“Dammit, Ash,” I repeated. “You bastard. Oh… fuck, I can’t keep up.” I could grasp meaning but I couldn’t speak the languages. The creatures all around us were riled up, now. Speaking in foreign tongues, rattling swords, and moving.
Meaning? It wasn’t good.
Those that occupied the darkness beyond the pit were larger. They had a presence. Though too dark to make out, I saw the giant point a long finger towards the pit.
“Have you figured it out yet?” Ash asked, mocking.
“You-!” Calm. “Your amusement has a price.” He poked me, grinning, prodding. “Yes,” I added reluctantly. “Fuck you.”
Ash… he reasoned too quickly. We were tired. He wasn’t. All this time in the desert and he’d never stopped thinking tactically. But I was catching up.
We barely survived the way here. He wasn’t just an ass.
A two-headed man hopped down into the ring and beat his chest.
A fight. Entertainment. That was how we’d pay for our crossing.
I held up a finger to the giant in the back. He was the heaviest pull, the one in charge, I sensed. “One sec.”
All four of us sojourned a step back from the pit.
“What the fuck, Ash?” Anna said.
“No,” I stopped her. “Ash was just quick to the punch. We won’t make it back. I could navigate us to the gravity of this place… But Hell is a black hole. It’s so much easier to get in than out. And I don’t think there’s a way to walk it.”
“We were counting on breaking the spell,” Odessa said. “That help would come. But failure, which seems the case, means help cannot come. Our call can’t escape the gravity well.” She raised an eyebrow at me. Right?
I gave a thumbs up. “Exactly.”
“But what about the mission?” Anna asked.
“We’ll ask once we’ve introduced ourselves,” I said. I threw off my cloak.
Anna, looking at my bare chest, said, “But, uh… You’re volunteering?”
I nodded, pointed in turn, “Sword, knives, elements… It’s a fist fight. I may be second strongest, toughest, but Odessa can’t part with her weapon. But I can barely stand, so… All I can say is wish me luck, I guess.”
Belief won’t keep you on your feet, I thought.
“Best of luck, brother.” Odessa took my clothes.
I neared the pit and held my hand high. “I’ll fight,” I declared.
Suddenly the quiet, ancient things made a ruckus. Entertainment awakened them from a state of death-like stagnancy centuries old. Many of them weren’t just passerby’s but had taken up residence in this forgotten corner of hell. Unlike us, having just blown in minutes ago. Here, we were the oddities.
“If things turn bad,” I asked, “you understand?”
“Yes,” Odessa said.
“Good.” I jumped down into the ring, my feet hitting dirt laden boards. I beat my breast once, mimicking the two-headed musclebound beast of a man standing a head above me. I tried my best to land straight and stand tall. But looking at him, I had only one thought.
The bendable don’t break.
There was no bell to toll. The fighter approached.
He threw a punch and I ducked under, jabbing him twice in the ribs. I weaved behind him, putting space between us. But, completely out of nowhere, he pivoted around towards my head with a heel. My neck whipped, my eyes blurred with the strike, and I reeled into the pit walls, falling into a heap. I wasn’t getting up, I realized. I couldn’t decide if I was unconscious or just dizzy.
“…Doran!” a girl yelled. I’d missed the first part.
Odessa understood. We couldn’t hope to fight the things here. If I was to die, there was nothing they could do.
Thankfully, though, my opponent was so sure of himself that he was waiting for me to rise, refusing to finish me off.
I put my hands down and pushed. Slowly, I rose to my feet.
“Come on!” I yelled.
The two heads roared in reply.
I ran and jumped, punching one of the heads at maximum force. It snapped off. With him unmoved, I crashed into him. Angrily, he threw me off, sent me rolling.
I was on my knees when he lunged his own knee into my face.
No, just bruised.
I opened my eyes to see the face of the beast coming towards me. He bashed me several times before lifting up and reattaching the head.
“Doran!” Anna yelled over the creatures’ jeering. Remember, Doran.
“Wr’kel no’sos,” my opponent mocked. You’re a weak one.
“I am,” I coughed. For the third and I suspected final time, I fought.
I moved in and punched, ducked, and elbowed, knocking his heads together. I dodged the roundhouse kick that he used again. Blocked his wild punch, even though the act nearly sent me sprawling. He hit too hard.
There was an opening and I utilized it. I jumped and headbutted between his heads. It was enough to split them both off. They were ornamental, I realized, when this completely didn’t affect him. He grabbed hold of my body and squeezed.
My ribs crackled and screamed.
I strained against his hold. His arms were unyielding, constricting still.
“You can’t win,” I growled.
Slowly, my arms began to rise, prying his apart. His hold broke and he stepped back. I kicked him back into the wall and marched forward.
I was bruised. But he could be broken.
I stomped his knee and it cracked apart, severing the leg. I knew how he worked, now. He was thick but brittle. He resisted, but I moved in now with the advantage. One limb at a time, breaking him apart. There was a blur as I raged against him. I grabbed his head and beat his hollow chest inward. Reached inside.
I sat down in the dirt, surrounded by fragments, his dust in the air around me. He had gone limp at some point and I hadn’t noticed.
Couldn’t die here. So, I had won.
