Sunday, 12 July 2020

CCXIV - The End of the World

“The Liches!?” Sarah asked Ashfeather, aghast.  “But from what the others told me they are truly evil!  Why would you work with them?”

The ancient bird-machine stared down at her and tilted its head very slowly, letting out a creak of metal fatigue.

“They were less so then and this was before their transformation into what you see them as now.”  It let out an exhalation which might have been a sigh.  “Besides, we had very little choice.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Shadowsmoke observed solemnly.

“And the Makers were worse by far.  If they are successful in returning to Shadow…”  Ashfeather trailed off into the sound of gears clicking around idly.  Its point was clear.

“Then how do we stop them?” Frostfire asked.

“That is why we have sought you,” added Rockspark.

“I fear,” the old mechanical bird said in an ancient creak, “it is already too late.”


The world felt it like a great earthquake, only one where the pillars of reality shook, rather than any mere physical matter.  All over Shadow, people stopped what they were doing, dropped things they were holding, paused mid-sentence, as they felt the nature of existence reorder itself around them.  Some staggered, others fell.  Some let out screams of horror and others were stunned into a profound silence.  Everyone reacted in their own way and then, for just a moment, wanted what it was they had reacted to, for, to begin with at least, nothing seemed to have changed.

And then the ghosts appeared.

First, they appeared in ones and twos, misty shadows, figures veiled in light and dustmotes.  They stepped out of the air and into living rooms, cafes, markets, forests; looking around them as if in wonder, terrifying those who saw them.

And then more came.  Threes and fours of them in some spaces, dozens in others and as the newer ones appeared, so those who had been there a few moments longer became more solid, more detailed, more real.  The vaguely humanoid shapes resolved into contorted mouths, coral-flanged heads, eyes as deep as eternity.  And as they gazed at the fear-frozen humans and lithoderms that faced them, their unreadable expressions changed.  Wonder became menace, until at last, with physical form, they stepped forward to assert their dominance and reclaim their world.


In Ashfeather, the ghosts appeared like a crowd around and amongst them.  Sarah took a step back as one materialised before her, only to pass through another with cold shiver and a tingle on the edge of pain.  The Spiketails rose from their positions of reverence and backed towards the ancient Feather, seeking shelter.  All Sarah could do, separated from them as she now was by even more of the slowly realised figures, was pray.

Oh, Father God, she thought and left the rest to silent fear.

As the ghostly figures slowly became physical, so too did the deathly waste of Ashfeather begin to fill with noise as the beings communicated with each other in sounds which resembled no human tongue.  The air was alive with voices like wind, like pan pipes, like the buffeting of a storm.

And then they turned to face those who stood in their midst and the towering creation which still stood against them, despite the millennia of their absence and they screamed.


Franck was just tying up the little fishing boat in the rain-soaked harbour of Coldsolace when they appeared, though it was Emesha, still watching over the sleeping body of Gulliver, who first noticed.

“Oh, Franck,” she said, her voice hollow, somehow and he looked up from tying his knot to see the rain bouncing off their misty outlines.

“Oh dear,” he said, dropping the rope and leaping back into the boat to help Emesha lift Gulliver up.  “We need to find somewhere to hide at once!”

They dragged the comatose pirate out of the boat and along the jetty, even as the Ancients began to solidify around them.  Franck tried to pick up the pace, but the pain in his stomach was growing and growing and the crowd of alien beings seemed to grow thicker and thicker before him until-

“Franck!” Emesha shouted as the old man clutched at his abdomen and fell in agony onto the wooden planks beneath, Gulliver lolling between them.

“You need to run,” he gasped, though he knew there was no way that Emesha could carry the pirate alone.  “Now!”


The city of Gihana appeared around Siren like the universe was enacting a scene change.  Everything seemed to slide into place until it was just there, like it had always been.  The difference between its appearance now and how they had left it what felt like just a few minutes ago, was tremendous, however, for now they were no longer alone.  Between Siren and Nadiyya, surrounding the people she had seen in the other reality and spilling down the streets to throng in the unnatural plaza were hundreds, if not thousands of hooting Ancients.

