I was still running. My limbs felt heavy, and I could barely force one foot in front of the other. I felt a helpless weakness seep into me as I realized my legs were barely moving - restrained by something flexible but strong. I could no longer see the path. Instead a grey dimness covered my vision.
I gagged - something strange was in my throat, I couldn't breath! If I threw up I would choke on my own vomit. My confusion and panic reigned for a moment as I bit down on the plastic tube, and desperately thrashed. Plastic. That's what it was, a plastic tube, probably for feeding. I focused on breathing, and tamped down the instinct.
Okay, solve the problems: Why can't I see? Oh, my eyes are closed. I try to open them, but they are taped shut or something. I try to chew the feeding tube off, but it's much tougher than it has any right to be.
Okay what's my range of motion? I'm suspended upright. My legs can't move more than a foot. My arms... I can move almost my full range of motion except in front of my face, and around my head. My hands are covered in some sort of a resistive glove, but I can mostly use them.
Okay, back to the feeding tube. If I bite down with an large overbite, and push my jaw forward I can kinda pull the tube out a little. I just need to pin it to the roof of my mouth with my tongue each time I move my jaw back, so the tube doesn't slip back. I manage to pull it out much of the way, but there seems to be some sort of a wide end at the bottom that doesn't want to fit up my esophagus.
Okay, I've got a little over a foot in front of me. It seems to be attached to something a little in front of my face, so it's partly folded. Which way? To the right. I crunch my whole body as I bite down and attempt to punch myself in the face. There! my fingers brushed the tube. I do it again, and this time I loop two fingers over the tube.
I can cling to this loop of tube clenched in my teeth and hold my arm against the pull of the resistive bands. I slowly wrap the tube over my hand, pulling my hand closer to my face. Finally I manage to pull my hand right in front of my teeth and in a instant grab my wrist with my teeth.
Fortunately the tube held onto its other attachment point. There was a strange gelatinous substance covering my wrist, with rubbery cords running off in various directions, pulling my hand toward them. I chewed. Eventually the cords were cut, and my lower arm was free.
Now I pulled the gloves off with my teeth, and with my newly freed hand pulled some contraption off my eyes.
Blinding pain! Literally blinding - my eyes were watering and squinting in the bright light. I could barely focus either. I was floating 3 feet above the ground - suspended by the restraints and torso piece. A strange device with various cords and tubes coming out of it including the one down my mouth was hanging from the ceiling.
The rubber restraints were attached to the thin steel pillars surrounding me. On every side for hundreds of feet I see the same arrangement. Approximately 10000 people virtually kidnapped. If this floor is 100 meters by 100 meters, and each person takes up about 2 by 2 m that should be 2500 people just on this floor.
I set about letting myself out of the other constraints. When I finally release the chest piece I levitate myself gently to the floor. Unfortunately gravity doesn't agree and I nearly break my wrist. Ah right, no magic. The reflexes are still there - it takes me a moment to stop searching for a healing potion.
I try to stand up. There's a moment where I think I will succeed and then I'm back on the ground. My sense of balance is still very confident, it's just not even close to correct. Maybe the simulated sense calibrated things differently.
I don't have time. Ten thousand people virtually kidnapped. That's a lot of faces to check when I have to crawl to each one. Not ten thousand though; a third of those sets of pillars are empty. Three years seems long, but is a short time to lose so many. This last battle will be worse. People are dying there, my friends are dying.
So I crawl. My friends fight a god while I crawl. The faces blend together. More and more of them are moving now; the running and dodging and fighting begin to look as if they are all just flailing at the bonds - desperate to be free.
I recognize more than I expected despite the feeding tube, and the tape over the eyes. Each face a seeming mockery, for the faces here are innocent and blank - unspoiled but also un-matured. The faces blur, but one stands above the rest - burned into my memory by desperate practice. The face of the monster.
I remember when I first saw him. He was eating noodles. This was immediately after his Hospitalliers arrived just in time to prevent a retreat from becoming a rout. I didn't like fighting in armies. My contingencies did not mix well with lots of spells and attacks being used near me. I never found a way to get them to distinguish certain spells - some harmless, and some swift and deadly. Rei was my connection to the guilds and governments in the world at large and she requested my assistance for this fight.
I have strayed somewhat. The monster ate noodles with complete confidence. I found myself strangly unsurprised when his true position was made known. A young girl had begged him then, in front of the ragtag group of leaders and random villagers. She had pressed her forehead into the dirt in front of his boots and sobbingly begged to be let out.
