And All the Foundation Shudders: Chapter Two

Hello, my dearest readers! I’m very pleased to present to you the second chapter of this ongoing serial of my Riven Earth setting, And All the Foundation Shudders. I’ve decided to start adding the full text of these chapters to the posts here in the blog as well as providing links to compartmentalized documents. We’ll lose some of the formatting courtesy of WordPress’s peculiarities, but I don’t see the harm in having the option.

We pick up right where we left off at the end of Chapter One. Jamie, an elf come right out of Faerie to see what she can see about the burning city of Grand Rapids, must now confront a specimen of human she feels especially ill-suited to dealing with…

Google Docs Link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1T0uvxpwvEGsEJozL4_ZEYEZhD_LbesKKuAbIi3sdKFM/edit?usp=sharing

And All The Foundation Shudders

A free weird fiction web serial of the Riven Earth, most uncouthly delivered in pure prose, by

Kairlina Saelvur Urwollust
Copyright © K.S. Urwollust 2022

Nine White Lilies Blossom Under the Barrow:
Much Acclaimed is a Horror Who Can See Herself

“Oooookay.” My hands make for a fetching portrait of despair, once I’ve draped them across my nose like a little roof with my claws a-grating together. “If I ask you never to do that again, little heroine, I’m to guess you’d say no.”

“A correct guess!” Synergy declares triumphantly. She does everything triumphantly. I suppose in that respect she’s already perfected the only part of superheroics that matters.

I start walking across the bridge. “Swell, and many thanks for your candor.”

Synergy immediately runs to block me. “You have yet to–“

I sense a long argument in the offing, so I turn back and hurry down the stairs to the waterfront walkway so at least we’ll be out of immediate line-of-sight from the streets. Then I take up an easy lean against the nearest river-misted wall. I wait for Synergy to chase me down, as indeed she does, and then I let her have it.

“You’re not entitled to know my nature, you oversaturated gymsweat-drunk advert for an off-brand laundry detergent!” I walk right up to her, looming. And I surely do loom. The poor fool colleen’s not so starved for height by the standards of a human girl, perhaps about five foot seven. I, on the other hand, am a little above average for a proper elf of Faerie, which is to say I’m around seven and a half feet tall.

Never been formally measured. Didn’t seem proper fae to do so.

“You don’t own this city anymore than I do,” I continue, jabbing a claw at the bump of her nose under the ludicrous neon purple of her mask, “so who freed their flesh to feed the worms and made you grand high warden of the apocalypse, eh?”

There we are: some real human iron in the set of her lips and jaw. At the sight of her right hand moving, I make my arm rigid. Good way to test what she’s got. She nonetheless pushes my finger away, far brisker than I’d have expected. So that’ll surely be a measure of super-strength. Seems potent enough to me, but I’ve no way to know how high the power-scale of the real thing is going to run.

“Have it your way,” Synergy says. “I like using my fun-time voice when I first meet someone because we all know it’s a little dumb. Trying to be a superhero is dumb, okay? You happy? I prefer talking that way so people can decide how seriously they want to take me.” Skin creaks with the force of her clenching fists. Silver glows highlight her bones.

“I can respect that part.” I tap my foot. “What’s the logic of using your fun-time voice when my seriousness is what you’re asking to know? You can make a joke of yourself if you want, Miss Synergy, but what gives you the right to make a joke of me? Hm? Did you consider that? Did you consider how your little performance might change other parts of the conversation dynamic, besides easing your insecurities over your gimmick? You’re really going to inflict this on yourself, totally by your own choice, and then try to tell me you’re doing me a favor by coping for it in ways that make it hurt to try talking with you?”

Synergy stiffens, toes to muscle. A muscle jumps in her jaw. Can’t say I’m surprised. Healthy souls don’t try becoming heroes, super or otherwise.

