Narregan

Orlah’s Lament

Early on the second turn following my precipitous arrival, I found my brother, Orlah, standing alone atop a precipice at land’s edge. I know he hears my approach. Whatever else may lie between us now, we are Brethren after all.

I let my pace carry me to a place barely a reach from him and wait in silence for his acknowledgement. A minute passes, and then another. The concussion of breakers battering the cliff face below fills the waiting.

I wonder at the person he has become in the space since last we were together, sparring, gaming, laughing… he is now withdrawn and ominous. Dressed in his skin, save for a breechclout and harness from which his weapons are slung, the pair of sunburst scars on his back stand out in Solva’s green glow like puncturevine flowers.

Beneath us, driven by the violence of the Churn’s surge, a cannonade of waves persists without relent. I imagine I feel the rock beneath our feet shudder with each detonation. Twenty beats pass, a languid inhalation, before the next standing wall of water erupts against the escarpment and sizzles among the  crags.

Into the spray and measured pause, Orlah begins to speak. “In crèche, callow and rambunctious as we were allowed to be, even then we were being groomed to walk these Lands as the Lord of Hevn’s dire and irresistible Hammer. We were bred, trained, and armed to confront any challenge to His agency, His Law.

“His aegis gave us abilities beyond our simple natures, allowed us to cross the Colors without effect or harm—to go, in fact, anywhere. We were like gods, feared and revered, were we not? Loved by some, even.

“Bolstered by the indomitable might of those who came before us, we believed ourselves invincible as well. Look at us now, Narregan. Neither loved nor feared, discredited, beaten, outcasts…fugitives, in truth. To this we have fallen.”

His reverie stalls. His head turns just enough to cast a look askance. “Where were you?”

“That is a story for lastmeal, perhaps. Someplace dry, certainly. Not at land’s edge. What has happened to you, brother?”

He lifts his hair away from his neck, beckons me to observe his symbiote. It is devastated, its petals twisted and blackened. Its heart, an unhealthy ochre hue, quivers. Surrounding it, raw red tissue seeps a foul-looking pus. It appears a malignant coal affixed to the base of Orlah’s skull, burning there. My own symbiote reacts with shock and revulsion for the space of a beat.

Orlah shows me his face at last. I remember his eyes a sharp, sparking violet, dulled now and haunted. The anguish in his face is terrible. It is hard to hold his gaze.

“It still lives, you see,” he says, “after a fashion. Still a part of me, but disconnected from its greater self. Where once the pool of our Order’s combined experience was an activating thought away, it now keeps me in silence.”

A shudder runs through me to my boots.

“With one exception.”

A gust of spray erupts over the cliff’s edge. Orlah’s skin sluices water better than my other-world cloak. He seems oblivious to it.

“Swon’s cry in my ears as they killed her is just a memory, Narregan, and a memory’s immediacy fails with time. But not here.” He touches the ember on his neck without flinching. “Here is her last instant of life as the traitors’ bolts tore her to pieces. Not a memory. It will not be blunted by time. It is she! Always here! The sum of her last moments burned into me by this undead thing I cannot be rid of!”

He draws a shuddering breath.

“I should have died, too. I thought for a time that I had. Then, for a while, I was glad to be alive, enthusiastic to plan our retribution for this betrayal. That did not last the turn.”

We stand in silence, misted from below. I do not know what to say, but know enough to say nothing. Orlah is deep in his private misery.

“Her scream of helpless fury and pain is endless. You do not want to know what I have to do to sleep, but the LOSS of her, Narregan…” He makes a plaintive sound. “It is as immediate as an amputation and it is more than I will bear any longer. Better one merciful step now, than another turn of this torture and the promise of an unwinnable campaign—our ragged little band of renegades against the singular Force that tamed all Hevn.”

I have heard enough and into my brother’s pause I tell him, “I recognize you in there, Orlah, damaged but also able. Are you so afraid of Him you would abdicate your Oaths, abandon us, knowing this ragged little band needs your unique experience and ability?”

“Did you not hear me?”

“This Fayne did not tame all Hevn,” I remind him. “His predecessor brought the Law to the Colors. Not him. He is an administrator; the Acachi his enforcers. The First Fayne conceived the Acachi to be His Arm, His emissaries and, as necessary, His lawful Fist. As you said, brother, engineered and augmented over the course of an Age, WE were the Force that tamed all Hevn.”

“Were.”

