Fuck, I thought. I wasn’t paying enough attention to my body.
On my knees there in the sand, a sludge thick wind rolling over me, I gave a tug to the rope around my waist. The air parted in a vortex around us. Anna was giving a respite, pulling the dust-storm off of us. The sunlight was muted without the disruption and barely reached us.
We were a rope train, us four, with me at the head. Next behind me was Odessa, dragging the tip of her sword across the rocky plane. Behind her, Ash, and as the caboose, there was Anna holding back the wind, straining.
Odessa got low beside me to be heard. “Do we need to stop?”
“I’m alright,” I said. “We’ve got to get out of this storm.”
There was too much shit in my eyes. They were better closed, at this point. I had the job of leading us through this. Literally by faith.
“Come on!” I yelled.
Anna let collapse her protection, and we returned to our trudge. There was no slack in the rope as we each helped pull the one behind us. I was miserable like this. We’d been walking for nearly a day and the monotony was the only thing keeping me on my feet. Had to keep walking. I could do that.
Everything was blaring static.
The ground had risen, I realized. That’s why I had fallen. These were flatlands, a slight incline meant we were close. The others would soon notice.
The rope would occasionally go taut as one of them fell. Probably Anna. I could only keep pulling and try not to fall myself. She would make it.
The hill’s incline only harshened as we continued. Steepening to the point that I was using my hands to pull myself forward. My right found purchase on the tip of the hill, it suddenly dropping off. I rose myself up over the edge and in pain opened my eyes.
The black beyond in the canyon was interrupted only by the outline of a haphazardly suspended structure between its walls. Ropes and wood coming together into an insanely built smattering of platforms alike a hornet’s nest.
And that was where we needed to be.
There was no good way to warn the others while in these conditions. They’d see when they met the peak. I had to keep going, I knew.
I put my legs over the edge and disappeared down it. I held on for dear life and dangled. There were no good footholds, dammit. My bare feet scrambled against the crumbling rocks.
This wasn’t going to work, I realized.
“Lookout!” I screamed. My handholds crumbled and I fell backward. The rope at my waist snapped tight. Odessa was yanked over, the weight of her sword brought Anna and Ash quickly following. We all fell faster and freely towards the bottomless dark.
I jerked wildly, smashing heads with Ash when Odessa lodged her blade into the cliffside. He was swearing in my ear and I really couldn’t make his words out. My skull ached and I really didn’t care. He talked too fucking much, anyway.
The rope had held up. With the wind gone I could hear enough to ask Odessa how she was.
“My shoulder is not good,” she said. “It’s very bad, actually.”
Can’t let go her sword so her arm took all of our inertia. She’s tough.
We weren’t dead yet.
No response. She twisted around at the bottom of the rope, limp.
“I can’t pull her,” Ash said. He had uprighted, but he was stuck between Anna and Odessa. “I can always cut the weight.”
“No.” I pushed off his face and grabbed the cliffside. Here lower, it was more porous. I looked over my shoulder. The wire and rope support were anchored into the rock somehow. The nearest place they met was still far out of my reach tethered to Odessa. I could probably free climb it.
You’ll have to.
Right. “Cut me loose, Ash.” I didn’t have my hands to undo the knot.
He swiped his hand and my connection to Odessa was gone. If I fell now, I was very dead or worse. I decidedly was not going to fall.
I was fucking tired. I wasn’t sure if I could screw around climbing. I would slip or tire out, inevitably. But I was morally compelled. I scaled down to Anna’s side. Her swaying nearly knocked me off.
I steadied her with my free hand, leaving my other trembling under the near full weight of my body. Raising her head, she was unconscious. I grabbed her by the jaw and pulled Anna closer. I touched her head to mine.
“Wakeup,” I ordered.
Anna gasped and panicked. I quickly pulled myself out of her way.
“You’re okay.” I was pretty sure I sensed that. “You three have to get over to that wire… you can just slide to safety from there, I think.”
Anna had collected herself enough to stop dangling and grab the wall. Ash was up and ready to go. Odessa gripped the rock with her good hand and ripped out her sword with the other. She was strong, the other two were light. I was two hundred pounds and too weak to support myself. My fingers loosening, my arms still trembling, I knew what was going to happen. I could have gone for safety, I thought, but Anna wouldn’t have woken. Ash wouldn’t have been able to move her. He would have cut her loose.
I had it all reasoned out, the moral equation. I couldn’t, in that moment, imagine some bigger picture with which to convince myself that I had value. All I knew was that I’d saved Anna. That was good.
I let go.
Instead of falling down, though, a torrent carried me sideways. I sailed to hit and roll over a low hanging platform. Over its edge, I went and landed on something below. I slid to the edge and one of my legs slipped over. But I had stopped. I couldn’t bring myself to pull it up. I was simply done moving.
Damn. That nearly happened.
Taking excess amounts of time, I rolled over and tried to rise. I trusted the others to make it to me. I was below the main structure, caught in its loose pieces. I started my slow climb. I only had to step up on a few taut ropes and pull myself up to reach the main level of the structure.
The others landed beside me. Ash, on his feet, Odessa knees, and Anna, back. Odessa had slid along the support rope and dropped down.
The support ropes tied mostly into a knot at the top, with a suspended building hanging beneath them. We stood on the deck outside, candlelight could be seen through the spaces between old boards. There was a dried skin acting as a curtain to the entrance.
We four entered the building to the sound of idle chatter. At a bar and further away around a pit, numerous beings loitered. Crooked and bloated forms wrapped in rags like us. Long-time residents of this hell-plane, it looked like.
