Posted on March 1, 2023
Cover Image Title: Once Hero
Cover Image by: Meiliyl
Classification: Digital Art
Somewhere within a realm of dark fog, there stood a tower.
Nobody knew of its origins, but everyone knew one thing: reach the top floor, and you can become a god.
One day, a pillar of light struck the Tower of Ascension. It was the advent of a hero. A small child with warm brown skin and bright, sunny eyes pushed open the tower doors and began their journey.
The child was kind and strong. Her goal was to ascend to the highest floor in order to become a deity. With her godhood, she would bring radiance to the tower, curing all its inhabitants from sickness, aging, and malevolence.
Once she stepped into tower grounds, multiple gods looked her way. In the end, only the Almighty Omniscient God extended a helping hand to her. They were charmed by The Hero’s brilliant purity and decided to make her dream come true, so they granted her their Blessings.
The journey was not easy. Each ascension trial required great strength and wit, as every floor’s residents would be her competition.
Still, for her dream, she braved countless battles, solved many puzzles, and worked very hard to reach the next story.
Occasionally, The Hero would even help her fellow residents fend off danger — sometimes, he would encounter groups of residents who had banded together to bully those weaker than them. When she did encounter these people, she felt deeply angry that some residents would harm others in order to get ahead, and it only fueled her desire for godhood. Only when she becomes god will she be able to eradicate the maliciousness in humans.
One by one, the Hero would assist the victims with defeating their attackers, helping them ascend to the higher floors.
On the 168th story. . .
On the 295th story. . .
On the 365th story. . .
Finally, The Hero had reached the uppermost floor: the 366th. When she arrived, however, there was a knight waiting for her, it seemed. Dressed head to toe in glimmering ebony plate armor, The Villain had finally appeared.
During her adventure to the top, The Hero had heard tales of the brutal dark knight fighting its way to ascension, not caring in the slightest for the cost. The Villain was the epitome of the darkness which the Tower of Ascension held, and defeating this foe would be her first step toward a brighter world.
The knight in black armor ominously turned around, yanking out their wicked spear from the ground and spinning it. Unsheathing her greatsword, The Hero prepared for a grand finale.
It was an incredibly tough battle; The Hero had to use up nearly every ounce of strength she had to fight them. The Villain was powerful, calculating, and cunning beyond measure. However, in the end, the Hero won.
Gasping for air, The Hero had to lean over and support herself with her arms on her knees so as not to collapse. Various cuts, bruises, and burns marred her skin and clothes, but it was light in comparison to the armored body which laid in front of her.
The dark helmet that the Villain always wore had cracked and fallen apart, revealing the face behind it. The Villain’s long, silvery hair draped messily on the dirt ground, and her pale eyes were clouded with a mist. Her skin, though, told a story of countless hardships, littered with scars and old wounds. The Villain breathed laboriously; despite life quickly slipping away from them, their face was cold and impassive.
“Tell me,” The Hero spat out, “Why did you have to hurt so many people just to get here?” From The Hero’s perspective, although she had met such selfish people in the past, none were as detached from their morality as the person in front of her.
‘Why?’ was all she could think of. ‘Why do people always hurt each other?’ As she continued to ascend the floors, she got to experience the unkindness of others more often, and this frustration continued to build up.
A voice then spoke to her telepathically: “Why are you lingering here? You don’t need to waste your breath on this villain, just go to the altar and start your ascension already...” It was her patron god, The Plotmaker.
For the first time, The Hero ignored them, and firmly fixated her gaze on The Villain instead, seeking an answer.
The Villain’s irises slowly moved to lock onto The Hero, and after a brief moment of stillness, they bent into amused crescents. As the Villain parted her lips, a gravelly, hoarse voice sounded out: “Because they were in the way.” After a few hard breaths, the Villain added “It’s impossible that you haven’t done the same to get here, not unless your god carried you all the way up.” At the word ‘god’, the Villain drawled mockingly in disgust.
The Hero wasn’t agitated much by her remark, "My actions were motivated by just causes, not self-serving motives like yours."
“Yes, yes, of course they were, oh noble hero,” The Villain patronized, “You have honorable excuses to eliminate the competition and ascend the tower… The harm you’ve done to evildoers is completely justified.”
“Honorable excuses? But that’s just how the tower works! How can I ascend if I don’t succeed in the trials?” The Hero replied, dumbfounded.
“Oh, so now you see my point! Of course, there is simply no other way, so one must be prepared to make some sacrifices for the greater good of godhood, right? I knew we were very similar, you and I...” the Villain joked.
The Hero’s gaze darkened upon hearing that, “No. While I can acknowledge that I have been forced to step ahead of others in order to move upwar-”
The Villain seemed to begin to cough at a rather inconvenient moment, interrupting the hero.
