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avatar Chimalus
Level 38 : Artisan Artist
250
Jessie saw the value in everything. That was why, after we'd finished filling the Overworld with beauty, she demanded that we take our passion projects to the Nether.


She was a florist and a visionary. When it came to petaled plants, if you could imagine it, she collected it, grew it, and gave it a name. She gave names to everything.


Like I said, she believed in the value of things. She tried to love the Nether – she really did – but that dimension doesn't yield easily to dreams. It wore away at her. She tried not to show it. We built an orchard, a little cottage, and a crop field amid the dreary red. She draped everything in vines. Our yard looked like a miniature meadow.


Our property rested on a shelf of netherrack hanging above the lava sea. The shelf was several blocks deep except at its edges, where the stone was precariously thin. We didn't build out there. We kept everything neatly tucked back against the sheer cliff in which we housed our portal.


But sometimes she went out to the edge to cavern-gaze and to dream.


Needless to say, we'd each died our share of times trying to settle the untamed wastes of rock and flame. It was nothing out of the ordinary for Jessie to come back to the house, freshly respawned, reporting that she'd died trying to swim in lava.


But after dying a certain number of times, some people just don't come back.


I couldn't figure out what it was that made Jessie stay gone. It might have been the circumstances of her final death—or it might have been a bigger picture thing.


Holy men have informed me that you face a crossroads when you die—to come back and try again or to spend some time in the Nether as a soul before respawning or reincarnating. When you eventually respawn, if it's been long enough, you might not remember much from the life before, or – in the case of reincarnation – you might come back as a different creature altogether. Like a chicken. Only humans can respawn. Everything else reincarnates.


That was a tangent.


After what happened, my mild-to-moderate distaste for the Nether became hatred. For how it stifled and killed Jessie, I scorned it. I returned to the Overworld, smashed the portal, and moved far away.


For a long while, I kept space between me and anything Netherian. Portals, netherrack, Withers, and especially Ghasts—it all made me spiral.


But time had its way with me. Took some of the edge off. Or so I thought.


Catching word of some strange developments in the Nether, I deemed it time to revisit the old stomping grounds.


I made my entrance quite far from the old portal. It would be a long trek back to the house. That was the point. I promised that whatever I saw and whatever transpired, I would try my damnedest to see it through Jessie's eyes.


My portal landed me in the midst of crimson trees. Embers twinkled in the air and I caught a whiff of something like hot ginger. A sprawling cavern-grove rose up around me and set its canopy just below a vast ceiling of netherrack. I took a cleansing breath and kept my eyes on what was new.


Glowing fungal bulbs clung to the boughs. I walked by the glow of shroomlight – that was what I named the bulbs, following in Jessie's footsteps – and left my portal far behind.


Thorn-studded vines crept up trunks and pulsed with a bloody sheen. The leaves were so dense that I couldn't see through them. On closer inspection, they weren't leaves at all. They were packed netherwart. The forest floor grew a soft, spongy moss which molded pleasantly underfoot. I named it nylium. Red spindles of roots bristled up from the ground, and here or there I saw a plump spotted mushroom.


A band of flop-eared Pigmen armed with crossbows were harrying a family of warthogs. A few strong applications of my axehead took care of the former, leaving the hogs to roam free. Granted, they did try to attack me after that, but in a spirit of understanding, I ran without taking their meat. I had enough to go on.


New species, both. Jessie would have liked them. Endearing names might fit. Piglin and Hoglin.


I was near the top of the world. I ducked into a netherrack tunnel and made my way down. That stone had never quite felt like stone. It was slightly too soft, like chalk mixed with condensed ground meat, and it stank of iron.


At the opening, I came face to face with an Enderman. I ducked past, narrowly avoiding eye contact, and found myself in yet another type of forest. In contrast to the crimson grove, everything here was blue and teal and cool. I wondered if I'd been transported to the End. There were trees and roots and vines and nylium, but it was all warped. The vines formed helixes to wind their way up toward the treetops. I assumed it was the Endermen's doing—their attempt to make this place habitable. They hadn't done half bad. Dozens of the tall black denizens milled about, scattering purple sparks in their wake.


It struck me in a flight of fancy that Jessie's soul might've had something to do with all this.


I walked out to a soul sand shore and found the grain suspiciously smooth. It seemed as if a drunken farmer had raked the entire surface with a slithering stroke. The grain was large, and as I scooped up a handful, it felt moist. It was no longer sand, but soil.


Empty space and turquoise haze hung before me. The muted light of lava shone far below. My hair prickled at the sight of Ghasts. I had been in such a pleasant trance. In the distance, the pestilent balloons were drifting among airborne soul sand islands crowned by colossal rib cages. If they knew what was best for them, they had better keep their mewling and gurgling a biome's length from me.


As I trudged up a soul sand slope, a Ghast wailed and fired its charge. I cursed aloud. My bow hand was quick. I aimed for the meteor, but missed. It struck the wall behind my head, leaving bright blue flames to lick the shattered rock. Why was the fire blue, not orange?


Rage possessed me. It took five shots to nail the accursed thing. I hurried uphill and mounted a soul soil plateau that circled a wide gap. More blue flames dotted the ground, no orange fires in sight. The remaining Ghasts were just below the rim of the gap. Once again, I was close to the Nether ceiling. With gritted teeth, I ran and rounded the plateau. Now the warped forest was behind and below me, across the gap, and the crimson forest I had visited earlier sat on a ledge fifty blocks above it and to the side, now at eye level. The sight calmed me a little. I forced myself to stop and breathe. There were other groves, too, scattered over cliffs and clinging to outcrops. The verticality of the Nether played well with its new biomes, giving rise to immense, tiered forest vistas.


There, Jessie. Had I given beauty its due recognition? This place was still Hell.


Onward. There would be no more interruptions. A soul sand valley stretched before me. Airborne peninsulas and islands took me on a weaving path over empty air. A Ghast appeared now and again, but I used the terrain to hide.


A pleasant surprise caught my eye. A gold vein glinted in a netherrack wall. It occurred to me on a whim that the deaths of all those Pigmen in the past might have spurred this development. Or maybe it wasn't a whim. Maybe I was starting to put things together.


