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Somewhere in the depths of the Void...
Under the faint twinkling lights of the endless purply haze of the End, the man, cloaked in a black hood with magenta accents, stepped gingerly over the vast expanse of the Void, his feet supported by an inky black shadow which followed under his ever movement, keeping him inches from tumbling into nothingness forever. Where the suspended obsidian platform he had arrived on moments before gave him sturdy support, the Shadow always gave one the - rather accurate - sensation of being centimeters away from a slight misstep which could result in catastrophe; its master, however, had grown accustomed to the looming threat of falling in all his years, and stepped quickly and fearlessly on to the moon-like land mass once it was within reach.
In the distance, under his veiling black hood, the man could see pillars of black volcanic rock stretching into the nebulous sky, seemingly reaching into the stars themselves and piercing entire dimensions. He followed the path of dull flames which licked at the air like flowing curtains in the wind, tracing the trail of destruction he had anticipated he might see upon arrival. Once, this particular isle of the End had served as the seat of power for a being that was beyond the Lesser Gods that had dominated Aquilan politics for centuries, but over the years had crumbled in dilapidation as memories of the old Mad King had faded; at least, they had faded enough for the world to be shocked upon his untimely return to the mortal plane. Though his however brief conquests in Aquila had killed millions in the prior weeks, for many, his return signaled an omen of something much darker to come.
The man finally arrived at the center of the recent battle, where the smoke still had not cleared and shards of ornate stone gilded with intricate indigenous designs were strewn about. No doubt, there were billions in emeralds in the form of ancient relics to be looted at the wreck, but those days were behind the hooded man. Scanning the area for several moments, breathing in the stale, dead air of the Void, his eyes finally fell upon the true treasure.
Stuck in the grated stone, evoking images of ancient relics whispered in mythic tales, was a thin, glowing blade, deceptively long in length and even visually deadly. Sparks of primordial green and purple energy cracked from its golden steel, whispering ancient secrets of power and treachery. Even now, the weapon called to him, promising power, promising freedom - promising revenge. Carefully, he approached the blade, which, given his examination of its trajectory, had been blasted away from the primary scene of the battle and violently stuck at the location he found it, sending razor sharp shards of yellow rock in all directions. It still smelled of blood.
So much history, the man thought. So much power. He had been trained in the way of the blade years past, but he hardly planned to use the weapon for such a crude implement as direct battle. Nonetheless, it would be the instrument of his victory. As he drew closer to the hilt, the relic hummed with greater intensity - a low croon that, for reasons beyond him at the time, reminded him of home. Inches away now, he knew there was no turning back.
In one fluid motion, he placed his hand upon the black jeweled hilt and drew the gleaming blade into the dead air, illuminating the entire area by stoking the nearby flames into an eerie glowing purple and red and sending waves of supernatural wind in every conceivable direction. A chorus of the damned rang out, scolding him, encouraging him, laughing at him. He felt nothing but determination now as he wielded the instrument of his ultimate victory. Now, he thought, they would see. They would all see.
Somewhere out in the mass shadows of the Void, something dark felt the shockwaves of the blade's retrieval and stirred, ever so slightly, enough to shake the foundations of existence. Examining the glowing golden blade, the man could swear he heard a sinister laughter.
Chapter 1 - Quietus
For a few short moments, Cannonwalker was convinced he had died - again.
He had never truly touched death before, but, as with many mortals, he had somehow felt it in his life at various points; like having the faint notion that, as you walked hurriedly down a dark street at night in an unfamiliar place, far from home, something was following you, just out of sight, and you hesitantly decide that keeping your eyes forward keeping a brisk pace towards your destination is an infinitely better decision than daring to turn around; or catching, just barely in your peripherals, the shadow of someone that you could swear is a long lost friend, but declining to wave "hello," for fear that they would no longer recognize you.
That, in essence, is the true reason why mortals fear death: Life is hauntingly fleeting and disturbingly fragile, and should it slip out of one's grasp, the one thing on their mind is the terrifying notion that, in time, they, too, will be forgotten, and as the tides of history sweep away the past like a flimsy mound of loose sand, memories of their existence will warp and twist in the minds of those they once knew until it no longer resembles the truth at all - at least, their truth. Some dread it, some run from it, some face it unafraid - it always arrives.
The last time Cannon faced death head on, he felt many things - but not necessarily fear anymore. It seemed like an eternity since he and his comrades were struck down in cold blood by the apparition they thought was their friend - harvested like withered wheat - and since then, he'd had time to think about what it meant to die. Truthfully, while exciting adventures with his friends instilled him with a sense of unparalleled vigor, he at times felt that he had never truly been alive at all. His true life had been robbed from him long ago.
So when Cannonwalker - if that is his real name - leapt headfirst into the Void once more, hoping that his home, which he missed so dearly, was on the Other Side, nothing could have prepared him for what he would awake to. There was hardly any light. The only distinguished sound was the faint crackling of a lit torch mounted on an adjacent wall. He strained his eyes to look around, noticing the cracked stone walls around him - only stone walls, forever and ever, stretching into eternity.
He began to breathe wildly - shallow, panicked breaths which only filled one with more desperation, not air. He considered running for it, dreading the horrifying prospect that he would have to relive his past once more when he had fought so hard to escape from it, but was immobilized by the icy stares of the cold, dead eyes that watched him with their piercing glances from just beyond the umbra. As they closed in on him, slowly, intently, he closed his eyes and thought of Her.
That was when it dawned on him that he no longer knew Her name.
Zoomer, bless his heart, always prided himself on being one step ahead of everyone else, but internally was still living many years in the past. He had always hated the idea of being trapped, or serving others, or not being himself. Perhaps that was why he had never truly felt like he was home until he met the Outlanders - and why he detested their enemies so deeply. He had dealt with common villains myriad times in the past but had only recently discovered how cruel the world really could be. In other words, it was not until he met the Mad King that he had truly touched Death, and it simultaneously filled him with blinding hatred and overwhelming, existential, mind-racking fear; the idea that not even he could run from Fate was enough to tear at his brain.
He saw the world through a cage once more. The sun, distant and dim in the crimson horizon, was slipping quickly underneath the violent waves as storm clouds moved in and the shouts of angry men drowned out the song of the gulls overhead. So close, he considered freedom to be, and yet so far - thus always to heroes.
Ned was not so concerned with the past. He had been alive for more years than most, and though he, at times, betrayed a keen sense of regret and intense longing, he was more or less always willing to face the next challenge without fear of what would come if he failed. The more he considered failure, though, the more it dawned on him that his life had been full of failures that continued to mount, and the panic began to set in. Eventually, he would face something truly insurmountable, and this time it would not bother to cross blades with him or waste time negotiating. It would simply take what it came for and leave as soon as it came.
One moment, there were fields upon fields of green, dotted with sunflowers and poppies and herds of gentle animals which grazed peacefully under the yellow sun. The next, there was fire, otherwordly fire like the type he saw once before in the ashes of New Detroit, but this time stretching across the entire world. Before he could realize, Ned had lost everything, and he had never seen it coming.
Every now and then, the crippling notion that the others simply tolerated his existence and didn’t actually like him crossed Sam’s mind - and then it was dashed away and he continued his merry existence, helping everyone he could and seeing the best in others when nobody else would. As he blissfully sat on the castle walls, though, overlooking the vast forest which stretched in all directions, the thought simply would not die, like a worm that could never be crushed. The walls collapsed underneath him; the trees withered and blew away into the wind; and for the first time in a very long time, Sam was alone, drifting through the Void as a lonesome sinner in the hands of an angry, angry God.
The Outlanders did not convene one day and decide to found a formal organization. They never agreed to do this for a living (or dying, for that matter, but therein lies a tale for another time). They never even decided to be called “The Outlanders.” The world and the people who lived within it had decided that all for them - because they happened to all be in the right place at the wrong time, it was suddenly their job to save Aquila, and perhaps all of existence as they knew it, from threats they could neither see nor ever truly understand. Perhaps that was the reason they were fated to die, in the end. Because they had never been heroes; they never had any special abilities, constantly faced foes much greater and wiser than they could imagine, and were keenly aware that, despite saving the world, it owed them nothing at the end of the day. They were victims of circumstance.
And so they died - again.
Chapter 2 - Retribution
Death, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
After tumbling through the void for an amount of time unknown to Cannon, a faint light could just barely be seen, edging slowly into view from below. The light grew, and in time, colors returned, the world no longer a grim black and gray. He saw the colors of the ocean and the grass, clashing together to form the grand shapes that made up the overworld. It was impossible to tell whether his eyes were slowly opening after being closed for so long, or he was quickly approaching the ground. That was, until he collided with the harsh red clay, falling unconscious once more with a tremendous thud.
"N-Ned..." Cannonwalker muttered, the pulsing in his head rendering it difficult to form coherent thoughts. He heard several pairs of footsteps around him. With one hand clutching his head and one on the ground, he weakly crawled towards the source of the sound, hoping to locate his friends.
Under the oppressive yellow sun, the desert around them stretched omnidirectionally, the horizon containing only orange sand and clay of maroon, navy, and countless other dull colors for miles, sometimes forming sharp hoodoos that stretched into the sky.
"Sam... Zoomer... L-Lith..." Feeling around in front of him with his free hand, he grabbed hold of what must have been a leg. The leg's owner acknowledged him with a morose grunt then began walking again, treading over his back, forcing him to jolt awake. He stood in the center of a moderately sized hole in the ground, quickly realizing that he was its source. He looked around and recognized his three friends fumbling about, muttering half-sentences and coughing up dust. But with his friends still immobilized, who had stepped on him?
While pondering the situation, another unseen figure brushed past him, this time not even bothering to send an acknowledging grunt his way.
"Hey! Who-" he began, but he stopped himself, realizing the fruitlessness in trying to reason with the zombie that was marching past him, struggling to get himself out of the hole. Befuddled as to why the undead creature hadn't caught fire in broad daylight, much less why it hadn't attacked him outright, he soon realized it was no ordinary zombie.
"Cannon, who..." Zoomer groaned as he got back on his feet, joining Cannon. Another identical zombie with indifferent red eyes and a polished iron helmet marched past them, stupefying Zoomer. Sam rose as well, equally surprised. Cannon walked over to the further corner of the hole they'd created on their way down and helped Ned up.
"These things look familiar," Sam noted.
"Please don't tell me..." Zoomer sighed, dodging another mecha zombie.
"They don't seem to be interested in us," Cannon observed. "Let's not jump to conclusions."
"I wonder where they're going," Ned pondered mostly to himself, crawling up out of the crater with some difficulty. He helped hoist the others up to the surface - endless plains in all directions, save for what looked like rising smoke towards the east. Marching like ants was a ceaseless loosely shaped line of completely apathetic zombies, all goose stepping in direction of the smoke.
"Only one way to find out," Zoomer shrugged.
The four outlanders followed the zombies wearily, always keeping their hands close to their blades in case they decided the men were a threat. They wondered how long they themselves could wander without collapsing, given how the exposure seemed to be enough to cause the mechs to practically implode. Ned was especially thankful that, during the fall, he had not impaled himself with his two twin swords. Come to think of it, he began to seriously wonder how they all had not been pulverised by the fall itself.
"Where do you think we are?" Sam inquired, looking out into the endless desiccation.
"Maybe we're dead," Ned suggested. Everyone shot him a suspicious look. "What? It would make sense!"
One of the zombies the group had been following suddenly groaned loudly and keeled over, going completely limp. Upon further inspection, the creature was noticeably more decrepit than virtually all of its fellows. An electrical discharge emanated from its mechanical helmet, causing them all to flinch.
"What happened to it?" Cannon asked, kneeling down to observe the rotting zombie. "We've got bigger problems," Zoomer announced, pointing to a burning village that had just come into view. The flames were quickly growing, leveling all the adobe and terracotta buildings and forcing the villagers to flee in all directions. A sinister screaming could be heard emanating from the settlement.
"Come on!" Ned exclaimed. The group picked up the pace, sprinting towards the dying village. The thick smoke cast an ominous shadow over the surrounding area, choking out the sun. As they approached the scene, they noticed mecha zombies piling into the village handfuls at a time. They concluded the mechanized creatures were the source of the conflict. Charging into the village, the heroes began to stab, slice, and dice the zombies apart, killing almost a dozen in a matter of moments. But as they slaughtered more and more of the creatures, it became apparent they were still not interested in paying them any attention at all. Cannon raced into a building close to collapse and helped an elderly woman outside. Instead of thanking him, however, she looked at him with terror in her eyes for a split second before fleeing to parts unknown.
The others caught on as well, tracing the path of the zombies deeper into the village to the source of a sinister wailing emanating from near the chapel. A heap of cobblestone bounded through the air, narrowly dodged by Cannonwalker as it crushed the mechs just behind him, sending shards of old rock in every direction, smashing windows and nearly wounding Ned as he and the other Outlanders joined Cannon on the main gravel path, weapons drawn as they watched in horror.
The chapel came crashing down to the ground in an avalanche of rock, glass, and wood from smashed pews, and from the smoking rubble emerged a creature at least eight blocks tall, slender and lined with spiked crimson and gold scales and sporting vacant glowing yellow eyes dotted with tiny red specks of hatred. Initially, the monster ignored the heroes, leaping and bounding through the air to bite, claw, and smash the countless mecha-zombies that were swarming it, but as their ranks began to thin, it turned to regard the Outlanders with its piercing aureate eyes.
“They come,” it hissed, its horrific face twisting into a shape that resembled a madman’s depiction of a wicked grin. “The Outlanders come to herald in His return! And He shall know… we will tell him!” The monster cackled, its horrible laughter a cacophony of unnatural insectoid pattering. Sam drew his bow as it began to descend upon them, but the creature was smashed aside and knocked around by a bulky metal beast of faded copper and countless moving gears.
The machine warrior was not quite as tall as the monster, but dwarfed its slender frame, and its massive metal arms attempted to lock the beast in a stranglehold as it grappled it to the ground. The Outlanders had seem similar mechanical defenders in the past in the form of tanky, sluggish golems that defended against undead raids, but this Sentinel was different - a modern design, as if specially created to defeat the invading demons.
The creature continued to writhe and struggle under the Sentinel’s grasp, however, and with a cruel, grating laugh, impaled the machine with an unseen spiked appendage, lifting it into the air and tearing it apart with its countless scaled arms. A broken copper head was thrown in Ned’s direction, then an arm at Zoomer and half a leg at Cannon. Sam ducked behind what used to be a large blacksmith’s anvil, peaking overhead whilst the others were occupied. The monster was toying with them now - it was impossible to tell when it would inevitably grow bored and move in for a swift, painful kill.
Looking past the looming creature, Sam noticed it was pressed against a clay hoodoo as if to keep its back guarded from unseen attackers and keep an eye on all of them at once. He had deduced the place was probably a mining town by the rolling minecarts that occasionally bounded from hoodoo to hoodoo on rails that hung precariously above the adobe huts. He doubted they would be able to defeat the monster head-on, but perhaps he could provide an opening…
Thinking quickly, Sam drew an arrow and grazed it through a nearby flame from a freshly destroyed wooden shack, then knocked it in his bow and took aim above the monster’s head, waiting for his opportunity.
