Tessa’s slowly faded back into consciousness. What was going on? Where was she? She tried to remember and could piece together vague memories of what happened. Arriving in Faethun. Finding and entering the Heroes’ Guild. Being rejected, but falling in company with some...people. The memories were fuzzy, but she pressed on to remember what happened. There was...the Adventurers’ Guild. She joined a quest, then departed and found herself at the entrance to a cave.
What happened next?
She tried to remember, but it all whipped through her mind so violently and intensely that she couldn’t make sense of it.
I was doing...something. Wasn’t I? What was it?
Tessa rewound her memories, returning to the cave’s entrance. She focused hard, remembering more of the details.
There were...bandits. And...and then what happened?
She started again from the cave’s entrance. There were bandits, and then a fight. The people she was with, what happened to them? Then, she remembered something. The deafening explosions, one after another, came back to her. Callous laughter and smiles, pools of fresh blood, lifeless bodies, clanging and grinding metal.
What else? There was...something. Something...important.
It all faded to black, all but the blood. It was dripping...from her. A cut on her neck. Droplets of her own blood falling. And then...another explosion.
Tessa’s eyes flew open, and she found herself somewhere...different. On her back and staring up, she didn’t see the rocky cavern ceiling from the cave before. Instead, it was an empty white void. Getting to her feet, Tessa wondered what this place was.
Looking to her right she saw the white expanse continue until it collided with a graveyard of swords, crowns, and golden light shining from the ground. It continued on past what she could see into oblivion. Swords of all kinds lay buried in the ground, their handles and hilts acting as tombstones for unmarked graves. All the while crowns of kings, queens, nobles, and knights hung from each sword’s crossguard. But most prominently was a massive sword that floated above it all, its tip pointed to the ground and handle in the air. From the ends of the sword’s crossguard hung two scales in perfect balance; a feather on one side and a burning flame on the other.
To the left lay an black swamp with floating orbs oozing with an oily, black fluid. Standing out of the quagmire was a forest made of shadowy figures, each with tendrils extending from their bodies and into the white expanse above. These limbs formed a dark, branching canopy that extended into the distance. Each figure wore an uncomfortably happy smile and were spread throughout this nightmarish landscape like a neverending cancer. And at the center of it all was a mask larger and happier than all the rest. Unlike the sword, it felt disturbingly comfortable to gaze upon.
And at the center of all this, in the middle of the white expanse between the two sides, lay a large slab of stone with a body draped in a white cloth atop it. Unlike the other two’s distinct traits, the stone had no carvings, sculpture, or anything noteworthy anywhere on it. It was perfectly cut into a rectangular cube, but other than its bluish-gray color there was nothing remarkable about it. The cloth covering the body was also fairly unremarkable. It draped the body perfectly with no place left uncovered, but there were also no notable sigils or symbols anywhere.
Taking some steps back, Tessa scratched her head, “Is this...the afterlife?”
It certainly could be, but it wasn’t like any afterlife she’d ever heard about. There was no celestial waiting to meet her, and she was fully able to touch her and feel the clothes she wore. Running her hands along her body to check, she then put her hand over where she was...injured? But there was no wound or pain, just her clothes and body left uninjured as though nothing had happened.
“What...is this place?” Her words echoed into the void, fading away into the nothingness.
Tessa wanted to know where she was. If she was going to be stuck in a place like this for who knows how long, she could at least try to learn about it.
First, she approached the graveyard of swords. This looked the most comfortable of the three and she stood there at the border between it and the white void. Tessa breathed in and out calmly before taking a step forward into the golden light.
Immediately, Tessa felt a weight forced upon her. It was uncomfortable, but she was fine. Was she safely inside? Pressing onward, Tessa took another step. The moment her foot touched the ground, the weight she felt before suddenly increased immensely. What was a minor hindrance before was now a great burden. Tessa found it difficult to move at all, just trying to breathe was difficult. Her legs shook beneath her, but she wondered about what would happen if she took another step forward.
If she took one more step, would it get worse or better? And if it got worse, would she be able to endure it? Was this place rejecting her? Evaluating her? Tessa took her second step back and felt the immense weight return to an uncomfortable burden. Taking her first step back, she was now back at the border and her body returned to normal.
