Assuming you're new to the story, welcome to THE CONVERGENCE! This story is a collaborative project run by myself, SuperFire131, Asanetargoss and several other authors. Inspired by the sadly failed RIFT project, we started THE CONVERGENCE up back in 2015 in the hopes of bringing the characters of our various stories together in a unique, new context which reveals new aspects of their character. We see a Fire from long before the events of "Slaves of the Desert Mine", a Fristad lost somewhere in the middle of "The Book of Dreams", a Tyron from long after the events of "Cubic Fire" and many other beloved Minefic characters. I recommend checking out Book 1 and Book 2 if you want to understand all the nuances of what's going on, but don't worry, we've provided a handy-dandy character sheet below, and have written the opening chapters with a new reader in mind.
Anyway, I'm rambling. We've had an absolute blast bouncing all these different characters off each other and we hope you have just as much fun reading their triumphs and tragedies. Now, we hope you enjoy:
Book 3:Twisted Paths
The Story So Far
For millennia, beyond the Overworld, beyond the End, beyond even the Nether, The Entity has jealously eyed the infinite possibility of creation, building its own reality from the growth and decay of worlds. From this, Nexus, the patchwork world was born. For a time it was satisfied to rule over this dumping ground of the multiverse, but now it expands its influence at an alarming rate. It has built itself an army, an army it calls the Tower, and it intends to conquer. Now, as its plan reaches its apex, only one problem remains.
A group of heroes has emerged to finally contest the Entity and its captains. Initially a disparate group of stragglers who found themselves in Nexus through little agency of their own, they have defied the Entity twice now. First, they staged a prison break at the heart of the Tower itself. Now, they have escaped its attempt to recapture them. Injured and exhausted, they have escaped the ashes of the village they were hiding in, and they now seek shelter elsewhere.
Thankfully, they have a place to flee to. Fire the Mencur-Besh, a 5,000-year-old altered human, broke off from the party shortly before the attack. At the behest of a mysterious prophet, he has built a shelter for all those who would oppose the Entity’s forces.
Little do they know, they have made the Entity feel fear for the first time in millenia, and in the process have prompted it to accelerate its plans. It is now more dangerous than ever, and the fate of all worlds now hangs in the balance.
Fire: Calm, collected, scaled, three-meter-tall, millenia old, all of these apply to Fire the Mencur-Besh. In reality Fire is a human named Peter accessing a world based on our favorite block game, created using revolutionary technology. In this world he went on various adventures and acquired all manner of skills. One day a strange potion he experimented with took him out of his own world into another one, Nexus.
Despite being the group’s most experienced leader and perhaps its most powerful individual combatant, Fire is a fish out of water. No longer able to rely on what he built in his own world, Fire is now forced to find his way in Nexus. With everything being unknown, trusting anyone is difficult. Fire also has Claw to think about, a remnant of his past manifesting as a feral split personality. And the stakes couldn’t be higher - from what he knows respawning is off the table.
Since arriving in Nexus, Fire has been the most proactive in seeking out answers as to just what Nexus and the Entity are. Eventually, this led him to establish the Shelter, a safehouse for all those who would challenge the might of the Entity. Believed by the Prophet to be the champion he has prophesied, Fire is the group’s de facto leader. However due to his sudden disappearances before the escape from the Tower and the battle of the village, as well as his detached outlook, some of the others find his style of leadership a little more than off-putting.
Shadow: Shadow was brought to Nexus by her brother Fire to aid him in his quest to shed light on the happenings. She is an immensely powerful mage, possessing mastery over many kinds of magic, as well as some abilities that most would consider aberrant. Shadow is not quite human, which shows in ways ranging from innocuous blunders in personal interaction, to her complete lack of physical needs, to her unsettling Void magic.
So far Shadow has presented herself both as fiercely loyal to her brother Fire but also neutral in most other regards, helping where possible without taking sides. She aided in revealing the Book’s nightmarish meddling and is now keeping an eye on it. She also started building an odd bond with Astro, not just over magic but also over more philosophical things.
Kay: General Kay Mandy would like you to believe he is a suave, upper-crust intellectual and a natural leader - a real up-and-coming young man - it’s not entirely untrue. Despite his renown as “Herobrine’s Lap Dog”, his retirement from the military has left him directionless and erratic. He has done a great many things to be ashamed of, and fears fading into impotence and irrelevancy in peacetime. As such, when he found himself trapped in Nexus, he was simultaneously frustrated and relieved to have another adventure to distract himself with. However, having realised the scale of the threat posed by the Entity and his weakness in comparison with the rest of the group, he has formed an uneasy alliance with the Book. He has gained access to its power in return for a promise to help it accrue power when he returns to his world. However, can he keep the Book in check?
Kay’s mixture of ruthless pragmatism and near-inspirational arrogance has resulted in a mixed relationship with the rest of the group. He has formed close friendships with Warnado and Tyron in addition to his pre-existing friendship with Astro, but managed to get off on a spectacularly wrong foot with Steve and Jennifer and has an extremely strained relationship with Fire. Knowing of the Mencur-Besh’s true identity, Kay considers him a fraud, and last time they interacted they had a serious falling out.
After an ill-fated encounter with the Entity, Kay is recovering from his wounds in a bed at the Shelter, not having been lucid in over a week.
Warnado: The joker of the group, this quarter-demon wizard’s top priority in any given situation is to squeeze some enjoyment out of it. Stealing a key? Use magic to replace it with an upsetting quantity of jam. Need to knock someone out? A hilariously oversized baseball bat seems appropriate. Your enemy wants a dramatic confrontation? He’ll call them a dork and crack a bunch of dumb jokes even he doesn’t necessarily understand.
However, beneath this jovial, pleasure-seeking demeanour lies a genuinely sad past. Warnado is one of the five Children of Prophecy, who are destined to save their world from Herobrine. Sadly, he hasn’t met any of the others yet and he is only thirteen years old.
Warnado has spent a lot of his time with Kay, almost up to the point of idolization, participating in whacky undertakings if there isn’t a battle to fight. Warnado also deeply cares for Amanda, an old flame he believed dead before arriving in Nexus. He fiercely defended her from a Book-controlled Fristad, and now worries about the Book’s apparent acceptance into the group. He has also entered a magical apprenticeship under Shadow and is showing great promise, though he is not entirely sure whether he should make use of his demonic heritage.
Amanda: Once upon a time, Amanda was a normal enough young girl, living in a village under the protection of a demon-boy named Helix. Of course, she doesn’t remember that. She was captured by a pack of bandits and found herself in Nexus with no inkling that she’d ever had any life outside that patchwork world. She eked out a living moving from village to village, selling her wares to their confused, lost inhabitants. Her life continued in this vein until she ran into Helix again - who now goes by Warnado - who made her aware of her past.
Due to the hardships she’s endured as a travelling merchant, Amanda has a prematurely cynical and world-weary outlook. That said, she likes the carefree, energetic goofiness Warnado brings into her life. Even if she doesn’t remember their time together, after he helped rescue her from the Dreamweaver’s tortures, an affectionate relationship has begun to bud between them.
Having picked up some skills with a crossbow over the years, Amanda intends to make herself useful in the fight against the Entity. Following Warnado’s lead, she hopes to grow in ability under the tutelage of the glamorous assassin, Rose.
Destiny: Destiny was once part of a team. Together with her boyfriend David, she helped to defeat Herobrine’s apprentice and save Minera from the Sovereign’s tyranny. Not a day after their victory, they were approached by the echoes of their past selves, Carter and Anya, and told to travel to Nexus to stop another great evil. Now, David is dead and Destiny hasn’t coped with it as well as she’d like.
She is still very much grieving. She and David were reincarnated across lifetimes to be together, and now she’s worried they might be “out of step”. When Fire enlisted her to help build the Shelter, she leapt at the opportunity to distract herself, but it has only been a partial success. She’s not sure if she trusts Fire, worrying he just sees her as a problem to solve. Having finally found a way to contact Anya again, she at the very least has someone she feels comfortable talking to about her grief, but she has a long way to go before she’s fully healed. In the absence of an enemy directly responsible for David’s death, she yearns for revenge against those who imprisoned them in the Tower - the Ender, Freak and Glibby the Ape - and she will take any opportunity to enact it, regardless of her own safety.
Tyron: Tyron Dragoknight was finally enjoying some peace. He had beaten Herobrine, beaten the endermen, freed the dragons and restored balance to the world.
However, his heroic status has made him a target, and he found himself at the mercy of the phantom known as Freak. The phantom feeds on fear, during his captivity Tyron found himself regularly overpowered by visions of despair and destruction. He’s a naturally laid-back, optimistic sort, and since his liberty he feels more himself, but the scars of his imprisonment linger. His sentient bluestone sword, Kir, does their best to lift his spirits, but everyone has their limit.
None of this changes the fact that Tyron is a powerful warrior with access to some fairly powerful magic. He can summon icy blades around his hands, bend the earth to his will, and even fly on wings made of stone. Moreover, when he holds Kir he becomes one of the finest swordsmen Minecraftia has ever known. He is one of the team’s most capable all-rounders, and despite his reluctant return to heroism, he will do all in his power to defend his new friends.
Fristad: Fristad of Veridale is just a shepherd. Normally, he just worries about how much wool he’ll be able to produce, about keeping his flock safe, and otherwise just tries to enjoy his life. He has led a life characterised by honesty, boyish camaraderie and a love of nature. However, several months ago, he came into possession of the Book.
As soon as it mysteriously entered into his possession, the Book began eroding Fristad’s free will through coercive nightmares, psychological manipulation and the promise of sharing its power. This only worsened once he arrived in Nexus, when the Book saw a true opportunity to extend its influence. First it transformed Fristad temporarily into an Enderman, then made him become the Dreamweaver in an attempt to enthrall Amanda. However, this was when the Book finally lost control of Fristad, not from his own will but from a coordinated intervention from his friends.
Now, Fristad must wear a magic-suppressing harness to prevent the Book from ever attempting to regain its influence. With this dominating presence gone, Fristad is at a loss for direction in his life. All he knows is that he feels guilty, particularly for his actions as the Dreamweaver, and hopes to find some purpose and redemption in the Shelter.
Steve and Jennifer: Steve Brine and his girlfriend Jennifer are an accomplished power duo. They have faced off undead armies, the Ender Dragon and Herobrine himself. As the owners of a set of gems the Entity desires, they entered Nexus hunted and confused, though confident in their ability to pull through. It was in this period of pursuit that they came across Fristad, with whom they formed a close bond. They were the first people he told about the Book, and the first ones other than Destiny to figure out he was the Dreamweaver.
Steve is a friendly goofball, and Jennifer balances a genuinely supportive and nurturing personality with being a ruthlessly accurate sniper. Both are capable of carrying huge amounts of materials in their seemingly bottomless pockets, and are capable of digging and building at rapid speeds. Steve is the group’s tank, Jennifer its sniper, and together they are the ultimate crowd-control.
At the Shelter, they feel a little directionless, having had to follow the lead of others since their arrival. Honestly, constantly dragged around is getting a little draining. That said, they have a great deal of respect for Fire and are more than happy to follow his lead.
Astro: Astro has lost a lot, and much of it was his own fault. He trusted the wrong people, and now he mourns the death of many of his dearest friends: among the dead was his good friend, Kay, King of Gaia. He was, before arriving in Nexus, tasked by Jeb with combing the snowy Fields of Acrisius for the corpses left behind by the latest conflict. However, he now finds himself in the midst of a new adventure.
An able warrior and a better wizard, he can shatter bones with a thought, summon shields and even fly. However, his magic is slowly killing him and until recently he could only use so much of it without quickly wearing himself out. He is the definition of a glass cannon.
Moreover, a mishap with portals means he has come into contact with a younger Kay from far in his past, and this is more than a little troubling to him. In addition to worrying about the threat the Entity poses and the threat to the timeline, he has to grapple with the monster he knows Kay will become, and might always have been. Worse still, after Shadow tore open a hole in reality as a demonstration of her power, Astro struggles with strange headaches and dreams, unable to stop thinking about this mysterious un-space.
Lucy: Originally a maid in the employ of a wealthy couple in a village close to the Tower, Lucy was unexpectedly and suddenly recruited by Fire for reasons unknown to her. She quickly found out what Fire saw in her: her talent for logistics and working with people, which became invaluable for ensuring the smooth operation of the Shelter.
The Prophet: An enigmatic figure preaching from the top of a hill to his congregation. Many say he is completely insane and they may even be right. Even still, his prophecies turn out to be true, if sometimes only metaphorically, too often to be explained with luck. He acts as a beacon of hope for the less-well-off citizens of Nexus, but has been missing since the Entity’s forces occupied a village near the area where he would normally address his followers.
Also Steve (no relation): The Prophet’s guardian, who has the ability to teleport, a rude, confrontational attitude and an intense hatred of the Entity. He claims the Entity destroyed his world, though he does not know by what means. He appears to have been trying to recruit a team of heroes to liberate Nexus for some time, though until encountering Fire had little success. Like the Prophet, he has been missing since the Tower raided the village.
From "A Tale Known by Only One" by Bruvvy.
Rose: A cold and classy assassin hailing from a world quite different than the usual, Rose was chosen by Fire for his expedition for her prowess at killing.
Voidblade: A green-eyed enderman chosen for his powers of teleportation. In Voidblade’s world the End was fighting a losing war with humanity, making interactions with humans understandably difficult for him.
Urist: Urist is as dwarven as a dwarf can be, but keeps his past to himself. He was chosen for his natural talent for excavation and engineering.
The Lady of Dreams: A benevolent phantom who occasionally visits Peter/Fire in his dreams with the goal of helping him come to terms with his traumatic past. However, since she followed him into Nexus she has seemed increasingly distressed.
The Entity: Little is known of this being. It created the Nexus and the Tower, indicating it possesses immense power. On account of a tightly-fitted suit of bronze armour, it has few obvious weak points aside from a pair of white, fabric gloves it wears instead of gauntlets. Without its armour, it appears to be composed of grey TV static in a deeply unstable but vaguely humanoid form. Additionally, when it wears no armour it will possess or absorb anyone it touches, allowing it to appear multiple times on the one battlefield. All that is clear is that it will kill and murder and steal anything that gets in the way of its esoteric motivations. Normally, it spends its time in The Tower, overseeing the business of dimensional transactions and the coordination of troops, occasionally sending its manifestations into battle.
However, during the raid on the village it made a rare appearance in person. Apparently responding to a tear in reality created by Shadow, it appeared intent on sealing it with immediate effect. Since then, it has ensured the village is fortified and personally guards the site of the tear. The reasons for its concern are currently unknown.
The Ender: An enderwoman who is the main commander of the Entity's forces. She wears obsidian armour and carries a purple sword that crackles with energy. Acutely observant, she maintains an alliance of convenience with The Entity, in the hope of advancing her people's ambitions. The heroes showing up have made her job rather difficult, she has so far been unable to apprehend any of the ones who staged the prison break. Her loss to Kay only added injury to insult, making her the target of Glibby’s heckling and growing skepticism in her homeworld. All this has filled her with a strong determination to not only get back at the Ape but redeem herself in the eyes of the Entity.
Freak: The phantom who kidnapped Tyron. He appears almost human, aside from talon-like fingers, his blurry, smoke-like aura and the fact that light passes through him. He also has the strange ability both to create hallucinations and to only appear visible or tangible to people of his choice. He has a love of mind games and is perhaps the cruellest of The Entity's officers. The Entity accordingly allows him the most freedom to roam as he wishes. He has no known troops under him and could be just about anywhere he wishes, always looking for fear, which he consumes for sustenance. He has also become fascinated with the Entity’s fear after seeing its reaction after the raid, the extent of this fascination is as of yet unknown.
Glibby The Ape: A relatively recent addition at The Tower. In his world, he is known as a serial killer and enforcer and who looks like a gorilla, but in Nexus he is one of the Entity's more powerful captains. Covering his huge hands with metal gauntlets, he is formidable in close combat and even the sturdies members of the heroes would have trouble walking off a blow from him. He also leads a group of endermen who have defected from the Ender’s forces known as the Grey Ones. He has been sent to Nexus by the crime-lord known as The Silhouette to defend his interests, under strict instructions to maintain a good relationship with The Entity.
Dr. Veronica Mercury: As the Tower’s head scientist Dr. Mercury is in charge of managing resources and making sure everything runs smoothly. Her main task is the construction of an ominous machine that plays a central role in the Entity’s plan. In her off-time (which is regrettably little) she works on her own projects in the field of necro-technology, as well as tinkering with her powered exo-suit. While investigating some strange energy signatures in the village near the Tower, she was confronted with a tear in reality created by Shadow, leaving her unconscious but recovering.
Marinus Bul, attorney at law: The Entity's spokesperson and self-professed “attorney”. A smooth if highly-strung negotiator with a stressed streak a mile wide. He has compiled files on each of the heroes and knows most of their emotional weak-points. It is unclear how he came into The Entity's employ or why. He really hates Freak. Just so much. He makes things so difficult.
Silver: The leader of the Grey Ones. When Kay interfered with one of the Entity’s business deals, Silver and two of his colleagues found themselves trapped in his world for eleven years. During this time they came into the employ of Glibby and the Silhouette, and their scales grew grey with age. They only returned to Nexus after being sent to kidnap Astro. Silver is deeply grateful to Glibby for the protection he offered, and resents the Ender for abandoning him for a decade. He also hates Kay and attempted to kill him by trapping him and Steve in an arena full of mobs.
The Dog: A minor officer in the Entity’s ranks who conveyed Fire, Warnado and Kay to the Tower when they briefly attempted to negotiate with the Entity. He didn’t do much, but Kay feels they really struck it off in the brief time they spent together, and laments the fact that they are on opposite sides. No one other than Kay feels this way.
Little pillars of smoke pierced the canopy at various points, telling of camps beneath. From his branch, Voidblade couldn’t see the refugees themselves, but he could hear their voices. Anger and optimism were widespread among the camps’ denizens. They had come far, fleeing the forces of the Tower and the ruins of the village. It was unfair - the Tower had ripped them from their worlds and they had congregated together at the foot of the Prophet’s hill. Now, the machinations of the Entity and its captains had scattered them again. Voidblade had been among their number, and even though they were humans, he felt a certain sympathy for them.
“The enemy of my enemy…” he lamented. “I hope we can just get this over with soon so I can get back to warring with the humans instead of protecting them.”
However, he stopped this line of thinking and calmed himself down. Getting frustrated wouldn’t change their situation. Soon, they would reach the shelter Fire had established, and they would be welcomed. For now, they would have to sit there, eating their meagre rations and cursing the pursuers who were no doubt hot on their heels. This insistence that they were in danger confused and infuriated Voidblade. It seemed to be a rule that humans, no matter what world they came from, always assumed they were being targeted. It also seemed to be a rule across worlds that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In truth, they probably had little to fear. The Entity had sent its forces to attack their village and their congregation for its own specific reasons. The Prophet was a dissident of some sort, preaching against the Entity and prophesying the downfall of its Tower, or something of the sort. Now that his congregation was considered scattered they were unlikely to consider them worth pursuing. Besides, they had been there pursuing Fire’s colleagues, who had arrived a few days prior, weak and injured. However, something had happened in the village, and its priorities had changed. It wasn’t sending anyone out to pursue the congregation or its original targets. Instead it was fortifying the village.
Voidblade had teleported far and wide, even going as far as the village outskirts, and he had seen the Entity striding about in its bronze armour. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought it was pacing in agitation and worry.
But for the moment, they had no idea what it was up to. For now, he had to report to Fire, and explain that soon they would have wounded to tend to, and soldiers to arm.
He stood up, teleported and found himself at the mouth of the shelter. Rolling his shoulders, Voidblade readied to walk amongst the humans. It had been fine when it was just the three women (and Fire, and the dwarf). Now they were everywhere and it was getting… awkward. He didn’t hate all humans, exactly, but humans had massacred his kind to the point of capitulation in his world, so he was aware of human cruelty. The enderborn had started that war, but the human retaliation had been terrifying. Maybe these humans were different. Voidblade wasn’t holding out for that, however. He had been let down enough times.
He pressed the button and the immense piston doors started to slide apart. He stepped right through and began to walk at a brisk pace. On his left was a small library where Destiny sat, staring at a page with a scowl on her face and fingers running through her brown ponytail. Until recently she had been out hunting constantly. Then, the others arrived and people kept joining her hunts and she had been polite, but obviously wanted to be alone. As Voidblade understood from the well-meaning whispers about the shelter, she had lost a loved one recently. He hoped she recovered quickly. War did not wait for grief. But she seemed to know that well - she had killed Herobrine’s protégé.
“Then again,” Voidblade mused. “A lot of people here claim to have killed Herobrine, or to have served him, or to come from a world where he doesn’t exist at all. It would be nice to come from a world where that killer never existed.”
Passing by on his right were the red-haired woman they called Jennifer and Fristad, the shepherd. They had bows and were obviously about to go hunting. The latter wore a strange chest-place which glowed purple in places. He had seen the crystals used to suppress magic. There was a story in this to be sure, but no one seemed comfortable talking about it and Voidblade was more than happy to remain ignorant for the time being. Nonetheless, he had resolved to snap Fristad’s neck if he ever attempted to remove the suppression device.
“Voidblade!” called Fristad suddenly, beaming in that obnoxious human fashion. Voidblade didn’t believe these ostentatious, grandiose emotions could possibly be sincere and yet it was all humans seemed capable of displaying. “My man, how did the scouting go?”
Voidblade turned to look down at him, incensed and stooping a little. “I am not your manservant.”
Fristad’s eyes widened and his face flattened with surprise.
“I… I didn’t say that,” responded Fristad with a tone so meek it became a question.
Voidblade looked him up and down, trying to decipher whether he was being mocked.
“Sorry,” said Voidblade. “There appears to have been a breakdown in communication. Have a nice day, my… man.”
He then quickly strutted off, not looking back. However, if he had he would have seen Fristad turn to Jennifer and start asking if he’d done something wrong, and the red-headed warrior pat him on the shoulder and start to smooth the feathers of his worry.
He reached a bend in the corridor. Urist the dwarf and Steve Brine, Jennifer’s boyfriend, were talking to Lucy, a blonde-haired woman who apparently had been a housemaid before being recruited by Fire. The former was characteristically short and dumpy and covered in soot. They had been mining. Steve, however, showed absolutely no sign of this endeavour. His armour and skin were clean. This was an odd, slightly unnerving characteristic of Steve and Jennifer - they never got dirty, as though they only interacted with the physical world part-way. Steve didn’t even seem used to the concept of blood, always flinching when he saw bleeding.
Regardless, the two had been mining and now they were reaching into their seemingly cavernous pockets and producing quantities of stone and riches that Voidblade couldn’t fathom. And Lucy responded with equally unfathomable comprehension, noting down and categorising every article of their delivery in her notebook.
“So, where do you want us to put the coal?” asked Steve, balancing a perfectly square block of coal ore the size of a child on his fingertips. That was another thing - no matter what he pulled out of the earth with his pickaxe, it always took on the shape of a perfectly euclidian cube.
“I designated one of the areas for ore storage just earlier, can’t miss it, just one entrance further down the tunnel than what we used so far. It also has sub-sections for the different types as opposed to the old pile.”
“Cool,” Steve nodded, before pocketing the coal and setting off down the hall.
Voidblade kept his eyes on the floor and marched past Lucy, mumbling his report out in rapid-fire: “Scouting mission completed. No Tower sightings. Refugees approaching.”
Lucy looked up from her notebook and smiled. “That’s great to hear, thank you for giving us eyes out there, Voidblade.”
Voidblade stopped and made rigid eye contact. He nodded once.
“You’re welcome,” he proclaimed, before resuming his measured, inconspicuous charge down the hallway. He congratulated himself for the level of courtesy he had afforded the human. If he kept that up he might just survive in this shelter after all.
He paused a moment when an energy arrow shot out from the training room, a large cavern they had converted into a bit of a dojo. It had pierced a fully-cooked chicken drumstick and was now pinning it to the wall. The arrow rapidly disintegrated and Voidblade caught the food as it fell. It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten so he looked in through the door to make sure it wouldn’t be missed.
“You’re improving,” said Rose diplomatically. “Accuracy-wise, you’re doing great. You just need to work on timing, and not shooting the last one out the door. Come on, that’s like the fourth time today - you’re just letting that become a habit.”
A quick inspection of the room revealed the black-haired assassin sitting in an armchair, materialising knives to throw at a bullseye across from her. However, that was the least interesting aspect of the room. There were half a dozen other targets around the room, each of which had a small pile of pierced drumsticks on the floor in front of them. At the centre of the room was Warnado, the small hooded child, holding a bow of glowing light. Of his face, only the mouth and two glowing red eyes were visible. He wore a large brass-coloured gauntlet that covered most of his forearm on one arm but not the other.
“Really? My timing’s off?” he snapped. “Here I thought it was just chance that the last one keeps going out the door! Surprisingly, lady, it’s a little difficult to get the timing right on summoning six separate chicken drumsticks in mid-air, then shooting them just as they pass by weirdly-placed targets with arrows I have to will into existence!”
“Stop getting frustrated. Take five. Next round I want all the chicken on the bullseyes.”
She threw three knives at her target in quick succession. Warnado went over to a basin of water and started splashing his face.
These knives were then gathered up by Amanda and sorted into labelled buckets depending on make. Voidblade observed the process repeat several times. At seemingly random intervals Rose started throwing, and then the second she stopped Amanda would snap to attention and snatch up the knives before Rose started throwing again. No warning was given and in the three or four times Voidblade saw this process repeat, nearly all of them were near-misses. It appeared to be some sort of reaction-time exercise.
“Hm, that’s enough cleavers,” Amanda suggested. “Lucy said we really need some more stilettos.”
Amanda was about as young as Warnado, barely a teenager. And yet she had a world-weariness about her. Lack of sleep had engraved rings beneath her blue eyes, and her skin was so pale her dark brown hair seemed jarring. Her manner was where it was clearest though. Despite the tendency of even mature humans to waste words, she said only what she needed to say when it needed to be said - she would have fit in well among Voidblade’s people.
“Honey, Lucy can need as many stilettos as she likes. You aren’t ready for me to start throwing stilettos.” She threw another cleaver to punctuate her point.
Amanda shook her head and returned to her catcher’s position.
“Hey V!” Warnado called, leaning against a stone pillar and waving. Voidblade realised “V” was referring to him. The red glows were slightly narrowed, indicating a frown. “What do ya need?”
Voidblade realised he had given the humans quite enough words for that day. That was perhaps the thing he hated most about being in a primarily human environment - humans never stopped asking questions. How are you? Did you have a good day? What do you want? Why are you staring at me like that? And so on. Enderborn always seemed to be on the same page and he vowed to never take that for granted ever again when he got back to his world. He pointed a finger at the drumstick, then at his mouth. Warnado deliberated a few milliseconds upon this laconic but intriguing polemic in favour of the enderman getting the tasty chicken leg before offering a thumb’s up of resounding approval. Voidblade, meanwhile, held true to his withdrawal from human contact and had ducked back out of the room before the thumb was even fully raised.
Biting voraciously, he rounded a corner and took a moment to appreciate just how bright the shelter was. A large lamp pierced the ceiling every few minutes. Miniature swords of light needle his vision and he fought the urge to rub them. Voidblade supposed he should be glad he didn’t have to stoop to avoid them, as he had in the village’s buildings. That had motivated in part his decision to sleep in a tree at the foot of the Prophet’s hill - he was tired of knocking his head off the ceiling.
The command room was just at the end of the hall, but Voidblade stopped himself one last time to steal a sidelong glance into the infirmary. The wizard, Astro, stood over a bed. However, the wizard, with his black hair and his face line with age and worry, was of little interest to Voidblade. Everything about him, from his slight stoop to his aura of sadness, disgusted the enderman a little. He could never take real interest in such a frail specimen. Voidblade was interested in the man in the bed.
The divider was drawn back and Voidblade could make out the outline of his body, covered in layers of duvets and blankets. Beneath all that, his body looked soft and smooth as a snow drift. Voidblade could hardly reconcile this with the image of mortality they had recovered a few days before. His obsidian-plated cuirass had been shattered, and the ribs beneath fared little better. His pale skin and auburn hair had become a frail canvas for blood and bruising flesh. His opponent had slammed him against the line between life and death until his back broke. If not for the potions from Fire’s world, he would be dead. With their help, he was due to recover within a few days.
Now, a half-dead human was hardly an interest to Voidblade, but this was an exception. He heard many strange things about him. That he was a General. That, contrary to the others, he had served Herobrine. That the book that sat on the table beside him, seemingly unassuming, was a source of power to him. However, above all, Voidblade had heard he had taken on the Entity alone. He lost, and evidently quite severely, but there was something to learn there.
Voidblade couldn’t stop himself from speculating in the face of that. He wondered if the fight had been close, or if it had been a massacre. The stories spread about the congregation did not inspire hope in Voidblade. Entire armies fell before the Entity. The Entity itself could be considered an army, literally or figuratively depending on who recounted. That he had survived at all seemed something of a miracle and this one miracle might promise another. Sadly, for the moment, the auburn-haired General remained asleep and the miracle remained solitary.
Voidblade continued on before Astro could notice him and force an interaction, finally reaching the doorway. He stopped to tear the remaining chicken into his mouth and swallowed it down before throwing the chicken bone into a small gutter. Voidblade almost walked on, but reminded himself of something Lucy had called him up on. He pressed his palm into a large stone button and watched as the bottom of the gutter opened up and the bone was consumed by lava.
Inside the command room were three individuals. Tyron, who called himself Dragoknight, was tending a furnace. The fire reflected in his clear blue eyes, and sweat matted his green fur. He was half-listening to the conversation of the other two. He reached into the glowing blue portal on his back from which he materialised a bucket of water. He blew on its surface and it immediately began to frost over. Tentatively, he cracked the surface of the ice and trickled a thread of diamond-shaped droplets onto the flames. He drew back as the steam emerged, placing the bucket back into the portal and proceeding to rearrange his damp facial fur. He then began to stare at his sword, which he called Kir, and cocked an eyebrow.
Fire and Shadow stood over a map showing the topography of Nexus, the patch-work world the Entity had trapped them all in. Fire was a huge scaled creature not unlike an enderman, though he had short, white hair, glowing red eyes and wore fabrics like the humans. He called himself a “Mencur-Besh”, though Voidblade did not know what this meant. He had a series of small flags in hand that he placed with pin-point precision upon the map.
