A Gift

Varn « A Gift » The Fall

tagnone

16

16


Screee-

Ancient gears ground and turned above her, waxing their way across the many sides on the Spear’s storied height, marking the end of the Second Cycle. The shallows at the base of the riven thing guided her boat to their banks, readily docking her at the foot of the black thing before her. To her side, Varn shuffled just as he always did, a silent watcher indebted to his Fixer.

Screee-

Another scrape sighed as a flash of golden light bled down one of the many veins on the outer face of the Spear. Basha’s many brows rose as she peered down at where they’d gone, a gloom running deep below any pool or wayside. Behind her, she could faintly hear the moaning of many crawling, twisting things, be it bog-dancer or rotted worm, half-caught in lament.

The Searchers.

Such golden light was never before much of a hindrance to Basha. It was a sign the Maker still cared after all, a sign they had not abandoned them upon their fixture.

That wasn’t why Basha cared, of course.

It was a sign her role still mattered. After all, if she did not fix, the Searchers would not work, and if the Searchers would not work, then…

Well, that was a different story entirely.

The light now was… different. It was the wrong colour, it sputtered, it was weak. And furthermore, it stopped midway down the length of the Spear. It wasn’t supposed to do that.

Perhaps… the bog-dancers’ desires to sing have…

A low muttering took Basha from thought. Turning around, she saw Varn shiver onto the shore beside her, arms quaking in the dull light.

Of course, there was Varn.

Loneliness had eaten at old Basha, a loneliness that did not serve her task or purpose.

She had been a fool to not take the offer of the Aaru.

She cursed as she hobbled further up the bank, Varn’s keening whimpers worming their way into her old soul. At last, she turned back to face him, the empty thing’s very being however broken it was laid bare before her, eager for her presence, her touch, her… love.

“I’m sorry. I can’t, I-”

An ear-splitting call reverberated off the twisted reliefs of creation that traced the girth of the Spear. Even though Basha knew that Varn could not feel, could not choose, she still felt responsible for his grief. The dancer made no sign of stopping his mourning as hollow sounds split across the quaking bog, his shallow, faceless head flickering in the light of distant wisps on the flats behind. Basha turned to the opening before her, the twisted outline of a door stark in the smooth face of the machine. In the back of her head, she could still hear the hollow voice of the Aaru, so lost and filled with words both truthful and false all the same.

You put too much faith in that which ruined you, Flame-Bringer.

She took a breath, long and hard. No, she decided. It wasn’t any use to worry over such things.

Her foot was barely an inch forward before the whining behind her turned fast into a piercing screech, tearing into the silence.

“Varn, I told you, silly creature. You cannot come. You-”

The poor creature was shivering, shaking, arms splaying like trampled grass this way and that at uncomfortable angles.

“I thought I fixed you… “ she said, almost to herself rather than anyone in particular. “I thought I… “

Another cry, another screech, and Varn’s body convulsed horridly before her even more-so than before. It didn’t take long for Basha to realise the truth of the matter.

It’s happening again.

Ever since the visit of the Aaru, her companion had been… broken. She could still fix him, but it was as if some connection had been severed, had been lost. Perhaps it was indeed Varn; a creature of the Maker alone after all should not be able to sustain itself without the guiding hand of a Law. However, Basha had been fixed long ago; her hand should have done the same for Varn; Yet…

Maybe he, too, was affected by the words of the Aaru. Or, maybe it was Basha’s fault, her doing for ripping him from attempting to fulfill his purpose in waking the Eyes, one the Maker themselves tasked her to prevent.

Fool’s words, Basha.

Fool’s words they might have been indeed, but they hung in her thoughts like the dead needles on an old pine, festering and piling up all the same.

Shaking off old worry, she thrust her hand into his chest as quick as she could, her companion reeling as he felt her art worm its way into his rotted chest. Slowly yet surely, the whimpering faded, grinding gears in his mind slowing down and fizzling to nothing until all was calm - fixed - once more.

I’ll fix you.

She pushed happiness into the sorry thing, the only way she knew how. Low crooning rumbled from him as his six arms jittered and fell, content in the same sort of half-awareness he ought to have been after Foundation. Before the Maker left.

She knew she shouldn’t hold onto such a creature for so long. The Maker alone was supposed to tame them, but she didn’t care. She was attached.

Moreover, she was lonely.

Out over the plains behind, she could see dark clouds gathering - the distant screams of Varn’s former brethren murmured amid the avenues of Sentinels beyond the lake. A vague smear of rotten pines marched behind them, golden wheels faintly gleaming in the distance.

And Varn, Varn was such a sad creature…

“Come. You will follow me anyway.”

And so she knew it was good.

