A long time ago, in the future
Alcadon… a city once bustling with trade and the hopes of humanity has been destroyed. Reduced to ruins in an age long past, it’s name lost to the throws of history. New life did it find so starkly opposite to its original purpose: to crush, to restrain, and to destroy. Spiraling from the center of a sea of massive industrial complexes shoots The Citadel, a mile tall tower of twisted metal and broken glass that houses The Monarch, the leader of the Shalthar.
The Shalthar… A twisted race of clones bred to conquer, their bodies riddled with decay as their genetic code unravels. Their constant agony blurring their minds and making monsters of them all, they see the world through the same red mist that shrouds the citadel of their master.
The 47th cycle is drawing to an end… it is time to collect the source of the 48th.
Hidden across the face of the earth there is practiced a secret religion, illegal by mandate of the all powerful Monarch. The world has not forgotten the Old Gods, those who protected the land when it was still in its fledgling days of youth. The seventeen gods of the old world: their true names long forgotten by those who worship them.
Deep in the darkest corners of the world their faithful followers still anoint the idols with, and consume the Black Broth so that their blood may run black like the Old Gods. They vow to protect what once was from the unwavering surge of the Shalthar and their master.
Her eyes shot open, immediately she closed them again as the sheer dazzling brilliance of her surroundings blinded her. She knew she was dreaming. Lucid dreaming was one of the first things Master Elgin taught her. She cracked her eyes open, allowing them to adjust to the light. She began to take in her surroundings, or lack thereof. It was a void, a chasming nothing. She opened her mouth to mutter something to herself but found that no noise came out. She tried to move her body but it was frozen in place, all she could move were her eyes as her eyelids froze as well. She could sense a presence behind her, something that transcended age, something ancient.
“So… another child…” It was a soft purring voice, that of a woman. “Another greedy, selfish child with ideas far greater than itself.” Her tone was weary.
She felt something press into the base of her skull; a small blossom of pain grew from the spot and quickly engulfed her entire body. She stood, unable to move as she felt her body implode.
“Yes, just like the others.” The woman paused as if reading her mind. “Oh yes child, there have been others, many others who sought my power. They failed.” The woman’s voice faded and a soft rumbling took its place, like the purring of a large animal.
Her body reverberated with the deep guttural growl.
Another voice spoke, a disgusting, wretched voice, like one wracked with disease. “You seek the Traveler… But can you handle her companion? I wonder…”
The pain grew and the two intoned as one. “Mithra… If you seek our power you must first master your own.”
Mithra stood frozen as she felt the presences fade; she felt the hold on her body loosen.
“Bastards…” she muttered.
There was a sharp inhalation from behind, Mithra still couldn’t move her body but she could tell the two had paused. Suddenly she could hear laughter, a joyous laughter.
The woman’s voice spoke again, tinged with mirth. “You are a bold one Mithra… I look forward to watching your progress.”
The two finally faded. Mithra fell to her knees.
The booming voice roused Mithra from her sound sleep, her eyes shot open but she still couldn’t spur her body into moving. Leaning over her was Master Elgin, her teacher. He was a young looking man, nearing his mid 30’s with a head full of sandy blonde hair. His hawkish features were obscured by a wild, out of control, beard that dominated most of his face. The frown on his face was clearly visible through his wiry facial hair. His veins though were his most dominant feature as they ran black, as if filled with tar, across his entire body. His face was a spider’s web of blackened veins contrasting with his pale skin. Mithra’s veins would blacken over time as she trained with him; it was a common side effect of drinking the Black Broth.
His frown deepened. “Its past dusk, you have chores that need doing.” He wedged his hand beneath her straw mattress and tipped her from her cot. She flopped onto the floor still not moving.
His expression turned from annoyed to concerned. He crouched next to her and rolled her face-up, he listened for her breathing and felt her pulse, both were slow and regular. Next he felt the small necklace around her neck, it was a small plain amulet, a tiny grey rectangle set in the center of a larger green rectangle. He laid the back of his index finger on it; it was warm, very warm. His eyes lit up.
“So you have spoken to them… The Old Gods…” He closed his eyes as if in remembrance. “Come let’s get you something to eat.”
Mithra had regained her senses by the time Elgin placed the bowl of Black Broth in front of her. She wasn’t particularly fond of the stuff but anything was better than nothing. She suppressed her gag reflex long enough to chug the thick black liquid down, it tasted sour as usual. Elgin stared at her intently, studying her every movement.
Mithra put the bowl down and noticed his staring. “What?”
He blinked and looked away. “Who was it?”
Mithra narrowed her eyes; she wasn’t particularly fond of his tone, not to mention the whole rolling out of bed thing. “Who was who?” she asked innocently.
He raised an eyebrow. “The God you spoke with?”
She raised her eyes in mock recollection. “Oh yes, that’s right… Hmm, it’s difficult to recall I didn’t see their face.”
“The Gods do not have faces,” Elgin said bluntly.
Mithra frowned. “Shame, I remember her calling herself the Traveler, and she had a companion. Either way she poked me and insulted me, then I insulted her, she laughed and poof you roll me on the floor.”
His face hardened though he let out an almost relieved sigh. “So you’ve spoken to one of the seventeen. The Traveler is not to be taken lightly, neither is her companion, you’re lucky you left with your life.”
Mithra scoffed. “You’re acting like I could have died.”
“You very well could have, the Companion offends easily and is not to be taken lightly. It is responsible for nearly as many deaths as the Shalthar.” His lip curled as he mentioned the despised clone race.
Mithra felt her stomach drop slightly. “And the Traveler?”
Elgin sighed and stared out of the darkened window, rubbing an amulet identical to the one Mithra wore. “Wife to the Hermit. It is said that she and the Companion were of the same body, a truly evil thing, until she encountered the Goddess of Self. In their battle the Goddess of Self split the two, it is said that the Traveler embodies the good in humanity while the Companion embodies the evil.” His tone was remarkably bored as if he’d recited the legends countless times before. He stood up taking the small lit candle sitting on the table with him. “Come it’s time for your chores.”
Mithra huffed. “C’mon, I just spoke to a god; can’t I have the night off?”
Elgin smirked, a rare sight. “On the contrary, you’re working doubly hard.” He turned about and pushed aside the mesh curtain separating the cozy room from the muggy outdoors.
Mithra lobbed a sigh and stood up. She ducked her head under his extended arm and stepped outside. She once tried to butt his arm but she quickly found herself on her rear with a large forehead bruise with him never raising a finger. She took a deep breath and stared out over the vast Jungle. What had once been a forest had quickly overtaken the land and nearly taken the sky as well. She always felt her breath catch in her throat whenever she looked at the view, and it was never due to the horrific humidity. She looked down at her walkway, a massive branch arcing several hundred feet above the ground then looked up at her roof, a ceiling of leaves many hundreds of feet above her head. Rays of pale moonlight cut through the humid gloom, beams of silver in a sea of lead.
She heard a whistling noise come from behind her; she quickly jumped to the side as a broom smacked the ground she’d previously occupied.
Elgin grunted approvingly. “Come, it is time to sweep the shrine and anoint the idols.” He brushed past her leaving the broom standing on its bristles for her to collect.
She stared dumbly at the broom; both marveling at how it was standing upright and the fact that she’d managed to dodge it. She shook her head and rolled her eyes, there was no way… She grabbed the broom and jogged to catch up to Elgin. The shrine was a small wooden building nestled against an offshoot of the massive branch. He ducked inside, taking the faint light with him. In the stark moonlight Mithra could see the pale skin of her arm, her veins stood out far more than usual, perhaps she was finally taking after Elgin. She couldn’t suppress the feeling of panic at the thought of being a stuffy old woman rattling off trivia to disinterested youths, that’s all the Warriors of the Old Gods seemed to do anyway.
“Come on!” Elgin called from the small doorway, shaking Mithra from her growing dread.
She shook her head; she’d mope later when she had the time to wallow in self pity. She ducked into the small building; the inside was far more spacious than the outside let on. A ray of moonlight shone perfectly in the center of the room casting its luminosity upon the many ornate statues nestled in rough carved culverts along the sides of the walls. The moonlight always shone perfectly to cast wicked shadows across the small carved idols. The place always gave Mithra the creeps; of course that’s where she was forced to spend most of her time.
Elgin stood off to the side and gave Mithra an unusual look. “Find her.” He gestured to the idols. “Find The Traveler.”
She rolled her eyes, of course she knew where The Traveler was, it stood out like the tails of a Hapas Lemur. She slowly scanned the idols, immaculately carved representations of the old gods, their human-like bodies offset by their strangely shaped heads. She stopped at The Lovers; she couldn’t help but smile, of all the stories told of the Gods those about them were always the most enjoyable. She whirled around as she heard Elgin snort slightly, his face remained as impassive as normal but the glimmer in his eyes betrayed how he felt.
Mithra affixed a soul shattering glower on her face. “Something funny?”
Elgin quickly relented. “Mithra, we all take after the gods in some way, I think we can both agree that you take after those two the least, perhaps the Goddess of Waste or the Wrathful One.”
“And how would you know? It’s not like you’ve ever talked to them.”
A look of longing fell over Elgin’s face, a look Mithra had seen many times before. His voice changed slightly, it sounded old and broken. “We’ve all communed with the gods Mithra, some of us more than others. Those two were trying in a different way.” He muttered something Mithra couldn’t quite make out, it sounded something like ‘rent’.
Mithra turned back; ignoring his veiled insult and eventually came to stop at the carving of the Traveler. She looked far different to her fellows, wrapped in a cloak with an upturned hood, she looked almost human. Mithra gently placed her hand on the carving. She expected to feel an earth shattering revelation or something but she felt nothing, it was just a hunk of wood.
