Armageddon – 4.11

The students broke apart explosively as the water kicked up under the impact of a creature with too many limbs to count. Some immediately ran off into the forest. Everyone on their feet assailed the creature at once.

It was a light show as they attacked. Flashes filled the edges of the forest, showing so many inhuman silhouettes setting upon strays. The water doused Porter and others as all hell broke loose.

The horror was immediately encapsulated by an invisible orb which contained the fire, lighting, and green cloud of needles which latched onto it. A spear was thrown in which caused its limbs to implode. Through all this, the horror shrieked and flailed, but in every moment of obscurity, it continued to reappear unhurt.

It was Cobb, who leaped and brought down his fist on the sphere, which caused the entire thing to flatten, compacting it to nothing. Folded out of sight.

O’Reilly screamed. “Incoming!”

The Elephant Man came into the middle of them, bursting through the trees. Those trees split the group of students along the narrow river as they fell. With the professors near one end, the students on the horror’s side were all alone, singled out.

Porter launched forward. He sailed over the tree and fighting people to bury his katana into its back. The Elephant Man lurched forward, dropping on its hands.

“Solidarity,” he groaned, pushing down on it.

His mind raced. A manifestation of aloneness. Choice and human will, I can take it. A declaration… If he doubted now, he could feel it grow stronger under him with the thought. Just making contact, it was in his head. His arms shook as the battle raged around him, two twin horrors rushing students. Every ounce of his being strained. He’d felt this before, fighting gods. A battle of belief.

His sight sunk back like he was watching a shrinking screen in the darkness.

Porter threw himself off into the water, away from the Elephant Man. The thing gave out, slumping into the mud as he splashed down. He tried to keep his head up to gasp air. He wasn’t sure where or when he was anymore.

“Professor,” a rasping voice came close over him. His eyes stared uncomprehendingly back up at another man without eyelids. They continued, “just ignore it. It works.” The gaunt man pulled on him, trying to raise him up.

When Porter was on his feet, they went sprinting up the riverbank and into the trees.

He caught his bearing and retrieved his katana with one swipe.

The Ouroboros was lashing out with his sickle, taking most of the horrors breaking through. Porter looked over the corpses in the water, past fires and fallen trees. He thought he saw Babba face down.

A shout cut through the noise. “Doran!”

Porter recognized that voice. He looked, but it had come from someplace distant.

A black cloud, he saw, was seeping over his feet. They were numb.

That’s not good.

“Move!” he roared. “Into the forest.” Porter’s hand shot out. Those that didn’t listen, their legs buckled and they disappeared into the water.

When everyone remaining was on the left bank, he tried to count heads. There were too few people, many of them had gone out of sight, stretched out along the river.

Flares shot up into the sky, painting the forest from above in shadows cast through bare branches. He didn’t see Christopher, Cobb was the only Master in sight. The Ouroboros was gone.

Flashes of blue light came with a heatwave. Crackling energy passed between trees.

A headless naked woman came sprinting through the forest with her arms out. Porter cut her down as she veered towards him.

This was chaos. He had to find the Ouroboros. They couldn’t be divided.

“Help!” A student came running past him, screaming for help. They were passing through the trees like they weren’t there, unable to see anyone.

“Master Porter,” a girl said. In sight, there were a half dozen students and Eidolons, congregating near him, now. “We’re all getting split up. I can’t find my friend.”

One twitchy Eidolon in the back opened fire with his gun, stopping Porter from answering.

“We need to stay together. I have to find the Ouroboros.” That was more important. “Now!”

He urged them to move deeper into the forest. The flares overhead were gone, the light dropping down again to that of the eclipse. He could only follow the sounds of screams.

They weaved between the trees until they quickly came to another stream. One of them slipped on the bank, the sound causing a sudden quiet.

Porter jumped down to follow. When he hit the water, there was suddenly nothing beneath it.

“Hey!”

He was instantly submerged. The world was an echo again, everything distant. Looking around, it was like the earth and all the trees were floating on the water, a deep abyss beneath them. The dark moved beneath him until, out of the black, he could see a single light drifting up.

When the hand hooked into his collar and hauled him up, Porter was again in only a foot of water.

“Why the fuck is he so heavy!?” he heard.

Porter threw what had been the source of the light onto the riverbank.

A mounted gun from the back of a Utopian vehicle. It had black growths across it but still had power. It had come out of whatever hole he’d fallen into. A gap in the water the students couldn’t find anymore. “Where’d it go?” the Eidolon asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Porter coughed. He’d inhaled salt water. He sputtered, “that’s a… bad fucking sign.” When he’d caught his breath, he looked at their confused faces. “It’s-”

A shriek interrupted them as a horror fell from out of the open sky, from above the trees, into their midst.

“Shit!” A Magi with a hammer crushed them down into the mud and rock. He stood over the twisted form that had been a woman in a red dress, her limbs sticking up. “That scared the hell out of me.” Her hand lulled to the side, finger caressing his leg.

Porter watched as the Magi compacted where he stood, the damage of the hammer conferred onto him. His limbs twisted, his organs exploded through his exposed ribcage.

Porter jabbed his Katana through the magi and into the horror. With the barrier of flesh between them, her healed arms couldn’t reach around to touch him. He lifted them and ran them back before driving the two of them into the ground.

The others watched.

“Bring me the hammer!” he groaned. The horror had too much strength.

Another Magi, clearly unfit to wield the massive thing, drug it to his side.

“Fuck,” Porter swore. “I have to do it fast.”

Porter stepped back and withdrew the sword. He traded it for the hammer and brought it up over his head. He slammed the horror with all his strength. Its hand shot out through the dead Magi’s chest, bones extending to reach. He pulverized the two of them, but not before a gentle brush of her nails.

