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Jan 10, 12 at 3:00am ^Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
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Welcome to the first ever hardcore writing challenge, a contest which is larger in scope, greater and duration and wealthier in prizes than standard contests. The trials of the challenge will be created by the NDL community, then dared by all of those whom seek the highest prize.
Following are rules and guidelines on entries:
Spoiler:Temple Of The Nexus
The Temple of the Nexus, a structure one would call ancient, if it lay within the realms of time. Who made it, how it was created, and its purpose, none of these are known. It sits between dimensions, twisting to intersect with conventional realities, creating portals to its interior at points and for spans that elude identifiable pattern or order. The Temple itself is a three-sided pyramid, such as to stand identical were it placed upon any of its faces, and indeed gravity within the edifice always draws to the centre. It is wrought of sand-coloured stone and fractal in design, comprised of numerous chambers that echo its whole shape in a honeycomb of interlinking rooms, each of which present some obstacle, a purposefully designed, intentional challenge to any who would seek to pass through. Were one able to reach that final, core chamber, what would await within? What resides at the centre of this bizarre construction, justifying its existence? As of yet no-one has found out, and thus the mystery remains...
Registration will be open for 2 weeks from today, lasting to the 23rd of January. During this period duelists may both register or withdraw as well as submit a trial to the contest. After the deadline duelists will no longer be able to register, and all trials will be added into the contest pool. Duelists who have registered will suffer no penalty if they subsequently fail to post an entry, save for wasting a chance.
Following registration, the main phase of the contest will last for 8 weeks until the 19th of March. The registered contestants may post at any time with their entered character during this time, and also edit or remove their entry. Entries may not be removed or changed once the main phase is finished, and doing so may result in a disqualification.
Finally, following the end of the main phase, the judging phase lasts for 2 weeks, rounding off the 12-week duration of the writing contest.
During the voting stage each duelist in the NDL - whether or not they entered the challenge - may PM me a vote listing their first, second, and third picks for best entry by duelist name. Any PMs without all 3 picks will not be counted. Duelists who do not vote will, themselves, not be eligible to win, so if you do submit an entry, do your part to help out and vote as well. Each first place pick will grant a duelist 3 points in the contest, second place 2 points and third place just 1 point, and you cannot vote for yourself. The top 3 entries win prizes.
The Gold Trophy
The Silver Trophy
The Bronze Trophy
Submitting a trial to a hardcore challenge or voting in one earns you 1 medal at the end of the registration/voting phase respectively (you earn 1 medal for either, meaning you can earn 2 by doing both).
Edit: Mar 14, 14 1:03pm
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Jan 10, 12 at 3:22pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
I am intrigued. Get over here, Kalek
Trial of Another Life
In this room, alternate realities are woven. Things that would never seem possible in one life become horribly possible here. The characters as they know themselves are completely destroyed and remade in the cruelest of fashions, as though somebody with no idea of who they are and what they stand for were writing their actions.
These alternate realities are always horrible and traumatizing. The room constructs itself differently depending on the memories and personality of the duelist that enters it with the sole intent of mortification.
This is the Room Otherwise Known as the Room of Bad Fanfiction.
Duelists must fight to keep control of who they are all the while being dragged into a senseless, convoluted affair that may or may not involve intimate encounters with the following: their archenemies, their friends, inanimate objects, forces of nature, and dolls.
For an example of what can happen in this room:
The Executioner stroked the Carnifex's shaft. The blade quivered in anticipation, wanting the demon's touch more and more until it could barely contain itself. Somehow, this seemed wrong. And yet so completely and satisfyingly right.
Anyone can muscle/magic their way through a great many things, but here, only those with the strongest of wills can make it out. This is what you face. Are you prepared?
Fyrestorm: Just combining your registration and trial so as to keep the thread tidy. Makes it easier to organise things .
Mod Edit: Jan 23, 12 7:51am by Fyrestorm
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Jan 10, 12 at 7:43pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Why the hell not? Steven & Derek combo, go go go!
The Cruel God's Punishment
The room you reach after all the trials are done is the room where the trials are made. It is vast, but empty. In the centre of the room is a desk where a small, friendly, old man sits at some sort of hi-tech computer. When you approach him, he will allow you to take his seat and have a go with the trial design tools. He explains that you can create any trial imaginable, as hard or as easy as you could wish, and then you could test it on one person. You are told the person taking the test will be the person whom you hate most. Should this person be defeated by the test, they will be doomed to an unbearable fate, and you will take over as the keeper of the trials. Eagerly, you start preparing the most difficult and cruel challenge you can possibly imagine, and upon finishing, you press a large red button. You are instantly beamed into your creation, and have to finish it. You, therefore, are your own worst enemy, and as you face your most difficult test yet, you realise exactly what the terrible fate is: to have to watch the temple for eternity.
Of course, if you are graceful and make an easy and safe test, thus being able to beat the man, your worst enemy will never be yourself, so your true worst enemy will be in the temple with you, racing you to the prize. Good luck!
Edit: Jan 18, 12 9:16am
Wollt ihr das Bett in Flammen sehen?
Wollt ihr in Haut und Haaren untergehen?
Ihr wollt doch auch den Dolch ins Lagen stecken!
Ihr wollt doch auch das Blut vom Degen lecken!
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Jan 10, 12 at 7:49pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Here's the trial, unless you'd like it in a separate post Fyrestorm?
The Room of Reflections
Upon entering this room, the duellist finds themselves on the point of the triangle that in all other rooms serves as the ceiling. Gravity within this room is reversed, yet the duellist will never lose the sense that they are upside-down.
Along the three walls runs a path which is a foot and a half across, but has crumbled with age to being near-impassable in some places. Down this path and along the walls runs a room-wide depiction of Ouroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail. The tail meets the head in the centre of the floor, which in this room is the ceiling.
At certain points along the path, the picture of the serpent will curve up to make space for a mirror. The number of mirrors will vary dependent on the duellist, and what they do depends upon their temperament. They are designed to summon up the things the duellist most hates, fears and regrets. In some cases, mirrored versions of past enemies will crawl from the mirror and await the duellist on the floor, their numbers growing as the duellist comes closer. In some cases, they will spit out memories, a little sphere of light that waits within the gathering beasts and which must be replayed in order to open the way out.
Once a memory is banished, either the light or the creature will fade from the room and the corresponding mirror will shatter. Once all of the mirrors are broken, the correct gravity is restored to the room and the duellist must climb to the top of the spiral path once more to reach the exit portal.
Those who attempt to cheat the puzzle by attacking the mirrors directly are struck with a strong disincentive, usually lightning if the duellist is not immune, and the mirror will be found to be impervious to attacks.
