Slay the Spire
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Miri and I slept like rocks well into the morning, until we were shaken awake by the sound of Xara and Steph yelling out our names. We ran back, bursting into the room, my lower right arm clasped in Miri’s left, to see Steph and Xara already fully packed and ready to move out.

Xara didn’t take his eyes off of the blasters, which he was in the process of doing maintenance on. Steph looked at us like we had returned from a battlefield. “Where were you? What were you… oh. I see.”

Miri let go of my hand. “Is it that obvious?” she said, wincing.

Steph nodded, waving her hand vaguely around her face. That was when Miri and I both realized that Emissary mouth-parts leave some very interesting and distinctive marks.

“It is not difficult to predict the actions of two adolescents sneaking away from the adults as a pair,” Xara said. “Still, sexual intercourse is not the worst action one could be taking to soothe the nerves, and I am glad that your relationship has become a positive one.”

I felt like I wanted to throw up. “Xara, could we please not talk about what I am or am not doing with my girlfriend?”

“In fact,” Steph said. “Let’s not talk about anything. The Order could be on top of us at any moment, and we need to get going.” She picked up a bag and tossed it to me, slinging another one over her shoulder. “Miri, do you know where you left your staff?”

“Dammit, I knew I forgot something!”

Miri scrambled to get her staff, and I slipped my bag onto my abdomen, searching every corner of the room for wherever I’d left my claw sheaths. Xara, meanwhile, started strolling off. But as he passed by me, I could have sworn I heard him muttering something to himself. 

“Humans and their taboos, I swear…”

 

 

Steph was right, as it turned out; we’d used up nearly all of our lead over the Order by stopping to rest. Within forty-five minutes of breaking camp, the familiar sounds of pursuit had returned. The chase was on once more. 

This time, though, we stood a much better chance. For one thing, we were freshly rested, able to push ourselves much further and draw on reserves of stamina that had been entirely empty the evening before. But that was the minor thing. More important than strength, more important even then my own eerie knowledge of the layout of the Spire, was a sense of hope. Yes, Quinn was gone, and his absence continued to weigh heavy on the mind, but his sacrifice also emboldened us. Every time we slowed down, every time we wondered if we stood a chance, we remembered Quinn, and we knew that thanks to him we stood a chance. 

The Spire’s structure continued to narrow the higher up we went, constraining both us and the Order into an increasingly narrow space as we ascended. Intersections became less and less frequent, and after a few hours it was increasingly clear that there were only a couple of routes upward. We slowed slightly. The route became like climbing up a spiral staircase, slow and tiring, seemingly pointless and directionless but always going upward, each step up the curling rampways bringing us a little bit closer to the heart of the Spire.

Eventually, after hours of climbing, I was sure that we were going to reach the heart at any moment. Every time we opened a door or rounded a corner I expected to see the source of the signal right there in front of me, explaining every secret of the Spire at once in one neat package. But even with all that anticipation, I noticed something was wrong. Specifically, that something was wrong with Xara. Externally, there was no way to tell that anything was different from his usual stoic self, but while he could do a good enough job of hiding every other sign of his emotions, he couldn’t control his pheromones. And his pheromones told me that he was becoming progressively more stressed with each passing minute. At first I thought it might just be ordinary anxiety and jitters, given the circumstances. But as I continued paying attention, it became clear that this was something more than that. I had to intervene.

I waited for a moment when Xara fell behind, and dropped back myself. “Is everything alright?” I said quietly.

“Yes, everything is fine,” he said. “Though I appreciate the concern.”

I nodded. “It’s just that you don’t smell fine. I mean, you smell alright, trust me my antennae are sensitive enough as it is, not that it’s bad to—”

“You’re referring to your ability to smell emotional pheromones?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That.”

“Very well, you have caught me,” Xara said good-humoredly. “I am growing worried. But it is a problem that can be simply resolved; I just worry.”

“What’s the problem?”

“The chlorine tanks integrated into my breather mask were not intended to go this long without being refilled from an external source, and as I did not expect to spend this long within the Spire I did not bring enough refills. If I cannot find a source of chlorine gas within a few hours, I will suffocate and die.”

“What? That’s kind of a big deal, Xara!” I said.

“Hush. I don’t want to cause panic. The Spire must have some way to redistribute any chlorine gas which leaks into the structure; if I can find those systems, I’m confident that I’ll be able to tap them.”

“Well, any idea what those systems might look like?” I said. “Ten eyes are better than two, and we don’t want to miss the chlorine.”

Xara nodded. The next several minutes were taken up by an extended monologue about what he believed the chlorine sequestration system would look like, not that he knew exactly. But when he finished, I at least thought I had a good idea of what to look for. For the remainder of the walk, my eyes were peeled for anything even resembling chlorine.

“The remainder of the walk up'' turned out to not be a particularly long time. An hour later, we opened a seemingly-ordinary series of doors which opened into, not another passageway or cluster of chambers, but the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Now, I'd seen a lot of beautiful things since leaving Earth. I’d seen man-made constructions like nothing I’d seen before, spacecraft the size of cities, planetary nebulae and ice-encrusted space stations. But stepping into that chamber felt like leaving a cave and walking out into a garden.

It was an entirely open space, and it was big enough that you could have probably fit the entire Lance of Croatoan into it three times over. The gentle slope of the walls, ceiling, and floor gave it an appearance as though it had been formed naturally, like an eggshell. The walls were even made from something like shell, smooth and hard, and they gently shifted color through the spectrum from green to blue to gold to pink and back again. The way up to the top consisted of a column of circular walkways suspended in the air, connected to various doors and chambers on the outer edge by suspended bridges. 

And at the top of it all, at a nexus of bridges and pathways, sat the heart. I knew it was the heart. Just seeing it made me immediately understand that it was the source of the signal. It looked like some enormous fruit, almond-shaped and ridged like an accordion, shifting color in sync with the rest of the room. When I first saw it, I thought that the entire thing was shifting and flexing like an organ. Only as I stared at it did I realize that only the external parts of it moved, little mechanical plates and tentacles bending like plants submerged in water.

“Holy shit.” Steph said, breathless with incredulity. She turned to Xara. “Did you know about this?”

“I cannot say that I did. It is possible, given the sheer size of the structure, that nobody alive knew about this chamber until we entered it.”

Miri, mouth agape and eyes struggling to take in the room in its entirety, drifted to me. “Are you still feeling that signal you were talking about?” she said, her hand rubbing up and down my shoulder.

I nodded. “It’s strong. Really strong. I can barely stop thinking about it.” I pointed at the heart. “And it’s definitely coming from there.”

Miri nodded. “I can feel it too. It’s not very strong, but it feels kind of… tingly? It’s like the entire room is watching me. Reminds me of this story my mom used to tell of the time she stayed in a hotel room where a woman had committed suicide.”

“Maybe don’t make that comparison while we’re still inside it?” I whispered.

“Sorry.”

“It’s alright. I just… I know something’s going to happen when I get up there. It’s like the heart is waiting for me. Not that it wants me there, or wants me gone, it’s just waiting. Watching and waiting.”

“Then I’ll get you up there,” Miri said. She pulled me in for a quick kiss.

Sadly, our moment of awe at the beauty of the ancient structure was cut short by the reminder that the Order was right behind us. We began the climb. And what a climb it was; each ring of walkways was easily the size of a large building, though thankfully we’d only have to walk around a fraction of the circumference of each one. The connections between the levels seemed to have originally been elevator-based, or maybe some kind of levitation. Whatever it was had stopped working forever ago, so we had to take ladders. Many, many, many ladders, each one at least twice as long as the ladder connecting to the Helium Glider’s engineering deck. It was probably a good thing that we’d had the practice, in fact, considering that even with the practice my arms were getting sore after only the fifth ladder. After the tenth, they hurt. After the twentieth, I was worried I’d fall.

We called a rest a little less than halfway up. Well, I called a rest, and everyone else agreed with me. Regardless, we sat down and started handing out water and snacks, of which we thankfully still had a decent quantity. I sat away from the rest of the group, massaging my arms and shoulders and wishing I could reach around to do the same to my wing-joints. I was about to consider asking Miri for a favor when Steph decided to walk over. 

“Hey, kiddo.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “What do you want?”

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry… about what happened yesterday.”

“Ugh, you really don’t need to,” I said, my antennae folding back against my head.

“Sure, I don’t need to, but I want to.” She crouched down in front of me in an extremely parent move. “I shouldn’t have grabbed you. I should have trusted you and 

Quinn to do whatever you needed to do.”

I shrugged. “Cool. It’s not like that’s going to get Quinn back, so… I guess it’s nice that you recognized you did something wrong at all.”

