Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Decaying World - Chapter 8: A Glimpse Into The Past

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Chapter 8: A Glimpse Into The Past

After crossing the threshold between worlds Drake's senses were assaulted by the pungent and nauseating smell of decay. It caused his stomach to grumble, ready to empty itself. He pressed a hand upon his mouth and concentrated on blocking the smell, but in the end he could only lessen its impact. A few steps away Maximilian kneeled on the ground, clutching his abdomen. All the color had drained from his face and he was gasping for air. Shortly thereafter his body began to convulse and he rammed his head into the sand over and over again.
Maximilian! Are you okay?”
Do I look—” he started to scream but his words were drowned in revolting retching noises.
Drake took a few steps towards his companion. Despite blocking most of it he quickly realized that the scent was getting progressively stronger. Could it be? He turned around and ran into the opposite direction of the swamp. The atrocious smell of decay was replaced by the stifled desert air somewhere along the way. He turned on his heels, returned to Maximilian, grabbed him by the ankles and pulled him away.
Seconds later the royal knight gasped, literally devouring the desert air as if there was no tomorrow. Drake returned the metal flask from earlier and Maximilian gulped down every single drop left within.
Hah...gosh, I've never smelled something so atrocious. I can even taste it in my mouth!”—he grabbed his bag of supplies, which had been filled with half of Drake's bag, and fished out a couple of apples—“I hope this is enough to wash the taste away.”
While he gobbled down the fruits Drake stared at the swamp. Its layout made absolutely no sense as there was no gradual transition between the mud and the sand. Instead it looked as if it had simply popped into existence one day. Drake's eyes wandered to the left, then to the right.
Is it just me or does the swamp actually have a sphere-shaped form? I don't see any irregularities, as if someone created it on purpose.”
Wouldn't surprise me, given the smell. Maybe it's supposed to keep intruders at bay.”
You think someone lives in there?”
Maybe. It certainly looks like the kind of hideout you'd expect from a villain. In fictional stories, that is.”
A thick layer of green fog engulfed the swampland, completely hiding the ground and any possible paths from view. The only objects one couldn't miss were the monolithic black trees stretching all the way into the sky. None of them showed any signs of life, though, as they were completely devoid of leaves. Dozens of adventurers had given up on venturing into the swamp after mistaking these for giant demons, which wasn't terribly surprising as many trunks were strangely deformed. Some had even fused together.
How are we going to get in there now? I doubt the smell will disappear anytime soon.”
Maximilian scratched his head and stared into the air before grabbing his enchanted robe and ripping a big chunk out of it. Then he pulled out another fruit, wrapped it into the piece of cloth and pressed it together till it was drenched in juices, after which he tied it around his face.
I hope this lasts long enough to get to the temple. Let's hurry!”
The royal knight strode away, Drake close on his heels.

Crossing the swamp proved more difficult than Maximilian had expected. Only a few steps in and their feet were already sinking into the ground. It wasn't too bad for Drake due to his lightweight clothes but Maximilian's armor was more of a hindrance than anything, which is why he allowed his younger companion to take the lead. Their movement still slowed to a crawl while the smell of decay got ever stronger, which attracted hordes of mosquitoes and flies that began to beleaguer the group. It shouldn't have been much of a problem thanks to the robes covering most of their skin, but these insects proved to be extremely stubborn. They bustled about our heroes heads and crawled into every gap they could find. Maximilian screamed and squirmed as he couldn't get rid of the insects inside his armor.
Goddamn bastards! I'd give everything for the power to summon a fireball right about now! I really hope the Heavenly Blade is as powerful as they say.”
Drake stopped dead in his tracks and tumbled forward when Maximilian crashed into him. He grabbed onto a low-hanging branch. It snapped instantly. Seconds later he splashed into the murky waters below. Gasping for the air he didn't even need he swallowed the putrid water, which entered his nose at the same time. The overwhelming stench of decay broke through all of his barricades and he was about to throw up when Maximilian rescued him.
What the hell are you doing? Don't stop abruptly!”
Drake didn't listen as he was too busy controlling his quivering body. He dropped onto his knees and tried to breath in deeply, but due to the proximity to the water it only made things worse. He coughed and chocked, all the while trying to get his senses under control. The smell was too strong, though.
A piece of cloth was wrapped around his head and the sweet smell of tangerines suppressed most of the swamp's scent.
Thanks,” said Drake as he breathed it in deeply.
Don't mention it, but don't expect it to last either. I can already smell most of the decay again. Let's find the temple before it gives us the rest!”
Drake arose with shaking feet and they continued their journey.
It took him a while before he remembered why he had stopped in the first place. “You know about the sword hidden in the temple?”
Hm, didn't I mention it? The Heavenly Blade is one of the ancient weapons I was talking about in Pagan. I never had the time to acquire it, though, and it seems like it would have been a futile endeavor anyway. I'm not sure I could have crossed the swamp on my own.”
If the swamp had been a living creature it could have been attributed with a macabre sense of humor, because not even a minute after uttering these words they stumbled upon a field littered with human remains, or rather a place where the arms of countless wanderers stretched into the sky while the rest of their bodies decayed below the murky surface.
I guess that's the source of this ghastly smell,” exclaimed Drake, trying his hardest to focus on anything but the corpses.
But why are they all in one place? It's as if the swamp is making fun of us!”
I really don't give a damn! We have to get moving or we might end up sharing their fate!”
They continued their journey for another hour when the atmosphere took a turn for the worse. The insects disappeared from one moment to the next, even evacuating the safety of Maximilian's armor. Their buzzing was replaced by barely audible whispering coming from everywhere at once.
The royal knight was glad that Drake couldn't see his arms as these creepy noises made his flesh crawl. “What is it now? Are the dead themselves out to get us?”
As if on cue something took hold of his ankles. He screamed like a little girl and pulled himself free by jumping backwards. The fog was too thick to see if something had actually grabbed him or if he had gotten entangled in some undergrowth and he certainly didn't plan on kneeling down to confirm what it was.
What is going?” Drake yelled as he unsheathed his blade.
I think I should have kept my mouth shut! Something grabbed onto me.”
Wood snapped in the distance, the whispers intensified and once in a while they could even hear deep moaning sounds carried towards them by the wind. The group hurried away and stepped it up a notch when the sound of splashing water was added to the eerie atmosphere of this nightmarish swamp. They didn't get very far, though, as the solid ground vanished all of a sudden. Careful planning might have allowed them to traverse this area but they were too distracted by the shambling silhouettes visible through the fog.
You've got to be kidding me!” yelled Maximilian in frustration. “Drake, get rid of them. Now!”
Easier said than done. I've only been exhausting my energy since our escape from the mountains and it feels like the mosquitoes have given me the rest.”
Stupid vampires! Can't you find another source of energy? And doesn't your sword have any magical properties?”
Drake stared at the sawtooth-shaped blade. He did feel some kind of presence slumbering within but had no idea how to access it.
It didn't come with a manual, you know?”
Drake's vain attempt at a joke was drowned out by Maximilian's yell of frustration. He ruffled through his hair and shook his head before he held his hand in front of his companion's mouth. “Drink!”
But you said—”
I don't care what I said when abiding by it could get us killed!”
And if I lose control again?”
You'll have to learn how to keep it in check eventually! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to train your willpower! … Well, I certainly hope that we don't have to do it again after I've gotten my hands on the Heavenly Blade.”
Drake sighed and looked towards the shadows moving towards them. They moved at a snail's pace but there had to be hundreds of them, making it nearly impossible to evade their grasp. “Okay, it seems like we don't have a choice,” he said as he put his sword away. “I can't promise anything, though. Do whatever it takes if I won't let go!” All I need is a little bit of blood. Just enough to carve a way through these abominations. No, this is the perfect chance to get rid of him. Kill him! Suck him dry! No, I won't do as you say! Kill! Kill! Kill! Shut your goddamn mouth! I don't have a mouth, at least not until I take over. Now go and kill him! No! Yes!
Maximilian slapped him in the face. “Are you talking to the beast again? Just ignore it and get a grip on yourself! It won't get better if you acknowledge its existence!”
If only it were that easy...”
The moaning and the splashes were dangerously close now, forcing Drake to steel his mind for only a second before he grabbed onto Maximilian's outstretched hand and rammed his fangs into it. Power surged through his body once more and he felt more vivacious than ever. Strange, it never felt this good when I consumed it indirectly. Of course not! But now you're at the very source, which gives you total control over life and death. That's how it's meant to be! Kill him now and become a true vampire! No! but despite his unwillingness to take Maximilian's life he didn't let go for even a second. Just one more drop, and he kept on going.
Drake, it's enough!” exclaimed his companion through clenched teeth, but the vampire didn't listen. Instead he increased the rate at which he consumed his victim's life-essence. “Stop it!” Maximilian screamed and punched Drake in the face, but he didn't budge an inch. His aura was completely different from when he had tried to attack Maximilian on the mountain.
So much power! Yes! Yes! Yes! Kill! Destroy! Descend into darkness! What, no? Just a bit ha ha ha ha! Just a bit? Look at this pathetic human!
The royal knight tried to pry Drake's mouth open, which ended in utter failure. His skin was turning ashen and his resistance weakened steadily. “Drake, please! … Stop!”
No, what are you doing? Stop it! I'm not doing anything, apart from cheering you on. No! I need to let go! How do I stop this? There's no need to stop! Don't you feel the tremendous amount of energy flowing through your veins? Imagine how powerful you could become by killing 10, 20 or even 100 humans! No one would be able to stop you, not even Modera! I don't care! I don't...need...your...power!
Maximilian dropped to the ground as Drake's fangs left his flesh. Appalled by what he had done the vampire stumbled backwards, filling the swampland with hale-filled screams till he was submerged in the putrid waters below. Rotting corpses dove after him, trying to grab onto his arms and legs to feast upon his flesh. The water boiled, the mud formed bubbles and a blazing inferno with Drake at its center consumed everything in sight. All liquids evaporated, zombies and plants turned into ash and the tress were ripped to shreds, covering the area in a rain of splinters.
Maximilian's eyes were slightly ajar but all he could see was a blurry inferno of red and yellow. He didn't understand what was happening. His body didn't register the heat, his muscles failed to respond and his heart had slowed down tremendously as there was scarcely any blood left inside of him. Surprisingly enough he actually smiled, despite being at death's door. You've made it, Drake...although it might...have been...too...late...