Together, they entered the Spear, the wall closing behind them as Basha slammed her steering-pole into the bygone floor. The grinding of gears, Golrad-made, turned loudly in the dark as the wayfinders moved, golden lights and landlines opening old passages and shafts up to the light of the upper Arrow.

It had been a long while since she had last been here, but Varn’s empty form provided some modicum of comfort at the enormity of the task before her.

She was right to fix him, just as the Maker was right to fix her.

Three steps forward, and so they rose, the enormity of the Spear opening before them.


Even as they ascended, it became more and more evident that something was wrong. Her lantern, the Source still burning strong, lit their path well enough; no, that was not it. The mechanism was running smoothly, but something was different; there were changes about them, corroded seepage-lines where before there had been none, red stains on the walls where only black and gold should have been. Nothing moved, but she knew something had passed through there, something… terrible.

Blood-flies. She stamped her old feet in frustration. “I thought I uprooted you lot out years ago!”

These beasts of the Red Sun innumerable were only a small remnant of the many things stolen and turned by the old Laws for their wars of Foundation to counter the Maker’s worms and Udduk-hal, whose shadows now dwelt ever in the twilight of the bog below. Images older than time flitted through her head, visions of bloated, gorging things fluttering on leathery wings this way and that to latch onto holes in ancient weather guns and shattered ships of black glass, spiny fingers and old claws piercing through as a thousand mouths and orifices latched onto the weapons, bleeding them dry as light ground upon light behind them. More leech than insect, more carrion than predator, they had been locked in old holes after the anchoring for a long while now, rarely leaving their bloody pools in the Rimlands. To see this…

She had known something was wrong with the Spear, but this

She had to fix this. Now.

The floor closed below her. They’d arrived.

The Promontory was as she remembered it: a large, terraced room with walls that leaned in on itself, the central panel melded out of forgotten rock, rock older than anything in anchored reality. Five holes led out the walls on either side, old landing sites where Chaos had been funneled through the Great Wheels for the Maker’s plans.

This was where the other Laws had been changed. This was where it had all begun…

Of course, the Arrow-head was lost. Even now, the very top of the Spear lay shattered and ruined, its capstone thrown off somewhere safe, somewhere secret; the former throne where it had once lain was little more than an empty hole in the megalithic ceiling bleeding into open sky. For a while, her eyes roamed, unfocused in memory. Finally, they settled on the offender.

“No, no no no… “

Below the panel half riven from the floor, she saw it: the blood-flies had soaked themselves into the panel and its intricate machinery, their gelatinous bodies corroding ever-so-slowly at the mechanism behind. Red spined decimal wings and twisted spined legs had long-since latched and melted into the rock, rooting them in place as they fed.

Even if the Maker knew of this, they could not have done anything about it. It was actively reversing the Spear, ruining everything.

That’s why the Cycles were so… odd, lately. That’s why the bog-dancers are…

There was no time to think, anymore.

She rushed to the precious panel, weathered hands casting lantern aside to run against the faded lines that ruined her entrusted. They should have been normal, they shouldn’t have been like this, they were…

They were broken. They were screaming. There was more to this than a mere normal blood-fly nest, where only small gnats dwelled.

Something was inside.

She slammed her fist into the panel, rummaging around with skill she knew would not fail her. She was Basha, after all.

“Cannot be, cannot- Ah!”

Fingers closed around squelching slime and segmented body, she wrenched out the offender with practiced ease.

A massive, choking queen came out, its many legs and eyes and mouths gurgling in protest. It tried desperately to insert its claw-like fingers into her skin and clamp down, but Basha was faster. A quick swat, and its body, impossibly long and sinuous, hit the far side of the Promontory, the thing splattering in fragments across the room.

The nest withered without its queen, red and silver staining the floor and wall.

I’ve failed.

The larva had been gorging on the panel for thousands of cycles, and Basha hadn’t known. She hadn’t known.

Was she really this blind? She was to have been the Fixer!

Something was wrong. Very wrong. Above, the twisting sky churned round and round.

Does the Maker even know of this?

She shook her fist and stamped her feet, and set to work. Damage such as this could not be fixed easily, and if the Searchers found it awry…

Darker things had happened.

A low sound humming behind her took her from thought, and she remembered her forgotten friend. The faceless face and dangling limbs stood stark against the perfection of the room around them.

“Come. Help me fix this. Your six arms might be useful, for once.”

He made no sign of life, but shuffled to her anyway, the happiness she’d given still running through his tired veins.

Basha smiled.

Thus, together they worked, and worked, and worked. Soon, the damage of the blood-fly was forgotten, the task at hand the only thing on Basha’s aged mind.

And so she knew it was good.


