“I once believed that if I was simply clever enough life would never be able to surprise me.
‘If only I’d thought of that, I should have been the master of my destiny still’ was the refrain each time I found myself on the losing end of fate’s fortune.
Conversely, and more embarrassing in hindsight, was the sheer smugness of having foreseen a distasteful eventuality and rectified the problem only succumb to the hubris of ‘look, I am indeed first among the wise and intelligent, see my good fortune and bow to my brilliance, surely you lesser peons could enjoy the fruits of my glorious intellect as well if you merely chose to be something more than ignorant, thoughtless beasts!’
It is to my greatest good I suppose that life deigned to whisper the most fundamental of truths in my ears at a moment when they happened to be open and listening for such wisdom; we are all fools, every last one of us and we can no more grasp hold of all the futures which lie before us than we can capture the storm clouds which must blow across our heavens.
Rejoice therefore, I say, and take great comfort in the fact that the seas of your life may always crash on unexpected shores full of mysteries you will be blessedly unprepared for.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, very drunk, on the 200th anniversary of the Great Calamity.
It was the smell that hit me first. There had been a seal on the helmet which had been keeping what was inside the armor separate from the outside world. Probably a spell of some kind to protect the wearer from gaseous or liquid attacks. Surprisingly even with the holes in the armor and the absence of an entire limb, the spell had held together. It was good work, and I wasn’t just focusing on that because I absolutely did not want to process the stench the erupted from the armor when I tore the helmet free.
Casden processed it though. Right into a disturbingly large puddle of whatever it was he’d had for lunch. Jalaren either had a sterner stomach or less of a sense of smell from being old, and merely turned a greenish hue as he backed away. Idrina, on the other hand, had a spear in her hand the instant the helmet came lose.
And I couldn’t blame her.
In addition to the stench of otherworldly decay, there was the far more worrisome view of what had happened to the former Imperial Knight on full display.
Where a human head should have been there was a mass of tissue, torn and distorted facial features, and gears. So many gears.
Most of the gears were still, jammed up against each other in an ill fitting, haphazard arrangement where their position served no purpose beside the destruction of what had once been a functional human face and brain.
The crowd of cadets were close enough to see how wrong Reldin’s corpse looked but only those of us inside the arena could see that some few of the gears were still turning and that Reldin’s eyes were neither closed nor sightless.
“It’s still alive!” Casden said, throwing his gauntlets to the ground. “It’s still alive!”
He threw his helmet away next and was working on one of the straps on his breastplate when a low moaning started to build from the center of Reldin’s corpse.
“That’s not a living thing,” I said. I had no idea how people couldn’t tell that. Humans needed to breath. It was not breathing. Humans had blood pumping under their skin. All the blood in Reldin’s corpse was gone (I shoved that little observation aside to freak out about later). Most importantly though, and despite all evidence to the contrary, people actually need their brains in a functional state and the thing before us had ground all its grey matter into lube for the gears which had erupted throughout it.
I was wrong.
It wasn’t for the gears which had erupted throughout it. It was for the gears which were continuing to erupt.
“We need to…” I’d wanted to say ‘get back’, but I’d been hopeless optimistic on how quickly the thing in Reldin’s former body was metastasizing.
Idrina didn’t punch me in the solar plexus. It felt like that, but her response to whatever the hell was happening with Reldin wasn’t random violence against me (or Jalaren) but rather to grab us both and dash us out of the arena in a golden blur.
On the plus side, that probably saved both our lives. The only negative was that even with my reinforced frame, it still kinda hurt.
Looking at Casden though, I had to admit that it probably hurt a lot less than what happened to him.
With a shiver, the previously immobile armor Reldin was encased in twitched left, then right, and then collapsed to ground. As it fell, a geyser of badly interconnected gears soaked in blood, oil and viscera spewed forth from the armor’s neck hole and rained down over the area I’d been standing in just a moment earlier.
Despite being generally in favor of Reldin’s horrible demise, I couldn’t say that what we witnessed filled me with warm happy thoughts. He’d deserved to meet a horrible fate but not this horrible.
The same was probably true of Casden, and if I’d been on the ball I probably should have jumped in and saved him too, but, unfortunately, I just didn’t like him and I wasn’t quite clever enough to work out what was obviously going to happen next.
So, in a sense what happened was my fault, though I’m pretty sure in terms of responsibility I was somewhere around twelfth or thirteenth in the list, with Casden himself somewhere in the top three or so.
He’d managed to get the first strap on his breastplate undone just in time to look up and see the seething mass of whatever unholy, and now screaming, abomination of biotech Reldin had become lurch forward and swarm over him.
I couldn’t smell the moment that Casden died, mostly because there was too much blood on the scene already and his wasn’t particularly distinct. That he died wasn’t terribly hard to miss though. When the gear monster tears through your armor and grinds you up into itself, it’s a fair guess that most people will not be surviving the experience.
Apart from the tragic, tragic loss of life of someone who I wasn’t going to miss from the world at all, Casden’s death was bad in a manner which actually was relevant to me.
As the gear monster devoured him, Casden’s only partially removed armor initiated whatever magical protocol Reldin’s had and so we got to watch the same transformation take place, though this time without a helmet obscuring all of the unpleasant details.
