There had to be a way to get out of this forest.
Ragna drew her saber. She slashed against the air, and in the middle of her movement, the blade lost its momentum and stopped. Yet there was no resistance and no weight that forced her to halt. In front of them was a barrier that seemed to have a substance and at the same time not. It resembled a video game when one of these invisible walls blocked the progress of the player.
“So, what now?” Ragna concealed her weapon back in its scabbard.
“I think, it’s best if we return to the temple”, said Altera. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a connection. Plus.” She pointed at the red light that glimmered in the distance. “It’s the only thing we can make out in the darkness”
All three pulled out their phones and activated the searchlight function of their devices. The faint light allowed them to keep track of each other and discern which path was open and which had a tree hiding in the shadows. The last problem they needed was a concussion from smacking their heads into the trunk of a tree.
Within the sea of darkness that was the nether regions of the Rising Forest, the neon illumination of the temple served as a lighthouse. The trees reached hundreds of meters into the sky, blocking out even the slightest specs of light.
Perhaps it was the doing of this creature? Whatever that being was, it was beyond human. She had heard that ancient Aes was brimming with beings so powerful that all seven captains together would pale in comparison.
Supposedly, Aes had been an unforgiving death world abundant with natural mana, where evolution had to get creative to keep up the pace. But this…this thing? This was not something mere evolution could have achieved. She wouldn’t be surprised if this being could best the Allfather. If that was the power of a god, then it was only logical that humans would submit to it. What else could they feel but fear and reverence. In front of such transcendent creatures, one would readily forego one’s independence and emancipation.
She had never understood why humans used to worship things – be it gods, other humans, spaghetti or cats – but seeing this creature with her own eyes, it became clear as day for her. If these beings had such an enormous amount of power, what would happen, if one were not in their grace?
“Can we be sure that this thing doesn’t attack us again?” Ragna clung to Altera’s arm.
It was bad enough that they couldn’t make out their surroundings. If they weren’t careful, they could lose each other in this maze of trees. How the Hel could people live in this forest? Was this some messed-up ‘survival of the fittest’-mentality where the people of the forest had been willing to accept the loss of the “weak” for the overall prosperity of their people?
“If it wanted to kill us, then it would have done that already,” said Altera. “I think we have proven us to be worthy enough to live.”
“Then why are we trapped?”
“Perhaps it thought death was too easy.” Eric laughed and waved his phone around. “There are punishments worse than death.”
“Don’t joke about that.” Ragna gulped.
If this was a god, then it could afford to spend an eternity tormenting them. Not even a day out of the city, and they had become enemies of the gods. If they made it out of the forest, what other abnormalities would await them on this journey?
“Gods are supposed to be fickle,” said Altera. “Their view of…everything is alien to us. At least that’s what I’ve read. So, who knows what this being could be thinking?”
“Assuming it had trapped us in the first place,” said Eric.
“It is rather likely that it did. Listen.” Altera halted. She put her finger on her lips and pointed with her other hand at her surroundings. Ragna closed her eyes. Trying to concentrate, she cleared her mind and focused. But her ears didn’t pick up anything. There was no strange sound or any noise that was unusual.
She opened her eyes and looked at her companion in confusion. “I hear jack.”
“Exactly,” said Altera. Ragna and Eric tilted their heads in unison. “There’s no sound. This is a forest. It should be swarmed with insects and other animals. Yet we don’t hear a thing. And it’s not like there were no animals here. When we entered the altar room, we could clearly hear the buzzing of insects.”
“So, the animals all have disappeared?” Ragna asked. “I mean there was a fire.”
“No. The fire is already gone. They would have returned or stuck to the non-burning parts”, said Eric.
“They should have returned by now and we should have heard their noises anyway. And I definitely heard buzzing when the fire had disappeared.”
“So, what’s your conclusion then?”
“There are two possibilities, I think. One.” Altera raised her index finger. “This stag god somehow sacrificed all animals in this forest. Two.” She raised a second finger. “The animals felt that something was going to happen in this area, and so they escaped. Like how animals can sense that an earthquake or a tsunami will happen. Considering that this god is supposed to be a guardian deity here, I cannot imagine that it would kill the inhabitants. That leaves only the second option. The animals were all able to leave the perimeter successfully. Whatever this barrier is, it is in tune with the forest.”
