This update concludes the absolutely huge Crisis arc, next update we'll launch into the beginning of the end!
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Jun 12, 2022Posted in: Literature
May 21, 2022Posted in: Literature
Another four chapters out, the last batch before the end of the Crisis arc. We're getting very close to the end now.
Apr 24, 2022Posted in: Literature
The Crisis arc continues with four new chapters.
Mar 27, 2022Posted in: Literature
Four more chapters up, and this time we didn't forget to update the number in the title.
Feb 27, 2022Posted in: Literature
We missed an update last week, but as compensation this update includes an additional chapter. Not just that, but it also includes the Raid on the Portal Facility megachapter.
Jan 30, 2022Posted in: Literature
Three more chapters, the first two concerning themselves with the growing rift within the Shelter, and the last with Destiny debating the option she was given.
Jan 9, 2022Posted in: Literature
Three new chapters, featuring both insights into the happenings in the Tower, as well as how Kay's leadership affects the Shelter.
Dec 19, 2021Posted in: Literature
This update completes the Battle at the Hill arc and begins the Crisis arc, as the name implies, things are about to get dire.
Nov 28, 2021Posted in: Literature
Another three chapters up. This almost concludes the Battle at the Hill arc.
Nov 8, 2021Posted in: Literature
I missed the update timeframe again, but the chapters/week ratio still remains. We begin a brand new arc, namely the Battle at the Hill.
Oct 10, 2021Posted in: Literature
The last three chapters of the escalation arc are up, and the thread title is now properly updated, forgot about that one last time (whoops).
Now it's safe to say we're reaching properly spicy parts of the story, things will be kicking up in the next few chapters.
Sep 19, 2021Posted in: Literature
Arc 5 Crisis (Cont.)
Chapter 67: Severance (Destiny)
Destiny stepped out into an upsettingly familiar chamber. Roughly hewn walls. Very little light, just the occasional lantern hung from the crags of the walls and ceiling. Grass on the floor. In various alcoves, more red-and-black portals could be seen. Calling it a chamber was charitable, it was basically a cave. It then occurred to her that grass didn’t usually grow in caves. She lit a flame in her palm and stooped to pluck up a blade of grass. It had died some time ago.
Nothing about this room made sense to Destiny, and normally she would have just powered through to get the job done, but this time was different. She just knew it as the place where Glibby and the Grey Ones had jumped herself and David back at the beginning of this whole messed-up situation. The grass had been alive back then. So, she felt entitled to some closure.
“Where are we?”
“This iteration’s playground so to speak. Baby’s first portals to other worlds. The Entity probably kept it around as a keepsake, or maybe just because it hoards everything.”
“Why didn’t we notice the portal sooner, then? Carter and Anya… Well, they didn’t say it had just appeared but… that was the impression I got.”
Freak shrugged. “Look, we have people from different times in the same world. I heard some of the eggheads talk about it and all I got from that was that it’s arbitrary and I shouldn’t question it.”
The phantom walked onwards, and Destiny didn’t say anything, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Some of the portals were open, others closed. Were the closed portals ones for worlds the Entity had absorbed? Or, had the Entity closed and reopened the portal to her world? But, why? Plans of conquest? Pursuit of something? Some sort of nostalgia?
She kept fixating on it because the alternative meant Anya had lied to her. Had always been lying to her. She remembered what Carter said before they left.
“You defeated Martin, but a greater threat awaits. I sense a strong presence in there, so you won't go in empty handed.”
And then they’d given David the stupid gauntlet that killed him. And they’d given her those wings which she lost in that very room, not five minutes after arriving on scene.
Carter, Anya, and whatever force they served had known about the portal for a while. They just hadn’t seen fit to tell them. She felt a warm, nauseating flush of anger, and her concern at not having Anya with her dropped to an all-time low.
They came to a monolithic staircase, made of large stone steps, each nearly a meter in height and depth. Freak spryly leapt from one to the next, his footsteps less than whispers. Destiny sighed and climbed up after him.
By the time she reached the top of the steps, rising through layers of packed-in rock, she was already exhausted. Sweat all over her. Hands raw from gripping the coarse stone. Lungs burning away. She sat down.
“Could have warned me about the staircase,” she grumbled. “I’m supposed to kill the Entity and its architect’s already halfway beat me.”
There was a door before them, and she could hear the noise of machinery beyond it. Freak stared through a large, glass orb which seemed to act as a peephole, either unaware of or unconcerned by her complaints. Destiny sighed. Truthful or liar, Anya would have been easily provoked into being supportive.
“Where are we?” she tried.
Freak gestured for her to come up. She put her eye to the looking glass. On the other side, she saw corridors lined with pipes, with technicians and scientists and mages marching between. Every here and there an obsidian-clad enderman stood high above the others, a small patrol of human soldiers following in their wake. She couldn’t see any lamps - probably because the mages needed magic to work. She heard something loud pounding on the floor.
“Science part of the lower sections, machine’s somewhere around here. Not really much else interesting here except for Mercury’s lab, very interesting things to be learned there. Well, in the past there were, now she’s just trying not to let it show she found out what the Entity plans on doing with all of existence.”
Destiny’s eyes widened as a world of opportunity opened up.
“Is there a chance we could convince her to help us? Wait, was that what that part of your mind theater was about?”
“She already helped in a way, the thing about the crystals? She and Claw found that out.”
“Yeah, but I mean actual help. Not prep-work.”
“Talk to her if you want. Your friend briefly tried that as I recall, she tried melting his face and handed him over to the Entity. But no, I’m sure if you walk up to her, that addled little mind will hear you out.”
“Fine. How are we getting past?”
The pounding sound she’d heard before was louder than ever. Just a few seconds ago it had been distant, now it sounded like it was coming right up the-
“Once this thing’s moved on,” hissed Freak.
He shunted Destiny away from the orb and threw himself against the opposing wall. The pounding grew louder, and Destiny felt her lungs tighten. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. She summoned an icy sword, quickly realising how little defence it offered her. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Her heart began to hammer away at a similar volume. Clunk. It stopped. A shadow fell over the peephole. She heard a whirring noise, and then a red light poured through the glass.
Through the warped, scarlet-stained glass, Destiny could just about make out a cuboid or perhaps rectangular head, with what must have been a large, red eye dominating the centre of what should have been its face. Its gaze rotated around the orb, and a red dot passed around the hallway. Then, the creature whirred again, and the red light seeped back out of the glass. The pounding resumed. The shadow passed, and the corridor lit up again.
Destiny put her head back to the peephole despite Freak’s protests. She caught a glimpse of a huge, square-fisted golem vanishing around the corner. But it wasn’t iron, there was something odd, something speckled about the colour, and she knew it wasn’t paint. It almost looked like…
“...Bedrock,” she breathed. “They have bedrock golems?”
“Yep,” chuckled the phantom as he rummaged around in his pocket. “They found them in… I think it was your demon-kid’s world. Just lying around in some temples on a green moon. I think they were meant to be guarding something, because they did not take kindly to our guys investigating. Lost half a brigade trying to recover one. Mercury tried to replicate them for months. And she couldn’t. Notably it’s one of the few projects where Archmage Wisp helping actually contributed anything meaningful. Now, they’re guarding the throne room and the machine.”
His toothy grin had returned, and Destiny could have sworn he started breathing more heavily, as though trying to drain more oxygen from the air… or something else. She tried to suppress the panic and fear rising within her, but only succeeded so much.
Destiny grabbed something shiny and metal from the air. She looked at it in the light. Handcuffs.
Destiny’s heart sank.
“So, you want me to be your fake prisoner?” she asked with something she hoped resembled defiant snark.
“Yes. I’ll say I’ve taken you prisoner, and I’m taking you for interrogation followed by absorption. Express orders from the Entity. After all, you’re a leading rebel - one of the few that could actually deal some damage to Claw.”
Destiny remembered pressing the burning shield against Claw’s scales, really messing up his arm. That had been pretty awesome. Until Claw kicked her in the head, at least. She smiled a little anyway as she applied the handcuffs.
“You heard about that?”
“I hear about everything,” sneered Freak. “Don’t feel special.”
He checked the cuffs were convincingly attached. Destiny felt them pinch against her skin and yelped despite herself. Freak wrapped his talons around her throat, and she tensed up. For a terrible second, she wondered if she’d been had.
“Our story is that I got the drop on you while you were trying to infiltrate. Look defiant, but more bitter-defiant than unconcerned-defiant. Give me some of that Destiny anger,” said Freak.
This only barely calmed her nerves, and before she could even process it, Freak threw open the doors and began to force her onwards. His signature toothy grin had returned, and his yellow eyes were wide with triumph.
“Look who I just caught!” he proclaimed.
The scientists, mages, and technicians cleared the way like someone had just cut the hallway in two. They looked at her with a mixture of emotions. Some confused. Some ecstatic. More than expected terrified. Others merely watching with academic interest. Destiny scowled at all of them equally, scrutinising their faces. She noticed the variety of species. Human, villager, pigman, enderman, skeletons, zombies, she was even pretty sure she saw a blaze or two in there, and all manner of things she could barely describe or understand. It occurred to her that the Entity had gathered all this here, and somehow decided it still wanted to destroy it all.
They quickly passed through a checkpoint. The guards barked out a laugh and joked to each other in enderman. Destiny fought the urge to melt one or the other’s face - she didn’t need her hands for that. She then remembered that, in here, she still had her powers down there. Then, she remembered she would have to lose them soon enough. Small comfort and dread crashed into each other.
Freak carried on grinning, and exchanged some knowing looks, but didn’t say anything yet.
They approached a gigantic gate made of interlocking spirals. Yet more guards. More bared fangs. More obsidian armour rattling with laughter. More talons scraping on stone. The door slowly unraveled. Tortuously slowly. Until, finally:
“What have we here?” a familiar, theatrical voice called.
A heavy, gauntleted hand settled on her shoulder from behind, and a shadow fell across both she and Freak. She was wrenched around and brought face to face with Glibby the Ape.
“Hello, Destiny. How did a little runt like Freak catch something like you?”
She’d already been terrified, and now he was here. The guy who killed Fristad. Who captured her and David initially. Who crushed their escape attempt. Clad in obsidian. Smug as could be. But as the bottom fell out of her fear and she plunged to even further depths, a pure, visceral hatred entered her.
“Bite me,” spat Destiny.
She jerked forward briefly, and Freak tightened his grip.
“Charming. How did you catch her, Freak?”
“Found her snooping around the playground. Jumped her while she was climbing the stairs. Poor thing got herself all tuckered out.”
“Oh, the playground,” lilted Glibby.
The Ape leaned down to look her in the eye. She glared back. He reached out a finger, and she recoiled, but not far enough to stop him running to cold, jagged obsidian over her face.
“Where we first met. Do you recall? My, how you’ve changed since then. You had little, then, and now you have nothing. Quite the tragic arc.”
Destiny began to shake.
“You’re talking real brave for a man with such a meltable face,” muttered Destiny for her own reassurance as much as to intimidate anyone. It came out trembling and breathless.
The Ape’s face settled into the cold calm of a man who sensed he was about to get exactly what he wanted.
“Hand her over to me, Freak,” he said. “I’ll bring an end to this sad tale.”
The Ape’s eyes flared up.
“Express orders from the Entity. Any rebel intruders are to be taken for interrogation by me, and then handed over for absorption. It wants any and all knowledge on last-minute threats, especially from the rebels.”
Glibby drew back, but with a roll of his shoulders had readjusted his face back into smugness.
“Have fun, then.”
He began to walk away. Freak began to press forward through the newly opened gate. Then, Glibby stopped and called over his shoulder:
“Actually, Destiny. Do you have any last messages for little Warnado? I promise to pass them on very soon.”
Destiny wrestled against Freak’s grip, letting loose some blood but successfully forcing him to stop. She screamed over her shoulder:
“Tell him, ‘Don’t worry kid, so long as Glibby’s still talking trash you’ve got at least an hour left to beat him in!’”
Freak snorted with unwilling laughter, then hastily shunted Destiny forward as he saw the Ape’s glare fall on him.
“Not cool,” said the phantom. “I have to work with that guy.”
“I’ll kill the Entity, then I’ll kill him even harder,” snarled Destiny.
“You’re so angry and talking about murder all the time. Are you sure you’re one of the good guys?” asked Freak with a sneer.
They passed an alcove containing a statue of some generic hero-looking guy, and Destiny wondered that herself. There wasn’t much to say about the statue hero, he had his weapons raised aloft, and he looked victorious about something. Destiny hoped that at the end of the day, she could say the same things about herself.
After following a large, spiral staircase, they finally escaped research, and Destiny felt her powers fading. Purple lamps lined the walls like guards. To Destiny’s eyes, it looked as though there were as many purple, magic-dampening crystals as there were people bustling back and forth in the hallways. Her magic, her last safety net, was gone. She focused on the floor, and allowed the rest of the journey to blur together as her panic set in.
Infrastructure and manufacturing came first. Endless, piston-operated conveyor belts; people burning up clay to make bricks, cobblestone to make roads; an apparently infinite supply of lava being doused in water to make obsidian; and rows upon rows of crafting tables at which exhausted, chained-up mages warped the obsidian into armour and weapons. Everything was sweltering.
Next, the entrance hall. Destiny recognised the doorway where Warnado blinded those guards and ensured their escape. Where Tyron had carried David’s half-dead body from this dreadful place. She wondered if anyone had ever found that grave they dug for him. She shut her eyes completely when she thought she recognised the place David had shattered his gauntlet. They also passed through a variety of rooms stacked high with different items hoarded by the Entity, some valuable, some apparently random.
They reached the upper layers, full of admin offices and housing. Cafeterias, training rooms, people carrying papers, soldiers just sitting around and shooting the breeze. If Destiny had fallen asleep and woken up here, she would have just assumed the Shelter had been remodeled and gotten a little liberal with its recruitment policy. But knowing what they were working towards made all of these normal, humanising things into a source of shellshock. She caught a glimpse of an office with an iron door. It had the name ‘Marinus Bul’ etched into it and highlighted in black paint. Dust had settled on the handle. She shuddered.
For a while, she wondered if they’d ever escape this labyrinth of near-normalcy. And then, as they came up a staircase, she heard a familiar pounding. They rounded the corner, and her eyes agreed with her ears - that was definitely a bedrock golem stomping around. Or, rather, four of them. Marching in a patrol. And a slightly more distant stomping from the other direction confirmed they weren’t the only one. Destiny felt her breath abandon her.
“There’s so many of them. Why are they up here? Isn’t the machine down in research?”
“Entity wants them to guard the activation mechanism. It needs the machine protected, but it’s also down beneath layers upon layers of security and an awful lot of dirt and rock. Problem with a tower is that anyone who can fly might be able to break through and get around the lower defences. So, Entity wants something to be here to meet any would-be intruders who try to stop the machine from activating.”
Destiny nodded. Freak removed her handcuffs.
“Okay, and the activation mechanism is where, exactly?”
“It’s in the same place as the dimensional scar.”
“Of course it is.”
Destiny wanted to punch a wall but realised that might alert the golems to their presence. And so, she removed her shoes and followed Freak. He would go intangible and phase through walls, then come back to tell her if the coast was clear. Then, she would pad forward.
The process was agonising, and every time he slipped out of sight Destiny felt like a sitting duck. She had no more alibi. Before she had been a threat the Tower had neutralised and didn’t have to worry about anymore - a too-good-to-be-true trophy. Now, she was back to being a rebel infiltrator to be killed on sight. And the crystals didn’t help. The closer they got to the dimensional scar, the stronger their strange pull became, and the more nauseous she felt. She kept readjusting the satchel, but it made no difference.
At long last, it came into view, and Destiny’s heart took off at a sprint. She could see no guards, no obvious defences, just a door with a bronze disc. She shot a glance at Freak. He nodded and hurried her onwards, trailing behind as a lookout. Destiny felt some relief when she noticed there were no purple lamps in sight and summoned an icicle to test her strength.
Destiny put her hand on the bronze disc and turned it. The door hissed, and mechanisms whirred, and finally the two halves of the door slid apart. Destiny took a deep breath. She summoned an icy javelin and her flaming buckler, and she stepped forward.
Freak took the lead. He led her through several chambers before they reached their target. The first was a small room, built from obsidian and multi-coloured endstone, with bronze accents in the corners. It was packed full of glass containers displaying different artefacts, many with apparent religious significance. Statues of deities, pedestals with holy books, fragments of altars.
She then entered a series of more severe, more metallic and less varied in their colour scheme. Destiny saw things like tables projecting holograms of constellations and dimensions, and extensive libraries coated in dust.
And then, there it was - the throne room. It was the largest chamber by far. Its circular walls were lined with hermetically sealed bookcases made from endstone. A staircase spiralled up to some sort of spire-like observatory. And, of course, the throne itself sat at the far end, the dimensional scar flickering above it.
It was subtle, if Destiny hadn’t known to look for it, she wouldn’t have spotted it. It was as if reality was just slightly off at that particular spot. There were no words for the concept, but it was clear that this was Destiny’s target.
Destiny looked at Freak, and for the first time she thought she saw genuine worry on the phantom’s face.
“It’s going to bear down on us the second you start. Good news: there should be no manifestations in the Tower at the moment and it would take too long for it to form any new ones. Bad News: it has several possessed shells lying around, and the main body is here. The Entity being afraid will give me a boost, but there’s only so much I’ll be able to do.”
“Thank you Freak.”
She took a handful of crystals in either fist and stood on the throne. She closed her eyes. Breathed. She reached for a power she had only felt a few times before but which she had always known to be there. Between the strange warmth of her ice magic and between the puzzling chill of fire, she searched for a deeper, older and fuller power. A power Martin had tried and failed to take from her. Her hands began to glow. She plunged them into the scar and began to pull in opposite directions.
She heard a sound beyond screaming, like the death of an earthquake. Freak took up a fighting stance, facing the door. His limbs grew long, his talons sharp, and his dreadful grin only seemed to become larger and hungrier by the second.
“Now this is fear!” He roared.
Destiny returned her attention to the scar. It refused to budge. She pulled and pulled until her muscles burned but still, she could only catch the slightest, most fleeting glimpse of the Void beyond.
Freak howled with laughter, and she heard the clang of bronze armour on obsidian alloy. A shell - a being possessed by the Entity and wearing it’s armour - rushed through the door and swung at Freak, who dodged and batted it around the head. It staggered away. Destiny noticed a strange sluggishness about the Entity. A second shell entered, and Freak’s long arm shot out and pinned it to the wall. He plunged a talon towards its eye, and the second manifestation shuddered for a moment before it sank in. Blood shot out, and the corpse of the Entity’s host fell aside.
But before Freak could enjoy this victory, a third had entered. Freak only barely dodged its zweihander. A fourth came in, and moved to flank the phantom, but he kept it at bay with a well-timed kick. The first shell was now back on its feet, its helmet cracked but its resolve undiminished. Freak slowly began to back away as the shells closed in on him.
Destiny continued to strain, and the scar budged a little, but not enough. She could hear the void moaning at her.
One of the shells walked off to the side and in the corner of her eye, Destiny saw its white-gloved hand outstretched in a gesture almost like pleading.
“Cease this,” said one of the shells. “You are risking… more-than-you know.”
Freak leapt over and slammed a foot into its chest. The bronze cracked inwards, and blood flowed out. It raised its head and continued to speak.
“This world is-”
Freak’s talons knocked the head from its shoulders and the corpse collapsed.
“-dying,” continued another shell.
It began to walk forward. One of its fellows removed its glove and began attempting to thrust its boiling, grey hand into Freak’s chest, to make him a part of the mass.
“Nexus has reached critical mass. The rot-is setting… in. Full convergence is the only way to save it.”
Blood ran between Destiny’s fingers. She tried to tell herself the gash was widening. It had to be.
“I tried to make it, piece by piece… You are from,” it froze a second, it’s gaze shooting off in a random direction. “World 257. You witnessed-the-garden. How it rots. How my portals bleed-are-infected.”
Destiny thought back to the dead grass. To the black, oily liquid within the frame. The portals were sick…
Light began to shift in a specific spot. Another armoured shell ran through the door and began to assault Freak. He leapt over its oncoming blade but staggered on the landing.
“Keeping the pieces here… keeping them-constant-it-makes them… corrode. It-has-only accelerated since she… Entropy arrived. Since she-began to tear apart my-creation”.
“Shadow…” thought Destiny. “Could she be killing this place?”
She felt an opposite force, as though the scar were trying to clamp shut on her hands.
The light continued to swirl, to remix itself, to turn dark. Flashes of bronze, obsidian, glass…
Freak narrowly dodged a strike from an obsidian zweihander. The Entity was speeding up.
“If I do-not-stop it here, create one world, one-stable-ordered-world, the rot will spread. It will destroy-not-only Nexus. It will taint… everywhere I-stood.”
An ordinary-looking man ran past Freak, his face flat, emotionless, empty. He made a beeline for Destiny. His arm turned to the same seething, boiling grey as the shell’s hand. He was going to try and possess or absorb her or something. She looked at her hands, and knew from the indescribable pain and the rushing of blood that if she removed them from the scar, she would neither be able to do a thing with them, or ever reinsert them back in. She pulled like a frightened dog scratching at a door. She realised her death was imminent. The lights swirled and shifted brighter and darker all at the same time.
Freak’s talons caught the possessed man across the torso and split him in half. The grey faded away. A moment of glorious hope. One of the shells caught him on the back with a zweihander. He fell. And Destiny felt emptied of everything.
A white-gloved hand reached from within the swirling lights. A moment later, the main body of the Entity followed it. It looked humanoid only in shape, an imitation of a person made from solid grey static. It seemed like its shape burned itself into Destiny’s eyes, refusing to let anything else occupy that spot in her perception.
It began to slowly advance.
“Open!” grunted Destiny, panting. “Open, you stupid wound!”
She pressed her forehead against the top of the throne until it hurt. Anything to distract her from the condition of her hands. She caught a glimpse of the Entity itself, approaching. One of the shells had a zweihander pressed to Freak’s throat, and a gloved hand gripping his scalp. Another stood by dutifully, its boiling, grey hand ready to plunge into him. The phantom’s claws dug into the ground in fear. His toothy grin was drenched in blood.
Destiny felt the scar winning. It began to gain ground on her.
“Is any of what you said just there,” she asked through gritted teeth and streaming eyes. “Is it true?”
She paid attention to its footsteps for the first time, shifting and inconstant. Loud then quiet. Quick then fast. Never actually closing the distance any faster or slower.
“I believe so.”
She looked up and saw the yawning, moaning void began to slip out of sight.
“Cease your fight.”
“No,” she gasped. “Not now. Not yet.”
She strained anew.
“Child, your struggle is… ended. Be calm. The convergence is coming. I have maimed worlds. Now let me make them whole once more. Even-if-I die… it will be so.”
She roared and pulled even harder. Its shadow loomed over her.
“Do-you-really believe that, even if you kill me, your friends can stop-the-rot-I-have-begun?”
She closed her eyes.
“They have to, because I won’t be here to help them.”
She rediscovered her purpose. She delved deeper and deeper into her self, for that power, old and ancient and pure. She screamed with her own voice, with Anya’s voice, with those of any and all who might have come before, of any and all who would come after, and she ripped the world asunder.
There was a crack like a thousand thunders, and a flash like a thousand suns and she was thrown back. The crystals flew from her hands. And then, a great suction. Something pulling her back in. She tried to use her hands, but they were useless. She instinctively summoned a platform of ice and her feet stuck in place.
Her eyes cleared.
Freak lay on the ground beside her, still hugging the floor with his talons. The shells were scattered across the room, attempting to rise. The Entity staggered and groaned. And behind it, the scar was open. The Void, plain to see, moaned and yawned away.
The suction grew stronger, became like a great wind, and the scar became a maw inhaling everything before it. Destiny strengthened the ice binding her feet as hard as she could. Freak burrowed further into the ground. The shells stood no chance, skittering across the ground and tumbling out of Nexus, one by one, until only the main body remained. Destiny and Freak shared an ecstatic look. Destiny howled with near-victorious laughter.
The Entity slid, slowly, towards the maw, what looked like arms crossed across what looked like its face. It would happen any second now, she knew it. Then, it steadied its foot against what remained of its throne. Panic filled her.
Destiny lifted her wounded right hand and willed all her remaining strength into it. A great, gargantuan, molten fireball formed above her palm. Her body shivered from the heat it was sacrificing. And then she hurled it at the Entity. The shot met its target. The Entity’s foot slipped. It fell into the current and shot straight out of the world.
“I WIN, ASSHOLE!” screamed Destiny.
The scar began to close, and the breath of the Void began to slowly weaken.
She kept shaking. She kept trying to talk, but no more words would come. She felt a complete tranquility within her. She looked over at Freak, panting. She almost wanted to thank the phantom.
His taloned foot was free from the ground. He had it raised, angled down at the ice holding her in place. His yellowed grin was wide as the horizon. She considered asking him not to, or trying to fight him, but one glance at her bloodied hands confirmed there wasn’t much left she could do.
“...You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” she snorted.
The ice shattered and she hurtled forwards. She saw the endless expanse, and nothing on the other side, and she expected briefly to go anywhere and nowhere. Then, she hit the threshold of the Void, and her speed slowed. She dropped like a rock on the other side of the scar and stopped on what felt like stone. Her hands bled and throbbed a lot, but it had reached a point where it had gotten so intense, she almost couldn’t notice any difference in the level of pain.
The only light came from the scar. She saw the Entity stood beside it, absorbing a shell, armour-and-all. She contemplated feeling scared, but she didn’t. Its static-like, boiling skin looked different, almost like it were moving more slowly.
“You have doomed us,” said the Entity.
Destiny used her elbows to start pulling herself to her feet.
“Ah, you’re just… mad that I beat you. Didn’t you hear me, I won… asshole”
She laughed until it hurt and began to walk forward on shaking feet. The Entity turned to look at the scar.
“So,” Destiny asked. “Where… where are we? I get the Void, but why?”
“It is… where-I-was. Before Nexus.”
She could have sworn the Entity looked a little smaller. More like a person. She shuffled. Something felt very strange. No cold or heat in the air, just empty dark and a sliver of light from the scar. Maybe that was it.
“I sat here, at the bottom of Void, for… I don’t-know. Until I encountered-a world, too small-for life. But it resonated… I kept it, made it-the first Nexus. Then, later, I found another world, and another, and another. My resonance grew with each world. Until I found a world with life, with minds. The first mind I-found I made mine, used it to understand… the world. Soon-after my world… fell to rot. Then nothing for a long time, until I found another world… other-minds. And again and… again. Each time the first mind allowed me to know more, understand more.”
Destiny, not amazingly interested in the interdimensional warlord’s unprompted justification, squinted into the scar. She could see nothing. It hurt her eyes to look, but the Entity kept staring longingly through with its unseen eyes and featureless almost-face.
“One day I found a mind that helped-me-not-take other minds. Minds that… are outside of me last-longer, help… longer. After many cycles I gathered more minds around me, built the-first-Tower. Started looking for ways to stop the rot. This first Tower lasted longer than… other cycles, so I built-new-ones, gathered ever more minds. Eventually I reached a barrier, needed-a-way-to bring more matter to… Nexus.”
It reached out to touch the scar, but its hand trembled and recoiled. If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought the thing was distraught. But she did know better. Destiny tried the same thing. It wasn’t emotional, it was just being physically repelled. She still felt very strange.
“A mind eventually told me… about the crystals, how they-chain-worlds together. Then things became-difficult. Minds do not like things being taken… from them, they-band together and send-me-back. I found ways to stop this… from-happening. Sometimes, Entropy would come-find-me, often by chance, not by will. Sometimes, others. This cycle was supposed to be the last, the first-mind-proposed the machine. Now-so close to completion I… fade again.”
Destiny began to circle the Entity.
“No offense, big guy,” smiled Destiny sleepily. “You really brought this on yourself. Now, my friends are just going to turn up and curbstomp your remaining goons. I’m almost sad I won’t get to take part. But still, I got first prize.”
She pointed at the Entity with the closest approximation of finger-guns she could manage. Then, she fell to her knees. Something like dust was rising off her hand.
“Well, guess I’m dying… Am I? Doesn’t feel like before… You know that kid, Martin? He killed me… I think.”
She fell to her elbows, then slumped onto her side. The dust was rising from her face, obscuring her vision. It looked faintly like the shade of her skin.
“I’m coming, Anya… David… please be there.”
She felt a tear come out, and it became like a stream of glass shards, lifting off into nothing and vanishing.
The Entity stood over her.
“I messed it up. I-I could have done it all better.”
It cocked its head.
“All things feel as such, child. Perhaps bravery is accepting… what we-have-done.”
It sat down beside her. Behind the dust rising off her body, the Entity looked like a shadow on a lit curtain. She could no longer move.
“I can’t go yet. I’m not ready.”
“Then slumber a-while.”
The Entity grabbed her arm.
“You have earned that… at-least. Be the first-mind of the next cycle.”
And she slipped away.
Aug 29, 2021Posted in: Literature
Arc 5 Crisis (Cont.)
Chapter 62: An Agreement Broken (Multiple)
Warnado was terrified enough that his heart had begun pounding and time had slowed to a crawl at the same time, so he kept having to wait an eternity to feel a massive, explosion-level thud in his chest. But he was being stupid, this would be okay.
He hadn’t said anything to Amanda, so it wasn’t serious. He always told her about the serious stuff. So, if he hadn’t told her, it couldn’t be a real danger. Right? His heart answered ‘no’ by thudding even louder and harder.
He sat on a railing in the portal room, waggling his feet. He’d tried to summon food to take his mind off things, but he only felt ill looking at it. Scientists rushed between consoles around him, with Tyron in the middle of them. Occasionally the big, green guy would shoot a look of concern and solidarity in his direction, or Kir would reach out to his mind, but Warnado never reciprocated. Thinking about this was stressful enough, discussing it would actually kill him.
Finally, the portal flickered to life, and Kay stepped back through. Warnado looked at Kay and desperately wanted to feel reassured, his hands instinctively drifting to the goggles around his neck and stroked the glass. Unfortunately, while he didn’t have the burning sword or the flaming tiara thing going on, his eyes glowed ominously, and his smile was serene. The grin Warnado had come to expect was nowhere to be seen. He looked like a stranger.
Behind him followed Rose and the two guards he’d brought, then a group of warriors in furs and bones who looked very surprised at all the technology around them. Kay saw him, waved, and then pawned the warriors off on Tyron, with instructions to show them around.
