A mild hiss resonated through the suspension chamber as the door slid open. Taking a blanket as he stepped into the passageway beyond, Dingane headed towards the cockpit. Sitting down by the navigation terminal, he ran some basic checks and diagnostics before gazing out of the viewport. It was an impressive sight. Beams of light from the nearest star had begun to creep over the horizon of a barren moon, imposing yet tiny in comparison to the gas giant behind it. This is what they had sought. Whatever it was that Philangezwi had foreseen, had come from here.
It wasn't long before Thulisile entered the cockpit and took the pilot's seat to his left. The shuttle began to accelerate towards the moon's surface. The ground was scarred with fissures and impact craters, overshadowed by vast storm clouds.
Fierce winds made landing difficult, but Thulisile managed to keep the shuttle steady as she brought it to rest. The pair made their way to the boarding ramp.
- Dingane: “Sensors indicate that the air is breathable.”
- Thulisile: “We should take pressure suits anyway, just to be sure.”
Donning his pressure suit and lowering the ramp, Dingane headed outside. To his left, several large rocks surrounded a small opening in the side of a crater. But his attention was drawn to a set of indentations in the ground to his right, far too regular to have been left there naturally. The shuttle behind him provided only a small amount of light, so he activated his flashlight before kneeling down to examine them.
- Thulisile: “What is it?”
- Dingane: “These imprints were left by landing gear.”
He ran a finger along the edge of the indentation closest to him, then turned back to Thulisile.
- Dingane: “It's still very clean cut. The ship must have left recently.”
- Thulisile: “So the one we're looking for is already gone.”
- Dingane: “Perhaps.”
Standing up, he followed Thulisile down the side of the crater, and lowered himself into the opening. The darkness around him was potent, and seemed almost to be fighting against the light cast by his torch. Somewhat unsettled, he quickly raised a shield around himself and Thulisile. The darkness retreated, as if taken aback by his use of Essence.
The space they now found themselves within seemed at first glance just to be a cave, but with further examination, Dingane soon realised that it was in fact a large room, in an advanced state of decay. Thulisile studied the walls.
- Thulisile: “If this structure is as old as it appears to be, the ceiling should have caved in long ago. I would say that these walls had been worn down manually if the decay wasn't so consistent.”
The pair continued further into the structure. Dusty passageways led to another large chamber. In its centre lay a crumbling skeleton in a battered suit of armour.
- Thulisile: “That shouldn't be possible.”
- Dingane: “It looks like an Arbiter.”
- Thulisile: “Not just that. If the readings I'm getting from this are accurate, it predates space travel; possibly even the Singularity itself.”
Dingane was silent for a moment, staring at the corpse.
- Dingane: “No wonder Philangezwi was so unnerved. Something is very wrong with this place.”
- Thulisile: “Be on your guard.”
Eventually, they managed to locate a turbolift shaft. As they jumped down together, Thulisile drew air down below them, cushioning their fall. Dingane was the first to emerge, entering a vast chamber. He headed towards a large set of doors on the far wall, flanked by a row of pillars to each side. The hall was built of some form of dark stone. He paused at the centre of the room to examine a flat rock, clearly once a part of the hall's crumbling ceiling. One side was covered in traces of paint, angular lines carved into its surface. This must once have been part of a larger pattern.
- Dingane: “Whoever lived here must have had a rather high opinion of themselves.”
- Thulisile: “This might have been constructed for a Dynasty, then. But that wouldn't explain the age.”
Thulisile's attention drifted to the side of the room. Dingane followed her, and saw what had caught her eye. The remains of some form of drone were scattered across the floor.
- Thulisile: “The drone isn't new, although it appears to have been destroyed recently..”
Dingane examined the debris.
- Dingane: “It was armed.”
- Thulisile: “So it must have been a security drone. This doesn't seem to be a prison, so it was most likely used for defence.”
- Dingane: “They'll be hostile, then.”
They made their way to the doors at the end of the hall, entering a small chamber that led into five corridors. The first led into the ruins of some kind of command centre, its ceiling caved in. The second and third were closed off by debris. The fourth led to a bulky door, its featureless surface broken only by a single window. Dingane noticed a small device lying on the floor in front of it.
