Anne's Farewell (3 of 3)
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"I remember my first fistfight. The other girl was bigger, stronger, and meaner. I was a new kid. She sucker punched me and I went to the ground, seeing stars, dazed and crying. The bully stood there and taunted me. This fight had only just begun, but I already saw the end of the battle in my mind. That other girl would run for home, holding her bloody nose. The universe picked me up and dusted me off. I clenched my fist and proved my worth."

Anne Dunne
M.E.G. Team "Looking Glass"

The Man in Black stood triumphant and mocked the failed attempt to escape. He was clothed in the flesh of a human and wore eyes that did not see and a mouth that could not speak. That was camouflage for the locals. His vision required no visible light. Human beings, none the wiser, connected his moving lips with that telepathic voice, convincing themselves that they were hearing a sound.

"This ends here," he added. "You end here."

Amy Cochrane crab walked out of immediate harm's way, jumped to her feet, and twirled twin swords in a single, smooth motion, like a ballerina with blades. Anne Dunne assumed a lotus position in the grass and saw the end of the conflict in her mind. "We won't win this fight that way," she cautioned. "Please stand down, Hermosa Muerte."

"You will not win any fight," the MiB corrected.

"You are wrong," the psychic told her assassin. "I have seen your fate. It isn’t…"

"So you can hide your thoughts from me," the Man in Black interrupted. "Little consolation when you lie dead and think no more thoughts."

"We are not the only ones you have to fight," Anne said, and then she was gone.

The MiB looked up and snarled at the Ring in the sky.

"About that escape, you better hurry," Amy said, keeping up her guard. "My friend in the Ring might send Anne somewhere safe."

He flashed his yellow eyes at the girl, growled when the enchantment had no effect, and no-clipped into the Ring.



Having studied the M.E.G. archives regarding the Harbinger Arch and Ring found on Level 710, Anne Dunne knew exactly where she was. The infamous Guestbook rested on the writing table under the North window of the Ring.

“Amy?” she called. “Amy!”

Other than the writing desk and window, a gently curving, empty hallway extended in both directions.

She told the One in the Ring, “You protect her. Please!”

“How wonderfully human,” a voice seemed to whisper in her ear. Unlike sound, telepathy offered no clues to direction and distance. “Spending your last moments filled with concern over your fellow vermin.”

The MiB strolled into view.

There was no use running.

The One in the Ring let the assassin get close to Anne before horizontal bars materialized and turned the hallway into a silver cage.

"Woe is me,” the Man in Black gasped in a frightened voice, then he grinned and stepped right through the bars like smoke. He looked directly at the wall opposite of the North window and said, “These materials have no effect on me. You know that! What are you up to?”

There was no answer.

The assassin snapped off a six-foot section of the bars like it was a dead twig.

“Hollow and brittle,” he declared. “Someone is getting feeble.”

Anne felt the MiB search the wall with his mind.

"Can you imagine that the weakling here, an immortal like myself, endures this appearance as an act of penance, squandering his existence by playing with humans in this pitiful place?" he asked Anne.

"You? Immortal?" she asked.

"We cannot die," came the answer, "but we can be killed. Each incarnation is a link in our chain of eternal life, with both a beginning and an ending. It is now time for you to meet the One in the Ring, before I end its misery."

With superhuman strength, the MiB plunged the silver pipe through the wall of the hallway. The Ring trembled, and waves of psychic energy rippled reality like heat mirages on hot pavement. He broke loose another silver rod and used it like a cutlass to tear several long gashes into the thin wall. His hands freed the mutilated panel and tossed it down the hallway.

Anne saw no wondrous technology. Was the Ring the entity, the benefactor? What she did see was a silver tube, roughly two feet in diameter, just floating there, at her shoulder height, with no apparatus to support it. Did this conduit run the entire quarter-mile circumference of the Ring? The silver bar that speared through the wall had passed cleanly through the duct.

The MiB next made two vertical cuts in the tube, joined by one long horizontal laceration. His “cutlass” splintered and shattered from the strain. He dropped it and ripped the pipeline wide open with one great effort.

"Behold!" the Man in Black announced, like some barker in a carnival sideshow. "I present to you your benefactor, the true friend of humanity, the great white worm, the Mighty Maggot!"

It was true. The One in the Ring was, indeed, a gigantic maggot.

Another truth became clear. The One in the Ring found itself pinned into place by the silver bar. Trapped and helpless, it could neither advance nor retreat.