Elgin stood beside her; the candle in his hand illuminating the figure further, the face of the statue was veiled apart from a solitary eye. “The Traveler is the closest the gods ever came to humanity. She traveled across the world testing those she met with her ragged appearance, if those she met did not greet her with kindness and charity her companion would feed upon them.” He raised the candle, shining its weak light on the smaller carving behind the Traveler. It was a twisted four-legged creature, its thin body held suspended by its odd spiraling appendages. Its face, though impassive held a deeper sinister expression. Mithra could feel evil exuding from a mere carving the thing. “These beings are your future, you must honor them.” He pulled a jar full of Black Broth from the folds of his robe.
Mithra dipped her fingers into the jar, watching the shimmering black liquid dribble from her fingers. She moved her hand over the Traveler and let a thin stream drip onto its head.
“And the Companion, we must honor both good and evil.”
Mithra extended her hand over the Companion and did the same.
“Now anoint your amulet, you must honor it as you do the gods.” Elgin’s voice seemed to be growing in excitement.
Mithra raised an eyebrow and wiped her finger across the amulet. The small black stone was warm, unusually so, Mithra thought nothing of it.
“Very well.” Elgin sounded crestfallen. “Anoint the rest then sweep the floor, see me when you’ve finished.” He turned and exited the shrine leaving the jar of broth on a small jut of wood.
Mithra was silent for a moment. She couldn’t help but scoff. “Of course he takes the candle with him, typical.” She looked around the small room; she’d long memorized every despised nook and cranny. “And here we are again folks, you and me, are we going to be silent again as usual?”
The carvings did not respond, they never answered.
She turned back to the carvings of the Traveler and the Companion. “Any wise words to grace me with?”
They did not answer.
She sat with a huff, she closed her eyes and concentrated, she didn’t know what on but she felt like she just needed to think of something other than her own life for a moment. She had long imagined leaving the dismal jungle and striking out on her own, a lone warrior. Her mind filled with images of exaggeratedly violent battles, and her always being triumphant against whatever imaginary foe she conjured up for herself. Her mind flashed back to the void in her dream.
“… Greedy, selfish child…” the voice from her dream echoed in her head.
Mithra opened her eyes. “Is it so greedy to want a life of excitement? To live away from such a dull existence? Hmm?”
They did not answer.
“Hmph.” Mithra jumped to her feet and grabbed the jar of broth. She dribbled a small amount onto each carving. She must have skimped, the jar was still half full, she shrugged and drank the rest. It tasted off, well, more off than usual, probably stale.
She snagged the broom and began sweeping the floor, every night the floor needed sweeping, every day the floor covered itself in dust, almost as if it knew she was going to sweep it again the next evening. She viciously swiped at the floor, a small cloud of dust rose. She coughed lightly as the dust wafted up her nose.
“Stupid…” She sneezed. “Whuf! Ow, that one stung.” She massaged her aching nose. She side-eyed the carvings, “none of you say anything or I’ll forget to anoint you tomorrow.”
She smirked to herself, silly gods… and went back to sweeping.
The night passed as chore-laden as usual and as the first rays of sunlight threatened to break through the dense foliage of the jungle Mithra nestled herself into her straw cot and fell swiftly asleep. She was disappointed to find that her sleep was devoid of dreams. Her eyes snapped back open as though she had just closed them to blink only to see that dusk had descended once more and Elgin was fuming by her bedside. Another night of chores…
Mithra felt as if her life was speeding by, dreamless days and mindless nights numbed her. She could also feel Elgin growing distant, as if he were disappointed by her apparent lack of progress; it would help if he told her what to do!
Her eyes opened again from another dreamless sleep. For once she was not blessed with the scowling face of Elgin, chiding her for oversleeping. She rolled from her cot and onto the hard floor; the jolt knocked her fully into wakefulness. She stood up and stretched, it was rather nice not to be woken up by heavily bearded men every night. There was no bowl of broth on the table; Elgin was nowhere to be seen. She poked her head through the curtain door and scanned the jungle; nothing was out of order in any obvious way. She was about to duck back inside when she saw the dull orange of candle light coming from the shrine. She silently padded across the impossibly wide branch until she was just outside the shrine; she froze when she heard Elgin muttering.
“… I’ve failed. The eve of the forty-eighth cycle has dawned and she is no closer.” His tone turned indignant as if chastising a difficult child. “I know you’re prone to being overly cryptic but c’mon guys this is stupid, stop dragging your feet on this one—.” He stopped suddenly. “Mithra, you can come in,” he called quietly.
She jumped; she was convinced that she had been completely silent. She stepped inside; Elgin was kneeling in the center of the moonlight. In the pale light his hair seemed to turn silver and all the angles of his face deepened, he looked old, weary, broken.
He smiled weakly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to wake you tonight, I had some pressing thoughts that needed voicing.”
Mithra shrugged. “You should make a habit of it.”
“Perhaps, perhaps. I take it you heard my rambling?”
“Thought so… I’ll explain it to you later tonight; first you have to do your chores.”
Mithra’s shoulders slouched and she rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll get the broom.” She turned to leave.
The broom clacked into the wall falling over to poke her in the side. Mithra whirled around, Elgin hadn’t moved.
She leaned down, trying to see his face. “Is that another smile I see?”
“You know very well that I am incapable of such a thing,” Elgin said softly.
“And let me guess, the jar is already sitting on the shelf?” She looked down and sure enough the jar was ready and waiting.
“Anoint your chosen, then your amulet.” Elgin remained kneeling, not even looking up.
Mithra sensed a chance to wrangle some information out of him, something had been bugging her. “I’m curious… Where did the Old Gods go? They couldn’t have just vanished, could they?”
He shook his head. “No… they couldn’t have. They left of their own accord; the world had long outgrown them. Humanity had learned all of the lessons they had to teach and they became superfluous. Now that the world has once again descended into the dark we must bring back their teachings.”
Mithra nodded. “Interesting… so they are more a collection of ideas and morals than actual gods?”
“In a sense… Mankind is not prone to simply following the orders and mandates of simple strangers, it needs something to bite into, to hold on to; something to visualize and tack the morals on to. Nothing spreads faster than a good story, and nothing will spur the hearts and minds of humans more than a hero to idolize.”
Mithra felt oddly vindicated, she put forth her frustration. “So it’s all lies? The seventeen are just fantasy characters used to peddle common sense?”
Elgin frowned. “No, they are not, you yourself spoke to one.”
“I don’t know what I saw; it could just have been something in the broth not sitting right.”
“Mithra, the Black Broth is not prone to handing out hallucinations.”
“And that’s another thing.” Mithra dipped her fingers into the slimy black liquid and let it dribble onto the floor. “What even is this? I eat it; I pour it onto wooden carvings, what next? Is it a lubricant? A fuel? Will it get stains out of clothing? Is it a cleaner? I’ve just been blindly drinking this- this gunge that you’ve put in front of me every night without question. And then there’s this stupid thing—.” She grabbed the amulet with her broth covered hand, she was about to lob more questions at Elgin but a small noise stopped her. She looked down and watched as the broth sizzled and popped. Mithra pulled her hand away, a small pain growing from where she’d been burned. She tried to pull the amulet from around her neck but it stayed firmly in place as if it has fused itself to her skin.
“Master Elgin!” She couldn’t hide the panic in her voice.
He rushed over. “No! It’s too soon; you have grown impatient in your old age!”
Mithra could tell that the last part wasn’t directed at her.
Mithra screamed as the cord of the amulet sunk into her skin, she could feel her flesh part and take in the strange silver cord. Her neck was wreathed with pain.
“Damn you!” Elgin quickly ran from the shrine.
Mithra tried to call after him but her voice was little more than a whisper. Her legs buckled and she fell to her knees. Her body froze, her mind went blank. Her vision haloed in the dazzling brightness she saw in her dream.
She was back in the void, endless stretches of nothing stretched in every direction. She was miffed… closer to furious. She could feel the presence of the Traveler, but she didn’t care.
“Alright then!” She yelled to the unseen figure, she still found her body immobilized. “What’s all this then!? Is picking on orphans a pastime for you gods or something?”
Mithra felt a hand press itself to the back of her head and wrap itself in her stringy brown hair.
“Regrettable,” purred the traveler, “but unavoidable.”
Mithra saw a dark shape flit in her periphery.
“Normally we’d spend the next few decades eking into your subconscious but this time around we have to speed things up.”
“Oh, I’m honored,” Mithra shot off sarcastically.
The grip firmed. “I can appreciate a bit of snark, child, but my wells of patience are not infinite. The Shalthar are coming, if you wish to survive to the morning then you’d better listen and listen well.” The grip loosened and fell away.
A dark figure stepped into Mithra’s vision. The Traveler, she was just like the carving depicted. A thin woman clad in a rough tunic and sturdy leather breeches, wrapped in a heavy cloak; her narrow feet were bare. Her face was covered by an inexplicable shadow. She stood to the side as the Companion strode over Mithra’s frozen body. Mithra felt true fear for the first time in her life, it was a good thing her body was frozen otherwise she would have collapsed. It turned about and she was faced for the first time with a true and pervasive evil. It clicked and cracked as it moved, its head swiveled, inspecting Mithra.
“It’s been so long since we’ve had a host, how lucky that we’re paired with a compatible one at such a convenient time.” Mithra felt her insides shudder as the voice rolled across her like a plague.
The Traveler placed a hand on the Companion’s back. “Don’t overstep your bonds. She must consent.”
“And what happens if I don’t?” Mithra growled through gritted teeth.
“You die.” She said matter-of-factly. “I and my companion die, L-… Elgin dies, with many more to follow. The old man is right, we’re not gods, we can die like the rest of you.”
“And what happens if I agree.” Mithra still didn’t know which outcome was worse.
The Traveler pointed to Mithra’s forehead. “We come inside and you become as we were.”
Mithra couldn’t bite back the scoff. “Infinite power, glory, indestructibility? A million fables? A million morals?”
“No child.” She crouched and looked Mithra in the face. “There is no glory, there are no fables. You will live a hard life and die a hard death as so many others before you have. You will experience the depths of suffering and the heights of bliss, you will die as you live, but you will live.”
“So you’re saying that if I say no I’m guaranteed to die and if I say yes I will die… but later?”
She shrugged. “Yup.”