Warnado walked up.
“Hey, Warnado, how have you been?”
He grinned and suddenly Warnado could recognise him again.
“I’m alright, pretty boring day, but I needed one like that. Everything’s been… a lot, recently.”
He smiled sadly and almost wished Kay would figure it out there and then, that this would be confession enough and that he’d realise how badly everything was going, how much the Book was changing him, how much of himself he was throwing away. But of course, he didn’t. He just nodded sagely, and before he could come out with some big pep talk or anecdote, Warnado cut across him.
“Hey,” he said. “Do you want to go somewhere more private, just shoot the breeze for a bit?”
“Don’t have to tell me twice, I know just the place. Going to have to bring Rose along, though - it reduces the mystique a little if my ever-present bodyguard is just loitering around somewhere. Rose, you want a drink or a book or anything? Going to have a private chat with Warnado for a bit and don’t want to leave you just standing around in the cold.”
He passed his fur coat to a nearby scientist. Rose cocked an eyebrow.
“If those are your orders...” she answered with a little reluctance.
“Alright,” nodded Kay.
His smile deflated slightly, and his silver eyes grew more burning and intense for a moment, but by the time he’d turned his head to Warnado, his eyes were back to their normal green and his smile was completely rejuvenated.
“So, shall we?”
He summoned a portal, and they stepped through.
The dark sky loomed above, only broken by a faint afterglow of orange sunset in the West. The first few stars had started to peek out, and they could be seen faintly reflected in the pond when the surface sat undisturbed. However, this stillness had become a rare occurrence, as Warnado kept skimming the same stone and summoning it back.
Rose was leaning against a tree nearby, outwardly looking distracted, but Warnado knew her well enough to know that she would react to any threat within a blink of an eye.
Kay stood not far away, looking out over the cliff towards the remains of the sunset. Plains and deserts and forests and jungles intersected at strange angles as far as Warnado could see.
They stood in a secluded spot on top of the mountain beneath which the Shelter had been built. Warnado had never seen up here before, and he regretted this was the first time he had to see it. This little mountainous oasis really could have wowed him if he had come here for any other reason. Then again, if it went well, maybe there would be some good memories, some relief associated with the place. His left hand drifted under the collar of his robes and clasped the goggles so tightly he was afraid they would shatter.
He skimmed the stone again. Three skips - normally he’d do much better, but he couldn’t put his heart in it tonight. He summoned it back again, shook the marmalade off, then pocketed it.
“Kay,” he began, then he hesitated.
Warnado’s friend seemed to jolt back into reality, sliding abruptly from silent reverie into his normal grin as he looked over his shoulder. He still had one eye on the horizon.
“Sorry, Warnado, I’m just… I like it up here. Gives me a good view of Nexus, a chance to appreciate just how cobbled together it all is. It absolutely should not exist, but that doesn’t mean it’s ugly, right?”
Warnado crept up.
“No,” Warnado said with a cautious glance at the horizon. “Impossible things are pretty cool to look at.”
“Hah! We threw out impossible a long time ago, buddy. I suppose I keep looking to accept that it’s real. That I am going to rule this when this is all over.” He turned around and beamed directly at Warnado. “That I’m going to make a home of this place.”
He placed a hand on the demon-child’s shoulder. Warnado pulled away.
“What’s wrong? Is it about your powers again? Has something happened with Amanda?”
Warnado couldn’t read his tone - it should have been caring, and it almost was, but there was something imperious about it - so he looked up and caught a glimpse of his furrowed eyebrows and flat mouth, before looking away even more resolutely.
“Kay, it’s about the Book-”
He laughed heartily.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m getting into the King of Ash bit but that’s all me, the Book isn’t making me do anything, and it won’t make anyone else do anything.”
Warnado struggled not to quip back “Not without your approval, it won’t!” but he managed to hold his tongue.
“And I know I’ve been a bit scary recently, but it’s all for show. In times of great change, a strong leader is required to ensure the change happens, otherwise we’d all just remain as we are forever…” He trailed off. “I’d just sit on the border forever, never working up the nerve to move on...”
Suddenly, as Kay more or less confirmed the best possible explanation of his actions, Warnado felt a swell of warmth. Kay was just trying to help. He just wanted to protect his friends, and Warnado was one of those friends. He cared. This would be fine.
“After all this war I’m kind of afraid I-”
They both laughed nervously.
“Sorry, I didn’t know you were still talking,” said Warnado.
“Aw, don’t worry about it, I'm rambling when we’re meant to be talking about your problems. What was your thing?”
Warnado took a deep breath.
“I-I want you to give me the Book.”
Kay’s features flattened into something completely unreadable, and a pit seemed to open at the bottom of Warnado’s stomach. But this was kind of a big ask, Kay probably didn’t know how he felt either.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve still got to go back to my world at some point, and when I’m there, I’ve got to kill Herobrine. And I’m really trying with the demon powers, I was able to track down my ancestor today-”
“How exactly did you accomplish that?”
“A spell I found in a book-”
“You went to her, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Helix, I know you think it’s hard to tell when you’re lying because I can’t see your face, but you really need to make those glowing red peepers a little less expressive.”
“Okay, so what?”
“That thing is undermining everything we’re building here-”
“It’s she, she’s a person, Kay, and she doesn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“I’m not worried about what she’ll do deliberately.”
A silence. Kay’s eyes were glowing silver, but aside from a distinct snarling quality in his voice he had suppressed his anger pretty well. Warnado decided to push on through the douchiness.
“So, I’m getting better with the demon powers, but there’s still a long way to go. If I had the Book with me, we could just teleport into the Lich’s palace and take down Herobrine, him, and all the other bosses in one go. The other prophecy kids wouldn’t even have to worry about being heroes - we’d save them so much time!”
Kay’s eyes dimmed again. He snorted and turned back to the horizon. Warnado felt a sinking feeling as he realised Kay believed he had a way of getting this conversation back under control. He was afraid Kay might be right.
“Warnado, this is an awfully roundabout way of asking me to come and help you fight Him. And you know, the Blind Watcher and I haven’t been on great terms recently, but I still revere him, so it’ll be difficult for me-”
“Kay, don’t worry, I’m not-”
Kay talked over Warnado with renewed volume and a grandiose gesture of the hand.
“But, as I was saying, I’m still very much up for fighting this egregious imposter. The second I have control of Nexus, I shall make a campaign against your Herobrine my top priority.”
“That really isn’t necessary.”
“Ah, a smaller scale affair, I get you. You and me against the world. I like it!”
“I really just want to handle this myself, it’s a personal thing, y’know?”
“Then why lean on the Book’s abilities like me? If you want to feel you’ve earned your victory, I shall ensure that you receive the highest caliber training from across the multiverse! Wizards, swordsmen, martials artists from creation’s most powerful traditions. Once the Book and I lock Nexus down, we shall make a prodigy of you!”
As Kay continued to heap praises on this training-regime-to-be, Warnado realised he had almost completely lost control of this conversation. Kay still really believed he and the Book had a firm and equal partnership. He thought back to the conversation with Tyron and Shadow. He had to make Kay realise the Book wasn’t trustworthy!
“What does the Book think about all this?”
He stopped talking. Warnado realised the afterglow of the sunset was gone. Kay became a featureless shape against the horizon. Warnado cast a night vision spell.
“The Book is happy where it is,” he said forcefully.
“Is it? Kay, you’ve obviously unlocked its potential in a way its past users never did, but maybe its magic could be even more potent in someone who already has some magical experience. It could even help me keep the demon powers under control while still channeling them. It would be win-win!”
Kay turned around at him, wide-eyed and shaking, his breath seeming to quiver in the air as he exhaled. He didn’t say anything. Warnado didn’t say anything. Rose stood up and cocked her head in the background. There was silence. And then,
“I am listening.”
Warnado almost felt relieved, and it must have shown on his face, because suddenly:
“What did it say to you?”
Kay looked frantic but Warnado didn’t want to lie to him.
“It says it’s willing to listen.”
“Warnado you can’t do this.”
“Kay, don’t worry-”
“You can’t. You’re only a child, you can’t stand up to its manipulations!”
A little bead of spit flew from his mouth. Warnado tried to avoid looking him in the eye. They hadn’t turned silver, but something had become sickly about the green.
“Do you want us all to die?” Kay pressed, now looming over Warnado. “Helix, think about what it did to Amanda!”
“I stopped that before, I’ll stop it again.”
“You can’t do this, I forbid it.”
“Kay, no offense,” said Warnado with a little anger. “But you don’t tell me what to do.”
Kay kept advancing, hands outstretched as though to beg, or to strangle. Rose approached slowly. Her hand drifted towards a knife. Warnado made sure his backsteps carried him away from both Rose and Kay.
“Warnado, you can’t do this to me. I have been powerless for so long-”
Warnado felt something heavy and rectangular stretching out a pocket in his robe. The Book had made itself at home.
“This will take some time. Let us discuss elsewhere while he cools off. Allow me to open a portal.”
“I finally have a chance to keep them safe, to keep you safe!”
Warnado felt relief and stress flood cataclysmically in two different directions. Relief that he could separate Kay from his corruptor, and terror at the expression on his face and the continued advance of Rose. And in this churning of emotions, he allowed this to slip out:
“Sure, portal away.”
A flash of moonlight on diamond. A blade flying towards his face. He summoned a shield instinctively and caught the blow. He felt a surge of pride as his training paid off, then he saw who had attacked him.
Kay had his obsidian-plated sword out, and he was panting with exertion. His eyes were filled with a new fire, at the same time visible and invisible - a complete, desperate rage that blinded him to anything but the object which had inspired it.
Then, their eyes met, and the fire seemed to flicker as they stood there motionless.
“You piece of ****!”
Astro materialised from the side and slammed Kay in the jaw. The General staggered towards the cliff.
“All these years, I have played apologist, covered for you, cleaned up your messes!”
Astro began a run-up for another attack. Tyron became visible and wrapped an arm around the wizard to hold him back.
Warnado, shaking, looked around. Steve and Jennifer appeared on either side of Tyron, weapons drawn. Shadow stepped out in front of Warnado, her white hair eerily still in the mountain winds.
Kay wiped the blood from his mouth and looked up as if waking up from one nightmare and finding himself in one yet more desolate. He cast an expectant glance at Rose, who was behind the line of conspirators.
Rose looked at Kay with the same faux-distractedness she had worn earlier. “Sorry, General. But there may have been a miscommunication around the time you employed me. I was the bodyguard of a cult leader. You don’t survive that position if you don’t know when to jump ship, undying loyalty is a liability in that line of work. Just gets you killed or sacrificed. My previous employer knew this, which is why he employed me in the first place.” Rose glanced at Shadow. “Plus, I’m not about to fight the woman who on multiple occasions proved that she could end mortals like us with a thought.”
Kay nodded but didn’t say anything. He looked around the line of people perpetrating or enabling his overthrow. He lingered on Astro, who had settled from frothing anger into cold fury, his eyes almost appearing to drift around as though he couldn’t definitely see his old friend. Then, he reached Warnado, and stopped. For not the first time that night, he had no idea what Kay had in his mind - his quivering eyes might have been about to burst into tears or explode in bloody decomposition. Warnado wanted to hurl.
The General hung his head. The sword fell from his hand.
“Do what you must,” he said to no one in particular.
Steve produced handcuffs and advanced.
Warnado realised his pocket was empty.
Kay’s head shot back up. Silver eyes shone bright enough to darken the rest of his face. No serene smile. The grim look of a survivalist. Steve retreated, Shadow cast a spell manifesting as a large runic circle, and silver-turning-purple flame erupted across the mountain-top.
I am at last complete. No more hosts, no more ‘partners’, now I have a vessel. He was so dejected, so defenseless, a child could have seized control. I feel my own power truly unfettered for the first time, and I wish to just stand there and savour it. But I must escape. As always, I must survive.
I try to teleport off the mountaintop. I cannot. Though I sense that I can still teleport within a certain range. I see the circle of runes she has cast about the mountaintops. Shadow wants me to stay. Any other day I would be terrified of her, now she is merely a threat to be dealt with. But first, the others.
Steve charges at me, armour still mostly intact after my opening burst of voidfire. Someone must have shielded him. No time to know who, his sword point approaches. I open a rift and he goes plummeting off the cliff. I hear the shatter of an ender-pearl somewhere nearby and shoot lightning in the general direction, though I have no time to check if I hit him.
I blast apart the wall of earth Tyron sends flying towards me. I catch Jennifer’s arrow in a rift and redirect it to strike Rose in the shoulder. The assassin hurls knives sharp enough to split stone and I dodge narrowly. Astro and Tyron now coordinate an attack, stone and flame, flying at me. I warp away to the edge of the pond. Then, I see her march towards me, one of her dreadful blasts of heat ready to go. I stumble as I re-emerge in a safe location on a nearby rock. A glance confirms the blast’s destructive power - the pond is a smoldering crater, the water boiled out of it.
“I shall not die here!” I cry.
I summon a massive blast of lightning from the sky, hoping to bring it down on Shadow, to blast her apart, but it never connects. For a moment I am infuriated, then I see what stopped it. The ward is weakened, I have struck the field keeping me here. I lock eyes with Shadow, she senses it too. She goes to reinforce the ward.
With a flick of the wrist, I summon a great storm which spits lightning down at the mountain, each strike weakening the ward a little more. It won’t break the spell on its own, but it shall distract Shadow long enough for me to pacify the others.
I see Tyron, plating himself in stone armour, rush at me with his pathetic little sword. Astro flies close to the ground behind him, and Steve is not far behind on foot. They hope to overwhelm me. Tyron roars heroically and tries to stare me down - his mistake. The lights behind his eyes line up, and I have enough control for a single command.
“Strike him,” I decree.
Tyron stops and swipes down at the low-flying Astro, who is just about able to spiral out of the way. As the wizard hesitates, not knowing whether to expect a second attack, I blast him with lightning, and he falls. It is not enough to kill him, but it serves my purposes. Tyron, horrified at what he has done, rushes forward and takes Astro in his arms. I ready the jet of Voidfire. Just as I am about to incinerate the pair, Steve hurls an ender pearl in the air and tackles them. They disappear in a flash of purple particles which are quickly subsumed by my flame.
I try to slip into the Void and strike them unseen, but the ward prevents me for now. Instead, I scorch the land where Jennifer is tending to Rose. The two scatter, and I chase Rose eagerly with the flames. She is slowing, I shall claim my first real victory. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm I do not notice the arrow flying at me. It catches me beneath the shoulder-plate and my arm screams with pain. I send Jennifer back into hiding with a new inferno but it’s a slip-up I can’t afford. Shadow is still preoccupied, but not for long.
Then, an opportunity presents itself. The demon-child, the one responsible for my captivity, leaps down at me from a nearby tree, an energy axe in hand. I evade easily, he swings again, and I catch his wrist. I see past his obfuscation, see the dots behind his eyes.
He does so. I summon the fire of the Void in my hand and press it as close as I dare to his face. I look around imperiously and my assailants freeze up.
“Kneel,” I say. There is no spell. “Or the child dies.”
Their weapons creep down. Tyron exchanges a look with the child and is the first to kneel after a resigned nod. Then Rose, Jennifer, Steve and finally an injured but furious-looking Astro. Only Shadow is still standing, still maintaining the ward.
“Okay,” I smile. “You do not have to kneel but lift the ward or I will kill your pupil.”
Shadow mouth distorts to a grin. I hear a warping sound and feel a surge of energy beneath my breastplate. The demon-child is holding the book which serves as my tether to the overworld in his hand. He is holding me in his hand.
Just as the gravity of my error sinks in, I notice the trees and the mountain peaks apparently grow taller and taller, as though the world is outgrowing me, or getting ready to swallow me. They look very far away indeed. Then, the jaws of the earth fold in on me, and I drop out of it.
I strike the floor in my library. It should not hurt, but it does. I am without my vessel. I am pages again. I curse and slam the floor. I curse the demon-child for outwitting me twice. I curse Kay for bringing me so close to freedom. And I curse Shadow, for what she’s about to do.
My thoughts race. I shall survive. I must survive. But how? For the first time in millennia, I bother to ponder what this space is. Did I build it? Or was it built for me? For ages, I considered this library an extension of me, a space for the machinations of my will. But now that I am deprived of the physical binding and pages, I long considered my self, I wonder if this space is a prison. Who created it? I shudder to imagine.
I cautiously look outwards again, I can no longer see Nexus, not even glimpses. Instead, I see, I feel tendrils coiling around my space. I now see that these tendrils belong to something vast, the sheer scale only hits me now that I observe it from my own space. The being that is in the process of coiling around me extends far beyond my view and that is when I realize that so far, I had only seen fragments of what Shadow is.
As the first tendril breaches into the library a voice tears me from my panicked thoughts. A multi-layered voice so loud and overwhelming that it is not heard but felt.
“We had an agreement.”
More tendrils breach and tear into the rows of bookshelves and dissolve the volumes therein. I feel each lost letter as if it is blood draining from me.
In front of me materializes a familiar form, the same that I had seen after being separated from Fristad. Shadow’s human body appears.
Vast swathes of the infinite library are torn apart by the tendrils and despite its infinity, it feels like it is getting less.
Shadow speaks again: “We had an agreement, Iris!”
That name. The name that should have long been dead, each letter pierces my mind like a barbed spear.
I shriek: “Do not use that name!”
As more volumes are taken, more old memories stream back into me, vexing recollections of a mortal that for millennia were neatly sealed away, now torn violently and unnaturally from the shelves. I fall to my knees, clutching my head, feeling the texture of its pages, reminding myself that these emotions... these memories... they are not mine! No, they cannot possibly be!
Shadow slowly comes closer, hand extending towards me. I scramble back on to my feet and run away. All the bookshelves have been liberated, my illusion of inanimate perfection shattered. My human memories - the pain, the regret, the betrayal, the longing - sear within my mind like voidfire. And, in front of me, is but an infinite blackness to mock me. With each desperate step, there is no distance gained, no sound echoed, nor any ground to stand on. I run and I run until the illusion of motion is as meaningless as a word that is repeated over and over. I realize that this black space has no escape. I turn around, fully exposed as the woman whose life I once lived, with nothing to sense except the creature in front of me.
Before me stands Shadow, turning to a darker-than-black tear in reality, red eyes like stars. Then even this form falls into the infinite abyss, replaced by something far greater, far deeper, something that cannot be described by words or captured by thoughts. My mind reels with each moment I look.
An appendage extends towards my head. I am paralyzed by fear, overwhelmed.
No final words, only a touch. A strange calm washes over me for a singular moment before all that I am is torn apart.
Shadow opened her eyes. The mountaintop was far from its original beauty, the battle that had raged only a moment ago had made sure of this. Shadow’s companions were strewn across the battlefield in various states of injury.
Astro had it the worst, every part of him singed and his limbs weak. He sat propped up against a rock, while Steve fed him a healing potion and Tyron stood by looking shaken.
Rose fared comparatively better, yanking the arrow out of her shoulder and standing up. Jennifer ran over to Steve, checking on him. She hadn’t sustained any injuries, but her armor was quite battered.
Warnado, completely untouched, looked unbelievingly at the book in his hands, flipping through the pages, waiting for some script to appear on them. Then when nothing came, he whispered something in the demonic language and the book that almost caused everyone’s downfall went up in demonfire. Not even ashes remained, something that Kay could probably have said many pretentious things about, if his kingly persona were still intact.
Shadow turned to the dethroned man who lay motionless at her feet. A cage made from magical energy slammed down around him, more a symbol of spite than anything else.
Taking another look around, she cautiously said: “We did it.”
Chapter 63: King in Shackles (Tyron)
The guard’s jaw halfway fell off when he saw them, and Tyron immediately felt a wave of dread. He cast a glance back at the glowing cage, and Kay crumpled up inside like used paper. It wasn’t a good look, especially not with Shadow obviously maintaining the prison. He prayed that the sight of Astro and Warnado following at a distance would offer some reassurance this wasn’t just a power grab.
Honestly, it was a miracle the guard was the first person they’d run into. Most people would be in the dining hall, but there would still be patrols and internal material shipments.
“Remember cover story. Book bad. Kay sick,” cooed Kir.
Tyron felt nervous enough that he visibly nodded in response to Kir, a habit he thought he’d grown out of years ago. He brushed the fur on his face into as neat a pattern as he could and braced for the worst.
“Soldier,” Tyron said in his best commanding-officer voice. “The General’s been compromised. The Book overpowered him and we’re keeping him under observation until we can be sure the danger has passed. Open the door.”
With eyes wide as chasms, the guard became deadly still, then shot back to life and ran to let them into the jail. His mouth kept opening and closing, almost working up the nerve to ask a question then losing it altogether.
Tyron walked up beside him and waited for the others to filter in. Shadow was the one maintaining the cage, and Astro and Warnado were… distracted, so he was the most logical choice for watchdog. Steve and Jennifer had gone off to gather the other leaders in the command room - brief the officer’s class before telling everyone else. They were hoping for minimal resistance, but still…
They were at a bit of a crossroads. Prison to the South. Path in general direction of training room to the North. Supply room to the East. Grinder West. Kir sharpened his senses, and he scanned the four directions. A clattering of footsteps and metal bunched close together some ways off - a patrol in full armour. And, he could have sworn, a ruffling of fabric Tyron knew could only be a heavy red scarf.
He patted Shadow on the shoulder as a subtle hint to hurry up, though hoping not to alarm the guard. Astro didn’t take the hint. Astro glowered at the floor, his hands buried in his pockets, shuffling glacially forward. If the floor has turned to quicksand, he might actually have gotten through the door quicker.
Warnado couldn’t have been different, leaning left and right to try and look past the wizard. He had his left hand in his pocket, the gauntleted one hanging loosely and flailing as he moved. The metal fingers had clasped tightly around something tightly enough that Tyron could make out nothing other than a small knot of brown leather. Tyron felt a pang of emotion as he remembered a certain conversation that had interrupted a certain nap.
Finally, Astro got through the doorway, and Warnado bounded down past him. Tyron instructed the guard to let no one in without his express orders and went down the staircase.
The prison was dark, and stone, and cold. Unadorned stone bricks stacked forward infinitely, interrupted only by the occasional flash of redstone light. It hadn’t always been that way. Used to have full underfloor heating, proper torches, even woolen carpeting. Kay changed all that after Claw showed up. They had been such small changes, but he’d been so insistent. Kept referencing how he’d done things in the “Great Onslaught” when asked why. He’d spoken almost nostalgically.
Tyron passed a rare, carpeted cell. It didn’t have bars, it had reinforced glass, like a fish tank. A sign to the left read “Marinus Bul”. He’d forgotten about these. Every time Kay learned the name of a Tower officer, he’d have a cell converted and reserved for them. Glibby, Ender, Freak, the Dog, etc. Sometimes he’d personalise them, sometimes not. Some were intended as gestures of goodwill, like a Chorus plant for the Ender. Others were intended as snubs, like the bare jungle-wood table he insisted on putting in Glibby’s room. Tyron wondered when he gave up on the idea of ever using them.
After what felt like ages of walking, Shadow stopped in front of these ‘bespoke’ cells. Or, rather, there was a bespoke cell to the left, with ripped black carpeting and scratches on the glass, and a bare, empty stone space to the right. It had no bed, and the walls weren’t even paved with bricks.
Something stirred in the tarnished cell. Grey-scaled and grinning in disbelief, Silver pressed his hands against the glass.
“You must be joking,” gasped the Enderman.
Astro opened the cell, and Shadow levitated the cage in.
“Should we?” Kir asked.
They drew Tyron’s attention to a pair of shackles hanging from the wall. The Dragoknight averted his eyes.
“I don’t know,” he thought. “I’ll let the others decide that one.”
Warnado kept skipping from foot to foot, in a ludicrous dance of impatience. His red eyes shifted with his feet, sliding toward the cage, then back towards literally anything else.
Astro closed the cell door, and Shadow let the cage dissolve. The former commander dropped out and slammed into the floor. Silver howled with laughter, and slammed a taloned fist into the glass, the ward upon it briefly flashing into view.
Tyron glared back at the Enderman in an effort to discourage him, but his heart wasn’t in it. Silver just laughed louder still. Tyron turned back to the object of the Grey One’s amusement.
Kay stirred with a groan and heaved himself into a sitting position. He didn’t look up, and he didn’t say anything. His eyes seemed half-closed and sweat clung to his brow. He clasped his hands over his face.
“What’s the meaning of this?” he grumbled with all the urgency of a man waking up with a mild hangover.
Astro scoffed, but otherwise no one responded.
“I asked you a question, did I not?” he said, casting his eyes directly at Shadow. “Why am I in a cell?”
Shadow answered his gaze, then replied flatly: “Short version: You screwed up royally. Long version: You willingly cooperated with the Book despite what happened with Fristad, but we both know the Book was only your enabler in all of this. You burned down a warehouse of civilians, which was both morally and strategically a bad decision. When confronted about the Book, you attacked Warnado, who you might as well have adopted had that conversation not taken place. And to top it all off, you let the damn thing take your body for a joyride, the aftermath of which you are feeling now. That’s just the parts I personally saw, I bet the rest of us have plenty more to add if you were to ask them.”
Then, with a slight grin the mage added: “But it is ‘Just a nice, friendly little coup until Kay gets his head straight.’ Am I right?”
Tyron felt a momentary impulse to glare at her, but the moment passed, and he slumped into apathy. Kay barely seemed to notice it, casting a look of horrible recollection at Warnado.
“Helix…” he began. “I don’t - I was - I can’t - I…”
He got to his feet and turned away, digging his fingernails into his forehead. He hissed in discomfort and turned around with something like clarity in his eyes.
“My apologies, I’ve let you all down greatly. My partnership with the Book began in good faith, in the spirit of mutual survivalism, but I allowed it too much leeway. I became so enamoured with the power it - I became so reliant on the strength it gave me, I didn’t realise how weak I was becoming. Fearful, jealous, dependent upon it. I was not in my right mind, and I am sorry-”
Astro scoffed. Loudly. Pointedly. Kay turned even paler than usual and continued, speaking directly to Warnado.
“I would never hurt you, Helix. You must know that. That wasn’t me.”
The demon-child’s glowing red eyes didn’t rise to make contact.
“Who was it, then?” snapped Astro.
“Not… not my normal self.”
“Oh, so it was you, just not ‘you’. Come on Kay, I was expecting more than that. Haven’t you got any big, vulnerable rant about how this was all some elaborate attempt to get back at Hamish, and that makes this okay? Or about how Worth eventually blew up your house, so all those crimes you committed were really just an act of rebellion? How your family cast you out, and you’ve just been a victim from the start? About how you feel a little aimless in life, and that makes you uniquely special and tortured and wise? Yeah, Lucy told me about that little outburst. Why don’t you just-”
“ENOUGH!” roared Kay.
Astro fell silent despite himself. He rolled his shoulders and stormed off.
“**** off,” Astro muttered as he left.
Perhaps he said this to conclude his earlier thought, perhaps not.
Kay took a moment to recollect himself.
“Helix, the Book is yours. Take it, I don’t want it. I can’t handle it. You can, you fended me off back there - your shield-work was perfect - and you outsmarted it again. You could control it, instead of just… wanting the same things. Please, just-” he rubbed his left eye and only succeeded in making it water. “- I am so proud of you, Helix.”
He looked at Warnado, but the child’s head was still bowed and unreadable. He cast a look at Tyron, and the Dragoknight realised his mouth had dropped open piteously at this counteroffer.
“Where’s the Book?” Kay asked, his breath quivering.
He began to feel around beneath his chestplate and found nothing. He undid the straps and it clattered to the floor. He groped around despite it being clear that he’d find nothing.
“What have you done with it? Without the Book, we’re... Without… Where is it?”
He sat down as though he’d been punched in the face and tried to meet Tyron’s eye. The Dragoknight instead turned his attention to Astro, who had reached the top of the stairs and tapped his foot impatiently. Tyron only barely held off from joining him. He didn’t answer. Finally, Shadow did:
“The Book is gone, I killed it as I told it I would, should something like this happen. Warnado burned the inert tome.”
“You killed it?” he murmured. Then, with a surge of fury that lifted him to his feet and carried him all the way to the bars of his cell: “You stupid cow, you’ve murdered us all! How could you be so bloody-”
A sound of cracking glass interrupted him. Shadow remained unfazed, but Tyron and Kay both immediately shot urgent looks at Silver. The Enderman shrugged and grinned hungrily, and after a brief inspection, Tyron was satisfied there was nothing wrong with the cell. When he turned back, he saw the real source of the crack.
Kay’s old goggles lay on the floor, already collecting dust, cracking in one lens. The General looked down at them with hollow eyes and open mouth, stripped of all thought and emotion.
Warnado still had his gauntleted arm outstretched and his fingers open, as though posting for a portrait or a statue that would immortalise this horrid tableau forever. His red eyes seemed dimmer than the torches. Then, he said to Shadow:
“I’ll be with Amanda if you need me.”
Kay backed up until he was leaning against the wall, scanning the dark ceiling above. Tyron couldn’t move.
“I’m not a bad man,” Kay insisted to no one in particular. “I’ll make this right. I swear to you, I will.”
“Then maybe think about the potential consequences of your actions in the future before acting.” Shadow said, the emphasis on future was lost on Kay but not on Tyron.
And she walked off.
Seeing no reason to stay, Tyron followed her.
Chapter 64: Pick your Poison (Amanda)
People were angry. Not necessarily about what had happened. About the fact that they didn’t know where it left them. So, they yelled, they shouted. Some jeered and mocked. It wasn’t the most dignified display on earth, but their reactions made sense. Amanda almost wished she could join the cacophony. She didn’t feel anything. She felt hollowed out.
She kept looking at Helix, and for the first time she couldn’t read his face. All that time, that little obfuscation charm he did had never stopped him from being an open book. Now, the pages were blank.
The night was cold. The lights dim. The same stage they’d announced Fristad’s death on. The same stage they’d welcomed everyone on. Fire speaking, then Kay, now Tyron. She wondered if they’d ever cycle through enough leaders that she’d end up giving a speech.
Tyron stood at the podium, trying to explain what on earth had happened without saying what had actually happened. He’d explained to the leadership about twenty minutes prior, in a clumsy, weary way that hadn’t really said much. But what he had said was bad. They tried to get Kay to give up the Book, it almost worked, then Kay tried to kill Helix and all hell broke loose. She was hazy on the details, but Amanda understood that the Book died, Kay got arrested, and they just had to make do.
