The shock of cold stole the cry of surprise from Ariadne’s throat as she found herself once again washing up on the beach of their subconscious. Instead of the comfort of the sun-warmed surf she’d first experienced, the water she found herself in was cold as ice, the sea choppy and frothed and crashing down over her body without mercy.
Cobb’s hands were strong, insistent as he grabbed her up, half-dragging her out of the water and towards the safety of the beach where they collapsed together, teeth-chattering and disoriented as they took a brief moment to ground themselves.
Around them the sea continued to recede and swell, before falling back onto the shore with a formidable crashing sound. The sky above was dark, storm clouds hanging heavy over Limbo and throwing the world into a premature darkness.
Looking around, Ariadne saw that the buildings Cobb had once shown her from their first fateful trip into his own subconscious were now lying in ruins- lumps of black-grey stone scattered carelessly up and down the beachfront. Some of the larger fragments had rolled into the sea itself and now protruded from the aggressive waters looking dark and foreboding.
Ariadne shivered more violently at the sight and Cobb shuffled closer, slinging his arm uselessly around her shoulders. He was just as cold and wet as she was, but she appreciated the gesture.
“We should—” she started, coughing as her words stuck in her mouth. She shivered again, feeling as though the chilled seawater had soaked her through to her bones.
“Yeah,” Cobb agreed, his answer more an exhale of air compared to the sound of his teeth chattering uncontrollably together.
They should move, is what Ariadne had wanted to say, but it was so very cold and maybe if they just sat for a little while, together, then they could… she struggled for a moment to remember why they were here…
Something dropped onto her cheek and Ariadne blinked her eyes back open. Funny that she couldn’t remember closing them in the first place. The repetition of the sea crashing into the shore was almost lulling. Her shivering had tapered off. Beside her, Cobb sat, his eyes closed. Ariadne smiled, her eyes fluttering as if to close when she felt another drop of something touch her face.
With a slight frown, she shook herself awake enough to see flakes of white falling from the sky. Her heart stuttered a moment before she felt a small smile stretch across her mouth. Snow. Usually so cold and unwelcoming when experienced back at school in France, now it was a sight which lifted her spirits as she tipped her head back and grinned into the flakes that landed upon her chilled face.
She thought about how warm the snow felt here, compared to how cold she felt, and again she thought of France, of waking one morning her first winter there to find the world painted white and the childish excitement she’d felt to see it. She remembered how quickly the excitement had faded as snow turned to slush and then ice and brought misery to everyone who had to venture out onto campus and beyond.
“Dom,” she whispered. Her body hurt to move, her fingers aching as she flexed them open, reaching out to touch at Cobb’s face. His eyes opened, slowly, and he frowned at her.
“Dom, we need to move,” she said, her grip tightening around his jaw, her fingers too cold to feel the scratch of his skin and she felt a jolt of panic shoot through her; thoughts of hypothermia warring with the almost overwhelming desire to just lie down and go to sleep.
Cobb seemed to rouse himself at the sight of her panic. Slowly they helped each other up, their bodies trembling with cold and fatigue as they stood, holding onto each other for support.
“We need to find Saito,” Ariadne said, looking up at Cobb who nodded distractedly, his eyes squinting through the gloom, and the now quickly falling snow, and towards what appeared to be the last building still standing. With an arm wrapped tightly around her waist, Cobb led them across the beach- their feet sinking into the wet sand and sending them staggering more than once as they trudged in wary silence towards the building.
Ariadne didn’t ask and Cobb didn’t offer any explanations, her usual curiosity dampened by the struggle to just keep walking, to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going. Her legs burned, her lungs hurt with every breath, but with the exertion came a flush of warmth that suffused its way though her numbed body like the lick of a flame against skin, and with every step they covered, they began to recover themselves.
Ariadne soon felt her sluggish thoughts reawaken, her inquisitiveness rekindled, she stared at the world around them with renewed interest, her eyes following Cobb’s intent gaze towards what she’d first assumed was a building, but upon further inspection appeared to be a cliff with a large structure perched atop it.
“What is that?” She asked.
