The Broken Blade
As I dislodged Seeker from the tree, I could see my actions for what they were: in coming out here on my own, I’d only managed to isolate myself from my friends, from the people who truly cared about me in this strange and sometimes cruel world I now called home.
With the coast finally clear, I resumed my trek through the trees. They were beginning to thin, and the clouds were getting darker now. There was no other sign of life, but the day drew to an end. There was no telling what creatures might come out at night, and I was certain I didn’t want to get caught in the freezing twilight on my own.
I suppose that was lesson number three.
In this world, just as in the one before it, friendships were important.
The death I’d suffered in the swamp, feeling the life drain from my body, and unknowingly using the Second Chance buff Ayva had given me…
For better or worse, none of that would have happened if I hadn’t begrudgingly accepted my new life in EndWorld. If I hadn’t met Raven, Ely, Pops, and Attia. If I hadn’t decided to stay at Harold’s Tavern, or taken the time to get to know Margaret after helping with the Kobolds in her cellar.
In truth, it didn’t seem very likely that I would have chosen a second chance in EndWorld at all if it hadn’t been for my new friends, and the very real risk of losing them.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at how naïve I had been when all of this started. So much had happened since those first few moments during my tutorial.
When Roger and Ayva had explained that there was a way out, where the waves crashed upon the rocky shore at the bottom of the island cliffs, I could only imagine a short future. It was a future that included saying goodbye to my family and then making the leap. Nothing more.
I was a different man now. Very much so. No longer was I looking for a way out. My focus had changed, and now it was more about finding a way forward. Still, I couldn’t pretend there weren’t real dangers. I knew better than that. After all, I had witnessed a real death firsthand.
It sounded so cliché.
I wanted to warn everyone, to shout it from the rooftops. Who wouldn’t want to announce the danger of permanent death to the whole world? But I could only guess how dangerous such knowledge could be. Deep down, I knew it was something the rest of the Travelers shouldn’t know. Not now, at least. Not before we fully understood the nature of the threat.
Before that, I needed to focus on healing the damage that had been done to my soul. I needed to find the rest of the Pristine Snowthistles.
Besides, the result of the world at large knowing that permanent death was possible could be complete and utter chaos. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine the afterlife arms race as Travelers from all walks of life sought out more of the dangerous, soul-stealing weapons. What better way to level the playing field.
We were still in Harold’s Tavern when Raven told me Jörgen had destroyed the remnants of the sacrificial kris. The very same kris he had pulled from my chest. She had said it was a weapon that shouldn’t exist in this world, and I couldn’t agree more.
Could it really be that simple?
What were the chances that a blade like that was unique? Even if it was, the fact that it had somehow found its way into the hands of a level 19 Necromancer who then decided to terrorize the lands near Fort Morrow seemed ridiculous.
There was so much about that man that I didn’t understand. Nothing about that idea felt right. There had to be more to the story. Even I knew that harvesting low level souls wasn’t the best use of a weapon with such power. Why not save it and harvest more powerful souls once the time was right? Why here? Why now?
There was more going on here. There had to be. Whatever it was, I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
My tired muscles cried out in agony as I forced myself forward. There were still miles to cover, and the hour was growing late.
I trudged onward, ever wary of the possible dangers lurking within the sparkling mountain mist, weaving my way through the tangle of skeletal trees.
North and west. West and then north. Without any signs of additional Snowthistles nearby, I didn’t stray from my path, and I didn’t bother stopping to rest. Aimlessly wandering around the mountainside in these conditions would be begging for disaster.
I carefully navigated around massive boulders and other obstacles that cropped up to block my path. I kept walking. Kept weaving. One way and then the other, always forward, always to the next point of reference. A tree. Then a rock. A strange clump of accumulated snow at the base of a large outcrop of stone. That’s where I set my sights.
The constant movement provided a little warmth, which was good, but I knew I would need to pace myself; to keep my level of exertion below the point of sweat. I wasn’t keen on the idea of freezing to death, and having my armor drenched in moisture from the inside even more than it already was seemed like the perfect route to a bitter end.
Though I couldn’t see it from this vantage point, I knew each step was taking me a little closer to the far lip of the shallow ridge line. A little closer to the warmth of a fire crackling in the hearth of Rosie’s Respite. To food and drink and rejoining the company of my friends.
I could almost smell the roasted root vegetables and perfectly cooked cuts of meat I’d grown accustomed to at Harold’s. I could only guess that Rosie would have similar cuisine available for hungry Travelers coming in from the cold.
My stomach growled and my mouth began to water. I could have sworn I smelled the scents of all manner of foods coming from the depths of the fog. Yet it was just an illusion, wishful thinking of the subconscious mind.
The outcrop was getting closer, and I could clearly make out the odd clump of snow at its base now. Soon I’d have to find a new landmark to guide my path.
I scanned the mist, squinting my eyes as I searched for something, anything, I could use as a guide. The rocky outcrop blocked a direct view of the other side, but the solution was simple enough.
