And All The Foundation Shudders: Chapter Seven

Hello, readers dear! Here’s the seventh chapter of And All The Foundation Shudders. A melancholy one. Changes of direction, a parting of ways. But it also has a lot of fun character moments and one really nice action scene. Still lore-heavy, but it’s the fun kind of lore, so–this one hopes you enjoy it!~

Google docs: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Muwst7dLFJCBoKfEqVTEGv_9RSFhkFn_0GV9k4u6ZW4/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

Kairliina Saelvur Urwollust
Copyright © K.S. Urwollust 2022

A letter from the author:

Hey, assorted reader-beings. I’ve used the downtime between chapters to reflect a great deal on how And All The Foundation Shudders fits into the Riven Earth setting, and into my own work. For those who may not know–and if it helps you understand me to think of this as my religion, I’m okay with that, though who and what I am won’t change even if you think I’m stark raving mad–I’m a demon. That’s the perspective I write from.

When I started working on this serial, I made reflexive choices due to many traumas I hadn’t, and still haven’t, fully processed. I had a checklist of Morally Correct Story Elements I wanted to include because I feared I would be punished for leaving them out.

It’s true that I wanted Riven Earth as a setting to cater to diverse writers telling diverse stories. I still do. I’ve always delighted in the chance to live among and learn from a multitude of different perspectives and ways of being. Life’s just more interesting that way.

But I am, at day’s end, one indie writer. And I’m way out of my lane.

All of this is to say that I introduced Nehal’s character for reasons I’ve never liked. I was reluctant to alienate potential readers. But deep down, I knew from the start that I couldn’t be sure of writing her with the proper respect for her perspective as a Muslim and a woman of color. Let’s be frank here, shallow representation is always worse than none at all. My paper-thin attempt at pandering won’t win over anyone who wouldn’t otherwise have read this serial.

Please don’t mistake this for a morally-driven confession. I am a demon, with a demon’s cognition and a demon’s priorities. But my passion for my craft is among my highest priorities, and I absolutely detest doing shoddy work.

So, while I hardly think it reflects well on me to introduce Nehal and then send her off before she can make much impact on the plot, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s the best bad option I can still choose. Nehal’s stated reasons for leaving are my attempt to keep her character internally consistent, and I ask that you distinguish them from my reasoning here. If, in the future, a queer Muslim likes her character and wants to take over her story, I would be overjoyed.

In the meantime, I’m sorry. This is one bullet I wish I’d bitten at the start.

Yours,

Kairliina

Nehal’s First Chapter

The lanky kid I’ve got over my shoulders in a fireman’s carry makes seventeen hauled from the rubble since Jamie left. I’ve finally got sensible clothes: a red tanktop and a summer-weight shirt with a pair of athletic shorts. Someday I’ll try a uniform again, maybe. Once I learn how to design one that doesn’t make me look like the last scrawl of a child before the speakers sing recess.

I pass into Spectrum Health, pass the kid off to the indifferent nurses, and pass back out just in time to meet Jamie hurrying up the hill.

“Perfect timing, pixie dust.” Doing something useful has lifted my spirits just enough to wink. “Just need my duffel of stolen clothes from behind the counter and I’ll be ready to go.”

“Stolen?” Jamie asks.

“Somebody from Seven Spirals managed to get an ID on me and they fucking firebombed the family home.” I let little of my rage’s inner cauldron boil out. Even though it’s just me and Jamie, I bottle it up. Instinctive. I won’t give them the satisfaction. Nonsense logic–no Spirals watching, I’m sure–but right now that’s the logic that drives me.

“Pricks,” Jamie mutters. “I’m so sorry, Syn.”

“We’ll get through it.” Shrugging feels too easy, and the admission slips out. “Okay… so I’m torn up. But that’s what they want. Us, spirit broken, trying to catch a breath they’re going to keep taking from us. Gotta keep moving until we’re clear. What’d you find?”

“Grab a seat.” She flashes her bramble-fangs in apology. “It’s a long tale.”

So I thump-step to a choice piece of broken wall. I sit down. And it is a long tale. Visions of a breakdown in her home, a journey into shadowed stony depths to meet a goddess we’re too late to dethrone, and a ghost-necromancer full of answers so immense that they feel perversely irrelevant. It’s like peeking at the largest star in the universe through an empty paper-towel tube. Only one point gives me something new to feel.

“So, my parents got taken to this Earth Two, then?” No matter how much I scratch, I can’t seem to reach the itch under the skin of my neck. “They’re safe?”

“Sounds like it,” Jamie agrees.

The news should crush me. And yet, somehow, it just doesn’t. “I’m glad. There’s a chance I’ll see them again. They have a chance to keep living the life they built together. Don’t know how I feel about this ‘belief-battery’ crap, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.” Aching feet anchor shaking legs and push them upright, carrying me along for the ride. “Okay. Just a sec.”

A brisk march through hissing doors across cold faux-marble floors that click like falling stones under foot. A tug of my arm, the rasp of a duffel bag’s strap against my shoulder. Somewhere across grimy blood-smeared hospital tile, a nurse calls for more of Jamie’s mushroom-based painkiller. When I step outside and mention it, her eyes crease.

“My turn to duck inside,” she says. “Sorry.”

“S’fine.” She steps around me and disappears inward, distorted by the fractures in the glass. Wasn’t all that blown out during our fight with Shockwave? Is reality already so full of wounds it can’t remember where they are? Never mind that. Yet another force I can’t control, can’t befriend, can barely even begin to understand. Jamie’s gone for closer to ten minutes before red ripples spread along the shines in the battered panes, and solidify into an elven arm reaching out to open the door.

“Summoned up a starting stock of the mushrooms they need for the painkiller and gave them a crash-course in growing and preparation.” She rolls her shoulders. “It felt a little less nothing this time. A small difference is still a difference.” Once the stretching has its way with her, she finishes, “so what’s our plan?”

The incongruous chime of the nearby church’s bell drifts to me in pieces on the breeze, mingling with my answer. “It’s as simple as this. We need to be way stronger before we can compete. Do you really care about anything else?”

Jamie shakes her head. “Do you?”

“Nope.” I spit. “Conversation has run its course. The factions here are destructive noisy assholes, they’re in our way, and we’re not strong enough to beat ’em. Those are the only facts that matter.” I turn and start walking, picking up speed once Jamie falls into step.

“So what are we to make of ourselves, all ragged brows and starling-sobs of castaway woe, while we’re developing that power?” she asks.

A punch to her shoulder shows how glad I am to hear nonsense elven poetry again. “We get out of Grand Rapids and we wander until we find a place where we’re already strong enough to keep up. We build momentum. Then we just keep competing, figuring out the rest as we go. Eventually we’ll get strong enough to come take my city back.”

“And if we don’t?” Jamie presses.

“Then we’ll already have a new home we can escape to,” I answer.

“And if it’s not good enough for others?” I’m a little shocked she’s not wringing her hands. “If it’s not good enough for them that we’re done with diplomatic solutions, if–“

“Jamie, stop.” I wheel around and stand tiptoe, pushing my palms into her shoulders. “You can’t try to asshole-proof your life by answering every question others throw at you, okay? I get it, I’ve tried too. Trauma response. But we have to get over it.”

“Right.” She takes a deep breath, then says in a rush, “Syn, I’m sorry my weird anxieties about my faeness seeped out in my aura and led to that cringe-inducing chat we had about the… the relative white-codedness of an elven decay priestess. I’m fae, pure and simple. I just… I really don’t want things to get to a point where only crazed white supremacist preppers are willing to take me in, y’know?”

“That’s not happening.” I hug her. “Promise. So, what… you think your fae weirdness put some thoughts in my head that were more your thoughts than mine?”

“Y-yeah.” She withdraws, looking away.

A shrug. Easy as that. “Okay. I’m not bothered. I figured that having thoughts I wouldn’t normally have was just part of the package of dealing with a real elf.” Once more, I turn and start walking. “You’re a monster afraid that humans won’t accept you for who you are. I get that, and I believe your heart’s in the right place. I’m gonna stick by you.”

“Thank you.” And once more, Jamie falls into step beside me. “I’ve, uh… I’ve had nothing but social media for the dance of companionship, names, and how-do-you-dos since… since around the time social media was invented. And the Morrigan, who, uh…”

“You’re all kinds of messed up in there, huh?” Another hug, side-on. “It’s okay. You’re going to keep being weird and nervous and I’ll just keep being your friend anyway.”

Jamie smiles, a slow, trembling, radiant smile. “Then I’ll be your friend too.”

Our walk out of Grand Rapids is long, dreamlike, and punctuated only by false alarms. Supercharge flies overhead a couple of times with combustion-waves making staccato sonic booms from his outstretched hands, but he never descends to meet us. We see other caped and colorful forms flying or leaping from rooftop to rooftop, but I can’t recognize any at this speed and distance without meeting them in person.

Seven Spirals stay hidden away wherever they’ve holed up.

It’s almost peaceful, and with a suddenness that my memory tells me is ‘soon’ even though the walk was long, the city’s receding away behind us.

Barely any smoke left. Obvious violence is over. Trying to settle back to the old systemic rhythms, but how long’s that going to last? That infrastructure was built for three or four times the number of people using it now, relying on shipping trucks that aren’t coming in, from farms of which half were probably abandoned, all preserved by a power-grid kept functional by workers who’ve mostly vanished.

“Maintenance,” I say, eyes popping. As Jamie looks to me with a raised eyebrow I explain, “all those morons writing panic articles as if clout still matters. They were staring at heads of government and big-name CEOs. It didn’t occur to any of them to try and get a feel for how many of the folks in supply and infrastructure got taken.”

The sight of an abandoned semi, its trailer doors thrown open to reveal surely-spoiled dairy, lends weight to my words.

“True… modern cities are seldom meant to sustain themselves…” Jamie mutters.

She’s a thin tired tower at my side, blotting out most sunlight before it reaches me. Red leaves light up in her black-root hair as she looks around, translucent like fluorescent lights through veiny flesh. The road ahead stretches on and on. It bobs with our every tired step. Anomalies churn here and there, breaking up the horizon as it unfolds toward us.

“Mind if I tell you something weird?” I ask.

“Come now, m’dear, you’ve earned at least a dozen weirdnesses,” Jamie laughs. “Speak on.” God, it’s just so good to hear her laugh.

“This feels good.” I stretch my arms out and let the wind play with my fingers. Stepping a slow circle. Breathing it all in. “Out here on the road with the last person I trust. Clear goals and the power to act on them. New things to explore, new horizons to reach for–this is what a human life should be! Maybe that’s a selfish take on the apocalypse…”

“Who cares?” Jamie snorts. “It’s the only take that we can live with.”

“Now you’re getting it!” I laugh.

We pass by a burned-out car, streaked in graffiti that’s already unreadable. Somebody’s pretty quick on the draw! Here, unknown artist: a whistle of my appreciation. What message did you think you were leaving, I wonder? Some rapier wit to take the hot air out of the end of all things? Maybe a soundless shout-out to someone you hoped would be here. Well, it’s all just colors now. Soon it won’t even be that. But in its traceless way it says that someone made their mark here. I’ll carry that with me.

“Uh, Syn?” Jamie’s loud and strained with fear, snapping me right back to the here and now. “That’s not normal Earthly weather, is it?”

Snarling rusty clouds of something less distinct than smoke are devouring the road ahead, eating up the yardage towards us. The cloud-wall’s edges rattle my vision like an unseen bass speaker turned up ten times too high, making maps of dark afterimages like I’ve been staring straight into the sun.

“No, no it absolutely is not, uhhh…” I need adrenaline to think quickly enough but when my thoughts get going this quick I can’t keep track of them and I’m pretty sure whatever this is it’s going to kill us if I can’t think of a way to deal with it–

Jamie’s hurriedly clawing the air with her hands. Blue-black mold blooms across her skin, loose spores filling my nose with their mustiness, and she rushes to grow a mushroom cap bigger, bigger, bigger. I look to the leading edge of the reality-eating cascade. Trees sag and pulp apart as it impacts them. Moments later their crumpling shapes disappear under the churning boil of the death-wave’s leading edge.

“Jamie, I don’t think that’s gonna work, I…” Instinct sends my power’s electrical shimmering heat out along my arms and balling up in my fist… to do what? Punch a hole in this storm? Maybe if I could make myself believe it was possible, I could, but I can’t, so that way also ends with death. But there’s no way we can outrun it, it’s moving way too fast, covering way too much ground, going to be here in seconds–wait! Ground!

“Jamie!” I shout, seizing her by the shoulders. “Not thick, light! Light mushroom with strings around your shoulders, like a parachute!”

Her wolf-eyes widen as she catches my meaning. She changes tack, shaving the top off the big cap she’s already made and spreading it wider, wider, wider with ribs and translucent fleshy things growing down and–ugh–burrowing into her shoulders.

Well, I guess fusing it to her bones is one way to make sure we don’t fall.

With a second to spare I leap up, throw an arm around her shoulders, and send a long silver wave of my power up into the parachute cap. My racing mind makes the split-second delay last for eternity. Then the fleshy smelling canopy expands with silver force and whips us away from the ground. The wave’s rushing towards us faster than we’re ascending.

We gave it our best, but I know in my heart that we just won’t make it.

Yet we do, with inches to spare, always rising just a hair faster than the thickening, swelling cloud rises upward to catch us, and by the time I realize we’re safe we’re hundreds of feet high, looking down on the devouring wave below. We turn, slowly, drifting on air-currents back towards the ground. The cloud’s a thick crescent, not the endless tide I feared, and there’s still ground and reality on its other side after all. Yet the road we touch down on feels uncomfortably coarse and powdery underfoot.

“Jamie, as our resident expert,” I ask, grimacing at the residue sticking to my black-and-white running shoes, “can asphalt, uh… decay?”

“It can with the right paranormal forces acting on it,” she says. “But the scale of this…” Words fall away from us, driven out by the sordid spectacle of devastation. My friend’s a study in paradox. Her expression flits from horror to borderline worship and back again, and she stops every few feet to examine the decay-wave’s effects.

“It’s as though they collapsed all at once from healthy to rotten,” Jamie mutters. “Like the very laws of their life unwound…” Her brow creases. “Arisa said that even the mundane things of the Earth, things of measurable scientific substance like trees and stone and, well,” she gestures to the powdery road, “asphalt… even those were in truth supernatural, of supernatural essence made.”

Her leaf-hair rustles as she snaps to look at me. “Syn, I think perhaps I was nearer on the mark than I thought when I called the anomalies ‘breakdowns in reality.’ I’d been thinking of them as intrusions of alien energy, of substance that comes from elsewhere, but what if that’s wrong? What if they’re just…” she gestures at the trees. “A kind of decay.”

“Like, what?” Something crunches unspeakably under my shoes as I walk to her. I force my eyes to stay on Jamie. “You think the anomalies are an emptiness?”

“And all their strange effects,” Jamie agrees, “are just signs of whatever’s rotting the fastest in that one spot. Whichever laws of physics are festering away to the…” She stops, quivering and hugging herself. “To emptiness.”

“What does that mean for us?” I ask.

“If it were an outside substance pouring in, a foreign power, we could devise a way to repel it,” Jamie says. “You can destroy substance. But how do you destroy emptiness?” She runs her claws through her hair. “Syn… there won’t be a pattern to this. Anomalies and who knows what else, they’ll just get more and more common. Pop up anywhere, like holes opening in moldering cloth. There’s no way to predict or measure the rate of rot because…” she drops her hands. “Because even the tools are made of the corpse.”

We stand, silent, surrounded by the stink of rotting wood.

“For fuck’s sake.” I kick a log with a silver pulse of my power to really get the rage out. It detonates in a pulpy spatter of tree-guts and fountaining soil. Rancid worms drop on all sides of us, sounding wet and thick as raindrops of solidified grease. By some miracle none of it lands on me. One fat, glistening decay-crawler lands in Jamie’s hair.

She cringes and flicks it off in abject terror. “Syn…” she whispers. “Syn, is my hair losing color? Is the decay taking me too?”

“Uh…” I shake my head. “No. Doesn’t look like it.”

“That’s a relief,” Jamie says. She looks to the fallen worm, shrugs, and plucks it off the ground just to pop it into her mouth while I stare at her in horror. She swallows, an oddly effortful gulp for how small the ‘snack’ is, and shakes her head. “Like eating nothing. Whatever that wave was, it destroyed the auras of the decay it caused.”

My eyes find nothing in the tortured trees around me to justify my unease. Quiet noises ring loud in the profound, dead stillness of the rotten forest: cracklings, drippings, tricklings. “Is that normally possible?”

“If auras can be eaten, it stands to reason they can be destroyed.” Jamie picks her way past a group of ruined bushes and moves down the slope to return to the road. “If you’re asking whether I myself know aught of any spell or power intended to do that, though? No.”

Having nothing to say, I say nothing.

We return to the road. And we walk, and walk, and walk until we leave the slimy, dark, dripping wake of the cloud and emerge back into a realm of chirping birds and gently-swaying trees. I keep looking back over my shoulder, afraid that the decay will follow us. Perhaps that’s why I don’t see the blob of darkness blotting out the road ahead until I step off and go floating through it. I scream, then grow calmer when I realize I can still hear my voice, and still feel air on my skin. Still, there’s no gravity here.

Jamie drifts along beside me, scratching her head. “Well… this doesn’t seem so bad.”

She’s right. This anomaly, or whatever it is, is surreal, but no worse than that. Grass, trees, worms, bees, birds and more fly or float to either side, but the soil, stones, and road are nowhere to be seen. It seems as though this space only unmakes inorganic matter. Its borders make the road hazy, blurs like colored oil and steam, unfurling them into streamers that finally break apart and disappear.

“If that necromancer of yours was around, some answers about this stuff sure would be neat,” I say, dry as a triple-digit July.

A crushing wash of strange, drunken dreaminess slams down on my mind right as a teasing voice whispers, “You rang, sweetheart?” in my ear.

Arisa Carver looks exactly the way I expected from Jamie’s description. She reclines, one eye open, hands folded behind her head, on a gossamer cushion and a mattress driven by little thrusters pouring bright purple fire-cones. “If you’re wondering what this lovely little collapse is, well…” she grins. “You’re looking at a zero-weight space.”

I sigh, rolling my eyes. “Yes, I am asking what a zero-weight space is. Are you happy?”

“Very!” Arisa says. “Explaining things does, admittedly, bore me, and it’s a lot of effort, but it can be worth it just for the excuse to preen. How clever I am, to know so much!”

Jamie, flapping experimentally at the void to see if she can make herself move, manages only to start herself spinning. I have to stop looking a second later to stop myself from throwing up, she spins so fast. “You weren’t like this when we first met,” she says, and the changing volume of her voice forces the image of her spin into my head. I cover my mouth and close my eyes, trying to focus on the meaning of her words instead. “You seemed much more, er… poised. Earnest.”

“Partly, it’s this planet making me manic,” Arisa giggles. “I’m a ghost, remember? I’m not supposed to be physically present on Earth.”

“If you’re physically present on Earth, doesn’t that mean you’re not a ghost anymore?” I ask, grateful for the necromancer’s presence if only because staring at her and her outrageous cleavage-netting keeps me from thinking about spinning fae.

Arisa’s brows go up. “Why, I suppose it would! A fine point. Now then, what was it… oh, right, yes, zero-weight spaces. Realities, you see, have a weight to them.”

“Like a quantum weight?” I ask.

“Exactly!” Arisa grins, then purrs, “I do like quick learners.”

Ah, swell, an older woman who really puts the ‘femme’ in ‘femme fatale.’ It’s a shame I’ve dropped the superheroine routine, or this would be the start of a great betrayal story.

“Way, way back before the very first reality ever came to be,” Arisa continues, “only spots like this existed, free of substance to define their emptiness as empty: zero-weight spaces. Now, technically, any amount of reality-weight is infinitely more than zero, so in a space like this, even you and Jamie should have no trouble manifesting anything at all.”

“Anything?” I hold my hand out. “Like, what, if I imagine a miniature clockwork city orbiting my hand–” I trail off, feeling myself get just a little bit lighter for a moment while gears, turbines, windmills and copper walkways swell into being and link together. Steam-thrusters power a tiny, intricate labyrinth of hulls, warehouses, and machine-mazes as it sails over my palm. Tiny machine-beings trundle along on ball-joint bodies, waving to me.

Those have to be automated, right? Surely it’s not that easy to create sapient beings?

Right?

“Holy fuck…” I murmur.

“That too!” Arisa laughs.

I look to Jamie, grinning and glad for the distraction from my developing existential crisis. She sighs and shrugs, looking back, still surrounded by emptiness.

“Ah,” Arisa says, rubbing her chin and peering at the elf. “An essential blockage.”

She flicks the thought away. “But eventually, at random, by the unpredictable phenomena that promote sapient life and paranormal evolution, thinking minds came to be. They imposed realities on the once-perfect void. That’s where all the trouble started. I’m afraid that far too many among them confused the very reasonable thought of ‘I want my reality to be this way’ for the rank insanity of, ‘every reality should be this way.'” She spreads her arms, flaring violet.

The darkness around us expands in an instant to be so enormous I’ve lost all sight of the road. Arisa calls forth stars and galaxies of her own design, spirals twisting into helixes that branch into hyperdimensional branch webs of nebulae, black holes, and rifts glowing with rainbow energy cascades.

I feel the scope of her creation, of her power, crashing against my mind.

“I can do a lot more than clockwork cities,” she whispers, gleefully, as she sweeps a hand to condense glowing metal constructs that march across the heavens. Mazeworks of tubing, girders, cylinders with strange bulges, fins and wires and coils. Oily-fleshed entities with void-slits in their flanks full of eyes, and cavorting figures wreathed in dark fire. “Call me creatrix if you desire. Call me a goddess, though, and it’ll be your undoing.”

 She sticks her tongue out at no one and everyone. “Gods are so damned boring. Creating to extract worship–fah! I create to expand causality and unleash new infinities! Now, here’s how the trouble turned recurrent: once you manifest a reality’s weight, it persists on its own. What you create will remains yours, at least for a while, but what someone else creates will resist you. You must impose a greater weight to unmake it.”

Everything clicks. “So every time someone new took over a universe,” I say, making asteroids out of crystal and detonating them with thunderous silver punches a hundred times bigger than anything I can create on Earth–I remind myself that we’re still on Earth, technically–“They’d pile more weight on, pushing the scale higher and higher. Whoever came after had to be stronger and stronger to do things that used to be easy.”

“And it’s quite possible to reset the weight,” Arisa agrees, nodding eagerly, “but these early creators didn’t want to do that. If they had, any new beings who emerged could’ve escaped their plans. Rule was the first and simplest agenda. In a universe where everyone has the power to create their own reality, or to escape along pathways to a different one, no being with an authoritarian bent could achieve its desire. Only when reality’s burdens limit how a being can change its own body: only then can rule exist.”

“And you?” I ask.

“Oh, I think we should always keep reality’s weight at the absolute minimum,” Arisa says, nodding eagerly. “We should make it as easy as possible to achieve the most ridiculous, spectacular, mind-annihilating feats we can imagine! Fighting, feasting, and fucking, fucking, fucking across multiple timelines and alternate dimensions and parallel universes of our own design, corrupting entire cities with a psychic whisper, spawning a whole cosmos just to satisfy an esoteric breeding fetish–doesn’t that sound like paradise?”

It seems like Arisa rarely needs to stop talking so she can breathe. I’ve got a pretty good idea how she developed that particular talent.

“Your ideal reality sounds completely insane and…” Jamie starts snappy but grows pensive. “… and horribly familiar for reasons I’m maiming skeins to place…”

“So, wait.” I consider the silver glows filling my hand. “This kind of… existential weight… I’ve never felt it. So, I’m guessing it’s something you only feel when you push against it, and find out whether or not you can move it? Or change it?”

“That’s right.” Arisa beams.

“Okay, so, uh…” I try very hard to avoid Jamie’s eyes. I feel her staring a hole in the back of my neck even so. “So let’s say you’ve got two really powerful tough guys, and each of them is the strongest in his own universe–“

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Syn!” Jamie snaps.

“You could only tell who was the strongest if one of them entered the universe of the other,” Arisa says, confirming my suspicions. “Otherwise, everything he achieved in his own universe would only measure his internal strength for that single universe. You can’t measure existential weight from the outside. You must enter that reality, and attempt to deal with it by its own rules. Only then will you know whether your weight is great enough to overcome its own.”

A slow, hateful twist steals over her perfect brow. “Risky. If the reality has more weight than you expect, and you dip more into it than a little essence-toe, it’s so very easy to get stuck… trapped in its accursed rules…” Then she brightens with a luxuriant stretch, and closes her eyes happily as she settles deeper into her pillow. “Good news for us, though! We’re all born of this universe, and as far as I know, there’s none with a greater weight. Once the collapse finishes, we’ll be some of the strongest beings in existence.”

“You mean if the collapse finishes,” I correct.

“Oh,” Arisa cracks an eye that glows with violet delight, “I’m not going to stop the collapse. I’ve been waiting for this wondrous age with baited breath for thirty-two years.”

“Innocent people are suffering!” I gesture at the general idea of the world’s ending, manifest in the darkness beyond the galaxies and forlorn stars Arisa has conjured. “You can’t just sit back and do nothing.”

Arisa props herself up on one arm. “I can and I will. The vast majority of these beings never cared about me. Show care for apathetic hearts and you’ll only kill yourself slowly. I’m free. I possess power, power I worked harder than you can ever imagine to create in myself, power I gambled on. I owe this world nothing. Be glad I’m content to rest on my laurels for now, instead of making things worse.”

“I don’t understand.” Jamie drifts closer, using a kind of mushroom-bellows to propel herself. “You seemed almost compassionate, before. Why are you willing to teach me how to be powerful if you’re looking to play the slugabed until heaven’s done burning?”

“I like setting new forces in motion,” Arisa shrugs. “Stirring the pot, creating entertainment. I can generally do that better by helping than by harming.” She grins. “Generally. Now, look, you two. You offer some intrigue, and I wish that to continue, so I’ll do you both a favor.” She raises a finger tipped by a black-painted nail. “One little lesson of power, free of charge.” That infuriating grin gets wider. “The next one? Oh, the next you you’ll have to pay for. Some sort of nice, juicy quest… a story to feast on, yes…”

She trails off, seeming to forget us both for a moment, and then shakes her head as she snaps back to the present. “Right. Tell me and then show me, girls: what can you two do?”

“I’ve got superhuman strength and speed,” Jamie says, “I can conjure all sorts of fungal life, and I have power over decay.” She demonstrates by sending translucent roots out of her feet. They wind together, thickening and lengthening, making beams and a keel and curving up until they become a giant multi-hulled barge of fungal flesh.

“I also have superhuman strength and speed,” I say, “and I’ve got this… silver energy that… I can use it for attacks, I think, beams and the like, and maybe other things?” I fill myself with silver power, sending thrumming waves out into the strangely-oxygenated space surrounding us.

“Hm…” Arisa presses a finger to her cheek, shrugs, and pulses violet as she says, “I disagree.” The irradiant glow slams into me and Jamie. I spin, I try to spread my arms to move myself, and I find that I can’t. I slowly drift to a halt, every inch of me paralyzed, to face Jamie while Arisa circles us.

“Negation is the worst technique,” Arisa says, drifting placid circles around our frozen bodies. At least, I assume she’s circling, since she keeps passing in front of me from the same direction. “As part of its own nature, it by definition includes the very thing it seeks to end. It wastes extraordinary amounts of power compared to, say, actually using a technique of your own that affects your enemy directly. So of course,” she comes to a halt and snaps her fingers. Lilac light turns me translucent and fills my head with buzzing sensations. It ebbs and I get my bearings in time to hear Arisa say, “you should always try to negate someone’s powers before fighting. If you can do it, well,” she shrugs.

Her grin is nothing short of predatory. “Then they don’t deserve your time anyway.”

I rub my wrists with feverish speed to chafe blood back into my numbed hands, and make no attempt to hide how pissed off I am. “There was no fucking need to do it like that!”

“Again, I disagree.” The necromancer giggles. “I enjoyed it much better this way.”

Her power’s weight surges out and condenses space. Stars and galaxies swirl past us, shrinking away, until our drift brings us to the other side of the road. Arisa steps off her flying mattress and considers the miniature cosmos she’s created. “Hmmm…”

She holds her hands out as though framing a picture. Violet fire condenses and hardens to a lens that zooms in, flickering from place to place, and she kisses the lens. Each kiss blooms little purple gleams that become distorted aurorae, and seams pouring light or matter. “There. Some little creation-gates to keep pouring new materials into the mix, maybe spawn a horde or two of teeming cosmic horrors to really open up the horizon. Now it’s a proper universe seed.”

With that she steps back, spreads her arms to spawn a transparent lilac bubble of power, and shrinks the envelope until the minimum-weight space has shrunk down to a last tiny pinpoint. Arisa claps, sealing it away.

“I am so eager,” she says as she turns, voice breathy, “to see what becomes–“

Silver’s glow surges into my shoulder and my scream of fury drowns out Jamie’s cry of shock. My fist’s impact against Arisa’s stupid face sends her spinning backward with a meaty crack. She staggers through two full revolutions before she rights herself, fixes a hand to the underside of her chin, and crunches her head back the right way around.

“Ahem.” She turns to face me, smiling. “Well done! A hit is a hit.” She bows. “I’ll take this as a reminder to keep my guard up. Thank you.”

The enraging creature straightens. “There should be a town called Maetlond just a few miles up the road. Well,” she giggles, “technically it’s not here, so much as a part of Earth’s spatial fabric has torn and warped far enough to poke into a once-connected realm called Samancar. It would be more accurate to say that a piece of Michigan Route 37 is there, in Maetlond, and that piece is still connected to the rest of Route 37…” she gestures to the road beneath us, “so until it tears truly loose, you can use it to walk to Maetlond, in Samancar.”

“Jamie, do you know anything about Samancar?” I ask.

“Uh, yes, actually!” she starts. “’twas written of old to be a plane divided into four quarters for the four elements of water, fire, air, and earth. There are humans there of cultures utterly separate from any Earthly people, and many things you’d name as schlock fantasy. A wondrously diverse and free-spirited place full of adventure, or, well…” she grins, sheepish brambles. “So the old tales say.” Her look turns somber. “We lost contact with Samancar when the Wall descended. Our ways of reaching it all went through Earth, y’see.”

“And our powers will work there?” I ask Arisa.

She grins. “Why wouldn’t they? They’re yours, right?”

I clench my fists. Maybe it would be worth it to hit her again, even if she decides to retaliate this time. But she’s staring right at me, and I haven’t forgotten how easily she nullified my power… God, I’m so fucking sick of feeling like a toy!

“It’s our best bet, Syn,” Jamie says. “We already know your parents are off-world. And things in Grand Rapids are just going to keep getting worse. There’s no more reason for us to stick around if we have a way out. Not until we’ve got the power to turn the tide.”

“Yeah, I know, I know, just…” I scrub my hair. ” …this feels like the kind of journey where I’ll start out saying, ‘of course I’m coming back,’ but by the time I’ve grown strong enough to, to turn the tide like you say, there’s no tide left to turn, and I don’t want to come back anymore, anyway. And as miserable as things have been here on Earth for such a long, long time…” My arms drop, heavy like the hands of someone else. The words that slide out feel so small. “It was still my home, you know?”

“Yes.” Jamie approaches. “I know.” She holds her arms wide in offering. I fall into them, gratefully, and remain there while a breeze stirs the trees. I brace for a snide remark from Arisa, but it never comes.

Pulling away and facing the necromancer seems to happen on its own. “And you?”

“Let me save you some time.” Arisa clasps her hands with a spine-chilling clap that echoes far too long and far too loud into the lonely summer day. “If you have any coherent notion of evil at all, I am evil. I steal, I cheat, and oh, my dear devourable doves, do I ever lie. I love murder so much more than you can imagine. Consent is a foreign concept imported from the most yawn-inducing alien world in the universe, and if I was in any way unclear with any of that…” She bobs, making her boobs jiggle, as she smiles a smile that’s wide, bright, and completely free of guilt. “You absolutely cannot trust me.”

Jamie folds her arms. “Alright, evil is duly noted. How do you feel about fascism?”

I have no words to properly describe the sheer nose-wrinkling, eye-tightening, mouth-curling raw force of disgust which comes over the necromancer’s face. “The Fash?” she wretches. “Oh, gods, fascism is so boring. Everyone has to look the same, and wear the same outfits, and fuck the same way, and eat the same foods, and say the same things, and act the same way, and fulfill the same stupid duties. And all the buildings have to look the same, and all the stories have to be the same, and everything has to the same forever and ever and ever, oh, I can’t stand it, I want to shred the very idea of it to death! Fascism is stagnancy made manifest, and I–“

Arisa makes claws of her fingers, tearing at the air beneath her snarling face. Violet fire simmers in her eyes. “I despise stagnancy more than you can possibly comprehend! I need change, dynamism, the mutagenic potential of becoming, I–“

She clears her throat and straightens again, resuming her usual air of smug superiority. “Anyway. All the fun parts of fascism are only for the party leadership. And even then, you have to spend all your time playing mind-games with your own followers. What’s the point of owning an army if I’m trapped in a cold, lonely life of giving stupid speeches and picking minorities to–” inexplicably, she snickers– “demonize, just to keep my control? Fascism is work. Eternity’s too long for work. I’m here to wear slutty outfits and get drunk and do drugs and have unfathomable amounts of sex.”

The necromancer shrugs. “You know?”

“Uh, no.” Jamie and I exchange glances. “No, I do not.” I watch Jamie while she thinks, measuring her response. Digesting all that Arisa’s thrown at us.

Her answer takes the wind out of me. “Alright. I acknowledge what you are. But I’ve no better option. I’d be a fool to trust the offer you made me, but…” Jamie shrugs. “Desperation makes fools of us all. Mayhap you’ll at least help me to live free, for a little while yet.”

The necromancer simply grins, silent.

I lean up towards the elf. “Jamie, may I speak to you in private for a second.”

Her eyes flick to Arisa, linger, then flick back to me. “Of course.

I take Jamie by one clawed hand and walk her a solid twenty yards away.

A single moment has a strange way of putting everything in perspective. Jamie looks alert, but pleasantly so. She understands this oddball universe we’re standing in, where something wearing human skin professes proudly that she’s evil and we shouldn’t trust her. And I… I don’t. I know the questions I’m equipped to handle, and this isn’t one of them.

So, as sudden as I’m worried they’ll seem to Jamie, I feel like I’ve had the words I say next on the tip of my tongue this whole time.

“Jamie,” I whisper, “I like you, and I’d like to remain your friend. For this whole adventurer angle that’s taking shape, well, maybe we’ll go on quests together now and again.” I squeeze her hand. “But your own journey? It’s pretty clear to me that it’s heading out of human territory. Into mythic realms full of spirits and necromancers, gods and demons. And, c’mon, look at me. I grew up on superhero stuff. I can understand working for a town, fantasyland or not, but I feel out of place in your story. Not excluded. Auxiliary. Token. I want to go somewhere that I’m essential, y’know?”

“That’s…” Jamie looks, if anything, relieved. “That’s much what I’ve been feeling, Syn. Let the humans sort the human business and the monsters sort the monstrous, yes?” She squeezes back.

“Yeah.” My tension flows out. That reminds me I’m on the verge of falling over, of course, but still… “Thanks for taking this in stride. I was afraid you were going to, y’know,” I brush my hair back, and give an awkward shrug. “Start crying. Guilting me with your guilt.”

Please slug me into the next dimension if I ever do a thing like that,” Jamie says. She offers me her arm. “Walk with me as far as this town Arisa talked about?”

“Yeah.” I raise an eyebrow at the necromancer as we return to her, and I raise my voice as I say to Jamie, “Somebody ought to make sure you get there in one piece.”

Arisa gives us a sly look before turning her uncanny eyes back to the road.

We set off at a trot towards distant horizons. Minutes pass.

“Delicious elven liver…” whispers the evil thing in the black dress.

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