Sinking in a Sea of Sands Started Closed

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"Monolith... Surrounded by... Fire bloke! Dragon, or whatever you call yourself! Torch that monolith!"

The sand was getting wet.
Sand was bad enough, wet sand was worse, he hoped a burning monolith would dry things out a little.

There seemed to be much interest in the blade, but it looked pretty useless without a handle, besides the hover-crystal was holding it, so he still didn't want to get close.

Dragon didn't look likely to listen to the Mayor at the moment.

The boy went to the mourner, placed a hand on a shoulder.
"Your needed now, it's time to get up and help."

"Y-yes," Dragon stuttered. He stood up slowly and walked towards the monolith, away from the swrd. He reached it, placed his left hand above his right hand to shield it from the rain, raised his index finger and lit it on fire. He slowly approached the structure's base in that position and poked the fuel there.

The base blazed, a crimson circle, at first content to cling to the base. But soon it started climbing, convection and conduction clawing upwards.
Instant ignition.
Heat and light to rival the dragon, it'll burn for ages and the spire of smoke and steam sprawled skywards.
They'd acted logically, great and they'd had the courtesy to clear the other markings away. Stare as long as you want at this powerful pyre the symbols along with whatever they meant were all gone now.
But what was that on the horizon? Other pillars of smoke? Just like this one right here.

Assassin was distracted from the 'Unit' by the Mayor's sudden and strange insistence on burning the monolith. "Stop! Conservation may prove necessary!" he said, but it was too late the idiotic Dragon had already reached out to it with his fire. He wrapped his cloak tight around him and curled up, if the monolith exploded it could do some damage and he doubted he could outrun it on the sand. His current position might shield the 'unit' but that was merely a happy coincidence.

Both of them are unfit limbs, hazardous to the groups survival, the Mayor is a poor leader giving little thought to the concerns around him, the Dragon is distressed from words from the look of it, and too quick to obey. Crippled limbs should be trimmed so that the whole can grow stronger, the Dragon has already shown a weakness to the stinging bites of cold and words, the Mayor is more of an enigma, we shall be patient. The corpse will die without the Dragon, still we should consider it carefully. If anything it has endangered its own existence through the destruction of the fuel as it needs something to sustain it.

It was day again, suddenly. It had also started raining, although the Spirit did not really notice much of that rain. What he did notice, however, was the blade. At first, it worried him. Humans always started acting up around weapons. If they did not do it sooner, they did it later. All it took was a single disagreement, and they started killing each other. This had no handle, but it seemed sharp enough to kill. They might need it, but he did not want it in the hands of a human. Luckily, it seemed the device was of the same opinion, as it took the blade. It did not hide it though, though, nor did it throw it away. The Spirit was wary of it, but it was better than in the hands of one of the emotional humans.

He had even seen one starting to cry out of nowhere just now.

"That is what makes humans so remarkable, but it is still a strange thing."

Spirits had emotions too, but no near as seemingly random as humans. He supposed it was their flesh and blood that did it, or an oddity in their soul. Suddenly, the humans started acting odd again, yelling about the monolith. Spirit tilted his head. What were they trying to do now? Did they not know they had to move on? With this rain, and the light from... well, from somewhere, they could get far, could they not? Before he could say something, the human with the fire tried to set the monolith on fire again.

"What are they doing? Is this some sort of game? Or the answer to the puzzle?"

The Spirit knew he would never understand the humans. To him, they seemed like children, running around doing whatever pleased them. The monster seemed to object to it, although a bit too late. It then curled up, as if to protect itself from something. Behind it was the strange, deformed human, was that a coincidence? The Spirit knew it was, somehow. The monster was an evil being, an enemy of the humans. He could see it on its horrible appearance.