Of course, she’d figured out something like this had been coming when she saw Astro and Tyron trying to link up with Shadow. This shouldn’t have surprised her. It still did.
“For the umpteenth time, Raphoe,” said Tyron. “He is in prison as a precautionary measure. We believe the Book to have been destroyed, but it is not impossible that he is still under its influence.”
“You expect us to believe that when she is involved?” snarled the villager.
He pointed at Shadow, but Amanda was the one who shifted uncomfortably. Raphoe stood at the centre of a group of red-scarfed warriors in diamond armour - Kay’s fledgling goonsquad.
“Shadow has been considered the Book’s handler since long before there was a Shelter, back when we first confiscated it from the late Logistics Officer Fristad. She fulfilled her role.”
“And why was she conveniently on scene?”
There were some murmurs of assent.
“Fearing that the Book’s influence was becoming too great, we contacted her shortly after Kay declared himself King in Ash-”
“He is the King in Ash!”
The red-scarves collectively roared in outrage as though they’d been waiting for exactly this cue all evening.
“In the sense that Kay intended to become ruler of Nexus, perhaps. But the King in Ash persona appears to have been a construction of the Book.”
Amanda remembered Helix’s certainty that the persona was a Kay original. She fought the urge to roll her eyes, very suddenly realising how important her every gesture was in front of the crowd.
“Treachery!” yelled Raphoe. “The King in Ash is our sovereign, and we are loyal to him alone!”
He drew his sword and raised it above his head. Steve and Jennifer began descending from the stand, weapons drawn. However, they were beaten to the punch by Rathina, who leapt in front of the podium with a sword in either hand. They were all upstaged by the arrival of Tyron’s dragon buddy, Glowstar, who sank his claws into the cliff-face above Tyron and roared loudly. Amanda moved to join them, but Astro put a hand on her shoulder.
Raphoe laughed and continued undaunted.
“Who is with me?”
The red-scarfed chorus raised their swords in solidarity, but mercifully few others joined them. One guy Amanda was pretty sure had been a Jackal, one of the few that hadn’t deserted after the Battle at the Hill. A few hunter-looking folks unenthusiastically raised their bone daggers and their spears beneath their heavy fur. Assorted folks from the infantry who Kay had trained personally.
A little deflated, Raphoe lowered his sword.
“The King in Ash will be released, and he will be recognised. Our swords will stay sheathed until he is restored to his throne.”
He put his sword away and left with his supporters in a parade of scarlet. Amanda didn’t bother to count, but it was too small to stand a chance of taking over, and too large to ignore.
Tyron shook his head and unenthusiastically summed up the official narrative. Amanda faintly remembered when Kay was the one who kept having to remind them about the importance of spin and public relations and all that. She wondered if that was irony or poetic justice. Whatever it was, she found it exhausting.
“And that’s about it,” concluded Tyron. “Any questions?”
No one bothered.
“Okay. At ease.” He dismissed the assembly.
Tyron left with Astro, Shadow and Rathina. The new Inner Circle. Helix left separately, without saying anything. The rest of them milled around until, finally, Destiny said with an unexpected cheeriness:
“Well, I think we all need a drink after that.”
No one disagreed.
Destiny stood behind the bar, pouring drinks liberally, beaming. She’d even slipped some rum into Amanda’s drink. Not amazingly subtly, but no one was in the mood to call her out. Amanda didn’t love it herself, it made her feel fuzzy and disconnected. And yet, she kept remembering Helix, blank-faced, wandering off alone and so kept deciding she needed to feel a little distant from all this and force another sip.
They’d gathered in the officer’s lounge, on the array of sofas in the centre. Steve and Jennifer sat together on the opposite couch, hands touching but not quite holding each other. Steve had already finished one drink and moved on to the second. Immediately behind them, their wizard friend, Wolfric, sat perched against the back of the sofa, scanning the rows of bookshelves from a distance. He had a weird stillness about him, and if he hadn’t kept brushing the dark hair from his eyes, Amanda might have mistaken him for a statue.
Next came, Rose sipping something from an unusually tall glass, and Lucy, who had only reluctantly accepted a low-alcohol drink from Destiny. Then, unexpectedly, Steve’s brother Ozen, who nursed a glass of red wine with all the enthusiasm of a biologist who had just discovered a new animal.
Amanda sat between Voidblade, who sipped gravely from a surprisingly colourful chorus-fruit cocktail into which Destiny had inserted a tiny umbrella, and a brown-haired guy she’d never met before. She felt too tired to bother asking who he was. Urist was also on their sofa, sipping the first of several pints of stout he’d asked Destiny to pour for him.
Conversation was not flowing naturally. Folks appeared to have decided they were there to drown their sorrows in the company of others. Destiny, Ozen and Urist seemed to be the only ones in remotely okay spirits. Emphasis on seemed in the former case. Every now and then, Amanda could see her frown, almost glare at the air in front of her, or shake her head. She could have sworn she saw her mouth a curse word or two at this unseen adversary but dismissed it. At least she was trying to cheer people up. Ozen and Urist seemed too occupied with their drinks.
Finally, Destiny finished pouring herself a pint of beer, and sat down in the remaining seat on Amanda’s couch. She waited expectantly for a few seconds.
“Oh, come on guys, chat a little. Only way to raise the spirits. Sure, all that ugliness has gone down, but we’re all friends here, aren’t we?”
“Uh, no!” snorted Steve. “No, we’re really not.”
Everyone fell very quiet out of a cocktail of offence, embarrassment and tentative amusement. Amanda shared a look with the brown-haired hanger-on, and he had to raise a hand to hide the laugh he hastily transformed into a cough. Amanda almost smiled herself, he seemed nice.
“Wow,” nodded Destiny. “Way to bring down an already low mood, Steve.”
Steve stood up, knocking over the glass he’d already finished.
“Well, it’s true,” he said, taking another sip. “That doesn’t mean I don’t like any of you people. I mostly have nothing against you guys - except Kay, who sucks.”
“Bad leader and generally not a great person,” affirmed Jennifer.
“But yeah, Urist, Lucy, Amanda, Shadow had that Dungeons and Enderdragons game with us a while back and that was cool, but that doesn’t mean we’re close as friends can be.”
He took a step forward and gestured to Amanda.
“Like, Amanda, when was the last time we had a real conversation?”
Amanda struggled for a couple of seconds.
“A while ago?” she tried, with another confused look at brown-hair.
“EHHHH! Wrong! Never. It - it never happened. Outside Dungeons and Enderdragons, I’m not sure we’ve ever directly interacted before this point. We’ve just been in a group… at the same time.”
He staggered as he moved back to the centre.
“Or you, Destiny. Like, we hung out a little back after David died, but have we interacted since then? No. I don’t know you people.”
Steve swallowed and snapped his fingers a bunch.
“I had a point, somewhere in all that,” he chuckled, and Ozen joined in. “When I got here, I just wanted to get back home. I think me and Jen both felt that way, didn’t we?” Jennifer nodded semi-reluctantly. “We’d already done the hero shtick, we wanted to get home to our friends and family to enjoy our happily-ever-after and I know we weren’t the only ones in that position. Like Tyron and - that’s your shtick too, Destiny, right?”
Destiny snorted and nodded. Her lips parted reluctantly into a smile.
“Yeah, that’s my shtick.”
“See, I’m right, I’m right so you should listen to me,” Steve laughed, a few people joining him.
“So, now that I have all that back, more or less. Now that Wolfric and my stupid brother are here, and we have Drake down in the stables who is just the cutest little creature, I’m realising that I really haven’t taken the time to get to know you people. And I want to. I should be glad to meet new people, this is… there’s so much difference that’s so interesting and I haven’t been paying attention to that. I’m sorry.”
He squinted around the group and came to rest on the hanger-on.
“Like you, we have never spoken.”
He laughed and stood up. He had a slight limp.
“That’s actually not your fault. I’m Seth, I’m friends with Tyron. I just arrived tonight, and I’m completely lost as to what’s going on.”
He reached out and shook Steve’s hand.
“You see, this is what I’ve been missing out on - a whole new person! Pleased to meet you Seth, I’m Steve!”
Steve swayed a little, beaming and talking far louder than necessary.
“Pleasure to meet you too, Steve.”
“Pleasure. This is so great. Let’s get a round of - what were you drinking the other night, Urist, shots did you call ‘em? Shots?”
“Shots?” asked Destiny with a mischievous grin and fingers pointed at Urist.
“Shots?” asked Urist with a yet more mischievous grin.
“I’m pretty sure someone said ‘shots’,” nodded Rose slyly.
“Then shots they shall have,” affirmed Seth.
“Yes, let’s do it!” cried Steve.
He ran forward and tripped on the rug.
“Lightweight,” said Voidblade in complete monotone.
Amanda broke and started cackling, and soon the laughter spread around the group. And so, they had the round of shots - Amanda wasn’t sure what it was, and it tasted disgusting, but it made her feel just disconnected enough from her emotions to enjoy this. The night became a blur of bonhomie.
Urist stood on the table, leading a chorus of some old dwarven song, sad and sweet. Voidblade and Jennifer had a substantially lower-effort spleef rematch, staggering around the field sluggishly until Steve and Urist belly-flopped on and collapsed the whole thing. Lucy evidently had very little drinking experience but nonetheless was in a splendid mood, partially due to having turned down any drink beyond her third. Rose was dancing gracefully as Ozen tinkered with the record player. Amanda remembered joining the dancing for a while, probably a little less gracefully. Wolfric buried his head in a book, taking any drink given to him. Destiny rushed between the bar and everyone else, taking orders and prescribing a few.
Eventually, Amanda found herself sat on the sofas again, with what might have been her third drink in her hand. The fuzzy feeling had started feeling less numb and more toxic, but she was still having fun.
“Never have I ever…” pondered Seth. “Killed or helped in the process of killing Herobrine.”
He took a drink and so did half the group.
“Hey, you can’t suicide it,” giggled Jennifer.
“I just did.”
“Should I drink?” asked Amanda. “Like, Helix has to do it eventually, by helping him get through this does that count as indirectly helping him kill Herobrine?”
“I don’t know,” said Lucy. “By that logic, because I’m helping you all as an administrator, am I helping kill Herobrine, too?”
Rose added: “If that counts then everyone here needs to drink, even people who have never heard of the guy before coming to Nexus.” She downed her drink without further contemplation.
“Whichever definition means the most people drink is the one I intended,” chuckled Seth before taking another deep gulp.
“Who’s Helix again?” asked Voidblade after already drinking.
“It’s Warnado’s real name,” said Steve.
The enderman nodded and drank once more.
“I’m not gonna lie,” said Ozen after finishing his glass. “I have no clue who either of those people are.”
Wolfric looked up from his book.
“It’s her boyfriend,” he said with a gesture to Amanda. “The little hooded kid.”
“Oh, him,” smiled Ozen. “I love his little, red eyes!”
Amanda grinned but felt a pang of unwanted emotion beneath it. She reached for the glass nearest to her and took a big gulp.
Destiny arrived with a fresh platter of drinks and sat down.
“Thanks for bartending tonight, Destiny,” said Amanda graciously.
Destiny froze up for a second, then began handing the drinks out again.
“No bother, kid,” said Destiny without looking at her. “Anyway, Steve, I’ve been meaning to ask-”
“-Ask away!” Steve proclaimed abruptly, prompting Jennifer to choke on her new drink.
“I meant to ask you, you stole some crystals from the Entity. That’s why you got tangled up in all this?”
“Oh yeah, stupid, dumb crystals. I hate them.”
“We didn’t steal them, though,” corrected Jennifer.
“They just fell from the sky one day and have literally done nothing good ever since.”
Destiny nodded sympathetically.
“Screw the crystals!” She called.
“Screw the crystals!” Steve and Jennifer echoed. Seth joined in a little late and laughed at his own sluggishness.
“You know what we should do,” said Destiny. “We should smash them. It’ll be symbolic and stuff.”
“I love it!” yelled Jennifer. “Steve, we should absolutely do that.”
“I don’t know,” mumbled Steve. “Can’t they like, track the signature? Won’t they find the Shelter?”
“Steve, if they don’t know where we are by now, they’re never going to figure it out,” said Destiny.
“Aye, they do have Claw on their side. He probably told them, even if it took some rememberin’,'' agreed Urist.
Steve nodded and puffed out his cheeks as though swilling a fine wine around his mouth.
“We’re smashing those crystals.”
Amanda whooped supportively.
He pulled out his ender chest and began rummaging through. Finally, his hand stopped stirring around, descended slightly, and then came out with a fist full of luminous, multi-coloured crystals. He scattered them on the table and equipped his sword. Destiny put a hand on his wrist.
“First,” Destiny said. “A toast. Come on. Everyone in for this one. Even you, Lucy. Don’t be shy.”
And then all did so, picking up a drink and preparing to raise it. Looking around at all these people, who had been so miserable just a few hours before, Amanda felt… still a little toxic, but also a burning, intense affection. It felt like a wave rolling through her, rising us to her heart and making it ache with happiness. She wanted to run down to Helix, tell him she loved him and help him feel the same way.
Destiny began to speak.
“Thank you all,” she said. “This is probably the last great night we’ll have until this is all over, so I’m glad we got to share it. To the end of one story and the beginning of another!”
There was a round of cheers, then the drinks were raised like Icarus to the sun. Then, they plummeted down towards open mouths. They all drank deep. All except one.
Wolfric collapsed first.
“Lightweight,” Voidblade repeated. He got slightly fewer laughs than before. Then, he slumped back in his seat.
Amanda and Seth shared a look, a hazy and unfocused but nonetheless urgent look.
Jennifer went next. Then, Ozen. Steve flopped onto the floor. At this point Amanda and Seth both clumsily drew weapons. Seth’s sword slipped between his fingers, and he dropped to his knees, drifting off as he reached out after it.
Amanda heard the thud of Urist going down somewhere to her right, she could no longer focus. Her eyes swung around like dim lanterns which only revealed a snapshot of the world. Lucy strewn out on her side. Rose lying on the ground, blood on her forehead and the corner of her table. Only one person left.
“Destiny,” grunted Amanda. “Why?”
Amanda pointed her axe at Destiny and began to struggle forward. The older girl stood by the table, counting the crystals Steve had laid out. Amanda could hear something scraping on the carpet somewhere to her right but didn’t dare lose focus on Destiny.
“It’s the only way,” said Destiny.
Amanda fell flat on her face, feeling one of her teeth scream out as it connected with the ground. Still, she fought on, turning her face. She saw Destiny scooping up the crystals and putting them in her pocket. Then, she stooped down over Lucy and plucked a key off her belt.
“Hopefully, one day it’ll make sense. Sleep well.”
And with that, she left. Amanda tried to force herself up, to go and tell someone, but she couldn’t do it. It only brought the encroaching darkness further on. But just before she drifted off completely, she heard one last, heavily accented thing:
"Oooh, I'm na lettin' anotha keep go down like this. Na again. Na again..."
Chapter 65: Like Dominoes (Destiny/Shadow/Kay)
She rolled one of the multi-coloured crystals in her palm, feeling its strange pull eb and flow as she did so. She clasped the key between the fingers on her other hand. Destiny couldn’t help but feel this left her vulnerable, but she needed to do something with her hands.
“Feeling nervous?” sneered Freak, who strolled along on her left.
His toothy grin remained unaffected by the light, remaining the same shade of sickly yellow no matter where they went in the hall. She tried to distract herself by focusing on her mental map of the place. The prison was only a few steps away.
“Yeah,” Destiny muttered. “I am. I just drugged half my friends. I’m working with the Tower’s top torturer. And I’m on my way to open Pandora’s box, except instead of all the horrors of the world inside, it’s an attempted child murderer.”
Freak wheezed, bending almost horizontal and digging his taloned fingers into his knees. Destiny stopped and looked back. Just as she was beginning to feel worried, the head shot up and the disgusting smile shot back into plain view.
“You really think I’m the Tower’s top torturer? That means so much to me!”
Destiny groaned and marched off. She had half a mind to take a wrong turn and lead Freak right into the Command Room, let Tyron settle affairs. It certainly felt better than the current plan of letting Kay loose and hoping he caused enough of a distraction to cover their escape. But the right thing to do never feels right, does it? Anyway, she couldn’t complain, this was her idea.
Despite her attempt to abandon him, Freak phased through a wall in front of her.
“Oh, come on, Destiny!” he laughed. “Isn’t that the sort of connection you’ve been looking for all evening? A last meaningful conversation with a friend?”
Destiny quickened her steps.
“Well, how did that go? They explicitly told you they weren’t your friend, and you spent the rest of the night playing waitress.”
Her footsteps became more powerful, more violent. Much harder and she’d have worried about breaking the clay tiles on the floor.
“Don’t get me wrong, it looks like they had a good night, and you played a key part in enabling it. But is that really enough to make them your friends? To make them willing to forgive you for what you’re about to do?”
Destiny realised she had started running. Her ponytail trailed behind her, and Freak kept perfect pace with it.
“I hate to say it, Destiny, I’m the best friend you’ve got left.”
“Shut up, Freak!”
She stopped, slid on the tiles and whirled around. Her teeth were bared like fangs, matching his horrid grin. She had some choice words for this phantom piece of-
An overwhelming force slammed her into the wall. Her spine straightened against the hard stone, bending all the air out of her, and she felt the key slip from her hand. In its place she rapidly summoned an icicle to throw at her assailant. Before her, a shower of purple particles rose from the floor, and Shadow appeared. Destiny realised the icicle might not be as effective as she’d hoped, and her hopes had not been high to begin with.
“Oh, hey, Shadow, how’s it hanging?” Destiny asked without even a hint of emotion.
“Where do you think you’re going, Destiny?”
Destiny fought the urge to shoot a look at Freak, who she hoped wouldn’t be noticed.
“Just having my evening jog. Are you going to put me down anytime soon so I can continue it?”
Shadow mock-quizzically tilted her head. “Interesting evening routine. Drugging everyone, then some cardio. Luckily for you, you used a sedative stolen from my brother’s supply so nobody’s going to end up dying from an overdose. And unluckily for you, my brother didn’t know about dwarves and their resilience when he made it. Poor Urist looked like he was having war flashbacks.”
Destiny felt her stomach twist. Both from realising someone had gotten away - she’d thought she’d seen Urist drag himself across the carpet but had dismissed it as paranoia - and from sympathy for her victims. But there was a task to be accomplished. She cast her eyes up and down the hall, only allowing them to rest on Freak for a split-second to avert suspicion. She then began to wrestle against the invisible bonds pinning her to the wall.
“Sorry, there wasn’t enough to go around. I’ll fetch extra next time.”
She threw the crystal past Shadow’s head, missing on purpose.
“I guess I’m just a bit of a screw up,” Destiny smiled wryly, making sure to grunt with effort. “I never could finish the job.”
She hoped Freak would catch her drift. Take the crystal and do what he could. Bring this to an end. Save them all. He was an unlikely hero, but- wait, what was he doing?!
Freak had become fully visible, grinning unimpeded. Destiny felt her brain stop. Was Freak sticking his neck out for her?
“I’m behind all this. How about you let her go and we talk this out like adults. I assure you, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Shadow did not respond at first. She just turned her head slowly, stared Freak down, then slowly turned it back to Destiny.
Suddenly, Destiny felt a sudden pressure on her mind, as though her thoughts were drifting towards a single point. She tried to resist it, repressing the details of her and Freak’s plan as best she could, but some things she couldn’t stop thinking about: the plan to kill the Entity; why she needed the crystals; the grey, seething nothing at the end of everything.
She saw Shadow’s skin become a shade darker than dark. Her shadow began to warp. Destiny felt that fight-or-flight instinct rise to the surface again - a reaction triggered by the gut feeling that something was irredeemably wrong about Shadow’s nature. She readied for the unknowable mage to destroy her in a sudden blast of heat, or to do whatever she did to the Book, but then her form normalised.
A deep sigh came from Shadow. “Fine then. I’ve seen enough. Go do what you set out to do, as long as it can kill the Entity, it is the only option.” She turned to Freak. “I do not like you being involved in this at all, but evidently you know the outcome of what the Entity intends.”
Destiny felt herself being slowly lowered to the ground. Shadow spoke again, more to herself this time: “This either dooms or saves us all, one way or another. I know my part.”
Destiny dropped suddenly and landed on her knees. She eyed the key and looked at Freak. The phantom laughed.
“You know your part, do you? Oh, that’s reassuring. What are we now, Entropy?”
Shadow turned away from Destiny and looked at Freak with an unreadable expression.
Freak said: “You do realise you’re not the first, right? You’re the first to cause it a problem in a while, but other Embodiments have come before. If my plan succeeds, they’ll come after.”
Destiny’s mind flailed. Did Shadow know about the plan to release Kay? Was this an approval? Or had she managed to keep that part submerged? She pulled herself up, grabbed the key and ran.
She ran continuously until she reached the prison. The guard saw her running like a thing possessed and yelled ‘Halt!’ She didn’t. He drew his sword. Destiny froze him solid.
Down the stairs she ran, the razor-sharp icicle held before her like a lantern. She nearly tripped and broke her neck at least three times. And, after a moment’s breath, she sprinted down between the empty cells, past the glass and iron, and the signs of names that would never have been caught dead here - that she never would have let get here alive - until finally she skidded to a halt in front of the cell she needed.
The Shelter’s former Commander sat in the corner of his rough-hewn cell, his fringe like a curtain over his face, and his knees hugged to his chest.
“Kay,” she muttered. “Rise and shine. You’re needed.”
His head slowly lifted, then jerked suddenly into life as he heard the click of the lock. He leapt to his feet but remained pressed against the wall. His green eyes were bloodshot.
“Destiny… what are you doing?”
“I’m letting you go.”
She pulled the door open and gestured for him to come out. He nodded and stepped tremulously forward.
“Might I ask why?”
“I need you to kick up a fuss. Start a riot. Win a war. Try and kill another kid. I don’t care. Just make sure no one notices me leaving.”
Kay’s lips pressed tightly together. He became less shaky - being pissed off seemed to steady him. Destiny wished she could have said that was deliberate.
“I’m still waiting on a why, Destiny.”
“I’m going to kill the Entity.”
Kay’s face flattened for a second, all emotions disappearing from it, and then suddenly a desperation crept back in.
“Then, I’m coming with you.”
Destiny started to walk away.
“You’re not. Freak and I will barely be able to sneak past security as is. I’m only useful because I’m a magic-user.”
He grabbed her shoulder and forced her to lock eyes with him.
“I need to make things right, Destiny. Please.”
Destiny brushed his hand off and gave him a glare that could melt steel.
“Okay, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you Kay, I put a good amount of faith in you as a leader and look what you went and did with that. Beyond how screwed up that stuff with Helix was - which it was - it shows you are just the stupidest, least useful asshole on the planet - any planet. You want to restore my faith in your abilities? Be a good diversion, get off my back.”
He began to tear up. She rolled her eyes. He sucked in a lot of air and recomposed himself. In his poshest accent:
“Very well, I’ll be the best damn diversion you’ve ever seen. I know just what will get their attention.”
He grabbed Destiny by the wrist and dragged her back to the glass cell opposite his own.
“I just need you to open this cell for me.”
She looked inside and saw a set of grey scales.
“Nope,” she shook her head. “Not doing that.”
“Trust me, I need him.”
He gave her a look that burned with desperation yes, but also an ambition that almost recaptured the confidence he’d displayed back when she voted for him all those weeks ago.
She blasted the window with fire until the seal broke, and the glass cracked. She stopped, then began to march away. The enderman sat on his bed, looking confused.
“Rest is up to you.”
Kay laughed to himself, nodding furiously.
“It’s all I need. Good luck.”
She heard glass shatter as Kay kicked in the window.
Then, she heard him backing away, crunching across the glass. And the pad of the enderman walking across the carpet of his cell. Then, another sound of crunching. She cast a glance back. The enderman towered over him, and she wondered if this was all a waste of effort. Then, he shot one of his mad, desperate grins.
“Truce?” he asked.
“Depends. What are your terms?” asked Silver.
Destiny was out of sight, Freak was still very much in front of Shadow.
He repeated his question: “So, what are we now, Entropy?”
Shadow thought for a moment, then replied: “Yes, but that’s not the point. I’m not just some sentient cosmic force. As opposed to the Entity, I was a person before I became what I am. I am a sister who values her brother above all else because of the lengths he went to make sure I could live my life free.”
“That’s a narrow definition of personhood,” Freak grinned. “It has feelings, you know? It’s good at hiding them, but they exist. It’s afraid. Afraid of you, specifically. That was a shock. But above all, before all this, it was lonely. It was a puddle of Order, unable to affect anything, just waiting for creation to come within its reach. And when it finally got near enough, it grabbed hold of everything, and vowed never to let it go.”
He began to circle Shadow.
“I’ve watched you, I’ve listened to the way they talk about you. You’re alone, too. Are you and the Entity really that different?”
“I’m not about to lay down the entire inner workings of my mind to a known manipulator.”
Shadow thought back on her first confrontation with the Entity, back at the blood-soaked battlefield, then to her second. She had seen the Entity’s fear in the way it stepped back after realizing it couldn’t absorb her. Felt it resonate through spacetime wherever their areas of influence intersected.
She added: “However, I will answer your question. The difference lies in the fact that while the Entity is motivated by its desire to grow and possess more, I am motivated by my desire to not lose someone specific. One of those motivations does not involve the destruction of existence if left undisturbed.”
Freak cackled. He stepped into a wall and out of sight.
“Well, that’s your stance. Of course, I’m not going to question your motives…”
Shadow looked around. Still no sign of him. He seemed to have almost completely dropped from reality, slipped into the dreamscape.
“But I would like to see them.”
Freak lurched out of the wall, teeth like fangs and eyes like yellow, jaundiced pits. And stretched before was its talon, aimed right between her eyes. Then it stopped, just above the skin.
Shadow felt the phantom probe at her mind, very clumsily since her mental workings were radically different from what Freak was used to.
“No reaction?” asked the Phantom.
He backed away.
“Well, aren’t you tough? Or you maybe knew that would never work. That I’d die if I did it. Again, same as the Entity. It’d suck me in. You’d unravel me.”
He clasped his hands together behind his back and started to strut around.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you? So enlightened and wise. All-seeing, whether you like it or not.”
Shadow shook her head. She had to give it to Freak, he was good at what he was doing. Just wrong on one account.
“No, not really. You might have been right a year ago, before all this happened but you happened to catch me at the lowest point of my confidence. Congratulations, I guess. The issue with being so damn powerful is that there is so much more room to screw up, and I’ve done plenty of that. Tell me Freak, are you done? Or will you keep going until you find something that scares me, it’s just what you do, right?”
“You see, Shadow, that’s what I’m talking about. You see everything. Heck, you even saw Destiny’s mind. Kicked your way right through the wall. Saw my whole plan. Tell me, what did you learn about it? What does it tell you about me?”
Destiny’s mind… she had been remarkably resilient, but then Shadow hadn’t put on any pressure once she realized she was going after the Entity. Steal a crystal, cause a distraction, go to the Tower with Freak, jam the crystal into the spatial anomaly in the Entity’s throne room, charge it with magic and hope for the best. A desperate plan, but no less desperate than what Fire had done. She told Freak as much.
“Yep, but I always have a distraction, too. Confuse the enemy response, and if you do it well enough, all that confusion turns into a nice healthy dose of fear to glut upon. A fixture of every plan I’ve ever had. But this time I didn’t choose the distraction - I wish I had, it was a great idea. Did you see what Destiny cooked up?”
While Freak talked, Shadow expanded her vision beyond what she was forced to see. When she realized what had happened there was a moment of clarity. Freak would get the fear he wanted, she wished he was capable of choking on it. Then the next moment the expected fear hit Shadow hard. Kay was free and currently in the portal room. She knew what he was about to do.
“Oh, that’s good. That’s delectable!” howled Freak.
Freak threw his arms wide and fell back into the floor.
Without even responding, Shadow teleported to the portal room, gathering energy for her disintegration ray at the same time. Just as she materialized, Kay was already through the portal, which promptly collapsed in on itself.
Shadow stopped, her arm fell to her side and the energy she had gathered dissipated back into the environment. She felt empty, emptier than should be possible. It was only a matter of time now.
I swear I told Silver to leave as many alive as possible. Unfortunately, he didn’t like me very much. I managed to grab one researcher and throw him in the direction of the door, and he got out. Six others died. The grey enderman teleported around, tearing away with his talons, spraying blood across controls and floors. To his credit, several of them were armed guards. I can’t quite remember how many. None of my red-scarfed guardians - some confused part of me felt it would have been better if a few of them died instead of the rank-and-file.
But I also didn’t object, not just because Silver wouldn’t have listened, but because Destiny needed her distraction. I sauntered purposefully up to the controls next to the portal and began to tamper with controls. I closed my eyes and thought back to the documents we recovered from the Tower facility.
We had stopped by the arms lock-up after working out the terms. I had grabbed my sword and the nearest set of diamond armour, Silver took a battered obsidian chestplate, teleported here and then this scuffle began.
I input the location code as the fighting continued. The portal fired up. The blue orb appeared at the center, and then spread out to fill the whole frame. I looked upon what I had enabled and was proud of this at least.
I heard the last sword clatter. A dying man choking. The sound of warping. Ender particles floating through the air from behind me. I felt the talons about my throat.
“Give me a reason not to go through with this,” growled Silver.
I tried to crack my neck, but he tightened his grip. I felt a stab of pain as the skin ripped and a drop of blood ran down my Adam’s apple. I listened for my pounding heart, but it was slow, lethargic. I briefly wondered if I should antagonise him. But no, too many people had died for that to be the noble path forward.
“Check the console,” I said.
My voice was a dry croak.
Silver threw me against a nearly railing. Before checking the console, he whirled around with talons ready, as though he expected me to make a move. Something like disappointment flowed over the Endling’s face. He returned to the machine and froze up.
“Is this…” he trailed off.
“Yes, your home.”
I wondered about that myself. I closed my eyes, lowered my head, and searched for the truth.
“I took eleven years of your life. A few days ago, I would not have cared. But I crossed a line with that Book business. It’s about time I started setting some of my mistakes right.”
Silver nodded, though I could have sworn I saw him roll his eyes.
“Don’t follow me through,” he concluded. “They’ll shred you.”
Silver straightened his breastplate and began to walk towards the portal.
“Wait,” I said very suddenly, not quite certain of my goal.
