Book II - Chapter 60

Chapter 60

 

[Snake Report]

 

The polls are in. I'm going to christen my newly discovered maneuver as: [The Tiny Snake God Tactical Healing Nuke]

[TTSGTHN] for short.

Is it a real skill?

Well, it is now.

Hear that [Voice of Gaia]?

I can do what I want.

Sss…

No, I still can’t see the menus to check any of this stuff. [TTSGTHN] is me taking matters into my own lack of hands here. Listed below are my personal observations.

[TTSGTHN] – A spell for those times when you want someone to be pissing holy-water for weeks.

Benefits:

  • Heals just about anything.

  • Like, really: anything.

Disadvantages:

  • Legitimately the most expensive spell I've ever cast.

  • Makes me fall asleep early, working in compounding effect with the candied-appal-itis. Bad enough so I almost missed all the boats.

Extreme Disadvantages:

  • Brings this guy back.

...

I said: “It brings this guy back-“

I am the voice of fire, the serpent of flame. No enemy shall stand before my wrath. No believer shall go undefended.

Sssss…

They will fear our name! ALL NON-BELIEVERS WILL BEG FOR OUR MERCY-

Yeah.

Oh, I hear ya.

THEY WILL TREMBLE! As we slither upon the land-

Okay okay okay, sssssh.

Sssssssssssh.

AS YOU COMMAND!

... phew.

Thank the Tiny Snake Go-

ALL HAIL THE TINY SNAKE GOD. OH, GREAT AND SLITHERY MASTER OF ALL, KEEPER OF THE GREEN FIRE! LEVIATHAN OF THE DEPTHS, DISASTER OF ALL WHO-

-d fucking damn it.

SSSSSSSHHHH.

YES, GREAT ONE.

They say that realizing you're completely insane is the trickiest part about being crazy- but let me tell you: I am painfully self-aware at this point.

If shushing it didn’t work, I’m really not sure what I’d do.

At least it’s responsive, now.

This guy…

Hey, what do I call you anyways?

I am the voice of faith! The mind of what is yet to be, yet already is! What was brought forth to find another! Not alone, but united!

Uh…

…ug.

Give me a minute to swallow that.

I’ve been interrogating this thing while fighting off the urge to sleep. Still not sure what to make of it. Just throwing questions at the wall, seeing what sticks.

What's your deal, anyways? Do you just really like healing magic?

I AM GIVEN LIFE BY ITS RADIANCE! SUMMONED INTO BEING BY A WILL UNSHATTERED! WARPED BENEATH HORRORS, IT ONLY GROWS STRONGER!

Alright, alright, no need to shout.

YES, GREAT ONE.

So, do you just like to drop in and annoy me when I use healing magic? Is that it? You’ll be on your way again soon?

I am eternal.

Sure, but I could hypothetically command you to go take a long slither off a short pier… right?

I am forever bound! Second only to the soul who guides this flesh! Lesser only to the mind which has led this vessel to greatness!

Cool... cool, yeah.

Alright-

We are blessed, makers of our own path! What are enemies before our power? Not even the mother who gave our vessel up, can hope to stop us! WE ARE GREATNESS! UNSTOPPABLE-

SSSSSH.

YES, GREAT ONE.

Just… be quiet and… I don’t know. Do whatever it is you normally do when you’re being quiet. I’ll get back to you.

AS YOU COMMAND, GREAT ONE.

Yeah.

And don’t think I’ve forgotten the crap you pulled when I was helping Eveth.

Ssss… Great One.

Like he’s trying to butter me up or something.

Imra’s the only one allowed to call me that, and I tell her to cut it out every other conversation.

Yeah…

Yup.

Yep.

Well, anyways. I guess this means I'm officially insane.

No more half-way guesses about it.

Totally nuts.

Not even going to try and rationalize. This guy seems to be here to stay, ever since I went and healed that kid.

