Dungeon Denizens - Chapter 4: The Deep
“‘Elder Kuth, brother Aldem seeks the trial of the usurper. He may be young, but the Saman and I both believe he is ready. Our people need a süns wielder to hold back the horde.’
‘Is brother Aldem aware of the risks? Are we to put our strongest warrior at the mercy of the deep? Even now the lines still hold and the horde is no closer to the citadel than millenia ago. The rot has taken their tax of lives, chieftain, and we’ve no replacement for Aldem should the deep take him.’
‘Please elder you must allow this, you know full well that the lines weaken day by day as the empire’s provisions wane. We’ve little left to offer to the empire and the ancestors have warned us not to take arms with the northern men. Only a blessed of a süns can turn back the horde.’
‘Tell me, Otyren, Chieftain of the Red Twin, would you gamble the future of our tribe in a bid to cow our neighbors? My eyes may have dimmed but my mind has not. I am well aware of your naked ambition for the title of warchief, and you will not sacrifice the tribe for it. Aldem will remain as he is now. He will undergo the trial when the time is ripe. The lines will hold with or without the empire’s provisions for The Dreamer always provides.”
Chapter 4: The Deep
Ash found herself amidst a sea of stars, her lithe body lost against a backdrop of clashing colors and wild geometric figures. She was lost, without recollection of identity or self. She simply floated amidst the alternating dark and bright of the universe, her feet hanging listlessly into the unknown of the deep dark.
She wasn’t sure when, but her mind started to find itself again, her arms and legs moving along with the beat of a faint tune that hummed in her ears. It was quiet, but it was there and her body and soul latched onto the semblance of order and structure that the aria represented.
The first to return was her name, and with that came everything else. Ash. Trailing behind her name like a line of ducklings chasing after their mother, attached to the concept of Ash was human, then female, and then finally life– her life. Her story from start to finish. She felt groggy, like every hearthsday when Ani the nurse would shake her from her sleep before the light of the sun could warm the land.
She clung onto the tune that helped bring her ego back, and she followed it. She didn’t need to know how to navigate this space, she merely felt a push in her mind that in turn sent her moving forward. She followed the tune, recognizing not the tune itself, but rather the cadence to be that of a human’s pursed lips humming a soothing melody.
She drifted through the nothingness for what seemed like years until at last she saw a man in the distance. The man was of fair skin and blonde hair, features more akin to the folk of the northern kingdoms than the empire. He was garbed in a loose, but immaculate white robe. He had adorned his face with what looked like two glass plates on either side of his nose, held together by metal strands that weaved around the glass plates and eventually came to rest atop his ears. He looked young, but weary– a young man in his late twenties with a hint of grey along his temples. The man looked to be speaking to nothing, which left Ash confused on two fronts: who was he talking to, and where was the humming coming from?
She called out to him, but despite her lips moving, no sound came out. She didn’t panic, but she was rightly annoyed as the humming hadn’t stopped and she could clearly hear the man mumble to himself. She willed herself forward, drawing closer to the man while also moving to the side so as to not approach the man from behind.
A feeling of unwelcomeness washed over Ash as she crossed a ward or something because the man turned to her and made eye contact before she could get within his peripheral range. The man cocked an eyebrow before raising his hand with his palm facing toward Ash. Ash felt her body lurch to a stop, her limbs refusing to listen to her mental commands.
“I’d assumed you were another assassin, but no assassin of the mundane world would possess the knowledge, let alone the capacity, of traversing through the deep. Unless you are an assassin, then I’d have no choice but to commend the rot mother for her ingenuity, although I’d also admonish her for sending such an ill prepared assassin.”
Ash stared at the man, moreso because there was nothing else she could do. She was frozen, her body embedded fimly in a concrete slab of absolute nothing. The man stared deeply into her eyes for a few seconds before the corners of his lip lifted into a beaming smile.
“You’re no assassin, but tell me, how does a young woman like yourself safely traverse the deep?”
Ash noticed that the man’s smile failed to reach his eyes. His face looked amiable, to say the least, but there was a cold twinkle entrenched deep within his eyes. The man was fishing for answers, and one wrong answer could spell her own doom. The grogginess had long since left her, panic slowly settling in its place. Where was she? Why hadn’t she panicked when she’d first arrived in this strange realm? Why didn’t she exercise any caution or prudence when she heard a random humming in the middle of a vast and colorful nothingness? In addition, the man had frozen her in place without so much of a twitch and such a lackadaisical display of power had set off alarm bells in her head.
