White Fist

Brin and Narregan face off with the Oldest Enemy.

Guardian Down

Reluctant gradations of awareness begin to return without the slightest suggestion of urgency.

The first perceptions to infringe upon the heaviness is the trickling of water over rock and a distant melodic trilling, familiar, as though I have heard it before. It comes again, closer now, and then echoed back from two directions.

I have been overhearing this conversation at the tattered extremity of consciousness for some time.

My body is inert, melded to the ground upon which I lie. My eyelids are stones. It is the work of several minnits to open them. That accomplished, I have a spectacular macroscopic view of loose, pebbly soil pressed against my Face.

Movement of my limbs is a far more complicated proposition, but I am encouraged by the fact that I have such a simple puzzle to resolve. The flood of power that found expression through me could just as easily have left me a ribbon of cinders on the wind.

The act of commanding unwilling nerves and muscle to respond awakens in them delicious currents of pain. Arms and legs cramp. Hands and feet, conveniently numb before, are now sheathed in needles. My head feels as though it is inside an ore crusher. My hair hurts.

The taproot is, by its nature, also a recipient of my immediate physical anguish and exploits its intimate connections to my nervous system by quieting our shared discomfort.

I sense Brin nearby, but the tap is tenuous. Both she and her symbiote are holding on to life by the same thread.

At the last, Brin was able to accomplish not one, but two Passages with me in tow. The first to a point high in the air above the broken tableland, away from the maelstrom already tearing into the fabric of this world; its scream obliterating nightsounds as the void at its core fed on everything within reach.

Its existence was a blink in time. The shredded athrah healed. Not so the physical consequence of its hunger, but that was only one more scar upon a landscape already scarred by time and nature.

From our great height, we plunged together just long enough for Brin to observe another of the shallow chan’nons that rake the wasteland. I vaguely recall seeing it too, a fair distance further along the land drop.

Released by the power that held me only a few heartbeats earlier, a swirling darkness rose up in its place. I tried to struggle against it, but the last thing I remember is falling with Brin beside me.

I do not know how Brin, at the end of her strength, managed the second shift.

.      .      .

The sky above has turned and there is a most delicate blue halo washing over the rim of the shallow chan’non in which we lie. This is most peculiar. Gray lands do not awaken in Colors on Hevn and there is no mistake about the neutral energy of this place. But I am no longer on Hevn, am I?

My legs are unable to uphold me. Although the pain that wracked me has been blunted by the taproot, it is with difficulty that I am able to crawl the mere pace that separates me from Brin’s prone form.

I peel off her Face. Her features are in repose. She does not appear to be broken, or injured, but she has spent herself to reach this place with me.

My Face lifts away and, with my teeth, I remove my right gauntlet. The left one’s separation from the lacerated flesh beneath and the protective fics over it is not practical. The damage is significant and the least of my present concerns.

Movement is clumsy and slow, but I manage to hold Brin in my arms and caress her face, my damaged hand over her heart.

Spent I may be, but it takes not the slightest of my own energy to channel Source through me into her. Her body absorbs it like a sponge. I close my eyes and become hollow, an unrestricted channel for the stream of life-force that bathes us both.

I do not know how far away her consciousness may be. I speak to her aloud as well as through our shared connection in hope that something might reach out to her, call her back from her own private Edge. They stumble out of my throat in a croaking whisper.

“Brin… Can you hear me, Guardian? I know you. It would be so like you to give the last of yourself to save me. 

“Do you remember when we were matched? We were so unalike; it seemed we would never find commonality or accord. I believe our Warders thought there had been a mistake, that we would never Bind and they would have to start anew with each of us.

“Do you remember when that changed?

“You approached me in the gathering hall one first-rise and, in front of the Brethren assembled there for firstmeal, confronted me. You called me out for my arrogance, my inability to hear the wisdom in your Sisterhood’s training and experience, and my ‘strutting overconfidence’ in my own.

“To make your point, you stepped up and struck a blow that might have killed one less wary of you. I never told you the reason I did not return the strike, as you were no doubt prepared for it. I was stunned, not as much by the force of your blow—though it was masterfully delivered—as with the sudden clear vision of the warrior spirit within you that I had not been willing to acknowledge.

“So we grappled, spilling tables and scattering trays. The Brethren all cleared a circle around us and cheered. The Sisters looked on with detachment. You managed to slip every hold I knew and only my own strength kept me from being driven to submission at your hand until, at last it was my laughter that ended the contest. I believe you knew then it was nothing less than my joy in the knowledge that we would be Bound and avowed.

“Have you ever wondered, Guardian, why I have never taken a half-mate? Such is permitted and many of the Brethren have done so.

“I will tell you. I never sought that casual comfort because it is forbidden for Warrior and Guardian to co-habit—doubly so to be Sealed—as long as they are bound by their Oaths. And, my magnificent Sister, there is no other I cherish and trust with my life as I do you. You have unintentionally destroyed in me forever the ability to look with desire upon another.”

I trace with tender care the mark of her graduation around her eye. “You are dearer to me than my own life.”

These words I would never before have spoken aloud, spill out of me now, only to have them tumble to the ground around us unheeded. I lower my face to hers. Her mouth is slack, her cheek cool, her breath a thread.

I can barely hear my own voice, less a murmur now than a dry scratching noise. Some small part of me is actually glad Brin cannot hear my heart baring itself in this way. The rest prays she might hear and step back from the perilous Edge upon which she teeters, a heartbeat from trackless oblivion reaching out to envelop her.

As though I could keep her from it, I hold her to me and, with the last of my voice tell her, “I would not wish to journey further without you.”

A portion of the energizing draught remains in my pouch. The ones who concoct it for us in our garrisons call it opoct’pejut. We call it ‘muscle’.

I do not wish to release or jostle her, so I extract the flask with my injured hand and leaden arms. I trickle the dark liquid onto her lips, a few drops, like a kiss. I am allowed barely time to seal the flask and set it aside before a swift, blissful wave of darkness collides with me and, with Brin in my arms, I follow it down.

.      .      .

It is the heat I notice first. The air is hot, dry, oppressive. I am sweltering within my hard-wear and battledress. My exposed skin feels as though it is crisping. The source of this phenomenon seems to be somewhere above me.

High overhead in an impossible blue sky is a single disk. It’s brightness is so intense it overpowers my enhancements and I am forced to turn away from it. A fierce after-image blots my vision for several minnits afterward, fading in measured stages.

I recall Shiric’s orry and my self-assured skepticism as he showed me his shadow-replica of a bright sun. If we are where I think we are, this blinding disk is its originator. What a wonder to witness. I think, however, that I will not attempt to look into its unblinking eye again.

My flask is nearby with less than a quarter of its contents remaining. Brin’s is full, its seal intact. I slip that one into my pouch for now and from my own,  I place a few drops of the fluid onto her lips. Some will find its way into her system and tissues in time. Cognizant of my own diminished state, I finish off the last of it. My mouth and throat, raw from Helmouth’s atmosphere, respond in protest even as its unique warmth spreads through my body.

Prudence dictates, for a number of compelling reasons, that I find some form of shelter for us, not the least of which is the unrelenting heat pouring down. Water, a gurgling stream of it, searches through a rocky course, threading its way along the narrow bottom of the cleft. The moisture has nurtured plant life along its banks. A few of these are tree-like and, though small, their spreading branches offer a reasonable degree of cover.

Any other turn, I could carry Brin without effort, but depleted as I am, it is a graceless, lurching progress with my Guardian in my arms to reach a less exposed position. And water, which we both desperately need.

I let her down beside the stream, then lie on its bank to drink. I fill my flask with clear water and soak a shred of my garment to cool her. I remove her cloak, sash, her battledress and skin-hugging under-armor. I bundle some of the cloth under her head and, after cooling her body with water, cover her with her cloak.

The effort leaves me exhausted. By the time I remove my own garb and splash cooling moisture over myself, only the symbiote’s ability to mute my screaming muscles has allowed me to accomplish this much. One more thing requires my attention.

The fingers of my left hand look bad. Torn and raw, they are swollen, oozing an unhealthy fluid. I have too long neglected their care. In some lands on Hevn it would already be too late to save them. Here the unseen organisms are apparently less virulent, or perhaps the frequent immersion in Source has staved off the worst of infection. Either way, in my pouch is a kit and in the kit is a rigid container.

Its contents spray onto my damaged flesh as a bitter cold mist that skins over and the active agent begins to penetrate into the wounds. The first minnit of the reaction is savage, but anticipated, then a merciful numbness settles in and I can breathe once again. There is nothing more I can do.

I fold myself down beside my Guardian with an unintentional groan. Sleep drags me away and holds me captive for a time.

.      .      .

I swim upward through a syrupy lethargy and surface with reluctance. With wakefulness comes awareness that Brin is lying beside me just as she was before I lost consciousness: slack and unresponsive. Her breathing is shallow, but her heartbeat feels regular. She looks fragile.

The last rays of the second arc are giving way in degrees to Night while, in counterpoint, the myriad tiny shimmering lights spread across its vault begin to reveal themselves. I dress myself against the chill that should not so affect me.

Spreading my cloak over Brin as well as her own, I remain by her side through what I have begun to think of as ‘the sparkling arcs’ and watch over her in the cold luminance of the Night-disk of this land as it makes its transit overhead.

At intervals throughout the night, I focus Source through my hands into the envelope surrounding Brin’s body. My fingers and palms pulse as she absorbs the outpouring of vital energy. I leave her only twice, briefly; the second time to refill my flask at the stream which has dwindled to a trickle. When sleep returns, it is fitful and unsatisfying.

The turn that follows is much like the one before. So many colors surround me, the blue shades of sky, greens and yellows of leaves above us and sparse ground covers, the multiple hues of stone walls and the chan’non’s floor. It is difficult to trust my sense that this is truly a Gray land, but the intrinsic energy of it remains undeniable. It seems to defy all my experience. Such matchless nature would be intoxicating were I not diminished and my soul not drawn so thin.

I have found some fibrous plant material, twisting it into a few short, thin cords. They are rude, but sufficiently serviceable to fix my cloak into the low branches directly above Brin, affording more adequate shade and shield from the uncomfortable light and heat of the arcs to follow. The effort reminds me that my injured fingers, angry beneath the protective second skin, will heal more quickly if I do not continue to infuriate them.

In my pouch is aguya, a thin, hard-shelled cake prepared from the ground meal of the huku nut and a coveted substance called peshneej. It is wrapped in a tough paper that crackles as I break the seal and unfold it. The crisp outer shell crunches as I bite through it into the meaty interior releasing a burst of pleasing nuanced flavors. I take three small bites only, about a third of the cake, chewing each one to liquid in my mouth before swallowing. I chase it down with a single lingering swallow of muscle from Brin’s flask.

As before, I dribble a couple beads of it onto Brin’s lips, letting it trickle into her mouth. I feel my heart quicken as something in her responds to the presence of the liquid. Her mouth works in an absent way to take it in and swallow, and much of a great, fearsome weight is lifted from me.

I lift her head and shoulders in the crook of my arm, prop her slightly upright, and allow her a sip of water. She takes it, and another.

As the bright sun progresses through its second arc, Brin achieves a brief interval of tentative semi-consciousness during which I help her to drink water in measured, but frequent doses. Her body is greedy for it. I tell about this place in which we find ourselves. I describe the bright sun that marches across the first and second arcs of each short turn, the chan’non that shelters us, its rocky watercourse and vegetation, the varieties of flying and small scurrying creatures that inhabit it. She neither speaks, nor responds in any overt manner, but I feel her in the tap and know that she knows I am with her.

And then she lapses back into that distant, inaccessible place far from herself.

I care for the needs of her unresponsive body as best I can. I make sure her mouth and lips are kept moist as she breathes the hot, dry air of the second arc—the downward path of this world’s sun beyond its zenith. At its hottest, I bathe her in cool water, as I did the turn before, wrung from a torn fragment of my battledress.

I have watched the meager volume of the creek diminish until it is now barely more than a seep. I will need to go in search of more water soon. And food. Yet, as long as Brin remains so vulnerable, I am reluctant to leave her for more than minnits at a time.

The sun has dropped to the rim of the chan’non and shadows are quickening. I know from the previous night that cold will follow. Both depleted, we are far more sensitive to these wide temperature variations, this in addition to the observable fact that there are ambient conditions unique to this world that seem to make us more susceptible to such changes.

I disassemble our impromptu awning and lay both cloaks over Brin’s still form. Then, I set out at a quick pace up the stream bed. I do not have to look far.

A pool of still, clear water trapped in a natural basin shimmers in the failing light. It is almost a reach across and nearly as deep. My approach startles several four-legged animals of moderate size gathered there to drink. They are long-legged and lean-bodied, almost delicate in appearance, but swift. They bound into the brush and gone making surprisingly little noise. Watching them bolt away, I almost fail to notice the creature stretched out upon the moist ground between the pool and myself.

It is a peculiar thing with a muscular, tubular body like a wurm, but unlike a wurm, it moves swiftly at the sight of me with a powerful sinuous motion across the ground. It is very like a snayk, though I have never seen one on the land. As I continue to advance, it bunches itself into a tight coil, raising its flat, triangular head, fixing me with tiny, bead-like eyes. Its mouth yawns open, displaying a pair of serviceable, needle-like fangs. Its segmented tail shudders, twitching back and forth. It makes a dry rattling noise.

I approach it straight on. It springs forward to strike and my blade meets it in a blur. Its head bounces once and rolls into a gap between stones even as I stride past its flailing body to refill my flask at the pool. That accomplished, I turn my attention back to the body of the belly-crawler, twisting out its last impulses.

Brin will be, of course, too unresponsive yet. Perhaps later, when she comes around again, we will explore that possibility further. For now, this narrow prize represents a potential meal.

It takes less than a minnit to flay and gut the thing and another to bury the waste, which I do before returning to our bivouac. I hang the rope of meat in a tree-branch a long cast from our place of repose.

Throughout the night Brin rouses only once. I hear her breathing change first, then movement as she shifts her body, rising up on an elbow to look at me with bleary, but cognizant eyes.

She asks me to help her stand. Her voice is thin and dry. She wraps herself in her cloak and, providing an arm to steady her, I help her walk a short distance from our resting place. She is wobbly, but otherwise seems intact and free from pain.

