Chapter One: Protocol
Sing to the exalted ruins!
We, the ungrateful, live under their shield.
Angelic light against the godless fray.
Bastion against the disorder, the dissolution, the decay!
Desperately fighting to defend what remains!
Ancient hands clasped against stagnation.
—Scribe Martor Serperior,
Ode to the Sacred Land from The Rains of Erebus
Consciousness unwelcomely returned with a dull headache, exacerbated only by the profound ringing in his ears. The first sensation he felt after what had been an eternity without was the intense, icy tendrils of cold that dug into his sore back. Eyes flicking open to near-darkness, he let out a weak groan, voice hoarse from apparent disuse. He sucked in a deep gasp through a half-closed mouth, filling his lungs with stale, stagnant air as he laid sprawled on the floor.
Where...? his thoughts probed, mind pulling itself together from a long, dreamless slumber. There was no immediate answer to his internal question. There was nothing to guide him. His brain was awash with confusion that muddled his thoughts.
Disoriented and weak, he summoned the strength to push his arm away from his side, brushing up along the cold, metal floor and confirming to his beleaguered brain that he was certainly not in any sort of bed. His arm twitched again, patting the metal floor as if to make sure it was real before he made an attempt to move. With another groan —stronger this time— he raised his head off the flat, cold floor and looked around.
With his vision still marginally blurry and the room dim, he was barely able to figure out that he was not in a large area; akin to a cell of sorts. What little light there was flickered and danced along the walls like firelight, as if the chamber was lit by some unseen torch. This only added to the mental turbulence he was attempting to process.
What... What is going on? Where even am I? Did I hit my head...? Ugh... he asked himself as the headache pounded the inside of his skull. Letting out a huff, he shook his head side to side, hoping that would clear it of the fog that had settled in over his mental landscape. He shakily moved a hand up to cup the back of his smarting crown, finding what seemed to be a decent bump. That gave him cause to confirm the suspicions that he had suffered some sort of blow. That feels like a large welt... Doesn’t seem to hurt though...
After many minutes spent clearing the trance he was stuck in, he eventually forced his sore, aching body to sit up. Something in his lower back popped, which made him spasm from the sudden spark from his nerves and let out a hiss of slight pain. Taking care as to not repeat that, he slowly straightened his back and moved his legs, bringing his knees up to his chest to avoid further protests from his groggy form.
As the ringing in his ears died down at last, he could hear, above the pressing silence, a small but rapid trickle of water into a pool to his side. Turning to face it, he was able to vaguely make out a tiny pool in the metal floor and the leaking, broken pipe in the ceiling that fed it. His dry and sore throat made itself known and he began inching toward the rippling pool to try and relieve the irritation.
Please... Please be fresh... he pleaded internally while the torchlight seemed to flicker and move behind him with each movement he made. While he found that odd, he continued dragging himself over the cold, smooth floor in an effort to reach the precious liquid. He could not recall the last time he had experienced a proper, quenching drink, but it certainly felt as if an eternity had passed since the last.
With a final effort of his limbs, weakened from whatever had happened to him, he reached the edge of the pool. Without so much as wasting a second, he plunged his head into the shallow puddle. His mouth hit the steel bottom sooner than he expected, giving him a light jolt, but he did not back away. Gulping down the water, he was fortunate to find it not contaminated or fouled from the pipe. The thankfully-clean water rushed down his parched throat with each desperate gulp, granting swift relief and refreshing the fatigued male’s body and mind.
Oh man... This is great. I didn’t know water could taste so good! his thoughts resonate as he continued to gulp from the cool oasis.
After a long minute spent quenching his thirst, he pulled away from the pool with a gasp. Chest heaving, he blinked away the dregs of tiredness and was finally able to assess his situation. He craned his neck, getting a glimpse of the stark chamber he had been unceremoniously plopped into. The gray room betrayed little of the intentions behind his internment at first examination. As he twisted around again, the faint torch that beat back the inky darkness followed his motion.
“Is it... strapped to me?” He asked, his recovering voice sounding a bit odd to himself. He could not place it, but he chalked it up to being parched for so long. Deciding to get to the bottom of the mysterious, moving torch, he carefully turned his torso in order to catch a glimpse of the light source. His investigation yielded the source: a small flame that flickered often and merrily. However, he was only given more questions as he spotted the means the fire was attached: a crimson, scaled appendage that extended from his lower half.
