Enter the Snowflake's lair... Circulation: 194,201,769 Issue: 747 | 2nd day of Gathering, Y18
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The Price of Greatness: Part Three


by xxskyisfallingxx

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      Y ou're standing in a dimly-lit hallway with steel walls on both sides. The path in front of you is narrow, and your footsteps reverberate when you risk moving forward. A feeling of foreboding hangs over you, and your throat constricts in response. The dull whir of a fan blade echoes from a nearby chamber. You run towards it without knowing why. The end of the hallway brings you to a junction with hundreds of possible paths. You take the first one on instinct, pushing forward as the sense of impending doom continues its creeping path towards you. You run, faster and faster, through the labyrinth of doors and metal. The path is a dead end. The hair on the back of your neck prickles, and a cold sensation washes over you. An unvoiced scream sits on the back of your throat. You turn around to face a threat and are surprised to find that you are alone. The fans have stopped and the temperature seems to have increased threefold. When you turn back, a door has appeared. With rising hysteria, you push it open. The room is empty, save for an ominous chair in the centre. You step forward, but an icy hand wraps around your wrist. You want to react, to defend yourself from this unknown entity, but you're no longer in control of your faculties. A haunting cry pierces the air, and then everything goes black.

      You wake with a start, fingers scrabbling at the blankets in a desperate attempt to fend off an oncoming attack. Your heart thunders in your ears with the beat of an erratic bass drum and your breath comes in short, ragged gasps. You've had nightmares before, of course, but you have no idea what would cause you to feel so perturbed upon awakening from this one.

      The soft snores of your roommates brings you back to reality. You concentrate on matching your breathing to theirs, relieved that they aren't awake to witness your momentary trepidation. You know, deep down, that they would never judge you, but you adhere to the belief that wizards are meant to be made of sterner stuff. You also know that this belief is a perfect example of faulty thinking, but it's far too early in the morning to be psychoanalysing yourself.

      You slip out of bed and pad quietly over to the door, careful to avoid waking any of the 'pets who are sleeping sprawled out over the carpet. Snowy is perched on the windowsill, glowing like a spectre in the moonlight. He gazes at you with solemn eyes and, after a moment's hesitation, you decide to bring him along.

      The beach is much cooler at this time of night, and you're grateful when Snowy decides to nestle into your neck.

      An inevitable chill has settled in your gut, and you wonder if your nightmare was a premonition. The accuracy of your previous dreams in relation to later events has always intrigued you, something that is part and parcel of being a wizard. You're not too sure how it works, and you're not really that interested in finding out. The point is that the threat of danger might be very real.

      You stumble over a piece of driftwood because your focus is on the sky. The stars are crawling in their inexorable path towards morning. You reach the end of the beach and stare off into the veritable jungle of palm trees. Part of you wants to continue your existential questioning through the underbrush, but the idea of getting your robe dirty is enough to a deterrent to stay your restless feet. Instead, you turn and make the pensive journey back to the hut.

***

      "Have a nice walk?" Thanksalot asks pleasantly as you join them at the table.

      You grunt in reply, helping yourself to a piece of toast. You haven't miraculously gotten better at small talk overnight.

      "We're going to start the meeting as soon as Agent 750 gets back," the knight informs you.

      You pause mid-bite. "Back?"

      "He went looking for Snowy," Eridor explains patiently, gesturing at the Weewoo on your shoulder.

      His response only serves to confuse you further. "Where's Marvin anyway?"

      As soon as the words escape your lips, the Lutari in question runs into the room. "Oh good, you found him! We all thought he had escaped."

      "As you can see, he's fine," you say, allowing Marvin to scoop the Weewoo from your shoulder to resume his caretaking duties.

      Marvin fusses over the bird for several minutes before joining you at the table. "So, what about that plan?"

      "The meeting isn't starting until Agent 750 gets here," you remind him, polishing off your last piece of toast.

      An awkward silence falls over the room. Eridor and Thanksalot glance fleetingly between you and Marvin, while the latter clears his throat uncomfortably. Your jaw hits the ground.

      "You're Agent 750?"

      Marvin shrugs. "I honestly thought you would have worked that out by now."

      "I..." you aren't sure what to say all of a sudden. "I thought you'd be less conspicuous."

      Marvin looks down at his multi-coloured fur and smiles. "It fooled you, didn't it?"

      You rack your brains trying to recall even a single instance where his real identity might have been hinted at, but no such memory jumps out at you. If it weren't for the sincerity in his eyes, you would have suspected the whole thing to be a foolish ruse.

      "It certainly did," you concede.

      "Now that we have that out of the way," Thanksalot cuts in smoothly, "I think we should discuss our next move."