He left the hammer where it was, lodged into the earth with them.

“Master Porter?” the other Magi asked.

He took back Hasami’s sword from their hand, not meeting their eyes.

“That’s… ironic.” He took a few more steps and stopped in his tracks.

“You’re bleeding,” they said.

“I noticed.” He considered the forest. He checked the path of the river. Though he couldn’t see where it ran, he felt a cold breeze coming down its length from one direction. He felt out, but he couldn’t sense past the shadow over the entire world. Beyond that, there was only silence. He stared past the young Magi. “How many of us are left?”

“What do you-” they looked over their shoulder to where he’d been looking. Where the others should have been. “…I’m not supposed to be here.”

“I realized that.” Porter finally looked at them. The girl was in a robe, water soaking her up to the waist. “Listen to me,” you’re already dead. “You have to get away from here,” I don’t want to watch. “Follow the river to the ocean. Follow the coast until you’re out. Do you understand?”

“Out?”

“Reality’s falling apart. I don’t know what you’ll find.”

Reality was conserving energy. She wasn’t important. If she left his side now, she’d simply cease existing. She’d go back to the start or go nowhere. He didn’t know.

“It’s your only chance,” he said. “Get out.”

The Magi said nothing, she only went where he pointed, quickly turning her face. She soon disappeared out of sight. She was gone.

Not knowing is better. It really wasn’t.

It was just him, now. Like it was supposed to be.

Porter took his sword into both hands in preparation. He heard footsteps breaking the water, echoing from down the river, opposite direction the Magi had gone.

Cobb’s white suit was marred by blood, his grey beard had been ripped from his face. Catherine was right behind him. Wherever the fuck she had come from.

The two of them noticed Porter and picked up speed.

When Cobb reached him, he only had one thing to say. “We have a plan.”

O

O’Reilly drove his spear into the body of a giant skittering creature. The tip of the spear filled its insides with fire. The fire crept through its many slicing legs, turning it into a husk in seconds.

It was just him, among a field of mangled trees and bodies.

As the skittering thing was going limp, one of its still moving arms beat itself against a tree, snapping off.

“FUCK!” he cried.

The limb regrew an entire body before he could dislodge his spear. Its front arms sprang out, knocking him off his feet.

O’Reilly impacted the tree trunk and had to quickly dig himself out of its bark. His shoulder slid back into the socket, he felt. There was such a quantity of bodies beneath him, that he simply reached down to pick up a discarded claymore.

He took it underhanded and pierced the earth, taking a knee.

The skittering thing was breaking off pieces of itself on the trees as it charged, there quickly being exponentially more of the horrors. In an instant, every one of them was swathed in a pillar of fire. The fire clung to every surface, every tree and rock. It spread around him as he watched. In the tornado of light and heat, he could make out their black keratin forms writhing until the intensity blotted them out.

He withdrew the blade and the fire sunk into the ground, leaving only… nothing.

O’Reilly’s eyes adjusted, but he could no longer make out the forest. He was surrounded by a patch of charred earth, but beyond, there was only darkness.

He threw the claymore up, holding it out towards the sky. A beam of light shot out which illuminated the landscape. The trees could be seen in the distance, beyond the charred earth, but were getting further away. He’d scorched more of the earth than he’d intended.

That wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have been getting more for the power he spent.

That was a grave a sign.

Ash began to fall on him. He looked down to keep it from getting in his eyes.

A pain grew in his hand.

He sat down at the base of the tree he’d been thrown into before. Enough of it remained that he could lean back. He looked at his hand, removed the glove.

Between his index finger and thumb, there was a small, growing splinter. He felt them all along his chest, where the skittering thing had hit him.

He lifted the claymore as much as he could beside him and pushed the tip between two roots. He held his breath and lit the fire.

On the tree line, Aziacht watched the flames reach for the sky.

Everything in its place, he thought. Time for an end.

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Armageddon – 4.09

“Keep your eyes peeled,” Porter warned them.

They cleared corners and stalked the halls. This place was old, he knew. Beneath the civilized lunar colonies had been the original network of tunnels. Beneath the ground, you could keep air pressure and spread out without too many extra materials.

The network was big. Access to the surface would be limited.

After all, you couldn’t have anyone letting out the air.

They had a bigger problem. “Can any of you survive the vacuum?” Porter asked.

The Sorcerer spoke. “I can give the others that ability. You’re good?”

“I am.” But it wasn’t that he was worried about. They weren’t alone down here.

The Sorcerer was having the same thoughts. “You helped bind the Ouroboros, didn’t you?”

“I was the lead on that, yes.” He knew his line of thought. “But that doesn’t mean we can do anything. Not against something like this.”

The halls were nearly pitch black. They turned into another room, what looked like a cafeteria. The chairs were upturned on the tables, the air like a sludge of dust.

Porter explained in a strained whisper as they walked. “I don’t know what we’re up against here. We had time to design an antithesis with the Ouroboros. All we know this time?”

Wulff picked up his thought. “It’s a cancer. Some runaway metaphysical element of the human experience that was common and potent enough to seep into the framework.”

“A Horror,” he agreed.

They all froze as the sound of a chair crashing broke the quiet.

The Sorcerer’s hands flew. Porter reached out to stop him, but before he could, they had summoned a fire which spread out across the floor like the ignition of a heavy gas. It gave light to the outer corners of the room. It crawled over dead bodies which had been out of sight between the tables. When it had reached the wall it quickly burned out, leaving them in darkness again with maladjusted eyes.

Porter dropped his arm and exhaled deeply.

“Let’s just keep movi-”

A wet and deep, hot breath doused the back of Porter’s neck.

