Author’s note: Posting this here while I get a couple more chapters ready, then I’ll be posting regularly to Royal Road and Patreon. Francine and I just moved into a new house, and lately my free time has been spent getting settled, and making final adjustments to the upcoming audiobook for book one.

November, true to form, should see a lot of words come out of me. Stay tuned.

Chapter Eight: Earth Magic

The door creaked open like any old, forgotten iron-hinged door is wont to do. The corridor beyond was dark—I would have been surprised by anything else at this point—but Jeni’s amulet did manage to penetrate the gloom a few meters.

The corridor beyond was narrower than the passageways that we had navigated so far. We started off walking in pairs but it wasn’t long before we had to go single file, and with our small army it made progression problematic. Gary took the lead with Jeni behind him, and Helmut’s undead minions protected the rear. The rest of us formed the middle of the line but from my position, I doubted I would be able to help much if we encountered any trouble. I did have a weaponized monkey on each shoulder, however, which did make me feel like a little of a bad ass.

I was sandwiched in between Jeni and Zoya. Banjo and Lizzie were deep in conversation about all manner of topics, which for me was a little bit disorienting. Banjo rested an elbow on the brim of my bowler as he talked, while Lizzie rested both elbows on my head, propping up her chin as she listened. I felt as if my head were being used as a picnic table — I wouldn’t have been surprised if they whipped out a tablecloth and jug of lemonade.

Zoya spoke up from behind me. “Those monkeys are so adorable! So let me get this right… Banjo is biosynthetic and Lizzie is a creation of the game?”

I couldn’t really turn around to answer her in the narrow tunnel, and with a chatty monkey on each shoulder I had to shout if I were to respond at all. Luckily, Banjo spared me the awkwardness and answered for me. I had noticed Jeni’s werewolf ears perk up slightly, however. I wasn’t sure if I was sensing jealousy, or if Jeni just didn’t like the woman. If it were the former, I had no idea why but if it were the latter I could see where she was coming from. Zoya had one of those personalities that took some getting used to, and she didn’t seem to have a concept of personal space.

The tunnel began to wind, and slope slightly downwards. Banjo continued to answer Zoya’s questions happily. She seemed to spend a lot of time asking about our quest for the first gear. Some of the things she asked I had no idea where she acquired — at one point she asked Banjo if it were true that I had got the location of the first gear by hacking into ARGO Enterprise’s servers.

I stopped in my tracks, causing an eight-car pile-up behind me, and turned around to face the black-clad archaeologist.

“Where the hell did you hear something like that,” I shot at her. Jeni turned around to see what the commotion was about.

Zoya held up her hands dismissively. “Hey, ever since you found the first gear rumors have been spreading around the alley like a plague. You can’t blame a woman for being curious, can you?”

Lizzie leapt from my shoulder to Jeni’s. I faced forward and continued to follow the werewolf. “No, I suppose I can’t. But I didn’t hack into any servers. I couldn’t hack my way into a toaster. We found a clue, and that led to another clue, and eventually we finished the quest. Just like any other game.”

Whether the answer appeased her or not, I couldn’t tell, but the rest of the journey was spent in relative silence. Nothing attacked us, which was fortunate. I have no idea how a battle would’ve went down in the meter-wide corridor.

The passageway must have wound back on itself over a dozen times. Jeni made sure she stayed within earshot, which I was grateful for. I didn’t want to lose her again.

Eventually, the passageway opened into another chamber. Like the chamber above, this one was also covered in the black, oily vines, and the thick, greasy mist hung in the air. The bleakness was really starting to weigh on me, and I was itching to rid this temple of its curse.

Apparently Jeni felt the same way. “This place depresses me,” she said, wrinkling her snout in disgust at her surroundings. “Let’s find out what we have to do and do it. It smells like old socks, and I need some sunshine.”

Zoya laughed. “I don’t know, I kind of like it down here,” she said, looking around the featureless room with her hands on her hips. Unlike the chamber above, this one held no pedestals or platforms, just the writhing black mass that covered everything. Once again, the night vision goggles outlined everything with a dull purple glow.

I was distracted from my thoughts by the feel of something wrapping around my ankle. I looked down and saw one of the vines coiling around me. I grabbed my dagger from my belt and slashed through it with one swipe. No sooner had the severed vine fallen from my leg than another snaked out of the ground to replace it.

Muttered profanities from either side of me told me that the rest of the group was experiencing similar difficulties. All except for Jeni. The creep wouldn’t approach the halo of light that her amulet put off.

