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 The Trials of Vintar

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Join date : 2012-02-06

PostSubject: The Trials of Vintar   Tue Sep 13, 2016 11:13 am

Alec furrows his brow at the Number. "....Uh." He looks around. "...What the fuck. Is there a point t' doin' this?"

The Number assumes its human appearance, that of a fair young woman with black hair and smoke-colored eyes. She might be recognizable as a certain Vindicator from a time long past, but Alec wouldn't know that. "Hello," she says, smiling as she rises from her seat. "Yes, there is a point. Why don't you have a seat here and we'll talk?" She gestures to an adjacent armchair. Was that there before?

Alec could use the rest. He obliges. The armor doesn't do him any favors, but as long as he doesn't have to keep moving. "...Well. Let's get on with it, a'guess."

The armor makes it feel as though Alec is sitting on a tack. Or perhaps several. "You can call me Natalie," the Number says. "And you're Alec, I presume."

"Yeah," he replies, nodding. "...Natalie's a nice name. So. What're we doin' here? This looks like Imperia... the place a'held up at."

"This was a safe place, for you. Not exactly in safe surroundings, but the place itself... safe. You set it up yourself, and if you can't trust yourself... but I'm not here to talk about Imperia. I'm here to warn you."

"Uh... a'right." He scratches his neck. "...Go on. I'll let ya know when this starts t' make sense."

"Do you like being used, Alec?" Natalie asks him. The question is not accusing, just... casual. It's odd, it being delivered in such a way, so suddenly.

Alec lifts a brow. "..Can ya be more specific? That's awfully sexual n' bold fer a lady such as yerself," he replies.

Natalie smiles. "I mean used, as in, manipulated for the gain of others."

He peers at her. "...I don' reckon anyone likes t' be used in that way, miss. I don' much like it, m'self."

"What if I told you that you are being used, and by several different parties, I might add."

"Wouldn' be surprised," he replies.

"Do you actually know what's down in the Vault? Did the Herald outside tell you? Sandra? Anyone?"

"Why the hell would ya be askin' me that question? 'Course a'don't know. When's anyone ever told me anythin'?" He squints back at her. "I've been blind 'bout what's been goin' on this whole damn trip, I don't expect someone t' shine down the light all'a sudden jus' cause ya brought it up."

"That's my point," Natalie says, leaning back in her chair. "There's only one reason to keep things from someone - fear of what they might do if they knew the whole truth. You aren't trusted by those you unknowingly serve. You aren't cared for by them, either. Why else would you be sitting here in that ridiculous suit of armor?"

"'Cause I ain't got much choice. It's a trade. An exchange. I help them, they help me. Suits me fine not knowin' all the details this time around, there ain't none a'could do about it." He sighs and hunches forward. "I jus' wan'a find m' friend n' make sure she's safe. Maybe get 'er out'a here. I ain't cut out fer savin' the world, or even jus' a country. You know that. They know that. Don't think anyone would be fool enough t' ask a common man t' do the deed'a some legendary type. 'Long as I find Terri n' get out'a here, I'm fine doin' some work along the way."

Natalie puts her hand on her chin, staring out the window. "...What if I told you you don't have to bother with any of this? You already have the means to enter the Vault, and once you do... there's power there, Alec. The power to save your friend. Defeat the Dark One. Even... turn back the clock. I know how much you've missed those you've lost. The Vault has an answer for that. It has an answer for everything."

Alec laughs and shakes his head. "Yer full'a shit. Go in there alone? I barely squeezed past the things guardin' the vault, I'm bettin' it's gonna be suicide goin' in alone. N' bringin' back loved ones? Yer testin' m' patience, Natalie. I don' know what y'came here t'do, but tryin' t' build up false hope in a man doesn' speak well'a a lady."

She turns to look him in the eyes. "I'm not lying about this, Alec. The objects down there... the machine you're supposed to find - oh, and destroy, big surprise there - it's world-changing. Those who would call themselves your superiors - they're afraid of you getting your hands on it and not just destroying it like they asked. They don't want you to have that power, they would rather you remain their miserable servant, always one step behind them." Natalie crosses her legs. "Besides, you won't be alone. I'll go with you. Together we can handle whatever's down there, and claim the power for ourselves."

Alec stares at Natalie. "That-" he pauses, thinking. "....that don't make no sense. That ain't what Numbers do. Why would ya do that?"

"Is it so hard to believe that one of us might get sick of being just a servant? We were made to be individuals, not slaves, but we're subject to the whims of Lord Zero. And Redwell, pff, a waste of potential if ever there was one. Sure, he could unmake us, but with the Vault's secrets, we could unmake him."

"I... highly doubt that," Alec replies, looking upon her with a frown. "...Look, I don' care about any'a that. I'm goin' down there, one way're another. Goin' in alone is suicide, n' frankly, I don' trust ya enough t' want ya down in there with me. Besides, I got Sandra, n' she's plenty busty enough t' be on this nutty trip. You, what're you gonna offer me?" He points at her. "Yer a damn magic-space-golem thing, with yer own crazy ideas n' a rebellious streak; if yer willin' t' break the trust'a the people that made n' look after ya, how'm I s'posed t' know ya won't break mine? No, lady, I wasn't born yesterday." He points at her. "Now quit it. Yer not gettin' anythin' out'a me without flashin' some tits."

"You're a difficult man to figure out, Alec Smith," Natalie says. "What is it you want, anyway? Money and fame don't move you. You seem pretty satisfied in the romance department. Why pursue this quest? Why go through these trials? Is it all just for this friend of yours whom you barely know any more?"

Alec stared at Natalie. He scoffed and looked away from her. "Ha, knew ya wouldn't have the guts. We're done here."

"Don't be a fool, Alec. There's a better way to get what you truly want."

"Look, lady. You can spin whatever tale ya like. But here's somethin' I know that yer fair self doesn't seem t' 'ave been elightened with. A body that knows how t' get the job done an' doesn't go around lookin' fer somebody else's help. N' a body that knows they can endure whatevers comin' their way doesn' hesitate t' do what they got'a do. In as far as this conversation's goin', I reckon ya possess neither'a those qualities, n' I reckon I got both. So thank ya kindly fer yer help, but it ain't necessary. I'll do what I see right when a'get down in that Vault. I'll work with who'a choose t' work with. N' I ain't got'a tell ya why or how I do so. I got jus' as much right t' keep my reasons t' myself as a'do t' have 'em in the first place. So. Are we done here?"

"Yes," Natalie says, sitting back. "We're done here. Please see yourself out." She points to the door behind him.

He slowly stands up, grunting. "Damn shame, I was hopin' fer a show. Ah well, probably ain't as good as Sandra's, anyway." He turns around, heading for the door.

"Oh, they are, trust me on that."

He scoffs. "Sure." He pushes the door open and exits the room, if he can, taking care with his next step.

A large bell rings once. The end of this trial. But if this next room he now finds himself in is any indication, these challenges are only going to get worse. Much, much worse.

Alec hobbles into the room to take a look around. "Uh.. a'right? Did'a pass the interview? Wore m' bes' suit, even," he joked.

The room is a finely decorated dining hall. The table is filled with every conceivable food imaginable, meats, cheeses, breads, fruits, and so forth. Numerous fine wines, ales, and liquors are proudly displayed as well. The aroma is intoxicating. A roaring fire is encircled by soft armchairs, a welcome sight to a weary soul. Outside the tall windows, the sun shines brightly, its light streaming in. The hall is warm, bright, and inviting.

Alec strokes his chin, and rubs his belly. "...I'm pretty darn hungry." His stomach growled in response. Alec decided to investigate some more before he would be willing to sit down. "Anyone here? Anybody? Hellooo?"

"Over here, darling," says an all-too-familiar voice, somewhere at the table. The food is piled too high, Alec will have to do some searching.

Alec lofts a brow. "...Wha'." He follows the sound of the voice, searching the table, examining the food as he goes.

A basket of warm, buttery biscuits. A rack of lamb. A side of beef. Plump table grapes. A 20-year-old savignon. Broad leaves laid delicately across a nude form, upon which rest hors d'oeuvres. "There you are," Persephone says with a radiant smile. "Welcome."

Alec halts, staring at her like he's seen a ghost. No, obviously this wasn't real. Number 4 had just hinted as unsubtly as she could at a means of bringing Persephone back, which meant she was still gone. But.. he allowed himself to believe it, if only for a little while. "...Hi, Perse," Alec stated. He stood upright, and watched her vacantly.

Persephone frowns. "You're confused. I can see it. Your face scrunches up just like this..." she does her best Alec impersonation. "...Don't be. All you need to know is that in every possible way, it truly is me. Unless you'd like proof?" She briefly casts her eyes down at the leaves, smiling devilishly.

