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Beyond the Pale

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shalesubaru avatar shalesubaru
Level 3 : Apprentice Miner
3
Author's note: this is...a lot more rushed than I'd have liked. Normally I take significantly more time, and hammer in significantly more detail. But there's nothing like a deadline to bring it all out!

I intend to write a full, expanded version of this story at a later date. If you want to read the update, lurk my Wattpad, AO3 or Fanfiction accounts!


Please note this is also over the word limit for blogs - the COMPLETE story can be found here.






“Shame about last night’s frost, huh?”



A shame, indeed.


It had been a shame about the frosts of the weeks past, too. The icicles hanging from the wilted corpses of Spring’s blossoms were a downright tragedy. Hardened puddles fracturing beneath her boots – yet another lingering tendril of Winter’s grasp – were all that broke the burdened silence of the hibernating forest.


That, and the mindless, endless monologue from the mouth-breathing tagalong riding her shadow.


“I reckon it’s all from the slaughter from Autumn, y’know? Like, sweet, we’ve got stockpiles of food for days, but that’s a lot of empty paddocks, right? And–”


“Uh-huh.” Perhaps if she feigned total disinterest – but was it truly feigning? – he would cease his diatribe and go back to not disturbing every poor damn creature in this forest.


“–And people think I’m mad for this, but I reckon I’m onto something. I mean, to me, it’s obvious! We’ve always had heaps and heaps of cows and pigs and sheep, and it’s always been nice and warm at this time of year. But since we, y’know, chopped most of them before Winter, it’s been cold as! And I reckon that wasn’t a great move, because–”


“Lucas,” she hissed through gritted teeth, tightening her grip on the slick wooden handle of the old axe in her hand. Blunt as anything, its rugged blade was good for little more than an excellent threat for silence...but she had promised the kid’s mother she would tolerate him for at least the rest of the week as she taught him the ropes. Or, at least attempt to teach him. With a noise-to-signal ratio like this, it was nigh on impossible to get a word in edgewise...let alone allow the information to penetrate the iron fortress between his profoundly decorative ears.


Just how he’d managed to keep up with her broad pace for the last hour while breathlessly spewing his ridiculous theories at her remained more of a mystery as to what had even spawned the majority of them; it had become more and more apparent over the years as to why she chose to keep to herself, quietly going about her duties supplying resources to Arcturus’ increasingly blasé population as they did...whatever they pleased, really. The boy, enthusiastic as he was, served as a mere symptom of the problems boiling beneath the village’s surface.


“–Like, aside from the Sun, where else do we get warmth from? Cows n’ sheep are warm, especially when there are heaps of them. You’d know, you’re a farmer! It sure must be cold up at your place these days–”


“Lucas.” The growl reverberated through her chest as she clenched her teeth. She could barely hear the crackling of the frozen earth below her as he blathered on. Anything less piercing was lost to the din...or was it? She could swear there hadn’t been a peep from a single bee, or any other of Spring’s pollinators. Even on a bright, crisp morning like this, she always had an ear out for the previous night’s monsters; her sword’s sheath perpetually nagged her left thigh from the moment she strapped it on until it was safely mounted back in her armoury, always ready to be whipped from her hip at a moment’s notice and driven through the festering skull of whatever staggered from the shadows toward her. But the kid just had a way of making defending not only herself, but him as well, from the last of the night a near impossibility – there was no way to hear what was coming over his constant blathering.


“–And like, there’s proof! Milk’s warm when it comes out, right? There’s only like, a hundred or so cows around at the moment between your farm and the other farms, which isn’t enough! At least, I think that’s pretty obvious. And then there’s the shee–”


“Lucas!” She spat, raising her axe as she spun on a heel. The poor, lanky idiot’s stone-grey eyes locked on the chipped blade as it hung inches from his nose. Finally, precious silence. “Lucas, how many ears do you have?”


“T-two?” he eventually squeaked. Seeing his lower lip wobble shouldn’t have been as satisfying as it was.


“How many eyes do you have, Lucas?”


“T-t-two, Miss Crawford...”


“Indeed,” she purred, raising one brow; her axe still lingering before the fool’s nose, she nudged its head in front of his quivering lips as she took a pace forward. “Lucas, you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. I expect you to use them in that exact ratio. So for the rest of this godforsaken patrol, if you say another single word, I’m going to use this to shut you up and you can write to your mother as to why you no longer have teeth. Is that clear?”


He merely nodded in response.


“Excellent. Now...follow me without a word, observe what I do, and don’t even think about mentioning cows again.”


“But–”


With a quick jut of her arm, the weathered butt of the axe jabbed his mouth shut. The searing ice of her glare sealed it so.


The rest of the morning’s patrol was, in fact, deathly silent. Not a single sound penetrated the forest air – no birds, nor pollinators, animals nor monsters – beyond the relentless crunch of frozen detritus beneath their boots.


***


As much as the torpid state of the region remained impossible to ignore, raising questions about the following season’s crop and whether the fields would remain brown as her haystacks dwindled, the march back home from Arcturus along the white-speckled forest track remained a salve for the damp, twisted heat in the pit of her stomach that seemed to form whenever she visited the village. The day was as crisp and clear as those in the preceding Winter had been, with not a cloud obscuring the sun as it rose through the morning sky – and yet, its heat barely penetrated the frosted, malachite limbs of the canopy above. Spring would arrive in force eventually, but the sheer determination of the cold weather would raise alarm in any reasonable cultivator.


It had certainly evaporated the majority of common sense that remained in Arcturus. Dropping the rattled teenager back to the town centre had been a revealing journey in its own right, having overheard the gossip train as it made its way around the village; the recent weather, so it seemed, was the sole preoccupation of the entire population. Lucas’ harebrained theories, apparently, were not formed in a vacuum. He’d simply been emulating the townsfolk – grown adults who should have known better.


