Chapter One Hundred Thirty Three
Phaedos, Atlas, Pilot, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,861
Phaedos turned his gaze away from Pilot. There was too much accusation in the emerald eyes of his one-time-friend. Melody wrapped her arm around Phaedos’ waist, helping to support his weight and bring them closer to the group. Atlas gave no sign that any deception existed, and he briefly wondered if she’d forgotten there was one at all – her voice was hoarse from her attempts to draw the Guardian back from the edge of insanity. She was speaking to Melody, her vowels fracturing as they passed her lips, saying, “We have to get him to Eden, can you help me carry him?”
Melody did not answer, and Phaedos had to smother the feeling of guilt that twisted his chest when he looked at Melody’s forlorn face. She’d gotten lost in her own thoughts, probably tracking her lover beyond the doors, suffering a burden of worry the rest of them did not have to face. He was suddenly grateful that Atlas was beside him, and he knew that if she weren’t, he’d be a savage mess. His grip on her hand tightened.
Atlas was yelling again, attempting to draw Melody back into their situation. “Are you listening? Melody!”
Her words rang in his head, compelling him to limp, compelling him to let his weight rest against Melody, compelling him to appear fatigued and damaged, even though his instincts told him to come out with his weapons drawn.
If they think the Indestructible One is badly wounded, their hubris won’t let them wait. We’re ready for them, now. Who is to say we will be in a few hours, or in a day?
And, as she always seemed to be, she was right. He could smell them in the filtered air, growing nearer, ripping through steel and concrete to get closer to them. There was something else tainting the air, but he couldn’t place it. It was foreign to him and with the blood from his wounds still running down his face his vision wasn’t reliable enough to hunt it down.
It was then that Elseron’s paralysis lifted and the chains he’d clasped tightly enough for his knuckles to go white went clattering to the floor. The room seemed to move in response – Melody took the bulk of Phaedos’ weight, Atlas’ fingers dropped from Phaedos’ grasp, her body gliding forward.
For a long time, father and daughter simply looked at each other across the distance.
She didn’t know what to do, all the benefits of language escaped her; she felt mute and panicked and surreal. Her brain expected to wake up any moment, to see the soft glow of Atlantean lights over her bed, the smooth Atlantean silk of her bed sheets clinging to her, but she did not wake up. Elseron stood stock-still but his mind spun out of control, she could hear it like the whir of a motor; she allowed her inheritance to spark inside of her, to draw his thoughts to her as if she were pulling them from his mind with her fingers.
At first, she’d dismissed much of his appearance to their torturous time as captives, but the longer she looked at him, the more she noticed. A blackness that curdled the contents of her stomach distorted his veins; some bulging beneath his flesh, pulsing with the pressure of the blood rushing through his circulatory system. She felt sick as she looked at it, and choking knot in her throat was the only warning she had of oncoming tears. She sniffed them back, wiping at the corners of her eyes quickly.
A frothing, steaming hatred rose within her at what she was seeing. It wasn’t fair, she couldn’t help but think; and she hated herself for the thought, in turn. It was absurd to think anything should be fair.
It was absurd to think any of them were going to make it out alive, she realized.
The tears threatened to overwhelm her; a waterfall pressing against a dam, but she bit them back and gritted her teeth against the self-defeating thoughts assailing her mind.
She wanted nothing more than to run to him, to cling to the man that had stood beside her for her entire life, to promise him that she’d known, that she’d always known, and that it changed nothing between them; to swear that she’d find a cure for greyscale, to make him promise to live until she did. The cowardly beast within her rushed forth but, again, with greater strength than she recognized as her own, she pushed it down and refused to let her terror win. She was still the Queen of Atlantis, for a while, and she had obligations to live up to. She had to shut off, she told herself; she had to, if she ever wanted to get out of that lead lined room, if she ever had a hope of saving Atlantis.
She hoped he understood.
To the group, she said, “How are we all getting out of here?”
Pilot shook his head, saying, “First things first, we need to make sure we can all get out of here alive.” He tossed a pointed look at Elseron before returning his gaze, his expression instantly returned to the familiar stoic emptiness he always displayed, to Atlas.
She wasn’t certain if it was hope or mania that crashed into her ribs, but there was something in the way Pilot looked at her that said he could answer her prayers.
