There it was, finally. They actually managed to get it to move out into the open, and now they were all at such delicious risk. If I let Tyronus calculate it at this point, I might just end up giving him an aneurysm. Ah, it would have been child’s play to pluck them out of such misfortune, but no, no. Neglecting to show my hand would be the smart course of action, as it always had been. My kitten already had enough suspicion planted in her from our first encounter.
Now, if she and I really were of kindred being, then this entity would be…
Nothing moved. The impending threat of Nykorosk’s blade had been suspended mid-motion, but that was hardly the only thing halted. Every sensation I received from the world around me had been locked in place, a contrast the mere presence of which enhances one’s understanding of the constant changes otherwise present in one’s environment. I was being held, too, but this force was less binding for me somehow; instinctively, it felt as if I could move, but I feared what would happen were I to break whatever spell this was.
It was all entirely unsettling to look at. Just having Nykorosk’s unpleasant, masked face leering down at me with all the murderous intent in the world was bad enough on its own. The heat from the wildfires and the second sun, the stagnant pillow of air embracing my skin, even the grass beneath my feet that refused to bend stalk in the slightest – everything that my body felt gave the absolute impression of stasis.
Yet I felt something more. The very moment before the world froze, I was touched, and even while that particular perception retreated, a sense of being watched remained. That was the source of my fear over breaking this spell, like the slightest motion might invite even more outlandish things than this. On top of all that, there was a minute impression of… almost a sort of alien bemusement from the hidden corners of my awareness.
Oh, if it were only a distantly amused sensation. My body instinctively shrinked at the realization that whatever was looking at me was getting closer, and without Lily’s calming touch, panic began encroaching upon me with equal speed. Then, the first seemingly-physical signs appeared. From the edges of my static vision, color slowly muted, as if some great shadow was passing by. First, on the right. Then, on the left. Then, from below. Aspects of the scene were drained piece by piece, replaced by a facsimile which served only to hide whatever was getting closer.
Like the first time, it reached out to touch my arm, but the feeling decided not to retreat this time. It practically enveloped the remaining limb, and in spite of the stillness and my own desperate desire not to break it, I outright shivered. It was so cold and dreadful that my chest started hurting. I had gotten used to the sheer sense of malice dripping off of Nykorosk’s every word, but this was so fundamentally divorced from that, it was as if this existence was incapable of feeling quite the same emotions as us.
The phantom sensation of chill was suddenly, inexplicably replaced with an all-too-familiar heat as the shadow began digging into the flesh of my arm, a heat which signalled not pain, but transformation. It was the same simmering energy that I felt every time I changed my body, or created new flesh. Having been initially spread out, it soon concentrated itself on the arm-blade currently imbedded in Nykorosk’s sternum. My eyes were forced to do nothing but glacially track the process, unwilling as I was to do anything but watch.
Whatever I was looking at caused me pain in the act of observation, like the muscles and optic nerves were constantly trying to adjust to something impossible. There was motion, too, or at least a sense of it, physically imperceptible. Yes, and there was something else, I could feel it – like this extension of my limb had grown in a way I never conceived of as being possible. At the basest, most primal level, I could understand what it was, even while words utterly escaped me. And to my eyes… the appearance of one structure being composed of two overlapping images superimposed over each other.
The shadows began retreating, pulling grotesquely out of my violated flesh. Their source, that which had shown only mere amusement before, now impressed into my mind a singular desire. Somehow, my will remained my own, even as this one truth was etched into me.
It wanted me to kill Nykorosk.
The airborne leviathan hastened in its attempts to completely reform its own structure, but I knew with utter certainty that the time for such attempts had passed. Ounirok’s position above the atmosphere meant it would take a certain amount of time for the entity to get close enough to affect them, and with us having baited it into splitting its body to combat us, there was no mathematical possibility remaining for its victory. Thankfully, the three of us were protected from the effects of inundation by Gheira’s consumption aura, and Nykorosk-
All current trains of thought running through my head abruptly halted, and my heart nearly along with them. Something changed. My gift began frantically recalculating, first running the original scenario with this fresh variable injected into it, then simply trying to output a method of survival. That was when true horror dawned upon me. More than just the fear of this sudden change or the situation it directly portended…
It was because, at this very instant, I was already too late.
“Louri!” I shouted uncharacteristically, turning back to her. There was no time to do this, to utilize her abilities and salvage things. In the sparse breaths between my orders and her brain registering them, that which I dreaded was coming to pass.