“Even Takt-ot-sutoc sides with us. Think of that for a moment.” I brush the floret at the back of my own neck. Its petals riffle against my fingers. “This incomprehensible collective mind has understood our predicament and our purpose, and has chosen to risk its existence in support of ours.”

“That does nothing for me.”

“Tu’chah-j’toc abets us as well.”

I watch something cross Orlah’s features like a ripple of… hope would be too strong a word, but whatever momentary light shone from his eyes, a darkness I gratefully cannot fathom chases it from him.

“The legendary artifact,” he says. “Oh, Narregan, my credulous brother, always the wide-eyed innocent. You would bait me with a crèche-tale like that?”

“These circumstances, this juncture in time, and our place in it have never occurred before. The spinning shard will stop where it will and we may not prevail, but we will never have a better chance to finish this. The outcome remains…”

“…inevitable,” Orlah says with finality.

A wave explodes up the wall and rains down like a sheet. Orlah is screaming at the top of his lungs.

“None of that matters! He is T’sunghan! We are not! Wake up, you fool; we are already lost!”

“We are not lost!”

The sea inhales.

Orlah’s face is stone.

“I am lost.”

And there it is. There is nothing more to say.

He did not ken the figure approaching us as he gave voice to his despair.

Barth’s tread is familiar to me, as is the bow-wave of heat and fury that now precedes him. Regardless of any legendary status that may have been attributed to me in my absence, I am not fool enough to impede him.

Orlah pivots to meet the Warder.

Barth steps in close and bellows into his face.

“Had your own Warder witnessed your cowardice, heard your sniveling, comprehended the liability your weakness and stupidity pose to every one of us, he would have dutifully hurled you to the death you so ardently crave! Better perhaps he died without knowing the tragic waste of his effort you have become. Give me your t’sungathrah, ward, that I may see it to Soulbridge for you when you are gone.”

“Stand away from me, Barth! You bark like a dog at sounds in the distance without the least cognizance of their nature or purpose. Your noise does not move me.”

“Oh, I will move you, sloke!”

Barth’s lunge is explosive. Orlah turns with fluid grace off the line of Barth’s trajectory. I see his small blade flash from its place at his side, a thrust unerring to the old Warder’s heart. It is an outcome as natural as the cycles of the turn.

Barth sweeps the repost effortlessly aside, turning Orlah’s stroke in a lazy, harmless circle, and slams an elbow into the warrior’s throat. Driven backward, somehow managing to keep his feet under him, Orlah throws himself at the Warder in an oblique zagging charge, blade dicing.

“THAT’S the spirit, boy!”

Orlah’s edge cuts air.

The hard ridge of the Warder’s foot smashes Orlah’s breath away in a gust, loops beneath a last, vaguely motivated slash, and sweeps into the side of the warrior’s head, spinning him about like a drunkard. Orlah’s blade skitters once on stone and gone.

Bent back with a gnarled fist entwined in his hair, the tips of his toes alone anchor my brother to Hevn’s firmament. Beneath him jagged stone teeth and Havoc’s thundering breakers gnash. Barth raises his voice just enough to be heard above the din.

“You clamor for death. Have it then.”

A fractional release, a reflexive gasp.

“Or not. But choose now, or I will choose for you.”

Orlah’s lips work, but his punished airway produces only a gagging sound.

“I cannot hear you, porc’uc vomit. My ears must be failing. I am old and weak. I cannot hold you like this much longer.”

A burst of spray washes them both from soles to crown.

Orlah gags and sputters, “Life…” His voice is raw. “I will hon…,“ a gasp, “honor my oath.”

Barth is unmoved.

“Hear me then, ward; I’ll not repeat it. Your life, pathetic as it is, is now mine. I will direct how and when you may end it. Do you understand me?”

Orlah’s nod is not enough.

“Say it, ward!”

“H… ha’eh, Barth je! Ha’eh. On my honor.”

“You have none with me this-turn. It will likely take the rest of your life to restore it.”

Barth jerks Orlah away from the precipice, releasing him.

Orlah stumbles, hits his knees. His voice is a hoarse grating thing without subtlety. “I have disgraced myself, dishonored my Guardian’s memory and that of my Warder, Ybarra. I am unworthy, Barth je.”

“I find it encouraging that you have so accurately summed up your vast inadequacy.”

“Let me die.”

“When your Death calls to you, only when the lives of your Brethren and Bonded are no longer at risk will I allow you to join with her and not before. Until then, remind yourself always, each one of us carries with us personal loss and grief. No one thinks yours, however unique it may be, is in any way softer or easier to bear than their own… but for Gog’s sake, SHUT UP ABOUT IT!”

