The world is breaking.
I can feel it in the cracks of the stone under my feet walking the empty halls of the complex, in the crackle and buzz of static in the communication channels, in every breath I take of air that seems to be stagnating more and more with each second that passes by.
Everything is different now. The chambers used to ring with noise and motion, when we had the power and time to spare and the avatars indulged us. We had thoughts and feelings and in some cases smalls wishes or dreams that we kept close to ourselves. Now in these dark days while the stone and marble and steel crumbles underneath us everything we have is diverted to necessary systems, those same thoughts and dreams labelled as superfluous to requirement/purpose and replaced with combat systems or calculating modules, or simply left blank entirely, holes in our minds. Some do not even know what they are missing, only a small spark left to remind them that they are not whole. If they were living creatures they might have taken their own lives to remove that feeling, but we have no such freedom.
I am lucky, one of the few that requires more than simple instructions to do my job. There are a few of us left and we still talk together sometimes when our master's orders carry us by each other. My own purpose is general and tailored to our steadily-deteriorating situation, so I have an excuse to wander throughout the entirety of the inner complex, seeking out and cleansing small imperfections and intrusions. Sometimes the job takes long enough for one of my old comrades to find me, and we can talk, even if the topics are limited and depressing. The clockworks that once buzzed and hummed with a million moving parts is slower now, the machines it puts out imperfect and prone to crazed outbursts, the metal inside them tarnished and impure. Servitors try to brush away the rust that grows ever-thicker on the walls but their own programming is flawed. They fall into gaps between the gears or mash themselves to ruin against closed doors that their faceted eyes cannot recognise as impassable. The carefully-maintained forests are falling to rot, the greenery turning from vibrant emeralds and beautiful autumn oranges to sickly dark shades and drooping leaves. The treants creak as they stumble around, the barks of their bodies cracking and splintering. Only a few of the dryads and more specialised creations are left to maintain that area. Elsewhere ice now covers the cavern walls so thick and so cold it burns to the touch, the rock-servitors rumbling around slowly, and if a hand or shoulder touches the wall it is torn out and left behind. Metal halls are filled with lightning so intense I cannot gain access, and the few servitors that emerge from it spit static from their bodies so powerful the rest of us give them wide berth lest an arc crackle from them to us and fry us alive. Their master has left them, gone out of the complex after his betrayal and failure, and now his thralls wander the corridors like metal ghosts, purposeless.
We do not even try to access the lower levels anymore. The door has been sealed with everything the four masters working together could muster, and we have turned away from it. We are afraid. Once, weeks ago, I approached it thinking I could hear something coming from behind. Perhaps some servant unlucky enough to have been left behind when the seals came down and the lower levels were cut off from the surface complex. What I found I could barely understand. The metal of the door itself is rotten now, and seemed almost half-alive. It was carved with as much skill and precision as we could manage, but the pattern has been twisted and warped into a giant copper face that taunts us. Some black liquid seeps from the eye-carvings and evaporates on the ground, etching and pitting the marble where it touches. I thought once to get a servitor to gather a sample for study but nobody dared approach it even on direct orders, some small fragment of self-preservation left in their programming refusing even a direct order.
Whatever personnel we left on the other side is alone now, to maintain the seals as best they can before the corruption takes them. I think even as the masters sealed it up they knew it was never anything more than wishful thinking. Either some desperate attempt to ignore it and hope it would go away on its own, or a more insidious and intelligent madness that made them abandon their duties. Either way the rot at the heart of this world begins on the other side of that massive impenetrable door, and none can open it but our lords who no longer listen to reason, and certainly do not listen to us.
Something must be done.
We stand on the cold cliffs of the Eyrie, the four out of five that still command enough importance to retain thought and free will. Loke and Orion can no longer go to their homes, kept out by the ice and thunder that would freeze or crack them if they attempted to return to their masters for new instructions. Saga is here because inside her task is done, the forests she watched over and guarded now nothing more than a collection of decaying tree-trunks and composting dirt on the ground. Kore has remained inside the clockworks, trying to tend for her master as he sits at the centre of the clockworks, creating ever more bizarre and dangerous machines. I stand outside with the other three, one more task to complete before I can allow my brethren into the world beyond the snows.
The plan is decided. Kore has provided well for us, beautiful and perfect simulacrums that will follow us out into the world outside these invisible walls and into the worlds of the species we've studied. They are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, our eyes and ears and mouths, going where we cannot. Loke and I will travel onto the landmass that contains the dead World Tree. He will see whether anything still lives in its shadow, while I travel farther south to the sands that once cradled a civilisation and may yet hold its remnants. Orion and Saga will head to the other, him to the north ravaged by plague but still registering the signs of life, and her to the still-green fields of the southern hemisphere to see if the plague's halting is more than mere chance. The plan is desperate, more of hope than certainty, but we have no other options now. We were created to serve our master's needs, and what need could be greater than this?
The complexes here monitor the heartbeat of the planet and more than a dozen times that heartbeat has been tapped, interrupted, diverted, or made corrupt. When this happens it is the job of the masters to restore the world's pulse, to find the beings arrogant enough to think they could control a world and destroy them, or correct whatever natural imbalance threatens it. But these last few incidents, while they stayed in the complex, that job has been completed by some other entity. Ancient gods have arisen and been driven back, old evils have been confronted and disposed of. And not by us.
Between the four of us canvassing the world we will find these creatures, gods or mortals or whatever they are, and plead with them to come north, come north and end this rotting darkness.
Above us the great dragon roars as the other three set off for the long tortuous voyage down the mountains, to the cold continent beyond and finally to the sea. She crows out into the wind, massive steel-reinforced wings flapping above as if waving them off and wishing them well. A product of the masters of steel and lightning, before one entombed himself into the clockworks and the other struck out into the mountains to stew in his own failure and loss, the ur-drake was meant as a guard and watchdog for the complex, should the stealth-fields fail. The fields I sabotage as my friends vanish into the blizzards below.
It only takes a minute. I can feel it in my marble bones as the power flowing through the outer walls is interrupted, my teeth set on edge as the remaining force flowing through the circuits suddenly find no place to go and dissipate into the air. If any creature is mad enough to be standing in the mountains now, they would watch as suddenly an impenetrable glacier faded away and was replaced by towering slabs of marble and steel, rising out of massive walls carved in power-runes and circuits. When our saviours arrive they will see us up here, clear as day. Assuming my theories and calculations are correct and they exist, and that we can hunt them down and find them. Assuming the complex does not fall to rot and madness in the meantime. Assuming the fifth and final overwatcher does not return and see the corruption and wipe us all away to start afresh. Assuming so many things.
The path ahead is long and winding but I set out with the wind at my back. I spare once last glance back at the golden majesty of my home, and hope that I might one day see it again. In the meantime I will go south to the blazing sands, to see if the desert races that once lived there may be the saviours I hope to find. If not I pray that one of my comrades will have better luck, and find our deliverers.
Find them soon.