One by one, person by person, body by body, Zan’s allies were being whisked away by…something. In the sudden rush of it, he felt himself well up with panic, wondering when he’d be next. Had the Highers discovered what they were doing? Had they made a misstep somewhere, showed their hands too readily in some off course Flashmail or monitored sound byte? With gritted teeth, the Lycan prepared himself to find out. He waited. And waited. And waited.
Stuck underground in one of the sickest concoctions possible of the human mind, he found himself overwhelmed by stillness. Why had he been spared? Resting himself back against one of the dungeon’s walls, he closed his glacial blue eyes and tried to get a grip on whatever bullshit was churning around him this time. Zan’s fingers scraped along the dirty, forgotten surface as he plagued his mind for answers. He wished his lumen was there. He wished Nighthand was there. Fuck, he’d even take Nall at this point. With a second left until he gave up on trying to figure it out, the answer hit him. It wasn’t Zan who had been spared. The others had been saved, likely by the skillful hand of Gyl, but he hadn’t gotten to the Heavy Blade in time. It would mean the field was locked, something that could be confirmed by-
Subject: Testing, Testing
One, two, three. Any Archers out there that can hear me?
-that. Son of a bitch. Why had they - the Highers, presumably - tried to trap them there? As soon as the question came to the surface of his thoughts, a moment from sliding across his tongue and being voiced confusedly aloud, a noise sounded from behind him. No, no, ahead of him. No. Every direction now, rising up like a wave ready to crash down and swallow him whole. Absolute animal fear bubbled up from both him and his Beast to choke him. Zan had a moment to question the appearance of silver light so bright it burned through hastily closed lids before…before nothing.Flashmail!
Subject: RE: Testing, Testing
We apologize for the inconvenience, but your message cannot be sent at this time.
The werewolf screamed for all the fires that destroyed him, but the sound was lost on eardrums that no longer existed.
Dull green irises opened up to the world with almost no mind behind them; baby eyes, innocent and ignorant. They watched the sky as it streamed through a blur of daylight, the sun blazing orange and bright with promise, then to a hazy dusk, to a night boasting a sea of beautiful diamonds and a moon as full and round as a saucer, to dawn, to day again. It wasn’t that the eyes watched the day pass with frozen wonder - though they could have, given the chance - but rather that the world above was being hit with some kind of fast-forward button. What would separate the psyche behind those curious spheres from a real newborn was that it knew the sight to be wrong. Ears, also new, also marveling, took in the sound of laughter then, and the person they belonged to smiled. It was light, content, and completely pure. Even as the joyous noise grew closer, grew louder and more boisterous, the smile never wandered. The focus on the beyond, however, did. Tilting sidelong, the person - a man, he vaguely now knew himself to be - watched a troupe of people sweep their way through a ground decorated in vegetation and populated with trees varying in everything from size, to shape, to their current stage in life. The strangers were as motley as the forest they inhabited. With close to eight of them, maybe nine, they sported stylized steel and enameled armors as beautiful as everything else. One, his thick black hair protruding from beneath his sapphire helmet, leaned over the man lying on his back. The new individual’s expression, and the tone of his chortles, rang as familiar in the mindless man’s memories. The moment soured.
Arrogance. The man with his back to the earth and his eyes again on the air knew arrogance.
“Look at this guy. He’s not six feet from making it out of the Wasteland and he crapped out.” Sapphire Helmet laughed. His crew, his party - why did the man know that word, what was that word? - joined in.
The sprawled man’s smile was poisoned. It wilted into a frown.
“Ope, ope. Hold it. I think the lowbie’s still kickin’ here.”
A white haired woman with eyes as scarlet as her equipment stood next to Sapphire. “His Hit Points are almost completely shot. What would leave him alive in this place?” She kicked the fallen man’s side with her metal-heeled boot. He didn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel anything. “Hey. Whoever you are. Why aren’t you eaten or molested into digital molecules yet?”