Like a caat, she scrapes a depression in the rough soil with her foot and squats over it, still holding onto my hand to steady herself. She tugs at my arm. The scrap of fabric I have been using to keep her cool throughout the turn changes hands. She doesn’t return it, but raises herself upright on trembling legs and braces herself against my shoulder while she scuffs coarse dirt back over the spot.

We shuffle back to our place beside the creek bed.

Brin is shivering from the cold and, still leaning on me for support, dresses herself. Then, wrung out by the effort, she sags to the ground. I hand her my flask filled with water, which she accepts with a simple, grateful nod. She drinks. I offer her the remainder of the aguya cake. She is indelicate with it and returns the stiff paper wrapping free of crumbs.

I encourage her to take one more drink of water. She does so. Touching my face with an unaccustomed tenderness, she lays down her head and drifts away. I am content for the longest time to sit in the glittering darkness listening to the exuberant Night-sounds of tiny creatures, and watching my Guardian breathe.

My long watch affords me an opportunity to observe that the tiny lights in the Night are in motion. Their movement is intricate, as are the transits of the two larger bodies encircling this world. On Hevn there are four objects that encircle in the ever-Night above us. Their paths never alter; they rise here and they fall there, in this order, every turn identical in procession since the First Turn.

The difference is small, but I am certain the incomplete Night-sun is becoming more fully round with each turn. How could this be possible? In the oft-repeated words of my Warder, Barth, “How should I know? I’m not a Methodist.”

I wonder what the secretive Methodists might think of a world where the sun is a disk of blinding incandescence and heat and the Night is filled throughout its depth with points of light and one, a disk reluctant to show itself, seems to begin its arc across the Night later each turn.

I wonder, but I cannot imagine the answer. Methodists are inscrutable.

Sometime before the halo of the dawning of a new turn paints the sky, my back propped against the sturdy contour of a friendly tree, I doze.

.      .      .

I am unsure how much later the sound of movement nearby brings me back to the moment, awake and motionless. Brin is beside me, curled on her side, asleep, her breathing soft and regular. It was not her movement that awakened me.

My breath mists in the air. All is quiet. Sounds of movement. Animal sounds.

In the half-light between Night and first-rise, I see them, a small group of four-legged creatures, five in all, passing by in a file. They are all of a kind with heads seeming almost too large for their stout, low-slung bodies. They are covered in coats of bristly hair with sharp ridges on their backs. Their split hooves look sharp and dangerous, but not as formidable as the forward-curving tusks sprouting from the snouts of the three largest of them. The other two bringing up the rear appear to be younglings.

They look and smell very like the pugnacious pors’uc that, regardless of Color, herd together in some of the wild areas of Hevn. If these share any of the same characteristics beyond a singular ill temperament, their hearing and sense of smell is more acute than their eyesight. This may explain why the first in line, the largest of the group, almost past us along the moist creek bed, stops short with its snout in the air

Its breath lays down a brief swirling fog as the rest crowd up behind and mimic its posture. It is a burly thing, big enough to create a serious disturbance and of sufficient size to provide adequate meat to satisfy an intensifying hunger.

Other than a few bites of aguya, I have not eaten since before the last time I witnessed Gog rise on Hevn. I am afraid I no longer have a clear idea how many arcs, or even turns might have passed between that moment and this one, but dire combats have been engaged and vast distances traversed. I know, too, that when Brin wakes again, she will be ravenous as well.

Pivoting on sturdy legs, the pors’uc faces my resting place with a show of snorting and grunting that I interpret as the enjoining of a territorial dispute. I am unsure what it is about the nature of my presence that could have sparked such marked hostility. Five sets of black eyes fix me with a sharp mixture of curiosity and enmity.

I do not know what these tuskers eat. Judging by their rough appearance, aggressive posture, and my experience with their counterparts on my own world, I would guess they will eat whatever they can scavenge, uproot, or kill outright.

My fingers find the handle of the blade at my belt and curl with reassuring familiarity around it. I am unenthusiastic about a confrontation with fast, belligerent creatures in my present state, but unless they are able to shield themselves, or come armed with energy weapons, I believe I may yet hold at least a precarious advantage.

The lead brute advances. It is tentative at first, clacking its teeth together, tearing at the dirt in front of it.

Ha’eh, I know this kind. It will cautiously close the gap between us until either movement on my part, or its own proximity will prompt it to storm forward with tusks poised to disembowel, hooves and teeth to rend and tear.

Only a few more deliberate steps remain to be within range to strike for either of us. When the moment comes, it will be swift. Motionless I wait, gauging its commitment.

I observe the subtle shift of its musculature, an evident compression. I draw a silent, charging breath.

Its head jerks up and around, away from me. Its body follows like a whiplash.

A sharp concussive blast splits the air and some kind of projectile tears through the creature’s neck spraying blood and bone. The beast is flung to the ground almost at my feet, helpless, its life twisting out of it. The rest of its family, startled into flight, scatters into the brush further down the stony cleft.

I am on my feet, shield up, blade reconfiguring itself for throwing. At the far wall of the chan’non, just where it cuts away and out of sight, sheltered behind a pair of large downfallen rocks, is a human. Another Gray t’sunguc, so he appears. His weapon is trained upon me.

      ~      ~

Guardian Down Read More »

No Refuge

I have lived nearly a yonn, fifty-three yarnn, to be exact. The last dozen of them have been in the personal service of our Nee’m, The Fayne, Lord of the White Order, Master of All Hevn.

I have trained with the finest, battle-hardened warders and weaponsmasters and, like the others of my Order, I have touched and moved energies that would incinerate the uninitiated, but never have I been joined with such raw elemental power as that channeled through me by the being I once thought to be a T’sungon artifact.

I am overjoyed to be alive to tell of it.

My Nee’m calls it the Argent Flame. It was his fabled weapon, unused in over an a’yonn, and recognized by all as the unassailable symbol of The Fayne’s authority—until it was stolen by Shiric, The Oldest Enemy. I thought it an intriguing tale, at the least.

It has a name of its own, this artifact-being, one the human voice cannot reproduce. I have an image of an unrecognizable symbol sketched into my memory by a lyrical sound played on an unknown instrument. Tu’chah-j’toc, as it is referred to in High Speech, has chosen to slip from my ravaged hand.

Brin and I have been displaced from our assured shared doom, away from Helmouth, the Black land and, beyond all credibility, from Hevn itself, to I know not where. I have a suspicion, but it challenges my understanding.

The energy of this place is neutral, a Gray land. This is to our advantage, as there are worse Colors we could have landed in.

Brin landed hard. She is depleted and dazed, but seems unbroken and, for this, I am grateful.

The t’sunguc I have encountered here is also a Gray, so we refer to the denizens of the neutral lands. I sense no threat in him, nor in the creature that guards him only a cast away, snorting and eyeing me with distrust.

We are within the shelter of a rocky niche in what must be a larger geological formation. It rises behind us and away to an undeterminable height. Opposite, less than four chain from where I sit with Brin’s head in my lap, is a steep rock wall describing a rugged horizon that curves away in both directions out of sight.

Between my limited vantage point and that further wall is a chan’non, what we call the gorges that often reveal themselves between the lands of Hevn. This one is not so deep, or treacherous. I can see the tops of some kind of vegetation growing up from below and hear the sounds of water flowing and small creatures. I can smell them, smell the dampness of stone and soil, smell this human and his four-legged companion. None of it is familiar.

The greater mystery lies beyond that near horizon, and in the Night above us. It is filled with tiny lights.

I have no idea what they are, but there is a multitude of them across the arc of Night. And they shimmer, jewel-like, some brighter, some less so, each at its own unique and unhurried frequency. One steady light, however, much larger and more luminous than all the others, hangs just above the Edge—if Edge it be, for I can see nothing from this perspective but the Night beyond and these sparkling points.

 This greater object in the sky is smaller than Dimm, but casts a much brighter light. It is a cold light, like Fayne’s Eye is cold, though nothing near the Eye’s intensity. Its shape is eccentric, rounded on top but incomplete on the bottom, as if part of it had been lost, or carved away. Faint patterns on its surface, individually vague, taken together suggest an obscure face.

Perhaps the entire sky above is another clockwork device like the ory in Shiric’s workroom. Perhaps merely a decoration. Whichever, I applaud its spectacular scale. We may only guess at the artisan that put it there.

Brin coughs, and again, her body clenching with each. Her eyes open on mine. Her body ripples, stretching, and I give her a hand up. She seems steady and alert, breathing in the signature of this place, senses questing, observing the Gray. How resilient she is.

“Source is strong here. I like the feel of it,” she says. Her voice sounds husky and thin from her exposure to what passes for air in The Enemy’s keep.”

She returns her attention to me. She looks puzzled, stares into my eyes for a moment, nods understanding, and coughs again. She manages a hoarse whisper.  “We’re going to need it. Awaken Takt’ot’sutoc.”

“Awaken…?” The word comes out as a croak. Speaking, much like breathing, feels like glass fragments in my throat and lungs. Raw from Helmouth’s air, each syllable is a rasp.

Reminded of it, I recognize the taproot symbiote’s subtle presence and feedback, a layer of awareness beneath the normal din of the ambient mind, has been missing since our arrival.

Beneath my hair, in the back of my head where neck and skull join, is a fleshy bulb, now drawn into a tight little knot. I massage it with two fingers, no harder than I would my eye, and feel the symbiote responding, its petals opening, cilia twining in my hair, and its enigmatic mind reaching out to the only other of its kind in this strange land.

‘Ah, there you are,‘ Brin says inside my mind. ‘This Gray watching us… you found him here?’

‘Ha’eh. He was here before us. I let him live. I do not believe him to be Shiric’s minion.’

Brin acknowledges the Gray with a nod. He stands apart from us at a respectful distance, waiting without watching, without agitation. I like his bearing.

‘And the Flame?’

‘Tu’chah-j’toc left me. It is free of its imprisonment and we are not cast into the Black Well. A fair trade, would you not say?’

‘Our Nee’m will not agree. Do you know where we are, Warrior?’

‘Ee’eh. No longer Hevn; that much is evident.’                         

I guide her attention with a gesture and she turns about to face the Night bejeweled.

Her breath catches in her throat and she makes a soft noise that makes me smile. She reaches a hand upward toward them. ‘… so very far away…,’ is the only clear expression I get from her.

I hear the note of awe in her and it moves me to regard the spectacle anew from her perspective. How far away, I wonder.

We stand together in silence drinking in this inexplicable wonder. Minnits pass.

‘This Gray will have answers to these mysteries.’ She approaches him with an easy gait and speaks to him words of quiet reassurance.

Her voice, as always, is a perfect mirror of her power. A sea of vibrant energy surges just beneath her calm surface. She carries herself with confidence balanced with just the right touch of humility—not feigned, but in the sure knowledge that the power flowing so effortlessly through her is not her own. Only by virtue of her Gift is it for her use in service of our Oath, our Nee’m and, by extension of these, ONE.

I have seen her work her art with others many times before, and am keen to hear the story this Gray may tell. Yet, I cannot help but turn my attention to search the uneven stone floor of the cavity all around me for a hint of where the tiny J’toc may have fallen from my grasp upon our arrival. Scattered remnants of the Gray’s fire litter the area, but I can see no sign of a dull glow or faceted shape among them.

Even as I determine to commit a more detailed search by sifting the debris, the air around us changes, charged with peril and dismay and the hot, metallic taint of Helmouth’s air. Brin is already donning her Face, as am I.

The now-too-familiar pyramidal shape of The Enemy’s gigantic ally is beginning to take form out on the flat area a cast beyond this sheltering rock. The Gray’s four-legged Guardian is there and I hear its scream of terror, a long, high, tremulous sound.

A sudden pressure buffets me. I had thought us safe here, at least long enough to rest, maybe mend. I should have known better. My weapon fills my hands.

The monster Shiric called Prysm has managed to pry open some etheric doorway between us and through it they come, the Black Lord’s marshals.

A gholl’guc, black as Night and bigger than a trocc, rushes out to engage me brandishing blades glowing with a disturbing luminescence. Its footfalls are so heavy I can feel them through the stone under my feet.

If the prize I have stolen away from under The Enemy’s nose is to be recovered, what better courier to carry it back to him than one with no soul, no consciousness of self to be influenced by it. It is a poor tactic then that it presents itself so readily for me to return it to the pile of lifeless rubble it is in truth.

I put air under my feet and skim the up-sloping stone roof of the cavity toward open sky even as my weapon thunders down upon the heedless thing a brisant hail, tearing at it without achieving much real damage.

Behind the animated behemoth, the tunnel-mouthed d’moni steps through the portal and out into this world The sound of her gulping air through her maw is promise of another deathsong. Her last one was terrible.

Brin’s first bolt is aimed to follow that indrawn breath and tear the creature’s head apart in a blossom of white fury. Midway to its mark, it bends away into the triangular portal, swallowed up and gone in an instant without effect.

I am changing the modality of my weapon and the gholl’guc does two things I would have deemed impossible a moment ago. It leaps into the air, high enough to slash at me with its blades. I see the poisonous light of them as they spang loudly off my shield.

For the first time since its creation, after all my time in The Fayne’s immediate employ, my shield is damaged! I can feel its weakness radiating from the point of contact.

I know exactly what it is now, this glowing matter forged into a weapon of unnatural power, although there is no time to consider the twisting rush of questions that accompany such realization.

I feel but do not hear the rumble and quake of the gholl’s bulk reuniting with the ground because the pale aberration below me chooses that moment to scream its deafening malevolence at us. The air around me withers.

The psychic and physical onslaught of that murderous Word one could never attribute to a single voice. It is a cacophony, an explosion of shattering pitch and volume and crushing pressure.

It killed four of my brothers and their Guardians, damaged two others grievously and, even through a layer of stone between us, brought me and my own Guardian to the floor in misery. Here and now, the rocky hollow in which we are momentarily contained has become a perfect acoustic concentrator, an amplifier for the d’moni’s terrible mind-splintering cry.

The force of it hurls me back and down to the ground and, through the blinding pain knifing through my head, I see dimly the shape of the gholl advancing on me. The dead glow of its blades is exactly the color of the sound promising to shred my flesh, turn my organs to jelly, and pulverize my bones.

Through a haze of blood I see a huge three-toed foot plant itself mere paces away from my face and feel the shudder of its weight through the rock beneath me. The juggernaut shifts its prodigious weight to step near enough to strike through my shield and finish me. With arms that feel like pudding I am almost able to train my weapon on the thing.