I reached for the pouch of mushrooms that Shienne had given me, but as soon as I had it in my hands, a vine lashed out and snatched it, dragging it under the writhing black floor. Apparently, it wasn’t the mushrooms themselves that repelled the vines, just what happened to the one who consumed it.

“Dammit. Everyone, cluster around Jeni,” I ordered. As one, the party, humans and animals alike, formed a circle around the werewolf, shuffling for position to fit within the aura of light that surrounded her. It wasn’t easy. Six people, a zombie, a skeleton, two monkeys, a dragonkin, a cat, a golem, a bird, two sprinklers and two Tesla cannons squeezed into a circle barely two meters in diameter. Jeni had to take off the amulet and hold it over her head, which spread the circle a little wider. We stood shoulder to shoulder, facing outwards.

Trick had ordered Dexi to begin flaming the floor, as there wasn’t a mob or boss on which we could focus our affections. The jets of flame did little more than piss the floor off. An arm-thick vine emerged from the writhing bed, snatching Dexi out of the air and dragging the Dragonkin below the surface with a squelch and a puff of smoke.

Trick swore, but his anger at losing the familiar was quickly replaced with dread. The vines covering the floor and walls stilled for a moment, and the room went completely silent, save for our adrenaline-filled breathing.

All of us had our backs to Jeni, and somehow I had gotten stuck between Zoya and Helmut’s skeleton, which turned its smiling head to look at me. On an ordinary day, that would have been terrifying, but now we had bigger things to worry about.

“I can’t…oof…see a thing, you guys,” Jeni whispered from the middle of the mass.

“There’s nothing to see, really,” Trick replied. From the sound of his voice, Trick was facing the side of the cavern opposite the door we had entered. “It’s all vines. Wait.” Trick paused, slipping his goggles on his face. He adjusted a lens. “I think I see something.” He pulled down another lens.

“Where?” I asked.

“Far side of the room, about two meters up the wall,” he replied. “I thought I saw… well, something that wasn’t vines. But it’s gone now.”

I was on the back side of our little circle, facing the door. The vines had cleared away from our halo of light, leaving exposed stone floor, but seemed to lie in wait not a half-meter beyond our feet. I couldn’t step out there.

“Jeni, slowly head towards the far end of the room. Everyone else, link arms.”

Jeni began a slow shuffle. I linked elbows with Zoya and the skeleton, and we shuffled along with Jeni, careful to stay in the halo. The vines parted before us as we proceeded, revealing the stone floor, and closed behind us in the places we vacated.

When we were about ten meters from the far side, I ordered our arm-linked circle to rotate to the left. Slowly, I began to face the far wall of the cavern.

“This is the weirdest merry-go-round I’ve ever been on,” Banjo chided, poking the skeleton in the skull. That earned a giggle from Lizzie.

When I faced the wall which Trick had commented on, I ordered the group to stop the rotation, which they did to a chorus of awkward grunts. I scanned over the wall, hoping my archaeologist’s perception could pick out what Trick saw. It took me about two seconds.

Glass.

Peeking out behind writhing wall I saw the tell-tale reflection of glass, which against the vines stuck out like a sore thumb. At least to me. The only light it had to reflect was coming from Jeni’s amulet, but the glass bounced it back in a way the vines could not. It almost looked like a…

I pointed. “Banjo, Lizzie, give me a couple volleys right there,” I said.

The monkeys assumed their scorpion stances and did as ordered, sending twin bolts of energy at the black wall. I winced. Those contraptions were loud when they were only a few centimeters from your ear. The room briefly lit up as the blue bolts streaked toward their mark, giving the vines some definition. Then they hit.

With a tinkling sound, the bolts punctured the glass, and two beams of light pierced the dusty, stagnant air.

I smiled. “Monkeys, open fire.”

“With pleasure,” Banjo said, grateful for something to do.

The monkeys peppered the glass with bolts, as quickly as their cooldown would allow. Glass began tinkling to the floor to instant effect. The vines covering the glass gave pained shrieking sounds—how, I wasn’t quite sure—and retreated away from the light, exposing a circular, stained-glass window. Or what was left of one.

Soon the room was flooded with light, and the monkeys really had to aim to hit any remaining pieces of the window. The pained sounds emitting from the vines became deafening, as all the vines except for those in the darkened far corners of the room began flailing wildly.

Shortly, the vines began to vibrate, then stiffen, as they took on the texture of dry charcoal and slowly began to deteriorate. They began collapsing into ash, which swirled in the cool air coming in from the newly-created hole in the wall.