Night had fallen when Maximilian awoke to the sound of crackling fire. Upon opening his eyes he saw an unknown person sitting on a log in front of a campfire. He seemed to be in his fifties, had an angular face, fine silvery hair that fell over his neck, wore a matching set of tight-fitting clothes and had a brown coat draped over his shoulders. A pot was bubbling over the fire while the man poked the embers with a stick.
Maximilian raised his upper body from the ground. For someone who should have been dead he felt perfectly fine, apart from a slight degree of stiffness in his limbs.
Welcome to the world of living,” greeted him the unknown man with a deep voice.
Who are you?”
I'm Xar, a member of the Adventurer's Guild. I came here to check out what the ruckus was all about. Whatever you did left a giant hole in the swamp.”
I didn't do that”—his eyes wandered across the area, searching for his companion—”I guess you saved me?”
No, I just wiped the blood from your face. That guy”—he pointed behind him and Maximilian shifted his weight onto his left arm to see Drake propped up against a tree—“was lying over your body, his hands covered in wounds. Must have been his blood that got onto you. The area was also littered with broken potion bottles.”
So he actually tried save me...”
Maximilian smiled contently.
Xar pulled three bowls from a bag next to him and dipped them into the pot. “You looked like a ghost when I found you. Here, have some soup. What's your name, by the way?”
Maximilian. And thank you.”
He consumed the soup with lightning speed. A pleasant warmth spread throughout his body as the yawning void of his stomach was filled up again.
Whoa, no need to wolf it down like that! There's more than enough for everyone.”
After a few more portions and a bit of smalltalk Maximilian realized that the surrounding area didn't resemble the swamp at all. The ground was firm all around and there wasn't so much as a hint of fog or water. Only a vague stench of decay was still hanging in the air.
Are we still inside the swamp?”
Of course, or did you expect me to carry you all the way outside? We're on the other side of the crater, though. It gets more bearable towards the ruins and whatever happened today seems to have improved upon it a bit. It even pulverized the walking dead!”
So we're close to the temple?”
Temple? That's not what I would call the source of this corruption, but yeah. I was about to investigate it once more when I noticed a ball of fire in the distance. Nearly got hit by a rain of splinters afterwards. What the hell happened here?”
Drake happened.”
Xar pointed behind him inquisitively and Maximilian nodded. “Huh, looks can be deceiving, it seems. I expected a great mage or at least a fire elemental, not a guy who's barely passed childhood. What were you doing with someone like him in such a treacherous environment?”
We tried to reach the temple when we ran into a little snag.”
You mean the zombies? Their numbers are considerable in the area you came from, which is why you should have approached the ruins from the north. Didn't you gather any information before you came here?” asked Xar and picked up a piece of cloth that lay in front of him. “Why do I even ask when you used some rags to protect yourself against the smell?”
We didn't expect it to be so bad.”
Never underestimate the swamp or you'll join the living dead! It must have taken hundreds of thousands of lives over the years and all that for something that most likely doesn't even exist.”
A quizzical look flashed over Maximilian's face. “What do you mean? What doesn't exist?”
The Heavenly Blade, of course! I've been in those ruins dozens of times and all I found was disappointment.”
Maybe you didn't look hard enough.” Or else our entire journey would have been for naught.
You can check it out for yourselves, if you want. And when you're done we can leave the swamp together. I'm not sure you'd survive a second jou—” a groaning sound cut him off.
Maximilian got to his feet and walked towards Drake who was slowly regaining consciousness. His eyes fluttered open and tears began to well up instantly when he spotted his companion.
You're alive!”
That I am!”
Maximilian kneeled in front of him and rumpled through Drake's onyx-like hair. It was caked in mud and reeked of death.
The young vampire was confused by such a friendly gesture. “Aren't you going to kill me?”
Why would I?”
Because I nearly killed you!”—huge tears rolled down his cheeks—“I let the beast take over...or maybe it was my own decision to take your life...”
Rubbish! If you wanted to I'd be a goner!”
You were as good as dead!”
And you did everything in your power to save me! Sure, it wasn't exactly a welcome experience, but you pulled through in the end. Build upon that and you might be able to keep your darkness in check or maybe even destroy it!”
I'd wager you really want to be hated?”
Drake nodded and Maximilian shook his head in disbelief. Then he clenched his fist, smirked and punched Drake into his stomach. A painful gasp escaped his lips as he doubled over.
Was that good enough?” asked Maximilian with jovial laughter as he returned to the campfire. Drake nodded towards his back before he began to sob loudly.
Nice friendship you've got there,” said Xar with a confused look on his face.
We're still working on a few kinks. It's gotten a whole lot better since I tried to kill him.”
Xar decided to keep his mouth shut and shrugged his shoulders as if such a statement was nothing unusual.

Upon the ascent of the morning sun the three adventurers continued their journey towards the center of the swamp. Not even an hour had passed when they noticed a giant building looming in the distance. It might have been a tower once but the spire had long since collapsed, covering the surrounding area in a thick layer of debris.
As you can see most of the building has already collapsed. We can't even ever through the main gate as it's buried under rubble. Instead we have to climb the debris to descend from one of the upper floors.”
Maybe the sword is hidden below the earth as opposed to above.”
You want to try digging? Good luck with that but don't expect any help!”
It's not like we can share the sword anyway.”
During their entire conversation Drake remained silent. He still hadn't forgiven himself for nearly getting Maximilian killed, despite the fact that he had already forgiven him. Stupid fool! You had so much power in your grasp and threw it all away to save a worthless human! What now? Are you trying to ignore me? As if you're capable of such a feat! Your resistance will crumble eventually! Fine, be that way! I'll just keep on talking till you surrender! And that's what he did all the way to the temple. Drake never wavered, though, and tried to distract himself by scraping his teeth together.

