Chapter 41: Deep Stone Crypt
Where am I?
What am I?
Grappling with the concept of I is like trying to hold smoke in my hands. Nebulous. No matter what self does, self leaks out of every crack in self. Maybe self is the smoke trying to keep self from wafting away to nothing. Yes, that’s it. Self’s mind is barely holding a form.
Self needs to move forward. Forward… where? Self has no concept of where self is, and yet some instinct is telling self to just go.
The first step. I apparently have legs. In fact, I’m a bit more solid now. Stone-like. I feel stiff. Gritty. The same grey-black stone and fertile earth under me also makes me. All of me.
Step. The smoke-self is gone. I’m not leaking anymore. I am I, fully and completely. I can see further now, as well. The sun is cutting across a mountain ridge in the distance, scattering unnatural fancies of light over the sky and terrain as it sets. There’s something in the far distance. I feel a pull towards it. A purpose. My only purpose, though I have no idea why.
Step. I’m much closer now. Far closer than a single step should have taken me. This place might not be real, but perhaps it’s simply a different kind of real. I’m not quite sure I’m real yet. There are others. Others exist, when only moments ago it seemed the concept of I was hard to grasp. There’s something rising high into the sky out of the group. A stone spire in the shape of a giant fist. I’m drawn to it.
Step. I’m among them now. They’re made of the same stuff as me, but most seem somewhat less than me. Less substantial. Less corporeal. They seem happy though. Content in this place. They’re not moving towards the spire. Some are pushing through the mob, as I feel I must.
Step. They’re packed so tightly together. Their shuffling and random paths would have knocked me down a few times if there was enough space to fall. It takes almost all my effort and limited physicality to make my way through. The closer they get to the spire, the more agitated they seem. They move faster. They swing about as if they’re under attack. The spire seems so close now. I’m almost through.
Fall. Pain. I’m on the ground. Have I been hit? No, I’ve made it past the violent throng. This is a pressure. A force is being exerted on me, like a mountain avalanche falling on me, or an ocean drawing me down. I notice that at some point I started breathing because now it seems almost impossible to. There are others. They scream in… pain? No. Terror. They crawl back to the others. Others can barely move at all. I have to get up. I have to keep going.
Stand. Step. It gets worse the closer I get to the spire. I stumble again but do not fall, focusing on keeping my feet under me.
Step. More pain. Slashing pain. Bludgeoning pain. Burning pain. Freezing pain. It’s coming from all around me, but nothing is there. My parts tell me they’re damaged and failing, but I force them forward.
Step. Fall. It’s the spire. It’s crushing those who attempt to approach it. I’m pinned to the ground and in more pain than I thought existed. Death. I can be unmade. Fear… crushing my chest and blurring my sight. Panic on the edges of me. I can see an entrance at the base of the spire. It’s so tall that I can no longer see the top. It seems to rise infinitely, but I saw its peak before. A rising fist. A sign of resolution.
Crawl. I feel my grip on the world beginning to burn away. Am I returning to the mist of my genesis? I’m coming apart. If I turn back I could survive.
Crawl. No. I must press on, though I still don’t understand why. I’m almost gone.
Crawl. My fingertips break through to the spire’s interior, and now I’m inside.
Stand. The pressure is still there, but I can stand. I can force the terror into a box in the back of my mind. I’m made of something else now. Metal. Rusty, dirty metal. I’m stronger, though. I have a better sense of my own capabilities. The room is huge, and there are very few others. A pillar of light shines at the centre.
Punch. Something came at me. I was too far in my own head so I barely noticed it, but I spun and ran my fist right through its head. It fell and vanished. I’m not quite sure how or why I did that. Another is coming at me. A thing made of oil and miasma. It had a face but I didn’t recognize it, though it felt like I should have. It slashes at me with its claws but I duck under it and thrust an upward palm strike through its chest. It coils and vanishes around my hand. My whole body instinctively knew how to do that, and I feel less rusty. Less dull. Is that the purpose of this place? To fight? Was the pressure outside a first of tests?
