THE MADNESS OF ANGELS


Mistah Kurtz–he dead.

'Heart of Darkness'


TWO

It took a few seconds of blindly feeling my way forward before I reached the next door. Although Lightbringer's promises of seeing some horrible truth hitherto unknown had failed to materialise so far, everything I had seen told me there was something to his claims. All the screaming, whimpering victims in the vids were one thing, but what he'd told me about how far his revelation game went back was another. I had no desire to descend into madness like Lightbringer obviously had, but the way he told it, I had no choice.

I felt a great trepidation as the door began to hiss open. Looking back now, it's obvious that my own fear created the images I would see. At the time, it seemed I had opened the gates of hell.

My theory now is that I had been drugged a second time, or that the drugs already in me had reached a second phase or started to take full effect. I had at least been in contact with reality before; I could feel where I sat, and if I stooped to touch the floor I knew it was bare metal there. No longer.

I took a step forward, and skulls cracked like eggshells beneath my boots.

A blasted wasteland lay before me. Its only inhabitants were the dead. They lay as far as the eye could see in every direction, thousands – no, it would have to be millions of them. Bare patches of grey, dusty earth were scarce, so many were the corpses; here and there they were piled into great bleeding heaps, and on storm-tossed horizons I could see vast pyramids of them, spearing high into a funereal sky.

No help from the fragments of my psyche was forthcoming. I'd have given anything to have Shepard by my side in a place like this, but all I could see was the innumerable bodies. All I could hear was a cold, keening wind. And all I could smell was the rotten, choking stench of death.

I knew I had to keep going. Every step brought new horrors. The splinter and crunch of bones gave way to squelches and other sickeningly organic sounds. Even when I tried to find the gaps between bodies, they seemed to move themselves under my feet so that my boots would always come free dripping with decay. It was too much; I bent double and retched hot acid. Nothing more. Spirits, I hadn't eaten properly in days.

I stood again, slowly, wiping strings of foul juices from my mouth, and ploughed on. In the distance, livid tornadoes whipped the barren landscape.

A hill crested beneath me, and I gazed out on a deep valley ahead. Its sides fell away sheer and didn't stop, vanishing into a darkness which seemed impenetrable to any light. A slender, hair-thin bridge arced over the gap, wide enough for one man to walk. Heights had never been a major fear of mine, but looking down into that blackness awakened primal horror within me. It looked alive, as if it was all one amorphous entity carved of darkness which lay pulsating in the huge crevice. As if it might reach up and drag me down.

I took a step, then gave a short, wordless cry of shock. I had seen something which haunts my dreams on bad nights to this day, an image which has never left my mind.

The valley was etched not in earth but in bodies, packed so tightly together that they formed a solid mass. Its sides were unfathomably huge blocks of corpses which rose and rose until ground level, millions upon millions of them.

I looked down.

When I moved the first body, there was another beneath it, and another beneath that. It was death all the way down.

The sight of it dizzied me. Death on an incomprehensible scale, on all sides. No war had ever produced anything like this. Not the Unification War, not the Rachni or Krogan War, not the human World Wars or batarian Hegemon Wars or elcor Century War. Nothing I had ever seen came close. I almost vomited again, but there was nothing left in me to come up.

I steadied myself. Breathed deeply, ignoring the stench. Stepped forward. Tripped, fell, barely saved myself from crashing straight into a batarian beneath me. My face was only a few inches from the corpse's, level with the batarian's closed eyes.

They opened.

I jerked up with a wordless cry of fear and shock, stumbled and fell back onto yet more bodies. Before me, the batarian slowly rose to its feet and turned its face towards me.

The eye sockets were nearly empty. I say 'nearly' because I could still see the ruinous remnants of eye tissue there, some of it dripping down over the batarian's face once released by the eyelids. It looked as if they'd exploded outwards somehow, ripped apart from within-

"My eyes," the batarian said thickly, and started lurching towards me. I scrambled back with an icy terror fondling my throat. My hands were squelching on spilled entrails. "Help me... my eyes..."

