Brin and I have been displaced from our assured doom, away from Helmouth, away from the Black lands and, almost certainly, from Hevn itself, to I know not where. I have a suspicion, but it challenges my understanding.
We are within the confines of a wide, rocky niche in what appears a larger formation of porous stone. It overlooks a shallow chan’non bounded opposite by a steep rock wall describing a rugged horizon and, beyond it, I see nothing to give me bearing.
The energy of the place is neutral, a Gray land, and I am grateful for it. The air here is soothing to my throat and lungs after breathing Helmouth’s ruinous medium.
The t’sunguc I encountered here is a Gray as well. I sense no threat in him, nor in the creature that guards him only a cast away, snorting, eyeing me with distrust.
Tu’chah-j’toc has slipped from my ravaged fingers as we were precipitated into this place and I cannot find it.
Brin has revived and stands. How resilient she is.
‘Source flows here,’ she says in the tap. ‘Strong. I like the feel of it. The Gray there… he was here before us?’
‘Ha’eh. I do not believe him to be Shiric’s minion. I let him live.’
Brin acknowledges the Gray with a nod. He stands quietly apart from us at a respectful distance, waiting. Whatever his purpose here, I like his bearing.
“And the Flame?” Brin says aloud for the t’sunguc to hear.
“Tu’chah-j’toc fell from my hand upon our arrival here. I am about to implement an aggressive search.”
“Perhaps we have fulfilled its purpose. It is free of its imprisonment and we are not cast into the Black Well. A fair trade, would you not say?”
“Will you guess where we are, Warrior?”
“No longer Hevn, that much is evident. Behold, Guardian.”
I guide her attention with a gesture and she turns about to face the Night bejeweled. The darkness is awash with uncountable tiny, scintillating points of light, some bright, others nearly imperceptible, and every gradation between. Nowhere on Hevn is such a display to be found. We stand together in silence drinking in this inexplicable wonder.
“All those lights,” she says at last. “They are… so very far away. Can you tell?”
I had thought them perhaps some elaborate decoration. How far, I wonder, are they. And how is it she knows this?
“Except for that one,” she says, pointing.
It is by far the most conspicuous object in the sky. As large as Fayne’s Eye, though a pale semblance, it has an eccentric shape. Rounded on one side, the other is incomplete, as if almost a half of it had been carved away. Markings, faint patterns on its surface, individually vague, taken together suggest a whimsical face. We may only guess at the artisan that put it there.
“This Gray will have answers to these mysteries,” she says, turning away from the marvel beyond this rocky confine. She approaches the t’sunguc with an easy gait and speaks to him words of quiet reassurance.
Scattered remnants of the Gray’s cooking fire litter the area. Wood. He burns wood for heat. Curious. Some primitive societies have been known to do so, even scavving neighboring lands for this precious resource until the practice is curtailed. I am reminded again, we are not on Hevn.
This is the place where Tu’chah-j’toc brought us into this world. Why here, I cannot guess. I see no sign of its faceted shape where I fell. Perhaps it was propelled further than I first imagined. I begin a deeper search, beginning with a more detailed visual scan.
Something is not right.
I sense an abrupt shift in energy and pressure. It is charged with peril and dismay and the metallic stench of Helmouth.
I hear the Gray’s four-legged companion scream. It whirls and flees down into the chan’non below.
Brin is already donning her Face, as am I. Weapon fills my hands.
The pyramidal shape of the Enemy’s gigantic ally takes form out on the small, flat area only a cast beyond this too confined space. The monster Shiric called Prysm has managed to pry opened an etheric doorway between Shiric’s workroom and wherever we are and through it they come, the Black Lord’s marshals.
A gholl, black as Night, bigger and far heavier than a trocc, rushes out to engage me brandishing blades glowing with a dead gray-green light. I can feel its footfalls through the rock under my feet.
I understand why Shiric has sent this thing. If the prize I have stolen away from under his 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 fact.
I put air under my feet and skim the up-sloping stone roof of the cavity toward open sky. My weapon thunders down upon the heedless thing a brisant storm, tearing at it without achieving much real damage.