Cobb’s arm tightened fractionally.
“Something from Saito’s time down here,” he said, voice hoarse. “Remember he had time to create his own world over mine.”
Ariadne nodded, her rat-tailed hair moving stiffly around her face. She grimaced.
“What did he create?”
Cobb spared her a tired look, but smiled. “I don’t remember much. Just his home, which is where I’m hoping he’ll be now.” He frowned then, commenting, “I’d expected his projections would have found us by now.”
Ariadne looked at him curiously. “How were they on the other levels?”
“There weren’t any,” Cobb answered. “Unless his projections can forge into the creatures we’ve had to contend with.”
“Is that even possible?” she questioned.
“The forging or that there haven’t been any projections?”
“Either. Both,” she frowned lightly. “There’s still so much I don’t know about this stuff.”
“There’s still so much even I don’t know about dream sharing,” Cobb admitted, “and I was involved in most of the early experimentation.”
“It’s just…” she hesitated. “I’ve seen so much here in Fischer’s world already that I didn’t realise was possible. If I could learn how to remove the projections from the dreams… the worlds I could create!”
Cobb couldn’t help but smile at the light of excitement he could see in her eyes. There was no denying that Ariadne was a brilliant Architect, and she was right, without the projections to interfere she could create just about anything. Much like Fischer had managed here in his Mario-esque dream world.
They were close enough to the cliff face to see the treacherous looking pathway carved into the rock, curling upwards at a steep and unwelcoming angle. Added to that, the stone was slicked and iced up with the falling snow.
“I want you to go first,” Cobb said, turning Ariadne’s thoughts back to their present situation. “If you slip I’ll have more chance of catching you.”
“And if you slip?” She asked, but stepped forward anyway, her fingers taking hold of the half-frozen rope lining the sea-facing edge of the cliff.
“I’ll do my best not to,” he assured her. “I’ve had more than enough near-death experiences already.”
“What?” Ariadne looked at him from over her shoulder, her fingers tightening on the rope.
“Keep moving,” Cobb said, smiling at the frown that creased her brow. He waited until she started walking again before speaking.
“You’re lucky you missed most of the levels,” he started, and proceeded to tell her the bare bones of just what the team had had to go through in order to get to this point, including the loss of Saito, Yusuf’s staying back on Level One, his own near death experience in the waters of Level Two and the revelation of Arthur and Eames being Arthur-and-Eames.
By the time they made it to the cliff top, Cobb had only nearly-died once on the climb up when he lost his footing on a particularly slippery patch of black ice (Ariadne’s quick thinking and relatively quick reflexes the only thing stopping him from sliding right over the edge), and Ariadne had a pretty good idea of just what the rest of the team had had to do to get to her (she was sure that there existed no amount of chocolate in the world with which to express her thanks).
The top of the cliff was coated with a thick layer of snow reaching up towards their knees. They came up around the back of a large and breathtakingly beautiful palace-like structure which Cobb assured her was one that Saito actually owned back in the waking world.
The inside of the building was dark and unlighted, and just as cold and exposed to the elements as the rock face they’d just traversed had been. They fumbled their way through the multitude of hallways and staircases, all of them left in a sad state of disrepair, moving ever onwards towards the room Cobb was sure they’d find Saito.
“What’s wrong with this place?” Ariadne asked, her eyes taking in weather-ruined tapestries and furnishings. The entire inside of the building appeared to be coated in a thin layer of ice. Cobb didn’t have any answers, though he wondered the same, and instead urged them onwards.
The room, when they found it, was almost exactly how Cobb remembered it from previous dream visits: the rich décor, the elaborate furnishings, all of it unlike the rest of the building which was crumbling away even now. This room, however, this well lit and welcomingly warm room retained the impression of grandeur that Cobb had always associated with Saito.
Saito sat at one end of the long dining table, his back to Cobb and Ariadne both as they hesitated in the open doorway. At the furthest end sat a large skeleton-like creature. It looked to be a cross between Bowser and the Skeleton Koopas Cobb had had the misfortune of meeting in the previous level.
