The Tenth

1926

In the stillness of the tiny apartment, Vincent Arians sipped his drink. A half-finished bottle and a loaded pistol sat on the countertop nearby. Thin bands of twilight peeked in through the slits of the blinds, illuminating the prone form of Aaron Siegel on the ground in front of him.

Arians sat the glass aside and took a long drag on a cigarette, his eyes squinting against the luminescence. A moment later, Aaron stirred. He pushed himself up onto his elbows, one hand wiping sleep and saliva out of his beard. His face, puffy and red, turned to face Arians.

“What happened?” he croaked. “Where are we?” He looked down at his hands. They were still trembling. “Did it work?”

Arians took another drag of the cigarette. Smoke flowed slowly out of his nostrils, catching the light in front of him. He was barely visible behind the haze. “He’s dead.” Arian’s eyes focused on some point in the distance. “It worked.”

For a long moment, Aaron did not move. Then — suddenly — he slammed his fist into the ground.

“Yes,” he hissed through his clenched jaw. “Yes.”

Arians’ expression was distant. “We almost died, you know.” He dribbled ash on the carpet to his right. “Some of us didn’t make it.”

Aaron staggered upright, then fell down with his back against the wall. He held out his hand; Arians passed him the cigarette.

“How many?” Aaron asked.

“You and I. Felix. Conrad. Ingrid.” Arians counted on his fingers. “Five total. Felix has already reached out to researchers at other sites. Some of them are reaching out to us. Everyone is scared shitless.” He took another drink. “Thought you might be dead.”

Aaron rubbed his temples. “I don’t remember much.” He looked over at Arians. “You look younger.”

“Yeah. We all do. Who knows why.” He finished his glass. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, Aaron. But before we start, you need to tell me why you did it.”

Aaron shook his head. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s done.”

“Fuck you. It does matter.” Something had changed; there was a distance between them. “We did things — I did things — that will haunt me till the day I die. But we did them anyway, because we were saving the world. You had the chance to destroy Abaddon. And you didn’t.”

His voice grew hard and cold. “You told me to run the moment you activated them. You told me not to ask why. So that’s what I did. I trusted you, because you’ve never given me a reason not to. But now? I’ve got several. You need to tell me why you erased Frederick Williams from existence.”

They were silent for a good, long while. Aaron worked on finishing the cigarette; Arians poured himself another drink. As he leaned back against the wall, Aaron could see faint, pinkish swelling around Arians’ eyes.

“There was no Abaddon,” Aaron finally said. “There never was. It was bait.”

Arians drew in a ragged breath. “How do you know?”

“Because he told me, Vince.”

“What?”

“And when I didn’t believe him,” Aaron continued, “he showed me.” He let the silence speak for him; when he grew tired of what it had to say, he went on. “It was just before the Congo site. I was there, with him.” Aaron exhaled. Wisps of smoke swirled from his nostrils, climbing toward the ceiling.

Arians said nothing. Aaron examined the cigarette. “I don’t know what the hell he is. He was probably human, once. Maybe. But not anymore. He can do things — impossible things. When the site fell…” He closed his eyes. “I watched him level an entire facility, Vincent. One man. That’s all it took. That’s all Abaddon was.”

“Why would he—”

Aaron’s eyes opened. “I think he saw in me a kindred spirit.” Then, softer: “I watched him press through concrete and rebar as if they were soft, wet paste. I watched a man exhale his own skeleton as a thick, yellow fog. I watched a woman’s blood solidify into crystal — as sharp as diamond and as brittle as chalk. He let me watch, because he knew no one would believe me. He let me watch, because… I think he wanted to see what I would do.”

Arians struggled to speak; his voice caught in his throat. “So you destroyed him.”

Aaron was very still. “Yes. I knew I didn’t have the kind of power I needed to kill him, and…” He stopped and stood up, searching for another bottle. When he found one, he didn’t look at the label. He poured himself another drink.

“Maybe he wanted to see if I could — if I would. Maybe he just wanted to see that power himself. In some of his correspondence, early on, he would describe anomalies as ‘glorious’. He talked about them like you might talk about a sunrise. I think… I don’t know. I don’t think it was ever enough for him. I don’t think anything was.” Aaron finished his glass in a single pull.