Eyes wide in confusion and alarm, he yelped and jumped to his wobbling feet and desperately grabbed at the swaying tail. The first few lunges resulted in empty air as the tail swayed out of reach, but the next attempt was successful. He very nearly dropped the limb as the sensations of feeling his hands on the scales reach his brain. He inadvertently tugged on the red tail hard, causing pain and his body to spin and fall to the edge of the pool with a thud. His flailing arm splashed at the water, causing droplets to splatter onto his fiery tail, causing the flame to hiss, causing him great discomfort. A brief and primal urge to flee the liquid shot into his head but was suppressed.
“Grah! W-What?! W-What’s going on?!” He yelled in anger and confusion into the dark void while he endured the stinging sensation. Gasping, he caught his shimmering reflection in the light from his fire and his mouth dropped. As the water’s ripples stilled into a mirror-like surface, he sees a creature staring back up at him, appearing just as astonished.
A reptilian face and a pair of horrified blue eyes greeted him from shallow depths of the pool. Covered in the identical crimson scales that the tail sported, the creature possessed a horn-like protrusion on the back of its head and a long snout that was held open in a scream perfectly mimicked by the terrified male on the opposite side of the reflection.
“AGGHH! W-What?! W-What am I?!” he cried, his hands going to his face only to find what had formerly been distinctly-human features were now reptilian and equipped with a trio of sharpened claws that poked at the scales on his cheeks. Gasping and nearly retching, he scrambled back from the pool, the former-human rocking as he stared in utter disbelief at his torso and legs. To round off his transformation, he had been cursed with a cream-colored chest and stocky legs in place of his former body.
“Oh... Oh gods...” He whispered in shock, the red lizard clutching the sides of his head. Within his skull, the tempest that had started to settle began storming again. He was adrift in a sea of new information, senses, and many, many questions. His claws dug in slightly to the softer scales of his temples, trying to alleviate the hurricane of swirling thoughts and emotions to seek concrete answers. Where am I? What am I? Who am I? He needed answers to those three questions immediately if anything was to happen.
“This isn’t me. This isn’t me. I-I’m not...” He trailed off, his mind grasping at any facts or recollections that seemed to be just out of reach. “I am human...” That simple statement only provided little comfort, considering that he was most-definitely not a human being in the physical sense, unless that definition had radically changed during his long sleep.
“Who was I?” He asked quietly, though his memories yielded nothing from his plea. Even his former appearance as a human was mostly erased. He could only picture a very general shape, but no defining features. His hair and eye color, his skin tone, his face, and even his true age were entirely lost to the bottomless pit that had swallowed his prior life whole. Almost.
Leo. He paused, the name having lunged out at him from the whirling mists of memory, but with nothing else attached to it. Was it truly his name, or just a name that he knew of? Was it a nickname? He could not ascertain the truth, yet that did not stop him from gripping it tight and holding onto the three-lettered title lest he be lost in the maelstrom.
“Leo. Leo... Leo,” he repeated it thrice to acclimate his tongue to the foreign-sounding name. Then again, everything about his situation was now foreign. While his species was not as he recalled, he now had a name to call himself. An identity, as weak as it was. The name brought with it a guiding power that helped him navigate the gale of his tumultuous thoughts.
“Now, what... What am I?” The question was perhaps the biggest one. With trepidation, the newly-named Leo steeled himself before he glances down and again examines his body, making use of his maneuverable tail to illuminate his form better than before. His crimson scales were seemingly kissed by the very fire he now possessed; in fact, his whole body felt warm, as if it radiated heat to a greater extent than he was used to as a human.
The lizard form, in fact, was slightly familiar. He had seen this before, though he could not recall where. Leo sat, rubbing at the sides of his head once more. There was something to this fiery-red salamander that echoed through his mind, but after a moment, he shook his head and slowly got to his feet again, deciding that it could wait. Right now, he needed to get out of this room. His hands pressed to the walls of the rectangular cell, dragging his claws along the wall and trying to find a groove for a door of any sort.