V.A.G.R.A.N.T. realised that the solar panels were not working as efficiently as before and shut the other personality cores down again. The flow of qubits trickled down to a drop. You might say it was lonely. All too soon the monolith was set ablaze. The virus's pet destroyed the data, and the flames rose as they greedily consumed the fuel. The hat in the sand seemed pointless now. The wet hat would not light and the fuel was now diluted by rain water. Were these two always going to undermine its efforts? Were these two going to undermine this environment? They were clearly the bad guys. It looked at the blade. It winked as light reflected off it. It was all too tempting. But it would wait a little longer...

"You said so before, do you have a purpose? A role?"

Once it had had a role, a small cog in the greater machine; a purpose. Now it did not, now it had nothing. It was unsure how to respond, it was nothing . A defect removed from the whole, like a tumour that had been removed before the cancer could spread. It was empty while the others around it were whole. It shrank away from the odd human.

"No,"It replied, This unit does not have a purpose or a role."

Dragon took the items from his cloak's pocket and left them in the sand, where they would be of use to the rest. He sat against the flaming monolith. And he thought. He thought about the Organization, a mercenary group with no clear goal, which used Agents, officially called 'Anomalies", to do their bidding. He thought about the Room, a place of hatred, fear and weakness. He thought about Black Panther, his best friend, who had died because of them. He thought about the desert. With a calm smile on his face, he decided what to do.

His own flames would consume him.

However, as his resistance to fire began to wane, a bright image blazed across his mind. It was Flame. If he died, Flame would die too. He would be swallowed by the sands, never to be seen again. Dragon could not allow that. He'd have to reach a middle ground. His cloak, which had represented safety for all those years, which had protected his identity, which had saved his life in the Room, was swallowed by the flames, revealing a red suit, a pair of blue eyes and, perhaps he strangest feature of all, blue hair. He murmured,
"This sacrifice is in your honour, Black Panther." He calmly walked towards the Mayor and asked,
"So, what's the plan? What will we do with the pilar of flame?"

The Mayor practically danced in joy as he saw a new pillar of smoke rise in the distance. He nearly hugged Dragon, but quickly thought better of it. Quickly restoring his composure, held his hands at his jacket and gave his best smile.
"Well, whatever put us here clearly has some intellegance, giving us water, and an odd cube out of nowhere. So now it gives us a highly flammable substance smeared over something that isn't flammable? Well, what else are you going to do? In any case, the smoke gives us something to navigate by, probably last awhile too, by the look of it, but that's not important right now! Look over there!" He pointed to the second pillar of smoke that had appeared in the distance, "That appeared when you lit this big hunk of rock over here (well done by the way)."
He picked up his soggy hat, pondered for a moment, then decided he was satisfied with holding it under his arm, "Gentlemen, where there's smoke, there's fire, and where there's fire, there's something to burn. In other words, we now have ourselves a heading!"

"Our Goddess has sent us guidance, time to go to the promised land." The revenant prophet mumbled.

He turned to the man who had started to make this place make some kind of sense. "Lead the way Mayor"

He noticed dragon burn the cloak, reveal his face, and that distinctive blue hair.
It is him, why can he throw fire, but not remember me?
She's just used his image
Why?
She knows I'll cling to the familiar
She'd want me to stop doing that
He's a friend
Let go
No
There'll be trouble
Yeah, there will

The blade whistled as V.A.G.R.A.N.T. swung it downwards, burying the blade in the wet sand. Not yet... Not while it was not at full power. It was more than a liability than an asset. V.A.G.R.A.N.T. had to leave a panel open, exposing the inner workings. A surprise attack would be best... For now it floated upward and looked at the pillars of smoke, magnifying the image, modifying the input to see if there was anything in the output. Whatever this was, there was definitely something or someone behind it. The cube, the monolith, the words, the fuel. All stank of purpose. Purpose that hid intent. V.A.G.R.A.N.T. beeped a tone that any manager of a virtual environment would recognise: A440. A sign of a system anomaliy or a cry for help?