On the table between them sat what looked to be a virtual board game spanning four levels, each level elevated diagonally above the previous ones. The game on the table itself had a thin layer of icy-mist rolling over the edges and across the polished top of the table. The next level had what appeared to be lava spilling over its edges in thick, gloopy splashes that sizzled upon contact with the table, burning slowly through the thick wood. The level above this one looked like a gargantuan waterfall with only a tiny stone building and an island in the centre. The top level was surprisingly bare, consisting only of a squat grey-like building slap-bang in the middle of the board.
“Good evening,” Saito greeted without turning. Ariadne shared a look with Cobb and they stepped further into the room, their feet careful against the ice that crept its way in after them.
“Saito?” Ariadne called, warily. She felt Cobb move up behind her and was reassured by his nearness as they moved to stand beside Saito.
The closer they approached the more details they could make out on the boards, and it wasn’t long until Ariadne recognised the levels of the game as being the same as the levels of the dream Cobb had described to her during their climb.
She shared a look with Cobb and saw that he too saw the likeness.
Saito held his hand out towards the bottom board- Limbo- and flicked his fingers out. They watched as on the board two small human-shaped figurines appeared inside a mini-version of the room they now stood inside.
Skeletal Bowser made a grinding sound with his jaw and Ariadne shivered, sure it was a sign of displeasure. Even so, she peered closer, seeing more figurines scattered not only around the board, but around the different levels. Not just figures though, there were also an array of creatures lining the boards on Saito’s side, like pieces won in a game of chess.
Skeletal Bowser moved splinter-like finger bones towards one of the upper levels of the board, plucking one of his creatures up and putting it on Level One. They watched, amazed, as the mini-creature shook itself into life and began to fly teasingly around the squatted fortress, throwing small projectiles towards it.
Saito frowned his own displeasure, lifting his hand and waving it in a smack at the creature on level one, throwing it towards the fortress.
The move put the creature dangerously close to the building, and as they watched a small human-shaped figurine suddenly appeared in one of the openings to the fortress. Soon afterwards the creature jerked, curling up into itself and dropping down onto the board, looking like a dead spider on a windowsill.
A second later the creature moved silently towards Saito’s side of the table and joined itself to a quite sizable pile of already defeated enemies. It was frightening to see just what the team could have faced off against in the levels and Ariadne wondered if Saito was to thank for that.
The next move went to Skeletal Bowser and Level Two. Cobb tensed beside her and Ariadne looked to him, curiously, even as Skeletal Bowser moved his clawed hand into a cupped shape, which served to both stop the overspill of water from the board, and in the same gesture made the waterfall curl in on itself, spilling the water back onto the board itself and causing the water level to steadily begin to rise.
“Arthur,” Cobb said to Ariadne’s questioning look. She nodded, biting at her lip and understanding the worry he felt.
Saito folded his hands together, eyes intent on the board and his next move. Skeletal Bowser appeared to be watching them, silent and calculating.
“Saito,” Cobb started, touching cautiously at Saito’s shoulder. “Saito, we need to leave.”
Saito stirred at the touch, though his attention never wavered from the games before him. “Leave?” he repeated.
“Yes,” Cobb said.
“How does one leave a game with Death?” Saito asked, his voice calm, conversational.
Cobb frowned, eyes flickering towards Skeletal Bowser. “Are you playing Death?”
“Aren’t we all?” Saito returned.
Cobb pursed his lips. Ariadne moved closer towards them. “Can you win this game, Saito?”
Saito smiled tightly. “Yes,” he replied, “but if I do he will take offence and kill me.”
“And if you lose?” she pressed.
“If I lose he will kill me in victory.”
“Don’t we want him to kill you?” she asked, though she directed the question towards Cobb who gave a jerky nod of his head.
“Do we?” Saito returned.
“Yes, Saito,” Ariadne said, “We need to go back. We need to wake up.”
“Ah. Are we dreaming?” he asked, unclasping his hands and reaching out towards the bottom board, he pointed his index finger and the walls of the room exploded outwards at the same time the walls around them exploded in the same manner, exposing them suddenly to the howling wind and snow as the walls collapsed and the roof slanted to the side, dropping over the edge of the cliff with an almighty crashing sound.
