Sollipor Quostus suddenly screeched in pain.
"The plan... it must have failed. This body is somehow linked to Atrum's, I can feel his pain. I'm sure Gias has him."
"Curse that Gias! That was our best chance," the Queen grumbled.
There was a brief pause, and then Quostus began to scurry away.
"Perhaps," he called back to the Queen in Annaliese's body. "But it was not our only one."
"When will it be ready?"
"Approximately twenty hecarettens, my Sollipor," the scientist said. "I will work as fast as I can, but the Balancers are nearly upon us. I may not be able to complete it in time."
"It is our only hope. If you cannot complete it, however, it is best that we hide it. There is a chance they may show us some mercy in defeat... but if they knew we possessed a weapon this fearsome, that slim chance would vanish."
"Yes, my Sollipor. I understand."
The scientist's work continued as the castle shook fiercely around them. Quostus could do little but wait nervously.
Finally, the alarm sounded.
"They've breached the gates! There's no more time!" Quostus screamed.
"Damn! There are sixty more connections to make!" The lead researcher handed the sphere to his master. "You must hide it, my lord. I will not have the time to complete it."
"Thank you, Loaste. We may lose this war, but you have still performed your duty honorably."
Quostus dug into the dirt and pulled out the sphere. It was incomplete, but not excessively so. But he lacked the knowledge to finish the device.
The Teaching Stone he had grabbed on the way could fix that. But not quickly, unless he disengaged the safety protocols. That was risky enough without the fact that his Black Matter body was receiving pain signals from Atrum. He had no idea if it would work.
Nevertheless, there was no other choice. The Memory Converter was the one weapon that might defeat Gias now. It would tear him apart and leave only a mass of memories behind. Along with anyone else unfortunate enough to be caught in its blast.
With a heavy sigh, Quostos activated the Teaching Stone. Four rettens later, he was at work, almost in a trance.
"I WOULD STILL LIKE TO TALK," Voitrach formed. Gias wasn't looking in his direction, but a quick shake convinced Loran to speak up on the gravitational anomaly's behalf.
"Gias!" Loran shouted. "We want to talk."
Gias held Atrum by the throat. He paused for a moment, and considered it.
Then he threw the villain down to the ground and turned towards Voitrach. Felix felt strange; whatever Gias had done, it had severely impacted his Black Matter body. He could barely move, and changing form was completely out of the question; what kind of power did this Balancer hold?
"Fine," Gias said, clearly annoyed. "I'll deal with this fool in a moment. But this had better be worth my time."
Voitrach's letters changed.
"ARE YOU AWARE THAT APATHY HAS DISAPPEARED?"
Gias seemed suprised.
"Really? How odd. I would have expected the others to contact me if she had."
"THEN YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE. I KNEW IT. THIS MAN IS A LIAR."
Voitrach tossed Loran aside.
"YOU MAY PROCEED AS YOU WISH, GIAS. I HAVE NO QUARREL WITH YOU."
"Wait!" Loran shouted. "Why do you trust his word?"
"I HAVE NO REASON TO TRUST YOURS. AND HIS SURPRISE APPEARS GENUINE ENOUGH."
Throughout the conversation, Felix slowly lifted himself up, despite the intense pain. He still had the pendant. Perhaps he could force Gias to touch it...
But as he approached the Balancer, he soon found himself lifted up into the air.
"I DO NOT TRUST YOU EITHER, ATRUM."
The Vorlon technology known as a Teaching Stone could impart knowledge far more rapidly than normal learning.
It could impart it even more rapidly if you didn't care about retaining knowledge you already had.
Quostus desperately focused on retaining one single, solitary piece of information: that he had to use the Memory Converter to destroy Gias. All other knowledge, save that which would hasten the act, was expendable.
As a result, when the stone finished, Quostus knew enough about the Memory Converter to complete it. And he had nothing else save a purpose.
He worked towards that purpose with all the speed he could muster.
He no longer knew why it was important, who he was, anything of his civilization or the Queen he had once loved.
He only knew that Gias, whoever that was, had to die. And this was the only way to do it.
As he ran past Annaliese and Will on his way through the complex, he did not even acknowledge them.
"Are you seeking to gain my favor, Voitrach?" Gias asked, clearly annoyed. "Because ultimately, the fate of these two, and that of Apathy, are irrelevant. All that matters is what is in the Book."
"TWIGHT'S RAMBLING'S ASIDE, I DO HAVE SOME MATTERS I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT. I HAD HOPED YOU MIGHT BE WILLING TO ANSWER SOME QUESTIONS."
"Hmm. That may be something I can humor you on. Very well, ask me your questions. But I make no promises as to whether I will answer them."
From just outside the doorway, Parset watched what was happening with a sense of confusion. With no idea where he was, the gnome had opted to follow the only beings he had encountered, and he had no idea what, precisely was going on; it didn't help that he couldn't see Voitrach's writing from his vantage point.
And then a bug stepped on him. He lifted himself up, and the next thing he knew, two others had run up behind him. He whistled in surprise.
Then he saw the even more shocked looks on the newcomers' faces, and turned around to see what was going on.
The most important piece of information that Quostus had retained about the Memory Converter was its effective range.
The answer was "140 attens", or in more colliquial terms, "slightly more than the distance between Voitrach and Gias".
On the other hand, the most important piece of information that Quostus had lost was how to fire the Memory Converter safely.
As Voitrach was engulfed by the beam, he started to disintegrate. That gave Loran enough freedom to move - and as he saw the device in the Vorlon's tiny limbs begin to spark with electricity, he decided that "the hell out of here" was the best direction to move in. Unfortunately, he didn't get very far, colliding with Annaliese and Will on his way out.
Felix, unfortunately, was still bound by whatever Gias had done. When the Memory Converter exploded and the room filled with its strange energy, he was all but helpless.
A moment later, the room was filled with nothing but memories.
Voitrach had been a being of gravity. The stones that made up his body were now mere data, but he still persisted.
But the Memory Converter had made what remained of him unstable.
Similarly, the strange properties of the Black Matter made it... not resistant, per se, but it made the resultant memories different.
They were affected by Voitrach's gravity, and drifted towards what remained of him.
As the four apparent survivors of the Inexorable Altercation wandered into the room, confused by what they had witnessed, the remnants of Voitrach, Felix Atrum, and Sollipor Quostos coalesced into... something.
It was a strange, dark color, and slowly it took on a vaguely-humanoid shape.
Two thick, but featureless, spots emerged on its surface. They seemed to be eyes. They turned to the others, displaying a sense of curiosity as it tried to determine what it was seeing.
And then Gias' lingering memories flooded the minds of all present, including the newcomer.
Azgard flipped through the book with ferocity. At every few pages his hand flew back up through his hair, recognizing and feeling each individual fiber. Every time the result was the same. He was not imagining or being subdued in some way - no illusion could replicate the tens of thousands of fibers all cut to exact heights with such accuracy. Yet to him, the book remained elusive. He had already discovered there was no “code” preventing him from reading its contents. If that had been the case there he could have deciphered it. In fact, had there been any sort of consistency or pattern at all, Azgard would have been able to read the book through dozens of times.
Yet this was not the case. Azgard quickly discovered that, even when returning to a page he had already seen, the jumble of words and characters had rearranged into something unfamiliar. He wondered if the book itself was enchanted. It was not unfeasible. Had there been an enchantment in place The Leader could have easily buried it in the void, leaving the book’s pages easily readable. Perhaps, he thought, that was how The Leader managed to reveal and summarize its contents with little difficulty. This was the best case scenario.
There were three other feasible scenarios, but each of these required Azgard to distrust the book, distrust his companions, or distrust himself, respectively. All three of these situations were highly undesirable, but Azgard could not help but try and prepare for them.
He had found a room, a study of sorts with not a small collection of books available. None of these books were as ornately displayed as The Inexorable Altercation had been, ready and waiting the nine cultists. There was no outward indication that any of the books were of any real importance, and as Azgard had soon discovered, there was no inward indication either. The books contained irrelevant histories, miscellaneous almanacs, even a few recipes. None were penned by The Wordsmith.
If there was any book worth reading it was the one he held in his hand. Yet he still could not read it. A few words managed to clarify and appear from time to time, mainly names. It was how Azgard had managed to decipher that the robot would not proceed to the next round, though he began to doubt the accuracy of his decision.
He flipped towards the end, seeking names and words that could appear and give him some form of guidance. After a few minutes of pouring through pages and pages he saw, with some clarity, the name Gias. It reappeared a few times - it seemed easier to find a word once it had materialized; though it could fade quickly.
Azgard took comfort in this. Gias was the one member here he could trust unconditionally. He was loyal, powerful, and, Azgard mused, the only real means they had of moving the contestants from round to round. If anything were to happen to Gias...the thought occurred to Azgard but he dismissed it. The book had proven itself trustworthy so far, although painfully convoluted.
It was while Azgard was pouring and searching in this study that Xylphos approached him.
“Still learning to read?” The copper-eyed figure hissed.
“Where’s Peth?” Azgard never lifted his eyes from the text.
“How should I know? Probably watching the battle. It’s gotten very interesting.”
“He better not be.”
Xylphos sneered. “You should probably be watching it too. Honestly I’m surprised you haven’t busted into the room with one of your classic tantrums.”
Azgard said nothing.
“Wait...you obviously haven’t made much progress in deciphering that text.” His grin grew wide, revealing sharp rows of wooden, serrated teeth. He chuckled, and in a sing-song voice he taunted.
“I know something you don’t know...”
His soft laughter continued, and Azgard cautiously peered up from the book.
Xylphos repeated, “I know something you don’t know...”
Azgard ran his hand through his hair. “What?”
“Oh you’ll just have to come see.”
“Xylphos, what has happened?” Azgard stood up.
“We, “ Xylphos gestured with thick splintery clawed fingers. “have a new guest.”
“Or more accurately, they do, the contestants.”
“You mean a native of the planet?”
“There’s that too, but you see...the lighting girl. She’s gone. There’s a little dwarf or something in her place.”
Azgard’s eyes grew wide, quick yellow flashes darted across them as he tried to process the information. He stood up and began to speak but Xylphos cut him off.
“Here’s the best part. She was sucked into the void.”
At this Azgard pushed the wooden serpent to the side and darted towards the main hall of Nowhere. He clutched the book tightly to his side as thoughts and questions poured through his head. Did The Leader return? Who is this “dwarf”? but most importantly, If a contestant died, why hasn’t Gias advanced the round?
As he approached the main hall, Endo stood in the entryway. There was no face behind that veil of blackness but Azgard received a chilling sensation as he passed him. Another thought entered his mind. He wants something from me.
As he burst into the main room, he saw four figures in the room, two stood and watched the sphere viewing the contestants, one more sat on the floor, playing with some small orb, and the third stood to greet him.
“Gias!” Azgard shouted, relief and confusion coming out at once. “Why are you here? What has happened in the round? Did Apathy die?”
The robed Balancer stood motionless for a moment, but responded slowly.
“The Leader is still there. Apathy went with him.”
The slow paced way that Gias spoke, and his pale unfocused eyes, was wholly uncharacteristic of the Balancer but not uncharacteristic of something Azgard had seen before.
“No...” Azgard took a few steps back. “No, Gias, how...”
He turned towards the two figures watching the battle, Peth, and the mothering Iifa.
Azgard skin began to turn an ashen pale. His right arm began to twitch. With a scream of fury and terror he rushed the small Peth. His arm raised up, fingers extended and muscles twitching. A cascade of thin lights traversed to his fingertips, revealing nodes and symbols of circuty emblazoned on the arm. With a quick and sudden backhand he slammed the curious face of the boy, sending Peth reeling to the floor. He raised his arm again, but it was held back by a furious Iifa.
“Don’t you dare do that again, Azgard.”
“Azgard what is the matter?” A still slow Gias asked. “Why hit the boy?”
Azgard’s color returned and the stream of lights stopped. He wrenched his hand free and turned to Peth.
“I told you to stay away from this!” He turned to Atelia, casually sitting on the floor. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
She looked up, innocently, “I...I’m sorry, Azgard, I didn’t realize. He was so curious and I didn’t think it could hurt anything.”
