The Second
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NOW

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The Garden, if nothing else, was tranquil. Untouched by man for a hundred thousand years, its waters were clear and its grasses green, and the sun overhead nearly always occupied a blue sky. On the rare occasions it would rain, the Garden’s tranquility would turn to melancholy, a quiet gloom that settled over it like a blanket. At the next sunrise the rains would subside and the Garden would dry and all would be as it has been for a thousand generations.

Today, though, it was raining.

“Step aside!” Aaron screamed, tearing across the plain towards the Gate. The Guardian, stalwart and unmoving, did little to acknowledge him besides slightly raising its flaming sword. Aaron’s eyes burned into the Guardian, his gaze locked on the unseeing helmet of the goliath before him. As the tip of the sword began to luminesce, and as a streak of fire lanced out of it towards him, Aaron produced a thin metal rod with a tripod base and a blue, glowing tip. He rolled out of the way of the flame and, as another began to form on the Guardian’s sword, he slammed the reality anchor into the ground.

The world shimmered for a moment, and Aaron could feel the ground beneath him vibrating. In his mind’s eye he could see threads, endless trillions of threads in the air around him, each of them tuned to a specific note in the song of the universe. Their melody was discordant, and no more so than around the Guardian, where their song shrieked and howled. As the tip of the anchor flashed, the threads harmonized in unison, each of them momentarily drawn back in line with each other. As the choral pitch struck the Guardian it seized, the fire in its sword drawing back into its body, and then folding in upon itself until it was little more than charred skeleton, broken and festering, hanging loosely in the air by blue threads.

Aaron sprinted towards the gate, but felt himself growing unexpectedly exhausted. He looked down at himself and saw the hands of an old man, one whose life had been touched by the hand of fate and stretched unnaturally. His skin grew taut and he felt his muscles atrophying with every step. He struggled forward, the hum of the reality anchor behind him growing fainter and fainter, until he could no longer hear it and his body was renewed. Reaching the Gate, he threw it open and ran inside.

It was said that the night Adam El Asem took Eve as his wife, she had dreamed of Eden as she conceived her first son, and it was born with he. When the child had grown, Adam longed for a sword to put in his hand, and the Garden had provided it. When the Children of the Night and the mournful gods bore down on the world of Men, the Garden had sheltered them. Eden was such that, endless a space as it was, anyone within it was never far from wherever they wanted to be.

This is how Aaron Seigel found himself standing at the foot of the Tree of Life Everlasting, his feet soaked in a pool of blood, and the white corpse of Sophia Light staring up at him behind glassy eyes. A dark stream of blood ran from each of her wrists to the ground beneath her, and laying at her side was a thin silver razor, its edge marked red with Sophia’s last breath.

Aaron’s hand trembled, the air catching in his throat and threatening to suffocate him. He fell to his knees at her side, flecks of blood splashing up onto her face with the impact. Her skin was cold, like it had been so many times before, he thought, and while Aaron had been here before he felt a knowing dread creep up his spine and fix itself around his heart.

“Death!” he screamed, as he had screamed before. “Death! Reveal yourself! Take me! Take me instead of her!” Only the rain answered, each droplet an eye of a silent and watchful god that did not care. Aaron looked around desperately, blood and water soaking his clothes as he dug into his mind for any answer, any way out. “Death! Honor your promises! Give her back! Give her back goddammit!”

He sat next to Sophia’s body for hours, painfully taking each breath and hoping he might wake up, sometime long ago, in a place far from this one. Each inhale was a desperate question, and each exhale the same hollow response. It was not until some time later that he noticed the stained scrap of paper clutched in her right hand. He carefully untwined her fingers and opened the tiny roll, reading its elegantly penned words-

Aaron

I am not who I was when we first met. Every time I have walked with Death along that quiet road back to your side I have become less of who I am, and I no longer recognize this thing I am. I’m so sorry, but I can’t continue to be this any longer.

I was the one who gave Calvin Armand our last vials from the Fountain. I saw his path, and saw the red line that draws him towards you. I thought that, maybe, I would see him break your convictions and I would have you as my own again, and undo the mistake I made when I set you on this path all those years ago, but I had not considered how very little of Sophia Light I am now.

Nothing stands between you and those convictions, now. There are no more distractions. I would hope that this would give you some semblance of peace, a chance to walk away and live out the rest of your life like we might have. I want this for you, even though I know this changes nothing. He is still waiting for you, and you will still meet him.

Maybe I’ll see you again. Maybe I’ll be waiting for you on that distant shore.

-Sophia

-before curling it into a ball in his clenched fist. His breath came hard and sharp now, his eyes threatened to burst through his skull. Standing slowly, and shuddering, he walked across the Garden for what may as well have been a thousand years, towards a place where the grass was not green and the waters were not clear. He had been here, once before, when Temptation had drawn him towards infinity and Purpose had stayed his hand. The sky grew darker and the rain poured harder, and slowly the flora around him withered and died. He kept walking, past the desolation of an Old Eden towards a point marked by an impact crater that stretched nearly a mile in every direction.