“In order to move upwards,” The Hero continued, annoyed, “I, at the very least, never grievously harmed my opponents. I strictly did what was required to win. I doubt you can say the same, though.” The Hero shot back.
The conversation then ceased for a moment; The Villain simply closed her eyes.
“I can’t. But in a way, I can.” Her voice had lost its previous snark, and her energy quieted. “Hero—judging by how you’re regarded, I can reasonably guess who your patron god is. You’re very lucky, and I don’t think your patron god will ever let you realize how truly fortunate you are.”
The Hero’s brows knitted together, “What are you getting at?”
The Villain’s eyes opened, and their neck creakily turned to face The Hero. “I want to become a god. You want to become a god. Everyone does. That’s why they pray for blessings, and why they form churches. It’s why they pushed open the tower door, entered these trials, ascended floors, fought, bled, and died.. Everyone wants to become a god.”
“Hero, let me ask you a question, who do you think my patron god is?”
The Hero was somewhat thrown off by the question, then fell into deep thought. ‘Blacksmith? How else would she get her armor? Patron, what do you think?’
[. . . The Villain does not have any god I recognize.]
Hearing that, the Hero was at a loss; her omniscient patron said they didn’t know?
“And the correct answer is — I don’t have one”
“You’re lying!” the Hero immediately refuted, “At such a high level, no tower resident could possibly continue to ascend without Blessings.”
The Villain continued her monologue, unperturbed: “This tower is such a twisted contraption. Residents are forced upwards in desperation, fighting each other to ascend, while the gods sit on their laurels and watch with glee, sponsoring their favorite gladiators. But when they see their ‘chosen one’ losing speed, they quickly retract their bets to place on someone else.”
“My disloyal sponsor pulled out upon seeing me struggle. Instead of continuing on with me, THEY RETRACTED THEIR BLESSINGS!” Like an old scar torn apart, dormant anger seemed to erupt from the otherwise immobile Villain.
“I WAS ALREADY STRUGGLING, YET THEY DECIDED TO KICK ME OFF THE EDGE! FOR WHAT, FOR WHAT I ASK!? WHAT MEA-GER LOSS WOULD SUSTAINING A BLESSING COST THEM THAT THEY WOULD RATHER LEAVE ME DIE? WE RESIDENTS OF THIS TWISTED TOWER JUST MEAN THAT LITTLE TO THEM, THAT'S WHAT! WELL GUESS WHAT, GODS? I MADE IT THIS FAR WITHOUT AN~Y OF YOUR HELP- !”
The Hero touched their ears in confusion. Despite clearly seeing The Villain howling and cursing at someone, she couldn’t hear any of it.
Huffing, The Villain had calmed down a bit, but the wrath still smoldered within her eyes as she glared at the Hero. “And you, Hero. You’ve probably had that Plotbutcher god or whatever whispering sweet nothings in your ears and daintily covering your eyes this entire time, and that’s why you’re this ignorant. But let me tell you something - your words of kindness and evil and deservedness are so disgustingly black and white that you need to get rid of that parasite in your brain before it swallows you whole.”
“Maybe if I were born with the extraordinary talent you have, and you possessed the absolute void of talent that I have, our roles would be swapped, and you would be the walking massacre here. This is why you are lucky; you have the choice to cause less harm. How dare you disparage, scorn and blame people’s efforts when they literally can not afford to do anything else? How dare you condemn a person’s wish for a better life when you yourself have never felt such desperation?” the Villain hissed.
“Live a better life?” the Hero flared, “Is that the excuse you thought up of to justify your actions? How is that any different from selfishness, huh?”
“It’s not, but is that so horrible? Yes, I’ve harmed people to get here. So have you. So has every person in this tower and every person you think you’ve ever saved. Because you haven’t saved anyone. People will still harm each other for the chance to become god. Humans are driven by circumstance, so if you can’t change this corrupt tower, you’ll never change the residents that inhabit it.”
Infuriated, The Hero turned on her heel, “Then I will! I’ll change every single story in this blasted tower once I become god. I’ll save every resident, and you too. Then, you’ll have to live the rest of your life knowing you were wrong.” Walking to the altar, she prompted her patron god to explain the ascension process.
[. . . Wait a bit, you’ll see a bottle of clear liquid descend soon enough. Drink the godhood potion and I’ll meet you then.]
A beautifully clear bottle did indeed appear on the altar a few moments later, magically floating and tempting one to reach out and grab it. The Hero carefully took it and glanced at The Villain, wary of one last attack.
The Villain obediently laid where she was, unable to move as expected. But as their eyes met, The Villain began to smirk.
“Even if you do ascend, you’ll be powerless to change anything” The Villain spoke. It wasn’t derisive or taunting, and The Hero actually perceived a hint of hopelessness in The Villain’s tone, causing her to pause.
