In All Reflections
Published: June 22, 2023
Warnings: Explicit violence, death, gore, body horror (mild).
Blurb: Prompt: “The night was unnaturally unremarkable, unlike so many before it.”
Which made it a perfect night for espionage in the bowels of the earth.
The creaking of the lantern held on its pole did little to help illuminate the cavern, walls as coated in darkteeth as they were. The leaves wilted under the brief glancing of the light, shivered away underneath one another - before bursting forth like curious bloatflies as he shuffled past.
For once, he found himself grateful that this chassis did not have a breathing apparatus. It was strange to lose that sense, but in all honesty - at times required. The haze the darkteeth left behind clung to his body, sticky-gaseous all at once. To a mortal, it would be suffocating.
“He’ll be here in a minute or so,” came the voice, to one half of him. “He’s on the promenade right now.”
Mivis rubbed at his forehead - his real forehead. “Glory to our Commander,” he muttered darkly, in confidence, “for showing up at this hour.”
His secretary chuckled lightly, thumbing through a few holograms. “Glory indeed.” their voice dripped with equal sarcasm, equal irritation.
Mivis looked to his right, and he felt the chassis’ head shift as well. In his eyes, he could see out the window of his office - overlooking Sunhold’s administrative district, sheening buildings sandwiched by overflowing aqueducts.
The eponymous sun had just started to dip below the horizon, casting off the glass in vivid oranges and pinks. And at the very end of the long boardwalk to the edge of the district, he could see the fanfare and buzz of Aite’s arrival, an array of people darting darling around a singular silhouette.
But his other eyes stared, blearily, at darkness. The light could not penetrate into the crevices in the walls, crevices that became routes and caverns, that his people pressed themselves into and sucked in air and squirmed through like liquid.
This was a bad time to be in two places. But it was a powerful alibi, even if not intended. So he moved his body forward, and sat firmly in the other, reaching to pick up a pencil. This was no impossible thing for him, he reminded himself.
He came across another shuddering crack in the rockface, this one marked with a pink splatter of spraypaint instead of magenta. The difference was subtle, of course, but magnified by the enchantments in his lantern. He reached out a hand experimentally, splayed fingers against the cold darkness, and found the width of the opening to be acceptable.
The lantern was placed on the ground, and his body shrugged off the sheets of cloaks it had been buried underneath. Light refracted off the dull metals the chassis was built out of, and the darkteeth trembled in anticipation and fear.
Chatter from the carpeted hallway drew attention. He lifted his head and a hand, placing it over his chest, and stood respectfully. The door opened in a flourish of a motion, Aite almost aggressively waving off a handful of servants offering him everything from paper to fruit to drink to robe. They dispersed with a ferocity, and Aite turned to him with a smile of teeth.
“Mivis!” said devoid of affection, teeming instead with poison.
He held the salute for a minute longer, bowing his head duly. Aite chittered a tiny laugh, and Mivis sat, letting out a small sigh.
“This is unexpected,” he managed, as he pressed his body through the small opening, hands outstretched to either side to fit.
The far fingers groped for lack of purchase, seeking where the sliver widened back up into proper room. The pressure on his chest was suffocating him - enough he could feel it in his true body, compressing his sternum tight against his lungs. Or was that the anxiety from Aite’s surprise visit?
Regardless, through the opening he squeezed.
“Sorry, sorry,” Aite said, lying, having his hands placatingly, “trust me, of all people, I know how much you hate surprise visits from Beta! After all, who knows what I could want, hm? It must drive you crazy - insane, even. The question! The wondering!”
“Precisely,” he responded, flatly. Aite burst into laughter, and draped himself in a chair across from Mivis’ desk. He paused, pencil halfway to paper, and-
-His fingers met cool air. The rest of the body followed, tumbling into a small trickle of water weaving through the cave’s floor. He paused for a long second, letting the chassis’ eyes acclimate to the darkness as well as they could, but there was nothing to see. It was permeating, consuming.
He looked back into the opening, through which peeked just enough light he could imagine clutching the pole again. But he could also see, just faintly, several long tendrils stretching out from the legions of darkteeth, already smothering the lantern.
No matter. He stood, keeping his feet in the cool and fresh water, and trudged forwards.
“Well, don’t fret for too long or too much,” Aite said, smile upturned, “I assure you this is a swift visit. Honestly, it could’ve been an email!”
A pause. The stream’s flow turned, and he turned to follow. Now, around a corner of rock, he could see a faint glimmer at the end of the corridor. A jolt ran through his chest, but he kept his pace steady.
“Wait. Do you still have emails?” Aite waved a finger at one of the holo-screens, face in mock uncertainty.
“Yes, Commander,” Mivis said, heaping more exasperation into his tone.