Edit: Jan 12, 12 9:48am
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|Al The Killer||
Jan 10, 12 at 9:39pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Silence and Audio shall tag along.
You enter the room, barely avoiding the daggers that shoot out at you when you trip a wire. As you continue on, poisonous gases fill the air, the scent of sulfur invades your nose.
At the end of hall, we have the first gatekeeper, a sphinx. Because of their nature, she will challenge oyu to a riddle.
After that, you move on a room filled with sands, be wary, as the ground contains snake pits and snare traps alike.
The next gatekeeper is a test of combat and restraint, a giant guardian that takes the form of a hero's foil.
If you can pass him, then you enter the main room, a giant coliseum that holds a ring in the middle. The last is a test of force, against a daemon lord, a lich, and reaver.
But should you win, you will reap rewards beyond your wildest dreams. Will you succeed?
Edit: Jan 23, 12 6:02pm
Al The Killer: Hot Mom Aligned Emerging Moderator and Gatherer of Literature
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Jan 10, 12 at 10:49pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
8 weeks? I can most probably maybe do that. Especially since I won't have too much to do this year. Count Alene in. :3
Now to write a trial for ya'll to
...And here it is!
The Trial of Nothing
There is a room, if it can even be called that, where nothing exists. No apparent exit, no sound, nothing to be seen in any direction. The entrance disappears as the duellist’s way is made into the room, leaving a white nothing everywhere they look, except for a long thin path leading off into the horizon. There is nothing either side, so stepping off the path will cause them to fall into the white nothing. The path goes on for eternity. To progress, one must ‘forge their own path…’ and jump. This will carry the duellist to the next room. This trial will test the duellist’s ability to ignore that ever annoying logic.
Edit: Jan 12, 12 5:19pm
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Jan 12, 12 at 3:25am ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Trial of the Haunted
Deep inside the Temple of The Nexus lies a gigantic room. In this room, is a house. A large, dilapidated mansion. High above, an artificial moon shines down, bathing the home in an eerie green light.
When you walk up the front steps, the concrete riddled with cracks and grass, the large doors swing open to greet you. The house is different for every soul that passes through it, but the souls are the only things that don't change.
Ghosts of every size and shape litter the halls and foyers and rooms, ready to claim their next victim. They are ancient, powerful beings that have only been defeated by the sands of time. In short, no matter what magics you cast, what weapon you brandish, or what skills you have learned throughout your lifetime (or unlifetime), there is naught you can do but run.
But fear not, for once you make it deep into the belly of the house, the way to your next trial, or your goal, will open before you.
Going with Kadom, btw
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Jan 16, 12 at 11:35am ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Trial of the Ever-Changing
You enter the room, and the door closes behind you with a loud bang, as you lay your eyes about in awe at the strange landscape. Hundreds of twisted, rubbery threads hang from a 50-foot high ceiling, and the pink walls are soft and spongey, throbbing with lifelike vigour. You step forward, the floor squelching filthily underfoot, as you try to get a closer look at the area around you.
A bright white light shines high up in the ceiling, in the middle of the room, being what you can only assume is your exit. There is no way to easily get up there, except perhaps climbing the rubbery threads, like some rope-climbing exercise in a warped gym class. As you touch one of the threads, the walls and the floor shudder convulsively, taking you by surprise. You step back, tripping, as the room twists and bends in all directions.
This trial is always changing, but only should you touch one of the tendons extended from the ceiling and through the floor. The tendons are thick, and rubbery, and completely indestructible - they cannot be cut by any form of weapon. One moment the room may seem like a flat landscape, the next it'll be a rugged terrain warping and twisting in all directions. There is risk of being squashed, stabbed, or even falling precariously to your death as the room twists and changes into every shape imaginable. Your only hope of escape is relying on your patience and wit, as you dodge the traps, puzzles, and pitfalls the room may throw at you as it reforms. With a bit of luck, the room just might bend to your will, and you'll be able to finally escape this hellish sickening living cavern.
I'll be registering my interest with Lia Sunstorm.
Edit: Jan 17, 12 1:03pm
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Jan 16, 12 at 1:34pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
The Trial of Paradise
In the Nexus, their are spirits. Ones who crave a master. You see so much like their old one, won't you please stay a while?
This room is Paradise, upon entry the room takes shape to your favorite place, and it seems limitless. The spirits here love you, respect you...they wish to take care of you and they wish to please you. Every meal a feast, every moment filled with another pleasure to your senses.
This truly is heaven. Why would you leave? Wait...where would you go? This is all you know! All your life you've been master of the Nexus!
(Fight the urges of Paradise, they offer not what your heart truly desires. Stay to long and you'll never wish to leave!)
Step forward Saxionomie. Maybe you'll find what you've wanted most...
Edit: Jan 23, 12 11:21am
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Jan 17, 12 at 1:57pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Eeehhh I'll join with Kat
Room of Pawns
Chess pawns that is
The whole room is empty, minus a small table, two chairs, a old man, and most importantly a chess board.
To pass this room you must beat Badar, the best chess player in all of the NDL. It won't be easy though, he hasn't lost a mach in 20 years!
Good luck, you will have to use some amazing skills to win here.
Is this ok~?
Fyrestorm: Just tidying your posts together .
Edit: Jan 23, 12 9:11am
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Jan 22, 12 at 12:24am ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
You enter through the door into a dark room. As your eyes adjust to the dim lighting you notice a table in the center of the room. Cautiously you take a step forward, but no sooner than your foot hits the ground you see movement in the shadows. As you gaze upon this creature you are filled with an emotion impossible to describe, you don't know whether to laugh or scream. A child like warrior stands before you, flesh rotting, he holds a long dagger. By his side is a growling cub. They seem familiar, but before full comprehension can hit you, chibi Amadeth punches you in the balls. Falling to the floor in pain you can hear her insane giggles and see a baby tiger circling around her feet. A much larger concern now that you are on the ground is the robotic monstrosity that is headed towards you. It revs it's chainsaws and tears into you, causing you to realize that size really doesn't matter.
Except you don't realize this.
Because your dead.
Hopefully the next person to enter this room will become aware of the fact that they have walked into a meeting of:
Villainous Imps Loving Evil
Reference material for people who have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.[/shameless plug]
The members of LIEV have chibified clones for whatever reason, probably SCIENCE! almost definitely because of Amadeth. Their generally evil and homicidal so their going to try to kill you. Pray to god all they do is try to kill you.
Resist that strong urge you must be feeling to give them a hug.
