Part 152: The Final Memories: Part 3The Final Memories: Part 3
The umbral sea boiled and rolled, breaking against me in waves. I fought them off with nets of fire, protected myself with barriers of ice. One moment the corridors trembled with the clash of black fangs and white-hot Art. The next moment I knelt sagged to my knees, panting heavily and waiting for my flesh to knit. It was a battle of attrition, and I savored those precious seconds of rest, each one giving me more of an edge as I healed.
But I was running low on magic. I staggered, half-drained, from chamber to chamber. The dizziness still rang in my head like a gong, and the bile was still rank on my lips from when I'd vomited at the last transition. Gastric juices mingling with blood tasted foul, and I still had to scrape the stink of it off my tongue and spit frequently.
If I had the energy, I would've murmured a prayer when I stumbled across the next device.
I simply knelt there in front of the marked switch, chest heaving. Seconds ticked by, merging into minutes. I needed to hurry to save my friends. Yet I needed to rest if I were to live long enough to do so.
Once my punctured lung, my shattered knee, and the dozen other wounds were half-healed, I pulled the switch.
RUBIKON PROJECT ACTIVE
Current Planar Base of Operations: Limbo, [ERROR: planar sector umapped]
Objective: Meta-analysis of dungeoneering and variations thereof.
Query: For what purpose do individuals place themselves under threat of termination in isolated unmapped environs?
Hypothesis: [STOP - Command title required to proceed]
Repairs on main triplet gear in matrix 01-245-8X required... Multidimensional Piercer core component shows anomaly 0.0045% outside of bounds... Experimental protocol 42B-003 has resulted in extensive damage done on outer shell... repair Quadrones sent to investigate... Multidimensional Piercer core component shows anomaly 2.8477% outside of bounds... Material leak in matrix 55-876-1F detected!
Secondary repairs completed... gearing for execution of Experimental protocol 78C-207... Hypothesis? [STOP - Command title required to proceed]... Material leak in matrix 55-876-1F ceased... structural integrity breach noted... Experimental protocol active... Message to Director of Rubikon Project: "I wish to discuss the matter of my freedo-" [MESSAGE TERMINATED - OUT OF BOUNDS ERROR: SEPTON LEVEL REQUIRED]
Multidimensional Piercer core component shows anomaly 86.0641% outside of bounds... WARNING - EXPONENTAL INCREASE IN ERROR DETECTED... Notation: Engineering Room arch requires polishing: Monodrone 6598 assigned to duty... Priority: Anomaly requires correction: Quadrone Units 2231, 8765, 9347 assigned to investigate
Quadrone Unit 2231 has returned to Source
Quadrone Unit 8765 has returned to Source
Quadrone Unit 9347 has returned to Source
Multidimensional Piercer core component shows anomaly 7809.8005% outside of bounds... Priority: Anomaly requires correction: Quadrone Units 5640, 8760, 1749 assigned to invest-
Quadrone Unit 5640 has returned to Source
Quadrone Unit 8760 has returned to Source
Quadrone Unit 1749 has returned to Source
Director has returned to Source
-ERROR- -ERROR- DIRECTOR HAS BEEN DISINTEGRATED
STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY IN MATRIX 55-876-1F COMPROMISED - MATRIX HAS IMPLODED - MASSIVE MATERIAL CONTAMINATION DETECTED
Tridrone Unit 2870 has returned to Source
Duodrone Unit 1131 has returned to Source
Tridrone Unit 8731 has returned to S-
[STOP - Continue to list casualties: Y/N?]
Hypothesis? [STOP - Command title required but frankly sir I don't give a shit]
Material contamination spreading to- Experimental protocol 78C-207 has been aborted Priority: Engage repairs at [STOP - Command title reqwheee we are so screwed!]... Monodrone 6598 has stopped polishing...