Save someone’s life with the most impressive display of magic ever personally mustered, and I get a lunatic’s voice for more permanent company. No good deed goes unpunished.

Really wasn't worth the appals.

…even if they were pretty good.

Tricky to eat, but unhinging the jaw, little bit of fire magic.

That’ll do it.

Yep.

What a day.

Some shopping, some charity work, some free candy…

Managed to spin up, not one- but two new followers for the Tiny Snake God.

Follow that up with a wild wagon ride and ignore the onset of snake schizophrenia, for the most part I’d call it a success.

Sure, the wagon is kinda… ratty. Almost didn’t make it out of the city, what- with the way Alem was driving. Four wheels, creakier frame than when we started: but it is filled to the brim with a bunch of adventuring stuff.

So that’s cool.

Ropes, potions, bags full of important stuff, a dead body...

Okay.

Yes, that last one puts a bit of a damper on the whole “Adventure to Dungeons Unknown” theme we had going. Especially reconsidering the argument that took place when they were loading the poor guy in with the cargo. It really left some of the group in a sour mood.

Eveth was a bit of a beach, but in her defense, she had some very valid points. Waking up and finding a ghoul latched onto someone’s face would suck.

At the same time, though: I feel like setting someone’s dead brother on fire for an impromptu street-side cremation is pretty much asking for trouble. Alem and Dren were the only things preventing a double homicide there. Imra and I stayed way clear of that one.

Not our circus. Not our Monkeys.

But, yeah.

We’re out of the city, at long last.

Eveth and Alem have finally clammed up. Front-seaters over there, keeping lookout.

Tuth’s mute to begin with, but he's staring at that dagger of his something fierce.

Dren’s out cold.

He healed a bit too many people this afternoon, then he saw a bunch of flying boats… combination effect. Seems to have knocked himself out early.

The kid snores, by the way.

Just in case you were wondering.

Yeah.

I’m not much better.

Unreal how exhausted I am, honestly.

Voices in my head, extreme magical expenditures: I’m just trying to fight off sleep, until we’re farther away from the city.

Not letting my guard down just yet, is all. Too many people have been trying to murder us over the past few days, and I know the moment I stop paying attention is when everything goes to complete and total shit.

So, I’m hanging on for a couple more miles.

Just a couple more.

Sss…

This doesn't quite scream "Adventure" like I'd been hoping.

Tired and certifiably insane.

I guess we did have a hell of a send-off, though. Not going to claim in any way that we didn’t start off strong, because in reality it was pretty epic.

Bells were ringing, people were screaming: heard more than a few hysterical claims about how this was the end-times. By the time we’d picked up Tuth, I’m pretty sure that I saw some smoke coming from a bunch of different directions. Which, as terrible as this probably sounds, worked out quite well for us.

The couple guards still posted at the gates were in full-blown panic, just waved us through. Alem got the wagon out of the city without so much as a visual inspection.

Understandably, adrenaline was running high for a bit after that.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of a few hundred flying boats blasting through the sky directly above the city, or the complete and total shitshow going down just a few blocks behind us…

But after an hour of it… in the end, that was all it was.

Just a bunch of flying ships, and some riots we’d already left a couple miles back.

There weren’t any soldiers dropping down from the sky to arrest us. No magic spells launched at our wagon from above, or issues of “surrender immediately.”

They just blew right by us. Outpaced the wagon by a large margin and accelerated from there.

Thus, excitement was replaced by confusion.

Dren said the fleet was close to the Entire Royal Navy. At a rough count, almost every military ship that was fit to sail, was up there, and they were probably loaded to the brim with cargo, based on the way they were maneuvering.

No idea how he could tell, but I guess he’s a bit of a nerd when it comes to this subject.

I’m not judging.

If you’re going to be nerdy about something, I feel like magic-powered, levitating ships aren’t the worst.

Pointing at this ship, and that ship, and that one… Dren seemed suitably enthusiastic about the overhead affair. It was a decent way to keep me engaged enough to avoid falling asleep, too.