Run. The enemy surrounds the pillar of light. Others are trying to fight through them to get to the pillar but they’re failing and being ripped apart. I run at an enemy full on and throw a punch, but this one is far stronger. It grabs my outstretched arm and throws me far. I roll and collapse into a heap. Getting up hurts, as if the failed attack leeched more energy from me than the physicality of it should. I can’t risk that again. Another like me is racing by me to attempt the same thing, but I call out to stop him. He helps me to my feet. If we work together, we can break through.
Rally. Others join us. We move as one, rushing a section of the enemy’s line. Together we are stronger than the sum of our efforts. A few fall, but I break through with others and enter the light.
Blink. Another chamber. Same size. Same pillar of light in the centre. I don’t see any of the others that I came through with, but I do see a single enemy by the pillar. It’s bigger. It’s wearing armour and has a sword. Luckily – and for unknown reasons – I also have a sword, though it is made of stone. My body is less dull and most of the rust is gone. My mind is clearer, though I’m keenly aware that the pressure being exerted on me by this place has never been more intense.
Step. It’s waiting for me patiently, like a duelist awaiting his challenger. It has a face. Dark skin, red hair and strong feminine features. I raise my sword to it to show that I am ready, and it attacks. A failed parry sends me sprawling hard. I pick my sword back up before it can pounce and narrowly avoid its killer strike. It swings, I block. I stab, it twists. It lands a blow and I recover. Is it getting slower? No, I’m getting faster. I can read its movements. The sword is getting lighter in my hands, and I am beginning to understand it beyond where the sharp parts are. The next slash the enemy takes finds only empty air. I’m no longer there. I’m behind it, and I plunge my blade into its back straight through to the ground. I enter the pillar of light leaving it propped up on my killer intent.
Blink. This chamber is different. The others were empty. This one is a maze. Lefts, rights, ups and downs. Corridors and smaller chambers. Objects and hurdles. I’m beginning to look more like I feel I should, though I have no idea why I have that sense or what my final form should be like. The dullness is gone, replaced with shine and complexity. There’s a stone gun in my hand, though I know for some reason it will work when I want it to.
Dash. I enter a hallway. I know I need to get to the centre of the room and find the pillar of light, but the labyrinth I’m in seems to shift and deceive. I can hear others and weapons fire.
Turn. Duck. Bullets wiz by my head. The enemies are less armoured than the last one but far faster, and they’re moving in packs of three. I see two others like me pinned down by the same enemies keeping me on the defensive. I make eye contact with them and with our combined firepower we take down the immediate threats. We move through the maze together. Every kill causes our guns to morph and evolve into more effective instruments of death. We find another group of three and join them for the final assault on the pillar, each of us making it through.
Blink. The others are gone again. A hallway of mirrors lies before me. The pressure is intense here, but I can endure. I walk through the hall, seeing my reflection in the mirrors change. I can see images other than myself in the reflections. Memories? Whatever they are, I’m having an emotional response to them. I knew that place. I remember that person. I’m changing. No, I’m returning. The pieces of me are coming back together. By the time I leave the hall and enter the last chamber, I’m almost me again.
Solas. I’m almost back to being Solas.
Breathe. I know this is the last room because I can see the outlines of the spire’s fist shape in the ceiling. Starlight pours in through cracks in the walls. I’ve been rising through the spire’s interior, though I’m quite sure it’s not just a simple three-dimensional space. In fact, I’m sure this place doesn’t physically exist at all. There is no pillar of light at the centre of the room, only a mass of roiling and twisting darkness. That is where the pressure has been emanating from. If it had been this strong at the base of the spire, I would have surely been vapourized. My mind and senses are under full assault once more. There are no enemies here, so I walk slowly towards the darkness, feeling waves of pure terror slam into me over and over.
The final test. I spear both hands into the darkness, my light confronting it directly. My body wracked with agony. My mind shaken with shock. It challenges me with questions and riddles, demanding answers under a level of duress that no words could describe. I’m turning to smoke and dust once more. Only my light and my mind hold me together. I defy the darkness with my very soul. I meet its inquisition with everything I am. Every nucleus of wisdom, every trace of fortitude. Every ray of emotion.
As I give my last to it, every sense is flooded with light. The pressure is gone. I am Solas-3 once more, and I have returned from the Deep Stone Crypt that all Exo brothers and sisters must climb to reach the life beyond ones and zeros that The Traveler has offered us.
I only hope I was right.