It had been…well, Blazer didn’t really know how long it had been. All he knew was that at some point he had gone dry of tears, and it was probably still the same day. Probably. He caught his reflection in a mirror nearby, and had to stare at it for a long moment. His eyes were red, his sleeves soaked, and he sat amidst the shattered remains of more than a few experiments. Despite the fact that he had been fully aware of himself at the time, he was still a bit floored by the way he had lost it. He had always prided himself on staying cool and collected under pressure. But ever since Exalting, he was a ball of emotions that could hardly decide how it felt half the time.
Looking away from the mirror, he let his head fall back down against his knees again. His communicator was flashing, but he still ignored it. How many times had it flashed? The others were clearly trying to reach him, and he knew why. But he also knew that he was no good to anyone at the moment, not so long as that hole in his chest just kept growing and growing. The others could handle it: they would do what they always did, leap headlong into the fray, and they would fix it. Just like Red Lion always advocated.
He shuddered involuntarily. The scene from the manse kept replaying itself over and over again in his mind. He looked up to Red and Ven; they were so much of what he wanted to be. He wanted to be strong and tough, a protector of the weak and downtrodden. He wanted to be wise and clever, able to solve any problem with ingenuity and skill. Since the loss of his home, they had grown to be important anchors in his life.
But they had turned on Sweet Emerald’s circle with alarming willingness. They had gone to dinner fully intending to attack their hosts if they wouldn’t listen, and had actually destroyed the manse. Destroyed it, seemingly without a second thought. It had been just like the destruction of the Librarium – they hadn’t understood their way of life, had shown no intention of understanding, and had just destroyed the whole thing, leaving the people of the city bereft of their protectors, confused, and frightened. The thought of that happening again paralyzed him. How far would it spiral? At what point would they all cross a line they could never return from?
The communicator rang again, and he once again shut it out of his mind. What was he even doing there, anyway? The Loresmiths were problem solvers, tinkerers, and teachers. They were not magistrates, or lawmen, and they certainly weren’t soldiers or warlords. Nothing made sense anymore. He missed those early days, and the belief that his potential was limitless. He missed having the answers, missed having a clue as to where the answers could be found. He missed feeling like he had some pull with the people around him. And he missed Apple, and the fleeting sense of serenity he had felt around her.
“So you’re still here?” came a voice from across the room. At least, it seemed as if it were across the room. A curly-haired girl stepped out of the shadows, and crouched across from him, tilting her head slightly as she looked to him. “Shinn, you really shouldn’t do this to yourself.”
Blazer started to lift his head, but stopped himself short of meeting her eyes, glancing back down to the cool surface of the floor again a moment later. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, Seil. If I go out there, I won’t be able to control myself.” He knew that arguing with her was pointless, and not just because she wasn’t really there. But that didn’t stop him from trying. “It’s better if I just stay here.”
“I don’t believe that,” she said with a shake of her head that sent her curls flying. “And I don’t think you do, either. The Shinn I know wouldn’t give up the things he was taught so easily.”
“That’s just it, Seil. Shinn’s not here anymore. That was a different life. I’m not the guy you knew. I’m Blazer, now.”
Selah smiled. “You’ll have to change a lot more than your name before I stop recognizing you.”
Bringing his hands up to his head, he rubbed his temples slowly, and sighed once more. “I’m just…I’m just so tired, Seil. I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready for any of it. I don’t know what’s going on with this world, and it terrifies me.”
She was quiet in response for a long time, just looking over to him with that gaze that had always seemed so much wiser and so much more patient than her years, ever since they had been children. When she finally spoke, it was in a voice much softer and quieter, though he had no trouble making it out. “’We are always more afraid than we wish we were. And we never feel ready enough for what awaits around the corner. But we go because hesitation leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads to death.’”
“Master Aiken’s words.”
She moved forward, and settled again when she was just a foot or two away. “I don’t have the answers you seek, Shinn. But you have to do something. If you let your fear paralyze you, a lot of people will die. Or are you really okay with leaving it up to the others?” Blazer was quiet for a long moment, and finally she leaned towards him, opening her arms to hug him close. Of course, they settled on thin air instead of touching him, but she seemed unfazed by it as she started to shine, and then vanished.
Blazer, on the other hand, was far from unfazed. Despite knowing full well that that was all in his mind, he had, for just a fraction of a moment, been expecting to feel her warm embrace. When it didn’t come, he felt the hole starting to ache again, and it nearly doubled him over.
But then, a moment later, it stopped. He couldn’t explain what happened, but something replaced that hole in his chest. What had started to become a yawning chasm sealed as surely as if it had been cemented, and the empty feeling was gone. He thought of the burning manse…the burning Librarium…and then the inferno in his memories. Yes, Seil was right. He was frightened of what would happen if he took action, but if he did nothing, then that was even worse. That was the only way to guarantee that nothing would change. And things had to change. They had to change significantly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimmer of gold in the corner, and turned to see another figure standing there. This one was a tall woman, built like a beast of prey but as graceful and enchanting as a sunbeam. Golden hair tumbled in a molten cascade around and far past her shoulders, and for a brief moment, a full moon symbol flickered on her forehead before disappearing. The second his eyes went to her, her features shifted into a wry smirk, and the long, tufted tail behind her gave a pendulous flick. “Thinking of me now, Blazer?” she said playfully as she crossed her arms underneath her breasts.
