Stahlsenke, capital of the Peoples Republic of Ulster. The Year In Solis 992.
"STABLE", the sign above the door proclaimed in unsympathetic red lights. The word blinked out, and "102K" replaced it, in the same red letters, about the height of Knight's thumb. The blocky, regimented characters faded almost as soon as he'd read them, and a much longer chain of numbers and letters replaced it that turned out to stand for "MARTIN, IVAN ROY". Who was, a second later, proclaimed again to be "STABLE". "102K". "IS969-2051410-M". "MARTIN, IVAN ROY".
Knight dragged the thirtieth guard's body into the janitor's closet. Quinn dragged the thirty-first. Bishop was busy rewiring the entrance to this floor, her fingers pattering over the pale green lights of the keypad like rain on a windowsill. Beside her, his back against the wall and a dart in his hand, Rooke was receiving his orders from the Castle. Tiny diagrams scurried across his headset's monocle screen, white on blue, hazards red like the signs above the doors, destinations green like Bishop's keypad.
"Left," Rooke ordered. He waved the dart and pointed past "MARTIN, IVAN ROY"'s door, down a hallway with dozens of doors almost identical to it. The row of doors was just like the bandolier of darts across Rooke's chest, Knight noticed, identical shell after identical shell, each less important than the things it concealed.
Bishop finished recoding the entrance and disconnected her console from the keypad. The green lettering on its screen blinked out and the shadows fell into place between her kinky, loose hair and the burn-raked right half of her face. She clipped the console to her belt and loosed one of her shivs in its place, readying the tiny weapon and waiting for Quinn to take point.
The corpse Quinn was stuffing into the closet fit neatly on top of the other three, and Quinn backed into the raw-meat-red lighting of the sub-basement hallway, wiping his sword on the hem of his sweatshirt. He was cold, but knew he couldn't wear a scarf like Rooke and Bishop, that it would get in the way of his sword and probably Knight's too. The gashes through the sleeves of the black hoodie under Quinn's armor revealed jersey rather than skin, but the frontliner was shivering and grimacing. When he passed Knight, Quinn's left eye was wide and paranoid and the snipersight in his right socket flickered rapidly, like a dwindling fuse.
Knight watched him dart down the hallway to the first intersection, sword in hand and elbow crooked. "Clear," Quinn said, and it echoed through the halls, off the faces of door after door and serial number after serial number. Knight's mechanical ear heard it first, and his natural ear half a second later. The word meant two things to Knight; "let's go" to the metal right and "let's get this over with and the Hell out of here" to the left.
The Chessmen fell into formation. Quinn kept point, his sword (called 'Vik the Bear') out in his right hand and his dull sable armor covering him as he raced through the deep red shadows of the complex. Bishop covered, about a body's length behind him, bundled up in her scarf and belts and hair but a good deal calmer than Quinn. Rooke stayed close to her, intent on the commands from the Castle, darts out, saving as much of his concentration as possible for when he'd need the Cyclone and Lightning Runes, if he'd need them, which all the Chessmen hoped he wouldn't. As ever, Knight watched their backs, his own sword raised in his left hand, eyes and ear open to the very likely possibility of retaliation from the seemingly safe. He held the blade up to the lights over another door--"IS970-2051423-M", they read--before following his Leader even deeper into the bowels of Eisberg Inc.
Not even Rooke had the full details of this mission. The Council had said that whatever party was sent was likely to be apprehended, and the less the fighters knew, the better. And that was explicitly why the Tenkai had reportedly insisted on the Chessmen; Rooke's headset allowed for direct and immediate communication, maps and typefaced orders and codes, straight from the Castle to the team, and Knight's ear took care of the reverse relay. The irony wasn't lost on the Chessmen; that their stigmatizing cybernetic implants had started off as the primary source of their place of distrust in the Spark Union, and now those gadgets were being taken advantage of so the Chessmen could prove they were worth trusting.
It reeked, Bishop had said. Rooke had replied that he knew. Quinn had sighed that they were going anyway, weren't they.
Ten yards down the frigid, gaseous hall, Quinn killed another two guards. They'd been about the same height, so he cut them across the necks with the same swipe. For lack of a janitor's closet, he left them slumped against the nearest doors. Their red blood ballooned under the sterile, pale blue and white uniforms they wore, swelling like recently popped blisters over rivuleted, callused skin. The Eisberg Inc. guards came in two varieties, Knight knew, armed and un-. When he passed them, he noted that these had been un-.
"Right," Rooke commanded, as the map on his headset's visor expanded. The Leader adjusted his visor and mouthpiece, glancing back at Knight to make sure the left-hand frontliner heard the order as well. He had.
They'd all changed since joining the Spark Union--they had to--but the Chessmen were still an Ulster Company under it all. They'd trained too long as one to let go of that, no matter what the will of the Council and the Tenkai would have. And the Tenkai--Knight had never seen him--seemed to understand that, if he let them keep working like this. That the Chessmen were the former wired pawns of the Spark Union's enemy was their second-greatest strength. Their experience together was their greatest.
Rooke had been assigned as Leader from the outset, by the Ulster Government. Even before the accident that had resulted in a visor and mouthpiece grafted to his face he'd been so well-versed in command and procedure that he might as well have been wired to base. The fact that he wasn't a frontliner like Quinn and Knight made him even more of an asset, even though there usually needed to be someone watching his back. The line of Kings had done that, but the Spark Union wouldn't fix King VI until the four blooded Chessmen proved themselves.
Knight heard some guards charging up the corridor they'd just passed, through the right ear first, then the left. The sound of cranking safeties glisked through the wires in his head. He readied Kerchief to backhand and got a running start. Rooke would be covering him.