Behind the animated behemoth, stepping through the portal and out into this world is the tunnel-mouthed White d’moni. This near, her soul-rending scream could shatter stone, or turn flesh and bone to pulp. The sound of her gulping air through that maw is promise of it.
Brin’s first bolt is aimed to follow that indrawn breath and tear the creature’s head apart. Midway to its mark, the triangular portal swallows it without effect.
The heartbeats it takes to change my weapon’s modality is enough for the gholl to do something I would have deemed impossible a moment before. It leaps into the air to attack me, propelling its enormous bulk high enough to slash at me with both its blades and I feel them connect with my shield.
For the first time since its creation, my shield is damaged!
I do not hear the rumble and quake of that massive bulk reuniting with the ground because the hideous White aberration chooses that moment to release her scream of death at us. The air around me seems to wither. My enhancements cannot defend me. Stone somehow buckles, reaches up, and slaps me flat.
Face down through a blood haze I see the shape of the gholl advancing on me. My arms feel like pudding. I am almost able to train my weapon on the thing. A huge three-toed foot plants itself near my face and I feel the shudder of its weight in the rock beneath me.
White light explodes through the thing’s leg, shattering it from ankle to knee, spraying fragments into the cavity.
Even as the thing topples away, arms flailing, the killing voice chokes off. Two sharp, cracking sounds punctuate its final note, and another chases the reverberations out and away into the strange twinkling Night beyond.
My body is wracked with agony. My muscles are sluggish. I am bloodied and my head feels as though a spike has been driven into it, but I am not my body; my death has assured me of this.
The gholl feels no pain and, crippled though it may be, it continues to lurch forward. I command my body to roll aside.
The Enemy’s puppet delivers a wicked arching chop. It slices through the edge of my shield and deep into the much softer stone beneath.
Strong hands grasp the front of my battledress pulling me upright and forward. My feet stumble into position and Brin steadies me as I make them support my weight once more. She releases a bolt into the relentless harrier’s advance. And another. And another, pounding it back into the crevice.
Out on the flat, swaying over top the pale heap of the tunnel-mouthed d’moni’s corpse, the Green d’moni, Blume, waves. Long ropey arms of bundled fibers snap forward and, from their tendril tips, a spreading pattern of tiny pods come hurtling at us. I have no doubt of the unhealthy effect their touch will bring should even one of them find us.
I will my arms to raise my weapon, my hands to open its throat and trigger a river of incandescent plasma.
It bends into Prysm’s nothingness, but not before sweeping through the seeds and setting the d’moni aflame. It falls back and I lean in against the force of the discharge, squeezing the river into a focused stream, pouring it into the blank, staring portal, singing my fury along with it.
Brin is in the tap shouting at me to stop. My thumb is locked on the trigger and my song is almost as loud as the scream of the beam between us and the gateway. I can barely ‘hear’ her.
I am cast aside with such force my beam cleaves off a section of the overhanging rock face before I can release the trigger.
From the depths of Prysm’s empty form, the torrent of my own plasma stream is returned to the place where I stood a beat earlier, its force undiminished. It vaporizes a shaft into the rock behind. The stone slab I carved free topples away and over the embankment, thundering to the shallow chan’non floor below with the sounds of breaking and crushing in its wake.
Louder and much nearer is the sizzle and concussion of more bolts as Brin pounds at the gholl’s relentless, blundering advance.
One of its legs is gone from the knee, as is part of its head. One arm is missing, shattered from the shoulder. One of its blades stands imbedded in the stone floor at a perilous angle. Yet, the heedless thing is still coming at us, scrabbling closer in a clumsy tripod shuffle, one glowing cleaver still gripped in a fist.
She jerks me to my feet once more and pulls me close. Her breathing is labored. ‘We don’t have time to dance with that g’chukt!’
‘I do not have the Flame.’
‘The Flame can take care of itself.’
The portal is moving toward us, changing. The enormous dark triangle has solidified. Prysm has come at last in the iridescent, pitted flesh.