I blinked instinctively, and the world sprung once again into motion, extremely jarring after having gotten used to the previous stillness. Whatever had just happened hardly felt like it mattered now, because at this very moment, I had been handed the key to turning everything around. It was hope, the animus of my renewed action, and of the anger at myself for having so easily lost my grip on life, even briefly. More than any of that, though, it was the torrent of pain suddenly radiating off Nykorosk.
There were no vocal indications of his anguish even now, but that was unnecessary to know the effects this wound was having on him. His body convulsed disgustingly, several brittle bones snapping from the violence of it, and the weapon he had been summoning to his right hand vanished from whence it came. This was it now, the end. I had to make it the end. Scowling with this determination, I took a step forward, leveraging more force into the blade and starting to drag it upwards.
His left hand gripped my arm in unstable desperation. I kept forcing the edge through more of his flesh, the exceeding strength he had previously displayed now unable to prevent me from having my way. Nykorosk’s right hand joined the other, and in response, I focused my mental energy on forcing this arm to continue. Phantom growls accompanied my movement as I continued making headway, growls which soon transitioned into shrieks and screams as the sternum parted fully.
My blade continued up to the throat inexorably, even as he began to haphazardly barrage my mind with his powers. It hurt. My teeth grit together at the sheer pain and disorientation, but I refused to stop. The combined efforts of both his arms and these desperate psychological attacks were just barely proving insufficient. I nearly collapsed under the weight of those mental blows several times, holding on just enough to continue carving into him.
Just before it felt like I might be unable to keep even that much up, something snapped, and I knew I had to act. With a great heave of both physical and telekinetic strength, I forced this new weapon of mine to slide unimpeded through what remained of his neck, then jaw, then skull, until it exited out the top of his partially bifurcated body. The shock of all that released force nearly staggered me, sending me backwards several steps as Nykorosk collapsed backwards with a sickening slosh.
The pressure against my consciousness was gone. Simply gone. He died. I had just killed him, and the act was every bit as repulsive as he himself was. As the realization of his demise sunk in, my heart soared, not just at the possibility for survival that it represented, but at the sheer pleasure of finally ridding myself of that fucking scumbag. It downright frightened me how good it felt to know he was dead. It was never supposed to feel good.
My reveling in these feelings was immediately interrupted by another mental assault of some kind, something totally unfamiliar and sobering. Every physical sense I possessed roared into a cacophony all at once. Colors flared dazzlingly, sounds erupted against my ears, the world’s textures jostled and mutated, my sense of balance was destroyed, and time itself seemed to randomly extend and compress. Then, just as quickly as the attack started, it vanished.
My disorientation only continued to grow with each addition to this sense of mental whiplash. There were too many things going on in such a short span of time for me to properly process anything, much less keep track of it all, but at least the world was- was back to normal? With my head clearing, I realized that the effects of the second sun had started diminishing. Were they retreating now that I had killed Nykorosk?
Any optimism that idea might have engendered, however, was immediately quashed. The same shadows I had witnessed while the world was frozen were causing this dampening of light, and the second sun still rested in the sky. Whipping my head around to face the village again caused my gaze to meet one of the Aichleini, the youthful-looking girl. She was staring directly into me, her expression shell-shocked. I guess she was the one who tried interfering with me just now?
The other two looked downright terrified, with the one who seemed to be their mission leader in a full-blown panic. All eyes were concentrated on me only for a second, after which a mythical sight drew all our attentions away: a rising tower of tenebrous, quasi-solid substance rose up out of the ground somewhere between us and the prismatic behemoth hovering in the distance. The awe this scene inspired only grew as the first tower was joined by another much further off, then another, and another.
“Full retreat!” the man shouted, placing a hand to his ear. “Ounirok as well – pull back all assets immediately!” I almost wished I could join them in escaping whatever had just been unleashed.
Those signature flares of light erupted both before and behind me, and in the next moment, our invaders had disappeared, along with the overbearing radiance of the second sun. The pillars did not immediately follow suit, instead continuing to claw higher and higher into the sky, as if whatever created them was proudly demonstrating its own existence. The Aichleini were gone now, so what was it-
Horrendously loud, grinding noises rent both the air and my thought process. The source seemed to be the flying serpent-thing, which was only barely easier to lay eyes on now that the light was back to normal. It seemed to have just assembled itself back to a state of wholeness, judging by previous glimpses of its body being separated into pieces. And to that noise, the immense shadows… responded, I believed, in some esoteric and inhuman way. The pillars had stopped advancing upwards, too.