The soil beneath his feat was hard and slick, and his footsteps sounded against it as he stumbled further down, hot tears burning on the sides of his face. When he finally came to rest on the crater floor, he moved swiftly towards its epicenter. There, resting where it had for ten thousand years, was the crumpled form of an angel, its armor crushed from the impact and twisted. Despite the thin layer of ash that coated its form and obscured its features, the shining words on its helm were still visible: Star of the Morning.

Laying not far behind it was something glittering in the dirt, half buried in the ground but gleaming as if it was new. A golden sword, radiating with heat and power. Aaron approached it and pulled it from the earth as if it were butter. His eyes grew dark, his convictions consumed him, and in a flash he was gone. The scrap of paper, the lines on it so deftly and meticulously applied, fell to the ground and was washed away in the rain.


It is beneath this mountain, the journal said, that the Overseers keep their watch. I have spent many years studying this structure, attempting to peer into its depths, with little fortune. There is but a single entrance - the front gate, which is sealed from within and guarded by the Foundation’s Red Right Hand. It is within this structure that you will find the final two Overseers, who have not been seen in public since before the Foundation’s inception. It is this author’s belief that the only souls capable of entering this quiet fortress to convene with them are the Overseers themselves, and no one else.

Calvin read on. It is this, then, that I leave you with, dear reader. The sum of the time and energy I have dedicated into the observation and understanding of these thirteen individuals is presented upon these pages. What fortune or ruin this knowledge brings you is your own. As for me, I will enjoy the distance I put between myself and they. To do otherwise would no doubt bring upon yourself a devastating end.

Yours most truthfully, the ending stated simply, Ukulele.

Calvin closed the journal and set it beside him on the ground. He was resting on a slope, one that dropped down into a valley far below him, and across he could see the towering steel doors of Site-01. The sun had just begun to dip below the horizon, but Calvin could see the path forward clearly. A winding dirt road that led to the gate of the most secure facility within the Foundation, one that had never been breached.

Leaving the journal, he grabbed only Ivan’s Spear and descended. As night crossed over the valley and the stars awoke in the sky, Calvin realized he could hear little else but the sound of crickets and the whisper of wind. Nothing else stirred. In the quiet surrounding him, he heard Ivan’s voice, echoing endlessly in his mind. Please, Calvin, please. Please don’t do this. Please don’t leave me.

He approached the doors slowly, ever aware of his surroundings. But he neither saw nor heard sign of any living souls, and within a few moments he was standing before the two monolithic steel slabs himself, alone and untouched. He reached out a hand to touch one, hesitating slightly, and then pushed forward. The door, easily ten times his height, slid open without a sound.

He stepped inside the chamber within, his eyes adjusting to the lower light. The doors behind him slid shut, and he was met with a single massive chamber, dotted with tunnels and staircases that led off of it in every direction. In the center of the chamber was a caged elevator car, which Calvin approached and studied carefully. It was old, he could tell, but meticulously handcrafted. There was a single button on it, but it required a key to press. He stepped away and continued forward.

At the far end of the room was another door, this one framed within the arrows of the Foundation seal. It was heavy, and wood, and its frame was a rich stone archway with detailed images. Monsters and miracles, towers that stretched to the heavens and others that lay beneath the earth. A race of humanoids on towering arboreal golems. A massive machine laying dormant beneath the earth. Dark and empty eyes. These and many more filled out the archway, but Calvin did not notice the archway. He noticed the man standing in front of it.

He had not seen this man before, but something about him seemed familiar. The man was tall, almost impossibly so, easily two meters. The man’s entire body was wrapped in metallic plates, curving around his body as if they were fabric. Wires ran across the armor’s surface and steel tubes down its back, and at first Calvin was not sure it was a man at all. But behind the sharp, sleek helmet lay blue eyes, human eyes, watching Calvin closely from the distance they stood across.

Calvin stood the Spear by his side. “Who are you?”

“I am Purpose, of the Red Right Hand,” the man said, his voice a powerful baritone that echoed off the walls of the cavernous chamber.

“I didn’t see you in South Africa,” Calvin said, steadying himself. “I might have thought you would stand alongside your comrades.”

“I am the will of the Foundation,” the voice continued, “and it is here the Foundation resides.”

Calvin didn’t respond right away. The familiarity of this individual struck him, and there was something uncanny about the way his voice rang out from inside its metal cage. “Do I know you?” he said after a moment.

The figure did not move. “To know me is to know the Foundation,” Purpose said, “my words are its words, and my voice is its voice.”

In his mind’s eye, Calvin saw briefly a memory flash across the edge of his consciousness, the faintest echo of a time when a dashing young Foundation agent, one with black hair and blue eyes, had laughed in a sonorous baritone while singlehandedly holding back a group of Insurgency operatives. What had they called him? Lament.

Calvin readied his firearm in one hand.

“What happens now?”

“I have been tasked with protecting this Sanctum until O5-1 returns. None shall enter without his word.”

“He isn’t here?” Calvin cursed under his breath. If he had fled, perhaps to a far corner of the Earth, it would be months to find him again. He could not lose this opportunity.

