Guardian Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember when that changed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shuffle back to our place beside the creek bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.      .      .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      ~      ~

Guardian Down Read More »

No Refuge

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

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

I am overjoyed to be alive to tell of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And the Flame?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I do not have the Flame.’

‘They don’t know that!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Raise your shield, Guardian.’

‘The trackers will see us.’

‘They will anyway.’

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

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

‘Ha’eh, Warrior. I am with you.’

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

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

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

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

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

It is the largest expression I have ever attempted.

It envelops us like a shell.

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

It no longer matters. Prysm has engulfed us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Narregan. Are you with me?’

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


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

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

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

      ~      ~

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