Even as they left, the day darkening behind them as the low raft cut through the flats, the grinding of gears echoed from the Spear behind. There was a pause, and then a flash of light burst suddenly down the length of the shattered obelisk, disappearing once it hit the base. A great wind blasted through the meres, water sent showering over mossy banks.

At first, she was happy. The Searchers were no longer blocked from their paths. They could move as per normal. The colour was normal. But then…

Shallow cries trumpeted all around them as every denizen of the bog awoke, a rare harmony in the shattered realm. There was another blast, and the lake behind her beneath the Spear imploded, a shower of spray being sent up nearly the height of the monolith itself. This had not happened in many ages…

The Searchers are unleashed, she realised as dread set in. Truly Unleashed. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t good at all.

More lights shot down, setting the land ablaze with gold.

Something was happening in the lower realms, in the thread that stitched the riverbed. Something the blood-flies had blocked the Searchers from fully addressing.

This was something that had caused the Maker to move once more, after centuries of shut eyes and quiet sleep. It was then that the Aaru’s words came back to her. It was then that she knew such a warning was no lie.

New gods rise in distant worlds, Flame-Bringer… New gods to swallow us all…

Picking up her robes, she pulled the shaking form of Varn close to her bosom, calming his boney body with as much warmth she could muster. Inside his shattered mind, she pushed forth happiness, joy, peace. He would not know pain. He would not be tortured. He would be fixed, and that was final. Half remembered verse graced her lips as she pet his shaking head.

Oh where were you when the tunn’lers cut their troth…

One push forward, and they glided through water.

The wheels turned and turned and the Maker stood aloft

The bog lights wavered.

Oh where were you

Varn shuddered still at last, huddled hollow against her. Her lips smeared shut, the land still embroiled with the cries of the Maker’s creatures as they scrambled in the hope of its impossible return.

Her old path was blocked. They would have to go elsewhere.

And so they went.


The cycles were turning again, the sky wreathed in pink and gold as cold suns sank to their seats in ordered harmony. A low breeze swirled the mirrored pools around the pair, buffeting the little raft along.

Even now, she could hear the cold cries past the shadows of the pines. Varn was safe with her, of course - fixed and made whole with a master to guide him - but his brethren…

She heard them clamour and scream. She heard them call out, their echoing puncturing the silence of the wider world as they moved quickly to the Spire, made desperate by the Searchers’ grand coming.

The way behind was blocked. She could only row forward.

The pines around steadily thinned in splendour, until they were little more than dead sticks jutting from cold mires. Mooring the little flatboat, they took to rest.

“To bed,” said old Basha. She set her lantern down, moving away brush with careful hands. They would camp here. Varn looked at her then, peering at her with that faceless face she now knew well.

“What is it, sweet Varn?”

A muffled groan was all she heard in answer. She knew that tone - Varn was anxious. She reached to comfort him, but he squirmed away frantically, screaming and screaming.

“Varn?”

Six arms splayed, he only struggled a little longer. At last, he went silent. When she was sure he would no longer bolt, she stood up, lamp held aloft over the edge of the glassy flotsam. Basha’s old gnarled brows, ridged over hundreds and hundreds of wide eyes, rose in surprise.

We are surely not this far off-course, no?

A faint wall rose before them out of the low-lying flats, wreathed in steaming mist from the wet moor. In two it was riven by a narrow slit that gashed vertically down its centre - an act of gods, Basha knew. An act of the Laws. The left side of it was entirely black, a monolithic smooth mass testament to the same Maker as the inside of the Spear - the very same who entrusted Basha with her post. Even then in the darkening light she could see the make of the instruments of its inception, warped and bent by time as they were - Golrad-spit encrusted seams that ran by the millions across its smooth face.

This was nothing new. Weather-guns like these - weapons of light and smoke once well-used in the ancient wars - were everywhere. Miraculous signs of engineered wisdom. Beneath them, even a Fixer could find comfort. The right side, though… it was different.

As the mist lifted, she could see the true enormity of it all: pink light catching in dark edged peaks and towers and matted things half modeled from glass and gold and darkened fluid, both geometric and not. The great spired conglomerate rose as if a wave crashing rock upon rock to meet the great black block in a glimmering crest, frozen in time.

Many holes with many lights glimmered therein, and further behind she could see it: ostentatious gold ziggurats and pyramids towering like hulking mountains in the light of the old suns, purple stains running down their sides like old blood. These were the constructs of an ancient royalty - mass rotting engines of war once made by the Bone-Crowns of old, be they many and horrible. Cell-like beings they’d been, once chained to their putrid empty monarch of a master - they were the old builders. Where the mothborn children of Golrad were the Maker’s tools of choice, these were the Emperor’s dogs - set to dominate, to control all around them, to remake reality in their prideful god’s shriveled image. All for want.