An idle sigh slipped from her throat as she emerged from the woods and reached the boundary of her own property. Stepping through the old wooden gate and slamming it shut behind her had long since been one of her few rituals; the absurdity of the clownish world outside remained behind her, sliding off the gate as it rattled shut, leaving nothing but sprawling orchard, lovingly maintained pasture and overwintered garden heralding her return. Her fists and shoulders alike reflexively unclenched as she traced the path towards the house, even as the barren mulch alongside it snatched her gaze.


Perhaps the hysteria of the townspeople had penetrated her skin.


One of her favourite things about this old wood-and-stone house was that, despite how preposterously large it was for a single human, it retained warmth like no other. The embers of last night’s fire were still dimly glowing behind the grate, and before she’d even tugged her boots off, she paused to pack the glowing cinders into the centre of the fireplace and threw a few more dry logs over the top. It was still ridiculously cold outside, after all. Even with her firewood supply dwindling dangerously low, it wouldn’t be for much longer, would it? Spring would arrive eventually, just in time to begin collecting and drying the next season’s supply.


The thought of yet another season brought about a fresh chill to the air. It meant another Spring of project-managing a task force of the village’s teenagers weeding, sowing and tending the fields; another Summer teaching them how to handle livestock, managing the traffic that the harvest invariably caused; another Autumn arguing with the townsfolk as to whether it was better to overwinter or tear down her meticulously tended orchards. If it weren’t for the roaring trade that providing the lion’s share of the village’s produce brought about, there was little doubt she’d simply remain happily isolated on the farm, immersed in her expansive library and taking pot-shots from the rooftop at the monsters that dared to try her fence.


Old floorboards, worn shiny by a hundred feet before hers, yielded a delightful squeak from warm, clammy socks. It was one of the many quirks of this house, blending with the jigsaw of wood-panel and schist walls that created a veritable maze of rooms and hallways for the uninitiated. She could navigate every single one of these meandering corridors in the dark, every doorway etched into her brain; the kitchen was a steady march to the right of the front door, past a largely unused living room and guest room along the way; the library passed another guest room to the left, having expanded through several more rooms as it grew over the few years she’d resided here, with spines of books and items of interest alike stretching to the immense ceiling on meticulously built shelves along all but one wall, which backed onto another disused room begging for union with her ever-growing collection. She had spent incalculable hours curled up in the nest of cushions in the far corner, soaking in dappled sunlight as it fought its way through the towering conifers outside and through the floor-to-ceiling windows that surrounded the nook – but with the recent turn of the weather, it had been far too long since she’d had that pleasure.


The armoury was a more direct march past the main stairwell, along the darkened central hallway, and through a pair of tall, barricaded iron doors. It had always seemed unnecessarily reinforced, buried at the centre of the house; with little else about the property showing similar fortification, she’d entertained the idea that perhaps a former custodian had intended it to be some kind of vault. Or, instead, perhaps it was a bunker. Against what, she had a few theories. Times were not always as peaceful as these. It seemed a shame there were no previous owners around to question when she acquired the place.


Her sword and sheath took pride of place on a central rack; it was another battered but well-loved tool that almost always found favour on these patrols, its gleaming steel edge catching the overhead light among the collection of duller blades. There was little doubt there were superior weapons in the collection, the cerulean sheen of one long, angry example glinting from the far left. Such tools were wasted on patrols, frankly.


Her axe, likewise, stood weathered among sharper, hardier, more ornate tools as she hung it at the centre of its wall. Many of their blades needed attention, she conceded; perhaps if this cold snap continued, she would invest the time in re-edging every last one of them – even the diamond-tipped monstrosities that were, so legend had it, largely employed dispatching monsters. It seemed a waste, too, to use them for the far more common, mundane tasks of felling trees and carving fence posts.


The nearby armoured chest plates released a plume of dust as she extracted herself from her leather tunic and dropped it onto an empty stand. Perhaps it was not something that benefited from favour quite as much as her tools; alongside the perfectly healthy but dust-caked, neglected pieces surrounding it, the hodgepodge of repairs added little charm, despite how much she insisted it told a story. Even the sheer comfort of a piece that had bent and twisted to fit perfectly over the years didn’t outweigh the impracticality that it was perhaps one or two blows away from falling apart at the seams. One of the iron pieces, or better, would make a far more worthy replacement.


All but two of those more solid pieces were made for men, though; as nice as they were, they fitted strangely and looked even moreso. They functioned perfectly, but she’d always assumed it would look clownish.


That said, perhaps not. The figure staring back at her in the dusty old mirror challenged the thought. It was readily apparent how she’d shocked the village kid into silence. He was a tall lad, but she was taller; her broad shoulders would easily fill those iron chest pieces, and the pants would happily mould to her long legs.


As ridiculous as a full suit-up would appear, it wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, would it? Copping stares was part and parcel of simply being her. If it wasn’t unsolicited comments about the colour of her hair – Ginger Ninja! Copperhead! Tangerine! – it was repetitive observations about her height. At least it seemed the majority of the townsfolk knew better than to ask her to smile. All the more reason to pack heat.


The fireplace had roared back to life in the time she’d spent scowling at her reflection in the armoury. The characteristic must of the old building always came alive with the warm, dry air, offering very little reason to ever leave. Everything she could need existed in the expanse of her orchards, and the worlds of her library carried her further than her legs could ever travel. The unknowns within these borders were so much more enticing than the unknowns of how the nearby villages operated.


Knock, knock.


Scowling, she lingered a moment before unlatching the front door. No one was expected to drop by at this hour, and if it was the mother of the blasted teenager here to give her a piece of her mind for frightening the daylights out of her precious loin-fruit, she would most definitely be returning fire with a lecture about the benefits of critical thinking in the next generation.


Rather than a red-faced, huffing middle-aged woman greeting her at the door, the diminutive figure of a sandy-haired young man staggered backward as she swung it open. Faltering as he craned his head upward to meet her gaze, he appeared as reluctant to be standing here as she was.


“U-uh, Miss Crawford, I’ve got a message from the Mayor.” After a moment of fumbling, he shoved a scroll forward in his fist. “Town meeting at seven tonight. Don’t be late.”


