Chapters 24 – 26

24 – Gotcha

 

The sun shone on the four gathered on the Nine-Mile Road. Tome blinked: his blond hair was sticking out past his brow as the sweat dripping from his face flew off him. His body was trembling as he stood, bracing himself. Cracks ran along the concrete road, criss-crossing at a square indentation where the bottom of Pinada’s cube was wedged.

“Sing, you’re only going to end up hurting your friends,” Pinada told him. His hand was on the case, where bits of yellow grass blades and seeds were sticking. The plants on both sides of the road bobbed toward him with a steady sway. Darrow stood inside the gazebo, hugging one of the wooden supports. Vornis was crouched, gripping the street with his claws.

“Does that sound strange?” Pinada went on. “‘Friends.’ I wasn’t really expecting to find you with any. Made it easier to trick you into my cave, though.” The impaled personal effects jingled against the three spires at the top of his cube. “This is even funnier if you remember that I stepped out of my case to shake your hand. The old you wouldn’t have hesitated; he would have attacked me. I’m so glad you’ve quelled your violent tendencies. Nice job.”

Tome toppled forward. He caught himself and rolled across the road. The debris fell from Pinada’s case. The grass in the field flexed straight again.

“And I actually fooled you with my fake death!” Pinada laughed. “Such a genius ploy: I broke one of my cases and tossed some clothes on the ground.”

Vornis grit his white teeth and leapt at Pinada’s case with arms outstretched. He took hold of one of the spires on the way down, snapping it off.

“You brute. That one was my favorite; it had King’s crown on it,” Pinada told him. He placed his hand on the back pane and the cube jolted forward, slamming into Vornis’ chest. The beast was sent onto his back, skidding across the gravel along with the fallen spire. Pinada leapt in his case again, coming down on Vornis’ legs and pinning them.

“I heard him call you ‘Vornis,'” Pinada said. “Parlay had a friend with that name, didn’t she? Or I guess I should say ‘he,’ now–I saw you all crying around him when that city fell. I wish I had known about that dual-gendered nonsense during the fair. The crowds would have had a good laugh.”

Vornis squirmed beneath the glass, thumping the case with his fist. “You did enough! I always wondered what sent her over the edge–it was you! Putting her through that–humiliation!”

“Oh, everything’s my fault, huh?” Pinada said. “At least I didn’t kill her. You all did that just fine. And I saw how you treated her–him–during that last day. What she became disgusted you.”

He slid the case forward, bringing the edge of the cube to Vornis’ neck. A spot of fog pulsed on the bottom of the case as the beast’s breath seethed onto it.

“And what about your girlfriend?” Pinada asked. “Isn’t she the reason you and Parlay were banned from that quarantine area? Why isn’t she here?”

“You know why she isn’t!” Vornis bellowed. Pinada hummed, toying with his scarf.

“You aren’t thinking,” he said. “It’s a dead zone. She was already infected with slate. My virus couldn’t touch her.”

Vornis ceased with his struggling. The ferocity drained from his face.

“Ooh, don’t tell me you never actually checked on her?” Pinada groaned. With a click of his tongue, he shook his head. “Well, those people depended on the outside world for food and supplies–they’d all be dead by now. Probably all starved. I bet some panicked, ventured out–only to have their virus claim them.” He snuck a hand to the sword’s hilt beneath his coat. “I wonder how long your beloved what’s-her-name waited for you to show up. Well, maybe you were busy. I shouldn’t judge.”

“Zen–” Vornis muttered, and his eyes drifted to the plains and the swaying grass there. Pinada unsheathed the rapier: revealing the slim blade with no edge and a needle’s point. He took a step back, directing the tip at Vornis’ kneecap under the glass.

“Yeah that’s too bad,” he said. He plunged the sword through the bottom of the cube with no effort or noise, piercing Vornis’ leg.

The beast yelped as the needle penetrated down to the street; he beat the back of his head against the concrete. “Give me one minute with you out of that box, Pinada,” Vornis hissed. “Just you and me. I’ll tear you–”

He winced as Pinada dragged the blade out. Blood gathered on the bottom of the glass, leaving the sword clean as it withdrew back into the cube. Pinada touched the plate at his side, and the tiny hole at his feet sealed. He tipped the blade forward, pointing the tip at Vornis’ chest.

A pop came from his left and Pinada looked: Mean and Dark were standing at the gazebo. Pinada caught himself as his cube was thrown off Vornis’ body. The bottom plate skidded across the road and he laughed as he slid to a halt.