“Come on. Come on. I can’t stay here. Not in this prison,” he grunted, though he now had a troubling thought enter his mind: Am I a prisoner? Is this a prison? Did I commit a crime? He expected a non-answer, yet this time, he got a response.
“A tomb for failures this is, but not for you, Leo. Press in and see your very self.”
A cold feeling trickled down the crimson reptilian’s back. A whisper, teetering on the edge of real and imagined noise that often accompanied lonely, dark rooms such as this, rose from the dim light. It did not sound threatening or foreign at all; it possessed a near-familiar tone that almost reminded Leo of an old friend speaking through the cold walls. Not being in a position to refuse, he sucked in a breath and gave the steel wall hard push, resulting in a soft click.
Radiance. From flat and cracked panels on the formerly-dark ceiling, light erupted in a brilliant show of force. Leo let out a gasp and shielded his eyes as the small room was illuminated. The white, sterile light poked through his thick claws, making Leo hiss in discomfort and turn his head away until his eyes could handle the sudden change.
“Oww.... Gods above...” He groaned, though, to which gods that phrase was addressed to he knew not. Slowly, he raised his head and pulled his hands away, blinking in order to see his surroundings for what they were. The chamber was small, but not as foreboding as he had thought with the light streaming from the odd, damaged panels above him. Aside from the broken water pipes, its ensuing pool, and the light panels there was nothing worth noting about the room, except the clear, rectangular outline of a door in the wall in front of him.
“Okay, there’s something!” He exclaimed with a whoop, joyous that something had finally gone his way at last since his awakening. The confusion and growing need to know what happened, what he was, and for what purpose were pushed aside. They would not wait long, but for the moment, getting out of this cell took precedence. Almost giddy, Leo slid his hand over the bare wall and groove for the exit, but, unlike the switch for the lights, nothing came of this. He clicked his tongue before he slowly rolled his shoulders and swung his lengthy arms to stretch them out. He did not know how strong this new body of his was, but there was a way to find out. Leo took a deep breath before he pressed his shoulder to the door and pushed off the floor with his stocky legs, gritting his pointed teeth in his efforts to force the door open.
“COME! ON! WHY! WON’T! YOU! BUDGE?!” Leo bellowed in deep frustration, his temper rapidly being lost against the door that kept him trapped. The cold metal remained unyielding. He let out a hiss of hot, steamy air through clenched teeth that condensed on the cool metal and pounded his fists repeatedly on the frame. “Let me out! I know someone can hear me!” He uttered out a final scream before he simply leaned against the frame and groans, posture slouching in defeat.
At that moment, the room erupted with a cacophony of crackling static, as if somewhere, some unseen speaker was flaring back to life after long disuse. Leo immediately straightens up and looks around, swinging his head back and forth in search of the source.
“Oh! So there is someone here! O-One moment! I wasn’t sure if my sensors were malfunctioning or not when they indicated the lights had turned on in this cell! Give me one moment to unlock the door! I haven’t scanned this area in some time!” The new voice caused Leo’s heart to jump and him to scramble back from the sealed door in surprise, having not truly expected a response to his impassioned demands, though it did beat the prospect of wasting away. There was something out there that spoke; something he could understand. He was not as alone here as he had theorized.
“W-Who are you?” Leo demanded, though his voice wavered with nerves. The new entity continued to rummage from the other side of the crackling speakers. Whoever was on the other side of the wall did not sound natural, though Leo could not put his finger on how. Still breathing hard, he waited cautiously for the other voice to return.
“One second, please! I am ninety-five percent certain that this is the correct opening sequence for this lock.” As far as Leo could tell through the crackling static, the voice was friendly—far from menacing and quite unlike the mysterious whisper that had come to him moments earlier from the darkness. With a sudden thunk of heavy metal and a harsh, grating sound of rust grinding against rust, the door slid open to reveal a hallway and something quite strange. Hovering just off the ground was a twitchy, pink and blue bird-like creature that tilted its head curiously at him.
“Oh! A Charmeleon! Fascinating! Simply engaging! It has been a long interval since I last had visitors down here!” The bird chirped with an electronic twang to its voice that made it seem like it was some sort of machine. Its rounded appendages fluttered while it moved closer, curiously examining the crimson lizard. “Please do not be frightened! I am doing my best to use my amicable voice modulator to calm you. Is it working? You should be feeling forty-three percent calmer than before. Perhaps it is not functioning properly?” The bird hummed quietly, seeming to think on that possibility.