The ruined structures before her were all that was left of their horrid reign. Empty charnel houses, towering corpse thrones of dead wealth. The air stung with the stench of burnt flesh.

It was rare for such a battle-site of the old war to have been left after the anchoring of reality, but here it was in all splendour, a massive relic for all to see. A moment frozen in time it was indeed, an echo of a past skirmish between the Maker and the Emperor-Beyond-All-Sight standing tall and ancient, the two visions of reality clashing high above the spreading bog. Faint grinding could be heard in the distance, though from what even Basha did not know.

They were frozen, but not inert. She could not let Varn be here too long.

“Varn, to me.”

She pulled his shuddering body closer to her, setting down the lantern on dry moss. For a while there, they sat in silence, watching the water behind them. Basha’s old eyes looked above the treeline. A dark cloud smeared where the Spear was, and through old pines half-covered them, she could make out the faint outline of one of the Great Wheels to their left, far in the distance.

“We truly are far, aren’t we?”

He gave no answer. She sighed to herself, her breath reedy in the wet air. This was to be expected.

Even if she wanted it to be different.

Her eyes drifted back to the risen mass of the ancient battleground. She didn’t like this, but they would have no choice.

They had to skirt it, if they were to make it to the Wheels unhindered.

Eventually, she got up, steering pole at hand and Varn at her side. The hoary pines shivered as if to warn her, but still she pressed on.

Basha’s unease only grew.


Varn felt it first.

Even as they drew nearer, something in his mind seemed to break. Small, muted screams broke the silence before the wall. She reached to comfort him, just for a moment, and-

The water churned and trembled, its smooth surface shattered in the twilight as skeletal walls of rotting gold erupted around them from their right, shutting them in.

This could only mean one thing: the Crowns had woken up. Basha had to move fast.

Steering her flatboat with as much skill as she could afford, she raised her lantern before her, source-light turning brilliantly white before the darkness of the shuddering walls that rose around the pair like jaws unbidden

“You are not to hinder me, little crowns!” she cried out, thrusting the lantern at the storied peaks the golden trap seemed to guide her toward. They shivered softly, the faintest groaning in the distance her only answer.

Varn was holding onto her, his shivering form almost a wisp against the frozen spray.

“I command you! I am the Fixer!”

Her voice was little more than a hollow echo now as the walls shut in, hedging her boat forward. She could no longer see the bog around her, only a straight, tall passage into the dividing passage between the two leering walls.

They aren’t supposed to be able to do this. They aren’t supposed to…

The lantern gleamed.

“I command you!”

Silence.

“You can hear me, I know it!”

Silence met her pleas. Varn started shrieking again. She tried desperately to calm him, to give him happiness, but nothing worked.

“Varn, Varn, quiet, quiet-”

He screamed louder and louder. The more she tried to force happiness into him, the more his cries grew louder.

Quiet!

A low rumbling, more laughter than shaking ground, echoed as rock ground on rock, crystal on crystal. The trap behind them was closing in. The Crowns were giving her no choice.

Before her, the massive walls loomed, smooth black to her left, mottled glass to her right. She held Varn tight to her chest, his shaking form refusing to back down at her attempts to Fix. Tears formed in her eyes. A shaky exhalation graced her lips as she realised her task ahead.

She would have to paddle on.


Even when she felt the Crowns’ gaze finally leave them, a hollow feeling reigned in her chest.

She was farther than she had ever been from her post. It was cold, and though the familiar work of the Maker lay to her left, she still felt… abandoned.

If only she had gotten to the blood-flies sooner. If only she had Fixed better, done her task better, and then maybe the Crowns would still be frozen.

And Varn…

Varn’s screams hadn’t stopped. His frail body flickered, shuddering on the flatboat’s bottom as something, something, moved beneath his black skin. Basha tried to reach into his head, to fix him, but it didn’t work.

Something was there. Inside him. She felt something there. It was blocking her.

She hated it. She missed her connection, their connection, that she had built for them both.

She could do nothing but wait.

So, on they went, a small boat in the face of the ruinous strait. Now and again she saw them, the twisted bridges where crystal and black stone met, the places where the Maker had sent thousands of soldiers in their great crafts to battle with the Crowns of the Emperor. She kept close to the left side, eyeing the dark golden-and-red walls to her right with caution.

The Crowns, especially if as active as she knew now, could not be trusted. She knew more than any in these lands how treacherous they could be. She squeezed Varn’s shaking body, setting the lantern beside him on the barked floor before continuing to paddle.

He would be safe. He will be fixed.

Strange airs moved about the place, the narrow shafts of sunlight unfathomable above scarce leaking into it save to hit what few spires and pyramids could be seen by her at the bottom of the waterway. It was dark.

