CatastrophicFailure

Revelations of the Kraken (Chapter 37: Fire)

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Next chapter continues to make slow but steady progress. At 6000 words and very much counting, it shall be an infodump of epic proportions! Almost like compressing an entire novel series into a single chapter... :ph34r: And possibly a discombobulated mess.

In other news... the wife & I came across this... she couldn't figure out why I couldn't stop laughing... :confused:

Spoiler

C03qL7T.jpg

Apparently she's some sort of deity... :o

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All things serve the Beam - often in somewhat oblique ways. :)

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On 4/14/2019 at 10:50 PM, CatastrophicFailure said:

Next chapter continues to make slow but steady progress. At 6000 words and very much counting, it shall be an infodump of epic proportions! Almost like compressing an entire novel series into a single chapter... :ph34r: And possibly a discombobulated mess.

In other news... the wife & I came across this... she couldn't figure out why I couldn't stop laughing... :confused:

  Reveal hidden contents

C03qL7T.jpg

Apparently she's some sort of deity... :o

yes, and she is the goddess of  something we cant talk about without violating rule 2.2

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39 minutes ago, insert_name said:

yes, and she is the goddess of  something we cant talk about without violating rule 2.2

So you’re saying... this, we do not speak of? ;)

All things serve the Beam indeed. :confused:

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Posted (edited)

uhhh..... is it inappropriate to ask how the next infodump is coming along?

this is just a disguised moar? i realize....

Edited by qzgy

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Of COURSE it's inappropriate!.... Do it again!

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30 minutes ago, qzgy said:

uhhh..... is it inappropriate to ask how the next infodump is coming along?

this is just a disguised moar? i realize....

Off to editing. :D At about 8700 words. And likely to grow.  :confused:

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T minus 1300 and counting.

 

Set insanity to 6000 and watch the clock people. 

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4 hours ago, Patupi said:

T minus 1300 and counting.

Set insanity to 6000 and watch the clock people. 

*taps dial*

Sir - it's under 9000! But only just.

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19 hours ago, KSK said:

*taps dial*

Sir - it's under 9000! But only just.

*Atrocious Scottish Brogue engaged* Bu Captine, She cannae tae nae more. She gonna blow! *Atrocious Scottish Brogue disengaged*

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This thread is not dead. Something Wicked(ly long) this way comes. :sealed:

...with apologies to the Ghost of Robert Jordan... :ph34r:

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Twice the size of a regular chapter and well worth the wait!

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I am the author, dream up your pain,
Drink as did Bacchus, rebel just like Cain.
Lord of the city, I shall remain,
All pandemonium, I shall reign.
Sit in my fortress, up on my hill,
Drinking the wine, 'til I've had my fill,
Building up high, my castle walls,
Oh, to veil my splendid fall.

Chapter 36: Balance

Edgas Kerman drifted in nothingness, void and without form. His mind ebbed and flowed, amorphous, vacillating between a great multitude of permutations as it struggled to comprehend the realities it now bore witness to. 

The chair was just that comfy. 

He was vaguely aware that is mind was still struggling to comprehend the much more real reality it had borne witness to in the last couple of hours, that of mystical lost cities, crowns and scepters (or was it a staff?), angels and devils, kin and Kinslayer, dust... wind... dude...

Wait, what?

Valentina was looking at him with concern, “are you... feeling alright?”

Why yes, he meant to say, I feel just grand, this cathartic cathedra has borne my burdens away on eagles’ wings, I’ve a peaceful, easy feeling, I am one with everything like a bodhi hot dog with all the fixings.

What came out was more like, “kOo k0o k@çhOo.”

“Bless yew,” said Roland.

“It’s spelt with a G,” said Burdous. 

“¥əLL0w süßmærínə,” said Edgas. 

Which somehow seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to say at the time. 

Dibella came over and pressed the back of her hand to his head, “he... is a bit feverish, but not to the point of delirium. I think, perhaps, lack of sleep and not eating are finally catching up to him.”

“Here, let me try something,” Valentina reached for his arm and—

“GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”

Edgas jumped back and nearly fell out of the very comfy chair, suddenly very aware, and cradling his arm, “Jiminy Cricket, are you tryin' to pull my skin off?!?

“Who is Jiminy Cricket?” Valentina said defensively, “besides, am big sister now, means I get to give you Gytepi burns.”

“What??” Edgas gawped back.

“She’s right, bro, she can do that,” Burdous nodded. 

“Quite so,” Dibella agreed with him, “it’s elder sibling privilege.”

Edgas could only stare back and forth between the three of them. In the end, he just stuck his tongue out at Valentina. 

And... about this point... remembered the Empress that was staring at them. She just... stared, her face giving away no hint of anything, stoic and calm. And yet, somehow it made Edgas feel more ridiculous by the moment with his tongue lolling out. He quickly withdrew it and sat up straight in his chair. 

Or... as straight as he could while the chair tried to swallow him again into pillowy softness. 

The Empress kept staring at them with that unnerving serenity. She smoothed her dress, arranged the fringed shawl about her shoulders, straightened the braid of pale hair cast over one of them, and adjusted the lacy, golden tiara on her head. 

At length, she spoke, “for millennia, there have been those born among the Kermanni who were... different. They posses a sixth sense, of sorts, an innate ability to touch an energy Source unlike any other...”

Burdous nudged Edgas, “note the big S, that’s probably important.”

Edgas frowned at him. Then Dibella frowned at him. Then the Empress frowned at him, and he sat back and at least looked abashed. 

She continued, “those who can touch the Source can learn how to manipulate its Powers, channel them, if you will. The Kermanni came to call this ability, the Spark. The Source is the driving force behind Creation, the impetus that turns the Great Wheels of reality, the Infinity of Ages for the infinity of worlds.”

“That sounds ridiculous,” Edgas huffed. 

“I think she’s being a bit metaphorical,” Burdous frowned at him. 

“That’s not how the universe works!” Edgas threw his hands up, then scowled back at Burdous, “I would expect you, a guy with multiple science and physics PhDs, to have a little more skepticism.”

“And I would expect you, a guy who once faced down an eldritch abomination from beyond reality—and punched it in the face—to be a little more open minded!” Burdous shot back, “I left my skepticism in a gooey red puddle back in that field, so for now I’ll give the pretty lady with the sparkly necklace and the creepy old guy the benefit of the doubt.”

Edgas opened his mouth, but Burdous raised a hand, “now, I know what you’re gonna say, and yes, it is logical to consider that I am, actually, still back in that field, and this whole thing is just an elaborate hallucination brought on as a few dying neurons fire off at random from the last dregs of oxygen in my blood, so instead of my life flashing before my eyes, I get you guys—“

He turned to the Empress, “that’s... not what’s actually happening, right?

She seemed to give this great consideration for a moment, “I would say no, but in such case I am just a part of your dying hallucination, so my counsel really matters little.”

Burdous’s face fell. 

“But I do find that very unlikely.”

He smacked Edgas’s shoulder, “there, ya see?”

Edgas just groaned, “that’s not how it works at all! The universe is driven by gravity, mostly. And heat. And physics. And-and-and empirical, measurable, sciencey... science!”

“Perhaps you have heard this phrase, yes?” the Empress said, “‘half of the universe is missing?’”

“Oh, yeah,” Burdous answered for him, “but that’s just referring to dark energy and dark matter, which are really just placeholder names until we discover G̷̮̀̐Ġ̶̗͙͠G̶͓͍̒̕g̸̠͍̍̏g̶̠̎̌G̸̼̲̎g̷͓̙̽G̵̺̙͒G̵̬͝g̶̹̺̈́̈́g̵̳͗r̷͕̕a̶̧͎̿͠ṁ̴̘â̴͒͜l̵͕̗͐̚a̶̼̳͒m̵̰̻̄̌ȃ̷̡d̵̡̼̾̋i̶̖͊̌n̶̼̤͊̆g̸̩̔̔d̷͔̑͝o̷̥̼͋͘n̴̥̭̈́ǵ̵̱͝

 

 

BURDOUS.EXE HAS STOPPED WORKING
ABORT RETRY IGNORE?

 

 

Edgas stared at the Empress. 

The Empress stared at Edgas. Her face was maddeningly as blank as a statue, but perhaps... with just the shadow of a smirk. 

Meanwhile, Dibella poked at a frozen Burdous, “I think he’s having a stroke...”

“That is not even funny!” Valentina railed, “why do you keep making stroke jokes??”

Edgas peered over, “no, I think maybe he is having a stroke.”

“Hmm,” Dibella frowned, and began digging in her purse, “I think I have some StrokeAway™️ in here somewhere...”

“Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”

Three pairs of eyes swung to the Empress. 

“That seems to fix a great many things these days,” she said. 