I'll be registering Steven and Valyrion for this challenge.
Edit: Jan 23, 12 9:19am
False hope leads to true despair, watch how quickly white turns to black.
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Jan 22, 12 at 12:44am ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
I'll register my one and only Lord Jabahal here.
The Sphere of Nexus
You enter a dark, large ceremonial room. The room’s doors warp out of existence and walls take their places. In the middle of the room are four statues. The statues are a large wolf, a standing serpent, a demonic looking monkey and an elegantly armored emperor. These four statues each stand on their own pedestals and form a square with each statue facing the center.
In between these four statues lies a circular pool. Inside the pool, a large sphere floats. This sphere certainly seems indestructible by all means and from it, light imitates outwards, providing the only source of light.
Once you go to the sphere and touch it, a telepathic message plays in your mind.
“When you think you’ve succeeded, but something’s missing, it means you have been defeated by greed… your weakness.”
Immediately after this message you fall unconscious and enter a dream state. Meanwhile, the room slowly heats up with fire shooting from the ceiling. In the dream you are greeted by a cloudy demon. The demon gives you two choices. The choice to be woken up by it or be granted wealth and power in exchange for spending some time in a dream of your own choice. If you accept his reward, you must wake up on your own though, and there is the danger of staying asleep. After waking up either way, the flames on the ceiling cease and one of the four statues comes to life and attacks you. After defeating that, you must repeat the process from the point of touching the sphere until all four statues are defeated. The order of the statues of coming to life is as described here; the wolf first, then the serpent, the demonic monkey third and the armored emperor last.
Once the emperor is defeated, the sphere levitates high above the pool and cracks open. Light and energy burst out of it and the sphere is destroyed. The room then returns to as it was, the doors come back in place and you may exit.
Fyrestorm: Link added, glad to be of service .
Mod Edit: Jan 23, 12 7:55am by Fyrestorm
Nothing currently available.
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Jan 22, 12 at 5:55pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Room Of False Reflections
Within the triangular chamber lies a smaller defined hexagonal area, its outer limits touching the room's on three of six sides. Once one crosses its threshold, mirrors materialise across each of the facings and a roof seals overhead to enclose one fully, presenting the trial of the chamber.
Within the room a foe will manifest, but they are completely invisible - only in the mirrors can this enemy be seen, and its image is that of the one facing the trial, a reflection, a duplication of them. On each side, the mirrors will reflect their position and actions perfectly, but every image will contain a subtle flaw, one discreet imperfection that differs the doppelganger from the original. All save for one. But one of the six mirrors will show a perfect replica, and this is the true mirror, hiding place of the reflection's source. Shatter it to wound your adversary and force it to transfer its essence to another mirror to continue the fight.
With each mirror broken, the places left for your enemy to hide dwindle, but so too does it become more difficult to track the duplicate that you do battle with in the ones that remain. When five of six mirrors shatter and one remains, this becomes your portal forward, and your only escape, for the manifestation you fight is immortal in and of itself and only by passing through that final mirror to slay the source will you defeat it; should you do so nothing will remain to bar your advance. However, break one wrong mirror in the sequence and a false portal will flood the room, ejecting you from the Temple back to wherever you were before your entry.
Look closely and choose wisely, lest your path may become forever lost...
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Jan 24, 12 at 8:00pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Registration is now over. No more duelists or trials may be entered into the contest. The registered duelists may now post their entries up until the deadline on March 19th. To recap, the max entry size is 10,000 words and you must use a minimum of 1/3rd (rounded up) of the submitted trials.
Trials (12 Total/4+ Required)
quote Al The Killer
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Mar 13, 12 at 5:02pm ^re: Hardcore Writing Challenge: Temple Of The Nexus (Finished)
Note: I've taken the Trial of Paradise to the spirit rather than the letter of the challenge, as I was intrigued by putting Ion through a Lotus Eater Room but not exactly the one described as it was closer to Ion's hell than his heaven. I hope nobody minds.
Entering the Temple
The Trial of Nothing
The Room of False Reflections
The Trial of Another Life
The Trial of Paradise
Ion was sat cross-legged on his bed in Station 9, watching a portal.
It had appeared at the end of his bed, blocking the cage in which his macaw was sat from view. He could hear the bird squawking in consternation at its presence, accusing it of manipulating a chess Captain, so at the very least it was not a large portal. The fact that it was there at all was what concerned Ion.
The lights of the Web had clustered around it, forming an oval of glowing gold along the whirling chaos of colours that was the inside of the thing. He had received no concerned calls from the Bridge, so he assumed it wasn’t visible on their cameras. That, too, was interesting.
He wanted to reach out and touch it, to see what it felt like, but that seemed like an unwise move if his prior experience with magical things he didn’t understand was any judge.
He watched it for ten minutes, his macaw getting more and more agitated with each passing second, before he gave in to curiosity and moved a little closer to it. The colours slowed as he did so, and he glanced up at the camera set into the wall. They probably thought he was crazy, sitting and staring at a wall for so long. Well, perhaps a different brand of crazy than they already thought he was.
He reached out towards it, and the Cross on his wrist began to hum softly. He hesitated, but at the end of the day, the only way he would find out anything more about the strange magical construct, without calling in Connor, was to examine it more thoroughly.
With a glance at his wristband – Connection established, two signals found – he brushed his fingers against the surface of the portal. The Web-lights exploded into bright, visible light, and for a few seconds Ion’s vision was nothing but white, until the light vanished and his world went dark.
Ion stood as still as he possibly could as he waited for his vision to adjust to the new level of light. He put his hands out blindly, attempting to find a wall or some other surface to steady himself, but was forced to sit in order to stop himself falling. His head was pounding, and even as his eyes adjusted he was still assaulted by afterimages of the glowing lights. A bright oval of blue circles flashed across his field of vision every time he blinked.
“That was a foolish move,” Katrynne chastised him. He groaned aloud at the sound of her voice, and the sound echoed out across the room. It wasn’t that she was wrong – on the contrary, she had a point – but more that the stress of hearing her only added to the ache in his head.
Uncertainly, he raised his head and surveyed his surroundings. He wasn’t anywhere he recognised, the area a vast expanse of white, save for a thin path that stretched in front of him. A glance behind him confirmed that it continued in a similar manner behind him, and that the portal had completely vanished. His wristband was not registering the teleporter either on Station 9 or in Coronas. That did not bode well.
Still a little disorientated, he got to his feet, swaying a little as he did so. He could see no end to the path, but he began to walk down it regardless. It was his only way forward, from the looks of it.