Sapphire chuckled next to her. “Looks like the character’s named ‘Zan’. He’s red flagged. Some kind of high priority hacker with the Admins.” He made a sound, but the man - Zan, he guessed his name was - couldn’t decipher it. Not with the mind he was currently equipped with. “Heyo. Says here he’s also been designated a ‘terrorist conspirator’ with that Eventide Crescendo group.”
Zan’s vision bobbed, losing focus without warning. The world swam, ebbing together like the bleeding rainbow surface of an oil spill.
Scarlet snorted and squatted over him, snapping her fingers in an attempt to get his wavering, mildly unsynchronized eyes to focus on her. She paused. “Wait. The Eventide Crescendo? Isn’t that the group butting heads with those ‘Higher’ fuckers? The ones who’re trying to buy their way into this place?”
The trees started to die, and the dead started to come alive in turn, at a pace that was as disorienting as the rest of the scenery. It didn’t seem to faze those that were observing Zan like some kind of lab rat you poke at through the roof of its cage, but he couldn’t stop watching. The others that had come with the duo began to creep up at the edge of his view.
“I don’t know. Whatever. I say we get the poor son of a bitch back on his feet and use him as fodder or a trap trigger. Seems a waste to just leave him here, not helping us at all.”
Scarlet shrugged, the armor making a heavy clinking noise as she did, and stood up. Her hair shone beautiful in the few rays of daylight that passed. Zan remembered beautiful girls. He remembered them dying.
Blue energy washed over the motionless man and made him remember he had a body. Legs, arms, flexing fingers and curling toes, bones, muscle, skin, viscera, sinew; he was suddenly aware of all of it, all belonging to him, all…fresh. It was a body that was quickly hoisted up by one of its arms and held loosely by Sapphire. It was a rush of stimuli, of mineral smells and the grind of bone against bone as he was made to walk, and it was too much. If the bulky man wasn’t holding onto him, Zan’s quickly giving knees would have dropped him back to the soft soil.
“Whoa there, cowboy. You’re coming to the central tower with us. Wait to pass out until you’re done playing meatshield.”
Looking back, it was about then, with the group officially stepping out of the Wasteland, that his memory got spotty at best. It was as if something in the ever-shifting world he left behind had nurtured him and his mind hadn’t been ready for its absence. Their approach to the central tower - though the images of that journey were like snapshots with bad flares in his skull - left behind a single, unforgettable distinction. The more he became conscious of his body and its intricacies and the more control he wrestled over it, the more intensely he felt what was so very wrong with it. Although Scarlet had healed his physical wounds, this one lay deeper. It was something wrong with his blood. It made that vitae feel thinned and weakened. The lack of it flowing in all but the most necessary organs left him pale with eyes dark and skin sticky with cold sweat. Somehow, Zan knew it had a name other than ‘blood’, a name that was significant and ridiculously important. There was no small amount of frustration at the inability to call it up his throat, but his angry thoughts were drowned out by the talk of the others. So much sound, so many words. God, everything was so bright and, yet, so dull. Lifeless. The dazed man felt like he had known a world with more detail and now it was gone as quickly as the end of his last breath. If there was one salvation in his misery, it was the fact that his brain couldn’t stay in one place for very long. It was as greased up as the rest of him.
