I was up on the wall, again, like every late evening. My third rotation and Porter was in his place, reading. He had a metal folding chair which he brought up, and took down when he left. I didn’t talk to him as I passed. I figured that would become annoying. So, I walked in silence. Past the towers and the turrets, watching as the occasional ship came in from the foggy night. The air was still, more still than I’d seen it. It was thick, almost hard to breath.
I made my fourth and fifth rotation.
Kendall will have seen the footage by now. He knows the problem is getting worse. Anna, she’s not stable, I thought. She heals by fire, but she holds on to pains. They smolder and scar and it gets worse. She’s not coping. Her scars are growing. She’s… deteriorating. Doesn’t have the room to feed her freedom, air, so she feeds her second nature. Fire.
I wondered just what the fuck her father had intended to do when he’d changed her soul.
There has to be an intended goal, he wasn’t a sadist. A fix, maybe-
Something caught my eye, out in the snow beyond the wall. I took to the railing and leaned out. To my far right, wall turrets noticed as well and fixed their aim. The figure was upright, and shambling forward.
“It’s one of ours!” Porter yelled from across the wall.
The figure was upright, and shambling forward. Grey, from head to toe. I could sense it too. An Eidolon approached.
“Help!” she shouted.
I wasn’t going to jump, though. I wasn’t that eager. Androids were already running towards the woman in the distance.
That, and I could break my legs, of course.
Something had happened, however, and I wanted to be on top of it.
I ran to the nearest exit, going down flights of stairs once through the door. I hit the ground floor and jogged out into the hall. At that pace, I went all the way to the compound entrance. I arrived just in time for the doors to open. Too bad the others were oblivious to this going on; it was interesting.
They’d already gotten her inside, and she had her helmet in her hands. The woman looked at me briefly as the Androids helped her along.
“We need to get you to the medical bay,” Aku was saying.
The woman had a shaved head. I’d seen more of those among the ranks of militaristically focused Eidolons. It was an imminently utilitarian style.
“No!” she said. “I need to brief somebody on what I saw.” She turned and went the opposite direction of the androids, tossed her helmet back to one, and kept going. I trailed from behind.
Speeding up a bit, I got in front and led her, “This way.”
She was a little wobbly. “Where are we going?”
“The situation room.” I pressed my comms. “Aku?”
“The others have been notified.”
We passed the right hall, and I stepped back. The woman still dazed, kept walking for a moment before she realized.
“That way?” she asked.
There were signs around, but all the halls looked similar. It reminded me of a hospital, almost. But, I’d seen Porter down the hall, standing in the doorway. Big doors showed the way.
“Yes, sorry, this way, ma’am.”
She refused help as we entered the situation room. Porter was already there, and looking back I saw Kendall running in. Hasami was briskly striding behind.
The room was dark. It centered around a hologram table which could be used to visualize strategy. It first lit up in full color, showing where our compound was placed. That image zoomed out, shrinking our tiny structure among incredibly vast and monotonous snowy wasteland.
The woman sat in a chair after pulling it up. “More,” she said.
The image zoomed once again until it could be seen. Our section of hell was on a monstrous shelf of rock which twisted around a black pit. One level among many, the classic circle by circle model. Ours was ice.
Markers appeared over the various bases, with a red dot for manned and unmanned outfits. This was the only manned outfit on the shelf, and it neared the walls.
The woman scooched forward and grabbed the display. She moved the view upward, focusing on the next shelf above.
An android came to her side holding a bottle and tray. On the tray was a pill. “Please, take a panacea.”
“Fine.” She popped it without water.
“What’s your name, soldier.” Porter studied the map as he questioned.
“What were you doing in the snow, Amanda?”
“This.” She reached in and pointed at a spot on the next level. A marker appeared. The shelf was a sweeping, desolate stone city. A labyrinth. “Once I got in, I couldn’t get out the same way. I had to jump the ledge. Thankfully, my armor locked up and I made it. It kept me alive the rest of the way. From the cold, I mean.”
“My communications were damaged, sir. A hex.”
“And you were simply lost?” He seemed incredulous.
“Not at all, sir. Well, some. But, I had a mission.”
“And what was that mission?”
“To infiltrate enemy lines, and I did, sir. I’m a scout, sir.”
“It’s Porter, alright? This is my outfit. Please tell me, what’s going on up there? I wasn’t told.”
“There are far too many operations for-” Aku tried defending.
“Nononono, sshhhh,” Porter silenced. “Catch me up, Amanda.”
“We’ve been sieging this city for months, Porter. It’s a goddamn maze, the machines can’t map it, can’t get through it. It’s not just the Damned that are holed up, either. We’ve been sensing significant metaphysical presences gathering. We fear there’s a back-door, a portal or the like that enemies are using. We’ve been absolutely unable to make one of our own, and the city is virtually impenetrable. We’ve had casualties, even. People get lost. I almost did.”