The glimmer turned to a few haphazardly strung lights, and a pink spraypainted symbol above a wide opening. It sloped sharply downwards, and featured crude carved stairs down its short length.
He stared at the symbol for only a few seconds. It was correct, written in Leane’s familiar handwriting.
He set off down the stairs.
“Well I guess I could’ve made this an email, then,” Aite continued, a mock-thoughtful hand cupping his chin. “Though I’d miss your delightful reaction to this conversation. And that would be a true shame, wouldn’t it?”
All a game to him. Like always. It was hard to muster the spite to care that Aite was wasting his time - drawing out this visit, taunting him with the vague threat of whatever it was about. It was just the way Aite was.
“What exactly is ‘this’?” he prompted, like he knew he needed to, echoing Aite.
Aite flashed another smile, but when his eyes flicked to Mivis, they were piercing, searching. Scanning for signs of reaction beyond the norm.
The gaping cavern returned to silence as his footsteps stopped on the last stair. Before him spread an enormous grotto, yawning like the mouth of a great behemoth. Darkness was broken only by the light peppering of further lanterns, imbued with the warm magical signature of his people, the rebels underneath him, the secretive network undoing Beta’s chokegrasp on Gamma.
They had led him here, to this cave, as part of that grand plan. For what lay before him was an enormous, blackened swell of metal, brimming with power even in its weakened state. It pulsed and swelled like an alien organ, throbbing with need, stretching out towards his chassis.
It sensed the powerful waves of Magninium rolling off his body, even though only a miniscule fraction was filtered through this machine to empower it - small enough that not even Aite noticed he was casting. But the metal cared not; even this meager bounty could satiate a fragment of its hunger for magic.
Augmetia. Gamma’s greatest treasure.
Just as Leane and Wist had told him: a fresh, untouched vein. Of precise interest to Beta, and soon to be harvested, should it be officially found.
And as they’d said, his eyes glided over the extensive magic circles drawn onto the augmetia’s surface, in waiting chalk. They connected to each other in strung white lines, and then down down in front of him, to the rock floor, to the detonator.
Upon which was a thick, black lump of a shape.
“Let’s just say I had a few concerns regarding your mortal subordinates.” Aite said, almost caring, holding out a hand. Like he wanted Mivis to take it.
His body stepped forwards, and the light bounced off the augmetia, and onto the black lump, and he caught discrete shapes.
It was a person.
“Legitimate concerns!” Aite said, quickly. “Ones I’m sure you’ll share. After all, we don’t much appreciate insurgents here, do we?”
It was the remains of a person, twisted and battered. An arm sloughed off the shoulder girdle, limp. Skin hung off the ribs in flayed layers, exposing calcified bone underneath. Pockets of cauterized holes read as gold scarring.
And the vibration of Beta magic hung in the air around it, lashing it to the detonator like a teasing effigy. A taunt. A reminder. Caught, intercepted. Ugh.
So this vein was already compromised.
“Which subordinates?” he toned, tilting his head. His chassis tilted, and for a brief second he realized if he’d installed a breathing apparatus in this one, he would’ve smelled the corpse long before entering the room.
Would that have been better, or worse?
Aite gave a casual little laugh. Punchable. “You really have no guesses? Though I suppose it must be hard to remember them as individuals, with how many of their spies I have to have killed. I really should implore you to tighten security a little more. But I suppose I’m merciful like that.”
Why are you here. Why did you make the on-foot journey down the voidspace bridge from your comfortable Beta home, all the way to Gamma, to ask him about this.
“You know, if Zirconia knew how much I let you get away with, he’d - well, we both know what he’d do, don’t we?” Aite held up a hand, sparked with magic. The threat of mind-altering magic was obvious, and Mivis grimaced. “Should I remind you that I’m by leagues the most sensible of Beta’s Fragments?”
“No need to remind me, Commander.”
The body moved.
It heaved a sickly, pathetic breath. Maggots spilled out of its mouth like air, coughed out of rotting lungs. His body did not move; merely stared at the shape of the corpse’s hair, tied in a familiar braid ‘round the temples.
He could recognize this shambling cadaver. His stomach churned, mind twisted briefly. His hand tensed, joints creaking. The connection to the chassis blipped, but only for a blink of a second.
At the sound, with a puff of air, the thing’s head turned towards him, and it made a pathetic noise.
“Where is Leane?” Aite smiled, voice brimming with glee.
The disgust in him was immeasurable. It was a wave, a storm, rolling into him like a hurricane upon a tiny vessel. It filled his body brim to brim, and only his self-control stopped him from clenching the pencil. But he chose to ignore its presence.
He strode his body over to Leane, crouched. The body managed a weak, “Austenite?” of recognition. Wordlessly, he reached into one of the chassis’ pockets, and procured a golden dagger.