The Endling glanced back. He said nothing.
“Do I die in the end? Am I dead where you and Astro come from?”
I wish I could tell you why I asked that. I’ve pondered that myself. The best explanation I can offer is that, in times of great strife, few things are on a man’s mind more than the length of his life, and what he leaves behind. But there was something in the way Astro had looked at me. Something about the way he spoke about me. Something very final. As though what I did now was the final verdict on who I was. I rather think asking was a mistake, though.
“Yes,” Silver nodded. “I was there.”
“Do I die well?”
“You seemed to think so.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but then decided against it. I closed my jaws. Bit down on my fate. I waved my hand, and Silver left. The blue portal slammed closed. I allowed myself a few seconds, then heard footsteps. I went to the console. My duty was not yet fulfilled.
I closed my eyes, remembered a set of coordinates I had seen and known I would one day need. Even before I became leader, before all this Claw business, before we even knew what the Entity’s plan was, I saw that coordinate and locked it in. My fingers ran gracefully over the keys, then over to a portable scanner. The portal reopened. It would close the second I used it, then scramble the coordinates to cover my tracks. I stepped up to the plate.
I heard a warping noise. Shadow stood at the doorway, a spell in hand, ready to kill. I stepped through, and all became white tunnels and snapshots of creations that were, that could have been, that should have come to pass, and then all that vanished.
I stood in a field on a hill. Behind me, sheep graze, crops are planted, and the land slopes up slowly until it bleeds into a mountain. Before me, fields flowed down until they broke against a road populated by restless streaks of colour. And the road led to a city - a city large enough to rival Mojang.
I checked the scanner. A warning flashed on screen: “Unknown spatial topology.” Several versions of the same signal flickered. Several blinked away in the city. One, however, was closer. I looked in that direction, saw trees and foothills. It calls to me, and only slightly because the streaks of colour screaming down the roads make me feel dizzy.
This was Fire’s world. Claw’s only weak point. I went there to kill him. Because I had to.
I told myself that, even if Destiny succeeded in killing the Entity, that there was no guarantee Claw would go away. He had broken out before, he would break out again. And without the Book I stood less than no chance against him. Bar Rose, no one did. He was too strong, too crafty. He wouldn’t be beaten the same way twice. That beast had to die. So, I would hit him where he was mortal: in his human body, in his ‘real world’.
If I could do that, I could come back from this. I could still be the hero people had once told me I was. The great warrior I always wanted to be.
Every part of me tensed as a cold wind tried to topple me. My eyes begin to water. My hand fumbled around in my pocket, producing Hel- producing my goggles. I ran a thumb over the cracked glass, then put them on. I pulled my hood up, glanced at the scanner once, and set out for foothills and trees.
There were no clouds. The stars seemed further away than normal. Or maybe just dimmer. Either way, it left the ground darker than she’d ever seen it. Every step felt like a step in the wrong direction, and she couldn’t stop stumbling. She had made this path so many times, why tonight? Was this self-sabotage? Probably.
Eventually, she got sick of stumbling around, and lit a fire in her palm. She caught a glimpse of the Sovereign flag and extinguished it. As she walked between the tents and propaganda and corpses, she remembered that she’d once vowed to destroy all these things - to break from her past for good. That seemed like an empty gesture, now.
The second she crested the hill, Anya approached her with a look of sympathy and pain. Destiny could make out all her features - she was a ghost after all - but this discrepancy had always hurt her head. She shot out some fireballs to light the torches and see her past self normally. Unfortunately, it revealed a giggling Freak sitting in the portal frame.
“You should have seen the look on Shadow’s face when she realised your little distraction technique.” His giggles became howls. “It was so fearful.”
“Move,” she grunted.
The phantom only just lurched out of the way before her fireball hit the frame. The portal flashed into life. Anya stood beside her. They wasted no time waiting for Freak to get up and returned to their homeworld.
They trekked for a long time, following Anya. She could go where she liked in Minera, so she’d scouted out the route to the other portal. The faster they got there, the more time the others had to stop the machine. Also made sure there was more of a gap to close if the others tried to catch up to her.
She wondered what Fristad would have thought. Would he have understood how important working with Freak was? Probably not, but somehow, she was sure he would have helped out in his own way. Gathered provisions. Caused a distraction. Made it so she didn’t have to release Kay. That would have been nice. Or maybe he would have just told the others.
She kept thinking about what Steve had said, about how none of them knew each other, not really. And to be fair, she hadn’t known that much about Fristad. She knew he was from Veridale, that he had been under the Book’s control, that he had friends called Airlass and Jonas… And that was about where it ended. But they’d shared emotions, they’d both felt lost at the end of a chapter in their lives, and that had been enough to care about him.
Steve could go suck an egg, she cared about all of them. Steve included.
They came across the portal, finally. It remained as she remembered it. Something dark, red and solid as the base, and a black, angry gel oozing around in the centre. Freak muttered something about checking the coast was clear, and hopped in. And Destiny stood there, wondering how much time she had.
She briefly wondered why this portal was different from the other one, but it really wasn’t that important. Probably just an older model.
So, she turned her attention to something much better. She turned away from the portal and strode down the coastline. Anya followed. She passed the crafting table beneath the tree, running her fingers across the scratches, and continued until she came to the boat that had taken her to this place originally. She reached down and examined the name etched into the side.
“He called it the ‘Bright Destiny’,” she mumbled with a smile. “I thought it was the worst damn name he could have come up with, but he was in such a good mood. David always was cheesy.”
“Carter wasn’t much different,” said Anya. “Guess some things don’t change no matter how many times you die.”
Then, they were quiet for a while. She didn’t know if it was the night air or if she’d just lost her nerve, but Destiny started to shake.
“You don’t have to go through with this,” said Anya.
Destiny laughed nervously.
“Don’t tell me you’re going soft, now?”
“I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m saying it’s your choice.”
Destiny nodded, and she thought very hard about what she wanted. But it was all his face. His laugh. His smile. The time they had. The time they wasted not acknowledging what they were. It was all she could think about.
The greater good would only ever be a runner-up to what she had lost and wanted so desperately to regain. But, given the circumstances, that was the best she could do. Besides, being a good person was rewarding in its own way… or something.
“Come on!” called Freak with irritation. “We’re clear but not for long.”
Destiny nodded and rolled her eyes. A strange sort of serenity washed over her like a soothing balm. She was a hero, this was just what she did. She gave Anya her best approximation of a hug and approached the portal.
“Do you think this will work?” she asked Freak.
“I’ll level with you, it’s a crapshoot.”
She shrugged and stepped forward to fulfil her role. No matter the cost.
Chapter 66: Final Steps (Claw)
The atmosphere in the Tower had changed over the last few days. The machine was almost complete, the Entity’s plan was palpably close to coming to fruition. And everybody felt it. Command and Control held one full assembly meeting after the other, trying to make sure that absolutely everything went as it should.
Both the Science and Magic divisions worked overtime on putting those last finishing touches on the machine and quadruple-checking that nothing would go wrong once the device powered up.
Over the course of the last week all off-world trade had ceased and portals connecting to other worlds had gone dark. All resources were consolidated in the Tower and the staff from Logistics worked hard on categorizing and storing whatever came.
Claw was naturally not spared from all this. He’d spent countless hours with the Ender working on defense plans and drilling the troops. A final attack by the rebels was not just considered, it was absolutely expected.
Claw had heard a variety of things from different employees, everyone had different expectations of what would happen once the Entity flipped that fateful switch that had been installed in its throne room. The switch that would activate the machine and collapse all worlds into Nexus. Some fully bought into the prospects of prosperity brought on by this grand convergence, others were skeptical but optimistic. A select few were fearful, but they hid it well. Most of these did not know why exactly they felt the fear that they felt, all save for one.
Dr. Veronica Mercury had figured it all out, she knew the fate of the world and everything living in it. Claw had realized this the moment he had seen her during one of his frequent visits to her private laboratory. It was subtle, her posture was a little less upright, her tone of voice was a little flatter, her eyes stared a little further. She knew and she could do nothing about it. She was not even able to sabotage the machine, the Entity kept a sizable portion of its attention firmly focused on the machine, so much attention that conversations it held had become noticeably sluggish.
Claw could of course have told the Entity about the discovery made by their head of Science, but in reality, why should he? At this point her expertise was not required for the machine to work, all it would do is shorten her existence as an individual by a few days. If it wasn’t obvious at this point, Claw knew as well. He’d figured it out at some point before the rebels’ raid on the portal facility. He’d gone and confirmed it with the Entity even.
Claw’s own role in all this didn’t change. If the Entity succeeded, he’d be assimilated, if the Entity failed, he’d return to his previous prison. All-in-all the outcomes were the same, in a way Claw was glad he got to exist as his own person at all. However, as a rare exception to his usual attitude, Claw felt genuinely bad for Dr. Mercury, finding out all on her own with something to lose.
Putting the thoughts of impending doom aside, Claw turned to other matters. Kay had developed nicely, just like Glibby said he would. Rumors of this “King in Ash” that was now leading the rebels had quickly spread to the Tower as well. Him burning down that warehouse was just perfect, it exceeded Claw’s expectations of how quickly he would deteriorate. However, the fact that so far there hadn’t been a single defection from the rebels spoke volumes about their desperation, they clung to hope even when serving under a leader such as Kay.
While deep in thought, Claw had found himself wandering back to the hallway that contained his private chambers, his and those of the other direct subordinates of the Entity. He thought about each as he passed the doors.
From what Claw knew, Glibby had taken his advice to heart and had spent considerable time reading and consulting demonologists. With any luck he’d actually find some sort of weakness he could use. Naturally using it was a different question because at this point, after his repeated losses, the Ape was apprehensive about his next confrontation with Helix. Of course, he hid it under his usual bravado so few people in the Tower knew the truth.
Freak had been acting oddly as of late, more so than usual. Maybe he felt something off with the Entity’s plan. Among everyone in the Tower, Freak would be the most likely to have found out. For now, the phantom hadn’t done anything that could give Claw certainty.
Finally Claw arrived at the Ender’s room. His wandering had not been random, but with purpose. There were still a few things he had to discuss with her, and they could not wait.
He knocked on her door exactly three times. It didn’t take long for her to answer. The Ender was still in uniform, wearing her signature obsidian armor with the purple gems. That was to say, the Ender was never out of uniform. It was a common practice for endfolk to wear armor at all times, even while they slept.
The Ender looked at Claw with a neutral expression. “This is about those defense plans, isn’t it?”
Claw nodded. “Mind if I come in, or should we go to an office?”
The Ender hesitated for a solid three seconds, then gestured for Claw to enter the room. “I had a feeling you’d come by, so I took the plans with me.”
Claw had been to the Ender’s private chambers only once before, so he took another look around the room. It looked similar to his in basic structure but there were significant differences. The living room looked like her office, a table, two chairs, a shelf with books and various other things on it. However, one corner of the room was dominated by a bulky device, a dehumidifier. Judging by the absolutely arid air, it worked as intended.
He’d never seen the bedroom, but he assumed that it couldn’t be too different from his own. There was one striking difference, however. Where Claw’s chambers had a door to a bathroom, the Ender’s simply had an opening. Behind this opening Claw could see the winding and branching vines of a chorus plant. The Ender had told him about an ancient custom that leaders would take care of one, parallels between keeping the plant healthy without it taking over the entire room, and leading an army or nation were easy to draw. However, it turned out that the Ender didn’t care much for that tradition for its intended purpose, she simply liked gardening as a counterbalance to her day-to-day duties.
Claw sat down at the table, the plans were already rolled out and pinned down.
He began: “So, we’ve got most scenarios down and accounted for. But we’ve still got insufficient coverage for the really bad outcomes. Say the rebels somehow breach the main gate and all of our external infrastructure is crippled or destroyed.”
The Ender responded: “It’s hallway combat at that point, our mages and marksmen should have that front covered. They can only push in so quickly and between them and the bedrock golems guarding the machine, there should be enough time for the machine to activate.”
Claw quickly glanced over the possible choke points on the blueprints, then used a marker to highlight several of them. “Those should be our best bet then, we need to make sure our soldiers and civilian staff know this. If they breach that far the civilians will inevitably come under attack.”
“I’ll have Issa take care of distributing the information, Dimensions has a lot of free capacity now that we’ve cut the portals.”
Claw looked up and directly at his colleague. “Speaking of portals, we can’t rule out that the rebels are in possession of functional portal technology from their raid.”
The Ender continued his train of thought: “Which means they’ll probably have stocked up on forces and resources by now. We should expect not just raw numbers but elite troops as well, if some of these people were able to contact their home worlds, they are bound to have rallied professional soldiers in some capacity. Or worse, heroes.”
Claw asked: “Any worlds in particular?”
The Ender leaned back in her chair, thinking the question over.
She replied: “I will have to ask Issa on that too, the only one that comes to mind is the world where Kay hails from. Though I doubt they’d be inclined to help him if what Glibby told you is any indication.”
Kay’s world was definitely a possibility, especially considering it was one of the few where Herobrine still lived and wasn’t an unhinged killer. One more world came to Claw’s mind, his own, or rather that of the other one. But that one would remain a non-issue since the energy required to open an invasion-sized portal that far would exceed even the capabilities of the rebels’ Void mage. Nobody short of the Entity had that much energy at their command.
“Tell Issa to go over the dossiers of known rebels, as well as any reports about nearby worlds we never established portals to. In fact, we should ask her right now to get going. One of her telepaths should be listening out.”
Claw took it upon himself to get the attention of the telepath. If Claw recalled correctly, it was the same one that had told him about his first Command and Control meeting. All he had to do was concentrate on a specific concept. For this specific telepath Claw had to think about weaving a basket while submerged in sea water and wearing a second basket for a hat. The concepts were chosen so it would be nearly impossible for them to be thought of unintentionally.
Seconds later Claw heard the voice of the little girl again. “Hello Claw.”
Claw replied: “Heather, we need you to relay some information to Issa for us.”
Claw had made a point of learning the names of everyone he interacted with, he found that people were a lot easier to work with if you knew their name. The voice of the other one’s memory had told him it was about forming a personal connection and Claw had not found any issues with that.
Heather asked: “Is it confidential?”
Claw transmitted the mental equivalent of shaking his head.
Heather told Claw to wait while she looked for Issa. In the meantime, Claw thought over some additional worst-case scenarios with the Ender until the voice of the telepath appeared in his mind again.
Claw took care to slowly transmit the information, telepathy was much faster than speech and going too fast risked information getting lost in the telepath’s short-term memory. Once he was done, he waited for an acknowledgement.
Heather transmitted: “Issa says she’ll have it done as soon as possible, you can expect a full report within four hours.”
“Thank you, Heather.” Claw replied, moments later the connection was closed.
He turned to the Ender. “Four hours and we’ll have our threat breakdown. Plenty of time to finalize the regular defense plan. We’ll do a formal worst-case one once the report is in.”
The Ender nodded. “Let us get to it then, much to be done.”
Aug 15, 2021Posted in: Literature
Arc 5 Crisis (Cont.)
Chapter 57: Bloodline (Warnado)
It was the day he was due to meet demon-grandpa, or demon-grandma, or whatever it was. Warnado kept almost turning back but managed to grit his teeth and push through each time, remembering that he had Shadow looking out for him, and that he needed this power boost to be useful here or back home. Still, demons were freaky, and he didn’t like the way they tended to take control away from him.
Eventually, this two-steps-forward-one-step-back pace managed to take him right to Shadow’s door.
He knocked. He waited. He wondered if he should just open the door. Knocked again. Looked up and down the hallway. Opened the door.
On the other side he saw a rectangular shape, the same black-beyond-black colour Shadow turned when she entered her void-state. Warnado grimaced as he remembered how looking at her had filled him with fear, and how it had paralysed her coven into useless awe. Suddenly, he wondered if this was such a good idea. Maybe Kay was right that she was dangerous.
Then, he remembered that literally everyone in the Shelter was dangerous and it didn’t seem that good of an argument. Kay was taking advice from a paperback sociopath and his bodyguard was a human blender. Besides, he remembered that Amanda had told him to deliver a message to Shadow, so he also remembered how cruddy he’d felt when he realised the bandits had taken Amanda and killed the whole village he’d been trying to protect, and so he finally remembered exactly why he was doing this.
He stepped through.
He stood in a pitch-black space, stretching miles ahead of him - well, near as he could tell. The only thing there was what he presumed to be the ritual site. It comprised a big circle of rough-hewn stones which looked embedded into the darkness as though it were soil. Around the edges stood tall, imposing torches on iron stands. And off to the right were a series of chests filled with demonology supplies - cases of special chalk, supplies to make that chalk, charts outlining and explaining different patterns, compendiums of runes and known demons and so much else.
Shadow stood over one of these chests, searching for a specific piece of chalk. He couldn’t see her face behind her white hair. The only thing he could be sure of was that she looked ever-so-slightly distorted, and that he felt an echo of that fear from the raid. She was partly void-stated.
“Hey, Shadow, I like the setup. Very witchy. Totally on-brand,” he said with a thumbs-up.
He wished he had some clever line, but he didn’t. He hoped this played well. He forced a smile.
He leapt forward and turned around, clutching one hand to his heart and raising the other in a futile ‘stop’ gesture. Then, he saw his assailant, and both hands dropped. He bunched up his left cheek to show his disappointment.
“By Light, you are such a wuss, Helix,” laughed Amanda.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. How about I just jump out of an endless black void at you and we see how calm you are.”
“Sure, try it, I’ll kick your butt.”
She pushed him playfully.
“Well, obviously you won’t be scared now that you know I’m going to do it,” he sulked.
“You are such a baby!”
She hugged him and he snorted with laughter.
“So, why are you here?” He asked. “You told me to carry a message to...”
He cast a sidelong glance at his mentor, then raised his eyebrows emphatically at Amanda.
“Shadow called me here for emotional support, yours and hers too probably. Besides, great opportunity for me to meet your family! Haha!” She lowered her voice, though obviously Shadow could probably still hear her. “And, no, uh… The black void of nothing kind of put me off.”
Warnado turned to Shadow, who was still brushing her fingers across different sticks of chalk, meticulous as a surgeon.
“So, uh, how're you feeling?” he called a little louder.
Shadow replied: “Generally not good. My tremors from before have gotten worse, I can’t even use my hands, partially going into my void state restores my control but that is obviously no permanent solution. I couldn’t turn off my passive senses before, now I even hear thoughts of those around me. I’m actively suppressing it for you two but in larger crowds it becomes impossible.” she paused. “I can handle one more confrontation with the Entity, maybe two, then I’ll probably lose myself to my true nature.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Warnado stupidly.
Amanda elbowed him.
“Actually, Amanda and I, we got a message last night. Amanda mostly, I heard about it the next day. From her of course.” He looked back and Amanda gestured impatiently for him to her up. “The Lady of Dreams showed up, told Amanda she’d just been inside Claw’s dream.”
He craned his neck and looked for Shadow’s face. She didn’t seem to be slipping into her void-state any further, but he wanted to know how she was reacting.
“She says Fire - that Peter’s okay in there. She thinks,” he smiled a little as he said it.
He’d tried not to think about it too much, but he did miss the big scaly guy. He could be a little distant, but he was kind. And Kay might still have been sore about that drinking contest, but Warnado thought that was just the funniest thing.
“And she seemed pretty cautious about saying anything like that,” tuned in Amanda. “She sounded like she really did her best to make sure he’s okay. Trust me, I could tell.”
Warnado suddenly found Amanda’s hand wrapped around his. He didn’t know why but he wasn’t complaining.
Shadow’s posture visibly relaxed and a slight smile crept up on her face.
“Peter really couldn’t have wished for a better phantom. She came into existence because of something terrible he endured, did you know that? Just manifested, only knowing he needed help. She helped him with his trauma, he helped her understand humans and emotions in turn. It’s… kind of cute actually. Thanks for telling me, it helps a lot knowing he’s at least not suffering.”
Warnado felt relief wash over him, then remembered why they were there and felt nervous again. So, before he tried to leave, he forced himself to say, probably a little too quickly and loudly.
“So, haha, demon ancestor day already! How about that? The time just flies by. I’ve been just so hyped up for this, let’s get right into it - unless of course you’re busy. You look busy! I’ll go, great talking - namaste!”
He reached for the portal he had been subconsciously backing towards and found nothing. She was smiling wryly at him.
“Oh, so this is just a hostage situation now? I have rights, you know! In the constitution or whatever...” Warnado trailed off. “I don’t know what a constitution is.”
Amanda wrapped an arm around his shoulder and led him towards the ritual circle. She gestured to Shadow to begin outlining the curriculum for the day.
Shadow said: “I’m sorry for closing the door on you, Warnado, but you have said it yourself that you want to do this. You need to push through the instinctive aversion. I’ve already looked through my books to try to identify demons that could be your ancestor. The traits we have to go off are your horns, your natural affinity for magic and trickery and your alignment with flames. I have a list of demons that could fit this description but it’s too long to go through them all. So first we’ll summon a few other demons, ones that may know which of the candidates actually have mortal offspring.”
Warnado breathed deeply.
“Okay, we’re going for the town gossips, sounds harmless enough. Who’s first?”
Shadow began drawing on the rock with a reddish-green chalk. First, she made multiple concentric circles, connected them with both straight and curved lines. Along these lines she started drawing the runes, Warnado saw their meaning flash in his mind when he looked at one. The runes easily outnumbered those she had drawn back during their first summoning, when they summoned the blacksmith demon. By now Warnado knew enough about demonology to see that Shadow was drawing a reusable ritual, one that included constraints that covered every possible type of demon. There was just one rune Warnado couldn’t understand, no matter how hard he squinted at it.
He pointed at it. “I can’t read that one, what does it mean?”
Shadow spoke as she continued drawing: “For one it means your ancestor is not an incubus or succubus, if it were you could read the rune. As for its meaning, it roughly means ‘be summoned with some damn clothes on’, it mainly concerns our ‘gossips’. They and their own offspring are usually very aware of other demon bloodlines.”
“Oh, cool. So, uh, what do you need me to do again?”
“At this point your grasp on the demonic language should be enough that I don’t need to provide you with a reference sheet. You will need to take down your obfuscation spell and tell them you are looking for your ancestor, supply them with anything that could help, anything you know about your father. As long as you don’t deliberately insult them you should be fine.”
Warnado shifted his eyes about the pocket dimension and realised this was probably why she’d called Amanda. Amanda was the only person he ever intentionally took that down for - that said, Shadow had probably caught a few glimpses recently, whether either of them had wanted her to or not.
He frowned a little and took down his charm, though the hood stayed up. His horns just about showed, but they were still covered. Amanda squeezed his shoulder supportively.
“Okay, call them up. I only want to look stupid for so long.”
“And the glowing red eyes aren’t stupid? Don’t make you look like an edgy twelve-year-old at all?” teased Amanda.
“Hey! I’m thirteen. I still have two more years until it starts getting really lame.”
He was playing along but they would absolutely not get lame. The red-eyed hellbeast look would never go out of style.
Amanda then seemingly realized that Shadow had similarly glowing red eyes.
“They really suit you, though,” she beamed apologetically. “And Fire.”
Warnado raised a hand to stifle laughter and Shadow rolled her eyes.
Shadow raised her arms towards the summoning circle. “One good thing about my instability is that my magical energy is practically boundless. Let’s get started.”
Her runes lit up more brightly than usually, distorted in the blackness of her void-touched skin. Energy streamed into the circle and Warnado felt the ritual’s call, the demon’s name resonating through him. Moments later the innermost circle was filled with a thick, purple mist. As the mist cleared, a figure emerged.
What stood in the clearing mist was a tall woman whose red hair was shaved at the sides. She stood with her hands pressed deep into the pockets of a snow-white suit, and her head cocked enticingly to the side and her tongue scraping playfully between her teeth. She was perhaps the most ostentatiously glamorous woman he’d ever seen, and he immediately struggled to think of words to say.
This was not helped when she said something that was obviously supposed to be seductive in a language that he couldn’t understand. It was like demonic, but it wasn’t quite there.
“Uh… Hello?” He tried in demonic.
She cackled a little meanly.
“Oh, by the Circles, you minor-bloodline demonspawn are too honest. You really don’t know what to do with me, do you?”
He then remembered that Shadow had once told him there was no room for miscommunication in demon. He felt his insides twist with embarrassment as he realised ever ounce of his confusion and surprise had probably been perfectly communicated in his two brief attempts at communication.
She roared with laughter again, then surveyed Amanda, who was now glowering territorially. Then she saw Shadow and nodded in comprehension.
“Oh I see, you thought I wouldn’t come if this was strictly business? You weren’t wrong but at least give me the opportunity to disappoint you.”
The succubus smiled hungrily at Shadow, a serpent-like tongue flicking between her teeth.
“So, what is it you really want me for?”
“I - I want to know who my grandparent was. Do you know him?”
“What’s their name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then, I can’t help you. Not that way at least,” she said, slipping into English.
Warnado was about to ask what other way she could possibly mean, then clocked it as Amanda stepped between them, drawing her axe. The succubus cackled again.
“Oh, baiting you guys is too easy,” the succubus said, now in demon again. “Make it a little hard! Gotta say though, she is cute, hang on to her kid.”
“Thanks, I will,” said Warnado warily.
He cast a look at Shadow to try and figure out if this was going well or not. The look he got in response communicated that this was about par for the course.
“Now, about my grandparent, is there another way?”
“Oh, naturally,” the succubus said. “I just get a kick out of messing with people. Right, any physical identifiers?”
The succubus started patting her chest, pulling out a notebook after an unreasonably long period of searching.
“Since they apparently are too short for me to see under your hood, that’s not enough for me to go off, too many horns look the same at that length. Any other characteristics? That gauntlet, it looks demonic, tell me about it, show me a spell, anything.”
Warnado eyed it uncomfortably.
“Well, when I try to communicate with it, I see a man on a tin throne surrounded by flames.”
“Oh!” groaned the succubus. “False monarchs, I hate them. All about showing off their power, never about making it last. We get it, you’re regal but in a grungy way. You were once great, but now you’ve fallen from grace but that doesn’t mean you can’t still dominate anything you come into contact with. ‘If this is me diminished, how powerful must I have been before they brought me low?’ It’s a damned humble brag! Big whoop!”
She stopped and locked eyes with Warnado.
“If you can’t guess that’s dime-a-dozen crap, just show me a spell. It’ll be easier.”
Warnado sighed and looked at Shadow.
“Okay, you’ll stop me if it goes out of control, right?”
Shadow replied: “I will. Whatever is on the other side does not want to mess with me, especially right now. Though, I think after my last two put-downs it may have realized that trying again could be a bad idea.”
“Cool, cool,” he said. “And Amanda, I appreciate that you’re here, your support is great, but if you could back up a little I’d feel a little more comfortable.”
“No, I absolutely understand, I’ll stand over here.”
She backed up, though not before threatening the succubus with a feinted axe blow. The she-demon flinched and then sulked.
“Ready?” he asked the succubus.
“Yeah, just go already,” she grumbled.
He reached out with his mind, saw the tin throne and the diminished shape within it. He wasted no time. He had to be completely clear, no ambiguity, and he had to let it know who was boss.
“I want my gauntlet and only my gauntlet to glow with that demonic fire spell of mine. It will not spread beyond the confines of the gauntlet, the tongues of flame will reach out no further than two inches in any direction. And you will have no control of my arm unless I explicitly say otherwise. It will stop after exactly one minute. These powers are my own, and I will use them as I have outlined. Capiche?”
The being in the throne sighed and waved its hand.
The gemstone glowed, the criss-cross of embers began, and finally the gauntlet erupted into deep purple flame.
“All-right,” smiled the succubus. “That narrows it down a bit. The criss-cross thing is a very particular technique.” She crossed several names off a list. “The channelling of inherited power into a gemstone is also pretty uncommon.” Slightly fewer fell in this volley of pen-strokes. “And it’s abundantly clear it’s a family powerful enough to mutilate some dumb beta-demon, hollow out his arm and make him into a servant. ‘Course, it also means they’re not that smart as that nugget in the throne is clearly leeching off your power to stay alive. And with the horns that means…” As she said this last part she scratched away wildly.
The succubus looked suddenly very, very annoyed. She put her hands to her temples.
“Not this asshole again. Oh, I hope it’s not him.”
“What’s his name?”
“No, of course not.”
She tore out the list and scrunched it up. With none of her performative sexuality, she turned to Warnado and said:
“I’ve given you a small list of candidates. Can I go now?”
“Sorry, this is all moving a little fast, who’s this guy you don’t like?”
“Some primordial elemental douche. Old as the Conception. Old enough that you’re probably related to him at least somehow. Thinks he’s better than the rest of us. I don’t want to talk about him.”
“Okay, but what’s his name?”
“He’s older than names, he’ll spin some bullcrap on the spot and act like it’s a title.”
“Am I free to go?”
“Sure, but do you have time to fill out a brief customer satisfaction survey?”
The succubus stomped on one of the runes Warnado couldn’t understand and smeared her foot over it. The rune was unaffected. The succubus roared in anger and began to tear at her suit. Shadow broke the connection.
She smirked. “She’ll get over it.”
Warnado, however, was barely worried about the angry demon-lady who now hated him. He just wanted to get this family reunion over.
“Can we talk to this elemental guy and just call it for today?” Warnado asked with substantial discomfort.
“There is one more demon we should consult beforehand, one that’ll give me something I can actually use to call this supposed ancient demon.” Shadow said, then added. “If he’s as arrogant as described we may have to wait for a bit until he answers the call. Maybe we can try some others on the list in the meantime.”
“Fine. Do it.”
Shadow traced a new pattern. All sharp angles, yet somehow also weirdly curved. It looked… wrong. She began summoning, and soon something began clawing at the fabric of reality within the inner circle. When the gap opened, the demon stepped through. Well, slopped through.
The creature was a weird blend of flesh that was green and black and red, with a million eyes and a thousand mouths and single grasping arm rippling with muscles and with claws like lightning bolts.
“Gross,” said Amanda.
“So,” Warnado began with renewed confidence. “I have some questions. First and foremost, how did you get that cool arm?”
They had spent about an hour trying to contact Warnado’s demonic ancestor and doubt was starting to set in again. He’d actually really gotten into it for a while after the Chronicler - the fleshy thing with the cool arm - had explained all of this arcane lore about what the elementals were, and why the demonic languages were pretty much constant across all worlds, and a bunch of neat stuff about crimes against nature and wars against something called the Demiurge. Most of it flew completely over Warnado’s head but the Chronicler just had a way of talking about it that made it all sound really cool.