“Vornis, you guys okay?” Mean asked. She dropped in next to him. He grunted over at Tome, who was struggling to get back on his feet.

“Held him here the entire time,” Vornis said. “How about you? Are they safe?”

“Yeah,” Mean affirmed. “Just stay here; an ambulance might be coming.” Dark held the hem of his cape close to him as he rushed over to Tome.

“So you made your choice,” Pinada said, sheathing the sword. “I hope you can live with it.”

Mean ignored him. “I’m going to the mine,” she told Vornis, and he gave her a hasty nod. She darted away and leapt: soaring down the road. Soon she reached the end where a large, paved lot stood barren. She continued straight past it; flying over the grass, heading toward a far-off boulder that marked the entrance to the mine.

Pinada kept his eyes on her and he placed his hand on the back of his case. He bounded past Vornis’ grasping arms, in pursuit. He wove around Tome, dipping a bit as an unseen spell tugged at him. Pinada continued forward, meeting one last person near the road’s end: Darrow. He had a mug in his hand, winding it back. He tossed it at Pinada with a scowl. It struck the front plate, bounced off, and clattered to the road. Pinada pulled his rapier half-way from its sheath. Darrow flinched, sniffling.

Pinada scoffed, slamming the sword back in. He gazed past Darrow, zipping around him.

“Alright, don’t look back,” Mean told herself. With a kick she burst to full speed: keeping her eyes narrow as wind whipped at her scalp. The massive stone was just ahead, sitting in a clearing along with the hex door leading down. A stretch of yellow grass was between her and the rock. A pane of glass whipped up out of it; Mean swerved. The glinting, square plate buzzed ahead of her, smashing into two of the pillars marking the door. The middle of each one warped inward and the glass remained stuck. Mean landed next to it two seconds later.

“Crap,” she muttered, flinging the glass out of the way. She stood in the center of the hex door. It buzzed at her. She grumbled, hopping out and checking the massive boulder nearby. Lengths of rusted chain were attached to the rock, and a stairway with flattened railings poked out from under it all. Mean went to the top step, touching the stone resting atop it. It responded, lifting up: the chain links clinking as the sunlight revealed a metallic platform underneath. Mean took a step down into the crack.

“Lights?” she whispered. The space beyond brightened. A vast cavern floor came into focus far below the platform’s railing. She slipped in, setting the boulder back into place with a thump. She coughed from the dust drizzling overhead and peered over the rail. The floor of the cave was far below, and the lumpy ground was lit with an even haze. At her side, stairs wound along the sides of the cavern’s wide edges: fastened in place with bolts and leading in a wide arc down to the floor. Mean ignored them and leapt over the side. Cool air rushed over her skin as she dropped. A hill of loose stone and rubble was piled up directly her; she drifted forward, snapping her heels down on a smooth stretch of flat stone. As she scanned the walls for any possible way to continue, a dull thud from above diverted her attention. She looked up and gasped: a large, painted eye stared back down at her.

It was carved into the bottom of the rock that sealed the cave’s roof. The eye stretched wide, tapered at the ends. It was framed with a red circle.

“Geez, that’s right–she was down here,” Mean said. Words were written next to the circled eye: ‘I CAN’T SEE MUCH.’

Another thud echoed and a layer of dirt drifted down from the rock. Mean continued to check the lower area. Several neat tunnels were carved into the wall. Two were overlaid with chain link fence with signs that read “Abandoned! Stay out!”

A third tunnel had the wire obstructions torn away, exposing a lit path.

“BUT I CAN SEE YOU,” was painted over it.

Mean shivered, holding her arms close to her body as she trotted through. The path was wide for the first half. Large sheets of burlap were stretched across the walls, pinned in place by rusted nails. Further in, where the sides of the tunnel narrowed, the glossy earth was chipped away in precise, square edges. Ahead there was a sharp decline. Mean paused, and the quiet was broken by the boom of the massive entry rock falling.

The noise was still resonating as Pinada called out: “You shouldn’t be down here.” His voice echoed and Mean leapt down the pit. Her feet touched down on a paved path and she raced ahead–half flying, half sprinting–over the dusty track. Every surface was lit by invisible sources; the slick walls displayed doodles and repeating words. ‘CIRCLE, CIRCLE,’ as Mean leapt a crevasse, ‘CIRCUS, SHIRK IT,’ as she reached a passage running perpendicular to the one she was in. Conical rock formations held a small basin of water.