“I just… I was worried that—”

Steph was cut off by an all-too-familiar thrum resonating in the air. I jumped away from the railing as the agony rifle blast shot up at me, but I was just a moment too slow. It clipped my arm. It felt like the entire limb had been blasted off, and the stump was being slowly jammed full of white-hot jagged metal, burning and tearing as it spread up toward my shoulder. I screamed loud enough to reverberate off of the chamber walls, loud enough that I couldn’t hear Steph shouting for the others over my own screech of agony.

She had to grab me by the other arm to get me moving, though I could still walk once I remembered to. I kept staring at my hand, refusing to believe that it was still attached to me. It’s a good thing that the pain faded quickly, though, because the only way to escape the spectrademons firing pot-shots at us from the bottom of the chamber was to keep going up, and that meant more ladders.

The next several minutes were a blur of action. We were safe while climbing up the empty elevator shafts, but the same couldn’t be said of the brief moments when we had to run around the ring walkways. The best we could do was run crouched over, using the railings for as much cover as they could afford, but even then we weren’t entirely hidden. We could have been hit at any second. Steph came up with the best strategy; she’d rise above the railing and rain blaster fire down on the spectrademons, making use of her pinpoint accuracy to force them into cover while the rest of us ran.

Even though we were running for our lives, I barely felt tired. The call of the heart was growing stronger and stronger now, and as it grew, so did my excitement, my endless curiosity for what lay within, my certainty that reaching the heart would be the answer to all of my questions. Though my limbs were sore and my muscles tired, I pushed myself hard. The others were more used to physical exertion than I was, so they didn’t slow too much, but I was always the one to lead the charge, the first on the ladder and the first to rush across the walkways even as my heart raced with the terror of imminent injury or death.

While my own willpower felt bottomless, the battery on Steph’s blaster rifle definitely was not. “I’m out,” she said while we were halfway up a ladder. “Next layer up, we’ll have to take cover for a while. I might be able to rig some extra juice out of this thing, maybe crosslink the batteries from my other equipment.”

“And if you can’t?” Xara asked.

“Then this is going to get a lot harder.”

The next layer up was different from anything we’d seen previously. Instead of the thin metal railings, the inner and outer edges of this ring were piled up to shoulder-height with humming machinery. Some of it was even built into the metal of the walkway, pipes and wires making the floor uncharacteristically bumpy. We took it as a blessing and stopped on that floor to rest. 

After a minute with nothing to do but listen to Steph mutter to herself as she fiddled with the blaster rifle, I suddenly realized that I was feeling a slight breeze. Normally the air of the Spire was utterly still, so I started investigating. Crawling in the direction the breeze was coming from led to it quickly fading out; but when I went the other way, following the airflow, I found the source. It was a small vent, filtered by a series of tilted vanes like a car air conditioning, and it was busy steadily sucking in the air around it. I recognized it immediately for what it was, because I’d spent over an hour looking for something exactly like it.

“Xara!” I whispered loudly. “Take a look at this!”

He crawled over. I gestured at the vent, and he understood immediately. With a nod, he said, “A large chamber like this would naturally need a system to filter the air. I suppose the designers determined it would be best if it were placed centrally.”

“Do you think you could tap it for chlorine?” I said.

“No, I’d need to find a place where it accumulates. But if I follow the pipes…” Xara walked off, circling around the edge of the ring as he followed the pipelines. The path continued until we were both standing in front of a long bridge leading to a doorway in the wall of the chamber. We stopped there.

“The main processing center must be on the other side,” Xara said. “It is logical; the machinery necessary would be too large to fit on these platforms.”

“Where are you two going?” Steph said.

I turned to her, my response catching in my throat, then back to Xara. 

“My chlorine tanks are critically low, and if I do not refill them I will begin to experience hypochloria within an hour,” he said. “I believe there may be a supply of chlorine in one of the adjacent rooms. I have to go, but I’ll be back soon.”

Steph gave him a grim nod. “Alright. Be quick about it, because we’re sitting ducks out here.”

“Of course,” Xara said. Then he ran, almost on all fours with how crouched over he was, to the door on the far side. A minute later he was gone.

Steph was eventually able to get some extra power into the blaster rifle, though she confided in me and Miri that she would be out within a dozen shots. The next handful of minutes passed in tense silence. I was nervous, jumpy, feeling like I should still be running away from the Order but knowing that I absolutely could not leave Xara behind. Thankfully, the ventilation machines gave us enough cover to be safe from sniper shots.

At one point, Steph decided to try finding a position to fire back. She edged out onto one of the bridges and leaned her head around the wall to aim. But the moment she did, she ducked back, swearing loudly.

