And then, creeping in so slowly that it was all but unnoticeable, awareness.
I was… that’s it. I was. Again. For a period, indescribable in every way, I hadn’t been, and now I was once again.
What I was, where I was, how I was… all of these were questions I’d address in a minute. For some unit of time that I can’t measure, I simply luxuriated in the simple pleasure of existing.
And then I noticed where I was, and all of that happiness went straight to Hell.
We weren’t in whiteness. Not quite. We were in blackness, or maybe whiteness; it was the absence of all color, all light and sensation. Even if there had been light, I didn’t have eyeballs to see it with, didn’t have skin to feel it strike. I floated, a point of formless consciousness, in an unending void.
And worst of all, I’d been here before.
This time, it came a little easier to me. Stretching out my awareness, letting it spread out a little thinner so that it could cover more area, like a sphere of ice melting into a puddle that spreads across the ground. I reached out, and there were others, some indescribable unit of distance away but close enough for me to perceive.
We were back in the spirit realm. All of us – Jaspers, Henry, Sergei, Feng, Corinne, Sara. The other members of my team emanated their own emotions, ranging from Jaspers’ flaring anger to Sergei’s smirking humor.
Unfortunately, this time there weren’t any bodies for us to return to inhabit. I remembered the last few seconds before waking up here, my body shielding Sara’s, feeling her cling to me, tears forming at the edges of my eyes. Tears that never had a chance to fall before the massive weight plunged down to annihilate us.
It wasn’t spoken aloud, precisely, but it came from Henry. We might as well have heard it, so why not let my broken monkey brain perceive it that way? “Looks like we failed, chaps. So we’re either about to roll off and have our worth judged by an old bearded man with a halo, or we’re dropping straight down a trapdoor into a very hot environment.”
“We’re dead?” Sara. Emotions didn’t really work in this place, but I reached out, pressing my awareness against her, as if trying to console her.
“We’re…” I stopped. I wasn’t sure if ‘not dead’ was an appropriate description. “I don’t know what we are, but we’ve been here before.”
“Oh.” Sara’s essence had been muted, barely glowing at all, but it flared a little brighter from my words. “So what happens now?”
I thought back – and then tensed, my awareness ratcheting up a couple levels of intensity as I remembered what happened last time. “Attackers.”
The others also remembered, and they fell in around me. In that void, there’s no way to describe location or distance, but we still drew together, searching for attackers.
And, as if summoned by thought, they came again. Tendrils of fire and darkness and smoke and crystallized horror, striking out towards us. We blew them away, our awareness and focus slicing through them, but more and more poured on. We held our own, barely, but we couldn’t win a second’s respite against them. They kept on coming, and I somehow knew that, here in this realm of spirits and non-existence, there wouldn’t be any end to them. They were, quite literally, endless.
With that realization, a little voice whispered to me, so softly that I couldn’t tell if it was in my head or outside of it. Maybe it was both, here in this place that I couldn’t explain.
“Give up,” it whispered. “Submit. This is not so bad, when you give in. Submit, relax, let it happen. You will become absorbed in the end. You can only fight for a little while longer, and there is no time here. Give up.”
I knew that, even if I let my defenses flag for a second, that voice would win. It was right, after all – I could keep on fighting for an eternity here, over and over, and it would make no difference in the end. The end result would be the same.
It would be the smart thing to do, to not keep up the fruitless struggle. It would happen in the end. Why wait?
On someone else, that might have worked.
But I’m goddamn Brian Richards, an Army Ranger, and I refuse to stand down.
I felt it in the others. A moment of hesitation, a slight waver as they heard that voice murmur inside their essences – and then a hardening, a redoubling of their efforts. Sergei grew so cold that his focused attacks burned like frost, screaming, cracking cold. Corinne grew so sharp that the tentacles wavered for a moment after her attacks, as if unable to believe that they’d been sliced apart. Feng’s precisely placed attacks struck every target, each blast of awareness lethal. Henry’s salvos left waves of burning, lingering destruction behind them, the aftermath of an eruption. Jaspers flipped through targets faster than could ever be possible in a human body, a wall that nothing could pass.
And my focus burned with white fire, fire that redoubled in strength each time I felt Sara there, surrounded by us. I’d lost my wife, the love of my life. I wouldn’t let Sara down in the same way.
For an eternity, we fought on. No change came in the waves, no lessening. I felt bone-tired, but I couldn’t put down the blade of white flame that I wielded. I knew that, once I put it down, I’d never be able to pick it up again.
The eternity passed. It stretched out forever.
And then, Sara stirred.
“Hey,” she said, her expression suddenly with something other than despairing acceptance. “Look over there.”
Let me put aside our lack of bodies, the lack of dimensions, the impossibility of there even being an “over there” in this strange half-existence. Sara’s essence indicated a place that wasn’t where we were, and we looked at it.
And there, in the middle of the nothingness, was a door.
This wasn’t like last time, when we’d been subsumed in white light, and awoken back in our bodies. This was, rather, a very ordinary door, floating in the middle of nothing. It was made of pine, with a slightly corroded brass handle, and hinges that attached it to nothing. It floated there, upright and, although it had no frame, closed.
Movement in that place was… strange. Impossible? But somehow, we approached the door. As the six of us fought off the still-attacking tentacles that came on without end, Sara reached out and touched the door’s handle.
It opened, easily, swinging inward.
We had no idea what might be on the other side – but hell, anything would be better than this, right?
“Through,” I commanded. The others piled in, leaving me, for a fraction of an eternity, alone in the void with the tentacles.
They rushed at me, and I tapped the burning white fire inside of me.
Every single tentacle, an infinity of them, exploded in white flames, reduced first to ash, and then beyond even that. My fire burned them until absolutely nothing remained.
And then I passed through the door, closing it behind me with a click.
To be continued…