Just as I was about to follow that train of thought, a wisp of blue flame erupted at my feet. I stumbled to one side and cursed again. Another Ghast? No. There was a face in the fire. A tortured soul bemoaning its fate. As quickly as it had come, it slipped into the world of the unseen.


I was well accustomed to the whispers that rose from soul sand, but I had never seen a soul come out.


A few more deep breaths and I felt like myself again. I relaxed and looked around. I caught sight of a blue fire slightly larger than the rest. It was eclipsed by a seated human figure. It was about damned time I found something sociable around here.


I made my way over. The fire burned from a teepee of crimson logs. I circled to the figure's frontside. They sat cross-legged, cloaked in black tatters.


The man raised his face, seeming to squint at my polished suit of diamond armor. An impressive scar ran from the bridge of his nose to his left jawbone. It stretched as he spoke. “Oh. You're one of the tourists.”


I gave a dry chuckle. “I used to live here, actually.”


He shifted in his molded seat of soil, straightening up from a slump. “Used to. What brings you back home, if not to sightsee the lovely Hellscapes?”


Though his tone was off-putting, I indulged him. “I lost my friend here a while ago and I thought I'd come try and make a new start.”


His reply was abrupt. “Me, too.”


Yeah? I'm sorry.”


Goddard.” He reached up with a bony hand.


Gilbert.” I gave him my gauntlet for a hardy shake, then sat down across the fire from him.


Isn't it amazing how it's all changed?” He fixed his gaze on me with a sudden intensity. “What do you make of it?”


He was smaller than I was and appeared to be around my age. Maybe I could open up to him. It was worth testing the waters, anyway.


It's known that the Nether contains the souls of dead creatures from every dimension, correct? Every soul drips down into that base layer of lava beneath us—to be purified, reprocessed, and sent back to the Overworld or the End as a new creature. If the soul has done evil, feels regret, or is in some way lost, or simply tired, it might stay trapped in the Nether for a while—in soul sand or as a Ghast. Do you follow me?”


Yes.” If he had an emotional response, other than the eerie curiosity that had overtaken him, he hid it well.


I went on. “Suppose that the cause for the recent upsurge of life here is a soul – or a group of souls – that didn't respawn or reincarnate. They weren't caught in soul sand or sealed in the bodies of Ghasts, either. And suppose... Am I going on about nothing?”


No. Please.” His eyes welled with anticipation.


Suppose that such souls worked to make the Nether beautiful.”


Your friend.” He hummed with understanding. “I can tell that's who you're thinking about. Will you judge me if I say something strange?”


I was surprised, unsettled, and a little flattered that he had caught my gist so quickly. “You've embraced my odd ideas. I'll take yours in turn.”


I'm seeing if the soul of my beloved will come and speak to me through this fire.” He pulled out a chipped stone sword and prodded the logs. The fire crackled sharply.


There was something about this man. He gave me an odd feeling, but I was quickly softening to him. We had both felt loss. What was more, he seemed to hide knowledge behind his eyes. Perhaps it was knowledge I needed.


Do you think they know you're here?” I asked.


No sign yet. I've learned the names and faces of many souls, but none have been helpful in finding my beloved.” He let out a ragged sigh. “It doesn't help that I can't remember exactly where they died.”


I hope it comes to you soon.” I gave him a heartening smile. “The soul I saw earlier was all twisted out of shape. Souls must look more lifelike to you than to me.”


Yes. They may appear to the uninitiated, but only as blurred images. Seeing them clearly takes time.”


Are you a clergyman?”


No. Just a wanderer of this realm.”


The swoosh of sand caught my ear. A testificate hobbled toward our campground, and clutching their shawl about them, wordlessly passed us by.


Strange for a villager to be out here,” I remarked. “Suppose a human let one go?”


Everyone – from human to villager to pillager – wants a slice of this pie now. Haven't you noticed?” Goddard swung out both arms, drawing my gaze to the horizon.


There were Nether portals peering through the haze like dark stars. I counted two, three, five? More than I had ever seen at once.


I can understand the tourist comment now.” I gulped. “It's getting lively in here.”


You've got the right idea. The Nether is filling up with souls. Pretty soon, I suspect we'll have a crisis on our hands.”


A crisis?” My heart jumped.


Like you said, the souls in the Nether are systematically processed by lava, soul sand, Ghasts, and more. It's a well-oiled machine, but it can work only so quickly. In recent months, too many have come here and too many have died. The Nether cannot send more than a certain number of souls to reincarnate or respawn in a certain time frame. The souls must find a place in the Nether to wait. Blue soul fire vents – a new development – can free up real estate for a little while, but vented souls will wander only as long as they're forced to before finding an anchor. Soul sand is one such anchor—a material which a soul can possess. Recently, displaced souls, out of desperate ingenuity, have found new anchors in materials such as netherrack, and they have gathered in such numbers that the nature of the Nether itself has been transformed. Your theory is correct. The Nether is indeed filling up with souls—souls that remember life, color, and beauty, and soak the firmament with their dreams, and manifest in many ways. However, those ways are running out. Souls now wander in unprecedented numbers. The more like the Overworld the Nether becomes, the more creatures will be drawn here, and thus it will spiral, leaving the myriad souls nowhere to go.”


I was stunned. He had confirmed my hunches and taken them further. “How do you know all of this?”


As you've intuited, I see souls more clearly than the average person can. I sit at soul fires because they're vents for trapped souls and lighthouses for wandering ones – an easy way to make contact with many souls without needing to move – but once I've had some rest, I'll go walking again, observing souls wherever they exist.”


I wondered if he could help me find Jessie. No. I had only just met him, and a soft voice in my head urged caution. I needed to get to know him better.


So I prodded further. “If a huge number of souls found themselves displaced, what do you suppose would happen to the Nether? And how do you suppose one might stop it?”


What would happen? Desperation. Chaos. Souls possessing and corrupting whatever they could, no matter the consequence. I doubt it could be stopped unless someone found a means to contain a vast quantity of souls in a small space.”


