This cover was illustrated by the author.
This EPISODE is PART ONE of TWO.
The haunting trumpet of electric horns blew across the dunes, lingering in the windless black sky from their distant callers. The atmosphere had thinned to the point of a skyless, starry night at all hours, and sound travelled only in the most warped of ways. Only sorcery allowed me to breathe without passing out.
In harmony to the echoed horns, a procession sung deep in their throats. A wordless song without rhythm or lyric. A simple, finite tone announced with purpose and not pleasure.
I breathed into my scarf, using sorcery to take whatever oxygen I could from the atmosphere. I pressed my body against the broken wall rising from the dunes. Deserts should swallow all abandoned within their sands. Wind and time sculpt the dunes around civilizations unable to combat their wicked, merciless weather. But this place did not have wind, only time. And so without a partner time could not play. And nothing sunk into the sands as it should have.
This building, though ancient and crude, appeared untouched by the sand. Black scorches burned from beneath holes and fractured walls. Battle worn. War torn. Ruins born of pain.
I peeked behind the wall. A half kilometer away, I saw the source of the throat song which harmonized with the distant horns.
Tall, triangular peoples walked in line. Their robes left only a pale face exposed beneath the pyramid-shaped cones upon their heads. So many moved in unison that I could see the distinction of their pathway from the rest of the sand. They, like rushing rivers over millennia, carved a path with their march.
Except it wasn’t a march. They merely. . . walked.
The distant, warped horns. The echoing throat songs. The procession of perfectly matched cone heads. Everything about this place screamed “Hide,” to me. The instinct of a mouse is always to hide. That is part of the reason I didn’t quite fit in at home. That is also part of the reason I had survived up until I met Peridot.
When that instinct really, deeply kicked in. . .
I listened to it.
That day on the dunes was no exception.
Peridot appeared on my knee. Without words, I took her onto my fingers, and she fluttered to my shoulder, then together we snuck out of the ruins which should have been covered by sand and time and began a long, stealthy trek across the desert.
We trekked at a kilometer distance from the pyramid peoples. I stayed just behind the peak of far dunes at a mildly higher elevation. I could see them, but unless they investigated my location with equipment, they’d not notice me.
The desert was covered in unweathered ruins. Structures abandoned for reasons I could not discern from any surface level investigation. No amenities had been left behind. Nothing to claim these structures as having any domestic, production, or business purpose. They were not clumped as a cityscape but neither were they separated enough to imply distinct settlements. Stretches went where we saw nothing, and then a cluster of a dozen buildings spaced by fifty to one hundred meters would rise onto the horizon.
The procession went on for kilometers. Occasionally, the pyramid peoples would carry feretories and palanquins with idols and effigies. Esoteric energies pulsated from the parade. No matter how hard we tried to get ahead, due to our having to keep a distance, we often fell behind. Eventually the procession swerved to the left—where we’d been walking—and we ended up jumping ahead in the parade by several kilometers worth of peoples.
“This isn’t tens of thousands. It’s hundreds of thousands. Maybe even—.”
“Millions,” Peridot said.
We rested in the second floor of an abandoned building. My Aura was drained from using sorcery to breathe. So I let up on the magic a moment, and Peridot took over for me. She was so focused on the phenomena ahead that she didn’t realize my soul was struggling to keep my body upright. I worried her use of any divinity would call attention to us, but she was excellent at “tucking away,” as she called her version of hiding through realities.
Besides, she claimed to have familiarity with the powers the pyramid-heads worshipped. She also mentioned that this power would likely already know of our blipping in.
Strange. If Peridot could hide from the Eldest Oldes—gods who transcended the destruction of universes—then how could this divinity in the desert have known of our being there?
I trusted her judgement. Yet I kept my distance. Peridot may not have been outwardly worried about the situation, but the last thing I wanted to do was provoke thousands of these pyramid heads.
Angular, sharp walls defined our current rest spot. The windows were triangular. Staring out into the airless sky chilled my bones. All of this was so deeply unnatural. Peridot created a crystal of ice for me to slowly quench my thirst. I ate the icicle like an iced treat.
“This reminds me of the White Island,” I said, eyes following the canyon of sand carved by so many marching individuals. They appeared like ants disappearing into the far fog of a world’s distant curve. “The place of the Eldest Oldes.”
“The energies here are not dissimilar.”
