You stand before a massive body of water: a great lake. The sky is overcast and everything is so misty around you that you can only see about thirty yards in any direction. Behind you, a dense coniferous tree-line forms an ominous barrier.
You remove your shoes. You stand on small, wet stones worn so smooth you believe they might be the most comfortable thing you’ve ever stood on. The water of the lake gently laps against the shoreline. The lake’s surface is so still, it seems more like a mirror to another world than a body of water.
You came here to bathe in the lake with your soul, but you've become distracted.
You notice a figure in the mist, farther down the shoreline to your right; it looks like they’re waving to you.
“Don’t bother,” a voice over your shoulder says, causing you to startle forward. “Sorry,” the woman says. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” A brief pause. “Don’t bother, they’ll only disappoint you.”
You ignore the pessimistic woman and walk down the misty shoreline toward the figure beckoning to you. As you approach, it becomes clear that the figure is another woman. She lowers her beckoning arm and smiles at you.
“I’m so glad you came to me. I was worried when I saw you talking to the other one. She’s a bit of bore.”
You shift uncomfortably, thinking of something to say. Before you can, the woman continues:
“Say, you came here to bathe in the Lake, didn’t you? How long can you hold your breath?”
You tell the woman you think you can hold your breath for a minute. Slowly, her brow scrunches down and she frowns.
“So you’re a realist,” she says, putting venomous backing on the final word. “Maybe I was wrong about you. You and that pessimistic hag back there would make a perfect pair.” The woman huffs off farther down the shoreline and disappears into the mist.
You stand, stunned, and look out at the lake. Its surface is still, without a ripple. The reflections on the water appear as though you view them through frosted glass, muddled by the heavy fog in the air.
You take a deep breath and exhale, watching it turn to vapor in the crisp air. This isn’t going the way you thought it would.
Putting both of the strange women out of mind, you cuff up your pants and step into the Lake. The sensation is…odd. On first touch, the water is frigid — yet almost immediately the lake water feels at one with your skin, like the air on perfect Autumn day when it is difficult to discern where you end and the air around you begins.
Your soul emerges.
They speak, “We’ve come a long way, you and I, to the shores of this Great Lake. Let us bathe in the waters.”
You wade forward, but your soul stops.
They speak, “You cannot bathe in your clothes, because that is not your true self…at least not in this place. You must disrobe if hope to find what it is we seek.”
You listen to your soul. You step out of the lake and remove your clothes. You glance around, worried that another odd person will suddenly appear and strike up conversation, but there is no one around — everything is quiet, at peace.
Your clothes folded neatly and away from water, you step back into the lake up past your ankles. You wait a moment for your soul to emerge…but nothing happens. The silence and stillness of the lake — the absence of animals, wind, any sense of change at all — is at once calming and unnerving. You think to yourself that you must have become too familiar with the din and chaos of life that the stillness unnerves you so. You find it strange, yet welcome, that you do not feel cold standing naked in the lake.
Leaning forward, you see a faint light beneath the water. Slowly it grows until it appears the size of a pumpkin. There must be something beneath the surface…
You reach your hand below the water’s surface. You stretch…stretch, and yet touch nothing. You pull your hand above the water and examine it — no silt, no mud, no anything — as dry as before you submerged it. Stranger still, based on where your feet currently rest your hand should have at least been able to touch the lake bed.
You reach your hand down again, this time leaning farther and farther forward until you must turn your head sideways to avoid plunging it beneath the surface. In doing so, your ear briefly falls beneath the waterline and…you hear the most beautiful sound. Surprised, more than anything, you recoil and stand up straight. You look around to make sure no passerby has appeared to gawk at your naked body from the shoreline. Thankfully, no one is around. Everything is still, calm, quiet.
Slowly, you bend down and lower your ear beneath the water. A beautiful sound, what can best be described as music, fills your head. It’s intoxicating. How can this be?
An unexpected petrification infects your ability to choose. You think about calling out to your soul for help, but decide against it as they did not answer the last time. You then think of submerging your head to look around for the light’s source, but stop short. Finally, you almost throw caution to the wind and dive below the waves, but catch and stop yourself before committing.
As you do, however, you lose your balance on the suddenly slippery lake bed and tumble backwards into the water. You struggle and thrash in your confusion, failing to notice you’ve fallen deep beneath the lake’s surface. Briefly you wonder how this is possible, as you were standing only shin-deep a few moments ago, but the clarity brought by your situation quickly overtakes your senses. You look around — the light’s source is nowhere to be seen and the music you heard before is no longer audible.
The petrification you felt standing above the lake returns, this time with greater severity. Something inside you is whispering for you to hold your breath and sink lower, but the rising terror of drowning is screaming at you to swim as fast as you can to the surface.
There is no way out. Your future or your demise may lie above or below you, but one thing is for sure — if you remain here you will surely perish.
The panic wins out and you rush toward the surface. You swim and you swim, and while the light from the surface grows brighter, you do not yet emerge. The air in your lungs begins to stale, and your innards strain from a sensation of building pressure. The struggle soon works its way up as whimpering grunts, the last vestiges of your attempts to cling to the concept of oxygen.
Your vision begins to tunnel…
You resign yourself to blacking out…
Your head bursts above the lake’s surface. You clamber onto the smooth, rocky shore. You cough for two moments longer than you feel is necessary, and then you feel…cold.
You look up and see a landscape covered in snow. It’s the same terrain as before, but now under completely different weather conditions. Snowflakes drift downward in a lazy, yet straight, trajectory.
You walk with some difficulty to where you left your clothes…but find nothing. You frantically dig through the snow, but quickly give up — there is nothing to be found and the cold bites at your fingers. You stand in the cold and shiver.
You turn to your left, somehow feeling optimistic about your situation, and walk up the snowy shoreline. It’s cold, but you’re thankful there is no wind to speak of — there is a comfort to be found in the stillness around you.
With your arms wrapped around your naked body for warmth you trudge forward for several minutes until the shoreline bends to the right. You turn the corner and spot a heavy-looking poncho on an outstretched tree limb. You quickly approach and reach to feel it. The poncho is warm, thick, and dry.