The first guard didn't make it around the corner. The blow from Kerchief walloped him helmet-first into a door--"103K", the red letters read--and Knight ducked as a pair of darts soared over his shoulder and into the chest of the second guard. Knight finished the job, slicing off the guard's right arm as he raised it in shock. The bowgun clattered to the floor without having been fired, and Knight stepped on the loaded bolt to jam the weapon. He did the same to the other fallen guard's, double-checked the intersection, then backed up to rejoin the others.
"How many more floors down?" Quinn hissed.
"Don't know," Rooke snapped. "Keep going." He took advantage of the lull to retie his bandana. In the thrumming red light, the navy blue cloth and the black hair under it were almost indistinguishable, both hanging into the loose hood and black scarf over his shoulders. He closed his unscreened eye, but the one behind the headset remained open and glassy as ever.
Quinn wiped Vik the Bear off again and muttered something about the Tenkai. Bishop shushed him curtly and sneered. Her hair blacked out most, but not all, of the burnt half of her face. Since the foul-up in Gregminster, an ocean and two continents away, her facial expressions were even more intimidating, at least to everyone outside of the Chessmen. They made most people shudder, but they just made Knight sadder. Quinn scoffed. "Not like the stiffs are going to tattle on us." He pointed his sword at the door nearest him. Knight looked up at the red letters over it--"INCE, MELANIE", they read.
"They're not dead," Bishop reminded them all.
"Doesn't matter," Quinn said, shaking his head. The red light made it easy to forget that his short-clipped hair was blond. "We're taking something they'll know is gone, right?"
"You saw it, didn't you." Quinn's living eye and snipersight were both still on guard, but for what, Knight wasn't sure. "The one who sent us here. The Tenkai."
Bishop glared. Knight still found it sad. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"It wasn't Fairweather," Rooke said, so Quinn didn't have to. The words came out in a perfunctory sigh, and he took two new darts out of his bandolier.
"No shit it wasn't Fairweather," Quinn spat. "Not his kid neither."
Rooke narrowed his working eye at the frontliner, and the one behind the headset's screen seemed to lower as well. "Does it matter?"
Quinn would have responded, but his snipersight activated and honed in on the guards down the hall. He gave up on arguing with Rooke and crouched so Bishop could nail the guards with her shivs once they came around the corner. The one she hit in the neck went down easily, but Quinn had to charge the second. He cut a diagonal swathe from the man's shoulder to his hip, which knocked the shiv out of his chest. Quinn recovered the knives and gave them back to Bishop while Knight nudged the bodies to the side of the hallway. They stretched recumbent across three doorways, "103K", "103K", and "102K", though that last door changed to "IS953-1923347-M" before Knight looked Quinn over again. The other frontliner had cleaned off Bishop's shivs on the guards instead of on his sweatshirt. Quinn tended not to count other people's kills. Knight did. Then again, what Knight usually did was finish what other people started. He jammed the bowguns again and left them on top of the bodies.
There was an intersection up ahead. "Right," Rooke said. "There's a stairwell immediately after the turn."
"Locked?" Quinn asked, turning the corner sword-arm first.
Rooke nodded. "Bishop, codes."
Knight stayed in the hall before the intersection, his back against the wall and eyes on where they'd come from. The dead guards looked rather peaceful sprawled under the white-fronted doors, dulled as they were by the endless red letter-lights.
"How many sub-basements can this place possibly have?" Knight heard Quinn whisper around the corner. He was probably just as Knight was, back against the wall and sword out, but Quinn always held Vik the Bear pointing down and to the back. Knight usually started with a backhand, which few expected from a sinistrous fighter like him.
Rooke was against the wall just beside Knight, intent on the headset. "Who said we're going another floor down?"
"I don't know yet."
"You know, they could be leading us in circles until we get caught." Knight's mechanical ear didn't interpret whether Quinn was smiling or not, and his left ear didn't hear around the corner.
"Considered it," Bishop said as the door slid open with a screech that Knight's wires didn't like much. "It's even likely," she added as she quickly sidestepped out of Quinn's way so he could get into the stairwell first. Knight gave a last glance down the corridor and backed around the turn after Rooke.
"Doesn't matter, does it," Quinn second-guessed, and again Knight only heard it through his right ear.
"Down," Rooke said, and the matter dropped.
It was deeper than the other stairwells. The lights were yellow, here, not red, and Knight shielded his eyes with his sword arm for a moment. The green-tile stairs were badly in need of mopping. They spiraled squarely down at least four floors--a glance down the gap between the railings dizzied Knight--and smelled more sterile than they were. Knight had gotten used to the odor of the hallways by now, chemical and stilted, but the stairwells were noxious, overcompensating. No one had used these stairs in ages, not even to clean them. Ulster was an elevator culture, and Eisberg Inc. was an Ulster company.
The Chessmen wound down the stairwell, Quinn taking the steps by twos and Knight as backward about it as he could be at that speed. The pounding echo was painful and deep, all four sets of black boots chasing only the Tenkai knew what through the freezing cavern. Two flights. Three flights. Knight realized his breath was clouding. Four flights. Five, and nothing but echoes. As long as Rooke stayed silent there was nowhere to go but down.
"Out," Rooke commanded with two floors still under Quinn. The frontliner was only too eager to stop. He waited beside the door for Bishop to take out her console, resettling his grip on Vik the Bear. Knight noticed that Quinn's snipersight was intent below them, down the gap between the railings. Knight listened up. He could hear the vague fountain-sound of the air-ducts under Bishop's typing.
"Sub-basement twelve," Quinn whistled in awe. "With two to go."
"It's colder underground," Knight replied. The metal of his ear was really starting to get to him, and the exposed bones under it ached around the screws. Rooke probably felt the same in the temple his visor was bolted into. No wonder Quinn was agitated, Knight realized; his sinuses must be ringing with the cold.
Rooke wiped the fog off his headset screen with the hem of his sleeve. "We don't know if this is the deepest stairwell." The spaces between his fingers were beginning to chap. Bishop and Quinn were wearing fingerless gloves, and Knight whole ones, but Rooke had on no gloves at all. Darts required full-palm precision, he'd said. The Cyclone Rune on the back of his right hand was brassy like an old bruise in this light.
