When Nova opened her eyes, she wasn’t in the ruins. She was in a dark room, covered in pale brown branches. Glowing white figures surrounded her, staring down at her.
“Another one,” someone whispered.
“No, this one is different.”
The whispering grew louder and louder, weaseling into her ears. The pitch grew higher and higher until Nova couldn’t take it anymore.
All at once, there was silence. Then the whispering started again, but this time quieter.
“Different. She’s different,” several faint voices said.
Nova stood up and as she did the figures surrounding her backed away. She looked at them and the more she stared at them the more she could make out faces and figures. She blinked and her eyes seemed to adjust until she realized she was staring at people. No, not just people. There were animals, monsters, and even figures that looked like they could be elves. All here, all glowing white, and translucent.
“You’re ghosts. Of course, because why not,” Nova said, groaning.
This set up another rush of whispering.
“Is that what we are?”
“Are we ghosts?”
“Am I a ghost?”
“I don’t want to be dead. “
The whispering grew in crescendo and Nova groaned as her head began to thrum.
“Stop!” Nova shouted again. Hundreds of faces turned toward her. “Please, just…can you keep it down? It’s…painful.”
“It’s because you don’t belong here,” a new voice said and a male ghost stepped forward.
He was older, with the grizzled look of a warrior. He wore shattered armor and a battle-ax was gripped in his hand as if it was an extension of him. He stepped forward and the other ghosts moved away. He looked at her with a grimace on his face.
“Then why am I here?” Nova asked.
“The tree tried to swallow you and it couldn’t.”
Nova frowned. “Then how do I leave?”
“Don’t know. You have to figure that out on your own.”
Nova groaned. She didn’t have time for this. Who knew what was going on out there to her body? Plus, Mathius was alone, fighting off two guards.
“I need to leave,” Nova said.
“Don’t we all,” the man said with a dark chuckle. “But you’re here now. You’ll leave eventually…maybe.”
“That isn’t reassuring,” Nova shot back.
“It wasn’t meant to be. The truth is the truth.”
Nova wasn’t satisfied with that. She looked around her but all she saw were ghosts and branches of the Cradle tree. There didn’t seem like an obvious way out. She turned around and the ghosts watched her, curious. The warrior stayed nearby but also just watched. It was all a bit eerie.
I just need to wake up.
She closed her eyes. Wake up! Come on, Nova. Wake up!
She didn’t feel a change. She stomped her foot. “Wake up. Damn it!”
A snort came from beside her. Her eyes snapped open and she saw the warrior looking at her, his mouth twitching. He looked away when she caught his eye. Nova rolled her eyes.
“Don’t just stand there laughing at me. If you have a suggestion, tell me.”
“I don’t,” the warrior said. “Otherwise, I would have left long ago.”
“How long have you been here?” Nova asked curiously.
“Don’t know,” the man said with a shrug. “Too long.”
A soft murmur went up at that. Some of the ghosts had drifted further away but most remained close, watching. Nova felt a stab of pity but it was washed away by dread. She gathered that she wasn’t dead but that didn’t mean she hadn’t fallen into a coma. She could still be stuck here.
I have to get out of here.
She just didn’t know how someone escaped a soul-gobbling tree.
What can I do? She thought about it. Let’s start with the basics.
She switched to mana sight. Everything changed. All around her were threads, white threads that covered the entire area. For a moment, she could only gape but as she looked around, she noticed the threads seeped into each of the ghosts and traveled to the branches.
She looked down at herself and immediately freaked out. At least ten threads were around her body. She tugged at the threads, trying to break away. The threads didn’t pull back and she found herself tumbling over. Despite that, the threads stayed connected to her.
“What the hell?” Nova said as she climbed to her feet.
“What are you doing?” The warrior asked curiously.
“There are threads there.” Nova pointed to the branches. “It’s connected to everyone here.”
The warrior frowned and then he moved to the branch. “This one?”
The warrior lifted his hefty axe and swung down on the branch. The axe passed through the branch like it wasn’t even there.
“Ah. Forgot that doesn’t work.” For a moment, the warrior looked confused and then shook his head and started to walk back to Nova.
“Maybe if you cut the thread?” Nova asked hopefully.
“What thread?” the warrior asked.
“That one,” Nova said pointing.
The warrior looked at her, confused.
He couldn’t see it. It might be that he didn’t have mana sight but then wouldn’t one of the other ghosts have mana sight? There were too many for the odds of no one having mana sight. Something else was going on, but Nova pushed it aside and walked over to a thread and point.
The warrior nodded and walked over and slashed down where she pointed. For a second the thread trembled but it didn’t break.
“Well, that didn’t work,” Nova mumbled.
“It was worth a shot. Any other ideas?” the warrior asked.
“Give me time,” Nova said. She refused to accept she could be stuck here.
The warrior nodded his head, so calm given the situation. Then again, as he said, they had been stuck here for a while. Was he following along with her to just indulge her or did he hope she might manage to actually free them?
Is that what I want to do? Free them?
The answer was yes, but she didn’t know if she was capable of doing that. For now, her main goal was to get free then she would figure out what she could do for them.
My list of people to save is getting longer and I haven’t managed to help anyone so far. Do I really think I still can at this point?
The thought was a harsh reality that seemed to rot at pieces of her mind. She shoved it down in the pits of her stomach.