“You’re right,” she mutters. Sagging. The glows bleed right out of her. Her suit seems to–no, her suit does lose color. It fades from over-vivid to the same nighttime dullness as the old concrete of the sidewalks on either side of the bridge. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought about it that way.” She straightens. A little of her color comes back. “Look, I… I really don’t like framing things this way. Believe me, I know exactly how gross the undertones are. But… you aren’t human. I don’t know what your capabilities are or how to read you. And I know I’m not a great choice for this. God knows I know it. But nobody better has stepped forward. So, since I’ve taken the responsibility…”

She folds her arms.  “I need to know if people will die because I don’t confront you.” Damn, the girl’s eyes can get cold when she wants them to.

Well, so can mine. Let’s have a clash of winter gazes, then. My double-iris, double-pupil eyes against her simple human browns.

I nod briskly. “That’s more like it.” I tilt my head. The curtains of thick-hung, fiery fall oak leaves and many dark-brown roots that serve me for hair rustle their way down one shoulder. Prickle on my ears. “You’re right to distrust me, for I’m the most dangerous sort of creature. I always tried to avoid doing harm, thinking frivolousness and play would keep me safe–can’t hurt anyone if I don’t take myself too seriously, right? “

I turn my eyes to the burning skyline. “Love gives us such a weight in the eyes of those who care about us. Make light of yourself before them, and…” My words drag to a halt. Iron stench, black hair, green blood. “They’ll be crushed under what they thought you’d carry,” I continue. “There. That’s me. My life story’s a stupid wasteful nightmare I’ll do anything to avoid repeating.” I lick my bramble-fangs. “Is that enough? I’m not willing to give more.”

Synergy grimaces. “Fine. That’s fine for now.”

Embers drift by in silence. A runaway rocket traces a slow arc from somewhere else in the city, wobbling a little until it crashes into the top floor of the hotel looming above us. Debris clatters on the walkway and splashes into the river while we stand at off-angles to each other. Wordless.

“If I’m with you,” I finally say, “are all the other cape types, the superheroes and the supervillains and the super-somethings-in-between, going to stop trying to control me?”

“Huh…” Young Synergy considers that. “I’d never thought about it that way, um…” she shakes her head. “I mean… how much trouble do you think I’m going to attract?”

I parse that. “Probably a lot. How do you feel about killing?”

She answers first with a wince and then with words that pretty well say the same thing. “Please… only if there’s actually no other way.”

I nod. “‘Tis my preference also. I suspect the definition of what counts as ‘actually no other way’ will be our great sticking point.”

She gestures to the other side of the river. “Anyway, uh… there’s nothing much over there. It’s all blown up. A lot of…” Her hand clamps over her mouth. “Oh… oh God…”

“I can make a light sedative,” I say, supporting her until we slip into the tunnel back to Faerie. “Mushroom-based. It won’t addle your thoughts, just ease your nerves so you don’t fall to vomiting or passing out.

“N-no,” she shakes her head violently. “No! I need to be alert!”

Fair enough. That’s the end of that offer, then.

“C’mon, then,” I pull her away and up a different set of stairs. Back between the buildings to the sidewalks. Hurrying first along the road headed north parallel to the Grand River–there we are, signs say it’s named Monroe Avenue–then left onto Campau between a condominium, a parking garage, and another parking garage. What a quaint variety of scenery I’ve chosen for us!

“Where are you going?” Synergy asks.

“It’s empty back the way you came.” Past the ruined guard post outside one of the parking garages. Up, up, up among the cars. “Last two folks I talked to said there’s trouble this side of the river.”

“So… shouldn’t we go back the way I came?” Synergy asks. “What kind of trouble, anyway? I’ll bet the two of us together can take it.”

“You trained at all with your powers?” I ask. “Ever had ’em before? Or are you hoping it’ll all just come to you by instinct when you need it?”

“Why shouldn’t it?” she asks. “Why should superpowers follow the rules of the pre-superpowered world? Why shouldn’t they come with instincts?”

“Maybe they have,” I admit. “But supposing your powers don’t come with instincts, or it turns out the trouble’s superpowers also came with instincts so it doesn’t matter… who’s going to pull us out of the mire if it all goes wrong?”