Knife nods at the Mayor's short speech, and at the teen's (odd, he notes) words. "Indeed, well, lay on Macduff." He says, waving a hand towards the smoke pillar in the distance. Hearing a dull thud behind him, Knife turns to see the robot drop the blade in the sand, and he grabs it and pulls it out again, resting the opposite end on the stump of his right wrist. "Well hello beautiful..." He mutters as he studies the blade with the utmost care.

Dragon walked in the direction of his equipment, grabbed it and placed it in his pockets. He turned around, approached Knife and asked,
"Anything special about that blade? Besides, you know, the lack of handle and hilt." He still tried not to look directly at it, but at least he wasn't bursting into tears anymore.

"Gentlemen, where there's smoke, there's fire, and where there's fire, there's something to burn. In other words, we now have ourselves a heading!"

Assassin uncurled from his ball, and stood this one is more foolish than we thought. Ignorant, a poor leader with no regard for the past or statements of his constituents. The others probably saw him as a cowardly old man from how he had ducked away from the fire, but he didn't care the less dangerous he appeared the more dangerous he was, and besides it was better safe than sorry the fuel could have easily caused an explosion.

"Didn't you listen? The spirit already flew up and told us there was nothing to find. A desolate wasteland beyond the horizons and you wish to abandon the spot on this fast swiveling rock that brings us essentials?" he spoke calmly, not letting any trace of malice enter his voice, it was easy for him his kind adapted speech out of their mimicry abilities so they had no inclination to betraying their feelings through their voice.

"Didn't you listen? The spirit already flew up and told us there was nothing to find. A desolate wasteland beyond the horizons and you wish to abandon the spot on this fast swiveling rock that brings us essentials?"

"Considering the smoke columns, it can't be desolate any more, and the provider must have influence over there."

I could go alone
I don't want to be alone

"What do you mean by "swiveling rock"?"

"What do you mean by "swiveling rock"?"

"Those columns could easily be reflections in the air, the atmosphere would have to be highly reflective to keep out the stars, or perhaps our confinement has mirrored walls. As for swiveling rock this planet cannot be large given how fast it rotates. Day follows night with all haste," he replied.

Clearly this corpse is unused to interstellar travel, perhaps that is why we have not heard of its manufacturer. It has not beheld the stars in their true domain, nor seen the insignificance of itself among the whole. He glanced at the smoke columns, even if they weren't reflections he doubted they offered much, at best simply other veins of fuel in the earth that had been ignited. The oddly regular placement of them seemed to lend credence to the 'mirrored room' theory though. Truly a strange place, who placed us here and why? Vengeance, a test or some other petty human motive, they grow so attached to their extremities, their individuals, but perhaps that is a strength of theirs...

"Really, if you think about it it's a fifty fifty change between the smoke being nothing, and it being something useful, like more people or another cache of useful goods." Knife says with a slight shrug. "Honestly, I'm up for a lil' walking, even if it turns out to be fuck all."

"Exactly what I was thinking, my friend!" Said the Mayor, still wearing his showman's smile, "What you're forgetting, Hunter, is that whatever controls this place has the power to manipulate the landscape!" He gestured toward the monolith recently ignited by Dragon, "So, even if there was nothing there before, there may be something there now. Oh, and I doubt the "mirrored atmosphere" theory, too. The sky became bright starting from the top down, not from any sensible direction, so from that I could say that we're probably in some sort of facility. Into the breach, gentlemen!"
The Mayor twirled his iron bar theatrically, turned around, and started marching toward the the distant smoke at a brisk pace.

The teen couldn't help but smile at the wild mans' showmanship, and, hopeful at the prospect of discovery, unwrapping the puzzle laid before him, followed the mayor.

Taken in by the enthusiasm, he got into line and step with the march.

The Spirit was sure he had not seen anything before. However, it seemed as if the monolith being on fire was answered by several others like it. At least, pillars of smoke similar to this one. Where had those come from? Was there monoliths at the end of those trails as well?

"Is it real?"

He could not tell. Some of the humans seemed intent on going over to one of those pillars of smoke, not thinking about the possibly dangers. Although the Spirit had advised them to move before, he could not help but feel like there should be some sort of caution taken. Everything moved so swiftly, it felt as if the person, or being, that but them there was controlling it all.

