A bright haired, fur-dressed man of about twenty years steps into a clearing. In front of him lies great walls of metal and wood. He glances down to the piece of paper holding the directions and description for only a second before he slides it back into his page-holder. It’s just as the woman described. A silent city of metal— one that has no doors.
The boy, Ralic the Fifteenth, steps up and knocks— no answer. He clears his throat.
“Hello!” … no answer. Ralic draws a deep, powerful breath. “HELLO IN THERE!” … but still he receives no answer. He raises a brow and taps his foot as he overlooks the great wall a moment. He then turns away and starts in a circle.
Ralic makes a lap around the walls, taking about five minutes as he scans for any place he could scale to enter. Eventually he comes all the way around, spotting nothing, and just decides to use his rope. After notching the lasso and about twenty minutes of consistent failure and effort, the rope catches something on the other side. “Yes!” He exclaims loudly as he tugs the line tight and begins his ascent. He manages to haul his self over the wall in only half a minute’s time, allowing him to rise and peek over. Along the lookout rafters there’s not a soul to be found.
Ralic gathers up his rope on the other side and returns it to his pack before he begins to explore. There’s an eeriness to this place that he can’t quite put his finger on. Outside the walls the birds sing cheerfully, and the forest sways with life; but behind these metal-girded walls, it’s like there’s something that defies all of it, somewhere in here. Ralic wonders if he should go get some more men— he wonders if, were he to go down and look through the houses, he might not leave. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath; he remembers the beauty of his home in Qetaine, and opens his eyes again with renewed determination. He’s certain he’ll be known as ‘Ralic the Fifteenth— the one that entered the depths of the dark fortress and returned unscathed’. He does like the sound of it, though it doesn’t really roll off the tongue the way he wishes it would. Regardless of titles, he’s certain he’ll manage.
He descends the guard planks into the city center— not a person or sound anywhere in the main square. Ralic knocks on various doors, breaks into various houses— but time and again, the result’s the same. Each time he opens a new door, his sense of dread mounts higher. Somehow, he knows he’s being watched; his gut feeling is rarely off point. Halfway through the search of the old homes, he notices something strange from his quick peeks inside. There are no beds, no plates or bowls, no decorations— it’s as though people not only don’t live here, but these buildings are not even meant to be homes. There’s no sign of anything but industry. There are forges, scrap materials, workbenches; yet coat racks, windows, and even weapons are all missing.
Ralic mulls over the possible reasons in his mind as he reaches the last house; after this one, he’ll have searched everything save for the large object covered in a long sheet, situated in the center of the town square. Opening the door to the last house, he finds a workshop like all the rest; but as he steps through to search for anything that could help shed some light on what happened here, he steps over a bending set of planks. Ralic jolts back— the feeling new to him. After a moment of confusion, he inches up once more to the offending area and eases his boot back onto the board. The boards press down as if connected— creating a weird, annoying sound like the few times Ralic’s had a back ache and made too sudden and extensive of a movement. He kneels, reaches into the boards and lifts into a little handle that depresses when he lifts. The grouping of boards open to reveal an intricate set of hinges and springs— he’s never seen anything quite so ingenious. He moves the hinges up and down in a moment of childish fascination before he takes to the ladder leading down into the dark.
A full minute of climbing down in perfect silence, in perfect darkness, follows; he bates his breath and readies himself for anything. He hits the bottom of the ladder with a tap of his boot and shifts onto what feels like a wooden walkway. He reaches into his bag again, takes out his lantern and lights it. In a flash, he illuminates three dirty, muscular men surrounding him from all sides. Ralic starts; in each of their hands is a strange combination of wood and metal which he doesn’t quite care to inspect at the moment.
“H-hello! I’m Ralic the Fifteenth, from Qetaine!”
The man to his right, a red-bearded giant of a person, seizes his arm alongside along the other two as he gives a loud scoff. “That is a likely story, spirit. We’ll just see what the elder has to say about you.”
Ralic grunts, holding fast as he shakes off the grip of one of the men. He dances his fingers upon his sword’s hilt. “Gentlemen, I don’t mean you harm. I’ve merely come from another town to inspect-”
“That reveals you right there,” the great man says, pointing his strange wooden and metal device right at Ralic and forcing him, for the first time, to take a deeper notice of it. “There are no other towns outside; you could only be a spirit.”
“No, sir! I’m not some spirit, I’ve come here to understa-” Ralic’s cut off again as he, with the help of one of the men, finally inspects one of the devices so closely that it produces a large lump on his head and knocks him out. The last moments of sight are of the trio picking him up and taking him down somewhere in the black tunnel. His vision fades to black the same moment his lantern’s flame does.
Ralic awakens in a warmly-lit, though cool, room; a woman sits in a chair patiently beside him.
“You’re awake, I see,” the grey-haired lady says as she starts serving soup into a bowl from a strange fire-creating device next to her.
Finding himself unrestrained, Ralic sits up and takes the bowl; he quickly notices that his armor, sword, and gear have been removed. “I suppose I am.” He takes a full sip from the bowl. It’s bland, just like the soup from home, but filling. “So… my name is Ralic the Fifteenth.”
She smiles. “I’m sure,” she says in a way that he can easily parse the sarcasm from.
“I’m from the town of Qetaine. I’ve been sent on a quest to investigate a weird walled area. I’m inside those walls now, underground—aren’t I?”
She raises a brow. “You certainly are underground within the safety of the walls, demon.”
Ralic takes another sip. “I guess I won’t be able to persuade you that I am otherwise… Regardless, tell me about this place if you will have nothing else. Are you the elder?”
She scoffs sweetly. “No, I’m just the caretaker. Apparently the tunnel-guards were a little rough with you when they dragged you to the village so they could be sure you wouldn’t escape.”
Ralic hums as he eyes around the small wooden room, particularly the small window next to the door with curious aged faces peering in. “Well if you’re not the elder, then who is? Won’t I meet this person?” He takes another sip as the old lady nods.
“You will soon enough. The elder does not enjoy the village the same way we do. He spends his time out in the deeper caverns and only returns once a day to check up on us.”
He squints in thought; this Ralic is a more perceptive lad than The Twelfth. “Oh? Is this elder… a human?”