Shadow sat on the edge of the table, just under five feet tall and kicking her legs back and forth. Like her brother, she had red eyes and hair of a shocking white, though it was long. A wave of it flowed down until it broke upon her shoulders and mingled into her robes somewhere past the armpit. It stood in dichotomy with her skin, which was the colour of night. There was not a trace of her namesake on the wall or floor. Wodahs the living shadow has evidently left its master for a stroll.
The two siblings were deep in conversation and Voidblade waited for a moment to intervene.
“We know from Destiny’s scouting missions that the Tower’s immediate area of influence is surprisingly small. The Entity or the Ender, whoever is in charge of the troops directly, may send out patrols but it seems that very little attention is given to what goes on in Nexus. Most of their focus seems to be on the outer worlds.”
Shadow replied: “I think I understand the logic. From what I could gather from the Prophet’s sermons, the Entity gains power the bigger Nexus becomes, so from its point of view everything that’s here is already conquered and secured. It seems to find ‘internal’ threats unlikely, maybe even impossible.”
“We should be careful trying to read too much into the Entity, it doesn’t exactly think along the same lines as we do. However the effect is the same, we should be able to operate relatively unhindered.” Fire said. And so they continued. And continued. And continued without missing one beat.
As Voidblade waited seemingly ceaselessly for a gap to appear in the wall of conversation a small voice chirped in his head. “Hello friend! Reason for coming? Will tell Tyron. Make things faster.”
Voidblade’s first thoughts were immediately along the lines of “Who are you?” And his first reaction was to look around as though stung by a wasp.
Voidblade’s blood stopped pounding so much. They had mentioned that the sword could talk. This was just the first time it had found reason to talk to him. Yet it already called him “friend”. It was worse than the humans.
His mind naturally floated toward why he had come and without having meant to, he answered Kir’s request.
Tyron turned and smiled at Voidblade with his glassy eyes and said, “We have news from the scouts. Come in Voidblade.”
Fire stopped talking, Shadow stopped preparing her response and the siblings stood to attention.
Voidblade seized the moment and explained, “The Prophet’s congregation will arrive within a day or two. In numbers. No pursuers apparent.”
The three looked at each other and Voidblade awaited instructions.
Fire didn’t answer immediately, his gaze suggested he was thinking something over.
“I will have to check out capacity with Lucy. We should have enough for at least nine hundred comfortably, about double that as an absolute maximum. I think I’ll have Urist and his team construct an additional sleeping area, that should push our capacity well above a thousand. For now our mushroom farms should more than cover our food needs and in a pinch we’ll resort to the spiders… I had hoped for a smoother transition.”
“That is all well and good,” added Tyron. “But we are making them into an army, are we not?”
“Once they have had a few days to adjust we can start dividing them up based on existing combat skills, the ones proficient in fighting can act as instructors along with people from our group, who will act as coordinators.”
“And that’s all great,” Tyron conceded. “I was more getting at who’s going to lead them, and command structure beyond that. I get the impression you’re keen on leading, and I’m not opposed to that, but we should have a conversation about it. If we can present a united front, the congregation will join us more readily. You may be the ‘Champion of Life and Death’ they’re so keen on, but people only put as much faith in prophecy as others put in.”
Voidblade blinked. He had not thought about who might lead them other than Fire. Since they arrived, Fire had been the undisputed leader, and none of the others had questioned this when he took them in. In fact, his position had just been consolidated further, with Shadow, Tyron and Astro forming a Council of advisors. In Voidblade’s view, everyone else was either too young (like Warnado and Amanda), too solitary (like Destiny or himself) or as happy to receive commands as to give them. Then again, humans were inexplicable and irrational. Voidblade just hoped one of their number didn’t end up leading.
Shadow said: “The exact wording was ‘Mortal gods have taken two kinds and forged them into a higher one! Their champion will come to command the forces of life and death!’ but that’s besides the point.”
Fire chuckled, then turned to Tyron again. “It’s a good thing you brought that up. So far I have been leading because it was a natural transition from building the shelter and nobody objected to it. But yes, I do not plan on taking the leadership without asking anyone about it. The best way of going about it would probably be a ballot of some kind.”
“That was about what I was going to suggest. Secret, written ballot. Nice starting point of democracy,” Tyron clapped his hands together and pointed them at Voidblade, “Here, can you do me a favour and go around gathering the others?”
Despite his annoyance at having to talk again, Voidblade nodded and asked if there was anything else.
“If you could grab Astro first, that would be great. I’ll need his help organising the count.”
Voidblade teleported into the infirmary. He could have walked it, but that would have given them more opportunities for instructions. The enderborn liked to think they had the best work ethic of any species, but Voidblade was the first to admit it had its limits.
Astro was still standing over his friend, so Voidblade came over and tapped him on the shoulder. The wizard, who had been deep in thought, didn’t jump when the talons brushed him. Instead, he slowly shambled around and his stupor continued until he was looking Voidblade in the eyes. He only seemed to show the slightest bit of surprise when the enderman began to speak, as though it made the whole situation oppressively more real.
“Liability,” thought Voidblade.
“Tyron requires your help,” rasped the enderman. “They are going to vote on who shall lead the congregation to war.”
Astro nodded in a slow, creaking way that said “I hope beyond hope it isn’t me.” He moved toward the door, looking so thin and frail a light breeze might have been carrying him along against his will. With that, Voidblade warped off and began to rally the others.
Chapter2:A day for saying what we wish were true (Kay)
You hear that?
It roused me a little. I was nowhere near awake, but I had risen above dreaming. That was preferable. I had been dreaming of the worst pits of warfare, though I was no longer sure which one. It might not even have been a real war. Mud and gunsmoke clothing me. Boiling blood and hurrahs carrying me. Thud of arrow. Squelch of boot. Snap of bone. Metal screams at metal. Like a leaf, I am buffeted and surrounded by sound.
As I said, it may not have been a real one, but it felt like a war. It felt right.
They are talking about leadership. It shall be a vote. You must awaken, quickly. It is our chance.
Our pact came back to me. I had agreed to pursue power with this Book, in return for access to its magic. And with them I had been powerful and bested the Ender. It was time to start fulfilling my end of the bargain.
I forgot that it couldn’t hear the roar of the river of my consciousness. Defending that had become so natural since Herobrine. In my rare moments of lucidity I had experienced sudden surges of panic about whether my defences would hold and I would end up a pawn like Fristad. Evidently, my earlier confidence was well-founded.
“Sorry,” I thought in response, inflecting it with the resonance of a half-chuckle. It was artificial, but it conveyed my meaning. “I forgot how good I am at this.”
“You’ll learn to love it, really.”
…Leadership election. I can wake you up early and keep you up. Time is of the essence.
“One moment, I’m constructing a plan of attack.”
I was actually telling the truth. Fire was my obvious rival and I set about drawing up a list of likely allies. Astro was a given. Thanks to Glibby blowing up that portal, Astro had spent a full decade more time bonding with me than I had with him. Of course he’d back me. Tyron and Kir would perhaps too after our wee heart-to-hearts. Warnado would naturally want to support me. We’d been inseparable since arriving in Nexus...
Steve and Jen would probably back Fire because he’d always been nice to them, whereas I started out by punching Steve in the head. That wasn’t a totally lost cause, though. Steve and I had shot the breeze a lot in the village. Destiny probably wasn’t too impressed by my emotional display back in the village. Shadow was Fire’s sister. Fristad was an unknown, so was Amanda, and then there were the four people who had accompanied Fire and anyone else who might have arrived in the meantime.
I took a moment to reconstruct my “leadership accent” and I had reached campaigning mode.
“Ready, wake me up.”
My eyes shot open and I immediately started looking around. I lay in an infirmary bed, in a night-gown. Everything was well-lit by redstone lamps and annoyingly clean. Astro had a hand on the doorframe and a foot in the hallway and an enderman had just teleported away. I could see the particles in the air. I realised my heart was pounding. Every inch of me was tingling. I almost felt like I was waiting for the world to catch up with me. I immediately started throwing aside my covers and scrambling to my feet.
“Why am I so hyper?” I asked the Book.
Adrenaline boost. Trust me, you won’t like it if I stop it. If you had’ve listened to me and not fought the Entity it wouldn’t be necessary.
I felt my heart quicken yet further when I remembered the moment where the Entity’s second manifestation had grabbed my wrist and hurled me into a sword. I felt my lungs tighten and my view of the present was suddenly supplanted by my inner view of memories. Now was not the time for a panic attack.
“Fine, you’re right,” I permitted for efficiency’s sake, powering on through. “Rift to hallway, now.”
I raised a clenched fist and a gash of grey flame tore itself open before me. I practically leapt through.
I arrived in the hallway just before Astro. His prematurely old eyes widened.
“Hey Astro!” I shouted jovially, throwing my arms wide before hugging him. “I hear it’s election season, can I count on your vote?”
You certainly are… direct? I consoled the Book not to worry. This and sneaking were my elements.
He immediately broke down laughing, “Mods, you always did strike while the iron is hot!”
“Can I take that as a yes?”
Astro rolled his eyes. “Sure,” he allowed, looking around a little.
“Knew I could count on you, buddy!” I clapped him hard on the back and he laughed again in surprise. “Now, where’s Warnado at?”
“In the training room, just around the corner-”
I grabbed him by the arm and willed the Book to open another rift. Another doorway was visible just on our right and I marched right toward it.
“So,” I craned my head around. “What have I missed. How are things around the… what are we calling it? Does it have a name?”
“Just the shelter.”
“Shelter. Catchy. I like it,” I grinned as Astro shook his head and exhaled happily through his nostrils, “But yeah, anything I should know-”
Just as I passed into view of the doorframe I saw a glint of energy in the shape of a knife hurtling at me at several-dozen miles per hour.
“OH THAT’S SUCH BULL!” shrieked Warnado.
“Defensive portal!” I shrieked aloud in my native brogue, assuming a one-legged pose of panic. War only prepares you for so much, and I was expecting a totally friendly environment. Don’t mock me. I spared a glance at Astro, who was covering his mouth with a weathered hand adorned with magical rings. He had the aspect of a man with front row seats to a great and impressive cultural moment that he would mock for the next decade. If possible, he might communicate it to his young self, so they might work two decades out of it.
The Book obliged, hastily opening a rift in front of and behind me. The energy knife flew through the circuit and planted itself in the wall just to my left.
“Thanks,” I muttered internally to the Book. That’s two I owe you.”
Only two? I suppose an election is a day for saying what we wish were true rather than what is.
The jest, while probably ominous, amused me. It helped me as I stepped into the room, desperately trying to reconstruct my mystique.
“Warnado!” I boomed merrily, the accent reassumed. “How have you been?”
“Kay, you’re awake!” he called enthusiastically before running up to me.
I ruffled the tip of his hood, feeling hard lumps between what I assumed was hair. A quick glance revealed Amanda, who was sorting knives into buckets by a bullseye on my left. She smiled sardonically and waved. I nodded with philosophy in response.
From out of my field of view came the voice of a woman: “And who might you be, man who almost got yourself skewered?”
“I’m glad you asked!” I turned to her with my eyes closed importantly. “As commandant of the 10th Legion of the Herobrinian Army, I, Kay Mandy, entreat you to vote for me in this upcoming leadership election!”
I opened my eyes and saw a rather dangerous-looking woman with black hair and brown eyes. I looked at her clothes and found she was darkly dressed and had a habit of hiding weapons on her. She also had a knife in her hand that she aimed at a bullseye. The very image of an assassin. Her mouth formed a half-smile that betrayed a faint but fleeting amusement.
“And why would I do that?”
“A myriad of reasons,” I began to saunter over to her, projecting my voice to the room and looking around. Amanda had sat back and stopped sorting. Astro and Warnado were watching me from the doorway, one with a begrudging awe and the other with childish enthusiasm. I’ll let you decide which was which.
“I am a General, philosopher, aviator, adventurer, mercenary and man of faith! Herobrine blessed me with the gift of prophecy and I foretold his return. I then fought alongside him. I won him Arcadia! I won him Zine and then protected it from both Notch himself and Israphel!” I raised an arm emphatically.
“I was there as he ascended and Israphel cracked open the heart of the world! I have seen the depths of the Void, the fires of the Nether ,the light of the Aether and many of the sights worth seeing in the Sane Realm of mortals! I have defied corrupt administrators, twisted game-masters and the Entity itself! And all this I did with sword and with fist! Now, having tamed that Book which sought to warp the minds of men-”
Tamed, am I?
“Hush,” I calmed it. “We’ll work on accommodating your dignity later. For now, results.”
Reasoned well. Do carry on.
“-I have obtained powers beyond my own wildest imaginings,” at that I asked the Book to summon voidflame which turned from silver to purple in one hand and sparks of stark blue lightning in the other. “I am Kay Mandy, of Void and of Tempest. First time using this power I bested the Ender. Had the Entity not intervened, she would be here now, captain of a mostly dead and dispersed guard that would crumble in her absence, telling us the Entity’s full plan. To conclude: I am a fighter of great experience and power, a strategist of great wisdom, and as this speech has hopefully proved, an orator of great ability. I hope I can count on your votes.”
Astro offered a polite applause. Amanda smiled. Warnado whooped and called out “Kay 2020”, a phrase which meant nothing to me and of which I doubt even he truly understood the significance.
Rose’s reaction consisted of a single raised eyebrow, she said: “And I am Rose, became a cult enforcer for the money, ritual-stabbed a guy, ended up here and have no idea what most of the names you just said mean.”
I’ll be honest, I expected her to be more impressed. I tried to hide my disappointment.
“Well, Rose, it is a pleasure to be formally introduced. I get where you’re coming from. I was a mercenary for a long while, and in my time serving Herobrine I was something of a cultist myself. Don’t you want someone to represent your interests in the leader’s seat?”
It was hard to read but I could have sworn her mouth curled into something resembling a smile for a split-second. Whether that was a sincere smile or a sign of mocking amusement was a whole other question.
“We’ll see,” she warned, eyes wry and discerning.
“We shall see indeed. Anyway,” I swung around to Astro, “Where’s Tyron?”
“Probably the command room with Fire and-”
“Okay, where’s everyone else?”
“The atrium,” responded Astro, cock-eyed, “I guess.”
“Yeah,” Warnado agreed. “Fristad and Jennifer were heading out hunting so they’ll pass back through there. And of course Lucy will be around there. Destiny, too. It’s just at the end of the hall.”
“That’s excellent, do you mind helping out with canvassing, pal? D’you have time or are you training?”
“Sure,” he said easily, then with more tension added, “I’ve kind of hit a snag in the training for today. I’d better take a break and look at it with fresher eyes.”
“Then to the atrium we go!”
I grabbed them by the scruffs of their necks and the Book summoned another rift. A split-second later I was looking at a desk covered in papers with Lucy working away at it. I nodded politely to her. A look in the other direction revealed a small cluster of people containing Fristad, Jennifer and an enderman, presumably the one who had visited Astro in the infirmary, entering the shelter through a large piston door. Down a hallway to the side Steve and a dwarfish man left a room, chatting away about mining and such.
“Who are the Endling and the short fellow?” I muttered to Astro.
“That’s Voidblade,” he pointed toward the piston door-end of the atrium. “He doesn’t talk much. The short guy is Urist. He’s an actual, honest-to-Mods, dwarf. Not the word we use to make fun of Stoneholmers.”
“Really?” I was genuinely surprised. Folks called Aaron a dwarf back home and he was taller than me. Just because he lived in Stoneholm a wee while. Dimension-hopping really put inconsistencies like that in relief.
And with that I recomposed myself, noticed that everyone was starting to notice that I was awake and prepared to speak.
“Listen up!” Warnado called, beating me to the punch. “General Mandy has something to say!”
Pleasantly surprised, I watched people stand to attention and cleared my throat. Destiny, book in hand, stepped out of the library. I became very conscious I was wearing the white nightgown of a mental patient, but I hoped it just added to the quirkiness of it all and worked in my favour.
“Well, guess I’m not dead,” I chuckled and stepped back to look at reactions. Jennifer and Steve both smiled predictably. Fristad seemed wary, understandably. (I made sure not to let the Book hear the last word, though telegraphed the rest of it to show it my powers of observation). Endling: impassive. Urist: grinning. Lucy: kind eyes, beaming and nodding. I couldn’t read Destiny - I’d obviously shattered the morose scowl she had been wearing, but I wasn’t sure what the remaining emotion was. Disgust, confusion, distrust and cerebral contusion all seemed just as likely. Regardless, everyone seemed just as disarmed, and this was as perfect a stage to seize as any. “Sorry about the dressing gown - not my choice.”
I cleared my throat, but just as I began my speech, Tyron came in. Scratching his head with one hand and holding Kir up like a looking glass, he approached the desk. This was perfect. I still needed a few seconds to construct a speech. I’d kind of hoped to have a few lower-key schmoozings before Warnado took charge.
“Lucy,” he asked, “do you have any ballot paper? I-” He looked up and saw me in the centre of the room. “Oh, Kay, you’re up! Great to see you.”
“Tyron, my friend,” I greeted in my most grandiose, booming voice, positively overcome with joy at the sight of the big, green furball. Naturally, I was happy to see him, but I was putting it on a bit. “How are you?”
I ran up and bear-hugged him to the best of my ability.
“I love this man!” I called out performatively. “He has been there for me in some low moments since I arrived in Nexus, an excellent confidant. He and little Kir!” I pecked the sword on its flat. “I wouldn’t be here without them. And of course not without Warnado, who introduced me with such enthusiasm. Another great friend, with whom I launched the escape from the Tower. Who helped me tame the Book - his was the plan that stopped its dream-weaving. And I wouldn’t be here without Steve and Jennifer, who, with help from Shadow, conducted essential research that figured out a way to nullify the Book’s powers - research which now allows Fristad his freedom! Not without Destiny and…” I swallowed defensively, on the verge of an immense blunder.
Yes, condescended the Book. Do not talk about the escape or the grief that came of it. Probably shouldn’t have claimed credit for the escape attempt.
“... without Destiny, who alerted us all to the threat Fristad posed in his possessed state and didn’t allow herself to be gaslit or manipulated into silence. Without even the now-tamed Book, which teleported me away when the Entity bested me and enabled my capture of the Ender, and the massacre of her forces.
“Most of all, I wouldn’t be alive without Astro, our wizened wizard. A friend of mine these last four-to-ten years who advised me through some deal of war and strife, funded my dreams and somehow put up with me through all of it. As loyal a companion as I could ever ask for!
“And not without so many of you here would we have escaped the village!
“Even those who weren’t there with us through any of the things I have recounted, who only joined when Fire sent out the call for the construction of this kindly shelter, have been essential to mine and our survival. Urist, Voidblade, Lucy, you gave us a place to flee to.
“In fact, if I recall correctly, for I was mostly catching up on some much-required beauty sleep at the time, the shelter crew ensured that we actually successfully reached this place. Had we proceeded on foot, I certainly would not have lasted long enough to be healed fully. Shadow had done her best, but I was still losing life. I felt myself slipping away day by day, growing ever weaker in spirit even if my bodily decline had been stymied. For these things and many other services and sacrifices of which I am probably as yet unaware, I thank you. We will ensure your efforts are not in vain.
“Moreover, I thank everyone in this bunker for what they have given to fight the Entity and assure our mutual survival. We now face a choice, and I would be honoured to be the one who leads you. I have seen the threat we face, and I have not missed the toll it has taken upon you and so many others. Mitigating current suffering and preventing future difficulty will be at the heart of any army headed by me. I entreat your support.”
And with that, I turned toward the command room, and took the lead in marching on, buffeted onwards by the winds of polite applause and satisfied hmmmms.
Chapter3:The Ballot (Fire)
“Kay finished his speech. They’ll be here in less than a minute.” Shadow said, a rune dimming on her arm.
Fire took a deep breath. “Let’s hope this goes by without creating any bigger issues.”
Fire used the few seconds he had to mentally prepare himself for what was going to happen. Everyone would enter the room, they’d close the door and hold their ballot. Maybe Kay wouldn’t be too confrontational due to his recent injuries but Fire wasn’t too hopeful. Ideally the entire thing wouldn’t take more than ten minutes and once it was over they’d have an officially elected leader.
Shadow asked, as if reading Fire’s thoughts: “What if it isn’t you?”
Fire replied: “I’ll make do, I don’t have to be at the top to see this through, it’ll be just like back home. It’s not ideal but it’s workable.”
Before they could exchange any more words the rest of the group was upon them. Somewhat surprisingly Destiny was the first one to enter the room, quickly followed by Steve and Jennifer as well as Lucy, who gave them a quick greeting by waving a handful of ballot paper at them. Almost immediately after them came Urist and Fristad, who were loudly chatting about something. Then came Warnado, Amanda and Kay.
The moment Kay entered the room his eyes were fixed on Fire burning with competitiveness and other things that Fire deliberately ignored. Kay was still wearing his infirmary garb, that combined with the fact that his movements were even more exaggeratedly grandiose than usual did not bode well at all.
“I’m back!” Kay exclaimed as he struck a pose. “Hope you didn’t miss me too much. I’m feeling just in the mood for an electoral debate. Would be a good change of pace after defeating the mods-damned Ender in single combat!”
Shadow cut in. “Kay, there isn’t even everyone here yet. You’re welcome for the healing by the way.”
Kay blinked in indignance, Fire looked back at the entrance. Tyron and Astro were the next ones to enter, Astro pulling Tyron aside almost immediately. A few seconds later Voidblade and Rose entered and shut the door behind them. Voidblade immediately tried to gain as much distance as he could from the humans in the room, a tendency of his that would hopefully lessen as he got more used to living with them.
Shadow spoke again. “Alright, now that everyone is here it’s time to explain exactly why we are here in case anyone hasn’t heard it yet.”
Fire was glad that his sister was taking the speaking role, since he was one of the candidates it would have been quite odd if he had announced the ballot himself. Shadow was a good speaker if she wanted to be, there was something about her that made people listen.
Shadow continued: “Fire built the foundations of this shelter but immediately taking the lead would be a bit undemocratic, so we decided to hold a ballot for who is going to take the position of leader. Currently the two obvious candidates are Fire and Kay, however if anyone else wants to step forward they can.”
There was no response for a few seconds. “We have our candidates then.”
Lucy spoke up: “I have the papers but no urn. How are we going about this?”
Urist started shifting on the spot and a few seconds later he was holding some kind of vessel. “Almost forgot I had this thing, memento ‘o my last colony.”
He hurried forward and placed the vessel on the central table. Fire took a closer look at it, it was odd to say the least. Its basic shape was that of an urn made from what looked to be silver, decorated with spikes of various other metals. On the urn were engravings that Fire couldn’t read. Urist had started to teach him the runes and iconography that dwarves used but his grasp on them was still rudimentary. The only runes Fire could decipher meant “elephant” and “lever”.
As much as Fire would have liked to contemplate the urn, there was an election at hand and his opposition seemed quite eager to get some words out.
“Most of you have heard my routine already,” Kay oozed confidently, sitting on the table, arms folded loosely and eyes half-closed. “So, I’ll be brief and hopefully a little less formal. Pretty sure I used the word mitigating last time - ha! - breaking out the big-boy words and such. What on earth was I at?” He paused for a few isolated chuckles.
“Suffice to say, I’m a military man. I’ve withstood sieges, led ambushes, taken death-blows for superiors and underlings alike. I am fiercely loyal to those I consider friends and exceedingly liberal with the definition of friend. I am a skilled swordsman, hand-to-hand fighter and now magical man. I will whip that congregation into shape. I have fought men and Divines and Endlings, and if you give me an army I will teach them how to massacre all three. I am, to the best of my knowledge, the only one who has bested a captain of the Tower or faced the Entity and I will seek to convey what I have learned.
“And it doesn’t stop on the training field. I am a man of exceeding mental fortitude and strategic instinct. Out in that battlefield I was telling the book how to use its own powers to maximum effect. In warfare I was renowned for low-casualty, unconventional raids that wreaked havoc on our enemies before we engaged them in open combat. Herobrine’s 10th wasn’t actually that large. Maybe eight thousand at its peak, and yet we held the Arcadian peninsula for a year.
“Moreover, I’d like to think I understand people. I know how to keep morale up. As I’ve hopefully proved, I can be quite persuasive,” he chuckled and a few more people joined him than the last time. “And I tend to lead from the front. While I am glad that this shelter was built and ready for our arrival, I would like to point out that Fire just kind of left without telling anyone he was going aside from Shadow. And he also only told Shadow he had sighted the Ender at the Prophet’s hill, which might have been useful to know before she turned up hunting for us a day or two later.”
He was mad now. Obviously mad. Fire wanted to stop him but he picked back up.
“And he wasn’t there at the Tower, either. This is not to cast aspersions about Fire’s motives or character, but his leadership style does feel a tad detached for my tastes. There’s leading from the front and then there’s leading from a front, somewhere. Moreover, it does seem premature to me that someone who has barely even faced the Entity or his little squad of goons thinks he can adequately lead people against them, on account of his success in simulated warfare,” Kay concluded with a harsh and bitter brogue. “I appreciate your support.”
With that, he stood up and rejoined Warnado, furrowing his eyebrows and tightening his folded arms. A polite but somewhat uneasy round of applause went up. Tyron patted Kay on the shoulder, but his face was such a mess of consternation that he might have been congratulating or consoling him.
Fire took a few moments to consider. Just like when Kay had lost his temper in the village, the temptation to deliver a crushing, deconstructive response was there but yet again Fire decided against it, if anything it would escalate the tension further.
He said: “I suppose I’ll start with some backstory as well to stay in theme and then respond to the more glaring accusations. I was born to pretty much the worst parents you could imagine, not only were they war profiteers and generally horrible people, they were also dead for as long as I can remember. I only found out about this when I was older but for brevity I’ll spare you most of the events after. The important point is that I had a sister who was pathologically afraid of anyone but me and I spent most of my life looking for a way to remedy this.
“I finally found a group of people who managed to create a world parallel to mine, a world in which my sister could be free. That is the world where I truly spent the majority of my life, time wise at least. It’s been a good five millenia now, in which I have gathered all kinds of experience in war and other matters, and contrary to what some might say, this experience was quite real.
“Eventually I made a slight mistake when experimenting with a new potion mixture and ended up in Nexus, where I ran into the very man who is now my opposition. I admit, I have had a history of disappearing in moments that were in hindsight quite inconvenient. The first time I managed to negotiate my ‘release’ with the Ender and gained valuable information in turn, which not only included the knowledge of safety of the location we are in but it also allowed me to return home and bring Shadow here. I could have just stayed in my world and hoped for the best but something tells me that it wouldn’t have ended well. As for the second time, as Kay put it, the shelter is essential to our current well-being.
“I know most of you have already made up your mind for who you want to elect, in fact, I think that for some that decision only has one viable choice, whichever that might be. Do what you think is best for our survival, because that’s what it comes down to in the end.”
Once Fire had stopped speaking Lucy started going around the room, handing out ballot paper and writing implements to everyone.
Once she arrived at Shadow she was met with a raised palm. Shadow said: “My vote was decided before I even arrived. I’m abstaining to have a result that better represents the opinion of those who don’t have my reasons.”
Astro, after conferring with Kay a second, cleared his throat: “Naturally, Kay has my support, but I respect that I’m a free vote on account of my past affiliations. For pretty much the exact same reasons, I abstain. Wizards think alike, I suppose.” He lightly tossed his ballot in.
Everyone got a few minutes to consider and cast their vote, some took longer than others. Fristad and Voidblade were the very first ones to put their paper into the urn, causing some slight awkwardness when it came to who went first.
Warnado was next, folding his ballot in the shape of a boat with a spell and flicking it off his wrist. Amanda rolled her eyes and handed in a less spectacular but certainly more anonymous entry to the anonymous ballot.
Lucy and Urist were the next ones to vote, followed automatically by Destiny, who seemed to have waited until the initial wave subsided. Rose followed a short while after, adding a second, identical boat to the urn, giving Warnado a sly smile. Fire smiled in turn, it seemed that Warnado had yet again managed to bring out a soft spot in someone.
When Shadow gave the warning that only a minute of time was left Steve and Jennifer stepped up as well, albeit slowly. Only Tyron remained not having voted, still looking deeply conflicted. As the last seconds ticked down he quickly scribbled down a name, folded the paper and threw it into the urn. He looked like he’d handed over a baby, or dropped it on the floor.
Shadow announced: “So, we have all the votes. I think it would be best if Astro and I do the counting together. Astro?”
Astro nodded and they spent a minute unfolding papers, separating them into piles and counting them. They spoke to each other the whole time, Shadow casting a ward to prevent people listening in on them. Then, finally they spoke.
“The count reads,” announced Astro, “Eight for Fire, three for Kay, with two abstentions.”
Fire felt relief flood through him, but shot a look at Kay to figure out what was going to happen. He looked like he’d just tasted sour milk and was appropriately silent. He walked up and offered a hand to Fire, forcing a smile that was as iron-clad as his gaze.
“Congratulations,” he said, offering a thorny, reluctant olive branch. “I did give you a fight.”
Fire replied: “That you did. Even if I had lost you would have had my support. It’s the ends of survival we’re fighting for here, how we get there is less important.”
“Naturally, survival is paramount and unity is key to that,” Kay conceded as though making a point to someone else. It wouldn’t have surprised Fire if that had been the Book speaking for Kay. “How do you intend to proceed, commander?”
Fire collected his thoughts, an outline for a plan was in his mind already, the details gradually filling in.
“The congregation will be here in less than two days, until then we need a clear command structure that allows us to smoothly integrate everyone into the shelter. The core group and some of the skilled early arrivals will act as group leaders in their respective areas, once more arrive they’ll have to delegate another layer of command. That way we keep the chain of command short but ideally without sacrificing professionalism. We don’t have the time to build up elaborate structures.”
“How are we defining ‘areas’?” asked Kay with a pragmatic sigh.
“Rough division between combat and non-combat, with each being split into smaller categories. Not everyone will be a soldier, we need logistics too, aspects of that’ll be most of the non-combat areas. The combat area is split into things like conventional weapons, siege operations, guerrilla tactics, magic, and a few others. The middle elements in the chain control the areas they are proficient in.”
“What’s the general strategy?” interjected Astro wearily, as though just to remind Kay others had similar questions. “How soon do we want them combat-ready?”
That was a good question, one that was very difficult to answer since a lot of the variables were unknown.
