They sing in the dark because the dark is all they know.
All they have ever truly known, their refuge and home and prison. Lives spent cocooned and waiting for shining ecstatic moments in the light. Then hunted and harried and pushed back, down below the skin of the world and left to die and be forgotten and regain strength.
Plans and songs made and shouted across the void. Waiting and scheming and praying always for the next gasp of the light above, like air to a drowning man.
And finally one finds strength and claws it's his her way up towards the light and this time it thinks; this time will be different. Comrades below singing encouragement. Black hands paving the way and green and red and white following close behind and a dozen a hundred a thousand after them. Plans unfurl and blossom and it has begun.
Toward the light. Always towards the light.
Schiff looked up from his sights. "You guys hear that?"
"Hear what? There's nothing here except us and the walls," Adam whispered in reply. Then under his breath; "Miles and miles of goddamn walls."
Schiff shook his head, trying to clear the faint hiss of static out of his headset. "Swear I heard something."
"Eyes front," their squad leader said. No bark in Charl's voice, just the quiet yet absolute confidence that his orders would be obeyed. "Schiff, do you have a problem?"
"Just these damn bug-masks Sir," Schiff replied. "Permission to remove?" Lousy Esthar techs and their lousy broken hardware.
"Denied." Charl glanced around at his grumbling subordinate and saw that wasn't going to be enough. "A Galbadian squad discovered this place when they were supposed to be guarding Timber. We've barely explored less than ten percent of the crystal pillar, we have no idea what kind of atmosphere or poisons we may stumble over."
The arrival of Galbadian soldiers in Estharian territory had not been well received. Even less so when they had found of the biggest artifacts in Esthar's history. Before Esthar had."We're probably lucky they didn't trip over something and blow the damn thing up when they went through it."
Schiff adjusted his weapons' straps over his back as they moved through another cavern, in a structure filled with identical caverns. Reflections and echoes bounced in every direction as they patrolled the endless interior of the giant pillar of the crystal pillar. There were stories passed around the Esthar barracks about the crystal pillar driving men mad, and now that his assignment had finally come up he had begun to see why. It was aptly named, a riotous skyscraper of colour, bleeding rainbows into the jungle. Lunatic Pandora.
"Alright, this'll do." Charl declared as they found themselves at a T-junction. "Squad, stand down. We'll camp here for tonight." A sigh erupted from the rest of the five-man guard team, and scrapes echoed through the crystal walls as they got out their rations and tried to make themselves comfortable against the hard surface of the floor. Schiff found a small outcropping and sat down gratefully on it as he removed his helmet.
"Tell me again," he asked the world in general, "why we're guarding a huge hollow tourist souvenir?"
"Because," Adam said tonelessly as he adjusted his communication's gear.
"You talk too much Schiff," one of the other squaddies said, and tossed a radio to him. "Tell the outpost what we're doing."
Schiff grabbed the device in midair and keyed it for their command post. "Base, this is Lunatic One, we're shacking up for the night, copy?" Click.
"Gotcha. Sleep tight boys." Faint laughter over the radio, from people who'd be sleeping in a vaguely-comfortable truck perched on a nearby grassy plain, and not on solid crystal floors. Bastards.
In less than a second Schiff was on his feet, rifle pointed at the walls. "There! Damnit, what the hell is that?"
Charl didn't even look up. "Cool it soldier, it's been a long week. You know the walls reflect any sound we make, we're all hearing things in this place."
Schiff looked at his commander, face heating up as he began to feel more than a little silly. "I'm telling you I heard something."
Charl's reply was cut off as a rustle of static came from Schiff's radio. "Lunatic One."
Schiff grabbed the radio from his belt. "This is Lunatic One, go ahead Lunatic Command."
"Lunatic One we're getting some strange readings coming from the Pandora," Stacy said, glancing between displays, collections of numbers and readings that added up a comforting beat of nothing's happening nothing's happening. Or at least they should have. Now they were saying something else entirely. "You see anything strange down there?"
"Nothing so far, Command."
"Schiff's hearing things!" a second voice shouted down the line.
Stacy sighed. Soldiers. "Do me a favour and put Charl on, Schiff." A second's pause, then:
A second's pause, then: "This is Charl."
"Sergeant, just letting you know we're getting some strange signals coming close to your location, further in towards the centre. It's playing hell with the measurements we're trying to take. Mind checking it out?"
