Nova walked into the right part of the ruin. Stepping inside felt like walking into a tomb. There was something in the air. Nova decided to focus on following Ava’s instructions as the AI notified her of perilous areas. Even with Ava’s warnings, passing through the area was hazardous. Sometimes part of the building would shift and rocks would come tumbling down or the floor would break. Throughout her walk, Nova couldn’t help looking at the tree. It towered over the room with its fruit glowing over her like silent beacons. The tree that had become so merged together with the building it looked like parts of the ruin were growing from it or perhaps being swallowed up by it.
“How did this even happen?” Nova asked in wonder.
“The destruction of the Hayeln Guild happened during an attack on Hayeln city. During the attack, several specimens were released. The Cradle tree was one of the specimens. It took nutrients from the attacks and merged with the building, growing to its current stature.”
Nova walked closer to the tree where a portion of the trunk had replaced the wall. The bark of the tree was a pale brown. She reached out and pressed her hand against the tree. It felt smooth, almost polished. She barely touched it when a chill spread from her fingers down her arm. Whispers began to sound around her and then they got louder, tens, no hundreds, of whispers flooded her mind. She quickly snatched her hand back. The whispering stopped.
“What was that?”
“You touched the Cradle tree,” Ava said.
“I heard voices,” Nova said.
“One of the effects of touching the Cradle tree is hearing the sound of many voices of creatures that have interacted with the Cradle tree. Some people believe that the voices are from souls sucked within the Cradle tree but such information has not been proven.”
Nova frowned. “It’s not proven? Then what was that sound I heard?”
“A contrasting theory is that the sound heard from the Cradle tree is an echo contained within the mana absorbed by the Cradle tree. Despite the theories, information has been inconclusive.”
Nova shuddered and looked at the tree with trepidation. “It absorbs mana?”
“Yes, it absorbs ambient mana or mana fed directly to it. It will also absorb mana from creatures that have died near it.”
Nova’s eyes widened. “That is super creepy.” She looked at the glowing fruit that hung from its branches. It was plump and looked like giant translucent eggplants. “Are the fruits dangerous?”
“Eating the fruit of the Cradle tree has been known to cause hallucinations, auditory illusions, changes in behavior and personality. It has also been known to increase the mana pool of the person who has eaten it though with often fatal aftereffects such as internal bleeding, mana immersion, body eruption-“
“Okay! You can stop now. Don’t eat the fruit. Got it.” Nova sighed and looked at the glowing fruit. She was curious to see how the mana flowed through it.
It’s too bad my mana sight is busted.
She was disappointed but not too badly. She could always take another look once her system was back online. She turned away and continued walking through the building. As she did, she tried to make out the rooms she weaved through and what they used to be. Most of it was too much of a mess to discern but sometimes she could make out broken tables and chairs. Some sort of cafeteria. In one room was a desk that was completely undamaged but everything on it had been scattered and broken. An office?
She walked past the desk and then stopped. Looking around, the purple lights were gone. “Ava?”
“I am here.”
“Where are the lights? Is this the Core room?” Nova’s attention turned back to the desk. It stood there, alone.
“You have reached the entrance of the Core room.”
“The entrance?” Nova asked as she looked around. There was no door. The room seemed to be a dead end, a crumpled square of memories. “I don’t see anything.”
“The entrance is .524 meters to your left.”
Nova sighed and turned to her left. There was nothing there but air and further a wall. She frowned and for a brief moment she wondered if Ava was malfunctioning. She took a step forward anyway and immediately bumped into something. Nova stepped back, confused, and then she raised her hand, pressing it forward. She felt something solid slide against her palm. It was slightly slippery with an electric current underneath.
“It’s invisible,” she muttered to herself. “How do I get in?”
“Only a Founding Leader or Soul Traveler can enter the Core room.”
Nova frowned at the non-answer. She pressed her hand against the invisible wall and she could feel it shift under her palm. She pushed harder against it but nothing happened. She frowned. There had to be a way to enter the Core room. Since she wasn’t a founder, then it meant she had to figure out what triggered the room as a Soul Traveler. What did all Soul Travelers have in common?
“The system,” she groaned. She pulled up the system, hoping beyond hope that she would have some message that would allow her entrance.
[Diagnostic check in progress. 177 hours until completion.]
She dismissed the screen and tried to think about what she could do. She frowned and then backed away from the wall. She eyed the area where the entrance should be. Bouncing on her heels, she leaned forward and then ran. She slammed her shoulder into the wall and immediately found herself thrown back and hitting the ground.
“Ow.” Her shoulder throbbed. “That was sort of dumb.”
She lay on the ground and stared at the ceiling. Above her were leaves, branches, and the glowing fruit of the Cradle tree.
I could use Mana sight.
It was a useless thought. She would just blind herself. Besides, even if she could use it. She wasn’t sure if it would help.
But there’s another skill I haven’t used.
A shiver went through her at the thought. She hasn’t tried using mana transfer since her system went down. If she used it now, would she be safe? It was a skill that warned about her erupting every time she used it.
Nova pushed up from the ground. Curiosity pushed at her but there was fear too. She wanted to do it but she could die. It seemed silly to take the chance just based on a single room. She chewed on her bottom lip. A soft warble came from her shoulder and she blinked.
Briney had pulled himself out from under her cloak. She had forgotten the kraken was even here. He hadn’t made a sound the whole trip.