He walked and walked, seeing nothing but white and the endless path, rubbing his head as the pain began to clear. The Web in the room was as normal as it ever was, the lights a regular gold, the correct shape. If he cast out his psychic senses, he couldn’t sense another living soul. He seemed to be the only person in the entire area. Still, it wasn’t as though he was unused to being alone.
When his vision had recovered and the pain in his head had receded to a bearable level, Ion stopped to take stock of his situation. He had been walking for longer than he would have liked to count, and still nothing had changed. The path stretched endlessly ahead of him, and behind him was just the same. He could see no difference between what he had seen upon his arrival and what he saw now.
Frowning in consternation, he knelt down and uncertainly reached out into the whiteness on the left hand side. there was nothing there, nothing solid at all, no matter how much he waved his hand like a fool in the white abyss. The same result was achieved on the other side of the path. An endless walk forward, or what could well have been an endless fall down. Ion did not like the idea of either.
He continued along the path, this time paying more attention to his surroundings. There was no change at all, even the Web moved with him. That, at least, was interesting. It was as though he were walking on the spot, even though he knew full well he had been moving forwards the whole time. But if he could not move forward the regular way, how else could he manage?
With his left hand ghosting over the Cross on his right arm, he focussed on the point in the horizon that he could see. There was no response at all from the Web, none of the usual sharpening of the lights, nor did a line form to his chosen destination. It was as though it did not exist.
He looked down at the Cross properly this time, running a nail down the raised metal and making it screech. Here he was, following the assigned path towards apparent oblivion. A forever of being obedient to what the place told him to be.
He looked out at the whiteness once more, the endless expanse that stretched out as far as he could see. It seemed foolish, almost, for someone like him to be on the correct path. That had never been him. Even before he had made his decision to rebel, he had been cast away by those who claimed to represent order.
Still uneasy, he knelt once more and waved a hand through the blankness. Nothing. Just like everywhere else he turned, nothing. He faced the edge, looking out at the endless, bleached horizon. Nothing, nothing, nothing. He should never have touched the portal, just like Katrynne had said.
Closing his eyes, Ion stepped off the edge. He expected to feel the rush of air, the feeling of falling, something, but instead, his feet had found solid ground that had not been there when he had tested with his hands. Cautiously, Ion opened his eyes once more.
He was immediately suspicious when the room he found himself in looked as normal as any room in the place he’d found himself in could look. It was a huge pyramidal area, the walls and floor built of old-looking stone and completely devoid of any occupants, animate or inanimate. The Web-lights were trembling, which was never a good sign, but they did not race to pick out any immediate threat.
Cautiously, Ion stepped forwards. Nothing happened, other than the noise echoing off the walls. There did not seem to be an exit, but he kept walking slowly.
Once both his feet had crossed one of the lines scored into the floor, the room changed. The lines had become walls made of mirrors, and only a metre or so above Ion’s head the room had sealed itself off, trapping him. He glanced around at the mirrors, at the myriad reflections that seemed to go on forever, and made an unhappy noise.
I am beginning to grow quite sick of mirrors.
The lights began to glow and quiver in alarm, and Ion stepped back almost automatically. He felt the wind pass by his face as a thin line cut itself into his face, and blood began to trickle down his cheek. He backed up against the mirror, eyes scanning the room. Nobody. The area was completely empty, not even a web around some invisible foe.
The mirrors. It would be typical of some place full of reflective surfaces for them to be the key. He’d learned as much from when he had found himself at the mercy of the Writer, in a palace made of the damned things. Unwillingly, he looked around at them. A hundred reflections stared back at him, or where he would have been as a mirror reflected another mirror, all looking somewhat tired and rather irked. A hundred more that weren’t quite right stared back too, all holding a knife in one hand and grinning at him as it raised it.
Ion twisted to the side and kicked out at where its ankles would have been, the two of them reflecting in the mirror he had been backed against. He felt the passage of the knife next to his throat, and the resistance when his foot met his attacker’s ankles, but he still kept moving backwards. The reflection, the not-quite right him, was on the floor. Keeping a careful eye on the mirror, Ion walked away from it.
How could he defeat it? The knife had disappeared as soon as the reflection had lost its hold on it, and while it was clearly at least somewhat real, Ion wasn’t sure he had anything to hand that could hurt it. he had no weapons, no knives or guns or anything of the sort. His powers wouldn’t work on something that didn’t register to the Web. Even if he did defeat it, how could he get out of the mirror trap?
He looked back at the mirrors. His reflection had stood up.
The lights of the Web reacted a fraction of a second too late to the threat, and that meant he had to keep one eye on a mirror at all times even while his mind was desperately trying to find a way out. The blood had dried on his cheek but the wound stung every time he moved his face too much, and his reflection seemed keen to add more damage to his skin. Sparks flew from the Cross as the invisible knife scraped along it, slicing a thin line into his arm next to it. Ion was retreating, but he did not exactly have many options for somewhere to go. Without being a physical combatant, which he was not fooling himself into believing he was, he stood little chance going head-to-head against the invisible enemy.
He watched the mirrors. The reflection looked somehow wrong in all of them. In one mirror, the Cross was on the wrong arm. In one, his eyes were blue. There were a mixture of them all reflected in every mirror, as they reflected each other, but if he stuck close enough to the edge he could tell which was which. The errors seemed to be confined to a particular mirror. In one of them, though, he hadn’t yet been able to pick out a mistake.
They circled the room twice, the reflection getting more cunning each time. There were only so many ways that Ion could twist away while keeping an eye on the mirror, and the reflection learned. By the time they had completed the second circle, Ion was bleeding rather more than he would have liked, and was lucky to still have both his eyes.
He put his hand against the mirror, but was met with resistance. They weren’t gateways or portals, like he had experienced in some places in the past, but there was almost certainly a magical element to them. What to do?
They reached the mirror with the true reflection, the knife skittering down his leg. Frustrated and trapped, Ion turned and slammed his foot into the mirror.
The reflection screamed in pain, a sound oddly like his own screaming, and Ion could see it double over in pain. Seizing his chance, he snatched up one of the shards of the broken mirror and tried to ram it into the reflection’s stomach.
He backed away, watching the mirrors, as the reflection crumpled to the floor. The shard, now bloodied, fell from his body and broke in half again. Where the mirror had been was now a wall, and there seemed to be no means of escape still. Cautiously, Ion placed one hand against another of the mirrors, and found it to still be just as solid as before.