“I could say ‘as soon as possible’ but that satisfies no-one. I don’t know how close whatever the Entity is planning is to completion so we need to assume earlier rather than later. A rough estimate would be two weeks for the bare minimum of being able to put up a fight. Victory is not very likely through direct combat, the Entity remains something that we can’t ‘just’ kill.”
“What will you have me oversee?” Kay asked flatly.
Fire said: “Actually, I thought about making you my second-in-command when it comes to warfare. You are experienced and I could use an additional opinion when forming plans. Shadow would be filling the equivalent role on the magical side of things. Do you accept?”
“Absolutely,” said Kay, obviously surprised but not hesitating for a second. Collecting himself, he added: “I would be honoured. Dealing with the Endlings will be crucial and hopefully I’ll be able to give some insight on how that might be achieved. I’ve some formations from the Onslaught that might prove helpful.”
So far so good, now there was one final matter Fire had to address. “One last thing I’d like to say while we’re all in a room together. It’s regarding that prophecy that started off the shelter. I don’t know how much of it should be trusted, all I know is that people see me as its champion and I intend to use it to smooth things over until they can trust us because of how we lead not because of a prophecy.”
There was a silence in the room, they were obviously waiting for Fire to continue. “That’s all, get some rest, clear your head. In the evening we’ll meet here again to figure out the chain of command.”
Chapter4:Behind Closed Doors (Freak/Fristad)
Another meeting, great. Those had only increased in frequency in the recent time and I didn’t like it. Any other part of the Tower had a lot more fun things I could do, even if it was just invisibly stalking some technician. Here in the meeting room I had to stay visible and at least somewhat responsive and since I was part of the Entity’s “inner circle”, as they called it, I was expected to show up consistently.
Currently I was sitting in a chair between two other inner circle members, to my right was the Ender and to my left was Glibby, Glibby the Ape as his full name or title went. Well, he tried to bear it as a title, but it had the stink of a nickname that he couldn’t quite mask beneath his regal poise and gallons of perfume. The Ender was still badly beaten from her fight against the general, prominent lightning-shaped scars now visible across her face.
I couldn’t help but feel slightly bad for her, I was only mostly a heartless *******... on top of being a phantom that feeds on fear. Mortal emotions did have a tendency to worm their way into the minds of my kind as we aged. However I didn’t need to listen to that tiny voice in my head to know that the Ender was in a precarious position. Her role as primary military leader placed a lot of responsibility on her and with that came the ire of everyone else once she inevitably made a mistake. Glibby was especially happy about her failure, which he showed through remarks that were polite on the surface but brutally condescending beneath that.
In the following days Glibby’s Grey Ones, a squadron of old Endlings he had practically stolen from the Ender, would probably lord it over the Ender’s own troops. I chuckled. They were as much a drinking club as they were a unit. They didn’t even properly do their job as wardens, which had cost me quite a sizable amount of “beloved” subjects.
No, in truth the inner circle only included Glibby because he was sent by the Silhouette as an ambassador, hostage, gift or something of the sort, I didn’t concern myself with the details. The true third member of the inner circle was Marinus Bul, the terribly boring and pedantic but admittedly vital mouthpiece and “lawyer” of the Entity. He sat to Glibby’s right and was currently looking through some sort of notebook.
The important players were all here with Marcus from Command and Control already waving a pointing device around wildly and occasionally handing off to Issa from Dimensions and that dimensional cartographer Clark Belmont.
Other than that, the table was almost fully seated with the notable exception being the throne that the Entity usually occupied. Another important absence was the scientist who had accompanied the Ender during her mission, Dr.… Mercury, yeah, right. That was her name. Apparently her magical counterpart Archmage Wisp would answer in her stead, however everyone knew where the actual competence was in that duo.
As to where she was, I had some insider knowledge, and by that I mean I stalked her a bunch. She got quite obsessed with the thing we found in the village and apparently she was instructed to look into it by the Entity directly, with priority above the machine no less. Which brings me back to my new favorite subject: The Entity’s fear.
I could get a morsel of everyone in that room’s fear just by throwing my head back and breathing in. I knew them all well enough to know the taste by rote. The Ender had the coppery taste of high expectations - of what would happen if she returned home defeated. Glibby the unique savour of a specific person from his past. Bul the succulent tang of fearing death beneath a million more banal anxieties. Marcus: the Void. Issa: burning. Wisp: his mother or poverty (depending on the day). All of these were well familiar to me - as they should be, feeding on and knowing fear was my function in this world.
The Entity was not.
Ever since I entered its service, the Entity had betrayed not even the slightest concern. Reality was a mere bump in the road on the way to its objective. It wasn’t even like the taste of water, that at least had a texture. It wasn’t like breathing air. It was as though the air had been knocked out of the lungs of the world where it stood. The Entity was an absence. A suffocation. And while others of my kind had ignored it, feared it on these grounds, that was mere short-sightedness. I saw the terror it could engender in peoples, nations, worlds. It was like an empty god. And I told myself I would be there to ride the wave it would create and I would feast.
Then, something happened that I hadn’t believed possible. Something in that village - that insignificant collection of houses and shops - had made the Entity afraid. It had hurt it in some small way it hadn’t considered. Now, it hardly left its chambers, and had its manifestations patrolling the site of the problem.
As it gazed upon the little wound made upon the world, I tasted a strange sort of fear coming off my employer. It wasn’t as nourishing as mortal fear to be sure, but there was something sophisticated about it. The same way mortals desired to taste expensive spirits just to feel wealthy, I yearned for another taste of that elixir.
The Ender and the scientist were the only ones that had seen its cause and they were tight-lipped, but somehow the escapees had done it. I wasn’t sure which one - the wizard, the witch, the warriors, maybe even old Tyron - but I would have to conduct some research once we found them again. One of them, a shepherd called Fristad who hadn’t been in Bul’s omniscient notebook, was weak. Something had held him under its thumb before, and he would be pliable again. I looked forward to squeezing what I could out of him almost as much as I anticipated the fear of my master.
But there was something beyond mere yearning.
I had caught a glimpse of something more within the fear. Of another such wound, that the Entity desperately wanted to hide. Pretending to be healed, the wound festered somewhere in its chambers. Somewhere, in a room plated with obsidian and bronze, a tiny distortion trembled atop a throne. And there I might find the source of its fears. And in that source, perhaps an opportunity awaited. For if empty gods could still feel fear, how high could fear itself ascend?
I know I want to talk to Kay the second the vote is read. I see a look of anger in his eyes that cannot be his own. Not that I know him too well, but it’s a look of anger I’m familiar with. It’s how I always imagined the Book’s facial expressions. It wanted the leadership. That was obvious already - it’s why I didn’t vote for Kay - but seeing its anger on his face makes me aware of the more human consequences of its lust for power.
With me it just had a vessel which it had to make powerful. With Kay it saw an opportunity to grasp at power. He got less than half the votes Fire did, and he really seemed to be trying with those speeches. It will be angry.
Apparently he’s trained to resist mental manipulation, but I know the nightmares it is capable of conjuring. He at least needs some solidarity. I shoot Fire a pleading look that I’m not sure if he notices.
Please, I entreat, Let him leave this with something to show for it.
Relief washes over me when Fire grants him second-in-command, but I know that will only placate it so much.
So, as everyone leaves the room, I follow Kay and ask him for a moment to talk alone. He and Warnado exchange a look. The kid looks worried and I fail to make eye contact with Amanda as she turns to face me. I remember the terror the Book persuaded me to inflict in her. To break her. To make her our… its slave. The colour of youthful enthusiasm has started to return to her cheeks but she still has a certain paleness.
The metal vest with all its crystals feels loose upon me, and I wonder what I might be thinking if it were gone. My lungs feel paradoxically tight and my breathing constricted. I want to hug the vest against me and never let it get away. Never leave my mind vulnerable again.
After an agonizing few seconds, Kay folds the corners of his mouth downward in acceptance and leads me down a hallway and into a storage room. He starts going through a chest of armour, picking out lightweight diamond pieces.
“So, what is it you wanted to talk about, Fristad?” He asks distantly, his head still in a chest and his hands still rummaging.
The scrape and clatter of metal being moved is nearly deafening, so I wait for a pause in his movements before I talk. After a few false starts I manage:
“You know, I just wanted to check in. You looked pretty pissed about losing the election if you don’t mind my noticing.”
“Eh,” he grunts laxly. “You win some, you lose some.”
More clattering. Silence otherwise. I’m going to need a better approach. Normally I’d take this as a cue to leave a douche alone, but I try to tap into the optimism and empathy I’ve been making an effort to exercise since getting rid of the book.
“Listen,” I try again. “We are alone, alone, right? You can tell me.”
He turns around, looks me dead in the eye and chuckles.
“Don’t worry,” he says, clapping me on the shoulder with surprising warmth and sincerity. “The book and I have an arrangement.”
He returns to rummaging and I struggle not to feel reassured.
“An arrangement?” I cock an eyebrow.
“Yes,” he says, comparing two boots. “I want to get strong enough to beat the Entity and defend my friends once I get home. The book wants to accumulate power and strength. Our goals are fairly well-aligned. Worst comes to the worst, I decide I want to retire once I get back home and help the book find a better host. All works out.”
I’m surprised by how genuinely unconcerned he is, and it stokes the flames of worry in my chest.
“Okay,” I begin, snarking. “I won’t worry about the crazy possessed artifact that was inside my head controlling my every act for the last age.” I clap my hands against my thighs. “It’s just that easy, I guess.”
He turns around and sits on the lip of the box.
“Fristad,” he says. “Believe me, this isn’t a slight against you. You’re a civilian, not used to this sort of thing. Me? This is nothing new. Endlings worked on me for weeks. I didn’t crack, because I had the proper training. I’m glad you’re free of its influence, and don’t mistake this for me defending it. It’s done some reprehensible things, I’m sure, but this is a difficult time. Like our new commander said, it’s survival we’re fighting for here. The book gets that too. Besides, if there’s the slightest problem I’ll just borrow your vest and get Shadow to bully it until it starts toeing the line again.”
He winks, excuses himself and carries his new-found armour set off. I linger in the room a little while. I sigh. I wander back to the atrium. Jennifer’s gone out hunting by now for sure. It’s a pity. There’s a dark cloud hanging over my thoughts that going out hunting with her might lift. Steve and Jennifer have been such a help through this whole thing and I love them for it. At the same time, I can’t lean on them too much. With the book gone, I had no excuse, it is time to figure out my own flaws and fears without either imposing them on others or attributing them to external forces.
I go into the library and immediately see Destiny.
“Well,” I surrender. “A little shared grousing is good for us all.”
Things have been weird between Destiny and me, not that they were ever normal. I met her maybe an hour before David mortally wounded himself fighting off the Ender, and she’d been grieving ever since. Then, while the book was trying to break Amanda, Destiny walked in on me and she was the first to figure out my involvement. In fact, she came rather close to burning me alive in front of the whole group when I tried to gaslight her out of what she saw. Shortly after I was liberated from the book’s influence and she vanished off with Fire to build this shelter. And since I’ve arrived she’s been avoiding everyone, first by hunting, then by recoiling in here. All that’s to say there has never been time for the much-deserved apology. Now, here she is, alone and pretending to read a book.
Please don’t judge me too harshly for missing the opportunity to make a fool of myself by unloading a long and rambling apology with no warning. I just really need to vent.
“Do you ever get closure on something only to realise that closure has opened up a whole load of other questions?”
Destiny looks up with the enthusiasm of a subsiding house, flicking a strand of brown hair away from her eyes. I don’t expect her to respond - like I said she’s been avoiding everyone, even blanking non-essential conversation - but she does. Maybe the election has reignited something in her.
“What sort of questions?”
After the shock wears off I immediately launch back into talking, pulling up a chair.
“What do I do now? Who am I now without this big thing that’s been dominating my headspace for the last age? I’ve just wanted to get back to normal for so long I’m not even sure I know or like what ‘normal’ is anymore. Those sorts of questions, y’know?”
Destiny lays her book down and almost laughs - she makes one of those amused exhalations of the nostrils you make when there’s nobody else around - and begins to nod.
“Yeah,” she smiles. “I know that mood.”
She says nothing else so I decide to seize the day and get a few more specific things out there.
“It’s not that I was under that book’s thumb for years or anything. It’s probably not been more than a few weeks… months, maybe? It was all a bit of a blur, it’s not important. It’s just that, before all this I was a shepherd. I didn’t have to be worried about anything other than just keeping my flock in order and making a living. Then, that nightmare with the book happened and… I’ve learned so much. It was awful, but I don’t know if I can just return to the grindstone. If I want things to be exactly the way they were.”
“Yeah,” she agrees. “You feel like something needs to have changed. To make it worthwhile.”
“Exactly!” I said, pointing a finger. “That’s it. I think…”
“It must be even weirder with that thing still about.” I’m struggling to figure out if she blames me for this before she picks up again. “I mean, you don’t even get the closure of knowing it’s gone for good. I imagine you were probably expecting something just a little more final than ‘I guess that’s not my problem anymore!’”
“How do you feel about the book?” I ask, trying to find out if there’s a hope in the Nether of avoiding an apology.
“I don’t trust it, honestly I really hate it, but I’m glad Kay’s found a use for it,” she shrugs. “If it can screw up the Ender or Glibby it can stick around. Anyway, I do get where you’re coming from,” a chuckle sends ripples through her speech, “David and I were reincarnated to stop Martin and the Sovereign and now that’s done. It’s crazy. There was this function and now it’s filled so what am I supposed to do, y’know? It’s so weird… but it’s okay now.”
I find this interesting. What’s changed?
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Yeah, I was able to find someone to talk to - from my world - and suddenly it’s not so bad.”
She smiles and I smile back. I wonder who she found. I try to cross-reference her characteristics with anyone else in the group.
“Lucky you,” I chuckle, “I’ve only got the book.”
Destiny laughs hesitantly and weighs her words before she leans in and whispers to me. “I mean if it works it works. Technically, I’m just talking to myself out there.” She laughs a little too enthusiastically for my liking and I’m almost creeped out.
“Yeah…” I say, trying to think of an excuse to get out of there.
“Oh by Notch I sound so crazy!” she falls back laughing and it’s slightly less scary. She beckons me back in and says, “I found a chunk from Minera, my world. The portal there’s broken but there’s still some sort of connection. I can commune with my past self, Anya, when I’m there. Haven’t been able to do that since I got to Nexus, usually I can’t shut her up. Don’t tell anyone though, I want to keep this private.”
I’m still not sure if she’s delusional or joking or whether this is just a thing where she comes from but I nod and assure her she can count on me. She smiles in confusion as she stands up.
“Thanks for the talk, Fristad. I think Jennifer should be far enough out for me to get there unnoticed now. Talk to you later.”
Taking me totally by surprise, she hugs me. It’s weird, tentative and ends quickly - I don’t even get a chance to hug back - but I think I need it too. Neither of us seem to know how to touch another human after all we’ve been through. We both stare at each other for a few seconds, then she gives me a thumbs up and leaves.
I sit there for a while. Urist steps in.
“How’re ye, Fristad? Ye well?”
I look at him and smile with something resembling wisdom.
“Oh I’m fine, it’s just… Interdimensional travel is weird, Urist,” I say, “Really. Freakin’. Weird.”
Arc 2Preparations (Chapters 5-16)
Chapter5:Warnado’s Gauntlet (Shadow)
It was just after sunrise when Shadow entered the cavern they had converted into a training ground. The floor had been smoothed out and was now completely level, Urist had taken the liberty of engraving some scenes of battle into it. Shadow liked the engravings since they reminded her of the base they had back home on the server, it hardly had any plain surfaces left.
Shadow had arrived a few minutes earlier than she had agreed with Astro and Warnado, if this room was to be used as a site for magical training it couldn’t be left as-is. One stray spell could completely collapse this cavern, with a risk of the cave-in spreading to the rest of the base. Shadow sat down in the middle of the room and tapped into her magic, visualizing the shape of the room. The warding spell she cast was one she had used many times in different forms, it was in essence the same one she had used to block out sound on many occasions, only now it would block magic and physical force.
Under normal conditions the spell would have taken hours to cast but due to the uniquely high ambient energy in Nexus Shadow could manage it in less. As the spell began to draw from her life force, various runes all over Shadow’s skin lit up. The pull was quite substantial but Shadow redirected it to the various pieces of energy-storing jewelry she was wearing.
About half-way through the casting process Shadow had a thought, a theory she could test while nobody was nearby. She opened that new sense she had gained when she came to Nexus, as she did her skin took on hints of the even-less-than-nothing of her unbound form. Her perception had changed, she looked outwards from the physical world into what was beyond.
“This explains a few things.” Shadow muttered.
From what she could see Nexus wasn’t just one three-dimensional world, there were multiple additional layers. None of them contained any physical matter but they were filled to the brim with energy, bloated almost. Shadow’s vision didn’t extend far enough to see where all this energy was coming from but knowing that it was there was enough to confirm her theory.
Bolts of pure nothingness began arcing outwards as Shadow forcefully pulled energy from those parallel planes. This would have been quite dangerous if anyone else had been around, something Astro would probably agree with. Shadow felt a sting of guilt when thinking about Astro and the predicament she had put him in. She pushed the guilt away, Fire always said that there was little use in worrying about things you couldn’t change.
Before long the protective ward was finished, with time to spare still. Both Astro and Warnado were still eating breakfast in the mess hall. Shadow chuckled to herself. Her acute awareness of everything around her would probably disturb a lot of people if they knew the extent of it. She had consciously not listened in on any of the conversations before or during the election but she was almost sure that whatever Astro had told Tyron had swayed his vote in some manner. Tyron had looked positively tortured when he cast his vote. Shadow definitely had to question Astro on this later.
While waiting for her training partner and her apprentice, Shadow thought back to the meeting they had held the previous evening. Kay had seemingly calmed down but she wasn’t entirely sure how deeply that calm reached. As Fire had promised, they had assigned everyone a position as a division leader. Shadow herself would be in charge of the magical training along with Astro, Destiny and Tyron, the latter two were assigned a hybrid role of overseeing martial training as well and ideally to help with integration of magical and martial forces.
Rose and Voidblade were chosen for weapons training and guerrilla warfare respectively. Urist had immediately volunteered for siege operation, citing his intricate knowledge of dwarven engineering. Steve, Jennifer and Fristad decided to oversee resource gathering and similar supportive tasks. Lucy didn’t get an overseer role as such, however since she was head of logistics she’d have indirect command over a whole variety of people. Despite Warnado’s protests, he and Amanda were not assigned roles since despite their contributions so far, they were still kids at the end of the day. He got over it pretty quickly.
Speak of the quarter-demon: just as Shadow concluded her thoughts Warnado threw the door to the training hall open enthusiastically, maybe a little too enthusiastically, shortly behind him was Astro. With satisfaction Shadow noticed that Warnado’s facial obfuscation spell was a lot more potent than it had been in the past, however still not enough to keep her out. Warnado’s face had a slightly nervous expression on it, with good reason. Today they would attempt to explore his demonic side.
“So!” Warnado called. “Demon magic and flying today. What’s first?” He was trying to sound enthusiastic but his preference was obvious.
“Let’s start with flying,” said Astro, clapping him on the shoulder and unfurling a rug he’d brought with him. “Honestly, it’s not that tough. Ghostly taught me fairly early on.”
The flight idea was new but it would be a good opportunity for Warnado to warm up first.
Shadow asked: “What type of flight do you have in mind? Wings? Levitation? Recoil propulsion?”
“Let’s try levitation,” Astro said flatly. “Simplest and once you get the knack for it it’s the most sustainable. Recoil propulsion can get ugly if you launch yourself too hard and wings are fine but kind of exhausting.”
He and Warnado sat down at opposite ends of the rug and Shadow stood by to watch.
“So,” Astro began. “You know the whole, light the fire in the middle of a leaf and stop it spreading thing?”
Warnado rolled his eyes and nodded.
“Yeah. Ever heard of oxygen?”
“I have, and thanks for clarifying that you have. It’ll come in handy later so you shouldn’t be wasting it.”
Astro produced a leaf from his pocket and floated it over to Warnado.
“Don’t catch it with your hand, just keep it where it is,” he said. “Don’t let it dip or rise. Like I said, it’s like lighting the fire in the middle of the leaf and not letting it spread. It’s not about pushing it, it’s all focusing on where it is at the moment.”
It was now floating over the center of Warnado’s un-gauntleted palm. Shadow could see the look of concentration on his face.
“I’m going to stop keeping it there,” Astro explained. “Up to you to keep it there. Three. Two. One.”
It dipped a little, but it then held in place. Shadow noted the progress of Warnado’s abilities. A few weeks prior it probably would have shot off or fallen because he panicked or got overexcited. His confidence was growing.
“Alright,” Astro clapped. “Well done. Now, focusing on where it currently is, try and imagine it moving up.”
“Imagine?” Warnado snapped, and the leaf wobbled. Through gritted teeth he added, “Next you’ll just tell me to believe in myself.”
“Honestly, the easiest way to do it is to just assume it’ll work. Just think of it as no big deal, as though it’s perfectly natural that the leaf would rise,” said Astro with a shrug and a laugh.
Warnado nodded, seeming to understand a little more. And then the leaf quivered upwards for a few inches, growing slightly more steady as it went.
“And stop,” said Astro. “Now I’m going to ask you to do something that’s going to sound really dumb, but trust me, it works.”
Warnado smirked beneath his hood. “If you tell me the real leaf was all the friends we made along the way I’m going to punch you.”
“Okay, not that dumb,” Astro laughed. “So I don’t break your concentration I’m going to explain the concept first. Where I come from, we wizards like to pretend our brand of magic is a science like thaumaturgy, or a power with a quantifiable source like admin magic, but in reality it’s just a natural thing we can do. Some people can sing, some folks are strong, we can change reality a bit. Once you realise that, it’s all about how you look at things.
“Some of it has a basis. Like, once you appreciate that water is hydrogen and oxygen, it’s not that hard to envision those two things splitting apart. And from there, because you know gas gets set on fire it’s not too hard to see the hydrogen catching fire and exploding because that’s what hydrogen does.
“Other times you just have to trick your brain into accepting something that doesn’t have a good explanation. Part of the reason I floated it over to you is so that you could clearly understand that the leaf can float if you want it to. You’ve already seen it do so, so you’re not going to doubt it so easily. You get it?”
“I think so,” Warnado responds. “Consensus reality and all that.”
Warnado’s vocabulary always surprised Shadow. Occasionally he would mention words or concepts he logically had no way of knowing, like how he had mentioned Clue when they were investigating the Dreamweaver. She really wondered where he got them from.
“Consensus reality is a dumb term made up by smart idiots who don’t appreciate that the entire point is not to overthink it,” Astro ranted. “But yes, it’s pretty much that. So, now I’m about to say the dumb thing.”
He didn’t say it.
“Keep me in suspense, why don’t you?” Warnado pressed.
“Imagine you are the leaf,” he paused to Warnado’s stifled laughter, and chuckled a bit himself. “Ha… ha, just, ha, just presume that when the leaf moves... you move.”
“Oh boy,” Warnado shook his head. “Give me a second.”
Warnado stifled his laughter. Shadow noticed that the leaf was still where it was supposed to be. It trembled a lot, but it was there. Despite all the snarking and laughing, Warnado was paying attention. His multitasking truly was impressive.
After a few seconds pause, the quarter-demon re-centered his attention fully on the leaf, muttered “I am the leaf” and then started squinting. Sure enough, the leaf started floating upwards, and so did he. His face lit up beneath the obfuscation charm, he immediately called out.
“I’m doing it!”
“Yeah, you certainly are,” Astro smiled politely. “Now, try moving a little to the left.”
Warnado, now adopting a smug expression, his glowing red eyes squashing and stretching to indicate a cocked eyebrow.
He immediately shot off to the left way too quickly and slammed into the wall, spread out like a snowball. The leaf fluttered away harmlessly.
“You tried to apply force to it, didn’t you?” Astro groaned, eyes closed.
“I did indeed,” he grunted. “Forgot you’re just supposed to assume you’re only naturally going to be wherever you’re supposed to be or whatever. I can do it better.” He floated the leaf back up off the ground.
“Oh you absolutely can. That said, I think that’s enough of that,” Astro said with a wave of the hand. He rubbed his temple. “Don’t worry, it’s literally just that principle. You can practice in your own time. Eventually you won’t need something like a leaf to focus on. The big thing today: demon gauntlet!”
“Yeah,” Warnado said, gulping back saliva and looking at his feet. Shaking life into his limbs and hopping from foot to foot, he made eye contact with Astro and Shadow consecutively and pronounced a more confident “Sure thing!”
“Good,” Astro took the gauntleted arm like a doctor and looked it up and down. “Okay, so it’s a demon gauntlet. What does that mean?”
“It does… demonic things.”
“Right,” nodded Astro, feeling dumb. “Shadow, can you get any readings on it? I’ve not seen too much like it back home. There’s demons and stuff to be sure but we’ve mostly got them locked away. Could use a rundown.”
Shadow took a closer look at the gauntlet and, a few spells later, said: “It seems like this is not a gauntlet in the traditional sense but formerly part of an actual demon, at least part of it was. Like someone took the hand of a demon and made it into a gauntlet. It’s partly organic, as far as demons are organic at least, their definitions of what a body can be made of is quite wide. I suppose ‘demonic’ is the correct term after all but it’s also not very descriptive if you don’t know what exactly is meant.”
“Ohhh…” Astro said with a smile of discovery on his face. “So he’s drawing on another creature’s power. That makes sense. Just give me a second.” Astro closed his eyes and started pointing wildly in the air at an invisible diagram. “Right, I’ve got it.”
Astro walked back over to the gauntlet again and held it up for Warnado to see.
“You’re not a full demon, so you’re all potential but little practice. If I’m right, you need part of a being that is already in touch with its powers in order to access your own. You’re attuned but not active. It’s like Shadow and I’s rings.” He clenched a fist and clanked it onto Warnado’s wrist, which was now an acting display case and table.
“These rings draw in the background energy of Nexus or the Sane Realm or whatever world we’re in, and then we can use it. Otherwise it’s worthless. You’re the same way…” he paused. “That came out wrong. My point is that the gauntlet is able to take the latent demon juice running in your blood and make it tangible. I wish I could tell you more specifically how - I imagine there was some sort of pact made. Maybe the demon in question benefits from the arrangement. The big thing is that you realise you’re not drawing power from the gauntlet, it’s feeding on you. Oh, actually! Good analogy: it’s like a bank. You’ve put your power in an account and now you want to withdraw. Don’t let it convince you otherwise or you’ll start running into problems.”
“Convince me?” Warnado asked, a little tremor in his voice. “You’re telling me it’s alive?”
“Well,” the wizard grimaced. “I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but your dad didn’t go mad for no reason.” He powered on through Warnado’s horrified expression. “I don’t think it’s sentient like the Book, but it’ll have some sort of intelligence. Worst case scenario, it’s a conduit for the thing it’s been severed from and it’ll talk to you. Best case scenario, it’s got a few stock responses to try and catch stupid people out. Little word-games to try and get out of or alter its contract. Just be really specific when you tell it what you want, okay?”
Warnado nodded unhappily. “Just be specific. Loving the irony.”
“Excellent,” Astro stated, clapping Warnado on the shoulder. They both tensed. He continued, in the low bass of attempted reassurance: “You’re doing great. Sorry if I’m a little vague. This is new territory.”
Shadow said: “It’s good that you know a bit about demons Astro, I’ve realized that my world’s safeguards have kept the worst demons out. All the ones I know are at the very least indifferent, some are even actively cooperative and interested. On the other hand, even if the bad ones came through, we do have a way of safely making contracts. In my world there is a special potion that allows you to speak and think like a demon, in that language each and every concept in existence is its own word, that way demons can’t get away with their usual word twisting. Aside from demons, the Mencur-Besh also speak it naturally, and Wodahs does too for some reason.”
A thought occurred to Shadow at that moment and she looked around at her shadowy companion. “Care to demonstrate, Wodahs?”
Wodahs detached from Shadow’s feet and walked over to Warnado, gleefully ignoring the laws of perspective projection. When she started speaking it sounded like words but not quite, Shadow knew better than to try to understand, all that would do was cause headaches, even for her. Astro flinched, indicating that he had also discovered this peculiar effect.
Warnado stopped her mid-sentence. “Okay, okay, I understand. You don’t need to be so harsh about us three-dimensional types.”
Shadow and Wodahs looked at each other in genuine surprise. Over the years, Shadow had learned how to read her companion’s body language in lieu of a face. Turns out that shades are more expressive than most people would expect, with this one raising its hands in open-palmed surrender to this confusing development.
Shadow mused: “Natural understanding of demonic, huh? Demonic from another world, no less. Makes me wonder just how much or how little of a demonic mind is needed to comprehend the language.”
Warnado’s face lit up: “She was speaking demon? And I think you’ll find my demonic brain is very large. And smart. About demon stuff.” He conjured a celebratory taco and held it up like a cigar. However, before he could chomp down, it floated out of his grasp and tipped a cocktail of meat juices and salsa down in front of him.
Astro smirked. “Sorry, after the lesson if you please.”
“You’ve made a powerful enemy today, Astro,” growled the quarter-demon child, clenching his fists. “Watch out in the lunchroom.”
“If you get me with the same trick,” he responded. “I will consider it a mark of my success as a teacher.”
The three chuckled.
“But yeah,” Astro swallowed. “Let’s test something out. What do you know demon powers to be able to do?”
“My dad was really fond of setting his arm on fire,” Warnado began with nostalgic enthusiasm, before finishing with a slightly more haunted tone, “That orphanage did not stand a chance.”
Astro gritted his teeth, blinked, patted the child uncomfortably on the shoulder.
“So,” Shadow said. “if you want to try to activate the gauntlet, I can do my best to keep you safe while you do it.”
Warnado, face furrowed into lines that seemed to physically divide his face between enthusiastic determination and terror, forced out an ironically conflicted “Absolutely!”
“I’m going to need you to sit down in your best meditation position, or whatever else helps you focus. Even with my safeguards in place, it’s best if you don’t have to make use of them.”
He leapt, folded his feet under him and then stopped in mid-air. He looked between the two of them, eyes wide open and ready to be filled with approval.
Astro laughed. “Well done, now get on the ground, please. You need to concentrate.”