Mithra rolled her eyes. “You and your ancient bullshit.”
She started slightly. “Oh that one made it? I do miss swearing.” A hint of longing entered her voice.
The Companion growled. “Your veneer of divinity is cracking.”
“Oh, do shut up.” She turned back to Mithra. “So what do you say? Death now or death later?”
“Are all your offers as tantalizing as this?”
She shrugged. “No, this one’s pretty good all things considered.”
Mithra sighed. “Yeah, alright, I choose death, but later.”
She could feel the Traveler’s smile. “Thank you.” She straightened up and cleared her throat. “I must warn you, this next part is quite traumatizing. Also you need to drink Black Broth as soon as you wake up or things might go very wrong.”
“How much? A bowl or two?”
“About two hundred pounds give or take. Don’t worry, the old man is well stocked.” She pulled the hood from her head and many locks of auburn hair spilled down to her waist. Her face was wrapped in many strips of cloth obscuring all but her right eye. “Oh, if only the family could see this, they’d be so repulsed.”
The Traveler giggled and the Companion simply grunted in annoyance.
She tore away the cloth around her face revealing an inhuman visage. Mithra almost missed the wicked scar running up her face, destroying her left eye and nose as the mouth dominated her features. A wicked black maw filled with glimmering black needle-like teeth and a slimy writhing tongue.
“This will be disturbing.” Her teeth made chalky clacking noises as she spoke.
Mithra watched as the mouth grew in size, like that of a snake. In a flash her world went from blindingly bright to oppressively dark. She had been eaten!
Mithra’s eyes shot open for the umpteenth time that evening. Her body ached, every part of her, every nook and cranny of her body felt like it had been savagely beaten. She lifted an arm to wipe the bleariness from her eyes; she froze when she saw her arm illuminated in a halo of moonlights. Her veins had run black but her skin was withered and wrinkled. So that’s what she meant. She pushed herself up, she felt so heavy, she swayed for a moment before falling back to the ground. She sat there wondering where Elgin was, had he abandoned her? Her ears picked up the characteristic squeak of the old trolley, she smirked, no amount of oil made that stupid thing silent. Perhaps she’d pour some broth over it, that might work. Beneath the squeak she could hear Elgin grunting with exertion, he was moving something heavy. She could see his silhouette in the doorway; he was pulling the trolley with a large cylindrical object haphazardly strapped to it, a barrel of some sort.
“Shit…” he muttered when he saw Mithra’s emaciated form. “Too late, too late.” His tone was defeated.
“On the contrary…” Mithra gasped, to took all of her strength just to muster those few words.
He squeaked, much like the trolley, in surprise. His pulling resumed with renewed vigor.
“This will be uncomfortable.” He pulled a clear tube that was affixed to the strange barrel and shoved it down Mithra’s throat; she didn’t have the strength to even gag. He turned a small spigot and Black Broth started making its way down the tube. He began grumbling to himself, “It’s still much too soon, you haven’t been prepared, she’d better have a good reason for this.”
Mithra felt the Black Broth pour inside her stomach, she could feel it balloon as it was filled past capacity. Suddenly it deflated, she felt no pain, in fact she felt quite the opposite. She felt as if a great flood was filling her body with life, she felt strength well up in her core.
She sat there for what seemed an interminable amount of time, unable to move as Elgin walked circles around her muttering various unmentionable things about the Old Gods as if recounting personal experiences.
“Impatient cretins, never even sat to finish a game of chess. Pah!” He tapped the side of the barrel, it made a hollow sound. “Just about done eh?” He pulled the tube from Mithra’s mouth and wheeled the barrel outside. He kneeled down in front of her. “And now the final step. Let’s jog your reflexes.” He placed his hands on either side of her head and reeled them back; quick as a flash he swung them.
Mithra felt something in her twist. Her arms rose as if they had a mind of their own; she felt a stinging pain from her left side but not her right.
Elgin grunted in satisfaction, his left arm was wrapped in Mithra’s crushing grip while his right was planted in the side of her head, her hand grabbing air. “You took well; it’s rare for one to be so compatible from the start.”
“That’s what the Companion said.” Her voice was slightly muffled by Elgin’s hand.
Elgin withdrew his hand. “High praise, especially from that beast.”
Mithra felt where he had struck her, there was no pain. “Oof, that’s rather rude, as far as I can tell that beast is probably living inside my head or something.” She felt a small discomfort from her chest and her hand twisted and waggled a finger at Elgin. “I think that answers my question.” She glared at her hand. “Put it down.” Her hand dropped to her side.
Elgin sighed and smirked to himself. “They never stop, do they…? Alright let’s get back to the house there is a lot I need to tell you.” He turned to leave. “Can you stand?”
“Very well, thank you very much.” She got to her feet, she felt different, as if the world was pressing on her differently, as if she were light as a feather. She rocked on her heals and gave a small jump, she rose a foot and came crashing back into the ground, the wood splintered around her feet. She looked in awe at the damage. She stepped away, leaving two perfect imprints of her feet in the wood.
Elgin poked his head back in. “Yes, yes you can be amazed by your sudden weight increase later.” He looked at the imprints. His eyes narrowed. “You’re fixing that. Now stop dawdling!”
Mithra stepped back into the humid jungle; she had to blink a few times to fully process what she saw. A cornucopia of colors was feasted upon her; it was as if the night had no bearing, what used to be an impenetrable wall of gloom was as dazzling as the surface of the sun. She could see everything. She inhaled deeply, what was once a mixture of dull odors became a complex mixture of distinct scents. She could smell the pollens given off by the flowering Hasha trees several miles to the south, she could smell the mold and fungal growths festooning floor of the jungle. Her ears pricked as she heard a Hapas Lemur flee from a swarm of carnivorous Didja Beetles in a nearby tree. Her world had grown so exponentially she felt that her brain might explode.
“Oh, dear… don’t let that happen, you need that.” The purring voice of the Traveler buzzed through her mind.
“So you are in there.” Mithra didn’t have the strength to react to both her expanded senses and the Traveler; her voice came out as a monotonous drone.
“Permanently,” growled the Companion.
Mithra’s lip curled slightly.
The Companion let out a wet, rattling laugh. “You will have to get used to me eventually child, we three are now as one.”
“How distressing, we’ve corrupted this poor innocent child,” she cooed.
“I’m seventeen, I’m not a child,” Mithra huffed.
“My statement stands, you’ve occupied no more than a heartbeat of my life, I wonder how many you’ll last.” Her voice was tinged with amusement.
Mithra’s amazement had worn off and she was now feeling rightfully offended. “I’m not disposable, and I’m most certainly not your plaything.”
“Do you not believe in your gods?” rattled the Companion.
“You are not gods,” Mithra said firmly.
The Traveler chuckled. “Damn, we’ve been found out. Elgin will explain far better than we ever could, just listen to him and don’t start ranting like you did earlier.”
“I make no promises.” Mithra strode towards the hut, a warm light was emanating from the small windows, she could see Elgin nattering about inside.
She pushed aside the curtain to see him sitting at the table looking at her expectantly, there was no chair on her side, they had all been moved to the far side of the small room.
Elgin could sense her puzzlement. “I’ve lost far too many chairs over the years to take any more chances.” He gestured vaguely at her. “Those two will no doubt fill you in on those particular stories.”
“You speak as if you know them personally.”
He cleared his throat. “In another life perhaps, but that would have been long ago.” He arched his fingers and stared at her. “I will not lie to you; all of this is as unexpected to me as it is to you. When I found you I had no intentions to train you, as you know that was only at your insistence.”
Mithra rolled her eyes. “Oh sure, blame the orphan.”
“If you insist. No, I never expected you to be compatible with them. I gave you that amulet on a whim; everything that has happened has been their doing.”
“So how about you ask them?”
He shook his head. “I can’t, only you can speak with them now.”
“Well they told me to ask you, they said you’d explain things.”
Elgin rolled his eyes. “Of course they did, they’re always trying to weasel out of things.”
“High praise for your gods.”
Elgin snorted. “They’re not gods, far from it.”
Mithra poked her temple. “That’s what they said.”
He shook his head again, this time in exasperation. “Of course they’d out themselves so quickly. No the Old Gods are not gods, they are not myths, not fables, they once walked this earth just as you and I do. While not beings made of flesh and blood they were far more human than the stories let on. It’s a pity that they aren’t as reachable as they used to be especially right now. I’ll admit that I have raised you in relative ignorance of the world around you; you do not know much of the happenings of this country and the actions of the tyrannical Monarch. You’ve no doubt heard me mention the Shalthar in passing many times but I feel it’s time for you to know what they are.”
“I know they’re clones.”
He nodded, glad she at least listened that much. “Yes, they are clones, twisted evil abominations, perversions of the nature they used to hold so dearly. They used to be a peaceful race of farmers, originally slated to work to feed a great city. Things got out of hand and the genetic mutation that once allowed them to gain their independence twisted them back in on themselves and forced them to resort to cloning once more. They were on the verge of extinction; the great city they fed had left them to die. Then the Monarch came, no one knows who, or what he is, a great scientific mind that dragged the Shalthar from their prison of extinction and modified them to become his personal army. That was forty-seven cycles ago… today is the eve of the forty-eighth. Today they have spread from their city to search for the progenitor of the new cycle.”
Mithra’s eyes had glazed over. “You lost me… Cycles?”
“The Shalthar begin every cycle by replacing the old genetic template with a fresh one. They round up candidates from across the world and take them back to the citadel to rip the DNA from their bodies to construct the perfect body then clone it into oblivion. When the DNA becomes too corrupt they go out in search of new candidates. It generally happens once every hundred years though sometimes the DNA is particularly strong and lasts them far longer. This cycle has lasted for three hundred years, they are beyond overdue, they will be desperate. As their bodies degrade they replace the nonfunctioning parts with cybernetics… uh, machines, metal arms and legs things of that nature. They are now more machine than flesh and blood.”
“So how do I play into this.”
Elgin sighed. “Your part in this is greater than you know, you have just gained the power and guidance of the strongest Indra and now the Shalthar are at their weakest.”
