Sunday, 12 August 2018

Episode CC - The Gates of Gihana

Ellis felt twitchy and restless as he and Siren made their way through the impossible city of the Ancients.  Partly this was because he expected the defences to come alive at any moment and force them into another race for their lives through the Escheresque streets, but mostly it was simply a symptom of the Slayer magick which had made him so suddenly powerful, and yet, ironically, had deprived him of anything to do with such power.

There was also the aspect of their search for their friends, which, despite having begun nearly an hour before, had borne no fruit whatsoever.  They had been relieved to find no evidence of Annabella and Nadiyya’s untimely demises near the entrance to the city, but that relief had quickly turned to puzzlement when there had turned out to be no clues as to what had actually become of them.  The only option remaining had been to explore the city and hope they stumbled upon a fresh lead.

And what an exploration it had become.  They had tried to be methodical, to make mental notes of the streets they turned down, doorways they passed through and ramps and steps they climbed, but there was no logic to the layout of the city – at least, there was no logic that they could discern – and Ellis quickly became lost.  He assumed that Siren had kept her bearings until she paused on a landing of one of the maze-like stairways and scratched her head.

“Oh, please don’t tell me that you’re lost, too!”

“No,” Siren replied, slightly evasively, “not lost so much, more just… a little turned around.”

“What do you mean, ‘turned around’?”

“Well… I’m not entirely sure if we’ve been here before.  All these junctions look the same!”

“So, do you have any idea how to get us back out of here?”

Siren paused then, “Uh… no.  Sorry.”

Ellis sighed and slumped to the floor, though he was only really mentally fatigued, his body still thrumming with excess hypostatick energy from the ritual with the black sand.

“Oh, come on, now, Ellis!  You can’t give up just like that!”

“Who says I’m giving up?” he replied, indignant.  “I just need to rest my eyes from all these… shapes and… colours.

“It is a bit maddening,” Siren agreed, stepping over and taking a seat on the strange landing beside him and there they sat in silence for a few minutes, just taking it all in.

Ellis only broke the silence when a thought occurred to him.

“When does this Slayer Magick run out?”

“Well,” Siren began, thoughtfully, “that amount of Black Sand usually last about three to four hours for me, but we’ve split it between two, so…”

“Two hours at most?” Ellis asked, alarmed.

“I guess so.”

“But we must’ve already used up an hour of that!”

Siren nodded.

“So, what happens when it runs out and we’re lost in the middle of this insane city?”

“I hope we don’t find out.”

Ellis pulled himself to his feet.  “We’ve got to keep moving,” he said, “searching, doing something!”

Siren nodded again and rose up beside him.  “I know,” she said, soothingly, “It’s just very hard to know what to do next.”

There was a moment of awkward silence whilst they stared at each other and thought about their situation and, Ellis, at least, found himself fearing whatever might happen if they remained lost.  It threatened to stretch out indefinitely since neither knew which way to go or how to solve their predicament and everywhere around them was just light and colour and impossible shapes that threatened to confuse and dazzle and turn their brains to throbbing mush.

Fortunately, fate, it seems, intervened.

There was a loud bang, followed by a sudden rush of air that tugged at Siren’s hair until it hung, mid-air, pointing towards the source.

“What was that?” Ellis asked as the sudden wind began to die down.

“An explosion, I’d guess and a particularly unnatural one, I’d say, judging by the way it sucked air in after it.”

“Annabella!” Ellis said and Siren gave a sharp nod before running off the landing in the direction of the blast.

The city was no less confusing, and if they had only had one blast to go by they would quickly have got lost again, but more followed the first, each sucking air into the silence that came after and each leading the way, like a trail of incendiary breadcrumbs, so that Siren was able to navigate decisively, choosing her corridors, stairwells, streets and underpasses without hesitation.  It was all Ellis could do just to keep up.

Eventually, the city seemed to open up and they came upon what might, in a human city, be referred to as a square, although it was anything but a simple quadrilateral and even the way the structures surrounding it enclosed and overhung and twisted through the space seemed impossible.  It was a crowded emptiness, a forested clearing, a filled void.

At what might possibly have been considered the centre of the space was a series of tall structures, like elaborated picture frames filled with a crystalline webbing, each standing vertical on its own plinth and at the foot of one of these plinths, surrounded by the moving, non-Euclidean geometries of the Sentinels, stood two human figures: Annabella and Nadiyya, and they were fighting for their lives.