I learned a couple random facts for whenever I happen to attend another Tuesday Team Trivia.

After Dren clunked out, though, the cheery conversation of boat-facts took a turn for the serious. Group consensus is that something bad has happened.

From what I’ve gathered, to the East, there are apparently mountains where [Constructs] come from. Eveth’s evil science project originated from there. It’s a long stretch where the continent tightens up a bit distance-wise and the continent turns into a bunch of jagged peaks. Unnaturally angled mountain ranges that stretch out to the Northern and Southern oceans and form the general outline of a zone that’s stuck in a perpetual state of conflict.

So, the East is bad news.

The Human Empire has got some heavily fortified war camps established over thataway. They also have “fronts” they send out troops to, in order to deal with whatever evil stuff the Dwarves happen to be sending.

Seems like a lot of work, but this is apparently seems to attract a large majority of the dangerous stuff before it wanders deeper into the Empire’s territory, so it’s a lot more manageable than the other options. Like, trying to hunt down individual [Constructs] that just aimlessly wander around until they find people to murder, or wells to poison, or other terrible things.

Anyways: for obvious reasons, everyone agreed that ships going East would have made a lot more sense.

Unfortunately, they're heading in the opposite direction.

West.

Out where there's nothing except some coastal cities and an ocean.

So... yeah. This had a majority of our wagon spooked. Enough so, instead of learning about the wonders of flying boats, I got a tense and boring conversation that was centered around disconnected worldly affairs.

Dren took the sensible choice, falling asleep ahead of time.

Smart kid.

Fighting to stay awake through this was equivalent to torture. Hot car after an all-nighter with nothing on the radio but NPR: torture.

I paid attention, though.

Eveth said the ships could be intending to cross the ocean, heading to another continent entirely. I guess those have been having some troubles recently. She mentioned something about a fire.

Alem countered this, and then defended his statement with a long-winded speech on how the Empire would never leave the Eastern Fronts unattended. I guess the oceans take awhile to cross, even for ships like those.

Tuth made some hand gestures, and when Eveth tried to cut in, Tuth retaliated with more hand gestures. Probably rude ones. Not sure what the last few meant, but I can guess.

“Universally translated” sort of motions.

Eveth retaliate with her own version of those, vocally. Some of which, I'd like to add, didn’t translate.

All I really took away from it, was that the Emperor leaving his Palace is a pretty big deal. To this point, everyone agreed wholeheartedly.

The Emperor’s a lot like stoop-kid, I guess.

Imra and I stayed out of it.

Neither of us are exactly boating experts. I think I almost put a hole in my cousin’s pontoon one time as a kid, and I never got invited back. Meanwhile, Imra spent most of her life hunting dinosaurs in a forest… so I don’t know what we would have added, even if we had the energy or motivation to try and join the conversation.

Don't know much about flying battle ships.

Or Emperors.

Or Geography.

Or what is, or isn’t, normal anymore…

Wow, this is turning out to be a long list.

Anyways, I was happy to settle with having no idea what’s going on. Imra was happy to meditate and ignore the annoying humans, and the rest of our wonderful party was plenty happy to argue amongst themselves.

In the end, nothing was really settled.

Eveth seemed to know more than she was willing to say, but I got the same vibe from Alem. Heck, Tuth couldn’t even talk, and I’m pretty sure he was holding back.

I don’t know.

In a literal sense: I’ve spent a large chunk of my time, proportionally speaking, living in a hole, in the ground. It’s probably to be expected I don’t know some weird things humans are up to.

The only insight I have, is in my faith to the Tiny Snake God.

All Hail.

ALL HAIL THE TINY SNAKE GOD-

SSSSSSSHHHH.

Ssss…

Damn.

Shut up.

I am so freaking tired.

Gotta stay alert, though.

Just a little while longer. Just until the city is a bit farther away.

