Jacob stared at the knight, sword loosely but firmly at the ready, feet planted just so for optimal balance and the readiness to dash in any direction, except maybe down. The knight stared at Jacob, trying and failing to maintain the facade of having any idea what he was doing. The air between them didn't crackle with lightning at all, because the knight wasn't a complete idiot, and figured the only reason he wasn't already dead was because Jacob had no clue who he was.
They shifted tensely. The knight spoke.
“We don't need to fight each other.”
Jacob lowered his sword. “Yeah, okay.”
The knight was taken aback. “What, seriously?”
“Eh. It's not like I'm being paid for this gig. And, to be honest?” Jacob slumped against a wall and pulled out his watch. “I need to calm down a little anyway. Christ, I remember the days when I wasn't this high-strung. I used to be sneaky!” He nervously ticked the clock open and shut, open and shut in sync with the seconds. “Hide in the shadows, plan the perfect moment to dash through security. Cloak-and dagger stuff, y'know? Now it's all dagger. Stab, stab, stab. It's not...” He sighed, snapped the watch shut and thrust it back in a pocket. “In any case, I wouldn't want to waste my energy on someone so clearly insubstantial. Y'got a name, kid?”
“Y-- wh-- b-- Lionel? No, look.”
“But, but,” Eryntse looked worried. “But he's gonna kidnap meeeee!”
“Are you gonna kidnap her?”
“I-- th-- no, I, I'm not gonna... Look--”
“See? No problem. Let's go.”
“YES THERE IS A PROBLEM.” Lionel punched the wall. “Ow. Look, I was doing a thing, and you ruined it with your introspection. I was gonna be dramatic! You love dramatic, right? See, that we don't have to fight each other? That was set-up.”
“He's really bad at this being dramatic thing,” Eryntse failed to whisper. Jacob nodded solemnly.
“The punch-line,” seethed the knight, “was that we, and by we I mean you, need to fight--”
Something between a roar and a screech some five feet behind Lionel unstoppered the drain on his anger, flipped it over, and delivered his free refill of fear.
They marched together in silence, Sruix trailing a respectful slightly-more-than-arm's-length behind. The ex-gentleman had tried to reason why traveling together wasn't a terrible idea: he knew his way around he round, haha, so better to be less lost than usual (that hit a nerve, but Steven missed his swing) even if it's with someone you can't trust, and you really couldn't trust anyone else in the battle, honestly, and anyway running into each other again sooner or later was more or less cosmicontractually bound to happen, right? It's in the rules. But Steven wasn't listening, so he'd trailed off.
“You said he didn't go back in the castle.”
Sruix coughed, treading lightly down the stairs. “He didn't, so far as I saw. And he didn't come back past me.” You didn't find him? wasn't a question that needed asking. “He'll probably be looking for one of the others. Probably to kill them.”
“As if you give a shit.”
A verbal shrug. “It's half my fault you lot are here at all, sure, but two mass murderers and a walking apocalypse? In other circumstances, you wouldn't sympathize either.”
“But I don't know if the next round will be ours or hers. Best to make the most of the here-and-now while it's here and now, don't you think?”
The little red cushion let out a squeak. “Don't mind him, Pendleton,” murmured the gentleman. “He's just less accustomed to existential crises, that's all.”
Steven whipped around. “The fuck--”
“...Is that thing?”
Sruix hugged the imp closer. “It's mine. You can't have it.”
The wanderer seethed, but gave up.“Whatever. If it could kill me you would've let it already.”
They came to a door, and went through. A sullen, dusty corridor with sullen, dusty tapestries stretched out ahead.
“You know,” Sruix hazarded, “if, for whatever reason, you wanted to listen to me for a moment, I have-- it's honestly just a hunch, I'll admit, but I think I might know where Talis is headed. He's not omniscient, you know, so he only has vague guesses as to where the others will be, but, you know, I know what he knows, so... if you'd let me lead, we might... head him off, at the proverbial pass? If you'd like?”
“I mean, you're already headed that way, whether by accident or not. I could save you minutes, at least, which might keep you from being late to a murder, right? Come on, work with me a little, here. I won't call us partners, or allies, or god-forbid friends. Just let me help. It really is in your interest, whether or not you want to believe me.”
“What did you mean by it's in the rules?”
“Y'know all those myths and legends about how a single underdressed, underequipped man can--”
“Or lady, yes, can singlehandedly take on and defeat a several-foot, armor-scaled, acid-spewing wingéd dragon?”
“It doesn't have wings, though.”
“Then what's yours?”
“My point,” puffed Jacob, “is that those are myths and legends! They have no basis in actual--”
Something between a screech and a roar emerged from farther away than the last one had. “See? It agrees.”
“You can't speak Dragon.”
“You can't eith... Actually, can you?”
“Uhhhhhh moot point?”
Lionel dragged Eryntse along behind him. She was faster than he and Helix, but she kept stopping at all the sealed gates Jacob told them to run through as though they were thin air. “I don't think that's what that means.”
“Anyway, no. I can't kill that thing on my own, and especially not while dragging around a pair of deadweights like you.”
“Why not just leave us to be eaten, then,” snapped the knight. They leapt through another set of heavy doors. Iron had given way to wood, which gave way to the dragon much more easily, but it still bought some time. “It'd make things easier for you, I'm sure.”
The merc jerked his head towards Eryntse. “She's important. You...” He eyed the shattered sword Lionel as-yet refused to relinquish. “...We'll see.”
