Chapter 33: Dark World
Despite waiting a few hours, it was still night in the other world when the heroes arrived. They teleported back out immediately and waited for more time. They repeated this process a couple more times. However, every time they returned it was still night in the other world.
"Maybe whenever we return here time is stopped there?" suggested Alice.
"We don't have time to find out," said Suzanne. "We'll just have to proceed in the dark for now."
As Alice had said, the four were on a very small body of land. There was a large house nearby and it looked as though the land was just large enough to support whoever lived in the house. The group went up to the house and knocked on the door. They put away their weapons so that they would not threaten the inhabitants yet were on their guard.
"Come in!" called a deep voice from inside.
"Come in?" asked Ron. "He didn't even check to see who is here! Is he expecting company?"
The four walked in and found a man sitting at a table. His clothes suggested that he had just gotten in from doing chores outside. The man looked to be in his thirties and was in good shape however several scars could be seen on his body. However, most striking was that the man was incredibly pale. His skin was almost luminescent he was so pale.
"Excuse me sir, we apologize for interrupting your evening," said Suzanne. "We also have some strange questions to ask you."
"Such as, 'Where are we?' and 'We're from another world?'" the man asked. "Take a seat. I'll explain everything you need to know about the horrid place you now find yourself in."
The four reacted with surprise at the man's response and took a seat to hear him speak.
"This is the world of darkness called Alefgard," the man explained. "Judging by how heavily armed you all are you lot must have been on some sort of adventure and blundered into one of the portals leading here."
"We didn't blunder into a portal, sir," said Suzanne. "We sought out the portal."
The man sighed and shook his head. "You will come to regret your mistake dearly. Whether you did that looking for riches or for treasure, you will find only misery here. This land is a sick mockery of the upper world. You shall never see the sun again."
"Never?" asked Alice.
"It's called the world of darkness for a reason," answered the man. "See my skin? This is how you identify a native-born Gardian. I was born in this world and I've never seen the sun. I've only heard about it from others such as yourselves that have dropped from the upper world."
"I see. Sir, my name is Suzanne. These are my companions: Ron, Thomas, and Alice," introduced Suzanne. "What is your name?"
"I don't care what your names are," said the man. "And I'm not about to give you mine. I serve as the welcoming committee for many who end up in this world. If you need a name for me, call me Welcome."
"Well this is certainly a warm welcome," muttered Ron.
Welcome heard Ron's comment. "You'd best forget such statements if you want to last in the world, boy. You'd best forget all humor and happiness. And you'd best forget whatever fool quest brought you here. Such things will only be twisted around to give you even more pain. If you want to survive you'd be wise to keep your head down and resign yourselves to your terrible fates."
"What kind of attitude is that?" demanded Ron. "We only just got here! You have no idea what we're capable of!"
Welcome let out a sigh. "Look, son. I'm not here to argue with you I'm just trying to give you some advice. People fall through portals every so often and end up here. I send them on their way to the mainland. I've seen powerful warriors fall down here. I've seen youngsters filled with hope and ambition. The greater they are, the more terrible their fate. Master Zoma delights in taking the best and tearing them down."
"So Zoma truly is here?" asked Suzanne.
For the first time, Welcome seemed surprised. "You've heard of Master Zoma? I've never known of people coming straight from the upper world to have heard its foul name."
"It made itself known in our homeland recently," explained Suzanne. "It attacked and destroyed Aliahan Castle."
Welcome sighed again and shook his head. "So the fiend has finally managed to reach into the upper world. At long last, no place is safe from it."
"Not yet," insisted Suzanne. "We're on a mission to take down Zoma. That's why we're here."
For the first time, Welcome expressed anger. "For goodness' sake, don't say idiotic things like that!" he hissed. "If the Master found out, it would turn all of you into its personal playthings! And me too, for the crime of having heard you say it!"
"My apologies, Welcome," answered Suzanne. "We don't mean to get you into trouble."
"You know, if he hates it here so much we could take him to the upper world," suggested Ron.
Welcome heard Ron's suggestion. "I'll have no more of your nonsense! You are stuck here! You have sunk into the darkness like every other denizen of this world! Accept it! I have wasted enough time on you!"
