On the thirteenth night in the Black Heart desert, our trusted Titus - our steam-tank and only means of transportation - broke down, its bulldog valves and drive train finally succumbing to the infiltration of sand and the lack of engine grease. Although a tank of the Harbinger class, such as the Titus, could carry, besides its crew of eight, a full platoon of medium-heavy infantry - a grand total of 32 men – we were no more than 14 survivors clambering from the still hulk of the steamtank. The rest, among them the tank commander, had been lost to nightly raids or boobytraps by the shadow-like nomad Reavers that inhabit this arid waste, or to the myriad predatory or venomous creatures that crawl, slither or scurry in its gullies.
Only two days ago we had been 22, those missing eight lost to a chance encounter with a pack of Rock Morths, the camouflaged predators rising up from the sand right on top of a patrol scouting the way ahead. In the same manner, we had continually lost men ever since we had been cut off from the main forces at Acieh Han, on the north coast. The trackmarks we had left meandering through the desert were punctuated at regular intervals by the hastily dug graves of our comrades, each marked by a helmet-mounted rifle, cunningly boobytrapped in case the Reavers decided to upgrade their arsenal with what we left behind. In some cases, the corpse itself had been booby trapped – anything to discourage our pursuers.
Not that it seemed to do much good, except maybe provide the Reavers with ready-cooked dinner.
My name is Hector Rime, Sergeant-Mechanic, but known to my comrades-in-arms by my army-jargon handle; Switch. In true Locastrian Army tradition, we are each given a nickname upon completing basic training, a code of sorts, often ironically reflecting some characteristic or talent of the individual. Mine is a reflection of my talent with all things mechanical, and I am quite happy with it. My buddy Pisser, so named after an unfortunate accident at boot camp, is slightly less so. But I digress. The point is that with the loss of all our commissioned officers, I suddenly found myself the ranking officer of this sorry excuse for a platoon.
Thirteen days ago, we were part of a major Locastrian offensive against one of the numerous Reaver strongholds in the Akila Haram Mountains, on the northeastern bulge of the Aquurian sub-continent. These mountains, held holy by the Reavers, also contained vast deposits of metal ore, a temptation Locastus could not possibly leave alone. What Locastus wants, Locastus gets. And after initial negotiations with the more civilized tribes had failed, the Locastrian Governor ordered a military action to drive the Reavers out of their defensible positions.
With a full battalion of steam-tanks, augmented by Imperial Elite shock troops in exoskeleton suits, we approached the hidden mountain city of Acieh Han, which from the distance seemed nothing more than a jumble of cyclopean ruins nestled on the lip of a gigantic cave mouth, high up on the sheer western face on the Kraith Aum peak.
Taking up positions on the rocky slopes of the ancient city´s approach ramp, with Acieh Han within comfortable reach of our powerful steam-cannons, we could see hundreds of Reavers in rock-grey robes scurrying among the haphazard maze of monoliths, more of these natives than we´d ever seen before in one place.
It was apparent to us that this place, despite its looks of decay and disrepair, must be one of their cultural centers – perhaps even the home of their chieftain-king, Arambard the Seer, a mystical, mysterious figure never seen by Locastrians, but whose name always appeared on the walls of the Locastrian Protectorate city of Unth, scrawled in Reaver street-glyph graffiti just before one of the numerous revolts.
When our emissaries failed to return to the Locastrian lines, our artillery opened up on the cliff ledge above us.
For the remainder of the day we pounded the strange, ancient city with our shells, explosive and kinetic, reducing much to rubble. There was no sign of a counter attack. And so we moved forward, up onto the tiny, sandy patch of flat ground directly beneath the city. The Imperials prepared their assault, bringing out grapnel guns, ropes and winches for the difficult climb up to the city on the ledge.
As the sun sank below the peak before us, a small shudder could be felt in the earth, like a minor earthquake. A few rocks clattered down the slopes, but nothing more dramatic, and soon the preparations resumed. But the shudder came again, stronger this time. And this time several of the heavy steamtanks and artillery pieces shook, tilted and sank partially into the sand under their own weight.
The Locastrian troops panicked, then, leaping for their vehicles and attempting a retreat from this small, confined space, but a third tremor, this one rattling the teeth in our heads, caused a rock slide which blocked off the narrow defile through which we had come.
The ground now rumbled continuously, sands forming wave patterns across the flats, geysers of sand erupting beneath our feet, and we could see that there were things swimming within the loosening dunes, great, serpentine shapes gliding through the silica, converging on the steam tanks. In their wake, the great lumbering tanks were pulled under, into sand suddenly no more buoyant than water. From the stricken tanks, men jumped overboard, into the churning sands, into death.
Great tentacles of compacted sand reached out and pulled men under amidst horrific screams and crackling, hissing noises, like that of a grindstone. What they left behind, spat out in their wake, were nothing more than glittering, scoured metal and bones polished to a high sheen.
We, the crew of the Titus, had had the luck to be billeted on the farthest slopes, on a narrow strip of bedrock close to the eastern cliff face. From there, we could observe as our comrades were pulled under and died, as the entire Locastrian expeditionary force was annihilated, apart from a precious few who we could see clambering by foot over the landslide and down onto the approach ramp beyond. I pray to Maug the Destroyer that these few lucky devils were able to survive the trek back to Unth.
For us, however, the defile was not an option for escape, at least not without having to cross the treacherous sands and the murderous creatures within its depths. Instead, our gunner, Miggs, had spotted a narrow side gully further north, beyond a curve in the sheer cliff face. As no other option seemed likely to present itself, Tank Commander Kohlmar ordered a retreat in that direction, along the narrow crescent of bedrock which had saved us from the predatory sands.
We trundled forward, with questing sand pseudopods and howling dust devils scouring glittering streaks in the matte olive green of our hull and rocks breaking off from the cliff face making the Titus ring like a bell, but managed to reach the narrow corridor unscathed.
As we eased the bulk of the massive Titus into the cramped gully, we briefly came into view of the ledge above, and I could see a lone figure standing there, robed in gray like all Reavers, but taller and sprouting a long, snarled beard, holding a warped, sand-scoured staff high over his head. He was completely bald, his face and pate covered in whirling tattoos. It could be no one but Arambard the Seer, unveiling his true power at last. Even from the distance, I could see his eyes - like lead balls, filled with his rage and triumph – track us as we slowly exited the killing ground. It was clear to me even then that he would never let us escape.
By chance and luck, our escape route led us east and downwards, via a series of double-backs and branchings, between two peaks of the Akila Haram Mountains. Twice the defile narrowed to the point of necessitating us unscrewing the side-armour panels of the Titus to pass, and though we had to extricate ourselves from many dead ends, the passage finally deposited us on the shale-covered eastern slopes of the Akila Haram Range, in the arid wasteland known as the Black Heart.
After a brief discussion over alternatives, and with a certain reckless abandon, we booby trapped the gully mouth with the last of the anti-personnel mines carried in the belly of the Titus and struck out due east, chancing on our rations and water to be sufficient to reach the Locastus-occupied oasis-fortress of Shadrabt, the Horn of Aquur, across the Black Heart desert.
That was thirteen days ago. That very same night came the sandstorm, too powerful to be natural, and the day after that the Reavers rose like phantoms from the ground in a camp site we though secured. And the predators, which kept coming despite our weapons and noises. Arambard himself was abroad, riding the storms, directing his allies, hunting for the last remnant of his enemy.
His minions harassed us across these grey dunes, this seemingly lifeless, featureless landscape of sand and rocks beneath a gunmetal sky. Our original destination became more and more irrelevant as we were driven south and east by constant attacks, deeper into the desert.
Tank Commander Kohlmar succumbed, on the eighth day, to the venom of a pencil-sized bloodadder hidden in his boot and his second, Lieutenant Wren, died in an attempt to drive off a lumbering Archant intent on breaking open the Titus, presumably just for fun. The commanding officer of the infantry platoon, Sergeant Sticker, fell to a poisoned, barbed bone shaft after tripping one of the booby traps at a hidden Reaver water cache in the high desert. He died in vain; as we found out too late - that tiny spring had been poisoned, killing another five of our men.
And finally we ended up in this place, on the lip of this nameless ridge, with our water supply exhausted and our only means of transportation derelict, gently sinking into the sand under its own weight. Six of us had wounds of differing severity – worst of all was Private Smelt, who had been infected the previous day by some form of parasite residing in his gut. I very much doubted if he would make it another day, not with the way his belly had distended, the skin purple and splitting. He certainly screamed a lot.
To the west there was nothing but the Black Heart and, in the distance, the mountains we had escaped. To the east the soft dunes of the Black Heart blended smoothly onto a rocky plain, strewn with oddly cubical boulders, like toys forgotten by a giant, absentminded child.
Pushing back my hemispherical steel helmet, I squinted into the distance, noting the strangely uniform shapes of the cubes dotting the plain before us. In the reddish glare of the setting sun behind me, the shadows cast by these alien structures elongated, turning the plain into a kaleidoscope of red and black. In the distance beyond the boulder-field – if boulders they were – a cone-shaped mountain reared up from the desert floor, its bulk oddly regular, but made indistinct by the haze of airborne dust.
Turning around, I saw, in the far distance a sandstorm rising like a wave on the horizon. Not one of your regular, run-of-the-mill storms, that one, but one of HIS. I estimated that it would be on top of us within the hour.
I had a real bad feeling about venturing on foot out into the boulder-field, but what choice did we have? Calling up the remaining men to salvage what they could from the stricken Titus, I ran a soldier´s check over my gear and provisions. Cartridges: six, cigarettes: two left, one broken. Damn.
I turned to our medic, a short, mustachioed fellow with the unfortunate name Slick, who had come up to squat at my side, calmly working the mechanism of his snub-nosed breech-loader free of sand.
“Look, I want you to take two of the infantry and rig some sort of stretcher for Smelt”, I said.
Slick looked up with that owlish face of his.
“No need, sarge” I suddenly realized the screaming had stopped some time earlier. “He burst”
“Bloody hellfire. What a way to go!”
“I can imagine. Then at least get some laudanum drops into our wounded. We´ll have to walk from here on”
As Slick scampered off to get the wounded men ready to march, I yelled for the gunner Miggs and two infantry men to collect what was left of our ammunition supply from the Titus. What they scrounged up turned out to be less than satisfactory.
“We´ve got a heap of stack-charges for the big gun, two explosive shells and a few cartridges from the large-bore. There´s some blasting caps and that, too, but that´s it” Miggs looked as dejected and tired as I felt, most of his face hidden by a dust-caked scarf wound round his scrawny neck, red-rimmed gray eyes peering out in the small gap between helmet rim and scarf.
“Right. Bring the shells, maybe we can use them for some sort of booby trap” I looked at the stack-charges, fat, grey doughnuts of compacted explosive powder. “Pull a strap through the fuse-hole and bring two of those, as well”
“Maug, Switch! These weigh tons!”
“I know. Now quit whining, we have to move out.”