- Dingane: “A holotransceiver.”
Thulisile checked the door.
- Thulisile: “It's locked.”
- Dingane: “The control panel has been disabled.”
Someone - or something - had torn the panel and parts of its circuitry out of the wall.
- Thulisile: “Possibly by whoever destroyed the drone? But if they're trying to keep us out, why wouldn't they want the additional security?”
- Dingane: “Perhaps the drone attacked them on their way out.”
- Thulisile: “Indeed. But I feel that there's something more to this.”
Dingane stroked his tusk.
- Dingane: “We may find answers beyond that door. Can you open it?”
- Thulisile: “I can try. Get back.”
As Dingane retreated some distance into the corridor, Thulisile began to increase the air pressure on the closest side of the door, while drawing it away from the other. With a heavy groan, the door was torn from its hinges. Dingane cautiously followed Thulisile as she began to move onwards.
The pair soon arrived in a large chamber, each of its walls opening into rows of smaller rooms. Many of these rooms were empty, while others were furnished with large tables, along with scientific instruments of various sizes. The walls, floor and ceiling of the chamber and surrounding rooms were almost entirely covered in small, regularly spaced scratches.
- Thulisile: “These look like tally marks.”
- Dingane: “Someone's been here for a long time.”
Thulisile's gaze swept across the chamber.
- Thulisile: “A very long time.”
Dingane headed over to the nearest of the smaller rooms. Resting on a table were several dark objects, cubic in shape but otherwise featureless. A broken mirror lay against the wall to Dingane's right. He watched his own reflection for a few moments, distorted in the shattered glass. Thulisile approached him, holding a charred sheet of paper.
- Thulisile: “Whoever was here wanted to burn their notes before leaving, but they were careless. Look at this.”
She handed Dingane the paper. The parts that were still legible seemed to be describing an experiment performed on a cube like the ones Dingane had observed moments ago. The description was incomplete, but the nature of the experiment was clear.
- Dingane: “So we're dealing with an Essence user.”
- Thulisile: “Even if they haven't received training from the Singularity, this place certainly speaks of power.”
- Dingane: “Power and corruption. We'll need to destroy it.”
Thulisile rubbed her tusks together in agreement. As she proceeded to place explosives throughout the complex, Dingane went to prepare their shuttle for takeoff. He made a mental note to get some rest on the journey back. If this Essence user was truly as powerful as they feared, time would not be on their side.
No matter how many times he went through it, Dingane's tour of the Sanctuary's outer walls never seemed to get any quicker. The morning was almost over when at last he had finished. However tiring the process was, it was far better than failing to discover a fault in one the wards that protected the Sanctuary from the outside world. If they were ever caught off guard, they'd never be given a chance to recover.
As usual, Dingane spotted Philangezwi resting in the archive. He couldn't help but feel guilty at how much he'd grown used to that almost permanent expression of pain on the latter's face. Especially with such regular reminders.
He forced those thoughts away as he entered the Atrium. Thulisile was waiting for him.
- Dingane: “The wards are holding, and I haven't found any problems with the reinforcements to the Northern wall.”
- Thulisile: “That gives us some more time.”
She paused for a moment.
- Thulisile: “We'll need to organise a supply run soon.”
- Dingane: “I'd also like to check on Nomvula today. She hasn't been coping well.”
- Thulisile: “Nomvula can recover, Philangezwi will not. You should be more concerned about him.”
- Dingane: “You know that I am. And I can't let the same thing happen to Nomvula. We should not have brought her into the Sanctuary.”
Thulisile's head swayed slowly as she considered this.
- Thulisile: “Very well. You can at least make sure she isn't drawing attention to herself.”
- Dingane: “Yes, of course.”
Dingane headed outside. The Sanctuary hadn't been constructed to accommodate anything as large as their shuttle, so the ship was landed just outside the Western wall. He and Thulisile had considered extending the Sanctuary's wards to cover it as well, but the advantages of leaving it outside were clear.
