We both squint at the luminous mist that hovers before us. It looks like a cloud of tiny lanterns floating in the air. Soon it dissipates like a swarm of glowing insects flying away. We see that we are standing at the edge of a thick forest.
Ancient trees stretch away from the crinkly floor. The sun sinks down beneath their tops and light streaks through the branches in shadowy beams. Twisted roots snake through the rustling foliage and thick undergrowth and fallen trees obscure long deserted footpaths. Large boulders covered in dark green moss are scattered here and there. Everything looks peaceful.
Just then, before we even have time to discuss where we are, we hear a rustling ahead and notice the leaves of the closest bushes flickering as if something is moving in their midst.
“Stand back,” Gwynn shouts and prepares for battle.
I have no idea what's coming but I adhere to her instruction. It makes me feel like a puppy hiding in the folds of his mistress’ skirt but I still retreat a few steps and crouch down. The thick undergrowth parts and a creature emerges in the end.
At first, it looks like a deer, only its size is twice that of a regular one. Then I notice a set of wings sprouting from the beast’s back. Its front legs end in hooves, while its mighty hind ones have a set of deadly talons. The creature gives out a shrill call and I spot sharp fangs lining the inside of its blood-streaked muzzle.
“What is that?” I whisper. I focus on its stats.
Peryton, Level 6. There is only one sure way to tackle this aggressive forest dweller.
“You can't take him on your own,” I shout at Gwynn.
“Stay where you are,” she says firmly. “We haven't bound our souls anywhere yet. If you die, you’ll be sent back to Shylee Desert. We can't risk having you face those worms on your own again.”
As she speaks the creature gallops towards us, propelled forward by its massive wings that flutter by its sides.
“It will kill you too,” I manage to scream a few moments before the two of them collide.
“I've met a peryton before. I know its weak spot.”
She barely has time to finish her sentence when the peryton opens its wings even wider and charges at us. Gwynn equips her sword and shield and they glow in the sunlight, making her appear as some mystical silver goddess.
Again I'm surprised that she has so much useful inventory. I remember the satchel full of food leftovers she shared with me in the desert. If we survive this attack, I must remember to ask her where she found it along with her sword and shield and the whirlwind spell. This, and where she’s met a peryton before.
Meanwhile, Gwynn ducks and rolls out of the peryton’s way and the creature is now facing me. She attacks it from behind and digs her sword into the monster’s back. The peryton screeches, the unsettling sound reverberating painfully in my ears. Involuntarily, I bend down and cover my ears.
In the meantime, the peryton swings one of its monstrous wings and sweeps me off the ground. I fall into the dry grass with a thud and realize that I'm momentarily stunned. I can't move my body. My hands and legs feel like stone.
I'm only able to turn my eyes towards Gwynn. She's hacking away at the peryton with her sword, lunging left and right with surprising quickness, her white-blond hair flying in a cloud around her. She's trying to avoid the creature’s sharp talons as they scrape the air, aiming at her. Petrified, I watch the action, my aching head pulsing at the temples.
Thankfully, the peryton is completely focused on Gwynn for now. She plunges her sword deep into its chest and blood splatters on her silver bodysuit. She has a hard time pulling the weapon out and the peryton uses the moment to jam its talons into her shoulder. Gwynn screams and I see her HP bar depleted by a third. It wasn't full to begin with. I must do something to help her. With its health nearly intact, the peryton is currently posed to overtake her soon.
“What's the secret weak spot?” I shout while she's struggling to fight off the creature’s more insistent attacks with her shield. The peryton is pushing her towards the woods and soon I might lose sight of her as she takes step after step backward.
“The antlers,” Gwynn shouts back breathlessly.
The brief moment of distraction costs her another third of her health. She is almost dead, I realize in horror. If she goes down, there's no doubt I will follow shortly after. There's no time to waste, so I equip my rocks and start hurling them at the peryton. I notice in alarm that even when I manage to hit my target, the rocks inflict less damage on the beast than they did on the worms back in the desert.
Eventually, Gwynn drops to her knees. I only have two rocks left. Even if I score, the most damage I can cause is two health points. Pitiful.
I focus, aim as best as I can and fire. The peryton squeals and retreats a bit, wrapping it swings around its wounded head. I can’t exactly tell where I’ve hit, but I must have at least scraped its weak points.
With the last of her strength, Gwynn rises to her feet and slashes the peryton’s antlers with her sword. The creature’s health bar, nearly full a moment ago, momentarily depletes. Its monstrous body rolls dead in our feet.
I'm excited to collect the loot from our first real kill even if none of it belongs to me. At the most, I'm expecting some copper or a rusted breastplate. Instead, the dead peryton drops three gold, a helm made of some white glowing metal, and a green see-through dagger with a handle covered in green sparkling gems. Gwynn takes the money and hands me the helm and the dagger.
“I can't accept,” I say modestly, though I’m thrilled at the prospect of finally owning something to defend myself with. “You did most of the work. You should take the spoils.”
Gwynn looks at me, her eyes half-closed from exhaustion, and smiles weakly.
“You'll be more useful next time if you have something to attack with,” she says.