“Yes, good point,” Dibella put a hand to her chin, “I’ll need a blunt object.”

“Here, try this,” Roland handed her his cane. 

“Oh, my, this is so well balanced for a thing shaped like it is!”

WHAM!

“J̷̞̓a̵̺͒ĭ̶̞ ̵͕͗ḡ̸̟u̶͎̓r̵̪̄ŭ̴͍ ̶̙̐d̶͂͜e̷̲̚v̸̯̏ȁ̷̡ ̷̬͊ő̶̱m̷͝ͅ!̴̜͗”

“Great, you reset the default language, too,” Edgas rolled his eyes, “probably need to jump the CMOS now.”

Dibella returned to her purse, “I think I have pliers...”

Valentina pointed, “no, look...”

 

BurdBIOS Revision 1138 (C)
Press L EYE to run SETUP
Starting MS-DERP...

TinyFIRM®️ PORTALS®️ 3.1
(C)
All Rights Denied****

 

Huh...” Edgas mused, scratching at the back of his head, “and all this time, I figured him for a UNIX guy...”

Burdous shook his head... and made an odd little ‘ta-da!’ sound, “you... you mean this Source is... dark energy??” he said to the Empress. 

She merely fixed him with that unchanging stoic gaze, and gave a little shrug, “I am perhaps not qualified to say, I really have little knowledge of such things.”

Edgas was sure he saw a twinkle in her eye. 

There was no denying the stars in Burdous’s own, however, “wooowwwww...”

“This is silly!” Edgas frowned at the googly-eyed Burdous, “there’s no such thing as magic!”

Burdous stopped googling and glared at him, then pressed a hand to his face, “oh, for the love of— why are we even still having this argument?!” He turned to the Empress, and flashed his most winning smile. 

Slightly less smoldery.

Hi,” he said, “could you do the thing again, like with the water last night?”

She eyed him a moment, but touched the münstone at her neck... and the contents of his teacup rose up into the air. 

“You see this?? This right here?” he waved his hands at the floating tea blob, “I don’t understand how this is or why this is, but it quite plainly is. This is as empirical as it gets!” 

He leaned over and slurped some, “that’s very good, by the way, Keylon greenleaf?”

“Kar-jheng Private Reserve,” the Empress nodded. 

Burdous considered this thoughtfully for a moment, nodded, then swung back to Edgas, “can we at least agree that this is actually happening, and therefore it’s not magic?”

Edgas just crossed his arms and grumbled something. 

After eying them both, the Empress seemed to glance around the room. The little blob of tea began revolving in a wide circle, stretching out. Then a wisp of fire from a candle joined it. Steam from the kettle, some dirt from a potted plant across the room... all turning as if a wheel in mid air. And yet, something seemed to be missing. 

“Five Powers, from the One,” the Empress explained, “Air and Water, Fire and Earth, and—“

“Wait, it’s not Heart, is it?”

She frowned at Burdous.

“I’m gonna be really disappointed if the fifth one’s called Heart,” he seemed to be examining something unpleasant under his finger nail, “what kind of lame power is Heart, anyway?”

The frown deepened just a bit, then something split the air with a loud crack

“YEOUWCH!” Burdous shot up out of his chair, rubbing his backside, “ai, yai yai, that stings!”

“It is called Spirit,” the Empress glared at him, “and it saved your life.”

“Oh,” Burdous at least had the decency to look abashed. Again. He sat down quickly, “well, that’s much better. I guess I can live with that.”

”Four elements,” Dibella said thoughtfully, “like the four Alchemical Elements, from before the Enlightenment?”

A nod, “where do you think those first alchemists got the idea? The Kermanni have been the keepers of many secrets, since the time of the Roamin’s, and perhaps beyond,” the Empress nodded to Roland, “you may recognize this.”

He took something wrapped in cloth from his pocket, and casually tossed it to Edgas. Edgas gave him a suspicious eye before pulling back the cloth...

Where did you get this?!” he blurted out, dumbfounded. 

“Took it off some wiley-haired loon not long ago,” Roland said, “but where he acquired it, he couldn’t say,” and eyed Edgas right back, “and I can be most persuasive when the need arises.”

Edgas frowned back, but looked down at the object in his hands. Objects. He unwrapped them carefully, all too aware of the razor sharp edge that could score titanium. He traced a finger opposite the broken, jagged edge, over the angular, alien characters that somehow spelled words in his own language.

That is not dead which can eternal lie.

Not really thinking, he fit the shattered edges of the two pieces together, forming a disc of pure white the size of his hand. Perfectly smooth, yet reflecting no light. He looked up at the other two.

“You know what this is,” not a question. 

Roland and the Empress glanced at each other, then Roland fished the figurine of the sitting, oddly proportioned fat kerb from his pocket. He stared at the disc in Edgas’s hands...

For a moment, just a moment, Edgas thought he felt an odd sort of... buzzing sensation, but that was quickly washed away as something on the items in his hands... shifted. Before his eyes, half of the pure white disc first darkened and then turned night-black, with a matte texture and yet gleaming, as if in perfect mirror of the other side. 

But not... perfectly in half. 

Or... was it?

Edgas squinted down at the light and the darkness, the two parts of the disc divided at a sinuous, S-shaped border. He traced a finger along the line, each side a wide semicircle nestled against a sharp point. 

“The Blade, and the Tear,” the Empress said, “the last sigul of an ancient society, older even than the Roamin’s.”

Edgas stared down at the thing in his hands, “how did you just..?”

“There was a ward knit on it,” Roland explained, as if that made sense, “to disguise it. Like the one that let your old friend read the writing on the edge.”

His eyes flicked up, but only for a moment, “they made this? These ancients? But... this came from the Mün... or Minmus, or...”

“No,” the Empress said, “that is far older than even them. They have been called the Successors by some, you may know them by the temple they left in the desert of Gerin.”

“Successors to... who?” Valentina leaned in. 

“No one knows. All that remains of them is the deepest levels of that buried temple, and this symbol. Some have said their reign in this world was ended by some great cataclysm, long before the rise of the Roamin’ Empire.”

Edgas turned the disc over in his hands, mumbling to himself, “I swear I’ve seen this symbol before...”

“No doubt you have. Like many other siguls, it is perhaps as old as Time itself,” the Empress explained, “in some ways, a depiction of Reality itself, and of the critical balance that binds it together.”

“How do you mean?” Dibella asked. 

“The Source is limitless, but divided in two halves, you may think of them as male and female. Opposite, and yet complimentary.”

“Wait, what?” Burdous perked up, “that’s weird, how would that matter?”

The Empress cocked an eye... bulge at him, “in case you had never noticed, boys and girls are different.”

Burdous looked down, blushing fiercely. But then a thoughtful cast drew over him. 

She continued, “the two halves of the Source work in cooperation and opposition, attracting and repelling, creating the force that drives the Great Wheel of All Realities upon its dark, towering axle.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“That actually makes sense.

Burdous and Edgas looked at each other, “wwaaiitt, wwhhaatt??

Burdous shook his head, “I’m not so sure about this whole ‘wheel’ idea, but what she’s describing is an electric motor. Two different magnetic poles alternately attracting and repelling each other to do work. We know dark energy is somehow connected to the accelerating expansion of the universe, and maybe even the Local Cosmic Density Paradox.  I think...” he shrugged, then looked at the Empress, “we’re using different words but maybe speaking the same language. And you can manipulate this energy source directly?”

A nod, “yes.”

He glanced to Roland, “and so can you?”

“Quite so.”

“And it’s the same thing?”

“Yes, but also different,” the Empress said. 

“Hmm,” Burdous put a thoughtful hand to his chin, nodding just slightly, as if that were the most profound thing he’d ever heard, “I guess there really are two sides to every Schwartz.”

“What?”

“What?”

“What?”

“Nevermind. Just something I once heard from my father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.”

“What?”

“What?”

“What?”

“Long story.”

Dibella brandished the frying pan in his direction, then turned to the Empress, “how could such a thing be kept a secret for so long? Surely there must have been thousands... of... these...”

Chelyaad,” she said. 

Dibella’s brow pinched down, “the... Servants?”

Another nod, “the word has survived into Modern Ussari virtually unchanged. A reminder, perhaps, that with great power, comes great responsibility. To whom much has been given,” the Empress glanced at Edgas, “much will be asked. At one time, long ago now, the word referred only to those who had been properly trained and permitted the use of the Source. In more recent times, it simply meant those in whom the Spark had manifested.”

Again Dibella’s brow crinkled, “‘permitted...’ But if  such a thing is inborn, how could its use even be controlled?”

"Chelyaad can sense each other, even the unmanifested Spark in each other, and also its strength. But a Chelyaad cannot touch the Source unaided. Something is needed to begin the connection, an access key, of sorts,” the Empress held up the deep blue münstone at her neck, “they are called grail.”

