The Other Side, Part II

The air was bitingly cold as the austere spires of the Foehan Voidgate came into the ranger’s view. Fierce gusts of wind began to beat at his face as he approached. Winds of change, these were—winds of destiny and new beginnings, winds that heretofore had been confined to the fantastical domain of faerie tales and legends… or so he had thought.

As the ranger drew near, the outline of several men and women soon materialized, most of them standing in a circle just before the temple steps, arms waving and hands gesticulating emphatically amongst themselves. He recognized one of them, the red-robed wizard extraordinaire and fellow guildmate Jastherin, but the ranger was too far away to say hello, and so he continued to scan his surroundings, working his way around the temple. Right beside the main group lay a roaring campfire, in front of which sat a trio of green-robed individuals – clerics, perhaps? – busying themselves with a disorderly array of soot-stained sketches, roughly-drawn maps, and ancient, tattered reports.

At last the ranger reached the steps, but his presence went wholly unnoticed. He glanced upward to the sky, noting that the day was no further along than two or three in the afternoon. He allowed himself a smile—he was just in time. Strapping his bow firmly to the back of his shoulders, he straightened up and cleared his throat with authoritative enthusiasm.

“Sulovir Soryn of the Lerilin Breeze reporting, the first of his name.” Clutching a small bag in hand, he stepped into the center of the crowd of interlocutors, who were now directing all their attention toward him with lifeless confusion. “In the name of sound journalism, and in conjunction with our associates in the Circle of Friends,” he continued, nodding briefly at Jastherin, “here we present our donation to the reconnaissance mission into the realms beyond: a parcel of six, count them, six small moon fragments. May Elara’s blessings be upon you all.”

A man in viridescent green stepped forward and proffered a parcel of his own, his blank face erupting into a toothy grin. “Presenting seven fragments from the Hidden Vale.”

Jastherin strode in next. “Six from my bank.”

Then came a warrior in a suit of shining armor, capped by a striking viking helmet which concealed a head of purple hair. “Five here!”

“Two here,” said another woman garbed in regal purple, a cleric by all appearances.

After a few moments of silence, one of the green-robed clerics by the campfire rose to his feet. “Very well then!” he said. “Let the record show that twenty-six fragments in total were gathered on this fifty-first day of the present Sleeping Moon, in the Year of the Goddess four hundred and fifty-one. Eight fragments will be distributed to the advance team, six to the follow-up team waiting on standby, four to remain with us at base camp, and the remaining six to be distributed among each of the first two teams, strictly for emergency purposes only.”

At this, a flurry of activity burst out, with bags changing hands, and countless voices calling out to see who still required a fragment and who had any extras to spare and who would act as custodians of the emergency supplies. After a few minutes, the din finally subsided, and a weighty silence fell upon the scene. One by one, four members of the party stepped purposefully into the center of the gleaming temple—the advance team.

First came the man in green, who stopped just short of the central arch and turned around, looking slowly over the ragtag bunch of explorers with a melancholic smile. “Well, friends—” he said in the sombre tones of a man who was bidding a final farewell.

But then the fighter in purple marched onto the dais, raising her sword without hesitation, and bellowing a mighty roar. “THIS IS GOODBYE!”

Next came Jastherin, with his casual indifference: “See you on the other side.”

Lastly the fourth and final member of the procession, the purple-garbed cleric, in a gentle voice: “I love you all.”

“I never imagined I’d be returning here,” said the one in green, “but there’s no other group of people I’d rather be with.”

A shared smile, a signal on the count of three, a blurry flash of movement, and then the four of them vanished into thin air.

* * * * *

The next hour or two was spent in furious scribbling and note-taking. The ranger had half a mind to conduct some interviews, but it was clear that the present moment was not an appropriate time, with the follow-up team completely absorbed in impassioned debates about the exact strategies they should take. They had heaped together a list of various contingency plans to act on, all depending on what they found once they reached the other side. Then at one point, one of their number, a sprinter of sorts, had doubled back to Mirith to see if any other able-bodied warriors would be able to join, but sadly he had returned empty-handed. The whole process was all quite fascinating, to tell the truth, but nowhere near as vital to the ranger as the basic facts and details that would be necessary for his next periodical. Those pesky little details, always meandering in one ear and out the other – and if they couldn’t be seized and captured in ink in a scant few seconds, then they were as good as gone.