Her scowl deepened as she snatched the scroll from him and let the door slam shut. Fantastic – a night of being locked in a room of superstitious disaster-theorists and no escape.


***


She had to admit: while she’d expected the Town Hall to be jam-packed with almost every adult in the village, a ring of seats several rows deep and the promise of discussion was not what she’d assumed to stumble upon once inside. Rather than the usual lecturing and bickering that these meetings spawned, the veritable silence among the crowd suggested a far deeper concern than the gossip train had let on.


The proceedings, too, had taken an uncharacteristic turn; both the Mayor and the Police Chief had taken to listing a collection of observations from the townsfolk, from the persistence of the cold weather and strange happenings at night to indescribable noises penetrating the silence, and the seeming dimming of the obsidian archway that guarded the outskirts of the village. If anything, the murmurings of discourse had repeatedly circled back to the Portal; with the base of knowledgeable figures having atrophied to practically nothing over the years, the village was not known for big thinkers and logical trajectories.


“My next question to you all,” the Mayor continued, “Is whether anyone has knowledge of what lies beyond the Portal within your families.”


He was an engaging enough gentleman, she had to admit. It was easy to see how he’d found himself in this position, somehow directing the chaos of the village’s small-town energies in some semblance of usefulness in far less stressful times; tonight could have easily brought that run of decent management to a close, but somehow he had found a way to funnel the inane theories an misremembered facts into a search for an outcome.


It was a refreshing change from the usual pomp and smugness she’d come to expect of small-town leadership these days.


“My grandmother used to tell us about it all the time when we were growing up,” a young man sitting opposite her offered. “She used to say it was a land of heat and fire, and that anyone that stepped inside would be eaten by giant, floating monsters!”


“My grandfather used to say there were giant skeleton beasts roaming about, waiting to eat people,” a woman added, clutching her fist by her neck.


“Nah, my mother said the skeletons were like the ones that hunt us here after dark,” a middle-aged man interrupted. “Except they’re twice the size of us.”


“I heard they breathe fire!”


“I heard there were giant flame-spitting dragons!”


She wondered if she could get away with simply slipping out of the room unnoticed, rather than grit her teeth through the increasingly absurd, creative reimaginings of old stories. Even if the Portal had anything to do with the shift in weather patterns, she was certain that, even living this far South, all would come right with a little patience and a lot of ignoring the nearby population.


“Audrey, do you have anything to add?” The Mayor practically had to yell over the din to catch her attention, but catch it he had. Arching a brow, she looked him up and down for a drawn moment; had he known she was about to make a break for it?


“Do you want to know the stories my mother told me when I was young, or do you actually want to know what’s on the other side of that Portal?” Trust the room to fall silent as she finally decided to add to the conversation.


The Mayor sighed. “Let’s start with what’s on the other side of the Portal.”


Pushing herself to her feet, she drew a breath. “Barren wasteland; vast caverns and plateaus in a soft, rock-like substance the majority of the books refer to as ‘Netherrack’. Average temperature is around forty-five to fifty degrees. Currently the only known source of the quartz we’ve been jealously hoarding. Numerous hostile species have been noted, only loosely related to whatever the Hell you’ve all been talking about.”


One of the older men snorted. “What makes you think you know anything about that place, girly? You ever been the–”


“Marcus, we don’t have any librarians or historians in the village; she’s all we’ve got,” the Mayor growled. “Give the girl with the books a chance.”


“As I was saying,” she spat, locking eyes with the moustachioed man, “The Portal leads to a world that we all know as The Nether; it’s basically another dimension. There’s nothing familiar there, it’s essentially a hot, red wasteland with the odd lava sea between land masses. There are next to no structures...just the odd ancient ruin of something a few of the books describe as ‘Fortresses’. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense that the Portal is affecting seasons here in Arcturus. I’m not saying it isn’t, I’m just saying it’s implausible.”


“Shouldn’t we go and look, just to make sure?” Another young man offered as he climbed to his feet. “I mean, just to rule it out, if it’s implausible? There’s almost always heat pumping out of there; there’s been a snow cap sitting on top of it for months now. It’s got to be at least loosely related.”


“I’m not sure it’s safe, Justin,” the Mayor interjected, his face twisting with worry. “We’re dealing with an unknown that our ancestors have left dire warnings abou–”


“I’ll go!” Ernest, the village Blacksmith, called out as he stood. “I can handle the heat, and I’m pretty good with a sword – if I do say so myself.”


“I’ll join you,” Justin quickly added. He made no apparent effort to contain his enthusiasm.


“Hang on a minute, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Raising both hands, the Mayor took a step toward the two men. “This could be dangerous; investigation should be our last resort. And if we go down this route, we need a plan – and people who have the right skills to tackle the task.”


“Alright then, let’s form a plan,” Ernest grunted, grabbing his chair by the back and spinning it around to lean against. “Something’s happened on the other side of the Portal. We stick our heads in to see if there’s anything obviously...not hot-barren-wastelandey. If something’s awry, we head in further to investigate. Stick around for a few hours max, come back out with information. If something wants to hit us, hit it back.”


The Mayor’s ageing face twisted as he regarded the Blacksmith, lingering a protracted moment before turning to his Chief of Police. “Gerald?”


He let out a groan, glaring pensively at the centre of the floor as he sat ramrod-straight in his seat. “Maximum four hours, as few people as possible. Complimentary skills, adequate supplies for heat survival. No rescues; I’m not decimating the population of Arcturus for this.”


“No rescue required,” Ernest grinned. “In and out, with answers.”


“So, Ernest is in and I suspect we couldn’t hold Justin back if we tried,” the Mayor mused, pausing with a heavy sigh. “That’s two swordsmen. We’ll need someone with ranged skill, someone with medical knowledge, and someone that knows what the Hell they’re doing on the other side.”


The Chief of Police’s focus met that of his deputy – a tall, robustly-built woman whose steely gaze was without peer. “Leigh?”


