The Final Countdown (Barrowman Remix #6)
When Greyscale mentioned the word ‘test’ I had an ideal in my mind. Like I don’t know, a feat of strength, or maybe someone judging me, or a chessboard with man-sized players or something. I did not expect a tropical island in the middle of freaking nowhere.
But if I believe my eyes, which I am not quite sure I do, that’s where I am. Translucent water as far as the eye can see. An island maybe one or two kilometer wide. Palms here and there. It would be the perfect vacation if it weren’t for the clock in the sky. In the middle of where the sun should shine, there is a number, a red number, like one of those high-tech laser clocks that projects the time on your ceiling.
When I entered…. wherever this place is, the clock was at 60:00.
Now it’s at 58:34, and moving downward. Whosh. With Greyscale’s advice fresh in my mind I move up a couple of dunes for a better vantage point. Huh. I can make out several other islands on the horizont, but other than that there is nothing. No clouds. No wind.Whosh. Just the faint lapping of waves hitting shore.
If this is Greyscale’s version of a test then – Whosh.
There is that sound again. Whosh. It sounds like the waves, except there is a rythm to this sound, not like the random irregular noise of the waves.Whosh – there is it is again. I turn in the direction of the beat, north, and look. Something, a speck, is moving towards me. I really wish I had a couple of bincoculars… Something falls behind me. Lying on the white sand, next to me, is a couple of black binoculars. Now that’s odd… where did they come from? I grab the binoculars and look. And then I wish I hadn’t. The ‘speck’ isn’t a speck. It’s a….. it can’t be.
And then I shake my head. According to Greyscale I am inside my soul– notwithstanding what a soul really is. Before that I accidently drank the blood a blue-skinned man, which gave me the mother of a febers, and then I spent three days, I think, in a place that isn’t here, or there. Rather than freaking out, I should reset my expectations and work with a clean slate. I look again.
The being hurtling across the sky looks like a cross between a European dragon and something out of Jurassic Park. Four feet. Wings on the back. A long sinuous tail. Grey skin, the color of smoke. But the eyes. Those eye I recognize. They’re green, a dark green, like jade. They’re like Greyscale’s eyes, except deeper and darker.
I turn the binoculars towards the sun- and I see something that turns my blood into ice. A dark pattern has spread across the sun and the sky, and it is spreading even as I look at it. I glance at the clock. 55:21.
55:20 and the pattern extends, if only little. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. When the clock reaches zero… I remember the nightmare, and the suffocation feeling. Nu-uh. And…if I accept what Greyscale said, then this is my soul, somehow. But what happens if I don’t get out of here? What happens to a body without a soul? Will I become a brain-dead vegetable? I really don’t wanna figure that out.
I turn to the dragon. So…. I have two problems. I must finish my task before the final countdown, and yet I don’t know what my task is. Subdue the dragon? Fight the dragon? I am not St George, really.
A beat of wings, and the dragon is in front of me, hovering twenty metres away. Eyes the size of doors focus on me- and now I think I know how a rabbit feels.
“So you are the one would chain me, little mortal! Chain me like a beast of burden!”
Eh, wait, what? “Ehrm, I don’t want to chain you.” “Lies! Was it not you who split my soul?”
This sounds like Greyscale’s doing- not mine. “I don’t have an idea what you’re talking about!” “You lie, little mortal. I can smell it on the wind. You brought me here, through foul magic, to heel like an dog! I will not waste words on little liars!”
Before I have time to offer an response, the dragon hits me. Hits me like a freight train. For a split-second I experience the sensation that a stone must feel in a game of skipping stones, then nothing.
I blink. I am lying on a different island, different from the one I manifested on, atop another sand dune. What…? Then it comes back to me. The dragon, the Kafkaesque korridor, it all comes back to me. I look down. My body is in pieces. My left arm is simply gone. My right arm is twisted into a knot. My legs are smeared stumps. Hell, I can’t feel anything below my collarbone. And with the realization of all the things that are broken inside my body comes the pain. I almost faint– I do faint, I think. It’s the ache of breaking a leg, increased thousandfold.
A large sound that I can feel in my bones tell me that the dragon is on it’s way. Now what? I can’t move. My body is broken. And even if I could move, even if I wasn’t broken, what would I do?
