The water reflected the night sky and the torches from the sunken buildings that surrounded us. Danelle and another River Dreamer named Shien were navigating the boat which held Mana and myself. Meg was commanding the boat with Cinder, Chigger, and Bastion as passengers. It was strange. After all we had done to come to this place, it somehow felt hollow.
Chigger had a deadly poison in her that we could do nothing to remedy. Cinder was likely going to perish in the use of the Spear that would destroy Eshlazi. Mana was mute, and yet seemed more natural now, with the hope of battle and the confrontation of evil. Bastion was shunned by those who should have protected him, his cell, and then there was me, Juniper, the misunderstood and overlooked idealist, risking his life out of some childhood loyalty to the very people who were likely going to die and take him with them. Yep, that’s us.
The River Dreamers sensed an oddness about us, but we never told them our true purpose for needing to get to Bazaar with such short notice. They had helped us out several times now, no questions asked. We would, if we survived, definitely need to make it up to them. It was good to have friends like them.
My mind came back to reality as they carefully worked the boats through the hidden and unseen paths of the sunken city, all of us caught in a prayer like silence. After we docked, Meg asked us if we needed their help. Shien came up to her and simply shook his head. It was like he knew. We parted their company and I saw Bastion give Meg a kiss on the forehead. It was a parting gift to her, as though Bastion had resigned himself to whatever fate held.
But would I expect less from him? He loved Cinder and deep within me I knew, if she did not live through the ordeal, neither would Bastion. We placed our arms with the tattoos of the Cell’s symbol in a circle, looking to it for strength. Only Bastion was lacking the markings, but he watched in silence as we mentally prepared ourselves. We then walked slowly towards the towering Skyrealm we called the Hive. It was a giant shadow against the night sky. It was our nightmares and fears. It was the one thing that kept us together.
As we started our ascent through the lower levels of the Hive, a tight tug in the gut of my stomach set in. Somewhere within this horrid place, our friend and companion, Slash, was trapped within. Were we going to join her or liberate her? Was it worth it? Was she even the same person? What of the Spear and its power? Was it going to aid us or hinder us in the final confrontation? These questions and more crossed my mind, but it was too late to have regrets. Whatever was going to happen was already decided. The moment we made the choice to come here, from the very first time, we were destined to arrive at this point, but somehow it felt wrong. Very wrong. I didn’t voice my feelings, but I felt as though we had done something that had sent our paths on a spiral that we couldn’t recover from. We were out of control . . . out of everyone’s control. I pinpointed the feeling within my gut and understood it for what it was . . . chaos!
After several stories of climbing broken sets of stairs in perpetual darkness, we heard footfalls above us. We came to a door that was slightly open and gave way to a large area cluttered with debris. Cinder sucked all the light out of the area, transforming the entrance into an inky black void. Bastion and Mana placed themselves at the threshold, peering around the corner of the room. We saw half a dozen freaks, standing inside. They were unarmed and didn’t notice us. We stormed them before they could set themselves a defense, and they fell within a matter of moments. Mana slashed at their flesh with large arcing slashes of her sword and killed three of them herself. I struggled with my opponent, until Chigger helped me finish him off. She had already dispatched her own victim. Bastion claimed the life of his adversary with a quick series of strikes with his hands and feet. He really knew how to strike a persons vital centers. Cinder aided us where she could, but it was important that she remain untouched until we met with our true opponent, the Jo’han Eshlazi.
We glanced around, scanning the room for others and checking to make sure our opponents were dead. We managed to escape without a scratch.
Before we could discuss our situation, the whole building began to shake. The very walls themselves were rippling and dust fell generously from the ceiling. We braced ourselves and made a circle with Bastion in the center. We watched in horror as the walls changed their appearance and the air became thick and misty. Instead of standing in a room of dead freaks and garbage, we were in an odd shaped chamber with walls made of a fleshy, cartilage like substance. The ceiling was made of a thin, stretched membrane that pulsed with the flow of fluids rushing through veined lines and arteries. I supposed we were in some sort of lung or organ made from the sick and perverted mind of Eshlazi. I covered my mouth, not wanting to breathe the taint that lingered in the air.
As we let the reality of our new surroundings sink in, a bulbous, boil or wart rose from the floor across from us. Within it was the fetal form of Slash, completely naked but seemingly uninjured and in good health. She was breathing a pink, translucent fluid. We stepped towards her, but at our first movements we heard the sweet voice of Eshlazi whisper in the air.
” I knew you would return . . . my kittens!”
” Show yourself.”
” You couldn’t resist!”
Cinder raised her arms and struck with the force of The River of Dream at its substance. How could she still channel eminence in such a tainted environment? She did it with all of the strength one would expect after hours of meditation! The fibrous ceiling tore down its center, dripping a red, puss-like rain upon us.
