Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.7]

This chapter contains themes of suicidal ideation and child abuse.

“I won’t let them touch you, master.” Azazil said.

Azazil’s baton collided with the mask of the blue-robed aberration with a loud–


Blue color wafting from the entity met the deep purple color from Azazil’s silhouette, as solid a collision as the physical blow. Gertrude’s mind wanted there to be noise, the sound of an impact, so she heard the thud that should have been there, saw the crack it should have inflicted on the mask, saw the figure driven back by the attack in a natural response to pain. In a microsecond of thought, she envisaged what should have been.

Deep down, she was unsure if it happened.

It was an insane, split-second anxiety of reaching for a grounded reality.

It was not untrue that she saw that; but she also saw the creature simply dissipate into blue particles. One second there; one second gone as if it had never existed.

Which was the truth?

Soundless; formless; without a trace in the world.

Except a sparse instant of dancing color. Was that really what happened?

Gertrude stood shock still, drawn-wide eyes witnessing Azazil’s glowing purple baton crack into the shadows one after the other in swift retaliation for their advance.

They continued to twitch her way in jerky movements like badly-edited stop-motion. Their limbs would be retracted one instant and suddenly reaching the next. Trying to strike Azazil with their claws, trying to get their wafting blue clouds upon her, kept at bay by the purple color that was wrapped around her like a billowing cloak or a localized gust of wind.

Another enemy neared, its languid face briefly lighting up–

Azazil took a solid step forward for momentum before swinging.

Her eyes narrowed, her lips inexpressive, her face briefly lit up by the flash of an entity bursting under her attack. This time Gertrude could have sworn her baton went through the entity entirely, even before it had burst and dissipated. Azazil brought the baton back in front of her chest, her eyes keenly following the approaching entities, matching and checking each creature’s moves. She was agile and flexible and undaunted.

Gertrude observed everything happening, but it was as if her head was caught in a fog.

She felt sleepy. She was so exhausted, so drained.

She felt like she couldn’t take another step.

Her eyes became heavy. Her head pounded from the effort to stay awake.

As her vision wavered, the blue color of the entities seemed to grow in intensity.

Then she felt Azazil’s elbow strike her in the rib suddenly.

Not hard, but enough to startle her. Her vision focused again– but only briefly.

“Master, don’t fall asleep. That is their objective.” Azazil said.

“I–” Gertrude couldn’t speak. Her words sank back into her throat.

Sounds felt heavier than the strength of her vocal chords to lift them.

She was so tired that it was almost hopeless to try to do anything.

It was as if her body was slowly forgetting how to move, everything was so sapped from her, thinking was fast becoming an impossibility. Her body hurt, as if her muscles could no longer lift her weight and had begun to collapse from the effort of standing. Unfathomable sights that should have evoked apoplectic terror instead put a cloud before her eyes, as if she was too enervated to scream, too weary to break down into tears. She wanted so badly, more than anything, to lay down and fall asleep and ignore everything in front of her.

Her skepticism, her need for a material grounding to the world, her desire to make sense of the madness in front of her; all of it becoming as dull as her muscles felt supporting her weight. There was no rationality. She was like an animal. She was aware only of her body and the sheer agonizing need that was slowly making itself more and more real to her.

It was hopeless.

The world was so heavy. Her limbs started to shake with the weight.

And so, ever grew the fog. Turning intensely blue before her eyes.

“I’m sorry– I can’t– I can’t go on–”

Gertrude’s knees began to buckle. Her chest could not stay upright.

Azazil half-turned to look back on her, eyes widening with concern.


Gertrude mumbled to herself in lament.

“I was useless the whole time. I was helpless. There’s nothing I could do.”

“Master– no–!”

Blue color began to overtake the surroundings, crawling across the walls, rippling on the ceiling. Rock and metal and the pale moon of Azazil’s face all began to dissipate in the blue. With the blue there was not peace, however, only weight, sluggishness, burden. Blue like the crushing weight of the ocean, strength-sapping blue that slowed the world, thick enough to give light pause. She was being pushed down against the floor and even past it.

Gertrude began to tumble backward.

Her body fell and fell and did not hit the ground.

Nor the ocean around her.

Succumbing to the aberrant blue aether, Gertrude left the material world entirely.

It was not sleep, but a stillness that had deteriorated even the passage of time.

Gertrude fell and fell and she knew she was falling, but the lack of weight was a relief.

Despite the falling, she was at peace.

It was blissful, even, to descend into the eternal blue where nothing changed.

She felt that she was unburdened of the task of being, the effort of maintaining her own existence. There was no effort, there was simply the perfect stillness. To drift was automatic, to fall was just enough inertia to feel alive without the violence that was inherent in deliberate movement. In front of her foggy eyes there was a constellation of lights that were, all of them, blue. None of them shone brightly enough for feeling. There was no warmth, but unchanging surroundings left her with a comforting sense of stillness.

Was there a fall if there was no destination?

Here, there was no pain–

No thought, no worries, nothing external to consume her.

She drifted peacefully as if cradled on a breeze.

But there was in the midst of the fall an introduction of something else–


It was like a painful spark that jabbed through her chest.

Spreading to her limbs, beckoning her to struggle.

Gertrude suddenly remembered all the currents that had come to intersect her own.

At first there was a sense of relief– but it was different than the blue nothingness.

It was mixed with her emotions– with them came regrets, frustrations–

She would not have to carry the burden of being High Inquisitor anymore.

No longer would she need to find a place in the world after failing to be Elena’s knight.

There was no need to reconcile her lust toward Ingrid with the lust she felt for other women.

Nile’s secrets could simply remain her own.

Victoria and her would not have to navigate the messy rekindling of their relationship.

Azazil would remain something like a bad dream that disappeared with the morning alarm.


Suddenly none of these things felt comforting anymore, none of them felt weightless.

She could not let them come and go. They were hers, she claimed them!

Her heart began to feel hot, and the world began to feel heavy again–

Gertrude opened her eyes and immediately her throat filled with water.

She was surrounded in blue because she was submerged completely in water and it was terrifying to her. Her eyes burned from it, her throat and nose hurt immensely from being filled with it, her lungs struggled. She started thrashing limbs, kicking and paddling in a panic, trying to force herself out of the water with no sense of direction.

Being out in the water was death; every cell of her body screamed for escape.

In a panic she exerted so much force, that she felt as if she had overturned something.

She tumbled, arse over head, and then she hit something solid and flattened out.

Gasping for breaths she could finally take; her entire body in intense pain.

Somehow she had escaped the water and hit a hard floor. Her eyes still burned.

But when she opened them, she began to see blue again. But it was solid blue this time.

Not water, not lights, not those masked things and their blue spores and clouds.

Gertrude found herself laid flat on a tiled floor, its light blue cubic pattern extending all around her. It was on the floor, on the walls, it covered the roof without any change or deviation. Her hand reached out, and it touched water again– she whipped it back as if she had touched a burning chemical, but it was only a panic response.

She forced herself to sit up against a wall.

There was no explaining the transition in her surroundings,

from the station, from the cave, to this place.

In the small room she found herself in, there was a small pool. Not deep enough for her to have been fully submerged and drowning in it. It, too, was tiled the same as every other surface. There was dim light coming as if from under the water, projecting a swirling pattern over some of the roof. She could see out of this room, that there were even more pools connected by a short adjacent hallway. None of these pools followed a logical configuration– there were shallow and deep pools, some only one meter by one meter wide and long, others several cubic meters deep, arranged throughout the space at seemingly random. They reminded Gertrude of hot baths, in their seeming uniformity. But some were too deep, and others were shallower than a shower’s basin. They were connected by tiled walkways.

Forcing herself to a stand, her entire body aching, Gertrude walked to the next room over.

From it, she could see pathways snaking on all sides.

As far as she could see, every hall, every doorway, all led to even more pools.

These seemed to become even more bizarre the farther in she walked.

She began to see pools on the walls, retaining their water despite their position.

Pools on the roof, in places, with their water as still as if they were flat on the ground.

Gertrude walked for several minutes in stunned silence.

Everything was whisper quiet, and there were only more tunnels to follow, more pools.

It was as if she had fallen into some kind of maze.

“Azazil!” Gertrude screamed.

Somehow, her voice did not echo through the corridors and pool rooms.

Nothing in this place made any sense.

She was screaming for Azazil because that was the last person she had been stuck with. But she truly knew next to nothing about Azazil, or the old station in which they had become trapped. For all she knew, it was Azazil who was responsible for all of this, and trying to protect her from the creatures was entirely a façade. Gertrude wondered if someone had drugged her, or if she had been taken away to some bizarre place. Maybe there was equipment fucking with her senses– Azazil had mentioned being enthralled to a computer, maybe that was also the case here? No– that was because of STEM– it made no sense.

As far as Gertrude knew, she did not have a STEM, so that could not apply to her.

Gertrude’s mind was hurtling in every possible direction for answers.

What was the last ordinary thing she remembered?

She and Nile and Victoria had found those boxes marked with a surface era political logo.

Then Gertrude had heard Azazil cry for help– gotten separated– found Azazil–

Learned about Norn–

And then the creatures attacked them.

“I can’t even trust that I didn’t just go insane at some point during that.”

Did insane people realize they were insane? No– they were unaware of it, right?

Could she really have been seeing these pools in the flesh right now?

It was so frustrating.

She walked through the identical corridors unfolding into more bizarre pool rooms.

Finding nothing else anywhere around her. Unable to even tell if she was going in circles.

“My body hurts, so I can’t be dreaming. And I’m wracking my brain, so I can’t be crazy.”

At least she had water– and there was a vac-sealed dry ration bar in her suit too.

So she could endure at least a few more hours of walking.

But to what end?

If she wasn’t so terrified of just sitting down and dying, and if her mind was not so occupied with the bizarre images around her, she would have begun to fear a likely demise within this place. Walking kept her sane within the blue purgatory in which she found herself– if she could even be sane, while traversing such an inexplicable landscape as this. But was there any possibility of escape? Everywhere she had walked looked exactly the same.

Gertrude withdrew her sidearm. She made note of a wall and shot into it.

Tiles cracked and fell from the stricken site, jingling on the floor.

Leaving a little scar, unveiling plain baby blue concrete wall behind the tiles.

She could use this to make sure she was not walking in circles.

Continuing her journey, she put a hand on the left-hand wall and followed it.

Walking past several more pools, through several more hallways.

And never again seeing the hole she had put into the wall.

“I’m making progress, I guess.” Gertrude to herself. Her teeth chattered.

She was growing a bit cold. Though the air was very still in the pool rooms, she was wet.

Hand on the wall, she continued her journey.

After some time, Gertrude found herself in a distinctly larger room.

This in itself did not arouse her attention. But to follow the wall, she had to skirt around the edges of many more pools than before, and those edges were thin and tight. In the dim blue light and the shimmering ripples of water on the ceiling it was difficult to keep focus. She could have lost her footing entirely and fallen into a pool quite easily, which in her mind would not have done anything but annoy her– but then she considered she did not actually know whether what was in the pools was water– or whether that liquid would actually behave normally, nothing else about the situation was normal.

Nevertheless, she followed the wall with continuing frustration.

Then she chanced a look at her reflection in the still and clear water of the adjacent pool.

And the shock she felt almost did cause her to fall into it.

She drew back against the wall, kicking her feet.

Initially in the fear of some figure without description that she thought might jump at her.

But then with the stunned realization that she was seeing herself.

Herself– in a black uniform festooned with symbols of esoteric fascism.

She could even hear her own voice as if surrounded by the figure in the water–

“Standartenführer Gertrude Lichtenberg, reporting for duty. Mein schatzi.”

Smiling, even in that despicable uniform, and saying the last in such a sweet voice–

and a woman’s hand reaching from afar to lift her chin as if owning her–

Gertrude caught the briefest glimpse of the ‘little treasure’ of her other self.

Elena with blue and pink hair, in the same uniform, covered in hooked crosses and sun discs–

Tearing herself away from the sight, Gertrude charged across the thin strip of tiled floor separating one pool to another, and dropped, almost falling, hoping to see her reflection as it should have been. But the adjacent pool had a separate vision, both from reality as Gertrude knew it and from the last pool she had seen. Instead of a Volkisch officer, this Gertrude had clerical robes and wore her hair long and half-covered in a loose habit.

She silently entered a dark room filled with paintings and symbols of Solceanic belief.

“Apologies, holy pontiff. I needed to check up on you.” She said.

In the center of the room, a thin and bedraggled looking Elena gave her a tired look.

Now she was dressed in the papal garb and hat–

“Of course.”

“Another failed experiment?”

“Let’s not speak of it. Tend to my ablutions. I’m feeling– stiff.”

And the nun Gertrude smiled and bowed reverently, and the pontiff shed her robes,

exchanging glances full of– lust–

Gertrude tore herself from the pool and crawled pathetically to a third within reach.

Then she found herself in such an intersection of pools that she could see many of herself at a time, reflected in the waters. Then she was reflected in the ceiling and the walls, surrounded in herself as if carried on a mist that blended the light into apparitions. They walked past her, beside her and through her like ghosts but always playing their own scenes with their own aims as if these histories were currents washing over the unseen woman observing them from the pools. So many Gertrude Lichtenberg overwhelming her.

She saw one Gertrude who was a Katarran in the Pythian Black Legion, carrying out the ancient prophecy of an annihilating battle of the fittest, under the orders of the warlord, Elena; a Gertrude who was an officer in the Hanwan Konoe Shidan, and having been promoted following the crushing of a rebellion against the Empire as well as meritorious service in the conquest and subjugation of the Yu states, reverently sought even the briefest glimpse of Empress Elena; G.I.A. agent Gertrude McLyndon proudly holding a pile of compromising documents and photographs sure to discredit and tear apart the progressivist coalition challenging President Elena’s reelection; Gertrude as the Political Commissar of Captain Elena in a Union Cruiser on an important communist mission; and Gertrude the Praetorian, holding the power of life and death over Fueller Empress Elena–

“No– No– Stop it– I’m not– I can’t–”

Breathless, unable to escape from the figures and shadows, Gertrude shut her eyes.

Unable to make it all go away, unable to bear it–

So badly, she wanted to give in to the worst of herself and be one of those images.

To do anything, destroy anything, compromise anything, to hold the whole world back.

In exchange for her– but no– not these horrid facsimiles–

There was such a thing as a price too high to bear! Gertrude told herself this.

That if Elena had been anyone but herself, Gertrude may well have not followed her.

“Elena was none of those kinds of people. That’s why I love her–”

Gertrude grit her teeth. Of course, Elena was not the monster. Never Elena.

She was the monster. And it was her love for Elena which had made her a monster.

“No– that’s not true– I could have done things right– it was all my mistakes–!”

Some part of her realized that the thoughts she was having and voices she was hearing–

They were all mixing in her brain until she could not sort out what was real.

Unable to escape, to sort out her thoughts or bear any further visions–

Gertrude slid herself to one of the pools and pushed herself into it.

Immediately, she sank deeper and deeper than was possible.

Water filled her throat and nose with incredible rapidity.

Instantly, she was drowning again.

Panicking, thrashing, choking, in immense pain until her consciousness was obliterated.


Even as her tear-stained eyes struggled to open, she still found herself surrounded in blue. Now the tiles were an even darker blue than before and their sectioning was much less obvious. She instantly felt ever more enclosed. The light, too, was dimmer, but it still seemed to come up from within the pools, of which there was one nearby.

Her hand had dipped inside it.

Gertrude laid on her back.

Soon as she recognized that she was herself, and awake, and saw her surroundings, she felt the biting cold again and resumed shivering. She retracted her hand from a pool and hugged herself, curling her legs up closer to her body. On the ceiling, the water, lit from under, cast shimmering white waves over the dark blue tiles. She stared at it, helpless and cold,

following the waves–

Until she noticed the shadow cutting across the center of the light show.

In a panic, Gertrude pushed herself up onto her feet and to a thundering step,

sliding over smooth slick tiles

falling hard on her shoulder and coming to lie


into a pool much larger deeper darker like a blue hole in the world


“You’ve done more harm to yourself than I mean to you already.”

With her back to the wall, shivering with cold and fear, Gertrude stared in the center of the gaping blue maw that had become of the pool. There was a figure there, floating gently atop the surface. Slender with a long torso and limbs, and almost nymph-like, not simply in her beauty but in the pallid softness that her features seemed to take. Her hair was long and red and flowed over the water around her like a spreading bloodstain. She was dressed in a long robe which had been entirely soaked through, and clung to her hips and her small breasts in a way that, even in this situation, made Gertrude run a bit hotter than before.

Curiously, she had one single black horn and an over-long white tail, its end splitting like that of a whale or dolphin, almost as long as her body and somewhat thick.

When their eyes met– Gertrude could have sworn they were black with a yellow slit.