Now that it was safe to do so, the party dropped their arms and spread out. Features of the wall and floor were now visible, albeit through a thin blanket of dusty grey. Grand carvings of trees surrounded by intricate knotwork adorned the side walls, with more of the stained-glass portals between them.

Holly nocked an arrow and scanned the perimeter of the room, not finding anything to aim at. Nobody else said a word, but took in their new surroundings, looking for any detail that might tell us how to proceed. Nothing presented itself. Then Helmut tapped me on the shoulder.

“What is it, Helmut?” I asked.

He pointed up.

And I saw a tentacle flying toward me, thick as my arm and covered with spikes. I tried to dodge, but the thing caught me in the side of the head, sending my bowler flying and knocking my goggles askew. Spots danced in my vision, and my ears rang fiercely. I righted my goggles and shook my head to clear it.

As my senses started to return, I looked around to see the group concentrating their attacks on the ceiling.

“That swat took you for about twenty percent,” Banjo informed me. I had my sprinkler, as well as the one set on Jeni, set to activate when we dipped below thirty-five percent. Both he and Lizzie had hopped to the floor, sending more shots toward the ceiling.

Holly cast her regen spell on each member of the party, then began sending volley after volley of arrows upwards, two at a time, her bowstring twanging in a steady rhythm. As I followed her aim I got my first look at what we were up against.

The center of the creature looked like a bunch of grapes, if the grapes were eyeballs about the size of basketballs. The cluster was protected by a dome of what looked like dark-tinted glass, but as I watched I noticed several arrows and scorpion bolts meet no resistance as they passed through, piercing eyeballs and earning a high-pitched wail from the beast, which had no discernable mouth.

Surrounding the dome was a halo of thick, lashing tentacles, which would swipe down at us three or four at a time. They weren’t difficult to dodge if you were paying attention, but it did make focusing on the attack problematic.

The eyeballs were too numerous to count. There had to be at least a couple hundred. I did observe that every time an eyeball was destroyed, which usually took two or three shots, one of the tentacles would disintegrate, raining fetid ash down upon us.

I entered the fray, and learned that cracking a whip straight up is difficult. I hadn’t brought my rifle, gifted to me back when world PvP was active, and I regretted it now. My whip was a good five meters long and I tried an underhand attack to try and crack it upwards, but it was a critical failure. The blades caught me in the back of my calf on their way up, cutting through my pants and leaving a gash in my leg.

“Problems, Jakey?” Zoya chided. She had spread to the side of the room and was whipping overhand, upward at a steep angle. The single blade at the end of her whip sliced eyeballs with ruthless efficiency.

I limped over to her and emulated her technique, and soon began hitting my own as well. I smiled as I looked over at our group and saw the bobcat and mini-golem leaping and snapping at the flailing tentacles, without much success. An idea struck me, and I activated my skewer skill, piercing an eyeball and dragging it towards me on the recoil. It landed at my feet, where I put a foot on it and dislodged my blades.

“Shorty, Gary, catch!” I kicked the eyeball over to the pair, where they happily tore into it.

Trick didn’t have much at his disposal against this beast in the way of skills, but was using his sloven spell judiciously and firing his freeze ray to ice over tentacles that got too close.

Soon the beast was down to his last eye, but this one had to be over a meter in diameter. The last tentacle had disintegrated when Zoya’s whip took out the last small eyeball, but now as it swiveled to focus on us, another problem arose. Fat yellow drops of liquid began falling from the ceiling. One landed on the back of my neck, and I felt a sharp pain accompanied by a sizzling sound. An acrid odor filled my nostrils.

My hand and instinctively went to where the drop landed, and I grimaced as I looked at my fingers, seeing the yellow liquid bubbling and eating into the skin of my fingertips. “Acid!”

I looked at my wrist and saw my HP slowly dancing up and down as the acid damage fought against the healing of Holly’s regen spell. Another drop fell on my shoulder, quickly eating a hole through the fabric, and the orb on my wrist monitor began draining more quickly than the spell could effectively counter.

The acid appeared contained to maybe a five-meter radius from the large eye. It focused on us each in turn, rotating freely from its perch on the ceiling. Everyone spread out to the edges of the cavern, which put us out of the reach of the caustic rain. The downside—it put many of our attacks out of range, as well.

Across the cavern from me, Holly kept up with her onslaught of arrows. The monkeys continued their barrage, along with Zoya’s Tesla cannon and Helmut’s rays of dark energy. Dexi swooped in flaming when she could, but the acid proved too much for her wings and she, too, retreated to the perimeters.