He put on a bulky coat and stepped into the landing area. The howling of the wind - a comforting sound within the Sanctuary's walls - had grown to menacing roar. A torrent of rain seemed to be attempting to tear the ground apart, but Dingane's coat was more than capable of shielding him against it. This was not the reason for his unease.
Behind the viewport of his shuttle or pressure suit, Dingane had always been able to distance himself from the vastness outside, even the great void of space. But here, in the open, the universe - his mind - called out to him. He knew many Lommakkians would fall in terror in a boundless space like this. He forced himself forwards, letting out a slight sigh of relief upon entering the shuttle.
Taking off, Dingane gazed back at the Sanctuary. It was still a comforting sight, although not so much as it had once been. This was his prison now.
Thulisile was already in the cockpit upon Dingane's return. He sat at the navigation terminal before running the usual checks and diagnostics and gazing out of the viewport. Ahead, was Lommakk Xil, a globe of deep greens bestrewn with dark blue oceans. As they approached, the planet's surface grew clearer - shades of green breaking down into jungles and grassland, mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers. Thulisile carefully pulled the shuttle out of free fall and into a more gradual descent. As the ground drew closer, flat terrain gave way to rocky hills, interlaced with streams and rivers.
Ahead was a grand structure built of a smooth red and grey stone, seven disproportionately wide and irregularly spaced domes surrounding a large atrium. The complex was embedded within an imposing set of walls, and set upon a jagged hilltop. When Dingane had first saw the Sanctuary, it had been an impressive sight, and over time it had grown to be a comforting one as well. This was his home now.
The shuttle landed just outside the Sanctuary's Western wall. Dingane and Thulisile kept their heads down as they strode hastily inside, not wanting to lose themselves in the great expanse that surrounded them. The passageway within was refreshingly narrow.
The pair made their way to the archive, and found Philangezwi sorting through several dubiously balanced stacks of files. He stood and briefly bowed his head as they approached. Dingane and Thulisile both returned the gesture.
- Dingane: “I see you've been busy.”
- Philangezwi: “Yes; I've been looking through the archive again for any mention of that moon. I'm certain now that it wasn't just overlooked. I haven't found any direct references to it, but there are gaps where those references should be. For example-”
He held up a pair of documents that had been set to the side.
- Philangezwi: “-The system is included in a list of potential candidates for colonisation, but not a single planet or moon mentioned in the initial survey is even remotely inhabitable.”
- Thulisile: “Only the Singularity could erase information like that on such a scale.”
- Philangezwi: “If the Singularity chose to do that even in one of their own archives, whatever was on that moon must have been very dangerous indeed.”
- Dingane: “The signs pointed to some kind of Essence user.”
Philangezwi sat down and stroked his left tusk.
- Thulisile: “We should gather our thoughts before proceeding.”
Dingane rubbed his tusks together, and he and Thulisile headed to their quarters.
Dingane's room was small, empty save for a plain bed and a table stacked with books. In the centre of the far wall was a small alcove at waist height, within which was a basin full of soil. Traditionally, solitary meditation would take place outdoors, where one would kneel and rest their tusks on the earth to feel the world around them - a technique that had emerged from methods for locating prey in Lommakk Xil's dense jungles. Basins such as this were poor substitutes, but Dingane would not be so vain as to meditate in the Sanctuary's garden instead. He rested his tusks in the alcove, and closed his eyes.
It was not long before the shuttle landed, a few miles outside of Dingane's destination. While the heavy mist and rain made the ship almost invisible, he knew not to take any chances. The walk ahead of him wasn't too long, and the surrounding vegetation was dense enough to shield his mind from the world outside.
The town of Xiet, like most Lommakkian settlements, was a single structure, built just below ground level. The town had been built into one side of a lake, and in the distance Dingane could just make out the town's chaotic upper surface giving way to a plain of water adorned with flocks of fishing boats. The town itself seemed more to imitate the jungle surrounding it, its surface supporting a convoluted network of water channels and a forest of lighting conductors.