“Crap–which way, which way?” she chattered, hopping on her heels. Large chunks of stone sat to the left; on the right the way was clear. The far-off grinding of Pinada’s case against stone spurred her though the easiest choice.

She bounded through, passing a hex door set into one of the walls. Ahead, metallic, textured slabs were set along a zigzagging stone path. As Mean scrambled across them, she spotted a small sign hanging from twin chains. “Hall Zone ahead” was written upon it, and she stumbled over something as she broke into a wider, oblong chamber. The footing was slanted and she rushed down through the haphazard lighting. Another sign dangled here; one of its chains was ripped in two. “Hall Zone” it read, though its lettering was defaced with red marks: A horizontal slash bisected the “a,” while numerous, interlinked zeroes were scribbled after the “Z.” Mean jerked to a halt as she reached a long rail barring her way. With a gasp she shivered back: all light beyond that point ceased.

Her eyes followed the railing and it made a long curve to her right: following an unseen path through intermittent spots of light, along a wall dotted with scribbles of eyes, chain links, and faces.

“Are your friends down here, Mean?” Pinada’s hollow voice echoed through the chambers behind her. “I don’t think they can come back if they’re down this deep.”

Mean spotted a bright patch far across the unlit expanse: a square breach in the wall where a strong light shone through. Her sandals scraped from the cold floor and her body lifted to a hover. She put a foot on the rail. The darkness above and below her was still. Her own breath startled her, rasping loud. With a jerk she set off across the black, empty space. She held her arms close to her body and her feet tight together; risking nothing to the void as she flew toward the far-off square of light. The rushing of air over her ears eased the quiet as she flew, and a nervous hum built at her lips as she kept her eyes on the passage. Sweat trailed over her skin and tears blurred her vision; when the opposite railing drew up she flew past it: zooming through the radiant opening.

The tall, steel supports from her first visit were still there, and she weaved around the few that stood between her and the far side of the bright chamber. Mean slowed near the joined stalactite and stalagmite formation: with the distinctive, sandy streak down the middle. The area where the console had been was scraped bare. A large, hexagon-shaped indention marred the floor.

“You got rid of everything,” Mean said, snapping her feet to the ground. “But the patterns–we saw time patterns from next week. It should still be here!”

She turned back to the vast cavern behind her. The floodlights on the ceiling cast long, twisted shadows on the floor. Many strips of coaster track had been attached to the tall pillars: torn into segments and spiraling around them. Pinada was gliding out from the hole in the wall.

“The machine that records time patterns is still here,” he shouted over at her. “But I have eradicated the last of the viruses. There will never be any more; there are no hosts to incubate them. And without a method of travel the time patterns are useless.”

Trisk’s sweater hung on one of the two remaining spires on top of his cube. The mandala design on the front was pierced through.

“You thought there was a way out,” Pinada stated, raising his voice loud enough to carry across the vast chamber. “A labyrinth is just another structure to me; I have blocked every passage and filled every crack.” He widened his eyes. “A maze with four walls.”

Mean stared at the blank spots on the floor, mumbling. “Why would you do this? Why would you kill everyone?”

Pinada glided toward her, his hands in his coat pockets. “It’s like how that pit out there frightened you,” he explained. “It isn’t even that deep; even in the dark, I know its dimensions.” He leaned on the back of his case. “Things aren’t scary once I know where they are. And now I know where everyone is: they’re all dead. It’s such a relief.”

With a shriek of metal wrenching from its place, Mean brought down a spiral of twisted track onto him. He gave the glass an absent touch and the metal bounced upon impact, fragmenting into five large pieces and clanging to the chamber floor.

“And I know where you are,” Pinada continued. “I also know that you are from this world and not native to the other, as you lead everyone to believe.” He put a finger on his cheek as another hunk of rail collided and shattered on his case. “Oh dear! Mean–you lied to all your friends. Even Parlay, who trusted you.”

“Shut up! You don’t get to talk about them!” Mean cried, dragging another piece of the track from the pillars.

“What are you shouting at me for?” Pinada asked. “You were the one who chased Parlay up into the sky a month back. So confused. So tormented. Did she remember you at all, I wonder? You could have had a real friend from your home world–but you chose to beat her to death. Maybe she didn’t want to remember you. I sure wouldn’t.”