Those walls are still visible, somehow. I can see the torches lit on the battlements…

It’s weird how quickly I’d gotten used to that place. Even if it was giving off a strong impression of constantly teetering towards disaster. I was acclimating: buildings, smells, food… human stuff. If there’s any specific reason, I’d have to say that I just really missed being surrounded by those concepts.

Nothing like that in the Dungeon. Not really. Even with the Goblins or the Elves, it wasn’t quite right. Felt foreign at best, or a mockery at worst.

Out here though, there’s just sand in every direction.

There’s nothing.

Like the land is almost completely dead.

Past the occasional abandoned farm and their stone markers. A few big rocks, the occasional dried-out husks of dying vegetation. Not much to concern oneself with, not even someone as paranoid as I am.

Well… except for that last boulder.

There’s something fishy about it, just sitting there, suspiciously close to the road.

Not moving.

Probably knows I’m onto it.

That’s right, boulder.

I know what you’re up to.

Mess with this wagon, and I’ll have you know I have at least one nasty [Leviathan Breath] in me.

Yeah.

That’s right.

Don’t take your life for granite.

Stay down, buddy.

Sss…

Making up dangers out of boredom is a bad habit to get into, but there’s not much else to do at this point if I’m going to stay awake.

I look as I feel, and I feel like a defeated noodle.

Barely capable of moving. Slowly working on the recharge while I digest two sugar-coated appals, won through a mighty victory. My spoils of war, as it were.

I’d congratulate myself for being so great, but I got tired of that after the first few hours, so now I’ve got nothing to do but lay here. Just lazing around on Imra’s lap, trapped in my own head.

Like a bum.

Gotta say, having put some thought into this by now: after busting my tail, trying to get up here to the surface, life really hasn’t been what I expected.

I really thought a world with magic and stuff would be… well, better?

That all the bad stuff was underground, and the good stuff was waiting for me, if I could just slither far enough to get there. That, when I got up here, things would be less awful, and I could find a way to return to some semblance of a normal life.

There was a roughly sketched out plan, you know? I’d work at my magic until I had figured out a way to go back to being human- or something close to human. Find and marry Miss Paladin, then start a bakery or something.

At the very least, I figured I’d be living without the constant threat of danger hanging over my head.

But this world?

It’s a mess.

It’s just a serious mess.

I’m sure I’ve read at least a few stories that danced around this sort of subject. The classic “Dark Lord” vs the “Chosen Hero” kind of genres, where armies of darkness threatening the peace, and apocalypse was on the horizon. How the fate of mankind teeters on the balance of one determined lad who happened to find the special sword.

I’ve been wondering about that a bit, recently.

Maybe the Emperor everyone keeps talking about is the “hero” if we’re going to keep the analogy, but I’ve got no idea who people think he’s going to fight.

So far as I can see, there is no Evil Sorcerer or army of the damned. Instead, it just hasn’t rained in a really long time, and now everything just sorta sucks.

Ssssss…

I won’t lie. It makes me uncomfortable.

How do you fight something like that, anyways? It’s like a bad joke.

You can defeat an army, probably. Battles are winnable if you have a chance to fight them, but how do you fight a drought that won’t go away? Or a lack of harvestable crops?

Wait it out?

Hope it gets better?

At that point, it’s just a worst-case scenario with a bunch of damage control thrown into the mix.

I don’t know.

All I can figure is that the Emperor of mankind probably has his work cut out for him.

Tough gig, for sure.

Even now that the sun is going down, it’s so dry that I don't even have water to shape with. I had some I was playing with to keep me alert, but despite my best efforts it evaporated. Bit by bit, I lost particles.

I’d ask Imra for more from the crates, but I know the rest might be needed for drinking.

So, I’m just stuck here.

Stuck in my head.

Trying not to think of the weird voice I’ve got muted somewhere in the background, ranting about nonsense.

Trying not to think how some of those boulders are likely dangerous and not to be trusted.