Climbing the remnants of the tower proved to be surprisingly easy. They did detach some rocks during their ascension, which trundled down the pile in the process, but the group climbed in such proximity that they could steady each other. It took them maybe a quarter of an hour to reach a breach big enough to pass through.
The sun hadn't climbed high enough to illuminate the inside of the building and there were no torches in sight, but all of that proved inconsequential as some kind of glowing thread had been worked into the brickwork, which provided more than enough light to move around. The center of the room had crumbled, which gave them a clear view of the ground floor. It was illuminated by pulsing concentric circles embedded in the ground. Only the square-shaped center remained shrouded in darkness.
I don't see any stairs. How are we going to get down?” Just jump, what does it even matter?
We climb, of course. Just need to find a place to tie my rope at. This isn't my normal entry point but I don't plan on scrambling all the way to the other side.”
It took Xar a few minutes to find a viable spot. They were about to descend when a strange, emotionless voice reverberated throughout the ruins: “You have to de—” the voice was swallowed by static “—surrounding area ha... ched critic...contamination immin...”
Who said that?” Maximilian yelled, his hands upon his blade.
No one, just a disembodied voice that repeats itself over and over again. The words do change from time to time, though. But it's nothing you need to worry about.”
It didn't sound human.” Which makes it completely irrelevant! See those tasty meatsacks over there? They've got powerful blood flowing through their veins! Well, the older guy might taste awful but that's beside the point. Still a better source of energy than animal blood!
I know, but what does it matter? I've never been attacked and that's all I care about”—he jumped onto the rope and climbed down—“Come now and ascertain whether this mystical blade actually exists or not!”
The rope didn't reach all the way to the bottom, but it descended far enough for them to swing onto a floor with intact stairs. The weight of Maximilian's armor made it more difficult to built up enough momentum and when he finally jumped off he pinned his companions to the floor.
You should have taken the armor off before descending!” grumbled Xar as he pulled himself to his feet.
I'd rather not walk around without protection, in case we stumble upon something dangerous.”
There is no danger lurking within these walls, unless you bury a hole all the way to the world below!”
Their guide vanished around the corner while Drake stood up and brushed the dust from his clothes. Meanwhile his eyes roamed over the remnants of the room. This must have been a library, he surmised from broken wood fragments and yellowed pages scattered across the floor. After burrowing through the remains he even managed to unearth a few books. Most of them crumbled under his touch and the only one that didn't was written in a language he'd never seen before.
Maximilian, can you read this?”
Let me see.”
He grabbed onto to the book, which nearly fell apart right then and there due to his strong grip. “Hm, I don't have a clue what it says but I'm fairly certain that it is written in the language of the Seraphim.”
The angels that descended from the stars?”
Don't tell me you actually believe those old wives' tales! They might have been more advanced than other races back then, but to conclude that there were angels based on that is stupid!”
What are you doing up there?” echoed Xar's voice from below.
We shouldn't keep him waiting. The Heavenly Blade is more interesting than a couple of books.”
He dropped the volume to the floor, causing its pages to scatter across the ground.
If it even exists...”
You better hope it does, or else we've got a big problem.”
Drake could see the mountains through a crack in the wall and while they were still mostly intact the pillar had grown tremendously. He could also see ominous shadows moving through the clouds.
We don't have all day!” Xar's angry voice drifted up once more.
Drake pulled himself away from the disturbing sight and climbed down the stairs.
Welcome to the Se—” the voice returned and so did the static”—to enter...facility you need to ligh—“ the rest was cut off entirely.
You've been in this facility yet, Xar?” asked Maximilian while he had a look around the room.
It seemed mostly empty, with only a few broken crates littering the path. Curious and suspicious he followed the threads of light with his hands and noticed small wedges, two on every side apart from the southern one, as that was the location of the collapsed entrance.
Well, I can tell you that this floor is bigger than it appears to be. You have to solve the riddle of the platform to continue. Good luck!”
He propped himself against a wall, folded his arms and waited for the show to start.
Oh, now we've got time to waste?”
There's no point in handing you the Heavenly Blade on a silver platter, in so far it actually exists. We'd be out of here in half an hour if I solved the riddles for you.”
Well said! Let's see,” Maximilian sounded as excited as a little boy who was about to embark on an adventure.
He walked towards the platform where Drake was already waiting for him. It was about waist-high and had a diamond-shaped pattern carved into it, which was divided into multiple panels. Some of them looked as ordinary as the ground floor while the majority seemed to be emitting a black light. From their current position the duo was able to ascertain that the latter panels were protruding from the floor, if only slightly.

Fantasy eBook

Who cares about such a stupid puzzle? This royal bitch is right next to you! Sink your fangs into his neck and finish what you started!Drake pressed his hands against his head in a vain attempt to suppress the never-ending chatter inside his head.
Are you still worried about yesterday?”
No...well, yes, but that's not my biggest concern right now. Let's just solve this puzzle!”—he turned towards Xar—“Are those buttons?”
Their guide simply shrugged and sneered at him.
It's not like we need an answer. He already said that there's nothing dangerous in here.”
Maximilian climbed the stairs and stepped on one of the supposed buttons. A faint clicking sound could be heard from beneath the floor. The darkness was banished as a brilliant flash of light engulfed the panel Maximilian was standing on.
Seems like you were right! The voice said something about light, therefore we might be able to proceed by stepping on all the dark panels.”
From the center panel at the bottom Maximilian stepped left, left, up, right, up. The platform was engulfed by darkness once more.
Maybe you're not supposed to step on the brighter ones.”
Drake took a shot at it and walked left, left, up, right, left. The lights were extinguished again.
Okay, so we can't step on the same panel twice, either.”
Left, Left, diagonally right. Darkness.
Sorry, but the rules state that you can only walk into one direction at a time. Don't ask me why,” interjected Xar, as if assuming that they were too dumb to understand what had happened.
Maximilian scratched his head while his gaze wandered across the floor. Shortly afterwards he tried another solution: two left, four up, four right, down, left, two down, right, down and left. A single panel of darkness remained. “Dammit, totally forgot that one.”
I think I've got it! We can't start at the lower left as we won't be able to light up all four panels. Therefore we have to save it for last. However, what if we choose the other direction?”
Drake stepped onto the bottom center panel once more and walked two right, up, left, two up, right, up, four left, four down, right and up. The ground shook and the room was filled by the sound of stone sliding across stone as three of the walls retreated into the floor. Silence did not return, though, as a faint humming sound remained. Furthermore the entire building had begun to vibrate, which might not have been noticeable to a mere human but Drake perceived it within seconds. He couldn't determine its source, however.
Xar pushed himself off the wall and clapped a couple of times. “Well done! We can descend deeper into the facility now. It doesn't matter which path we take as the following puzzles are all interconnected.”
You solved every single one?” asked Maximilian.
Of course! They aren't overly complicated. I only come back once in a while in the hope that I overlooked something, but all I've managed to unearth since then were a few worthless pieces of junk.”
Wouldn't it be easier not to reset the mechanism when you leave?” Who cares? Can't you just kill them already? I'm so bored!Stop ignoring me!
I'm not resetting anything. The facility itself returns to its original state whenever I leave.”
Convenient,” said Drake as he walked towards the western chamber, which was nothing more than a small corridor leading towards a circular staircase that descended into the earth.
Maximilian checked the opposite corridor and found himself staring into a bottomless pit where stairs should have been. “Are the other rooms connected, by any chance? The stairs over here have collapsed.”
No, they aren't. We better save that one for last, in case you don't manage to solve the other puzzles.”
Don't you worry about that!” exclaimed Maximilian with a confident grin on his face.
Shortly thereafter they climbed down the western staircase.

Is it supposed to look like this?” inquired Maximilian as he gazed into the yawning abyss while steadying himself on the wall.
The floor looks a bit too smooth to have collapsed, wouldn't you agree?”
The room was much smaller than the one above and completely devoid of anything. The only noteworthy object was the drawing of a red circle surrounded by dozens of ellipses on the floor. Beyond it the ground dropped of, giving way to a dark hole that occupied most of the chamber, apart from a small alcove on the far side. There didn't seem to be any way across.
I've got a new idea. Push Maximilian into the abyss! This way you won't have to see him die! Nice compromise, wouldn't you agree?Drake pressed his aching head against the wall. It felt unnaturally cold against his skin.
Let me guess: this symbol is an essential part of the puzzle?” asked Maximilian, more to himself than to anyone else as he stepped onto it.
Without making so much as a sound seven crystalline platforms appeared at ground level, floating above the darkness. Four on their side, two near the alcove.