The door opened and Bishop and Quinn quickly switched places. Quinn launched himself at the guards almost immediately, and Rooke flung a pair of darts after him not a heartbeat later. A quick look told Knight that Bishop was still getting her console back into place, and Knight ducked under Rooke's throwing arm and into the fray behind Quinn.
Knight hadn't had time to count the guards. All the ones he could see were leveling bowguns at the doorway, and, by extension, him. He tore forward and slammed Kerchief into one of the gashes Quinn had left in some guard's chest and grabbed the guard by the neck-scruff of his armor. When he heard the bolts flying at him from what was now his right, he flung the guard into their path. It worked.
With a throaty yell, Quinn activated his Ash Flurry Rune. Vik the Bear swung wildly every which way in a thick, winding road of grey light and broke up the knot of guards that were tying to converge on Quinn, sending them ducking and dodging, blood leaking through their pale armor. Rooke's darts felled two and Knight slashed a third up the back. He noticed that the lighting was red again.
Knight ducked the next hail of bolts that came at him and caught another guard with Kerchief on the upswing, sending the bowgun flying and the guard back-first into a door. "FARRELL, TIMOTHY", it read, then "STABLE". Quinn's handiwork from Ash Flurry was everywhere--every guard that Knight could see had at least one good slice through his armor. He made eye-contact with one, by chance, and raised his sword. One of Bishop's shivs was in the guard's stomach a blink later, in the folds of a wide gash Quinn had given him. His eyes were brown.
However many guards there had been when they started, there were four--no, three, now, thanks to Rooke's darts, right in the neck--left. No, four, Knight heard a bolt being loaded behind him. He spun around and Kerchief followed. His first swing only caught air, he'd estimated the guard to be closer than that, but two steps and a second swing disarmed the gunner. A third decapitated him. That was too many.
He whirled back to the remains of the scuffle. Quinn growled and left a white wake of breath around his head, spinning between the last two standing guards. One dodged into the path of Bishop's knife in his back. Knight backhanded the other with Kerchief. He wasn't sure whether his sword or Rooke's last dart had killed this guard, but it didn't matter. Knight just started disabling the weapons, one after another, keeping an ear out for reinforcements. There wouldn't be much time to clean this up.
Quinn finished medicating his left arm and held the dropper in his teeth. It was a hasty bandaging over the black cloth and ruddy armor, white and uneven like Knight's headband. "I miss King," he said through his grit mouth.
Bishop nodded in agreement, kneeling beside one of the guards. She cleaned off her knives, two at a time, on the dark cloth dangling from her belt, then sheathed them in neat rows up her thighs.
"Left," Rooke said. He was rubbing his cheek under the mouthpiece and shaking out his bare hands. It took that gesture to remind the cold to hit Knight's ear again through the wall of adrenaline. It did, and it hurt, but probably not as much as Rooke's or Quinn's.
"Wait." Bishop finished regrouping her knives and got up to lock the stairwell door.
"FARRELL, TIMOTHY"'s serial number was "IS829-1000760-M". He was apparently one of the younger ones. Knight stacked five guards against that door, one on top of the other, while Bishop hacked away. Quinn dragged a few others to barricade the stairwell, leaving them under Bishop's outstretched arm, cable, and chording console. It was a better idea. Knight wished he'd thought of it.
He'd counted twelve bowguns but only nine guards and still had a few to go when Bishop proclaimed she was "Done," and disconnected. This intersection only went two ways. Left was away from "FARRELL, TIMOTHY". The stretch of hall was silent in both directions, desolate and longer than the above-ground building could have contained, at least as Knight perceived it. He wondered how far underground twelve stories really amounted to, in a building like this.
Rather than run, Quinn walked, which meant the rest of them had to if they wanted him to keep point. No one complained. Without a guard in sight--or audible range, to Knight--and with at least a dozen dead behind them, they could afford to breathe. Ahead of Knight, Bishop's ears were tingeing pink at the top, blending in with her tangled, bushy hair and the dim red light. She appeared to notice at least one of these things, and pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt from under her scarf and tugged it over her ears. She tied the hood very quickly, tucking all her hair into it and baring the scarred remains of her face. He couldn't recognize her as the woman she'd been before last year from this angle. Then again, he wouldn't have been able to recognize her either if she'd done what the Government had wanted her to do to her face. He stopped looking.
Three doors in a row, on his left, read "92K". The last "92K" became "IS803-0704992-F" when Knight passed it. Every door was part of this cycle. A temperature, a number, the name it stood for, "STABLE", in an endless chain of red lights in dark hallways. Twelve floors down, and it was just the same as the floors above, and probably the floors below. Eisberg Inc. was, above ground, a thirty-story building, and underground it defied its own boundaries, as this hall was proving. In addition to feeling the cold, now, Knight's stomach churned a bit.
Rooke's, too, it seemed. "These names," Knight picked him up to be saying, close beside Bishop, twirling two uneasy darts in his chapping fingers. He trailed off. The right ear didn't interpret anything about that, but Knight knew what Rooke was looking at. He passed under yet another red-lettered "STABLE".
"What about them, sir?" Bishop asked in a whisper that Quinn, ahead, probably didn't hear, and Knight didn't know if he was meant to.
"I can't believe this many people want to live forever," Rooke said. His breath followed the words into the frigid air in a fog that lingered on the tip of his nose.
Knight couldn't see the half of Bishop's face that smiled, but he heard her snicker. "Doesn't everyone, in a way?"
Rooke paused, so Knight did as well, and Bishop shortly after. Quinn caught on after the volume of Rooke's words raised, but didn't turn around to listen. "...Most people accept that they're someday going to die," Rooke said. "That's why they die. I mean, if there's one thing we've learned by studying the brain...it's that things don't happen unless they're wanted, at least chemically. Some part of your body decides you want to die and it lets you stop living. But these..." he let the words go, reaching for a red awning sign as it changed from "LEVEN, ALEXA" to "STABLE".
