The Third Floor
A 'Tower of Souls' Short Story
* * *"I try not to dwell on it. The events leading to my death, I mean. I try not to think about it on a day to day basis... but it's always there, waiting for my resolve to slip. One bad day, and there I am again, stuck in memories of betrayal and heartbreak." "How do you get through it-- how do you get back out of that dark place?" "Oh, you know. Sometimes I get drunk and cry my eyes out. Sometimes I hide out alone for days at a time. Usually, though, it's just a desire to keep moving forward I guess. We're given this second chance here, right? Might as well make the most of it."
Ven's feet sunk into the soft sand as she struggled up the side of the dune. She glanced backwards, at the long shadow left by it, her eyes wandering along the straight-line path she'd taken up the windswept sand, all the way back to Chris. Chris was a tiny dot among the shadows. Ven waved at him, unsure if he was even paying attention. Turning back to the task at hand, Ven continued upwards. "Nearly... there..." she thought.
Ven crested the ridge, and she stumbled momentarily before regaining her precarious footing. She had to shield her eyes, as the great disk of light in the center of this floor's ceiling nearly blinded her. Ven surveyed the scene in front of her, scouring the landscape for any sign of life. She took in the surreal beauty of it, this expansive wasteland. Massive dunes weaved their way across the surface of this floor, towering above endless beds of dry, cracked mud. She could just barely see the floor's northern wall, stretching upward to meet the blue of the false-sky above.
As she looked for hints of habitation, Ven's thoughts wandered back to why she was even up on this cursed floor. Things had been absolutely fine down on the Second Floor anyways. No insane clockwork automatons prowling the land like the First floor, no ocean full of storms like the Fourth. Why climb up here, where suddenly water was a necessity, and the entire population consisted of cacti and crazy people?
* * *
"In the end though, I like to talk a big talk about moving forward. I get pretty complacent. What truly helps keep me grounded is people like you, and Chris. My new friends, family... well, it's impossible to replace family. But I like to think the two of you would have fit in with them. The two of you would always make sure I'm in a good place, and I truly appreciate that. I always felt Chris was watching over me, and I always felt you had my back. And hey, who knows, maybe you can keep helping me, and we'll move forward together."
Ven wiped a precious drop of moisture away from her eyes and watched as it fell to the sand, leaving a small dark flower on the surface. She laughed quietly and chastised herself for wasting water.
The trip down the dune was over in a fraction of the time it took to ascend it in the first place. Ven trudged over to Chris, kicking sand everywhere in frustration as she did so. Chris looked at her enquiringly, but she shook her head. "Nothing. Can't see anything."
Chris frowned. "What was Helia thinking, coming here... do you think she went all the way to the fourth floor? What did the note say again?
"The note didn't say jack shit. 'Dear Chris, Dear Ven, I'm going to go adventure a bit to get out from under these dark clouds. If I don't come back, you can find me among the ghosts of the Third Floor.'. Yeah, right, like we'll just waltz up to this massive desert, kick a few sand dunes, find these supposed ghosts and boom, there's Helia?"
Ven continued. "Souls sake, sometimes Helia can be so impulsive. It frustrates me to no end. I love her, but damn if she doesn't act erratically."
Chris and Ven began to walk alongside the dunes, remaining in the shade for as long as they can. The ground underfoot was slightly more stable now that they had moved back from the dune, so the going was a little bit easier.
"She used to talk about exploring a lot, you know."
Ven looked at Chris, and he continued.
"I don't think she's the kind of person to put down roots in any one location. Least, that's what I gathered, from hearing her talk about her life before."
"Yeah but... surely she must have heard of the dangers up here, right? I got the feeling she liked to travel too, but... I never thought she'd risk her afterlife just to go explore."
Chris's lips formed a tight line. "Ven, how many times did we have to stop her from going exploring in the woods? The whole town made it very clear how dangerous the deep woods were, and did that change her mind? No, she was determined to experience new things."
"Yeah, but... you can die again up here, so easily. Thirst, giant fucking dust storms, deadly poison clouds... I even heard there were monsters in the desert." Ven sighed. "I just wish she'd get used to eternity. Forever. We could've all stayed in Beachcastle. We don't age, we don't need food, on the second floor we didn't need water. What's the rush? Can't she just stay and hang out?"
Chris sighed. "I know. Since she moved into Beachcastle with us, she's really started to feel like family -- and I really want her to stay there with us." another sigh echoed the first. "Sometimes I think of her as a big sister, actually," he said. "And other times, I see her as a little sibling that needs to be protected. Like now. Like with her trying to explore the woods. I truly hope we're not too late this time."
"We should've followed after her right away," Ven said. "We shouldn't have waited as long as we did, before following after her. What if we are too late?"
"We have to try." Responded Chris.
They walked together in silence for a while longer.
"Remember that one time she thought it'd be a good idea to try and make vodka out of the purified river water?"
"Yeah, and damn near killed herself?" Ven grinned back.
"I think that's when her hair turned violet too. She likes to say the hair colour was a choice but... I'm pretty sure it was a result of her experiment."
"Did she ask you to try the vodka at least?"
"Yeah. 'Absolutely not' I told her. No way I was trying that shit. You?"
Chris smiled a small smile at Ven and shook his head. He remained quiet though. Ven eyed him suspiciously, glancing at his dirty blond hair for any hint of colour. The pair sunk back into a companionable silence for a while again, as they made their way across the desert. Ven reached down and took hold of Chris's hand, and together they walked in the shade.
* * *
"Looks like it's going to be night mode soon," said Chris, startling Ven out of her reverie. She had been thinking of her soft and warm bed back at home on the second floor. Ven glanced upwards at the ceiling and noticed what Chris was looking at. The large disk that gave this floor its light was wavering slightly, no longer the constant source of harsh light it was before.
"What did the people from Tamworth say again -- the ones who always come up here, how long do we have till it's dark?"
Chris scratched his chin, noting the stubble beginning to grow there. "I'm pretty sure they said once it begins to waver like this, we have about 30 minutes or so. Then it starts to waver at a much faster rate, before making the instant switch to darkness 5 minutes later." He continued looking up at the disk. "I'm not sure how long it's been doing this... I wasn't really paying attention."
Chris glanced at Ven.
"Well I wasn't paying attention either!" she huffed.
Chris shrugged. "Then... I suppose we have anywhere between 5 to 35 minutes remaining until dark-fall. What do you say we average it out, and guess that there's 20 minutes remaining?" He took his pack off from around his shoulders, and grabbed a water skin from it, passing it to Ven. "Have a bit of water, I think we've gone too long without drinking any here. It's hard to get used to the whole 'needing to drink water' thing again."
Ven took a few gulps and slid the water skin into her pack. Chris grabbed a second skin and took a small sip. He put the water skin back in his pack and hefted the pack appreciatively. "Much lighter with one less skin in it."
"So, you wanna handle setting up the tents, and I'll go looking for some rocks or something to sit on?"