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Interesting trick. I assume we have to cross over, somehow?”
The royal knight stepped onto the platform in front of the symbol, only with one foot at first to test its stability. Seems solid enough, but how am I supposed to traverse the chamber when most of the platforms are over here? He breathed in deeply before he removed his other foot from the floor. The moment his whole weight rested on the platform it glowed briefly and three additional ones popped into existence, all of them surrounding the one he was standing on.
I see. This should be easy!” and with that proclamation he took another step forward. His confident smile faltered when all the platforms surrounding him disappeared, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere. “Okay, whaa—” he vanished in a flash of light, his final syllable echoing through the room at a high pitch.
Drake pushed himself off the wall and ran towards the symbol. The room's layout was reset as soon as he stepped onto it. “Maximilian! What happened?”
Don't worry, he didn't fall,” Xar assured him while his laughter filled the air.
Moments later footsteps could be heard from above. The royal knight returned with a glum look on his face.
What did I do wrong?”
Isn't that obvious? You need to be able to proceed towards the other side. Instead you chose a dead end.”
Maximilian would have liked to punch the gleeful smile off of Xar's face, but he restrained himself by looking at layout of the platforms once more. Okay, I can't step onto a platform if it is surrounded by four active ones. Therefore going up is also out of the question, which only leaves the way down. That one looks straightforward enough, but the platforms at the other end might be part of a trap. “Do I need to find a way back after reaching the other side?”
No. If you solve the puzzle the floor will turn solid.”
Maximilian nodded and pondered over the solution a few more seconds before stepping onto the first platform again. As up and left were out of the question he walked all the way down before he changed course and moved left. He stopped when he got close to the platform at the other side of the room. There's a platform behind me, below me and diagonally in front of me. That means if I take another step forward I'll be trapped again. He changed directions and walked upwards to evade the last row.
Stop!” yelled Drake after his companion had taken a mere three steps from the bottom. “You can't just walk towards the alcove! The platform will vanish as soon as you get close to it, forcing you to walk in circles to get it back.”
Maximilian imagined the following steps inside his head. The platform will always disappear, therefore I will have to get it back no matter where I go. His gaze wandered towards the wall and shortly afterwards he took a step towards the side, approaching the final platform head-on. When it vanishes he simply took another step to the right and then up to make it re-appear. Two more steps and he was done.
The alcove was hardly big enough for two people and as empty as the entire room. The same symbol that had been drawn upon the floor was also drawn on the wall. Seeing as there was nothing else in the vicinity Maximilian tried to push it, expecting it to be a hidden switch. He didn't even need to press his hand down as the circle began to glow upon mere contact with his skin. The humming sound, which was more audible down here, intensified and the light inside the walls grew brighter. When Maximilian turned towards the exit the hole had been replaced by solid stone.
One down, two to go,” uttered Xar before he turned on his hells and ascended the stairs.

The northern chamber actually contained a couple of objects—18 staffs attached to the floor, all of which housed a turquoise-colored crystal at the top. The lower left one was illuminated by a beam of light coming from a hole in the wall.

Fantasy Science Fiction

Aren't we done yet? I'm so bored! Drake's primordial beasts continued talking unabatedly, no matter how much he tried to shut him out. In a vain attempt to focus on something else he walked towards the illuminated crystal to figure out what this puzzle was all about.
I wouldn't stand in front of it, if I were you,” interjected Xar before Drake could even do anything.
Didn't you claim that there's no danger?”
And I stand by my word. It could hurt a little, though,” he replied with a smug smile.
What are you talking about?”
That's all the help you'll get!”
I don't like how that guy looks at us! Couldn't you arrange some kind of accident? Sh... Drake pressed a hand onto his mouth, which was completely pointless as he hadn't been talking in the first place. Sh.. what? Come on, you don't need to treat me like that! We're both inhabiting the same body. You will have to react eventually unless you want to end up like Modera! Drake grunted and focused on the staff again. He ran his hand from top to bottom and noticed that it was connected to the floor seamlessly, which eliminated the possibility that he might have to move it. Following that he inspected the crystal. The moment his hand touched its surface a tingling feeling spread throughout his body. Seconds later it was replaced by excruciating pain. He was smashed into the wall.
I told you not to stand in front of it!” exclaimed Xar matter-of-factly while Maximilian ran towards his companion to help him up.
Don't be such an asshole! You could have at least told him what would happen!”
Xar just shrugged his shoulders and yawned.
Argh, what happened?” but he didn't need an answer.
Touching the crystals appeared to be part of the puzzle, judging by the fact that the beam of light had extended to the one next to the entrance. Curious Maximilian took a step forward and reached towards the light. Instead of passing through it his right hand simply came to a halt.
Huh, this must be some kind of barrier. Maybe we have to connect all the crystals.”
Unlikely,” replied Drake while stretching himself to get rid of the numbness that had spread throughout his body. “It would be too similar to the first riddle and judging by the layout of the room we would never be able to connect all of them if we're unable to pass through the light.”
Maximilian was about to touch the second crystal but pulled his hand back after hearing Drake's remark. “Now that you mention it...it does seem a bit too chaotic to work.”
It took them a few minutes to discover a hole hidden behind the two crystals in the upper right, which looked similar to the one emitting the light at the bottom. The whole riddle seemed to be time-based as the room had already returned to its original state by then.
Looks like we should try to solve it beforehand or we might run out of time.”
Drake returned to the first crystal and noticed that there were two possible directions the beam could have gone in: up and right. “How exactly do I chose the direction the light takes?”
Just touch the correlating side. As long as you don't stand in its way you'll be fine.”
Okay, up or right? Xar did say I shouldn't stand in front of it. Perhaps... Drake returned to the crystal by the door and walked towards the center of the room from there. The next crystal could emit light to the left or to the right. No, the latter would only serve to illuminate the wall. A few steps to the left he was confronted by two more choices: up or down. The hole is at the top, therefore it might be the first one. After walking up and right he stood right next to the hole, which was completely pointless as the next crystal could only redirect the light towards the entrance, hence why he returned to the previous fork and went down instead. The rest of the puzzle was very straightforward as the only remaining choice would have ended in a loop. He went left, up, up and right, which led him directly to the crystal in front of the hole, where Maximilian was still waiting for results.
Okay, right, up, left, down, left, up, up, right, up. That should be the puzzle's solution.”
Let's see if you're right,” replied the royal knight and returned to the starting point.
Shortly thereafter they could barely understand each others words as the ambient noise had gotten deafening. The vibrations had also grown strong enough to be noticed by Xar and Maximilian.
I hope the building isn't about to collapse,” remarked Drake when they had ascended high enough to comprehend their words again.
It's always been like this. I have no idea how the tower itself collapsed but I doubt it had anything to do with these vibrations. And even if the building were about to come crashing down we could always escape to the ground floor where that wouldn't be too much of an issue. Let's just hope it doesn't happen while we're trapped in the final chamber.”
They had arrived at the collapsed stairs by then and since there was no suitable place for a rope they had to do it the hard way—their backs squeezed against the wall with their feet pressed against the opposite one. They descended slowly but surely, apart from Maximilian, who seemed to be in a hurry. He arrived at the bottom a few minutes before his companions.
The first thing they noticed upon their arrival was a silvery line that had been embedded in the floor. After following it around two corners they stumbled upon five glowing buttons on the ground, all of them connected through the line. Besides that the chamber was completely empty, despite there being a path that led upwards into another room.

