Hello, dear readers! Nothing special to announce this week besides the chapter itself. Here’s the sixth chapter of And All the Foundation Shudders. Did you notice? It is Jamie’s fifth chapter.
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… Nine White Lili…
Jamie’s Fifth Chapter
Nurse Andrews accepts the heap of dried mushrooms and fungus with a justifiably dubious stare. “So… just to be clear… we’re going to grind these to a powder, use some of our limited supply of oil to make an intramuscular oil, and then we’ll be injecting people with painkilling fairy dust.”
All the soul-wear of the past few hours has turned my vibrant hues to the dull browns of dried blood. My skin’s gone from pink to grey-red. My answer emerges in a ragged, sickly voice that it takes several seconds to remember as my own.
Andrews looks me up and down. “You look like you’ve been freeze-dried.”
That deserves a laugh. Unfortunately, I have no laughter in me, so like many other people today, Cadence Andrews will not be repaid the way she deserves. I give silence.
Ugh. The taste of my own thoughts sickens me. Fae can be creatures of many moods and remain worth knowing, but our angst is a hideous and cloying thing. To be frank, though, I’m too low to care about whether I could be taken seriously.
“Well,” she shrugs, “we’re out of everything else after Supercharge went through. Might as well give it a try.” She pokes my shoulder. “You’re going to watch us administer it, though. This goes wrong, I want you to tell us why and how to make it right again.”
I nod. Synergy, hair falling loose after she tore the ragged remains of her mask off, thumps along at my side. We sit in chairs outside a room full of overfilled beds, listening to the groans of the dying, for somewhere between half an hour and forty-five minutes.
“Hey, Jamie?” Synergy’s voice is an aural knife splitting me open sideways, one shoulder to the next. As I come back to the present and focus on her, her own dull words tumble out. “All that stuff we talked about… just forget it. No more point by point, no more essays, no more teachable moments. It’s too late. Whatever happens, the world won’t go back to the way I thought it was going to be. Supercharge just killed dozens of people and we couldn’t do shit about it. And… fuck, Jamie… once fight or flight kicked in, we just stood there and fought Shockwave in spitting distance of a children’s hospital. We didn’t even try to lure her away. I don’t know if we’re any better than Supercharge is, or we’re just too weak to cause the same damage when we lose our heads… And… and may God forgive me if He can, because I don’t fucking care. All I care about now is you’re starting to feel like a friend. You look after me, I look after you. Deal?”
I slump towards her and she slumps to meet me, one quaking shoulder to the other.
The maybe-superheroine brushes black hair-strands away from bloodshot eyes. “Then here’s our rules. We help the little people where we can. We survive. And… and that’s it.”
“Yeah.” Smells of burned flesh and vaporized blood. Gunpowder’s stench. “That’s it.”
She blinks at the off-white wall under the humming hospital fluorescents. “These aren’t conversations we should have where others can hear them.”
I lean my head atop hers. “No. We shouldn’t.”
“But I spoke.” One hand, glove torn open, knuckles ripped raw of skin and still bleeding, reaches to toy with my root-and-leaf hair. “And you didn’t stop me.”
I nod, death-brown leaves rustling on soft black hair. “I did not. I was too tired to think of it until we were already done.”
A long pause. “Does it ever come back once it’s gone? The energy to try and be better?”
I answer that with silence. After that, only silence passes between us.
Nurse Andrews walks out a moment later and motions to the two of us. We haul ourselves up and file in to watch while an equally-bedraggled nurse, blond and Caucasian and jittering on some kind of narcotic or other, plunges the syringe of solution into the sun-darkened thigh of a man whose entire upper body is hidden under bandages.
His screams and groans ease, and finally cease. Then he starts sobbing and mumbling something, over and over and over.
“I think he’s trying to say thank you,” Nurse Andrews says. She claps me on the back. “Here, I’ll say it for him. Thank you. This stuff’s for the long haul, you said?”
“Should be.” I shrug. “Slow release. More like HRT injections than a conventional painkiller. And it shouldn’t be addictive… at least, not by default.”
I’m satisfied, in a distant and tinny way, that my blend did what it was meant to. If this’d happened before the fight, it would’ve been a moment of triumphant joy. A proof that my little fae spore-crafting can make a real difference. Now… now all I can think is that this doesn’t change a damn thing when Supercharge can blast people to smithereens on a whim. And he’s got a whole team with him, doubtless handpicked to be just as lethal.
What’s the point of healing arts in a world like this?