Mean caught the rail in her tiny hands and swung. The metal struck, wrapping around the corner of Pinada’s square case. The third spire was crushed beneath it.

“I didn’t know,” Mean said, sniffing. She dropped her end of the rail, looking past the cube as the metal fell away from it. Dark was sweeping into the room with his cape held around him. Tome followed, brushing dust from his blond hair.

“Huh, you made it down here,” Pinada stated, turning sideways. “I was afraid I’d have to drag her corpse back up to you.”

“Mean, where is it? Is it still there?” Tome asked, shouting.

“There’s nothing;” Mean said, dashing past the pillars and joining with them, “you shouldn’t have come.”

“That’s right,” Pinada chimed in. “I’ve spent the last week dismantling my equipment. But let me tell you the funniest part”–he spun to face them in full–”only one virus can infect a person in their lifetime. The one you all took fulfilled its programming, but it will forever lay dormant in you. Even if I had left everything here, you would never be able to use slate again.”

Mean stamped on the floor. Tome pushed his way in front of Dark.

Pinada laughed. “Sing, you picked such a terrible team! If you could even call it one. Just a random group of people who–oh, I don’t know–go running off with the slightest provocation. You couldn’t even step up as their leader; you just stood by. Letting the only chance you had slip right past.”

He chuckled and coughed into his scarf as Tome walked right up to his casing.

“You’re not leaving here alive,” he said. “I don’t care if it kills me–you’re not getting out of here.”

“Tome, stay back,” Dark said.

“Yes, stop posturing,” Pinada chided. “You’ll just float out of your body again. You cheater.” He did his best to mimic Kay Kary’s voice.

“Dark, you and Mean leave,” Tome said. “I can bring it all down on him.”

Pinada jumped. “Oh dear, that’s drastic. Help, someone help.”

“You don’t need to do that, Tome,” Dark said, pulling him back and whispering in his ear. “I got him already.”

Tome stood still and Pinada put his hands in his pockets. He made a slow revolution with his case, grinding against the cave’s floor.

“Ahhhh, yes, my air supply,” Pinada announced along with a slow clap. “Good job. Really. I’m ecstatic to see one of you making some effort to think.”

“His–you found it?” Tome asked. Dark gave a curt nod.

Pinada chuckled, lifting one side of his heavy coat. “If only you had shut it off when it mattered. Allow me to bring your genius plan down with one move.”

He drew the rapier from its scabbard, pointing the long, needle blade at the glass. Coughing again, he drove the point through the case; piercing in and out with a long glide. A small hiss whined through the hole.

“Seriously, nice move,” Pinada said, working the sword through again. “I almost feel light-headed.”

“Cocoa, now!” Dark cried.

A white glow burst from beneath Darklord’s cape, sweeping out in radiant strands. Mean and Tome were engulfed as the wave rushed forward, crashing against Pinada’s square walls. A tiny, slimy head poked out from under Dark’s arm.

“That–!” Pinada choked, yanking the sword free. He tossed it down and slammed his palm to the case; tendrils of light squirmed past his fingers through the holes in the glass.

“No! No! No!” he stammered, squeezing his eyes shut as the bright strands wrapped around his body and face. “That isn’t supposed to be here–!”

The tendrils retracted: clinging to both sides of Pinada’s walls as they withdrew. The side Pinada was touching tipped outward and broke free from the cube; the last spire wobbled off, spilling its trophies to the cave’s floor.

“How did it–” Pinada gasped, covering his head with his arm as the three other walls at his sides gave way. The top plate fell upon him, sending him down. The others crashed to the floor, snapping into jagged fragments and skidding outward.

“Gotcha,” Dark chuckled as the glow converged on the rory at his chest. He slumped as the floodlights overhead flickered. Mean’s sandals squeaked as she shot forward.

“That’s impossible–” Pinada coughed, shrugging off the large top plate. He stood with the broken glass at his feet, watching Mean run right over. He gave a reflexive toss of his hand to the empty space between them; Mean’s fist drifted past and struck him in the neck. His eyes crossed and he sputtered; she took the neck of his coat and jerked the collar down to his elbows.

“You can’t touch me,” Pinada gasped as Mean kicked his legs out from under him. He crumpled to the floor and she leapt on his chest, beating at him with her tiny hands.

 

—–

 

Vornis tightened a slick band of cloth at his wounded knee. He grunted, staring off in the direction of the mine.

“All of their patterns just vanished,” he said. “Even Pinada’s stupid box.”

