, reflexively taking a deep breath. The necessity (or lack thereof) of that action kicked in moments after. I don’t require oxygen right now.

“I’d be terrified if I did.” I shuddered at the sight of the various fish swimming by me to the surface, raw aggression steaming behind their blackened pupils. A myriad of different types was swarming around me, desperate to grab hold of my now transparent blue body. Some of them were as smooth as the surface of an isolated lake. Others? As jagged as broken glass.

“How did they used to live here?” I mumbled to myself. We’d be devoured in seconds if we tried to set up camp in the swamp’s depths. Them on the other hand? They used the creatures, infesting the water as a means of defense. I suppose the thicker skin aides them in that.

Some of the fish, they would shoot directly for blood, yearning for an easy meal. I just pray I don’t see any candle lights on the water’s surface. Those things are terrifying. And I say that as someone who’s dealt with her fair share of suleikas. Thank The Architects; those things only dwell within The Labyrinth.

“You should probably surface,” I told myself as some of the fish caught on to my trick. The newly birthed frustration they held was clear for all to see. Some remained out of rage, others swam off for easier prey. “Surely, he’s worried sick by now.”

Sitting up, I let out a long yawn as a fish passed through my cheek. “I am so glad I can’t feel you.” I shook my head, the fish shooting out needles in every direction, skewering one of its friends to the dirt floor.

Wasting no time, I jumped to my feet and began my swim upwards. It was difficult to tell how far I was from the surface. The water was so filthy; I couldn’t see more than a few feet around me. How does anything actually live in this?

“I suggest saving yourself the headache, little guy.” I sighed at the lone fish, attempting to dig into my flesh with no success. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t listen. Bonus points for its determination, though.

I broke the water’s surface with a deep breath, immediately being brought back to the good news I was blessed with.

“Can’t wait to tell everyone.” I beamed as I warded off the urge to burst into a skip. Honestly, if I wasn’t treading water right now, I so would.

“There any land around?” I mumbled as I glanced around the perfectly calm lake. Only the occasional beam of moonlight broke the clouded veil above. Various makeshift rafts littered the body of water. Some so decrepit they appeared to be a bunch of wooden panels, twigs, and shrubs tied together via floss. Most surprising of all, though, the moon was permitted some breathing room tonight.

Latria is generally plagued with constant clouds. Especially the depths. It’s not much of an issue anymore. Not even the natives travel this far in nowadays. What I wouldn’t give to get a glimpse of how everyone survived back then.

Which is why it’s perfect for a secluded meeting place. The parasites in this area shouldn’t bother him anyway. His skin is thicker than even the average Latrian. That fact alone is both impres-

“Stay back!” I jumped when something bumped into my back, causing me to instinctively spun around, hands raised for combat. Oh? It’s just a makeshift raft. I was half-expecting to be face to face with a candle’s light.

Really makeshift...” I trailed off, somewhat impressed that this raft was even above water. They really could’ve learned how to make better boats. I’m sure it would’ve helped back then.

I put my hands on it and shook it a bit, throwing out ripples around us. It seems stable enough. I’m pretty sure I weigh less like this, so that’s a point in my favor. Hopefully, it doesn’t collapse when I get on it. I can’t get wet, but I can still feel the water’s cold touch.

Throwing my leg up on it, I hopped ontop, yawning, “he better be quick.” I rubbed my eyes a bit and studied the environment just to do a final scan for any hostiles. The majority of things here won’t be able to touch me, but there are exceptions.

The candle lights being one such thing. I’ve only heard stories of them, but they’re never pleasant. Unlike suleikas, whom I pity to an extent, these are entirely opposite to them. They’re driven by a desire for revenge — a yearning to perform unto others what was done to them.

Hell, they’re actually used as bedtime stories to keep kids away from deeper waters. I just hope it’s specified that they’re more than a legend.

“Looks like we’re in the clear,” I beamed so brightly I was ready to be a stand-in for the moon. Taking a deep breath, I let out a giddy laugh, barely keeping my screaming squeals bottled up. God, I can’t wait to tell him! Fuck yes, you did it, Ashe!

Oh! I wonder if he’ll pick me some brime berries to celebrate. Those things are a gift from our stone itself, I swear. They have to be. There’s no way something can taste that amazing!

“Maybe use it as an excuse to get my cake early?” I furrowed my brow as I placed a finger to my chin, slowly crafting the more intricate details to my plan of attack. I hope she adds tumbleroot to it, too. That stuff is soooo goood... It’s just a pain to both get and prepare. Well, it was... until today.