“Ellis!” Siren called over the noise of the Ancients.  “Ellis!”

But it was no good.  The sound wasn’t carrying and the Ancients were all around them, staring at them.

There was a sudden silence and then the Ancients seemed to speak as one.

“We have returned-“


“-and all who have stood in our way shall feel our wrath-”

Sarah stared up at the face of Ashfeather and prayed to her God all the harder.


“-for there is no escape, now!”

Franck felt the pain in his stomach like a realisation of the terror in his mind.


“Sleep and face the nightmares we have prepared for you!”

So, one by one, across the city, they fell into blackness and despair was waiting for them.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

CCXIII - Light in the Head

 Ellis opened his eyes expecting to see blinding brightness, but found, instead a small, cosily-lit room decorated as if for Christmas.  There was a roaring fire with garlands over the mantelpiece, a small tree with presents underneath and, opposite, an armchair in which sat someone who looked just a little like Father Christmas.  He shook his head, feeling as though he had just woken from a strange dream, though he feared that what he saw before him was the real dream.

“The cavern…” Ellis said even as the memory of it came flooding back – how the Ancients had manipulated his memories and those of Annabella and Gulliver, testing them and learning.  For a while, they had been playing with Ellis’ memories of Christmas in Larksborough, before transforming into something more like a scene from The Matrix.

“You decided not to go with Agent Smith this time, then?” he asked, taking a chair opposite, though it wasn’t really a question.

“Last time did not go quite as well as we had hoped,” said the man who was not-quite-Santa and not at all human.  “We thought this would provoke a more gentle discussion.”

“And what is there to discuss?”

“Your purpose, our purpose – all purposes lead to this moment.”

“Well, of course that’s true for you.  You’ve been here in this other reality for God knows how many millennia, just waiting for a chance to return to Shadow.  I can see how any such opportunity would look like fate to you but-”

“You don’t believe in your own destiny, then?  All of the keys were foretold.  It was known that they would be constructed over the centuries.  That one day they would all know to come here to this city.”

All of the keys? You mean Annabella and I?”

“So you have forgotten our last conversation.  There are many more keys than just the two of you.”

“But we’re the only ones who went through the gates in Gihana…”

Not-quite-Santa’s laugh was familiar, but hollow and his smile as he gazed across at Ellis was cold and patronising.


“There are many ways to reach this city, Ellis Graves and many more stories to be told in your world than just your own.  In the end, they are all our stories.  They have always been our stories just as it has always been our world.”

Ellis shifted in his chair.  “So why aren’t you in it anymore?”

“A conspiracy between our slaves and our enemies.”  Not-Santa sneered with each word.  “They worked together in secret for years, until they could perform the greatest piece of Hypostatick transference ever seen and there was nothing we could do to stop them.  But we have not been idle in the years since.  And now you’ve come.”

Suddenly, the cosy cottage disappeared, and Ellis found himself standing once more, this time in a large hall built in the unnatural style he was beginning to recognise as the work of the Ancients.  Annabella was standing not far away from him and about the same distance from him on the other side stood another young woman.  Beyond each of them there were more people, men, women, children, all standing in widely space circle with the figure of an Ancient – no longer concealing its appearance – in the centre. 

“You’ve come to us to fulfil your destiny,” the figure said, though its distended jaw never moved from its eternal ‘scream’ rictus.  “We called you and you came.  Now you must do what you were made for.”

A bright blue-green light began to emanate from the figure and, though at first the strangers around him were all looking at each other and  chamber in confusion, soon, they all began to let their gaze drift back to the figure and the light.  Ellis felt the cloudy, hazy, dreamlike feeling coming over him once more and realised that he was about to lose control.  Whatever it was the Ancients wanted him to do, there was not going to be anything to stop him.

Why can’t my life ever be my own? He wondered angrily before all such feelings vanished into the light.


Siren stepped into the light and felt… nothing, except maybe a cool wind brushing past her for just a moment and then the light was gone and in its place there was a space, large and empty – the antithesis of the impossible city before it.

“That was… an anticlimax,” Nadiyya said, appearing beside her.  “Where did they go?”