FAILSAFE MECHANISM ACTIVATED - RUBIKON COMPLEX COLLAPSING
BACKING UP DUNGEON STATE
Sleep a sleep of marmalade dreams, and catch the winds of eternal dust. Flaming fans dance in starlight gleaming silver on the hidden seas.
Contact with Source has been lost...
Nordom blinked, disregarding the buzz of messages clicking from the Fortress' depths. Old messages need not be regarded.
The Quadrone sifted through the string of recent processes, seeking a priority to execute, then clicked in confusion. No priority. How could there be no priority?
Oh yes. Priority: protect Director. Wait- this priority was not set by the Director, was it? Nordom clicked, tracking the origin of the Priority and found... Nordom. A circular priority? Logically valid, but the unwritten rule was that such things should not exist. Or was it a written rule? Nordom sifted through the protocol listings... so many holes!
As if by instinct Nordom shot a pair of bolts into the darkness, and a screech sounded, and faded into the grim whispers of the halls.
Nordom: Protect the Director. From: Nordom.
Metal limbs clacked as they sped down the halls, fueled by the message. Nordom was Nordom. Nordom was Nordom's Self. Nordom has set the given priority, and must execute it...
The Quadrone clicked, its purpose suddenly becoming clear. Shaking off the confusion of the past, it scanned the surroundings, trying to reassess the situation. The Director must be found.
"Processing... Plane: Negative Material. Location: Fortress of Regrets."
"AH, THE ROGUE CONSTRUCT..." an unclassified organism drifted into view.
Nordom strategized quickly, and came to one dim conclusion while hopping away... "Sense of closure imminent."
"YOU HAVE OVERSTEPPED YOURSELF. SUBMIT."
The proposal was rejected immediately. "You wish harm on one that has aided Nordom at cost to his-selves. Nordom will attempt to neutralize the threat. Prospect of success: Slight."
A pair of whistling bolts shot from the two mechanical crossbows, and they passed harmlessly through the gaps in the creature's ropy form.
Nordom staggered as hammers of force shattered against metal frame. Ocular view nodes damaged... vision impaired...
"THE BODY IS A SHELL..." the creature boomed, "CONTINUED PRESSURE MAY FRACTURE IT. SHALL I CONTINUE?"
"You intend to harm him... Nordom will stop you..." the words were determined, but also took into account the contingency of failure.
A boom sounded in the halls then. What followed was the echo of splintered metal, and the sound of falling shards clattering against stone like rain.
I heaved when my body reformed, doubling over with dry retches and gags. I'd never felt so drained... couldn't believe I was so weak. So much of my strength had been sapped from me, and each time I traveled by these cannons it became worse. I stood, wavering, dagger in one hand and sparks of force blooming from the other. I had little energy left to spare.
The crowd of shadows surrounded me as I stepped backward, trembling with nausea. Were they sentient enough to realize how far I'd culled their numbers? Were they afraid? Or-
My boot skidded on the ground, and something scraped beneath my heel. I stopped, taking a moment to glance down at the blood that puddled beneath me, the orange-laquered shards of splint mail armor.
"Know that when death comes for you, know that I shall meet its blade with mine. Know that when all dies around you, know I shall live for your sake."
My mouth dried at the thought, and my eyes sought frantically among the crowd... was Dak'kon among those shades? I almost stumbled as I stepped away, blood chilling in my veins. So many shadows, so many that had died for my sake, or died in my place.
And I had been murdering them twice.
One of the shades shot forward, and I tried to dodge as it swung. But my flesh was not its quarry.
The strings of my belt pouch snapped as it tore free in the creature's claws. There in its talons, in the shreds of leather that once wrapped it, was the Blade of the Immortal: entropy-forged and destined to slit my veins.
The shadow crushed the blade in its claws, and metal shards clattered against the stones.
"No!" I cried, and ducked just as its claws raked my cheek.