Alec stares at her. "...I killed you," he replies. "There ain't any way it's you." He looks around. "I ain't fergotten where I am." He approaches her and takes a seat somewhere beside her. The lavish exterior does nothing to help him relax in his armor.

The armor seems all the more uncomfortable when compared with such fine furnishings, food, and... other things. Persephone props herself up on her elbows, the leaf remaining tastefully across her chest. "Oh, sure, spoil the fun, why don't you. You're so grouchy all the time, it's bad for you health."

"Yeah, so's bein' alive. I jus' keep dyin' slowly an' nothin' seems t' make it better," He jokes back. "...There a reason yer buck naked? I don' remember seein' this much'a yer skin outside'a one time, n' those sketches."

"Don't play coy, Alec Smith. In my own humble opinion, there's no way I'm that forgettable." She pops one of her hors d'oeuvres into her mouth. "Of course, if you truly desire another, then that isn't a problem either. Sandra, dear, don't be shy now, why don't you come on out?" She emerges in a white, low-cut evening gown that seems to glow with the rest of her. A diamond necklace glitters around her neck, and her hair is longer and wavier, spilling onto her shoulders.

Alec does a double-take. Now, he's confused. "Wait. Wait, hang on- the fuck's goin' on 'ere?" This must have been a cruel joke, he was managing not to give in to his libido, but now, the armor was making his normal pains of lust far more painful.

Persephone sits up straighter, spilling the hors d'oeuvres onto the table. She doesn't seem to care. "Look around you," she motions to all of the foods. "A feast fit for a God. The finest chairs to sit on, the finest sheets to ... sleep, in. You and me, you and her, you her AND me... all you have to do is take a seat. Eat, drink, and... be merry."

Alec holds still. "...I get it... yer tryin' t' get me out'a the armor," he murmurs. Alec shuts his eyes. "...Stand up, Persephone. I don't reckon yer the real one, but stand up." He sounded somewhat defeated. Alec himself rose out of his seat, turning over his gauntlets and staring his obscured palms.

Persephone does so, spilling food and drink everywhere. Her eyes never leave his, and her face remains expressionless. "...Like this?" she says, her voice almost a whisper.

"Jus' like that. Don' move." Alec approaches her, slowly taking his arms up and embracing Persephone as well as he can through the cold metal armor. "...I'm sorry. Sorry fer what'a did t'ya... sorry fer not savin' ya in the firs' place. Life's always put me on the hard path, n' ya always let me rest on the easy one. Ya liked it easy, heh. But, that ain't me, Perse. I can't accept easy livin', now I know the truth." Sorrowfully, he withdraws from the embrace, "A hard life's waitin' fer me outside'a this hall. Funny thing about truth, y'can't unknow it... n' I can't delude myself in'a thinkin' I can stay with ya fer any longer." On his own accord, he would head for the door he entered from. "Leave me t' suffer. I earned it."

"But Alec, wait-" the door closes. Alec is standing on a small hill overlooking an expansive plain. The grass is vibrantly green, stretching for miles, interrupted by the occasional gnarled tree or solitary stone. A light breeze dispels the sun's heat, bees and other flying insects mill about, going through their daily routines. Someone is running up the hill, now, towards Alec. No, it couldn't be...

Alec pauses. "Wait, hang on- now that'a think about it, I should'a stared at ya a lil-" but there was no way back to the lavish feast, to Persephone.

"Alec!" The voice is one he has not heard in several years. Its owner is Taria Elwood, arcane armswoman, another ghost of Alec's past, and yet her demeanor suggests anything but. Tall, strong, with a gun prominently displayed at her side, she is bursting with energy and excitement.

Alec almost doesn't recognize her voice, for it had been years. Five? Six? His jokes were silenced for a moment as he took in the image of a woman he had given up hope of ever meeting again. Already, Alec could feel in his gut the many voices of doubt within him. But, he ignores them. Just to speak with her again for a moment, he couldn't ignore the chance. Still fresh from the wounds he'd opened after seeing Persephone, Alec took one slow step after another towards Taria.

"You wouldn't believe it, Alec!" she calls to him as though she'd never vanished, as though it were six years ago. "There was this old building out on the plains. I found it during a hunt, and- blueprints, Alec. Simmons, I know it. You've got to come see." She beckons for him to follow.

Caught up in her pace, Alec gets dragged along. "Uh... uhh... w- wait, hang on-" He tried to protest, but this sort of thing never worked with his teacher. With whatever blood was still left to circulate in him, Alec managed a small blush. "Taria- Taria, I ain't fit t' move!"

"No excuses, we have to hurry before someone else finds it. It's just past that hill there." She points at a ridge on the horizon, and begins jogging back down the slope. "Come on, what's gotten you? Faster!"

Alec.. started running? "Uh-.. wait-.. uh-.." He stumbles across the plains, chasing after her. "Wait!" He calls out after her. "What's-.. I don' get this," he mumbled to himself. Memories of Taria were less mature, less guarded. He was a simpler person then, and his affections for her were more innocent. He kept up the chase, wondering if the true test lay at the end of this run, or if this itself was the test. He'd look out to the hill Taria had pointed out and tried to gauge the distance.

As Alec runs, the armor becomes more and more of a burden. Despite his best efforts, the exhausted gunman simply can't keep pace. She draws farther away. "Alec, come on! I'm not going to wait around for you, just a heads-up."

"I'm comin', I'm- fuckin'.." Alec chases after her, hoping he can keep following her as far as his legs will take him. He was already weak in body. "I know! I know ya won't wait! I know..."

Alec goes downhill, and he goes uphill. It's unclear how much time he spends chasing her. But no matter how much he pushes himself, no matter how fast he gets his legs moving, Taria is always maddeningly just out of reach. And with each stride, the armor becomes that much hotter, sweatier, smellier, and more painful to wear. Taria begins disappearing over the hilltops, now. "Hurry up! It's just a bit further..." When Alec reaches the top, she's already climbing the next one. She exudes boundless energy, her hair wild as she runs through the windswept plains. Her eyes call out to him with their intensity. "Just over this one, come on... follow me."

"Sh..shit-" Alec tried to keep chasing, but the outcome had been decided before the chase had even begun. Alec slowed down. Eventually, he stood still.

Taria disappears over the hill, still calling out to him. Her voice grows ever more distant. In time, she will be gone. Again.

Alec did not give chase. He stood resolutely. "There ain't... no point.. chasin' you fer the rest'a m' life, Taria." It seemed with every admission he had made, he killed a little more of himself. Slowly, Alec turned his back on the fleeing Taria, and trudged back in the direction he came from. "...I... I got work t'do," he said, steeling himself. He had no idea where to go, but not toward Taria. He would be chasing her forever if he gave in to that feeling.

As Alec walks, a cloud passes over the sun. The air grows colder, and his footfalls crunch in the snow. Alec is in Inferia, near the edge of Valenwood. A familiar sight greets him - the lean-to he and Erin built before their relationship changed so dramatically. No one is inside, at the moment, but smoke curls up from the remains of the fire.

Alec walks up to the small hut. The helm hides his expression, which was otherwise deprived of much of its usual confidence and strength. "...N' what's this doin' here? There ain't even anythin' on the fire... I think yer slippin' up, trial-master." He looked through the camp for a hint.

"Alec Smith," yet another familiar voice proclaims. It's male, but with a dark undertone. The voice of a demon. And from the way it almost chokes on his name, it is undoubtedly not pleased to see him.

Alec looks to the source of the voice. He's hardly in a condition to fight a demon, but happy to find something different from the monotony of being alone. "That'd be me," he replies.

Lord Volucris stands before him. "We meet again. And of all places, here. Tell me Alec, I am curious - do you know which of the Trials belonged to which God? Have you been keeping track?"

Alec shrugs. "I don' even know the names'a the gods, Volucris. Except two'a them. Fer all a'know, I'm still doin' the second one."

Volucris chuckles. "Would that I could devise such a cruel ploy. No, you are inside of the fifth trial, that of Myra. You are familiar with her, I assume. And quite familiar with her would-be missionary, as I've heard."

"More're less," Alec comments, starting to walk idly in circles around Volucris. "And, am'a gonna get a hint as t' what I'm s'pose t'do? Myra... Myra..." He peers at Volucris, "Does big bad demon-wemon need a widdle hug?"

Volucris smiles in amusement. "No, Alec, I don't. But you remind me of something interesting. That woman who follows you around- well, not so much a woman any more. Smiley, I believe her name was? Do you ever think about what that says about you?"