A couple snickers come from the window as the old lady sighs. “Of course he is! He guides us with an unerring hand in our protection of the ancient secrets.”
She closes her eyes and bows her head slightly. “That’s a secret, young spirit.”
Ralic shrugs, crosses a leg, and takes another deep drink from his bowl. “Alright. Then am I just to be kept cooped up until this elder arrives?”
The woman stretches her wrinkles in the form of a contemplative frown and gets up. “Let me find out.” The lady leaves for a half minute, affording Ralic enough time to fire an obvious glare out the window. Just as the gazes from outside shift away, Ralic can hear the woman’s slow, light footsteps returning her to the room. “There should be no problem so long as you’re escorted. The men said you weren’t troublesome at all.”
Ralic smiles, not sure if her words are meant to be a compliment or an insult. “Yeah, alright. Thank you!”
“Of course, spirit.” She opens the door wider to allow passage.
Ralic puts aside his bowl and starts up with a smile, certain he’ll make the village of people see it his way. As the very same red-bearded man from before steps up from outside to follow him, Ralic jolts in awe.
He, and the village itself, is all within an underground complex. Wood from the outside is used to build warm, cozy ramshacklings that stack upon each other and are connected by various boardwalks and platform lifts. He spots a thin, metallic aqueduct network that funnels oil into at least a hundred lanterns overhead drop by drop.
“Name’s Zell’Ahn; I’m the head of the tunnel guard and the fifteenth Zell— the hero of the village, tasked with ensuring that all production is efficient in both speed and cost. So don’t cause us any trouble, spirit— we can kill you any time if you make trouble.”
Ralic’s gaze is still pointed upwards. “Wow.”
Zell draws back in a humored interest. “What’s the matter, spirit?”
“This isn’t like Qetaine at all. Do you live down here all the time?”
Zell nods. “We get along well here— we have all of the spirit lumber that we require for construction along with any other things we needed from your little world. Mushrooms and such don’t need much light, so that’s the big part of our diet along with some bugs and a kind of cave fish. What would you tell me your home is like, spirit?” He asks, looking over Ralic carefully and noting his strange clothing and peculiar tied-up hair.
“Well,” Ralic looks down to marvel at the rest of the town. “It’s above ground, first of all. We cut down trees to build houses and write often.”
Zell squints. “Write?”
Ralic pauses in surprise. “You know, jotting things down?” Zell’s squinting intensifies as if in a complete lack of understanding. “Uh…” Ralic makes a handwriting gesture. “Like, saving knowledge, you know?”
Zell scowls in disgust. “Saving knowledge?”
Ralic looks about. “Uh… yeah?”
“How, and for what reason would you do that, Spirit?” Zell asks, a brow raised as if he’s spotting a bevy of flaws in Ralic’s reasoning.
“To preserve knowledge for the generations to come. Don’t you think a society would be in danger if the new comers weren’t taught how to live within it?”
Zell draws back with a hearty laugh. “New generations bring nothing but ignorance, spirit— that’s something we both know. They’ll just question everything and try to bring about their precious ‘change’ to delude the values of our already perfect society. I don’t understand how one would preserve knowledge, but it sounds like a fantasy. We do have some children, but they are few— as we only need enough to ensure the next generation. Every year, we must assure that the foolish young are outnumbered by their wise elders. They’ll become wise one day, and then they’ll be the elder ones. Make sense?”
Ralic hums. “You don’t think that more people would bring more ways of thinking?”
Zell scoffs. “It would— and that is the danger of it, of course.”
“Because new ideas are dangerous?” Ralic says as a sickly man passes by.
Zell nods. “Precisely; you learn quick, spirit.”
“Well, I am open to new ideas.”
Zell looks to Ralic with a disgusted grimace across most of his face— though one eyebrow betrays that he’s impressed with the boy’s wit. “Funny, spirit. It’s that very same thinking that makes you the wanderer.” The two walk to the central plaza, well-lit with dreaming lanterns and a couple of children playing. “Tell me, you’ve come here to steal our secrets, haven’t you?”
Ralic smirks as the two sit at a bench. “No, no I haven’t.”
“But you have.”
“No; I’m actually just here on behalf of my village.”
Zell squints. “Again, you don’t need to act like your spirit village is real; the elder’s stories cross time and tell us all about the outside world.”
“The outside world?”
“Yes, a land of mists and nothingness— where ideas alone exist, and all of them dangerous. That’s why the elder built the wall with our ancestors generations and generations ago.”
Ralic leans his head forward. “So… You’re saying you people have never been outside the walls?”
Zell smiles. “That’s right, we’ve never exited the true world.”
Ralic looks about the long workshops and forges, bustling with industry, and then he jolts. “So, you’ve never been above ground?”
“If you mean to say The Spirit World, yes, only the elder is allowed to traverse the place.”
Ralic hums. “You’ve never been curious?”
“When I was a boy, yes; but the tunnel guard of that time stopped me, just as I stop the young ones of this generation.”
“Ahh, yeah, and I guess it would be hard to find the ladder in pitch black.”
“Indeed. Not one human has gone to The Spirit Realm a single time. We are a proud and wise race, thanks to the elder.”
Ralic bites his lip. “So, this elder… an old person?”
Zell nods with pride, understanding that Ralic is an enemy, but still pleased to tell him all about his society. “Very old.”
Ralic squints in perception. “It must be a few hundred years old, if not more.”
“Yes, and he is of great power— a man of incredible wisdom.”
Ralic squints a bit more. “I see… I suppose you don’t find that strange?”
“Of course not. He is miraculous just as we are with our creations.”
Ralic sighs. “I’ve been a bit curious. Just what are these secrets of yours?”
Zell hums in thought and then nods with a grin. “About time you asked, spirit. As I’m certain the elder won’t let you live after discovering the town, I feel it is fair to show you all that we have.”
Ralic scoffs nervously. “Yeah, alright.”
Zell’s positively beaming as he gets up and leads Ralic along. “This way, spirit,” he says as he takes Ralic into a separate cavern.
As they pass through the town, Ralic notices an over-crowded house, busy with the sounds of sickness and sorrow coming through.