His mouth tightened to a thin line as he watched, in the mirrors, his reflection rise from the floor, apparently unharmed. In his hands, instead of a knife, he now held something long enough to be considered a short sword, and his grin had grown more feral. Ion forced himself to remain calm. He knew he had at least hurt it somehow, nothing screamed like it had without being in some sort of pain. He was still trapped, he still had no means of escape, and he was still pinned by a nonentity that could cause him very real pain, but now he had a plan. And it was a plan that one part of him, although he was ashamed to admit it, took a very visceral pleasure in.
“You’re such a child,” Katrynne chastised, and Ion only made a noise of amusement.
The reflection, an anger that was uncomfortably familiar to Ion present in its eyes, went on a defensive that involved a pressing assault. It had become obvious that Ion’s goal was the mirrors, and it did not want him to have even a moment to do anything other than watch for the next move.
Ion ducked a strike to his chest, twisting around behind his attacker as he followed up with a quick jab in the direction of Ion’s shoulder. In this mirror, his shoes were brown instead of black.
He threw himself to the side as the reflection swung dangerously close to his neck, scrambling to his feet and taking a minor but not inconsiderable wound to his side as he did so. This mirror’s reflection had the strands of copper in the wrong places in his hair. Ion hated that he had stared at his reflection for long enough to recognise it so quickly.
The reflection lunged, and Ion gasped as the blade bit deeply into his arm. In the mirror, there was... Nothing different. Rather than ducking the reflection’s next attack, Ion threw himself into the mirror with all his strength.
He picked himself up again as the reflection writhed, brushing a hand back through his hair to dislodge little shards of the mirror. There were several tiny lacerations in his exposed skin for his efforts, and the wound in his side was beginning to bleed enough to cause Ion some concern. The mirror he’d shattered had exposed some of the room beyond, but still no exit that Ion could see. Narrowing his eyes, the reflection got to his feet. His blade was most definitely a sword now, and coloured with Ion’s blood. The reflection did seem somewhat worse for wear, though, with pain colouring his scowl as well as anger, and the hand he held his blade in trembling slightly. Ion allowed himself a smile, although he felt nowhere near as confident as he looked.
“Afraid, are we?” he inquired to the empty air, and the reflection lunged.
With two of the mirrors out, the number of reflection-reflections confusion Ion’s attempts to pick out the errors had reduced, but there were also less places for him to keep an eye on his opponent’s movements. No longer could he simply circle, although the reflection was smart enough that continuing to do so would likely have been a foolish move regardless. Ion was left to zigzag between the mirrors, his eyes darting between the ones he was closest to and the ones opposite him to try and find his foe. He was lucky not to lose his fingers to the vicious blade, and the wound in his side was throbbing with a dull ache even when he wasn’t pulling on it. the sharp pain that any exaggerated movement caused made him wince every time, but it was better to be in momentary pain than to lose a limb.
He slammed the Cross into the third mirror, and the reflection shrieked in ungodly agony.
“It sounds just like you, doesn’t it?” Katrynne remarked as Ion moved away, one hand on his bleeding side in a vain attempt to stop it from hurting. He shook his head, scowling slightly at the reminder, and didn’t answer her. He didn’t need her to tell him how easily he’d broken.
There were three mirrors left, and now the reflection held a longsword in both hands, murder written on his face. Little cracks were showing on his skin, and as Ion watched a little bead of blood ran down his face and dripped to the floor, although it left no visible mark. Ion put his free hand against a mirror to steady himself, leaving little smears of blood on the surface.
Ion flinched at the thought, his eyes going from mirror to mirror. Three left. Far fewer reflections of reflections, and yet it was still hard to tell which was which. He glanced at the one behind him, in time to see a reflection of himself with a single green eye charging him, blade held at his side.
Ion let himself fall to the floor, kicking out with his feet to try and trip his adversary before moving as fast as his injury would allow over to another mirror. As the reflection got up, he saw that it was missing a single button on its shirt. He ran his hand over the corresponding space without looking away from the mirror, and his hand found the button, still attached.
That left only one.
The reflection knew.
Getting over to the mirror was more like battling for his life. He couldn’t take his eyes from the mirror he was currently stood by as the reflection slashed and stabbed and swung, slicing into flesh and at one point hitting bone, and although it didn’t break it too all of Ion’s willpower not to scream, his hand leaving his side to cover his deeply wounded arm above the Cross. He ran, his movements a desperate and undignified scamper, and the reflection pursued him. He tried to jump out of the way of its swing, the reflection far faster than him even with its wounds, and fell against the mirror. With a scream of pain as he aggravated his many wounds, he twisted on the spot and drove both feet into the mirror, closing his eyes and raising his arms in protection as the broken remnants fell around him, feeling a sharp edge slice into his skin.
Pushing the bits of mirror to the side with a grimace of pain, Ion struggled to his feet. His reflection was approximately in the centre of the room, doubled over and panting, attempting to regain his composure. Ion started to edge around to the nearest mirror, and its head shot up, and one hand tightened around a spear.
That is hardly fair, Ion thought, wincing in pain as he moved his arm. For once, Katrynne’s voice agreed with him, voicing clear disgust at the nature of the magic that dominated the room. That was a first, and a welcome one, although he would have preferred he were not fighting for his life while he experienced it.
With a soundless snarl, the reflection lunged at him, and Ion hit the floor once more, the point of the spear hitting the floor just in front of him. He twisted around desperately for a view of a mirror, in time for the haft of the weapon to slam into his stomach, winding him and making him yelp in pain. He managed to stagger out of the way of the next blow through a mixture of luck and desperation, and ran to the nearest mirror and smashed it without even looking for errors in his reflection.
He heard the scream, and let out a grateful breath. One mirror left. Without waiting to see what would happen, he limped over and threw himself at it.
Rather than shattering, he found himself in the room again. In front of him, solid this time, was the reflection of himself, panting and looking at him with hate-filled eyes. Blood was leaking from a hundred different wounds, cracked along his skin as though it were the surface of the broken mirrors themselves. Ion took an uncertain step forward, and under his feet the shards of the mirrors’ remains crunched.
He picked one of them up, eyes locked constantly on his reflection’s. each step burned into his side like fire, his right arm hanging at his side limply, using it too painful and his hand barely responsive with the damage the blade had inflicted on his nerves. The reflection readied a knife, just like the one it had held when all six mirrors had been whole.
It lunged at him with a scream, and Ion twisted to the side and slammed the shard of mirror into the side of its neck. He cringed as blood hit his face, trying not to react as Katrynne laughed inside his head at how he had finally managed to kill himself. He watched, unmoving, as the reflection of him twitched for a few minutes on the floor, then finally went still.