“He’s the cancer, Vince. It wasn’t Abaddon. It was the Administrator. He had to be destroyed. The whole thing had to be destroyed. It was rotten down to its core.” He lifted the bottle to pour himself another drink.

Arians’ breathing was heavy and shaking. It took him a moment to speak again — and when he did, he trembled with a barely-suppressed sob.

“If you knew… this whole time — we could’ve stopped, Aaron. We could’ve — we could’ve spared them, we could’ve—”

Aaron brought the bottle down hard. “No, Vince. We needed the Gun. If we didn’t have it, I wouldn’t have been able to—”

Arians’ voice swelled with fury. “We sliced them open and cut into their fucking brains!”

Aaron grimaced. Arians reached for the counter, steadying himself. “I — I strapped children down to fucking operating tables, Aaron. I strapped them down and I helped you carve out every last inch of who they were. They screamed and screamed, and we kept carving. And then the screams got softer, and softer, until they were just tiny, broken sounds, little wet sobs you had to strain to hear, and then, one day they didn’t make any sound at all, and…”

Arians’ voice fell into shaky, wheezing breaths. He closed his eyes and counted to ten.

“You said Dr. Williams just wanted to see if it could be done. But what about you?” He opened his eyes. “Why didn’t you stop it?”

“I told you. We needed it to kill—”

“I don’t believe you.”

Neither spoke.

Arians pushed himself away from the counter. “Once the Foundation collapses, we’ll have a lot of work to do.” His voice was treacherously calm; like a razor-thin layer of ice spread across the surface of dark water.

“Felix is assembling the researchers and finding us a space to operate from. They all think the Administrator aligned himself with Abaddon. They think you’re some sort of hero. They expect you to lead. And that’s precisely what you’re going to do.”

“Vince.” Aaron turned to him, his eyes glassy and wide — as if viewing something from a distance. “You saw it too, didn’t you? The moment that it happened — that it destroyed him. That moment, you saw it. Didn’t you?”

“Yeah. I saw it.”

“Wasn’t it…” Aaron searched for the right word. “Wasn’t it…”

“It was nothing,” Arians replied. “Just another man killed with a gun.”

—-

2010

Ivan spat, wiping cobwebs from his face. “You know that I hate bugs, right?”

Bramimond laughed. “I can’t imagine they’re thrilled with you, either.”

The thick morning fog seeped out between the trees. It gave the forest a dull, amber-gold luster. A chittering chorus of insects surrounded them both, as if to berate them for their intrusion. Dead leaves crackled beneath them with each step into the woods.

Ivan kept mopping away at his mouth. “And magic. If I were writing a list of things I’d hate, that’s what the list would be. ‘Bugs and magic’. So you bring me along on the one mission that has both.” He paused to spit out another bit of webbing. “Why me? Why not Arians, or Vanessa? This seems like their kind of deal.”

“Vanessa’s busy dealing with the Liar.” Bramimond retrieved the journal from his pocket. He opened it and flipped through several pages. “As for Arians, he’s getting intel on the Outsider.”

“Okay. Fine. But this lady — she’s basically some sort of wizard, right? How are we going to deal with that? You’ve got some sort of plan, yeah?”

“I’ve got several.” Bramimond turned the page, reading as they walked.

“Well, what are they?”

“Most of them consist of shooting her in the face.”

“That’s…” Ivan scowled. “That’s not a plan.”

“It’s worked out pretty well so far.” Bramimond looked up from the journal, casting a glance back to Ivan. “And if things get heated, I’ve got… something. A weapon.”

“What is it?”

“Can’t tell you.”

“Seriously? C’mon, that’s—”

“No,” Bramimond cut him off. “I mean I literally can’t tell you.” He closed the journal and stopped walking. “We’re here.”

Ivan’s scowl only deepened. He looked around the clearing. “I don’t see anything. How can you even tell?”

“Listen.”

Ivan stopped. He listened.

Silence.

“You know how the Foundation contains some pretty intense anomalies, right? Things that, if left unchecked, could end the world?”