While the men worked to parcel out the remaining supplies and ammunition, that unnatural sand storm drew closer. As it reached the salt flats to the west of our stranded vehicle, it seemed to pause, to draw in on itself. For the longest time it just sat there on the flats, like a grounded cloud, a menacing yellow-brown in color. Then, like a mirage, lumbering, crab-like shapes began to coalesce within the pulsing dust cloud. I turned to Gaunt, the infantry Corporal and yelled,
“We´ve got beetles coming. Get the men ready, NOW”
An Aquurian caravan beetle looks something like a cross between a crab and a woodlouse, flat as a dish on the top and moving around on six stubby legs. Until you saw it move, you would think it was just another pile of boulders, bigger than the Titus. The Reavers had domesticated these brutes, often erecting their pennon-bedecked goat skin pavilions on their backs. Each beetle could hold up to fifteen fully armed Reavers, and from my advantage point, I could see at least eight beetles, two abreast, lumbering out from under the dust cloud.
The one in front was slightly larger and lighter in color than the others and topped with a midnight-black pavilion, flying tattered black silk pennons bearing Reaver glyphs in blood-red. Its rider, standing at its front just above the eye-clusters and riding the uneven gait with practiced ease, was a figure I well knew – Arambard the Seer, his long beard tossing in the hot desert wind and his hot-lead gaze fixed upon me. I turned and slid down the dunes, almost in panic. What unholy sorcery had he wrought to transport men and insects across the desert, riding like leaves within that storm?
Pulling my sand goggles up from around my neck, I ran towards the small group of men working in the shadow of the Titus. Gaunt had rounded up his men, who were now strapping on various crates and containers of rations with whatever belts and rope they could find.
The infantry men used the same grey-green wool uniforms as the rest of the New Pattern regiments, and wore the same heavy boots, hemispherical steel helmet and leather harness. Their rifles, Kraggen-Mills “Screaming Annie” breech-loaders, had a longer barrel than the snub-nosed affair issued to steam-tank personnel, and were tipped with a wicked, overlong bayonet, almost a short sword, for close combat. Most wore bandoliers for ammunition, although the loops filled with cartridges were pathetically few.
Two of Gaunt´s men – Lye and Bell – had assembled a lightweight grasshopper mortar and were preparing to provide the rest of us with suppressive fire for our retreat, while Gaunt himself could be seen stacking drive-charges in the open top hatch of the Titus. From what I gathered, he intended to let the mortar men fire and fall back, fire and fall back and finally lob the last grenade into the Titus to ignite the remaining stack-charges as a welcoming present for the enemy. Good old Gaunt, always on the lookout for the nasty option. Too bad, really, that we only had four of those grenades.
Apart from one or two stick grenades, we had nothing heavier than that single mortar. I didn’t relish the thought of going up against a caravan beetle armed with nothing but an Annie and a plucky attitude.
The men, some supporting wounded comrades, others carrying supplies, began to slide and stumble down the east side of the ridge, slowly making their way towards the first obsidian cube. The first coughing report of the mortar sent me trotting after them, stopping only to grab my grease monkey, a kid named Obb, who was probably no more than twelve or thirteen years old.
Way back when, I´d been shocked when I found out that the Locastrian New Pattern Army routinely employed children on the tank-crews, but there are just so many tiny spaces and fiddly bits inside a steam tank that a grown man´s hands cannot reach. And anyway, Obb was a tough kid, born and raised in the streets of the capital, sinewy like a stray dog and as cunning as a rat. Maug knows what he had done to get sentenced to tank-crew service. He had found himself a snub-nosed Annie somewhere, and I was surprised of the professional way he held it.
Grabbing him by the collar of his overlarge uniform coat, I dragged him down the slope with me just as the mortar crew began to fall back, running like demons to take up position before our pursuers crested the ridge.
After a frenzied dash across the sand, we joined the group huddled in the shadow of the cube, a block of obsidian the size of a small house. This close up, I could see the whorls and spiraling patterns that had been carved deeply into each side of the cube, strengthening the illusion of a kid´s building block. So, man-made, then. But for what purpose, I could not even begin to guess.
Strangely enough, when I put my hand against the smooth crystalline surface, it felt cold, as if it sucked the warmth right out of my flesh. A mystery, and no mistake, but one that would have to wait for a more appropriate time.
The mortar coughed twice more, and we scuffled across the sand to peer around the corner of the cube at the ridge. The shells threw up mushroom clouds of dust as they detonated behind the ridge, but there was no way of telling if they had even come close to the beetle column. One more shell to go.
I peered down at the ground where we were squatting, and to my surprise I realized that the sand was only a thin cover over ancient stone paving, glass-smooth obsidian squares inscribed by the same hypnotic fractal patterns as the cubes. Now that I knew what to look for, I peered left and right and saw ancient paving laid bare in patches for as long as the eye could reach. What WAS this place?
Looking eastward, I could see that further in towards that suspiciously pyramid-like mountain, the cubes lay closer together, some even stacked in heaps of four and five, extending outwards like debris from the epicenter of an explosion. Gaunt came up behind me and whispered,
“When the lads blow the Titus, we make a dash for that heap over there” He indicated a cluster of cubes some two hundred meters further east, stacked in an untidy one-on-top-of-three formation, almost invisible in the fast-approaching dusk.
“I have a bad feeling…”, I began, but was quickly interrupted.
“Listen, man, we´re sitting ducks here. We have to move deeper in, where the spaces between cubes are too narrow for the beetles! If we can force them to dismount, we can meet them on our terms.” Gaunt looked skeptically into the distance and showed his crooked teeth a distinctly unpleasant smile. “If we´re able to avoid them until after dark, we might have a chance to reach that mountain, perhaps even set up some defenses.” He didn´t sound very hopeful.
“Here they come” This from Obb, observing the ridge from around the corner of the cube we were currently huddled behind.
There was a flurry of clicking and metallic sounds as breech-loaders were broken open, cartridges dropped into the breech and firing pins were pulled back. The infantry soldiers took up firing positions around the edges of the block, waiting for the trap to be sprung.
I risked a quick glance around the corner. Our enemy had crested the ridge, the great beetles presenting sharp outlines against the setting sun. The ranks seemed to hesitate at the lip of the crest, fanning out around the dark bulk of the Titus. We could see the silhouette of Arambard, marked by his height and staff, gesturing in a manner that suggested instructions being given.
“When the Titus blows, Foxface, Numb and myself provide suppressive fire while the rest of you run like demons for the next position. When you are in position you fire down the centre line, and we´ll fall back along the flanks. Don´t worry about accuracy, you can´t hit shit with those snub-nose peashooters anyhow, not at that distance. Just keep up a steady stream of lead in their direction”, Gaunts grating voice reached me in the dusk. I looked over my shoulder – it was a long run, over treacherous ice-smooth tiles and in plain view of our enemy.
From our right came the puff of the mortar as our last shell was fired. There was a slight pause, and everything seemed to happen all at once. The Titus erupted in a fireball that actually lifted its 30-ton bulk into the air, spraying white-hot metal shrapnel in every direction. From what I could see, two beetles were caught within the direct blast and torn apart, spraying the sand with insect ichors. Another was squashed by the remains of the Titus as it descended from its somersaults like the avenging fist of a God. And Gaunt was yelling like a banshee in my ear.
“Go, go, go!” He sent me running with a non-too-gentle shove, and I stumbled eastward, out of the twilight of the cube and out into the blood-red sunset. Behind me, I heard the smokepowder pops as Gaunt and his men fired on the remaining beetles. Miggs, Slick and the remaining infantry soldiers ran with me, scurrying like rats across the open ground. Obb overtook us, racing like a greyhound, raising a plume of dust in his wake.
At some point I fell, sending my weapon skittering across the tiles and tearing my knee open on the razor-sharp obsidian edge on a slightly tilted tile. Despite the ringing in my ears and the hot, sharp pains in my leg, I stumbled to my feet and limped on. The race for that pile of cubes took on a dream-like quality, sounds distorted and vision narrowing. From behind, the cracks of Annies continued as Gaunt and his men kept measuring out their meager supply of ammunition. Hot blood ran down my shin and collected in my boot as I limped along, making each step squelch.
To the left, ahead of me, one of the infantry soldiers fell from a slim bone spear that seemed to materialize between his shoulder blades. He made no sound, just crashed to the ground, his limp form grating along the sandy tiles for some distance before coming to rest, limbs askew.
After an indeterminable time, I reached the towering cluster of cubes, standing higher than a 3-storey settlement back in Locastus. I threw myself into the narrow opening between two of the bottom cubes, ending up in a high, narrow cave, filled with the wind-blown debris of the ages. Miggs and one of the infantry soldiers – Rust - were preparing their weapons, while, at the back, I could see Obb and the remaining infantry disappearing to take up position on top of the first tier of cubes.
I looked back through the opening, in the process scraping my wounded knee across the sand hard enough to make my head swim from the pain. In the failing light – the sun had now disappeared behind the ridge – I noted that Arambard had trouble leading his troops close to the cube-strewn plain, the gigantic beetles bucking and shuffling their legs, shying away from the nearest cube.
The Reaver leader was evidently enraged by this hesitation, we could see his staff raise brief showers of sparks as he goaded his beetle onwards, poking at its sensitive eye-clusters. Clearly, with the sudden restlessness of their mounts, the Reavers had not yet been able to turn their attention to Gaunt and his men, who picked off grey-robed figures at will from the tilting backs of the beetles. Then, probably out of ammunition, the infantry men threw their last stick grenades – aiming for the legs of the beetles – and sprinted eastward.
At the same time Miggs and Rust opened fire down the central corridor, one firing while the other reloaded. The reports of their Annies were deafeningly loud in the confined chamber. From above us came more gunshots, as the infantry men took up the staggering rhythm of fire. I tried to break my Annie open to drop a charge in the breech, but a wave of pain sharp enough to almost make me vomit, made me drop the weapon and curl up on the sandy floor.
Slick materialized above me, his owlish eyes blinking rapidly in the gloom.
“Think you may have nicked the tendons, there, Sarge.” He held up a small, crimson ampoule in one hand. “I don’t have a syringe to administer this, so you´ll just have to bite down on it. If it cuts your gums, so much the better, it´ll enter your bloodstream faster that way. Just don’t swallow any glass”
He dropped the ampoule into my mouth, and I bit down. A sharp pain and incredibly bitter taste was quickly replaced by a spreading numbness, and my mind abruptly snapped back into clarity. I coughed and spat, clearing my mouth of glass fragments.
“What in Maug´s name was in that thing?”, I managed through lacerated lips.
“Personal favourite”, he said, grinning. “Bloodroot cut with Laudanum tincture. Takes all your troubles away, don’t it?”
“Thought Bloodroot was something you gave to dogs down in the fighting pits”, I mumbled, the hot pain in my knee replaced by a sizzle as the Bloodroot caused the blood to clot.
“Well, it works on people too. Just don’t piss on any fires.”
I mumbled my thanks and managed to get my weapon loaded, cocked the firing pin back. I quickly found a distant grey-robed form in the iron sights of my Annie, my aim unnaturally steady, not a twitch or tremor. Well, I might as well take advantage of it. I fired, and the Reaver spun, robes flapping, out of sight.
Gaunt and Numb had now reached us, but not Foxface. He had had most of his face taken off by a piece of burning chitin after throwing a grenade at the beetles. Our fire dwindled to a stop as we tried to assess the situation. Arambard seemed to have given up on goading the beetles into the cube-field. Instead, the Reavers were now dismounting, clearly intending to continue the pursuit on foot. Three beetles were down, and another one wounded, missing most of one leg.
There were scuffles and cursing as Gaunt wedged his bulk into the narrow cave. The big man looked a bit scuffed and singed, but his teeth shone in the dim light as he smiled.
