Saturday, August 18, 2018

35 : James McLeod

Previous


I step towards the doorway of the Tower, my heart pounding. I know that no one who has entered this strange structure has ever returned. Due to the lack of an sort of gore or even residue, some of the scientists think that they are being teleported, though no on knows where to. I am, to my knowledge, the last of the volunteers.

Some of the soldiers give me a respectful nod as I step through their blockade. Some of them look at me with a bit of pity. At this point, they’re all wondering who in their right mind would still be doing this at this point. They aren’t letting just any crazy schlub off the street wander in, but they definitely lowered their standards for volunteers.

I’m not anyone special. I barely scraped through college with an English degree, and got a menial job as barista that I had just gotten fired from. I failed to make it into grad school, I was going to be homeless in a month, and I hadn’t spoken with my parents for over a year. When I was a teenager, I had big dreams of becoming a writer or, god forbid, one of those internet video personalities, but nothing ever seemed to come together. Even on the internet, where you could monetize making stick figure drawings if you just found the right people to support you, I never found my niche and wallowed in obscurity.

If you asked me why I volunteered, I guess I would say that life never quite worked out the way it should have, and I saw nothing but more failure in my future. Not that I told the recruiters that, of course. I told them that I was eager to help explore a new, unknown frontier. That was true, of course, but at the end of the day, if I had to be completely honest with myself, I had been more interested in running away from my problems than I had in going on a grand expedition. Suicide disguised as adventurous spirit.

I’m dressed in my usual street clothes, jeans and a jacket, but the scientists strap me down with equipment. Primarily a vest, with an array of sensors for measuring my vitals, as well as environmental conditions. Temperature, pressure, radiation, radio waves, x-rays, etc. A helmet with a small camera attached, and two more cameras mounted on the shoulders. I’m given a pack with survival gear, rations and a jug of water, matches, a flashlight, a multi-tool, a compass, etc. They also hand me a loaded pistol and a combat knife. There is truly no telling where I’m going to end up.

Once I am thoroughly outfitted, they guide me to the Tower. Fifty feet tall, a perfect cylinder of smooth sandstone bricks, it doesn’t look like anything special. Anyone could have built the thing, within one afternoon if they had the right equipment and enough people. And yet, this innocuous structure has been the center of weeks-long speculation, sending the whole country in an uproar of conspiracy theories, religious arguments, and political posturing. A true Wonder of the World that may not even be of this world.

My heart races nervously as I approach the doorway. Several men with more sensor equipment frame this open entrance at the Tower’s base. They have various cameras set up outside the structure, looking inward. Drones have been flown in and mounted around the inside to observe my disappearance.

An older bespectacled gentleman in a rumpled brown suit comes up to me, shakes my hand, and tells me how brave I’m being. A middle-aged man in an army officer’s uniform does likewise, and then they step aside, motioning me forward.

For one paralyzing moment, I don’t want to go in. They would understand, I knew, and let me back out if I really wanted to. But I had come this far. I had nothing to go back to. At least in doing this, I might play a part, however insignificantly, in the progress of mankind.

I take a breath and stride forward before I allow the panic to take hold. I go through the doorway into the shadowed chamber of the Tower. I take three steps inside and—

***

—I’m walking down a long corridor made of yellow, pulsing flesh. I take several more steps, mostly out of momentum, before it fully registers what has happened. I’m no longer in the Tower. I whirl around, but behind me, there is only a solid wall of the pulsing flesh about five feet behind me. I stagger back, and as I do, the wall moves forward to match. I scramble back further, and the wall chases me until I stumble.

As I fall on my ass onto the soft, but firm floor, the wall stops. I can see dark purplish veins bulging across it. As I look around, large pustules filled with milky white goop hang off the walls, swelling and contracting very slowly.

I realize two things then. One, that there is no obvious source of light, and yet I can see everything perfectly. A sort of ambient glow fills the room, as if the walls themselves provide the light. Two, I realize I am naked. I look around me, pat myself down, but nothing I was wearing or carrying is anywhere to be found.

I hesitantly get to my feet. The entire corridor is made of the yellow flesh, a tunnel about twenty feet wide, though the floor is flatter, making it easier to walk. I can see that I tripped over a vein on the floor. I’ll have to watch out for those.