“Yeah.” Ivan leaned back against a tree, scanning the clearing. The quiet — the sense of stillness — it was overpowering. Breaking it almost felt vulgar. “Right.”

“And you know how the Foundation has existed for, oh, I don’t know — maybe only around a century or two?” Bramimond squeezed the journal into his pocket.

Ivan nodded. “Right.”

“Then here’s your history quiz: If the Foundation contains so many world-ending anomalies, and the Foundation has only existed for a century, who was containing those anomalies before them?”

Ivan tried hard not to roll his eyes. “No one. Anomalies didn’t exist before the Foundation. The Overseers created them to gain immortality. C’mon, seriously? This is kid’s stuff.”

“But that’s not quite it. Because there are anomalies that predate the Foundation. And besides, how do you ‘create’ anomalies if they never existed in the first place?”

Ivan folded his arms across his chest and wrinkled his brow in thought.

“All that’s really happened,” Bramimond continued, walking toward one edge of the clearing, “is that the number of anomalies has started to increase substantially. The Foundation didn’t create the problem — they just made the problem much, much worse.”

“How?”

Bramimond reached his destination. Two young saplings stood, side-by-side. He closed his eyes, took a breath, and extended his arm out between them.

His hand vanished up to the wrist.

Ivan’s eyes went as wide as saucers. Bramimond pulled his arm back; his hand reappeared, unscathed. He turned around and held it out for Ivan to see, wriggling his fingers. “They tugged on threads not meant to be tugged. They tried to use them — even harness them.”

“What the hell is—”

“A Way. A tunnel between worlds; a piece of frayed, unraveled thread.” Bramimond faced the saplings, extending his arm again. “In order to pass through this one, you need to have the right Knock.”

Ivan walked toward Bramimond, staring at the space where the older man’s arm terminated. “A — what?”

“Something that opens the Way. Sometimes it’s just the time of day, or something you’re carrying; other times it’s a ritual, or a word, or a thought. In this case, it’s a piece of knowledge. Something important to you.” Bramimond looked back to Ivan. “You’ll forget whatever it is when you press through.”

“Uh…”

“Think of some tiny piece of information you like knowing, but don’t have to know. Then step between the saplings. Also, just to warn you upfront — it’s a pretty intense ride.” Bramimond turned and stepped forward. He vanished.

Ivan stared at the space where Bramimond had been for a good, long while. Then, he exhaled, closed his eyes, and stepped forward. Did he really need to know what THAC0 stood for?

It hit him all at once: Space and matter became as stretchable as taffy. The woods pulled away; air rushed to greet him. It was like he was accelerating through a tunnel at breakneck speed — a tunnel made of light and sound, extending out forever.

The world roared around him. He tried to talk, tried to yell, tried to scream — but every sound he made was torn from his lips and sent spinning back behind him into the void. Cold, distant stars watched from above and below.

And then — as if the universe was a rubber-band that had been released — everything snapped back into place.

Ivan lunged forward, landing on his hands and chest.

“You alright? I told you, it’s pretty intense.” Bramimond reached down to help Ivan to his feet.

They were inside, now. The air was unusually cool; the floor was smooth, flat, and orange. As Ivan stood up, he searched the space around them.

“This is…” Ivan struggled to find the right words.

They were inside a massive office space, illuminated by dozens of long, narrow fluorescent bulbs. Dozens of refrigerator-sized mainframes hummed quietly along the room’s walls. Ivan didn’t recognize the models, but if he had to wager a guess, he’d place them as something from the mid-80s. The sort that used record-sized magnetic plates for hard disks.

Several desks with large, bulky monochrome monitors were arranged around them. Ivan even saw what looked like an old microfiche machine — the last time he’d seen one of those had been in his dad’s attic.

“—not what I was expecting.”

Halls extended from all four sides of the room, leading into additional rooms — at a glance, they appeared similarly equipped. The hallways kept going, extending as far as they could see — or until a piece of equipment obscured their view.

“Hello?” Bramimond started down one of the halls, but didn’t leave the entry-room. “Anyone home?” No reply — just the hum of countless mainframes. “There should be someone here.”

“This place is, uh… what is this place?” Ivan approached one of the mainframes, inspecting it. Each machine had a sleek logo — the image of snake with brilliant emerald eyes and a silver crown. “These machines look older than me.”