“Saito!” Ariadne cried as the wind buffered them, shaking at the table and the games. Cobb quickly grabbed at her, drawing her to his side with one arm whilst he gripped the back of Saito’s chair with his free hand, keeping them in place.
Saito raised his hand further and pointed it towards Skeletal Bowser who sat unmoving and seemingly unconcerned by the fact the room around them no longer existed. His jaw shifted then, the sound like nails down a chalkboard and Ariadne got the distinct impression that this time he was smiling. She shivered violently at both the thought and the fresh onslaught of arctic air gusting over them, she clung closer to Cobb.
“Saito, we need to go. Now!” Cobb yelled over the howl of wind. Saito ignored him.
Skeletal Bowser raised his hand then and they watched as on Level Three, the miniature version of Bowser quivered to life and Ariadne’s eyes widened in horror as she saw the creature begin to advance on the figurine she knew to be Eames.
Saito kept his finger pointed at Skeletal Bowser and he flickered under the scrutiny, his skeletal form appearing to melt away to reveal a well-suited and incredibly smug looking young man.
Ariadne gaped at the sight of him. They’d known he was joining them in the dream, but to have deliberately sent himself down into Limbo just to conduct the course of the levels… she wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or horrified by the intensive knowledge he seemed so have of the dreamscape. That and the ease with which he appeared to manipulate it.
The image of Skeletal Bowser flickered back into place and they watched as he stood from the table. Saito mirrored the movement, apparently unconcerned at the idea he’d been facing off with Fischer the entire time he’d been down here, and in sync they offered each other a short bow of acknowledgement.
Skeletal Bowser- Fischer- straightened then and stepped towards the edge of the room, he spared them one last look before stepping out of the room, his body dropping down to smash itself over the ruins below.
The second he died the world around them began to shake, the earth rumbling and crumbling around them as Fischer’s dreams started to collapse around them.
Cobb grabbed Saito then, dragging them all towards the edge of the room where they then stood, wavering, and stared down at the terrifying drop before them.
“Are you sure, Mr Cobb?” Saito asked then, his voice raised slightly to be heard over the wind lashing them.
They looked at him and Saito looked perfectly nonchalant despite their current circumstances. He smiled and despite his blasé appearance, Ariadne knew he was still the same Saito they’d gotten to know on the Inception Job.
“Are you sure that the sedative has worn off completely?” Saito clarified and, surprising them all, Cobb smiled.
“We’re about to find out!” He grinned, his hand still tight on Saito’s upper arm. He shared a nod with Saito before turning his smile to Ariadne. He uncurled his arm from her waist and took hold of her hand instead, his grip as tight as her own.
“Ready?” He called.
And without another word they stepped forward, and over the edge.
- - -
Eames and Bowser had come to a silent agreement to remain at each end of the plateau. They sat now, bare minutes having passed since Cobb and Ariadne had gone under, watching each other in silent distrust. Eames didn’t dare move for fear of inciting any kind of reaction from Bowser. He held Cobb’s gun in a loosely fisted grip, ready and waiting for the moment Bowser got bored of simply watching him.
He didn’t have to wait long. An ominous rumbling sound echoed through the cavern seconds before the entire place began to shake and though seated, Eames felt himself lurching to the side. He scrabbled for balance; eyes flying to check on Cobb and Ariadne whose bodies shook with the quake but otherwise remained where they were.
He heard a low growling start up and he looked over towards Bowser, watching as the creature stood up on its hind legs, its head twisting back and forth as it looked around itself, its snout twitching as if trying to sniff out the cause of the commotion.
Loose rocks began to roll down from the cavern walls, along with one or two of the larger stalactites hanging from the darkened ceiling above them. The debris splashed down into the lake of lava surrounding them, sending out rolling waves of the fiery substance and spitting up large bubbles which themselves then erupted with fireballs that flew high into the air before splashing back down into the pool below.
Bowser let out a roar and Eames tightened his grip on the gun, watching as the creature swung towards him. Its beady eyes fixated on Eames a second before it launched itself over Cobb and Ariadne’s prone bodies towards him.