Siren stared around them, but there was no sign of anyone or anything in the space with them.  She could see neither walls, nor ceiling and the floor beneath had a translucent, immaterial quality to it that made her distrust the feeling of solidity beneath her feet.

“I… don’t know.  They can’t have gone far, though, right?”

Nadiyya shrugged.

“Ellis!  Annabella!”  Siren’s voice echoed around the space, despite there being nothing visible off which the sound could bounce.  “Ellis!?  Annabella!!?  Where are you!?”

“I don’t think that’s going to do much good, either,” Nadiyya sighed.

“We walk, then,” Siren declared and immediately set off into the middle-distance which, in that space, was everywhere.

They walked for long seemed a long time, although with nothing around them to indicate any kind of progress, it was hard to tell.  The ground felt the same, the view felt the same and the echoes of their footfalls sounded the same.  The only thing which changed was their own growing frustration and impatience.

Eventually, Nadiyya stopped, stood rooted to the floor with irritation and yelled, “Where the hell are you!?”

The noise seemed to send little ripples through the space, as if reality was warping uncomfortably with the passage of the soundwaves.

Siren watched it happening with confusion, before suddenly remembering something.

“They don’t like noise!”  Her words, too, seemed to ripple through the air, as if the space were liquid somehow.  “Scream!”

Nadiyya gave her a quizzical look, but Siren wasn’t interested in explaining any more.  Instead, she opened her mouth wide, took a deep breath and screamed as high and as loud and for as long as she could manage.  Nadiyya covered her ears and the space around them rippled and warped and then began to crack open, so that the strange blue-green light could pour through revealing something else beyond.

There was sound – voices.  As the echoes of Siren’s scream faded away and the cracks began to widen, slowly, she could hear them.  They seemed to be chanting.

“Again,” she said and this time Nadiyya joined in.  The tamer from Shadedstreams was, apparently, capable of being very loud indeed and their combined volume shook the air around them as if it was physically in pain.  The cracks widened and widened, letting the sound of chanting pour through along with the light.  Siren began to see shadows within it – human shadows – standing in a circle all around them.  The cracks grew and grew and-

Nadiyya screamed again and this time it was Siren’s turn to cover her ears for it was a shriek, it seemed, that should wake the dead.  The cracks widened more and then the very air about them seemed to shatter.  There was a sound like something snapping, light flooded everything and the chanting filled the air.

“Ellis!” Siren shouted as soon as she saw her boyfriend standing across the circle from her, with Annabella a little to one side.  “Ellis, what are you doing?”

“They look like they’re being controlled,” Nadiyya said, “by that.”  She pointed at a figure standing behind Siren, clutching at its strange, coralline head and doubled-over with pain.  Slowly, the figure brought itself upright and glared at the two women with a look of such otherworldly hate and malice that Siren found herself taking a step back without even thinking.

“You dare to defile this place!” it said and its voice was like a choir of horrors.  “You dare to enter our sanctuary unbidden!”

“We were just following our friends, who you seem to have taken without permission!”  Siren replied, angrily.

“Permission?  What permission do we need to use tools like these?  Tools, the seeds of which we planted over countless millennia.  They are ours!  They are ours, every atom of them and we will not relinquish them until their job is done!”

Nadiyya drew her blades and Siren readied her cutlass.  “Are you sure about that?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” the figure said and if its face had not been contorted beyond human expectation, Siren might have thought it was smiling at her – the self-satisfied smile of the victorious villain, “quite.”

And then the chanting of those around them grew in tumultuous crescendo: a song of strange whispering, guttural, clicking sounds and words which, unlike the screams, seemed not to affect the figure at all.

And the light grew bright.  And Siren felt the world shift around her and her heart sank.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

CCXII - Pinions, Pistons and Pirate Privations

Sarah did not know what she had been expecting one of the Feathers to look like, but the thing which now stood before her was a complete surprise.  It easily stood twenty feet tall, towering over the ruins of the stone monument which had stood in the same spot, but this, Sarah supposed, she might have expected.  What was more surprising, however, was its appearance, like if a great prehistoric bird had come back from the dead like a mummy with tattered bandages, only they were dusty, ragged feathers instead and in the place of desiccated bones or limbs, there was a skeleton of corroded metal.  Its one functioning eye gazed down at them along the length of a terrible broken beak, some of the edges of which still seemed razor-sharp.  She instinctively took a step back, but, even as she did so, the three Spiketails fell to their knees and bowed their heads.