“They probably are.” Bramimond frowned, glancing back to Ivan. “This is part of the Library. The Foundation uses it to archive all the works of the worlds that came before. Art, literature, music — written works, printed works — any kind of information.”

“On microfilm.” Ivan did not sound impressed. “Wait, ‘came before’?”

“Yes. We need to find a Librarian. This place is effectively infinite; get lost here and you’ll starve before you find another soul.”

“A Librarian?” Ivan was examining one of the computers more closely, now. “Hey, this one’s not running.”

“Yeah, a Librarian. They’re part of the Library, they know where everything —” Bramimond stopped, turning to face Ivan. “Wait, what?”

“This computer. It’s not running.” Ivan had already pulled out an unfolding tool-kit, and was working on unscrewing the front panel. “It’s plugged in, switch is on, but it’s not making any noise.”

Bramimond approached. “Don’t mess with it.”

“Why not? Hell, why not just destroy them?” Ivan replied. By the time Bramimond reached him, he had already gotten the fourth screw out, and was lifting the panel up.

“That would be very bad, Ivan. They don’t just use these to archive lost worlds — they use them as backups for information on the anomalies they’re containing. If they lost these mainframes, they could lose critical information they need to keep anomalies—”

The panel slid free. The interior was nearly empty; the wires had been stripped away, leaving only the hard disk’s magnetic plate. A dense, winding script of sigils were carved along its surface. As they watched, the plate slowly rotated — despite having no discernible power source.

“The fuck is that?” Ivan asked.

Bramimond grasped Ivan by the shoulder and pulled him back. “Don’t touch it,” he hissed.

“What is it?”

“It is of Daevite origin.” The voice came from behind them. They spun around — Bramimond’s hand went for the pistol at his hip, while Ivan gripped his screw-driver like a knife.

The creature stood over them both; narrow and slender, it wore a robe of shimmering silver. Its hood was pulled across its face, cloaking its features. Still, Ivan could make out a hint of its skin — pale, with a slight emerald tint. It had a rough, scaly texture.

Bramimond kept the pistol leveled at its chest for just a moment; then, he slowly lowered it. “A Librarian.”

Ivan lowered the screwdriver. “We’re looking for the Archivist.”

“She is here no longer,” the Librarian informed them.

“Where is she?” Bramimond frowned. “And what the hell is Daevite technology doing inside a Foundation server?”

“Also, the hell is a Daevite?” Ivan added.

“She has broken her pact with the Serpent, and partaken of forbidden knowledge. She has written herself into a story to which she does not belong. As for where she is now — if you seek her,” the Librarian told them, “I will take you to her — down below.”


Then they descended. Long staircases led to long planes of endless rows of books, art galleries full of strange and terrible works, narrow hallways throughout which tinkling music could be heard. Every door they passed was another universe worth of knowledge, and still further they descended. Ivan knew that time was passing strangely here; he could not say how long they traveled or how long they had been in this place. When he thought to look up, he realized he could no longer see the top of the Library, and yet still further they descended.

After a lifetime, the stairs ended. Their feet struck stone again, and the steps behind them disappeared into shadow. The dark was intense here; even the Librarian’s torch seemed dimmer and cast less light. They walked for a while in this dark place, through a massive cavern lined with titanic stone columns that extended up into the black above them.

“This is the foundation of the Library,” they heard the Librarian say, the first words they had heard in decades. “These pillars were forged by the Serpent itself in the eternity before time. All knowledge rests upon them.”

Ivan coughed. “A snake built this?”

The Librarian looked at him queerly. “The Serpent is called the Serpent in your world, because that is how it manifests outside of these halls. In here, and in the Dark Endlessness below here, the Serpent takes many shapes.”

“Dark Endlessness? What’s that?”

“You call the Serpent what you call it because that is how you perceive it, but that is not what it is. The Serpent is the avatar of one of the universal facets of reality: information. The idea that ideas can exist at all, or that all things have inherent truths about them.” It paused. “Below here is the emptiness outside of life and death, nothingness. The Serpent’s silent brother is the lord of that quiet oblivion. Anything that ventures there ceases to exist at all.”