But they never found out what it was, because just then all the air was knocked out of him, when he ran full-force into an enormous metal door as though it weren't thin air.
“They're more like guidelines, really.”
Steven had refused to let him lead, opting instead to be backseat-driven while he scoped around every corner for signs of danger. Instead they'd just found more imps.
“They're not ours, of course. I suppose the Director must have set them up originally. Maybe one of his successors. They're meant to keep things interesting, you see.”
“Keep. Things. Interesting.”
Sruix hemmed and hawed. “...Entertaining? Not to me, mind, (left here,) but it is intended as such for some. You grew up on a relatively stock twentieth-century earth, you must have learned about Roman gladiators at least. Bloodsport's not that unusual, in the grand scheme.”
“In any case, they're woven into the structure of the thing. Default settings, if you will. Usually in the vein of What Can Go Wrong, Will, but there are more subtle ones. Ah... Left again? No, no, down those stairs. Where was I?”
“Subtlety! Rules that might not be enforceable on smaller scales. Gladiators had their Colosseum, you see, but you are given cities, starships, whole planets to roam! Once even a solar system, but that was a special case. So we need you, the contestants, to come back to each other sooner or later. Otherwise telling you to kill one another's a bit meaningless. And even if you don't kill each other, there's the social excitement of watching you simply interact with those you've been instructed to off!”
“And then, of course, if you actually continue to not kill each other, then one or more of you is made to die. Left here.”
Steven froze. “What. The actual fuck. Is wrong with you people!”
“We are a society of Elephanzors.”
The wanderer turned, slowly. Sruix' face was iron. “Secure in our power and unwilling to use it for anyone but ourselves. You,” his finger jabbed into Steven's chest as they were suddenly nose-to-nose, and just as suddenly not, “and your gloves had, however small, a chance to change that. So you are here.”
you will go lef-- auh, right. Your right. The possessive, not the contraction. You-- ah-- just-- go.”
“The hell is that?”
“Oh, you know, the terrible experiment of one queen, a rainbow of princesses, a team of alchemists, a necromancer or two if she's hedging her bets, and fifteen years.”
The Midnight II loomed menacingly.
“Would've been five years, but the first one burnt down.”
“Well, the good news is, the dragon shouldn't be able to get past this door, because it's some antimagic material.”
“Lemme guess.” Blitz went to massage his cheek, but a metal barrier prevented that, too. “Bad news is we can't get through, because it's some antimagic material.”
Eryntse snuffled. “Maybe we lost it?”
“That was a straight corridor. How. How could we have lost it.”
“Maybe it got... turned around...?”
Blitz sighed, and sat down to wait for his inevitable demise. Kill Jacob, and two problems go away. “I don't suppose you were lying about not being able to fight it?”
“Might be able to bleed it to death? Scales looked patchy in places, but none of the traditionally-fatal areas. Bet its blood is caustic too, though.”
“She's a her.”
Blitz forced air between his teeth. “That's. Not important right now. Okay?”
Jacob looked thoughtful. “It might be. Stronger legs mean I'd have to avoid getting crushed going around the back more than usual, among other things.”
“It's a defense mechanism, I hear.”
“Hey," murmured the woman, "why do we have to go through this door, again?”
“Oh my god. Are you seriously serious right now there is A DRAGON CHASING US.”
“Well, yeah, but, like.” Eryntse visibly strained to find exactly the arrangement of words that would succinctly yet elegantly illustrate her meaning. “Why... do we have to go... through... this door... again...?”
Blitz buried his helm in his gauntlets. “I'm going to die.” Or kill the girl, if you think the swordsman too difficult. “I'm going to die surrounded by the stupidest--”
“Oh my god, why didn't I think of that sooner? Eryntse, you're a genius.” She clapped delightedly. “Sometimes. C'mon, Leo, get off your ass, we're going through the wall.”
Just then, the door opened.
Something down the corridor shrieked. Or maybe roared. It was hard to tell. Sruix looked up from the insignificant solid grey brick that was the door control.
“You see? Murphy's Law. Where there are monsters trapped, there are monsters freed.”
“Steven? What's he doing here? Weren't you with--”
“Thankfully these monsters are none too dangerous. To us, anyway. Sorry, Pendleton.”
The crimson cuboid discovered its powers of Temporary Flight When Flung Very Hard, and found it did not like them very much. Its protests were cut off with the lower half of its torso, when the dragon leapt up to meet it. The beast shook its catch violently, sending its innards everywhere.
Jacob irritably flicked rust-colored wool from his shoulder. “Is anyone going to explain what the fuck is going on?”
“One of them was a sheep, you see,” nodded Sruix. “Used her wool to create an army, though one as docile as their forebear. The other princesses hate them, for that is their fate, too.”
Sruix crumpled to the floor a second time, and the merc shook out his fist. “Steven, why don't you have a go.”
“Oh, uh. The Grey Queen's turning all the other princesses into a boat?” He jerked a thumb upwards at the abomination of entwood and dragonscale and pegasus wing being fussed over by a thousand rusty pillows. “So we're doing a jailbreak to get them to fight, uh, Talis? to get my gloves back.”
Jacob nodded. “Do we need the boat for that?”
“That was the plan,” grumbled the floor.
“Well then,” frowned the merc, gesturing at the beanstalk enveloping the lower half of the boat, “your plan needs work.”