Chapter One: One More Time
The ground trembled beneath him with every step, and he knew he couldn’t keep up that pace for long. He could hear the roar of the fire all around him, even as the beast roared and charged across that battered landscape.
Rhys knew that his time was running out.
“Alright, Virgil,” he whispered as he pushed past the agony in his lungs. “You told me to be here in these woods. Now show me why.”
The traveler was wrenched from that thought when the beast slammed through the nearest copse of trees, knocking down branches and scattering the autumn leaves. Before the creature opened its mouth, Rhys could feel the heat from its body. As soon as he saw the beast’s teeth, those dried leaves burst into flames.
Only a moment later, a wave of fire came rushing from the creature’s mouth. The villagers had named the beast appropriately, Rhys considered. The Hellhound of Verna had earned its moniker. Soon, he would see if it also lived up to its reputation.
That blast of heat barreled through the area, and when the fire evaporated into the air, Rhys was no longer in its path. The beast looked to and fro before glancing upward.
The man had talents of his own, and he wasn’t shy about using them. He walked up the side of the nearest tree, a healthy oak that hadn’t yet been consumed in those flames. He ascended it as though it were a gentle uphill climb, though it sprouted straight up into the air. In time, he reached its lowest bow, and swung up to it with ease.
Below, the hellhound charged at the tree, attempting its own ascent. The sphere of magic that Rhys enacted was still in place there though.
Gravity ceased to exist in its truest form wherever Rhys willed it around him. He had long ago learned to control it, manipulating it so that he could walk up walls or perch upside down on a ceiling.
The hellhound couldn’t comprehend why its huge paws wouldn’t stay on the trunk of that tree.
That frustration became apparent when the beast opened its mouth again. From his vantage, Rhys saw as the inside of the hound’s mouth radiated shades of red and orange.
He didn’t waste another moment, leaping out into the air as another rush of heat and flame tore through the area. Rhys floated down from the bough like a feather caught in a gentle zephyr. It was then, when he was airborne, that he saw his companion. Virgil’s silver body caught the reflection of the starlight, and that sparkle was not lost to the man who tussled with the fire-breathing hellbeast.
Though he knew that his friend was offering up what was sure to be a brilliant idea, the distraction nearly cost Rhys his life. He couldn’t feel as the creature’s weight shifted, but he heard its angry growl, and looked over his shoulder just in time to see it leap into the air.
As easily as he was able to manipulate that field of gravity, he released his hold on it. Rhys fell to the ground like a stone, landing on his knees and tumbling forward while the hellhound soared overhead.
The flames in the forest illuminated the unexpected battlefield then, and his terrifying foe. The Hellhound of Verna towered over him, the man only coming up to the monster’s chest. Its fur and markings reminded the man of an oversized wolf, shades of brown and grey accentuating its shape. Crimson eyes stared at him for a moment as the wolf spun about, and though they had caught the man’s attention before, when he first encountered the beast, it was the glimmer of violet on the creature’s forehead that had earned his focus then.
The shard of the orb was taunting Rhys, it seemed.
Its owner, that vicious, hungry hellhound, was not so keen on games. Its claws raked into the ground like it was part ornery bull, and it snarled again, gobs of saliva separating and growing thin between those dagger-sized fangs. Each of those was longer than the blade that Rhys had on his hip, he realized.
The monster hunched low, the fur along its spine standing up as it prepared to make a snack out of the man who dared to enter its woods.
A shrill whistle entered the air, and the beast’s ears drew back. It turned to its side, trying to make sense of the noise, but just as quickly, its hunger drove its attention back to its quarry.
Rhys wasn’t there. Already airborne once more, he soared out over the hellhound, until he landed on another branch, though it was considerably less sturdy than the last. He kept his sphere of manipulated gravity moving with him as he went along across the treetops.
One other boon of his power, he was thankful for—his footfalls were nearly silent. He was already well far away from the monster before it caught his scent on the wind and spun about.
“Rhys, hurry!” Virgil called out. That metallic thrum in his companion’s voice carried across the forest, but it was lost beneath the sense of urgency.
Once more, the traveler dropped to the ground; that time he remained on his feet, kicking up leaves and dirt as he went.