“Azgard,” Peth’s quiet voice called out, “Why are you so upset? I saw the void. The Leader must still be alive as you said. He hasn’t abandoned us.”
The Leader’s alive, Azgard thought, but that means that, he faced the sullen figure of Gias...
“Gias is dead.”
Memories are a powerful thing. They allow us to see far into the past, see events that normal eyes could never perceive. Not only this, but they can be shared. At times through writing, or images, art or stories, but at this moment, memories were transferred to the contestants with a clarity and accuracy these other mediums could not provide.
Of course, the impulse was short and sudden, and the contestants reeled form it as if they were recalling a dream from long ago, but some faces stuck, and names, and events, such that these contestants knew their captors’ history far more than any other contestants I have written about to date.
They saw, through the memories of Gias, eight beings all of varying size and shape, only alike in (what the Balancer determined) their formidable powers. Yet the creature that had summoned these beings was stronger still. Infinitely more powerful than any being Gias had yet encountered. The memories about this being were jumbled, faded, unclear, but there was a distinct and undeniable fear at what this creature represented present in the Balancer.
Then with an agonizing flash, the Balancer felt itself being bound by orange pulsating tendrils, forcing his ethereal body into an unfamiliar shape. “Human” the creature called it. The seven others all shared similar fates, their original forms and shapes compressed and constrained by unique scars and markings which emblazoned themselves onto their now human flesh.
The eight now-humans were deposited on a rock like planet. There was a single command given: “Fight to the death”.
They began to do so, but half-heartedly. Gias found he retained most of his original abilities. Teleportation kept him safe. He even tried to escape, but the instant he left that world his captor brought him back. The contestants scattered, they were in no hurry to murder one another, and their captor seemed in no hurry to hasten the confrontation. Days went by. Peroidcally Gias would meet one or more of the contestants. He would speak with them. Their language had been changed or given along with their forms. There was, for the most part, a desire to escape.
For the most part. One contestant found the challenge a thrill. He planned and plotted and sought to kill them, but he was the weakest of them all.
With his death, the contestants rallied. Their captor sought to deposit them in another world, another location, another round, but they confronted him.
The battle was a blur. Perhaps not even Gias could accurately recall the events that took place there, but the outcome was certain. Against the odds, they survived, and destroyed their captor. But it was far from over.
There were more beings like the one that had imprisoned them. They knew they would not look kindly on their transgression. So they fled. Ages past, their “human” bodies did not grow older, and their abilities kept them safe. Particularly those of The Leader*.
Authors Note: I assume that the contestants are aware of The Leader’s true name; however, as I am still unable to perceive it, I will continue to document it as such.
His was the power of The Void. He could conceal all things, make them vanish into nothingness. He was indispensable. Thus he directed them.
It was during this time that they became aware of the writings of The Wordsmith. It was, through these documents, the Leader told them, that they would be forever safe from those beings known presently as Grandmasters. So they sought the writings of this author. Eventually they found word of a central document. The very document they believed would bring about their salvation: The Inexorable Altercation. Supposedly, this document was placed Nowhere, an ancient hall far separated from all pockets of reality, in a place no being could reach, supposedly.
But one of the members calculated a plan. Azgard, the name rang clear to the contestants. He found a way to channel the Leader’s ability along with Gias’ in such a way that would send them to the edge of nothingness. It was not without risk, but they took their chance, and found the book.
The contestants then saw what they already knew, but seen from the vantage point of the Balancer. Eight people, like themselves, chosen by the book, brought to another world and sent to “fight to the death” so that prophecy and safety would be fulfilled.
There were more memories received by the contestants, some bits of Gias’ past, his life as a Balancer, a few scattered pieces of the time spent with his escaped comrades, though these were received in fragments, and some contestants retained more than others.
When the tumult of memories faded, all that remained of Gias was the memory beast, and an orange pulsing black hole core left by the deceased Voitrach.
Situations, solutions, conflicts, consequences, all these raced through Azgard’s mind as he watched the dazed contestants through the orb. He needed to advance the round. That would be how the book progressed. There must be a change of location. Those are the rules.
With Gias’ death he had lost the most direct means of transporting the contestants to another realm. There was a possibility that Barabbas could manage something, even Xylphos had some capacity to move through the realms, but there was no certainty behind it. The risks were too high.
“Looks like it’s my turn, huh?” Xlyphos drew his wooden blade, and his tail flicked back and forth.
“Not yet, we need to”
“Azgard while you’re so focused on what to do with these idiots, I already know exactly where to take them and how to get them there.”
Azgard turned to the ceader-eyed cultist cautiously. “What?”
“Hezekiah” was the snarled reply, “The prison ship. I’ll just call it.”
Azgard was taken aback by this, but there were little other options.
“Can you make the jump?” was his only other question.
“I SEE THEM RIGHT THERE! Of course I can ‘make the jump’.”
“Peth,” Azgard turned to the boy. “Stand here. Watch the orb. Watch Xylphos. Understand?”
“but...you said that...”
“Forget what I said! Just watch him. I don’t want anything to go wrong.”
It was a few seconds before the contestants regained their bearings. Uncertain as to what they had seen or experienced, there was little they could do to prepare for the next event. There was a rumbling, then the entire complex shook. Before long walls and ceilings began to crumble and collapse. A few members of the group shut their eyes, hoping for the best. There was a high-pitched siren...then silence...and cold.
When those contestants opened their eyes, they found themselves in large spacious rooms, filled with cubes and containers. Occasionally a terrible, foreign sounds cried out from the cubes, and echoed through the plated rooms.
Then a high pitched whine, and a loudspeaker turned on:
“Hello, contestants! Either the top hat guy or the rock thing bit the dust last round so I’ve brought you here. This is the Prision Ship Hezekiah! It’s a very dear friend of mine, so treat it right! It’s fully operational, chock full of some of the worst scum of the galaxy, tortured endlessly! Oh and I may have told it that you’re some escaped prisoners. Who knows? Either way, if one of you doesn’t die soon enough, you can be sure I’ll take care of it personally.”
The halls were white marble and richly decorated. Large windows high in the walls flooded the palace with the everlasting sunlight of the planet Candora. Right now it was green, tinting the tapastries on the walls, turning the white blood of the oraclemen look like that of lowly bogdwellers. In addition, it made them all look slightly queasy, something Loran found highly amusing. They were a pathetic lot, after all, nothing wrong with them looking like it.
He was strolling casually through the main corridor. Guards accompanied him, constantly watching him, ever fearful of the reputation of the Creepers. A master of protocol was trying to tell him not to take the front entrance. There were side doors, used by servants and messengers. Loran didn't so much as glance at the man. He was an Honorable Graduate of the Creeper's Assassin School. This was his last task before he would be accepted into the ranks proper. This was his day, and he would take the front entrance if he wanted.
Four persons, clashing horribly with the setting, were following somewhat behind. Nobody paid them any attention; Not the guards, not the master of protocol, not Loran the prideful assassin. They were not there, for all intents and purposes.
'Where are we now? Who are these people?' one of them, wearing a tophat, asked in hushes tones. One of the others shrugged.
'We are nowhere,' he said. 'Look carefully. See how the room dissappears behind us? How everything is blurred and unclear when Loran isn't looking at them? This is not real. It's a memory of his. So are we.'
'It was to be expected,' the memory shaped like a robot said. 'The others will probably not have significant problems from the exposure to Gias' memories. Loran's mind, however, was already very fragile.'
As the memories had noted, the only part of the palace that really seemed solid now where the large wooden doors towering omniously at the far side of the hall. The side Loran and his escort were heading.
'I assure you,' the master of protocol practically begged when the group reached the doors, 'a messenger has been sent to the king already. There is no need to see him personally.'
'There is,' Loran said with a small smile, and he pushed open the doors. That was the good thing about being feared, he reflected. Nobody dared to stand in your way as long as you did nothing important. Sure, they didn't like him walking up to their king like this, but he was surrounded by guards and the king guarded by his personal magician. They didn't think he would be able to harm their monarch, and none of them was going to risk his life for something stupid like breaking the protocol. How wrong they were. Loran could harm anyone he wished, as he had learned during his studies. Nobody had ever been able to stop him from reaching his target. He was the best assassin ever born among the Creepers. He was certain of that.
The king was sitting at a small table next to his throne. He was probably preparing for the upcoming public audience. His magician sat next to him, leaning close and speaking urgently.
'Your grace!' Loran said with a charming smile and a deep bow. 'How good of you to grant me a private audience so soon. I assure you, the matter is urgent.'
Both the king and his magician rose, looking from Loran to the guards to the master of protocol. The four illusionary people following the group were, once again, ignored.
'Why is Loran himself not responding to us, though?' the memory in the tophat asked. 'If we are his memories, surely he should?'
'If he is reliving this memory,' the memory with the horn mused,' he would not notice us. He didn't see us when this happened originally, after all.'
'What is the meaning of this?' the king bellowed, meanwhile. 'I gave orders not to be disturbed!'
Loran stepped forward, and the guards followed. he rolled his eyes in the most annoyed manner he could muster.
'Look, you guys,' he said, turning to them with his hands raised. 'Is it probable that I will try to harm your king? I tóld you that is why i was sent. If I was going to go through with it, I wouldn't have done that, would I?'
The guards were clearly not convinced. Loran reached into the pocket of his grey cloak and withdrew a small metal ball.
'If you need something to worry about, worry about this,' he said, handing it to the head of the guards. 'It's more deadly than me.'
That was a lie, of course. Nothing was more deadly than him.
The guards leaned in to see what it was, and Loran used the moment to slip past them and walk up to the king.
'I came here to warn you about a plot against you, sire,' he said, bowing again for good measure. 'I was hired to assassinate you.'
'Yes, you told my guards at the gate that. We sent people to execute my brother, who is undoubtedly behind it. I knew for a long time he would try this. Why are you here?' the king said impatiently. Here was clearly a man who did not fear Loran. He wouldn't. As a king, he was used to being powerful and well-protected. He had thousands of soldiers who would jump in front of him if they had to. In fact, Loran could hear his escort coming over to surround him again. He was foolish in thinking so. Unlike Loran, the king was not a highly skilled fighter. Loran himself was the only being on this planet who had no reason to fear anyone.
'Perhaps for a little gratitude,' Loran said, smoothly stepping away from the guards again, to the other side of the king. 'I could have just killed you, you see.'
'He's too cocky,' the memory in the tophat said, observing the events. 'That is going to come back at him at some point. It always does.'
'What?' the horned memory asked incredulously.
'I keep track of those things,' the tophatted one said, shrugging.
'Very well,' the king said, waving an impatient hand. 'You have it.'
He sat back down, pushing away the guards who were closing in around him, trying to shield him from Loran.
Loran turned to go.
'Funny,' the king said behind him, as Loran had known he would. Kings always wanted the last word. 'I always thought Creeper's never betrayed those who paid them.'
Loran repressed a grin. That was his cue. He turned back to the king.
'Truth is, we don't. I was hired to kill you ánd your brother.'
With a single slash he cut the king's throat. The guards, who had moments before let themselves be ushered away from the king by the man himself, cried out as a single man. Loran leaped away and flicked the remote-control in his pocket. The tiny charge in the small ball of metal, still held foolishly in his hand by the head of the guards, exploded. A thousand tiny shards of the brittle metal shot in every direction. Moments later, the floor was littered with dying and cursing guards. Loran glided among them, stabbing those who were likely to get up again soon. It was all done in less than a minute.
'THIS IS HORRIBLE.'
It was the first thing the memory golem said. He had had trouble finding something he could move around. Nothing here was real. In the end, he had used the jacket of the memory with the tophat.
'That was rude,' the now jacketless memory said.
Satisfied with himself, Loran sheathed his knives and made to depart through the window. He gathered the larger parts of the metal ball. It was strictly forbidden to use weapons not native to the planet the target was on, or more than one intergalactic army would have tried to destroy the Creepers by now. This way, they could never prove there had been otherworldly involvement, let alone that it had been a Creeper.
'Please...' someone whispered. Loran looked around for the source of the sound.
