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After he heard Sid exclaim over Ama, he continued down the hallway, frantically opening each door on the outer ring. He'd yet to come across one for the inner portion, which he feared might hide what he was looking for, and could only be entered by yet another secret door.
One room contained tables with several beakers and different colored liquids. Yet another, animals in cages, all alive yet eerily quiet.
Eventually he stumbled on a room filled with file cabinets and boxes clearly containing paperwork. This, this might help.
However, he didn't know where to start, his limited time pressing at his temples and exacerbating the beginnings of a fresh headache. So he grabbed the nearest box, which like the others wasn't labeled.
Most of the papers appeared to be detailed information on gates, not from the courtyard but other spots in Nect. And detailed was a tad of an understatement. Whoever jotted down these notes covered every crack and crevice, dimple or dent.
Useless. Completely useless. He moved onto one of the file cabinets, and the papers here were more interesting. They seemed to extensively explore the Ancients. This could be of use.
But then he realized all of it was conjecture, only some of it based in the faintest of truths. The Guardians had truly destroyed everything they had on the Ancients. Wait, no. He scanned another passage again. The Ancients had destroyed all the historical texts, and the Guardians were trying to recover it.
He skimmed more of the pages, hoping to find the why buried in the words.
Then Damian barged in. "What are you doing? We've found Ama, and we need to get out of here."
"Why didn't you just leave without me?" Bishop growled.
The Guardian glared and clutched the bag still strapped across his chest. "For the same reason I didn't let you go when we stepped through the portal."
Ah, curse the light that blinds the Eye. The man actually did care. This complicated things. "I need more information. Supposedly, the Ancients were the ones that burned all your portal books and histories."
Damian released his grip, his arms falling to his sides. "Truly?"
Bishop nodded. He knew he could have lied again, or simply omitted anything he'd actually found, but the man had decided not to leave him behind, and he owed him for that. "I'm trying to find out why."
"The name's Sid." Her voice was distant, but full of determination.
He cursed. A couple days ago, he would have gladly sacrificed another to focus on his own objective. Now, he couldn't leave her to whatever Guardian monster she faced.
"Give me those papers and go. I'll be right behind you." Damian opened his bag.
Bishop shoved the files at him. "What do you want to bet she'll claim she doesn't need saving?"
Shoving the papers in his bag, Damian chuckled.
But Bishop didn't wait for an actual answer -- he zipped out the door and back up the hall, side-stepping Damian's still unconscious father. He was still pleased his spell had worked a treat. Well, on the third attempt.
A hulk of a man faced Sid, and another woman who he could only assume was Ama sat on the floor, appearing bewildered. The man advanced.
"So Bear, what's your deal with Damian? That first day when I had to go before the council, I noticed something between you two. What's the story?"
Bear paused, eyebrows drawing together. A Guardian that clearly was more muscle than brain, but Sid also knew how to apply questions that made the most thoughtful brain pause.
As Bishop approached her, though, he realized that wasn't all she had on her side. The little pocket knife in her hand glowed, a silver-blue to rival the afternoon sky of the Iris Meadows of Turss. And he felt the power humming off of her, stronger than ever before.
Part of him wanted to see what she could do with that power.
The cautious side of him, though, realized she likely didn't know what she was doing at all, and if whatever coursed through her failed because he didn't act, it would be his fault.
Bear took another step forward.
"I don't think so." Bishop summoned the magic deep inside of him, directing it into his right arm, reaching to the tips of his fingers. He raised his arm up and slashed it down with all the focus and determination he could muster.
It didn't take him three attempts this time. Bear fell with a thud, vibrating the floor with his heft.
A debilitating pain lanced through Bishop's head. He pressed a hand to his forehead, moaned, and dropped to one knee.
Through blurry eyes, he saw the blue glow on Sid's knife snuff out. She tucked the blade back into her cloak. Then she knelt down and pressed her fingers to the fallen Guardian's neck.
He knew what she was going to say before she said it.
"He's dead." She turned to him, the shock on her face swimming before him, doubling then tripling. "You killed him."