The thought of wrapping yourself in the poncho is too much to resist, so you snatch it from the tree limb and hurl it over your head. Instantly you feel warm, dry, and safe.
As soon as you don the garment, you notice a woman sitting on a rock outstretched into the lake farther up the shoreline. It’s difficult to make out, but it seems as though she’s speaking to someone. You walk up the shoreline in her direction.
As you near, she notices you and turns your direction. She seems to be fully clothed and prepared for the weather; you doubt the poncho you’re wearing belongs to her. You can't tell if it's one of the women you met before or not.
“Stop right there!” she says. You freeze (metaphorically). “Don’t come any closer!”
You stop short — your poncho lays motionless against your body in the still air. You shout back, “who are you talking to?”
The woman doesn’t respond immediately. She turns her head over her shoulder as if she’s listening to someone behind her. After a moment she faces you and responds, “you’re not going to trick me! Leave me alone, Demon!”
Suddenly, your soul appears.
“You can’t help her,” they say. “Best to leave a mad woman to her mad ways.” Before you have a chance to respond, your soul continues: “Where did you get that poncho? I thought I told you you can’t bathe with clothes on.”
“Go away!” the woman on the rock shouts at you.
Overwhelmed by the cacophony of activity, you take a moment to center yourself. This isn’t what you came here for.
“Where the hell have you been?” you ask your soul. “I needed you earlier. I almost drowned!”
“I’ve been here the whole time. You were never in any real danger.”
“It didn’t feel like it. I’d appreciate it if you’d answer the next time I call on you.”
The woman on the rock interrupts, “who are you talking to?”
“Ignore her,” your soul says. “Didn’t I tell you to take that poncho off?”
You tell the woman on the rock that you’re speaking with your soul. She hesitates briefly, glancing over her shoulder, before turning back to you. “Your soul? I’m speaking with mine too.”
Your soul hovers over your shoulder and whispers in your ear. “Don’t listen to her. There’s something foul about all of this.”
“Is it speaking to you now? I can’t see or hear it. Is it the same with you to mine?” You nod your head, affirming that you cannot see or hear the woman’s soul. She whirls her head back as though someone is speaking behind her. “Leave me alone! Give me a second to think!”
Your soul edges in closer. “She’s going mad, can’t you see. Come away, leave her in peace. And for the last time, take the damned poncho off!”
You ignore your soul and approach the woman on the rock. As you clamber atop, the woman’s garments catch your notice: a tattered, hooded poncho with what must have once been a beautiful, geometric pattern. The rips in the cloth appear as though they were torn by hand…did the woman do this to herself?
“I said let me think!” The woman hunches over with hands on her head. She doesn’t seem to immediately notice you.
“Hey there,” you begin.
The woman looks up. “Are you real?”
“I think so.”
“What is your soul telling you to do?”
You wait, expecting for your soul to barge in, but silence remains. “What my soul is telling me to do?”
“Yes, -I said shut up!-…yes, what has your soul been telling you to do? Please, tell me.”
You deliberate. The woman asked — no pleaded — for you to share what your soul has been telling you. Should you mention your soul’s obsession with the poncho you found? No, not that. Maybe you should be up front and tell her your soul thinks she’s mad and to leave her alone. You almost say this, but refrain at the last moment. You can’t make up your mind!
You look back at the woman, and freeze.
Standing behind her, a hunched creature with beady eyes rests a hand on her shoulder. Tucks protrude from its mouth, curving up and out from its jaw, reminiscent of a Japanese oni. Its wiry body makes you uncomfortable; its spine is clearly visible through its flesh and the arch of its spine — the top of which is facing you due to its extreme curve — makes your skin crawl.
It doesn’t seem like it realizes you can see it… yet.
You can’t resist. Perhaps it’s your curiosity, or perhaps it’s fear. You raise your finger toward the creature standing behind the woman and say, “what is that?”
The creature’s expression remains unchanged except for its beady gaze — its eyes are now focused on you.
The woman hesitates before speaking, “Y-you can see it? You can see my soul?”
“That’s your soul!?” you say without thinking.
“Now that you say it…” — the creature’s hand tightens on the woman’s shoulder — “…it doesn’t feel right, does it…” — the creature’s gaze turns back to the woman — “…maybe this, thing, isn’t…”
The creature emits a snarl and a piercing screech. It grabs the woman around the waist and pulls her over the rock’s edge into the lake below.
You gasp and rush forward, peering into the water for some sign of the woman. Your soul appears and places a hand on your shoulder. “It’s best that we’re rid of her. I told you something was off. We’d best leave this place while we still can.”
The hand on your shoulder feels suddenly weighty, as though the dread of your internal inquiry is density made manifest. You turn, slowly, to examine your soul.
To your surprise, a fair, beaming face smiles down at you. “What’s wrong?” your soul asks. Your heart begins to pound and you don’t know why. Your soul’s mouth twists downward in disgust, no…in disappointment? “I see. Now that you’ve seen one of us, the spell is broken.” You feel its hand tighten on your shoulder. “I told you we should have left.”
Your soul’s features slowly begin to change; its fair face turns deathly pale, its forehead contorts outward, and two long tusks sprout up from within its mouth.
“I told you to ignore her…” — its hand tightens further — “…I told you not to listen…” — its beady gaze makes you feel like prey — “…I told you she was mad.”
Trapped against the Great Lake’s edge, you feel utterly helpless. The demon grabs you around the waist, emits a snarl and a piercing screech, and —
— the creature’s skin begins to boil.
“What is this!?” It releases you and stumbles toward the rock’s edge. Realization descends upon the demon. “The poncho! I told you to take off—“. Its words devolve into a blood-curdling howl. It covers its melting face with its now bony hands before tumbling backward into lake.
You peer over the edge, yet again, speechless as you watch the boiling water slowly subside.
You’ve pushed your luck as far as it will bend, you feel, and you desire to leave this location (one which you fear will blossom into a minor trauma). Stepping from the rock, you continue your journey up the shoreline.