Suddenly, his concentration was interrupted when another wizard, also garbed in green, came scrambling into the temple on a westerly breeze. “Sorry I’m late!” he blurted out, panting wildly. “I had to dig to the bottom of every last crate and chest to find my special ring, and then top it all off, I had to scrounge for pure crystals!”

The green-robed cleric at the firepit, Lans as they called him, glowered at the wizard with furrowed brows. “About time!” he said. “But enough of this—Lillium, Ryen, Gohbo, are you ready?”

They nodded in unison. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” said one.

The wizard, Ryen, jumped up and down with nervous energy. “I’m freaking out, but we’re good.”

“Very well then.” said Lans. “You know what to do.”

“On three!”

* * * * *

The ranger looked to the skies. The warm purple and orange light of the sunset, normally a comforting and beautiful sight as he saw it from his window, now felt eerily oppressive. It must’ve been about thirty minutes since the follow-up team had descended, and still no indication in any way about what was going on inside, not a single soul having yet returned. Only three others remained here on the surface, those lucky few who had elected to stay behind, to fulfill the unquestionably important task of guarding the operation from outside, and coordinating the action from a place of safety. There was the cleric Lans and the druid Clare, both in green, and one last warrior, a fighter wearing an intense scarlet red, by the name of Luroth.

The ranger had already taken as many copious notes as he could think of, and had moved on to restringing his bows. He couldn’t help but ponder if this mission of discovery had been a one-way ticket to a fate worse than death. Why hadn’t anyone returned yet, and what had they found? A terrible price it would be to pay for knowledge, becoming a prisoner to the void... but if even a single one of the explorers managed to emerge from that portal in one piece, then the whole operation’s sacrifice would not be in vain. And if even a single grain of truth could be gleaned from the chaos and madness of the day, then it would constitute a momentous and historic step in the world’s unceasing quest to dispel the fog of mystery enveloping the unfathomable void. So many questions could be answered, questions about the missing Senator Morgans, questions about A.R.D.E.N.T... perhaps even questions about the very essence of the void itself.

Suddenly, his ears detected an almost imperceptible, impossibly low humming sound, seemingly emitted by the portal itself. He jumped to his feet, and peered into the central arch. All at once there was a brilliant flash of blinding light, and when it finally cleared from his vision, he could see Ryen shimmering back into existence. But no sooner had the wizard appeared than he slumped down to the floor, groaning in pain, and revealing a gaping bite mark on his side that bled profusely.

Lans rushed to the wizard’s side with bandages and immediately began to stitch his wounds together. “Dragon teeth,” the cleric muttered. “Baby dragon teeth, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“It’s not looking good boss.” Ryen coughed. “They’re closing in. I… I was tackling the poison beasts just fine, and the bats, but it’s those bloody blink hounds. The black draco, too – only one of them, but it was still… too much. I couldn’t protect the others… I had to get those flamin’ hounds off my tail. I’m useless out there! Useless, hopeless, lost, all lost…”

“Come on, man, you did everything you could. Now quit mumbling, and drink.” Lans raised a potion to the wizard’s lips and held it there until every drop of the elixir was gone. “I know this is hard, but I need you to think clearly for just a few moments longer. Tell me, what else did you see?”

Ryen wheezed and coughed loudly. “The… the… the portal!” He shivered. “So cold… exactly like he said it would be… it looks just like this one, but worse, like... like it’s falling apart. Stones crumbling everywhere, I kept tripping on them… and somewhere else…they saw… a lone candle burning, in an empty husk of a building… and p…pure…pure crystals, growing from the desolate, frozen ground…”

“Yes, that’s good, but what else? Were there any other creatures besides the ones you mentioned?”