Ven looked around at their surroundings. "What, here? Just out in the open like this? You don't want to find like a... nice secluded ravine, or something?"
Chris frowned. "You tell me, you were the one that demanded to go atop a dune and scout out our surroundings. Did you see any good camp locations from up there?"
"I... hey, you thought it was a good idea too!" Ven's eyebrows furrowed as she stared daggers at Chris. "But no, I didn't. It's just fucking dunes, dried mud, and shitty rocks. Couldn't see anything important." she sighed.
"At least there were no dust storms."
"At least there's been no dust storms." Echoed Chris. He looked around. "It's not so bad here anyways. We're at the tail end of the sand dune, just as it starts to turn, so we'll be slightly sheltered here."
"In that case... I suppose you're right, we can set up camp here." continued Ven. "Sure, I'll take tent duty this time. You get it next time, though."
Chris dropped his pack, which landed with a soft whump in the sand, with Ven dropping hers shortly after. He unstrapped the tent from it, as Ven knelt down to unstrap the bedding from hers. Chris touched Ven on the shoulder and smiled, pointing towards the tail end of the dune. "Gonna go check out what's over there, and see if I can't find anything useful." Chris gave Ven a quick kiss on her forehead, then stepped by her on his way.
* * *
She was only halfway through setting up the camp before Ven heard a pained yelp come from the distance. She startled, dropping the tent pole she had been holding.
"Chris...? You okay??" she called.
From the distance, a small angry voice rang out. "NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT EXPLODING CACTI".
Ven's heart beat a little faster. "Are you hurt??" she yelled back. She began jogging in the direction Chris had gone.
"Seriously hurt??" Ven's panicked voice called in return. "I'm on my way, try not to move!" Ven's jog turned into a haphazard run in the soft sand, which then faltered as Chris's voice came back to her.
"NO. No, not seriously hurt. Just pissed off and covered in cactus needles. You probably shouldn't come too close, you might get hit by them too."
Ven sighed, annoyance clear in her voice. "Don't scare me like that! I thought you were seriously injured. I thought I was going to have to carry your stupid ass back out of here." She walked around the tail end of the sand dune and turned. "You know I'm not that strong, right? I'd probably have to drag you across this hot sand... it'd get all over, probably fill your pants with the sand... gods, that'd be uncomfortable." Ven continued describing the hypothetical, as she approached where Chris's pained cry had come from. Her rambling came to a halt as she gazed upon the mess Chris had found himself in.
Chris stood in a circle of cacti with varying amounts of needles on them. The ones nearest to him appeared to be naked, entirely missing all of their needles. Chris was angrily pulling needles out of the skin of his left arm when Ven approached. "Woah woah hang on I said don't come too close!" he yelled. Chris pointed to the cacti around him. "These things shoot out their needles when disturbed. I made the mistake of cutting into one with my knife and... well, this happened."
Ven shook her head. "And now why would you go and do that?"
""It's... something the guys from Tamworth told me. The explorers. Said it's hard to find water up here, so they like to cut into certain cacti, and drink the liquid inside. At this point though, I'm wondering if they weren't just playing some sorta joke on me.:
Chris pulled out another three needles and grimaced. He tossed them to the side without looking.
"At the very least, these cacti don't have any water in them. The one I cut into is as dry as the desert," he said, looking pointedly at the cacti at his feet.
Ven looked to Chris's side, where he had tossed the needles. They had landed atop another nearby cactus, one that still contained all of its own sharp defence mechanisms.
"Hey uhh... Chris..." Ven said in a wary tone. "What does it mean when these cacti begin to vibrate?"
Chris closed his eyes and covered his head. "Oh come on"
The cacti nearest to him reached a crescendo of vibration, shooting out all of its needles in a small radius, peppering Chris on his side again.
* * *
"I'm not sure if I ever told you..." "Ever told me what?" "I'm not sure if I ever told you how close I was to ending it all, again." "..." "Sometime around... oh I'm not sure, 30 days into arriving here? Back when I was down on the first floor of this place. I think I had finally realized just how dead I actually was. The homesickness was really starting to get to me at that time -- you know the feeling. Missing your entire life before. Heh. It's not like the stories of the afterlife at all. I had seen someone else's afterlife ended already at that point. Watched them die a second death. I saw them fade out of existence... I couldn't help but think, wow, that looks peaceful." "...But you're still here." "Yup, I'm still here. I picked myself up, climbed those stairs to the Second Floor, and met Chris."
Days passed in the strange day and night cycle of the Third Floor desert. The scorching hot day had a rapid transition to nighttime, leaving hardly any time for the pair to prepare camp at night. In the mornings, the large disk of light in the center of the false-sky activated without warning at the same time every day, once again bathing the sand in harsh light. The pattern left both Ven and Chris feeling on edge while having to deal with the regular heat exhaustion they were facing.
The previous day, before the sky had switched to darkness, Ven had pointed out what appeared to have been a wide rocky ravine nearby ahead of them. Both of them tired of trudging through soft sand agreed that yes, the ground did look more solid near the ravine -- and yes, it might be nicer to walk along.
Chris was leading the way now, as Ven followed behind while they walked next to the expansive scar in the ground. Ven looked over the side of the ravine, staring at the bottom of it, and asked for the eleventh time that day, "So, see anything down there?"
Chris hefted his pack a bit, getting it into a more comfortable position, before letting out a small sigh. "Nope, I do not."
"Didja even look this time?"
Chris leaned his head back slightly, staring upwards into the sky for a moment. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. Chris turned his head, and looked back down, allowing his gaze to drop to the ravine next to him. His eyes surveyed it, scanning up, down, left and right for any signs of life.
Ven watched Chris intently as she followed behind.
"Ah!" Chris called out.
"What? You see something?" Ven asked, excitement rising in her voice. She looked eagerly between Chris and the ravine.
"Nope. Just another rock."
"Damnit, Chris!" Ven kicked sand at Chris. "I can't believe I fell for that again. Again. Like the third time or something stupid--"
"Fourth." Interrupted Chris, with a chuckle.
"Four times! Damnit." Ven swung her pack off one shoulder and began rummaging through it. "You know... I think walking alongside this ravine was a bad idea. The only thing we've even seen here so far is that old busted clockwork servitor back at the beginning of the ravine. Least that was cool, even if we couldn't get to the bottom to get a closer look."
"Walking through the desert with no protection from the heat is killing me."
Ven stopped her search and looked up at Chris. "Hey... did you take my water? It's not in my pack."
"You gave it to me, remember?" said Chris, as he stopped and turned around. Ven pulled up short before she collided with him. Chris pulled two waterskins out of his pack and shook them. The water made a faint sloshing sound from within.
Ven eyed the waterskin greedily. Her expression turned suspicious when Chris didn't hand the water skin over. "I'm pretty sure I only asked you to hold it because it was heavy."