Fantasy RPG
Strange layout for a room that contains nothing but buttons. Seems straightforward enough, though,” said Maximilian and stepped on them in no particular order. As soon as his feet left the fifth one they snapped right back. Neither the humming, the light nor the vibrations changed.
It wouldn't be much of a puzzle if you could activate them in any order!” replied Xar, once again with a gleeful smile on his face.
Couldn't hurt to try, especially as there aren't any hints. But how are we supposed to solve it? There have to be hundreds of possible combinations!”
A puzzle based entirely on trial and error would be stupid! It took me a while to solve this one, but there are hints scattered all across the room.”
Drake and Maximilian looked around in confusion. All they saw were empty corridors with no distinguishing features.
What are you talking about? There's nothing in here!” exclaimed Maximilian irritably.
I never claimed there was. Let me ask you something: don't you think that there's something off about this room?”
Well, yeah,” began Drake, “It looks like it could serve as a storage room, but that's unlikely as the other ones were completely focused on their puzzle. So why is there an empty room up there and a looping hallway down there?”
But how would those provide us with a solution?” asked Maximilian, receiving nothing but a shrug in the process.
I'm impressed that you actually noticed that discrepancy,” replied Xar with a genuine tone of admiration. “The room itself is the puzzle's solution! Make of that what you will.”
Maximilian stared at the walls dumbfounded while Drake followed the loop at the bottom, all the while trying to find any hint whatsoever with his enhanced senses. Unfortunately he found nothing at all, no matter where his gaze wandered and how long it remained there. In the end they wasted about half an hour getting nowhere. There didn't seem to be any hidden switches, hollowed out walls, well concealed marks or anything else you could think of.
Drake let out a sigh of frustrating, especially because the voice inside his head simply didn't want to shut up. “One more hint, please!” he begged while smashing his fist sideways into the wall.
Oh well, I suppose I shouldn't have expected too much. The first button from the right is also the first button in the sequence.”
Maximilian leaned against the wall right next to it, still rubbing his head in puzzlement. Why would that one be the first? There's nothing in here that would indicate... his thoughts trailed off as his eyes fell upon the wall to his right. It seemed to be about as wide as his entire body. Could it be?
Drake was still wandering in circles when Maximilian suddenly appeared next to him and started moving sideways, his gaze fixed upon the bricks. “What are you—” but the royal knight shook his head and gestured him to remain silent.
Meanwhile Xar followed Maximilian's nonsensical behavior with a cryptic smile upon his face.
I think I've got it!” yelled the royal knight a few minutes later. “Do you see the walls? They make about as much sense as the entire layout of the room, as all of them have a different width! 'Coincidentally' the wall on the rightmost side of the room is also the smallest!”
So you're saying the width and position of the walls corresponds to the buttons?”
Exactly! If we assume that to be true, the next one would be the leftmost button, as the wall at the entrance is twice as wide as the first one! Then comes the button right next to it. The final buttons were a bit confusing at first, as they seemed to be located in exactly the same position. However, after measuring them a couple of times I'm sure that the one at the bottom is a bit wider and begins earlier than the one at the top, meaning the second to last button is the fourth and the one in the center is the final one!” following that explanation he quite literally executed a victory dance over the buttons.
The humming was close to ear-shattering now and the increased vibrations, combined with the weight of his armor, made it extremely difficult for Maximilian to climb up again. In the end Xar was forced to let him pass so that he could steady him from below. After Drake pulled him over the edge he fell to the floor. His face glistened with sweat and he was panting heavily.
God...dammit. We should have...taken at least...some of the supplies...with us...”
Don't be an idiot!” uttered Xar while he crawled over the edge. “They would have only been a hindrance while climbing down the rope. But we'll be out soon enough.”
Are there any more puzzles?”
No. All that's left for us to do is to return to the platform. It will carry us to the bottom. You can rest on the way down.”
Maximilian heaved himself to his feet and followed his companions.
The solution from the first puzzle had disappeared and given way to ring of light that surrounded the platform. Only the tree panels by the stairs weren't lit, but they re-activated themselves as soon as Maximilian stepped over the threshold. The ground shook for a moment before the platform descended into the earth.
It'll take about five minutes. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Maximilian sat down while Xar simply crossed his arms and stood still like a statue for the remainder of the journey. This is the perfect chance to strike! Let me take over for a few minutes and I'll get rid of them! Drake felt the primordial beast inside of him stirring. It rose to the surface but plummeted back into the depths of his mind shortly thereafter, as if it couldn't find a foothold. Drake wasn't sure if it was due to his attempts at ignoring the monster or due to the fact that he was clenching his fists. Blood dropped onto the floor as his fingernails cut into his own flesh. Why do you resist? You will never be one of them! Just accept it already! Good vampires do not exist! And the ones that try end up dead! Drake was about to ask how he would even know that but resisted the temptation at the last second.
The platform jolted to a sudden halt, followed by a horrendous squeaking that ascended from below. Three panels at the top turned black as Drake tumbled to the floor. Xar, on the other hand, remained upright and sneered at him.
This is our final destination!”
What are you talking about?” asked Maximilian as he got to his feet. “There's nothing in here!”
Look at the wall!”
They stepped into a small alcove. Contrary to above there were no lights embedded into the walls, making it impossible to see what Xar was talking about. However, before they were able to say anything the wall opposite the platform was engulfed by a bright light, as if something illuminated it from the back. It receded as quickly as it had appeared and left seven lines of glowing text behind. The letters resembled the ones Drake had seen in the book upstairs.
What does it say? I can't read it!” he complained.
Yes, you can. Focus on the words and you'll see.”
How would that help me comprehend their meaning? Drake wondered but did as he was told. Nothing happened at first, but after staring at them for about 10 seconds the letters began to reshuffle themselves, transforming into a language that he actually understood.

Secret Message

What? Is that all there is to this place?” asked Maximilian in frustration.
I told you that I've found nothing but disappointment. The prize isn't bad, but whoever created these puzzles made sure that every individual can only claim it once. Otherwise I could have at least made a profit from these continued excursions. Go on, take your reward and let us be off.”
The duo did so and a small pill appeared in the palms of their hands. It looked very bland and smelled atrocious.
I'd be willing to pay you handsomely if you let me have them.”
Both understandably declined.
Too bad. Well, that's it then. Shall we go?”
Are you sure that this is it?” inquired Maximilian while he ran his hands across the walls in the hopes of finding the same kind of wedges as above.
Do you see anything else?” Xar replied as he spread his arms.
But what about the voice we heard?”
What do you mean? It told us how to open the doors in the central hub and that's all there is to it.”
That was the second message. Earlier it said something about a contamination. What does that have to do with anything?”
Beats me. I assume it had something do to with the tower.”
Drake wasn't convinced, though. His gaze wandered across the alcove but returned to the message multiple times but it took him a few minutes to pinpoint the reason.
Hey, did you notice these colored symbols behind some of the letters?”
Xar stared at him as if he was mad. “What are you talking about?”
Drake walked towards the message and pointed out what he meant.
Tcooucunht? Congratulations, you solved the riddle at last!” replied Xar disparagingly as he clapped.
Drake ignored his idiotic behavior and continued: “No, it's not one word! They used two different colors, see? If we sort them this way we receive touch and count.”
Xar's clapping stopped dead in its tracks.
But what are we supposed to touch and count?” wondered Maximilian aloud. “Wait, what about these lines that are scattered across the message? They don't seem to serve any purpose,” he stretched his arms and touched the eight lines he mentioned. Nothing happened. “Dammit. Would have been too easy, I guess.”
But you might not be entirely wrong. They do seem strangely out of place. There must be a reason.”
All of them stared at the message, trying to divulge its meaning.
Hm...so we are supposed to touch something and it can't be the circle. I've already tried pressing it multiple times with no result,” said Xar.
Okay, that leaves only the letters. Maybe the number of lines equals the number of a certain letter. Let me see...there are multiple letters that only appear once at the bottom. The middle one has three O's, N's and I's.”
But there is only a single letter that appears four times in the upper one: the O!” finished Maximilian his train of thoughts.
His fingers figuratively flew over the message, resting on every O he could find. You could literally feel the tension in the air as they waited for a positive reaction. Seconds later the humming from earlier resumed with renewed vigor and the disembodied voice returned: “Congratulations on solving the final puzzle! Please re-board the elevator to enter the heart of the facility.”
None of them uttered a sound while they obeyed the instruction. The entire floor lit up as the elevator continued its journey to the bottom.
It only took about a minute, after which they found themselves in a brightly lit white corridor, which seemed to lead to a dead end.
I really hope the Heavenly Blade is inside here somewhere,” Maximilian finally cut through the silence.
Assuming it is: who gets it?” asked Xar.
Who do you think? You wouldn't have been able to solve the final puzzle without us!”
And you might not have solved any puzzle without me!”
The royal knight didn't know how to reply to that and simply shut his mouth as they walked down the corridor. It seemed futile at first but the wall in front of them split itself into two when they got within a few feet of it. Beyond lay a vast chamber full of objects they had never seen before: giant metal monstrosities, white rods that spit out lightning, strange mechanical dolls, pictures that moved through the air and so much more. Curious Drake and Maximilian tried to approach some of them, only to be repelled by invisible walls.
You are not authorized to access these experiments!” replied the disembodied voice.
Who are you?” yelled Drake into thin air.
I am guardian X021-T, last remnant of this Seraphim outpost.”
And where are you?” asked Maximilian as his gaze wandered all around the room.
I am inside the system.”
Just imagine me being part of the building. I could switch to a physical body but it might frighten you.”
I've seen my fair shares of beasts. Your body can't be more hideous than they were,” exclaimed Xar.
That is not the point, but if you insist.”
Bring it on!”
The voice fell silent. Shortly thereafter they could hear a strange buzzing noise that got louder and louder, only to be cut off by an earth-shattering bang. The entire ground shook as giant footsteps inched towards their position. As if they had forgotten the guardian's words all of them unsheathed their swords. The wall at the back slid open and gave way to a humongous metal beast that walked on four legs and had dozens of rods attached to its front, very similar to ones that emitted lightning. The machine was about as big as a two-story house and could have easily crushed a human with a single step.
Put away your primitive weapons. They cannot harm my metal frame,” the machine replied matter-of-factly with its booming voice. “If you insist on fighting you will be obliterated!”
A series of clicking noises later all of its rods were aimed at the group and sparks began to fly. The trio backed away and obliged sheepishly.
You weren't joking after all. Less hardened individuals might have turned tail at the sight of your might!”
You don't need to put on an act. I can sense your increased stress-levels.”
Xar glared at the metal beast while Maximilian snickered.
May I ask what brought you here?”
We are searching for the Heavenly Blade,” exclaimed Drake full of hope.
Then you've come to the wrong place.”
Crestfallen our heroes glanced at one another.
You seem to be disappointed. Would you be satisfied with its duplicate?”
Duplicate?” they exclaimed in unison.
Yes. The original Heavenly Blade was lost when New Mifarja was obliterated by Adrammelech, last of the nine beasts. However, before that tragedy occurred researchers were able to create a partial scan of the sword, which resulted in the creation of a duplicate. It might be inferior to the original but its power can be increased by embedding certain gemstones in its hilt.”
And you'd be willing to part with it?”
I have no use for a sword and it is one of the most harmless objects contained within this facility. You have to do me a favor, though.”
And what would that be?” asked Xar and yawned, as if he didn't care about the answer.
This place served not only as a research facility but also as an environmental control station. It should have remained on standby till my masters returned, but due to extreme changes in the environment an emergency protocol was executed a few hundred years ago. If not for a malfunction the forest would have been preserved. Instead it began to transform into a swamp. I was able to mitigate the damage but it's only a matter of time till the corruption spreads over the entire continent. If you can prevent that from happening you can have the sword.”
How are we supposed to accomplish something that you failed to do?” asked Drake doubtfully.
I only failed because I lack the authority to deactivate the machine. And since I am programmed to guard the facility I cannot destroy it, either.”
You said that our swords can't harm you. Does that not apply to this machine?”
Of course not. I am built for battle. The environmental control system is not. Smash the five energy crystals and the core will collapse. It should be child's play as there are no defensive measures in place.”
Seems stupid,” replied Xar with a sardonic smile.
Why? Who would have been able to fight the Seraphim? Your primitive ancestors?”
Adrammelech did!”
For once the machine seemed to be baffled and remained silent.
Enough of this small talk. Lead the way so that we can finish this!”
Very well. Follow me!”
The metal beast turned around and left the same way it had entered. The trio followed it through a series of long-winded tunnels, all of which housed at least two additional guardians. None of them seemed to be active, though.
Are they also inside this system you mentioned?” asked Drake curiously.
No, I've purged their data from the system after it became corrupted. I am all that is left of this outpost and maybe even of the Seraphim.”
Did they actually come from the stars?”
Maximilian glanced at Drake, still remembering what he had told him not too long ago.
Yes. The Seraphim are a humanoid race that originated on the planet Mifarja, which was destroyed under mysterious circumstances. 98% of the population was killed, but a small group led by president Dante escaped on a space ship and scoured the universe in search for a new home. They had nearly given up hope when they finally stumbled upon your world.”
Drake smiled at Maximilian who simply rolled his eyes. “Still no angels!”
Another door opened in front of them, this time only big enough for a human to fit through.
Follow this corridor and you'll get to the environmental control station. The energy crystals are arranged in a circle around the core. Try not to walk into the beams they emit. You'd be fried in an instant.”
Sounds like fun!” replied Xar sarcastically and went on ahead.
Any other dangers we should be aware of?”
I am not sure what will happen when the core collapses. You might want to run as soon as the last crystal is destroyed.”
You really want to do this machine's bidding when you could easily destroy it and take the weapon for yourself? And risk that the swamp engulfs the entire continent? No way! Oh, you finally snapped! And here I thought you would never talk to me again! It's pointless! You know that you cannot keep this up! But to show you my gratitude I'll shut up for a while, and with these words the primordial beast finally stopped talking, his laughter vanishing in the darkness of Drake's mind. He sighed with relief, glad to have his head to himself for a while.
Is something wrong?” asked Maximilian but Drake shook his head and stepped through the door.

