Mind over Matter
Ishran smiled a cruel smile as he looked between Rachel and Alistair. He took a lot of sick satisfaction from seeing the horrified, bewildered expressions of his new warrior's former companions. His champion was not quite ready yet; he had yet to fully embrace the blood of the Beast and still retained his free will, yet he could not resist the temptation of torturing the mortals by forcing them to fight one they called a friend. He saw that Alan was shaking his head, disbelief lining every part of his reptilian face. The despair that was welling up inside the mutant was wonderful for him to see.
"I don't understand," said Aarbron. "It's still daylight outside. Does he turn back into flesh in dark places?"
"No, it doesn't work like that," Alan said. "It's all to do with their body-clock, not their surroundings." He turned to look back at Alistair, still looking appalled. "I don't believe this... What's the fucking idiot doing?"
Aarbron was about to say that Alistair was a traitor and had caved in to his bestial nature, but seeing Alan and Rachel in such states of silent distress held him back. He reasoned that such an accusation would be insensitive at this time, and he was sure that both of them were coming to the same conclusion he had reached anyway. Rachel, meanwhile, looking utterly betrayed, had one simple question:
"How could I turn him down?" Alistair replied, in a pained tone of voice. "You should all try being gargoyles for a week, and then tell me what it feels like to not see a blue sky, or feel the warmth of the sun. I try to cover it up and make a joke out of it, but it's been tearing me up for a long time." He looked down at his flesh body, almost as if admiring it. "Whatever powers Maletoth got his hands on, they were able to do this. They were able to let me walk about in the day. Ishran woke me up after I arrived here, and promised me this if I stayed here with his clan." He looked over apologetically at Rachel. "Think whatever you want of me, but this might be the only chance I'll have of becoming a day-walker. I can't pass it up. I'm staying here."
Rachel looked as if she was going to burst into tears. If she had been up against any random Beast she would have been feeling a lot more confident. Seeing that Alistair had abandoned them – worse, betrayed them – made her feel as if someone had turned her inside-out twice. She gazed pleadingly at Alistair, fighting back the tears.
"Don't do this..." she said quietly.
"I'm sorry," Alistair said, full of regret, "but rules are rules. Now that you've agreed, you can't leave until you're beaten, otherwise I'd tell you to get out while you can."
"Oh, enough of the chatter and the last-minute appeals," Ishran said wearily. "Let's get on with the fighting, shall we?"
"Do something!" Alan muttered furiously to Aarbron, as Alistair launched himself at Rachel with a clenched fist. "Can't we just kill the gecko now and be done with it?"
"No," Aarbron said. "He could destroy us with a mere thought if we act now. We have to wait for just the right time, when he's distracted."
"Well, that time had better hurry itself up," Alan snarled, wincing as Rachel was punched hard twice. "I'm not letting Rachel die for your sake!"
Rachel put up a brave fight, but her lack of combat experience rendered the outcome inevitable. After a few mere seconds of struggle, Alistair struck her down and sent her to the floor. She lay still for a moment before gasping for breath, shaking and trying to push herself up. It was clear, however, that she was beaten, physically and mentally. From somewhere close by, the baby started to cry. Strangely, Alistair had not drawn his weapons; Alan was sure that he would have done so had he intended to kill the engineer.
"She's finished," Alistair said.
"Not yet, my little Beast," Ishran said. "Finish her off. Kill her."
"What?" Alistair said, looking indignant. "But she's beaten! Lift the shield and let her go!"
"You want to be able to walk about in the daylight, do you not?" Ishran asked, his tone full of venom. "I gave you that power, Alistair, and I can just as easily take it away..." His eyes flashed with a more intense glow, and Alistair screamed in agony and fell to the floor. There was a crackling sound, and his skin started to turn into an odd mix of its living green colour and the grey stone. Alan had seen this half-way state several times out in space, where there was no day or night, and he knew that it caused Alistair a lot of pain to be in this state. Ishran had now pulled him into that very same condition, only the pain now seemed to be magnified as Alistair was screaming blue murder. The gargoyle seethed as Ishran snorted contemptuously.
"No..." Alistair groaned, shaking his head. "I can't..."
"I could even freeze you in stone for an eternity if I wanted," the dragon gloated. "Such is the fate of all who dare to defy the will of the Beast-Lord. You know what to do if you want to avoid this fate..."