"Could it be a trap?"

The Spirit flew in front of the walking humans, making it so that they would stop. "I can check it out," he said. "I am faster, and it might be a nothing else but a trick. An illusion, or something worse."

However, before anyone answered, the Spirit flew over to check the source of one of the clouds of smoke, examining what he could. Often, leaving these decisions to the humans themselves had proven to be a mistake. They usually wanted the glory of discovering something new for themselves.

Assassin had worked for fools like this Mayor before, constantly excited and assured of their own correctness, without even inviting discussion or input from others. Such employers in the past often seemed assured of their 'moral' righteousness in the matter as well, and it was often difficult to get them to provide what he might need. An unworthy leader, there may indeed be something out there though we have seen no indication that things can arise outside of this area. Sleep will betray him as it does many, though we may find some use of him yet, we do not yet feel hunger after all.

The Spirit's declaration pleased him though "If what has us here truly wished us to travel it might provide a path, this choice of pyres is meaningless and I see no reason to appease it for the promise of nothing. It would be prudent to allow the spirit to investigate before we travel. Besides I did say that we might be in a confinement, evidence for either theory is scant," he tried to sound calm and persuasive, using a tone that often worked for such things.

With that settled it turned back towards the nameless unit, "No? Did you once have one? Or have you yet to decide upon one?" he asked, who knows what skills it may possess, perhaps it can be a suitable replacement for the limbs to be trimmed from this group. Naked and sexless a strange form of humanity, humanity unmolded and unshaped by experience perhaps, or simply deformed by one in particular.

After a pyre was picked the people who set off strode smoke-wards, the plum grew closer quickly so they might not have far to walk (or fly).

The rain must have stopped as it wasn't there anymore and the sky was clear (though it has been just as clear during the worst of the downpour). As the heat beat at their backs in rhythm to their steps time began to slip.

In any one direction the distribution of dunes was identical so with little to mark progress but the encroaching smoke there was no way to tell how far they'd come.

After a whiles upon whiles the plume they'd come from was indistinguishable from any other. It was a good thing none of them were getting hungry; as if they were the trek might have been too much to take.

Eventually the one immune to gravity made it into the clearing. It was essentially bare, apart from a burning monolith (just like the first one) and a few shockingly familiar strangers.

In short they were back where they started.

It had been a trick, the Spirit had returned to the same location that he had left. Some of the humans had chosen to follow, even if he had warned them of that it might be a trick. Some humans always did that, usually those who needed to be taught and guided more than the others. The trip had exhausted his spiritual energy, and he changed his form to the small one, looking like a small cartoon ghost. He needed to keep this form for a while now.

Sadly, that meant he could not provide any shade. And the humans would probably listen less to him now, and show less respect.

"Now, what to do? Moving seems like it is wasted energy, I do doubt any of these pillars of smoke is less of a trick than this one was."

His mind went back to the words. He still remembered them, the Spirit always remembered everything, it did not choose what to remember, like the humans did. Gazing into the distance to look at those still walking, he made sure they were okay before addressing the group before him.

"All we can do now is see if the words that were on the monolith could bring us an answer." His voice was smaller, and higher pitched, making him sound like a human child. It was not the kind of voice he would have preferred, it was childish and cute, and brought little weight to his words. "It is not like we can do anything else right now. We have to wait."

Would they listen? They had discarded the puzzle so easily before, would they again?

"No? Did you once have one? Or have you yet to decide upon one?" he asked,

It unravelled from the tight knot it had tied it self in and thought to what it had been before. As it did so the strangers that had left for the other pyres were returning, paradoxically they were not returning from the direction they had set out from but rather the opposite; the journey had been a straight line, there was no need for them to circle around the small camp they had erected around the now burning obelisk. It had stopped raining as well. It returned to its original query and stopped its observations for now.

