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I used to think not many things scared me. Then I had to fight literal nightmares. Do you know what’s worse than fighting giant arachnids? Giant centipedes. They creep me out more than anything.

They were unnaturally long, and faintly glowed like they were radioactive. This infestation had consumed a family home in a night. We were helping the town guard sort it out before it got out of control. 

We had to dress ourselves in heavy leather before we went into the derelict hut outside of town. It would be hot, but better than a painful bite from oversized mandibles.

One of the guards, a newer one by the looks of it, had to be cut free from the bugs trying to entangle us. 

It was dirty work. I hacked and slashed for what felt like hours. I stomped and squished just as many as I cut down.

The others were there too. Rachel had created a wall of fire, preventing them from escaping. Her powers were becoming more and more impressive. She was learning fire magic, under Az’s guidance. But she still had some trouble casting spells from time to time. The results were not always predictable.

Lucas and Az were carrying torches, smoking the centipedes out of the walls. Occasionally, Az would let loose a stream of fire from his lips and hands, smoking the place up even more. Hugh was watching over Neil.

It was all very disgusting and frightening. But I didn’t let that stop me. We were supposed to be heroes after all.

It had been ten days since the incident at the oasis. Neil was still unconscious, and had been the entire time. The only thing Doctor Eliza has been able to do is make him comfortable.

Rachel also tried a couple of healing spells she learned from Gizzard. She performed rituals at various times of day, spent our money on exotic ingredients, but nothing seemed to be helping. 

We were running low on money and time. Neil’s fever was getting worse. It was all we could do to keep him hydrated. I was secretly happy that insurance didn’t matter here. We would have been over our heads in debt. 

Which was why we enlisted with the local militia. Without Neil to work at the forge, we had to make ends meet. Mostly through adventuring and completing quests. The upside was that we could gain more experience using our weapons. The downside was constantly getting in fights with strange phenomena. 

I was getting better with the sword. Every day, I woke up early and joined the militia for training. I first started when we got to Rebel’s Rest. We went for runs and practiced drills. I could already tell there was much improvement. I was actually able to beat a few of the guards in sparring now.

I was getting attached to the saber too. I even considered giving it a name, but thought that would be silly. Neil said he wanted to forge me a sword of legend, and I was going to hold him to that.

Rachel raised her wand and the fire intensified. The centipedes were running thin. The awful smell of burned bugs filled the air and we choked. 

Az waved his stick. Out of all of us, he was faring the best in the smoke. He seemed to have a natural immunity to fire. With his gesture, the flames swirled around him. He dove into the biggest pile of creepers he could find, setting them all ablaze. 

The centipedes screeched horribly as they were exterminated. We couldn’t let a single one get away. It was a shame we had to burn down most of the home though. 

We didn’t find any loot either. It still wasn’t clear how the looting system worked. Perhaps it was only bosses who dropped those special chests with loot in them. Otherwise, we had to buy better gear or find it in the world.

With the deed done, we made our way out. We had gone in at dawn. It was now midday. We stripped out of our protective suits, gasping desperately for fresh air. We were all covered in sweat. It was a shame we only had one bath between all of us at the hostel. I said I would go last. There were a few things I wanted to do. 

First I went to check on Neil. We had moved him to our room in the hostel. He was still asleep, groaning feverishly. To our concern, he hadn’t woken since that night with the priest.

My mind wandered back to when Neil got cut back in Brighton. That injury seemed too real to be part of this fantasy. We had been wondering what would happen if we died in the game. We already considered the possibility that this was simply a simulation we needed to wake up from. We came up with all kinds of theories.

But I was not ready to put that to the test. We had to find a cure, or get Neil back to our world. I banished all thoughts of what could be from my head and brought myself back to the present. It did not do well to dwell on such thoughts. 

Neil started muttering again. His voice rasped, as if talking gave him great pain, but he forced himself to whisper. I made a mask out of my scarf and leaned in close. We also had no idea if his condition was contagious. 