“What’s this?” Ralic asks.
Zell looks aside, curious at first— but his expression sours the second he sees what Ralic is looking at. “This is the sick house… We have many of them. The elder has told us that it’s a lack of a certain kind of light that makes them sick, so we are moving at full speed to create a light that will cure them.”
Ralic raises a brow. “Like, sunlight?”
Zell scoffs. “I’m certain that whatever your ‘sun’ is, Spirit, that it cannot cure these people.” The two stand at a nervous attention as they peer in at the dozens of sick. “The elder says that it is something we must invent, something that only we can do… We all have the symptoms.”
“Of the lightless sickness?” Ralic asks.
Zell nods. “We… we don’t know why only some of us get it to the point of collapsing and death, while others are fine. I am told by the elder that it is worse this generation than any before; only half of us have the strength to work… it’s a desperate struggle, one we’ve been fighting for generations… but we’re close… I was afraid that we wouldn’t win the battle, but we’ve made a great stride.” Zell smiles. “Yes, we’re close. This way.” Zell pushes Ralic onward into the forging cavern.
This cavern is bigger than the town; while the town with all its shanties are where the people of the town live, this bright, brilliant cavern is where they work. Ralic stops in his tracks with a look of pure awe. Unfolding in front of him are at least a hundred men and women. Some use forges to smelt ore, much like Qetaine— but these forges are longer, more complex, and much, much hotter. There are rotating wheels where artisans spin a clay mixture into useful pots, bowls, and other objects. Sand, clay, wood, glass, bronze, iron, steel and more are being shaped and materialized in front of Ralic. Unlike Qetaine’s hard-working but mostly unskilled craftsmen, the people here have golden touches under the golden light of the dozen furnaces lining the great hall of industry. What is beyond Ralic’s comprehension, however, is the use of all the many objects they’re creating. Chests with small, complex hinges— stoves, heaters, complex furnishings, full dressers, hinged things, pivoting things, and all manner of inventions that Ralic’s never once witnessed.
“By the word…”
Zell laughs. “Now just tell me if your outside world has anything like this!”
“Well, no. This is… incredible.”
Zell nods in satisfaction. “You’re damn right, spirit. You may mock us for living ‘underground’ as you say, but we’re worlds above you!” He tugs Ralic over to a man-sized device with a wooden crank and a strange, glass bulb. “Behold, progress toward the cure!” Zell cranks the wooden wheel proudly as Ralic looks on in curiosity. After a few seconds, the filament in the bulb begins to take on a glorious luminescence.
Ralic inhales sharply. “You guys can make light?!”
Zell laughs again as he stops cranking, causing the bulb to go dark. “It’s good fun to have something that doesn’t know about the greatness of human engineering. With our knowledge of the mathematic code, we can make precise measurements and calculations so accurate that we can guarantee if an invention will work or not!”
“Mathematic code?” Ralic asks, assuming it’s just some creed for work ethic or something.
Zell shakes his head with a shrug. Almost like a father to a son, Zell explains mathematics to Ralic. He tells him about the value of the number zero, and explains that by using a uniform system of measurement, they can achieve a level of physical accuracy impossible to achieve otherwise. All the while Ralic’s eyes widen more and more. He knew counting was important, but this is life-changing.
“You see, spirit. All things can be measured. There is nothing that exists that cannot.”
Ralic nods, completely dumbfounded as he processes the information. It takes him a few seconds, but he looks up. “This would make an incredible book.”
This time, it’s Zell that looks confused. “Book?”
Ralic turns his gaze to Zell. “Uh, yeah, like I said. You know, paper bound into a volume of knowledge.”
Zell hums, doing his best to avert his eyes. “Ahh, yes… Books. I have indeed heard of these from the elder, I do believe.”
Ralic smirks. “You know what writing is, don’t you?”
Zell clenches his teeth. “One of your spirit tricks, no doubt.”
Ralic’s smirk grows to a smile as he sees Zell faltering in embarrassment. “A town that knows so much of engineering, but so little of writing— incredible.”
“The only good things come from within the true world, spirit— so I can’t say I’m interested in your spirit ideas.”
Ralic crosses his arms. “What if I told you there is a way to store information, knowledge, and wisdom indefinitely?”
Zell laughs. “We’ve been over this— I would say it is but a spirit fantasy.”
“Time to make some paper, then. …. damn, but it’ll take awhile.”
Zell raises a brow. “Paper, spirit?”
“Lumber pressed down so it can be written on.”
Zell points over to a far corner of the cavern holding a stack of wood gathered and preserved ages ago by the elder. “Like these?”
Ralic nods. “Precisely like that.”
“We could… We could press it with the fall hammer!”
“The fall wha-”
Ralic’s words are drawn out by a deep, deep thud, ringing through all the hall. A giant, chain-lifted weight has just been dropped onto a hunk of molten steel— pounding it to an obedient plate-shape on impact. Ralic smiles. “We can work with this.”
An hour passes of mixing, pressing, and other various paper-making activities. Before long, the first page is ready; Ralic takes up some of the night-black coal used for the forges. By this time, Zell and ‘the spirit’ have drawn quite a crowd of jeering spectators— everyone interested in what Ralic has to show them, though all of them doing their best to look uninterested and suspicious.
“Alright, now see, everyone. You can store knowledge like this. From my town we have something called ‘the alphabet’ which is used to compile singular sounds— like this one, ‘A’ –into full words. See the following.” Amidst gasps of both awe and shame in that they hadn’t thought of it, Ralic spells out the word ‘achievement’ using his alphabet. “So, by knowing the alphabet, you can sound out the words that the letters create— thus making a full, spoken word.” He keeps writing and speaking, as no one wants to stop him. “You compile these words into sentences and, with punctuation, you can create coherent sentences much like the ones we speak.”
“So why is this useful?” A young man asks, trying to appear worldly by questioning the spirit. Everyone looks at the young man like he’s crazy, and Ralic laughs.
“There are no bad questions, so long as you’re truly curious. This thing, called writing, will let you all pass your wisdom to your children forever more. Pages with sentences like these can be used to tell them anything— much easier than instructing each one individually; all you need to do is write the book, and they’ll do the learning on their own.”