A blink later and he wasn’t at the base of the central tower, but inside of it. Animals, monsters, things that shouldn’t exist were swarming everything. There was fighting. Scarlet and Sapphire screamed out with smug, barbarous sounds, their battle cries making a chorus with their friends and the dying sounds of the lives they ended. Movement. He was being pulled, tugged. More of the battle then, all of it too meshed together to pick apart. Energies soaked into the world and ripped it asunder around him; fire and ice, electricity and jagged exclamations of earth. Half the time they were hitting him as Scarlet used his body like a magical sponge, inflicting agony that was constantly being healed away, only to be replaced again not a second later. Zan remembered dying on occasion, being finally freed to float away from the madness before something would force him back inside his corpse. Flashes of him caught in complex booby traps, beyond death, before he’d be released by some trick of the party or defeat of something as dark and psychopathic as the people that lugged him around like a portable punching bag. Somewhere midway through this madness - if his recollections could really be trusted to have reliable chronology - they began to die themselves. They’d end in ways that made magic useless. From the first of these instances on, the blur of the central tower’s events only got hazier. Death. Blood. Screaming. Metal against metal, metal against flesh. Pain. Freedom. Life. Pain. Unlikely colors and nonsensical shapes. Insanity.
Then there are the mental pictures of windows to the world outside, where Zan would simply get lost and forget where he was. Crimson, oil, puke and other viscous things rained upside down from the ground. Every window seemed to show him different things. Sometimes he’d see the outlines of people he thought he might know, or the ocean, or space. Quite frankly, with his brain more or less a feverish, swollen dumpling at this point, he wasn’t even sure which of it was real. Maybe the whole thing, now, was just some kind of weird dream. He might not know who he was, but he knew none of it was normal or right. If the man had one wish, however, it wouldn’t be for the world to make sense again. He’d ask for it to all slow down so he’d have a second to actually think, to make everything cease pulling him in every direction and stealing such large gaps of time. He was pretty sure he’d been crying, or was crying, but there was never a way for him to be sure. Most of the rules didn’t click to him, and his perception was so destitute, so obliterated, that Zan wasn’t certain what rules even were.
More fighting, more death on both sides. The numbers of the group were dwindling and, in any second, Zan figured they’d stop wasting the energy of bringing him along. For whatever reason - maybe he was serving some purpose his dysfunctional mind couldn’t grasp - they never did. They kept using their resources to keep him going, never pausing, never hesitating. Things that killed them seemed to pass him by. Why? Was there a purpose? Was it just luck and happenstance? Centuries of this passed. Lifetimes. Even when Zan’s mind had finally retreated into itself, rendering him a brain dead statue, it never stopped. By the time his sanity had returned and the catatonia had faded, he was left eerily lucid and holding Sapphire’s severed head in his lap. It was…twitching. That wasn’t the right word. Flickering - it was flickering. A frozen look of rage was splayed across his face, and then it was gone. What looked like a combination of numbers and symbols replaced the head, and then those too were nothingness. Zan rose up, leather coat creaking with the effort, and the sands of the clock were stolen away from him for the umpteenth time.
The fog cleared, leaving Zan in a room made entirely of perfect stone. There were no pieces of furniture, no decorations. The only thing to bring a flaw to the place was an opening to a balcony with a view currently blocked by a black waterfall flowing in the wrong direction. In the middle of the room sporting only a badly torn pair of green shorts was a man with skin of faded red, blue and yellow stripes. His hair was silver, dirty and matted like a back-alley cat. Dark blue eyes darted around the room, eyeing every nook and cranny, paranoid of every shadow. A black crescent moon rested at the center of his forehead…and the sight sparked something inside of Zan. Something deep. Their gazes met, and for a moment the man’s cranial cogs seem to turn. Whatever it was snuffed out and was shrugged idly away.
“Another fool come to challenge the Master's Tower, are you? WELL SCRAM! I got here first! It's my right to reach the top, NO ONE ELSE'S!"
There was no immediate response from Zan. He was busy.
