Walking the dirt road, a large flowered plant hung out along it. The man took a flower between his fingers. Its petals were a wonderful sunny yellow and he had stopped to see. Leaning in, he took a whiff but was slightly underwhelmed with the scent.
Moonlight lit up his path perfectly and he appreciated it. His bare feet left tracks in the dirt, a trail behind him. His clothes were threadbare and old but he didn’t care.
A horse rider came galloping out of the town ahead hastily. The man stepped aside for him to bolt by, then continued on into the quaint streets.
Past the grove of white trees and up to the unlit front porch of a small home. The carpentry shop’s front held a sign reading ‘closed’. The door simply unlocked and opened to make his way.
He stepped silently up the stairs, not eliciting a single creak.
At the top of the stairs looking right, the hall led to a closed bedroom door. To the left, a kitchen lit by candlelight.
He stepped into the kitchen and sat down at the table, across from a much younger, tired man. They didn’t speak for some time.
“Do we die every time we fall asleep?” the first man said. His eyes were focused far away. “The soul’s not uninterrupted consciousness, and consciousness isn’t about the hardware or the software that composes it. You are who you are. If a copy of you is created, and you die, then you do not die. If you are killed, but a body created to carry on the same thought you failed to finish, then you do not die. And if that’s not true, you are an animal, and your existence is wretchedly futile. The soul is your being, and like a mantle, it will be taken up by the one who proceeds you. The only part of us that remains to wield ourselves, is that which came from God, as one. You see this truth.”
The other man knocked back a hard drink he held in his hand. “Meaningless,” he said. “Preservation of the self is the purpose of the self.” He waved his hand as if to dismiss the thought. “Why are you here? I haven’t seen you since the war, Sosias neither. He doesn’t talk about you. I’m constantly watching for the Curse, and now you just show up at my house to do what, lecture me?”
“To warn you, Icthre. The next metaphase is here. Sosias predicted the Cosmic Midnight would come. Time is short, now. I’m making my move.”
“What are you going to do, then?” He pushed his drink away and looked over his shoulder to check the stairs and the door. His wife and child were asleep beyond it.
“How many is this now? How many families?” the first man asked.
“I don’t keep track. Just like I don’t compare them,” the second replied.
“And are you content to do that forever, Icthre?”
“It’s Matthew, and yes, I am. I can forget about the Omniverse here. The people, their understanding is such a firm grasp on such untouchable things… it’s calming. I go to church, I raise a family, pretend to die. Repeat as desired.”
“Ignorance is bliss, then?”
“Not forever, apparently.”
“There’s no such thing as forever, Icthre. We know that.”
Icthre hung his head. The first man slowly pushed his chair back to stand.
“So that’s it?” he asked.
The man replied, “Everything ends. The trick is in getting the last word.”
“I guess I was just never that kind of a man. That was always you.”
Only the candles above the sink gave light. He watched him approach, knowing what would happen next as he closed in, outstretching his hand.
“Unfortunately. Goodnight, Matthew.”
His grip fell on the young man’s face and a sudden scream awoke his family.
Ash flicked my cheek. I awoke from dreaming. “Wow. You’re alive, Doran?”
“…Yes,” I answered, barely a whisper.
My eyelids could part enough to make out his vague image in the firelight. My dream was already gone, leaving only a depression in its form. My consciousness had moments ago been just a pretense. It was still disjointed.
“You sure? Because you kind of dropped like a dead rock there for an hour. I wanted to leave you but Odessa insisted I drag your corpse.”
“Oh, she’s as much a stiff as she’s ever been. Odessa is lugging her around.”
“Doran!?” Anna exclaimed. She crouched down beside me. “You were dead.”
“Only mostly dead,” Ash corrected her.
I was regaining my sight. I leaned up enough to look at the giant scorch mark on my chest. The armor had taken the blast, stopping power that could put a hole through me. But the shock, the energy, had been absorbed. Enough to stop my heart.
Whether it was my doing, or hell’s, I had apparently not stayed dead.
“Can you stand?”
I tried to move my arms, but they weighed too much.
We were all around the bonfire. The Damned man was gone. I lay by the fire with Ash and Anna over me. Looking back, the cell block we’d entered wasn’t even there anymore. Only the stairwell. We’d walked straight through a wall.