“So you got them off their beetles,” I said. “Now what?”
“We go deeper in. No other way. Maybe we can ambush them.” It must be that fabled infantry stupidity, to be so optimistic. “Those cubes lie closer together beyond this point, only narrow defiles in between. I´ve sent Bell out to scout us a likely path”
“We should move quickly, then. Those Reavers can cover a lot of ground running”
“Yeah, well, fortunately for us, it seems like they are as spooked about these grounds as their mounts.” He indicated the dismounted Reavers, who were uneasily edging forward into the field of cubes, goaded from the back by Arambard´s tall figure, his staff wreathed in a hazy glow.
“Told you I have a bad feeling about this place”
“As long as it works to our advantage, its fine by me,” he replied, and turned to crawl through the narrow exit. I followed him, on my hands and knees. With that Bloodroot still whizzing around my system, there was not even a twinge from my wounded knee.
Behind the pile, a small meeting was in progress. Bell had returned from his scouting, an odd, silent fellow who moved as soundlessly as smoke and sported a Tuka campaign badge on the tattered sleeve of his uniform jacket. No wonder he seemed so unruffled. If he´d been in the Tuka campaigns, he had seen far worse than this. An oddly comforting thought.
Using the point of his bayonet, Bell had sketched a rough map in the sand, a series of jumbled squares representing cubes and a jagged line for the route he had decided upon. As I crawled out into the gloom, he was laying out his plans.
“Back here,” He stabbed one end of his drawing, “is a more or less solid wall of blocks, with one opening, maybe half the breadth of a block across. Another block is wedged edgewise down that gap. If we make it there, we can use those charges to blast the opening shut behind us.” He nodded towards Miggs, who still carried the two heavy wheels of stack-charges.
“How far?”, Gaunt demanded.
“Maybe two hundred paces, but the path twists and turns, and there´s an open stretch right in front of the gap” He was interrupted by a many-throated howl in the distance. The Reavers were charging, having recovered their courage.
“Right, we´ll have to risk it,” Gaunt decided. He whistled softly for the men remaining on sentry duty. “Lead them in, Bell. Me and the Sergeant will bring up the rear.”
Bell faded into the gloom, like a ghost. Damned if I knew how he did that. The rest of the troops edged their way after him, into a gap between cubes. I tried to memorize Bell´s map as best I could, then scuffed it out with my boot.
Just as the rest of the squad faded away into the twisting defiles behind us, the first Reavers appeared, at a dead run, from around the pile of cubes we had just vacated, howling a reaver war-cry and brandishing chitin-tipped, stone-weighted spears and tooth-studded bone clubs. I took down the first one, shooting almost from the hip, then fell back, trying to screw another cartridge into the breech. Last one.
Gaunt, cold as ice, waited for the next Reaver to come close enough to begin to swing that wicked bone club at his head, then deftly stepped into the Reaver´s reach, ducking his head and thrusting his bayoneted rifle up and ahead to skewer the charging savage through the throat. Immediately yanking his weapon free, its butt smacking into his shoulder, he shot the one following behind the first one. Then he, too, was falling back.
As Gaunt ran past me to take up new positions, I hesitated, allowing more Reavers to pile into the gap. Apparently we were not immediately distinguishable in the gloom of the defiles, so I could wait and pick my target. I selected a slightly larger figure, brandishing a chieftain´s feathered bone scepter, and fired. The impact of my soft lead ball sent the large figure crashing back, temporarily obstructing the gap. I turned and ran deeper into the maze, off to the right.
I could hear sandaled feet rapping across the cobbles as the Reavers took up pursuit. Off to the left, I knew Gaunt was doing the same thing, trying to lead the Reavers off of our comrades´ trail. After turning a few corners without losing my pursuer, I made an abrupt about-turn, brought my empty weapon up and smashed it horizontally into the face of the Reaver about to run me down. Bone crackled and gave, as he added his own momentum to my strike, dropping the grey-robed form like a sack of coal. I managed to bring my heavy, iron-tipped mechanic´s boot down on his cowled head a few times, before other sounds of pursuit made me dash off again, fleeing deeper into the maze, desperately trying to correlate my position with my memory of Bell´s scratches in the dirt.
Ululating war-cries seemed to erupt from every direction. Twice I had to throw myself into another alley to avoid running into pursuing, torch-bearing Reavers. Once, I thought I heard Gaunt´s howling laughter off to my right and, instinctively, I set off in that direction.
Turning a corner, I saw torch-light approaching from an avenue to my left. I flattened myself against the wall, fumbling at my belt for the broad-bladed smatchett holstered there. Two grey-robed silhouettes emerged into the corridor where I was concealed, one carrying twin chitin long-knives and the other a warped bone staff trailing long, crimson ribbons. The staff-bearer held his hand aloft, a sharp, yellowish flame dancing directly on his palm, illuminating the scene. A blooded warrior and a battle-shaman, if my scant knowledge of Reaver society did not betray me. Both very dangerous opponents.
With a recklessness at least in part to blame on Bloodroot influence, I stepped out into the torchlight, gripping my empty Annie around the barrel, swinging it like a bat. The warrior spun around and brought up both blades in an X-shaped block. He was fast, fast in a way that suggested his reflexes had been boosted by some form of herbal potion or small theurgy. But not fast enough.
The rifle-stock, six pounds of solid Locastrian oak, met pleroma-tempered chitin in a crash which knocked both blades back into my opponent´s face, lacerating his eyelids. I stepped forward and caught him on the backswing, metal-shod butt smacking solidly into his temple. I released the Annie, letting it spin out into the night, and leapt over the falling body, desperately trying to clear my smatchett from the scabbard.
Too late. The shaman had whirled around and plucked me out of the air with his staff, its butt landing painfully on my clavicle. I smashed into the ground, my wind knocked out of me and my half-drawn blade clattering away across the tiles. I tried to roll out of the way, but that staff swung right back down at me, trailing a lurid purple comet trail through the night air.
When it hit, it hit with way more momentum than it had any right to do, lifting me clear off the ground and smashing me against the face of a nearby cube. I heard ribs crack, and the back of my head crunched hard against the obsidian. I slid bonelessly down into a sitting position against the wall, legs splayed out in front of me, tasting blood and splintered teeth in my mouth. The Reaver shaman moved in for the kill, his white teeth glinting beneath the glowing tattoos scrolling down his face as the dim effulgence of his staff intensified.
The shadows flowed and shifted behind the shaman, resolving themselves into a squat figure in grey-green wool, moving with a cat´s grace and wielding two darkly glinting blades. Bell, one of nature´s own killers. I could have kissed the murdering bastard.
The shaman spun to meet this new threat, alerted by some pleromic sixth sense, but he was too late. The blades in Bell´s hand licked out, to first skewer an upper arm, blocking the staff, then passing almost gently across his opponent´s throat. Blood spattered across the sandy obsidian floor. Keeping his opponent pinned on the point of his smatchett, Bell pulled the man around and the smaller blade in his left hand was pulled back, then plunged through the left side of the shaman´s ribcage with a rotating motion. Pushing his enemy forward, against the obsidian wall, he held him pinned there until all struggles had stopped.
He let the now limp body sag to the ground and, placing his blades on the ground, began cleaning his hands on the grey robes. One of his blades was an ordinary New Pattern army-issue smatchett, a heavy, leaf-shaped blade that could chop wood as well as people. It was the other, however, that drew my eye, a smaller, wickedly curved weapon, hiltless, with the handle wrapped in leather cord. I had seen such weapons before, at a distance – a Maul Shank, hallmark weapon of the Maul Rat regiment. Now they were exiled, shipped off to Nascogiba a few years back, but still enjoying an almost legendary reputation for ferociousness and brutality in battle. So our Bell used to be a Rat? It sure explained his sunny nature and positive attitude, if nothing else. Rubbing sand on his blood-soaked hands and knife handles, he looked over to where I was sitting.
“You able to walk?” Even his voice sounded deadly. I experimentally tried to move my arms and legs. There were a few twinges and crackling sounds from my abused spinal column, but everything seemed to function. The Bloodroot, again. Without the artificial strength granted by the drug, I would probably be dying or paralyzed. I spat out two of my favorite teeth before I answered.
“Yeah, I´m feeling real peachy” The squat, deadly little man held out his hand and helped me, with some difficulty, to my feet. He was immediately moving, amber predator eyes darting this way and that, making sure no enemies were nearby. I lumbered after him, retrieving my smatchett and tried to ignore the grating pops that were coming from my shoulder. “Hey, Bell?”
“Don´t mention it. The others are over that way, what´s left of them.“ He waved a hand vaguely off to the right. “We got ambushed before we could get to the regroup position.”
“Have you seen Gaunt?”
“Yeah. He´s dead. Took quite a few of these bastards with him, though.” In front of him lay the unconscious form of the blooded warrior, and Bell stomped a few times on the man´s neck for emphasis, and then walked on without looking back.
There was an ice-cold fizzle in my ribs, as torn tissue was forcibly re-knitted under the influence of Bloodroot. I found I could stand erect again, and breathe properly. We took off down an avenue to the right, a narrow crack between cubes barely wide enough to walk through. Bell floated like a phantom over the sand, without a sound and at times seemed to merge with the shadows. I suspected that some subtle hex or theurgy was at work here, but could see no glyphs or pleromic foci on the man, except a crudely done line of numbers, in blocky, bluish characters, on the back of his bald head. A one-time prisoner of Apt´s death camps, then. A mystery wrapped in an enigma, our Bell.
Ahead of us there was a broad avenue, free of cubes. Snatches of harsh, guttural Reaver conversation and flickers of torchlight drifted in to where we had stopped, hunched down in the shadows. On the other side of the avenue, the cubes lay denser still, packed tight, and here the standard, house-sized cubes began to be interspersed with smaller versions, ranging in size from three meters to fifty centimeters to a side. Apart from the variation in size, they were identical to their larger cousins, inscribed with incredibly convoluted spiral patterns on each side.
In the golden light of pleromic shaman-fire and oil-soaked chitin torches, the obsidian walls seemed to glow. The open area ahead was filled with grey-robed Reavers, standing or squatting, all intent on something on the far side of the avenue. All had thrown back their cowls, exposing their knobbly, bald heads, vulture-like necks and harsh, slightly inhuman features. Black shark eyes glittered like the surrounding obsidian, all focused on a figure standing on a slightly smaller cube directly across from our position. Arambard the Seer, no more than a handful of meters from us.
The Reaver leader had thrown open his robes, exposing a crustacean-like suit of armor fashioned from exquisitely lacquered chitin, on which harsh Reaver glyphs in crimson enamel seemed to float above the glossy black surface. A mandibled war-mask, fashioned from the same material and carved in the likeness of a gigantic insect, hung from his belt, while in the crook of one arm he cradled a huge war-mace, its ungainly head fashioned from fused human skulls, teeth and eye-sockets poking out at odd angles.
In front of him, on the edge of the block he was using as a podium, were arranged five decapitated heads. I could recognize Gaunt and Lye, but not the other three, although one was probably Foxface, with most of the face and front of the skull missing. Their dog tags still remained, each hanging down the front of the cube, glinting in the torchlight.
