Amala was lost.
Had Anansi not sent her back? Yet she could see nothing, feel nothing. She was not in the city; she was not anywhere, as best as she could tell.
What had gone wrong? Why had she not yet returned?
The girl had been fortunate this round.
Her first stroke of luck had been appearing close to the spirit. Close enough that her trackers thought their work done when they caught the spirit.
Then, when one of them pointed out a second signal had been detected in the area, someone noticed the crow. Half of the squad ran off after it, leaving the girl securely undetected. Given time to learn more about this world, she would easily blend in with the human population.
And then, as she followed the group escorting the spirit, she realized how fortunate she had truly been. This was a group of novice soldiers. Even their hastily-assigned leader was lacking in confidence, and none of them seemed comfortable with the idea of killing what looked like a little girl.
Better still, it was a group of novice soldiers with face-concealing helmets. All she had to do was follow them quietly and wait for one to separate from the others.
She watched as they marched into a diner, which was in much better shape than the surrounding environs. A few minutes later, they emerged without their captive. Fascinating. There was a brief argument - apparently they'd left the spirit with their cook, and some of the soldiers weren't sure if it was a good idea.
That might be useful information to pass into the right set of ears later on. She continued following the group - without a captive to watch, and with doubts emerging in the ranks, it was more likely that someone would end up isolating themselves.
Indeed, not five minutes later, one of the soldiers started to lag behind. A little more distance from the others, and it would be safe to send out a call for help that only he would hear.
"McReed! Get back in line!"
The order was sudden, and surprisingly forceful considering its source. The lagging soldier picked up his pace, and rejoined the group.
It was unusual. Not an hour ago, the leader had seemed no more confident than the rest of them. Now she seemed determined to keep the group together. Every time a recruit came close to being a viable target, Sasha called out to them again and they fell back in line.
It was almost as if she knew they were being followed.
She did. She knew a frightening amount about who was following them and why. She also knew what was happening at Whistler's diner, what was happening at headquarters, what was happening in a sealed temple buried beneath the surface some miles away from the city, and what was happening in a secure, forgotten bunker even further away.
As well as the personal histories and dietary habits of every soldier under her command.
She was trying very hard not to think about what all of it meant, or what HQ would do to her if they got ahold of this book which was telling her everything and found out about her little arrangement with Whistler, not to mention everything else he was keeping in his kitchen.
It was a lot of things to not think about, and in all honesty, she wasn't doing a good job of not thinking about them.
"They all heard a message when they came here?" Whistler asked, surprised.
"Yes. I heard it, too." In fact, Soft knew, the other battlers had also heard it; the Narration had told her that, back when she still had it. But explaining the whole battle to the death thing didn't seem worth the trouble right now. "They all want to help."
Soft wasn't sure if she wanted to help. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do now at all. But at least translating helped her keep her mind off that, off of everything else.
"And I've just been keeping them cooped up in here," Whistler sighed, pacing back and forth. "Dammit, what should I do? If I tell HQ about this, they'll just round everyone up and shoot 'em all. And even if they want to stop whatever wrecked the world, I got no idea what it is."
Soft didn't want to say anything, but she found herself translating for the other refugees. It wasn't even for any reason. It was just the only thing she felt able to do.
As it turned out, even if Whistler had told headquarters about his menagerie, they likely wouldn't have done anything at that point. They had bigger problems on their hands.
By now, the four lead Rebuilders had heard all about the mysterious Outsider covered in insects that had suddenly vanished, and they were even more worried about it than the commander who had given the report. Not that they let it show, of course. They simply broadcast a description of the Outsider and told all troops to shoot it on sight. Since this was the policy for all Outsiders, nobody thought there was anything unusual about it.
But this was, to the leaders, no ordinary Outsider. They had already retreated to the meeting room to plan their next move.
It seemed odd to the commander that they were taking this Outsider so seriously - they'd dealt with escapees before, after all. This one might have a wider range, but how much more dangerous could it be?
Of course, she could hardly be blamed for underestimating the risk. After all, like most citizens, she had not heard of the prophecy that the Lord of Insects would herald the Firebringer's return.
"These alarms are driving me crazy," Ambrose groaned, covering her ears. "Can't we just get to a terminal and shut them off?"
Minotaurus shook his head.
"Not until I can be sure we are alone here - save the dead, of course. If someone else is here, we would alert them to our presence. Or, if another uninvited guest arrives and disables the alarms, we would know of them."
"I guess that makes sense, but it feels like they're getting even louder."
Minotaurus paused for a moment in thought.
"I believe you may be right. There seems to be one more alarm than when we entered."
"I didn't trip it!"
"As I said, I cannot be sure we are alone here. But we will soon be at the central control chamber. From there, we should be able to use the bunker's surveillance systems to locate anyone else who may be lurking here."
