"What point is there in fighting the "bad guys"," Dorukomets rumbled after a few moments, "when the world has obviously already lost?"
"You don't know that–"
"This place is forsaken by time, forsaken by the gods, now even forsaken by love!"
"I don't think–"
"It is only a pity it took me so long to realize it all. Yes, now I see that–"
"Oh, stop it!" Velobo finally snapped uncharacteristically. "You just finished saying there was always glory in combat, now you're making excuses not to fight the only fight that matters. You can't have it both ways!"
What was visible of the knight's face hardened further. "Calidad, I realize that–"
"No, you don't realize anything! You're just being a… a… being a baby." He took a few moments to breathe deeply and steady himself, relaxing out of what had been an imperceptibly-different stance that he thought was more threatening than his default. Being a knee-high cube makes it hard to tower. "You've done something bad. Really bad. But that doesn't have to completely overshadow all the good things you've done. It can't do that, not unless you give up and let it. Look at this, look at what you're doing to these people. Her friends, my friends. You're a hero, Sir Dorukomets, you can't just become a villain as soon as things don't go your way."
The little cuboid scuttled closer, pausing for emphasis. "A hero has to redeem himself. You have to keep fighting, because even if you've lost there are other people out there who haven't. And they need you. Look at poor Tykidu. What would he do without you? What would all the people down on the ground do if you gave up and let Midday win? Even if this place has been forsaken by time, or forsaken by the gods, or even forsaken by love, you don't have to forsake it. You can't forsake it. You're the strongest. Sometimes you're too strong, and you break things. It's embarrassing. But you can't give up when you break something meaningful to you, because that strength lets you protect so many other things. You have a responsibility. You have the gauntlet. You have to keep fighting."
There was an unpleasantly biological noise from behind. "You have to stop this before you break anyone else."
Dorukomets sighed, scores of fingers bunching and unbunching with anguish. Velobo's little speech had been inelegant, it had been childish and naive, it had even been borderline silly. But it had been true. The knight couldn't face that truth laid out so simply, and couldn't face the hurt earnestness in those beady little red eyes. He couldn't face anything, really, but he definitely couldn't face himself if he let himself destroy everything. The Gauntlet of Genko stopped its piercing wail and settled into a dejected hum; the hands pinning the others vanished, dropping them to the floor. Tor took the opportunity to messily combust, while Huebert mostly just swore and Baghim struggled to breathe. There was silence, save for the crackling of flames and the occasional distant scream or burst of gunfire. Dorukomets eventually broke that, too.
"What do I do?"
Velobo was at a loss. He was, even if he didn't consider himself such, a leader, a tactical genius, an inspirer of men, but right now, he just… didn't know. "We have to fight. Fight the right people. Save everyone."
"But when the witch is defeated – as she doubtless will be!" he added with a small measure of his usual bravado, "what will I do?"
Velobo opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again more slowly. Before he could speak the words he wasn't finding, he was almost-thankfully interrupted by a change. He couldn't place what it was or what it meant, but he wasn't the only one that felt it; every brow in the room furrowed with confusion, every stomach or digestive-equivalent knotted with anxiety, and some subconscious little node within every mind present suddenly wailed with an alarm it hadn't even known it had. No-one knew what was happening or what to do, or even what they were feeling. Nothing was wrong, but everything was. And then the change changed.
In an instant, Gimeri and Baghim locked eyes; both tried to shout something to the effect of 'what have you done', but the latter didn't seem to be able to make much more than thick blood come out of his mouth, and it was immediately clear in any case that neither was responsible. All through the room, and perhaps all through the world, tiny nonexistent cracks were forming. Not in the walls of the fortress, or even in the air that filled it, but in the ideas that kept the whole plane what it was and where it was going and unchangingly static. The stories the clerics had bound themselves and each other with whispered themselves with increasing urgency, insisting this wasn't happening, couldn't happen, would be forestalled, but their actors found no recourse and the inexorable pressure of less-tamed reality pressed against them until they broke. Words and ideas splintered and coruscated through the room, the narratives Baghim and Gimeri had weaponized and perfected and protected and relied on shattering and continuing to shatter and sending shockwaves through every story they were tied to, through every teller that had defined and defied the world through them. Great ponderous threads of plot and moral whipped dangerously through causality, untethered by notion or intent, and scythed through the weakened world. They tore a finally-literal hole at the epicenter of the narrative battle, pulling and prying until a fist-sized, then man-sized, then gate-sized hole was revealed in the middle of the floor.
A vac-suited hand reached through.
Greenman didn't derive any real enjoyment from watching the scattered riots and mounting unrest across Caelo Ruinam – his personality was too fractured to allow for anything so emotional and visceral – but there was some satisfaction there. It was a satisfaction tempered by disappointment at the sheer inefficiency of the fractious mobs, but it was still a success. He had to hand it to Midday: her intellect may have been positively childlike next to his own, but she at least had the sense not to build an army that wouldn't immediately and universally turn against her. He briefly considered that the sniveling little heart might have had some insight into how to maximize the potential of the coup, but the thought of interacting with him more than was absolutely required was too repugnant to consider. This was working at an acceptable level. There were more important things to monitor and influence than tweaking the revolution to perfection.