Arambard was delivering a speech, his voice no more than a harsh whisper which occasionally rose to a screeching crescendo as if hammering home some point. He emphasized each point by bringing down that terrible mace on each of the severed heads, causing blood, grey matter and bits of bone to spurt in every direction. His iron-grey eyes – a rarity in a desert Reaver – were wild and staring, burning with fanaticism and madness as he reached his crescendo, his voice the hoarse and savage howl of a desert wolf. And the savages howled their approval, shaking their bone spears and chitin blades against the night skies.
At my side, Bell had produced two cylinder-tipped stick-shaped objects, marked with a yellow and red double band at the top. Thermite grenades, chemical incendiaries. He looked at me and whispered:
“The rest of the squad is on the other side of that avenue. These will blast us a path through. Do you know the Hinge Two-step?”
“I´ll lead with blades, wounding and maiming as many as possible. You follow one step behind, killing those I leave alive.” He seemed unnecessarily happy with that notion. “But we have to do it now; they are preparing to move out and the Two-step only works when they are all bunched up like that. And we have to move like blazes once we go. You up for it?”
For a moment I was speechless. “Have you lost your damn mind?”, I finally managed.
His wolf eyes twinkled in the dark. “Good man. Guess there´s some spunk in you tank boys after all, eh? Here we go. Oh, and try to aim for the subclavian artery or even the heart-stalk. Their anatomy is quite different from ours.” With that, he threw both grenades out into the thronging mass of Reavers, then surged out of the narrow corridor, leaving me scrambling to keep up.
He passed swiftly between two of the nearest savages, leaving them both collapsing from neck wounds and had started on a third when the first grenade detonated, spraying sparks and globules of incandescent metal in every direction. I followed closely behind, head down, swinging my smatchett wildly left and right. Burning cinders rained down on my helmet, stinging my neck.
Bell was wading further into the sea of burning bodies, leaving his third victim behind with multiple wounds to his arms and chest. Crippling wounds, rather than killing ones. I brought my smatchett down on top of the wounded man´s head, splitting it down to the bridge of the nose. The blade stuck, and I kicked desperately at the collapsing corpse to free it, then scrambled after the former Maul Rat.
The second grenade detonated; somewhere off to the left, close to where Arambard had been standing. I jumped over two writhing bodies in Bell´s wake, cut wildly at another bleeding figure, still standing, just off to my right. Bell seemed to dance among his opponents, side-stepping and ducking, his blades licking out with economic precision, cutting tendons and opening arteries with every stroke, the Reavers melting away before him.
The far side of the passage came into view. I could see the opening Bell was aiming for, a narrow crack between cubes barely wide enough for a man to squeeze through sideways. 10 more meters to go. From my right, a spear-wielding warrior charged in, howling and mewling like a rabid dog. I brought my blade down on the leading weapon, severing the haft, then flicking the smatchett up, across his eyes. He shied back, and I brought my iron-tipped boot up to connect solidly with his groin.
A sudden sharp pain erupted across my back, causing me to turn. A bleeding warrior, right arm limp, were swinging his jagged-edge chitin sword left-handed, aiming to catch me across the throat on the up-stroke. I ducked, with drug-induced speed, and lunged into his arms, the top of my helmet striking him solidly in the face while his sword whistled harmlessly over my head. I hooked a wild swing in his direction as he stumbled back, and I was off again. Hot blood ran down my back, but the waning effects of the Bloodroot would take care of that, or so I hoped.
An ear-splitting screech sounded from my left, and I risked a quick glance in that direction. Arambard, his robes and beard looking slightly singed but otherwise unharmed, was advancing through the throng, batting his own men out of the way with his massive mace. He was foaming at the mouth, his face beneath that fearsome war-mask contorted in a bestial snarl, showing ivory-white, sharpened teeth. All the while, he screamed that high-pitched, insect-like monotone, like a fingernail on a chalkboard. The Reavers ceased their push to reach us, and instead became intent on getting out of their own chieftain´s path. It was all the incentive I needed, I turned around and fled.
Bell, now right up against the wall, close to the gap, was surrounded and hard-pressed by a half dozen Reavers. He had taken a lot more punishment through the course of our passage then I had thought, his coat ripped in a score of places, blood soaking the heavy wool. Seeing their quarry tire, the savages had closed in, their light-weight weapons flickering in and out of his guard. A finger spun up into the night air as he mistimed a parry.
My charge took the nearest nomad through the spine, carrying him forward onto the flickering blades of Bell. I ripped my weapon free and hurled it, end over end, against the closest opponent. Then I was bursting through the gap, carrying Bell with me, almost immediately falling in a tangle of arms and legs. He responded sluggishly, but I clambered over him and, grabbing his weapon harness, started to drag him through the cramped corridor.
Reavers crowded the opening, in their battle-lust actually blocking each other from entering the defile. A few stone-weighted bone spears lanced along the corridor, skittering along the glass walls, and then Arambard, in his fury, knocked his own men clear of the passage. The Reaver sorcerer, his armored bulk too large to fit into the crack, flung a luminously grey theurgical bolt down the passage, which, strangely enough, seemed to ground itself out on the obsidian walls well before reaching us. A frustrated, high-pitched shriek reached us, echoing between the glassy walls.
I summoned the last vestiges of drug-induced strength, and hauled the now unmoving Bell clear of the passage. Too late. Two slim, hollow bone shafts had pierced him low on the abdomen, and from my experience with those things, they had probably been coated by the sticky, tar-like poison the Reavers favored. Bell looked up at the night skies with sightless eyes, looking oddly content.
I left him there, half out of the passage, only pausing to pick up his Maul Shank, even though I lacked the skill to defend myself effectively with such a small weapon. From here on, I would only be able to run, not fight. My only chance of survival lay in finding the rest of the squad.
As I moved out, I could feel the waning of the Bloodroot´s effects in a thousand aches and pains which were all clamoring to be noticed. Hot-iron bands constricted my bruised and broken ribcage, and my back was burning with an ice-cold flame. The left shoulder was rapidly seizing up and my wounded knee threatened to buckle at any moment. My head swam, and I broke out in a prickling of sweat as the accumulated torture I´d put my body to came flooding back. Fighting down hot, acrid bile, I stumbled on in the approximate direction of the regroup point Bell had scouted out earlier. I knew I had to get there quick, before my body succumbed to the trauma and went into shock.
As I was making my way down a broad gallery, flanked on either side by bulwarks of cubes, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, leaning against the cold obsidian, my fading eyesight fighting to locate the source of that pale glimmer. I could hardly raise the knife in my hand to a ready position, much less defend myself. I raised it anyway. The gibbous desert moon came out from behind a cloud, throwing a stark illumination over the scene.
From behind a nearby block, a naked woman walked out into the defile, her pale flesh glowing painfully bright in the shades of gritty grey sand and ink-black obsidian. Hallucination. It must be. She looked directly at me with sad, metallic eyes, her long silver-colored hair blowing in a non-existent wind. She pointed firmly along a side passage, as if showing me the way. Why not? I had absolutely no idea where I was. A cloud passed over the moon, throwing the avenue into darkness and making the apparition fade away. I blinked a few times, trying to clear my vision, and staggered off down the indicated passage, dragging my injured leg and hoping like hell my own delusions wouldn´t betray me. Not a comforting thought.
Luckily, it was no more than a few minute´s walk before I saw the distinctive choke-point up ahead, a gap between cubes perhaps four meters wide, blocked off from above by a slightly smaller cube crammed edgewise down the passage. Suspiciously bulky shadows could be seen through the M-shaped opening, and I slowed, my narrowing vision catching a glimpse of grey robes. Reavers. I hunkered down behind a nearby cube, considering my options. In my weakened state, I had to concede that my chances were very slim indeed.
I peered over the top of the cube, sighting the form of a sentry within the shadows of the opening. It ducked quickly out of sight, but with a distinctly non-Reaver movement. Then the high, twittering sound of a night bird reached me, and I smiled. No desert finch, that one. That was the clear, trilling tones of a Locastrian Flickerbird, whose habitat lay half a world away, in the country of my birth.
I rose up and staggered forward into the waiting arms of Obb and Slick, both wearing blood-stained Reaver robes over their uniform jackets, and was quickly dragged into the shadows underneath the precariously balanced block. I looked around weakly. Miggs was there, as well, looking in worse shape than me. Blood, seemingly as black as the obsidian around us, smeared the front of his uniform where he sat slumped against one wall. Gut wound. Never a good thing.
“Good to see you, Switch”, he said, showing bloodstained teeth in a weak grin. “You look like crap.”
“Thanks. You don’t look too good yourself.”
Slick looked up from his examination of my wounds. “Where´s Bell? And Gaunt?”
“I thought so. We got separated on our way here. Obb came here first.” He indicated two tangled forms in the recesses of the chamber. “Me and Miggs found ourselves this pair of Reavers and borrowed their clothes”
“What about the other infantry men?”
“Rust fell on the way here. I haven´t seen the others.” He brought out a tin of tar-like ointment and started to rub over my opened back. It stung, but at least the burning pain subsided.
“Hey, Slick. Got more of that Bloodroot?”
“No.” He nodded towards Miggs. “He got the last, and even if I had more it´d probably kill you.”
Typical. “So what now?”
He waved a hand off into the distance. “The passage continues in a straight line from here on. We thought we´d blow this opening shut – we still have those shells, you see. Unfortunately, we don’t have any blasting caps.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Miggs ain´t walking anywhere. He says he will stay behind to set off those shells once we are out of range. He´ll wait for as long as he can, of course.”
“Hellfire” I could see no alternatives, either. And the sounds of Reavers were getting closer. We hunkered down in the shadows as sandaled feet pattered by in the defile beyond the gap.
The moon had appeared again, throwing its harsh, silvery illumination over the mountain of cubes rearing up behind us. I hadn´t realized how close we had got. From our current position it looked like a titanic wave poised to break, eager to grind us all to dust beneath its bulk. The passage we were in ran straight as a razor towards it, its end lost in the monochrome distance.
Breaking a slim Reaver bone-spear in two, Slick began to apply a splint to my leg in order to support the damaged knee-joint. I snarled in pain as the cold, polished bone shafts compressed my puffy, inflamed joint.
Using an empty Annie as a crutch, I found that I could stand and, with some difficulty, even walk, although there would be no sprints from now on. I limped over to where the disemboweled gunner lay dying, blood and stomach fluids soaking the sand beneath him, his chin resting on his chest.
He looked up, as if snapping awake. “For Maug´s sake, Switch. Get going. I have no idea how much longer I can keep it together.” His eyes were wide open, empty of emotion, his face marble-white and slack. It was only the Bloodroot-induced stamina that kept him conscious. He had stuck the cannon-shell point down in the sand between his legs, and had dismantled a panel from its side. A small folding knife in his hand was held poised over the hair-trigger brass percussion-cap visible inside the ordnance.
We briefly touched fists, the traditional greeting between soldiers of the church of Maug, the warrior-ascendant. And then I limped off, pausing only to grab Obb. The kid was unresponsive and crying, streaks of snot scoring trails down his soot-blackened face. Shock. I wondered if he was going to go catatonic on me. I wasn´t feeling too happy about that prospect, I would probably need his help just to walk down the passage, never mind climbing that mountain beyond.