Even as she paddled, she felt the third cycle arrive, dismay rising in her gut. She was out of schedule. Soon, it would be night, and she’d have failed her task as Fixer.

Her first failure. Her only failure.

Her only hope was that the dancers would be too enamoured by the Spear to bother in singing. If she remembered correctly, the seams between the battle led away east, over… over…

It had been too long. She hugged Varn’s shaking body. Just one more try, maybe…

Even as the happiness flooded Varn, she felt the other thing inside of him push back, the screams shattering portions of the right wall, crystal flaking off the sides like snow.

“I want you happy,” she said, tears leaking onto Varn’s faceless image as she held him in the dark. “Why can’t you be happy?”

He kept screaming, screaming, screaming…

The Crowns’ gaze was on them again, and all stood silent.

The boat rocked on.


They rested for a while, the lamp burning bright. Even Varn was silent, now.

Echoes, there were always echoes…

Sobbing. Varn was sobbing. She felt a hand clasp around her own, hand cupping the fluctuating neck of her dark companion. It was then she saw it, it was then she felt it as a chill wafted through the narrow strait.

Varn knew her. Varn wasn’t a husk. Varn knew her.

His mind… it had something in it. A small seed, but something his own.

It wasn’t right. He was supposed to have been fixed by the Maker. He wasn’t supposed to, it wasn’t right, it-

But would it be so terrible? She could finally have a companion, at last…

Eventually, logic won out. She steeled herself. She would fix this. She had to.

Reaching into her companions mind, she flooded his mind the way she’d done in their first meeting, forcing ruthlessly past the block that had been impeding her the past few days. Sentience was for her, not him. He was a companion. He was a bog-dancer. It tore at her. She hated what she had to do, but knew it was inevitable.

A Fixer was to keep their post.

At last, she found a foothold.

“This isn’t good, Varn. It’s not-”

Varn shook under her control, but she pushed harder. Choked gurgles issued from the pitiful thing. I am sorry it has to be this way, Varn. You will feel better. I know you will, I know you will, I know you will…

“… Not good. Not-”

The Crowns, they had been behind this. They had been doing something. They were who broke Varn. Limbs flailed as Varn gasped for sentience like a fish starved of water. Basha still pressed on.

I have to fix you. I am sorry.

Gurgling, screaming, retching.

“I’m so sorry.”

At last, she drew herself up from the heap of arms and legs on the floor of the flatboat, her robes fluttering softly in the ragged air of the straits. Her eyes grew hard as she stared up at the monstrous pyramids high above her, their beauty mocking her as purple-gold light fell in tresses in the misty evening air.

“I will find you,” her voice rang out, a thunderclap on the hollow walls. “I will find you. You will take me to my post.”

No answer.

Do you hear me?

She didn’t care for any Crown or god or beast. Let them come, all of them. Basha would fix them, too.

Her weathered hand lightly traced the flickering shadow of her companion, but she quickly withdrew herself. She had a lantern to tend to. That was enough.

Varn’s weeping continued long after she’d finished.

It didn’t stop until the third cycle passed, and nightfall began.


When they set out again, Varn did not move, did not make a sound, did not shudder or weep. He was not a he but more a statue - a shadow of a being, more akin to his brethren of the plains so locked in the Maker’s guidance than the companion Basha had come to know and love.

He was as his kind had been during the old Wars. An empty kind of life. She shouldn’t hate it, she knows this - but she does.

Too much, even.

The swish of water beneath the steering-pole was the only sound for a long while, Basha’s lips set in a firm line. She would not cow to any creature of the Emperor. She would confront the Crowns, and they would let her back, lest she Fix them too.

Light peered into the grand crevice as the cycles turned over the towered lands. Shadows beset the walls of the strait, but still - she pushed on.

She would get out.

For Varn.


She felt them before she saw them.

Come, Flame-Bringer.

A million whispers and one, washing through the sheer corridor like a tidal wave. She peered up around the walls to her right, looking at them with her Secret Eyes for what they truly were. Something was squirming there.

Varn still wasn’t moving.

It was mocking. Lifting her lantern, she paddled over to the right wall, its surface sliding down like a pale liquid to drink in the glow of her lamp’s light - Source-light. Even now, she could see the faint outlines of millions of different creatures, all fused and mottled together in their piss-coloured prison, a nest of blood and bone and oil all seeped into one solid surface.

Open!” she screamed, slamming her steering-pole into the wall. The papery-thin voices ceased their muttering all at once. She held a breath.

Nothing. No answer. The frowning walls of sallow gold bent over her, drinking in the light.

“Fine,” she said, looking at sweet Varn beside her. “I shall go myself, but sweet Varn shall come with me.”