Synergy goes quiet. I huddle us down between two SUVs on the fourth floor.

“As for your other question,” I whisper, “if trouble’s coming, they’ll already be thinking in terms of moving west, looking for your light. When they don’t find it, they’re more apt to believe they need to keep going west. They already came from the east, right? In their minds, that makes it cleared ground. Has to be, or else they’ll get all paranoid about how much might’ve slipped through the cracks. Unbearable feeling. So, west it is.”

I call mushrooms out of the mold in the concrete, a big cap of faded grays I put on to camouflage my own over-vibrant colors before I peek out. “If nothing else, it’d be less embarrassing than imagining they’ve been outmaneuvered.”

“Oh.” Synergy clears her throat. “That makes sense. You think about these things a lot?”

“I’m thirteen hundred years and some old,” I mutter back, “and elven brains aren’t like those of humans. My mind’s half meat and half magic. Doesn’t age. I’ve had all the time in Faerie to think of many, many things. All hypotheticals, but so is most training when you get down to it.” There. Movement outside along Monroe. Latex sheens. Is that black and gold? Ah, yes, and I do indeed see an emblem of six little spirals around a seventh big one.

“One way to find out if it works,” I whisper, tapping Synergy on the spandex shell covering up her head and motioning slowly outside.

We watch from the shadows, silent, while two figures sidle down the street. They’re lazy. Not particularly alert. One has an assault rifle–AK-47? Hm. Respectable, I suppose–and otherwise isn’t too distinct. Tan human girl with a lip-piercing, an undercut, and a fringe of hair dyed cyan blue. Just looking at her puts me to sleep. The other’s a black-furred wolf running red fire over his hands, which is only slightly better.

From here, their voices are indistinct enough I only catch bits and pieces. Something about their boss. Disappearances. About how this is their moment.

Wonderful. I’d already figured all of that from what Kestrel and Akenzi told me.

After a few minutes sweeping back and forth, they start to look jumpy. Glancing at the shadows, at rooftops. I sink a little lower. Synergy proves she can take a hint by sinking in her turn. I risk the tiniest peek. They spike my heart-rate several times when their heads snap back towards the parking garage we’re in, but no calls of alarm go out.

The punk girl with the AK motions to the wolf and they rush back to Monroe Avenue. Not wanting to get left behind by their friends, I suspect.

“Well–” Synergy starts to say. I hold up a hand to stifle her while I make the concrete underfoot crumble and darken until it spawns a great spongy black mushroom cap over the two of us. All is deathly quiet inside, save our own breathing.

“We’re halfway into Faerie like this,” I explain. “Can’t be overheard. Don’t know the nature of that wolf’s powers, or if the girl had any, but if I were them and I’d the means, I’d have left some spell behind to pick up sounds.”

“Can you use these to travel?” Synergy asks. “That’d be so cool!”

“It would, and helpful to boot, but I can’t,” I say. “I can go between Faerie circles that already exist, and I can make new ones where I already am, but I can’t raise a circle somewhere that I’m not. Anything I should know about your powers?”

“Hey, hold on, who were those people?” she asks.

I sigh, and recount what Kestrel and Akenzi told me about the queer supervillains.

“Well… they might not be so bad,” Synergy says. “There were lots of leftie anarchist groups, on Twitter, furries, drones, and so on.”

“I was also on Twitter.” I tilt my head towards her. “You think it’s good prep for leading a world-reshaping revolution?”

“Uh, no…” she rubs her arm. “Point taken. As for my powers… I’m going to keep them close to my chest for now. Sorry.”

“Your being, your choice,” I say with a shrug. “Any open spaces around here we should be careful of?”

“Well, if you look down the little red promenade between the buildings,” Synergy points, “you can make out trees on the other side, right? Those are just off Rosa Parks Circle. Grand Rapids Art Museum is right there.”

I consider that. “On the other hand, that’s where our friends just came from. If they’re at all coordinated, they’re probably not going to commit two groups to the same area.”