You pull the hood of your poncho and watch as snowflakes fall. Your thoughts return to your “soul.” Was it always a demon? Your memory is hazy on the time leading up to your arrival at the Great Lake. You came here to bathe in the waters with your soul. That was your goal. Where did it all go wrong? Are souls even real? Or is yours trapped somewhere, likely to some grand scheme of the demons that seem to haunt these shores? You search your mind for answers, but none materialize.
In the distance, a shout shakes you from your thoughts: “Help! Someone help me!”
Abandoning caution, you rush toward the cries for help. You scramble up a snowy, tree-covered hill and look out over a new section of the lake’s shoreline. Below, a human and a demon are grappling with one another; the longer you watch, you realize that it’s more accurate to say the demon is strangling the human.
You rush down the hill at full speed — you have a newfound confidence after your near-death experience with your own “soul.” In your haste to reach level ground, you shift your focus from navigating the downslope to the fight beyond… which was a mistake. You misjudge a step and slip, tumbling forward, kicking clouds of snow into the air.
Adrenaline coursing through your body, you recover quickly. However, the demon has noticed you; it’s difficult to discern the expression on its face. It ignores you for the moment and continues assaulting the human, who it has pinned to the ground with its claws around their neck. The human appears to be reaching for something, but what you cannot tell.
You press forward, unsure exactly what you plan to do. The one thing you do know is your resolve to help the human under attack. As you near the struggling pair, you decide to leap onto the demon’s back… but at the last moment decide it would be better to see whatever it is the human seems to be grasping for.
It’s a good thought, but your body doesn’t respond as quickly. You refrain from leaping, but your momentum continues carrying you onward. Slick ground prevents you gaining the traction necessary to spin around the demon. Like a steam-train out of control, you helplessly barrel forward.
You hit the demon hard, losing all sense of space and place. Snow clouds your vision and the world momentarily goes dark.
Things are quiet.
You pull yourself from the snow as quickly as you can and manically look around. The human is still on the ground and seems to be fumbling with something. The demon… where is the demon? You turn around. There! The demon is behind you, struggling to its feet. Its eyes are now fixed on you. In no time, it’s back up and rushing to meet you.
You stand your ground. The poncho you wear seemed to trigger “your” demon’s flesh to boil when it touched you. You trust a similar outcome to happen if this one touches you.
It’s fast! Like a blur, the pale creature is upon you before you can think. White, oily hair flops across you as a wiry hand grips you around your waist and lifts you off the ground. You stare into its golden, hate-filled, eyes as it snarls in your face. Any second now… it will boil.
Its grip tightens on your waist and you feel something crack. Pain shoots up your spine and down your legs. The demon grasps your throat with its other hand and begins to squeeze.
Why isn’t the poncho working?
Your vision tunnels. The pain grows until you become numb. This is it, isn’t it?
A muffled howl pierces the air and you drop to the snow-covered ground. Your vision returns and you see that the human has pulled a poncho, what must be their poncho, over the demon’s face from behind. Just like yours did before, the demon’s flesh begins to melt. It crumples to the ground and soon is nothing but a messy pile of sludge and black bones.
You lay back in the snow and close your eyes.
No time like the present, you think to yourself, and move to stand. As you gain your footing, a sharp pain rockets through your side. You grimace and move more slowly to manage the pain.
“Whoa! Take it easy, there,” the human calls out to you. It’s a woman’s voice… in fact it sounds like the optimistic woman you encountered when you arrived at the Great Lake. She rushes over to you and helps you finish getting to your feet. “You okay?”
“I should ask you the same,” you reply. She doesn’t seem to recognize you.
“I’m okay, thanks to you. I thought that thing had me. Not sure I could’ve reached my poncho without your help.” She looks you up and down. “Looks like you’ve got one of your own. Handy little face-melters, aren’t they?”
“I thought so, but mine didn’t save me from,” you wince and gesture across your torso, “this.”
“We shouldn’t stay out here in the open. No telling if there are more of them roaming around. I’ve got a camp back in the woods. Come with me — we’ll get you patched up and try to make sense of things together.”
The optimistic woman trudges through the snow, away from the lake and toward the tree-line. She turns when she notices you’re not following.
“Come on! We need to get out of here.”
“Not until we have a chance to talk,” you reply. “Something weird is going on here. Do you not recognize me?”
The woman stands silent for a moment of genuine thought, searching through some memory deep within. “No,” she replies, uncertainty creaking in her voice. “Should I?” Her expression turns to one of concern and she takes two steps toward you.
“We’ve met before. When I first arrived. Before I dove into the lake.”
“You went into the lake!?” she says with no attempt to hide her shock. “I didn’t know that was possible!”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
A blood-curdling howl reverberates across the shoreline. The woman, alert and bent forward, casts her gaze over your shoulder to the distance. You turn. On the ridge in the distance stand two demons, one hunched on all fours, the other standing upright, looking like some misshapen, black bear.
“Come on! We don’t have time! We have to run!”
A faint voice reaches your ears, like an echo over a great distance yet in a whisper told between childhood friends. You can barely make out what it says: “Come to me. I’ve been searching for you. I can help. This realm is dangerous, you won’t last long. Come to me, quickly.” The voice is coming from the lake.
The demons charge.
“Come on!” the woman barks. “This way!”
You pause briefly, looking toward the lake, but are shaken loose of hesitation as the hound-like sounds of charging demons emanate across the snowfield. You turn and run after the woman into the woods as quickly as you can.
Shin-high snow drifts make running difficult, but the woman seems to know which paths to take to avoid the worst of it. You run at a steady pace for several minutes, carving deeper into the forest. Even when you feel you’ve outrun the demons and can stop, the woman continues ahead at full-steam; you trust she knows what she’s doing and follow suit.
“Down here,” she calls as she slides down a steep, concave hillside leading to a frozen stream. You cross your arms and mimic her descent. With remarkable speed, she crosses to the other side before you even reach the base of the hill. You scramble to your feet and see her tersely beckoning you forward.
You hear a howl and snarl from straight above. The demons have managed to keep up with you the whole time! Do they know I’m down here?
You stare up and see the warm vapor pouring from their tusked mouths. They can’t see you from where you currently stand at the base of the incline. The woman has hidden herself among the winter brush across the stream, but is still beckoning you to hurry over to her.