"What're ya gettin' at, Volucris? You tryin'a tell me I'm such a ladies man, demons're fallin' at m' knees? Shucks, I didn' figure ya'd be one t' flatter."

"Demons can admire others, Alec. But not in the way you imagine. You impressed Smiley because you truly were a better torturer than she could hope for. You bested her at her own game - just as you bested me at mine. And the list goes on, and on, and on... everywhere you go, a new adversary. Another gunfight, the outcome always the same. Them dead, and you still standing. How many lives have your guns taken, Alec? Do you even know?"

"Somewhere over a couple hundred, but still ain't over a thousand," he replied. "Ain't sure'a the exacts. Guess I'd have t' sit down n'... count. But yer walkin' up a creek ya don't wan'a tread on, Volucris. I'd kindly warn any figure, however prominent, not t' go treadin' on another man's graves."

"How is my reminding you of your numerous victims treading on their graves? I'm merely illuminating something for you, Alec. But I'll go a step further - you're not only a monster, Alec, you're a monster that deserves everything coming to you."

Alec stares at Volucris angrily. "...And?"

"Well," Volucris smiles. "Here's a surprise. The legendary gunman admits I am right. Time for my next question - amidst the wreckage of others' lives, what is it you have built?"

"...Toys. Tools. Guns... a guild- course, that got torn apart n' burned down." He looked up a road somewhat distantly. "...An alliance... which'll live on, even when a'm gone. But I reckon... that there ain't no way fer me t' tell if what a'built offsets what a'brought down."

"Toys, tools, please. We both know your specialty was always in weapons. Devices that kill. Maim. Destroy. And your Guild was a hunters' guild. Roamed the woods, slaughtering beasts, hoarding treasure and valuable artifacts. The only thing that stands out at all is this 'alliance' you mention... but it's not one between nations, or cities. Just some backwater town that perhaps was slightly affected by your actions. What an achievement for the mighty monster-hunter, the great cloak-bearer, Alec Smith. Why don't we go back to your friends?"

Alec glares at Volucris. "Yeah? How 'bout we talk about yers. N' that master y'all seem t' share, the one that's responsible fer Inferia's collapse. I ain't gonna get lectured about evil by a demon, n' I ain't about t' be condemned by one either, ya fuckin' hypocrite. Here's the difference between you n' me, scumbag. Yer a rotten, slimey, snake, n' you'll decieve n' betray anyone y'can t' get what y'want. I ain't like that. I bear my burden n' take m' punishment. I don't run away from my own sins. One day, it'll all come back fer me, n' y'know what? I deserve it. I freed Taric. I put Perse down. Ran away from m' family n' left the business t' my brother. I ain't exactly a good man, I know that damn well. But I ain't dishonest or dishonorable." He motions to himself. "I'll take what's comin' t' me. It's mine t' accept or deny... n' yer fuckin' meddlin' isn't gonna make it better or worse, so jus' shut yer trap. Yer wastin' air."

"Ah, now I understand," Volucris says with a laugh. "You're just the selfless hero, freeing people, saving them, and accepting your punishment? You will enjoy the next Trial, then. But this one is not yet over. Because I think there is one thing worth mentioning that really puts a dent in your whole facade of nobility. Tell me Alec, where do you think Terri and her father were while you were with your new pet Promethean? What horrors might they have suffered while you rested your head in her oh-so-perfect bosom? Do you really have the audacity to think that one such as you is worthy of being a Knight? You, who could barely even drag your weak, pitiful frame up the cliffs to this place? You walk among Gods, Alec, and you... you aren't even a man."

Alec glared at Volucris. "Shit, that mus' make ya an insect, Vol. Ya got yer whole operation turned upside down by somebody 'less than a man.' Go home. Swallow yer own rhetoric, or choke on it, whatever ya like. I ain't a hero. Might not even be a man. But a'said I'd find Terri, n' I'm stickin' t' my word. N' after that, what comes... comes."

"I am not Lord Volucris," says Lord Volucris. "And you take credit for an achievement that was not your own. You killed me with the cloak, Alec. Remember? The cloak is the only reason you've made it this far. The only reason you've accomplished anything at all here, besides dying a horrible death - which you even admit you deserve. Here is what I propose, Alec Smith. You let Sandra continue where you could not. I'm sure the cloak can be altered to fit her... not that she would need it. You take off that armor, and go back to whatever cesspool you slithered out of. Because you are the only insect here, little worm."

"Nice try, dirtbag. Only reason I used that cloak on ya was 'cause you were dumb enough t' walk in'a it," he chuckles under the helmet. "Yeah. I might not be cut out fer this job, but I got picked fer it. If y'think the people upstairs made a mistake, take that arguement up wi' them. Meanwhile, I got a commitment t' fill. Several, actually, n' I don't quit 'til the damn job is done, or I'm dead."

"So be it," Volucris says, his expression returning from one of anger and disgust to one of neutrality. "You shall be permitted to pass. For your own stubbornness, if nothing else. Learn Myra's teachings, and perhaps you will find a way to build something besides a gun pointed at yourself." Lord Volucris turns and walks away. And his shape changes to that of the gunman, complete with his hat and cloak. "Th'next trial won' be easy fer you. Have fun."

Alec stares back at the figure. "...I didn' make the rules," he turned toward the road, "But I don' reckon anyone else did, neither..." He proceeds.

It isn't long before the scenery changes, yet again. This time, Alec finds himself in the Vault Chamber, the door at the opposite end of the room, across from him. The torches cast a pale, dim light on the dusty old room.

Alec looks across the room. The embers of his anger are chilled, but somehow, he seemed emptier than before. He wasn't sure what carried him from door to door. He was starving, short on blood, physically and mentally exhausted, all the gaps in his heart exposed, and had his every reason for action attacked on all levels. But still he carried on. Just as he said, he would continue until the job was done. He hobbled toward the Vault's door. "...Jus' gettin' more n' more creative, ain'cha. What'm I on, now.. six?" He halts before the door, staring at it.

The Vault gets no closer as Alec walks towards it. The room seems to stretch away from him before his very eyes, distorting the distance. An armored figure, pale and translucent, walks up beside him. It bears the face of the late Eleanor Duvedirfel, a Knight in her prime. "Alec Smith," the apparition says softly, with a tinge of melancholy. "You have arrived at the penultimate Trial."

Alec comes to a halt. "...Ya make it sound like a bad thing," he comments. "...What'm I here t'do? Dance a jig?"

"The final trial is beyond that door," she says, pointing to the Vault. "You must reach it. That is the only objective."

Alec stares at the door to the Vault. "...That's funny, seems t'me it ain't gettin' any closer when'a walk toward it. You bein' coy wi' me, miss?" He tilts his head at her.

"No," Eleanor says somberly. "Just remember, you've made it this far, and only by completing this Trial can you do as you're meant to. Go now. Try to reach the door. Try..." she floats away, fading into a fine mist.

He blinks at her statement. Staring ahead at the door, Alec starts walking. "...Well, ain't no harm in tryin'."

Squish. Alec steps in a Blight pustule. Already the corruption begins creeping up the plating of the magical armor. It can't be felt, yet... but it will be.

Alec pauses, and looks down. Blight? No, that's not right. Whatever, that just meant he couldn't waste any time. Alec started to pick up the pace, running at a pathetic, but nonetheless increased pace.

The Blight creeps up his entire leg, beginning to dig into his skin, penetrating the outermost layers, consuming them. The sensation is excruciating, and this time there is no cloak to stave off the effects. The door remains at the end of the hall.

Alec starts to feel sick to his stomach. He begins to lose his footing. His feet, already ripe with blisters before, were now becoming fleshy stalks that would not hold him upright. It wasn't long before he fell. Grotesque and weak, Alec crawled to the Vault door.

The door taunts him with its apparent nearness. He falls onto a bed of more Blight. The infection spreads to his abomen, now, and encroaches upon his collarbone. An awful sensation informs Alec that he is now as Volucris proclaimed him. The armor expands and contracts, reshaped by the corruption. Alec feels his bones crushed, his muscles pulled apart and shaped like clay. It is a pain unlike any he has ever experienced, a gift not even Smiley could dream of giving.

Alec's body is at its limit; no, that wasn't right. It was way past its limit. Alec felt himself a doomed man, but he was not afraid of such a thing. Unable to pull himself forward, Alec did the unthinkable. With Blight-welted hands, he grabbed hold of the Blight, and pulled himself forward with the corruption.

The door draws nearer. And something strange begins to happen. The Blight continues to ravage his body, but something, it seems, is ravaging the Blight. Around him, amid the now-thriving carpet of living corruption, a pure, black stain begins to spread. The life is choked from the Blight as the stain grows in size, nearing Alec now. Around him, his sense of magic wanes as it is consumed like oxygen to starving flames - Dorifium.