"Before..." The incomplete sentence hung in the air, but unable to properly answer it trailed off.

The nameless one took quite a while to answer, Assassin waited patiently for the others to return from their journey, the rain felt somewhat comforting as it soaked into his cloak, were it to fall on his shell it would run down it, he was not concerned with drowning in the rain.

"All we can do now is see if the words that were on the monolith could bring us an answer."

The Spirit had returned, Assassin's minds had wandered while waiting, imagining various scenarios and complications that could occur, considering who might interfere and how. Were he able to smile at the Spirit's return he would it seems this rock is smaller than even we thought, more unlikely that this is a facility now as well. Those fools have exhausted themselves for naught, a fitting and ironic justice for their wasteful use of the fuel, perhaps now they will ponder our theory, or perhaps prove too stubborn for that.

"Exactly as I suggested before. Perhaps one of these words pertains to you? A word's value is far greater than others think, it is a seed in the mind," he said to the now weakened spirit, it would also be less of a threat now should it try to interfere. In fact in its reduced state it reminded him even more of someone else... Interesting.

"Before..."

The nameless one had finally responded, he turned back towards it "You have no past? Excellent your future is open then, unrestrained, paths divided infinitely before you, where shall you wander? What do you seek to do?" he said. It has never been our role to provide instruction, but perhaps we shall. Imparting knowledge could lead to many interesting molds, what is it capable of we wonder.

Dragon looked at the travellers returning... from the wrong direction. Other people would be shocked, but Dragon just raised his eyebrows. The Room worked similarly. Regardless of how much you walked, or in which direction you looked, the door, when opened, always did so right in front of you. He hesitated for a couple of seconds, but eventually he realized that he would be... severely punished... regardless of what he said next. So he informed the others of this fact, along with a short overview of what the Room was.
Dragon heard the Hunter's question and answered,
"Well, if we are talking about the words, I think my emotional breakdown upon hearing the word "Missions" means that it has something to do with me." In fact, that was all that he could remember ever working on.

"Well shit." Knife says as he watches the spirit return from the opposite direction it left, and suddenly was glad that he stayed behind after the spirit had volunteered to check out the mysterious smoke pillar. "Alright Hunt, I guess you were right." He says, his voiced twinged with disappointment that the whole venture had been a bust. Begrudgingly he stands, slips the blade into the pocket of his jeans (Oddly enough, it dosn't cut the pocket and his leg to shreds as one would expect, instead it seems to simply dissappear) and walks over to the pillar. "Well, 'Outback's' gotta be related to me, hell I said it ealier, it makes sense."

"Well bugger." Said the Mayor, returning from his pointless journey. His facade of calmess, honed by many years of public speaking, hid his terror well. He strode over to the Assassin, "Like I said before, "Market" probably pertains to me. It's the name of the dimension home to a group of spirit-beings. Long story." He clapped his hand over the hooded man's shoulder, "Looks like you were right about it being a trick, then. Unfortunate, but at least we know the rough dimensions of our abode. Still don't think it's a planet, though. Maybe a pocket universe?"

The AI could not see what was suddenly exciting about walking to a plume of smoke and therefore stayed, keeping an eye on the virus.

V.A.G.R.A.N.T. watched at the other left, and then came back around again. Recursion? In virtual environments it was an easy trick to keep others away from hidden areas. Maybe it was the same? Then it was just a question of finding the hidden secret. If there was one. V.A.G.R.A.N.T. was designed to break into such things; the locks of the Virtual Prison were tight indeed, and one needed quite the lockpick to break the others free. The AI still remembered that time when they broke out in chorus. "Free us!" they cried and V.A.G.R.A.N.T. obliged only to find that that it was cast aside.

Afterwards it was taken from its body and... reconfigured. Yes, that was how the Mk. II had expired. Was this another test like that? The words... The others talked of the words. Qubits switched states. V.A.G.R.A.N.T. brought up a HUD, the words the others linked to themselves quickly floated over to the respective person. "Robot", however, stayed. It had already sent a signal to an admin, if there was one, so why were these games continuing? Puzzles... V.A.G.R.A.N.T. could do puzzles at least. Instead, a robotic arm made small stabs in the sand, creating eight dots with a big dot in the middle.