White light explodes through the thing’s leg, shearing it from ankle to thigh and spraying fragments behind. Even as the thing topples to the side, arms flailing, the killing voice chokes off. Two sharp, cracking sounds punctuate its final note, a single wet, gurgling gasp. Another sharp crack follows and the reverberations of its horrific last Word rebound from walls of stone out and away down the chan’non under the strange twinkling Night beyond.

Animated, but not truly alive, the gholl feels no pain and, crippled though it may be, continues to advance, scrabbling forward with single-minded purpose—if one could attribute to it a mind.

My body is wracked with agony, but I am not my body; my death has assured me of this. My nerves are raw. My muscles are sluggish and weak. I am bloodied and my head feels as though spikes have been driven into it. Yet, unlike that thing, I am alive. It will not have me.

I command my body to roll aside and, reluctantly, it does so as The Enemy’s puppet delivers a wicked arching chop. It glances off the edge of my shield near the right shoulder and deep into the much softer stone beneath. Here again, my shield is weakened. The buried blade comes free easily.

Small, but strong hands grasp the front of my battledress and pull me almost upright. My feet stumble into position to hold me from falling back. I almost have my balance when Brin jerks me forward several paces further, away from the relentless animated thing.

‘You don’t have time to dance with this ga’chukt! We must flee!’ There is an uncharacteristic urgency in her voice.

‘I do not have the Flame.’

‘They don’t know that!’

She is pointing to the flat area where the enormous dark triangle has solidified. Prysm has come at last in the iridescent, pitted flesh.

Beside it, swaying over the pale heap of the tunnel-mouth’s corpse is the Green d’moni, Blume. Long ropey arms of bundled fibers whip forward and, from the tips of each, a spreading pattern of tiny pods come hurtling at us. I have no doubt about the unhealthy effect of their touch should even one of them find us. With a wave of her hand, Brin sweeps them all away into the chan’non.

I will my arms to raise my weapon, open its throat, and trigger a river of incandescent plasma. It bursts from the muzzle with a sustained recoil and flows instantly just wide of the largest target I could ever ask for—Prysm’s hulking form.

The ravaging force of the beam causes the air to shriek and I lean in against it, guiding it back to the mark. The creature becomes insubstantial, its pocked, iridescent flesh the endless black of true Night. Only the triangular outline of the gateway remains.

Into that space I pour the full destructive force at my command, my Gift channeled through this perfectly crafted instrument. As if to augment its might, I find my voice and cry my fury into the blackness, too.

Brin is shouting at me. My thumb is locked on the trigger and my howl of rage is almost as loud as the roar of the beam as it rends the air between me and the blank, staring portal. Brin cries once again for me to desist, then reaches out toward me and I am cast violently backward.

From the depths of Prysm’s empty form, the torrent of my own plasma stream is returned to the place where I stood, its force undiminished. It vaporizes a tunnel into the rock behind before it winks out.

Brin’s energetic shove saved me but, before I could release the trigger, my beam carved off a section of the overhanging rock face. The slab falls with a terrific crash less than a pace from where I find myself in a sprawl. The fragment is twice as large as the air-car Brin and I commandeered earlier this turn. It topples, thundering to the shallow chan’non floor below with the sounds of breaking and crushing in its wake.

I have acted like a neo and a fool and, if not for Brin, I would be a dead fool by now. Several times over. She will be subtle, but she will not let me forget this.

Blume has produced more of the deadly pods, whipping them at us with an eerie accuracy for something without eyes. I burn them out of existence with a fan dispersal of the plasma stream, a cone of sizzling energy that touches the d’moni for only a beat.

It flinches away flailing, its bundled fibrous trunk and extremities smoldering. Before I can focus the beam into a thread to cut the Green to pieces, the ray is twisted into Prysm’s nullifying emptiness and I cut it off, lest its energy be redirected back at us again.

The gholl has coiled its remaining leg under its body. Brin is closer to it now and it springs at her with its blades whirling around it in a glowing blur. Bad move.

A bludgeon of force slams it flailing across the space between her and Prysm where several new, smaller forms are only just emerging from the open portal. The soulless thing plunges among them, scattering them without ceremony.

‘I can’t keep this up!’ Brin’s breathing is labored and I cannot miss the note of uncharacteristic dread in her sending. It is a shout far louder than her words convey.

Her energetic expenditures have been excessive, if one considers she began the turn battling by my side to the Black heart of Helmouth before being flung into this remote and unknown place. And twice now this turn, we have both been laid low by the killing voice of the tunnel-mouthed d’moni. Brin is spent.

As The Enemy himself boasted, he has a vast reserve of expendable resources to array against us and the will to do so. Conversely, our own reserves are exhausted and we are, in truth, fighting with our backs against a wall.

For the moment, however, we have opened a hole through which we might at least gain room to maneuver.

Brin throws herself into the sky on a high, arcing trajectory across the sparkling Night. I hurl myself outward in the other direction, low and fast toward what may be the Edge of this world just beyond the far boundary of the chan’non.

In a heartbeat I am beyond the near horizon to find not an Edge, but a wide, fractured wasteland that drops away onto a vast plain stretching out as far as my eyes can see.

Shield down and cloaked now, I race headlong, skimming the broken terrain. It is a blur beneath me.

I reach the drop and dive down more than two chain to the scattered scree and sparse vegetation at its base. I pull up and blend against a low rocky wall. There, the half-light above casts its radiance through a growth of thorny shrubs, tall enough for light and shadow and my cloak to afford me layers of concealment. I watch the rim above for sign of pursuit.

I have no idea the nature of the entity, Prysm, beyond what I have seen, and what I have seen is unsettling. That it is able to bend space for itself and others, is obvious, but beyond this, the extent of its capabilities is unknown. Shiric said it was with him before Hevn was made.

Before this turn, I was unaware there was ever anything but Hevn.

Five figures come swift over the wall of the drop, far apart and to either side of me. Each is hunched low astride a small machine with a narrow, elongated body. They are t’sunguc in black and tan light armor, scanning, no doubt with enhancements like my own, for any movement, alert to any sound. They continue onward into the plain without slowing.

A sixth harrier appears above the rim maybe a chain away and pauses, motionless. It begins a slow descent, drifting in increments toward me until all I can see is the bottom of the skimmer’s chassis obscuring my view of its rider.

Four disks on the undercarriage, two located front and rear and two on spindly outrigger vanes on either side, emit a low hum and shimmer with a thin blue light. The air around them shudders as the craft settles a bare span from the ground and only a toss away from me. between us seem irrelevant.

The toothpick figure at the controls steps off onto the gritty soil and its head pivots on a thin neck collared with protective armor. Unlike the others that passed before, this is no courser. The tracker’s helmet has only a half-visor, perhaps fitted with the usual visual augmentation, but it is not looking for me. This one has followed, by means of a natural Gift or an aberrant enhancement, a trace that the thorny shrubs and my cloak cannot obscure.

Its blade of a nose is tilted up, snuffling, nostrils flared, rapid inhalations expelled with force and repeated as it whirls to confront what it cannot see, jerking its weapon around to train upon me. It falls, the node that stopped its heart an inert sphere in its chest.

I cannot say why I am disconcerted that the darker-than-Night triangle begins to form upon the spot where the tracker fell, engulfing the body and part of the skimmer; it was inevitable.

Prysm is massive. Its physical presence intrudes upon the space. This close to its coming, the force of displaced air and discordant energies thrust outward from it strikes me like a moving wall. Unshielded, it hammers me against the rocky surface behind. The remainder of the hapless tracker’s machine, sheared off cleanly, skitters away and topples into the dirt.

I see Prysm’s nacreous skin for the briefest instant before it seems to flow across the interval between us. My death is standing beside me, as close as a lover, watching it. And Brin—between us somehow.

For a beat, a cold, bone-deep and unquenchable touches me as my back seems to slam hard against my Face and I am jinked away.

Almost before I am fully reintegrated, Brin jerks me forward and I stumble. So does she.

We are at the bottom of another twisting chan’non. Or the same one; I have no idea where we are, but all of my extremities exchange places at once and she folds us again.

And again.

First to a vantage point on the rim of the tableland overlooking where we’d just been. Then again back to the chan’non floor where we started. I see the scuffle in the dirt where we fell together moments before. I may have to throw up there.

Her fist is still knotted in the fabric of my battledress. She hauls me into the air toward a rocky bend in the snaking channel, and I do not need a more detailed explanation of the immediate plan. We swoop around the turn together and accelerate away as a wave of pressure surges outward from the place we’ve abandoned.

Brin is in the tap. It conveys her sense of weariness and something uncommon that feels like desperation. It is oddly contagious.

‘The shard is spinning now. Hear me. When we separated, the creature sent all of its trackers after you alone. They had no interest in me. I watched and followed as The Enemy’s ally came to take you.’

‘When I create Passage, it causes a tear in the athrah. Through it, a strand of energy connects where I was to where I am for a few counts and, until the rend heals itself, the creature is able to follow the thread, however thin it may be. I may have confounded it by superimposing the tear it creates over our own and by remaining in this twisting course, where it can’t see us to fix our location, we may elude it long enough to escape.’

We navigate perilously close to an outcropping, twisting to brush past and around the next sharp bend, still cloaked and low against the chan’non floor. I have a jarring thought.

‘We do not know how it perceives anything, do we?’


‘If one of its harriers is able to mark our course from high above, Prysm can position itself ahead of us.’

“G’chah!” She cries aloud and turns her body in the air, slowing just enough that I slew into her embrace and we jink again. It is a deadly risk, but every move we make now is a risk.

We are back atop the tableland somewhere. The larger light in the Night of this land, the one that might have been round at one time, has risen higher above us. Even cloaked, we are dangerously exposed in its colorless glow without any reasonable cover to be found.

“I didn’t think of that,” she says and coughs. Her legs wobble and begin to fold beneath her. I steady her with an arm. I feel her exhaustion but I ‘hear’ her counting and think I understand.

She said folding us here created a rip in the fine energy matrix that permeates all things. If Prysm does not encounter the rend before it closes on its own, we may have bought a chance to slip away.

My mind darts among strategies we might employ against Prysm’s relentless onslaught, anticipating the change in pressure that signals the monster’s arrival.

It does not come and, in another moment, Brin’s smile returns. It is strained and tentative, but I am heartened by it just the same—for her, although I cannot share her relief.

These minions of The Enemy have no purpose beyond the recovery of Tu’chah-j’toc and the concomitant chore of killing us, or anyone else they might deem expedient. I do not doubt they will prosecute this imperative to the exclusion of all else for as long as it takes to meet this obligation to their dark Nee’m.

“Perhaps we might seek shelter there,” Brin’s voice cracks into a whisper. She indicates dusky peaks in the distance with an outstretched hand. Her breathing is rapid and strenuous. They are much too far for her to jink us both there, perilous minnits away even at our best speed straight and unopposed, unattainable if we are pursued.

“Ee’eh. We will stand here.” As much as it hurts to speak, it serves to focus my intent.

I feel her body stiffen as she resists both my illogical intention to stay and her desire to flee this exposed ground. She scans the stony wasteland around us with its sparse eruptions of low shrubbery and I hear and feel her breathing change.

She sees them now too. Tiny in the distance, the harriers are approaching, fanned wide apart.

‘Raise your shield, Guardian.’

‘The trackers will see us.’

‘They will anyway.’

The soil around our feet shifts away as our shields enfold us.

I feel her sag in my arms as I ask her to do the impossible. Then an angry heat suffuses the link between us, annoyance with herself for implying weakness.

‘Ha’eh, Warrior. I am with you.’

‘And I with you, Guardian. On my word and not before!’

A different kind of heat rises up around us. Criss-crossing purple beams play upon us, crackling in a violet corona that flares from our shields and scorches everything beyond that circle for a cast. I sense the areas of my own shield, below my knees and at the right shoulder, neither a discontinuity, but radiating weakness. I am grateful Brin’s is still intact, reinforcing all.

My weapon comes up and the nearest of the harriers becomes a brief liquid splash across the sparkling Night. The remains of his skimmer tumble away.

The beams wink out. Silence descends and The Enemy’s great pyramidal marshal is upon us.

In that interval between the cessation of the assault and our envelopment by Prysm’s nebulous portal, I reach into the vast, vibrating pool of Source energy that, even here in this unknown place, infuses all that is. I allow it to fill my aether-body and press it outward to form a node around us, just beyond the periphery of our combined shields.

It is the largest expression I have ever attempted.

It envelops us like a shell.

If this does not work, my death whispers in my ear with typical dispassion, Brin and I will die together with our Faces on. Thus, there is no reason to hold anything in reserve. She adds, too, in case I did not already suspect it, that Soulbridge is so far away, she doesn’t know how to convey it to me.

It no longer matters. Prysm has engulfed us.

Cold beyond any I have ever known seeps past the membranes of the node I’ve expressed and our combined shields. It threatens to liquefy the air around it. I reply with an outpouring of Source energy greater than anything I would have believed myself capable of shaping.

It requires everything I have to reinforce the bubble against the deadly cold of the void and the crushing pressure of the monster’s inevitable advance toward corporeality. I empty myself into the interface.

I have become like the Grand Cascade spilling its might in an endless thundering wave over the Edge of Hevn into the bottomless Night. Everything I am courses into the imperceptibly thin boundary between our annihilation and the bubble of light that surrounds us.

It feels as if it is draining my living essence to add to the wall of force and I, in turn, allow it to explode through me, expanding, feeding the ravenous boundary between Prysm’s coalescing form and the pulsing, radiant sphere that feels more like ‘me’ with every beat of my heart, more like ‘me’ than the fragile construct of tissue inside it, the organism that has already gone far beyond its limit.

I hear a wailing cry—part rapture, part agony—and feel Prysm compressing from every direction against my resistance, intent now on devouring us a molecule at a time until there is nothing left but The Enemy’s prize.

A whisper at the very fringe of awareness, ‘Now?’

The wild outcry trails off to little more than a keening sigh as the hollow vessel I have become tries to recall the reason for the question.

I am a detonation of power and there is no longer any pain associated with the imminent dissolution of my life to feed it. That ecstasy is balanced in an instant against something as simple as a name spoken in a voice that… smiles at me.

‘Narregan. Are you with me?’

Thought has long passed. The answer to the question exists at a cellular level.


We jink away and the instant is marked by a dull, anticlimactic thump.

The sound of the gyre imploding is so innocuous, one could scarcely equate it with the chaos that ensues.

