He screamed, the roar pitching out of his throat, bouncing around the room, and giving him that little last scrap of strength he needed. Then just that little bit more.
Joseph had never been called on to use more energy than he had now. It coursed through his veins, rising to the challenge, but he knew deep down he couldn’t keep giving like this. He felt like a rapacious fool scrounging every single last scrap of water from the bottom of some dry well. He could keep going, but he would start digging right through his body. He’d have to digest his own organs to rip out the power he so desperately needed. But with another bloodcurdling cry, he managed to slice his crackling subspace blade down into one of the remaining artifacts.
Yep. One of the remaining ones.
He’d already cut through five. That only left three.
The light was visible at the end of the tunnel. Until it wasn’t.
Make no mistake, the King wasn’t simply content to sit there in the middle of the room, writhing in that black cloud of psychic hatred. It had already grown. In a pulse that had felt like Joseph was killed then brought back to life, the King had taken up twice as much space. Now Joseph kept a wary eye locked on it as he concentrated on the sixth artifact. He sliced his blade down only for the gate to shiver. This energy began to pick up in the room. He could tell the King was going to grow yet again.
“Come on,” Joseph said, desperation now his only friend. It could accompany him, but it sure as heck couldn’t help him. He slashed his sword down again, and the artifact he was attacking finally started to change direction and spin anticlockwise. Blue light leaked out of it like blood from an opening heart. But it wasn’t damaging enough, and it wasn’t quick enough.
In a pulse, the King shifted toward him. It wasn’t the entire gate – just a small section of it. But it didn’t matter that it was seemingly small. It was still the most powerful, dangerous hive psychic mind in the universe. With even one touch, it could destroy anything it pleased. As it powered toward Joseph, he was forced to port. It almost touched his arm, and it was an experience that was… beyond words, beyond pain, beyond existence. It felt as if death itself had reached out to him.
He waited for the black pulsing extension to recede. The King, for whatever reason, was roughly circular. Perhaps it had something to do with the gathering gravitational forces in the room. Or maybe there was something particularly dense about the minds within him. Then again – maybe the ordinary physical restraints of real space simply didn’t and couldn’t account for what was going on here.
Though Joseph waited, it soon became apparent that the King’s extension wouldn’t snap back. Instead, it shoved out until it covered the artifact Joseph had been attacking.
His body pulsed with fear. There was no way he could get close enough to attack it now, not with the King’s writhing black energy protecting it.
So Joseph went to attack another artifact. But that would be when the King bubbled, twisted, and extended once more. A black appendage simply shot out with all the speed of light traveling from the sun.
Joseph twisted, but he couldn’t get to the other artifact in time. The King let an eruption of force extend toward that, as well.
The Observers were still in the room, or their afterimages, or whatever the heck they were. They chanted now. They might’ve only been memories before, but they were clearly real in some fashion now.
Their robes were still on, their hoods covering their faces, so Joseph couldn’t see how afraid they were. But based on the exact pitch of their cries, they knew this was it. Until the King protected them. Then everything changed. Not only did the remnants of the ceiling above pitch and the walls practically undulate like a heart suddenly reminding itself it could still beat, but the Observers yanked their hands back from the artifacts. Joseph caught a glimpse of their flesh. It was completely bubbled and torn. They didn’t even look like hands anymore. They were like lumps of plastic someone had removed from a raging fire.
If the Observers were in pain, they hid it well. Their exultant cries rang through the remnants of the chamber, echoing like tolling bells.
Joseph was aware of the fact the room shook again. The shaft was still below him. Make no mistake, it hadn’t turned off. Light continued to rage up and down it. Rage might not be a word you usually associated with mere illumination, but you had to change your vocabulary right now. The light was… alive. Not in a good way. It was an extension of the King, like his fingers. They were charging up and down the shaft, getting ready to pulse through matter and snatch every single mind out there.
Joseph could feel the King’s greed opening out around him. If he’d ever been stupid enough to deny the ultimate threat the King hive mind was, he couldn’t anymore.