Darrow brightened, placing his hands on the asphalt as he sat.

“Yeah, I saw that Dark still had the rory on him when we came back,” he said. “He must have done the magic-draining thing.”

“But how?” Vornis asked. “How come it didn’t catch the version of slate that killed everyone else?”

“It was in Eon’s armor,” Darrow said. “Remember? He would have hidden it before the fair started; it was sealed off from everything in there so Kello couldn’t see him cheating. It caught our virus once it had been freed.”

“Dark was the one that let him out–” Vornis finished. “He was closest. And his own helmet had just been cracked. His time-traveling version infected the rory.” He chuckled. “Oh, to see the look on Pinada’s face right now.”

 

—–

 

Dark shuffled forward, dragging his heels. Pinada lay on the ground before him, his eyes blank and bruises swelling up at his cheeks. Mean stood over his body with her hands balled up into fists. With a curt sigh she scanned the glass at her feet. Reaching down, she pulled the needle-edged sword from the mess.

“Mean, no, I’ll do it,” Dark said. “Give me the sword.”

She turned, flicking her hair back with a toss of the head. A smile crossed her face as she set her free hand on his shoulder.

“Gotcha,” she sang, drawing the blade back and running him through with one stroke.

 

25 – Dividual

 

Dark gurgled, staggering back as Mean drove the blade through his chest until the hilt clinked against his armor. Blood dribbled out through the hole that it made. She laughed, pressing him back to one of the tall pillars.

“Possession–” Tome gasped. He scrambled over to where Pinada’s body was sprawled. He swiped a triangular shard from the broken glass case, directing the jagged end down at his neck. “Mean, hold on; he can’t do it for long.”

Pinada opened his eyes and flicked with this finger. The shard zipped backward and out of Tome’s hands. He yelped as two red slashes opened at his palms; he drew his arms to his chest. The glass shard doubled back, striking the back of Tome’s knee. He fell to the floor. Pinada shrugged off his heavy coat.

“What can’t I do?” he coughed. He planted his feet on the floor and rose, the turquoise scarf unraveling from his neck, sliding off. Dark cried out through his helmet’s crack as Mean pinned him against the tall pillar. Her face wore the same grin as Pinada.

“What–you can’t be both–” Tome sputtered. Mean’s tiny hands let go of the sword.

“I can; you’re not thinking.” Her voice was louder as she chided him. “I stole your trick. I saw how you left your body on the night of the comet.”

“But I didn’t see a use for it at first,” Pinada chimed in, his voice losing the hollow rebound now that the casing was gone. “I can’t use magic without a body; and I’d rather die than be condemned to float around as a ghost.”

Mean’s finger gave the bridge of her nose an involuntary tap. “And I couldn’t find a way to permanently take control of a person. Mean here will reject my mind and force it out.”

“So that got me thinking,” Pinada said. “What if I tried to possess my own body–”

“That is, to say;” Mean went on, “my body at some point in the past?”

Tome slinked back with his feet scraping over the cave floor. He held his bleeding hands close.

“That’s what you did,” he panted. “That’s what you used that wretched virus for. You aren’t one person–there’s two inside of you from two different times.”

“Everything made sense once I figured it out,” Pinada laughed. “My power–my genius. Why I could figure out patterns that no one else could. I always had another personality at the back of my mind; the only one I could bear to be with: my own!”

Pinada kept laughing as Mean doubled over. Tears streamed from her eyes and she gritted her teeth.

“You’re fighting.” Her lips spoke, trembling. “But your mind is my tool; let me show you how I can use it.”

Her body was flung to the floor with a thud. Her dress and hair were pressed flat.

“Dark, I’m sorry!” she sobbed. She looked over at him, crying; her arm struggled to rise. After a wavering effort it slapped to the floor.

“It’s–okay–” Dark gasped. “It was him.”

Pinada smiled, closing his eyes and stretching his arms. His buttoned-up shirt displayed hundreds of tiny, tan rectangles against the black cloth. With an invigorating shiver, he cocked his head down at Tome.

“Hello Sing,” he greeted, his loud voice carrying through the cavern. “It’s been such a long time.”

He tugged at the tight-fitting sleeves on his shirt, bringing them up to his wrists.

“You’re older than the other one,” Tome said. Pinada rose his eyebrows behind his glasses.

