Once he’d absorbed all of the souls in the room, Richard looked at the timeflames that had dimmed significantly, “Will they burn out?”
Old Barduch pointed to several twisted wood blocks in the corner, “No, we just need to gather more soul wood. That is the real fuel.”
Richard recognised the wood as the same kind he had seen regularly in the wastelands. He hadn’t thought it was worth anything, but from the looks of it this was a valuable treasure. Anything that could store soul power and keep timeflames burning was extremely valuable in the void; just a bit of this firewood could be traded for a top-tier offering.
He nodded, “Then I’ll go collect some more. I remember there’s one that isn’t far from here.”
“You…” Barduch wanted to say something, but he eventually sighed, “I know the tree you’re talking of. I’ve tried to chop it down and bring it back for a long time, but it is beyond my abilities. You… shouldn’t have such problems. Oh, the years are catching up.”
As the duo walked towards the edge of the town, the old man suddenly asked, “You were already an epic being when you first came here, weren’t you?”
Richard smiled, but he didn’t give a reply as he walked out of the veil of order and vanished into the distance. Barduch sat down and waited for an unknown length of time before he saw an indistinct figure reappear in the distance, lugging a tree that was thicker than their body as they walked back to the town with ease. The old man shivered at the sight; he had assumed Richard would have cut down a few branches, not the entire tree. Such a big soul tree was enough to keep the town’s timeflames burning for a century!
“Let’s go, your drink is on me!” the old man said eventually, patting Richard’s shoulder as they headed to the tavern. Moments later, the two were at the tavern with three large barrels of wine and a steaming plate of meat.
The two quickly ate their fill, and Barduch grew rather intoxicated as he started regaling Richard with tales of his heroic youth. In the end, he even tried to jump on the table and ask for a competition, but he instead crashed underneath. Richard smiled wryly and tried to pull him out from underneath, but thundering snores rang out as he fell asleep. He carried the old man to his room and placed him on the stone bed; since the one drunken episode could mean days of unconsciousness, he simply packed up and started heading out from the town.
Richard had barely walked out from the veil of order before the tavern lady suddenly ran up behind him, forcing a bottle of wine and a pack of grilled meat into his hands. This food meant a great deal of energy in the Darkness, so he didn’t reject and bid her farewell before heading in the direction Barduch had pointed out.
The wastelands were a monotonous biome that remained deathly quiet in the perennial twilight. Ordered life was not welcome here, the distorting laws pushing everything towards destruction, but the world itself refused to change. As he headed deeper in, Richard grew increasingly curious about the lack of any need for food; it seemed like a simple question, but the answer could grant enlightenment on this world’s fundamental laws. His intuition told him that this wasn’t the true face of this world, but a farce that he could only see through once he could eliminate this distortion completely.
The wastelands also seemed endless, the barren lands only broken up by the occasional soul tree. These frighteningly twisted trees could each power a small town for a century, but chopping them down required strength that few could muster. After walking for what seemed like forever, Richard suddenly turned around and inspected the tracks he had left behind. He couldn’t see all the way to the start of his journey, but even towards the end of his vision the traces of footsteps remained impeccably straight. Were it anyone else, the track would have curved or at least wobbled.
Time continued to pass as he walked further and further, his analysis of the laws here strengthening by the day. In two days he had finished the eighth law, in three more the ninth. The tenth and eleventh eventually followed, and as he went through the memories of hundreds of distorted souls he quickly shot towards the fourteenth law in his grasp. He had a renewed understanding of the Darkness by that point, but one question started to plague his mind— why didn’t this world have any creatures of its own?
He recalled the diary that Martin had given him, and a comment about this very quandary. The man who had returned believed that there was indeed an indigenous race, and that finding them would be the key to unlocking the secrets of this world.
When he eventually came to a stop for the second time, it was because a nearby soul tree had caught his attention. Seeing marks of branches being chopped off, he sent out a few motes of light that served as tracking magic for any signs of life. The motes swirled around the tree for a bit, quickly streaming into a line of footprints that headed in the same direction he was walking in.
Richard was a little elated at this sight, but he also turned solemn and started to nibble on the food he had brought with him. He waited to finish off all of the meat and wine, ingesting it completely before following the trail. His experience the first time had warned him to be careful of meeting others in this forsaken place. The laws here distorted even personalities, sometimes to the point that members of the same race would view each other as food. According to Barduch, this city had multiple epic beings within.
It took two more days to see the silhouette of the city on the horizon, an ugly construction with walls barely taller than a grown human with some gaps that were filled by sharpened stones instead. Of course, scaling even the shortest of walls could be fatal to those not acclimated to the Darkness, and the fact that people from here could cut down soul trees two days away showed just how powerful they were.
Richard was noticed quickly as he headed towards the city gates, with several people looking at him alertly. There were a number of various species here, but humans seemed to form the majority. Their eyes focused on his sword case as he approached, with many unable to conceal the greed in their gazes.
A skinny youth chuckled, “Another newcomer, and he looks tender.”
However, a burly man leaning against the walls commented lazily, “This boy has thorns. Careful not to tear your mouth off.”
“That’s none of your business, Nanook! You’ve meddled in my affairs enough, I’ll give you a good show if you stick your nose in this!”
“Oh?” the man sneered, “Then I’ll just wait here.”
By this point, Richard had crossed the veil of order and arrived in front of the gates. He stopped for a moment, but then picked up his pace and continued into the city. The protection here was surprisingly weak, not even as good as the small town he’d just been in, but another veil of order further within indicated that there was a higher-class area within.
The city gates were quite narrow, almost as small as a manor’s doors. Richard was about to walk through when he was stopped by the youth raising his leg, “Did I say you could enter?”