The beast turned its head over so slightly, taking notice of the primed archer. “Die… die like all the others!” it hissed savagely.
One more moment…
Like a bull preparing to charge, the monster dug its feet in the sand, one ahead of the other.
As expected, the sound of an approaching cart grew louder by the moment, and as its skidded into view and within range, Sam let loose his flaming arrow, striking the dynamite within. The heroes flinched at the ensuing explosion that leveled the entire hoodoo and brought down tons of hardened clay on the creature.
It was nearly completely buried by the rubble, allowing the Outlanders to move in and finish it. Cannon and Ned emerged from cover and began slashing at its numerous squirming tentacles that burst from the mound of clay and waved wildly through the stale air. Ned was almost immediately seized by a wild appendage that wrapped around his frame and squeezed his being unbearably tight, lifting him into the air and threatening to tear him apart just as with the Sentinel.
Just then, Zoomer emerged from the smoke and stuck a dagger into one of the beast’s exposed glowing eyes, causing it to shriek in agony as its appendages went limp. Cannon helped Ned loose before sprinting to the monster and driving his broadsword through its head. The shrieking calmed, and by the time Cannon’s sword emerged from its head it has stopped completely and the tentacles stirred no longer.
“What WAS that thing?” Zoomer exclaimed as he slid down from the clay mound and wiped his brow in exasperation.
“I don’t know,” Ned said, brushing goop off his white cloak. “And something tells me I don’t want to find out.”
“Who are you people?” A voice called from the ashes incredulously.
A figure in tattered magenta clothes emerged from the dust and regarded them. She had dark tanned skin and intense brown eyes that stared at them in some mixed expression of wonder and fear. Behind her, in the ruins of the town, the flames stilled licked high into the burgundy sky, but the wails had stopped, and small figures gradually began to peak out from the rubble and search for their livelihoods.
“We’re the Outlanders,” Cannon said, trading glances with his comrades as they gathered around him.
The woman considered their answer, her eyes darting to the ground. “I hate being right sometimes,” she said mostly to herself before her gaze returned to them. “I think we’d better speak. We have a lot to discuss.”
“So then it’s true. The Outlanders really have come.”
The four men sat awkwardly in the adobe hut, sipping from wooden bowls of warm mushroom stew and keeping near the fire pit in the center of the room to ward away the oncoming cold. The small window leading to the outside gave one a striking view of the mesa night sky, dotted with more stars than most would be able to see in the bustling population centers in Occa and Kilran and a subtle red haze that seemed to emanate from just over the dark mountain ranges that obscured the horizon.
“How do you know so much about us?” Zoomer asked with suspicion.
The black skinned and blue eyed man attending them smiled almost with amusement, as if Zoomer were a child asking where baby Creepers came from. “Everyone knows about you,” he chuckled warmly, betraying the faintest hints of age creases on his cheeks and temple. “You’re the reason Clockwork is biting his nails holed up in the Ironworks the past few months.”
“So he is here,” Cannon sighed, exchanging worried looks with the others.
“He’s not here,” the woman from earlier entered the room, leaning against the open doorframe. “But his abominations have practically infested the countryside. And it’s only gotten worse since those… things, started appearing.”
“Clockwork is using the threat of the demons to consolidate control over the entire continent - make the whole place like Sivella,” the man nodded. “He sells the settlements protection from the monsters in exchange for our labor, our resources, our freedom… everything, so that he can build more of his robots. And once he controls Audax, he’s gonna do the same thing to the rest of Aquila.”
“Does anyone know where these demons are coming from?” Cannon asked.
The woman shrugged. “All we know is that they started appearing some time after that massacre at New Detroit, and they’ve gotten stronger every month. The whole world is reporting sightings, but it’s like they’re centering around Audax.”
“Clockwork and his cronies have been scouring the desert looking for you,” the man said. “They say you killed Herobrine and even put down the Knights Thash when they went rogue. I don’t know about any of that, but whether it’s true or not, Clockwork is afraid of you.”
“You have to help us,” the woman said as she took a seat. “I saw how you handled that monster. The whole town is in your debt, but my brother and I are working towards something greater. We’ve been under Sivella’s thumb for too long, and we’re not the only ones. We can get you into his seat of power. We have powerful friends with the resources you’ll need to end this.”
“We haven’t heard from the Resistance in weeks, Nadi,” her brother reminded her with regret.
“Look,” Ned interrupted before Nadi could respond. “We sympathize with you guys, but we can’t go helping everybody in the world. We have a much bigger threat to deal with right now than Clockwork, much as I hate to say it.”
“If Audax falls to him, the rest of the world is next. And by then, nobody will be able to stop him,” Nadi said gravely.
“Don’t listen to Ned,” Zoomer declared. “We’re the Outlanders. Killing insane despots is kind of our thing. Besides, I’ve got a score to settle with that sniveling coward.”
Cannon nodded. “Think about it, Ned. These demon attacks are centered here in Audax and I’ll bet that Clockwork plays into the bigger picture somehow. If we can stop him, we could be one step closer to getting to the bottom of what Triton wa-”
The hut door burst open and a crowd of villagers with shivs filed in, led by an older man with a hide cape. The Outlanders leapt to their feet and prepared to attack, but Nadi and her brother signaled there was no danger.
“They are here,” the elder proclaimed solemnly. “We cannot hide the Outlanders any longer.”
“Chief,” Nadi begged. “They are our last hope. We can’t live at the mercy of Clockwork forever. They’re our last hope!”
“Sivella gives us the protection we need to survive. Without them, we may have our freedom, but at what cost?” the elder sighed, humiliated.
“Look around you,” her brother gestured out the window to the ruins of the town. “Even with Clockwork’s ‘protection,’ we nearly lost everything. We’re not cattle! It’s better to die on our feet than live our whole lives on bended knee!” Zoomer smiled slightly.
The chieftain reached slowly for his shiv in defense, but relented, keeping his eyes on the young man before him. “You remind me of myself at your age, Riddur. You thirst for adventure. You want to see your people free. But you don’t know what it means to sacrifice everything for that freedom,” the elder admonished him. “Not yet.”
There were cries from within the town, accompanied by the faint sound of clockwork gears churning and glass shattering. The chieftain turned his old emerald eyes to the screams for a moment, considering his options, then turned back to the Outlanders slowly.
“So you are the Outlanders,” he asked rhetorically. “My people have heard stories of your exploits. Let us hope for all our sakes that they harbor a modicum of truth.” Reaching into his satchel, the chieftain slowly approached Cannonwalker and handed him a small talisman with strange indigenous markings. “Keep this safe,” he whispered. “We will cover you.” He relented and turned to leave the hut, exchanging a knowing glance with Nadi as he and the others left. She nodded, understanding her responsibility.
“So what’s the plan?” Sam asked, adjusting his quiver.
“Ever been to Sivella?” Nadi asked, leading them out back as she spoke.
“Heard of it,” Cannon said, following her. “The capital of Audax, right?”
Nadi scoffed. “Once. They say it’s the capital of Aquila now.”
The interior of the Colossus hummed with industrial machinery, the smell of redstone dust and copper wiring perforating every level of the gigantic statuesque monument at the center of the smog-choked city that served both as the New Order’s seat of power and as the primary manufacturing plant of the countless mechanical spectres that haunted all Audax.
In the lower levels of the factory, endless production lines spat out armies of mechs every hour of every day. After the Plague had been virtually wiped out weeks past, supply of the undead was running dangerously low, threatening to put a stop of Clockwork’s conquests - but recent innovations would allow the pure mechanical construct of the Progenitor to be mass produced, and the enslaved mining towns of Audax would provide enough iron and redstone to fuel his war machine for generations.
At the head of the Colossus, however, lay what the tyrant believed to be the true instrument of his inevitable victory; while the Progenitors would provide him the muscle he needed to exact revenge, revenge was no longer his primary motive - he now stood at the precipice of something that would change the world forever, and allow it to be reshaped however he pleased. Several Resonant Guards stood sentry in the dark corners of the studio that sat within the open head of the Colossus, illuminating dozens of strange arcane contraptions and worktables that hummed with quintessence, all supported by a clean-swept black and white tiled concrete floor with an exposed center. The only other occupant was a man shrouded in darkness, slaving away at some new project whilst consulting an open book in traditional Aquilan text.
Carefully removing the Invidere from its suspension field on his worktable, the cloaked inventor presented the blade before the massive tesseract structure floating at the center of the circular workshop. It hummed to life almost instantly, and the tesseract followed suit, glowing an eerie magenta whilst its nebulous core emitted a faint golden flicker that seemed to give but a glimpse into something truly ancient and terrifying.
“Tell me everything,” the man commanded as he wielded the Invidere, now crackling with power.
Chapter 3 - The Oasis
The mule caravan had raced through the badlands for approximately two days before the arid landscape began to gradually give way to hints of greenery and fertility. Like the changing of the seasons or the erosion of one’s past self, the biome change was subtle and it was impossible to pinpoint where exactly the mesa ended and the calm steppe began, yet it seemed to happen instantly, as if the Outlanders and their new allies had blinked and opened their eyes to a completely different continent.
Audax was a continent that was shrouded in mystery since Aquilan prehistory. Largely living in the shadow of the supercontinent that was Kilran and seemingly always one step behind its mercantile competitors in Occa, none could have expected that its flat plains and artistic peoples would ever usher in a new age of technological advancement.
The opening of massive subterranean coal and diamond mines revolutionized the continent’s entire economy, however, and the discovery of the precious mineral redstone shortly after the Kilran War propelled it to the center of the world’s scientific studies. With new automated industrial machines and a large, skilled workforce, Audax became energy independent in a matter of decades and soon exported its unique goods and services to the rest of the world, sparking the Age of Trade in Aquila.
With its newfound economic independence and manpower, Audax could easily have constructed a vast navy and formed a formidable thalassocracy that may even rival the iron warships of Medriaas, but its local governments collectively decided to remain neutral in world affairs so as to focus on further technological enhancements and continue to enrich its own people.
Lacking any form of central government up to that point, the merchant houses of Audax formed a mutual mercantile alliance called the Trade Guild Confederacy, intended to bring workers of similar disciplines together from across the island and unite them under a common cause democratically set forth by the Confederacy’s central chamber. Sivella, the quiet port city that sat in the center of the inland Audax peninsula, was decided as the base of the TGC, and over the years became the industrial center not only of Audax but largely Aquila as a whole.
Sivella and the nearby Sforzando also became the dual homes of Audax’s labor movement. Never implementing the concept of slavery nor participating in colonialism as the perpetrators or victims, the Audaxian workers were in a unique situation to assert unparalleled control over the continent as a collective in solidarity; such was the goal of the Trade Guild Confederacy, as many had come to believe, but the Confederacy’s upper chambers were increasingly dominated by a small class of industrial oligarchs who worked together to erode at the alliance’s democratic principles and direct the Guilds according to their agendas.
Violence ensued. The entire continent was ideologically split between the labor-minded anarchist movements of the inner cities, the agrarian collectivists in the countryside, and those loyal to the aristocratic elites, particularly in the industrial metropolis of Valencia. The agrarians and anarchists could never reconcile their differences in views on industrialization, with the anarchists staying true to the Audaxian spirit of technological innovation while the agarians believed scientific advancement only increased the power of the aristocrats to exploit the workers; thus, it was left in the hands of the disorganized and largely uneducated anarchists in Sivella and Sforzando to wage the war against the corrupted TGC.
Anarchist communes across the continent rose up nearly simultaneously in what was called the Harvest Troubles, so named because of they took place in Audax’s autumn months. The most successful of these insurgencies was the Free Territories of Audax, based largely in Sforzando, led by the firebrand Slappy. With the merchant houses of Audax truly threatened for the first time in their existence, desperate measures were taken; for the first time in the continent’s recorded history, a plea for help from nearby nations was issued from the upper chambers of the Trade Guild Confederacy to squash the anarchists.
The Kingdom of Medriaas responded quickly, as did the Sivistyan cities of Mount Augusta and New Detroit. Largely acting on their own mandates, the foreign powers brought their warships and phalanxes to not just the anarchist cities, but the unaffiliated ones as well, effectively partitioning the continent between a multitude of contemporary colonialist powers. The communes were crushed, as was the Trade Guild Confederacy and Audax’s labor movement.
Sivella was the only major city left unaffected by the Troubles, and after the communes fell remained the center of Aquila’s scientific study, thriving off the elimination of competing cities and collectives. It was from Sivella that Clockwork, whoever he or she was, built his technocratic movement from the ground up, promising to reopen the redstone mines and drive out the imperialists in exchange for absolute power. The Sivellans agreed, lacking other options, and Clockwork kept his promises; during the Resurgent War, Clockwork took advantage of the chaos to consolidate control over the entire continent once more by eliminating all foreign influence, closing its economy, and reforming the Trade Guild Confederacy with him as its Chairman and Secretary, effectively rendering him the sole undisputed authority of all labor and production in the entire continent.
Cannonwalker was familiar with Audax’s basic history and found the stories told to him and the Outlanders over the fire by Nadi and Riddur about Clockwork’s rise to power rather enlightening. What still confounded him, however, was his involvement in what happened in Occa what seemed like an eternity ago, particularly his affiliation with Triton and seeming fascination with the Outlanders. Clearly, Clockwork was some old enemy of the Outlanders come seeking revenge once more, though who, Cannon thought, it seemed impossible to know. Slappy was dead, Kastor stripped of his powers, and Triton redeemed. It didn’t make any sense.
It was times like these that Cannon wished deeply that Ben were still around. Holliday, despite no longer being an Outlander, had always been one of their closest friends and always seemed to know what to do, or at least had some nugget of wisdom to offer, but things had changed. It was very possible that Ben had died due to the energy exerted in the destruction of New Detroit - his essence vaporized and harvested to ravage the area. Cannon still didn’t understand entirely what happened that night. Had the news that Slappy had died gripped him so utterly that he felt compelled to simultaneously murder thousands with the Slip Device?
Then Cannon realized that it wasn’t just that Slappy had died - it was that they had lied about killing him, and their unwillingness to admit it to his greatest friend had cost them the lives of all of New Detroit and Holliday himself, unable to handle the dark energy outflow from the infernal Device. The thought weighed heavily on Cannonwalker in the wee hours of the morning.
But he would have to consider the ramifications of the Outlanders’ actions another time.
“Look! Just ahead!” Riddur shouted from the front of the pack. The mules slowed to a hault.
Nadi chuckled. “So you haven’t lost your sense of direction after all.” Riddur shrugged and smiled somewhat.
“Look at the size of it!” Ned exclaimed, pointing into the sky in the distance.