Leo gave the strange bird a wary look, keeping his arms drawn up in case he needed to defend himself. “Who... _What_ exactly are you? A-And what did you call me?” he pressed, cursing his nervous, wavering voice. “Tell me, please. I am a bit lost, to tell you the truth...” He trails off at that while the bird floated higher off the ground and chirped in a manner that resembled giggling that marginally unnerved the already on-edge Charmeleon.
“Clarification on your species? Certainly. Charmeleon, a highly-aggressive and territorial reptilian species of Pokémon that possesses a unique relationship with fire that measures its vitality.” The twitching bird slowly nodded its head. “Do follow me and I will continue to resolve your questions to the best my functionality allows.”
Charmeleon. A Pokémon. That sounds familiar, I think? He pondered that further and took his first step outside of the cell at the smaller being’s request. Leo glanced back at the cell just before the door closed. There was a faded, arc-like symbol on this side of the metal slab, but he turned away to take in his new surroundings. Unlike the originally-dark cell, the hall was filled with a dim, dusty, and gray light. Metal panels covered most of the walls, but there were occasional sections where said panels had fallen away, revealing what appeared to be gray bedrock and wiring. The ceiling was a checkerboard of missing light-producing tiles, and those that did work flickered and provided only faint illumination. Exposed pipes and what appeared to be bundles of wires sagged languidly from their original fastenings. This place is falling apart... And I’m inside it. Deep underground. There’s got to be a way out before something buries me alive.
“Do pardon the mess. My kind are not designed for the immense physical labor specifications required to optimally maintain this domain. But I do what I can to keep things connected,” the bird continued, falling into step with Leo and looking up at him with glowing white eyes that brimmed with curiosity. “Anyways, forgive my rudeness. I have not run introductory protocols in a long interval. I am a Porygon designated as Upgraded Unit 403v2—Connection Nexus, but that is cumbersome to say in a non-digital fashion, so you may address me as Nexus.”
“Right... Nexus. Nice to meet you.” He extended a hand briefly before taking it back, seeing that the Porygon creature could not reasonably return the gesture. “I am Leo, I think. I-I woke up back there and, well, I...” He paused, unsure how the hovering bird would react to his claim of supposed-humanity. He takes a breath for courage, letting the musty air fill his chest. “I was not a ... Charmeleon ... when I last remember. I was human.”
There was a brief period of silence that lasted an eternity between the two. Water dripped from the broken ceiling to unseen pools in the floor far down the corridor, each drip a signal of the passing time. The only other sounds that permeated the tranquility were his own nervous breathing and Nexus’s soft, electronic whirring; it looked as if it was processing the statement and a response while its eyes flashed yellow for an instant.
“I cannot determine how that would be possible. You cannot be a human. They are gone. You register as Charmeleon, and so you are,” Nexus replied tersely with a gentle whir before it continued to float ahead, entering an open space in the underground facility littered with ancient, metal boxes each containing wires that extended from them to elsewhere. An electronic hum filled the air that tickled some unreachable part of his memories. “I apologize, but I cannot assist you any further in regards to that topic, Leo.”
He cautiously stepped forward, flaming tail grasped in his hands in a strange sort of comfort. The fire was not painful to him —he rather enjoyed its presence in an odd way— and he figured he would be cold without it in the steel tomb. Nexus had floated up and settled on what could be described as an intricate nest of small, glowing screens and a mess of wires connecting them to one of the humming machines, the rounded bird looking at home within the array of technology.
“Just forget that then. What is this place, Nexus?” Leo inquired, trying to change the topic to not upset the strange Porygon creature that was pecking at the screens with its small beak. “And how can I get out of here? There’s got to be an exit, right?” He pressed while he scans the cluttered chamber further. There were more pathways that branched off from the hub, but he had no idea where any of them lead; this place was a maze for all he knew of it. Eventually, the Porygon glanced back up at the impatient Charmeleon.