Ash felt some control return to her, and though she opened her lips to explain herself there was no noise. This time, she possessed enough of her wits to express frustration, even if it was just barely through her eyes.
The man chuckled and his shoulders seemed to relax when he noticed the gleam of annoyance in Ash’s eyes. He took a more comfortable pose and an invisible pressure, that Ash didn’t even realize she’d been subject to, receded.
“I suppose you really might be just an unfortunate soul lost in this tangle of stars and matrices.”
Ash let out an audible gasp as she suddenly felt her body go free, a warm sensation of acceptance washing over her.
“What was that?!” Ash exclaimed, the panic that had been welling up inside her chest threatening to come out in full force. “Where am I, who the h**l are you, and what was that tune?”
“And a hello to you too. My name is Dr. Klynebern, though judging by your attire, I imagine you wouldn’t quite understand what that title would imply so you can call me Young.”
Ash stared at Young, then looked down at herself. She was garbed in a lightweight outfit appropriate for swift movements and flexibility in the battlefield. She didn’t see how her leather breastplate, leather bracers, and leather greaves fitted atop her blouse and trousers would imply anything about her knowledge, or rather, lack thereof. She may look like a free lance, but she was royalty through and through. Surely anyone of pedigree would need only take one look at her bearing and composure to recognize her illustrious background.
Sure, she’d spent the last few years putting her old life and all of its vestiges behind her, but the stranger’s belittling remark had ticked something off inside of her. The empire had plenty of doctors all steeped and learned in the schools of healing and apothecary. Surely this man who couldn’t have spent more than ten years of learning didn’t think himself superior to the old masters.
“As for what that was and where we are, well, I can answer the latter. We, or I suppose our minds, are currently cast into the very fabric of creation itself. There is a ton of information embedded everywhere around us, you just need to learn how to access it or have the access granted to you. This realm has many names, but in your world, it is most commonly known as ‘the deep’. Now, who might you be?”
Ash stared at Young, her thoughts in a tumble. She didn’t understand half the things that came out of the man’s mouth and his casual demeanor had cowed her annoyance. The only thing she really caught onto was his mention of the deep. Her mother’s handmaid was a refugee from the west, and she’d often tell stories of her home and her people. To them, the deep was a mythical realm to be both feared and revered as the realm of their creator god. The deep would cull the weak from the strong and bestow strength unto the worthy, gifting rebirth unto the chosen and allowing them to grow far more powerful than any mortal man.
As far as she could tell, there was no creator god here. The only other lifeform she’d seen was Young and she was certain he was no god. She’d picked up on some clues based on what he’d said, leading her to believe that he was likely not from Na’tok. As for the deep, well, it looked nothing like she’d imagined. In the stead of beautiful flora and flowing waterfalls, there lay a cacophony of colors and spiraling particles embedded in a deep nothing.
Ash swept her gaze across her surroundings and recognized the starry night sky for what it was, but the constellations and patterns she had grown up with were nowhere to be found. She returned her gaze back toward Young and proudly introduced herself.
“I am Ash Willborn, a princess of the Topri Empire. I’m not sure how I ended up here, but I’m sure you can help with that, ‘doctor’. Though I must say, you’re a bit young to be calling yourself a doctor. I’d wager you have yet to even begin your training into journeyman let alone master. You’re likely nothing more than an experienced apprentice,” Ash berated, a small voice in her head cringing at her petty response. The man was both powerful and intelligent, no good would come of antagonizing such a figure for the sake of her wounded pride, or so a little voice in the back of her head squeaked out before she quashed the thought.
Young flashed Ash a bemused smile, bearing credence to Ash’s inner voice that perhaps bragging about her upbringing was not the way to go.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance Princess Willborn. Would it be alright with you if I were to ask you a few questions?”
“Only if you answer some questions of my own,” Ash responded while nodding her head with some trepidation. She wasn’t about to deny such a powerful man a few questions. Young seemed reasonable, if a bit intimidating given his prowess, and he didn’t seem opposed to trading questions, or so she hoped.
