"I see you're awake, Mr. Forte. Very good. No, don't try to get up. You'll find these straps to be more than your match." The wizened old man smiled and stepped back to enjoy the sight. Forte lay on a metal table, his hands, feet, torso and neck bound by leather straps. He was dressed in the black clothing he'd worn when infiltrating the compound, though his shoes and belt had been removed. The two men were located in a small, dark alcove that was lit only by torches on the walls.
"My name is Vitor Dranera," the old man said, "and I've been awaiting your arrival. Let's get you into a more comfortable position." He held up a thin remote and pressed a button. There was a hum and a click as the table's legs withdrew, leaving it floating in mid-air. Dranera pressed another button and the table began to tilt, the part holding Forte's legs going further and further down until the table was almost completely vertical. Dranera pressed the button again and the table became transparent. Only the straps could be seen, wrapped around Forte's appendages.
"Marvelous, isn't it?" Dranera said. "Magnetism and light, nothing more. We didn't want anything to obscure your view." He took a step and the hovertable followed silently. "Perfect. The table should follow me automatically now. I wondered if the engineers had finally got it right, tell you the truth. It got a little messy last time, particularly when the thing blasted off right into the Sin Eater. Took forever to clean."
"The what?" Forte said.
"Ah! It speaks! Very good." Dranera grinned. "The Sin Eater. It's this box where-"
"Why ... why am I here," said Forte. "Where am I?"
Dranera pursed his lips. "Mister Forte," he said. "I've got some interesting sights to show you, and I'd appreciate if we could dispense with the feigned innocence. You're a secret agent for the Gallente. You're the fifth one this year, and quite frankly we're getting a little tired of the intrusions. What I'm going to do for you, I hope, is slake that immense thirst for knowledge which drives people like you to constantly butt in where they're not wanted. So! Shall we go?" He smiled, and walked slowly out of the alcove, the hovertable that held Forte floating along after him.
They passed through a dark corridor and came to a metal door. It slid open with a hiss, revealing blue, pulsating light. They found themselves in a cavernous room, standing on a small ledge. A metal bridge protruded from the ledge and reached across the entire room, bound on both sides by a very solid-looking metal fence. Tinted floodlights were set in the ceiling, their glare casting strange, giant shadows on the walls as it was reflected from the surface far below the bridge - a surface that was constantly ebbing and flowing.
"A moat?" Forte said. His voice echoed.
"Indeed. A lake, really," Dranera replied. Halfway across, the bridge widened a bit and the metal fence was replaced by a transparent material, enabling onlookers to see the ocean below. Dranera walked there and knelt to pick something up. "These are the Sacred Waters," he said. "It is said that no man shall ascend unless he has been bathed in them." He held up the object for Forte to see. It was a severed finger. "Personally, I've always felt that a rise through clear waters was far too easy a challenge. Watch, please." He leaned over the fence and threw down the finger. It seemed to fall for a long time, until a massive tentacle suddenly whipped out of the water, coiled around it and plunged down again.
They passed over the bridge and out of the room in silence, Dranera grinning all the way.
The next room was similarly built: huge, with a fenced metal bridge passing over a wide expanse below. This time, though, it was land, so deeply forested that nothing could be seen but the trees, and the lamps set in the ceiling cast a bright yellow tinge. Halfway across, Dranera stopped again, and pointed to a small cage that hung from the ceiling some distance away. A man was inside it. "One of yours, I believe," Dranera said. "We've extracted all the information from him we could, so he's of no more use." He raised the remote and pressed a button. With a clank the bottom of the cage gave way and the man plunged screaming into the forest below. There was a series of roars from various places, some loud thumps, and the tops of a few trees swayed. The scream sounded again and again, louder and more raw each time, until it felt like the unfortunate prisoner would burst his lungs in terror and pain. At last they stopped, and there was a wet, crunching sound.
"It's worse than you think," Dranera said with a wink as they passed on. "It's their mating season."
Having crossed the second bridge and passed through the entrance on the other side, the room they entered was blissfully devoid of any other life. It was only one floor but larger than the other two combined, and looked like a cross between a funhouse and a retail shop for dentists. Forte had turned white, while Dranera hummed a small tune under his breath. They passed a massive glass cage filled with hundreds of fuzzy, pink teddy bears, their eyes and mouths grotesquely large. "We ... wuv ... you," they intoned in a choir of childlike voices. "Will ... you ... wuv ... us? We ... wuv ... you", over and over.
"Give me the creeps," Dranera said. "We intended them for the children of employees stationed here, but they wouldn't have them. Then we discovered, more or less by accident, that they work perfectly on intruders." He shook his head. "Put a man in there for a day or so and he'll be begging you to kill him. Ah, here's something a bit more civilized." In front of them was a sarcophagus, on each side of which was a metal arm ending in a very long needle. "This is the Sin Eater I told you about earlier. We put the heretic inside, seal it up, then let the needles purify him. Eat up his sins, as it were." He pressed a button, and the metal arms swung into life, pointing the needles at the sarcophagus and slowly pushing them in. There was a muffled scream.
"Did you know the origin of the word 'sarcophagus'?" Dranera said conversationally as the needles penetrated deeper. "Anyway, you can't see it from this angle, but this one is connected to a tube that also pumps in oxygen. We don't want the heretic to choke before he can achieve transcendence." Another muffled scream from inside the coffin. "Let's move on. The smell does get out, heaven knows how, and it's rather unpleasant."