“You aren’t worried?”
“I am curious more than worried. At first I imagined this place to be a laid trap in their timeless hunt for me in the Liminality. But I sense an energy akin here. We will avoid the parade below to keep you safe and follow at a distance.”
“You can go ahead? Teleport to the source the source of the power?”
“I’d like to move like a mortal, for a moment. This place is not mine to traverse in the ways of a Dragon. It would feel like sprinting through someone’s home if you were a guest at dinner. Patience for the meal, patience for the company. No need to rush.”
I had nothing to add. If anyone would understand what was going on, they were Peridot. I had no theories or specifics beyond what she’d already said.
Then came the slight sensation of proximity. There is no way to describe the feeling except a “knowing.” A knowledge of someone being near. In this case, one of my own, an Agglomerate.
The feeling of cosmic power radiated from us. Along with the laws of Proxima Peridot, there was a bind upon us which notified us of another’s presence. Not always. But often.
Porbiyo and I could almost always find one another. We’d spent such voluminous time that our senses for one another’s locations had become an inner compass of sorts.
“Someone is near,” I said.
“Everyone is near. . .” Peridot dot. “Within a couple of hundred kilometers.”
I contemplated that a moment. All thirty seven Agglomerates so near to one another. It’s happened before, but it was always strange to imagine there were many individuals—the majority—that I still had never met. I wondered of Goyath, who I had not seen since his contact with Peridot. I wondered of Porb and Threshold, and hoped to see them. I wondered of Yizzimis and Bigklau, and suddenly missed their strangeness more than usual.
I searched the nearest few structures, all the while keeping my eyes on the procession down in the dunes. They didn’t notice me. Not to my knowledge, anyway. And Peridot and I moved through each ruin. She insisted on simply taking me to the individual closest by, who she assured me was, “Harmless,” but I wanted to find them myself. Watching the pyramid-heads had become an intriguing monotony. I preferred interaction.
Shifting through the sand and vacant ruins, I found myself scouring every corner and crevice. I followed my instincts—whatever that means—but still no sign of this Agglomerate I had never met before.
Outside of a particularly stout set of ruins, I heard a voice,“Don’t do it. You little shit-ball of a person. Don’t do it.”
I peered into the window. Porbiyo stood in the room. His arms were crossed, and his red outer-coat fluttered in the windows’ crosswinds. When my shadow crossed the door, he peered up, “Ratman! Knew you were close, didn’t know you were near. Suppose I was right, as now you are here.”
“What are you doing?” I felt a tinge of disappointment. I’d hoped to meet someone knew. Then I hoisted myself up through the window and flipped onto the dusty building floor. Peridot shimmered on my shoulder.
“Hello everyone’s favorite goddess!” Porb bowed to Peridot. He’d always had his eye on snatching her for one of his paintings. But even if he did manage to paint her, he could never copy her soul. And even if he did copy her soul, he could never maintain it.
She’d snap and all his work would disappear.
I think it was more about the competition of it than the practicality.
Across from Porb seemed to be a nest compiled of compounded sand. A kind of mud-clay, almost. Something stirred in the nest. A pale, jiggling shape. I stayed still at several meter’s away. The nest was large enough for me to sleep in.
“Were you talking to that?” I pointed at the nest and its lump of an inhabitant.
“AH!” Porb growled. He leapt forward and kicked the lump, who flew through the room and bounced against the far wall. It plopped to the floor, sounding like a wet sponge when it fell. Porb then looked at me, and put his hands up, “See, I restrained myself this time.”
“Why’d you kick it?” I said out of genuine concern for the lump.
“Bastard ate all the eggs! He waited for us to talk and during our dialogue he pounced on his chance. . . the little freak just couldn’t help himself to the potential of life.”
“She, actually,” Peridot said. “Opaline, meet Hummarie.”
“Hum Dum,” Porb mocked.
The wrinkly lump on the floor managed to roll onto her bum. She then hummed a, “Hum dum,” to herself. The creature was roughly the size of a large melon—or an oversized human head—and her shape could only be described as that of an avian egg. Her eyes were glazed over as if blind, and her nose plump as a drunk’s. She had no ears, but the folded, wrinkled skin reminded me of an elderly man so near to death sculpted in lucious silicone.
Two comically small arms—the size of fingers—rubbed her belly, and two matching stubs-for-legs pattered against the floor.