Just because I haven’t. Doesn’t mean I can’t.
She balled up her fist.
She looked down, taking stock of what she had with her. Everything she had on her, including the artifact. She focused her sight on the artifact. She could see a faint glimmer of mana but it was far away. When she tried to reach for it, it was trying to reach for something over a chasm too large to cross.
She considered trying again but discarded the notion. She wasn’t sure how long she had been passed out but she knew she needed to find a solution that was faster before trying for ones that were more of a long shot.
Right now, she knew she was still connected to her skills since her mana sight worked. That meant she could use her mana. Which was completely worthless since she couldn’t use it without a crystal.
Void manifestation would have been awesome right about now. I could make the threads just dissolve.
She tugged lightly at one of the threads tied to her when an idea occurred to her. She did have a way to make mana threads vanish, didn’t she? Nova wrapped her hand around the thread with an almost manic grin.
She had been about to use mana transfer but all the mana around her was white.
Doesn’t that mean it’s unattuned?
She decided to give it a try. Tightening her grip on the strand she silently called out the skill.
The thread shuddered and then she felt it slide inside her, joining her own mana. The thread was gone. She threw her hand up and cheered. Several of the ghosts moved closer to her at the noise, while the warrior gave her a cautious look. She ignored them all and started to bring up her system screen when the tree trembled.
“Why do you disturb our home?”
Nova blinked, surprised.
“Who is that?”
“I am me. I am home.”
Nova paused. “You are the Cradle tree.”
There was no answer.
“Well, let me out and the others too.”
“Home. Safe. Stay.”
“No thanks,” Nova said.
The tree didn’t respond. Which was fine with Nova. She grabbed another thread and absorbed it. The tree shuddered.
“Stop. Don’t hurt home. Don’t hurt me.”
“Let us go,” Nova demanded.
“It’s talking to you,” the warrior said, moving closer to her.
There was no answer from the tree. Nova waited but when nothing else happened, she reached for another thread.
[Mana Absorption failed. Limit reached.]
“Damn,” Nova said. It did mention only a small amount, so there was a limit on this skill.
“What did the tree say?” the warrior asked.
“That this is some sort of messed up home for us,” Nova said.
The warrior frowned. Then he turned around and shouted. “We don’t want to be here! Let us go!” His face was scrunched up with desperation.
“Safe. Home.” A voice rang out through the tree, causing everything around them to shake.
“This isn’t our fucking home. This is torture!” The warrior shouted out angrily.
The tree didn’t answer.
The ghosts began to murmur, their voices growing higher and higher. The sound sent sharp waves of pain through Nova.
“Quiet!” Nova shouted. “I think-I think I might have a plan.”
The ghosts gathered closer to her at her words, their voices louder and louder. Nova clutched her head as the pain grew.
“Back off,” the warrior growled out. “Give her room and shut up!”
The ghosts backed away, though the voices only lowered, not completely quieting.
“What’s your plan?” the warrior asked, looking at her intensely.
“I’m going to try to take the threads holding you all,” Nova said.
The warrior looked at her, doubtful. “You can do that?”
“I’m going to try.”
The warrior nodded. “Then I’ll protect you.”
Nova remembered how his axe just slipped through the branches. “Are you sure you can?”
The warrior rolled his shoulders and lifted his axe. “It’s been a while since I fought. Let’s see what I can do.”
Nova was doubtful but she didn’t dissuade him. After all, either way, she was doing this. She looked around. She would need to find a point where she could gather the most mana in one go. If she just absorbed just one thread then she would have to transfer it back out in 30-seconds. It would end up in a constant see-saw which might be a valid option but she wanted to go big.
She moved to one of the branches tied to the threads connected to her. Hopefully, they were all connected. She took a deep breath and then grasped the branch.
She felt the mana slide towards her and then all of a sudden it rushed into her in a wave. It was a shock that hit her like a tsunami, almost wrenching her from her feet, but still, she held on. More mana poured into her until it felt like it was burning through her. The power was so strong and more and more came. As the mana poured into her, Nova began to notice ghosts began to disappear.
“Stop.” The voice was soft and confused. “You are taking them away.”
“Let us go,” Nova said, gritting her teeth.
“This is home,” the tree said in confusion. It seemed to be struggling to say something. “They will go without me.”
“That’s their choice,” Nova said as more mana poured into her.
[Warning! Mana overload pending.]
“No. This is home.”
“Then deal with it!” Nova yelled out as she sucked more of the mana into her.
Suddenly some threads shot towards Nova, but as soon as they reached her, they were sucked into her.
“Stop. You must stop.”
[Warning! Mana overload. Mana immersion imminent.]
Several threads shot out but this time they wrapped around some of the ghosts. The ghosts twisted and then threw themselves at her. The warrior jumped in front of her and slammed his axe into them. This time the axe didn’t just pass through. It knocked the ghosts aside.
The warrior started to laugh.
Nova looked away, focusing on pulling more of the mana even as her body felt like it would burst. She couldn’t stop. Not yet.
“Let us go you damn hypocrite. This isn’t home. This is a prison!” Nova yelled.
“Not safe. Dangerous. Leave. Get out!”
Suddenly Nova felt something slam into her and the connection between her and the tree broke.
[Warning! You have 30 seconds to transfer mana before eruption.]
Then the world went dark.
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