"Sir, if you would but step outside we could show you," said Suzanne.
"Bah! Step outside and do whatever you want!" scoffed Welcome. "I'll not have you wasting my time!"
"Wasting your time? What are we keeping you from?" demanded Alice. "What do you have to lose from just entertaining us for a few moments?"
"I've seen enough schemes and hopes get drowned," answered Welcome. "I've made it a point not to watch newcomers when they inevitably fall into despair."
"Well we're not leaving until you step outside and watch," declared Alice.
"You're not ready to give up, huh? Fine, I'll step outside," said Welcome.
The five walked outside to where the heroes had landed from the upper world. Alice cast a teleportation spell and zoomed into the air. However, unlike most teleportation spells, a circle of light broke through the dark sky and the beam of light that Alice had turned into went into the light. The circle of light then disappeared.
"Have you ever seen that out of a teleportation spell?" asked Ron. "Actually, do you even have teleportation spells here?"
Welcome was too shocked to answer. Moments later Alice returned. By comparison, the group could see that coming from the upper world was not as hope-inspiring. She was engulfed in darkness as she fell. The darkness gradually dissipated until she landed, by which point she appeared as normal.
"See?" asked Alice triumphantly.
"I-I can't believe I'm letting myself believe this," muttered Welcome. "Could you…could you teleport me to the upper world?"
"Of course!" answered Alice cheerfully. "But you may want to get something to cover your eyes. If you've never seen the sun I imagine it will hurt quite a bit for you to see sunlight."
"I'll take my chances," insisted Welcome. With no further delay, Alice teleported the two of them away. The other three awaited their return. It took a few minutes before Alice and Welcome dropped in from the darkness. Welcome was weeping.
"Are you alright?" asked Thomas, concerned.
"Yes," answered Welcome. "I had never thought to see such light in my life. It was so beautiful!"
"Given what you were telling us I'm surprised you've come back," said Suzanne.
"I have a son; he's working around the house here somewhere. I have to bring him up there with me," answered Welcome. "And I would advise you all go back to the upper world as well, and stay there."
"Our mission is to defeat Zoma," said Suzanne. "Even the upper world will not be safe from it for long."
"But at least you will be able to hide from it for a time," answered Welcome. "But I can see I will not deter you. So, I want you to have this as thanks for getting my boy and me out of this hell." He handed a scroll to Suzanne.
"What is this?" asked Suzanne.
"This scroll will give you control of the Shadow Ferry, my ship," answered Welcome. "Normally, I would put you on the ship and use the scroll to bring you to the mainland, and then recall the ship. Now the ship is yours. It is a magical ship that requires no crew."
"That's a very powerful ship!" exclaimed Alice. "How did you keep it from Zoma, if he's as powerful as you say?"
Welcome scoffed. "That demon let me have the ship. It wants the people that come to this world to collect together, the better to cause misery on a large scale. To that end, it has ordered its minions to leave the Shadow Ferry alone. Once it realizes that you commandeer the ship and that you plan to fight it you will receive no respite while you travel the seas. And the Master's aquatic minions are every bit as dangerous as its land minions."
"Thank you for your generous gift," said Suzanne.
"No, thank you," said Welcome.
After dropping Welcome and his son off in the upper world the four went aboard their new ship, the Shadow Ferry. It was as Welcome said: powerful magic flowed all throughout the ship. It took some getting used to but Suzanne was successfully able to control the ship using the scroll. It was a very short journey to get to the mainland. Welcome had pointed them to Tantegel Castle, the capital of Alefgard, and the town of Brecconaly right next to it.
"You know, other than the perpetual darkness, this isn't all that different," pointed out Ron. "I mean, there's still grass and trees around! About the same temperature too; I'd imagine it's almost winter here just like in the upper world. Come to think of it, how do plants survive here without sunlight?"
"That's a good question," said Alice thoughtfully. "I will have to study the matter some time."
"Study it later," warned Suzanne. "We have company."
A group of five slimes had wandered up to the group. Curiously, three of them were colored red instead of the usual blue.
"Oh come on!" protested Ron. "Slimes? We could be discussing this while blind-folded and still not suffer a scratch!"