Trying not to think about what the hell I’m even doing here.

Did the Tiny Snake God actually tell me to do all this, or am I just crazy? Has my mind been irreparably broken by the horrible things that happened to me down in the Dungeon? Am I really following signs, or am I just some poor, unlucky, reincarnated-bastard, who keeps ruining everything and everyone he gets close to?

No.

See, I’m consciously aware: I can’t afford to think like that.

It’s not allowed.

Right now, I have to distract myself. To redirect- stay one step ahead, always.

I'm always doing something.

Nervous habit, or survival skill, I know it. Otherwise I start to spiral down.

Down, towards bad places.

Thoughts and memories I really don’t want to go to.

I don’t want to go there.

No more creatures hunting for me in the dark.

No more agony of having my body burned from the inside out.

No more horrible teeth reaching out from beneath the waves, or howls rising around an ancient tree stump, or screaming flames in an alley: each begging me to spare them…

No-no-no: I need something else. Something else, anything else.

That’s the trick.

Instead of clearing my mind, I have to fill it up.

Fill it until I can’t carry anything more. Make the burden so much that I need to juggle them to keep going.

There’s no way to just wait here, laying still.

Torture.

How does Imra do it?

It’s almost funny, how easy it is for her to just… let it all go.

Right now, her state of mind might as well be the surface of a pool.

This timeless place, where there’s no wind, no ripples, and no interruptions.

I don’t understand it.

Not as though her life has been a walk in the park recently, either.

She landed here in human-territory, surrounded by a species she despises, and I keep telling her she’s not supposed to kill anyone. Stress is expected in this sort of scenario, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Her mind is so quiet and still that I can see my own reflection.

Right there on the surface…

If I set my mind to it, I think I could dive right in.

I really could.

Weird thoughts…

Surreal as it sounds, I don’t feel as though this is a complicated metaphor. To me, this pond I’m looking into isn’t any less real than the dust along the road, or the wagon creaking beneath us.

I can see myself, reflected there.

Clear, colorless: all it would take is for me to lean forward and let the depths swallow me up.

I know it.

It's not a matter of what I can or can't do, because I already know the answer. I know the answer with such certainty, there’s not even a question in my mind.

I could, but that’s not what terrifies me.

Sitting here, looking down into the depths, what’s truly frightening is a such a simple thought. The recognition that, while I'm waiting here, quietly staring over the edge?

Maybe she’s doing the same thing.

Maybe she’s been doing this the whole time.

… Hey, Imra?

"Yes, Great One?"

I was wondering if you were still awake.

“I am, Great One.”

Ah, okay… good.

“If you wish to rest, I will keep watch.”

No, I’m alright.

“Even Gods rest at times, Great One.”

You don’t have to call me that, Imra. I told you, the titles aren’t necessary.

“What else would I call you?”

My name.

“Your name?”

Yeah, it’s… it’s…

Uh… huh. That’s weird…

I know I had one. I remember, there was something people used to call me…

You know what? Never mind, Imra.

“As you say, Great One.”

More ripples along the pond. I don’t know how she can stay so calm. No matter how hard I try to replicate this, the talent is beyond me.

Hey, can I ask you a question, Imra?

“Always, Great One.”

If you didn't need to follow me around, what would you do instead?

"You ask what I would do, as opposed to serving you?"

Yes, exactly.

"If I were to abandon your service, it would only be for death."

What? No- not like that.

“How, then?”

Just, if you were to do something else. Something else, and not die.

"But to abandon-"

Not abandon, I meant: if you didn't have to serve me at all. What would you do, then?

"...I have debt."

Just pretend you're debt free.

"I cannot."

Try and declare metaphorical bankruptcy for me, and imagine you are. Just for a minute.

"...is this a test, Great One?"

No, Imra, it's not a test.

"I am loyal, I will always be loyal-"

I know, Imra. I know, that's why I'm asking. I'm curious.

"About what I would do?"