Bishop turned to look at that sign as well. All she had to say to that was "Sir." Knight looked over to them at that, but tried to listen down the hall.
His left ear, however, wasn't the kind he could command with his mind. He heard Rooke sigh, "There are over three million people in this complex alone that supposedly want to live forever." "STABLE" became "93K". "They want to wait for a cure for whatever they've got, even if it's just old age. Really want it. Enough to resolve never to die, ever, and forego whatever that means."
Knight and Bishop turned their eyes away from the sign and to their Leader. Even Quinn had taken his natural eye off the corridor. The green was dulled to a pale brown by the red lights when Knight caught a glimpse of it, and it showed that Quinn had guessed something that Knight was missing.
It had been a moment like this, before the accident in Gregminster. The floating gardens didnt seem half a world away anymore.
Rooke palmed the cold away from his cheek and pulled the bandana down over the top of his bare ear. "Those aren't the people I enlisted to protect," he muttered. "I'm sure of it." He closed the eye unbound to the headset and hung his head, his callusing hand still up against his face.
Knight listened for an explosion that never came.
Rookes headset fluttered to activity and he snapped to attention. "...They say we're almost there," he managed to say after the flurry of maps and lights settled down. "It'll be sudden, Quinn."
"Right," the frontliner said, loud enough to echo back to Knight twice, once in each ear. Both men readied their swords. Knight kept his eyes forward and his ear back. The Chessmen walked--stalked, almost--down the hallway as the meager lights above them listed name after name, number after number, none of which were relevant. Knight's right ear scraped with the reverberation of their footsteps, now that everything else was irreparably silent. He shivered, even though his hand was sweating inside the glove on Kerchief's hilt. Even his Earth Rune was throbbing in the cold.
They left behind ten more doors, then twenty, then thirty. Thirty names that didn't mean anything, thirty people waiting to be immortal, thirty declamations of "STABLE". Knight wondered how many guards they'd killed to get this far.
"Stop," Rooke ordered. Quinn turned to the door on his left, but Rooke corrected him. "No, the one by me," he said, and reached out an ungloved hand to his right.
The name above the door, Knight read, was "REINBACH, SCHOLTENHEIM IV."
Bishop chuckled and held the half-burnt bridge of her nose between her fingers. "Hid a tree in the forest?"
Rooke nodded, shortly and only downward. "Bishop, codes." He didn't need to say anything more, and readied his darts as she unbuckled the console from her belt. Knight turned away and went back to full alert. Not even Rooke knew what was behind this door. It was possible that the Tenkai himself didn't know. If there was meant to be a deathtrap on this mission, its time was now and place was here. Quinn knew it too. Knight could hear the taller frontliner's breath getting heavier and deeper on the other side of the door, through his natural ear.
"You'd better request a debriefing yesterday, sir," Quinn said, in the jocular, damning way that betrayed how glad he was not to be leaving anyone behind.
"They can hear you," Rooke replied in almost a whisper. "I agree."
"That makes three of us," Knight said.
"Four," Bishop corrected over her chording through the door. She sounded intent on the codes, so Knight knew it would be longer. This was an important door. The red letters above it flashed from a temperature to "IS703-0000291-M".
"Can you listen to me, Bishop?" Rooke asked, sounding as reliant on his headset as Bishop was on her console.
"Just don't tell me you're going to clean up my face."
Rooke didn't laugh. Bishop didn't mean for him to. "All right. When we penetrate this door, after Quinn and Knight secure the space, you are to lock us in using a new set of codes. After that, you are to proceed to the leftmost workstation along the rear wall."
"You're going to make the temperature in there a little more bearable."
"You don't have to worry about being discreet. Like Quinn said, we're taking something they'll know is gone. And we don't have to...heh, this is straight from base. 'You will not have to be tidy about it.'"
"And I thought it couldn't get any more morbid," Quinn muttered.
"I know," Rooke snapped.
The door opened. Bishop darted aside to make way for Quinn and Knight.
Quinn rolled in to a kneel and Knight took the high ground. Only blacklight and slate-grey walls greeted them. The room was tall enough to swing a blade in but not a polearm, and wide enough to stretch two and a half dead guards across. The two side walls thrummed with thousands of tiny, ineffectual lights racing across otherwise black screens in letters and graphs and incomprehensible symbols, at least to Knight. Three cone-capped indigo bulbs hung from the roof, washing Knight's white headband and the hasty bandages on Quinn's arm into an eerie blue, and Quinn's close-spiked blond hair flashed to a street-punk's cerulean. The frontliners' swords glowed blue as if the blades were enchanted. The bloody streaks in their sweatshirts lightened and leapt out of the black cloth, which made Quinn look like a rowdy child who'd just been caught tracking mud across the carpet, but there was no one in the room to lecture him.
"Clear," Knight and Quinn said at the same time. Bishop and Rooke scurried in, and the door hissed shut on its tracks.
Rooke inched forward between the frontliners, gawking up at the words painted on the wall, his lips hovering apart like flipped magnets. The letters scrolling across his headset glowed brightly and his eyes were wide. Everything in this room was labeled neatly in stenciled whites and neons like the side of a dumpster, almost jumping off the dull walls like unstripped siding. The farthest wall was paneled, not covered fully in screens like the side walls, with only the workstation in the far left corner as Rooke had described. The wall curved outward slightly at the panel in its center, eight feet high and a handsbreadth or so into the room in a neat arc. The workstation was proclaimed by the white, stenciled letters to be "MUNDANE" and the curved panel "CAUTION". There was a thin depression, a grating, around that panel, slighter than the gaps between the floor tiles. Some of those ceramic outlines had faint ice crystals peeking through them, close to the vectors of the far wall.