He raised his head, his left hand holding the wound on his right arm, and scanned the room. At the far end was a portal, glowing with the same soft colours as all the others. Pausing to tear the right sleeve from his shirt and tie it haphazardly around his arm in an attempt to staunch the blood loss, he limped over and walked through it.
The pain in Ion’s body disappeared as he stepped across the threshold. If he hadn’t already been wary of everything he was confronted with in the place he’d been taken to, that alone would have made him suspicious.
He glanced down at his arm in confusion. His shirt, and the parts he’d torn off to try and stem the bleeding, were still red with his blood, but when he peeled the fabric back from his skin he found no wounds beneath it. he ran a hand across his face and couldn’t feel a single scratch, and when he put a hand to his side it didn’t hurt. The room he was in seemed exactly the same as the one he’d just left – pyramidal, made of stone, and completely empty. Even the Web was unresponsive. Then again, he’d been fooled by an ‘empty’ room before.
Even as he thought it, the Web began to shake and the room morphed around him, reshaping itself into a scene that looked like it was cut straight from a movie. He was on a cliff, a dark and clearly evil castle looming in the background, with smoke rising from its towers. In front of him was stood a woman he would have liked to call Malali, except he had never seen Malali in a dress patterned with roses, with a blush on her face that could only be described as adorable. The wind on the cliff side seemed to be blowing at exactly the right speed to make her deep blue hair billow out behind her dramatically, rather than all over her face and obscuring her vision. One of her manicured hands held down the edge of her dress to save it from the same billowy fate.
Ion couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.
“When we last left our heroes,” a squeaky voice attempting to sound deep declared from the ether, “they had just escaped from the clutches of the evil, yet genius, Dr Basis and his minions of evil.”
Basis? Genius? Ion wondered, although with the faintly smiling ‘Malali’ in front of him that was hardly the most inconceivable part of the scenario. This is utterly ridiculous.
“Having just narrowly saved Princess Malali from the mad doctor’s mutagenic minions, Crysis and Zone, the princess and her knight, Sir Ion, were left standing on the cliff side outside Dr Basis’ castle,” the narration declared. The speaker sounded like a prepubescent male. Cautiously, Ion’s eyes left ‘Princess Malali’ and surveyed his surroundings some more. He was loathe to actually look down at himself, but as soon as he did, he regretted it.
The Cross was still on his arm, the lights of the Web clustered around it as always, but everything else was... off. Ion was not an unfit man, but his body had somehow become muscled enough to make even the most well-trained Operative look on in jealousy. His mind conjured the words ‘handsome’ and ‘bold’ to describe the angle of his jaw, which he couldn’t actually see, without him even thinking about it.
...This is not happening, Ion told himself, casting about for some way to escape the horrible nightmare he had been thrust into. Short of throwing himself off the cliff, Ion couldn’t see one.
A sense of indescribable wrongness assailed him as the realisation settled in, and he found himself rooted to the spot as if by magic. Part of him, although it was admittedly a very tiny part, would have preferred to be back under Emote’s ‘therapy’ than here.
“Unfortunately, Sir Ion had been unable to stop Dr Basis’ solar ray from melting off the face of Malali’s sister, Princess Emote,” the narration informed him. Ion blinked in surprise. Calling Emote Malali’s sister sounded like a desperate and homophobic parent’s attempt to mislead a hapless child.
Whatever magic is conjuring this up, it needs a reality check, he decided. He cast around with his psychic senses for the disembodied narrator, hoping to find a mind that he could convince to drown itself, but he couldn’t sense anything at all. A shame.
“Oh, Malali!” he declared suddenly, and certainly without meaning to. “I thought I’d never see you safe again.” As he tried to catch himself, one hand going to his throat, that sense of wrongness assailed him again. Ion suspected magic at work.
Malali... simpered. There was no other word for it. it was a horrible foreign expression on the nightelf’s face.
There was definitely magic at work.
“Oh, Sir Ion!” she declared. “You were so brave rushing in to save me like that!” The appellation of ‘sir’ felt somehow accurate, although Ion himself twitched in irritation upon hearing it. “I never had any doubt that you would rescue me!” One of Ion’s hands formed itself into a fist over his heart, a dashing and noble expression on his face. In any other situation Malali would likely have stabbed him by now. He still wasn’t entirely certain she wouldn’t stab him in the future for this, if she ever found out.
“’Twas nothing,” he assured her. “For you, my lady, I would lay down my life.” It was certainly his voice which said it, and his body feeling the rush of emotion that went with knowing the truth to that statement, but it felt so wrong to the part of him that still registered that this was the most humiliating and ridiculous charade that he had ever been forced to live through in his life. Malali was going to do more than stab him. She would hunt him down and put him through a slow, painful and likely imaginative death. Emote would probably be there to bring him back from the brink so that she could hammer the lesson him a little more firmly before he finally died.
He stepped towards her and swept her into his arms, their lips meeting in a deep and passionate kiss. She pressed herself against him, moaning his name, and Ion wasn’t entirely sure how to react. His body was moving of its own accord, as if manipulated by that sense of wrongness that had assailed him ever since the room had changed, but inside he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Part of him, a very small part, insisted that this was the best moment of his life and that he would go through hell for this weak, simpering woman, but it was fighting against the full force of common sense and some very real memories of her nearly slitting his throat in the middle of a ruined city. This was ridiculous. He could not even count the ways in which the universe would have to twist itself apart for this to ever happen.
Try harder, magic, he suggested internally. The sense of wrongness briefly retreated from his senses, and ‘Princess Malali’ and the cliff of dubious wind speeds morphed out of view. The room began to warp and change, deconstructing itself and then rebuilding around him, forming itself into somewhere entirely new around him. A place he recognised far too well.
More specifically, her room right at the very top of it. it was a room he had avoided as much as was humanly possible while in New Australia – in fact, he had tried to avoid her as much as he could, too. This time, though, he found he couldn’t control his feet.
What is going on? he wondered, now even more lost than before. There were any number of reasons why this place, which had seemed intent on tormenting him since the beginning, would recreate that room, and Ion wasn’t sure he wanted to find out why. Something felt wrong. It was that same blanketing wrongness from before, enveloping him and trying to change his perceptions of right and wrong.
The door opened as he approached, and Amadeth sat up. He had looked away – he wanted to look away, because everything about her disgusted him – but he couldn’t. He couldn’t take his eyes from her.
“I didn’t imagine you slept,” he remarked. He remembered staying still, but his feet were forced forwards. Panic began to take hold of him. What was this place doing to him? Why was it doing it?