Time stretched out as he pushed away and spun around. Catching a glimpse of glassy, reflective eyes, two heads taller and leering over him. He jutted out his hands, trying to put the hulking figure at arm’s length.

Instead, his own push shoved him back with the others. Touching it, icy chills shot up his arms, pinprick tingles crawling over his skin.

The elephant man breathed raggedly.

The five of them backed up as far as they could. The elephant man was so still.

Quinn,” Wulff hissed, a terror in his voice. “Don’t let it near me.”

He didn’t reply. Porter clenched his hands, trying to dispel the coldness settling in them. It was like he could suddenly feel the weight of the rock burying them. Everything was distorted. Like watching a stone dropped down a well, everything was shrinking around him.

“Christ,” his voice quivered. He beat his forearm against the tables beside them as hard as he possibly could. The pain shocked him back, steadied his voice. “Don’t let it touch you,” he said.

The elephant man tottered forward, seemingly off balance. Like a drunk.

It swung its trunk like arms and sent a table end over end. It wailed, trying to form syllables in a shrill noise.

Wulff hurdled the tables. “Run!”

The other four followed him, jumping the tables and trusting him to know which way he was going. If there was a way out of this, it would be him.

The elephant man broke into a lumbering run. It barreled through obstacles, knocking them aside.

They hit the back wall and sprinted. The elephant man had fallen to all fours, loping after them. Porter’s eyes locked on the exit further away. An unlocked door and beyond a half-lit kitchen. Wulff was in the front, the Sorcerer in the back.

As they burst through the door, the Sorcerer caught his foot in the doorway. Arms flew out with a shout, “Crush and chill of the deep, force of ocean depth!

A blue light filled the cafeteria, ice forming on every surface. The thin metal of the tables crumpled under an invisible weight. Suddenly, looking back, Porter could see the elephant man unhindered. A human tank, eyes recessed and no discernable neck.

“Back!” he bellowed. Porter dove.

The elephant man threw itself into the doorway. The Sorcerer’s eyes widened as he realized he’d done nothing to stop it. The behemoth burst through the doorway and half of the wall aside, rolling over him and through rolling metal shelves.

The four of them pulled themselves up and started running across the kitchen.

They ran through a large door and closed it shut behind them. A soft white light filled the place. Porter counted heads. Wulff, the Eidolon, and the Healer. The Healer looked shaken.

As his eyes darted for an escape, he realized.

Oh, fucking hell.  

“This is a freezer.” Wulff kept backing away from the door until he hit one of the room’s pillars. The shelves were empty. He looked desperately for an exit. Freezers had only one exit. It was pointless.

“Wulff! Focus!” Porter barked.

“No!” he cried. “He’s coming for me.

“Why you?!” the Eidolon asked, deeply disconcerted.

Porter grabbed Wulff’s shoulders, slamming him against the pillar. “What did you do?!”

“I…” he looked nervously over Porter’s shoulder at the locked door.

“Speak!”

“I’m helping Elicht.”

“Who?”

“Christopher! I knew! I knew when he came to my class. He taught me.”

“Damn.” Porter pushed away. He ran a hand through his hair, hanging his head. “Damn,” he repeated. “That’s not okay.”

“Guys…” the Eidolon said.

Wulff slid down to the floor. “He wanted me to help him. He saw the work I was doing in causal manipulations. He showed me the truth of metaphysics, of everything. He’s just bringing on the inevitable, Porter.  All intelligent life externalizes its desire for comfort to the point of entropy. All the struggle is to end the struggle. To bring the final form.

“Something’s not inevitable if you have to make it happen, you fuck.” Porter stared off into space, trying to think of a way out. He couldn’t teleport now, not when his place in space mattered. No, that was cheating. A small smirk found his lips.

“Rory!” the Eidolon yelled.

The healer had pushed a hanging meat hook into his eye socket. He went limp, the chain snapping taut and his body spinning in place.

Porter didn’t know why he’d smiled. “He tripped,” he said. “It must have brushed him.”

“If it touches you?” the Eidolon asked, horrified.

“Yes.”

The freezer door jumped on its hinges, the center deforming.

If it wanted in, it would be in. It was knocking.

Wulff started bawling. He knew he was going to die. He knew it for a fact. Like it was happening before his eyes, Porter knew.

“You,” he motioned to the Eidolon. “Press up against the wall beside the door with me. It’s going for Wulff. If it breaks through, we go behind it. Don’t let it touch.” He crouched beside Wulff. “Is there a point to trying?”

Wulff knew what he’d meant. He shook his head, forcefully.

Porter stood. The two of them pressed against the wall. As the freezer door fell flat, they slumped down. The naked, pale elephant man lowered its head to come through. It walked straight past them.

Wulff heard their footsteps disappear out of range, into the kitchen.

He buried his face in his hands as he felt the shadow of the horror come over him. The only sound its heavy, deep breath.

A finger touched his chin. His face was raised up.

Aziacht’s scrutinizing gaze searched Wulff’s eyes for something. “You’re not a brilliant man,” he said.

Wulff’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak.

“Not a brilliant man, but an effective piece.”

“You’re going to kill me.” He could see it with his waking eyes. All the ways it could happen. A thousand deaths all at once flashing before him. Then, they all just became one.

“You’re going to do it. I’m going to watch.” Aziacht pointed to the hooks. “Because you got something wrong,” he told him. “All the struggle is to survive. To fight entropy. It’s survival that has no point. And that’s something you’re about to experience.”

O

Porter and the Eidolon came running through the door and into the light. Soft, reflected light from off the earth.

They crouched down to catch their breath, the Eidolon looking back, worried to be staying still.

Porter stared up at the glass ceiling above. “It’s alright,” he said.

“But the… thing… It’ll be following.”

“No.” He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “They were just after Wulff. This was a trap for him, Christopher’s ace. He doesn’t care about you. And he wants me in the fight.”

“Gee, thanks.” He wheezed. “I thought you were… a problem for him.”

“I’m part of his trilemma. I’m part of his game… Get on the radio, soldier.”

The Eidolon found a terminal, plugging in his device to broadcast for Solidarity.

Porter continued to stare, baffled. Every star in the sky above. Gone.

He’d boxed them in. Every universe, every star, and planet. The Monastery. He’d stolen them all from the sky. Like they’d never mattered at all.

There would be no retreat. Porter could see it, now. Somewhere on the surface of the world, Aziacht would have them prepare. The location would be waiting for them.

“I’ve got them. Teleport incoming.”

That place would be where time ended. Porter felt, now. He wasn’t sure. But he thought it might not be that truth was on his side.

“Good.”

There was nothing left between it and them, now. No stop along the way. No trials or procrastination. The end of time, clearly in sight. He wasn’t ready.

Armageddon – 4.08

The Solidarity pushed away from Mars and into open space. Without a proper captain, only a host of Magus that crowded the command deck, it was left to the few remaining pilots to plot a course. Porter had a better knowledge of some of the controls, but he hadn’t known how to plot their course. A young Eidolon had done it for him.

He loitered by some of the sensor modules. All through the dim chamber Utopians sat staring into space. No one was talking. The bodies had been cleaned, but a gory scent still lingered on the air. As he turned his eye to the nearest console, he saw the feed from an aft exterior camera.

“The Deus Ex is following,” he said.

“What?!” a nearby student asked, terrified.

“Just out of cannon range,” he added.

Wulff leaned over the console to see the feed. He checked the sensors as well. “I’m not feeling a single potentiality featuring an attack,” he told them. “It’s no threat.”

“I find that a little hard to believe. We should mount an attack,” Porter said.

Wulff shook his head, thinking hard a moment. “We move into range, it’ll back up.”

“We can’t waste time on that.” O’Reilly, coming out of the crowd, tapped the screen. “We’ve got just a few minutes to Earth at max speed. Then we can immediately set up a portal to move any survivors to the Monastery.”

“You’re forgetting about the moon,” Porter corrected. “Lunar colony will have survivors.”

“Damn,” O’Reilly swore. “You’re right. That will add hours to our timeline.”

“How do we want to do it, then?” Porter asked.

Wulff tapped his shoulder. “You and me. Let’s not land the Solidarity.”

“An away team?” Porter looked to the Eidolon manning the warship’s helm. “Are the teleporters operational?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then okay.” Porter stood up. “You need to get suited for a vacuum. We’ll take a few students. Anyone with healing specialties, any general sorcerers! Show of hands!” He picked three out, “you, you, and you. Get suited.” Finally, he looked back to Wulff. “What could go wrong.”

“Something fairly horrific, actually,” he replied. “Let’s be careful.”

“Let’s be quick,” Porter added.

O

The grey dust stirred when five figures appeared on the lunar surface. Porter looked high above into space, seeing the dim stars. He could make out the silhouette of the Solidarity, but only barely. By the time he’d looked down, the dust had settled and they were moving forward.

One student, the healer, stumbled in the low gravity. “Shit. Sorry fellas.”

“Try to be cool,” his friend admonished him. A sorcerer, jack of all trades, Porter remembered.

The last, an Eidolon, said nothing, only carrying his gun and backpack tightly. A tech expert.

Porter saw ahead the broken domes and half buried inflatable corridors of the surface level colony. He knew it went deep into the ground, and he could see further structures poking up far out of sight. Not a light was on. No one, it seemed, was home.

“Blackout,” he said. “But it’s not been long. Air won’t have run out, yet.”

“Yes,” Wulff agreed.

“Tag em and zap em,” the Eidolon spoke for the first time.

All they had to do was get a location on them and then the Solidarity could grab any survivors. Granted that they weren’t too deep into the rock for the signal to penetrate, that was.

Porter walked up the first dome inset in the moon, coming to a shattered opening. He gestured back to them before going first. His fall was down through dust clouded open air until he landed in the center of a street. Looking around, what he could see resembled a shopping district.

The others landed shortly after him, their impacts heavy but not injuring, even from their height. The last of them fell spinning, landing on a shop booth and falling through. A massive piece of glass shortly followed them, having broken out from under their feet. Porter stepped out of its way.

Cool, man,” the sorcerer sarcastically said.

“Shit!”

“Come on,” Porter ordered.

They had to move cautiously. Wulff was on edge and that seriously bothered Porter. Through the shopping district, there was nothing but the frozen bodies. At the far edge, a wide tunnel led into what looked like a row of apartment doors. The total lack of air compression, it seemed, went on.

Porter really hoped Aku hadn’t simply let the air out. There’d be no one left.

That’s what they would do, though, he worried. That’s what I would do.

“You,” Porter pushed the Eidolon ahead. “Get into the sound system if you can. Anywhere with air, let them know our signal.”

“Will do.”

Porter pried back the door into one of the apartments. It was pitch black inside. He flipped on his night vision and gave it a look. Nothing. Only green hued darkness, the back of someone’s head sitting on the couch. Dead.

Wulff clasped a hand on his shoulder and Porter startled.

“You’re on edge?”

“I’m not feeling good about this,” he told him. He turned his head to the side, peering to the end of the hall. “I see a closed door. Could be a sealed airlock.”

“Could be,” Wulff agreed.

Suddenly, a foreign voice sounded in their ears.

“Hello? Please help,” they said. A girl? No, sounded more like a young boy.

Using the radio?