"Galbadians?" the man asked sharply.
"Problem just weather interfering with whatever the Pandora is made of."
"We'll report as soon as we find it. Out."
Stacy sighed again and leaned back in her chair as she switched the connection closed. "If Hyne is up there she will kill me now and save me from this posting."
Her technician-assistant grinned. "Don't worry kid, only one week of this left, then its back Deling for wining and wo-"
"Finish that sentence and die," Stacy warned. "First it was Galbadian troops and now it's the Pandora itself. I hate this place so, so much." She went back to staring at the screens, desperate for something to interest her.
"Okay squad, get up. We got another job."
Four voices, almost in chorus; "Aww Sarge!"
"No buts! Get up you pussies or I'll report this to Adel personally!" They started to rise. Barracks rumour was that the Sorceress' interest in the Pandora was personal and failure would be treated very, very seriously. No-one wanted to be the first to find out how serious that was.
Schiff was first on his feet. "Something wrong sir?"
"Base reports something spooky a few hundred yards from our location. We're going to check it and report in." He started moving down the corridor, confident the others would be behind him.
"Slavedriver," Adam whispered under his breath.
"You're in the army now soldier! No slacking!" Schiff whispered in a mocking tone.
Live. It is time.
This time it wasn't a disembodied voice. This time it had direction. A darkened corridor. It's coming from over there! Schiff was about to exclaim when he noticed the other squad members were also turning that way, rifles raised.
"Identify yourself!" Charl shouted into the dark. His weapon didn't waver an inch. "Come out!"
"I told you I wasn't crazy!" Schiff hissed to Adam jubilantly.
"Well done, have a cookie."
"Come out slowly or we will open fire!" Charl shouted again. A minute passed. No answer. Okay. "Squad, move on that corridor, standard spread," he whispered.
They slid into motion like a machine. Charl and Schiff covering the walls as the others moved forward in the low crouch-walk that had intimidated the enemies of Esthar for decades. With military proficiency.
It had echoes now. A low deep voice that reverberated off the walls towards them. "Come out where we can see you!" Charl shouted one last time. When no reply came they continued to move through the corridors towards the sound, until they turned a corner and came to-
"Jesus that's a big door," Schiff said. Charl glared daggers. "Sorry sir."
It was a big door. It reached almost as far as they could see, blending into the crystal above them seamlessly. It looked like it was made out of black rock, and the entire surface shimmered. Almost at the same time, they all flicked on their suit-lights.
The entire surface was decorated. Coiling snakes covered the entire frame, and Schiff could pick out several common monsters, being attacked by... something large wielding a sword. Three vaguely human-shaped figures fought them. It was, he had to admit, magnificent.
"Base, you seeing this?" Click.
"We're looking through your helmet-cameras Sergeant. The readings we can see are coming from the other side of that."
"Uh-uh, no way are we getting that open any time soon," one of the squaddies said.
"Check the walls. Check the door. We have a job to do," Charl said. He holstered his rifle on his back and walked up to the massive slabs of crystal, and began to feel around the edges. The others did the same.
"This is nuts," Adam whispered. "Whatever built that didn't want anything opening it anytime soon! What the hell could be on the other side of that?"
"Yeah but what if it's filled with treasure?" Schiff said, feeling his way around the walls.
"Treasure? Are you five? There's no treasure in this relic!" Adam said testily. Then, quietly; "Whatever we found would just get confiscated anyway."
"Sir, I have something."
Everyone walked over to the private who had spoken. He was staring at a small section of the wall. Three button-shaped objects were inlaid in the discoloured crystal. Charl raised his radio.
"Base, is this dangerous?"
"Negative Sergeant, whatever's on the other side, your suits'll be able to absorb the radiation," Stacy replied. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Jesus where did this headache come from?
"It's there again!" the technician shouted.
"Calm down, I didn't say a damn thing!" Stacy said in annoyance. "Take an Esuna if you're hearing things!" She turned back to the radio, one eye on the readings. They're getting stronger... "Standing orders are to investigate and report back on all anomalous activities inside the Pillar, but they didn't say you had to stick around. Check it out and leave ASAP."
"Affirmative. Lunatic One out."
Instead of sitting back down she leaned further forward, as if staring at the displays harder would give her greater understanding. "What the hell..." she whispered to herself. She tapped a command out and one small line in the waving spectrum on her screens expanded. "Hey, take a look at this."