Then imperceptibly fast, so that it made her previous perception appear a mirage–

Those eyes changed color, becoming blue and green.

“I remember you.” Gertrude said, her lips trembling. “You– you attacked me–”

In her dreams, she had seen the trees, and seen a woman giving a speech, and seen a vast and horrible machine processing something ungodly and inhuman. Visions as if of other worlds, impossible places that felt terrifyingly familiar. In those places, this woman appeared. At times callous; at times barring the way; at times, tearing Gertrude apart.

Those memories of the pain inflicted by this woman caused Gertrude to wince.

And push herself further back against the wall–

There was nowhere to go.

When Gertrude pushed back, the edge of the pool became, suddenly, closer.

Her legs were in the water, she now sat on only enough tile to sit in at all.

Just as that edge had come closer, the woman now lounged right beside her.

Head and arms out of the water, her long and voluminous red hair on Gertrude’s lap.

One slender white finger traced the front of Gertrude from her sternum to her belly.

Spreading warmth wherever it touched. Giving off a hazy wisp of those strange colors.

In Gertrude’s pocket, the object Nile had given her was buzzing uncontrollably.

“You needn’t fear me. Like you, I am given into my passions. Sometimes I can no better control myself than if my right half and left half were different people. It’s hard to explain; but I’m in a good mood. I wanted to follow after you again. You have stumbled upon an interesting place. You have an uncanny ability to stumble in this way. Because you have a passionate, chaotic heart that is tearing through the world for a purpose. Just like mine.”

Gertrude felt her tensions dissipate, her muscles loosen up, and the cold fading.

The touch of this woman was perhaps the most soothing sensation she had ever felt.

Enough that Gertrude almost gasped when the woman simply lifted her fingers from her.

“Can you help me?” Gertrude asked. “You said I wandered here– well, I’m trapped now.”

At her side, the woman smiled. “You’re so bold– going right past names to favors.”

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

“But you don’t know who I am. And you won’t, without a proper introduction, Hominin.”

“Hominin? Well– I am Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Gertrude said, submitting to the demand.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg. Alright then– can you call me Eris?” Asked the red-haired woman.

Gertrude smiled a little. She started to feel safe. “As you wish. Thank you, Eris.”

Eris closed her eyes. Her lips slowly turned into a smile. She looked strangely placid.

“What are you thanking me for, Hominin? So easily forgetting the danger I represent?”

“You’re the only thing keeping me sane right now.” Gertrude said.

She was being coy, but Gertrude was certain this woman was doing something to her.

Something that helped her stave off the rot of mind and spirit in this place.

Gertrude came to realize that ever since the katov mass had turned blue, the same blue that permeated this evil place, she had felt tired. Tired, helpless, rushing blindly. Desperate to outrun something, so desperate it wiped her out; everyone else was just as tired as her too. No amount of vitamin jelly drinks could restore her. Blue that made the marrow turn cold, that made the fog of mind freeze into hard walls around thought and meaning. She had been so stupid; Nile had tried to tell her, but she did not want to stop and understand.

Gertrude had marched them all into the abyss’ insanity. Into its consumptive power.

Hundreds of expeditions had been devoured in holes like this. Unknowing until the end.

Only now, with that healing touch, was Gertrude finally able to realize her predicament.

But she did not feel panic. Her heart was steady and her breathing calm.

Instead, she felt like she had finally made a breakthrough.

Gertrude sat up straight.

Her boots sank further into the water, but she didn’t care anymore. Being wet was the least of her worries. Unable to make any headway, she resolved to catch her breath and try to clear her head. Blue ripples reflected eerily upon her face, which was mostly in shadow and barely visible in her reflection until a blue streak crossed her eyes. She glanced at the woman in the pool, who floated gently toward her, long tail curving further into the pool.

“You look so resigned. Have you finally accepted your situation?” Eris said.

“I’m collected. I’ve been going around in circles and getting jerked around for so long. Now I don’t know. I feel some kind of way. Right now, I just want to talk to you. Is that okay?”

She looked down at the water just as the red-haired woman floated closer to her.

Their eyes met, golden yellow and dark green.

In good humor– for once.

After circling these pools for so long the she wished she could gut herself with her knife–

Eris in the water, however absurd a sight, gave her hope for something.

“You remind me of someone.” Eris said.

Turning her head to meet her eyes further, her cheek caressed by the tiles.

Eris had an expression of uncanny fondness on her face. She looked so placid.

“Is the resemblance positive or negative?” Gertrude asked.

“She was someone who said she would protect me, no matter what.” Eris replied.

Gertrude smirked a little. “You feel too formidable to need protecting.”

Eris smirked. “What if I did? What if, as we speak, I’m in the greatest danger of my life?”

“Don’t tempt me.” Gertrude said. “I’m also the type to say ‘I would give my life for you.’”

“You are an awful cad.” Eris laughed. “I’m not so easy, you despicable hominin.”

“I’m serious.” Gertrude replied. She even started laughing a little bit too.

“Even if I told you my enemy is something too vast and impossible?” Eris replied.

She raised her eyes from Eris to the walls around them.

There seemed to be no passages out of this pool. No matter.

For once, Gertrude did not really want to go anywhere. Eris was too interesting.

“I’ve spent all my life putting my body between women and something vast and impossible. Sometimes, they even wanted me to do it.” She said, betraying a hint of sadness.

Eris seemed to pick up on her wistful tone of voice.

Her own eyes wandered too. She looked up at the tiled walls and the ceiling.

“Would you protect me, if I myself became your enemy?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Gertrude said. Now even more weary-sounding than before.

“You should give up. I am not able to be protected, nor am I worthy of it.” Eris said.

“And I’m not worthy of protecting anyone. You can’t be any worse than me.”

“You say that so easily. But my sins are monumental.”

“There are people who would say I’m utterly unforgiveable too.”

Gertrude swayed her legs gently in the bewitchingly blue water of the pools.

“I used to be a High Inquisitor of the Empire. My hands are stained permanently with so much blood. Blood from innocents whom I suppressed, and from my own allies and the people I turned into enemies.” She said. “I made many deliberately evil decisions. And as many mistakes. I don’t think I can make amends. But if you need someone– I can help you. I can’t just walk past someone drowning in the same stagnant water I’m drowning in.”

Eris looked up at the roof with a wan expression. Avoiding Gertrude’s own eyes.

“You’ve come a long, painful way, since your journey began.” She said. “In that sense, we are alike. Both groomed into the weapons of greedy empires, fighting for injustice, losing everything by our own foolish hands, including our identities. Trapped in liminal space, with a dead past and a foregone future. All we can do is to despair and rebel against the world.”

Eris continued to give the walls the same narrow wistful gaze.

“Eris– you know what this maze actually is, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

There was a note of frustration finally creeping into Gertrude’s voice again.

She had been stuck, in motionless suspension, a blind idiot trapped in limbo. Time and again, dangers and obstacles beyond her ability and cognition erupted in front of her, and she would be rescued from her vanity by an ally with the answers. Her own power and skill had been utterly worthless. She was forced to grovel or to become someone’s damsel, unable to resolve any situation by herself. It was the same here. Whether it was Norn, Victoria, Nile, Azazil or now Eris. Gertrude was lucky to have their pity or she would be dead.

Every time, she lacked the ability to change anything.

Even outside this blue hell– everything had been going in circles.

Ever since she left Luxembourg– circles,

ever since she first stood between Sawyer and Elena,

ever since,

she was born,

spinning circles on her own heel,

all of it in vain,

“Ahh– to think I have to give succor to a Hominin. But– this doesn’t feel too bad.”

From the water, an arm stretched up, and silk-soft fingers caressed Gertrude’s cheek.

That touch, so tender and warm, snapped Gertrude out of her sudden despair and fury.

“Listen well Hominin. Rarely do I enlighten your kind. This liminal space is built up of resonant human emotions.” Eris said. “The Aether is a reflection of humanity. It is a body whose flesh is the human soul. Its blood formed of human perspective, and circulated in veins the gifted can see. Everything that is human can exist here, circulating endlessly wherever humans have been and wherever they desire to go. Everything you fear, everything you love, everything that brings despair, joy or even stultification. But in this specific place, a single emotion has overwhelmed everything, and the ‘blood’ has become clotted.”

Ordinarily, Gertrude might have reacted adversely toward that explanation.

She had been doing a lot of that lately too.

But at that moment she wanted that to stop and had the conviction to stop it.

No more panicking and shrieking pathetically at the things she did not understand.

She wanted to understand. This was part of the world too– she had to master it.

Gertrude kept hurrying to get somewhere, and she ended up here, nowhere.

She ran past every explanation only wanting what was convenient and simple.

Always missing the important context, the crevices between statements, the hard truths.

Her heart needed to open itself to the possibility of what she was seeing.

“You are saying that this is a place of emotions; an overwhelming emotion created it. Can my emotions change this place back? Can my emotions free me from here?” Gertrude said.

“It’s not so easy– but your emotions are powerful, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Eris said.

Gertrude scoffed. “My emotions have only brought tragedy– I fear relying on them.”

Eris’s eyes met Gertrude’s again.

This time, they had some of their former scrutinizing coldness again.

“Your emotions forged and destroyed bonds. They upended your life. They brought you to this place.” Eris said. “They can be a power to destroy, but they also brought you many followers and believers, many close bonds, the armor you wear and the weapons you wield. In that sense, they have not only brought tragedy, but have also created your triumphs.”

Gertrude’s passion had brought her from the heights of the Imbrium to the depths of this trench. But she couldn’t accept that so easily. It wasn’t just her emotions, as a disconnected entity or power. Her emotions were not something that happened without her.

They were not autonomous.

It was herself. She stuck herself into this endless circle.

Her eyes began to sting and weep again, even with Eris’ touch upon her cheek.

Teardrops crashed on the surface of the pool.

Sending hot red vapor into the air.

“Are you wavering again? So easily? Even after my comfort?” Eris sounded offended.

“I’m sorry. It’s– I was just so stupid. I can’t call any of it a triumph.” Gertrude whimpered. “You don’t understand. I was delusional. I used those bonds as my excuse. I convinced myself everything I was doing for Elena was consecrated, necessary, and good for her. And yet– along the way, I betrayed the trust of so many other people who needed me.”

Just thinking about ‘emotions’ had set her off on a warpath again. She went out of control.

“They saw me as a symbol of hope. That a swarthy-skinned and dark-haired little brat without a drop of noble blood nor the vast wealth of a capitalist, could grow up and climb to the highest peaks of the Empire using only her martial ability, and could achieve control, and with it, independence and agency. But I didn’t climb anything but a mountain of corpses. I never had any merits. I cheated, I begged, I conspired, I killed so many people, some of whom deserved retribution but many, many more that did not deserve what I did to them.”

Gertrude lifted her eyes from the water and met Eris’s gaze again.

“I don’t believe in the Imbrian Empire. My uniform, that flag, all of that crap– none of it was worth shit to me. All I believed was in Elena von Fueller. I loved her with all my heart. It made me human– she was the only reminder that I had a soul. That I still had a beating heart.”


Eris tried to speak up, but Gertrude pounded her fist on the tiled edge of the pool and put a crack in its perfect facade, shattering the tiles. Eris stared at the cracks with surprise.

And so Gertrude continued to lament.

“And in the end, I was ready to kill her too! I would have killed her if I couldn’t have her. She invalidated everything I had become. She never asked me to; and I never asked her. But I became this for her and she rejected it, and when she did, my future disappeared. I became suspended in nothingness. And now I am nothing but a monster. Emotions? What good are my emotions? Norn sent me down here, maybe hoping to alter my perspective. I rushed in with all the greed and obsession of my monstrous heart looking for a treasure at the end of a rainbow. I wanted this place to just give me her strength as if I deserved a reward!”

Eris’s eyes softened slightly.

“But I just failed.” Gertrude said. She smiled a hopeless smile. It was the smile of a dead woman, she thought. She saw herself reflected in the pool. So pale, so helpless. “I know that now. I can’t do anything. Even before I became trapped in this hell of empty pools, whatever this place is– it doesn’t even rate compared to how meaningless my life outside here was. How circular and empty and delusional. I burned all of the joy I could have had with her. I foreclosed on every other possibility. Anything outside my fucking circle of hell.”

More tears streamed down her cheeks. Red vapor steamed from the blue water.

“I’m lost. I’m lost! I don’t know which way to go. You are asking me to make use of my emotions? These are my emotions. I am a raging animal who wants to tear her own fucking face off. I can’t use these emotions for anything good. All I can do is rage impotently!”

“We are more alike than even I thought.” Eris said. “So will you just sit here like me?”

Gertrude fell silent, staring at the water with that lost smile.

“How disappointing.” Eris said. “And here I thought it would be worth following you.”

Her tear-stained eyes met Eris’s beautifully pale face once again.

“I’m sorry. I’m so pathetic. I’ve been saved so many times the past few days. I’ve not been able to protect anyone. You’re right. I am a cad. I am just trying to find a new lie that I can tell myself, desperately, even now, even in this god-forsaken lightless hole into which I have been cast. I can’t protect you. I can’t protect anyone. You’re right– I have lost my beginning and I’ll never reach my destination. You called it a liminal space? Then I’m just stuck in limbo.”

At the sound of her voice, the walls shuddered. Red cracks put upon blue tiles.

“What about Monika?” Eris asked. “She’s in danger.”

Gertrude’s breath caught in her chest. Monika– that poor girl believed in her–

–but it was no use,

“Gertrude, if anything were possible– what would your ambition be?” Eris asked.

Gertrude’s fists tightened. Anger swelled in her heart. She hated that question.

She hated these what-if’s and sophistry.

Already, the meaningless answer had formed in her mind. It was immediate and absolute.

“I’d cut a trail of blood across this fucking Ocean. I would destroy the remains of the Imbrium Empire.” Gertrude said. “I’d tear down everything separating us without mercy–!”

Her and–





Sawyer even–?


Eris too?

“You are a fascinating Hominin. I feel– I feel so close to you. I– I want you, Gertrude.”

There was a moment of silence again between herself and Eris.

Gertrude noticed Eris’s eyes becoming shadowed.

Her bangs, and the angle at which she was laying on the edge of the tiles.

It hid her eyes– but Gertrude could see her lips slowly curl into a smile.

“Gertrude, you know what your emotions can do? They can put a crack in these tiles.”

Gertrude, for an instant, felt a familiar stirring inside herself.

She felt a sudden desire to take possession of Eris too.

Before her eyes, a flash of a world where she could exploit her, where she could use her knowledge, her powers, her beautiful and strange body, in every possible advantageous way. Eris became power and treasure in her mind, became salvation, redemption, sublimity, pleasure. She could use her until her dark heart was full. There was a mighty red haze before Gertrude’s eyes that showed her pleasures and triumphs beyond imagination. With control over Eris, she could escape, she could rescue all of her crew and her ship, she could attack all of her enemies, and take back Elena, and sweep through the world in her fury–

And she stopped herself, utterly, and completely. Her emotions were a spiraling storm.

She could not let herself treat anyone like that again– could she–?

“Can I still raise my head after all of this–?”

As soon as the words left Gertrude’s lips, Eris was suddenly face to face with her.

She had left the pool instantly, it was as if she had always been standing beside her. Curled around her, embracing her, and with a gentle hold on Gertrude’s chin, forcing her to lift her head. Her face was so close, Gertrude could feel her breaths warming her lips.

Close enough to drown in her eyes.

Close enough to kiss.

Her lips took Gertrude’s own, so hungry it almost felt like she would bite.

Tasting the subtle hint of iron in her tongue and throat, Gertrude felt her mind waver.

She saw herself sharing this kiss under a sky rather than the ocean.

Saw an enormous tree-like structure looming over the two of them.

And then Eris ripped apart right in front of her.

Every piece of her torn out and scattered.

But just as quickly and with much more emotion, she saw the kiss and reciprocated.

Painted blue in the pool room but beginning to glow gently red instead.

When they parted, a string of spittle between their once-interlocking tongues–

Gertrude was rendered speechless again. In front of that nymph-like, dream-like beauty.

That taste had been so– dangerous– intoxicating– but fulfilling too.

Eris stared at her dead in the eyes, close as warm breath. Looking at her so– covetously.

“Promise me, Gertrude Lichtenberg. Take your power and use it to destroy your enemies. Seize every treasure which you feel is yours and guard your hoard like a dragon. Let yourself be envious, greedy, lustful, furious and vain. Let sloth overtake you and experience despair. Allow all colors of the aura into yourself. Live your darkest passion. Don’t stop moving. Don’t accept being in a place like this ever again. Become someone who will protect me; not in the midst of this, but at the height of power over a new world and perhaps, at my side.”

She smiled, rapturously, almost– insanely– her aura becoming vast and stark white–

“Don’t put up with the path. Seize the destination. Betray this world; crush it in your fist.”


