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Palace

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The helmet didn’t fit properly, but the seal had automatically adjusted around her neck to keep the air from leaking. It felt strange, wearing her mask under the helmet, but because the helmet’s designer hadn’t taken nearsighted users into consideration, she needed the mask’s lenses to see properly.

At least it fit under the visor, even if it made turning her neck difficult.

“You’re doing great, Weaver.”

She grunted, not wanting to speak. Talking was a waste of breath, and she didn’t know how many breaths she had before the oxygen supply ran dry. How long had it been since she’d put on the helmet? Five hours? Six? After it was gone, she’d suffocate. Her own rebreather had run out of oxygen long ago.

The helmet was supposed to have a holographic display with an oxygen meter and a clock, but she’d shut it off to save power. There was no telling how long she was going to be stuck here, and she might need to conserve energy for some of the more power-hungry features if it came down to it.

She walked slowly, the soft soles of her costume pressing against hard marble, quietly echoing down the halls. They called it the Palace. Or at least, Defiant had, before… 

Before.

The Palace was the most lifeless place she’d ever seen… but it wasn’t dead. That was her mistake. She couldn’t feel a single insect, not a single twinge of life anywhere in her range, so she’d assumed it was empty. 

Stupid. It was a mistake that had come with a steep cost.

“The hallway forks up ahead. Fifty feet.”

She grunted again. The Palace seemed to stretch on for miles and miles. She’d been walking for what felt like half a day by her estimations, and she still hadn’t seen the end of it. Each hall seemed to be identical to the next. Gold-trimmed moulding lined the walls, thick marble pillars sat by the sides, and glittering chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Occasionally there were chairs, old-fashioned ones that she guessed were Victorian. Everything sat in perfectly lined rows, not a single hair out of place, like it had never been touched.

The sterility of it all reminded her of Cauldron’s base, but the Palace’s design didn’t read as theirs. It was too ostentatious, too elegant. Everything here was just… perfect, so perfectly clean that there was no sign anyone had ever lived here before. It unnerved her, how simultaneously human and alien it all was. It was like a facsimile of a real palace, infinite duplicates of the same design pasted over and over again, all awash in cold light, built by unknowing beings without the context to understand what they were creating. Most doors she’d encountered were fake, just walls shaped and painted to look like doors. Chairs sat in corners without tables, and tables sat in places without chairs. Railings seemed to end at random. White plastic plants sat in gold plastic pots. There was no oxygen here. There was no life here.

Not even dust.

Except, she thought bitterly, that wasn’t true, was it? Because there had been something here, appearing in the brief moments when the endless lights flickered off into darkness, and that something had taken Defiant.

She reached the fork.

“Wait… hold on, Weaver, I’m seeing something.”

“Seeing what?” 

Her lips were chapped from the stale air. Defiant’s helmet had some sort of mechanism to filter and restore oxygen, but it wasn’t perfect. It didn’t recycle moisture, and it didn’t work fast enough to keep the oxygen coming forever. Her death was still coming, just a bit slower than it would've done otherwise.

“There’s a signal!”

She swallowed, licking her lips. “What kind of signal?”

“Some kind of radio signal, but… it’s not anything I recognize. I can’t quite understand it. It’s encrypted in a way I’ve never seen before, but I can at least detect where it’s coming from. Two hundred feet to your ten o’clock, and forty feet straight down.”

“Down?” she muttered.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Up or down, she wondered. Upwards was the way she’d been moving for the last few hours, climbing every set of stairs she’d come across, only to come out to another identical series of hallways. The hope was that eventually she’d reach the top, and there would be some way out. There had to be a way out then.

This place had to have a top, didn’t it?

“How far up have I traveled?”

“Since we started?”

"Mm."

“About eight hundred feet.”

Eighty floors, give or take, and she still hadn’t reached the top.

“Dragon,” she said quietly, “have you considered that this place might be a pocket universe, or maybe…”

“Some kind of illusion?”

She hummed.

“I’ve considered it. It could be a pocket universe—as far as I can tell this place is real, not a master effect. Illusions don’t tend to work on me, since…”

“Since you’re an AI.”

“Yes. That.”

The revelation had come out of necessity, after Defiant had been taken, and she’d managed to salvage his helmet. When she’d heard Dragon’s voice over his radio, she’d let herself hope, just briefly, that help was coming.

And then she’d learned that Dragon was as trapped here as she was, that Dragon was in the helmet with her, and that hope was sealed away. She’d felt resentful at first, but pushed it down. They were each other’s only companions for the foreseeable future, and they’d have to work together. Her focus had to be on escape. Everything else could wait until after.

“You’ve been climbing for almost twelve hours, Weaver. We have to consider—”

“That this place has no top.”

“Yes.”