The other Imperial Knights and the instructors were, justifiably, stunned by what they were witnessing.
So they stood there.
To be fair, I didn’t have any great ideas on what to do either, but the other cadets were able to appraise the situation and together formulate the proper tactical response.
They ran away screaming.
Okay, it wasn’t the height of bravery, but this had definitely not been covered in our non-existent coursework and it was most definitely not our problem to deal with.
“We have to stop that thing,” Idrina said, conjuring another spear to her hands.
I closed my eyes and groaned.
I did not have to help her.
It was objectively the stupidest possible thing I could do to help her.
The right answer was to grab her (and maybe Jalaren) and carry them to safety the same as she’d done for me.
Then we would be even and we could go our own separate ways, no debts between us, no need to acknowledge each other or this debacle at all.
“Got any ideas on how?” I asked. Because I am the biggest idiot in creation.
“There are two people trapped in there,” Yarrin said, forcing me to correct myself.
I was not, it seemed, the biggest idiot in creation.
That honor went to one of my housemates.
Or maybe they all held the trophy together.
“Why aren’t you running?” I shouldn’t have screamed that. It wasn’t fair to them, and, more importantly, it got the gear monster’s attention.
“Uh, why would we let you have all the fun?” Narla asked.
I wanted to respond to that. I really did. My mouth moved up and down and everything.
“It’s not going to stop growing,” Mellina said. “We stop it here, with you, or we lose the city.”
After everything I’d been through, losing the city didn’t seem entirely objectionable to me, but I had to admit that going home to Grammy with a dead city as the legacy of my time in the Academy probably wouldn’t be the easiest of things.
Also I was like thirteenth in line for fault that this was happening so there was some responsibility to clean up the mess I supposed.
“What do you mean there are two people trapped in there?” Idrina asked. “Are Reldin and Casden still alive?”
I couldn’t see how that would be possible, but it made sense that it had jumped out to her as the worse case scenario.
“Definitely not,” Yarrin said. “Their spirits got pulled out the moment they died. There’s other people in there. We have to free them.”
“Again, how?” I asked.
The gear monster, or monster I guess, didn’t seem keen on the answer to that question getting out, or at least that’s what I guessed from how they started blobbing towards us.
“We’ll hold them back,” Ilyan said. “You figure it out. Ready sis?”
Idrina didn’t even bother to nod – the twins knew each other too well to need even that.
Watching them fight together was something akin to a religious experience for me. I’d put a lot of effort into studying human movement and the grace and coordination they showed was nothing short of angelic.
Ilyan wasn’t as fast or as strong as his sister. I could see that he hadn’t trained half as hard as she had. Fighting together with her though, he was so much better than when he’d been fighting alone that it was liking watching a new person move. From strike to block to dodge, trading places and reinforcing each other’s unguarded flanks there was a fluidity to their movements that shot an unexpected pang of homesickness through me.
Idrina was tired though. She’d been through a hell of a fight and was still shaking off the effect of the silver fire. Her superhuman poise and prowess couldn’t last, so as much as I wanted to just sit back and watch the beautiful artistry on display I knew we had to help them in the next thirty seconds or so if we wanted to have any hope of walking away from the fight as anything other than monster food.
“There are two central mechanisms,” Yarrin said. “Or there were. They’re joining into one now. Those have two souls bound to them.”
“Where are they and can we break them?” I asked.
“They’re…No, I wanted to say they’re center mass, but they’re not. They’re on the other side of a dimensional boundary. This thing’s…it’s like a living Reaving Storm!”
“Uh, maybe we should run then,” Narla said.
“Is anything crossing the boundary?” I asked, hating my brain for the plan it was developing.
“Yeah. It’s sending the blood and bits of the two Knights over to the other side and returning some kind of oil, I think?” Yarrin said.
Idrina and Ilyan choose that moment to not dodge when they should have.
Or maybe they were blocking a strike at us?
Didn’t want to think about that.
The important thing was that they were both down.
“Mellina can you…” I didn’t have to finish asking before she cloaked us. “Thanks.”
“It can still sense us,” Yarrin said as the gear monster turned to stare directly at us.
“Oh can it?” Mellina said, an unexpectedly wicked delight filling her voice.
“I can break the mechanism,” I said, regretting every word as I spoke them. “I just need to not get torn to bits getting to the thing.”
“Allow me,” Mellina said and the shadows she’d raised around us gathered and began to pour into the gear monster.
From how she was giggling, I wasn’t entirely sure Mellina was doing okay, but that was yet another worry I didn’t have time for.
The gear monster seemed to be in a similar boat of not being able to focus on Mellina, or the rest of us too, fortunately. The shadows which poured into it left it rigid and shaking. Like it was gripped in the worst nightmare ever.
“That’s my cue then,” Narla said and stepped forward to punch a hole straight through the gear monster’s center mass.
As Yarrin had said, there was no mechanism there, only a network of sturdy cable-veins carrying stuff I wasn’t going to think about into a diamond shaped copper colored crystal.
A copper colored crystal that was shrieking in agony.
Yeah, I couldn’t walk away from this one.