He couldn’t slow down anymore. There was no longer a reason to stop. Joseph had finally gathered the strength he required to push into the King’s room.
He thought he’d see the Observers lined up just as he’d seen them in his vision. They’d be wearing those long robes that made it look as if they’d covered themselves in spun black holes. That’s not what he saw. The artifacts were still there, spinning in a circle around the King. And as for the King?
Gruesome. Fortunately, that massive black gate hadn’t swallowed the entire room. It was far bigger than Joseph remembered, though. It was twice the size of when the Omega guard had fought it. It was also… writhing. Joseph could actually see shapes in it. These hands and mouths groping and pushing at the external black wall holding them back from everything they so desperately wanted to feast upon.
Joseph had a chance to open his eyes, then those groping hands paused. He knew the second they realized he was in the room. He was also aware of the moment they all started to grope in his direction. They pushed toward him, a surge of energy charging over the surface of the black gate. It looked like it was going to open right in front of him and its first feast would be his mind.
He didn’t back off. With a determined expression flattening his brow and puckering his lips, he grabbed hold of his sword. It blazed into life in his hand, looking just as bright as the artifacts that continued to spin around him.
There was no alarm, but he certainly felt some kind of warning pulsing through the palace on a psychic frequency. He waited for the artifacts to spin more wildly and for the Observers to transport in. But they didn’t. You would imagine there would be nothing more important to them than protecting the King. So where were they? They had to be fighting something big for them to be distracted now.
Joseph took a single step forward. But then the King screamed. It was a heart-crushing sound. Honestly, you could get people, and you could line them up in front of it, and they would just drop as if you’d punched your fist into their chests to crush their arteries. There was something so completely debilitating about that scream. It would tell anyone, even if they didn’t believe in psychics, that this was a mind like a festering wound.
Joseph couldn’t just stand there all day. He’d come here for a reason.
While it might’ve been tempting to throw himself at the King and try to slash at that bulging gate of darkness, he knew better. He twisted toward one of the artifacts.
If Sally were here and she had access to her Hendari crystals, she would be able to destroy one easily. She wasn’t, and Joseph was on his own. He let another subspace charge develop in his hands, then he reached the first artifact. He sent an independent blow smashing into it just as he sliced his sword down. The King didn’t stop. He continued to shriek. The sound became darker and darker. If Joseph hadn’t fought a lot in his life, he would’ve found himself giving in to it. It was the kind of sound you wanted to protect yourself from. The kind of shriek you ran indoors to hide from or you stuffed your fingers into your ears to block out. The kind of sound you desperately had to protect your body from, lest the adherence of your flesh to your bones be lost.
He kept smashing his sword down against the artifact until a blue charge of light rose up to meet him like the first droplet of blood being let from a deepening wound.
There were no alarms – he’d already said that. But there was clearly some form of psychic warning system. It suddenly blared a heck of a lot louder.
He clenched his teeth together. He kept them locked there as he slashed his sword down again and again.
He didn’t focus on what would happen when he finally blasted through this artifact. There’d be seven more to go. He’d likely never get to destroy them all, because his mere appearance was clearly giving the King a reason to struggle harder. If Joseph had paid more attention to that writhing black gate and less to the artifact finally starting to chaotically spin before him, he would’ve seen the gate bulging out wider. It grew just a micron at first, then a second later got a little larger again. Then larger again once more.
He thought of Sally, thought of the Mercury, thought of James and Willis.
He had a lot of reasons not to fail.
He brought his sword up and went to smash it down one last time – but a bolt of power from the King gate smashed into his side. It sent him spinning around so chaotically, he didn’t know which direction was up or down anymore. He finally smashed into the floor, and his breath was robbed from his chest almost permanently. For that to occur, it meant the King momentarily made Joseph forget he was a spacer. Hell, for a flash, Joseph even forgot he was an Omega guard. He was dragged right back to being Taylor.
He felt like an eight-year-old boy standing in front of a powerful force he couldn’t hope to destroy, let alone survive.
A boy who was so small, so insignificant, and one who was always destined to lose.
This was clearly a psychic attack from the King, and it should’ve worked. With anyone else but Joseph. But he’d already been in this memory – he’d fallen into the doldrums of his weakest moments. And he’d already risen again, stronger than before.