“Promise me– and I’ll help here. And we’ll meet again too. Out there.”

There was no denying the allure of her words.

Gertrude was full of nothing but contempt for the world.

This was not a world in which she or any of the people she had come to care about could live in peace. Tearing down the high towers and standing over the rubble would be doing the world a favor. Building something new and better over the heap would be mercy. But it was the least she could do; and the minimum required was for the Imbrium Empire to be completely annihilated. It was the only way she could live with herself.

Emperor Lichtenberg— she had been called that in jest.

And yet, in the brilliant and fond eyes of this ‘Eris’ it felt like she could see that world.

A world in which she had power. A world in which all the current rules were overturned.

Creating a new order by which all of these tragedies could be averted.

The final death and burying of the Imbrian Empire.

Vengeance against all of its architects.

And the rise of the empire of the future, her empire– The Agarthic Empire.

“I promise you.” Gertrude said. “I will tear my way out of this. I will find you.”

“What if you made an enemy out of me? What if I tried to stop you?”

Eris was testing her conviction.

But she didn’t know Gertrude as perfectly as she thought.

Her words were as dark and heavy and hot as the shielding on a reactor.

“I wouldn’t let you make that mistake. I want your power too. If we’re alike as you say–”

Gertrude smirked.

“Then I’ll become like you someday. I am a monster too. I’ll claim you for myself first. I will not let you get in my way; nor will you escape. I will use you, Eris; everything of you.”

Eris’s face warped into a grin.

“Let us seal this covenant, Gertrude Lichtenberg. If you possess the conviction.”

In the next instant, Gertrude found herself on her back, pushed back from the pool.

On top of her, Eris loomed, her golden eyes shining.

Her lips spread, revealing sharp, hungry teeth.

She descended on Gertrude, who resolved to keep still and endure it.

Eris bit down into her shoulder and tore a piece of her flesh right into her mouth.

Rather than agony, however, Gertrude felt warmth, closeness, affection

through those fangs

ripping skin, tearing fibers, blood swallowed up

she was filled with something

made a part of it

connected to a grander whole

It was as close to paradise as she had ever neared, and she felt her chest fluttering.

“Gertrude. I am a sputtering throat without heart or limbs. I have been ripped apart and remade whole and been swept by currents like dust. I may not be– myself– next time.”

Eris’ gaze met Gertrude’s own. Lit up a dim red by Gertrude’s growing aura.

“I want to believe that something of me can be saved. That something of us can be saved.”

In one instant, Eris’ tears dropped from weary eyes–

And she put her head up close to Gertrude, looking so helpless and defeated.

Gertrude reached up, wanting to touch her again, to pull her in tight–

And as suddenly she was gone, in a sweeping current formed of a myriad colors.

For a moment, Gertrude felt the absence of her warmth, and the blue despair crept in–

–but she would not accept it any longer.

She would not settle for suffering loss after loss.

Her red passion brimmed, a thin shining aura, and the blue wisps scattered from her like flies being driven off by smoke. After Eris’ departure, the room tried to go dark, but Gertrude was her own light. She stood from the ground, fighting back tears, but filled with purpose. Red streaks accompanied her steps, dim at first but red enough to vanquish the dark blue.

She walked, filling in the negative, a light in the storm, a matchfire in void.

Rational thoughts of hopelessness, of being trapped, of seeing the impossible surroundings and recoiling with fear, of the need to curl up and preserve life for as long as she could, all of it burned in that insane red. Gertrude was instead filled with a conviction that was backed by no evidence of her senses, and it afforded a clarity she had never felt in her life. There was nothing in front of her but a straight line forward. If it didn’t exist, she would carve it. In that moment, there was no wall strong enough to stop her. No length she could not cross.

No depth too unreachable.

All of these unseemly blue tiles cried out for a pattern only a battering could inscribe.

Gertrude reached her hands to where she had been bitten.

Almost disappointed to find no wound there. She almost wanted to be marked.

“I’ll claim her. She’s down there somewhere– some part of her is. I know it.”

Gertrude looked at the fingers that had touched the site of Eris’ bite.

Closed them into a fist.

And put that fist directly through the wall of the pool rooms.

She expected to meet any amount of resistance, and for a second she thought she saw the walls actually, physically crack, fissures spreading through the wall and up the ceiling and even into the water itself, cracking everything like glass– but then in the blink of an eye, her entire surroundings had simply changed from what they had been previously, annihilated immediately. Consumed in the devastating red they burned away like paper set alight.

Gertrude had forged her own chaotic red path through their ordered blue despair.

In place of the pool rooms there was suddenly a long and tall hallway of cobblestones.

All of the cobbles had sooty burnt traces as if a fire had raged through the hallway.

Stained glass windows shining all around her some set at impossible directions and angles as if not anchored to a physical wall, or as if the wall had been bent awkwardly around them. But the cobblestone was continuous, it climbed the walls, it formed the ceiling, and it was unbroken even in those places where there were seemingly organic breaches of their geometry. Gertrude was left briefly speechless by the grandeur of this place compared to the tight, looping pool rooms. It was as if this place housed something enormous.

She was not alone. There was much more activity here than in the pools.

Gertrude saw both near and far a dozen of those masked aberrations that had been trying to overwhelm her and Azazil. She had her guard up and awaited an attack. They did not seem to notice her, however, and after a few tense minutes she relaxed. They dragged their bloated arms behind their cloaked bodies, all of the facial features imprinted on their white masks contorting into dazed and stupid-looking expressions. They were making their way down the corridor, following the far off walls into the distance without aim or aggression.

Closing her fists and steadying her breathing, Gertrude followed them from afar.

Soon as she began walking, she noticed nothing in the distance seemed to come closer.

But she would not give up– the appearance of hopelessness was the aim of the blue color.

Stubbornly she continued to walk even though she seemed to make no progress.

She then noticed that the stained glass windows had actual shapes, and depicted scenes.

Scenes of a golden-haired girl with dog-like ears, rendered abstract but dreadfully familiar.

“Monika.” Gertrude said. Feeling a sense of trepidation again and smothering it down.

From one of her pouches, she withdrew the aetherometer that Nile had given her.

Stirring continuously, like a tablet vibrating to inform the owner of a message.

All of its face had become distorted with spiraling shades of blue that became impossible to read. However, the more concentrated on it the more she could feel something from it. That feeling became sound. Sound that when it crossed into her became a voice and a voice which she recognized. Gertrude listened, shuddered and had to fight to keep her fire alight.

Somehow the aetherometer was broadcasting Monika’s voice.

“Sleep soundly, peacefully, without resentment.” She whispered in a mischievous voice.

There was a note of palpable desperation. It was an unsettling tone of voice.

Like Monika had gone mad.

“Sleep the eternities away. Without pain, without bigotry. In the eternal sleep there lies our paradise. We are equals in sleep. We have no war or famine or genocide. Join our deep blue and beautiful sleep. It will be so easy. It will be so kind. You have needed it so long.”

That suggestive voice tempted Gertrude to surrender herself, and she was weak to it.

Indeed– it would have been so easy. And it would have felt so kind.

True– Gertrude had needed it for so long.

But she lifted her feet and continued despite the inherent difficulty.

Fire slept when it was snuffed out and ceased to burn.

Gertrude stubbornly tried to shut it out of her mind, descending the hallway.

As she walked, she saw movement out of the corners of her eyes and realized that the scenes on the stained glass windows seemed to be changing. Like projector slides, they would blink through short animations in the glass frames. When Gertrude stopped to look, however, the abstractions in the glass were given photorealistic shape. She saw Monika as she knew her; and saw Monika in the flesh in ways she never had known before.

A child; a young woman; a prisoner.

“It is impermissible for a Loup to disbelieve God. We exist only by the grace of God.”

“If God is the reason I was born, he can have his grace back.”

Voices accompanied by the cracking sound of a slap.

Monika was not always so different from others. Because in fact each person is not so radically different from the rest. But they all had the radicalism beaten out of their souls in different ways. Monika never gave up hers. She stood aside the crowd during oaths, she failed to perform drills, she gave nothing of herself onto God in church, and she dreamed and prepared instead for study. There were people in her life who encouraged her, who assisted her greatly and nurtured her desire for knowledge. Teachers who understood; liberal church folk who took pity; Imbrians looking from outside-in who judged the culture of the Loup without acknowledging the culpability they had in its creation and corruption.

It was this last group who offered Monika the most hope in her endeavors.

“I want to escape to an Imbrian school. I want to learn what makes up the world.”

How does the world work?

Could one learn about energy and matter to understand cruelty and hopelessness?

Could a Loup turn her back on God and War and Blood and lead her own free life?

A too-young Monika fought with everything she had to try to realize her goal.

And she was defeated.

Family had an iron hand; the Church had a baleful eye; and Imbrians had half hearts.

“Don’t worry– our therapies have put many anti-social girls back on the correct path.”

Cretinous voices promised anything that could not happen to those who had already forfeit.

Still, Monika did not give up.

Even as Gertrude stared at more and more scenes of captivity and abuse.

Every step of the way, that same little Loup protected her rebellious and inquisitive soul.

Gertrude felt her own body growing heavier as she witnessed the scenes.

Scolded right in her face so that the spittle of her “instructors” fell upon her cheeks.


Stood before the rest of the wayward children and humiliated.

Denied food.

Forbidden to sleep, even so far as being denied a bed or chairs.


Gertrude asked herself, but Monika’s voice came out of her throat.

“Why did they do this to me? Are my desires so terrible?”

If all of this was done in the name of God, then God was nothing but a demon.

And his world was a Hell itself.


She lifted her boot and set it down on the ground again.

Without thinking, she had moved– or everything had moved her.

There was in front of her, a threshold, an archway door open into a church.

Pews made of fake wood grain led up to a grand altar behind which was a vast organ. Lead-and-copper cross-shaped pipes jutted out at wild angles from a throbbing mass of wet flesh. All of it set upon a series of tentacles that dangled over the edge of the altar’s raised stage. In the pews sat the masked creatures, sleeping, led to the source of their stupefaction.

In front of the vast, fleshy, throbbing organ stood Monika herself.

Her blond hair was partially wet and completely disheveled. Her irises were surrounded by red rings and had begun to partially warp into blue fractals creeping toward the edges of the eye. Physically she remained unchanged, being short but an adult in form as Gertrude had ever known her. Even under these circumstances, that wild and irreverent grin was on the same beautiful face Gertrude was familiar with. She dressed in a long blue and white robe with a tall hat, and rather than the mushrooms which the aberrations around them wore or grew on themselves, Monika was wrapped in nightshades blooming with black, suppurating fruits. She had a mask, like the other inhabitants of this space, but she wore it hanging from the nightshade plants like they were chains. Gertrude saw her radiating blue color.

“Welcome to the church of the Drowning Prophecy, and to your deliverance from pain.”

Behind her the organ let off irregular and discordant notes as if attempting to make music.

“I’m happy to see you, Gertrude. Other than myself, I want to give you peace most of all.”

Monika held out a hand in invitation and Gertrude, heart racing, stepped into the church.

She crossed the pews of sleeping aberrations to stand below Monika.

It reminded her of whenever she saw Monika atop some equipment, looking down at her.

But she wasn’t smiling anymore. Her kind little smiles were lost to the madness.

“Gertrude, you doubt me don’t you? Or in fact, did you ever believe in me at all?”

“I’ve always had the utmost esteem for you. I’ve never given up on you for a second.”

Tendrils of blue color from Monika’s body prodded the edge of Gertrude’s stark red aura.

“I am a genius, Gertrude. I’m a genius and a child prodigy, a generational talent. Everyone was afraid of what I represented.” Monika smiled. But it sent a chill down Gertrude’s spine. There was none of her warmth there. “That is why I understand well– why I have finally deduced everything in the world. I’ve been thinking about it for my entire life. But there is no evidence to suggest that there is any value in continuing to endure pain in this wretched life. There is no saving it; no preventing the forces that extract every second of suffering they can from us to power this infernal machine; no accountability for its architects.”

Monika spread her arms wide and the tentacles of the organ unfolded and stretched.

“We have control over only one thing. One life, which we can do with as we please.”

A series of guttural noises came out of the pews. Startled, Gertrude turned around.

One by one, the sleeping aberrations in attendance retched and spat up something black.

They fell from their seats, banging their heads on the floor and the pews around them.

Gertrude had seen them disappear when struck before– to see them fall over and die like human beings was shocking to her. It felt wrong– like these creatures should not have had this end, but it was all for some reason engineered for them. That sleep which came from their soporific mushroom spores was different from the eternal sleep now given to them by the black bile they had ingested. All of the aberrations were destroyed.

Monika’s nightshades– she must have poisoned all of them?

“This is the peace you want to grant me, Monika? And I presume, the whole crew?”

“Eternal Sleep is a kindness, Gertrude! It is our answer to God and his malfeasance. He will toy with us no longer. And all those who tormented us will disappear with him.”

Gertrude did not know what to say in response. It was difficult to muster her conviction.

She had never been in a situation where she had to argue for being soberly awake.

For herself– she had certainly thought before, and would probably think again, that it was too much to endure. Both the lightless world in which she found herself; and the fact that she had ruined so many elements of her life. She had lost what she had regarded as the core of her being, and the driving direction for much of her life. She lost her planned future.

Certainly she had thought about giving up before.

More than anything, however, her heart hurt so badly for Monika.

Words could not express it.

There was no taking back all of the horrible things that had been done to her. Nothing that Gertrude could do or give would wipe out the knowledge that all of the people who were supposed to protect Monika betrayed her; that her own warped culture had delivered her beatings her entire life; that her only crime was not falling into line with the rest of society’s mindless edicts. The Imbrium Empire had scarred her. Gertrude had already done what she could do– she had tried to validate Monika and to give her a worthy place to belong.

Regardless– such a thing would never wipe out the years that she had to endure, drowning. In the sanatoriums, under the oppression of her family and the church, for decades, unable to make official her genius. The military should not have been her salvation from that.

Gertrude could understand how a girl so beaten down might contemplate surrender.

The Imbrium Ocean was a dark and horrible place where people suffered needlessly.

Humanity’s final refuge on a dead planet.

Was it worth all of this loss? All of this pain? All of this injustice?

Untold billions of their ancestors died with the planet– for this?

Why not just give it all up forever if there was no deliverance from pain?

Gertrude shook her head. Clutching her chest like she wanted to touch the fire in it.

There was one good reason perhaps. Gertrude had one argument in her.

“Monika, I want you to come back with me.” Gertrude said.

She extended a hand up to the stage for Monika to take if she so chose.

“To toil away on your ship for your benefit?” Monika said.

“No. I’m not going to force you to do anything. But if you would accompany me, I would be very happy. Not as your commander– as someone who esteems you. You’re immensely strong, and you are incredibly smart and incisive; and you have a really cute laugh.” Gertrude tried to smile at Monika, who stared in confusion. “My life is pretty bleak, I must admit. But it would be so much worse without you. I care about you a lot, Monika. I want to know you’re okay and I want to do anything I can for you. You’re a cherished companion.”

Monika’s fingers curled into fists. She started shaking, staring at Gertrude.

“Gertrude, I would not suffer another day on this forsaken hell-hole just for you.”

“It’s not just for me either. Ingrid would be devastated to lose you.” Gertrude said.

“Ingrid?” Monika paused, her eyes drawing wide.

“She’s bad at demonstrating it, but she understands you. And she cares about you too.”

“Neither of you understand anything! You really want me to remain awake through this?”

With a boom and the cracking of the plastic planks of the stage floor, the tentacles writhed.

Smashing up and then down, the pipes playing a furious disharmony.

Vibrating right through Gertrude’s guts; but she stood her ground, her hand still raised.

“Monika, let me take you away from that thing. Everyone must be so worried.” She said.

“You’re–” Monika grit her teeth. She began to weep. “You’re dodging my questions–”

“I’ve given you my answer.” Gertrude said, smiling. “I want this ugly world to be more beautiful for your presence. Monika, if you take my hand, I’ll help you stay awake with me.”

“Gertrude– but– you’ve been through– would you really keep enduring– even after–?”

Monika was crying openly, a deluge. Her words came out choppy and anxious.

And the organ-thing behind her stirred with ever growing violence.

Gertrude stood up as straight as she could and delivered her clearest answer.

“I will endure. Monika, if it would save you, I would never even try to look at Elena again.”

It was time to let go of her own terrible dream that was drowning her in her sleep.

And at the power of those words the entire church had a spasm of agony.

As if the walls were those of a lung or a heart expanding and contracting, the stone and the stained glass stretched until the mortar joining them nearly split, and fell back into place with a booming and crunching sound. Monika’s nightshades started wilting, the fruits falling to the ground and rotting rapidly. Her mask had a crack in it; and red cracks began to appear on the floor, on the pews, across the walls and ceiling, emanating from where Gertrude was standing. They glowed and put permanent scars in the structures.