There’s a long silence of awe as Ralic finishes his explanation. It’s as if an entirely new form of knowing things to them, a revolution of thought. Zell just stares on at the pages, his mind racing with the new possibilities. “So…” he starts, “so… if concepts like your letters are represented here… would that mean that… any concept could be given a symbol?”
Ralic squints an eye in thought, caught off-guard by the question. “You know…” Ralic comes to a nod. “Yeah! Yeah, anything can be represented with a symbol.”
Zell and Ralic look to each other in a blazing moment— there’s a kinship born between the two of them as they both imagine the same thing. “Numbers can be given symbols in writing, then,” Zell says. “… So we can teach our children the very paramount of our knowledge… yes, and symbols for adding, subtraction, multiplication— yes! This idea is… Spirit, this is an idea from… outside?” Zell asks as hushed gasps flow through the great hall.
Ralic nods. “Yes. I’m telling you all. I’m from a town with people much like you. We are a town that knew of writing, and you are a town that knows of these numbers. We should unite! Just come with me and I’ll show you everything! You just need to trust me!” He says.
A fearful, curious murmur breezes about the crowd. Zell crosses his arms, looking sternly at Ralic. “Spirit… this knowledge is obviously great… perhaps as great as our numbers and our craftsmanship… but you are from the outside, and the elder says that The Spirit Realm is where only lies come from.”
Ralic straightens himself, realizing the playing field of respect has just leveled. “Your elder has lied to you.” He says, gaining a chorus of gasps and disgust. “Think about it. If what he said is true, I would speak no truth; but I have instead shared this idea with you that you can now keep forever. I ask you, let me share more with you, and I’ll ask you to share more with me. I’m no spirit, I’m no pretender; I am human, like you— searching for knowledge hidden among the folds in our world. Let me show you, please! If you go to the surface, and you’re not satisfied, then you can kill me!”
The young man from before smirks. “He sounds confidant.”
Zell hisses under his breath with many of the others. He knows that Ralic’s request is more than reasonable— but to defy the elder… “Spirit…” Zell’s breathing picks up as he searches Ralic’s face, and presents his hand. Ralic takes Zell’s hand and they hold clasped for a short, deep moment. “You must be human, you certainly must be like us… But the elder has done nothing against us. He is a man among men— a true leader and caretaker.”
Ralic shakes his head. “That thing that has kept you down here is no man. No man lives that long.”
The young man steps forward- his name is Bas’Tun. “You don’t know that for sure,” Bas says, instantly winning the ears of the people around him— as the elder approves of him as the next hero of the town.
Ralic smiles warmly. “And you don’t know if he’s telling you the truth or not. Just because he’s given you materials to make things with, I don’t think the solution for the sickness, or anything that will save those people in that sick house, will be found down here. Up above we have a great light— much, much greater than this bulb contraption. Come with me, and let’s go up above ground.”
Bas scoffs. “You can’t even make light, and now you’re claiming that there’s some magical giant one up above?”
As the able-bodied men and women of the town discuss and sound their opinions to each other, an imposing shadow blots out the doorway to the forging cavern.
Bas looks about, seeing that many of the adults are actually voicing favor to Ralic. “C-come on, everyone! He’s a spirit! I bet he doesn’t even bleed red! Cut him, and only dust and light will come out!” He cries out, certain that he’s cornered Ralic with cowardice. Ralic, however, isn’t the 15th hero for nothing. He is wise, unlike Ralic the 12th, but like him, he is brave.
“Alright. Give me a blade,” Ralic says.
There’s an uproar within the crowd as Bas takes out a steel culinary knife and presents it to Ralic. Just as Ralic reaches for the knife, a deep, booming voice rings out.
“What have you done, you fools!”
Everyone turns to behold a great cloaked figure. Stern white eyes and a sharp frown curl under the hood. “E-elder!” Bas is instantly on his knees. “We captured this spirit and he’s spreading lies about The Spirit Realm!”
The Elder floats slowly and silently up to Ralic. He looks down and spots the page with writing. In a quick second of realization, The Elder makes eye contact with Ralic— both know the other, and both understand what the other is here for. Certainly, they also know that at the end of the day, one of them will be dead. The Elder looks back to the page. “Ahh, now behold here. What is this spiritry?” He prods the page with a dark appendage, more like a tentacle than anything, treating the page with priceless knowledge as some kind of awkward, undesirable toy.
“He calls it ‘writing’, sir,” Zell says.
The Elder looks to Zell with an expression of stern disappointment. “And why exactly are you humoring this spirit’s ideas?”
Zell looks to Ralic, and he looks back. “Because what he has to say is useful.”
Zell nods. “I believe a mistake has been made. He seems to be a human, like us, but from…” Zell takes a deep breath as everyone awaits his final words— ones that everyone knows are coming. “…like us, but from outside.”
The Elder’s frown lengthens. “Really? Does he have anything by which to prove that he is from the outside?”
Bas shakes his head. “No.”
“Then how do we know that he’s not just from another part of the true world?” The Elder asks with a squinting, glowing eye.
Zell clears his throat. “Sir, I personally apprehended him next to the ladder.”
“But of course you wouldn’t have known he came from The Spirit Realm unless you actually saw him come from The Spirit Realm, yes?” The Elder asks with a slowly curving smirk. “Surely you couldn’t know for sure. He’s probably some insane dweller from the darkness who’s been tricked by spirits. He must be a human, but he is insane and tricked by spirits. Why do you think otherwise?”
Everyone looks to Zell, the hero of the village.
“ That’s because…” Zell takes a deep breath. “That’s because I know all these tunnels- inside and out. There’s no way he didn’t come from the surface.”
The Elder shakes his head. “Oh, dear Zell’Ahn, so wise— but you have such dreams; perhaps it’s time you began truly grooming Bas’Tun as the next hero. He seems a bit more level-headed.”
Zell exhales, not in a calm way either. It’s the breath of a man who realizes, just now, that he’s been profoundly cheated. “It’s you that isn’t level-headed, Elder!”
Gasps sound out as the villagers become scared, not only for the strange spirit man, but for their hero, Zell.