"See how some of them are red?" asked Suzanne. "I've never seen a slime like that. They might well be dangerous. Don't let your guard down."
"Bah!" scoffed Ron as he blocked an attempted body slam by one of the red slimes.
Fortunately, there was little reason to worry. The red slimes were not noticeably tougher than their blue comrades. The fight was over in seconds and, as Ron had predicted, none of the group suffered a scratch.
"I'm starting to think this horrible world of darkness is just a lot of talk," said Ron confidently. "Oooh! Red slimes! How horrible! Maybe Zoma isn't all that bad and it's just that nobody in this world knows how to pick up a sword."
"In our world, there were areas where there were few things more dangerous than slimes," said Thomas. "Did that make Baramos any less dangerous?"
"Fine, no it didn't," conceded Ron. "But come on guys! Loosen up a bit! Despite what Welcome told us, things aren't looking too bad. The monsters aren't too bad yet, the grass is nice and healthy despite a lack of sunlight, and we even brightened up the rest of Welcome's life. I'd say we're off to a good start in this dark world."
"Speaking of Welcome, I advise we tell nobody else that we can return to the upper world," said Thomas.
"What? Why?" asked Ron.
"What if Welcome is telling the truth?" asked Thomas. "What if this world is as bad as he said and everyone is living in despair?"
"Then we have to help them!" said Alice. "Would you leave them all in their misery, Tom?"
"No," said Thomas. "But hear me out. Think of the logistics. From what Welcome told us, Tantegel and Brecconaly are as populated as the castle towns in the upper world. And it sounds like there are other towns as well, just like kingdoms in the upper world. Could you evacuate an entire kingdom? Could you teach your teleportation technique to other mages?"
"Well, no," said Alice. "The technique I use to teleport us back uses many secret of magic that are only available to sages. Short of finding more Books of Satori and making more sages, it'll take far too long to teach this magic to others."
"But we have to get out as many as we can!" insisted Ron.
"And then what?" asked Thomas. "How much time and resources would you spend on this mass evacuation? How would you pick who gets evacuated? And what of those left behind? If things are as bad as Welcome said then I imagine much of the population would be desperate to leave. They may turn to murder and riots. They may very well attack us in an attempt to kidnap Alice; to use her as a living ship out of here."
"As much as we don't like it, Tom's right," said Suzanne. "We help the people of this world by defeating Zoma. Evacuating people will provide a temporary solution to only a few people."
"Argh! Fine!" said Ron. "But I don't like it!" The look on Alice's face revealed a similar sentiment.
It took about a day of traveling to reach the town of Brecconaly. During that time the heroes did not face anything more dangerous than slimes. They found the town under a heavy guard. However, the guards did not seem too worried about the heavily armed newcomers.
"You're human, so you can enter," said one of the guards. "Just know that you'll pretty much be on your own. We can't babysit everyone."
"Then what are the point of having guards?" asked Ron, after they had left the guards' hearing. "Aren't they supposed to 'babysit' the populace?"
"If Zoma has a minion with something like the Staff of Change than they would have an easy time infiltrating the town," pointed out Alice.
"Maybe they have," cautioned Thomas. "Anyone here could be working for Zoma. And it doesn't have to be a monster."
"Be on your guard at all times, everyone," said Suzanne.
The four began to walk around the town. A good amount of people were out and about on that particular day. The town had more lanterns and lights out; likely because they were the only lights the town ever saw. However, the town's attitude was different from most. People hurried from place to place as though worried they would be struck down at any moment. People joined in conversation talked in hushed voices. There was no laughter or smiles to be seen.
"Is that what I think it is?" asked Alice, pointing to the local inn and her face paling.
From the second floor of the local inn was a man hanging out of one of the windows. It did not appear he had been dead for long. Perhaps most disturbing was that nobody gave more than a glance to the dead man.
"It would seem this sort of sight is commonplace around here," said Thomas. "Nobody even seems fazed by it."
"Was he…murdered?" asked Alice, though it was easy to tell she believed something else to be the case. "Did some bandits break in and throw him out that window?"