The others placed their hands above their eyes to shield from the rising sun and get a look at the source of Ned’s confoundedness. Indeed, they had arrived at the outer layers of Sivella. The Outlanders had been in big cities before, but not even Mount Augusta could compare to the architectural marvels of Sivella, whose buildings seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky in odd and inventive shapes and designs. A series of waterlocks dotted around the edges of the city were the only safe way inside, each leading into the system of canals within which served as the primary mode of transportation for the city. Curiously, the city had no formal outer defensive wall to speak of, but rather it was surrounded by a massive mote, as if the entire metropolis had been dug out and made into its own sprawling island. The perimeter was patrolled by docile squads of red-eyed repurposed undead that the Outlanders had grown accustomed to, no doubt ready to spring to action at the sign of a struggle. Overhead, small cuboid drones buzzed and whirred, not quite stealthy with all the noise of internal redstone gears and mechanisms constantly spinning but providing a constant reminder to entrants of the city that they were being watched by the omniscient panopticon.
There was more, however. Towering over the rest of the city, surrounded by a massive suspended rotating ring, was a massive sculpture of a man, seemingly unfinished, which pointed into the sky, its gleaming hand emanating constant waves of barely visible radio energy that were almost audible in all directions, dissipating into the lower atmosphere. If the Outlanders had come for Clockwork, it seemed they had found him.
“That must be where the mechs are powered from,” Zoom deduced, staring almost dumbfounded at the radio waves in the sky.
“And where we’ll find Clockwork,” Sam nodded.
Nadi stared into the sky and spat. “The Colossus,” she sneered. “A constant reminder that you’ll always be below him.”
“Not for long, Nadi,” Riddur said, walking up with his mule and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “With any luck, we’ll be leaving here with the Colossus in ruins.”
“Or in a body bag,” Nadi shook her head.
Just then, a voice called from the nearby waterlock. “Hey! Over here, no loitering!”
The caravan turned and reluctantly stalked towards the voice. A younger woman with brown hair and tanned skin like most Audaxians, she was dressed in a vaguely militant-looking pair of white and blue overalls and a bowl-shaped iron cap, dark visor adjusted out of her face. She was holding a birch clipboard in one hand and a feather pen in the other, looking expectedly at the travelers as they approached. Though young, she had a disciplined and stern look on her face, showing few signs of vulnerability in her keen green eyes.
“Name?” she asked Nadi as the caravan stopped, assuming she was its leader.
“Sepp Di’mercurio,” Nadi answered calmly, holding the reins of her mule. The guard scribbled the name down quickly in her records.
“That’s some get-up,” Zoomer noted in a casual voice. “That the newest fashion round these parts?” Cannon hissed at him for silence.
The guard raised both eyes expressionlessly. “You’re not from around here, are you?” she asked as if it were a simple statement rather than a genuine inquiry.
“We’re from the badlands,” Nadi assured her quickly. “Just delivering some redstone ore. Freshly picked.”
The overalled guard considered the assertion. “Do you have your Redstone Miner’s Permit?”
“We’re looking to get it renewed in the city.”
“Then you’re attempting to sell state property on the black market,” the guard said plainly. She snapped and a pair of mecha-zombies broke from the patrols and approached the caravan.
“No, no, no, it’s not quite like that,” Riddur said nervously. “We just-”
“Search them,” she ordered them. A small swarm of guzzling observation bots began to gather overhead, floating over the scene. The zombies, showing remarkable dexterity for their physical state, carefully popped open the chests on the backs of each rugged mule, running their green hands through the raw redstone and smelling the dust. One of them hissed rudely as it approached Ned, detecting his two swords carried on his belt.
“I’m guessing you also don’t have a carriers’ permit for those things,” the woman noted, scribbling more notes down in her booklet. More zombies began to gather around the caravan. She showed no concern as the Outlanders began pawwing for their concealed weapons, ready to strike if the situation grew hairy.
“I’m sorry, edict demands that all your effects be confiscated and you be escorted to the Panopticon to await trial,” she stated with a hint of remorse. “You will be treated humanely if you do not resist. Please step away from the llamas.”
Cannon began to draw his broadsword, eyeing up the nearest zombie. Nadi cleared her throat and made a clicking sound at the others, signaling “OK.” The Outlanders all exchanged glances. In theory, if their plan to get inside was to commit a minor felony and allow themselves to be arrested and then escape, it was off to a good start. If that wasn’t Nadi’s plan, things were about to go extremely poorly for the mission. Even if it was their plan, how were they going to escape whatever “The Panopticon” was?
Cannon saw no point in risking Clockwork’s entire bearing down on them, however, and followed Nadi and Riddur as they dropped their weapons and stepped down from their llamas, hands in the air. The others slowly and cautiously did the same, with Zoomer being the last to follow the example.
From somewhere behind them, a small group of copper golems with exposed iron and gold gears had been detached to detain them. These golems were smaller than what the Outlanders had seen and faced before, but were obviously lighter, faster, and thus probably more deadly. Suddenly, Zoomer snapped and kneed the closest zombie in the groin then retrieved his dagger, poised to strike at the golems. Before the others could react, the closest golem seemed to breathe in deeply and then exude a fog of white gaseous chemicals in all directions, instantly knocking the Outlanders and Nadi and Riddur out cold.
“Load them on to the boat,” the woman said, visor pulled over her face to avoid breathing in the noxious chemicals. The next group of travelers that had been waiting patiently behind them throughout the entire ordeal stepped up cautiously, their identification papers already in hand, jittering.
“Name, please,” she said calmly.
Chapter 4 - Panopticon
In the midst of a particularly enthralling dream, the type which stimulates the unconscious mind and stays ingrained in one’s memories for years, it is often difficult to WAKE UP. Even as you feel ripples in reality begin to form suggesting you are being shaken awake, you still don’t WAKE UP. Even once you slowly begin to realize that none of this is real and the adventures you partake in whilst asleep mean nothing in reality, you still simply cannot WAKE UP.
WAKE UP, MY CHILD.
In the midst of a sea of darkness, rolling and thrashing against the harsh waves, the faintest suggestion of light began to return to Cannonwalker’s vision. He blinked slowly for a few moments and then began to breathe rapidly almost to the point of hyperventilation. How much time had passed? What had happened at the caravan checkpoint? Where was he?
He could swear that mere moments ago he had received the briefest glimpse of some terrifying sight - flames and netherrack, miles of it, like back in New Detroit - only encompassing the entire world. Every memory he had on Aquila, all of them destroyed forever under an ocean of hellfire that swallowed up everything he had ever known or could know. And then they spread - like wildfire - to worlds beyond Aquila and then further still until they consumed Everything. Then the vague makings of some alien visage, laughing with what could hardly be called a voice, like an avalanche of black ice and snow tumbling down from the peak of Mount Apollyon to the depths of the infinite valley below. The Void.
Cannon wiped his brow and shook himself from the dream, though remnants of it stuck within his mind for far longer, haunting him. He calmed his staccato breaths and got his bearings one by one; he sat upon a rough bedroll of steel wool on the far side of a square room of harsh gray concrete on all sides except the iron bars looking out to the rest of the facility. There was a low electrical hum constantly droning on, accompanied by the faint sound of redstone gears turning and mechanical feet shuffling below.
He caught a glimpse of something striking outside the bars - some spinning and whirring electrical nucleus that crackled with green and white energy, situated at the center of the circular cell block. Most strikingly, the unmistakable gleaming yellow eye at its center slowly followed something on some lower floor, growing closer at a steady and constant pace. He rose to get a better look, but a dull pain in his legs kept him from rising as quick as he intended, probably the residual effects of the chemical attack from earlier. He winced quietly in shock.
“Finally awake?” an unfamiliar voice asked from the right adjacent cell. “Well, welcome back to the land of the living. At least I think we’re still there.” Cannon fought through the pain and scrambled up to the iron bars at the front of his cell, looking out. The eye didn’t appear to have taken notice of him, staying focused at the movement at the lower floors.
“What is this place?” Cannon asked wearily.
“They call it the Panopticon,” the voice responded casually. “Used to be where they send the worst of the worst in Sivella. Murderers, career thieves, tax evaders. Now they just chuck anyone in here they don’t like. Say, you’re not a tax evader, are you?”
“Who are you?” Cannon asked, ignoring the attempt at humor.
“Name’s Sarrin Velvar,” the man said matter-of-factly. “Wanted by Medriaas on a couple dozen counts of piracy. Thought maybe I could turn things around in the greatest city in the world. As you can see, it went pretty well.”
“What went wrong?”
“Thought I’d stake my hand in the underground redstone market,” Sarrin explained, appreciating the further inquiry. There was something quite homely about his voice, always speaking as if catching up with an old friend. Whether that was because he was being genuinely candid or simply putting forth an excellent guise remained to be seen. “Went pretty well - for a couple hours. Mecha-zombies burst into our warehouse, hordes of the things, started destroying our entire supply. By the time the Resonant Guards burst in through the windows, it was over. Next thing I know, I’m in the worst prison in the world.”
“Are any of your friends here?” Cannon asked hopefully. “Allies?”
“Not likely,” Sarrin admitted. “I was the only one with sense to surrender once the Resonants showed up. My associates tried to be heroes. Worked out pretty well for ‘em. All got one-way tickets to the Aether, poor sods. I was surprised they even left me alive. What about you?”
Cannon considered the question and found no reason to lie. “I came here with three friends,” he recounted. “And two locals we found along the way who helped us get here. We tried to get into the Colossus. We couldn’t even get past the waterlock.”
“That’s rough, buddy,” Sarrin comforted him. “But it should teach you a valuable lesson: When you’ve got a choice of whether to be a hero or not be a hero, never be a hero.”
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice, though,” Cannon said, more to himself. “Sometimes you have to fight for more than just what you can see in front of you.”
Sarrin pondered Cannon’s response for a few moments. “What’d you say your name is, nults?” he asked, using unfamiliar Audaxian lingo.
“I didn’t,” Cannon chuckled.
Sarrin sighed, annoyed. “Okay, what’s your name? Is that better?”
“Well, Cannonwalker, it looks like we’re gonna be in here for the long haul. Ain’t nobody ever escaped, and only way out of here’s in a body bag. Welcome to the greatest city in the world, by the way.”
Elsewhere in the prison, Zoomer propped himself up against the iron bars of his cell, still shaking off the memories of a restless dream. He occasionally glanced gingerly out at the all-seeing eye at the center of the prison, avoiding staring at it directly. It seemed to look out in all directions at once, making it impossible to sneak any movement past it. He heard a hushed conversation from somewhere above but couldn’t quite make out any specific words or tones. He heard the tapping on his left wall again.
“Sam,” Zoomer sighed. “We don’t need to tap to communicate anymore. Nobody is going to care about us talking.”
“You sure about that?” someone said from outside the cell. Stepping out from the shadows was the young guard from earlier, now in faded gray overalls that matched the concrete walls of the prison rather than the crisp white from the checkpoint. She still held her clipboard at her side, maintaining eye contact with Zoomer with her sea green eyes, standing with her free hand on her hip. She maintained her stern demeanor but betrayed a hint of danger in her countenance.
“I thought I may see you again,” Zoomer said in a low voice. “Reassigned? Understaffed?”
“Got lucky on the labor lottery draw, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Name’s Reece. You’ve made quite the stir around the place, but nobody seems to know who you really are.”
“I like the aura of mystery,” Zoomer grinned slightly. “Keeps them on their toes.”
“Oh, for-” Sam started from the other cell.
“Zip it,” Zoomer admonished him quickly. “Sorry about my friend. He’s still delirious after the incident. Though I’m sure he’ll recover pretty quick once we get out of here squeaky clean once your boss realizes we’re innocent and didn’t do anything.”
“Innocent, you think?” she smiled.
“Not a bad mark on any of our records,” Zoomer swore.
“Well, now that you mention it,” the guard began. “I just so happen to have the skeleton key to this place. You could skidaddle out of here pretty easy, I’d say, with my help.”
“What do I owe you?” Zoomer asked mischievously.
“How about we discuss the details once we’re out of here?” she suggested.
“Sounds good to me!” Sam called from the adjacent cell, pressed against the bars.
Cannon paced at the cell door, studying the ocular device at the center of the prison. The situation maddened him. Somewhere out in the cosmos, probably at that very moment, The Ancient Fear was lurking in the shadows, building up his armies and preparing to attack Aquila. Then he considered that he hardly even knew what the Ancient Fear was. He’d heard the name Moros before in temples to Notch, but it was described by the scholars there was more like an abstract concept than an entity; something that was faceless and formless that collected the spirits of the dead while their consciousness was sent to the Aether. He’d also heard about something called the Ancient Fear, a presence feared by even the Gods that haunted Aquila like a spectre long ago but was no longer a threat. Perhaps both were true, or neither. Regardless, the looming uncertainty began to bite at him incessantly. Clockwork was only a distraction; each second they spent in the Panopticon was another second for Moros to build his power.
Triton once believed that reviving the Mad King was the only way to defeat Moros. Cannon had reasoned that, since the Outlanders were able to defeat Makrozoia, surely they could, by extension, defeat the Ancient Fear. Then he remembered that it was Notch and Herobrine’s sacrifices that mortally wounded the Mad King and left him vulnerable, and all three were long dead by now. Triton seemed to know more about whatever Moros was than anyone else. Perhaps, once Clockwork was dealt with, seeking him out would be the best choice; the problem would be tracking him down again. It had been months since he’d been freed from Makrozoia’s influence in the Urghast.
As Cannon pondered the dilemma, a tray of food was slipped under his cell door. He tried to get a look at the worker who left it, but saw nothing. Sarrin was asleep in the next cell as far as Cannon could tell. He examined the tray - a slop of raw mashed potatoes sprinkled with shredded carrots, bread, and some meaty substance, along with a small bowl of beetroot stew. He sipped at the stew for a few moments to calm his mind then turned to the slop, but stopped when he caught a glimpse of something carved into the bottom of the stew bowl.
MAKE FOR THE BOILER ROOM. TRUST NO ONE.
The message was perplexing. He didn’t expect to be let out of his cell and make for any boiler room any time soon, not to mention the fact that, paradoxically, the message told him to “trust no one,” which would logically extend to this JKL in turn. He figured there was an implied exception to the maxim. He carefully dug into the slop and found something else - a wooden skeleton key with gear engravings. He discarded the meal and stalked to the edge of his cell.
The eye had no visible reaction. Despite seeming omnipresent, it also appeared quite focused on some disturbance elsewhere in the presence, and Cannon wagered that then was his best chance to make a break for it. He reached his arm between the bars and carefully placed the skeleton key within the cell’s lock, prompting a quick clicking sound as the door popped open. Still the eye made no reaction.
He slowly emerged from his cell and got his bearings. Looking over the rails, he could see rows of cells both above and below him, all on a system of rings surrounding the central eye. Scanning for his destination, he saw Zoomer and Sam below, being led by a guard in overalls to parts unknown. He wanted to shout for their attention, but figured that would be counterproductive. In the opposite direction, one floor down, was a set of large iron doors, behind which seemed to be the source of a mechanical chugging sound, which was probably the boilers. On the way there, right next to his, was Sarrin’s cell, where he still lay sleeping on his bedroll. Thinking quickly, he decided he’d need as much help as he could muster. He unlocked the cell.
“Wake up,” Cannon whispered.
“What in ta-” Sarrin began.