She sighed, “Alright…”
Tilting the bottle upwards, the liquid flowed into her mouth. The Villain closed her eyes in resignation.
The Hero felt her vision double and overlap; there was a bout of dizziness, and she felt her limbs lock up. Trying not to be weirded out by the process, she endured. Immediately, a cool numbing feeling spread throughout her body.
[Hello, Hero. Can you finally see me?]
The Hero tried to focus, and saw a new figure gradually become more and more apparent. As their appearance solidified, they held out their arms to embrace her body.
To The Hero’s horror, the arms tightly locked her body in place, while an extra two ripped out of the god’s back, tenderly cupping her cheeks. Being forced to stare at the god’s head threw her thoughts into disarray; its true form was indescribable yet deeply horrifying.
[You’ve been such a lovely character to work with, my sweet lamb. You’ll make a beautiful addition to my grand storybook.]
“N-no. . .” she unconsciously uttered. The influence of the potion had chained her body down, preventing any resistance. She could feel her consciousness ripping away from her flesh, slowly getting dragged towards the god in front of her.
[Sleep now, my child, do not worry. Soon, you’ll find yourself in a utopia where all your childish dreams have come true.]
[You’ll love it so much you’ll never want to leave, I promise that.]
“ I never wanted this…”
Perhaps it was that talent The Villain was so envious of that kicked in, allowing her to free herself from control for a split second. Seizing the moment, she immediately induced vomiting, throwing up as much of the potion as possible.
[What are you…] The Plotmaker’s grip on her became illusory, and she mustered all of her available strength to sever the connection between her and the god.
“I NEVER WANTED THIS!”
*tap tap tap**
The nib of a pen tapped against the surface of a desk impatiently. The hand paused for a moment, and then flew across an open book, scrawling a flurry of words in its wake.
“The Hero walked up to the altar of godhood and drank the divine potion, allowing her to ascend to godhood.
Once she became a god, she was immortal and all powerful, bringing salvation to all of the tower residents. Everyone lived happily ever after.
Before the story could finish, the inked words began to shake. They split into hundreds of small black tendrils that jumped out of the parchment and tackled the hand holding the pen. A deeply frustrated growl could be heard, and the book was thrown to the wall. Before it could even fall, the pen came shooting right after, nailing the book to the wall while page after page was violently ripped out. In the end, the book lay abandoned, completely tattered.
“Useless,” the person sneered, then turned and disappeared from the room.
In the silence, one could hear the slow flipping of pages. The book had turned onto its spine, and while the previous sheets remained torn, new ones appeared, and a new story was beginning to unfold across the parchment.
Wild footsteps pattered against the carpeted hallway floor. A man desperately ran past the numbered doors and flickering lamps, looking around him from time to time with a sense of unease. After passing a few intersections, he took two lefts and, as quietly as his hurried hands could manage, opened a random door. Closing it gently, he weakly snapped his fingers a few times, trying to dampen the resulting sound by doing so under the fabric of his tunic. After a few tries, a tiny light sparked from his fingers, and out flew a small firefly.
The light wasn’t great, but he couldn’t afford to start a game of “Where’s The Lightswitch?”, and would rather wait it out with his pursuer. The darkness in the room wouldn’t start corroding until the five-minute mark, anyway. In fact, it would take even longer since he possessed a light source, however small it may be.
The man lamented his luck. Ever since he received the Blessings of The Winged Monarch, he thought he would soar straight to the top story. Well, despite the versatility of insects, he had yet to receive any combat-suitable blessings, and was therefore very weak in confrontation.
This floor in particular highlighted his misfortune: its trial was set inside a hotel, and was a puzzle maze by design. All walls, doors and other boundaries were absolute, meaning they were unbreakable and uneditable. Every room had a game of “Find The Lightswitch”, and it was unknown what each room would have in store when a challenger did indeed find the lightswitch.
Now, all of that wasn’t too difficult; all he needed to do was carefully comb through the rooms for clues regarding the whereabouts of the exit, praying to his patron god that the trial would not end before that. But no, he just happened to take the trial with some hunting maniac who decided that a maze is no fun without some added excitement.
‘Just great,’ the man grumbled inwardly, ‘I just had to land in a group with one of those people. Why do those people always get the greatest blessings?’ The man would command some mosquitos to monitor the guy, but that crazy hunter also had significantly enhanced perception, and that was how he ended up in this situation in the first place.
In the distance, the hunter’s characteristically dragging steps slowly approached, and the man hiding immediately muffled his breathing, forcefully calming his nerves to quieten his heartbeat. Surprisingly, when one looked at the man’s face, they wouldn’t see much fear or anxiety, he was predominantly calm.