Chris shook his head. "No, you asked because you noticed how little water you had left. You kept drinking more than you needed, and you were running out of water too fast." Chris shook one skin, then the other. The first water skin held significantly more water than the second. "And so you asked me to hold it -- so that we can take our water together and ensure we have enough for the trip."
Ven stared furiously at Chris. "I can't help it if it's fucking hot out." She stared a moment longer, before letting the anger go. "You're right, though... It's hard to stop myself sometimes. Anyways, I just wanted you to give me a drink." She stared longingly at the waterskin again. "It gets hard waiting for you to give the O.K. to have a drink. I'm thirsty, Chris. I'm so thirsty."
Chris put a water skin down, reached into his pocket, and grabbed a handful of rocks out. He began to count them. He looked up when he noticed Ven's questioning gaze.
"Wha- oh, the rocks? 'S how I've been counting time. I pick up 30 of em every morning. As we walk, I drop 1 rock every time I think half an hour has gone by. Helps me try and keep track of time in a place where the stupid sky disk doesn't move." Chris looked back down at the rocks and continued counting. "Seems we're about halfway through this daylight cycle now. Yeah, I think we're good for a drink." Chris tossed one of the rocks out and put the rest back into his pocket. He picked up the second water skin, then eyed them both. After a moments hesitation, he passed Ven the lighter water skin.
"Oh, thanks." she said, disdainfully.
"Hang on hang on." Came the reply.
Chris opened the heavier water skin and indicated Ven to open the one she held. Standing close, Chris very carefully poured water from the full skin to the emptier one, stopping to check frequently until both had an equal amount of water inside.
"It's probably better we both have the same amount of water out here. I don't want you dying of thirst on me." Chris laughed sadly. "I honestly don't know what I'd do at that point."
Ven lay a hand on Chris's arm. She smiled a sad smile at him; the kind of smile that says 'We both know exactly what you'd do -- I'd likely do the same.'
"It's better not to think about it anyways," Ven said calmly. She looked down at the rock Chris had dropped. "So, we got another... 8 hours to go or so? Till it turns dark again?"
"You know, I think I'm actually starting to look forward to the nights. Getting really tired of this heat." Ven wiped the sweat from her brow. "I really don't want to die of thirst up here-- or any other heat-related death. It sounds... really... shitty." She turned and began walking again, and Chris followed shortly after.
"Any second death would be bad, I think"
Ven looked backwards, then slowed her pace until Chris was beside her.
"The whole dying part, sure. Losing out on this eternal second life would not be fun." Ven continued walking again. "Have you ever witnessed anyone die a second death here?" She glanced sideways at Chris. "I've... heard it can sometimes be pretty peaceful."
Chris shook his head. "I..."
Ven interrupted. "I'm sorry for asking. I know you don't like to think about death. It's just, I've never seen it happen, and I'm curious."
Chris smiled slightly at Ven. "It's okay. I can talk about it this once." He closed his eyes. "Though it's not something I like to think back to, really." Chris walked a while longer. He looked over at Ven, and continued. "I've heard the same, though -- that it can be peaceful." He was silent for a moment longer. "What I witnessed was anything but."
Ven walked quietly beside Chris for a while, letting him remain silent, before prodding again. "What was it like?"
Chris gave a long, sad sigh. "I've never seen so much fear in someone. They knew they were about to leave this place forever. They knew they were losing their last shot at an afterlife. It's not like when we're living -- where we have all these stories as to what'll happen after you die, stories that give you hope and peace when you die. Here, we're already at the end. There's nothing more."
He looked up at the fake sky. His vision rested momentarily on the seams between great plates of metal, unfathomably high above. The blue paint on it was starting to fade in one section.
"The whole process really drove home to me, just what we are in this tower. Just energy. Just resources."
"You mean, what happens to our bodies when we die?"
"Yeah. The soul coins, as we're fond of calling them. Aside from the whole 'person dying' thing, it's fascinating to watch, and I wish I knew more about what happens during. Kinda hard to study it when it requires a second death, though."
Chris was quiet for a moment longer.
"It's that part where the body and soul turn into the soul coin, the last moments of afterlife, where I witnessed the most fear. It's not an instant change, it takes a few seconds, and if someone doesn't instantly die, they feel the entire thing. The soul... Torrin was his name. Torrin was able to watch as his body began to fade. He held up his hand and stared right through it, as it became more transparent and smokelike. I watched as he looked down to see his legs already turned to haze. The smoke swirled and condensed inward, towards his core, as he gave one last soft cry. Eventually, everything that was once him had been consolidated down to a single point -- the soul coin."
Ven let the conversation lapse back into silence for a while, as she thought about what Chris had said.
"How'd he die?" She said, breaking the quiet.
"Oh, the usual, down on the first floor," Chris replied simply. "Run through by a clockwork wielded brass blade." He shook his head. "I hid in the shadows and watched as it picked up Torrin's coin."
Ven stared intensely at Chris, as he continued. "And then the clockwork automaton simply stood up and left. Wandered back into the darkness. Off to hunt some other poor soul, I'm sure."
* * *
"Can I ask you a question, Hel?" "Of course." "You've never seen any of your friends or family show up here since you arrived, have you?" "No, none." "You ever wonder why that is?" "Well... I like to think this Tower was built with a purpose in mind. I like to think it has a reason for everything that goes on within it. What's the point otherwise, right? In which case, I'm of two minds for that question. On one hand, I like to think I haven't seen anyone because they just haven't died yet. They're still alive, living their happy lives, and hopefully missing me a shitload. Heh." "On the other hand though... I think it's more likely that the tower has just decided that for whatever reason, I'm not to see them again yet. Maybe I need to... I dunno, meet new people, go through personal growth, that kinda shit. I can't complain, I have met some interesting folk this way. It's not been so bad. I had you and Chris to look out for, which gave me purpose. And I've still got hope I'll see my loved ones again in here." "...Hope."
Ven shook Chris again.
"I said wake up! Wake up wake up wake up!" she said in a hoarse whisper.
Chris groggily pushed Ven's arms way. He wiped the sleep from his eyes and stared in the direction of Ven's voice. In the pitch black of the desert's night mode, Ven was invisible to him. The infinite darkness would feel oppressive if it weren't for Ven's nearby voice.
"Ven...?" Chris asked sleepily. "What's up? Why'd you wake me up--"
"Shhhh!" Hissed Ven angrily, putting her hand on Chris's face.
"Mphm! Hww..." came his muffled reply. "Mkyyy!" he said from under her hand, and Ven uncovered Chris's mouth.
"Sorry," she whispered. "But I wanted you to be quiet. There's something outside. I heard it. Some weird deep humming noise."
Chris went very still, listening intently. After a moment, his voice cautiously crept forward. "I... don't... hear anything...?"
"It stopped making noise about 10 minutes ago," Ven responded quietly. "Then, 5 minutes after that, I poked my head out of the tent."
"Why would you do that?!" came Chris's voice, slightly raised.