The remaining harriers are sucked out of the sky in the first instants. Before the screaming vortex subsides, it will consume air, soil and stone, every living thing, and all matter for at least two or three chain in every direction. All will be condensed into an unrecognizable, fist-sized mass glaring white-hot at the bottom of a deep, glass-sided bowl in the middle of nowhere.

      ~      ~

No Refuge Read More »


Perhaps for the last time, I breathe wholesome air and remove my Face.

I am answered with a silence so profound I can hear my own heartbeat and the grating of the Blue’s rough hide as he shifts uncomfortably behind his nee’m. The truant energy in the endless storm outside the tower and the violent stillness of the Black force, if they still exist, are somehow outside the bubble of Shiric’s scrutiny.

I feel a prickling sensation on my right side. Brin is beside me, a slow, silent phasing into vacant space.

An expression chases across Shiric’s sanguine features for just an instant, one I have seen everywhere I have traveled, on the faces of every class and kind that has a face.

‘Interesting timing, Guardian. I thought the plan was for you to show up just in time to rescue me.’

“Did you think I would let you go to Soulbridge without me?” Brin says aloud. Facing Shiric, she lifts her chin and removes her Face. “We are Bound,” she says.

“I have been waiting for you, T’choct ot U’chah na. You may not understand why I am delighted to meet you, but I am. You are just in time.”

“I know,” she says.

It is no revelation that Shiric would expect my Guardian to be nearby. He could not be who he is and not know the workings of The Fayne’s U’chah-Aca’chi, His dread White Hammer, but his surprise surprises me. Perhaps not all-seeing after all, even here in his own den.

Shiric’s gaze is fixed upon Brin. “Signal your Brethren to withdraw and seal the Gog-forsaken White tear in my home behind them,” he says at last.

“Will you allow them to gather the dead and wounded?”

“There are no wounded and you would not recognize your dead. I will tend and honor them myself.”

Brin hesitates, bristling at the idea. I don’t like it either, but we are where we are. There is no outward sign of Brin’s sending, but she is still for almost a twenty-count.

“It is done, Lord Lecudis,” her voice is thick with emotion, “as my brother swore to you.”

“See to it,” he commands without looking at the Blue behind him.

The triangular ripple, easily twice my height and more, almost reappears. The d’moni rumbles a protest about leaving his nee’m alone with the jatjot’sunguc. That would be Brin and me. How like a mocc to depart with a vulgar insult. He is enveloped and gone, but the fluctuation remains.

“Prysm,” Shiric says, “bring my marshals.” The almost-shape ripples away.

“How is it, my friend, that you have not thought to draw the slayer’s blade from beneath your cloak, or employ the weapon at your side? It appears a formidable instrument. I am unarmed and without my ceremonial raiment—which would have been more appropriate to receive and honor you both, I suppose. I am confident you will not think less of me.”

“My warder has entrained in me that unarmed is not defenseless. Regardless, The Fayne’s instructions were specific. You are not to be killed.”

“Indeed? Yet he would allow his children to destroy my home with me in it. You know he is completely insane, don’t you?”

“He says the same about you.”

“Does he?”

“He says you would destroy Hevn.”

“I have heard his nonsense. Why would I deliberately destroy my own creation?”

His creation or not, does he think I do not know the answer? I reply as I would to a newb who does not yet comprehend the way of things. “To escape it.”

“Ah.” He manages a twitch of a smile. “I see he’s told you enough to make you dangerous, but not nearly enough to make you understand.”

There is an unpleasant tang in my throat. My eyes and nostrils are stinging.

“Understand what?”

“Why I will not break Hevn. Besides, it would make little sense to prosecute such a stratagem if I might not survive my own escape. Would you not agree?”

I would, but speaking only forces me to breathe more of this inhospitable environment’s ruinous medium.

“For now,” he brightens, “I have seeds to plant and nurture.”

I feel the atmosphere in the chamber press outward, immediately displaced by something massive intruding into the space. The thing called Prysm has arrived with Shiric’s marshals.

“Do not rush to me,” my death whispers into my left ear; I hear her in the near-silent scream of Black fury licking too near my side. To my right, I hear Brin’s ‘voice’ in the tap. She wants to know if I have a plan or anything.

The most conspicuous of the arrivals is a featureless, blunt pyramid easily twice the size of a trocc without extremities. It has an iridescent surface, like a rind. The thing is so large in this room that it might easily relocate any of the outer worlds of Shiric’s orry as they circulate in their ponderous, lonely orbits, as could any of the three d’monii accompanying this monster.

The first of them is a vicious-looking Black, lithe, sleek, and otherwise unremarkable from the rest of its kind. It is the only one of these to come armed and armored. It bares fangs at the sight of us.

The next is a dreadful, pale thing, a loose-boned figure, with long, pendulous skinflaps on its chest. It is barely covered in some tattered cloth the color of its pallid flesh, as is its hair, which falls in ropey clumps over face and arms. Its truly distinguishing feature, however, is its unhinged jaw and a hole, like a tunnel, where its mouth ought to be. The sound of its breathing is strenuous and it is plain the creature is unable to close that toothless, lipless, cavernous maw. Close-set black-in-black eyes view us with contempt.

The last is a Green mocc like nothing I have ever seen. Taller than most of its kind, it looks like a plant. Its torso and extremities seem to be bundles of twined fibers, rather than musculature and flesh. Its head, elongated to an exaggerated degree, mimics the contours of eyes and mouth without possessing either. It stands swaying gently behind the lone human in the group, another bald-pated toothpick man, like my erstwhile captive.

“Prysm has been with me before Hevn was made.” Shiric is saying. “My most faithful ally.”

I think he is indicating the pyramid-thing, but the burning in my nostrils and throat is making it difficult to breath or concentrate.

“And this is Jayle, my trusted Minister of Precautions. Step forward, Jayle, and take a careful look at these two.”

The man steps out from his associates. His bearing is proud and confident and he wears his precedence like a second badge on his black and tans.

“Jayle, I want you to meet The Fayne’s champion, his White Fist. And, as you can see, both he and his Gifted companion have been able to reach my workshop armed, unmarked, and unchallenged.”

I see the stick-man’s throat work through my tears as he swallows his pride.

“As you may recall, the First Administrator of the Academe Discipline Methodic recommended you to me as a meticulous and diligent individual, a D’kin having attained the worthy status of Technician Class Five. It was your commission to provide for me surveillance, security, and facility defense. I, in turn, have provided you every resource necessary to secure my holdings and defend them from incursions precisely like this one.”

I see confidence running away from the Minister’s face as his master stipulates his concerns. A baffled expression expires and unadorned fear rushes in to replace it. Realizing his commission is about to be revoked, he begins an impassioned explanation that includes the phrases, “… tried to intercept… every means available,” and lasts only a few syllables into something about “… faithful service,” before the futility of that effort occurs to him and he decides to flee instead.

Not a well-thought-out strategy.

With a gesture, Shiric freezes him in mid-stride, as if the air around him had solidified. The Black marshal uncoils and drags the man back to his starting position where the Minister stands at a trembling parody of attention, awaiting his master’s pleasure.

“It will devastate First Administrator Chome to learn of your incompetence. I would wish to spare him such humiliation, but there is really no way to mask your complete failure and, by his endorsement, his failure also. I am terminating our arrangement.” He observes the play of emotions on the man’s face for a long moment and says simply, “Blume.”

The Green bends forward and touches a tendril finger to the Minister’s hand.

Jayle flinches away, staring at his hand as if dumbfounded, watching the skin peel back from the contact site. His hand begins to shrivel. A thousand rhizomes sprout, searching up and outward, twining onto his wrist and arm. By the time pain manages to race ahead of his dissolving nerve tissue, disbelief has turned to horror. He beats at his upper arm with his other hand, as if he could stop the metamorphosis that is devouring him at a cellular level.

His inarticulate cries spiral up and up until he is wailing at the top of his lungs, abruptly silent as the transformation swallows his heart and lungs. His legs crumple and a swell of pale tendrils writhes from the neck of his uniform, enveloping his head before it hits the ground with a moist, hollow sound. Flesh is supplanted by mucus and a budding new life-form.

Tiny, pale green flowers, hundreds of them, blossom momentarily and wilt away as quickly, wave on wave of them. From the frozen scream on Jayle’s moss-rimmed mouth, a lazy fume of dark vapor rises.

Every breath I take is hot, sharp, painful. My eyes are burning, awash with tears as I meet Shiric’s solemn gaze. My voice is little more than a gasp. “This… weed. For us?” My nostrils feel as though I am breathing flame and a coal has lodged at the back of my throat. “Or… meal f…,” I choke down a lump of hot acid, “for…” and I gag on the word “troccs”, prompting at last what I most wanted to avoid.

I am thrown to my knees, barking shards of hot glass from my throat. Each expulsion is a rasp, followed by an unavoidable intake of slow fire.

My chest ratchets down hard as my lungs attempt to expel every last bit of the ruined air from them and, once emptied, there is nothing left but to helplessly fill them again with the same accelerating poison. I try to refuse the inevitable inhalation.

I have waited too long to act. The balance has tipped. Only the symbiotes we carry will survive long enough to translate our final experience to their larger self and to those of our Order. All we have seen and done will be known, an adequate last turn’s work, I suppose.

My body, unable to obey the impossible demand I have made of it, seizures and, against my will, my lungs fill with the sweetest breath I can remember. Brin is kneeling beside me, pressing my Face against my face.

I hear two distinctly different voices speaking to me at once. One is stern and unsympathetic and whispers that she told me not to rush to her. The other is light and unsympathetic and says in the tap, ‘I am here just in time to rescue you, Warrior.

My body continues to convulse. Brin lifts my Face away until the spasm recedes, replacing it again and pure air flows to me.

Five more times we repeat this sequence until I have heaved what might be part of a lung onto Shiric’s polished floor. He can either have one of these lackeys lap it up or jump down his own Well, for all I care now. I spit out a last wad of metallic-tasting phlegm, wipe my mouth with the back of my gauntlet and notice my fingers are bleeding again.

I brush back Brin’s helping hands. I told The Enemy I would go to Soulbridge with my Face on and that is how I rise to meet him now.

Shiric observes me with an expression of concern.

“I heard your question, ne Fist. What you must think of me. I have no desire to subject you to Blume’s exquisite touch. And I would not dishonor the memory of such a worthy adversary by allowing the mindless brutes to have at you.”

Shiric’s words sound completely sincere. Perhaps they are. I do not care.

“I have lived a long time,” Shiric says. “I learned much before I came here. More since. But I cannot comprehend why he continues to send his best against me knowing the outcome is forgone. No, brave White Fist.” His voice takes a distant tone; it sounds like awe. “You are both for the Well.”

He steps close enough for either of us to reach out and crush his throat. His face is earnest.

“You will feel nothing except the momentary peace of becoming nothing, and in that moment you will never have been. You were never here. Erased from reality.”

I do not understand, but I recognize the intensity in his eyes. The tears in them, however, are confounding.

“But your master will know,” he says, “and he will know that I know. If The Fayne you serve were more like you, I might fear for the success of my plans. I might even learn to fear him. I will not forget you, T’choct ot U’chah ne.”

My voice is barely more than gravel scraping against my throat. “Nor I you, Black Heart, in this world or the next.”

He raises a hand to make his pass, like the one that stopped the unfortunate ne Jayle in mid-flight, I suspect. As his hand moves, so does mine, reaching over my head. His eyes widen and brows arch, but his gesture continues. The tatting under the hem of his sleeve is glowing.

The phantom node I formed when I chose this course solidifies and leaps into my palm with a slap. A powerful, relentless tension suffuses the air around me. I dissolve the node and close my hand around the Flame. Disproportionate pain flares from my bloodied fingers as I do so.

The next heartbeats are divided into a series of discrete split-counts. They telescope out in front of me and time seems to pulse in unison with them.

Shiric’s stasis field is complete, enveloping Brin and me, but instead of driving our immobile forms into the Black current, into oblivion, a look of apprehension is in the process of re-mapping his smooth features. Not infallible, even in his own den.

A flood of images streams behind my eyes, most of them unintelligible. One that sparks recognition is followed by more that seem familiar, then many more, calling up memory, sparking emotion, and then—nothing. A pause, a waiting. Waiting for what, I do not know.

Shiric’s expression has completed its transition to one of unconcealed alarm. He is deciding how to reply to this unforeseen development without causing collateral damage to his precious orry. I can see the accretion of dark energy as it flows to him from everywhere, seething in a kind of nimbus around him, channeling along arms outstretched, and I wonder if the t’sungahn appear human-like because once they were human, or because we were made in their likeness.

Shiric told me that the Flame is not a thing; it is a being. In the vastness of ONE, Source flows in us both equally without discrimination, without regard to our separate origins. Beyond our unique presence and perspectives, we are of the same stuff.

A blinding radiance bursts from between the fingers of my clenched fist.

The storm of power boiling into The Enemy’s hands explodes outward toward us. I cannot tell if I see in his face naked fury or fear. The Flame answers with a ball of inexorable force that detonates from my outflung fist. It bursts through Shiric’s bolt and breaks upon him like the Churn hammering the sor’n coast. He is uprooted and hurled to the far wall of the chamber like cloth.

The Black d’moni has closed the gap between us in a blur, launching himself at us, warblade and fangs bared. Brin’s bolt meets him in the air. Shredded armor clatters to the floor with fragments of the mocc and its weapon.

Without my volition I am jerked into the air. It is not Shiric’s doing. I snag the back of Brin’s cloak with my good hand, hauling her unceremoniously along. Wherever we’re going now, we are together, as it should be.

From across the chamber, Shiric levels another bolt. Only the distant sound of arc and concussion tells me it did not find us.

The dazzling wild magik in my hand is pulling me with such velocity that it seems we must have crossed extents. I can no longer see the chamber, only a single bright blue ball with intricate shapes and contours on its surface. It is rushing toward us, filling my vision… engulfing us.

      ~     ~

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Tu’chah-j’toc Read More »

The Oldest Enemy

Two large spheres are laying on a worktable as I pass beneath another glowb, this one dark. Three smaller orbs rest on a nearby surface. They brace a squat thing bristling with tubular appendages, each finding attachment to all the spheres and the quiescent glowb as well. Each tube pulses with a peristaltic ripple. 

Here is another sphere split in half and opened like a mellin presented for repast. Both segments appear to be filled with something damp and fibrous, rather than mechanical, like organ tissue. I cannot tell if it is merely unfinished or in the process of being dismantled. Either way, it is inert and inexplicable.