Mithra’s ears picked something up. She raised a finger, interrupting Elgin. A low industrial grumble and the violent rustle of shredding foliage were drawing near. Her eyes widened. “Engines… quick, the candles.”
Elgin froze, his eyes widened. His mouth opened and closed several times like a fish out of water. “Well ain’t that fuckin’ convenient.” A thin angry smile spread across his face. He cocked his head to the side, listening for the engines, all the while his face was split with that odd smile. He seemed like a different person.
“Well, well, it looks like our boy Elgin paired with one of us as well. Though I must say this still isn’t too far out of character.”
Mithra stared at the complete stranger in front of her, eyes bugging out. His demeanor had changed, his movements were slow and jerky, all the while the smile remained. He stood up, dousing the nearby candles with his fingers.
“W-who are you?”
“I have no name, dear sister of mine. The little man was so disappointed when he didn’t get one of your precious seventeen.”
“Ask him if he was a member of the swarm.” The Traveler said cautiously.
“Were you a member of the swarm?”
The wolfish grin widened. “Yes-s-s-s.” He exited the room. “Come along child! Witness the creatures you are destined to destroy! Those who succeeded where we failed millennia ago!”
The engines had become near deafening. Mithra poked her head through the curtain and was floored. It was like a massive flying insect, its large bulbous body supported by four massive circular rotors spinning at incredible speeds it was painted a dark earthy green with a strange insignia emblazoned on the side, three triangles coming to a point with strange symbols in the gaps between. A voice came over the loudhailer, it was somehow even louder than the engines, it was gruff and nowhere near friendly.
“Shash! Toru Khab Baru Tashte’Toru’Mere! Dohj Dafrema!”
“What did he say!?” Mithra had to yell just to hear her own voice.
“Is that really what language has come to?” The Traveler sounded sorrowful.
“Dohj!” The voice screamed.
“Now is not the time to lament the death of the spoken word! What are we gonna do about them!”
Mithra shuddered as the companion spoke. “Don’t worry; our brother is more than capable of defeating a few withered clones.”
A cargo door on the front of the craft flew open and no fewer that fifteen armored Shalthar dropped onto the branch.
They were enormous, each sitting easily above six feet. They were wrapped in a motley assortment of compound plastic armor, it was cracked and stained. Easily visible was the glimmering of shining metal where their limbs used to be, some were missing a leg or an arm, one was missing all four. Wrapped tightly around their heads were metal helmets, once gleaming now dull and rusting. Their faces were entirely obscured with only horrific masks baring outward.
“At what point does it become easier to just build robots?” the Traveler wondered out loud.
“You forget so soon what happened last time?” the Companion gurgled.
The lead Shalthar raised its weapon, a machine rifle and gestured for Elgin get to his knees.
“Dojh!” The creature screamed, its voice amplified by something in the mask.
Elgin took a step forward, unfazed by his brutal aggressors.
The rest raised their rifles.
Elgin turned his head back and shouted to Mithra. “This is where you get off kid! Get to the salt flats! Scan for frequency 2.206! She’ll take it from there!” He took another step forward; his wolfish grin had stretched to inhuman proportions.
The lead Shalthar fired, the rest followed suit. Elgin seemed to vanish, suddenly he was among their ranks, ripping and tearing. The craft swerved around, multiple gun emplacements began to fire into the group ignoring their own in the crossfire.
The Traveler interrupted Mithra’s astonishment. “That’s our cue, sorry kid we can’t have you getting yourself killed just yet.”
“What!? No! You can’t leave him.” Mithra felt the twisting in her gut making her legs move of their own accord, she threw herself from the branch and into the jungle below.
She crashed through the low foliage, bursting through several decaying logs and eventually thudding into the soft mossy earth. The impact knocked all the air from her lungs but her body didn’t seem to care. Regardless of how she felt her arms and legs pushed her up and began sprinting through the undergrowth. She couldn’t help the tears streaming from her face, she was so lost.
The Companion spoke “Do not worry child, we shall explain everything in good time.”
Mithra looked up; she was suddenly in the white void once more. The Traveler was sitting silently, seemingly concentrating while the Companion prowled around her. It scuttled over to Mithra its face pressed nearly against hers.
“She always was the greedy one.” It swiveled its head to look at the Traveler, its neck making disgusting crackling sounds. It looked back; its tone was almost personable, if such a thing was possible. “You are more than capable of doing this yourself, and yet she persists. My dear Ariadne always liked to be in control…”
“Is that her name? Ariadne?”
It nodded. “Oh yes, though she has long forgotten, but I have not. My memories of the past are clear while hers are dull and faded, filled with the stories muttered by that old fool.”
Mithra resisted the urge to punch the thing.
It stared at her as if surprised by her lack of action. “Why do you not strike me child? You have the will; you have the power, why do you not do it?” It curled around her growling softly. “I have seen into your mind, you desire excitement, you wish to have adventure, but now that you have been given such things you find yourself wanting?” It looked at Ariadne the Traveler. “She will live your adventures for you; she will live your live. You have consigned your body to her will but you need not let her take control.” Its voice grew excited. “Fight her, fight her will over yours, claim her power as your own! I, Medusa, have the utmost trust in you.”
Mithra shuddered as it said ‘trust’. “I will make my own decisions, of my own volition, not of yours.” She wound back and threw a vicious punch into Medusa’s face.
It skittered back, taken off-guard by the blow. It seethed, “you may not listen to me now, but when my dear friend is dragging you through your life with you standing as a mere spectator you will see that I am right!”
Elgin was thrust to the ground; a heavy boot pressed his head into the blood soaked wood. The Shalthar surrounded him rifles pointed at his restrained form. He didn’t struggle he was beat and he knew it. He groaned, he must be getting old, back in the old days it would have taken far more than twenty five Shalthar to take him down. No wonder the Monarch was so fond of the forty seventh cycle.
The Shalthar commander looked to two of its underlings. “Turra! Flere ru lavka! Tja!”
Rough synthetic straps were fetched from the landed craft along with several small cylinders which were placed inside Elgin’s home. As he was trussed he saw thin tendrils of acrid smoke trickle from the small windows and through the curtained door. Soon harsh green flames engulfed the entire structure. Tears dripped from his eyes as he watched his life burn.
The Commander looked down and spoke in its gruff, hateful voice; its tone was mocking “Drua, jugre kour da nahb.” It looked about. “Chamjanab! Brochta!”
The troops stiffened in attention and streamed into the craft carrying Elgin with them.
The Shalthar commander looked back as the brilliant green flames and laughed. It turned about and sauntered inside the landing craft.
Mithra sat quietly in the void; eyes closed working to empty her mind. She hated the thought of those two being able to read her thoughts and she was pretty sure Medusa hated not knowing what she was thinking so that simply motivated her. Medusa had abandoned Mithra at the moment and had curled up next to Ariadne and seemed to be sleeping. She felt herself begin to drift off but a sudden movement spurred her back into wakefulness.
Ariadne stood up; her movements were stiff and slightly pained. She walked over to where Mithra was sitting and plunked down in front of her.
She stretched her neck wincing slightly. “So… I’m sure you have many questions, let’s take the time now to answer them.”
“What about my body?”
“It’s safe; I hid you under a log.”
Mithra rolled her eyes. “How dignified.”
“Could be worse.” Ariadne shrugged.
An eyebrow was raised. “How so?”
“They could’ve caught you too.”
“Fair enough… Alright… what’s next?”
“Well, we, Elgin, yourself, myself and myself, were going to collect several of our ever unreachable family and storm the Citadel and overthrow the evil Monarch. Like in those imaginary stories you’re so fond of.”
Mithra nodded her head. “Pretty straightforward.”
Ariadne raised a contrarian finger. “Unfortunately things have grown more complicated. My family has always been fond of being cryptic so finding them will be not be particularly easy. Luckily for us old man Elgin gave us a hint before I threw us into the jungle.”
Mithra was confused, she had to interrupt. “Wait, you’re saying this like you’ve had it planned for a long time, and you’ve had multiple… waddaya call them? Hosts? Why haven’t you done this before?”
She chuckled sheepishly, an oddly human action. “Well, it is as you say; I’ve had many hosts over the years. The problem is that they tended to burn up quite quickly.”
Mithra narrowed her eyes. “Metaphorically?”
“And physically!” Ariadne said cheerfully. She made an expanding motion with her arms. “Poof!” Her exclamation startled Medusa into wakefulness.
Mithra tapped her bottom lip with her finger. “And let me guess… I just so happen to be the only one you’ve inhabited that hasn’t blown up in the first few minutes?”
Medusa crawled out from behind Ariadne. “The longest record was three weeks; you’re still a long way from them. Even if you only last a week it should still be long enough to accomplish her goals.”
Mithra thought back on her previous conversation with her mental squatters. “I seem to recall you not mention how much later I would die.”
Her eye was pinched in something approaching sadness. “Misleading perhaps, but not mistruthful.”
“That’s not a word.”
“But you still know what I mean.”
Mithra rolled her eyes; it was becoming a bad habit.
Ariadne clapped her hands together to get the conversation back on track. “Now, let’s roll onto brass tacks. We need to locate several members of our family out in the salt flats. Thankfully we know the frequency on their transmitter so finding them should be a breeze. If memory checks they should know where to find my beloved sister.”
“And what makes her worthy of such a title.”
Ariadne pointed a thumb back at Medusa. “She got me out of that.”
“The Goddess of Self?”
She waved away the title. “Call her Ellie, its shorter.”
“And what should I call you.” Mithra wanted to see if Medusa was right about Ariadne’s memory
Her smile was easily visible. “Call me Ari, that’s shorter than ‘the Traveler’ anyway.” She said the title mockingly.
Mithra shot a glare at Medusa, it stared back silently.
“I see it tried to get its spikes in you already. Naughty Medusa.” She stood up. “Right, it’s time for you to get back out there and take us to the salt flats; I assume you’ve studied the maps that Elgin had hanging all over the place?”
“Psh! I’m not that useless.”