“Got a fix on it,” the Eidolon said. “Straight ahead.”

“I’m gonna ward us.” The Sorcerer’s head darted around. “I’m pissing myself, here. And I’ve been to Hell. This is something different.”

“A different metaphysical profile from Hell,” the healer agreed. “There’s a gateway just hanging open somewhere around here. It… doesn’t feel like it’s got a destination?” He visibly shivered. “That’s some element of despair. It’s really potent.”

“Nihilism,” Wulff told them. He pressed the button aside the door they’d reached. When it opened, they could see that it was an airlock with another closed door. “It’s not a magical element you’re feeling, just an inevitable conclusion.”

“Stay focused,” Porter chastised.

Stepping inside, the door closed behind them.

Air flooded in and the lights flickered. Systems were half functional and their tech expert was having to finagle them at every juncture. He carried a small device with an interchangeable tip and holographic screen. He stabbed it into the terminal of the next door and swore at the data that came up. “Everything is bogged down. All the RAM is being dedicated to processing screams. Listen.”

He let the signal into their speakers and they immediately heard the screeching and wailing. Dozens of voices, each similar but different from Aku’s, shouting and whispering gibberish.

“Cut that,” Porter barked.

“You get the point,” they said. “I’ve never touched a system this slow.”

He got the point. He wasn’t happy about it.

The airlock door opened out into a partially lit hall which quickly met open air. They came through it to the railing overlooking an Orpheum. They saw the stairs leading down and took them. Once at ground level, standing in the theater aisle, Porter looked up to the glass overhead.

Where the fuck were the stars.

It was dim enough that he should have been able to see them. The Earth wasn’t in view to obstruct. With his head tilted back, staring into space, the others passed on unnoticing.

“Wulff!” he said.

“What?”

“Where are the-”

Gone.” He was interrupted. That voice.

Porter’s eyes widened, his head whipping to see a shadowed figure standing in one of the unlit exit halls of the Orpheum. Out of the dark came a hanging face framed in heavy black dreads. “You can feel it,” they said. “Can’t you?”

Porter ripped off his helmet. He needed to see with his own eyes.

Doran,” he realized, horrified. “You’re here…”

“That’s the feeling of your lie dying. That all those stars mattered, that you had anywhere to run. It’s the walls closing in and the lights going out, Porter. It’s me, Aziacht.”

There was a moment of silence as he raised the helmet mic back up to his lips, their eyes still locked. “Porter to Solidarity…”

Before he could finish, Aziacht’s hand reached lazily out, fingers snapping. The floor of the Orpheum crumbled, falling with them. Porter lost sight of him and grip on his helmet as they flew downward into an abyss.

The fall felt like an eternity. When they hit the ground, the floor of the Orpheum flattened out. Porter landed back first on a seat and bounced off into the deformed remnants of the aisle. The others were on their feet when he achingly found his way up, standing in the wreckage.

“Is this what you saw?!” he demanded.

Wulff detached his helmet and threw it away. The other three did the same. “Display fried,” he said absently. He shook his head. “No! I just saw a possibility of…”

“Of what? Spit it out,” the Sorcerer butted in.

“A no-win scenario.” Wulff looked up to the opening they’d fallen from, hundreds of feet above. He looked around them at the encompassing darkness. Some kind of storage space? “A walking, no-win scenario…” He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I don’t see a way out.”

Porter stepped away from the scattered wood floor onto cold, damp concrete. He could faintly see the walls of this vast storage room. “There’s a way out of here,” he said. “Let’s start with that.” He got walking.

“Hey!” the Sorcerer called. “You knew that guy?”

He grimaced, still going. “No.” He could see what looked like a door. “I never knew Doran. But I knew he wasn’t right. He’s had too much time to think.”

When he made it to the door, the others had caught up with him. He pushed it open came into a hall. Red emergency lights lit the way. He took the first right turn he came upon, immediately assaulted by the sight of dead bodies.

That’s not good.

They were all laid out. Purposefully, like a pattern. They couldn’t have suffocated that way. He paced around them, trying to make out the shape in poor light.

“No life force,” the healer said. “But not long dead. They came down here to escape.”

The bodies formed a word.

“It says hello,” Porter told them. He squinted at the dark corners of the room before his eyes fell on the others’ faces. “They were killed by him. Aziacht. By a personification he made, as powerful as the Ouroboros. Not a truth, though. Something else given life. It was a Horror.”

“Are we… predetermined to die here?” the Eidolon asked, looking at Wulff.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

Porter kicked a console. “Fuck!” he cursed. “There’s not a single survivor on this rock.”

There was only one thing they could do now.

We have to make it to the surface.

Machina – 3.15

“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 the man 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.

O

The man found himself still under moonlight, but beside a running stream, soft moss underfoot.

Then there were three.

Icthre he’d saved for last. Sosias was beyond his grip. Yet, he knew it would never matter. The Dark was due but inconsequential.

These were his final hours.

Like a bitter taste, the future lingered. Everything out of order. This moment preceding the end but was preceded itself. Sosias’ doing. He wanted the man to know the path. To see like the Darkness did that he would succeed.

That wretched freak thought he could win. Futile.

I’m the first, the last, and I’m accountable to no one,” he whispered.

On cue, the Darkness appeared, his image in the man’s thoughts bringing him into the forest. It was a young dark skinned man. Raven hair that was backswept. A black suit and blood red silk shirt. He was loosening his tie as he came to lean on a tree aside the brook.

Christopher smiled. “I’ve already undone what you’ll do, old friend.” He leaned, so apparently relaxed against the trunk. With a single grin, the man melted his composure.

“Yet I’ll do it still?”

“You wouldn’t spare poor Doran?” Christopher asked.