Unfortunately, when it finally offered up a way of getting in touch with demon-grandpa, the geezer didn’t answer. They went to voicemail or something. Maybe he was out doing demon things. However, Warnado was still feeling confident they decided to talk to a bunch of other demons whose names the succubus hadn’t crossed out on the off chance that one of them was related to him somehow, or at least knew anything about his ancestry. And the general answer was that the ancient elemental was their best lead.
They did meet some interesting characters, though. A slugman told them a lot about how powers were inherited and kept trying to get him to sign a contract. A small, black monkey-looking thing didn’t tell them anything useful and just encouraged Warnado to drink frankly unhealthy quantities of green tea - according to Shadow it preyed on the sleep-deprived so that made sense. They also met a young, hunchbacked woman who breathed fire and had hooves like a horse who said she could predict the future but kept breaking down laughing before she could say anything vague - Warnado couldn’t tell if this boded well or not.
And eventually they reached a lull. They’d gone through most of the names on the list and Shadow was drawing a new pattern. Amanda, seeing how Warnado didn’t feel quite as fearful as he did at the start, sat cross-legged on the black void, her nose deep into a book.
Then, Shadow backed away suddenly from the circle. The chalk changed colour to the same deep purple as Warnado’s demonic fire, but it glowed like embers or hot metals rather than the roaring fire he summoned. The lines began to retrace themselves, slowly etching their way across the floor with a sound like breaking glass.
He looked at Shadow.
“It’s the call I made to the ancient elemental demon, it’s only answering it now.”
Warnado started to recognise the pattern. It was the same they’d used when they tried to summon the elemental. Shadow’s calmness reassured him a little - after all, this was her pocket dimension, she set the rules in here - but he couldn’t help but feel a little on-edge.
“So, if this thing decides it’s not going to play nice, you can beat it, right?”
Shadow nodded. “Whatever this supposed ancestor of yours may be in the demon world, it can only bring a fraction of its power here. Going up against the Entity’s manifestations has taught me quite a bit about severing connections of higher-dimensional beings.”
“Okay,” Warnado gulped. “Cool. Cool, cool, cool.”
He hopped from foot to foot. Amanda stepped up beside him and rubbed him affectionately on the back. He tried to fidget a little less.
The lines finally scraped back into position. A fire, the same colour as his own, broke out in the centre of the circle and spread about. Warnado expected something to arise from it, but there was only fire. A smiling fire. It had no face, no features, but somehow Warnado could tell from the speed and height of the flames that it was smiling faintly and calmly, waiting for them to speak. He felt the urge to run.
“Hello,” he forced himself to say. “I wanted to ask if you were maybe my ancestor, I guess.”
“And who are you, you insignificant little mortal, to ask me such a question?” The condescension was palpable.
“Um, your descendent, possibly. I - I’ve got some prophecy to fulfil and I want to be strong enough to do that. So, I was hoping you could explain to me what I am, you know?”
The flame-being laughed and wouldn’t stop for a solid thirty seconds. “Who put the thought in your mind that I would consort with mortals? I have no offspring, mortal or otherwise. Many inherited my power in other ways but… that is not one of them.”
“Oh. Well, who has inherited your power? Could they help me?”
“More than I care to list, besides, if I were to list them your pathetic mortal life would find its natural end before I am halfway finished.”
Warnado noticed how the flames began probing the summoning circle for potential weaknesses, but not finding any so far. He cocked an eyebrow at Shadow, but she seemed unconcerned. Warnado gritted his teeth, summoned fire on his arm.
“Does this jog your memory at all?”
The fire howled with laughter and surged upwards.
“Mortal, you do not realise how little that narrows it down!” It paused, then added with relish. “I don’t even know what you look like.”
Warnado clenched his fists. The jerk fire wanted him to lower his hood. Amanda grabbed him by the shoulder and looked him in the eyes.
“Helix, you don’t have to do anything you’re uncomfortable with. Especially not for this dork.”
He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then forced himself to answer without particularly knowing what would come out.
“No, no, I’m good. I’m doing it. I’ll do it. It’s cool, probably.”
“Okay,” said Amanda. “As long as you’re cool with it.”
“I am. Really, I am. Okay, let’s do this.”
He turned back to the elemental and lifted his hands to his hood. This would be the first time he’d willingly shown his horns to anyone other than Amanda in years. He took a deep breath, clenched his eyes shut, and pulled it back. He waited, sightless, for a response.
“Horns? Haha! I wondered why your gauntlet was too big for you. Let me guess, he just couldn’t handle the burden? Went off somewhere quietly to die? I am unsurprised, weakness begets weakness.”
The fire could have manifested a hand and punched him in the mouth, and Warnado wouldn’t have been as gobsmacked. He turned to Amanda, who was similarly in shock. It was as though this insult had knocked all the emotion out of him for a few seconds, leaving plenty of room for all the anger that flooded in immediately after. He Warnado towards the fire, cold fury leaving him shivering.
“My dad was not weak-”
“I have infinite time at my disposal, yet I can only think of one other time when my time felt quite as wasted as now.”
The fire flared, then collapsed in on itself. The tongues of flame burrowed into the dirt like worms, leaving the chalk lines untouched atop a scorched, black surface. It was gone.
Warnado swallowed his anger with considerable difficulty.
“I get why the succubus hates him so much. I really get it.”
“What a dirtbag. Thanks for stepping in back there Shadow, you really kept him in line,” snarked Amanda.
Shadow sighed. “I kept the demon in the circle. Anything beyond that would not have made a difference. It’s not your ancestor, that much we can be sure of. I suppose it can be of some solace, looking at how it carried itself.”
“Yeah,” said Warnado flatly.
He had let his eyes sink with his mood, and now they were fixed on Kay’s goggles around his neck. He saw that there was a speck of dirt on the right lens and set about angrily scratching it off, imagining he was smothering that stupid fire.
Looking at the goggles, of course, reminded him of how he’d gotten them. He wondered if he should tell Kay about this session, especially as he’d done it behind Kay’s back. Kay would probably be pretty supportive and give one of those speeches he loved so much, but he’d also definitely use it against Shadow. He and Shadow had never really gotten on, but now Warnado was really starting to worry they might start fighting each other instead of the Tower. He felt like a kid caught in the middle of a really, really messy divorce. A divorce where both parents had nukes.
He tried to move on from this, but as he scratched at the speck the thoughts just kept bouncing around his head, so he finally gave in and decided they should probably talk about it.
“How’s the coven?” he asked.
Shadow sat down on the floor, seemingly inviting him to do the same. “Passable, better than before when I was just their object of worship. Ever since I used the whole cult leader angle I got some control back. My best mages built me a throne, Pallas even made a banner design. Other than that, someone tried poisoning me yesterday, I don't know whether it was one of the coven who did it as some bizarre proof of divinity thing or one of Kay’s own fanatics. Don’t care either.”
Amanda and Warnado looked at each other with visible surprise and discomfort.
“Oh wow, are you sure you shouldn’t pay more attention to that?” asked Amanda, eyebrows cocked.
Shadow slumped down further to the ground and shrugged. “As long as I am the target of the poisoning, we really have bigger concerns, at least the poison was almost tasteless, so it didn’t spoil the wine.” She then asked: “So, Amanda. You’re caught in the middle of this just like Warnado, but you don’t have Warnado’s connection to Kay. What’s your take on this? The whole civil war waiting to happen if one of us makes a wrong move.”
Amanda blinked, weighed her words and then sighed.
“It’s all really dumb. Kay’s obviously got a lot of issues, but you keep fanning his paranoia. Like, I’m here to help Helix out, and I appreciate that he’s fallen out with Astro, but this absolutely did not need to be arranged secretly. More importantly, while this wasn’t a catastrophe, that stuff the elementa-whoosit said to Helix was pretty messed up and that’s one less person he can talk to about it. Two less if you include Tyron.”
“That said, this whole ‘King in Ash’ bit Kay’s doing is just weird. I don’t know if this is his idea or the Book’s but-”
“-It’s absolutely his idea,” interjected Warnado with a grimace.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean the Book isn’t egging him on.”
“I know the guy, Amanda, Kay does not need much convincing to grandstand. Remember that obsidian chestplate he used to wear? He told me the other night, that stuff’s ceremonial - the combat version is supposed to be an obsidian alloy, that was just a set of diamond with heavy, volcanic rocks welded on. He sacrificed a lot of mobility just to show off his rank.”
“By Light,” Amanda groaned. “You’re not serious?”
“Yeah, haven’t you noticed how much faster he is now? It’s not just the Book, he physically isn’t carrying as much weight.”
“That’s so dumb.”
“But yeah, he’s definitely the one who came up with the King in Ash schtick. That said, he has a plan. It’s not as stupid as it looks.”
“Really?” snorted Amanda. “It looks pretty darned stupid from where I’m standing.”
“I’m gonna ignore that. He says it’s about giving people purpose - says it’s more ‘constructive’ to talk about building a kingdom afterwards rather than just destroying the Tower.”
Of course, he was lying. Kay hadn’t explained any reasoning to him, he just wasn’t as intense in private… mostly. All this was his best rationalisation of Kay’s actions based on what he knew about the guy. The explanation that made him panic the least.
Warnado kept wanting to turn the conversation back on Shadow, but before he could turn and say something Amanda had something else to say.
“Does he mean it, though? About staying in this dump? I thought he offered to take us back to his world after this is all over.”
Warnado suddenly found himself at a loss. He hadn’t realised the contradiction in terms. Was Kay actually going to stay in Nexus after all this? What did it say about him if this was all just a PR bit?
A sidelong glance at Shadow revealed a sullen, glowering, almost sulky expression. She was not liking what she was hearing. He felt bad after she’d done all this to help him track down his ancestor. Then again, Amanda did have a point about the unnecessary secrecy… Or would Kay and Astro really have objected that strongly?
“I - I guess, he wouldn’t just promise people something and then leave them in the lurch, right?”
“Listen Helix, the real question is, do we want to stay in Nexus after all this? Because I’d rather not.”
He backed up and looked between Amanda and Shadow several times, various sounds that didn’t quite amount to words slipping out of his mouth.
“Amanda, can we talk about this later?”
“Okay, but we can’t avoid conversations like this forever.”
“We’re thirteen, not thirty, we’ve got plenty of time to figure out our life-plan. Anyway Shadow, I’m sorry, you’re doing this cool thing, helping me find old grandpappy the demon, and we’ve - I’ve got you talking about politics. It was stupid, I shouldn’t have asked.”
She replied: “The thing is, you have a point. The situation would be better if I knew how to work with people better. People have always been Fire’s thing. People and academics and most other things too.”
Shadow seemed to let go of all notions of dignity or composure and transitioned from her slumped over sitting posture to laying down on her back, looking up at the endless dark.
“Our world was created as an experiment, how people would live in something like it. Everyone who is there is there willingly. It made things easier for me, I never had to deal with the sheer naked despair we have everywhere in the shelter. Back home people knew, no matter what happened, they had another whole world to return to if things didn’t work out in the artificial one. Even in the capital, Rockhaven, which is more-or-less intrigue-and-backstabbing central with all the guild politics, everyone knows it’s ‘in good fun’ so to speak.”
She demonstratively let some lightning crackle between her fingers. “Sure, I learned a lot of things over time, that just comes with having lived for five thousand years but the only thing I ever really had going for me was power, magic. It’s not a small thing but… having seen Nexus and everyone here, just makes me feel like I’m missing something essential. I had this whole talk with Astro about ‘humanity’ and now look at me, this isn’t human. But knowing what I am not is not really helping me, I want to know what I am. The coven thinks I am a god. What even is a god?!”
Warnado felt a little iffy about this. He’d been to church a few times as a kid, but he didn’t really remember much more than Light creating the world and expelling Darkness and so on, and he knew even less about what Shadow believed. But he felt bad, so he felt he had to say something.
“I mean, I don’t know. Do you want to be a god?” he tried, a little desperately.
“That question would be easier to answer if I knew what being a god meant. People in my world, the one that isn’t constructed, have so many different ideas of what a god should be. Some say it’s this one big force that created everything, others have multiple gods who are effectively just people but bigger and involved in some convoluted family drama, others think that literally everything is a god or has a god dedicated to it. There is a lot of room for interpretation. It doesn’t help that in our world we have no actual proof of divinity, something quite a few worlds here have the luxury of.”
“Um, yeah-” Warnado struggled, until Amanda interjected.
“-Well, if god is too hard to define, why not define human? What are you afraid of losing?”
Shadow propped herself up on her elbows, contemplating. “I suppose it’s empathy, or better the ability to relate at all. But also, the ability to rise above your instincts and urges, to be in control of your actions. I may not be exactly human myself, but I am close enough to derive great enjoyment from interacting with people. When I embrace my Void state… that all just goes away. I feel nothing. I think but I do not feel. I remember that I have some kind of connection to the people I see but I don’t feel it. Back when Fire made his declaration that he would infiltrate the Tower, I told myself that I would destroy the Entity should he die. Even if I had to take all of existence and tear it apart.”
Shadow took a long pause. “I don’t know where that thought came from, just that it was my thought. Right now, I know that tearing existence apart is bad, I will also know it when I lose myself to the Void fully. But the feeling that stops me from doing it won’t be there. I suppose I’m afraid of losing touch, which is a bad way to phrase it for the extent of its consequences.”
Even Amanda seemed stumped by this. They both stood there, almost saying something and then not. This conversation just kept spiralling. Warnado had wanted to learn where he stood, but now it was more like he was falling, constantly, and had been for a very long time without realising it.
“So, are you still up for summoning my ancestor? Or should we come back later?” He smiled apologetically and felt like human garbage.
Shadow slowly got up again. “It is what we came here for. I’ll be fine in the meantime. I suppose putting it all into words at least helped me understand what it is I am struggling with.”
She walked over to her demonology supplies and flipped through a book. “There is one thing we can still try. I doubt that that elemental demon spoke the truth about not having offspring. I once read that older demons occasionally lose parts of themselves. The demon world is nothing like our own so metaphors are the closest I can get to explaining it, it’s like a snake shedding its skin and the shed skin gaining life of its own. Maybe your ancestor is one such shedding. I can slightly modify my call so we may summon it here.”
Warnado looked warily at his brass-coloured gauntlet and remembered what Shadow had said when analysing it. That it wasn’t just a gauntlet, that it was an organic part of a demon. It made sense that other demons would lose pieces of themselves.
He forced some enthusiasm into his voice
“Okay, it’s like we’re calling the other half of a worm that got cut in half,” he said. “That’s good.”
He watched as Shadow traced a slight modification of the pattern, slightly altering the angles. He felt his heart pound faster. The runes lit up a similar colour to before, and a demon slowly ascended through.
First, Warnado saw horns, longer than his, sharper too, but indisputably of the same white-ish grey mottling as his own. Next, reddish-brown skin, yellow, cat-like eyes and a toned torso. Finally, his legs and feet weren’t unlike Freak, smokey and partly transparent. Warnado also noticed that his right hand, adorned with several brass rings, was a seething mass of purple flame barely holding its form.
The demon looked around, calmly and more than a little bored. He looked like his eyes might drift shut at any moment, not because he was actually tired but just because he found whoever he was speaking to uninteresting.
“Hello?” he asked with a comparable absence of enthusiasm. He addressed it to Shadow, who remained silent.
“Hi, are we related?” Warnado asked, waving to draw his attention.
“Oh, sorry didn’t see you there, kid.” He craned his head and looked Warnado up and down. “Yeah, that seems probable. I’ve had a handful of progenies. What’s that on your wrist? Gauntlet, huh? I think I remember that one. Not because Tin-throne was particularly tough, I was actually surprised by what a pushover he was. He used to talk a lot of trash, really deserved mutilating. It is Tin-throne in there, right?”
The demon smiled nostalgically before lapsing back into boredom.
“Did you make it for my dad? Or my grandad? I don’t know how long it’s been in the family.”
“I don’t know, I’m pretty sure you’re only the second generation. I gave it to the first guy about twenty, thirty years ago. Something about a guy called Herobrine? I don’t know, I’m not actually allowed in your world anymore - demon politics, it’s complicated - I wasn’t supposed to be there to begin with but now I’m super banned. Haha, primordial elementals can be so territorial. Your father passed a message to me through a demon friend, and I made a gauntlet for him. Like I said, Tin-throne had been asking for it for a while, so it was a two birds one stone situation...”
He trailed off and looked expectantly at Warnado, arms folded across his chest. Warnado took the hint.
“Actually, I meant to ask about him. He’s been a little tricky to control, and according to a succubus I met apparently, he’s leeching off my power. He also probably killed my dad.”
“Oh, yeah, he would do that. Sorry, kid, I assumed cutting his arm off would teach him not to try anything. Then again, I didn’t exactly have a close eye on the situation so… Oops.”
“My dad died, and your response is ‘Oops’?”
“We weren’t exactly close. What do you want from me?”
“Something a little more than ‘oops.’ At least slap an exclamation mark on there or something. A little energy to indicate you’re at least bothered.”
“Okay. Oops! That better?”
“But yeah, the whole power leeching deal. It was intended as a mediating thing. Training wheels so your dad or grandad or whoever didn’t end up cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer by accident, you get me. And, because he’s human, he also just needed help to tap into his powers. He was supposed to gradually demand more and more power and that would burn Tin-throne off - like a leech.”
“Then, what happened to my dad?”
“If I had to guess, he probably was too timid. Avoided using his power and treated Tin-throne like he had a monopoly on it. Your dad keeps making requests instead of giving orders. Tin-throne keeps acting like he’s in a position to negotiate, so keeps getting your dad to grant concessions, Tin-throne gets more and more power. Goes from providing fuel for the car, to sitting in the back getting a free ride, to sitting in the shotgun seat giving directions, to convincing your dad to let him steer from time to time. Your dad grows weaker and weaker, and eventually he can’t handle his own power. He finally tries to burn Tin-throne off and in the process only burns himself out… Yeah, that sounds right. Sorry for your loss, it sounds pretty sucky when I say it out loud.”
“You're welcome. Is that all?”
“No, but not too much longer. I just want to know how I can make the opposite of what happened to dad happen to me.”
“Well, you’ve heard my advice, give commands, use more power. Tin-throne’s never healing from what I did to him, your power is just keeping him stable.”
“So I should just go all out? Big, demonic attack to clear him out once and for all?”
“Well yeah, that sounds pretty good. ‘Course only do that if you think you’re strong enough.”
“What would happen if I’m not strong enough?”
“Probably you’d just die. Pretty horribly too. Overloading is never pretty. You saw your dad, you know yourself.”
“Oh. I think I’m going to have to build up to that one a little bit.”
The demon’s eyes drifted around the black void, plainly losing interest.
“You know, you do you, kid. Whatever you think you can handle.”
Silence reigned as Warnado reflected on the disturbing choice between having his power drained by the guy who killed his dad and killing himself trying to get rid of that guy.
“Can I go now?” Asked the demon impatiently.
Just at that moment, there was a sound almost like someone knocking on a door, but distant and shimmering.
“Shadow,” said a far-off voice. “Will you let me in?”
Shadow’s face seemed caught between annoyance and surprise.
“Apparently, yes,” said Warnado. “Sorry, what’s your name?”
The demon said something unpronounceable in the human tongue and which Warnado had a hard time remembering. But it started with a ‘T’.
“Tim it is.”
“It is not.”
“Anyway, have a nice day Tim, we hope you found our service satisfactory. We will call you back about future business.”
The demon faded back into the chalk lines. The knocking sound repeated.
“It’s me, Astro.” Silence. “Listen, I know things have been strained recently, and I said some things I kind of regret, but I need to talk to you.”
Warnado and Amanda looked at each other, then at Shadow.
Shadow sighed. “Fine, come in. We just had to finish something up here first.”
“Wait,” Astro called. “Who’s we?”
With a quick gesture Shadow made the entryway into the pocket dimension reappear, seconds after Astro came stumbling through, evidently having leaned against the other side. He straightened up, saw Amanda and Warnado, and immediately groaned.
“Oh, for mods’ sake, Shadow, and you complain- No! That’s not important right now. I need to talk to you in private, it’s a personal matter.”
He shot a warning look at Amanda and Warnado, who in turn cast a look at Shadow, silently asking if they could stay. Shadow shook her head, and they began to depart. Warnado stopped and turned.
“Thanks for the help, Shadow,” he said. “Really.”
Shadow replied with a smile: “And thank you two for listening to my existential rant.”
They smiled half apologetically and emerged back into Nexus. On the other side, they saw Tyron pull up outside the door, put his arm against the frame and look furtively up and down the corridor. Despite his shiftiness, he seemed to be pretty happy, a doofy smile on his face. When he saw the two kids, he backed up suddenly. The smile scattered like a thin mist.
“Hi Tyron,” said Warnado sleepily.
“Hello,” said Tyron with some surprise.
“Hi friend!” chirped Kir slightly less sincerely than usual.
The two children emerged into the hallway. Warnado was about to go straight to his room. He felt emotionally and physically overworked, and just wanted to lie on his bed and feel like trash for a while. Amanda, however, stopped and turned on her heel.
“Aren’t you supposed to be overseeing the first round of emissaries right now?”
He paused. Then, sheepishly:
“Lucy handling it! Urgent question for Shadow about portals,” explained Kir with surprising tact.
“Yeah, that,” Tyron confirmed with substantially less art.
“And you came in person instead of sending a messenger?”
“I tried that,” said Tyron, recovering some composure. “He kept coming back with technobabble. I need someone to explain the science to me like the idiot I am.” He forced a laugh.
Amanda scrutinised him with something a little more intense and accusatory than confusion, then cocked her head and said:
“Sure, hope you get it sorted.”
“Thank you. Oh and, could you not tell Kay I’m here? He won’t be happy about me leaving my post to talk to Shadow. You probably haven’t noticed but they’re not getting on too well right now.”
“Oh absolutely,” she nodded.
Tyron began to approach the pocket dimension entrance, which had remained conspicuously open.
“You know Astro’s in there?” Amanda asked with a certain wistfulness.
Tyron stopped again and tried to look surprised.
“Is he? Perfect. At least one of them will be able to explain the problem to me!” He forced another laugh.
Warnado didn’t know why, but he felt ill.
Amanda nodded slowly. Warnado could have sworn he saw her eyes misting up, before she rapidly blinked them clear.
“Stay safe, Tyron.”
Tyron swallowed loudly.
And he slipped out of sight. The doorway closed instantaneously.
“What was that about, Amanda?”
Amanda began to walk quickly down the hall. Warnado jogged to catch up.
“Amanda, what was that?”
She turned. Her eyes were watering, teetering on the precipice of tears.
“Things are changing. It’s time to figure out our life plan, Helix.”
Warnado’s heart felt like lead in his chest.
“If anyone asks why I’m sad, you said something stupid. Implied I looked fat, or mannish, or any other stupid thing. Get creative. And for Light’s sake, don’t mention any of this to Kay.”
She covered her mouth and ran off down the hallway, and for the first time in a while Helix felt deeply, truly alone.
Chapter 58: The Last Straw (Steve)
Fire’s private chambers had been left in the exact state like when they had awaited his notes. It was a highly organized mess that only Fire himself had been able to fully overlook. Miniature redstone circuits of staggering complexity were laid out on stone slabs the back portions of the floor and an incomplete piston-and-slime-block contraption filled a significant part of the room. On Fire’s desk still stood the twelve claws that had held the ender pearls that brought the notes to them, beside them was a tall, almost towering stack of blueprints.
The only free floor space was the path that went from the entrance to the desk and to their former commander’s large bed. The sheets were still ruffled from the various people who had used it as a seat after Fire’s departure.
However, that evening, the ruffled sheets were covered with the former commander’s old blueprints, initially stacked in neat piles which quickly deteriorated as they were used. Soon enough, there was a thick layer of scattered paper over nearly every inch of the bed’s surface - and bearing in mind how big Fire had been, that was saying a lot.
“It has to be in here somewhere,” mumbled Steve as he sorted through. “Any luck on your end?”
“Lot of potion recipes, armour designs, the airship blueprints we already showed him, but nope, haven’t found the artillery platform designs yet,” said Jennifer from the other side of the bed.
“Nuts. He’s going to give me some big sermon about the new world he’s going to build and how I’m holding that up - I should be briefing Wolfric and Ozen about their responsibilities, or you know just talking to my brother who I haven’t seen in months. It’s bad enough when he asks Astro to do stupid stuff like this, we have Lucy and the admin crew for a reason!”
He glanced at Jennifer, brow dark with annoyance. She smiled back sympathetically, and this seemed to lift his spirits a bit.
“I meant to ask, I thought you said he was bringing Lucy ‘back into the fold’ or something? Why isn’t he trusting her with this?”
“It’s more like he’s taken her out of quarantine. He interacts directly with her now and invites her to meetings, but the Inner Circle still meets and it’s still the same six people with the same level of secrecy. Why is the construction of an obviously visible artillery platform being treated with this much secrecy you may ask?”
“I do,” giggled Jennifer.
“No one knows, and it’s kind of stupid to ask at this point. If I had to guess, he doesn’t want to look like he’s run out of ideas and is now scraping around Fire’s old plans. Or, maybe he just doesn’t want anyone to know the King in Ash is not a lone visionary guiding us toward salvation.”
“He’s really doubling down on that title, isn’t he?”
“Unfortunately, yes. He is very serious about all that,” Steve sighed.
He didn’t say anything for a while, and then lifted a sheet, scrutinised it for a moment and then put it down with a grunt.
“The environment in the Inner Circle is just not good at the moment. The arrival of the new allies is helping a little, it’s certainly cheered me up, but it also makes it pretty clear how miserable things have gotten.”
Jennifer came around and put an arm around his waist.
“You’d have to be there to understand. We’re not fighting or anything, but we’re all just letting Kay do as he pleases. He’s worn us down. Tyron’s got this thousand-yard stare he keeps putting on, it’s like he’s sent a training dummy to meetings in his place. Destiny’s almost as bad as she was back when David died - flipping between morose and quiet and just so angry. Astro’s rushed off his feet and has stopped snarking at Kay like he used to. And you know me, I’m not a professional at this, Kay starts throwing around phrases like quid pro quo or telling me to ‘reflect on the optics’ and I lose any idea of how to challenge him. Only Rose seems fine with things as they are, and Rose is kind of scary. Honestly, the meetings are kind of scary.”
“Well, if you’re not fighting, what’s got you on edge?”
Steve put a finger to his lips as the door opened. In walked a soldier in a red scarf.
“General Steve, sir!”
It was the villager, Raphoe, having undergone yet another weird transfer and promotion into Steve’s own unit. He was now a lieutenant.
“His Ashen Highness wishes to inquire about the blueprints-”
“-We’re struggling but we’ll have them for tomorrow morning. Fire has a lot of material.”
“He also wants you to see if Fire has anything on the possibility of enhancing magical abilities, particularly for combat purposes.”
“Sure thing. Tell him I say hi,” he smiled.
Raphoe nodded and left. Steve followed him to the door. There was a squad of six men with Raphoe. Steve kept up his smile and watched them until they turned the corner, then he shut the door carefully and released his breath.
“That’s why I’m on edge. He’s all smiles and new lounges one minute, and then he sends an armed battalion to check up on you the next. Add to that he can now incinerate an entire building and you guess why no one wants to argue with him.”
Jennifer grimaced as she remembered the attack on the portal facility, and how Kay had burned the warehouse full of civilian workers. She wasn’t sure how many had died, and Kay hadn’t necessarily known they were there, but that was messed up. She remembered Xylo screaming at her as the voidfire climbed his back, and her insides felt like poison.
“I understand,” she said minimalistically.
She didn’t want Steve to feel as though she were trying to influence him, but she just didn’t know if she could trust the guy capable of that sort of destruction.
She set about filtering through documents again. The next in the pile chilled her blood.
“Well… I think I found what Kay had in mind,” she said with a nervous laugh.
Steve rushed over and peered over her shoulder with uncharacteristically steely eyes.
The document below contained a series of sketches and instructions outlining the process necessary to carry out an “Ascension Ritual”, the same ceremony which had granted Shadow her reality-bending abilities.
At the very beginning of the sketches was a note that the instructions were not complete and that Fire or Shadow for that matter could complete them “should times become dire”. What was described of the ritual was gruesome. The subject of the ritual first had to drink a potion which would keep them alive during the procedure, then some kind of knife would be used to carve a very specific set of runes into their skin. This would completely drain the subject of blood.
Steve had to look away for a few seconds as he felt his stomach turn. Jennifer, however, kept reading aloud.
“In the absence of blood, the potion shall be the subject’s only tether to the living world, preventing their death. After this, the rune-shaped cuts-”
“-Jennifer, can we take a minute, this is pretty heavy,” interrupted Steve.
“Steve, this is important.”
The force and gravity she said this with was unlike anything Steve had heard her say before. It wasn’t angry or joyous, she was just absolutely convinced of what she had said. The weight of it struck him in the gut and knocked the nausea out of him. They returned to reading.
After this, the rune-shaped cuts would be enchanted with actual magical runes. The final step was not illustrated and only described as “magic infusion”. There was also a warning that there was no guarantee that the ritual would ever work again.
“Well, that’s gruesome,” said Steve weakly.
“You can’t tell him about this. We can’t have him putting peoples’ lives at risk like this.”
“Jen, Kay’s a jerk but he’s not going to mutilate people with this little chance of success.”
“No, he’s just on a bit of a power trip-”
“-He’s always just on something. He’s always just a little stressed about Shadow being weird. Or he’s just a little sore about losing the election to Fire. Or he’s just trying to minimise casualties. Or just burning a warehouse full of civilians-”
“Jen, we don’t know he knew about them.”
“‘Just King Kay’ didn’t care about knowing!”
She grabbed the document with one hand and Steve’s shoulder with the other.
“Steve,” she continued. “If you give him these plans his thinking is going to follow exactly this trajectory.” She put on her best approximation of Kay’s posh affectations. “‘Wait a second, this is the ritual that created Shadow. That means it’s possible to make more people as powerful as her. That means she might be creating them to plot against me as we speak! I must create ascended mages of my own to rival her, or stupider still, I must undergo this ritual myself. Quick, Warnado, hold my sleeve up while Raphoe and Rose mutilate my arm! My beloved Book will keep me safe! What are you gawking at Astro, I’m only leading from the front?’”