My boots thudded against the floor, and with one burst of strength I pushed waves of cold behind me. The walls of frost would slow them down, but that was all I needed as I grabbed at the panel of the next machine. Too frantic to think I couldn't be sure what was happening, but all I knew was that I was getting closer. The 'X'-marked lever was easy to find this time, and I pulled it. Again it gave way easily beneath my touch, then disintegrated into mist - I took a deep breath, but unlike the other times... nothing happened.
In the distance a roaring sounded, as if something had just opened. A howling wind rushed through the vaults, and as I tried to figure out where the sound was coming from, I looked down. My hands were breaking down into dust, my arms... my body was fading like mist and becoming part of the wind...
"Now what's happening...?!" I howled, and my voice was carried away by the storm.
Annah had always felt at home in the shadows. She was one of the slimmest among the Collectors, and combined with her natural flexibility she had been unmatched in her ability to squeeze through vents and crevices. The art of searching was always a solitary venture, and she'd come to think of darkness as a warm cloak and her only companion. It had reared her... sheltered her. From this she'd earned the name Annah-of-the-Shadows when she was twelve.
She never thought of what might be hiding in the dark beside her.
"Annah, my lovely daughter..." he whispered, "Why? Why couldn't you save me? Why couldn't you free me? You stood so close but you couldn't pluck me from the pillar?"
"Sh-shut up, da," she hissed beneath her breath. Annah bit her lip. Her hands gripped her tail to keep it from flicking about nervously. No more than three feet away two of those those massive black guards loomed. She could take out one in a surprise attack, flee from the other, but she was trembling too much to believe she wouldn't miss.
"I'd thought you'd come for me..." Pharod wept, "What good are you if you can't steal your poor old father away from his fate? After all the kindness I'd given you, this is how you repay me?"
Annah bit her lip. She clenched her stomach, pressing all the terror and pain into a little ball deep inside. A little longer now... the shadows were moving away.
"I never should have taken you in if this is how you would repay me. You were an accident. A stray dog I allowed to follow me around..."
This was her chance.
Soft boots padded soundlessly as she took to a crouch, slinking away on hands and knees away from the shadows; away from the past.
"No! No Annah, don't leave me again!" the voice wailed.
Annah swallowed hard, trying to forget.
"I love you, da..." she murmured.
The walls of the next chamber were charred, and acid corroded the stones. She recognized the damage like it was a signature. Tch- bloody idjit probably bumbled into 'em.
But at least she was closer. Her eyes glanced at every corner, scanned each hall for movement. Nothing she could see, but still Annah slid from pillar to pillar, keeping herself well hidden. For once she regretted the way her leathers were cut. The icy air was sucking the heat from her flesh, and pinpricks of the chill nipped at her skin. It was so cold here...
"AH... THE FIENDLING GIRL..." a voice boomed, echoing through the halls. Annah turned in shock, gazing up at the mass of floating knots and strands. It looked like stretched sinew flapping from a stray dog's bone, "WHERE IS THE ONE WHO BROUGHT YOU HERE?"
"In a place where yeh'll never find 'im," she hissed. The advantage of surprise had been lost, and she knew she couldn't run from this thing, "If yeh think to be takin' him, yeh'll be needing ta get through me, first."
"YOUR WORDS HAVE PASSION'S STRENGTH. AND PRECIOUS LITTLE REASON."
"If it gives me the strength ta gut yeh, I donnae care!" the punch daggers slid into her hands.
"CURIOUS..." the thing mused, "YOUR REASON FOR FOLLOWING HIM HERE IS BECOMING CLEAR-"
"Enough of yer chatterin'! If it's a fight yeh want, then c-!"
"COULD IT BE THAT YOU SOMEHOW PERCIEVE YOURSELF AS SPECIAL IN HIS EYES?"
A chill ran up her spine. What did this thing know? How could she herself not have known? "If- if yeh're gonna try an' get past me then go n' do it! I..."
