It was difficult to discern anything but shapes through the choking haze. It was even harder to breathe. The wall of acrid, black smoke had rolled in much too quickly, and she could just make out the four figures approaching. Her eyes were already burning, tearing up, and she kept squinting and squeezing them, trying desperately to wash them clean.
The entrance was no more than a slit in the rocky face, but once inside, the cavernous grotto stretched farther than she could see in the dim light. She had thought she slipped through the crackle before they had seen her. Yet, the immediacy of this ubiquitous chemical fog suggested otherwise. I cannot remain in prime state, she worried. Stumbling across the gravelly floor, she began to focus upon the process.
“Twenty-six.” A booming voice called out from the clouded darkness. Try as she might, she could not make out the features of the face from which it emanated. She barely could make out the outlines of the four silhouettes at all as they slowly approached her. Not only had they spotted her before she entered, they knew exactly who she was. And she had a pretty good idea of who they were as well. This was not good. Not alone.
“Twenty-six …” the voice sighed and softened. “Please, mine dear. Consider your options. I ask you to select the path of least resistance. Relent. Relent, before needless escalation.”
She could see the shadows nearing her, stalking her, encircling her like ravenous daggerfish in the salty waters. Smoky tendrils appeared to snake and stretch toward her from all directions as the insidious vapor clawed at her face and stung at her eyes. She shook her head and waved her arms in a futile attempt to push the floating toxins away from her face.
“Do you relent? This will all cease if you relent,” the voice announced. She caught a glimpse of the voice’s head, which seemed to be covered in a helmet of some kind. Although she could not be sure as she could barely see her own hands in front of her. The enveloping black cloud was making it hard for her to think. What do they want with me?
She staggered back, pressed against the side of the monolithic wall, groping for an opening, a tunnel, any escape. The grotto was known to have multiple paths in and out, but without proper illumination, it was fruitless for her to find them. Still, she kicked her foot out laterally, hoping to find empty space. CRUNCH. Nothing but rock. And smoke. Too much smoke.
“Where is it, then?” asked the faceless voice playfully. Apparently, she was the only one with difficulty breathing in this toxic environment. Her vision was getting blurrier and blurrier, but her hearing was fine. She recognized the voice from the archives. She knew who he was and, worse, what he was capable of doing. Him and his Collective. He had not been sighted in many years, yet no one doubted his perseverance and commitment to his cause. A cause that she and her associates were trained to fight. To the death, if required, she lamented.
The phantom shapes were now within striking distance, both for her—and them. The voice called out again, “You have come so quickly for it. And alone. So, mine dear, where is it?” The voice was much closer to her now.
“I—I do – don’t know,” she coughed. She lunged forward, but the silhouette easily shifted aside. Or so she thought as she was having much trouble concentrating, disoriented as she was within this asphyxiating fog. We take for granted our breaths. Yet without them, we are doomed.
“I do not know,” the voice challenged sardonically. “And that is your problem. Your entire lot has been disciplined as mindless drones with no hunger for answers. No natural curiosity.”
The voice was directly behind her now, but she could see the other figures approaching, limned by the sparse light from the cave entrance. They appeared to be wearing helmets of some kind as well. Likely to help them breathe in this cesspool of soiled air.
She swung weakly toward the nearing shadows, but missed, striking a glancing blow at a piece of rock. There was a metallic clank that echoed throughout the cave. Three of the murky figures fanned out, keeping far from her reach, whilst the fourth quickly shifted back in front of her. They all had heard it. She had a weapon in her hand.
“Good, use your power … Twenty-six,” the voice taunted.
Stop saying that! This voice was goading her. But how did they know who she was?
“I don’t … know who you … think I am, but—” she gasped and choked for a solid breath.
The central figure, possessor of the taunting voice, stood his ground. “Would you call this coincidence? A chance encounter? Kismet, fate, cosmic odds?” The voice snickered, “Truly, I tire of this dance. With all of you.”
“I don’t … know … what you are talking about!” she sputtered.
The voice let out a huge sigh. “There it is again. I. Do. Not. Know.” She heard chortles from the voice’s colleagues, which truly prickled her. If I could just get a clear line of sight.
“You are all completely ignorant, yes?” the voice mocked. “Entirely uneducated, utterly untrained. Yes, undoubtedly. You are all so innocent. Like babes.”
She coughed again and shook her head, feeling overwhelmingly dizzy. Why didn’t I send an alert before I entered the cave? They would be here by now.
“I dislike babes,” the voice hissed into her ear, a little closer than a moment agone. “They are impotent, shrill, slovenly—and helpless. But you are worse. You and your rudderless companions. Unlike babes, you should know better.”
She swung her fist out again in vain, smacking the rock wall with even less force than her other attempts. The sound of metal against rock was unmistakable.
The voice sighed again. “Please, stop, mine dear. Your weapon is feeble at best. It will do us much more good than you. I will have it one way or another. You do understand who I am, yes? I know it is a bit, em, sooty in here, but I do want to be sure you understand your situation.”
If I could only take a good clean breath, I would have enough strength to charge him and get mineself out of this, she thought. Assuming she could see him through this murky mist.