“Take a good look at my clothes, does it look familiar to you?” Young asked, a mirthful twinkle in his eyes.
The man wore his thin white robe over a plain shirt that ran buttons down the middle. His pants were a deep blue woven with a rigid fabric that refused to bend unlike cotton or silk. One thing that particularly stood out was how clean and fitted everything looked. She couldn’t for the life of her figure out what purpose his clothes held. They wouldn’t serve him well in any sort of battlefield, nor would it offer the elegance and class befitting that of the court, and she dared not think they were of casual wear given how expensive they looked. Suffice to say, his attire was unlike anything she’d seen before.
Mages had once worn loose flowing robes in centuries past, but they’d quickly fallen out of style once the kingdoms systematically rooted out the magic abusers and debunked the mystic and mysterious ways of the ‘great and all mighty sorcerers’. Even then, his robes looked nothing like the paintings she had seen in the state library.
Young observed Ash’s face as focus, confusion, consternation, and capitulation arrived and left their mark on her face before packing up their things and flying away. It was funny at first, but a timely reminder that he had more important duties to carry out than talk to a princess from an underdeveloped world.
Young, there’s a hidden module starting to analyze the firewall, you need to install the heuristic module now.
“My apologies princess, I was intending to have some fun and add an air of mystery and intrigue to my person, but I have important matters to attend to. I am from Earth, a world far from your own. Look around you, the positions of the stars resemble those seen from my own world, not yours,” Young spoke, turning away from Ash and placing his fingers atop an invisible table. “Within the void outside of our worlds, space, is a dangerous existence. A malignant tumor borne from the foolish ambitions of my fellow man: the rot.”
Confusion had once again made its home on Ash’s face, Young’s strange monologue hitting her from out of the blue.
“We stand here in the deep as projections of ourselves, a realm accessible only by dreams. Nothing can hurt you and you can hurt nothing, save for other dreamers. They are far and few in between, but the rot has been attempting to gain access to the deep, though as a hivemind their lack of creativity has rendered them completely unfamiliar with the concept of dreams.”
Young fished out a thin, rectangular object from his pocket and inserted it into the air, or he tried to. He flipped it upside down and tried again before flipping it rightside up and successfully sticking it into the air and letting it float. His hands danced across the air for a few minutes before retrieving the rectangle and placing it in his pocket again.
I’ve detected some suspicious modules that the heuristics module has flagged and quarantined. It’ll take awhile for me to decompile them, but the rot should have lost access to their backdoor. You will be returning soon, I believe day is about to break.
“Young, I do not understand a single word you’ve spoken to me. You’ve not given me much room to ask questions of my own, instead you’ve rambled on and on about things that are irrelevant to me,” Ash pouted. She had been somewhat careful with her words when speaking with Sister and Gregory, but she didn’t feel that aura of untamed power just waiting to burst from Young. The two monsters had made her skin crawl the first time she’d met them, and even now the faintest whispers of danger caressed the goosebumps on her skin whenever Sister got excited. She was fully aware that much like the two monsters, Young could disqualify her from the realm of the living, but no presence could be felt from Young.
Young’s lips widened into a smile.
“Young lady, ask your question, though I believe I’ve only time for one.”
For some reason, she felt nervous. One question. One question to ask a powerful being from a different world– one currently waging a war against a powerful and mysterious enemy. What was he doing with his hands when he suddenly told her he had important matters to attend to? What was that rectangular object? What was Earth like? How was she to prioritize the right question to ask?
“You’ve not much time to think of a question, but while you ponder, I can tell you how to leave. The deep is a dream realm, real and imaginary, you need only wake up to leave.”
It wasn’t much, but Ash understood the significance of not having to squander her question on learning how to exit the deep, especially given how simple the solution was.
“But do be careful until you leave. There are others here, as I’ve said, and many are not as benevolent as I am.”
Disconcerting and terrifying were the words that came to mind, but she cast the thought to the back of her mind. When she had escaped from the castle, a red fog of violence and revenge had penetrated through every aspect of her ego. She wanted to run, find a powerful monster to learn from or contract with, then return to enact her revenge against the emperor. The years went by, and although three years wasn’t a long time, it wasn’t short either. She’d met all manner of people during her travels, and though she’d nearly lost her life at the hands of various friends-c*m-assassins, the experiences had served to shake her free from the vice grip of revenge. She didn’t want to waste away during the prime years of her life. Would revenge bring her family back? No, it wouldn’t.
