Finn sat upright on the bed. It was a large one, luckily as Sam and he had to share it. There were more rooms available, but only one of them was ready to be used. The others dusty and some even mouldy. And it wasn’t like Finn minded it either. Neither did Sam, for that matter. It was nice to be able to spend an evening cuddling and talking and just enjoying some peace and each other. Especially after how hectic the last few days and weeks had been.
“Do you think everything will be alright with her?” Sam asked she had been worried about Jennifer since they arrived. Finn felt the same. When they arrived Jennifer had woken up for a short time, but all she did was screaming in agony and pain. So Thomas had ensorceled her to fall asleep again. Then he took her to a room with Oswald, to treat her. Oswald had shown them their room a bit later.
“I think so, I mean, they didn’t look concerned right? More like this was something to be expected. So that means she will get better I think.”
“Or perhaps they don’t care about it, or are desensitized by living in this world.” Sam bit on her lip as she looked with worried eyes at Finn. “I don’t know if I am sure about all of this anymore Finn. I mean, the things we can do, the magic. It is all amazing. But the stress and fear…. I don’t know if I can take this. Not daily, not like these last few days.”
“I know, it was rough, but we pulled through and-”
“No Finn, we almost died, multiple times. I thought I was going to die, Finn, I thought I was going to lose you, lose my family. The fear, the anxiety and stress that comes with that. I can’t take that Finn, not day after day.”
Finn tried to give a supporting smile but deep down he felt the same, he was exhausted, mentally he was entirely spent. He gently rubbed her back and Sam leaned onto his chest, holding him. “I know, I… I can’t either. But, I don’t think we can just go back to our old lives, Sam. And act like nothing of this ever happened.”
Finn couldn’t answer that, not really. So he just remained quiet and held her. Holding each other, they found the support they needed to heal a bit mentally. The silence allowing both of them to put things back into place in their heads, putting it in perspective, pushing it down, out of mind. And once they were calm enough Finn stood up.
“What are you going to do?” Sam asked.
“Well, we are in a castle, why not walk around and take a look?” Finn said with a smile. “I’m sure it’ll be pretty, and calming.”
Sam smiled and stood up as well. “You’re right, it looked nice when we came in. Hugging the cliff wall, hidden behind the trees on all sides.”
Together they started to explore the small castle, which was more a keep or reinforced mansion than an actual castle. Their room was part of a four-room building, that at some point perhaps served as stables or barracks but was redone. The rooms were small but large enough to serve as comfortable personal space. The building stood perpendicular with a larger building that served as a sort of main hall. It was a large room that looked like it was a commons room, with places to eat and relax. A large hearth stood empty near the centre of the back wall. From here there was a large door leading back out to the courtyard, and to the small rooms, a door leading into the parts of the keep that sat inside of the cliff wall and a door that led to a wide tower. The tower was what housed the Master’s quarters, and they were not to enter it for now. So they didn’t. They walked back outside, and into the only other building there, opposite of their chambers, with the courtyard in between was another building that looked like it had been stables at some point. Now it served as a stockpile. Crates and vats and chests, some of them locked, all of them seemingly filled to the brim. With food, clothes, tools and many things neither of them recognized. Although Finn could sense a soft sensation with some of them, something he now knew meant they had a magical aspect to their nature. Sam, so far, hadn’t gotten that ability yet. The courtyard and the buildings were tightly hugged by a wall with a small gatehouse. They found a ladder behind their rooms that led up onto the wall and strolled over it. The view was nice although limited by the thick woods all around the keep. After enjoying the sounds and smells of the woods for a while, they returned back inside the main hall, intent on exploring the parts that were submerged into the hill itself. And just as they opened the door, they were greeted by Jennifer’s screaming again. Her voice pierced them, filled entirely with pain and agony seemingly. Their lightened mood darkened again rather quickly.
“Should we go and see if we can help?” Finn asked, uncertain.
Sam looked at him, it was clear that she did not want to, but eventually, she nodded.