Meanwhile, the hellhound charged through trees, ripping them from the ground at the root.
“You said to meet you east of the town!” Rhys called out to his companion as he ran. He couldn’t see that shimmer of starlight then, but he was certain he was heading in the right direction.
“This is east, Mister Rhys,” Virgil called out.
The traveler grumbled as he shifted directions ever-so-slightly. In only a few moments, he ascended a small hill, and saw his ally beside a forked tree up ahead.
“Get moving, Virgil!” he bade. “Iron or not, he’ll tear you in half!”
His companion did as told, spinning about and climbing up the next hill. “Right through, Rhys,” he bade. “That thing will keep going long after you’ve collapsed from exhaustion.”
Rhys growled in contemplation. “Don’t remind me,” he muttered.
He felt the hot breath of his pursuer, but he was certain he was running as fast as he could. As he neared that strange tree, he leapt into the air—that time without the use of his power. His feet landed in the divide where the trunk split off in two, resonating with a thrum. He hopped down again, turning around just in time to see the beast make one final lunge at him.
That tree did not fall like so many of the others. That tree endured.
With his lips parted in amazement, Rhys watched as the twin trunks closed in, tightening around the hellhound’s neck. In a mere moment, the beast was rooted in place, as sure as the tree was.
“Get on with it!” Virgil called out from up above.
Sure enough, the hellhound was pawing at the tree, trying to wrench its head from the snare it was in. Rhys took a deep breath, and hopped toward the monster, his eyes fixed on the purple glimmer in the tuft on its brow. Out came the dagger, the beast snarling at the sight of it.
It didn’t matter. Rhys knew that it was the only way. It was the only way to put the orb back together. It was the only way to draw one step closer to home.
The tip of the blade slid in just at the bottom of that sliver of what looked like glass. Those snarls gave way to a shocking yelp, and a violet flash burst forth in the area, like a huge bolt of lightning.
When the light faded, the hulking beast was no longer present. Instead, in the crook of that artificial tree, a much smaller animal stood, very much confused and scared.
“This is what the villagers had seen before,” Rhys surmised.
“Big enough to bring down some livestock, it would seem,” Virgil stated as he walked back down the hill.
The closer of those travelers glared at the canine, noticing that those red eyes remained there. The hellhound hunched low, bowing, it seemed.
Rhys clicked his tongue and lunged at the creature, scaring it out of the tree. It leapt from that unforeseen perch, and took off into the forest, toward the burning, smoldering trees it had left behind moments before.
“Should we not have disposed of it?” Virgil asked when he drew close enough to hear a sigh escape his friend’s lips.
“It’s been through enough,” Rhys said. “You know that it was the orb that caused the aggression and the power. It was that piece of the Void that changed it.”
Virgil nodded, pulling his hood down a little further past his brow.
That was never enough to shield the truth from Rhys. He knew what was there beneath the leather cowl. Just enough violet light cast out from that darkness.
Of course, Virgil knew that it wasn’t quite a secret. Rhys was the first one to find him—the first one to help him understand what life was, and how he had managed to be blessed with it. As long as he traveled with Rhys, it seemed that blessing was set to continue.
It didn’t hurt that Virgil had earned his keep during their pilgrimage.
He drew nearer, merely out of habit at that point, and felt the fluctuation of the shard in his forehead. A subtle hum attuned to another noise from his friend’s hand and another louder one from the pouch by Rhys’ side.
That odd song stopped all at once, and a much louder sound howled to life behind them. The travelers turned to see the rippling vortex just before them.
Rhys stepped away from Virgil, and the portal shrunk in size once more. A silver brow arched as the metal fellow considered that decision.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Isn’t it time to move on to the next—?”
Rhys nodded. “By all accounts, we should be going. But this last one was draining, don’t you think? I could use a rest before we see what next monster or villain stands before us. Time will be waiting for us no matter what. This is our best chance for a moment of respite. The people of Verna will be very welcoming now that their monster isn’t going to be bothering them.”
“Not them, but maybe their livestock,” his companion muttered.