“Oh, you can tell?” he began. “Yes, only one mind can be dominant; the other one is suppressed. It’s my failsafe”–he gestured back to where Dark stood, pinned–”as our pal Dartboard knows, a pattern faint enough is untouchable. From rories–from any sort of detection.”

He swept his arms out. The dust at his feet stirred. The coaster rails shuddered from where they were wrapped around the tall pillars; the pieces of broken glass lifted into the air. Tome swore and Pinada laughed at him.

“That’s right–” he announced, “your armored friend screwed you over!”

The shards of glass spun and maneuvered: interlocking and fusing into solid, square pieces. They swirled in the air around Pinada. One loomed above Tome as he dragged himself up, wincing as he pushed up with his hands. Pinada beckoned him over.

“C’mon, Sing,” he challenged. “Drag Parlay’s sorry body over here and show me what for. I won’t even close my case.”

“Tome, watch out!” Mean shouted.

Tome took a step in Pinada’s direction. The glass plate above him dropped and collided with the back of his skull. He was sent to the floor with a whimper and Pinada howled with loud laughter.

“Stop it!” Mean shouted. She lifted her head from the floor, wavering for a moment before slamming back flat again.

“Alright, I will,” Pinada said, lifting his glasses to wipe at his eye. “He can watch me kill you now.” He stepped upon the glass square that had just smacked Tome, drawing the other plates to him: one above with the spire reaffixed, two at his sides, and two more at his front and back.

He dragged his fingers inward and the pieces snapped together, encasing him once more. A slow grind sounded as he turned to where Mean glared at him through her tears.

“You hit me you little wench,” Pinada stated, brushing at the purpling bruise on his cheek. “Let’s see how you like it.”

He pointed at a stone and it scraped up from the floor, wobbling as it was flung. With a sudden dip it struck Mean in the stomach, cracking in two and bouncing off with a thud. She choked, gasping at the cold cave air.

“Pinada, I’m the one–” Dark said, pulling the sword out of his chest by the hilt. “I’m the one that–”

The glass case rotated and Pinada pinched at the air: the sword swept out of Dark’s body; he collapsed, gurgling.

“It’s disgusting: the way you follow her around,” Pinada said. “No drive of your own; just someone else’s pet.”

Dark coughed, pushing up with his arms. Cocoa slithered near the breastplate’s puncture. “I’m sorry–Mean, I’m sorry that I didn’t say more–”

“It’s alright, Dark, don’t talk,” Mean said. “I told you not to, remember? If only I hadn’t been so scared all the time. I’m sorry–”

Pinada scoffed.

“I had to listen to everyone on my world talk about you,” he groused, slapping the glass. “Every day it would be: ‘don’t they make a cute couple’ or some other petty remark. And Tenny with that Trisk woman–falling in love is so common, so plain. Even the lowest of animals can mate with each other; you all waste your time on such meaningless things.”

Dark made a swipe for the sword that hovered nearby, missing. Pinada pulled it further away.

“You want it, dog?” he laughed, flinging the weapon with a flick of his finger. It soared through the cavern, clanking to rest near a far-off steel strut. Dark fell onto his forearms and seethed through clenched teeth. He looked over at where Mean was held. She stared back at him with her brown hair snaking along the ground. Her yellow dress was torn where the rock had hit her.

“I forgot:” Pinada spoke down to Dark, “Parlay mentioned that you have four hearts.” He looked at his watch. “I guess you’ll live long enough to see her die, then.”

He gestured over at the heap where his discarded coat was: the turquoise scarf came rippling over to him.

“And I want you to know, Mean,” Pinada said, twirling the blue fabric in circles. “That I’m going to go back and see all of the people that you’ll never see again.” He gave a snap with his wrist, and the scarf whipped across Mean’s face. The glossy material clung to her. She writhed and and shook her head, her chest heaving. Pinada withdrew the cloth for a moment, and Mean let out sharp gasps. He snapped it over her face again.

“I’m going to go back and merge with myself,” he stated. “Then I’ll come back to this point and do it all over. Every time I’ll become more unique than anyone else; every time I’ll murder them while they call me ‘hero!'”

Mean squirmed, her skin paling. The scarf becoming wet where it clung to her mouth.

“The friends you made will never know you,” Pinada laughed, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. “They will only cheer for me: the wonderful genius Pinada!”

He whipped the scarf away from Mean’s face again: she coughed and inhaled, looking past Pinada’s case.