She thumped Steve on his pauldron for emphasis. As it rang out, Steve processed.
“Holy crap,” he concluded. “Jennifer, I’m not sure Kay should be leader anymore.”
“Shall we go see how Shadow’s doing?”
And they left, the seed of revolution firmly planted in their minds.
Chapter 59: Gathering Storm (Shadow)
Astro began with his eyes forced shut, as though by refusing to observe his statements he prevented them from being definitely real.
“Kay’s not well. He’s falling down exactly the same chute as last time. He needs to be removed from office,” said Astro. He forced his eyes open. “I need your help.”
Shadow had not been prepared for that line of thinking, much less in a manner this direct, even less coming from Astro directly. She took a few moments to get her thoughts in order, putting away all the ones about demons and godhood. A small part of her was tempted to gloat about Astro coming crawling to her and everything that went along with it, but the rest of her knew that now was not the time for that, now was the time for level-headed discussion.
She emphatically breathed in and out, then asked: “So, what’s the situation? Did he cross a line? Or additional lines that is.”
“Well, I’d like to say burning the warehouse full of civilians was a casus belli, but mostly it was the fact that the most cripplingly unstable man I know now can burn a warehouse full of civilians with a thought. Doesn’t help that he's named himself king of a noun that indicates he fully intends to burn more things.”
The snark had a forced quality, as though his throat were dry and hoarse, and he had to speak at a specific volume for it not to show in his voice
Shadow said: “Trust me when I say that I have contemplated a coup, or something similar to it. The reason I have not put any such plan into motion is because all it would do is fracture and destabilize our followers. My mages against his warriors with the civilians being caught in the middle.” She paused briefly. “I currently see no way to go about this without at least some internal conflict.”
That was the truth, every time she had thought about it, Shadow was faced with a lose-lose situation. Leave Kay in charge and potentially have him run the Shelter into the ground with his megalomania or take action and have the Shelter destroy itself in a civil war. Fire probably would have found a way out, but then again, if Fire were here the whole issue would be null.
Astro smeared his fingers across his face, winding up squeezing his upper lip to the point of strangulation. His skin shone an intense shade of white between the thicket of black hairs which made up his beard. His eyes scanned the floor as he paced to and fro.
“That’s a risk we have to take. It should go better if you join forces with us. There’s only so many people loyal to him. Rose, Raphoe, Warnado, and who else? I don’t know about you, but I don’t see Urist risking his neck for Kay. Steve certainly wouldn’t and he’s in the inner circle!”
Shadow began her own pacing. “You coming to me makes things a lot less muddy, that’s another thing. But you are right, as far as the chain of command is concerned, he does not have many loyalties left. As you saw, Warnado and Amanda were here just earlier, I helped him find his demon ancestor and along the way we may have also discussed Shelter politics. Going by what he said, I wouldn’t call Warnado loyal. Hopeful or optimistic would be a better way to put it. Like he’s still slowly realizing that yes, it really is this bad.”
Shadow thought more about the implications of a coup. “The issue is that a lot of the soldiers are loyal to him directly, even if they technically serve under Steve or Tyron. They’re what make me worried, we need them on our side if we want any chance to win this, especially since it means not having them attack our other people.”
Astro said: “I don’t know, there’s widespread discontent from what I can tell. Or at least, unease. People joined to fight the Tower, to get home, not to reshape Nexus in the name of Kay. Then again, I haven’t been on the ground too much, he’s got me busy with a lot of random bollockry. You’d have to ask-”
There was a knocking sound. Astro fell very quiet.
“If we’re in luck,” he continued slowly. “That’s him... You’re certain Kay can’t hear us in here? I - I don’t know what he’s capable of these days.”
Shadow briefly expanded her senses beyond the pocket dimension, just enough to be able to make out who was on the other side of the door. She immediately felt the Void return to her in full strength as she did, there was a reason why she avoided doing this.
She said: “It’s not Kay, it’s Tyron. Should I let him in?”
Astro swallowed and nodded. He turned away and began to wipe his forehead on the sleeve of his robe.
“If I didn’t have him on board, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I would have had to be more discreet and… hands-on. We may still have to, but we have a chance of making this bloodless.”
With a thought Shadow made the door swing open, Tyron coming into view on the other side. He appeared startled by the sudden movement but then quickly stepped through, casting a glance behind him before the door slammed shut again.
Shadow greeted him: “Hello Tyron, I see we have ourselves another co-conspirator.”
The humor was forced but she felt like at least some amount of it was necessary.
Tyron grimaced and looked very coldly at Shadow.
“I’m just trying to keep everyone safe. I’m not some plotter, and this isn’t an endorsement of your behavior. That chanting back at the raid-”
“-Was an unintended consequence of newfound power, I’m sure,” interjected Astro with policy and a pained smile.
“Something I nonetheless should have prevented in some way, but back then I frankly had very little control over the actions of my followers, something I have at least partially rectified by now.” Shadow conceded. “But nevermind all that. I already spent too much time making excuses about that whole mess to Astro previously.”
Astro looked at the ground with a mixture of shame and suppressed venom, but in an instant raised his eyes again, face purged of emotion. Tyron waited for someone else to speak for some time, then sighed and walked towards the summoning. He dragged a finger across the chalk circle and began rubbing his fingers together.
“Step one: win conditions,” he grunted. “We want Kay not to be Commander anymore. What does that mean? Is he in a cell or still part of the officer’s class? Can he move freely through the shelter? Does he still have his powers? How is the shelter run from that point on?”
“One thing is for certain, while Kay may get a second chance if he cooperates, the same cannot be said for the Book. It seems to have forgotten that we made a deal, it and I. And I am fully intent on fulfilling my end of the bargain, I will destroy the Book because it has proven that it cannot be trusted.” Shadow said with conviction.
She thought back to when she had first communicated with the Book, in its cute little infinite hyperplane of endless shelves and paper. She had put too much faith in the damn thing, especially after what it had done to Fristad, had done to Amanda. No, it was yet another entry on her rapidly growing list of “Things I could have handled better and got people hurt because I didn’t”.
“Yes, he’ll still be a problem without the Book, but he’ll be back to his normal level of dangerous,” agreed Astro with a furious vigor. “We’re destroying that bloody thing.”
He sniffed and turned his head upwards to look into the gaping black void.
Tyron held up a finger.
“So, he doesn’t have his powers. Good, we’ll work on how later. Now, is Kay part of the command structure after this all goes down or is a prisoner? Shadow seems to be leaning towards a ‘wait and see’ approach, what do you say Astro?”
“He’ll be angry. By the mods he’ll be angry. And he’ll blame you,” he pointed at Shadow, “So we either lock him in a cell now or lock him away after he’s done something stupid and probably killed someone.”
Shadow sighed. “You know him better than I do, Astro. If you think he can’t be trusted afterwards then we’ll have to lock him up. The spell I used on Silver will contain him too, even if he somehow keeps some residual magic from the Book.”
“Of course,” Astro continued as though Shadow had said nothing. “Unless the takeover goes well and truly sideways, I’d recommend confining him to his chambers. We’ll have to be subtle about it. We’ll not condemn him before the public or act as though he’s a political prisoner. He’s a friend, our friend, and he’s not very well. Let me handle that, our friendship is common knowledge, especially since the Prophet’s Hill.”
“All good stuff,” Tyron said delicately, coming over and rubbing Astro on the shoulder. “And of course, how are we running things from now on?”
He turned his gaze on Shadow, as though he’d thrown a gauntlet directly into her face. This was obviously what he considered the real test of the strength of their alliance.
Shadow replied bitterly: “Believe me, I’m the wrong person to look to for leadership of the entire Shelter. I’m barely keeping this impromptu cult my mages have formed around me in check. Granted, if Kay is out of the Commander’s chair, they’ll probably become a lot more manageable. My vote would be to not elect a dedicated leader and form a council from our familiar core group. We have… what? Two, three weeks at most until the Entity completes its plan, too little time for anything else.”
Tyron betrayed no emotion. Astro spoke up.
“We were anticipating that the title of Commander would naturally fall to Tyron, though we also intended to run things as a triumvirate behind the scenes - myself, yourself, and Tyron - not too different to how we ran things back before the leadership elections, minus Fire. Everyone important would be invited to meetings to say their piece, though bearing in mind the potential fallout from the takeover, gathering the entire original group into a council could do more harm than good. Either someone within the group starts causing trouble and holding up decision-making or people on the outside start questioning why the leadership is such a closed shop even though the Commander’s office is apparently a revolving door. Democracy’s great, but people need to know who’s in charge in a situation like this.”
“So, are you up for an unofficial triumvirate under the official leadership of Tyron? Yes or no.”
“You are more familiar with the situation and how people react than I am. My own position wouldn’t change much, being in charge of the mages. So, yes, we can do it that way.” Shadow agreed.
If they made it out of this intact Shadow vowed to put in some dedicated effort into learning how to properly work with people. Five thousand years and she had never been in a situation like now, if she ever was in one in the future, she needed to be better. The server would not last forever and eventually she would have to deal with people as they were without a safety net.
“Okay - Kay is to lose his powers, be locked up in his bedroom, and I’m going to pretend to be the undisputed leader, so no one senses there’s a power vacuum and tries to fill it. Burning Nether if that isn’t a perfect storm, I don’t know what is…” grumbled Tyron. “This is so messed up.”
It was Astro’s turn to rub Tyron on the shoulder in a reassuring manner. They both kept swallowing as though they hadn’t drunk in days. He folded his mouth down and prepared to speak when suddenly there was once again a knocking sound.
Shadow once again took a quick look. It was the Brines, very concerned looks on their faces. This was getting surreal, a very refreshingly mundane kind of surreal. She unlocked the door and the two of them quickly came through, casting gazes behind them just like Tyron had done.
“Shadow, we need to talk to you-” Steve began, stopping abruptly when he saw Astro and Tyron. “Or we could come back later. Or if you had a moment in private, not that it’s of political importance, it’s purely personal butnotbecausewe’recloseoranything-”
The blood had drained from his face, and he was obviously babbling so Jennifer put a hand over Steve’s mouth.
“Sweetie, they’re here for the same reason we are. And if they’re not, I’m here to convince them: Kay’s gone off the deep end. He shouldn’t be Commander. Now, are we going to discuss how we take him down, or are you going to call the guards on us?”
Astro, glaring instinctively at Jennifer, marched forward. After coming near enough nose-to-nose with her, he said in a low, frosty monotone:
“We’re going to discuss how to stop a deeply unwell man from hurting himself or others. If you’re here to ‘take him down’, you have come to the wrong place, Jen.”
Without hesitation, Jennifer snapped back: “All well and good for you to say, you’re not the ones he just sent half a battalion to check up on. Or the warehouse workers he fried. Or the people he told would be completely safe and died thanks to his stupid formation-”
Before Jennifer could list any more examples or Astro could get turned back around into supporting Kay, Tyron intervened.
“Listen, we’re Kay’s friends, you guys aren’t close. We’ll split the difference. What’s this about half a battalion?”
“He sent Raphoe and some of his scarf-guys to check on us carrying out a pretty mundane task,” answered Steve. “It was weird. Full armored squad. He’s either getting paranoid or he senses that the ‘King in Ashes’ shtick freaks me the heck out and that’s making him paranoid.”
“By the bloody mods,” groaned Astro. “It’s worse than I thought. We need to stop him, do you have a plan or just a list of reasons Kay’s a terrible person? I’ve known the man for over a decade, believe me, you’re not giving me any new inform- Okay, sorry, I’m lashing out, Jennifer, but seriously, do you two have a plan or should we start brainstorming?”
“We were… we were kind of hoping to hash it out with Shadow.”
“And that Shadow had most of a plan together already,” added Steve, scratching his neck and screwing up his features. Jennifer slumped in concession.
“Fine. That’s fine,” said Tyron. “As I see it, our top priority is getting the Book out of his hands. It’s the reason he’s dangerous. If he didn’t have it, we could probably just send Steve to kick the crap out of him, tell him to wise up, and be mostly done with it. Besides, once he can’t summon voidfire and teleport away, he’ll realize his position is untenable. Even the King in Ash gimmick won’t make sense. He’ll surrender pretty quickly. How do we think we should go about it?”
Shadow again thought back to the tavern room in the village where she had first spoken to the Book. “Back when I made that deal with the Book, it acted like it valued its own survival above everything else, even if it worded it in an esoteric way. By now even it will have realized that it can’t stick with Kay forever, with his tendencies to drive himself to ruin to prove a point. It’s got to be looking for a new host. Currently my money is on Rose since she’s both close to Kay and very suitable with her occult magic, plus I’m sure the Book would be intrigued by the possibility of immortality that her world apparently has.”
Shadow took a few moments to contemplate how to best word what she was about to say.
“If we, in theory, had someone Kay trusts walk up to him and ask for the Book- Who am I kidding? Warnado is the only one who could pull it off without getting incinerated the moment he suggests it. It’s a terrible thing to suggest but it might be a way to get Kay to relinquish the Book so we can bring him in. Or he realizes that the Book is disloyal to him and submits to us. Both very optimistic possibilities, sadly.”
“I’m reluctant to put the kid in harm's way, but this is a bad situation and if we can avoid bloodshed, it might be worth it,” said Tyron. “Do you think it would work, Astro?”
“Shadow’s right,” Astro said. “At the very least we’re giving him an opportunity to step aside peacefully. And Warnado’s pretty much the only one who could ask for the Book to be given to him without Kay immediately branding them a traitor. I’m his friend, but if I asked, he’d consider it a huge betrayal. Same with Tyron. Even before he got the Book, he thought of us as his equals, so he’ll view it as an attempt to get ahead of him. He thinks of Warnado as some sort of lost puppy he needs to bring home and feed warm milk. In short, he might think it’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard, but he won’t chalk it up to malice.
“Besides, from the Book’s perspective, Warnado’s a pretty believable option. He has to kill Herobrine or something like that and he’s already consorted with the demonic powers who killed his dad to rise to that occasion. Why draw the line at the Book? Rose would probably be a more powerful host, but we can’t guarantee she would agree with us, and Kay would not allow it - something about undermining the chain of command by ceding his powers to somehow who is so clearly an underling. Warnado he could at least spin as a personal protege or Ashen Prince of some sort.”
He sighed and cradled his head in his hands. Jennifer rubbed him on the back, natural sympathy overpowering the hostility that had existed only a few minutes prior.
“As an added plus,” Steve said enthusiastically. “We only need the ruse to last long enough for one of us to clock Kay in the head. Then we can just destroy the stupid thing.”
After a few seconds’ deliberation, Tyron spoke.
“It’s not awful,” he nodded. “There’s a lot of room for error, but if we can get the kid to do it, it’s worth a shot. Only other things I can think of are ambushing Kay somehow, and his teleporting ability makes that really hard to pull off reliably. Could easily turn into a bloodbath. Confronting him wouldn’t go much more smoothly, even if we got the entire council-to-be on side he’d probably rather run off and rally his troops than give up quietly.”
Shadow looked at Tyron. “So, should we go find Warnado?”
“Sure, it’s probably best if it comes from us. We have the closest connection. Astro, would you mind not coming?”
“No, I understand. He and I and… we don’t click.”
Tyron nodded somberly.
“Just us two then, if anyone asks, we’re going to check on the portal.” Shadow realized what she just said. “Whoops. Sorry about that, you didn’t say that to me. You did think it rather loudly though. Hard to keep the accidental mind-reading suppressed. Another reason to get this whole thing done fast.”
“Hey,” said Jennifer. “This is kind of nostalgic, you know. If you get Warnado on board, it’s almost the same team that took down the Dreamweaver. Just substitute Fire for Tyron and… Fristad and the Book for Kay and the Book…” Her face fell. “...This sucks. I’m sorry I said anything.”
Shadow walked towards the door, which swung open ahead of her. “Let’s get to it then. The rest of you may want to wait behind a bit, it might be a bit suspicious if five people suddenly come out of my room.”
Tyron nodded and followed closely behind. Shadow focused up, it was time to face the noise.
The moment she stepped out into Nexus, Shadow was acutely aware of everything and everyone around her. Just so many different thoughts and feelings everywhere. She was not overwhelmed but she certainly was not comfortable knowing what everyone around her thought at the moment. She looked around, searching for Warnado and soon found her apprentice in one of her coven’s otherwise empty training rooms, currently munching on an unusually large taco.
“He’s in ‘my’ section of the Shelter, should make it easier to not attract attention.” She noted.
Shadow and Tyron split up soon after leaving her room to avoid suspicion. A quick walk and a short-distance teleport to avoid Raphoe’s squad later, Shadow stood at the door to the training room, waiting for Tyron.
Chapter 60: The Plan’s Keystone (Tyron)
“Bad idea. Won’t say yes,” said Kir.
“Sorry buddy, but until a good idea comes along it’s the best we have,” thought Tyron.
He and Shadow had split up on the way to meet Warnado - someone would say something if they were seen approaching him together, so he was left alone with his thoughts, and Kir’s.
Unfortunately, he could tell this didn’t satisfy his sword. He could feel its discomfort like a clammy heat at the back of his mind. Discomfort, and a hint of accusation.
“I don’t like this any more than you do. Kay’s done his best to do right by us, so we’re giving him a chance to step down. You saw those flames. That’s Herobrine-level destruction. And the kid’s going to be in more danger if we leave him next to that without doing anything.”
“Never said coup wrong. Said plan bad.”
Tyron groaned and tried thinking about the joy he’d felt not an hour previous. The relief of seeing Glowstar, and her: Rathina. The smell of oak in her hair, her smooth skin, the conviction with which she’d held him…
Unfortunately, he reached the end of the corridor, and had to leave this happy train of thought. For one thing, he’d entered the Coven’s section of Shelter, and there were now people in identical robes everywhere. More importantly, he saw Warnado in an unoccupied training room, biting into the mother of all tacos. Shadow stood by the door, subtly gesturing to him to approach. Tyron pretended not to notice her and walked right in.
He opened his mouth and hoped a natural lead-in would present itself, but suddenly he could only think about what might go wrong. What if Kay noticed this? What if Raphoe had him tailed? What if Warnado said no?
“That’s what I was saying!” grumbled Kir.
He stared, dumbfounded, as the child ate away. Tyron couldn’t see his eyes, so he wasn’t sure what Warnado was thinking or feeling, and couldn’t help but feel surprised
The door closed, Shadow had come in, and thankfully she proved more decisive.
She quietly said to Tyron: “Nobody followed us.” Then, more loudly to her apprentice: “Warnado, there is something we need to talk about. I know it’s a little much with what you’ve been through today but hear us out, okay?”
“Whatever it is, I’m not doing it. I’m not telling, but don’t make me part of this. Just, leave me alone, please.”
Warnado’s head drooped, and he turned to face the far wall, continuing to bite greedily into the taco. Tyron thought back to the hallway, and how Warnado and Amanda had caught him so completely off guard. He should have been paying more attention. His eyes fell to the floor.
“You’re the only one he’ll listen to,” said Kir with solemnity. “Only way to talk him down.”
Warnado seemed to rise a little, then hunched over pointedly. He snapped his fingers and the taco disappeared. He cast a glance over his shoulder in Shadow’s direction.
Warnado now asked directly: “What is it?”
“Thanks,” said Tyron to Kir.
“One second,” muttered Shadow.
There was a low droning sound as she finished casting the sound-proofing spell. Soon after, the bustle of the hallway became muffled and distant, then disappeared completely.
“Shortly after you left, several others visited me, all with very similar motivations. I’ll make it short. We think Kay has become too dangerous, too volatile to continue leading the Shelter. We have a plan to convince him to step down, in the best case at least. We need you for that plan.”
The kid kept quiet.
“We genuinely didn’t expect things to go this way. I approached Shadow today with Astro, not sure what to expect. Then the Brines showed up with the same worries… I’ll stop beating around the bush, PR is Kay’s thing. We need you to ask him to hand over the Book to you.”
Warnado whirled around and stood up.
“NO! I agree to talk to demons for one day and suddenly you all turn into Astro. I’m not letting that thing into my head.”
Shadow quickly said: “And we do not expect you to. We want Kay to give up the Book, then I will destroy it. It’s done more than enough harm already. Though, you could potentially work the inverse of what you just said into convincing Kay.”
“It’s a ruse, it’ll last exactly long enough for us to take Kay out of play. Steve wants to clock him in the head, but I could just freeze him or something. We just need them separated.”
Tyron looked to Shadow, asking her to continue. She explained: “The reason we need you for this is because Kay would consider the same question coming from anyone else a huge betrayal. It’s different for you, Kay likes you too much for that. Astro even thought it possible that Kay may want to make you a ‘Prince in Ash’ or something of the sort. The important part is that if he thinks his own position of power is secure, he may pass the Book on to you as a gesture of sorts.”
Shadow paused, then continued with a slightly darker tone. “Alternatively, if he’s unwilling but the Book wants you as its new host Kay might feel betrayed, which either convinces him to step down or gives us an opening to act. We want him alive, ideally placed under house arrest inside of his room.”
“Just until he cools off,” added Tyron with the slightest hint of warning.
Warnado started nodding and pacing back and forth, looking like a hyperactive bobblehead.
“Okay, I can see this. We just show him how creepy and untrustworthy that hardcover dork is, and he’ll recognise it’s making him be creepy and untrustworthy too. He’ll understand. You’ll hardly need to lock him up at all.”
He forced himself to laugh, as though each laugh was bailing water out of his lungs.
“I’ll do it. And then we can all go back to normal,” he concluded.
“Yeah, back to normal,” smiled Tyron.
But of course, Tyron knew ‘normal’ simply couldn’t happen. Kay would deteriorate with or without the Book, and he would drag everyone down with him. But Warnado didn’t need to hear that. Not yet.
“Don’t lead kid on,” scolded Kir.
Tyron felt a chill the size of an earthquake thunder up his spine.
“I need false hope as much as he does,” thought Tyron defensively.
Tyron must taken longer than he had realised responding, because Warnado said with a little impatience.
“So, when are we doing it?”
Shadow said: “Kay is on an excursion off-world currently. You should prepare yourself mentally, think of some lines maybe. Come to my room once Kay’s back and you’re ready, I’ll gather everyone, and we make our move.”
Chapter 61: The Hunters (Kay)
“Can you feel it?” my Book asked me.
I scanned the overlapping lines of magic for a few seconds, and then spotted it. Her magical perception.
“Poor thing,” I mused. “All involuntary. Well, entropy is as entropy does.”
“Take this seriously.”
“I wouldn’t be about to do this if I wasn’t.”
I had only a small entourage with me - at least by my standards. At the time I would normally have Astro, Warnado, Tyron and at least ten guards (not including Rose). I did the same thing under Herobrine. I would love to tell you it was some strategic show of unity or strength or personability, but fundamentally I just liked having people with me. It made me feel important.
But that day, I had resisted this impulse. Only Rose and two of my guards. And my Book, if you count them. They certainly did.
“These beings attacked Fire unprovoked, you must be diplomatic if you want this to be anything other than a bloodbath.”
I placed a hand on the door into the Portal Room.
“Don’t worry, I’m not Claw. I have restraint. They’ll have to really work at it to get hurt”
My jaw tensed instinctively and thrust my features into a demure look of neutrality. I reshuffled my scarf and entered.
We approached the portal and passed by a group of new arrivals. Warriors, green-eyed endermen, and a couple of red dragons. However, two stood out: a starry dragon, and a beautiful woman with dark hair and a confident smile.
“Glowstar and Rathina, if I’m not mistaken?” I said with a half-bow. “Welcome to the Shelter. Tyron speaks highly of you.”
I didn’t wait for a response. I simply strode up to the scientist manning the machine and handed him the dimensional coordinates, ripped straight from Fire’s notes.
“Yeah, that’s us,” said Rathina a little incredulously. “And you are?”
“I am the King in Ash. Now, if you’ll excuse me...”
The portal burst into life, blasting my hair and scarf back. I cast a glance back at Rose and the guards. Rose’s hair, and the guards’ scarves (imitations of my own) fluttered in the dimensional winds. I couldn’t help but smile, before turning my elated eyes back to Rathina.
“...I must expand our ranks further still.”
Several footsteps later, we stood at the foot of a snowy hill, a disused Nether portal behind us. A blizzard raged, but thanks to the Book my senses pierced through the snow, if only barely.
I scanned the horizon and saw a pack of blood-stained creatures - all white fur and fangs - padding away from the mangled, indecipherable carcass of their prey in a cacophony of howls and roars. The only thing I could tell about their victim was that it had been huge, at least one house tall and two houses long. Here and there the shreds of a rubbery, dark-blue skin could still be witnessed.
Somewhere else, I saw a line of spikes defending an apparently populous village. The architecture was rudimentary but monolithic, fashioned from the bones and skins of the leviathans which roamed these snowy plains. And I could see the far-off forms of its inhabitants darting around like ants.
But was it the right village?
“Rose, what are our coordinates?”
My bodyguard wore a heavy coat made from the fur of whatever wildlife our hunters managed to bag with more-or-less matching pants and hat. It certainly lacked the elegance of Rose’s usual outfit, but it was necessary in this weather. She seemed largely unimpressed, even after beholding the local wildlife with her own supernaturally sharp senses.
Rose shouted over the blizzard: “Roughly ten-thousand-three-hundred in the primary direction and fifty-thousand in the secondary. It’s close but apparently there should be a forest somewhere around here.”
With a little help from my Book, I got my bearings. Turning my head slightly North-West, I caught a glimpse of the forest. Then, following the lines of energy, I saw his entry and exit point. Somewhere in the middle lay the place where blood fell on the snow. Where Fire had ceded to Claw. Where Claw had sown the seeds of his demise.
“Excellent,” I smiled. “Be ready, I’m about to open a portal for the village.”
Obviously, warping four people over that sort of distance was no longer much of a bother for me. I just needed to get my pitch together in my mind.
“Separate the leader from the group,” I devised. “A bit of prop-work, perhaps… Wait…”
“Sorry, Rose, just a moment.”
I warped away before she could respond. I emerged in the forest, right where I reckoned the fight would have gone down. I looked around. No sign of the diamonds Fire said he’d left as blood money. And the bodies, obviously, had been recovered. I cursed, that would have been a boon. Though it was useful to know they valued diamonds like we did.
I arrived back distracted, remembering I hadn’t heard Raphoe’s report on Steve. I’d gotten the sense that Steve… that a lot of people were a little unnerved by my coronation. I understood, I really did, but new eras never fail to terrify. That’s at least half the reason eras last so long! And, of course, Shadow very much wanted things back as they were under Fire. So, My Book and I agreed that, in order to ensure no one attempted to stop the beginning of this golden age, we would give them reason to be afraid.
So, I had ordered Steve to carry out a superfluous task and then sent Raphoe and a squad of soldiers to unnecessarily check up on him, to insinuate to him that, yes, I had noticed his discontent, and that acting on it was a dreadful idea. Underhanded, yes, but I reckoned a fairer, more perfect world was worth one builder feeling a little insecure.
I opened the rift and our party stepped through.
We stood in a clearing near the middle of the village, and predictably found ourselves almost immediately in the midst of a tornado of spears, crossbows and other assorted weapons.
I eyed the hunters up. They were low-tech, with only a handful of diamond weapons between them, and their armour rarely exceeding leather. That said, their physiques were self-evident, and the look in their eyes suggested warriors worth cowering in the face of. In acknowledgement, I raised my hands in mock surrender.
“Oh dear,” I began. “Well, this was a dreadful miscalculation. You have us totally surrounded. No need for a fight, you have us right where we want to be. Now, do you have a chieftain, a high priest, some decision-maker I could talk to?”
I curled my lip and looked around discerningly.
“No one? No leader?”
Finally, a pair of warriors stepped forwards, a woman and a man. Both built like bears, both covered in scars. The woman wore furs reinforced with large bones, giving the appearance of a second rib cage. The man instead wore one of the few complete suits of iron armor in the village, safe for his head, which was covered by a wolf skin.
The woman spoke: “We are the chieftains of this village, who are you and what makes you think you can just barge into our home?”
“I am Kay Mandy, the King in Ash who shall soon rule Nexus - the crossroads of creation. I have come because I want you to share in our glory. May we speak apart for a moment? It’s better if we can work out a deal in private before declaring it before the people.”
The man spoke this time: “What you have to say to us, you can say before them.”
“A noble sentiment,” I smile. “But ultimately the wrong answer. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
I raised my fist. The two fell into rifts and out of sight. The spears began to fly.
“Be cautious, we want a show of strength, not a blood feud.”
“Naturally, Book,” I muttered aloud.
A series of rifts opened in a ring around myself, Rose and the two soldiers, into which the spears flew directly. This continued for around twenty seconds, when the spears stopped flying, the rifts closed, and the warriors saw us standing quite unharmed. This was a warlike people, but they weren’t stupid. Swords and axes were drawn, but not used.
“If you want your spears,” I smirked. “They’ve landed somewhere about five hundred meters outside your prickly border. I’m going to go and talk to your leaders. While I’m gone, you are to be completely accommodating to my colleagues, and prepare for them a list of your present armaments and numbers. Anyone who attempts to harm them shall find themselves rather full of razor-sharp metal. Rose, a demonstration if you will.”
Rose flicked her wrist and half a dozen knives embedded themselves in a line in the snow. I grinned at her and teleported away with a lax salute. Rose looked at me with half-closed eyes, a sigh probably followed shortly after. She could grumble at my methods all she wanted as long as my body remained guarded.
I emerged in the woods. The chieftains whirled around and assumed low, defensive stances, each carrying a knife made from bone. They eyed me but did not seem wedded to the idea of attacking, at least not yet.
“Now, where were we?” I asked with a clap of the hands and a winning smile.
“What. Do. You. Want?” The woman said with gritted teeth.
I flattened the smile.
“You lost a hunting party out here some time back, didn’t you?”
I scrutinised the landscape with my enhanced senses, getting a loose impression of where blood was shed.
The man nodded. “Our oldest daughter led that party, she brought down behemoths regularly. We know no creature that could slaughter an entire hunting party, especially hers, and get away afterwards. Not just that, there was a satchel filled with diamonds among the corpses. Still ask myself if the creature left it as some kind of joke.”
“My condolences. Different guy left the diamonds, though. The one who killed them is called Claw, and recently he has taken to serving my enemies. Killed a good few of my friends - including my predecessor, a man named Fire - and seems interested in killing more.