Didn't the guardian say this would be child's play?” yelled Xar when his remaining companions entered the environmental control station. They wouldn't have understood him otherwise as the machine in its center made a deafening noise. “The crystals are all the way up there”—he pointed to a circle of pedestals, all of which towered at least 30 feet above them—“and I don't see any stairs or ladders.”
They couldn't even see the crystals on the pedestals next to them, only the beams of energy they emitted into the center of the chamber, which was occupied by an enormous machine from top to bottom. Its core consisted of a dazzling orb of light surrounded by three rotating metal ring that seemed to float in the air. In front of the machine was a console with dozens of buttons and monitors. A series of warning lights flashed at the upper-right corner.
Drake, can you destroy them with your magic?” asked Maximilian.
It should be possible, but we'd better walk to the other side first so that I can aim at the crystals on this side, unless you want to be as far away from the exit as possible when all the crystals are destroyed.”
It took them quite a while to reach the other side, especially because parts of the catwalk had collapsed. In most cases there were still metal beams they could crawl over, but in other cases nothing but gaping holes remained, forcing them to take daring jumps. Maximilian was once again limited by his armor, which made it all the more surprising that they reached the other side without so much as a scratch.
Xar grabbed Drake by the arm before uttering: “You better get rid of these crystals now! I'd hate to have wasted my time!”
Get off of him!” Maximilian grabbed Xar's fingers and forced them open. “What is wrong with you?”
Xar pulled his arm away and sneered. “You mean apart from the fact that I might leave empty-handed? What's the point of finding this facility when I can't profit from it?”
It'd be a shame to sell such an ancient blade, even if it's just a copy! I'm sure there's some other trinket in here that the guardian could part with.”
Can we please talk about this in a place where we don't have to yell at each other?” screamed Drake and his companions stopped bickering. “Thank you! Now let's see...”
Drake unsheathed his blade and the darkness gathered near-instantaneously. He was about to swing his sword when the sound of static cut through the noise. “Stop whatever you're doing! If you unleash such energy on the crystals you will cause a critical chain-reaction that will end with the destruction of the environment control station as well as half of the facility!”
The darkness receded.
Why does everything have to be so complicated? Seems like it's time for you to unleash your other abilities, vampire!”
Drake and Maximilian stared at Xar, their mouths agape.
Vampire? What are you talking about? I'm not a—”
Don't waste your breath! Do you really think I wouldn't recognize a vampire when I see one?”
But you didn't seem to know what he was when we spoke in the swamp!”
I never claimed no to know. There was just no point in mentioning it.”
And what happens now?” asked Drake warily, his hand gripped around the hilt of his sword.
Are you deaf? I told you to unleash your abilities!”
You're not going to kill me?”
Xar shook his head, his fingers pressed upon his temples. “Why would I kill a no-name vampire? Or are you telling me that there's money to be made by capturing or killing you?”
No!” he replied hurriedly, despite suspecting that the King of Pagan might have put a bounty on his head for “kidnapping” his royal knight.
Good! Then let's continue.”
But I don't know what abilities you're talking about!”
Turn into mist and fly up there!”
I can't do that...or at least I think I can't...”
What kind of vampire are you?” Xar sighed. “Can you at least jump up there?”
Jump? I'm not sure...maybe?”
How about you try it out?”
Drake stared at his feet and then at the ceiling. Can I actually jump that high? Are you going to kill one of them if I tell you how to accomplish such a feat? He didn't reply but that was all the information he needed. The shadow sword sunk into its scabbard and Drake started to bend his knees in preparation for his jump. When I make use of the wave of darkness the energy flows from my body into my blade. If I apply the same principle to jumping... Energy gathered in his legs, his strength increased, his movement became a blur and then he shot into the air like a cannonball, his arms pressed against his sides.
5 feet.
10 feet.
20 feet.
He overshot his goal by a couple of feet. The angle hadn't been sufficient enough to carry him above the pedestal, though. His momentum dissipated and he flailed about in a desperate attempt to bridge the gap between him and the platform. His right arm caught onto a row of spikes that surrounded the pedestal. A wave of pain shot through his body as his shoulder was dislocated. He quickly switched to his other arm to prevent himself from plummeting into the darkness. The spike crunched under his grasp and began to break away from the wall. Panicking he swung his damaged arm across the rim and swung himself upwards.
He lay motionless for a couple of minutes, completely oblivious to the screams coming from below. His shoulder regenerated but something seemed to be draining his energy. His left hand swept across his body in search of other injuries. He quickly realized that the skin on his face was blistering, all the while trying to recover from the continuous damage. Even his arm began to blister the moment it touched his face. He turned his head and realized that he was dangerously close to the beam of energy. Rolling to the far side of the pedestal got rid of that problem.
Drake, what is going on? Don't tell me you got yourself killed!” Maximilian's scream ascended from below.
Drake rolled onto his stomach and crawled towards the edge of the platform. “Don't worry, I made it. Somehow...” And I'll have to do this four more times? he thought distraught.
Then destroy the crystal already!”
Yeah yeah, I'll get to it in a moment, Xar!” I hope this thing isn't going to blow up in my face.
Drake got to his feet and unsheathed his blade. Instead of shattering the crystal right then and there he touched it slightly at first, testing its stability. The second time the sawtooth-shape blade came into contact with it cracks started to form. Seems like I don't need to go all-out. He breathed in deeply and swung his sword from left to right, cutting the crystal cleanly into two. Its remains tumbled into the darkness and the beam of energy dissipated.
A massive tremor went through the room and nearly threw Drake from the pedestal. “What is going on?”
I seem to have overestimated the system's stability,” answered the facility's guardian. “The lack of a single crystal is already enough to destabilize the core. You better get out of there as fast as possible!”
You've got to be kidding me!” Drake screamed and jumped from the platform, focusing all of his energy into his legs once more to stop them from breaking on impact.
The part of the catwalk he landed on was ripped from its mounting. Drake scurried towards the next platform before it fell into the abyss. His eyes scanned the surrounding area and he saw Maximilian and Xar vanish around a corner. He jumped to his feet and followed them while the entire room was hit by one tremor after another.
Xar jumped over a gap at the exact moment that a part of the machine exploded. He was flung over the railing while the platform he had aimed for fell into the pit.
Maximilian came to a screeching halt. At this point it didn't matter if he was wearing armor or not. No one could have made that jump. Well, no one but Drake who grabbed onto his companion and catapulted both of them to other side. “Thanks!”
Don't mention it! Where's Xar?”
Down...here!” the answer came from below their current position.
Drake kneeled down and looked over the edge. Xar was clinging to one of the metal beams. He had swung himself there just in time to see the railing fall into the darkness.
Grab onto my arm!”
I'm barely able to hold onto the beam with all of these tremors!”
Okay, wait a moment!”—Drake's eyes scanned the area—“Maximilian, could you grab the plate at that end?”
He did as he was asked and together they were able to bend the platform backwards, giving Xar enough leeway to climb back up again.
They continued their flight while the crystals exploded one after another, which only intensified the tremors and caused the lights to flicker, which forced the group to delay most of their jumps.
We had to walk as far away from the exit as possible, didn't we?” complained Xar.
What's done is done! Move!”
They were only a few feet away from the exit when silence descended upon the room and the tremors ceased. Drake and Maximilian turned around in confusion while Xar stormed through the exit.
What is going on?”
The orb in the machine's center was shrinking till it was about as big as an apple. This process was accompanied by a humming sound that increased in intensity the smaller the core got. A weak tremor went through the floor. Then another one. And another one. All of them stronger than the one before.
What the hell are you idiots doing? Get out of there before it explodes!”
The duo turned on their heels and fled, completely missing the renewed expansion of the core. The moment they escaped the room the door was shut with an audible click. An ear-shattering explosion could be heard from behind it, which caused the entire facility to shake. The door began to glow red, deforming itself soon after. The group backed away before they continued their escape down the hallway.
X021-T was standing a few feet away from the entrance to the corridor. All of its rods had moved into a vertical position and were emitting sparks. “Get behind me! Hurry!”
They obliged happily.
Shortly thereafter the door melted and gave way to a giant fireball, which dissipated harmlessly when it came into contact with the energy shield the guardian had erected.
Is that it?” asked Drake when the tremors subsided at last.
Yes. The damage was more severe than expected but it is within acceptable parameters. The swamp will spread no longer.”
Does that mean the forest will finally recover?”
That would be a convenient but very unlikely turn of events. It will most probably be consumed by the desert.”
And there's nothing we can do about that?”
No, unless you stumble upon another Seraphim outpost with a working environmental control station.”
The Seraphim are extinct!” interjected Xar. “So that's out of the question. Can we get going now?”
Of course. Follow me.”
The guardian led them through another series of confusing hallways till they arrived in a more decrepit looking part of the facility. The roof had collapsed in a couple of places, which they noticed long before they ever saw it as the smell of decay pervaded the air. Eventually they even had to wade through knee-deep water when they were forced to descend to another level.
I am sorry about this state of disrepair, but there's nothing I can do. Most of the remaining maintenance drones have been assigned to more important areas of the facility.”
Didn't you say that you were all that is left of this outpost?” wondered Maximilian.
I was talking about intelligent life-forms. Maintenance drones are programmed to look for damage and repair it, however, that is all they are capable of. There is no point in giving them intelligence, after all. That's what my masters thought, at least. I would prefer any sort of company but I do not possess the capability to create an AI”—he noticed confused looks he got—“An artificial intelligence, like myself.”
Shortly thereafter they came upon a corridor shrouded in darkness, but X021-T was also equipped with a floodlight built into his stomach. A bright beam of light illuminated the area, revealing dozens of corpses littering the floor. They weren't ordinary corpses, though, because as soon as they were hit by light they started to stir.
How did those zombies get in here?” yelled Maximilian as he pulled his sword.
They must have entered through one of the bigger breaches. Don't bother fighting them. I'll handle this.”
The guardian realigned its rods. The machine emitted a loud buzzing noise as sparks began to fly. Thereupon hundreds of lightning bolts lit up the corridor, obliterating all the corpses in sight. It didn't stop there, however, as the lightning propagated itself by jumping from one corpse to another. They could still hear the wails of the zombies long after the ones in front of them had been burned to a crisp. The smell of decay had now been replaced by the stench of burned flesh.
Thanks for not using that on us earlier...” said Drake, his face as white as a ghosts.
I do not fight unless provoked, but there's no arguing with these mindless beasts. Believe me, I have tried.”
Drake actually tried to imagine such a scenario. A giant metal monster sitting in a hallway and talking to the living dead while those had nothing better to do than to gnaw at its metal parts. He snickered.
Let us continue. Our destination is right around the corner.”