From within the quickly gathering clouds the leviathan was once again sheathing itself in, a soothing tone emitted, and the air around me began to cool noticeably. No, it was even more than that, I realized upon glancing around me. The myriad, dangerous wildfires that had been ravaging the area seemed to be reacting to the peaceful melody, dying down before being extinguished entirely.
One by one, the caliginous monoliths began retreating back into the earth. Their substance, however, remained, spreading out along the soil and dead remnants of foliage ruined by titanic conflict. Stepping away from the patch that once held Nykorosk’s destroyed flesh, I beheld in disbelief innumerable masses of black material seeping up out of the ground, pools of the substance ebbing and flowing along the surface.
Initially there were only scant shapes to any of it, a standing network of blank nerves emerging from the congealed night. Then, branching out from those strands, more matter seemed to spring into existence, soon taking on more lively colors – vibrant greens and humble, arboreal browns. Soon, the sea of darkness had given birth to an entire landscape of fully formed grasses, shrubs, even entire trees, all in a process that looked identical to how I create my own body, just on a massively larger scale.
As if acknowledging the end of a successful cooperation, one final sonance echoed through the sky, and the cloud-cloaked entity… rose straight upwards. Watching it depart the world entirely was almost solely stranger than anything else I witnessed today, and indeed, soon enough it had disappeared entirely from view without so much as an explanation for its existence or for how any of this could possibly make sense.
The temporary vigor of the imperiled departed me nearly as quickly. In an exhaustion more mental than physical, I dropped to my knees, then to an uncomfortable sitting position on the vivacious flora beneath me. Systematically, everything I had adapted myself with peeled away at my will. The arm-blade was the last thing I got rid of, my mind lingering on its hitherto unseen properties just long enough to memorize the feeling of it.
Here I was. It felt necessary to ground myself in that most basic of facts, after what I had just experienced. With my free hand- no, that… that was my only hand, now- with my only remaining hand, I clutched at various parts of my body in some mundane act of comfort. It felt stupendously good just confirming that I was still here, all myself, all human again. Brief amusement fired through my thoughts at the image of me looking like the shell-shocked one now. I probably did.
Raw, deep-seated, aching pain still pulsed along the left side of my body, though it slowly concentrated itself entirely on the shoulder with a missing limb. It was infinitely more glaring now that there were no life- or world-ending threats right in front of me, and every motion down to the tiniest twitch caused a twinge of additional pain. I did not want to move. I wanted to find Lily and make sure everyone was safe, but I did not want to move for it.
I sat there silently, hardly breathing. Images of today’s utter aberrance cycled through my head over and over again. What the hell kind of world did we live in?
The silence was deafening now, after all that. Even when the suffocating heat and horrible noises receded, I didn’t want to open my eyes and see any of it. Part of me almost thought we were all dead for a moment there, but I was still breathing. It felt like a cool, early autumn day, same as any other. The sweat dripping off my skin disappeared quickly in the delicious chill, which I was so grateful for.
There should have been more people than just me around though, what was- no, yeah, there were. Apparently I’d just retreated into myself way too much, so reaching out and feeling a bunch of people nearby gave me a start. It was relieving though, it was good. Across the way were Elva and the others, going through similarly shocked motions yet feeling otherwise unharmed. Mostly.
It took me a solid minute just to stand up. Keeping myself upright when I felt this faint was an endeavor unto itself, so maybe something was wrong with me after that. Narrowly avoiding a fall whilst standing perfectly still got me even more worried, so as a compromise, I leaned my shoulder against the nearby building. My eyes were still hardly functional, locked onto the dusty ground at my feet as I centered on the act of breathing.
I needed to ground myself in something. Clear my thoughts a little. Focus and stay alert, all that jazz. What was the type of injury where it was bad to let the patient fall asleep again? I don’t think it was heatstroke or… whatever this was. Dad would have known. Ah, shit, I was letting him down, huh? Not like it was my- no, gods, what was I doing, wasting my time like this? Briefly check that people are still alive, and I’m satisfied? Shaking my head, I decided to definitively look around and assess the state of things.
The village didn’t look as bad as I was expecting, really. Was mostly normal aside from the apparent emptiness of it, with everyone having gone and hidden. I could palpably feel everyone even from this distance, though it was hard to pick through all the noise with people who weren’t- Senna. Oh gods. Stomach tying itself in knots, I cast myself out in the direction I last remembered her being, and found her, thank fuck. My slowly calming nerves left a mild, sickly feeling in their wake.
