Gunnar stared into the mist.
The trees were thin, their bare limbs that etched grey claw-like marks across a distance so pale that it was almost white. The buffalo could feel the dampness in the air. Somewhere - he could not tell if it were near or far - he heard a branch snap dryly. He clutched his hammer and the shaft of the weapon groaned in his gloved fist. There were so many trees around him, reaching into the sky like cracked and broken finger-bones.
He inhaled, savouring the breath. The land was beautiful, he thought, beautiful and terrifying.
As he stepped through the scattered grounds, his boots knocking against torn branches and dead tree limbs, he thought about all he knew of the land. He was in the Ashen Forest, and the very name brought to his mind a dazzling array of thoughts. From all he had read of the place’s history, he felt that he knew this place as intimately and distinctly as he knew his own home.
The Ashen Forest, once a lush and verdant land, was now little more than a graveyard. The essence of life, the living force of the lands itself, had been all but extinguished from this region for over two centuries. Despite the best attempts by druids and priests the taint of undeath would not leave the land. Botanists had tried too, eagerly hoping that something would grow in the otherwise barren soil, but naught was forthcoming. It was almost as though any new plants would simply refuse to take root here. Then there was the mist. The seeping tendrils of it seemed to flex its way around the land as if holding it in its clutches and refusing to let it go. Nobody knew why the mist had settled here in the days following the death of the forest. But it lingered, stubborn and resilient in its transparency. It had refused to dissipate all these two hundred years. The choking mist had a way of pervading the senses, of turning the eye, of making even the sturdiest of adventurer pause for thought as to the wisdom of his journey.
Gunnar didn't want to let the mist dissuade him. But he knew it was a risk that he would have to take.
He trudged onwards, his grip on his weapon tight as if hoping to seek refuge in it. His beard felt crisp with chill and he was certain that he felt a cold dampness on his hefty horns. The unnatural sense of the place gnawed at him, digging right to his bones. He clenched his teeth.
From the corner of his eye he caught a flicker of motion. He turned, unsure what he had seen. A tree branch perhaps, dancing in the wind? He dismissed the thought. There was no breeze here.
Another shadow flickered – this time dancing to his right, just beyond his vision. He turned but again found nothing. Clenching his teeth, the warrior scanned the land around him. Bathed in the mist, the area seemed so pale and devoid of colour that he did not know if he could trust his own senses. He spun to his left and strained to catch the fleeting shadow, but it was gone before he even had the chance. He thought, wasn't this the forest where Abbadon had drawn fourth the Great Spirit Beast? Hadn't the entire life of the forest been the sacrifice that the Scourge had required to pierce the veil between this world and the next and draw forth the Crying God?
Gunnar felt a smile cross his lips. He loved the story. He had read about it, having spent most of the last two months enveloped in the story. He had loved the tale, loved the vividness of it, the intensity. He had finished the book quickly, and had then bought the next in the series. He had meant to have read Hemingway; his course had umpteen books on their required reading list that he was meant to be making his way though. But rather than drive his way through the contemporary works of Americana, exploring themes of the journey and narrative contextually, he had read more of 'Realms of Valeron'. Was it any wonder that he had bought the game so soon afterwards?
The buffalo shook his head, snapping his mind back to the world around him. "I'm not here to think about all that" he grumbled. He had a mission. People were counting on him. He pushed onwards, the ache in his bones feeling more pronounced.
Then, through the sifting churn of the mist, he caught sight of his goal.
The reflection of the water did not see to ripple. It looked dull, almost milky. The pool sat in a tiny clearing, crowded on all sides by trees that seemed to want to avoid parting way to give the water any space. Gunnar approached the pool and stared into it. A thin layer of mist sat several inches above the water, hanging above it as if the mist was uncertain of the water's intention. The buffalo smiled. This was it.