“We don’t know if it has a bottom, either.”

“No. But there’s a signal below you. It could be our way out, or something that leads to it.”

“It’s down,” she said.

“I know.”

“Down could mean more of… them.”

“I know.”

“If they come back, I don’t have my bugs. I won’t be able to defend myself.”

“You have Defiant’s backup weapon.”

The tinker-made pistol weighed heavily on her belt, bulky metal bumping against her leg as she walked.

“You told me it has limited uses.”

“It runs off his suit’s energy supply, but it can run off his helmet’s reserves, too. I designed it that way.”

“How much power do I have left?”

“... Seventy-six percent. Enough for about ten shots.”

Ten shots, and then she wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore. Each pull of the trigger would cost her about half an hour of her remaining lifespan. It didn’t seem like a fair trade — especially when there were so many of these things .

But Dragon was right — she’d been walking blindly for hours, and at the very least, this was something different. It was a lead.

Weaver nodded. “We’ll go down,” she said.

Dragon guided her down the left hall, where a flight of stairs leading down awaited her. She descended with measured steps, her eyes flicking to each corner as she walked.

Trouble came on the third floor down. 

Halfway down the flight of stairs, the lights shut off, dropping the entire place in pitch darkness. 

“T—”

Her heart raced in the few moments it took for the helmet’s flashlight to kick in, and her fingers wrapped around the pistol, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice.

The lights had only dropped for brief seconds before, but now… it seemed it was staying off. She wandered the halls in darkness, afraid to breathe too loudly lest it attract some of the monsters.

In the dark, everything looked different. Every corner was a potential threat, another spot to check. Without her bugs, she was forced to slow her pace, sweeping the pistol over every nook before she moved on.

She wouldn’t let what happened to Defiant happen again.

Weaver pushed forth as silently as possible until she reached another fork, each leading off so far into the distance that she didn’t know which way would lead up and which way would lead down.

“Dragon?” she whispered.

There was no response. Ice ran down her veins. It wasn’t a good sign.

Then she saw it, far down at the end of the left corridor. A figure, tall, broad shouldered with a helmet and thick armor. A distinctive silhouette.

It looked like Defiant.

Slowly, Weaver drew the pistol, and aimed it at the figure, center mass. She approached slowly, swallowing, trepidation in every step.

The figure didn’t react. Its head hung low, as if it had fallen asleep standing up.

She was twenty feet away, then fifteen, then ten. She pointed the pistol towards the joints, where the armor was weaker, less protected. Still, the figure didn’t react.

“... Defiant?” she whispered.

She swallowed.

Then the lights turned on, icy light flooding the room as if beaming from the ceiling itself, and the figure stood ramrod straight. It met her eyes, and everything about it looked identical to the real Defiant, down to his weapons and the scratches on his armor.

“—aylor! What’s happening?”

“Defiant?” she said again, more firmly this time.

She wanted to believe it was him so badly, but it couldn’t be him. He had a pistol at his side. The real Defiant didn’t have his backup weapon anymore, because she was holding it in her hands. The real Defiant didn't have his helmet anymore, because she was wearing it.

The figure tilted its head, as if thinking, and then a moment later, it pounced.

Her heart skipped a beat.

It flew at her with breathtaking speed, its fist colliding with her suit before she could even react. The spider silk absorbed some of the impact, but even still it was enough to leave her winded. She bit down the pain, ducked away, narrowly avoiding two sweeps of his spear.

It was a familiar dance, she realized. It fought like him, right down to the little idiosyncrasies in his fighting style. Her lungs were screaming trying to keep up. Even on her best day, she hadn’t been a match for him in hand-to-hand combat — and here, she had no bugs.

“That’s not him,” Dragon said.

She dodged away, a spear thrust missing her by inches. “I know ,” she hissed.

She aimed the gun, but he dodged to the side, clearing the distance in an instant and stabbing forth again.

This time it caught her in the side, the point of the blade stabbing clean through her bodysuit. She screamed, the sound echoing around the helmet, deafening her, as she grabbed the spear with her left hand and shoved it away.

Flecks of scarlet came with it.

Weaver rolled out of the way, putting a table between herself and the figure. In one smooth motion, she lifted the gun and fired once, a bang echoing off the walls, the shot piercing the figure’s heart in an instant. It crumpled to the floor, a mouldering hole in its chest.

Her heart fell into her stomach. It felt like she was killing him all over again, even though she knew it wasn’t him.

But the sound , the grunt it had made when she’d shot it — it was so lifelike, so him that it was hard to totally convince herself that it wasn’t.

She crouched down slowly, scanning it over. She gingerly touched the armoring on its arm, hoping it might be salvageable, but she pulled her hand back in surprise. “It’s not real armor,” she said. “It’s like… flesh that’s designed to look like armor.” 