There was Anna at my side. She put my cloak over me. I looked up from the pit to the giant towering over us, moving in. He came close enough that I could see the giant singular eye that covered his face peering out of the black.
In my chest, I felt his voice. “Aze rho.” I’ve seen.
I looked to the others. “We’ve paid,” I said. Odessa came down and offered me a hand in exiting the pit. I saw Ash eyeing me as I did. “Nice gambit.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied.
The four of us walked to a bench and sat. I was heaving, trying to catch my breath. I put out a hand and grabbed Odessa’s shirt. She went with it as I pulled her up. Breathlessly, “You… and Ash,” I said.
“Come, Ash.” She understood. Raising up her sword, she pulled Ash with.
“I’ll lead,” he replied. “I know the etiquette, naive.” He brushed off her hand.
They went along, gone to the darkness in the back.
“You really scared me,” Anna said after a time.
My breath returning, “Me too.”
“I thought we were gonna lose you and the mission.”
“I’d mourn one of those,” I joked.
“Don’t say that. There’re thousands of souls in the reach of the ward that’s stopping us. If we don’t shut it down, they’ll never escape hell. That’s on us.”
“It’s really not. I mean, I understand that there is no neutral action, no… meaningless suffering, but… you can only give so much.” I struggled with it.
She put her head on my shoulder. “We’re born to maximize our utility.”
I wrapped an arm around her. “To the greater good, you mean. But there’s a thing about that. You remember twenty-first-century history? In that time the world was falling apart because of nations and peoples conflicted within by different ideas about that greater good. One would think that God justifies, the other a supposed fact, and they all thought themselves special enough to know what they could only believe. They trusted as they had to their knowledge.”
“Utopianism found the way,” Anna assured.
“Found a way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it doesn’t exist. Which is kind of the futility in Consequentialism.”
“Bleh, defeatism. We can try and do our best.”
“Mhmm.” That made a smile find my lips. “I’ll shut up.”
We rested and talked, touched on lighter things. On books and personal thoughts. It was the first comfort in the last months either of us had found.
Ash returned with Odessa at his back.
“The Great Watcher was rather unhelpful,” he said. “His types are mortal, wasn’t interested in any ghosts, demons, or pneuma, he said. But, he told us that you, Doran, could speak with someone, as the victor.”
Achingly, I stood up. “Who?”
“The place’s owner.”
Someone from the theoretical cradle of the Omniverse. One of the only people that knew what was truly knowable. Someone without beginning or end. Someone that has seen God. If this truly was, if they were truly here.
“Where are they?” I asked.
Odessa pointed to the black back of the house. A single candle lit to ignite its table a dim red amidst the darkness. I couldn’t sense who sat there, but I saw their hand rested beside the light. I started towards that light.
Those in the building scuttled out of my way. Even the giant watcher moved further into the darkness, his presence fading. They fled from the Primordial.
I stepped into the shadows and came to the table. The candle flame wavered as I sat. Its light didn’t touch the face of the Primordial. Only his hand was not shrouded.
“I am Doran,” I announced.
The hard rasp of a man’s voice returned. “I am Sosias.”
Now I felt him. His soul looked like the vault of the night sky. He tapped his finger in waiting for me to continue. I was given pause.
“Forgive us for intruding,” I finally said. “We represent Utopia.”
“I have seen them. The ward you seek is mine and it cannot be broken.” With his hand, he seemed to brush the thought aside. “But, this is not what I am to speak with you about, Stranger.”
“What is it?”
“Design, Doran, it surrounds us. Aimless and divine alike. The eye of God is on you but the meaning is not known. When you walk your path, Pilgrim, doubt yourself. The machinations are strung about you like a noose. Your own a tangle amongst them. There will come a time when you face the Curse. The Ouroboros cannot be broken. Neither destiny. You will die trying. This prophecy is my gift.”
With a look, I extinguished the candle. “We’re cursed with freedom, Sosias. I will make my own way. Destiny will follow.”
He tapped his finger again, waiting, but I had nothing more to say. If this was all he had to offer, then our conversation was done. Unfortunately.
“Then you should be on your way,” he concluded, knowing my thoughts.
The darkness around me intensified. The floor fell away and I was tossed into a void. Suddenly, colors and sensation formed to create reality, one different from where I had been. The crunch of snow and burning cold around me. Ash, Odessa, and Anna too were about me. Sosias had transported us.
“Shit! I forgot how cold it was here!” Anna shouted.
Here, we were on a hill overlooking the Utopian outpost. Snow and fire marked the landscape encircling the metal and glass Utopian compound. Towers, turrets, and landing pads were visible over the surrounding wall. The black gate down the hill had two android soldiers on guard, as well as many walking the wall and area beyond.
He had known exactly where we were expected. And we were expected. Months ago, actually. Kendall wasn’t going to be happy with our decision to get so completely lost. We’d been practically awol.
“Come on!” Anna was already down the hill, yelling back. The others were with her, but I was still. Frozen, thinking over the Primordial’s prophecy. I wasn’t ready to see Kendall again, to deal with him.
The Primordial had predicted my death.
“Doran!” Anna called my name for the third time, I realized absently.
It was cold. Couldn’t put it off any longer.