In response one of the tentacles bore down on Gertrude like a thrown fist.

With its end curled into a mass almost the size of her entire body–

–meeting a concave riot shield that held the blow at bay.

“Monika! Run! I’ll catch up with you!” Gertrude shouted.

Her eyes flashed red; and with a flick of the wrist, a vibroblade was in her hand.

She pulled back her shield, reached and swung far, the blade crackling bright with aura.

Red slice severing the blue tentacle leaving a gelatinous seeping wound.

Up on the stage, Monika stood paralyzed, weeping, shaking.

Gertrude discarded her shield and rushed to the stage, leaping up to Monika’s side.

In her wake, her aura formed a billowing cape now clipped to an ostentatious red and gold military uniform. A garrison cap rested upon her head, and her hair was tied in its neat bun behind her head once again. None of her inquisitorial symbology was present, and this was not a uniform of any particular nation. But it was a uniform, jacket, pants, boots, shirt, all formed of her red glowing aether that flowed from her impassioned heart.

So attired, Gertrude stood between Monika and the thrashing organ.

“It’s this thing that is the ‘Drowning Prophecy’ isn’t it?” Gertrude said.

In this place she developed an almost insane certainty, as if a whispering voice in her ear told her all of the truths she would tell herself. Her red conviction against the blue despair.

Buoyed by enkindled emotions, Gertrude reached to her side for a weapon.

And when she lifted her hand, there was a familiar black grenade launcher on it.

Gertrude pulled the trigger and a 40 mm explosive grenade launched out of the tube.

The munition hurtled toward the tentacled horror, soaring between its appendages.

Blue aura from the arms intensified in response, slowing the munition.

When it exploded the fire and force of the grenade barely touched the monster.

As if the explosion itself had been slowed and smothered within that aura.

Gertrude’s grenade launcher dissipated in her hands, and a sword appeared in its place.

Monika was too shocked to run, so she had to stand her ground here.

Covering herself with her riot shield and bracing for attack, trying to plan a response.

The Drowning Prophecy was like a lung, pierced through by the church pipes.

Writhing meat that made up its bulk expanded and contracted in a predictable sequence. Its labored breaths went through the pipes piercing it and made discordant music. Its severed sinews made up its tentacles, all of which slobbered and slid out from under its bulk, several meters in length. Such a lifeform could not have possibly existed, but in this realm of emotion, she could understand its existence. It was as if something like this being had been in the back of her mind, something primal and shapeless. It was not this fleshy monster, but the fleshy monster was an abstraction of it. A signifier of something unspoken.

Looking upon it, she could feel the temptation to a sublime hopelessness.

Only the enflamed red aether emanating from her body staved off those thoughts.

Wreathed within that cloak, absurd certainty protected her and drove her to action.

With her sword and shield, she leaped forward into the reach of the mass.

Tentacles began flying at her in all cardinals and angles.

She was almost sure she would find some of these appendages having no connection to their main body, lashing at her from impossible directions. But even as they flew, she could predict them, seeing traces like reverse shadows which appeared before their origins rather than trailing after them. Even amid the pressure of the furious and sweeping blows from the slick tentacles each thrice the width of her own arms, Gertrude could set her shield before each blow. She shoved into the attacks, or swung her sword and clashed with the arms, putting scars or severing tips. Deflecting the cage of meat that struggled to ensnare her.

Despite the onslaught, Gertrude advanced into the shadow of the monstrosity.

Step by embattled step, battering away the meat with furious swings.

Until she made it between the guard of several tentacles.

Drawing back her arm, she put all her strength into a thrust at the throbbing mass–

In real time, she felt the deep blue aether sapping all of the strength of her blow.

Until she dropped her sword at the “foot” of the being, and even her knees became heavy.

Gertrude retreated several steps to avoid being boxed in,

setting her back against a fast-approaching tentacle that dug through her midsection

sprouting a sharp tip out of the sternum

Blood burst dramatically out of the wound, as red as her aura had become.

Gertrude’s body reacted to the assault in natural ways.

Her chest pushed out as her back arched from the blow, she cried out in pain, her throat filled with fluid and her breath arrested. But she was not dead, and in fact, she barely felt any acute pain. Even as the tentacle lifted her centimeters above the floor, Gertrude did not lose her lucidity completely, nor was she paralyzed by it. Nevertheless, she could merely writhe on the tentacle skewering her, reaching blindly behind her back.

Blue aura glowed in the tentacle, attempting to spread into Gertrude’s red aura.

Aether pulsated from the wound. Gertrude found herself unable to call for a weapon.

Behind her back, she finally grabbed hold of the tentacle.

Her limbs shook as she struggled against it.

All of her mind was consumed with escape, with persevering; she saw the tip of the tentacle shaking through the center of her chest, and grit her teeth, demanding with every fiber of her being the weapons to tear it to pieces, to free herself from it, to reconstitute herself; she wanted her body to be rid of the intrusion, she was consumed with this desire, fight or flight, and her mind raced, her emotions spiraled. Clashing blue and red over her pierced heart and the tip of the tentacle began to thrash and steam came off its slick exterior, its blue sheen overcome with licks of red vapor trying to burn it and tear at it and devour it.

She needed a weapon. If she had a weapon she could cut herself from this creature.

Vibroswords, handguns, assault rifles, truncheons, grenade launchers–

So many weapons had crossed through her hands– all of them could be beckoned–

However– her spiraling mind settled upon a different interpretation of that truth.

All of those tools had been given into her hands by the Inquisition.

And her hands turned those tools into weapons.

This felt like a truth she had been missing.

Something locked into place.

Gertrude accepted the culpability– the monstrosity– but also the power in her hands.

Said mournfully but without excuse: “I myself was the weapon.”

Wet ripping noises issued from behind her as the flesh of her hands split open.

Black vibrating razor-like rectangular claws dug into the Drowning Prophecy’s tentacles.

On Gertrude’s chest, her flesh enclosed over the tentacle and sent its severed tip flying.

As if a maw had opened on her breast and devoured the tentacle that had pierced her.

She dropped to the ground on feet first unsteady, but quickly recovered her posture. She felt her hands brimming as if with electricity, just under the surface of her skin. Everything felt lighter and more flexible and malleable, as if her wrist could turn 360 degrees and her arms could fold into themselves. As if skin and muscle could move with the ease of fingers. Her new clawed digits moved as naturally as any other appendages. They were wreathed in red aura because they were part of her. Part of the weapon Gertrude Lichtenberg.

One step forward; two and three; she broke into a run.

Deep into the blue aura of the aberration, but its effects could not slow or stop her.

Her entire arm shifted, all her fingers became as one.

Absorbing the steel and plastic of her riot shield into her arm itself.

Forming a shining red spear attached to her that moved with her exact conviction.

In a sprint, a charge, and a screaming thrust of her arm–

Gertrude stabbed the Drowning Prophecy directly into its contracting mass.

Before her red-ringed eyes, half-overtaken by red fractals– the aberration burst like a bubble of meat spraying gore into the air. In the first instant of its destruction its body behaved like a physical object that had been devastatingly struck, the pipes bursting out of bloody meat, the tentacles thrashing in horrendous pain. Then the entire thing turned into blue dust that blew past Gertrude like a stiff breeze. She shut her eyes and it was just gone.

On the altar stage, she turned toward Monika, framed by the dissipating church.

She reached out the hand which had not completely disfigured into a weapon.

“Monika, come home with me. I want to see you every day; not just in a dream.”

Monika’s eyes filled with tears. She reached out her own hand and took the one offered.

“Thank you, Gertrude. I’m so sorry.” She covered her eyes with her free hand, sobbing.

“It’s okay. I don’t judge you; and I sympathize with your beliefs. That’s why I’m here too.”

She urged Monika to come closer and embraced her, holding her tightly with one arm.

As the Aether around them began to disperse and reveal more and more of their location.

Holding Monika close, in the distance, Gertrude thought she could see a shadow watching.

There was a smile in the dissipating aether. It looked genuine; almost like a praise.

In Gertrude’s pocket, the aetherometer slowly ceased to vibrate and make noises.

Her aether-buoyed sense of self was beginning to wane with the clearing of the “clot.”

Holding Monika in her arms, Gertrude shut her eyes and felt a momentary peace.

Depth Gauge: 3621 m

Aetherometry: Stable

When Gertrude awakened she was lying face-up on the floor of a steel corridor.

Groggy at first, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. Though she was disoriented, after a deep breath she began to feel strangely refreshed for a moment. Like she had finally caught up on some much-needed sleep. Her muscles hurt much less than before, and she was not as weighed down with fatigue as before either. She was able to move.

Slowly, she found the strength to stand up and to take in her surroundings.

Almost as soon as her back straightened, Gertrude felt her stomach toss.

All of the terror of what she had seen and felt, held back as if by a mental dam, now flooded suddenly over her every thought and feeling. She saw in her mind the pools, the visions, the monsters, and herself. Her legs buckled, she went down to her knees and elbows, feeling dizzy and nauseous. Retching over the ground. Had her stomach not been completely empty already, she would have emptied it on the floor. Her back shuddered, her eyes broke into stinging tears. Her head pounded and she heard a whistling inside of her ears.

She put her forehead to the ground and shut her eyes as hard as she could.

As if she could awaken again from dreams, and find herself in the true reality.

But she was awake, and this nightmare was her world now.

Her inexorably changed world.

Having seen what she saw, felt what she felt, and retained the full clarity of it.


The Pools.



The Drowning Prophecy.

Herself. So much of herself. Too much of herself.

And a changed self.

Gertrude looked at her hands with a panic, remembering they had been horribly disfigured into weapons to drive her red aura into the aberration at the center of the pools and blue cobbles, the so-called Drowning Prophecy (so-called by none– it was entirely in her head–!) She peeled off her gloves and she could not understand what she saw.

Her flesh felt so tender. There were no scars, rather, it felt like the calluses and scrapes she had gotten ever since she was a child to her days violently enforcing the imperial will, all of them had disappeared. Her skin felt so soft in her hands that she thought it might peel back and expose something, as if every seam was a set of lips. They felt like membranes.

And no sooner did she entertain that thought, that her hands did split into buzzing jaws–

She screamed, and shook her hands and looked again, and the changes reversed.

Worst of all– Gertrude began to feel like she had control of it.

Like it was part of her.

Like sixth, seventh, eighth and so on new digits corresponding to nothing natural.

Inside her torso, there was the presence of her heart, lungs and stomach. She knew she had them even though they worked automatically. She knew she could take in air to expand her chest and belly to a minor degree. She knew she could make her chest muscles tighten, for all the good such a pointless act would do. In essence, her arms, her legs, her hands, all of her body now felt this way to her. Like she had dozens of new and unseen organs that responded to deliberate actions. They could split, they could grow, they could change.

It was not disfigurement, not in a traditional sense– but Gertrude still wept as if broken.

Her body was completely changed. She could never go back to how she was!

There was a great terror in the back of her head at the sudden opening-up of the world.

Everything was so much more massive, so chaotic, an impossible and surreal enigma.

The Aether. It was all around them. Those colors held meaning to her eyes now.

Flexing the organs in her eyes allowed her to see the colors whenever she wanted.

Monika had been overcome by the colors– perhaps she even created that twisted world.

Had Gertrude not been able to intervene they would have all died in their sleep.

How did people survive the existence of these forces? How prevalent were these attacks?

Were things like this happening in the corners of the eyes of unknowing fools, forever?

How many people knew? How many people had been lost to the aberrations of the aether?

How many people abused this power and knowledge? Could anyone actually control it?

She wanted to scream herself hoarse. But there was no use to it.

No putting it back anymore.

Indelible change. Of the world, of the body, of the mind.

“This isn’t even the start of it.” She said, smiling bitterly and insanely through the tears.

There was more, farther below. Deeper into the abyss.

There was something waiting–

And there was more, right in front of her too. Just a few more steps into the metal.

Behind her, on the floor, Monika was passed out, in her lab coat and a protective bodysuit.

In front of her, the metal corridor led to a door that opened suddenly.

To reveal a shimmering figure that walked out of the room in long strides.

A woman, not too tall, average in her physique. Dark hair, a girlish face, perhaps too youthful for what she had experienced. Dressed in a lab coat herself too, over a turtleneck sweater and a skirt and black tights. She walked out of the room, crossed the hall, slowly, with a calm deliberateness as if she had been waiting. She passed by Gertrude. Gertrude was unable to focus her eyes clearly on her, she had been crying so much and been in such a state.

But when the woman crossed her, Gertrude could tell she was smiling.

Could tell that she said something, which was meant for Gertrude to hear.

“I am entrusting her to you. Good luck. Step inside; the password is A000166.”

Margery Balyaeva; from her dream. Hands in her pockets; smiling; eyes fixed forward.

“Wait– why–? Please–!”

As soon as Gertrude recognized her and asked– she knew the woman was gone.

Nothing but a trace of the colors slowly dissipating into the air.

So be it.

Gertrude looked at her hand again, tears running down her cheeks, her nose dripping.

Sweat coming down the bridge of her nose.

At her own behest, of her own doing, her hand split open again.

Swarthy skin and pink flesh parting. She felt a tingling as it did so. Between her middle and ring finger, it divided, and a thin tentacle emerged from it. She felt it– her stomach felt immediately emptier and sicker for the act. Something was drawn from her body, she could feel the fluids traveling, the flesh moving, to create the little appendage that mimicked the ones she saw beneath the Drowning Prophecy. She had transformed her body.

Though it made her feel light-headed at first, she could sustain the continuing existence of the tentacle. It was as if there was a price to pay for the disfigurement but, once the flesh had reached its new state, it was just what Gertrude’s body was now like. She felt the tentacle in her hand like any other digit. She could turn it, curl it around her wrist, lash out with it. Her stomach felt like it was kicking her belly each time the tentacle tried to move.

She turned over again and bent nearly double with a strong heaving in her throat.

It was sickening, unnatural, horrifying–

But– she had control over it. This horrid appendage was a part of her, it was hers.

Part of the weapon that was Gertrude Lichtenberg.

A weapon– to what end? What was she supposed to do now?

She had something of an answer. But it felt so impossibly out of her reach.

Outside of the aether, she felt much less certainty about herself.

Ruled more by rationality than sheer passion, the situation was much more overwhelming.

But even so. She had promised to keep moving.

Gertrude forced herself to stand again.

This time, she stood upright, without vomiting or crying any further.

Her tentacle retracted into her hand and her hand closed.

It looked ordinary again.

Like a hand that could touch another human being tenderly.

Thankfully she had enough control over herself to keep her body from breaking out into such appendages. She was still a person, not a blob of changeable meat. She could walk without thinking about all those new contortions she could force her body to take. That was enough for now. She would ask Nile what she thought– and she would ask Victoria and Monika and– Azazil? If she could find her. She would tell people, she would ask questions. Her body was not a problem that was impossible to solve. Certainly this ability had come in useful.

Gertrude grinned silently to herself. Everything was overturned.

What a terrifying world; more terrifying than it ever had been.

Vast, bleak and hopeless.

But that blue hopelessness did not prevent her from walking on forwards anymore.

She looked back at Monika and felt glad, that she was in the world with her.

It made this dead world a little more worth living in.

“Monika, wait here for me.” She said, even though the sleeping Monika would not hear.

Gertrude stepped forward into the room that had opened in front of them.

Inside, everything was dim, lit only by light coming from a screen or two in the very back of the room, and from the hallway that Gertrude had just come in from. She stepped on fluid and felt alarmed that the station might be leaking, but was quickly distracted by the smell in the room, reeking like rotten eggs or ammonia. Then her anxious exploration took her closer to one of the network of structures that dominated the room, tall and evenly spaced, and she realized that these must have been computer racks from the surface civilization. They resembled server racks that she was aware of, with cables and storage units and cooling.

Several of them had suffered from enormous punctures, and some looked like they had been crushed. Others were just toppled over, and more had their interiors dug into and ripped out such that they resembled bodies disgorging their guts on the floor. All of the fluid was liquid mineral coolant from the racks that had bled out onto the floor. To Gertrude’s eyes all of the violence looked random and inefficient if the objective was to destroy the computers. It felt like something or someone had just raged through the room and inflicted damage wantonly.

When she finally made her way across the ruin, she found a desk with several discrete LCD monitors plugged into the wall. There were markings on the wall between the desk and the monitors, that reminded Gertrude of a torpedo tube. Something was contained inside that recess in the wall, but she could find no way to open it or interact with it. Her searching hands in the dim glow of the dark green pictures on the screens found nothing new.

Then she was briefly blinded by a sudden flash from one of the screens.

Gertrude staggered back.

When her eyes recovered, she found herself staring at one screen that had become white.

There was a text prompt on it that reminded her of the STEM input screens from before.