Warnado closed his eyes. He haltingingly floated down, with a few jitters and split-second pauses. He took a few minutes to breathe, and looked at Shadow expectantly. She walked up behind him and placed her palms on Warnado’s shoulders. Shielding another mind was not something Shadow did often, it involved forming a very superficial link to the mind in question so that any assault would be redirected to her and drowned in her mind.
“Ready.” She said.
Warnado nodded, and it began. She caught glimpses of what Warnado was seeing as he reached out to the gauntlet. A throne of tin, bent and beaten, in a room dimly lit by fire. The gauntlet was worn by something in flux. It almost had a body but it was as though she were looking at it through condensation on a window. Whatever it was, it seemed shriveled, but occasionally flared with strength. Its legs appeared the worst affected, unable to even reach the floor.
Warnado trembled towards it, hands loosely held in a fighting stance. Shadow couldn’t understand the demonic words it pronounced but was able to gather an approximate equivalent from the human parts of Warnado’s consciousness.
It spoke, to which Warnado responded: “What are you?”
It appeared to say the same thing again, because, aloud, Warnado said: “I think it’s just a bunch of stock responses, like you said Astro. It keeps saying the same thing. This is going to be easy.”
Shadow opened her eyes to see his response. Astro gave him the thumbs up, realised the child’s eyes were closed and awkwardly called out: “You’ve got this kid. We’re with you 100% of the way!”
Shadow closed her eyes again and saw the demon speak.
“Don’t worry,” said Warnado to the vague being. “I am here for a request. Just calm down. I’d like to make a withdrawal. Let me set my arm on fire… without it hurting me or damaging my clothes.” After a pause: “As is my birthright!”
Shadow noted to herself that Warnado had really paid attention to what they’d said. It was good enough that he was trying to be specific, but she was almost certain he would forget to remind the creature whose power they were using. It would have been so easy to keep that implicit.
The being spoke again and Shadow made the mistake of trying to listen, a stupid mistake stemming from the unfamiliarity of the situation. Rebounding with a headache she quickly checked her defences. It was making no indication of a mental attack. She saw it kneel, reach out its arm and chant.
In the real world, the gem of Warnado’s gauntlet began to glow. Veins of embers began to criss and cross over the entire limb, from the tips of his fingers and stopping just before the shoulder. Then, when the whole thing started to look like a molten quilt, it sparked and the arm was ablaze in deep purple. The eager tongues of fire formed an aura at least four inches thick around the gauntlet-clad limb. The light was strong enough to weaken the darkness beneath Warnado’s hood and consequently light up his face with something other than enthusiasm.
And enthusiasm he had in spades. Warnado was looking at the arm like it was a family photo. He turned it over, stroked it (and found no burns), posed it. This elaborate dance of fingers and joints culminated in the child laughing and saying: “This is so cool.”
“Do you want to test it out?” Astro asked in a spirit of genuine scientific curiosity. “Can it spit flames or is it just for close combat?”
“Let’s find out!” Warnado cackled, standing up abruptly. Shadow readjusted her shielding, opening her eyes reluctantly. She didn’t say anything though, as the demon was still making no efforts to interfere with Warnado’s mind. It seemed territorial, refusing to leave its dented throne or its ashpit of a throne room.
Warnado arced the burning arm over his head and aimed for a training dummy, which was promptly consumed by a ball of purple flame and reduced to ash in a matter of seconds.
Its destroyer jumped with joy.
“This is so good!” He cackled yet wilder and returned to look at them. “You know, it kind of looks like a demon arm like this. Like if it remained burning, but the aura became solid a couple of inches deep. It would be all muscular and fiery and start punching everything. That would be so cool.”
That, as it turned out was a mistake. The arm straightened out and went bolt rigid. Warnado screamed as the flames gave way to metal-like flesh. Shadow searched her shield but there was no sign of an incursion. Then, all of a sudden she felt the gauntlet’s field of influence expand all the way up the arm. This was a physical attack, a land grab.
Warnado shrieked and the arm grew to twice its size and started punching wildly, beating the ground and sending cascades of light outwards from the impacts as the protective barrier absorbed the hits.
“What do you mean this is what I asked for?” Warnado cried out aloud and in his mind. The creature visibly shrugged. The moments where it looked shrivelled were increasingly rare.
Shadow was tempted to cut him off there but Astro said.
“Give us a second. This could be a learning experience.”
“Warnado,” Astro called out. “It’s your power. Just tell it to give over control.”
At this point the arm whipped off in Astro’s directing, propelling itself with a mighty blow to the ground. Astro only barely deflected its attack with a shield but seemed unfazed.
“Please!” Warnado wailed out on both planes of existence. “You don’t have to hurt him! There’s no enemies here. Please, you have to stop.”
The shapeless shape in the chair was growing more defined. Its legs were now whole enough to stand. It arose and gestured for Warnado to kneel, speaking in what was either a chant or proclamation.
“He won’t respond to that,” Astro scolded. “Tell him, firmly.”
“He’s too strong!” Warnado pleaded.
Shadow had enough of this. So far the creature on the other end seemed to not have noticed that she was listening in but that was about to change. She sent a blast of void magic down the connection, more a warning shot than anything else, however the message was clear enough, there was plenty more where that came from. The demon froze up.
“You are going to revert your influence on Warnado or I’ll drag you over to my side and make you face me.” Demon language or not, Shadow knew the demon had to take her seriously, caught off-guard as it was.
It sat down and became shrivelled and ambiguous again. Warnado’s arm faded back to normal and he collapsed. Shadow made sure that no trace of the connection was left, then severed her own link to Warnado’s mind, there was bound to be a large amount of emotional turmoil and she had no intention to share in it directly.
Astro ran up and lifted him, chuckling noiselessly and nervously.
“Well,” he began. “Memorable first day.”
“Memorable?” The child spat. “I almost killed you.”
“Almost is a relative term,” he jested, before continuing more calmly, “We know what went wrong. You said you wanted an arm that just punched everything and it gave you that. You just needed to give a counter-order. Don’t bother haggling, just make a correction. You’ll get it next time.”
“Next time?!” Warnado screeched and staggered backwards. “You’re crazy! You’re both crazy! This thing is going to kill us all! This was so stupid.”
He tore off the gauntlet and threw it on the ground.
“Warnado, it’s just a hiccup. Magic is kind of terrifying. This is just another part of that.”
Suddenly Wodahs spoke up again in the demonic language. Shadow suspected that whatever Wodahs said was only very tangentially related to the recent events. Nonetheless it made Warnado turn beet red with embarrassment under his obfuscation spell.
“This isn’t about that!” He screamed. Shadow could see his eyes watering. “This is done. The gauntlet is just a problem. I’m not strong enough!”
“Come on,” Astro tried. “Think of the things you could achieve-”
“Screw that. And screw you if you think that’s worth risking everyone’s safety over. Screw you if you think it’s worth risking my safety over! The overall vibe you should be getting is leave me alone!”
He turned heel and ran off, kicking the gauntlet as he did so.
Kay materialised in the door only to be shunted aside. At the heart of his beard his mouth became a hard line, before he forced his expression into one of generic, scholarly interest.
“What happened? I was drawing up formations and heard violent, then emotional noises. Is he okay?”
“A training mishap,” Astro said after a pause. He was staring at Kay. “He tried to use the gauntlet and lost control. Easily… Easily fixed.”
Kay gave him a thumbs up and warped over to the gauntlet. “I’ll talk to him.” He lifted it and warped away.
And so they were left there, the ground still smoking, and the ash of the dummy beckoning them.
I consider just vanishing the dust into another dimension, but that seems impolite so I do actually go and get the brush and pan. Mostly I just do it to take my mind off the lesson. I got greedy. I spend so much of my time in a permanent state of indecision and it felt nice to be obstinately sure of something. But I scared little Warnado. I forgot that he is just a child.
“Well, technically the demon probably scared him a little more,” my brain chips in, negotiating with morality. “Honestly, I thought I did my best to reassure him.”
I did try, but sadly I tried the sort of reassurance that just pretends there isn’t a problem. That demon arm did almost kill me despite what I said. If not for the rings Shadow gave me I would probably be in a heap on the floor right now.
I pick up the brush and start shuffling back towards the remains of the dummy.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t have blocked the attack. The effort of summoning a spell like that would just have crippled me for hours. I remember how I looked in the mirror this morning. I’m pretty sure I saw grey hair in there, but it was gone after I brushed it. I’m not even forty years old yet, and I look like I’m well into my fifties. Wrinkles like cracks in pottery are forming about my eyes and mouth and all over my forehead. Grey hair seems perfectly plausible.
I kneel down. Shadow has a rune glowing and her eyes closed. I think she’s listening out for Warnado. I start brushing and the dust is thick. It crumbles into the pan.
Magic is responsible for my premature age. It happens to all wizards. All proper ones. Thaumaturges get off scot-free. Admins get a few centuries out of it. However, even by wizard standards I’m unlucky. I never completed my training with Ghostly because the Onslaught came about. With Herobrine on the march and Kay just having been arrested, we all decided to leave to avoid conscription. So, I broke things off with Ghostly.
It was an amiable parting. He was all wise and father figure-y about the whole thing. He even organised an illusory combat challenge to help prepare us for the crazy world we were about to flee into. Sadly, his co-administrators caught wind of our plan and conscripted us anyway. There wasn’t much Ghostly could do. He needed the men and letting anyone go would cause a domino effect. I don’t blame him, despite it all. I just wish we’d had more time.
I stand up and walk to the bin. I hear Shadow’s footsteps pad up to me.
“Warnado’s fine,” Shadow says. “Kay’s caught up to him.”
When he arrived at the door just there, Kay looked so much like he did in the good days. When he just wanted to keep us all safe in a confusing world that seemed intent on murdering us. A slightly shaky and rash pillar of stability in the world who would gladly fall on top of and crush any opponent. Except now he can teleport behind and engulf that opponent in voidfire.
“Good,” I say with a pang of guilt. “Kay’s always been good with kids. With getting people back on their feet generally.”
After a short pause Shadow says: “Speaking of Kay, I wasn’t listening in back then but I’m still under the impression that you said something to Tyron before the election that made him look quite conflicted.”
So this question has finally come about. For a second I thought I’d actually gotten away with it, but this is unsurprising. Unfortunately for Shadow, I am not in the mood to be interrogated right now, so I snap back:
“I’m surprised you weren’t listening. You listen to everything else around here.”
“I do still have respect for people wanting their vote to be anonymous. Other than that, guilty as charged.”
“Well at least you’re upfront about it. What exactly do you think I said that made Tyron so ‘conflicted’? Please, pray-tell, what insidious rumour or grand revelation was I spreading to influence the result of the election?”
My face and voice are flat as plains. I’m not looking at her, but I see my reflection in the metal of the bin and my eyes are burning. I wouldn’t turn those eyes on my worst enemy. I try to calm myself down. She doesn’t know what I said, and she doesn’t know why I don’t want to talk about it.
“Which is exactly why she should mind her own damned business!” Brain-me offers helpfully. I remind him that she technically hasn’t accused me of anything. I’ve already been adding things on. If she wasn’t suspicious before, she is now.
Shadow obliges my obviously rhetorical questions: “The results are in and a swing of one vote in any direction would have made no difference. Still, you know Kay better than anyone else, I’m curious about your reasons since I’m starting to suspect that you advocated against him.”
I glare at the door. No one. I cast a sound-proofing charm at a five meter radius. Plenty of room for me to furiously pace and angrily gesticulate.
“What sort of two-faced backbiter do you think I am?” I muster disgust from guilt. “Kay Mandy would have led that army well. He’s hot off his service to Herobrine. That book has so far only increased his ability to lead from the front. He’s in his damned prime and then some! Even if I weren’t his friend he’s an ideal candidate. How very dare you!”
It ends limper than I intended. I’m trying too hard.
Shadow nods. “I think you are exactly not that kind of person, which opens up more questions than it answers. Kay might be slightly… eccentric and not on the best terms with my brother but so far I have seen nothing that disputes your claims. Tyron seemed in favor of Kay so saying nothing would have been sufficient if you wanted him to vote for Kay. Which brings me back to the original question.”
“I didn’t say anything to him!” I roar this out and my temper breaks like a fever. I feebly continue: “Can’t a man talk to his friend ahead of a tense situation?”
“You saw his face at the urn too, we were both standing there because of our abstention. That was not the face of a comforted man.”
There’s a truth gnawing at me and it hurts. A truth I’ve tried to ignore since this ghost of a man came back into my life. I hate her for rousing it. I give in.
“I didn’t tell him much,” I say, looking at her pleadingly. “You really want to know what I said to him? Fine. I said to our dear furball, ‘Tyron, I know what happens next. I’ve seen how this goes. It does not end well. Don’t vote for Kay.’ Are you happy now?”
I feel a tear run down my cheek and I rub it away angrily.
Shadow looks downwards and closes her eyes. “I had my question answered but I am not happy. Something is bothering you about this more than it reasonably should. If you know what happens next, from where? I don’t mean to pry beyond what I already made you say but you can say more if you want to. I may be aware of what everyone in the shelter is doing at all times but I do not disclose private information. Whatever your secret is, it will be safe with me.”
I yell again: “Well, secret stage one: I’m from Kay’s future. Eleven years ago he travelled through a portal to Nexus that explodes. He gets back somehow, but this traps some Endlings in my world all that time. At some point a crime lord called the Silhouette decided I was valuable to the Entity and sent those Endlings to capture me. And that’s how I ended up stuck in the middle of all this trash! You understand so far?”
I don’t even wait for Shadow to respond. I just yell louder. Liberty has made my anger bold.
“Secret stage two...” I pause. My mouth feels dry and I swallow without success.
I feel the fury swell as the truth approaches, but it doesn’t need bombast or screaming anymore. This rage is cold and honest and it is no less terrible for it.
“He dies, Shadow. Kay dies. He becomes a king for a bit, and then he dies. And I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, he wasn’t a great person by the end of it. Honestly, I have to wonder how good he ever was, or whether that was all inevitable.”
I let it settle. Shadow seems genuinely taken aback. I feel the urge to keep talking but I need something to push me onward. I hate her for now saying anything.
“I knew Nexus was an anomaly pulling people from different worlds… but also the same world and different times? I am not lying when I say that I can’t imagine being in your situation, like if for instance I met a version of my brother and I where our parents hadn’t died, had raised us into whatever monstrosities they were probably planning to. If that happened I would honestly not know what to do.”
“Well that’s a fine how-do-you-do, isn’t it? I don’t either, Shadow. Sometimes I wonder if the Endlings didn’t just stab me out in that field and this isn’t just a dying dream. Sometimes I kind of wonder if that wouldn’t make things easier. Do you know what I was doing out there, Shadow? I was out there searching through the ice and snow for the corpses of my friends. And many others besides. All of them dead, directly or indirectly, because of Kay’s selfishness.
“That’s not to say he was on the wrong side. Dominus, the Silhouette, the Family, even the Brotherhood all were monsters that needed slaying. And that’s without mentioning Hamish... ****ing Hamish - I choked the life out of that monster until there was nothing left in him, and I would gladly do it again!”
I discover I’m screaming again and I restrain myself. I stand as though I were stabilising myself on a table and bend back up. My voice becomes like a dead man’s, droning and soft. It’s no different from the leftover breath wheezing out of the body. It has as much agency.
“Kay had reason to be driven over the edge, but when the time came, he prioritised his own personal grudges above his duty, above his friends and above basic morality. He plotted against allies he needed. He ordered the deaths of friends. He abandoned his troops when they needed him most. He murdered innocent people more than once... Eventually, he went too far, pissed off the Silhouette. The Silhouette decided enough was enough. Kay agreed, and now he’s dead.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Kay let himself be killed. As retribution for his interference, the Silhouette himself turned up to ambush him. He made an ultimatum and by all accounts Kay didn’t even blink before surrendering. Bet he thought he was being right noble. Accepting he had no right to kill anyone more, or ask anyone else to die for him. Hoping the altruism would outweigh his shame. They burned him on a pyre and he didn’t move. Aaron arrived just in time to see him go up. It was cowardly, it was cruel and he should have tried to make things right!”
I’m on my knees. My hands shake before me. My eyes blur from welling tears and pain. Black bars close in and out of the edges of my vision. This is tearing the soul out of me but I have to say it.
Shadow is kneeling in front of me, observing like a naturalist who has discovered a new species.
“I just wish I could figure out when we stopped being the good guys,” I whisper. “That would be enough.”
I give in to the tears, weepingly openly. I throw my face in my hands. Shadow places a hand on my shoulder. It feels like nothing, but I’m not alone. There’s something.
I thank Notch I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I am not alone.
It rings hollower each time. Something is not enough to stave off nothing.
Footsteps pounded off the floor, bounced off the walls and finally reached high enough to ***** Tyron’s ears. When he had no duties and felt tired, he would often go down one of the more secluded hallways, summon his great stone wings and ascend into a tight, two block by two block hollow he’d dug out above a pair of redstone lanterns. He had a bed set up over the lights themselves so brightness was no bother, and the crackling redstone circuitry beneath him even warmed the mattress a little. He had made himself a warm, snug little shelter, even setting up a chair on which Kir could rest.
The sword liked to be propped up in this way. “Near enough to lift if there’s danger,” it would chirp in its high-pitched, genderless enthusiasm, though Tyron doubted this was the whole story. His swordly friend seemed to enjoy lying there and talking to him as though it had a full body. Or maybe it was something different. Maybe it liked the nurturing feeling of watching over a loved one while they sleep. Tyron didn’t mind. The dorms Fire had constructed were too open for him. He wanted somewhere close and warm and private. And he didn’t want anyone to see him when the nightmares came. He didn’t want them to see what Freak had done to him.
For this reason he’d always found an excuse to stay up during the night while they’d been fleeing the Entity, only getting a real night’s sleep after they found the inn and he could find a separate room. That’s not to say he distrusted anyone in particular or thought they’d use it against him, but he just wasn’t that close with these people. It wasn’t their business.
As such, when Warnado’s wild footsteps skittered down the hallway below and stirred the Dragoknight from an uncharacteristically pleasant dream, a warm pool of positive emotions rapidly drained from his heart, leaving only an unappealing mix of confusion, yearning and irritation.
He sat straight up and anxiously tried to capture the dream before it escaped him entirely, but sadly only dim impressions had stuck around. A sunny paddock. A tree. A bench beneath it and a woman in white. Tyron couldn’t even remember if they’d spoken, but he wanted to see her again. But dreams are random things, so this was easier said than done.
Tyron groaned silently, picked up Kir and asked them to reach out and figure out who was below. Discretely.
“Wizard-kid with the spooky glove.”
Kir had taken against Warnado’s gauntlet for some reason. It wasn’t a living being like the Book, but the sword seemed to sense a malignant near-intelligence about it. According to Kir, they had tried to reach out and hadn’t found a single coherent thought, but a great many negative and cruel urgings. Perhaps Kir was just mad about being given the silent treatment.
Tyron, yawning, curled around so he could peak through the slats of the trapdoor and see for himself what had brought this on. Maybe Warnado needed to tell him something and had found out about the hiding spot.
However, before Tyron actually saw him, he heard the fusilade of footfalls underscored by panting heaves. The child was crying. He had no gauntlet on. He tripped and slid on the floor a few metres, ending up in view of the trapdoor. Tyron wondered if he should intervene and immediately got an answer. What the child did next was sit up, huddle against the wall and start to sob to himself. The words “useless” and “stupid glove” occasionally permeated the deluge. Each new wave of tears drew Tyron’s claws closer to the trapdoor.
“No, will ruin hiding place!” Kir objects.
“Come on,” the Dragoknight scolded. “He needs someone to talk to. The least I can do is see if he’s comfortable talking to me.”
A sound of crackling bounced up to the hollow and the claws retreated.
“Warnado? There you are!”
Kay now hurried into view, wearing his new, lightweight armour over a cotton shirt and black trousers. That weird, red, hooded scarf adorned his neck as usual and he had taken to wearing his aviator’s goggles over his fringe again. He looked concerned.
Tyron felt a lurch in his stomach as he recalled the vote he had cast against his friend. However, he was also wracked by a guilty wave of relief as he realised there was someone more qualified on the case and he could keep his nap-room a secret.
“Me too,” agreed Kir. “Thank Notch!”
“So, I suppose training didn’t go great?” Kay asked.
He had already sat down and drawn the child in with one arm. Tyron noticed the gauntlet laid down beside him.
Warnado remained silent.
“Alright, so much for feigned ignorance. Astro told me you had a problem with the gauntlet,” he said solemnly, holding up said metal glove.
Warnado pulled back and stood up, Kay’s arm dancing gently away.
“Get that thing away from me.”
“Get it away,” he warned.
The robed demon-child settled into a stance that was just as ready to fight as it was to flee the scene. He held his fists up but had his legs positioned so he could turn tail and run in a single pivot. Tyron couldn’t see his eyes, but he imagined fear had prised those red glows wide open.
Kay looked at him for a second, blinked. Turned his eyes on the gauntlet. Blinked. He threw it aside. It clattered down the corridor and made Tyron’s ears twitch in pain.
“Okay,” he said.
Warnado lowered his fists. He flopped an arm forward in silent apology before sitting. His legs were crossed and he was facing Kay head on.
“So,” the General smiled. “I get that you’re a little spooked by all this. Want to talk about it a little?”
Tyron took this as an excuse to roll back away from the trapdoor and back into bed. They needed some sort of privacy. He couldn’t tune them out, though, not even when he started up a conversation with Kir to distract himself. And so he heard pretty much the whole thing.
Warnado told Kay and his unseen listeners the story of his father. His growing madness. All those deaths. All those mysterious walks where he’d disappear muttering into the night. How, one day, he hadn’t come home. Warnado had gone out to look for him and found him dead at the foot of a tree. The gem was torn out of the gauntlet, hanging around his father’s neck. Warnado was only five years old.
And all that fed into what went on in the training room.
“Astro should have quit while ahead,” Kir concluded. “Just kid.”
“Yep,” Tyron agreed. “Kind of a douche-y move. I have no clue what’s going on with that guy since Kay woke up.”
“Since Kay showed up, you mean.”
Tyron nodded in surrender.
“I can’t touch that thing again. Whatever’s in there is too strong, and I can’t trust Astro and Shadow to stop it before it overpowers me. But I’m not going to be strong enough without it. I don’t know what to do.”
Kay laughed a little.
“Warnado, you are the strongest kid I have ever met,” he began. “You have genuinely been through so much I wouldn’t have been able to deal with. You are thirteen years old and you were going toe-to-toe with heavily-armed Endlings. Thirteen-year-old you could easily kick thirteen-year-old me’s **** something fierce.”
Tyron heard a childish sniff, followed by “You really think so?”
“You would have wedgied me so hard, little guy. I was such a little nerd back then. Heck, you could probably still bully me now if you set your mind to it.”
The two laughed. Tyron smiled and reshuffled himself so he could look out again. Kay was on one knee before him, ruffling Warnado’s hood.
“You are more than a match for the little squatter in your glove,” he continued. “Tell you what. It sounds like Astro really messed this up. I’m sorry about that, he spends so much time agonising over decisions he overcompensates when he’s trying to be decisive. I’ll give him a bit of a bollocking, and you’ll try the gauntlet again at your own pace, when you’re ready.”
“I don’t know…” Warnado began, leaning back.
“Warnado,” he comforted, placing a hand on his shoulder and drawing him back in to make eye contact. “You would be surprised how often your greatest weakness can become your greatest strength. Being half-Thaum was my greatest weakness until suddenly I was perfect officer material in Herobrine’s army - who I again remind you is nothing like in your world. He’s just a bit of a disappointment since he gained power, but what are politicians for? The point is, being part-demon doesn’t have to be your weakness. It shouldn’t. It won’t.”
Warnado was nodding away.
“I just need to figure out a way to keep it in line,” Warnado agreed. “Astro just kept telling me to remind it whose power it was using, but what does that even mean?”
“My advice,” Kay squeezed the shoulder. “Don’t be afraid to be rude. Yell at it and call it names until you feel more comfortable giving orders. Just act like you’re a rude customer at a restaurant.”
“Is this good life advice?” Kir pondered rhetorically.
“Probably not,” answered Tyron.
Warnado chuckled but didn’t say anything more. His head drooped a little.
“And,” Kay pressed further. “These might help.”
He reached up and pulled the goggles off his head, dangling them before Warnado by the strap.
“The Professor gave me these back in the day. He used to say, ‘Little Kay, life’s always throwing something at your eyes. Rain, dust, emotional trauma etc.. It doesn’t matter what it is, you always need something to keep your eyes clear, and let you focus on what’s really important.’”
Warnado took them and held them in his hand. Tyron couldn’t see his face, but Kay seemed encouraged. He warped the gauntlet into his hand and he asked:
“So, you ready to give this another try?”
And the child took up their gauntlet and fixed it back on. The gem glowed for a moment and then settled. At that, they stood up and wandered down the hallway, with Kay rambling about Urist interrupting him while he was drawing up troop formations all morning.
Tyron lay back and wondered to himself how he’d let himself to be persuaded to vote against him. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but how could that man lead badly?
But it wasn’t about him being a bad leader. That hadn’t been what Astro’s face had said. His words were ambiguous, but the creases in his forehead, the quiver of his eyes had been crystal clear.
“What happens next?” Tyron asked himself. “What happens next that makes him such a horror?”
Chapter8:Crowd Control (Steve/Lucy)
Steve regretted that when they were dividing duties for the day all the refugees were due to arrive, he and Jennifer had offered to do crowd control. It really hadn’t occurred to him just how confused and hungry these people would be. All of them, the second they saw the stage they had erected in front of the shelter, had flocked towards it.
The two of them had spent the last half-hour picking people off of it. Eventually it had seemed smartest to just build a fence. As foreseen, no one, no matter how tall, could get their leg over the top of their meter-high fortification. So, now he and Jennifer were just marching through the crowd trying to calm people down and prevent any panic.
Thankfully, people were more confused than anything. Destiny and Voidblade were on guard duty, and fully armoured the two looked pretty powerful without looking too threatening. They had ushered everyone toward the stage through a path which avoided any major choke points or bottlenecks. Thankfully, the crowd wasn’t large enough for a stampede to be too dangerous, but there were still a good two thousand people there and it was better to prevent that sort of thing.
“Don’t worry ma’am,” said Steve to an elderly woman. “Once everyone’s finished filtering in, our commander will come out on stage and explain what’s going on. The Prophet reckons he’s the hero, Champion guy you’re looking for.”
The old lady smiled and fell back into the crowd. He saw her resurface in the sea of heads talking to a nervous young man holding a baby. She spoke into his ear and the release of tension must have reduced his height by a foot because Steve lost sight of his contented face pretty quickly.
After answering or deferring a few more questions, that part of the crowd seemed happy enough. They weren’t moving around as much and were now just patiently looking at the stage without being jostled. Steve looked about for Jennifer. She had achieved a similar lull.
“At times like this, I really miss the Alliance,” Steve called out.
“Yes!” Jennifer agreed emphatically. “We could’ve just asked Mark to set up some sort of seating machine. Or gotten Wolfric to cast a spell to calm everyone down. Even Ozen would’ve been useful. He could hand out his terrible sandwiches. Someone might even have had the bright idea to put up a sign or two explaining things.”
Steve smiled and they got close enough to talk at a near-normal volume.
“These people are starving,” he said. “And I’m not even sure they’d eat his sandwiches once they found out there was redstone in them. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about.”
“What were you thinking?”
“Mostly that, if the Alliance were here, all this was over, there’d be a group of people ready for a game of Dungeons and Enderdragons just at hand.”
“Who said there wasn’t?” said Jennifer, smirking.
Steve looked at her cock-eyed.
“You’re not saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I certainly am. I had a kit in my inventory before we got trapped here.”
“And you’re only mentioning this now?!” laughed Steve. “Jennifer, you lifesaver!”
Someone beckoned to Jennifer for help and she began walking over to him.
“It’s pretty much become my job. Wherever would you be without me?” she shouted back at Steve.
Steve’s mind raced with possibilities. It might take a night or two to get a group together, but by Notch it would be worth it!
That was when Kir spoke in his mind: “Commander Fire coming in thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…”
They were using Kir as a crude intercom between the various teams. Steve and Jennifer took their cue and began to gesture and hiss for silence. Pretty soon half the crowd were shushing their neighbours in solidarity with Steve and his girlfriend. He was grateful, he’d thought that would take ages.
With all that accomplished, they went back over the fence and looked at the stage just as Fire came out.
Fire began: “Welcome to the shelter, I am Commander Fire. Not all of you may have seen me at the Prophet’s hill but that is not really important now. What is important is that you made it here. Back when I first spoke to the congregation I promised a roof over your head and food in your stomach, both of which are available here.”
There was a pause, the quiet was quickly filled with cautious cheers from the crowd.
Fire continued: “However there are also other reasons for why I built this shelter. Namely to have a base of operations for what could very well be a civil war. I will not sugarcoat this, the Entity is most likely not going away on its own. Both from the Prophet’s predictions and independent investigation we have found that there is something big on the horizon and if nobody is there to stop it, we might be looking towards a dark future.”
Another pause, this time without cheers but with worried contemplation.
“I have gathered a group of skilled people to help me in what is ahead of us, they will train and instruct anyone willing and able to join us. If you are no fighter, there are still plenty of things you can do to help out. If you are unable to do either, the shelter will still welcome you, there is enough space for everyone. The important thing is that we realize we are stranded in this world together, and that is also how we will turn our fates around!”
The cheers returned with a vengeance. Steve couldn’t believe how ecstatic some of them were. Then, he remembered how dinged up the team had been upon their return. These people had been travelling for even longer, in much greater numbers. It must have been terrible.
Fire spoke up again: “If you want to enlist as a fighter, report to Rose at the left of the valley. If you want to help in any other capacity, report to Fristad on the right side of the valley. Anyone else, go down the middle to the entrance of the shelter, Lucy will show you where you can sleep, eat or get medical treatment.”
Steve barely had time to let the speech settle and savour it before he and Jennifer had to dash off to shepherd people during the door. It didn’t help that a hundred or so new arrivals had already sprinted off ahead of them.
Lucy watched the speech from the entrance of the shelter, she couldn’t hear much of it but she knew the content. Fire had asked a few people for opinions on the speech so she heard it before. Now that the speech was over people rapidly started coming towards the entrance. Lucy took a deep breath.
“Okay, you can do this.” She quietly said to herself.