"Shhh!" hissed Ven, a second time. She reached up and gently touched the fabric of the tent around them. "You really think being inside this tent makes us any safer than usual? I'm pretty sure even I could rip my way through this."
When Chris didn't respond, Ven continued.
"And anyway, not the point. I stuck my head out of the tent, because I figured, hey, maybe I'll be able to spot something. And I did."
Ven reached down and felt for Chris's hand. She found it, and took it in her own, then began a careful yet haphazard crawl toward the entrance to the tent. She began to untie the flaps of the tent, as Chris sat motionless beside her.
"What... exactly... did you see?" he asked hesitantly.
Ven finished with the tent flaps and pulled them aside. "Lights." she said simply. She sat back down beside Chris, and together they stared out into the abyss in front of them. The view ahead was entirely dark, with absolutely no source of light to be found. As Chris stared into the inky blackness, he began to wonder if Ven had simply dreamed the entire thing. Chris startled when Ven clapped a hand down onto his thigh, squeezing tightly.
"There! There!" she whispered, excitement evident.
Chris's eyes finally found something to focus on in the darkness; a small soft amber glow, some 500 feet away. The glow was faint, and it ominously pulsed, illuminating a small patch of sand below it. The light remained motionless while they stared at it. After a time, a second light came into existence.
"Do you think they're watching us too?"
Chris looked in the direction of Ven's voice. "Wha- how would they even see us? And anyway, what do you mean, they? We have no idea those things are!"
"They look soft and glowy and friendly to me..." said Ven. "What if they're the ghosts Helia was talking about?"
"There's no such thing as ghosts, Ven. You know that."
"Oh shut up Chris, don't treat me like an idiot. Hel was probably using the term symbolically anyways. Maybe it's people who live out here?
"No one lives out here!" came Chris's hoarse reply. He pushed himself closer to Ven. "It's suicide to even try it. You know what I think those are? I think those are probably the roaming clockwork hunter squads that the guys in Tamworth told me about."
Ven's body became very still next to Chris.
"I didn't mention them before because... well, the guys told me they're pretty sparsely spread out over the desert. And they're mostly near the Tamworth entry point to the desert they said. I figured we wouldn't see em where we came up from Beachcastle."
As the motionless pair stared at the softly glowing lights, two more amber orbs winked into existence. The orbs appeared to be about a hands-width across, and sat motionless, a few feet above the ground. The longer they stared, the more they realized that the light being output from the orbs was not constant -- it wavered ever so slightly.
"I don't remember any clockwork with glowing orbs from my time on the First Floor..." countered Ven. "No glowing bits on them at all, actually.
Ven squinted as she stared at the orbs. "And these ones... I can't see any reflections around them. It's just... an orb... above the sand..." she whispered slowly.
Chris opened his mouth to respond, but quickly shut it and froze, as the glowing spheres of light began to move. Slowly at first, the orbs began to spread out. More points of light joined the others, as the area they covered grew. Soon Chris was turning his head back and forth, a full 180 degrees, to track where the orbs were moving to.
"Chris... Chris they're surrounding us!" whispered Ven hurridly. "Chris, what do we do?"
Chris backed slowly into the tent. "I... have no idea. I don't want to go out there. I..."
"You what?" Ven felt Chris back away from the tent entrance. She looked up again, back at the orbs, in time to notice them tightening the circle around the tent. Ven ducked inside as well and turned to look at Chris. She could just barely make out the shape of his head, thanks to the floating light sources surrounding their tent.
"You what?" Ven asked again, hoarsely.
"I think you're right... I don't think these are clockwork..."
Chris relaxed slightly, as he stared at the glowing shapes through the still open tent flaps. "I actually don't think these are going to harm us at all." He put a hand on Ven's knee and leaned close to her. With his other hand, he pointed outside, the shape of his outstretched finger silhouetted in the strange light.
"Look, they've stopped moving. They aren't coming any closer."
Ven followed the shape of his gesture and stared at the orbs. Through the opening of the tent, Ven could count 5 orbs, their softly wavering amber glow illuminating a faint arc around the front of the tent. As she stared, she saw what Chris had said was true, the orbs had ceased their slow advance on the tent.
"So." Echoed Chris.
* * *
"How long have you been dead?" "I... might have lost count actually. It's hard think about right now. Years probably. I really struggle to remember my first days here." "Probably more years than me, no? How long have you lived on the second floor?" "Fuck, this is hard to remember Hel. I got complacent when I met Chris, and I think we've just kinda... hung out. For a long time. Longer than ten... no, twenty? Fifty years maybe?" "You stayed in one place, without the desire for food or water, without feeling an urge to grow and learn, without ever leaving for adventure, for fifty years? How have you not bored yourself to death yet?" "Well, what else is there?"
After an hour of uneasy wakefulness, surrounded by the wavering glow of the orbs, the pair fell back asleep. Hours later, the disk in the sky turned on and forced them back awake. Ven got to her feet, groggily. "We forgot to close the tent flaps after the event last night..." she mumbled.
Chris groaned and rolled over. "Just gimme a couple more minutes... I'm so comfortable..."
Ven took a couple of uneasy steps, then moved through the opening, exiting out into the desert. The air was still cool from the night before, but it was already well on its way to becoming unbearably hot.
Ven stood just outside the tent and began to scan the surroundings for any sign of last night's visitors. The sand nearest to the tent was perfectly smooth, with no disturbances shown upon its surface. Ven stared into the distance for a while, letting her mind wander. She walked a little ways away from the shelter until she was as at the spot she thought the orbs had ended up in last night. She looked around at the sand, again noticing there were no markings left behind. No footprints, no indents, no trace of anything happening at all. Had they hallucinated it all?
Ven started back to the tent, tracing her footsteps in the sand. Halfway there, she froze and stared into the distance once more.
"Hey Chris, come here, quickly."
A non-committal sound came from within the tent, followed by movement.
"Quickly! I think I see someone."
"What? I'm up, one sec..." Chris sighed. He quickly crawled out of the tent. Standing up, he shielded his eyes from the light and looked around. "What do you see? Is it those ghosts -- those orbs?" he asked.
"No. But look up there, at the top of that distant rise" Ven said, gesturing outwards from the camp. Surrounding the camp was a series of low sand dunes, with occasional croppings of short, coarse grass. In the hazy distance, a cluster of rust coloured rocky protrusions stood, taller than the large sand dunes nearby. Atop one of those jagged outcroppings, a small dark spot could be seen, motionless.
"I don't see anything?"
Ven looked at Chris, then looked back to the outcropping. The spot she saw was still there. Ven stood beside Chris and put her head next to his. She outstretched her arm, pointing in the direction she was looking.
"Right... there... it's hard to see. It's on top of that plateau, way back there. You might have to squint."
Chris followed her instructions, narrowing his eyes and focusing on the distant object.