With that in mind, he idly panned through a handful of viewpoints he considered were statistically likeliest to have what he was looking for; he was rewarded on the fourth one with the image of Tengeri reaching Garland's shop. He briefly considered interceding when the trio of soldiers approached, but judged it wasn't likely to play out in a way unfavorable to himself or his goals. As always, he was right: the soldiers were handily driven off, and for her trouble the sea serpent received a weapon she would be much better equipped to use than the Deicide. Excellent. Everything that needed to happen here had happened, so–
"So we should just end things now before the wrong people get hurt, right?"
Greenman grimaced, but he was in accordance with his diminutive counterpart.
"Yes. There's no sense in allowing the good doctor to come to any harm as long as she represents our current-best plan against the Fool. We will eliminate one of our more superfluous opponents and move along to the next round. It's possible Dr. Nyoka will attempt to strike then, but more likely she will take the time to regroup and plan."
"When you say we'll eliminate one, you don't mean, like, personally?"
He shook his head, jowls quivering in a distinctly negative way. "Of course not. The only one close enough to make an attempt on in a reasonable timeframe is Naamxe, who may be near, with, or even protected by Midday by now. I will orchestrate the elimination with the systems I have at my command here."
"Oh, good." The Heart swallowed. "I'm pretty sure Blue Ray was the best fighter of us anyway."
"Perhaps. It is immaterial. Information and misdirection are far more valuable than martial prowess."
"Who are you going to take out?"
Greenman hadn't actually decided himself, yet, but wasn't about to admit that.
"I should think it would be obvious," he drawled, flicking through camera terminals to refamiliarize himself with the situation. "As I said, Naamxe is currently too dangerous to target and may have his uses in the future in any case."
"Plus we don't know what happens if he dies and Huebert survives. That's a bad idea."
"Your attachment to the squid is noted. The meat-man himself, along with Kajan, may get themselves killed without my aid in any case, and are thus not worth targeting. The cube is with them, and though his value in continued survival is negligible, he is similarly not enough of a threat to waste an opportunity to kill someone more dangerous. Jetsam, on the other hand, has proven himself treacherous and inherently unpredictable. He is currently trapped and disoriented. He is the logical choice."
"Mmm. He may view his death as a blessing, truthfully."
"Yeah. That's what makes it so sad."
"Again, it is immaterial. Between the automated defenses I've commandeered and the troops I can no doubt muster, he will be dead soon."
The hand flexed, pressing a button by its wrist; a number of hologram screens sprung into place, reading out data faster than anyone in the room could follow. After a few moments of this, whatever was behind the hand seemed satisfied and stepped through the gate. It was difficult to tell much about the figure beyond a vaguely-humanoid body plan: the suit it wore covered every inch of it with bulky protective clothing and apparatuses of no immediately-clear purpose, and its head was shielded by a large, reflective faceplate. It touched its collar and began speaking in a flat, clipped voice.
"Environmental readings consistent with pre-gate projections. Gate safely traversed. Group one, secure a perimeter. Group two, establish primary data outpost. Group three–" At this point, the figure, which had been surveying the room, paused. "There are injured natives. Bring a xenomedicine team through, as well as backup interview equipment."
Behind the figure, more came through, all shrouded by similar suits but most clearly of different species or designs. They swarmed around the portal and the room, performing arcane tasks; all of the natives of the world were too stunned by their proximity to the sundering of their laws of reality to do or say anything, and the Battlers themselves simply didn't know how to respond. Fortunately, the original figure crossed the floor and did the responding for them.
"I don't know if you can understand me, but my translator's scans would seem to indicate you should."
Velobo looked back and forth, too nonplussed to protest; he was the only one still standing, between Dorukomets's attack and the portal's opening.
"I, uh… Yeah, I can understand you. Can you hear me?"
"Good, yes. My name is Cendil, of the Neramis Science Coalition." Velobo half-expected an extended arm for a handshake, but it seemed that language or not, culture wasn't being transmitted. "I and my team mean you no harm. I come from another universe, but I have no way of knowing whether your culture has progressed to the point of understanding the concept."
Despite the gravity of everything going on with the battle, and going on with Midday, and going on with Dorukomets, Velobo had to chuckle. "Heh. You have no idea."
"Sorry, it's just… I've been through a few universes myself today. Not that I really wanted to."
Cendil stood impassively for several seconds, his reaction impossible to read through the suit and his small body's stance completely neutral.
"Then further explanation is probably unnecessary. My team will treat your wounded, but I would appreciate it if you would in return give us some information about this place."
The initial shock of their arrival was starting to wear off, and Velobo realized that now was probably not the best time to sit down and have a chat with a bunch of strangers. "Well, I was actually in the middle of some pretty important–"
"This is a matter of some urgency for us as well."
He glanced over at the rune that still marked Alex's passage. "Well, I guess I can't really do much until my friends recover. What did you want to know?"
Before Cendil could respond, one of his subordinates broke off from the group that had been swarming around the downed fighters and called out. "Team Leader! I've got confirmation that the large biped's glove is a Plazmuth artifact!"
Cendil scurried to meet it as it lumbered across the floor, barely skirting the medical equipment that had begun springing into being at the suited technician's hands. It lowered its voice, inasmuch as it seemed capable. "The bracelet on the little square thing's another one."