I agreed with him on everything except the overflow of souls. From past experience with mystics and priests, even if their knowledge and skills were real, they tended to blow things out of proportion for the sensation of it. There was no sign of strain on the Nether. As far as I could tell, all things were in balance and would remain so—well, apart from the inherent problems which might never be solved. The system had worked since the beginning. Surely, the designer – if there was one – had set in place a contingency plan. I wasn't the sort of person to deal with such problems, anyway.


A memory of Jessie flashed in my mind.


She wiped sweat from her brow as we stood with hoes over our shoulders, a barren desert on all sides, and a tiny, dry crop field under our feet.


She spoke through heaving sighs. “Even if you hate this, do it for my sake. I'm here.”


Jessie was here. She was present in every beautiful thing that this wretched realm could produce. If there was even the slightest chance of her soul being caught in some calamity, I had to do something about it. Even if I hated the Nether with every fiber of my being...


Of course,” I replied. “I'm your sidekick.”


There was just one issue left to settle.


I stood up, dusting off my armor. “Goddard, what are you about, really? Have you got some dark secret to hide? Who's your beloved? How do you want to see this soul overflow thing play out? You might ask me the same sorts of questions. I just want to be safe.”


Safe from what?” He looked up at me with guarded interest.


My honest answer would have been pain. Failure. This whole place. Memory. Instead I said, “Well, if I'm going to invite you on a journey, I want to minimize the chance of backstabbing as much as possible. It's a dog-eat-dog world, but I'm not much of a cannibal.”


He chuckled under his breath. “Speaking of dogs, my beloved is a tamed wolf named Charger. No dark secrets—at least, none that will hurt you. I want to see this whole world saved. How about you?” He looked up at me with a fragile, flickering hope.


Jessie, a gardener. My best friend. My only secret is fear. It won't hurt you. The world sucks, but it's my job to see it cared for.”


Goddard threw up a hand, found a grip on my gauntlet, and used it to pull himself stiffly to his feet. He was short, slouched, and crooked, but tough like a weed.


I gave his shoulder a firm pat. “Use your soul sight to help me find Jessie, I'll do what I can to help you find Charger, and in the meantime we'll see what we can do about this soul situation.”


He grinned, baring imperfect teeth. “My beloved may have wandered Wither knows where. There's no use loitering here. Let me stretch my legs, and then I'll be ready.”


Are you sure you're good without armor?”


He smirked. “I've got you, right?”


Wither knows where? What kind of expression was that?


Shortly, we set out. We trod the high ground as often as we could, making our way through the upper echelons of the valley. I had figured that I would come across some unfamiliar biomes on my way home, given that my newest portal was quite far from the old one, but I trusted the coordinates of the house to be the same.


Goddard set soul fire torches behind us every hundred blocks or so. “Just in case we want to go back.”


We came upon a giant skeleton surrounded by a ring of pillagers. They held formation, leering as we passed. The bones were colored charcoal.


What are they doing?” I asked. “Why are the bones...”


Goddard whispered. “Wither worship isn't such a farfetched thing in these parts. They can do it here without drawing abuse. They char the bones and pray for success in their next Wither Skull hunt. Then, when they make a Wither, they set it loose.”


Unconsciously, I ground my teeth. I'd killed several Withers in my time and I knew the calamity they could cause. To imagine anyone purposely inflicting that kind of harm on the world—it made me feel murderous.


Why don't we take care of them?” I stopped in my tracks.


I'd rather not inspire those zealots to become more of a problem than they already are.” Goddard politely spaced himself between the pillagers and me. “At least, not yet.”


He was right. It wasn't my place to thoughtlessly instigate conflict that might affect many more innocents both in this dimension and without.


We moved on. The pillagers passed out of sight, but not out of mind. Something irked me about what had just occurred. What was it? Perhaps it was the way Goddard had said, “...drawing abuse,” as if those monsters had earned sympathy. Perhaps it was the way he had physically interposed himself when I showed hostile intentions. No, there was more. Was it the fact that he knew the details of their occult rituals? No. That could be excused. It was good to know one's enemy. What was I missing?


His stone sword. He'd used it to prod the fire. It had been chipped and dusted with charcoal like the sword of a Wither Skeleton.


My chest tightened. My heart clenched with a dull ache. This was a familiar feeling. It was just like after Jessie died. It said that everything in the Nether was Hell. This whole place was Hell.


I tried to drown terror with reason. Goddard's explanations of the soul system had made it sound like he cared about the world. He had said he wanted to save it when I asked him to confirm. Yes, that was all true. Every stone sword was chipped, for pity's sake. The charcoal was from the fire. I tried to breathe. It was my responsibility to trust Goddard until given reason to doubt him. I had invited him on this mission. I was...


Jessie appeared to me again. I couldn’t put my finger on why this particular memory came back to me now, but it did. “Someday, Gilbert, you'll do more than I ever did with my shears and water buckets. You'll meet your ends with far greater materials.”


My vision was cut short by a scream. A Ghast fireball whizzed straight for us. My traveling companion leapt in front of me, batting it back with his sword. It was ‘returned to sender.’


The attack brought my already flaring anxiety to a fever pitch. I dropped to my hands and knees. Otherwise, the act of breathing would have sent knives through my lungs.


Goddard knelt down and touched my shoulder. “Are you distressed?”


I had tried to hide it. Now he'd seen my weakness. Maybe he saw my soul and my mortal dread of this place. Why did it matter? I'd seen his eyes. He was a true friend. Everything was going to be fine.


At length, I gasped out an answer. “No. I'm just not used to fighting.”


That was a lie. I'd been tense and clumsy all day. Ever since the first Ghast. I was the one in armor, too. Shameful.


My thoughts were spiraling badly. I needed to rein them in.


The soul sand valley gave way to another crimson forest. Embers filled the air again. Moments later, a lone Piglin charged us. When I was about to draw my axe, Goddard stopped my arm and slipped ahead of me. He donned a golden breastplate and the Piglin stopped, skidding on its hooves. Then, Goddard threw a golden ingot at the beast's feet. It picked it up, lapped it with its thick tongue, and smacked its chops with approval before crossing its arms and furrowing its brow to think. A lightbulb seemed to snap on in its head. It rifled through a belt pouch and tossed Goddard three blocks of gravel.