He had smiled and granted her a crystal apple, telling her to eat it all to be set free. He continued walking for a few steps before turning back as if a thought had struck him. "Ah, but that's not quite fair to the others is it? I suppose you should all decide which one goes home."
The knife was set and twisted. Strife guaranteed. After all, whatever tactics you use you will be safe from retaliation as soon as you escape. We might have fought a war right then, and so lost any chance had Rei not stepped forward and told us how to kill the monster.
He is a god in the world he built. Perhaps he will deign to follow his own rules, and fight us with mere overwhelming advantage, but perhaps not. In this world he is a god, in the world above he is but a man. Should his attention be fixed on this world perhaps he would not notice the one released by the apple of strife walking through the soft underbelly of his defensive systems.
We had to act fast, in ten minutes his meandering path would pass into the unclaimed territory, and our chance would be gone. The leaders assembled the largest army they could in the seven minutes remaining after the arguments stopped.
I volunteered for the lonely part. The leaders were needed to organize their factions. The villagers unknown quantities. I at least was well known, and in the world above physical stature might play a large role.
Rei gave me a painful kiss when I made it clear that her idea or not, I was the best option. Of course she had figured that out before she had stepped forward and spoke. I think she argued against me going because she felt guilty. For sending me on a death sentence mission, or contriving to save me from an impossible battle I don't know. She hadn't hesitated to step forward though.
The face of a god is not terribly handsome, though it has a certain regal weight to it. Arrogance and complete assurance certainly shone forth when he acknowledged my implicit accusation and proof. I have burned that face into my memory and I hope that a god's arrogance out weighs a god's vanity. If he wore a different face in the world below than in the world above all this will be in vain.
Each time I looked for that shape, and that little scar running through the left eyebrow. I have lost track how many faces I have seen. How many hours has it been? How many miles have I dragged my rebellious body? How long can the united forces of the world fight him?
More and more of the people I pass now lie still, no longer flailing against their restraints. Perhaps they rest. It is difficult to discern exactly, but their chests do not seem to be rising. I try not to discern.
My hands are bleeding. My feet and knees too. I managed to cut some of the skin suit on a sharp edge of the apparatus and tear ragged strips off. I tied these around my knees, hands, and feet, but it's not enough. The strips keep on slipping. I think the bleeding is minor, but the floor behind me looks gory. What if I pass out from blood loss? Or exhaustion.
I'm suddenly reminded of how incredibly tired I am. I set goals: twenty more faces and I'll rest for a moment. Ten more. Five more. One more. One more. One more.
I feel an incredible pain in my hand. A monster with steel teeth and hydraulic strength has grasped my hand and is hauling me forwards. I fell asleep! How long was I out? It must have been too long - the destraction has failed, and the security system has been turned against me.
No, the robot has no obvious weapons and the sound of rushing air is loud enough I would have woken if I hadn't been so exhausted. I have been attacked by a vacuum cleaner.
My hand is jammed in its powerful sweeping rotors. Now it must be dragging me to a repair center. I gingerly reach one hand underneath the robot and start working my twisted hand free.
No! We are moving. I'm going to get lost. I've already missed faces. The idea of going backwards seems like death. I twist and set my feet against the robot and pull with all my strength. Something breaks in my hand and I am free.
I shrivel in a ball at the pain. When I can move again I open my eyes. I am rewarded by a scar on a man's left eyebrow. With the aid of my uninjured hand I pull myself up on a pillar. I look closely, confirming beyond any doubt.
I search for a sharp object for a moment, and then unwrap the strips around my knees and hands. I twist them together, and stand on my toes with the support of the man's body in front of me. I pass one end over his left shoulder and one over his right. Then, ducking under the restraints attached restless form, I step behind him and carefully climb onto the restraints holding his feet from behind. I grasp one side of the twisted cord with my teeth and the other with my good hand. Then I step off the lines.
I fall about a foot before the twisted strip pulls tight. The man in front of me gives an incredible jerk. He kicks and twists his head. I just hold on as tight as I can.
There are dozens of robots coming, I can hear the buzz of their rotors and the sharp clicks of their treads. He stops moving before they get here. They stop moving when he does. Everyone else takes a bit longer, but they stop moving too.
I still hold on. It seems like a long time has passed when I let myself fall to the floor, but it can't be too long. The people I can see aren't moving. Is that chest movement? I can't tell. I hear coughing and gagging all around. They've discovered the feeding tube.
Too many remain limp, but more than I had feared do not. I'm relieved, but it's not enough yet. There's one other face I was looking for and didn't see. Her face burned into my memory. I need to know.
I start crawling again.