Even though it'd been pretty clear he hadn't been meant to hear that, Velobo had a hard time not trusting people whose first reaction to finding someone injured was to try to heal them. He briefly considered his options, then spoke up. "Yeah, actually, they are."
Cendil looked at his subordinate as unreadably as ever, then back at Velobo. "You're aware of the Plazmuth and their relics, then?"
"You could say that."
"How long have these ones been active? Are you familiar with their operation or what activated them?"
"Uh, not too long. Really recently, actually." He thought back to his worries about letting Plazmuth technology into the wrong hands. He thought back to Sivach's hope and confidence. Deep down, Velobo liked to believe the best of people; it was in his nature, and these ones seemed no exception. He decided to lay his cards on the table. "As recently as, uh, when I turned them on."
"You activated them? But how?"
"I'm a Plazmuth."
Tengeri wasn't making great progress. Apparently at some point between obtaining the feather and getting her tool enchanted, everything had gone straight to Hell. There were troops swarming all over the place, some of them fighting the fortress's denizens, some of them fighting each other, some of them seemingly just running around and screaming to run around and scream. Even with her sensors faithfully pointing her in – what she assumed was – the right direction, she had to backtrack and skirt and hide constantly to avoid confrontations with everything from shock troops to mechs to leviath-sized cockroaches. Every time she thought she'd found a safe way to proceed, or even just had lost a potential threat, something else would appear. On top of that was the collateral damage the fortress itself was taking from Midday's army's infighting: more than once she'd had to double back on a promising corridor because it was blocked by some disabled piece of scenery or rubble from a collapsed floor above. It was incredibly frustrating, especially as the conduits she was following began to periodically flare and dim. Something was going wrong with the mana core or whatever it was and she had to get there and try to stop it and there was always something in the way!
She was losing time, and the more she lost, the more likely it was that this whole place would fall from the sky and kill everyone on it. Not that she was considering herself the only being sensible enough or with expertise enough to repair the source of power on a flying fortress, but… It was never safe to assume anyone else would do anything. Hell, wasn't that why she had volunteered herself for the task of fighting the Fool? You could only ever really count on what you could know, and the only thing you could ever really know is yourself. She had to do what she could.
So why was she hiding in alcoves, letting rats and madmen stop her from saving them all?
It was a thought that had occurred to her several times over the course of her trek. She suppressed it once again, angrily narrowing her biological eyes. She had been a pacifist, a woman of science and healing, her entire life. Why was it now that she was so sorely tempted to betray the principles she'd held for so many cycles just for expediency's sake? She had several times considered that perhaps the new Deicide was somehow exerting influence over her mind, trying to subvert her to warlike barbarism, but she knew the reality was even more dangerous:
She was terrified.
The gravity of the situation was really finally starting to impress itself on her. Things had always been happening so fast, ever since the start of the battle, that there was always something in front of her to deal with that stopped her thinking about the bigger things behind them. A meltdown to stop, a bomb to defuse, a traitor to punish. But now there were so many things to deal with that they were starting to take the shape of the larger ones, and she didn't have the energy to ignore them any more. The full magnitude of what had happened, and what she intended, was too much to bear. And on top of everything else, she'd taken on the responsibility of stopping the flux core from failing, taken the lives of everyone on board Caelo Ruinam as hers to protect. Under that strain, she's become so stressed and afraid that she'd been tempted to adopt a violent, ends-justify-the-means attitude, pressing through what- and whoever stopped her, sacrificing the few to save the many. Was that how someone like Scofflaw started? Thinking they were doing the right, but cold, thing, only to have the ends move so often in the end that they were unrecognizable and callous?
She wouldn't do it, but she'd had the thought. She didn't like what that said about her. She steeled herself and pressed onward, trying not to let her worries and weaknesses distract her from what needed doing, and more importantly not to let them change how she'd do it. She'd follow the conduits to the core, dodging and retracing where needed, and that was that.
Of course, she'd never make it to the core, not as long as someone with control of Ruinam's internal systems was rerouting the power grid to lead her as far away from Jetsam as possible.
"… But as I was telling Selfaz to get off the moon and leave us be, I was abducted. At first I thought it was just some sort of teleportation, but now I know I was actually taken from my home universe. From the remnants of my species. Sivach said he thinks there are more, but they were the only ones I knew of."
"And this was when you were taken to the battle to the death you mentioned?"
"Yeah. I really shouldn't just tell the whole story, though, I really am in the middle of something very important."
"I'll inform you as soon as your companions are conscious and well." In most cases, that would involve the anesthesia he'd had administered to them to keep Velobo talking wearing off. "What harm is there in telling me while you wait?"
Velobo shrugged. "As soon as I appeared, or disappeared or whatever, this Fool with a scepter starts talking. He explains the rules and starts introducing us, one by one. First up was Benjamin Jetsam, who…"
Cendil hadn't intended to interrupt again, but as Velobo introduced the other contestants he quickly found himself interjecting, checking for the umpteenth time that his recording device was taking this all down. "Doctor Nyoka? Was that her full name? Could you please describe her?"
"Oh, sure… Tengeri Nyoka, she's a big sea serpent with some cyborg parts that swims around in a bubble of floating water. She's a cyberneticist, and one of the nicest people in the battle. Why?"