Dibella and Valentina shared a look, “münstones are these... grail?” Valentina asked. 

“Not all of them. Quite few, in truth. A grail can be nearly anything, and do many things. Most are access keys like this, and most of those are also ‘amplifiers’ of a sort, allowing a Chelyaad to channel more of the Source than they otherwise could. Yet some of them are very different, with very specific purposes, and of those, some are even able to be used by anyone. 

She turned, and cast a thoughtful eye on Valentina, "like the one you wear beneath your shirt.

Valentina’s shot wide. She looked to Dibella, who seemed equally as surprised. 

"I can sense grail, and occasionally discern what they do," explained the Empress, her face revealing nothing more,  "it is a Talent.”

“Note the big T,” Burdous poked Edgas in the ribs, “thats probably important.” Edgas scowled back at him. 

The Empress gave them both a nearly imperceptible frown, but held out a hand to Valentina, “may I?”

Finding no answers from Dibella, Valentina shrugged, undid the clasp around her neck and handed her Münstone to the Empress. 

She turned the jewel over in her hands, ran a thumb over the face, held it up to the light, “this setting is titanium, yes? Very durable, and quite striking.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Dibella little more than mumbled, “it was in my family for a very long time, the original setting is lost to the ages I suppose.”

“Indeed,” the Empress nodded to herself, as if expecting the answer.  She cradled the stone in her cupped hands, staring down at it very intently, her eyes making subtle little motions as if seeing something no one else could. 

Her gaze did not break as she spoke, “this, is a Seeing Stone. Very rare. You have had visions perhaps, yes? The past... the future... strange dreams you cannot understand...”

Valentina stared back in amazement, “yes... maybe... I do not know...”

“And something more...” the Empress perhaps did not hear, “something I am not familiar with... a great force indeed forged this stone, more so than any Chelyaad I have heard of...” she gave a little jerk, then the slightest shake of her head. She handed the Münstone back to Valentina, “courage of the heart is very rare, this stone has a power... when it’s there.”

“It... does..?” Valentina gaped down at it. 

“Indeed,” the Empress said, “and it has been protecting you, I think, though how, I am not sure. But one thing is for certain, it likes you.”

“Is... alive?” Valentina fumbled and nearly dropped it, looking mortified. 

“Grail are not alive, but some of them have... a kind of will. They can be quite... possessive of those they consider their own.”

Valentina just sat speechless, staring at the jewel in her hands.

Then the Empress waved a hand around the room, “everything on these shelves is a grail. I have been... collecting them, these past few years, ever since things... changed,” she cast her eyes over the others, silence stretching out to the edge of discomfort, as if prodding them. The four rose together, then dispersed to the bespectacled shelves lining the walls. 

There seemed to be little organization, Edgas thought, as he looked over one shelf full of jewelry. It struck him a bit odd to see gold and silver, often speckled with jewels, just laying out on a shelf like this, but he somehow gleaned that nothing about this room was as it seemed. Mixed in with the precious metals were crafts of far simpler make, as well. Necklaces of bone, bracelets of copper and animal horn sat next to a small fortune. Here was a simple stone brooch, and there was...

With a quick glance back to the Empress, he picked up a shiny polished ring forged from patterned steel. It otherwise didn’t... look remarkable, or feel, remarkable, or...

“That is an access key for a kerb,” Roland said, “but a fairly unremarkable one.”

Edgas frowned. Turning aside just a bit, and feeling quite ridiculous, despite himself he closed his eyes, slipped it on, and tried to feel...

Nothing. He had felt his share of... unusual sensations, but this seemed like just an ordinary, if quite striking, ring. 

And he could certainly feel the eyes of the other two boring into the back of his neck. He gave an annoyed little grunt, and moved on to the next shelf. 

This one was covered in... well, he wasn’t quite sure what they were. Abstract forms of every description lay before him. A rather plain-looking rod of pure white. A three-pointed star in a ring made of pitted metal. Something that looked like a golden cast of a melted face. And...

He poked at it. It looked like a very large, clunky flashlight, broken in half. And just behind it was a thin, black skullcap with a pair of big black discs jutting from it. He picked this new thing up...

...And quickly set it down again. 

He felt a great unease, like a disturbance, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror... and were suddenly silenced. Somewhere, somewhen, he feared something terrible had happened. Edgas stared down at the dark headgear in disgust. Surely, this was a thing of incredible greed and corruption and... princesses?

He gave a little half-turn, and saw the Empress still staring at him, the intensity in her eyes belying her serene face. He thought of raising the question, but before he could, Burdous cried out. 

“Whoah!” he hefted something from another shelf, “talk about your hand cannon!”

Cannonical it certainly seemed. It was a massive, almost comically large revolver, with deep, patinated engravings on the metalwork and heavily worn grips of light colored wood. The bore was as big as his thumb. 

“You should not play with guns!” Valentina snatched it away before said thumb could be shot off, checking to see it was unloaded. She set it carefully back on the shelf. 

Edgas frowned their way, but kept toddling along the shelves. Here, was a collection of rather ordinary-looking items—utensils, hair clips, buttons. There, was a haphazard pile of gleaming knives and other edged weapons. He picked one up carefully. Like the ring, it was forged from patterned steel, and while the leather-wrapped grip was worn and faded and obviously not original, the blade looked absolutely flawless. He thought of running a thumb along the edge to test it, then thought the better. 

“Sharper than any knife you’ll ever encounter again,” Roland said without quite looking at him, “and you can beat it against concrete ‘til you’re blue in the face and it will never dull.”

Once again, Edgas’s question was overruled by a squeal from Burdous.

“I’ve found it! At long last, I’ve found it!” he cried out in a loud voice, “my noble quest is at an end!”

“What are you going on about now?” Edgas rolled his eyes.

Burdous thrust aloft a hand-sized object that seemed to be filled with large voids, rather like a certain kind of cheese, if it were painted red and all sparkly.

“I’ve found the Holey Grail!”

Edgas buried his face in his hands. 

“I would put that back if I were you,” the Empress said, a bare hint of alarm creeping into her voice. 

“Why? What’s it gonna do, blow me up?” Burdous casually tossed it from hand to hand, “some kind of hokey hand grenade?”

Roland and the Empress looked at each other, “well, no, not exactly,” Roland said, “but it does seem to summon a most unpleasant rabbit.”

Burdous’s eyes suddenly popped wide. He very carefully set the thing back on the shelf, and then just for good measure, gave it a gentle push to the back as well. 

With a loud groan, and beginning to wonder what exactly the point of all this was, Edgas moved on. He found a detailed globe in a carved wooden stand, bearing a landmass he did not recognize. On the wall above was a projection map of a world the color of Duna, but also swathed in blue and green. An old walking stick was propped up next to the two. 

Before he could contemplate any further, Dibella spoke. 

“Wait, I know this,” she held a small, green statuette in her hand, “I have seen this before. This is a harvest icon from pre-Roamin Delain, I remember it from an old textbook. It must be thousands of years old!”

The Empress said nothing, offering only a slight nod. 

Dibella frowned, “Your Majesty, have these... items always been in the Crown’s possession?” 

“Some of them,” another slight nod, “for a very long time indeed. The others, I have been gathering since the fall of the Imperium, with Roland’s help.

Dibella looked all around the room before turning back to the Empress, “but... there are so many...”

“This is but a bare fraction of what still lies beneath the Sacred Waters in Arstotzka. For a thousand years, the Kermanni were the keepers of these secrets and countless others. But even before... the end, their strength had begun to wane.”

“I don’t follow,” Dibella said, returning to her seat. And glaring at the others when they dallied in following. 

“Not all Chelyaad can draw upon the Source with the same strength,” the Empress explained, “I am... not considered strong by any measure, even in these times. But if even a fraction of the Legends are true, the Chelyaad of Ages past could do wondrous things,” she turned to Valentina, “you were indeed correct that the city was in no danger even from the vast army of Ivan Grozny. The Ashan'shoufa who were sworn to protect the walls were warriors without equal. Even without the Staff, they could have swept the army away like the buzzing of flies. 

“But the last Tamyrlin was wise enough to see that the final hour of Arstotzka had come to an end,” her eyes fell, “and now the final hour of the Kermanni was at hand.”

“How do you mean?” asked Dibella. 

“The Prophecies had always hinted at a coming time of decline, the ‘Waning’ it was called. No one remembers what sort of life the Kermanni had, cloistered behind their walls, but it was surely a more agreeable one than that of nomads, charged to wander a land that was not their own, outcast and forgotten but alive. The Tamyrlin saw that using the Source to wreak destruction to protect its secret was no longer sustainable, that the Servants themselves must diminish, and eventually fade away.”