“No time,” Cannon hushed. “We’re getting out of here.”
“Say no more,” Sarrin nodded sagely.
Zoomer and Sam followed the guard closely. They had said little since being sprung from their cells and knew not where they were headed. Sam attempted to make conversation.
“So,” he began. “The eye. How’s it work? Is someone operating it at all times?”
“The eye?” she chuckled. “It doesn’t work. It’s for show, just to keep the prisoners subservient. Quite ingenious, don’t you think?”
“Very,” Zoomer agreed, not paying attention. “So where are we headed? Out, I hope?”
“We’re here,” she stopped at a small iron door that led into a windowed room, leading them in. She shut the door behind them. The room was concrete, like all the others, but decorated with ornate redstone lamps that hung from the ceiling and a line of metal panels against the wall, each with a series of levers that seemed to correspond with the different cell blocks, along with a set of larger levers that seemed to operate the redstone signals.
“So, you really are the Outlanders?” she asked calmly, facing away from them.
“How’d you guess?” Zoomer asked playfully.
“Oh, you told me everything on the way here. Boss said it would be easy to verify and you gave me everything I needed to know,” she said as she turned. There was a hissing sound from the two back corners of the room, the sound of a potion effect wearing off. The two heroes turned to face the danger - two guards, clad in green armor that seemed almost liquid in nature, one armed with a scoped crossbow and the other with a diamond lance, emerged from the shadows, closing in on them.
“Take them to Clockwork,” she ordered. Thinking quickly, Zoomer ran to the panels and threw all of the switches, setting off several blaring alarms accompanied by the sound of metal on concrete throughout the entire prison. The doors of the operating room flew open and the two dashed out, closely pursued by the elite guards.
Approaching the boiler room, Cannon and Sarrin both jumped at the sound of the alarms, and were immediately lost in the crowd of prisoners running wild; every cell door had opened simultaneously, sending the entire Panopticon into a frenzy. The eye at the center of the prison turned an angry crimson red, signaling the initiation of lockdown mode. The cell doors shut closed almost as soon as they opened, but it didn’t stop most of the prisoners from sprinting out as soon as the window of opportunity opened.
The two dodged rioting prisoners across corners and throughout the staircase down before arriving at the doors of the boiler room, which were still sealed shut. Amongst all the shouting, Cannon heard someone familiar shouting his name from behind, and turned to see Ned sprinting towards him.
“Ned! Have you seen the others?” Cannon asked quickly.
“I was about to ask you the same! Who’s your friend?” Ned exclaimed.
“We’ll explain inside!” Sarrin yelled, taking the skeleton key and throwing open the boiler room.
Zoomer and Sam sprinted across the cell block. In the sea of angry prisoners, they had seemed to lose the two Resonant Guards on their trail, and turned a sharp corner into a large circular room lined with an arsenal of weapons.
“This is more like it,” Zoomer said excitedly, digging through a crate of weapons before unsheathing a long, curved blade that seemed to be made of the same material used by the Resonant Guards. Testing its battle-readiness, it slashed through the air with decisive alacrity and easily slashed through an iron dummy, almost weightless and resistant to the drag of the air.
Sam quickly found a strange compound bow made of refined steel, along with a small quiver of Resonant arrows. Assessing his aim, the bow instantly locked into place as he knocked a single arrow in the reflexive string; the arrow shattered what remained of the dummy to pieces and then reappeared in the quiver after a few moments, warping back into place only slightly damaged and emanating small purple particles.
“Where do they make these things?” Zoomer asked in amazement. “Let’s grab some more in case we run into the others and then get out of here.” Sam nodded in agreement.
Cannon, Ned, and Sarrin examined the boiler room, seemingly devoid of any guards or other dangers. The steel boilers whirred with energy and spat out puffs of steam and other byproducts. The three found little of interest before stumbling upon a series of numbers etched into the far concrete wall, corresponding to the individual boilers: 471.
“Looks like they’re rigged to blow,” Sarrin deduced. “If we dial all three up to max output, they might blow the pipes and give us a way out.”
“Then we’ll need to wait,” Cannon decided.
“You got a cement block between your ears?” Sarrin asked. “This is our ticket out!”
“We can’t leave our friends,” Ned agreed. “We need them.”
“Confounded hero types,” Sarrin shook his head. “Fine. But I’m staying here. Go rescue your buddies and then head back here. Fast. I’ll prep the boilers.” Cannon nodded and extended his arm.
“Thank you, Sarrin,” he said. “We’ll be out of here in no time.”
Sarrin shook his hand. “You can say that again.”
Zoomer and Sam ran down from the central staircase to the yard at the bottom of the prison where the chaos was most intense, sticking close to the corners to avoid being trampled whilst scanning the crowd for their friends. Suddenly, the eye flinched towards them and began to blare out more sirens, fixing a pair of blinding redstone lantern lights directly at them. The Resonant Guards from earlier jumped from two levels up and glided down to the yard gracefully with their affixed coal-powered wings that folded back into place as they landed and quickly assumed their battle stances.
“She said it didn’t work!” Sam exclaimed, betrayed.
“We were duped, Sam,” Zoomer said with disdain, holding his katana defensively.
“I’m not gonna die a dupe,” Sam spat, drawing back an arrow and instantly firing at the lance guard, who quickly swung his blade and destroyed the arrow in its path. Zoomer ducked and rolled towards the crossbow guard, who fired an explosive potion arrow at him that sent him levitating lazily into the air. As the guard primed another shot, Zoomer desperately threw his blade at the elite, forcing it to crouch and rapidly pivot back several meters with its redstone jets. The Resonant katana bounded through the air back into Zoomer’s hand at the conclusion of its arc as he fell back to the concrete floor. From behind the guard, Zoomer saw Cannon and Ned approach.
“Catch!” Zoomer exclaimed, tossing a spare Resonant cutlass towards Cannonwalker. He caught the blade and slashed at the crossbow guard before he could react, but the blade didn’t collide with the guard’s liquid armor; the guard warped out of the blade’s path at the last moment and reappeared at another end of the room, preparing another shot. Sam tossed Ned a looted Resonant broadsword that was deceptively nimble and light.
As the others rushed to finish off the ranger, Cannon sprinted towards the lance guard, slashing wildly in an attempt to quickly overwhelm him. The guard’s diamond lance kept Cannon away, but his grip began to waver, unable to compete with the hero’s blade storm onslaught. Before being disarmed completely, the guard drew a cumbersome handcannon from his belt and aimed at Cannon, taking aim. Relenting, Cannon ducked, and the ensuing flare shot passed directly over his head, bounding through the air towards Ned, who instinctively threw up his broadsword in a defensive stance, creating an energy barrier that absorbed the explosive firework blast on impact, saving him from a painful fiery death.
Cannon immediately pressed the advantage once more and slashed away the guard’s lance before attacking an exposed part of his armor at his elbow joint which connected his upper arm plate with his forearm. The guard reeled in pain and collapsed to the ground incapacitated.
The other rushed at the remaining ranger guard as he primed his next shot. Zoomer was nearly within range before the guard fired a shot at the ground in front of him that exploded on impact, sending Zoomer flying and the others reeling for cover. Embers dispersed omnidirectionally, setting portions of the yard ablaze. The guard was nearly primed to let loose a devastating follow-up shot before he was crushed under the weight of a massive golem that leapt down from an upper floor and caused the entire prison to rumble, the platforms above threatening to crack from the blast wave.
The gigantic golem, easily ten blocks tall, roared ferociously, almost perceivably sending the entire room into a deep freeze that slowed all the Outlanders in their tracks. Its armor was made of pure diamond with no exposed gears or redstone wiring, and its numerous joints lined with refined iron. It savagely beat its chest with its arms, roaring mechanically and inviting any challengers. The Outlanders stumbled to their feet and backed away slowly.
“Maybe it’s friendly?” Zoomer quaked in apprehension. Just then, a stick of lit dynamite was thrown from above directly at the beast’s chest armor plate, causing it to reel in shock and turn to face the ambushers. Nadi and Riddur, freshly armed with raided gear, beckoned at the robotic monster, egging it to pursue them; the golem scoffed, crouched, and prepared to leap to the above platform that the siblings were standing on.
The golem leapt into the air and landed on the platform, causing the prison to shake even more violently. The platform nearly immediately collapsed as the golem reeled and caused the concrete to crack under its immense weight. Before it could prepare to charge at them, Nadi tossed another bundle of dynamite at its chest, causing the diamond armor to crack even further and destroying the entire platform. The siblings backed away to a secure portion as the golem tumbled back down to the yard on its chest.
Zoomer quickly tossed his katana at the golem’s left arm joint from a distance, easily slicing through the iron and delimbing it. Cannon rolled towards the crushed ranger’s old crossbow and fired an already primed explosive shot at the monster, finally causing its primary diamond frame to shatter into millions of razor shards and its redstone and copper wirings to overload completely. A small blast from its dying memory core finally ended the beast, accompanied by a series of blasts that reverberated throughout the entire Panopticon. Immediately, the central ocular device overloaded and completely burst, the remnants of its elegant frame falling from its suspended position down to the yard.
More explosions followed, no doubt the sound of the pipes bursting. Cannon turned to the boiler room on the south side of the yard, catching a glimpse of Sarrin just before he escaped out of a small round opening that led to the sunny outside. He turned to face the Outlanders before making a run for it.
“It’s like I told you, nultsy!” he yelled over the implosions, saluting charismatically. “Never be a hero!”
One final earth-shattering blast caused the Panopticon’s roof and every platform in the prison to collapse completely under the pressure, burying the yard under a mountain of concrete rubble and superheated metal. Before the sound of the implosion could register, everything was draped in oppressive darkness once more.
Chapter 5 - Revolution
4145 AE A solitary ray of sunlight was cast on the man's face, forcing him to wince slightly. The little cabin was almost laughably isolated and quite serene - almost too much for his taste. One of the room's windows was slightly ajar, allowing a cool breeze to seep in and cause the hair on his arms to perk up slightly. Though most of Kilran was well into the season of spring - surely, a harbinger of good things to come - the month or even time of day meant little to the few inhabitants of the frosted mountainpeaks of Apollyon. In some ways, he preferred the cold. It reminded him of his mother to some extent, while the warm, overbearing rays of summer brought back echoes of his father's fiery rage. The same rage he had begun to sense within his brother some time ago.
This cabin was pleasant, and overbearingly so. After so many months of laying quietly in his modest bed, he would sooner retreat to the hectic streets of Belial and listen to the endless chatter of enterprising merchants and stingy guardsman than stomach one more day here. Despite this, he had resigned to the fact that he had to remain here. His condition had been steadily improving for several weeks now, but it was still far too early to even consider returning to the fray. Yet still, he wished so desperately that his healer would simply say something. Anything. Even a short bitter anecdote or flat-out insult would be preferable to her almost impressive silence.
"I suspect the relief efforts in Aragon will have come to fruition by now," the man strained to say. "Those people didn't deserve such hardships." With great effort, he turned his head slightly to get a better look at her. She was irrevocably beautiful, much more so than any mortals he had seen before. Her crimson hair was slightly past shoulder-length and complimented her pale skin remarkably well.
The woman said nothing.
"Perhaps the king of Medriaas will contribute as well," he continued, returning his gaze back to the ceiling. "I would like that very much." The woman placed a small rag over a red mark on his right arm, soaked in chemicals that caused him to barely audibly moan in intense pain. She gently placed his hand in hers, holding him carefully so as not to upset him further. Her long white fingers ran up and down his arm, their coldness soothing him to great effect. Still, she would not meet his eyes.
"I cannot... do this, forever," the man wheezed, clutching her hand tighter. She sighed softly and finally lifted her head to get a better look at the man's face. He was remarkably handsome, with tanned skin and thick, slightly gray hair, and though they were unusual to her, there was something alluring about his piercing white eyes, which she would often see light up in the dead of night, silently watching her. He looked at her graciously, but there was pain in his expression, unlike any she had seen before. It did not strike her as physical pain. The source of his anguish was internal, that much was clear.
She sighed again and placed her other hand over his chest. "You will endure, my love," she nodded softly. "You are more than a man, or even a god. The name Notch is a concept. An idea. One that inspires hope and light within all men. And one that will not die."
Notch cleared his throat and smiled at her with all the strength he could muster. He could have sworn that she had managed something of a half-smile as well, though it faded as soon as he began to wheeze again.
"Sleep now. You will need your strength," she whispered.
Home. Kuwaktana was far from home for Lady Thash, though she was content to live here as long as it provided safe haven from the prying, fanatical eyes of her pursuers. Those bound by flesh, at the very least. For some weeks now, she had doubted the remoteness of the location could protect her from threats that stemmed from the incorporeal.
"You devote so many months to caring for a man you do not know," the presence observed. "Your compassion intrigues me."
Lady Thash looked up and down the valley, scanning for the source of the voice, though she knew she would not find it. She had convinced herself it was not truly here - it was merely a shadow, and a persistent one at that, which she doubted she would be able to expel through normal means. Up until this point, she had simply ignored its attempts to probe her, and when she was lucky, her method served her well, and the presence eventually lost interest and left her alone. Not this time.
"Who are you and what do you want?" the Lady spat, quickening her pace towards her camp at the end of the valley.
"I am an old man," the voice confessed. She could have sworn there was a newfound weariness in its tone that she had never noticed before. "I am alone, confused, sick, and in need of healing. Surely, you could lend some aid to a helpless geezer."
The presence's words were desperate and rang with a faint echo of sincerity, but she had sensed its true nature some time ago; it reeked of death, sadness, despair, and destruction. It was dripping with hatred and contempt. In some way, it was truly pathetic, perhaps even worth of pity. But Lady Thash would always remind herself that it is a fool's errand to pity the strong.
"I won't be swayed by your lies," the woman stopped. "I do not know what you are or why you have come. But it is time for you to leave," she lied, ignoring the truth.
"Ah, you wish for me to step out from the shadows? You desire to look upon me with your own to eyes, to put a face to the tiresome spirit that has perturbed you ceaselessly for so long?"
"You need only to have asked," the presence said cordially. Thash quickly pivoted her gaze to the east, where the sound of footsteps had manifested. From the darkness of the valley, a cloaked man with a severe hunchback emerged, stepping towards her with a peculiar pace. She strained to look under the figure's tattered black cloak as it approached her.
"Is that what you were looking for?" the figure asked hopefully. Thash slowly extended a hand out to remove the man's hood to get a look at his face, but the man did so himself before her shaking hand could reach him. The man's hunchback disappeared, and beneath the hood was a bright, muscular young man, perhaps in his late twenties with light brown hair and calm green eyes. The man smiled at her.
"T-Triton?" she asked in disbelief. The man's smile faded, and with the blink of an eye, he had transformed into another individual. Gray hair, white eyes, tanned skin...
"Or perhaps you were searching for someone else," the presence offered. Even after assuming a physical form, its voice was positively ethereal, coming from all directions at once and echoing with sinister reverberation.
"It matters little. I evolved beyond the bounds of a singular form long ago. Perhaps you could as well, in due time."