Much obliged.” He popped off his breastplate and bowed. “You see?” He turned back to me. “I only wear it for show.”


The Piglin pranced away with its gold.


You had him graveling at your feet,” I muttered as we climbed a hill out of the forest.


Glad you're feeling a little better,” Goddard giggled.


This was good. Everything was going to be fine. Jessie would have been proud of me. I forced back tears. I missed her now more than ever. But in a strange way, Goddard was...


Another image, another memory. Jessie and I were sitting in a log cabin, sipping mushroom stew.


You've always been here to round out my sharp edges. You deserve people who will do the same when things get hard for you. When you're with those people, don't be afraid to show how you feel.”


Had Jessie been trying to prepare me for this? For being without her?


Thanks to our rise in elevation, I caught a glimpse of something I would never have seen from the forest floor. The Piglin had taken a path through the trees that stopped at the edge of a twenty-block mined-out cube, wherein a tremendous golden idol was being erected block by block. It depicted not a Piglin and not a Hoglin, but a man.


On the other side of the hill was a canyon filled with lava. Over the lake lay a sprawling Nether Fortress. An exceptionally large flock of Ghasts wheeled overhead like vultures.


Are we really going through here?” asked Goddard.


He must have known. Was he trying to be sensitive?


Before I answered, I made sure to kill even the slightest hint of fear in my face. I wasn't ready to follow Jessie's advice just yet. "It's the safest way to cross. Our goal is the tunnels on the other side.”


This was the Nether as I'd always known it. Nothing to distract me. Nothing to dull the pain. Pure fire. Pure Hell.


We charged across the ramparts, mowing down Blazes and Wither Skeletons. Goddard's lack of armor didn't impede him. His poor posture was deceiving. He was skilled, unnaturally so. I took countless hits while he took only two or three. I was the battering ram and he was the knife. Ghasts rained Hell on us, and twice I was nearly launched straight off the fortress. In fact, the second time would have been the end of me, had Goddard not placed a block of netherrack beneath my feet at the last possible second.


I barreled through one last gang of Wither Skeletons, letting Goddard pick off the stragglers, and then we ducked into a roofed portion of the castle, at last escaping the volleys from above and all around. A long nether brick tunnel pierced the canyon wall. We were through the worst of it. I let out a sigh of elation.


You made it.” He panted heavily.


We kept running. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Goddard slipping no fewer than three Wither Skulls into his cloak.


A wave of sick terror rushed through me. All the reason I could spare rose up to meet it, but was shattered by the overwhelming tide.


Goddard, what the hell? What are you gonna do with those? Blow up my house? Why are you so good, huh? Are you a trained killer or what? I don't see a scratch on you. Are those demons your friends? Just pretending to hit you? Why can you see souls, huh? Did you make a deal? Who's your beloved, really? Charger. Yeah, right. I know my religion. Beloved means a deity. For instance, a Wither.”


After a long pause, he said with a trembling voice, “I'm sorry. I think I've given you the wrong impression of me.”


Then, a dark haze fell over my vision. In a blink, Goddard was in front of me, face inches from mine. He wrapped his hands around my neck and squeezed. I saw the bones in his face coming to the surface. It was as though his skin had never been real, never been there at all. Black bones. He was made of black bones.


Then he was back where he had been a moment before, eyes glassy with tears. “I'm sorry for the way I am. There's just a lot that I can't remember and a certain thing that I won't say for fear of being betrayed by those who would hurt this world. When I met you, I still wasn't sure what kind of person you were, and I'm still not sure, but it seems that you're going to demand assurance of me before giving much of your own, so I suppose we're at an impasse. However, I can tell you three things. First, my soul sight is a gift from a previous incarnation. Second, I collect Skulls to farm Nether Stars for future Nether cities. Third, my clothes are in tatters from the hits I take over time. You haven't seen all of my battles.”


I was appalled with myself.


Goddard was standing there, open, vulnerable, awaiting my decision. I had two choices.


One. Soul sight be damned, I would ditch him as soon as possible and make it seem like an accident. There was a lake of lava on the other side of this tunnel. My house was on the other side of that lake, but I wouldn't tell him which direction. We'd dig straight down at the shore, then dig a horizontal two-by-two tunnel under the lakebed. He'd dig the left two-block column; I'd dig the right. There were known to be countless lava pockets tucked away in solid swaths of netherrack. When we hit one, I wouldn't block it off. Instead, pretending my hand had slipped, I would let it flow and dig a side passage to the right. Standard lava escape procedure. Lava would rush between Goddard me, creeping into my passage. I would build a wall behind me, run forward again, and build a second wall, this time several blocks deep. Then I would speed forward, gaining as much ground as I could. I would dig several false branches, then stick with the one I knew would take me home.


You don't have to do that,” huffed Goddard. “I can't read your mind, but I can see your soul. Take care of yourself. I'll be here, tending the fire.”


With that, both the first and second option were null. The second might have been to take this chance – perhaps my final chance – at a friendship. Guilt and shame now blocked that path.


As I trudged past him, he called after me. “I admire you for being honest. That takes courage.”


Hardly listening, I muttered back, “There's nothing I can do for you, Goddard. I don't know why you agreed to join me in the first place. Good luck saving the Nether.”


I was ill. Deeply ill. Maybe Goddard was right to distrust me. Maybe I hated the Nether too much to save Jessie, myself, or anyone.


The fortress ended and the cave opened. I reached the dwindling end of this particular landmass. Lava stretched as far as the eye could see. I stood on a cliff descending to a narrow beach of gravel and magma. There was a basalt column a few blocks ahead. It fell from the ceiling, plunged into lava, and spread, leaving a short hop to the beach.


My house is on the other side of that lake,” I said to myself.


I broke several basalt blocks, jumped onto the bottom half of the column, and pillared down.