“Dark, no, Dark!” she cried out. Pinada chuckled to himself, wiping his glasses’ lens with his shirt. HIs case ground against the floor as he turned.

“Well, I guess you did die after all,” Pinada said, looking down at the armor. Dark did not move, and his limbs were spread at odd angles. The cape covered his head, laid flat over the length of the body. Pinada squinted, frowned, and edged closer. He swept his hand; the cape lifted free: the armor beneath it was strewn in pieces. The helmet was laid on the floor in two round halves, each wobbling. No one was inside.

“What,” Pinada uttered, his eyes darting to drippings of blood that lead off to where the sword had been thrown. He thrust the glasses back to his head. The room went black.

 

26 – In the Dark

 

Near the peak of the cavern a single floodlight pulsed on. A dim light fell upon Pinada, illuminating a pale circle around him. Dark’s abandoned armor lay in pieces on floor. Mean’s staggered breaths sounded somewhere in the darkness beyond. Pinada gazed out into the black cavern.

“So you finally take off that armor just to run?” he called out. A clank in the distance echoed.

“I couldn’t stand it,” Dark answered. “I couldn’t stand being like you any longer.”

Pinada rose his eyebrow above the rim of his glasses. “Ha! Like me?” He eyed the pulsing circle of light on the floor, sliding his case into the middle. A scuffling sounded from the shadow.

“I hate to say it–I enjoyed it as much as you did,” Dark said. “All those people cheering. So trusting”–he coughed–”so eager to go along with any whim. Any plan. It felt good.”

Pinada chuckled. “You’re letting the fame from the tournament go to your head.”

Dark whispered something, then rose his voice so Pinada could hear him: “We didn’t even encourage them; they just followed. And I know what it’s like, Pinada; you just want to see how far their blind devotion will go.” He let out a laugh. “We almost want to betray them just to see the shocked looks on their faces.”

“We didn’t do anything,” Pinada growled. “You are not my peer.”

A water drop fell into a puddle and he jerked his head at the noise.

“We both had a way out, too,” Dark said. “A way to step back from the spectacle. We caused it. Yet we got away.”

Pinada tapped at the empty sheath at his side. “Is this how you want to spend your last minutes? Speaking nonsense? You only ‘stepped back’ in time because I told you to.”

Dark coughed. “You aren’t the only one who’s done this. You need to look beyond your case, Pinada.”

Pinada tapped his glasses and turned, checking behind him. “You’re that Tecker person Mackaba was talking about. I’ve been to your world: nothing like this has happened; you aren’t that important.” He took a long breath, poking at his case with his finger. “You lived on Jesice, and the other continents are scattered; there’s no hex door to unite them like we had here. Your government is fragmented and no singular, eminent individual exists.” He pounded his chest. “I had my whole planet eating out of my hand–my whole world! No one else can ever say that!”

Dark murmured in agreement. “You only had one world,” he stated. “Maybe we aren’t so alike, then.”

Pinada scowled. “Only–” he uttered. He stared at the shattered armor. Dark resumed.

“You’ve been here in this cave;” he coughed, “you knew about Hellzoo and her kind. You knew enough to hide when one of them showed up at the tournament.”

He sniffled. Pinada shook his head, glancing across the floor.

“I think that’s the real reason you ended it,” Dark stated. “You knew this couldn’t last. They were coming and you couldn’t be the hero anymore. Things are changing–about to get bigger than either of us can handle. It’s alright. I ran away, too.”

“Shut up!” Pinada said, pounding the glass. “They’re just monsters–you’re just–” He paced in his cage. “You don’t know what happens; you’re lying!”

Dark laughed from somewhere in the shadows. “Gosh, Pinada, you sound confused. I think I can relate.”

Pinada grit his teeth and he stomped. He pointed a finger out, jabbing it. “You are not like me! No one is! I am not–I will not–”

“Alright, alright,” Dark teased, cutting him off. “Just go back–back to your safe little box in the past. But me: I’m going on ahead. I’m facing my future this time. Goodbye, The Hero Pinada.”

“No!” Pinada screamed, his hollow voice echoing. “I am not letting you stay here! You are a nobody! An empty suit at my feet! And I am not–I am not letting you stay here to spread these lies about me! Lights!”

The lights did not respond; the pale, flickering circle persisted. Pinada threw his hands out in a fury, spreading the glass plates in all directions and sending the single spire on top crashing to the floor.