Lady Thash stared at Notch in disbelief for a moment before continuing on towards her home. She didn't bother to continue conversing with the spirit. Whatever it was, it clearly had no intention of hurting her. Surely, even if it did wish for harm to come upon her, she would be strong enough to protect herself. She didn't look back, keeping her eyes fixed upon the end of the valley, where her modest home of dark oak lay in wait.
"I will not be ignored, my love."
She finally turned back to face the spirit with malice in her expression. But she saw nothing. The last thing she laid eyes upon before everything went dark was the weathered rock wall of the valley, blurry as she quickly turned around to confront her pursuer.
Several hours later, as the sun had begun to set, a dozen men in regal red and golden armor arrived on Kuwaktana and raced with great haste towards Lady Thash's home. Their leader, who wore a strange golden helmet with a gleaming sword dangling from his belt, rushed toward her cold body, lying still a matter of meters from the entrance of her home at the end of the valley. Under her was a pool of black blood, oozing out in all directions and steadily growing in size. This was not her blood.
Triton unfastened his helmet and threw it aside as he kneeled down in the pool of shadows and clutched the woman closely to his chest. There was no sign of a struggle - no cuts or bruises, and certainly no trauma. She had been in perfect health. It was as if she had spontaneously collapsed to the ground for no apparent reason at all. But he knew this to be untrue. The entire area reeked of death. His worst fears had been realized.
"What will we do now?" Cato asked as Triton rose from the shadow pool with Lady Thash in his arms. The brown haired man erased any hint of grief in his eyes. He was determined now.
"We will do what is right," Triton began. "We will avenge her death, come hell or high water."
“He’s awake, General,” a voice said as Cannon slowly rose from his bunk. Twice now in the span of a few days he’d awoken to an unfamiliar sight after being knocked out cold, and he’d somehow grown accustomed to the feeling in a strange sense, though this place seemed magnitudes more welcoming than the Panopticon. Rather than a harsh prison cell of faded grays and cobwebs, this place was almost homely, with a calm fire blazing in a brick fireplace opposite Cannon’s bunk and illuminating the Occan rugs and chests full of medical supplies and potions.
He scanned the room, not seeing the source of the voice, but a few short moments later another woman clad in dusty maroon overalls and a gray undershirt walked into the infirmary, flanked by two similarly dressed individuals with miner hats and leather boots. Cannon stirred at the sight, unnerved by overalls at this point, but the woman held up her hand calmly, attempting to dispel fear and convey friendliness.
“At ease, Cannon,” she said, almost amused. She had a remarkably deep voice, perhaps suited for her toned frame, hardened from years of hard labor. Her skin was dark even compared to the other native Audaxians and her eyes were a dark brown with a determined glint to them. She grabbed a small wooden stool from the other end of the room and took a seat next to Cannon’s bunk. He sat up expectantly as she nodded at the other two, signaling them to leave.
“You know my name,” Cannon observed, not betraying any particular emotions.
“I know a lot of things,” she played along, mocking his defensive tone. “I know you’re an Outlander, and you came into contact with the union buster Sarrin Velvar, and you’re here with Ned, Zoomer, and Sam - probably all aliases - and you’ve been causing quite the stir in Sivella since you arrived about, oh, three days ago. What I don’t know is why you’re here.”
“Three days?” Cannon asked, rubbing his head.
She nodded. “It was more than a small miracle that you survived those blasts. You were out cold for a few days, longer than your friends. We’ve been giving you a steady supply of health potions - looks like they finally took. Do you know who I am?”
Cannon shook his head. “Should I?”
“I’d imagine you’d want to know who was responsible for your rescue from that place,” she joked, cracking a smile. “I’m with the Syndicate. My people call me the General, but I prefer JKL.”
“So you’re JKL,” Cannon nodded. “Then what exactly is the Syndicate, and what do you want with us?”
“Can you walk?” she asked. Cannon nodded, and the two left the infirmary and entered the central chamber of the base. From what Cannon could tell, the entire complex was deep underground, lit by redstone lanterns and dotted with sewer pipes and drains. Cracked stone bricks lined the entire base, which tunneled in countless directions, covering entire chambers of living quarters, mess halls - everything to sustain an entire society.
“This is the real Sivella,” JKL began, walking with Cannonwalker across a wooden path that spanned the base. Hurried workers, soldiers, and medics hustled across the cavern ground and into numerous unseen chambers, but also apparent, strangely, were groups of children blissfully playing on the rocks, rhyming and skipping and chasing each other.
“We’re all that remains of this city’s true working class. Miners, builders, farmers. We were the ones who were brave enough to stand up to Clockwork when he took over our livelihoods,” she continued. A small child, coated in dust from head to toe, ran up to the two adults. He handed JKL a small woolen doll decorated with what resembled the General’s maroon overalls and her face’s likeness. Smiling kindly, she rustled the boy’s ragged hair and sent him on his way.
“He consolidated everything,” she continued firmly, examining the doll with a contemplative look on her face. “All the trade routes, all the machines, all the factories brought under direct control of him through the TGC. When the redstone mines were nationalized, violence broke out. Riots in the streets, industrial sabotage. Hundreds killed in the fighting, slaughtered by those machine abominations that had taken all of our jobs. Thousands arrested in their homes the next night. We had no choice but to flee underground, where he and his monsters can’t see us.”
Cannon considered this information. JKL made no eye contact, keeping her gaze fixed on the squalor of the base whilst recounting her tale.
“The Syndicate formed after the Troubles sent us down here,” JKL explained. “We vowed we would one day return to the surface and place the factories and mines back under the workers’ control, but not before destroying the Colossus and all of Clockwork’s infernal war machine. We’ve been working in the shadows for so long. But that’s changed now. For the first time in years, these people have hope.”
The General placed a hand on Cannon’s shoulder appreciatively. “You destroyed Clockwork’s symbol of fear,” she whispered excitedly. “The Panopticon wasn’t just where he sent political prisoners. It was the center of his network of fear, and it’s all rubble now. You and the Outlanders are dangerous, and that’s why he fears you - and why we need your help.”
“Look,” Cannon began reluctantly. “I appreciate your help in getting us out, but we can’t fight every battle. There’s more at stake than any of us realize. Bigger than this.”
“What could possibly be more important than this?” JKL snapped, holding up the doll and gesturing towards the children on the rocks. “They all say you’re heroes and that you’re going to save Audax. What does anything else matter if you forget what matters the most along the way?”
Cannon said nothing.
“I don’t know why you’re here,” the General calmed down, quieter now. “Frankly, I don’t think I want to know. I’ve heard what you Outlanders have went up against. None of us could imagine what you’ve been through or what you’re going to face. But help us take down the Colossus and you’ll have the people of Audax behind you every step of the way.”
The Outlander sighed, remembering where he came from. He knew that she was right. Perhaps the Ancient Fear could wait.
“Where do we start?” he asked, folding his arms.
“You’ve destroyed his symbol of control,” she grinned. “Now we strike at his power.”
The Outlanders walked quickly through the crowded streets of Sivella along the flowing canal of the inner city. Wearing green overalls and white caps, they avoided eye contact with the other workers, giving the ubiquitous patrolling mechs an especially wide berth. There were no mecha-undead within the city; this close to the Colossus, the streets were watched exclusively by familiar looking steel golems and occasionally the vigilant Resonant Guards in their silvery green liquid armor. Surveillance within the city was obviously on high alert following the destruction of the Panopticon; the tension in the air was extremely palpable, as if the Syndicate could strike from the shadows at any moment and an army of Resonant Guards and golems would descend upon the streets in an instant and dozens would be killed indiscriminately.
A buzzing observation bot floated lazily overhead, forcing the Outlanders to avert their eyes toward the ground. The golems had no facial recognition as far as they could tell, only reacting to obvious signs of danger, and the human guards could be fooled, but the bots were deceptively sophisticated pieces of machinery that would send out alarms the second their memory complexes detected a wanted criminal.
Following the directions given to them by Nadi and concealing their Resonant weapons under their scratchy and oversized machine worker uniforms, the four heroes walked in the general direction of the Ironworks district at the center of the city. The Ironworks was the informal name given to the Mechanical Engineering and Redstone Refinery District, or MERR, described by JKL as the “belly of the beast.” It was where nearly all of Clockwork’s mechs were designed, manufactured, and deployed from; thus, it was heavily guarded, with the risk of losing all of its muscle and intimidation power keenly understood by the regime. Syndicate scouts, however, had detected a crucial weakness in the design of the ring-shaped factory complex around the Colossus: The redstone reactor in the heart of the complex was powered by extremely volatile molten redstone ore that provided energy to the entire factory through a system of pistons and repeaters; if overloaded through superheating the molten redstone via the in-built furnace system, the reactor would go into meltdown and shut down the entire Ironworks in minutes, providing a narrow escape window for the saboteurs through the canal below.
Nearly at the gates of the MERR district, a commotion began to stir in the streets. Observation bots began to gather near the Outlanders, and a squadron of Resonant Guards escorted by a pair of massive diamond golems, the same Centurion model from the Panopticon, emerged from the shadows, led by a Guard with a magenta side-cape. Holding his helmet in his right arm, the rusty-haired guard addressed the anxious crowd from the center of the district square.
“People of Sivella!” the guard exclaimed. “Stand by for a message from the Chairman and General Secretary of the Trade Guild Confederacy!”
A pair of guards placed down two large jukeboxes whilst others adjusted a system of redstone lamps placed on the sides of numerous brick buildings in the square. A cloud of steam emanated from an inconspicuous vent on the stone slab ground as the lamps were activated, directing light at the gas to project an image of a man in a dark brown coat and hood, the only visible part of his face a pair of green goggles that glinted in the artificial darkness. The guards threw the jukebox switches in synchronization, and the message began.
“My comrades,” the projection began, towering twenty meters into the sky so as to address the entire district at once. It spoke in an unnaturally low and otherworldly voice, as if delivered by one of the mechs, like metal grating against rough volcanic rock. “There can be no doubt that these are difficult times for the Commune of Audax, but do not be deceived by the lies and propaganda spread by the Syndicate terrorists - we are more prosperous than ever!”
As the projection talked, it moved slowly and deliberately, gesturing with its hands for emphasis on occasion. But every few moments, a glinting golden object just barely came into view, emanating from Clockwork’s belt. There was no mistaking its shape - the ethereal glow could be seen even through the smokescreen illusion.
“I don’t believe it,” Cannon said, dumbfounded as he watched the projection. “How did he…”
“I thought the Invidere was destroyed,” Ned agreed, with a hint of fear in his voice.
“Since the reopening of the redstone mines, quality of life in Sivella and the entire Commune has never been higher,” Clockwork continued, looking out into the invisible crowd. “More people are employed than in the entire history of the continent - we are close to full employment for all workers of Audax. There are more skilled workers in our factories, more scholars in our colleges, and more grain in our fields than ever before - but this is only the beginning. Our troubles come not from within, but without! And I am pleased to announce that we have discovered the secret hideout of the terrorist Syndicate, and soon these criminals who despise our way of life and feel only jealousy for our prosperity will be rooted out, and will stand trial before all workers of Sivella!”
The crowd was silent for a few moments. The Resonant Guards began to clap vigorously, however, prompting the workers to enthusiastically explode into applause.
“Thank you,” Clockwork boomed. “Rest assured, once these terrorists are brought to justice for their crimes, normalcy will be restored to the Commune, and this interregnum period will end to usher in a new golden era of advancement! Not only will-”
Blasting above the projection’s address, an explosion burst from the other end of the street, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Flames and shrapnel scattered everywhere, though the pre-recorded projection continued its address, now lecturing about beetroot production in the Lower Plains Cooperative.
“That’s our cue!” Cannon said, beginning to walk briskly towards the unguarded gates of the Ironworks. Indeed, all Resonant Guards in the area rushed toward the disturbance, as well as the swarming bots and lumbering golem giants. As they approached the gates, however, Cannon turned back to observe the chaos. The building that had been leveled was a red brick factory like many others in the area, no doubt filled with workers, the screams of which still rang out begging for help, not to mention the other civilians passing by who had been caught in the blast. Was this JKL’s idea of a distraction - killing civilians?
“Let’s go! This is our chance!” Zoomer whispered intensely, grabbing Cannon’s shoulder. He felt sick to his stomach as he entered the Ironworks, barely resisting the urge to run into the chaos and lend a hand.
Though functionally several different large factories, the MERR as a whole was one large complex that formed a suspended ring around the Colossus that stood formidably in the direct center of the entire city. Getting their first up-close look at the massive statue, the Outlanders could hardly see the entire Colossus at once, dwarfing any structure they had ever laid eyes on and stretching perhaps 300 blocks into the sky, piercing the lower clouds emanating powerful radio signals that directed the entire mechanical army. The radio waves that were faintly audible outside the city were now a constant, annoying rumbling that gave them all a mild headache that faded after a few minutes of exposure.
The Outlanders scouted around for a few moments before happening upon the East Lift that would elevate them to the corridor nearest to the central reactor. Approaching the lift, the steel doors were watched by a single Resonant Guard of shorter stature, armed with only a single pulsing sabre of liquid resonant steel. He stood to attention as the Outlanders approached.
“Halt!” he barked, his voice modulated beyond humanity through his helmet filter. “The Ironworks are strictly off limits. You’d better turn around.”
“But we’re workers,” Sam pleaded. “Can’t you see our green overalls?”
The guard considered his plea. “Workers for the east corridor were supposed to clock in two hours ago,” he said, unsure.
“The commotion held us up,” Cannon assured him, holding up a forged workers’ permit that was supposed to be a last resort. “Please, we really need to get to work.”
“Well…” the guard looked around nervously. “I don’t know. They said nobody would come through here after noon until dusk.”
“Look, buddy,” Zoomer began. “We’ve got a job to do, just like you do. That reactor needs tending to, so are you gonna do your job and skidaddle out of our way and go help those people out there, or am I going to have to speak to your superior about you hampering the productivity of the cooperative?”
The guard gulped. “Go right ahead in,” he said briefly. “I’ll get you up there.”
The Outlanders stepped into the simple iron elevator quickly and the transparent doors shut behind them. The guard flicked a few levers on the nearby operating panel, and soon the lift began to whir with electric redstone power, raising them up to the factory with surprising vertical momentum. As the four grabbed on to rails for support, the guard looked up at them for a few moments before quickly walking off.
The doors to the factory interior whisked open a few seconds later, and the Outlanders quickly adjusted to the constant industrial hum. The factory was completely bustling with workers of all different types constantly tinkering at one thing or another; yellow overalled workers operated the numerous assembly lines in the center which churned out dozens of arms, legs, and other metal appendages per second; lime workers ran back and forth from station to station ensuring that sufficient power was allocated to each power conduit; and finally, a small group of engineers in green overalls exited from a large, partially open room to the east, carrying small steel lunch boxes.
“The reactor room,” Cannon whispered. Avoiding detection by the off-duty reactor engineers, the Outlanders casually walked into the central chamber and observed their surroundings. At the center of the massive room was a whirring turbine that spanned all the way from the freshly swept sandstone floor to the ceiling, spinning imperceptibly fast. At its base, a large iron console surrounded it, pumping it full of searing hot molten redstone carried in from below through thick transparent pipes made out of something resembling the resonant material. Large one-way windows on all sides of the room allowed one to look out at the bustling city just outside.