This entire action was intended to be brief. And without disturbance. That was her initial plan anyway until she had gone rogue. She should have taken two others from the Fulcrum. That was one of the cardinal rules of service. Travel in threes on standard actions, adding more as required by the reaction desired. She was not one to disregard protocol, but she had received the alert first. To wait a few hours seemed pointless, especially since she was within two leagues of the locus point. And truthfully, she had been impatient to get the book. Her studies flirted around the teachings within the tome, and she was naturally curious about its contents, despite what the faceless voice suggested. The Collective itself had been searching for this ancient text for its entire existence. She knew that she was just a piece of the chain, but she took that part of her vow with true humility. Each was strong, that was a fact, but the Fulcrum was where the true power was found. Stupid, she thought. Why didn’t I wait? Stupid, stupid, stupid. And arrogant. And yet, why was the Collective here? A trap?
“I don’t know,” she croaked, “what you’re talking about.” If I can get him to talk—and most clearly, he loves to hear the prattle of his own voice—mayhap he will reveal some shred of his ultimate plan. Something to bring back to the team before I black out. So hard to breathe. The odor of the haze was not pleasant, but it was something she recognized. Combustion, is it? But there are no flames. She felt positively nauseous, making it a challenge to concentrate.
“I do not know what you are talking about,” he mockingly parroted back to her. “And yet, somehow, here you are once again. If not you, one of your little purebred friends. Ever chasing after what you cannot catch. Ever with haught and arrogance. Ever. In. My. Way.”
She wheezed and gasped, struggling to find something within this grotto to steady herself. A stalagmite, a boulder, anything. She could see the three other shadows continuing to circle her, round and round, like frenzied buller sharks sensing that first drop of blood in the waters. “We …will … stop you,” she rasped.
“Oh, you have the tools to stop me. It is your inability to use them wisely, to use them to their full effect, their full power. It is your downfall. It is what is stopping you.”
This irksome voice mocking her sounded much like the learners in her old Academy lesson halls. Preaching instead of learning. “You are blind to the truth,” she spat.
“There is much that is hidden from you, mine dear, yet your eyes are not cloaked. You are blind by choice. And you all misunderstand mine intentions.”
“We … will … stop this,” she demanded.
“No. Mine work will not be stopped,” the obscured face corrected. “Give me what you have, and you can walk away from this unharmed. I am not the monster you think I am.”
“What you are doing,” she hissed, “it is not natural. You have stepped … way out of line.” She grabbed for him one more time, seizing his foot and attempting to knock this spectral voice off balance. Just as she began to sweep his foot to the side, one of the other shadows shoved her from behind with incredible force, startling her and loosening her grip.
The faceless voice chortled as he stepped back, just outside of her range. “Advice coming from babes. I have tried to be reasonable. Since you refuse to cooperate, you leave me no choice. And the consequences lay squarely upon your shoulders—or limbs.” The powerful shadow behind her seized her shoulders in a vise-like grip. “One last time, mine dear, please give me what I desire.”
What is this madman’s endgame, she wondered. What does he want from me? I never had the chance to even look for it.
“I did not want it to come to this. Perchance a little motivation will help.” Through the smoke, she could see the faceless man nod to one of his companions, who began to approach from the side. “It is not me who steps out of line. You should watch your step!”
She turned to see one of the other figures looming over her, its hand glowing and bubbling as a liquid spray burst forth, showering her foot in agony. The oily liquid burned bright yellow as it began to bubble and melt her lower limb. She shrieked and then immediately gagged as she choked upon the grime-filled air, gulping for breath. Her reflexes naturally drew her hands down toward her burning flesh, but as she touched it with her fingers, she instinctively pulled them away before they melted as well. She shook them quickly, trying to dislodge the substance eating away at her metalline flesh. Even in active state, I have no options, she feared. Four against one, and I am maimed. More than hobbled. I have no defense. Not alone. Not against this. This group is more formidable than mine team knows.
She grunted in pain, struggling to at least get up on one knee to be better prepared for full combat.
“Kneeling before me? How quaint, but truly there is no need for that sort of formality,” the unseen voice teased. “Not with the piece so close at hand.”
She focused hard on completing the process fully, her only chance at surviving this ambuscade. She shut her eyes and focused upon the energy required, willing herself not to succumb to the intense pain in her leg.
“No more advice for me now?” the voice mused. “You prefer contemplation, do you? Yes, I might do the same in your situation. But, as fate would have it, I am not.”
That voice was getting to her. And she could not get a good look at the face. No one had seen it, at least not in quite some time. But that voice was irritating the devil out of her. Almost casual, as if this was a childling’s game, like playing blockers or sliding dice. Or burning boots, in her situation. This opaque fog was disorienting too, and the pain in her leg was excruciating. She had not been accustomed to that sort of pain as her active state protected her against most injuries. Until now. Without her years of training, she knew she would have long agone acquiesced to shock. She was aware that she had very little time to make a last move unless some of her fellow paragons showed up very soon. Highly doubtful. They likely don’t even know I’m here yet. Stupid.