The crack of the gun going off was swallowed up by the sound of the cavern collapsing around them, but even as Eames watched, he saw the shot simply bounce off Bowser’s chest. The creature stopped, seemingly more surprised that anyone would dare try to harm it than actually hurt by the bullet itself.
Bowser pawed at his chest before turning back to Eames, its roar echoing around the cavern, the sound loud enough to send a further scrabble of loosened rocks down into the pool below.
“STOP!” Eames shouted, seeing the way Bowser tensed for another pounce towards him. The creature stopped but Eames knew it wouldn’t be for long, he didn’t have Ariadne’s charm over the creature and he doubted it was something he could fake in the few remaining seconds he had.
Ariadne! The remembrance of her had Eames hurriedly scrabbling for the scarf she’d tucked into the pocket of his shirt and flicking it out towards Bowser like some kind of twisted favour. The move seemed to work, for the moment at least, and Bowser hunched himself down, his snout twitching between Eames and the scarf, trying to determine just which to go for.
Eames thought fast, this temporary truce wouldn’t last long and he needed to come up with some way to neutralise Bowser before the creature got the best of him. He took a cautionary look over his shoulder, saw the edge of the plateau a few steps away, as well as the vigorously swinging bridge leading back across the pool. He briefly considered making a run for it- but to what end? Bowser would only give chase and he’d be leaving Cobb and Ariadne unguarded.
He looked back towards the scarf in his hand, then to Bowser who was quivering at the mere sight of it. He looked then to the gun in his other hand, then back towards Bowser, seeing where his initial shot had failed to pierce through the thick shell-like flesh of his chest. He looked between the gun and the scarf and with little choice, he hurried to wrap and tie the scarf crudely around Cobb’s gun before throwing it towards the bridge and himself over the edge of the plateau they stood upon.
Bowser roared angrily, launching itself after the gun which had, thankfully, landed on one of the wooden planks of the bridge.
Eames on the other hand, dropped over the side of the plateau, his fingers scrabbling desperately for purchase as he twisted his body towards the bridge, his hands grabbing at the rope just as Bowser ran across the bridge taking the bait. The entire bridge shuddered, swinging widely to the side and Eames gritted his teeth against the flare of pain as the rope tore into his hands; already formed blisters from playing Tarzan with the chains earlier on now ripped themselves open and he fought not to cry out.
The bridge lurched back and forth and despite the throbbing in his hands, Eames forced himself to keep moving. He used his arms to pull himself upwards enough to slip between the segments of rope holding the bridge together. His knees hit the planks with a dull thud and only once he was sure he was securely upon the bridge did he dare release his hold on the rope. Eames bit at his bottom lip, suppressing his yell of pain as he brought his hands up to his chest, trying not to look at the blood and pus-like substance oozing up from his blistered palms.
He turned his head quickly towards Bowser who was maybe a foot or two away, the creature had Ariadne’s scarf in one clawed fist and was in the process of rubbing its snout all over the fabric. Even as he watched, however, Bowser seemed to sense the scrutiny and looked up, meeting Eames’ gaze. It bristled upon seeing him and Eames could see its body tensing for another pounce.
Eames scrambled to his feet once more, pushing himself into a run back towards the plateau where, the instant he set foot onto the relative safety of the rock, he slammed his aching palm down onto the skull and crossbones button beside the bridge.
The entire bridge suddenly snapped loose at both ends, dropping straight down into the pool of lava beneath it without ceremony. Eames watched as Bowser fell with it, its roar of anger and frustration morphing into an animalistic cry of pain that had Eames wincing even as he moved himself further onto the plateau.
His heart was pounding against his chest, his hands burned something fierce, and the world around him continued to fall apart but Eames didn’t have even a minute to reacclimatise himself to his precarious surroundings. Not long after he’d collapsed the bridge, the plateau he stood upon gave a particularly violent judder and a sizeable chunk of the rock on the bridge-facing side just dropped away.