My body seems to rearrange itself in an unnatural fashion as Brin jinks us away.
Barely have we made Passage and she jinks us again.
I have grown used to these sensations over time, even finding occasional amusement in the unlikely recombinations they present in brief, but intense visceral impressions. I am unprepared for the physical jolt of a second so suddenly after the first. My pounding head feels on backwards, chin resting on the soles of my feet, big toes in my ears. It hurts.
And once more without pause for a beat or breath, Brin bends space and us with it. I have no idea where we were or where we are going, but at my best, this last shift might have taxed me. I am not at my best. The Passage leaves me tearing away my Face, retching like a noob into gritty soil.
‘We are on the blade-edge of the spinning shard now,’ Brin sends in the tap. Her exhaustion is evident. Her energetic expenditures have been excessive. She is spent. ‘Hear me.
‘Whenever I create a 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. We cannot outmaneuver it.’
I cannot miss the note of uncharacteristic dread in Brin’s sending. It is contagious.
The half-round light moving across the Night of this land has climbed higher above us now. We are exposed in its colorless glow without any reasonable cover to be found nearby.
‘We will stand here, then,’ I say and reach out to draw her close. ‘Raise your shield, Guardian.’
‘It won’t help,’ is in her tap, but the soil around our feet shifts away as our shields enfold us, each reinforcing the other. I feel the defects now in my own, grateful for the augmentation.
‘We will see.’ I feel her knees begin to sag as I ask her to do the impossible. ‘I need you to move us once more at the proper moment and as far away beyond this place as you are able.’
She straightens herself and leans her forehead against my chest. I feel her breathing. ‘Ha’eh, Warrior. I am with you.’
I have no idea about the nature of the entity Shiric calls Prysm beyond what I have seen, and what I have seen is difficult to grasp. Shiric said it was with him before Hevn was made.
Before this turn, I was unaware there was ever anything else but Hevn.
Air and discordant energies thrust outward, striking us like a moving wall. We both take a step back to brace against it. Prysm’s physical presence intrudes upon the space.
The thing is enormous, a blunt pyramid as tall as a trocc on the shoulders of another trocc. It is only a toss away.
I see its nacreous skin become insubstantial and the monster flows across the interval between us. My death is standing before me, as close as a lover. She is not looking into my eyes, but away over my shoulder. She tells me Soulbridge is very very far away, as though I did not already know it.
Cold, bone-deep and unquenchable, touches me.
Source, even here in this unknown land, infuses all that is. I reach into that vast, vibrating pool, gather it in, and press it outward around us, just beyond the periphery of our combined shields. It is the largest node I have ever created. Perhaps there is some vestige of Tu’chah-j’toc’s power still awake in me. Regardless, the node envelops us, like a shell.
Still insubstantial, Prysm has engulfed us fully. Cold beyond any I have ever known pours past the membrane of the node, liquefying the air around it. It stabs into our unified shield and lances into my bones.
I reply with a flood of Source energy, an outpouring far 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 slow, but inevitable advance toward corporeality.
I empty myself into the interface. Everything I am courses into the border between the bubble of light that surrounds my Guardian and me, and annihilation.
My node has become a siphon, draining my living essence to add to the wall of force. I pull from the limitless well of Source even more energy and it feels good. So, I stop trying to shape it and allow it to flow as it will. It explodes 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. Its heart. More me than the fragile construct of tissue within.
I feel Prysm’s powerful compression against my resistance, intent now on devouring us a molecule at a time, if necessary, until there is nothing left but the Enemy’s prize.
I am a detonation of power. There is no longer any pain associated with the imminent dissolution of my flesh to feed it. That ecstasy is balanced in an instant against something as simple as a name spoken in a voice that awakens a memory.
‘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 single, dull thump. The sound of the gyre imploding is so innocuous, one could scarcely equate it with the chaos that ensues.
Before the screaming vortex subsides, air, soil and stone, all life and matter for at least two or three chain in every direction, 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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