As the first arrived near her she spoke loudly: “Everybody please wait up, once everyone is here we can go inside!”
The new arrivals were exhausted from the journey and hungry, more than a few were injured. They looked even worse than what Lucy had seen when she had been at the hill. These were not only people from the congregation, these were friends and family of them, who normally wouldn’t make the trip to the hill but still undertook the march to the shelter. A thought flashed in Lucy’s mind. Some might not have made the entire way. She pushed it away, now was not the time.
Steve and Jennifer had also made their way over to the entrance and were now in the process of calming the crowd, just a few more minutes until everyone would be here. Lucy took looks to the left and right to compare the size of the crowds over at Rose and Fristad. Rose had accumulated a respectable amount, a few hundred if Lucy were to guess. Fristad had fewer people, maybe half of what Rose had. The majority of people were still crowding to the shelter entrance, perhaps some of them would later join one of the two other groups once they were fed and healthy.
Once it looked like any stragglers had joined one of the three groups Lucy spoke again: “Hello! My name is Lucy and I will show you around the essential parts of the shelter.”
She turned around and pulled a lever that was embedded into the stone. The entrance to the shelter had once been a relatively small cave entrance, in the meantime it had been widened out and fitted with a large wooden door that was now in the process of swinging open, driven by whatever gears, shafts and pulleys Urist had crammed into the floor beneath the entrance.
Lucy proceeded through the entrance, giving Steve and Jennifer quick looks, they’d have to make sure that nobody stayed too far behind. A few hundred meters into the mountain was the first big chamber.
As Lucy explained her voice echoed from the walls. “This is the central hub, you can reach every section of the shelter from here, there are signs in as many written languages as we could find that indicate what tunnel leads to where.”
She pointed at one of them. “That one leads to the infirmary. If anyone is in urgent need of medical treatment, please go there now. Once you feel better, you can ask any instructor to show you around, you can identify them by their armbands.”
A good portion of the group split off, Steve guided them into the tunnel. Lucy continued. “Follow me please, next we’ll go to the canteen.”
Lucy went straight ahead through the cavern into a tunnel. This one was significantly shorter than the entrance tunnel. The canteen was another huge cavern which had a large number of tables and benches set up, on the left wall was a hollowed out section of the wall where the food would be served.
Lucy explained: “As said, this is the canteen. We try to offer meals at any time of the day but our main meal times are in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at midnight to accommodate for shift work. Now please follow me out again, we’ll reach our final destination at the barracks.”
The barracks were built into the largest of the natural caverns they had found, and even so it had been expanded by a good bit to make more room. The cavern was filled from bottom to top by a wooden frame, the different tiers were connected by ladders and stairs. Wooden walls had been built between some of the logs of the frame, forming rooms that offered sleeping space for eight people each.
Lucy said: “This is the barracks, you are free to pick your room but ideally fill up from the bottom upwards, it makes the maintenance crew’s job easier as well helping me keep count of how much space is left. Are there any questions?”
A man at the front of the group asked: “If we want to stop sitting around being a load, who do we ask?”
Lucy replied: “As said, anyone with an armband will do but if you have specific roles in mind, the support and logistics roles have green armbands, the combat roles have red ones, leadership is grey. There are signs in regular intervals that illustrate the finer details indicated by the symbols on the arm bands.”
With that Lucy made a gesture towards the interior of the barracks, the crowd slowly thinned as people went and got some well-deserved sleep. Once only a few people were left Lucy turned around and walked down the tunnel. Jennifer joined her a few steps in.
Lucy took a deep breath. “Phew, that went better than expected.”
“Don’t undersell it; you nailed it!” said Jennifer with a clap on Lucy’s shoulder.
Now that Lucy thought about it, she did nail it. Everyone got the info they needed and the sick and wounded were probably already receiving treatment. In general, the people who had arrived a few days after them were an interesting group, a lot of personality to be sure. None of them seemed bad to Lucy, a bit weird sure but not bad. As glad as Lucy was for Fire bringing her here and as good of a leader he was, his confidence in her was at times a little intimidating, sometimes it seemed like he knew her better than she knew herself. People like Jennifer were a good contrast, more grounded in a way. Jennifer in general was good to be around, her outlook on life went along well with Lucy’s own. She always seemed to be looking for a way to make the situation that little bit easier. There was always a well-timed compliment, discovery of some extra food or even a pleasant smile in her back pocket, waiting for the right moment to be produced.
Just before they arrived at the central hub, Jennifer stopped and asked: “Hey, Lucy. Are you up for a game of Dungeons and Enderdragons this evening? I even managed to get permission to use the command room for the duration!”
Lucy replied: “Not sure if your game has the same rules as a similar game in my world did but sure, I’d love to.”
Chapter9:Work and Plans (Fristad/Fire)
I swing the axe and ask myself how many times I’ve swung today, but I know I’ve lost count. I’m trying to keep score, so to speak, of the different parts of my job. Every day so far I haven’t managed to keep track of the trees though. I always get too tired, so my goal is to get fit enough that I can keep count unbothered. My muscles ache every evening and every morning, but I power through and I’m feeling stronger all the time. These trees are like grindstones. The more I strike them the sharper I get.
The main score I’ve been able to keep, so far, has been how many trees I’ve cut down. Yesterday was fifty. The day before that was fifty-five - my record. Today, I plan to beat it, of course. It’s only midday and I’ve cut down thirty. My shirt’s leaning on the small of my back, scratchy and sodden. I’m on a roll. I’m feeling myself, beaming away and chuckling.
The only thing getting in my way is the fact that I’m leading a group. Several of them. In a few hours I have to go and check on the foragers and hunters, but for now overseeing the deforestation is top priority. There’s about fifty sweaty workers cutting through the forested ridge around me. Brought together from across the worlds to work under some shepherd. There are worse fates. Morale is high and a few of them are singing and gradually the rest of us are picking up on the words. Something about creepers and wrecking.
“Timber!” I call. It crashes to the ground and two large-nosed, rectangular-headed villagers run in to separate it and collect the logs. Whenever they do so it breaks down into nicely-compacted cubes. Sadly, if they start from the bottom the tree falls over as you’d expect.
“Thirty-one,” I mutter.
I swing the axe down to use as a cane. I look around and I see Steve, out of armour for a change, wandering through the woods with a bowl of stew in either hand. He talks to a green-eyed enderman, who offers a finger pointed in my direction.
Then, he’s standing before me, and I have a bowl.
“Take an hour, lads.” I call over the singing. “If I eat, you eat. Get to the canteen.”
My tone is stoic and measured. I’m channeling my old friend Ironbrawn’s tone when he used to tell people a mob had jumped the wall and he needed everyone to band together for a few minutes before we could all get back to our business. Mildly annoyed but with a hint of satisfaction and guilty amusement. It’s a good impression.
As they file off Steve asks me, “Having fun?”
“Absolutely,” I smile with conspiracy, “It’s like shepherding a flock that never runs off, it’s great!”
“It’s always relaxing,” Steve says, “You know what’s not relaxing?”
He gestures over to the edge of the ridge and I understand. Fire wants this area cleared of trees to prevent the enemy from taking cover there. Kay wants to save on time and just set a few traps, maybe dig a tunnel out there for a counterattack. Guerilla-style. Fire won out as usual but he won’t stop trying to get some variation of it approved.
“Oh, the discussions?” I ask, “Those are pretty stressful.”
“I didn’t even intend that,” Steve snorts. “No, the not-relaxing thing is on the other side of the ridge Kay has chosen to die on.”
We walk up to a rock and I see what he’s talking about.
In the plains below are several divisions training. There’s about five hundred who have signed on for combat duty out of roughly two-and-a-half thousand potentials. Understandably, people are hesitant. That prophecy only carries so much sway with people who just got burned out of their homes. They’re mad, sure. Furious, even. But they’re not dumb.
I see Tyron flying around a group of soldiers, correcting their posture as they hold poleaxes for the first time. Destiny and Rose are instructing a paltry group of magic-users on how to combine their powers with hand-to-hand. Most of them are healers by trade, but they need and want to fight on the front lines.
What Steve directs my eyes to is the figure of Kay jogging backwards at the head of about forty people. Warnado’s floating along beside him cross-legged. Ever since the kid figured out how to do it he won’t stop showing off. It’s adorable. As for the column: they’re all in practice armour and carrying wooden weaponry. I strain my ears to hear what he’s yelling.
“Who are you?!”
“Fire’s First Infantry!” the chorus groans back.
“What is your purpose?!”
“Topple the Tower!” They strain a little louder.
He stops jogging and holds up a hand. The procession jolts into place. One guy near the middle trips and scuffles back up.
“You’re learning Jenkins!” Kay calls out jovially. “Fastest you’re back on your feet yet!”
Laughter starts but before it can get going Kay roars “AD-VANCE! FOR-MATION!”
Warnado drops to his feet and his hands start to glow. A bunch of coloured scribbles form on the ground and the column jogs forward.
“They’re names,” Steve said incredulously. “Colours are unit types. Skirmishers at the front, swords in the middle. Poleaxe at back.”
The column breaks and bustles its way into place, with much criss-crossing of paths and last-minute changes. They settle.
“As you might have noticed,” Kay calls out. “I made some changes to the register. Swap a few place-names around. This is not a mistake. You need to be able to adapt, and you rose to the occasion! Well done! Especially you Raphoe, excellent footwork. Couldn’t be prouder. You’re like a damned gazelle out there! And you, Fritz. Even you Jenkins...” And so on.
He starts a round of applause, then teleports ahead of the group and orders another kilometer’s run. Memory of the source of his power throws me off axis… But then it passes and I’m just grateful to be free of that damned book. It’s finally met its match in Kay. They’re perfect for each other.
“He’s been at that with them for the last three hours,” Steve shakes his head incredulously and sits back on the rock. “It’s insane.”
I join him on the rock and take a spoonful of the soup. It’s weirdly spicy. I feel my hair lift.
“Redstone again?” I say flatly.
He’s done this to me and others intermittently over the last few days. Some recipe of his brother’s.
“Yep,” Steve grins, “I’m going to keep doing it until it catches on.”
“Dream on,” I laugh, “I don’t hate it, but this is not catching on. You’re also getting such a static-slap when I’m done.”
“I knew the cost going in. I can take it,” he growls in mock steeliness.
We joke back and forth in between spoonfuls until Steve points out that Kay has stopped jogging. His column, while still keeping their pace, has changed course. At the same time, Tyron’s great lattice of battle-stances is crumbling. Destiny and Rose’s two-dozen becomes at best a baker’s dozen and dwindles further. They’re all running off toward one hill, at the top of which is…
“No way,” I breathe.
A man in rags crowns the hill, pulsing violently in response to his own volume. I can’t make out what he’s saying but even at this distance I can hear the muffled roaring of opaque predictions. The Prophet, for whom this congregation first gathered, has returned.
I hear a warping sound followed by footsteps. Steve and I turn around, not sure what to expect. I grab my axe and spin it back up.
I see a man in a turquoise shirt and jeans almost identical to Steve’s. A stone sword at his side, stubble about his chin, and a brown leather cloak about his shoulder, the stranger approaches. His face is impatient and he keeps squeezing his thumbs until they crack.
“Right,” he concludes before he’s even started. “Pleasure to meet you both. Lovely weather and all that. Need to talk to Fire, or whoever ended up in charge. Where is he?”
I almost don’t respond due to the sheer rudeness, but the confusion is what really stops me. My friend seems just as stuck and after a shared glance we’re no closer to an answer. He huffs. He contorts his mouth into a grin. He heaves up his eyebrows. Holds out a hand in greeting.
“I’m Steve, by the way, what are your names?”
“Hi Steve,” we respond in a slightly ridiculous unison.
Fire watched as Steve drew the route the patrol would take onto the map. The entire leadership was gathered around the table, even Warnado and Amanda being allowed in.
“The Entity’s been having trouble with some lapis smugglers called the Jackals,” Steve muttered, so intent on the information he barely seemed to realise he was in the room. “They’ve been getting too close to its territory and using its portals without permission. Small-time group but they’ve killed enough mercenaries for it to start sending out heavier patrols. In particular, I’ve received word that one particularly large patrol is going out tomorrow. A patrol with several officers and, importantly, a captain.”
“Which one?” called Destiny from the corner. She was stoking the fire. Anger and anticipation flared in her eyes as she stabbed forth with the poker.
“Uncertain,” said Steve. “But it’s an opportunity for you to capture someone who might know something about the Entity’s plan. I’ve been following him for years and all I know is that he likes to collect oddities, conquer the odd civilisation, and he really likes those crystals Steve 2 has on him.”
“How did you know about those? Also, if anyone’s Steve 2, it’s you. I was here first,” said the other Steve, scowling.
“I have my ways,” the prophet’s bodyguard smiled acidly. “And you weren’t.”
Fire studied the route closely. If they were going to attack they had to be prepared to deal with around fifty troops, most of which would be well trained and experienced. There would be at least a couple of mages and endermen so they had to account for that too.
Fire pointed at a valley in a dense forest the patrol route went through. “I think this is our spot. The valley slims down into almost a canyon there. There isn’t much room in the canyon, they’ll have to be in loose formation. We cut into some of the trees and chop them down fully once they’re below. The falling logs should take out a good amount of them. Additionally we trigger a controlled rockslide at the entrance of the canyon, cutting off their escape path. After the surprise attack they’ll scramble to the other side, which is where we set up our ambush proper: Archers and mages hit them from the sides to take out a couple more, by then they’ll have lost most organization. We’ll set up a ditch with wooden stakes if they try to flee forwards. If they flee backwards we have them cornered and wear them down from range. Does this sound good to everyone?”
“Trench sounds risky,” Kay cut in flatly, not looking at Fire and fixing his eyes square on the map. “Someone could come across the engineers and scuttle the whole operation. They might simply not retreat where we want them to. Introduces too many unneeded variables, and the troops are too new to do that quietly.”
Fire nodded. “True. I was mostly thinking about using fast builders with pre-sharpened sticks to set up the trenches but I suppose we don’t have the required military infrastructure and discipline for a smooth operation yet. I trust your judgement on the state of our troops.”
“To be perfectly honest,” Kay raised his jade-green eyes and met Fire’s, seizing the opening. “I don’t think we should be sending any of them out into the field for this one.”
“What?” Steve laughed bitterly. “So, I give you a Tower patrol, a possible insight into the Entity’s plan and a shot at an actual, tangible victory against the Entity and you’re chickening out? I could just take the Prophet and go, you know?”
“I don’t think that’s exactly what he said.” Interjected Shadow who had been watching from the sidelines so far.
“Thank you Shadow, you are correct,” Kay nodded. “I actually do have a suggestion. We, the leadership, go in on our own.”
There was a shocked silence. Fristad went white. Warnado’s mouth dropped open and his glowing red eyes widened. Kay capitalised on it.
“We keep the plan mostly as is. The rockslide is good. Falling logs are good. The Book and I have even cooked up a way to get the archers involved without putting them art risk. I summon two openings - one in the enemy lines, the other in front of our archers miles away - the archers fire through and our enemy is substantially weakened. Could even use a portal to separate an officer from the rest of the pack. I’d have to get closer, though, for something that precise.
“The enemy would be totally disoriented. The big issue would be the Endlings and any mages they may have with them, but the grunts would be in chaos. I’d like to see how dangerous a giant is with a boulder on his knee and arrows pin-cushioning his chest.
“Additionally, we’d be showing our forces that their safety is paramount to us. That we’re going to fight this war as smart as we are going to fight it hard. Any casualties would be immediate martyrs. A propaganda victory no matter what. Any questions?”
Tyron tilted his head, his ears pricking up at Kir’s invisible voice.
“What’s the general composition of a patrol this size?” he asked, turning to Steve.
“Normally,” Steve began with reluctant modesty. “You could expect about fifty humans. However, ever since someone started a prison break on her watch and then tazed her, the Ender’s kind of freaking out. She really needs a victory to stop the Entity dissolving her organs, so she’s donating a lot of troops to efforts like this. I’d estimate about forty humans, ten of the Ender’s finest, two officers, some mages and a captain. Maybe a giant or two mixed in with the humans.”
“Those are not good odds,” Tyron muttered.
“You kidding?!” Warnado shouted. “Last time we faced more than five of the Ender’s dunk squad David-”
Amanda promptly elbowed him in the ribs, for which everyone was grateful. Fristad looked like he was going to throw up. Jennifer put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed back and forth. Silence drifted like fog through the room until Destiny spoke up.
“Do it,” she said with determination. “I want a rematch against those guys and like Kay said, something something propaganda victory.”
Astro cleared his throat before wearily intervening: “What she means to say is that we’ve learned a lot since then, and will be better able to fight them. Something something, propaganda victory.”
“The mages can be dealt with using our secret weapon, magic neutralizing splash potions. Ideally they’d die in the alpha strike but we can’t rely on that. If everyone carries one or two of those potions we should be able to suppress most of the threat coming from the mages. The endermen do still remain a problem.”
“I could focus the scattershot arrow-portal attack on them,” Kay offered. “Likely wouldn’t kill as many as if it were targeting the humans, but it’s a higher priority target. I can testify that they don’t react as quickly if they can’t see where the shot is coming from, and we’d at the very least injure a few. We’d also have the commander with us this time, and he is quite the beast in combat as I recall.”
He showed his palms in magnanimous deference to Fire. He got the impression from Kay’s little smirk that this was meant to be a slight, but it was a valid point.
Fire said: “Overall we have three general choices. One is not doing anything, which keeps us precisely where we are, looking for an edge. One is sending the troops, which we agree will most likely get them killed, if they do succeed they will do so with heavy losses and most likely they won’t get much out of it. If we go there ourselves we directly put our lives on the line but we also stand to gain a lot. I can imagine that we could take a captive if we play our cards right. We are the rebels here, which means we lose by default unless we do something. As usual, anyone not in agreement is free to stay at the shelter.”
“I’m in,” concluded Destiny without hesitation.
“Me too,” said Fristad, regaining some colour. “I’m not much of a fighter but I’ll damn well be there.”
Astro didn’t look up from the map, but he nodded with pursed lips and gave a stiff thumbs-up.
With a sigh, Tyron drew Kir from its sheath and raised it above his head, before chuckling out: “For the revolution!”
This sped up the process drastically, with the Brines, Warnado, Amanda and Shadow all drawing weapons and joining in the toast. Even Lucy called out “for the revolution in solidarity”. Soon the entire room bar the Prophet’s bodyguard was raising a weapon and chanting in the name of glorious revolution.
Steve stroked his stubble.
“You might just be what we’ve been looking for after all.” And then he was gone. It took exactly ten seconds for Kay to start ranting about what a **** he was. Fire didn’t disagree.
“Warnado.” Shadow said to her apprentice. “Today I will tell you about what people call precognition.”
Warnado replied: “You don’t seem to like that word.”
They were walking through the tunnels, going steadily towards the living quarters of the leadership. The Prophet had temporarily taken up residence in an unoccupied room, where he usually spent his time sleeping or staring off into the distance when he wasn’t preaching.
Shadow said: “You’d be correct. Where I am from predicting the future in great detail is futile, we’re lucky if the weather report is correct for the next five days. Both scientific and magical ‘precognition’ usually works by observing a system in detail and trying to predict a future state.”
“Like the weather?” Warnado asked.
“Like the weather.” Shadow confirmed. “I personally don’t think there is a thing such as fate, as in the big invisible hands holding the puppet strings with everyone being doomed to play their role. What there are, however, are… constraints or contracts of a sort. Spells but on a much greater level. How exactly they work is not well understood.”
Warnado tilted his head and appeared to shrink several inches. “Like contracts with demons?”
“Not exactly. Think of how your own magic works. You want currency and coins appear. You don’t think about the shape of the coin or its molecular structure. Think like that but bigger. If certain thoughts are made in the right circumstances, they create a magical spell that will try to influence the world to make the thought a reality. Imagine if someone, by chance, sat on a big node of magical energy and wasn’t happy with their current king. If they have affinity for magic that might just create a spell that tries its damndest to make sure the king dies, which may involve making that random baker’s son into a tyrant-slaying hero. Whether he wants to or not.”
Warnado looked at Shadow, his eyes lit up. “So, if it’s like my magic, where does the strawberry jam come in?”
Shadow laughed. “I suppose that’s anything the originator of the spell didn’t specify. They wanted the king dead but said nothing about the hero or what the hero does while on the way to the king. Perhaps the spell also causes the king to reform but still sends the hero, with all the problems that brings.”
They turned a corner. They were almost at the door to the Prophet’s lodgings.
Warnado asked: “So, how’s all this related to precognition?”
Shadow said: “If one were to look in the correct place with the correct tools, they could spot these magical contracts and with a bit more luck actually decipher them. If they are read correctly, you have a prophecy on your hands.” Shadow paused. “However, usually people either go mad precisely from reading the contracts or their ability to read the contracts comes from existing madness. Mad oracle is a stereotype for a reason.”
“So, have you ever read one?” Warnado asked.
Shadow shook her head. “No. If I’m being honest most of this is the result of millennia of collective magical research. We have pretty much proven the existence of those contracts, but we can’t actually create or read them due to some safeguards our world has.”
That was the reason they were going to see the Prophet. Shadow wanted to see where his visions came from. Warnado’s own magical senses had developed quite nicely so he would probably be able to share in her discovery. Nexus was so packed with energy that it was very possible that even people without magical affinity could create a contract, the Prophet was probably seeing all of them at once.
Shadow put a hand on the doorknob of the Prophet’s room. “However, the most important difference between these contracts and actual ‘fate’ is that nothing is absolute, anything can be avoided, changed or bent with enough strength or trickery.”
She opened the door. The room was bare-bones like the rest of the leadership lodgings: a bed, a drawer, a table and two chairs. However, it had the distinct advantage of offering privacy, something that was hard to come by in the barracks.
The tall and haggard form of the Prophet was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring off into the wall in front of him with his glowing white eyes. When Shadow entered the room, he simply continued his staring, however once Warnado was through the door the Prophet’s head jerked around and was fixed on the quarter-demon.
With his shrill voice the Prophet spoke: “A shard becomes a whole, a whole shatters and is a shard again, lonely in the collapse.”
Warnado looked at Shadow, slightly intimidated. “What does he mean?”
There had been little talk of shards in the Prophet’s past sermons, so this probably was one of his more literal prophecies. The collapse was a known concept, it occasionally showed up but never with anything that would tie it to the rest of the prophecies. Shadow shrugged.
“Now, what we came here for.” She said. “Open your sense for magic and look out for any connections he might have with any outside magic. If you’re lucky you might even spot a thread to a contract.”
Warnado took a deep breath. Shadow could feel how he mobilized his magic to follow his will. He was making good progress. It took measurably shorter for him to get ready compared to previous times. Suddenly he stopped.
“There’s nothing.” He said.
Shadow was skeptical but when she focused her own sense of magic there really was nothing she could find about the Prophet that would suggest a connection to the magical background field.
“Weird.” Shadow muttered.
She walked closer to the Prophet and checked again, nothing. All the while the Prophet’s eyes had been fixed on Warnado, even when Shadow had crossed his line of sight.
He spoke another sentence: “The love is distanced but finds a different kind.”
That one made even less sense than the last one, either these were new bits of the big prophecy or they were directed at Warnado himself. Shadow contemplated telling her apprentice about this realization but decided against it, he had enough to think about without cryptic prophecies that might not even come true.
Shadow lowered her head and brought her face directly in front of the Prophet’s. So far, he had completely ignored her, she wanted to try something to get his attention. “Hey, would you mind not staring at my apprentice?”
Suddenly the Prophet’s focus shifted. He narrowed his eyes, opened them again just to narrow them another time. He froze up.
“Another.” He whispered, his voice becoming abnormally clear. “Only one. Not two. Only one.”
The Prophet’s voice suddenly became loud and shrill again: “The leader! The death of the leader! The protector unravels and unravels and unravels and unravels and all unravels and unravels and unravels!”
After that, his voice became too frantic and incoherent to make out what he was saying.
Shadow looked at Warnado, he looked more than a bit disturbed: “I think it’s best if we left.”
After they closed the door behind them, they walked until they couldn’t hear the screaming anymore.
Warnado asked: “Any clue what he meant with that last one?”
Shadow shook her head. “Nope.”
Shadow honestly wished that were true.
Chapter11:Whole New World (Destiny)
Midday had settled in nicely. The sun sat right in the middle of the sky like a lightbulb dangled from the heavens. Okay, maybe not perfectly at the centre. Destiny struggled to look at it directly, her eyelids drooping instinctively to protect the eyes beneath when she tried. However, it was boiling the top of her scalp, so it might as well have been directly above. Destiny wiped the sweat from her brow and readjusted her satchel just as she entered the old Sovereign camp. She heard the clink of glass as she hitched the strap back up.
She had a mind to give the old corpses a burial one day, but for now she found them darkly nostalgic. It occurred to her that this feeling probably didn’t fall under the categories of “normal” or “healthy” and filed it in the “for discussion” folder.
Anya phased into view as Destiny approached the hill the portal crowned. Her blond mop of hair, grey hoodie and blue jeans were unchanged and did not move in the cool breeze. Destiny tightened her ponytail and marched up, dumping the satchel at the foot of the portal. She sat down, beaming.
“Well, don’t you look cheery,” commented her past self. “What’s happened.”
“A lot,” said Destiny. “I’m running some combat classes with the magic-users and they’re going well. Tryon and Rose handle most of the talking, I just have to hit, burn, freeze and impale stuff.”
“Nice,” said Anya with a downward curl of the mouth.
“I’m also actually spending time around the shelter like a normal human being, instead of huntress-ing it up all the time. I actually read a book for once.”
“Start to finish?” Anya cocked an eyebrow.
“Skipped the middle but I read the ending.”
“Nice,” she said with a further downward thrust.
“And, of course, that weird Steve guy I told you about - the other one - showed up. Y’know, the one who appeared outside my window that one time in the Tower. Yeah, I’ve told you about that. He’s shown up for the first time in ages with that fortuneteller guy. Now, he’s given us some info and... I’m getting a chance to get back at those douchebags from the Tower tomorrow.”
Anya’s eyes lit up with ghostly bloodlust.
“I also,” Destiny paused and reached into the satchel, “Managed to convince Lucy to let me swipe these.”
She pulled out a unlabeled glass bottle full of light-brown liquid. There were ten or so others in the bag.
“Nice few beers. Our favourite.”
“Wow,” said Anya with the eyes of a proud parent. “It’s all coming up Destiny these last few days. Aren’t you luckier than a leprechaun?”
Destiny floated a hand just above Anya’s shoulder, pretending to hold it and being careful not to let it pass through.
“Luckier still, Anya dearest. I’m going to get a little drunk up here for the next few hours, then wander home with enough time for a good night’s sleep.”
“This is officially the only time I will call day-drinking the responsible option.”
The two giggled and then settled down. Destiny stretched her back out over the portal frame until it clicked.
“So,” she said. “I was just walking up the hill and was thinking about maybe burying some of those Sovereign corpses, but then I felt kind of nostalgic-”
“Okay, before we get into the therapy session and my unqualified ass tries to fix your brain, I actually have some things on my agenda. You mind?”
“Sure thing,” she conceded with two thumbs up. “Shoot away, Anya.”
“First of all, be careful out there tomorrow. Mess them up good, but don’t overextend yourself and make sure you survive. Unless the Ender is there. Kill that ***** something fierce. Or Glibby, I guess. Either’s good.”
“Gotcha. Save my energy for the big one.”
“Second, look me in the eyes,” said Anya with gravity, leaning in close. Her face was the embodiment of intensity, until it suddenly loosened, and she drew back into vague confusion. “The other week, when that green furball fell from the sky, did you talk to his sword? Is-is that who Kir is?”
This slew Destiny. Howls of laughter tore off across the land.
“Hey, it’s been bugging me ever since!” Anya huffed. “You only ever tell me about you, I’m trying to fill in the blanks.”
“I’m sorry!” Destiny cackled. “I’m sorry, the talking sword’s just the least weird part of my current experience. There are so many weirder elements.”
“I doubt it,” Anya challenged with a cock of the eyebrow.
“Well, one of our party members is a thirteen-year-old demon-wizard who won’t stop summoning fast food.”
“Not weirder than a talking sword.”
“Okay, my current boss is a big, millennia-old reptile-man, whose sister is some sort of terrifying magical anomaly. We had an election and I had to choose between that and a guy who works for, wait for it, Herobrine.”
“Oh my Notch!” Anya groaned.
“Not the one you beat, apparently Herobrine’s pretty cool on other worlds. I voted for his employee, Kay. He tries too hard, has no regard for his own safety and he draws power from a sentient book but apparently, he really tore things up back at the village. Would’ve done a good job but it’s not a big deal.”
Anya paused, laughed and then concluded: “I cannot believe you.”
“I can’t either,” laughed Destiny. “It’s a whole new world out there.”
She swigged her beer and raised a toast, “To the revolution!”
“To the revolution!” Anya agreed.
The sun blazed on, searing and angry.
Chapter12:Combat Roles (Tyron)
Tyron blew a glacial breath over the fire, dimming it just enough. He’d have to do the same thing again in about ten minutes, but if he turned it off altogether everyone else would complain about being cold. Being covered in fur really had its drawbacks sometimes. He was made for the End, which isn’t exactly the hottest place.
They were in the command room, discussing strategy. Fire was talking: “Once we survey the site, we’ll come up with the final skirmish groups, but we can think of some rough roles already. There is going to be one group that’s doing the heavy fighting, taking out as many as they can. Another group should focus on flanking and catching out any enemies who try to flee. Maybe a dedicated ranged support group too, that’s where your archers come in Kay.” Fire paused to think. ”We also need a small group to trigger the rockslide behind the patrol. They won’t see much combat but if need be, they’ll be somewhat of a secondary flanker group. Each group should have the resources to make a capture if possible.”
Tyron said: “I’m part of the heavy group then?”
Fire nodded. “So far the heavy group contains me, you, Shadow, the Brines and Rose.”
“Rose?” Kay asked. “Is she really heavy material? I thought of her more as a flanker or skirmisher.”
Fire extended his claws demonstratively. “You haven’t seen her in a real fight yet, but I have. She’s more than qualified.”
Astro interjected: “What about the children? Warnado won’t be dissuaded, and Amanda goes where he goes. All we can do is minimize the danger we put them in.”
Kay stroked his chin. “Rockslide perhaps. We’d need someone else there though. Let’s get to that once we have the other groups.”