He seemed to be muttering nonsense. What he said sounded like: “Ptutro… Agan…. Igarta…. Ghaffnin… Brjrt…”

The words meant nothing to me, but a chill went down my spine as I heard them. I couldn’t place the feeling that filled me then, but I understood that those words meant something. Neil went quiet, but he was still breathing. He looked much paler and thinner than when we arrived in the game. 

It was a similar chill I felt as to when he mentioned the night stalkers. I had no idea what he meant then, and he was in no condition to explain. I had to do my own research.

Research was much harder than I anticipated. I was so used to relying on the internet as a resource. It didn’t help that there wasn’t a library in town either. Which meant we had to ask around.

Local legends confirmed that the tar pits were cursed territory. We heard conflicting stories on accounts of the night stalkers, whether they a cult, or creatures no longer human. The local church dictated that they were demons, summoned to follow the will of their dark master. But strangely, most people had never heard of them. It didn’t take long to figure out some of them were lying.

Nothing else was new, so I went back to the barracks to write my debrief. I was slightly amazed at the organization these people kept when it came to protocol. What I needed afterwards was a cold drink. I settled for the mead at the hostel. There I joined the others and waited for my turn to take a bath. Lucas was using it right now, I would be next and last.

“I’ll say it, that was the most vile thing we’ve done since we got here.” I said, taking a seat. 

“Whoever said fighting giant bugs was glorious was dead wrong.” Hugh agreed. 

“The monsters in this part of the world are notoriously nasty,” said Az. “It all has to do with the Nightmare.”

“What’s the Nightmare?” Rachel asked.

Az almost did a spit take. “You mean to say you’ve never heard of the Nightmare before?”

“Can’t say we have. What is it?”

“It was an event that took place hundreds of years ago. Are you sure you’ve never heard of it? Every culture remembers it vividly.” We all shook our heads.

“You really are from another world.” He said whimsically. He leaned forward and began his tale.

“Long ago, there was a cataclysm in the north. A dark spirit broke free of its realm, and unleashed chaos and destruction upon the world. No one knows how it got here. But everyone felt its effect.

“The first kingdoms to fall were of the humans in the north. They barely stood a chance. The next were my ancestors: the demons and the elves. The northern Wilderlands were next to go. The southern sultanate was able to distance itself, but they made heavy sacrifices. It was the apocalypse. Terrible creatures lurked in an everlasting night. People went mad and turned on each other. From there, much history is forgotten.

“Here’s what I know from my ancestor’s perspective; both elves and demons were forced to flee south, beyond the Devil’s Range and into the great desert. There, they decided that the best way to preserve our species was to intermingle. A strategy that worked handsomely, as you can see. There, my ancestors waited, too afraid to venture northward..

“By then, as it happened, the humans rebuilt themselves. You are all remarkably resilient, I’ll give you that. They led a campaign against the Nightmare, and began retaking the world for their own.

“My people stayed alive by traveling. We constantly stayed on the move. Our new blood made us stronger, better suited to adverse environments.

“It was brutal and bloody, but by now the land has been mostly purified. But there are still unnatural things out there, heavily influenced by the Nightmare. Things that refuse to go away, or stay hidden for long. These are not the first nightmares we have met.”

“The spider creatures where we found you.” I realized. They were too grotesque to be considered actual giant spiders. They were more like fear walking on eight legs. I thought of the other monstrosities we faced. Were they nightmares too?

“Exactly. They prey on the flesh and emotions of us mortals. Which is why I believe humans cling so closely to gods. Because they cannot fall to the Nightmare. They are simply following the strongest being to survive.”

“You’ve had this attitude before,” I stated, “so your people don’t believe in gods?”

“No, we believe in them. We just don’t like them very much.”

“Why not?” Lucas had just arrived from taking his bath.