The one thing he could do, however, was prevent the King from ever taking his own mind. Trust him, the King and the Observers tried. There was this constant net of energy pulsing around Joseph. It felt like hands and sticks and pins – any tool you could think of. And all of them trying to do the same thing – to find a single hole into Joseph’s psyche. He kept them back, the knowledge of the Omega guard enshrouding him like a shield. It was more than that, though. Tyler was there, too. And Joseph imagined that Tyler was the deciding factor in this fight.
When Joseph had seen Tyler face off against that Barbarian, though he’d recognized the significance of the moment, he only started to truly appreciate it now. Tyler had known there was no way to fight. He had understood there was nothing he could do against the Barbarian, and yet he had fought with his gaze. His hands might have been too weak to work. His feet might not have been able to kick. And he certainly hadn’t possessed a gun. But he had recognized the final act of defiance came from the way one viewed this world. Someone could control what you did, what you ate, what you said, and where you were. But they could never control the way you stared out at them.
Even if they invaded your mind, crushed your psyche, and controlled you, there would always be an aspect of your will that remained. Trust Joseph. He had now been controlled by enough forces to recognize that fact. Somehow Tyler had known it too. And right now it gave Joseph the defensive capacity he needed to thrust both the Observers and the King back.
While that was surely a miracle, he needed another.
Cutting down five Observers had been an astounding feat. But unless he got to the other three, it wouldn’t count.
He hovered there in the air, several meters above the King’s writhing form. It didn’t erupt upward, likely didn’t have the power to. Joseph could tell it was a strain on the King to be protecting the three remaining artifacts.
But clearly the King didn’t need to attack Joseph. The Observers could. One of them suddenly thrust a hand forward. He wasn’t occupying the real world. He wasn’t technically occupying phase space, either – Joseph’s Omega side would know. But wherever and whatever he was, the artifact spinning before him certainly heeded his command.
A shot of brilliant light blasted toward Joseph. He went to port away, but he found himself becoming heavy. There was nothing he could do but defend. He yanked up his sword and created a subspace shield. He assumed it would be enough. He’d now fought off so many attacks from the artifacts that he understood what to do. This time, it was different. This time, it ripped right through his shield, collected him on his chest, forced him high into the air, and smashed him back down. The only problem was the thing below him was the King, not the floor.
Joseph’s eyes shuddered with true fear, and he felt the King rising up to meet him, but at the last moment, Joseph shoved to the side. He didn’t bother to try to port and instead used his sword. He slashed it down against the King, knowing that while he couldn’t fight him, at least Joseph could stop his descent. Sure enough as his blade met the energetic barrier of the King’s exterior, there was a great crackle. The resultant energetic eruption pushed up into Joseph and gave him the force to flip away. He managed to fly off toward the other side of the room.
But the artifacts kept spinning, and the Observers kept attacking. Another slice of energy shot toward Joseph. He had to yank up his blade once more.
Dammit. He was gonna fall, wasn’t he? It didn’t matter how hard he tried, didn’t matter what he’d achieved.
He could think that. He could let the anger pulse through him. He could let it feed his blade. But the Observers continued to pull yet more energy out of the artifacts. He was thrown around the room as if he was nothing more than a piece of trash someone was casually attempting to toss into a wastepaper basket.
He had to yank his sword up once more, hiding behind it with all of his hope and force. Two simultaneous attacks sliced out from the Observers and lanced into him at once. They came from both sides. He had to split his shield. And that just meant it crumpled more easily. Both attacks shoved into him like two wild waves.
Joseph felt like he was going to be squashed. He screamed, his lips splitting wide and blood splashing out of them. It slid down his chin as his neck and back arched, as his eyes grew with pure, gut-pounding fright.
Was this it?
He heard the King. He saw those mouths protruding against the black exterior. They opened wider and wider. They weren’t constrained by the actual musculature of one’s jaw. They could articulate as far as they wanted as if they were nothing more than hands that were pretending to be mouths. They reached toward him.
Joseph went to port away, but he couldn’t. Two more attacks from the artifacts smashed into his sides. But this time they lingered. They created spinning vortexes of force that wrapped around his wrists and ankles. They pulled him as if he was a human on an old Earth torture device.
The King’s mouths shoved in close.
Joseph Lance had a chance to think this was over.
But it wasn’t. Yet.