I made conversation with myself as I set up picks for the long mine ahead. “Can you believe what my friend told me the other day? He seriously believed that a boat of portable size could withstand the heat of lava without cooking its passenger alive. The only option, of course, is to dig.”


Digging in the Nether is a dismal task,” I replied. “You can feel the weight of the whole world's misery bearing down on you.”


I dug a downward shaft, stopped below the lakebed, and began tunneling sideways.


Every few strokes, it seemed, there was a pocket of lava ready to spring forth and slow my progress. Had there always been this many?


I had a good internal clock. About a day passed in dingy sameness. My rhythm became robotic, thoughtless. Even the munching of cooked beef started to arrive at predictable intervals. If memory served, the lake would soon end, allowing me to dig safely up. But you couldn't be too careful in the Nether. I put a fire resist potion in one palm and began the movements of handing another to Goddard before I chuckled and shook my head. Evidently, he'd stuck to me like perfume.


Just as I changed digging direction and began my push for the surface, my pick bounced back into my face, striking my lower lip.


I wiped my blood-spattered chin with a gauntlet. “What the Hell?”


Peering close, I spotted an edge of glinting umber. I worked slowly, in a daze, then curiously, then frantically to uncover an object that grew in size and complexity with each stroke. It was a structure of dull metal. Humanoid, but twice my height. Bulky, angular like an iron golem, three arms lining each side. Dense and heavy, thick at the joints, it hung diagonally from a wedge-shaped mount. Staring at it was like staring at a petrified tree stump. It was brittle, steeped in the dust of its own remains. Parts were wrinkled, corroded, caved in, snapped off. Shards lay at my feet. There was no way that such an irredeemable heap could function.


Then, all eight of its eyes lit up. What I had thought to be the face was actually the top of its head. The creature was clinging to the ceiling by its belly and craning its neck to look down at me. A tinny screech and hiss resounded from a grate nestled between two knobby mandibles. The six arms buckled loose and extended, shedding netherrack and strips of their own material to break free. The bottom two legs joined the six flexing arms. The single-segment body rumbled to life. It was a crude mechanical spider.


I reeled back, drawing my axe. The creature turned in place with the screeching shuffle of eight metal feet, and as it rotated mid-jump to land eight-footed on the floor, one leg snapped clean off its hinges. It wobbled in place, its tiny squeaks growing quieter until it lay still.


The beast froze as if dead, but its eight white bulbs kept shining on me. The top of its head came up to my neck. I raised a hand to serve as a visor. Then, a soft ticking and chittering came from the spider's mouth. It went on, then gave way to a guttural groan that I could have sworn was the imitation of a cow. Then I heard a howling wolf, then a scoffing villager, then an oinking Piglin, then a whimpering Ghast. It went on and on, mob after mob, picking up speed until the cry of every creature I knew had been uttered and repeated ad nauseam. Then, at last...


Human interface activated,” blared a dry monotone voice.


I stared. “Hello?”


The outer eyes dimmed, leaving the two centermost ones bright. “We are the Vesselry, a group intelligence gathered into one body over...” The ticking and chittering began again. “...ten and a half cycles of soul absorption. Enter menu. Option One: check soul containment status. Two: change absorption mode. Three: explain Vesselry. Four: enter dialogue mode.”


Was this thing interacting with me? I stared like an idiot. What did it want? The voice repeated the list. Was I supposed to choose? Well, one of them sounded helpful.


“Explain Vesselry,” I called back, overly conscious of my annunciation.


More ticking and chittering.


Explaining Vesselry. We are a soul containment construct. We absorb souls in the general area, adding them to ourselves. The architect of our being foresaw the inevitable overflow of souls in the Nether. Thus, she designed us as a means to mitigate it. Our body was never perfected. Our maker drew plans to increase our physical durability and soul containment capacity. Those plans have yet to be executed. We seek the wisdom of the architect. If you see us, Nether soul overflow has already occurred, triggering the deactivation of our cloaking device. Our alloy has degraded over time. Our body must not be exposed to air for longer than one hour.”


Had I just strip mined my way into the answer to Goddard's doomsday prophecy?


I took a moment to pace to and fro, coming to terms with the total improbability of what I was experiencing. There was no explanation except that fate – or Jessie – had released me from their hands only to guide me straight back.


Check soul containment status,” I commanded.


Checking soul containment status. We are currently housing five thousand, eight hundred and twenty-two souls. We have reached soul capacity.”


Right. So this thing needed an upgrade. But how to get one? The architect? Long dead and gone, no doubt. I was puzzled.


Change absorption mode.”


Listing absorption modes: low absorption; mid absorption; mass absorption. Currently at soul capacity. Absorption stopped.”


It sounded like mass absorption might be the solution to all the world's problems—if only our little machine could find its master. I tried anyway.


Enter mass absorption mode.”


Insufficient capacity. Mass absorption mode unable to activate. To enter mass absorption mode, increase capacity.”


It needed more physical durability and soul containment capacity, right? It sounded like the architect had been experimenting with materials. What was this thing made of, anyway? Maybe I could figure it out.


Turning over a shard in my hands, I made an intriguing discovery. It seemed to be an alloy of several things, but the one component I certainly recognized was soul sand. It made sense. Soul sand was an anchor, as Goddard called it. I didn't know how to make or find more of this alloy. For all I knew, this robot was utterly unique. All I could hope to do was find the architect. Did this Vesselry know anything about her? Group intelligence, huh? At least one of the five thousand souls in this scrap heap must have known something about her.


Enter dialogue mode.”


All of the intolerable sounds did their song and dance again. Then the machine went quiet.


Okay. Who am I talking to?”


A small whining and whimpering came forth. It was a canine.


Hey, Bones. I wanna know about the architect. I wanna know about your master. Can you speak human?”


The dog panted expressively.


To my mild alarm, a panel popped open on top of the spider's head. I took a cautious step forward and peered inside. A dusty compartment contained brittle pages of what seemed to be a manual. There was another, loose slip leaning against it. It was slightly sturdier. Glossy. I plucked it out.


It was an image. A realistic rendering of a woman with a prominent scar running from the bridge of her nose to her left jawbone.


I did a double take. Someone else had that scar.