Alec resolves that this doesn't make any fucking sense. This pain didn't make sense. This armor didn't make sense. Dorifium? Why was that here? None of this made sense. And why was he crawling? Why couldn't he just stand up and walk to the Vault? And... well, why couldn't he? Alec stopped his struggle. He stopped crawling altogether, and just tried to push himself to his feet and walk over to the vault door. Either it was really there... or it wasn't. He refused to acknowledge a possibility outside of the those two.

To Alec's amazement, he is upheld by something other than his failing form. He rises to walk to the door, an apparent miracle. In moments, however, his disbelief catches up to him, and the Blight and Dorifium rise up to meet him. His vision blurs, darkens, goes out altogether. All sensation leaves him. Alec Smith is dead.

The next thing Alec sees is the Throne Room of Lord Zero himself, aboard the greatest of the Starfortresses.

Alec is flat out confused, now. "...What." He looks himself over.

Lord Zero's arms rest upon those of his throne. His piercing gaze is transfixed on the disoriented gunman.

Alec stares at the Lord of the Numbers. He knew nothing of this person. Alec wasn't even aware of Zero's existence. All that he knew that before him was what may have been his final judge. "...Well, fuck."

"Is that all?" Zero's voice is deep, slow, and deliberate. It carries with it unfathomable power, but also a certain weariness, born of the burden of the sphere's greatest and most difficult responsibility.

"...There ain't anythin' I can say t' change the past, is there?" Alec's response was.. a bit defeated.

Zero stares at him, the golden glow of his eyes all but overwhelming. It is as though the armor, the clothes beneath it, and even the flesh beneath that, did not exist. Alec was made as bare as was conceivable before the Zeroth. "No," its voice echoes. "But do you believe you can change the future?"

"I... don' know," he answered in genuine lack of words. "I don' know... if there's anythin' you can do.. after ya die. Is there?" He looked at the powerful figure. "I ain't ever... I'd do it-... if there was. I'd try, at least. I don' know... but I'd try. At least there's tryin'," Alec determines, settling on an answer.

Zero sits motionless for a time, considering Alec's response. Then he asks, "Why try?"

The response was simple, this time. Though, it came with some hesitation, as though simply admitting it was compromising the security of something else. "...I don'... wan'a fail."

"Fail what? Whom?"

"...Everybody, a'guess. All the folk a'made promises to. M'family. M'friends... you guys, a'guess. Terri, Sandra... it's too late fer some." He thinks mournfully of Persephone. "...I'm thinkin' it might be too late fer me t' continue m' work. Reckon a'm dead, maybe... But if it ain't too late, then I don' wan'a let it end without keepin' m' word."

Lord Zero nods his head once. "Honor, then, is what you serve?"

Alec rubs at his neck. "...Maybe. I ain't too sure what the word fer it is. I'm thinkin'... integrity. That's what sounds right t'me. Never figured I could solve it all, y'know. But a'figured at least if'a weren't uncouth about it, if'a were straight with everythin' a done, then a'weren't gonna be holdin' any grudges, or havin' 'em held against me. Ma' used t'say that jus' 'cause yer gettin' hit's no reason t'hit back. Might be that ya done somethin' t' deserve it. N' Pa said that yer only as good as yer word, which itself's only as good as how well it holds. A'figured if m'word was always good, good as it could be, then ya'll would listen t'me when a'said a'didn't mean nothin' bad in what a'done. But... mean it're not, some things there ain't no control over. Guess all a'got t' say is that... a'm sorry a couldn'a done better. Got m'self killed doin' some test. Heh. Pa'd be mortified iffin' 'e knew."

"You are not dead, but shall return from this enlightened. Continue to grow, that you may fulfill your purpose. You have passed all Seven, and are now home. Farewell, and may your spirit never fail you." The next sensation Alec feels is that of the most uncomfortable armor in the world digging into his back. He is lying on his back in a small, bare chapel. The inside of Vintar's Temple, presumably.

Alec stares at the top of the ceiling, motionless, breathing sharply as his consciousness returns. His eyes dart around the room, and the armor. He spends some time pondering the order of events. The trials had run him ragged, and he wasn't in such great shape to begin with when he started. He was still alive. But.. he didn't feel that way.

The Herald enters through the double doors with the scraping of stone on stone. "I suppose congratulations are in order. Do you wish to leave this place, now? Or stay a while? There are those who find it helpful to contemplate what they saw, for a time, here in the Sanctum of Vintar."

The Herald's annoying voice quickly helped restore Alec to reality. He slowly sits up, and begins removing the armor.

"You passed the First Trial. You may remove the- right."

Alec pauses, looking at the Herald. "...What-... what were you gonna say? Firs' trial? Didn't ya say I couldn't remove it fer all the trials?"

"The First Trial is wearing the armor through all of the others, yes. You have thus completed it. And the others, too, of course. It's really quite simple."

He furrows his brows and continues removing the armor. "Right," he replied.

When Alec is finished, the Herald touches the armor as it floats to his open palm, and places it in some unseen dimension. In the same instant, he is holding Alec's cloak, with all of his equipment. "Your effects."

The gunman retrieves his belongings and begins to slowly don the cloak, and all it carried. It was docile now, not as rebellious as it had been as of the past few hours.

"Sandra now stands to take the Trials. When she is done, regardless of the outcome, you both will be tended to. The journey into the Vault awaits you, and these Trials are intended to prepare you. I hope you found them constructive. Or that you do, someday."

"What... what d'ya mean... ain't these trials meant.. t' test someone?" Alec looks at the Herald. "...Aren't ya seein' if we're qualified?"

"They are more than simple tests. You can fail them, yes, but failure does not exclude you from another attempt. They are about growth, about MAKING you qualified. For most, this process takes years. We don't have that kind of time. You couldn't be properly trained, and so the Trials became your training. I can only hope you gained something from it all... to rush such a thing rarely ends positively."

He stares at the Herald, rubbing at his eyes. "The hell was I s'pose t'gain? What'm I supposed t'be? I went in'.. n' I gave up everythin' I had t' give up already, a second time.. n' then, a'died. N' what if that were all real? What the hell am'a left with?"

"Allow me to explain the Trials more clearly, then. As someone who passed, technically, you have earned that right, at least. The First Trial is Mordyr's. Armor that is uncomfortable. A burden that we must carry. To pass the other trials with this burden is to overcome it, and so pass the First Trial. The Second Trial is Lothe's, a Trial of secrets, of alluring knowledge - mixed with lies. For truths are easily distorted, and some are better avoided altogether. The Third Trial is Tyra's, temptations of the flesh, the body - these, too, can lead one astray if not careful. The Fourth is Kita's, similar to Tyra's in some ways, but it is a mental temptation, not a physical one. The Fifth, Myra's - learning peace is all she will allow me to reveal. The Sixth, Scilla's - facing one's own demise. Facing failure, yet continuing to move on. The Seventh is Vintar's. The abandonment of personal pride, in service to a Lord, a God, an ideal, anything. We must all serve in spite of our circumstances, lest we risk losing ourselves."

"Beneath the distractions, the burdensome armor we each wear, we are forced to examine ourselves. For improvement - and in your case, a taste of things to come, that it may make them easier to endure. That was the intent, at any rate."

Alec appeared to stare at the Herald with a vacant expression. Somehow, the answer did not satisfy him. Though discontent, he lowered his gaze for lack of strength to pursue the point further.

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PostSubject: Re: The Trials of Vintar   Tue Sep 13, 2016 11:21 am

Pain was nothing new to Sandra. If it had been, the armor she now wore would be a torture. There was magic in it, she sensed, not warm and familiar, but cold and tired, burdened by centuries. It bothered her more than any of the edges digging into her flesh.

The first chamber was waiting for her. She had seen Alec as he left. Never had the man looked so defeated. She wondered what horrors could possibly do that to him, the man who stared down gods and monsters with a grim smile.

Swallowing her uncertainty, Sandra entered. The chamber was... empty. Stone floors. Walls embossed with iron symbols. It reminded her of home, of the stoic, utilitarian nature of Inferian architecture.

Her eyes came upon a young woman. She was stunned by her sudden appearance, but also by her looks. She had ivory skin, coal-black hair, eyes the color of burnt wood, but most importantly, her face was Sandra’s own.

"Do you know who I am?" the woman asked her.

"...Yes. And no."

"I am Jade Sadot, daughter of Vivald and Anna, Magistrates of the Seventh Imperial Spire of Incendis. I am you, Sandra. As you might have been."

