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.
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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