“The thing’s at fifty percent!” Banjo shouted between scorpion shots. That’s when the eyeball’s pupil started to glow red. A thick beam of light the color of lava shot out of the eye and began slowly sweeping the perimeter of the cavern. I tried rolling under it as it approached me, to no avail. As it landed on me, a burning sensation covered my body, as if I was suffering a bad sunburn. The feeling quickly went away.

Well, that wasn’t too bad. I glanced at my wrist and swore. I had the smallest sliver of life left, under five percent. Thankfully, my sprinkler did its job, and soon I was back up just under fifty.

The ray of fire was now heading toward Jeni, who was peppering the eye with darts from her gauntlet. It got her too, blackening her fur, but a douse from her sprinkler set her right again as well.

Trick wasn’t as lucky. He had been firing his freeze ray, but it was proving ineffective. He tried to run, but the beam sped up. Trick shouted as the beam washed over him. When the torrent of fire continued its march around the room, it left behind the dulled, washed-out form of my summoner companion. His minions disappeared soundlessly, and Trick looked around, locked out of the game, unsure of what to do.

Seeing as I was just as useless, I went over and stood by him, clapping a hand on his shoulder for support. From here I had a better view of Holly, who was emptying arrows into the evil orb as fast as her quiver would let her. The beam was quickly sweeping toward her, having made its way through Zoya and Helmut. Both of them seemed to have survived the attack, although the skeleton and zombie both turned to ash as the beam hit them.

“Five percent!” Banjo shouted between blasts from his tail. Lizzie, crouched to Banjo’s right, wore a look of stoic determination as she kept up her attack.

Holly continued to launch arrows as fast as she could, occasionally sparing a glance to the approaching beam, now less than two meters away. When the final arrow found its mark in the beast’s pupil, the ray of fire vanished, and the eyeball began shaking violently. The room rumbled loudly, before finally calming as the eyeball began to wither as streaks of black enveloped the cream-colored orb. Finally, it stopped moving, looking all the world like a giant, blackened raisin hanging from the ceiling like the Devil’s piñata.

I looked to Jeni, then to Trick before taking in the room. Sunlight began pouring in the colorful glass portals lining the walls, as well as through the large broken window above us. The ash from the battles was clearing, until all that remained was the withered husk of the final eyeball.

Trick, still displaying the muted tones of in-game death, took off his goggles and scanned the room, open-mouthed. “It’s all real.” He ran a hand through his mop of fiery hair. “The carvings, the stained-glass windows. It’s beautiful.”

Slowly, like a mountain waking up from a nap, the grinding sound of stone against stone began filled our ears. The walls and floor began to vibrate, and clouds of dust began falling from cracks where the ceiling met the walls. The space was no longer a cavern, but now a grand room. It quickly became evident, however, that it hadn’t finished its transformation. The room appeared to be growing taller. And judging from Trick’s wide-eyed reaction, this wasn’t something the goggles were making us see.

With a shout to the crowd, I booked it for the entrance to the chamber, and they didn’t need much encouragement. We retraced our steps, albeit at a much faster pace. The winding tunnels were the same layout, but gone were the vines and gloom, replaced with carvings and hieroglyphs that I only got the briefest glances of as we ran past. We flew up the spiral staircase two steps at a time, soon finding ourselves above-ground, in the main chamber. The labyrinthine passages that had led us here were gone—instead, an enormous set of doors stood open at the entrance, and within moments we were outside.

The forest was immaculate. Gone were the creeping tendrils and greasy fog that had permeated the place when we arrived. Now, golden sunlight filtered through the canopy, catching motes of dust and making them sparkle as the sunbeams lanced through the misty air to the ground. The rumbling sound had intensified.

We turned to face the temple. The giant gears that adorned the sides and face of the building were no longer encumbered by the vines that had gummed them up, and they were now rotating. I was right—the building was growing taller, each new floor emerging from the inside of the floor below it, like a stone telescope, narrowing as it grew.

Abruptly, the rumbling stopped, and where dilapidated ruins covered with creep once stood, a gleaming, four-story, flat-topped pyramid now shone before us. Even the stained-glass window we had broken now stood whole, gleaming atop the majestic temple, depicting a majestic bird with multi-colored plumage.

Banjo adjusted his monocle and peered at the sight before us. “That’s some pretty impressive work right there.”

Trick interlaced his hands behind his head. “You don’t know the half of it. The mechanism, the telescoping temple. It’s all real. I’m nearly certain I’m seeing everything you guys are seeing.”

I reached up and powered down my goggles, letting them fall around my neck, then let out a low whistle. “I’ll be damned. Iggy, you’re one creative S.O.B.”