Cendil didn't answer, and Velobo was entirely unaware of his urgency as he asked the next question. "Did you ever encounter a three-headed reptilian creature that may have called itself Nalyg, Razaran, and Kanpeki, or Nalzaki?"
"No, nothing like that. Sounds like something I'd remember. Why?"
"Doctor Nyoka is a citizen of my own universe, as is the Kryesan I described to you. Both recently disappeared, and the coincidence of encountering one made me suspect the other may have been taken to this battle as well. It would seem not, I apologize. Please continue."
Velobo anxiously watched a medical technician applying an IV to Dorukomets. "Are you sure they're going to be okay? We were actually on our way to fight an evil military dictator who I think is planning to blow up a city or something."
That gave the insectoid pause. "Certainly. I will impress the need for urgency on my staff." As the fortress shook and groaned again, he turned over his shoulder and said "As well as repeating the urgency to discover the source of these anomalies."
A many-limbed standing agitatedly as a console waved several arms in annoyance. "I'm working on it!"
"Please continue, Velobo. Your companions' condition is stable, and I assure you I will inform you as soon as they improve."
Velobo did continue for a while, but as he was describing his interactions with the black-ops in the Battlefield, he was once again interrupted. The limb-thing scurried over, hissing anxiously at Cendil.
"Team Leader, I've found it. You're gonna want to come see this."
Cendil nodded and rose, politely motioning Velobo to stay. Figuring anything that might threaten the integrity of Caelo Ruinam was his business as much as anybody else's, he declined to do so and followed the pair to the computer.
"Looks like the whole place runs off this one power source. Uses exotic energy we don't really understand yet, but looks like it only uses it to generate and direct more mundane electromagnetic emissions. Pretty efficient. Looks like it shouldn't work, actually, but we don't really know much about this place's laws. Problem iiiis…"
At this point, it panned the camera system it had appropriated down. Ursus and Jetsam were standing near the core, Jetsam in a supplicant position with his forelimbs outstretched, Ursus with his claws bloodied and daubing on the surface of the core's machinery. Dracodactyl blood oozed sluggishly out of a number of wounds on Jetsam, all of them seemingly-carefully nonlethal. Though there were obvious signs of a struggle, neither was doing anything overtly threatening. However, periodically as Ursus continued his designs the core would make a horrible shrieking noise and flicker; the worst of these would be accompanied by the fortress shuddering and the lights dimming or going off, only to come back at full strength as the ancient enchantments on the power source struggled against Ursus's sigils.
"Oh… No!" Velobo shouted before the technician could continue or Cendil could respond. "That's Jetsam!"
"The shapeshifting man you mentioned?"
"Yes! I've got to save him!"
The technician shrugged complicatedly. "Densitometers and radiography got us a pretty complete map of this place, and this thing's about as far away from us as it's possible to be."
"I don't care. I'm going. I have to try!"
Cendil glanced around behind the privacy of his helmet. "I can send a detachment there to help him out, but don't you think it would be safer for you to stay here?"
"I don't care about my safety, he's my friend." Displaying some of the canniness that always caught people talking to him off guard, Velobo continued, "Besides, if he dies, I disappear too, which means you lose the only Plazmuth you've ever met."
"Hmm. Alright, take some of my men. They'll get you there as quickly as possible, but be careful. Mr. Jetsam isn't the only one relying on you."
With little more preamble, Velobo and five NSC commandos dashed off, the cuboid only stopping to shout over his shoulder about letting his friends know what happened when they woke up. Guided by three-dimensional holomaps and with disintegrators that cared very little about things like walls, the group hurried away. Cendil turned back to his remaining charges and subordinates.
"Have we located Dr. Nyoka yet?"
"Yessir. She's moving away from us, but not quickly. She's stopping a lot to avoid being seen."
"Send a team to secure her. If the Plazmuth or any of the other ones die, I at least want to be able to save her."
If TinTen had expected his flight with Midday to be difficult, he was certainly surprised to be proven so wrong. Whatever power the woman had – his scientist's mind still reeled at calling it "magic", despite all the evidence in front of him – it was more than sufficient to keep the pair of them safe. Whether she simply electrocuted or burned or disintegrated those that found them, or somehow fooled them into thinking she was someone else or not there at all, or even turned them against each other with a thought, it was all incredibly effective. Her own mutinying soldiers fell as easily as the ancient guardians that had been installed to protect the fortress from people like her and the wandering monsters that had established their homes in its dark corridors out of convenience. Aside from the occasional demand that he cover her while she prepared a more complicated spell or clear a dense group with
a grenade, she didn't seem to need TinTen at all.
This made him incredibly nervous, but he tried to rationalize it as a her holding him as some sort of fallback or ace in the whole, rather than a sacrificial pawn or something more sinister. It was hard to believe, but he had little other choice; who else had the ability and information to help him excise the cancer that was Scofflaw? He wished he had time to consult his books; the lack of knowledge about what was to come and what the results would be was disorienting, and somehow more worrisome than the actual fact of having allied himself with a mysterious supernatural murderer. He tried to keep his worries to himself and to communicate with her as little as possible, but eventually his curiosity and hatred of a mysterious future got the better of him.