She could not move, nor speak. The pain she felt was forgotten, replaced by an altogether less pleasant sensation - that of loss, grief, guilt.

"During your fourth year, you were taken from this place. The people who took you changed you into someone else. Into something they called Promethean. The beginning of something more."

"I know," Sandra said, unable to look up from the floor, into those eyes...

"You don't know everything," hearing her own voice from elsewhere was disquieting, to say the least.

Sandra bowed her head. "Is... is that why you're here? To tell me?"

"I must warn you. You will not like what I have to say. But you don't have to hear it. You can take off the armor you wear, turn around, and leave this place. I will not hold it against you."

"So this is the trial," Sandra replied. Mustering what strength she could, she brought her gaze to Jade's eyes. Her eyes. "Tell me, then."

With a nod, her doppelganger spoke. "Like every Magistrate, your parents' name and reputation was built upon their magical heritage. Like the God-kings of old, the Power flowed strong in their bloodline. Indeed, Vivald's grandfather had served in the Zoreate, whose magic protected Inferia from They Who Destroy. And your mother came from a family of proud artisans and dousers, who helped Inferia put its natural resources to the best possible use.”

“But magic by its nature follows no rule. It comes and goes from places we can not fathom for reasons we can not guess. Vivald and Anna, scions of Inferian nobility, gave birth to an ungifted daughter."

"She was not Mundane, but the Power rejected her. It was not meant for her. Even at the age of four, it was apparent to the doctors, the alchemists, the Councillors, that she would never wield magic as the noble houses did. She could not be trusted with the family's legacy."

"Under normal circumstances, this was little more than an inconvenience. But after her first pregnancy, Anna could no longer conceive. The finest healers of the highest positions were called to your family's Spire. Though there was no evidence, they suspected sorcery, or worse, Daemonicum."

"For your mother and father, esteemed magi, to sire no children except for you, would have gravely damaged their reputation. But for them to have had no children at all carried with it its own stigma. There was seemingly no way out of their predicament - until that fateful knock on their door."

“There came the answer to all of their problems. Anna would be healed, their reputation restored, if not improved. Great power and wealth awaited them - if only they relinquished a single innocent soul.”

In a way, she had always known, even underneath the layers of mental conditioning. Inside the armor, she couldn’t breathe, nor keep her legs from shaking. She squeezed her eyes shut to the apparition.

"Leave now, and you might still save yourself. From here, the trials will only get worse. All of what I have said is true."

"My parents... threw me away. None of this would have happened, I could have..." Sandra remembered what she had seen and heard those weeks ago, sensations which would never leave her for as long as she might live.

"I would be dead, if not for them," Sandra said, almost choking on the words. "Maybe worse. I don't know if I'll ever forgive them... but I can't deny that."

"Fate is often cruel. It can drag people screaming from their home and visit unspeakable horrors upon them. And yet, to survive such a fate is to be given an opportunity which few receive."

"...What good is survival if I've lost everything?"

"You have not lost everything. You have a name. Not a glamorous one, perhaps, but one that's yours. In a way you've already begun to accept the truth."

"That I can't go back. Only forward." When Sandra raised her eyes again, the ghost was gone. It was a long time before her heart stopped racing.

---

The next room contrasted sharply with the first. Ornately carved wooden furnishings. Soft throw pillows. A warm fire. This was where she spent most of her off-time before everything went wrong. A common room, at the peak of one of the palace's turrets.

"Hey, Sigma." The voice belonged to an old... acquaintance. That was the best way to describe how Prometheans acted towards each other.

"Gamma," she said instinctively. She then remembered where she was, the armor she wore, and the fact Gamma was long dead. "This isn't real."

"Way to kill the mood." Gamma set aside the book he was reading, patting a spot on the couch. "Why don't you join me?"

"If I answer yes, I fail the trial, is that it?"

"Ha, that'd be funny. But no, no games, I just want to talk. We can talk, can't we?"

"We can do lots of things," she said, sitting down next to him. "Doesn't mean we should."

"Oh, Sigma, you wound me. Guess I'll have to go with plan B. Are you happy?"

"For spoiling plan A? Sure am."

"No, what I mean is, are you happy with... well, the way things have been going lately."

Sandra couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. What sort of a trial was this? "...The obvious answer would be no, but-"

"Why are you unhappy? What's got you down?" Gamma grinned as if he knew the answer already. Actually, he probably did.

"Here's a better question - why do you care?"

"Now come on, don't make this about me. This is your show, remember? Now why are you so unhappy?"

Shrugging involuntarily, she answered. "Well... for starters, you're dead, plus most of my kind along with you, and I'm sitting here inside the most uncomfortable armor ever made, talking to your ghost, or something. Not a lot has gone my way lately, but I'm dealing with it."

"Dealing with it... yes, we all know how you dealt with things." He raised his eyebrows at her. Her response was to sigh and look the other way. "Sorry," Gamma said. "Didn't mean to uh... stir anything up."

"Would you just get to the point?" she said, turning back to face him. "If there is one?"

"You need to relax, Sigma. Sandra. Whatever your name is- look, have you ever just... stopped? Even for a second?"

"What are you getting at? Of course I stopped. I used to spend time here between assignments. I stop a lot more, now."

"You're splitting hairs. You know what I'm asking you. Did you ever stop and ask yourself why?"

"No. Maybe,” her confusion was growing by the minute. “...I mean, I couldn't, could I? I was ‘reset’ 14 times... probably because I did stop."

"Probably. But I think you know that I'm talking about what you've done since getting free. This new mission you're on now."

"What mission? I thought I was just doing the right thing."

"You've always done what you thought was right, Sigma. No one can argue with that. But now you're free to decide what's right... yet nothing's changed, has it?"

“So I should give up and run away. Is that what you’re saying?"

"You keep asking what to do when you should be deciding what to do. Think about it, Sigma. You're one of the most powerful beings in the world, even more so now that most of us are gone. And the first thing you do after finally getting the freedom you tried so many times to get before? You throw yourself at a stranger's feet, let him do whatever he wants with you, and follow him like a dog. Don't you understand what's wrong here?"

She shifted uncomfortably on the couch, and not just because the armor was digging into her thigh. "Alec is my friend. Maybe... more than that. He needs my help, and I can give that to him."

"Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." He echoed her own words back at her. “What do you even stand to gain from all this? A pat on the back? Another pity fuck?”

"I don’t want anything. I don’t need anything."

"Spoken like someone who doesn’t know anything about herself. Look at you, wearing that stupid metal suit, talking to a dead man. Is this who you are now? Who you ‘want’ to be? Because if it is, you might wanna rethink the name change, Sigma."

At that, she finally stood up. "Fuck you, whoever- whatever, you are. I’m doing what feels right. If you don’t like it, too damn bad."

“Well, I tried,” Gamma sighed, relaxing on the couch. “Could still, y’know-”

“No.”

“In my defense, it’s hard to tempt someone who doesn’t know what she wants. I will say this, though - you’re gonna wish you went with plan A. Knowing what you’re about to face..."

The next thing she knew, she was in a featureless stone room, facing a solitary door. The common room, Gamma, her conversation, all were illusions. She supposed she passed, but it did nothing to ease her mind. His words could only have meant one thing, which she sincerely hoped was untrue.

---

It was dark in the next room. Suffocatingly dark. Her feet sank into the ground, as though it were wet, and released with a sucking sound. She could hear her own breathing, her own heart beating inside her chest. But she heard another's breathing, another's heartbeat, next to hers. The air was hot and thick, as if she were in the belly of a leviathan.

"Welcome," said a voice. Rumbled was more like it. The ground shook and gyrated with each syllable. "To the end of days."

Sandra searched for a source, but it was as though the voice were everywhere at once. As if the very ground she stood on were the source - the creature she walked inside of, speaking to her in its belly. Behind its words was a cacophony of noise, animal growling and cries of pain. Somewhere she thought she heard the wails of an infant.

"No questions? Interesting."

"Where are you?" she yelled. "What are you?" she added, more softly.

"I am what you've been looking for. Death, destroyer of worlds." Its terrible rumbling shook the ground so that Sandra all but lost her footing. The hellish chorus heralded its every word.

"Am I supposed to be impressed? I know none of this is real. If you have a test for me, get to it and cut the bullshit theatrics."

The response she got was silence. The foul breathing continued unabated.

"That shut you up. Now how do I get out of here?"

A figure emerged from darkness. Someone familiar, and yet... when it dawned on her she nearly stumbled.

"Y-you..."

"Yep. Me." It could only have been... Kain Redwell.