'Please... Spare me...' It was the magician. Loran should have known. Magic didn't exist, of course, but any magician convincing enough to become a confident of the king would need to know some good tricks, like protecting himself from sharp things.
'No,' Loran said. 'I'm sorry, but we never leave survivors.'
'I... I can offer you valuable things,' the magician pleaded. He grabbed something from the table. it looked like a glass orb filled with mists.
'What's that supposed to be?' Loran asked. The magician held it out to him.
'It allows one to see the entire universe!' the man said, with a feeble attempt at a grand voice. 'It is a truly powerful item!'
Loran snatched the orb from the man's hands, and examined it. He had something of an interest for magical tricks. They often came in useful if he had to decieve people to get to his target. The orb was thick glass. No edges, too thick to break. Not possibly dangerous. He held it to his face, curious. Was there something shining inside? He draped his sleeve over it, trying to shield it from sunlight.
'Don't stare into it, you idiot,' the tophatted memory said, annoyed. 'Stop thinking you can't be harmed.'
'Is this some kind of cheap trick?' Loran asked, trying to make out the color of the light inside. 'Do you use it to make the king believe in magic?'
'No,' the magician said, his voice going calmer. 'It's a chemical lamp. It stores sunlight. We use it to light dark corridors.'
It wasn't a particularly good lamp, then. It didn't give off much li-
Covered from sunlight by Loran's sleeve, the orb gave a single slight flicker of light. Then the light exploded from it in one bright flash.
Loran reeled back, his eyes screaming in pain. His vision had gone black, and as he stumbled backwards he tripped over a body. He didn't care, he was clutching his face, rubbing his eyes, trying desperately to make the pain go away.
'It is not adviced to stare in a light-orb when activating it,' the magician said, sounding smug. Loran heard footsteps fast approaching outside the door. More guards, attracted by the screaming. He scrambled his way back to his feet and ran for where he thought the nearest window was. He was right, as he found out when he feel through it. All he could do was flee, and hope his vision would return soon.
What Loran didn't know at that point was that his vision would gradually return over a period of two weeks. He didn't know that it would never go back to normal. His reduced vision, combined with him being spotted after an assassination, would be cause for the Creepers to expel him from school and exile him from their lands. He didn't know he would sink into depression, killing for food and a place to sleep, rather than the gold and jewelry he deserved. He didn't know he would reach for powerful hallucinogens, which would, after years of use, damage his mind permanently. He didn't know he would find himself in a contest of live and death, nor that his own stupidity would get him the memories of his victims stuck in his head. He didn't know that he would find himself in a place of torture, helpless under the onslaught of his own memories, with the only ones caring enough to try to help him being the imaginary dead people bound to his mind.
If he had, he might have killed himself then and there, as the Creeper code told him was the right thing to do. Probably not though. Ironically, for a being who dealt in death as living, he desperately wanted to live.
Somewhere, deep in the metal construct called Hezekiah, a slumbering mind awoke. A small but annoying signal was trying to get it's attention. Someone had opened a door. That was slightly odd. According to its latest transfer logs, there were not supposed to be prisoners in that wing of the ship.
A quick run throught the list of prisoners told it there should be, though. Not much information was available, apart from a short note that they had been brought aboard from the fellow prisonship Xylphos. All was right, then.
The new prisoner had probably discovered its door unlocked and decided to try and escape. All cell-doors in the ship were unlocked. It gave the prisoners hope there was a way out. A hope that would not be gone until many failed attempts at escape, when when each time, after fighting off some weak security systems, they found themselves inevitably facing the actual security. They would not give up trying until months passed, at which point the fall into despair would be so much deeper. It was torture at its finest.
Memories Gias scheming battle escape modify others where ship?
The memory beast's mind was still forming. It barely even knew what memories were, only that it had a lot of them.
Being transported to a new locale mere moments after coming into existence hadn't helped; the idea that the cultist had moved it to another world entirely in the space of an instant was far, far beyond its current grasp.
After two minutes, its mind had settled enough to attempt a basic action: moving.
This became significantly less basic when it tried to follow Felix Atrum's memories of walking as a human along with Quostos' memories of walking as a Vorlon, let alone Voitrach's floating. Gias contributed two sets of thoughts, one that matched up with Felix and the other less so.
It tried to take a step, and fell forward on its face. Three minutes later, its mind formed enough to make it decide not to just lie on the floor.
Somewhere in its mind, the concept of numbers began to make sense. It counted one voice for most of its moving options, one voice and a little more for another, and less than one voice for another.
It opted to go with the one voice and a little more. It lifted itself up, and walked towards the door. Most of the voices agreed that a door was a way out.
Unfortunately, they couldn't agree on how to open a door. Quostos didn't remember doors at all. Felix remembered pulling a knob, Voitrach simply remembered making them open with gravity, and Gias remembered many ways of opening a door, having seen quite a few kinds over the course of his existence.
Another minute gave the beast the idea of trying to figure out if any of the voices had seen this door. It turned out that Gias had - or rather, one like it. The beast reached out its hand and pulled a small handle on the inside of the door.
If the beast had sorted through its memories enough to understand the idea of a "prison", it might have been worried about that fact.
[21:38] <MalkyTop> I'm not good at writing bad. | [13:12] <Shellghost> I can't tell if I'm crying or if my eyes came.
She made it very clear, just by opening her mouth to speak, that she was not a mere damsel, that she was a woman. And that she was a person above all.
She was what you would draw if someone asked you to draw a lady, but her bony cold hands were an old man's. Fists that were used to clenching.
I went home immediately after talking to her, and fell asleep soon after, concluding that if we were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane.
He puffed once, twice, from his cigar, and fluttered its ashes over the balcony railing. Still singeing, they danced around against the nightly cityscape.
The beast found itself in a long corridor, filled with identical doors. Its still-developing consciousness was confused, barely able to tell the difference between the door it had just exited and any other.
Its attention soon turned to the one part of the corridor that stood out: the rotting corpse leaning against one of the myriad doorways. Some memory that had once been Felix Atrum's told it that the man had died only two weeks ago, give or take; but this knowledge was meaningless to the beast's limited mind.
It touched the body. A moment later, it found itself running, alongside a group of other humans. They were its comrades.
"Captain!" a voice shouted. The beast somehow knew the voice was its own. "They've caught up with us!"
"Damn!" The man the beast recognized as his Captain pulled a laser pistol from his belt. "Then we'd best fight. Ready yourselves, men!"
The beast turned, as did his comrades. The enemy was upon them. There were three small lizardmen carrying rifles, lead by a hulking brute who resembled a crocodile. He wore a patch over his left eye, and carried a harpoon gun.
"This is the end, human," the crocodile-man growled. "This is where I make you pay for taking my eye."
"Run, Captain!" the beast shouted, throwing himself into the harpoon's path.
And then all except the beast vanished.
"Captain," it said. "Captain?"
There was no answer.
What had happened to the Captain? Had the others escaped? And where was... the enemy?
Who was the enemy? The beast thought hard about it.
The dead prisoner had only been able to provide memories immediately surrounding his death. The beast had gained only a small portion of his knowledge. It did not know who this man's enemy had been.
But it did know who Sollipor Quostus' enemy had been. And its fragile mind could not tell the difference between one enemy and another.
Gias was the enemy. Gias would pay for what he had done to the Captain.
"CAPTAIN!" the beast screamed, charging wildly down the corridor in search of Gias.
It'd been a while since Will 19 had felt much kinship with the first of his iterations, but, having been transported a great distance only to be imprisoned on an alien vessel, he was starting to get an idea of how he might've felt.
Of course, their situations weren't perfectly parallel. For starters, Will 19's door wasn't locked, where Will 1 had to crack open an alien system and hotwire the doors with what he could pull off of the one guard that had keeled over in front of his cell.
In addition, Will 1 had had only dead aliens for company once he'd left his cell. Will 19, on exiting his own, found himself in the middle of what seemed to be a warzone.
On one side of the hall was a beastly-looking thing, its red jumpsuit somehow immaculately tailored for its two arms and indeterminate number of legs. It was brandishing what looked like it was probably a historical firearm from whatever world it came from, all tarnished metal and dark wood. On the other side was what was almost passable for a human; ten times larger, and it'd be perfect. As it was, the tiny man in the tiny blue jumpsuit just waved his tiny futuristic-looking gun at his opponent and shouted something too quiet for Will to hear. For a moment, Will was tempted to just turn around and go back into his room, instinctually wanting to get away from the intensity of the violence, but the impulse quickly died when he noticed that the two weren't actually firing anything at each other. They were shouting at one another with ferocity, sure, and going through all the motions required to shoot a gun, but nothing was coming out and neither one seemed concerned.
Tentatively, Will stepped a bit closer to them and said, "Hello? You two alright?" When neither one so much as acknowledged his existence, he walked directly between them and tried addressing the beast in red directly.
"Hey, can you even see me?", he asked, waving a hand in front of the thing's face. The only reaction he netted was the beast leaning to one side to continue "shooting" at his tiny opponent.
"They don't even eat," someone said. Will jumped and whirled. Directly behind him (and also between the two deluded warriors) stood a group of five people. Will hadn't even heard them approach.
With a fair bit of shocked profanity, Will asked who they were.
One of them, the one who'd spoken earlier, took a half-step forward and inclined his patched and frayed top hat. "Most people who know me around here call me Meddet," he said, "and these are Chester, Themm, Eltere, and Themm." He indicated each of his compatriots in turn. Chester was a big fellow, easily seven or eight feet tall, who managed to look shorter than the rest of the group thanks to his posture and expression. Eltere, for example, managed to look like she dwarfed him, despite barely breaking five feet long. This was largely due to her posture, but the way her mermaid-style bottom half floated a good foot or two above the floor probably helped. Will found himself not really having much of a description of either Themm or Themm. Both of them just seemed to not want to stick in his mind, and though he could look straight at them and see a great many details, nothing about them stayed with him past that moment.
After giving Will a few moments to take in (or not, in the case of the Themms) the group, Meddet continued. "Before you ask how we know your name, Mr. Haven, let me tell you: Chester here gets along with the computer systems that run this place better than the original programmers. When he got an alert that someone new had been added to the roster in this section, why, I thought we ought to swing on by and say hello."
"Seems only civil," Will responded, hesitant and cautious. "So what is it you folks do?"
Meddet chuckled. "Well, basically, we-" The tiny man in blue, his combat with the red-clad beast blocked for far too long, ran through the group-leader's legs and, shouting incoherently, dove for his opponent. Before he could reach him, though, Chester reached out and grabbed him, surprisingly fast for a person his size. After a quick spray of something Eltere handed over, the big man tossed the tiny one back where he'd come. The tiny man's opponent got a similar dose, and neither seemed to want to do much more than sit there once the drug kicked in.
The ringleader chuckled again, and this time, something in it reminded Will that the ship was filled with some of the worst scum in the galaxy, a range that likely included numerous madmen, murderers, and war criminals. "Well," the man said,"basically... we run things around here. This corner of the ship is ours, and you'd do well to remember that. Capisce?"
When Will nodded back, the dark air that had fallen on Meddet vanished, and he was back to being a madman with a faded top hat. "Excellent! Now, we were just about to head out to meet another new arrival; care to tag along?"
(It wasn't a question.)
Last edited by Pinary; 02-21-2012 at 08:16 AM.
Things I currently dislike: Life. Why's it got to take so much time away from my precious internetting?
A few cells on the Hezekiah were unusually large, intended for holding gargantuan prisoners.
It had taken Pteros's gang weeks to clean up the carcass of Giathikus Scarlowe. The whaleman hadn't been as much of a challenge to kill as they'd expected, but his remains smelled unbearable. Still, it had been worth it to have an adequately-sized base of operations.
The base had become even more adequately-sized a few weeks ago, when Pteros had sent Thrukk to lead an expedition into a theoretically-abandoned sector that one of his rivals had set up camp in. They still hadn't returned, and there had been no word of either their success or failure.
That worried Pteros. He flew down from his perch and looked over the map of the ship. It had cost him quite a few favors to acquire it, and indeed there were some he still owed, but the knowledge was essential if he was to dominate the entire Hezekiah.
