Water sloshed at my feet as everything slowly faded back into view. Smaller waves coasted inwards, towards me, pushing me closer to the coastline.
I looked upwards. It was close to evening now. The sun had moved a considerable distance since I last saw it.
That was right… How did I end up here, floating on this coastline?
I turned myself over and pulled myself to shore. Night would fall shortly and to be stuck out in the open would be a dangerous gamble.
Waves lapped at the coastline and I turned around. The Spire! How could I have forgotten? The orb had cracked and split into a disc. It was still rotating, but it was less violent now. Those peculiar strings of energy still shot out of the orb but they occurred less frequently.
As for the Spire superstructure – it seemed to still be standing. One of the four flying towers was severely damaged but remained attached.
The events of the afternoon were a blur to me. It had all happened so fast, almost without warning.
I dug around inside my bag. Its contents had remained mostly dry, even considering the events of the day. Then I found the odd paper. I pulled it out. One of the edges had gotten completely soaked but beyond that it was still reasonably dry.
That strange symbol – we’d seen it before on the forsaken journal that had started all this for me. There were, of course, other symbols etched at the sides but I had no way to decipher them.
On the bottom was a small message. I hadn’t had time to read it inside the spire.
If you do not know, you will never find it.
If you do know, look for the inn beside the lake.
Underneath the tower lies the key.
An inn by a lake… There could be hundreds of inns by a number of lakes! I didn’t have time for riddles. Whatever was causing this wasn’t just going to stop. I trekked back along the coastline to where I’d hidden my dad’s book. I made sure to stay closer to the water and moved slowly. The spire’s irregular activity had attracted local zombies to the waterfront but they’d not entered the water.
Up ahead, a small collection of zombies stood. They hadn’t seen me – yet. The zombies were still too busy concentrating on the hypnotic rotation of the disc. Getting by them was going to be a challenge.
I had a couple of options:
- Try and kill them – No… that’d… that’d probably just end in death
- Try and outrun them – That probably wouldn’t happen…
- Or, I could try and distract them.
I dug around in my pack for something I could throw. Zombies were attracted to noise and if I could just get them to move into the forest, I could sneak by. Finding nothing I used my hands as a scoop and formed a fist-sized snowball from the snowbank at my feet. I added a few small rocks, as well. They would add weight, making it easier to lob over the zombies.
I aimed as best I could and launched the snowball off into the forest. It hit a low branch, causing the snow accumulated there to fall. The sound of that snow falling stood out from the ambient noise and some of the zombies stirred and started moving towards the sound. Eventually, the whole horde had moved into the forest to investigate.
I crouched and moved by, looking into the forest as I passed. They were huddled around a tree, clamoring about. The snowball had certainly done the trick.
I hurried along the rest of the coastline and finally made it back into the odd mound of snow. I used my hands and pushed it all aside. My supplies were still there. I scooped up everything that was left, stashing them into my backpack. Then I held up the book. I flipped through to the map and looked around.
As I was searching the map for an inn by a lake the ground began to move. It was an odd sort of shake: small at first but then it grew larger like an aftershock. I stood still waiting for it to settle. As it did, I looked back at the map.
What I needed most right now was a place to stay the night. I could try heading back to the digsite but it would be well into the night by the time I got there. Towards the west was a small manor, however. It was marked on the map and it wasn’t even that far of a journey.
Ice had formed along the northern end of the lake. Discarding the thought of falling into the water by a patch of thin ice; it was much faster than trying to walk across the rising mountains.
Every so often a bolt of energy would zoom overhead and disappear into the mountains. These frequent aftershocks had broken segments of the ice that were now drifting away from the river. Navigating this slippery road was difficult. It wound around the mountains but was still the fastest way of travel.
I soon saw the dam, the walls of the manor and the edges of cliffs. The energy had been shooting here. I checked the map.
There were supposed to be mountains here. It looked like something had chipped away at them like a quarry. Floating chunks of stone rose from within and eventually broke apart, grinding into dust. A small glow burned from over the cliff.
In retrospect, it would’ve been so easy to just turn around. I climbed up the steep cliffside. Rocks and snow had been sent downward, accumulating in large flows at the base. I dared not get close to the edge as the mountain’s remains were being actively mined by these large beams of energy.
Peering over the safest edge, I looked down. Parts of the mountain had been so destroyed that you could see deep into its belly. Something was buried underground.
I saw what looked like massive white symbols and an odd orb. Or… what looked like the side of an orb? It had an odd resemblance to that of the spire orbs but it was less… less well… complete?
One thing I did know for sure was that it wasn’t safe to stay at Evergreen Manor for the night. Who knew how much more the land would be stripped away.
I moved back down the cliffside and across the river. I sat there on the cold grass and pulled out the map once more. The odd paper recovered at the spire had said there would be an inn by a lake.
An inn by a lake…
I think I always knew where I had to go but it was the journey that I had been dreading.
“Inn” was too specific of a word to use. The location wouldn’t have just ben some random inn and I knew a location that fit the bill. It would mean traveling somewhere that even my dad had warned against going:
To get there I would need to travel through the frozen forest. I couldn’t go over the remains of this mountain. It was too dangerous. But if I doubled back I could cut in between the mountain range.
Traveling in this biome is deceptive. At a first glance it’s so calming: everything is quiet and there’s nearly no threats. It’s too cold for the undead. They freeze and lose mobility, but then again that happens to humans too.
The sun was setting and the sting of the cold wind bit away at my exposed skin. Small piles of snow cascaded off nearby trees every now and then. As the sun sank below the horizon the frozen forests got colder and darker.
I dragged my feet through the snow. I had lost feeling in them about half an hour ago. I hadn’t even really been paying much attention to the direction I was heading. Everything looked the same. Trees, snow, hills.
My foot suddenly kicked rock. If they hadn’t, I might’ve missed it in the dark. Stone brick exposed in mounds of snow. It was a small fort! Obviously abandoned, but it was the perfect place to stay the night.
The walls were more or less intact and the one tower it had was barely disfigured. The fort was even pretty well hidden in the trees, barely rising over the height of some of the taller ones. There was a small courtyard, too! Old stables stood out in the corners, and piles of snow in the others.
I hacked the dry wood from the stables and moved it inside the fort. Staying outside would lead to hypothermia and then death.
I set up my fire. It was a small pile of random wood, most of which was waterlogged – so I had to get creative with what would burn. Old stable logs, part of a door, the back of a bench, an old wooden sword – all of it went into the fire pit.
I lit the fire and settled in for a long, cold night.