“In any case, they’re able to handle the hellhound from here on out. With the orb fragment no longer influencing it, we’ve done our part. Now, if you don’t mind, I wouldn’t mind getting back to Verna before midnight. Perhaps the tavern is still open, and we could get some warm honey mead.”
Virgil followed Rhys back through the forest, the faraway flames dying out in the night breeze. “As always, I’ll be watching you drink it, and wondering what it’s like to be able to taste something.”
While the two travelers conversed about their differences, the forest behind them grew quiet…
…except for a small, rippling portal, which started to grow once more.
Chapter Two: The Mysterious Dungeon
That warmth on his face had him recoiling, but Rhys was able to placate himself. It was a foreign feeling, the sunlight on his cheek. He hadn’t been deprived of daylight since his journey began, but the feeling of a ray of sun shining through a glass window? That was something he hadn’t enjoyed for a long while. The man stretched, enjoying the comfortable bed more than he thought possible.
He sat up, swinging his legs off the mattress. Off his back, it was as if the rest of his senses were heightened. The scent of some breakfast pastry from the main hall of that lodge nearly pried him from the bed.
Rhys couldn’t remember going from that deep of a slumber to wide awake in some time. Since his visit to the Void, every night was a sleepless one, always endured rather than enjoyed.
He half expected the hellhound to be waiting for him on the other side of that door.
All he found were other content patrons, who raised their morning cups of tea when they saw their savior on that walkway up above. In unison, he raised his fist.
It was an odd sensation. Rhys was always so eager to move into the next portal, to see what was on the other side. Would it be home?
After a dozen trips or more, he couldn’t remember waiting to venture forth. He swallowed away the tension building in his throat. Was he losing hope that he would ever find his way back?
He knocked on the next door, the only way to distract himself from that harrowing thought. Rhys didn’t wait for an answer—he didn’t need to. There would be no interrupting Virgil’s sleep, as he never needed it.
When the traveler entered his companion’s room, he found him by the window, staring off into the field to the west of town. A far cry from the charred woods in the east, those fields looked inviting and peaceful. Rhys considered that peace that Virgil observed, then.
It was the first time he had ever encountered it.
“This is how it’s supposed to be,” he said.
Virgil turned around, and without the dark of night or the leather cowl to obscure his face, the truth was more apparent. Shades of silver, grey and black covered his body, except for those two periwinkle orbs that gazed toward Rhys, and the bright violet shine in his brow.
The human moved to the bed, and swept up the cloak, tossing it to his companion. “We don’t want to frighten the people down there.”
Catching the garment without looking at it, Virgil nodded. He didn’t understand shame, and took no offense to his companion’s warning. Fear had been thoroughly explained to him, though. He was a strange being, even if he didn’t know why. If it made life easier for Rhys, that was all he needed to know. He pulled that cloak in around him, obscuring his metallic face and body.
Rhys made his way down those steps, and when the woman behind the counter noticed him, she slid over toward the staircase.
“What can I get for you lads this morning?” she wondered.
The young man was already shaking his head. “We couldn’t possibly impose any more than we already have. You put us up when we didn’t have any coin. That’s plenty.”
“Well, it’s thanks to you that the rest of us will have food in our bellies in the months to come,” one of the other villagers offered. “Least we can do is share a little of what we have.”
He raised his hand to placate the people of Verna. “Now I know we were all drinking a lot last night, but I hope you all remember when I said the big Hellhound is gone, but the little one is still out there.”
“Bah. Let him take a chicken every few weeks if he’s hungry. Now that the big one’s gone, we don’t have to worry about our cows going missing. Geraldine, you get those boys whatever they want a bite of, and I’ll take care of the cost.”
The woman behind the counter folder her arms over her chest and sent a smile to the saviors of their village. Rhys conceded with a nod and pulled out the nearest seat.
Before he could find a comfortable position, the door to the lodge slammed open.
“All of you better come out here to see this,” another villager cried. “The whole damn forest is gone.”
“What is it, Harold?” the generous patron asked. “These adventurers told us that some of it caught fire yesterday. There’s nothing to be done with about it. Someday, green will come back to those woods, but for now, we should settle with being alive, don’t you—”
“That’s not what I’m saying, Rolph,” the anxious fellow pressed. “The forest is gone, and something else is in its place. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen.”