"You all are new here," said a woman who was passing by. Her pale skin marked her as a native of Alefgard. "You can always tell who is new by who stares at the suicide victims."
"So it's true?" asked Suzanne. "That man killed himself? And it's common to see this in this town?"
"In this town and any town," said the woman. "That's the way of life in this land and you'd better get used to it. Alefgard is a land of darkness sealed away from the rest of the worlds. Here there is only despair."
"Is Zoma the cause of this?" asked Ron.
"The Master Archfiend maintains this grim atmosphere," answered the woman. "The fiend drinks despair as though it was fine wine. It feasts on hatred as though it were a banquet."
The four decided to gather information about this dark world. As they had become accustomed to throughout their adventure they went to different areas of interest in Brecconaly to talk to the townspeople and find out about the area.
As Alice went around talking to people she caught the attention of an old man. The man, a native Gardian, approached her and started a conversation.
"Hey, lass! Yes, you!"
"Yes?" asked Alice.
"I'm Bert, the local storyteller," introduced the man.
"I'm Alice! My friends and I just came to this land," said Alice.
"Yes, I had heard we had some newcomers here," said Bert. "I believe I saw two of your friends around earlier."
"We've been making the rounds," answered Alice. "I'm sorry sir, but why hasn't anyone told me about you? In most towns it'd be easy to find the local storytellers and bards but nobody has mentioned you."
"Nobody listens to my stories anymore," replied Bert. "Nobody wants to hear stories of how things were before the darkness or how hope can be found even in these dark times. After all, having too much hope tends to get one targeted by the Master."
"Alright, Bert, I'm interested in your stories," said Alice. "You said you had stories from before the darkness? So there was a time when the sun shined in this land?"
"Yes, yes, there was!" answered Bert excitedly. "It is written that our ancestors came to this land from a great pit in the upper world. They were trapped and unable to return home. But all was not lost for they found a lush and beautiful land that was unpopulated. With no other recourse available to them, they decided to settle down here."
"A great pit huh?" echoes Alice thoughtfully. "I wonder if it's the same one we came through."
"Perhaps, lass," said Bert. "Newcomers are known to come from such a place to this day."
"I see. What else do you have, Bert?" asked Alice.
"There is the story of Charlock Castle," said Bert thoughtfully. "It was built by a group of people hoping to overthrow the rightful king of the time, King Soren. Somehow, they managed to build the castle on Charlock Isle, after which they named the castle. It is normally quite difficult to get there due to the dangerous waters that separate the isle from mainland Alefgard."
"The villains built the castle to be the most impregnable fortress the land would ever know," continued Bert. "And they were quite successful. They launched attack after attack from Charlock, from which one could see Tantegel Castle and vice versa from the highest towers. King Soren was almost forced to surrender to the rebels. However, when all seemed lost, they found a way."
"What was that?" asked Alice.
"It is written that when sunlight and rain meet, the Rainbow Bridge is formed," answered Bert. "The Bridge connected Charlock Isle to the mainland, near the city of Rimuldar. From the city Soren marshaled his forces and assaulted the isle. Caught unawares, the forces of Charlock were beaten into submission. As their punishment, King Soren had a great dungeon built into the basements of Charlock Castle. The fortress the rebels had used became their prison."
"That's a great story, Bert!" said Alice. "Do you have any more?"
That night the four met at the inn again. Disturbingly, none of the townspeople or the inn staff had moved the body of the man who had hung himself from the second floor. During the day, Thomas took the body himself and buried it. When the heroes had reunited Alice shared what she had learned from Bert.
"He told me a story of a cave to the north. Even gave me some good directions to it," said Alice. "Legend has it that this cave is closely tied to Zoma. Bert said that at the bottom of the cave is a bottomless fissure, through which nothing can pass. Bert is of the opinion it was created when Zoma came into the world."
"So Bert is saying Zoma is not from this world originally?" asked Suzanne.
"It makes sense to me," said Alice. "Bert says the world was not always trapped in perpetual darkness. It sounds like that is the work of Zoma. If there was a time when this world was not dark then it was probably because Zoma did not arrive here yet."
"I presume that you mean for us to explore this cave that we would learn more about our foe," stated Thomas.