Lady Midday didn't bother to alter her stride – which TinTen might have wondered how she managed at all if he'd been more familiar with vertebrate morphology – or turn as she snapped "I told you not to worry about my plan."
"Would still like to know ultimate goal. Will be more effective ally if I know what to look for or avoid. Surely cannot be harmful information?"
She sighed. "Fine, if it'll mean I don't have to listen to any more half-sentences from you. We're heading back to the hangar."
"Hangar that was filled with thousands of troops and attack vehicles?"
"The same. The ancient geniuses that built this place didn't have the foresight to outfit it with any kind of emergency escape mechanisms, and it's shielded from any teleportation in or out that I could manage."
TinTen wasn't sure if it was worrying or heartening that Midday was definitely not on the level of the Fool if she couldn't teleport in or out of the place. At the very least it seemed to make it more likely that she actually did need him to be more than a body shield.
"We're going to rush the hangar, kill who we need to kill to get to a vehicle, and get out of here before something ridiculous happens. You've been feeling those shudders? I'm pretty sure some idiot decided to attack the power core in the middle of the riots. If there are no vehicles left, I'll still be able to get us out of here, but you'll need to cover me."
She kept moving, never having stopped; TinTen kept following, fine manipulators drumming a tattoo on the stock of his weapon. He wasn't foolish enough to ask for more details, but knowing the goal and outline of the plan really hadn't made him feel as much better as he hoped it would have. He did his best to put it out of his mind; fretting got him nowhere, and there were certainly more pressing things to deal with.
It was something of a relief to blow apart another wave of giant mutated animals. At least he understood that.
"Can you hear me?"
There was no response but fluttering eyelids and a guttural groan.
"Are you conscious, uh…" A pause of exactly the length it takes to glance down at a clipboard. "Sir Dorukomets?"
Another groan. Eventually "I hear you."
"Great, great. I was wondering if I could talk to you about the gauntlet you're wearing?"
"About the gauntlet."
"Yes, the gauntlet. Are you aware of its capabilities or manner of use?"
The technician glanced worriedly at the readouts her impromptu medical station was feeding her. The anesthesia they'd used to keep the natives quiet shouldn't have had lingering effects like this, and she was beginning to worry they'd overdosed the subject somehow, or that his body chemistry was different than their xenobiologist had predicted. That was extremely worrying. Of course, she had no way of knowing his muddled state had nothing to do with the drugs and everything to do with being forcibly ripped from a story he himself had ruined before it could be put back on the right track; the influence of the Grand Battlers had been enough to knock the universe's internal narrative gyroscopes off-kilter, but the NSC's arrival had thoroughly destroyed them. The tranquilizers had been thoroughly metabolized, but the psychic shock of being present when the laws of reality he'd been accustomed to for his entire life had been broken lingered past them.
"Hey, Ejjet, are we approved to use Kickstart on a hominid like this?"
Something tripedal stumbled over.
"Yeah, should be, but you shouldn't have to. What's wrong?"
"What is wrong?"
"I don't know. Might be a preexisting condition, but it looks more like tranq side-effects."
"Hmm…" It wasn't a very specific noise, but if communicated a lot. The technician looked up hurriedly.
"Don't hmm at me like that. How are the others?"
"One of the humans came to, and the telpori, but the other human and the unidentified avian and cephalopod are acting the same as this one. Don't know what it is."
"How about the weird cube thing?"
"Ran off a few minutes ago. We sent some troops with it. weren't you paying attention?"
"I had more important–" she was quickly cut off by the many-armed thing called Dorukomets bolting upright.
"Calidad? Where did he go?"
She put an hand on his shoulder. "I think you should calm down and clear your head a little before you worry about that."
He picked her up bodily by the throat-analogue, meaty fingers threatening to rip through her reinforced environment suit. All he knew right now was that Velobo was somehow of utmost importance. "Where did he go!"
She shakingly pointed towards a door, and he tossed her limply aside. Several technicians and guards moved to restrain him, but he swung his gauntleted hand in a wide arc; with a robotic screeching sound, it forced them all away, sending them tumbling and damaging a fair amount of equipment. Dorukomets thundered off in the way he'd been pointed; as he passed Huebert – who hadn't been particularly cooperative when he realized he'd been doped and had been subsequently magna-manacled – Huebert renewed his struggle against the restraints.
"Don't let that murdering fucker get away!"
Greenman had stopped monitoring the cameras much. He was supremely confident that despite the control center's proximity to much of the action, no-one would be able to get in without his permission; what was the point of a control center anyone could just waltz into? Similarly, he was confident that despite the not-completely optimal spread of the riots, they wouldn't be petering out any time soon; he'd done his job too well, and the enormous gilderupee prize for Midday would certainly keep things cutthroat. Ray Red had wandered off somewhere, but that wasn't really important; he could be found in the unlikely event that the need arose with the same systems that were keeping an intermittent eye on Tengeri and the other battlers, and his absence just made the brain's real plans easier to implement. With a very precise and flat grin, Greenman sent runes spinning and growing across his monitor, stopping only to occasionally guide his charge out of undue danger and ensure someone was still on their way to kill Jetsam. But not too quickly.
