The Broken Blade
I descended into darkness with only the glowing green orbs swirling around the blade of my sword to light the way. The rock floor of the tight passage was cold and unforgiving but, after a few feet, the tunnel began to widen.
After a few minutes of slow going, the ceiling of the small tunnel was tall enough that I could move forward in a crouch. Twenty body lengths later, it opened to a larger chamber.
Based on my previous experiences, this was just the sort of place where I might expect to find a dungeon.
My thoughts returned to my friends, and I resolved to make a note of the location if my suspicions rang true. We could always come back as a group to defeat whatever mobs lurked here and loot the treasure together. I stood and stretched my back before immediately looking at my log for a status message.
No such luck.
It seemed this wasn’t a dungeon after all.
I held my blade high, using the light of the wind orbs to illuminate the open space in front of me. There had to be a reason the entrance was blocked off. As I panned around the shadow-filled room in front of me, an unexpected sight sent me lurching backward in fright. Instead of finding a treasure chest or pile of loot, I was startled to lock eyes with an injured man’s blank and unblinking gaze.
By all appearances, it looked as if he had only recently passed from this world. But then he shielded his brow with one hand while his other arm reached upward.
“Please, Traveler,” he pleaded, his voice soft and frail. “Do not attack.”
I lowered my sword and took a knee near the man. Even in the eerie, green light, I could tell his lips were pale blue and severely chapped. Dark circles surrounded his tired eyes. The ground beneath his torso was stained a violet shade of red that looked closer to black in the soft glow emanating from my blade.
It was slightly warmer here in the cave than it was outside, but the man’s outstretched fingers trembled. He slowly lowered his arm, and I noticed a mound of stained bandages that sat piled by his side. They were soaked through and frozen in the cold, stagnant air.
I looked back toward the small speck of light coming in from the outside world. How had this man mounded up the snow to block the entrance and then crawled his way to this very spot?
What’s more, how long had he been here?
You Inspect Phineas McDermott.
Level 8. Hit Points: 35 / 385.
Phineas McDermott is affected by Bleed and Hypothermia.
“What happened to you, Phineas?” I asked, nodding to the icy, blood-soaked fabric of his tattered jerkin as I pulled the flint and tinder from my inventory.
The man didn’t answer at first, so I began setting out pieces of wood I’d collected earlier. Pieces of wood that I’d hoped to fashion into the Makeshift Clubs Jörgen had commissioned on behalf of his buyer. Each one would have been worth 10 silver apiece once I’d put the final touches on them, but I couldn’t just walk away or stand by while this man froze to death.
I still had a few more of the better specimens in my inventory, and I was certain there would be plenty of time to collect more wood for the clubs later.
“Don’t you worry,” I said as I set to work, scraping the outer bark with the edge of my blade and creating a small tinder pile to catch the spark. “We’ll get you warmed up, and then I’ll take a look at that injury of yours. It looks like this cave goes back a ways, so the smoke shouldn’t be too bad.”
“Do you have any healing abilities?” Phineas asked, sounding hopeful before he succumbed to a fit of coughing that wracked his frail body.
I shook my head.
“I’m sorry,” I answered, striking flint to tinder and gently coaxing the breath of life into the glowing ember. “I wish I did.”
“I see,” he said. The light in his eyes dulled, and he settled back against the stone.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye while I nursed the budding flame. It was much harder to light a fire in these conditions without a willing wick or a bundle of small sticks, but it seemed my luck was beginning to improve.
Phineas’s chest rose and fell in slow and shallow breaths. His face took on a resigned look of calm.
“Stay with me, Phineas,” I urged.
The small fire caught my pile of shredded bark and clumps of sap. I slowly added slightly larger pieces to help feed the greedy flames. Additional bits of hardened sap sped the process, and the fire soon roared to life.
“Do you have any potions?” Phineas mumbled.
I ignored the repeated question and slid Seeker back into its sheathe before positioning myself closer to the injured man.
“I have no potions, Phineas. I’m sorry. How badly are you hurt?” I asked, leaning closer. “Can you move? Let’s get you nearer to the fire. You’re bleeding and you have hypothermia, and if I had to wager a guess, I’d say you might be in shock. If you don’t warm up soon, I’m afraid you’re going to die.”
Phineas shook his head. “I can’t die yet. I’m too thirsty.”
I considered the situation for a moment. If I didn’t do something fast, I was certain the man would perish. But what could I do? Without access to any healing spells or potions, there was a good chance he’d die no matter what I did.
There was no telling how badly he was injured without examining the wound he was hiding. The look of his blood-darkened bandages led me to believe it wasn’t good. At the very least, I could try to make him a little more comfortable. Maybe then I could better assess the situation.
I sighed and dug into my inventory once more.
Besides the materials for the wooden clubs, I had brought a bottle of Harold’s strawberry cordial. I had intended to open it once I’d met up with my friends. It was an offering of gratitude for all they’d done for me over the past week while I’d waged my own battle against death.