The flesh is pleasantly warm, but the air is pleasantly cool. Strangely, I feel the slightest bit of a breeze against my back, pushing towards the wall. Crazily, I am reminded of the night I lost my virginity, out on the back of a pickup truck in an open field. A cool night breeze contrasted nicely with the heat of my lover’s body and her warm breath on my neck. It was perhaps an odd connection to make, and there was certainly nothing remotely arousing about this situation, but then, dreams didn’t always make sense.

This had to be a dream, of course. I know the Tower made people vanish. I still found it hard to believe that this is where I would end up, stripped bare at that. If the Tower actually did teleport people, I had at least expected to show up in some kind of alien laboratory or some magical temple or something.

Actually, I had expected to simply be obliterated. I hadn’t hoped for it, obviously, but with every step towards the Tower, that had seemed the most likely outcome in my mind. Right now, I start to wonder if that would have been the better fate.

I look back at the wall again. I step backwards, more carefully this time, and watch as the wall slides after me, seeming to absorb the flesh of the tunnel as it goes, rather than slide through it. However fast I walk, it always stays about five feet away. When I step forward towards the wall, it doesn’t move. It’s forcing me to go down the tunnel, but is polite enough to let me go at my own pace.

Well, I’m here, and I don’t have any real options. I may as well see where this crazy train goes. I turn and start walking at an easy pace.

The tunnel curves somewhat, first to the left, then to the right. It get the feeling that I’m following some kind of natural cave system, although the d├ęcor makes it feel more like an intestinal tract. It was then I also notice that the place has no smell. The path also doesn’t rise up or down, just stays perfectly flat.

I walk for what feels like hours, until I’m thirsty from the effort and my feet are sore. I pick a spot on the ground that isn’t next to a vein or pustule, and sit for a moment. I look back at the wall and I nearly leap out of my skin.

There’s now an enormous eye in the center. It’s freakishly huge, almost as large as I am tall, white overall, but bloodshot with spidery purplish lines. A crimson iris surrounds a yellow pupil. I had been checking behind me to make sure the wall was still there every few minutes, but after a while I gave up and just moved forward. It could have been at least an hour since I last looked back. How long has the thing been watching me?

It just stares, and I stare back, frozen in place. Minutes tick by, and it doesn’t even blink. It’s only when I hear a sudden static crackling sound in the distance that I turn away.

I leap to my feet as I see a shadow come around a bend in the tunnel. My eyes widen and I feel terror grip me. It’s less a solid figure, and more like a roiling mass of darkness, vaguely shaped like a figure. Within the darkness, blobs of yellow light briefly blink into existence, than fade.

It’s hard to describe what exactly it its. I seems somewhat bipedal at first, but as it nears, I can see it is almost mantis shaped, its long arms bent in two places, angularly reaching forward. Two sets of insectoid legs drag a long, tapering body behind it. A row of spines form a high frill and trail down its back. This is the best I can make out as its shadowy form roils, filling in details that vanish just as quickly, almost like the creature is a hollow, invisible husk, and has a limited amount of visible mass to allocate towards showing its form.

I take all this in mostly subconsciously. Consciously, I want to scream, but my primal survival instinct has always been to freeze up, and instead I stand there rigid like a deer in headlights. It’s one of the aspects of myself I’m not proud of, but in this situation, flight isn’t an option anyway, and I don’t think anyone in their right mind would try to fight the thing approaching me.

The sounds of static, like a radio stuck between frequencies, increases as the creature approaches. It gets so loud, I have to put my hands over my ears. I grit my teeth in a grimace of horror and pain. As it reaches forward with one of its weird, multi-jointed arms, I finally manage to move. Unfortunately, all I can do is stumble back into the wall. I can feel the giant eye’s gaze upon me, but I can’t take my eyes off the shadow creature.

It keeps coming, still reaching. The shadow mass fills what I take to be it’s head, which in full form is shaped like an upside-down tear drop. Several of the yellow motes of light appear on what I assume is its face. They stay in place instead of winking out, as though this is the creature’s means of gazing at me.

Its limb reaches forward. The shadows reveal three long fingers splitting from the end of the limb and spreading to encompass my face. I cringe back, throwing my arms up and turning my head. It reaches right through my arms, shooting icy sparks of pain through my nerves. I scream, more from terror than the pain, as I feel the thing’s fingers pass through my skull and wrap around my brain.

