A Gift

Varn « A Gift » The Fall(TBA)

tagnone

10

10


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 murmuring 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… wrong.

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

The creatures of the Red Sun 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 once say 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 wings and twisted 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 darkened sky glimmered.

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 suns sank in ordered harmony. A low breeze swirled the mirrored pools around them, buffeting the little raft along.

Even now, cries rang out among 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, now desperate the Searchers were active once more.

The way behind was blocked.

The pines around steadily thinned in splendour, until they were little more than dead sticks jutting from the mire. Mooring the little flatboat, they took to rest, Basha carrying her lantern aloft to make a little camp-site amid the mossy ground.

Varn did not sit beside her, though. He was still staring at the site before them.

“What is it, sweet Varn?”

A muffled groan. She turned to see what he was looking upon, and started in surprise.

We’re this far off-course?

A faint wall rose before them out of the low-lying flats, wreathed in steaming mist, riven in two by a narrow slit that gashed vertically down its centre. The left side of it was entirely black, a monolithic, smooth mass, a testament to the same maker as the inside of the Spear, Golrad-spit encrusting the millions of seams that ran across its face. The right side, though… it was different.

Even as the mist lifted, she could see the enormity of it: pink light caught countless edged peaks and towers and matted things half modeled from glass and fluid, both geometric and not, rising as if a wave crashing 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: pyramids gleaming gold in the sun, specialised from the many and components that had come together from their former realities to compose it. Even though she had not seen pyramids such as these since the formless days she still knew their make, the Bone-Crowns that their Emperor had set to dominate, to control all around them. She knew the power they had held in those days, and though they were now contained, she knew to still fear it.

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 off-course, 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 glassy walls erupted around them, closing them in.

The Crowns had activated. 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 crystal walls that rose around the lake radially from the right side of the pass.

“You are not to hinder me, little crowns!” she cried out, thrusting the lantern at the storied peaks the crystal 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 looming 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 in.


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 they had built.

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 fluid-filled golden and blue 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, wretching.

“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 golden 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 plain, still in remembrance of the Maker’s guiding hand than Basha’s companion.

He was as his kind had been during the old Wars. Truly… an empty kind of life.

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 in as the cycles churned. A red light settled over the straits, but still she pushed on.

She would get out.

For Varn.


She felt them before she saw them: a vague scratching in her mind, cackling lighter than glass itself.

Varn still wasn’t moving.

Come, Flame-Bringer.

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 the Source. Even now, she could see the faint outlines of millions of different creatures, all fused and mottled together in radiant multicoloured light, 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 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 a red sky.

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.

As she climbed, the liquid turned solid, the crystal and glass to a reddish gold. 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 thrones.

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.

The eyes were shut. An ancient voice ground in her head, speaking a tongue far older than any time itself save for the Orrery’s figments.

Sleeping…

It seems even the Crowns could not wake their old servants.

You are here, Flame-Bringer.

Basha growled.

“You were not wise to test with me, little Crowns.”

A rumbling roared across the pyramidal plateau.

Little?

The pyramids and spires 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.

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

Weak… weak…

“No.”

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.

“I will fix you.”

No!

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

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.

We too can Fix…

She thrust out her lantern, a blast echoing over the plain.

“Let me go.”

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-”

False… gods… we can change it all… rule all…

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

“Varn, come back. Come back!”

The body shook, the thing she had seen earlier still moving underneath his surface.

Dissonance, dissonance, you did not fix, dissonance…

Shut up!” she screamed at the faceless mass before her.

You did not fix… broken. Broken. Broken.

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

Broken.

The body tore itself in two, two bog-dancers springing forth where there had been only one. One bolted out over the side of the pyramid, disappearing into the strait below even as the black servants of the crown clambered to the top of the pinnacle where she stood, hungry for more.

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 floor of the pyramid-top 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 the strange pyramid. The Crowns roiled. Around her, the five angels fell into nothingness, crumbling. Old lightning tore into the land around her striking the towers as if they would pines in the bog.

“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.

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 pyramid 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?


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