Rhys arched his eyebrow and looked at his companion. Virgil nodded just enough to let that violet shard dip beneath the cowl.
All the villagers joined the travelers as they exited the lodge. They crossed Verna’s main road, and passed the buildings on the other side, cresting the hill that overlooked the forest where Rhys fought against the hellhound.
As they neared the peak of that hill though, they found truth in Harold’s words. The forest was gone. Only a few char marks existed to tell the tale of the encounter with the hellhound, and the trees, branches and leaves looked as though they’d never existed in the first place, except for the semi-circle that framed the odd looking stonework that was present in the center of the area.
“What is that?” Rolph asked. “It looks like a—”
“Like a crypt,” Geraldine interrupted.
None of the villagers noticed when Rhys’ eyes flashed. He grabbed Virgil by the crook of his arm, and pulled him away from the crowd, then.
“Do you notice what I do?” he asked. “That building is right where the portal was last night.”
“But that means…”
“Our way home is gone,” Rhys said.
Rolph drew close and stepped between the two travelers. “What does it mean, stranger?”
Rhys took a step closer to the edge of the hill and narrowed his eyes. “I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t here during our confrontation with the hellhound. I suppose we’ll have to investigate it closer.”
“Perhaps that is what gave the beast its recent immense stature,” the villager said. “You don’t think it’s coming back, do you?”
“If it does, we’ll send it away once more. Virgil?” Rhys asked as he ventured from that knoll. His companion walked up beside him, and together, they descended the hill, drawing near to that stone edifice. “There may still be a chance for us to find our way out of this place.”
“And this time,” the golem added.
“If the portal still remains, it should be right behind those doors. If it is, we’re not going to hesitate a moment later. We’ll go right into the Void, like we should have done last night.”
Virgil looked back and peered up the hill. “But what of the villagers?” he asked. “If our portal is in there, and we escape through it, they’ll think something has happened to us. They mind send people in after us.”
Rhys was already shaking his head. “Whatever this place is, it came about because I was too weak-willed to leave. This journey is my punishment, and I was a fool to think that I could find a moment of calm. If we find our way out, I’m positive this place will leave with us.”
Moments later, they stood before those two doors. The trees towered over the building, and moss was overgrown amongst the stone that surrounded those heavy slabs of elm. Rhys took a step forward, and reached for the entrance. It slid open before his fingers could land on the grain of the wood. He looked to his companion, who couldn’t understand why such a thing was eerie.
Rhys sighed, and proceeded on. A single step inside that building was all he needed to take to realize that things were not as he originally suspected. It was not a tomb, he understood, but a tremendous dungeon—and one that defied reality. Corridors led off in either direction to his sides, and stairs before him descended into darkness. He breathed in the scent of sulfur, then, and turned to see that a pair of torches was already alight beside the entrance.
“Are you seeing this, Virgil?” he asked.
He looked out into the open once more, and was left befuddled. His companion was not there—and neither were the villagers. Even the hill that they once stood upon was gone.
“What is this place?” Rhys muttered.
At once, those doors to the dungeon slammed shut. The man stumbled backward, tumbling off the first of those steps. By reflex alone, he enacted his sphere of magic, but it was a moment too late. His head slapped against the stone, and then all went black.
* * *
Virgil tilted his head to his side. As soon as his companion stepped into that place and was engulfed in those shadows within, it was as though he disappeared completely.
“Rhys?” he asked.
When he heard no response, he ventured inside. The doors slammed behind him, and he turned about. There was no fear in him, though. He returned to those doors with curiosity taking root in his mind. A light push on it proved that the way through was no longer available to him.
The golem spun about, looking at the steps forward that had seen been illuminated by the torches in the expansive chamber. He stood there, frozen, as he struggled with the logic that was defied by the place.
Far beyond that room though, he heard a familiar voice.
“Are you seeing this, Virgil?” Rhys’ voice quietly echoed.
With nothing else to latch onto, he focused on that voice, descending the closest flight of stone steps.
Perhaps he could solve the mysteries of the dungeon and find his lost companion.