It was simply bizarre. The layout was extremely straightforward, and Pteros could see very few plausible scenarios where a stalemate could have occurred. Yet if Thrukk's forces had been victorious, why had he not sent word? Conversely, if his attack had failed, why hadn't the Captain sent him a message boasting about his victory? He wasn't the sort to avoid doing that.
The most plausible explanation was that both sides had been wiped out. That would technically be a victory for Pteros, but it would have come at a great cost - the attacking force had been a third of his men.
He sighed, and put the map away. He had to do two things. One, find somebody expendable to investigate. Two, start recruiting, just in case he really had lost a third of his forces.
He flew over to Rex, one of his two remaining lieutenants. Rex was even larger than Thrukk, and usually walked on all fours. He had a great crest on his head, and three sharp horns.
"I have an important mission," Pteros said. "I need someone pliable and expendable. I believe you have a knack for finding such individuals, my friend?"
Rex nodded. He was a man of few words.
"Excellent. Let me know when you've found someone."
The sun was finally setting after a long day. As the sky was gradually growing dark, a group of Creeper children was finishing its game of Tagball. Nobody paid any attention to the four lonely figures sitting in the highest tree of the field.
Greyve was staring morosely at the Creepers. He had tried and tried again, but there seemed to be no way of waking Loran up. In all likelihood, the fool would get eaten by some wandering monster seeing an easy prey in him. Served him right, really, but Greyve would die with him. It wasn't something he was looking forward to. A cluster of leaves drifted in front of his eyes and formed words.
'THEY SHOULD STOP KILLING. IT IS BAD.'
Greyve peered past the leaves at the children tossing a ball around.
'They aren't killing anyone,' he said, turning to Voitrach.
'GOOD. THEY SHOULDN't.'
Greyve resisted the urge to punch Voitrach, since it would probably hurt him more than the golem. Besides, the thing couldn't help it. Loran's manifestations of the dead contestants were based on the memories of all the other contestants, but in Voitrach's case it looked like Loran's feelings had been too strong. Voitrach had been reduced to what Loran thought of him: A bunch of rocks that only cared about people being nice to eachother.
Come to think of it, something was wrong with Felix as well. Some minutes ago, he had suddenly fallen silent. He had been staring in the distance ever since.
'Felix?' Greyve prodded him, but got no response.
'DON'T KILL HIM,' Voitrach formed, swinging a massive rock at Greyve. Greyve threw himself flat against the treetrunk, and the rock hit Felix instead.
'Damnit, you moron!' Greyve snapped. Felix had toppled from his branch without so much as a yelp, and was now lying in the grass, some feet below them. Greyve clambered down. It was stupid to worry, since they didn't have actual bodies, but Felix had been an amiable companion during the first few memories, and it would really suck if he somehow died.
As it turned out, the punch had done him more good than harm.
'Hello, Greyve,' he said absentmindedly, as Greyve crouched beside him. 'I think I'm still alive.'
'Yes,'Greyve said, pulling Felix to his feet. 'We can't die in here, I think.'
Felix returned his tophat to its proper place and shook his head.
'That's not what I meant. I think I am actually alive, out there. I can feel it.'
'Feel what?' Greyve asked.
'Myself,' Felix explained, and then shrugged. 'The ay we can feel the others, on whose memories we are based. I just feel like I'm more than just their collective memories. Like my own memories are still out there, connected to me.'
'Do you think you -' Greyve started, but Felix cut him off with a hand gesture.
'First things first. If I have a mental connection with the outside world, I might be able to pull Loran out of his hallucinations. Worth a try?'
Without waiting for a response, Felix closed his eyes and concentrated. Sure enough, the force that was him was still out there, somewhere. He reached out to it-
Loran opened his eyes, and for a moment he didn't know how to move. Where had the fields gone? Had they only been a hallucination? He was lying on the floor, staring at the sky. What had been a starless dark blue night had turned into metal plating, not far above him. The fresh smell of leaves had been replaced by stale air. It wasn't a particularly unpleasant smell. More like the air had not been refreshed for a long time. He took a deep breath of canned air and tried to clear his head. Obviously, his previous surroundings had been false. The most obvious clue being that he hadn't been a child for years. The one after that was that he hadn't been trying to kill anyone. He couldn't remember what it felt like not to have a target.
'Take your time,' a shade next to him said gently. No, not a shade. His eyes were just foggy.
'Atrum?' Loran asked. His hand mechanically went for his knives.
'Yes, but a dead one,' the memory of Felix said. 'You may remember watching it.'
Loran pushed himself up in a sitting position, and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He steadied himself against the wall until the room stopped moving.
'That damn memory place,' he growled. 'My head worked perfectly before I got there.'
'I dispute that,' Greyve's voice came from the distance. 'Or I would, if we didn't have more important things to worry about.'
'Yes, like finding me,' Felix said excitedly. 'It shouldn't be hard. I feel the same connection as with Will and Anneliese, except much stronger. More personal.'
Loran blinked his eyes rapidly and managed to focus on Felix.
'Where is your jacket?'
Felix' face fell. Greyve chuckled.
'We have accurately located the individuals Will Haven and Anneliese Nibbs,' OTTO reported. 'In the interest of survival, we recommend making our way towards either one.'
'I don't see why,' Loran said. He started to remember what had happened prior to being hit by concentrated memory. Felix was dead. Voitrach was dead. Gias was dead. And still the game continued. There were no rules left to the contest. It had been organized by a group of previous contestants, who had then started killing this group themselves to move it along. Just last round, two contestants had died, plus one of the organizers. What else could there be done to escape? It seemed this contest was set to continue, no matter what.
'We could meet up with them first, before trying to escape,' Greyve suggested. 'At the very least, it will stop you from getting killed by the first wandering monster we come across.'
'Alright,' Loran said. 'But if they shoot me on sight, it's your fault.'
'What about-?' Felix protested.
'Shut up,' Loran said. He stood, shaking on his legs. 'Is it far?'
'Yes,' OTTO said.
'Fuck.' Loran leaned against the wall. He wasn't going to get very far in this condition. There was nothing to do but hope it would get better.
'Or perhaps you'll get used to it,' Greyve said. 'You got used to us.'
'Don't count on that,' Loran said, glaring at Greyve. 'Next time I meet a therapist, I'll get you removed from my head.'
'Focus on that,' Greyve said, grinning.
Loran nodded, and pushed the open the door into the hallway.
The entire Hezekiah was practically the same, Loran soon found out. All hallways had the same layout: Walls of some unknown type of metal, doors at regular intervals, silent except for his own footfalls and the occasional scream. Without the guidance of the dead contestants, he would've been lost numerous times already.
'So, I was out during our arrival,' he said, after a while of walking in silence. 'Anyone care to brief me?'
'It's a prisonship,' Felix said. 'Mostly intended for torture, I think.'
'That explains the screams, I guess,' Loran said. 'Shouldn't there be guards?'
Someone answered from behind him:
'The Hezekiah guards itself.'
Loran cursed and spun around, knives in his hands. An elderly creature stood in one of the doorways, leaning on a cane. It wasn't any species he had ever encountered, with a scaly yellow exterior and a long snout full of teeth.
'Who were you talking to?' the creature asked gently. It lowered its head somewhat, indicating subservience. Loran relaxed. The guy was afraid of him. He knew how to deal with that.
'My imaginary friends,' he answered, drawing the corners of his mouth upward. The creature shuffled its feet nervously at the display of teeth, and Loran dropped the grin.
'Are we your friends now?' Greyve asked, mockingly flattered. 'Loran, you have no idea how happy this makes me.'
'Correction,' Loran said. 'Imaginary assholes. Who are you?'
'A prisoner,' the creature said, and tittered. 'A smart prisoner. How about you?'
'Neither,' Loran said. 'I'm planning to leave here first chance I get. Doesn't look very hospitable.'
'Oh, that's what they all say, the first time,' the creature said. 'And the second time, and the third time, and every time. Until they stop.'
'What does he mean?' Greyve said. 'Tell him to explain.'
'I...' Loran frowned, gestured at Geyve to go jump off a cliff, and cleared his throat. 'Very well. Explain.'
'Alright, alright,' the creature said, waving Loran into the room. 'Can't hurt, can it?'
Loran let himself be waved in, gripping his knives more tightly. The room was filled with people, fifty or so, but none of them was awake. They were strapped into some sort of beds, connected to cables and machinery. Every now and then, one of them moaned or screamed, and the sound echoed through the chamber. They were the sounds heard throughout the entire ship, coming from these people, and the ones undoubtedly held behind the other doors.
Behind Loran, Felix cursed.
'This place... You've got to be kidding me...'
Light flashed as electricity ran down some of the cables. Ten prisoners screamed in unison. It lasted for a few seconds, and then it stopped. The silence was deafening. The prisoners laid still, like nothing had happened.
The creature led the way to a small table and some stools.
'Don't mind them,' he spoke over his shoulder. 'They are broken beyond repair.'
'In what way?' Loran asked, unable to take his eyes of the display surrounding him. 'Why don't they respond to being hurt? Are they drugged?'
The creature smiled lazily.
'Yes, you are definitely new. Does it shock you so?'
Loran tore his eyes away from the moaning people and glared at the creature.
'I kill people for a living. I'm not shocked easily,' he hesitated, glancing around him. 'But there's something wrong with this, and it feels off. What is going on? Why are these people being tortured and taking it like that?'
'Let me explain to you what life at the Hezekiah is like, youngling,' the creature said, and conjured a teabowl from somewhere. 'Sit down.'
Felix' face lit up.
'Tea! Excellent! Now we're talking!'
Loran sat down and accepted a cup. He didn't drink. The creature sipped its tea thoughtfully, letting its gaze wander over the bound people (some of them screamed as they were electrocuted, others trashed in their bonds for seemingly no reason).
'The Hezekiah is the ultimate punishment,' the creature said. 'It is where the worst scum in the universe is sent. The ones who deserve an eternity of torture, and would still be getting off easily. Mass murderers, terrorists, crazy dictators, free thinkers, conquerers.'
He nodded at that last one, and smiled.
'Yes, those were the times...'He sipped his tea again, and continued. 'There are only a few ships like this in existence in the entire universe. Even an endless number of planets only holds so much irredeemable criminals. The Hezekiah is the biggest, though.'
'How many doors did we pass before we got here?' Greyve asked. 'A few hundred?'
'Threehundredfortyseven,' OTTO answered instantly. 'Including this one.'
'And it was barely a twentieth of the ship. How many prisoners...' Greyve said, then fell silent.
'The prisoners are held in a constant state of both physical and mental torture,' the creature continued. 'It keeps them in a state of pain and fear which is impossibly hard to break through. It takes an immense amount of willpower to break through the mental shroud and become aware of ones surroundings, and even more to stay awake long enough to break free from the physical bonds. They always manage, though. Each new batch of prisoners always includes at least one person who gets free and attempts to escape. In most cases, this happens by freeing the others and staging a rebellion. Either a full-blown one, or a small one, just enough to get some freedom of movement and time to implement plans.'
'So why hasn't anyone escaped?' Loran asked. The creature emtpied its teacup and refilled it.
'Because it's all a game,' it said. 'The Hezekiah is sentient and tracks the movements of everyone inside it. The guards, the crew, the doors and walls, they're all decoys. Things for the prisoners to resist. To make them think they are winning. And when victory seems within their grasp, when they start thinking that maybe, just maybe, this plan might work, the real defenses get activated. Everyone gets put back in their bonds, and the game starts again. Each time, it gets harder to play. Someone breaks free, and knows what happened last time he tried to get away. He's on his guard, doesn't wake everyone, keeps the plan small and simple. And is captured again when he thinks this time will do the trick. Next time, the same thing. And the time after that. And the next one. The game goes on until, one day, after seeing his hopes crushed for the umpteenth time, the prisoner can't summon the willpower anymore to break free of his bonds. And then the game ends. Eternal torture for the player, and the bonedeep knowledge that there is no hope of escape.'
The creature sipped its tea. Loran took the time to look again at the bound people.
'Is that what happened to these people?' he asked.