“Thank you for your patience. For your first question: this domain’s original function has been lost to me. It was, according to fragmented records, built many intervals ago. My prime directive is to maintain this withering domain as best I can. I theorize this place was a hub for connections and storage of information,” the digital bird cheerfully elaborated, eyes glowing brightly at the topic of its dilapidated home. “The connections terminate abruptly, from what I can tell, having been severed long ago. And most of the data is corrupted, but I do my best to sort through it. It helps pass the time.”
The light behind its eyes grew dimmer and the bird shook its head solemnly. “There is an exit, but I would heavily advise against it. You are weak and need rest. And the path is in ruins; it is treacherous. For your safety, you should not attempt to leave.” The Porygon ended with a twitch of its head, its eyes flicking between different colors before stabilizing.
Leo’s spirits dropped to his stumpy feet faster than a stone and the fire on his tail lost a bit of size at that. His claws gripped the edge of Nexus’s wire nest. “You don’t understand! I can’t stay down here forever! Nexus, come on! I need to—OW!” A line of glowing electricity lanced from the bird’s beak to his claws. He quickly withdrew his hands and nurses his small wounds to both claws and pride.
“I urge you to rest, Leo. You are showing clear signs of exhaustion, both mental and physical.” Its stern tone quickly softened. “I’ve prepared a nest for unlikely visitors such as yourself. Made of the softest spare wires I could salvage. Come.” Without any warning, the Porygon’s small form glowed an electric-blue before fading from view, leaving no physical trace of Nexus. Leo gasped and waved his hand in the space where the bird had been.
“Nexus?! Where are you?” His exclamation is met with an initial silence. In the opposite corner of the long chamber dotted with ancient machines, a single light panel turned on to illuminate a dusty pile of cords and wires. The Charmeleon turned around, eyeing the far corner warily.
“I will dim the lights for you momentarily, once you are settled. Please do try to rest,” Nexus’s voice sounded from everywhere all at once. Leo spun around, glancing nervously at the walls. “Do not be alarmed. I often must access the facility this way.” The explanation did not provide Leo with much relief, but he does shuffle across the room, clambering over one of the fallen racks in the process, to the nest.
To give the eccentric bird credit, the nest of wires was relatively soft and comfortable. Nowhere near what Leo’s vague memories told him a soft bed felt like, but it was better than the cold floor he had been sprawled on earlier. Taking care to drape his flaming tail over the side of the odd nest, he reclined on the pile of discarded wires. Just when the lights began to dim, his thoughts and overall fatigue finally caught up with him. Nexus had a point: he was certainly tired and in no shape to pursue a supposedly-dangerous path to get out of here. Quickly, the rest of the lights faded and brought the room to near-darkness, leaving only a faint glow of gray light on the advanced, time-worn tiles above. A faint memory reminded him this was what twilight was like on the outside.
This is really happening. The thought came to him quickly, repeating itself while his head leans back and his gaze fixes itself on the faintly-glowing ceiling tiles. He was fairly certain that this was not a dream; it felt far too real. He had been born into this world of gray, given a new body and limited memories, yet he did not know why. There had been that quiet whisper earlier, back when he was alone in his cell, but it was just another question needing answers.
Perhaps some rest would be good... The crimson-scaled lizard lets out a long, drawn-out yawn and stretches himself out on the nest. I will get answers from Nexus later. I have to. His internal dialogue faded, satisfied with the promise he made to himself. An uneasy sleep then swept over the exhausted Charmeleon in short order.
“... And that is how I managed to decrypt Server 10232 and achieve a partial restoration of its vast, decade-spanning archive of tidal patterns.” Nexus had finally finished its story about yet another instance of it solving some computational problem or issue that arose in the crumbling domain. The Charmeleon and Porygon walked and floated respectively through the halls after what felt like several days, with Leo having made the error of asking Nexus what the most exciting thing to happen down here was.
In addition to following the digital creature around, Leo had spent the better part of his time here trying to learn about his new form. He found that he could go a long while without feeling hunger, which he was currently discovering considering he had yet to feel the pangs of hunger in his belly despite days having passed. The reptilian body he now possessed could run for quite some time on water and air alone. Nexus had even suggested that he could go on without water too for a time, as long as the fire on his tail burned.