“I believe they last left to supervise a survey into a promising new cave,” Mivis said, rolling his chair to pry a few holo-sticks out of a drawer and open the report on the screen. He let the silence hang for a second, then looked into Aite’s sharp eyes, “...They aren’t due back for... a few more days. I haven’t heard from them. Surface-cave communication....”
“No?” Aite asked, loftily, an eyebrow raising, the grin on his face still unhinged. “It’s still that poor?”
“The amount of augmetia interferes with - you know this.”
“I do,” Aite admitted, flippantly glancing at a hand, comfortable and smug. “Strange of them to delve now, in the middle of quake season. Who approved that?”
“They approve themself. They’re the minister of...” Mivis let his frown deepen. “Are you implying something about Leane?”
“Implying something?” Aite gasped, hand flying to cover his mouth. But in the next second, he leaned forwards, tone darker, “Not at all. Unless you have some suspicions? Some suggestions to share with your Beta benefactor? Your oh-so-kind, doesn’t-mind-alter-you benefactor?”
Mivis’ ears pinned back as he jutted the knife forwards. For a second, as it slid into weathered and dry skin, he imagined the squelch of it digging between two of Aite’s ribs, into his flesh, the squirt of blood across his hands, spraying his face, Aite’s eyes widening.
But none of that happened.
Leane let out a weak cry as the gold devoured the remains of their magic and the Beta curse keeping them alive in one hungry swallow. Aite tensed as the connection snapped, eyes flicked for a half-second to the right, before settling on Mivis again.
“No, Commander, I have nothing to share,” he said, carefully, “but if you suspect them of rebel activity, I can have them arrested once they emerge in a few days.”
Aite waved a hand dismissively, straighting up. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll be visiting the caves myself. Scouting the Great Eastern Limestone network, yes?”
I’m sorry, Mivis thought as Leane’s body was unceremoniously dumped next to the detonator, dagger stowed in pocket. But they had known the risks when they’d been sworn into Austenite’s command. They knew their life was at stake, every minute, every hour, every action.
The pragmatic half of him wished there was more time to dig into their brain, find out exactly how they’d been discovered. But he knew that Aite oft laid mind-altering traps, and if he so much as sniffed Mivis’ magic touching the corpse, it would be over in a flash.
Risk, his greatest enemy.
“Yes, Commander. Do you require an escort of any sort?”
“Stars, no.” he was already at the exit, irritated thoughtfulness on his face. “Keep your Gamma servants away from me.”
“Understood, Commander. Please be careful when exploring-”
Aite slammed the door.
Mivis’ real body did not untense, did not breathe a sigh of relief, even as the sound of Aite’s teleport signaled his true leave. Firstly - who knew how many bugs Aite had managed to magically plant in the few minutes he’d been here?
And secondly - he’d likely just teleported to the network’s entrance. Which gave Mivis only a few seconds to grasp the detonator’s lever and shove down in one heaving motion.
A shame, he thought, in the brief second.
He had liked this chassis.
Pain erupted down physical and false body in unison as the explosion ripped the chassis apart, peeling metal from bindings from magic. His right hand clenched his physical thigh, digging in as a ward against the agony white-hot and sharp both.
It hurt. His body begged to scream, but he ground teeth into teeth and kept his muzzle shut.
Shrapnel of augmetia dug into the false body, burrowing in like tapeworms and snapping up what little magic he’d used to control it, destroying any connection between Austenite and Mivis.
Dying. He was dying. It hurt. His body and mind were being ripped at the seams. Every moment blossomed the pain into another infinite fractal, new stabs along the remains of his limbs as his torso buckled and contorted.
A sizeable chunk of augmetia hurled into the cracked remains of a hand. It snapped the fingers backwards all at once, sending a fresh wave of wrongness down his spine. It twisted his wrist past comfort, past safety, until it tore and hit the ground with a large thud some distance away from his newly-severed arm.
His fingers, twitching like phantoms, dug harder into his thigh.
He could vaguely hear the ceiling fracturing above from the sheer power of the circle’s spell. Good. Maybe rock would bury this place and Aite would have a hell of a time recovering anything of use.
Maybe it would twist and bend his chassis like a broken puppet, warp it beyond recognition that it could’ve been used as one. Here, in this cave, in this grave of a part of himself and Leane both.
It was a worthy sacrifice. It kept him safe and away from Aite’s scrutiny. The other would mutter darkly, mark down in his books another failed attempt to corral Austenite. And Gamma’s spirit would live on for another day.
Mivis’ fingers loosened, and he breathed. The connection was severed.
The blood in his ears quieted. The pinpricks of tears in the corners of his eyes dripped, and did not return. The pain reduced to a dull ache, a memory of his body obliterated to pieces.
One of many, stored away as a reminder that no sacrifice was too great, that no agony was not worth withstanding.
He would do everything he could.
Everything for Gamma.