"FIENDLING, I HAVE WATCHED THE ONE YOU FOLLOW ACROSS MANY LIFETIMES. I KNOW HIS HEART, AND I KNOW THERE HAVE BEEN COUNTLESS OTHERS WHO HAVE FELT PASSION FOR HIM. OF THEM ALL, YOU ARE CERTAINLY THE LEAST. YOU ARE A THING, BASTARDIZED BY YOUR PARENTS AND THE PLANES..."
She wanted to clap her hands over her ears, or tear out the thing's throat if it had one. She screamed, her words drowning out the monster's words, "Shut yer bone-box, yeh hear me?! Shut y-"
"ANSWER ME THIS, AND YOU WILL KNOW SILENCE, CHILD," its voice rang over her cries, "DOES THE ONE YOU FOLLOW MATTER TO YOU?"
Her mouth worked to form an answer. The man was an idiot... clueless half the time and barmy the other half. No sense of survival. No subtlety or street smarts whatsoever. And then there were the piles of asinine questions and him running about the planes like an addle-cove on the slightest rumor. Ugly as sin, too.
But then he would smile. Sometimes he'd stand up with as much banter to the skull as it gave. Sometimes that deader would laugh, and he had a stupid throaty roar that would make her grin too. There were times when he would throw himself into the fray, sheathing the knives of their enemies in his body so none would find their way into hers. He did it for all of them, but sometimes she thought he had this look in his eye whenever he glanced at her while waiting for his wounds to knit. She remembered planting a blade in his guts in anger, before she knew what he was. She remembered him drawing her back from the darkness as she lay in a puddle of her own blood. His skin was coarse and twisted with scars. His body stank of formaldehyde... but she knew how soft he truly could be.
Annah ignored the wetness painting her cheeks. She almost laughed... wanting it all to end, wanting closure and being through with his idiocy. Those had been such stupid reasons to follow.
"He matters more to me... than me life."
Fire and ice crashed about her as she weaved and dodged. Flames lapped at her skin. Shards of ice sliced arms upraised to shield her face. He punch-daggers struck home, cracking against supple limbs that seemed to bend under her blades. It folded in on itself as if to shield its body from her daggers.
She would win this battle. She would win.
A roar of flame knocked her back, and elbows and knees cracked against the floor as she rolled. Annah groaned, the stink of singed leather and burning blood filled her nostrils. She looked up to see the creature's wings unfurling: they had only folded in to protect its body from the blast. Her attacks had done nothing.
Annah's boots slid out from under her. She was so disoriented... more battered than she thought. She tried to will herself to move... tried to stand and fight. The chiming chorus of a thousand ice crystals coalescing sounded above her, and still she tried to move.
She didn't want it to end after all.
There was the cold, the thousand piercing blades, and then the darkness claimed her.
My knees struck the floor and my chest heaved. It was too much... I felt like I'd been cored like an apple, my innards ripped from my body. Trembling limbs padded and knocked against the bare stone as I crawled. Those cannons... both trigger and trap. Had I been killed each time I'd pulled the levers? It made sense now if the master of the Fortress knew me well. If the master studied my previous incarnation when he was last here, forged the markings in mimicry of his hand... if each time I pulled a lever I'd been committing suicide...
They died for each step I took: each fighter and companion snuffed out so I could live. I grew weaker each time I fell here, the shadow swarms were sapping even more of my energy to fight them off.
The master of the Fortress was whittling me down little by little. I couldn't face him like this... had to flee...
But I'd died four times... and one of my friends still lived.
I clung to that thought like a handhold and lifted myself up, stumbling in the direction of that roar. I recognized these halls...
It was a portal, hung beneath an arch of cruel spines. Was this another trap? Was it escape, or would it lead to my end?
There was no choice. I closed my eyes, and stepped through.
A chill prickled my skin, and it was like stepping through a veil. In an instant the grim chambers of collective regrets vanished, replaced by gray-green cobbles and twisted symbols, and ancient statues that stood silent. The forest of stone sentinels was quiet save for the thud of my boots, the air dry and cold. Now and again something seemed to catch my eye in the corner of my vision, but when I turned nothing was there. Just the statues.