“Ash? We’ve got to keep going,” Odessa spoke.
He smirked. “Alrighty.” He gripped my collar and stood up, hoisting me a bit. Then, he started pulling. He heaved but couldn’t get me up onto his back. “You’re a rock, Doran. Odessa, trade.” Ash took Amanda while Odessa was able to easily put me on her back.
Anna was at the front, having literally taken up the torch. I drifted a little, going in and out of consciousness. Slowly, I blacked out.
The bell’s tolling sounded in the distance, this time dispersing on the air. I stirred from a deep sleep. Odessa still had me on her shoulder and was jostling me with every step, but I had managed to pass out. There was loud cracking noise and I was thrown to the ground. My name was called out as a body fell on top of me, limp.
You’ve got to wake up.
I came sputtering with a cough, sitting upright when foul water streamed up my nose. Shoving the body off me, I could see the light of Anna’s torch fifty feet off down the tunnel. They were running.
Leaving me behind.
I managed to stand shakily. A guttural growl hit me from behind. I couldn’t see in the dark of this sewer, but looking at the body beneath me, I knew whatever it was, it wasn’t human. With a strained, limping gait I moved as fast as I could to catch up with the others. My pistol wasn’t on my chest, they must have left it where I’d fallen.
The growling was growing deeper, more agitated to my back. Closer.
“H-” I tried to yell but my voice ran away from me.
“Doran!!” it was Ash screaming for me. He was carrying Amanda, and he looked back at me, but he had to keep moving.
Why are they leaving me? What could drive them to think I was unsavable?
I didn’t dare slow enough to look back and find out. The growling became a desperate animal scream which was quickly snuffed out.
They found a ladder ahead. Anna was first to climb it to the top and open some sort of hatch. Sunlight poured into the tunnel. Odessa climbed it next as I tried to gain speed. Ash stepped up onto the first rung to hand Amanda to Odessa.
He held out his hand for me, I was closing in. I took one peek back at what was moving behind me. It was right on top of me, within arms reach, breathing down my neck. A grotesque thing. Not even a Damned, though it could have once been. Instead of reaching for me, it limped with its head forward, maw open, fingers extending from its mouth. I realized it had no arms.
I jumped for the ladder, catching the highest rung I could and quickly climbing.
I felt a disgusting grip on my foot. It had me.
It had me.
With terrifying strength, I was ripped downward by my leg, bones wrenching. I wouldn’t let go. My arms held out, tendons stretching. I yelled in pain as the thing below me hunched and bent its neck to pull me down by its tooth and hand laden face.
I kicked and looked up into the blinding daylight, screaming for help.
Several green flashes came, and I fell against the ladder.
Odessa reached down, taking my arm. She set me down on the rocky road, on my back and facing the sky. I couldn’t even find the sun, I was blinded.
“Curse that creature. Sorry for dropping you, Doran. I thought I could kill it,” she explained. I didn’t reply.
“At least you’re up,” Ash said. “Not dead weight like this one.”
I sat up and rubbed at my eyes. “Damn her. She wouldn’t listen.”
“What happened in there?” Odessa asked. “It was a trap.”
“It was. This mission, it isn’t as straightforward as we thought.”
Now that I could see, even though it was still painfully bright, I took in the city. We’d reached ground level, high above the cliffs. Here, insane, near Escherian architecture was piled upon itself. From stone and rickety wood, a convoluted and ancient city arose.
“What does this mean?”
I had to shield my eyes to look up at her. “It means we’re not alone, Odessa. Someone, a Magus, is acting against us.” I stood up, still exhausted, and started walking. Anna helped me. We went across the way to shade.
“There’s someone else? Could they be watching us?”
We all walked beneath the eaves aside the road. “No. This person is powerful, they could attack us head on. We fell into a trap. Which makes me think this is passive interference. Not active, preemptive.”
“What do you think we should do, Doran?”
“Hey, how come I’m not being asked?” Ash complained.
“I got shot,” I said. “What’d you do to prove leadership skills, Ashley?”
“Not getting shot by an idiot.” He bumped Amanda into a wall as he walked.
“The idiot needs to wake up.” We stepped out onto a crossroads. Multiple paths each leading the wrong way. This was the entire purpose she was here. This was the real labyrinth. “I have no sense of direction guys. I-” I had to stop and cough. “…We’re lost.”