'Yes,' the creature sighed. 'My group. Tried seven times. Last time was only me and two others. Since then, I'm the only one who manages to break free... I could try to wake them up, but I don't think I would be doing them a favor. They never had my patience. I am content to sit here and enjoy a few weeks of no torture. That is enough of an incentive for me to break free. They, however, would want to try again... I've tried to convince them, 'If you can't live with this situation, just kill yourselves. You're not going to get out'. But they refuse to give up, even though they already have. They just won't admit it to themselves...'
The creature emptied its second cup, and set it down in front of him. Loran looked at his untouched cup, and put it down as well.
'So now you know. You will never escape. Either find yourself a quiet place to enjoy a few moments of peace, or kill yourself now.'
'I'm sorry to crush your philosophy,' Loran said, 'but I have a way out.'
The creature chuckled.
'So be it, then. You will learn the hard way. I was hoping you could keep me company during my spare time.'
'I thank you for your information,' he said. 'Now that I understand the ship, I may be able to fight it better.'
'You will learn,' the creature said, and for a moment it sounded almost sad. 'At the very least, I can point you to some others.'
It got up and made it's way through the groaning prisoners to a crude map drawn on the wall. By the looks of it, it was one of the Hezekiah's blocks.
'We are here,' the creature said, pointing to a room in the middle of the map. 'Over here is a rebellion going, at the moment. It's not very fresh anymore, and has been going for a few months. The Hezekiah will get them soon, no doubt. If you hurry, you might just catch the tail end of it.'
Loran glanced at the illusions behind him. Greyve nodded.
'Will is somwhere around there.'
'Thank you,' Loran said. The creature shrugged.
'I would wish you good luck, but as it is, I hope the Hezekiah gets you soon. You may see the truth in my words, then, and be able to kill yourself before it's too late.'
'Yes,'Loran said. He was getting a bit uncomfortable around this guy and his talk of killing themselves. 'I will go now, then.'
He could see where the creature was coming from, of course. Suïcide might be highly preferable to eternal torture. It just wasn't something Loran was going to do anytime soon.
'You better not,' Greyve said. 'Or you'll have to answer to me.'
Perhaps he would do it just to piss of Greyve.
'How about I go with you?' the creature said, just as Loran made his way to the door, trading mental threats with Greyve. 'It's been a while since I've had anyone to talk to. I won't join the rebellion, just, accompany you for a bit.'
He looked hopeful at Loran, who sighed and shrugged.
'Fine. Come along.'
The creature hobbled out of the room, and Loran made to follow him.
The words appeared in front of him, made up from small pieces of rock. Voitrach had used his own body to form them.
'What?' Loran said.
Of course. Voitrach would be the one to try to save the prisoners.
'No,' Loran said. 'I can't. You heard it. I'm not even going to try.'
'Death or torture, Voitrach,' Greyve said, shrugging. 'No saving here.'
Voitrach stood among the prisoners, looking smaller in his defeat, or perhaps it was because he had used his body to form words.
'THEN KILL THEM.'
It was not what Loran had expected, even though it was the reaonable next step. He had not expected Voitrach to be reasonable. Still, he wasn't going to waste time on this.
'Did you never dream of death?' Felix asked him, as Loran turned away from Voitrach's words. 'When your vision got damaged and you got kicked from the academy? When your mind broke apart from constant drug abuse? When Lienna turned on you? Never?'
Loran slowly turned to face him. Felix was standing there, looking his usual smug villainy self.
'I know ten thousand ways of slowly killing a mammal,' he said, hissing the words in Felix' face. 'To strip you of your skin or pulverize your bones in your body, or replace your blood with acid. If you had been real... If you had been an actual human being, standing there, admitting to going through my brain, I would've used them all.'
'Glad I'm not real, then,' Felix said, smiling.
'Don't make fun of me!' Loran snarled, slashing at Felix, even though he knew it would be ineffective. 'Yes, I did think sometimes that dying might be better than living! And I chose to live anyway. Because I don't give up like that. Because I had a chance to better myself. I didn't, but that's beside the point.'
And in that instant, he knew what they were all about to say. He didn't even have to hear it.
Do they have that chance?
He lowered his head, looked down at his hands. He was still clutching his knives.
'I'll be right up,' he shouted at the creature, waiting somewhere around the corner. 'Got to take care of something.'
Funny. He didn't think he ever had a victim who welcomed him.
He stepped towards the prisoners, and did what he did best.
"It takes a lot to get the formula just right," Meddet was saying. "Freedom around here is all about balance."
Will was only half listening. The little gang's leader had been going on for some time now, and he'd started repeating himself a ways back.
"For example, take the amount of freedom itself. Too much and the ship recaptures you and you have to start again, but too little and there's no point to being free at all."
I should've stayed in my cell, Will decided. There was so much going on, and if he wanted to be on top of it, he'd need time to reflect. He wasn't even sure what state the battle was in; he'd jumped timelines repeatedly before falling into the current one, and that left him with no reliable knowledge of what had happened up to this point. Add to that the events at the end of the last round and the weird batch of memories that were floating by the sidelines, and the end result is a huge mass of confusing non-facts and disjointed snippets of experience.
"Then there's the size of the group. If you're by yourself, the odds of having the skills you need to get by are minimal at best."
One step at a time, he told himself. Start with Annaliese- how'd she end up so different in this timeline? Was she like this from the start, or is it a recent thing? Sighing, he backed up his thoughts. He had next to nothing to go on; he'd have to start from a clean slate.
"If, on the other hand, you've got too many people, then the end result is a group with too much divisiveness, and you get inevitable self-destruction."
He knew the original roster of contestants, that much was certain. There hadn't been any variation on who'd started out in the battle across timelines that he'd been able to see, so he could be fairly sure that the starting group would be the same.
"What we have here, though, is a nice balance; Chester manages the systems we need under control, Eltere handles any medical needs that might arise, and the Themms do reconnaissance and provide extra force when it's needed."
He started assembling facts. Arriving here, whoever had come on the PA had said that either Voitrach or Atrum had died. In addition, he'd seen Annaliese and (unfortunately) Loran conclusively alive before that... thing had happened. Given that it was the fourth round, he could probably assume that three people had died. Based on those facts, then, it seemed likely that one of Greyve, Apathy, and OTTO/O'rlyath were alive, one of either Voitrach and Felix was alive, and both Annaliese and Loran were alive.
Sighing, Will rubbed his forehead. That wasn't much useful information, and it assumed that both the structure of the battle was intact and the voice on the PA could be trusted.
"But I digress- we're nearly to the newcomer's cell, you see. Chester, you said that he hasn't even left his cell yet?"
The big man grunted in the affirmative and gestured to a door a little ways ahead of the group.
"Excellent! Mr. Haven, care to welcome this person to the ship?"
"Alright," Will replied, a bit apprehensive. He couldn't really rule out anyone as being conclusively dead just yet, but whoever it was that was in this cell, there was a good chance that their identity could help pare down his list.
Of course, there was also a good chance they were fairly dangerous. Just to be safe, he took his Blastec out of its holster and held it at the ready. Behind him, Chester, knowing just who was in the cell, chuckled to himself. Will shot him a quick glare, then pulled open the door.
A small stack of boxes tumbled out, along with the gnome that'd been standing on top of them, apparently trying to use them to reach something.
Will lowered his gun and rubbed his forehead. He'd wanted an answer or two, not just more questions.
Things I currently dislike: Life. Why's it got to take so much time away from my precious internetting?
In an entirely unprecedented turn of events, Lord Paradise now replaces the absent Niall. Parset, unlike his predecessor Apathy, stays exactly put.
[21:38] <MalkyTop> I'm not good at writing bad. | [13:12] <Shellghost> I can't tell if I'm crying or if my eyes came.
She made it very clear, just by opening her mouth to speak, that she was not a mere damsel, that she was a woman. And that she was a person above all.
She was what you would draw if someone asked you to draw a lady, but her bony cold hands were an old man's. Fists that were used to clenching.
I went home immediately after talking to her, and fell asleep soon after, concluding that if we were rain, I was drizzle and she was hurricane.
He puffed once, twice, from his cigar, and fluttered its ashes over the balcony railing. Still singeing, they danced around against the nightly cityscape.
Parset had spent more time in lockup than he’d cared to, if less than he deserved, and yet still he could not remember bearing a sentence with more indignity. His previous jailors had at least had the dignity to physically lead him to a cell, as opposed to just throwing one up around him. What was worse, though not entirely unsurprising, was that his key didn’t fit in the lock. Given the chaos outside, he would have appreciated the opportunity to lock himself in and others out.
Parset rat-tat-tatted a loose externalization of the rhythm of his thought processes upon the ground. The most worrying of his myriad problems was the clear and obvious absence of a world under him. Gnomes are thought to live closer to the earth than humans (yeah, about four feet closer, goes the inevitable joke) and though this conception can be mostly waved away as cultural insensitivity, Parset was certainly feeling a bit of vertigo. Even in the last place, there were smells that made sense to him: flora, fauna, stone, dust, the right note of moisture in the air. Upon this second, more dramatic remove, the floor was a hollow layer of iron and the wind came out of the walls and tasted like sweat.
Though opposed to hard labor in all its forms, the gnome was intrigued by the possibility of building a structure out of all these strange bricks that were lying around. They might give him an opportunity to reach the strange light source on the ceiling, which in turn would, well, he’d probably either burn himself like the proverbial winged gnome, or accidentally put the light out and leave himself in darkness. He could make his own light, though, and had come too far in this life to be afraid of a little fire, even if it was otherworldly upside-down fire.
On reflection, of course stacking the boxes up against the door was a bad idea.
Picking himself up off the ground, Parset found himself face-to-knee with an impressive looking man leveling some foreign metallic implement against him as though it meant something. He waved. The man said, “You. Did you just get here recently?”
* * * * *
The little guy nodded. He was ugly in an endearing sort of way. “Do you know why you’re here?” asked Will.
The other pulled a card from out of his handkerchief and handed it to Will. Will examined it. You’ve been entered in a contest, it read. Try to stay alive.
This rather bluntly threw off all of Will’s preconceptions about how this battle worked. “I’m in the same contest,” he explained to the short man. “Can you talk?”
The new contestant raised an eyebrow incredulously and shook his head. “That’s inconvenient,” groaned Will. “Alright. Did you meet anyone? Did they tell you anything more than this?” Head shake no. “Alright.” Will paused. “Do you have a name?” Slightly sarcastic looking nod for yes. “Can you write it down?” Head shake no.
The little guy raised one drumstick for effect and rapped them one-two on the side of one of the boxes. The word “Parset” popped into Will’s head unbidden. “Parset?” Nod. “Alright. Hi, Parset. I’m Will.”
Will offered his hand. Parset tentatively took hold of it and gave it a quick shake, pulling his hand away. The gnome didn’t seem all that trusting, but Will supposed he wouldn’t easily trust anybody three times his height, either.
* * * * *
”There were eight of us at first,” explained Will. ”These men told us we were going to kill each other because... a book told them to. The way it seems to have worked is that every time someone dies, we move somewhere else. But I don’t know why you’re here.” This put Parset on guard, but Will wasn’t looking particularly aggressive at the moment, and it wasn’t like there was any clear method of escape, so he sat and kept listening. ”The understanding... well, the implication—the assumption we made was that this thing would eventually end, but if they’re just bringing more people in—I don’t know. Things are bad.”
Things are bad indeed. This human had a talent for stating the obvious, but at least he hadn’t asked for anything yet.
”Parset, this question might seem blunt, but, what can you do? Why do you think they put you in this battle?” There it was. The real answer, of course, was because he had the key, but the gnome didn’t feel like sharing that bit of information just yet. Instead he just shrugged. ”You don’t have any weapons? Special abilities? Magic?” Will stammered about the word “magic” like it was something he’d only heard of in books. Parset pointed a drumstick at him affirmatively. ”Good. That’s good. What kind of magic?”
Parset slapped his sticks together one two three four
The ensuing demonstration of percussive skill—which the gnome, not to brag, thought to be fairly impressive—was sufficient to lift three or four of the boxes about a foot into the air and compel them to do a little dance. This brought a little smirk to Will’s face. Satisfied that he’d more or less demonstrated the extent of his abilities, Parset cut out the music and sent the boxes back to the floor with a dull thud.