Clutching Obb´s shoulder, I began the laborious task of steering him in the right direction while supporting myself on him and the rifle. Together, we hobbled off down the defile, into a stark world of inky black and velvet grey. The opening, Slick and Miggs soon disappeared in the sharply defined shadows behind us, leaving us in a seemingly endless corridor, stretching into infinity in both directions. The perspective continuously swam and seemed to alter, making me at times feel as if I was looking down into a bottomless abyss - a dizzying phenomenon I put down to fatigue and blood loss. Several times I thought I glimpsed a flash of pale, shimmering flesh out of the corner of my eye.
I became aware of my mental functions starting to shut down, and my extremities growing cold and numb. To my vague surprise, this did not worry me to any significant degree. My whole universe had contracted to contain nothing but taking another step, than another, and another. My only connection to reality was my hand clamped in a death-grip on the young grease-monkey´s shoulder. I lowered my gaze to my feet, clumsily, senselessly scraping forward, one at a time. Those boots felt heavy as lead and several sizes too small.
After an indeterminable amount of time, Slick caught up with us, wild-eyed and running like a demon.
“Keep going, keep going. Miggs ain´t gonna last long”, he panted. “The Reavers were sniffing around the entrance when I left.”
My jaw worked for a moment before I could produce a sound. My tongue felt oddly alien in my mouth. “How far do we need to go?”
“We´re barely outta the primary blast radius. That sucker could level a house.”
He and Obb picked me up, one by each arm, and started to carry me down the passage, my feet now dragging insensate behind me, scraping furrows in the dust. From behind, I could faintly hear the Reavers´ excited cries as they discovered our former hiding place. And then the night fled in a flash of intense white light.
There was absolutely no sound, only that neverending moment of white-hot illumination, which frizzled the hairs on the back of my neck. Then the blast wave, compressed into a piston by the narrow corridor, reached us. Something that felt like a giant´s padded boxing glove hit me in the back, hurling me effortlessly into the air, the world lost in a white-out of fire and airborne dust.
I lost track of space and time, my sense of up and down dissolving as I tumbled. There was still no sound, apart from the sound of my blood roaring through my carotid arteries. For a time I had no means or interest in measuring, I felt as if I hung suspended in the silent whiteness, as if I had stopped existing. Perhaps this was death? In that case, I wasn´t complaining. Floating there, cushioned by the soft, white iridescence, I felt an immense sense of peace. My body seemed to have dissolved, taking my aches and pains with it.
And then she came. I could not see her; only feel her presence, like a lead weight pressing down on my forebrain. I could feel her puzzlement, and when she spoke, I could hear her voice whispering within my head, the bones of my skull resonating with its power.
“What are you, to bring destruction to my place of preservation?”
“I am called Switch, a soldier. A Locastrian.” I could not feel my mouth move, and no sound escaped. It seemed I just emanated my thoughts out into the aether.
“A war-man? A… human? Do the humans rule the world now?” Her laughter rang inside my skull like a thousand silver bells.
“Only our corner of it,” I said, sourly. I really wasn´t interested in a conversation, I wanted to go back to dying.
“And does the Cha Seir´an now allow humans to make war? To build empires in their own name?” She sounded incredulous.
The term joggled my memory, something from the history lessons of my childhood. “Are you talking about the Seir? Lady, they are long gone. Some say they brought a thousand years of ice down on us and left us out in the cold.”
“Impossible. They are Her closest servants.”
“I can only tell you what I know, Lady.” I could feel her focus intensifying on me, scrutinizing me.
“War-man, your body is damaged. You will die soon.”
“Yes, I know.” I felt her attention slide off me, into the distance. An echo of her anger at whatever she detected there thrummed down the psychic link between us. When she spoke again, her mind-voice was sharper, more insistent, slicing like a drill through my frontal lobes.
“Why are the agents of Nerak Keltu pursuing you?”
“Never heard of him. Those following me are human. Well, technically, anyway.”
“The leading entity has been infused by the potential of the Outsider. How can this be?”
“Lady, I have no idea what you are talking about. Now let me die in peace.” Damn, Arambard was still alive. I had hoped to take him with me. That feminine presence turned her attention to me once again, her presence washing over me in a prickling flood.
“No, war-man, I will not. Your little ascendant tries to claim your essence, but I am denying him.”
Denying Maug himself, was she? “Now look, let me go. As you said, I´m a dead man. You have no use for me.”
“Come to me, war-man. Climb the stair and enter my locus.”
“What that being represents could eat your world, war-man. If it were to be let loose, it would bleach the skies and sterilize the earth. It did so before, long ago. My higher functions are much degraded. I cannot take him on alone.”
“I can no longer walk, certainly not climb any stairs.”
“The damage to your corpus is easily managed. Humans are simple but sturdy constructions. Climb the steps, come into my locus.”
“I´m not dying?” I felt I needed confirmation on this rather vital point.
“No, human, not until I let you” I could feel her presence withdrawing. “Oh, war-man?”
The soft, shimmering light abruptly vanished, replaced by a kaleidoscopic, tumbling vista of black and grey. A diffuse patch of ghostly light – the cloud-wreathed moon – arced across my vision as I spun on my own axis. I was still flying, in a flat trajectory, so fast that the paved avenue beneath me was a blur. At this point I did brace myself.
The ground came up to meet me. Hard. I tumbled like a rag doll across the obsidian tiles, the clattering of my gear accompanied by sickly, wet crunches as the bones in my flopping limbs snapped in what felt like a hundred places. Sliding across the sand-strewn glass, I finally came to a stop with my back against a low cluster of cubes. Pain, so overwhelming almost to be esoteric, assailed every cubic centimeter of my body.
Even though my body was now damaged beyond belief, I could feel a quickening stir my bruised flesh, as if golden heat was seeping from the pit of my stomach outwards. I screamed, but without a sound, as the blazing heat of circulation returned to my extremities, sweeping away the cold, leaden numbness of near-death. I convulsed, arching my back and biting my tongue, as this force, whatever it was, pounded through my body, forcibly realigning fragmented bone and torn tissue into a functioning whole. Racked by tremors, I remained prone, on my back, for some time, limbs twitching randomly like those of a trampled cockroach. Once the convulsions had subsided, I raised myself on hands and knees, and looked about.
I had landed against the lowest step of a steep, sweeping staircase, constructed out of cubes of differing size, making each step unlike the other. As I raised my eyes, I could see that the staircase narrowed towards the top, terminating in a ledge some quarter way up the edifice. A soft, mother-of-pearl light shone from a square entrance set deep into that ledge.
I looked around for my comrades. The passage was still blocked by a great cloud of sand and glittering, pulverized obsidian, backlit by lurid, orange flames in the distance. The tiled floors were covered in razor-sharp obsidian splinters. Obb, his oversized uniform coat in tatters, were picking himself up. He seemed shell shocked but otherwise unhurt, eyes wide and glassy, mouth slack and blood gushing freely from his nose. Slick had obviously, intentionally or unintentionally, shielded the boy from the brunt of the blast. His body was lying off to one side, crumbled up against a block, the entire back of his head gone. A jagged obsidian shard the length of my arm had punched a round hole the size of my fist in his cranium, the empty brainpan yawning wetly up at me.
Movement within that backlit dust-cloud made me wrench my eyes away from the ruins of Slick´s skull. Shadows, made monstrous by the flames behind them, swirled and twitched, resolving into a humanoid figure staggering – or perhaps crawling – down the passage in our direction. Although I had been forewarned, the implications of something actually surviving that blast terrified me. I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was Arambard who was dragging his blast-shredded body towards us.
I scooped up the obsidian spear that had brained Slick, hefted it for a second, then heaved it off in the approximate direction of the creature emerging from the dust cloud, and was rewarded a second later by a shrill insect screech. Got the bastard. The shadows stopped dancing against the shifting dust. But then the sounds of dragging and clawing resumed, and I turned, grabbed Obb and started up the stairs.
Even though I felt no pain as I forced my broken body from step to step, I could feel that no actual healing had been done. Fragmented bone grated and clicked, held together by whatever force had been instilled in my damaged flesh. My torso wobbled uncertainly, the rigidity of my spine compromised by crushed vertebrae in at least two places, and my shattered pelvis made each step a balancing act. I tried to avoid thinking of what would happen once the effect wore off.
Closer to the ledge, the stairs became steeper, and our progress slowed. On more than one occasion, I had to push Obb up onto the next tier of cubes, so that he could pull me up after him. After a long and torturous climb, I finally hauled myself, accompanied by various meaty pops and crackles, over the razor-sharp lip of the ledge. The portal, nothing but an irregular, angular crevice between cubes, emitted pulsing, nacre light, as if in welcome. I wordlessly motioned Obb towards the passage, finding that I could no longer speak clearly – my jaw was broken, and judging by the way my throat was constricted, probably my hyoid bone as well.
I crawled slowly towards the edge of the ledge, peering over the side. Arambard had dragged himself clear of the dust and was now lying prone before the first step of the stairs, looking nothing so much as a squashed bug in that tattered chitin carapace of his. I struggled, and managed to stand, crookedly but erect, just as he, slowly and twitchingly like a wounded insect, leaned his head back and looked up at me. The reversal of roles between this scene and that where we had first made eye contact, in Acieh Han, struck me as immensely funny.
“Now who´s looking down on whom, you inhuman fuck?” I wheezed, triumphantly. But that bastard was far from finished. Even as I watched, his erratic twitching grew increasingly controlled, until he slowly but surely pushed himself up to his hands and knees. Then he looked up at me again, with those mad, empty eyes and squeezed out a series of chirps and clicks that no human throat should be able to produce. The golden power that kept me functioning recoiled as those alien words of power hit me, momentarily withdrawing down into the pit of my stomach. Unsupported, my broken femurs and pelvis collapsed under my own weight, and I teetered precariously on the lip of the ledge, before crashing backwards, limbs at all kinds of twisted, unnatural angles. From the bottom of the stairs, I heard Arambard´s rasping laugh, like a swarm of metallic locusts.
Almost immediately, the forced realigning of splintered bone began anew, and within a minute or two, I could begin a slow, torturous crawl towards the shimmering portal. Obb, crouched just inside the opening, reached out and dragged me through. Beyond the portal was a low-ceilinged chamber, walled, floored and roofed by cubes. The pulsing light emanated upwards from a narrow chute in the uneven floor at the back of the chamber, reflected by the mirror-finish obsidian surfaces. I could feel her presence down there, pulling me in. I dragged myself towards the shaft of light, to look over the edge.
Down below was a geometrically precise hemispherical chamber, perhaps forty meters across, its walls and dome ceiling constructed of symmetrically arranged cubes and floored in obsidian tiles. Spirals, whorls and fractal patterns of great complexity gleamed on every surface, tugging at my mind. Despite the warm desert night outside, the air rising from that chamber was bitterly cold, making my breath steam. The chamber was filled with a pulsing, nacre radiance, visible in its reflections in the black silicate walls, but without any visible point of origin.
In the exact geometrical centre of the chamber, atop a squat dais in the middle of a titanic spiral, sat a dome-shaped structure, fashioned from some strange, silvery metal, perhaps three meters at its apex and with no visible entrance. Strangely enough, its general shape was reminiscent of the burial huts sometimes found in the Fire Hills of Nascogiba. Looking further down, I could see that a primitive ramp curled around the inner walls of the chamber from our current position, running around half the chamber´s circumference before joining the floor on the opposite side of that oddly out-of-place tomb. I had no doubt that that is where we needed to go.