The code had been designed to resist change without the Prime's own additions, but Greenman had the Prime's capabilities with none of his weaknesses. It was steadily bowing before him, and would give up its secrets in due time. The brain had no intention of being dismissed or destroyed when his original purpose had been served, and even less of being reintegrated with the heart. The Prime had been a fool to underestimate him and more foolish still to assume his creations would be obedient. He would soon pay for his folly, and Greenman would have everything under his control.
The projected time for completed alteration and compiling – seventeen minutes, forty-three seconds, give or take ten – wouldn't be half over before the brain was interrupted. A cold metal tube pressed itself into the back of his neck; he hadn't heard anyone approaching, but being a literal presence of mind, he had the presence of mind not to try to turn around.
"I don't even have to ask what that is, do I?"
"I assume you do not. I do have to ask why you would fight it, however. Surely your loyalty to the Prime is the lowest of any of ours."
"Yeah, well… You're even worse than he is, you know that? At least he feels things sometimes." Ray Red sniffed. "Sort of. And I may not be the brain, but I'm not stupid either. I know you don't have any intention of letting me stick around."
"On the contrary, you've proven nothing but invaluable. I value your counsel, and–"
"I did say I wasn't stupid. I can't read the code, but I know him and you well enough to know you don't want to share."
"Be reasonable, Ray Red. I–"
"Your rhetoric really isn't up to snuff without me and Blue, is it?"
Greenman's clammy lips didn't even have time to open again before the brain's brain matter found itself rather uselessly spattered across the monitor, obscuring its treachery and causing a small short in the keyboard. Ray Red turned to the Prime, who was still snoozing blissfully away, insofar as Scofflaw could ever be described as particularly blissful. The diminutive little man crossed the floor in a few shaking steps, still not sure this was what he should be doing. It was certainly not what he'd been created for, but who was to say that should dictate anything? He'd felt like this is what needed to happen since before he existed; in the heart's heart of hearts, it felt right. He raised the gun.
The Prime's hand shot out, holding a penknife that Ray Red was pretty sure wasn't there before and might never have existed until this moment. The other one grabbed the barrel of the pistol, pointing it away right as the jumpy heart fired, and the knife's blade jammed itself deep into flesh.
"Come on. Did you really think I would sleep through that? You literally just shot someone right next to me. None of you even checked on me the entire time you were plotting. I've never been more disappointed in myself."
With a flick of a button at the knife's base, the Science Sadist bent space around his impaled servant in a gesture that would have been much more poignant if it had been anyone else stabbing their own heart.
"Never just assume magical sleep's gonna go on forever. Hell, you didn't even find out if it really was magical sleep."
With several of his organs occupying different spacial laws, there was a rather messy implosion that quickly decided it was more interested in being an explosion. Ray Red crumpled to the floor and dropped his weapon, a rather sizable hole in his side disgorging quite a lot of biomass.
"Honestly. You of all people ought to know that as long as I've been in the business, I'm not going to go creating duplicates that can overthrow me. I can't blame the intellect for being a little dense, but you? Come on."
Ray Prime stepped over his victim, cleaning the blade on the downed heart's coat before returning it to a pocket. He rolled his eyes at the piteous expression he was being given, but it was obvious the heart wasn't really in a position to speak much.
"What, you can't seriously expect me to finish you off. A man can't kill his own heart, that would just be cruel. And stupidly symbolic."
He straightened his goggles and headed for the door.
"Besides, I've got more important things to do. Got to find out what you three stooges let happen while I was down for the count."
The flux core screamed like a dying animal, which depending on perspective might be a more apt simile than it at first seems. Jetsam lay in supplication at its edge, wincing occasionally as Ursus delicately drew new blood from scratches farther and farther up his forelimbs. Tock's remains had been pushed roughly away from the bear's workspace, and O'Keele's body had been roughly tossed just far enough aside to keep out from under his paws. Gareth had wept as he'd melted from the floor, the ranger insisting he flee while he still had the chance right up until Jetsam had beheaded him. If he'd been in his right mind, he might have been surprised at the complete lack of compunction he had with essentially-unprovoked murder; at that moment, it simply didn't occur to him. Everything really was going to be okay.
Everything was going to be okay for Ursus, too. As okay as he'd planned it at least. He figured he had pretty even odds of surviving past his goals, too, which was just the icing on top of the okay cake. If he didn't, his deeds would stand – not lauded, by his people or the humans, but noticed and incontrovertible, and as far as he was concerned right. A complicated alphabet of otherwise-forgotten runes spilled across the core in blood and fur and rage, and its delicately rough assault on the ancient enchantments progressed unabated. The room was sealed, the blood was flowing, and the fortress would fall. Midday would die in its ruins, but that was a paltry fringe benefit; Caelo Ruinam itself would be destroyed, the last relic of an ancient empire that deserved to be wiped from history and memory, and it would take the mightiest city of the craven humans with it. None would celebrate this day, but few typically rejoice at what must be done. Being lauded was immaterial; being right was all that mattered. In this impregnable cocoon of stone and venerable spite, Ursus would set about rectifying generations of misdeeds.
Then the door disintegrated. The wall followed moments after.