Dibella raised an eye... bulge, “fade away?”

Another nod, “only a very few among the Kermanni are ever born with the Spark. At the beginning of the Exile, it was perhaps two or three in a hundred. By the time the Ussari Empire reached its height a few hundred years ago, it had become perhaps one in a thousand. When the Troubles began, even that number had dwindled to only a bare handful among the entire population. And each new generation of Chelyaad, with few exceptions, grew weaker in the Source than the one that came before. Only the line of the Imperial monarchs maintained some of the strength of old, still weakened by ever fewer who had been fully trained in its use. We have seen the end coming for a very long time, even if there is no sense to it. But such is the nature of these times.”

“It makes perfect sense.”

All eyes snapped to Burdous. 

Again. 

For his part, Burdous only studied the floor with great intent, hunched over in his seat, fingers steepled before his face and just touching his lips. 

“I beg your pardon?” the Empress eyed him. 

“The Spark... is it genetic?” he did not look up, “um, hereditary?”

She considered him a moment longer before speaking, “to an extent. Parents who are not Chelyaad cannot produce a progeny who is, yet even if both are strong with the Spark, there is no guarantee the offspring will be, or possess the trait at all.”

“Hmm,” Burdous kept staring at the floor, “and all this time, the Ussari Emperor or Empress was a Chelyaad, with all the, er, privileges there of...” He didn’t seem to be speaking to anyone in particular. 

Dibella made a little noise, and raised a hand to her mouth, “that... does make a certain historical sense...”

“And people could occasionally leave the wagons,” Burdous rambled to the carpet, “like Ed and Val’s parents... but what about the Chelyaad themselves?” One eye popped up, “could one of them leave, if they wanted?” then back to the floor, “I can’t see keeping a person like that a lifelong prisoner in a group of nomads...”

“Er, yes,” the Empress seemed to stumble a bit, “there are... ways a Chelyaad may be severed from the Source. Permanently. But the after-effects are... unpleasant... and eventually fatal.”

Burdous gave a disinterested nod, “what about outsiders? Could someone not of Kermanni blood join the wagons? Become Kermanni?”

“Certainly not!” her chin rose just a bit. 

Another bare hint of acknowledgment. Burdous stared down at the floor, through the floor, quite possibly through the entire planet. 

And stared. 

And stared. 

And stared. 

“Well?!” Roland finally spat, “you fawning, onion-eyed puttock! Was there any point to all that?”

Burdous glanced up, as if just realizing he was there, “isn’t it obvious?”

Ten eyes stared back. 

He frowned at them, “familial homogenization.” 

Ten eyes stared back. 

He frowned more, looking from one to the other, “loss of heterozygosity? Reduced allele variability leading to increased susceptibility to demographic stochastic events, like redheads in Gednalna.”

Ten eyes blinked at him. 

Burdous raised a hand to his face, letting out an annoyed grunt, “look, what you’ve got is an isolated, insular population—genetically diverse enough to maintain a healthy gene pool, for the most part—but with this other factor. There’s some biological aspect to this Source affinity, I don’t know what it is but I don’t need to. If you looked at it on a graph, you’d see peaks and troughs— your powerful Chelyaad, your not so powerful Chelyaad, and then the normies... people who actually do have this biological factor but it’s below some threshold, too low to detect.”

The Empress and Roland’s eyes grew wide, and they looked at each other. 

Burdous didn’t seem to notice, “now, over time, a few people leave, and in their genetic lines the factor just gets diluted until it really is gone, biologically. But in the main population, with no new genetic material coming in, everything just sort of stagnates. The peaks become lower and lower, the Chelyaad less powerful, the normies get a little more of it, as a group, but it’s so distributed it’s still way below the threshold. The Imperial bloodline remained powerful because it wasn’t pure.”

More blinking. 

Burdous downright scowled this time, “oh, come on, guys, it’s not rocket science! Whatever this factor is, outside blood is crucial to maintaining it. It has to be kept in balance. The Kermanni were essentially breeding the Spark out of themselves, even though by the end they all had some minuscule measure of it!”

Now all eyes grew wide, but Dibella outpaced them all with a gasp, raising a hand to her mouth, “that’s why they did it. They knew. Somehow, they found a way to know.”

Then it was Burdous’s turn to blink, “wait, what?”

“The Imperium. That is why they committed the worst genocide the world has ever known. Somehow, they discovered how to detect this... factor, like a blood type. Maybe it is as simple as a blood type, the Kermanni did not exactly embrace modern medicine, or modern... anything. The Imperium discovered the Kermanni’s secret, discovered how to detect it, that all Kermanni carried it... and then slaughtered them out of fear,” she looked at the Empress, “didn’t they?”

“No. Not fear.”

Eyes turned to Valentina. 

“Not fear. Control,” she stared at the same patch of floor that had so captivated Burdous, “control is all that has ever mattered to such as they. If it cannot be controlled, it must be destroyed. How?” she looked up at the Empress, “you can do great things. More than we know. Your Grandfather, the last Emperor, could do even more, no? Even if he could not sweep armies aside like this Tamyrlin, surely with his power and all the might of the Empire behind him, he could repel a band of angry peasants. How could the Revolution even happen? How could such as him, such as you, be led about by the Imperium like a... a... a dog on a leash?”

The Empress’s hands, a moment ago folded calmly in her lap, tensed, one even curling into a fist. The features of her ever-serene face somehow seemed to soften and grow icy at once. Her throat twitched, and just above her lower lip trembled. 

Then Roland laid a hand on her shoulder, and to Edgas’s surprise she reached up and squeezed it. 

Her eyes fixed on Valentina with a new fury, like a polar storm barely held behind a fragile window pane, and the younger kerbelle shrank back before the torrent. 

Yet, it did not seem directed at her.

“There are those who have said, that my Grandfather, the Emperor, was devious: that he wanted revolution, thinking he could contain and guide it, and use it to weaken and remove his political rivals. Others said he was arrogant, that he did not even believe there was a revolution, or it was of no concern. Others still, that he he believed his own reforms could not go far enough, and true upheaval was the only way to bring about meaningful change.”

Her eyes slipped from Valentina, again touching on everyone else in the room, “but whatever is the truth, my Grandfather delayed in acting, until it was too late. By then he had lost not only the allegiance of the people, but of much of the Army as well, and his political rivals were quick to set upon what they perceived as weakness.

“When the revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace, perhaps my Grandfather thought he could just slip away, avoid conflict in Kermangrad and regroup in Kernobyl. He certainly had,” her eyes cast about the room, “resources at his disposal. But this Vladimir Kermin had, as you say,” and landed on Edgas, “done his homework.”

She looked to a wall, and a book floated from it, settling on a table before the group. A page flipped open, “you know these, yes?”

The look on the other two kerbelle’s faces told Edgas they did indeed. He peered down at the three pictures, and did not see anything unusual. At the bottom, the Empress stood with the eight members of the Imperium in an official-looking State photograph. At the top, he recognized Emperor Nicholas II, her grandfather, standing with a different eight. The kerbelle in the middle one he had only the vaguest recollection of, some flash of memory from an old history documentary. Alexandra I, daughter to Nicholas, mother to the current Empress. 

They all seemed... different. Different styles of dress, different decor in the room behind, even the varying fuzziness of the ever-older photographs. And yet, his scientist’s brain kept nagging at him, begging him to see some obvious detail his eyes were somehow missing, something that connected the three—

“Those rings,” Burdous’s brow crinkled as he leaned down closer, “the black rings those seffleks are all wearing... and... and that gem around your—“ 

Horrified understanding dawned on his face. He slumped back in his seat, eyes darting back and forth between the page and the kerbelle sitting across from it. Edgas saw a slew of unfamiliar emotions run across his friend’s face, a hand drawing up to his neck. 

Beside him, Valentina would no longer meet the Empress’s gaze, but her mouth was a thin, pale, tightly pressed line. Dibella looked outright ill. 

Edgas again looked at the pictures, and he saw

Each of the Imperium members wore a wide black ring on their index finger. In fact, they all stood specifically so that all the rings could be seen, immortalized on photopaper. Around the Empress’s neck was a münstone, its color faded with the aged picture, hanging on a short chain from a tight necklace he knew to be called a... choker. Her mother wore the same stone. And her grandfather...

Edgas felt his own stomach wrench and then clamp down, as understanding he knew was incomplete but no less horrible for it passed over him like waves of nausea. 

“Vladimir Kermin,” the Empress said, “had found his own grail.”

“A thing most foul,” Roland spat, “no doubt Crafted in the very darkest bowel of the Ninth Hell,” then actually spat. It vanished before hitting the floor. 

“Any Chelyaad who wears the collar is bound to the rings,” explained the Empress, “once all eight are worn, they grant the bearers collective control over the unfortunate soul. Eight rings to rule the one.