“Killing this would be a lot easier if I could find its tiny core,” the assassin admitted. He snapped a third bar loose and stabbed the creature over and over, sending it into wriggling convulsions. “Very difficult.”

"Stop!" Anne screamed. Her right hand fumbled in her pocket and lashed out before any thought of doing so became conscious. The flat sculpture of thick, black metal that she held between her middle and ring fingers opened a deep, diagonal canyon across the MiB. She called this weapon the "Unicorn" because the points looked like unicorn ears and a horn when it was clenched in her fist.

The Man in Black did not bleed because he had no blood, no internal organs. His eyes rolled about like marbles in a bucket, and his lips no longer synchronized with that telepathic voice. He now resembled a badly dubbed foreign film.

“What … have … you … done?” he sputtered, those lips lagging behind.

“Cold iron,” Anne explained. “The historical weapon of choice against supernatural and interdimensional beings, according to legend and lore.”

Anne surrendered to an all-powerful wave of unconditional love from the worm. She closed her eyes and opened them to discover her right arm buried deep inside the benefactor while purple fluid spurted from its wound. When she jerked her arm free, it was stained from fingertips to elbow. The weapon was lost somewhere inside the maggot.

“I'm sorry,” she apologized, in tears. “I don’t know what happened.”

“You hit the core!” the Man in Black exclaimed. “He is dying, but you will die first.”

Dozens of barbed spears of cold iron, like exaggerated porcupine quills, shot down from the ceiling and up from the floor in an explosion of overkill, impaling every part of the MiB. The worm had somehow replicated the iron from the sample embedded within it and created the ending that was meant to be. This sacrifice was the One's destiny all along.

The benefactor no-clipped Anne to the ground below, while the assassin began a cacophony of telepathic screams. She hit the darkness running, blindly zigzagging between panic-stricken pilgrims and frantic M.E.G. personnel. There was no fighting this compulsion. She was guided by forces beyond her control. Then sunlight poured from the Harbinger Arch and she could see her house from here.



The duration of evening twilight, or the interval between sunset and night, in the Frontrooms was determined by the rotation of the Earth, the latitude, and the season of the year. It usually took a good hour or two for it to become dark. Level 710 was a different place. Day turned into night here in a matter of moments. Amy Cochrane welcomed this darkness. From the moment the night arrived, the last thing her enemies would ever see was the glint of her blades.

She also welcomed the approaching Marvin Matthews, chief of the M.E.G. station “Harbinger,” and some darkness disappeared. To preserve his night vision, Matthews carried his oil lamp at waist height, lighting little more than his path.

“There you are,” Matthews said. “Heard you were back. Very sorry to hear about Sanchez. Alberto was one of our best.”

FinalMoments

The End of the Ring
M.E.G. Archives

That was as far as the conversation got before the “Great Catastrophe of Level 710” commenced, before the screaming started. The current population of the level, twenty or so pilgrims and a half-dozen M.E.G. personnel, poured out of their respective tents and shanties. Many held their hands over their ears in a futile attempt to muffle the inhuman, piercing shrieks echoing in their minds.

Amy Cochrane “heard” these telepathic screams earlier today, on Level 19. This time, there was no mocking laughter.

“The Man in Black is in the Ring,” she told Matthews. “He’s up there with Anne Dunne.”

Natural sunlight beamed from the Harbinger Arch. It was a beautiful morning in the Frontrooms. The shaft of daylight emanating from the portal illuminated a narrow path across the circle of barren ground. Anne Dunne led the charge home as the scene began to flicker and fade. Not one person in this crowd seemed quick enough to make it in time.

It all happened so fast. A freak gust of wind lifted the psychic off her feet and carried her safely through the portal. Fire engulfed the arch and standing stones, and the rocks burned like logs soaked in gasoline. Even lacking combustibles, the circle of bare earth erupted into a bonfire and drove the spectators back. The level heaved when the blaze collapsed into a deep sinkhole and geysers of water extinguished the flames. The elements of air, fire, earth, and water had spoken.

That left the screaming and the Ring.

No one present that night would ever forget the sight of the fiery Ring in the sky burning itself into nothingness.

The silence was deafening.



Many day/night cycles later, Amy Cochrane greeted the dawn in her pink "Hello Kitty" nightgown and moccasins. She always found it amazing how the sky changed from day to night and back again without the benefit of a sun. What she missed most were the stars.

No, what she missed the most was the Ring. This sky looked so empty.

