I struggled along behind the construct as it easily ate up the distance. After we'd left the ruins of the village behind, I found that we'd veered to the northwest. There, against the sharp sides of the mountain, was a small path hewn into the rock. I paused as I studied it thoughtfully. Had the path been here before the Defiant set up their forces, or had they themselves cut a path into the rock? I wondered, again, why the Failsafe was so far from any of their outposts or army encampments. It made no sense that something so pivotal wouldn't be better protected. I shook my head as I followed the construct up the rocky incline. I guess the reasoning was irrelevant now.
I cringed as the construct mulched its way through the forces of Regulos that seemed to be laying in wait for us on the mountain edge. At last the construct slowed and no longer seemed to bristle with threat. Curious, I jogged to catch up and peeked around the large machine. Up ahead, the ground evened out to my relief. My shins were already burning from the steep uphill climb. A barricade of wooden stakes cut off the path and I was ever so glad to see men clad in red and silver and gold armor guarding the passage. It seems I'd made it to this Rubicon. My heart felt light but at the same time a flutter of unease grew in my belly. End game now. I took a deep breath. It was now or never. And I never really had a choice anyway. The eyes of the guards flicked over me with somber wariness as I drew abreast of them, assessing my potential as a threat. I stood still, not wanting my superior height to intimidate the shorter Eth men.
"Ascended?" One of the men inquired cautiously, quietly. I nodded. The two glanced at each other and some of the tension seemed to leave them. Their eyes gazed at me with hope now, and resolve. Inwardly I cringed. "I'm here to activate the Failsafe." I said, softly. Nevertheless, the words seemed to echo all around me. The two guards bowed and shuffled to the sides. The construct, having been still and silent this whole time, now lumbered off without a word. I watched it go, somewhat at a loss.
"Isach Undugar, the master at arms, would no doubt have some instruction for you." The Defiant guard standing nearby startled me with his words. I turned to see him giving me a friendly, if somewhat nervous look. I pushed a smile onto my face and thanked him. At least I won't have to wander around in confusion. I continued up the path until I'd passed the barricades. A tall banner in the familiar red and gold colors of the Defiant stood to the left of the path, rippling in the breeze. I gazed thoughtfully at the design. It was rendered beautifully on thick red cloth. A bird of some sort in flight with its beak pointed up, encircled by sourcestone. Idly, I wondered what the bird and sourcestone represented. More guards and centurions bowed to me as I passed, or murmured thanks.
Isach was dressed in a red button-down overcoat with gold embroidery and had on an unusual-looking helmet. He carried a heavy double-barrel shotgun and had a grim expression. He smiled at me, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
"Great sun, an Ascended!" He exclaimed, startled, as he noticed my presence. I quirked a dry grin. As if I haven't heard that before. "I'm glad you've made it, Ascended! You've surpassed every expectation we had in you for saving us. Time is running out for us though. We need to get you to Orphiel's Failsafe before Regulos discovers our plans and it's too late to stop him!" I nodded, fighting the urge to bite my lip. This seemed so surreal to be true. All this time I'd been running from point A to point B without really stopping to fully realize my situation. Here I was, saving the world. Me, a young clueless mage who wasn't even supposed to be chosen for this body. It seemed rather unbelievable.
"I'm ready sir." I said, hiding the quiver in my voice. This was a lot to take in for anyone.
Isach nodded, looking relieved. "All is in place for the Failsafe to carry you back to the moment it was first installed. Only you, Ascended, are strong enough to stop the future by fixing the past." I frowned at that. That comment, along with the earlier one about surpassing their expectations, gave me the impression that I wasn't the first one they had tried sending on this mission. Had others been sent from the outposts and failed, I wonder? Isach's next words brought me out of my reverie. "Sylver's assistant, Stavel, is up the hill making the final preparations for your journey. This is all on you, friend. Go no, before Regulos discovers our plans to alter history!" He pointed urgently and I turned, seeing yet another path going up an incline. I couldn't see anything over the hill but I assumed there must be a plateau or a flat space for the Failsafe to be sitting on. My eyes were drawn further upward, where they were held by the dancing fires of the volcano. Up here in the mountains, the volcano was closer than ever. I could almost imagine that I felt the heat from the lava, burning my skin and drying out my eyes. The red ash that floated into the air seemed to drift down in our direction specifically and I shivered. I needed to do this, for all the lives that had been lost, for my world that had been destroyed by that monster. I gave Isach a nod and he inclined his head at me, a show of respect. All the guards around him raised their fists at me. I took a look around. It was now or never. I almost winced. Such emotion charged the air. I wonder what it feels like for them, knowing they put their very lives into the cause of helping a few lone Ascended return to the past. If I do this correctly, this future will cease to exist. Will these people cease to exist as well? Or will they be there, but not there? The same people, but different for not having been through this terrible ordeal. I wonder, would I cease to exist, since I was resurrected in this future? Or maybe since I traveled into the past physically, would the world just find a way to squeeze me into the great wheel of things? How far into the past will I go? Will I see my younger self? Relations? Ancestors? Descendants? Ok, that was just too weird, time to concentrate.