He dropped his backpack down beside him and hurried to kneel on the dry earth. Digging through his meagre belongings he found a small crystal flask. Carefully he lowered the flask to the water, taking great care not to let the cool liquid touch his fingers. He dipped it in, a tiny flow of bubbles emerging from the bottle's lid as it filled. Carefully he pulled it back and cautiously watched the water within. A small trickle ran down the side of the flask and Gunnar hurriedly pulled his fingers back, fearful of the waters touch. He reached into his pocket, tugged free a thick cloth and dabbed the side of the crystal vital dry. The milky liquid would not bring madness to him today. He slipped his cork onto the flank and wiped it dry. Sliding it into his backpack, he took a deep sigh. He had it. The tears of the Crying God.
Carefully he slid the bottle into his backpack and carefully nestled it between the folds of his bedroll. He knew that the crystal, treated as it had been by the magicks of the fae folk, would not break or crack but still he was worried. He thought of the dangers of his new cargo – he knew that even a drop of the tears could bring forth unspeakable ruin. But it was the only way. Only the touch of the liquid would aid his quest, could burn away the black-rock alter of the Ebon Cult. Gunnar stood and turned to leave.
That was when it hit him.
The buffalo didn't even see the shape approaching him and had heard no sound warning of its imminent arrival. The blow caught him entirely unaware and he hit the ground hard. For a moment the world spun. When he opened his eyes the thing was almost upon him again. Gunnar gritted his teeth and forced himself to stand, using the shaft of his hammer to push himself up from the ashen ground. He swung out, blindly aiming the head of his weapon at his assailant with a crushing blow. To his dismay, it passed straight through the creature.
As it struck him again, knocking the warrior back against one of the many brittle trees that surrounded him, Gunnar felt a sense of uncertainty. The creature possessed no features. It seemed almost blank, as empty and pale as the mist but somehow darker, as though it were composed entirely of shadow. Yet it was far taller than the buffalo warrior who stumbled forward. Righting his posture, Gunnar strained to make out any sharp details on the creature's hazy shape but found none. Nothing, he thought - not even an idea of his strong it was.
He caught sight of the creature's name and barely recognised it. He was sure that he had caught an offhand reference to it in the book. It was one of the shadows of the Crying God - an echo from ages past. The god had, Gunnar knew, been slain in battle long ago - felled by King Tatamis at great personal cost. Yet still the echoed of the evil remained. Gunnar wondered if he stood a chance against this foe.
Its arm shot out, crossing the distance between them in an instant and moving almost like liquid through the air. It grabbed and coiled around the warrior's waist and hurled him into the mist-shrouded recesses of the forest. Gunnar hit the ground, feeling several snapping branches break against him and cut his face. He rolled once and came to a stop, struggling to catch his breath. The book, he thought, hadn't prepared him for this.
Suddenly Gunnar wasn't sure about this. He wasn't sure that the quest was worth it - wasn't sure that he could complete it. He forced the thoughts back and charged at the mist creature. He swung, frantically and wildly, tearing through the shadowed figure with each stroke of his hammer. The head of his weapon left a strong rend in the creature in its wake for only a moment before the shape reformed, contorting like water, refilling the space once again. The creature lashed out, knocking Gunnar back. The buffalo stumbled, his health bar plummeting. He clenched his fingers tight. The thing had left a status ailment on him, he realised. Something called 'Touch of Misery'. Gunnar snarled, driving for the creature's head. He had so few abilities, he thought, that could do anything truly useful here. He wished one of his guildmates were with him. They could help him.
If he died, he thought, he would turn off the game for now. Just switch it off and focus on his work. He had to finish the novel, after all. He had another two thousand words that he had to write. Discuss and explain the nature of identity and society as it is presented in Hemingway's works. All in all, he thought, he had a better chance of beating this monster before him now than the one that awaited him on paper.
He realised in that moment how excited he was. His heart was pounding in his chest. He was fighting one of the shadows of the Crying God. It wasn't the deity itself, of course, that had fallen in the seventh wars long ago, buy this fight of his made him feel...