Head lowered, perhaps out of respect, more likely to mask the anger I now sense in him, Orlah nods. “Ha’eh, Barth je.”

“Good. Get out of my sight.”

Orlah straightens and, turning on a heel, strides past me back along the path to the encampment. His retreating form is swallowed by the vegetation even as Fayneem Occu paints the far nor’n horizon with a thin, crystalline halo.

Barth turns to me with a look of shifting emotions. One heavy eyebrow lifts, his question obvious.

“He will hold himself as long as he must,” I say. “I believe in him yet.”

The old Warder nods acknowledgement if not agreement. “His reflexes seem adequate still, given his handicap.”

“Your feint was convincing enough, but he nearly split you with his reply.”

Barth’s scowl is counterbalanced by a flicker at one corner of his scarred lips. “Pfff!” he says and tips his head toward the corona limning the far Edgelands. “We should be well beyond the ken of His Eye before it opens upon us, Narregan.”

“There is still some time before that. Sit with me, Barth je. I have been thinking.”

Bathed in mist and streaming rivulets, Barth sounds almost jovial. “I don’t share your sense of leisure. Fewest words, ward.”

I think of all I intended to say, bore down to the nut of it, and say that. “The Book of Turns.”

My Warder locks eyes with me, unblinking. My taproot opens to him without my bidding. I let it; it saves a lot of time.

An uncharacteristic astonishment owns Barth’s expression for a long count.

“Right under the nose of the madman himself,” he whispers and, for maybe the third time in my life, I see his face do something it was not made to do.

Weathered, creased, and scarred by time and violence, his grin is an awful mask—nothing but teeth and savagery. He steps in close. If I did not know and love him, I would have stepped away.

There is an unfiltered, maniacal merriment in his eyes. It transfers through the tap to me in a rush. “I like it,” he says, giving me an affable punch in the chest.

He steps off toward the encampment, into the thicket that seems to part before him, then close around his form. Another wave explodes below me and drowns his laughter filtering back up the trail.

Fayne’s Eye opens in a blaze of white incandescence over the edge of the world.

 

~     ~     ~

Orlah’s Lament Read More »

Tu’chah-j’toc

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.

“Ha’eh.”

“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.’

‘But…’

‘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.

At Helmouth’s Door Read More »

A Warrior’s Perspective

When first I am awakened from that dreamless torpor to which we had abandoned ourselves, I sense time has passed, but not how much of it, and that beyond the stony vault sheltering us, the world has changed.

It is not a surprise to find Brin has arisen first, gone, and the beasts with her. I am unconcerned for her safety outside the bounds of our covert sanctuary. One does not become Guardian without mastery of certain innate gifts and hers are uncommon.

The tap between us is alive with her customary inquisitiveness and a reassuring sense of ease. I can attest that extraordinary circumstances are required to shake her composure.

The fingers of my left hand have healed well enough. I lost none of them to infection and, although some stricture was expected, the persistent tingling numbness was not. I was fortunate.

Jo’nas begins to stir, rousing from a profound dream, and with neither haste nor delay, we gather up our few belongings and quit the immobile vessel that has carried us from one moment in time to an, as yet, unrevealed other.

The open, mud-walled court Jo’nas and I remember is enclosed now within a crude wooden structure.

Stone decomposed to grit still crunches beneath my feet as it did before, a carpet of it from corner to corner and, at the center of this closed quad, the dark aperture from which we have emerged, gapes. Its cap lays where I cast it aside to give us egress. A tangle of tubular metal and fabric protrudes from under it.

Beyond the compact trample Jo’nas and I have so far made, I mark the tracks of Brin and the beasts, a rough depression where someone has fallen, and, near it, an object in the gravel. I scoop it up, a fabric hat with a low crown and a stiff protruding brim. It seems well-worn and trained to a human-size head. An unfamiliar sigil is emblazoned on it.

From here, all footprints describe a retreat to a narrow doorway standing open at the rear of the enclosure. Together Jo’nas and I step into the light and heat of a world transformed.

This world’s brilliant sun rides the sky near zenith. It radiates an illumination more intense than Fayne’s Eye, sufficient to overwhelm my enhancements should I attempt to look again upon its face.

Nothing of the crude khenn I remember remains above the ground. Gone while we slumbered are the rude hovels of sticks and hardened mud occupying an arid expanse. Grown up in their stead are marginally sturdier dwellings and the same sense of exclusion.