The cordial wouldn’t mend the man’s wounds, but it might entice him to move closer to the fire, and I was sure it would provide at least a modest amount of comfort.
“Say, Phineas?” I prompted.
The man panned his dazed stare in my direction.
“Have you ever been to Harold’s Tavern?” I asked.
A faint smile spread across his lips, and he nodded. I watched in awe as the fond memories warmed his countenance and demeanor.
“Aye,” he said, turning his eyes toward the growing flames. “Harold’s Tavern. It’s been some years since I’ve had the pleasure of gracing those tables. Harold has some of the best stories and the finest cordial in all the lands of Harrund, friend. Mark my words.”
I couldn’t help but return his grin.
“Well, you’re in luck, sir,” I said. “I don’t have much in the way of stories, and I don’t have any water, but come. Sit near the fire with me and I’ll share a bottle of Harold’s finest.”
Phineas instantly perked up.
“Cordial, d’ya say? You have some with you?” he asked.
I nodded and produced the bottle.
He held his side as he inched closer to the flames. It was clear he was in pain, but I still couldn’t gauge the extent of his injuries.
With a little luck, and after plying him with some cordial and the warmth of the fire, it was possible his hit points might begin to recover a little.
“Oh.” I chuckled. “You wouldn’t happen to have a corkscrew on you, by chance? I didn’t think to bring one. If not, I suppose we could break the bottle. Might spill a bit, though.”
“Ha,” he exclaimed, then struggled through another fit of coughing. “Waste some of Harold’s cordial? You must be half mad, if not entirely so. Hand the bottle here, young man. I’ll show you how it’s done.”
Young man? While I still felt like a total noob in EndWorld, at nearly forty at my time of death, I wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. I squinted my eyes and appraised my new companion.
Now that he was sitting in the firelight, I saw him anew. He was an older gentleman, and his hands were calloused and worn. But his clothes, though now torn and soiled, indicated he had seen at least moderate success as a tradesman.
Phineas was a self-made man, I wagered. One with years of life experiences as an NPC in this part of the digital world. His wisdom could be invaluable, and learning a new trick for removing corks from bottles might come in handy; if even as nothing more than a parlor trick used for the amusement of friends.
“Okay, Phineas,” I said, handing him the bottle of sweet and bubbly strawberry beverage. “Show me your trick, but I’m trusting you. If you hop up and run off like some clever bandit, I’m going to be very disappointed.”
He grunted in approval at my sorry attempt at a joke and gently tipped the top of the bottle toward the crackling fire.
“Some trick that would be,” he said as he slowly rotated the curved glass, always keeping the neck just out of reach of the dancing flames. “I think we both know I won’t be running anywhere any time soon.”
My eyes grew wide as I watched the cork slowly rise until the moment when he deftly plucked it free and tossed it in my direction.
“Very impressive,” I admitted, catching the cork and looking at it with an appraising eye.
“Stow that away, young man,” Phineas said with a wink. “In all my years of practicing the trades, the real key to my success has been holding onto things that others might have thrown away without a second thought.”
“A cork?” I asked, doubtful.
“Everything can be useful in the right circumstances,” he explained. “A cork can plug a hole in a sinking boat. A dented shield can open the door to one’s escape.” Then he eyed the crackling fire. “And the materials for Makeshift Clubs can bring lifesaving warmth in a long-forgotten cave on the side of an accursed, frozen mountain.”
I expected Phineas to take a long swig right then and there, but he didn’t. Instead, he placed the bottle on the ground between us.
A pained expression marked his face.
I knew that look.
I’d lived it.
He sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve before retrieving the chilled bottle and taking a small sip.
Then he passed it to me.
“My daughter,” he said at last, noting my expression. “I haven’t seen her in nearly five years. Not since her mother died, you see. I figured it was time I swallowed my pride; was on my way to see the lass. You know, check up on how she was doing and the like. I didn’t expect the trip to be the death of me.”
I took a drink. Tiny strawberry flavored bubbles tickled my nose. Another small swig passed my lips before I handed the bottle back.
“There’s still time,” I said, unwilling to give up on his recovery just yet.
Phineas was already looking much better than he was just a few minutes ago. I was still holding out hope that the warmth of the fire and a little cordial would get him on his feet. It would take us longer to reach the inn from here in his injured state, but I was sure my friends would understand.
What I wouldn’t do for a number of potions or a healing spell. It was an oversight I fully intended to rectify just as soon as I reached a decent town.
“Aye.” Phineas took a larger swig and flashed me a half-smile. Then he placed the cordial by my side. “There’s always time. At least, until there isn’t. Now all I can seem to think about are the moments I wasted when I was certain I had more. Turns out, we don’t get infinite second chances.”