“JKL said all we had to do was increase the flow of fuel to the turbine until it goes into meltdown mode,” Ned recounted. “Here goes nothing.”
“Be ready to listen for the alarm,” Cannon remembered. “Once this thing starts to go out of control, they’ll be on us like Endermites. We’ll need to get out of here fast.” As the others nodded in understanding, Cannon reached for the control panel.
“Wait!” an engineer exclaimed, running into the reactor room with several of his coworkers. “I know what you’re doing. You can’t blow this reactor! You’re with the Syndicate, right? You care about the workers? Then please, don’t kill us all! I’m begging you…”
Nadi threw off her hardhat and stepped away from the workers, joining the Outlanders. “Sorry for the deception, Anatoly, but we have to do this,” she said with smug satisfaction. Zoomer appreciated the clever disguise. “Throw the switch, Cannon,” she nearly ordered the command at him.
“At least let us evacuate first,” Anatoly pleaded. “We can sound the emergency alarm and all the workers will file out just like that, then you can overload this thing. We’ll need to find new jobs, but at least we’ll be alive.”
The Outlanders all exchanged glances. “Think about what’s at stake here,” Nadi tried to say calmly, but was obviously growing anxious. “Without his mechs, Clockwork is nothing. If you throw the alarm, every guard in the sector will be on us before we can overload the reactor and the mission will be a disaster. The revolution depends on you!”
Anatoly shook his head, shamefully. “I thought the Syndicate might save us. But look at you - you’re just terrorists, no better than Clockwork! At least the Chairman gave us back our livelihoods. He was right about you.” The other engineers nodded in agreement.
“Fine, I’ll do it myself!” Nadi yelled, brushing past Ned and sprinting for the iron console.
“Nadi, wait!” Cannon exclaimed, reaching for her shoulder.
Before Nadi could reach the turbine control panel, the three massive windows of the room shattered open, and a small contingent of Resonant Guards quickly glided in with the help of their outstretched elytra wings. There were three of them, led by the magenta-caped officer from earlier, still not wearing a helmet. The two lesser soldiers were armed with simple resonant blades, but the officer wielded an elegant sabre similar in shape to the Invidere that gleamed with refined resonant liquid.
“Too late!” Zoomer yelled, throwing the console switch. The turbine almost immediately picked up speed, now spinning frighteningly fast and threatening to burst out of its glass enclosure and wreak untold havoc on the entire factory. Alarms began to blare throughout the Ironworks, and the once neutral redstone lamps turned a threatening crimson. The workers scattered and swarmed for the various safety exits from the lantern, nearly breaking the numerous lifts with their collective weight.
The Outlanders and Nadi drew their weapons and split off to quickly dispatch the guards before the Ironworks blew. Cannon rushed directly in to clash blades with the officer whilst Ned and Sam engaged one soldier, leaving Zoomer and Nadi with the remaining one.
Cannon slashed wildly at the officer with his cutlass in an attempt to launch off his blade storm flurry, but the officer merely dodged out of the way of his onslaught, not even bothering to parry the blows with his sabre.
“Clockwork will be pleased to see the Outlanders finally stand trial,” the red-haired officer grinned, rolling out of Cannonwalker’s way. “The public despises you, you know. You represent everything they hate: Chaos, terrorism, and stupidity!” Cannon slashed through his defenses, finally batting the officer’s sabre away and pressing the assault.
Sam backed off to get a good shot whilst Ned charged at the left guard, swinging in wide but precise arcs with his broadsword that eventually connected with the soldier’s flowing armor. The hit sent flames sparking in the direction of the attacker, forcing Ned to throw up his warding blade to deflect the sparks. The guard quickly recovered and began his counterattack, making sure to keep Ned in the way of Sam’s line of sight at all times.
Zoomer and Nadi assaulted the right guard with a flurry of blades simultaneously. The guard maintained a fluid and impenetrable defensive stance; no matter what direction the two attacked from, his blade was always there to bat away the strike. Zoomer swept high, Nadi stabbed low, and the guard’s longsword always met perfectly in the center.
Cannon and the officer were now in the heat of battle, with the officer constantly warping around with his refined resonant armor in an attempt to attack at his foe’s blind spots.
“What, can’t face me like a man?” Cannon mocked, turning to deflect a warping blow from the increasingly frustrated officer. In desperation, the caped soldier warped into the air, suspended seven blocks above the ground with overcharged warping fluid that created strange illusions throughout the entire reactor chamber. The floating guard hurled a blast of pure resonant energy from his sabre that nearly scorched Cannon into fiery bits before the Outlander ducked out of the way. The officer continued to fire energy volleys wildly until Cannon leapt into the air and dashed directly at the guard, discovering the “blinking” ability of the cutlass. He slashed through the air wildly and struck the officer’s armor in the chest, able to pierce it due to its output being directed into the hovering ability. The guard yelped and fell ungracefully back down to the ground whilst Cannon elegantly dropped back to his feet. Grumbling in pain, the officer fired one last energy blast directly at the turbine, shattering the glass enclosure.
The reactor began to crackle with overloaded redstone energy that spluttered in all directions, vaporizing entire sections of the room. As the steel turbines began to wither away from the pressure, the reactor finally entered meltdown mode and whirred out of control. Ned and the left guard nearly tumbled on top of each other, but Sam finally got a good shot at the guard in the chaos, landing a hit directly at his head and sending him flying out the open window with the velocity created from resonant meeting resonant.
“No more time!” Cannon yelled, remembering the open window. “Let’s get out of here!” He made a break for the window, leaving the reeling officer to groan in pain from the wound. Tiring from the fight, Zoomer kneed the remaining Resonant Guard in the ground, causing more confusion than pain. Zoomer and Nadi leapt out the closest window, followed by Sam and Ned. The Outlanders splashed into the canal below, watching the entire Ironworks begin to crumble fantastically as they emerged from the water. Cannon saw no more engineers, hoping that their distraction with the guards had given them the opportunity they needed to escape the explosion.
Floating gently down the canal for several minutes, the Outlanders and Nadi finally grabbed ahold of an exit ladder in a mostly abandoned part of the city, away from the prying eyes of the guards, most of whom had rushed to the scene of the destruction. Watching from the shadows, they watched as the massive ring around the Colossus crumbled piece by piece, trapping an entire generation of iron soldiers underneath a mountain of rubble.
“We almost waited too long,” Nadi said scornfully, shivering from the water. “I can’t believe you almost let your conscience get to you when we were so close to victory.”
“With all due respect, Nadi,” Cannon began, “We’re supposed to be heroes, not terrorists. Hasn’t the Syndicate killed enough civilians today?”
“Casualties of war,” Nadi shrugged. “You of all people should know you can’t save everyone. If you can’t accept that we’re going to have to make sacrifices to bring down Clockwork, then maybe we were wrong about you after all!”
Before Cannon could respond, Zoomer interjected. “I don’t believe this,” he sighed. “We completed the mission and you’re still arguing.”
“Not to interrupt or anything,” Ned began, pointing in the direction of approaching Resonant Guards. “But I think it’s time for us to get back to the sewers.”
The Outlanders, Nadi, Riddur, JKL, and several other members of the Syndicate sat at the long Nether brick table within the war room of the underground base. Though the entire base was alive with excitement of the recent victory, tensions were high within the upper echelons.
“I’m not sure I understand your grievances, Cannon,” JKL said calmly, elbows rested on the table. “The mission was completed with minimal civilian casualties. For Notch’s sake, with the Panopticon and the Ironworks both destroyed, you’ve disrupted Clockwork’s entire power structure! For the first time in his reign, he’s vulnerable.”
“But at what cost?” Cannon asked, struggling to contain his frustration. “You told me not to forget the things that matter most. You should take your own damn advice. If this is the price we have to pay to defeat Clockwork, then you’re on your own.” The Outlanders nodded in agreement.
JKL sighed and steepled her fingers. “I understand how you feel. A long time ago, I was in your position. This isn’t the first time Sivella’s people have been held hostage by its own system. Last time we had to drive out tyrants, we didn’t do it by handing out pamphlets or protesting. We took direct action, which is actually what we’re doing now. It’s not pretty. Collateral damage happens. But the alternative is we remain slaves to Clockwork, and that isn’t an option.”
Cannon banged his hand on the table and rose quickly, prompting several militia fighters to reach for their weapons. Before the hero could speak, however, a courier rushed in and stood at attention before JKL.
“General,” the courier said quickly, exasperated.
“What is it, Emmanuel?” JKL asked, putting a calming hand on the courier’s shoulder.
“It’s happening, sir.”
Chapter 6 - Regicide
JKL took the small yellow note from the exasperated courier’s hands and read its contents with a concerned look on her stern face. The courier looked expectantly as the others hushed and listened closely for the report.
“18:62, the next coming Day of Harvest,” the General read aloud, her harsh features softening imperceptibly. “The Trade Guild Congress shall convene to discuss the recent crisis in the Sivellan Commune of the Union of Audax at the Worker’s Palace, to be supervised by CC.” The tension in the room lifted and was replaced by an air of almost excitement. Cannon’s brow furrowed.
“CC?” Cannon asked, looking to the others.
“Chairman Clockwork, sir,” the courier said quickly. “The entire Congress will be present at the Palace tomorrow night, reports say.” JKL placed the report down on the table, her expression unchanged as she took her seat once more and steepled her fingers in contemplation.
“This could be our chance,” Zoomer remarked excitedly. “We can finally end this all at once.”
JKL’s eyes did not waver from their gaze at the center of the table. “I’m afraid this isn’t what you think it is,” she said in her usual stern tone, but with a touch of regret. “The Chairman is attempting to lure us out from our hiding place. Attempting to assassinate him at the Congress is exactly what he wants. He could use the attempt to not only smoke out the entire Syndicate, but also turn public opinion against us.”
“Hogwash,” Nadi rose from her seat, her eyes darting at all present with wild ambition. “The Colossus is impenetrable - we could never infiltrate it on our own. But the Worker’s Palace is in the mining district. We’ve finally drawn him out,” she explained. “Even if he expects us to attack, to pass up the opportunity would be utter lunacy. The people are counting on us!”
Cannon hunched against the table. “If the entire Congress will be there, security will be tight,” he thought out loud. “We need to rethink our strategy.”
“Security won’t be a problem,” Nadi thought, an idea coming to her. “We’ll rig the place with explosives long before the meeting begin and then detonate them once they convene. We can take out Clockwork and bring the entire system down on their heads without even getting close to them.”
“Hundreds of workers will be present, Nadi,” JKL reasoned. “Not to mention, there will be utter chaos in the streets for weeks. The mechs and Resonant Guards won’t just pack up and go home if Clockwork dies. They’ll just begin to slaughter us all indiscriminately.”
Nadi shook her head. “Will all due respect, General, you’ve gotta crack open a few eggs before you get a chick. If the Union’s leadership is taken out of the equation, the public will scramble for someone to lead them. That’s when the Syndicate can finally come out of hiding and put the power back in the hands of the people.”
“Do you even hear yourself?” Cannon asked with genuine concern. “How much of your humanity are you willing to sacrifice to kill one man? How many innocent workers that you claim to protect the interests of are going to die for your manic crusade?” Nadi’s eyes narrowed.
“There must be a better way,” Zoomer said quietly. “There’s always a better way.”
JKL sighed. “Nadi has a point,” she said finally. “Yes, we represent the people. Yes, if a single innocent worker dies as a result of our revolution, that is extremely regrettable. But consider how many civilians - men, women, and children - have died in Clockwork’s mines in the past month alone. How many have died in the weekly pogroms? How many starve in his work camps in the desert? And how many more will die until we finally put an end to his tyranny?”
“I understand your concerns, Outlanders, and I harbor extreme respect for you and your actions. But I also ask that you respect the decision of the Syndicate and do what is necessary to put an end to this. The plan will have to be arranged immediately. If you wish to walk away, then be my guest. This will happen with or without you.”
The General rose from her seat and began to speak with the courier in a hushed voice. Nadi sighed deeply and approached Cannon from the other side of the room.
“I’m sorry, Cannonwalker,” she began. “But you need to understand our perspective. We’re tired of half-measures and mercy. Clockwork has given us neither. It’s time we return the favor.” Cannon said nothing, prompting her to walk away awkwardly after a few moments of uncomfortable silence.
“Well, do we help them?” Sam asked the other three. None of them said anything.
JKL called from across the room a moment later. “Cannon,” she projected. “A word, please.” The two left the others in the war room and walked across the stone path of the underground base once more.
“First of all, I wanted to say thank you,” she began quietly, keeping her eyes fixed outward to the activity of the base. “For everything. Without you, we’d still be cowering down here like cornered rats. If you hadn’t destroyed the Panopticon and now the Ironworks, perhaps we’d be trapped underground forever. You’ve given these people hope for the first time in a long time.”
“How long has Clockwork ruled Sivella?” Cannon asked, realizing he wasn’t exactly sure of the date.”
“Five years,” the General remembered. “After the Resurgent War, things were quiet for a few months, but then, well, he arrived, and everything changed for this city and the entire continent forever.
“Do we know who he really is?” he asked quietly.
“Some do, I’m sure,” she said after a moment. “To the people of this city, he’s only been known as the Chairman since he arrived. Maybe he’s just some megalomaniac who saw the chance to take advantage of the people’s fears after the Troubles, but I don’t think so. He’s… more than that, I think.”
“What do you mean?” Cannon asked with concern.
“I knew someone, once,” the General began, her tone changing suddenly. For the first time, she betrayed a keen sense of regret and vulnerability as she recounted her story. “A revolutionary, like us. He united the people under a single banner against the aristocracy, for a time. A real firebrand. He struck without hesitation, killing whoever he needed to in order to bring back the oligarchs. Some people called him a maniac and a terrorist. But he didn’t care - when the opportunity came for him to take the reins of the city, he did, at least for a time. Then the Troubles began and he was sent into exile by the Kingdom of Medriaas. We thought he’d never return. But… I know better.”
Cannon considered her response for a few seconds. “Funny you should say that,” he almost chuckled, with palpable cynicism. “I knew someone just like that. I thought he was gone forever as well, but it seems he has a talent for cheating death.
“If Furnace is alive,” JKL said slowly and carefully. “Then he represents a threat to this city and the entire world that neither have seen before.”
“You’re going through with the plan,” Cannon guessed.
“Yes,” the General said calmly. “But I also trust your judgment. I think I owe you that much after all this time. The TNT will be placed under the Palace, like Nadi said. But… should you Outlanders see a chance to do things a little cleaner, say, if you get a clear shot at Clockwork - then I would not be remiss if you decided to take it.”
Cannon stopped. “We’ll see if the opportunity presents itself,” he said, extending his hand.
“Thank you, Cannon,” JKL said, smiling warmly for the first time and shaking his hand graciously.