“But they might have broken into a building to leave sentries,” Synergy points out.

I eye her with just a little more respect. “Fine point, young Synergy. Y’see, this is why it’s important everybody does some of the thinking. Too many variables in play for any one person to handle it all. Right.” I take a steadying breath. “I’m going to drop this cap. After that, we make soft as ghosts. I can use my power over decay to make us a hole in a wall here and there, but if I keep doing that, I’ll fall over of exhaustion quick as a cockatrice.”

“Can you, um,” Synergy covers her mouth again, “do that to people?”

“Yes, if can pin them down.” I am suddenly very aware of how close I am to her. “It requires continuous touch. Mind you, the decay I’ve already inflicted doesn’t just go away after I stop touching them. Blood poisoning is an ugly way to–“

“Yeah, I get the picture,” she interrupts. “Just… just remember, okay? Last resort.”

“Last resort,” I agree, and drop the concealing mushroom.

We slip down the ramps, out of the garage, and hurriedly cross the street. I turn the concrete wall of yet another parking garage into crackling black and then into dust. The strain wallops me as it crumbles. I stagger a little. Syn–Synergy–catches me before I can fall and make much racket. I quietly hold up three fingers, mouthing, “three more, maybe.”

“Okay,” she mouths back.

When we slip out the other side, oh, I swear, we’re so close to avoiding the whole hideous mess. Heading north back onto the sidewalks on either side of Monroe. Trees, streetside railings, and bars gone dark break up our silhouettes enough that at night we’re almost as good as invisible. Except that Synergy looks back over her shoulder, and she sees the thing stirring the smoke over, warping the trees around, obscuring the benches ringing and the tables and chairs filling, Rosa Parks Circle.

She stops with that fool determination in the brown eyes under her mask.

It makes my heart sink right into my stomach–there to rot in my own venoms.

“We can’t just leave that there,” she says.

“Are you an archmage now?” I hiss. “A fae queen, perhaps, who can just wish realms into being whatever she wishes?” I follow her gaze to the thing, a sphere of slowly-turning distortion, with a fringe of little glassy creepers tinted all along their outlines by chromatic aberration. Those spatial creepers pull strands from the trees and the concert stage like twisting rubber bands. Each time a bit of reality is released it snaps back. It makes me sick to watch. “We’ve no idea what that thing is. Throwing ourselves at it is folly.”

“So, what, we just leave it for someone to walk into?” Synergy insists.

“Who’s just going to walk into that?” I almost yell for a moment. I gnash my bramble-teeth at myself, which also makes far too much noise, and then try again. “You’re not the world’s nanny. You think other people don’t have the basic instinct to not walk face-first into something that obviously breaks the laws of physics, or that it’s your responsibility to save every jackass who tries it anyway?”

“It’s chaos right now,” the superheroine folds her arms. “Someone could be distracted and just run into it before they notice it’s there. And what about sensory-impaired folks?”

Damn it. Here’s the trouble with thinking folks. Sometimes, they’ll come up with counterarguments I can’t find counterarguments for.

I groan. “Fine. But let’s not be foolish about this. Let me test it first. If it does anything bad to, say, a bit of soil I dig out of the grasses here, then you surely can’t go jumping in.”

Synergy stiffens. “Alright,” she agrees. “Fine. That’s fine.”

I excavate the soil from under the grasses, and make sure there’s naught of worm or crawler in it. Then I whip it into the oddity. What do I call this thing, anyway? I guess there’s only one word that accurately describes it, I reflect with growing sourness, as the dirt-clod sails through and emerges intact from the other side despite briefly turning into a sea-urchin of dug-up earth.

“Alright,” I mutter, “anomaly does not adversely affect soil, at least in the short term, so we know it’s not bad for all matter by default.”

“Right, so let me–” Synergy insists.

“Hold!” I bar her with my arm. “Organic matter next.” I draw circles on the sidewalk with my foot. My magic brings a tall, slender fungal column up out of the cracking. I pluck it loose, flip it up in my hand, and cast it over my shoulder like a javelin.