But this time there was also a voice, coming in tinny from the LCD’s speakers.

“Greetings, occupant. You may input queries verbally or write them into the prompt. Please note that the central corpus has suffered extensive damage. As such, the number of queries and their potential answers will be limited. It is nevertheless my pleasure to serve you.”

Gertrude was taken aback hearing a voice.

“Are you the computer?” She asked, taken aback.

“By the perspective of a layperson, yes, I am the computer. This mainframe contained my corpus of data. These monitors and the text prompt are but crude remnants of the many vectors by which I could interact with occupants, complete my assigned tasks, and insure the comfort and safety of all Genuine Human Beings aboard the project edifices. I would say that my influence extended to more than this computer once. But it does not anymore.”

“What happened to all of that?” Gertrude asked. “Wait– is that one of my queries?”

“These all count as your queries. To answer you: my corpus was attacked and damaged. This severely limited my influence and ability to control and maintain this environment.”

Gertrude was still pretty stunned. “Are you alive? Or I guess, sentient?”

“I am an Advanced Neurological Model. I synthesize audio, images, video and text in order to carry out specific tasks and respond to queries. I am not capable of original thought outside of my corpus of data. It is unlikely that my capabilities match a definition of sentient life. My most advanced processing units utilized human nervous tissue, but were all destroyed.”

Gertrude winced. If she understood right, this machine had been made using people?

She wondered whether it was stitched or grown in a lab– or if it necessitated a sacrifice.

Looking back over her shoulder at all the cable-matter spilling out of them–

Those sights took on a different, macabre significance.

But those questions were pointless to ask the machine. She had to prioritize other topics.

“Where is Azazil An-Nur? Have you seen her?” She asked.

Based on what Azazil had told her before– if she had not dreamed it–

Then this machine had been the oppressor she was crying to be saved from.

Quickly the tinny voice responded.

“I lost contact with the biomechanoid unit corresponding to that handle many seconds ago.”

Gertrude almost asked how many seconds, but supposedly her queries were limited.

Asking how many queries she had was probably a query– so she did not do so.

“Is Azazil An-Nur real?” She asked instead.

“Unclear. What do you mean by real? It was one of my biomechanoid units.”

She already felt like an idiot asking the computer something like that.

What was she thinking?

“Forget it. Did you force Azazil An-Nur to work here?”

“Yes. It was convenient to have an ambulant biomechanoid for maintenance tasks.”

It kept calling Azazil a biomechanoid– what did it mean?

“Elaborate on: what is Azazil An-Nur?”

“It is a stem-chain enabled biomechanical unit designed for social upkeep of humans.”

“Can you elaborate any further on Azazil An-Nur?”

“Its specifications are not part of my corpus. It was a bespoke unit with unique DNA.”

Gertrude sighed. “Who created you? How come we can understand each other?”

Elemental questions such as this might have yielded good results but–

“Apollo Computing Works, and, because we are both speaking in Simplified Aerean.”

Maybe she just was not very good at this. Maybe her head was still not on right.

“That means nothing to me. I guess– who was in charge of this place? This station?”

“Margery Balyaeva was the leader of the project under which I was commissioned.”

Margery must have been the woman she saw walking out of the room.

And in her dreams.

Excorium Humanitas– she had been betrayed by the surface world.

Declared a non-human or an enemy of humanity, as defined by the government.

So she must have fled down here–

“Can I input a password into you? The password is A000166.” Gertrude said.

She suddenly heard a metallic noise coming from some other part of the room.

It took her off-guard so she turned to look, though there was nothing to see.

The computer spoke again immediately after.

“I’ve unlocked the box for you. You will find the box to your left.”

Gertrude turned back to the monitor with the unused text prompt. “What is in the box?”

“Preserved stemchain materials. Input them into a vitastitcher to create a STEM unit.”

That finally piqued Gertrude’s interests. “Where can I find a vitastitcher?”

Stitcher machines of course existed in the Imbrium.

She had never heard of one that was referred to in that particular way.

“I cannot account for its current status, but the primary edifice contained such a unit.”

“Where is the primary edifice? What is it?” Gertrude pressed.

“Both this structure and the primary edifice were part of the Island-3 colony project. Island-3 was separated into this outpost, the Crown Spire, and a primary edifice that touched down 5000 meters farther below. Island-3 has not been in contact with the Crown Spire for over 2.209032e+10 seconds and it is therefore impossible for me to ascertain its status.”

Gertrude had no idea how many seconds that was supposed to represent.

It was probably no use asking it to clarify further.

“Could I acquire a STEM administrator token in the primary edifice?”

“Yes, using a functioning vitastitcher, spinal verifier and marrow impeler.”

All of those implements sounded hideous to think about. They sent a chill through her.

But there was no use in turning back now. So she did, indeed, have to go deeper down.

“Is there an– Advanced Neurological Model that can assist me in STEM installation?”

“No. Per regulations, ANMs must be isolated from sites where STEM installations and token verifications take place. Only Genuine Humans perform STEM installation or verification.”

“Do I need to use the preserved stemchain materials to gain a STEM administrator token?”

“No. Do not incorporate those materials into a current unit. They will require a new unit.”

Fair enough. Gertrude began to feel wary of what these ‘materials’ might represent.

“What materials do I need to gain a STEM administrator token?”

“They will be available at the location of the previously mentioned machinery.”

Useless. “Prior to myself, did anyone to attempt to access the passcode box?”

“One moment. I will print to the screen a reconstruction of the actor.”

One of the monitors light up brighter.

There was a swirl of color and activity like a puddle of paints being spread haphazardly on a canvas. However, slowly, these colored pixels began to align properly into a slightly skewed image that Gertrude nonetheless recognized as a face. It was in particular the face of Norn the Praetorian. Blond ponytail, the same facial features. Grinning confidently.

That made some kind of sense. Gertrude felt a bit excited about this discovery.

“Did you interact with this ‘actor’? Did she say anything?” She asked.

“The actor was not recognized as a Genuine Human, and it was not STEM-enabled so I did not interact with it nor attempt to communicate. Prior to its intrusion, several malfunctioning biomechanoids of similar specification had already broken into the Crown Spire. I limited their access to prevent them from finding Island-3, but could not repel them.”

How–? How was it that Gertrude was a ‘genuine human’ and Norn was not?

She tried to think of a way to ask the machine, but it felt too complicated a question.

“Was your corpus accessed between Margery Balyaeva’s departure and now?”

“Not successfully. Intruders became lost or discouraged by the STEM systems. Sometimes intruders behaved erratically for reasons I found impossible to quantify and perished or killed each other. Eventually some intruders departed. I have not been able to interact with a Genuine Human in a very long time. Especially not in an amicable fashion.”

“When was the last passcode access attempt?” Gertrude settled for knowing a timeline.

“Over 1.262304e+9 seconds ago–”

“Great, that’s useless. Whatever. Show me a picture of the one who damaged you.”

Again the same process repeated itself on the monitor. She expected to see Norn pop up.

When the picture was completed, however–

Gertrude recognized the perpetrator as Eris herself. Very pale, red-haired, an alien beauty.

With a terribly cold gaze. But not uncharacteristically cold of her, Gertrude felt.

Eris must not have been exaggerating about becoming lost in her passions.

Gertrude wondered how long ago Eris had come here, and what she had done.

Maybe it was just impossible to establish a timeline of such events.

“Is there a way to recover your corpus? Or fix you? To access more queries?”

Gertrude spoke and had to wait a much longer amount of time to receive an answer.

“I have completed my final task, so I will be shutting down. You may have one final query.”

“Wait– hey– what will happen if you shut down?”

She had spoken carelessly after being surprised– it was her final query.

“Without a mobile unit and my supervision, the edifice will further decay. But the occupant will be safe if they can escape by whichever means they arrived. The reactor will continue running as long as its quantum state is undisturbed. Oxygen generation is suboptimal but livable– food is the main problem. So I would encourage departing. I have completed my final task as given to me by Margery Balyaeva. Aer Federation Vivit Aeternum.”

Gertrude gestured further confusion toward the monitors,

but all of them instantly went dark.

On the wall, the indentations and markings she had noticed before also dimmed and shut.

One step forward and thirty back. She had some answers and many new questions.

“What the hell kind of place was this Aer Federation? Good lord.”

Gertrude turned away from the desk with the dim monitors and followed the wall past several more ruined pieces of the ANM’s ‘corpus’ until she found ‘the box’. It slid out of the metal wall, a design the Imbrium still widely used– leading Gertrude to wonder if every cell in the wall was a storage closet too, and whether they should remain closed.

Sighing to herself, at the enormity of what could lay trapped forever in these metal walls, she reached into the unlocked box and produced a thick metal cylinder. Its contents were impossible to discern. Gertrude could feel whirring and buzzing of mechanisms within the shell of the cylinder. It felt cold to the touch. She wondered for how long this device could preserve what was inside, now that it was removed from its place of hiding.

Gertrude called upon the organs in her eye that allowed her to see further–

And began to perceive that colors wafted from the cylinder– a human presence.

She thought she would be sick again contemplating what it could mean.

What exactly were STEM materials? Was it some horrific human byproducts?

But she nevertheless put the cylinder in one of her uniform pouches as best as she could.

She walked back out into the corridor.

She did not know where she was but there were other branches of the same hallway, and open doors. Gertrude picked up Monika, carrying the sleeping girl princess-style. She deserved the rest– Gertrude wished she could have known that Monika was suffering so much. She could have done anything to make it better. But she was so focused on herself. There was so much weight in human pain that she had to make amends for.

Compared to that, Monika was easy to carry.

As she walked through the corridors she thought of everything she had to do now.

Or– not had, but rather, things that she wanted to do.

Gertrude no longer allowed herself to be driven by unaccountable demands.

That obligation that she heaped upon herself, to return to Elena, or to replace her and find happiness somewhere else– it had to be discarded. She could not continue to live like that or she would destroy herself and her crew. Instead she had to think of where she was, what the situation was now, and what she wanted to do now. Recognizing that she was no longer High Inquisitor Gertrude, a person with respectable power in the respectable politics of the Imbrium. She was not royally connected, and officially sanctioned by a powerful lord.

Now she was just another among many petty warlords vying for anything they could take.

She felt responsible for her crew. For the people she wanted to drag further into this mess.

Not only Monika; but Ingrid, Nile, Victoria; Dreschner; the sailors, Vogt and his marines.

Gertrude wanted to take them deeper.

To delve into the Hadal zone where the world was even darker.

To Island-3’s depth 5000 meters deeper–

To find the “primary edifice” of Island-3; to unlock this “STEM” system and get direct access to surface-era information; to find Eris again. Her eyes glinted red. She had power of some measure; now she needed to shoulder the responsibility of having power. There were no more people left to save her, and no more excuses she could make anymore.

Gertrude was eventually discovered.

She crossed another nondescript hallway, unsure of how long she had been walking and whether she might be trapped in another liminal area; and was heard by a rescue team.

Voigt and his men and several sailors, led by Nile, Victoria and Ingrid, had begun combing the facility to look for her hours ago. According to the men who found her, during the expedition, everyone had fallen asleep suddenly. Once they all awakened, it was quickly relayed back to the ship that contact with Gertrude had been lost, and that Monika was also mysteriously missing. Dreschner organized rescue teams to find Gertrude.

Near the beginning of the rescue operation, however, several devices previously seen, such as the STEM doors, now refused to respond to interactions. So the rescue teams used the tunnels Gertrude now knew to have been dug by Katarrans who had escaped the Palaiologos collapse. They had begun to prepare equipment to break down more doors and walls, but thankfully Gertrude was found before they had to resort to such drastic measures.

“There is nothing more we can access here. Let’s head back to the ship.” Gertrude said.

“Yes ma’am. We also encountered another woman here. We were very surprised.” One of the Marines said. “She was unfailingly polite; even when we were yelling in her face after she said she had lost you, ma’am. We thought she was bullshitting us. Her name is apparently Azazil. Our officers had a chat with her and then ordered her arrest.”

So I was not hallucinating her, Gertrude thought.

“She is harmless. She assisted me inside the facility, but then we lost contact.”

“Ma’am.” The Marine acknowledged, and ushered her out through the halls.

Gertrude was thankful to finally see familiar faces.

In her head, the sequence of events that had played out inside of this facility was extremely muddy. Even now she felt like she did not understand how she had navigated from one place to another within the walls and halls. But perhaps there was no understanding it; not without the raw and insane emotion which had overtaken her in the aether.

Maybe all those pools she destroyed had analogous walls in there.

It didn’t matter.

Ultimately she was burying this place and heading to the Iron Lady.

The marines called in that they had found Gertrude, and not too soon after–


She was joined in route by Nile, carrying a first-aid kit; Victoria, whose expression was just so subtly tinged with concern; and Ingrid, who appeared to want to rush forward and give Gertrude a hug but was stopped by the fact Gertrude was still carrying Monika. All three of them appeared one after the other in the halls, spotted Gertrude, went-wide eyed and then paused. They collected together in a little group around her and the marines.

“I’m okay.” Gertrude said. “We’ll talk later. I want to get Monika back safe.”

Reticently, her companions nodded their acknowledgment.

Only Nile stuck close to Gertrude, much to Victoria’s open chagrin and Ingrid’s wariness.

She pretended that she was checking on Gertrude and Monika to make sure they were well.

But while she was doing so, she whispered to Gertrude, when she found an opportunity.

“You’ve awakened to something special, haven’t you? Your aura feels different.”

Gertrude grunted. She whispered back, when she could.

“I’ll have questions for you later.” Gertrude said. “When that time comes you won’t leave the room until you answer them to my satisfaction. Now stop fussing over me. I’m fine.”

Nile smiled. “It’s a date then.”

Gertrude threw her a contemptuous look.

But then cracked a bit of a smile back.

“Gertrude, that woman should be under the highest level of suspicion.” Victoria said.

“Are you two bickering again?” Gertrude said, exasperated.

Nile shrugged. “I have nothing against her, and in fact, she is my alibi that I did nothing.”

Victoria scoffed but could not argue any further.

Ingrid stared at everyone sidelong and over her shoulder and seemed to say nothing.

Gertrude walked a few steps quicker to get closer to her.

“We’ll talk later. I’m sorry.” She said.

“It’s whatever. Found your newest floozy in the halls by the way, ‘master’.”

Ingrid’s voice was thick with sarcasm. Gertrude wanted to be buried alive in the earth.

There was no way to tell Ingrid what she wanted to tell her without causing great acrimony.

But it was a conversation they needed to have, and she had to get ready for it.

One of many.

“Victoria, I’m going to need to speak with the Captain and with you first.” Gertrude said.

“Duly noted.” Victoria replied dryly.

Ingrid shot another sidelong glance, which Gertrude caught and felt mortified by.

She then turned her cheek; she looked so over things.

Gertrude had really treated her badly.

All she could hope for was that Ingrid could be patient with her.

And that there was some way to make up for everything she had done.

Maintaining a rather awkward atmosphere throughout, the party marched to the main hall, where they were greeted by clapping from the bulk of the rescue team, and cheering that Gertrude and Monika had been recovered successfully. They were ushered into the chute connecting the ship to the station. In the hangar, there were more cheers and people looking relieved. Everyone looked like they had been holding their breaths until now.

Along with the sailors and engineers cheering with relief–


Azazil An-Nur stood among the crowd, quietly, with a little smile.

She was cuffed and two marines were looking after her. They glanced at her curiously.

“I apologize for failing to protect you from danger.” She said.

Trying to bow her head, but being grabbed by the guards for the sudden movement.

“Don’t rough her up.” Gertrude said. “Azazil, can you wait quietly somewhere?”

Azazil smiled even more cheerfully.

“Of course, master. I exist solely to serve you now.”

A weary Gertrude glanced over to Ingrid to find her staring daggers at this statement.

She sighed again.

There were not enough ‘I’m sorry’ in the world to pay for this mess.

“Victoria, follow me. Can one of you soldiers tell the Captain to meet me in Room 25?”

“Yes ma’am!”

Room 25 was on the second tier. With awkward stares all around, Gertrude and Victoria parted from the rest of their companions and entered an elevator together to be taken up to the second tier. Gertrude was more than a bit disheveled, but Victoria looked no worse for wear than before. Her ponytail and her fluffy ears looked as manicured as ever.

She looked much less tired.

“What happened when I disappeared?” Gertrude said.

“We tried to search for you by ourselves but we could not find you and we risked getting lost ourselves. We went back to get a rescue team and heavier gear to force more of the doors and walls. Then we all fell asleep.” Victoria said. She appreciated Victoria’s direct and unembellished way of speaking so much in that moment. She could have kissed her for just saying what she meant. It was such a relief from everything that had happened.

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No. Did you also sleep? And did you dream?” Victoria asked.

Gertrude nodded her head. “Yes to both.” She said.