The Elder looms over Zell, only about half The Elder’s height. “What did you say, Zell’Ahn?”
Zell inhales through his teeth. “Elder, you’ve been lying to us! You are not on our side!”
The crowd looses a collective gasp as the elder draws back with a distant, superior look of disgust on his dark features. “Do you mean to call me a liar, then— some form of deceptive tormentor bent on your agony?”
Zell clenches his aged fist and sharpens his gaze. “Yes, elder,” he declares; an older woman bursts into tears.
The elder recomposes himself to a full stature. “What wrong have I done you? Are you not happy and industrious here in the true world?”
“No. We’re dying out and working for you day and night! Wood—” He looks over to the giant mountain of long wooden beams that the elder provides for them. “…lumber! I’ve never once seen it occur naturally here. I want to see where wood comes from, and I know it’s not here. You’re keeping us from figuring out the big picture!”
Amidst the commotion of the surrounding people, Bas’Tun stands tall next to the elder. “The lightless sickness has finally gotten to him! We should throw him in with the sick and kill the spirit man!”
The elder draws back, as if shocked like the others— but this is precisely what he wanted. “Yes, Zell is no longer fit and the next hero must now display his wisdom for the next generation. I would prefer we spared the spirit-tricked man— but of course he could always return from our banishment and spread lies again. We must achieve a permanent solution… Bas’Tun?”
Bas’Tun bows again. “Elder!”
“Lead the people against this madman. Have him killed.”
Zell pushes his back against Ralic as if to shield him. “No! Everyone listen to m-”
“And as for Zell’Ahn, he is not in his own mind. Put him in with the other sick.”
The crowd hesitates as Zell grabs hold of Ralic’s hand.
The elder leans forward and addresses the crowd with his expectant, superior gaze. “Well?”
The men and women of the grand work shop slowly build ranks to surround the two just as Zell pulls Ralic forward and into the town cavern. “Run!” Zell shouts as they dash out through the forge-lights into the dim lamps of the town.
“If they escape they’ll doom us all. Get them!” The tall elder points forward a gloved hand, and his voice has the powerful direct tone to put the crowd into action.
With a bolt, Ralic and Zell are around the corner and dashing for the escape. The town comes alive with shouts and souls emerging from all the unlikeliest corners to watch or chase.
“This way, Ralic!” Zell shouts as he snaps up a sizable pot lid from the ground.
“But where are we going?”
“To the real world. The surface!”
The two dodge incoming pursuers as Ralic hears thin, sharp sounds of objects moving past them. He doesn’t ask until he hears Zell’s pot lid clang with a violent impact.
“What is it?”
“Bolts from crossbows,” Zell says as they duck down into another tunnel, lamplight pursuing seconds behind.
“That thing you were holding when we met?” Ralic says, glancing at the ‘crossbow’ slung over Zell’s shoulder.
“Yes, a bow with incredible power and speed— now hush!”
“Hu-” Ralic is interrupted as they swing around into another tunnel, and this time, Zell ousts the lantern’s light.
Ralic wavers senselessly before Zell takes up the boy’s hand again. “Wh- how will we see?”
Zell starts them forward at a quick pace. “Like I said. I know these tunnels like the back of my hand. Let’s get to the ladder, and then you’ll show me that great light of yours.”
Thirty seconds later, the pursuing group stops at a crossroad of five tunnels.
“They’ve doused their light, and the tracks are slim,” a tunnel guard reports to the elder, who just nods.
“I know well what they intend to do; we need someone who knows these tunnels as well as Zell… Bas’Tun!”
The fit, sharp Bas’Tun is already at the elder’s side. “Yes, sir?”
“There is no time; they are going to the ladder. You, in your youth, loved the dark tunnels.”
“I know them like the back of my hand.”
The elder looms over Bas’Tun grimly. “Then take these.”
Bas is given a small, black device that’s cool to the touch, and a thick box that seems to have green lenses within. “What is-”
“The small one is a crossbow above all crossbows; use the trigger like you would any other. Point it like this, and it has six bolts instead of one.”
Bas is wide-eyed in disbelief. “I… what?”
“The lenses go around your head— wear them, like glasses.”
After a second of working it on, the elder depresses a button on the black box around Bas’Tun’s eyes and he releases a gasp.
“I…I can see everything!”
“These goggles will allow you to see in the dark. Now go to the ladder, run there— get Zell, and kill the intruder! Finish the job no matter what!” The elder finalizes his instructions sternly.
Bas’Tun stares up at the elder in both confusion and awe, and he bows.
“Yes, sir. I’ll save the world!” The warrior boy exclaims as he turns about with the pistol and NVG to the pitch black tunnels of the elder’s realm.
“Excellent, boy. Go and be the true hero of our land!”
At the cheers of the men behind him, Bas’tun skips the tracks and goes straight to where he remembers the ladder to be. The tunnels are as well lit as the forges with the magic goggles of the elder; he knows that this small, compact crossbow device will be just as vital in felling the insane intruder— and, if need be, pacifying his hero Zell.
Stumbling forward, Zell and Ralic reach the ladder in the stagnant, tomb-like dark.
“Alright, now climb!” Zell says in a hushed tone.
Ralic starts up the great ladder, into the long, strenuous climb to freedom; to the surface. About a third of the way however, they can hear the calling of a boy below them; it’s Bas’tun.
“Zell! You two!” He calls out to them, but neither answer; they just keep climbing. “You two, really! Get down here or I’ll shoot!”
“I’d rather die on the surface than go back to being ignorant, Bas’!” Zell shouts back.
“I will shoot you!” Bas simply repeats; “Don’t you guys know what that means?”
“I do, kid. Shut up and shoot if that’s what you’re gonna do,” Zell challenges. “You could always come up with us, find out just how much of a liar the elder is.”
With a piercing bang that none of the trio have ever heard until now, Bas obliges. He fires a round upward, missing the pot-lid and hitting Zell perfectly in the leg.
“Zell!” Ralic bends down and holds him steady.
“I’m okay,” Zell says with a tone of agony. “Let’s go!”
“Ohh,” Bas interjects, “but that was just a warning this time! I will kill you both, if I have to!”