It, too, sails through unharmed.

“Right, I’m going!” Synergy declares. “This one’s for my city!” I’m starting to hate the silver glows that fill her body. She takes a flying leap, and quite the superhuman one too, soaring up and pulling her fist back as she fills it with light to–what? Punch the anomaly out of existence? Gods damn her, this isn’t one of the good parts of human nature!

She passes the outer margins, utterly unharmed. Fool fae. Why did you think this world would follow your logic? This is the world of humans. Of course you’re just here so they can make you look stupid, weak, cowardly for wanting to think things through. Of course–

I’m so deep in my little depression spiral that it takes me a full half-second to react when Synergy’s silver glows distort across the anomaly. Blurring. Stretching. Fraying streaks of purple, green, and orange billowing and curving into a mid-air splatter.

Sudden lurid splotches of red glistening in the night.

I’m rushing forward. Synergy’s scream is distorted into four separate strands of pitch–high and low, clear and watery. She’s solidifying, torn and bleeding and tumbling, and I am moving so, so slowly. She crashes down on the other side with a terrible dull whacking sound from her back’s impact against the tiers of the Circle’s bowl.

A portal shears open behind me right as I come to a knee beside her. Shapes pour out in black and gold. Portals? Take my hide for a tablecloth, why don’t you! Who’s with them, anyway, that has the power to open portals?

A horned figure steps through last of all, with the glowing threshold passing in wave of glints over her iron-framed wings full of dark-red skin, and gathering in the shining barbs at the end of her spike-tipped tail.

Oh.

Ohhhhh, dear.

Form-fitting black and gold uniform. Boob-window made even more salacious by netting. Curves to die for, and a waist that’s just a little too slender to credit. Two black horns sprouting behind her ears, curving up and back through six screw-twists. Her skin and face are oddly simple, considering. Silky, pale, with full lips and big glowing orange eyes. An over-the-shoulder sweep of shining emerald hair.

Two others stand out to me. A cat girl with as many human features as not. Digitigrade legs ending in furry paws, purple fur poking out of her leather sleeves, and golden eyes. A shining mass of beautifully-arranged black braids, some held in a bun back behind her tufted ears, some falling forward around her oval face.

A white woman leads the way, distinguished by a field-sport tan and imposing height emphasized by a thick build. Interlocking crescent-and-dot tattoos march up the left side of her face, contrasting crosshatching scars on the right.

All three have that sharpness to them, the something-extra to their colors. They look a little larger than their bodies. They seem to loom larger in sight. This isn’t an elven gift. This is an elven curse. In seeing the mark of potential so heavy on them, I know that nobody around them will make any difference in what’s to come. Those without the sharpness can still do great things, oh yes, and change the course of nations–but never when they’ve chosen to fall in beside the larger-than-life ones.

Five figures, then, on the center stage. Nine supporting actors. Scene: the bride of death intercedes for the heroine. So be it. Let’s have this done.

“Alright,” says the towering woman with her tattoos. She raises a hand. Thunderous shockwaves emanate from her clenched fist. Kinetic energy powers, is it? That’s obnoxious. I’ve naught that can directly counter those. “Let’s keep this nice and civil–“

“This isn’t the time for speeches!” I snap. “You can threaten me later! Do any of you possess healing powers?”

Her eyes flare. “You’re in no position to–“

The demon brushes past her and flaps her great wings once to alight at my side.

“I had hoped to wait longer ere I risked this,” she murmurs. She exhales, on and on and on, for the demons of old were not creatures of flesh but self-shaping power–power that can become blood if it wishes, or fire, or scything lightning-tides. So I’ve heard. The blood of her pours forth and seeps into the many awful gouges and broken-bone punctures across young Synergy’s body. It sinks in.

She gasps, does the heroine, and writhes, but the wounds begin to seal.

“My thanks,” I say to the demoness. “I shall owe you a favor. ‘Tis only fair.”