Fight a dragon? You might as well fight a hurricane. Fight a storm. A large gobble of blood forces itself through my throat. This is it, then. Oh well. I get to see Alexandra soon.And Mom and Dad. Might even get to see Grandma, although I am not sure I want to, because she was really orny in life, and I don’t think death has changed her.
My hand touches something. Something sharp, that cuts me, a tiny pain that is nothing to what I am feeling. I look down. It’s the glass of the binoculars. Now where did I get those binoculars from? I pick up one of the shards in my hand.
One of the things Greyscale told me comes to mind. Things are not what they seem. I look around, at the tropical landscape. Well no shit.
I look up at the clock, who has reached 49:13 and the dark stain that is spreading across my little universe. Succeed no matter the cost. Yeah, I am bit broken up right now. I chuckle at my own humor.
I flick a piece of glass upside down. What was the last thing he said. This is your inner sanctum…. you make the rules…. trust your instincts…. my single eye zero in on the binoculars. I stood on a dune of sand. I looked at the clock in the sky. I saw the dragon. And… I thought. I thought to myself that I should have binoculars. You make the rules in this place…
Could it be that easy? I look at my right arm and focus for a split second. There is wrenching sound, a snap and pain, so much pain but then I look at my right arm. My whole right arm. I look at my left arm, and reflowing calcium turns into bone, proteins turn into flesh and skin, pronounced by sharp pain. But the worst part is my legs. It’s growing pains accelerated a billion times, pain that doesn’t stop just because I have regenerated my legs.
I stand up gingerly. Tears are flowing down my face, the result of tear canals who won’t listen. The dragon swoops down like a hawk at me.
I try calling out to it. “Wait!” ” Would you just listen to me for a second?!” It ignores me. I throw myself down the dune and just barerly avoid becoming paste. It circles around, like a giant vulture.
Alright– you don’t wanna talk, do you? I make the rules in this place. And in order to fight something that big I need…. size? Weight? No, that’s not it. I need mass, mass like a mountain. I imagine that I have the mass of Mount Everest, heavy and unyielding. The dragon raises one hand and slams it down with quicksilver speed. And I seize it. The amount of air being displaced by that giant claw causes sand to whirl around me, obscuring my body.
I focus. I need the strength of Hercules, of Superman. Still holding a digit of the enormous claw I rotate my hips and with a mighty heave I throw the dragon. It lands, upside down, with a mighty crack on the small island behind me. It screams a high-pitched scream and roars.One of its wings is bent at an unnatural angle.
“Ha, payback’s a bitch!” It roars incoherently at me. With speed that you wouldn’t believe it launches itself at me. But this time I am ready. I neatly sidetrack it by jumping high in the air. As I come down I hold out my arms, hands interlocked and hit it in the head. It stumbles. I grab it’s jaw. “This is for my leg.” I punch it. “This is for my other leg.” I punch it again. “This is for my left arm.” I punch it for the third time. “This is for my-” It headbutts me.
If you’ve never been headbutted by something the size of a skyskraper, then let me tell ya; it hurts. I bounce on the sand and I crash into a palm-tree. A single coconut falls from the tree and splits hitting my head. White coconut-milk spills over my face. “Oh I am going to get you for that!”
I look at the clock. 30:31.
The dragon lumbers towards me. It’s hard to tell against its mottled skin, but I think it’s starting to bruise. A chest the size of an hangar swells up. It’s not going to..?
The dragon opens its mouth, and unleashes a sea of flames. I jump, but not before the fire swathes my ankle. Blisters immediately form and I crash down in a barrel roll. The first thing I do on the ground is to re-imagine my ankle as healthy and pink, and not red and oozy. Distracted by my healing efforts I don’t notice the projectile, not until it hits me in the chest. I feel something breaking, something on the inside. And even though my skin is proably denser than bedrock right now, my inner organs isn’t.
I recreate my inner body to the extent of the knowledge that I have of human anatomy. But that projectile…. it gives me an idea.I create a picture inside my head and with the snap of my fingers a square machine with a long pipe appears next to me. I hold one arm up in front of me and I make a cutting motion. “Fire!” The Howitzer fires an enormous shell which strikes the dragon right in the hindquarters. A second shell hits its broken wing and it screams. I look at artillery. Hmm one is quite effective… but what if I had twenty?