Distracted by focusing his efforts into torturing Alistair, Ishran hadn't noticed that the engineer had struggled back onto her feet. She was bruised, battered and exhausted, but she bravely staggered to her feet and hobbled over towards Alistair. She held the handle of her gun tightly, and then raised it over her head. Alistair barely felt the impact of the handle against the back of his neck before he crumpled to the floor, knocked out cold. The sheer effort of doing this in her condition nearly caused Rachel to pass out. She barely managed to crawl towards the still-squealing child and scoop her up into her arms. When Ishran realised what had happened, his face became livid as the light from the circle of runes began to fade and then finally died.
"No!" he bellowed. "What have you done?"
"She defeated your champion, Ishran," Aarbron said simply. "Nothing about that spell says anything about having to kill the opponent; just ensure they are no longer capable of fighting. Surely someone with as much knowledge of the arcane as yourself would have realised this?" He gave a defiant smirk, enjoying the frustrated look on Ishran's face as he released a guttural snarl. "Even though you could potentially destroy us all by blinking, you set the rules of the combat. You cannot break them." He kept a hand close to the Glaive strapped to his belt. Ishran was glaring at the human, the glow in his eyes becoming more intense.
"Fine," Ishran snarled. "I cannot claim the child, but I will make you all pay for this insult. No-one defies the will of the Beast-Lord and lives. I will start with the three trespassers." He turned his gaze to the unconscious Alistair and Rachel, who was holding the frightened baby and kneeling over the gargoyle protectively. The dragon opened his mouth, and a pulsing red glow could be seen at the back of his maw. He was charging up his fire-breath, intending to incinerate these strangers that had destroyed his plans.
Just as he was about to release his fire breath on Alistair and Rachel, however, he was suddenly slammed and stunned for a few seconds by what looked like a large ball of electricity. He wasn't really hurt; thanks to his hide, such magical attacks barely tickled him. He turned to see who would have the audacity to try to attack him, and he saw the other Beast creature, holding what he recognised to be a gun, the barrel of which was still smoking. Such a weapon should not have fired a magical blast like that which he felt, but he was sure that the magical energies were coming from the weapon. Such technology was unheard of on this planet, even during the time before the Beast-Lord.
He charged straight at Alan, his claws crashing down near Rachel, Alistair and the baby, barely missing them. He actually trampled several Beasts underfoot as he charged at Alan, spewing out his molten breath. His eyes gleamed in satisfaction as this upstart of a mutant who had dared to attack him was forced to run for his life, striking down any Beasts that tried to stop him with a weapon apparently made out of pure energy. Within a few steps Ishran was upon him, and lashed a claw out, striking Alan with a vicious backhand that sent him flying across the chamber.
The dragon immediately commanded his armies to hold Alan still. As he approached, he saw the mutant try to put up a fight, but the swarm of the Beasts got the better of him and he was held fast. Alan peered at Ishran with an annoyingly defiant gaze; even with the prospect of imminent death, he persisted in not showing signs of weakness. He admired that; if this creature was not so rebellious, he would have made a wonderful Alpha. Still, he would incinerate the little pest and study his weapons to unlock their secrets. So what if he destroyed a few Beasts in the process; he could always create more. There were plenty of other life-forms left on this planet just ripe for feeling the taste of power that the Far Realm provided. He charged up his fire-breath again, preparing to erase this recent nuisance from his existence.
He didn't feel the sudden cut in his neck until it was too late. By the time he felt the sharp sting of the blades digging into his neck, his spinal column had been cleaved in two, and he only had enough time to form an expression of complete shock before his face became paralysed, frozen in that expression forever. As a result, he did not feel the blades spinning wildly, sawing through his neck as if it were merely a piece of tender beef. He didn't see the blades stick out of the sides of his neck, still spinning madly away as they moved in a circular pattern, making a neat cut around the whole circumference. His head slowly slid off his neck and fell to the floor with a loud thud.
It was a quick and relatively painless death, which was more than what Aarbron felt Ishran deserved. After it had done its work the Glaive flew straight over the heads of the crowds of Beasts, straight back into Aarbron's outstretched hand. His eyes had the familiar red glow to them as he had tapped into the magic that he had spent the past year suppressing and learning how to control. He had felt Ishran's call in the back of his mind and had barely resisted it, and after he retrieved his prized weapon he collapsed to one knee, completely exhausted both physically and mentally. Even if he had died at that very instant, he would do so knowing that he had succeeded. Ishran was dead, and the child was safe.
With Ishran's death, the Beasts suddenly began to retreat. They were lost without their leader, and scattered far and wide into the wilds, mindless and without a goal. Alan stared in disbelief at what Aarbron had done.
"Why couldn't you have done that sooner?" he said aloud, approaching the exhausted Aarbron.
"I told you," Aarbron replied gravely, his voice barely more than a whisper, "I had to wait until he was sufficiently distracted. You drew his attention away from me, and gave me time to prepare."