He hurried over to Cobb and Ariadne, checking that they were both still okay. Despite the situation, their bodies looked none the worse for ware. A large stalactite crashed down onto the other end of the plateau, tearing off another piece of the rock. Eames winced as small projectiles flew up at them from the contact.
“Hurry up,” Eames muttered, his eyes roving around the cavernous space. He wasn’t afraid of dying here so much as he was worried about what would happen to both Cobb and Ariadne if they weren’t awake on this level when it happened. Fischer’s dreamscape was already so wildly different from the kinds of dreams they were used to infiltrating, and though technically possible to jump directly from a lower level straight back into ones own mind and body, not even Eames was reckless enough to think they should be taking the chance under these circumstances.
“Eames!” a voice suddenly echoed around the cavern and Eames twisted away from Cobb and Ariadne, both of whom were both still soundly asleep. There was no one else in the cavern. Eames frowned to himself, ready to write it off as a fluke of his imagination when he heard his name called again. The sound was soft but comprehensible and Eames wondered momentarily how he could hear it so very clearly even over the sound of rock crashing and lava bubbles exploding.
“Eames, hurry, please hurry—” the words were getting louder, more frantic and the more he heard the more he recognised the voice as being Arthur’s. Eames cursed, knowing then that whatever danger they might be in on Level Three, Arthur was in just as much, if not worse, up on Level Two.
Damnit. They needed to get out of here. He needed to get to Arthur. He shot an anxious look towards Cobb and Ariadne and for the briefest of instants considered leaving them. Cobb would know what to do when they woke up, and Eames knew he wouldn’t waste time looking for Eames either.
Eames pushed to his feet, ready to throw himself to the mercy of the lava pool when Ariadne woke up, closely followed by Cobb.
“Eames?” Ariadne called, her smile fading as she saw the state of the cavern around them.
Biting back a curse, Eames moved back towards the pair of them. “Did you get him?” he asked, knowing that if they’d succeeded then Saito would be the first of them to wake up back in his body.
The pair of them nodded the affirmative.
“Where’s Bowser?” Ariadne asked then but Eames was distracted from his own guilt over having had to off the creature by the sound of Arthur calling his name once more.
“We don’t have time for this,” he said instead, pushing back to his feet. “We need to get back up to the next level now.”
“What’s wrong?” Cobb asked, sensing his agitation. He stood quickly, helping Ariadne to her feet.
“Arthur,” Eames said, his voice tight. “We’ll need to jump, I’m afraid.”
Cobb grimaced at the suggestion but moved towards the edge without comment.
“I’ll never get used to this part,” Ariadne muttered, stepping between them and slipping her hands into theirs.
“Ari,” Eames started, “play that you’re still asleep when you wake up, just in case, yeah?”
Ariadne bit her lip, eyes widening, but she nodded. “Don’t worry about me, just make sure you get everyone else out of here.”
Eames nodded, squeezing her hand. He looked across towards Cobb who inclined his head towards Eames. Then they jumped.
- - -
Arthur had been more than content to sit beside Eames’ sleeping body and wait for both him and Cobb to awaken. After setting the charges and walking a quick perimeter of the fortress to ensure that everything was secure, Arthur had settled himself down. The sound of the timer running out on the level had passed by almost without incident, if you could call the entire world bar the fortress they were safely ensconced in suddenly disappearing a non-incident, of course.
He should have known that the lull in dramatics was only going to last so long. The first sign of impending danger came in the way the world slowly began to darken. Arthur was on his feet, gun in hand, the second he noticed the shadows creeping in on the fortress, he moved quickly towards one of the windows and peered out into the nothingness. The sun had been the only thing to remain of the world but as Arthur turned his gaze upwards he saw the thick, rolling storm clouds moving in to block it out completely. The temperature began to drop and a he could hear a dull rumbling start up too.
What he first mistook to be the sound of thunder soon revealed itself to be a tsunami of water rising up in the distance. Arthur felt his entire body go cold at the sight of the encasing wall of water fast approaching the fortress from all sides. He knew there was no way the building would stand up to the onslaught of the waters direct assault.