Finn hesitated again but decided they should go and see if they could help. Jennifer saved them after all. But before either of them could take a step, Oswald appeared in front of them, smiling as he pushed them back and closed the door behind him.
“There is no need for you to go there.”
“Oh, but maybe we can help, we thought we could come and-”
“No,” Oswald lifted up his hand to silence them. “There is nothing you can do, Master Thomas has it all under control. Jennifer’s healing is coming along nicely and that is why we have woken her up again. It will hurt, but it’s nothing she can’t handle. And it is better to have her conscious for the next part.”
“Why? What is the next part?” Finn asked.
Oswald smiled. “Ever so curious, I can see why master likes you. Well, you’ll have to ask master Thomas or Jennifer later, I am not very well versed in the arcane. But the process of curing spell rot takes multiple steps. And the last steps are taken best by the person suffering from the rot themselves. That is all I know I am afraid.”
“Ah, okay, we can ask them later,” Finn said, a bit disappointed.
“Yes, but master has sent me here to talk with you two.”
“About what?” Sam asked.
“Well, about you two,” Oswald said with a chuckle. “You are going to have to make a choice, and it is better to make an educated choice. So I am going to talk with you a bit, about our world, you two, life. And mine. Maybe you can take some lessons from that.”
They both smiled at Oswald, uncertain on how to react, or what to do. So Oswald took charge putting a hand on their shoulders and guiding them to the hall.
He guided them to a small table with three seats around it, setting them down. Then he left and came back with some tea, pouring three cups.
“Herbal, it will soothe you,” He said. “And well, let’s be honest. There isn’t anything as nice as a good cup of tea after what we have gone through.” He winked at them and then sat down, taking a sip from his tea.
“So,” He finally said. “Have you thought about my master’s proposal already?”
“Yes,” Finn said. “We did talk about it a little. But,” He hesitated.
“But, we aren’t really sure Oswald,” Sam picked up.
“Not sure about what?”
“About this world, this life,” Sam said as she waved her hands around the room. “These last few days have been… rough and hard on us. And I, we, aren’t sure if we can take this.”
“Not at this pace and intensity in any case,” Finn added.
Oswald nodded as he listened to them. “I understand, I felt the same way in the beginning, believe me. But it is something that does get better. The danger remains, don’t get me wrong. But you’ll get stronger, more resilient and flexible. And you’ll grow used to it as well, for a part. After a while, it becomes mundane almost. Just a part of your day.”
“I do believe this is all ‘just another day’ for Jennifer and you, but Finn and I can’t take this. This will never be just another day for us.”
“Well, you know how Jennifer started out, right? How her friends got murdered by the Angels?” Finn nodded, he had told the story to Sam in the meantime as well.
“She was no different than any of you back then, but she pushed through it all, and now she is a pretty strong Player. There is nothing that says it will be different for you.”
“But we are not like her Oswald!” Sam said, she started to sound desperate.
“Oh, but you are. You two don’t give yourself enough credit. You are both survivors, tough nuts to crack. Most other people would be dead by now. Or at least very close to it. Both of you survived though.”
“Yeah, thanks to you though,” Finn said.
“Yes, but even with our help and intervention, most would be dead. Master sending Jennifer and me out to find you were a wild gamble. It paid off, but it would be only worth it to apprentice you if it paid off.”
Sam and Finn looked horrified at that.
“I know how it sounds, but this is a rough world. You can’t afford to spend energy on things that aren’t worth it. In a way, master sending us out to catch you was borderline stupid. He has spent a lot of time and energy in teaching and guiding us, and he almost lost us. Taking in weak apprentices is not something any master would do. But both of you have proven yourself, so be happy. You have an incredible opportunity now, in joining us.”
“Yes, we do understand that, but we are just not sure if we want to join you.”
“I know,” Oswald said as he leaned back into his chair. “And that is why I want to tell you my story. It is a bit different from Jennifer’s. And I made the mistake you are about to make, or well. I was forced to make it.”
“What?” They both asked together.