Alan was about to say every swear word that he could imagine for not being allowed to hear this plan before it was carried out; he was mad that Aarbron had essentially tried to use him as bait. However, when Rachel called him over, he found that he could not do it. The needs of his crew had to come first, and so he marched over to where Rachel was kneeling, still holding the baby and trying to calm her down. Beside her, Alistair was still unconscious, but now he was twitching and shaking as if he was having a seizure.
"Alistair?" Alan called, to no avail. He turned to Aarbron. "You have any idea what's happening?" Aarbron kneeled over Alistair, placing a hand on the gargoyle's brow.
"He is running at a very high fever," he said. "He may be having the same nightmares that I have had for many, many years. The blood of the Beast can cause one to see the most... dreadful things..." He tailed off; apparently this was a sensitive subject for him.
"Isn't there some way of helping him?" Alan asked.
"I do know someone who may be able to help," Aarbron replied. "He lives on the continent of Karamoon, and is knowledgeable on matters of the arcane. Your friend has not been exposed to the Beast-Lord's magic for long; we may still be able to restore him." He shook his head. "Of course, Karamoon is a long journey, and the land itself is treacherous. There is no telling what will stand between us and my old friend."
"We've got that covered," Alan said. "Let's just get Alistair out of here, for starters; I feel like this place is eating me alive."
It took several minutes of backtracking before the group managed to emerge back in the late afternoon sun, Alan and Aarbron carrying the stricken Alistair between them. Alan still found it hard to believe that whatever magic Ishran had used on Alistair was keeping him in flesh form during the day. He wondered what sort of magic could possibly bend the laws of nature like that, and the thought of such power existing unnerved him. He could feel Alistair shaking badly, in the grip of a fever. Rachel, holding the considerably calmer child, tried to say some comforting words to Alistair, but he was unresponsive.
"Bishop," Alan said, speaking into his commlink. "How soon can you get to us?"
"I've got a fix on your position, Captain," Bishop's voice replied. "I can be there in ten minutes. There's been no sign of any Sangheili technology anywhere on this planet."
"Forget about that right now," Alan cut in. "We need immediate evac. Alistair's in a bad way."
"You want us to rendezvous with the fleet as soon as possible?" Bishop asked. Alan looked over at Aarbron for a moment. He was sure that they would not be able to help Alistair by getting him off-world. They needed a local expert, and if Aarbron knew someone then he was willing to give them a try.
"Not yet," Alan answered. "There's somewhere on this planet we need to go first."
"But didn't you just say-" Bishop replied, but Alan interrupted him.
"I know what I said. Just trust me on this. Get here as quickly as Serenity's engines will allow."
"Roger, Captain," Bishop replied. "ETA ten minutes."
As Alan closed the line, he got a glimpse of Aarbron's expression. He was looking deeply impressed with Alan's commlink, and it soon became apparent that he had never seen an effective method of long-range communication before. Aarbron had decided not to press the issue, however, reasoning that they had more important things to worry about at present. He only hoped that his old friend could provide some answers, for in spite of his mistake in trusting Ishran this gargoyle did not deserve to suffer the way he had.
An hour later, the Serenity had reached the continent of Karamoon. It was several hundred miles south-east of the continent the group had left, and was in a more tropical climate than the temperate ones from before. Peering through the windows on the control deck into the dense jungle below, Alan caught signs of habitation, with strange green-skinned humanoids scattering, alarmed by the noise of the ship's engines. It was now beginning to get dark, the sun setting over the distant horizon and leaving a dark orange sky.
Aarbron had assisted Bishop in the navigation, and he remained quietly impressed by the Serenity. Under happier circumstances he would have had a barrage of questions about the ship and the technicalities of space travel. He wasn't sure how the crew would react to questioning, however, especially while their comrade was in distress, and decided that it would be more polite to remain quiet.
Alistair, meanwhile, was being kept in the infirmary. His vitals seemed to be fine, but he continued to tremble in his sleep, sweating a great deal. Rachel stayed in the engine room all the way through the journey tending to the baby; it was her usual haunt, but she seemed to be making a conscious effort to avoid discussing Alistair; she clearly had been stung deeply by their fight earlier; regardless of what Alistair had said, she knew that she wouldn't feel ready to talk to him for some time to come.
Aarbron pointed the way towards a ruined building, covered in trees and vines. It was now so overgrown that it was difficult to tell what it once might have been. Fortunately there was a clearing just outside that was barely large enough to allow the Serenity to land safely. Alan and Aarbron stepped out of the cargo bay, once again carrying Alistair between them. In the darkness of the trees around them he thought he could see the outlines of figures moving in the undergrowth. Luckily nothing stepped out to engage them, which would have been the last thing Alan felt they needed.
