The [Garden Hall of Deep Winter] was spectacular enough that even Pillowcase’s tactically stitched together heart was moved by the sight of it.
From the entrance they arrived at, the garden seemed to extend to infinity, soaring overhead into a bright, scintillating cloud with the only clear view being onwards, the garden spreading out ahead of them until the view was blocked by a sparkling mist which spread along the floor and rose almost to the top of the twenty foot high stairs Pillowcase and Lost Alice stood on.
Around them, adorning every wall, frozen filigrees of crystal spread out in three dimensions forming graceful spirals and incomplete lattice works which stood in place of the hanging plants and soaring trees which would have filled a more traditional garden.
Both Pillowcase and Lost Alice had eyes which were adapted to seeing in darkness, but the ancient architect who had designed the garden clearly felt that proper lighting was a requisite part of the experience and had placed thousands of softly glowing wisps floating through the cavern.
“There’s divinity here,” Pillowcase said, her voice barely more than a whisper on her private channel with Lost Alice.
“This couldn’t have been in the game,” Lisa said. “There’s too much detail. It’s too beautiful.”
“Yes,” Pillowcase said, her breath deep and awed. “I am speaking literally though. No mortal hand worked this, and those wisps are not a part of the natural world.”
Lost Alice paused. They hadn’t walked forward down the stairs yet, but she froze in place, taking on a predator’s stillness as she looked beyond the wonder before them.
The nearest wisps moved lazily in a non-existent breeze, unhurried but not undirected. Each other was chasing another. Not following. They weren’t tracing identical paths, they were moving always towards joining with the one they sought, deviating from the best course to move around the crystal structures they floated amongst and pushed off the quickest path by some unseen force they appeared to struggle against.
It wasn’t a fast chase. More a stately, methodical waltz.
It was captivating though. Even to Pillowcase’s untrained and, usually, unappreciative eyes.
She didn’t have a parasympathetic system to relax out of a Flight-or-Flight response. Her body was woven for either Fight-or-Fight-Harder. Rest was something that was a fight all on its own, a hard, measured scramble to reclaim as much lost energy as possible so that you could be battle ready as soon as possible.
Despite all that, Pillowcase still felt tension drift away from her..
It was winter.
Time for things to lie fallow.
Time for long nights and deep rest.
Before her, a starry sky had descended to touch the earth, so that she could rest surrounded by beauty.
Pillowcase turned to glance at Lost Alice.
The wisps were playing around both of them, illuminating Alice’s features in a warm radiance. Pillowcase’s breath caught in her throat.
Lost Alice turned to Pillowcase and a million points of light were reflected in her eyes. And behind them, a gentle hunger which had nothing to do with blood.
Surrounded by beauty indeed.
“This place is dangerous,” Lost Alice said after a long steadying breath.
Pillowcase wanted to step closer to her, but that was irrational. They were already shoulder-to-shoulder and holding hands.
“The mist,” Pillowcase said. “It’s affecting my mind. That shouldn’t be possible.”
“Mine too, and same here, not like this anyways,” Lost Alice said. “It’s not a direct influence though.”
“That might be why its affecting me,” Pillowcase said. “It’s only amplifying what’s already present, and adding additional awareness of what’s around us.”
“Divinity you said, right?” Lost Alice asked. “It’s like the lights and the mist are setup so you can…or have to, see the grandeur of the garden.”
“And other things,” Pillowcase murmured, forcing her gaze back to inspecting the garden.
She could see so much of it, so clearly, despite the glittering mist. Even the areas the mist kept hidden seemed to be obscured for a purpose. The distant reaches of the garden cloaked by the mist promised vistas which gave a reason to explore the area in person rather than lingering forever on the steps to drink in the wonder from their current, perfect vantage point.
“No sign of the [Formless Hunger] so far,” Lost Alice said after a quick shake to clear her head. “We should head in carefully, right?”
“Right,” Pillowcase said. “Like you said, there’s a lot places it could be hiding in here if it’s still growing.”
“Keep an eye on our exits,” Lost Alice said. “Seems like there’s a pretty clear path to this one, but we’ve also got that staircase over there.” She pointed to their right where a second crystal staircase lead down to the garden floor from a passageway on the same level as the one they’d traveled along. “According to the map, that route should join up with the one we were on about five hundred yards back after twisting around a little.”
“It would be good if we could tell the others about this,” Pillowcase said.
“I haven’t had any luck with the group channel,” Lisa said. “I think we must be in a special area.”
“This seems to qualify as that,” Pillowcase said as they descended with slow, deliberate steps down the stairs carved into the solid block of crystal beneath them.
A wisp drifted in front of Pillowcase’s eyes and then blew away, as though scurrying from her presence. Another wisp followed, moving faster than the others but not quite catching the one it sought.
They couldn’t be afraid. They weren’t any more than puffs of light.
But none of them were going near the exits from the room.
“Probably a part of the spell so they don’t clutter up the dungeon,” Pillowcase said.
“How the wisps are traveling?” Lost Alice asked. “Yeah, I noticed that too. It’s weird though, they’re staying farther away from the entrances on this side than the ones farther away.”
“That seems like an odd choice on the architect’s part,” Pillowcase said.