"Locked," Bishop reported behind them, then rushed toward the workstation she'd been directed to. Her feet were the only solid things moving in this room, and the noise grated on Knight's ear, plowing through the numbing sustained dissonance of the screens and their lights.
The affirmation shocked Rooke out of his reverie and back into the world of his headset. "...Make it hot," he said, belatedly. "And quick."
Knight heard her plug the console in. "How--"
"As high as it goes," Rooke answered. "The hotter you make it the faster it'll get there. You can always turn it back down when we're--." A flurry of new information raced across his visor then, and he cut himself off. His unscreened left eye and eyebrow darted through reaction after reaction that made Knight wish they all had whole faces again. Rooke hissed out a low breath that Knight heard as 'so I was right.'
Quinn kept his snipersight on the "CAUTION" protruding from the wall. He blinked his green eye and the snipersight shivered. "We're not actually waking him up, right?" He sounded wary, to Knight. The Chessmen all knew how much Quinn hated fear.
Rooke shook his head. The bandana was easier to distinguish from his hair in this light, less glossy. "We're killing him."
Quinn pointed Vik the Bear at the panel. "I mean--"
"Just waking him up without initiating any of the protective thawing sequences should kill him," Rooke said, calmly, trying not to hang his head. "He won't be alive in any conventional sense long enough to fight us."
Knight exhaled the same way Rooke had. His breath gathered in a dripping white fog, and he watched it fade. In her corner, Bishop just kept chording her way past the cold. Knight couldn't see either half of her face, let alone the one that still emoted.
Quinn thumbed at the sloppy bandages on his arm and faked a snicker. "Scholtenheim Reinbach the fourth, eh?" he said, failing in his obvious attempt to lighten the mood. He smiled, and it didn't work.
"Totally a pseudonym," Bishop supplied over her own relentless typing.
"Best one out there," Rooke added.
"You know," Quinn sighed, "I'm not an idiot."
Rooke was intent on the rapid-scrolling words across his headset, but still managed to issue a convincing "I know." After a moment, he glanced between the others, sober-eyed. "The Tenkai's debriefing us. Partly," he amended.
Knight nodded and listened. The others probably did as well, if the notes between the words made it past their guards.
The Leader took in a deep breath of the still-frigid air, shuddered from the cold, and began. "The Council's explaining this as a preemptive-preventative measure. That the Ulster Government would wake him up and use him if we didn't wake him up and kill him." He twirled two darts uneasily in his Cyclone Rune hand.
"What is he?" Knight asked, eyes narrow on the "CAUTION" panel and both ears on Rooke.
Rooke's tiny screen was a blank blue, like the bulbs overhead. "They didn't tell me."
"Now why on earth would they do something like that?" Bishop sing-songed from the corner with a prompting smile in her voice.
Both Quinn and Rooke knew the mantra. It had come up enough by now. "Because they still don't trust us," they mocked--
"--with these things in our heads," Knight and Bishop finished in despondent unison. All of the Chessmen chuckled uneasily. Knight knew he was remembering the dull ache from just before the local anesthesia had kicked in, but what the others were thinking, not even the most sensitive equipment could ascertain.
With a quick, muttered "Ha!" and a triumphant strum of clicks, Bishop let her typing hand slacken. She looked up and nodded at Rooke, who returned the gesture, and then unplugged. The paler webs of her burnt face glowed blue under her hood. She buckled the console back on and unsheathed a pair of knives from her thighs. Nothing else changed in the room. The lights kept chasing each other from screen to screen, and the Chessmen stood and breathed and waited, orderly and orderless.
Knight realized that the bones in his face had stopped aching. He watched the fog creep up Rooke's mouthpiece and start to bead. The same was happening to Quinn's snipersight--if enough beads gathered it would turn into a tear. Knight wondered whether to laugh at that or not. The answer turned out to be not. He could feel the heat now, through his sweatshirt and armor and gloves. The cuffs of his shirt were damp with slightly-cold sweat. Maybe he was afraid.
Rooke stirred beside Knight. The frontliner realized that his Leader was still walking toward the back wall, staring past his headset at "CAUTION" as if the word was a shipwreck too far offshore to swim to. Knight lost sight of Rooke's eyes, but knew the voice well enough to hear clues adding up in his commander's head.
"Sir--" Knight and Bishop both started--Bishop even reached out a hand, almost as if to stop Rooke, despite being out of the range of even her knives. Neither of them knew how to continue their sentences.
Rooke was less than a body's length from the curve in the wall. "...the fourth," Knight heard him mutter, through only the mechanical ear.
Quinn raised an eyebrow and lowered his sword. "You know something, sir?"
The Leader made no indication of hearing that. Rooke's arms hung limply at his sides, two darts lolling between the fingers of his Cyclone Rune hand. He stepped a tile closer, dragging the steel toe of his left boot across the minute gap in the floor. Then again, with his right. He craned his neck up at the painted "CAUTION" now, close enough to see that the stem of the "T" had a doorjamb running down it, from ceiling to floor.
He clenched his fist around the darts. "--Oh no."
A scream inundated Knight's ears and it wasn't one of his comrades'. He had to close his eyes to take the noise at all--it was broken and old and young and desperate, blasting at him like vines from every angle. He almost dropped Kerchief. The cry felt almost like malfunction. It assaulted his nerves like they were wires and his wires like nerves. His eyes only opened out of shock in the end.
They stayed open.
He was hallucinating. He had to be. There weren't tendrils of tattered cloth and hair flaring out of the wall with wind behind them. And if there were, they weren't translucent. And the door wasn't still closed. And it wasn't screaming like a falling castle. On fire. With everyone trapped inside.
He tried to cast Clay Guardian. It failed. The Earth Rune in his hand shouted back at him and raced under his skin as hard as it probably could but the shrieking still drowned it out.
Whatever it was flew out of the wall and straight down at Rooke. Its weapon--an axe--plowed neatly through where Rooke had only a split-second ago been standing.
