Chapter 6: Snow White Feathers, Never Returning
Luca did not sigh. He was indeed quite alert. He was also technically quite alone. Ruin, Jojo and Picky were all still comatose, and after Luca had used all his first aid knowledge, medical knowledge from attempting to get into a pro-sport and using whatever restorative spells he had loaded into his familiar, Gaddy, deciding to scout the area, had left Luca to guard their companions.
At that point in time, Gaddy had moved quite close to what should have been the concert hall. He lurked among foliage that had shifting colours of green. How did the city turn to a swamp? There was nothing of Smogpolis, just some ruined buildings of a particularly large village.
He took note that there were only two pairs of guards patrolling around skyscraper of statues. The mandible troopers looked edgy, nervous. There was something they feared, likely several somethings. Gaddy wasn’t fool enough to think that they were worried about him and his friends. Not one creature had Gaddy seen or heard, but… it seemed that scouting was not the wisest of things to be doing.
He had no idea what was out there. He didn’t even know what ‘there’ was. Hoping not to fall afoul of whatever the troopers feared, he made his way back, and as he did so, he passed by a lake, shining like a divine mirror. He had passed by this before, and marvelled at how everything looked, what with it seeming like a kaleidoscopic stained glass picture.
This time, in the kaleidoscope, the lake was occupied.
At first, Gaddy thought it was the most beautiful swan he had ever seen, but he had only seen swans in pictures, in recreations placed in games and MV-shows. Its feathers were pure white, the purist white. A cloud, a dream, a hope. It was so beautiful that Gaddy forgot to feel danger from the size of the being. He did not know it, but it was many times larger than a swan, and swans for a normal person are plenty dangerous already.
Even when the swan moved its wings, revealing a human face, like that of an elf or one of the hulven, Gaddy was still entranced. No. His heart was further seized. A soft face as white as the feathers that formed a collar around it. Long eyelashes themselves almost like feathers. Gentle curves of the cheeks and a delicate mouth which seemed frozen in an enigmatic and kindly smile.
Her eyes were closed, and from her head a veil of silver white hair cascaded down. Gaddy was not of the form of the humans, his kind were descended from dragons, descended from those who spurned their draconic heritage. He was such, but he could not take his eyes away from that gentle serene face.
Slowly her eyes opened. Gaddy was lost.
Before Gaddy was utterly consumed by those eyes, the swan maiden blew away, as like white petals in the wind. He fell to his knees as his very being shuddered, tears falling from his eyes, in part from spiritual pain, in part from the mere fact that such loveliness had left him.
“Spirits are… real” he muttered.
In Sunder, it was said that all the spirits had died, consumed in whatever event that had shaped their world. Only records of such beings existed in Gaddy’s day. Many did not even believe that they existed, instead they argued that the spirits of old were merely constructs of those working primitive magic circuits, or else beings like the mockeries of the alchemists.
Gaddy wondered if they had been transported to another world… he soon came to his senses and a chill grabbed his heart. If that was a benevolent spirit, one that left when it saw the effect it was having on him, what were the malevolent ones like? Were all the spirits in this place that powerful?
He understood then, what the troopers feared. That unknown power. He quickly made his way back to the others.
Jojo, Picky and Ruin were finally stirring when Gaddy returned, and he lost the chance to talk about what he saw.
Jojo and Ruin were frightened at being in such a strange place where everything to the eye was so different, but Picky had a completely different reaction. He was dashing from place to place, picking up stone, leaf, dirt and whatever came to his hands, which were shaking with excitement.
“It’s true” he hissed.
“Has Picky gone madder?” Jojo cried.
“Poor Picky” Ruin said, looking sadly at him.
Gaddy nodded to Luca and they both grabbed Picky before he could go too far from the shelter of the ruined cottage. Picky laughed and cried, kicking his legs.
“It was all real!” he shouted.
Trying to get him to go quiet and stop shouting, lest he attract some foul spirit, Gaddy spoke.
“What was real? Settle down Picky, take a deep breath and tell us what you know!”
“The Alterworld, this is likely the Alterworld! All those stories, well most of those stories are true. There’s another world connected to ours! Didn’t that scary guy say something like ‘Alterworld Hollowing?’ Hahahaaha! Nobody will believe us! I wonder how much is true? Is there really spirits here?”
“I saw one. A spirit” Gaddy said, releasing Picky.
Picky turned on Gaddy.
“You saw one, what did it look like? Did you talk to it? What did it…” the words died in his throat as he saw the look on Gaddy’s face.
“Picky. This… it isn’t a MV show, or some story on the ethernet. We need you to calm down, and tell us all that you know. What I saw… it spared me, but who knows what else is out there? So, we need what you know, what you’ve read.”
Picky then recalled some contents of some of the stories he had encountered in the ethernet. Stories of bitter survival. Stories where ten arrived and only one survived. The Alterworld was a place with spirits, a place of wild magic. A place of danger. Danger greater than that of Sunder, if nothing else for the fact that it was unknown. There was also the reason the Alterworld had its name.
“Sorry… just hold on a moment and let me think” Picky took a deep breath.
“This might not be the best way to explain the Alterworld, but you’ve heard rumours of the mass disappearances right?”
“Well, I got into looking into them, and… while the information was suppressed, on the ethernet just about everything leaks out. Everyone’s been told that nobody has returned, and that’s when anyone actually admits that the disappearances are real. There have been some survivors though. They talk about a world with magic that isn’t in crystal form. A world that has spirits. Nobody is sure what connection it has, like, is it even a separate world?
The big thing, and forget spirits, what we need to be most careful of here is… Its called the Alterworld because it alters people. You change, some gain magical powers, others their form changes. Some just went mad. One guy, who claimed to have gone to the Alterworld more than once said that staying calm and not doing anything extreme or wildly different from what you usually do keeps you safest from being altered.”
“So, are all the disappearances caused by groups like those mandible guys? They kidnap people here to the alterworld?” Gaddy asked.
Picky paced back and forth, shaking his head.
“No, only some of the cases are like that, and only more recently. You know, these disappearances date back to the discovery of the ethernet. At first it was only one or two, but now its whole groups, and… I’m sure every organization under the Dragon Sun, governments and otherwise has been doing research into this secretly. It’s believed that the Alterworld, or its connection to our world has something to do with the ethernet. Among the people that I’ve talked to, we’ve come to a conclusion… the Alterworld is growing stronger.”
Gaddy rubbed his forehead while Ruin and Jojo hugged each other for morale. Luca had his face against one of the walls, trying to take in what Picky was saying.
“Ok, I get it. I’m sure this background is important, but I’ve one really important question for you how do we get back?”
“Well, since those mandible guys are involved, we’ve forcibly entered the Alterworld. Cases like these are called Ritual Hollowings. As soon as they finish whatever it is that they are doing, because we’re not in that building we’ll be back in Sunder… if we survive out here that is”
There was something about those words. Gaddy put the pieces together and came up with one last question for Picky.
“Ok, we’ll survive if a spirit doesn’t eat us or whatever, but… if the mandible goons finish what’ll happen to those inside the concert… whatever that place is now?”
“If everything the survivors of the ritual hollowing say is true, then apart from the ritual makers anyone who is in the place that was brought over to the Alterworld…
…they never return”