She knew him, of course. Every Promethean had heard of him. He was the closest any human ever came to mastering magic, and by extension, the underlying forces that shaped all of reality. In some ways, the Prometheans were an attempt to recreate that mastery, albeit artificially. The man before her could well have been a fake, but if what she knew of Kain was true, it was uncomfortably possible that he was not, and thus capable of every prior boast and more. And so, faced with this pseudo-mythic figure, she could only ask, "But why?"

Redwell held a finger up to Sandra’s mouth, “Shh...” At that point reason failed her, and lacking words, she was compelled to listen. He outstretched his arms, proclaimed “Let there be light!” and the sky opened. Blackness gave way to a sea of indigo and red, above the sun, above all things on Aeria but the stars themselves. One burned with blinding glory nearby, joined by several of its brethren in heavenly formation. As the walls and floor were rendered transparent, the land became visible stretched beneath them, cities of darkened spires jutting out like so many blades of grass. There was nary an unsettled or undeveloped parcel, even at sea. It was not the Aeria Sandra had left, nor one she could have imagined. "Wha’cha think? Roomy?” Redwell asked. He looked up to the heavens and nodded. “I’d say I outdid m’self with the lightin’."

"I... don’t understand."

"I think it's pretty easy t'understand. World jus’ wasn’ goin’ the way it was s’posed ta. So I fixed it." Kain declared his feat lightly, as though he had mended the wheels of a cart or sewn a tear in his clothes. “Take a gander, Sandy.” He pointed at the ground, if it could go by such a crude moniker. The living substance grew upward like shoots, entwining with itself, forming the shape of a man. The obsidian receded, leaving behind flesh, and blood, and hair. The newborn man looked about in confusion. "Where am I?" he asked in apparent terror.

"Don' worry, bud, yer safe an' sound.” With slap to the man’s back, Kain left him to his wonder and rested an arm across Sandra’s shoulders, holding a hushed conversation with her as he gestured toward his creation. “Now, Sandy, people like you an' me, we can change th'world. Mos' don' get t'do that, y'know. Most're like this guy." He unsubtly aimed his pointer at the man, whose wonder began to settle, leaving him with little better to do than pick his nose. “Woul’ja look at that. Thirty secon’s n’ he’s already addin’ to the world’s filth.” Kain shook his head and wagged his finger at his creation.

With a cry of alarm, the man's features warped and twisted, his nose surged forwards, his mouth sealed up. “Leave ‘em by ‘emselves n’ they find ways t’ shit on everythin’. Let ‘em group together an' they jus' do what they're told by the guy with the bigges’ stick, or the loudes’ voice, lettin’ all kinds'a injustices loose on the world. Better t'jus' shut 'em up, keep 'em under control.” His eyes bulged and widened, the pupils becoming like crosses. Short fuzz grew out of him and his back cracked and popped in a tortured motion. The man bleated and bayed, no longer a man but a beast. “That's the beauty’a this place. We don’ hafta answer to people like that. They’re more like pets- nah, that ain’t right… Cattle.” He nodded after finding the right word. “Anyway. Wan’a try turnin’ ‘im into an animal? Maybe somethin’ with horns...”

It took Sandra a few moments to process what just happened. "...Is he real?"

"Oh, he's real all right. I don' make lemons. Thinkin', breathin', livin'. Y’see, we're all made outta th'same stuff as rocks, dirt, air. An' that stuff's made outta even smaller stuff. Bit a’ rearrangin’s all it takes t’get it to obey. Easy. Manageable." He walked across the glassy floor, looking below. “Down there’s a whole lotta people who know it’s better t’obey than end up like this guy.” With a swift motion of Redwell’s arm, the hideous beast dissolved back into the ground, bringing a merciful end to its horrid existence.

“I’m not sure I get it. What was the point of that? Or... that?" She gestured to the cityscape.

Kain scoffed, and erupted into boisterous laughter. "Ya serious? C’mon, Sandy, you ain’t some puff pastry!” He delivered a familiar pat to her shoulder, oblivious to her cringing. “Yer smarter’n this! Jus’ look around n’ you’ll figure it out.” He returned to pacing along the strange platform supporting them. “Progress. Order. N’ Power. I can do the one thing everyone’s wanted t’ do since doin’ anythin’ was possible. The Dragons. Aten. Even Shar. Everyone’s wanted t’ do it their own way, but there ain’t nobody that knew how t’ do it, let alone how t’ do it right. That is, ‘til I came along.” Outside the window, an untold number of silhouettes glided across a nearby star. “N’ if I got the power n’ know-how t’ get it done, why shouldn’ I?" Redwell spun upon his step, facing Sandra with a confident expression. “Right? Better n’ lettin’ it destroy itself again, n’ again, n’ again…” Towed behind the host of flying craft was an abomination of indescribable countenance, hideous in size as much as shape. “This world’s nearly all tidied up, too, but don’ let that fool ya. There’s more out there t’consider.” He pointed up into the heavens, beyond the stars. “People still out there lost, needin’ help with nobody t’ turn to. I’ll be the one who gives ‘em that help. Or…” he nodded his head, and the bonds holding the beast were severed. “...the one who shows ‘em why they need it.” It descended upon the cityscape below with a noise that Sandra would have gladly died before hearing again.

Awe and wonder were replaced with skepticism and incredulity. “This can’t be right. This is insane.”

Redwell dismissed her words with a wave. "Nah. I decide what’s sane, now, n' I'm thinkin' yer insane, miss Sigma-14. 14 runs through the Promethean Workshop’s got ‘handle with care’ written all over it. Y’know?"

"...Nobody's perfect."

"Ha! Damn right! Exceptin' yours truly, a‘course."

"So is this the part where you tempt me with offers of unlimited power?"

"Well, now ya jus' went an' spoiled the whole thing. Tell ye what: remember when’a made big-nose?"

"What about him?"

"Remind you’a anyone?"

"Some made-up man-beast-thing? Why would he?"

"Not him, Sandy. Me. Listen. Y’can’t force people t’change, n’ that applies t’ everybody, is th’ point." For a moment, the scenery above them seemed to split off from itself. The skies above became a second Aeria, a mirror to the world Sandra was familiar with. "It’s easy t’ get impatient. We put a lot’a faith in this idea that 'we’ll get there, we’ll get it done, we’ll do it right, we'll figure it out in the end' n’ then we just keep goin’ faster n’ faster, thinkin’ it’s fer the best because we’re supposed t’ be the best n’ know the best." The mirrored world progressed along, spires rising, becoming the megalopolis she saw beneath her. "The higher up that mountain called progress we go, the higher we wanna go, an’ the faster we wanna get there."

"But Sandra...” Like a husk dying from within, the mirror world faded to grey. Its waters turned black, and its skies darkened to a reddish brown. “It only ever gets harder, n’ more dangerous. The moment ya start forcin’ people up, ye risk snappin’ the rope holdin’ everyone else on. Believe me when I say lettin’ go was the hardest thing I ever did. An’ I’ve done some VERY hard things.” The mirror world fell dark, while the world below continued to carry on in chaos as Kain’s monstrosity raped the land.

"You call this letting go?" She motioned to the continent, and the city-sized aberration roaming about unchallenged. Even up here, the screams could faintly be heard, or perhaps it was her imagining.

"This? Nah.” Again, Kain dismissed her with a hand wave, glancing down at the scenery. “This's what happens when ya hold on too tight...” After a moment, he sighed to himself, as though he still found the sight disappointing. The end of his sigh darkened the rest of Aeria as well, like an empty stage. Everything was gone, yet Sandra and Redwell stood together, somehow clearly defined in the blackness. The reason was soon clear: Redwell motioned toward a singular light source placed between two figures ahead of him, both completely frozen in time. The first was a younger Redwell, covered by his legendary cloak and wielding a twinkling weapon, smooth and angular like an otherworldly crystal. This blade was offered to another figure of about the same height, shrouded almost perfectly by darkness, except for an outstretched arm which resembled the substance of the cloak.

“Yep… a’think it’s time ya woke up."

Sandra lurched to her feet, gasping for air. The armor, the trials, the cold stone. She remembered it all, wishing she couldn’t.

---

There were only three trials left, by her reckoning. Though each had presented her with disturbing thoughts and images, she knew that the hardest part was not over. He was here - the one she’d been running from. The Neuromancer.

Aged not a day, hunched over a crude wooden operating table, he had strapped to his head a large array of lenses, several of which were positioned over one eye. Spidery hands bristling with ivory blades guided a scalpel across a male patient’s body. Fresh blood oozed from the incision, soaked up by a roll of gauze. A bonesaw ground against ribs.

Sandra wanted to say something, to stop whatever obscene operation was taking place. Instead she said nothing, and backed away slowly.