"I didn't notice it at first either." Ven continued. "But, I'm certain I saw it in a different position at first. I glanced away, and when I turned back, it had moved.
The pair of them stared intently at the small dark spot on the horizon. It remained motionless, perfectly still against the rocky plateau it stood upon. Ven grew frustrated, the longer they stared at it. She stamped her foot down.
Ven startled Chris by yelling into the open air, "Move, damn you!"
Chris blinked a few times in surprise, then looked down at Ven. "You think that's going to actually do any-"
"Chris, it's moving!"
Chris turned his attention back to the distant figure just in time to see it fall from the plateau on which it stood. It fell downwards until they lost sight of it behind the nearer sand dunes.
"It just... jumped?" Ven said slowly. "Do you think anyone would survive a drop like that?"
Chris shook his head. "No way, that plateau has to be a few hundred feet tall, at least." He stared into the distance a while longer, choosing his next words carefully. "There's no way any person would survive a fall like that."
Ven turned her attention to Chris. "Person...?"
"Well, I think there are two options here, for what that could have just been. Either we saw some poor soul end their afterlife here, or..."
"Or I just yelled at a roaming clockwork hunter, signalling it to come find us." Ven finished.
Chris grimaced. "Or that."
They stood still for a moment, before quickly springing into action.
"I'll get the bedding packed up, you handle the tent," Chris said, jogging towards their shelter. He dropped to his knees and quickly crawled in, emerging a moment later with bedding in hand. Ven quickly followed and began deconstructing the tent.
"Do you think the orbs had anything to do with this?" She asked as the tent collapsed into a pile at her feet. She began bunding the poles up, wrapping them in the canvas.
Chris had finished with the bedrolls and was attaching them to his pack. He shook his head. "Those orbs didn't leave any marks behind, didn't make any clockwork sounds, and most importantly, didn't kill us." He walked over to Ven and helped her with tying the last bits of the tent to her pack. "I have no idea what they were, but I don't think had anything to do with this."
Ven shouldered her pack. "We still don't even know if what we just saw was a clockwork hunter... we're just guessing here."
Chris paused for a moment, thinking. He looked at Ven and shrugged. "You wanna go take a look?"
Ven shook her head. "Fuck no, either we find the spot someone died again, or we find the spot where a death machine finds us and murders us. Let's go..." Ven slowly rotated in place. "That way!" she said, pointing in a direction away from the distant plateau. Ven strode purposefully in the direction she had indicated. Ahead of her was the tail of a small sand dune that wove its way into the distance. "Let's walk atop this for a while, maybe we'll be able to see something from up here."
Chris jogged to catch up to Ven. "You wanna just walk, or should we run a bit?" He looked over his shoulder, at the camp they were leaving behind -- at all the obvious footprints and tracks they were leaving behind. "Because I think we should probably run a bit."
Chris jogged ahead of Ven, hitting the slope of the low sand dune before she did. He began hurriedly scrambling up the side, and Ven increased her pace to catch up. "That's probably a good idea..." She said, beads of sweat beginning to grow on her forehead.
* * *
Chris breathed heavily, sweat soaking his shirt, as he jogged along the dune. They had been at it for nearly an hour now, and he was reaching his limit. Chris slowed down, stumbling as Ven collided with him from behind. The two of them nearly fell down the side of the dune, before regaining their footing.
"Oof," breathed Ven. "Sorry... I didn't notice..." she said, between deep breaths.
Chris bent at the waist, and put his hands on his knees, struggling to regain his breath as well.
"Its.... okay." he straightened up and took in a deep breath. "I think it's too hot to keep up this pace now. We're going to drive ourselves to death this way." He unslung his pack, reaching inside for his water skin.
Ven eyed the skin, as Chris took a measured drink from it. "Can you pass that here? I'm feeling incredibly thirsty as well."
Chris paused, then closed his water skin. "...Where's yours? We had the same amount in them, just yesterday..."
"I was thirsty."
Chris looked incredulously at Ven.
"What? We were running, and I was thirsty! I wouldn't have been able to go that long without drinking it! And besides, I thought you had more anyways."
"The only other water is for the return trip." Hissed Chris. "We were supposed to make the water last."
"Yeah, well, we were supposed to be able to easily find Hel, and not have to worry about some insane mechanical murder machine chasing us down, but you don't hear me complaining!" Ven yelled back.
"Souls sake, Ven...." Chris closed his eyes, rubbing at them. "This isn't good."
"Let's just... let's find more water!" Ven said. "We'll just keep an eye out for sources of it. We'll find those cacti the Tamworth guys told you about. The ones that contain liquid in them!"
Chris shook his head. "No, Ven, that's way too risky." He looked around, staring at the tower walls in the far distance. He followed them with his eyes until he was looking into the nearby corner of this floor. "That's where we came from, and that's where we should start heading. We need to head back before we die out here too."
"You heard me. I'm not leaving Hel out here. I'm not going back until we find her."
"Look, I used up more water than normal, I admit, I messed up there. So I'll just drink some of the return water now -- and drink less of it. If I drink sparingly, I think I can go another couple days before we have to head back. And, who knows, maybe we will find some cacti we can squeeze for liquid."
Chris frowned and thought for a while. Ven's anger was beginning to subside into hope when Chris spoke up again.
"No. It's too dangerous, it's a bad idea. We'll go back to the second floor, restock, and he--"
"I'm going. Follow me, or head back, that's your choice." Ven pushed past Chris and began angrily walking along the top of the sand dune, away from the corner of the floor from which they came. "I'm finding Hel!" she yelled over her shoulder.
* * *
"You could come with me, you know. Us together, we could conquer anything." "What, like, climb to the top of this Tower? Kick ass and all that?" "Hell yeah!" "Why? I mean, I love you Hel, don't get me wrong. You bring light into my life -- always did, and I hope always will. But, why would I want to climb the Tower?" "Why not? Got nothing to lose, and everything to gain!" "Nothing to lose? Hel, there's everything to lose -- and I've already lost so much. I can't lose any more."
Ven stumbled in the soft sand and swore. She looked down to her right, thinking. Making up her mind, she turned and started taking long strides down the side of the sand dune, until she reached the bottom. With the ground more stable down here, she found she was able to walk faster while expending less energy.
"Wait!" Chris's small voice came from some distance behind her. Ven didn't look back, but continued her determined march.
"Ven, hang on, I'm..."
The sound of falling sand and scraping of shoes on dried mud came from behind Ven.
"This is a terrible idea." Said Chris, catching up. "But I'm not going to let you do this alone."
Ven didn't look at Chris.
"We can still find Hel."
This time, Ven looked up at him. Her eyes were full of anger and determination. "You're damn right we will." She set her teeth and strode forward.
* * *
"I think I see another ravine, up ahead," Ven mentioned. "Maybe this one will have some sign of life within it. Might be a good place for the people of this floor to hide out and live within."