Dingane quickly made his way inside, entering a narrow and worn down passageway. Ornately decorated sheets hung over the walls, some infused with scents of herbs and spices. As he moved further into the town, he passed several other Lommakkians dressed in loose fitting clothing, bound at the wrists and ankles by bands of red fabric. The sounds here were comforting - the faint thunder of the storms above, the roar of rain hitting Xiet's upper surface, the rush of water as it fell through the town's structure, and a multitude of voices around him. The passageways grew gradually less poorly maintained as Dingane approached the town centre.
Nomvula, he knew, would be in the meditation hall. These halls were places of communal meditation; large open spaces where one could lose themselves among the minds of others, and in the mind of the world. Dingane had always preferred to meditate alone, but many found the company to be more calming.
The hall was built of a smooth, brown stone, plain save for a raised section of floor at its centre, acting as a bench. Some of the Lommakkians here had instead chosen to rest on rags and carpets, while others stood. A small group at one end of the hall sang softly, but most were silent. The ceiling above was painted with a stylistic image of sunlight breaking through clouds, and Dingane paused a while to look at it. Then, he gazed around the room. Nomvula wasn't there. He looked around once more, and strode hastily back through the entranceway.
Navigating through Xiet's maze of passageways would not be simple, so Dingane settled on a brisk walking pace. Moments of fear and doubt passed him like jagged blade, but he at last reached his destination - the Xiet Arboretum, Nomvula's place of work.
Dingane's first thought was to try Nomvula's study, but the room was empty. Torn sheets of paper were scattered over the desk and floor. Most held various scrawled notes, apparently taken in a hurry, and almost entirely indecipherable. There were also a few sketches on the desk, all clearly depicting the painting that Dingane had observed in the meditation hall. He headed onward, into the Arboretum itself.
The centre of the Arboretum was a large, open area, exposed the world outside. Rows of trees, both familiar and exotic, stood in unnatural lines between rough stone pathways. Everything in this space seemed to be trying to draw Dingane's attention to the vastness above, but he was able to resist. Amidst the trees, a lone figure stood and turned to face Dingane. Traces of soil were visible on her tusks.
- Nomvula: “I know you.”
It was as Dingane feared. He headed carefully onwards.
- Dingane: “We've worked together before.”
Nomvula stared at Dingane, as if trying to see something that wasn't there.
- Dingane: “Are you alright? You look troubled.”
- Nomvula: “You were going to meet me in the meditation hall.”
- Dingane: “I was, yes.”
- Nomvula: “I couldn't stand it. Did you see the painting? It's ancient.”
Nomvula's began to lose her focus on Dingane and gazed upwards. Brief flashes of lightning danced in the clouds above.
- Nomvula: “I've never seen the sun, and yet I recognise it. And the painters? They couldn't even have known it existed.”
The trees around them were still, but their shadows seemed to sway slightly in the breeze. Nomvula glanced back at Dingane.
- Nomvula: “It's just like the trees. They shouldn't be alive.”
- Dingane: “We see through the eyes of the Dreamer. And these trees are no more alive than the world around them.”
Nomvula was silent for a moment.
- Nomvula: “You're right. But this still feels wrong.”
- Dingane: “We feel this way because we are… aware.”
Dingane did not want to lie like this, but there was nothing else he could do. The situation was worse than he had thought. It had to end, and soon.
All the time in the world was no longer good enough.
Dingane's meditation was cut short by a sound from outside his room. Someone was calling his name. Taking a cloth to clean his tusks, he headed over to the door. Thulisile stood outside.
- Thulisile: “Philangezwi had another vision.”
- Dingane: “Another? Where is he?”
- Thulisile: “I thought it would be best to let him rest in his quarters. He looked quite shaken.”
- Dingane: “Did he say anything?”
- Thulisile: “Not much this time. Just: “he's here”.”
- Dingane: “”Here”, as in-”
- Thulisile: “I've already made sure that no-one else is in the Sanctuary.”
- Dingane: “And no-one but another Sentinel would be able to pass the Sanctuary's defences.”
He paused for a moment to think.
- Dingane: “So our Essence user has arrived on Lommakk Xil.”
- Thulisile: “Indeed. And if they've only arrived now, we have a good chance at finding them.”
- Dingane: “Then we need to act quickly. We might not have much time.”