“My dear, did you come here to sacrifice yourself? Why are you so stubborn? Please, I ask you once more, with all due respect, give me what I want.”
“I don’t know what you want!” she screamed. “I never found what I came here to find!”
The voice laughed. “Tell me, if you would, what have you come here to unearth? A book? Perchance some fabled volume of algebraic exponentia that will save you all?” He laughed again, and she noticed that the murk was slowly beginning to dissipate. She took shallow breaths, trying to regain her senses. The world was spinning around her.
“Your group of misguided muckbussers are like hounds to hog porridge pie. Just a whiff and you come scurrying out to have a lick. Or a read.” The figure neared her, and despite his face being inches from hers, she was unable to see much beyond a teary blur. The voice continued, “You are the bibliotaphs. You are the hoarders, not me. But, rest easy, dear, with the knowledge that we have the book. Such as it is.” She let out an almost inaudible gasp.
“Ahh, that little huffle I just heard was more than you just regaining your respiratory acumen, yes? As I said, we do. Have. The book.” She could almost see the voice’s unnatural smile under the helmet and through the gritty fog. “Its folios are truly quite illuminating. Letters, pictures, descriptors, diagrams. Numbers.”
She remained silent, attempting not to collapse in agony and suffocation onto the cavernous floor. All she could think was to keep him talking long enough for her fellow guardians to arrive. If they were even coming.
“So many numbers. Complexities that are not necessary. The comings and goings of seventy-eight and thirty-four, and perchance, your personal favorite … twenty-six. That is it, is it not?” the man with the pestiferous voice asked.
She looked toward the sound, struggling to discern the face from which it emanated. If she could just get a glimpse, knock that helmet clean off, it might help her group since the man had not been seen since their last conflict years agone. Mayhap he has greatly altered his appearance, allowing him to operate in plain sight. If I could just remove his helm. The smoke was beginning to clear ever so slightly, just enough for her to catch her breath.
“Hard to keep track of them all, mine dear. Twenty-six. Seventeen. One. Seven, eight, sixteen. Ninety-two. Yes, many numbers, but they are all just numbers. And numbers can be summed. They can also be subtracted.”
She saw the glowing hand of one of the shadows hovering over her once again.
“You know, I can perform the mathematics in this equation mineself,” the voice flouted. “But I prefer to give others a chance to unfetter their inner desires. Like mine comrade here. Itching to test his limits. What do you suppose is your melting point, mine dear?”
She stared in anguished terror at the glowing hand, knowing that she was defenseless against it, even in active state. She attempted to scramble away but could not find her footing. Then she felt that powerful pincer grip upon her shoulders again, roughly keeping her in place from behind, as the last of the faceless voice’s phantom friends joined the fray. Black coils of ominous smoke rolled around the approaching shadow, threatening to engulf her in death.
“You may not be a geometrid master,” the voice continued, “but I believe you can count, dear. Twenty-six against four. Do you truly wish to be subtracted?”
The smoggy pall had lifted just enough for her to see through her tear-swollen eyes. She looked down toward her right foot in horror to see that it was no longer there. She knew she had been badly wounded but had no idea of the extent of her injury. Entirely gone! No wonder I can’t stand. She gagged and coughed again, more out of revulsion than to catch her breath.
“My leg,” she whimpered. “What did you do, you inhuman madman?!”
“Did you know that if you sever a ratling in half, it continues running about with only half its body, not realizing it is missing its lower limbs? The shock blocks the full awareness. Until it perishes.”
“Why? What do you want from me? Just kill me if you must.”
“I do not want to kill you. I just want twenty-six.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she said wearily.
“I think you do. And you apparently cannot or will not give it to me without some, em… discomfort.”
She looked up into the eyes of this menacing voice, helmeted as its face was. The eyes she could see were yellowish-green with not even a hint of compassion. Where the voice suggested play, the eyes suggested death.
She coughed hard, “I can’t give you what I don’t have. I don’t have any book!”
He leaned in close, his helmet almost pressing up against her face. Those eyes bore into her as he hissed, “I do not want a book.”
The glowing hand of his shadowy colleague emitted another burst of fiery liquid, this time covering her arm. She screamed as her entire right limb began to disintegrate in a fiery glow. The pain was overwhelming, and she saw white hot spots in her eyes, just as she collapsed with a clattering thud.
The figure that had been holding her in his grasp knelt down and picked up a small armlet that she had been wearing upon her upper arm, just underneath the burned material of her uniform. It was steaming and sizzling, but it had not melted along with her limb. The leader of this group nodded approvingly, “And here we are. Exactly what I was looking for. Good.”
Sprawled upon the ground in utter torpor, consumed by insufferable pain, she was absolutely thunderstruck at what this unhinged marauder had done to her. He has mine armlet! I have failed the Fulcrum.
The helmeted leader stood over her immobile body and lamented, “I did ask nicely. Why must it ever end in horror.” He then bent down over her, placing his large hands one each upon her charred leg and arm. He grunted with what sounded like great pain, as her limbs began to glow a hot white. “I am not a barbarian, mine dear. I will make it right.”