"I still don't think anyone lives up here," Chris replied. He shielded his eyes from the light as he looked up. "It's way too hot, and water is way too hard to find. Anyone trying to live here would die of thirst before making it a month."
"You better fucking hope not, Chris," Ven said, the coals of her earlier anger flaring into life again. "Helia was up here for two weeks before we left. Doesn't leave much time. So you better hope people live here, and she found them. Because like I said, I'm not leaving until I find her. She'd do the same for me."
Ven quickened her pace until she reached the ravine. She stared down into the rocky depths. "I think... I think this one might be approachable." She said, dropping the previous conversation. "Look, I'm pretty sure it's flat at the bottom. I think we could walk along there. It only looks like... 50 feet or so down here."
Chris frowned, mulling over the previous argument in his head, before dropping it too. He stood beside Ven and looked down. "I suppose if we could find a safe way down..."
Ven pointed. "Look. There, to there, to there. A bunch of flat areas, jutting out from the walls. And down there, there's what looks like a small sandy ledge, right near the bottom. I bet I could lower myself from outcropping to outcropping, to make it all the way to that sandy ledge."
"Be very careful..."
Ven handed Chris her pack and knelt down at the ledge of the ravine. She turned around, slowing backing towards it, lowering herself over. "Grab my hand," she said, glancing up at Chris. "Brace me a little bit here."
Chris dropped Ven's pack, quickly took his off, and dropped it beside the first. He knelt down and grabbed Ven's hand with two of his.
"Okay, now let me down slowly... There! I got it, my foot is on the ledge below." Ven tested the ledge with her weight, before nodding. "You can let go, this one's safe."
Chris did so, slowly. He watched as Ven grabbed hold of another nearby handhold, and lowered herself down another step.
"You know, this isn't soO-"
Ven's hand vanished from the ledge, as her foot slipped against the dusty rock. Her other hand reached upward, grasping at empty air as she dropped. Chris scrambled to the ledge in panic, to see Ven side down the wall. She fell 20 feet, rapidly, before landing roughly atop one of the rocky shelves she had pointed out before, letting out a pained cry. Ven bounced hard off the ledge, falling to the side, down another 20 feet, until she crashed onto the sandy ledge she had noticed near the bottom of the ravine. The sound of splintering wood echoed out of the ravine, as Ven vanished into a jagged dark hole.
"VEN!" Yelled Chris, fear evident. "Holy shit, Ven! Answer me!"
Chris began searching through his pack for anything he could use to fix the situation. "Why did we not pack rope?" he cried in desperation. He dropped his pack and picked up Ven's. A brief search through her pack revealed nothing of use either. He glanced back over the edge, down at the hole Ven had vanished into. "Ven hang on! I'm coming down!"
Chris lowered himself over the ledge the same way Ven did, trying to fill the action with as much care as he could muster. When he was halfway over the ledge, Chris heard a sound from below. He paused, his own elevated heartrate drowning out all other sounds. Taking a moment to calm down, Chris listened carefully, hearing a pained moaning coming from below.
"Ven??" He called down. "Are you okay? I'm climbing down... just... don't move! I'll be there soon!"
"I'm... I'm okay" Ven coughed from the bottom of the ravine. "I had my fall broken by... some old wood? I think I landed in some kind of storeroom. Inhaled a lot of dust." Ven coughed again. "Had the wind knocked out of me for a bit there, but... I think I'm okay."
"Thank the stars..." Chris exhaled, relieved. He called down to Ven, "I'm still coming down, I'm so glad you're okay, I was so scared." Chris looked down, fighting off the sense of vertigo that threatened to overwhelm him. He saw Ven standing in the hole she had made in what turned out to be a storage room. She pointed up at him.
"Go to your left! there's a little bit of a hidden ledge there. I couldn't see it from above. You'll be able to reach the next couple much easier that way."
Chris followed Ven's orders and slowly made his way down into the ravine, safely. He reached the sandy ledge Ven had fallen through, and stood at the edge, looking down. Ven had made a large splintered hole in what seemed to be a wide, flat piece of old, dry wood. It had been covered in sand to hide it from prying eyes. Ven stood among the wreckage she had made, wooden shrapnel strewn around her feet. She let her gaze wander about the small enclosure she found herself in.
"I fucking told you people lived here." She said, triumphantly.
Chris rolled his eyes and hopped down to land beside Ven. He let out a small grunt and then stood up to his full height, stopping when his head scraped the roof. They stood in a small stone room, with rough walls. Along one side of the room, wooden shelves were affixed to the wall, covered in dust. A small cot was against the far wall.
"Look, there are barrels in here!" Ven said, pointing to the third wall. "If I lived in this desert, one of the first things I'd do is set up hidden caches of water. That has to be what this is." She said, striding over to the barrels. Each barrel came up to Ven's waist -- they were stacked two high, and two deep against the wall. Ven reached up and grabbed one of the barrels, pushing on it slightly. The barrel moved easily in her hand, obviously empty. Ven frowned and took her hands off it. She pushed on the barrel below it, discovering it too was empty.
Ven began walking lengthwise down the row of barrels, pushing on each one, finding which ones were empty.
"It's... really dusty in here." Said Chris. "I'm thinking no one's used this in a long time."
"That doesn't mean all these barrels are empty," Ven replied, reaching the end of the wall. She pushed on the last stack of barrels, and let out a delighted yell. "Ah ha! Told you. This one's got something in it." She pushed at the barrel on top of the full one, and finding it to be empty, pulled it down. She then grasped the full barrel and slid it away from the wall, the barrel making a rough scraping noise against the sand-covered rocky floor.
Chris pulled a knife from his belt, jamming it into the crack around the lid of the barrel. Chris levered the lid off of the barrel, and both he and Ven looked inside.
"Water!" Ven exclaimed.
"Do you think it's still safe to drink?"
Chris bent down to the surface of the water and sniffed. "I don't smell anything..."
Ven reached a cupped hand into the water barrel and brought it to her lips. "Tastes fine too."
Ven suddenly sat, exhaustion clearly written across her face.
"Finally, some good luck." She looked at Chris, expression showing clear signs of stress and sadness. "I honestly thought I was going to die. When I fell. Before I fell. When I was so angry. I thought I'd led us into death by dehydration."
Chris put the lid of the water barrel down and came to sit beside Ven. She wrapped her arms around one of his and leaned against him. "I'm sorry for how I acted before. I just... I want to make sure Hel is okay. I don't know if I can go back to the way life was before she moved in with us. I love you Chris, but... Hel added this certain flair to our afterlives. Day to day was interesting and different. Even if a lot of the time it was us rescuing her stupid ass. And I want to go back home to the way things used to be, and always should be."
A comfortable silence came over the two of them as they rested.
Ven stretched a leg out, and gently kicked at the water barrel. "I think finding this is a good luck sign."
Chris nodded. "I think you're right. If someone took the time to set up this store room, I think there's likely more nearby. We can find them. We can find help. We've got this. We'll find Helia, don't you worry."