But she didn’t really know what she wanted. She was currently on a roadtrip with two monsters posing as humans while arguing about toilets and shitting indoors. Then she suddenly fought and killed an ogre and almost lost her life all in an effort to drink the damn monster’s heartblood and gamble for a power that might allow her to take control of her own life– or so she thought. Would power really let her ‘take control of her own life’? The more she thought about it, the more naive it sounded. Was she some sort of a character from a story that the puppet masters told in the town square?
What she wanted was purpose. It’d be nice to live the life she wanted, but what was the life she wanted to live? It was an irrelevant train of thought as far as ‘questions to ask Young’ went, but it was nice to be able to sort that out now rather than later. What about Young, what was his purpose in life? What was his purpose and what kind of journey had he embarked on that required him to obtain the strength that he had? Maybe expanding her horizons would help her with her own quandary.
“Your world, where you’re from, can you tell me more?” Ash suddenly asked, her tone uncertain.
Young looked at the girl in front of him. She seemed lost, and in more ways than one. He recognized that look in her eyes, that feeling of having lost one’s sense of existing. One’s species being. He didn’t pity the girl, that’s not what she needed. She’d come off as a pompous and proud person, which undoubtedly she was, but a portion of that pride was a thin veil to hide an insecurity brought about by a troubled past. He wouldn’t pry, there was no need to. It’d often been said, time heals all wounds, but whether that wound healed as a scar or healed as healthy skin was often determined by the support you’d receive from the people around you.
“I’d love to. I’m from a planet, the word we use to describe worlds, my people call Earth. Our people have traversed across the stars, exploring this dark nothingness to find other worlds we can colonize and live on. We met many other living beings on our journeys, some we’ve befriended while others we waged war against. A peculiar thing about our corner of the universe, the word we use to describe existence, is that it is devoid of mana– a status quo we thought the norm for the majority of our people’s short existence. We eventually discovered that the presence of mana entails a presence of life, and that our new allies had labeled areas devoid of mana as ‘dead worlds’,” Young explained as he conjured up a large screen emblazoned with a red ‘LG’ logo displaying the Earth, the solar system, and the Milkyway Galaxy. Ash’s eyes widened in shock.
“I’VE SEEN THAT BEFORE!” Ash blurted out, her excitement and shock like a cattle prod pressing into her back.
“You’ve seen Earth before?”
“No, sorry, the square and the red symbol,” Ash said, having quickly calmed herself down. “The box, the one that’s showing all those pictures. It was smaller, but the expedition brought it back from western divide before I was born!”
Young, you’re stirring, I think you only have a minute at most.
“S**t,” Young cursed, breaking his image of a prim and proper gentleman. “Excuse my language princess, but I’m a light sleeper and day is about to break. There’s a reason why we’ve met today, a bond forged by karma, if you will. I’m sure we’ll meet again, but be weary. The rectangle I conjured is a common viewing tool from my world, if you’ve found them on yours, the rot can locate it. We’ll meet again and you’ll have to tell me all you know about this western divide. Akasha, grant limited privileges to Ash and look after her.”
I question whether this will be a good idea, but it’ll be done.
“Stay safe Miss Wilborn.”
And with that, Young disappeared. Ash stared at the spot Young had just been, confused, her head spinning. There was too much information to take in, but she knew one thing for certain, she didn’t feel as lost anymore. There was a great mystery involving the western divide, a mystery that encompassed more than just one world, and she wanted to uncover the truth.
The words sat in her mouth, spreading a sense of unease across the surface of her tongue. Her mother’s handmaiden had mentioned it once and only once, and not even by name– only a moniker.
“The god eaters,” she’d called it.
Ash felt something tug at her entire being, a familiar call from something beyond. She knew inherently that she was waking. She didn’t know what to do and simply stood there, waiting for her body to fully wake. A few seconds passed and as her vision dimmed and tumbled, she watched a man appear in front of her. He was grizzled and messy, garbed in a green and olive patterned pair of pants with a long overcoat worn over a leather breast piece. She recognized the man as Young, but he was older and missing an arm.
He mouthed out her name, but she couldn’t hear him.