“So, you’re saying that nature hates us?” Eric sighed. “So much for trying to live eco-friendly and being sustainable.”
“I would still be cautious,” said Altera. “The animals may be gone, but I cannot guarantee that we won’t find other criminals like the Clockwork Coterie.”
As they came closer to the temple, the light grew stronger. But it wasn’t just the radiance of the temple’s light that increased. Moonshine leaked through the gaps in the leaves and trees, and as they stood before the temple, the moon stared at them in the night sky in its full glory.
“That is really a temple?” Ragna’s eyes scanned the building. She had not paid attention before, as their attempts to escape from the Clockwork Coterie and that abnormal being had been a more pressing issue. Now, she had the time to examine its structure. This colossus of a temple was positioned in the center of a clearing; a metallic grey cuboid body erected into the sky. Red neon light ran along its edges, and in circuit motion through the entire body. If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve thought it’s a computer tower.
What kind of people built such a mechanical structure to worship a forest god? And how were they able to do that? If their founders had built it to worship a god, then it meant the building had to be several millennia old.
They entered the temple through an automatic door, and as they stepped into the inside, an aquamarine light flashed. It circled the walls and stopped over Ragna’s head. Before they could react, a ray of light radiated at Ragna’s glove. Her glove flickered in the same light as the building, and the light disappeared.
“Administrator rights have been overwritten. New access has been granted.”
A female voice spoke through the room. It was the same voice that not too long ago had ordered their deaths. And as the voice said these words, electric sounds sparked from all directions. If Ragna had to compare it to something, it sounded like a computer that had rebooted or a processor working at full speed.
“So, what just happened?” Ragna stared at her glove, as if she had an artifact of doom in her hand, ready to enact the end of the world or smite rude shoppers trying to skip the grocery line. With her fingers, she imitated the legs of a spider.
Nothing unusual. The voice said that the administrator’s rights had been overwritten. Did that mean she was the admin like with a computer? Just what was this place? At this point, she wouldn’t be surprised if the building was an actual computer.
“So, that means that you are now a representative of this god, right?” Altera observed the workings of the temple. When Eric and Ragna did not reply, she looked at them and tilted her head. “What? You are now an administrator, right?”
“Not an administrator for the church. Though that wasn’t that unlikely either”, said Eric. “She is the system’s operator, I think.”
Altera cleared her throat. “Of course. Of course.”
Ragna narrowed her eyes.
Now that she thought about it, Altera had always insisted on training her in old-fashioned ways. She only used modern technology when it was necessary. Even her phone was an old Zobel.
“You’re not good with tech, are you?”
“Of course, I am. I strive for excellence in every area.” Altera blushed and marched forward.
“Now that I think about it,” said Eric as they followed Altera. “This might explain how this Clockwork guy controlled the prison cells. With him dead, we should have access to every area.”
“So, that means we have to search the entire buildings for clues.” Altera turned her head.
As it was the case with the upper levels, three plateaus and two corridors divided the ground floor. The middle plateau served as the staircase that connected it to the upper floors. Oak trees grew on the first platform – the entrance to the complex. The trees formed two unconnected half-circles that only left a narrow path towards the corridor on which they could walk on. On each side of the entrance door, two statues of stag stood. They were metallic like the entire building.
Given all that happened this night, one would expect that they started to move and attack them with laser beams.
Ragna gazed at them. As they stood at the entrance, guarding it with their majesty, it seemed their red eyes gazed back at her. She gulped and turned around.
“This place is giving me the creeps.” Her body shuddered. “Why couldn’t they make this look pink and cute?”
“So, you want a bunch of plush rabbits lying around?” Eric asked. “That would be creepier. Imagine all these black doll eyes staring at you from every corner. No thanks. I’m gonna stick with my robot statues.”
“Still, if this was a place for worship, then wouldn’t it be better to make it more welcoming? To get more believers?”