Is your name Charger?”


The soul dog yipped and whined with exuberance.


Goddard had said that a past incarnation had given him the gift of soul sight. A gift like that would make the perfecting of a soul containment construct quite the breeze, wouldn't it?


Goddard, I'm so sorry.”


I kept a speed potion in my inventory for precisely this sort of occasion. Racing back through my mineshaft somehow felt longer and more tedious than when I had created it at a tenth the speed. Time couldn't have gone any slower. Every passing tick was agony. Goddard needed to be there.


When I found him, he sat on top of the netherrack cliff overlooking the broken basalt column. He had just begun to kindle a soul fire.


As I approached, taking in breath, he shook his head and stopped my words before they could come out. ““I had a feeling that if I ever saw you again, it'd be here. So Here it is.” He spread his hands. “I'm the reincarnation of a man who designed a partial solution to the soul overflow problem. However, I can't recall where he put that solution or how he planned to finish it. It was a safe house for souls. Charger, my wolf, is the first and only soul I remember putting inside.”


I'm glad you felt like opening up, but I already knew most of that.”


What?” He was crestfallen, liberated, and dumbfounded all at once.


Yeah. I've learned soul sight. I'm God now. Yeah. No. Man. I found something underground. Listen. It's your project. It's your solution. But you got one thing wrong. It wasn't a dude. It was a chick. The architect was a lady with a scar—you know what? Just come with me.”


He saw everything, and his reunion with Charger went just as one might expect a reunion between an umpteenth generation reincarnate and his dog to go. Actually, it wasn’t that great. Despite his wishes, Goddard couldn’t comfortably hug or caress the decomposing metal spider.


“This is incredible,” he said. “I feel so much rushing back to me. The life I lived. What I accomplished. What I didn’t accomplish. I stored everything I knew in this machine. But it’s not everything I need. The old me left certain problems unsolved. I don’t know how to improve the soul containment vessel. The idea was to create a new alloy with such high soul capacity – or such high anchor potential, to use familiar terms – that the Vesselry could enter mass absorption mode without strain on its build or danger to the already-contained souls. It seems I haven’t made any progress in the Wither-knows-how-many incarnations since Dessa came up with it all.”


“Dessa. That’s the old you, huh?”


Goddard laid a palm on the spider’s foreleg. It was the gesture of a weary soul laying its worries to rest. Then he tensed.


“What’s wrong?” I asked.


“For a while now, souls have been restless. Now I see a multitude all moving toward the same place. It's a bad sign. Gilbert, we need a workshop.”


Now I realized Goddard’s reason for meeting me. In the same moment, dread gripped my heart. Were the souls going where I thought they were going? “There’s one close by.”


Before we left, I had to try one more thing.


“Jessie, are you in there?”


Silence. It was worth a shot. We snatched up the spider’s broken leg and sealed the chamber air-tight before heading up.


We surfaced on a wide netherrack plain spotted with gravel and partly mined nether quartz. The lakeshore was behind us and on either side. We’d come up on a peninsula. Ahead of us, at the base of the peninsula, stood a netherrack wall that formed the rest of the lakeshore. The left side produced a thick shelf of netherrack that hung high over the lake and tapered toward its edge. That was home. A hot Nether wind blew at our backs.


“They’re heading toward that.” Goddard pointed exactly where I didn’t want him to point.


Fearing the worst but not knowing what the worst might be, I hurried him to a nether brick staircase hidden behind a section of wall.


Thoroughly winded, we reached the shelf. Everything was just as I’d left it. Even the empty hole at the edge of the property was picture perfect. Approaching it, I found myself oddly at ease. I could stare straight down through it. It was like a window into a realm of pure fire. Far below, there was nothing but fire.


“Jessie, I’m gonna do something about this space you’ve left behind.”


The little cottage hadn’t been touched. It was nestled against the cliff face at the back of the shelf. The dark oak and nether brick palate sported its accents of pink clay as well as ever. It was a Netherian home with Overworld warmth. The surrounding flora was arranged in concentric crescents, creating the effect of a kaleidoscopic aura. The gardens and vineyards clinging to the foundations of the cottage were filled with every flower Jessie had loved, prioritizing poppies. The boughs of the surrounding orchard hung heavy with apples. Furthest out and closest to us, the crop fields brimmed with wheat, beats, carrots, and potatoes. I ran my fingers through a feathery ear of wheat.


But not everything was the same.


Beside the cottage stood our Nether portal. Something was wrong with it. The obsidian appeared to be weeping.


We dashed in for a closer look. The obsidian’s dark, dense material was splitting apart in webs, the violet portal field seeping through the cracks. The portal was swelling, squeezing against its corrupt frame.


“They’re possessing the portal,” Goddard spat. “I considered this as a possibility. They can’t can’t go through it, but they’re merging with the portal field itself. Although it's not matter, it’s a suitable anchor. Every other portal must be suffering the same stress. We need to upgrade the Vesselry and engage mass absorption as soon as possible. We have to clear out these souls.”


These were higher stakes than I’d ever imagined. My vision spun with nausea. I forced my seizing lungs to work and my dry mouth to speak. “It looks like the portal is still active. We need to check the other side.” I staggered into the portal frame.


Goddard tried to follow, but I pushed him back.


“No. Just in case it breaks.”


I passed into daylight. I felt my spirit rise and stretch into an open sky. The only source of fire was the sun overhead. The odor of sulfur had become a fact of life. Having it replaced by sweet, clear air sent my nose and tongue into a frenzy of pleasure. Laughter almost came, but not quite.


I was in a grove of oak trees, the same grove Jessie and I had been foraging in before we built our portal on a whim. Indeed, our very first Nether portal had landed us in the place where we would make our home.


The obsidian was the same on this side. Cracked and crying. However, something far more worrisome drew my eye. At the foot of the portal, the grass grew dry and yellow. Drought was taking hold. Each second the desiccation spread a little more, signaled by the near-silent cracking of stems.


I reported to Goddard what I’d found.