Something was wrong though. I didn’t know what, but I just needed to get to her. Fighting through a haze that would rather see me faceplant in the dirt than lift one finger, I turned to go find her and came face to face with a perplexing amount of greenery. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Were we… all dreaming earlier? Were we dreaming right now? Maybe I really did die. This was a weird afterlife, then.
No, come on, where the hell did all these plants come from? The fields were all burning to shit last I checked. I ran up – at peril of making my head swim – and physically inspected the closest one, a blade of grass nearly as tall as myself. Grass like this didn’t even grow here as far as I knew, or at least, I never saw them get this big before. Beyond the horizon of flora I could even see a fully matured tree of some species I didn’t recognize. And I think that was right in the middle of the crop, too. Former crop, at this rate.
None of this bullshit or how dumbfounded it made me changed my situation, though. I needed to get to Senna. Something about this felt increasingly bad to me. Concentrating on the tug of her emotions, I let it guide me through the overgrown mess, taking care not to cut myself as I parted blades of grass from my path. I was fairly sure I’d started getting pretty close, but there were no responses coming from her direction. Could she not hear me? Drawing nearer caused me to call her name out, with no audible response.
Just as that silence started to ratchet my worries for her further up, I stumbled into a relative clearing, a sudden switch in the dominant flora from tall, strong grasses to a mixture of mosses and late-blooming flowers. The distant view of mountains and forest-painted hills was blocked by a much closer copse of trees, and in the center of the whole picture sat Senna, as unmoving as a painting… and shaded in an unearthly, inky blackness.
It didn’t look real, even while I was staring right at it. Was this related to the strange shadows I’d been catching glimpses of around Senna recently? Or were they exactly the same, and not just related? Fuck if I knew what that was, either, but now it seemed like a nearly physical manifestation, and it kept my eyes glued on her. What was I even looking at, here? It almost hurt to stare at it.
I wanted to hypothesize something, but I had so little to go off of, anything I tried would just be a shot in the dark. Something to do with the invaders… no; something to do with her ‘curse’… maybe. Did it look like this? Did things like that even have an appearance? And why the hell would I be starting to see it now? Earlier I thought that maybe it would start getting more visible the closer it was to triggering, but that shouldn’t have had anything to do with today’s events.
Taking a couple steps forward, nothing seemed to be happening. It was just silent, and still, and ridiculously unnerving. She didn’t react to my movement, and neither did the shadowy film surrounding her. Just as I was about to try and say her name again, I blinked unconsciously, and the shadow suddenly vanished, leaving me a clear image of Senna in its place. She was missing an entire limb.
“Senna! Talk to me here!”
Apparently she didn’t like being touched, because rushing up and jostling her elicited a grimace and a groan of genuine pain. I mean, it was better than nothing, but what the hell was going on? Gods, how many times would I think that to myself today? Too many. Taking a deep breath, Senna seemed to pull herself out of her stupor and lock eyes with me. Beneath her general bewilderment, she was surpassingly relieved that I was here with her, and my panic melted away.
“I’d give you a hug, but that seems no good right now, huh?” I put forward with a self-conscious chuckle.
She cracked a weak little smile. “It kinda hurts to be moved, yeah.”
“What, uh, happened with your arm? Are you… doing that?” She shook her head with the smallest motion possible, an answer which perplexed me. “How the hell can you lose an arm when you can just- you know, make a new body and all?”
“I have no idea.” Very helpful. She knew something on it, but it genuinely wasn’t enough to say she had any good idea about what was going on. Probably was just picking up on the fact that she witnessed it happen.
I moved around to inspect the cleanly healed stump, the edge of her self-created shirt stopping right where the rest of her flesh did. “Is that… so it’s a wound? I guess? Is it gonna heal? I mean I guess neither of us can really know but- wait, yeah, this is what’s putting you in so much pain right?”
Was I supposed to ask about what I’d seen covering her? I didn’t even know if the damn thing was real or just a hallucination of some kind. People could see all kinds of weird shit when stressed out, or sleep deprived for that matter. I was definitely one of those two. Even if it was real, though, she probably had no clues about it either. I unintentionally let out a groan of frustration at how many inexplicable things were happening that I couldn’t even hope to solve.
“…Are you okay?” she asked, breaking me out of that train of thought. I blinked twice.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” I nodded, deciding to keep things to myself right now. She needed to recover. “Can you stand on your own? D’you think we should get you back inside somewhere?”