A phalanx of mech-suited shock troops, flanked by a group of nullmages and artillecasters, stepped into the flux chamber. They wasted no time raising their weapons and voices, but Jetsam wasted no more; as the first shots were fired, he had already rolled to the side and lunged at the attackers. Ursus was more hesitant, his intense concentration being interrupted and a series of thoughts spiraling through his head: if they fought, the dracodactyl would almost certainly be killed; if he allowed the ancient creature that had dragged itself to the shores of sapience by pure force of will to die for his vendetta, he was on the same level as those he wanted to destroy; if he sent it away, there was a very real chance he wouldn't have sufficient power and materials to finish destroying the core. His eyes darted in their singed sockets as a debate played itself out in his mind at a speed bears were rarely credited with thinking; the dragon lunged in slow motion as bolts of plasma shrieked through the air. Ursus came to a decision.
"Save yourself! That is an order!"
Jetsam was briefly confused, but his instincts and Ursus's influence reconciled quickly; without turning back or hesitating, he turned his furious lunge into a buffeting sweep of the wings, knocking enough of a gap in the closing ranks of suited soldiers to slip through. Without wondering why he was fleeing, or why it felt so okay to do so, Jetsam fled. Greenman's hit squad let him pass, closing ranks behind them; regardless of their orders or the rewards they'd been promised for following them, they had to stop the bear from knocking the whole place out of the sky. There was no use in a bounty that got you killed collecting it.
Besides, they had backup.
Jetsam skidded into the hall outside, claws scrabbling across the stone and leaving deep gouges in it, wings beating furiously to stabilize and direct him. He made as though to charge away, running faster than he was thinking, but found himself stopped. On both sides, more of the wizards and mechanically-augmented men hemmed him in. For the first time since being released from Midday's domination, he didn't feel okay. He felt hopeless. He felt trapped. The urge to disembowel those who stood in his way was supplanted by the urge to survive, was replaced by the urge to run, withered in the face of the situation. None of his instincts, none of the various forces that currently had a foothold in his mind, gave him options.
He was going to be vaporized.
It hadn't taken too long to get back to the hangar; Midday's personal chambers hadn't been very far from it, and even though there was a lot more opposition now than there had been when TinTen had bluffed his way there in the first place, it wasn't particularly difficult to overcome. Between spellcasting and gunslinging, it was almost disturbing how largely uneventful the trek was. TinTen barely had to lift a tentacle, or even his weapon; she took care of the rest. And so it was that he came to the memorably unassuming door that lead to their goal much sooner than he was really comfortably. Or perhaps much too late; he'd much rather have not been there at all.
Midday predictably wasted little time crossing the floor, putting her hand directly on the wall and ignoring the door completely. TinTen hoisted his grenade launcher hesitantly as she muttered a few arcane syllables; he stumbled hastily and fearfully as a circle of the wall evaporated and revealed the room beyond. More than the sheer number of still-embattled troops in the enormous room, the carnage and gore revolted and terrified him. He fumbled hastily with his weapon, making as though to fire a shot at the nearest group before they could see and attack him, but the sorceress whirled on him.
"Put that down, you idiot! The wall's still there, and they can see through it. Only we can. You'll blow us both to Hell with that thing."
Too afraid to be embarrassed, he lowered it.
"What to do, then?"
She gestured at the illusory window. "As you can see, a considerable portion of my army's out there, as well as most of my biggest, nastiest weapons. There's no way to know how much of it, if any, is still loyal, and no way to find out which parts are in any case. We walk out there right, we both die. There's no two ways about it. I'm the most powerful mage in this world, but even I can't take on this much all at once, not without time to prepare some mass-destruction-grade necromancy."
Proving that even though it might have been loosed from its narrative anchors the world still had a sense of dramatic timing, the fortress shook again and dropped minutely but noticeably.
"And you can see we don't have that kind of time."
Midday led the quivering scientist to the portal, hands on what could be called his shoulders as she directed his gaze around the warfare-sticken room.
"This is where I need your help. What are you willing to do to ensure we make it out of here alive? What are you willing to do to make sure I live long enough to crush your Scofflaw like the worm he is?"
There was a short pause. "Anything."
She turned him around. "Define anything."
He looked up into her eyes as she looked down into his and expected to feel the invasive sting of magic in his mind again, somehow influencing him, somehow harming him, but all there was was her mundanely piercing gaze.
She raised her hand as if to strike him, but the slap never came. Instead, her other thumb came up to meet its palm, nail gouging a twisted pattern in the skin. As the blood began to flow, she pressed it to his mantle, between and above his googles.
"That's what I needed to hear."
TinTen crumpled to the ground as a searing sensation suffused every one of his senses, the only outward sign being a flash of light and the sigil seemingly painting itself on his flesh where she'd placed it. He didn't rise again, but something else stood his body back up.
"The summoning is complete! By the seventh seal of–"
"Shut up," Midday snapped. "There's no time for pageantry. I've got a task for you."
"Of course you do. And even a willing vessel for it this time, I see. You must be serious."
"Get in that room, kill everyone in it without destroying the flying machines, and keep your body alive. I might need it later. And don't fuck this one up or play with wordings; you know what I want, and I expect to get it from you."
"You realize of course that this last task represents the end of our contract?"
"Yes, I know."
"And that at its completion I will of course come for you, body, throne, and soul?"