      "Diving into the ocean?" you recall miserably.

      "Yes," Thanksalot acknowledges. "We have wetsuits and oxygen tanks to help with that. The thing is, I'm not sure what we're going to find."

      He stands up and begins to distribute the equipment. "While I don't doubt your magical proficiency, it's safe to assume that your abilities will dwindle as we get closer to the source. Therefore, we're going to need something a little more traditional."

      Your eyes widen as he hands you a dagger. You've used a few of these in your time, but always considered them far too crude for your liking. Fighting with glorified butter knives didn't require any special skill. Magic, on the other hand, was an extension of your being; one that you have striven to master from the day you were born.

      "I sincerely hope we won't have to use them," Thanksalot says, the tone of his voice bordering on anxiety. "But let's not worry about that prematurely. It's time to suit up."

***

      When you arrive at the pier, Sir Thanksalot assures you that today's boat is perfectly serviceable. You beg to differ. It seems that the knight has outdone himself in an attempt to procure an even less seaworthy vessel than yesterday's termite-riddled disaster. The boat pitches and rolls with every wave and you haven't even left the harbour yet.

      "Alright, cut her loose!" Thanksalot shouts to Eridor, who promptly unties the mooring line.

      The watercraft seems unstable, so you do your best to stay as motionless as possible. It isn't as easy as it sounds when your head is being assaulted by errant sea spray and your stomach is starting to rebel.

      "Gently does it!" the knight barks from the stern.

      You bite back an indignant laugh. Thanksalot has the grace of one-legged mallard and wouldn't know the meaning of 'gentle' if it hit him in the face. You make a mental note to tell him this when your stomach stops roiling.

      Marvin comments that the sea is grey today, but you don't open your eyes to look. He continues talking to you in a soothing voice while the others bluster about with their oars. You appreciate the gesture and, not for the first time, begin to regret waving off his offer of friendship so flippantly.

      "The spot hasn't moved," Eridor shouts to be heard over the crash of the waves. "Is everyone ready?"

      You shoulder the bulky oxygen tank that Thanksalot gave you, feelings of apprehension coursing through every fibre of your being. "Ready as we'll ever be."

      You sit on the edge of the boat and gently tilt backwards into the water. This is even more unpleasant than you imagined. The wetsuit is keeping you warm, but water is still seeping in and dampening your fur. Forget unpleasant, this is borderline torture.

      "Let's just get on with it," you groan despondently.

      As a group, you submerge to explore the uncertain depths. Small silver bubbles race past you with each exhalation, and you resist the urge to follow them back up to the surface. Eridor leads the way, seeing as he is the only one who knows exactly where you're going. Thanksalot and Marvin are on either side of you, presumably to prevent you from leaving. As horrible as the current, intermediary experience is, you have no intentions of abandoning them. You want to see what happens next as much as they do.

      After what seems like hours, Eridor points towards the ocean floor. Through the murky undertow, you spot what appears to be a building. Judging by its size, you deduce that it must have at least six floors, each spanning several hundred square metres. You were expecting to find some kind of sea monster, not an underwater apartment block. Not that you’re going to complain, though.

      Eridor breaks away from the group, gesturing at what appears to be a decompression chamber. Your suspicions are quickly confirmed when you swim inside and shut the hatch behind you. As the water filters out and the pressure in the chamber stabilises, you tear off your diving mask and shake the water from your paws.

      "I am so glad that's over," you sigh dramatically.

      Thanksalot pushes open one of the interior doors and you walk through it, drinking in the new sight. The room feels disturbingly familiar.

      "What is this place?" Thanksalot asks, his eyes clouded with concern.

      Your anger towards the knight dissipates when you see his hesitance. "I think it's a laboratory of some kind."

      All eyes turn to you.

      "I had a dream about this place last night," you admit, trying to keep your voice level. "The layout is complex, but I think I can get us to the place we need to go."

      "Lead the way," Eridor invites, sounding relieved to pass on his responsibility to someone else.

      You give him a single brisk nod, then step out into the hall. No one speaks as you traverse the maze of passages together, following the twists and turns by memory. Occasionally, your mind falters and you have to rely on pure instinct. It comes as a relief when you reach a solid metal door marked with green neon lights.

      "We're here," you say aloud to no one in particular.

      You hear a soft hydraulic hiss as the door slides open. Your heart speeds up a little, although you strive to keep your thoughts clear.

      Just as you are about to risk stepping inside, a hideously mutated Gnorbu blunders out of the shadows.

      "HALT! WHO GOES THERE?"

      To be continued…

 
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» The Price of Greatness: Part 1
» The Price of Greatness: Part Two



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