I focus on that reality. Nineteen other Howitzers form around me. “Aim for the left arm.” The rain of fire is devasting. And when the smoke clears, the dragon has a broken wing, and no left arm.
“I yield little man! I yield!” Huh– I didn’t expect that. As I look at the dragon, as I look at its shattered body, it’s pathetic crawl-walk, I am filled with an strange emotion. Pity. It seems wrong somehow, that something that is so majestic should be humiliated like this. I decide to make an final overture. Maybe the third time will prove its charm.
I walk down the dunes, but at the same time I make sure that the Howitzers will fire at the slightest provocation.
I stop at about thirty metres away. I lock eyes with the dragon. I point up. It follows my line of sight. “Do you see that clock?” It looks at the clock, which is now 30:35, and the dark stain which has covered the sky, and even started to infect the water. It nods. “I don’t think that neither of us wants to be here when it reacher zero.”
“What do you propose then, little human?” “Propose? I propose nothing. I am just airing my thoughts. I think– that one of us is supposed to die here. The survivor gets out, and the one left… well, I don’t want to know what happens the one left. Do you?”
“An astute observation- but it leads you nowhere.” “Oh but it does.” The dragon’s head sverve, tracking me as I walk in a half-circle around it. “What if we both get out of here? This is my soul, my body, and while I don’t think sharing it would be exactly pleasant, I really don’t wanna leave an innocent…. being here.”
The dragon looks at me with alien eyes. It mulls on what I have said for some time. We both look at the clock in the sky. 28:21.I don’t know how to judge people’s expressions, let alone dragons, but I would say that the face of the dragons softens momentarily before hardening. “And how do I know that I can trust you? That you will not suborn me? Two souls, one body, but one will be king, and the other will serve.”
That confirms my suspicion as to what you are. “To be perfectly honest you don’t know. You will have trust me, trust my word. Can you do that?” The dragon looks at me. There is a moment, a moment of indecision where I have to make up my mind, a moment where everything can go wrong- but then I make my call. I slowly raise a hand and snap my fingers. The twenty Howitzers disappears.
The dragon looks at the space the artillery-cannons used to occupy, then at me. We look at each other, once more, for some time. Then, as if deciding, the dragon moves like lightning . The fist stops a couple of milimeters from my face.
This close up I will say that it’s a very big fist.
My perspective changes as the fist unclenches, opens, grabs me and brings me eye to eye with a being out of a fantasy-novel. That door-sized eyes looks at me, inspects me, a favor I return. The pupils of the dragon’s eyes are slitted, like diamonds, with the pupil being a deep emerald green, offset by the lighter green of the iris. Something passes between the two of us, human and not-human. Not a compromise.But an understanding. Partnership?
The claw puts me down on a dune, gently. I look at the clock. 22:13. “Very well. I accept.” The dragon reaches of with the nail of a claw. I touch it. There is light. A sound that fills my universe, unification– a meld of souls.
Greyscale and the rest of the team, as he has started to think about them as, are sitting in the kitchen, sipping on their pleasure of choice. Merith is drinking Persian tea together with Hermann, Perenelle is drinking something that sounds funny in French, and he and Lionheart are just drinking plain tap water.
Their little soireé is disturbed when Rune starts to trash around. The first thing Greyscale does is to insert his hand into Rune’s mouth, to make sure he doesn’t bite off his tongue. “Hold him down”, Hermann shouts. “What does it look like I am doing?!”
Lionheart sits on Rune’s legs, Perenelle holds his chest down, Hermann grabs hold of his left shoulder with Merith on his right, and Greyscale watches his head. They all sit like that for a couple of minutes. The seizure eventually abates. “What was that about”, Perenelle asks. “I think-” Greyscale stops. “Do you guys smell that?”
Hermann closes his eyes. ” It feels…. it feels like his body is changing?” A single drop of sweat, black inky sweat runs down Rune’s face. Then a second. A third. As they watch, Rune’s body expunges the black taint, drop by drop for over an half hour.
Hermann looks intently at Rune. “I can feel no taint in him… but there is something else.” Greyscale inhales. Rune’s scent has fundamentally changed, something which is very, very rare, almost impossible. There is now an serpentine tint to it, one not unlike his own. “In other words– it worked.”
“What do we do now?”, Hermann asks.
“We wait, and we see”, Greyscale replies.