It came slowly at first. He saw the man with a few others, their names filling in face by face. A heartbeat later and he knew they were Administrators of “The World”, then that it all wasn’t real, that he was trapped in a game…then the Freedom Fighters; Dien, Sekai, Raquar, Nighthand, even Jinx. There were flashes of rage at the memory of what the Archer’s father had done to her, what his friends had done. He saw Kira, saw her fierceness, her loyalty, her love and her pride. Visions of Dien crying, of bravely wading through swaths of monsters, of being a friend were the ones that started to drown him. He felt his affections for Sekai, remembered her saving him when he needed her the most, remembered sharing every sacred inch of his life with her through blood. Then there was Raquar, a man that had the uncanny ability to understand Zan on a level of empathy that most others were just able to barely tap into. Darker things came after his friends. A flash of Lowen riding him devolved into her dying in his arms. He relived his numb butchering of that facility, and he lost a piece of his soul all over again. Oddly enough, it was the actual details of his own life that came last. Nothing was perfect, nothing was without its flaws or hazy specifics, but now he knew who he was.
Despite the positive development, Zan was overloaded, the memories coming too fast...still coming too fast. When the man spoke, his voice grating and his words too booming, it took all of the Heavy Blade's willpower not to cover his ears and collapse back inward. Rather, what spark of him was there focused on the one thing keeping him grounded. “You. You're...you're Tritoch. That Admin who's been stalking us.” His voice was dry and gravely at first. Something dark crept behind his eyes as well, dark and sad. “Them. The Freedom Fighters.”
“Stalking? PAH! I could crush them under a toe! But no, no, they had to get in the way, Kamui and Kelvin and the others. You... No. I need no allies! I HAVE ALL THE POWER I NEED TO DESTROY THEM ALL!”
Zan cringed at the pain inflicted on raw eardrums, but it was quickly of no consequence. Not far from Tritoch, an outline of a man - or a woman, he supposed - faded into existence. It held a soft grey hue that made it stand out from everything around it, strong and simultaneously subtle.
“That's not what I heard, former Lord of the Three.” The voice, though impossible to pin down a gender with either, was the polar opposite of the man it addressed. It was soft; comforting. “You're climbing this tower for a reason.” There was no real way to tell, but Zan was vaguely certain it didn’t notice him.
Keeping in mind the virtual pin ball game that had been played with his brain up to that point, Zan figured the odd image was just him; something knocked loose. Be it because he was stupid, or just too fucking tired to play quiet and coy, he lifted his hand to interrupt. “Uh, excuse me. I'm actually not here for a reason, though. The way out is...?” He had to get away and find them again. He had to find out how he had gotten there.
The silhouette laughs softly, a smooth silky sound. “Right now, the fastest is out the window.” It gestured towards the upwards-flowing waterfall. “But hold, for a moment, and I will get to you.”
Whatever remark might have come from the boggled Lycan was interrupted by an outburst from Tritoch. “What are you?! Another test? Another beast to demolish on my climb?" The Administrator pulled out a wand then, one that was ornate and absolutely beautiful. His grip was on the sharp end of a golden unicorn horn, its wide ‘top’ sprouting into two falcon wings. Between them was a dark gemstone, one that alternated between blue, red, and yellow.
“I am none of those, dear Tritoch. Think of me as a waypoint. A reward for this leg of your journey.”
There was a pause then, one filled with Tritoch silently thinking on the offer, and it was a moment Zan used to give the two a wide berth and approach the balcony. He genuinely seems to consider the offer of jumping down, despite some poisoned, glitching waterfall that might have deterred others. For him, though, the deciding factor in staying put was how far down it seemed to be; so, so fucking far. How the hell had he gotten up so high? Trying to remember the tower made his eyes ache.
At last, Tritoch found his answer. “A... reward? Then give me what you have to give me, and let me by!”
“My dear former admin, you are free to go as you please. I merely offer you what you want. After all, you want those Freedom Fighters dead, do you not?” Then it…smiled? It was hard to tell.
“ YES! But... NO! Don't you DARE kill them for me! They are to die by MY hand!” He’s screaming now, flecks of spittle flying through the outline.