She simply nodded. “I will lead the mission, Chief. Range is my specialty.”


“I’m a medic,” another young man added as he stood, “And I’m handy enough with a sword to be useful.”


“Smash ‘em and patch ‘em, Richard,” the Blacksmith laughed.


“I guess that makes me the one that knows what the Hell is going on, doesn’t it,” Audrey groaned. “I suppose it’s a good opportunity to field test my new bowstring...”


“That would seem to be the case,” the Mayor smiled grimly. “Honestly, I feel this is more than enough of our people to be sending into the fray. Everyone else, unless you have anything else to add, you’re dismissed; the five of you can stay on. We’ve got some further planning to do.”


***


It had been quite some time since she’d had such a fitful sleep. The last, perhaps, had been in the throes of a violent fever, sweating and thrashing through the night and waking up soaked, shivering and exhausted. In lieu of a fever, this time, she’d been stalked through the night by the guttural calls of creatures she’d never before encountered, racing across inhospitable lands, looping endlessly over and over the same path cut into red rock.


The other four fools had no concept of what they were stepping into. The fact that she did had followed her through every rushed chore of the day, through every mouthful of breakfast and lunch, in the shadow of every pace throughout her stone-and-wood sanctuary from the insanity of Arcturus. Her fingers had refused to thumb through the pages of the books she’d gingerly dropped into her pack. She knew their contents inside and out – it was the whole reason she was packing them – but in this moment, there may as well have been ghosts bound to their pages.


It was rare that the armoury felt quite this cold. Strange; she’d left the vents from the library open to warm the place up over the course of the day. There was nothing pleasant about donning icy armour.


Her trusty leather tunic would do absolutely no good tonight. She passed with little more than a lingering glance as she slid her hand along one chestplate to the next, probing their contours and rapping at their edges with a pair of fingernails. There was little room for the wrong choice here; poorly-chosen specifications would be useless against the profound heat they were about to step into, and the wrong fitment would gradually cut holes in her flesh even if she remained safe from fire, lava and whatever else the Nether would throw at their unwitting, horrifically prepared souls. The majority of her substantial collection was a mish-mash of iron and steel – heavy, cumbersome, and would simply amplify the heat inward. Leather and chainmail would leave her as easy fodder for whatever lurked beyond the Portal. At least, she mused, there was no space for choice paralysis.


Only two pieces were even remotely suitable for the task ahead, but neither had been field tested. Ever. Both equally dust-coated, their cerulean glow fought the substantial layer of time and neglect caked into their surfaces. The piece on the far left would be perfect, statistically, if it weren’t for the fact that it had been forged in the shape of an enormous man; it would have resisted fire and innumerable blows, if not for the fact that she could barely lift it. To its immediate right, the far smaller chestplate would have to do – sized for someone in precisely her image, she knew it would handle the heat but not substantial abuse.


Plan A, then, would be to not get hit.


Her sword stands housed several similarly gleaming weapons, all but one sporting ornately carved handles and decorative sheaths. Fashion had little place in the Nether; the utilitarian, grime-caked blade standing alone on the far end of the rack would more than suffice. All it needed was a brief sharpen.


The rest of her suit of armour fell into place quickly after a quick polish to liberate it of its neglect. It felt faintly ridiculous standing in front of the mirror, staring back at a human-shaped gemstone dragging a generously-proportioned pack alongside it; anyone who had skipped the village meeting would most certainly think she’d finally lost her mind.


Heck, most of them probably thought as much already.


She had half a mind to send the other four back once they had their answers, then proceed onward alone until she found a faraway exit back to this realm, and set up anew, far from Arcturus’ antics.


Although, she conceded, it would be a struggle without her vast, lovingly-curated collections.


Enough. It was time to lead a quartet of fools on a hunt for nothing in an impossibly hostile world.


It was immediately obvious that Winter’s grasp had not relented over the day as she stepped through her front door and into the dying sunlight; anywhere the forest’s towering conifers had cast a shadow remained a glittering white with days and days of built-up frost that flattened beneath her boots with a deep crunch at every pace. Yanking her pack over her shoulder and fixing it alongside a proven sweetheart of a bow, she set off along the icy path away from safety and toward Arcturus.


The sheath of the sword clanked against the coating of her armoured pants as she made haste along the darkening path. It had been a long time since she had been so conspicuous, especially as night fell, but packing as much heat as she was, there was more than enough firepower to respond to anything that had noticed her clink-clank toward the village. There was no point in practising stealth tonight, not if she was to avoid dying of hypothermia. Specialist heat-safe armour gave off none of its own, and it made no sense to arrive wearing any more than was necessary beneath it for this ridiculous mission – she would just have to keep her heart pumping hard enough to generate her own warmth.


A low grumble stopped her dead in her tracks. What the Hell was that? The sound resembled nothing familiar. Perhaps she’d misheard it.


Perhaps it was her stomach.


The faintest of rustles penetrated the still forest air. Her hand found its way to the hilt of her sword, bracing against it as she all but held her breath, wide eyes darting about every shadow before her as she pried for the source of the disturbance.


There were none of the familiar tell-tale signs of what was headed her way; anything that intended to make contact would have already taken a swing at her, and anything that waited for an opportunity hadn’t left a single calling card. There were no dustings of amethyst light or alien trills disrupting the encroaching night; there was no clattering of bones or squelch of the liquefying flesh encasing them; there was not a single pitter-patter of near-silent paw pads against the frozen earth that preceded a violent surprise explosion.


There was not a single sound...just the faint odour of something rancid.


Another bassy growl trailed the dying sun, followed by the distinctive slop of loose flesh. This noise...a guttural warble, it was entirely unfamiliar, something of an unholy union between a farm animal and a dozing monster. This was not the sort of undead she’d been accustomed to driving her sword through.


Still, she was better armed in this moment than she’d ever been in her life; drawing her sword as quietly as she could muster, she paced down the path toward the village – and the source of the noise – with her unblinking gaze prying at every single shadow, every glint that the last of the sky’s light caught.