"Yes," said Alice. "I may be the only sage in this world. And we can take what we find to Ramia too. We may be able to find critical information on Zoma, perhaps even a weakness!"
"I also presume the cave is filled with monsters," said Thomas. "And if the cave does have any ties to Zoma, might we also find some organized defense?"
"I don't know," admitted Alice. "There are definitely monsters. Bert didn't say anything about any sort of organization though, just typical monster activity."
Thomas took a deep breath. "So you want us to go into a dangerous cave in a strange world of darkness that will be filled with monsters, who may or may not be defending something within, on the chance we find something to help us fight Zoma, and all this based on the words of a local storyteller telling legends that not even the locals believe?"
"Yes," said Alice cheerfully.
Thomas scowled. "Well, we had a habit of going on poorly thought excursions in the upper world, why should we not do the same in this dark world?"
"Ha! Now that's what I'm talking about!" said Ron enthusiastically. "Even Tom's onboard! Let's go see what dangers this world can muster against us!"
"You're not putting up the same kind of fight that you usually do, Tom" observed Suzanne.
"I've come to realize that my resistance means very little," answered Thomas. "That, and I often happen to be wrong on these things. But I just want us all to know the kind of danger and unknowns surrounding this adventure."
"That's why we keep you around, man!" said Ron, clapping Thomas on the back.
"For the record, Tom, I agree that it makes me uneasy to go on this adventure," said Suzanne. "We'll hold off on the cave for a little while. I want us more acclimated to this world and I want to have a better idea of what awaits us."
"For now, we continue to gather more information," declared Suzanne. "I don't think any of us have visited the castle yet. At least some of us should go there tomorrow. Let's also delay holding an audience with the ruler. He or she may be a pawn or even a minion of Zoma. I know we're going to draw attention to ourselves but let's not stick out more than we already do."
"No! Go away! If any of you had any brains you would be doing what I'm doing now!"
As the four entered Tantegel Castle they found there was a commotion. A man was desperately running towards a fountain. He was bleeding from non-lethal wounds. A bloodied dagger could be seen but between the man and the dagger were some guards chasing after the man.
"Dammit! Don't you see!? Even Rubiss was no match for the Master! What's the point in going on living!?" yelled the man. As the guards closed in he flung himself into the fountain. The guards pulled him out and took him away. However, a crowd had formed to watch the scene.
"Who is Rubiss?" asked one of the bystanders.
"The Master sealed her away!" yelled the man, though he did not answer the question. "He sealed her away!" One of the guards put a hand over the man's mouth and he was dragged away. Nevertheless, the crowd grew even more restless, wondering who this Rubiss was. Other guards came forward and tried to disperse the crowd but the people stayed where they were.
"Who is Rubiss!?" many of the people cried.
The four could only watch the chaos happening around them. The people demanded to know the identity of Rubiss. It seemed as though a riot was about to break out. A middle-aged man dressed in long robes somehow managed to make himself heard in the crowd.
"I know who Rubiss is!" shouted the man. "She's the spirit that created Alefgard! I repeat, the spirit that created Alefgard! And Honst just found out that she was sealed away by the Master Archfiend!"
This upset the crowd even more. Some began to try to fight the guards. Others began to act like the man who was led away; shouting about how there was no point in living anymore.
"We have to do something!" said Suzanne. "We need sleeping spells!"
Suzanne, Thomas, and Alice all began casting their magic. A good deal of the mob began to fall asleep. The distraction thinned out the crowd so there were few trying to force themselves against the guards. However, those that remained awake were still panicked. Many began to run for the fountain as the man had. One woman picked up the blood-stained dagger and slit her throat with it on the spot.
Then a beautiful melody cut through the air. Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen. The song began slowly, with a hint of sadness and regret. Then the song slowly built up notes of hope and happiness. Ron was playing the Echoing Flute quite masterfully.
Seeing that the chaos was momentarily tamed, some of the guards disappeared up a flight of stairs. A few moments later some the guards came back with some musicians. After Ron finished his song, the musicians took over, keeping the crowd calm with their art. The guards started dragging bodies away from the scene; even in such a short time a few had died, most by their own hand.