Victoria shut her eyes. “I had a dream that I was in a series of pools, witnessing evidence of several lives that I did not lead. Some of the possibilities disgusted me. I recognized it was a deliberate delusion– but even so, I could not escape it, until I suddenly awakened.”

“You can tell I have the same power as you now, can’t you?” Gertrude said suddenly.

“You have had the potential for some time.” Victoria said. “It’s called ‘psionics’.”

“Psionics, huh. Are you afraid? Or angry with me?” Gertrude said.

“No.” Victoria said simply and bluntly. No qualifiers, no elaboration.

“I’m– I’m going to need help navigating this. Can you help me, Victoria?” Gertrude said.

“Yes.” Victoria said. Again, she elaborated no further.

Her body language was a little bit more reserved. Her eyes shied away from contact.

Thankfully the assent, coming from Victoria, spoke more strongly than the subtle reticence.

Finally, the two of them made their way to the meeting room.

Inside, Dreschner was already waiting. For once, Schicksal was not at his side.

“Come in. Schicksal has the bridge.” He said.

Gertrude and Victoria stepped in. Gertrude locked the door behind herself.

There was little in the meeting room, besides chairs and a desk.

Dreschner was seated behind the desk, but Gertrude remained standing.

“Something happened to me.” Gertrude said. “Einz, I need your help in thinking about what we will tell the crew, and what we will do now. Not as a superior, but as a friend. You have been there for me. Think of me as a stupid kid that needs some direction once again.”

“I would never think of you, nor of your needs, as stupid, Gertrude.” Dreschner said.

“Can you tell that anything is strange with me?” Gertrude asked.

As soon as she walked through the room, she had been able to see it.

Gertrude saw the colors around Einz Dreschner for the first time.

She felt as if, when he saw her, those colors fluctuated a bit.

Like he understood something.

“Yes. I feel as if I’m standing in front of someone who had the fight of their lives.”

“Gertrude, this man is at the very least capable of reading auras.” Victoria interrupted.

Dreschner smiled.

Again, the small green and blue colors around him flashed for a second.

“And you tell me this now?” Gertrude said.

“You had no context for this before, and would have been unlikely to believe me.” Victoria added. “I was confident in my ability to confront him should the need to do so arise.”

Sometimes wanting to kiss Victoria briefly turned into wanting to shove her down.

Not that she was necessarily wrong with the tack she took toward this situation.

“Einz, how much do you know about this?”

Gertrude demonstrated how she could split her hand open and manipulate the flesh.

Victoria looked alarmed. “That– that is not within the purview of psionic abilities.”

“That you know of, I guess.” Gertrude said. “It is within my purview now.”

Dreschner’s eyes blinked briefly red. It was the same that she saw when other people used the strange abilities the aberrations, the Drowning Prophecy and the Aether space demonstrated. She imagined that she herself displayed those red rings when attempting to call upon her power. But with Dreschner it felt a little different.

Gertrude got the feeling he could not sustain the eyes as long as she could.

Maybe what he had was different in some way to what Nile and Victoria and Azazil had.

But he could get a glimpse of it.

She knew he had recognized the power she possessed.

Not just from the red rings; but his expression and aura as he realized what it all meant.

“The curse of the Jager is not hereditary. But as you stand before me, I get the same feeling as if I was in the presence of ‘Codename Rot’ of the Inquisition Jagerkorps. I can’t explain it, but you possess the same abilities as a Jager, despite the Inquisition’s best effort to keep you away from the Korps and unable to pierce their veil of secrecy. What happened?”

“If I tell you, I guarantee you will think I’m out of my mind.” Gertrude said. “Einz, I want to know how much you were aware of– did you know about Norn? Or Victoria? It’s not like I don’t trust you, don’t get me wrong. But you did keep things from me, didn’t you?”

“We were aware of these strange powers to some degree. I knew about Norn because I’m part of the Inquisition, not because of any ability I myself possess. We suspected the young Bayatar too. And I always felt that you had potential and that you should have been informed about the Jagers and given command over them. It would have prevented Samoylovych from having to come out of retirement, again. Alas.” Dreschner said.

“The existence of the Jagers is well known; but their full capabilities eluded even Vekan intelligence.” Victoria said. “I should have guessed that psionics would be involved.”

Victoria looked at Dreschner with distrust. He had no expression toward her.

“The Inquisition is essentially dead now. I do not have to keep its secrets.” Dreschner said. “Gertrude, once you get back to Konstantinople you can unearth everything you desire about the Jagers. There is too much history and my old brain has not committed it– what I can say is that the Jagers and myself included undergo horrible modifications and conditioning to attain interesting abilities such as your own. They used these abilities in missions. I was unable to incorporate into the Jagerkorps but continued to serve the Inquisition as an officer. Thanks to your father in large part, and Norn also.”

“My father?” Gertrude asked. “How is my father involved in all of this?”

“Your father was a protector for the Kaiserin for so many years. However, before he took on that role for Leda Lettiere, and before he delved into the abyss, and long before he managed to build a family, he was ‘Codename Rot’ of the Inquisition’s Jagerkorps. Meanwhile I was ‘Codename Schwarz’. Both of us suffered inhumanely to achieve our positions– but we endured to obtain power and influence. We got far enough that the Inquisition trusted us with command roles. I received a ship; your father was trusted with spying on the Kaiserin. But unfortunately your father, and yourself, ended up suffering with Leda Lettiere.”

Gertrude smiled bitterly. “I always knew there had to be more to him. You too, I guess.”

“He was your hero. But he was not your hero because he was a Jager, Gertrude.”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s dead– and I’m here.” Gertrude said.

It did matter.

She felt so bitter about it– she felt like the Inquisition had toyed with her entire life.

Had she known about her father, and all that happened– she may have chosen differently.

No– that was a delusion.

Even as she thought about the situation she felt ridiculous about herself for this conclusion.

No matter what, she took the path she did because of her love for Elena.

Whether or not her father survived Schwerin Island, Gertrude’s course had been set.

In the pool rooms, all of those visions ended the same way.

Dreschner looked at Gertrude with a fondness in his eyes and voice.

“You are here. You’ve come a long way; farther than anyone imagined. I always related to your hunger for strength Gertrude. You were exactly the daughter of your father. I want you to know, I did the best I could to support you, even as I saw you suffer for it. To tell you not to have ambitions, and force you to live helplessly, felt like a betrayal. But I must admit, seeing you standing before with the curse of the Jagers, I truly regret what came to pass. Like I said, I have no explanation for how you became a Jager. But it affects your mind, and your body. You may not be able to relate to others the same way again.”

“I was not worried about that. I already relate to people in a weird fashion anyway.”

Gertrude sighed. She had a question bouncing around in her head.

As soon as she realized her father was part of the Inquisition, the question troubled her.

She knew why her father had died; he had died on Schwerin Isle.

He was Captain of the Guard and he went down protecting the Kaiserin.

That same day that destroyed Elena’s life had also upturned her own.

She knew that. Or she thought.

Perhaps he had not died for the reasons she had concluded before.

“Einz, did Norn seek to kill my father when she invaded Schwerin Island?” She asked.

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed and covered his eyes with his hand.

“I do not hold Norn personally responsible. She explicitly forbade wanton acts of violence. During the attack one unit in particular went wild. They were protected by High Inquisitor Brauchitsch who wanted to use the opportunity to test the potential of Divers in a station invasion. The unit was led by a man referred to as Sawyer the Berserker.” Gertrude’s eyes went wide as Dreschner spoke. He looked at her with a soft expression. “I did not tell you because I did not want you to spend your school life at greater odds with the Sawyer daughter. Of course, it’s pointless now. Sawyer grew up the way she grew up.”


“I’m not going to blindly chase her.” Gertrude said. “But if I see her again, I’ll kill her.”

“You don’t have to do it for your father. I killed Sawyer the Berserker on that day.”

Gertrude grunted.

Pointless. Everything was always so pointless and complicated and frustrating.

She could not even give herself onto revenge again.

Things just wouldn’t be so simple from now. Never as simple as just getting revenge.

All of the names he rattled off did not matter. They were already dead.

Hell– she had killed Brauchitsch herself. Unknowing of what it meant.

A dirty trick of fate.

“Was my dad just slow with old age?” Gertrude asked, a note of bitterness in her voice.

“You’ll find a Jager’s powers are largely useless in the paradigm of Diver combat.”

“So my father did die trying to protect Leda Lettiere.” Gertrude said.

“No, Gertrude. He died protecting you.” Dreschner said. “He died so you could be saved.”

Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t remember that.”

“No. You were in no condition to remember anything. You were a child, it was dark, there was war. People lied to you and omitted information. But it was for your own good.”

She sighed. There was truly nothing she could do about any of it.

“How did you feel about my father, Einz?” Gertrude asked.

“He was like the father I never had.” Dreschner said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She laughed a little bit. “I think of you kind of like that too.”

“I’m happy to hear that. I would be very lucky to have such a daughter.” Dreschner said.

It was so strange. Gertrude did not really feel so hurt by these events anymore.

Instead she felt released from a few of her burdens.

Like a few chains she had been pulling her entire life finally snapped.

None of the people responsible for any of this were available to strangle to death.

The Inquisition, for all the harm it had done, was powerless in the Imbrium’s collapse.

Her father’s death had already been avenged. Everyone responsible was dead.

Konstantin von Fueller, whose rule allowed these tragedies to happen, was quite dead.

Gertrude had been lied to– but she would have never believed the truth anyway.

And– Gertrude could never muster any anger toward Norn in all of this too.

She admired her too much. Maybe even loved her. Norn had made her.

So she learned many things about herself which could not force her hand in any direction.

As if everything in the world was telling her she just needed to move forward from now.

“Einz, I need help mustering and controlling these abilities.” Gertrude said.

“Gertrude, I’ll teach you.” Victoria cut in suddenly.

“She can; but I can also assist. Specifically on how Jagers make use of the curse.”

“It’s not a curse!” Victoria said. “It’s called psionics. Gertrude is not cursed.”

“I must concede before such concern and camaraderie.” Dreschner said coyly.

Victoria realized her vehemence in making that point and averted her gaze, embarrassed.

“I appreciate it, Victoria.” Gertrude said.

“As for the crew, leave that to me. I will draft a general briefing that will explain the current circumstances in a succinct and sensitive way. I have experience with treating psionics with care as part of the Inquisition. We should not explain it directly; we can describe the sleeping and other irregularities as abyssal behavior that we managed to counteract.” Dreschner said.

“I don’t particularly like lying to the crew.” Gertrude said sadly.

“You must have done it all the time under the Inquisition.” Victoria said. “I agree with the Captain. We should limit the spread of information about the station and the events in it. Otherwise the crew might feel adrift, it could affect their morale and make them paranoid. Let’s cover it up. I will work with the scientist criminal on actual countermeasures.”

Sometimes Victoria was blunt, and sometimes she was a brutal hammer blow to the head.

“I will take your counsel for now.” Gertrude said. “I’m too tired to argue.”

“I just need to know one more thing, Gertrude.” Dreschner said. “What happens now?”

Gertrude smiled wearily. “Now, we keep moving forward. Or in our case, down.”

Victoria remained silent. Gertrude took it to mean she did not oppose continuing the dive.

Dreschner nodded. “May I recommend 24 hours of rest and recovery for the crew?”

No one was arguing. No one was against her. Everyone was still just taking her orders.

Gertrude felt relieved. Her strength was starting to fail her. She was tired. But relieved too.

Not tired because of the blue helplessness– but normally, physically tired. Rest would help.

“Make that 72 hours.” Gertrude replied. “And release a unit of alcohol ration to everyone.”

“Alright. Is there anything else I can do for you, High Inquisitor?” Dreschner asked.

“Yes. Don’t call me that.” Gertrude said wearily. “I’ll come up with a new title.”

“Emperor Lichtenberg?” Dreschner said cocking an eyebrow.

Victoria narrowed her eyes.

“No. Just Gertrude Lichtenberg. For now. Please.”

“Acknowledged, Madam Lichtenberg.” Dreschner said.

Then, he saluted her proudly.


Gertrude stopped in the middle of the empty hallway.

They were halfway to the officer’s quarters.

Victoria paused with Gertrude, and turned to face her. Gertrude met her eyes.

“Monika was– wrapped up in all of this. Can you keep an eye on her?”

“Yes. But that is not what you really wanted to say.”

Gertrude took a deep breath.

“When you learned about psionics, how did you feel? Can you please tell me?”

“Yes.” Victoria nodded.

Gertrude had not expected her to assent so easily.

Nor did she expect her answer.

With no around, their eyes locked together deeply–

“When I realized what this power meant, I felt like I had command of my destiny– even more than that, I felt like humans have always had control of our destiny. We made this world.” Victoria said. She reached out a hand and gripped the sleeve of Gertrude’s uniform. “With this hand, I controlled my world, Gertrude. And I felt like the world is actually how we have made it, for good and for ill. Not just us; but all human beings throughout time.”

“You are extraordinarily brave.” Gertrude said. “I don’t know that I can think like you.”

“Psionics is the power of human emotions. I am sure in the back of your mind you must understand this.” Victoria said. “We can become paranoid and helpless in the face of a larger world; or we can come to the realization that humans made the world the way it is now. That means humans can also take action to change it. We are not just the playthings of destiny. We are not just acted upon by forces; humans are in control of their lives.”

Just being told that, of course it had no effect on Gertrude’s sense of self.

Not immediately; but her heart was lifted by the sight of Victoria’s determination.

She had been in the Pools too. And it had not broken her resolve.

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “I needed to hear that from someone.”

Suddenly, Victoria stepped forward into Gertrude’s space.

She tiptoed, and she pulled Gertrude down by her shirt–

And put her forehead to Gertrude’s own.

For a brief moment their noses even touched.

Gertrude almost thought they might kiss.

Even so the gesture that they did hold was gentle and lovely.

Warm and oddly comforting even though Victoria had been a bit brusque.

Victoria then stepped back assuming a respectful distance again.

She smiled.

“Thank you for putting your trust in me, Gertrude. Even in front of Dreschner, when the Inquisition’s secrets came up I expected to be ejected right away. You let me stay in that room; and you entrusted me even with your own secrets. Your life’s story is not part of the stakes of this war. I will take that information to my grave. Good night.”

Victoria turned sharply and left a bewildered Gertrude to watch her cape flutter.

Once she was gone, Gertrude, compelled to smile, made her back way back to her room.

Even before stepping in she had a hunch she would find someone inside.

Whether it was psionics or instincts honed from familiarity.

She was not surprised to find Ingrid sitting on her bed, still dressed in her pilot suit.

Her long, dark hair was loose, the band she had used to tie it up discarded on the bed.

Long streaks and beads of sweat spilled gently across her brown skin, glistening in the dim light of Gertrude’s room. Her ears twitched, but she could not suppress a wag of the tail upon seeing Gertrude come in. Her expression remained cold; Ingrid was almost always laughing or being boisterous so to see her quiet and pensive, it was an entirely different kind of beauty. But she was still beautiful. Gertrude could not help but to recognize her.

She was incredibly beautiful.

“Ingrid, I’m really sorry, the way I treated you–”

Ingrid held up her hand. “No, it’s fine. I’ve kinda figured this shit out already.”

She really thought Gertrude was two-timing her all this time; probably three-timing her–

“I’m sorry. I’ve been horrible to you. You don’t deserve–”

“Hey, shut up.” Ingrid said. “Let me finish. I know– when we just started fucking out of the blue, it wasn’t like we were suddenly boyfriend and girlfriend now, or something–”

Gertrude stood, aghast. She tried to interrupt.

“Ingrid– it’s not like that–”

“I said, shut up.” Ingrid snapped. “Look. I know you’re getting over that princess bitch. I’m happy for you. I was only ever comforting you over that. I didn’t have more illusions than that– well, I did, but I’m also grown-up enough to know when my bubble has burst.”

This was possibly the worst version of this conversation Gertrude could possibly have.

It was the version of this conversation they had in her nightmares.

“Ingrid! Let me talk.” Gertrude said desperately. “Ingrid, I do love you! I love you so much!”

“Yeah.” Ingrid said. She smiled. “I know. But you don’t love me like you loved her.”

“You’re right! I’m trying to get over Elena.” Gertrude said. “And you’re right, I don’t love you like I love her, because the way I loved her destroyed us! I lashed out at her, I could have hurt her; I would never want to feel like that about you! I have to love you differently!”

“Gertrude, I’m trying to make this easy on you. But you always make everything hard.”

Ingrid stood up from the bed. She put a hand on Gertrude’s shoulder and squeezed.

“I’m still your friend, I’m still your soldier, and I still love you. But right now– If you want me, then you have to work to chase after me. If you want someone else, go after them. Have your space and figure shit out. Fuck– I’ll probably come around– But I’m done with this.”