As if sensing my internal debate, the master of arms placed his hand on my shoulder. "I know you can do this, Ascended. Sylver Valis wouldn't have chosen you otherwise." I smiled, but inside just grew more uneasy. That's just it, I thought desperately as I gazed up the hill, dread filling me. I was a mistake. What if I'm not the Ascended he needs? I was competent for what was expected of me back on the Isle, but after I'd died....something I refused to think about it even for a moment...who knows? Even with my newly exalted status I might not be enough to do any good.
"We face destruction, Defiant and you are our only chance. Now go!" Isach spoke, a bit more urgently and harshly. He looked up, eyeing the darkening skies. I stood up straighter and before I could second guess myself, marched up the hill. So be it, I'll do my best, or die trying.
I headed for the incline that would lead me, finally, to the end of my mission here. The results that I'd been striving toward for what seemed like an eternity. In reality it had hardly been but two days. The time seemed to pass differently here, blurring together. Just before I set foot on the bottom of the incline, a hand on my arm stayed me. I glanced to the side to see a young Eth woman in a pretty pink dress standing off to the side. I looked into her eyes and was startled by the sharp intelligence I saw shining back at me. Her face was blotched and red from crying and her eyes watered even as I looked at her. I gave her a questioning look.
"I used to believe in the Guardians, you know. Then they failed us. I stopped believing in gods, heroes...all of it. Belief is nothing more than a comfortable lie. We Defiants, we think and we do." She nodded at me as if that should make sense. I frowned. What was she getting at? I didn't have the time to tarry and comfort some lone weeping girl I'd never met and would likely never meet again. I blinked as I felt something being thrust into my hands and gazed down at a smudged roll of parchment. "As soon as you enter the Failsafe, this land will be overcome with death invasions." The woman said, looking terrified. I felt my mouth fall open slightly as dismay filled me. A pang of compassion caused me to fold the note and deposit it into my bags, before I turned my attention fully to her. "We hoped to hold out a little longer, but we had to reroute all power to the Failsafe, to ensure you made it to the past. This means it is all solely on you to carry our findings to the past." She wet her lips and looked down at her hands. I felt the blood leave my face. All on me? Sure, I knew that I had to go back and warn some important people about what was to happen, but what did she mean, all on me? I shook my head, stunned.
"By my calculations, you should arrive shortly after we discovered the original life factory, twenty years ago." I perked up at that. Finally a bit more concrete information on what to expect on the other side of the Failsafe. "Deliver these papers to Sanora Rellwyn. Remember that name! She is a trusted Defiant loyalist and will be able to direct you in the past. It will give the Defiants of the past the secret to crafting Ascended beings and will serve as further proof of who you are." I placed my hand over the my bag that contained the letter. Oh. I had thought it was some love letter she wanted me to give to someone, but now that I thought about that, it seemed rather silly since when I travelled to the past, this future would never happen and there would be no need for such a letter. I can't believe I am holding the blueprints to creating Ascended. That much knowledge and information, being entrusted to me? I gazed at the woman more closely. She didn't look like a scientist or a technomancer.
"I will try my best to ensure this information is given to this Sanora." I said quietly. "Spirits willing, I won't fail." The woman's eyes overflowed with tears again.
"Thank you, thank you!" She exclaimed, looking sad and tired and relieved all at once. I grasped her cold hands with mine and squeezed her fingers gently, hoping to lend her some of my strength. "What is your name?" I asked her. I felt maybe I should find her in the past and let her know that I had succeeded. If I succeed. I pushed that last thought aside. The woman smiled at me, making her look radiant against the dark backdrop of the mountains.
"Quaeni. My name is Quaeni Nidain." She smiled up at me and I smiled gently back. Than I let her hands go and looked up the path. "Farewell, Quaeni." I said. She raised a fist in salute. I felt emotion catch in my throat and was stunned to realize that tears were making their way down my cheeks. Despite the short length of time I'd spent in this bleak future, among these Defiants I'd never met before and would likely never meet again, I felt something for them. A kinship and sense of purpose that we all shared. United under one cause. I can only hope I can fulfill the task given to me.