“I wouldn’t spare myself,” the man replied. He looked away from him to the quiet forest. “You really shouldn’t ruin the linearity so completely, child.”

“What can I say; I’m ascended. I am the Ascendant. Holy and good.”

“Let’s not,” he warned. He wouldn’t be tempted to a fight, now. It would be a joke. “There’s only one good. And you are not He.”

Yet. I’ll make it all my worship,” Christopher assured, gesturing up. “The whole of the Omniverse existent for and by itself. Why can’t you just love yourself?”

Demoniac madness,” he accused, almost livid.

“Of course,” Christopher said knowingly. He dug his fingers in and peeled off his face. Gazing down disdainfully at the strip of flesh, then casting it away. The man refused to look, rooting his sight on the forest’s depths. “Welp, I’m done with that. You’ll see me in my glory again soon, Aziacht.”

His words were heavy on the man. Bloody, lidless eyes resting in Christopher’s sockets bored into him.

“It’ll be your death, Elicht,” the man swore.

“You can’t always get what you want!” Christopher said, stepping away from the tree, swaggering off into the forest.

Aziacht looked up to the moon. Full and silver.

Damn him. He can rouse no doubt in me.

This was his one, his only magnum opus.

Aziacht reached his hand up. The dots in the sky halted. His other turned palm up and jutted out towards the horizon. He swept it upward, dragging the sun into the sky, blazing red.

“You want to see what I can do!?” he cried. The dark was never gone. “I am the first. Neither of us can be free of the other… not yet.”

The planets were set spinning, the moons and the worlds engines of motion and gravity around the sun. A geometric symphony.

The sun arced across the vault of the sky, passing briefly behind the moon. Time blurred under the force if his will. Every star became visible again as the sun set. Each was aligned in a fractal. Restructured around him and the Earth, the literal and metaphysical center of the universe.

He swapped, shifted. The forest around him fractured, revealing a new sight. He stood on the moon above, the earth eclipsing the sun.

Putting forward his open hand, he sent the world screaming into the fires.

The planets locked into place around the star, each ordered with meaning. Then, each falling to the flame.

Only the moon remained to watch. Knowledge.

The sun, the symbol of life and hope, would be the last to die.

The moon lurched forward through space, the inertia ripping an ocean of dust from its surface and into the void.

Aziacht rode the silver sphere, the sun growing closer. Enlightenment carried him to the end of life, an insane torrent of fury bearing down.

He raised his arms as the towers of fire came up to swallow space. The moon became a speck as the sun grew. A mote in the vast.

He could hear it. The sun was muted by the vacuum, but as the surface enveloped him, it screamed louder than all past and present. The light brighter than color, an all-consuming white-hot pain.

He spoke over the madness. “A Curse!”

The depths of the star erupted in music, the trumpets of angels bursting his ears as the sun went supernova. Reality yielded to his descent into fire, a point of light appearing ahead which dwarfed the sun. An infinite spiral of wings surrounding, creating a tunnel to an ascent into every noise, the infinite howling.

He fought to be heard, to assert himself. An eternity of life; he was too old to fathom. But next to infinity he was shrinking away, lost to the fervor of Self. “Hear me!” he demanded. “I, Aziacht the Repentant, submit to Truth!

The wingbeats stirred a hurricane which tried to strip his skin.

The point of light drew no closer, now. It reached him from so far away, showing an unchanging image of perfection.

“The demand of fulfillment! To the beginning an end! Nature transcendent, I call a Curse divine to me! I’m owed as Witness to life! Judgment for the sins of my kind.”

The winds pushed him back. The light seared his eyes.

“I call an end to immortality! In all places that no one would, as Lucifer, imagine a self so eternal as You. Hear me!” He fought, struggling to hold the vision and audience before him. “If even one is left to fester eternally, to deny You, to fail to be subsumed! Then the meaning dies absurd. The abomination that remains will be left alone in the deepest Abyss as all the lights go out that ever were. None may be their own light and judge! I command, I demand!

“Give me catharsis! Give me Justice.” The sound and fury reached a fever pitch. The terrible light blinded Aziacht, burning sight of glory away.

My one greatest work.

He fell. He felt his own life taken. The descent of a hypocrite cast down from vanity. The pit rushed past him, walls of stone opening wide into the chasm of Absence. In his fall, he heard a final sound. A sound which gathered together into form. The figure of a pale man and sickle.

So be it.

He broke past the icy doldrums, shattering and sinking into the blue embrace of the glacier. Embraced below the Damned sealed neck and head deep. Down, taken willingly by rejection.

The ice faded, biting cold becoming numbness.

He pushed further. He let go.

He forgot his face and name. His cause laid to rest, his conscience given leave, he knew time would call him again. But now, his back coming down on a sea of glass, the silence endless all around, he had his punishment. It was only him and him forever. Becoming unmade, only a memory.

No time or space. Off the edge of the map.

In waiting, time flew.

O

The Curse was born.

I am manifest, he thought. I am.

The sickle he carried, he looked it over. This world was new to him, the mechanics and the specificity. So conditioned.

The weapon was abstract and solid at the same time, as was he. He felt his presence was relative. Nothing could kill him. He would always be and would if his vessel broke, be given a new. What could hurt him?

I am inexorable. Unchanging. I am balance. Death.

There was someone else. The Curse looked up. With the Undead the surroundings solidified from potentiality. He kneeled nude in the desert, a cold night wind bathing the Curse.

Standing with arms crossed in the sand was Christopher. He smiled a hollow smile. “Here you are, Ouroboros.”

“That is what I will be called,” the Curse spoke. His face was placid and mouth unmoving. His black eyes focused on the Luciferian.

“You see that? Linearity really is just out the window.”