She sighed. “I suppose I should refrain from just sitting out here, yes. I am not looking forward to getting up though.”
With plenty of deliberation and consideration, I slowly helped my girl to her feet.
The muscles of my face had unconsciously tightened into an unpleasant grimace, watching those servants entrusted to our care take in the news of what happened. It was likely spreading throughout the Temple now, like a ripple on the water. The Gatework’s facility had been in an uproar as we returned, but the somber silence now felt worse. It was affecting me, too, as much as I didn’t like the kid. This was always a horrible affair.
Tyronus had taken off the moment we came back, refusing all contact and isolating himself in his chambers. No one was exactly surprised at that, but all methods of handling this were starting to slip through our fingers, not the least cause of which was our inability to rely on his gift now. Neither he nor the Gatework could get any in-depth readings on the entity that appeared, but Ditroph made it clear that it had to be a Tier III, and a monstrous one at that.
The one upside here was that the entity Surgriel had allied himself with had seemingly left the planet of its own accord afterwards. We were still no closer to figuring out whether these things were simply territorial, or if there was some bizarre, abyssal pact between all of them to keep their numbers at one per planet, but here it was. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d just traded a known threat for an unknown – and likely much worse – one.
Explanations for what caused Nykorosk’s demise were also rather tenuous. It appeared to be delivered by what was previously considered a minor factor, the shapeshifter that he’d defeated earlier, though was unable to kill. It- she? hadn’t displayed the capacity to actually injure us before. That was also concerning. Best guess seemed to be that she was able to copy the weaponry Altera had supplied for the venture, used the design against him.
How exhausting, that recent events had more or less shorn me of the optimism I preferred. What was that saying about how under every pessimist hides a disappointed idealist? Hopefully that wasn’t about to be me. I needed to get out of here, in any case. The others were starting to organize themselves in discussion or analysis, and I didn’t really have a place amongst them. Giving the excuse that I would begin preparations for Nykorosk’s funeral procession, I took my leave and exited the facility.
I said that, but for the moment, I just needed to give myself a breather. What a disgrace. Our typical processes had almost entirely halted, and rather than work to overcome this system shock, here I was, weaseling my way out of the picture. No, honestly, that was unfair. It’s good to give myself recovery time after things like this. I needed it. With that in mind, I resumed walking to my personal chambers, thinking of starting things off with my own attendants. Give some orders, get the ball rolling from there, that was the plan.
A short time passed, and the entrance to my chambers came into view, putting an extra little spring in my step. Before I could actually enter, though, I was interrupted. The soft sounds of bare feet touching stone echoed out behind me, hardly more than a whisper which preceded her words.
“Where are you going, Gheira?” a very familiar voice called from behind me. I turned to face her, Altera, whose tone and expression impressed a sense of concern into me, or maybe sympathy. Sterile light played against her form as we stared at each other from across the ornate stone hallway, and I gave her a mild smile.
“Was gonna handle the procession, like I said.”
“From your bedroom?” she chuckled, casting a glance at the set of doors I was about to open before she stopped me.
“Hey, we’ve all got messengers. I’ll be getting things started while unwinding is all,” came my defense. “We probably all need it.”
Her eyes roved across me. “Mm, no objections there.”
“Is that why you followed me?” It was my turn to laugh this time. “I would’ve figured you wanted to be down there with Ditroph, looking over the data we picked up. You know, assuming you could stomach the interaction.”
“I wouldn’t want that,” she stated flatly, taking a few steps towards me. “Not with you here, that is.”
“Not sure I follow.”
Her head craned to the side for a moment, a sly look about her as she continued to close the gap between us. “What distasteful times we live in, as you’d probably say. Nothing makes sense anymore, does it? These latest excursions have had the most dangerous anomalies in centuries, at a time when it risks allowing Surgriel to return at that, and the stubborn pride of that system we call ‘The Aichleini’ might just pay for it. But then again, it might not. It’s all so uncertain now.”
The way she spoke, the way she moved, the way she looked at me, it all transitioned away from the Altera I knew into… something else. Something equal parts seductive and predatory. I was struck speechless. I couldn’t help but back up as she came closer, practically allowing her to position me between her body and the wall, which she pressed me against with one hand. What the hell had gotten into her?
“You don’t want to be uncertain anymore, do you, Gheira?”
“…What do you mean?”
She leaned in closer, almost ‘til our foreheads met, gaze unwavering against my eyes.
“Would you like me to show you something more?”