“No,” Purpose said, seemingly without pause. “He is here.” Without another word, the monolithic figure stepped aside.

Calvin hesitated, his sidearm still locked into his fist. After nothing happened for a moment, and then another, he relaxed. The weapon slid back into its holster, and Calvin stepped forward. Each step he took brought him closer to the unwavering eyes of Purpose, but it did not move. It only watched, and stood aside. As he went to pass through the archway, he paused.

“Purpose,” he said, his voice low, “will anyone else be joining us?”

“No.”

“Make sure they don’t.”

“As you wish.”

Calvin entered the arched doorway, looked back once more into the solemn eyes of Purpose, and then disappeared into the darkness beyond.


The passageway beyond was not large, but it was ornately decorated with carvings into the rock face of its walls. In the low light he could only make out the faintest of shaped, but each seemed even more detailed and intricate than the last. He ran his hand across the smooth surface, his fingers feeling the hard edges of faces, buildings, gods. In the silence of the tunnel, his footsteps were accompanied by whispers, voices that should have been too far away to be heard, but were just audible here in this place between places.

He was not there long. Eventually he stepped out into another room, larger even than the last, whose focus was a long, ovular table at its center, lit by numerous spotlights hanging somewhere far above it. Screens lined the walls, each flipping quickly between different cameras. He saw long hallways, bright overhead lights, containment facilities. Doctors and researchers sitting in laboratories. Security personnel standing guard by doors. And then monsters - nightmare creatures that lurked back and forth in glass-paned rooms. Demons that crawled into their own skin and then out again. Unmoving statues.

And behind everything hung the largest screen of all. When Calvin entered the room, the large screen lit up, and he saw scenes of himself - moments in his life that led him to this moment. He saw himself being sent to a youth detention center, Wellwood Rehabilitatory, when he was only twelve. He saw himself joining the military, and then being approached by an agent of the Insurgency.

He saw himself training with other operatives, being appointed a commander by Delta. His first meeting with Arians. His first with Vanessa. The three of them meeting Ivan. The long stretch of brutality and agony that had brought him here. In each scene, looked down upon as if by someone standing just behind him, Calvin now felt a sickly feeling. He saw himself not pushing forward as he had imagined at the time, but instead being pulled along, his body bound to one end of a long and sickly string that stretched between where he had been and infinity.

He saw where the string began, and followed it to its end. Across the world, to the edge of Death and back, and now here, in this room. Across the floor, beyond the long table, to the man sitting on the stairs leading up to the screen at the far end of the room.

The man wore slacks, and had recently been wearing a jacket. His white shirt was stained with blood on the chest and sleeves, and dark lines ran down his face. There was something laying next to him on the stair, something wrapped in the man’s jacket that Calvin couldn’t quite make out. He took a step towards this man, but the man didn’t move.

“You are O5-1?” he said tentatively.

He heard the man say something, but couldn’t make it out. “What?”

“Aaron,” he heard the man say. “My name is Aaron.”

“Aaron,” Calvin repeated. “Aaron Seigel? O5-1?”

“Yes.”

Calvin nodded. "The Second Overseer. Where are they?"

Aaron didn't respond, but even from across the room Calvin could feel the immediate chill in the air.

"So it's just you?" Calvin asked.

"Yep," Aaron responded. "It's just me."

Calvin drew his firearm and, in an instant, loosed five good rounds towards the man on the stairs. Each, he knew, flew truly, but as they approached Aaron they hissed and luminesced brightly before dissolving into the air. He fired again, with the same response. He stopped firing.

“Stand up, Aaron Seigel,” he said, holstering his weapon and pulling Ivan’s Spear off of his back. “Let’s finish it.”

The man didn’t move. “Where did you get that spear?”

Calvin didn’t respond. After a moment, he heard the man laugh. “What’s so funny?” he said.

Aaron rubbed at one of his eyes with the palm of his hand. “You have traveled across a lifetime to get to this place and find me, and you’re going to kill me with a spear?” His laughter stopped. “You don’t even know why you’re here.”

“I’m here because when I kill you, I kill the Foundation. I kill the Foundation, and the universe can heal. You are a cancer.”

Aaron stood up lazily, his eyes half open as he stared across the room towards where Calvin stood. “No, no. You're like me; filled with righteous conviction, spurring you forward. It wasn’t fate. It wasn't destiny. It was a sheer, unspeakable, unknowable force of unimpeded will. You there, and me here. In a trillion worlds, in a billion universes, we would each find ourselves here. Conviction led me to this place, just as it led you.”

He stepped down from the platform, the bundle of his jacket still lying behind him. “Two unstoppable forces, hurtling towards each other with nothing between them.” He turned, reached into his jacket, and pulled out a gleaming golden sword. As he held it in his outstretched hand, a tormented scream leapt from within the blade and it caught fire, bright white flames licking up the edge. In the light of this sword, Calvin could see Aaron’s eyes. They were his own.

“There is nothing else to say, Calvin Armand,” Aaron said, the sword settling down by his side. “Either your convictions will be broken today, or mine will, and one of us will die.”

He nodded. “Let's finish it.”




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