“Which is partially why I’m here, though.” I grinned mischievously as I began greedily rubbing my hands together. I scanned the lake for any sign of my target.

Found it — an aqua-marine plant, exclusive to Latria, with an aura of the same color tracing its body. Its top had the appearance of roots, while the bottom was akin to your typical lilac.

“And nothing is here to stop me.” I let out an evil chuckle as I crouched down, preparing for my dive. Plus, I get them for free. I won’t even have to negotiate with them this time, either. The local Latrians won’t know what hit ’em.

I began my routine stretches, not out of necessity, but out of habit. Drowning is quite possibly the least of my worries right now. You could tie me to the bottom of the lake, and I’d be fine.

“Here we go,” I nodded as my eyes fell to the wa-eyes?!

“E-eyes!” I yelped, my voice echoing as I jumped back at the sight of the bright amber eyes peering at me from below the water’s surface.

Taking a deep breath, my eyes narrowed. “Wait, those eyes,” I let out an exasperated sigh, debating whether I should throw something at them. “How many times have I told you not to do that?” I growled as the creature rose from the lake.

In silence, the giant rose. Water spilled off of him in waves, creating the illusion of rain for a few seconds. A myriad of different parasites were stuck to him, hopeless to extract any nutrients from his thick green skin. In response, he let out a deep sigh as he brushed the creatures off his massive arms.

“Approximately forty-three.” He responded, his deep booming voice reverberating through the area. “And yes, I’ve been keeping track.” The audacity of him! This guy was about to blow my cover! Ashe needs her fix of tumbleroot! This heist will go on, unabated by the pesky things known as reality!

“Then, if you’ve been keeping track, why haven’t you done it?!” I hissed, a small storm of fish leaping out of the water, deadset on piercing his skin. They were hopeless. He merely shook his head and tossed them back to the lake, causing their friends to panic and disperse. Huh, so they do recognize threats.

A smile cracked his normally, apathetic, and almost stone-like face, “Because I’m not going to.”

Clasping a hand over my chest, I feigned offense, staggering backward as if I just took a punch, “why Berith... I must’ve m-misheard you.”

“You haven’t.” He yawned, shaking his head yet again as he extended a hand for me to hitch a ride on. “I enjoy scaring you. It keeps me entertained.” Um... points for honesty? I mean, I can’t say I’m shocked. Annoyed, yes, but not shocked.

“You can go ahead.” I shooed him, cracking my knuckles in preparation. “I have tumbleroots that need attending to.”

“Oh, so you brought something to trade for them, I assume?” He asked, his hand retracting as I felt the full brunt of his irritated gaze. He knows my answer...

Taking a step back, I tried to play it off with an awkward laugh, “Um... Does nothing count?”

He was silent, silent, and staring.

“I’ll take that as a yes?” I grinned, crouching down to prepare for my retreat into the water.

“No, nothing does not count you, aggravating thief!” He bellowed with enough volume I was pretty sure my bones were beginning to vibrate.

The word relent wasn't in my vocabulary today. I want, no need them.

“Oh, come on, Berith!” I shouted back with an eye roll, gesturing to one of the plants as it bumped into my raft, it slowly bobbing up and down. “It’s not like they ever come down here! They won’t notice! Is it really theft in that case?!

Flinging his foot back, he accidentally sent a raft flying as he groaned, “for the last time, yes! Words have meaning you damn fool!” Props to me. He’s never gotten this annoyed this quickly. Just gonna mark that one down as a new personal best.

After our exchange, he snatched me up by the legs, allowing me to dangle just in front of his face. “We’re leaving before you anger the lo...” He trailed off, his eyes resting on my ankles. Ugh, why does he have to be an exception to the things that can grasp me?

In silence, I started swinging myself back and forth, endeavoring to swat his nose. He’s depriving me of my tumbleroots, so I’m gonna annoy him.

“Ashe,” he whispered as I came within batting distance of his nose, narrowly missing. Damn, so close...

“What, you massive buzzkill?” I pouted as I stared down at the ripples emanating from his person. He stopped my swinging via a poke with his giant finger.

“When did that vine get around your ankle?” He questioned, caution and worry lacing his tone.

Glancing up, I mumbled at the spectacle, “great questahn!” My words were sliced to nothing by the newfound agony driving itself into my ankle. “Gah!” I whimpered, finally noticing the thick, black, almost invisible vine coming out of the water, its spikes revealing themselves.