Just as Ellis and Siren caught sight of their embattled companions, there was another loud explosion and, this time, the source was evident as Annabella reached out her hands towards one of the Sentinels, the air around it warped as if the fabric of space itself was being tugged and torn and then in a flicker of light the Sentinel fragmented – accompanied by the bang – before being pulled into the invisible tear, along with a substantial flow of air and vanishing from sight.  There were plenty more where it came from, however, and whilst Nadiyya just managed to hold them at bay with her whip and blades, it seemed to take a long time and a lot of energy for Annabella to recover and target another of the city’s blocky guardians.

“We have to help them!” Ellis shouted and Siren responded by speeding ahead of him, burning up Slayer magick with each stride until she seemed to glow green with all the hypostatick vapour steaming off her.  Ellis tried to keep up, but he wasn’t used to this power and didn’t know how to control it.  He managed a slight burst of speed, but Siren was already in the midst of the fray long before he arrived in the centre of Ancient’s plaza, the mysterious webbed structures rising up above him.

Siren was chipping away at Sentinels with her blades, giving Annabella a little more breathing space.  Ellis drew his sword and slipped through to cover the far side so that Annabella was surrounded by friends and had a chance to recover properly.  Indeed, it seemed a very short time before another sucking explosion eliminated one of the Sentinels Ellis had been holding off.

The battle was hard-going and Ellis quickly realised that, without Annabella’s powers to remove Sentinels from the battlefield, they would have been crushed long before.  Even with Slayer power, which continued to make them difficult for the Sentinels to detect, they could not take down one of the mysterious guards one their own.

And then, just when it looked like there was only a handful left and they could actually win the fight, there was a loud hum and, from all directions, through the impossible trajectories of the streets and alleyways leading into the square, more Sentinels came whirling, pounding, crushing their way towards them.  There were hundreds – many more than they had been fighting to begin with.  The city had calculated their level of threat and had upgraded.  It seemed that none of them could possibly get out of there alive.

“This is hopeless,” Ellis cried, battling two Sentinels as a third flickered into place between them, “we need to escape!”

“But this is a dead-end,” Siren called back, “we’re right in the heart of the city!  There’s nowhere to run!”

“There might be a way,” Nadiyya called, “Annabella thought that these structures might be the portals your Former Baron wanted you to find.”  She knocked back another couple of Sentinels and huffed, breathlessly towards another.  “If we could activate them somehow…”

Ellis glanced at the enormous, frame-like structures.  They did not appear to have any buttons, levers or other obvious methods of using them.  Now that he was closer to them, however, he could see that their frames were intricately carved, like the rock wall outside the city.  Something told him that if he could just touch that carving.

They fought as hard as they could.  Annabella, though it was draining her of all she had to give, managed to double the number of Sentinels she could send to wherever every minute or so, whilst Siren and Nadiyya were beast-like in their ferocity as if they were trying to outdo each other for the title of Gihana’s most badass intruder.  Ellis did what he could, which seemed pitiful by comparison, but, mostly, he was trying to work his way back through the fray so that he could reach the nearest of those structures.

Every inch was a war in itself.  Every step had to be won with grit and steel.  Every moment he persisted seemed a pyrrhic victory all its own unless he could make it to that carved frame.  And then?  What then?  What if his mad idea – a near certainty in his head, now – turned out to be little more than wishful thinking?  He couldn’t think of it, because there could be only one alternative to salvation.  And the closer he got the more sure he was that he would not be disappointed.  Indeed, it seemed that the structure wanted him to reach it, wanted him to touch the carved, crystalline stone.  It was necessity.  It was destiny.  It was everything!

And then, almost without knowing, Ellis was there, his hand pressing down onto the detailed stonework with aching anticipation.  He felt the cold, rough surface, more chill than stone should hold, then the sudden surge of energy within him, a hypostatick flow he could not contain, which burst forth through his pores to sear the skin and flood into the carved grooves across the frame.

The Sentinels froze, the city seemed to hold it’s breath and that hypostatick energy, Ellis very life-force, continued to fill the carved whorls and swirls all the way around the frame until…

The webbing was glowing, the space between filling with energy, the aperture in the very centre seemed to open up and, without thinking, without hesitation, Ellis shouted to the others, “Hurry, we have to go through!”

And there was blinding light and total darkness, freezing cold and boiling heat.  Ellis stepped through the gateway into nowhere and was utterly spent.

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