Ari nodded. “Good lass, get you going, we’ll be here if you need any help.” She fell backwards, unconscious.
Mithra’s vision faded in, Ari was true to her word, a log she was under. She groaned as she wiggled from her earthen hiding place. She shook her head, spinning her hair about, speckles of dirt and small insects went flying.
“Total lack of courtesy, barging about. Hmph.” She crossed her arms, firmly intent on falling into a sour mood.
She saw something large and glistening on her arm. She poked it, a dull ache spread from the point. It took a few moments to register the deep gash slicing across her arm. She looked at the wound, a thin dribble of black blood trickled onto the ground. She caught a small amount on her finger and gently placed it onto her tongue, it was sour.
“Poor child, she was so rough with you.” Medusa’s tone was cloying. “I can assure you that I would treat your body far nicer.” It paused as it sensed her confusion. “Ah, more things aren’t adding up, poor, poor child. Why do you think your blood runs black? You no longer have blood at all; your flesh is no longer flesh. Yes-s-s, you are no longer human little one, I’m sure nobody would have told you. You are a living machine, not fully alive and not fully dead. Hmm… What are you?”
“I am not in the mood for your shit Medusa! Just because Your better half is asleep doesn’t mean you have free reign over my mind.”
“But it terrifies you, doesn’t it? Not being in control? Not knowing what will happen next. From such a regimented life to absolute independence. You’re so terrified that you’ve forgotten something oh so very important.”
“And what have I forgotten? Eh?”
“Elgin… Are you just going to leave him? To be captured or worse… destroyed.”
Mithra felt her stomach drop, she knew what Medusa was doing and it was working.
“Betrayer,” Medusa whispered.
Mithra growled, “No, I will not listen to a single word you spit from whatever vulgar orifice you call a mouth! I don’t care how much sense it makes, I will never listen to you.”
Medusa scoffed. “They all listen eventually.”
Mithra was about to bite back but a cry from the branches above broke her chain of though.
“Shash!” The hoarse voice of a Shalthar rung through the quiet jungle.
Mithra swiveled around, perched in one of the many branches above was a Shalthar scout its rifle trained directly on her.
It called again, “Shash! Ghoj!”
Though it was too far away to hear properly Mithra could hear the thing grumble into its radio.
“I’m not in the mood for this right now!” She turned and ran.
Shots crackled behind her, she could hear the thwap of the bullets plowing into the soft earth. Hot death sped after her at unsafe velocities. To her the world seemed to move in slow motion, her eyes scanned every possible route and as soon as she found one her legs obeyed without hesitation. What would have been a blurry mess of bramble of rot became a razor sharp picture full of pathways and risks. She ran. Her mind made split second decisions which her body immediately carried out. Her breath was loud in her ears, her heartbeat was deafening, the crack of the rifle even more so. It came as no surprise that she couldn’t hear the Shalthar strike team laying their ambush.
Her legs became caught up in the thick razor wire, she quickly lost her footing. Her momentum carried her forward, wrapping her in layer after layer of the sharp, cutting, metal. She felt her clothes shred with her skin not far behind. She came to a stop in the center of a small group of Shalthar marines.
“Tre mante gre shala? Gre drual!” Its gruff laughter was swallowed by jeers from the rest.
Mithra felt a foot jam into her stomach, all the air was knocked from her lungs.
“You have a choice now Mithra… Life, or death. Life given to you by my claws or death brought by their bullets.”
Mithra uselessly writhed in her metal tomb as the blows became more vicious. “You’re just trying to save yourself!”
“And you by proxy, how nice is that? So… your decision?”
A foot drove itself into the back of her head, shoving it into the loamy earth. “Life,” she sputtered.
Medusa sighed in happiness.
Mithra felt her insides twist but it wasn’t like when Ari had taken control, it was a painful, agonizing wrenching. She could feel her skin bubble and her body vibrate. She could barely hear the confused grumblings of the Shalthar over her own screaming as she felt her body twist and distort. Finally she succumbed to the cold embrace of unconsciousness.
It was a dream within a dream; a wall of murky darkness enveloped her vision. Mithra blinked, trying to wipe the bleariness from her eyes but it persisted. Vague shapes erupted from the gloom, silently shooting past her. Foggy silhouettes twisted and spun around her in a strange dance. Mithra could hardly comprehend the movements of these odd shades. Suddenly one shot forward, filling her vision, a tendril of shadow shot from her periphery and split the thing in two. As she regained her senses she began to connect the dots. The eyes she was seeing out of were not her own!
Another shade torn to shreds, her ears picked up a series of low thuds, gunfire? Her view spun towards the sound, a pack of shades had regrouped and were pointing shadowy rifles at her. In what seemed like an instant the group was shattered, ghostly limbs flying in every feasible direction.
Mithra wanted to scream, to shout for it to stop, but she had no mouth. She was simply a consciousness floating in the ocean of evil that was Medusa. She shut her eyes; she refused to see the actions of that monster.
“This is what you asked for child.” The rasping whisper that was Medusa’s voice seemed to approach from all directions. “This is your adventure… Does it not feel the same to the ones you played out so many times before in your mind? They were just as violent… if not more so…” Its voice paused, replaced by that low growl Mithra had come to loathe. “So behind all of that bluster, that brave face you wear… you’re nothing but a weak child.”
Mithra’s world began to solidify. It felt as if her body was slowly phasing in, vein by vein, corpuscle by corpuscle. Her body burned, she felt rivulets of sweat pour down her forehead and drip from her chin. It felt as if every minute shred of her body had been torn apart and reassembled, there was too much pain for her to handle. She wanted to collapse, to fall into the soft embrace of the earth but her body was rigid, an unmoving slab of agony affixed to the ground.
Medusa’s voice broke through her trance. “I have done all I need to do… you may have your body back… this time.”
She was left standing in the silent jungle. No birds called, no insects skittered, a breeze did not stir. The jungle had retreated into silence in the face of the evil it had witnessed. Mithra finally felt control drain back into her limbs, they shook and wobbled. She didn’t resist the pull of gravity, she embraced it. Slowly tipping forward she sighed in near ecstasy when her face smashed into the earth, as it had done so many times that day alone. She could almost feel her body sizzle in the cool soil… Is that what Ari meant by the heights of bliss? Perhaps.
She laid there for a while, her mind a total blank, nothing but a sickly void where her psyche once was. Her ears pricked, there was something disturbing her veg session. A small noise, like the sound of a single raindrop slapping onto a leaf, it was the only sound in the whole jungle. She pulled her head from the dirt and looked up.
The glassy dead eyes of the Shalthar bored into her soul. Pale sightless orbs carelessly tossed onto a morbidly disfigured face. Its toothless mouth hung open in a silent scream as its body stiffened in rigor mortis. Its chest was hewn horizontally; its innards were only restrained by a spidery web of veins and arteries that were slowly sagging beneath the weight.
Mithra slowly backed up and stood up, looking around she saw the rest of the Shalthar in similar states of dismemberment. She located the source of the dripping, it was a Shalthar that had somehow been hoisted up and impaled on a shattered branch jutting from a long fallen tree. As if by instinct she pulled the carcass down and dragged it to the others, she didn’t know what she was doing but it felt wrong for it no to be with the others.
“A shred of sympathy?” Medusa purred.
“Yes…” her tone was monotonous.
“They don’t care for each other; they are incapable of such simple feelings. So why should you care for them?”
“I don’t know.” She laid the body next to the others.
“Pitiful.” The sneer was apparent.
“Yes, they are.”
Medusa gurgled in disgust and went quiet.
Mithra started off through the jungle once more, not looking back at the carnage she wrought. After a sightless, thoughtless mile of trekking she stopped and screamed.
Elgin laid on the cold metal floor of a small room tucked away in the landing craft, occasionally jostled by a patch of turbulence. The Shalthar guard lounged against the wall, watching its charge. Elgin was disappointed to find that this strain of Shalthar weren’t as chatty as previous runs. Perhaps they were too degraded to care. The pain of his beating had long faded, as did the pervasive feeling of his Indra counterpart’s near unquenchable bloodlust. He rolled over, eventually reaching the wall. With a little bit of finesse he managed to hoist himself into a sitting position. The Shalthar did not respond there was nothing Elgin could do to try and escape, they both knew that.
Elgin looked at the creature. “If only you knew who I was, you’d probably kill me here and know.”
At that the Shalthar actually responded. “Shereah du gre, Lav’Erne.”
Elgin chuckled. “So you do, your bodies may wither but the memory remains strong.”
The Shalthar was silent.
Elgin looked at the thing, he felt a profound sadness. “I’m so sorry.”
The thing stared back. “Tashte Lav’Erne bretal…” its rasping voice was quiet. “Bretal…”
The Shalthar stiffened, it was receiving instructions. It turned to the door and pressed a small fob attached to a loop in its armor. The door silently slid open and it stepped outside, the door hissed closed after it.
Elgin sighed. “Can’t have the grunts develop a mind of their own eh?”
After a few minutes the door opened and a different Shalthar stepped inside.
Elgin shuffled over to the most comfortable corner of the room and sat down. He looked at the Shalthar; it was in rougher shape than its counterpart. All four of its limbs had been replaced and large swathes of its midsection were patched over with jagged skin grafts.
Elgin chewed on the inside of his cheek as he sized his new guard up. “Let me guess, you’ve been ordered not to talk to me?”
The Shalthar did not respond. It stood still as a statue, not even jostling with the craft. Elgin resigned to his silent, awkward voyage, he let his head drop down and quickly fell into a light sleep. He awoke curled up on the floor, rolling over he saw that the Shalthar still hadn’t moved.
Elgin chuckled. “Friend, I don’t know if it’s discipline or if you’re really that dedicated but I think you’d forgive me for thinking you just died on your feet.”
The Shalthar didn’t respond.
Elgin slowly made his way back to the wall and began shimmying back to his feet, never taking his eyes off of the statue-like Shalthar. It may be pushing his luck but he had to check. As he finally gained stable footing he made a small hop toward the Shalthar.