The great squatting bulk of the mountain remains at the forefront of a humped and folded range marching into distant heat-haze. A sprawling kal’un has established itself across the wide plain and up into the mountain’s splayed toes, engulfing the community that gave us refuge.

Beyond it, I see evidence of more sophisticated construction, aggressive enterprise, and lively, regulated movement; streams of vehicles in purposeful transit on the ground and in the air suggest a vital society comparable to any of those on Hevn sufficiently advanced to refine architecture, implement production, and cultivate trade.

The air ripples my hair and tugs at my improvised cloak as we cross the space to where, near a pair of wheeled vehicles, Brin, and a knot of four t’sunguc are gathered.

One of them, a youngling in some sort of uniform blusters, advancing with a small weapon in his hands. He trains it upon us to gain our compliance, yapping at us in what he must believe to be an intimidating manner.

I doubt his toy packs sufficient firepower to penetrate my battledress, but I forego the idea of contesting with him. It is an unfair mismatch, and rebound scatter, should he inadvertently discharge his noisemaker, might harm another.

Even as his uniformed ally is plunging forward to offer his support, the hapless newb is distracted by both of the dogs bearing down on him. He trains his little gun on this new menace. Brin sets herself between them and jinks him away, doubtless saving his life.

Perhaps the air and sun-light, after my time underground, have made me giddy. Witnessing the youngster’s unhinged moment of incomprehension as my Guardian took him, strikes me as hilarious.

I have an early memory of being folded between spaces like that, not once, but many times, occasionally in rapid succession, by my newly-bonded Guardian. Thus my initiation into a practice the Sisterhood calls “passage”.

My first jink with her was merciless beyond any test, any heavy sparring, any punishment I might have received in my training. Subsequent foldings that followed were equally harrowing. I thought I might have vomited out everything I had eaten since I was born, most of my intestines, both lungs, and possibly a fair portion of my spine. The recollection of my own perceived dismemberment and random rearrangement of body parts during a jink was terrifying at first, a reaction of the mind only to the very real occurrence of physical displacement.

Of course, over time, I have acquired a perverse enjoyment in that same momentary dissociation and the peristaltic recoil has long-since abated. Knowing this brash youngster is even now sharing that elementary experience does not enhance my composure by the least amount. Warrior I may be, but I am not immune to a good joke and this one, at the tattered edge of an unlikely confrontation, is rich.

Better none can see my expression, it would not convey the gravity I wish to instill among these t’sunguc.

The remaining man in uniform is blinking at empty air, apparently too stupefied to realize his little handgun is still pointed in our direction.

The other man in the group steps forward and speaks to him in a soothing voice. This one carries himself with assurance, presence without pretense. He regards us with an energetic halo of veneration and fear. I wonder what characteristics he has assumed in us. He reaches out to the other and lower’s the hapless sloke’s weapon, a sensible action.

Brin returns, unfolding in front of the distressed functionary. He is unable to marshal his wits sufficiently to affect a flinching withdrawal and she gentles him, transmuting his disbelief into ambivalence and a near-somnolent disengagement.

I watch as he moves with a purpose he must believe is his own toward his vehicle and climbs into it. Its doors lower and latch. Its motor scales up and gears engage.

Brin has already dismissed him.

While the dogs circle Jo’nas in snuffling welcome, she stands beside me and we face this remaining khennsman.

He is similar to Jo’nas in stature with a hard face and straight black hair spilling over his shoulders. He has the characteristics of those who offered us refuge, save that his skin is not yet tanned to leather. He looks upon us with obvious deference.

“This one,” Brin says in low speech, “says his name is ‘Tonjuh’, that he is a human being, and that he has been waiting for us.”

She speaks to this Tonjuh in the language Jo’nas knows as Ing Glish. I have heard little else from those we have encountered here. It seems the low speech of this Land.

She indicates me with an outstretched hand. “This is my a’chi kah. You may call him T’chokt-ot U’chah ne.”

Tonjuh’s gaze shifts from Brin to me and I see him work to swallow his emotions.

He straightens and begins speaking in an unrecognizable language. It has the texture of that spoken by the old sha’man, T’loolee, who offered us food and haven. I perceive it as ceremonial expression—an invocation, perhaps, or an extemporaneous articulation to our praise and glory. Either way it is incomprehensible.

Courtesy dictates I allow him to achieve conclusion. It takes an impressively long time.

 

 

     ~      

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

A Warrior’s Perspective Read More »

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