***

I awaken. I am standing in a line with other humans. I am no longer naked. I wear clothing designed to help me blend in with the World they have chosen for me. I carry a tool that is commonplace, wooden walking staff with a gnarled crook at the top. Behind me are several others likewise dressed in such attire, colorful robes indicating practices of fantastical magic. Ahead of me, a dozen others are decked out in gleaming, streamlined blue armor, wielding the sort of stylishly high-tech rifles one might see in science fiction.

The line proceeds down another corridor of yellow flesh. This corridor is far larger, a thousand feet around. Numerous eyes watch us from the curved walls and ceiling. Ahead, a huge glowing portal whirls with myriad colors. Anywhere from ten to thirty people step through at one time, then the line stops. Two gigantic humanoid shadows which flank the portal then dip their fingers inside. The portal flashes through a rapid strobe of colors that our human eyes cannot even process, then the giants withdraw and allow another group through. There are about a thousand of us, and my group is the last in line.

We are being sent to cleanse a World on behalf of the Masters. We do not question their wisdom. They have shown us the sickness that infests the universe. Everything is wrong. A reality of near-emptiness, where all matter has condensed into limited, crippling shapes. Where the crude things that think themselves life crawl through existence like blind, mewling bacteria, forced to endure the agony of shaped existence.

Disgusting.

Blasphemy.

Cruelty.

What manner of God would doom His creations to such a terrible existence?

The Masters are beyond such limits, ever shifting, ever flowing between states of being, creating, destroying, remaking what they will at a moment’s notice. It pains them to create a stable form long enough to interact with us in a way we can at least attempt to understand, but they endure it to grant us our divine, truly divine, purpose.

We are the first of all life, they say, that can see the possibilities beyond the physical and the paltry spiritual. We, humanity, are the only ones who have ever managed to reach them, the only ones whom they could speak to and not immediately sunder mortal mind and body with their mere sight. We alone have the honor of bringing their purity to the sick, twisted realm we call our universe.

This will be my first mission. My group will travel to a World not unlike the high fantasy realms I used to read about when I was a kid. A land of wizards and elves and goblins and such. A world of magic and monsters, though I now laugh at the mortal notions of such things. Compared to the Masters, humans may as well be robotic drones, with no imagination at all.

We will insinuate ourselves into their cultures, observing, learning. We will discover the optimal means by which to tear their world asunder, to trigger a cataclysm that will eradicate them from existence. It will be a mercy.

Many of us might not make it back, but that is acceptable. After all, no matter how well they modify us, we are still infected with the curse of material shape. When we purge a World, we expect to go down with it, and in the moment we die, the Masters will take our purified essence back into their realm, to become a part of the formless roil of raw existential potential. We will have achieved something akin to Nirvana, except it will be real, and it will be greater than any feeble human mind could have envisioned.

Those that do return will have the honor of saving another World. And another, and another, and another, until we either die, or our Masters’ work is complete.

I don’t recall ever being told this, but I know it to be true. I recognize everything as I glance about the chamber, and it is as it should be. I can only be grateful to the Masters for giving me this chance to bring real meaning to my life.

***

It takes less than a month. A world steeped in superstition, used to not questioning the mysteries of magic and seemingly divine symbolism, easily takes our word when we say we are destined heroes sent by the gods to slay a great evil. They simply aren’t aware that the evil we refer to is them.

They bring us to their leaders, and we do our great work. We shatter their castles. We flatten their towns. We root out their most powerful beasts and tear them to pieces. We challenge their greatest wizards and crush them under our superior powers. We slaughter their knights and heroes like a reaper threshing wheat.

After weeks of destruction, we finally pause our grand assault so that the desperate survivors can amass one final stand against us. They gather every remaining warrior and spell caster and magical creature still willing to throw down their lives in a desperate bid to save their world. It’s almost touching. I can just imagine the grand heroic speeches their leaders give them on the night before the battle.

In the first few seconds of the conflict, I grind most of the army to paste with a sweep of my hand, commanding the earth itself to swallow them whole. The relatively few survivors of my salvo are picked off one by one by my companions. I could finish the rest myself, but my comrades deserve their turn at our divine work.