Gunnar swung his hammer, letting his anger build. Specks of saliva dotted his beard and he felt a bellow cry from his lips. Important, he thought. That was it, he felt important. This was all so familiar to him, as familiar as the stories of King Arthur that he read as a boy. And he was Galahad, fighting back the forces of darkness. But this wasn't Camelot, this was Valeron. He was living in the world he had inhabited through the books, seeing the land through the eyes of his character. It was all so strong, so realised, and so perfect to how he imagined it. And he would never need to write about it, never struggle to find the right reference for a quote, never strain to understand what the essence of the lecturer's presentation was about. He never felt pressured to contribute during a group discussion here. Here, enemies were just constructs of polygons and pixels, not his own innate and almost stubborn quietness or his growing fear of looming deadline. Here, Alex Samson didn't exist, his awkward stutter or
his bespectacled eyes constantly avoiding the demanding weight of other's gazes. Here, he could be who he wanted to be.
Gunnar pushed the thoughts from his mind. No, he reminded himself, I'm not Alex. Not while I'm here. Here I'm Gunnar, buffalo warrior. I'm not a nobody; not another face in the crowd.
"Hey" echoed a voice.
Gunnar looked up. He hadn't expected to see anyone else here. The region wasn't heavily travelled, and he was sure that nobody else had been around earlier when he had accepted the quest. He glanced around, and he caught sight of a familiar figure. Lanky, standing a little off-balance and with a naive expression on his face, the canine wore the crisp gilded robe of a mid-level cleric. "Do you need a hand?" asked Roka.
"Yes!" cried out Gunnar as the shadows monster struck him, several thin tree breaches snapping as the buffalo hurtled through them. "Yes, a thousand times yes!"
The cleric threw a quick heal to Gunnar, the golden hue tingling as it knitted his wounds together. The buffalo staggered, picking up his hammer which had fallen to one side. "Use a spell on the bugger?" he asked.
Without thinking, Roka lashed out with his 'smite' spell. A simple spell now for his level, it nonetheless seemed to work, leaping from the dog's paws and blazing across the shadow's form in a vibrant sparkle. Gunnar smiled. He was never so glad to have a cleric with him. A light to wash away the darkness.
The creature's bulbous, indistinct head turned towards the dog. The monster seemed to pull back, angling himself towards Roka, who at that moment was readying another spell. It seemed to have an almost angered cant to its posture, as if it were annoyed that the cleric had injured him. With lightning speed it lashed out, sending its nebulous limbs smashing into the young cleric. Roka landed with a thud, unable to resist crying out in pain. Gunnar grumbled, remembering that the cleric's cloth robe offered almost no protection in battle. The warrior gritted his teeth, and rushed the creature. His hammer crashed wildly against the creature, tearing ineffectually at its immaterial form. "Over here, ya great brute. Keep looking at me!"
The creature did, turning back towards the buffalo. That's it, he thought. Roka charged up another blast with his spell, all the while the shape held its attention towards Gunnar. The buffalo relished it. This was why he fought. "No, you swine," he snarled through gritted teeth, "you won't harm my friends. Not today." Gunnar kept up the defence, holding the beast's attention as Roka unleashed cascading spell after spell. Gunnar smiled. Here he was, he thought, fighting the monster, protecting his guildmates. His friends. Friends who actually, he thought, cared about him - relied on him. Here, in the game, where he was important, and where people actually noticed him as well. He wasn't just an empty face in the crowd, barely noticed. He was Gunnar, buffalo warrior, captain of the Loser's Legion, defender of the realms. Protector of his friends.
With one last, final dazzle of light, the creature stumbled backwards. It held up a paw, silently, as if trying to shelter from the light. Roka was already in the middle of another spell, but it was no longer necessary. The creature fell, sliding along the floor like a shadow, and faded. The dog caught his breath. "We did it?"
"Aye, lad" said Gunnar, "we did. Together."