A flash of ink-stained pink caught her eye – dead ahead, wavering by the edge of the path as her feet froze to the icy earth.


The creature swayed in situ, a gravelly, otherworldly whistle of a groan escaping it. Coral flesh glistened in the fading light, its green-speckled left limb loosely gripping a stained, golden-hued sword; its bulging, clouded eyes appeared to stare in different directions, neither of which was hers, as its tusked mouth hung open in apparent stupor. The thing distantly reminded her of a boar, but the stench it emitted was far closer to that of the undead she’d slain on the outskirts of her property a hundred times over. It was part bipedal swine, part idle zombie, and entirely unpleasant to be near.


She was yet to see an example of the undead with the dexterity to match her with a sword; perhaps she could ease past it and retaliate if it took exception. There was no telling how many blows the creature would take to fall if she struck first, and she had places to be. It was questionable as to whether it had even noticed her in the first place; neither of its eyes had met her person.


As she took two steps closer, the creature’s belly convulsed – a moment later, a violent hiccup shook its immense frame. The motion appeared to shake loose several items it had been precariously clinging to; a handful of string, several quartz crystals, and a muddied gold ingot. The whole lot, and very nearly the creature’s sword, clattered to the ground.


Seemingly vaguely aware of this, the pig-like abomination took a woozy pace toward the items before drunkenly staggering off the path with another hiccup, then continued to stare into the abyss. Even as she stood watching it, sword drawn, she may as well have been invisible to it.


Refusing to take her eyes off the beast for a second, she made slick, silent haste around it as she kept a white-knuckled grip on her sword’s hilt. It paid her no mind as gazed idly at nothing, swaying with the breeze.


She needed little excuse to take off at a sprint once she was clear of swiping distance. The village, thankfully, was not far.


The undead pig-thing appeared not to follow.


Nightfall had arrived by the time she reached Arcturus’ border; the weight of her armour, weapons and pack left her panting as she slowed to a stiff march toward the growing congregation by the village bell. Red-faced and glistening, she was a magnet for every pair of eyes at the town centre.


Correction. She was even more of a magnet for every damn pair of eyes.


“You sure know how to make an entrance, Audrey,” the Mayor laughed. Typical; dressed in ornate robes and swaddled behind a row of armed and armoured townsfolk, he seemed as prepared as ever for a night of fending off intruders.


Whatever.


“There’s a thing in the forest,” she spat as she fought to control her breathing, one index finger jabbing at the darkness behind her. Very articulate, idiot. Get it together. “It looked and smelled like a zombie, but it had the head and flesh of a pig.”


A hush fell over the crowd of townsfolk. The Police Chief stepped forward, his thick, silvery brows immediately furrowed. “Did it attack you?”


“No,” she snorted. “It looked spaced out of its mind. Just had this box-eyed stare. Completely ignored me. Made these awful sounds – like…” she paused, then shook her head as a bemused laugh slipped from her. “Like a zombie and a pig, funnily enough. These long, deep, wheezy groans.”


Justin, bless him, had arrived decked to the nines in silver-and-cerulean armour that glistened – and fitted – like it was his father’s. His helmet slipped over his eyes as he enthusiastically locked eyes on her. “I’ve heard those sounds! Most of the village has heard those sounds! They’ve haunted the night for months…”


“Wait.” After a moment’s thought she wrenched her pack off her shoulder, unceremoniously dumped it on the dirt path, and began rummaging around in it. There was always a purpose for her hoarding of books. Always. A quick sift liberated the thick, tattered cover of a red-bound tome as thick as her wrist. “I know I’ve read something about these things before.”


“Of course you have,” an older townsman grunted, his voice all gravel and mead. It seemed the moustachioed man had as little faith in her tonight as he had last night.


“Of course I have, Marcus,” she hissed back through her teeth, briefly shooting him a withering glare before rapidly thumbing through the yellowed pages. “Pigman. Zombie Pigman.”


Half the town seemed to heave in closer as she flipped the book around to show them, propping it against one armoured arm. The intricate diagrams inked across both pages bore enormous similarity to the creature she’d encountered, but upon further inspection, there were some differences. These illustrations, for one, seemed less...intact. Exposed ribs, torn flesh, missing sections of face and skull alike. The beast she’d encountered had far more flesh still adhered to it, and had most of its hideous face attached – snout, ears and tusks included. She sighed. “It didn’t look as rough as these, but every other descriptor matches.”


Deputy Leigh leaned closer, squinting as she scrutinised the pages. “So I guess we’re on the lookout for more of these guys, huh? Reckons there're plenty of them rotting throughout the Nether. What else is in that book?”


Needing little more prompting, Audrey elbowed past the growing throng and dropped the book against the village bell’s frame. The Police Chief, Mayor and search party immediately huddled around her, followed by the curious townsfolk as she thumbed through a selection of pages toward the back cover.


“Ghasts,” she announced, probing a sketch of an amorphous, tentacled blob suspended on the page. “Huge, floating monsters. They eject explosives once they spot you. Apparently they make a lot of noise, so Plan A is to keep out of sight.”


Briefly passing another few pages, she stopped by another amorphous blob – this sketch remained firmly on the ground. “Magma Cubes. They’re also huge, but apparently they’ll jump at you. Despite all that heft. Apparently they breed by...binary fission? Especially when forced. Look…” she tapped another illustration with a fingernail. “Every chunk you slice off them spawns another, smaller version of its parent.”


“Like a slime, huh?”


“Seems so,” she nodded, before flipping further through the book. The illustrations of creatures abruptly gave way to those of ragged architectural features, before returning to far more organic forms. A shudder ripped her hands from the pages for a breath. “We should...probably stay away from any structures we see. Look at these.”


The blacksmith wrinkled his nose. “Is that just a skeleton with a sword?”


“No.” She scowled. “These things are two-and-a-half metres tall. They suck the life out of you if they hit you. Don’t challenge them.