“Ph…ph…phase serpents. Two. Then… B.B…. she saw the b…body of a black dragon. And… Lenne … she saw skeletons, live ones, dead ones… and maybe even a…H…He… Hell Mage. I… don’t know. Then I saw ghosts… chasing after her, wailing… in pain… such horrible, tortured voices… cackling with insanity…”

“Whose ghosts?”

“I…I don’t know. No…no time to think. Fight or f...flight. H…he…here. Take it.” The wizard held aloft his trembling right hand. “Take the ring. You know… what to do.”

Lans gripped the wizard’s hand and, mouth agape, gazed upon the glimmering band that adorned the bloody, scrawny forefinger. “A ring of mana…my goodness… undoubtedly the finest I’ve ever seen...but only a grandmaster could’ve forged such a thing! Where on earth did you find this?”

But the wizard had slumped over, and was now breathing with the heaviness and laborious intensity of a man who had been deprived of his slumber for days on end. Lans rose to his feet slowly and deliberately. He turned around, meeting the anxious gaze of Clare and the steely, grim face of Luroth. Clare reached into her robes, unearthed a small pouch from within, and poured the fragments out into her cupped hands, before extending two apiece to Lans and Luroth. “The last four fragments. You two are our best shot.”

Lans looked incredulous. “You must know I’m really not qualified for this.”

Clare pointed at the ring now encircling the cleric’s finger. “With that, you don’t need to be.”

“Come on then,” Luroth said, putting a hand on the cleric’s shoulder. “On three.”

* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *

Day fifty-three, Sleeping Moon… the ranger mouthed quietly to himself as he began the next entry of his note-taking journal, from under the momentary shelter of his burrow of blankets and furs. Four five one.

He took a good look over the scattered campground. The sun was just beginning to ascend over the eastern horizon, and the gentle babbling of the creek could be heard in the distance, even above the soothing roar of the firepit, where the hollow-eyed fighter in green worked soundlessly to prepare the day’s breakfast of harpie egg, a staple that was in shockingly abundant supply here in the frigid woods of Foehan. The ranger stole a glance over his shoulder, as was quickly becoming habitual. The stone, cold spires of the portal still rose ominously above him, though they remained several paces away. The first night, after the conclusion of the whole debacle, he had made one final mistake of resting against those odious spires, in the hopes that it might alleviate the aching, stabbing pains in his spine. Instead, he was repeatedly jolted awake by the sound of hushed whispering: “Sssssulovir”, the voices called out to him with menacing intent, “Join usss…” Shivering uncontrollably in the unforgiving wintry air, he banished the anguished memory from his mind, but couldn’t prevent his thoughts from wandering back to another troubling subject, the delirious words of Ryen. The gruesome portrayal painted by the wizard now flickered before his eyes… the crumbling stones… the dragon’s jet-black body… and most worrisomely, the skeletons: “live ones… dead ones…”. He wrapped himself tighter in the bundle of blankets, and forced his eyes back to the blank pages of his journal.

Empty faces mark the expressions of all the explorers… it is only by some wondrous miracle of Elara that every single one of those faces is still here, in our world of color, alive. Even so, in the eyes of that fighter who is currently preparing the morning meal, the one whose third journey it was into the void realm, I can see a harrowing tale that his words cannot even begin to illustrate. If the eyes are the mirror to the soul, then he seems to have left a small part of his behind, on the other side. And to what end? We have learned, ultimately, nothing more than what we already knew before, and in that regard, the operation was an unqualified, utter failure. But here is the one thing that truly baffles me: though they may require every last moon fragment that has fallen to the earth to accomplish it, and though it may spell certain doom, all ten of these brave adventurers have already begun to exchange, in hushed whispers, the schemes and plans for their return voyage. That being the case, and despite the ill omens, I personally see no other option available for me but to remain in this accursed camp, until the journey’s fateful end. May Elara vouchsafe them the tides of providence they will surely need in order to triumph… and may she guard and protect us all.
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