With his eyes shut, Sasha could still feel each of the other Shards and the pure energy coursing through all of them. Used to using his heart as a handgun, the alignment was a new and altogether uncomfortable experience for him, worse even than how he felt towards Julian.
The ziggurat thrummed under his feet, artificially amplifying the natural alignment of the Shards. Whatever hidden gears it was filled with were kept in motion by Phineas and powered by the electricity Surge was siphoning from the rest of the city. Julian and Rabbit’s efforts mirrored theirs, sustaining the energy levels of the Shards and keeping their bodies from breaking down under the strain. And there was Cross, nudging their minds into alignment, feeding their thoughts upward to Caine.
What his contribution was supposed to be, Sasha didn’t know. Maybe he was doing it unconsciously, but he doubted that that was true of any of the others. Their connections, facilitated and strengthened by Rabbit’s store of power and by Cross’s abilities, made it clear that everyone but him was concentrating pointedly on their tasks. Their power flowed over and around him, but never through.
The cacophony of voices he normally had at his disposal weren’t of any help now. The rest of the Witness had fallen totally silent. Cracking his eyes open, Sasha could see spiraling things around them, rushing up from the ground and toward Caine where he was stationed at the apex of the ziggurat.
Sasha slammed his eyes closed again. He had no names for those things, too various and baffling to categorize, and he didn’t want anything to do with assigning them names. With his eyes closed and the voices silent, he could almost pretend things were normal.
A slight pressure behind his eyes heralded Cross’s presence in his mind. He gave her the mental equivalent of a scowl, too stubborn to turn toward her and deliver the look in reality.
Your presence is enough. Her words were like feet splashing through a puddle. Your powers were never the kind you could control consciously.
Good to know. It would have been nice to have these things explained before he’d started feeling useless, however.
His bitterness didn’t go unnoticed. We’re as much in the dark as you are, Sasha.
The use of his name surprised him. Caine had only referred to him and the others by their titles since they’d begun meeting in Riyad’s basement. However disconnected the Oracle was to the others, Cross didn’t seem to share his wish for distance.
Personally, Sasha wasn’t bothered by it. Uncertain what they were even meant to be working for, and despite the nagging feeling of incompetence, Sasha didn’t mind so much that he didn’t know what he was doing. He was just along for the ride. Story of his life.
Something in their connection jarred, sending a twinge down Sasha’s spine that he thought probably should have hurt. The building shuddered.
Surprised into opening his eyes again, Sasha turned his face upward instinctively, staring at the tiny star that had appeared over their heads. He shaded his eyes and stared into it, searching for some form in the light. It wasn’t until the light started to collapse inward that he managed to make out the figure at its nucleus.
It was laughing.
Sasha’s stomach twisted. This couldn’t be what they were waiting for. This had to be wrong.
The alignment of the Shards jolted again and this time it was pain, actual and palpable, that shot through Sasha’s body. He could hear the things shriek, a sound like fingernails being ripped back, as they spiraled upward and inward, torn apart as they were sucked into the black hole above. The noise almost drowned out the cacophony of voices in his ears--ielthegodwhoniverseformiswholedifferentwhycan’tm-Torimisn’tyouSEE--pressing such a jumble of emotions into this mind that he found himself unable to feel much of anything at all.
Caine was holding back somehow, not allowing the power that had been built up in the ziggurat to pass through him into the figure above. Searching for answers, Sasha cast out for Cross’s mind, but found it confused and frantic, reaching toward Caine.
Looking around at the others, Sasha encountered reactions as varied as those the Witness was feeding him. Julian was already climbing the stairs to Caine, while Surge and Phineas seemed so absorbed in keeping their balance of power in check that it was possible they hadn’t even noticed the figure in the sky, trying to steal it all from them. Then there was Rabbit, standing perfectly still on the bottom tier of the ziggurat, tattoos glowing silver, looking upward as though in a trance.
Sasha grimaced. His head was killing him and at this rate, with them doing nothing of any consequence, they would be turned into tools to siphon everything that was away into the black rip above them. He refused to believe that this had been the point of this whole exercise.
Somehow, this realization didn’t elicit any real reaction from him. He was as bad as the others--worse, really, because he’d never expected to do any better than he was doing right then.
The pressure behind his eyes released suddenly, snapping the seven of them back into alignment and knocking Sasha off of his feet.
Something had happened to Caine. Sasha felt it along their connection, but rather than get up, he lay still on the metal surface of the ziggurat, ears ringing. Even the voices of the Witness seemed faint, and far away he could hear someone yelling. Above him, the light brightened.
A flash. A momentary crescendo of noise and heat as something flashed past him. The laughter stopped.
Sasha stared dumbly upward at a sky that hadn’t known any stars until tonight, and didn’t hear Cross saying his name until she leaned over him. Her hair tickled his face and he grimaced, sat up, looked around while he rubbed the sensation away from his cheek. Julian was standing near the temple, but didn’t enter, instead turned to face back down the steps. Sasha climbed to his feet, brushing aside Cross’s offered hand, and turned to look at what Julian was seeing.
Squinting past the amassed and now directionless ghost lights that covered the ziggurat like a haze, Sasha could see Rabbit standing near the edge of the monument. He was staring at his hands. It took Sasha a moment to realize it, but the markings on his skin had changed. They were lighter, as though they’d been bleached out.
The voices were whispering to him again, but Sasha ignored them, distracted. A sickly nimbus was rising behind Rabbit, visible even through the ghost lights.
The air in Sasha’s lungs turned hard. His diaphragm spasmed, but he didn’t feel it. Cross reached for his arm, voice and mind pressing against him questioningly; he shook her off again, moving forward with resolve.
Ignoring her as she yelled after him, Sasha increased his pace, not bothering to pause as before the drop from his tier of the ziggurat to the one below. The landing pushed the air out of his lungs, but, unable to breathe anyway, he hardly noticed.
The Witness grew louder, yelling at him now. He ignored them, too, regained his balance, and rushed toward Rabbit. In a daze, he looked up at Sasha, confused and high on the power that Sasha knew without confirmation had rebounded into him. The god who had tried to take it couldn’t hold it, and it had gone for the next best thing: an inorganic, static vessel, held together by an inimitable internal power source.
He didn’t know how he knew. Maybe it was the voices, or some leaked information from the other Shards. In a moment it wouldn’t matter.
Behind Rabbit, Hiroki pulled himself up over the edge of the ziggurat and crouched painfully on the metal. His flesh look singed in an odd looping, dotted pattern, identical to the writing engraved on the monument.
He looked up, eyes that were dark with hate and lust trained on Rabbit, but barely managed to begin his surge forward when Sasha slammed into him. The momentum carried him back over the edge of the building, and Sasha went with him, wrapping his arms around Hiroki’s torso and hanging on.
The fall began sooner than he expected, with the air pulling at him painfully, swallowing Hiroki’s voice, though those of the Witness stayed with him, still whispering even now. It felt like his flesh would peel away to expose muscle and viscera, and then he’d shed those until all that was left was bones. No body, no Witness, no Sasha.