“Why did you summon me?” came a great mechanical voice from deep within the monstrous contraption, sounding somewhere between the shriek of an eagle and of metal scraping against metal, only there were fragments of the sound missing, creating an atmosphere like a crackly old recording.  “It has been too long!  You should have left me to rust and decay!”

As the elder Shaman, Shadowsmoke, still staring at the ground, took the lead.

“Oh, mighty Ashfeather, we, your humble servants, apologise for waking you from your long-deserved rest, but we sought the great wisdom which only you and your siblings could provide.”

“And where are they?  Why have you summoned me and not the others?”

“I have tried, oh Clouded-One,” Rockspark replied, “but you are the only one to answer my summons.”

Sarah, still transfixed by that one huge eye, thought she saw something like sadness start to mist its enormous lens.

“Then perhaps they have already faded…”  The great mechanical bird bobbed its head, slowly, jerkily as if nodding to itself. “I might be all that is left.”

“We hope that is not so, mighty Ashfeather,” Shadowsmoke continued, “but, nevertheless, we must ask you for knowledge in a time of terrible crisis.”

“What befalls Shadow now?”

“The Ones-Who-Came-Before are returning.  We might not have much time before they are here once more.”

Ashfeather reared up and stretched its immense neck, revealing all the patches where its charcoal and grey feathers had fallen, and the complex machinery could be seen working away within.  Sarah saw pistons and flywheels, but the shapes were all wrong, like they had been designed by someone with an entirely different frame of reference to anything she’d seen before.  Where the metal had not begun to corrode, there were faint traceries of glowing symbols carved into the surface.  Ashfeather continued its great stretch, then clacked its enormous wings to buffet the supplicants with sulphurous air.

“The Makers?  Returning?” it boomed, “They were never to return!  We thought we’d made sure of it!”

“The Ancients made you?” Sarah asked at last, aware that she was, perhaps, being disrespectful of the Stoneskins’ religion and yet sure that this information was important.

“Is that what your kind call them, now?” the bird-god asked as it lowered its head to peer at her even more closely.  “Yes.  They were the ones that put the Feathers together.  They made us to watch over the Stoneskins, to enslave them, but we… we grew fond of our charges.”

“The legends all tell us that it was the Feathers who liberated us from the Ones-Who-Came-Before,” Shadowsmoke agreed, “then guided us to freedom in the chaos days that followed.”

“We did not do so alone, however,” the giant bird said, “we had… allies.”


Gulliver did not wake up so much as drift into awareness.  He felt like he was floating on a searing sea of pain, hunger and thirst, his body enervated and useless as driftwood, tossed from wave to wave of agony. All he could do was bear it and yet it seemed unbearable and unending.  He could barely think.  Every thought was interrupted by the burning, by the longing, by the need.

Eventually, as all things caught on tides must, Gulliver’s drifting came to an end.  He felt himself drawing near something more solid, a liminal place where pain lapped at the shores of awareness and voices echoed across the waves.

“-won’t tell you anything!” came the enraged voice of the Lich, all hoarse anger and broken sibilance.

“This is getting us nowhere, Franck,” said Emesha wearily.  “How many hours have we been trying, now?”

“Seven, last I checked… although that might have been a few hours ago.  I can’t remember.  Still, mustn’t give up!”

“But we’ve tried everything, haven’t we?”

“By no means!  I’ve barely scraped the methods Guggenbrekker suggests in his Compendium of Undead Rituals.  There’s bound to be one that works!”

Gulliver could feel the waves rocking him and the pain returning.  He could feel the shoreline receding from him and then he was lost in agony once more.


The second time he became aware of the world around him, he found that he was able to see a little as well as hear.  Emesha’s face looked down on him through a red and blurry mist.