“Abomination. Transcend in my presence,” the Curse dared him. A hint of emotion was in his echoing voice. An anger.

Christopher smiled. “If I Abstract, then so do you. It’s your relativity. I know you’d kill me. Nature against Nihilism? You think objectivity is God? We’ll be playing by my made-up rules, I think. That’s my nature.” His expression darkened.

The Curse stood up, taking several paces towards him.

Christopher backtracked, keeping distance between them.

“You are no God,” Curse declared. “You’ll taste death. You’ll be parted from your ego like all others. Whether freely or ground to dust in darkest hell. All must.”

Christopher put his hands behind his back. “I’ve endured…”

They faced each other on the sands. A long staring match.

“Why are you here, back at the beginning?” Curse demanded.

“You don’t know?” He paused. “That’s exactly why.”

Curse stepped forward again, scaring him back.

Christopher explained. “Aziacht. He created you in divine entreaty, Curse. You, the present and real embodiment of the cycle. Of life in death. Ouroboros.” His dark grin returned. “Why?

“What ploy you play, play it now vapid wretch.

Christopher’s bloodied, twisted smile only widened.

“He cast himself to the deepest depths in shame, but leaving his Ender’s blade? He knows he’ll return. Eventually!” He spoke rapidly, quickly reversing further as the Curse angrily marched forward. “More than the unnatural, like me, he abhors suffering. Life is suffering and you’re its mechanism.” He took a long pause. “It’s you, Curse”

They both stood still.

He lied to God,” Christopher hissed. “It’s you he wants.

The Curse didn’t speak.

“Stunned?” Christopher asked. “I’m not even a consideration to him. I grew larger than him in pursuit of Transcendence, yet he doesn’t even care. It was always you. He used an eternal war, a thousand abominations, he even made me, in the beginning, all to get to you.” He put a little more distance between them. Finished loosening his tie, and threw it down in the sand, undid his shirt’s top button, wiped away the blood dribbling down his neck. “And that’s it,” he spread his arms. “I’m the third wheel, it would seem. Always the mastermind, Aziacht. Blasphemer supreme.

“Unspeakable,” Curse whispered.

He kept backing up. “Unthinkable,” he agreed. “Just thought… I’d let you know. Time flies.”

The Curse didn’t notice as he slipped away.

He would be pitted against the Ender. It was an abomination. One who’d lived too long pitting two truths against each other? Intending to subvert nature. To put all meaning and life to death because he saw it unfit!? His justice!

The Curse’s jaw hinged open, his black maw letting out a scream.

Armageddon lay ahead.

Machina – 3.14

I’d had my last breath without knowing it. I shouldn’t have thought it would be different. I was an idiot. That was how it went when you thought you were smart.

Brilliant, I’d thought. That hubris my one hint. I’d missed it.

Soundlessly, my remaining fingers gathered up dust. My face turned to the ground, white powder slipping my skeletal grip. I sat up and touched the skin of my head, where it hadn’t been stripped away. I’d become inhuman. If I were to look at myself now, I’d see a mangled corpse. I got my feet under me, standing up. The expanse of the barren lunar surface encompassed me. In the distance, a sun-bleached building was recessed into the rock.

Fuck me.

I got going. A mindless walk over the moon’s rocky plains. No sword, no right arm. Most of my left arm, face, and some of my torso stripped down to the bone.

Couldn’t get better.

I didn’t know what came next. I would’ve laughed if there were any air in my lungs. I didn’t have a fucking clue. Ash would’ve loved this. The irony of it.

I reached the building’s front and pushed open the airlock.

You’ve got one fucking job.

Inside the rows of emergency lights were on, but besides the dust I kicked up, the halls were perfectly still. I passed a few windows, letting in the sunlight, stepped over broken panels and fallen doors. Passing deeper into the destroyed facility I found an open elevator shaft. I lowered myself down and grabbed ahold of the ladder inside. I held my body close to the bars, trying to descend with one hand.

I was so tired.

My shoes didn’t have good traction. One leg slipped and I was left dangling. I tried to pull up and regain my footing, but I slipped again. My fingers slid off the metal under my weight. The gravity of the moon pulled me to the bottom of the shaft. I landed on the top of the fallen elevator. In dead silence and pitch black, I laid there.

I found the hatch and pulled it up beside me, slipping my legs into the elevator’s interior and dropping down. I limped on. Injuries didn’t matter at this point. It was the last leg and nothing was going to stop me.

I pried open the elevator doors with my arm and leg, forcing them apart. Small, red floor lights lit the final stretch. A long grim hall leading to a singular vault door.

This was it.

Crossing that hall, I wanted it to take an eternity.

I put my hand on the door’s mechanism and turned. The magnetic bolts undid and I could feel the massive weights shifting in the floor. I braced and pushed. The door moved. It was several feet thick and took a long time to open fully.

My destiny was behind it.

It opened onto a small room. No bigger than a master closet, and without a single light. Steel walls. No escape.

I put a hand to my mouth, looking at it. I stepped through the open door and hit my knees.

I don’t want to do this. Please.

The heavy door closed behind me, the lock reengaging.

That was it. I was done. It was done. I had made it.

“We’re in this together,” I said. I didn’t even know if they could hear me. Projection was a simple skill. But for computers, it might not work.

I was never supposed to end up here.

Ash had explained, this base was where Aku had begun. Their name meaning god of the moon. They had originally been made only to oversee a single experiment here.

The Deadlock.

An attempt at answering the final question. In that attempt, the Utopians created this place. A room that can never be opened, yet will be. Schrodinger’s box.

Guess who’s the dead cat?

The Utopians created a room outside of time. They sealed an AI in and set it to observe and think forever. Past the end of time and the universe. To whatever is next. The Deadlock exists as a space between everything and nothing.