Stepping back into the shuttle, Dingane took a moment to consider his next actions. He needed more information, something that could point him towards a solution. The records he had found in the Sanctuary's archives had been useful, but it was not nearly enough. But alternatives still remained.
Kien city was relatively close, so it was not long before Dingane had brought the shuttle to rest in the dense vegetation surrounding it and made his way to the city's border. The upper surface of the city was not unlike that of Xiet, although the city had instead been constructed within the confluence of two wide river valleys. The most striking difference, however, was the Singularity.
The monolithic structure that rose from the city's surface was not unlike a fortress, nor dissimilar to a palace or the temples of ancient civilizations. Walls as dark as the void of space were lined with intricate and angular patterns of red and white. The tower reached further than Dingane could see through the clouds above, and he knew that the immense proportions of its foundations did not deceive as to its actual height. At its base, a sizable gate stood open over a large plaza - the only space in the city open to the skies above.
Although the Singularity would almost certainly hold the information that he was looking for, it was not Dingane's destination. Although they had been trained within the Singularity, the Sentinels operated in isolation. It would be difficult for Dingane to gain entrance without time, and that he did not have.
Outside of the city centre, the passageways of Kien were much like those of Xiet, although slightly better maintained. The scents emanating from the ornate sheets of fabric on the walls made the space feel somehow more enclosed, more safe. As he moved deeper into the city, Dingane's surroundings grew gradually more elaborate. Wall hangings gave way to angular red patterns, much alike those adorning the Singularity. The corridors grew somewhat wider.
As he moved through the city, Dingane passed several groups of scholars dressed in long, dark grey cloaks, a second layer of fabric over their shoulders. The figure who was now following him was dressed in similar robes, although their prosthetic tusk and metallic eyepiece made it difficult to blend in with the crowds. Dingane turned a corner and waited for them to catch up.
- Dingane: “What do you want, Mlungisi?”
Mlungisi seemed taken aback for a moment, but quickly regained his composure. He tilted his head slightly to one side.
- Mlungisi: “Forgive me, I was simply curious as to your reason for visiting this… this fine city.”
- Dingane: “Are you here to offer assistance in disposing of someone? Or are you going to request that I volunteer for one of your 'experiments'?”
Munglisi rubbed his hands together.
- Mlungisi: “You know me too well.”
- Dingane: “I don't think I can make this more clear: I have no interest in dealing with a neuroscientist.”
After a brief pause, Mlungisi flexed his masseters.
- Mlungisi: “Of course. You know where to find me.”
Dingane watched a moment to ensure that Mlungisi had left, before heading onwards.
Thulisile was silent for a while as they walked towards the Western wall. She stopped, and turned to face Dingane.
- Thulisile:“It might be best if you stayed here. I'll need to know immediately if Philangezwi realises something's wrong, and you'll have a chance to see if there's anything he missed in the archives. We know we're looking for an Essence user now."
She stroked a tusk.
- Thulisile:“I'll take the shuttle to Kien. The spaceport there is the only place someone could get a ship down without drawing much attention.”
- Dingane: “Indeed. I'll let you know if I find anything.”
Dingane headed back to the archive. Philangezwi had returned most of the files to their places, so it was relatively easy for him to sift through the records.
It was some time before Dingane found anything of interest, but a few documents eventually drew his attention. Several references were made to an Essence user by the name of “Unathi” - an Arbiter who operated at the edges of Lommakkian space soon before the Hyperspatial Revolution. Curiously, Dingane could not find any references to the Arbiter within the Singularity's own records.
Of all the references to Unathi that Dingane could find, only two went into much detail. The first was a comment on the contrast between Arbiter's elaborate white robes and the armour of his peers. The second was a brief account of a scholar's meeting with the Arbiter. The author seemed particularly focused on the unease they felt when around him. Something about the description reminded Dingane of the darkness he had seen on that moon. He felt certain that this was the Essence user they were searching for.
Troubled, he made his way to the communications centre. Now they had a name.
At last, Dingane had finished his descent into the city. The last few levels hadn't had a clear way through them, so he'd had to break into a maintenance tunnel. But cutting into the space below, he'd reached his destination.