I stared up at the shambling, moaning corpse. "I can't help you," I said. "I, I can't-"

"Then help me, Garrus," another voice said, and I jerked around to see a turian with one mutilated eye and a hole the size of my fist in his head slowly rising from a heap of corpses to my left. "Didn't I tell you? You can't kill a god."

By now I was on my feet, backing away from both of them – but more of the dead were stirring all around me. Underfoot, a pale-haired human reached up and wrapped his arms around my leg. I flailed and shook him off, and as his smiling face – marred only by the gunshot wound in his head that was leaking blood and brain like it was fresh – turned towards me, I recognised him. Gus Williams. Which meant-

I whirled back to the turian. It was Deus. And the batarian – I couldn't remember the name, or even if I'd ever known it, but half-fragments of memory whispered back to me: a bag of pure red sand in my hands, and then glittering in the firelit air...

I shrank back from the dead as they came for me. I half-tripped over Rhi'hesh Shurta and landed on the salarian from the mech as he unfolded upwards, staggered back and quailed at the sight of Saren, eyes still burning that terrible corrupted blue even as the blood coursed down his face from where I'd shot him, ducked past Hadley Leach and his shattered bones, caught a glimpse of Dr Heart shambling towards me as I stumbled away from uncounted nameless vorcha and batarians and turians and humans and asari and krogan and salarians, most of them with bloody holes in their heads, and ran, though I knew not where I was going.

"Garrus," Chirin groaned just to my right, and no matter how fast I ran she was somehow always just feet away. "You let me die for you..."

"It wasn't my choice!" I shouted and kept running. On the horizon, black storm clouds were whirling and twisting into a great lightning storm that was suddenly all around me, and the howl of the wind reached deafening levels – and still, over the tumult, I could hear the plaintive, accusing calls of the dead.

"Killer," someone murmured into my ear. I span to find them, but there was nobody there. "What a word."

I was all alone now, the dead left behind me, and the storm fell to a deathly silence all around. I could still see the ravaging tornadoes and lightning, though they were silent now, and seemed very far away.

"Some mean it as an insult," the voice growled. "An insult! But they don't know. How could they? How could they know the sweetness of it? The thrill of the kill, oh yes... what is there to beat it?"

A warm rain had started overhead. I watched a few thick droplets splash onto my gauntlet. It was a deep, rich blue.

Through the rain of blood, a figure emerged before me. A krogan. One I knew all too well.

"Well, well," he said, and through the blue haze I could see teeth gleaming in a wide, death's-head grin. "Seems I don't die so easily after all."

As he neared, I could see the near-total burns that covered his cracked crest and face. Blood pulsed from a dozen gunshot wounds all over his body, running in orange rivulets across roasted flesh and mixing with the blue in the sky to make a dark, muddy brown.

"How many do you think we've killed?" Kron Harga asked. "Ninety-two, maybe? No, it's more. So many more. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. So much death. So much blood on our hands."

"Ours?" I said dully. "I've killed you once, Harga, and I can do it again."

The krogan came to a stop before me and laughed long and deep. "Open your eyes. The only way you can kill me is to kill yourself."

"You are not part of me," I said. But I knew he was, and oh, spirits, how that hurt.

Harga grinned again. "You know the truth. Why hide from it? I've been with you all along. There's a killer inside everyone." He pinched two blood-soaked fingers together. "Some get a little tiny one, one they can drown out. For them, it's just the quiet whisper at the back of the mind on a bad day when someone says the wrong thing, the voice that says 'kill them all', and it never gets to come out to play. Some get one big enough for a kill or two before it wastes away. And a few, a lucky few, get a killer like me, one who just keeps on giving."

There was a sudden groaning to my right, making me jump. Harga's voice had been stultifying, almost hypnotising in the unnatural silence of the storm's eye. As I turned, I saw a troupe of batarians rising from the carpet of corpses. They looked strangely shrivelled, their eyes hanging loose and desiccated in their sockets, their skin cracked and totally dry. As if they'd been exposed to a vacuum.