“I take it you got in, then?”
“I did. I’m the first of our forces to make it into the city and… it’s a nightmare, as expected, really. But there’s a far bigger problem. Sneaking is not my skillset, but I managed to pick up chatter from the Damned. A Council has assembled.”
“They’re unifying?” Porter tried to clarify.
“Like us,” Kendall realized, a little horrified.
“I think so,” Amanda said. “I think bigger powers have moved in on the opportunity the city represents. A stronghold. Or are at least using it as a rendezvous point.”
“We’ve never faced an organized counterattack from demons,” Porter added. “Have you considered a mass offensive?”
“That was our first thought, but we’re trying to rescue the Damned. Weapons of mass destruction are off the table. So, we tried a few million machines. Didn’t even reach the stronghold. The Labyrinth swallowed them… I don’t think bombs would work either, for that matter. The city is an entity, just like hell.”
“Hell is alive?” Hasami asked.
“Some people maintain that hell is like a digestive tract. That it feeds by providing a continuation to souls with new bodies. Then slowly breaks the souls down into nothing,” I answered him. “Heaven is similar.”
“We’re getting off track,” Porter warned. “Amanda?”
“I’ve confirmed what we already suspected. There are likely Demon Lords in the stronghold. And they’re probably catching on to what we’re doing, at this point. Draining out hell. They’re probably not happy about it. And if I may say so, Porter, I think they’re not going to take it lying down.”
“Have you tried an attack using Magi? I could probably-”
“You are banned from combat,” Aku reminded. Porter grimaced.
Kendall knocked on the table, drew people’s attention. “I could do it.” He sees an opportunity. “My summons can get into the city and open a gateway for our forces. They can easily avoid detection, gather intel. And, they’re expendable.”
I gave him a dirty look for that.
Haven’t I done this before? It irritated, being his tool.
Too bad Catherine wasn’t here. I would have loved to look smug when she saw Kendall was still in need of us. That we weren’t purely a risk for him. Which, if we were, she probably wouldn’t want us gone anyway. She wasn’t that brilliant, basically.
“Yes,” Porter told Kendall. “We can-”
“You cannot change your station, Porter. Kendall may offer assistance to Amanda’s cause, but this is where the Utopian Council has placed you.” Aku cut him off, again reminding him.
Porter concealed his frustration, I could tell. “Kendall will go and assist them however he can. It’ll be good for his training.”
Amanda stood up. “Alright. Aku, send this briefing to my commander.”
“I have. Please, let me show you to a room.”
“Fine.” She was led out to go and rest. Porter left right after, Hasami too.
“I just got back,” I said to Kendall. It was only he and I, now.
“It’s your purpose. If you’re not helping me, then you’re hurting me. You’ve proven that. I saw the video.”
“It’s not Anna’s fault that she’s unstable.”
“It is! She’s a disaster waiting to happen, Doran. And you?” He waved his hand, lights and computers in the room going wonky.
Disabling surveillance. Aku must get tired of people doing that.
“You are worse. What kind of power are you displaying? Undoing fires? I’d think you were a fucking Genie if I didn’t know better.”
“I’m complicated,” I shrugged him off.
“You’re not safe. How can I pretend to know I’ve got a hold on you when I can’t understand you? You keep showing off!”
“I know, I’m sorry. I really do try not to interfere.”
“You could do a better job of it. I realize you’re trying to keep the others together, trying to help Anna, but… She’s right. Catherine is right. I’m more powerful than all four of you.”
I doubt that. “You can still use us.”
“But I don’t need you anymore.”
“Well, I don’t exist for you. Fuck you. I, Anna, Ash, Odessa, none of us do.”
“Everybody ever is born beneath something, Doran. You’re not special, or cruelly treated. Everyone is a slave, we can’t walk off the world, and everyone dies. Even immortals. So don’t cry to me when you become inconvenient to someone bigger than you, even if that’s me. Just prepare yourself, okay?”
“You’ve made up your mind, haven’t you?”
“I have. This is your last mission, Doran. You and Anna. All of you.”
“What about Christopher?”
“Christopher can eat a bag of dicks. I’m done.”
I stared at him, and he stared back. He was resolved, I could see his last doubts fading. He’d put away his ethical angst, he was part of the system now.
“Sorry, Doran.” Kendall backed up and walked into the dark, his body fading.
He’s on his way to being a Master. He’s right.
I wouldn’t be able to persuade him. I realized for the first time, I could die. As much as it was possible, I would die. I could fail, and this life would end.
I stood alone in the room, the only illumination streaming in from the open hall. Particles of dust floating through the light. The electronics righted themselves, flickering back on across the walls and boards, now that Kendall had gone. I was alone. No one was coming to my aid, and I truly was alone.