Hum Dum stared deep into my eyes. Then she burped. Then she threw up. Slime coated egg chunks and what appeared to be an avian embryo slid across the floor. Hum Dum appeared unbothered by this. Her face lacked expression. Her demeanor lacked any sense of life.
“Now she’s wasting it,” Porb moaned. “She ate all three.” He eyed Peridot like she were our professor and Hum Dum a belligerent peer.
“You kicked her,” I said, “of course she’s going to throw up.”
Hum Dum’s moist wrinkles glistened with sand stuck to her skin. When she hit the wall and fell to the floor she must have become covered. I approached carefully. As I did so, Hum Dum cautiously kicked her vomit out of the way so that I did not step on it. Her movements appeared to slow time itself with their lethargy and indolence. Then she plopped back onto her bum. Her blind eyes followed my encroach.
“Hello Hummarie,” I waved. “I’m Opaline.”
She licked her lips of the vomit.
“Nice to meet you.”
She stared without blinking.
Peridot said, “She isn’t one for conversation. I’m not sure she can actually speak at all. Her time is spent in nests eating eggs. She is an indolent being though it seems to suit her well.”
“Indolent makes sense,” I smiled at Hum Dum. She managed a creepy old-man smile back. “What do you do, Hummarie?”
She patted her belly softly.
“Little shit-ball eats!” Porb cried. “She eats any egg she can find. Goes around at a slug’s pace scouring the dark corners for nests. Then she opens that nasty mouth and WHOOP, swallows whole. She is nothing but an orb of excrement messing with the natural cycle of biology.”
“And copying an animal’s soul for your sketchbook isn’t messing with the natural cycle?” I set my paws on my hips.
The sand on Hummarie’s tiny body shed off. Her skin produced more of the viscous oil and drained the sand to the floor.
I said to Porb, “Have you seen the procession?”
“I have. Cultists?”
“Can cults have millions of members?”
“Let’s go with that.” I nodded to Hum Dum, “Want a ride? We’re going to follow the pyramid-heads outside until we find their destination.”
Hummarie did not say anything. I took a backpack out of my Boundless Bag and carefully lifted her off the ground. She swung her feet like a child in a swingset and her wrinkly skin warped into a smile, “Wee,” she weezed.
Her skin was soft, yet chunky. Somewhere between an amphibian and a raw slab of meet. I packaged her tightly in my second backpack and strapped her onto myself. I couldn’t wipe her oils away from my hands.
“You coming?” I asked Porb.
“Nothing else to do. I’ve barely seen any life besides Hum Dum’s victims.”
And so our party of pyramid-head pursuers gained two more to the cause. We departed the room with the nest, which was also the only sign of life we’d found thus far, and moved through the dunes for several hours. Our high-dunes began to level out with the valley down below. Soon we would be marching at equal elevation to the procession.
Moving through another one of the strange spread cities, it dawned on me that the world had not spun around the stars and sun to the south. Many hours had passed. No sign of day or night. I spun my top.
Several rotations. There was time. Possibly a few days.
“This world has no day or night,” I said. “The sun has been trapped in the southern sky.”
“Tidally locked,” said Peridot. “This is a true, nuclear sun. This planet is trapped with one face locked in the sun’s gravity. We are in the twilight-zone of sorts between diurnal life and nocturnal life.” She pondered a moment, “Life is not native to this place. These beings are off-worlders. As are the eggs inside of Hummarie.” Hum Dum hummed with her spoken name.
My hands turned hard and crusted. The sensation came so swiftly I barely managed to notice until the deed was done. The fur on my paws and forearms had calcified into a beige-brown eggshell. Flexing my hands broke the shell. Over my shoulder, I noticed Hum Dum had calcified too.
She appeared to be a proper-egg now, indiscernible from any other eggshell. No face or features.
When I asked Peridot for an explanation, she merely said, “Just wait. It’s worth it.” Then I clapped my hands to rid my fur of the eggshell and did just that—waited for an answer.
As the dunes leveled, and we began our outpacing of the procession to try and reach the end quicker, Porbiyo suggested his flying carpet, which I deeply desired to ride on. Sand destroyed any comfort in my legs. But Peridot suggested we keep any of our magic to a low, as Hum Dum was already “digesting” and a flying carpet—even if invisible or otherwise—could lead the entire pyramid-head parade to noticing us directly.