“Let me explain,” Oswald said with a smile, and then started to talk.
“I was a bit older than you when I first awoke. Twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine. I awoke after seeing my mother use magic and skills. I confronted her about it, and she tried to play it off as me going crazy at first. Trying to make me forget it. I knew what I saw though, and I pushed on. After a while, she gave in and showed me how to open the system for the first time. She gave me an introduction, a very brief one, and told me to never tell anybody else, and to not use it at all. My father didn’t know about it and neither did my sister. Of course, I didn’t listen. Like you, I was amazed. I was curious. I wanted to find out all about it. How it worked, what I could do, what the limits where. I tried doing it in secret first, but she quickly caught on to that. Especially on anything magical. So I quickly left magic alone. Instead, I focussed on the skills. I started to get away from home, spent as much time alone, so I could learn about the system. She knew what I was doing, but she was seemingly okay with it as long as I did it not at home. I never really knew why but never really cared about it either. But I should have.”
Oswald paused, his eyes gloomily, looking into the distance. A memory clearly disturbing him. Then he continued on as Finn and Sam listened intently.
“I found out why. My mother was busy with… specific stuff. Things… that have no place in the world, mundane or Player. My magical exploration messed with that. When I found out about it… it was clear to me that my mom was insane. She acted normal to us, my family and me. But she wasn’t normal anymore, not by a far stretch. I don’t know when she awoke, but I assume it had been after she birthed me and my sisters. I thought it might have been after my oldest sister had died. But I was wrong.”
His voice got gloomy and soft now.
“My mother was obsessed with the demon kin, and how they were used by the system. She had always been interested in the occult. A religious type, but into worshipping all the bad kinds. Demons, Satans, devils. That sort of stuff. She loved folklore and unholy religions. My father brushed it off as an odd interest, to my sisters and I, it was never more than an odd quirk of our mother. But the system, it gave her demons. Real demons. One’s she could interact with. One’ she could summon. She studied them, tried to communicate with them. And she succeeded. It corrupted her, changed her. By the time I found out about the system, she was already too far gone. I got interested in what she was doing eventually, started to spy on her. And I learned that my mother had turned into a monster.”
Oswald was quiet for a moment. He looked hurt. Deeply hurt.
“I learned she was the reason my sister had died. Tried to use her soul to summon and bind a high-level demon to her will. My sister’s soul was consumed, but the demon was not bound. She had been barely able to kill it. And just like that, she had wasted the life of my sister. She did not grief, not really. Only the charade my family got every day. Instead, she started planning anew, working on new spells and rituals, ones to use my other sister’s soul as a sacrifice. I was grossed out. I detested her. Hated her. How could my own mother be like this? Do these things. I tried telling my dad, he laughed at me first, and when I insisted, said I was going crazy. I tried telling my sister, but she acted the same way. I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to my local church, to the confession. To ask for guidance. Even if it was from a priest, perhaps he could help me. This is what they used to do, I thought, help and guide people with their advice. I didn’t really believe in God back then, or that their advice would be divine. But advice is advice regardless, and if you are in business for long enough, you are bound to get good at it. Or so I thought.”
A tear rolled over Oswald’s cheek.
“Going to that priest was the best thing I ever did. I only wish I had done it sooner. The priest, as it turned out, was a Player as well. A disciple of God, like I am now. He listened to me, did not judge me or condemn me to be crazy. That alone meant the world to me, you have to remember I was basically alone, my mother stonewalling me in my progression as well. I had nobody to talk about this with. But he did more, he took me seriously. He knew the symptoms my mother had, the course this would run. It was rare, but it happened. He called it being “open to evil”. Something that happens to a small percentage of the Players, making them open to manipulation by the forces of Evil. By the demonkin. This manipulation, it is subtle, it goes slow. But it increases, builds up, grows exponentially. And eventually, you become rotten to your core. Like my mother had. It can be reverted, to a certain point. But my mother was too far gone. She had taken the life of one of her own children. She was entirely corrupted, a puppet of the devil. The priest told me we had to act quick, and confront my mother. Before she would harm me, or my family. He gathered two choir boys, in their late teens. Two Players as well. Disciples as well. And we headed for my home.”
