Approaching nightfall in Luminary Labyrinths, Swan and Ezio faced off in the library parking lot, their eyes reflecting the turmoil of their internal struggles.
Web3Dev, his grip tight on the multi-tool wrench, stood firmly beside Swan. "We've come too far to be swayed by this ex-Council vigilante... what does he actually know? We gathered to learn more about the Green Shadow Syndrome and to help all worlds. He thinks that he can do it better?" he scoffed, his voice steady, but heart racing.
Ezio, adjusting his cloak and wanting to explain, but having no time – presented an ultimatum. "Although you may not know it, I sense that the Aetherians are actually not aligned with each other anymore, and I do have more studies on the nature of the Green Shadow Syndrome. The Council's ways are too slow. Join me and embrace the future. I am calling my group the Order of the Antler. Together we can balance all prongs of the galaxies and the Core, but we must stand together. Refuse, and not only the green glitch will be your end, but I'm afraid, something far worse that I've been studying." he intoned, his eyes narrowing, as he gauged Web3Dev's reaction.
"I stand with the Aetherians", Web3Dev responded.
In that moment, the multi-tool wrench in Web3Dev's grasp began to shake. It grew, its form expanding, crunching with metallic sounds in every evolving jolt. With a warrior's grace, Web3Dev launched himself at Ezio, before anyone could get in a word.
Ezio, embodying the essence of the ancient deer spirit, met Web3Dev's assault head-on. His antlers, now a radiant crown of energy and bone, intercepted the wrench with a clash that lit up the night sky. Ezio Hare, with the majesty of a sovereign buck, repelled Web3Dev's blow, even with it's added code boost. His spectral antlers, now locked in combat with the wrench, propelled Web3Dev backward. Web3Dev's virtual form met the fence with a resounding crash.
"This is not the type of energy we should be drawing to ourselves... where's The Council when you need them," Aisling trembled, cowering closer to Ethan.
Ethan responded, "You knew the risks of several Yeye in one place."
"Yeah, but I didn't expect to run into —"
The air suddenly crackled with a new energy. From beneath the hood of Pit's car, which had been idling quietly in the corner of the library parking lot, emerged a Shapeshifter who became massive, looming nearby over the metal gates at the library's border. Its form was a dizzying swirl of black and white, an anomaly against the backdrop of green glitches that had begun to permeate the atmosphere.
The Shapeshifter, with a fluid grace turned its gaze upon the gathered group.
"The Aetherians, the Order of the Antler, The Council—all factions striving for equilibrium yet ensnared in a web of power struggles. Blind to the true peril that grows unchecked," it whispered and hissed, its voice weaving through the air like a sinister melody, emanating from the very ether that surrounded them.
As it spoke, the Shapeshifter's form began to twist and contort, throwing the surrounding glitches into disarray. Its presence was transforming the green glitches into a frenzied storm that threatened to engulf everything in its path.
Web3Dev, momentarily taken aback by the sudden emergence of the Shapeshifter, tightened his grip on the multi-tool wrench. "What in the Labyrinths...?" he muttered under his breath, his initial confusion giving way to a resolve born of necessity. "We need to deal with this—now!" he shouted over the rising whirlwind of chaos.
"Give me the artifacts," it hissed, blasting everyone – Aisling, Ethan, Maxxyy, Web3Dev, Ezio, and Pit with a globs of swirling black and white sludge. Soon, pieces of concrete from the parking lot starting to slowly rise, as Aisling's necklace rattled towards the concrete puzzle, snapped off her neck, and was trapped within it again.
"You are the shadow that haunts us," Aisling accused, despair in her voice.
Ethan, attempting to offer solace, said, "Chasing after shiny relics isn't worth the peril, Aisling. It's not worth more than our freedom," his voice trembling, betraying his reluctance to confront the puzzle that had once again captured the artifact.
Web3Dev started thrashing the wrench at the mysterious creature wildly. Suddenly a green, black, and white glitch-portal opened, and Web3Dev got swallowed by the swirling vortex.
"NOOOOO," Aisling's scream echoed into the void.
"Oh tarter sauce, nah. I am flippin' outta here," Pit declared as she revved up her oracles vehicle and zipped down the street.
Stunned into silence, Ethan's mind raced, scouring through memories of his father's wisdom. Mr. Takahashi's journals and intricate charts, filled with the lore of their world and its mysteries, seemed to hold the key. Ethan knew somewhere within those pages lay the answers they needed to navigate this creature, seeing as Aisling's "friends in high places at The Council" were failing to appear.
As he scoured his memory, Maxxyy shouted, "This conflict... there's a path to peace. We must find it, together," he pleaded.
The Shapeshifter, intrigued or perhaps amused by this resolve, tilted its form in curiosity before acting. In an instant, the air shimmered as Maxxyy's figure was replicated, not once, but fivefold, creating a bewildering spectacle of duplicates.
Without hesitation, Aisling sprang into action, wielding her Laser-Sighted Sling with determined precision. She launched her efforts at the Maxxyy clones, each shot aimed to unveil the truth amidst the illusion. It's ammunition looked like candy-colored balloons, but could pack quite a punch.
Amidst the ensuing turmoil, the genuine Maxxyy stepped forward, his demeanor a blend of betrayal and resolve. "How could you fail to discern? I believed our unity was our strength," he voiced, a mix of disappointment and revelation coloring his words. Feeling wounded not just in body, but in spirit, he made his declaration. "The Aetherians ARE indeed fragmented. My path lies with Ezio and The Order of the Antler."