” Coward . . . show yourself!” yelled Bastion.
Chigger was striking at the air, performing a series of symbols that spelled Eshlazi’s death. I found myself standing near to her. After all, this was maybe the last time we would ever spend together. Bastion’s voice lingered in the air as another boil rose from the ground. Within was a twisted and deformed creature made of the bodies of three individuals, joined together in a perverse fashion. The boil popped, and the creature stood tall before us, razor sharp claws releasing from hidden folds of the skin of one of its arms. Its eyes, one in the base of its neck and another near two navels opened and focused upon us. Before I could act, Mana was upon it, slashing and carving with her sword. Cinder focused her dream essence upon it and released Puppet Show. The creature started to attack itself, each one of the three bodies hating the other. Chigger fell upon the beast as well, and I watched as Mana and Chigger were soon covered in blood and guts.
Cinder stood calmly in the middle of the room, and called for Eshlazi to show itself . . . It did.
The floor and ceiling and walls began to pull tendons and muscle and bone from their substance. The form of Eshlazi soon loomed before us, standing about nine feet tall and filled with a sickly sweet longing. For the first time, it was before us, face to face and in the flesh. If I wasn’t filled with dread before, I was now!
” I was waiting for you. I am glad you have returned.” said Eshlazi.
” Returned to see you die.” said Cinder.
” But I have so much to show you. My kittens.”
” You will meet your end here this night. You are a wicked creature. We want nothing of you or your kind.”
” Ah, but among you the seed always lay. Even now, he stands among you. Let me show you.”
We saw a young child with the markings of a Magdalite. He was being scolded because he was not willing to partake in the lessons of pleasure and love.
I don’t want to. I’m afraid. You can’t make me.”
” You will learn, or you will be punished. What will the Sisterhood say?”
” No!” He bursts pass the older Magdalite and runs wildly away, only to be caught soon after.
” You will see what happens to undisciplined children who don’t understand the way of the Lover!”
He is led into a group of teens, all disrobed in a candlelit room. They call to the young child.
” No! I’m afraid!” The child pushes the older lady, and she stumbles, crashing against the wall. Her body tenses and then relaxes as the blood pours forth from the hole in her chest, the candelabra clenched tightly within her fist.
The child lies, broken and scarred under a set of stairs, the markings of a Fallen scarred in his skin. A set of long arms lifts him from his sleep and carries his small body away from the cold floor.
It whispers softly into his ear, ” You need not be afraid anymore, my kitten.”
Cinder was right.
By the time I realized what was going on, Mana was trapped against the wall, her body held in place by a multitude of hands. Chigger was drawing upon her eminences, and the faces of hundreds of people surrounded us. The faces of those killed or tainted by the Z’Bri; Tribesmen Ancestors, the Fallen, and those lost to time. Cinder and Bastion were walking hand in hand towards Eshlazi, Bastion’s eyes red with tears. No! What was happening. She had to resist it, but I couldn’t move to help her. I was frozen to the spot.
Bastion placed his hand into the open hand of Eshlazi. He then reached for Cinder, and placed his free hand around her head, love in his eyes. I heard him whisper, ” I did it for you, my love,” and passionately kissed her. The Spear came flying out of Cinder’s body and was sucked into Bastions. He pushed Cinder to the floor and embraced the Jo’han. ” Father, I’m home!”
The bodies of Bastion and the Z’Bri Eshlazi began to meld. Bastions arms pierced into its chest and Eshalazi’s chest opened up, his ribs and bones pulling Bastion within. Pure Dream opened up a crack in reality and an envelope of power glowed with an alternating orange and green hue. A sound, louder than the greatest thunderclap, struck the air and lifted our bodies like we were Agnite ragdolls. The walls began to bleed and I saw Mana rush to Slash who lay helpless on the floor. Another person stood near to me and picked the dying form of Chigger off of the floor. She looked unconscious. He was big and was marked as a Joanite. He looked like one of the faces brought about from Chigger’s eminence. Cinder ran toward me and helped me, as I helped her. We ran.
We found ourselves outside of the Hive, the top tainted levels collapsed and gone from the death of the Z’Bri that gave it power. The Joanite placed Chigger gently on the floor and Mana did the same for Slash. I looked at Cinder who was staring up at the Skyrealm in a dazed fashion. Wait a second . . . who was the Joanite!
” Who are you?” I asked wearily, my staff at the ready.
” Your worst nightmare!” said the Joanite with a smile.
I yelled for Mana and she supported me, her bloody sword at the ready.
” I felt Dahlia. She gave me a choice. She was within me and allowed me to change. I can still feel her . . . is it me or her who speaks?! Is it me or him?” He looked at the silent and sick body of Chigger lying on the broken ground. ” I sure am small aren’t I!”