Chapter Three: A Message from the Void
He blinked away his stupor, even the darkness seeming overwhelmingly bright. His head throbbed, and even in his muddled state, he considered how different it felt waking up from that trip than from the comfortable bed earlier that morning.
When Rhys sat up, he was overcome with a sense of vertigo. He gnashed his teeth together and shoved the heel of his hand into his temple.
“This isn’t good,” he muttered. When his vision steadied, he realized that he was no longer at the entrance of the dungeon. He hadn’t tumbled down the steps, as far as he could tell, either. Walls closed in around him except for a solitary opened door on the opposite side of the room.
Grumbling, the man climbed to his feet, and braced against the wall closest to him. “This really isn’t good,” he adjusted.
Rhys leaned against the walls leading out to that door until he arrived before it. Looking down the long corridor that was just outside of it, the uneven feeling came back to him. It stretched further than the main road that went through Verna, he supposed, and more doors were situated across from each other at even intervals.
The traveler steadied himself in the doorway, taking a breath before proceeding down that strange corridor. He winced when the first pair of doors shut beside him upon reaching them. Growling, he was able to at least commend himself for not tumbling backward once more.
As he proceeded further, each of those doors slammed shut on their own, even as he sped his gait. That journey down the corridor led him to one final door on the far end of the hallway, which remained open. Even from afar, he was able to see the odd presence inside—a familiar, ominous sight.
“The Void,” he whispered.
Black and violet mist roiled in the next chamber, static electricity illuminating the floor. That miasma stopped at the open door, as though it had struck glass and rolled back over itself.
Rhys was reminded of how his tragic journey began. Desperation guided his hand back then—or was it forward in time? He couldn’t begin to make sense of any of it, except for the regret that stung more than ever in that moment. If he had been willing to let the past remain untouched, he would have been in his own time, able to protect his people, instead of cast out into the world of Tellest like a vagrant with no concept of where or when he was.
Without realizing it, he drew away from that frightening chamber.
Before he could draw too far, though, the mist separated just enough for him to see another familiar face. On the other side of that room, Virgil had his hood pulled down. Without any of the villagers there to see his face, there was no reason to hide.
Rhys growled, knowing that he couldn’t allow his friend to encounter the Void alone. Against all of his instincts, he rushed into that room, leaping over the plume of otherworldly mist, and setting his powers at work. He hovered in that room and the miasma filtered around the attuned field of gravity.
“Stay over there, Virgil,” he bade.
The golem did as told, but Rhys learned that he had no choice in the matter. A pane of glass did exist in that room, separating the chamber into halves. Virgil leaned up against that glass, and though his mouth moved, no sound was heard.
“What’s wrong, Virgil?”
“He cannot hear you,” a vaguely familiar voice echoed within the chamber.
Rhys froze as he considered where he had last heard that ethereal voice. It was otherworldly, caught somewhere between soothing and frightening. He adjusted his hold on gravity so that he could spin about.
She was even more haunting than he could remember.
“Nyrshia,” he said. “What’s the matter? Couldn’t send your henchman to come after me this time?”
The churning miasma flowed back toward that divine being, wrapping around her from the bottom of her robe to the top of her feathered headdress. The smoke made those amber eyes glow all the brighter, and she gazed at him with a look that he was not expecting from her.
Was it sympathy?
“This is beyond Vedas,” the Keeper of the Void spoke. “He wouldn’t have been able to find this place if he tried.”
“This place?” Rhys echoed. “So, you know where we are.”
“Indeed,” Nyrshia said. “This dungeon is fueled by the same thing as the Void: the essence of time and space. When you neglected to travel through the portal, the dungeon seized that opportunity, and came through instead.”
“How was I supposed to know?” he grumbled.
“You couldn’t have,” she conceded. “Even I couldn’t have. This dungeon—and the one who controls it—lie out of my purview. I’ve long known about this place, but I’ve never seen it. It’s always remained shielded from me.”
Rhys arched his eyebrow. “Then how are you able to be here now?”
“The fragments of the orb that are in your possession,” she reasoned. “They represent a strong enough thread in the loom of time. Had you not been here, I might not be either.”
“Wait a minute,” he uttered. “If this place also travels through time, could we use it to get me back to my time?”