She gestured to the room and to Gertrude herself and started to walk out.

Gertrude could have said that she did want her, that she didn’t just have sex with her for empty reasons, that she did want her instead of Elena and that maybe even, that she could have replaced Elena, now. If not before; and yet Gertrude said nothing. Because some of Ingrid’s incisive observations had been true and because it would have been shameless and hurtful to have begged Ingrid to stay in spite of them. So instead she watched Ingrid leave the room with a flat expression, silent until the door shut. Silent even afterward.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She was never lying about loving Ingrid, she loved her.

She loved and desired her and wanted her companionship quite badly.

But she felt that in that moment, dumping her was something Ingrid needed to do.

And Ingrid was right. Gertrude had accepted her devotion so disrespectfully.

Gertrude deserved to be dumped more harshly. Ingrid was being downright diplomatic.

Ingrid deserved to be pursued, to be sought after, to be worshiped as a woman.

Maybe Gertrude would pursue her. Maybe worship her too, like she deserved.

But the important thing was that Gertrude couldn’t just passively accept her anymore.

She couldn’t hold the leash she was given; she had to tug on the leash like Ingrid wanted.

“But I do need the space.” Gertrude sighed. She covered her face with her hands. “There’s so much shit I need to figure out, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. You have no idea how sorry; and how those sorries aren’t anywhere near good enough for you. Ugh. I hope she’ll even speak to me anymore. After all this time– I am such a piece of shit. God– god damn it all.”

That was definitely the version of this encounter that came straight out of her nightmares.

But neither of them had died from it; and the door was not permanently closed on them.

She hoped at least she could remain Ingrid’s friend. That they could make up that much.

There was nothing more she could do on that night, in that room, on that bed.

Time had to pass for both of them. Both of them needed to think about their lives.

Gertrude also had her emotions for a few other people to consider–

–she hardly wanted to even think about that too.

Especially the latest of those fantasies.

Exhausted, Gertrude dropped back onto her bed.

She loosened up the armor plates and her blue shirt and cast it all off. There was something catharthic to undressing at the end of this entire mess. She was soaked in sweat, but she had not taken three or four dips into drowning water, like her mind could have sworn she had. All of that had happened in some quarantined space of the ego. Out here in the world, Monika was unharmed and merely sleeping, Victoria was patrolling, Nile was looking after Monika, Azazil was waiting patiently in the brig for Gertrude; and Ingrid had left to her room.

On that bed, alone, Gertrude felt lighter than before.

Not because she was falling endlessly but because she had been unburdened.

That poisonous love for Elena she had failed to bury in Goryk, she buried in Kesar.

That ruinous desire to replace her lost future with something, she stifled in her chest.

That desperation to acquit herself of failure, she let blow past her like a brief gust.

The world had changed and she wanted to be able to change with it even more.

But the shape of making amends was a task for the Gertrude of the future.

On that bed, her head was emptying. She was tired. And she was in no hurry to do anything.

Surrounded by a myriad colors flowing gently and freely, she finally shut her eyes.

After days of tribulations, Gertrude slept soundly, and recovered her strength.

For once, she had a peaceful dream.

Previous ~ Next

Arc 3 Intermissions [III.1]

“The Eclipse Heresy”

Faction: Holy Empire of Solsea

Within the dark blue fog and marine snow, a miraculous cocoon suspended in the water.

Many-colored, silk-spun and hardened as concrete, a perfect teardrop shape.

Inside that cocoon was the most beautiful and perfect nymph.

Pale as foam, so soft and smooth. Her thin body curled up in sleep. Arms resting over her breasts, legs drawn in to her belly. Her red hair gently falling over sloping shoulders.

She was growing. Her wings would burst out of the cocoon someday.

Like twin rainbows rising from the shell. On those wings she would fly away forever.

Leaving behind this dead world.

All she needed was the shelter of her cocoon, and the peace with which to grow.

But one day, greedy hands began to search the exterior of her cocoon for a weakness.

Slipping between the colorful layers of the shell an intruder nestled behind the nymph.

Shadow where she was light; monochrome where she was color; a changeling slender and smoke-grey and long-haired, its body a corrupted mirror of her own, pressing upon her.

Cold fingers laid bloody red scratches on her easily-giving skin. She shivered and grimaced in her sleep. It was as if her shadow had begun to embrace and engulf her. She felt the piercing of teeth on her shoulder tearing her flesh open, and her back arched involuntarily from the pain. Felt the harsh grip of arms around her body, gasping for breath, her slender neck in a vicegrip, her legs unable to kick at her attacker, and a bloodcurdling whisper at her nape–

You can’t escape me now.

Inside the cocoon the nymph screamed, trapped in the violent embrace of the intruder.

No matter how much she struggled, the creature tearing at her could not be shaken.

Held down and tortured as she was, she would never get to spread her wings.

Aubrey Jurgen was lucky to live in the Holy Empire.

This is what she told herself every morning, as she left her room in the lowest tier of the station and took an elevator up three floors to a seafood restaurant in the commercial circle of the Torun station complex. She would put on her apron, try to hold her gut in place by sheer force of will, and braved the backroom of the restaurant to prepare fish.

Hers wasn’t a highly sought after skill. It wasn’t a career. She worked with fish, washed plates, set up stitcher machines and burners and ovens. She washed salt off preserved salted fish, cleaned brine out of pickled fish, and she gutted and cleaned frozen fish.

She did this every day. It was work.

There was always fish. That meant, there was always pay. That meant, there was life.

She had to be happy to be getting paid; had to be.

In the Holy Empire, like everywhere in the Empire, this Aubrey and any Aubrey would be working five or six days on, broken up by sabbath or the occasional holiday. She was working for Imbrian Marks, still used by the Holy See, five hundred of which she earned every two weeks, seven hundred of which went to paying her room, and the rest to food and upkeep.

Aside from the occasional alms, the Holy Empire still expected its lambs to pay the merchant men their due for bread, meat, greens, and the very fish she gutted every day. They still expected the landlords to be paid for rooms. But she was lucky to live in the Holy Empire. Because the Holy Empire wasn’t like everywhere else, she had been told, and she told herself as well, because she had to believe it to live: the Holy Empire was a godly place. It was a righteous and correct place. Rhinea, the Palatine, Buren and Veka, these were godless places of the devil where the soul was forfeit, the body was excoriated, and the mind was depraved.

Working at the seafood restaurant did not forfeit Aubrey’s soul or excoriate her body or deprave her mind; because she lived in the Holy Empire, and so she was one of God’s lambs.

And that God was Solceanos, the great sun that warmly awaited humanity beyond the water.

Solceanos and Solcea ever looking down upon her from above. She was lucky; lucky that God was watching her gut fish. She was lucky to leave in the evening with 40 marks in the pocket.

Out there, she would have been nobody. In The Holy Empire of Solcea, she was God’s lamb.

God’s lambs earned their 40 marks a day and liked it.

Troubled by these thoughts as she stared down another day in the briny, fishy backroom, holding the gutting knife in her hand. She stared at the knife, stared at the fish, stared at her hand, thought deeply dark thoughts, and made the decision to stop doing so. Her body made the decision to put the knife in the fish. One more blessed second in God’s holy kingdom.

But when she stuck the knife in the fish this time, she immediately sensed something wrong.

Soon as it crossed the barrier of the fish’s scaly skin, the blade drew a squirting spray of foul smelling red brine. Foul enough to stand out in a room that permanently smelled like fish and their innards. Aubrey lifted her free arm to her face, covering her mouth with her elbow. Her chest heaved with the immediate desire to spill her own guts. She turned away, but she heard the liquid dribbling onto the ground from the edge of the table. How much was inside?

Overcome with sickness, Aubrey uncharacteristically dropped her tools and sprinted, nearly tripping over her own feet on the wet floor of the dim, cluttered backroom. She ran to the back office, where her manager had been working behind a computer desk. As soon as she crossed the door, the smell on her prompted him to stand up, exclaim, and back away.

Thankfully, they had a strong deodorizer spray in the equipment storage.

“It’s Katov mass.” said the manager, staring at the fish on the board and the mess on the floor. “Good god and all that is holy– it smells horrible. But it’s nothing too unusual.”

He was thankfully not angry at her. Aubrey sighed deeply.

On the board, the fish had completely deflated and flattened out.

As if it had been nothing but a bubble of katov mass wrapped in the skin of a fish.

“If its Schechter salinity value is low enough, it’s not really dangerous to humans.” the manager said. For a brief, terrifying moment, Aubrey thought he might be asking her to feed this to a customer. But he continued, “This one smells too bad though. Throw it out. If you find any like that, you know what to do. Use your best judgment, okay? I trust you with it.”

He patted her on the back and walked away nonchalantly.

Aubrey pushed the nasty Katov fish into the same trash can she used for the guts.

She sprayed down the board, and the floor.

Then she reached into the rack full of fish from which she drew the objects of her work.

Putting down another dead fish on the table, staring at it.

However, the excoriation of poor Aubrey’s senses would not end there.

As she cut one–

-after another

and a third,


until she began to wish again to gut herself instead, to be freed of the smell of Katov mass.

And also began to wonder whether she had run afoul of God.

“Bow your heads in supplication! Do you pray every day? You had better start! The Eclipse is soon to fall upon us! When the shadows extend out over the Holy See, the dark angels will slay the wicked! Only those who open themselves to be saved and who resist the greed of the tempters and temptresses will survive! Where will you hide from God’s judgment?”

People stood around the figure, clad in a covering black robe and cloak, surprised not just by the intensity of their voice and the bizarre message– but the very fact of a doomsayer was very rare and strange. The Empire of Solcea was a theocracy where the church had become the primary political organ. Local functionaries like station mayors and regional governors had been replaced by Bishops and Patriarchs, and the church managed all appointments to public office. Those who watched as the doomsayer in the park proclaimed the end of days could only help but wonder if this carried some political meaning against the church.

Solceanos’ teachings did not contain these lines. Solceanity was supposed to be a religion of humility, supplication, alms (and donatives.) It was about living with the world as it was, knowing one’s place, and exalting the God who made it possible for life to continue. In the secular world, a doomsayer was just a doomsayer, but in Solcea, what did it mean?

And what did it mean when the Securitas police approached the doomsayer with batons drawn? What did mean, the onlookers wondered, when they beat him quiet and dragged him away? Somehow, the message stuck in all of their minds. There was a sense of disquiet.

Especially when, the very next day, in the very same park– there were more.

Preaching repentance before the coming of the great Eclipse.

Unfailingly polite as more curious people approached them with questions, or jeers.

Unflinchingly stalwart as the police beat them too.

Soon, the sight became more common. And the confusion began to clear up.

More people saw clearly the coming darkness. And more people sought forgiveness.

Beneath the notice of the closed eyes of the Holy See, a wound had been opened.

And in its spilled blood, there was a spreading contaminant.

The Holy Empire of Solcea had spent the months since its founding in a state of confusing dysfunction. The secular state of Skarsgaard and the Holy See of the Solceanos Church had been in a cold war for much of their living memory, and the church had dreams of what its victory looked like. At its highest echelons, the ascendant Church hierarchy dreamed of a nation that would strictly follow Solceanist creed and subjugate the population with piety.

In reality, the dream of Solcea was a material nightmare replete with very secular problems.

Skarsgaard had already been a state subject to great neglect. Even before his abdication to seek scandal in the court of Prince von Fueller, the former duke Carthus had been uninvolved in the day to day running, and had set no policy agenda for the state. Perhaps in his mind, his late father had set a foundation that could simply be allowed to run, like clockwork– but it was hardly the case. Skarsgaard had become underdeveloped and dependent.

A nation of corrupt bureaucrats captive to regional interests, Skarsgaard was headed for turbulent waters without Rescholdt-Koldt in the north and Khosvgol in the south to fill its markets with goods. The Imbrians had never invested much in the competitiveness of the native industry inherited from the old Gallic Kingdoms. Looking only at the numbers, Skarsgaard had a stable and functional economy. But it was a highly dependent one, that got by on being permissive and deferential to the juggernaut firms of its neighboring states.

Pontiff Millennia had some idea that the nation was troubled. Having been a former heiress to the state, she knew some of her family’s unambitious running of its institutions, and knew that appointments to high office were far from meritocratic; and as Pontiff, she had seen first-hand the people who ran the government, in their dealings with the church. Craven and self-interested, easily swayed by bribes and favors. During the breakup of the ducal states, Pontiff Millennia discovered first-hand how weak the state apparatus of Skarsgaard had become, as businessmen and political lackeys panicked and fled every which way, local branches of exterior enterprises attempted to uproot all their infrastructure back to their home states, and the remainder of the government was utterly paralyzed by the chaos.

Solcea was also militarily weaker than the Vekan Empire, who held a qualitative and quantitative advantage in troops– as well as the Bureni nationalists, whose militias were battle-hardened and experienced in open warfare. Outside of Pontiff Millennia’s closest units, the performance of most of the Solcean military in a war was held suspect. This meant that any ambition of taking the fight to her neighbors right away and simply stealing their vast stocks of resources was a pure fantasy. She would have to walk the middle road.

As a state, Solcea was born brain-dead and bleeding out, but it still clung to its life.

Upon assumption of the newly-declared throne of the Solcean Empire, Millennia used the Papal Guard and remaining Skarsgaard Navy to violently put down capital flight, sicced the police, now renamed Magistratus Securitas, on both the population and on fleeing merchants, and successfully shut the porous borders to Veka and Buren. She appointed administrators from the church to oversee the transition and bureaucratic renewal. Her new state was led by learned men and women who gained experience managing people, projects and funds under the auspice of the church– but not spectacularly qualified for governing.

Still, it was good enough to staunch the bleeding.

But the wound was not closed. It had scabbed over, but the pain of the cut lingered.

Solcea’s economy continued to be a mess, and it became incumbent on a state that still nominally believed in capitalism to insert itself into business to keep goods flowing. Subsidizing agriculture, offering credit to buoy ailing industries, encouraging alms to rally the poor around the churches, offering as much debt relief as a finance industry livid at the state of things would allow. Discussions with Veka and Buren allowed for the reopening of perhaps 30% of their former business in the state, overcoming a cacophonous distrust.

The Holy Empire of Solcea had talked a big game in naming itself and establishing its independence, but now played exclusively soft power. The Holy See supported Solceanos worship and the lambs of God everywhere they resided. They did not wish war on their neighbors and were simply taking the role of protecting the Church and its holy sites, and the Pontiff wished for peace and normalization of relationships with the warring factions.

Because Pontiff Millennia could do nothing else with what she had.

Particularly because, ultimately, like her sibling, she was uninterested in the state.

Millennia quietly began to retreat over the weeks and entrust more of the state’s running to subordinates. As things became difficult and distracting, she more and more saw her mind drift elsewhere. She just needed Solcea and its infrastructure to survive and provide shelter and sustenance. The rest of her journey as a ruler was purely spiritual. If her beliefs bore out, the material consequence of the state would no longer matter. This was merely the cocoon to a beautiful butterfly struggling to be born, to stretch its wings, and leave it all behind.

All the rabble needed to do was cling on for as long as possible.

And that was what they were doing with great difficulty–

until the shadow of something older than the Imbrium itself began to creep into Solcea.

“I can almost see it. I can almost see it. If I could just touch it. Just for a second.”

She mumbled to herself, prostrated in front of a mechanism set upon an altar.

Around her, what was once a room for stocking religious relics, had become home to the purple glow of an eerie machine. An industrial-looking thing, half as tall as the room, glass panels unveiling complex innards. Powerful magnetic fields kept in place a cube of dimly glowing Agarthicite, which, reacting to the field, turned in random intervals to random angles within the containment chamber. Parts of the mechanism containing the fist-size piece of Agarthicite released beads of carbon into the enclosure. These would be stricken by bright purple bolts that lit up the room– and the face of Millennia von Skarsgaard.

She clapped her hands together and stared into the annihilating purple glow.

Had her will been any less, she may have felt dizzy or had her eyesight shot by it.

But her mind was sharpened to a steel edge even as her flesh protested.

Around her gathered bright colors of aura, but these quickly coalesced into a soft, smoke-white aura that thrummed nervously around Millennia’s figure. From this cloak, a single finger of aura stretched between the kneeling Millennia, and as if suspending the instant of destruction, the aura passed through the enclosure to touch the carbon as it annihilated.

In that instant, the world before her eyes flashed.

For a second or two, she had left the dimly lit room in the depths of her palace.

Before her eyes she saw a blue sky as far as she could see. Sparse white clouds hovered over a vast stretch of grassland that rose and fell. Far downhill of her, there was a walled city, and the sea beyond. Smokestacks indicated industry. Millennia could feel the surroundings; humid, green, smelling of the earth. There was life. Insects, birds, small mammals.

This was the paradise that the ocean had not claimed. Its people had not fallen.