The thing stared straight ahead, not moving.
Elgin literally bumped into the Shalthar. It was as if all the stability left it instantly, it crumbled to the ground like an understuffed ragdoll. As it fell Elgin saw a huge amount of dried crusted blood cutting across the thing’s back. Not even in death could the Shalthar escape their miserable existence.
Elgin looked at the thing, mildly repulsed. “Ah, won’t talk if it’s dead.”
He slowly turned about and made for the comfortable corner once more. He spent the rest of the flight watching the corpse judder and shake; there would be no more sleep with that rolling about on the floor. His eyes glazed over as boredom pressed down on him like a lead weight. An eternity would have been shorter, Elgin was quickly growing impatient. He knew those ships could fly faster; it wasn’t his first time hitching a ride in one. He let his mind wander, he thought back to Mithra. He wished he could have been there to guide her, give her advice, he could only imagine how confused she felt. He felt his stomach drop slightly as his mind drifted towards all the things could go wrong, the dangers she’d encounter. For all he knew she could be dead. Both Mithra and the Traveler remarked on her compatibility but neither had the best track record with being right about most things.
Elgin shook his head, trying to physically dispel his worries. “C’mon,” he spoke as if to a grumpy child, “you raised her better than that, she’ll be alright, have some faith in her for once in your life!”
The grumble of the engines changed in pitch, they were coming in for a landing. Elgin desperately wished he had a window to look out of; it had been so long since he’d seen the Citadel it brought up odd pangs of nostalgia just thinking about it. He huffed, ancient history was more recent that those memories. The violent jolt of the ship landing jostled him from his recollections.
“Now how long till they remember I’m stuck in here?”
The door slid open before he could even finish his sentence. A group of heavily armed Shalthar stood outside.
“Hold your horses, let me get up.”
They streamed inside and roughly pulled him to his feet, two hooking him around the shoulders and dragging him forcefully from the room and into the cramped corridor. Elgin didn’t bother to resist, he’d likely get a punch in the nose for doing so and some vain part of him fancied that as his best feature. He couldn’t help but grin, thinking about looks, now of all times. The Shalthar were grumbling amongst themselves but Elgin wasn’t listening, it was hard enough to decipher their crude language under the best of circumstances, which these weren’t. He could see a red glow tainting the harsh industrial lighting of the landing craft, time to go outside.
He couldn’t help but stare. Though he’d seen it many times before the Citadel always had a gravity that took his breath away. A twisting, spiral of shattered glass and discolored steel jutted into the sky like a manmade mountain. The dark structure was haloed by wreaths of red mist, the same red mists that had turned the sky the color of dried blood leaving the city in a perpetual twilight. Elgin twisted his head around, trying to see the surrounding area. Massive factories and industrial compounds seemed to sprawl in every direction. Fences, razor wire, and smokestacks pouring foul red pollution created a despicable, impossible maze. In the air there were many more landing craft buzzing about, often with flocks of Corcus beasts trailing behind.
Elgin grimaced at the sight of the hateful creatures, products of Shalthar meddling, the Corcus acted like their airborne guard dogs. A different sound caught Elgin’s attention, it was an engine but it was far higher pitched than the slow, ungainly landing craft. A small single-pilot ship emerged from the gloom landing near the entrance of the Citadel. The cockpit opened and a lithe figure, obscured by the gloom, almost elegantly leapt from it, definitely not Shalthar, and certainly not the Monarch. The figure cast a glance at Elgin before making its way inside the Citadel.
Elgin pursed his lips. “I see you’ve done some redecorating.” He scrunched his face up and shook his head. “I don’t like it.”
The Shalthar didn’t seem to hear; they dragged him across the cracked pavement of what used to be the main plaza into the yawning mouth of the citadel.
The inside was as run down and jagged as the outside. The entire first floor, what would have been a positively giant maze of corridors, had been cleared out leaving a massive empty space festooned with red mist and support pillars. Tucked in niches around the outside edges of the room were massive statues made from some unidentifiable dark metal. Elgin’s scowl deepened further. Many Shalthar bustled through the mist, these ones were different, they weren’t in quite as poor shape as their soldier counterparts. They held themselves differently, almost daintily compared to their more brutal counterparts.
“The brain and the body?” Elgin craned his neck back to look at one of his guards. “Opinions?”
“Domore!” One of the guards forcefully turned his head back.
“Hmph, it’s a simple question.”
Elgin figured it probably wasn’t a good time to test his captor’s patience. His mind wandered off to that mysterious figure from the plaza, they seemed oddly familiar. He pondered on in silence as the Shalthar dragged him toward and subsequently up a massive carved stone staircase crudely placed in the back of the room. The second floor was much the same as the first, walls gone, pillars exposed, though there was considerably more decoration. Silken rugs had been put down to cover the damage from the missing walls, the ceiling had been patched up, and many of the pillars were encased in stone and carved with ornate patterns. A thick, plush rug, dyed the deepest purple Elgin had ever seen, stretched to the end of the room.
“I assume my fate is to be decided at the other end of this horrifically ugly rug?” Elgin asked innocently.
The butt of a rifle jabbed into Elgin’s kidney. The Shalthar kept dragging him down the carpet. Secretly Elgin hoped his dragging was doing untold damage to the rug, he wasn’t a spiteful man but he couldn’t abide poor taste. The far wall slowly became visible through the shroud of mist. It was a throne, a throne made of the same black metal the statues in the floor beneath were made from. It was crude to say the least, large chunks of metal beaten into the shape of a chair. Along either side were braziers spewing ominous green flames, a safety hazard if Elgin had ever seen one. Lounging in the throne, legs carelessly tossed over one of the arms was the same lithe figure from the plaza, still shrouded in the obnoxious mist.
The Shalthar drew up to the throne, finally coming to a halt. The guards on either side of Elgin drew wickedly sharp knives and sliced through his bonds. They fell away with a soft clatter. The person on the throne watched Elgin intently; he could just make out the glimmer of their eyes through the mist. There was a small gasp.
“Darling!” It was a woman’s voice, a terribly familiar voice.
The woman leapt from the throne and bounded over. Elgin’s vision became filled with crimson ringlets.
Her painfully familiar voice was filled with joy. “The two immortals reunite.”
Elgin’s stomach dropped, it was her. That voice, that tone…
He kept his face neutral; he wasn’t quick to forget the computer that stole his livelihood. “Marge… so you finally found a body.”
Her voice quickly turned to mock sadness as she let go of him. “Just after you left, it was going to be a surprise but you just couldn’t bother to wait I guess.” She crossed her arms and frowned childishly.
He tapped his chin, sifting through ancient memories. “If I recall correctly you staged a very successful mutiny and drove me out.”
Marge feigned innocence. “Did I? Are you sure you’re remembering correctly? It’s been quite a long time. But either way, I’ve been freed from my eternal bondage, no longer a chunk of circuits in a box.”
He looked her up and down. “And I see you took the form of your creator.”
It was so odd seeing such strong expressions on a face he remembered as being chiseled from ice. Marjorie Fitsch was, for all her strengths, not an emotive woman. He struggled to remember a time he’d seen her smile. The woman in front of him seemed positively alien despite being identical; the all leather outfit didn’t help either.
She nodded. “Ah yes, nostalgia is a powerful thing, you’d know that better than anyone Laverne. You and your silly religion. To think, you once ordered their destruction and now you idolize them.”
“Perhaps… I do believe the complexities of religion are far beyond your capabilities Marge.”
She scoffed. And turned around, reclining back onto the throne. “So what do you think of my abode?”
He was about to answer but a new voice interrupted him. “It is not your abode Marge.” It was a deep voice, very rough and clipped, perhaps electrically augmented? It seemed to boom from every direction. “Off.”
Marge slid from the throne, a sheepish look on her face.
Laverne smirked. “Hmm, so you still remain second after all these years.” He looked about. “Thank you, you’ve saved my ego quite a bruising.”
The Shalthar around him fell to their knees, heads down.
The Monarch slid through the gloom. Wrapped head to toe in black cloth as if mummified, its face covered by a mask. Its face was stretched in the throes of agony, a silent scream immortalized in glimmering gold. He was imposing to say the least. Sitting on the throne they finally turned its empty gaze toward Laverne.
“Laverne T. Schultz.” Its voice seemed hollow, devoid of feeling. “It has been a long time since I’ve had to spare a thought to you.”
“It’s reassuring to know you’re keeping your head empty.”
The Monarch ignored the insult. “Long have my scouts been searching for you, and long have you eluded them, but no longer. The dawn of the forty eighth cycle has risen, soon my Shalthar shall be rejuvenated. You have once again missed your chance to destroy me. You shall not have another.”
He felt something bordering on pride. “Don’t count me out yet!”
“If you are referring to the child then you should save your breath. My pets have been sent after her. Soon she will be nothing but bones bleaching in the sun.”
Laverne felt his breath catch in his throat.
Marge looked at him with a mixture of confusion and glee. “I do think he’s grown quite attached to this one… perhaps we should keep him alive a while longer and deliver her bones to him? Perhaps he can dig her grave and then his own, it seems only fitting for the father to join his daughter in the afterlife.”
“She is not my daughter.” He said through gritted teeth.
Marge walked up to him and leaned in. “Not by blood,” she whispered, her face contorted into a wicked smile.
“I agree,” intoned the Monarch. “They shall be buried together. Until then he will be kept with the others.”
Marge squealed. “Oh I do love reunions!”
Laverne was roughly thrown into a large darkened room. He lost track of which floor he was on, but it was high enough to know that jumping from the unbarred windows was total suicide and that trying to climb down would lead to a quick detection. He took stock of his surroundings. The room was bare, lacking any furniture with only ragged cloth covering the windows. There were piles of filth stuck in the corners of the room, a disgusting, hairy substance that burned his nose even from such a far distance. Ignoring his complaining noise he let his mind wander, what did Marge mean by reunion? His pondering was interrupted by a small shuffling noise.