Most were eroded with age, their features unrecognizable. Each one I passed became more familiar though, until I recognized some of the wear in the stone was intentional, to reflect a mass of scars and wounds.
Moreover, as I walked through the dim gallery, the line of them began to curve. They were all pointing to the center of the chamber.
I looked up at them, each one now with a set of scars similar to the one I had, with faces cut and twisted and puckered like my own. One of them stood staring into the center of the chamber with a disdainful expression. Another stood with arms crossed, glaring straight ahead. One statue of me held a hand over its heart, mouth open as if making a speech. One clutched its right shoulder, as if wounded. It was a forest of lives and incarnations.
The center of the chamber beckoned me in with a green, spectral light. There, above a massive bowl of webbed metal, floated a huge crystal green as a sea. The rhythm of its pulses resembled a heartbeat, but slow and sickly like that of a dying man. Light from the crystal touched the stones like fingers, each ray of casting a glow on the ruined faces of the statues surrounding it.
I reached toward the gem slowly. Was this what I came here for? Was this the prison for my soul and my mortality?
An explosion sounded at the far end of the chamber, and darkness fled as distant braziers flared like stars. Screeching laughter rang through the room as a figure wreathed in flames barreled toward me, his aura charring the pillars and statues he passed until they cracked.
Ignus Comes (video)
"I will burn you to assssh, then ssset fire to the Planesss!" Ignus cackled.
My jaw dropped. This was impossible! I'd left him to be crushed in the Modron Maze!
No- there was no time for guilt or shame. Ignus swept his arms together, and sheets of fire surrounded his body. Another gesture, and bolts of flame sped towards me. Fire and will were one and the same to Ignus, and where others would handle the Art like pulling reins on a bucking steed, Ignus had tamed the flames to his desires long ago.
I didn't have the strength to fight him anymore. The castings streaked towards me, one after the other in a ceaseless barrage. I dodged and weaved between the statues, and the bolts shattered against them. Stone cracked and crumbled, raining pebbles onto the ground. I was reduced to scuttling beneath the dust like a cranium rat. Adrenaline had fed some new strength into my jellied limbs, but once that ran out...
Ignus' screams roared behind me, and soon my cries of agony joined them. He wrapped my body in flames, tongues of fire raking my skin and filling my face. Liquid heat flooded my mouth and nostrils and spilled into my lungs, white-hot spears stabbed into my ears. The world went black as my eyeballs burst in the heat. Vitreous humor spilled down my cheeks like greasy tears, until all fluid boiled away and only a charred crust clung to my skin.
I was blind. I could barely breathe with lungs half-boiled from the inside. My tongue was seared and shriveled, and I could barely speak. Ignus had left some of my hearing intact, but only to taunt me as I crawled into what I hoped was safety.
His cackling sounded like it was coming from behind a wall of water. I hoped that I'd judged the distance correctly. By the sound of it he seemed to be rolling through the air in glee, letting me cower, blinded and helpless.
"I SSSHALL BE AS FLAMESSS, AND ALL LIFE SSSHALL BE AS TORCHESSS!" Ignus screeched.
It's said that the best-laid battle plans end the moment the first weapon is drawn. Formations break down, maneuvers never come to fruit. A general's greatness isn't his ability in preparation or strategy... it's how he can improvise.
I hid in the lee of the statue, waves of fire passing me on either side with the roaring of an ocean. The stone heated. Its edges must've been melting, but I dug around in my pack for the jar that I'd saved from so long ago...
I sputtered, "Five hundred? That's ridiculous!"
He paused for a moment, considering. "That it is. Tell you what. Give me three hundred, and the eye's yours."
I thought it over, I really did. But hells, if it was a piece of my past I couldn't afford to be stingy, "It's a deal. Here's your money."