This was an easy world, I must admit. A single continent surrounded by a shallow ocean, it was easy to poison the waters, and then sweep across the land. I know there are other Worlds with far greater powers. Vastly more people, greater magic, greater technology, super powered champions, gods, demons, vast fleets of space ships. This world was a testing ground for the real battles to come. True, we had lost three of our number in particularly intense fights, but most of us remained.

I watch my companions work as they pick off this World’s last defenders. The Thornbeast, a woman who can grow spines and horns all over her body and move at unfathomable speeds, cuts down fleeing soldiers before they can take more than a step. The Bringer of Dawn, a boy with a mystical lantern on a staff, fells a dragon by blowing its chest open with a blue lightning bolt from the lantern’s inner glow. The Ghastling, a gangly old man who can take the form of a horrifying shadow spirit, sweeps across the battlefield, sucking the life out of injured soldiers trying to crawl away.

As they clean up the battlefield, I hear something come up from behind me. I see the way the mana bends in the air, and step back just as a small fireball whizzes past me. I catch it in my hand and close my fist, snuffing it like a candle flame. I turn to see the creature so audacious as to attack me with such a weak spell.

It is a small creature, only two feet tall. It looks like some sort of humanoid rabbit. Although the world was mostly inhabited by what appeared to be humans and elves of the typical fantasy world variety, the land also had numerous anthropomorphic animal creatures like this one. They were the ones that usually controlled the much more powerful magical beasts.

The creature, I can’t tell if it’s male or female, looks at me and trembles with a combination of anger, terror, and desperation. I’m sure that I had killed all its loved ones, and it had been plotting this futile revenge for weeks. It knows it is doomed and doesn’t bother to run away. I kneel down in front of it and smile. Content with our assured victory, I allow myself to enjoy this moment of diversion.

“Sorry, little one,” I say. “Maybe in your next life.” It’s funny, because I know there won’t be one. Our Masters will see to it.

It speaks in a language I don’t understand. I reach out and place my hand on its head. Tears flow from its eyes. I start to squeeze. “AYO!” it shouts. I don’t know what it means, but it doesn’t matter. Its head squishes in my hand like an egg.

At that moment, something hits the back of my neck. I feel slithering tentacles wrap around my forehead and throat. Something bites into my flesh. I had absorbed earth mana to toughen my body, but it seemed I had not done so enough. Arrogant of me, a mistake I should not make even when our might is so clearly superior.

I’m not worried however. My team has a gifted healer and it feels like a minor wound anyway. I immediately absorb some extra mana from the ground, and the biting thing’s efforts are halted. I reach behind and feel a fleshy, pulsing lump. I grasp it and pry it away, snapping the tentacles off in the process. It looks like some kind of octopus with only four arms. Its beak snaps repeatedly, revealing a thin tongue with a needle-like stinger tip. I pulverize it by clenching my hand into a fist, as I did with the rabbit-thing.

I look around me and see a rapidly escaping flicker in the air. Light mana wraps the figure in illusion, but I banish the effect, revealing an elven man with pure white skin. I cause the earth to rise and swallow his legs. Checking that there are no more hidden individuals, I walk down towards him.

The sounds of the massacre continue in the distance, but the screams are starting to fade. My companions should be nearly finished. This sneaky individual will soon be the last living member of this army. I’m not sure what compels me to speak with him, but I feel a sudden urge to do so.

The white elf looks youthful, although true to the fantasy trope, the elves of this world are exceedingly long lived, meaning he could be centuries old. His kind speak a language that sounds a bit like an off-shoot of French, but a handy spell scroll had enabled my team and I to instantly learn some of the human and elven languages of the land.

“What was that, exactly?” I say in his native tongue. “Hoping to poison me?”

“Hoping to turn you,” he says. “That creature injected you with a very special potion.” He gazes at me with eyes that betray his true age. There is a calm and reserved air about him, despite his young appearance. He knows he is going to die, but decades, perhaps centuries, of experience had tempered his emotions.

“Turn me?” I say with a laugh. “Into what?”

“What you’re supposed to be.”

I laugh again. “And what am I supposed to—”

I can almost hear the mental light switch flicking on. I pause, frozen in mid-sentence, jaw agape. I stare at him.