"Remember them?" Harga whispered to me. "Remember how you killed them all? Remember how you enjoyed it, how it gave you satisfaction to watch them scream and beg as you sent them out to a cold death among the stars?"

"Yes," I said.

When Harga spoke again, his voice seemed to be one with the patter of blood on the corpses around me. "You're nothing without me. You can take any other part of you away and leave the rest standing... but I'm the load-bearer. I'm the foundation. Strip away everything extraneous, burn away all the layers, scrub you down to the core... and there I am. Before everything else, you're a killer."

The dry-shrinked batarians were closing on me. I stepped back, but Harga caught my arm in an iron grip.

"Going somewhere?"

I tried to pull free, but he was impossibly strong. In desperation I drew my pistol with my free hand and shot him. Lightbringer had rendered my guns inoperative, but I'd forgotten that; in my mind, they still worked, and Harga let my arm go as he stared down at the three holes I'd put in his chest.

"You think that'll stop me?" he growled, and lunged for me. I ran, and Harga's mocking laughter echoed behind me.

I barged past one of the desiccated batarians, and he burst into a cloud of dust. I coughed and hacked as I ran, wiping blood from my eyes. The rain was coming down harder than ever now, and the wind had picked up again, whipping hard across the fields of corpses and driving the rain into my eyes. I could barely see ten feet in front of me, and all around me hundreds of bodies were coming to life and jerking raggedly upwards.

I ran through wide, glinting puddles of blood, splashing through it and almost wading when it grew too deep. Lightning cracked and snapped on the horizon. The shadows of the obscene mountains of corpses that dotted the deathly landscape grew ever longer and darker. I threw a glance over my shoulder a few times, and an army of the dead was always there – never moving faster than a shuffle, but somehow gradually gaining ground no matter how fast I ran. I looked back around and–

I ran through hospital corridors, labyrinthine halls of lifeless white that stretched on farther than the eye could see. On either side there were countless doors opening onto countless rooms, snatches of conversations I'd heard before floating out to me:

"-realistically, we wouldn't expect more than five years-"

"-a horrible way to die-"

"-won't even know your face-"

"-Corpalis Syndrome has no cure-"

"-terminal-"

I heard my sister's voice in one of them and skidded to a halt. When I looked back into the endless whiteness behind me, I could see a long trail of blue footprints where I'd trod blood onto the floor.

I went into the room. Solana stood there, facing away from me, staring out of a window which looked out onto that same field of death I'd fled across. Droplets of blood spattered against the glass.

"Sol?" I said quietly.

She didn't look at me. "Too late," she said. "Much too late. She's dead, and you weren't there..."

"Sol-"

She whirled to face me, but her face was not her own – or a face at all. A tidal wave of infernal red light crashed over me, and when she spoke it was in a voice that had haunted my nightmares ever since I'd first heard it.

"YOU ARE NOT GARRUS."

Titanic sound assaulted me, threw me back, sent shockwaves through my body and sent walls crumbling, floors dropping away to nothing, ceilings collapsing. Indescribable terror was throttling me. I scrambled out of the room, pursued by hellfire and fled the suddenly spreading destruction. The floor disintegrated inches behind me as I ran for my life, and by the time I looked back–

I ran through a Cipritine falling in on itself. The Anacreon Tower came tumbling down with a cacophonic screech, three hundred floors of durasteel crumpling like paper and filling the sky with an evil black smoke – a sky where immense metal monstrosities beyond description hung, blasting the city into rubble. The collapsing tower filled the path before me with a wave of choking smoke, but when I reached the other side–

I ran through plazas and thoroughfares strewn with the bodies of civilians as geth dragons'-teeth rose high on either side, and all around me the screams of the dying rang loud and long. It was my old beat, the one I'd walked years ago in the Wards, but it lay in ruins and there was nothing I could do to stop it–

I ran through Omega, and stopped.

It was slower here, thicker, like one of those bad dreams which goes on and on and on; I couldn't have gone faster than a walk if my life had depended on it.