They went deeper into the hall, past all sorts of things, including a large vat full of boiling tar with a series of different sized funnels lying beside it ("What do you do with the funnels?" "You really don't want to know"), and a transparent cylinder with thousands of tiny tubes connected to its sides ("Compressed air. Flattens you to a pulp, bit by tiny bit, and you get to watch all the way").
At last they came to a darkened, open area. Dranera raised his remote and pressed two buttons at once. On cue, the lights in the entire place went off, plunging the two men into total darkness.
A click sounded and one floodlight set in the ceiling lit up, casting a cone of light down on the floor in front of them. It illuminated a contraption that itself seemed to cast the light everywhere: It was made of glass-like material, transparent, about the height of a man, and shaped like a five-armed starfish. Each arm reflected the light iridescently, like living diamonds were writhing on its surface.
"This is the Holy Star," Dranera said and walked over to it, the hovertable following close on his heels. He reached out and laid the palm of one hand flat against the surface of an arm, then held it out to Forte. His palm was covered in grooves, small indentations where countless tiny barbs had made their mark. "Wonderful, isn't it?" he said. "So long as there's no power, that's all it does. I've even got a small replica on a stick, to scratch my back."
"And when there's power?" Forte asked.
"Glad you asked. Let's back off a little." He took a couple of steps away from the star, then shouted, "Fire!"
There was a twang and a squeak, and from out of the darkness shot a small, furry bundle. It hit the Holy Star with a sound like something soft and wet hitting something hard and unforgiving, and hung there, spread-eagled and flat like a pancake, its back turned out to the world.
"Is that a ... furrier?" Forte said.
"Indeed. Revolting little critters," Dranera said. "We use them a lot in our experiments."
The furrier began to slowly drift down, leaving a crimson trail. Dranera said, "Now let's see the Star shine," and traced the double bow of the Amarrian sigil in the air with the remote before pressing it. The star began to hum, very softly, and the furrier's descent stopped. There was a noise like someone sucking air through their teeth. Little threads, tendrils of red, started weaving their way from the rodent into the Holy Star, like drops of ink in water.
"You're killing a furrier?" Forte said.
"Think of it more as a," Dranera waived his hand in the air, "reeducation."
"You're killing a furrier."
"Shush now. Watch."
As the tendrils progressed deeper into the star, the furrier started thinning out noticeably. Dents began to appear in its fur, and a few hairs dropped off and floated to the ground. As Forte stared, the furrier's legs went into the star, deeper and deeper as if it were taking a slow dive into a pond of invisibility. The only thing that came out on the other end was more tendrils, feeling their way like floating strands of red gossamer.
Eventually even the fur went, and the tendrils turned from red to white and then to a brownish gray. Then there was no more furrier.
"That was one of the most twisted things I've ever seen," Forte said.
"Well, we do try our best," Dranera said. "And now, I fear, our little journey has come to an end. We're quite busy, as you can imagine, and much as I'd like to show you more of our establishment I do believe you have another pressing engagement." He smiled at Forte, pointed the remote at him and pressed a button. The hovertable, still vertical, floated around lazily until it had Forte a few steps away from the Holy Star and directly facing it.
"Goodbye, Mister Forte," Dranera said, and walked off into the darkness.
At a snail's pace, the hovertable began floating towards the Holy Star.
"Right, what've we got so far?" Dranera said, peering at an image on a screen.
"He's still struggling," a tech said, seated in front of a control board. "Hovertable's taken him a third of the way already."
Dranera frowned. "I was assured that he'd have more than enough time to free himself."
"He will. He doesn't seem all too stressed about it, more just wriggling about. I'd say he's taking it easy."
"Good," Dranera said and put a hand on the tech's shoulder. "Because if he dies, I hardly need tell you who'll be next on the Holy Star."
"No sir," the tech said, focusing intently on the screens in front of him. "He seems to be - yes, I think he's got it."
On the monitors, Forte had gotten one hand free and was working the straps holding the other hand. Speakers set into the walls beside each monitor gave out a small buzzing sound as each strap fell away.
"Did we get that?" Dranera asked.
"Perfectly, yes. From about eight different angles in normal light, along with the two infrareds and a few other of the specialized cameras. We'll find out how he did it."
"Excellent. I'm sick and tired of these people escaping. We had to lock down the entire compound after the last one got out of the Sin Eater."
"Indeed," the tech said. They watched as Forte worked free the last leg strap, having managed to cut through all the others. He rubbed his ankles for a moment, then set off on a run. Two of the monitors took on a greenish tint, their cameras switching to infrared as they followed Forte on his flight through the darkened hall. "Do you want us to stop recording?" the tech asked.
"No, keep it going," Dranera replied. "Might make a nice instructional for our recruits. I'm curious as to what traps-ah, I do believe he ... yes ... took a left there, so that should put him right into-"
There was a crackle from the speakers, and the screens flashed a blinding white. When they returned to normal, all they showed was a small pile of ashes on the floor, right where Forte had been a moment before.
"Shame. I was rather looking forward to watching him dodge a few more of those," Dranera said. "Oh well. Send someone to sweep up, will you?"