“Now I understand.” His face was pale, fingers locked in contemplation. “The souls are supercharging the portals. The seals that keep the Nether in check are chipping away. The portals are sending more than just creatures across dimensions. They’re sending everything. The Nether will spill into the Overworld. The souls are acting on instinct. They’re trying to make more space for themselves. More Nether.”


“Can’t we break the frames?” I drew my pick.


“The portal has become a permanent fixture in space. It’s practically a living creature now.”


Staring into the swirling maw of the portal, I had never felt more alone.


“You don’t have to trust me.” Jessie clasped my hands in hers. We sat at a spruce table in our Nether cottage. A recent memory. I was slumped, sniffling and weeping. She kept squeezing my hands. Kept shaking them. I could never sink into a full stupor with Jessie around.


She said, “No matter how great your doubt, no matter how deep your hiding, I will always find you. No length of time and no depth of fire can part us. I might need space now and again, but I will always come back to you. Never forget that I love you.”


I snapped back to the present and leveled my eyes to Goddard. “Let’s get working. Where do we start?”


“A smithing table and a workspace.”


I led him past the berry hedge, ducked through the vine curtain in the doorway, and entered my home for what seemed the first time. It was dark. Where the floors weren’t wide and bare, the furniture was scattered, overturned, and broken. Netherrack dust was heaped in corners and it swirled in warm wafts that blew through clattering shutters. Just as I'd left it, only a little dirtier.


I wasn’t familiar with smithing. Goddard made the table, hung a soul fire lantern from a rafter, and taught me the basics. It was simply another kind of crafting. We prepared an array of materials on a workbench, including the spider’s leg and some precious stock from both our Ender Chests.


“Are we just gonna wing this?” I ran my hands over the various tools and components.


Goddard stood in a daze, eyes locked on the floor.


“Hey. Are you okay, buddy?”


He shook himself alert, but when he did, he wasn’t the same Goddard from a few seconds before. In that time, his disposition had gone from tense to weary to despondent.


“Respawns and reincarnations don’t make everything good as new, Gilbert. This scar isn’t all I’ve carried over. Wounds have built up over time, some of them unseen. My body and soul are tired. I get a feeling this incarnation might be my last for a while.”


I caught his arm as he weakly swayed. “If it is, we’ll be sure your soul finds a good place to rest. Now let’s get moving—”


“In ten lifetimes, Gilbert, I couldn’t find the answer. You figured out the source of the Nether’s new biomes all on your own. You can figure this out the same way. I’ll go digging. The Vesselry has some spare scrap I left in hiding. It'll help us reinforce the body.”


“What? I need you here. You’re the architect. You’re Dessa’s—”


“I’m a shell. My duty was to pass the fire.” He staggered out the door.


I cursed repeatedly under my breath, almost making a chant of it. I had to pull myself into the mindset for creation, but it wasn’t the ideal work environment. I preferred to create without the added pressure of the world’s imminent destruction.


As I numbly flipped through materials, I felt a gentle touch on the back of my hand. At first I made nothing of it. A strong breeze, maybe. Then I felt it again, but it was like the firm rub of a human palm. I jolted and looked around. There was no one.


A voice whispered in my ear, tickling my skin and sending a thrill through my neck. “To carry the souls of all the world, what does a vessel need?”


“Jessie?” Tears sprang to my eyes.


Just like that, the presence was gone. I stood gasping, fists shaking at my sides. What had just happened? She’d been there. Had I imagined it? No. She was calling for me. I had to call back.


“Honesty and strength,” I replied.


The presence flickered back. Her arms were around my shoulders. She kissed my cheek and whispered again. “Honesty and strength. Good. But in physical terms.”


“Purity and hardness?” I suggested, lifting a hand to firmly squeeze her wrist.


“Good. Which materials have those qualities?”


“I’ll think about it. I love you, Jessie.” She hummed fondly, then faded from awareness again. Her warmth was swept away by the wind.


I couldn’t move. I choked back sobs. How long had she been here, waiting?


There was no time. Now I had something to go on. I laid the spider’s leg across my smithing table and began hammering nether quartz into it.


A quick heat in the blast furnace melded the two. Now I had a dense, milky brown ingot. Next I hammered in a layer of diamond and melded the same ingot again. The resulting product was slightly lighter in hue.


Goddard came back, dusty and bedraggled, with a stack of spare parts.


“I checked through the portal,” he said. “The spread is accelerating.”



I took the stack, set it on the workbench, and threw my arms around the man. “I think I’m actually getting soul sight now—or at least, soul feeling.”


He drew away and slapped my shoulder. “It comes in time. A friendly soul helps, too.”


“Can we go with this?” I handed him the ingot.


He turned it over. “Melded with nether quartz and diamond. That should improve the capacity. I tried diamond once before, but you’ve used a different ratio and mixing technique, and the added quartz is quite a leap in concept. It might just be viable.”


He dropped the ingot on the workbench and focused hard on it. At first I couldn’t tell what he was doing. Then he beckoned across the room to seemingly no one. No one, until I saw flickers of blueish forms. They passed into the ingot, shrank to meet its outline, and were gone.


“I’m testing it by inviting souls inside. Your friend is helping gather them. The capacity is good so far. Exceptional, in fact. I could never have achieved this. Let’s make more. It’s all or nothing now.”


Goddard rolled up his tattered sleeves, revealing thin but sinuous arms etched with scars. We began churning out ingots. All the while, I agonized over what might be happening on the other side of the portal.


While we toiled, I finally found words for certain feelings. I’m sorry for distrusting you, Goddard. On the surface, you seem to embody some of the worst things about the Nether. I took too long to see what was under the surface.”


I understand. It's not easy touching what's burned you in the past.”


You saw everything in me, but you still cared for me and never took advantage of me. I'm grateful.”


We hammered on.


“That should be enough.” Goddard stopped my hand as I raised it for another savage stroke, a mad light in my eyes and sweat pouring from my brow. “The rest can stay scrap for now, just in case.”


We had just over half a stack.


In an awesome display of dexterity and quick thinking, Goddard put down eight furnaces, set them all ablaze, and placed an equal number of ingots in each. “We’re going to smelt them down, put them in buckets, and coat the spider. It’ll be sloppy, but there’s no time to design proper replacement parts.”