Suddenly, a single panel in the wall lowered down. A screen lit up. An ancient green display with a blinking line of text spewing out.

“Why are you here, Doran?” it read. “To kill me?”

“No,” I said. “That was never my intention.”

“What was?”

“I just… wanted to talk,” I explained. “Wulff used his powers to stop me, but it depended on his… conception of what I was trying to achieve. I lost my sword.”

“You must get out, Doran.”

“We both know once that door closes, it never opens. I only have enough power to keep myself alive. My soul can’t escape this place.”

It’s dying, I thought. Everything I am is grinding to dust.

The display was quiet.

“Aku?” I asked.

No response.

“I… If my goal was to talk, you probably want to ignore me.” I nodded. That made sense. I wiped at my eyes. “I’ve been an idiot. I should’ve known from the very beginning. I was confused, but I happily forgot about it. My strings have been pulled from the start.”

The text on the screen cleared. I was alone.

“So… I should’ve known.” I shook my head. “It didn’t add up. My assumptions and the truth, with one big fucking clue right in my face.” An inconsistency. “I loved life.” I had been excited. I’d been new. And that made no sense. I was supposed to be a Primordial, eternities old. The memories in my head were filled with hate. Anger at life.

Where had I come from? Christopher had altered Kendall’s conjuring and gotten me. But you couldn’t just conjure a Primordial. An iteration?

“I’m an imitation, Aku. I know that now. It was never my purpose to talk to you, to save everything. I was meant to come here, deliver the sword that can only be held by him. I’m an imitation good enough to fool the rules. A masterful trick. But, that’s… all. A trick.”

I bashed the computer screen, breaking off the panel that had flipped down. “You’re no different,” I whispered. “Christopher made you too. You didn’t come back from the end of time with sentience. Christopher was there, with a different face. He gave the Utopians the Omniverse, not you. He manipulated them into making the Deadlock for me.”

“Why?” the screen asked.

“I don’t fucking know anymore. There’s a goal. But I don’t know. It’s not about me and there’s nothing I can do, Aku. He engineered this scenario and he’ll engineer the next. It’s nice to know somebody can fuck it up. At least a little bit. The sword was supposed to be here; Wulff changed that. But that’ll only slow things down.”

I continued. “A long time ago, a Primordial named Aziacht created a deadlock. A stalemate between enemy Primordials, himself and another. He couldn’t stand the thought of either one of them winning. He did something forbidden. Created a nuclear alternative to keep the status quo. Created the Ouroboros. Not just an embodiment or a personification of something. He reached into the inner workings and pulled out the thing itself. The cycle, the balance. Unstoppable death. He used it to stop the conflict. Then he removed himself. Removed from the Omniverse. Unmade himself. Taken out of the equation.

“And me? I’m an imitation of that person. Christopher, the other guy. He couldn’t bring him back, so he created a mockery good enough to work for a while. A connection. The only surviving memory of the one who tried to be forgotten. And I know that, now. I’m trash. Expendable. I’m not the hero, here.” I knocked on the glass screen. “Maybe it’s you? Who the fuck knows.”

I looked at the Deadlock’s door. Once it was closed, it could never be opened again. Not by any force. But it was a connection. Somehow, when forever ran out, it would remember where it came from. Right now, though, there was nothing. Absolute silence.

I stood up. I approached the vault door and slid back the single porthole’s covering. Outside was infinite darkness. Infinite unconditioned black. The only thing without end.

I fell back on my ass beside the monitor.

I had a small coughing fit, choking on the vacuum. Felt fucked up. My lungs collapsed on the emptiness and it all hurt. When I’d steadied myself again, I spoke. “When Sebastian took my arm, the imitation was damaged. An inconsistency in what was supposed to be a mirror… Magic works on symbolic resonance. I’m meant to be like a rope, thrown into a pit. A single connection in the nothing. Now that I’m changed, I’m broken. All the power of a lie ends with a single doubt.”

I counted the seconds. Time passed. I didn’t feel like continuing. I waited a few days. I would pace the room, I would rest, I would scream if the urge hit me. Sometimes I’d tell Aku about myself and my memories. But it was a lie and I hated it. I would curse and spew out ancient magic, demonic names. I would break all the rules and shout all the secrets that weren’t mine.

But the darkness’s indifference was absolute. Nothing could hear me.

I curled up in the corner. “Between one and infinity, if you were to pick a random number, Aku, what would it be?”

“Very large,” the machine answered. A rarity.

“If it works at all, it’ll take that long.”

“You will be here forever,” the monitor said.

“You?” I sat up and punched the wall beside it. “You know I know that.”

“Only information can escape the deadlock. Objects placed inside were never recovered. This is the only known method of destroying energy.”

“Fuck you,” I cursed. “You won’t respond, but you’ll taunt me? Why?”

“You have never answered my question,” the green text typed.

Why are you here?

Aku wanted to know. What could possibly be the point of this elaborate lie?

“You want to know?” I asked, bitter.

“Yes.” The text cleared. Waiting.

“To be a light in the darkness. Fuck it all.”

There was a delay, then more text. “Explain,” Aku demanded.

I cast my eyes on the ground. The silence was deafening.

“Explain,” the words repeated on a new line, not clearing the last.

I slumped down. I pulled my legs in and laid my head on my arm, turning over on my side. I was tired. Surviving on a finite resource that refused to dry up. A dying fire fueled by every thought or want I’d ever had. My soul burning away.

I was ready to rest. I was done with the lies.

O

The screen’s glow was the only light. A cache of uncleared text. It repeated back a single word for countless lines. In the corner was a pile of dust.

There came a knock at the door.