She shakes her head. “No favor is needed. I am the one who owes. It will take far more than this to…” she looks away. “To atone for what I’ve done.”

Ah. A kindred spirit. Doubt she’d appreciate my saying so, though.

“Hey, Tool, get out of the way,” the tattooed woman orders. “And you shouldn’t be helping them! Capes are way more likely to be Fash.”

“You’ll be the hypno-mongers, yes?” I interrupt, stand, and circle to put myself between Synergy and the supervillains. Yep: there’s that damn emblem of six-and-one spirals again.

“Yeah,” the leader grins. “Seven Spirals.” She cocks her chin up at me in one of the most childish intimidation attempts I’ve ever seen. Pointless. There is one thing no fae can abide even on pain of death, and that is being another’s to control.

“So,” I scratch my nose. “Your initials are S.S.”

“Yeah. What’s it to you?” Somehow, she makes her grin wider. Tiresome stuff.

“Nothing.” I clasp my hands behind my back. I bring fungal columns up the backs of my legs. “Look. I don’t know your organization. But for reasons of my own–“

“Fae, what are you doing?” the demon interrupts.

I sigh. Cast her a look of annoyance over my shoulder. “Preparing to defend my new acquaintance, that’s all. I’ll not make the first move.”

She’s conflicted, and that reassures me. Still, that leaves a high chance she’ll take me from behind if this does come to a fight. My life’s no great prize. But Synergy… she’s young. She means well. She deserves a chance to find her own way.

“When I meet people who have good answers for the problems I’m facing,” I continue, watching the twitchiness of these Spirals folk with an uneasy heart, “I find I get better at coming up with good answers of my own. I feel steadied, assured, and I handle the way ahead with grace. I can feel right now that your organization would cause the opposite. Leave me feeling like I had less answers the longer I spent around you.” I narrow my eyes. “And I’m not into hypnotism for sexual purposes, so it’d be something of a cultural misfit.”

“Hey,” the tattooed one shrugs. She takes a step closer. “Don’t knock it ’til you try it.”

“I am asking you,” I say, bristling, “not to push this point. Please. I am not comfortable.”

“You seem awful tense.” Tattoos grins. “You know what’d help you calm right down–“

“Stop.” My eyes flare. “I am telling you, stop. I tried to run away from my thoughts, and the emotions they made me feel, once before. It was bad enough when I just wasn’t fully in control of myself. Putting someone else in control is an even worse version of that.”

“Shock,” the cat girl calls. “Hey, maybe ease up a bit, she doesn’t look–“

Tattoos snorts. “She’s just repressing stuff. Just needs someone else–“

“You do not know other people’s minds better than them,” I growl. It’s a low, ugly, grating sound. Old instincts are telling me such tempting things. Things that’ll take the fear away. About how, maybe, it was a mistake to stop reminding mortals why they were wary of treading the forests of the fae. “Final warning. Back. Off.”

“Shockwave,” the demoness behind me rises. “Stand down. This isn’t right, I can feel–“

“Fuckers like her hid themselves away in the magic forest and played lick the pixie’s pussy or whatever the fuck while we bled here on Earth,” Shockwave yells, running right over the demon’s words. Everything she says makes my instincts scream louder, raises sensations of tearing stabbing burning decay in my sponge-skin limbs, calls out screaming toxic torrents that eat away inside my skull.

I want it out, I want the pain out, I want her to shut up so I can remember who I am and remember how to think of words that will make her leave me alone, but she’s still yelling–

“They left us here!” Shockwave is red-faced, going hoarse with fury. “They played their stupid games in their little gated communities and never had to sacrifice for anyone else! And now she wants me to play soft mommy domme, be all patient with her little feelings? No! Fuck that! I’m gonna do what I fucking have to keep our people safe, and she will learn to like the place we pick for her–“

“Shock.” The catgirl steps up beside her. Grabs her arm. “Look. Look at the museum.”

I’m the most taken aback of all. I wait for all of them to look. Then, all too aware that this could just be a ploy to create a chance to rush me, I risk looking.