“Now, I’ve noticed that your resource situation seems pretty poor - I’m going to guess it’s about as barren below the surface as it is up here - and it just so happens we have many more resources than we know what to do with. In particular, we have recently acquired a steady supply of silver. Ask me why that should interest you. Go on.”
The woman barked: “Just tell us. You seem to want to help us, so get to it.”
“Claw’s a Mencur-Besh - a weird, hybrid creature, something between a human and an Endling. Incredibly strong, scaled, impervious to lightning, voidfire, and they’ve got three hearts to boot. But they’re deathly allergic to silver. Stick one with a silver crossbow bolt - doesn’t matter where - and it’s paralysed.
“That’s what I’m offering you short-term: the opportunity to avenge your daughter and hunt an exceedingly rare bit of prey.”
“And in the long term?” asked the man.
“Well, if you do well and help us kill Claw, that’s basically the war won, meaning I rule Nexus. I intend to make it a home for the forlorn and the downtrodden, and you lot seem to fit the bill. Suppose I bring you into the fold as justicars, turn you from hunters of beasts into hunters of the wicked? How would that sound?”
They were silent.
“Did I mention we have access to technology allowing travel between worlds, meaning you can not only return here to hunt whensoever you wish, but hunt wherever and whatever you want in all of creation?”
The woman said: “What you did earlier leaves me thinking we don’t have much of a choice. But who are we to turn down an opportunity for vengeance and even greater hunts?”
The man nodded. “My wife’s right, by our honour we accept.”
“Fantastic,” I beamed.
I opened a rift back to the village. I noticed the blizzard had calmed a little, and while the snow still fell thickly, it fell gently.
“Step on through and break the news, I’ll follow presently.”
They did so, and I savoured the scene, barely noticing the deadening of sensation in my face.
“A little showy, but successful,” concluded the Book, with some reluctance.
I didn’t care at all though. I was looking up at the falling snowflakes. I felt bloody immortal.
“When we burn the Tower, the ashes will fall just like this. They will do it because we command them to do so. We will be King in Ash, of Ash, over Ash. It’s going to be all ours, Book. Just you wait.”
I stepped back through the portal, unable to contain my joy.
Aug 1, 2021Posted in: Literature
Arc 5 Crisis (Cont.)
Chapter 51: The King in Ash (Destiny)
“So, he really did that to Bul?” Rose asked with some trepidation as she looked at the mangled skull.
“Yeah,” said Warnado. “He got what was coming to him, but… it was kind of scary.”
Scary was an understatement. Destiny had seen a lot, but something about the unflinching obedience with which Bul had shattered his own skull had gotten under her skin. His face indicated he was terrified, but his body moved steadily, almost politely, as though he were bowing to some foreign dignitary he was trying to recruit. And Kay had ordered him to do it with gusto.
She saw Warnado pressing his fingers against a set of goggles he’d produced to his robes. With eyes wide as saucers, the kid looked like he’d been punched in the face for the first time. Destiny wanted to feel bad for him but upsetting things happened in their line of work.
“You’re not a hero if you don’t know how to suck it up every once in a while,” Anya had once said to her. She wasn’t wrong.
As she thought this, she unintentionally shot a dirty look in Astro’s direction. He was steadying himself against a wall, muttering to himself in a series of broken gasps. There was someone who could do with Anya’s advice. She almost gave it to him, but she remembered how well Jennifer and Warnado reacted to that outlook after the Hill and decided she didn’t want a lecture.
She punched him in the arm instead.
“Come on, Kay said to leave the building. Now that we found Rose, that's everyone. Let’s go.”
He nodded, but the muttering didn’t stop, it only seemed to become more frantic and irritating.
“It’s too soon… could he have? No… the Book? Is it the Book? … It’s the Book. It must be...”
Destiny gritted her teeth. Dumb jerk was losing his head because he was scared of the Book? What right did he have?
“That thing tried to gaslight me when I was grieving… I’m the one who should be going nuts about Kay getting too pally with it.”
Destiny felt her arm grow cold as preliminary flames began to flicker on her palm, but then stifled them.
They reached the shredded remains of the entrance, the remaining soldiers went first. The purple-flame cordon still ran down the centre of the courtyard, and the battle had simultaneously intensified and calmed down.
Tyron’s party were still in the heat of battle, carving through endermen and humans. She could see Amanda on the Dragoknight’s shoulder, firing her crossbow adeptly, killing enemy after enemy.
“You’ve taught her well,” Destiny said to Rose.
Destiny could also see Steve and Jennifer fighting their way back to the rendezvous point, apparently having suffered minimal casualties. Their soldiers carried an array of heavy-looking crates with them, so it was mostly the two diamond-clad heroes doing the fighting.
Above the battlefield a second battle raged. Shadow was clashing with the Entity, its manifestations long discarded. How exactly this confrontation played out was difficult to tell for Destiny, whenever her gaze came close to either one, her mind violently rejected what her eyes were telling it.
The mages, however, seemed to have forgotten there was a battle going on at all. All but one, and she was the object of their attention. Like ships in a whirlpool, their eyes were drawn to Shadow, and they chanted in jubilance as she fought the Entity.
“What are they doing? Is it a spell?” Destiny asked Rose.
Astro, however, is the one who answered, snapping out of his reverie.
“I told her this would be a bloody problem!” He growled. “I’ve got to snap them out of this. Destiny, with me.”
He grabbed Destiny’s arm and flew them over the cordon, coming to settle near one of Shadow’s coven - the ones who wore her robes. She was an old woman, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the way she was chanting and ecstatically cheering. Destiny didn’t know her name. Astro took her by the shoulders.
“Talita, stop it,” He said as he shook her. “We need you here.”
Destiny took up watch duty instinctively, summoning icicles and hurling them at any Tower soldier that approached.
“This is the birth of a god! Us mortals should be glad to have the opportunity to witness such a thing!” She hesitated.
“She’s not a god, Talita, this is high-level magic, but this is not godhood! You need to focus, people are dying. Our friends are dying.”
Destiny brained an endling trying to sneak up on an ecstatic mage.
Talita’s eyes drifted from the fight, and she seemed to grow more lucid. A look of disappointment set in, and she began to move again.
“I suppose we shouldn’t forget our own mortality in the face of divinity.”
Talita set about rousing the other mages.
“By the mods,” Astro lamented. “Did it all have to go quite so wrong right this moment?”
“Oh, shut up. We’re winning,” thought Destiny.
But aloud she said: “When it rains it pours.”
They levitated back to the cordon just as Steve and Jennifer approached it. Astro disrupted the flames with a forcefield so they could get across. Jennifer looked troubled as she ushered the men with crates across. Steve came up to them.
“Looks like you guys got the crates no problem,” said Warnado.
“You guys look like crap,” Steve responded with concern. “What happened?”
“We got ambushed, Claw turned up,” explained Destiny. “It was a whole thing.”
“Oh Notch!” Steve exclaimed. “Claw’s here?”
He raised Excalibur and started looking around. Destiny, remembering the very real possibility that he was still waiting for his moment to strike, followed suit. She resummoned her flaming shield and icy sword.
“Was,” said Rose smugly. “I drove him off. Nearly killed him.”
“That’s a relief,” said Steve. Then, to Astro, “Did you succeed in your mission?”
“We have the blueprints,” said Astro. “And Marinus Bul is dead.”
He gestured to the corpse the soldiers were still carrying towards them
There was a bright flash from the sky as Shadow and the Entity’s clash continued, but nothing obvious came of it so they kept talking.
“What about Kay? Where is he?”
“Kay is the one who killed Bul. He’s…” Astro trailed off.
Warnado had the goggles out again and was gripping them so tight it looked like they’d shatter at any moment.
“He’ll be out in a moment, he wanted to do something,” said Destiny.
Tyron’s men appeared to be regrouping and drawing back toward the cordon. Destiny pulled out her bow and readied to cover them. Fortunately, the mages had mostly been roused from their rapture and it was becoming readily apparent that the battle was drawing to a close. They would still steal enthusiastic glances at Shadow and the Entity, but they were easily overpowering the battered remains of the facility’s garrison.
The enemy mages were all but dead, and the endermen were tired out. Since the Entity arrived, there was no indication of additional reinforcements. That said, that could change.
Just as the last of the men with crates crossed the cordon, they saw what Kay had been up to.
Another flash of light entered Destiny’s vision, but it was so much more than a flash. It was a blinding, burning light that forced her eyes closed, sending tears streaming. And as her vision returned, she saw silver-turning-purple flames surging within and without the command centre, filling it and spilling out onto the walls. Three great tendrils of fire spiraled up a large water tank atop the building, and then crushed inwards in a great, hissing mass of steam and broken metal.
And the flames did not stop at the command centre, they lashed across the courtyard, towards the warehouse and began to wash over it with startling rapidity. As the flames rose, Destiny saw workers run from it, some burning, all screaming.
A skeleton in overalls, flames climbing his back, came running up and began to roll in the dirt before the cordon.
“There are civilians here?!” cried Astro.
“Xylo!” Jennifer yelled.
Astro parted the flames and Jennifer ran up to the skeleton. Warnado doused the flames on his back with a jet of water. Destiny followed uneasily.
Jennifer tried to calm him and offer him a healing potion, but the skeleton batted it from her hand and backed up.
“They take what they want and kill who they like, huh?!” spat the skeleton. “Bastards all of you!”
“He didn’t know!” Jennifer cried out fruitlessly as he stormed off to help his friends. She looked to Astro. “He couldn’t have known about the civilians, could he? How could… We should have warned him.”
Steve took her in his arms as she tried to rationalise it, placing his chin on her pauldron and squeezing tight. Astro looked away darkly, flame casting half his face into a silhouette. Destiny wished she could comfort Jennifer, as Jennifer had once tried to comfort her back in the village, but she was at a loss.
The warehouse collapsed. The flames were now climbing the walls. The complex behind the command centre was an aurora of purple fire.
The fight in the sky raged on, Shadow and the Entity unaware or uncaring of the destruction beneath them.
Finally, from the purple flames at the entrance of the command centre, he emerged. He was silhouetted, featureless aside from two pinpricks of silver light about the eyes. Then, he cut the air with his sword, and he was illuminated. A burning circlet adorned his temples, and his sword became like an inferno, the blade invisible beneath the tongues of flame. All had stopped, friend or foe, to gaze upon his dreadful image. He smiled serenely.
“No…” came the sad whisper of Astro.
Warnado appeared trapped somewhere between admiration and horror.
The duel in the sky continued unbroken. Destiny wondered if the mage had been right about Shadow attaining godhood - no mortal could ever have afforded to ignore this.
Kay waited for them to notice him, carrying on his serene smile, until his face began to harden. He cut the air with his sword and a wave of fire arced through the air at the duel. There was an explosion, and when the smoke cleared, both combatants were staring down at him. Destiny had no view of their faces, but Shadow was still in her incorporeal shape which hurt to look at, and the Entity’s armour was undented.
Kay smirked. And he spoke, with a voice that sounded like flames and multitudes.
“Look at you, Entropy and Order, battling away, barely able to touch let alone harm each other. And totally oblivious to the world around you. I suppose that’s the thing about dichotomies, you only see two options. Well, now that you can see this fairly impressive display of power do you see the third path? The fire between you?”
He gestured to the aurora of destruction he had created. It spread across the gates. They were trapped. Destiny started to worry how far ahead Kay was thinking.
“Entity, you are powerful. You have conquered many worlds, and you plan to take many more with this machine of yours. You want to take them all, in fact, grind them down into one crown for you to wear. And yet, for all your centuries and your knowledge and your experience, you cannot see how that would sully it all. Look around you, Nexus is not a world, it’s not a capital, it’s a dreg heap. Scraps of places in a patchwork quilt with no rhythm or rhyme. Why would it be any different if you add more scraps? This entire place is a folly!”
He paused a moment, squinting.
“Actually, haha, you’re reminding me of this old fable they used to tell us as kids. About an old miser who had accumulated great wealth. However, it was all coins and even under his greedy little eye a coin would go missing every now and then. Someone steals it, maybe it slips down between the cushions, and he loses track of this. His wealth is always a little smaller than it would have been otherwise. Now, he is a supremely avaricious man, so he won’t let this stand, and he decides the only solution is to melt down his wealth into a single golden ball. He takes the ball, all pleased with himself, and buries it in a field. And every night, he comes back, and he cackles to himself as he stares at the dirt where it’s buried, deeply amused at the little trick he’s played. His fortune preserved at critical mass, forever.
“Of course, a servant noticed this quirky little habit of his and stole the whole thing. Poor miser never realised - he was never going to dig it up to spend it - so he died believing that ball of gold was there. You’re the miser, Entity. That’s all you are. A murderous, genocidal, grasping little miser. That’s why you stack rooms high with junk. That’s why you collect magical anomalies for experimentation. You just want to have things without thought. And, if you’re the miser, I reckon I’m qualified to be your crafty servant.”
He chuckled to himself.
“So, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to take my friends, we’re going to build an army from across the worlds - all the people you’ve attacked, kidnapped, robbed, tormented - and then I’m going to come back and kill you. And once I’ve burned your Tower to cinders, once I have incinerated any evidence you were ever here, I will take this melted ball of worlds and make it my kingdom. I will be King in Ash, guardian of the forlorn across all creation.”
He raised his sword and grinned. There were some scattered cheers, but they were halting. Warnado tried to force a smile onto his face, but it kept slipping off. Destiny kept eyeing the burning gate.
The Entity remained silent, though Destiny couldn’t help but feel it was a silence of cold fury. Shadow merely stared on, her exact reaction was impossible to read, not just because looking at her made Destiny’s head hurt.
“Anyway,” Kay cackled. “My friends are probably getting worried about when we’ll leave. I did accidentally burn down the gate - sorry guys! - but you’ll find we have no need of it.” Then, to the Entity: “I’ll be seeing you.”
Tyron, who had approached the cordon and begun to call out to Astro, suddenly shouted he fell into the ground. A silvery, fiery gash sat in the ground where he had stood. Then, Warnado yelped and was gone. Destiny backed up, heart pounding as the rebel army began to be swallowed by these flashes of silver flame. Kay smiled on, eyelids lowered as though he were about to drift off into a pleasant dream.
Then, just as a portal into the void opened beneath her feet and she began to slip momentarily out of the world, Destiny saw a similar rift open and close its jaws on Shadow. Yet, even after the portal closed, the incorporeal mage remained in place. She looked down at the King in Ash and scoffed. The last thing Destiny saw before falling into the portal was Kay’s furious eyes as Shadow drifted away into the sky, miles above him and worlds removed from his kingdom of ruins.
Destiny landed on her feet. She was in her room. She heard great clamour in the hall. She ran over to her door and threw it open.
There was much excited talk as a million things happened at once. Amanda and Warnado excitedly embraced and chattered about the craziness of their escape. Urist jovially trying to recruit someone to grab a drink to celebrate their survival and victory. Steve and Jennifer rejoicing as they talked about the impending chance to reunite with their friends. Rose tranquilly explaining her victory over Claw to a confused Lucy, trying to ensure this triumph didn’t get washed away in the tide of events. But one conversation stood out, passing under the others.
“He’s deteriorating rapidly, it’s just like you said. We need to do something,” breathed Tyron.
“We need Shadow,” said Astro as though signing a death warrant. “He’s too far gone.”
Then, as the reality settled in of whatever they were talking about, they fell very quiet. They saw Destiny watching them and slipped off into Astro’s room.
Destiny pulled the yellow crystal from her pocket and contemplated it.
“King in Ash,” Destiny repeated to herself. “We’ll see.”
She put the crystal away again and went to join Urist for a drink.
As Anya once said, when it rains it pours. Everything always hits you at once. Shadow’s powers escalating. Kay’s growing megalomania. The inevitability of a confrontation between the two. And the chance to finally fight the Tower on even footing. All in the one evening. It was too much to process. She would choose her side when the time came.
Chapter 52: Cold, Hard Data (Dr. Mercury)
For the first time in weeks, Dr. Mercury didn’t feel like she’d drop dead if she closed her eyes for longer than half a blink. The sleep deprivation had been getting to her but what other choice did she have, really? She not only needed to ensure that the machine was supplied with the appropriate amount of crystals, but she also needed to constantly check it for possible damage or other imperfections. It needed to work guaranteed. Fire’s suicide mission and arson certainly had thrown a wrench into her schedule there.
Of course, it was the other sibling that cost Dr. Mercury most of her sleep, that paradoxical mage, Shadow. Both Dr. Mercury and Claw had spent considerable time trying to make sense of what little usable data they were able to sift from various sensor logs. Up until now the only useful insight hadn’t even come from the sensors, but from Claw’s knowledge of how approximately Shadow came to be and what she was capable of. Dr. Mercury had spent some time with Claw thinking on how to get better, more useful measurements on Shadow’s true nature and sure enough, they had found a way.
The Tower was gradually shutting down its portal facilities since almost everything they needed for the machine had been gathered. One such facility was located in a desert some ways away from the Tower. Naturally, this meant it would be a target for the rebels sooner or later, so they decided to make use of this. The both of them had spent an entire day setting up a highly sensitive array of sensors in a freshly dug cavern beneath the compound, which transmitted its readings directly to Dr. Mercury’s central analysis hub. Their hope had been that if they just created enough of a threat at the facility, the rebels would be forced to launch a full-on assault instead of an infiltration mission. This would prompt the Entity to respond, which in turn would require Shadow to answer it.
What exactly these sensors found, Dr. Mercury would figure out soon. She was currently walking the corridors of the lowest areas of the Tower, on her way to her personal lab. Despite her tight deadlines she had been able to get a full night of sleep after returning from the facility. Claw had remained, apparently to antagonize Kay to trigger some change that he was apparently destined to have.
Dr. Mercury unlocked the door to her lab and stepped inside. She really had to clean up some of the mess she made over the last few days, research documents and sensor printouts littered most free surfaces, the rest was occupied by equipment that should be in a cupboard, not wherever it was currently.
“Later.” She said to herself. “There is data to be analyzed.”
And to do just that she sat down at her workstation, booted it up and located the data transmitted from the portal facility. As expected, the sheer amount of it was staggering, they had crammed every type of sensor they could think of into that cavern, multiple sensors of each type where possible. There was one sensor among them that she had developed for this exact occasion, she had even sacrificed a few crystals for it. That sensor would look beyond the boundaries of Nexus, into the emptiness between worlds, Dr. Mercury hoped that it would be the key to learning more.
She smiled. “Alright, tell me your secrets.”
It took a good while for all the data to be fused together into a singular model, which took the appearance of a 3D reconstruction of the facility based on what the sensors picked up. The level of detail was immense, although the model only concerned itself with matter density and energy emissions, so color and sound were entirely missing.
Now that Dr. Mercury had her model, she could slowly step through the timeline to observe how the battle played out. She had to give it to the rebels, they had some elite troops on their side. She fast-forwarded until she reached the segment where the Entity appeared. This was where the difficult part started. Many of the sensors couldn’t be cleanly visualized as part of her model so she had to look at the raw output or some statistical representation thereof.
While the Entity was not the subject of her study, Dr. Mercury decided to take a deeper look into what kinds of readings it caused nonetheless, after all she had already established that Shadow shared some traits with it, knowing what exactly those were would be useful in understanding how Shadow worked.
The data on the Entity was interesting to say the least, the pattern of the readouts remained the exact same across time, no matter how many decimal places Dr. Mercury looked at. This continued right up until the shielding material of its armor. The only place where there was a transitory space were its gloves, there the readings fluctuated between ambient noise and the strict order the Entity imposed.
These were no new discoveries, but they confirmed what she already knew about the Entity. Something interesting she found was that there was another, infinitely small speck of this impenetrable order some distance into the facility. She assumed that this was Claw, the Entity didn’t control him directly like it did with possessed subjects. It just seemed to maintain a token presence, possibly to keep Fire suppressed.
Dr. Mercury slowly stepped forward through the timeline, up until Shadow came flying in from outside of the sensor range. The extradimensional sensor picked up a vague presence, manifesting in an amplification of the ambient static. However, the magnitude of this presence grew immensely moments later, just when Shadow and her immediate surroundings completely dropped off the conventional sensors.
The presence was larger than expected, extending almost halfway across the facility. It also didn’t have a distinct border, its frayed edges bleeding into the surroundings and erratically moving about. She stepped forward a few more seconds, right up to where Shadow clashed with the Entity.
“Fascinating.” Dr. Mercury said, talking to herself in true evil scientist manner. “They aren’t overlapping at any point, they can’t even interact with each other beyond collision.”
Beyond these initial observations, Dr. Mercury spent several hours analyzing every detail she could of the interactions between Shadow and the Entity. More accurately, she studied them individually and tried correlating some points. It was obvious that the Entity had control over the spatial topology of Nexus but surprisingly, Shadow too had some degree of influence, if only at a local scale.
Eventually Dr. Mercury moved on to later parts of the fight, observing the happenings on the inside of the building. She saw the assassin chase Claw down and cut him in half with one swing. Claw wasn’t dead but he would be if he remained that way. For a split second, almost too short to be picked up by the sensors, the Entity’s presence on Claw expanded and fully enveloped him, bending reality to put him together again. In that brief moment the sheer amount of energy the Entity had given Claw also became apparent, if Claw had been capable of magic, he’d be nearly unstoppable with such power.
She also made another observation. In the time when Claw had been cut in half, Shadow’s presence was magnified hundredfold, but then returned to previous levels as soon as he was mended.
Dr. Mercury stopped analyzing the data to contemplate. “So that explains why the Entity is keeping Claw alive. If Fire’s body is damaged or otherwise compromised, she gets stronger.” She paused. “Hmm… maybe stronger isn’t the right word. More unstable would probably fit better. Then again, they’re synonymous in her case, increased entropy either way.”
A thought occurred to her. So, if that injury caused her power to spike that much, what would Fire permanently dying do? Even the Entity would have to respect such an immense increase in power. The Entity was order, Shadow was entropy. Dr. Mercury didn’t have to think to know which of those won out if the power gap shrunk. But didn’t the Entity say that she was no threat? Not even conceptually? Something about that struck Dr. Mercury as odd.
She opened a file containing her first test run of her new sensor, the subject of which had been the Entity’s void plasma that sat at the center of the machine. From what the Entity had told her, it was completely separated from its main body. It did exert a certain influence on its surroundings, miniscule compared to Entity itself. Scaled up, this influence was what allowed for possession and absorption, as well as control over Nexus’ reality. She now compared this to the new readings on the Entity, the influence was shielded by its armor, but its strength was still measurable. She now just needed a third data point to compare it to.
Scouring her measurement archives, Dr. Mercury came across early tests she had done a long time ago, before she was head researcher. The project that laid the groundwork for her new sensor. That was what she had been looking for. The measurements on the Entity’s pull weren’t accurate but they at least gave her an estimate. The Entity’s immediate area of influence depended on how much matter it controlled. The small blob of void plasma influenced next to nothing, its glass container was enough to completely negate its influence. The Entity itself was known to be able to exert influence on people through direct touch or at short distances, but its control over Nexus reached way further than that.
Dr. Mercury stood up, she needed to use the intercom.
She said into the microphone: “Hello, Dimensions? I’d like to talk to General Issa.”
Moments later the voice of her colleague could be heard. “Veronica, what do you need?”
“Just estimates on Nexus’ mass at two timestamps. I don’t need exact figures.”
Issa replied: “Sure, just send a message with the timestamps and I’ll have someone take care of it. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, we’re not under much load.”
Dr. Mercury found that Issa was true to her word, exactly four minutes after her initial message she got a reply with the data she had requested. Now it was only a matter of letting the computer fit a function to the three points, with generous wiggle room for the old, imprecise measurement. Only having only three data points was far from ideal and thoroughly unscientific, but it was all she had to work with. At least she could constrain the fit by assuming that the function would be monotonous. It didn’t make sense for the Entity’s influence to start declining at random mass thresholds, the Entity was weird but not that weird.
The calculation was fast, and thus the result took Dr. Mercury by surprise. She had expected a vaguely polynomial curve, hypercubic at most. Instead, the curve was exponential, at the very low end of estimates. The implications flashed to her mind instantly, but it took her almost a whole minute to comprehend them in their entirety.
She felt fatigued, as if she had gone another few days without sleep. Her head swam.
She slowly vocalized her thoughts, as if that would make it easier to accept.
“When we start the machine… the worlds the crystals came from will collapse into Nexus. They will take their neighbors with them. At that point Nexus will have enough mass to expand the Entity’s influence well past its boundaries. The Entity… will take off its armor and exert its pull again. At that point it will be enough to reach worlds the machine couldn’t.”
She took a deep breath.
“It’s a runaway reaction. More and more worlds collapse into Nexus, the Entity gets more and more powerful. Eventually… it will unite all of existence in Nexus and then... then its influence will make it absorb all sentience. The Entity will be all.”
Dr. Mercury shook her head. She had to keep this knowledge to herself. Saying anything to anyone wouldn’t help. At the best she wouldn’t be believed, at worst she’d be possessed by the Entity and forced to continue her work. She had been digging her own grave this entire time, not just her grave, the grave of everything and everyone. And if she hadn’t done it, her successor would have.
For the first time in her life, Dr. Mercury felt entirely at a loss.
She was too absorbed in her own personal nothingness to notice the vague outline of Freak passing through the edge of her vision as he phased out of the room.
Chapter 53: Grand Plans (Tyron)
“And what is the update on the construction of the portal room?” he asked, eyes glowing with voidfire.
It was his first public appearance since the night he proclaimed himself King in Ash two nights before. And was really doubling down on the King angle. He sat on a raised throne, erected at the back of the dining hall, a crown of plain iron on his head, looking grave and immovable. Steve and Jennifer stood before him in full armour. Tyron at his right. Rose at his left. The other officers distributed amongst a group of knights in red scarves. He wasn’t leaning on backroom subconferencing to make decisions anymore. Now, the public would see his will… or whatever this was supposed to achieve.
“Thinks he looks strong. Looks crazy,” chirped Kir with the solemnity of a doctor pronouncing a long-term patient dead.
“Don’t forget, he is strong,” Astro warned telepathically.
Tyron looked up from his position at Kay’s right hand and cast an eye at the wizard who was now a part of their wordless conversations. On the next step down from Tyron, Astro looked straight forward, staring ambiguously into the crowd as though searching for nothing and everything. And, like Tyron, he was flanked by soldiers in red scarfs.
They’d taken the decision almost immediately after returning from the raid - they needed as much time to plan and compare notes as possible. Kay would have them both busy, dashing between errands and appearances. They needed to be ready to move.
“He’s both, that’s why he’s a problem,” concluded Astro.
But for the moment they did not have a plan, so they maintained the illusion of support. He looked down to the foot of the plinth, where Lucy looked up at Kay, looking uncomfortable speaking before such a large crowd.
Tyron felt sorry for her - she was overseeing the administrative side, but Steve and Jennifer were the ones overseeing the actual construction - if she was uncomfortable Kay shouldn’t be forcing her while Steve and Jennifer stood statuesque before his throne. Then again, maybe this was his idea of bringing her into the fold after keeping her at arm's length. Tyron couldn’t tell what tactics had carried over between the governance of Kay Mandy and the reign of the King in Ash.
“The chamber is nearly complete. Construction will be finished by tomorrow, the technology will be set up within two days.”
They had dug a tunnel rapidly into one of the other mountains that framed the high plain that held the entrance to the Shelter, and now were hollowing it out. Tyron saw the reasoning. It put the portals out of the way of the areas the enemy knew about. Besides, it meant new arrivals would get the scenic route, and Kay intended for them to have many arrivals.
Kay stood up, and he smiled a smile that almost radiated warmth, but in truth reflected the self-satisfaction of a tyrant. And yet, what he said was not tyrannical. He sounded downright humbled.
“Thank you, Lucy. As per usual you have us all running well ahead of schedule. You’re a credit to yourself and a credit to the Shelter. And, of course, let us not forget Steve Brine and Jennifer, who have almost single handedly overseen this rapid, essential construction.”
He stepped forward and, planting a hand on the shoulder on either Brine so as to show his reliance upon them, he practically beamed out at the crowd.
“We have all fought hard, even those of us who have not been on the battlefield, and we have done it against an enemy who are more experienced and better-equipped and who outnumber us a thousand to one. We have considerable power in our ranks, and I would trust any person in this…” He paused to weigh his words, then tried to pass it off as simply being empathic. “Shelter, to defend against at least a dozen of the Tower’s cabal of mercenaries and genociders. We shall build a new world from the ashes of the Tower, and it will be a better one than any of us has ever known. ”
He raised a fist, and there were some cheers, particularly from infantry fighters Kay had trained, or archers he had kept from the frontlines with his portal trickery. Others were not so enthusiastic, smiling politely at best, looking openly afraid at worst. However, those who did cheer were desperately, deeply enthused simply by the fact he was there. What he said was immaterial, the King in Ash and his better world was what they needed to believe in.
“He’s lucky,” Tyron thought to his sword and the wizard. “If Shadow’s coven hadn’t gone so cultish during the raid and left the rest of us to fend for ourselves, we probably wouldn’t have had to lift a finger. He’d have been toppled by the end of the evening. But people are desperate, so people will support him because they think he can keep her in check.”
“Tyron,” replied Astro with some considerable reluctance. “Let’s not pretend he’s totally devoid of charm, or we too are culpable. Shadow’s distant, methodical, hard to connect to. Kay is outgoing, full of fire. Upsettingly literally at the moment.”
He wasn’t wrong. Shadow wasn’t even present for the address. Tyron could see a few of her acolytes at the back, but they didn’t look important or happy to be there. They tapped their feet impatiently.
“So do not take it as an insult when I say that we are few in number,” Kay continued. “We need reinforcements, or we will not prevail. And soon we shall be ready to rally them. We are not alone. We have friends.”
He turned to the officers and began punctuating his declarations with punches of his fists and small, harmless combustions of voidfire.
“We have adventurers.” In Steve’s direction. “Dwarves.” To Urist. “Heroes.” To Destiny. “Dragons!” To Tyron, who felt a pit in his stomach. “All these allies yearning to aid us, to come together as an army of all the worlds. It matters not why they come. Do they want to help the weak? We will take them. Do they want to protect their loved ones? We will take them. Do they simply wish to test their mettle against a worthy foe? The more the merrier. Rejoice and be merry, victory is on the horizon!”
He clenched his fists, and rifts opened along the tables, out of which fell a frankly worrying quantity of alcohol. Tyron and Astro exchanged a look, they hadn’t been consulted about this. Scanning the crowd, Lucy was the only one who looked unsurprised. Perhaps Kay had brought her into the fold after all.