“That’s a more modern way of thinking. In the past, it was more important to respect and fear gods. It didn’t matter if one or a thousand worshipped your god. Ensuring that the existence and knowledge were passed down to the next generation was more important. It was about one’s own relationship with the gods.”
“You know quite a lot about these topics,” said Altera, her hand caressing the bark of a nearby oak tree.”
“It would be strange to not gather knowledge in my profession. The Archipelago has many temples from the old ages that are still around. And even a few descendants of those people who are keeping the traditions and knowledge alive. Though.” Eric raised his arm and pointed at the interior of the temple. “Nothing even close to this. All temples looked like they were built a long time ago. This one here shouldn’t have been built before the war.”
“Anyway, I think we should start with the room there.”
Altera pointed at the door that lied at the very end of the corridor.
“That’s going to be a looong night.”
Eric and Altera nodded and Ragna sighed.
Hopefully, there wasn’t a time limit, like if they didn’t manage to leave the barrier by sunrise, then their bodies would turn to stone.
“Doesn’t something seem weird about this.” Ragna stopped and looked at the spiraling staircase. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about its design was irritating her. There was an issue, and one had to fix it.
“I know what you mean,” said Eric. “The steps don’t align symmetrically with the plateau. It ends abruptly, and it looks kinda awkward. Guess, the designer screwed up.” He grumbled. “And now I want to fix it too.”
They walked past the staircase towards the third plateau. A metal door blocked their way. Ragna swiped over it with her hand, and the door opened, revealing the room behind.
As the three explored the temple, they realized, this building didn’t just serve as a temple to worship a god. It was a house. The indigenous people that had roamed the continent thousands of years ago would call this place their home. Here, they had lived, eaten, and slept. They had built families and died to pass the complex on to the next generation.
As scriptures and other relics revealed, the inhabitants of the tower met their end a few decades before the Trutner siblings had founded the kingdoms. At that time, Aes had many religions and hundreds of gods. Interestingly, none worshipping Twice or Yggdrasil – though, select texts mentioned the world tree and its function. Ragna had heard of this in history class. But a series of crusades had extinguished all of them, except for one. Her ancestors emerged victorious and would dominate the continent. Still, they were unable to destroy this temple. The people of the forest had built a fantastical building that withstood the test of time. Though it was strange that the temple was unknown to the public eye. As unexplored the Rising Forest was – scientists all over the world wonder how it had survived the Great War –, a building that dwarfed the forest’s trees should catch anyone’s attention. The Bifrost was running above the forest every day. And no one had ever noticed it?
They had reached the summit again. Before they hadn’t noticed, but the entrance had a carving: May the tower be open to those to be basked in the twilight. Our Lord shall guide them.
“What does that even mean?” Ragna rested against the stone table, where their belongings had been. She stretched her arms and closed her eyes.
“Something doesn’t feel right.” Eric stroke his chin and waved with his hand over the wall.
“What do you mean?” Altera asked while observing the stone carvings.
Eric shrugged. “If I only knew. It’s just…I don’t know.”
“May I ask you something?”
Altera turned around. “You deserted the Vikings, right?”
Eric buried his face in his hat. “What makes you think that?”
“Cool motive, still an asshole. You quoted Instructor Smorgas. He is kinda famous for his phrases.”
“This could be a coincidence. If his quotes are so famous, then I might have heard about them one way or another.”
Altera narrowed her eyes and stared at his face, making it clear that she did not believe his words and would not withhold her inquisition.
Eric sighed and relented. “Fine. You got me. I used to be a cadet like you but then I learned about our history.”
Eric nodded. “The history of the war. What started it? What are we fighting for? What is the enemy fighting for?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Altera sat next to Eric. Over the palm of her hand, she materialized ice and formed it to snake that bit its tail and encircled a tree. On its skin, one could read each rune of the Futhark. Altera had drawn the symbol of Aes.
“World domination.” She reached out for the ice sculpture and crushed it under her fist. “Kaiser Wilhelm III wanted to rule over the world and create his own twisted utopia. When it came to morality, it was pretty black and white. Even his Paladins realized he had to be stopped. That’s not exactly news.”