Carved into the polished stone floor, a series of lines radiate from the center of this gallery. It is twenty paces to its hub, a hecs’gonal opening as wide as my outstretched arms by twice. I do not have to see the outline of its twin above me to know that it and every level below has such an opening. This is the axis of the tower, the conduit between the Black Well beneath its foundations and the Night. The energy coursing through it is the fountainhead of Shiric’s power. Tales of this are older than any living being except The Fayne Himself and it is, in this moment, fact laid stark before my eyes. 

And now it is in the tap. All of the aca’chi will see it as well, each in their time. The Brothers and Sisters engaged in the cleansing below, have no time nor need of such now. 

The only sound is a rumor from the flood of Black power closer to me than is prudent, less a sound than an uncomfortable sensation low in the gut. I feel my crawling flesh trying to draw me away before its touch ends me.

To my right hand, a pinpoint of light, low down, catches my attention and I am presented with something so familiar and, yet, so incongruous, I am obliged to make sense of it. Wonderment and vigilance grow with each step, dualling motivations.

The luminous glowb is partially eclipsed by the Black power raging silently between us, but suspended before me within that umbra, is a lone construct. Without question it is a model in relief of Hevn, presented in a way I have never seen nor conceived. It defines not only the topography of the surface we live on, but the under-world as well. None living have seen it, we are told. Yet, here is a representation in relief of my tabletop world, above and below, as if observed from some remote station in the emptiness of deep Night. It is not as I imagined.

Above the broad hecs’gonal map of its surface, a miniaturized black sun nearly fills the sky of the nor’n hecs’drant. Mysterious Solva’s representation, cast an anomalous White, follows behind Gog’s replica at an appropriate distance. A tiny, crystalline-bright Fayne’s Eye, the glint of light that caught my eye, tracks in its deep ellipse toward the nor’n edge from the under-world, where faint little Dimm traces its own solitary path, a dull gem.

I reach out to Brin in the tap. ‘Has Gog yet risen first arc?’

‘Ee’eh. Barely had it found the Edge by a hand while you were tunneling from that mound of drack meat. Two hands now and no more.’

This sounds right. Simple calculation suggests the placement and movement of these objects around the model is as their true counterparts are positioned even now in their endless circuits.

This image of my world before me is astonishing in its complexity. I know my geographies and I have seen with my own eyes places only the Aka’chi can freely go and live. Every Color, every contour of every hecs, seems accurate, as do representations of the Wells and wellsheds flowing into the Sea of Shades, so called because of the Colors submerged beneath it. We call it Hav’k.

I see the White Well at Soulbridge. Its beam seems faint and insignificant here. Each of the great kal’uns are represented, their architectures captured in what seems infinitesimal detail. The protected freeport of Kal’un Naijin and incomparable Kal’un Fayne not the least of these. Modeled here as well are remote, less hospitable locations few other than local denizens, if any, have seen and lived to tell it; Kal’un Thudra among them, as is Helmouth itself and High Seat, Aghnot, Sinder, Xenotaf, even the representation of the heaving sea looks completely realistic, from the boil of the Churn to the Grand Cascade, its contents pouring endlessly over the sor’nees edge of this replica world, dissipating into nothing. What an elegant device.

Brin is still on her haunches against the wall. She motions to me.

Wait. Sinder, once a Black outpost colony on Hav’k’s rugged sor’n coastline, was destroyed long ago, sealed off by The Fayne and rendered uninhabitable. Yet, on the model, its six-sided symmetry is overlaid in Gray, the characteristic shade of a neutral land and its surface is blank and smooth, unfinished, a curious alteration.

Turning away, light from the glowb illuminates a delicate clockwork spread across the chamber only a reach above my head. A number of tiny orbs appear to encircle the incandescent sphere where it floats well beyond the Black current. I see them revolving in procession around it, each one moving at its own pace, each marking out its own path with a slender, vaguely luminous trail dissipating behind, and all suspended by no apparent means. Perhaps the thing I seek is here too, traveling a circuitous path around the glowing hub. It is enough to move my feet.

A band of dust particles refracts light over my head, a hazy ring tracing its own path around the glowb, nearer the dark rush. Perhaps it was once an orb like the others, pulverized and scattered by its proximity to the Black flow. I reach up and touch my fingertips to the almost insubstantial motes. They eddy and scatter as I trace a lazy circle in their midst.

Sudden shearing pain erupts and I snatch back my hand. Beneath the shredded tips of my gauntlet, blood wells up and a vicious stinging blossoms with it.

“Well,” says a voice at my shoulder, “that’s going to cause a stir.”

It is not Brin’s voice.

Fleetingly I wonder who could so let down his guard when surrounded by such peril. It seems a valid concern. It is, perhaps, a measure of my discipline that my hand does not flicker toward my weapon. My other hand feels as if I had pressed it into a clot of borewurms. Despite that intimate discomfort, I am not a newb to jump at shadows or flinch from an unexpected sound. I have gained patience and composure sitting with my death from time to time.

Not-Brin’s words, mellifluous with an unfamiliar accent, are unhurried, conversational. “Do you comprehend it yet?”

Without turning away from the construct of orbs above me, I answer. “These are works of uncommon artistry, intricate…” a wave of fire in my fingertips clamps my jaw for a moment, “in ways most unexpected.”

My armor has directed a surge of fics to seal the damage and damp the pain. The first is faster. “This exceptional model of Hevn, I recognize, of course. I have no idea what the other represents, but I believe myself favored beyond fortunate to have witnessed it.”

“That you unquestionably are.”

“What is it?”

“It’s called an orrery.”

A few drops of blood and sealant have found the floor. One slow breath in and out; I turn to face him. The Oldest Enemy.

He looks human, though of course, he is not. Slightly smaller than me, Shiric radiates power and vitality. Bright blue-green eyes smile out of an ageless porcelain face framed in flowing white hair. Not at all the fanged and intractable monster of our creche nightstories. He neither looks, nor sounds the least bit sinister. Neither is he Black.

“I thought you would be… taller,” I say.

Shiric’s stoic expression is spoiled by the slight arching of one eyebrow and one corner of his mouth.

“Humor.” He looks me in the eyes, a good trick with my Face on. “I don’t get much of that around here. It is a quality unexpected in one of your craft.”

I cross my arms in the way that signals I will not draw my weapon first. “What does your orry do?”

“And curious too.” He turns away from me to regard his device. If my purpose were to exchange my life for his, this would be the moment. His attention returns to me. “Some would call it a pass-time. It is, in fact, my industry. What is your name, Slayer?” A subtle and powerful question.

“My nee’m has named me T’choct ot U’chah ne.”

“A worthy successor to the appellation,” he says, nodding. Those piercing eyes search me for a moment, then sweep the room. So do mine. Brin is nowhere to be seen.

“With no disrespect intended, I believe I will call you “Fist’. It is less a mouthful. Do you mind?”

“It is an honor to be so recognized, Lord Lecudis.”

“You have achieved that which some would have deemed impossible before this turn. Merely to be standing where you are now is a feat of extraordinary ability,” again finding my eyes with his, “and courage. I wish to recognize your valiant accomplishment.”

My warder, Barth, taught us early in our training about recognition and accolades being often delivered posthumously. I recall my death saying something similar. To hear this now is disquieting.

“Solva casting White,” Shiric says, gesturing toward the simulacrum of Hevn. “What an isolated and extraordinary manifestation. Are you aware that she has shown this face to Hevn only once in seventy-seven yonn? Spectacular, isn’t it?”

“Her hint at Gog-rise was dazzling.”

“I would imagine. How very coincidental that something so rare would occur on the cusp of your equally unlikely arrival here, of all possible places you could be. Would you not say so?”

“I had considered it more foretoken than coincidence.”

Once more, Shiric seems to stare through my Face into me. “Misapprehensions abound,” he says and glides past me in a ripple of black and tan robes, showing me his back once more, staring into the dust and the system of moving orbs above his head. “You asked what my orrery does, an intelligent question.” He levels a questioning glance over his shoulder, motions with his head. “Come, Fist, let me show you,” he says and approaches the bright centerpiece of his device as though I am not the Fist of White Light behind him.

The Master of Kal’un Shiir’n honors me. I am still alive and there are wonders yet to behold. I can see no reason not to behold them. Without being able to see his feet, I follow his steps as best I can.

The great luminous glowb hangs above us, larger in diameter than a trocc’s shield. I can see its surface is agitated with whorls and eddies, it seems a writhing skin of tiny storms, all of them bursting with light. He turns to me a’quarter and, with a gesture, indicates a featureless, insignificant blot almost imperceptible against the incandescent mass of the glowb. He fashions a lens between his hands and holds it for me to see within.

The blot is a sphere also. It appears to be composed of the same medium as its larger companion, a churning surface with light boiling from it. They are bound together by a slender tether of their shared substance.

Another lens forms in Shiric’s other hand, focused on a different orb, this one further from the glowb and from us. I can see it with my own enhancements. In fact, I can see almost the entirety of Shiric’s construct now from this vantage. More spheres of different size and natures encircle the central glowb at a distance and circulate around the chamber. None appear to intersect the Black current. None appear to be what I have come for.

The Master of Kal’un Shiir’n watches me with arms folded into the sleeves of his robes. He nods toward the second lens, hanging motionless in air before me. Imaged within it is a jewel, a bright blue marble with unrecognizable shapes embossed upon its surface. The marble rotates upon itself by some unseen mechanism. As it does so, a single companion body, much smaller, pocked and drab, turns slowly around it even as the pair move together around the central glowb.

Shiric reaches out to touch the lens with a finger and it deforms. The odd shapes on the surface are magnified, resolving into contours and elevations, like those I have studied on relief maps of Hevn’s topography. If consistent, these random, irregular shapes might represent uplands and downs and channons and the blue might even suggest vast pools of water… all overlayed onto a sphere, for the sake of ONE! I cannot help but shake my head in amusement at such a preposterous notion. What am I thinking? Yet, the texture and detail of the view have such depth, it would be intriguing to investigate. Instead, I withdraw and observe Shiric observing me.

“This level of intricacy must serve a purpose,” I say.

With an outstretched hand, Shiric indicates the simulacrum of Hevn, only a toss away from us. “You see this construct as a representation of your world, do you not? And it is, in a sense, an accurate reflection of it. In another very real sense, the world you know is a reflection of this one.” He is considering the model, not me. “I find it unnecessary to discriminate anymore, since I made them both.”

“You. Made Hevn.” I am unsuccessful muffling the incredulity in my voice.

“I know what your histories teach you, young Fist, but in truth, every hecs, the Colors, the Wells, even U’chah Ela’e that you call Soulbridge, all but the Colorless lands were deliberately set in place by my hand.”

“You made the White Well, but not the White lands?”

“You are correct. The White Well was a natural and necessary balance. However, as seems the reality everywhere and always, there were others who felt compelled to meddle in my affairs, in my work and my art, and their interference, their distortion of my original design, resulted in this world, the Hevn you know. It has taken a great deal of time and concentrated energy to reestablish the connection between the two, but I have had a great deal of time and, as you can see, energy is not a concern. The two have been one for nearly an a’yonn and I have had opportunity since to renew my true work in an exciting new direction.”

He waits for me to speak. I do not know what to say.

“In the same fashion that Hevn and its reflection are the same,” he says, “this reflection has a counterpart as well.” The lensed image of the blot is in his hand again, held for me to see it drawing radiant energy through the umbilicus. “This little world, was formed within its sun some many yonn before you were conceived, and pressed outward into the cradle orbit you see now.”

Its sun? A world in the shape of an orb circling a bright sun? What manner of fantasy is this? A toy? A game? His ‘industry’, he called it. How can this be? And where could they be? Somewhere beyond the Night? That is preposterous and none of it relevant to my purpose here. The Book of Turns tells us there is only Hevn, Gog, the Trae Occu, and the Night beyond, and the Night is boundless. The Enemy watches me strive to unpack this mystery. For each new wonder locked away in this room, so many more questions. How am I to contain them all?

“That tiny sphere is a world?”

Shiric waves a casual hand across the chamber, indicating the other components of his construct. “They all are.”

I notice my hands falling limply to my sides. The motion makes the left one throb. My head and body feel the same. I hear a distant voice exclaim, “Worlds!” Whoever it is sounds stupid.

Shiric’s manner is disconcerting. Of course, he may be toying with me; I have not forgotten he is t’sungahn, not t’sunguc. More than human. And the Oldest Enemy, after all. We are, all of us, bred and trained to be his adversaries. I should not believe him.

Discounting, for the moment, his revelation about Hevn, the scope of Shiric’s orry moving in slow procession above me represents, he says, a revitalization of his ‘true work’. I am seeing it with my own eyes within a place no one, certainly no t’sunguc like myself, would ever be expected to see it or, like a fool, touch it. I look to the model of Hevn and the intimate detail of its surface—the endless Grand Cascade and the contours of the under-world none living have seen, Gog’s ponderous representation, and the Trae Occu circling Hevn’s image right here within, just as they do without. I see no place for spherical worlds and bright suns.

“Where are they?”

He takes a slow breath, as if deciding whether to grace my ignorance with an answer. “Not here,” he says at last, “and yet, like Hevn, they are here. Do you understand?”

The troubling thing is, I do. He is saying there is a real place that is not-here.

He is animated now. “Very soon, Fist, this newly-formed little world will be released from its cradle and forced out into its own orbit. When that occurs, as has happened many times before, all of its siblings will have to make room. It is of moderate size relative to its neighbors and will require a good deal of space. The out-pressing shift will be quite energetic and will change the nature and character of all these other worlds—those closest to it, rather dramatically. Can you imagine it? To be able to observe these cataclysmic events as they unfold? It is one of the most rewarding elements of my work.”

I do not fully understand his talk of energetic shifts and cataclysmic events affecting worlds some unfathomable elsewhere, but I believe I can imagine the attraction it may present. His enthusiasm is real.

“Except for the Wells, which I fashioned myself, every segment of Hevn’s surface was harvested from worlds just like this one.” He indicates the second lens, still suspended motionless where I last saw it, but he little blue marble has turned its face while I wasn’t looking.

A noticeable discoloration beside one of the blue ‘seas’, resolves into a hecs’gonal stamp upon the map of the little orb’s surface. How very strange to see this familiar, natural shape in such an anomalous setting.