“An imitation.”

“Like everything else in this place.”

It made sense, considering. Defiant would’ve developed his armor to be resistant to his own weapons. She poked at the helmet, and it seemed to stick to the rest of its head. She wouldn’t be surprised if there was no face underneath at all.

Weaver stood, waiting a moment to catch her breath, pressing a hand down on her wound. She pulled the first aid kit from a compartment in her armor, retrieved a bandage, and winced as she pressed it onto the wound. She swallowed, pushing down the pain in her side, and then continued onwards, pushing her way down the hall. 

She left the body where it was. 

“I couldn’t hear you when the lights were out,” she said. It was a waste of breath, but she needed something, anything to distract her.

“I don’t remember what happened. One moment the lights were turning off, and the next—”

“—they were back on,” she finished.

“... I don’t think it’s just the lights that are turning off.” A crackling sigh sounded through the helmet’s speakers. “I don’t like losing time.”

“Yeah,” she said, not knowing what else to say.

“There’s something going on with the electricity in this place.”

“An EMP?”

“Maybe. But Defiant’s equipment is hardened against EMPs.”

“Yeah. And the helmet’s flashlight was still working.”

“So it probably wasn’t an EMP. Something else is at play here. Something that can shut off electronics, but not indiscriminately.”

Weaver checked the display on the side of the pistol, which now read ‘9’ in bright red font. Nine rounds left; half an hour of her life spent. 

“The clone,” she said. “It looked like it was asleep when the lights were off. It didn’t react to anything I did.”

“Maybe there’s an electronic component to them. When the Palace is off… so is everything else. The clones could be part of a security system.”

“Maybe. A security system for what? What is it protecting? Who is it supposed to be protecting against? Neither of us have ever heard of this place, and from the looks of it, nobody’s ever set foot here since the day it was built.”

“The signal might provide some answers.”

“Or more questions,” she said, sighing. Her breath fogged up the visor for a brief moment before the helmet cleared itself. “It doesn’t make sense, this place.”

“No, it doesn’t. Weaver, from what I can tell, this place is ancient. Easily hundreds of years old, judging by the readings I got from Defiant's armor."

"Your instruments could be wrong. Seeing a false positive or something."

"It's not. I've triple checked. Whatever Toybox was doing, they didn't create this place."

“The clone,” Weaver said. “I think it’s a part of the Palace. They weren’t clones at first, remember?”

“I do.”

When they’d first arrived, these things had looked like charred corpses, gaunt shapes with no eyes and no arms.

And then they’d started to adapt. They’d started to grow larger and larger until… until they all started to resemble Defiant.

“It was fast,” she said. “And it fought like him , but only to a certain extent. It didn’t know how to adapt when I put some distance between us.”

“Maybe… it copied what it saw of him. He wasn’t fighting opponents with guns before, so—”

“So they wouldn’t know how to do it, either.”

“Exactly.”

They walked in silence for the next few minutes. Weaver found the next set of stairs, and started descending. “... I’m sorry, by the way,” she said.

“About what?”

“About Defiant. I know you two were… close.”

“Weaver, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“No. Defiant made his own choices. He chose to sacrifice himself for you.”

“Why? We weren’t friends. Not really.”

“He respected you. We both did. He requested you for this mission, you know.”

“I know. I was told.” She chuckled. “I was useful. I had experience with the Nine that most don’t.”

“It meant more to him than just that. But that doesn’t matter. He would’ve saved you anyway.”

She snorted. “Would he? Did you forget what happened with Leviathan?”

“He’s changed since then. He’s better now. Or —” Dragon’s breath caught in a way that was so human that she almost forgot that she was talking to an AI. “He was.”

“Yeah,” Weaver breathed. “How do you think the fight’s going?”

“With the traps the Nine left behind? I think it’s probably over by now.”

“Yeah,” she agreed.

It would’ve been over hours ago. If there was any way to re-open the portal that had led them here, they would’ve done it by now. Dragon would’ve noticed a signal. The fact that no one had appeared… 

She focused on the cold marble ahead of her, the blue tinged light reflecting off alabaster floors. It would’ve hurt her eyes to stare at it so long, but the helmet had visual filters to reduce eye strain.

Defiant must’ve spent a lot of time staring at screens, she thought. And now…

Now the helmet was hers.

“Dragon, how much air’s left?”

“At this rate… four hours. Less, if you get drawn into more fighting.”

Four hours. There wouldn’t be enough time for her to sleep. She had to find a supply of oxygen before time ran out.

“Less talking, then.”

She pushed onwards, down the next flight of stairs, down into another hallway. She kept her breathing even, taking shallower breaths without going too far to the point where she would have to take more breaths to compensate. It was difficult with the armor and the flight pack weighing her down. 