The kraken lowered its body against her shoulder and let out a worried warble. Nova absently patted Briney as she climbed back to her feet. She stared in the direction of the invisible wall.
The smart thing would be to wait for her system to come back up. The smart thing was to take everything slow and safe.
Nova turned away from the wall and walked over to the desk. She reached under her cloak and picked up Briney, placing him on top of the desk.
Nova turned back to the wall. She walked over and pressed her hand against it. The strange mixture of slipperiness and electricity slid over her hand. She closed her eyes. She couldn’t see the mana threads so instead, she tried to feel them. She tried to remember how they felt when she pulled them from the ward crystal. How it felt pulling them from the golem. A spike of fear went through her at the memory but she pushed it down and concentrated. Both times she had been in a panic so it was hard to pinpoint.
All she really remembered was fear and panic. She tried to grasp the feeling of pulling. At first, it felt like a ball, but her sense had realized they were threads. Back then it had been natural, easy. A part of her reached out and then she could feel it. One thread, strong and buzzing. A Second thread, cold and thin. Another thread and then another, they slid over her hand, too many to count. So many that she wasn’t sure which to pull.
Her brow furrowed. She reached out and grabbed a fist full and pulled. She felt a surge go through her body, filling her. It felt overwhelming, like trying to contain a tsunami in a glass.
A noise sounded in the distance but she ignored it as she tried to hold the wave surging inside her, ready to burst through her skin. Then as she felt like she couldn’t hold it any longer and she would break apart, something tugged.
The tug was small at first and then it became a hand, dragging her forward. She lurched and tried to steady herself as waves of mana poured out of her body. All the magic she had sucked away was taken back, but it didn’t stop there. Pieces of her mana were dragged with it, taking from her as she had taken from it. Instinctively, she knew if she didn’t do something she would be devoured.
The thought resonated in her and something inside her awoke. She felt like an inferno and a blizzard at the same time. A swirl of conflicting force that at the same time mixed perfectly together. The feeling was like nothing she ever felt before, more powerful than she ever was in her life. She wanted to slide into that power but instead, she wrenched back and opened her eyes.
In front of her, the world shimmered and a large hole appeared. Inside, she could see a large curved table, chairs, and a strange device in the center of the room like a stage. Everything in the room looked perfectly intact. She stared at it but her gaze drifted away from the room to the entrance itself. It was a portal.
“This is the Core room?” she asked.
“Yes,” Ava said. “Danger! Mathius Crux is about to be intercepted by hostile forces.”
“What?” Nova said. “Where?”
“Mathius is currently located in the entrance room. A pack of flesh sethers is three meters away.”
Flesh sethers? Whatever they were didn’t sound good. “Find the fastest route to him.”
An orange light appeared in front of her and she started to follow it when an agitated warble sounded nearby. She glanced over to see Briney on the desk. She hurried and grabbed him.
“Traveler, I recommend hiding in the Core room. You are not capable of fighting in your current condition.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” She paused. “Are there any weapons I can use?”
“There are several weapons around the guild though many are damaged or broken. There is also a weapon in the Core room.”
Nova frowned and looked back at the Core room. She got the feeling Ava really wanted her to go into the Core room. “If I go in there, will it close behind me?”
“In order to protect the Core room, it is sealed after entrance.”
Nova nodded. “How much time do I have before Mathius is attacked.”
“Mathius Crux is already fighting with the flesh sethers.”
“Shit!” Nova rushed out of the room, hurrying through the ruin. She moved as fast as she could, keeping the light in front of her.
“Danger! Ceiling collapsing.”
Nova jerked back just as a large chunk of wall fell in front of her. She had to be careful. She couldn’t help Mathius if she was dead. She started to move forward when she noticed a branch that had broken off from the tree. It looked big enough to use as a temporary weapon. She picked it up and immediately dropped it as whispers pounded through her head.
She tugged off her cloak and wrapped it around the branch. This time there was no sound. Nova kept moving. It took her longer than she wanted to get to the entrance of the ruin but when she did she was greeted by chaos.
There were at least twenty of them. They looked like snakes but they were the size of a dog. Their head was just a gaping mouth with a spiral of teeth. They slithered across the ground with a speed that felt impossible. Nova crouched behind the doorway as she scanned the area for Mathius. She spotted him in the crater in the center of the ruins. He was squeezed underneath a pile of broken stone, desperately holding a piece of broken door in front of him.
As she watched, one of the flesh sethers threw itself at the door, its teeth steadily chewing through it. At this rate, he wouldn’t last long. Nova had to do something. She looked around, searching for an answer.
“Danger!” Ava warned. “A flesh sether is moving from the south toward you.”
Nova whirled around. She wasn’t sure where the south was but she didn’t have to know. Because one of the beasts threw itself in the air straight at her. All Nova could see were teeth. She dodged to the side but as she did the creature twisted, changing its trajectory mid-air in defiance of physics.
Nova only had a second to look at it, dumbfounded as it charged at her. Nova swung the stick at the monster, slapping it to the side. Its teeth grazed her but even just that was enough to tear a chunk of her shirt away.
“Danger!” Ava warned. “Five flesh sethers moving from the south and east.”
Nova could see several of the flesh sethers separated from the group attacking Mathius and were quickly making their way to her. The one she had hit was already righting itself. She didn’t have time. She needed to make a choice.
Nova decided. She ran.
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