Will nodded appreciatively. ”Well,” he said. ”That’s more than I’ve seen out of Annaliese, at least. You should come with me, Parset. Help me find the others.”
If that had been an order, Parset would have rejected it entirely, but it wasn’t. It was more of a suggestion. This merited thought. Looking for however-many people who had been tasked with killing him didn’t seem immediately prudent, but neither was staying here with... how had the voice out of the wall put it? The worst scum of the something-he-didn’t-catch. Rat-tat-tat-. What settled the matter was that there would be plenty of keyholes in this lockup for his perusal. He looked up at Will and saluted.
Annaliese was wrists-deep in twine and beads, and she was happy. It was the sort of moment she'd always treasured: no-one was around, giving her sidelong looks or pointedly not commenting on her progress; she was working magic, but hadn't yet gotten to the point where it didn't work; and it was simply satisfying to watch a mundane tangle of parts coalesce into something mystical. The fire behind her was warm, and the crystals and scrying spheres and metal-infused paints that spread across the walls and shelves of her cottage glittered in its light like a warm, starry sky. It was as perfect a moment as the bedraggled witch ever really experienced.
For a time, there was no sound but the crackle and pop of burning logs, the swish of cord on wood, and the occasional mournful cry of a Weeping Owl. It was very peaceful, and it was the perfect way to take her mind off Gias. After all...
Annaliese blinked. Who was Gias?
She looked up from her work, straight into the too-many eyes of an insectoid creature awkwardly perched on a chair that didn't fit her physiology. She started, sending her own chair crashing backwards and her half-finished project tumbling from the table. This wasn't right at all! And Mother Alsmas would be here later to see how she was dealing with Lora– no, see how she was dealing with the outbreak of pig plague. There was no Loran, no battle. Just a quiet night. Normal.
But it was too late to try to save the memory. Annaliese's lovely warm cottage was beginning to melt at the corners, replaced by cold steel and dry stone. Sigils and books were spread haphazardly among futuristic devices and nautical navigation equipment. With a rush, everything that had happened came flooding back, and the moment was gone.
"I see you've begun to recover, then."
Annaliese gulped, choking back a sob. "Don't talk to me! Just... Just take over my body and leave me behind, or kill me and be done with it!"
The Vorlon queen didn't move from her chair as it gradually transmuted itself to a granite throne. "Your panic is understandable, but I–"
"No! You got your freedom now, don't torture me anymore! I just... I can't take it. I can't take the fighting and killing, I can't take the monsters, I can't take you. You can have my stupid body. I never liked it anyway. Just. Just let me forget this battle and live in the past, or let me die."
The queen's mandibles clicked with a forced patience that didn't come easily to her. "I could have long since done that, if that's what I wanted to do. The Cage was based on a device for uploading one's consciousness into a blank body: it would have no trouble overwriting your own personality and memories and replacing them with mine."
Annaliese leaned against a wall she wasn't even paying enough attention to to consciously absorb whatever it looked like at the moment. The details were fuzzy, but the queen's general message had been clear enough. "Well?"
An unspoken why haven't you then hung in the air despite the timid witch's inability to steel herself enough to let it out.
"Well, I chose not to. I stand to gain nothing by your essential murder. I have no intention of usurping your life or body, and not simply because of its distasteful form."
Annaliese didn't respond. After a brief pause, the queen responded to the questions she assumed a less-defeated person would probably have been asking.
"I realize that my actions may not have made that obvious." Even the queen realized what a ridiculous understatement this was, but she plugged on. "But as it was, I didn't have time to ask your permission or simply advise you. After an eternity of solitude and constant reminder of the foe that had crushed me, I saw an opportunity to strike back against what I had long thought beyond my grasp."
As the throne sank back into the floor and became a tree in the thicket that Annaliese's muddled memories were currently making of the cottage, the Vorlon finally stood. She folded her hands demurely and continued.
"I have a fairly good grasp of your life by now, Annaliese Nibbs. I cannot draw a parallel between anything you have seen or felt and my own struggles. You simply have not experienced anything that compares. But I ask you to attempt to understand: imagine that at the heights of your greatest victories, an entity far beyond your own understanding or abilities came to you and told you that everything you had ever accomplished had somehow been..." The limited facial control afforded by a chitinous exoskeleton did little to mask the queen's expression of disgust. "unfair. As though life was a game, and by winning it you had cheated."
"I don't really..."
"But this being, this cosmic referee, this self-appointed guardian of a balance that had never existed did not intend to see your cheating go unpunished. So, rather than merely taking your victory from you, he slaughtered your family. You watched, shackled and terrified, as your children died, one by one. Watched as your lover was torn from you and entombed. Watched as your entire culture and species was wiped from the universe for being too powerful. As your last kin died, the being came to you, all smug self-righteousness and unbridled power. It told you that everything it had done, that the ocean of hemolymph it had spilled, had been fair and righteous, and that every death was on your own head because you had dared to stray outside of rules that had never existed until you broke them. It sealed you in the darkness, unable even to die, and it left."
Annaliese opened her mouth, but realized she wasn't expected to respond yet and closed it again.
"You languished there, wracked with guilt and fury and grief, with no company but your own for ages beyond dozens of your own lifetime. And then, with no warning, not only were you freed, but the being that had murdered everyone you had ever cared about had appeared. And it was vulnerable. All you had to do was briefly incapacitate one strange alien for a short time, and you could have your vengeance. Could spend one last moment with your consort. Could escape the darkness forever. Would you have done that, Annaliese Nibbs? Would anyone not have?"
"Well... It all seems..." She sighed. "I don't know. You apparently know everything about me, you know I can't really..." She waved her hand vaguely, having a hard time bringing the word she wanted to mind.
"No, you can't. Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect understanding. Your life has been too disparate from mine."
In spite of the terror that still pounded in her chest, and a suspicion that wasn't so much lurking as menacing that the queen was simply putting off taking over for some reason, Annaliese finally contributed something to the conversation.
"So, uhm, now what?"
The queen paced on ground that couldn't decide what it was. "For me? I'm unsure. I can never return to my home or life. I'm a digital relic of a long-forgotten era and a longer-forgotten species. I've accomplished the last goal afforded me by the universe. I'd spent so long trying to find a way out of the Cage, but now I have no reason to. Perhaps I will seek a way to deactivate it, and grant me the release Gias thought I never deserved."
Despite her own begging for death only moments ago, that struck Annaliese as rather... Sad. Nobody deserved to feel like that. The same gentle affability that had let her care about a bunch of peasants who always resented her was already working its magic towards the queen. It was already hard for the witch to see her as a monster, and deep within the fear and resentment she'd developed, a seed of pity and comradeship was developing. Annaliese was not a woman to whom hate came easily.
"Until then, though, we're stuck with one another, both trapped in the same situation and indeed the same body." There was a pause for several beats, then the queen continued. "A situation that reminds me painfully of my own in many respects."
Visions flashed across Annaliese's mind of being trapped in the dark forever with the likes of Loran and Greyve. She blinked them away and tried to focus on the queen's actual point.
"Well, I guess, yeah. Kind of."
With a swish of blue fabric, the Vorlon stopped pacing. "As long as I remain in this false life, I should like to provide what aid I may in resisting those that would toy with mortal life as though for sport."
Annaliese had heard better offers for truce and cooperation – well, okay, she hadn't. Not personally anyway. But it's not like she couldn't imagine what they would sound like – but she got the picture. She supposed it was better to have the horrifying bug-woman in her head on her side than the alternative, even if "fighting against people who could kidnap herself and some powerful people" sounded maybe even more frightening than being possessed by an angry alien ghost. She reached out a hand to shake and got a confused cock of the head for her troubles. Awkwardly, she rescinded it and started stammering.
"What, uh... What should we do then?"
With a sweeping gesture of a chitinous claw, the queen indicated the entire fluctuating scene.
"Our first priority is to awaken you, of course. You cannot survive or fight back if your body is prone and unmoving."
"Oh." Annaliese paused. "Actually, I'd kind of assumed you were doing all this. Can't you just stop?"
The queen twitched her antennae in the negative. "No, you are currently inhabiting your own memories of your own volition, likely as a result of the side effects of experiencing a blast from the Memory Converter and your own fra– and to protect yourself."
"The Cage informs me that your senses are detecting the approach of another being or beings. Hasten yourself."
Meddet clapped his hands together. "Excellent! Glad to have another person aboard!"
"No," Will wanted to say, "it's not excellent." He wanted to explain just what Parset's presence meant, just how many different implications it had, but before he could so much as say a word, a piercing, screeching alarm filled the hall they were in, accompanied by flashing lights and slamming iron barricades.
"We were due, you see," Meddet shouted, barely making himself heard over the din. He produced a pistol from somewhere in his patchwork coat, and Chester brought an big, alien-looking weapon to bear as well. "Time is a factor as well; if the ship sees you as being free too long, it cracks down. The trick is to reset the clock once in a while!"
With a sudden move, Eltere jabbed something into one of the Themms' neck. It slumped, and before the other Themm could leap to its compatriot's aid, Meddet put a pair of holes in its torso. Chester, covering Will and Parset with his weapon, looked wary.
"We need to cut the group down to less than half," the ringleader shouted, "or the ship will cut us down to zero. It's nothing personal!"
"How many times have you done this?", Will asked, holding his Blastec on Meddet. "How many times have you gained peoples' trust, then turned on them?" Parset, down around knee-level and without any weapons pointed his way, started tapping out a nervous little rhythm.
Meddet laughed. "I've lost track," he shouted back, "I stopped counting when I ran out of toes!"
Will shot a glance at Chester. The big man didn't look all that comfortable with the situation, but he kept the gun pointed at Will nonetheless.
"And Chester," Will ventured, "how long has he been with you?"
"Not long," Meddet replied, "but he's proven his worth." A grin cracked onto his face. "His predecessor wasn't nearly as good with Hezekiah as he is."
"And when you find someone better, what, you'll drop Chester and pick up the new model?" Keeping his pistol trained squarely on Meddet, Will addressed the computer expert instead. "You really want to stay loyal to this guy? Listen to him, he's talking about you like you're a piece of meat!"
Chester bristled. "Hey, I'm no turncoat! Don't go trying to turn me on Meddet, man!"
Will shrugged. "Look, I respect your loyalty, but the facts are that he's getting people to join up with him just so that he can kill them to stay free. He abuses loyalty to his own ends, I don't know if that's the sort-"
With a crash, a pair of wolf-like robots came through a door a ways down the hall, spotted the group, and began prowling forward, their metallic growls managing to make themselves heard over the din.
"Chester," Meddet shouted, "just shoot them and be done with it!"
The big man snarled something that was lost in the din, hefted his weapon-
A little vial, having worked itself slowly out of one of Eltere's pockets, smashed into the side of Meddet's head, and the shattering glass drew Chester's attention long enough for Will to fire off a pair of shots in Meddet's direction and lunge behind the open door of Parset's cell. From the other side, he heard the sounds of a few bullets ricocheting, the screech of metal on metal, another shot from a pistol- and then a massive, deafening roar drowned out everything.
As Will's ears gradually stopped ringing, he realized that the alarms had stopped. Cautiously, he poked his head out around the door.
Parset was right next to the door, sitting inside a metal box he'd turned on its side. From any angle but inside the cell, no one could see inside. He didn't look massively pleased with what all was going on, but Will imagined the gnome would make it.
Eltere was nowhere to be seen, all Will could see of Meddet was his frayed hat. Aside from a few gashes in the metal walls of the hall, there was no sign of Hezekiah's wolf-robots either.
Chester, though, stood to one side, half of an alien rifle still clutched in his hand. The other half had apparently been blown to slag when the thing had fired.
The man was still breathing, though, and when Will came out from behind the door, he did so slowly and with his hands raised.
"Put those down," Chester grumbled, waving dismissively at Will. "'M not going to shoot you."
"You alright?", Will asked, still hesitant.
"Yeah, fine. The enforcers must've figured we were down to a small enough group and it wasn't worth getting blasted on principle."