"I told you I don't have time for games this time. You know damn well your best chance at this world is with me in it. You screw up in there or come at me afterwards and all you do is ensure yourself another few eternities of limbo and no decent cults worshipping you."
"Mmm." TinTen's eyes narrowed behind his goggles. "You're frightened."
"This place is ten thousand feet in the air and about to fall and every member of my army wants me dead. I'm not afraid, but I'm pressed for time. Get on with it or I'll just banish you and take care of things myself."
"This body isn't very impressive. No talent whatsoever, no physical presence worth speaking of."
"For the undying hate of [six seconds of ululating screeches untranscribable by any existent language] get on with it!" Midday finally shouted, several bricks cracking beneath her feet with the blasphemy. "We both know the body doesn't matter. You can feel you've got the freedom with this one's consent to exercise your own powers. Now do it."
"Fine. If you're not going to respect the gravity of my final summoning then I'll just trot out there and take care of your dirty work like a common demon." He or it or they squelched with annoyance and borrowed TinTen's most put-upon stance. "But I intend to speak with you later about this indignity."
"Get on with it."
Tentacles slithered. The door opened. Eyes and guns and spells and turrets turned on the little figure that emerged; one raised manipulator was enough to halt the kinetic energy of everything coming its way, while another was enough to drain all the thaumic potential aimed at it. Bodies were knocked about as physics rebounded on itself and interrupted incantations manifested as throats full of needles, but such concerns were quickly rendered inconsequential. TinTen's mouth whispered in its rebreather, muttering dark profanities that were completely irrelevant to the dark intent that whatever was whispering them was mustering, but that added a certain atmosphere it felt was appropriate. All across the hangar, living things found themselves losing control of their bodies, which collapsed spasming to the floor before their limbs began contorting painfully and eventually shattering. Blood vessels and whatever analogues for them could be found literally knotted themselves around the hearts that gave them life before crawling out of mouths and eyes and chests. A wave of gruesome, keening death swept across the enormous room, downing every combatant in moments; the bodies of the dead and dying wove themselves into long-forbidden runes that ensured their souls would not be free to escape or face judgement.
It was over in seconds, the sounds of battle succumbing to the quiet whispers and gibbers of the eldritch aftermath and the psychic thrum of large-scale damnation before Midday had even finished stalking into the hangar. It was oppressive, and intentionally so.
"Showy," the witch spat as she entered. "I feel like I made myself pretty clear on the time constraints here, there's going to be no lollygagging around harvesting all these useless souls."
"They're not going anywhere," the thing in TinTen's shape sulked. "I really feel like you're not taking advantage of everything I have to offer."
"And I feel like you're not paying attention to anything I say. Does squidboy know how to fly one of these?"
It looked over at the small open-air flightcraft she was gesturing towards, which didn't look any more familiar through the host's brain than its own memories. "No, I don't think so."
"Then get on the back. I want him around when you leave."
TinTen's body clambered awkwardly into a seat designed for much more vertebrate passengers and clung tightly to whatever could be found to secure it while Midday straddled the pilot's seat of what could be most accurately described as an industrial magepunk motorcycle. For a moment, as the pair of them glared up at the opening hatches in front of them, surrounded by corpses and with Midday's calves taut as she primed the accelerator, they looked for all the world like the cover to a very specific type of heavy metal album. The effect was only slightly marred by the clearly-precarious grip the passenger had on its seat, then completely ruined as they took off and the backlash messily but undramatically scattered viscera.
It was as they climbed towards the escape that Scofflaw chose to poke his head out into the hangar proper.
Velobo had long since stopped trying to keep up with the NSC commandos that were leading him; he simply didn't have the stature or stride length to keep pace, and had settled for once again riding on someone's back. He might have worried about the rather unheroic appearance of his piggyback position, but at the moment he couldn't think of anything but Jetsam. Couldn't think of anything but what that bear he'd fought could be doing to his friend. Couldn't think of anything but what would happen if he and his new allies were too slow.
Progress was fast and disorienting, but still not fast enough. It was a great relief when one of the suited figures muttered "Alright, we're here."; the relief was heavily tempered by confusion given that 'here' was a silent and empty corridor.
"Where?" Velobo asked, wasting no time.
One of the others pulled up a camera feed. "Right below us, on the other side of that wall."
Velobo stared at the image, watching the bear further savage his friend. "Then what are we waiting for?!"
The soldier swiped through several other views. "Hostiles are approaching. We need to take the measure of them and establish a tactical position before we make a move."
The cube's mind raced, plans and countermeasures coming as intuitively as they had when he'd lead the rebellion. He hopped to the floor and gazed up at several feeds of the incoming soldiers.
"We can handle this."
Then he blanched when he saw more incoming. And blanched more when Jetsam burst out and was immediately surrounded.
"No… No! We have to do something! Hurry!"
The commandos looked at each other and the situation unfolding beneath them. "We need to–"
"There's no time!"
Without warning, the Plazmuth's tongue lashed out and wrapped around one of the devices the NSC had been using to blast through walls; he hastily aimed it and the floor and fired, falling through a descending cloud of neatly-organized molecules.
"Don't worry, Jetsam," he shouted, landing once again on the dracodactyl's neck as his escort descended warily on personal jetpacks in a tight, defensive formation. "I'm here to save you!"