Omega wasn't dead. It was dying. Its people were stricken by a terrible sickness. They coughed and spluttered and vomited blood and guts onto the street, gasped for air, wheezed for help, sobbed in pain, clutched at throats which wouldn't open. Bodies tumbled from balconies and windows to break on the durasteel below. It didn't matter who they were. Quarians and volus died alongside turians and asari, humans and batarians, salarians, krogans, elcor, hanar, drell.

I walked on alone through a doomed city. In the distance, I could hear a voice speaking calmly, as if blind to the cataclysmic death all around.

"By my calculations," it said, "it will be between eight and thirteen years until the number of lives saved equals those lost on Omega."

I was approaching the junction of Kima and Gozu, where we had made our home for the last year. The dying formed a perverse triumphal path for me, crying piteously for help as their lives shrivelled and withered away. They filled the sidewalk, but left me a two-metre-wide passage.

Far away through space and time, the voice continued. "After that, every day will see more and more people who will live but would otherwise have died if Omega had not been destroyed."

I reached the long bridge ahead of the base and started down it. It had gone deathly quiet now; the dead were behind me. All I could hear was the slow drum-beat of my own footsteps, and the detached, emotionless voice in the distance.

"For the long-term benefit of the galaxy, its destruction is essential."

Walking down that bridge took a length of time I cannot quantify. It could have been hours as easily as it could have been seconds. I do, however, remember very clearly the dark, growing sense of horror gnawing at my insides with every step. Omega outside the bridge and the base faded away to blackness, leaving what was left suspended in an infinity of nothing.

"Would you destroy a city to save the planet? Would you destroy a family to save five more?"

I could not be sure, but the voice seemed to be beginning to sound like my own. I walked on.

"Lives will be saved if Omega is destroyed, Garrus, millions of them."

The horror had become almost overbearing. Where I found the courage, the resolve to keep moving towards the base I cannot say, for I knew now that something beyond terrible waited there for me. The certainty weighed down my spirit like an anchor.

"Sometimes, I catch myself wondering..."

The entrance to the base yawned open, welcoming me. Deep shadow lay inside. I walked in, and fell to my knees.

There they lay. Sensat at the table, head resting in a pool of his own blood. Butler folded over the arm of a couch. Melenis on the floor, torn half to shreds. Krul on the stairs, Mierin beside him; their blood mixed and dripped in unison between the steps. Ripper staring sightlessly at the ceiling. Monteague and Vortash heaped together, the floor blue and red and purple beneath them. Weaver slumped against a blood-smeared wall. Erash face-down on the floor.

And Sidonis, coughing weakly below me. He grimaced as I knelt over him, and coughed strings of blood.

"Where does it all end?" he murmured. "Stop the ride, I want to get off..." He coughed again, then fixed me with a baleful glare. "You could have stopped this. You could have saved us."

I had no answer to give him, but it didn't matter. He reached up, caught hold of my collar and pulled me down... then, quick as a flash, a six-inch knife was quivering in my stomach. Sidonis released it and smiled.

"You failed us," he said, and his voice was Harga's. "So die with us."

I looked numbly down at the knife as Sidonis collapsed. Blood trickled around the blade and down my shirt – and it was a shirt; my combat suit had vanished – dyeing it blue.

Staggering to my feet again, I turned back for the bridge, clutching my stomach. I found myself face to face with my father, whose old C-Sec desk had appeared in the middle of the atrium, still as squeaky-clean and orderly as it had been the last time I'd seen it.

"This won't do, Garrus," he said. "This isn't good enough. You should know better. What do I always tell you? Do it right or don't do it at all."

I stared at him in blank confusion for a moment as he looked down to his paperwork. He made a minor alteration to a document on his terminal and sighed. "You do realise you'll have to die for this?" Before I could process that, he took a pistol out of his desk drawer, aimed carefully, and shot me.