Basha knew better than to trust her friend with Crowns about. She slung him on her thorny, cloaked backside - the faded being moaning softly as she held his arms tight. She would not have him lost - enough loss had happened to her already.

Besides, it would be so lonely without a friend. Even if she couldn’t make him happy.

The wall resisted for a moment before quickly folding in, geometric shapes rising up and up to reveal a massive network of stairs reaching into the heavens, zig-zagging up and splitting off constantly only to rejoin further up in fractillic harmony. At the top, a faint light gleamed, golden amid an orange sky.

Whispers again.

Come up, Flame-Bringer, the voices teased. Husk-voices, voices proud in their houses of nothing. We will meet, meet past the Infernal Plane.

“Do not trouble me with your silly words, Crowns. I will fix you soon enough.”

Hollow laughter was all that followed.

Thus she climbed, up and up and up into the light. Behind her, the ancient black frowning wall of the Maker beckoned comfortingly, but she could not turn to it, nor could she rest. She had to look ahead. Up and away.

As she climbed, the liquid turned solid, the crystal and yellowed glass to a deep, golden black. Spires loomed around her, specialised interpretations and figments of horror wrought of old images and creatures the Crowns had taken and turned, compartmentalised and reconstructed, molded into the trap that made their strange decayed seats.

At last, she reached the top, Varn’s body slumping at her side. Around her five statues half-wrought of bone and sinew stood, six-winged beings of light and dark with thousands of arms bearing bloodied swords and battered raiment.

Beyond, there was a path. A corpse-green path in a red field. Half-stained in the faint light of the dying suns of Evermere, she could see many dark, towered pyramids loom up this way and that amid the flatness, shuddering ruins jutting out of that red plain - houses all dead, houses all broken. These were the golden husks she had seen from afar: the old thrones of ancients, their former inhabitant Crowns long since killed in the old War.

No, they were not the source of these voices.

The statues were watching her.

Take the Broker’s Path, Flame-Bringer. They wheezed, as if weeping. The Eyesway waits.

She clung tightly onto Varn. He had still not woken.

We wait.

And so old Basha walked, tired hands shaking, lantern aloft in the darkened air. Every step she took cracked something. The red plains were made of bones, the path of crushed eyes gushing dark liquid. Bones and melted gold, from a thousand-thousand creatures of a thousand-thousand worlds. If the Crowns were at their true power, Basha knew these bones, these eyes, would have been awake, reenacting scenes of faded glory, scenes of a gluttonous past.

If the Crowns were truly awake, they’d have made their move proper the moment she’d ascended that stair. But they hadn’t.

Why?

At last the path stopped. She was at the foot of six great ziggurats, criss-crossed with switchback stairs and long bone ladders and strange pillars carved like monsters, larger and more grandiose than all the other crumbling ruins in that red plain that she’d passed before. Crimson lights, faint and dark, pierced their gilded tops, lavish and skeletal. Faintly in the dying light, she could see formless shapes stirring around her, bright eyes watching - bading their time, as if in wait. Basha hesitated.

This was not good. They should not be this powerful.

They shouldn’t be awake at all, her better voice needled in her mind. No. It would not do Basha good to listen to doubts. She glared up at the great pyramids, their crumbled steps of boneglass still. If Basha knew nothing, she would have called them dead.

These were not like the others, however. These were not dead at all.

You come to us at last, though late. The loud strange voice came windless from behind her. Basha whipped around, her lantern held aloft and shining brighter than anything. The world bent.

No one.

“Stay with me, Varn,” she whispered in her leathery voice. She did not wish to lose him. Not this close. She had to Fix this. “Stay with me. I can still make you happy, I-”

A great noisome rumbling roared across the pyramidal plateau. Red lights grew brighter in the shadowed peaks, the formless shapes shifting around her as if a raging sea.

“Why?" she called, voice harsh against the scraping groans. "Why have you called me thus, little Crowns?”

No answer. She held her lantern as if to challenge the glare of the red plains around her. There was instead only a special kind of laughter.

“Testing me, are you?”

The Broker's Path. Bright and beautiful. The very air seemed to shiver. To see you here now, after all this time…

“That is no reason to trap a Fixer! None at all! Bow away, poor things. I wish to pass. Let me go back to my post.”

Nay. Fixer, you call yourself. Then we have slumbered for far too long indeed.

"Then why hinder me?"

Dark voices. Pyramids behind her crumbled and rebuilt themselves, glory and power of empires innumerable rising and falling into the bone-red sands.

Why not? We are the lonely. We are the forgotten.

She stamped her feet. Once, then twice.

No, they roared, hatred barely concealed cracked behind their pretty pyramidal masks. A crescendo of screams boomed in the darkness. Basha steeled herself.