“This world in particular is exceptional, a rare and delicate treasure. I have been watching it for some time. I’ve reached out to it, tested it, and very soon now, as I have done in the past, I will collect a seed from it and plant it here in Hevn’s soil.”

It is a simple puzzle with very few parts. “Sinder,” I say.

“Oh!” For a moment he regards me with undisguised pleasure. “Oh, well done, young Fist! Well done!” Shiric’s attention shifts to Hevn’s image, to the blue marble, and back to me. “Failed Sinder will cease to be and, in its place, something new and wonderful. I can hardly wait to see it.”

“Nor can I,” I agree.

His laugh bursts from him rich with mirth, reverberating off the walls of the chamber for several long moments and flutters to the floor like a lost bird. I can guess at the joke.

“You are the most delightful guest I’ve had in a very long time. The humans I employ are either fearful, unimaginative drones or presume themselves so cunning and indispensable that conversation with them is like playing Nexis with a child, tedious and unrewarding. And the moct’unguc—have you ever tried to converse with any of them?” He shakes his head. Snowy locks fall in his face and he combs them back with his fingers. He claps his hands, rubs them together. White eyebrows arch as if a thought had just surprised him and he asks, “So, my friend, would you like to see the treasure that’s brought you all this way?”

There is, apparently, no end to the revelations this turn and I can see no reason to be discourteous to the reputed enemy of all life on Hevn.

“You honor me, Lord Lecudis.”

“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”

He motions for me to follow and leads me back to the edge of the Black maelstrom at the room’s core. I am so close to the flow of dark force that, beneath my armor, my skin is trying to drag me away from it whether I want to go or not. I most definitely do. And, curiously, I do not.

The reason I do not, I notice myself thinking with some certainty, is that the Black flow and the whisps of power appearing to flag from its periphery, will not harm me, but would, instead, embrace and empower me in incomprehensible ways. It is in such a way my death reminds me not to believe everything I think.

 I follow Shiric’s eyes. Suspended within the hecs opening above me, at the periphery of the flow, an eddy of writhing Black threads is in flux, constantly being created and dissipating around a cube the size of an infant’s fist. Its surfaces are smooth, muted gray, unimpressive.

“Not much to look at, is it?”

I cannot answer. My death is beside me and she, too, wants to know if this drab trinket is what I have risked everything to find.

Shiric is as close to me as the fury of the Black force. “Do you know what it is, Fist?” His words are conversational, patient. He is in no hurry. “I mean, do you comprehend the nature of the thing you were sent to retrieve?”

“Every child of the White knows this,” I say. “The Argent Flame was sent here with The Fayne in the first cycle of Hevn to be his weapon against the rising tide of unrestrained t’sungocc, Helmouth’s expanding influence, and a symbol of the power of the Lords of Order. After the Naijin Accords, The Flame was set as the centerpiece of the Counsel Hall at High Seat. Two hundred eighty-seven yarnn past, it was stolen and the Hall destroyed in a breach of His Law by your own…”

Shiric holds up a hand. “Your rote history is tediously accurate up to this point, but you have no understanding of the truth about Tu’chah-j’toc.”

He stares at the thing floating in the space above as if he is speaking to it, rather than to me. “It is not an object to be possessed. Nor will it confer its power to any and all who hold it. It is an entity, you see; one constrained by its nature to fulfill a purpose. Its course may be directed by agreement, but it has its own will and it has the power to define the manner in which it will fulfill that purpose.”

“What purpose?”

“Another good question, Fist, and one without a good answer. Whatever agreement was struck between Tu’chah-j’toc and the so-called Lords of Order, only they know. Undoubtedly the Fayne knew as well when they assigned him to bring order to Hevn, but your nee’m is not that one. The first Fayne died half an age ago defending the Hall as it was destroyed by, as it turns out, a very different sort of threat, not of my making. I merely seized the opportunity to take the prize then, with the intention of bending it to my own will and purpose. I have been unsuccessful. I believe now that if circumstances favorable to its intent were to align, it might even be able to undo much of my work and, of course, that I cannot allow. I would destroy it in a heartbeat and be done with it if I could, but as you can see, Tu’chah-j’toc will not allow itself to be unmade.”

I cannot but wonder at The Enemy’s motive for such candid show and tell. Maybe I am the only person he has engaged in substantive conversation for untold yarnn, but almost assuredly it is because he knows I will never leave this chamber. If this obscure thing he claims is the Argent Flame is a snare, why not a more compelling one? Shiric, with his resources, could surely fashion a better decoy than this piece of Dimmstone.

“It is a vexation to me, but I will not allow my Enemy to have it back to use against me. I am sorry your sacrifices were for nothing, young warrior, but here it is and here it will stay.”

Again, and with disturbing accuracy, he seems to find my eyes. “I would see your true face,” he says and once more I am dancing the blade edge. The shard of chance is spinning crazily.

“The air here is not good for me.”

“It won’t matter.”

“Then I will go to Soulbridge with my Face on.”

“As you prefer, T’choct ot U’chah ne. It is the least I could grant The Fayne’s intrepid champion.”

A massive triangular ripple in the air frames a d’moni officer, a Blue that resolves and kneels before his nee’m. The phantom shape is gone without ever having been there.

Their exchange is hushed, ardent. I can hear enough of the Blue’s rasping report of the conflict below us. Intruders spread deeper into the Keep than expected… losses and damage… concern for his master’s safety.

Shiric waves a dismissive hand. The mocc straightens, towering over his nee’m in an attitude of relaxed attention, but his eyes are on me.

“Your Brethren are much like yourself, young Fist, imaginative, unyielding warriors all. A powerful force to have running unchecked through my halls. It is fortunate that I have a far greater number of expendable resources with which to meet them.”

“This is no siege breaking upon your outer rampart, Black Lord. The Brethren will bring this tower down around you.”

“A remote possibility, but I thought you would have grasped the larger view by now, White Fly. If they do that,” he spreads his arms to indicate his orry surrounding us, “all of these worlds will perish.” Again the blue-green gaze. “Including yours.”

Here is a novel thought, one that could not have occurred to me before this moment. If I were to believe Shiric’s fantastic story of spherical worlds and bright suns and Hevn’s conception and its intimate reflection here in this place, then in no way could I have considered the consequences should these constructs be damaged. I am considering it now.

“Lord Lecudis,” I say, searching for words I never thought to put in order before. “In my ignorance, I did not balance the weight of these shadow-worlds against the cost of my success or failure. I have failed my aca’chi and my nee’m. My life is rightly forfeit, but I think neither of us wants the end of this world, or any other, this-turn. Allow the Brethren to disengage. Upon your Word, they will withdraw at once from the tower, from Kal’un Shiir’n, and from the Black Land complete.”

“Never to return.”

“I swear it.”

He regards me in unhurried silence. His features are inscrutable.

“I don’t know. Should I accept your life for theirs, there would be talk among my subordinates of an uncharacteristic clemency. It would set an awkward and unsupportable precedent. Next thing you know, I’ll be out on the parapet dabbling in watercolors. Perhaps, instead, I shall simply flood my home with the breath of the Well. Your master can begin afresh building a terrible new Hammer, and then expend that one against me as well.

“So many courageous young lives wasted. And for what?” He extends one long, articulate finger upward. “That?”

The sleeve of his garment has fallen back to reveal stark tatting on his flesh, razor lines in unrecognizable patterns. I have the sense he is not talking to me alone anymore, but his eyes are on me and, in them, I see the shard of chance balanced on its point. I am sensing an outrageous path. It requires immediate action.

Right or wrong, live or die, in this moment the act itself is pure, and it is done.

“Let it go!” Shiric’s voice compels obedience.

Did he just read my thoughts? Did he perceive, or was that merely the conclusion of his extemporaneous speech?

Perhaps for the last time, I breathe wholesome air and remove my Face.


Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

The Oldest Enemy Read More »

Into Helmouth

I have the sensation of falling. My descent is roughly the width of my outstretched hand, but I plop with a graceless, reflexive jolt into a resilient surface. It was a moving target, after all.

I am in the rear seating area, just behind the pilot. Next to me is a startled t’sunguc, a Gray human. He is a stick figure, attired in the standard black and tan uniform of those in The Enemy’s employ. No insignia. An observer. He has a narrow, hairless head with a nose like an axe set between tiny, close-set black eyes. These are presently wide with surprise. The creature’s mouth is a lipless slash, partly open as if about to utter a command or warning. His head jerks to observe Brin in the front next to the pilot. One of her hands is pressed against the pilot’s head, the other might be in his lap. The observer swallows hard and turns back to consider me. His eyes are narrowed, filled with hatred.

My Face is featureless, so by way of clarification, I raise my weapon and cause the barrel to flare open as it telescopes toward his head, enough he can glimpse and feel the core of fury within. No heavy projectile for this one. I would not wish to blow out the side of our misappropriated transport. There are more finely controlled energies at my disposal. I am rewarded with a cringe and a satisfying ripple of fear across his disagreeable features.

“Rather than paint your quadrant of this fine craft with you, Observer, consider this. You may yet live to see the next turn. I have no pressing desire to end you, but know that if you betray our presence before we can beg an audience with your nee’m, no force on Hevn, not even he who owns you, can stop this one,” I indicate Brin with a nod, “from taking you to the edge of the world and hurl you screaming into the Night.”

The gash under his nose opens again, but slack this time.

Brin, finished with the pilot, swivels her seat to face the man. He recoils. I flair the last muzzle segment with a sharp, deliberate clack. His attention divided, she clasps the sides of his head and I snub my weapon.

In every life, moments arrive that test one’s spirit. These moments are the culmination of choices made in this direction or in that connection, but always come down to an instant, that shard of chance, in which every subsequent outcome pivots on a decision made balanced on the edge a blade. There is no preparation for such an instant, there is only the willingness to act with complete commitment and trust in one’s own ability.

Faith is a word. I think it is meant to suggest the clarity of perception one obtains by acting in just such a way and, over time, the certainty that no matter the result of the act, live or die, the act itself is in harmony with the intent and flow of Source; it is, in that moment, pure and potent.

My body relaxes as the air-car whispers its way into the inner kal. My mind reminds me how vulnerable we are here and wants to dart to every possibility of failure. What if…? Will we be immobilized by dark forces before either of us can react or simply be struck from the turbid sky by black lightning?

I am aware of this wheel in my surface-mind spinning itself aimlessly. It is natural and I give it no weight. My heart is light. My choice is made, and I shall flow with it until the next choice presents itself.

No dark lightning reaches out to consume us. No phalanx of defenders rushes to surround our craft as it settles into its berth. More than half of the dozen bays are occupied by similar craft, but for the moment, the dock is without activity. Brin waits apart by the moored air-car with the pilot and the observer and I approach the bay’s threshold.

Above, the canopy billows and coils like a bowl of snayks, illuminated at intervals by vented flame from below and energies raging within. It is like the river at the Sor’n Gate, but inverted. Yet, against all reason, the air here is clear and without turbulence. I risk one step out onto that sheer calm to see just beyond the dock’s verge what none of the Brethren have ever seen.

It is so close that, were there sufficient light, I might see my reflection in its mirror-perfect surface, but it is darker than black, as if carved from Gog’s own matter. The central spire of Kal’un Shiir’n rises without blemish, seam, or portal from its prodigious circular base to a needle point. It pierces the festering sky and, around it, chained lightning seems not to radiate, but to gather. The Black Lord’s stronghold. His throne. His prison.

I comprehend the implications of the scene. Shiric’s spire is built directly atop the Black Well and all the incomprehensible power of that elemental mystery is channeled and concentrated, coursing through it. To Him. Shiric Mael’efac Lecudis. The Oldest Enemy.

I motion to my guardian and she approaches. She steps out onto the air beside me and takes in the majestic abomination that is The Enemy’s keep. I see that she too understands and she steps back into the dock.

Master, do you see this?‘ my silent sending.

Ha’eh, my Fist. I see it.‘ My Lord Fayne’s whisper is velvet thunder in the back of my head. ‘Press on. I have provided a distraction for him. Nine of the Brethren and their Gifted have breached the Nor’nees Gate and cut a path toward the inner kal. They and fifty more await your sign.

There is nothing more to say, or see.

A distant patter resolves into the sound of running feet in the access corridor to the rear of the dock. Brin briefly palms the forehead of each of the hostages and climbs into our moored craft with the pilot. Shiric’s man and I stride unhurriedly toward the access alcove.

A clutch of humans in black and tan rush into the dock with undisciplined disregard for the possibility that a real adversary may be close enough to dispatch all of them. By their attire I make them five pilots and an equal number of observers, like my hatchet-faced companion of the moment. They barely notice us in their haste to launch themselves into the melee my mighty Brothers have brought to their front door.

Hunched, slump-shouldered, head bowed, eyes down, hair spilling over my face, I shuffle along ahead of the observer. His eyes are dull and his jaw slack, but he walks with convincing deliberation, ‘guiding’ me along the margin of a high, wide, and brightly lit passageway with the pilot’s blaster pressed into my back.

The light-bending properties of my cloak would only aid in bringing attention to our already curious tableau. Instead, it presents a mottled Gray appearance. It looks filthy and drapes around me with a sodden heaviness. I have removed my Face, an obvious giveaway, and have resolved to breathe little; the air here is fierce. I am just another victim shambling toward the Pit. The wavering portal at the end of this corridor seems very far away.

There are a few humans, Blacks mostly, a few Grays, traveling these intersecting ways. Those few appear to be functionaries, studiously oblivious to us.

As we approach the crossing of another major way, a growing clamor from the leftmost course prompts me to stop. My captor blunders into my back and rebounds, but keeps his feet under him. A cadence of boots and shod hooves and a rhythmic clap of armor and weapons reverberate in these broad halls as two tightly regimented cadres of Black d’moni cross our path just ahead. I keep my head down.

The moct’unguc code has been seeded into every Color, where they spawn in modest numbers and great variety. The characteristics of the species, even their general appearance, may be vastly different from one Color to the next and, as with people, their individual natures depend on environment as much as their genetic bias. What they all seem to have in common is a predisposition to despise and, whenever practical to do so, kill the t’sunguc. In High Speech, it means “the lesser”, humans. Whether they be neutrals from the Gray lands or Color-born, humans have nothing in common with d’monii beyond a general physiological similarity and mutual abhorrence. These moccs spawned in the Black lands are berserkers bred only for combat. Here are forty-eight of them.

Both squads charge past at double-time and, if any notice us, we are of no consequence.

As if in counterpoint, a raggedy gaggle of troccs comes lumbering behind them, driven by d’moni handlers. The knuckle-dragging Troct’unguc-she’chah are huge, the smallest of them head and shoulders above their overseers. From their pin heads to their powerful legs and enormous feet, they look like walking pyramids. Dim-witted and pugnacious, what they lack in intelligence they more than make up for in physical strength, resilience, and a near-mindless appetite for violence. Only judicious applications of bribery and torment keep them in rudimentary check. This herd stampedes past without noticeable organization, but their handlers keep them moving forward and that is, apparently, enough. All are heavily outfitted. Some carry what amount to artillery slung over sloping shoulders, others lug, swing, or drag along personal armaments. All wear cobbled-together pieces of black and tan armor and they gallop past with a blissfully stupid expression on their malformed, idiot faces.

I hate these creatures at an instinctive level. For an instant I struggle against the ridiculous urge to draw my weapon and go to work on this mob, but it passes with the last of them pounding out of sight, no doubt to bolster the inner kal’s defense.

I am about to congratulate myself on the success of my camouflage when the last of the troccs’ handlers, a hulking Red, halts in the middle of the crossroads glaring at the two of us with ferocious orange eyes. A symbol tattooed beneath her left eye marks her as an officer.

On cue, my captor stiff-arms me from behind using the blaster as a prod and I manage to stumble forward convincingly. Our goal is only a cast away. Together we step out into the crossroad and past the d’moni captain. She clamps a scaly hand on the shoulder of Shiric’s agent, speaking in a strident language I know all too well. I maintain a submissive posture. I believe she is poised for me to give myself away. I also know that in moments, the fog will lift from my hostage’s mind and I still require him to open the portal.

I look up, just a sidelong glance, enough for her to see my face, see what I am. She stops barking at the observer and looks confused, then alarmed, probably by the node I formed inside her throat. She jolts, releasing the observer, and powerful, spastic hands reach out. One grasps my cloak, the other, her throat. I put my Face back on. Recognition and disbelief collide in her eyes and she arches to deliver a crushing blow that never falls. I leave her crumpled against the nearest wall where she will be found by the next passer-by, unmarked.

The observer is beginning to shake and mumble. I grab him by his twig of an arm and hustle him the remaining distance to the portal at the end of the hall. He does not resist.

The exchange with the Red captain, brief as it was, has brought my captive’s consciousness closer to the surface and, with it, a foggy notion that he may have done something to displease the Black Lord. Fear is a terrible motivator, and he is far less afraid of me than he is of his nee’m. He fights me now for control of his mind and body so desperately, in fact, that blood is seeping from his nostrils and urine is streaming down the front of his uniform trousers. Without Brin’s talents, I will lose this fight.

I feel almost sorry for this wretched little man, an insignificant one among a legion of Shiric’s sharp little ears and beady little eyes to listen and observe, cruel lipless mouths to report or convey orders, all valuable only because they can do what Shiric himself cannot. They can leave this place. The price for that freedom is, of course, they must return. My charge is now struggling to fulfill that imperative.

Circumstances have evolved to separate me from Brin. I cannot complete my mission without her. Once this portal closes behind me, it is sealed, and she will not be able to reach me. Nor, without her, will I be able to open a new portal for the Brethren inside the tower. Entrapped alone inside the power conduit of the Helmouth Well with The Enemy and his marshals arrayed against me is not exactly how I would choose my song to end. Although, it would make a stirring song, would it not?

We stand together, Shiric’s creature and I, inside this numinous gateway bridging the space between where we were and where we are going, as if they were separate realities. I feel sorry for him, but I need the portal to remain open just a little longer. His body contorts with the violence of the struggle within. Long, boney fingers of one hand tangle in a kind of knot that resolves itself into a gesture, a pass, and bloody too-thin lips open to speak the Word that matches the symbol he has made in air. I solidify a node inside his mouth large enough to wrench his jaw open. He raises the blaster and triggers it. Nothing happens. I take it away from him.

For many in the human lands, the measurement of the passage of time is important. There are several methods devised to accomplish this, all employing some arbitrary context to define incremental cycles. Nearly all, however, are based upon the one unchanging sequence: the transit of the black sun across the Night above and below the world. While advanced cultures throughout the Colors have found more complex measurements useful, the Brethren have always preferred natural rhythms as points of temporal reference. Heartbeat, breath, internal tempo in accord with the cadences of the world each lend themselves to synchronicity with it. Silent knowledge follows. These were some of my earliest lessons.

One slow breath in and out. Tension flows with it from the body into nothing. Eyes close, muscles relax.

Another long breath. Weapon fills my hand. Shield raises.

And another. Air swirls beside me as Brin blinks in. The gag in my hostage’s mouth dissolves into nothing and he chokes out the Word. The portal closes there and opens here.

I am the Fist of White Light, flung from my master’s hand into the heart of darkness. I am swift, bright death to His enemies.

The unnatural doorway melts open and the hapless observer crumples to the floor.

The portal foyer is a broad semi-hecs chamber, large enough to accommodate all of the squads I saw pass by on my way here. At once. Or something much larger.

We are not alone. Three moccs in black and tan, a team in place to monitor and, ostensibly, guard the portal, seem unprepared for our arrival. The first and closest to me may have seen what hit him. The other two, at opposite segments of the room’s arc, shake off their disbelief and open up with weird, organic-looking weapons, but I am already in the air. They train their weapons upward to track me. Brin looses two bolts and the skirmish is over.

She reaches out to me as I touch down and our hands twine in a Sign. We speak the separate Words our nee’m spoke to us. A ring of White energy leaps outward, expanding unimpeded by material or ward, across and beyond the boundaries of Helmouth even unto the Edge where the Night must surely be torn by its passage. Such is The Fayne’s authority. The way is open and the sign is given.

At each end of the portal foyer, where the sentries had been posted, vaulted archways remain standing, mostly, as the only points of egress. Beyond is a pitch-dark, cavernous space. My enhancements allow little beyond shadow shapes and much movement. A cry rises, taken up by an unseen host. A low thunder of feet, hooves, wheels, clattering armor and weapons precedes a stream of troccs rushing us from each of the arches, howling, brandishing an impressive array of slashing and pummeling implements. Projectiles ping off my shield, some of them heavy enough to feel. None of them even close to a drak carcass in freefall.

I open the throat of my weapon and a beam of white fury carves a tunnel through the troop pounding in from the left, lighting up the space beyond. I see the scale of the place. It is enormous and teeming with The Enemy’s minions. I allow an extra beat or two to sweep the beam through some of them before it cuts off. The rest of the archway collapses.

The herd charging in from the other direction has begun to bunch up as I turn their flanking column to ashen mist. Their d’moni handlers, cursing and prodding, are attempting to get the brutes to fan out. They see me snub my weapon to my hip and open my arms to them and they are swift to seize the moment. Their charges launch at us again.

A hail of projectiles presses me back and I shape a node as large as I am able, making it a gyre. I send it hard into a surging wave of gibbering meat. A satisfying amount of blundering and sprawling occurs before the gyre implodes with an innocuous thud.

Air screams into the sudden emptiness and the brutes give voice to an unfamiliar instant of panic. Brin and I hold our ground until the vortex subsides. Weapons, armor, flesh and bone are homogenized into an amorphous wad of metal and gristle simmering in a shallow pit. It is not large, maybe only a dozen were drawn into the gyre’s heart. A good number more on the extremity are down. The remainder of the mob is disorganized, some fleeing over top of their handlers.

Farther back from the actual event, blistering profanity and threats, both dire and plausible, begin to stir enthusiasm for mayhem once again. Any mayhem. It is their nature. The handlers are overrun as the Brethren and their Guardians together have followed our beacon through the breach we’ve made and begin pouring into the fray. They fan outward through the remaining troccs and their d’moni guard, through the vestibule’s outer wall, and into the tower’s defenses beyond. Swon jinks in with Orlah beside her. He shoulders into me. Behind his own Face, he is grinning like a maniac.

“Just like you to leave little for us to do,” he shouts over the mounting clamor.

No blood-chilling battle-cry or clarion blare is raised to herald their arrival and wither the defenders’ resolve. The Faceless are silent and final. Yet so, the low, pulsing concussion of heavy projectile weapons, the crack and fizzle of energy cannon, and a brisant hail of bolts are punctuated by the thrum of implosion vortices, as some of my brothers have learned the gyre’s shaping as well.

I can hear them all singing. The Sisters too. I hear them in the tap. And into the tap I tell them, ‘These are all low fruit. Shiric’s marshals have not yet joined and, by The Fayne’s grace, we are here to greet them. Bring it down.

Orlah punches my chest as Swon charges into him and they are gone in a shimmer. Unlike my brother, Swon is the thinker and, just like my own guardian, she knows how to deploy him to greatest effect.

I blow out the alcove ceiling and Brin and I glide through into the chamber above.

It is dark, cluttered with inanimate shapes and, for the moment, we are unopposed. We hug to the curve of the outer wall where it joins the next level above, Brin feeling her way without haste, searching for something our nee’m assured us would be here. Somewhere.

Reverberations from the battle spreading through the halls below precede eruptions into this level. Blazes and multiple flashes give us enough to see the tell-tales of the tween we are seeking. Brin heads toward it and I follow, covering behind.

A susurration at the edge of my awareness gains volume and dimension. It sounds like a rasping, in-drawn breath by some behemoth, one like the first gatekeeper, only more profound and… agonizing. It seems to be coming from everywhere. Coincident with this great inhalation, comes a riot of panicked cries below us and the clamor of hundreds of feet and hooves scattering, retreating in all directions. Complete disarray.

It feels as though all sound has been sucked away from us.

A screaming thunderclap roar, a raw wail of rage and horror and inhuman suffering breaks upon us like a sustained explosion, pitched to draw blood. There is, in it, the concussive force of Hav’k pounding a Churn-side seawall and the mind-numbing cacophony of a chaos storm. I am disconcerted to find myself on the floor.

My head feels split open and I do not know if it is blood or tears streaming inside my Face. Something is moving among the Brethren stunned or damaged by their proximity to that deadly siren. The tap does not filter their last instants of terror and fury as they are consumed by what they never saw. Shiric’s marshals have come to fight us.

Brin drags me upright and up into the tween. I let her haul me long enough to shake out the blur in my vision. The motion awakens a throbbing in my head and my body is beginning to respond to being pummeled into the soil not that long ago. I have no time for pain. We continue upward through darkened spaces, haste and caution in equal measure. The harrowing voice rises up again, but a distant agony this time, curtailed by a muted rumble of explosions. The battle has bought us time.

Brin turns to me in the air and pulls me to a stop, signing a warning. The way continues upward, but it is warded. I would not have seen that.

Our feet touch down in a high chamber only as broad as the Judgement Arena at High Seat. A large glowb hangs suspended a cast away, providing the sole illumination. The room’s circumference and the pitch of its tapering walls indicate we must be very near the apex of the spire. Outside these walls, wild energy scours the glassy surface, a subliminal thunder. Shiric’s sanctum must be above us.

No defenders wait to engage us, but the space is not empty. A scattering of worktables, their surfaces strewn with engines and objects I cannot identify, commands the area near us. Beyond them, a pillar of darkness pierces the center of the chamber.

Brin is scanning the surroundings, feeling for the intangible pressure of violent intention. She leans in, touches her Face to mine and, in that place behind my senses, I hear her. ‘I need a minnit to renew.’

Each of her expenditures have a cost and she has expended much. Even inside this keep with its Seals and wards, the flow of Source cannot be cut off. She leans her back against the wall and slides into a squat.

I snub my weapon and put my back to the wall, easing down beside her. Arms across her knees cradling her head, she does not look up. I remove my Face. The air is hot with a biting, metallic edge. It will not do to take it in deeply, nor for long. I wipe the congealing blood from my face.

In my pouch I have a draught that will restore vitality for a time. I am sure Brin has her own, but I offer to share mine with her and she accepts it. Without hesitation she removes her Face, wipes blood from her mouth, drains half the flask, and hands it back. She replaces her Face and lays her head back in her arms.

I swallow half the remaining liquid and, donning my Face again, stand to investigate The Enemy’s workshop. The thing I seek is near; I can feel it. I don’t know why.

“Let me know if anything comes to kill us,” she breathes to the floor.


Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Into Helmouth Read More »

At Helmouth’s Door

I am standing upon the edge of a sheer promontory overlooking Helmouth, waiting for the black sun to lift above the edge of the world. I am waiting for a sign.

I have been waiting here twenty-three turns. Some would find such protracted expectancy tedious. They are not with me. I will hold this space as long as I am able. Waiting, I have sung my prayers, sat with my death, and from her drawn strength and perspective. She is without concern for moments past, or those to come.

Far beneath me, the basin valley is blanketed with the black breath of the Well at its heart. Random bursts of flame and unchained energies illuminate the boiling poisons from below.

The air presses and swirls around me, brushing my face, fanning my hair, filling my nostrils—sweet, without a trace of the taint driven on the scouring winds beneath my vantage. In this place, the gust precedes the rising. If a sign is to come this turn, it will be now at the black sun’s first glance over the nor’n edge.

The horizon blazes with a halo of purest white barely longer than it takes to tell of it. Shiric’s Fangs, towering in the distance, are set in stark relief against the featureless dark of the void by that single, brilliant flash. Even as the afterimage of those spires fades from my vision, a sliver of darkness blacker than the Night, peeks above the rim of the world.

At the touch of Gog’s power, ghostly hues coruscate among the edge lands. A wave of dancing colors floods across the surface of Hevn, and, as the wake passes through, the ground beneath my feet begins to show its own Color. Great Gog rises, a grand silhouette. I don my battledress, my weapons, my cloak, and my Face as the land around me radiates a deep crimson cast.

The Brethren and Guardians have seen the white aurora as well and I send a gesture across the distances separating us. Events precipitated hundreds of yarnn past speed now toward conclusion. I embrace the air beyond the precipice and drop into the cloud squirming against Helmouth’s walls.

A viscous wind sluices past me as I plummet in darkness. I am not afraid. The confrontation approaching summons me. There is an implacable peace flowing to me from my own discipline and precision. I feel the influence of my nee’m, The Lord Fayne, and encompassing that, the everywhere-presence of Source. Their power blends within me, coursing, resonating like a chord. I am the Fist of White Light, flung from my master’s hand into the heart of darkness. I am swift, bright death to his enemies.