With some assistance from Obb, I lowered myself onto the stepped ramp, a drop of some two or three meters, and then caught the boy as he jumped down behind me. This close to its source, the power in me stirred, and I found that I could walk again. We started our slow, erratic descent. Obb scampered ahead, and I followed, somewhat more slowly, frequently supporting myself on the flanking wall. Our progress took us on a half-circuit of the chamber, around the mysterious, enclosed hemisphere in its center. As we descended, the air grew progressively colder and drier, our breaths hanging in the air behind us for several seconds before dissipating. My sweat-and-blood-soaked clothes were soon rimed with frost and my throat tingled as the dry cold robbed it of its moisture.
Eventually our roundabout approach deposited us on the spiral-incised floor of the cavernous hall, and we stepped out to cross the floor towards the centre. Our feet threw up glittering puffs of metallic dust from the ice-smooth floor, and it seemed to me as if these small plumes settled unnaturally quickly, falling into weird spiral patterns, like iron filings around a magnet.
I stepped upon the dais, and laid my hand on the strangely frictionless, silvery surface, on which swirls of iridescence ebbed and flowed, like oil stains on a puddle. The surface was intensely cold, and my palm tingled, as if repelled by a magnetic field. I could feel the power inside me surge, probably recognizing its origin, and the abstract rainbow whorls flickered faster, contorting into fractal maelstroms of greater and greater complexity around the point of contact. And then the hemisphere flickered out of existence, like a burst soap bubble.
I stumbled forward on the suddenly empty dais, shocked at this unforeseen turn of events. Turning back towards Obb, crouching at the edge of the dais, and then looking beyond him, I could see the fine glittering dust stir and flow in towards us, as if attracted by a magnetic force. With a dusty whisper, this unknown substance spiraled inwards towards the centre of the dais, like a lazy dust devil in reverse, sparkling in the odd, artificial light. I stepped back, avoiding the questing tentacles of dust that languidly spiraled inwards, wove and knotted themselves together, while at the same time becoming denser, more defined. The whisper of dust intensified, becoming the hiss like that of a thousand jade-mouthed adders.
The accreting dust eventually formed a revolving pillar, counter-rotating bands of grey, metallic dust weaving in and out of each other in eye-wrenching complexity. The individual streamers constricted, gaining color and definition, and then suddenly imploded, as if sucked in by an irresistible gravitational force. And a shape took form, assembling out of the swirling particles. Involuntarily, I took a step back.
The form that had taken shape on the dais was monstrous beyond imagining, a glistening, globular mass, the color of clotted blood and studded with slim, sinuous tentacles and wavering eye-stalks. Six massive, truncated tentacles supported the torso-sized body at the approximate height of a tall man´s face. I was repulsed, fighting down panic, I stepped back further as the assorted feelers swung in my direction. Bell´s Maul Shank was in my hand, a pathetic gesture against this monstrosity. On the other side of the dais, Obb was scuttling backwards across the glistening floor tiles, his eyes bulging like poached eggs from their sockets.
A familiar sensation of pressure built in my forehead as the entity turned to focus on me, its sinuous legs bringing it around in an elegant, synchronized ballet. My broken hyoid clicked loudly in my throat as I swallowed, and then a static buzz resonated in the bones of my cranium, a sound of a thousand wasps eventually resolving into words.
“Welcome, Locastrian, to my locus.” It was the same gay, chiming female voice that I had experienced during my interlude within the blast, but in my battered mind, I was unable to connect that beautiful voice with the pulsating horror in front of me.
“You.. That..” I managed, and I could feel the invading presence in my forebrain emanate puzzlement and a faint irritation. Great. Real glib, Switch. Now I had probably insulted her.
“Ah, I see. You find this form incompatible for communication?” Her melodious laughter resonated briefly through my head, but was quickly replaced by a faint sense of sadness. “I assume the Sa´amaru are gone from the world, as close as they were to the Mistress…” Her voice trailed off, then returned in lighter tones. “Would this suit your tastes better?”
The form exploded outwards, and reassembled into a skeletal figure the color of pewter, roughly humanoid but at least three meters tall and seemingly all stick-like, multi-jointed limbs. Eyes of blue fire, burning deep within an elongated, mask-like face, turned to regard me.
“Is the form of the Farrak Aszan more to your liking? No?” If anything, I had drawn back even further. The form shifted, this time into something like a stunted, twisted tree, rubbery limbs and roots undulating like knobby serpents, each tipped with a glistening eyeball. “What about one of the Kith?”
She blurred, this time reassembling as a female figure, full-breasted and covered in golden fur, her head dominated by enormous emerald, slit-pupilled eyes and a cat-like snout. She showed me a grin full of needle-sharp teeth and immediately shape-shifted again, this time into something like a squashed gelatin sphere, filled with oddly glowing tubes and furled organelles.
Another flicker and she was a gigantic coiled serpent with a mottled-orange orchid for a head, which yawned and rustled its long, furry stamens in my direction. And the whole time, the silver bells of her mirth tinkled in my aching bones. I realized I was being made fun of, and I really wasn’t in any form of playful mood.
“I get it” I sighed. “You can assume any form you like. I would prefer that of a human, please.”
The orchid-serpent playfully blew a cloud of glittering pollen in my direction. “Little humans, always so anxious and insipid,” her golden voice sang, tauntingly but with good humor. “No sense of humor.” The snake-flower shook itself like a wet dog and dissolved into a gyrating cloud of dust once again, before reforming. This time, into something out of an adolescent´s wet dream.
The form she had chosen was that of a human female, slim but curvaceous, and naked apart from delicate, metallic sea shell-like structures covering the genitalia and cupping her small breasts. Her skin tone was a dusky metallic grey and her eyes a startling, liquid gold. Several more of those spun-metal conch-shells were attached, barnacle- like, to her perfectly formed, bald head. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow at me.
“I take it you find this form acceptable?” I swallowed. There were things happening below my belt that, considering my body´s state of disrepair, had no anatomical right to happen. I groaned, and looked over at where Obb was sprawled, halfway between the dais and the far wall. The boy´s eyes were no less wide now but, I thought, from a rather different reason. I laughed, but only a hoarse croak escaped from my mangled larynx.
“On the whole, Lady, I think some clothing would ease our conversation,” I wheezed, shaking with residual laughter. “If nothing else, for the sake of the boy´s youthful hormones.”
For a moment her brow knotted in puzzlement, then smoothed out in a brilliant smile. “Oh, yes. That troublesome mating instinct of the human male.” Her body blurred briefly, dust solidifying into a short, dress-like garment consisting of linked metal panels. “Satisfied?”
“Passably. Perhaps this is where you tell us who you are, Lady?” My tone was brusque, bordering on rude. I could feel the pursuing Arambard breathing down my neck and I had no patience left for this creature´s games. “Are you some form of ascendant?”
“No, war-man, I am not a who at all. I am a what, a technological construct. I am an Unrestricted Replicator/Provider, to be exact. My function is to satisfy the physical needs of all Her subjects. I Provide, that is my purpose.” She paused, waiting for me to digest this.
“You provide…. what?”
“Anything. I consist of microscopic motes, tiny machines able to assemble substrate matter and ambient energy into anything from foodstuffs up to complex machines. Or I could. Much has been lost…”
“Then make me a weapon to deal with the one pursuing us.”
“I cannot, war-man. My substrate motes are depleted. I barely have enough substrate for my own thought processes. I can no longer Provide, only survive.” Her tone took on a note of hopelessness, her lambent eyes clouding with emotions. “War-man, I am, in many ways, worthless. From what little information I have gathered, I have learnt that many of the Providers died from loss of substrate. Those that remain have turned predatory, luring in prey, digesting them, to replace lost motes. They have become vampires, war-man. Insane.” Her mind tone had hardened, became angry.
“But you are not, Lady? How have you escaped that fate?”
“I chose another path, human, a path of dormancy. The cubes around us are entropy-sinks, my last act of Providing. They resist the flow of time in this chamber, slowing down the advance of decay. They have preserved me for millennia, but now even they are failing. I have no substrate for self-replication, so my mote depletion is reaching critical levels. I am dying, war-man.”
“So why bother about the one pursuing us?”
“That human carries the taint of the Outside in his mortal flesh. I must eradicate it, it is one of my prime directives.”
“What do you mean, outside?”
“Our ancient enemy, War-man, her enemy.”
“I have no idea who you are talking about, Lady.” And I really wasn´t interested in a history lesson. “But Arambard will be here soon,” I continued brusquely.”In fact, I´m surprised he´s not in this chamber already.”
“He is loath to enter the focus of my time-traps. The entropy-buffer fields are anathema to the thing from which he derives his power. Down here, where the field is the strongest, some of those powers will be negated. But it will also draw him in, like a moth to a flame. His kind has a deep hatred for me and those like me. He will come, war-man, and soon, but for now we have a short respite.”
“So what can I do?”
She paused. “I want you to trust me, war-man.” I looked up sharply at this seemingly unconnected request, a bad tingle racing down my spine. “I have depleted the area of materials for self-replication; all that is left are silicates. Without an external power source, the carbon and metal ions I need are inaccessible.”
“That is why I built the entropic circuits, my cubes, out of silica.” She looked at my uncomprehending grimace. “If I had had the right materials, the mechanism could have been smaller than the nail of your little finger, rather than this inelegant massif.”
“What kind of help do you want from me?” There was something about her insistent tones that made my finely tuned sense of self preservation clamor for attention. I was growing increasingly certain I wasn´t going to like her answer.
Again that ominous pause. “I want your organic materials, war-man. Your corpus represents eighty-one kilograms of prime substrate matter, matter which I can transmute and make myself into a weapon against the one who is coming.”
Shit. I made to back away from her, but found that the power inside me would not let me move. I was rooted to the floor. The insane creature on the dais merely looked at me with huge, sad eyes.
“He is coming, war-man.” An image flashed down the psychic link joining us, of Arambard crawling up the staircase, scuttling obscenely like a gigantic spider from tier to tier. “I will have to digest your substrate now. My motes are already inside you, they have helped you carry your body within my reach.”
A warm, tingling feeling was spreading within my chest. When I looked down, I saw wisps of glittering dust curling out from under my uniform coat. “Stop this, bitch!”
“I cannot. This is my prime directive, to stop any Nerak Keltu incursions by any means necessary. I will keep your mental processes running within my mote-swarm. If I am victorious, you will be reassembled.”
I cursed, then screamed in terror, and tried to fight the dissolution of my flesh, but to no avail. There was no pain, indeed no sensation at all apart from a sizzling feeling as my skin and the connective tissues underneath melted and ran like butter in sunlight, as the motes inside me rapidly devoured my body, using it as raw material to build more of their kind. As the number of motes increased, the rate of digestion increased exponentially. My tattered uniform coat sagged like a badly pitched tent as the body underneath dissolved. My eyelids were eaten away, and then formless, roiling greyness erupted in my vision as the eyes themselves were digested.
I surrendered, and I could feel my substance, reconfigured into a billion minute particles, flow towards and into the Provider. For a dizzying moment, my mind seemed to stretch; attempting to exist in more than one place at once, and then that feeling too was gone as the ravenous motes broke into my cranium and digested the gray matter within. With a curious detachment, I watched with new, strange senses as my earthly shell were consumed, like an accelerated decomposition. A naked skeleton, still upright, remained for a few heartbeats, and then that too was gone, dissolving into a glittering haze of machine-particles.
