Floor 19: Unexpectedly Elsewhere
Today, something happened that I'm fairly sure isn't supposed to happen.
The curse of the Shift Ring was still making my life a living hell. Leander had just teleported out of a room while one step away from picking up some food, emerging in a small room full of giant snails that dissolve armour with their acidic slime. The food supplies had just run out, Leander was down to his last spare suit of armour. He was resorting to some complicated plan involving tying a ring to a rod, using the straps from the broken suits of armour tied together, in order to make a kind of fishing rod for entangling and pulling in objects further away than one step. So far, it hadn't worked, and then a giant toad tried to eat the ring, which activated the rod. It was a flame rod, and the fireball set the whole contraption on fire along with the toad. At least he killed the toad, but it had wounded him in the process and he now had no food or healing potions left.
Staggering forwards, he immediately teleported to a different room, a room I swear there wasn't actually an exit from, but at least this wasn't a problem for someone under the Shift Ring curse.
However, the next time he teleported, I didn't follow him. Everything went black, so abruptly that I assumed at first that Leander had been killed instantly by something in the next room. But he wasn't there when I could finally see again, and it wasn't anywhere near the same floor. It was somewhere very far away, where the mist was so thick that it choked me and the aura of magic was so strong that it roared in my ears like a hurricane.
Somewhere very close by, I could hear the other dragon calling me.
Floor 20: Eye to Eye
"Welcome to the centre of the Labyrinth," said the dragon, directly into my mind, his will close to overpowering me with even the most detached and neutral of statements, "You have been moved ten rings of the spiral inwards. The change is great, so it may take your body and mind some time to adjust. I'm afraid I don't have that long to wait. The laws of this world will resolve the anomaly soon, and force you back to that foolish human's side. You must be made to listen to me."
"You seem to know a lot about this world," I replied. My voice was awkward. Since I very first existed, I had never spoken to another member of my species before.
"This world was made for me. It is my prison," he said, "I am a felon. I killed my entire roost and caused a paradox with unlicensed time magic."
"Criminals are executed or branded an outcast forever," I said. My mother had warned me about rogue dragons. Criminal behaviour was rare among dragons, and punished severely. Dragons are too large, and space for them too much of a luxury, to build prisons, especially as they need such specialist prisons for them not to just burn the door off and fly away.
"This prison is the first of its kind. A magically created dimension stable and closed off enough to imprison dangerous magical beasts."
"Then what am I doing here? I was barely even an egg!"
"You are not here as a prisoner. You are the lock and the key, the bars and the walls," he explained, "I know that a dragon would never normally aid a criminal, but if you do not, you will never be allowed out of here. My term is for life, and the prison cannot hold without you. It needs an intelligent life form as a key, someone who can stop any attempts to reshape the world. who can introduce a fluid and adaptable dimension to the world. And," he added, "You should know that my jailers are not exactly paragons of justice. They do not want a powerful dragon as a captive just to keep the world safe. I think they plan to harvest my magical energy, to bleed me dry. Or maybe find a way to turn me into a powerful servant, for even worse evil than I was planning in the first place. They'll probably do the same to you. Or do you think an ethical person would have stolen your egg from your mother?"
"That may be, but I can't trust you. I feel malevolence in you."
"But no deception," he said, "What I wish you to do, will benefit both of us and harm neither. Destroy the other key to the gate. Kill the human."
Floor 21: Dragonslayer
"Why is Leander even an important part of the prison? He's just a human, you know, and not particularly competent," I said, "I thought he got caught up in all this by mistake."
"It isn't something a red dragon would be able to spot," said the dragon, "Especially one who has never seen the truly bloody side of the world. That human, Leander, he's a hero. An adventurer. They are a kind of human that is blessed with a particularly important destiny, but they're also completely enslaved to their destinies.
"I've heard of them. They often run into conflicts with dragons."
"That's because a hero's destiny is often that of dragonslayer," he said, "I don't know what is wrong with the human species, that their very destiny can be specifically to kill another intelligent species, but murder has always been just a part of this world."
"He hasn't tried to kill me yet."
"He logically can't kill you. You can't affect his fate, can you? He can't affect yours. But once he finds me, he will try and kill me. Then you will be obsolete, and the chains that bind you, of jailer and executioner, will come to an end. Your normal fates will resume. He will have no choice but to kill you after that."
"Do I have a 'normal fate' too?" I asked, fascinated by the insight of this venerable, if thoroughly evil, dragon.
"How about I tell you as a reward, after you aid me?"
"Aren't you going to tell me anything else, to back up your case? At least tell me your name, to show that we can trust each other. I'm Burgundy."