The largest change he had to get used to was his relatively-heavy tail that swung behind him. He had not noticed it before when he had first followed Nexus out of his cell, but now he felt its weight pull him from side to side with each step. The lizard had nearly swiped at the extra limb after the umpteenth time he had inadvertently crashed into a wall, leaving another patch of rust on his scales. It took many trips down the dim passages until he mastered the new rhythm of walking and he was even able to run without much hassle by holding his tail straight behind him. The very sensation of an extra limb he had to train his mind to control was by far the strangest part of this experience, outside of no longer being human.
Survival and mobility abilities aside, Leo found, through attempts to reach vents and touch dangling panels, that he could not jump as high or run nearly as fast as he faintly recalled while human. A small price to pay for being tough and hard to starve, I guess, his thoughts reasoned. Not a bad trade, though this can’t go forever. I need to eat sometime. Right?
“Did you know that all major tidal patterns ceased after a time, according to that archive? I find it quite neat to imagine: all the world’s oceans immediately becoming lifeless and paralyzed... Even though it is most likely that the sensor malfunctioned, much like this other time...” Nexus continued without noticing that its reluctant companion had been thoroughly consumed in his own thoughts for the last few moments.
Leo silently groaned even as he nodded his head in false interest to the excited, chirping creature. The bird was increasingly grating on his mind, especially with its avoidance of the topic of the all-important exit tunnel. He had managed to piece together which tunnel it was, but not any of the specifics on why it was forbidden.
“... I am glad you are here, Leo.” That remark made the former human stir from his thoughts and glance down at the smaller, digital bird, initially unsure what to think.
“Wait, what was that, Nexus?” Leo inquired, curiosity piqued; there had not been much in the realm of anything so personal coming from the Porygon in the last few days. The pink and blue bird stared up at him with a gleam in its white eyes.
“I am pleased to have your company. It has been a very long time since I last had such meaningful interface with another being. I will miss this once you depart this realm,” the bird said with a drawn-out, mournful chirp. Leo stopped at that, not expected the clearly-artificial creature to show such attachment to their conversations. He could only imagine what years alone down here would do to a person, even if said person was a living computer.
“I-I... Well, thanks, Nexus. I am glad you’re here to help me out. You’ve really helped me get myself in order, so to speak,” Leo replied, though he knew that was not entirely true. He was still quite jumbled up from the ongoing ordeal, but Nexus had assisted in figuring out how his new body functioned. He was thankful for that at least.
“But I can’t stay down here... And neither should you, Nexus.” He is not sure what prompted him to add that last part in, but he went with it. “Why don’t we both try to get through to this exit, huh? You said you weren’t good at physically lifting stuff, but now I’m here!” Leo exclaimed, almost thinking such a plan could work with Nexus’s help for navigation.
The Porygon let out static-garbled sigh. “I apologize, but my directive is to serve out my purpose here, and to cease upon its eventual completion.” The bird stared up at him once more with its large, attentive ocular sensors. “Perhaps you shall see the light of day, but that is not my role. My emotional processing center cannot appropriately convey what your statement means to me. But know that I, Upgraded Unit 403v2—Connection Nexus, am grateful.”
Leo was quiet for a spell before he nodded in response to the little round bird. At the moment, he could not think of more to say. His heart went out to the creature that had been his enthusiastic guide. It may be their destiny to die here, but it won’t be mine.
Some time later
The passage of time in the lifeless, metal tomb was hard to gauge. Leo could only guess that roughly five or so days had passed based on how many times he slept during the artificial night-cycle Nexus provided. The Charmeleon had just finished an exploration of yet another cell and found nothing remotely of interest. If he did not get out of here soon, he would certainly meet his doom from boredom in the dull, lifeless halls if he did not starve first. He had put up with the Porygon’s insistence that he remain stationary for long enough.
Nexus’s stories on repair and recovery were beyond tedious after the umpteenth telling. He had to give the Porygon a little bit of credit though, the conversations he had with the bird had awoken a few scraps of memories within the Charmeleon’s stressed mind. He recalled the terminology for some of the ancient machines, servers for data, that lay whirring about in dusty disarray. It gave him a little more to work with, but ultimately proved to be trivial pieces of information that put him no closer to figuring out his past than before.