"I didn't... I didn't mean to."
Damian bounded up to them. "We can't worry about it right now. My father's stirring, and Liss may be on her way if she's not waiting for us above already. Obsidian, help Ama. I've got him."
Bishop's vision flashed in and out, the pain still stabbing him behind the eyes. Curse of the Eye. He'd betrayed his world, and now he was being punished.
More importantly, he'd killed a man.
Damian tucked an arm under him, and he stumbled up the stairs next to the Guardian.
One look back. Bishop had to. Bear's corpse burned into his mind. Yes, he'd seen dead bodies before. But he'd caused this one.
He'd wanted to end the war so he never had to do something like this. The will of the Eye laughed at his desires, the echo following him up the stairs and out of the council building of the Guardians.
Damian felt sick over Bear's death. Even with how the gruff Guardian had treated him growing up, he didn't deserve that. This wasn't how he wanted things to unfold.
There is no return from death. But we must allow the dead to sleep. The precept had a couple layers of meaning -- it not only referred to true death, but also the past. It always bothered him that the rules had so much repetition. Now, he realized it made it better to impress certain beliefs onto people.
Not that he had time to ruminate over the precepts of Bear's death. No telling when Liss would appear.
And though the anger attempted to tug at him, to accuse Bishop of being so careless, the man clearly hadn't intended that result, nor was he handling it all too well, and it took a lot of effort to pull his gaze away from the body.
"Do I press this button?" Obsidian was ahead of him, and they're reached the top of the steps. "Well, here goes nothing."
The door whooshed open. Damian feared Liss would swoop down on them, blocking their exit, but they entered an empty council room with no sight of her. Perhaps Bear had rushed down to the lab without telling her, confident that he could handle the situation himself.
Either way, they had to hurry.
They crossed the council room and headed down the hall, far too slowly for Damian's liking, but with two of their group needing assistance there was no possibility of speeding up. Finally, they stepped into the night.
The power from the gates swirled in his brain like a miniature cyclone more than usual. Especially the Destiny portal. Not that it called to him -- it still held its disturbing silence. Unfortunately, he'd have to leave it behind. Hopefully he could return one day and explore it.
And now he sounded like Obsidian. He'd told her not to do just that. A big, old hypocrite. "Let's get to Turmoil and get out of here." His declaration failed to extinguish his guilt.
Obsidian nodded, and he noticed she was trembling, eyes darting from gate to gate. Perhaps the power of them was also heightened for her, clawing at her mind.
Just as she ducked into the hill with Ama, Damian spotted Councilwoman Liss exiting the building he'd visited a couple days ago to visit his mother. He practically dragged Bishop into the safety of the misshapen hill, and left him leaning against it, heart seemingly thudding in every corner of his body, from his toes to his fingertips.
He peeked out to observe Liss. Her face maintained an unreadable expression, but she hastily strode to the council building. So he stepped back to the others, removing his bag from his shoulder. "We have to hurry. Once Liss finds Bear and my father in the lab, she'll come searching for us, likely starting with any hiding spots in the courtyard."
"Hand over the book, then." Obsidian had lowered Ama to the ground, who at least appeared more alert, and extended her arm.
It would have been easier if he allowed her to do it again. After all, she'd already broken the precept.
But Damian knew he needed to do it, for nothing less than to solidify his resolution to buck the precepts. He tugged the book out of the bag. "No, I'm opening the gate this time."
She lowered her arm and tilted her head, her brows briefly drawing together before she schooled her face. "Fine, then."
Yes, no denying she wanted the book back. He hoped she'd eventually realize while it had started out as hers, it had become so much more. It represented all that had been lost to Nect, and the hope that some of that could be restored to the world again.
Ah, portals be damned, he couldn't stop her, or himself, from entering other gates -- they needed to, to piece together the past. To figure out why the Ancients left and burned almost all of the portal books before they did so.
Damian approached Turmoil and looked down at the book. The script for Destiny peered back at him. He touched the cover. "One day, but not now." His conviction growing inside him by the moment, he pressed his palm to the gate before him, watching the script on the book shift and shimmer until Turmoil emerged.