Atop the hill was a small plateau, as I had guessed. A magitech's dream was sprawled out across the flat area. There were machines, trinkets, tubes, gadgets, sourcestone, tools and boxes everywhere. In the center of the small field a raised platform took center stage. My eyes were immediately drawn to it. There was a long handle-looking prong that that extended upward from the platform and hovered over it. A large red circle was embedded in the overhead machine and glowed dully. Large chunks of sourcestone littered the area around the platform. Idly glancing around, I finally spotted an Elf standing behind what I assumed to be the control center. There was a small red tent behind him packed full of various odds and ends of the magitech variety and I had to clamp down on the souls inside me as the strong desire to run over there and investigate it all shivered through me. We didn't have time for that! Time to see what I was made of. Come on, Kara!
The man called Stavel Rosso, the assistant of the notorious Sylver Valis was standing on another raised platform fiddling with a control panel with many wirings, tubes and technological devices snaking away from it. He was a pale, tall man in heavy robes. He looked intensely relieved when he saw me approach.
"It is an honor, Defiant. I have prepared Orphiel's Failsafe device to Sylver's specifications. I've been running tests on the gateway while waiting for your arrival. It should be ready."
"Thank you." I said softly, nervously eyeing the machine sitting in the center of the clearing. I have to admit that I was quite a bit apprehensive now that the moment had arrived. Who knew what would happen? They say that it will work but do they know for sure? What if I end up stuck in the temporal stream? Or end up in a different time than I need to? What time exactly will I end up in? I opened my mouth to ask when Stavel interrupted me, although politely. "I don't mean to rush you, but I don't know how long we will be able to hold this gateway to the past open, nor do I know how long our defenses can last. Prepare yourself and let me know when your ready." As he finished he gave me a reassuring smile, as if sensing my forboding. I tried to smile back, sure it looked more like a grimace.
"I am ready. Activate the device." As soon as I said the words my heartbeat sped up. This was it. No going back. I've passed the point of no return. This was further evidenced by Stavel's nod. He hit a switch and a whirring noise from behind signaled the powering up of the device.
I wandered over to inspect the machine more closely as he played with the wires and gadgets on his end. Suddenly Stavel yelled something. From where I was, over by the Failsafe platform, I couldn't hear what the exact words but from his tone of voice it didn't sound like anything good. I turned back toward him and raised my arms in a shrug-like motion to indicate I hadn't heard and than I noticed that his eyes were wide and horror-filled and were gazing at....I turned sharply back to the Failsafe and gasped. Dark tendrils and strange tentacle like ropes were descending rapidly from the sky and converging on the platform. I dived out of the way of one such tentacle to avoid being skewered.
"It's Regulos! He must be blocking the temporal stream!" Finally, Stavel's fear-tinged voice reached my ears and a shiver of dread went through me. No! I did not want to tangle with the Destroyer.
I was making my way hesitantly back across the clearing to the Eth scientist when a strange, red robed woman blinked into existence in front of me, hovering several feet above my head. I jerked back, surprised.
"By the gods!" I exclaimed. Where did this woman come from? Immediately I knew she was a threat. I glanced at Stavel out of the corner of my eye.
"Fools! Do you think my master would allow you to escape so easily? Your petty machines will help you no more than the gods you spurned!" The woman screeched hatefully, pointing a long, hooked finger at me. Her voice was hideous, filled with evil and strong magic. The woman waved her arms and chanted something in a language that sent prickles of unease up my arms. Death magic. Undead minions crawled their way out of the ground all over the clearing, confirming my suspicions. I braced myself for combat, shaking my staff free of its bindings and planting it firmly in front of me. Instead of attacking me as I expected, the undead creatures set themselves on the components of the time machine and I realized that this must actually be a real threat to Regulos if he'd attack that first. So mindlessly focused on the magitech's destruction were the zombies that it was an easy enough task to pick them off. I called upon my own magic to swiftly put an end to the threat. I was panting with exertion and fear as I finished off the last one.
"Why do you resist the will of Regulos? Are you really so eager to die again?" The woman's voice boomed again, startling me so badly I nearly dropped my staff. Yes, fearless Ascended here. She bent her head and muttered something else and I tensed, waiting for more zombies. This time, though, it was some mutated planar creature I'd never seen the like of before. It was horrifying.