“Kill her,” Katrynne growled in his head. That hadn’t happened before, but for different reasons. No, he wasn’t in Amadeth’s tower. He was still within whatever magical construct the portal had taken him to, be it one big linked complex or many, smaller places. He had come across a lot of magic, but so far the ability to travel through time had not been something he’d encountered. Certainly not that would have put him in a situation like... this.
Amadeth rambled about cocaine as she attempted to glue her disgusting, rotting corpse back together. He wanted to hold his breath as his feet forced him to approach her, but his body simply breathed in the smell of death, and part of his mind wanted to add ‘sweet’ as a descriptor. The smell, especially at that distance, had always been enough to make him gag. His body, moving of its own accord, touched her cold, dead flesh and he would have preferred to be anywhere else, even scattered dead in the Web, than where he currently was.
Why am I doing this? Why can’t I stop myself?
Ion wanted to scowl, but his face contorted instead into an embarrassed smile, of all things. He wanted to kill her, too. Dearly wanted to. He wanted to grab the nearest object that was sharp enough and slam it into her skull until she stopped twitching.
But instead, the room warped – something gave Ion the sense of several days passing, uneventful – and he was kissing her, and she was still as repulsively cold. That feeling of wrongness settled more possessively over him, and some part of his mind felt like this was what he wanted. Perhaps the vicious hate was just a cover for another kind of love, the kind of dangerous passion borne through a kind of desirable enmity. Ion fought it back. No, this was not him. When would he ever have done something like this? Love Amadeth? Madness. Stupidity. He knew full well that there was nothing but hatred in his heart for her, no matter how she would have liked to interpret such hatred. He would only have wanted to go within a few feet of her if there was an opportunity to kill her in the doing of it.
Not this. Never this.
He hated her. She had been the representation of hatred in his mind when Emote had invaded it. He had not loved anyone else since Katrynne had died, had not even tried to, and he most certainly was not going to start with Amadeth.
The smell of death vanished; the sense of wrongness lessened but didn’t retreat like it had before. Something else had changed, now.
He ended up in his room on Station 9, lying on his bed. With a frown, he sat up and glanced around. Everything seemed in order. Alastor sat in his cage, preening his feathers. Surely he hadn’t been ejected from the magical construct so easily? There was still that unsettling feeling, too, deep in his chest.
His computer, for some reason left carelessly on, made the small noise that indicated he’d received a message. Still wary, he got up and went over to read it.
New message received from Dr. Connor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Re: (no subject)
We need to talk.
Ion frowned. Connor never signed off his messages, other than with the automatic signature the IPR’s messaging software generated for him. For him to put the time in, even for a few extra letters, was unusual.
He pressed ‘reply’.
Something changed. Ion felt time passing, a sense that he had been told they had to speak in person, that he had agreed to go down to the IPR to do so. That sounded reasonable, unlike everything else he had been put through so far, although his hopes died somewhat at the sensation. At least this time, he hoped, he would not end up being forced to do things that he would never do.
The sense of wrongness pressed against his mind. He was willing enough to walk down to the lab where Connor worked, but it felt as though he were being forced to walk that way regardless. Unease began to grow in Ion’s mind. Something was up, at the very least, otherwise he would not have felt so... twisted. But he had no idea what was going to change this time.
“About time you got here,” Connor muttered as he walked into the lab.
“None of the lackeys?” Ion remarked absently, Connor scowling at the epithet.
“No. They have lives outside the lab, unlike some of us,” he responded, his fingers drumming agitatedly on the desk in front of him. There was a sort of tension in the air, one that Ion couldn’t quite place but didn’t much like. “About last week...”
“What about it?” Ion dismissed. He didn’t know entirely what Connor meant, but he had the feeling that he should, and it made him uneasy. There was a queasy feeling in his stomach, almost like...
Somehow, Ion knew that the sense of wrongness that had taken hold of him felt triumphant.
“I’ve been thinking,” Connor murmured, not looking up at him. Events suggested themselves to Ion. Talking to Kaur. Her mind being unusually protected from his casual probing. Taking some sleeping pills that had been rather stronger than he had anticipated. Waking up the next morning, no idea of what had gone on but only half-dressed and not in a room he recognised. Connor avoiding him for no reason he could come up with. Finding out later.
This is patently ridiculous. This is more of an insult to Connor than it is to me.
“You do too much of that,” he remarked, leaning against the wall and folding his arms. Connor looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. Ion couldn’t shake the feeling of tension that had taken hold of it.
“What do you want to do about it?” he offered. Ion couldn’t stop the noise of amusement, and the wrongness in control of him seemed to have no desire to stop it either.
“You are asking me?” he replied. “Which of us was the First of our respective partnerships?” Connor got up from his chair with enough force to leave it spinning and crossed the room, pinning Ion to the wall by his shoulders. Slowly, so as not to aggravate him any further, Ion let his arms fall to his sides. The Cross was humming softly at the proximity of Connor’s web. The Web-lights trembled.
“I hate you,” the doctor as good as growled, and his frown only backed the statement up.
“You always wanted someone who was better than you,” Katrynne whispered, mocking.
“Then why are you asking at all?” Ion asked, sounding far amused than he actually felt.
Not like this.
“Because I’m not you,” Connor responded through gritted teeth. Ion smirked.
Especially not Connor.
This was a different kind of influence. Instead of forcing him to act, he was being forced into inaction, held in place and not allowed to move or speak out. He had become too submissive, too weak, too different. It was all the more insidious in the way he had not even noticed the rising discrepancies until it had been too late, and that inexplicable wrongness had trapped him in yet another nightmare.
“I’m sure you’re more than capable of making the logical decision, doctor,” Ion replied, and hated himself for every syllable. How did he get out of this cycle of nightmarish circumstances? Was there a way out, or would he just have to endure? He dreaded to think what the magic could come up with that was worse than what he had already lived out.
At least, he dearly hoped that it was only magic, that these were nothing but constructs.
“Hell,” Connor muttered, lowering his head but not releasing his grip on Ion’s shoulders. “Even now you’re playing games with me.” Ion knew he would have done it, too, but- no! Not like that. Some things were too sacred to touch, some places were too far to go just to get a rise out of him. He wouldn’t have done this, not like this.
“Maybe,” he offered. “But maybe not.” Connor let out a long, angry breath through his teeth, then looked up and met Ion’s gaze. The control was subtle, so subtle. For something so inconceivable, he could barely keep hold of the fact in his mind.
“Maybe you want it to happen in reality.”
No. We are acquaintances. Perhaps on more reasonable terms, in the future. But never anything more than that. I don’t want that. He would never want that. It is not... us.
He had enough control over himself to close his eyes, but not to move away. It was harder to keep hold of what he knew to be himself with something so close to a plausible reality being played out around him.