Mornings marked her ritual stroll to the outhouse. Level 710 was primitive, and that meant no electricity or running water. On the positive side, the level boasted a constant temperature of 70-something degrees, low humidity, and a soft breeze in the air.

Even without the Ring and Harbinger Arch, the level's spiritual interpretation persisted. Believers made the long journey to the recently formed Harbinger Lake and spent some quiet time at the small shrine that served as the terminus of the still operational Pilgrims Path. Wanderers were prevented from drowning in this circular lake's deep waters by a crude fence and regular security. The natural reservoir was one of the greatest supplies of pure spring water found in the Backrooms, with measurements confirming that its average depth was more than 200 feet. Wanderers could fill their canteens at a safe distance from the edge of the water thanks to a cistern hand pump, and courteous sentries watched out for anyone abusing the privilege.

JohnRhinehart

Dr. John Rhinehart, PhD
M.E.G. Archives

Amy took her sweet time returning to the one-room cabin that she now called home. Today was her day off. She smiled as her fellow security technicians from Team "Harbinger" exchanged pleasantries when the night shift greeted their daylight counterparts. The M.E.G. presence had dramatically increased here lately for no apparent reason. There was loose talk about creating a settlement and establishing a community.

She spotted the couple waiting on her porch and picked up the pace, instantly recognizing the gray-haired scientist but not the young woman. The stranger had remarkable hair that flowed in strands of black, dark gray, and sparkling silver. She appeared to be in her early twenties and not much taller than five feet. From her fingertips to her elbow, the right arm was covered in a deep purple stain. It was those eyes! Each orb sported a frosted iris on a globe of ice. She wore a crimson cloak that obscured her physique. Something about this newcomer almost scared Amy to death.

Not much frightened Amy Cochrane.

"You are up early, Doctor Rhinehart," Amy observed, then asked, "Who is your amazing companion?"

AnneDunne2

Anonymous painting of
Anne Dunne (transformed)
M.E.G. Archives

"Hermosa Muerte, that's a cute look for you," the stranger said in a very familiar voice.

"Anne! What happened?"

The psychic gave her a heartfelt hug and calmly suggested that they continue their conversation inside the cabin.

Doctor Rhinehart shut his eyes and faced the wall while Amy quickly changed into black jeans and blouse. Matching swords completed the ensemble.

"You can look now," Amy said. "I will boil some water for tea."

"Not Seer Tea," the scientist pleaded.

"Herbal tea," Amy laughed, "with sweetener produced by entities on this level."

Rhinehart made a face.

"I saw the Frontrooms through the Harbinger Arch that night," Amy began. "Just before the wind swept you through the portal."

Anne explained, “I had the option of hiding within my previous life or accepting my fate. The Backrooms is a liminal space, a threshold or border, a transitional stage. When certain people no-clip here from the Frontrooms, it is not by accident. There are higher powers at work.”

“Higher powers?” Rhinehart asked.

Amy poured three cups of herbal tea.

“Some good,” Anne answered. “Some not.”

The host added a pink fragment of sweetener to each cup. It dissolved instantly and completely. Rhinehart chanced a taste, then another, and then another.

“The flora shall break through time and space, to bring one and all to this peaceful place,” Anne said.

"Pardon me?" Amy questioned.

“I walked between worlds until I followed the shimmering vines. These vines led me to Hortus Aeturnus, a botanical paradise and home to 300 Ivlania. Level 414 endured in silence for a very long time, hidden from the rest of the Backrooms. But now, by decree of the High Bloom of the Bouquet, these flowery folk welcome wanderers. From there, the Pilgrims Path led me here.”

"And back to me," Amy chirped. "Remember, you said that we will become good friends."

“You must become great friends,” Rhinehart added. “You are the third Musketeer.”

Amy shot him a quizzical look.

“We are creating an independent consulting agency and would be honored if you would join us. I want to call us Psychic, Science, and Swords, but Anne has her heart set on calling us Epiphany.”

“Two votes to one,” Amy announced. “Epiphany, it is.”

Anne suppressed a laugh and said, “This will work out just fine.”

The scientist interrupted the party. “We have our first task. There is another anomaly on Level 710. It has the appearance of a transparent sphere, filled with pinkish clouds, that is raised atop a great stone pedestal. It is nestled, out of sight, in a deep valley surrounded by hills, not more than one day’s journey from here. The Major Explorer Group has authorized me to use any and all measures at my disposal. Epiphany now represents those aforementioned measures.”

Amy asked everyone to join hands.

“All for one and one for all,” she said.

And so it begins.

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