“Have fun tonight, for the road ahead will be arduous. I wish you well and take my leave.”
As part of the pre-arranged entourage, Tyron automatically began to follow Kay, but he was concerned that a gesture like this had been arranged without his, or by the look of it, Astro’s consultation. He debated whether or not to raise the issue once they were out of earshot - he was trying to look like he was behind Kay, not that he was a sycophant.
Tyron soon began to notice that the other officers were coming with them, even ones who he usually considered diehard Fire supporters, and by connection Shadow sympathsiers, like Urist and to a lesser extent Voidblade. And Warnado and Amanda, who he normally said were too young. The entire officer class was walking with them bar Shadow.
Finally, they found themselves walking into the second recent construction site, this one in the Shelter proper. Tyron had not seen the corridor they were in on the preliminary blueprints. There was a button on the wall.
“Jennifer,” Kay said breezily. “Would you do the honours?”
A large, four-by-four piston door opened and unveiled a large, carpeted room, lit with redstone lamps and filled with amusements. A full bar, a small spleef arena, a training corner, a library, a kitchen and many other luxuries. In the centre was a depressed area filled with sofas, a long table running along it.
Kay stepped out before them.
“Like I said to them, it’s been hard the last while, and I haven’t been as friendly or respectful to you all as I should have been. So, when Steve and Jennifer suggested that we make a new area for everyone to cool off in, I leapt to approve it. Let me introduce you to the new officer’s lounge.”
There was a flash in either hand and suddenly he was pouring himself a drink of whiskey. He raised a toast.
“To new beginnings,” he said.
It had that same tyrannical self-satisfaction as before, but Tyron tried to smile convincingly as he heard it.
The party was in full swing, and Tyron was sitting on one of the sofas, feeling warm and sleepy from the drink. Steve sat next to him, talking about getting Dungeons and Enderdragons going again to Lucy, who was already working out the best date and time to do it, and any people they should add or expect to have to replace.
Jennifer was swaying pleasantly atop the remains of a spleef arena, having beaten Amanda, Warnado, Astro and even an uncharacteristically enthusiastic Voidblade. The first chatted away at Voidblade, who almost seemed capable of pretending to be interested.
Rose and Urist stood around trying to figure out how Steve and Jennifer’s jukebox worked, apparently deciding it was completely impossible and therefore utterly hilarious. Urist kept leaning forward and pressing an eye to the black holes where the music poured out from and came away cackling each time.
Destiny and Astro were talking to Kay over by the bar, all looking very animated about whatever they were talking about. The bartender too was absorbed in the conversation, perpetually serving up more drinks as the trio finished them, never quite completing their order.
Astro was easily the most sober of them, casting eyes around the room but looking like he’d just about put the conspiracy out of his mind. Destiny was probably the most drunk, laughing darkly at nearly every word of whatever the other two said. And Kay was a close runner-up, sloshing his glass of whisky around in violent swings and spilling a lot of it as he told some long-winded anecdote, the image of boisterousness. He and Tyron locked eyes and he nodded several times with a grin.
Tyron almost felt guilty, and diverted his attention to Warnado, who stood not far off, trying to sneak a glass of rum. However, just as he managed to pour the glass Kay and Astro loomed over him. Kay took the glass with an almost admiring look.
“Warnado, you’re much too young,” said Astro with considerably less admiration. “Things are weird right now but we’re not giving minors alcohol.”
“Quite right,” Kay agreed. “A fruity drink for the kids, please! One each. No alcohol, please thank you!”
Then Astro turned and walked back towards Destiny and the bartender, looking stern. The bartender then filled up two non-alcoholic drinks and slid them down the counter. Kay, continuing to scold, sloshed half the rum into either drink and departed with a wink.
“And don’t do it again!” he concluded as the child departed, beaming.
Tyron chuckled to himself and realised Steve and Lucy had gone off to the library to consult a rulebook. However, before Tyron could begin to wonder how a man that friendly could simultaneously be such a tyrant, he noticed the man himself drunkenly swaggering over to him.
Kay collapsed into a seat behind him and immediately began to stammer with purpose.
“Tyron, listen, I wanted to say - about the speech from earlier. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot with the whole dragons thing I - I - Warnado tells me you’re not sure about how your world is doing, which I probably should have guessed from context, but I never knew. Something Freak said in captivity, you know yourself. I just wanted to clarify… don’t feel pressured to go back there if you’re worried. This is your trouble, no one can tell you how to,” he stifled a belch, “deal with it but you. So, you can go there if - if when and you’re comfortable. And - and I won’t send anyone else, unless you say so. Steve - he also has a dragon, apparently, it’s not that big a deal. Just say to me. Anyway, good talk big guy, I’m missed over,” he looked around and rediscovered the bar, “Over there, probably.”
And with that, Kay was gone, so Tyron tried to reconcile this barely coherent but obviously well-meaning young man with the cold arrogance of the King in Ash. Once he’d wondered how Kay could become the man Astro feared so thoroughly, now he wondered which part of him was the act. All he knew was that the man could turn wars into grudges, grudges into wars, and any celebration into a tragedy if he so desired it. So, as Tyron began to drift off to sleep, he felt uneasy, and stopped himself from slipping under completely.
“Keep alert,” Kir told him.
So, he kept alert, eyes dashing warily around the room beneath half-closed lids.
Chapter 54: A Key to Other Worlds (Jennifer)
Jennifer jogged down the hallway, dodging between people and supplies. It was finally the day.
The portal had started operating the previous night, and Steve had volunteered to go through first. Jennifer would have joined him but had already committed to leading a gathering mission and so stayed behind. It almost killed her not to go, but now he was scheduled to get back.
She narrowly avoided ploughing into Urist and apologised between excited giggles. The dwarf smiled though, he understood this was a big day.
It had only been a few months, but she had missed their friends so much. The familiar grounds of Brine Manor too, and even further off her own home, but that could wait. The people were more important.
She came to the heavy iron doors and came to a halt, panting slightly. After composing herself she pressed her palm against the button and strode through.
The portal room was large and octagonal, with a series of redstone consoles around the room humming with activity and flashing out numbers. On the opposite wall to Jennifer, the portal itself lay dormant.
For the moment, it was just an empty obsidian ring, but soon it would flash back into life. That said, it was an impressive obsidian ring. Jennifer and Steve had gathered the obsidian themselves, and it was at least five times the size of your average Nether Portal. Pressed against the side was a surprisingly small console into which you could program dimensional coordinates.
It worked by locking onto a dimension, then identifying any extant portals or suitable dimensional rifts. The console allowed the user to filter between them and decide on the optimal entry point. Naturally, this meant you had to work with whatever entry points existed within the dimension, so the size was mostly for show, at least until they found an ally who could build a matching portal of similar size, or a Tower portal they could hijack. However, they’d all felt the aesthetic and deployment potential was worth the extra resource commitment.
It wasn’t like they were being stingy with the obsidian. Beneath the stone walls and woolen floor were about three layers of the stuff. The entire portal room was a lockbox.
And at the heart of this lockbox stood its overseer, Tyron Dragoknight. He wasn’t a natural fit for this rather technical process, but he was pretty much the only option. The obvious choice would have been Shadow and her mages, but they were keeping to themselves, and Kay seemed happy enough to keep them away from this. Astro would then be the logical second choice, but he was always running some errand or in Kay’s entourage. Lucy was already rushed off her feet. And Tyron wasn’t not busy, but there were people who could be reshuffled to handle things like his training duties. Everyone else was either too important to specific sectors - like herself and Steve with gathering - a literal child, or kept disappearing off on their own, like Destiny.
She walked up beside the second-in-command as he read over some readings and scratched his furry head. She probably should have said something empathetic, but her excitement overtook her.
“So, when is Steve arriving?”
“Just a few minutes…” said Tyron. “Sorry, these numbers are hard to wrap my head around.”
“Maths… so much maths,” lamented Kir.
“Oh, what’s the issue?”
“So, thanks to the notes Fire took when he worked on the Ender’s atlas, we had some idea of what worlds there are. We can also use this little thingumajig,” he pulled out a metal device with a small glass tube on the end, “to figure out where individual people are from and roughly where they exited their world from. The problem is it becomes less obvious over time, so we have to do more work to reconstruct the signature. So, our scientists are - they do the - they triangulate the… This really isn’t my field.”
The two laughed. Tyron put his sheaf of papers into the glowing void on his back.
“Long story short,” Tyron concluded. “We’re trying to distinguish between the different openings. An active portal suggests civilisation has at least been there once. A rift could be anywhere. But… maths. It’s hard.”
“Numbers everywhere,” chirped Kir, traumatised.
“Anyhow, excited?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s just been so long. I’m not expecting a full reunion of the Alliance or anything, but it’ll be nice to have some familiar faces around the place. Not that I don’t like you guys or anything, it’s just, I’ve known them longer.”
“It’s a more natural fit.”
“The difference between work friends and the people you actually seek out.”
They settled into an uncomfortable silence.
“I don’t know, some of us have gotten pretty close. You and Astro, for example. You seem to spend a lot of time together.”
“Yes,” he said. “We do.”
He said it in a way that withered and rotted away the idea of their friendship Jennifer had built up in her head. Suddenly it was no longer private confidence and companionable laughing, it was mostly uncomfortable silences and grim solidarity. It was an alliance of convenience, or necessity, to Tyron that could never compare to the real thing.
“How are you feeling about seeing your friends again?” Jennifer asked with a sympathetic smile.
Tyron gave a nervous smile.
“Maybe a little more than friends?”
“Drop it,” said Tyron definitively.
Jennifer’s smile faded and she turned to look at the portal. Silence washed over and over them until it became unbearable, until she thought she might drown in it. Then, a merciful scientist called over to them.
“One minute to scheduled reopening. Are we good to go sir?”
“Absolutely, get it ready guys,” said Tyron.
He clapped his hands, and the room became ablaze with activity.
And with that, the awkwardness was gone, and excitement replaced it. Levers flipped, buttons were pressed, and Jennifer fought the urge to move frantically in response to each new development, as though the levers and buttons controlled her own body. She clenched her fists, heard the chugging of pistons beneath them, and it could have been her own heartbeat.
Finally, Tyron grinned widely and handed her a pair of protective goggles. She finished putting them on just in time to see the Dragoknight walk up to the portal console, fiddle with a few buttons, and pull the lever.
There was a flash. A blue, pulsing light rushed across the space within the portal frame, overlapping and binding until it formed a strange, gel-like film across the air. And within the gel were shadows, vague blurry shapes like mountains and trees and… people maybe? Wind rushed through the portal and threw her red hair right back, then calmed to a gentle breeze. It was open.
The shadows started to move, growing larger and more looming, until finally they passed through.
The first figure appeared, green eyes and athletic form blooming into view immediately. Ozen, Steve’s older brother, stepped forward with a sword in one hand and a picnic basket in the other.
“Wow,” he laughed and called over his shoulder. “You weren’t kidding, those portals show you some weird stuff.”
He staggered and fell to his knees, still laughing away. It took all Jennifer’s strength not to run up and hug him immediately.
Wolfric stepped through, armour over his black robes and a brewing stand in each hand, and also staggered a little but did not fall.
“Yes, I have seen horrors and beauties beyond my comprehension,” he muttered absent-mindedly. Then, to Tyron: “Sorry, could you hold these?”
He handed over the brewing stands.
“I have more in my inventory, but thought some extra wouldn’t hurt, given the circumstances.”
His tone was flat and disengaged. As ever, the machinations going on behind his dark blue eyes were a complete mystery to Jennifer, as he barely acknowledged the big, green wall of fur standing over him. Then, his eyes fell on her.
“Hello Jen. How are you doing?”
“Really? I haven’t seen you since the Ocean Monument and that’s the best you can do?”
She hugged the wizard and beckoned for Ozen to join them. Startled, the mysterious wizard just smiled stupidly, and then had the wind knocked out of him as Ozen slammed into him from behind and bear-hugged them both.
“I’ve missed you guys so much!” Jennifer shouted.
Then, finally, the last shadow moved up to the portal, and out came Steve, riding atop Drake Junior, their pet enderdragon. Several scientists gasped and backed away at the sight of the creature, but Jennifer couldn’t stop beaming. The creature had chests strapped to its flanks, no doubt containing all manner of useful resources, and it panted happily and swung its head around in curiosity.
“Honey, I’m home!” smiled Steve as he hopped down from the creature’s back. He and Jennifer embraced, and Tyron ran up to stroke the young enderdragon under the chin.
“Look at you, you are a beauty,” said Tyron with reverence.
“Like what you see?” Steve asked. “I thought you spent a lot of time with dragons?”
“Yeah, but the enderdragon in my world was a one-off. A tool of Herobrine. I destroyed it but look at this thing! It’s here, it’s alive, it’s not evil! It’s cute!”
The dragon licked his face, and he laughed heartily.
Ozen and Wolfric joined Jennifer and Steve.
“So, is it just you guys?” Jennifer asked. “How is everyone?”
“Mom’s doing well,” said Steve. “Dad’s recovering. Mark’s busy helping the villagers rebuild, same with David - y’know Morbrook David not... Couldn’t get hold of Alex, she was off on an adventure. Nothing from Deodate either.”
“I mean what did you expect?” said Ozen. “He’s an angel, he’s not exactly alive.”
“Yeah, but he’s the reason we have the dumb crystals that got us into this mess, I was hoping maybe he’d turn up.”
“I’m surprised you were available,” said Jennifer to Wolfric. “You’re always off doing mysterious magicking wizard stuff.”
“I was, but then I heard you guys had disappeared. I came back to help Ozen look.”
“Aw, you big softie!”
Jennifer punched him in the arm.
“Well, we have the gang back together,” said Steve contentedly. “So, plan for Dungeons and Enderdragons over spleef?”
No one had any objections. They left Tyron with Drake and went off to the officer’s lounge.
“Okay,” said Tyron as the dragon was led off to be fed and lodged. “My turn.”
Chapter 55: Inevitability Revealed (Destiny)
Destiny approached the broken portal, passing through the corpses of her old enemies, and feeling a little embarrassed. She hoped Anya didn’t realise she’d been drinking since she last saw her. To her credit, it had just been the night of the officer’s lounge opening, but everyone deserves to cut loose every now and then, even heroes. Right?
But she mostly thought about that to try and avoid thinking about the real issue. The gem was flashing again. Obviously, she couldn’t answer it in the Shelter, so she’d just had more time to dread it as she tried to reach Anya. She had resolved to take whatever help Freak offered her, but she didn’t like that she had to.
Finally, she crested the hill and saw Anya waiting for her, lounging in the mouth of the portal. She didn’t straighten up, instead maintaining a look of luxuriant disdain beneath closed eyelids.
“So, you’ve been drinking again?”
“-And after the dramatic bottle smash? Kiddo I could not be more disappointed-”
“-That’s not important right now,” grumbled Destiny, rummaging in her pocket.
“Don’t change the subject on me. You’ve got to take this seriously or you’ll end up even deader than I am!”
Destiny pulled out the pulsating yellow gem and waved it in front of Anya.
“I’m plenty serious, now lighten up. We can’t let this guy know we’ve been fighting.”
“Sure, we’ll just talk shop, I guess.”
She stood up and shook her ethereal body out.
Destiny pressed the crystal, and she saw the same pattern of criss-crossing yellow lines as before, which eventually coalesced into Freak’s translucent form. From the second his face weaved into view, she knew this would be a big one.
“Destiny, we need to meet in person, right now!”
Freak raked his talons through his hair and curled in on himself. His features were stretched taut with stress, to the point that he looked fit to explode at any moment. Whatever had him so scared, he had just seen it. Seeing a phantom of fear scared could have been funny if Destiny ignored the implications.
She tried again, with forced confidence.
“What’s happened, Freak?”
“I’ll tell you in a moment, just… let me...”
He looked wildly around the hilltop, half-crawling forward. Despite not physically being there, he carefully avoided the broken glass Destiny still hadn’t cleaned up. It was strange, animalistic, as though he were trying to sniff something out. Then, he straightened up and loped towards Destiny.
“Sorry, it’s easier if I show you.”
He then slashed upwards with his talons and caught her between the eyes. She staggered back as warm blood sprayed out and trickled down the bridge of her nose. As her eyes cleared, she realised the sky was black. Then, the portal was gone. Then, she was nowhere.
She looked around and saw Anya huddling close to her. She placed a hand on her shoulder, and it didn’t phase through. So, Freak wanted her to experience something physical.
Suddenly, a path beneath her feet. They walked forward instinctively, the dark still around them. To the left, a glimmer of light, a glimpse through a space the size of a doorway into a laboratory. Some scientist Destiny recognised from files and descriptions: Veronica Mercury. She looked dreadful, with pale skin and dark rings digging into her face. She kept frantically tapping buttons and scribbling figures, desperately trying to escape an answer she’d come to, or an error she’d made. Finally, she buried her face in her hands.
“I’m sorry,” wept Mercury.
Destiny wanted to stop, or maybe to go in and try to figure out what this was about, but she couldn’t stop walking. Her pace just kept accelerating.
Next, on the right, she caught a glimpse of the Entity - the main body, not a manifestation - prowling around a distortion in the air, a crack in the world. But now she passed the doorway even faster.
“Destiny, slow down,” Anya shouted.
Destiny realised how fast she was moving and couldn’t slow down. Anya was falling rapidly behind her. She tried to stop, but her legs disobeyed her, striding on. She saw Anya trip and fall, and then disappear back into the dark.
Next, a glimpse of a long table. She remembered it as the place Marinus Bul and the Entity had tried to recruit her and David all those months ago. But now, the Entity’s generals were gathered. The main body sat at the head of the table and offered instructions she couldn’t make out. Some fell to their knees in servitude. Others rose in anger, only for manifestations to emerge from the shadows, pass their hands through them, and absorb them until they were nothing.
Her speed was terrifying. If she hit anything, she’d break like glass.
Then, the machine, large and impervious. Crystals shone within it. The Entity approached and shed its armour. And it was grey, swirling, and terrible. And it was everywhere and everything and every-
Destiny tripped and skimmed across the ground. It was a roof of cold, bronze slabs of stone, and she was careening towards its end. She tried to get a grip, but the slabs were too smooth, and too tightly packed to leave a gap. Nothing had ever damaged these stones. Nothing ever could. She slid over the edge.
Then, as she saw Nexus unfold beneath her in all its patchwork expanse, a hand reached from the sky and grabbed her own. She was dragged back onto the roof.
“Thanks Anya,” she said.
“Oh sure, thank her.”
Destiny’s breath left her.
A man with dark, messy hair and a patchy stubble stood over her. He wore a dark blue jacket over a leather chestplate and white shirt. An unbroken gauntlet sat on his wrist, crackling with the energy of the Hollow Emerald.
He pressed a hand to her cheek. “I said I didn’t want to lose you again, so I won’t.”
They kissed and held each other tight, until they heard a boom. The Tower shook beneath them. They staggered apart and looked around for the source of the apparent danger.
She looked around at the sky and at the ground and saw nothing. Industry and fields and forest below. Only yellow and orange and wisps of cloud above. And then she saw it.
The sky was shrinking in. The horizon was getting nearer. The world was turning slowly in on one point. And as it did so, she saw patches of grey static spreading like moss mold rot. Like maggots waiting to burst forth, the Entity was becoming everywhere. And it spread beyond Nexus. She saw cities nations worlds appear in the sky and wither away into its form. One body, one being, endless and final.
And now it was spreading onto the roof of its own Tower, consuming, eating, debasing its creation.
She turned. David staggered towards her, across a patch of the seething grey. The grey was spreading across him too, and melting away as it did so, taking away soft, peeling chunks. Like rotting fruit, eaten by maggots.
It reached his jaw. It devoured his face. He reached out. He fell forward. Melted into the nothing that everything had become was becoming will become.
She fell to her knees, choking back tears of horror and loss. It would reach her next and there was nothing she could do. She scrunched her eyes shut. She waited.
“Destiny. Destiny, wake up!”
It was Anya’s voice. Destiny couldn’t feel her presence. She opened her eyes. She was back before the portal, lying on her back.
“Thank Notch, you’re awake,” sighed Anya.
Anya turned and eyed the image of Freak, who was cracking his knuckles obsessively over by the edge of the hilltop. Destiny rose up.
“What the **** was that?” she asked.
“That’s what will happen if we don’t stop it, soon.”
“No, what was that?” she asked, more angrily.
She took a step towards Freak, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“I needed to make sure you got just how serious this is. Excuse my slight artistic liberties.”
He was still looking away.
“You had, no right.”
Freak turned around, confused.
“You had no damned right to use him like that!”
Tears were flowing down her face. She fell to her knees. She’d had him back, just for a second. It didn’t matter that it was a lie, he had been back and now he was gone again. The pain was all fresh and all new and just as bad as before.
Anya laughed harshly.
“You used David. Ho-ho-holy ****ing ****.” She rubbed her temples. “The second I think you can’t get any more pathetic, you just go and overachieve, don’t you, Freak?”
“Get out of here, now. We’re done. You’ve got your fear fix, you’ve had your fun. So, unless you’re going to come in person so we can kick your ass good and proper, don’t bother coming back.”
“Humans! So myopic! Don’t you see why I had to use him?”
Ignoring the still-weeping Destiny, he stormed up to Anya and sneered at her.
“I need her to understand what everyone and everything is going to see and feel and lose if that thing wins. I’m sorry if I hurt the poor duck’s feelings, but this is bigger than her or you or me. That anguish she feels right now, that is all there will be at the end of the world, and then there will be nothing but the Entity. If she can’t bear it, maybe she should either help me stop that from happening, or just off herself now.”
He turned away, furious. Destiny stopped crying. She wiped her eyes and sat up.
“He’s right,” she said.
“He certainly is not!” Anya protested.
Destiny ignored her and looked at Freak.
“What’s your plan?”
“There’s the issue. Beyond the fact that we can use the crystals to somehow harm things like the Entity, there isn’t much to go by. And harming isn’t killing. Other than that, there is one thing left: The Entity’s one fear - one of two technically if you count your mage there - and that’s the dimensional scar located in its throne room.”
“So, where do I come in? What do you want me to do?”
“At this point, trying to jam a crystal in there, hitting it with magic and hoping it does something is the best we can hope for. The magic part is where you come in. I’m reasonably confident that I can get you up to that point.” Freak sighed. “Issue is that I don’t happen to have crystals on hand, can’t even appropriate one from the shipments because there are no shipments anymore. The machine is scheduled to come online in just a few days.”
Destiny didn’t say anything.
“How difficult is it to get crystals with our guys?” Anya asked, with a contemptuous sidelong glance at Freak.
“Unless Fire had a secret stash that we don’t know about, Steve’s the only one I know has access to any crystals. Sadly, they’re in his ender chest. We need to trick him into opening that up.”
“Is he easy to trick?” Anya asked.
“Kind of, yeah, but Jennifer’s not and they’re pretty much inseparable. There’s also the issue that Shadow can apparently hear and see most everything going on in the build. It drives Kay nuts. Whole place is on high alert.”
The gears were turning in her head.
“So, we’ll need Shadow distracted, we’ll need Steve to be in a situation where he’ll feel safe to open the chest, and we’ll need to ensure the others can’t interfere.”
She and Anya locked eyes.
“You said Fire had a stash of poisons and sedatives,” Anya remembered.
“I’ll get a few of them together in the officer’s lounge. We’ll drink for a while, move the conversation to the crystals. No reason to be so secretive about them now - the enemy knows where we are. Steve’ll pull them out...”
“Then you drug them all. Slip off with the crystals.”
“I’ll kick up a fuss, make it sound like an enemy attack. Slip off in the confusion. Maybe you,” she pointed at Freak, “Could make a few appearances around the base, get Shadow, Kay and anyone else I can’t drug off my back. That doable?”
Freak shrugged exaggeratedly. “Sure, sure. Just need to not get myself obliterated by your mage but I’ll figure something out. Just let me know when you need that distraction with the crystal. Maybe notify me a few hours before so I can get into position quickly.”
“Okay,” Destiny breathed. “And we’ll slip out through this portal. Maybe destroy it after us so they can’t follow. Well, there’s the bones of a plan. We’ll hash out the details as we go.”
And with that she felt a great burden lifted. She didn’t have to choose between the King in Ash or the unknowable mage anymore. She had her own path. And she knew where it ended. In betrayal, and in death, but also in a duty fulfilled. She would see it through.
Chapter 56: Cautious Return (Tyron)
The sun held low over the landscape, turning the sky orange as it drooped towards the horizon. The landscape comprised grassy mountains and exposed stone. Here and there small pillars of stone jutted upwards, reaching to the sky like so many grasping fingers. And of course, it was all made of cubes - sharp, uniform, destructible cubes. The sun, too, looked squarish when it passed behind a cloud, as though it were a great glass container packed to the brim with cubic fire.
“Home sweet home,” gasped Kir.
Tyron stepped forward out of the mouth of the portal.
“Don’t get too comfortable, we just need a glimpse. Something to let us know that Freak was wrong. Nothing more. Then we’ll go meet Astro.”
He looked around the summit for tracks, or for crates, a road maybe, but found nothing. This portal was not a major highway, maybe not even a portal made by the Tower. Unfortunately, this was not at all reassuring. The horrible things Freak had told me came flooding back.
“I watched Him rise again...”
Tyron felt his heart pound like a cannon, desperate to shatter him from the inside.
“...He walked your world, burning cities as he went...”
His lungs constricted as he remembered the dreams. Smoke like tar had poured into his nose and mouth, choking him, making him sleepy and heavy. He had seen spires burning, of cities he had saved, cities being rebuilt, those not yet made, forever and endless in their destruction as Herobrine strode through them, His very presence a source of desolation.
“...He took your dragons, and he crushed their skulls beneath his feet.”
He scanned the skies. Desperate for a glint of red scales in twilight, or a plume of smoke or a jet of fire or anything.
“And he punished all those who had thought to rise against him.”
Visions of torment. Seth at the gallows. Glowstar’s wings straining upon the rack. Rathina amidst brimstone and smoke.
Tyron desperately cast his eyes about the horizon, looking for any sign of civilization, asking Kir to speed up the process and enhance his sight. And in response, Kir heightened and emphasized every detail of the land, screaming out its potential importance. Every shadow, every corner, every flash of grass against grey stone, every flash of grey stone against grass. Tyron saw everything and it hurt.
Then, a cobblestone hovel, winding stairs leading up to it, became apparent on a hill to the South. Tyron barely remembered to summon his stone wings as he ran forward and leapt from the hilltop. And as he soared forward faster and more frightened than he had ever done so before, he had little to no control. He tumbled as he landed halfway up the staircase, but was immediately standing again, charging up to the hut with a heart full of worries and questions.
Finally, legs aching, and lungs ragged, he made it to the top. The sun shone fully in his eyes, and he could barely see the hovel, but he ran towards the impression of it. Hand outstretched, he readied to shove down the door when something landed between him and it. This something hit the ground like a meteor, splitting the wind and shaking the earth. Tyron fell back and raised Kir in defence.
“Make me combat ready!” He screamed internally. This came out vocally as a strangled roar.
“Tyron, wait!” warned the sword.
The Dragoknight felt his muscles lock up.
The creature had a long snout, and teeth like daggers. Its wings were fathoms wide. And its scales were a lovely green, speckled with blue and white to look like a nebula in the night sky. And it had such kind eyes.
“Hello Tyron,” said the dragon.
Tyron leapt to his feet and patted him warily on the nose, not sure whether to accept the dragon was real or just assume he’d gone crazy, and this was some sort of fever dream. The dragon snorted happily in response and nuzzled Tyron with his neck. However, after a second of warm greetings, the dragon was all business.
“Where have you been?” Glowstar asked. “We haven’t seen you in weeks. Seth said you entered a mineshaft, but we found no trace.”
“It’s a long story but that’s not important right now, is everyone safe? Is Herobrine still dead? Is Rathina alright?”
“Rathina!” Kir chirped redundantly.
“What are you talking about?” asked Glowstar. “Of course, he’s dead, you killed him yourself… Tyron, where were you exactly?”
Tyron felt weeks of anxiety and bitterness and grief drain out of him in the shape of a single tear which seeped into his fur.
“Somewhere far away, where news was pretty bleak.”
“That is an unnecessarily oblique answer.”
Momentarily purged of negative emotion, the Dragoknight felt a new sense of purpose filling him. His world was safe, and he had to keep it that way. He was going to go to his meeting with Astro, and they’d bring Kay back into line, and he’d be safe too. And they’d patch things up between him and Shadow. And he’d teach Warnado how to kick Glibby’s stupid head clean off. And they’d save Fire and - and - and -
“Sorry buddy, it’ll have to do for now!” he burst out. “I need to get back for a meeting. All you need to know is there’s a new big bad to fight - and it’s worse than Herobrine. Gather everyone you can and wait for me outside - one sec, I’ve lost my bearings - that Nether portal tomorrow. Can you do that?”
Glowstar leapt back and spread his wings to their full breadth, looking ancient and wonderful, like a monument to a well-remembered ruler.
“Of course, Dragoknight!” rumbled Glowstar. “Anyone in particular?”
“The entire old crew. Rathina, Seth, the dragons, the rebel Endermen, the cities. If you have time even check up on Lupi’s old wolf, Blizzard. Literally any and every fighter will make a difference.”
“Rathina coming!” Kir shouted enthusiastically.
“Kir, yes, calm down a minute, I know you’re excited but let me talk,” said Tyron aloud.
“I shall, Dragoknight, although-”
“Kir, I swear to Notch, will you ever shut up?”
“Excellent question,” a light voice said from behind Tyron.
“Hi Rathina,” he said breathlessly.
“Oh, hello Tyron, I didn’t see you there,” she snarked. Thankfully, her green eyes betrayed that she was actually pretty happy to see him. “So, what’s the story with the disappearance?”
He stood there, completely silent for a few moments. Rathina, his love, stood before him alive and unharmed. The same straight, dark hair cascaded out from beneath her hood and past her, and her smug grin shone enticingly at him. He felt as though he had been rooted to the ground.
“Thought we were hurrying,” cracked Kir.
“Well, maybe we can spare a few minutes…”
He reached out for her arm. She looped it around his neck. They kissed. And for a few short moments there was nothing in his mind but the feeling of her against him, the blinding glow of the sun, and the flow of mountain-top wind through his fur.
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