“It does not grant control of the mind, but the leashed one cannot touch the Source without the ringbearers’ consent, cannot channel anything they do not wish or resist channeling anything they do. They can make the person feel any sensation. Pain. Pleasure. And the leashed cannot touch the collar with even a thought of removing it without being overcome by sickness. It is a prison from which there is no escape, and history would have been much different if those old goats had realized even a fraction of the power they controlled.” 

“But, could not someone else take it off?” Valentina looked up at Roland, “surely the Emperor had his own... retainers? Servants? Or..?”

He and the Empress shared a look, “indeed, he did. The Ashmanni. Protectors of the Kermanni, conservators to the Throne, and successors of the Ashan'shoufa who once guarded the walls of Arstotzka itself.”

“Yes, but,” Valentina persisted, “if he had guards, why did they not, well, guard him?”

“No one knows,” the Empress said, “I was... too young, at the time, to understand much, and my mother never told me afterward. Some things we... did not speak of. But, in the weeks that followed, my Grandfather discovered that the bond was... flawed. The chain pulled both ways. They could control his channeling, and even his behavior, indirectly, but likewise he found he could influence them. Guide their minds to where he wished, up to a point, not unlike channeling the Source itself. 

“Despite the misery of the arrangement, he forbade the Ashmanni in Kermangrad from releasing him, and instead sent nearly all of them out across the nascent Union and the world, to watch and listen from the shadows. With this information, he thought he could guide his country to a better place, certainly more so than tearing it apart in civil war. 

“And for a time... things did not seem so bad. Vladimir Kermin had many faults, but he was not an evil kerb. My Grandfather forged... not a exactly a friendship, but at least a rapport with him, and found much common ground. But as years moved on, Kermin and his co-rulers began to change. They became contentious, mistrusting, even paranoid. My Grandfather tried to guide them away from the most reckless acts, but then came that fateful day in Kerbelsk.”

The Empress’s eyes dropped away, one hand finding the blue münstone on the loose golden chain around her neck, “my mother told me, some time later, that Kermin and the Imperium had gathered emissaries from across the world for a very specific reason.”

She looked up, “they were going to force my Grandfather to expose himself, and all the Chelyaad. Perhaps to display them as weapons, or monsters, or even to begin a push to find Arstotzka and the greater secrets hidden there. I still do not know. But they failed to understand that there are some oaths which cannot...” her eyes found each one again, “...be broken. 

“The flows he was forced to channel turned back on my Grandfather, creating a feedback loop, like a short circuit, with his own body as the conduit. When at last he...” her shoulders sagged a nearly imperceptible bit, “expired, all the Power he had been channeling was released uncontrolled. There was no bomb that day. For Vladimir Kirmin’s ignorance, my Grandfather was made to destroy everyone he loved, and nearly took the Imperium and the entire Union along with him. 

“But someone realized what was happening, and pulled several Imperium members—and my mother, just barely— to safety behind a heavy stone wall. The collar was placed around her neck before it had even had time to cool, leaving a mark I will never forget. One month later, before a reconstituted Imperium, she was crowned Empress Alexandra I... and I never saw her again. 

“I spent the rest of my youth cloistered in this very building, watched every moment of every day, and kept far away from anything that might be a grail. When my Grandfather died, the Spark had only just begun to manifest in me. Roland guided me how little he could,” her eyes flicked up to him, “but a bird cannot teach a fish to fly, nor a fish teach a bird to swim. I do not know for certain what happened to my mother, only that it ended with another titanic release of the Power, such that it wakened me from the opposite end of the Summer Palace, and the fire that followed consumed the entire tower.

Just... for a moment, a whisper in time, her features shifted, her ageless face still giving nothing away, but perhaps the hint that it wanted to, “and then, it was my turn to wear the crown and collar. Those old goats were ignorant fools, but they were not stupid. They would not make the same mistake thrice,” the Empress’s voice drew low, “no, they found... other ways.”

A shake of her head, “but again, their nescience was a boon, in a way. I am not bound by the Vows, you see. I was too young to take them, and by the time I was old enough, those old goats were busy destroying everything they had been meant to protect. Instead, they had other plans for me...” and she trailed off. 

“What... plans?” Valentina asked. 

The Empress did not quite meet her eyes, “such things, we... do not speak of.”

An uncomfortable silence stretched out, until Dibella carefully breached it, “how were you ever freed from such a horrible thing?”

“You had a hand in that yourself,” the Empress raised an eye... bulge at her.

Said hand rose to her lips, “I... I did?”

“More specifically, a shoe,” the briefest shadow of a smirk crossed the Empress’s mouth. Color surged in Dibella’s cheeks, and her eyes dropped away. 

“Yes, while you were giving that rousing and not just a bit bold speech before those mewling, milk-livered fustilarians, I was able to, er, abrogate her guards, Shield her, and finally take the thrice-cursed thing off,” Roland explained, “did you not notice how... out of sorts they were at that moment?”

“Yes, well, I rather thought... that is... ah...” Dibella’s cheeks flushed even more. 

“Those quibbling rapscallions were marched down to the dungeons as naked as the day they were hatched,” Roland grinned, picking at something unpleasant under his fingernail, “it was a simple enough matter to recover the rings from their belongings and see that no one remembered having seen them at all.”

“And you destroyed them all, yes?” Valentina nearly growled. 

“Grail cannot be destroyed,” explained Roland, “or those that can already have been.”
 
“Then where is it now?”

“Floating around somewhere at the heart of the sun, I’d imagine, and so quite out of reach,” he said, “I had it launched there with all the haste that chemistry, electricity, and money could summon.”

“Good riddance,” Burdous huffed. 

“I have been here ever since,” the Empress gave the slightest of nods, “awaiting your arrival.”

She turned, “but not you. No one expected you.”

The hopeful look fell from Burdous’s face. 

“The Great Wheel has come full-circle,” the Empress continued, “and now, the end is nigh.”

“Okay. So how do we stop it?”

She turned to Edgas, “I’m sorry, what?”

“That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? All this stuff about crowns and staffs and metaphysical... stuff, right?” he turned to face her, “how do we stop the end of the world?”

The Empress stared back at him, something like confusion brushing her face for just a moment; and then, perhaps, even pity, “you cannot.”

“W... what?”

Her eyes dipped, just a bare fraction of movement. Her head shook back and forth, “you cannot stop the end of the world.”

A long, heavy silence stretched out. 

“Why?” Dibella nearly croaked. 

“The Great Wheel turns ever on, weaving the Pattern of Reality as it wills,” the Empress said softly, “worlds rise and fall, Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again... There are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time. But this time... something is different. Something is wrong

“Something has changed. Or has been changed. The Wheel rocks off-balance on its axle, the Tower. The Prophecies tell of another world, a Keystone World, upon which the fate of all others rests. If that is true, then there must also be a balance, a lockstone, if you will, on the other side. Our world is that lockstone. In this Age, or one long passed, something has breached our world, and infected it with a darkness that not even the Great Wheel can compensate.”

“The Kraken,” Edgas said. 

“No,” she shook her head, “the entity you call the Kraken is but a trifling thing before this Dark of Darks. Our world is wounded and dying from a mere brush against this other Power. In other times, our world would simply pass away, and be replaced in the endless cycle of death and renewal as the Wheel turns. But some essence of that great Darkness still remains here, binding it to us.”

Dibella leaned in, “this... Crown of Worms?”

The Empress nodded,  It must be destroyed. It cannot be allowed to exist. As long as it does, all the infinity of the multiverse is at risk. If anyone finds it, it would be a disaster beyond measure, but if the one called Betrayer, the Darkest of Hearts does...  then life and death themselves would lose all meaning. Everyone who has ever lived, and everyone who will, across all worlds... an infinity of souls beyond mortal comprehension... will be born again to an existence of endless suffering. The Light will die, and Reality—every Reality—will shatter before the rise of All-Hell itself. The Betrayer shall reign over a pandemonium of misery with splinters of the Great Wheel at his feet.”

Bummer,” Burdous mumbled, his eyes wide yet unseeing. 

Edgas frowned at him, “no, that can’t happen. Jerdous Kerman is dead, I saw the Kraken kill him!”

“You were in the Kraken’s manifested presence,” the Empress eyed him, “you cannot be sure of anything you saw.”

“Are you saying... he’s still alive?”

“I am saying, you think in far too Kerman terms on such things.”

“So all of that was for nothing?!” Edgas snapped back, “everything we went through...”

Once again, a distant look of empathy passed over the Empress’s face, “this thing you call the Kraken was placed here to guard the way to the Crown. To draw away those who might seek it, and... dispose of them. By sealing it away again, you have...”

“What?” Edgas asked. 