“Like I said— feel free, ya dumb kid!” Zell retorts.
Bas’tun takes a deep, calming breath, and aims again. The shot is too far up now though; it’d be difficult. He remembers the elder’s words: finish the job no matter what—and he starts climbing too. “Fine!” he finally laments. “I’ll shoot you both and drag you out of the spirit realm, if I have to!”
There’s half a minute of silent, rushed climbing— the only sounds are the grunts of exertion from the three, and the occasional, slow dripping of blood from Zell onto the pursuing Bas’tun.
With a deep, metallic thud, Ralic hits his head into the trap door—the very same that he climbed down into hours ago. “Found it! I… but it’s stuck!” Ralic says.
“What do you mean, stuck?”
“Like, I can’t push it open! There’s something holding it back.”
Zell groans. “M…must be a mechanism! Figure it out!”
As Ralic locates and fiddles with the lock with both force and finesse, Bas’tun gets back in a confidant shooting range.
“Last chance!” Bas’tun shouts up as he leans his back into the tunnel, digs his feet into the ladder, and points up to shoot.
“Open it!” Zell shouts just as another shot rings from below, serving as another direct hit to Zell. “Open it, Ralic. We don’t have time!” Zell struggles to comunicate as he shifts his position.
“I…” Ralic fiddles with the strange metal box preventing him from opening the trap door. “I don’t know h-” The ring of another gunshot reverberates bitterly through the vertical tunnel. This bullet glances Zell’s head, and lands right into the mechanism box, doing damage incomprehensible in the dark. Immediately, the trap door’s mechanism fails to hold the escapees back— allowing Ralic to easily push open the door, scramble into the blinding light of the cabin, and reach down for his friend. “Come on!” Ralic shouts just a foot down.
Zell reaches up— but he’s become slow, weak. Now flushed with light, Ralic holds a gasp when he looks down on the bloodied, squinting Zell. “Get me… idiot.” Zell reaches higher- it’s all he can do to offer his hand.
Ralic takes up Zell and bends back, using every fiber of his being to pull the considerably-large man from his spot on the ladder.
“Pull up, help me!” Ralic says just as another shot rings from below, hitting Zell a final blow. With a clench, Ralic wins Zell up the ladder and into the cabin containing the trapdoor. Zell plops over and Ralic closes the trap door amidst screams from Bas’ below.
“I will come up there! Speak your peace and-” Bas’tun’s voice is muffled with the sturdy fall of the trap door.
Ralic turns to Zell. “Come on.”
Zell slouches over onto the ground, his entire lower body drenched a crimson He iss smiling.
“No… no!” Ralic looks over Zell frantically, eyeing and feeling for wounds to treat.
Zell laughs with a skewed cough of blood. “Hey… spirit.”
Ralic does his best to bandage up Zell with torn strips of clothing, but to put pressure on that many wounds at once, and to even find them all amidst the red mess, proves too difficult. “There’s too much! What the hell am I supposed to do?” Ralic cries out with a trembling voice. “I… You’re going to die, man. There’s nothing else I can do… this is my fau-” Ralic stops as a weak, playful punch notches into his knee from Zell’s fist.
Ralic, the welling of tears on his features, takes a deep breath. “Yes?”
“Take me outside. I gotta see the big light.”
Ralic takes another long breath and then starts dragging Zell outside. It’s not too much brighter outside because it’s raining. “What?” Zell says, as if he didn’t get what he paid for.
Ralic sets him by the cabin and sits with him against the wall.
“Spirit, what’s this?”
Ralic stares up at the clouds as the light drizzling caresses his face. “They’re clouds; they rain water onto the earth… They’re covering the great light.”
Zell’s grin stays strong. “That so? Thought it was out all the time.”
“No, there’s times when it’s not out; like night time, storms, or just clouds.”
“Yeah? So I guess I don’t get to see the light, huh?” Zell asks, staring up with a smile.
Ralic smiles. “No. I guess you don’t,” he says as the drizzling slows to a few light drops.
“Yeah… But I can sorta see it.” he looks deep into the clouds at the golden-most point, concealing the glory of the sun. “Hiding up there. That’s it, right?”
Ralic nods. “Yeah, that’s it.”
“Cool,” Zell says, his expression getting sleepy— he feels tired, and yet peaceful. “So spirit.”
Ralic looks over to Zell. “Yeah?”
“Cool… So thanks, Ralic… This was worth it.”
“… You’re welcome, Zell.”
There’s a moment of awed serenity— a moment in which Zell realizes how great and beautiful his world really is, and Ralic realizes how incredibly different people must be because of the overlords’ deceptions. The sun is nothing special to him, but from now on, he will appreciate it as Zell does.
Then, the sound of the trap door being flung open— a dense, violent din. Zell and Ralic hear an exclamation of curses from Bas’tun, complaining about how bright it is. The two hear a crash, a crack, and then the door opening to the outside. The rain has subsided— and now slight, teasing blades of sunlight spill through the cracks of the sky.
“Show yourselves! Spirit realm or not. I’ll never give up!” Bas’tun shouts, squinting into his thick night vision goggles as he searches for the two.
Ralic and Zell bate their breaths; the pitch of the door’s opening has blocked them from Bas’tun’s view, and this is just the opportunity Ralic needs. He gets up, and gently steps to the back of the door, opposite to Bas.
“I said, show yourselves!” He says again.
Ralic slams his weight into the door, forcing Bas’Tun off his feet and onto the muddy ground. Ralic rounds the door and leaps just as Bas reflexively points the gun. With a fraction of a second to spare, Ralic meets his hands to Bas’ and they struggle for the device. Because Ralic’s on top, he engages all of his muscles upward with perfect freedom and wrests it from Bas’ hands. Ralic takes a single look at it, realizes he has no idea what he’s looking at, and then he tosses it as far away as he can. In the same moment, Bas’ sends his boot straight to Ralic’s groin, and the real fight starts on the ground.