No, but it wasn’t plausible. It wasn’t realistic at all.
He didn’t want this. He’d never wanted any of this. And Connor, definitely not Connor.
“You will always be alone,” Katrynne whispered, and Ion staggered as full control of his body seemed to spring back all at once. He was alone in an empty, pyramidal room, a single glowing portal in front of him.
Running a hand over his mouth as if to brush away the memories, Ion walked through it.
The room was wholly empty, as dark as night, yet as soon as his feet touched the floor Ion felt a sense of wholeness. He could not see the lights of the Web, but he could feel completeness. There was no worry, no loss, no fear.
Why would there be?
Ion scowled almost automatically at the sound of her voice, but the scowl quickly became a frown. Almost automatically, he raised his hand, but the Cross was still there on his arm, wristband strapped over it haphazardly. He turned his hand over, looking at the bruises beginning to form there and frowning slightly. No lights, so there was no way to test it, but he felt... He felt...
There should be two of us.
He took a step forwards, his mind on the sound of her voice. His footsteps echoed emptily in the dark chamber, a room with no form to it but still with walls, it seemed. There had not been an echo to her voice, not this time.
He flinched away at the touch, his body reacting on reflex rather than his own desires. She reached out and took hold of his hand more firmly regardless, and as she pulled him to her he could smell her hair.
“Kat,” he whispered. She made the faintest noise of amusement, and in his head he heard her confirmation.
It was just like before. Just like when they’d been paired. No, not exactly the same – it was more separate. When they had been together, there had been nothing but them. Now he was himself, but connected.
Is this what it is like? To be on alpha?
Hesitantly, he returned her embrace. She was solid, she felt real – not some cruel trick of his mind. Then again, his mind had played tricks on him before. This was different, though. There was no echo mocking him for being a fool, there was no cruel voice in the background promising to kill her and then him, but only once he’d suffered. There was only her, and he in her arms, nothing else at all.
There was nothing else that he had ever wanted.
They sat in the blackness, back to back, his left hand entwined with her right. He could feel her through the link; he felt her heart beating and heard her slow breathing, a feeling of contentment connecting them. His mind was already halfway to deciding to ask Connor if he had felt the same when he reached the part of the sentence with a name.
Katrynne was not alive in his world. Instinctively he put the barriers up around his mind as he thought it, causing her to twist around and look at him in confusion. She was dead. He had listened to her screaming after they had broken. She hadn’t died then, but after that... What the Controllers had done after that...
His fists clenched at the memory, his skin tightening around the cross on his right arm. What he had been through in St. Leon’s didn’t matter if he had her back. What he had done afterwards was what mattered. Her death had started it, had opened his eyes to what was happening, had shown him a glimmer of the truth and, with a little work, he had unearthed the whole of it. no matter how evil, how twisted, how deplorable the Controllers had been, everything he had done had, in a way, been because of her.
Because he had wanted revenge.
Peter’s death, Alastor’s death, all of the Operatives who had died that night in the Tower and all the civilians who had perished in the flood. All of those deaths were because of him. It didn’t matter, because it had been necessary, for a purpose.
It had been because she was dead.
If she was alive, it made them pointless. What would he have learned? Nothing, nothing at all. He would have been another one of those blind, foolish Operatives, trusting the Controllers, believing their every word, two obedient little assassins right up until the moment they weren’t any good any more.
But they hadn’t been paired. They had been split, everything that was them had died along with the pair who’d been trapped in the Resonator. She had died. It wouldn’t have mattered even if she’d lived, they had been apart. They couldn’t be like this. If they were, everyone had died for nothing.
He couldn’t be that kind of man.
“Ion,” Katrynne started as he moved, grabbing his hand and pulling him back to the floor. He could see the worry on her face even in the darkness, a soft glow around them. The concern, the fear, it resonated in his heart along with her words. Scowling once more, he built up the walls, and her look of pain increased.
“You are not real,” he told her, and sorrow laced his voice more than he had expected it to. “You can’t be. I could not be here if you were still real.” She pulled him close to her again, and it took more willpower than he’d thought he possessed to pull himself free again. It would have been easier, somehow, if the Shadow had appeared again and tore her to pieces, or if her echo had been screaming at him. Easier to believe what he knew was the truth. What had to be the truth.
“I wasn’t before,” she admitted, her voice quiet, afraid. “But I am now. Isn’t that enough?” Heat and moisture hit his face, and as he brushed it away with one hand he realised that she was crying. She had never been so sad before. She was acting more like the Second he had been than the First she was supposed to be. “I don’t want to lose you again,” she told him, barely able to get the words out without her voice breaking. It was as though she were saying what he felt himself – maybe she was. They were together again. He so badly wanted that to be enough.
“What happened in Coronas-” he began, but she raised a finger and placed it on his lips. Surprised, he stopped, and she smiled at him. She was beautiful even with tear tracks down her cheeks, somehow.
“Is in the past,” she finished. “You couldn’t put it behind you, and that’s why you were so sad. But you’re not alone any more. It’s ok now. I can help you.” Ion made a slight, amused noise.
“That’s not true at all,” he disagreed. He didn’t try to get up again, but she moved back slightly regardless, looking uncertain. “You wouldn’t have helped me even if you were alive. Your echo told me that.” She shook her head determinedly.
“You only heard what you wanted to hear,” she disagreed. Ion raised an eyebrow.
“That’s all I’m hearing now,” he replied. Surprise coloured her features briefly, then anger wrote itself across her face. She slammed him against the floor, her hands on his shoulders, and he yelped as the impact knocked the wind out of him.
“If you want me to be angry with you, I will,” she hissed, but he could feel that her heart wasn’t in it. She hadn’t had as much practice as he had at shielding her intentions from others. Of pushing out the influence of others.
In front of his eyes, for a few, brief moments, he saw the lights of the Web.
“There’s no need,” he replied, his voice quiet and gentle. She pressed her lips against his, and he winced as her fingers pulled on his hair. Still, he didn’t resist her. It brought back memories, and it made his heart ache at how long ago it had been. Over a decade. Nearly another half on top of that. He still missed her.
Nearly fourteen years, and he still hadn’t let her go.
When she released him he was short of breath, and he didn’t move as she got to her feet. It was another few minutes before he followed suit, and she gave him a faint, sad smile.
“You’re ridiculous,” her voice echoed in his head, scathing and cold. He closed his eyes.
He opened his eyes, and she was gone. A few brisk steps took him to the other side of the room, where a portal hung quietly, and he stepped into the light.
Word Count: 8036 words
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