The Librarian stopped and turned to face them. “This foundation is a barrier between that which is, and that which isn’t. Beyond these doors,” it extended a hand, and in front of them they could make out two massive bronze doors through the darkness, “is the source of all knowledge, the center of the foundation on which the Serpent built the library. Within this chamber are three tomes that mustn't be disturbed. They are fundamental to our universe, and indeed, all universes. You’ll recognize them when they see them.”

The Librarian pulled back its robe for a moment and produced a short metal tube inscribed across its entire surface with runes. “There is a weapon in this container that was given to us by a hero from another world. There are very few things that exist that our Library has no knowledge of. The contents of this container are one such anomaly. I hope it brings you good fortune.”

Ivan took the tube and held it in his hands. When he looked up to speak, the Librarian was gone. The torch still hung in the air where she had been. The doors stood before them.

“Well,” Bramimond said, pulling out his sidearm and checking the magazine, “let’s go.”

They pushed the doors open and stepped inside. As they passed through the threshold, Ivan felt the same nauseating rush as he did when they had first stepped into the Way. After a moment it passed, and he opened his eyes.

They stood at the top of a rolling hill covered in green grass. Above them was a blue sky dotted with white clouds. Below them was a valley, and in the center of the valley were two trees. Under one of them was a woman sitting cross legged in a simple white dress. At her feet sat two books. A third was in her hand, and she read it as she quietly chewed on a red piece of fruit.

The woman didn’t acknowledge them as they entered. She had brown hair and wore glasses. Ivan guessed she was in her 30s. As they got closer he could see flecks of grey at her roots. The book in her hand was bound in leather with gold trim, and looked ancient. Something was written in small gold type on the front, but neither Ivan nor Bramimond could make it out. As they approached, Bramimond spoke to her.

“You’re the Archivist?” he said.

The woman nodded.

Bramimond nodded in response. He pulled his firearm and leveled it point-blank at her forehead, and fired three shots. The Archivist didn’t so much as flinch. After the noise had echoed out of the space around them, she raised her eyes slowly to look at him. Her face was clear of bullet holes.

“Do you read, Bramimond?” she said.

Bramimond pulled the magazine out of the gun and flipped it into his pocket, pulling another from a clip on his belt. “No,” he replied, “can’t say I’ve had much time for reading recently.” He cocked the gun and pointed at her again. “So what is this, some sort of incorporeal thing? Do I need sacred bullets to do the job, maybe something in silver?” He popped off three more shots. The Archivist didn’t look away from him.

“I read,” she said, closing the book in her hand and setting it on the ground next to a half-eaten piece of fruit. “In fact, I read very often. I’m a writer, you see, and the only way for a writer to perfect their craft is to write, and to read.”

She leaned her head back against the tree and was looking him square in the face now. “Do you know how much you can learn from reading? I do. It’s a lot. In fact, you can learn so much from reading there’s almost no reason to do anything else. You can live a billion lifetimes just in books. You can learn everything there is to learn, just in books. For example, did you know there’s a book in this library written to teach the reader how to allow bullets to pass through their body as if they’re not even there? I know. I read that book. I read all the books.”

She closed her eyes and began tapping her fingers against the top of the thick book next to her. “When I heard you killed poor Felix, I’ll admit, I was afraid. The concept of death is so foreign to us now, and it’s been such a long time since I’ve had to worry about it. My task becomes considerably more difficult when faced with the prospect of mortality. I’m a writer, you see, and I have to document everything that happens within the Foundation, and on Earth. I can’t do either of those things if I’m dead.”

“I came down here because I thought I might learn the secret of immortality in one of these books. As it turns out, I didn’t need the books, not at first. Have you felt how time is different here? It’s a gift from the Serpent; you have all the time you need to learn what you need to learn while you’re in the Library.”

She smiled. “I’ve been here for some time.”

Bramimond sighed. “So you’re going to keep reading until you figure out how to become immortal?”

Her eyes popped open. “Oh no, certainly not. I’ve already figured that out. In fact, I’ve already done it.”