Bas’Tun, though a bit younger than Ralic, is strong like Zell—built from the years spent at forges and with hammers, crafting miracles of engineering with his brothers and sisters below. Ralic, a true Qetainite, spent only a single hour stressing his body for every four he’s had his nose in a book. It takes only half a minute before the difference in their physical powers become bitterly apparent to Ralic; Zell single-handedly depresses him by the neck and punches his face with his free hand. The fight lasts a full minute until Ralic deigns to quit. With a push of the legs, Ralic escapes to his feet and rounds the corner of the cabin.
“Get back here you freak!” Bas screams as he sprints for Ralic. Here, it becomes quickly apparent that while Bas is far stronger, Ralic’s heart is more trained for long distances; the furthest Bas ever needed to travel was the one hundred meters to the forge, whereas Ralic’s walked all across the great country many times. Bas’Tun’s tired out in only a minute’s time, but he spots the gun. Ralic did not see where it landed when he threw it, so he overlooked it. Confidant that Bas is almost exhausted, Ralic rounds the corner again. A bullet zings past his left shoulder, and he freezes. “That’s right,” Bas’Tun says. “Just stand… still.”
“Don’t hurt him, Bas,” Zell says, weak and slouching to the side of the wall.
“Shut up, hero. I believed in you— but you led everyone astray by believing in this… this heretic.”
“Kid… It should be clear as day. This spirit boy just taught us how to preserve knowledge for generations through his paper invention, something that surpasses even the Elder’s wisdom. Just take off that stupid mask and see for yourself!” Zell says as the clouds part and dissipate.
“No!” Bas focuses the gun right at Ralic’s chest. “The elder gave me these to stop you both and save the village. This is the only way I can see what’s going on here.”
“That’s not true, kid; just take it off and…” Zell stops as the walled town is flooded in radiant, blinding light. Everything becomes brighter— from the ground to the walls to the very air around them.
Bas jolts. “Wh-what the… How is…” He flails around as his NVG receptors are overloaded with light.
Ralic steps forward quietly.
“It’s so bright! It hurts!” Bas complains, expecting a response from Zell.
“…Wow,” is all that Zell says as he looks up with his last breaths.
“Zell! What is it! Why can’t I see? Is this trickery from the spirits? Elder, help me!”
With a flash, Ralic swipes the gun from Bas and upper cuts into the goggles, pushing them up off his face.
Bas cries out as he’s blinded anew, this time by the real thing. He gasps and curls to the ground as he slowly adjusts to the light. Gradually, he makes out the deep vibrant greens of the grass, the rich wooden tones of the cabins, the infinite blue of the sky, the pure cotton whiteness of the clouds— and, finally, the Sun; that piercing, monumental array of light and heat that supplies freely and without reservation. Bas’Tun is on his knees, frozen, his mouth wide with disbelief at the sight of the great light in the sky. His vision becomes watery, blurry; he’s crying, but why?
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Ralic says as if Bas were a friend.
“What… Spirit man… what is this?”
“It’s the Sun. This is what I wanted to show you and your town.”
“Then…” Bas’Tun looks down to his own body— ghostly-pale in comparison to Ralic’s pleasant, comfortable color that’s been baked warmly in the sun for his entire life. “Then you’re… this is… this is really the surface?”
Bas slumps over in defeat. “Zell’Ahn, Spirit man, I’m sorry. I… I didn’t know. Forgive me.”
Ralic nods. “I forgive you… but I don’t think Zell will be able to… in this life, at least.”
Bas’tun swings his gaze to Zell— dead, and with a grin plastered to his face. In reverent silence, Bas creeps to Zell, closes his eyes, and weeps. “I’m… sorry, Zell… I didn’t know. Please…”
“We’ll have time to…” Ralic takes a breath. “Grieve later. We need to concentrate on saving your town from the overlord.”
Bas crumbles into Zell’s shoulder weakly. “Zell I’m… I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. You taught me how to use a crossbow, and how to temper steel, and-”
Ralic tears Bas from Zell’s corpse and shakes him. “Get a hold of yourself! We have to finish this! We can’t give the overlord the opportunity to make a new strategy. We must strike now!”
Bas sniffles. “But… but how?”
“We… we need to show them the Sun. We need to either get them to come up or… or we’ll need to bring the sunlight down, somehow.”
Ralic lets go of Bas’Tun as he gets to his feet. “The eld-… er, the overlord’s too powerful; we can’t kill him.”
“Yes, we can. All we need to do is to shake the people’s faith in it. If we show them all that it’s been lying to them, then they’ll do the rest of the work. Overlords are powerless when people refuse to believe in them.”
“Overlords… what are they?” Bas asks; Ralic gestures as they discuss, leading him to the one thing that he didn’t check before he descended— the large, white object covered in a sheet that’s been sitting the center of the town square for more than a century.
“We… we don’t really know. I’ve read lots of books written about it. Overlords are like… ideas that are alive.”
“Yeah, like yours wants you to stay in a hole and invent things forever, and it does it by feeding you lies. Or my town, Quetaine— before we made that town, our ancestors traveled to this large island from an island that was a fake.”
Bas mutters. “Uh, a fake… island?”
“An island’s a kind of landmass… I guess there’s too much to explain. For now, just know we’ve got to show the overlord is wrong. Destroy its idea, and we’ll destroy it too. We know that for sure.”
“…You Qetaine people must be amazing— figuring it out.”
Ralic sighs as they reach the large object covered in white. “It was all an accident. The overlord made a mistake that it couldn’t have known about, and that’s how the village figured it out.” Ralic touches the sheet— it’s strong, and made of a material Ralic’s never encountered before.
“Who figured it out? A hero?”
“It was a lot of people. A boy our age, his wife, her dad, and the elder’s wife.”
Bas hums. “Was that elder an overlord?”
“In part, yes— but what’s important is that it’s only together that we can do away with an overlord’s delusions. Alone we’re just outcasts, humiliated publicly for questioning the overlord’s decrees; but together, we become more than just the insane and deluded people the overlords will pass us off as. Overlords feed on ignorance, misery, and deferred potential; if you let them, they’ll take everything from you and leave you feeling like you owe them everything. Now then…” Ralic pulls down at the tarp, with the help of Bas— revealing a large, titanium-plated wonder of unknown origin.
“…What is this?” Bas asks.
Ralic notices a steel staircase at the base of the machine leading up to its center. “Let’s find out.”