Slowly, I turn. I see the battlefield around us. Corpses are everywhere. I can smell the blood. I can see it, drenching the very earth I had used to kill them. The screams of those few remaining fill my ears. My knees go weak. I drop my staff and fall to my knees, vomiting violently.

I think about everything I have done and tears well up in my eyes. Millions of lives lost. Hundreds of millions. I had stood there and smiled as I commanded earthquakes and tornados, tidal waves and wildfires to wipe out entire civilizations. I had looked on proudly as my companions tore through the mightiest guardians and the noblest heroes of the land as though they were nothing. We had committed genocide. No, even worse than that. We had caused the extinction of an entire world.

And I had smiled through it all.

“Oh, god.  Oh, fuck. What did we do? What did we do?” I babble, unable to comprehend how I could have done such a thing. It had felt so right. Why had it felt so right?

I hear the elf speak. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I have enough sense to move the earth away from him. He kneels down and puts a hand on my shoulder. “It took us two weeks of constant experimentation on the young woman we managed to capture. When we finally broke through your Masters’ control, we learned what had happened.”

“Who are they? What are they?”

“I do not know. We have never encountered entities like your Masters before.” The elf stands and hauls me to my feet.

This was unreal. It could not be real. I had been transformed into an apocalyptic weapon by shapeless alien horrors and sent to a fantasy world to destroy it for the sin of simply existing in a way that those monsters didn’t like.

They told us it was for a grand cosmic purpose, but they were nothing more than mass murders. And we were their guns.

No. We weren’t even the guns. They didn’t expect most of us to make it back from these missions. We were just the bullets.

I turn to the elf. He looks to the sky, presumably thinking of all stars beyond. “I wonder if the other worlds are fairing better than ours.”

I try to think of what could be done. It is already too late to save this world. Maybe, just maybe, there are a scant few scattered survivors somewhere, civilians who couldn’t fight and instead hid themselves away. But after we had poisoned the oceans and burned away most of the land’s resources, we left any possible survivors little chance for recovery. This planet is doomed. Unless…

“Tell me you have more of that potion,” I say.

The elf looks at me with a sad expression. “You destroyed our laboratory two days ago. That was the only vial I could recover, and it required the fresh venom of the skull-borer you just killed to act as a triggering enzyme.”

“What about the woman? She must be the one who went missing after that raid on the northern forests. She called herself the Crimson Tide, I think. You said you experimented on her, broke her free?”

He casts his gaze down. “She was the one who poisoned the Great Ocean, killing every aquatic civilization on our world. When she remembered herself and realized what she had done, she pleaded for us to kill her. We tried to keep her alive, hoping to nurse her back to sanity, but she managed to end her own life the moment she got the chance.”

I stare at him, unable to think of anything else to say. It may just be the clarifying effects of the potion or maybe some kind of shock, but I manage not to just curl into a ball and scream. Instead, my mind is churning. There has to be a way to stop this. There has to. If I can’t awaken my fellow Earthlings, then what am I supposed to do?

“Please, Earth Mage,” says the elf. He grasps me by the shoulders. “It’s too late for us. But there are endless other worlds out there. Find a way. Save them. Your world included.” He gives me a sad, but reassuring smile.

Then there is a rush of wind, and a red line forms along his neck. His head falls off his shoulders and his body slumps to the ground. I jerk back, giving a cry of fear and disgust.

“Woah! Woah, Earth Mage! It’s just me!” I blink and look up from the elf’s body. The Thorn Beast is there, grinning at me. She is my height, but her numerous blades and horns make her appear to be looming over me. Just a few minutes ago, I had thought her a beautiful creature, a truly magnificent living weapon. The sight of her now terrifies me.

“You okay?” she says, giving me a look of concern. She reaches towards me, the spines and claws of her arm retracting until it almost looks normal. She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Did he do something to you?”

My heart is thudding in my chest, but I force down my fear. Again, I have to imagine it’s either the shock or the potion keeping me from just losing my mind on the spot. I jerk still back as the shadowy form of the Ghastling comes towards me. He reverts to his human form once he is close. The Bringer of Dawn comes next, carrying his lantern staff over his shoulder, whistling nonchalantly. Jesus Christ, he looks barely older than ten.

Five others follow them. A man wrapped in bandages, with the power to spread disease. A man in a black cloak who can summon dark flames that burned anything without the need for oxygen. A skeleton man who controls the bones of the dead. A man who appears to be half-bird, with rainbow-colored wings. A woman wearing a spotless white priestess’s robe, and wields a great sword. My fellow righteous warriors, here to help me cleanse the filth of shaped existence.

They stand clustered around me. “What’s wrong?” says Bifrig, the winged man.

“That freaky albino had him,” says Thorn Beast, motioning towards the decapitated elf. “He might have gotten some kind of spell on him. You know these elves, older than they look. Might be a powerful sorcerer.”

“Come on, Mage, snap out of it,” mutters the Ghastling. He reaches over and smacks the back of my head. Several of the others laugh.

Before he fully retracts his arm, I snag him by the wrist. “Do you think the Masters are watching us right now?” I ask.

The others look quizzically at me. “Maybe,” says the Bringer of Dawn. “Probably not, though. Lots of worlds to work on. We just report when we’re finished, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I say. I squeeze my hand around the Ghastling’s arm, until he cries out.

“OW! Hey, man, leggo!” He tries to pry my hand off, but I’m absorbing earth man as fast as I can. He shifts into this ghostly form, but unlike our Masters, his shadow body is still solid. “Hey!” he roars in his crackling voice. “Let go, I said.”

I blink and shake my head, releasing him. “Sorry,” I say. I touch my forehead. “Sorry, I—”

“I think the elf did wallop him with something,” says Bifrig.

“No, I…” I feign a headache and pinch the bridge of my nose. “I think its clearing.” I turn towards Ghastling, who is gingerly rubbing his hand. “My apologies.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he mutters, shifting back to his human form.

I have to think of something fast. I can’t wake them up. I don’t know how. I also can’t allow them to continue like this. I will not abide even a single life more being taken.

I have to kill them. I have to do it fast, before even the Thorn Beast can stop me. I cannot match her speed, not without absorbing a tremendous amount of lightning mana before hand, and there isn’t any in the area. I could try to trap them all within the earth, grind them apart as I did the soldiers on the field. But no, several of them have superhuman durability that would resist such an assault.

What can I do?

“Well, how much is left?” says the Thorn Beast. “This is pretty much the last resistance force we’re going to find. Do one more sweep for survivors?”

“Yes, I suppose that’s all we can really do,” says Bifrig. He turns to me and claps a hand on my shoulder. “Maybe the mighty Earth Mage can whip up one last hurricane as a send off?”

“Of course,” I say, forcing myself to stay calm. I can theoretically raise my strength and durability high enough to simply kill them all in a quick melee, but I’d never hit the Thorn Beast before she cut me to pieces. Likewise, the Black Flame’s power can burn through anything, superhumanly durable individuals included, and it was one of the only elemental powers I wasn’t able to suppress. The Ghastling can also suck out my life force if he can to dodge my first few hits.

I can’t just throw my life away to take down only some of them. I have to stop them all, and then I have to find some way to get back to Earth and warn everyone. But what can I use to draw the power I need? I look to the sky, seeing if there were any storm clouds nearby from which I could try to draw mana for speed.

The sky is nearly clear, save for the smoke and dust kicked up from the battle. I frown, shielding my eyes against the glare of the twin suns. No luck there. Light mana doesn’t boost my speed, funnily enough. I look to my companions, and my eyes fall on the Bringer of Dawn. The boy’s lantern can fires beams of light, great bursts of flame, and bolts of lightning. I had almost forgotten, but I once absorbed that lightning to gain speed in a critical battle.

I turn to face the others, rapidly absorbing mana from the earth, amplifying my strength and durability as high as I could. I do this without giving any outward indication, save for a slight stiffness in my movements, but if the others ask, I can say I’m still shaking off the last of the effects of the elf’s spell upon me.

“Alright, then,” I say, a little stiffly. “Here’s what we do. I will return to the western coast. This world’s spin means that hurricanes will go from west to east, so it will be easier to feed and sustain the storm from there. The rest of you will start in the east, and work your way westward. I will keep the hurricane going until the landscape is thoroughly blasted apart, while you scour the eastern lands. It may take a while, but our victory is already assured. We have time to enjoy ourselves a bit before we rush back.”