Once I reached my destination, I would climb to a proper vantage point and look again. If no other landmarks presented themselves, I’d just have to be careful to walk in as straight of a line as possible. At least until I could find something else to mark my path. It wasn’t optimal, but it would do.
This wasn’t like a thick forest or dense terrain, after all. There was little chance of inadvertently walking in circles on these slopes, if one were careful. Going forward would eventually put me at the far side of the saddle, regardless of how many trivial degrees of deviation my route had taken.
Upon arriving at the outcrop, I stopped to appraise the tall mound of stone. It was much taller than I suspected. At about seven meters in height, it stood like a guardian monolith. Its smooth surface had been perfectly worn by the passage of time.
I could see now that any attempt to scramble up the rock face would be a fool’s errand. It might be possible for a Shadow Dancer or some other class with high agility, but the effort would be far beyond my current capabilities. The only sane option would be to hike up the slope to get a better look from a higher vantage point.
It took more than seventy paces and a few minutes of careful navigation on my part to work my way up the slippery incline and around the towering hunk of rock.
I surveyed the area and felt a weight grow in the pit of my stomach. What I saw on the other side was disheartening. Nothing stood out in the fog below. There were no visible landmarks on the other side of the outcrop. Not one tree or rock emerged from the shimmering fog.
There was nothing else to do but keep moving. I glanced backward and then stopped. Something about the oddly shaped pile of snow at the base of the large stone caught my eye. It felt off, out of place.
Now that I considered it again, there was no mistaking it. The pile looked unnatural. I didn’t know what it was, but a curiosity deep within me couldn’t just accept such a peculiar occurrence, especially not here of all places.
I slowly turned and looked at my bleak surroundings. The snow everywhere else was smooth and crusted over, exposed as it was to the bitter cold. There were no other piles in sight, and I couldn’t remember seeing one at any other point in my journey thus far. Not even when I’d been ambushed by the undead lying in wait beneath the leafless tree.
Unless I was mistaken, this pile appeared to have been gathered on purpose. If that was true, then there was no way I could afford to leave such an unexplored landmark unexplored in my wake.
Returning to the snow pile proved much easier than getting to the vantage point further up the mountain, but it wasn’t without danger. There was a creature out here somewhere. One that walked on two legs, with clawed feet, and a long, purposeful stride.
Every moment I spent exposed on the mountainside was another moment where I could be risking an encounter with something I wasn’t yet prepared to fight.
I stopped at the knee-high mound of snow and knelt down, peering closer at the base of the pile.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. There was no mistaking it. This pile of snow had been gathered on purpose. I didn’t want to believe it, but the evidence was right in front of my eyes.
A frozen bit of fabric stuck out from the side nearest the rock. Blue threads had been cut clean through. The fabric was almost like denim, and not much different from the scraps I’d received after defeating the frozen undead.
Except… there was something different. This fabric was stained with blood, fresh blood that had frozen in tiny streams as it mixed with the melting snow before turning into ice.
Readying my weapon, I prepared myself for an attack, refusing to allow myself to be caught off guard a second time.
I held my blade aloft and inched forward, but the clump did not move. My instincts told me something was amiss. I wanted to run, to scurry back up and around the outcrop and continue my journey to the nearest inn, but there was that nagging urge again. I needed to know what was hidden here.
My mind reeled with the possibilities.
Could there be a treasure chest stashed beneath the snow? The outcrop made for a fine landmark. I could almost imagine a band of robbers secreting away their cache of treasure here, where few might travel to find the score.
Then my eyes went back to the bloody strip of cloth. That was easy enough to explain. Perhaps one of the bandits had gotten injured along the way.
Or… I considered another scenario. It was possible the fabric was attached to a corpse just waiting to reanimate and hunt the living. I supposed it was possible I had walked past other snow piles without even noticing.
I looked at the mound anew. The last thing I needed out here was another undead mob hot on my trail. Leaving it now could prove dangerous.
That settled it.
Whether it was treasure or something far more sinister, I needed to know. If it was another Lost Prospector or Frozen Adventurer or something similar, I’d rather face it now. On my terms.
I kicked at the pile and waited.
When nothing happened, I leaned back and positioned my boot somewhere above the middle. Then, satisfied with the sturdiness of the thin crust beneath my foot, I kicked forward, toppling the mound in large chunks that tumbled down the mountainside.
My breath caught in my chest, and I hurried to sweep away the rest of the snow with my hands.
What I found was not an undead mob. Nor was it a shiny treasure chest filled with gold and loot. Instead, what greeted me was a dark void where I expected to see a wall of rock and stone.
This wasn’t just some outcrop. It was the entrance to a cave, an entrance that was just big enough for a full-grown man to crawl through.
Well, I thought to myself. You know what they say. In for a penny, in for a pound.
After casting Wind Blade on Seeker so I would have a little light, I did my best to swallow my nerves before I began inching forward.