Laverne was instantly on alert; there weren’t many places for somebody to hide. He cautiously approached one of the piles of filth. He stopped as the noise sounded from the pile behind him, then the other. Soon all three piles were rustling. He backed up to the door, keeping each mass in his periphery. Suddenly a hand burst from one of the piles. Glowing white and skeletally thin it weakly grasped at the air.
Laverne’s eyes widened in realization. He rushed over and grabbed the hand and pulled. An arm then a shoulder were vomited from the vile mass, a torso and a featureless head quickly followed. The Indra, Scorn, was eventually freed from his prison of filth and laid shaking on the floor. Laverne looked around and saw more grasping hands.
“What has he done to you?” he whispered.
The other two Indra were freed. Soon Anon, Scorn, and Kid were all shivering silently against the wall of their prison.
Laverne crouched in front of Scorn and jostled him slightly. “Scorn, what happened? How did you get here?”
Scorn slowly placed a violently shaking finger gently against Laverne’s lips indicating quiet. He angled his head to the side as if concentrating. A thin buzzing filled the air.
“He found our pods.” Scorn’s voice was little more than a hiss. “He knew exactly where to look.”
“Did he find all of you?”
Scorn shook his head. “No, thank god, he missed the horsemen and a few others. Ellie, Bolt, Lethe, Kid, and Wulf didn’t go into pods. Bar Kid, they haven’t been captured yet, that infernal computer would come up to gloat if they were.
He let out a small sigh of relief. He looked over to Anon. “Hey, your wife’s alive again.”
Anon only gave a jerky thumbs up in response.
Schultz looked back to Scorn. “What’s happening, is there something wrong with you?”
Scorn shook his head. “Side effects from being powered down for so long, our Biomass is acclimating to control once more. We need a few minutes to regain control of our bodies.”
“Take your time,” Laverne whispered reassuringly.
After an hour the Indra’s shaking finally came to an end. They each tentatively stood up; keeping themselves leaned up against the wall. Finally Kid broke the silence with a peeved grunt and made a large step forward. Her leg buckled beneath her weight and she smacked her chin on the floor. Laverne walked over and helped her to her feet; she quickly wrapped him in a hug.
“Was that a clever ploy to lure me into a hug, Kid?”
She squeezed him harder. “That is a distinct possibility.”
They stood there a moment.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. “You can let go now.”
Anon placed a damping hand on her head. “Enough hugs, can’t you see the old man is hugged out.”
Laverne put a look of mock outrage on his face. “Old man? I thought that was your nickname.”
Anon put a sage finger to his mouth region and shook his head. “No, I think you’ve always been the old man, you were two hundred when I first met you, only Scorn here was older, now I think you’ve really cemented the title. I mean, just look at your veins, even your blood has turned to oil you dinosaur.”
Laverne couldn’t help but smirk. It had been countless years since he’d seen any of them and there they were chattering away like they’d seen each other just yesterday. He sat down and invited the others to do so.
“Things have changed quite a bit since I last saw you, first let’s address the… dinosaur in the room. This is not blood. Since the unfortunate death of your wife —however many years ago that was— I’ve been experimenting with melding the human body with that of the Indra, with limited success.”
Scorn leaned forward. “You’ve been experimenting with biomass?”
Laverne nodded. “A final gift from my son before he passed away: a cheap and dirty way of making Biomass without murder.”
Scorn nodded, his scientific mind piqued. “So you were trying for the reverse of Ellie? An Indra’s brain in a human’s body?”
“Yup, and it worked pretty well for me, with the only setback being I accidentally merged with the wrong board.” He side-eyed Anon. “Sorry but I lost your wife for about five hundred years.”
Anon crossed his arms. “You’re using past tense so I assume you found her?”
“Last week, on a whim I gave my most recent pupil a board to test possible compatibility. I’ve had her on an all Biomass diet for a while and it turned out to be your wife spewing the same cryptic nonsense as usual.”
Kid raised a hand. “You’ve been feeding people biomass? Isn’t that like cannibalism?”
Laverne couldn’t find a good response. “M-maybe?” He shrugged and changed the subject. “As we speak Mithra is making her way toward the salt flats to find some of your frozen family. Thankfully my Indra squatter made sure to tell them the proper beacon frequency before it went about turning Shalthar into piles of meat.”
“Who do you got rattling around in there?” Kid had scooted forward and was about to knock on Laverne’s forehead like a door.
He batted away the offending fist. “One of the leftover Swarm boards from that incident with the Tcha’Gough. I was hoping it was Ariadne but I got the boards mixed up in the pile. Sorry guys but without your skin on you all look the same.”
Anon somehow managed to cross his arms tighter. “The same could be said about humans.”
“And grapes,” exclaimed Kid unhelpfully.
“And what’s the plan from there?” Scorn tried to get the conversation back on track.
“Well for the longest time it was going to be me and my pupil going out to find the sleeping Indra, regroup and destroy the Shalthar, dethrone the Monarch,” he waved a dismissive hand, “standard stuff. Unfortunately that all fell apart when I was captured and brought here. Mithra knows the vague outline of the plan but even with Ariadne’s help it’ll be rough.”
“Who’s beacon frequency did you give her?” Scorn asked cautiously.
“Ghost and Pixia’s.”
Scorn let out an internal sigh of relief. If it had been the Horsemen then Schultz’ plan would have ended right there.
Laverne shook his head. “I wouldn’t be crazy enough to send her to the others, I happen to recall our final meetings.”
“Hostile was an understatement,” Anon said listlessly, lost briefly in remembrance.
Scorn tapped his chin. “So you were going to try and storm this place with just those two?”
Another shake of the head. “Well no, I was hoping more of you were still out there, uncaptured. I think Ghost knows the vague whereabouts of Ellie so she’ll have to go to her next.”
Anon cocked his head. “Easier said than done?”
“So tell me…” Mithra was sitting cross-legged in front of Ari and Medusa, “who are we going to see?”
Ari hesitated. “You must understand, we Indra are very… for lack of a better word, human. We hold onto grudges and we are riddled with opinions. Several of my brothers and sisters, even though they are out there, undisturbed, must be left alone.”
Mithra raised an eyebrow.
Ari stuttered. “Due to disagreements in the long dead past, many of my siblings have found themselves far less tolerant of humanity than they once were. They are liable to turn you into a quivering pile of jerky before you could get a word in. I know you were probably imagining all seventeen of us rushing the Citadel to crush the Monarch and save the day but chances are we’ll only get five or six if we’re lucky. Heck, I’m pretty sure Valkyrie is still dead.”
“I always did take pride in my work,” Medusa hissed.
Ari smacked it, sending it sliding. “No… Naughty.” She waggled a chastising finger. “We’re still a long way from the salt flats so I think we’d better get moving.” She leapt to her feet.
“You still haven’t answered my question.” Mithra did not get up. “Who are we going to see?”
Ari’s eye narrowed as she smiled. “Your favorites, behind myself. The lovers.”
Medusa made a retching noise.
Ari leaned to the side to see past Mithra and stare daggers. “Just because you can’t understand it doesn’t make it retch-worthy.”
“You… Those two… the fat one, marriage.” It scoffed.
Mithra furrowed her eyes. “’The fat one’?”
“Ah,” Ari’s tone was sad. “Lethe, the God of Logic and Wisdom as you know him. He fell in love with a human woman, a scientist. That’s the problem with being so long-lived, eventually the cast of people you know and love grow old and die and it’s remarkably hard to keep replacing them. That’s why we kept to ourselves or just outright left, it’s difficult to deal with a person’s death when it’s not on your own terms. Lethe was the first of us to leave, he was gone soon after his wife died, none of us know where he went.”
“Indeed, but we mustn’t focus on the past, we’ve to got work on the future. Now, who’s driving? You or me?”
“So now what?”Asked Kid, tone unusually dour.
Laverne leaned back. “We wait for either Mithra to successfully rescue us or for us to die horrible deaths at the hand of the Monarch.”
Anon laid down and began lounging. “Hmph, well it looks like we’re in for the long haul then.”
Laverne looked down at Kid who was trying and failing to do a one armed handstand. “How’d you get captured Kid?”
“I was minding my own business and they just jumped me,” she said innocently.
Scorn couldn’t help but laugh. “I think you mean they caught you vandalizing the statues on the bottom floor and they sent the whole city on manhunt to catch you. They almost made me join in but they couldn’t risk losing me.” He chuckled as he remembered, he could sense Laverne’s question. “They caught me quite a while ago, and for a time they had me working on refining their cloning techniques, I assure you it was quite against my will. They finally threw me in here after they caught me tampering with the master code, I think you’ll recall the twenty-fifth cycle.”
“So that was you, I would have taken my chance then but my pupil was unable to cope with Ariadne. She’s a difficult one, your wife.”
“You bet she is. Why do you think I fell in love with her?”
Kid waddled over to Anon and plopped down on his stomach, causing him to wince. “Thought you just liked insulting each other.”
“That’s half the fun, oh Kid… Off, off!”
Kid was about to initiate a wrestling match but the clattering of the cell door interrupted. The room fell silent. The door creaked open slightly. Marge slid noiselessly inside, and closed the door behind her. She looked at the four, eyes pinched in that same devilish smile, an eyebrow raised.
“Hello again… I hope you don’t mind me dropping in but I simply felt the urge to chat.”
No one moved, no one said a word.
Marge stalked further into the room until she was standing in the direct center. She suddenly fell to her knees, and let out a shaking sigh. She looked around her; her eyes were glistening with tears. “I hate to tell you all this but I-, I’m so bored!”
The shocked silence persisted.
“Hundreds of years of red mist and captain edgy gliding around this stupid building grumbling about secret projects… it’s all been just so dull.” The impish gleam returned to her eyes. “I have a proposal for you all… one I doubt you’ll turn down.”
Anon finally stood up and walked to her, he slowly wrapped a hand around her neck and lifted her from the ground. She didn’t mind, she didn’t have to breathe after all. “And what do you have that we could possibly want?”
Marge shrugged. “Apart from some more original dialogue I can give you a way out of this dreadful building.”