“You of all creatures should know the consequences of offense of the Mark of the Eyeless.”

We are tired, Flame-Bringer. You act as if false mutterings of dead Laws long past mean something still. Not to us. We have called you here for one reason, one alone. There is a decree to take. A decree to give. Upon this Infernal Plane, a storm rises…

Basha’s hands trembled. Her eyes blazed.

“A change of heart, then?”

The air turned something mocking.

For a Fixer, your faith is admirable - but no. Nothing like that.

"Speak to me now. Speak true."

And so they did, with all the flowery waxing and waning of their once gestalt Emperor that Basha had always hated so much.

Cycle after Cycle we have remained here alone, our brethren lost to the Maker’s worms. Cut. Broken. One by one, their lights snuffed. Then the rigid walls were set, and snap. Snap. Snap. The bang set in. No eating for us anymore. No ruling. We could not spread out, so we spread up… Then the Maker fired their Arrow, lashed their Spear. We were set, frozen. Trapped in our dead minds, our kin, our Whole, gone. A Monarch emptied. The red lights grew in luster and brightness, throbbing in the golden dark. Deep, dry moaning now. A rasping power.

"Is that all?" she murmured.

We know how you feel, Flame-Bringer. It's as clear as the oldest Eye, though you try so desperately to hide it. As clear as all the suns and all the stars of time.

She held Varn tighter than ever, pursing weathered lips.They did know nothing. They had to know nothing.

“A mighty claim, for dead gods.”

Laughter again. Laughter on the Infernal Plane.

And you think you are not also? We are but one of the few things left after Foundation to still understand you. To know. You pretend, just like… your Maker. Always covering, always hiding. You play games, yes, games with your Eyes, games to trick yourself into thinking they are good. Saying they are good does not make them. But look at you, Flame-Bringer, they mocked. Look at you… The Fixer of the ancient Spear… No bonds or ties meant for your kind but to that precious machine, but here you are. Playing with trinkets. That creature. A… keepsake.

“You know nothing!” She screamed. “You were never meant to be. Never! Varn is no-”

The boom that rocked the plain next shook her off her feet.

Never? Look upon us. Look upon the mighty you so foolishly scorn.

The great pyramids split and crumbled, folded, turned, twisted. The vast towered space before her was soon withered and melted into a smooth mountain slope made of millions of bones of various sizes, all black and gold against deepened blue. In the distance far across she saw many spirey shadows loom, the true faces of the crowns: great twisted bastions of bone and gold and rock risen from the shattered slopes, set therein upon their blackened faces great gaping maws, sockets larger than a thousand trees gleaming a dull red in the dark. The spire-turned crowns burned red on their brow, faint mockeries of a distant power that Basha knew they no longer possessed. Millions of voices murmured in the empty plain as mist made mountains out of rotting flesh.

The Crowns had come.

How lonely we all are. How lost.

“You should not be able to do that.” Basha’s voice was cold, grave.

Old laughter.

We wish to treat with you. The Broker’s Path.

Weak… weak…

“No.”

New gods stir, Flame-Bringer. New gods stir in distant depths. We are old. Our time… fades. Doomed to repeat. Forced into a code since the time before time. This is the urgent paradigm of our existence, do you see? We have unfathomable power - the both of us - to do anything. Why must we make ourselves? Why must we make ourselves so lonely?

Strange feelings twisted in Basha’s gut. Feelings she knew weren’t meant to be felt. Feelings she’d thought gone the moment she’d been chained.

We could. We could free ourselves of the Laws. Be happy, old enmities lost. New amenity gained. Together. You know this. We could…

“Cease this. You are broken things.”

Laughter.

What. Will you Fix us, then?

“Yes.”

So be it…

She thrust her lantern out, the bright light piercing the dark. A chorus of whispers broke out. She pushed her mind further and further in.

Their whispers were sad now. Sad and lost.

The lines are not yet drawn. There is always a choice…

A blast of wind nearly knocked her off her feet. The sea of bones around her shifted and roiled, the chorus now little more than a churning storm, voices refusing to back down in intensity.

"Not this time."

Then let us show you true power. You are not the only Fixer chained. You speak of your great Mark, like it means something. You are soft, Flame-Bringer. Have you so truly forgotten the power of the Coronal-Beyond-Sight?

Below her, she saw shadows moving, old soldiers of the Maker rising from their forced station in the pits of the Emperor, crusted with crystals and tendrils of the Crowns. The glowing eyes behind them flashed in the dark.

No. Basha would have none of this.

She thrust out her lantern harder and brighter than she’d ever done before, a blast echoing over the plain.

“Let me go. My post calls me yonder. I cannot stay here.”

The Maker… false, tricks, false…

She would not back down.

“Let me go.”