"Good job, Ron," said Suzanne. "Things would've gotten out of hand without your help."
"Yeah, that was beautiful Ron," said Alice.
"Aw, stop it you guys," said Ron, blushing. "I just hoped it would help."
"You should listen to them, young man," said a voice from behind the four. An old woman had approached the heroes. She was dressed similarly to the man who had told the crowd about Rubiss. "Never refuse a compliment when it's given. Especially not in this land."
"Well, thanks, I guess," said Ron.
"The four of you look quite tan; you must be newcomers to Alefgard," noted the woman. "I must apologize for the actions of my subordinates, it is because of them that such mayhem occurred."
"Who are you?" asked Suzanne.
"Oh, dear me, I forgot to introduce myself," answered the woman. "My name is Tracy and I am one of the lead researchers around here. I actually was born in the upper world myself, though I've lived here so long that I imagine I am just as pale as a native Gardian."
"Actually, now that you point it out, you are a little less pale," said Alice.
"Where were you from?" asked Suzanne.
"Assaram," answered Tracy.
"We're from Aliahan," said Suzanne. The four introduced themselves.
"Who were your subordinates?" asked Suzanne.
"I don't know when you came in but it started when Honst tried to kill himself," answered Tracy. "Made a show of it too, taking a dagger to himself right in the courtyard here. The guards saw him and managed to get the dagger away from him and then he tried to drown himself in the fountain there. This is what started to draw the crowd. Finally, Ben riled the crowd up further by telling the people what had happened to Rubiss."
"Is it true, what they were saying?" asked Alice. "Is this Rubiss the being who created Alefgard?"
"I'm afraid I'll be having no more of this talk," answered Tracy sternly. "It's already caused enough trouble."
"You can trust us not to spread the word around," said Suzanne. "We're trying to gather information on Zoma."
Tracy sighed. "While I always appreciate the pursuit of knowledge, that is one subject that should be left alone. The more you learn of the Master Archfiend the more likely one is to fall into depression."
"Not us!" declared Ron confidently. "We defeated one Archfiend already! We can take another!"
"Ron! Quiet!" scolded Suzanne.
"Do you refer to Baramos?" asked Tracy.
Realizing there was no point in lying now, Suzanne answered, "He does."
"I've heard of this Baramos from some of those who came here in the past few years," said Tracy. "As powerful as I'm sure it was, the Master Archfiend is still stronger. All Archfiends are mere pawns of the Master. After all, I bet Baramos did not shroud the upper world in darkness for centuries."
"So it's true?" asked Suzanne. "Zoma is the reason this world never sees day?"
"It is," answered Tracy. "Its power is incalculable. It is that realization that led to the madness that my underlings started today. I have to get back to work but before I go, do you mind if I see that flute you used?"
Ron handed the Echoing Flute to Tracy. Tracy studied the flute for a few minutes. "As I thought, there is magical power in this instrument. It reminds me of another magical flute I saw many years ago. If you have no pressing business, you may be interested in going to the village of Kol, to the northeast."
"There is another magical flute there, you say?" asked Ron.
"Well, there was," answered Tracy. "I lived there for a time. There was a skilled musician there who used a powerful flute. The Fairy Flute, he called it. I always wanted to study it. But before I could, he was struck down by the Master Archfiend. He was bringing too much joy to the people and the Master couldn't have that. I don't know what happened to the flute but perhaps you could find some information about it in Kol."
"Thank you for your time and advice," said Suzanne. Tracy smiled and walked away.
"Excuse me," said the voice of another woman approaching the group. Unlike Tracy, this woman was clearly a native Gardian. And she was dressed as a cleric. "Did I hear that you four came from Aliahan?"
"That is correct," answered Suzanne. "Why do you ask?"
"I tended to the injuries of a brave man who came from Aliahan," answered the woman. "He was terribly wounded when he arrived; he had suffered such horrible burns it was amazing he still lived. But his spirit was stronger than any I had ever seen. As soon as he could, he left my care to try to fight against Zoma. I'd never seen such courage. I was wondering if you knew him."
"What was his name?" asked Suzanne.