“What’s going on?” Miri said.

Steph swore again. “No wonder they haven’t been shooting as much. They’re following us.”

“How many?” I asked. “How far behind are they?”

“At least twenty, and if I had to put a number on it I’d say they’re maybe seven levels down. But they’re moving fast, so they’re not going to be that far behind for long.”

“Twenty…” Miri said to herself. “We can’t fight that many.”

“You’re right, we can’t. Which is why we need to run.”

I slid down the row of machinery behind me. “Goddamnit. I don’t want to have to do this again.”

Miri crawled over to where I was, putting her hand over mine. “It’s going to be alright. We know Xara’s capable of holding his own, and we also know that the spectrademons are more focused on you than on him. They might go right past him.”

I paused for a moment, thinking about it. She was right. The Order hadn’t actually captured Xara yet, and he wouldn’t let them do so easily, meaning that he wasn’t in any more danger than the rest of us. Plus, he was smart; us not being around to wait for him wouldn’t slow him down. My breathing slowed and my heart pounded a little less strongly against the inside of my carapace. I pulled Miri into a tight hug.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “I was about to have one of my episodes again.”

“I know,” she said. “Now come on, let’s go.”

We climbed as fast and ran as fast as we could, occasionally stopping only for a moment to look down the column and check how far the spectrademons were. It was a bad idea; there’s a reason why “don’t look back” is a cliche. Not only was it a waste of time that we didn’t have, the news wasn’t exactly good anyway. In a straight-line footrace, the spectrademons were gaining on us. 

After another seven, maybe eight floors, it became clear to all three of us that we weren’t going to be able to outrun them long enough to reach the heart. Our lead had shrunk by half. It was Miri who finally bit the bullet and spoke up about it.

She was in the rear, hauling herself off of the ladder and into my and Steph’s waiting arms. She dropped onto a knee as soon as she was on solid ground. “We can’t keep running like this. They’re cyborgs, machines, they don’t get tired, and we do. If we don’t come up with something better than running, we’re just going to die tired.”

Steph nodded, and the two of them quickly started throwing out ideas. There were two problems. The first was that there were twenty of them, meaning a simple distraction or basic obstacle would barely slow them down at all. The second problem was that our terrain, a set of simple and austere passageways, was completely non-conducive to most of the kinds of tricks you’d usually use to throw off pursuit. Listening to that conversation taught me a lot about the kind of things Stephanie thought about regularly.

Meanwhile, I felt totally useless. I paced back and forth trying to come up with ideas, but nothing I came up with held up to even a moment’s thought. So I kept pacing until, at last, I ended up staring out at the vast open space of the chamber. Which was when it clicked. Information began to percolate into my consciousness, as if remembered from long ago. I knew how this chamber was built. Which also meant that I knew how to take it apart.

“Remember how I know the layout of this entire building?” I said.

The brainstorming session broke off. “Yes?” said Miri.

“Well I know how we can cut them off. This entire central structure…” I gestured to the walkway beneath our feet, “it’s held up by tension, not compression. There’s no actual foundation at the bottom, all the force is transferred upward through the shafts.”

Steph frowned at me. “Are you saying that this whole thing is hanging from the ceiling? Like a big chandelier?”

“Most materials are stronger under tension than under compression,” Miri said with a shrug. “It’s good engineering.”

“Which means that if we sever the shafts, all the walkways below us will come crashing down. The spectrademons will be toast.” I paused, rubbing my mandibles together. “We’ll just have to hope that Xara isn’t down there.”

Steph nodded. “That’s as good a plan as any. You’d better get to work, then, because Quinn took the only other monomolecular edge we have.”

Even with my claw sheaths, cutting through the thick metal of the suspension shafts was a slow and difficult process. Once my claw was stuck in, I had to force it through, a process about as easy as swimming through peanut butter. Miri had to help me, holding onto my abdomen so that I could lean out and cut the far side of the shaft without having to stand on the ladder I’d just cut. The only plus side to the whole thing was getting to feel her touch.

The first shaft went down with relative ease, once I’d figured out how to get the very last bit of it without cutting myself. The second shaft was similarly easy, though time-consuming. I thought that the whole thing would go once I’d cut two, but several seconds of dead silence proved that the construction of the Spire was stronger than most. We ran to the third shaft and started cutting. 

I was about a third of the way around the circumference of the shaft when I first heard the sound of marching feet on the level below. “It’s the Order,” Miri said, though I didn’t need the confirmation.