I fell back and landed on corpses, storm-wracked skies contorting and writhing overhead. I was in no pain, yet at the same time I was convinced I was dying, dying from imaginary wounds caused by imaginary weapons. The knife's handle felt as real to the touch as anything else; the blade might as well have been smoke.

Looking back now, I could tell I was teetering on the edge of losing it completely. The hallucinations had degenerated into near-incoherency, and I had long since stopped being aware that they were indeed hallucinations. My mind was fracturing under the strain.

I stood on shaky legs and looked out over the canyon carved into these great continents of corpses that I had seen earlier. I was closer to the bridge than I had been. It arced high into the air over the ravine, barely wide enough for even one person. I had to cross it. I don't know why. I didn't then. But it was the way forward, and Shepard's – or rather, whatever fragment of my personality the rest of me was representing with a facsimile of Shepard – words had stayed with me. I would keep going until I could not.

The only sound in the air was an intermittent ominous rumble from the clouds. No rain, no thunder, no lightning, no tornadoes. Even the dead were staying that way. Just me.

I approached the bridge. As I neared it, my eyes worked out strange inconsistencies in its shape; like everything else in this hellscape, the bridge was made of corpses, stacked two or three deep and held together I knew not how. I recognised the types of bodies, if not the bodies themselves: Deus's cannon fodder, mercs from every major outfit, Shadows, Shurta Foundation troopers, vorcha... I'd killed all of them in their dozens at the least.

One step. The bridge was soft. Bodies shifted slightly as I trod on them, their torsos depressing under my weight.

Another step. The impossible drop now loomed on either side.

Another. Vertigo raced in circles around my head.

Another. Eyes planted firmly ahead. Don't look down.

Another. I looked down.

Another. The bridge rose high ahead of me; working my way up was difficult, but coming down would either be even harder... or very, very easy, if I put just one foot wrong.

Another. Another. Another, and I was nearing the apex; a few more steps and I would be able to see over it...

Another, and Harga was waiting for me.

He smiled with bloodstained teeth. "What did I tell you? You can't escape me. Maybe you can break free of the others, but you can't live without me."

"Let me pass," I said, hearing the weariness in my own voice. "I have to pass to live, and you can't live without me either."

"True," Harga said. "But today, I'm feeling a little self-destructive."

He lunged at me faster than I could get away, and for one long, drawn-out moment, we grappled there on the bridge of the dead. Then my footing slipped on something organic, and the world twisted itself sideways and sent me plummeting into the valley. Wind rushed at my face and howled around my ears as the darkness raced towards me, but I could still hear Harga above it all. Laughing.

The fall would been enough to kill me a hundred times over in reality. This was not reality, no matter what Lightbringer said. Walls of corpses flashed past on either side, gradually darkening as I fell further than even light could penetrate until I fell through utter blackness, with even the dim line of light that was the vast gulf of the valley overhead fading from view.

The wind died down soon after. I wasn't even sure if I was falling. I tried to twist in the air to check, but I couldn't see my own body. I couldn't see anything.

And in truth, I didn't mind. The darkness was pleasant compared to what had gone before. Soothing. Peaceful. I didn't mind it at all. Leaving it and going back to everything else would be so much trouble...

"A pity," Lightbringer murmured. I didn't bother looking for a source. I knew it wouldn't be there. "I had thought you stronger, Archangel. I thought you might have been extraordinary. It seems you're as afraid of the truth as all the rest. Is there truly no power left within you? Will you not set me free?"

He sounded desolate now, but I was almost beyond caring about him. I tried to remember who he was. Some sort of murderer? My mind had gone dark around the edges, and it was eating its way inwards.

Sidonis floated past, going upwards as I sank further into the blackness. "Dull décor down here, but you could get used to it," he said, shrugging. "Could be worse..."

"Could it?" Monteague muttered on my other side. "Maybe if it was on fire."

Shepard said nothing. She just slowly tumbled past and off into the void.

"Seems I've killed us," Harga said, as he bobbed up past me. "Appropriate."

Then they were all gone, and I sank alone into the depths.

I closed my eyes, and drifted off...

And then an angel appeared.