The two step around and up the stairs of the alien machine. There’s a hatch that they enter, and inside is four seats and a strange black rectangle— at the side opposite to the hatch. The two spare a quick glance as the rectangle emits a calm, blue glow. It displays symbols amidst the strange mechanical whirs of computation and silicone-like devices that neither of them have heard until now. As they listen to a computer fan for the first time, they read what’s on the screen. There’s a disbelieving silence as they realize that not only are there words and letters of the exact same language that Qetaine uses, but the mathematical symbols and measurements of the underground town as well.
Insert target depth: _ meters’ reads the display, among three or four other factors even harder to comprehend.
“Wh-what does it mean?” Bas asks.
Ralic squints in perception. “How else could the digging for such a massive opening underground be done?… this is a digging machine!”
“Of course… but this light that shows words and letters— what does it mean? What are we supposed to do?”
Ralic looks about the strange, compact room as they sit in opposite chairs. “Hmm… here!” Ralic points out a strange set of keys, holding every letter in Qetaine’s alphabet and the separated symbols of the underground town- along with many, many more symbols neither of them are familiar with.
The two look between each other and the glowing square with symbols, and at once they decide not to ask any more questions. The implications of a machine this advanced, having the symbols unique to both their towns, is beyond mind boggling; it is as unbelievable to Ralic as the Sun was to Bas’Tun.
“So… how many meters would you say it is to the town?” Ralic says.
Bas looks at Ralic with confusion for a moment, and then his eyes widen in realization.
From above, there is a great shaking that, in the overlord’s final words, are described as ‘the spirit realm’s last attempt at misleading humanity’. As a giant, spinning, metallic something smashes out from the wooden rafters, which are piled up with decades upon decades of dirt, the overlord scoffs, and leaves to the deep caverns to live out its last minute of life with some semblance of peace.
There’s a great crash of the machine as it falls some twenty meters to the cavern floor—casting the eyes on the town square, precisely below the original town square from so long ago. The hatch opens, and out steps Bas’Tun, the new hero, and Ralic, who just so happens to be human after-all.
“Everyone, look!” Bas’Tun calls out. At once the people from the forges, the ones from the sick house, and those doing whatever they had been, stop and look upon the two. “This man has shown me the light. There is a great light—and everyone, everyone, even the sick must come up to see it at once!” Bas’Tun announces, pointing up to the great, growing hole above as more aged debris falls to reveal ever more of the sunlight beyond. At once, everyone believed the two— and at the same time, the townspeople hears a sharp, pain-stricken scream from down the tunnel that their elder had traveled into. There’s a blazing, furnace-like light from the elder’s direction, and then it goes dark. It will lie to them no more.
There’s a commotion of moving and helping the weak up through the ladder in the next thirty minutes. Finally, the pale and sick feel the warm embrace of the great light for the first time— as if energy is feeding into them simply through the act of being touched by the Sun’s radiance.
In both celebration for their freedom, and woe for the ones that had been lost in the process, the town is founded again— this time by human hands. Elula is the chosen name, selected by Ralic. He would be seen for many years after as the one who, with the help of Bas’Tun and Zell’Ahn, saved the town from an everlasting misery and disease.
And that’s how our town was founded, dear child. The Ralic boy went back to his town and told everyone there about it. The people of Qetaine met with the people of Elula, and both shared what they had learned freely. The digging machine’s still there down below; it doesn’t work— though you’ll be seeing that for yourself soon enough. Now that the story’s done, I suppose you should go off to sleep. Tomorrow’s your first day down in the forges, after all, and I’m going to teach you all the ropes— so be ready.
(Author Note ahead, please read!)
It’s Kell here. I wanted to take a moment to thank you for reading the second story in this series. I have many more planned as the people of Qetaine and the other towns discover one another and compile their knowledges, so expect much more thrills, chills and thoughtfulness in the episodes to come. That said, aside from the thanks I wanted to offer you, I also have a favor to ask.
If it would please you, I’d absolutely an honest review on the site you got this story from. Reviews, be they positive or negative are import aspects in helping other readers make decisions for their next story. So if you liked this, let people know so more can enjoy; if you didn’t, let them know that as well so you can spare their poor souls from wasting a full thirty minutes of their life reading something they might not enjoy- oh no! That said, if you leave a review, you can consider yourself extra-thanked.
Please have a lovely day, I hope you create and enjoy many fantastic things.
All the best,
About the Author
Kell Inkston has been writing with vigor since 2009 and has a deep love for nature, people, drinking copious amounts of tea, and the beach. It’s worth saying that Kell is, indeed, a writer. Kell believes in writing things so good, that those who don’t read will, and those that do read shall do so ever-more.
Kell is uncompromising in the pursuit of things like world peace and the aggressive acquisition of caffeine— but as a realist, Kell thinks that writing stories to inspire, entertain and empower are good first priorities.
Kell loves cooking for his spouse who is also named Kell, going on nature walks, sad movies, birds, and video games.
If you’d like more of Kell, send an email over to , or check out the website, . Thank you.
With generations long passed since the events of Paper, a hero stumbles onto something which threatens to turn everything that he and his people have ever known onto its head: signs of another human settlement. As Ralic the Fifteenth searches for signs as to why this abandoned town has such strong indications of human life, but none to be found anywhere, the answers come quickly and at dangerous speed. Just as he comes to understand the significance of this secretive place, Ralic is captured by its people and is taken to the true town, the one deep underground, where the people spend their entire lives in labor. He awakens deep in a chasm filled with industry and ingenuity, but also with disease and fear. He soon realizes that his captors are not evil, but simply mistaken; labeling him a "spirit" that has come to deceive them. Just as he makes headway in teaching them about the world above and securing their trust, he comes face to face with the real reason that these people are trapped down here. There's something else down in these tunnels with them; a creature that Ralic long dreamed of, but never wanted to meet – the crafty Overlord from the days of old, alive and as poisonous as ever. In the sequel to Paper see the power of truth as the Overlord turns the people against Ralic to have him executed. It's down to him and some unlikely villagers to save the town in this fast-paced short story which steps over and between genres. Looking for the prequel, Paper? Just search for "Paper - A Short Story".