I can't believe her generosity but it's not the first time she has demonstrated this unusual trait. I don't have time to wonder if she has a back motive. I accept the items and they appear in my inventory.
Item: Northwind Emerald Dagger. This wickedly sharp blade produces a torrent of wind around its wielder that massively speeds up his/her attack.
Item: Fairy Frost Helm. +7 armor. Fairies have crafted this protective helm out of frozen dew and imbued it with high defensive properties.
My jaw almost drops when I see what I’ve got. The peryton was a worthy enough enemy at this level but it’s nowhere nearly as special to be dropping such valuable items. Or so I’ve gathered from my second-hand knowledge about Oceania.
Gwynn is too weak and I know that she won’t last long without food. I realize that the Challenge is a competition and I shouldn't be helping my opponents but she has saved my life twice already and given me my first items, so I resolve to help her even if we part ways afterward.
I throw her on my back and though the additional load is even more taxing on my health, I carry her into the forest. A quick glance at my HP bar tells me I only have 17% Health left, while Gwynn’s is at 4%. While checking her health, I’m astonished to see she’s just gained another level since slaying the peryton.
Invisible birds screech in the dense canopy overhead and rabbits scuttle amid the bushes around us as we go deeper into the woods. Dry branches snap under my bare feet and crackly ferns scour my flesh, but I don’t stop. In the corner of my eye, I spot clusters of ripe berries hanging from the leafy bushes and briefly wonder if they have any health-restoring properties but I decide not to waste time checking. They might just as well be poisonous.
The only positive thing in this moment of crisis is that my map has enlarged and now includes a wide swath of forest. It shows up as Cedarmist Woods. I notice that the lights we first spotted when we entered The Lost Gate have reappeared and have arranged themselves in a thin line guiding our way into the forest’s depths like a string of Christmas lights.
We follow along and finally reach a clearing where a stone arch stands tall. As far as I can see, there’s just more forest behind it. A notification screen pops up in front of me and I understand I must be wrong.
Welcome to Waterwhisper! To proceed, please enter key.
There’s no information about what Whaterwhisper is, but I guess we want to go there if it’s a password-protected area. I close the window and inspect the arch. A riddle is etched on a stone plate right on top of the arch. I take a moment to study it.
I suspect the answer is the key I need to provide in order to move forward. Only, just like with the first one, there are no instructions, clues or explanations. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing here.
I gently lay Gwynn on the mossy ground at the foot of the arch. Her eyes are closing. I realize she's too weak to help me with the puzzle this time. With what’s left of my strength, I must solve it on my own or lose her.
My brain has turned to mush from exhaustion. I can tell that the riddles increase in difficulty as I progress through the game. I had a hard time with the previous one, so what chance do I have of solving this one on such short notice?
I start tinkering with the stone plate, touching the word on top and the obscure letters below and running my finger along the empty spaces. I quickly find that the letters in FAIRY are again stone cubes that come out and fit neatly into the empty slots at the beginning and end of the incomplete words below. However, it doesn’t take much brains to see I have five stone cubes and ten empty slots.
I’m so concentrated on the riddle, I barely register the faint rapping that reaches me as if from another world. Tap, tap, tap. Like gentle rain drumming on a window. I realize the sound does indeed come from another world.
Someone is knocking on my Pod’s door.
It must be Freya, but I can’t sign out of the game just yet. I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent here already. If I leave now, Gwynn will surely be left to die on her own.
Just a few more minutes, I tell myself and ignore the knock. My attention goes back to the riddle. I can’t spend any more time ruminating. My health has dropped to 7% from carrying Gwynn. I decide to just try something rather than wait for inspiration to strike.
I grab the first cube with the letter F carved on its front and shove it into the first empty slot. Apparently, it’s the wrong move, because the cube just flies out and lands back into its original place back in FAIRY.
I don’t give up and repeat the same thing with the next slots. When I reach _luf_, the cube sinks obediently into the first one. To my disappointment, an identical cube with the letter F sprouts back at the start of FAIRY.
I take the new one and push it into the end of fluf_. The word “fluff” starts glowing and disappears from the list. No new cube appears.
I’ve discovered the rule! I need words that start and end with the same letter.
I quickly glance at Gwynn. Her HP is now at 1%. I’m losing her.
The rapping on my Pod’s door doesn’t go away and grates at my subconscious, becoming more insistent. It’s so hard to focus.
I shake my head and concentrate on the words, trying to block everything else away.
Aria, yesterday, incubi, roar.
My fingers are shaking by the time the last cube is in its proper slot. My vision has become blurry and my health has dropped even more. It looks like solving riddles exhausts me.
Congratulations, Finn! You have gained access to Waterwhisper. This is a sacred Fairies’ Dwelling. Proceed with a clean intention and an open heart.
I barely pay attention to the notification. Instead, I grab Gwynn’s barely conscious body and rush through the arch. The next thing I know, everything fades to black.
Crap! I wasn’t fast enough. I’ve died.
I’m so mad at myself for failing both Gwynn and myself that I sign out of the game before I’ve even materialized back in the stone circle of Shylee Desert.