"It's a deal." He produced a darkened, wax-stoppered, wide-mouth bottle from his pocket. There was the sound of liquid sloshing around inside it, along with a heavier, squishier noise. Opening it, the stench of some sort of preservative agent nearly made me gag... Powers above this damn city should sell more nose-clips and perfumes. Floating in the viscid muck was an eyeball.
"You'd better figure out what you want to do with that..." the barkeep said sagely, "now you've exposed it to the air, you might as well put a pickled egg in the jar for all the good it'll do you. Make up your mind, cutter... pickled egg or not?"
With a moment's hesitation, I reached into my socket and popped my eye into the palm of my hand. The pain was incredible. My vision distorted, and for a moment I was slightly overwhelmed with a sense of vertigo as my plucked-out eye pointed in an odd direction, the two images I read not quite blending cohesively. The bartender helpfully severed the optic nerve, and directed my hand to the jar of goo that sat on the bar. I deposited my still-living eye in the preservative, wrapped my fingers around the old one, and slid it into my empty socket.
With one finger I dug the ash from my empty socket, and it fell down my cheek in flakes. The preserved eye wriggled in my grip with new life. The optic nerve slid back in as if eager to return home, and I hissed in pain as the world flashed into vision once again. A quick surge of energy filled me, the bit of latent strength that the eye once held returning as it reattached. I snapped a charcoal charm for good measure, and the heat around me seemed to settle painlessly like the embers of a dying fire.
Ignus didn't expect me to come barreling through the flames so soon.
The skin of my arms blistered as I held them up to protect my face. My charred lungs strained to drink in the air, and my head felt packed full of wool at the lack of it. I strained to focus, sheathing myself in blades of ice as I charged. Finally, I dropped my arm. My vision was still foggy with the flow of preservative, but I could see the shock on Ignus' face when I was no more than two paces away, and closing in.
I screamed, and it was a desperate, wheezing sound. Yet my arm fell, dagger striking true. Blackened flesh and charred bone were brittle, and cracked beneath the merciless tip of that steel fang. He stared soundlessly at the blade protruding form his chest.
"We've both learned that the road to power is one of suffering, supplicant," I hissed, "But you've become intoxicated by the torment. I've made it my own."
Black talons clapped at the sides of my head, cauterizing smoldering runnels into my flesh, "A hair-thin... dissstinction... Massster..."
"Yes..." I growled, "And that hair is the gulf that separates us." I channeled every last ounce of power into him, forcing veins of frost into his body.
Infernal fury met steel-hard frost. At the confluence brilliant white steam exploded with the sound of thunder. White, thick vapor choked me, the force threatened to blow us apart. I struggled to cling to my dagger, not daring to release until I knew Ignus was dead.
When the tempest finally settled, the aura of flames no longer wreathed his body. In its place was a snowfall of ash, but some final spark of life still flickered in him.
His body was stiffening, hard and black as coal. Yet he tilted his head back in fits and jerks, gazing up at me with eyes like fading embers.
"Massster... forgive me..." he murmured, and some part of him seemed once again like the same boy that wished to drink in the power of fire, ""I have betrayed your teachingsss..."
He fell to his knees then, body petrified and cold.
I had no more strength to murmur a prayer. The adrenaline had seeped away, and in its place was a bone-deep exhaustion that cried out for the rest of the grave. I only knew I needed to finish this, and I dragged my feet towards that floating crystal. Each movement shifted my blistered skin, and it was agony. Each breath I took was more difficult than the last. My regenerative abilities had been stretched to their limit, and I stumbled, half-crawling the last few paces towards the crystal.
I touched the shimmering surface, and a moment of dizziness overtook me. Muscles that wanted to melt and drop my body to the ground suddenly locked, freezing my hand to the glassy shards. There was a moment of silence, then sharp pains splintered through my body like fractures. Something was wrong- something was dreadfully...
Lances of agony cracked along my flesh, deep down into my bones. It felt as if my very being had been turned to ice, and was shattering...
It was then that reality slipped away.