X021-T hadn't said around which corner, though, and it took them another quarter-hour of walking straight ahead before they finally reached the one he meant.
Strange, there should have been a back-up generator over here. Seems like I have to do open the door by force.”
Despite walking on four legs the entire time the machine now changed its stance, which allowed it to stand on its rear legs while the one at the front transformed into claw-like arms that he rammed into the gap between the two halves of the door. It opened with a blood-curdling squeaking noise.
Go inside and wait for a bit. I will see if I can re-activate the generator. Without it I cannot recover the containment chamber that contains the blade.”
The guardian returned to its original state and vanished somewhere in the distance while the group made their way into the all-encompassing darkness inside the room.
Drake, do you still have the crystal I took from the mountain?”
Why would I have it? I can see just fine in the darkness.”
That's nice for you, but I can't! Dammit, I must have lost it when we fell into the water.”
Let's just wait for the guardian to start this generator. Xar, be careful, there's a wall in front of you!”
I can see that!”
What are you talking about?”
Have you already forgotten that I'm an adventurer? I don't need to be a vampire to see in the dark,” he replied as his hand swept across the wall.
Drake hadn't noticed it before, but Xar's scabbard emitted a red light despite his blade being silver.
Is that a magic sword you've got there?”
Why, am I not allowed to carry one? I don't remember complaining about your shadow sword despite its evil aura.”
You even know about...is there anything you don't know?”
What a stupid question! Of course there are things that I don't know. I'm not some kind of all-knowing oracle!”
Please, just kill him already! Maximilian would never find out what happened if you finish him with a single strike! Sure, and I suppose he would suddenly forget that there were three of us? Inconsequential details!
Before he could continue to bicker with his inner beast the room was engulfed by light. Drake shielded his eyes to allow them to adjust as he hadn't expected such a sudden change.
Is every...” the guardian's words were swallowed by static.
The light is working but we can barely understand you.”
As long as...power.”
A big rectangular hole opened in the ceiling, revealing a long metal arm. It descended towards the center of the room before bending its single joint. After a 90° turn, which caused it to face the wall, the entire arm rotated around the room multiple times, partially retracting itself back into the ceiling. When it finally came to a halt it was facing a spot more then halfway up the wall—which wasn't a wall at all as it was pushed forward till it came to rest in the claws of the metal hand. Shortly afterwards it dropped a huge metal casket into the center of the room.
The duplic....of t...venly Bla...thin.”
The group gathered around it and stared at their dirt-covered reflections.
I need to take a long bath when we get back to Pagan...preferably before Jessica sees me” uttered Maximilian before he kneeled down in search for an opening. “Huh, I don't see a way to open it. Looks like a solid metal casket to me.”
He moved his hands across the smooth surface, pushing and pulling without any results.
You ne....the...bu...n at th....b...” whatever the guardian used to communicate, it was getting worse.
Drake joined Maximilian's futile efforts whereas Xar simply crossed his arms and tapped his toes on the floor.
Aren't you going to help us?” asked Maximilian irritated.
You've already claimed the blade for yourselves! Why should I help you?”
Remind me never to come to your aid in the future!”
It'll be my pleasure.”
Their efforts continued for a few more seconds till Maximilian finally found a nearly invisible knob at the bottom of the casket. Instead of sliding open the top simply vanished, revealing a silk padded interior with a magnificent sword at its center. Its hilt contained a red ruby that seemed to have melted together with the gold surrounding it. The blade itself was made out of an unknown material that glowed from within. If not for such a distinguishing feature it would have looked quite ordinary.
Maximilian's eyes figuratively sparkled at this sight but before he could get his hands on the blade Xar had already taken possession of it.
Looks really nice for a fake, don't you think? I wonder how sharp it is.”
One moment he stood behind the casket, the next he was holding the blade against Drake's throat from behind while incapacitating his arms with his remaining one.
What do you think you're doing?”
Maximilian unsheathed his blade and Xar responded by cutting into Drake's flesh.
One wrong move and I'll sever your friend's head! Not even a vampire can recover from that!”
Come on, let me take over and I'll rip him to shreds! No, there has to be another way! He's not lying, you know! If your head falls you're dead! Don't be an idiot!
You're an imbecile, you know that? Why would you try to steal the blade when we're trapped in a maze of corridors? You should have waited for an opportune moment on the surface!”
You mean I should have cut your throats while you slept? Gosh, that would have been so boring.”
Go on then, kill Drake and fight me! You'll regret it!”
Why? Just because you're this 'almighty' royal knight of Pagan? You don't own a single piece of magical equipment, apart from this ragged desert cloak, which tells me that you have never been on a real adventure before! I'll kick your ass in a heartbeat and cut off your head to keep it as a trophy!”
What kind of sick lunatic are you?” Drake interjected.
The blade cut into his flesh some more. Blood trickled into his clothes.
I'd rather be a lunatic than a boring and ordinary human! But you know, I really expected more from you. I didn't even try to be subtle. You should have seen this coming miles away!”
I'm not used to being betrayed!”
Be glad that you won't have to!”
Drake's thoughts raced but he simply couldn't imagine a single scenario where he would avoid getting his head cut off. There has to be something...anything! Me! I am your solution! No, I cannot rely on my darkness all the time! I need to...wait... Drake's arms might have been pressed against his side but his hands could still move relatively freely. They wandered across his belt for a few seconds before he finally found what he was looking for. Maximilian noticed his movement and realized what he was up to. He aimed his blade at Xar.
This is your final chance, Xar! Drop the blade and leave!”
Or what? You alone caaagh—” he hollered in pain as Drake rammed the knife he got from Maximilian deep into his leg.
The young vampire pushed the arm holding the “Heavenly Blade” away and stepped sideways just in time for Maximilian's attack to connect. A huge gash opened in Xar's shoulder and blood splattered over the floor.
Now you've done it, asshole!”
Xar pressed a finger on the ruby and the blade was engulfed by flames. He leaped forward, swung the blade and an inferno shot towards Maximilian. The royal knight dropped to the floor, rolled out of the way and aimed his sword at his opponent's legs. Xar jumped right over it, turned on his heels and shot a fireball squarely into Maximilian's chest. The royal knight tumbled backwards and would have been beheaded if Drake hadn't tackled Xar to the ground.
Don't you dare hurt my friend!” he screamed and punched their enemy in the face. Before he was able to land another hit he was blown into the air by an invisible force—a force that he perceived as a gale of wind created by two tattered wings.
As soon as Xar jumped to his feet he parried two of Maximilian's attacks in rapid succession before kicking him backwards and throwing the “Heavenly Blade” into the air. It began to rotate all by itself, creating a flying ring of fire..
You're not an ordinary human, are you?” yelled Maximilian as he slung Xar's sword towards the wall.
Did I ever claim to be one?”
He spread his arms, creating two mini-tornadoes that swept across the floor. They followed his every movement and slowly inched towards Maximilian. There was no way for him to escape. He barely even noticed the new threat because he was too busy evading the wheel of flames. Every time he flung it away it came back like a boomerang.
Meanwhile Drake was hanging onto the metal arm, slowly inching his way downwards as he had been blown all the way towards the ceiling. His left arm looked like it had been ripped to shreds as he had used it to stop his fall. He glanced down once in a while and finally saw an opening when Xar moved his hands towards one another. Since he couldn't find any footing on the metal arm he tried swinging it towards their enemy. It took him a couple of tries till the construct finally gave in. It squeaked and cracked and was ripped from its hinges shortly afterwards. Drake jumped off before he was pulled down with it.
Xar's hands connected and Maximilian barely realized what was happening when he was sucked towards his opponent while the “Heavenly Blade” shot towards him from behind.
A deafening noise echoed through the room as the metal arm was smashed to pieces. Xar glanced sideways in confusion, just in time to see Drake flying towards him, his sword aimed at his hands.
He jumped backwards and spread his arms, freeing Maximilian from his magic but not from its momentum. The royal knight grabbed his sword with both hands and aimed its tip at his enemy. Seeing as Xar was still in midair he had no way to avoid Maximilian's retaliation.
He screamed in agony when the blade pierced his body, shredding his stomach in the process. Behind them Drake hit the floor, but not before ramming the “Heavenly Blade” into the ground.
How do you like that, asshole?” asked Maximilian with a confident smile on his face.
Xar sneered before reacting with a headbutt. Maximilian stumbled backwards while his sword remained. Xar ripped it from his stomach with his left hand while he unsheathed his own blade with the other. Blood, stomach acid and pus oozed from his wound but he didn't seem to care. “Well done but I am not finished! The game ends now!”
There was an ineffable change in the atmosphere and the air itself seemed to vibrate. Drake stepped in front of Maximilian, mentally readying himself for a barrier as he had no idea what their enemy was about to unleash.
Feel the might o—”
A series of lighting bolts slammed into his body time and time again. Nightmarish screams filled the room as Xar was burned to a crisp.
“—ity...” he uttered his dying breath as his smoking remains toppled over.
His body was more ash than flesh at that point, which caused it to fall apart in several places. Drake and Maximilian stared speechless at this gruesome spectacle before a voice from the entrance cut through the silence: “I am sorry that it had to come to this, but killing him seemed like the most sensible solution.”
Don't be,” said Maximilian. “He deserved what he got. If only he hadn't been so greedy.”
I see. I hope you're not planning to fight over the blade too.”
Why should we? I already have a magical sword. Maximilian can have this one.”
Thanks, especially because my old one would need a cleansing before I'd ever think of touching it again...”
He walked towards the shattered floor and removed some of the rubble before he could finally lay his hands on the “Heavenly Blade”.
He put his thumb on the ruby and it was engulfed by flames once more. Upon repeating that procedure the blade returned to normal. Then he swung it around his body, causing Drake to scream and jump backwards, despite not even touching him.
What's wrong?”
Drake showed him his right arm. Part of it looked burned although he never got hit by the flaming blade.
I guess it isn't called the 'Heavenly Blade' for nothing. It must be imbued with sacred and fire magic. Nice.”
Good for you, but try not to hit me again.”
Are you done in there?”
Yes, of course. Let's leave this place.”
They glanced at Xar's corpse for the last time before following the guardian towards the entrance.