“For some reason, yes.”
“Even after what we went through? I’m flattered.”
“I’m sure you are.” He started to turn away from her, but he delayed, growing quiet again. “For what it’s worth…and as crazy as it sounds…I’m glad I did. It’s good to see you again, Huntress.”
Giving an entertained laugh, the woman shook a finger at him slowly. “Tsk tsk. ‘Crazy,’ you say? Still haven’t learned, I see. That’s fine. I can wait as long as it takes.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
“You can say that as much as you like, but it makes no difference. I believe in you, Blazer, and that’s all that matters.” Blowing him a kiss, the woman’s image dissipated a second later, leaving him alone – physically and mentally – once again.
Blazer looked towards the spot where she had stood for another few seconds, and then turned. There was work to be done.
“Lab,” Blazer called out as he walked through a door into the main chambers of his sanctum. “Resume operations and report.”
There was immediately the quiet hum of power being rerouted, and then lights started blinking on in the room. Status holograms hovered in the air once again, and clockwork automata that had shut down in place resumed their previous activities. A few seconds later, a female voice resounded through the room. “Full functions restored. Welcome, Blazer.”
Continuing on to one of the largest status holograms, Blazer worked for a moment on the floating screen, furrowing his eyebrows as he tried to concentrate. “Locate the creature known as the Brass Tyrant, and calculate its ETA in Zarrith based on its observed rate of movement.” Another screen popped up, this one showing icons for Zarrith and the Brass Tyrant, with a yellow line stretching between them. They barely even had a day to work with, from the looks of things; not exactly the most encouraging picture. Really, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with even three or four days to come up with a plan for defeating something that monstrous, but there would be time to worry about that later.
“Reference both Yukiri’s library and my own for mention of all possible permutations of ‘Brass Tyrant.’ I need attack patterns, weaknesses, favorite foods, anything you can give me.”
Another screen appeared next to him, this one covered with red ’x’es. “No matches located.”
Making a frustrated sound with his teeth, Blazer shook his head. “So we’re flying blind on this one. Great.”
He ran through as many response plans as he could think of. A barrier field to envelop the city would take too long to implement, even if split into multiple pieces, and even then would have only been of questionable effectiveness. Every scenario based on rerouting the Tyrant’s path was a flop, not to mention the fact that it would have simply been dumping the problem in someone else’s backyard. If there had still been more Exalted in the city, he could have at least had something to work with, but Sweet Emerald’s circle was already gone, and the Dragon-Blooded had fled or otherwise departed as well. And the time crunch meant he could ill afford to spend all of his time working up alternate ideas. Which left him with one course of action.
“Lab, retrieve notes from experiment 1547, and remove alpha-level locks. Identification code 06ry329.” Moments after he spoke, his main screen began filling with new images. Several were of a hazy, ephemeral luminescence in varying shades, while the majority featured a solid shaft of metallic blue light from multiple angles. His jaw tightened as he viewed them – he had not planned on returning to this research so soon. But there was serious work to be done. “Calibrate the automata to resonate essence on these frequencies, and prepare the main lab for resumption of the experiment. Oh, and one more thing: rename experiment 1547 to ‘Project Gungnir.’”
The chamber of the main lab had been thoroughly sealed at Blazer’s command. Here and there in a complex pattern along the floor, walls, and ceiling runes had been inscribed, and over each one sat one of Blazer’s automatons, an ephemeral radiance flowing between them. But they were only the edge of the field; the center of the chamber was filled with that same blue light as in Blazer’s notes, and in the center of that stood Blazer himself. He was stripped bare down to the waist, but his left arm and the entire left side of his body were covered in more runes. The room was so bright that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing normally; even with the goggles he wore, he could still just barely make out his clockwork assistants.
A few minutes passed, and the light began to fade steadily. It shrank and contracted, until it was little more than a ball of glowing energy twice the size of a man’s head, floating in the center of the chamber, and then seemed to settle once more. Blazer removed his goggles, and let out a breath he felt he had been holding for hours. It was done. “Lab, report.”
“Central chamber seal remains active at 100% efficiency. Essence levels stabilized.”
“Alright, then. Reactivate Soul and Skin modules and prepare them for containment, along with this module, codenamed ‘Slayer.’ In the meantime, run a simulation of the system against the Brass Tyrant.”
“Warning: the use of the Gungnir modules on the Brass Tyrant is not recommended, Blazer.”
“I know.” Blazer recalled the last simulation he had run on the Brass Tyrant. The effects he had witnessed were sobering, indeed. “But the rate of spread is within acceptable limits, and certainly slower than the Tyrant’s own march towards Zarrith. So override the restrictions and prepare the units.” It wasn’t an ideal solution, but he was running out of time. He would burn the Shadowland bridge when he got to it.
Closing the Library up within its access portal, Blazer closed the Tome of the Great Maker and let the book return to its own hideaway in Elsewhere. He was as ready now as he was going to be; in the meantime, there were still other preparations to make. He had to cap off the manse to make this all work, at the very least. So he reached into his pocket and retrieved his communicator.
“Ven, meet me at the ruins of the manse. We don’t have much time.”
Tucking the communicator back into his pocket, he winked out in a flash of light, a few ephemeral motes settling to the floor of his rooms in the Lion’s Roar once he was gone.