"Well, glad you're alright. Listen, what I said earlier-"
"No, I know." The big man gestured vaguely in the direction the robots had gone. "He used people, no reason to think he looked at me any differently." He heaved a sigh. "It's just not easy just throwing a history with someone away like that, y'know?"
"Well, whatever. It's done with." He sighed again. "So, you got any big ideas on what to do?"
"You know how things work around here better than I do," Will replied. "I've got some things to figure out."
"Alright, well, it wouldn't hurt to get to a maintenance terminal, make sure the ship's off our backs."
"Sounds good," Will said, "lead the way."
Chester nodded and turned, heading down the hall. Parset started off even before Will did, and the human found himself taking up the rear in the little group. That suited him fine; he had to work through some things anyway.
Things I currently dislike: Life. Why's it got to take so much time away from my precious internetting?
The beast ran through corridor after corridor, unable to find any signs of life or even death. Unable to find the Captain or Gias or the enemy or anyone, or anything.
Were its mind more rationally developed, it would wonder why there had only been one corpse in this entire section of the ship.
"Where are you, Captain?" it screamed. "Where are you, Gias? I have come to help! I have come to destroy you!"
And then, suddenly, the beast wasn't alone any more. A man with wooden grains in his skin appeared, an irritated expression on his face.
"Enough. You're not even an hour old and I'm already growing tired of you."
The beast was silent for a few moments. Its memories knew this man. But from where? It reached through the past memories to find him and his name.
"Xylphos," said the beast. "I... killed you?"
Xylphos glared in response.
"Gias killed me. You only remember it. Which is why I'm here, in fact."
"Gias... Where is Gias? I must destroy Gias! For the Captain!"
"And that's your problem," Xylphos grumbled. "Your mind is a complete mess. No direction, no purpose, just a jumble of memories. In your current state, I wouldn't even favor you in a fight with the witch."
"Witch..." Some fragment of Felix's mind provided the beast with the proper association. "Annaliese?"
"At least you're getting on topic," Xylphos groaned. "But we'll need to speed things up. Fortunately, I know just the place to do that."
Before the beast could respond, Xyphos grabbed its arm and leapt into the air. He then smashed through twenty floors of the ship, landing in a room filled with pods.
"Here we go," the cultist said with a wicked grin. "About fifty of the galaxy's most ambitious and wicked conquerors. All of them recently deceased, so you should be able to get quite the meal from them. Enjoy yourself."
And then Xyphlos leapt through the hole he had left in the ceiling, and the Hexekiah sealed itself up behind him. There was nothing left in the room except the Memory Beast and a large number of coffins with recently-stabbed corpses.
A few seconds later, the beast remembered the concept of hunger.
Parset was in fair shape but couldn’t hope to keep up with a human (or a giant like Chester) at running speed, so within a minute of waiting up for him the simian-looking self-described “datapath” had swept the gnome up onto his shoulders and offered him a ride. Straddling the man’s neck was comfortable enough and made Parset feel oddly powerful, but carried its disadvantages. One, it would probably be impolite to bring his drumsticks to bear upon Chester’s closely shaven head, tempting though the prospect was. Two, it gave him little opportunity to search for keyholes.
Soon the gnome became convinced that there was not a keyhole to be found. Everything aboard Hezekiah seemed to function on far more insidious and ineffable systems than mere guards or keys. Those blaring alarms that seemed to come out of everywhere, the iron bars that rose up out of the ground unbidden, and of course the wolves. Parset, being a creature of good sense, was afraid of wolves more than most things. All in all, this place operated on a level beyond reason, beyond magic; it beat to a rhythm all its own. The gnome steeled himself to try very hard not to be surprised by anything that came next.
Chester and Will were talking. ”—Only two who I know to be alive. The first is a woman named Annaliese. She’s friendly and harmless.”
”You say friendly and harmless, I hear weak and useless,” corrected Chester. ”If we find her, we leave her. Who else?”
”No, we—she’s part of my team,” assured Will. ”I can’t have her dying, so I’d rather keep her close.”
”We’ve all got women we want to ‘keep close,’” laughed Chester. “Putting her in a group like this will draw her the wrong kind of attention. She’s safer in her cell.” Anticipating a complaint, Chester raised a finger to Will’s lips in censure. “Never forget this is where we’ve been sent for punishment. The only way to enjoy it here is to become someone like Meddet. Someone beyond saving. Now who’s the other?”
Content to defer the argument for a later date, Will proceeded. ”The second is an assassin. Loran.”
”Better,” smiled Chester. “I’m detecting three new arrivals—not two—that’s not counting you or the little guy up here—and no video feed into their cells as of yet. They’re all on parts of the ship that resist me. But I’d suggest we set about finding your assassin friend. We’re short on muscle.”
Will shook his head. ”If he sees me, he might kill me. If not, I’ll almost certainly try to kill him.”
”So much for your ‘team.’” Parset was starting to follow a bit of this. The woman and the assassin were two more players in the ‘contest’ and might have numbered among the people Parset had seen in the previous... place. The assassin was playing to win, whereas the woman, like Will, was merely trying her best not to lose, which made her a friend. Remembering an earlier conversation, Annaliese was a magician—another gnome, maybe?—but one even less powerful than Parset. He hoped she wasn’t another gnome; he was rather enjoying the sensation of being unique, besides which he knew the effect he had on females and didn’t want to overcomplicate things. “If you want to play this safe, we can stop a couple minutes, and I’ll be able to tell you which of them you’re heading towards, or if they’re even still in their cell. Otherwise, I can’t guarantee you more than a trail of breadcrumbs, or less than a knife in the back.”
”I can handle either of those things better than I can handle wasting any more time,” said Will. ”So, if you don’t mind me asking, were you born being able to do... what you do... with computers?”
”Wasn’t ‘born’ at all,” answered Chester ruefully. “Couldn’t you tell? No parents who had created a child out of an act of love would name it ‘Chester.’ That was a joke. No, I was just... compiled. I was a code somebody ran. Joke’s on them: all the effort they put into me and now I’m nothing but a drain on Hezekiah’s resources.”
”Are you sure about that? Hezekiah’s resources don’t seem to have limits.”
”Don’t be fooled.” Chester patted the door to a nearby cell. “Old girl’s practically out of her mind with overpopulation. And when I say ‘mind,’ by the way, I’m being literal. She’s partly organic. Which, with my thing, makes her easy to talk to but tough to negotiate with.”
”Organic, huh? Like Pinnochio in the belly of the whale.”
”Or Jonah,” added Chester. “Hezekiah makes all her own choices, even the name. ‘Thus saith the Lord: Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live.’ Sort of offbeat humor that sentient torture ships are known for.”
”I don’t get it.”
”Yeah, well, clearly you haven’t been here long enough. Hey, we’re here.”
The cell was empty. Like the others, the door had just been hanging open, with no lock (and, Parsley noted grimly, no keyhole). The gnome hopped off of Chester’s back and examined the space. “Looks like your target’s lost,” said the giant simply.
”Whoever it is,” mused Will, ”There has to be some way to track them. Maybe if we—“
Parset whacked Will on the shin with a drumstick to shut him up. The poor fellow really didn’t know the first thing about magic, did he? The gnome sat down on the floor of the cell and began banging out a rhythm. Rat tatatat ratatat ratatat tat There was definitely something there. A beat. He synched up with it.
Onetwo three one two threeone twothree
He had a direction. Bending over to continue his musical assault on the floor, Parset walked as fast as he could manage in the direction of the beat. He’d made it some distance before Will decided he was better off following.
There were several seconds of silence as Annaliese concentrated, but nothing seemed to be coming of them aside from a general stabilization of the mutable place she and the queen were standing in. After a bit of screwed-face straining, she sighed and looked up at the Vorlon apologetically.
"Do you know anything about, you know, how to do this? You guys were supposed to be good at... Memories. That sort of thing. Right? And I'm just stuck in my own memories, so..."
The queen made a noncommittal noise.
"Look, if we're both stuck unconscious because I don't have any idea how to wake up, it's not like either of us can do much about–" she waved a hand. "Everything."
"It continues to astound me how little other species understand the true power of one's own mind and recollections, and how little they bother to try. I know you have learned only few meditation techniques, so..." She trailed off, thinking. "Focus on a specific event. Something very recent. Watching as– as the Sollipor blasted Gias with the memory converter."
Annaliese neither noticed the catch in the queen's voice nor knew what a Sollipor or a memory converter was, but she assumed it all referred to when the little bug man had fired all that energy around. Closing her eyes, because it seemed like one of those things you were supposed to do, she focused on the event, conjuring up what she'd seen as a spectator behind her own eyes, how it had felt to be subjugated, the rush of the queen's emotions that she'd caught secondhand...
Around her, though she couldn't see it, the scene reformed, replacing the chaotic forest boat cave castle they'd been standing in. The Vorlon Complex stood austere and ancient around them, and the drama played itself out in slow motion; some details were faint or even inaccurate, but others were stark and true. Bits of the edges of what could be seen were little more than colored smudges.
"Now open your eyes, but stay focused on the memory."
She did; everything wavered for a moment, but what little spellcasting Annaliese had proven to be capable of had taught her to concentrate on multiple things simultaneously a bit better than the average person. Well enough for these purposes, anyway.
"Step into yourself, and lose your identity as separate from the memory. Meld into it, and experience it as though it were the first time. As you were before, in your cabin."
Annaliese considered correcting her; witches live in cottages, after all. Still, it was probably a pointless distinction, and if there was anyone it was useless to posture for, it was someone who could see all of your memories. She stepped towards herself, feeling odd about it, and tried to fade into her own thoughts.
The two witches wavered a bit as Annaliese struggled to let go, struggled to stop overthinking things, but they eventually blended to one. The queen faded from sight as well, to allow the memory to proceed naturally.
Gias was destroyed, and so was the bug man, and Felix and Voitrach and much of the room. The memory beast stood where they had been, but... Annaliese hadn't noticed that the first time. She'd retreated to her own mind as soon as the converter's effects had touched her. Or maybe she'd just been blocking this out, but had still been there for it. That must have been it, because she watched the beast with a sense of fading deja vu; as she felt the transition begin, and closed her eyes to shut out the rush of air and light and sound, she'd entirely forgotten this wasn't the first time she'd lived through it.
She was in a cell, and looked around it, panicked. Her chest was heaving, her heart was pounding, her knife and broom fell from her hands for the umpteenth time since the battle had started. She slumped against a wall, hyperventillating, and threatened to slip into unconsciousness or catatonia. Perhaps she did, but only for a moment. Her eyes slammed open and–
And nothing changed, but everything did. She knew implictly and without explanation that she was no longer recalling anything, but was conscious and present in the battle's fourth round.
"Reliving the past up until it becomes the present is an excellent way to escape self-imposed mental loops, and even some that may be inflicted on you. Remember that, it may yet serve you well."
Annaliese looked up at the at-once hyperreal and obviously projected image of the queen.
"Be sharp. You must find your co-contestants without drawing the ire of 'the worst scum in the galaxy'."
And, indeed, she could hear the approach of several feet, unhurriedly moving outside her little room. She snatched up what she'd dropped, and without warning the feet stopped and the door snapped open, revealing the last face she wanted to see and one she personally considered a top contender for worst scum of whatever a galaxy was.
"It's not far now," muttered the old creature. He had long since tired of trying to converse much with Loran, who seemed much more interested in alternating between talking to himself and sullen silence.
"And where's Will? You said he'd be close to where we're going."
The once-conquerer was wise enough to tell when someone was talking to voices in his head. He certainly hadn't mentioned any wills himelf, in any case.
Felix shrugged. "He's been moving erratically. I think he may actually be behind us now."
"Then why didn't you–"
Greyve held up a vaguely-placating, firmly-stopping hand. "Even with Will's odd movements, we're still getting closer to each other. No reason to try changing course and losing the one source of information we have about this place." At that, he gestured towards the hobbling alien.
Felix nodded. "In any event, we're much closer to Annaliese now than to Will."
"Fine," grumbled Loran. "How close?"
"Oh, I'd saaay..."
There were several seconds of silence until Loran finally burst out, "Well?"