My eyes widened in fear when they saw what was in the distance. There it was, an amber glow, one akin to a candle, hovering on the surface of the water.

“Ashe?!” Berith’s voice spiked in alarm as he started yanking at my binding, extracting a cry of pain from me.

“C-candle,” I sputtered, aiming a finger straight at my captor as drops of my blood dotted the boat. It’s drawing blood. I pray they don’t have venom. If Berith can’t handle it, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

“No...” Berith’s shoulders drooped as that dreaded word finally registered. Neither of us has fought one before. We haven’t the slightest clue on what to do.

Taking the initiative, Berith sunk his teeth into the vine, wincing as he ground the binding into a mere afterthought. That wince? This thing's spikes are sharp enough to break his skin?

An ear-piercing shriek rang out, cutting through the silence like a hot knife through butter. The light in the distance immediately went crimson as a storm of vines burst from the water straight at Berith with intent to kill.

He set me down just as I pried the words from my chest, voice cracking as I pointed, “behind you!”

He wasn't fast enough. The vines slammed into his back, causing him to cry out as he staggered forward, body crashing into my raft. I failed to grab hold of something, resulting in me being thrown through the air like a ragdoll... straight toward our foe.

- - - - -

“Please don't!” I winced as I shot straight up, heart thrashing in my chest.

“Ashe, you okay?” Connor spoke up, shaking me from my dream’s grasp. Dreaming? I was only dreaming... Good.

Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I nodded, “just had a bad dream is all.”

“I could tell.” He mumbled as he hopped out of the cart, extending a hand to help me down. “You were tossing and turning.”

I accepted to be greeted by the blinding glare of the sunrise. It finally stopped raining? Anri’s group, their tents, were still here. Hopefully, we aren’t too late. “I didn’t worry anyone, did I?”

“A tiny bit.” He nodded, pointing to the crypt’s darkened corridor, the radiance of Jordan's fae being visible from here. “Riley and Jordan are checking out the entrance. I said I’d keep an eye on you.”

“Pleasure doing business with you!” The old man called out with a laugh, the sound of hooves slamming against gravel signifying his departure.

Glancing back, I shouted after him just before he faded from view. “Thanks!” Connor picked up his pace, motioning for me to follow.

I trotted along after him, still somewhat sluggish from my dream. Was all of that tied to the game in some way? My conversation with Berith, and that thing in the water. All of it felt so real... but in the same breath, that flower thing was going on about forcing the liar to see again. So maybe that vision was fal-a menu? When did?

Quest(s) Added: Shipwrecked. {Entourage Skill Quest}

Underneath the ocean, buried beneath the sea, rests my hope. For I only possess doubt that there exists one who can salvage me.

They have skill quests now? Okay, I was enjoying this already, but that’s really piquing my interest. That answers my question, too. Apparently, that dream was a part of the game. I’d like to know how they’re programming that, but I'll just look into it on the game's forums.

I stepped into the crypt’s entrance to be met with, well, something incredibly underwhelming. It was a tiny stone room with dirt sloping inward to the center as if to invite us to jump down. The grey stone walls all featured various pictures and engravings — the markings in a language unbeknownst to me.

As for the pictures? Mostly just things pertaining to the undead. Various differing types it looks like. Skeletons, zombies, some wearing armor, others not so much. Except for the back wall. That seems like it was erased. That's normally not a good sign.

“I’m assuming we’re going down?” I inquired, leaning against the wall as I brought up my menu. Jordan and Riley nodded at my question as they both sorted through their menus.

Avoiding the center, Connor trodded over to Riley as I dove into my inventory. I need to check some of those items.

Crimson Widow’s Lotus - Its core, whiter than untainted snow. Its petals? Crimson, like bloodied palms. It emits a soft, low vibration. One that grows in intensity, the closer its owner gets to its home. Its consumption results in an extreme boost to the user’s core temperature, permitting ease of exploration in environments plagued with lethal amounts of cold.

“Connor, you son of a bit-” Riley was cut off, her voice suddenly growing distant. I shot my gaze up. She’s gone? Oh no...

“I can’t believe you actually did that.” Jordan snickered, barely holding back the full brunt of her laughter. “She’s gonna kill you.”

Nodding, Connor mouthed with an almost silent laugh, “I know,” and jumped.

I know it's been a bit since the last chapter. Hopefully, the wait was worth it.

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