Seeing that Nexus had dodged every direct and indirect request he made on how to leave, Leo had given up on trying to reason with the technological bird. He splashed some water on his face from a cistern and drinks from his cupped hands before he returned to the main chamber. The flaming lizard had taken mental notes on his guardian’s behavior when he could to try and formulate a way to get into the hazardous passage just beside the Porygon’s nest of parts.
It appeared that the twitchy pink and blue bird would vanish into the vast system at regular intervals despite its odd, near-malfunctioning tendencies. It typically left for an hour or so to wherever it goes in the walls. Plenty of time to slip inside, his thoughts murmur while he crept forward. The Charmeleon grinned with glee, sharp teeth flashing to the air once he spies the empty nest. Not daring to speak aloud for fear the sentinel bird would detect him from within the walls, the crimson-scaled lizard sucked in his breath and squeezed in between the narrow gap in between the thick, metal barriers. His tail nearly got caught halfway through, but with a wiggle, he freed himself and stumbled into the forbidden tunnel.
Standing on clawed toes, Leo’s teeth clenched, bracing for an immediate klaxon and flashing alarm signalling his attempt at escape, but none arrived. Exhaling his held breath, the Charmeleon began making his way up the sloped hall, craning his neck to watch behind him every few seconds for Nexus. His near-jog into the hall was briefly interrupted when his foot kicked against a fallen metal panel with a loud clang, causing him to hop about on one leg for a few seconds until the hurt passed. “Grah! Ow!” Thankfully, his grunts went undetected.
Nexus had been correct about the general state of disrepair of the exit tunnel, yet so far, there was not yet anything that would cause serious peril. Wires dangled from the ceiling where panels had fallen away, exposing rusted pipes and the bedrock it had been carved into. He had to step over several more twisted and dented metal sheets and tangled wires before the hall opened up.
The Charmeleon glanced around the dim room, using his tail to augment the faint light. It was smaller than the Porygon’s claimed chamber, though the interlocking metal grid that composed the floor here appeared to be compromised. As soon as Leo stepped into the room, the lizard was met with a chorus of groans and creaks from the rusting architecture. He held his breath until the noise subsided. Gods above... Maybe this is a bit dangerous, his thoughts admitted, now seeing that there perhaps had been some truth to the warnings. Easy does it, Leo...
Eyes squinted, he was barely able to discern where many segments of the unstable floor had fallen away into a fathomless chasm beneath his feet. Suppressing a shiver, he cautiously took another step; trying to stay away from where the segments seemed weaker to decrease his risk of falling through. Leo saw the rest of the tunnel a short distance away, yet he was many paces to safety.
Arms extended to the sides in an effort to balance his unsteady form, he desperately hoped his foreign tail would not cause him to falter. Concentrating, the Charmeleon slowly inched forward with baby steps and tail held firm while the decaying floor protested with curses against his weight. All the while, the gaping maw of the empty abyss yawned intensely beneath him, outstretched mouth calling out for him to slip into its jaws. He had passed the point of no return where he could possibly jump backwards and save himself if the floor suddenly failed.
Alrighty, Leo... Easy. Keep breathing. Keep walking. There’s no other way forward, he tried to reassure himself and quell the growing terror in his gut and breach of common sense he was committing. He slowly continued snaking around the holes in the floor, teeth tightly gritted. A cold breeze suddenly flowed through the formerly-static air.
“Fall, Leo. Your freedom is below. Face your judgement and jump into eternity. Plunge down to rise up.”
Leo froze, ice snaking into his hot veins at the pressing demand that spoke directly to his soul. He had heard it in the darkness of his cell and not since. He had put it behind him, chalking it up to panic and claustrophobia. Yet here it was again, at the worst possible time. Gulping hard to swallow a whimper, the terrified Charmeleon glanced past the edge of the grate to where the empty pit lay in eager, predatory wait.
“Let your fear go. What you seek is below. The dying gods will judge your worth.”
At that moment, a loud crack ripped through the frail structure. Still frozen like the prey he was to the prowling beast beneath, Leo watched in growing horror as the rivets holding the grates together were squeezed out of their sockets and cut in half by the shearing force. His mouth dropped open in rising panic.
“No, don’t! No, no, no—!”
[Continued in Part 2]