The ghostly hands grafted to that axe's haft were gnarled and veined in one blink and supple and flat the next. Knight could see through them to the floor, but not when the phantom's cape blew into the way. The cloak was massive, rent at the edges and thick at the neck and too long for any living man. His armor was sparse and matte like Quinn's and Knight's, but as antiquated as he was. It ended where his legs did, just below the knee.
Tentacles of hair swarmed around him with the tattered cloak, some long enough to reach the floor from where he hovered. One of them whipped through Knight's neck and left him colder than the hallways had been. The ghost's face was ancient, then youthful, then ancient again, like the numbers over every door in every corridor of Eisberg Inc. Deep green flame stood in for both of his eyes and the deep cross-scar on his smooth-then-withered cheek.
"I will--" he growled, "--protect--"
The wall went black. The white letters of "CAUTION" were lost under the cloak and the magic and it was a Rune that Knight had never seen, a twisted scythe with jagged edges and pale, damning fire, the color of the dried blood on Quinn's shirt and higher even then the ghost. The apparition swung his axe again and his yell filled the room like the steaming floor. Rooke ducked. He couldn't throw darts from that position.
Knight didn't have to charge. He barely even readied Kerchief before he lashed out at the ghost. The pale sword connected with nothing but air and a penetrating coldness that raced down the blade and straight up Knight's arm. The screech strafed through his metal ear like a brace of needles. He realized he was standing in the fluttering cloak and in the tangle of hair and he would have screamed if his teeth had not been chattering.
The phantom axe caught on Rooke's scarf and armor. One of Bishop's knives flew by Knight's ear--he almost didn't hear it--through the burning cross-scar on the cadaverous face. The fabric from Rooke's neck stretched out and Rooke's darts clattered to the floor. He went pale. His breath was cut off. Knight wouldn't let that happen. He dashed between his prone Leader and the ghost and sliced the scarf in two from floor to ceiling.
He was eye to eye with the ghost until the ghost soared through him. The green fire licked at his own eyes and made him wish they were metal like his ear.
He heard Quinn and Bishop shouting and managed to separate the sounds from the wailing of the ghost and each other. Bishop was shouting for Rooke. Quinn was snarling--he'd enchanted his sword, for real, not just a trick of the light, Knight knew the sound. Ash Flurry wouldn't be nearly as effective on a singular opponent, they all knew that, but it was a damn sight better than nothing.
Knight saw the white road of Vik the Bear and the black blur that was Quinn a second later than he should have. Knight hit the floor and scrambled forward, dragging Kerchief behind him along the sweating tile. The room was hot, the ghost was cold, Knight's body had no idea what it was supposed to be doing except making sure that thing didn't get to Rooke.
Quinn's sword raced through the spidery hair and the swarming cloak of the ghost, leaving unearthly tears that leaked powerful light into the blue and grey room. Whether he felt the same cold Knight had when the blade connected, Knight couldn't hear. The ghost's scream changed--Quinn's sword clattered against the haft of the axe--it rang in Knight's ear as human, two of them, one old and in pain, one just like his own would have been if he'd let it out a second ago.
Ice crystals tore at the ghost. Bishop's work. Knight stayed down and Quinn dashed out of the way. The flat of the axe batted most of the shards aside, into Quinn's back. The frontliner slammed face-first into the screens on the wall, the chipped ice denting the illegible letters and scrolling lights. There were words written on the flat of the axe, burning green, but Knight couldn't read them from this far away.
He sprung to his feet and raced toward the ghost, but not to read the axe. Instead of hefting Kerchief, even to parry, he ducked under the swipe of the phantom axe and shoved Rooke aside, railing with every thought in his system for his Earth Rune to comply, now, before the noise came back. It listened. The low vines of Clay Guardian raked through the room, green like the burning cross-scar on the apparition's face.
He was too close.
The axe came down on Knight's left cheek. Its blade was a protective, nurturing cold, phrontofugic, anesthetic, possibly like death.
Better him than Rooke, he thought.
He almost didn't hear the wind picking up dangerously around him, throwing the tendrils and tatters surrounding him and the ghost back to the "CAUTION" on the wall. Rooke hissed beside them, his casting hand raised with no darts in it, the sigil of his Cyclone Rune blasting grey behind his bandanaed head. The tail of Knight's white headband whipped into his eyes, covered in blood from the cut on his cheek. He heard cloth tearing and the ghost wailing and every light in the room thrumming, abused. Knight ripped the cloth away from his eyes and saw the phantom straining against the wind, the edges of its cloak blasting into the curved panel behind him, out of sight, but how much could that matter?
Rooke held his hand and the spell forward, glared, and spat blood. It caught on the mouthpiece of his headset.
Before the ghost could shriek again, Bishop let loose a Kindness Drops spell. The water--as ephemeral as the ghost--hammered ungently into Rooke and Knight from above, but made sure they'd still be standing when the ghost came at their Leader again. In the way that the Chessmen knew to duck each others' weapons and to watch each others' backs, they knew the apparition would come back out of that wall and go straight for Rooke.
Quinn growled and focused, narrowing his working eye, his snipersight burning red. His face was bleeding from dozens of little cuts. Inconsequential, his stance said. Ribbons of light wrapped around Vik the Bear in his right hand, and Quinn slammed the blade down and back into the screens before he charged the ghost. Knight could hear the film of the screens rend and the wires sparking behind them.
Quinn's boots pounded across the dripping wet tile, splattering the bloody water into the fragments of the ghost's cloak. A patch of the unreal fabric wrapped around Quinn's eyes and he ignored it completely, barreling Vik the Bear into the ghost with a violent overhand strike. The enchanted blade tore into the phantom's chest, sending a blast of green light out through the gash in his antiquated armor. His ancient face curled up and grimaced through layers of translucent wrinkles, bludgeoning the white blade with the haft of his axe and straining to pry it out of his incorporeal chest. He spun, and the sword rent his shadowy not-flesh further, but his unearthly cloak trailed behind him and whipped into Quinn. Some tatters passed straight through the frontliner but others lingered plastered to his eyes and wound around the blade, dulling the white light, strangling it like Rooke and his scarf. Quinn yanked the sword out, and the cloth tore, but he skidded on the steaming puddle of a floor.