“I don’t think it was,” Lost Alice said. “Be ready to run.”
“Understood,” Pillowcase said, positioning herself slightly ahead of Lost Alice.
Pillowcase was a [Soul Knight]. A tank. She took the hits so her team didn’t have to. Lost Alice was a healer. She was the last person who should be taking damage. Pillowcase agreed with the idea that she should try to survive, and that running was infinitely preferable to a stand-up fight against a threat as far beyond them as the [Formless Hunger] was, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to do her job.
At the base of the stairs, frost fronds curled over them creating a short, transparent tunnel into the rest of the garden.
“It should be colder in here with all this ice shouldn’t it?” Lisa asked.
“Divinity,” Pillowcase said. “The natural laws are suspended here.”
“The more I think about that, the less I like it,” Lost Alice said.
They walked past a row of translucent roses, the vibrant red they suggested muted to a paler shade by the soft haze of frost on the ice which formed them.
“I wonder what the Consortium will do with this place?” Pillowcase wondered.
“Destroy it?” Lost Alice suggested.
“Possibly. Depending on the mission objectives, this could be deemed an acceptable loss. I suspect if they know it’s here though, they’ll try to extract the entire area for transport to a private collection.”
“They’ll what?” Lisa asked.
“Places like this are rare, and rare is valuable,” Pillowcase said. “Damaging a site like this could exceed the total value of an entire squad. I would probably be liquidated for even stepping foot in it since that would adjust the risk profile of whatever team I was assigned to.”
Lost Alice chuckled.
“It’s so easy to think of the Consortium as being ‘alien’ and ‘unfathomable’ but I’m sure Vixali has some serious penalties in place for anyone in her coterie who messes with this place too, for pretty much the same reasons as what you described,” she said. “Maybe comparing the Consortium to dungeon dwelling [Vampires] still doesn’t frame them in a terribly positive light though?”
“I’m not sure the Consortium ever could be framed in a positive light,” Pillowcase said.
“Well, I know of at least one ex-Consortium soldier I’m feeling pretty positive about,” Lost Alice said.
Pillowcase guessed Alice was speaking of her. Contextually it fit. Beyond that, parsing the meaning of the phrase was difficult.
“The “ex” part is important I think,” Pillowcase said, feeling like she was missing something.
“Speaking of ‘ex’s’…” Lost Alice started to say before Pillowcase knocked her to ground.
“It’s here!” Pillowcase said as she pulled Lost Alice to her and rolled them both farther away.
Above them a pulsing tentacles of harsh static light speared through the air, searching for the target it had only barely missed.
They could have debated.
They could have worked out strategy.
They could have cursed and yelled battle cries.
Or broken out one-liners to bolster each others courage.
They didn’t have the time for any of that.
Lost Alice took less than a second to process what Pillowcase had said, and did nothing to prevent Pillowcase from moving them both out of the tentacles path of destruction.
Where the [Formless Hunger’s] sharpened pseudopod smashed into the flowers, the ice fizzed away in a shower of multi-colored sparks.
Pillowcase rose to her feet and felt Alice rise with her, moving in tandem without any further prompting.
Together they wove back through the frozen, many-hued ice sculptures, wisps parting and swirling in new patterns as Pillowcase and Lost Alice passed through them.
The passageway they’d entered the room from wasn’t an option for retreat. The [Formless Hunger’s] arm was already blocking their path.
Then Pillowcase noticed something far worse.
More of the Hunger’s body was spilling through the passageway.
“Flanked,” she said, to ensure Lost Alice was aware and saw the briefest nod of confirmation in return.
Everything was wrong with how the scenario was unfolding.
The attack had been too sudden to be anything except a trap and the presence of the [Formless Hunger’s] body blocking the corridor they’d traveled down said it was a trap set for them.
The Hunger hadn’t been waiting for whoever would come by. It wasn’t still expanding, or at least this wasn’t the outmost limit of its expansion.
It had grown well past the garden, phasing through the stone structure of the dungeon with no more difficulty that it would have in passing through water, or air, or the void of space.
It had grown, and then it had waited, leaving the passages open so that the unsuspecting would walk into an area from which they couldn’t escape.
“No choice,” Lost Alice said, glancing towards the other stairs. There were more exits, but their chance of making it to one before the tentacles which were rising throughout the garden penned them in was mathematically similar to zero.
Pillowcase watched as the nearest tentacle lashed through a trio of wisps. The floating sparks flared and tried to escape the tentacles approach but they were too slow. In a moment they were swept up and vanished, the tentacle gaining a strange solidity as they vanished.
“Divinity,” Lost Alice said and Pillowcase knew exactly what she meant.
In the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge], the [Formless Hunger] had been called forth from the spark of divine power which had once been the [Heart Fire Shrine]. That it had an appetite for divine energy wasn’t surprising, that it had a ready source of such energy was worrisome, and that it had waited, denying itself the opportunity to consume the divine power around them, all so that it could catch Pillowcase in its trap was terrifying.
Pillowcase wasn’t built to be moved by fear, but her tactical evaluation of the situation gave her a sense of what true panic would feel like.
The [Formless Hunger] wanted her more than it want to feast on a god’s power.
How could she possibly escape from that?