There was something about the shadows hanging over her sunken pools of her golden eyes. Pilot had never seen a look quite like the one Atlas was giving him. He wasn’t certain if he should run for his life or beg her to forgive him, or if neither of those would save his soul. Or maybe it was the set to her mouth, he thought; the way her lips were stretched in a suspicious line. He shook it off and held his expression. He said, “Do you want me to fix up your old man or not, Queenie?”
He saw something snap in the still reservoir of her irises; he saw the color begin to evolve and grow hot, its luminescence shifting and spreading until her eyes burned with an inner flame. She didn’t need to speak; the command was so heavy in the air, in his head, that he was certain he was not the only one hearing it. It echoed in his mind, vibrating all the way down his skeleton and back up again.
It was all he could think, all he could hear. His body moved to obey the command and he was at Elseron’s side immediately. His inheritance was already licking at the inside of his ribs, curling upward and around his throat, tightening his breathing.
He hated this part.
Eden’s consciousness was a gentle press on his cerebellum, a comforting reminder that he was not without her; but she could not share in his sacrifice. Pilot took one long breath in, centering himself, appreciating the taste of moderately clean air before he made a mess of his body. He met Elseron’s eyes, despite his urge to avoid the Guardian’s gaze completely, and found himself wondering if Elseron knew what was going to happen. Pilot pressed his palm to Elseron’s forehead and shut his eyes to concentrate.
His inheritance settling into his muscles, tingling along his skin, was sweet relief. Once he turned himself over to it things became easier; he was less responsible for decisions, less controlled by reason or fear. He became a creature of instinct and raw, seething power. He could taste the greyscale, standing so close to Elseron, pressing his bare palm to the infected flesh; he could feel it writhing in Elseron’s veins, trying to get at Pilot, hungry for another body to spread to.
Pilot allowed it to, even called it to him; beckoning it forward with his inheritance, welcoming it into his own veins. It rushed forth, spilling into him with all the force of an ocean, filling him and threatening to burst from his veins into the rest of his body. The pain of it was exquisite – white-hot and rancid; he could trace it through his circulatory system, practically watch it move through his body.
If Elseron hadn’t known what to expect, he had caught on to what was transpiring instantly, and he tried to step back, out of reach, but Pilot had expected such behavior. Knotting his fingers in Elseron’s short hair, he locked his arm in place and yanked the Guardian to the floor as Pilot’s knees gave out.
Elseron stopped trying to get away, and Pilot dropped his hand. He didn’t need the physical contact anymore; his veins were full to bursting with greyscale, swollen and sensitive and sore. It was the first time he understood exactly how much larger Elseron was than he, exactly how much space his veins held that Pilot’s did not. He could feel every atom of greyscale as it floated in the space between them, seeking entrance but finding no space to occupy; he could feel it moving around him in slowly arcing undulations, moving in smoky sinuosities around his torso.
Flashes appeared to him, fragments of images he wasn’t seeing; but he knew whose eyes he was seeing through, could feel the ghostly swell and dip of apprehension that didn’t belong to him. He could see Elseron – on his knees, screaming at an upright corpse, the body too pale and gaunt to be living, but most disturbing was the sloshing river of blood that had taken the place of the corpse’s mouth; it was then that Pilot realized what he was seeing. Or, more precisely, whom.
Eden was screaming; he could feel the soreness in her vocal chords as she did so. Distantly, Pilot wondered if it was a bad sign that he couldn’t feel his own body, that he could not open his eyes. He tried to ignore the acerbic taste of copper in his throat.
Everything changed in an instant. The greyscale began to dissipate in his veins, unable to combat his inheritance, and the waterfall of blood previously pouring from between his lips ceased, his body suddenly desperate to keep as much in him as possible.
A man that couldn’t stand had little control, he reminded himself; chances were, if a man could stand, he had a fighting chance. He remembered the firm grip of his father’s hand around his arm every time he fell in the ring; the hard, unforgiving yank to his feet; the tang of his own blood staining his teeth. He could almost hear his father.
He took in his first gurgling, messy gasp and his eyes snapped open. He was on his feet and he didn’t know when he’d moved, but he was steady and it felt better to be upright. It always felt better to be upright.
The greyscale still burned hot where it lingered, but he had adapted to the pain and it was little more than discomfort anymore. When he exhaled, the air was black as night and thicker than fog.