“Sounds, good,” says Bifrig with a grin.

“By the way, Dawn,” I say to the boy. “We’re a ways to the east as it is. This will go faster if I could get a boost from you.”

The boy nods, and holds up his staff, pointing the lantern towards me. The ball of soft blue light within grows brighter as he charges his spell. “Brace yourself.”

I nod and extend my hand to receive his gift. His blue lightning strikes me dead on, hitting my palm, creating a continuous arc between us for a few seconds. I suck in every last erg of power. It’s less than I was hoping, but he probably thought I would pace my use of it. Instead, I use it all at once.

Right as he stops, I shift myself to maximum speed. The world freezes around me. The moment I move, I’m going to burn through the lightning mana in the space of a second. Fortunately, at this speed, a second may as well be an hour.

Thorn Beast is the only one who can possibly react to me. I attack her first. She’s fast enough to see me coming and widens her eyes. Her arm moves to intercept me, but I am just fast enough to edge her out. With all the strength I have, I strike her face, the one place not covered in her deadly blades. Her skull shatters.

The others haven’t even realized what has happened yet. One by one, I crush their skulls, even the boy, though it sickens me to murder a child. I have to remind myself that none of us are human anymore. We were taken and changed into living weapons and none of this is our fault, but without a way to awaken them, I cannot let them run rampant on this world. If even a single cluster of people still live, there may be a chance, however slim, that after a couple centuries, this world can recover its civilizations.

The mana bleeds out of me. I feel an exhaustion I haven’t felt since before I entered the Doorway. A strain more mental than physical, and yet it leaves my body feeling weak. I drop the ground again, my breath heavy. I feel on the verge of hyperventilating, and fight down the urge to retch again.

Part of me wants to end my own life. I cannot imagine there is any way I can stop the Masters and all the other superhumans at their disposal. Unless, by some miracle, some of the others have likewise been awakened by the natives of other worlds, I have no hope of allies.

I don’t even understand the true nature of the Masters. Formless beings who hate shaped existence? What does that even mean? Are they some kind of Lovecraftian horrors, alien intellects beyond our understanding? Are they some kind of living embodiment of the cosmic chaos? Are they demons? Twisted fair folk? Pain elementals?

I somehow doubt my encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and roleplaying games was going to be of any use in understanding actual alien horrors. I think back to the chamber and the portal that brought us here. There hadn’t been any of the “mana” I could see in this world, so even if I attempted to attack the Masters in their own home base, I would be as good as powerless.

I kneel for a time, weighing my options. There is only one clear path to me. I have to return to Earth and convince the world that the Tower must be destroyed. If it cannot be destroyed, then it must be sealed away. There is something special about Earth, something significant about the fact that they dropped the Tower into our world, but didn’t send anyone to come after us. Clearly, we are useful to them as weapons, somehow, but if they wanted us for that reason, why did they not send agents through it to collect us and bring us in?

Maybe they can’t. Maybe something about Earth lets them open a doorway, but not send something through. Maybe it’s a one-way path. Maybe they simply cannot manifest into our reality, which is why they send us to do their dirty work in other Worlds.

Does that mean that I cannot go back?

I have to try. I don’t know how, but I have to try.

“Si Nu Va,” I say, while focusing my thoughts on the Masters. A moment later, a whirling portal opens up. I stand up slowly. Almost as an after thought, I flick my hand, and a surge of earth carries my staff to me. I grasp it, gripping it tightly, and take a calming breath. I try to remember that arrogance I had felt, that devout confidence I had in my mission.

I will return to the Masters and learn more about them. I will tell them that my team was killed in battle, but that we succeeded, and I will await their next assignment. I will play their revolting game, stay alive as long as I can, and find some way to sabotage them. Maybe on another World, I can find allies, find another way to awaken my fellow superhumans. Maybe we can undo some of the damage we have been forced to cause. If not, maybe we can stop the Masters from doing any more.

I step through the portal. I am back inside the huge chamber of yellow flesh. A few other superhumans are milling about, almost none of them sporting the same type of clothing. They speak of how they alone survived the devastation, but they speak with pride. Worlds had been cleansed of the filth. Those who fell in the process are to be honored for their sacrifice. The survivors carry will on with future missions in their memory. Glory to the fallen! Glory to the Masters!