Arthur swore under his breath, hurrying back over to where Eames and Cobb’s bodies lay. He hesitated. What was he supposed to do? There was only one way out of this situation and that was to kill himself now and return to Level One. He wasn’t about to leave Eames though, or Cobb.
He re-holstered his gun, kneeling beside Eames and moving down to speak into his ear.
“Eames,” he started, praying that this would work, “Eames if you can here me…”
A thunderclap sounded and Arthur jumped, twisting in time to see the rain start; fat, heavy droplets of water pounded straight down upon the fortress, bouncing in through the window holes and the open doorway, and within seconds the stone floor was swimming under a few centimetres of water.
“Eames!” Arthur shouted, turning back to him. He curled one hand around the back of Eames’ head, holding him close as he called into his ear, praying that Eames could hear the sound of his voice down in his level. He spared a worried look out the open doorway, estimating that the tsunami would hit them within the next few minutes.
“Eames, hurry, please hurry—” he said, voice turning more frantic as the rain began to pound more fiercely down upon the fortress, turning the centimetres of water already inside into inches that lapped up against their bodies.
He pressed his mouth to Eames’ ear, “Eames, so help me if you do not wake up right now—”
“I’m here,” Eames replied, cutting Arthur off. Arthur felt himself relax despite the immediate danger. He pulled away from Eames.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asked at the same time Eames did.
“We’re good,” Eames said, “We did it. What’s going on here?” he frowned to see the water already in the fortress.
“We’re about to be flooded,” Arthur gestured towards the doorway. “We need to get out of here, now.”
“Ready when you are, Arthur,” Cobb commented, his eyes fixed on the swiftly approaching wall of water. He didn’t look surprised to see it.
Arthur didn’t give the look a second thought; instead he gave a stiff nod, lifted the detonation device and blew the charges. Around them the entire fortress blew apart, kicking them back up into the first level. Seconds later, the tsunami hit what was left of the building, completely levelling it.
- - -
Yusuf’s time up in the Level One fortress had been relatively uneventful to begin with. After setting the charges Eames had left him with, there hadn’t been too much else to do considering there was no longer a world surrounding them. Aside from worrying that is. Not knowing how the others were getting on, what they could be facing down on the lower levels, or even how long he should be expect to wait where he was, were the questions currently occupying his thoughts.
Though technically he knew the properties of the sedative Fischer had used on them and had a rough idea as to how long it would take before it left their systems, the added complication of the levels and the timers threw any guessing he could have made out of the picture entirely.
It was just creeping past the two hour mark when something came bouncing into the fortress through one of the windows. The something was round, red and spiked and as Yusuf hurried to his feet it began to uncurl itself until it stood there, a small twitchy little thing with a spiked shell looking right at him.
Yusuf scrabbled to pick up the gun, inching his way along the walls of the fortress and tempting the creature into following, moving it out of line of sight of the others who were thankfully still asleep and unaware. The creature followed, lured by his movements, scuttling towards him with an angry hissing sound.
The crack of the gun was loud in the fortress, the sound reverberating through the small room. The shot connected with the creature and it burst open, exploding in mess of orange and red gunk. Yusuf curled his mouth in distaste at the horrible smell that rose up from the dead creature. He was just considering shoving what was left of it out of the fortress when another of the egg-like balls bounced in through the doorway this time.
It landed beside Arthur’s leg and Yusuf rushed to kick the creature back out the doorway before it could uncurl itself. The kick went wide and the creature bounced off the wall beside the door, landing heavily on the floor there. It uncurled, already angry, hissing and spitting, its little body twisting around as it sought out its target. Yusuf shot it, twice, before it had the chance to seek its revenge.
Two more balls shot in through the window then and Yusuf bit back a cry of alarm. He shot at the balls, missing the first but nailing the second. He hurried to the window, peering out in an endeavour to find out just where these creatures were coming from.