You press yourself up against the sheer hillside and look up at the steaming breath flowing over the lip above. You look over at where the woman hid in the brush across the creek. She’s still ever-so-slightly beckoning you, but you shake your head and stay put.
A white, furry blur lands in front of you, kicking snow into air; the demon is now not more than five yards in front of you. Thankfully its back is turned to you as it scans the forest ahead. You act as though the cold has frozen you in place and hold your breath without realizing it.
The demon lifts its nose into the air. Sniff, sniff, sniff. It half-turns its head toward you. Just as you think it’s about to turn around, it lifts its head to the sky and emits an awful shriek. It flashes across the frozen river, b-lining to where the woman is hiding.
She doesn’t stand a chance. Too late, she realizes the demon knows where she is and she turns to run. The demon easily catches her and lifts her high, its clawed hand wrapped around her neck.
You twirl your poncho off and sprint through the snow toward the demon and the helpless woman held aloft in its grasp. You effortlessly transition to a glide as you make contact with the frozen stream, using your momentum to carry you onward. Leaping onto the embankment on the other side, your strides extend and courage swells in your heart. The demon, its back still turned, is no more than three feet from you as you jump into the air and onto its back.
It lets out a snarl in surprise (and possibly annoyance). The woman remains in its grasp, her feet held far above the ground. As it reaches for you with its other hand, you cover its face in your poncho.
Work, damn it! Work!
The creature’s muffled howls and sightless flailing almost cause you to lose your grip, but you keep its matted tufts of fur firm in hand.
Nothing’s happening! Why won’t this poncho melt faces anymore!
Suddenly, a muscular hand grabs you from behind. You lift into the air away from the demon and the woman. What’s happening!? It takes a moment to register, but you realize, too late, that the second demon has come up from behind and grabbed you!
The first demon hurls your poncho into the snow as the second turns to snarl in your face.
However, instead of ripping you to shreds, the two exchange words in some otherworldly language and sprint back in the direction of the lake. Both you and the woman are clutched, uncomfortably, in their massive, clawed hands.
Your head bobs up and down as the demon carries you through the snowy forest. Looking over, you notice that the other woman still has her poncho (you curse yourself for letting yours slip away in the previous struggle).
This is our last chance…
“Hey…uh, woman! Use your poncho!” The demons laugh. They exchange remarks in a strange language. “What’s so funny,” you demand.
The other demon removes the poncho from the woman and places it, mockingly, over its face, before looking toward its companion. The pair laugh and it discards the poncho in the snow.
Why aren’t they working? There must be some special connection…
Before long, you’re back at the lake. Wind has begun to gently blow. The demons stand at a precipice overlooking the still waters.
This is it. I’m going to be dragged to whatever hell that other woman was pulled to before I melted my demon. My demon…
A screeching howl echos across the lake. The demons holding you and the other woman stop to briefly look and listen, as if they are planning to respond. And then a familiar, faint voice echos in your ear once more: “I told you not to run! It may already be too late. Quickly, jump in the lake if you can! You can’t let the demons be the ones to pull you under.”
By some providence, you look over and notice a sharp rock just within your reach.
The demons howl back a response.
You won’t have time to do much. What you do next may be the difference between life and death…
You hesitate for a moment — you only have time to take a single action after stabbing. Should you jump into the lake or try to help the other woman? The choice almost paralyzes you, but instinct takes over at the last instant. You grab the sharp rock and bury it deep into the demon’s thigh. A pain-laden howl bellows from its tusked mouth, and you drop to the ground… but you’re ready.
Anticipating the drop, your feet meet the ground and push off stone. Luckily, you find friction and burst forward. You can feel the demons scrambling to reclaim you, yet you dare not look back. You hurl yourself off the ledge into the water below!
Silence and stillness surround you, just like the last time you submerged. You wait, anticipating the impact of the demons jumping in to follow you… but it never comes. You drift down, down, and over, flowing through the otherworldly waters. Time loses meaning.
From over a great distance, you hear the beautifully dissonant harmony you remember hearing the last time you dove. A light appears in the depths above.
You drift off to the side in the direction of the harmonic dissonance. At once time seems to drag on for an eon and yet before you can blink you find yourself standing on a stone platform. You are no longer underwater; instead you are surrounded by a navy blue void. A slender figure in a robe is crouched before you, their back turned.
The music is now full-bodied and more beautiful than ever. The figure looks back at you, seemingly surprised yet not startled — the music stops. They stand and face you. In their hands is what you can only describe as a crudely carved, wooden recorder.
“How did you find this place?” they ask.
You tell the robed figure you were fleeing demons haunting a frozen forest when you jumped into the lake. Their facial expressions don’t move in ways familiar to you, yet you sense a muted degree of concern.
“You were lucky to escape that place. The Great Lake hasn’t been the same since they arrived.”
“The demons?” you ask.
“Yes, the demons, but also the ones who brought them here.”
“Who brought them here?”
The figure answers with another question. “What brought you to this place?”
You pause a moment, briefly struggling to recollect your thoughts. “I came here to bathe in the lake with my soul.”
“And where is your soul?”
“…I don’t know,” you admit reluctantly.
“Find your soul and return to me. Perhaps then you will find what you seek.” The slender figure raises the wooden instrument to their lips and plays a single, flat note. The environment flicks as if a light switch has been flipped.
You stand in a grove surrounded by evergreen trees. The sky is overcast and everything is so misty around you that you can only see about thirty yards in any direction. A lone boulder rests in the middle of the clearing. The hoots of an owl echo in the distance.
A demon rushes out of the fog and eats your face off.
Game oveR. You lOse. Ha. Ha. hA. HA HA. (I win]
You shake your head and once again you stand amidst the misty forest. A spotted owl sits on a tree branch high above.
What was that? Something… strange burrowed deep inside your mind, making you lose all sense of time, space… reality. The scary thing is you have a knowing feeling that if you had decided to give in, you would have simply ceased to exist. You shudder and put the thought out of mind.