The green fire poured out of the apparition's chest with a torrent of ice in its wake, row after jagged row of silver and green pelting into Quinn with a noise like a jailbreak. The swordsman flew back into the wall of screens he'd charged from. Knight couldn't look any further, not even to see if Quinn would get up after that. Bishop would see to him. She'd have to. Knight knew to stall for time, for Rooke, to get between the mage and the axe and stay there if he had to.
He raised Kerchief to backhand and stood his ground.
The ghost's teeth were bared, white and flat like a yogurt-fed noble's. The flames from his eyes and scars lapped and flattened against his endless wrinkles and soared through the phantom hair as he flew at Knight and Rooke, his cloak and axe still spinning behind him. Quinn's blood dripped from the hem of the cloak. Knight's dripped off his cheek and chin. Steam rose from the ripples on the floor.
The ghost began to scream. Knight slashed upward through the phantom's chin and into its nonexistent throat. The scream stopped, but the assault didn't.
The words on the axe became clearer to Knight. He froze. "I WILL PROTECT THE YOUNG MASTER", the axe read, burning green the way the lights outside burned red.
More blood and more cold glisked through Knight's face, rooting him to the floor and cackling through his living ear. The ghost and the cloak passed through him--the axe didn't. His already throbbing cheek went numb, just like the bones his screws were in. The falling blood ran colder than the room had been.
He had to get Rooke out of the way. He flailed about wildly with Kerchief, hoping to connect with the axe before it could close on his Leader. He didn't know where Rooke was or what state the man was in, or even what the other two Chessmen were doing. He could only trust.
On his second desperate swing, his blade met the phantom axe's haft and held there. It would buy Rooke only a moment.
It would have to do.
Knight watched, anxious and panting, as Rooke backed away from the scuffle. His visor was blank from the blood splattered across it and his bandana was askew. The ghost's glow made the screws in the side of Rooke's face blink like scattered glass on the sidewalk. Too much time passed to be passing normally--Rooke was raising his hand too slowly, the Rune was coming together over his head too slowly, he couldn't possibly get the spell out in time, not even Rooke--
Knight grimaced and staved off the axe as best he could. Sparks flew between the sword and the axe's fire-laced blade.
The wind blasted them away.
With nowhere else to go, Knight hit the floor and covered his head. The axe missed him--or if it hit, he didn't feel it--and cut through the melted ice on the floor into the tile, scraping against Knight's metal ear on the way down. Above him, he could hear the Funeral Wind careening over his head and the ghost screaming in pain. Cloth tore and ice melted and the axe was ripped out of the ground, nicking Knight's upper arm on the way. He shivered, but held onto his sword. He cracked his eyes open and watched the blood from his cheek seep into the water on the floor, frozen to sublimating and everywhere in between. A drop of that blood bounced on some of the ice and flew up into his eye, right through the little slit he'd managed to open.
With the axe gone, Knight crawled over the slick tile on his stomach, out of what he knew the range of Rooke's spells to be. He counted the tiles until he could stand and scrambled to a kneel, readying Kerchief on the way up just in case.
He blinked the blood out of his eye and looked--it was unnecessary.
Rooke's hair and half-on bandana were blasting back in the recoil of the spell. The ghost was suffering more than recoil. Its hair and cloak were tearing and flailing and dissipating into nothing, and the flames and wrinkles on the apparition's face were faltering. He strained against the wind the way Knight had against the axe--
--the axe was disintegrating. The ghost's hands and knees were disintegrating. It was as if thousands of tiny creatures had ridden Rooke's wind and latched onto the phantom. The apparition stammered by way of screaming, its chest heaving under the cleaved armor and the onslaught of whipping hair. He strained against the wind, weeping tears of ash and biting his chapped lips to keep going. Even the cloak was almost gone now, fading, consumed by the magic and the steam from the floor.
Rooke let his hand down. The Cyclone Rune behind his head disappeared, but his black hair and bandana were still tossed backward. The ghost yelled desperately--an old man and a young man--and flew at the Leader, ready to pummel Rooke with the remains of the axe. The blade was gone before it connected with Rooke, who stood there, still, resigned, arms at his sides and eyes closed. He inhaled sharply as the last of the ghost passed through him, shuddering and gritting his teeth. The apparition's teeth were the last to fade, and the desperate cry with them.
The room thrummed in the blacklight, still and wet and broken. Knight heard the echo of four people panting, including himself. Everyone was still up--Quinn leaned on the wall of screens, splattering a palmful of restorative onto his face. It mixed with the blood and sweat cascading down from his fair hairline and he almost had to claw it in to feel it working. In her corner, Bishop was breaking out her own store of medicine, her hands shaking and the shadows blocking out the whole half of her face. Rooke's bare eye was screwed shut and his teeth grit around his split lip, but his right eye was forced onto the headset, still relentlessly pelting him with orders despite its blood-caked screen. For a few blessed seconds, there was nothing but cooling down, despite the now sweltering heat of the room.
"Rooke--" Bishop started to say.
Behind Knight, the "CAUTION" door split down the middle.
Everyone jumped. Bishop dropped her medicine, but Knight only heard that in the right ear. Steam poured out of the opening and raced for the ceiling in eager clouds. Behind it, sallow in the sparse and fickle light, was the body of a teenaged boy. His build was slight, his hair was black, and his body wracked in cardiac arrest.
The boy's throat rattled. Whether it was a last breath or not, it was lost under a whirling hiss. Something black and jagged leapt out of the boy's arm with a comet-trail behind it, on a beeline for Rooke.