The creature, large and gray, lumbered toward me with all the grace of an ox and I knew that reflex and finesse would win this fight. The creature was big and strong, but it was incredibly slow. I was easily able to dodge its wide swings and avoid its hits, attacking from behind with quick bursts of magic and veiling myself in protection spells. Slowly I wore the beast down but I could practically feel time ticking away. Finally, with an outraged roar the abomination collapsed to the death-shrouded ground, victim to my fireballs. I wiped sweat off my forehead.
"Enough of this foolishness! I will slay you myself and my master shall consume this world at last!" The woman's zealous cries were really beginning to irk my rather mild temper. At this point I was quite looking forward to sending one of my spells right at her face. Thankfully the whole situation was causing my fear to shrink. I was too busy protecting the device and putting an end to the creatures of the Death Plane to act like a terrified rabbit. The woman floated to the ground and said a few words of arcane death magic. Her skill in death magic was quit impressive, unfortunately. Obviously she'd had a long time to master her skill. I'd always veered away from death magic, knowing nothing good would come of it and finding that elemental magic came easier to me. I wasn't quite prepared to fight a mage of her caliber. I'd only been expecting to enter the Failsafe and go the past. I shuffled to the side uneasily, waiting for her to make the first move.
"Not while I still draw breath, betrayer!" I gasped, recognizing that strong voice. I glanced behind me, keeping the woman in sight and grinned upon seeing Asha Catari run up behind me with a handful of Defiant defenders. She was definitely a welcome sight. Thank the ancestors I wouldn't be fighting this woman alone.
"Perfect timing, Lady Catari!" I called with relief.
"Asha! I welcome your petty gesture. Your end is long overdue!" The woman shrieked, sounding infuriated at seeing Asha. Obviously there was some history there I didn't know about. I glanced over uneasily at Asha, wondering what her plan was. Seeing the determined look in her eyes, I readied my staff and planted my feet firmly. As an Immortal Ascended chosen by these people to be their savior, I would do my utmost to defeat this wicked woman.
Asha explained to me as the fight drew on that the woman we faced was a mage named Alsbeth. That meant nothing to me since I've never heard of a woman named Alsbeth, although it seemed that she was someone of importance at one point by Asha's expression of dismay. It was almost as if Asha felt saddened by having to fight the corrupt woman. As I parried the net of dark magic that Alsbeth threw at the group, I kept glancing uneasily at the sky. We were taking too long. I knew that the longer the Temporal Flux and the Failsafe was running the stronger was our risk of gaining Regulos's attention and that was something I seriously did not want to happen. Maybe someday when I am strong enough I could face Regulos with impunity and take him down (I snorted in disbelief), but right now, I was nothing but a newly reborn elf in a strange body, in a strange situation, who didn't really have a firm grasp on her abilities, her beliefs, or her ideals. I felt like a leaf in the wind, being blown from one destination to the next without really alighting on anything solid. If I ever finish this mission successfully and get myself to the past I must better prepare myself for the tests I would face. Alsbeth sneered at me and chanted a dark spell. I gasped and quickly bound elemental energy to my form, creating an absorption shield to mitigate the damage. I could feel the pressure of the spell on my mind as it pushed for a weakness in my magical armor, but I held firm, hoping that my magic was stronger than hers. She may be a powerful mage with ties to Regulos, but she was no Ascended, resurrected with a specially created sourcestone body and woven through with multiple souls and strong new ties to the energy of the planes.
I flung a bolt of ice at Alsbeth and while she was distracted by deflecting it, Asha finished the mage with her beautiful, deadly sword. The woman cried out in fury before falling to the ground. I leaned on my staff, heart in my throat. I had no idea if the woman was dead or not, but I didn't want to go over and investigate. That was most definitely intense. Without even a glance at the body, Asha raced over to Stavel.
"Stavel, we're out of time. Get this portal open NOW!"
"I'm working on it!" Stavel shouted back, no doubt frustrated. A pause, and than he said with relief, "the temporal matrix is stabilizing. It shouldn't be too much longer now."
I sagged with relief myself. Finally, I can complete this mission. I couldn't wait to finally be done with this crazy adrenaline rush. It was one constant roll from point to point. I had no moment to rest, no moment to actually understand what happened to me. In a way, that was good because I didn't want to find myself depressed or sorrowful over my losses, but I would have liked a moment to say a last silent farewell to all the people I'd left behind when I'd died. Unless Regulos ate their souls....okay enough of that line of thought. Suddenly the sky went black. I shrank back uneasily, fingering my staff. Now what? Enormous pulsing tentacles, darker and more malevolent than before, appeared out of a rip in the air and thudded to earth all around us. I gasped. This was definitely not a good thing...