He spoke unexpectedly, without looking up. “I had hoped I would never see you here again, Sigma. As have you, by the looks of it.” He smiled, with teeth impossibly straight. His hair, as white as his smile, was short and neatly combed, beneath it were blue eyes, intense, focused. His sharp features were perfectly defined; sculpted, even. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Sandra found his appearance deeply unnerving.

“What,” she stammered, “are you doing?”

With large forceps, he wrenched the sternum free. Blood was smeared across every surface, and some splattered the walls behind him. Only his hands were untarnished, wearing those ivory gloves… “A bit of a side project, admittedly. To see if the heart is as tied to the soul as they say. It would certainly make my work easier.” He smiled again, as if making a joke, as his hands grasped a man’s beating heart.

Sandra’s mind failed her. The armor felt as though it were crushing her under its weight. All she could manage was, “You’re a monster.”

“Perhaps your criticism would be better left for after the operation,” he replied, “but I must respectfully disagree. There are no monsters, Sigma-14.”

Adrenaline surged as anger stirred. “I know what went on in here. I… I couldn’t object at the time, I couldn’t even register it. But it was you.”

“That’s the best argument you can come up with, isn’t it? I’ve done things to people. To you. So what?”

“So what? What you did to them was worse than killing them. You… remade them. You forced them to be slaves.”

“If a man loves what he does, and does it willingly, is he a slave?” His motions inside the man’s abdomen continued unseen. “But I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

“No, it does matter. It matters to me, and anyone with a shred of a conscience. Those people didn’t volunteer to be made into lobotomites. They weren’t toys you could just… wind up and let go.”

He looked up at her, removing his lenses, tugging at the fingers of his gloves. “I know why you’re afraid of me, Sigma-14. Your arguments don’t work. You speak of coulds, and shoulds, and rights and wrongs, as if those have any certitude. What is certain is that their lives COULD only have gone one way. Straight into my laboratory. You are expecting me to defend a case, to justify my actions. I contend that they require no justification. You see, my interest has always been in understanding the mechanisms of human behavior. This interest has carried me along a path of decisions and outcomes which has most recently arrived here. If one were to turn back the clock, so to speak, those same motivations would be there, those same decisions, those same outcomes. Initial conditions, inputs, and time. These constitute us all.”

“Even if that’s true... how does that make what you did right? You ruined people’s lives, caused so much pain… I don’t think I’m alone when I say you deserve to be punished.”

“You know this man I am operating on? I have not used any anesthesia on him. He feels no pain, because I removed that capacity from him. His inability to feel pain, by your own logic, must make anything I do to him no longer immoral. Were I to switch his inputs, make him feel pleasure where others would feel pain, would it then become my moral duty to torture him? What if, to make things even simpler for you, I simply removed the ability to comprehend morality? Then these tiresome discussions would no longer waste everyone’s time. We are all, as you say, slaves. Wind-up toys, Sigma-14. It is a difficult lesson for some, but only because their internal mechanisms are not equipped to handle it. If we could be unfettered by these doubts, I think we could accomplish a great deal. Though I must cede that my own definition of accomplishment is equally futile. I am, therefore, content to work in seclusion, seeking neither recognition nor acceptance. I am at peace, but you… you can not accept this. Which is why you are so troubled. Am I accurate?”

She recoiled from him as the words left his mouth. “I can’t believe you-… what in the Gods’ names is wrong with you?”

“Nothing is wrong with me, or with anyone, for that matter. We are all exactly right, Sigma-14. Exactly as we were meant to be. Pain, pleasure, good, and evil. Simple, manipulable mechanisms for self-preservation, survival, procreation... all serve a purpose. A human mind is exceedingly complex, but it is nevertheless a machine of interacting parts. The divine, though they possess great power, are nothing but larger and more complex machines. Punish me if you will, but it does not change the reality of the situation. Or lie down on this table, and let me see if I can make you feel better.”

“No… never again.” She shook her head, taking another step back. The wall greeted her.

“You must be wondering, how much of yourself is what you were born with, and how much was planted by me? Is anything you do really your decision, or is it mine? Are we merely like characters in a book, for which we are not the author?”

“Stop it,” Sandra clutched her head, sinking to her knees. “It’s nonsense, all of it.”

“You’re reacting quite severely to my ‘nonsense.’” He reached towards her slowly, fatherly. “Look, Sigma. Knowledge can be a burden, but also a great freedom. With my hands, I can create realms of unimaginable bliss, make you whoever you want to be, and even remove this terrible affliction from your mind. Knowledge is a powerful tool indeed.”

“No,” she said, defiantly shaking her head. Her mind fumbled for an answer. “By your own logic, I don’t need ‘correcting’ any more than you.” Slowly, she began to rise, recalling the events leading to this confrontation. “But that’s where we differ. Right and wrong do exist, so we can better ourselves. That’s why people like you are thrown in prison, or worse.” Her thoughts touched upon a dying world, the sight of which would long linger in her mind. “No one should control people’s minds, who they are, what they think. We can’t progress that way. The world will stagnate and die.”

The Neuromancer merely shrugged. “Even if that were true, why is this abstract of ‘progress’ better than any other alternative?”

“People decide for themselves what’s better.”

“But people don’t really decide, do they?”

“Yeah, well, then I guess I didn’t decide to do this.” She snapped his neck, this time chalking it up to Alec’s influence. “Fate… Gods… something decides.” She slumped to the floor again, staring at the dead Neuromancer. “If only…”

---

Prometheans did not tire the same way humans did. It was not an aching of the muscles, or a heaviness of the limbs, but a mere urge to rest. As her energy ebbed, Sandra would become less and less cognizant, until she simply collapsed. She was painfully aware of this fact as she moved through the next chamber, the armor seeming to bite into her flesh with every motion.

The ground was like tar - she supposed it was like the substance of Kain’s Star Fortress during the previous trial. Unlike that material, though, this had no form, as no one was there to command it. The ground around her feet shifted ever between different shapes: alien tendrils, fractal webbing, and unsettling visages. In the distance a darkness was creeping over the sun, like one of Shar’s eclipses. There was no more light where the shadow crept, as though the sun was guttering out like a smothered candle. What was this place?

She noticed, then, a single raised point on the flat ocean of tar. Moving as quickly as she could through the mire, she ventured towards it, discovering it to be a man of some sort, garbed in a black cloak with a hood. Was it Redwell, once again?

The figure turned, anticipating her arrival. It was not Redwell, or did not appear to be, at any rate. Nothing could be discerned from under the hood, and Redwell was not apt to hide his face. “You have journeyed far,” the figure spoke, in a rasping whisper.

“Who are you?”

“The one you are seeking. The Dark One.”

She raised an eyebrow. Of all of the strange characters she had met in these trials, this was by far the most unanticipated. “Why are you here?”

It turned back away from her, looking upon the featureless land. The sun grew ever darker in the sky, making it harder and harder to see the horizon. “You will know after you are dead.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Is that a threat?”

“Look,” the figure pointed, its fingers purple and warped. Sandra found she no longer wished to know what the hood concealed. The Dark One pointed at the sun, which was now half engulfed by the shadow. “The sun has risen for the last time. Aeria is finished. As with all things.”

“Okay… seeing as I was just there, I’m guessing this hasn’t happened yet.”

“A prediction, yes. The most likely.”

“Ah, so it’s your standard doomsday prophecy. ‘Repent and the world will be spared,’” she did her best to sound like a crazed naysayer, which wasn’t hard given how much pain she was in.

“It will happen. It is the end of every possibility.”

“Oh… why did you say it was the most likely, then? Doesn’t that imply other scenarios?”

“Other times. Short times, if you fail. And failure is likely.”

“...I didn’t think the stakes were THAT high. But failure was never the plan, so…”

The figure turned to face her once more. “I see this future for us, now. It will not change unless you have learned. Thus, you must learn.”

“Learn what? This? I think you’ve made it pretty-” the last embers of the sun died out, shrouding everything in total darkness. Beneath her feet, Sandra could hear the ground slithering. “Hello? Are you still there?”

Something tugged at her left foot. She jerked it sharply, only to find it wouldn’t move. “Hello?” she called again, nervously. “What am I supposed to learn? Come back here!”

The tugging worsened, and she supposed her entire boot was enveloped in… something. To her alarm, her right foot became stuck as well. “Damn it, what is this stuff…” She heard a metallic groaning as the platemail boot buckled inward, crushing her foot. “Agh! Where are you? Help me, damn it!”