White light engulfed me, unbearably pure and unbearably bright. I moaned and tried to shield my eyes with an arm, but the light seemed to penetrate everything, drilling into the core of my being like a divine searchlight, obliterating shadow and darkness and replacing them with a light so pure it hurt even to imagine.

Squinting past it, I saw the shape of a man start to emerge, comprised entirely of light. It approached me, and I stood to meet it, solid ground appearing under my feet as I did so.

How can I describe it? If a black hole is the ultimate darkness, then this was its inverse. Brighter than any supernova, a harsher white than the core of a star... the figure before me was made of something I had never seen before and never would again. To this day, even the most sterile white lights look yellowed and dirty next to what I saw at the bottom of the valley of the dead.

What I felt when I looked at it was a great sense of certainty. Not certainty in any particular notion, but certainty in certainty itself; to look at it was to understand that there exist things which simply are. It could not be qualified or doubted. It was a metaphysical anchor of sorts, and simply seeing it brought me halfway back to reality in a moment.

The figure extended a hand. I looked at it for a moment, then into the featureless face, and did the same. Our hands met, and I – well, I touched light. Not in the way one can touch hard-light constructs, but in a deeper, more fundamental sense. It was a feeling unlike any other, completely alien and utterly indescribable.

"So..." I said, "what do we do now?"

The angel looked at me, and two enormous, beautiful wings sprouted from its back.

"Rise."

And we rose.

Our speed was blinding. We soared faster than I had ever fallen, rocketing upwards until the top of the valley was suddenly visible again, a tiny gold crack which widened and widened until we powered clean out of it and into the air above it. The blasted landscape that had been there before was gone, replaced by rolling green hills under burnished golden skies streaked with pale pink clouds. A perfect day on Palaven.

The angel set us down on the opposite side of the valley and folded its great wings away. I let go of its hand and knelt, touching the turf. It was springy and very slightly damp to the touch, just as I remembered it from all those years ago.

I stood again, and the angel was no longer alone. Sidonis, Monteague, Shepard and Harga stood by it, the five of them making a ring around me.

"Fucking well took you long enough," Sidonis said, and walked into me. Not in the sense that we collided, but rather that he simply entered me and disappeared, like a cheap hologram trick. It was a startling experience, but I felt more whole for it.

Monteague looked around glumly. "Shame," he said. "Just as I was beginning to like it out here..." He shrugged eloquently, and followed Sidonis, ghosting into me and vanishing.

Shepard came next, still helmeted. "Shepard and Vakarian, together again at last, huh?" This time, I felt a sudden glow of warmth within me, and I was smiling when I turned to Harga.

The krogan grinned back. "Don't forget. I'll be with you. Always." He threw himself at me, and was gone.

I turned to the angel.

"What part of me are you, then?" I asked. "What's left?"

The angel tipped its head and smiled. I don't know how I knew it was smiling, since there was no visible mouth, but I knew it was there all the same. It stepped wordlessly towards me, and I automatically did the same.

I felt a strange coldness within me, sharp and bright and clear as a winter day. I cannot say whether the angel became part of me, or if I became part of it.

And then I was alone.

"Well," I murmured to myself, and cracked the joints in my neck. "That was something."

I turned in a circle, drinking in the majestic landscape all around me. As I did so, I spotted a solitary circular door standing twenty metres or so away. The final destination.

I walked to it, and it slid open to reveal an opulent executive office, all plush indigo carpet and wood-panelled walls. At a huge glass-and-steel desk situated in front of a wall-sized window looking out over the same verdant landscape sat Lightbringer. His suit seemed a little shabbier now, a little less white.

He waved me in and indicated a couple of chairs sitting in front of his desk. "Sit down, sit down."

Cautiously, I walked the length of the room, feeling myself sink into the carpet along the way, and sat. Lightbringer nodded and leaned back in his chair.

"It seems," he said slowly, "that I owe you an apology, Archangel. I thought for sure that you had succumbed just like all the others. What did you find within yourself that kept you going?"

"I saw the light," I said truthfully.

