Taxmen: High Risk Unit #9

Marlowe is the last one pushed through the portal by Nissa Ben Naga. When he passes through, he finds himself falling slowly through blackness. Then, a giant eye blinks open in front of him. It covers his entire horizon. At first, it looks like the eyes of an insect - a tightly packed clump of geometric rods and cones with the bordering lines faintly showing. But as he falls closer, slowly, he realizes that though what he is seeing is coloured and shaped like an eye, each point is individual, sharp and defined.

The eye speaks to her: "Little One, you are ignorant of me and yet you know me well. You wish to see all there is to see and I am the god of sight. You hunger for experience and I am the god of all appetite. Especially those that cannot be quenched. I am the god of those who need, who desire, but can never find satisfaction. You have worshipped me long without speaking my name. But I do not come as water to the thirsty, I do not quench. I come as oil to the fire, I bring a blaze. I am in need of a lieutenant, a hand to intervene where it is needed. Ponder my offer."

With that the eye blinks out, leaving him in total darkness. He begins to fall faster now, not towards but away. In his mind sensations of the sweetest pleasure, followed by a pang of bitter pain as he lands on a floor. Looking around, he sees his colleagues but they have a weird expression on their face - a mix of horror and pity. He follows their eyes to his left hand and sees a twisted, blackened mess. His fingers crooked and bent inwards, unresponsive to his mental commands, useless. Panna tries but the wound does not heal.

They are in what looks like a cave, dimly lit by the flame of Panna's lamp. The current cavern has sheer, high walls that are the colour of muddy grey. They see no natural footholds or stalactites on the ceiling. Chipak flings fire bolts in long, sloping arcs to see what they show. The cavern is seemingly empty. But the darkness doesn't seem natural. It hugs tight to the edges of the light, always trying to close in, feeling for gaps. It feels thicker, like pushing through fog.

They turn to the nearest wall and they see it lined with a flowing scrawls, all across from top to bottom. The wall is covered with these indecipherable etchings. Ea steps up, unpacking a scroll that gives her the power to read all languages. She mouths the words and the paper turns to ash but when she turns now to the wall, comprehension dawns. Not mechanistically, the words appear fully formed in her head. It is mad, paniced ravings, warning of something called the rapture.

They close in on each other and try to hurry out. The cavern has three openings - one on the top, too high; another crawl-hole in the floor of the cavern, too small; the third is a gash in the far wall; walkable. They take the gash.

As they walk, the walls change slowly, the muddy grey giving way to streaks. The slope begins to change, the gradient becoming sharper and sharper, till they have to go almost vertically down. They extract their magic rope. After some discussion, four people hold the rope and lower down Panna and Ea. They drop down to the end of the opening and look out into this new space. The dimensions look very similar to the first room but in the corner, there seems to be sort of blur in the darkness. Whatever it is, it's presence is piercing through this fog and making itself known to them.

Assuming that it was the rent that they were looking for, the group descend using the rope. First two, then two more, then one at a time until at last Gul'dan is left and he using his spell Spiderclimb, simply walks down the cavern's ceiling to the floor.

Panna approaches the blur which as they approach looks more and more like an extradimensional rip in the fabric of space and time. She falls down and whispers, but the words carry easily to the group in this silent room, "What can be given is given, what can be healed is healed. I ask in the name of him from whom everything was taken." A pause. She collapses to the floor. The group rushes in. Her breath is heavy and her eyes are open but she looks feverish and weak. She tells them about the process - what she had to give up, her only memory of her parents' faces. It had to be something unique, personal and vital. Her voice hoarse, she tells them to continue the work even if something was to happen to her.

As they explore this cavern, they find weird crystalline mounds with streaks that glinted and shone when the light caught them. They broke easily, with a slow cracking sound but the unpolished gemstones beneath were like none they had ever seen before. They pocketed a few. That's when they sensed the Archaens.

These graceful ancient travellers of the universe were simply passing through, patiently and unstopabbly as always. But one of them, only a few universe-lives old, stopped to speak to the organics that stood before her. The other kept going. The Archaen was tall, with long limbs, an oily black metallic body and a head that was like a furnace, full of fire and gas. She spoke to them of the primal fires at the beginning and end of universes, of their eternal search for a home, of the radicals among them who bothered to speak to organics, of the one who scribbled on the walls. She didn't seem to understand how organics worked but seemed nice enough. After a while, she went back to her journey, moving through the walls liked they weren't there. Before she goes, she warns them that the rapture is behind. They turn around and see nothing.

They find only one way out, a perfectly circular opening in the floor of the cavern. But their hands did not glow at its entrance so they decide to double back, to go back to the first cavern and make their way, crawling on their bellies through the tunnel in the floor. It is the same process of entering this cavern but in reverse. Gul'dan goes back up the walls, reaching the lip of the opening on the ceiling when suddenly his body spasms and his eyes roll back in his head. Ea's senses something and even through the dark, she alerts the group that something is wrong with their friend.

They can see him, faintly, not moving at all.

In his mind, Dal'gurrin is taken back to the wall. His grandfather is running towards him, offering a hug but when he nears, slices his side open with a sword. Disoriented but the pain forcing his hand, Dal'gurrin fights back fiercely. With his magic, he slices at his foe, each one battling seemingly for the control of his body. When his enemy has the upper hand, his physical body slips out of his grasp but when he's winning, he gets it back. With a warcry, pushing aside the bites and scratches of this frenzied ghost-memory, Gul'dan blasts his grandfather and wakes up from the vision. He is on the roof, only one foot still touching the ceiling, precarious but alive.

Meanwhile his friends are scrambling, trying to find out how catch him with Tuck's water whip being their winning strategem. But when Dal'gurrin begins walking again and lowers the rope down, they breathe a sigh of relief. He tells them about what he saw. They shudder at the power of the rapture. They make camp for the night, with the safety of a solid wall to their backs.

Photo credit: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash