Lord Shiric

The Lens

“D’kin Remert. Why has it taken you so long to respond to my summons?”

“Lord Shiric, I… ” Remert swallows a knot, fear and elation at war within, held at bay by an effort of will. “I never thought to hear from you again. I believed you had abandoned the undertaking.”

Lord Shiric’s voice rumbles from the lens. “What are you talking about?! Have you lost your faculties? I spoke with you not five turns past.”

Myriad faces, some of them disturbing at a visceral level, are suggested in the swirling eddies of Lord Shiric’s smokey Visage. They stare out at him in their turn and Remert struggles to maintain outward calm as the implications of Lord Shiric’s words strike home.

“Lord Shiric,” Remert adjusts his stance and bearing, “it has been nearly twenty-five thousand turns—one hundred and forty-nine years as they measure cycles on this Gog-forsaken world—since last you spoke to me.”

A long, uncomfortable silence ensues.

Within the lens, smoke becomes mist blowing away to reveal the faces of two human specimines.

“Do you recognize either of these t’sunguc, D’kin?”

It could have been no others, of course. Perhaps something in his eyes spoke for him, or maybe it was the way he drew his next breath.

“So.” A boil of dark vapor eclipses the images. “A temporal disruption has occurred to separate you from me, D’kin; one beyond my power to prevent and too late now to rectify. I must assume the state of preparations, events, and outcomes previously reported to me have all been redefined subsequent to the disruption itself. Be succinct, D’kin. What is the status of your mission?”

“My Nee’m, the primary objective has been met. Centralization of the transfer locus is established. Our secondary and tertiary objectives have yielded mixed results. Even so, the several positive outcomes have been exceptional.”

“Elaborate upon the latter for me, D’kin.”

“The effort to foster Gray Moct’unguc has succeeded beyond expectation. Significant increases in both fertility and intelligence have been nurtured with auspicious results.

“Efforts to force development of Gray Troct’unguc, however, were hampered by the destruction of the original breeding stock and a favorable phase one mutation. The genetic foundations of the Grays on this world do not lend themselves to such radical hybridization without altering the outcomes in unanticipated, reliably unacceptable fashion. Still, a promising hybrid stock has displayed unique characteristics and I am enthusiastic about the potential these specimens represent.”

“I find your optimism encouraging.” Lord Shiric sounds pleased. “More than that, I am moved by your perseverance in the face of what you perceived as abandonment. Tell me, D’kin, why did you persist in what must have seemed fruitless effort?”

“The Method guides me, My Nee’m. My Mission was given with your aegis, but with or without it, I could not stand one day before Mong and excuse my failure by decrying my circumstances.”

“This is why I chose you over more highly-positioned applicants to be my surrogate on this world, D’kin Remert. Your resolve and persistence have surpassed my expectations. I look forward to celebrating your accomplishments.”

Remert is unused to effusive praise. He likes it, and it balances well against the blossoming uncertainty this conversation has birthed and nurtured.

“Due to the disruption and the presence of my adversary’s minions,” Lord Shiric says, “I have chosen D’nal Kudlac to assume the responsibility of Minister of the Change. You have three hands to prepare yourself for return to Kal’un Shiir’n. Here you will have sufficient opportunity to provide the D’nal with the detail he will require before he translates across the gulf, at which time your charge to me will be completed.

“You will be given a champion’s welcome with holiday and feasting throughout Kal’un Shiir’n, all in your honor before I return you, with my gratitude and endorsement, to your Congregate and certain elevation.”

The lipless slash beneath Remert’s blade of a nose opens to form the words that will lead him home, then closes again, his throat working to swallow them before they can leak out

 He tries to recall how long ago he had despaired such a moment as this might ever be possible. The end of his exile, recompense for all he has endured, and the fruition of his paramount personal aspiration, that of elevation to the Second Circle, to be D’nal.

“Lord Shiric, I am exultant that the rift separating us has contrived to bring me back to you again. I am grateful beyond measure that my humble accomplishments have met with your approval.”

He performs a stiff, formal obeisance.

“I would beg your indulgence, My Nee’m. Processes currently in motion regarding the ’unguc variants of which I spoke have reached a critical juncture. I am loathe to leave them in the hands of those less intimate with their nature and development. If you would permit me to remain until this pivotal phase is completed, I will have served you to the best of my ability.”

A viscous plume roils Lord Shiric’s ceremonial mask, churning like liquid smoke, rising beyond the limit of the lens to capture it. His vaporous expression within the boil might be an intimation of displeasure at having to revise plans at this late hour, or perhaps Remert’s racing mind is assigning meaning to random, shifting patterns. Vague suppositions, difficult to dismiss.

This late hour, Remert muses. How unconsciously he has come to think in the conventions of this world. After these many years—fifty-nine point six yarnn on this chaotic ball of confusion—who could blame him for adopting these conventions in the interest of survival and sanity? How long, he wonders, might it take to restore proper patterns of thought once returned among his kind?

His kind. How like them is he now? Will the Congregate hierarchy honor him for his accomplishments and, more to the needle’s point, will the First Circle and The Methshe forgive him for his deliberate transgression?

How could they not with Lord Shiric’s benefaction? Lord Shiric is speaking again.

“I will send the D’nal at the rising, to whom you will relinquish operational responsibility. He will oversee the displacement and ensure continuity, leaving you sufficient autonomy to continue administration of your secondary and tertiary directives. Will that satisfy your need for closure, D’kin?”

“My Nee’m, you honor and humble me. I am grateful beyond measure for your gracious consideration of my request and for allowing me…”

“Nothing has changed. I require results from you and the D’nal on each element of your respective commissions. It will be your responsibility to deliver all specimens to the transfer locus prior to the displacement. My timetable is unaltered. You have five turns.”