Felix held up a finger and took several more steps before stopping in front of one of the nearly-identical doors that littered the place.
Over the course of his reign, Emperor Urdralus Gmingnor The First had conquered hundreds of planets, and crushed thousands of rebellions on them. His empire grew with every year, as new worlds fell to the might of his armada.
And then he fell ill. Unable to withstand the pressures of command, he was bedridden and control of the Empire was given to his son.
Urdralus Gmingnor The Second was not the ruler his father was. Rebellion after rebellion succeeded, attack after attack failed, and the empire that had taken centuries to build fell apart in less than a decade.
Father and son were both captured, and for their crimes, they were sentenced to suffer for eternity on the Hezekiah.
Urdralus Gmingnor The First surveyed the room. His son was not taken here. He was in another cell, yes. Deemed the lesser threat.
His son had done this. His son had failed, and his failure had cost them both the Empire, and their freedom.
He was outraged. The Hezekiah's torments were nowhere near what Urdralus The Second deserved. He would deliver his own justice, and then he would escape, and reclaim his empire. The galaxy would be his.
But first, he had to feed. He was still so hungry. He reached his hand out to the next pod.
Queen Tralide of Pneothe was angry. Why had her people betrayed her? Why did they not realize that Pneotheans were destined to rule the cosmos, and she to reign supreme above all?
Once she was free of this accursed prison, she would return to Pneothe and execute the traitors. And then the galaxy would fear her and her people once again.
But she could not leave until her son had been properly punished. And besides which, she still needed to feed.
With each new set of memories, the beast became more uncertain as to its identity. Each prisoner had their own motivations, their own style of governance, their own scores to settle, even their own personalized torments from the Hezekiah. In the end, the beast wanted to punish his son for his failure, slaughter the traitors who had turned on her, destroy a sun because its color displeased him, consume the surviving members of Parliament, among countless other objectives.
But for all the differences, there were two objective that fifty new sets of memories could agree on. The beast's crude mouth formed into a wicked smirk.
It was to be the supreme ruler of the galaxy. And the Hezekiah's creators would suffer for the torment they had subjected it to.
And it would not allow anyone to stand in its way.
Annaliese let out a short shriek and reached to the floor for her knife.
'Oh now, who is this?' said the elderly creature, looking over Loran's shoulder.
'Annaliese Nibbs, isn't it?' asked Loran.
Annaliese didn't answer, pointing her knife in his general direction. Her arm was shaking so bad that Loran wondered if she would even hit him if she swung. Loran remembered wondering what powers had gotten her a spot in this competition, but it was apparant that it wasn't her combat skills. The way she held her knife would probably lose her a few fingers if she tried to stab anything. Loran smiled reassuringly at her. Annaliese grew pale and stepped backwards, until her back was against the wall.
'Don't come any closer!' she said shrilly. 'Just - Just go, and I will not follow you!'
'Is that a threat?' Greyve said, sounding amused. 'That girl's got spunk.'
'DON'T KILL HER,' Voitrach formed. Loran tried to wave the rocks away from before his eyes, but they were unaffected by his hands.
'I'm not going to,' he said. 'Weren't you paying attention?'
He took a step towards Annaliese, who now appeared to try to walk backwards through the wall.
'Please!' she said. 'Please just... don't...'
She hesitated for a moment, as if listening to someone, then said 'No!'
Loran tried his smile again. Anneliese flinched. He took another step and saw her tense, her eyes shooting from left to right rapidly. He knew the look. It was how everyone looked when they were trapped without escape. When he killed someone like that, he always moved as close as he could for them to stay where they were, and then closed the final distance as fast as he could. Moving too close too slowly would without exception cause them to make a final attempt at escape, and while they never succeeded, they had an unfortunate tendency to cause more damage than they had any right to. Nothing was more dangerous than a victim with nothing to lose.
Of course, the problem here was that he wasn't trying to kill Annaliese.
'Guys, any ideas?' he said.
'DON'T KILL HER.'
'Calm her down,' Felix said. 'Just put her at ease.'
'Yes, I know that,' Loran said. He had to fight the urge to turn towards his hallucinations. 'But how do I do that?'
'You don't know how to calm someone down?' Felix asked.
'My usual way of calming people down involves bleeding them empty!' Loran said. 'I'm an assassin, remember? Nobody ever asked me to find a victim and not kill it.'
He snapped his eyes back to look at Annaliese. She didn't seem to have any intention of attacking him, but it was never wise to not watch the creature with the knife. She still stood trembling against the wall. At least that gave him time to figure out how to defuse the situation.
'Watch his eyes,' the Vorlon queen told Annaliese in her head. 'See how they keep drifting to his right, as though he is trying to watch something else at the same time?'
Annaliese answered with the slightest nod of her head. She wasn't certain what the queen was going to ask of her, but she had a feeling she could guess. It wasn't a good feeling.
'It's probably where he he sees whoever he is talking to,' the queen continued. 'The next time he does it, slip past his left. If you are fast enough, you might get past him before he can react.'
Truthfully, Annaliese didn't think she was fast enough, but she had already rejected two of the queen's plans ('try to duck beneath his arm and stab him with that knife you have there' and 'bargain for your life with the promise of powerful magic') and she didn't want to sound uncoöperative.
'What about the thing in the doorway?' she thought at the queen. She didn't dare to say it out loud, with Loran practically breathing in her face, so she just hoped that thinking really hard would allow the queen to hear her. Thankfully, it did.
'He appears more interested in watching the assassin than you,' the queen said.'You might be able to get past him.'
Just then, the crocodile looked past Loran at her. It wasn't really a crocodile, of course, no matter how much it looked like one. She was sure real crocodiles walked on four legs and didn't speak and didn't have a look in their eyes like they were wondering what kind of seasoning they would need for you. Well, they might have that last one. It didn't matter. She didn't want to get close to a crocodile either.
'I HEARD THAT!' Loran bellowed all of a sudden, and Annaliese jumped. Loran turned his back to her and stalked away towards an empty part of the room, insulting the air.
'Now. Run!' the queen said. Annaliese didn't run. Instead, she whispered some words.
Loran wished Greyve was real so that he could punch in his face. The thing seemed to find it hilarious to mock everything Loran did or said, including his suggestion to win Annaliese's trust by stabbing her.
'To be fair, that was a pretty stupid suggestion,' Felix said.
'It would work,' Loran snarled. 'I would stab her a few times first, and then when I stop, she knows I'm done harming her and can relax around me.'
'People don't work that way!' Felix said, exasparated. 'You should not harm her at all if you want her to come along.'
'Well, I -' Loran said, turning back to Anneliese. Except she wasn't there anymore. He just had time to see something small and green flit past his left ear.
'Oh, right, she can do that,' Felix said.
Loran turned, looking for the witch. The old creature in the doorway smiled placidly as a hummingbird flew past him into the hallway.
'Is that her?' Loran shot at Felix, who nodded. He cursed and launched himself after her.
The bird was well down the halway when Loran burst into it, and he only just spotted it going a corner. He had barely gone three steps when it came back in the opposite direction, possibly even faster than it had flown away from him.
Loran jumped and snatched the bird out of the air. Good thing he had just had a memory to refresh his Tagball skills.
'Turn back!' he snarled at her. 'Turn back or I'll gut you right now!'
With a small 'pop' the bird turned back into a very winded and bedraggled Annaliese. Loran found himself holding a full-grown woman in one hand, and they both fell to the floor. Loran pressed his knee down on her chest and put one of his knives against her throat, the other hand holding her by her hair. Annaliese made small wimpering sounds, seemingly out of ideas on what to do.
Loran felt a familiar rush of power and control. This was how he used to live, with every single one of his victims beneath his feet, literally or not. He almost killed her, just to feel the power again.
'Loran...' Felix said, behind him. 'Alive, remember?'
Loran closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Of course. If he killed Annaliese now, he would just be dumped in another arena, with still no idea of what had happened or who was still alive. Worse, he would've killed his best escape plan for a pointless reason. Annaliese was best killed when he had to get out of somewhere quickly.
He lifted his knife from its place against her soft skin.
'Calm down,' he said with difficulty. His mind had decided not to kill, but his heart was still screaming for him to do it. 'I just want to discuss' -he spat the word in her face- 'our situation.'
She didn't calm down at all. He would really need to -
The sudden abscence of the rythmic tapping noise reached him louder than the noise itself had. He would probably have heard it coming closer if he had not been so busy with Annaliese. From around the corner Annaliese had tried to flee, a group of people appeared. In the lead was a gnome Loran was pretty sure he had seen before. Next to him walked Will Haven. The group came to a halt as they saw Loran kneeling on top of Annaliese.
'Now, hey,' Loran said quickly. 'This isn't -'
Will raised his gun and shot.
Loran had expected him to fire. Not at any real conscious level, of course; he'd been too preoccupied with not killing Annaliese and not being able to kill Greyve and trying to plan even a few steps ahead. Still, his training and innate skill served him well, and those subconscious cues had poised him for flight the instant an armed man had appeared. Will fired, but Twight was already leaping across the hall; the Blastec's disgorged plasma arced wide, whispering just over the face of a very stunned Annaliese but completely failing to strike the swiftly-moving creeper.
It was only a few moments after Loran leapt – although those seconds had been filled with urgings only the witch could hear – that Annaliese scrambled up from her prone position and made as though to flee. She clumsily straddled her broom and took sputteringly off down the hall in the opposite direction from Will and company; it might even have been a successful flight if she hadn't forgotten about the crocogatorwhatever, who slapped the broomstick out from under her and grabbed her wrist with an iron-strong claw before hissing "Hadn't you better wait and see what's happening before you run off?"
While his companion's actions probably hadn't been winning Loran any more goodwill, he had nevertheless flattened himself against the wall and dropped his knife, holding his hands up in what he hoped Will's culture considered a placating gesture. Will didn't seem the type to shoot an unarmed, surrendering man, and if he was miscalculating that assumption... Well, Loran had already proved able to dodge blasterfire, and there was always another knife somewhere. Even if he had been aware of the Annaliese's capture, he probably couldn't have been too bothered by it; he still needed her around, and it wasn't as thought it looked any worse than what he'd been doing had.
"Stop! I'm not trying to hurt anyone! I just want to talk!"
Will's finger hovered on the trigger, but didn't yet fire. "Talking doesn't usually involve holding a knife to someone's throat. Why shouldn't I just save us all a lot of trouble and shoot you now?"
Loran struggled not to smile. If it had been him on the other end of that pistol, he'd already be dead. He always had the advantage against someone who would hesitate to kill.
"Because that's just what they want you to do. You know it."
Will's brow furrowed. It had been the right move. Will was as worried about the long-term prospects of the battle as he was, which meant he'd keep the conversation moving. Loran continued.
"I just want to figure out who all is still alive, and wanted everyone to get together and talk. I only restrained her because she was trying to run, and I didn't want her going off and getting killed by some of the dangerous prisoners around here."
The conquerer behind him smiled an unbelievably toothy grin, still keeping a vicegrip on the thrashing witch. "That there are, young one."
Will scowled further, but continued not firing. "Forgive me if I don't trust anything I hear from someone I've seen actively trying to kill me, her, and everyone else we've met."
Loran smiled what he hoped was a disarming smile. "A man's got to stop killing and start thinking eventually. It's obvious we can't trust the things that are making us play this game. We're going to have to cooperate if any one of us wants to survive."
"Or I could kill you now and we could regroup knowing that there's not a dangerous maniac to cooperate with."
"You're right!" The creeper threw up his arms and crossed them. "Kill me in cold blood, right now, come on. Time's wasting, tick tock."
"Good. Then maybe we can all talk like reasonable adults? At the very least I want to find out what happened last round, back in that Vorlong place, or whatever it was. Find out who died. If you still don't want me around after that, then I guess I'll just take my leave and find my own way of fighting back, eh?"
It had taken all his self-control to drown out the clamoring voices of his memories and hallucinations, but it seemed like he was making progress. This talking stuff was easy! Part of him wished that Will hadn't taken the bait, so he'd have an excuse to cut the smug little man down, but this would have to do. The thing about killing someone was that you could always do it later, right up until they died.