Another creature came sailing in through the window and Yusuf ducked quickly back. He’d seen the perpetrator however. The Lakitu. He chanced another look out of the window to see the reptilian creature hovered around the fortress, its green and yellow scales shining under the glare of the sun as it moved back and forth around the building, in one of its clawed hands it held another of the spiky, red eggs. Spiney’s, Yusuf thought, moving away from the window and searching out the creatures still inside. One of them was currently gnawing on one of Cobb’s shoes, the other was tearing at Eames’ shirtsleeve with its sharp little teeth.
“Hey!” Yusuf shouted. Both creatures stopped, turning to look at him with hooded eyes, they each let loose one of their spitting-hisses before scuttling towards him. Yusuf walked backwards, leading them away from the others before raising his gun and shooting first one and then the other in the face. Like the rest, they exploded the instant they were hit.
Yusuf didn’t hang around, he quickly moved back towards the window, looking for the Lakitu. It was hovering just out of range and he scowled towards it, watching as it swayed backwards and forwards but never quite close enough until, suddenly, a gust of wind picked up seemingly out of nowhere and blew the Lakitu straight towards the fortress.
Bang! Bang-bang! Yusuf leaned out the window and fired off three shots in quick succession. He watched with relieved satisfaction as at least one of the bullets connected and the creature dropped out of the sky and down into the nothingness surrounding the fortress.
Sighing with relief, Yusuf checked the other windows and the doorway, making sure that was the end of that. Satisfied, he checked on the others before moving back towards his spot against the wall. He placed the gun down beside him, wiping his sweaty palms against his trousers. The remains of the Spiney’s smoked slightly but their pungent smell seemed to have lost its intensity.
He was just getting ready to settle in for the long haul when the fortress started shuddering, the very foundations of the building beginning to rock and quake.
“Oh, what now?” Yusuf muttered, moved away from the wall and towards the others as loose stones and debris began to rain down from the ceiling.
There wasn’t much he could do if the world was beginning to collapse, he supposed, other than wait it out or give a premature kick and pray the others made it out with him.
It was an easy enough decision to make, with Yusuf knowing that he’d at least wake up should the dream collapse now. The thought of waking up alone, chained to his chair was not an appealing thought however and he just hoped that the others would make it out alive, their job completed to Fischer’s satisfaction.
A chunk of the roof gave way then, smashing to the ground just inches from Arthur’s legs and Yusuf winced.
“Come on, come on,” he repeated, a mantra urging the other to hurry up.
Eames was the first to wake and Yusuf sent up a prayer of thanks as the other man sat up, looked around the crumbling fortress and then turned a grin on Yusuf, seemingly unperturbed by the fact they were about to be crushed to death.
“Yusuf, my man, how are you?” he greeted, pulling the needle from his wrist as Cobb and Arthur woke and began to do the same.
“Just wonderful,” he replied with put-upon cheer. “I had my good friend the Lakitu to keep me company.” He gestured towards the small mounds of smoking gunk.
Eames laughed, “Looks like you did alright.”
“Did you do it?” Yusuf asked then. Eames nodded.
“They should be awake back up top.”
“We should get going ourselves,” Yusuf said, “this entire place is about to come down on top of us.”
“You realise once we’re awake we’ll still have to deal with whatever Fischer has in store for us?” Arthur commented.
“Not like we have much choice,” Eames muttered.
“I think he’ll keep his word,” Cobb said. The other turned to stare at him, surprised.
Cobb shrugged. “He was hiding out in Limbo, playing some kind of miniature version of these levels like it was an actual game. I’m not entirely sure we won, but he seemed to concede that we’d at least gotten that far.”
“You think he’ll let us go?” Arthur asked, eyebrows raised. “Just like that?”
“We did do what he asked us to,” Eames conceded, “We got back what was dear to us and everyone else survived too.”
The fortress gave a particularly violent lurch at that moment and the roof started falling in. A large chunk of stone crashed down into the space where the PASIV device lay, crushing it instantly.
“We don’t have time for this,” Cobb yelled then, “Yusuf, blow the charges! We’ll just have to deal with the repercussions when we wake up.”
Yusuf nodded, pulling the detonation device from his pocket.
“Ready?” he yelled.
As ready as they’d ever be, they all gave simultaneous nods of assent, and Yusuf blew the charges.
[ Next… ]