Stepping carefully through the dark entrance archway, Alan found that the branches of the trees were very thick, blocking out a lot of the sunlight. It still shone through the occasional gap in the branches and through ruined windows, but the impression he got was of a cave made of vegetation. The interior of the ruins were quite large, and Alan's eyes widened when he saw that they were inhabited by another dragon. This one was of a similar size and shape to Ishran, but his scales were a silver colour instead, shimmering in the faint sunset. Upon hearing the sound of their footsteps the dragon turned to face them. It peered at Aarbron for a moment before its snout twisted into a warm smile.
"Aarbron, my old friend," he said in a deep, kindly tone. "It has been too long."
"It has indeed, Barloom," Aarbron nodded.
"I sense, however," Barloom said, looking towards the others, "that once again we are not meeting under happy circumstances. Who are these two?"
"Comrades-in-arms from another world," Aarbron explained quickly. "They helped me to finally lay your brother to rest."
"So Ishran's madness finally destroyed him..." Barloom murmured. "I am sorry it had to come to that, but when dealing with the powers of the Far Realm very few options are open to one." He looked over at the two Serenity crew members, with his piercing gaze giving Alan the impression that he was being mind-read. He had seen every other dragon he had ever met using that look, and all of them had psychic capability, so he reasoned that dragons on other worlds were not likely to be that different. After spending a moment peering at Alistair, his eyes narrowed.
"He too has been touched..." he snarled.
"I know," Aarbron said. He and Alan carefully set Alistair down on the stone floor. "I had hoped that something could be done for him. He was not exposed to Maletoth's magic for long, maybe it hasn't had time to take hold of him..." His tone sounded desperate, and his face fell when Barloom firmly shook his head.
"I'm sorry, my friend," the dragon rumbled, "but I can only give you the same answer that I gave when you came to me before, when you noticed the blood of the Beast had not left you. The powers of the Far Realm leave permanent scars in the minds of those they touch. Even an extraordinarily strong will can succumb to their corruption if exposed to them for long enough. Perhaps Maletoth once believed he could control them, regardless of what his intentions originally were. You yourself are still a victim of their corruption, even now, and your friend will never fully heal. He will always have the blood of the Beast flowing through his veins now."
"You must be joking!" Alan suddenly said, unable to hold in his disappointment. "You're telling me that if he so much as sniffs these Far Realm powers, or whatever they are, he's going to end up turning on us again? Fuck that!"
"Alan!" Aarbron half-shouted. He seemed aghast that anyone would dare to address a dragon in this manner. "Your friend is lucky; you have the means of taking him away from this world and away from Maletoth's influence. I have to always resist the urge to tap into those terrible powers for every day of my life! You should consider yourself lucky!"
"Lucky?" Alan snapped. "Lucky that my crewman and friend is now a walking time-bomb? You've got some funny ideas on-"
Before Alan could go any further, Barloom suddenly emitted an ear-splitting roar. He clearly had no patience for such petty bickering, especially when an ally's health was at stake. He turned his piercing gaze over to Alan, causing the mutant to fall completely silent.
"Your name is Alan, is it not?" he said. "I understand your concern, but you must also understand that the powers of the Far Realm cannot be easily removed. Aarbron is extraordinarily strong-willed even when compared to immortals, and even he cannot fully rid himself of the taint. If I thought I could safely purge both him and your comrade then I would. To do so, however, would mean taking such power into myself, making me more susceptible to the corruption of the Far Realm. Your encounter with Ishran should be all the reason you need for why I cannot take that risk.
"As Aarbron has said, you can take your friend away from this world. Being away from here will rid him of Maletoth's influence, at least." He gazed out of one of the ruined windows, where the night sky was now beginning to show. "However, I wonder if the influence of the Far Realm stretches beyond our lowly sphere. If that is the case, you must be sure not to let him come into contact with such energy again. Remember that, now that he has been touched by their powers, he is particularly susceptible to them. His will may be strong, but you must be prepared to do what is necessary, should the worst happen."
Alan closed his eyes. Once again he felt as if he was trapped. He tried to control his indignance, still hardly daring to believe his misfortune once again. After a moment of silence, he resigned himself to the fact that he had to trust Alistair implicitly, and hope that the time when he had to intervene would never come.