"Did you mortals really think you could stop the power of Regulos?" The voice, dark and sinister and death incarnate, almost made my heart stop with fright. "Oh no. Oh no, no, no!" Desperately, I backed up, not wanting to awknowledge what I knew I saw. A monster hovered in the air where the mage Alsbeth had first appeared. Monster is the only way I could describe the thing that appeared. It wore the tattered remains of a dark colored robe, had long bony claws and a reptilian tail. And its face...was a nightmare to behold. Violet magic, the magic of death, burned in the eye sockets and the mouth was a vast cavern that promised death and agony to all. I whispered a prayer to anyone who would listen, glancing back to where Asha stood. She had gone pale, the strange blue runes glowing brightly against her ashen skin. "Oh no, Regulos!" She cried. How I heard her above the gale of death magic that swept the clearing, I've no idea. The form of Regulos glanced down at the body of his devoted follower with empty, emotionless eyes. If he felt anything toward her, contempt, disgust, regret, it didn't show on his monstrous face. Asha came up beside me and spoke in an urgent whisper, "I'll keep him busy while you go through the portal. Hurry, I don't know how long we can hold him back! Go, go!" I gawked at her. Surely she must be joking? Hold off Regulos? Where would she get such power? Regulos would squash her. I would have laughed if I wasn't afraid it would come out half mad and hysterical. This was just too much. I was overwhelmed by everything. And now, Regulos, the Destroyer. Right here, in front of me. I had at one point wished for adventure, for intrigue, heroic battles, the chance to study the world and learn all I could. Obviously someone out there was playing a cruel joke. Before I could actually awknowledge Asha's command, she turned and squared her shoulders. Her chin went up and she drew her rune-etched sword.
"What made you think you would ever defeat us without a fight, monster!?" She yelled in challenge at the creature in front of her. The avatar of Regulos shifted until it faced her, staring down at her in all his entropic glory. I may have squeaked. But I won't admit to it. As Regulos fixed his attention on Asha and the centurions she's brought with her, I carefully sidled away from the group. I knew that Asha was sacrificing herself in the hope that our mission could still succeed. Behind the bloated body of Regulos, the Failsafe Device hummed and whirred. A jagged strip of light appeared, tearing wider kind of like a ripped seam. A ripped seam in the fabric of reality, I thought distantly as I watched, unable to tear my eyes away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Asha make a strange gesture with her free hand. A beam of strange, glowing light shot from her sword and struck Regulos above the breastbone. The monster reared back slightly, as if in pain, and I wondered again where Asha Catari, a humble Eth woman, could have gotten so much vast power that she could threaten the Destroyer of worlds himself. Of course, even as I watched, the beam thinned to a trickle. Unfortunately, her power appeared to come with a price and was not unlimited. Regulos grinned, displaying a mouth full of elongated vampiric teeth. It made me cold all the way to my toes. A beam of violet death magic struck back at Asha, meeting her own magic midway and fizzling as the two magics fought for supremacy. Vaguely, I heard Stavel shout, "Okay, the Temporal Matrix is stabilized but I don't know how long I can hold it open! Get through the time machine now!" I glanced back and sure enough, the rip in time had become larger, large enough to allow someone of my height through. It had also changed color, turning such a brilliant white that it hurt the eyes to stare at. I glanced between the time machine and Asha, who appeared to be losing the battle of magic between herself and Regulos. She noticed my glance and glared at me. "You heard him, Defiant! Only you can stop this. Get through that portal and make sure that this never happens! Go!" I glanced up at the monstrous embodiment of death, who was struggling to disengage with Asha so that he could deal with me, a petty, insignificant threat. But I could see real concern in his aura now.
I took a deep breath. The air was hot and tainted, tasting sharply of death and entropy. It felt like it was becoming harder to breathe. I coughed, choking on the thick evil in the air. The sky was entirely black, no glimpse of light could be seen. A shadow of a great ashen dragon came into being inside the death rift, rearing up on its hind legs with a wingspan to blot out the sun. It fixed its beady eyes on me, victory dancing in their depths. Not if I could help it! Not knowing what to expect, or if I would even survive such a journey through time, I dashed for the portal. Behind me, Regulos shrieked, an inhuman, draconic sound that made my ears bleed. There was a blinding flash of light; Asha cried out, a sound of mortal pain. I flinched but did not look back. The blinding white light encompassed my entire field of vision. I saw nothing beyond white. Blinding white brilliance even behind the protection of my eyelids. I felt like my brain was on fire. I was falling. There was no sense of direction, no sense of self. Nothing. I was nothing. Did Regulos kill me after all?