On the 143rd story, most tower residents would react this way. It wasn’t anything like luck, talent or skill, it was simply the basic survival requirements to advance this high, and the result of being a tower resident. Everyone was used to these situations by now.
As the footsteps approached his room, they got slower and slower, dragging out the stress and anticipation. But nothing seemed to happen, and the sound began to grow faint with distance.
Breathing a small sigh, the man caught the firefly and extinguished the light, then turned the knob of the door when he could no longer hear the hunter.
The mad grin of the hunter immediately greeted him with uncomfortable enthusiasm. Diving forwards, the thin hunter tackled the hiding man to the ground, with both of them falling to the edge of the darkness. Although the hallways were lit, albeit poorly, the light barely shone into the room, and pure black made up the rest of it.
The two tussled for a while, not because the hiding man was in any way the hunter’s match, but because the hunter, being the sadistic lunatic he was, wanted to play a little. But playtime eventually ended, and the hunter grew bored of the hiding man’s combat incapability.
“Alright! Alright! I get it, be patient!” the hunter snarled at seemingly nothing, then flipped out a pocket knife and hummed, “Trophy time…”
A bowl descended upon the hunter’s head, causing a resounding *THUNK*. Standing behind him, a cloaked figure casually bit into an apple. Needless to say, with the sound that collision made, the hunter fell over, unconscious.
Hands occupied with eating, she lazily rolled the unconscious hunter towards the darkness until the guy’s body could no longer be seen. “Here, have a banana,” she snapped off a slightly green one and tossed it towards the black, then watched the fruit get swallowed by it. The room rumbled a bit and then magically lit up; the hunter’s body was nowhere to be seen. The banana wasn’t there either.
The hiding man huffed on the ground, relieved to still be standing—well, lying down, but breathing nonetheless. He also wondered whether it was the body or the banana which caused the darkness to retreat.
The man sat up and glanced at the lady. Was she going to knock him out as well?
The lady found a chair and relaxed on it. Staring into space, she vaguely recalled the last time she challenged this floor’s trial. That time, she had met another man who was rather adept at solving puzzles, but lacked combative measures and was thus very shy and withdrawn. She had tagged along with him and cleared the trial together, but they didn’t meet each other in the next story’s trial, nor the one after. At the time, the matter was quickly pushed to the back of her mind, though she couldn’t tell how much of it was because of herself or the influence of her patron god at the time.
‘Now that I think of it, wasn’t the trial five floors or so later a 1v1 hunt?’ she slowly mulled, ‘How was I so carefree back then? How many people did I ‘help' like that guy, but immediately forget about afterwards? The optimistic scenario would be that they’re stuck on somefloor, but I’m no longer that someone who can blindly believe in optimism. The tower isn’t nice enough to spare those who lag behind.’ A self-deprecating smile appeared on her face.
‘So many things have changed since that incident. I no longer have that god breathing lies into my brain, nor any Blessings at all. But my journey has still been smooth sailing, which really brings into perspective The Villain’s words: I really am lucky.’
‘Now that becoming a god is no longer a valid option, I’ve found a different way to fulfill my wish. I thought that godhood was the only way to change anything, but I realized something from The Villain’s words. We chase godhood for the lack of suffering, for an eternal life, but taking a new look at the tower stories led me to a new conclusion: we just want to live better.’
‘The tower has practically nothing, we don’t rest, play, eat or enjoy anything. It's only in the floor trials that we are able to do any of that, often at our life’s expense.’
‘I recently realized that items can be taken out of the trials if they are small enough, and I plan on making life here more interesting. I think that if we could actually enjoy life outside of the tower, there wouldn’t be that desperation to ascend. Maybe then, people truly wouldn’t need to step on top of each other. Or maybe I’m just being childish again, who knows?’
Her surroundings shattering like broken mirrors jolted her out of her reverie. After the light faded, she saw roughly 15 residents seated, standing, or lying down in a vast, bare stone chamber.
That was all there was to each floor, just a stone room devoid of happiness. No one spoke: everyone left each other to their own devices as they all waited for the next trial to start.
She turned to the man who had the insect-related blessing. “Here,” she handed the confused guy a mango, “Take a bite.” After seeing what that lady did to the hunter, he didn’t think to disobey, and meekly bit into the yellow fruit in trepidation. After the bite though, the man’s dull eyes widened as he hesitantly mumbled, “This tastes. . . funny.”
The Once-Upon-a-Time-Hero wasn’t surprised at the man’s confused description and instead laughed. “It tastes interesting, doesn’t it? You can keep the mango if you like it, I’ll go give everyone else a fruit too.”
The man was at a slight loss for words. “O-oh, thank you very much?” he stumbled, before muttering to himself, “So this thing is called a mango. . . ?”
[ * The End * ]
[Writing Editor: Paul Shannon]