“Lights! Lights! Lights! Lights!” he bellowed, over and over again as the cavern blazed bright. Every pillar and glistening wall shone as Pinada stood in the middle, twisting his head around; his hands shaking. He spotted a man leaning against one of the steel struts: Lord Ley Tecker, with tattered jeans and an empty holster strapped to his bare chest. His short hair was matted and his wound was covered; Cocoa clung to the spot. Blackened, dried blood trailed past a purple bruise that tinged Tecker’s skin. It was right where the gun had been pressed to his side by the armor; the weapon itself was in his hand and pointed at Pinada’s head.

“Conventional pistol–” Pinada uttered as a loud shot split the cavern. He threw his arms around his face and the plates rushed to shield him: clanging and bouncing into each other as they formed a square wall. Tecker fired again at the plates; flinching as the gun spat a casing past his ear.

“Mean, it’s behind that pillar next to you!” Tecker called out. The gun jammed; a bullet was caught in the ejection port. He lifted his other arm to free it and winced, dropping the pistol. Pinada looked down at his shirt and then over at where he had tossed the sword; it was still there and Mean was rounding the pillar to snatch it.

Pinada whipped his hand forward and back. The sword jerked up; Mean dove at it, catching the hilt. It bobbed and fought her grip, dipping and pulling her toward Pinada. With a growl she went with it: directing the tip at him and sprinting full speed.

“Crap–” Pinada said, reaching back for the glass plates. With a clatter they clapped flat to the floor.

“I can’t hold them; get him!” Tome urged, his body propped up with his elbows.

Pinada cursed and swept his arm. The plates ground over the floor as they slid free of Tome’s spell. They rose in an arc and shot up into the air; Tecker pounced on Pinada from behind.

“Stab him, Mean!” he shouted past Pinada’s ear, squishing Cocoa in between them as he grabbed his arms.

“Don’t you touch me!” Pinada cried out. He struggled as the plates buzzed in circles around them; Mean’s sandals pattered as she charged.

“I know what it’s like to be two people too,” Tecker breathed in Pinada’s right ear. “Let’s both find out what it’s like to be stabbed through the chest.”

“I’m not like you!” Pinada cried. Mean closed in. One of the plates slammed between them; the tip of the sword pierced it through the middle; Mean’s momentum drove it all the way through and the hilt clanged against glass. The tip wobbled inches from Pinada’s face.

“No, no, no!” Pinada shrieked, shaking his head as Mean pressed to drive the needle forward. Tecker pushed at Pinada’s back, panting. With a wild swing of his arm Pinada broke loose from Dark’s grip and sent the glass plate cartwheeling sideways, taking the stuck sword with it and out of Mean’s hands. Her arms were whipped to the side and she caught herself, stumbling; Pinada flung Tecker into her and his weight brought both of them down.

Tecker rolled on his side and Mean stared back at him. Pinada flicked his hands and thousands of fibrous strands spread over the floor. They spanned the room, covering Dark, Mean, and Tome; intermeshing together and holding them down.

“This is the spell I used to hold the comet back,” Pinada cackled, spreading his fingers. “Nothing can break it–no force in the world!” He wiped at his mouth with his shoulder, his eyes frantic.

“Thought we had him,” Tecker chuckled. The strands flexed taut, digging into their skin. Mean shifted next to him, held flat.

“Yeah,” she said with a weak laugh. “At least he’ll be gone soon.”

One of the glass plates lowered flush to the floor and Pinada stepped onto it. He kept his eyes flicking between Mean and Dark.

“You won’t be safe,” he told them. He drew his arms in, gathering the plates around him. “I’m going back and I’ll make sure to find you–I’ll murder you along with the rest!”

One plate hovered over his head and the remaining four positioned themselves at his front, sides, and back.

“I’ll torment you all forever;” he spat, “again and again. Living in a world where they cheer my name–dying as they shower me with their worship.”

He chewed the end of his tongue, grinning though the glass at Dark.

“And your future will never come,” he cried. “You will never be like me; I am unique! I am the wonderful hero Pinada!”

He gestured and the glass plates snapped together. A gurgling gasp choked out of his mouth; his lips curled apart. He slapped at his heart, his palm slipping down his shirt as his arms slackened. His knees gave out and his body sagged; his head dipped with eyes frozen open. He slid forward: off the end of the sword still stuck through the glass plate at his back. His body dropped into one of the cube’s corners, clunking still. The blade wobbled with a hum, flecking blood onto the top of the case.

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