“You sure you don’t want to go ahead and find out what’s going on?” I said to Peridot. “This will take forever.”
“I’d prefer to avoid any potentially indecorous behavior. There’s a connection in the magic here and in me. I won’t risk wasting this opportunity with teleporting all over someone else’s universe.”
“Good old fashioned way, then? A quest to the west.”
Hours later, we found the procession’s track leading into the dark side of the world. The sun fell behind us to the south, and the twilight grew to darkness so swiftly one could barely adjust their eyes. Only that day Peridot imparted my top had I watched another sunset so eternal.
The most fascinating sensation pulsed through me. Hum Dum vibrated. Porbiyo noticed it as well.
“I feel it. . .” Peridot said. “Do you remember the monolith with two faces, before the Corner of the Sphere?” The Corner of the Sphere was the land where That Time took place. All 55 years of it. I said I did remember, and she said, “Do you remember how strange everyone acted around it?”
She said, “We’re near another one.”
Porb set his hands on his hips and stared into the dark. “Do we continue on?”
Peridot fluttered before us and observed the march. She could see beyond eyes, could hear beyond ears, and could smell beyond nostrils. Her entire body was a vessel for Creation—her very being a cosmic nervous system connected to the entirety of Loche’s Garden.
She could sense all.
The pyramid peoples’ faces twinkled in the starlight. Thousands marched into the dunes. A winding serpent of devotion carving it’s permanence into the windless sands.
“Let us meet this sensation’s source,” she said, “I have sent warning of our arrival. They will expect us, certainly.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
Then Hum Dum started to vibrate in her pack. I whipped off my backpack and untied the tether. Hum Dum’s hard egg body rolled into the sand. Then the shell fissured open. Her mouth burst wide. Two tiny chicks marched out of her mouth. Each were as large as her. Her body did not deflate with their birth.
Hum Dum’s wrinkles faded to a smooth, porcelain-like face, as if the eggshell which hardened around her skin also left calcium and nutrients enough to plaster her regular face as well. The outer shell left from the first “hatching” slid away with the new shield.
The two chicks ran to Porb, who cradled them in his arms, “Now their mother will be without.”
“They have you,” I said. “You kicked Hummarie for gestating eggs?”
“She’s greedy! Little sh—.”
“She isn’t a shit-ball.”
Porb’s chin rose in offense to my finishing his insult. He then said, far calmer, and as the baby giant-vultures nibbled his coat, “She shares their nutrients. Eats the whole shell. An animal’s first challenge is breaking that shell. She ruins natural selection. Just you wait to see what else she does. Nasty. Foul. Abominable.”
“You’re an idiot.” I said. I looked off towards the parade of pyramid persons, to how their endless coats and pointed hoods serpentined into the dark. I picked up Hum Dum, strapped her in tight, and marched on my merry way. Porb trekked backwards to return the hatchlings to their nest.
He would, “Make peace with their mother!” he vowed.
At the end of the procession, stood a titanic black monolith. Rings of the pyramid people surrounded the structure. From a distance I could not make out it’s precise shape. But I knew it’s name.
In Draconic, the word Malabeenith hummed from Peridot’s divine lips.
The Stone of Two Faces.
And the realization rushed through me like rainwater over skin. The chanting, the throat singing, the tones. . . those were not lyric-less songs. It was a single word repeated in such voluminous waves that no meaning could be heard by my mortal ears, or even Peridot’s divine being.
She’d finally heard it. . . heard it too late.
When the name was spoken, the procession stopped their throat singing and chanting. In waves their pointed heads swiveled. In waves their starlight faces faced us. In wave their mouths opened to the tone they’d sung before, “Malabeenith.”
“Ehlonniabatur,” spoke the sky and the land and all the voices of the pyramid-heads. And with her true name, Peridot, and I, and Hum Dum were teleported to the base of the Stone of Two Faces. Beneath the enormity of the smooth black structure I saw an eye of silver and blue blazing in neon light which seemed to hang between the legs—like angled pillars—rising from the base and holding the top of the monolith’s T-like top. The shape was so abrasively odd.
If teleporting to this being would be considered akin to a houseguest wrecking dinner, then our being teleported to them felt like a shut-in welcoming company for the first time in ages.
“Ehlonniabatur,” said Malabeenith, “welcome, sister.”
To be continued. . .