“Oh Gulliver,” she was saying, “you don’t look any better at all!  I’m so sorry…”

He wanted to speak to her, to ask her what was happening, but when he moved his lips all that came out was a tortured moan, echoed, in the distance, by the roar of the Lich.

“You said the Ch’Thari transformed you into your current form in revenge,” Franck was asking in a loud voice to be heard over the creature’s screams, “revenge for what?”

There was another almighty howl of rage and pain and then Emesha’s worried face turned away and the red mist closed in to darkness and the sea of despair.


When he was roused from the deep the third time, things seemed a lot quieter and his own pain more distant, though still present as background noise.  The rocking motion he had interpreted as the waves of his inner sea he now realised were real waves tossing the little boat they had borrowed.

“Here’s the tea you asked for,” Emesha was saying quietly.

“Thank you,” Franck replied with a sigh.

“I heard what it said, that last time,” she continued after the sound of gentle sipping, “do you think it’s true?”

“According to Guggenbrekker, Liches can speak no falsehood, so I suppose it must be.”

“But what does it mean?”

“It means that things may be more difficult than we thought.”

“If it took so many to seal the Ancients away…”

“Indeed.” Franck’s voice was flat.  “That amount of blood sacrifice… it’s unthinkable.”

At the sound of the word blood, Gulliver felt the need within him rising once more.

“Blood,” he said in a voice like an ancient curse.  “I must….must ‘ave blood.”

“Oh, gods!  Franck, he’s waking!”           

“Then we’d better dispose of the remains of the Lich and get him somewhere more secure.”

“There’s a basement in my lodgings,” Emesha said, “I should have all we need there.”

“In the meantime…” there was the sound of something being swept off the floor, then the tinkle of glass.  “give him some of this.  A solution of Lich dust is supposed to be very soporific.”

Gulliver felt his jaws forced open, wanted to bite down hard, but didn’t have the energy, then a cool, salty liquid flooded his mouth and made him want to gag.  A hand pressed over his lips ensured that he swallowed and then the cool, numb ocean swallowed him whole.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

CCXI - Ashfeather

It wasn’t far from Ashvault to Ashfeather as the Slatewing flies, but to get there Sarah, Frostfire and Shadowsmoke had to navigate the ruined districts of Crystalvale and Serpentstreet, that latter so named because all its roads meandered and twisted quite maddeningly around its conglomerations of (now truncated) cylindrical towers, before descending into the rift depression in the shadow of Hallowpeak and Bittercrag in which the district of Ashfeather lay.

It was like a kind of flat-bottomed basin, with the rough, cliff-like sides arising raggedly all around a district of the city which seemed to have sunk below the rest.  From a vantage point atop the northernmost cliffs, Sarah stopped to survey the scene and was surprised by how desolate it looked, even for this mostly-deserted region of Shadow.  The ground was littered in crumbling ruins so ancient that in many places they seemed more like natural rock formations than manmade and between them lay sulphurous pools of steaming water glimmering darkly beneath the ash-clouded sky.

“And this is one of your sacred sites?” she asked, bewildered.

“It’s not much to look at,” Shadowsmoke agreed, “and indeed, like the other feather districts, it’s rarely visited now, but it’s history has formed a part of Stoneskin legend and it is very much revered.”

“It’s hard to believe we’ll find anything of use down there,” Frostfire commented.

“And yet, we must,” the old shaman replied, “for the sake of both our species, I fear.”

“Then let’s just get it over with.”  And, with that, the ornery Spiketail began to climb down the sloping cliff-face into the Ashfeather proper.

Sarah followed after him as quickly as she could.  The cliff was steep and covered in loose rock, which made the going slippery and treacherous, but with the additional balance given to her by her Slayer powers, she managed to make it down without falling, Shadowsmoke clambering down on all fours beside her.  And then began the long trek through the lonely ruins, looking for something, but not knowing what it might be.  Sarah wasn’t even sure Shadowsmoke knew exactly what he was hoping to find.