“No Fortresses,” Deputy Leigh hissed emphatically, jabbing the blacksmith’s shoulder. “We’ll cover a kilometre in there at most, then return – that heat is going to be insufferable. Look, let’s just get going.” Tapping the leftmost corner of the book, she caught Audrey’s gaze. “Maybe take the most informative book with us; we’ll leave the rest in town, so they know what we’re dealing with and what might...you know, come through behind us.”


“Good plan,” Audrey nodded with a soft sigh. Three books followed from her pack as she closed the largest and slid it in their place. “Water. Extra food, just in case. Salve for heat-related injuries. Let’s hope we need none of it.”


“Done and done,” Richard quickly interjected, dragging a handful of gourds from his shoulder by their straps before handing one to each member of the search party. “I’ve got plenty of other goodies in my bag that we shouldn’t need.”


“I’ve got firepower,” Ernest added as he patted the sheath of the generously-proportioned sword by his side. “So’s Justin.”


“Yep!” the youngest member of the party nodded enthusiastically, before readjusting his oversized helmet for easily the tenth time.


“That’s us then, huh,” Deputy Leigh enthused, straightening within the confines of her armour. She turned to the Police Chief. “Expect us back within three hours. If there’s no sign of us within four, don’t expect us back at all.”


“Noted,” he responded grimly. His mouth hardened. “Do us proud, Lieutenant.”


The Portal’s idle throb pulsed through the path as they turned to march toward it. By now, it couldn’t be more obvious that something was awry; only the final twenty metres before it had fully thawed out, where this time last year it had been a wet, sloshing quagmire. The year before, it had been thick and verdant, alive with flowers. Its eerie light had always been a beacon in the night, lighting the southern perimeter of the village with violet incandescence.


Tonight its dull glow was stained indigo, as cool as it felt.


Four paused a pace before it as Ernest elbowed his way forward. “Taking one for the team,” he murmured as he toed the weathered, inky-black surface of the ancient rock arch, lingering for a moment before reaching up with a steady hand and pressing it through the glass-like magenta barrier. Thick brows raised, the rest of his body followed with a step. With a resonant thump that one felt rather than heard, he was gone.


With a subtle nod toward the deathly-silent crowd, Deputy Leigh followed – Richard and Justin rode her shadow.


As Audrey stepped toward the arch, she paused by the Police Chief. “Stay on guard. The monsters that may exit are far more hostile than the ones we see here.”


Not waiting for a response, she followed the rest of the party into the Portal with a broad pace.


***


“Are you sure you read fifty degrees, Crawford?” Deputy Leigh murmured as she squinted upward at the thick indigo haze stretching into the abyss.


“Yep,” she shot. “I read about red skies and red wastelands too, not this.” Waving both hands at the expanse before her, she scowled in disbelief. “Why is it so blue? Why is there grass? Why is the grass blue? Why do those trees have such solid foliage? What on Earth…”


“Wish I’d brought a coat,” Richard mused with a grin as he, too, stared up at the soupy sky. “This is actually quite pleasant, aside from the smell.”


The smell, indeed. Another thing she had not been prepared for was the breeze, wafting by in gentle puffs – let alone the faintly sour, vaguely sulphurous aroma it carried. It was as though the soft, green ground beneath their feet, squeaking the moment a foot moved through its bulbous, grass-like tendrils, was fermenting.


The broad, flat cap of an azure-and-peach fungus caught Audrey’s eye as she took another pace through the aquamarine fibres clinging to her ankles. The scent grew stronger as she nudged it with her toe, and took on a strangely sweet note as its stalk broke; scowling as she drew a long breath through her nose, she arched her head to observe the towering canopy above them. Lush teal vegetation stared back, a clutter of purple-and-green trunks arching into thick caps of solid blue matter; the papules atop the grassy stalks grew considerably thicker in patches, arching upward until giving way to the gnarled limbs of twisting, climbing vines as they vied for dominance over the lofty trunks. Her scowl deepened. None of this had been documented. Not a dot.


“I have no idea what any of this is,” she murmured grimly.


“Welp, that blows that someone that knows stuff theory,” Ernest grunted, turning toward a gentle upward slope carved into the forest floor. “We may as well pick around and find out what’s going on so we have at least something to report back with.”


“You’re not leading this expedition, Ernest,” Deputy Leigh growled.


The blacksmith stiffened as he paused. “So do we stand around instead?”


“You’ll follow me.” Scowling, she drew her sword and began to pace in the opposite direction. An easy gradient before her led to thinner foliage and a parting of grass, worn bald by time and travel. “We’re not bushwhacking our way through, we need to cover as much ground as possible. Let’s see where this path leads.”


Audrey fell in behind as the other four shuffled their way through the sour-smelling grass and onto the path. There was nothing about any of this documented anywhere. There were meant to be monsters, but more importantly, there were meant to be vast expanses of nothingness to make those monsters’ presence unquestionable. It was hard to see through the dark forest, even with the odd clump of glowing, bulbous matter clinging to the trees and casting dull orange light throughout their radius; it would be harder still to react to, then out run, anything using the cover of the forest to stalk them at close range.


Those trees, too. How strange they were. Their foliage didn’t rustle with the breeze as it wafted down the path; it was far too solid and rigid in structure, refusing to yield to its surroundings. Instead, the entire trunk creaked and bowed ever so slightly with the firmer gusts.


Mushrooms. They were giant mushrooms.


Everything here deserved more analysis once she got back. Pausing for a moment, she crouched to grab a handful of the weed-like grass and a couple of tiny blue-and-orange mushrooms, tucking them into her pack as she hurried to catch up with the rest of the party.


The breeze had fire in it along the path. Its heat blasted the humidity from the balmy ambient air, searing at her cheeks and lungs, getting angrier and more insistent as the grass thinned to nothing, and as the exposed red rock plateaued. This, this, was what she had expected; columns of red rock surrounded the path as it meandered down a gradual slope and flattened into a vast, red-stained plateau. Little featured across the undulating plain at a broad gaze, aside from small pockets of flames quietly burning and illuminating the caps of an assortment of fungi dotting the netherrack well into the distance until it merged into a blur of crimson haze. That, and…


Grunk.