He focused his mind on the way Taylor had faced that Barbarian, on the sheer will that had gathered behind his eyes and the desire to fight back, no matter how long it took. With a righteous roar, Joseph shoved to his feet. He concentrated on his blade again as he smashed it down against the spinning artifact. He was finally doing real damage. That was evidenced by the high-pitched hum that suddenly split through the air. It reminded him of the chanting he detected earlier. He’d been almost certain there’d be Observers in this room. There weren’t, but somehow, the chanting came back. Then these afterimages began to flicker around the artifacts. Joseph was so shocked, he jerked back, which was a mistake. Energy began to pick up between the artifacts in an attack similar to the one he’d experienced as an Omega guard. The artifacts would combine their forces to strike him down one last time.
Joseph shoved forward. He ported in between the artifact he’d been attacking and the energy beam coming from its closest neighbor.
This was likely crazy – the stupidest damn thing he’d ever done. But he created a subspace shield with one hand and shoved it out with all his might. As the energy growing between the crystals struck his shield, it buckled. It didn’t break. Yet.
The chanting became far angrier and more high-pitched. He saw the afterimages of the Observers now. They all spread their hands forward and settled them on the pulsing surfaces of their artifacts, regardless of the fact their skin burned and blistered as easily as someone shoving their fingers into crackling fat.
Their angry cries became even more self-righteous.
But did Joseph stop? Hell no. With his hand still spread out and his shield currently withstanding the attack, he turned around, and he smashed his sword back down against the first artifact. One attack, then another. Finally it started to crack.
These strange lines of equally odd illumination spread up the side of the artifact. They moved with this silent ease. Joseph had never seen its like. It was like an iceberg voluntarily melting itself to slip into the sea.
The Observers couldn’t scream. They weren’t really here. This was just some strange aftereffect. But the King could and did. This terrifying roar ripped right out of the pulsing gate and echoed through the room. It disrupted the floor, sending cracks relentlessly marching through the stone, but it couldn’t disrupt Joseph, not when he was so close to finally destroying this thing.
He lifted to his feet, rising off the floor just as great chunks fell away from it. He continued to attack. It was hard to split his attention between his shield and his blade, but he did it.
Finally, in a moment that would define everything, he cracked through one of the artifacts. You’d think there would be an explosion that would rock through the entire palace, one that would throw him back, and one that could probably blast through half a moon. There wasn’t. There was just the eerie sound of glass shattering. Then nothing. The artifact simply disappeared. It was like somebody had pulled up their sleeve and wiped a mark from a window.
Joseph floated lower, his body almost giving up. He momentarily lost hold of his shield. He jerked his head up, a single bead of sweat sliding down the middle of his brow, only to see the attack from the other artifacts slice toward his head. But… nothing happened. Just before it could smash into him, it disappeared. Whatever strange after images had filled the room were unceremoniously snuffed out.
Joseph rose higher once more.
The King screamed even louder. The floor continued to break.
One section fell away, and Joseph was close enough that he managed to catch a glimpse down to whatever lay below. He’d thought that most of this castle was stone. Underneath, he saw a completely different world. It was some kind of empty shaft. It was the only thing that looked technological in this entire place. The shaft wasn’t quiet and still, and chunks of it moved around, resorting themselves like an old game of Tetris. They would sheer off from one wall, rocket through the shaft, then bury themselves into the opposite wall.
Red lines of illumination charged down the left side of the shaft, and blue lines of flickering light charged up from the right side.
It was the kind of light that you could shine in the blackest night and it wouldn’t simply throw back the darkness – it would extinguish it as if it had been nothing more than black flames. Joseph took way too long to stare at it as the floor continued to pitch and shake beneath him.
Finally Joseph tore his gaze off the shaft. He jerked up. He floated and went for the next artifact.
The King roared louder. Perhaps he couldn’t communicate with real words, but clearly he could clutch at images. Joseph saw his own traumatic memories yanked up and thrown through his psyche like somebody pulling apart someone’s body, carving knives out of their bones, then turning them back against their flesh.
Joseph just had to hold on. Attack the artifacts. That was it. Get rid of the Observers and take it from there.
The floor continued to fall. He just floated above that pit of shining light.
And he fought. Every second, every heartbeat.
He just hoped that out there, wherever Sally was, she was doing the same.