“I need to get going, Syn.” I offer her an unsteady hug. She falls against me, squeezing. “You follow your own rules while I’m away, y’hear?” I squeeze back, tighter than I should. “If I return to find you dead, I’ll…”
I could kill the whole city. Oh, I can’t save it, but I could kill it! Give it a month or two just walking back and forth, seeding my spore-roots underground. With exponential growth I could turn this whole place into a death-zone of a hundred different neurotoxins. Yes, I’m a fantastic killer, as long as I do it cowardly. As long as I have no one to protect.
I ease up. “Survive. Please.”
“Same to you, pixie dust.” Synergy pulls away. “Oh. My name, uh… my name’s Nehal Kabiri. Family’s from Iran. Bafq, specifically.” Her lips quirk. “I was born after my parents emigrated, though, so… no memories of somewhere else to retreat into.” She manages a slow, half-hearted wink. “You can keep calling me Syn, though. It, uh… it feels kinda nice. Our thing, right?”
“Yeah.” A barely-there smile. “Guess so, Syn.”
She pushes me. “Go on, Jamie. I’ll hold up my end, you hold up yours. Get us some answers, get us…” she flops her hands. “Get us something.”
“I will. I promise.” A stupid promise, a promise I have no way to know I can keep. No power to brute force results when my knowledge fails. Still, I make it.
The midday city’s horrifyingly quiet when I duck out of Spectrum and hurry for the nearest patch of dirt. I’m expecting Supercharge or one of his ilk to drop out of the sky at any second and ask me if I’m going somewhere, or for a Spiral sniper to make it all end.
There’s a continuous stream of bubbling black fluid pouring out of a seam in the air, like a rip in a tapestry complete with ragged threads of reality waving in its borders. It falls to the street, eats through, and keeps right on going. It wasn’t there during the fight. More damn anomalies forming.
“Next thing I know there’ll be a bunch of masked human men talking about the monolith and trying to gun down everyone they see,” I mutter.
I find my patch, bring up the faerie circle, and give myself to the tumbling, serpentine twisting through soil, gravel and rock. Back to the island in my underground lake. I work my way up the smooth stone steps, pass through the swirl-engraved door set between two stalagnates, and enter a room I haven’t slept in for a century.
I enter the bedroom, disturbing dust and spores thick as snow. And there’s naught for it but to admit all I’ve done is let the pain fester. It crashes into me the moment I see the portrait of myself and Shaenogh on that boat of stars, taking a cruise in the skies over Faerie for just the two of us. Look how bright Jamie-who-was can make a smile full of brambles. Look how glorious the reds and oranges and golds of her nose and brows are. Her skin used to be red, too. Red like roses. She forgot that somewhere on the way to becoming the Jamie called I, the Jamie-who-is.
I slump into the old bed, so old the covers fall apart with rot, and a wail rips right out of me at the stupidity of it. You let these covers rot, you useless selfish gutless girl! You slept with Shaenogh beneath them, you wrapped each other tight in their softness after all the times you made love, and if you’d just taken them off and stored them in the linen-closet they’d still be whole! Wretched fae, craven sniveling weakling excuse for a monster!
If you could stand feeling afraid long enough to think about the things you fear, you might actually learn to avoid them! If you could scrape up the will to accept that you might fail and try anyway, you might be able to do things without needing to convince yourself nothing can go wrong, and you might’ve learned to evaluate risk enough to stop yourself from acting when you realized you had no idea what you were doing, and then… and then…
… Shaenogh would still be alive.
The thought crashes through me, smashing everything else apart. I lie there. Staring, still and unbreathing, at the wall. Motionless as a corpse. For the first few minutes my mind’s scrabbling to hold on to the memory of a world called Earth and a woman named Nehal. Somewhere there’s someone who needs me. Somewhere there’s something I should do. But I can’t catch hold of it, can’t keep it in my head long enough for its weight to sink in.
An aging fae lies in a room grey-green with dust. Mushrooms glow in the walls. Outside the door, in the hallway, something senses her lethargy and the open doors. It slithers from the lake into the kitchen. Cabinet doors crack and scream in protest. Breaking sounds: they pour into the emptiness of the faded elf. It is the nature of the emptiness to be filled by anything that finds it: no more than this. Tarnished eyes do not stare. They abide, sightless.
The slithering reverses its course. Hours pass.
The shape of an elf rises, quite unaccountably. It, or perhaps the elf might be a she, walks with steps that are not quite shuffling and are not quite stumbling. The elf walks until a door-handle of polished onyx pours cold into her tan fingers. They press it. A latch clicks. The way opens. She passes from a cavern mouth under overhanging roots. A pathway passes by under her feet, pushing up sometimes to make them lift and fall so she will not be carried with it. Fungal blooms and mushrooms glide by to each side.
The elf passes on. She passes leering things that are nothing but dozens of long crescent mouths and tapering wrinkle-fleshed jaws all twisted together, pulling themselves along with masses of barbed tongues that lick the soil and stick to prey and pull little squirming things into the mouths, which go mad with gnashing to chew the morsels.
She walks until the sun leaves her behind. She walks into a ravine of dark rocks piling higher and higher until they became a titanic cairn, the arch of its dimlit entrance rising up a hundred times her height. She walks under and past it until the last of the light leaves her behind. Just absolute jet-black darkness, and the muffled echoes of her steps.
She walks until the stillness and umbra pierces deep into her mind. Then she stops.
The elf is gone. No wind, no sound, no heat. Only darkness, and stillness, and silence.
“I suppose you’ve come for answers, Jamie?” The words of the low, ragged, half-whispering voice, once so sonorous, settle into a hollow in the darkness. The hollow becomes shapes, the sensations outlining a tired head and sagging shoulders. “I have many to offer you. I do not have the strength to give you aid. But I can give you death, if you wish. Oh, yes… it’s much easier to kill than to save. Any coward can kill.”
The stirring becomes words. Slow, halting. The sounds themselves aren’t sure they go together this way. “I never took you for a craven, old weaver.”
“That is because I never told you the truth.” A sudden, thundering, wracking cough spews something splattering to the floor. It glows, roils, with pale white light illuminating the round, shining-pale kneecaps of an enormous being. The hills of ghost-white thighs stretch up and round into meet each other, streaked with splits covered in dried black blood. The iron spines grown atop those thighs, and at each side on her haunches, run up into the deepening shadows at the sides of her torso until they join the exposed iron of her shoulder-girdle and her neck of flaking green bronze.
Every iron part, once smooth with mirror-sheen, is now wet with peeling strips of rust. All around are feathers. Dark. Bereft of gloss. The feathers that muffled the elf’s feet.
The feathers that muffled my feet.
Even elven sight cannot carry the white light far enough to be sure of anything in the shadows far above. There is the half-oval impression of a gigantic lower face still framed by a few ragged feathers from a once-great mane of them. Pale tufted fibers crusted in dried brown blood that was once red. Little crows fly up, cawing, and tear off pieces, and nest in the caves of her putrefying jawline. A rim of negative space below leering jagged teeth tells me where a black lower lip hangs. Past that there is only the conviction of movement too faint to crystallize, the terrible certainty of something more in the shadow.
“Tell me, Morrigan.” I clasp my hands, holding them up in supplication. “Please. If it ever meant anything that I was your priestess, tell me… what’s happening?”
“Oh, that’s no great secret,” she says, with horrible dry humor in her tone. “If, that is, it’s being told to those among the elect. The gods drank their fill of the old Earth, Jamie. They’re making a new one. They picked all their favorite humans to come along so they’ll have a nice stock of belief-batteries to feed on. Everyone who’s been left behind? Maybe they didn’t believe. Maybe they were dangerous. Maybe they just weren’t worth the trouble. And everything the gods bottled up, every dark nemesis, every fell magic, everything they used the Wall’s descent to imprison… it’s all coming free at once.”
“This is just the start, isn’t it?” I ask. “There’s an apocalypse coming.”
“One apocalypse?” the Morrigan chuckles, wet and abominable. “Oh, no, no, no, dear Jamie. Not just one. A thousand apocalypses. Not always quick, mind. Not at first. It’ll take time for some things to awaken to their freedom, and others to close the distance from the places where they were shut–outside the world, outside time. But they’ll come quicker and quicker. Piling higher. Burning hotter. You can’t stop it. There’s no power left that can.”
“And this new Earth?” I dig my claws into my palms. “There has to be a way–“
“There’s not.” She spits to the side. A gob of divine gore plummets a hundred meters, or thousands, for I cannot tell quite how close I am to my goddess, and my perception changes at every breath. I know only that it impacts with an ear-splitting liquid blast. Flecks of reeking goddess-decay coat the whole right side of my body. “Sorry about that. Anyway, as I said, it’s futile. They’ve taken every pain. They explained it all to me in the most exhausting detail. A final courtesy, they said. Fah! I’d tell the whole to you if I weren’t tired to death. Some courtesy. Weren’t going to risk me turning on them, that’s all. Like I did the Tuatha.”
“I-I’m sorry, like you did what?” I ask.
“The Tuatha weren’t gods, originally, don’t you know that?” She snorts. “I suppose fae memories have never been too reliable. Supernatural beings, yes, a species far more than human, but not gods. Where, exactly, do you think I got the power to become a goddess?”
I sit down, heavy, on the molted feathers of my murderous goddess. “Harvested it.”
“Yep.” The Morrigan grins wider, a terrible squelch spilling dark gore down her chin. No light reflects in it. It might as well be the darkness eating right through what’s left of her.
“Was it worth it?” I clack my claws together. “Killing your own to become a goddess?”
“What kind of question is that, was it worth it?” She spits again, far away over my head, though a few chunks nonetheless tumble down and spatter atop my scalp. “I traded true kin, beings who I felt I belonged with, for power that brought me no joy and the constant nagging demands of a million heavenly strangers. Of course it wasn’t worth it.”
Slow, soundless, the feathers heap higher and higher under my feet. The white light rises with me, dimming as we go, until I am level with the Morrigan’s valley-wide mouth. The infinite darkness is so close above me now. Like I’m about to fall up into it. Like it’s about to come surging down and devour me. Still, of the goddess, I see only the crow-eaten chasms of her lower jaw, and the fractured outlines of jagged teeth marking out a black lip.
“Here’s a fundamental of power, girl. Remember it well. Power is shaped by the way it is gained. What you can do with it, whether it will remain yours or betray you. If you ever think you’ve found a way around that, you haven’t. The cost always comes due. Any power you steal, someone else can steal just the same way. Any power someone gives you is only yours until they stop giving it. Only the power you create inside you is truly yours.”
“I don’t understand.” The sheer immensity of her, even rotting, even as she begins her own going-down into death, is cracking my mind open. There is a shivering elf, leaves falling from her body, drawing blood from her shoulders with her claws. “Why do you tell me this? You’re the goddess, the divine, the one with the power!”
“No. I’m not. I never was, really.” She shakes herself. “Didn’t you hear me about belief-batteries? Humans gave gods their power as belief. Gods use that power, take credit by matching the appearances and roles humans ascribe to them, and pretend the power was always their own. That way the humans keep giving it, so gods can turn right around and give it back… at a real lopsided exchange rate. That’s the way Earth always worked. In eating the other Tuatha after I slew them, all I did was ensure the power the humans sent towards them would answer me… until it was cut off. Do you think I’m rotting because I’m ready to go, because it’s just my time? No, Jamie. All this majesty, all this size… it was stolen. What’s left of me, what’s really me, isn’t enough to stitch it all together.”
“So that’s it.” I gather my knees in. “Earth’s going to be torn apart by a million ancient horrors, and there’s nothing any of us can do.”
“Yep.” A massive tongue coasts around her lips. Rivers of maggots spill out of the seams in its underside, spilling over her lips, raining down her chin. A corpse-worm recoils, larger than my house and all the hill it’s built inside. It recoils from the dim light outside the rancid corpse of my goddess, squirming over itself and burrowing deeper into the bulging wet flesh. “You can save some by pulling them into Faerie, maybe. But each you take carries a little of Earth with them. Gather too many and the things in the deep, oh… they’ll scent it, through time and space. They’ll come gnawing and rending and burning towards you.”
She grins. “Don’t blame yourself, Jamie. It’s not the first time they’ve done this, the gods–putting on shapes that look pretty to the little mortals so they won’t know the horror of what they feed, making many a fine promise and returning just enough to keep the other patsies scrambling. What do you suppose a prophet is, hm? Half the gods weren’t from Earth, originally. Some came from worlds they’d already drunk dry. A few fled to the pantheon’s arms, running from a world they lost to its own apocalypse. Caelnarshach, or something of the sort. Was eaten right up by some dread thing from the time before time.”
“N-no!” I force myself upright. “Damn you, Morrigan, you’re still a goddess! You’ve lived thousands of years longer than I, you weren’t always some wretched outcast! Alright, fine, there’s no one who can stop this. But there has to be someone who can help us save a few more people, who can help us claw something back from oblivion. Help me find them!”
I stand, shoulders heaving, all too aware of what a fool I must look. Even on the brink of death, the Morrigan’s power–or what’s left of the stolen power still rotting away inside her–is as much the greater than me as a lake of boiling oil is greater than an errant wasp.
Still. I stand.
“There is…” the Morrigan says, the slowness of her speech letting me hear every torn, dripping, squishy sound that comes out of her, “one who has spoken to me in the past. A strange creature. She knew exactly what I’d done. It made the crazed harlot feel at home with me, can you believe it? I felt it in her words. A mad creature, touching the minds of gods as careless as you please. There’s no one in all the universe who thinks like she.”
“Can you send me to her?” I mop my brow.
The Morrigan shrugs. “I can try.” She leans close, meter by soundless oily meter, every second bringing stark relief to new and horrible details in the massive heresy of her decomposition. And she extends her tongue, maggot-falls and all, until the tip presses against the heap of feathers I’m standing upon.
“Isn’t… isn’t there some other way I can do this?” I ask.
“She’s not in any physical world,” the Morrigan says, without moving her flesh or retracting her tongue. Her voice rolls up, booming, from the stinking depths of her throat. “The body of a goddess is tied to the cosmos. Where she decays, so does reality, and maybe, maybe, that’ll be enough to let you slip through to places you couldn’t normally reach. I’ll not explain further. C’mon, Jamie. You’re too desperate to be precious about the smell.”
“Fine, twist my arm, ya whore.” I step firmly onto her tongue–a little too firmly, as dead goddess-flesh bursts and fumes under my foot–and stride over it ever farther. Waiting for the inevitable. I walk until the faint white light from outside has all but fallen away behind me. I walk until the bumps of colossal tastebuds are too vague to see.
“Brace yourself, child.” And without giving me time to think about why, the Morrigan swallows. The gut-wrenching, nostril-scorching wall of rot-stench that pours down my throat, that settles on my skin in humid searing waves, is far too much for anyone to stomach. I wretch, louder and louder as I plummet down squirming things in the lightless caverns of dead divinity, and finally all the contents of my belly force themselves from my lips. I don’t hear them. I don’t feel them. I hear silence. I feel emptiness. I am empty.
The Void has carried on its inevitable grinding outside the fabric of all things. Only emptiness is endless. Only oblivion is infinite.
An echo called I is standing on an expanse of fine, glittering, violet dust in a dimension forever frozen right on the threshold where twilight tips over into true night. Ahead and above, too high above the splintered horizon for the barely-there light it casts, there burns a behemoth black sun with a glowing corona of white spokes. It’s framed between two dark metal towers like enormous pitchfork-tines, much closer to me but still far distant.
Similar towers, scattered, stand at far points in the shadow-lands around me. The furthest are nothing more than one-sided outlines made faintly silver in the black sun’s light. As my eyes focus on them and begin to pierce the darkness as far as they may, they make out the murky forms of something unspeakably huge filling the sky straight above. Faint shapes of grooves, ridges, circuit-patterns and… and I think those are holes.
Does the construct end somewhere before the horizon where the black star burns? Or is that horizon, even that star, trapped inside its depths with the plane I’m standing on?
I drop my gaze to the ground, shivering. A lonely gust of night-cold wind stirs the fine glittering dust. It hisses, like sandpaper on silk, like a serpent, like a sword at its scabbard.
“What’s this?” In all my years and all my journeys, I’ve never heard a voice so silken and sharply feminine as the curious voice that cleaves through me from behind. It so unseats me that I can’t place her accent, even though I know I’ve heard it before. “A daughter of Faerie? You’ve gone much further beyond than you’re made for, haven’t you?”
The woman-ness of her is not an invitation nor an accident. It’s an order, a burning vise choking the air between us. Perhaps that why I’m baring my bramble fangs when I whirl to face a white human of about average height. The dress she wears is black lace, close-fitting, with long frilled sleeves and a window of black netting over her bosom, but otherwise unremarkable. Those are the only average things about her.
Her shapes are just a little too perfect, her curves just a little too ideal. Shoulders shapely but narrower than her wide hips, her waist tapered and pinched just right to put the generous size of her breasts in balance with the rest of her. The violet eyes shining in her heart-shaped face have a way of appearing larger than they are the instant I mirror them in the back of my mind, and her black hair, a long fall down her back, has the softness of gossamer and the countless pinpoint shimmers of a geode in gentle cave-light.
“Busy objectifying me, Jamie?” She smiles, black-painted lips glistening faintly even though the black sun is at her back and there’s no other light here. As my eyes adjust yet again, I can make out eye shadow matching the violet of her eyes. “Yes, I know of you.” The careful cadence of her voice, clear yet soft and soothing, lulls me.
The thought glides through my head that I’ve been ensnared, that this dreamy half-trance is a dangerous, dangerous way to be when I feel in my gut that this is really happening. But that thought finds no purchase, and melts away into the calm she brings.
“Who, um,” I relax, straightening taller from my feral hunch. “Who, and perhaps I should ask what, are you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the strange human draws black smoke up around her with a beckoning motion of her hand. It hardens into a plush armchair where she reclines, hovering midair. “I’m the Insulindian Phasmid.” Her playful tone ebbs into sadness–a bitter, yearning sadness. “I didn’t wake up to the world of my birth until it was already on the way out.” She straightens. “I’m Arisa Carver. Just call me Arisa. A necromancer, and a, erm… a ghost, I suppose, which means that in a certain sense I’m also a revenant.”
Connections brighten in my mind, too slow to call flashing. “Am I dead?”
Arisa giggles. “No, no, you’re not dead. Why? Do you have reason to believe you are?”
I explain the Morrigan’s method, and then, awkwardly, about my relationship to her.
“I see.” Arisa knuckles her chin. “This, I was not aware of. I’ve only seen the parts of your life that happened publicly on Earth, you see. And only those I was free to look upon.”
“So you’re a seer as well as a necromancer?” I swallow nerves. The gift of the sight does strange things to a practitioner’s mind.
“That’s a tautology, really.” Arisa shrugs. “How else is a necromancer to find the dead, if she’s not a seeress? But enough. You didn’t come here to banter about my arts, did you?”
“Are you alright?” It’s the most diplomatic way I can conceive of to address how odd all this is. I’m not used to feeling this unhinging surrealism from the other direction.
“I am a little out of sorts,” Arisa tosses those shining black locks over one shoulder, “if that’s what you’re asking. But not in any dangerous way. My rest’s been inconsistent, that’s all. Sometimes very good, better than it ever was in my mortal life, but sometimes… I’ve been having some deeply bizarre dreams ever since the Wall fell apart. That’s as much as I’m willing to share. I know of you. I wouldn’t say I know much about you. If I’ve not figured out what the dreams mean yet, the person I’m talking to could churn up the murk with their own mind-maunderings. I’ll be too busy untangling the mess they make to find the answers I was so close to unearthing.”
“Well, if it’s true to you, it should resonate, shouldn’t it?” I ask.
She sighs. “People are more malleable than that. It’s easier than you’d think to push someone into embracing paths they don’t truly desire. Or at least… it’s always proven easier than I’d have thought for others to push me.”
“And you don’t think telling me that is too vulnerable?” I ask.
Violet eyes gleam in the darkness. “I think that telling you was a test. Not subtle enough to prove I can trust you, of course. But overt enough to tell me if you’re artless. Subtle manipulators still have to give and take. They can be useful, to a point. I have no use for a blunt instrument. And if I did, they aren’t exactly in short supply, are they?”
Maiden’s graces, she’s terrifying. But terror does have a way of sharpening the mind, and I finally recognize that accent. It’s the same one I’ve been hearing for days.
“You’re from Michigan, aren’t you?” I ask.
Arisa nods slowly. “More of an accent than I like to think, huh?”
“It’s not unbecoming, I mean,” I grin, caught between two very different kinds of panic, “it suits you, I think. Being yours and all. Your accent, I mean.”
The necromancer raises an eyebrow. “And here we go again. First I needed to crack my egg, then there was transition, then there was the tyranny of distance, and of course now I’ve just got too many paramours to track as-is.” She waves a hand. Skeletal forms of compacted dust writhe upward, trailing streamers like the vapor of disintegrating bone. They tumble away again. “Alright. I know of a power that can help you, but if you ask me to tear your mind open to it, there’s no going back. You will master yourself, or you will destroy yourself. Do you understand?”
Her lovely face creases, white teeth gritting. “And it’s going to hurt, Jamie.”
I shrug. “I can deal with pain. I’ve got a bit of a masochistic streak–“
“You’re going to burn,” Arisa interrupts, in razor tones. “You will feel every possible combination of agony, disgust, terror, and that deep rattling feeling from the depths of your soul that you can only describe as ‘this is wrong.’ You’ll feel echoes of it for months after, feel it again every time you use your own power. It could be years before you feel like your own essence belongs to you. I understand that you’re desperate and you’ll probably have to take this path in the end, no matter the pain. But if you’re to wield this power, you have to accept that you will never be able to hide from yourself again.”
“Oh.” I glance away, ill with shame.
Arisa takes steadying breaths. “Sorry for snapping–“
“No, hey, stop.” I hold up a hand. “I was being a flippant little sprite and you were justifiably angry. Didn’t hurt or threaten me. I’m guessing you felt disrespected and cheapened, yes? Getting angry over that is nothing to apologize for.” I watch the ghost-necromancer sag into her shadow-chair, and despite all the power I feel roiling under the surface of her, I realize how terribly vulnerable this woman is.
Such a soothing presence she can be. A beacon of peace in one heartbeat. In the next, a terrible power to burn all my enemies away. What would I do to hold onto her, if I was desperate enough from the pain in my head? How many ways could I find to dig my claws into that hair-trigger guilt under her skin?
“Zero,” Arisa says, a purple flare in her eyes. “Oh, you could still hurt me, Jamie. You could weaken me, slow me down, cloud my thoughts so I slip up and lose battles against my true peers, things much bigger than you. But I’ve at least learned not to be used through my guilt. You couldn’t use it to control me… anymore.” She glances away. “Finally.” Her eyes flick back, scouring. “Never mistake my kindness for weakness, nor my restraint for fear. Clasp me softly and I’ll be silk for you. Clench your fist and I’ll be molten iron. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I blurt. My eyes pop as my own words echo in my memory.
Arisa’s lips curve to a satisfied smile. “Good girl.” She shifts again and the moment passes. “Would you like me to share my hypotheses about the way the field lies, how we got here? It’s part of the context for your decision. And where this power is concerned, you never know what knowledge will be important later.”
A fool-elf shakes herself and clears her throat. “Er, yes, ma’am–Arisa!–I would. Like that, I mean, I would like that.”
The necromancer chuckles behind pursed lips, and leans her too-perfect face on a too-perfect palm. Her voice is a lazy, playful drawl. It oozes that dreamy, soothing lull again, making me oblivious to any sense of tonal clash. “Tell me this, Jamie: what has walls within walls within walls? What has doors of polished wood when you visit, and doors of cold iron when you stay forever?”
“Could you please just tell me?” I ask.
“The point of the riddle is that it trains your brain to put the right symbols together in the right way,” Arisa says. “It’s a pattern of thought. Refine it, repeat it, and each time you encounter the riddle’s object, walking through the pattern and exploring new branches of interpretation helps you to glean new insights. If you’d rather come up with your own way to find those insights, then I’ll just tell you.”
“No, no, I…” Glittering claws on an autumn-leaf nose. Picturing a jumble of walls and doors, fingers flitting through, the hard metallic echo of an iron door–oh. “A prison.”
Arisa nods. “The Wall wasn’t the whole construct, Jamie. It was just one border of the prison we knew as Earth’s immense supernatural mundanity.”
“I-I’m sorry.” I stagger. “Its… it–its what?”
“My hypothesis is that Earth’s mundanity isn’t–wasn’t–mundane.” Arisa sits straight in the shadow-chair again, and folds her hands before her. The black lace flutters at her wrists and the hem of her gown, and the ends of her shawl, and upon her pale breast, in an abyssal wind. “Not since two thousand years ago. Earth has been transmuted, the compositional essence of every single atom of solid, liquid and gas replaced. All this, to create a prison-world for a single entity.” A flare of dark fire passes from one eye, disappears behind her nose, and gathers in the other before it disappears again.
“Earth’s nature, Earth’s physical laws, Earth’s very stone and iron and soil… you must remember that all the magics in all the forms we’ve ever known them to take, those aren’t the source. The source is some deeper, more essential power. It can take any form, including forms and forces quantified by science. It’s the power I mean to unseal in you.”
“That’s why we could never return?” I ask. My eyes look through Arisa, through the twilight realm, piercing through to the point on the far-distant horizon of the night where the sight of my body reunites with the sight of my mind. All the fallen leaves of Faerie, burning up in a hissing wall of light… “That’s why all our arts fell apart? We thought Earth was empty of supernatural forces, and it’s…”
“Actually one of the most power-infused realms in any universe I know of,” Arisa agrees. “More powerful than many afterlives, many heavens and hells and all the strength of their rulers, combined. The power has merely been used to replicate the appearance and dynamics of an environment with no supernatural forces at all. Only the powers tied to those expressions… ugh, I’m sorry, this is a ghastly botch of a word-salad but I can’t think of a better way to put it right now… only the powers which are essential to allow a soul to exist through a body tied into a physical reality, like prophetic dreams and luck, were left some freedom. And those are already hard to distinguish from mundane forces.”
“And… this prison is holding that entity?” I ask. “Was holding it? It’s free now?”
Arisa sighs. “No. Oh, no, I’m afraid it’s worse, sadder, stupider than that. The prison’s makers, for all their power, refused to see the nature of… of the one they thought to capture. That one saw through the trap. Or perhaps it simply didn’t enter Earth all at once, as they expected. Perhaps it sent one tiny fragment in, or a few, and those were trapped. Each cut off from the whole, claiming in mad ravings to every mind it could touch in dreams that it was that whole, using the feeling of truth in its memory to obscure the lie in the present. Either way the entity itself remains free and its power is, for all practical intents and purposes, undiminished.”
She considers her delicate fingers. “The prison-architects succeeded only in trapping billions of innocent souls in a world that constantly tortured them, tortured them every time their souls screamed the truth of the lives they should have been born to–that wishes and willpower could manifest dreams, transform people, create worlds–and they projected that wish out into the world, and as far as they could see, it amounted to nothing.”
She rubs a shoulder. “And instead of a rich, well-developed planet’s worth of occult traditions and woken demons who can veil us from the enemy waiting beyond, instead of backup plans and escape routes and hidden sanctuaries carefully placed in pocket dimensions where even that one could not find them, we have… you know.”
“Yeah.” Elven hands wrap elven flesh. A closed system. No way even to make my own warmth felt to myself. “An apocalypse of frightened, desperate people clawing each other.” Another click. “The Morrigan mentioned that some of Earth’s gods, or, well, the gods who became gods of Earth, came from a destroyed world named Caelsharnach. This terrible entity you speak of… is it the same one that destroyed that world?”
Arisa frowns. “The Morrigan should not have told you that name, even if it isn’t quite the true one. Names do not, themselves, have power–not usually–but names are gateways for power. A name is an invitation for a power to pass through. Anyway. I suppose at this point she’s too far gone in delirium to be fully aware of the dangers her knowledge can pose.” Her eyes crease, remembering. “I can sympathize. As for the world-destroyer, the answer is yes. It is one and the same with the intended prisoner of Earth.”
“I see.” I sink into my thoughts for a while. Cold winds blow swifter, shrouding us both with a haze of lavender-scented dust. “How do I get back to Earth?”
Arisa, a black-shadow silhouette in the growing storm with violet eyes glowing, holds her arms out. “Come here. Rest your head in my warmth. Close your eyes to this place.”
I obey, sinking into the lulling currents of her voice as she says many slow and rhythmic things I hear but do not understand. My eyes ease shut. The sensations of my steps have become muddled like vibrations in the waters of a hot-spring by the time I press my face to a soft, blissfully-scalding mass of black-body radiation.
It oozes around me, enveloping all, burning me up in ecstasy. It’s pouring through, pouring down, pouring to the swirling ache in my belly that trickles down to the cleft between my legs. I know that I cum at the orgiastic boiling filling my limbs, but I don’t feel it or the burning of Arisa’s touch anymore.
I hear silence. I feel emptiness. I am empty.
The Void abides. The Void was forever and is forever and will be forever. The Void is all there has ever been. There is no life in the Void.
A pinpoint erupts in the Void and the Void never was, the Void still is not, the Void never will be. An elf of vibrant autumn reds, oranges, and golds stands in her fungal-cap gown with her pink face dimly lit by the sick white light that illuminates the animate carcass of her goddess, whose molted feathers she stands upon.
“So you’ve met her?” the Morrigan asks.
“Yes.” Her eyes are only violet, and human, and yet I keep seeing them in my mind’s eye. Full of some secret I’ve yet to understand. “Arisa offered to awaken some great power in me. I haven’t decided yet whether to pay the price, but…”
But what other answer is there?
The Morrigan flinches. “That’s not her…” Again, her sickening tongue sweeps her lips. “That’s not her way, to give her name away the first time she meets someone. Odd. She must have a liking to you. And to give you a gift of her insight, no less… remarkable.”
“I hope so.” I bow to her. “Thank you, Morrigan.” I straighten with a shiver of rekindled fear, for I know this dark-dream retreat has come to an end. “It’s time I returned to Earth.”