X021-T saw them off at the passage leading to the elevator.
Thank you once more for destroying the environmental control station.”
And thank you for giving us this blade...and for potentially saving our lives. I still wonder what Xar was, but it seems we'll never know.”
According to my scans he was human through and through.”
Was he now? He certainly seemed different in the end.”
What does it matter?” asked Drake. “He's nothing but a pile of ash. We need to worry about Dorr'n Selkesch now.”
And then what?”
What do you mean?”
Have you already forgotten about Modera? Because she certainly hasn't forgotten her 'savior'.”
Drake sighed and stared at the ceiling. “I've tried contacting her time and time again since we arrived in the mountains, but either she's ignoring me, which makes no sense, or she can't hear me anymore. Seeing as the latter option is more probable this might be the perfect opportunity.”
For what?”
To ask if you'll help me kill her!”
A radiant smile appeared on Maximilian's face and he patted Drake's head. “Of course!”
I don't know what you're talking about, but good luck nonetheless!”
Thanks!” they responded in unison before they left the facility for good.

They climbed the rope, picked up their supplies and crawled down the mountain of rubble.
Wow, we actually wasted almost an entire day underground?” asked Drake as he became aware of the descending sun. “We'd better set up a camp soon.”
I don't suppose the Alp could send us back?”
If only things were that convenient.”
Drake had barely finished his sentence when they were snatched from the ground by two giant claws. The creature they belonged to ascended far into the air, giving our heroes a clear view of the landscape below. Any sane person would have worried about their current predicament but our heroes were too transfixed by the unnatural sight of the desert. The sea of sand was intruding into the swamp like a hungry beast that had been waiting for ages to consume its prey.
What is going on? At this rate the swamp will be gone in less than a week...” Maximilian's words were swallowed by fierce gusts of wind.
The winged creature was carrying them towards the south at an incredible speed and would reach the pillar of darkness sometime during the night. It had already consumed half the mountain.

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