Crystal Trial, Part 4
He appeared again in a barren room. It was much like the original chamber where he’d touched the crystal. The light was brighter here, however, and he could see the lay of the room.
The floor and walls were made of a slate color stone, cut into tiles. They covered both the floor and walls. Though they stretched out far, making a much larger room than Michael had guessed when he first appeared in the tower, it did have limits. Even the ceiling, which was well above him, was brightly illuminated and covered in the same tiled gray rock.
In the middle of the room was a table. It seemed to have appeared after Michael had gotten a good look at the room. It certainly hadn’t been there when he’d first appeared in the room. As he watched, a small figure, like a shadow, appeared behind the table. There was a soft, feminine face in the shadows beneath the hood, though he couldn’t make out many features. From the sleeves of her flowing cloak she withdrew a stack of cards.
“Come closer, child of Elsewhere, and complete the second part of your test.” He walked closer and found there was a chair there. When he sat, she started to flip cards over onto the table.
She laid the cards out in a grid, four rows of four. “How do I play?” Michael asked. The figure shuffled the cards again and put them off to the side.
“Impatient, aren’t we. Consider yourself, child of Elsewhere. When I ask you questions, reflect on the appropriate answer.”
“How will I know the appropriate answer?” The figure waved her hands over the cards and they glimmered, alive with light.
“You will know.” She flipped a card from the top of the pile. It showed a man kneeling before a shadowed lord with no face, a weeping crown upon his drooped head. “Swear which oath?” She flipped the cards over. On the first, there was a bloody sword dripping into an ocean of red. The second had the sun and moon intertwined, sitting in a mist colored sky above a man and a woman, held tight in an embrace, they stood within a forest of brilliant life, overflowing with color. The third showed endless shelves of books disappeared toward the horizon, a woman with a lantern looking over them, her eyes filled with stars. The final card, fourth, showed an austere steeple, rising into a steel colored sky behind a silent woman, severe and beautiful, her eyes hard as chips of onyx. She pointed to each in turn. “Vengeance, Harmony, Knowledge, or Absolution?” Michael considered, but he found he knew his answer. He’d never been vengeful, didn’t do well in school, didn’t even know what absolution meant.
“Harmony.” The figure made no acknowledgement. She simply moved on to the next row and began to flip those cards as well.
“Forge which bond?” The first card showed villages all surrounding the great, shimmering walls, the castle beyond reaching up into a tumultuous night sky. The second had images of men working fields and women threshing grain, babies wrapped in satchels, slung over their shoulders. The third card showed a weathered white wooden building, a great man standing over it, his eyes bright as the sun. The final image showed a woman and a man, each facing the other, one in light, one in shadow, their hands folded. “Country, Family, Religion, or Justice.”
“Justice,” Michael said, hesitating. For a moment he thought he should say family, but he pushed it away. Once again, the shadowed woman made no comment or even an indication that she had heard, except that she moved on to the next question.
“Follow which path?” Again, she flipped the cards over. The first showed a winding stone path through a verdant forest, the sun setting far away, behind the mountains. The second card had two men on it, each with their hands up, their faces stern and serious. The third showed a man, his eyes wild with exhaustion, nearly crawling, pulling a cart of food toward a home in the distance. The final card showed a woman dressed in severe black robes, her face as quiet as solitude, a glowing corona of light surrounding her. “Solitude, Obligation, Service, or Righteousness.”
“Service,” Michael said, this time slowly. He was disturbed by the picture, but he chose that card anyway. He made a vow to himself that he would not end up like that man. He would serve, but do so in his own way, so that he could stand tall.
“The last question,” the figure said and she began to flip the final row of cards. “Embody which ideal?” The figure flipped the first card. It showed a man, a king in a back silver crown, standing above his charges, the defeated soldiers, his enemies, tied together, their heads bowed in sorrow. The flipped the second. This one showed a woman next to a man, laying in bed. There were bloody bandages all about their feet, a bow of water on the nightstand, a hot towel laid on his hand. She flipped the third. This one showed another woman, a sort of champion, a bright halo of light around her golden head, her armor dancing with the orange and red of flames. The final card turned. This one showed a man standing tall, his wrists shackled but the chains broken. “Power, Compassion, Glory, or Freedom.”
He looked down at these cards, but unlike the others the answer did not come. He looked up to the veiled figure, but as always she was inscrutable. Finally, Michael chose.
“Freedom,” he said. For the last time, the figure said nothing, simply picked up the cards.
“Very well,” her voice came. Then, the room began to dissolve away into bright white light.
As he floated to the surface the bright whiteness slowly dimmed until he emerged looking up into a sky overflowing with silver-white stars. He took a deep breath. The air was cool and still.
For a moment he couldn’t remember what had happened. It was like waking from a dream. He came slowly again to the realization that he was in a tower, doing some kind of strange judgment.
He sat up and looked around. He was at the edge of a small pool of water in the middle of sprawling grassland. He stood and looked. Far away, in the distance, there were mountains. He strode forward, though the tall grass that whipped against his chest, and saw a small camp nearby.
He went to the camp. The fire was dead and the tent was empty. He saw no footprints and no other signs of life. He began to wonder if this was meant for him. He’d seen no evidence of another person but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist. It was dark and he didn’t really know what to look for. Still, as he knelt to rekindle the fire, he felt an overwhelming sense of calm come over him, a reassurance that he was doing the right thing.
Once he’d finally lit the flames he started looking around. He found a pack and a stash of weapons. He went through the pack first and found some basic rations: hard bread and dried meat. He also found a pair of water skins that sloshed with water. He also found a change of clothes. He looked down at the tattered ruins of his shirt, smeared with dirt and grime and torn to pieces.
After a while he was in the new clothes with a warm fire. He drank and ate and tried to rest a bit. He’d been at this for days and he hadn’t eaten since he’d had lunch at the troll village. The food was not delicious, but it filled him up. He laid himself on the floor of his tent, but found that he could not sleep. He sat up again and looked down at his hands. There was no reason to look at them, but somehow it made sense. In a very real way, he didn’t feel like himself. He started to wonder if he was still himself. Was this his body, or a facsimile of his body, created by the video game? Was he even in a video game, or was this a separate reality connected to the video game? Michael sighed. He picked himself up and left the comfort of his tent.
Michael went to the stack of weapons and looked through them. There was long sword and a two-handed great sword. There was a bow and a quiver of arrows. There was a spear, a long knife, and some kind of staff. He held the staff for a moment, wondering what it would do.
A sense, an idea, poked into his mind. He raised the staff and, without knowing exactly how, a light erupted from the end of the staff and the flames of the now dormant fire swirled and grew.
He put the staff down, planning to play with it more later, and picked up the long sword. It was heavy but the weight felt good in his hand. Had he held it, he found his weight shifting as he changed his stance. One foot forward, solid, his knees bent slightly, ready to react. He spun the blade easily, moving through a basic attack and guard pattern. Somehow, he knew that’s what he was doing. It was not impressive swordplay, but it was probably good enough.
He’d guessed that he might just possess the knowledge he’d needed, like how his fellow survivors made up for a lack of personality with an abundance of skills. Or perhaps the weapons were enchanted; they contained magic that allowed him to use them whenever he was holding them. He reached for the bow. He nocked an arrow, still amazed that he knew how to do that, even though he’d conjured a fireball with the staff. He pulled the bow back and looked down the arrow, aiming toward the mountains far in the distance.
Something flitted before his eyes. He trained on it, though it was too far for him to be able to hit. A great elk or deer all made of light jumped before him, seeming to trail stars. He lowered the bow and knew what it was he needed to do.