"Then can we shut off these stupid alarms?"
Minotaurus walked to the solid steel door. It was locked, as most of the doors had been, and posed as little obstacle as the ones before it. Ambrose disabled the electronic sensors on it with just a moment's work, and Minotaurus tore the door out of its frame.
The door lead to yet another corridor. It was, for the most part, like the dozens they had already walked through. There was, however, one significant difference: the glowing runes covering the walls.
"We are very, very close," Minotaurus said. "As you may have guessed."
Ambrose stared at the walls awkwardly as she followed.
"Those are holy symbols," Minotaurus explained. "I do not know their specific significance, but they have not been in common use on this world in centuries."
"His world ended," Ambrose said blankly. "He saw it happen. He turned to religion for answers."
"That seems likely."
Minotaurus took a few steps down the hallway before he realized he couldn't hear Ambrose behind him. And that he knew why.
"When this job is finished, I will find out exactly what happened to the people of New Shambhala," he said, without turning around.
They resumed walking down the hall, and before long Minotaurus stopped before another steel door. It looked identical to the other doors they'd seen in the complex, save for the large circle of runes inscribed on it.
"This is the room," Minotaurus said.
"You don't say. Do the symbols do anything, or are they just for show?"
"They serve as protection from 'unholy elements'. They should not interfere with our procedures. However, the security codes will likely be more complex than the others we have seen."
Ambrose smirked as she approached the lock mechanism.
"That's not saying much."
Despite being at the core of the bunker, the door lasted no longer than its predecessors. The pair stepped through the doorway and found the control room.
It was rather unimpressive, all things considered. Even if you ignored the dust and cobwebs and the decomposed corpse in the chair, it was really just a desk with a few monitors on it. Not even rows upon rows, just five. Even the machine in the corner looked more like an excessively elaborate science fair project than the most advanced technology on the planet.
Or at least native to the planet. One of the monitors was fixated on a satellite image of a large golden structure. Minotaurus was staring at it.
"What is that?" Ambrose asked.
"A sign that we may have far greater problems than I thought." He grabbed the keyboard and began tapping at it with a surprising amount of care, given the size of his hands. "But before that, there is still the matter of the files we came here for."
"And shutting off the damn alarms," Ambrose groaned.
It hadn't taken long for Cole's conversation with the fiery god to go from bad to worse. A simple groan of disbelief was, unsurprisingly, taken as a grave insult, and of course Cole was far too proud and spiteful to back down.
It was only when a flame-covered fist was mere inches away from his face that Cole realized exactly how much trouble he was in. He was unsure of his cursed body's tolerance to fire, as it had never really been tested; but he could be reasonably confident that the thousands of insects he was dependent on would not survive in that heat.
He leapt back, dodging the blow, but the god was already preparing another strike. His foe could react faster than he could, Cole realized, as he backed out of the room; he could not simply keep running, especially in the confines of this temple.
But his various biological defenses were of little help. Girnham's body was surrounded by an aura of flame, ruling out any plan that involved direct contact. Yet a chemical spray was hardly better - Cole doubted he could produce enough to douse the flames, and Girnham's suit would prevent any of them from affecting his body. Perhaps if he had focused more on chemistry, he might have been able to find a combination of fluids that would be combustible, but that lay outside of his expertise.
There was the Shambala spider's explosive webbing, however. With few other options, Cole produced a small strand of it, then quickly flung it towards his foe.
The god in Girnham's body waved his arm, and a burst of fire struck the webbing in midair, detonating it. Then his hand began to glow as he walked out of the flaming chamber. Cole had an unpleasant notion of what, exactly, was going to happen next, and of how ill-prepared he was for it.
Cole dove down a nearby stairway, and felt unpleasantly warm as a stream of fire flew above him. He could not simply react. He needed to work out a plan, and quickly.
Escape wasn't an option. The temple was large, but ultimately he was confined to it - unless he opened the main doors, and even if he knew how, that was just what the goddess had wanted him to do. And the corridors were too tight for flying.
Then it struck him. He had a number of burrowing insects available to him; what if he were to craft his own corridors?
Another blast of fire overhead reminded him that he had little time, and his body was not shaped for digging. He needed to delay the flame god long enough to alter himself.
The webbing might work, if he could strike the god by surprise. But what else could he do? Chemicals were out of the question, and physical contact was too high-risk.
He needed to think of something, some change he could make quickly that had a chance of turning the tide of the battle.
And then it struck him.
Cole picked himself up, just in time to see the god walking down the stairs slowly and deliberately. It was showing off. The god knew that it had an enormous advantage; it was barely expending effort and Cole was already nearly defeated.
Its advantage would have been significantly greater if it had turned on the sound dampeners in Phil's helmet. It might even have thought to search its host's memories for that information, had it been aware of the amount of noise a male cicada could generate.