Ned and Riddur stalked through the sewers quietly, turning each corner with great care to avoid stumbling upon any of Clockwork’s scouts. The surface was absolutely crawling with the Chairman’s forces, but the sewers seemed to be absolutely empty of any prying eyes, allowing some of the syndicalists to sneak under several hours prior to lay the explosives.
Their job wasn’t necessarily a “suicide mission,” per se, but the chances of them dying horribly was approximately the same as the others who’d been sent to the meeting itself. After getting the signal, they were to detonate the explosives, giving them precious few seconds to dive into the water and swim under to avoid the ensuing blast. Theoretically, however, it may not come to that, they’d been told. They hoped.
“There it is,” Riddur whispered as they turned a corner and laid eyes on the explosive trap in a large circular chamber several meters directly under the Congress itself.
“Wait!” Ned hushed, halting them both. “I think I hear someone talking.”
Three Resonant Guards entered the Worker’s Palace slowly, walking freely past the guard detachment stationed outside. The guards didn’t seem to be stopping anyone at all, allowing dozens and dozens of disgruntled civilians to file in and take theirs seats on the many line of pews surrounding the massive circular meeting chamber. Since the Congress was theoretically an open forum, they had originally planned to enter in simple workers’ garb, though their faces would undoubtedly be instantly recognized under the constant scrutiny of Clockwork’s forces, so they elected to dawn captured guard armor instead.
Looking down from the observation floor, the disguised Cannon, Sam, and Zoomer could see the massive congregation hall of the TGC. From unseen doors below, individuals in golden overalls began to file in one by one, taking their respective seats at the long quartz meeting table in the center. At the farthest end, elevated above the table, was a large stone seat with an elongated woolen back, flanked by two smaller but similarly designed chairs. The three Outlanders spread out and took opposite positions along the rails at the edge of the observation floor, watching the events below closely.
Finally, the last representative took their seat, and two small, hidden doors at the end of the room whisked open, allowing two individuals to quickly file in. One of them, an unassuming man in pure white overalls with golden streaks, stepped up to address the entire Palace, whilst the other, the magenta-caped guard captain from the Ironworks, stood at attention at the left door.
“People of Sivella!” the man boomed over the comotion, commanding silence from all those present. He was an older man with a deep voice that seemed to harbor equal elements of hard labor and sheltered aristocracy, making him the best possible presenter for the Congress and the man he represented. “I present to you the Chairman and General Secretary of the Trade Guild Congress and Premier of the Union of Audax, Comrade Clockwork.”
The guard captain stepped aside, allowing a hooded figure to slowly stalk into the room and take his seat at the foremost stone chair. There was no applause as the Chairman took his seat, nor jeers, or audible reactions of any kind; the room only seemed to grow marginally colder as Clockwork, his face utterly draped in shadow to conceal any sort of human expression, robotically sat down and continued to remain in absolute silence.
Allowing the silence to resonate within the Palace for a few more moments, the speaker finally boomed once more, “let the meeting of the Trade Guild Congress begin!” Clockwork remained in silence as the hushed conversation began below. Through their heavy helmets, the Outlanders strained to just barely hear a wide variety of voices congregating below, some meek and others quite theatrical as they discussed the destruction of the Ironworks and the Panopticon. The prisoners who escaped the facility before it came down had apparently mostly been rounded up and shipped off to New Arcadia or one of many other work camps in the countryside, apart from the Outlanders, at the mention of which several representatives coughed awkwardly.
Watching the discourse commence below carefully, Cannon’s gaze kept wandering towards Clockwork, still draped in shadow and saying nothing; in fact, straining his eyes to see, he didn’t even appear to be breathing, staying absolutely still throughout the entire conversation. Something was amiss, but to audiate his concerns would be suicide. He considered exclaiming the signal right then and there, but in a split second decision deduced that assassination was still possible. He met the gazes of his fellow Outlanders and nodded slowly. They moved carefully, almost imperceptibly, into position to strike. The chamber below was completely unguarded as far as they could see, bar the guard captain next to Clockwork. Sam fingered carefully for his stolen crossbow.
From another corridor, a pair of voices emerged and entered the chamber just before Ned and Riddur could, their sparking redstone torches casting long shadows. They were Resonant Guards, but decorated with distinguishing orange and silver side capes, designating them as members of the elite squadron.
“Yep, this is it,” one of them said through a mechanized filter. “Just like the Chairman said.”
“You get to disarming the bombs,” the other suggested. “I’ll keep watch for the traitors.”
Ned and Riddur exchanged glances. Both were obviously tempted to make a break for it and hurry to go and warn the others, but silently decided it would be best to take the guards for surprise and uphold the mission parameters at all cost. Ned slowly reached for a loose rock and threw it into the water below to elicit the guard’s attention. There was no audible reaction from the sentinel, but they could distinctly hear the sound of footsteps approaching from inside.
Staying with their backs pressed against the wall and remaining completely still, they waited for the guard to clear the corner before leaping out and attacking. Riddur quickly snatched the guard from behind whilst Ned delivered a swift uppercut at his neck, knocking the unaware sentinel out immediately. They made an attempt to stay as quiet as possible, but from within the next chamber, the sound of the other guard disarming the explosives abruptly stopped. The two fell absolutely still once more. Ned, hearing no footsteps approaching, ever so slowly peaked his eyes out into the chamber.
Immediately, the alert guard fired her primed flare gun directly at Ned’s head, forcing him to duck out of the way to avoid being vaporized. The flare exploded fantastically as it made contact with the wall beyond, the sound of the impact reverberating throughout the sewers.
“As for the recent unrest in the Polaris Sector, the Congress has allocated sufficient resources to-” the premier speaker was interrupted by the sound of the explosion below, casting the entire Palace into worried silence immediately. Everyone looked around in fear, with some eyeing the three disguised heroes suspiciously. As Clockwork began to slowly rise, Sam quickly used the ironsights of the crossbow to take aim and fire directly at the hooded figure with an explosive potion shot.
The captain immediately jumped into action and drew his sword to bat away the shot milliseconds before it could collide with Clockwork, absorbing the majority of the blast. Panic rang out across the entire atrium as civilians ran for the exit all at once and representatives took cover under the long table below. From outside, they could hear the sound of hurried guards and golems attempting to push through the chaos and get inside.
“Now, Zoomer!” Cannon yelled. The two Outlanders threw off their helmets and drew their blades, gliding down to the scene below with their elytras. Zipping quickly through the air with near maximum velocity, Zoomer guided his flight to make collision with the closest target, the guard captain, whilst Cannon zoomed directly for Clockwork.
Zoomer nearly sliced the captain in half before he rolled out of the way and drew his blade in a defensive stance. The Outlander ducked and combat rolled on to the ground before quickly rushing at the guard with his katana, giving him as little time as possible to anticipate the attack.
Clockwork, however, was not so quick, and Cannon’s blade pierced his cloaked chest with incredible force, impaling him against his padded stone throne. It’s over, Cannon thought. Clockwork’s reign of terror was over, and Sivella was liberated.
But blood didn’t splatter, and there was no exasperated cry of pain from the stabbed tyrant. There was instead a sinister crackling sound of volatile electricity and short-circuiting wires. In disbelief and terror, Cannon forcefully threw back Clockwork’s hood and saw the familiar face of JKL.
He retrieved his blade and drew back in horror, but upon further inspection noticed that the face was staring into wasn’t JKL at all. The damaged automaton, its countenance painted with a crude recreation of the General’s face, hissed and jerked violently, now visibly cracking with electricity.
“COW-ARD,” a robotic voice mocked emotionlessly, playing from the damaged jukebox within. A looping laughter track began to play, accompanied by a familiar sound of a hissing fuse.
“RUN FOR IT!” Cannon exclaimed, making for the hidden door, followed closely by Zoom and Sam, who had glided down during the brief commotion. The automaton burst into thousands of tiny pieces, shaking the entire foundation of the Palace and sending the captain flying. The Outlanders stumbled through the concealed path as alarms began to blare out, now deafening them as they strained their eyes to see through the blinding red alert lights.
Covering their ears in pain, the three finally emerged into an open alley out back of the Palace. They attempted to dash into hiding and put as much distance as possible between them and the destroyed Palace, but were immediately spotted by an entire squadron of Resonant Guards flying overhead, who quickly glided down and surrounded them with extended lances, forcing them to back into each other. The guard captain, visibly shaken, emerged from the secret tunnel, accompanied by at least a dozen diamond golems that spread out and surrounded the Outlanders in a loose formation.
“I’ll give you this, Outlanders,” the captain conceded, still catching his breath. “You’re resourceful. But not terribly bright. At least now, you can get your wish.”
Chapter 7 - Communion
The Outlanders were escorted through the dark and winding halls of the Colossus by the captain and a significant Resonant attache which surrounded them on all sides. Their stolen armor, weapons, and other effects confiscated and carried diligently by some of the guards, the escort followed the magenta-caped captain in absolute silence through the long primary corridor of the base to parts unknown.
The Colossus, like most Sivellan architecture, primarily followed a sharp utilitarian design scheme of dull grays and faded pastels, but its master obviously had more than a hand in its construction; decorating many of the long halls, especially as they ascended further to the very top, were lavish oil paintings, hunting trophies, and various plaques. Most of the rooms they passed on the way to the central elevator were closed shut, but they were able to peak into at least one studio outfitted with milk white painted walls, outstretched blankets of cloth, and strange optical devices made of gold, iron, and exposed redstone and copper wiring - the first experiments into what Clockwork called the “Sivellatype.”
Finally, after walking in nearly total silence apart from a faint constant electrical whirring for what easily seemed like hours, the escort arrived at the shuttered entrance to the base’s massive central lift, which was at least 15 by 15 blocks on the interior with a black and white tiled floor design. The striking banner of the new Union of Audax was draped over the entrance, falling gracefully from the shadowy ceiling. Its traditional red, white, and green tricolor represented the continent’s unlikely past, whilst the superimposed golden lightning bolt of Clockwork’s own design symbolized his new ideology of “industrial collectivism.”
“Step into the lift,” the captain ordered gruffly, standing behind the Outlanders as its doors shuttered open at the presentation of his timecard. “No tricks.”
Cannon moved first, stalking into the carpeted lift with his hands bound in irons, and the others soon followed. Only the captain and two other elite Resonant Guards, carrying the Outlanders’ effects, followed them into the lift, which almost immediately began to ascend to the command level as the doors shut behind them with a snap.
“So, where are we headed?” Cannon asked nonchalantly, breaking the silence. The captain turned slightly to get a look at him, his hazel eyes narrowed.
“You Outlanders are a mystery,” the captain observed, almost to himself. Multiple times now, they had encountered the high-ranking caped officer, and it was strange to see him under non-hostile circumstances. There was something earnest about his tone of voice, how he carried himself, and even how he appeared. Though quite extravagantly decorated and even sporting distinguished elite gear, his fair skin and rusty hair conveyed an element of almost foreign detachment from the upper aristocratic elements that the Outlanders had briefly observed during the meeting of the TGC the previous night.
He inaudibly scoffed when none of the heroes offered any retaliatory remarks. “Like it or not, you represent something to the people of this Union,” he lectured, now facing the wall in contemplation. “Fear, to some. Maybe hope to others. But to us you’ve always been a mystery. It’s not my job to judge you for what you may or may not have done, only to do as the Boss says.”
“What’s your point?” Ned asked impatiently.
“You’re a mystery to Clockwork,” the captain said. “And he can’t allow mysteries.”
The elevator doors whisked open abruptly. The sudden halting of movement caused them all to stumble slightly and take a few moments to recuperate before moving. Nudged forward by the captain, the Outlanders stepped out of the lift and on to the command platform.
This uppermost portion of the Colossus was actually partially unfinished. Even with a subservient army of labor, the massive statue took years to plan and even longer to build, and the command platform was especially ramshackle in certain segments. Exiting the elevator, the Outlanders stepped gingerly across a tiled bridge suspended precariously hundreds of meters above the city to enter the actual central laboratory within the cranium of the gigantic statue.
Long way down, Cannon thought, his eyes accidentally wandering beyond the rails of the bridge as he stepped on to the other side.
They emerged at the base of a large sloped ramp that spiraled around the cylindrical lab. The emanations of the radio waves from the outstretched hand of the Colossus were audible but quite bearable due to artificial sound dampening panels throughout the massive chamber. Cannonwalker noticed that the central circular lab was only one component of the ginormous cranium; all along the base, various platforms jutted out from the walls with strange devices affixed to them.
From the entrance, it was impossible to see what lay at the top of the central platform, but dominating the entire head chamber of the Colossus was a humongous cubic tesseract that levitated precariously in the center, seemingly attuned to the devices on each platform through a strand of energy. The object, glowing with ominous purple energy, was seemingly evocative of the Panopticon device, though the latter was almost certainly influenced by the former. Though gleaming with unthinkable power, it seemed to paradoxically emanate no light at all, instead emanating mass waves of shadow throughout the entire laboratory.
It hummed with a sort of unknowable ethereal authority, somewhat similar in nature to the ambient forces exerted by beings like the Mad King or Herobrine but on another level of primordial power entirely. While Makrozoia exuded a distinct brassish energy like a sour chord, this object - whatever it was - emanated a more suggestive and insidious subharmonic bass that was almost imperceivable by the mortal senses but unmistakable within one’s mind. It unsettled Cannon to the core.
“Off you go,” the captain ordered, his voice cracking slightly. From the anxious expressions of the other Outlanders, it seemed that everyone in the room was subtly being affected by the presence of the device. None of the heroes immediately moved, nor did any of the guards make any further demands for several moments until the eerie silence was shattered from somewhere above.
“YES,” an unnatural voice sounded from unseen speakers dotted throughout the lab, shifting erratically in pitch and tone to conceal its true speaker. “I WOULD SEE THE OUTLANDERS.”
The Outlanders made the slow ascent up the lab ramp and finally arrived at the mouth of the central platform, at the center of which a figure in a brown coat floated slightly above the ground, facing away from the Outlanders with the Invidere, gleaming with the same purple energy as the tesseract, in his left hand. His hair - a reddish brown, and what visible skin there was, a fair white, with a pair of green goggles fastened over his forehead. Panic begin to descend upon Cannonwalker as the room’s ambient temperature rapidly dropped to virtually freezing. Something was wrong.
“Sorry about the deception,” the Outlanders heard Clockwork speak plainly for the first time. Only… it wasn’t the first time. “I had to be sure.”
All four heroes instantly recognized the voice. He relished in their shock before even revealing his visage.
“Were you expecting someone else?” Ben Holliday asked as he floated down to the ground, turning to face them and holding out the Invidere expectantly. “The Mad King again? JKL the whole time? Both dead, I’m afraid. And Slappy, too.”
“YOU BASTARD!” Zoom broke and attempted to dash towards Ben. The guards scrambled to grab him, but Holliday acted first, gesturing with the Invidere to freeze him in place with ease. Zoomer struggled to speak for a few moments before Ben released him, dropping him to the ground panting.
“I thought we were friends!” Sam exclaimed.
“I don’t understand… Why, Ben?” Cannon asked, the words almost choking his throat. “After all this time, why all of this deception?”