She motioned to the trees behind her. “These trees are special. This one here, this is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That one, that’s the Tree of Life. The Tree of Knowledge grants knowledge, and the Tree of Life grants life. But the Serpent is wily. The Serpent made these trees, and cursed them. You can only eat from one if you’ve already eaten from the other. That produces a paradox then, doesn’t it? How do you eat from one if you can’t eat from it until you’ve eaten from the other, which requires you to have eaten from the first?”

She uncrossed her legs and stood up. “I’ve been down here for a very long time. I knew there would be an answer here somewhere, some secret that I had missed. By the time I realized there was no secret, I had read every book in this Library. Every piece of knowledge contained here is contained within me.”

She gestured lazily at the Tree of Knowledge. “I had wondered once about why this tree doesn’t bear fruit. It’s because the Library is the fruit. I had already consumed it.”

She cracked her neck and rolled her shoulders. “I knew the Serpent would come down here eventually. The Serpent knew that the only pieces of the fruit I hadn’t consumed yet were these three: The Book of Life and Death, The Book of Things That Have Been, and The Book of Things That Will Be. I imagine it very much would have liked for me to not read these.” Her back arched and they could hear something snap along her spine. “It doesn’t matter now. The Serpent is the keeper of the Library. The Serpent knows of all things within the Library. I know of all things within the Library. I am the Serpent.”

They watched in horror as the Archivist’s skin began to split, starting at the base of her spine and creeping up her back. Her eyes bulged in their sockets and blood began to seep out of her like water from a sponge. Her mouth opened as if to scream, but instead a long, forked tongue appeared, and then the base of a fanged mouth. With a wet, thick tear, her entire body came apart down the center and a massive, writhing serpent appeared from within. It’s eyes were black slits, and across the ridge of its emerald back were gemstones that dazzled in the ethereal light of the meadow. Floating above its head was a pointed silver crown emblazoned with a dark ouroboros.

The Serpent coiled around to face them, the edges of its mouth turned up ever so slightly in a horrific grin. It blinked, and when it did they could see the Archivist’s jade eyes again for a moment.

“There is one thing that nags at me,” it said, lifting itself up to its full immense height, “is the contents of that tube you are holding, Ivan Vaughn. What a queer thing, to be unknown to That Which Gave Birth To Knowledge. I’ll have to find out myself.”

The Serpent’s mouth opened wide, its fangs glistening, and it lunged at Ivan. The young man had only a moment to duck out of the way as the Serpent turned and came after him again, narrowly missing his feet as he rolled out of the way. Ivan heard the familiar pop of gunshots, and look to see Bramimond firing at the back of the Serpent’s head. The snake turned, its eyes dark again, and brought its tail down, nearly crushing Bramimond in the process.

“I think the time has passed for shooting her in the face!” Ivan shouted as Bramimond reloaded. Ivan scrambled back towards his feet and produced his own firearm, emptying several fruitless rounds into the monster’s side. As he did, he noticed the tranquil valley around them beginning to come apart. Large fissures were forming in the ground, splitting the land and in some places falling away completely. In the exposed holes, Ivan could see only darkness that extended on forever below them. Above them, the sky began to lose its blue, becoming a solemn shade of grey. The only color in the world was the gemstones on the Serpent’s back, and its dazzling silver crown.

Bramimond fired again, and then again. The Serpent lunged at him as he deftly stepped out of the way. He caught the edge of the crown, which pealed like a bell and made the air around them vibrate. As he paused to steady himself, the Serpent’s tale came around and crashed into him, sending him sliding across the grey grass. Ivan fired, and the bullets ricocheted off of the beast’s back.

The Serpent turned towards him, its tongue darting out between fangs as tall as he was. Ivan stood stock still, his body frozen, and dropped his gun. The Serpent began to coil up before him, as if to strike, and he could feel the animalistic urges of his body begging him to run, to flee, to do anything to protect himself. But he did nothing.

Then he heard Bramimond shouting from his right.

“Ivan! The tube! Open the tube!”

His shock was broken in an instant. With a swift tug and a hearty yank, Ivan freed the cap of the canister, and opened it towards the ground. He felt a sudden weight on the tube as some long, thick, and heavy slid out from it.