The particular species Cole was mimicking was capable of producing sounds up to 120 decibels, enough to deafen someone if it was right in their ear. And Cole was considerably larger than a cicada.
The god shrieked in agony, though Cole couldn't hear it; he had already shut off his hearing structures. But he could see its pained writhing. It held its hands to its head desperately, pressing the helmet further against Girnham's ears.
Cole didn't waste time. He fled as far as he could before he began reshaping himself into a mole cricket and digging through the floor.
He felt an unpleasant blast of heat behind his rear limbs just as he made it underground.
"So what have you found?" Ambrose asked. Minotaurus hadn't needed any help with the files, it seemed, so she mostly just stared at the glowing machine in the corner.
"Text for the recorded message this system plays, various hypotheses... as to the matter of his interest in ancient religion, there is a very clear point in the files where he begins speaking of 'the Firebringer' and 'the Wise Ones' and similar incomprehensible terms... wait."
"What is it?"
Minotaurus pointed to the folder on one of the screens.
"This file was created today."
"Is it a log file? It might just be doing that automatically. Something's keeping the power going, after all."
"Not quite. It appears to be some sort of error report... hmm, interesting."
"It appears the system is set to automatically scan for life forms leaving this world. And one has. Stranger still, it appears to have attempted to return. This seems to be the cause of the additional alarm."
"Attempted? It didn't make it?"
"The system has placed it in a dimensional pocket for analysis. Let me see..."
Minotaurus' eyes widened.
"This is not good."
He quickly flipped to another file and started scrolling through it to confirm his fears.
"I do not know how, but Aran's battle has come here. This may be a coincidence, but I have my doubts."
"You think the guy who's running it did this?"
Minotaurus shook his head.
"I cannot imagine they would use this system rather than their own power. But this is not even our greatest concern."
"Oh, right, that gold thing," Ambrose said. "Are you going to actually tell me what it is?"
"It is a long story, but I will have time while we move," Minotaurus said, transferring the files to his own device. "I will investigate these further later on. We are done here."
He stood up and started walking out. Ambrose followed him.
Had Minotaurus waited a moment later, however, he might have noticed the newest file had an update.
The being in holding had been removed.
The Executor was not in the best of moods. He'd been watching for the better part of half an hour when he realized that the trail he'd followed back to this world hadn't even made it all the way.
It had been caught on something. Someone was trying to study it. As if he didn't need an additional distraction with his battle.
Fortunately, it was a simple matter to move the contestant - or third-of-a-contestant, apparently - from an empty space into the adjacent world. She was already in the Void, after all.
He didn't give much care to where he dropped her. What did it even matter at this point? What mattered was preventing further interruptions.
Amala felt something move. She was coming closer to... to something.
To her children.
"I knew we weren't ready for the Lord of Insects yet," said Jaca, the Head of Public Safety. "If we can't stop him from waking the Firebringer, all our efforts to repair this city will be for naught."
"I've been saying all along, we shouldn't have kept the people in the dark about the prophecy," Head Architect Pyk grumbled. "How many Outsiders have we killed needlessly when we were only worried about one?"
"You know well that mortals have a poor track record when it comes to prophecies, Pyk." Ol the Chief Clerk took off her glasses; she rarely had a chance to reveal her eyes. "They always try to meddle with the outcome and it never goes well. I could name a thousand examples."
"And yet, is that not precisely what we have done?" Pyk shot back. "And what do we have to show for it? Dozens of Outsiders dead, and the Lord of Insects is loose. And, it would seem, more powerful than we imagined. If he can truly move without form, as the report suggests, then he may even be able to bypass our seal."
"Enough, all of you."
Chief Medic Vei was the quietest of the four, but when he spoke, the others took it seriously.
"It doesn't matter at this point what we could have done. What matters is keeping the seal on the Firebringer intact."
"Assuming it isn't already too late," Jaca muttered.
"Well, it isn't yet. If the Firebringer leaves the confines of the temple, we'll know..."
The creature was an insignificant pest. A diversion. It hardly mattered if it escaped now; its punishment could wait until the false gods were destroyed.
The Firebringer's new body had the power of flight, it seemed. It rushed towards the sealed door and raised its flaming hands.
The door began to glow a bright red.
Ol's voice trailed off before she could finish her sentence. The other three knew why as well.
The seal was weakening.
"Well, in that case, we'd best come up with a plan fast," Vei said. "It's not as if we can simply pray for a miracle - who would we even pray to?"
And then Amala appeared before them.
There's no reason for this | Or this | Death is inevitable | You can't challenge fate | The smallest change
I'm serious | It makes perfect sense | Easy as ABC! | I can't even explain it
I suck | I rule | I've got it made | Really, I'm serious | This bugs me | It's all lies | I want to believe
(This post was last modified: 03-06-2015 04:57 AM by Dragon Fogel.)