“Weaver… listen, if it comes to it… I can buy you a few more hours of air.”

“How?”

“The microphone, the speakers, the camera feed… my subsystems — they all take up battery power. If I turn myself off—”

“No.”

“It’ll give you about two more hours with the oxygen recycler. Three, if you conserve energy.”

“I’m not going to kill you, Dragon.”

“I have backups. It wouldn’t be dying, it’d just be like… going to sleep for a while.”

“You don’t sleep.”

Dragon laughed. “No, I don’t. But consider it. You can’t afford to be sentimental.”

That wasn’t it, she wanted to argue. She liked Dragon, and at this point she almost considered her a friend, but really, that wasn’t it. 

She didn’t want to be left alone, not here, not with them.

But Dragon was right. If it came down to it, she’d have to make the tough call. That was her specialty, after all — making the hard choices when others couldn’t.

“... Fine.”

Her side was still aching, every motion of her body making it worse. Most of the time she was able to brush the pain away, but here… something was different. It was hurting more than most wounds did, a burning, searing wound that wouldn’t subside.

“I don’t suppose,” she breathed, “Defiant had some kind of anaesthetic that you could give me?”

“Not in his helmet. Sorry.”

She swallowed, but her mouth felt dry. “Okay.”

“How bad is it?”

“Bad.”

“You don’t carry any painkillers with you?”

“No. Epinephrine is all I’m usually allowed to bring.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

The hallway ended in a thick, heavy door with a face imprinted in the center. Huge pillars framed the sides.

“This is it. The signal’s coming from the other side of this door.”

Weaver pushed the door experimentally, half expecting it to be fake, but it gave way with ease, sliding open.

On the other side of the door was a massive antechamber, about a hundred yards across at her best guess. At the far end was something resembling a tuning fork placed on a golden pedestal. She would’ve stepped out to it, but there was a problem.

Between her and the tuning fork stood fifteen more clones of Defiant, each staring intently, following her every move. They weren’t moving, not yet, but she remembered how fast the last one had moved when it’d wanted to.

“Dragon,” she whispered nervously.

“I…” 

Something about her voice sounded odd.

“Dragon?”

“... Sorry. Yes, I see them. The signal’s coming from that pedestal over there.”

“It looks like a trap. We still don’t know what it is.”

“No… this is it. This is…”

“Dragon, stay with me.”

“... Yes, of course. Weaver, this is our only path forward. You’ll have to find a way.”

“Whatever this is, it’s affecting you. I don’t trust whatever this is.”

“We don't have any other options, Weaver.”

She clenched a fist. Dragon was right, but she didn’t have enough energy to shoot them all, and she couldn’t beat them in a straight fight. She had no bugs, no teammates, and no resources other than the ones on her back.

But she still had the flight pack, she thought. Defiant’s flight pack. In the end, all she had left were pieces of his equipment. He was saving her even now.

The flight pack ran on its own battery, but it didn’t last forever. She’d get maybe ten minutes of continuous use, and then it would be gone, too.

“What do I do when I get to the pedestal?”

“I think… Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That… humming,” Dragon mumbled.

“Yeah.”

“Mm…” She was drifting off again.

“Dragon.”

“Right. Sorry. I get the feeling that you’re supposed to hit it.”

“That simple?”

“I have no idea. It’s just… a feeling that I have.”

It was the only chance they had. She was running out of oxygen. They wouldn’t survive another night.

“Watch my back, Dragon?”

“Of course.”

She took a running start, and barreled into the room. All at once, the Defiant clones attacked.

She aimed at the nearest one, pulled the trigger, and it went down. Eight shots left, another half hour spent. Eighty yards left. She kept running.

The next one jabbed at her with a spear, and she ducked out of the way, firing another shot. Seven shots left, another half hour spent. Seventy yards left.

She fired again and again.

Six shots.

Five.

Four.

Two hours of her life, spent.

"Not enough. Move!"

With a flick of her fingers, she activated the flight pack, launching her into the air. The initial momentum carried her halfway across the room, but she kept accelerating.

The clones were fast, but they couldn’t reach her in the air. Still, she could hear their heavy footsteps chasing her, nearly keeping pace, and it was all she could to keep from looking back.

The pedestal was thirty feet away, then twenty feet, then ten, then—

Her feet touched marble at thirty miles an hour, and she could feel something crack. She bit down a scream and got to her feet. The footsteps grew louder, heavier, and she pulled herself the last couple feet and reached out for the tuning fork.

“Behind you, twelve feet back!”

The closest clone leapt into the air, spear aimed at her head. 

“Five feet! Go now!”

Her fist struck the fork a split second before the clone landed, and the moment the silk touched steel, everything changed.

The lights went out, and so did she.