The slender, robed figure at the center of the lake had told you to find your soul. You have no idea where to begin and, based on the harrowing events of your time at the Great Lake, you’re not convinced souls are even real. But you came here for a reason: to bathe in the lake with your soul; you have to believe you came here with trustworthy intent, for if you cannot trust yourself who then can you trust?
“You look like you’re in some deep thought.” You scream and jump two feet in the air, spinning to meet voice. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you!” A woman with shiny indigo hair tries her best to calm you down. You initially panic, suddenly aware of your nakedness (I really wish I had been able to keep that poncho!), but you are calmed as your hands search and find yourself fully clothed; you’re not sure when this happened, but you chalk it up to the robed figure and offer a voiceless thanks in your thoughts.
“Who are you?” you manage after gathering a modicum of composure.
“I was going to ask you the same thing. I haven’t seen anyone around these parts in a long time.”
You tell the woman about yourself: about coming to the misty shores of the Great Lake, about your encounters with the pessimistic and optimistic women, about your journey to the snow-laden lands where demons stalk, about your “soul” being a demon, your harrowing escape, and the figure at the lake’s center. The woman with indigo hair doesn’t speak, she simply leans against a tree and listens. Finally, you finish your story.
“That’s quite the tale,” the woman replies. “You’re searching for your soul, you say?” You nod in reply. “Forever will you search for the secret you already carry, that you already know, yet will never be able to explain.”
You scratch your head. “What does that mean?”
“It means you have everything you need. However, if you feel otherwise, follow me. I’ve got some food back at my place. You’ve gotta be hungry.” The woman effortless plucks a sturdy walking stick from the body of the tree and trudges away.
And then you hear your name in the distance, an echo over great space yet intimate like a whisper between close friends. It continues: “Come to me. I need your help. I cannot do this forever. Please, come to me.” The voice is coming from the opposite direction the woman is walking. She pauses and looks back at you, calmly waiting for you to make a decision.
The distance voice fades, and you turn to follow the woman with indigo hair.
“Very well, then,” she says, and pivots around to guide the way.
The pair of you walk silently for a time. The forest around you feels almost primordial, every footfall kicking up forgotten memories of the souls that have trudged these woods. The farther you walk, the more uneasy you become. It’s as if some unseen force is shadowing your movements, edging in closer and closer, waiting until the perfect moment to pounce.
Not looking back, the woman with indigo hair says, “You seem uneasy.”
“It feels like…” you struggle to find the right words to describe the sensation pressing in.
“Like you’re being watched?” The woman stops and turns to you.
“The demons aren’t easy to escape once they have your scent. By coming to this place, you’ve merely delayed their hunt.”
You stare out into the twilight gathering among piney woods. An owl hoots from somewhere within the darkness. “Are they… out there?”
“Not physically. But they’re probing the boundaries of the world’s fabrics.”
“What do I do?”
“You already know what you must do. But you must find the courage to do it.” The woman with indigo hair walks onward.
You ask the woman how much farther it is to her place.
“Not much farther,” she says. “But in these whereabouts time doesn’t work the way you may be used to.”
Your attention drifts to-and-fro from the ‘being watched’ sensation. “Will I be safe there?”
“That I cannot guarantee. I can give you supplies you may need or desire for the remainder of your journey but, as I’m sure you’re aware, time is always of the essence.”
You feel as though you have reached a crossroads. Your goal feels out of reach… obscured… yet not by time or space, but rather an invisible veil. You can sense it: your soul, your purpose in being here, your way out of harm’s way at your fingertips. A profound metaphysical frustration clogs your faculties. You pause and take a deep breath, settling your nerves.
“I think I need to leave,” you say suddenly, with surprising confidence. The woman with indigo hair says nothing, simply nodding with a knowing look in her eyes. You turn your back to her and face a directions your instincts choose for you. You stare out into the dark forest. The sensation of “being watched” slowly works to fray your confidence, but you hold strong. Putting one foot in front the other, you venture out into the unknown.
Time passes, though you are unclear on how much (the woman did say time works differently in this place). You turn to check your progress. You see no sign of the woman (or anything else) following you in gloom. You turn back round and almost step into a pond that has seemingly appeared right in front of you.
Was that here before?
Towering trees form a natural dome above the pond, which you now realize is in a clearing. You don’t remember walking here, but there’s little to do about that right now. The pond’s surface is still. You watch as a single leaf falls from a tree and lands on the surface of the pond; it doesn’t create so much as a ripple. The leaf remains on the surface, still and unchanging.
“Help!” A blood-curdling scream echoes from out in the woods. Its tenor chills you to the bone. As you look around trying to make sense of where the scream originated, another voice, an echo over a great space yet intimate like a whisper between close friends, makes its way to your ears.
“Mischief. Trickery. Don’t…” The voice fades as though it is weak, unable to summon enough air to speak in long sentences. “Don’t follow. Come to… pond. There is… something you… must see.”
You ignore the scream from the woods and approach the pond. Tension has built inside of you, yet you don’t realize it until you look into the pond and see your reflection wincing, as if expecting a body blow. But it’s the strangest thing… the moment you gaze into the waters, all your anxiety melts away (if only for a second).
You bend down on one knee as you continue to stare into the water. Soon, you are on both knees, your nose inching ever closer to the mirror-sheen surface. This feels oddly familiar, like you’ve been at these crossroads before… yet something is different. For a brief moment you think you hear… music?
You’ve come this far. It’s time to be bold, you think. Throwing caution to the wind, you close your eyes and leap out over the water, crashing down into the pond’s center.
You anticipate the unpleasant sensation of water rushing up your nose, but it doesn’t come. Your eyes still closed, you remain motionless and feel the world around you. Gravity seems to be gone, but you don’t feel wet. At last, you force your eyes to open…
You stand on a misty shoreline. Whether the body of water in front of you is an ocean or a lake, you cannot tell for the fog obscures visibility on all sides. On a sandbank, farther up the shoreline, a hooded figure sits casting slender rocks to skip across the mirror-sheen surface. It doesn’t seem like they’ve noticed you. Could this be where the voice, the echo over great space intimate like a whisper between close friends, has been coming from all this time? You’ve come to grow wary of the many “people” you’ve encountered during your journey, but there is something about this one that comforts and disarms you.