“That’s what I asked myself, too, when it was the Mad King - the homicidal megalomaniac - who told me the truth about Slappy, and not the only people I trusted for so many years,” Ben spat with vitriol, keeping the Invidere aimed at the subdued Outlanders.
“You killed thousands of people!” Ned yelled, recalling New Detroit. “And now how many more just for one life?” Cannon attempted to chime in, but the words didn’t come.
“Gotta crack open a few eggs to get a chick,” Ben grinned wickedly, evoking Nadi. His smile quickly faded, as if shaking off some unseen influence. “You think I don’t regret what happened in New Detroit every waking hour of my existence? You think I don’t hear their screams played over and over in my head every time I try to sleep?!” He was nearly hyperventilating now, overcome with a mixture of grief, regret, and absolute fury. He recollected himself quickly.
“I orchestrated everything,” he explained quickly, attempting to calm down. “The Panopticon, to confirm it was you with the help of that bumbling pirate Velvar. The Ironworks, to lull you into a sense of security whilst I focused on perfecting the Progenitors. And then the Congress to draw you out. Manipulating Nadi to bring you right into my palm was easy - her type always is. But you know what? I HATE traitors and liars, so I killed her, too!” he screamed, slashing through the air and forcing them all to their knees. The guard captain cringed, making worried eye contact with his two lessers.
“But I don’t care about revenge anymore,” Ben relented and turned to examine the tesseract, which hummed more intensely. “You opened my eyes to something truly special. When I used Triton to recover the Mind back in Occa, I stumbled upon something ancient. Powerful. I was able to replicate the artifact after months of study before I gave Triton and his pathetic Knights the original. By then, I had everything I needed.”
Ben ran his hand across the rail around the tesseract’s perimeter. As he spoke, the guard captain and his elites slowly emerged from the shadows, drawing closer to the Outlanders with each step. The captain tapped on Cannonwalker’s shoulder, signaling him to be absolutely silent.
“I originally planned to use the Mind to power the new Progenitors,” Holliday continued. “And it did its job fantastically. The world will tremble before my mechanical army. But as it taught me how to perfect the engineering process, it began to give me other insights as well. Hints of ancient arcane knowledge from before even the Gods. I built the Tesseract to make direct communion with the intelligence. Months of study and I haven’t even scratched the surface. If the Slip Device could destroy New Detroit in seconds, imagine what an even more powerful weapon could do to the entire world if given the resources…”
“You won’t get the chance!” Cannon exclaimed. The Outlanders, guards at their side, drew their returned weapons and fanned out, ready to strike at Ben.
“Bruno, you caught me monologuing!” Holliday said in disbelief. “How could you?!”
Captain Bruno held out his blade defensively. “You knew this was coming, Clockwork,” he spat. “Thus always to tyrants!”
Bruno leapt into the air with his charged armor and prepared to blast Ben with a voltaic charge, but he was caught in a savage electrical field activated with a wave of the Invidere. Large metallic plates operated by long mechanical arms extended across the lab, moved into place with Holliday’s mental commands. Without warning, the plates began to jut out volatile streams of electrical energy down to portions of the black and white tiled floor of the laboratory, instantly vaporizing one of the guards even with their Resonant Armor. Bruno rolled out of the way to avoid the same fate whilst injured on the ground.
Ned, Cannon, and Zoomer all charged directly at Ben, all of them just barely avoiding a lightning blast from an unseen panel. Ned was blasted several blocks back with the Invidere, leaving Ben to face both Zoomer and Cannonwalker. Holliday was clearly not an especially practiced hand with a blade, but the Invidere granted him nigh unparalleled battle sense and reflexes. He slashed wildly in sloppy and chaotic arcs that should have left him exposed to easy strikes, but the ethereal protective field of the celestial blade always kept him centimeters away from death.
With an inaudible command from Ben’s mind, a massive Progenitor warrior bot leapt into the battle, made of solid Resonant armor and scanning all of the aggressors for weak links. Sam fired a quick explosive shot at the Imperator model, but it easily dodged the blow and rolled with surprisingly dexterity right in front of the archer, batting him away savagely like he was a speck of dust. Sam collided with the south wall of the lab, breaking several bones. The Imperator turned to face the other immediate combatants - Bruno, Ned, and the remaining elite guard, who threw off her helmet to reveal her long flowing brown hair and blue eyes.
Holliday kept up his shock and awe defense against Cannon and Zoom, but was growing sloppier by the moment, wavering under Zoom’s katana arcs and Cannon’s cutlass blade storms. Abruptly pivoting back several feet and breaking from the duel, he warped away with purply Ender particles, leaving the two heroes to just barely duck away from a rapidly approaching lightning panel. When they turned to face him again, several of Ben’s mirror images now surrounded them, chuckling in amusement. All moving in exact tandem, the illusions prepared to charge at Zoom and Cannon as the tesseract hummed more intensely.
“Come and get us, ugly!” Bruno shouted, taunting the ugly, who came and got them. The mechanical Imperator charged blindly at Bruno and the guard, who rolled out of the way at the last moment as it collided with the iron wall near Sam. It roared in frustration.
Moving out of the way of an incoming electric field, a solution dawned on Ned. “That’s it!” he exclaimed to the two turncoats. “Lure it this way!” Bruno shrugged confused briefly, then nodded in understand, then moved with the elite back near to the center of the lab near an energy current. The Imperator recovered a few moments later and charged at all three of them, directly into the path of the volatile electric charge as they ducked away. It roared in pain, its delicate circuits unprotected by the vulnerable Resonant fluid armor.
Zoomer nimbly tossed his katana in the direction of the encroaching illusions, slicing through several of them in an arc pattern like butter and causing them to disintegrate. The remaining mirrors relented simultaneously, allowing Cannon to charge through them with his cutlass and tear through them all - apart from the real Ben, who batted away the lightning quick slashes with the Invidere at the last moment to avoid evisceration. Noticing his Imperator bot being fried, he disabled the roving electrical field and instead diverted the lab’s power to his own blade, now pulsing with cracking magenta electricity. He blasted a wave of purple lightning at Cannon, whose cutlass provided protection for a few precious seconds before being blasted from his hand, sending him flying. Zoomer sprinted in, aiming for Ben’s head, but Holliday stuck the Invidere into the ground with a wild stab that rippled through the air, sending out waves of Ender power that blasted the rogue away.
Just barely avoiding complete disintegration from the now disabled electrical field, the Imperator snapped back into the battle and turned to face Cannon, the new primary target who just happened to be unarmed. Realizing he was without a cutlass, he thought he was doomed - but then he thought back to the deadly battle at Arcadia and realized he wasn’t defenseless nor weaponless at all.
As the bot attempted to sweep the Outlander away with his long arm, Cannon ducked slightly and delivered a swift uppercut to the Imperator’s lower armor plate, knocking it slightly out of place. Confused, the bot couldn’t react before Cannon roundhouse kicked its head out of place, causing it to reel in frustration. It nearly brought its foot down on Cannonwalker entirely before Zoom’s katana whirred through the air and decapitated in entirely, causing it to slump over clumsily. Its computational core within its chest, however, was still undamaged, if vulnerable, and the Imperator began to swing around wildly without visual receptors.
The damaged bot slapped a confused Ben square in the face, causing him to yelp and then lash out with his golden blade in anger, striking the Imperator’s arm and causing it to burst into pieces, completely obliterated. Now diverting all of the lab’s energy output to his blade, Ben faced them all and held out the Invidere, instinctively uttering an eldritch chant that prompted the tesseract to begin to crackle with energy once more.
The Outlanders, Bruno, and the guard all began to levitate into the air, slowly ascending into the constant electrical field near the ceiling of the lab to certain vaporization as Ben watched from below. Finally, Sam awoke from his stupor, safely out of range of the Invidere’s ethereal onslaught on the other side of the lab. Reaching for his bow as the turncoat guard was destroyed by the field, he observed the battle and noticed the elevated devices powering the central tesseract, then quickly took aim and fired at one, causing the crystalline object to explode with beautiful quintessential energy.
The levitation effect was canceled as one of the crystals disrupted the power outflow, narrowly saving the remaining heroes from obliteration. Strangely, the nigh-sentient tesseract made no obvious negative reaction, instead almost audibly laughing with its subharmonic mental voice. Ben, however, spat in rage, turning to face the heroes as they scrambled to their feet.
“The crystals!” Cannon exclaimed, retrieving his cutlass.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Ben yelled. As Sam fired off another shot at one of the three remaining Ender Crystals, Holliday manually redirected the ambient electrical field to intercept and destroy the Resonant bolt, then fired another purple bolt in Cannon’s direction. Out of Ben’s peripherals, Ned sprinted in the direction of the crystal platforms suspended in the air, noticing glowing blue squares at each of their bases. Approaching the westernmost platform, the blue panel lifted him safely up to the crystal, allowing him to shatter it with one quick strike.
Ben turned his attention to Ned in fury, firing off a purple bolt in his direction. His broadsword’s deflective shield, however, allowed him to redirect the blast to the next closest Ender Crystal, shattering it with ease. Enraged, he quickly levitated several meters into the air and began firing streams of destructive purply flames at the grounded heroes, engulfing significant portions of the lab in ethereal fire as the targets ducked behind cover. Bruno rolled in the direction of the last remaining crystal, trying desperately to avoid Ben’s gaze.
“ENOUGH!” Ben yelled. “You don’t understand! The crystals are the only thing k-” he was interrupted as Ned leapt from the crystal platform and grappled Holliday in the air, punching and slapping him as they both tumbled to the ground. Ben warped away at the last moment, allowing Ned to collide violently with the polished marble pattern floor. Emerging from the fourth dimension, Ben quickly turned to see Bruno rushing for the last crystal and a desperate blast of Ender power.
As the purple blast collided with the guard captain, however, he slashed triumphantly at the Ender Crystal. The device exploded with greater intensity than the others, enveloping him in quintessential energy as he was blasted with the destructive Ender bolt. As the last stream of outflow was severed, the tesseract hummed deeply with pleasure, and Bruno fell dead.
“NO!” Ben and Cannon both yelled. The Invidere no longer sparked with potential energy, and its master collapsed to his knees in defeat. The Outlanders, injured, shaken, and absolutely exasperated, collected their weapons and closed in on him, ready to strike. The tesseract continued to gleam just above their heads, singing its song of creation and destruction.
Ben was silent for a few moments, staring at the floor in disbelief. “Kill me,” he finally said, looking up at Cannonwalker pathetically. “End this once and for all. Please.”
“What?” Cannon said, relenting.
“You killed countless people,” Zoom reminded him in disgust. “You’ll get no mercy from us.”
“I said kill me, dammit!” Ben exclaimed, well aware of the blood on his hands. “I don’t want to live in this world anymore. I don’t deserve it.”
Cannon turned to the others and met their blank, confused stares, matching his own. Then, clairvoyance.
“Not this time,” Cannon said, stowing his blade.
“I don’t want your mercy,” Ben pleaded slowly.
“This isn’t mercy,” Cannon explained. “For all the grief you’ve caused, it would be more fitting for you to spend the rest of your days reflecting on what you did, or tried for your crimes and executed. But you were still family to us once, and… I understand your pain.”
“I don’t believe this,” Ned spat. “Someone kill him, already! I don’t care if he was our friend once.”
“I tend to agree,” Zoom said plainly.
“What would killing him solve?” Cannon justified his actions vindictively.
“Justice,” Sam egged him on. “Justice for the people he killed.”
“Will killing him bring them back?” Cannon asked simply. The others relented.
Holliday sighed in confusion. “I… don’t understand,” he said.
“Maybe you will, someday,” Cannon replied. “I’m going to give you that chance, at least.”
“Wait,” Ben said, stirring back to his feet. “The tesseract, it’s…”
The Outlanders looked up to regard the tesseract in all its glory, its mental humming now louder and more joyous than ever. It was practically brimming with power now, spitting out volatile magenta energy that melted parts of the steel walls into searing magma.
Ben drew closer to the intelligence, practically touching it now as it seemed to invisibly turn to notice him in response. “Stop this,” he pleaded quietly, almost in whisper as the others looked on. The light drained from the room, all draped in immense shadow apart from the dim glow of the device.
NO, the presence said, the subharmonic humming now formulating words. The tesseract did not appear to be directly speaking to them, rather its thoughts were made manifest directly within the minds of those present in a low, emotionless “voice” with the power of a thousand suns crushed under their own weight in a horrifying and beautiful display of dominance that moved mountains and redirected seas.
“What do you mean?” Ben panicked. “This has gone on long enough! I don’t need you anymore. It’s over. Leave this place!”
THAT WAS NEVER PART OF OUR BARGAIN. I GAVE YOU THE UNLIMITED KNOWLEDGE YOU SO DESPERATELY WANTED, AND NOW I WILL COLLECT WHAT YOU PROMISED ME.
“What do you want?” Ben asked, sweating.
TO SEE WHAT I HAVE MISSED FOR BEING LOCKED AWAY SO LONG.
“What… are you?” Ben pleaded, trembling. He and the others backed away from the tesseract began to crack violently, sending mass shadow waves throughout the lab and out of the cracks of the walls into the overworld.
I AM THE VOID.
The sound of wicked cyclone winds began to whir outside, accompanied by torrents of black rain and purple and golden lightning that wreaked havoc on the panicked citizens below. The entire foundation of the lab, already in a state of disrepair, began to shake apart, and the wall behind the tesseract burst open from the pressure, forcing the Outlanders to grab on to the rails of the lab to avoid being blasted out into the apocalyptic storm. The moon, obscured behind the black clouds and a pure blue mere moments prior, was now the color of piercing crimson that roused the dead. A bolt of divine lightning struck the hidden radio tower at the top of the Colossus and destroyed the machine within, causing a horrific electrical overload that fried the internal circuitry of the entire base. The destruction wavered for a moment as the tesseract seemed to take notice of the others within the chamber.
AH, THE OUTLANDERS, the presence said, its tone not changing but an air of sarcasm apparent.
MY CHAMPIONS - I HAD NEARLY FORGOTTEN. YOU WERE THE HELPING HANDS THAT PULLED US FROM THE ABYSS, AND FOR THAT, YOU MAY BE MY FAVORITE CHILDREN IN THIS FORSAKEN MESS OF BROKEN WORLDS.
ONCE THIS IS DONE - ONCE WE SAIL TO EVERY STAR, AND EXTINGUISH EVERY LIGHT FROM EVERY WORLD - I HOPE YOU WILL BE THERE TO SEE THE RECKONING. IT WILL BE GLORIOUS.
WE WILL MEET AGAIN.
The storm intensified once more, and the ethereal presence from within the tesseract seemed to rapidly siphon out and escape into the vast overworld through the open hole of the laboratory. The Outlanders, still gripping on to the lab rails in terror, stared in disbelief as the presence dissipated out into Aquila before it could even reveal its physical form to them.
Ben Holliday dropped to his knees in failure once more. “What have I done?” he choked, wiping the black storm water and tears from his face in shock.
Chapter 8 - Fallen Knight