Fire took the lead again: “As for the flankers, Voidblade is a must. He can run interference on their end troops. Destiny would fit as well. The flankers will have the highest chance of capturing someone and Destiny is hellbent on getting back at the Tower. Urist is also surprisingly quick and if he can get some good kneecaps that drastically increases our chances at a capture.”
The tall, scaled man then let his gaze sweep through the room. “Kay, Astro, any preferences?”
Astro, who had been notably quiet up until this point, said: “Ranged support probably, if we’re bringing archers, they need some form of protection from magical threats.”
Kay nodded. “I’ll probably start out with the archers to do the portal trick, but I’ll probably join the flankers.”
“That works, more teleportation for them to deal with.” Fire said. “That leaves Fristad.”
“Safe to use him?” asked Kir. “Still the dreamweaver.”
“Obviously,” responded Tryon. “He’s a changed man. Big concern is where to put him. He’s not exactly the world’s greatest fighter. Maybe the rockslide group?”
“Sure, put with girl he tormented. Great idea!”
“You’re being a real douche today, so I’m going to suggest it anyway.”
With a little hint of irritation, Tyron walked back to the table and spoke aloud: “Maybe have him go with Warnado and Amanda in the rockslide group. That way they’re not on their own. He isn’t trained in combat so less direct confrontation is better.”
Fire thought for a moment, then agreed. “Yes, good thinking. We’ll think over the groups once we’re done with the survey but those sound good for now.”
“It does indeed,” said Kay. “One thing though, we could actually get the rockslide to double for capturing the officer. I open a portal, they fall through and then it’s three on one. Naturally if it’s anyone crazy powerful we won’t do that, but if it’s someone like the Dog it’ll be fine. He’s just a dog with thumbs… I wonder how that guy is? We haven’t seen him in a while.”
Tyron remembered Kay mentioning that he and the Dog actually got on really well. There was a look of longing about him, but also of hope that his canine acquaintance might be redeemed.
Astro, in a rare, unprompted statement, cut in.
“You sure about that?” he asked. “The Tower doesn’t exactly strike me as a place where the weak tend to thrive. They’re only kids.”
“And a shepherd,” Kay rebutted serenely, a little smile playing on his lips. “I am confident in Warnado’s combat abilities, Amanda’s too. Fristad’s the only one I’m concerned about and I’d still not like to get in his way when he’s swinging an axe about. They can handle it.”
Astro returned to his brooding nods.
“Aye,” said Kay. “But the question is still where we set up the rockslide.” He looked up at Fire expectantly. “Want to scout it out together?”
“We should do that, yes. It’s a two hour walk so we should be back before evening, doubles as scouting the access route too. Maybe while we’re there also mark some trees that would be useful for the ambush.”
“Two-hour walk is nothing,” Kay chuckled, opening a rift in demonstration. “Should only need the two of us. You two have the rest of the evening off. Don’t go too wild without us.”
He winked and beckoned for Fire to step through the warp, enlarging it to accommodate his height.
And so, it was just Tyron and Astro. Naturally, there was only one question left to ask. The Dragoknight took a deep breath.
“What happens to Kay?” Kir chirped nervously in both of their minds.
Astro responded with a hollow glare directed at the map. The crack of fingers pressed together filled the room and then faded.
“Tyron, Kir,” Astro rounded on him, adopting the tone of an enforcer. “You’ve been good friends to me since I got here. You’re dependable, selfless, heroic, all those good things. This, however, is a personal matter involving me and, when his turn comes to deal with it, Kay. It’s an issue that causes me a lot of pain, and I’ve already had to explain it to one person and I’m not happy about it. As such, friend, I ask you to believe me when I tell you this: the danger is averted, Kay is not a threat. If he becomes one, I will tell you. Understood?”
He let it settle. Tyron’s mouth was agape, but he nodded. The tension went out of Astro, and he seemed to shrink, like a paper bag someone let the air out of. His eyes were dead.
“Now, I hope that’s settled. I’m going to take a walk, but you get some rest. Tomorrow’s a big one.”
With an almost-friendly squeeze of Tyron’s shoulder, he left. Tyron, thoroughly not reassured, went off to the training room, battered a dummy for a while, then went to the leadership dorms. He didn’t sleep. He just waited with his eyes shut. He heard them all as they came back in. Astro, Fire, Kay, then a big surge as the Dungeons and Enderdragons crew returned. Then, finally, Fristad and Destiny, giggling and joking in loud whispers. That too stopped. Even after that, Tyron didn’t sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking.
The shadow of all those horrible things Freak had told him of hung over him. He still didn’t know if they were true. If all those deaths had meant anything, or whether it had all just been set back to normal. Back to Herobrine’s world.
“Who lives and who dies tomorrow?” He asked. “Will it matter?”
“It must,” Kir reassured. “It will.”
Chapter13:Dungeons and Enderdragons (Lucy)
It was just before nightfall when they gathered in the command room. Lucy had spent the previous hours looking through the inventory list to find things that could be used as snacks. It had been a few years, but she remembered from when she had played her version of the game with her family: snacks were a requirement. In the end the snacks mostly consisted of a variety of small fruits and nuts the gatherers had collected over the last days. However Lucy had also found some actual sweets, which turned out to have been part of what Fire and Shadow had brought to Nexus from their world.
Everyone who wanted to participate had arrived approximately on-time. Steve, as the owner of the rulebooks, took it upon himself to game master the session, he was currently speaking to Shadow who was very insistently asking if he was sure he wouldn’t need any projected ancient dragon miniatures. Warnado and Amanda were also here, currently chatting with Urist. Fristad played wallflower to the conversation, only contributing an occasional snoot of laughter. Jennifer had decided to take parts of the preparation into her own hands and was in the process of turning several pieces of paper into blank character sheets.
After the initial setup was complete, Steve gave everyone a rundown of the basic rules and the setting he was going to use. From what Lucy could tell, the game was mostly identical to what she was familiar with, though probably some of the mechanical details were different - couldn’t expect all numbers to be the same across universes. It also seemed that Shadow had come to similar conclusions, apparently having played the version of her world.
Steve announced: “Since we have the same amount of experienced and new players, each of us will help one of you with your character creation.”
Steve helped Urist, Jennifer helped Warnado, Shadow helped Amanda and Lucy would help Fristad.
After explaining the basics of what a character sheet was to Fristad they needed to talk about what he was going to play.
Lucy asked: “So, it’s best if you just think of a character without thinking about the game too much. Once you have it I’ll try to help you make it fit into the system.”
Fristad chewed his upper lip thoughtfully and leaned back. Then, he leaned forward again, a smile laughing its way into existence on his face.
“So, what’s the difference between enderborn and enderman?”
Lucy said: “Enderborn is sort of an umbrella term for anything that’s either an enderman or descended from one, but it’s mostly used for the hybrids. They don’t enjoy the best status due to some people finding them weird or even abhorrent but it’s not on a witch-hunt level.”
“Oh, so it’s like home. I have a friend like that: Jonas. Lovely guy,” said Fristad.
Lucy smiled. “Actually, the character I’ll be using is enderborn as well, I used her on the occasional games my family would run on our travels. Lots of memories connected to her.”
“Cool,” nodded Fristad. “I’m drawing on personal experience too. I’m pretty sure I’ll play an enderman, for old times’ sake.”
He promptly started giggling a little stupidly, then stopped himself and raised his hands.
“Just in case you didn’t hear, the Book turned me into an enderman one time. It was a whole thing. That’s the - hah- that’s the joke.”
Lucy had only heard about Fristad’s time when he still had the Book, so it took her a few seconds to realize what he meant, she nodded. “It’s a common thing to play out aspects of yourself.”
After writing down “enderman” in the corresponding field Lucy asked: “So, I suppose we’ll roll your stats next and from there you can decide your class.”
A few dice rolls later Fristad’s character had his stats, none of the rolls were too far outside of the ordinary. After giving Fristad a quick overview of his class options Lucy gave him a bit more time to think. He sat for about ten seconds, hunched over the sheet. He kept tapping his neck with the pen.
“Druid looks good. Nice support role and I’m really starting to love the forest, so it should suit me perfectly.”
He scribbled it in, went through the remaining details and handed the pencil over to Lucy.
“Thanks Lucy, nature be your healer,” he said with a chuckle.
“Great, just a few more things to finalize your character, among those being a backstory.”
After a bit, more time everyone was done with their characters. They sat down together at the map table.
Steve began: “Alright, since this is the first time playing for four of you, we’ll begin with the least complicated start: You all meet in a tavern. Introduce yourselves, in-character if possible.”
Lucy decided to start: “Hello, my name is Ella. I’m a travelling scholar seeking to expand my horizons. Nice to meet you!”
Shadow had supplied everyone with miniatures of their characters, Lucy placed hers at the table of the tavern.
Jennifer introduced herself in a husky voice, “Simeon Longshanks, paladin of the Order of the Stone. I’m young, looking to prove myself. So, I shall go out and heal those who have need of it and make war on those who would do them harm!”
Warnado was next, greatly exaggerating any hissing noises in his words. “Hhhhhello. I am Sssssspider Bard.”
Lucy first thought there was going to be more after that but no, Warnado had already placed his miniature on the table, which turned out to be a spider with maracas bound to its legs. This elicited laughs from the group and a sigh from Steve. He wore an expression that said, "Great, now I have to come up with plot hooks for a sentient spider… bard… thing."
Amanda followed suit with a wry smile. “Greetings, I am Wertma Wutko, disciple of the Way of the Falling Tree. My masters sent me into the world to prove my skill.”
Judging by her miniature, Amanda was playing a villager monk, she was evidently not terribly keen on combat effectiveness.
Urist was next, entering the fray with the most terrifying accent Lucy was pretty certain any of them had heard in some time:
“Allo, I em Ooriste ze elf. Deprived of my honeur yearz in ze past, I shearch a way to restore eet.”
Fristad allowed this to settle, scrunching his eyebrows in bemusement before placing down his enderman.
“I am Kaine,” he began with a clapping together of his hand. “I’m an enderman druid. I am chaotic good. Just here to have fun and help folks out. Don’t… Don’t look at the face, though.”
Shadow went last. “The name is Laurence, master of cards and magic. Would you like to see a trick?”
She flung her miniature with a flick of her hand, having it land precisely between Lucy’s own and Jennifer’s.
“Alright.” Said Steve. “Now that everyone has arrived, let us begin!”
After the introductions were over, Steve gave them their first encounter by having the tavern keeper ask them to rid him of his huge rat problem. What surprised the new players but was quite obvious to the seasoned ones was that it was actually a Huge Rat problem. Their first combat went down without much hassle, they had enough healing in the group that the few hits they took had no lasting consequences.
Once they had collected their reward they set off into the woods towards the nearest town. After a few days of travel, they came across a damaged wagon. Lucy immediately wanted to help but was cautious, Fristad had no such worries. It turned out that Lucy had been right since the wagon was bait for a bandit ambush. In this first real fight, it quickly became clear who would be keeping the party alive. Jennifer’s paladin proved incredibly useful in drawing attention from the more ill-suited party members. Despite his terrible accent, Urist was still an elf with a bow, which was not to be underestimated.
The fight ended with both Lucy and Amanda’s characters getting quite beat up by the end of it and Shadow’s character was near death. They abandoned their plans of going to the city and instead looked for shelter nearby, finding a cave to rest in.
The cave had turned out to be a lot bigger than they had expected, on Warnado’s suggestion they went to explore it after spending a day healing their wounded. Within the cave they soon found brick walls and a sealed door. What would otherwise have been a challenging puzzle was immediately nullified by Fristad teleporting to the other side and opening the door from there, Steve grumbled but accepted his oversight.
The stone structure inside the mountain was a maze-like dungeon. They slowly advanced, taking breaks when someone was struck by bolts shot from the walls triggered by pressure plates. Not having a rogue in this situation was starting to become increasingly dangerous when the traps turned from darts to boulders.
Eventually they reached an open hall, this was where the combat part of the dungeon would take place. That was when Lucy realized what kind of character Shadow was playing, she had gone all-out on relying on random effects. One combat she’d destroy skeleton after skeleton with lucky dice rolls and chaining spells, in others she almost blew up the party with a randomly targeted fireball.
At the end of the hall, they found the owner of the dungeon, a necromancer. Before he could launch into a monologue, Warnado had interrupted him with an attempt to challenge him to a solo battle, as in musical solo, not one-on-one combat. To everyone’s surprise his roll went through and the necromancer accepted. Unfortunately, however, it turned out that the necromancer’s second talent was playing the lute, Warnado consequently got himself thrashed by him and his skeletal backup dancers. Having emerged victorious, the necromancer made his exit before anyone could do much about it. Warnado swore bloody revenge, which sounded quite funny in his spider voice.
At that point Steve said: “Alright everyone. I think this wraps up our first session, it’s getting quite late, and I think this is a good stopping point.” He winked at Warnado. “If we continue this… If we continue this, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of motivation to keep this flowing.”
They spent half an hour cleaning up, then everyone went to their respective bedroom. The others would have a battle to fight tomorrow, Lucy wouldn’t be going with them, but she was still quite nervous, combat was always a risk. She was the last to leave, wondering who would come back as they filtered out of her sight.
Chapter14:Site of Confrontation (Fire)
Fire’s estimate of two hours had proven to be fairly accurate. While in theory they could have traversed the distance much more quickly, they had stopped along the way multiple times to check for possible sightlines to the patrol’s route. This was both to prevent them from being seen early and to be able to get an accurate idea of when the patrol would arrive by posting scouts in key locations.
The valley was densely forested and as the map had shown, gradually slimmed down into a canyon that nonetheless had a few trees growing in it. The air was nice and fresh, a good contrast to the shelter, despite Shadow’s air purification spell it could get quite stuffy at times.
Fire pointed ahead. “Enough to make marching in formation difficult.”
“Indeed, we’ll let them march in far enough and then funneling them should be easy. You heavies and the ranged can hit them from the sides. We in flanking will prevent anyone who tries to run from doing so.”
Further up the walls Fire could spot a few loose rocks but not enough to meaningfully collapse and block the way back. They’d have to get creative.
“What do you think? Explosives or just loosening up dirt further up? Explosives are quick and loud, but we don’t know if they’ll work. We have enough fast diggers that the dirt method seems preferable.”
“I think you’re right. Explosives are harder to conceal and less predictable. Maybe get Jennifer or Steve to dig around within the peaks until they collapse?”
Fire looked ahead into the canyon at the trees growing there. They were perfect for their purposes, not tall enough to span the entire width, but still old and heavy enough to crush someone.
He said: “Also thinking about having the trees all be in one area. If we have good timing, we can take out a whole lot of them. Spreading out the trees wouldn’t work anyways, not enough people.” Fire pointed at a range of trees. “Maybe from here to here. Maybe a bit further in.”
“Yeah, have a few trees on either side of the divide cut. Create a tightly packed zig-zag shape. The more inconvenient the better.”
The clouds passed and the sun was now glaring at them with its full force. Kay held up a hand.
“Want to change spots?” he grumbled, teeth gritted as he moved to pull down his goggles and found nothing there.
“The sun is quite intense here, yes.”
They moved under the treeline and Kay pulled out two sticks of chalk.
“Choose, say, three trees over here, three on the other side?” he asked, eyes still squinted as though there was a sun right in front of him. He mouthed something and bobbed his head dismissively along to words Fire couldn’t hear. He seemed to be talking to the Book.
Fire nodded. “Before it’s time we can hide in the shrubs around here, if we put wedges into the pre-cut trees all it takes is a strike from an axe to have them fall over.”
Kay agreed and they spread out to mark the trees. As Fire scraped chalk across the bark and set about establishing the wedge at the base, he heard Kay muttering more audibly. However, the discussion went, it ended with Kay catching his chalk on the bark and snapping it. He parted his lips to show a gritted lattice of teeth before he sighed “okay, you’re right.”
“Fire, do you have a second?” he asked in his most formal accent.
Everyone in the shelter was starting to get an idea of Kay’s selection. He wore accents like outfits. This one was generally reserved for issuing orders. Upper-crust, with every syllable clearly separated.
Fire turned and nodded.
“So, funny thing,” he laughed. “The Book’s gotten it into its pages that I’ve been a little hostile recently. Perhaps, unfairly so…” he shuffled his feet and then continued in his natural brogue, “I agree. When you went out to set up the shelter, I said some things that were uncalled for. And then, instead of trying to resolve it I just doubled down. I wasn’t mad at you, not at the heart of it, you were just there. I’m sorry.”
That came out of nowhere.
“I mean, I’m still annoyed about the thing about you noticing the Ender and not mentioning, but I was going through something else, and I let that push me well beyond fair criticism. I was busy pitying myself, so I appointed myself the authority on who was allowed to be sad or not. Truth is, I don’t know what you’ve been through, and I shouldn’t have used your servant, sorry, server thing as an excuse to invalidate your experiences. It was shitty.”
Fire said: “Thank you for coming forward with this. I tried to not engage in open conflict because it would have troubled the group but that also meant I couldn’t really resolve the situation. I may or may not have thought some choice things about you in those situations but overall you were vastly more cooperative than antagonistic.” He paused. “I’m not entirely blameless either. Back in that first little village where we talked about our past battles… how do I say this? Having lived as long as I have, it’s sometimes easy to forget that I was young at some point. I believe back there we had fundamentally different perceptions, not just because of the difference in age but also because of coming from different worlds.”
“Hah, it is easy to forget that sometimes,” Kay said. “Different values, different eras, different societies. I understand where you’re coming from about the youth thing though. Forgetting you were ever young.”
He sat down against a tree and folded his arms over his knees.
“I’m twenty-five. I’m still young, but I have felt old for at least a decade. Do you know what I spent most of my teen-years doing, Fire? I was a cut-rate mercenary. A thug. I beat people, I robbed them. Sometimes I collected dodgy debts for Cossack and that was about as honest as I got.
“I started age fifteen. One time, when robbing a house, some servant popped his head in the door. He was no older than me. He looked like he was about to scream, and I didn’t even hesitate. I hit him with a brick, Fire. I don’t know if he got up again,” he rubbed his hands over his face and sighed before looking up at Fire with pleading eyes.
“The Onslaught wasn’t pretty, but it was a just war and it brought out some justice in me, too. It’s the best I ever was as a person,” he shook his head, “Now, here I am, age twenty-five, wondering if I’ll live long enough to be that good again. I’m an old man already. I can only imagine how it feels with that amount of life lived.”
Fire sat down against the tree opposite to Kay. “You know, when I said it was difficult to remember when I was young, I definitely didn’t mean that I don’t remember my younger years, quite difficult to forget those, just the feeling of having ever been young. But actually, I had most of my misery compressed down into a few years, hours even at the worst point.
“You see, I spent the first section of my life mostly content. I was raised by my uncle because my parents were nowhere to be found and my uncle refused to say anything. In my world most people go through formal education until they are eighteen, I was no different. It really started kicking off in the last four, my class was cutthroat and competitive, but we were the best our school had ever seen. To celebrate the bright futures, we had ahead of us we all went on a week-long trip.”
Fire sighed. “That’s where the descent begins. On the return trip I was the first to leave our common vehicle, but not before confessing my love to one of the girls in my class. She didn’t know how to respond and there was no time, I accounted for that by slipping her a note. However, in the next fifteen minutes I went from uncertainly thinking of what her true feelings might be to watching her and everyone else I cared about from the school barrel off a bridge and down a hill. Nobody survived the crash. I could have been in there too had the circumstances been slightly different.”
Kay had his mouth slightly ajar, and his eyes lowered to Fire’s knees.
“That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
“It was definitely the low point of my early life.”
“And you still think about it, five thousand years later?”
The rays of the sun intensified briefly as dusk became full sunset. Light rallying one last time before it gave was to moonlight.
A smile crept up on Fire’s face for the sheer cruelly comical unlikeliness of the events he was about to recount to Kay. “That wasn’t the only thing that happened that day. When I got home and talked to my uncle about it, he finally decided to tell me the truth about my parents. Turns out I was the son of pretty much the two worst people of their generation. Before I was born there was some kind of big war in my world and without going into details, my parents were the ones supplying ‘our’ side with weapons. Not just regular weapons either, everything in the book, poison, psychoactive agents, you know the deal.
“The big swinging factor however was something they called ‘fairy dust’, a combat agent that would make entire strips of land uninhabitable. If you were exposed to it things would happen to you, things that nobody could explain. Some died because their bones suddenly collapsed on themselves, those were the relatively normal ones, I read reports of one man who had hundreds of flowers sprouting everywhere inside of him.
“Needless to say, at the end of that day I didn’t know whether to feel sad, confused or angry. That was also the day after which Shadow’s problems got bad. Before, she was just reclusive and quiet, would talk to me and occasionally our uncle. After that day she was terrified of anyone that wasn’t me, wouldn’t stop crying if anyone came even remotely close to her. I had reached a point where my knowledge and skill offered no way out. It’s as if everything had conspired against us, like everything before that had just been the setup to some cruel punchline.”
“Yeah, at a certain point you just tell yourself it’s funny. That’s what I did. You stop associating it with you and you just kind of drift on and on until you have this awful moment where you catch a glimpse, like a reflection of a reflection, and you realise all this hurt is who you are.”
He let his hands fall to the sides and his breastplate clanked against the tree trunk. He raised a palm and lowered it as though that explained something.
Fire nodded. “I did something like that. Just pretended whatever I felt was happening to someone else while the ‘real’ me searched for a way to at least help my sister. That’s what my motivator was, to at least help her. I went headfirst into higher education, plowed right through it. Filled any free time with physical exercise to keep my mind off things. That went on for what… eight years? Ten? Didn’t have to worry about money since my war profiteering parents had left behind quite an inheritance. I eventually found the people who would eventually build the server, my world.
“That really was the point where everything got good again, the server was running, Shadow was happy, life was whole again. Just something was there that didn’t belong. That ‘someone’ I had projected my emotions onto? He’d become quite real in that other world. Whenever I felt things like strong anger or sadness, he’d just… appear in my mind and drive me out for a while. He calls himself Claw, he’s little more than a beast with how little mind-space he has to work with, but I still have to keep him caged. If you ever see my eyes turn black, that’s him. If that happens, I suggest running, everyone else is just prey to him and he unfortunately retains my subconscious combat skills and has no morals or scruples to speak of.”
“But he’s under control now, right?” Kay asked, straightening his back up against the tree.
“He broke his chains while I was returning home, massacred a group of hunters who wanted my scales, I’m rid of him for a while. He should remain caged at least until the end of this war.” Fire paused, contemplating. “If worst comes to worst, there is one weakness I have that you can exploit against Claw. If you manage to wound me with a silver weapon it’ll paralyze me, it’s lethal within an hour. Getting anything silver in contact with a wound has the same effect. If you manage to do it, I always carry a potion that cures the silver poisoning. I should be conscious enough to give it to you once Claw is gone.” Another pause. “Just… make sure to keep it to yourself, it’s a secret we Mencur-Besh keep well but I’m afraid I can not afford to in these circumstances.”
“Okay, silver weapon. I’ll remember that.” Kay visibly lost tension and chuckled a little. “Sorry, I should be being empathetic, I just needed to figure out what I’m dealing with. Thanks for feeling comfortable enough to tell me all this, it means a lot to you, and I can assure you, it… it means a lot to me.”
Fire got up from the tree again. “I’ve told a few bits of this to Destiny before to help bring her back. I think I’m over the trauma itself, the memories are just a bit stickier than I want them to be but the thing that really stayed were the mistakes I made. I had professional help available but didn’t take it, I suppose in hindsight you always look like a bit of an idiot.”
He offered a hand to Kay. “Anyways, we should get back to the shelter. Need to be well-rested tomorrow.”
The sun was just about to pass below the horizon, but the heat remained.
“Yes, we do,” Kay took the hand. “We’re going to win this tomorrow. You’re a good leader, and I’m proud to be serving under you.”
He squeezed the hand warmly as he shook it.
They spent the return journey swapping a few more stories about the unlikely things life had thrown at them. When they arrived at the shelter a good deal of the leadership was sleeping already, however there was still laughter coming from somewhere around the front door. Fire and Kay went to their respective doors, wishing the other a good sleep with a quick nod.
As Fire lay in bed, he spent a bit thinking about what he had heard, maybe his cautious optimism for this effort was more well-founded than he had thought.
After I got back in from scouting out the raid site I stopped by Lucy’s desk, grabbed some chalk and a washcloth and disappeared into a lesser-used storage cupboard. I followed the curve fervently with my eyes as I traced a few concentric circles in white and red. Then, I etched out the lines between the circles, creating new, smaller shapes and linking them intricate well of colour and pattern. I could see nothing, but my muscles knew the routes to our goal. The gold nuggets sent a pulse of cold through my body as I positioned them at four key intersections. Next was the moss, tumbling from between my fingers and into the centre. Finally: the jagged stone of the Nether.
I struck a match and light swept over half the stone, illuminating a little blood-red kite. The match lowered, caught the surface and then the whole upper surface was burning. Cupping this little beacon between my hands, I bent over the circle and chants came naturally to me. The words of old. The words of my people. The words of Herobrine, that he had told me to use in my hour of need.
But nothing came of it. Ten minutes slipped through my fingers as I used them to house the flame.
“He’s not coming,” I concluded.
“Are you sure there’s no interference? You are in another world after all.”
“No, he wasn’t answering back home either. Worth a try but I either can’t do it since Zine Craft or he’s not listening.”
I cleaned up the signs of the ritual. Despite the Book’s protests, I gave up hope of soliciting the Blind Watcher’s aid.
If I could have gotten in touch, we would have had the full force of the True Court. Literal millions of Noobians, hundreds of thousands of Divine soldiers, thousands of living Pigmen, an immense fleet of airships and the Greater Divines themselves were a considerable force in combat. That was without mentioning the hundreds of administrators who could be called upon to provide vassals. They might not be there in time for the raid tomorrow, but it would at least be a promise that the Entity would end up facing a force to rival its own.
But no. My master wouldn’t hear my plea. We were alone.
I scrunched my eyes shut and begin the walk of shame to the dormitories. Laughter from the Dungeons and Enderdragons group rippled through the air, reached me and made my stomach lurch. Warnado’s cackle rose above the rest, like a robin leaping from the back of an eagle and I quickened my pace, heart fighting to get out of my chest.
“If anything happens to that child…”
“You will endure,” The Book scolds. It has developed a certain condescension since I lost to Fire.
I reached my bed and collapsed in. I didn’t bother to take my clothes off and didn’t know if I would change them the next day. The enemy wasn’t going to care if I was spick and span. I compelled the Book to send me to sleep and wake me at the appropriate hour. One of the unexpected advantages of letting the Book in was peaceful sleep. My nightmares had vanished. Once a tormentor, the Dreamweaver now soothed me as I drifted off.
Part of my mind remains awake. We were in a study with walls whose colour I can’t make out. There was a fireplace, but its light didn’t carry quite right. I sat behind a desk. Blackboard behind me. An armchair across from me contained a human-like shape composed of swirling, fluttering pages: The Book’s preferred manifestation.
I paid a little more attention and the walls settled into a nice shade of green and the light took on a more orange and warmer aspect. It’s time for our scheduled meeting.
“Thank you for your help with that apology. You were right, it was better to clear the air,” I began.
“You’re welcome. Now, the captains?”
“The Ender, Glibby and Freak are the main possibilities. There are others, but these are the ones the Entity seems to prefer sending into the field.”
I swivel my chair around to the blackboard and I see images of the three captains in chalk, with annotations surrounding them scribbled in my own delicately chaotic hand.
“Freak is physically weakest but can choose who can see or interact with him,” I remark. “He’s the worst-case scenario, in my view.”
“Weakness can be exploited. If he comes near us, strike fast. I will see what I can do about making him tangible. It does not seem insurmountable.”
“If Freak’s nearby he won’t come near us, and he’ll just switch out if we use a portal. He might yell at us for taunting purposes, but he’ll not risk confrontation.”
“We zap her. It’s not one on one this time. She will stay down.”
“That slow moron? He’s strong and nothing more. An ambassador for a crime lord. Portalling around should be enough to bring him to heel.”
“Be cautious, that crime lord will not have sent him without protection.”
And so, we carried on, debating stances, circumstances to expect, spells and moves to employ. I wouldn’t go in charging as I had at the village, weaving between ranks and punching holes in them. At the beginning, I would go in to separate an officer from the group and disrupt the Endlings, but after that I would stay at the edges, picking them off while Fire and the others took the main body. None would escape. None of our party would die. I would not let them. Until I did.
Chapter16:Final Breather (Fristad)
I step outside into the cold. Everyone’s asleep. I don’t want to yet. Tomorrow, it’s going to be Warnado and Amanda and I’s job to start the avalanche and subdue whatever officer they send our way. My heart feels fragile at the very thought - it’s like the muscle suddenly turns to paper and I find myself waiting for it to burst - but I know I must do it. For everyone back home. For everyone in Nexus. For myself, because this is my choice.
I know this Entity, this thing is not going to stop until it takes everything. I’m going to be the person I wish to be, without the say of the Book and against my desire just to run back home at the first possibility. And by Notch that desire is strong. As my breath billows up past my view in a cloud, I briefly contemplate trying to disappear into it. It’s fleeting, however, and I feel bad.
I remind myself I’ve got a fairly easy dear. I’m not on the front lines like Steve and Jennifer. Heck, I’m not even a noticeable target like Astro and the archers. I say a little prayer for the first two. They’ve been there for me from the start. I’ve hardly met people this generous and supportive and brave. Maybe Jonas, maybe Airlass… I swear to myself I’ll see them again.
I go up to a tree and begin to chop it to give vent to some frustration. However, as I reach the last swing, I hear “Hey Fristad!” sound out from behind me.
Crack! The tree falls backwards toward me and I pirouette out of the way instinctively. I search for whoever called out to me. It’s Destiny, who’s blankly stares at the tree as it accelerates down toward her.
“Destiny! Look out!” I call.
Destiny stamps her foot, and a pillar of ice rises up and stops the tree mid-descent. She blinks her cheeks knot up as she stifles laughter.
“That tree almost crushed you!” I say, exasperated.
“Oops,” shrugs Destiny, before doubling over laughing.
A bottle falls out of her jacket. She’s drunk. Not astonishingly drunk, but tipsy enough for it to throw her off. I join in the laughter.
“How was your past self?” I ask as I move in to place a hand on her back and guide her back inside.