Thankfully, we fit in. Odessa had swapped back to her haggard old armor, Ash had always looked dirty, and Anna was the only one still wearing a mud-stained suit under her cloak. Me, I couldn’t handle the heat in my old clothes when they’d stopped functioning. I was swaddled in tattered brown cloth. My head was shaved.
Each of us looked like shit, basically.
The skeleton behind the bar animated when candles across it lit. It’s hollow eyes looked at us. “Welcome to the respite,” he said. “Consensual acts only allowed. Refreshments?” His spindly fingers quickly laid out four cups.
“What the hell is this?” Anna asked between coughs.
“I have no idea,” I replied. “Odessa, Ash?”
“I never socialized in my time,” Odessa said. She was heading for the bar.
“I’ve been to bars in hell, but not in the middle of nowhere.” Ash followed.
We all went to sit and I pulled out something from my cloak. “This is it, though. There’s definitely nothing else out here that I can sense. This is where the spell is coming from.” What I had was a bag of mostly small bones. Gathering some sand I had stored, I drew out a circle on the counter. Emptied the bag and looked at the result.
“What should we expect?” Anna eyed the back of the bar where far more things walked. There was one further down the bar, but it skulked away.
“Osteomancy says…” Failure. “It’s unclear.”
“Pfft. Same as always,” Ash said.
Can’t go back yet. The time isn’t right.
I tapped my cup. “Water, please. What do we do next?”
Skeleton pulled an empty glass up and poured dust into my cup.
This not eating or drinking thing was absolutely fucking awful. All of us pulled it off, though some better than others. The seniors didn’t hunger or thirst. Anna and I, we had problems. But, I was beginning to get over it. Which didn’t necessarily seem a good thing. It was bittersweet.
“I’m very close to calling off this mission. We’ve seen no sign of success, and at this point, it’s unlikely that will change. Remember, we still have the journey back. We also almost lost you, Doran. I believe that this is it for our party,” Odessa said.
“Seconded,” Anna added. “We’ll rest and if we can’t find anything, I’m very ready to go home.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “You really scared me.”
“So close!” Ash joked. His smile was pleasant. Hmm.
I raised my empty cup. “To a year together.”
“Not quite,” Ash said, not raising his. He liked to flaunt his sense of time.
“I rounded, bitch.”
“My nigga,” he replied, keeping his smile.
Everyone raised their cups.
We lingered in silence for a long time before Anna spoke.
“What’s the plan?”
Odessa deferred to me with a gesture.
I nodded. “Most entities here are very old.” I pointed to the giant sitting in the dark area beyond the pit. I could feel its eyes on me, sitting in the shadows outside the candlelight. “Highly refined metaphysical engines. Anything so old boils itself down to distinguishable concepts and patterns. Watchers.” I poked Anna. “You, I, and Odessa are the only once-human beings here I see. Everyone else is a freely formed thing.”
“How human-centric,” Ash said.
“We make up the vast majority of consciousness,” Anna retorted. Something the Utopians had taught her. It was only right to prioritize humans.
Homogeneity was the key to peace, they believed.
“Once human,” Ash repeated me, emphasizing it.
I got up. Anna sighed and went with me. The two of us approached the pit to see that there was a body lying in the dirt. The shifty people of flesh and keratin, some stone, moved aside for us to stand around the pit. I crossed my arms and watched as the body was drug away by an eight-limbed concoction of human parts.
The short gangly one to my right caressed my shoulder. I looked over and-
You should not be here, the thought hit me. A foreign voice. You have ventured too deep, the edge is near. There’s nothing here for man. You must turn back.
The light of its eyes gazed back at me from under a hood. A soundless voice filled them. “Do you know what we seek?” I asked it.
You seek in vain, Pilgrim. Return to the path.
“Thank you for the advice.”
I broke eye contact and the voice was silenced. Anna quirked an eyebrow at my apparently unanswered question. I shrugged.
Odessa and Ash caught up.
“We thought to ask the barkeep,” Odessa said, low.
“He said this place was built from rubble a literal eternity ago. Like that’s a measurement of time,” Ash continued. “He mentioned the Primordials.” He beamed at the word. We knew. I’d read Metanarrative theory.
Way too fucking old.
“This is a literal dead-end,” I added. “There’s nowhere to go from here, physically. The mission is a bust. Fuck.”
“What?” Anna asked, a little loud. “What the fuck? The Omniverse is infinite.”
“Some theories say no. That actualized infinity is an impossibility. Doesn’t really matter, though. It’s not relevant to this dimension. Doesn’t change the fact that we’re too far down in the black. We’ve reached a depth where reality has started to thin out. It’s the reverse pressure of a trench. We won’t go any further,” I decided.
“But… the spell has to be here, then? The tech-killer has to be here.”
I thought about it. “Maybe? It could just be a natural phenomenon.”
“By God,” Odessa swore, realizing this long mission might be pointless.
“I’m sorry.” Eight months in the loneliest harshest hell for nothing.
Ash chuckled. “I give zero fucks, people. But there’s one very important thing I’ve learned over the course of this outing. You know what that is? The thing all this trudging has caused me to realize… Because I’ll tell you.”
“What is it?” Anna reluctantly questioned.
“…I am not walking back.” Before I could stop him, he jumped up, hollering, “Who can transport us!?”
The whispering suddenly stopped, every creature giving us its full attention. The giant in the back stirred. I frowned at Ash and he ignored me.
Then, the air filled with a giant’s rumbling voice, “Ey… Tu…”
I translated, saying, “You’ll pay.”