Jeni slid in beside me and grabbed my hand. Whether she was currently still the wolf I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t care.

She too, took off her goggles and took in the view, and the rest of the party did as well.

Zoya took a step towards the temple and turned to face us, now dressed in grey shorts and a white tube top. She furrowed her brow. “Why would Iggy build this here, in the middle of the forest? Wouldn’t nipnicks be crawling all over it? How does it work? Why would he…” she trailed off, turning back to the temple.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Helmut raise his hand, then did a double-take. He was dressed in the same black robes as his character, holding his twisted staff. The only thing missing were his undead wingmen. He brought the staff up, then pointed it at Holly.

Zoya’s eyes went to my sister, and she scratched her ear in thought. “You think Iggy built this specifically for an Arborbound quest?”

Helmut nodded.

“The cost alone,” Zoya began, but then trailed off again.

I looked to Jeni, then to Zoya. “Iggy did say they had created real-world locations for the game. This must be one of them, although I wasn’t expecting something of this magnitude. But you’re right—why aren’t nipnicks coming out in droves to see the mysterious forest temple?”

As if in response, the temple began rumbling once again, the giant gears spinning in the opposite direction from before. Slowly, it began collapsing, its telescope-like walls folding downward until just the first floor remained. And then that too started sinking into the earth. As it did, I could see that the tops of the floors were covered in dirt and underbrush. By the time the temple had finished its descent, the gears coming to a rumbling halt, all that remained was a flat expanse of mosh and brush-covered ground.

“Holy…” Trick began, and even Helmut appeared amazed. Not even birds chirped as we stood in silence, looking around the now perfectly normal rain forest.

Banjo poked me in the back of my leg. I looked down at him, and he made little goggles with his fingers, bringing them up to my eyes. I slipped them back on and powered them up.

The forest changed subtly. How, it was hard to say, but the colors seemed more vibrant and the place just seemed more…magical. The rest of the group logged back in as well, aside from Trick, who still had a few hours left on his death cooldown. He looked like he was trying not to pout.

A voice brought my head around. There, standing where the temple had just been, was Shienne, the Arborbound woman who had given us our quest.

She held her arms out wide. “You have my deepest gratitude for what you have done for the Arborbound. You have restored the Temple of Tanchek, and you will be remembered by my people. You will always have safe passage through our lands.”

She then held her arm out to Holly, beckoning her. Holly looked to me, then slowly made her way to the woman, who was smiling welcomingly. Shienne placed something in Holly’s hand, then brought her hands to her chest. Slowly, the green-haired Arborbound began fading from sight, until we were alone in the forest once more.

Holly pressed her hand to the side of her head. The look on her face told me she was listening to the speaker in her headset. Her face broke in a wide grin. “Guess who’s level six?”

I walked over to her and gave her a quick hug before pulling back. “Wow, a double level? Sweet! Good job, sis.”

She beamed at me. “Watch this.”

She pointed to a spot at the ground behind us, and we all turned to look. Thick roots broke the surface and began probing the air as if searching for something, before retreating under the earth.

“And that’s not all.” She put her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes. Leaves began falling from the forest canopy, and an incredibly peaceful sensation washed over us.

Jeni, still in her human form after reentering the game, gaped in slack-jawed wonder. “What…what is this feeling?” she whispered.

“It’s my peace spell. Can stop any non-boss battles with creatures up to three levels higher than me. Not bad for a noob, huh?”

“That will come in handy,” I said. As the effects of the spell abated, I felt them being replaced with a surge of brotherly affection. Yeah. She’s real. That’s my sister.

 

The sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon when we finally made it back to the riverbank where we had left the Galileo.  Helmut and Zoya were parked behind us in a red, fast looking coupe. They got in, Zoya blew us a kiss, then the vehicle zoomed away, disappearing over the tree line.

Jeni scowled at me.

I shrugged defensively. “What? I’m sure that was meant for all of us. Maybe that’s how they say goodbye in the Ukraine.”

This didn’t seem to appease her.

“I’m pissed at them anyway for following us in the first place. There’s something off about her, I’m not sure what. And Helmut… well he’s just weird.”

Jeni seemed to relax a little, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t resist, however, when I took her hand and led her into the cabin. Trick, Holly and Banjo joined us, Holly still giddy with the excitement of her levels and her new spells. Banjo and Lizzie had informed Jeni and me before we left the game that we had levelled up as well, although aside from a bunch of stat increases neither of us had learned anything new. We did have another point to spend at the guild, and I could now unlock third-level creations.

Exhausted, I set a course, and the Galileo rose silently into the evening air and took off over the mountains towards home.

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