* * *
"You said you met Chris first, when you moved to the Second floor, right?" "Sure did. He's one of the main reasons I wanted to stay so long. Him, and you of course. Both of you are my family." "What... what did you see in Chris, in those first moments? What made you decide to stay back then?" "In Chris...? Surely you know. You and Chris..." "I still want to hear you say it." "It's because I've never met a more caring soul. I could just tell that Chris was the kind of person that would risk his life for the life of those he holds dear. It was the way he talked, held himself, and looked at people he cared about. I saw him as the kind of person that'd chase you into hell its self, to make sure you made it out the other side okay."
The disk of light above shone down harshly upon Chris and Ven, as they trudged their way across the desert landscape. The previous day had been a delight -- the pair had spent the majority of the day walking along the bottom of the ravine, which to their pleasure, they found to be quite flat and easy to traverse. When they reached the end of it and noticed the disk in the sky beginning to waver, they decided to set up camp, and wait till the next daylight cycle to climb out.
Climbing out of the ravine had been a different story from climbing in. The exit took them three hours, and as the day got hotter, both of them became more exhausted. When finally they reached the top, they collapsed onto their backs, catching their breath. Despite the exhaustion, both Ven and Chris remained in high spirits, and they soon began their trek once more.
"I just thought of something, with that whole ravine excursion." Started Ven.
"The ground down there, it was way harder right, none of this soft sand? I bet we left some pretty difficult to follow tracks. No way anything comes after us."
"Hmm. Thats a good point actually. It might even look like we fell to our deaths, if anyone or anything follows our tracks to the edge of the ravine."
"Right? It's not like we'd leave any remains behind, just a pair of soul coins lost in the dust and sand." Ven light out a small cheer. "We're safe! We're going to find Hel! Fuck yeah!"
Chris smiled, enjoying the good mood Ven was in. He let her lead the way, following her footsteps in the soft sand. Chris slowly scanned the surrounding area as they walked, keeping a constant eye out for signs of life. Now that they had discovered possible evidence of both people living out here, and clockwork hunters roaming, he wanted to remain doubly alert.
"I think we aught to check every ravine now," Chris said. "Like, really check them. That one yesterday was hidden, but not perfectly hidden. I think we could spot another thing like that from above."
Ven continued Chris's thought. "And if we keep looking, we're bound to find one that's currently in use. And maybe, we'll find the people who live out here. And maybe, they can help us find Hel."
"That is, unless they've already found her, and she's living with them." Countered Chris.
"Or that. I like that option more."
Ven looked up the large sand dune to their left, then the one to their right. "In that case," She said, "Let's climb out of this dune valley. Get a good look at where we should go next."
"I can agree with that," Chris replied. He followed Ven, as she turned and began to slowly climb the sand dune. He leaned forward, using his hands to steady himself, as he carefully followed Ven. The duo crested the ridge, pausing to appreciate the view. Ven slowly turned in a full circle, taking it all in. She began to point.
"There's the corner of the floor we came up from." She slowly turned. "I think that's where the cacti got you... that area's pretty hard to pinpoint though."
"I think those rocky plateaus over there are where we saw that shape jump from. I can't see the ravine we walked through from here though." Ven finished her circle, ending with the floor's corner at her back. She then pointed forward.
"Looks like ahead of us, there's... more sand dunes, leading towards a second rocky outcropping, or... what appears to be a large, flat area of dried mud. I can see the cracks in the mud from here."
Chris stood beside Ven, looking at their options. "Well, rocky outcropping sounds good to me. That's probably where someone would set up another storage area, or possibly living quarters."
"Hmm..." Ven frowned. "Honestly, I'm getting really tired of walking through this deep sand. I don't know if I want to go trekking across another desert load of dunes to reach that plateau."
Chris was silent for a moment, as Ven stared into the distance.
"Anyways, I think I might see another ravine on the far edge of that flat area -- there might be more storage rooms, or more there. And if there's nothing, at least it was faster, and easier travel to get there. If we need to, we can double back towards the rocky area you want to go to. Look, see, the flat area even extends towards it a bit. We won't get there as fast, but travelling on the flat area will still get us there.
"I really think we should check out the rocky area..." Chris said slowly.
Ven grabbed Chris's arm. "Oh, please, Chris lets please walk on the easy part for a bit. I promise we'll still check what you want to check. I want to go there too! I think it's a great idea. I just think we don't need to go there first. I just think I'm tired of the fucking sand, and want a small break."
Chris made a placating gesture. "Alright, alright. You win. What's the fastest way to the dried mud section from here?"
"Yesss." replied Ven. She pointed slightly to her right. "Looks like we can head straight down this way, then weave through the valleys of a few dunes, and then it should spit us out onto that large flat expanse."
Chris pat Ven on the back. "Let's get to it then."
* * *
An hour later, Ven and Chris had firm ground under their feet. Their pace increased as the sand no longer slowed them down. The area they walked on appeared to have once been under water, or have had exprienced a large influx of water, leaving a massive flat bed of mud. The harsh light from the sky had baked that mud down into a hard, cracked landscape, that the duo was now picking their way across.
Ven peered downward as they walked, her spirits even higher than before. "Damn. Some of these cracks are deep."
"Careful not to step in any, I don't want you twisting your ankle," Chris responded.
"You too," Ven said.
Ven and Chris gingerly walked among the cracks. Despite the care they applied to walking, they made much better time than they would have, had they been traversing the soft sand of the dunes. Chris remained vigilant as they walked, and as such, he was the first to notice something skittering across the mud ahead.
"What was that?" He asked, astonished.
"W-what?" Ven asked. "I didn't see anything, what are you ta-"
Her words were cut off, as something small and shiny scrambled back out of another one of the cracks, in plain view this time.
"Ew!" called out Ven. "It's.. some sort of bug?"
"It looks like a scorpion to me." Responded Chris. "But... I dont think it's natural. I think its... clockwork."
"What the fuck is the point of a clockwork scorpion?" Asked Ven, incredulously. She and Chris resumed their pace, decreasing the distance between them and the clockwork scorpion every step. The small mechanical arthropod remained nearly motionless as they approached, swaying gently back and forth.
"You really think we should be getting this close to it?" Asked Chris, warily.
"The thing is smaller than my foot. I can handle it -- if you're afraid of the big mean metal bug."
"That's not what I mean," Chris responded with exasperation. "It's clockwork. Clockwork means death. Anything clockwork in this tower is bad news."
"I know I know. Just teasing you." Ven elbowed Chris in the ribs. "And I happen to agree. Let's just go wide around this one, and ignore it."
Ven led Chris in a wide circle around the motionless scorpion. When the pair of them passed by the motionless clockwork, it suddenly sprung into action. The scorpion spun in place, facing towards Chris, and charged.
"Oh fUCK!" Ven gasped, walking backwards quickly, attempting to drag Chris with her.