You think, for a moment, about going over to the hooded figure and introducing yourself, but decide against it for now. Instead, you pick up a smooth, saucer-like rock and skip it across the water. It skip, skip, skips into the mist; you never hear the plunk of it falling below the surface. You cast another. And then another, before realizing the hooded figure has begun to match your cadence. They aren’t casting their rocks at quite the same time, but there’s a pattern to it. You find it difficult to describe, but it feels almost like a harmony.
Finally, you work up the courage to approach the hooded figure. Even as you draw near, their hood continues to obscure their face. You say nothing, waiting for them to take notice of you. At last, you tap them on the shoulder and they seem to become aware of you for the first time. They pull back their hood, and… ! You are shocked to find they have the exact same face as you!
Their eyes widen with delight and excitement as they say, “You found me! You finally found me! I was so afraid you’d become lost in the depths of the Lake.”
“Who are you?” you ask, wanting to be absolutely sure in your assumptions.
“I’m your soul.”
The revelation that this entity is your soul gives you pause. A cocktail of conflicting emotions swell through you: excitement, indignation, confusion, hope.
“Where have you been all this time?” you ask in a tone more confrontational than you intend.
Your soul takes a deep breath before responding. “When we first arrived, you spoke with those two women: the one optimistic, the one pessimistic. They were demons in disguise, using husks of those they’d preyed upon with the Lake’s depths. They used dark magics to separate us and cast me into deep waters, to these worlds below.”
“What’s up with all these demons? Isn’t the Great Lake supposed to be a place of tranquility and reflection?”
“Indeed, but that makes it perfect hunting grounds for those twisted souls that gain sustenance from others’ enlightenment instead of their own. They are emotionally stunted, and thus must steal from others what they do not possess.”
“That’s… sad. Well, it would be if they weren’t trying to eat me, or possess me, or whatever they’re trying to do.”
“Yes, and unfortunately one has finally found us. I’m afraid our reunion bought them enough time to break through the fabric of this layer.”
“What…” you say, fear crawling up through your veins.
“We must be decisive if we hope to survive. I will follow your lead.”
You hear the labored, raspy breathing you remember all too well from the winter realm. You slowly turn toward the source. A scraggly demon, hair greasy and thinning, stands approximately thirty feet away. Its wiry body is hunched forward, whether from exhaustion or in preparation to pounce, you are unsure. It says nothing, but glares at you, unblinking, with effervescent, yellow eyes.
Without hesitation, you grab your soul by the hand and pull them with you as you dive into the waters. You can’t tell if the demon gave chase or not, but you’re hoping it won’t matter. From your experience, they don’t seem capable of traversing the waters of this place. You float down and down, and a bit off to the side. The depths seem darker than you remember on previous plunges.
You wait, soul’s hand in hand, and listen. As expected, music begins to permeate the space around you. At first you hear a familiar discordant tune. But soon it fights with something else — a new tune.
Listen to the music. You feel a consciousness pushing in on yours. Follow our music.
A mathematically perfect harmony overwhelms the beautifully dissonant music you remember. The new music is also beautiful, but somehow… stale. You can still sense the original tune, but only faintly off to your left. You look in this direction, and your eyes grow wide. A demon, eyes bulging and hair on fire, swims furiously toward you. But something’s not quite right — how did it get down here, and why is it on fire? These questions quickly leave your mind, however, as the fear takes hold. The demon is quickly closing the gap.
You look to your soul, but they are unable to communicate.
Instincts take hold, and you swim away from the demon into the mathematically perfect harmony. You tug your soul along behind you; there’s something about the way their hand grips yours that makes you feel they’re worried for some reason (beyond the demon pursuing you).
You turn to look back at your pursuer just in time to see the demon evaporate into bubbles. Did it burn up… or was it never there to begin with?
You stop swimming to assess the situation, but it’s too late. Suddenly, a powerful current sweeps you away. The harmony swells in your ears. At first it’s beautiful, but as the current continues carrying you, it transforms. Notes warp flat and sharp at random, and the volume crescendos to an almost unbearable level. You cover your ears and close your eyes before losing consciousness.
You awaken in an icy, underground cavern. Misty vapor drifts from your mouth. Your soul is nowhere to be found. They were swept away in the current as well, though; they have to be here somewhere.
You stand and take in your surroundings. A tunnel bisects the chamber in which you stand, one direction leading to your left, the other to your right. Behind you is a motionless, probably freezing, reservoir of water.
A piercing howl echoes through the cave. Your hairs stand on end at the unmistakeable cry of a demon. They’re in here with you. You think the sound came from the right, but it’s hard to tell with the reverberation.
You turn away from where you think you heard the demon’s howl and head down the left passage. Every step leaves an echo that never seems to truly end. Darkness surrounds you. Occasionally, slivers of luminescence seep through the translucent ice. The walls and ceiling are one continuous ice sheet, an undulating frieze that reminds you of ocean waves.
Soon, you step into a small antechamber. Before you, a large set of wooden double-doors are built into the icy wall. They stands about ten feet tall with iron clavos ornamenting their surfaces. Upon closer inspection, neither door has a handle, nob, or ring with which to open them. Instead, the only noteworthy way of interacting with the doors is a crudely shaped lock and keyhole bearing the unmistakeable visage of a demon.
You press on a door with your shoulder, at first tenderly and then again with more force. It doesn’t budge. There’s no moving forward without a key.
You wheel round at the sudden, piercing cry of a demon coming from the passage behind you. That sounded much closer than before.
You crouch behind an icy outcropping on the outskirts of the antechamber, and it’s a lucky thing too, because just as you settle in behind the ice block a demon struts into the room. With each step you hear its clawed feet scrapping against the dense, frozen ground.
You risk a peek around the outcropping. It walks, almost nonchalantly, across the room to the pair of large wooden doors you inspected before; you’re relieved that it doesn’t seem to be actively searching for you. As the demon passes by, you catch a better glimpse and notice a ring of four keys dangling from its belt.
The demon comes to a halt in front of the doors. It sniffs the door like a curious dog, and then plops down to sit crosslegged on the ground. Its crooked legs appear broken the way they fold, prompting a revolting shiver to wash across you.
You wait a moment, eyeing the demon for any clue as to what it might do next, but… it remains seated, facing the doors with its back to you. You can’t see its face to tell what it may, or may not, be doing.
You dare not move, choosing to remain frozen in place as if you were a part of the icy outcropping you hide behind. Occasionally, you survey the antechamber at large, but your primary concern remains the demon seated before the two large, wooden doors.
Fear distorts your perception of time, but you stay put, observing for what feels like a long time. Just as you are about to consider another course of action, the demon moves. It stands and brushes ice crystals from its matted fur. You watch as it reaches for the key ring on its belt. It removes the entire ring, and you see it fiddle with it for a moment before hearing the mechanical click-and-clunk of the doors being unlocked. You can’t tell which key it used, however, as its body blocked your view of the lock and the key ring.
It’s time to act. You slowly… carefully… sneak out from behind your outcropping as the demon opens the door. The iron hinges groan as the massive door swings inward. You’re lucky this demon is taking its time, but you worry you won’t make it through at your current pace. The demon passes through into the other room. The door creaks as it begins to close, slow at first but picking up steam with every microsecond. You’re not going to make it! At the last moment, you pick up speed and slip through the door just before it slams shut!
The “room” in which you now stand is less a room and more a hive of tunnels. There’s no sign of the demon that just entered. You pick a tunnel at random and begin to walk. It’s not long before you come upon an abyss with what looks like several cages, made of rock and ice, dangling above it.
“Psst! Hey, is that really you?” The voice is coming from one of the cages. There’s a person inside!
As you approach the collection of cages, you hear another voice. “Ugh, not this one. We can’t trust this person.” She then speaks directly to you. “You left me to die!”
You recognize the women inside each cage. You can’t believe it. They are the women you encountered during your time at the frozen lake. The first is the woman that was pulled under the water by her demon, the one you tried to help before slaying your own demon with your poncho. The other woman is the one who led you to her camp, the one you were captured with… the one you had to leave behind when you leapt into the frozen waters to escape.
You step forward to speak with the women in cages. Vertigo washes over you as you inch near the icy ledge and peer into the abyss below. The women, however, seem unfazed; they must have been here for some time.
“You left me to die!” the woman in the left cage repeats (you don’t remember if she told you her name; you decide to call her Pessimist from here out).
The other woman (who you’ll call Optimist) open her palms in distress and gestures downward, “shhhhh, keep it down.”
“I tried to help you!” Pessimist says, only somewhat moderating her tone.
“They’re not to blame, and you know it. For what it’s worth, they did their best to help me. The demons are to blame.”
Pessimist considers protest, but stops herself and pouts in the cage’s corner, causing it to sway ever so slightly.
A howl emanates throughout the cavern. There’s no way to tell where it came from.
Mood suddenly changed, Pessimist crawls to the front of her cage. “You have to get us out of here. They took our souls. We’re going to be next.”
“How?” you ask.
Optimist begins, “There’s a keyring one of demons carries. It should have used them to open the door to this —”
Heavy thuds and scrapes of footfalls cut Optimist short. A demon is coming your way.
You rush forward into the passage ahead of you. Pessimist hisses in your wake, “Don’t leave us!” However, Optimist quickly hushes her. The demon’s footsteps grow louder; lucky for you, you chose correctly as it is now clear the sounds are coming from back the way you came. Thump, Thump-scratch, THUMP! The demon is about to enter the room!
You slide across the slick rock and out of view just in time. Your head peeks out from deep blue shadows and witnesses a demon, what appears to be the same one you followed in here, approaching the cages. The demon reaches for a key ring on its belt, but then stops…
The demon lifts its flat, deformed face into the air, its tusks forming a menacing silhouette in the gloom, and sniffs. It sniffs and sniffs… it’s on to something. Optimist and Pessimist remain silent and motionless. All of a sudden it whips its head in your direction. You twirl backwards to avoid being seen, pressing yourself against the jagged tunnel wall. You can feel your heart pumping in your chest. Your fingertips tingle from a chemical cocktail of fear and adrenaline.
After a moment, for how long you can’t be sure, you hear the demon fiddling with one of the cages. “No! You’re not taking me! Get away from me!” It’s the voice of Pessimist.
You peer out from behind the tunnel wall and cautiously observe as the demon reaches into Pessimist’s open cage, fishing around with its clawed hand as she desperately, but futilely, tries to evade. It grasps her ankle and yanks her from the cage. It holds her upside down for a moment, eyeing her like a tasty snack.
Before you can think on what to do next, you hear Pessimist scream, “they’re over there!” Her hand points in your direction. “The one you’re looking for is over there, hiding in that tunnel!” You stiffen and your hairs stand on end. Pessimist sold you out.
The demon looks in your direction and, apparently taking Pessimist at her word, hurls her back into the cage and begins to lumber your way.
You rush forward, taking the demon by surprise. It’s clear by its body language that it didn’t completely believe Pessimist, but now that it’s seen you its eyes grow wide. You spot the ring of keys on its belt just as you drop to the ground in a fluid sliding motion (you’ve had plenty of practice on slick surfaces by now).
The demon bends forward, flailing at you with wiry, clawed hands. To your benefit, this exposes the key ring further. The cold, iron ring dangles in the air like a child’s mobile as you snatch it on your way between the demon’s legs. It howls in frustration!
But you don’t stop to worry about the demon; you hop up and rush to the cages holding Pessimist and Optimist. The demon whirls around. You only have time to take a single action.
Without even thinking you slot a key into Optimist’s cage. Ca-chunk, click — Clack! It fits and works like a dream. You swing the barred-door open, and gesture to Optimist. She hesitates for a moment, but quickly follows your lead.
Meanwhile, Pessimist is inconsolable. She screams at you from her cage, but what exactly you block out, whether intentionally or from the adrenaline coursing through your body.
“We can’t leave her,” Optimist pleads, but the demon is upon you.