“Just hold me steady,” I said. “Cutting this is our only chance.”

She didn’t respond, but the grip on my abdomen got slightly tighter. I tried pushing harder with the monomolecular, straining to get any fraction of extra speed I could, but there wasn’t much I could do. So instead I just kept cutting, keeping my vision focused on the blade slowly moving across my field of vision. The heavy hammering footfalls continued to get closer. When I heard them stop, though, was when my courage gave out and I finally looked down. 

There was a spectrademon standing at the bottom of the shaft, looking up at me. It seemed almost bemused, or maybe that was just the way I interpreted its blank eyes. The spectrademon’s hand went to its hip and carefully drew a blaster. I looked back at the cut; I was barely halfway through. Back down, the spectrademon was taking aim. It would be a simple shot, almost effortless, and it would hit me squarely in the chest. I didn’t dare stop cutting through the metal, even as the spectrademon pulled the trigger. 

Just as it fired, there was a heavy metallic groan and the entire world shook for a moment. The blaster was knocked just a few degrees off, causing it to send up sparks on the wall of the shaft. I flinched away from the impact. When my eyes opened again, the cut I’d made had been continued by a huge open tear in the metal.

“It’s going down, pull me back, pull me back!”

Miri pulled me back, and not a moment too soon. The spectrademon fired again, one shot passing right through where I’d been to hit the top of the shaft, another one blasting into the thin strip of metal now holding up the lower two-thirds of the column. Miri and I, latched together like scared mice, watched as that last bit of metal began to stretch like taffy under the strain. The sound from below indicated that the spectrademons had started climbing. They didn’t make it very far. The metal finally gave out, bursting open in a spray of sparks. For a few seconds the entire chamber went silent aside from an eerie rushing of air. Then came the crash. It was loud, so loud that Miri and I both had to slam our hands over our ears as the whole chamber drowned in the ongoing song of metal collapsing in on itself. Steph said that it went like an accordion, each piece landing on the one below.

When the noise stopped after who knows how many seconds, I took a moment to give Miri a kiss before we started moving on. With the spectrademon threat now gone, the last leg of the climb was much slower and more relaxed than what we’d done before. We took plenty of breaks, climbed at a normal pace, until finally we reached the top. 

The final level of the column wasn’t like any of the others. Instead of a ring, it was a single circular platform, offset from the center of the chamber, securely attached to the ceiling by a set of cables and attached to the heart of the Spire itself by a wide staircase. None of that was what I was immediately paying attention to when I got to the top of the ladder. Not even the heart. Instead, my entire mind was occupied by a single overriding question.

“General Dark? How?”

He smirked, gesturing with a huge black monomolecular longsword in the direction of a pair of walkways connecting from the platform to doors in the chamber wall. “There are alternative routes. Though it was somewhat difficult to catch up with you, I’ll say that. Difficult enough that I find myself in need of some stress relief. Any volunteers for the role of punching bag?”

“Shut the fuck up, Hax,” Steph said. “Just shut the fuck up and try to kill us.”

Miri drew her staff from where she’d tucked it onto her pants, expanding it to its full length. “Don’t think we’re going to make that part easy, either.”

I tried to remember some of Steph’s fighting lessons, drawing up all four of my arms into an approximation of a fighting stance as I activated the monomolecular edge. Steph drew some weapons as well, a pair of short batons made from a similar material to Miri’s staff. 

“Hey, kiddo,” she said, eyes locked on Dark. “What happens if you get into that room over there?”

“I’m not sure. But I’ll find out whatever it is that the Spire does, and then I’ll… I’ll be able to use it.”

Steph nodded. “Then let me handle this one.”

“Let us handle this one, you mean,” Miri chimed in. “Because I don’t know anything about the Spire, but I do know a thing or two about fighting.”

For a moment, I hesitated. Then I took the Waterspindle into my hand and understood. Whether I fought or not wasn’t going to make a difference because not even all three of us could defeat the mountain of cybernetic armor and muscle in front of us. But if I went into the heart, I could use the power of the Spire to beat him. Miri and Steph were doing the same thing Quinn had done: buy time.

“I love you,” I said. Then I ran, alone, into the heart of the Spire.

By the time this chapter goes up, I should be out of the hospital. However, given that I'm still almost certainly going to be exhausted and miserable, this chapter is still being scheduled ahead of time. As always, if you like my writing and you want to be able to support me at all, click the links below to donate to my Kofi or support me more long-term on Patreon.

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