Valentina answered, “made it worse.”

Edgas’s face snapped to hers. 

She, too, studied the floor, “the Kommissar told us. ‘Kerberos sleeps, and the gates now lay unguarded.”

Despite all he had already, Edgas shrunk in on himself a little more. 

“Why would it do that?” said Dibella, “this... Kraken? If it is so evil, why would it even protect the Crown?”

“The Kraken is not evil,” the Empress explained, “neither is it good. Rather, it is the opposite of both good and evil. It was drawn into this reality from the World Between Worlds, and as such is now bound to it. It is not alive, not exactly, but it has will. Protecting the Crown at the expense of everything else in this world is simply self-preservation.”

Burdous looked up, “so... all this time... the Kraken was just a... a booby tra—OW! OW! OW! Stop it! OW!”

He cowered back from Valentina, covering his head, “what was that for?! What’d I even say?! Where’d you even get that?!”

Valentina stared down at her hand, which was holding the rolling pin from Chapter 17, “I... ah... I just... sorry... I... sorry... sorry sorry...” she set it aside, “...sorry.” 

Edgas groaned at them both, but somehow roused himself, “wait... if we destroy this Crown of Worms, won’t that fix everything? Stop the end from happening?”

“No,” the Empress shook her head, “the wound is too deep. Too festered, from the taint of the Dark of Darks.”

“How—“ Dibella swallowed against a dry throat, “how long do we have?”

“Weeks,” she said, “months. Perhaps years. This world will continue to devolve and fade away, as one by one the Horses ride, the final end coming not with a bang but a... whimper, leaving only an empty husk. Whatever happens here, the Pattern shall slough this world off, wall it off like a gall, and forget about it, until entropy takes it.”

Edgas pressed hands to his face, “I can’t accept that. There must be something, some other way...”

Roland at the Empress looked at each other for a long while. 

“There is a way...” she said at length, “but—“

“Then what?! Anything! What do I have to do?”

The Empress held his gaze, “you can release the Kraken.”

Edgas recoiled back in his seat as if struck. 

“How would... that even...” Valentina couldn’t quite finish the question. 

The Empress sighed, a nearly unnoticeable draw of breath, “if the Kraken is fully released from its shackles, it will unmake the world in its image, twist it into a nightmare so abhorrent to life that nothing alive—nothing that can touch the Crown—could ever exist here again, from any world. The Crown would be sealed away for all eternities, and the end for all alive today would come quickly, and... relatively... mercifully...” her eyes flicked from Edgas to Valentina, “...except you two.”

“W... what?”

She looked up, “this world matters not to it, but you have touched the Kraken. It will not forget such a slight. Death has no meaning to it, and believe me when I say, there are fates worse than death.”

Valentina and Edgas stared at each other, searching for words, but Dibella found them first.

“Do not even consider such a thing!” she scolded them, “surely there is some hope, even if we do not yet know it.” And then to the Empress, “how do we destroy this Crown?”

“Only the restored Rod of Dominion could do that, and only at great risk, for the Crown can destroy the Rod in kind.”

“Very well, so we must find them first, yes?”

A nod.

“Fine,” Edgas spat, “so where is this Crown again?”

“Rumored to be beneath the Sacred Waters in Arstotzka,” the Empress said, “and so out of reach, for the moment. At some point, the Rod was divided into two pieces, the Genesis stone—“

“Fine, we’ll start with that,” he said.

“We don’t know where it is,” Roland grunted, “at some point it was on the Mün, I tracked it for a time, but it up and vanished some years ago.”

“Great,” Edgas rolled his eyes, “and I suppose you don’t know where this Staff is, either?”

Roland and the Empress looked at each other.

“No, we know exactly where that is,” he said. 

“Where?”

“Where it has been these past thousand years,” the Empress gestured to a massive Imperial portrait hanging on the wall behind her, in which she was graced in full regalia, “as part of the Imperial Crown Jewels. They are now kept under lock, key, and very armed guard, in the Imperial History Museum not far from here.

You are going to have to break in and steal it.”

 

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How can you write something this good? Humor, suspense, and an entire plot paradigm shift all in one chapter. Your writing is better every chapter. Take your time... and write something good. Well worth the wait, I say. I look forward to the next chapter.

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At this rate, gonna have to make an encyclopedia for the various headcannons floating around on the forums.

waiting for the next one....

 

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8 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

The Empress kept staring at them with that unnerving serenity. She smoothed her dress, arranged the fringed shawl about her shoulders, straightened the braid of pale hair cast over one of them, and adjusted the lacy, golden tiara on her head. 

May as well get them all out of the way at once, huh? :) 

Although it was said that the Chelyaad of the legendary past - or possibly the incomprehensibly distant future - found the Gestures near as indispensable as Grail for channelling the Source.

I stand by my previous post and, having seen the last-but-one version of the chapter, I must say that your last coat of polish brought everything up to a rich glow!

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My verbosity has capped out. Suffice to say my feelings on your work could be summed up by 'It's Good' if you turned the dial to eleven. Or even Twelve.

 

Love the atmosphere coming off this. Keep up the wonderful work Catastrophicfailure!

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On 5/15/2019 at 5:34 AM, qzgy said:

At this rate, gonna have to make an encyclopedia for the various headcannons floating around on the forums.

waiting for the next one....

 

Ohhhh - speaking of cannons, I liked that shoutout. :)

"He who accidentally shoots off his thumb has forgotten the face of his father. And his father's father before him."

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At long last, it’s finally done:confused:

another 60 or so to go, but who’s counting, right?

This was an absolute monster to get figured out. I can’t believe the last chapter was back in January:0.0: But here, at last, is one revelation I’ve been creeping towards since Shadows, tho it was little more than headcanon back then. Some bits rose to the surface in Whispers for anyone daft enough motivated to go digging. And in the end, I promise it will all make sense. Probably. Maybe. I’m lying.

Aaaaaanyhoo, the next chapter should not be a tree-fiddy-month-long wait, as it’s already half done. And absolutely not inspired by certain recent meme-worthy TV moments. 

Seriously  it was half done before I even saw that.

And of course, great thanks to @KSK for once again acting as editor and sounding board, if not for his sage advice things may have gone quite differently. so complaints may be directed to... :sticktongue:

 

8 minutes ago, KSK said:

Ohhhh - speaking of cannons, I liked that shoutout. :)

"He who accidentally shoots off his thumb has forgotten the face of his father. And his father's father before him."

:ph34r:

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As always, you’re more than welcome. And yeah - any brickbats can be heaved in my direction. :)

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On 5/16/2019 at 2:17 PM, CatastrophicFailure said:

And absolutely not inspired by certain recent meme-worthy TV moments. 

"The planet's on [snip] fire!" I would guess.

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With his coming are the dread fires born again. The hills burn, and the land turns sere.
The tides of kerbs run out, and the hours dwindle. The wall is pierced, and the veil of parting raised.
Storms rumble beyond the horizon, and the fires of heaven purge the world.
There is no salvation without destruction, no hope this side of death. 

Chapter 37: Fire

Scrick.

Scrick-scrick.

Ubuntu drove his hoe into the ground, following the furrow. Each strike sent a little puff of pale dust from the parched ground. He continued along, minding his work, as he had for as long as he had been old enough to swing a hoe. 

But the land gave forth no bounty. 

He stood up as he reached the end of the row, pausing to work a knuckle into the knot in his back. Out of habit, he drew an arm across his brow, but there was no moisture to be found there, either. Instead he shook himself, and tugged his cloak tighter against the chill in the air. His friends who had travelled across the Narrow Water, to the great cities in the green lands beyond, had sent back word of a ‘white rain’ that was called snow, which sometimes fell on days when the cold was more bitter than they could have ever imagined. It fell, and stayed on top of the ground, until at last the sun returned. 

Ubuntu knew his friends were having a laugh at his expense, while they labored all day in factories making products for the city-dwellers. They all swore they would return one day, and share the vast wealth they had earned with the Tribes. 

Yet... to this day, no one ever had. 

“You should keep your eyes on the land, young one. Those far away places are not dreams for you,” the Elder eyed Ubuntu thoughtfully from his place atop the almond tree, then cracked a ragged half-smile and winked. 

Ubuntu sighed, but returned to his work, while the Elder went back to peering at the tree, shifting his pruners from one hand to the other. Ubuntu tried not to look at the trees these days, the vast grove that stretched out beyond the hills and back to the village. It was not his place to challenge an Elder. Surely, the Elders were right. Even Ubuntu himself had seen the trees come back from looking far worse than this. 

And yet...

“You are afraid the rains will not return, young one?” the Elder swung down to a lower branch, “that the Great Sands will swallow us up?”