“ I never intended to. I wouldn't dare deny you the pleasure. No, I offer you the power necessary to find and defeat them. Or didn't you know? They're here, now. Look! You might even be able to see them from here.” The silhouette made his way next to Zan and gestured outward. The waterfall parted and a thin line of light emitted from the thing’s fingers, beaming to a spot in the distance. Zan could make out a small building, almost hidden amongst the dense trees. “That's our prison, which I'm sure you remember. We captured those Freedom Fighters. Now they're escaping. Oh, we could recapture them. All we'd have to do is send Klive, or Royce, or Garaa, and they'd stand no chance. But this is... more interesting. We'd like to see what you can do.”
Tritoch was fueled by this, apparently, for the pace at which he rushed over to the balcony was one that almost had him falling over it. He stared out at the light and raised his weapon, the gem flaring with power. It didn’t matter how potent the magic was, however. Nothing could reach that far. The man turned and glared at the figure.
“THEN GIVE ME THE POWER I NEED!”
Zan was still dazed and frazzled, but concern for the realization of what was happening not inches from him still blossoms over his face. But so does something else. “Not to interrupt or anything, Casper, but...I got here too. When you're done with this guy, am I allowed a reward? A request?"
The outline faced him…or at least it seemed that way. “Yes, yes, I'll get to you.” It turned back to Tritoch. “You, my dear, poor admin... here. I'll grant you the power you so crave.”
The figure moved forward and, without further delay, touched the man. Immediately, the Wavemaster began to crystallize, the process going on until he was completely covered in a thick egg-shaped layer of glass. The glass shuddered, Tritoch caught in the middle of a scream, and filled with milky mist. For a second, nothing happened. Then stillness was interrupted by the sound of it cracking and, soon, outright exploding into a wave of shrapnel. The expected pangs of pain didn’t come. Lucky again. When the mist cleared, a bizarre chimera was standing in Tritoch’s place. It’s body was compiled of a mishmash of things you, well, you just don’t mishmash; four lizard legs, a long draconic tail capped in spikes, a long serpentine neck, a head lacking eyes at the end of that neck, a mouth filled with teeth, and scales that glimmered in green, red, blue, and yellow. A pair of bird wings decorated its back in each of the four colors and, between them, a human torso was placed. It was Tritoch, four arms wielding a copy of his wand. No, wait. Not wielding - grafted to. The ‘man’s’ head had a set of four tiny wings that stuck out from its top. He looked fucking ridiculous, and dangerous, and absolutely insane. The creature screamed, a horrible lizard wail coming from its front head while a human one ripped out of his human mouth. The waterfall, having fallen back to normal when the outline moved, was now parted again with a splash as the chimera dived through it on spread wings. It screeched off into the sky, and the figure turned back to a stunned, mildly sickened Zan.
“Loud, uncouth, unruly cretin. I merely wanted to remove him from our presence. So, my once-wolf friend... what do you desire?"
Zan's eyes, the light inside of them, immediately died. It seemed a while before he regained his voice. “Wha...once? I...” His head shook, quick and frustrated. He couldn’t handle this. Not now. “It doesn't matter. Look, asshole, just get me to the Freedom Fighters before Tritoch gets there. As in, you know, right fuckin' now.” Whatever pain he was feeling was coming out as anger, aimed at the closest antagonist. “Don't tell me you don't have the power. You want a show? You do it. You won't get a real test for Frankenstein if they don't know he's coming.”
It laughed again. “Not power, not fame, not money. No, you wish to help your friends. Very well then. I won't get you there, but I'll get you close enough. I like a race.” There was another pause, and a look at the waterfall was all it took for it clear.
Both of its arms were held out, and from both of them beams lanced out, bowing down like a pair of taffy strings. They solidified into reddish beams with a very, very faint pink ‘slide’ between them. Its hands lowered, but the construct remained. “The fastest way.”
Zan gave the thing, and it’s toy, a few dozen looks. With the last one, he opened his mouth to say something else, but the thoughts of his friends lurched back into the front of his thoughts and the Heavy Blade was jumping.
Let me be in time…