You decide you can’t leave Pessimist behind, however you freeze as you contemplate what exactly to do. You almost toss the keys straight to Pessimist, but hesitate, instead turning to Optimist… but you can’t make up your mind!
Your indecision renders the deliberation pointless. The demon is upon you.
Faster than you can make sense of events, you feel a strong hand grip around your waist. The demon lifts you off the ground and the keys slip from your grasp. They hit the ground hard, slide toward the cliff edge, and go over into the abyss… to be saved at the last moment by a splayed out Optimist.
The demon turns your face towards its. It screams in your face, its breath the smell of rotten eggs and exhaust fumes. Then your world tumbles upside down, over and over, as you are thrown toward the cliff edge. You hit Optimist’s cage hard, and only by sheer luck of reflex manage to grab hold of the iron bars. You dangle, dazed, above a black maw.
You see Optimist fitting keys into Pessimist’s cage, trying to find the right one. The demon has turned its attention to her, but she isn’t aware. Pessimist seems too frightened to do anything.
You shout to Optimist, giving her just enough time to turn and avoid the demon’s lumbersome strike. Instead, the demon strikes Pessimist’s cage, causing it to sway wildly. You do your best to keep your eyes on Optimist and the demon, but with Pessimist’s cage now barreling towards you, your attention shifts.
Pessimist’s cage slams into yours, and you only just manage to keep your grip. The cold, iron bars have begun to numb your fingers; you’re unsure how much longer you can hold on. As Pessimist’s cage twirls away from you momentarily, you glance back over to see the demon trying to corner Optimist. She’s doing her best, but it’s only a matter of seconds before it will hem her in.
You brace yourself for another hit from the swaying cage. You think you can withstand another one, but you’re not sure how many more you can take after that.
You anticipate, white knuckled as you grip the cold bars of your swinging cage, and jump at just the right moment — hitting the icy ground sends a painful shock through your body. You slide for a short while before coming to a stop.
Your head snaps up, recognizing how fast events are unfolding around you.
Straight ahead, the demon has cornered Optimist against the cliff edge. You see Optimist backpedal and almost slip into the abyss; she recovers, but there’s nowhere for her to run.
CRASH! The two swinging cages smash into each other, sending Pessimist tumbling inside her cage. Suddenly, Pessimist’s cage loses altitude. The chain from which it hangs must be coming loose from whatever mechanism affixes it to the cave ceiling above. The cages still writhe. It’s difficult to predict when they will next collide, but you worry Pessimist’s will break loose and fall upon another hit.
You snap to attention, feeling suddenly aware and decisive. Without meaning to, you take a sprinter’s stance — and bolt with all your might toward the demon closing in on Optimist. She sees you charging and deftly plays it off until the last moment… when she sidesteps like a matador. You bury your shoulder into the demon’s lower back and, surprised with your own ferocity, knock it from its feet and send it howling into the abyss beyond the cliff.
Optimist and you turn to each other in celebration, however your expressions change in unison when you hear a loud, grating CRASH! You turn just in time to see the two cages, one still containing Pessimist, bend, twist, crumple — and snap loose from their fixations on the cavern ceiling. In what feels like slow-motion, you watch in horror as Pessimist’s contorted face disappears into the abyss beyond the cliff.
There is silence for a long time.
You finally look to Optimist who wipes off traces of frozen tears from her cheeks. She breaks the silence. “What now?”
You break the silence — you can’t stay here. You suggest going deeper into the cave system. Optimist’s expression turns apprehensive. You explain, as quickly as you can, how you were pulled here from the deep waters of the lake with your soul and became separated. Optimist, still hesitant with fear, understands your logic and begrudgingly agrees to travel deeper with you.
Deeper you go. The ground becomes slicker and darkness creeps in. Optimist slips a couple of times, but you manage to catch her before she falls. Both of you focus intently on keeping your balance, especially with the downward slope to your path.
Finally, you reach level ground. The darkness is utter all around you. “I don’t know about this,” Optimist whispers, her voice dissipating immediately into the black as if the very space gobbled it up.
Across the dark expanse, you see a pinprick of blue light.
You ease down to your hands and knees, and begin to feel around the edges of the room. Optimist remains glued to your side. At first, you feel what you expect: cold rock, smooth in most places as though it has been weathered by ice and glacier. You continue crawling forward, running your hands over the damp surface —
“Ouch!” You recoil your hand.
“What’s wrong?” Optimist asks a little too loudly.
“It’s hot.” The word is the best you can think of to describe it, but the sensation doesn’t feel like a normal ‘hot.’ The burn feels more like taking a warm shower after having been out in the cold for too long — an icy burn.
“Are you okay?” Optimist bends down beside you, fumbling around to find your hand.
“I’m fine. Just startled me is all.”
You feel Optimist tense up as she looks around. “Where are we? Where did the entrance go? Where’s the blue light!?”
You look around and, sure enough, there is no sign of where you entered, nor the blue light you saw earlier. The weird logic of this place eludes you, and you can’t discern if it’s some dispassionate non-Euclidean nonsense or something with more malice, more intentionality.
You ignore Optimist’s growing panic and turn your attention back to the weird surface you touched just before. You reach out, unsure of how far you should in the pitch blackness…
“Ouch!” You recoil and instinctively pop your fingers into your mouth. This time the surface, whatever it is, was really hot! Not the ‘cold’ hot you felt before, but ‘hot’ hot. You think about reaching out again — when the surface begins to glow. At first a dull red, it quickly grows into a brilliant orange. It ebbs and flows, as oxygen fuels a burgeoning campfire.
“Do you feel that?” Optimist asks. Before you can ask what, you feel it too — a low rumble, an earthquake coming from deep within. You stare intently at the glowing surface, now white-hot at its center, but are disrupted by another outburst. “There! Do you see it?”
You turn to look, and see the blue light from before, now shockingly close. At this distance… something unsettles you.
The ground shakes with a knee-knocking shockwave; you and Optimist lose your balances and fall hard. The glowing-hot surface rises above, and through the darkness you witness a pair of yellow eyes open and affix themselves to you.
“We have to get out of here!” Optimists shouts, having apparently seen the eyes as well. She turns and runs toward the blue light.