At first, Ubuntu opened his mouth to deny it, to claim he surely did not think such a thing. But paused. He looked over the cracked trunks and naked branches of the grove, where not a single leaf had emerged this season. He looked to the rows of the garden he had been tending, where not a single seed had sprouted. He looked to the withered scrublands spreading off across the rolling hills, where even the sungrass had grown brittle and pale. 

At length, he spoke, “the Tribes are hungry, Elder. The stores grow lean, and there are younglings who do not remember what it is like to bite into an orange. I am... concerned.”

The Elder nodded from his place up in the tree, seeming to take the junior kerb’s words with great consideration. He returned his focus to the tree for a moment, looking at the branch this way and that, before snipping off a single twig with his pruners. 

He cast it a satisfied look as he spoke, “perhaps... you are not so young anymore, O budding chieftain,” his twinkling eyes flicked to Ubuntu for just a moment, “but you must not lose hope. The rains will come,” in emphasis, he held up his hands to the heavy, slate-grey clouds above. 

The cold did not seem to bother him, as he swung down one more branch as deftly as a spider-monkey. The heat of summer never seemed to bother him either, as he bothered with little other than a loincloth, no matter the weather. His skin was as thick and though as old leather, his hands callused like stones. To Ubuntu, even now the Elder seemed indestructible. If he could persist for so many years, and always with that mirthful twinkle in his eye, surely the trees, and the land and the People could, too. 

The rains would come, if the Elder said they would. 

As if in agreement, the heavy clouds overhead rumbled with thunder. 

“You see?” the Elder smiled up at them, “the rains will come. And very soon, I think.”

Ubuntu nodded, but turned away and clutched his cloak tight at a cold blast of wind. His eyes turned off towards the East, towards the green lands across the Narrow Water. Another icy breeze tugged at his cloak, and he absently wondered if perhaps it might snow here, too. The clouds rumbled again in cryptic answer. 

But no, that was foolish. He knew that such things just did not happen this close to the Belt of the World. Another gust rustled the bare branches of the grove behind him, finding its way past the neck of his cloak. A sharp, electric chill shot down his spine, and he felt his arms speckle with gooseflesh. Every hair on his body seemed to be trying to stand on end at once. 

Ubuntu’s eyes grew wide. He spun around, the scream already on his lips, but too late. 

KA-BOOM!!!

.

.

.

A dull ringing that drowned out the entire world dragged Ubuntu back from wherever he had been. All his muscles cramped at once, twisting him this way and that, as his lungs fought themselves for breath. Like a looming specter, a jagged, branching after-image danced in his vision no matter where his unblinking eyes moved. 

One questing, twitching hand closed around something hard in the sand, and he brought it up to see the skin of his palm smoking before his battered nervous system could convince him to drop the hunk of obsidian glass as black as night. He rolled himself over, still trembling, his throat unable to give up the scream before the competing urges to breathe and vomit. Confused, drifting thoughts shrouded in mist and smoke pressed against the inside of his head. His eyes finally focused on the almond tree, or what was left of it. 

The branches were gone, scattered around in flaming chunks, and the trunk that still stood was split down the middle like the gaping, fiery maw of some infernal beast trying to breach the land. Reaching out from it like nightmare tentacles were jagged, hooking streaks of sand fused into smoking glass. 

And then... he saw.

Ubuntu’s feet and legs betrayed him, and so he crawled, lurching past burning hunks of wood as he tried to draw voice. 

“...Elder...”

His throat rebelled, clamping down around dry, hacking coughs as acrid smoke besieged his lungs. 

“...Elder!”

Ubuntu dragged himself forward, and rolled the other kerb over. Wide, glassy eyes stared up at the uncaring clouds in the heedless sky, the Elder’s final look of shock frozen on his face. 

“Elder!” Ubuntu pounded a fist on his chest, taut and firm like cooked meat, “Elder!”

Then Ubuntu saw in horror that the Elder’s arms had been burned away to the elbows, brownish-white bone jutting out from charred black flesh. Above that, green skin was tattooed with reaching, jagged lines like the sand-glass and still lingering ghost in Ubuntu’s vision, running up over his shoulders and across his chest. 

A great scream began to build in Ubuntu’s chest. Yet before it could form, acrid smoke caused his lungs to seize and tighten. Fighting against the fog in his mind, he looked out, and saw the entire almond grove ablaze. Twisting yellow and orange tendrils of flame rose up to the sky like demonic fingers reaching up from the very deepest hell. The wind whipped at them, twisting them into burning cyclones, choking black smoke mixing with the clouds above. 

Ubuntu clapped a hand to his mouth, struggling to breathe. Beyond the grove, he watched the fire charge across the parched scrublands, consuming them like a thing alive, and reaching out over the hills towards—

...No...

Smoke and shock and horror scratched at Ubuntu’s mind, pulling him toward madness, clouding his thoughts. He let the wind pull his cloak away, hefted up the Elder and laid him across his own shoulders. Then Ubuntu set off, running as fast as he could across the blazing sands. He dodged flaming debris, snaked around burning sagebrush that seemed to reach out to him and call his name. His feet sank into sand that pulled at him and tried to drag him down below. At some point, he didn’t know where, he lost the Elder. After an eternity crawling forth on hands and knees as his skin began to sear, he crested the last hill, and beheld the Village...

...and it was already too late. 


***

“Ms. Lolli? Ms. Lolli, please, we have to go now.”

Lolli Kerman pressed the mask tighter to her face, squinting against the grit in the raging wind, but did not move yet. She had to see She had to see it for herself. 

Already, a dull orange glow flared beyond the ridgeline, lighting up the black, scudding clouds overhead like an infernal sunrise. Clouds, but no rain. It hadn’t rained in two years. It was little consequence to her, of course. She could afford the skyrocketing water bills. But her staff...

“Ms. Lolli, please...” the steward tugged at her arm. 

It hadn’t rained in two years. And yet, for most of that time, the hills stubbornly sent up life, in that peculiar way of deserts and scrublands. They were covered in agave and cholla, creosote and bur sage, mesquite and palo verde and Joshua trees. But even these had now dried to tinder.   

And then... the storm came. 

Not lightning, or thunder, or the much-needed rains, only a maelstrom of anger. People who, at any other time, would be working together, playing together, were casting stones at one another in the streets. When the stones ran out they used knives, and when the knives were not enough they used—

With her other hand, Lolli tugged her coat tighter against the chill borne by frigid wind, even as the sky beyond the hills grew brighter, and little flecks of ash began to fall like poison snow. 

Call the fire department!

The fire department had fled, unwilling to brave the crowds of madmen, and wisely so. 

Call the police!

The police had not stayed long, and now protected whoever could still pay them. 

Send in the army!

The army was gone, vaporized in an instant, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. And now that the many needed the few, the few were no more than ash like this raining down. Across the hills, half of the city was burning from an errant flaming bottle while brother killed brother, each so convinced that his champion was in the right. 

But the fire did not care. It did not care if you thought this one or that one belonged in the Beige House. The fire had claimed the Beige House long ago. The fire did not care if you were young or old, rich or poor. Upon the wicked and the righteous it fell with equal disinterest, and cared only for more

“Please, we have to go!

She had to see. Needed to see. To behold this beast with her own two eyes. 

Lolli Kerman did not have long to wait. 

The glow in the sky flared brighter. Little orange and yellow streaks like fingers rising up from the ground reached above the ridgeline. And then, it came. 

All along the crest it swelled, and broke as a nightmare tide upon the land. It raced down the hillside with terrible speed, squirming and writhing like a living thing, devouring everything in its path. She watched as it washed over the iconic IVYLOG sign, scouring it away in moments, surging down toward the houses below. 

“Ms. Lolli, please...” the steward tugged at her arm again. With more effort than she would admit, Lolli Kerman pulled her eyes away from the horror descending down the mountainside. 

“Right!” she turned on her heel, stalking back toward the waiting airstair but letting the steward board first before bounding after him, “head count, Charlie!”

“Twelve, Ms. Lolli.”

“Rosie?”

“I count twelve, Ms. Lolli.”

She turned to the pilots, “punch it!”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” one of them said, muffled behind his oxygen mask, as he rammed the throttles forward. 

The VTOL shuddered, but leapt from the rooftop as if even it were eager to be anywhere else. Lolli reached over and hit the switch, followed soon by the muted thump-thump as the hatch rose closed and locks slid home. She tossed away her mask, turned back to the pilots...

...And instantly launched into a fit of coughing, forgetting that even these expensive air handlers would take a few minutes to make the cabin breathable again. The copilot offered her a spare oxygen mask, but she waved it away, clasping her own to her face again. She had smelled wildfires before, they were a regular part of life here, but nothing... nothing at all like this. 