Lightbringer chuckled under his breath, and shook his head. "Remarkable. You'll make a worthy successor."

"Sorry to disappoint, but this little tradition ends with you."

"I felt the same way, once," Lightbringer murmured. "You'll come around. What you've seen here today will never leave you. It will always be there at the back of your mind, year after year, until you can't bear to live with that knowledge any longer... but you won't let the truth die. The light is unbearable, yet it must be kept alive. We can't allow it to fade from this world. No, you'll do as I did, no matter how much you deny it. It's just a matter of time."

He reached down and slid open a desk drawer. From it he took two identical injectors, which he placed on the desk.

"A last choice," he said. "This one will let the light fade, at least for now. You'll return to the world you knew. And this one... this one is what you've experienced so far, multiplied by a hundred. Undiluted. Pure. It takes you into the light, and you will never return. We each take one. One of us dies, one of us lives. Or perhaps we both die, or both live. It all depends on the way you see things. Truth can be so... deceptive."

"They could both be fatal," I said. "Or you could be lying about which is which. Why should I take either?"

Lightbringer shrugged. "Well, what's in you now will kill you within a couple of hours unless you take an antidote. I have never lied to you."

For a long moment, I stared at him across the desk, then reached for the injector he'd told me was the cure and raised it to my neck. He did the same with the other.

"Well, then," Lightbringer said, and smiled. "I'll see you on the other side, Archangel."

I pressed the delivery button on my injector, and felt the familiar cool hiss as it dumped its contents into my blood. I laid the empty plastic on the desk, blinked, and–

The office was not an office. It was just another room of plain grey metal. No carpets, no wood panels, no window. Even the desk was just a cheap steel table.

Lightbringer was wearing nothing but an unremarkable grey jumpsuit. His head was still uncovered. As the last shreds of his old office wavered and disappeared from my vision, he drew in a great shuddering breath, coughed once, and closed his eyes.

"Keelah," he said, so quietly I could barely hear him. "It's so beautiful."

"What is?" I asked.

Lightbringer opened his eyes one last time, and they were full of wonder. What did he see? If what I had experienced was only a diluted version, what must its purest form be like? What fresh reality had he illuminated for himself? What truths did he come to understand in his, final supreme moment of complete knowledge?

"The madness," he whispered, his voice hardly more than a breath. "The madness..."

Then he was gone, slumped over his desk. His hand nudged his empty injector, and it rolled slowly away before clattering to the floor.

Before I left, I recovered the contents of his omnitool and a small terminal on the wall. We would return here in days to come, Sensat and I, and we unpicked all we could learn about Lightbringer, which was little enough. Sensat would marvel at the elegance of his formulae; I would retrace my steps through his complex and see the reality of what I had experienced.

A room with a small, ten-centimetre trough running through it, 'bridged' by an extension of the metal floor. Was this the valley of the dead? Was this the bridge where I had fought a killer and lost? The rest of the place was the same story; half-shapes and contours that might have suggested cities and worlds to a crazed mind. Perhaps it was designed that way, to shape my experience. A gauntlet which I had passed. I felt no pride in having done so.

On that day, though, I left Lightbringer there and quietly departed, still half-dazed. Doors opened willingly for me now, and within two minutes I was outside, blinking at the orange light washing over me.

The madness in the air seemed lesser now. Perhaps it was only by comparison with what I had seen. Nevertheless, there was a sense that perhaps it had reached its apex and would wither away with Lightbringer, though whether the two were at all connected – that, we would never know. As I headed for home, I truly did feel that a fever somewhere had broken, and that somewhere, a sun was rising.

The events of that day remained with me. How could they not? The sight of that storm-wracked field of the dead, of cities in ruins and friends in their death throes, and most of all of that one glimpse of ultimate, untouched purity – these things could not have been forgotten in a millennium. Nor could Lightbringer's final words. They would greet me in dreams for years to come, though whether they were a promise, a threat or a last farewell, I could not say. But I will not forget them.

"The madness. The madness..."