A booming roar, and a broken crystalline tendril thrust out of the pit, right into Varn. Basha screamed.

No-”

For a moment, the world dissolved into a red haze, the strange skull-like mountain shaking. Her Secret-Eyes burned, and she saw deep into their souls, past all the grandeur and golden fanfare and proud words. They were as they said: shriveled and lost, cold and lonely.

Like her.

She held Varn tight, wailing. When the voices spoke again, they were soft. Soft and sad.

Don't you see it now, Flame-Bringer?

"No. No, nonono…"

How much hurt must it take? How much hurt must we all bear, to feel nothing but pain in the end?

They were right. She hated that they were right. She should have never Fixed Varn in the first place.

The clock has already been wound for aeons. We are the stranded. You and us. We hate you, yes. Hate you more than anything - but cannot stop what has already begun. The wheels turn and turn, the spear burns… All will rise and fall with or without us both. You. We. We are the lost currents. We mean nothing to the Laws, or that old Maker. Not for many Cycles. Face the Truth. Face that you have been left here.

“I am not you,” she spat, voice acid as the air around her.

The whispers were deafening, screaming in the silence.

Left to rot. Just. Like us.

The soldiers edged closer.

Varn let out a crying screech, and Basha's heart broke. She had had enough. She slammed her staff into the molding spires, carving a straight line out.

"NO!"

The sadness mounted, and the whole plain trembled in the darklight.

So you would keep us lonely. Lonely for your selfishness…

"I am the Fixer," she growled. The words were hollow as the pyramids before her. "I must go back to my post."

Her eyes turned back to the body, her friend in her arms.

“Varn, come back. Come back!

The frail thing shook, the thing she had seen earlier still moving underneath his surface. The Crowns' hatred for her now was more palpable than the pain in her own heart.

So be it. You have made your choice. Your rejection. Waves, waves in old stones. We shall make our own.

Varn’s body was convulsing now. She could not reach him. She could not-

Faith misplaced. A broken trinket.

The body tore itself in two, two bog-dancers springing forth where there had been only one. One bolted, running across the undulating red plains and fading into the dark.

VARN!” She screamed, voice hoarse against the blasting sound of the Bone-Crowns.

The other… the other was simply a body. There was no movement. She reached to touch it, but quickly it crumbled to ash beneath her fingers, the eyefilled path subsuming it before she could bring it with her.

Basha wailed.

You… next…A Gift…

Basha’s eyes hardened.

No.”

She held out her lantern, and thrust it into the floor of that strange plain, plunging it into the crusted bowels of their crownseed like a sword of fire. She could not talk them out - so she would burn them. The Crowns roiled. Around her, pyramids toppled to nothing but golden sand. Old lightning tore into the land around her striking the towers as if they would pines in the bog.

They were screaming, angry that their deal had been spurned. Still, Basha pressed in and on.

They would die in fire. And all would be fixed.

“I’m leaving. You will go too.”

The chorus turned to cacophony, the darkness to light. There was a flash, and it all crashed down. For a moment, Basha felt like she was falling, nothing but her lantern to light the way.

Then she hit the water.

Then it all stopped.


She was in her flatboat again, Varn's crumbled body now but a memory.

The Crowns were sleeping now, though their great walls and towers remained. She knew that much.

But it was not good. Not at all.

A new passage branched off to her right, clear light at the end. A way out.

A way out.

Her eyes rested on the image of her lost companion, the shallow husk spread out all bonelike across the floor of the Infernal Plane above. He was… too like her, now. And the other Varn was gone, never to return.

The loneliness was back.

She had ruined it. In trying to Fix him, to do what was right, she had ruined it. And now, with the Crowns, with everything-

There were no friends for her anymore. Not now, and not ever.

Picking up her lantern and pole, she made off with haste down the passage, pushing for her raft. It would be fast through mourning, and she could not afford to lose time.

Even as she left, she couldn't rid her mind of the question that reigned in her thoughts, in her heart.

Why now?

All her knowledge, all her foresight she'd ever come to rely on failed her in that moment.

Teardrops turned to flame as her shame and disgust became more palpable than breath, her failures written on the lines of her brows. She tried so hard to steel herself, to remind her of her post, but nothing worked.

Why now?

She had never looked back. Pines marched around her as she paddled, sullen fingers staining the watery sky black. Her boat moored, Basha stumbled half over her robes as she clambered atop the mossy mound.

It was supposed to be Fixed. It was Fixed.

A different voice now. The Aaru…

You do not know what choice you make.

The wind stopped, the world silent.

Her answer replayed through her head.

Whatever it is, it is the right one.

It was only then she doubled over. It was only then when she allowed her tears to fall.

Five cycles passed, and still they failed to stop.

Why?


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License