Death is an inescapable constant. For most, if not all, it is something that is encountered each and every day, whether one realizes it or not. The life of an individual is built upon a mountain of death, and for every day that life continues, it demands a tribute. The genesis of a new life is a slow and gradual process. A seedling can only grow so fast, as it can only take so much from its surroundings to contribute to its own growth. If something the size of a tree were to grow to maturity instantaneously, the theoretical impact it would have on the surrounding environs would be catastrophic. It was with this line of thought in mind that Edwin Ratten observed the vast, perfectly round circle of death stretching out before him. The lush forest leading up to this point was practically coated in some kind of black “dust”. He would have been less worried if it were merely ash or dirt, as either one would have no negative impact on the remaining forest. The problem lay in the fact that whatever this dust was, it was completely organically and magically inert. It was entirely devoid of energy of any kind, and if the reports he’d obtained were accurate, this substance was something that should not even exist. Not that it was simply “wrong” in some way, but that it should be impossible, at least according to modern magical theory.

His frown deepened under his breathing mask as he studied the eerily sharp line separating the life of the forest and the complete absence of it within the circle proper. It seemed as though whatever caused this had been contained to a very specific area. He did not know what kind of magic could be capable of something like this, but he did know that this was beyond what any mortal practitioner could accomplish. Kneeling down, he ran a finger along an exposed tree root, tracing it to the point where it ended rather abruptly, leaving only empty space under his finger. An unnaturally clean cut that left the exposed part of the root covered in a thin film of that strange dust.

Standing up and brushing his hands off on the legs of his pants, he took another look at what he was now referring to as “the circle of death”. It had to be miles in circumference, and he was only able to see where it ended on the far side because of how perfectly flat it all was. For the umpteenth time, Edwin observed the bracelet on his wrist that was covered in a myriad of religious symbols covering every major god and a large number of lesser ones, and found them all as unresponsive as they had been every other time he’d checked. Even the most sensitive “charm”, an unaligned and unformed lump of Deistone, simply lay inert at his wrist in the absence of divine power.

Something that was beyond the ken of mortals, yet absent of any signs of divine intervention, and far too clean and artificial to be an act of the World.

Edwin felt his face twist into an ugly grimace. All signs pointed to ‘Outsider’, and Outsiders were not something that sane people wanted anything to do with. Historically, Outsiders were responsible for some of the biggest catastrophes to strike this world, and each time they required several of the divines working in concert with some of the most powerful mortals alive to be dealt with. In short, they were something far beyond someone of Edwin’s weight class. Of course, he had long since heard that the divines had nothing to do with whatever this mess was, but he’d be a fool to simply take the gods and their servants at their word. He needed to be sure, and now he was. Any gods that were even theoretically capable of this had nothing to do with it.

A place where the gods couldn’t see, and where their servants had no power. Such places were rare, but not unheard of. The real deal breaker for any would-be explorers was the fact that mana and ki did not function in the space within that circle. Even magical foci and alchemical products became little more than dead weight within. Edwin took his first steps into that circle and felt his connections to his powers weaken and disappear. After stepping out again, he felt a strange tingling for a few moments as he felt the connections reassert themselves, not unlike metaphysical sleeping limbs waking up. No sane person would want to encounter an Outsider alone if they had all their capabilities intact. To risk such an encounter while essentially blind and helpless was either incomparably brave or foolish, but likely suicidal regardless. Edwin smirked and exhaled quietly. There really wasn’t anyone better suited to this expedition than him.

“Too broadly spread to have any real power, too obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge to give credence to perfectly rational fears, and without a single person to mourn his loss if he were to die horribly.”

He shook his head, his smirk turning to a wry grin at the memory. It wasn’t exactly true, but neither was it outright false. It was an exaggerated oversimplification of his character, and a description that he himself was not meant to hear. Not that he cared overmuch what those pompous jackasses thought of him. His expression under the mask became stiff, and he shook his head as if to forcibly dislodge such thoughts from his mind. He didn’t know what awaited him inside that circle, but he wasn’t likely to find out by stalling outside of it. Edwin Ratten took a deep breath, steeled his nerves, and began walking determinedly into the circle…

His nerves were quite tense at the outset, but after a few hours of uneventful walking he found that he was rather bored. There wasn’t much to see. Flat, black, dusty ground, with absolutely nothing to break up the monotony. The only significant measure of distance to be had were the trail of his footprints and the distant signs of life outside the circle. It was then that Edwin noticed what appeared to be a lump in the black dust. He had to lower himself to the ground to be sure, but it was there. An anomaly in a static landscape. He felt his pulse quicken as he made his way towards it. It could always be nothing, but there had been no wind, no rain, not outside interference of any kind in this entire area since “The Event” two days ago. A cacophonous explosion heard from as far as the distant locale of Faroffland, and literally deafening to anyone unfortunate enough to live within a few miles of the forest outskirts. It had apparently spelled strongly of ozone in the area for hours after that. The closer he came to the mysterious lump, the more concerned he became. Whatever it was, it was vaguely humanoid in shape, curled up in the fetal position, and covered in the same dust black dust that surrounded him.

When he finally arrived, he could say with certainty that it was a human body, and that it wasn’t breathing. He couldn’t make out any details, but whoever this was in life had long hair, a slim physique, and had died far too young. He reached out to brush some of the dust away from the figure, but the moment his hand met flesh unobstructed by dust, several things happened at once. His unaligned Deistone charm flashed brightly and emitted a large amount of heat. The dead body gasped and started wordlessly screaming. Edwin, justifiably startled by these sudden occurrences, fell onto his ass with an undignified yelp and awkwardly crab walked away.