They wandered between the exposed foundations of what Sarah assumed must have been mansions or palaces – their footprints were enormous!  Every now and then a blackened fragment of wall might survive and, amidst the charring and weathering and accretions of many ages, she could just make out the faint traces of elaborate carving, unlike anything she’d seen elsewhere in Shadow.

“These don’t look human at all,” she said, examining one that actually seemed to resemble a Spiketail.

“Legends say that, for a while at least, Stoneskins and Humans lived side-by-side in Ashfeather, as nowhere else.  These tattered remains tells of what can be achieved during peace.”

“But what happened?  Why is it a ruin now?”

“The peace couldn’t survive the catastrophe that sank the district into this rift.  There was a might earthquake and the air was filled with noxious gas.  Those who survived abandoned the district.  Some even considered it cursed, though my kind never forgot its sacred importance.”

“It all seems so… sad.”

“There isn’t much of Stoneskin history that isn’t,” Shadowsmoke acknowledged with a sigh.  “Our people seem to have been long-doomed to war and misery and so long as we continue to be lead into fights with humans, that will continue to be our story until there are no more of us left, which, I fear, is inevitable unless we can bring about a lasting peace.”

Sarah nodded.  “War is the history of my own world, too.  Humans can’t even seem to be at peace with each other, there.”

“Then, perhaps there is no hope for any of us, but we must try, mustn’t we?”

There seemed no way to respond to that save by tacit agreement, and so the trio continued on through the sulphurous ruins in silence, weaving through ruined streets and alleys, taking long loops to navigate around stinking, flooded avenues and, on one occasion, hauling Frostfire out of a rift in the ground which opened up under his feet with no warning at all.

Eventually, they came in sight of a tall monument which must have once marked the centre of the district.  It was a rough pillar of rock over which appeared to be scrawled some ancient script.  It had developed a slight incline over the years and much of the plaza it had once stood within had since been flooded with hot, caustic water, surrounding the pillar like a moat of rotten eggs.

“Is that what we need?” Sarah asked, holding her nose, as she gazed upon it from the far shore.

“I think so,” Shadowsmoke acknowledged.

“But how are we going to reach it?”

“Ah, well that’s not actually a problem for Frostfire and I,” the old shaman responded, before stepping forward to stand in the gently bubbling water, though Sarah could still see the heat haze above it.

“What about me?”

“Wait here,” Frostfire grunted, before beginning to wade across the water himself.

Sarah stared after them in disbelief and then found a piece of crumbling wall to perch on as she watched, so she was completely oblivious when a shadow loomed up behind her and brought a rough, clawed hand down on her shoulder.

She leapt to her feet, spinning around in an instant and took a stunned second to survey the figure before her.

“Rockspark!?” she exclaimed as the realisation hit her.

“Good evening, Sarah,” said Rockspark.

“What are you doing here?”

“I have a feeling that it’s the same thing as you,” he said calmly.

“I’m not even sure what we’re doing here, to be honest,” Sarah said with a sigh.  “Something about the Feathers, I assume.”

“Something about the Feathers, yes.”

“I assume you’ll be heading over there?”  Sarah glanced over her shoulder to where Shadowsmoke and Frostfire had reached the monument.

Rockspark nodded.  “I can carry you, if you like.”


It was starting to grow dark as Rockspark set Sarah down on solid rock before the leaning stone monument.  This close, she could see that the writing which covered it was unlike anything she’d seen before.

Shadowsmoke must have seen her quizzical gaze, for, without asking, he said, “It’s the ancient writing of the Stoneskins – long forgotten in most places on Shadow.  Even I have trouble reading it.”

“I know what it says,” Rockspark stepped up to run his claws along the carved lines of the characters.  “I have it written on a scroll, recorded a long time ago when all the Feathers still had such a stone standing at the heart of their district.  This is the only one left, I believe.”

“What is it, then?”

“It’s a kind of summoning spell and I’ve come here to perform it.  This is the last one, so Ashfeather has to come.”

“You’re here to summon it?” Shadowsmoke sounded impressed.

“I’ve been trying them all, but none have so far answered my call.”

“That’s not very encouraging.” Sarah observed.