"I..." he muttered. "I understand." He looked at Alistair's prostrate form, which was no longer twitching in fever. He now looked as if he was merely taking a long nap. It occurred to him that, while this so-called Far Realm magic still affected him, he would be able to walk about in the daylight. Alistair had gotten what he always wanted, but Alan felt that the price he had paid was far too high.
After parting from Barloom, the Serenity crew dropped Aarbron off at a small, ramshackle house to safely return the child to her parents. The baby had calmed considerably since her ordeal, and seemed to have enjoyed Rachel's company, happily giggling and gurgling as the ship had flown. The owners of the house looked very shocked to see the great metal ship stop in front of the building, and they were overjoyed to see Aarbron walk down the entrance ramp carrying their unharmed, healthy baby.
Alan had offered to allow Aarbron to join his crew, feeling that they could use someone with his capabilities on board and that time away from Maletoth's surviving powers might do him good. The warrior had politely turned him down, however, in spite of being very curious about space travel. His reasoning was that he would do a lot more good by staying on his world and doing what he could with the time he had left; Alan would have enough on his plate keeping Alistair sane.
As for Alistair, he had woken up during the journey back to the mainland and quietly sneaked into his cabin, feeling that he could not face the crew, particularly Rachel. He did not emerge until the ship had left the planet's orbit and was speeding through slip-space to rejoin the Fleet Shadow of Fury. He went into the cargo bay and sat down on one of the catwalks, peering at the curved walls. The gargoyle had never felt more ashamed of himself, and his mood only worsened as Alan entered the cargo bay to take a count of their supplies.
"I was wondering where you'd got to," Alan said gravely. He knew that this conversation had to happen eventually, and that it would be extremely awkward. Alistair didn't look at him, but he closed his eyes.
"I don't need a lecture, Captain," he said. "I screwed up; no two ways about it. I got so carried away by Ishran's offer that I didn't think he'd stab me in the back. You should've just killed me there and then. I almost killed Rachel, after all; I deserve nothing less." Alan was about to answer, but Alistair interrupted him. "Don't even give me that 'it wasn't you' bull. I made my choice; I betrayed my crew, and I've brought shame to you, my clan and to myself. What would my great-grandad say now, eh?" He let out a long sigh. "If you wanna toss me out of the airlock, you go ahead and do it."
Surprisingly to both Alistair and himself, Alan actually smiled and shook his head. He had calmed considerably since the meeting with Barloom and had taken the time since then to put things in perspective.
"If I did," he said, "I'd have to throw myself out of that same airlock. You went after what you wanted more than anything else in this whole universe at any cost, even if it meant siding with an obvious lunatic. Welcome to the club." Alistair looked up at him, surprised.
"If you'd known Kiryuu Knight back in the twenty-first century," he continued, "you'd know what I meant. Back then Kiryuu was a scheming, manipulative megalomaniac with ambition far outstripping whatever his creators had intended. He had no qualms about manipulating events to his advantage no matter who got hurt in the process. Maybe the long centuries have knocked some sense into him, but I'm still not convinced he's done a complete one-eighty.
"Yet I made a deal with him. He had something I wanted more than anything else. I would have gladly killed for it. Kiryuu knew that, and dangled it in front of me like a worm on a hook. Against my better judgement, I went along with his plans, and look where it got me today." At this, Alistair snorted.
"I'm not Kiryuu, though," the gargoyle said, his voice shaking. "I bet he never wilfully stabbed you in the back or plotted to take over the world."
"He did anyway though, didn't he?" Alan retorted. "Just not in the way you're thinking of. He still made a fuck-ton of mistakes though. That said, my question to you is this; what do you plan to do about your almighty cock-up? Do you really plan to just piss and moan about it before throwing yourself out of an airlock?"
Alistair said nothing, but Alan was sure that he saw the faintest trace of a smile playing across his beak. He knew that Alistair now had to remain the strongest-willed of all of the crew if he was to have any chance of saving both the crew and himself. He knew that Alistair was not beyond hope; his refusal to kill Rachel had been proof of that.
"Back in the twentieth century," he added, "someone said 'When you're going through Hell, keep going'. Those words have got me this far, and you might want to keep them in mind." He started to walk back along the catwalk towards the steps leading up to the crew's cabins. He would do the stock-taking another time; Alistair would need some time alone to process what Alan had said and make his decision.
"Besides," he added, stopping for a moment and smirking slightly. "I don't think I could afford to hire a new First Mate."
As he walked up the steps to the cabins, he saw Rachel stooping on the top step. He could not say how long she had been there or how much of the conversation she had heard, but she nodded appreciatively to Alan as he passed before stepping down into the cargo bay.
Alan didn't see or hear what followed, but he only hoped that he had made the right choice.