The Sanctuary had not been the first centre of operations for the Sentinels. The facility that it had replaced was built centuries before, while the Singularity was one of many similar institutions, holding influence over little more than the valleys around it, and Kien was just a few buildings surrounding a trading post. The Sanctuary had sacrificed size for defensibility, so much of the Sentinels' original archives had been left behind. Useless, until now.
Dingane was standing in a stone atrium, much like that of the Sanctuary but much smaller, and now buried beneath the city. He had seen maps of this facility before, and so knew roughly where the archive would be. Activating his torch, he headed into the darkness.
Soon, Dingane reached a large chamber. Thick, plain pillars rose up to the ceiling, upon which was painted a familiar image of sunlight through clouds. Dust hung in the air like fog, and Dingane couldn't help but feel uneasy.
At the other side of the hall stood a lone figure, dressed in elaborate white robes.
Hours passed, but Dingane could not find any more documents of interest. Eventually, he returned to his chambers to meditate.
Dingane's meditation was broken by the sound of a shuttle landing. By the time he had reached the Western wall, Thulisile had already returned. She rubbed her ear.
- Thulisile: “I found a ship, but I lost the trail. We'll need to arrange a meeting with Singularity”
- Dingane: “Perhaps we could-”
Dingane was cut short by a sudden roar from outside, almost but not quite like the sound of a heavy storm. The light shining through the windows was almost blinding. Thulisile had to shout to be heard.
- Thulisile: “What in the Dreamer is that?”
- Dingane: “Some form of Essence? The Sanctuary won't be able to keep it out for long.”
- Thulisile: “Reinforce the barriers; I'll see if I can work out where it's coming from.”
Dingane did not hesitate to do so. Already, the Sanctuary's wards were straining under the assault, and he thanked the Dreamer that whatever this was had failed to find a weakness. Even so, he didn't think they could stay intact for long.
And as quickly as it had begun, the assault was over.
Unathi raised his arms in joy.
- Unathi: “How wonderful! A Sentinel! I've always wanted to meet a Sentinel!”
Dingane couldn't manage a response. He wasn't sure whether or not to be relieved that the former Arbiter wasn't moving towards him.
- Unathi: “You seem a little surprised. Did you not think I would find you?”
Dingane couldn't help but take a step backwards when Unathi smiled.
- Unathi: “I've had plenty of time to observe this city. It's quite easy to see the ripples that aren't mine.”
Dingane's step backwards was gradually turning into a brisk walk.
- Unathi: “I hope you are ready, my friend. I will be coming for you.”
Dingane was almost running now. His surroundings were a blur. It did not seem long before he had reached the shuttle, and he threw himself into the pilot seat. The flight back felt far longer. Thunder resounded in the clouds around him.
The shuttle hit the ground with a heavy thud, and Dingane made his way outside.
The light hit him without warning, and with it, a deafening roar. Somehow, Dingane managed to throw a barrier around himself. The effort required to maintain it was almost unbearable. A vast nothingness called out to him. He forced himself forwards, step by step.
Dingane's shield strained under the assault and he could go no further. The door was just ahead of him, in arm's reach. He collapsed on the ground, unable to concentrate on anything but holding back the light.
An arm reached for him. As his barrier begun to fall apart, Philangezwi pulled him inside.
As the assault came to an end, Dingane's mind suffered a different kind of assault entirely. Every time the light had come, they had been forced to relive the cycle. All those memories came to him at once, as if they had happened moments ago. The skies of Lommakk Xil darkening and being lost to perpetual storm. Desperate attempts to find Unathi. Philangezwi losing his ability to cope with the constant onslaught of memories, with the unending cycle. And now, Unathi, in person.
“It's quite easy to see the ripples that aren't mine.”
The Sanctuary had been here when Unathi had arrived, but Dingane had never been outside to offer that additional resistance. He had given Unathi the Sanctuary's location. From the look in Philangezwi's eyes, the other already knew what Dingane was about to say.
- Dingane: “He's coming.”
They were out of time.
- This event was written by Treebeard1010102.