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.”
“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.
“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, leaving him a momentary baffled expression just before unadorned fear rushes in to replace it. Realizing his commission is about to be revoked, he begins an impassioned explanation that includes, “… 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 he 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 to 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.
◄ ~ ~