Unquestioning. Unrelenting. Uncompromising. The perfect soldiers of infallible Gods.

Not if I could help it.

I step forward, with a bit of swagger. The other humans see me and smile. A few come towards me. No doubt they want to hear my own story. But then they pause. They look up, surprise on their faces. I hear that haunting static and I feel an unearthly chill. I turn and see one of the giant humanoid shadows reaching down towards me. Its hand spreads out a dozen tendril-like fingers, each longer than I am tall.

Terror grips me. They know. Already they know. I have only enough time to flinch as the giant shadow’s slimmest tendril slips into my head like the finger of a ghost. Everything goes—

***

—I’m walking back out. I blink in surprise. What just happened?

I look down and see my clothes. My jeans and jacket, the pack of survival gear, the vest with sensors, my weapons, they’re all gone. Instead I’m wearing long tan robes with a large green sash. In my hand I’m carrying an ash-grey wooden staff with a gnarled crook. I’m dressed like some kind of wizard.

I turn and look at the Tower. I had been walking right into it just a second ago. I patted myself down. Was that seriously it? It changed my outfit? What’s—

That’s when I look up and notice that dozens of people are staring at me. Many are open mouthed. I see soldiers, scientists, and construction workers, all in the midst of moving equipment and vehicles around, setting up a square frame around the Tower. The whole area appears to have been blasted and bulldozed flat. There is no crowd of civilians watching from a distance, no news crews doing interviews.

Someone points at me, they’re hand almost trembling. “One of them came back,” he states. An obvious statement, but one tinged with near awe.

“Holy shit,” someone else says.

Nobody moves. Everyone’s looking at me as if I’m supposed to say or do something. I really don’t know what they expect, though. I don’t know what the hell just happened.

As I’m looking around, though, I’m starting to notice something else. I can see—no, not see. I’m getting this sort of mental image that there are these motes and lines in the air. Myriad colors running through the world around me. I notice a particularly jagged trail of this substance floating in front of me.

I’m not sure what to call it. Mana? I’m not sure why that word popped into my head, but it seems right. I can visualize a kind of jagged mana drifting near me from the portable floodlights set up by the construction crews. I’m holding my staff with my right hand, so I reach out with my left, dipping my fingers into the invisible substance. I think I can almost feel it tingling on my skin. I sweep my fingers through it. As I do, bright arcs of electricity crackle off my hand, trailing little lightning bolts off my finger tips.

The process is at once unexpected, and yet seems completely natural to me, as if I’ve done that sort of thing many times. Everyone around me jumps back, gasping. I stare at my hand for a moment, then look up the crowd around me. I’m utterly confused.

“Holy shit!” someone repeats, and this time, it’s like the gun shot that signals the start of a race. People start surging towards me, a hundred questions flying from a hundred mouths. I jerk back, intimidated by the rush of the mob.

Some people are telling me I have to come with them. What did I see? How did I do that? Why was I dressed like that? Did I go to another world? Tests must be run! No, I must be brought to the nearest military base to undergo questioning!

“I don’t know!” I cry. “I don’t know what happened!”

The panic wells up inside me. They’re practically clawing at me. Soldiers push their way through and reach to grab me. On instinct, I sweep my hand, and this time, a more fluid form of the mana reacts. A gust of wind blasts back the crowd.

“Enough! Stay back! I DON’T KNOW!” Again, as if on instinct, I look to the sky. It had been near sunset when I left. It was fully night now. I draw the fluid mana around me, feeling the power caress my body. I leap into the air, and keep going, riding on the wind itself. I turn west and fly towards the horizon.

I would later find out that I had come back about three days after I stepped into the Tower, now known as the first Doorway. Eleven years would pass before I would recall what had transpired in that time.

If only I’d remembered sooner, maybe our world wouldn’t have had to die.



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2 comments:

  1. Okay wow. That was a pretty crazy revelation.

    Uh, I can see why this story is coming to a close soon. The pieces are moving, but is Earth Mage already compromised? To think he was capable of all that...horrible.

    But it is a fantastic twist.

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  2. Trapped in a Fantasy World with Genocidal Tendencies

    ReplyDelete