Yes. If you didn't have to follow my orders, if you were free to do as you pleased: what would you choose to do?

"I can't imagine it."

Why not? You didn't always serve me.

"I am a daughter of my tribe. I was raised to serve the Great One."

Raised to... right. Okay, fine. Let me phrase it this way, then. Imra, if you were a God, what would be the first thing you would do?

"If I were a God? Like you?"

... Yes.

“If I were a God…”

More ripples along the surface. I think this question really must trouble her.

Ah, they’re settling back down… she’s decided on an answer, I think.

"If I were a God, Great One, then… I would grow a new forest."

Grow a... what? You mean here?

"Yes."

Here, in the middle of this desert? With nothing but dust and rocks for miles?

"Yes, if I were a God. That is what I would do."

Huh...

“I am sorry. This is an answer which displeases you.”

No- no, it doesn’t, but… is there any particular reason?

"This land, this place, it has been broken.”

A forest would fix this?

“No, never, but I feel it would be the first step."

Hmm...

"I apologize, Great One. I should not have-"

Stop that, Imra. Relax, I’m just thinking.

"But I-"

I agree. This place should have a forest.

"You do?"

A few trees might be nice to have here.

"Great One, I am eternally honored."

Let me ask you another question, Imra.

“Of course, Great One.

How would you grow a forest here?

"How?"

How would you do it?

"I'm... not sure."

Would you use magic?

"If the world gave me its blessing? I would not refuse such a gift."

What if you didn’t get one, though? There's no water though, no rain. To have a forest you need water.

"Yes, this is true."

How would you grow one then?

"I do not know, but I would find a way. Maybe if I were a powerful God, I could pull water from the ground."

Ha... that might work. What kind of trees would you grow?

"Any that would take to this soil.”

If you had a choice, though?

“I believe that I would very much like to see Great trees."

Great Trees?

"Yes, if I were a Great One, I would like to watch them grow, up towards the sky."

The sky, huh?

"Yes."

I suppose you'd want wings, too.

"Wings... I think the Great Trees alone might be tall enough for me. I don't know if I would ever want to climb higher than that."

Even if you were a God?

“Even then, Great One.”

Great Trees… they were impressive, weren't they? I feel like they reached the clouds, at least a couple of them.

"Yes, the elders of my village often said that they were one of the few parts of the world left, that did not know hate."

You know, Imra… I've been thinking.

"Yes?"

I've been thinking that it must be very strange for you, being here.

"Strange? No, it is not so strange."

No?

"Not at all."

Why not?

"To be here is my purpose."

Your purpose... you mean to follow me around and get into trouble?

"I have debt. Many-times over, I have debt."

You don't have to.

"I do."

I could forgive it.

"Even if that were true, I would still choose to honor it."

Why is that?

"Because even if I had no debt, I know you are destined to do great things. It is my purpose to help you achieve them."

Great things, huh?

"Yes."

What if I don't?

"You will."

How do you argue with someone like this?

No hesitation, at all.

I don’t really know what to say in return. Jarring as it seems, there are no ripples on the pond with that statement. There is only a sense of finality.

Wheels are still rolling, wagon is still creaking, but it's quiet again. Bit by bit, the road passes out from under Imra's feet. Far off, the city almost seems a shadow on the horizon, sun setting into nothingness as the colder winds sweep in.

I’m so tired.

The pool of Imra’s thoughts is still here, in my mind’s eye.

Its surface is calm.

Motionless.

As if it had never moved, not once.

Strange.

I’m staring at it again, without even noticing. I’d thought that I’d looked away, but maybe I was watching this whole time?

I don't remember.

For some reason that doesn't really bother me.

You know... I think I like it here.

Here, in this place.

Just sitting in the center of it all, watching the surface.

All around, I see it.

Still.

Perfect.

It's just... it's just, I've got to wonder. Here and now, it’s been bothering me.

Am I staring in from above?

Or below?