I felt the sting of truth in his words and my heart mourned the months I had missed before entering this world. Even just recalling the existence of memories I never got to experience filled my soul with bitter regret. I could almost feel them, or phantoms of them, at least.
There’s always time. At least, until there isn’t.
The ghosts of a thousand memories were heavy and left nothing but an overwhelming emptiness, the weight of which was growing increasingly harder to bear.
As far as second chances went… I remembered how it felt when I came to in the swamp after my return visit to the tutorial world. How Ayva had entrusted me with what I assumed to be her soul, her essence. How, despite everything, I was still faced with the prospect of losing the life or death battle against the Necromancer. I couldn’t expect any more do-overs. But that wasn’t all. There seemed to be something more, something that was harder to explain.
When Roger told me the only successful upload of my consciousness had come from the scan during my first treatment at Cyberternal Industries, I couldn’t even begin to process what that had meant. Three months I had missed. Since that moment, I’d often wondered what the rest of my life must have been like.
Three months of memories. Memories I wished I could have had. What road could I have traveled in those months? Despite everything I once believed, it was a road that had led me here.
Perhaps if I could understand how I had come to the decision in the first place, I wouldn’t wonder about it quite so much. Even so, I no longer felt as lost in EndWorld Everlasting as I did when I’d first arrived.
Other Travelers had chosen this path and had time to research and prepare. There were subscription models based around securing this exact eventuality. As for me? I didn’t choose this, but it was my life now. A life I had come to appreciate in my own way. On my own terms.
At least I was learning, coming to grips with my fate, and accepting my new life. Phineas was right. There’s always time. At least, until there isn’t. The swamp taught me that the end could come too quick, even here in EndWorld Everlasting.
We sat in silence for a while, both of us staring into the flames, thinking our separate thoughts, and watching the warmth of the embers grow despite the coldness of our pain.
Two men. From two very different worlds. With two different stories. And yet we shared a very real kinship.
Phineas took another drink and passed the cordial.
“Well, aren’t we a couple of sorry old sods?” he asked. His chuckle turned into another fit of coughing, and he clutched his side.
“Hmm.” I grunted in agreement.
After a pause to catch his breath, he added, “Sorry sods, indeed. I’m dying, young man. What’s your excuse?”
I slowly unbuttoned the top of my padded tunic and exposed the wound left by the Necromancer’s blade. Dark, jagged lines stained my flesh as they radiated out from a spot just above my heart. Remnants, I assumed, of the blade’s foul magic.
“That is no ordinary wound, young man,” Phineas murmured.
He stared at my chest with a look of morbid uncertainty. After a moment, he forced himself to look away.
We both watched the crackling flames of the fire and listened to the echoes of wood pops bounce off the cavern walls.
“Tell me, Phineas,” I said at last, hoping the older man could shed some light on my current circumstances. “Have you ever heard of a blade that can capture souls?”
“A blade that can capture a soul, you say?” He paused for what felt like an eternity before shaking his head.
“Such a thing sounds like a fine fairytale, if you ask me,” he continued. “Souls are sacred things, honored by all the gods of this world in their own right. Though, there have been a few things I’ve seen in my day that I wouldn’t have believed had I not witnessed them firsthand.”
“So, you’re saying it could be possible, then?”
“I’m saying that I can’t confirm without a doubt that it is impossible,” he retorted. “It might not sound that way, but there is a difference. I assure you. Even if one were to attempt such a feat, capturing a soul as you say, I imagine it would be an act far beyond blasphemy. Such a being would surely risk incurring the wrath of the Watchers.”
“The Watchers? Who are they?” I asked.
“The very harbingers of the gods themselves.” He grunted as if this were common knowledge. “They stand watch over us all, both EndWorlder and Traveler alike.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if these Watchers were EndWorld’s equivalent of Game Masters. It would make sense if they were, but Phineas’s inclusion of EndWorlders led me to believe they might be more than mere GM’s.
I imagined countless lines of code working together to govern the world behind the scenes, erasing wayward scripts, and punishing any who dared exploit the rules. But then, for some reason, my mind went back to the nanotech Cyberternal Industries had pumped into my bloodstream.
Struggling to recall the conversation, I remembered the pod that had led me to EndWorld. I felt an echo of the pain that had surged through my body, and then I heard Krysta Peterson’s words in my mind, explaining the technology that we hoped would save my life.
“If you choose to move forward with this, your physicians will be the sentient machines.”
It was all starting to make sense now. Harold, Margaret, Phineas… they felt like real people. They could feel happiness and pain and fear. If they, like the nano-helpers, were sentient, then perhaps they were just as real as I was.
A heavy silence settled between us once more, punctuated only by the burning song of the fire as it slowly consumed the materials of my Makeshift Clubs.
After some time, Phineas reached for the bottle again. I took a drink and passed it over. We were almost half-way through the cordial now, and I watched with interest as he took gulp after gulp.