As we ran our buckets out of the house, down the secret stairs, and out onto the peninsula, I sensed a subtle tug on my senses. Was Jessie trying to get my attention? I tried to see her, feel her, but my physical movements were eating up my focus.


“Goddard, can you get in touch with Jessie? She’s trying to reach me. I don’t know what she wants.”


“There’s no time,” Goddard snapped. “The souls aren't slowing down.”


I inwardly seethed. That old distrust was creeping back. Goddard meant well, but we both knew that he was hiding something out of desperation.


Goddard had smartly marked our mine shaft with a soul fire torch. We dug down into the Vesselry chamber and applied the already cooling alloy to the creature’s body, head, and limbs. When the material hardened, the result was a blobby and bloated mass, lumps hanging off, joints packed full and frozen.


The machine’s muffled voice came through. “Enter menu. Option One—”


Goddard cut in. Change absorption mode. Enter low absorption mode.”


We both felt souls entering the machine. They came at a slow trickle.


“Not enough. Mid absorption mode.” He turned to me. “Each mode increases the area of effect. We’ll start with just this portal, then worry about the rest.”


We waited. Souls kept flowing in. The Vesselry was vibrating. Some of our substance cracked.


Now standing still, I was able to focus on the tug that had bothered me since we left the cottage. With a shudder of glee, I was able to hear her voice again, but the words she spoke weren’t comforting.


“It doesn’t feel pure. It may be strong, but in the end it will lack—”


Goddard cursed. “It’s not enough. It’s still not enough.” He eyed the alloy warily. Pieces were crumbling off. Here and there, a soul leapt free like a sprung leak. Check soul containment status.”


Checking soul containment status. We are currently housing one hundred thousand, one hundred and ninety-four souls. We have reached soul capacity.”


“Mass absorption mode,” Goddard declared. "This will reach the entire Nether.”


Blue soul fire flares erupted from the Vesselry. I saw and felt souls spilling from every nook and cranny of the machine. Molten metal was flung in all directions. Fire and sparks bloomed from the center of the spider, then burst outward in a blinding flash. I covered my eyes and turned my back. When the smoke cleared, I saw Goddard standing across the room from me, waist deep in a lava flow. The spider was shrapnel. Souls flew hither and thither like leaves in a gale. The explosion had expanded the entire chamber, including the wall behind Goddard. A single pocket of lava had lay in hiding, waiting to devour him.


“The stability was lacking.” He coughed up blood, eyeing the ring of bright flame that crept up his belly, licking his chest. “I knew it all along. Wishful thinking kills.”


Acting on reflex, I threw a fire resist potion. It landed in his hand. He smirked and lifted it to his lips. Before he could drink, his midsection lurched, the lava line rising from his belly button to his heart in a single movement. The nozzle swayed to one side. The liquid dribbled down his cheek and ran along his scar before dripping onto his cloak. His hand fell sideways, the bottle went up in flames, and the rest of him dropped backward with a viscous smack.


Until now, I hadn’t realized the significance of the words Goddard had spoken in the cottage—that his current incarnation might be the last for a long while.


A memory came back to me that I had begun to explore earlier in the day during an episode of anxiety. It had been cut off by a Ghast. Now I picked up where I’d left off.


“Someday, Gilbert, you'll do more than I ever did with my shears and water buckets. You'll meet your ends with far greater materials.”


She was standing at the edge of our Nether shelf, overlooking the bright lethal sea.


I wrapped her in a stone embrace. But there are no greater materials than yours, Jessie. You brought color to this world. You brought color to my entire life. You don’t have to leave. Please never leave. Whether you choose to go or stay, know this. I will always be here for you. I will always be the anchor for your soul.”


I turned around to tend the wheat. When the Ghast uttered its cry, I was lost in thought, scattering seeds.


When I looked back, Jessie was gone, a void of light and fire in her place.


I returned to the present. Goddard was Jessie all over again. I couldn’t stand it. Why did life always...


“But I’m here,” she said.


She caressed my face. I glimpsed her smiling lips. Then she flickered and I saw one eye blink. Until now, I hadn’t known the meaning of my own words. “...the anchor for your soul.”


There was only one thing left to try. After picking up what was left of the Vesselry’s original parts, I had just enough scrap to execute my plan. But I had to do it right. There was something very simple I’d gotten wrong and was still getting wrong.


“Which material is purest?” Jessie coaxed. “Come on. I’m a gardener, and I know this.”


It came to me. I recalled the idol being built in the crimson forest. I remembered the simple bliss the Piglin had experienced when Goddard gave it a single, shining ingot.


“Gold.”


The hike back to the house was more tiring than any journey I’d taken in my life, short or long. I felt the multitude of souls whirling, screaming about me, driving my body and spirit down into despair. Most were racing for the portal, but those that weren't harried me without mercy. Soul fire vents erupted from the ground on either side of me. It was a procession.


The spider's scraps held knowledge and potential. Gold was pure and vulnerable. That was the right base. It was just a matter of nailing the mixture for the ingots.


Jessie tested them, taking the time to rule out uncertainty. After a pause, she proclaimed, "We'll call it Netherite."


Now we needed just one more thing. Diamond – the strength to persevere – came last. Goddard and Jessie had both accepted me as I was. In honor of their trust, I melded the ingots together with my own diamond armor.


There was no need for a machine. Thousands of souls came flocking to me. Their life-force flooded my armor. Suddenly, I could see them. Souls darted everywhere like flying ash. I strode toward the Nether portal. It was already repairing its damage. The chaos of the Overworld waited.


There was one thing left to ask. "Jessie, were your wishes unfulfilled? Is that why you stayed gone?"


Jessie answered. "No. No, not at all. In time, we made all things new. That's what the Nether is for."
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03/23/2020 10:14 pmhistory
Level 38 : Artisan Artist
Chimalus
I didn't have time to put into visuals like with my previous PMC story. Still, it was emotional to write and good practice. Thanks for the opportunity, PMC!

I'd like to record an audio version for those intimidated by long text or who simply prefer to listen.
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