“I have kept you conscious, war-man.” Her communication arrived more in the way of memory, than of words. “There is no breach of continuity. Your mind-state was acquired in real time. You are not a copy, but the real mind.”
I was indeed still conscious, and one with the Provider, experiencing weird impressions of air-vibrations and photon-impacts as my human mind tried to make sense of the unfamiliar input of machine senses. I quickly learned to filter and tabulate input data, and I realized that my mental processes were operating much faster than they had within the fatty tissues inside my skull. My machine intuition, the part of me that had made me a good mechanic, seemed to have survived the transition, perhaps even been enhanced by a more efficient operating medium, and provided me with a basic knowledge of what rules applied to this new state of being. The rules, and the loopholes. My mind expanded like wild-fire within the swarm-mind.
On the other side of the dais, I could perceive Obb, frozen in shock at my corporeal dissolution. I could feel the swarm-entity, of which I was now a sub-routine, surge hungrily towards the young grease monkey. Well, I wasn´t having any of that. I exerted power over the substrate I shared with the ancient construct mind, occupying substrate capacity with my own thought routines. I could feel her shock as I stalled her advance, confusion and astonishment leaking across the skein that kept us separate and I thought-said: “No. Not the boy.”
She tried to fight me, to force my thought-routines back, but I was thoroughly ensconced within the disseminated neural lattice. Not what you expected, was it, bitch? She retreated, clamping down limiters on her more vital functions and throwing up barriers around her mentality. A stalemate, then. That was fine by me.
“What are you doing, human?” Her mental tone was shrill, almost panicky. “I need all the substrate I can get, if I am to stand a chance against the Outsider avatar.”
“No. The boy will be left alone.” With a strange, detached form of empathy, I could understand the boy´s distress. “Allow me to assemble in my likeness to calm him. Then I will relinquish substrate to you.”
I could feel her distress, but she loosened her death-grip on our joined substrate, and I was suddenly in control of the mote-swarm. Assembling my former shape was a mere matter of focus, as the particles raced to conform to the image of myself I had presented. No simple task, however. Only through the exertion of outmost concentration could I keep this form intact, and the result was far from perfect – the textures of my skin was all wrong, more like hessian than human skin, and metallic-grey blotches formed and faded at random when my concentration wavered.
“Obb, calm down. I´m still here, look. I´m in here, and I won´t let her harm you.” It seemed no answer was forthcoming. The boy´s dirty face was all wide, bulging eyes, threads of saliva hanging from slack lips. I put my hands on the stricken boy´s shoulders, trying to assess the depth of shock. He seemed to be unresponsive, virtually catatonic. I led him gently, arm around his shoulders, towards the far wall, as far away from the ramp and podium as possible. He moved like a Deader, stiffly and slowly, with no awareness evident in his ravaged features. No surprise, I guess, he was only a kid after all, no matter how street-smart. I only hoped his mind would have retreated far enough to prevent memories of this episode, and if we - by some act of divine intervention – managed to come out of this alive, I wowed to hire the best Mnemomancer in Locastus to remove every trace of this mess from the kid´s mind.
After I had put Obb down, huddled against the far wall with his knees under his chin, I relaxed, and returned control of the motes to my inhuman – and possibly quite insane – host. As a last thought, I retrieved the Maul Shank and left it by the boy´s side. Not a minute too soon, for now the sounds of a dragging descent were coming from the entrance, high up on the wall a quarter-turn from our current position.
My body-analogue immediately dissolved, my thought routines shunted to the back as the Provider regained control. Her mastery of the mote-swarm was incredibly sophisticated, playing the ebb and flow of billions of individual particles like a virtuoso coaxes his instrument. I could feel the motes swirling into strange, new configurations, complex rosettes and knots of energy patterns igniting as offensive systems powered up. It seemed I would sit this one out on the observation gallery.
A frantic scrabbling and clawing from the chute high up on the chamber wall accompanied the descent of Arambard, emerging like a monstrous cockroach squeezing through a ventilation grille, landing with a solid thump on the narrow ledge. He looked a mess, only bits and pieces of his fancy chitin armor remained – presumably shredded by the blast – and most of his bushy beard had been burned off. But those grey-blue eyes retained their insane glow. He moved jerkily, uncoordinated like a trampled cockroach, showing bloodied teeth in a rictus grin of rage.
With the Provider´s strange senses, I perceived a swirling grayness within his flesh, something strange and discordant. This thing that had taken up residence within him stood out like a tumor stands out in healthy flesh, a malignancy invading the fabric of reality. The fundamental wrongness of what he carried within him set my metaphorical teeth on edge. Whatever it was, it had carried him this far. I could feel it driving him on, a pulsating emanation of power that kept his battered flesh functional. In a sense, I felt sympathy with him. It was apparent to me now that the Reaver sorcerer-chieftain had very little choice in being here. He was a slave and the thing within held the whip, dictating his every action.
Around me and within me, I could feel the Provider tense, energy patterns bunching up, interweaving into complex configurations in anticipation of the coming battle. Power accumulated until the pressure was close to pain. Exotic energies howled through the mote-swarm, seeking a way of release. At the same time, I became aware of a small, but increasing, drop-out of the most peripheral motes of the swarm. It seemed as if the power emanating from the thing within Arambard was somehow negating the functions of the Provider.
Arambard´s descent down the ramp was, at first, achieved by slithering on his belly like a snake, but he soon began to regain his strength, and began to crawl on all fours, in an odd, stop-motion fashion. By the time he had descended half the ramp – and in doing so circumnavigated a quarter of the room – he stood up and began to walk, albeit in a lopsided, halting manner, dragging his feet like an automaton.
As the Reaver and his ghostly parasite-companion grew in strength, the rate of mote dysfunction increased. I felt a sting of panic; whatever the Provider intended, it had to be done soon, or we would run out of substrate. The sizzle of dying motes grew into an insistent whisper.
Arambard was now mostly naked, with only a ragged breechclout covering his loins. Leather straps encircled the arms, legs and chest, but the remaining scraps of armor had been lost during his descent, rubbed off against the ramp. His strangely un-Reaver like skin was pale as the desert moon, glistening as if oiled and stretched taut over subtly deformed bones. The scapulae horns poked out of his shoulders like vestigial wings, and the collarbones were knobby and appeared jointed.
Although his abnormally tall frame was smeared and caked with rock-dust, soot and congealed blood, I could see the rectangular outlines of a tattoo on his left chest, a crude affair quite unlike the invested patterns smoldering on his face. That blocky smudge joggled my memory, but I was unable to put my finger upon where I´d seen it before. Strangely enough, I could see none of the customary rite-of-passage scarifications worn by most Reavers, either, even as he staggered to a stop in front of the aggressively revolving pillar of dust of which I was now a part. An uncoordinatedly swinging arm brushed up against our mote-gestalt, scooping out a handful of dying motes that twinkled like snow in the air.
Arambard´s ravaged face twitched, and his mouth opened and closed spasmodically as if struggling to form words. His eyes, I could now see, was glazed over with almost inhuman terror, rather than rage. When, at last, he found his voice, it was hesitant and hoarse, as if long unused, its tones contrasting sharply to the insect screeches I´d heard earlier. And it was in Lower Acitan, my native language, rather than the harsh, clipped syllables of the desert Reavers!
“Locastrian, save me”
His voice was harsh, but the dialect was pure Locastus. Fernside, north of the river Urok.
I was stunned, absorbed by the sheer impossibility of this revelation, but had no time for further inquiry as the Provider surged forward, engulfing the man like a breaking wave, exotic-energy rosettes uncoiling as I was swept along, fiercely burning filaments of energy lashing out and piercing the frail human body, seeking the cancerous passenger within.
We swept past and through him, feeding on his substance even as our own substrate degraded, accompanied by his hoarse, gurgling screams. We tore at his mortal flesh with a billion tiny fangs, while, at the same time, the unleashed theurgies ripped into the swirling grey within. Then we were past, resolidifying, in our wake a glittering cloud of dead or dysfunctional motes, spreading out from the point of contact and slowly settling to the cavern floor. We had lost an awful amount of substrate in that single pass. Whatever that thing was, it was poison.
Arambard was still standing upright, staggering, his body pierced in a hundred places, great smoking rents gaping in his flesh. From these punctures were emerging smoky, semi-material tendrils, like grayish pus erupting from boil. As I watched, these tendrils began to twist and braid together, becoming more substantial as they did so, accompanied by an increase in mote drop-out rate. Whatever its nature, it was preparing for an appearance in person.
It was obvious our first pass had had little effect beyond damaging the human vehicle, and I very much doubted we could withstand another attempt.
Arambard had now slumped into a kneeling position, grayish, ectoplasmic almost-matter escaping in thick runnels from every orifice. His abdomen burst open like a popped pimple, spilling a ropy tangle of alien shadow-flesh, interweaving with the rest of the Outsider escaping its mortal haven.
A great, infinitely complex knot of braided, knotted tendrils was taking shape on the floor between his knees, an intestinal mass that slithered, convulsed and pulsed with alien peristaltics. The Locastrian-cum-Reaver toppled, stiffly, as the thing that had driven him slithered free. There was no blood, I noticed – whatever that thing was it had mummified him from the inside. His split-open abdomen gaped dry and leathery, like that of a spit-roast piglet.
We drew back, hardening ourselves against the interference emanating from the Outsider, and watched it squirm and contort in strange, discordant rhythms on the fractal-engraved floor. The spiraling patterns beneath it flashed into phosphorescence, as if trying to fight against this unnatural intrusion. The weak energy-filaments fired by the provider were absorbed, with no effect whatsoever.
“War-man, I am spent.” The Provider´s mind-voice seemed smaller, somehow. Drained. Defeated. Abject, even. “I cannot prevail. Even now my thought-routines fail.”
“Then what shall we do?”
“We can do nothing. It will gather its strength and then claim the boy as its next host.” Her voice was dwindling, the once melodious tones now hesitant, confused. “It is naked now, temporarily weakened by exposure to the entropy trap-fields, but that will not last. It is entropy; no mere mechanism can withstand it for long. It will burn out every circuit across the chamber until it reaches the boy.”
As I watched, a frayed-looking tentacular snarl rose from the amorphous mass, twisting around, seeking, like the periscope of a submarine, swaying to and fro, until suddenly stopping, pointing directly at the unconscious boy across the chamber. Then, slowly, erratically, like a wounded worm, that twisted strand began to nose its way across the floor, straight for Obb.
Beneath it, as it inched its way forward, each fractal-inscribed floor-tile flashed with lurid phosphorescence before burning out in a puff of acrid smoke. With each flash, the Outsider would recoil, but then resume, hesitantly, its twitchingly undulating progress.
I found that we could no longer move. Our dust-gestalt was slowly diffusing, thinning out and slowly settling, the motes and the intellect behind them too depleted to maintain coherence, much less effect locomotion. I raged at our inadequacy, but could do nothing. The Provider´s presence was fading rapidly now, lapsing into dormancy or death. I exerted what little power remained to reassemble as a weak, translucent humanoid figure. My own ghost. Hilarious.
Across the room, the Outsider continued its advance, slithering, stopping and slithering again. The flashes and thumps of failing entropy-killers were coming faster now, an inevitable countdown. A vague trail of sour, wispy smoke marked its progress across the floor. Through the link shared between the Provider and her mountain of time-trap cubes I felt the death of each circuit as a stab of pain, a slow-paced migraine throb. I felt the pattern of order in each fractal fight the Outsider´s influence, a brief, futile effort before the inevitable overloading and burn-out followed.