Whatever the space she tried to enter was, it was at the least something she wouldn’t be able to get through with what strength she had. For now, her curiosity about the golden graveyard was sated.
Turning to the swamp filled with oozing fluids and smiling faces, Tessa approached it cautiously. She was curious, but a chill on the back of her neck put her on edge. Approaching the darkness, she started to hear...voices.
You’re so pretty~.
The whispers she heard were sweet, but sick. She tried to push their words out of her mind, but the closer she got the more the voices bored into her mind.
Don’t fear us~. Embrace us~.
Tessa continued to approach the dark swamp, but her eyes started to glaze over.
We won’t hurt you~.
Tessa rubbed her eyes, taking one careful step after another.
We love you~.
Her vision blurred and the smiles of each mask started swirling around in her head the closer she got.
Sylvie is your best friend~. Accept us and surpass her~.
The mention of Sylvie’s name snapped Tessa out of the trance the masks were forcing her into, their sweet words had fogged her mind and nearly convinced her into walking into the darkness. She let out a sigh of relief, finding herself stopped at the border between the white void and the swamp. But the chill on her neck spread to her spine, putting her on high alert. Looking around slowly, she took a careful look deep into the forest.
Just below the large mask that floated in the forest’s center were eight eyes, faintly glowing in the darkness and watching her. Squinting, Tessa saw more of its body. A massive spider was laying in wait for her to wander in. The massive face in the center of all this wasn’t a mask, but instead the back of the spider. Its maw dripped with poisonous venom, patiently awaiting anything to get just a bit too close. Tessa quickly distanced herself from the edge of the swamp, nearly falling, horrified at the beast that lay in wait and swore to never fall to its temptations.
But now that she’d explored both halves as much as she wanted to, she turned her attention back to the strange funeral in the center. She’d already looked it over for anything that could give her a clue, all that was left was to remove the cloth and see what was underneath.
Approaching it, she wondered if this too had its own unique trait like the others. The golden graveyard imposed greater weight upon you the further you entered it, while the spider’s swamp wanted you to come and enter its depths. So what would this have?
Tessa reached her hand out and took a hold of the white cloth. Nothing happened, at least not yet. It was soft to the touch, but even that was unremarkable in comparison to what she grew up with in Solis. And yet, why would it be so...mundane? What is this place? If it’s not the afterlife, is it a grave? A tomb? Is it her own, or...someone else’s?
Her hands hesitated at thoughts of herself being underneath, hoping that this wasn’t her deathbed. But there were already too many questions in her mind and she needed some answers. Calming herself, Tessa pulled the sheet away starting with the feet.
The white blanket fell easily, and still nothing happened. As the feet were revealed - followed by the legs, waist, arms, and torso - Tessa found herself marveling at the armor the body beneath wore. To her surprise, it was an immaculate set of plate armor. Even to someone like her it was amazingly well made at just a glance. If she got close enough, she could see her face in the metal’s reflection. It was gilded with gold and adorned the symbols of animals on the armor’s shoulders, wrists, and more. If she could describe it in one word, it would be “noble”.
However, there was an imperfection that had spread across it on the edges. Bits of the gold had rusted into a mix of brown and green, while edges of the steel were blackening. While the armor itself was still sound, the corruption on its fringes stood out on close inspection.
Tessa now had even more questions she wanted answered. Who was this? What did they accomplish? From when did they come from? From where did they come from? And...how did they end up here?
The sheet now only covered the body’s head, but she needed to see more. Her curiosity was now at its peak and she needed answers. Her heart raced and she took hold of what remained of the cloth. Pulling it away quickly, Tessa tried to see what face this body had.
And just as it was to be revealed, Tessa’s eyes shot open once again. But this time, she wasn’t in that strange, endless void-for-a-tomb. Looking around, she was in a bed and wearing unfamiliar clothes. The light from a nearby window blinded her for a moment, but adjusting to it she then saw that Faethun just outside.
Tessa heard the tweets of birds and felt the warmth of the morning sun on her skin.
“Was that all...a dream?”