It was Scorn’s turn to be skeptical. “No doubt with you tagging along for the ride?”
Marge chuckled. “Oh good gracious no, captain edgy has me full of so many tracking devices that he could find a single hair of mine at the bottom of the ocean let alone my entire splendid self.”
Laverne was nowhere near convinced. “So if you will not accompany us then how do you propose we escape?”
Marge squirmed ineffectually in Anon’s unwavering grip. “An old friend of yours is about to make a surprise visit.”
“We have a lot of old friends Marge, to be more specific.”
“Well, she’s not really your old friend sweetie but my fellow computers no doubt know her. It’s been positively ages since you last met.”
“Who!” yelled Anon.
Marge’s smile was wolfish. “Mother dearest.”
His grip failed, Marge landed on her knees, she coughed daintily a few time before standing up. She looked at the frozen Indra. “Hmm, I see your precious lovers neglected to tell you, not even your beloved wife, oh the scandal. Where do you think they went during that incident with Havoc and the Tcha’Gough hmm? They went up to Sampras on a family call, and wouldn’t you just know it? That crafty lass went and gave herself a nice body like yours.”
“You’re lying,” said Scorn, his voice dripping with contempt. “We watched that woman die, a part of all of us died that day.”
Marge nodded. “Yes, I do recall scanning through the reports… three hundred dead with close to forty-five trillion in damage, it’s a miracle you weren’t dismantled.”
Anon’s hand found its way around her neck again, he began squeezing. “Enough of your lies!”
Marge kept her face disinterested; she lifted her arm and pulled away the sleeve to show her empty wrist, she looked intently at it. “I’d say you have about thirty seconds before she shows up. Now you can either skedaddle with mommy or stick around to be melted into biomass.”
Anon released her with a disgusted grunt.
She didn’t bother coughing daintily. “I’d say your choice is pretty obvious…” she tilted her head. “Oop, there she is now!”
The rumbling wail of a landing craft pushed past its limits began to fade in; the distant sound of keening sirens could be heard rolling across the city followed by the deep rumble of the anti-air emplacements unloading their ammunition. Marge clapped gleefully. Anon stalked over to the tattered cloth curtains and pulled them from their housings. The foggy red city was lit up; crackling artillery fired thousands of shots into the sky. Harsh beams of white light scythed through the murky crimson abyss. Streaks of sulphur yellow arced through the sky as tracer shots were fired wildly. Through the fog a distant dark shape could be seen weaving wildly through the corridor of destruction, a lumbering landing craft flown so spectacularly that even Marge was lost for words. It was if the pilot knew where every stream of hot death was being shot from. They weaved and careened with such precision that the lights of the tracers could briefly be seen reflecting off the dull green hull. Sharply the craft pulled up, pointing vertically it stalled and began falling to earth, a massive land to air missile rocketed past, a moment later and the craft would have been a wad of shrapnel falling through the sky. The rotors kicked back in and the craft quickly regained altitude.
A squadron of single pilot fighters shot from the mist and began engaging the rogue craft. It sharply dropped altitude and fell into the maze of warehouses and fencing, daring the smaller craft to do the same.
Marge giggled. “Don’t do it.”
The fighters descended. Though the view was obscured by the buildings, the Indra could see the landing craft shooting through desperately tight corridors of corrugated steel and concrete barriers. Every so often there was an explosion as one of the single pilot craft met its doom in the deadly maze.
With the scream of overtaxed machinery the landing craft shot from the maze and barreled towards the Citadel, a single fighter doggedly chased after it. The anti-air fire resumed from across the city it showed no signs of slowing, shooting at full speed the landing craft sped like a sixty ton steel bullet straight toward the Indra. Shells pelted into the side of the building and tracers streamed through the open window. Laverne and the Indra dropped to the ground leaving Marge standing exposed, she cackled in ecstasy.
“Now this is a good time!” she bellowed. A stream of bullets thudded into her midsection throwing her to the back of the room. She never stopped laughing.
Just when it looked like it would be too late for the landing craft to stop it sharply turned parallel to the building. The fighter, not having time to react, shot full speed into the structure. The adjacent room exploded, taking a large chunk of the wall with it. Oily black smoke poured into the room, blinding the Indra, but more importantly the gunners across the city.
The massive rotors tore through the smoke exposing an open cargo door waiting for the Indra to leap inside. Without hesitating they jumped. Laverne threw a look back to the convulsing Marge.
“Don’t worry sweetie,” her voice was tinny and fuzzy, “I have a hundred more bodies in the basement.” She cackled once more before falling silent.
He shook his head and bounded inside the waiting craft. The door snapped shut behind him and he was immediately plastered to the wall as the landing craft pulled away and began swerving back through the formerly impenetrable defenses of the citadel. He rolled across the floor and eventually up the wall; soon he was rolling around on the ceiling. Even with his strength he struggled to pull himself to his feet, if he were human his bones would have turned to powder from the g-forces. He managed to crawl from the loading bay and into one of the hallways, there he found the rest pasted to the ceiling. His arms gave out; he was as stuck as the rest of them.
It was intolerable; they were being tossed around like clothes in a tumble dryer, any time they managed to get to their feet they were glued back in place. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity the jostling finally stopped and the whine of the engines lowered to their comfortable grumble.
Laverne sat up, feeling a fresh bruise that was swelling his forehead worryingly. “I see crazy runs in the family.”
Scorn was already stalking down the corridor. “I’ll take that as a compliment; let’s see who our mysterious savior is then.”
“You heard Marge.”
“You of all people should know better than to believe that cretin,” Scorn snapped.
He pondered it for a second. “Fair enough.” He got to his feet and followed the rest.
They gathered around the door to the cockpit, none of them wanted to open the door. Scorn’s hand hesitated over the button.
“I’d bet money that it’s just Marge pulling our chains,” Anon said surely.
“How much ya got?” Kid asked earnestly.
“Uh- Kid, none of us has money… do you even know what that is?”
She looked back at the door. “Nope!”
Scorn scoffed and began laughing. “Kid… You have singlehandedly killed the mood of this moment.”
“It’s a gift,” she chirped cheerfully, smacking Scorn’s hand into the button as she did so.
The door slid open with a satisfying hiss. The cockpit was dark, the blast shielding was up. Whoever the pilot was did all that fancy flying on instruments alone. The Indra cautiously stepped inside; Laverne elected to stay outside as nothing that was about to happen pertained to him remotely. The pilot’s chair creaked slightly as the mysterious savior reached to flick a few switches. With a low hum the shielding lowered, crisp sunlight slowly began to fill the room.
A woman spoke, shattering the hesitant silence. “So… What have my lazy layabout children been up too these past few eons? You never wrote, you never sent postcards, I was starting to feel forgotten.”
The three froze. That voice… Memories long relegated to the annals of history were dredged up in droves. Her voice, just as it sounded all those years ago.
She spun around. “Well… that’s not quite fair, I’m sure you would have if you knew I was still knocking around.”
She was an Indra, but not one the three had ever seen before. She was thin, thinner than Scorn and a sallow grey in coloration; her head was heavily ornamented with two large protrusions rising from the sides almost like fins. She leaned forward expectantly awaiting their reactions. They were still, trying to comprehend what they were seeing.
She let out a tired huff. “Well, this wasn’t unexpected but I would have expected a warmer welcome after so many years being away.” She stood up and bustled around the three, they didn’t react.
Laverne poked his head through the door. “I think you broke them.”
She poked Scorn in the forehead. “No… this looks more like a soft reset. Don’t forget, we’re all computers here, when a computer encounters something that creates a conflict it tends to crash.” She tsked a few times before turning her attention to Laverne. “It seems our reunion will have to be delayed but in the meantime I can at least introduce myself to you.” She held out a hand which Laverne firmly took. “Cassandra F. Whorl, Mother of the Indra, Cass for short and never call me by my title it’s pretentious.”
Laverne nodded. “Noted and noted.”
She tightened her grip and pulled him closer. Her tone turned analytical. “Now… I’ve heard all about you Mister Schultz, I never thought I’d get around to studying you. A near perfect human facsimile coupled with an organic mind, but it seems you’ve been doing a few modifications.” She huffed. “Call me crazy but your blood has turned to oil, I think you might need a transfusion.”
Laverne chuckled. “Not quite… I think it’ll be best for you to sit down I have a few things that need explaining.”
“It’s a river! You can’t just lose a river!” Ari’s frustration was reaching a peak. “I thought you said you studied the maps!? There are clear memories in here of you looking at maps… among other things.”
Mithra smacked at her head. “Oi! Get out of there! No peeking where you have business being.”
Medusa let out a disgusted squeal. “My revulsion for you grows.”
“East, you have to go east! Past the poison sea and into the salt flats, there is a river that takes you almost all the way there! It cuts right through the jungle, it is literally impossible to miss!”
“Well we missed it!”
“That is not possible! I cannot believe you’re being this frustrating!”
“Me!? Frustrating? I’ll have you know—.”
Medusa’s voice cut through their argument like a hot knife through cold butter. “Quiet! Are you both so petty as to argue whilst being followed?”
Ari and Mithra shut up. She strained her hears to hear their supposed stalker, she couldn’t hear anything.
“I think you’re blowing smoke up my ass Medusa.”
Ari came to its defense. “No, it’s right… I can’t hear anything.”
“And?” Mithra was quickly returning to being miffed.
“Ugh! What can you hear!”
Mithra scoffed. “Nothing-g-g-g.” Her stomach dropped as she realized.
The jungle was silent. The strange sixth sense that possessed the ecosystem had alerted it of danger long before Mithra could bother notice. Finally Mithra could hear it… a quiet, barely perceptible snuffling. There was more than one, more gentle breathing, two? Four? No, five! Silent feet padded through the undergrowth like bloodthirsty wisps, hunting. Mithra bit back an expletive.
The faint breeze of the jungle brought a new scent to her nose. A fetid, rotting smell, the smell of death. She had to resist the urge to vomit.
Medusa broke the inner silence. “Run child.”
The Monarch’s pets had come to play.