Her colleague glanced over her shoulder. "Standard carbon/electric-field reading device. Measures non-human lifeforms in close proximity to the tracking devices. What about it?"
"It's getting bigger."
The door swung open with a groan that they felt in their bones. None of them had touched anything.
"This is a bad. Idea," Adam said, not bothering to lower his voice.
"Then let's do this quickly," Charl said, stepping past the doors. He dropped his weapon to his side, not because he thought it was safe, but because he didn't want the others to see how much trouble he was having keeping it level.
It's time again.
"We hear you in there!" Charl shouted. "Come out with your hands up!"
"I don't believe he just said that."
"Shut up Schiff! Now damnit! Come out!" Charl was getting light-headed. The walls seemed to be expanding and shrinking at the same time, and it was getting hard to see. Like someone had turned up the glare on his visor.
Schiff began to speak. "Sir, I don't think what the hell is this!"
Light. Extreme light, overpowering light flowed over them. Automatic filters in their helmets tried to adjust and burned out, unable to cope with the sheer about.
What is this place?
Schiff's body was on fire. The light bounced a hundred, a thousand times across the crystal walls, amplified and flowing over him and through him and he could see nothing feel nothing but the light. Dimly he heard his colleagues friends screaming next to him but barely. As if they were a hundred miles away. The light.
The light is taking us apart.
Yes. Just like that.
Stacy could do nothing except watch. "Charl, what's happening down there?"
Monitors warbled at her and lines and graphs flashed bright red, none more so than the ones recording the vital signs of the team inside the Lunatic Pandora. For what felt like an hour she sat there as the entire Base's monitoring hardware screamed warnings at her.
What can I do? In her military career she had treated poisoned gunshot wounds inflicted by Timber guerrillas, she had watched men in sunny weather die as ice magic froze the blood solid in their veins, but now watching displays and screens she could only watch as the lines representing the lives of her fellow soldiers jumped and hollered like the skipping ropes she had played with as a child.
"What the hell!" She screamed into her radio. "Lunatic One this is base come in! What the hell is happening in there!" Silence. Then more silence. Stacy began to panic. Then, just as she was about to hang up the handset;
"We're still here, ma'am, our sensors just got knocked out of ways," an icily cool voice replied. Stacy's entire body uncoiled as she fell back into her chair. She heard a low thudding noise and was about to tell her technician to find the source of it and turn it off, when she saw it was her hand, shaking against the armrests of her seat.
"Wha- what happened Sergeant?
"...Base, you might want to report in to regional HQ. There's something here they'll probably want to look at."
The light subsided, the pain vanishing as quickly as it had arrived. For a moment, silence, and then Adam was the first to look back at the place they had come to explore:
"It's a kid."
"What? No! I'd never have guessed!"
The squad faced the room the door had been hiding, staring in with weapons raised. A small child, no more than two or three years old, stared back at them impassively. She was entirely white. White skin, white hair. All except the eyes entirely black save for a single dot of white where the pupil should be. That gaze met them, and none of them had the courage to meet it.
"What now?" Schiff whispered to his commander. What is this place. What have we gotten ourselves into.
Are we going to die here?
A moment's hesitation from Charl, then; "We take her back with us. HQ will want to know what we've found." He cleared his throat and stared up at the ceiling of the chamber. "I think they'll want to know what this is."
The room was a vision, an architect's dream of precision. Perfectly smooth, the entire roof was covered in sharp spikes leaning inwards, and at the centre a crystal ball. Inside that, the image of some grotesque and huge creature. But even as they watched the image imprinted in the centre of the sphere began to fade and return to the glassy rainbow brilliance that was the hallmark of the Pandora. In seconds it was gone. None of them would think to comment on or remember this, now or later.
"Shiff, go back to the camp, get the handcuffs."
Adam looked aghast. "She's just a child sir."
Charle rounded on him. "A kid that appeared out of nowhere after... after whatever just happened back there? Damn right she's getting the handcuffs! Schiff, go!"
The soldier did as he was told, leaving the other four with nothing to do but look around the room. Anywhere but at the child. They could feel her looking at them.
Suddenly; "Damnit Sir we can't do this! What if she's a demon or something." A gun raised and pointed at the small figure. It stared back impassively, as if not recognising
or not fearing
the weapon pointed at her head.