A pig-like call echoed across the expanse.


“Zombie Pigmen,” Audrey whispered as she silently stepped alongside the shorter, stockier woman. “I think.”


“Book said they’d ignore us,” she replied with a nod before pressing onward.


A higher-pitched, more drawn-out growl preceded the rapping of footsteps across the plain. Audrey’s breath seized in her throat as she grabbed her sword and ripped it from its sheath; a large, pink figure had leapt from behind a netherrack mound and, sword drawn, begun charging them.


“Hostiles ahead, get down!” Deputy Leigh yelled above the rising din of multiple other animalistic calls, grabbing the Medic by his wrist as she bolted toward the shadow of a rocky mound.


“What? Oh!” Justin flailed as he jerked away from the pink monstrosity bearing down on them. His helmet dislodged once more as he fled; he barely had time to flinch as an arrow whistled past his nose and embedded himself in the rock face with a hollow twang.


The tusks, the long ears, the speckled coral skin. These were the same as the creature she’d encountered in the forest earlier in the evening – only their flesh, and their attention, were very much alive and well.


The books had said nothing about non-zombified Pigmen.


Another Pigman had begun to rush them from the left. Three from the right had joined the fray. Another had mounted the rock the first had spotted them from, and was taking pot-shots at the search party with a barrage of arrows. “We’re surrounded! Our only way out is to fight,” Audrey yelled over the cacophony of enraged otherworldly shrieks.


“Too easy,” Ernest barked as he met the first of the charging Pigmen with a well-placed swipe of his oversized sword. The creature’s thick, meaty brow shot up in apparent surprise at the resistance, swiping its own sword up to meet the blow before defiantly pushing back with a loud screech. The blacksmith was tall and burly, but this beast was substantially moreso; it easily overpowered its Human adversary, slamming Ernest back-first into the rock below with a shriek.


As the creature lunged at him, the blacksmith swung his sword up and pounded it upward. The blade sliced through flimsy, frayed leather and burst through the Pigman’s abdomen. There was little the creature could do as the blacksmith kicked it free, and slumped to the ground as it came to rest.


Audrey had taken down the second with several wild swings before scrambling across the plain to join the rest of the party as they met the remaining trio charging them down – or she’d intended to, as she narrowly missed the whistle of an arrow across her chestplate. The Pigman standing atop the rock clearly had no intention of joining the fray from the ground.


Jamming her sword back into its sheath, she snatched the bow from her pack and drew it as she darted clear of another remarkably well-aimed projectile. In her haste, her own was little match; her arrow sailed past the Pigman by a country mile.


“There’s another one at nine o’clock, take care of it!” Deputy Leigh yelled as she kicked one of the remaining two beasts away and took another swipe at it. Unfazed, the creature locked swords with her and pushed her back with a shrill squeal, then launched a barrage of blows of its own.


“Got ‘im,” Justin spat, ducking below Richard’s blade as he swung at the second Pigman. He took off at a sprint toward the creature as it closed in on their position, sword raised and ready to drive through its heart.


His trajectory hadn’t gone unnoticed by the ranged Pigman still taking shots at the party; its next round arced toward Justin as he chased his opponent down, flying straight and true and piercing the left side of the gem-reinforced chestplate with a sickening thunk.


Audrey immediately returned fire; the creature darted to the side and let it whistle past.


The Pigman rushing Justin had thrown its hands in the air with a victorious grunt as it came to a dead stop metres away from his crumpled frame. Ernest took advantage of the creature’s distracted state, bringing his sword down in a flying leap and flooring it with a single blow. “Richard, man down! I’ll cover!”


“On it,” the medic yelled, twisting away from the three fallen Pigmen before him.


Two more arrows sailed past the distant Pigman; it responded in kind.


“It’s got a crossbow,” Audrey growled as she leapt clear of the arrow’s path. “Take it out!”


“Trying!” Ernest fired another ill-aimed projectile. “Can’t get range from here!”


“Get him out of here,” Deputy Leigh hissed at the Medic as she scrambled for her bow. “We’ll push on. Get him home safe, Richard!”


Range was, indeed, the issue. It would be impossible to take the creature down from so far away; string for string, they were outgunned. Audrey took off at a run. “Cover me.”


“Are you insane?” Ernest bellowed as he fired again.


Rather than dignify him with a response, she set her sights on a small outcrop metres ahead; sliding to her knees as she reached it, she narrowly missed another powerful shot that pounded itself halfway along its length into the soft terrain. From here, tucked behind the mound of rock, it was a far easier shot – she wasted no time in drawing her bow once more, eyes locked on the pink monstrosity atop the tower of rock, and fired.


The creature’s wail echoed back and forth across the barren landscape, followed soon after by a deep thud as it fell rearward to its end.


Racing back toward the search party, she spotted Richard struggling to lift the lanky young man over his shoulder. Ernest and Leigh had turned to march toward the expanse as the medic carted his patient back toward the azure-hued forest in the opposite direction. It wasn’t long before she caught up, brows raised. “Wait. We’re not going back?”


“You got any answers yet, Crawford?” Deputy Leigh scowled, her gaze dead-set on the plains ahead.


“But…” she spluttered, throwing her hands in the air. “Did you miss how dangerous that all was? We have no idea what we’re dealing with. None of this is documented!”


“You don’t lead this expedition, Audrey,” she snapped.


Pursing her lips, she glowered at the short woman in silence.


The silence continued as they marched through the searing heat, tracking as far away as possible from any figures that dared move an inch across the landscape. An endless expanse, little changed despite the miles as they marched on; hills came and went, littered with mushrooms and small outcrops of flaming rock. At times it seemed as though there was a ceiling above, with great stalactites of red rock arching toward the ground, and clumps of searing-white stone illuminating the brittle terrain with a sickly yellow glow. At others, the red haze seemed to fade into the aether. At once stage they found themselves tracing the shores of a boiling-hot lava lake, squinting in its glow and sweating profusely from the heat it angrily radiated.