“Anya was good,” she says, calming herself. “We’re both looking forward to tomorrow.”
“Really?” I calmly inquire. “I’m terrified.”
“Ah, you’re new to all this. I’ve been through enough to accept that if I die, I die. I’m at peace with whatever comes next.”
I should be surprised by this level of honesty, but Destiny and I have been speaking like this since election day. It’s just nice to have someone I can be upfront with about my less cheery thoughts, especially now that the Book is gone. I always had to be careful, lest the slightest negative thought be twisted into a reason for submission, so I ended up bottling things up.
“Maybe you have the right idea,” I say, trying to get a taste for the idea, letting it roll around my mind a bit. “If we die, we die.”
“Damn! Sorry, stupid twig. No, no, don’t accept that.”
She looked up at me with rolling, imprecise eyes, having to try a few times to meet my eyes. A hand presses against my chest and she points at me. We’re just outside the door of the shelter.
“You have a life to get back to. Cling to it. Follow the thread, man,” she said. “Promise me you’ll go back there. That Airlass girl sounds nice! Go for it, buddy, you can do it.”
“Okay,” I chuckled. “Okay. You’re clearly drunk but I promise.”
“Awesome.” Her eyes fell, then she added: “What you want is still there. Try and get it.”
I agree silently, and it feels odd. I let it settle for a minute, then decide seriousness has had its day. A little bit of levity seems apt.
“So, what’s confused Anya the most, so far? This can’t be an easy setup to explain.”
She immediately lights up.
“Oh, it’s easily Kir, she just can’t get over him! Kay working for Herobrine also offends her so much. She genuinely won’t even acknowledge it when I mention him. Straight up blanks me and sets up a thousand-yard stare. It’s hilarious!”
And so, we laugh and joke and tease, allowing ourselves to forget what’s coming in the space between the front door and the dormitory. A nice little stretch of safety before the coming battle.
Destiny used a rock like a park bench as she waited for Voidblade to deploy her. Her headache was gone, though an echo of it carried on thanks to the low blaze of the late-afternoon sun. They were atop the cliffs. Warnado and Fristad knelt on the ground to lay out redstone wiring. The crimson trail descended into a hole Fire had dug that led to the heart of the cliff-face. An array of pistons was holding back previously loosened boulders and mud. A flick of a switch and they would drop several tons of rock behind the enemy, cutting off their escape.
Amanda inspected her crossbow in the shade of a tree. Kay and Fire crouched near the precipice, passing a telescope between them and murmuring. The sound of marching climbed up the cliff. It struck her how high up they were, and how many heavily armoured enemies there must be for the noise to carry this far.
She knew Astro was on the other side of the valley, marshalling some archers into place out of sight for a trick Kay planned to pull off. She wasn’t clear on what he was supposed to do after that, though.
Rose sat to her right, more glamorous than Destiny had ever seen her. Pristine hair. Armour neat and sleek as a ball-gown. She held a polished knife before her. She gazed into the reflection it created to apply a delicate coat of blood red lipstick. She pulled the lipstick away and her pupils narrowed hungrily at the sight of her own face. The far reaches of her mouth curled up a miniscule amount, betraying a cold enthusiasm. She sheathed the knife.
“You seem prepared,” said Destiny with what she hoped was a good-natured snort.
“Back in my own world most of my targets were high society, crossed so many people off guest lists that this eventually became some sort of ritual. The whole looks-that-kill deal, it helped me out more often than I thought.”
Destiny shrugged and didn’t know what to say next. Eventually, she mustered a dry:
“Eh, we all have our rituals. Not sure how much endermen care, though.”
“We’ll see,” said Rose. That narrow smile returned, and Destiny felt a desire to back up several kilometres and not continue the conversation.
Thankfully, Voidblade returned to teleport Rose away. Destiny had never been more grateful to an enderman. Almost immediately after, Kay and Fire returned from the cliff-edge, gesturing to everyone to gather ‘round.
“Right,” said Kay before Fire could say anything. “Glibby’s leading the patrol. The grey lads and the Dog are with him. Fire and I will go down immediately after the rockslide and trees fall to parlay with them, Destiny you’re with us.”
Destiny nodded. Kay then stepped back and gestured to Fire to pick up where he left off. She felt he still didn’t seem to be grasping the second part of the job, but he had the in-command part down to a T.
“If Glibby is reasonable, the show of force might encourage him to cut further losses, but from what you have told me about him that’s unlikely. Be ready to strike if it’s clear parlay is not an option.”
Destiny’s brain had an allergic reaction to the idea of letting Glibby go free, but she tried to hide the sudden, nauseous upsurge she felt from her stomach. Maybe the hangover hadn’t entirely faded after all...
“If it doesn’t work,” said Kay. “I’ll just shunt the Dog into a portal, and it’ll be down to team rockslide to beat him into submission. Shouldn’t have too much bother though, he’s a pushover. Very friendly. Might even try to defect-”
“You are not to accept the Dog’s defection,” Fire cut in, giving Kay a warning look. “You will incapacitate him. Amanda, how many blunt bolts do you have?”
“Thirty-five,” the teenager responded. “One or two to the head and he’s down.”
“Good. Be ready for Kay’s portal and there shouldn’t be problems. If he’s incapacitated but conscious, don’t interact, we’ll do proper interrogations after the fact. The fewer expectations we give the more leverage we have later.”
“Alright,” Fristad confirmed. “You can count on us three.”
He moved to clap Amanda and Warnado on the shoulders and then reconsidered. His arms fell like leaves in Fall. The history was still too recent and too weird there.
Destiny shot him an empathetic look. He smiled back as if to say “stay safe out there.” She nodded and beamed back at him.
She followed Kay and Fire up to the edge of the cliff. The procession was now below them. The diamond armour of the patrol mostly blurred together into an indistinct sea of armaments, broken only at the front and back of the column. At the back were ten or so Endlings in obsidian armour, similarly monolithic. At the front was a group of five. At the forefront of it was the unmistakable shape of Glibby the Ape.
In truth, Destiny couldn't make out many of the features that got him his name. She just saw a shape about twice the size of anyone else in the procession. She could also make out the two huge, iron gauntlets it wore clasped around the reigns of a horse. Grey stains on the scene.
A memory exploded into view before Destiny. Those gauntlets, glowing molten from the heat of the blast. Emerging from the smoke. Soaring toward David. Slamming into Tyron’s chest and dislocating his arm. Raking Kir across his gut.
Anya’s words echoed in her ears: Kill that ***** something fierce.
The column was now predominantly in the valley, with only the endermen and a few stragglers outside. Fire nudged Kay, who closed his eyes and clenched a fist in front of him. A small spark of voidfire glowed silver, then purple in front of him, then vanished. He opened his eyes. Destiny squinted, confused. At that moment, the screams finished their ascent up the cliff-face.
Destiny forced her head over the edge and saw a scene of growing chaos. Just between the endermen and the human mercenaries was a rift of the same silver fire. It spat arrows from every direction, striking their enemies down. One endling, caught off guard, was already dead from an arrow through the eye. Others were injured at the chinks in their armour. The human rear-guard were in anarchy, their scattering amounting to a stampede that injured as many as the arrows themselves.
Destiny looked at Kay and gave him a thumbs-up. He grinned and pointed back down. That was when the trees started falling. First, she caught a glimpse of Tyron shoulder-charging a trunk and sending it collapsing onto a few of those fleeing the arrow attack. Then, another toppled, revealing the diamond shell of Steve, who quickly retreated back into the treeline, apparently without anyone noticing. Then another fell, and another, and another. Soon, six trees created a zig-zagging path through the valley which the mercenaries desperately tried to navigate and clamber over. The endermen were warping around, surveying the scene and dragging soldiers to their feet.
The second the last tree fell, Fire stood up, no longer afraid of being seen. He gestured to Fristad, who shot Destiny an excited look before flicking the lever.
Click! It was shortly followed by the crunch of several pistons retracting, and then the rumble of falling rocks and mud. It piled into the pass, filling it entirely. Several soldiers and one injured enderman ended up crushed. All in all, the opening strike had been a huge success. Between a quarter and a third of the enemy force was already dead or injured to a greater or lesser degree.
Warnado floated upwards to survey the scene, whooping triumphantly before dropping down in a backflip. Kay rolled over and applauded the rockslide team. Fire, however, was all business:
“Portal us down there Kay. It’s time to see if they’ll see sense.”
Kay clenched a fist before him and summoned another fiery portal. They had all been through on to get there, but Destiny still found the idea slightly unnerving. Thankfully, passing through only provided a strange, numb feeling not unlike pins and needles. It passed and she took in the scene.
Kay was on Fire’s left. She was on his right. They were striding up to the party of the Tower’s officers. Glibby, The Dog and the three grey-scaled endermen who had captured her and David all those weeks ago. She picked out the one whose face she had half-melted. Apparently, his name was Silver, and he wouldn’t stop glaring at Kay. Destiny felt kind of left out of the contempt, especially considering the face-melting thing.
She turned her attention to Glibby, who seemed unfazed. He wore his usual trench-coat and moleskin suit, with only a light iron chestplate as armour. He was beaming at them with his mouth, but his eyes remained cold.
He handed his hat to one of his bodyguards to reveal an elongated cranium, bald except for a small circlet of hair reaching from temple to temple. He passed the reins of his horse to a human soldier who was attempting to drag his friend from beneath one of the boughs of the nearest fallen tree. A squashed nose dominated the centre of his face. Rubbery, skin-coloured lips protruded from his face. Destiny finally had enough time to appreciate the resemblance to an ape.
The commanding party stopped about fifteen paces from them. The diamond-clad troops were beginning to recapture something resembling a formation at the end of the tree-maze. A line of archers was forming atop one of the heavier tree-trunks and aiming at them.
“Jolly great show! You gave us a proper startle.” boomed the Ape. “A pity it has already worn off.”
Fire bellowed back: “All we demand is a single prisoner. Everyone else will be let go. It’s in your hand to preserve your soldier’s lives!”
He looked placidly at Fire before turning to look at Kay.
“Terribly sorry, Kay, do you mind introducing us?”
“Hello Glibby, I wasn’t aware we’d been introduced,” Kay called back in that obviously fake posh accent he kept using when he wanted to impress someone. “Hello again to you too, Silver, officer who is a talking dog… This is my commanding officer, Fire of the Mencur-Besh. I’d advise just handing over the prisoner. Otherwise, he will massacre your troops almost single handedly, we’ll capture you, and then Astro and I will deeply enjoy applying a hot poker to your tender parts until you tell us what we want to know.”
“By mods,” Glibby laughed. “You do prattle on.”
“I’m giving you one more chance, Glibby,” warned Fire. “Surrender one of your officers or your soldiers will die.”
“Well, so long as they’re the only ones at risk, I don’t see any issue with fighting on,” Glibby said. A couplet of mock punches punctuated the last two works.
“What about you, Dog?” asked Kay with a step forward and squinting off to the far side of the valley. “No chance of a last-minute defection?”
Fire sighed. Destiny could practically hear him mentally lament the momentum this conversation had lost them.
“Sorry, pal, but the ship sailed on that when you slammed my teeth into a set of iron bars,” growled the Dog, baring his chipped and silver-coated teeth.
Destiny noticed he wore a monocle that looked like it was about to shatter under the weight of his furrowed brow. That was neat.
The line of soldiers was thick now, and the archers were growing more and more numerous. She clasped her hands behind her back and crystallized several sharpened icicles to throw at them.
Kay was now shielding his eyes as he continued to look at the far-side of the valley, even though the sun was behind them.
“Bah!” Kay sighed and threw his hand aside in a motion almost like a salute. “You’ll come around eventually. My lads shall convince you.”
At that he warped forward and shunted the Dog into a portal. Glibby backed up into a fighting stance and the Grey Ones bore their claws. Kay ignored them all and immediately followed this up by hurling a ball of voidfire into the line of soldiers, roasting only one but scattering several.
Suddenly, Glibby saw something in the reflection of his gauntlets. Astro swooped down like a spear from the heavens, arcing his sword underhand only for it to clang against one of the metal fists. The wizard ricocheted off and tumbled into the sky. Fire bellowed an order, and the fighters began to emerge from the forest to spread death among the Tower’s ranks.
Destiny ran forward, hurling icicles at the Grey Ones, who promptly teleported themselves and their master away from harm. That done, she turned her attention to the archers, who were starting to loose arrows both in their direction and in the direction of the others. She saw a wall of rock send one of the archers flying, but they would clearly still need help.
She felt a paradoxical coldness in her forearms and hands as she summoned a pillar of fire that she blasted at the end of the log. Two archers fell off, burning, and fire began to spread across the trunk.
However, no sooner had she done this than the entire tree froze solid. Then, as the archers struggled to maintain their balance, a young woman clambered onto the log with them, a circle of spear-like shards of ice orbiting behind her.
Destiny almost didn’t recognise the pale-skinned, dark-haired figure before she remembered Shadow had disguised herself before the battle started. Something about what she’d done in the village meant she didn’t want the Tower realising she was part of the attack.
An orange-gold hunk of metal morphed into a scimitar, and the disguised Shadow charged forward alongside her shards. The shards would rend the armour of an archer and the sword would sever the flesh.
Destiny ducked a swipe from one of the endermen and scared them off with a blast of ice. She almost didn’t notice as Fire slammed into the line of soldiers, using his halberd as a shoving tool to throw them off balance. The ones that couldn’t recover their guard quickly enough were subjected to a series of attacks both from his weapon and his claws to exposed points, making their diamond armor matter painfully little.
She drew her bow and looked for a spot where she could be useful. Kay continued to portal around, hurling fireballs at the soldiers and shooting lightning at a small train of three endermen who were following him. Astro continued to soar around the battlefield, swinging his sword and shattering bones with his mind. Shadow stood on the frozen log, dodging projectiles and blasting ice both into the tree-maze and into the front lines.
A chance look over to Fire revealed one of the armoured ender materialising in his blind spot while he was still in the heat of battle. Sword raised, they hoped to strike him from behind. Destiny shot an arrow into the back of their knee and they crumpled. Before the arrow even made contact, Fire had broken with his opponent and started turning. Finding his enemy too wounded to think of teleporting he whipped his halberd and decapitated them. He nodded at Destiny before returning to his prior target.
She clambered up the log and melted herself a clear patch on which to stop. She saw Shadow beside her on a platform of ice.
“Loving the disguise,” Destiny called out. “It suits you.”
“It should,” smiled Shadow as she turned to freeze one of the soldiers crowding around Fire. “It’s how I look in my ‘real world’.”
Destiny decided not to question that, nodded and leapt over to the next log, which was free of ice. From here she had a clearer view of the battle’s full extent.
Voidblade was at the far end of the valley, cutting down anyone who attempted to retreat over the blocked pass. Kay was still flitting around the mass at the front, dodging the swipes of endermen with ease and yelling grandiose insults. Astro had settled on the ground and was now cutting his way through to Fire, snapping necks and crushing ribs between strokes of the sword.
Down in the trenches, chaos reigned. At the edge, just on the treeline, Tyron and Urist found themselves in the midst of a troop of soldiers and endermen. They would have been standing back-to-back if not for the size difference or Urist’s tactic of ducking through Tyron’s legs to slam a hammer into the legs or stomach of an enderman before they could get away. One such blow doubled an enderman over as Destiny ascended the log, and Tyron capitalised on it by raking Kir across their winded opponent’s neck.
“Five left!” cheered Kir for all nearby allies to hear. “Five endermen left!”
The sword’s enthusiasm died down as a diamond-coated giant climbed over a log and began to square up to Tyron, who did not seem pleased to find himself in this situation again.
Steve, Jennifer and Rose faced an even greater challenge just at Destiny’s feet. On the far side of the tree on which Destiny stood, the ground was thick with human corpses, and the soldiers kept swarming around them with ferocity, no matter how injured they were. Jennifer and Rose had escaped the worst of it by hopping between the bows of the fallen trees and launching projectiles into the crowd, but Steve found himself still in the very heart of it. Worse still, the Grey Ones had chosen this as their hunting grounds.
Destiny saw Steve cut down a soldier only to receive a blow on the helmet from one of the Grey Ones. He turned and saw the enderman disappear just in time to receive another blow on the helmet. Destiny tried to intervene, but every shot was too slow. The harrying of Steve continued for several bouts until, disoriented, he saw Silver in a fighting stance, beckoning. In one desperate motion, Steve attempted to impale the Grey Ones’ leader, only for him to teleport away. Excalibur ate into wood and stuck there.
Steve cursed as he realised his mistake and attempted to pull Excalibur free. However, before he could do so, Glibby materialised, flanked by two of his servants, and pounded Steve’s head.
The son of Herobrine rallied, pulled two lesser swords from his inventory and rushed at the Ape. He swung twice, once with each sword, but Glibby batted them away with one hand and punched Steve with the other. Steve’s boots shattered from the force of the impact and he tripped over one of the corpses.
Seeing Steve in distress, Jennifer fired an arrow right at the Ape’s exposed cranium, but one of the grey ones materialised and blocked it with their shoulder, roaring in pain. It materialised in front of its assailant and tackled her back into the sea of corpses.
Rose then charged in, swiping at Glibby with her knives and firing off duplicates. Sadly, her target proved improbably agile, and smiled as it dodged her blows.
“And here I thought my days in the ballroom were long behind me,” he drawled as precursor to a retaliatory swing.
Destiny also nocked an arrow but found herself pirouetting away when Silver swiped at her. His claws peeled away an iron pauldron and grazed the flesh underneath. She, in one fluid movement, dropped to one knee and loosed the arrow at Silver’s foot. He jumped back and before he had a moment to recover Destiny had loosed a pillar of fire at him which he teleported away from. Believing herself victorious, she rose, only for a new blow to knock her flat. Her bow snapped beneath her weight and she lay there, winded.
Silver hunched over her, fangs bared in a horrendous grin. He raised his claws and readied to plunge them down. Destiny formed a spike of ice in her hand, ready to bring him down with her. Just as the claws began their descent a gloved hand reached out and grabbed them: Kay had materialised.
He slammed the pommel of his sword into the enderman’s head and hurled him from the log. Destiny could’ve sworn she saw a tooth flying out, but it happened too fast to tell. He pulled her up and they both turned their attention to the duel between Glibby and Rose.
The Ape seemed to notice the increased attention and decided to break the flow of things by grabbing Rose and tossing her away. As she landed in a heap a good distance off, Glibby looked quite pleased with himself. Unfortunately for him, this is just what Astro, who had returned to the sky, had been waiting for.
A jet of fire descended from the sky that Glibby’s remaining bodyguard only just teleported him away from. They rematerialised at the bend in the maze, Glibby brushing down a small patch of flame on his shoulder. He cleared his throat to make some sort of snide quip, but before he spoke, the frozen tree shattered and Glibby had to raise his trench-coat to shield his face from the splintering wood.
Destiny looked at Kay and jumped down into the trench. The General followed, and the two cut off that escape route. Steve, finally getting a moment to unstick Excalibur, joined them. Jennifer, breaking free from the Grey One who had attacked her, blocked off the route to the forest. Rose got up from her heap, her hair slick with blood, and joined the growing blockade with a glare in her eyes that could melt stone. Finally, A giant fell, with Kir in between its ribs and Tyron yanking it free.
“Nice liver,” Kir cackled with uncharacteristic malice. Then, more sheepishly: “Sorry. Only him supposed to hear that.”
He looked up, saw Glibby and audibly growled.
“You again,” Tyron spat with a flourish of his sword. “Oh, I have been waiting to kill you for so long! You are so dead, asshole.”
Glibby, now rejoined by his three bodyguards, turned around with his hands on his hips. He hiked up his trousers.
“And here I thought this was going to be dull.”
Destiny smiled as she heard genuine nervousness pierce the condescension.
Kir noticed the dead enderman on the ground and chirped out a cheery: “Four left.”
I am standing in the shade of the tree. I don’t dare look Warnado or Amanda in the eye. I just made a huge mistake.
After the landslide, I’d suddenly realised how terrified I was of actually fighting this officer, so I’d decided to settle affairs.
“Listen, Amanda, in case anything goes wrong here, I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” I said, and I reckon I said it pretty sincerely.
She glared at me and I immediately questioned what on earth had possessed me to do this. It wasn’t the Book; this was just me having the worst sense of timing in the world. Naturally, Warnado yelled at me a whole bunch.
The first salvo or two mostly consisted of high-pitched curse words strung together like cursive, but finally it faded into something more concrete:
“...What is wrong with you?!” He spat these words out with such force that his hood jumped up and I could briefly see the base of his nose. “You think now is the right time to bring up the stuff you put her through? I’ve known Amanda a long time and she does not scare easily and you - you-”
“Warnado,” Amanda interrupted. “I can handle myself.”
She pushed her way past him and dragged me down to eye-level by the lapels. She was only thirteen so I could easily have brushed her off, but that felt inappropriate. I gazed into the hazel depths of her eyes.
“You hurt me in ways few others have managed. You tormented my sanity. The fact that Kay is getting on way too well with the Book only compounds how unnecessary it was. As it stands, you are not forgiven in any sense of the word,” she said.
“Win this fight,” she decreed. “And we’ll see.”
So, I’ve been standing here for the last ten minutes while Warnado angrily crunches his way through a taco with his arm around Amanda’s shoulder. They’re standing near the promontory, watching for the signal.
Then, suddenly a familiar pillar of silver flame materialises near the switch and out plops an officer. He’s a big, tall man with the black and white head of a springer spaniel. He’s not wearing any armour, just a loose black jacket and trousers over a billowing white shirt, in addition to a monocle. Looped through his belt is a sabre. He lands on his back and as he rises, I can see dirt tumble off him. He stretches. We fan out and leave him backing onto the cliff.
“‘Sup Dog?” Warnado quips dryly, throwing his taco aside and moving forward.
“Bloody hells,” the Dog groans. “That’s honestly the best you can offer?”
He bears his teeth and I see them glint with silver. I raise my axe to try and cool him off a little but suddenly my shoulder-guard shifts a little and I shuffle awkwardly to correct it. I don’t get the impression he’s particularly intimidated.
“Yes. Anyway, you remember me from the tower. I am Lord Helix and it’s time you surrendered,” says Warnado. “Before we dunk on you so hard, they rename basketball after us. Naturally, we’ll need a cool team-name first, but we’ll appreciate the gesture.”
I have no idea what basketball is, and the Dog just looks angrier. I briefly start thinking about a cool team-name and then suddenly remember my contributions probably won’t be welcome.
I take one hand off my axe and show my palm to the Dog. Before I quite understand what I'm doing I’ve taken a step or two forward.
“Listen,” I say. “You should just surrender. We only want to know what the Entity is up to. I promise you’ll be fairly treated. You really seem to have impressed Kay. It would save us all a lot of… What are you doing?”
The Dog has pulled off its jacket and is now shaking it. It looks at the back, growls and throws it to the dirt.
“Taking this rubbish off. It’s hot. We’ll resume this conversation in a minute.”
I look back around to Amanda and Warnado. She has a blunt bolt trained on the Dog’s head. Warnado has a luminous club summoned. They both look as confused as I do, and I enjoy this brief moment of camaraderie.
My head wheels back and the Dog has removed his shirt and is now stretching their back out. He is in impeccable shape, with washboard abs and huge biceps.
“Right,” the Dog begins. “I have thought long and hard on your offer.”
His fist strikes me in the face so hard my helmet flies off.
He turns away from me and looks at Warnado and Amanda, hands on his hips and a smirk on his face:
“I have elected to decline. Do what you will.”
Amanda shoots at him and he dodges aside. The sabre flies from its sheath and is swinging for Warnado’s torso. The demon-child floats upward and avoids the blow. I’m back on my feet and running to join the fight.
The Dog rounds on Amanda, who has finished reloading. She ducks a slash and pulls the trigger. I hear a thud, a crack of bone and a howl. She’s struck him right in the ribs!
Finally close enough, I swing with the blunt end of my axe, hoping to catch him in the head and end this, but he parries. I stagger, a glare of sun travels the length of the sabre and suddenly my axe is a stick six inches in length. The point of the sword is used as a pole against my breastplate to drive me back a few steps early.
I can see the Dog grinning as he returns to Amanda and interrupts her reloading with another attack. He catches her hard on the breastplate and she stumbles to her knees with a cry of pain.
Warnado, still floating, yells out “Hey!” He raises his hands above his head and a glowing mace materialises, spiked and ready to crush the Dog’s skull.
“We’re supposed to take him alive, you donko!” Amanda grunts.
Warnado falters, and as he constructs a new, less lethal weapon, the Dog moves to strike Amanda again. She narrowly dodges and lands on her front. The crossbow flies out of her reach. The Dog raises his sabre again.
For the first time in a long while, my course of action is obvious and my own. I rush forward, screaming. My heart is pounding with the exhilaration of freedom from all things: The Book, cowardice, self-preservation. I flip the stick in my hand and strike the Dog on its wounded flank.
It howls. For a brief moment I hope it will collapse from pain. Its eyes flicker, but then fly back open with renewed vigor. It shunts me back and swipes. I dodge, but without a weapon there’s not much I can do. I raise my fists like a boxer and pray I get in a good punch or two before I die.
That’s when a wooden bat the size of a claymore cracks into his face and he pirouettes uncontrollably.
“HOME RUN!” cheers Warnado. Then, as the Dog regains its stance, he adds, “Or, you know, second base, or whatever.”
I don’t get the joke, but I laugh in disbelief anyway as Warnado lands and flourishes his gargantuan bat like it weighed nothing.
Not willing to be rendered totally useless, I raise my fists and begin to wheel around to him.
The Dog can’t choose between us. It reaches down for my axe head and my heart sinks. The fight isn’t over. Now wielding one complete weapon and the remnants of another, he opens his mouth to the point where it seems almost unhinged and unveils a sea of razor-sharp fangs.
Warnado and I share a look and dig in our heels. We’re taking this guy down, whether we die or not.
Crack! The Dog judders. His eyelids collapse under their own weight. He drops forward. I see a wooden bolt on the ground beside him, and before I can look up to confirm what happens the crossbow clatters into my field of view. Amanda lands on top of the Dog and immediately clamps handcuffs onto his wrists.
“We’ve won!” Warnado screams. He hugs me and I cackle with joy, giving him a little squeeze in return. He and Amanda run at each other. They hug and she lifts him and spins him around. I can’t stop beaming.
She plants him down. They look deeply into each other’s eyes. She closes her eyes and juts her head forward, he reciprocates. Their lips press together. They draw away, both wide-eyed and seemingly lost as to where they are.
“Wow, that was… weird,” says Warnado, eyes seeming a different shade of red than usual but that was maybe me inferring from his tone.
“Oh,” she responds, eyes drooping like dying grass. “Sorry.”
“No! No! Like, good weird,” Warnado insists in a panic. “I - I would love - like! - I would like to do it again, sometime. If… you would like to.”
“Yeah,” nods Amanda, “Absolutely. That would be pretty cool.”
And then they stand in silence for around ten seconds, smiling at each other with uncertain enthusiasm, as though they didn’t know how much was appropriate or what the next step in the process is. Warnado, after looking all around him, summons a rose into his hand and thrusts it at Amanda.
I finally give in and burst out laughing.
“Congrats lovebirds!” I roar, hugging them both in close.
They don’t even seem that mad.
Chapter19:In the Thick of It (Fire)
It had been a while since Fire had been part of a proper battle, if he recalled correctly, it was when he cleared out a camp of outspoken enemies of the Mencur-Besh. It couldn’t have been more than a few months back but no matter, the battle he was in presently required his full attention.
The others had surrounded Glibby and his personal guard, but this was far from a decisive winning position, there were too many other soldiers for them to keep Glibby pinned for any meaningful amount of time. Fire heard movement behind him, time slowed down as he turned on the spot. He was faced with three human soldiers who were performing a coordinated charge on him. Unfortunately for them, to Fire they moved comically slowly, giving him enough time for a low sweep with his halberd. He used the hook opposed to the axe blade to catch the soldiers by their feet and throw them off-balance.
Two stumbled, one fell. Fire leapt at the fallen soldier, delivering a kick to one of the other two in the process. A quick cut from Fire’s claws and blood started rapidly pooling under the fallen soldier. The other two had enough discipline to stand their ground but were wary of attacking.
With another arc of his halberd, Fire brought the back end down on one of the soldiers’ heads. With both weapon and armor being made of diamond, blunt force trauma was the best option. The soldier fell down, the force of the blow was enough to cause brain hemorrhage, if he wasn’t dead now, he would be in a few minutes.
The third soldier finally decided that it was in his best interest to flee the battlefield, only to be frozen on the spot by Shadow. Fire gave his sister a quick look of approval.
Meanwhile the fight in the trenches had heated up significantly. The entirety of the enderman force was fighting alongside Glibby against most of their own, sans Voidblade who was still making sure nobody could escape.
Kir’s voice called out in Fire’s head as Kay zapped an armoured enderman into submission: “Three left.”
Somehow, against all odds the Ape had avoided any meaningful wounds despite being only lightly armored, perhaps boldness-bordering-on-stupidity had some protective properties after all. Fire refocused, it looked like the situation was still under control, as long as he had the attention of the human soldiers there would be no nasty surprises.
Almost immediately after that thought Fire cursed himself for thinking it, he felt a strong magical impulse coming from somewhere behind the trees they had toppled. It looked like Shadow had noticed too, shooting a storm of icicles into the general direction.
The icicles didn’t reach their destination, a tidal wave of red rose from between the branches of the trees and stopped their momentum. As the wave splashed back down, Fire realized what had caused it. On top of the furthest tree trunk stood a figure clad in diamond armor, however as opposed to the other soldiers it had no helmet, instead it wore a cowl beneath which only two crimson eyes were visible.
Fire called out: “Blood mage! Must have survived the trees!”
As Fire looked to the ground, he saw all the blood that had been spilled in this battle gain a life of its own, gathering itself in pools, draining from still-full corpses, leaving them as husks. Seeing that one of their mages survived seemed to imbue the soldiers with new hope, they came storming towards Fire all at once.
Kir chirped: “Two left.”
Meanwhile Shadow was locked in a fierce duel of magic with the blood mage, still unwilling to discard her disguise, victory was important but remaining obscure took priority for now. The blood mage was in the process of manifesting rib-like spikes from the sea of blood at his feet. Shadow readied another volley of ice spears.