Her cries were answered by only silence. The metal groaned once more, and a meaty popping sound informed her that her foot was entirely smashed. “I… I thought the trials were harmless,” she pondered aloud, half in shock. Her panic growing, she clamped both hands around her thigh and wrenched with all her might. Her leg was liberated of her doomed foot, but she was still not free, for her right was now being squeezed tightly. The pain was enough to make her head spin, and in the darkness it was easy to lose one’s bearings. Her hand touched the ground for but a moment, and that was enough to become ensnared.

Thinking quickly, she pulled her hand free of the armored gauntlet just before it imploded. She wobbled on one leg, afraid to donate any more of her body to the ravenous tar, but finding it almost impossible to stay upright as her right foot was destroyed utterly. She unbuckled the cuirass, placing it and the back piece face-up on the ground. She leaned forwards on her right foot, clenching her teeth as she forced her body forwards until both bones snapped. She struggled onto the flimsy plate, which was not designed for this sort of use. It buckled inward, and she felt the ground rise up to meet it. She had bought herself only a few seconds.

Fighting the urge to give in, she searched for magic. There was none. The Weave, Surge, everything, all gone. The substance was utterly inert; perhaps it devoured magic along with everything else. As it touched her bare hand, she felt a searing pain, as though it were thrust into a fire. Wrenching it free, she heard a sickening tear, the sound of her skin shredding. “Help me! Someone!” There was no answer. Just her on a tiny island in a sea of blackness.

She cradled her hand, trying to ignore the pain from her legs. She reached out with all of her senses for any possibility of escape, but found none. “How are there knights if this trial just kills everyone? Have I failed?”

The ravenous earth gave no answer. It crept up the armor to where Sandra was sitting and forced its way into her body. As her head was the last to go, she experienced every sensation, every confused, desperate thought, until the bitter end.

---

Light flooded her senses. Glaring torches were like suns on their sconces. She felt a hard floor beneath her, and the heavy, excruciating suit of armor bound tightly to her flesh. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the floor was marble, the walls fitted stones. Pillars of polished granite held arrays of torches and Inferian banners. Before her was a table hidden beneath a thick red cloth, at which 5 individuals were seated, all facing her. Though she had no recollection of this place, she felt as though she had been here before.

On the left hand side was a man and a woman. The man was heavily scarred, a cloth wrapped around his eyes indicating blindness, yet he did not look old. The woman’s thick, dark hair obscured her features, though Sandra could tell she was young and of slender build. On the right sat a man clad in armor, a greatsword resting beside his chair, and a rather androgynous individual garbed in white robes with flowing silver hair. Finally, at the center of the table, seated most prominently, was Alec Smith. The gunman rested his boots atop the red cloth, wrinkling and dirtying it, his cloak wrapped round him like a leather overcoat.

Naturally, the first question that came to mind was, “Am I dead?”

“We can’t answer that,” replied the blind man. His voice was low and raspy, as scarred as the rest of him.

“We ask the questions,” spoke the woman whose mane hung over her face.

“Suppose you were dead,” said the silver-haired one, “for the sake of discussion.”

“Suppose you failed the test,” the warrior exclaimed, his words laden with zeal.

Alec withdrew one of his pistols and began wiping it down with a cloth. His eyes followed the discussion, but he made no remark.

“Suppose…? Did I fail or not?” Sandra asked.

“We ask the questions!” The dark-haired woman slapped the table. The sound rang out through the empty chamber.

Sandra jolted, and in that moment, the armor pierced her side. She clutched her chest, feeling her vitae roll hotly down her skin. “...I still have this infernal armor on. I must have survived, somehow.”

“You did not survive,” answered silver-hair.

“Your vain musings grow tiresome,” the warrior bellowed.

“Then ask me something! That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Ask, and… judge. This was where we were judged.” Her own words surprised her, for she still had seemingly no recollection of ever being there, yet knew the room’s purpose intrinsically.

“We did ask you something,” the blind man calmly stated. “You stand before final judgment. What say you?”

“I say the test was impossible. I couldn’t have escaped that last room. Everywhere was instant death. It hurt, too.” She shuddered at the mere memory of the experience, which made her sufferings at the hands of the armor pale in comparison. “There were a lot of things there I’d never really faced before, and I wasn’t ready for them, but I think I did well, all things considered.”

“You did anything but ‘well,’” cried the warrior. “You failed the trials, and by extension, the realm. By your choices, this world is on the precipice of ruination. Your choices, Sandra.” He pointed a condemning finger at her.

Sandra folded her arms, looking down at the floor. “Can I at least ask how I failed?”

“We ask the-” the blind man silenced her with a hand gesture, and said, “There is one obvious instance in which you acted… impulsively, but if that alone was your mistake, it might be forgiven.”

“Speak for yourself,” snapped the warrior, leaning forwards with a menacing glare.

“Snapping someone’s neck as a means of resolving Myra’s Trial of Inner Peace, was… unconventional,” the silver-hair said. “But your inadequacy runs deeper than that, I’m afraid.”

Alec, apparently satisfied with his polishing, set his gun rather forcefully onto the table. The thud reverberated around the open chamber, but his peers only paused momentarily, ignoring him with thinly veiled irritation.

“We question your motivations, number 14,” the hairy woman said. “We question how much success or failure really matters to you. You mock us with your questions and your mannerisms. You think yourself superior to us. You resent these trials. You-”

“Calm yourself,” spoke the blind man, interrupting once more. “As hard as it is to believe, we want what’s best for you. If you let us, we can teach you-”

“Shut up,” Sandra said, her arms dropping to her sides. Her fists were clenched so tightly the articulated gauntlets sliced her hands open.

The four looked at each other in apparent shock. Eyes fell upon Alec, who gave a slight shrug but stayed quiet.

“You know how fucking tired I am of being told there’s something wrong with me? Really fucking tired. So here’s what’s gonna happen - the four of you are gonna let me in the vault with Alec so we can clean up your mess and maybe save the world in the process. Isn’t that what you want?”

“By what right do you presume to command us?” the warrior bellowed, rising to his feet. His hand found the hilt of the greatsword, squeezing it tightly.

“I should ask the same question,” Sandra yelled back. “Sitting on your asses while this is going on. A whole city gets wiped out and where are you?”

With a yell that shook the entire room, the warrior hewed clear through the table. Alec stood up with a start, his pistol clattering to the floor with the rest of the table.

“...Plans are in motion,” the dark-haired woman growled. “Not that any of us owe you justification. So quick you were, to join the cloakbearer, the one with the most power. I almost admire it. Almost.”

“You can not change what is done,” silver-hair spoke, “but it is done all the same. You have quieted a great many, Sandra. Who will speak for them? Who will answer?”

Her fists unclenched, and her knees buckled. Her strength was failing her, and her vision was blurring, darkening. “...I had no choice…”

“Do you think we care about your excuses?” The warrior held his sword level, in one hand. His arm showed no sign of tiring. Alec, meanwhile, stooped to recover his own weapon.

“You can’t hold me… responsible… I was a child when they took me.” Sandra struggled to speak.

“You aren’t a child any longer,” said the blind man. “How do you explain what you feel now?”

Alec stood up, dusting the gun off, casting his glance at each of the bizarre council. “Why don’cha jus’ kill’er an’ be done with it.”

Everyone turned their heads to him.

“I’s whatcha want, innit? She doesn’ spend ‘er days wailin’ ‘bout murders n’ other past crimes, ‘stead she goes ‘ere ta try an’ make a difference, ‘cause’a that she needs punishin’.”

“You would suggest we let her off the hook, as it were?” the blind man interjected.

“No, ‘cause that’d imply she done wrong. Way I see it, she wasn’ a murderer, but a murder weapon. Ya don’ send knives ta prison, ya send people ta prison.”

“The stains on her soul,” began the hair-covered maiden-

“-were put there by someone else,” Alec finished. “Look, ya ain’t stupid, course I’m startin’ to rethink that, but th’poin’ is, whatcha on ‘er case fer, anyway? She ain’t genuine enough fer ya?”

“In short-” “NO.” The blindfold was cut off by the armor.

“Welp, there’s no easy way ‘round that one, I s’pose. But I think she’s doin’ all she can, in ‘er own way. Ain’t that enough? ‘Sides… I do need ‘er.”

Sandra was barely coherent at this point. The strain of the ordeal coupled with the torturous armor had taken its toll on her and then some.

“...You raise a fair point,” the blind man concluded.

“No! She is not to be let through!” Oddly enough, the woman behind all that dark hair was a Drow.

The warrior clasped his sword menacingly, striding toward the blind man. “I will sooner fall upon my blade than accept this ruling!”

“Ya better jus’ get goin’,” Alec said, helping Sandra to her feet. “I’ll quiet this lot.”

Confused beyond measure, she stumbled through a door she hadn’t seen before, and into the daylight.

_________________
Die standing.
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