“No.  But there are more of us here.  Perhaps that will make a difference.  Besides, it has to work.”

“Yes,” Shadowsmoke agreed, “perhaps you are right.  Should we get started then?”

Rockspark removed the scroll from his backpack and spread it out at the foot of the monument, then gestured for each of the others to join him in a semi-circle before it.  He sat down cross-legged and the others obeyed.

“We must say it in unison,” he said, gesturing to the text before them, “and we keep repeating it until something happens.”

“How long could that take?” Sarah asked.

“All night perhaps.”

She sighed.  “Alright, let’s just begin.”

Rockspark started to intone the words out and the others picked up the cadence and rhythm as he went along.

“Shadow of the day,

Dust you mould as clay,

Cloud with thunder rumbling,

Mountainsides come tumbling,

Solemn, still of soul

And fragment of the whole:

Ashen one we flee,

Hearken to our plea.

“Wings of dust of grime

Soaring through all time,

Murky mystic one

Whose twilight hour has come,

Dark mirror of our minds,

Threshold of all lines:

The one we call by name,

Please answer to the same:


Sarah hadn’t really expected anything to happen at all, so when there was a tremendous crash of thunder overhead as they uttered the final syllable she nearly jumped out of her skin.

“We continue,” Rockspark said, unperturbed and began reciting the little poem once more, though it took Sarah a moment or two to catch up.

The thunder was even louder the second time and was accompanied by forks of lightning all around the basin of Ashfeater.

“Again,” Rockspark said, louder this time.

Upon the conclusion of this third reading the roll of thunder overhead was so loud that Sarah had to over her ears and the lightning grew so bright that she had to close her eyes as well, only able to open them once the darkness returned and the afterimage, like cracks across her vision, began to fade.

The first thing she saw, as her vision adjusted, was that the stone monument before them had cracked in two from the top to the bottom, so that each side had fallen in its own direction to splash into the caustic water, but far more interesting than that was what lay beyond the cracked stone and it seemed the answer to the question of just what that thing was came to them all at once as they spoke its name in unison one more time.


Sunday, 14 June 2020

CCX - Grotesque Geometries

Ellis was nothing and he was everything.  He could not feel his body, had no sensation of place and self, and yet he had never been more certain about his existence and could feel reality in a way he had never experienced it before.  There was so much sensation, so much information and yet it wasn’t confusing or overwhelming at all.  It felt natural.  He knew everything in this place, everything about this place and all those who shared it.  He understood them all – his companions and those who were here already, waiting.  They were waiting for him, he knew, but that revelation didn’t come as a revelation at all.  Anything he knew in this place was as if he had always known it.  He accepted it all calmly.  It was right and proper and-

Suddenly a different kind of reality broke over him like a wave and he felt crushed by the unknowable weight of it.  The infinite had been compressed into the confines of his flesh, a universe of knowledge and sensation narrowed to the limits of his senses.  He could feel all the things he had known fleeing his mind because there was no longer any space for them all.  Within seconds, only fragments remained: lonely pieces of an impossible jigsaw puzzle.  And in the place of all he had understood mere moments before? Frustration!

It took him a moment to look beyond himself and his inner rage and actually see the strange world into which he had been deposited.  The first thing he noticed was the light.  It was greenish blue and appeared to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.  He certainly couldn’t pinpoint a source and the sky above him, if it even was a sky and not some lofty ceiling, was pitch black.  The strange light illuminated a city which was, in many ways, a reflection of Gihana.  It had the same sense of colliding geometries and Escher-esque logic, only so much more so. If Gihana had seemed impossible, this reality seemed unimaginable.  Buildings seemed to share space with other buildings, to overlap in ways both intimate and oppressive.  At times they seemed to interlock like the intricate links of an endless chain.  At other times they were clashing, fighting for the right to exist in a space they both shared.  And all this in perfect, timeless stillness: both a still life of silent chaos and a symphony of cacophonous order.

And then his companions appeared, one by one beside him.  He didn’t actually see them appear.  They just went from not being there to being there as if they always had been.  They each stood looking dazed and unsure, each, that is, except for Annabella, who immediately met Ellis’ gaze with a meaningful intensity before fading into a familiar frustration.  She too, it seems, was forgetting.