The edge of an understanding, call it an inspiration if you will, presented itself. A revelation filtered down through whatever strange machine intuition I´ve always possessed. These entropy-sinks relied on order, on a highly complex reiteration of patterns running from the macroscopic, through the microscopic down to the precise arrangement of the minuscule particles from which all of reality was constructed. Hence, each time-trapping circuit consisted of countless repetitions of the same pattern on every level of magnitude. So, the numbers of entropic buffers were, in fact, immeasurable. And the Outsider needed to break one at a time, concentrating its powers on each single circuit.
I took action. Guided solely by instinct, I plunged into the matrix of cubes that formed the chamber´s floor, exerting the vaning powers of the mote-swarm not as an effector, but as a catalyst, affecting without being consumed.
The Outsider moved onto a new floor tile, exerting its entropic emanations to break through. This time, however, the cube it was resting on did not burn out – instead it fragmented, with a series of loud cracks. The cube, a block about three meters to a side, collapsed along precisely arranged fault lines, three to each side, producing a jumble of twenty-seven smaller blocks, all identical and all exhibiting the same fractal sides.
The Outsider drew back, recoiling from this sudden increase in resistance, this dissemination of repulsive powers. The fractal-inscribed blocks flared, but did not burn out, communally accepting the entropic load, and the Outsider began to squirm, unable to focus its powers. And then the adjacent cubes fell apart as well, caught up in the catalytic cascade I had initiated.
A few seconds later, with a rapid-fire clatter like a thousand dice thrown at once, each of the smaller blocks split up further, creating a jumble of centimeter-sized cubes. And then, after a short pause, these in turn broke up into grain-sized cubes, into cubes smaller than a grain of sand, a dust-mote, each identical, each bearing the same fractal incisions. The rattle and crackling of fragmenting silicate was deafening.
I observed the cascade as it swept through the microscopic spectrum, down into the subatomic. The Outsider was now haloed in a suspended mist of minute, glowing entropy-sinks, eating away at its semi-flesh like acid. It´s psychic screams of panic rang like memories in the air, while gobbets and chunks of alien material flew – and were consumed, forced out of existence by the rapidly cascading entropy-killers.
And, while I watched, the dissemination spread, engulfing adjacent cubes in a concentric pattern. Suddenly, I was lightly concerned, wondering what I had unleashed. The chain-reaction I had started might, perhaps, swallow this entire mountain of cubes. And it was speeding up, the decay accelerating at an exponential rate.
The writhing form of the Outsider was now almost obscured by an aggregating, amorphous glow of tiny entropy-traps – and that glow was intensifying. An ominous creaking and rumble could be felt as the chamber began to lose structural stability. Finding new strength, I began to move – at a torturously slow pace – toward Obb across the suddenly tilting floor. I wrapped my semi-solid form around the boy for whatever paltry protection I could provide.
A shrill vibration was building up within the intensifying glow, within which the thrashing form of the Outsider was barely visible as a darker shadow, a reverberation picked up by the silicate structures of the chamber. The ramp shook itself apart in a violent clatter, geysers of catalytic dust erupted from between the widening cracks in the floor and one of the gigantic cubes of the ceiling came crashing down. I had time to see the Outsider erupt in a pillar of incandescent flame, punching upwards through the disintegrating dome above, to feel a great pressure, before the world turned pearlescent white.
Silence. I floated, disembodied, within that shimmering void. Dead, I presumed. Again. I was not amused, but feeling a strange contentment, my only regret that I had not been able to protect the young grease monkey.
Without any reference points, I could still feel myself drifting gently towards what I instinctively knew was true death and consummation with my chosen deity. The nacre void was slowly brightening, and I could feel my thoughts and soul, my kernel of personality, begin to dissolve in that glow. Maug was calling me home, and I was – finally – heeding His call. I was slightly worried He might scold me for being tardy.
But, right at the threshold of rapture, I was snatched back, a gentle tug that accompanied a darkening of the formless void around me. And a familiar presence, dim but unmistakable, was making itself know close by.
“I thought you were gone,” I said, annoyed at being denied death, yet again.
The ethereal void slowly coalesced into an unfamiliar landscape, a barren shore of black, craggy rocks against which the swells of a grey sea lapped. I was standing on a brine-drenched , flat-topped mesa that jutted out over the endless waters. Guano crackled under my foot as I shifted my weight, and a breeze, sharp with salt, ruffled my hair. As I looked to my right, I saw Obb, sitting peacefully at the lip of the mesa, looking out over the sea and the gulls circling above.
She was standing on the opposite side of the stone platform, now dressed in a simple white robe and looking slightly insubstantial against the overcast skies. I noticed her robes did not shift in the gusts of wind.
“I am no more than a memory now, a wisp of remembrance of my former existence. The battle destroyed my locus and my substrate is all but gone.”
“I am sorry”, I said. “But what about us?”
“Your bodies were consumed in the chain-reaction, but I have maintained you within my faltering substrate. If I had a final act of Providing left to me, I would reconstitute you, like I promised. But I cannot, I am already fading”
“I see. So we are already dead, in fact?”
“Not precisely, but without means of return. Even though time is greatly accelerated in this virtuality, the substrate decay will soon make its maintenanceimpossible, and we will fade away together. The only gift I can give you is this.” She gestured out over the limitless expanse of water.
“I don´t understand”
“Your godling´s presence infuses the sea. In fact, I am sapping his power – by his connection with you – to maintain this realm. By diving into the water,you may dissolve into the power of your god.”
Silently, I looked out over the sea for a time. I was damn tired, used up. To just dissolve, to cease to be, seemed an attractive option. She glided up next to me, her strange eyes filled with empathy and something else, something suggestive?
Something had been clamoring for attention at the back of my mind, in the place where my machine empathy lay. I turned my back from the sea and looked into that flawless face not inches from my own.
I took a deep breath and said: “So what is the other option?”
She smiled, suddenly, a brilliant flash of mirth. Her form suddenly grew more ethereal, and she flowed towards me. Into me.
The world imploded like a popped bubble.
I sat up in the rosy glow of a desert dawn. The Black Heart desert stretched out to the east, the black dunes reflecting the salmon-pink sky. In the far distance a tiny jag of a mountain broke the ruler-straight line of the horizon. The Horn of Aquur. Locastus-controlled, but further away than this mirage would suggest.
Obb was lying on the sandy ground, close to me. Sound asleep. He seemed uninjured, and – as I ran my hands over my own chest – so did I.
Before me, where the pyramid of cubes had been, lay a deep crater, perhaps a hundred meters across and half that deep. Around it, strewn as toys tossed by an angry child, lay fractal-inscribed cubes, their precise spiraling and razor-straight edges now marred, eroded, dissolved. As I watched, one of the largest - a block more than ten meters to a side, perched on the opposite lip of the crater – broke free and tumbled down the slope, its progress eerily silent.
Down in the earth beneath the crater, I could feel the chain-reaction still grumbling, trying to maintain itself. But its momentum was now spent. Soon, it would grind to a halt, after erasing all trace of this place. Leaving nothing but a remotely placed hole in the ground.
And as the suns progress slowly dissolved the shadows in the crater, I could see the bottom of the bowl start to fill with water. Apparently, the dissolution process had breached an artesian layer deep underground. Perhaps, as it filled in, and trees and crops were planted, this place would turn into the first and only oasis in the Black Heart desert. A nice thought. But for now, a long walk home.
And cresting the ridge to the east, after weaving our way through the cube-strewn field, I turned back and looked out over the lake in emergence. And I sent an inquisitive thought into the depths of my mind, to the passenger I felt nestled in there: “You in there?”
I smiled and turned to the east, started walking. This might be interesting.
Special Intelligence Missive, code 5512 (from Concatoria intelligence archives; logged 3rd of Dust)
From: Colonel Isaac Haken. 8th New Pattern Army group CO at Shadrabt fortress base, Horn of Aquur.
To: Special Emissary Telos Kemala III, Political commissar at the Unth Protectorate delegation, Orchard Palace, Unth.
Two days ago a person arrived at Shadrabt, claiming to be a Locastrian soldier by the name of Hector Rime (Sgt, #NPA300227). The man´s attire was in a state of some dishevelment and he was accompanied by a young boy, purportedly a Junior Convicted Serviceman in that same unit.
The prisoner claims to have crossed the Black Heart desert following his desertation at the battle of Acieh Han. Interrogation with the apparent Sgt. Rime has found that his knowledge of military identity code and procedures check out. However, a closer examination of the man´s uniform and equipment revealed them to be forgeries, made from as yet unknown materials.
Knowing Your concern with keeping the Acieh Han incident under close information restriction, I thought it best to ask for Your advice on how to proceed with the puzzling matter of Sgt. Rime.
Isaac Haken (Col.)
Special Intelligence missive (Authorative/Emergency). Priority code: 6a (extreme). 5th of Dust.
From: Commissar-in-chief Telos Kemala III, Unth
To: Colonel Haken, Shadrabt fortress base (eyes only).
Colonel Haken, by the authority of the governor of the Aquurian Protectorates, you are hereby ordered to IMMIDEATELY cease all interrogation of the prisoner. It is of our opinion that he is a Reaver spy and is to be interrogated ONLY by the Concatoria intelligence division. The prisoner shall herewith, by order, be placed into isolated confinement until such time as Concatoria agents can assume Habeas Corpus. The companion is to be executed IMMIDEATELY upon receipt of this missive.
And, Colonel, let me remind you that Acieh Han DID NOT HAPPEN! It is a foul and underhand rumor spread by dissenters to undermine Locastrian interests in Aquur. Am I making myself clear, soldier boy?
Special Emissary Kemala
Special Intelligence Missive (Emergency/unofficial channel: courier). 7th of Dust.
From: Col. Haken, Shadrabt Fortress Base.
To: Commissar Kemala, Unth
Prisoner no longer in Locastrian custody. Upon transport to solitary confinement and preparation for execution of the companion, the prisoner Rime broke free of his chains and single-handedly killed 14 garrison soldiers in his escape. The companion was also liberated. Subjects last seen heading east into Reaver lands. Shadrabt garrison unable to pursue at this point.
Wounded: 31 (Of which 12 grievously).
Shadrabt Fortress structural integrity compromised due to an explosion in the ammunition storage bunker during the escape event. It is believed the prisoner set this explosion as a diversion.
Request immediate reinforcements to shore up defences and pursue subjects before the Reaver tribes catch on to that we are defenseless. Situation extremely volatile.
Special Intelligence Missive (Emergency/informal). 9th of Dust.
From: Commissar-in-Chief Talos Kemala, Unth
To: The fuck-up in charge of Shadrabt used-to-be-fucking-Fortress, Haken.
Only reinforcement you´ll ever see is a Concatoria agent using your corpse to prop up the door, asshole.
Special Intelligence Missive (Leisurely, non-priority). 11th of Dust.
From: Colonel Isaac Haken, Shadrabt Fortress Base.
To: His Slimy Wormness Kemala, Unth
You inflated little shit, why don’t you come yourself so I´ll get the pleasure of shoving my cavalry saber up your ass hilt first, so you´ll cut yourself trying to pull it out? Sir!