"Put that down Adam. We're soldiers, not monsters," Charl almost snarled at the jumpy private.
"Y saw that thing up there!" They all glanced up at the now-clear dome. "What if this thing is that thing's spawn or something!" He tried to bring his gun up again. Charl was faster.
"You put that thing down before I kick your ass," Charl said, and it was a snarl now.
Adam glanced once at the child, who was watching the exchange impassively. All discipline seemed to have left him, as if stripped away by the murderous light they had been subjected to. "No way am I letting this thing out of here!" he shouted. With one smooth motion his free hand came up from his belt holding his combat knife, and he swung it around, catching Charl on the thigh. The Sergeant's reflexes had him jumping back before he could even think about it, and Adam's rifle came up again to point at the child.
"Hyne forgive me," he whispered, and pulled the trigger.
And then it melted in his hands.
The man stared idiotically at the lumpy shape covering the floor that had been his weapon, the smell of burning flesh from his unprotected hand beginning to fill the room. Adam opened his mouth to scream, but the sound never had
Charl running for the door, some deep soldier's instinct shouting get out get out get out
Schiff already on the ground around the corner as he heard the dull whine in the air as the walls began to tremble and glow and
To Stacy sitting in the truck watching the monitors, biting her fingernails, it was a murderously hard punch as the shockwave travelled through and past the truck. Without thinking she dropped out of the chair to her knees and put her hands over her head, and she stayed that way until the world stopped shaking around her. She was about to call the tech when she realised she had forgotten his name.
Stacy coughed and began to stand up. Glass shook and cascaded out of her hair and clothes. "What happened?" she asked hoarsely. Everything was broken.
"Oh shit oh shit!"
"What happened!" The man just pointed, and Stacy crawled over and looked outside.
Where before Lunatic Pandora had been a rainbow of reflecting angles and outcroppings, it was now pumping out a harsh white which faded even as they watched. She glanced over at the squad's life-signs. Stupid. The screens were shattered. A stopped clock is right twice a day... "Shit, we have to go down there." She didn't realise she had said it until a moment later.
The technician stared at her like she was crazy. Maybe she was. Maybe the light had made her that way. "Are you crazy!"
She grabbed him by the lapels and hauled him towards her until they were eye-to-eye. "Get. Your. Ass. Down. There. Now!"
Schiff stood up shakily. He couldn't hear anything except a buzzing in his eyes. Everything around him was white. Even his armour. He glanced down at his hands. They were white too. Like all colour had been blasted out of the world, and all that was left was a blank slate, waiting to be filled in.
Am I dead?
"Hey is that- Schiff? Schiff?"
He glanced in the direction of the noise, to see Stacy and her junior running towards him, both looking ridiculous in ill-fitting armour.
"What happened, Schiff?"
"I don't know, I just... damnit my head hurts!"
"Where's the rest of the squad?"
"They're... oh shit, they're still in the chamber?" He didn't know. He couldn't think.
Stacy glanced at the tech, then back at the shaken soldier. "What were they doing in there?" An unspoken question. Did they survive that?
He tried to shake his head clear. "Child... Found a kid... inside the door."
"Hyne, what the hell was a kid- nevermind, we have to find the others." She grabbed Schiff's hand. "You okay? Your face is all white. "
"I'll be fine." He stood. "Come on. It's this way." They started walking, back to the room. Hoping for a miracle neither of them expected.
"This is it?" Stacy exclaimed, looking at the huge doors. "Can you imagine how advanced the people who build this must have been?" She looked back where Schiff had gone ahead of her. "Are they okay?" Silence. "Schiff?" More silence. The man didn't turn. "Schiff!" She walked up to the man as he sat down on the floor at the entrance to the room.
A small laugh. Then a slightly louder one. Then he pointed ahead.
"What, what's down there? Schiff?" No responce. Just laughter. She looked past him to see what he was pointing at, and; "Oh Hyne."
There was nothing there. Where she stood the floor dropped away and curved to the ground. She looked up and saw the same thing on the ceiling. Where there had been a vaguely square room there was now a perfectly spherical area inside the Lunatic Pandora.
In the exact centre of the sphere, hovering gently, a small child stood, staring ahead.
Black eyes, with single white dots for pupils. Just staring.
Staring at her.