The smoke burned at her gums, clawed at her throat. It stabbed into her lungs like thousands of tiny, white-hot needles and left her mouth dry as desert sand. And then... there was the smell. No hint of wood to it, despite the fields of sage and mesquite being consumed. Only the acrid tang of rubber, the reek of plastic, and a gagging mix of brimstone and chemicals like putrid fruit. And... something else, as well. Buried beneath all the other stinks. Subtle, scratching at the edges of her mind, as if her mind knew better than to acknowledge it. A smell that brought memories of pleasant summer evenings, now twisted and nightmarish, a smell like burning m—

A sudden drop hurled Lolli’s stomach into her throat. At least, that’s what she told herself. The craft wobbled in the turbulence of a legion, joining other VTOLS, helicopters, and anything else that could fly in a mass aerial exodus. The armada stretched nearly to the horizon, hundreds or even thousands of shapes jostling for a little space of air like affluent rats from a foundering ship. 

She took a bottle at random from the wetbar next to galley, discarding her mask and downing a few gulps in hopes of clearing the stench, or at least numbing her throat to it. With a shiver, and a shake of her head, she poked her head into the cockpit. 

“Jool’s moons, would’ja look at that?” one of the pilots said as he peered out the window. Below the flying armada, the streets were strangely empty. Even on any normal day, it was a surreal land of swimming pools and movie stars Lolli had somehow come to call home. Only now, the swimming pools were all dry, drained in the too-little, too-late effort to delay the inevitable, and the movie stars fled not long after. The land grew darker still, and inky black clouds replaced the scudding grey. For a moment, streetlights twinkled, but as she watched they winked out in great cascading blocks. Flickering in the pitch black below, wind-born embers were already taking root. 

Lolli squeezed her eyes shut, and gave her head another shake. She looked off to the horizon, where a thin band of light still beckoned safe har—

An engine, and then a wing and a tail filled the windscreen. 

The pilots let loose a string of curses, and the ceiling became the floor as they jammed forward on the controls. Lolli slammed up against something, people screamed as they were flung about like chaff in the thresher. Her stomach jumped again, then the floor rose up to meet her and something in her wrist went pop. She looked up to find a blur of buildings rushing past at an eye-watering angle that sent her already confused stomach reeling in ways she didn’t know it could. 

After what seemed like an eternity, down resumed its proper direction, and Lolli was able to pick herself up, clutching her hand to chest. 

She looked back to the chaos in the cabin, “is everyone alright?”

Twelve weak affirmations answered, shaken and bruised but uninjured. Twelve. Her own staff, who had refused to leave when she told them to. And... from the next estate over, owned by people she refused to call neighbors. They had found room in their enormous SUV for all sorts of priceless trinkets, but had absconded in the night and left their own servants behind. 

The pilot nudged her, “you ok?”

She mumbled something, waved him away, and glared out the window. 

“Those fools are gonna get someone killed out here,” the copilot said, “who the flarp was that, anyway?!”

Lolli frowned at the gaudy, iridescent-painted VTOL with gold trim climbing away ahead, “the Kerdashians, of course,” she spat.

“Figures,” said the pilot. 

Just as she opened her mouth to curse more, alarm buzzers began to sound.

“Got it,” the copilot flicked off the MASTER CAUTION switch.

The pilot hit a few buttons, “igniters on, SCE to AUX and hit the fuel pumps, too.”

“Roger that,” the copilot flicked another switch. 

Now what is it?” Lolli leaned in.

“It’s all the ash,” the copilot waved out the windscreen, “its messing with the engines. We should be fine as long as–“

The buzzing returned, sound twice as loud as before. Another alarm bell rang with it.

“Crap!” the pilot cried out, “climb! Climb! Need to get above this mess!”

The two of them yanked back on the sticks, Lolli wobbled and felt herself get heavy. All at once, the horrendous scene below disappeared into a new horror, one of unbroken inky blackness leaving the craft lit only by the dull red glow of the instruments. Lolli’s stomach jumped again, more screams came as her feet briefly left the floor. The wall slammed her from one side, then the other, and she yelped as her bad arm caught the third blow. 

“You might wanna have a—“ another round of klaxons cut the pilot off.

“Flameout on number two!” the copilot called.

“Ok, set bleed air bypass to full on, just keep it turning we’ll restart on top,” the pilot shoved the throttles ahead. 

The copilot hit a switch “right!”

Lolli strained to keep upright with one hand as the plane was tossed back and forth in the midnight abyss. The structure shuddered, shifted around in a way it hadn’t before. Beyond the windows, orange and yellow light flared in the darkness. 

“Aw, you gotta be kidding me!” the copilot voice seemed taught and thin. The constant, muffled whine of the engines dropped away for a moment, returned, warbled back and forth at random. 

The pilot struggled against his controls, “what now?!”

“Number four is surging, complete compressor stall, it must’ve eaten part of number two.”

“Just keep it running,” his hands moved over the panels in a practiced, mindless dance, trimming this, switching that. A low shuddering began to build in the floorboards. 

“Watch your yaw,” the copilot made his own dance, “ITTs rising on one and three.” Something went bang, Lolli felt the craft wobble one way and then the other. 

“Come on you piece of crap, hold together!”

A metallic ripping noise somewhere in the back answered. 

Lolli turned sideways in the narrow passage, braced herself against the far wall with her feet and good hand as best she could, and steeled herself for the blast of icy wind and embrace of darkness as the aircraft came apart. 

Then, as they they trembled in the hadean darkness and noise built toward a final crescendo, for a moment the darkness beyond seemed... less black. She stared ahead through the windscreen, and watched as the darkness first lightened to dismal grey, then lighter still, and finally became a brilliant, blinding white that chased the shadows from inside. Lolli had to squint against it, but in another moment they broke through through into warm sunshine above alabaster clouds like rising to gates of Paradise itself. 

All at once the turbulence died away. The two pilots stared ahead, dumbfounded, then at each other with the same unbelieving look. 

“N1 is coming back up on number two, looks like we’ve got stable burn again,” the copilot barely whispered. 

The pilot roused himself, “what about number four?”

The copilot scowled, shook his head, “readings are all over the place. Oil pressure is holding but quantity is down 37%.”

“Just shut it down, we can make it on three. We’ll need to find a runway.”

“Copy that.”

With one final look over his instruments, the pilot laid his head back against the rest, closed his eyes, and let out a long, relieved breath. This looked far too appealing to Lolli after everything, so she did the same, collapsing back in the little cubby of the closed airstair and taking a moment to just breathe. Her wrist was throbbing. She tried moving it, and let out a yelp as she felt bones grind together. The flight must have a first aid kit, she turned to the cockpit...

...and saw a flash of gold, and gaudy paint. 

An engine, and then a wing and a tail filled the windscreen. There was a horrendous ripping like a monster’s wail, and icy wind bit into her face with a thousand burning teeth. For an instant there was screaming all around before the air was torn from her lungs. A gruesome vision of bodies and twisted metal cast across the blue sky assaulted her eyes, and the screech of a roaring jet engine slammed into her ears. Something crushed her hard against the airstair, the sun flashing across her sight faster and faster. 

The pressure built ever higher, the engine screamed louder, the sun melted into a strobing flicker as she was spun around. Shadows danced at the edges of her vision, closed in, narrowed to a point... and Lolli Kerman was given over to the darkness.

***
 
Darkness... darkness was split by a blinding light, somewhere a world away, on the razor’s edge between Above and Below. Ancient, rusted hinges shrieked in protest. Something crumpled on the floor quivered, drew back from the light. It huddled in clothing torn and ragged, stained with blood and filth. 

The light dimmed as a figure appeared in it, a ghostly silhouette of pitch black, broken only by a hungry grin. 

Down on the floor, a tongue like old leather slid over cracked lips as dry as desert sand, and a bare creak of voice trembled back up, “p... please... I already told you everything...”

The specter’s grin only widened, “Ah know. That ain’t why Ah’m heah.”

There, in that place between light and darkness, cold steel glinted. 

Katya Kermanov no longer had the strength to scream. 
 

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Well, that was quick.

3 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

The pilot hit a few buttons, “igniters on, SCE to AUX and hit the fuel pumps, too.”

Rest in peace Beano! It was just over a year since his death... ;.;

 

I propose that you do a chapter, released on Jul 20th, with at least 10 Apollo 11 references.

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On 5/29/2019 at 3:36 AM, Ho Lam Kerman said:

propose that you do a chapter, released on Jul 20th, with at least 10 Apollo 11 references.

Nothing like reality for obscure technobabble. :D But given my track record, especially of late, any attempt to hit an actual date would no doubt doom me to ElonTime™️.

On 5/31/2019 at 12:05 AM, Goldensniper79 said:

My God this has been a wild ride, finally caught up after a two year or so hiatus!

Welcome back. And things are barely even underway yet. :o

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