It was a dark, smooth wooden shaft, inlaid with markings and runes burned into the wood. Near its end was a thick metal band, and at its end was a fierce and menacing spearhead. Eyeing it over quickly, Ivan could see the words “-is the non-believer, against whom divinity holds no sway-” before he had to duck out of the way again as the Serpent came at him. He drug the spear behind him, and shouted panickedly to Bramimond.

“Hey, I don’t know what this is, but I don’t think it’s going to help!” he said. “I can’t even- fuck! I can’t even lift it!”

At a word, the canister he had deposited on the ground began to spin and shake. Several interlocking sections began to unfold, and more canister seemed to materialize from nowhere. As Ivan scurried away from the striking Serpent, the canister behind him shaped and folded itself up into a large mechanical rack. Bramimond noticed it first, and shouted to get Ivan’s attention.

“There, look!” He gestured towards the rack as he reloaded his pistol. “It’s a harpoon! Put it on the harpoon gun!”

Ivan’s incredulity nearly cost him his life, as the Serpent came at him sideways and knocked him onto the ground. The Serpent struck at him, its fangs finding only soil as Ivan dragged the spear through the grass. He heard the crack of Bramimond’s weapon again and again, but kept his head down as he struggled to maneuver around the collapsing ground beneath him. Upon reaching the harpoon gun, itself a mess of gears, pulleys, and steel, he heaved the spear up on the rack and began to wind it backwards. With the spear in place and the gun loaded, he turned towards the Serpent and froze in panic.

The Serpent had Bramimond wrapped tightly in its tail, the older man dangling precariously over the rent ground beneath them. The Serpent hissed and smiled again at Ivan, and shook Bramimond slightly.

“There, there,” the Serpent said, “let’s not be so hasty. You didn’t think I wouldn’t see how this would play out, did you? I’ve learned everything there is to learn, Ivan. I’ve seen things that would turn your heart to ice. Heard stories of horrors so terrible the very thought would kill you in an instant.” Its eyes focused slightly. “I will admit, whatever magic you have in this weapon was tricky. I wasn’t able to see it before, but now that I do… well, you know it doesn’t matter, right?”

“I can kill you right now,” Ivan snarled, aiming the spear at the Serpent’s face, “it wouldn’t take even a second.”

“Even if you could,” the Serpent said, its voice like velvet and smoke, “and you can’t, why would you want to? Do you even know what it is you’re doing? Do you even know what you’re trying to accomplish?”

“Kill the Thirteen Foundation Overseers,” Ivan said through gritted teeth, his finger shaking against the trigger.

“Why?”

“You’ve twisted the universe to suit your craven desires,” Ivan spat. “You’ve made a mockery of the natural order. Your influence is a cancer.”

The Serpent seemed to sigh. “Fanaticism. Even with all the knowledge in the world, I’ll never understand you.” With a swift tug, it crushed Bramimond and dropped him into the void.

Ivan stood unmoving, his hand clenched around the handle of the weapon. The Serpent began to move towards him.

“You think you’re the first person with dreams of destroying the wicked and terrible SCP Foundation? Be realistic, Ivan. I have lived a thousand lives and dreamed a thousand more. I’ve seen this world turned over time and time again, and dutifully recorded it all. Do you think there’s anything you could do that I cannot foresee? Do you think there’s anything that would stand between me and my duty?” It flicked its tail towards the harpoon gun. “Put that silly thing away. I’ve eaten the fruit of the Tree of Life. I cannot die, not now that I’ve-”

Click

With a rush, the spear roared through the air towards the Serpent, which had gotten close enough as to be unable to move out of the way in time. The spear buried itself in the Serpent’s skull with a sickening crunch, and the monster recoiled and screamed. Smoke poured from the gaping wound on its head as it thrashed, and Ivan had to fall to the ground to avoid being smashed as the Serpent’s tail swung around and flattened the harpoon gun.

The world around him began to vibrate, slowly at first and then building in intensity until the very air seemed to shake. The sky grew black and thick bands of light began to pour through cracks in it, and the ground below him undulated and churned and eventually fell away. The last thing Ivan saw before he was plunged into darkness was the Serpent, silhouetted against the falling sky, with a shining silver spear protruding victoriously from its face like a serpentine unicorn.

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