Chris shook her grip off of him, took two purposeful steps forward, and stomped down on the clockwork scorpion with all the force he could muster. A rough grinding noise escaped from under his foot, along with the sound of thin metal snapping.
"What, afraid of the big metal bug?" asked Chris, a slight grin playing across his face.
Ven furrowed her eyebrows at him. "It moved so damn fast!" She walked forward, standing beside Chris again. "Whatever. Let's just go."
Chris lifted his foot up, revealing the destroyed clockwork below, and some gouges cut into the sole of his boot.
"The little thing's awfully sharp, too." He bent to take a closer look at it, as Ven walked a short distance away. Chris could see small, tiny gears, intricately woven together in beautiful shapes and patterns. The small clockwork beast was almost art. As he studied its form, a sound from behind him grabbed his attention. Chris stood straight and began to turn around when Ven called out to him from in front.
"Chris..." she began slowly. "Theres... more..."
Chris glanced toward Ven, seeing she had turned around to look at him. Between them, another 5 clockwork scorpions had crawled out of the cracks in the ground. Skittering sounds behind him told Chris that more had come up over there as well. He glanced backward. Another ten, at least. Turning around, he saw yet more were swarming through the rifts.
"Chris...!" Ven shouted. She began stomping down on scorpions that were crawling out of the cracks around her feet. "Chris we should probably get the fuck out of here!"
Chris felt a sharp jab of pain from his right leg. He looked down and saw three scorpions swarming up his leg, one of them having sunk its pincer deep into the meat of his calf. Chris yelled in pain and swung his pack down from his shoulder. The pack collided with the scorpions, sending them flying. Chris began stomping down in sheer panic, catching two scorpions with one foot. He looked up at Ven and saw she had yet more crawling towards her.
Ven watched Chris use his pack as a weapon, and followed suit, smashing any scorpion that dared come near her. She sent three scorpions flying in quick succession, swinging her pack like a flail. Ven looked back up towards Chris, becoming immediately filled with fear. In the brief 10 seconds since Chris had stomped on the first clockwork scorpion, another hundred had swarmed out of the ground, centered around Chris. With no path to escape, Chris was fighting as best he could to destroy all of the clockwork.
"Chris!" Ven screamed. She began to charge forward, smashing the scorpions as best she could. A sharp pain jabbed into her side, as a scorpion she hadn't noticed climbed her leg, sinking its pincers into her waist. She batted at it with her hand, slicing it on the sharp metal of the tiny attacker. "Chris!!" she screamed again, more panic filling her voice.
Chris's pack was in tatters, from swinging it at the small metal beings. The scorpions had swarmed onto it, and quickly cut it to ribbons. He was left with only his feet, and his hands, both of which were covered in blood. Chris faltered, as the clockwork scorpions swarming him were now at knee height. One scorpion crawled onto his chest, but he curled his hand into a fist and smashed it against himself, knocking the scorpion aside. Chris let out another pained cry, as his legs were beginning to be torn to shreds.
"Ven!" he yelled in pain. "Ven get out of here!" Chris weakly swung another fist downwards but failed to connect with any of the many clockwork attacking his lower half. "Ven please!" he said, faltering.
Ven took two steps forward towards Chris, towards the pile of scorpions. The clockwork almost entire obscured his lower half, but she could see the telltale signs of blood below them -- lots of blood. A sob choked its way out of Ven as she stared at her partner. Chris looked one last time at Ven, pain and sadness marking his face, before he fell to a knee, then to the ground. The scorpions around him swarmed with increased vigour.
Ven turned, unable to look. Tears stung her eyes as she ran. The scorpions near her appeared to ignore her once Chris fell, instead choosing to focus on the spot he had landed. "They're probably fighting over his soul coin," the cold rational part of Ven's brain said. She shook her head, sending tears flying, and continued to run. Ven faltered once, stepping in a crack and twisting her ankle. She ignored the pain, getting back to her feet and continuing to run. She ran until she could run no more, until she had left the dried mud area behind. She ran until she found the edge of the nearest sand dune, and began to climb.
* * *
Ven ran until the light shut off -- and tried to continue running afterwards. Part way through the night she stumbled in the perfect darkness, falling onto the sand dune she had been attempting to run along. Ven had curled up then, and slept, due to sheer exhaustion.
The disk in the sky rudely woke her, forcing her to confront a reality without Chris. Ven numbly reached into her pack to grab out her water skin. When she removed it, she found a clean gash down the side of it, with a matching one in the side of her pack. All of her water had drained out during her mad dash for safety, and she hadn't noticed. Without pause, Ven tossed the water skin aside, then after a moments consideration, tossed the entire pack aside. Holding it reminded her too much of Chris.
Ven got back to her feet, and began to walk.
* * *
Cycles of light and dark passed as Ven walked on. She would walk during the light, until the floor turned to night mode -- continuing to walk in the pure darkness until she stumbled and fell, resting wherever her body lay. When the disk in the sky turned back on, she'd get back to her feet, and continue her aimless journey.
* * *
Three days after Ven witness Chris die, she collapsed. Ven tumbled down the side of the dune she had been walking along. She lay at the bottom, staring upward into the bright light above. Her vision slowly began to fade to black. Just before she passed out, Ven caught a glimpse of a shape moving against the bright sky above. It blocked out the light, as it leaned over her. Ven's eyes shut, and all was black.
* * *
"In a way... I wish he wasn't so caring. I wish he had been more selfish." "Would you have loved him as much?" "No. No, I wouldn't have. It wouldn't have been the same. The whole reason I fell in love with him is because of how well he listened, how much he cared, and what he did to improve lives. Without that, he wouldn't have been my Chris." "Listen, Hel, this whole conversation has been really hard for me. It's only been a week since... since I lost him." "I know, Ven, I know. But it's important to talk about it. We can stop if you like. We covered a lot anyways. I'm glad I got to tell you about how much you two meant to me. About how you help me out of dark places. And it's good to think about family too. You never mentioned if you'd met any in here either." "Chris was my family. I didn't have any real family while I was alive." "Chris was all I had." "Chris was incredibly important to me too. First second-floorer I met, and all that." "Fuck. Damnit, Hel, why couldn't you have found us earlier?" "I'm... sorry. I tried, Ven. I thought I had seen some light in the desert, so I went to go look, but you guys were already gone. I had to follow your tracks from there." "Did... did you see the orbs too?" "The what?" "Nevermind. Not important." "I don't know what to do with myself now, Hel." "I get it though. I understand feeling like you want to end it all again." "That's why I mentioned moving forward." "What's the point?" "Ven, you might not like it, but you have a second chance at life here. Shit, this is your third chance now. You could've died your second death there with Chris, but you didn't." "So what? What should I do?" "Come with me." "Like I said earlier, you can come with me. Don't throw away what you've been granted now. Live on, and move forward. Do it for Chris." "Come with you where?" "To the top, Ven. I'm going all the way to the top of this tower. Who knows, maybe we'll find something along the way."