“Yeah. But why didn’t the hostilities stop with the death of the Kaiser? And how was he able to gain the support of his kingdom?”
“Propaganda,” said Altera. “He was able to convince his kingdom of the need of living space and his master plan for the west. Whatever ideology existed before was a mere tool for the Kaiser’s megalomania. Afterwards, a weakened Vaix was desperate to protect what it still had. Eventually, they tried to restore their former glory. We got scared that they would try again and pushed back. And that scared them. Now we have this mess, where each kingdom is trying to trump the others. Using any underhanded tactic possible, as long as everything looks fine on the surface. Of course, that is oversimplifying the actual situation but you get the gist.”
“You are thinking too rationally. I am talking about the core conflict here. Why are Vaix and Veil in conflict to begin with?”
Altera tilted her head.
Seeing that she couldn’t provide an answer, Eric continued. “I asked myself that question. Sure, Wilhelm III wanted to conquer the world for power. But what about his kingdom? What keeps them going for a thousand years? And not just since the war. As I studied the history of the kingdoms, I realized that the hostility between Vaix and Veil has always been a constant. It was always there.”
“So why are they enemies?”
“Because of Twice. At least that’s what I could find out. Yggdrasil is floating above Castle Gimli, which made Veil god’s kingdom. If I had to guess, Vaix believes that they should be the chosen ones. Defeating us may make us reconsider Twice or something like that.”
“Perhaps that is true, but you didn’t answer my question. Why did you leave the academy? What do you hope to achieve by learning history?”
Eric smiled. “I wanted to know why we are fighting. Why are we sacrificing our lives? And when I learned how far the cause reached, I wanted to find its very root. I think that the truth holds the key to ending the conflict and achieving peace without having to annihilate the other side.“
Altera lifted herself and cranked her neck.
Perhaps there was merit in finding the original cause. But in the end, it was insignificant. Once Twice had been the cause. But the kingdoms have evolved and so did their goals and needs. With each Kaiser, the ideology permutated until it became a cause that had nothing in common with the basis. Just like how humans and animals had a common ancestor, it evolved. Well, she wasn’t so cruel as to tell him his dream was worthless. That wasn’t the truth either. And more importantly…
“You are hiding something,” she said.
“Of course.” He jumped up.
“Altera, you just gave me an idea. Let’s go to the ground floor.”
Eric ran out of the room. Altera whistled to Ragna and told her to follow. They ran downstairs to the ground floor, where Eric told Ragna to wave her hands alongside the end of the stairs. Next to the third stag statue, emerged a clicking sound, and the floor opened, revealing that the staircase reached further down.
“How did you know?” Ragna asked.
“Something was bugging me,” said Eric. “The tower has a numerical motive. Everything is divided by three. Three prisoners per jail. Three sections within the tower, and so on. The one exception was the floors. There were twenty. Seven, seven and then six. It was also strange that there was no facility in case of an emergency. If the inhabitants of this temple had something important, they would hide it somewhere. So, I thought that the first section would have seven floors as well. There being a hidden cellar made the most sense.”
“But how did you know it was here at this spot?”
“Remember how you complained about the staircase earlier? It didn’t end abruptly because of a mistake. The staircase goes further, and the plateau cut it off in the middle.”
“Let’s go down.” Altera drew her weapon. She and Eric put on Eric’s bandanas, while Ragna protected herself from any potential lethal gases that could have developed over the millennia, with her mouth mask.
They descended the staircase. Aesthetically, the hidden area resembled the floors above. They reached the end of the stairs and saw a door. A green display etched on it had a rune carving.
As we dine under the guise of the gods, we shall flourish this garden to spring eternal. Till it basks in the twilight’s glimmer. Our godsend task must be fulfilled. Or the gods forsake us, and we shall never set foot outside this paradise and perish with it.
Ragna gulped. That wasn’t reassuring at all. Hopefully, that was not an actual prophecy. She wiped over the door, and it opened, revealing a large corridor with more doors. She went to the first one and swiped it open. Ragna fell on her knees. She screamed and backed away from the room.