“You see, my ancestors, both elves and demons, were enslaved by gods. They worked for their entire lives. They had no concept of freedom. It was only when they killed their god they were free.”

“They killed a god?” asked Lucas. “How is that possible?”

“It is difficult to say the least. But yes, gods can be slain.”

I had an idea. “Then what if we try to kill this Otomipent? Will that cure Neil?”

“We don’t know how.” Az said. “How do you kill darkness?”

“With light. But that will kill Neil.” said Lucas. And so we were back to square one.

“I think the answer is out there. In the desert.” Everyone looked at me.

“We could try to go into the desert and find his temple. Maybe that’s how we break the curse?” Eyebrows were raised. “I’m calling it a curse because I don’t know what else to call it.”

Everyone pondered. Rachel did not seem too happy at the prospect of going into the desert. “But what if he, you know, kicks the bucket?” Hugh asked. “What are the chances he wakes up outside of the game? What if that’s the way out?”

There was a lot I wanted to say just then. We needed Neil. We didn’t just need him, he was our friend. There was no way I could stand by and watch him suffer like this, even if it was just a game. I thought back to my earliest memory of Neil. 

It was my first day at a new school. I was introduced to the class by the principal. I looked around and was dismayed to see a room full of white faces. Everything my parents warned me about came rushing into my head. I was young, but I understood what it was like to be different.

I waited all day for someone to comment on the color of my skin, or the shape of my eyes, but no one did. I could feel people staring though. I wished more than ever to turn invisible.

At recess I was playing tetherball by myself. Suddenly, two boys came up. One of them challenged me to a game. It was a close game, but I would not let anyone look down on me. I broke the tie and won.

The kid looked shocked. Then he said “You think I’m good, you should see my friend over here. Come on up Neil!” Neil looked mortified. I could tell instantly that he was not a good player. He was small and scrawny. But his friend just put him on the spot. I won against him pretty easily, but he tried his best anyway.

It was then I realized that they simply wanted to play with me. It didn’t matter about winning or losing to them. They just simply enjoyed the game. 

Afterwards they joined me for reading time. They had brought their books from home and were happy to share them with me. I read The Little Prince for the first time. I went home feeling a lot better about going to school the next day.

“I cannot live with the thought that we gave up on him… we cannot risk it.” I said. It took everything to keep the tears from coming out of my eyes. Lucas nodded, also struggling to contain his emotions. Rachel and Hugh quietly gave in. Az acknowledged that this was an intimate moment and politely looked away.

Rachel broke the silence. “Some of us should stay behind and look after Neil.” She sounded like she really did not want to go into the desert. “I mean, what if the priest tries something?”

We were all aware that Brother Friedrick was still of the same opinion of “exorcizing” Neil. We had seen him following us from time to time, trying not to be seen. We constantly had someone watching Neil to make sure nothing happened.

“I’ll stay too.” said Hugh. “We can take shifts.”


We all jumped, except for Az who looked confused. It had been a while since we heard the Narrator. I was wondering where the voice was coming from, as well as who was speaking. It was another mystery we were working on.

Too many mysteries. Not enough answers. 

We spent the next day preparing, and were ready to leave the day after. We made sure to visit Neil before we left. He was as sick as ever, and showing no sign of improving. The sun was beginning to rise as we approached the oasis. We refilled our water skins and kept walking.

The grasslands became thinner and the landscape turned into the desert. I was astonished by how large it was. It felt like I was looking into the Sahara. Large dunes rose and fell like foothills far off in the distance. A heat haze simmered in the distance.

We all looked at each other. Rachel and Hugh had volunteered to stay behind. It was up to us now. There was no turning back. We walked into the desert looking for hope, not knowing what it looked like.

Submitted: August 02, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Jon Nathaniel. All rights reserved.


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Glad to see you plugging away at this, Jon. Looking forward to reading more.

Wed, August 3rd, 2022 5:40am

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