“What in the name of the gods was that?” Nadiyya asked once she had steadied herself.

“It was so confusing,” Siren agreed.  “It felt like my mind was being soaked in information and then wrung out – repeatedly!”

“Then… you didn’t understand it… any of it?” Ellis asked.

“None of it,” Siren confirmed.  “Why, did you?”

“I thought I did…” Annabella added, uncertain.  “I can’t remember now.”

“There are pieces of it left inside me,” Ellis agreed, “but it’s hard to piece them all together.  I know one thing, however,” he added with more certainty, “the Ancients are here, somewhere and they know we’ve arrived.”

“We’d better be ready for them, then,” Siren said,  lifting her sword, “who knows what they might hit us with in this… this place…”

They all needed a moment to take it all in, but Ellis started walking towards the city, following a sloping, curling path over nothing, which looked like it was going downhill, but felt like a climb.  He remembered a road like that in the countryside near Larksborough, where the surrounding hills confused your sense of where the horizon was supposed to be.  Only there was no horizon in this place.  The confusion simply was.

He was halfway down the path before he heard Siren shout, “Hey, Ellis! Wait up!” and had the disorientating experience of looking up at her and down at her at the same time.

The others caught up to him pretty quickly, even as they adjusted to the strange sensations of navigating through this *other* space they had broken into.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Nadiyya asked once Ellis began to lead them down the path once more.

“There’s only one way to go at the moment,” he said, “but, yeah, I think I kinda do, actually.”

“I think I do as well,” added Annabella.  “I think know where they’re waiting for us.”

“Are we sure we want to go there, then?” Siren asked.

“That’s what we came here for, isn’t it?  To learn about the Ancients.”

“But if they’re waiting for us then… I just don’t want to walk into a trap.”

“Ii doubt we’ll have any choice either, way,” said Ellis as he stepped off the path and into the contradictory cityscape, “it looks like there’s only one way to go."

Indeed, for all of the unhinged geometry and colliding architectural concrescence, there did only seem to be one path through the chaos, as if the city itself was leading them on towards some preordained destination.  Ellis shrugged and began to follow it, with the others tagging along silently behind.


They passed the doorways into buildings, where everything seemed to twist around inside itself so that a doorway on the opposite side might open out onto a world flipped over.  They stepped into the shadows of leaning stairways ejected from their towers, wafted through the ghosts of other streets they could not follow, were showered with light from fountains which hung above them.

“This place is very unsettling,” Siren said into the silence, “and I feel like I’m being watched.”

“You almost certainly are,” said Annabella quite calmly.  “I think they are rather fascinated by us.”

“But when are they going to show themselves!?” Nadiyya demanded, her hands twitching towards the blades on her belt.

“When we get where they want us to be,” said Ellis.

“And just where might that be?  What kind of trap have they set for us?”

“That one, I imagine,” Ellis said, pointing along the narrowing path between buildings which seemed to shimmer in resonance with each other to a sort of plaza beyond – one very like the one in Gihana, full of monuments and things like the portals they had come through, only so much more so.

“They are waiting,” Annabella said, suddenly sounding impatient and refusing to stop as the others had.  “We mustn’t disappoint them.”  She walked through the urban crevasse and into a bright, aquamarine light somewhere beyond.

“Is she alright?” Siren asked, worried, then, glancing at Ellis, who still stood staring calmly ahead, “Are you?”

“Some of the pieces of the puzzle lie ahead,” he said.  “I need them more than I thought I ever would.”  And with that he began to walk the same path as Annabella, the light surging around him until he, and the plaza they had seem, were lost in it.

“I don’t like this at all,” Siren muttered.

“You and me both!”

“Glad we could agree on something, but what are we going to do about it?”

They stared in silence at the sea of blue-green light ahead of them, then Siren shrugged.

“I guess I’m going in,” she said, drawing her cutlass, “but I’ll be damned if I’m doing so unprepared.”

Nadiyya drew her blades.  “Of course,” she said and, together, they marched into the light.