Nyrshia sent a disarming smile his way. “I don’t presume to know much about this place. I know that it is unpredictable, vast, and evil.”
“Then it’s beyond time that we escape from here. We’ll get out and let the people of Verna know that it’s no longer safe in their village.”
“That won’t be necessary,” the deity said. “Once you and Virgil arrived here, it continued its journey to another time.”
A visage of understanding washed over Rhys. “We were brought to the time the portal would have brought us to,” he surmised.
“And now, as always, you have a task to unravel before you can move on and complete the repairs to the orb.”
“Right,” he said. “I’ll go fetch Vir—”
It didn’t take long for Rhys to notice that his companion was no longer on the other side of that glass. He moved along to the right side of the room. For the first time since they arrived there, the traveler noticed that a passageway had been opened. Virgil’s natural curiosity already had him moving in that direction.
“Virgil, what are you doing?” Rhys asked as he followed along the glass in that direction.
He kept moving along until that corridor grew wider, and opened up into a large, circular room. The glass still halved the room, but something existed between the two halves: a large, swirling portal, like the one Rhys should have stepped through, pulsed on both sides of that room.
“It’s the portal,” the traveler said. “We can move along just like you said.”
“That is no portal,” Nyrshia protested. “At least, not in the way you describe it. That thing is the engine to this place, the arcane magic that is letting it travel through time.”
“So why can’t we use it?” Rhys asked.
“That thing would rip you apart if you tried to use it to travel through time. Do not approach it. There must be some way for you to escape this crypt.”
Rhys found himself nodding in agreement. Perhaps if he’d considered Nyrshia during their previous encounter, he wouldn’t be lost in time.
He was reminded that when he was in the Void, it was a spur of the moment choice that sent him barreling through different points in Tellest’s history, and across the vastness of the planet. It wasn’t a choice, he recalled, but a necessity.
That same necessity drove him again when he saw his companion, the infinitely curious golem, drawing nearer to that churning portal—the engine that powered the dungeon, as Nyrshia said.
“Virgil!” he cried. “Stay away from that thing!”
Just as before, his words were lost beyond that glass. The golem didn’t acknowledge him in any way, and Rhys found himself sidling along his half of the room in an effort to gain his friend’s attention.
“Rhys,” Nyrshia warned.
He didn’t need her caution in order to understand how hazardous the situation was. He could feel the pull of that vortex and heard the pulsing wind thrumming in his ears.
“Rhys, the orb fragment,” the Keeper of the Void said.
He looked down and noticed that the pouch he kept on his hip was lifting from its secure spot on his belt. A violet glow was visible through the leather material, and it was only by happenstance that the traveler brought his hand down before it tore through that pouch. The fragment of the orb shined as brightly as he had ever seen, and it pushed toward that vortex hard enough for Rhys to feel it cut into his palm.
“Get away from there,” the deity said, though her voice sounded so distant then.
Even if she was right beside him, he wouldn’t have been able to focus on her. When cracks started forming on that fused shard of the orb, he couldn’t pay attention to anything else.
“Not again,” he muttered. “I can’t do this all again!”
Another bright light glowed from the other half of the room. Virgil still drew nearer to that vortex, though it seemed he struggled against its grasp. He held his iron hands against his head, shielding that shard of the orb of time in his metal skull.
Rhys looked again to the piece of the orb in his own hand.
“No, Rhys,” Nyrshia spoke. She was already aware of his thoughts before he had the time to consider them.
“If I do nothing, Virgil will die,” he said.
“Time will be shattered more than it is now!” Nyrshia shouted.
That loud urgency was not lost to Rhys, but he couldn’t let anything happen to Virgil. For the first time since he discovered the golem, he saw something he did not expect: fear. Virgil understood that he was unsafe.
Despite the risks, and the dangers, and the very chance that he had at finding a way home, Rhys flung himself into the vortex to save his companion.
The portal pulsed with tremendous power and ripped the fused fragment of the orb into pieces. The portal expanded at a tremendous rate, then, engulfing Rhys, Virgil, and even Nyrshia.
Rhys felt that terrible sensation that he hoped he never would again.
He was being ripped apart and put back together again.