The nearest wall of the Grand Rapids Art Museum has transformed into a massive canvas of off-hue forms. Black hair-strands melt into stretching flesh on a spectrum from whites, reds, and floral pinks into emerald greens, its folds spun into marbled patterns. Swollen, misshapen jade breasts with dark green nipples blend into black slits that blend into hip lines running down to vaginas split across too many folds and crevices going through other crevices. Trickles of rot-blackened fluid drip down.

Disconnected pieces of a woman’s face. Dozens of wide eyes, three pairs of parted lips staggered across the flesh-wall, and so many iron splinters jutting from riven flesh.

“I will handle this,” the demoness says. The wave of her right hand opens another portal, and I’m made bitterly aware of how vaginal a portal’s dilation can look. “Go.”

“We can–” Shockwave begins.

“This is beyond you,” the demoness says. This time her voice carries the sharpness in it. There’s no argument to be made save by battle. I’m sore afraid such a battle’s forthcoming, but she doesn’t seem to care. “Go.” She looks to me. “I’ll handle this better alone.”

Long, tense breaths while the other Spirals shift. Some raise weapons tentatively, or play with various powers. Mostly fire and acid and magnetism. Powers to move, powers to break. Never powers to mend. And I? I’m no better than any of them.

“Just make sure you call it in to cell HQ when you’re done,” Shock says. A final sneer. “Hope you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew.”

And she’s gone, stomping over the threshold.

The cat girl stays behind until all the others have gone.

“Shock can be a little overzealous–” she begins.

“You too,” the demoness orders.

The cat girl leaves. The demon closes the portal with a clench of her fingers.

And she turns to face me with tears brimming in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I thought I’d found people I could trust with anything. I… I thought all the posturing was just something Shock would only do in private, in indulgent artwork and stories. I never…” she trails off. “But, I have no excuse.” She drops low, bowing. “I will meditate on what I’ve learned on my own time. I am Tulameet.”

I look to Synergy, who’s just now becoming lucid again.

“Um… I’m Synergy,” she says, “at least while I’m wearing the mask.”

“Jamie Underhill O’Fallows,” I say. The demoness’s expression droops instantly. “Ah. You’re familiar by reputation.”

“I am. But…” she shrugs helplessly. “I have no right to judge you, Jamie.”

I look back to the flesh-wall. “Maybe not. Maybe you do.” I offer Synergy my hand. She takes it, staggering as she stands, but keeping her feet. “At this point, I’m thinking it’s for the best if I head back to Faerie for the moment. Hold there until I can get my bearings on all this.” I bow in my turn. “The both of you are welcome to join me.”

Synergy glances about her burning hometown. “Probably best. Safe as anywhere.”

“I would be honored to lean on your hospitality,” Tulameet says. Her pretty brow furrows. “Especially since the material locations I had hoped to anchor myself in will not, I think, be safe.”

I nod. We stand close together on a cleared patch of soil. Mushrooms sprout. The earth boils up and embraces us. For long breaths there’s naught but the roaring of gravel, the scraping of splitting rock, the constant shifting scents of loam and clay and stone. Then we’re raised up into the middle of the sand-patch in the waters of my cavern, in the gentle orange glows of all my mushrooms and the crystal veins that reflect them.

“Come.” I turn, already feeling more at ease. “I’ll get the dust out of some guest rooms for the two of you.”

Even with my own bed under me, my dreams are hapless ones. I’m haunted by a fell blue glow. Visions of a horned one, but not the horns I’ve met already. Hazy, impossible to see in full as all the deepest and most telling dreams are. Cables of lightning lashing between two great spheres. Snapping suddenly, leaving darkness. Many roots growing, overlapping, tangling together and winding so tight they all begin to split open.

My final sensations are those of the soul of dead wood rotting in the depths of the earth. Decaying, bereft of sunlight, never knowing that somewhere above it is finally spring.

So, no. I don’t sleep very well.

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