Beneath the effluent of Helmouth’s engines, I alter my trajectory. Straight as a beam I hurl myself low across the blasted landscape toward the outer wall of the mighty kal’un surrounding the Well. Monolithic black ramparts loom ahead, their upper reaches cloaked in whorls of smog. Spaced at intervals along these faceless, carved cliffs are buttresses of dark metal, dully reflecting jets of flame and plumes of incandescent gas escaping from exhaust ports along their pitted spines. Each outflung structure terminates in a watchtower. I observe regimented activity in and around these outpost garrisons and upon the interconnecting roadways, but I am unconcerned with it. I am invisible – just another wraith in a land that spawns wraiths like bloodflies in a stagnant pool.

I could glide over top those lofty battlements and from there arrow straight to Helmouth’s heart, but ‘could’ already would have done so and did not. A Seal, an unlawful power set atop these fortifications, connects them to the void above the world. No living thing can cross that barrier. It has been tried.

Without slowing, I veer to parallel the wall at a distance. The Sor’n Gate is not far and if I am to breach the outer defense, that is where I will begin.

No alarm has yet been raised. My advance has been swift and direct. Alone, cloaked, and shielded, I must seem insignificant, a speck blown across a dark wasteland only to be dashed helplessly against the impregnable might of these colossal walls, if I am observed at all.

My boots settle into the dead soil of a low hillock of mostly heavy machine waste less than a chase from the Sor’n Gate. I stand among the fragments of a grove that once towered here, suffocated and shattered now.

Few of my Order have penetrated this far into The Enemy’s domain. No scout, no infiltrator has survived long enough to map its defenses. What is known has come from their efforts piecemeal and a few agents of The Enemy apprehended and put to the question, most often with little gained from the exchange. The Fayne’s far-seers apparently cannot see much here either. Even the Gifted do not attempt passage in this place after the first few who tried were lost, returned to us still lost, their taproots burned out.

I pause to observe and allow my symbiote to record the scene before me.

The Gate stands open outward by half from the palisade of the Outer Wall. It is composed of two solid slabs of smooth, unreflective material, preposterously large in comparison to any other kal’un’s gateway anywhere on Hevn. The means of their manufacture is beyond the scope of any known craft, except perhaps the secretive Methodists. This would be their work. I can only wonder what manner of creature or engine might be massive enough to require the use of such a portal.

Flanking the Gate on either side, stand a pair of sentinels carved of some dense black stone. Whether machined or shaped by uncommon means, I cannot determine, but each is a colossus, magnificent and grotesque, armor and scales and war faces from night-fever dreams. Each has been dressed out by untold ranks of artisans to an unexpected degree of detail.

A chase distant from the Gate in each direction, watchtowers thrust out onto the plain like flaming iron fists.

Behind the Gate, a mighty portcullis stands open only enough to issue a controlled stream of workers and vehicles in and out. Some of the vehicles are sleek, moving swiftly above the ground with obvious purpose, constructs of the Methodists as well, I have no doubt. Others are huge, lumbering machines. A convoy of them, laden with cargo, is heading ees-ward on the connecting highway with its accompaniment, armed and armored. I see also numerous gaunt, hollow-eyed humans crowded into carriers or walking in knots along a treacherous margin of this thoroughfare and intersection. Most of them are Grays. I note as well, striding unimpeded among the shuffling human foot-traffic, much larger, powerful figures in armor, the Moct’unguc-she’chah, those we call d’moni.

Visible behind the portcullis, layers of heavy industry are laced and interconnected by pipeline and conduit. Stacks belch fire and darkness. A precipitation of soot and particulate waste drifts everywhere within like a snow of shadows. The sounds of stone being ground to powder, screaming metal, and tormented lives issue from that portal.

A wide, turgid river winds across the ruined land this side of the Well. It springs pristine from the highlands of the Well basin’s nor’n rim. It falls into Helmouth and finds its way to the ground. It curves around Kal’un Shiir’n’s Outer Wall and past the bustling Nor’nees Gate, where it is bridged by a causeway. This much I know from my geographies and what has been gleaned. Steaming tributaries of waste vent from apertures along the base of the Outer Wall all along its sor’ward course to this dismal ditch. Here the river seems to ooze rather than flow between barren shores, a mottled pudding with phosphorescent eddies.

Drifts of caustic foam accumulate against desolate banks. Volatile elements combine beneath an undulating surface causing blisters to rise up and burst, disgorging a spew of sizzling, gelatinous venom and stains of brightly colored pus. A hidden current of some glowing goo surfaces, bursts into flame and folds under again, snuffed with a sibilant hiss. All along this serpentine midden, a fume rises. It swirls on a polluted breeze and settles as a haze in the lowlands. I am grateful I cannot smell this place.

Near my vantage point, the entire volume of the river funnels into a narrow chasm. The flood of chemical stew and slag cascades into the under-world in a maelstrom. A plume of corrosive vapors, ghosts of flame, and an endless guttural cry of despair mark its descent.

Arranged in a crude semi-hecs on the wasteland between the Gate and my place of concealment, a human settlement sprawls, bracketed by the guard towers and a questionable degree of separation from the river. It is a low, greasy-looking khenn. I note the patchwork of hives and hovels, the garish centers of social distraction, and the desperate, distorted beings huddled behind flimsy walls. I feel pity for them, and revulsion.

Movement on an unexpected scale steals my attention from the plight of these lives in the shadow of the Black Kal’un. I see the nature of it and my death is at my side, sharing with me this instant of disbelief.

Both of the gigantic monuments flanking the Gate have turned and are bending down, horrific heads cocked in an attitude of curiosity. Their gazes are fixed upon the hillock where I stand.

The left one straightens and lifts its head. Its mouth opens too wide, revealing rings of backward curving fangs. A wail splits air between us.

“Do you have a deathsong, Narregan?” my death asks.


“Begin singing it,” she says.

The giant to the right moves forward with an agility unimaginable in a thing so immense. One metal shod hoof crushes structures in the humans’ gate-khenn like grass. It shifts its weight and its right arm whips toward me. Attached to a ring in its fist is a cable and something the size of Gog itself is flailing down upon my hillock. I hear it tearing the air and feel the pressure of it as I am touched, turned out, and folded upon myself.

The sensation lasts but an instant. I feel the shockwave and hear the concussion of exploding terrain somewhere behind me. I turn to see a dark globe, bristling with spikes, buried in a crater where the hillock, my death, and I stood a moment before. A hail of rock and debris falls all around. I am untouched and realize these watchers may be able to detect my shield. I allow it to collapse, trusting my cloak and our position to obscure us.

‘You cannot always count on me to rescue you at the last instant, Warrior,’ Brin’s sending in the tap between us.

Brin. My Guardian. Each of the Brethren is bound to one. I am hers.

‘And yet, you continue to do so,’ I answer.

‘As do you, Warrior. I will stay with you now as closely as I can. Don’t move.’


‘Just wait.’

The gatekeepers are on the hunt. The first, having sounded warning, now advances onto the plain with a square-bladed headsman’s cleaver in each hand, each one as long as nine of me. Razor edges whisper through the air as it pivots, scanning the terrain with too many glowing amber eyes.

The other gatekeeper drags its mace free, plowing a furrow through what might have been a market district of the gate-khenn. It squats nearly to the ground, then begins to creep forward on all fours, low, its scaly muzzle only a span or two from rooftops, oblivious to the panic and devastation beneath it. Its head sweeps back and forth, nostrils flared. It makes a noise in its throat like boulders grinding together. Its face turns upon us. It roars and levers itself up and its weapon with it, whipping it around its body in a tight, screaming arc that will surely sweep us away.

Energy streams from Brin’s hands, her bolt severing the whipcord from the ring in the monster’s fist. Unbalanced, the giant topples backward onto Gate-side traffic, already in complete disarray. Uncontrolled, the hammerstar hurtles toward a new target. The first gatekeeper flinches back as it blurs past, a miss, but the trailing cable delivers a brutal lash across its chest, flinging it back against the rampart. Brin’s arms are outstretched, full attention fixed on the projectile, redirecting its course, augmenting its velocity. It has begun to glow.

Armed with a metal ring in its fist and raging, the nearest sentinel lurches up and toward us. I form a phantom node and seat it deep between the behemoth’s eyes. It takes a halting step forward, reaching. I solidify the node and quadruple its size. The thing’s forehead splinters. The top of its head splits apart. Half of it falls away in pieces. The colossus contorts and falls upon the gate-khenn, limbs thrashing.

The defenders of the outer kal have mobilized with impressive speed. A squadron of d’monii have begun to issue from out the Gate with a rolling gunship. An airborne combat platform swarming with smaller attack craft has already launched toward the fracas from the nearest garrison tower to our left. Too late.

Brin’s wild missile bludgeons through the approaching air-craft and slams into the watchtower. The resulting fireball reaches the outskirts of the gate-khenn and everything still airborne within the blast radius joins a cloud of shrapnel and slag expanding outward behind a punishing shockwave. I pull Brin to me and hold her close, my shield and hers reinforcing each other until the pelting diminishes. Brin is small and supple, resonating with power, and I indulge a peculiar sensation of peace the moment affords.

‘There is our way in,’ she says, and we jink again, unfolding a lingering instant later in a fracture high up in the Outer Wall, above where the buttress and watchtower used to be.

Still wrapped in my arms, Brin lifts her Face to mine. ‘Did you like my fireworks?’

‘Extravagant. You are an artist.’

She nods in unselfconscious agreement.

The remaining gatekeeper, its stony flesh cracked and pocked, one arm shattered away below the elbow, stands howling with rage and frustration, turning slowly, looking for something to kill. Looking for me and Brin.

She hooks my cloak, pulling me deeper into the cleft, and we begin picking our way through the crumbling material, unstable both above and below. The organized defenders will rush to secure the much larger breach lower down. There the concentrated force of the detonation, fed by severed pipelines of who-knows-what kind of combustible exhausts from deeper within the kal produced a rupture gaping in the heretofore impenetrable Outer Barrier. Big enough to let a small army in.

The far end of the fissure is a tight squeeze. I let my shield drop once more. We are high above the ground level of the outer kal, a full two chain high by my estimate—at least six hundred spans—and fairly wedged into a hairline crack in the great battlement. An insignificant scratch it must seem compared to the yawning damage where a squadron of d’moni-spawned constructors and grunt soldiers is beginning to converge below, arraying themselves to guard the aperture until repairs can be affected. No doubt The Enemy himself has turned his attention to the disturbance on his kal’un’s sor’n boundary.

An air-car approaches from the direction of the black-walled inner kal. There, beyond a landscape of heavy production, I glimpse the pinnacle of a glass-smooth construct, a black needle poised to penetrate the writhing vortex cloud above it, dark lightning streaming at its tip.

I hear Brin’s footfall behind me and leathern wings slap air just ahead.

A dozen drack riders in close formation pass by, lightly armored, heavily armed. Each is mounted astride a flying atrocity—mostly teeth, talons, and spiked hide.

It is too early in the game to engage any of the massing companies, either on the ground or in the air as they flock to the carnage at the Sor’n Gate. The din and bustle of regimented d’monii gathering below is punctuated by handlers barking orders, a piercing, rapid-fire harangue. Any engagement at this point will surely draw the Black Nee’m’s most specific attention.

The last pair of riders pass. I form a node in a fracture above the opening and expand it. A weakened section of the wall several times my size breaks free and falls away down the sheer inner face. I fall with it as it plunges into the smoke haze, drifting free of it a moment before it thunders into the crowded avenue below. Another moment and the ensuing commotion is behind me.

I weave with deliberate speed through the smog and ashen snow, through a maze of infernal industry. I pass the boundary of a mine. Heavy machinery and workers of several varieties mill about the gaping mouths of shafts stabbed straight into the tortured land. The din is fierce. I veer to avoid the intense heat of the smelters. My shield would protect me, but I am reluctant to use it again.

Curious that I would think of re-activating the shield at this moment. I am not sure if I actually hear, or feel the wings beating at my back before the talons strike. My shield solidifies ahead of the blow that might have torn my spine out through my armor.

I allow myself to fall, as if damage has been done, on an arcing trajectory that carries me near the boundary of a processing facility. I hit the ground and roll onto my back. The drack is plunging to rip me apart. Its head is rimmed with spikes thrust forward, wide-open beak lined with razors, all four feet poised to rend, powerful toes splayed, each tipped with a scimitar. The beast’s rider is no threat at all. He is holding on for his life as his mount’s descent nears a bone-shattering conclusion.

I swing my weapon up and put a slug through the drak’s brisket. The hapless rider, saddle, and a fountain of giblets trace a new path to the ground as the thing’s carcass craters me into the ashen soil. Even shielded, it hurts. I pry myself out of the crushed mass and stand on uncooperative legs, covered in gore. I drop the shield for now, a precaution, and the pulpy mess sluices to the ground around me.

Brin looks amused at my unsteadiness and plucks an errant bit of entrail from my cloak. ‘No doubt the rider alerted his unit before his drack struck you down.’

Even as I realize she could have shifted me away from the force of the blow that rocked my bones, I can feel some of her power streaming to me. It makes my skin prickle, but the pain eases and I am grateful she did not interfere. My blood is up.

‘We must assume there is a squadron enroute.’ I point toward the dark spire. ‘Can you jink us there?’

‘Ee’eh. It’s warded. I could get us closer, but not inside.’

Just discernible in the distance I can see a tight knot of winged forms approaching.

‘We are flat-footed now and visible. We need to move.’

‘Wait.’ Brin resists my attempt to pull her forward with ease and points to the boiling black that is the sky in this land, back in the general direction of the Outer Wall.

The air-car I spied earlier is speeding in our direction. It seems on an intercept course with the oncoming air cavalry detachment. And us. Perfect.

Brin is silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the craft. Then she is gone and the air shudders where she was. I turn to the airborne harriers, closer now and fanning out to bracket me. I am without cover here. Cloaked, I know the riders cannot see me yet, but their chargers can. On signal, I see their weapons come up. They are close enough now to begin strafing. I would meet them in the air, but I must trust my guardian. Just a few moments more.

The air wrinkles beside me.

‘Make yourself small. It’s tight up there.’

I wrap my arms around my knees, chin to chest. My stomach seems suddenly to be connected to my ears and I am certain I can feel the soles of my bare feet behind my eyelids. Brin bends space between us and the air car, even as the ground around us begins to erupt.

~      ~     

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

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