So much terrain, and so few answers. The only variable was this heat, this heat, that seemed only to intensify with every step.


The single variable was that green-blue forest they’d first encountered that had enshrouded the portal on this side, coddling it in a balmy thirty-something degrees rather than the hellfires that burned their lungs and seared their skin out here. Perhaps that was the information they needed – this undocumented, strange forest that had taken over was the only thing that stood out in a world of red. If nothing else, they ought to simply study it closer. Everything else, apart from those pig-like creatures, were par for the course in everything else she’d read–


A piercing wail cut through the thick atmosphere. The trio ground to a halt, heads darting about the crimson landscape.


Another bone-freezing wail, trailing off into a high-pitched coo.


High above the wasteland on a hanging ridgeline, little lay to their left beyond a wall of rock. A slick river of lava burbled by to their distant right, far below. There were no Pigmen to be seen, no Magma Cubes bouncing across the endless plains. Through the stifling heat, the icy rush of adrenaline penetrated the pit of her stomach and raced along her limbs at light speed. She craned her head upward, into the roiling vermillion clouds…


The enormous, translucent apparition had spotted her the moment she’d noticed it; she snatched her bow from her shoulder as the monster let out a bone-jarring shriek. It’s eyes snapped open, locking her in its red, otherworldly glare.


“Ghast!” She hollered as the creature ejected a flaming projectile from its mouth. There was no time to react; she simply tucked her bow close as she darted clear of its path.


Ernest had barely the chance to acknowledge the creature’s presence before the projectile hit, taking the brunt of the explosion as the brittle rock shattered to pieces right by his feet and sailing several metres through the air before slamming back-first into a rock wall.


The creature swung toward them, retching another projectile forth toward Deputy Leigh; scrambling on all four to leap clear, it was all she could do to avoid being cut to pieces by the resultant shrapnel.


Audrey lunged in the opposite direction, snatching an arrow and drawing her bow as she ran. The Ghast continued to track the Police Deputy, releasing another fireball as she scrambled back to her feet. Even as she ran, the creature seemed too fixated on the expedition’s leader to notice her.


She was not one to ignore a perfect opportunity.


Her arrow whistled through the air straight and true, piercing the monster’s rear as it spun around for another approach. The shriek it released sliced through the air and the ground alike, seizing her innards cold.


Deputy Leigh had found her feet and her bow, quickly following suit to land an arrow in one of the Ghast’s vacillating tentacles. The creature howled again, its entire being appearing to pulsate as it floated through the red abyss.


By the time she had drawn her bow again the Ghast whipped about and released another projectile, glazed eyes full of fury. The Deputy sprang back, scrambling to dodge the incoming blast, but quickly found herself with her back against the wall that Ernest lay slumped against.


Audrey fired her bow as the blast hit the wall. In such close quarters, the arrow slid straight through the creature’s gelatinous hide and out the other side. With a wet gasp it immediately began to lose altitude as it jellified, losing all cohesion as it sank to the ground below and spilled, lifeless, across the plain.


The fireball had exploded against the wall as the Deputy hit it, tearing a crater from it where the rest of the search party had once stood. The dust had no time to settle before a mighty rumble shook the ground beneath her feet. It was all she could do to simply watch in silence as the towering pillar of rock above gave way, collapsing in a torrent of boulders in the crater’s space.


Then...nothing. As the very last rock rattled to a halt, not a sound whispered across the vast expanse.


Choking in the haze, Audrey’s eyes picked at every shadow, every detail she could find in the search for movement. The tower of rock had completely disintegrated, now a pile of rubble several metres high from the cliff’s edge to as far back as she could see.


If Ernest and Leigh had survived the Ghast’s attack, there was no way they could have survived the rockfall.


She swallowed hard. By now they had been in the Nether for several hours. Their party had been reduced from five to one. The place had proven impossibly hostile and unpredictable. And now, now, her return path back to Arcturus had been obstructed by a veritable mountain of rock.


If she had a one-in-five chance of making it to this point alive, her chances of returning to the Portal alive seemed to dwindle by the minute; even if she did retrace her steps, following a track they’d found to be safe enough the first time, that was no longer a possibility.


Additionally, she’d not led the expedition to this position; she’d simply blindly followed as Deputy Leigh led them deeper into the bowels of the Nether. She had made some questionable decisions in her life, but entrusting another person – or, rather, their ego – with her survival was one she realised she would deeply regret.


Clenching her teeth, she turned to examine what had lain before them prior to discovering the Ghast. If nothing else, she’d get off this wretched cliffside and take a chance at finding her way back to the Portal without encountering anything. There was little else that could be done, aside from curling up alongside the thoroughly buried remains of the other two and awaiting her heat-soaked fate in silence.


One foot in front of the other, hardly daring to breathe as she scrutinised every shadow, ears pricked for the faintest of sounds, she edged her way along the ledge toward the valley below. Little seemed to inhabit the rocky outcrop save the odd undead Pigman, idly groaning with their dead stares and lazy sway. These, at least, seemed uninterested in her.




(Word limit reached, d'oh! Continue reading here...)
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1
04/26/2020 4:26 pm
Level 27 : Expert Blacksmith
striker107
striker107 avatar
After reading this behemoth of a story (whole thing, took a bit a time), I must applaud you for your work, but the only issue I have... there's not more to read.
1
03/24/2020 10:29 am
Level 22 : Expert Ninja
Atlantiz
Atlantiz avatar
Lol so cool
2
03/23/2020 4:16 am
Level 8 : Apprentice Crafter
something_IRL
something_IRL avatar
good blog
2
03/23/2020 4:18 am
Level 3 : Apprentice Miner
shalesubaru
shalesubaru avatar
Thanks! Wish the character limit here was higher, half the thing is missing...
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