"Chronos," he introduced himself, "That name doesn't hold any power over me, by the way. It's an assumed name. Like yours. Now, if you are satisfied, I am going to release you, so you will return to Leander's side. It would do you well to consider everything I have told you very seriously. My plan is the only way you can leave here alive and as a free man. You will be on the twenty-first ring. You have nine rings to make your decision. If you arrive with Leander alive, and I do not see you leading him into an ambush, I will attack you both on sight."
With these words, everything went dark again, and I was standing behind Leander. He jumped and made a noise like a human female when I suddenly appeared.
And the music had changed.
Floor 22: Peaceful Interlude
This new music is surprisingly peaceful, considering how lethal everything becomes once you delve this deep into the labyrinth. There are beasts here who can slay with a single blow, even with the almost divine-wrought armour that Leander wears these days. Other beasts can drain strength and life energy, destroy armour and weapons, even steal food. No battle is straightforward any more. Even with this pandemonium all around us, the music is slow-paced and calm. There is a curious aspect to it, as though the new levels of power mean that the rules of battle have changed, that the world itself has become something different, and that the skills for survival have to be learnt anew. I'm not sure even the world itself knows what it is doing any more, and is making it up as it goes along, surprising itself when it thinks something up. At such power levels on both sides of the battle, it must be difficult to know what makes an appropriate threat, and what items can be given as an aid, without them either being so trivial as to be inconsequential at this point, or so powerful as to become imbalanced.
I don't know why I'm sympathising with my captors. Maybe Leander's mood is rubbing off on me. Or maybe the peaceful music is lulling me into a false sense of security. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be working on Leander. He's too busy fighting for his life every step of the way.
Talking of steps, Leander seems to have freed himself from the curse of the Shift Ring. He isn't talking to me about it, but I think he died while I was gone, and didn't get to keep his ring when he came back. He blamed me for his lack of success while I was away. I didn't realise I was so crucial to his morale, what with my being completely unable to causally affect him.
I hope I don't end up having to betray him.
Floor 23: Financial Emergency
My suspicions were correct. Leander died while I was away. He admitted to me last night that he was out of money. While he was under the curse of the Shift Ring, he was unable to collect much money or, well, much of anything. Now that the curse is over, the labyrinth is withholding money from him.
"This is it," Leander told me, as though I was still his loyal pet and not twice his size, "The next time I die, I won't come back. And this place is going to kill me. After I'm gone, you'll have to make your own way out of here. That means you'll have to actually do something for once."
I'm not sure how he's noticed that I don't do anything to help him without noticing that he can't do anything to help me. I'm also not sure how he came to such a definite conclusion that his resurrection is contingent on his financial situation. It isn't like he can test the theory.
Please, don't let him have been experimenting with his ability to come back from the dead.
It has left me wondering about a few things, though. Like, if Chronos knows how this world works, about Leander and I, he must have noticed the small detail that Leander comes back from death. And yet, he's asked me to murder the man. He hasn't given me any clues as to how to get Leander to stay dead. It had only occurred to me at this point that I should have asked advice on this matter. If Chronos had everything planned out in so much detail, it was up to him to give me the information I needed, if he was going to rely on me to be part of the plan.
Not that I'm actually going to do as he asks.
Floor 24: Fear of Mortality
Another floor and still no money. Leander's attitude is changing dramatically. He fights defensively, he uses rods on enemies or throws cursed items at them rather than getting into melee with them, he even avoids some battles when he doesn't feel confident. He doesn't aim to clear floors, but watches his food meter and only goes as far as his food will last almost never tests strange magical items on himself, although I'm not sure if this is entirely out of caution or due to the fact that he hardly ever finds items he hasn't already identified. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he really has found all the possible items. If Chronos is telling the truth, he is approaching the end of his journey, whatever 'the end' may entail.
I think Leander feels the aura of decisiveness in the air as well. The atmosphere is so thick with tension, even a creature bound to the mundane world must be able to feel it. He no longer speaks of being trapped, or of going around endlessly in circles. He either believes he will leave the maze, or at the very least reach the centre, very soon, or that he will die.
While I can smell the same finality on the breeze, I do not think that ending will be so simple as either completion or death. There is no guarantee it will go well for us, even if Leander survives every challenge from here until the thirtieth floor, even if we see the outside world again. I agree with at least one point made by Chronos: the people who created this maze and placed innocent sentient creatures in it are not benevolent, possibly not sane, probably not either.
I do not know if it is such a good idea to go along with their intended plan for us any more.