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The abyss stared back.
It was beyond nothing, a swirling obsidian-scape of chaos and possibility. Only the scattered indigo crackle around the rim of the portal gave it form in a mortal’s mind. The energy flickered out from the gateway, lending depth to the horrifying madness beyond.
It caused the skin to grate and burn and the mind to ache – at least according to Hune, who peered up at it. Although he figured this was more likely because a telirum pistol was pressed into his head, pushing him against the grated gantry. Pooling plasmic liquid filled the levels below granting him a tan just shy of char grilled.
The place was a derelict ruin, grey metal and sheer ceilings, the fluoro blue glow from the fluid below cast horrid shadows across the disjointed designs in the enclosing walls.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Lerava said, “Doesn’t it make you yearn for answers?”
“I just want to know where my wife is, Lerava. I gave up the quest for the Mantle many parspins ago.”
“When someone is sacrificed to this portal, it opens the vault,” Lerava nudged the pistol to direct Hune’s gaze. He couldn’t take his eyes from the portal though, but he already saw the electric blue compartment jutting out from the gantry next to them when he battled his way in here. “It sends the sacrifice throughout time and space, as far as the trackers I have placed on them can attest. But the vault never opened. So we brought your wife.”
One of Lerava’s goons yanked her down onto her knees next to Hune. She glanced at him, her face streaked with drying tears.
“Ah, Rili. It is so good for you to be here too. Had your life been well since you betrayed me?”
“It has,” She said, “A nice change of pace to work with someone who knows what he’s doing!”
“You hurt me so much, Rili.” He said with mock hurt, he turned back to Hune, “I reclaimed my greatest astrarcheologist to translate this.” He pulled a tiny onyx tablet from his belt, inscribed with alien runes and dangled it in front of Hune’s face. “Do you remember when I snatched this right from under your nose?”
“Yeah, I let you leave because I secured a greater prize that day.” Hune glanced at Rili, who smiled faintly as they met eyes.
“How touching.” Lerava groaned, “It was never a map, it was an instruction. Rili translated it for me before you burst in here. This is non other than The Nemesis Vault! ‘Only one who sacrifices for their nemesis shall be worthy of the Mantle of God!’ Don’t you see, Hune? None of my poor victims could open the vault because they weren’t my nemesis. Only you are worthy of that tittle, only you were tenacious enough to challenge me at every turn… it’s why I actually respected you, until you settled down.”
“And what makes you think I’d throw myself in there?”
“Because if you don’t, I will throw Rili in and be done with it.” He leaned in closer to Hune’s ear as he felt him go rigid beneath him. “Do you know just how much of time and space isn’t hospitable to us mere mortals? More than ninety nine percent of the time she would just appear somewhere in the void and suffer the vacuum. But even if she were lucky enough to appear somewhere habitable…” Lerava grinned, “She could appear in no man’s land in a battlefield, arrive in time to be slaughtered by predators, into a raging fire, the depths of the ocean as hungry sharks circle in before she loses consciousness… some of my sacrifices have died quite awfully I am sure.”
“I won’t do it, I can’t justify unleashing the terror on the universe that would be you with The Mantle.” Hune’s voice wavered with his conviction.
Lerava sighed, “Very well.” He nodded to his goon.
With a sheepish grin the goon dragged Rili up by her hair and made for the opening of The Nemesis Vault. She screamed and beat her fists against her captor uselessly, and just at the threshold she turned to face her husband with hopeless eyes.
That stirred something within Hune, kindled the fire that had him raging across the universe in his hay day, an unstoppable force. He wrenched himself from Lerava’s grasp, batting aside his pistol before leaping for the goon.
Lerava leaped after him as Hune hit the goon. He grabbed Rili around the waist and elbowed into the hapless goon’s jaw, breaking it in a rage. The goon stumbled back with a grunt and slammed his fist into Hune’s kidneys in response as he pushed his wife away from the portal.
Hune cried in anguish as the goon pressed his advantage and punched down on him as he stumbled. Hune dodged, barely grabbing at the goon’s arm as he jabbed him in the face – he wrenched the pistol from his grip and fired once, twice and the goon fell dead into the abyss, dissolving into the chaos.
Hune whipped around to find that Lerava had recaptured Rili, and was holding her as a human shield, his head positioned right behind hers, his gun pressed into her spine.
“Well, I must say Hune. I did miss the rush of fighting you.” He said breathlessly.
Hune side stepped before the portal, trying to get a shot. But Lerava was good at this game, he kept Rili positioned perfectly to shield him from any angle that Hune could take.
The plasmic fluid began to rise.
“We haven’t much time, my old enemy. The fluid below rises more quickly with each failed sacrifice, either you go now – or we all die here.”
The standoff lengthened from seconds into minutes as the glow from the fluid down below spread into the darkened heights of this accursed ruin.
“I’ll do it.” Hune finally said, lowering his pistol. “I need your word that you’ll let her live. You said you respected me, this is your time to show it.”
“You have my word.”
Hune looked into his wife’s eyes and mouthed his last words to her, closed his own eyes and stepped back into the portal.
Lerava looked out from Rili’s head, his face brimming with glee. Then the vault clicked, causing them both to jump, and the blue fortress broke apart, fading into nothing to reveal The Mantle amid a white glow.
“It’s, beautiful.” Lerava and Rili looked on in shocked awe as the fluid below quickened and began to lick at the supports of the gantry.
It was taller and broader than any person, in the form of a humanoid coated in white silver skin with an incredible physique.
“The ultimate power of the ancients!” Lerava cried, “AND IT’S MINE!”
The Mantle suddenly waved it’s arm as its eyes shone yellow and Lerava gasped. His body turned to stone and crumbled, leaving his bust in a pile staring wide eyed at the mantle as it trod forward.
Rili grabbed the pistol from Lerava’s ashen hands and pointed it at the approaching weapon, it halted. The skin melded back to reveal Hune, there in the torso.
“Rili!” He stepped out and hugged her. “He was wrong, it transported me INTO The Mantle.”
“I know.” Rili said emotionless, as she pulled the trigger of the pistol.
Hune grunted and fell onto his knees, gripping his gut. “What?” Was all he could say as she knelt before him, pity on her face.
“You were both wrong my love, ‘Only one who sacrifices for their nemesis’… you didn’t sacrifice for him.” She glanced at the stone remains of Lerava. “You sacrificed for ‘me’.”
“But, but.” He was losing blood, his vision was blurring. “I love you.”
“Oh you poor fool,” She leaned in and kissed him. “That was entirely the point, I used you. I translated that tablet the day we met, I always knew I would have a better chance getting the Mantle with you than with him.” She rose. “And you played your part beautifully. Die well my love.”
She entered the mantle and it warped around her, she strode out of the ruins, tall and proud and ready to wreak her havoc upon the stars.
The plasmic fluid reached the gantry and Hune gazed into the petrified eyes of Lerava. “We were both fools.” He managed to croak before the heat and blood loss took him.
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