So soon! So much yet to do! Finally!

If Remert is in the least unsettled by the immediacy of his Nee’m’s deadline, his face exhibits none of it. “Measured here,” he says, “ten point six six days. Deviation?”

“No more than one half-turn.”

“Plus or minus twenty-five hours thirty-eight minutes,” Remert says to himself, calculating the least time remaining for him to accomplish everything.

“All will be in readiness, Lord Shiric. You may rely upon me.”

“I continue to do so, D’kin.”

The lens darkens and Remert’s axe-faced stoicism reflected in it alters not at all. The revelations of the last minute are stupendous. The appalling weight of the task before him and its immediacy is invigorating.

The soon-to-be disastrous addition of an unprepared and officious D’nal to the equation is the very last thing he needs now. There is nothing for a D’nal to do but meddle and confound well-laid strategy. He exhales a fervent prayer to Mong for Precision With Haste and unseals the door. It swings inward to reveal H’seven at the portal.

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Remert says.


“The audience is over. He’s gone.”

“No, he’s not.”

Confounded, Remert looks back at the lens.

H’seven grasps the collar of Remert’s ceremonial raiment and drags him from the portal. Stepping through, he approaches the darkened lens, squares up to it, and says, “I am H’seven. I have something you need. Let’s talk.”

A profound stillness answers. The lens is blank.

Remert, from the vestibule, “I told you. He’s gone.”

H’seven is strident. “I know you can hear me. You gain nothing by your silence.”

The door to the chamber closes and seals with a soft, solid finality. Remert, excluded in the vestibule, fumes.

Total darkness pours from the lens, flooding the chamber, engulfing H’seven in absolute night.

Shiric’s voice is ponderous. “You speak as though you believe yourself my equal. I do not know you.”

“How fortuitous, then, that we have come to this intersection.”

“What do you have that I need?”

“An object of power you believed was lost to you.”

“The object is in your possession?”

“I have only to reach out my hand.”

“Then do so. Show it to me.”

“When we meet, I will present it to you. A gift.”

“Show it to me now. It is within my capability to reach out my hand and end you where you stand, if only for your presumption.”

H’seven shrugs. “Which is why I will not present this prize for you to have absent an agreement. I would prefer to consider this a collaboration of mutual benefit. As to equals: such speculation invites unfair comparison. I offer you the solution to riddles that currently vex you. In return I ask only a modest boon, one you may effortlessly grant.”

“You appear to have a measure of comprehension well beyond the scope of anything my agent there could have conveyed to you. Some might deem the knowledge you possess uncommon. You should consider such familiarity perilous.”

“I consider it currency.”

“What is it you want in exchange for this intangible object of indefinite potential?”

“To stand with you in the place where worlds are made and unmade and receive your aegis as Marshal in the war to come with your upstart adversary.”


“Nothing more. Well, parades and feasting and revelry, of course. Same as Remmy. But no, just those things and that.”

Silence draws out so long the blackness pouring from the lens seems to breathe.

Shiric breaks it. “No.”

“Just like that?”

“The object you speak of is better lost on your world than mine.”

“Lost? Did I say it was lost? It is in motion. Do you assume that motion to be in your best interest?”

“So. It is NOT in your possession.”

H’seven taps the lens with a steely forefinger. “Is this thing on? I said it is within my grasp.”

The darkness laughs as though he had said something hilarious. It winds down to a chuckled, “Thank you for that, anyway, but the answer is still ‘no’.”

“Who is to say, when I reach out MY hand,” H’seven says. “the object might choose to return to you in a way less conducive to your exaggerated primacy?”

The darkness is not laughing now. “Are you… attempting… to challenge me?”

H’seven taps the lens again. A fragment of its dark material chips off and plinks onto the stone floor. “Pray I do not.”

A pulse of Black power smashes against the chamber walls with sufficient force to shatter stone. Flechettes cast about in total darkness as the great door buckles with a metallic scream and pieces of its frame splinter off with gunshot sounds. Illumination does not return.

.      .      .



Her nametag reads “Kami”. She is standing just inside the the lens chamber vestibule, watching Remert. He appears stunned, staring at the heavy portal door, twisted, hanging askew.

“Are you all right, Director?” she says.

He straightens himself. “Yes,” he says.

He takes a step back from the portal and turns her way, fixing Kami with a haunted expression. “No,” he says.

He recognizes the insignia on her uniform. If he was wondering what she was doing in this highly restricted area at this inopportune moment, at least her classification is appropriate.

“May I take you somewhere, Director?”

“No. Thank you, Technician. I trust you will arrange damage assessment and clean-up.”

“Of course, D’kin.”

“Then I will leave you to your responsibilities.”

Kami follows him out into the corridor and watches him make his way to the nearest bounce. He enters and does not reemerge.

She rummages up a spreader from her waiting runabout’s toolbox, using it to pry the blasted door open enough to peer inside. The lens is intact, but the clean-up detail is going to need a high-pressure hose and some wire brushes to remove the erstwhile Deputy Director from the surfaces of the chamber.

“Doctor Ahn,” she says to the air. A few seconds tick by. “Yes, I am. Thank you, Doctor. I’m ready for an upload, are you? Good. No, not yet; another Seven will be fine. Ten minutes. Wait, hold on… “

Another runner slews to a stop beside Kami’s idling rig. A lanky fellow, whose uniform displays the same emblem and nomenclature as her own, steps out onto the raw stone floor of the corridor and affects a casual amble in her direction.

“Make it twenty,” she says. A pause to listen produces a laugh. “You’ve got a filthy mind, Doctor. I’ll try that. Get a fresh one out of the vat and I’ll be there by the time you have it warmed up for me.”




Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

The Lens 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
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