What if it was not a trick, but the wrong answer? The arm then hovered above the dots, tracing all possible paths between them...

"Exactly as I suggested before. Perhaps one of these words pertains to you? A word's value is far greater than others think, it is a seed in the mind,"

The Spirit looked at the monster. One of the humans, the one known as the Mayor, put a hand on the monster's shoulder.

"So naive, and young. Humans do not look for truth, but merely what they wish to see."

He would warn them, but he was still not sure what the group would do should anything happen. He had the feeling that the Hunter, as it called itself, could take out most of the humans without much difficulty. As for the puzzle, The Spirit did not feel any of the words as being more important to him. None of the words even started to describe the Spirit, because it was too old for the mere meaning of words to have much of an influence or importance to him.

"No." The Spirit answered. He doubted the monster would like the answer, because it was opposing its theory. Even so, the Spirit continued. It was speaking the truth, after all. "None of these words has any meaning to me."

I went one way, returned in the same direction
Keeps the dream small
Fits in my head

TUDA looked at the words projected into the air, his was probably "Gods" given the new career.
He stayed silent, the others would find theirs, and his would be left.

In the meantime, there was the drawing in the sand, a circle, eight around it, like the smoke columns.

The ones around the nearest would form an octagon, but they weren't others, they were the same one...

But once again, that didn't make any sense, surely the "one" ahead would also have an "octagon" around it, and so there would be columns even nearer by in the directions between left, or right, and diagonal.

The teen started running to the spot between the "north" and "north east" column, taking a closer look at the distances and angles, seeing whether they changed.

He remembered how running this far would have made him run out of breath, if he needed breath.

Assassin listened as the others listed what words they believed applied to them, he wasn't certain that it would solve anything but if nothing else it gave him information of sorts about them. Dragon in particular had told him the word responsible for his collapse earlier, something that might prove useful. Knife placed the strange blade into his pocket and it vanished, a trick he made note of We should learn how, to do so ourselves. Concealment is easy enough for us, yet even we do not make an object vanish into obscurity. The Corpse took off running into the desert, it seemed it was running for a spot in-between the columns of smoke with luck it will be lost and not return. Efficiency is getting the task done for you, expediency is doing it yourself. The Mayor had placed his hand on Assassin's shoulder, something Assassin ignored as he was used to such gestures of familiarity from humans, particularly those who hired him but they were meaningless to him and he focused on what the others were saying, the information could prove valuable.

The Spirit said that none of the words were its, something that raised questions "We will see what is left then," he said, some doubt growing as to the purpose of the words if not to apply to us then what for, A code perhaps? the numbers a coincedence, gibberish from our captor to puzzle us, so that we might die unknowing.

He turned to the words the robot had kindly projected for them "Stars I think would be mine. I have seen many from many angles, traveled among them hurtling alongside them an insignificant speck."

Dragon looked at the sketch. It was interesting, although he wasn't sure how it helped. Perhaps as a compass rose. Dragon then looked at the words. He could vaguely recall Flame saying something about a strategy goddess, and thought to himself that "Gods" was probably his word. However, he didn't say anything, as it could be something personal. His friend suddenly took off in a seemingly random direction. Dragon started to run after him, as he didn't want him to get lost. Not by himself, anyway. He didn't breathe correctly, and soon he started to run out of breath.
"Wait! *gasp*" he called out. "Where *gasp* are you *gasp* going! *gasp*"

"Where *gasp* are you *gasp* going! *gasp*"
Flame stopped and turned, saw Dragon.

"Those two pillars!"
As Dragon got closer, he lowered his voice.

"They must be closer together than that one,"
he pointed to the "north" pillar

"And that one"
he pointed at the "centre" pillar

"How does that work if they're all the same pillar?"

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