The Shapeshifter, hearing talk of antlers, now transformed into a giant deer, approached Ezio with a guise of innocence. "Trust in me, Ezio Hare. Together, we can secure the Yeye tokens for your noble cause," it said, its voice a melodic promise of alliance. "I've got the girl's artifact ensnared in stone again. Now let's get Swan's from the satchel."
Swan, witnessing the unfolding deception, stepped in with a plea for reason. "Ezio, don't be fooled. This creature seeks the artifacts for itself. Our trust in each other is all we have and we aren't so different," he urged, his voice tinged with desperation. "I was also on the track to balance the Green Shadow Syndrome, like you. Let me reveal my additional reasoning though for collecting. Imagine a life where each moment is precious because it's finite. That's the humanity I seek—not for death, but for the depth it brings to life in each small moment," he mused, his gaze lost in the distance.
Swan continued, "We could not only balance the worlds, but then blend them, all becoming Human. Barely anyone plays this Labyrinths game anyway. We are fading into oblivion and dust one way or another. Don't you want to experience a sunset on a planet that is round, instead of flat? Don't you want to try learning at a Core University, or eating a real ice cream sandwich with the warmth of a family?"
Ethan, drawn into the heart of the debate, found himself reflecting on the poignant loss of his father. "You speak of mortality as if it's a choice, but death isn't just an end—it's a void that those left behind struggle to fill. My dad... my family... he's gone, and no glitch or system reboot can ever bring him back. The pain of that loss is unexplainable," Ethan shared, his voice suddenly filled with sorrow, "I wish I could find him in here turning around a corner to greet me in some kind of fluke of physics, but even in here, he is gone."
The Shapeshifter tried to entrance and command Ezio, who was showing no emotion. "See, this Swan character wants to put a doom-clock onto our existence, instead of balancing the forces, bridges, and environment between our respective areas. He'll send us down to Core into dust."
Swan, faced with the misinterpretation of his ideals, sought clarity amidst the accusations. "No, that's not my intent to annihilate, but I think that's your aim. I'd be bringing us to a new simplicity, a purity in the ephemeral nature of existence that I yearn for us to understand and cherish, despite the somber pangs of loss," he elucidated, his plea a call to see beyond the veil of immortality that had blinded them to the true value of life itself. "You want this hubris to go on forever? Someone ON EARTH created us. They made up these Labyrinths and how they work. They created the rules. Out of this messy thing called love. Don't you see which world is actually more advanced? The Yeye are only HERE in the first place because of their effort."
The Shapeshifter, adorned with gems that jingled ominously on its antlers, sneered under the cloak of darkness. "Luminaries wield powers far beyond the grasp of any Earthling from the Core. Humans may possess the arts of writing, or of coding, yet their essence is sluggish and dense. In contrast, I embody versatility, surpassing even a Luminan's fluidity. Perfection lies in eternal control," it proclaimed, its gaze locking onto Maxxyy with a manipulative intent. It turned, "Maxxyy, you're part of my Order of the Antler now, is it?"
Swan, witnessing the scene unfold, murmured in realization, "It's ensnaring Maxxyy with confusion..."
"Don't you want to continue living forever? Get the Yeye," it coaxed.
Maxxyy wasn't even thinking for himself anymore and lunged towards Swan to get the satchel, multiplying again into five Maxxyy's, racing around in a circle, juggling to each other, until each Maxxyy held five Yeyes each. That was twenty-five small Yeyes glistening.
"5 times 5... five times five... trying to help us all become 'alive'." the Shapeshifter mocked Swan, especially for only having one quarter of the total Yeyes.
"Maxxyy, what the hell!" he shouted.
"It wasn't me!" the five Maxxyy's shouted back.
Swan picked up the Electromagnetic Compass that had fallen on the concrete, pointing it towards the Maxxyy's to identify the real one.
He then carefully turned the Compass in an odd way, like as if one was unlocking a middle school locker combination, clicking this way and that.
A portal opened up just behind the real Maxxyy.
"How could you –" Maxxyy started to say, as he, like Web3Dev was, became sucked into some unknown area of the map. The other Maxxyy-mimics followed like lemmings, in a cacophony of "How could you do thatttt?" and the portal closed with a jitter of green glitches.
Swan's party hat bobbled. He turned to his left, looking at Aisling and Ethan, the sheepish teenagers. He turned to his right, seeing the stoic Ezio and the malevolent Shapeshifter, both with majestic antlers.
He thought to himself while calculating risk, "Well obviously, the Order and the... let's call it 'Mimic-Order' of the 'Shifter must not have all 100 between them yet. We'd be in a completely different and actually destructive situation. I'll play dumb like Ezio, who is actually not siding with this Dark entity at all... but does the Shapeshifter know that? Ezio has got a good poker face on him, moving in silence. I can tell they are of completely different morals, and maybe Ezio has a greater point than myself, but I don't know. So first, I must test something..."
Swan approached the giant deer disguise, pointing his Electromagnetic Compass towards it, the needle flickering wildly and an outline glowing of the true monstrosity of swirling black and white.
The Shapeshifter's laughter filled the air, a sound that chilled to the bone, mocking Swan's efforts as if it were all a game.
Undaunted, Swan expertly turned the Compass 90 degrees, then proceeded to manipulate it with the precision of unlocking a secret vault, his actions deliberate and calculated. With one final, decisive twist, the Compass activated, but instead of opening the anticipated glitch portal, the energy sparked a specific reaction within Ethan's Time Anchor. The Shapeshifter's laughter abruptly ceased, and Ezio's eyes widened.