The cool stone against his skin felt right, proper. Not what the precepts declared. It pained him to remove his hand, but opening the portal was imperative.
He picked up the candle. "Knife please."
Obsidian held the blade up and squinted at it before handing it over.
Questions burned on his tongue, but they'd have to wait for later. He sliced open a small cut on the top of his wrist, and he gritted his teeth against the pain. That didn't stop him from etching the script into the wax flawlessly. He placed it in the well under the arch once he was done and handed the knife back to Obsidian after he'd wiped it on a cloth he'd brought along just for this purpose. Unlike her, he'd considered and prepared everything before he'd leaped into this madness.
Yes, either way, it was still madness.
Then Damian lit the candle. "One of your pins now, please."
She obliged, her hair tumbling down her back. He still thought it looked better that way.
Just as eloquently as on the candle, he traced the script in the dirt with the pin. Now the words, the ones he hadn't heard when Obsidian had first spoken them, similar to Bishop's words when they'd returned to Nect. "Chains connect to other worlds like a web, tugging them toward the center. Nect calls -- the core, the heart, the nexus. The life of one world feeds the life of all. I cry to one of the limbs, one which sustains the heart. A world with its soul torn in two. Turmoil."
And nothing happened.
The power didn't jump, and the portal didn't swirl with brilliance. Damian's words hung in the air, ineffective. "What?" He felt useless, empty. Rejected.
If he couldn't be a follower of the precepts or a person who sought redemption for the treachery of his fellow Guardians, what could he be? Where was his place?
Bishop snorted. He must have recovered slightly if he had the energy to be so derisive.
Obsidian frowned, but then her face lit up in a sudden realization. "I know!" She yanked the hairpin out of his hand and studied it closely. "I accidentally pricked my palm with one the other day."
And the book detailed how an object to write the script in the dirt shouldn't have drawn blood. A small sliver of hope kindled inside him. Though he knew there was still a chance he'd fail again.
"Go, Seth! Look for them in the House of Portals. Find your son!" Liss's shouts jolted Damian. She was near.
"Give me the other pin."
"Are you sure you don't want me to do it?" Her confidence in his abilities clearly flagged.
He'd prove to her he could open the gate just as she could. "We have no time. You'd have to start over with the candle."
She plopped it into his palm, nose wrinkling.
Damian quickly obliterated the script in the dirt to begin again. He took a keep breath, willing his hand to remain steady. This time, when he completed the word, a power zapped his fingertips.
Yes, this was how it was meant to feel. He repeated the words, the power and call of the gate growing inside him with each utterance. "Turmoil." He released the word too loudly, the excitement building in him pushing it out.
Liss was sure to have heard it.
The portal blossomed, a fiery rose, eager to swallow them up. "Hurry, before she finds us."
Obsidian and he gathered their things, Bishop and Ama finding their feet on their own and stumbling up to the gate.
"Should we be doing this?" Ama's jaw dropped, hypnotized by the swirling flame. "It is beautiful, though, isn't it?"
"Link hands, everyone, and remember to hold on tight." He considered the possibility of losing anyone in the in between, especially after they'd just risked so much to save Ama. A horrible, disparaging thought.
First, Obsidian stepped through, hand gripping Ama's. Bishop went third, and finally Damian.
Just before he slipped into the coolness of the portal, he caught sight of Liss standing in the opening of the hill, hands clasped behind her back. She made no move to stop them, and instead of the shock he'd expected on her face, a pleased grin graced her lips.
The chain strong, Bishop tugged, and Damian was gobbled up by the gate, Liss's form gone.
But the look on her face followed him, poking at his mind. And he wondered if they'd just done exactly what she'd wanted all along.
After all, as Bear had said, Liss had grand plans for Damian. Those plans might have included him breaking the precepts and traveling to another world.
An intense cold, stronger than that of stepping through the portal, settled in Damian's chest.
Chapter 35 (The Final Chapter!) - Expected October 2022.