Fire could look how his sister did later, now he had to take care of his own problems. He breathed in. The fight with the enderman in the first village they found flashed back into his mind, then the start of his fight with the hunters before Claw had taken over. This was different, he was armored, armed and prepared. And perhaps more importantly, Fire was a three-meter tall superhuman creature with thousands of years of experience.
As Fire breathed out, he could feel his body temperature rise as his muscles went into overdrive. The air around him started heating up, a bright orange glow shimmered from between Fire’s scales. Time was almost slowed to a standstill. He was ready.
Even with their formation, the soldiers still were slightly staggered. The spear tip of Fire’s halberd stabbed the foremost one straight through the throat. Using this leverage, Fire flung the soldier two meters into the air, tearing his head off in the process. The other soldiers now had to either sidestep the corpse or be hindered by their beheaded comrade.
Without warning, a splayed open rib cage attached to an unnaturally long spine came swinging at Fire from the right, the individual ribs like sharpened spikes. Clearly the work of the blood mage. Fire held his halberd in his left hand and impaled another throat, his right hand caught the ribcage in the middle and yanked it out of the blood pool that spawned it. The ribs contorted, now more like the legs of an insect. With a quick motion Fire threw it into the oncoming soldiers.
A soldier had come close enough to attack Fire while he was preoccupied, the sword glanced off Fire’s dark armor. They wouldn’t find any gaps, Fire made sure of this when he created it. Only a blade like he was using, or a heavy impact would be meaningfully threatening. That or getting overwhelmed, and Fire was not about to let that happen.
Fire leaped backwards, regaining some space to use his halberd in. With an enormous effort Fire swung his halberd in an arc, putting enough force into it to behead a soldier with the impact alone and severely daze the next one in the halberd’s path.
A quick glance behind him revealed that the reason the blood mage wasn’t sending more support was that he was preoccupied with Shadow, who to him looked like a baseline human with ice magic. Of course, Shadow was nimbler than she let on, easily leaping out of the way of various sharp bones that would probably have impaled her otherwise. The blood mage also had to contend with a growing portion of his blood supply being frozen. Shadow more than had this under control. She was just following their usual strategy: Never show more power to the enemy than is needed to defeat them.
With his full attention back to his own fight, Fire took a headcount. Nine soldiers left, most of them looking more and more shaken, less and less willing to fight their seemingly invincible opponent, having had a bone centipede thrown at them had probably also contributed.
With another decisive attack Fire cut down another soldier, then another and another. As their numbers dwindled, Fire had to worry less about defense and could focus entirely on offense, his armor absorbing the odd blow that hit him. No movement was without purpose.
Once there were three soldiers left, Kir spoke in Fire’s head again: “Destiny hurt. Help needed.”
Instead of wasting more time attacking the last three soldiers, Fire shouted at them: “Drop your weapons, surrender and live!”
The soldiers seemed taken aback by this sudden change in dynamic but at this point looked too terrified to do anything else, discipline had its limits before the desire for survival overtook everything. They not only dropped their weapons but threw them to the side, far out of their reach, then fell to the ground cowering.
While bolting towards the fight in the trenches, Fire looked to the blood mage again. It seemed that Shadow had made a mistake at some point, somehow the blood mage had managed to catch her and was now holding her up by the neck. Just as he summoned up more bone-spikes, something golden slithered down Shadow’s left arm and manifested as a dagger in her hand. One slash was not enough to kill the blood mage, however the surprise was enough to get him to drop Shadow. A crimson red icicle rose up from the sea of blood and impaled the blood mage’s head. That was everyone but the endermen and Glibby dealt with.
The scene unfolding before Fire was a chaotic one. Kay was erratically teleporting around, occasionally landing a hit on the endermen. Destiny was slumped against a tree, evidently having taken several punches from Glibby, the fact that she lived was most likely owed to the ape’s sadism, wanting her alive to witness the outcome. Astro tended to her with glowing palms. Tyron, Rose and Urist stood in front of them, holding off the eponymous Ape. Steve was currently locked in battle with Silver, Jennifer with a different Grey One.
Glibby was still only superficially bloodied, maybe he really was as good as he claimed, maybe he was supremely lucky, maybe both. Fire was going to find out soon. Kay just teleported into the guard of one of the obsidian-clad endermen, an opportunity Fire exploited. With a leap, Fire closed the gap to the enderman and drove the spear tip of his halberd into its lower back. This allowed Kay to land a well-placed attack, leaving the enderman on the ground gradually bleeding out.
“One left.” Kir announced.
“About time you joined us!” Exclaimed Kay. “You had the perfect dramatic entrance and you squandered it!”
Fire had no time for friendly banter, there was an ape-shaped problem that had priority. Kay also didn't have time for it, as he only narrowly avoided a swipe from Silver’s claws. A glance to the side revealed Steve crawling towards the defensive line, hands clasped to his stomach and blood seeping between his fingers. Shadow had also reached them, her throat visibly collapsed by the blood mage’s grasp. She nodded at Fire, then proceeded to join the battle by hurling ice at any target she had sightlines on.
This was enough to get Glibby’s attention off the slumped, unconscious Destiny, now turning towards Fire.
“Oh, the lizard has finally shown up. Had fun with the cannon fodder?” Glibby taunted.
Fire indulged him, any time he spent talking was time the others had to fight the endermen. “Not a lizard, a genetic splicing of enderman, human and assorted additional genetic code as well as a little bit of elemental magic. I gave up correcting people a few thousand years ago.”
Glibby slowly came closer, gauntlets raised. “How about a good, old-fashioned one-on-one fight?”
Without waiting for a reply, Glibby already threw the first punch, Fire had anticipated him fighting dirty. Glibby’s strength and reach combined with his heavy gauntlets meant Fire actually had to be careful around his attacks, the human soldiers might as well have been attacking with wet noodles by comparison. The heavy, blunt impacts would render his armor mostly ineffective. This was a real threat.
Fire moved only minimally to avoid the punch, then instead of counterattacking leapt backwards: distance was his ally in this fight. Fire quickly thrust his halberd forwards to see Glibby’s reaction. As soon as the Ape went to defend against the attack Fire pulled back, halberd attacks were too telegraphed to be useful, Glibby’s reflexes were too good for that.
Another heavy punch from Glibby, another evasion from Fire. This time Fire looked inward, into his inventory and pulled out an anti-magic splash potion, which promptly materialized in his left hand. All mages on the battlefield were dealt with so he might as well get some use out of the potion. The potion impacted on Glibby’s raised gauntlet and shattered, some of the liquid splashing in the Ape’s face, unfortunately missing his eyes. It had been enough to surprise him though.
The others were attempting to get close, but the remaining armoured enderman and one of the Grey Ones had taken a page from Fire’s own book. They swept with halberds to keep them at a distance. Kay was too busy with Silver, each now attempting to break the other’s guard on top of the remains of the frozen tree.
Suddenly Kir spoke up in Fire’s mind: “Hey. Ape looks for weakness, then attacks like… ape. How he got Destiny.”
This was useful. Fire quickly formulated a plan. It was risky but the payoff was high, which already was the whole point of this ambush so he might as well stay in theme.
Just as Glibby was wiping the drops of potion from his face, Fire surged forward, once again swinging his halberd in a wide arc. Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have done this, he knew full well that the arc was predictable, and a thrust might have even landed a hit here. Glibby realized as much, blocking Fire’s attack with his left hand and at the same time throwing a powerful right-handed punch.
The punch connected, hitting Fire square in the stomach. The force was dampened by Fire’s armor but once it proved too much, instead of breaking the armor deformed inwards, an intentional property. The blow carried through. For a few moments time stood even stiller than Fire was used to. He felt a numb pain from his stomach. The armor bent back to its original shape.
There go most of my internal organs. Fire thought, moments slowly ticking by as he watched himself be launched backwards. Then he felt it, the emergency response of his body. Throughout his limbs and torso glands started secreting a reagent that would keep his muscles running as long as they received signals from his brain, even if he bled out he’d still live for long enough to get healing. This was another part of what made him what he was. Mencur-Besh.
Time returned to a sensible speed again, Fire managed to land upright but made sure not to land too well, falling to a knee for a second. That was what Glibby had waited for. He came running at Fire like a freight train, arms wildly flailing. Fire dropped his halberd to the ground, instead pulling two daggers from his inventory, they were made from the same re-crystalized diamond as his halberd, sharp enough to cut steel, which was precisely what Fire intended to do.
Glibby’s first blow missed, Fire quickly slashed at the gauntleted hand that delivered it, the diamond carved a notch into the metal. Fire actively dodged the next strike and repeated his slash, Glibby seemed to pay no heed to his opponent’s renewed vitality.
Fire backed up further and further, adding more and more notches to the gauntlets. They were now no longer on soft forest ground but on the hard stone floor near the edges of the canyon. A few seconds into his frenzy Glibby finally took note of the fact that not a single one of his blows had landed. He hesitated. Now Fire was the one to exploit a gap in his opponent’s guard, bringing on two final slashes. Glibby recomposed, now winding up for a crushing blow with both hands.
Fire probably could have killed him then and there, nothing easier than a slash to the throat from his position, however as long as capture was an option lethal force was off the table. Killing someone only one step down from the Entity was a good way to become the target of a large retaliatory attack.
Instead of attacking, Fire launched himself backwards, landing on his back. Glibby’s fists impacted on the stone, at the same time his gauntlets shattered into dozens of small pieces. The shards cut into the Ape’s hands as he shook them off. Glibby stopped, then looked straight at Fire, this time with genuine rage in his eyes, letting out a primal scream before lunging forwards.
Fire’s daggers disappeared back into his inventory, just in time to duck under Glibby’s lunge and send the Ape flying using his own momentum. Losing the gauntlets had significantly lowered Glibby’s threat. Now any punch he landed would hurt him more than it would hurt Fire.
Glibby lunged again, this time windmilling his arms mid-air. Fire opted to completely dodge out of the way this time, not wanting to risk getting hit. Glibby attacked three more times before he finally got lucky, catching Fire in the chest. The blow was hard, it probably would have cracked some of Fire’s ribs if Glibby had still worn the gauntlets. Instead, it merely sent Fire flying again and left Glibby clutching his fist, seemingly broken out of his rage.
While Fire recovered from the blow, the so-far unaccounted for third Grey One appeared next to Glibby, whispering something into the Ape’s ear. After a short pause, the Ape turned to survey the scene.
The last of the armoured endermen had died, and only the other Grey one was managing to slow the advance of Fire’s allies. Silver was still locked in a melee with Kay. Glibby nodded and called out “We’re leaving! To me, my Grey Ones.”
The halberd-wielding enderman teleported up and put his hand on Glibby’s shoulder. Glibby looked to Silver, who looked back and forth between his master and Kay. Glibby glared at him yet more sternly and shouted at him.
“Silver, we are leaving!”
The enderman hissed: “Void upon your cowardly retreat! I will be satisfied!”
With that he tackled Kay from the frozen log and out of sight.
“You protect someone for a decade, and they treat you like that,” Glibby sighed. “You just can’t get good help nowadays. Anyway, let’s leave. Adieu, Fire, it’s been a pleasure.”
With that, Glibby sighed, patted his two guards on the back, and the three of them disappeared. Destiny’s javelin of ice landed the second after. Fire reckoned it would have gotten him right in the head.
“Of course. Just my luck,” mourned Destiny as Astro held her up.
The moment they were gone, they heard the sounds of Silver’s duel with Kay. Shadow and Fire rounded the corner to see an obviously irritated Kay teleporting around. Shadow lowered her head and started focusing, seemingly waiting for something. Suddenly the sounds of fighting stopped, and Silver found himself surrounded by a dense weave of energy, not unlike a cage. He visibly strained to muster up a teleportation but seemed unable to.
“Gotcha!” Shadow exclaimed, having substituted her crushed voice box with sound-generating magic.
Kay cheered: “Mission success! Well done everyone! We’ve two officers now!”
Fire felt… not good but certainly not bad either. Most of his internal organs had been damaged beyond function but that was why he had prepared healing potions at the shelter. He’d be able to hold out until then.
Astro had meanwhile gone around and mended any injuries he could. Steve looked paler than usual and winced as he walked, but everyone seemed to be in good enough shape to make it back to the shelter. Once there they could have healing potions and proper rest, they definitely earned it.
Suddenly Shadow’s eyes went wide. “Something’s wrong at the rockslide team.”
Chapter20:Inner Demons (Amanda/The Ender)
Amanda wanted to play it cool, but she was hyped. She actually kissed him, he wasn’t repulsed, and also there was the whole thing about capturing the Dog. Satisfying their mission made her happy too, she guessed.
Warnado, however, was over the moon about every aspect. He danced around the bound form of the Dog.
“Herobrine? Never heard of him!” he cackled. It was the first time Amanda had heard him mention his destiny with anything less than mournfulness.
Fristad leaned against a tree, smiling shyly but enthusiastically. He’d had his big moment of exuberance and now he was pulling back. He seemed afraid of overstaying his welcome and Amanda appreciated it. She was getting closer to forgiving him for becoming the Dreamweaver, but things like that don’t erase themselves in one go. That being said, taking on the Dog with nothing but a stick and his fists to save her life was pretty chill of him.
She deliberated and was on the verge of calling out something encouraging when it happened.
A grey-scaled enderman appeared behind Warnado and struck him in the head with a half-broken shield. He went flying and landed in a heap. The same enderman, blood pouring from its shoulder, teleported toward him and kicked him in the gut. The shimmering weapons Warnado tried to summon dissipated with every blow.
Amanda levelled her crossbow. It was a blunt shot, but it would have to do. She could reload once Warnado was free. Just as she was about to fire her shot a clawed hand yanked it up from behind. The bolt struck the branch of a tree and cracked it. It fell and hung limply. Then, another hand reached around her neck, pressing claws to her throat. She was forced to her knees, disarmed and under threat of death.
Fristad, with no weapon to hand, raised his fists and looked wild-eyed at the two endermen. His gaze came to rest on Amanda’s neck and the talons about it. He raised his hands and began to slowly advance.
“Look, just let the kids go. I’ll do anything you want.”
“Get the Dog out of here, Fristad!” Amanda yelled. “Get the others!”
She fumbled lightly around her waist for her shiv. She would fight with that if necessary.
“Amanda,” he warned. “I’m not doing that.” To the endermen: “No one else has to die. I would gladly offer myself as a prisoner in their place.”
That was when the immense shape of Glibby the Ape emerged from behind the tree. He grabbed Fristad and slammed him against the trunk. His gargantuan fist connected with the shepherd’s skull with a sickening crunch. When it came away, Fristad’s face was coated with blood, and his mouth hung half-open as though he were half asleep.
“How noble,” Glibby grunted. “You’ll do.”
He threw Fristad to the ground face-first, then flipped him over.
Amanda couldn’t lower her head enough to see Fristad’s face. He must have been dozing off, because Glibby spat: “No, no! Don’t you dare. You will stay awake for this, for every second of it, or the children die.”
He bared his teeth in disgust, then twisted Fristad’s arm until there was a crack. The shepherd shrieked and clasped the broken limb.
“Every second,” the Ape hissed.
“Yes,” Fristad groaned. His voice sprouted from him like a vine without support, collapsing as soon as it rose.
The Ape grinned and stooped down to straddle him, and Amanda took a moment to weigh her options. No one had appeared to take the Dog. This was all there was. Warnado was still getting beaten by the other enderman. She didn’t stand a chance against someone as huge as Glibby - getting Warnado back in the fight was their only option. Her fingers found the circular hand of the shiv. She just needed the doofus behind her to loosen his grip.
Glibby was in position, one smothering hand across Fristad’s mouth, the other free.
“I want you to know, Fristad,” he confided in a low, raspy whisper, “that your death means precisely nothing. None of this means anything to me. I’m doing a job and trying to have fun while doing it.”
He moved the second hand in to clasp his nose shut. He was going to smother him. Amanda waited for her moment. Warnado could get him off Fristad. He couldn’t be that hurt, right? She heard his groans and doubt crept in.
Fristad began to thrash, to try and rise up to the surface for air.
“I’ve had a bad day. A terrible day. You’re just a way of blowing off steam.”
The Ape pressed down, forcing Fristad’s head into the ground, and pressing harder and harder. Fristad’s fists flailed impotently against Glibby’s muscular arms.
She felt the creature’s claws loosen as it cackled in anticipation. She set aside doubt and took her opportunity. She plunged the shiv into her captor’s gut. Its arms fell away, and she immediately ran at Warnado’s tormentor. One well-placed thrust would buy him enough time to get a spell going.
The talons plunged into her hip, and she felt them sink deep. The breath ran out of her and she collapsed. The enderman she had shanked wiped its talons off in the grass, clasping its wound with the other.
Glibby barely even noticed.
“Make her watch, Shaghran,” he murmured, enraptured with his own task.
She was dragged to her feet and teleported over. Fristad was pale. His eyes were wide, fearful and agonised tears streaming out. His arm was mangled.
“Look at that,” Glibby cooed, “That is a fine quantity of life in this one. He’s guarding it pretty jealously, isn’t he?”
Amanda tried to look away but the enderman forced her head back. She wished her eyes would fill with tears as they might obscure her view. Glibby’s hands reshuffled. She heard yelling.
“Now, watch what the turning of a little valve does to the selfish.”
His hands slid in opposite directions. A crack. The Ape drew away. Fristad was looking right at her. His tears began to dry up, and he wheezed fruitlessly. Amanda could only gape. Fristad could only gape. He lifted his head as far as he could, which wasn’t very far at all. Blood dripping from the torn, slumped corner of his mouth. His jaw hung loose, shattered under the force. He moaned something, then fell back, dead.
Glibby gave him a probing punch to the ribs. The body spasmed. Nothing more. He chuckled.
“Well, that’s him gone. I think I’m going to kill you next, girl,” concluded Glibby with a smile.
Then, everything happened at once. Steve materialised in a puff of ender-pearl smoke. Astro was soaring up the mountainside, carrying Tyron by the armpits. Shadow not far behind.
“FRISTAD!” he yelled with a swing of Excalibur.
Glibby fell back with a yell and the enderman let go of Amanda to drive off Steve. There was a deep gash on the Ape’s forearm.
“Warnado!” she called out.
There was a burst of purple fire from Warnado’s direction. The enderman that had been pummeling him staggered back, scales melting and smoke rising. A huge, horned shape arose, composed of that purple fire. At the centre of its chest, an obscured form about the size of a child hung in motionless suspension.
The horned flame reached down and tore the enderman in half, further scorching it as it did so.
Kay emerged from a portal, saw the beast, and rolled away into another just as it struck the ground where he had stood.
Glibby cried out in fury. He leaned down to Amanda and growled at her:
“Tell the demon-child I’ve changed my mind, he’s next.”
He went, picked up the Dog with his good arm and called out to his remaining bodyguard. The horned beast began to charge at him, and the Ape glared it down. As it pounced, the enderman broke free from Steve and materialised at its master’s side. Amanda blinked. They were gone. The horned beast’s fists slammed into the ground and left great, scorching indents in the earth. The beast reared back and roared, before charging at the nearest target: Astro and Tyron, who had just touched down and were immediately forced to dodge away.
As they rolled between the creature’s blows, Shadow touched down and squinted at the creature for a moment. Then, she looked down at Amanda and placed a hand over her wound. The teenager felt the pain subside a little and placed an arm around Shadow’s shoulder as she lifted her.
Shadow’s right arm shot forward, a bolt of lightning erupted from it, striking the beast in the head, the thunder was deafening. Its fiery body seemed to grow thinner, as if thrown off-balance metaphysically. Another bolt, aimed at its feet this time. Shadow’s entire arm looked scorched, the electricity seemingly affecting her too.
The flames thinned out enough for Amanda to make out Warnado’s body beneath them, still motionless. The spell normally obfuscating his face was gone, his eyes were pinched shut, face contorted in a vile mix of emotions.
“Amanda, I’ll need you to help me with this.” Shadow said with more calm than seemed appropriate for the situation.
What did she want? Amanda didn’t know what to do.
She said with panic in her voice: “But I don’t know magic or demons!”
Shadow had started walking towards the horned creature, dragging Amanda with her, shooting more lightning in regular intervals. Her arm was gradually becoming less and less recognizable as such.
When they arrived near Warnado the flames had gone back enough to be unable to lift his body, leaving him lying on the ground, but Amanda could still feel intense heat radiating off of him. His obfuscation charm was still down, and his horns were visible.
Shadow said: “I need you to come close to Warnado with me, hold his hand or whatever you think is best. What I’m about to do won’t work without something he strongly associates with positive emotions and you’re about as strong as it gets here.”
There were also unspoken words there, Amanda would get burned in the process, but she didn’t even have to consider for a moment. She looked at Shadow and nodded. They were close enough now that the heat became scorching.
With a quick movement Shadow separated from Amanda and positioned herself behind Warnado, lifting his head up and placing her still-functional left hand on top of it. Amanda was not a second behind, grabbing both of Warnado’s hands, gritting her teeth as the heat pierced her skin.
Amanda’s gaze jumped between Shadow’s face and that of Warnado, torn between looking for assurance and offering comfort. A pulse of energy seemed to ripple through Shadow, tearing open gashes all over her, revealing nothing but blackness. Her mouth moved slightly, as if she was speaking in a dream with the motions not quite making it out. Amanda clenched her hands tightly, the heat was getting worse, she wanted to scream.
Another pulse went through Shadow, rendering her so torn that it was difficult to recognize either of her appearances. Whoever she had been talking to seemed to be sufficiently intimidated, the heat from Warnado’s body died down and his face relaxed. A few moments later Amanda was only staring into obscurity as Warnado’s obfuscation spell returned.
Shadow let Warnado go. Her body was a charred marionette, barely standing.
“Shadow…” said Amanda as if it explained everything.
“I know, one second,” she winced.
Shadow stepped backwards and her ice-mage disguise crumbled away in chunks of almost-flesh like a cracked vase, pristine black tissue gradually replacing it. All that was left was the black-skinned, white-haired mage Amanda was more accustomed to.
The others were milling about. Fire up on the ridge, surveying the scene with cool, unmoved eyes. Tyron patted down the fledgling flames on his fur with the help of Urist. Kay was marshalling Rose and Voidblade into establishing a perimeter.
“Shadow,” Astro called out.
Jennifer, Steve and Astro were in a group. Destiny was a little apart from them, covering her mouth and looking out over the promontory. Jennifer had her arm around Steve, who wept into her shoulder. Astro was on his knees, passing his glowing hands up and down the body of Fristad. Amanda limped after the mage, knowing what was about to be said.
“Is there anything that can be done?” Astro asked with gravity, face iron-clad against all emotion.
“Too much brain damage from loss of oxygen and the hits he sustained, not to mention the snapped neck. The only magic that’ll do anything would be necromancy. He’s dead.”
“You, for once, you could try and sound upset,” said Jennifer coldly, holding Steve closer.
Amanda looked out over the cliff. She saw the blue cage with Silver in it and salvaged the small comfort that they had won. Bodies carpeted the ground around him.
Destiny was on her knees to her left. Fire had a hand on her shoulder.
“I know it might not feel it,” Kay murmured as he crouched over the still-unconscious Warnado. “But we are victorious. Fristad will be commemorated. He is our first martyr.”
As Amanda had thought, it was small comfort. The only sound was the wind, and the occasional rustle of armour as they walked.
The Ender signaled to her men to hold. There were reports of a disturbance in Research’s main workshop. Freak approached them, translucent and grinning, clasping his pale, talon-like fingers together.
“You are going to love this!” he sniggered.
The Ender furrowed her eyebrows.
“Mercury!” roared Glibby the Ape. “I need gauntlets!”
“Calm, now, Glibby, there’s no need for-”
There was a crashing sound. The second voice was that of Marinus Bul. The Ender beckoned to her soldiers to move in.
“I care not for calm! Calm can have his day when my Grey Ones are avenged. When I have gone back there and choked the life from the demon, from Brine and from Fire, then you have my permission to talk of calm!”
The Ender’s urge to suppress a smirk at Glibby’s evident but undefined misfortune receded on hearing news of Fire’s involvement. Aside from the strange little mage’s brief mention of her “brother”, the Ender hadn’t heard anything that could possibly be linked to the alchemist who had helped her and the dimensional cartographers and then left.
Distracting thoughts intruded upon her mind at the prospect of seeing him again, but she repelled them. The outlaws had the alchemist on their side, and he had angered Glibby. These were only facts. Intelligence. She rounded the corner and entered the room. Freak made himself visible beside her.
Glibby was pounding away on a door at the back of the room which had Dr Mercury’s name on it. True to his word, his gauntlets were missing, his hands bleeding from hairline cuts. His right forearm was cut open and bleeding as well.
Only one Grey One accompanied him - the one who had taken the name Shaghran in his entrapment at the hands of Kay - and this one clasped his hands to a wound on his stomach. Silver, Shaghran and the other one. Those were the three who had started the defections from her ranks. She was not at all sad to hear at least one of them needed avenging. She hoped it was Silver, by far the most insubordinate even before they got stuck outside Nexus.
Bul was holding up the unconscious body of Bartholomew, the dog-faced officer who had accompanied Glibby out to face the Jackals. The attorney’s jaw was on the floor and he just seemed glad not to be the object of the Ape’s ire.
“Mercury, come out now!” Glibby cried again. “I swear, do not make an enemy-”
“-Hello, Glibby,” The Ender interrupted with some degree of smugness. “Mind explaining what’s going on?”
Glibby lowered his head and cackled.
“Of course, you’re here to gloat.”
“Nonsense, your loss is the loss of the Tower,” the Ender condescended. “Tell myself and Mr. Bul what has happened.”
Glibby paused a moment. The Ender could practically hear the whir of gears in his head as he concocted his excuse.
“Silver failed me,” Glibby decided as he turned, tone regaining its theatrical emotiveness. “They had already disrupted us. Landslide, falling trees and a bombardment of arrows. Nearly half of us were dead or wounded, the mages all slain, most of your men succumbing to their wounds - like the weaklings they are.”
The Ender raised her hand to stay her soldiers as they began to growl and hiss at this denigration of their fallen comrades.
“General Mandy then captured dear Bartholomew - thrust him through a rift and out of our sight. I deduced he couldn’t be too far off and sent Shaghran out to find him. With our leadership and our numbers already decimated I called on Silver to stay with me, to help hold the line, but he went out to confront General Mandy. His lust for vengeance was too great. Your abandoning of him broke him, truly. The ruin and demise of good soldiers are you!
“Suffice to say, he went out to face the General and was beaten. As you, Ender, can testify, he truly is a masterful warrior, and Silver, who was your equal in every way, was just as inadequate an opponent. He was incinerated in front of all the men. After that, our soldiers began to panic - our ranks were broken by Fire and the men started to panic. Your so-called elites were the first to flee and the first to die for it!”
Glibby’s pace began to staccato and rapid-fire on the laps sentence and he smashed another set of test-tubes.
The Ender was unfazed by the verbal assault.
“I was only just able to rescue Bartholomew before they descended upon us in full force. At which point my Lointain was slain by the demon-child.” He clasped his brow in a false sadness that barely concealed impetuous anger.
“Well, well, well,” Freak entered, walking around the Ender with hands clasped behind his back. “The Ape swings from lie to lie as his namesake swings from tree to tree.”
Glibby wrenched a pipe from a table and hurled it at the phantom. He quickly became intangible, and it passed through him. The Ape snarled and pounded on the door three more times.
“Mercur- mods damn you!” He turned to Bul, who had just laid Bartholomew aside. “Get out there - get me armour - get me gauntlets! Magical, technological, enchanted, mundane, I do not care. And potions for our wounds! If you don’t return with them, you had best return carrying your own severed head!”
He grabbed Bul by the shoulder and shunted him off down the corridor. The Ender, Freak, and their guards parted ways.
“Pacify him,” Bul hissed as he went through.
The Ender moved her hand to the pommel of her sword as they closed ranks.
“Pacify me?!” Glibby roared again. “I risked my life to save Bartholomew, Bul! Were it not for Silver, and the cowards the Ender supplied me with I would be victorious! Fristad of Veridale is dead! Steven Brine, I bested. Destiny, slayer of the Sovereign, I bested. The Children of the Prophecy, some pernicious assassin, the wizard Astro - all these I bested! And dead they would be now had you given me the troops to make good on these combats. I was outgunned and outnumbered by the time of these duels, but I fought on. Even after that cowardly trickster Fire carved away my gauntlets, I fought on! And I shall yet fight on, and I shall yet present those I have named as corpses before the Entity if you just get me some mods-damned gauntlets!”
He threw one last punch back at Mercury’s door. The entire metal structure, door and frame, quivered like a string from the impact. The Ender’s smirk intensified. Seeing him tantrum like this was deeply satisfying. He deserved it for poaching her men. She prayed to the ancestors he would get violent with her so she could put an end to him.
“And where is this Entity I am supposed to serve?” Glibby raved, flailing his good arm emphatically. “Currently it is busy patrolling villages, muttering to itself like a senile old man. Am I now to lead you? I shall if I must. Oh, what has the Silhouette foisted upon me? I shall tell you: an army of cowards led by a-”
A white glove clasped his arm, at the end of a bronze-armoured limb. Behind Glibby stood the Entity, unmoving and as unfazed as a statue. Dr Mercury stood to the Entity’s side, eyes bloodshot and surrounded by deep purple rings from nights without sleep. Even her robotic arms seemed to droop from exhaustion.
The Ender received the treasure of seeing the blood drain from Glibby’s face in real time, as he desperately attempted to course correct.
“By-by a noble, mighty ruler, who I am wrong to doubt in such a manner,” Glibby seethed, falling to his knees and bowing his head to hide his venom. “I apologise my lord, the heat of battle and the pain of loss are still on me. I was not thinking clearly.”
The Entity lowered its gaze.
“Then you are not-fit to... return to the field,” it concluded. “Go, contact your Silhouette. Tell him-I-demand more crystals-more quickly. As per the duties you… have had-foisted upon you.”
It shunted him forward and he limped out of the room contemptuously. The Ender was ecstatic. She and Freak shared a satisfied look, and then they turned to their master.
“We have accelerated the plan. It is time I told you what shape-our victory shall take.”
The Ender’s heart stopped. She tried to exchange a look with Freak, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the Entity. His gaze was ablaze with a terrifying ambition.
I missed last week's update so this week has three chapters instead of the usual two. The Preparations arc is in full swing, especially since it is now becoming obvious what exactly is being prepared for.
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