Oswald stopped, his hands shaking. Tears welling up from his eyes. His voice broke and it took a few tries before he could continue.
“We came too late. We found my father first, in the living room. He was strung up, ropes tied around his wrists and ankles. He hung in the air, the ropes going to the ceiling or the floor. His stomach was cut open and she had gutted him. His entrails spread out on the living room floor, in the middle of some sort of ritual circle. I vomited, and as the others were about to bring him down, we heard the screams. My sister. It came from the attic and we rushed up there. On the first floor, we were stopped by… by a thing. It was hideous. A monstrosity. It looked like an amorphous blob of flesh and slime. Some parts were translucent. It had several mouths and eyes and… faces. It gurgled and tried to speak. Sounds came from it, but nothing any of us understood. It attacked and almost killed one of the choir boys. It had these short, soft-looking appendages, but it could push out long, metallic spikes from it. The spikes could bend as well, piercing and cutting with the sharpest point you can imagine. The priest knew what it was I think, or at least, he knew how to get rid of it. Killing it with a single working. We pushed further up, but the screams of my sister had stopped by now. The fight had taken only a minute or two. Nothing more.”
Oswald’s voice was breaking again. But he pushed on.
“We found her, dead as well. A cut running from her throat to below her belly button, she was spread out in a circle much like the one that was near my father, only this one was larger. More complex as well. On the other side of the circle was my mother, her eyes wide, crazed. She clearly was gone, chuckling, mumbling that she finally did it. I lost it at that point. I screamed, I was enraged. I charged her, I was so furious I did not even think to use the system. I just wanted to beat her, and keep beating her. I wanted to see her blood, see her dead. I was dumb, and before I knew it I was laying on the floor. My mother was still chuckling, but next to her stood… a demon. Something like you’ve never seen before, and children I pray you never will either. Compared to that hellions and scamps and scions are nothing. No, this was a devil, it was intelligent too. It enjoyed being here. It enjoyed hurting. It had swathed me, with the back of its hand, or whatever you would call it. The priest and choir boys attacked it, together. With Scripture and Skills, but in ten heartbeats one of the choir boys was dead, his head torn off. Another five beats and the other one fell down next to me, his stomach torn open by one of the thing’s claws. He had healed himself a little. I tried to help, but there was nothing I could do, I knew neither Grammerie or Scripture back then. All I could do was support him and watch the priest fight.”
Oswald took another sip and got a gloomy glaze in his eyes. After a short pause, he continued, his voice soft now.
“I don’t know how long the fight took. Back then it felt like ages, even now, when I go back over it, it feels like it lasted an eternity. But I am sure it took less than two minutes. The priest and that thing were simply too powerful, a battle like that does not last long, one mistake and the other one kills you in a battle like that. The devil made one, the priest slew it. And then he burned its soul, for they have one. Remember that, not many Players know. After the devil, he killed my mother too. She was laughing and crying, mad entirely. He wasted not a single second and disposed of her. And with that, my entire family was gone. Dead.”
Oswald was softly crying now, not making a move or sound but the tears rolled across his cheek without any shame. Neither Finn nor Sam knew what to say or to do.
“If you learn anything from my tale children, let it be that this world. Our reality now, it is not meant for normal folk. It will only get them killed. My story is a gruesome one, but every other Player out there that remained with theirs has a tale similar to mine. Sometimes it was demons, sometimes other Players. Some Players go mad themselves and kill them, others create an accident and take away all they love. But in all my years in this world, I have never met a Player that still had their family. Either they left them behind, or they lost them to this new life. Please, think of that as you make your call.”
Oswald stood up and they heard footsteps coming closer.
“Please, you family,” Oswald took on an iron glare. “They deserve better than that. They have lives, normal lives. Do not taint them as I did. You will never be able to forgive yourselves.”