Rooke gasped, retreated, and raised his left hand over his face to block it. It was the wrong thing to do.
Knight remembered the symbol. It was the Rune that had flared up behind the ghost when it had first appeared. It drilled itself into Rooke's left hand with a wrenching screech that Rooke's own voice soon drowned out. His eyes and mouth went so wide that the skin around the screws at the side of his face was straining and reddening. The familiar Lightning Rune shoved itself out of his palm in a blood-streaked crystal the color of sweat-stains and splashed in the water on the floor. Rooke's knees followed it, and he clasped his hand, his incomprehensible voice somewhere between screaming and sputtering.
"Sir!" Bishop shouted and rushed toward him, her legs faltering in the sopping floor. Quinn shouted something that was lost on Knight, but it made the cuts on Knight's cheek ache, somehow.
Knight looked to the black-haired boy in the wall. His chest had sunk and his head was lolled forward, still but no longer frozen.
"You have no idea what you just did."
The three standing Chessmen whipped around to face the new voice. Quinn and Knight raised their swords and Bishop her casting hand, all glaring at the deep shadows in the corner far opposite Quinn. To Knight's ears the words were deep and raspy and somber, ageless in an entirely different way than the cross-scarred ghost's had been. It reminded Knight of the turning of gears inside a clock.
One docksidered foot stepped out of that corner without disturbing the ankle-deep water on the floor. The shoe was polished and black, with the mark of a red, ram-horned helm on its topface. The rest of the man emerged as if the shadows parted for him, a broad chest first. He wore an immaculate black suit and tie, pinned to his shirt with a gleaming grey sphere the size of an arrowhead. He strode forward across the water without leaving as much as a ripple in its face. His eyes were blocked out by small, dark-lensed sunglasses, his skin was paler than even Knight's, and his hair fell in an overbanded rope to his knees, as black and refractive as his shoes.
"No!" Rooke stammered from the floor without so much as looking at the man. "...no," he amended, "I do..."
The three standing Chessmen were too startled to move.
"It's giving you an idea?" the suit asked, his black glasses betraying nothing but the angle from which he was staring down at Rooke.
He was walking on the water, Knight realized, a long time after he should have. His head was spinning.
"...yes," Rooke answered, weakly, from the floor. The scythe-shaped rune in his hand was throbbing.
The suit scoffed. "You don't have my pity, Tenkan."
The same thought shot through all of the Chessmen's heads at that word. Four left eyes shot open, and Rooke looked up through his. "How do you know I'm Te--"
"Because I am Teni," he answered, as plainly as yesterday's weather. "You're working from the wrong Stone Tablet," he added, his thin black eyebrows piquing out from behind the lenses.
"Where do you get off?" Quinn snarled, taking a heavy step forward through the lake on the floor. Vik the Bear was ready behind him.
Unsmiling, he said, "The same place your Leader does."
The three Chessmen crowded close to Rooke without a speck of hesitation. Knight glared at the suit over the fresh cross-scar on his left cheek, still leaking blood down through the curve of his chin.
"Not that Leader." The suit waved a hand dismissively--he wore black gloves--as if tossing the ashes off a cigarette. "This Leader's not going anywhere for a while." When Quinn took another step forward through the crunching muck, the suit raised his sober voice and added, "And I wouldn't advise dying for him right now; that thing on his hand is surely hungry."
Quinn spat. "So that's why you're not killing us?"
"That's one reason," he answered. "You're content with that?"
Without waiting for a reply, the suit turned back into the shadows, the water as calm as tile under his shoes. His black rope of hair tossed placidly as he left, hanging passive beside the red-sheathed sword on his hip. He left without as much as a whisper.
The Chessmen breathed. Rooke wrung his hands and gawked at them, looking for words and finding nothing Knight could understand. Bishop reached forward but could say nothing, and Quinn just stared with his human eye, the snipersight still hopelessly stuck on where that man in the suit had appeared and disappeared from.
Rooke either choked or chuckled from the floor--Knight couldnt discern this sound. The armor...suited him better, their Leader said, wincing and shuddering like the blood-blocked text on his visor. Black plate, he whispered, then fell face-forward off his knees and into the water.
"Rooke? Rooke!" Bishop rushed across the water, kneeling next to him even before she'd come close enough to. She lifted his head and shoulders out of the tepid water--his bandana was too soaked to stay on--and she raised her hand to cast Kindness Drops again. The false rain fell to them, but Rooke remained unconscious. His dripping black hair fell further than his shoulders when it was wet, as long as the hood of his sweatshirt was wide. Like everyone the Chessmen had ever come across, the natural half of their Leader's face looked younger with its eye closed. His headset, however, continued to flicker with information from the Castle the others couldn't get close enough to read.
"...Let him sleep," Quinn finally said. "Knight and me can carry him."
Bishop started to protest, but then remembered. "That man," she muttered, as if it would be enough.
"He runs Eisberg," Quinn clarified, tapping a finger under his snipersight eye, the signal for 'I've got his number'. "He'll let us go."
"He said he was--"
"Teni, I know. It's got me beat. You're the conspiracy theorist, you figure it o--"
"Bishop," Knight interrupted. It came out in a whisper, but the other two listened. "Turn the heat back down. He's dead." He pointed once, jerkily, at where the "CAUTION" had been, but without looking back.
Bishop got to her feet and kept her eyes on the teenager in the wall, his head hanging and spindly black hair spilling forward onto a bare chest that puberty had never gotten its way with. Thousands of tiny bruises spidered across his skin, capillaries that had broken when Bishop had initiated the thaw. A thin trail of blood leaked slowly from between his lips, down his chest and stomach. It would reach his navel soon.
She nodded at Knight, then took out her console and plodded through the mire back to the workstation. The legs of her black slacks were soaked through, and stuck to her boots, making a pursing noise, like the sound of raw meat just now being thrown onto the chopping block.
All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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