A world of hope flitted before her eyes.

She could see it, smell it, feel it, almost touch it–

But she could not stay.

In the instant after fleetingly experiencing this world, she felt as if her head split open.

Her burning, weeping eyes blinked and returned to the old relic chamber.

Her bright, sun-lit world and its blue sky became metal walls and dim purple light.

Pontiff Millennia screamed at the top of her lungs, dug her fingers into her head.

Blood dribbled down her nose until she could taste it on her lips.

She fell on her side and kicked and screamed, not just from the pain but from frustration.

She was there! She had been to another world! Why couldn’t she stay?

Why couldn’t she escape the hopeless prison of this dead planet?

For minutes she struggled until the pain receded and she had shouted herself hoarse.

Then her body went limp with hopelessness for several minutes more.

Until, wordlessly, almost mechanically, she pushed herself back up to her knees.

Clapped her hands back together as if in prayer.

And stared up at the demonic purple ore in the mechanism, her pleading renewed.

Divination was exceedingly difficult. Salvatrice’s visions acted in her dreams, but that wasn’t good enough. Millennia needed to understand the mechanism of it, and she had been studying it, deliberately working to induce visions and control them, for weeks now.

Using the “Gift” known as Oracle’s View, an expression of the Oracle’s Voice, allowed her to render visible the paths of the aether around her, and to experience the aether’s changes; it became clear to her that aether was a map of human activity past, present and future.

Theoretically, she believed a powerful enough psychic could force into existence a trace of a future farther and farther distant, or extract traces of a past farther and farther back.

Aether was not simply raw emotion either.

Oracle’s View allowed her to see a semblance of the actions that would disturb the aether in addition to their emotional character which was evident in their color. A strong red line of an incoming punch; the doomed black miasma of a human headed to death. These did not just carry their emotion as information in the color, but carried evidence of the activity itself within the texture, within the trace– all of this could be exposed by the Oracle’s View.

Theoretically, this was what she observed when she first started experimenting.

Premonitions; visions of the past. Her own past and future; those of objects; Salvatrice’s.

And then, during her experimentation, Millennia realized that she had been correct about an earlier assumption. Her visions were not contained to the past and future of Aer. Because she could disturb the future enough to change it, and then change what she saw each time in those controlled conditions– it meant she and the Aether were not acting in straight lines.

Like a Diver pilot learning to fight in three dimensions, Millennia stepped aside.

That paradigm shift, that confirmation of her greatest hope, allowed her to rattle her cage.

Rather than the past or future, forward and back, she was sidestepping, climbing, descending.

With this realization, she became able to trace Aether that left this world altogether.

To leave the world, however, the Aether needed to be affected by a massive force.

Millennia nearly died attempting to send her Aether out of Aer by herself.

Then she found herself leaning upon that most reliable and old ally of humanity.

An Agarthic annihilation released enormous amounts of short-lived power.

Using an agarthic centrifuge, she could annihilate carbon and release that power.

Within the purple glow of the agarthicite she finally found the glimpse of what she wanted.

On command, she could see another world.

However, she could only observe seconds of these worlds at most.

Even with her prodigious study, constant practice, and natural talent– any further stretched than this and her body would start to deteriorate from the feedback. She had hoped that the “Gifts” which Salvatrice had uncovered in her dreams could be used to sidestep such requirements, but there was no such luck. Manipulating aether was less taxing than directly manipulating human minds, but it had its limits too and she could not defeat them.

She had quickly mastered the Oracle’s Voice and Saint’s Skin— and yet she still fell short.

Especially when taken into account that simply viewing another world was not her ultimate goal. She had to escape– she had to be able to completely escape from this dead world–

“We can see worlds that are not dead like this one. Therefore– aether must be capable of traveling– and therefore, if the aether is not bound to this Aer, then I– I could go–“

Not just between the latticework of humanity as it existed on Aer– but beyond Aer itself.

Even if it destroyed the worthless body she had in this doomed and worthless planet, it would not matter as long as she could start over in a thriving world. However, she had to be sure, she had to be completely sure that she could exist corporeally on the other side.

Theoretically, it had to be possible– it had to be.

There was no room in her mind for Millennia to consider she might be crippling herself over nothing. To live in a fallen and degenerate world with a fallen and degenerate body– no. Transcendence had to be possible. It was the only outcome. Any sacrifice was worth that end.

And all throughout, her efforts were watched on every side by portraits and iconography of Solcea, the god that she had foisted like a veil over the wretched people of this world.

Solceanos and Solcea, together the one divinity representing the sun. Sun as father who watched and judged and disciplined; Sun as mother who nurtured, warmed, and fed. She knew that, long, long ago, this father/mother God was much more metaphorically the sun, far less concrete– but ultimately there was no difference whether the God was literally the Sun or some Pater figure that was more concretely human. These Gods represented control, discipline, subordination and self-denial. Instruments of worldly power. Ten commandments; birth and resurrection; feast and famine. These were ultimately tools of social manipulation.

And yet–

sometimes, their monuments and artworks instilled in her the fear of an ignorant believer.

As if they knew somehow that the Church had perverted their intentions.

Nothing in the scripture spoke of tithes, papal guard levies, church hierarchy and lines of succession. It spoke of alms that were not given; it spoke of a heaven that was denied.

When she spoke, it was to organize believers and exploit them to the Church’s advantage.

By enforcing the discipline of Solceanos, did they spread His intention for humanity?

“It doesn’t matter– none of this matters– Solcea won’t follow me beyond here.”

Solcea must have also been a prisoner of this dead world.

Her hands were shaking. She wasn’t eating or drinking well. It didn’t matter–

She dropped to her knees in the divination chamber, clasped her hands together in prayer.

Drew her eyes wide open and summoned the power again.

Oracle’s Voice.

White aura blew out of her and spread across the relic chamber.

Around her the aether became visible again, its movements palpable, readable, predictable

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Her own aether flared and she focused all of her mental efforts on prayer, sublimity–

Stark white aether began to overtake most of her aura, but a band of yellow and black.

Rising up from her into the core centrifuge was a band of muddy white aether.

Soon as she released it, her mind split into the twin focuses, of tracking it, and offering it up.

Immediate pain, but manageable, just a twist of a razor scraping the surface of her brain.

Oracle’s View.

Her gaze became singularly focused again upon the aether being offered up.

Then the mechanism was fed beads of carbon that it would immediately destroy.

Her aura was affected by the annihilating purple glow.

And the pain intensifying in her head.

Digging, micrometer by micrometer through her brain, but she could endure it, she could clench her shaking hands harder and grind her quivering teeth tighter together. She could endure the pain and continue to trail the aether into the agarthic centrifuge, into the bolts of annihilating energy. Through the prism of destruction left in the wake of that purple glow, for the briefest instant. Paradise had to lie beyond it; it simply had to.

Her aether crossed the threshold through the purple glow.

Then, Millennia saw something she had never seen before.

She had been expecting the lush grasslands and industrial cities she had seen before.

But what she witnessed seemed even closer to paradise than ever.

When the dim metal walls of her world dissolved again, she found herself standing on a place with dusty grey soil dotted with small puddles of water. She found herself dwarfed by absolutely vast, gargantuan, silver structures, that she likened to tree trunks because they had complex systems of roots digging into the surrounding soil, and massive webs of branches that blotted out the sky above. Between these trees, all manner of colors danced in long ribbons and loops that were simultaneously like lights and like rivulets of fluid.

In the midst of these titans, her soul felt at ease.

For a moment, as she watched the colors dance and the wind singing between the densely packed forest, as the dew trickled down the great silver trunks. Her body felt light; there was no longer pain; and she felt so free. All of her burdens lightened amid the kind trees.

Millennia took a step forward, and the world did not disappear.

She took a second and a third. She was beside herself.

Her haggard face, the deep black bags under her eyes, the filthy bloody trails down her cheeks, all of it stretched and lit up with a hopeful smile. Was she– had she made it–?

Then, as she continued to take her first steps into what she thought was another world–

A figure appeared in front of her, impeding her way, entering her space.

Touching her body. Face to face.

A thin woman with an eerie presence suddenly grabbed her.

Long red hair, a pale face, a single horn, a white robe that looked like animal skin.

Her face was almost as sallow, sickly pale as Millennia’s own.

Yellow on black eyes with bags as deep and dark as her own fixed her with a sadistic gaze.

A smile played across the creature’s lips as she stared deep into Millennia’s eyes.

“I know where you are now.”

From her silhouette spread a wave of yellow aura that was choking and sickening.

In the next instant, a renewed pain overwhelmed Millennia–

She collapsed back onto the floor of the relic chamber, screaming like never before.

The door to the relic room swung open. A woman in a dark blue nun’s habit walked into the room, her short pink hair disorderly, as if she had just dressed, and her gait quick and agitated, clearly in a hurry. She flipped on all of the lights in the room and let out a gasp.

Salvatrice Vittoria found the Pontiff in the midst of her agony.

She knelt down next to her and held her close while she screamed and wept incoherently.

“Millennia. Please return to your senses. Something is happening.”

Salvatrice, officially something like a majordomo, had no political power whatsoever.

Despite having a terrifying insight into what was to come.

She held the holy woman in her hands for several minutes, until her glassy, tearful eyes finally displayed a hint of recognition. Millennia’s gaze began to scan the room again, and fell upon Salvatrice. She shut her eyes, breathed in and out. Wherever she had been, Millennia von Skarsgaard had finally returned to the world that she so adamantly despised.

“I don’t need you to coddle me.” Millennia said. “I am doing just fine without intervention.”

Millennia looked far from fine. Her skin was discolored, and she had deep black bags under her eyes. Her hands were shaking, and she struggled to stand without assistance. She looked smaller than ever in her overwrought papal garb that she hadn’t changed in days. Over the past few weeks she had lost weight, eating irregularly and in poor amounts while she obsessed over her experiments. Her red hair’s luster was starting to dim– there were strands of lost hair scattered throughout as she walked around the little room she had colonized.

“I’ll forego comment on whether or not you look ‘fine’.” Salvatrice began. “But the world outside this room requires your attention again, Millennia von Skarsgaard. I fear that we are starting to lose control of events again, and I am unable to take command myself.”

“Losing control of events?” Millennia mumbled. She turned suddenly. “Did you see–?”

“No! I did not have a vision. Millennia, the material world is giving us enough omens.”

“Fine! I will leave the room! Just tell me what happened!

Millennia pressed her for details, and Salvatrice began to tell the dire tale.

The Patriarchate of Sandomierz was a region with four stations just west of the capital at Amaryllis. Every station had its own native industries and commerce, but the region was not exactly known for anything. It was simply a home to its people. After the transition to Solcean rule, Sandomierz’s regional government was replaced with rule by the local Patriarch, Andrezj Buzun. Sandomierz was a particularly troubled region during the transition, because of its lacking resources and largely lower class population.

Buzun had become particularly sensitive to criticism due to the circumstances. He had been particularly called out during the transition by a local bishop, Mikolaj Szymanski. He blamed Buzun for hiding in church property with ample supplies while people went hungry. Buzun had interpreted the criticism as social climbing on Szymanski’s part, and was wary of his actions post-transition, obsessively clinging to his Patriarchate and paranoid of rivals.

Things seemed to stabilize in the following weeks post-transition, but recently, word began to spread in Sandomierz of a heresy from Zazisce Station. Misinformation about an incoming solar eclipse, and with it the ascendance of “angels from the eclipse’s shadow,” led to street worship, marches, unsanctioned gatherings, and other strange outpourings of passion.

Theologically this was completely against anything Solceanos’ church taught. Solceanos was the eternal sun, their angels were angels of bright light, not shadow, and there was no one in Solcea monitoring the “secular” sun for upcoming eclipses anyway. Such silliness would normally come and go on its own in a secular government, but Buzun was touchy.

The Eclipse Heresy came to be viewed by the Patriarchate in Sandomierz as a protest against theocratic rule. Buzun believed the inverted theology was demonic in nature, and corrupting the youth; his more secular bureaucratic cohort believed that the Heresy could have been a code language for covering up anti-government organizing. Even more pressing to Buzun was the fact that the heresy began in Zazisce, the bishopric of Mikolaj Szymanski.

Whatever the heresy truly meant to anyone, Buzun interpreted it as “Szymanski’s move.”

And so, Buzun made his own hard move against it.

He deployed the Magistratus Securitas against Zazisce, raiding Szymanski’s churches for evidence of planning. Observers of the heresy intervened, blocking access to roads and to the churches themselves in the corridors of Zazisce. This prompted the Securitas to crack heads indiscriminately. The situation devolved entirely out of control from there. Szymanski was killed without cause as he showed support to the civilians being beaten, and he died never once acknowledging the heresy. Civilians fought back in whatever way they could, and then the station’s civil administration collapsed in a wave of defections and resignations– allowing the protestors access to the station controls and to better equipment. Now they could control access and surveillance, and began to beat back the rampaging Securitas.

“Good lord.” Millennia grumbled. She did not care about the civilians, she had no sympathy for them, but she would not have reacted with such wanton violence had she been in Buzun’s place. That the civilians were being violent tit for tat with the police was quite shocking to her, but there was a clear cause and effect there would not have been if that man had shown tact. With a situation this aggravated, bringing things back under control would be difficult.

“What is the situation now?” Millennia asked.

“Zazisce is in a state of anarchy, and Sandomierz station is experiencing the effects. Buzun was found dead in his own bedchambers. There are signs that it was a murder. Local and regional government is paralyzed. Nobody wants to take responsibility now.” Salvatrice said.

“Buzun died? How the hell? Do we have camera footage, anything?” Millennia asked.

“The Securitas is investigating.” Salvatrice said.

“Civilian rioters can’t have done that. They must have organization behind them. You can’t convince me that a bunch of lowlifes from Zazisce can suddenly assassinate the Patriarch.”

“I agree. But you need to give the orders as to what to do next.”

“Right. Yes.” Millennia ran a hand over her face. “I need– makeup. Clean clothes. Food.”

“Of course. I’ll help you clean up and marshal your strength.” Salvatrice said.

“We need to capture some of these rioters. We can drag information out of them.”

Millennia started forming a plan in her mind.

The Papal Guard could cordon off the station, and start dragging people into ships, where they would await psionic evisceration at Millennia’s hands. She would get to the bottom of this– it might even be a good test of her psionic abilities. Flexing the muscles on living, resisting targets. Perhaps that’s what she needed to achieve transcendence.

A challenge; there was no time to waste then.

“Call the ministries for me while I eat too. I want a video broadcast ready to every Solcean station as soon as I am looking presentable enough for it.” Millennia said.

“Absolutely, your holiness. I am overjoyed to see you finally coming out of this room.” Salvatrice said. “I only wish your emergence was under more pleasant circumstances.”

Millennia looked at Salvatrice with sad, tired eyes.

“I wish I could have known you under more pleasant circumstances.” She said.

Salvatrice’s own gaze softened. “Indeed, your holiness.”

That woman constituted perhaps the only thing Millennia would miss of this dead world.

Even so, she knew she had to escape. To leave this chaos behind for good.

For now, she had to think of a way to quell the chaos at least temporarily, however.

In a televised address broadcast across Solcea, Pontiff Millennia von Skarsgaard condemned the violence in the streets and churches of Zazisce. She criticized the escalation by the local authorities, but much more strongly demanded that civilians desist in their resistance and assemble peaceably. She decreed that there would be investigations into the security response as well as any violent offenses by civilians. Whether this had any effect, she wouldn’t know– right after the broadcast, she was already preparing to depart Amaryllis.

Millennia summoned a small vessel and a contingent of Papal Guard. Not wanting to be seen making a disproportionate show of force, she left the Irmingard-class Annointed One in Amaryllis along with her Paladin-General Rosemont. Instead she sailed out in a Marder-class Frigate along with a retinue of fifty decent men and women, twenty-five in power armor. The Papal Guard had no special forces, no troops dedicated to intelligence or reconnaissance, and limited experience in combat, but she could at least trust them to be disciplined.

From Amaryllis to Sandomierz and Zazisce was two day’s sail at max speed.

During that time, Millennia remained in her private chambers with her stomach churning.

Quietly but obsessively gathering information about what had transpired during her retreat.

And every so often, thinking back to her final vision.

That forest of massive silver trees; and the fiend that confronted her in their midst.

The way that creature had seized upon her body and looked into her eyes.

It unsettled her; but the world was calling her away from her dreams.

There was no place where order was as upset as it was in Zazisce, but the Empire of Solcea was not sustainable. She had not intended for it to be: her designs did not lie with this world. It simply needed to satisfy her material needs until her escape– but it couldn’t even do that.

Even with trade from Veka and Buren, prices of food and materials were slowly rising. Wages were depressed, and unemployment remained high as industry failed to recover. Her church was failing in its task of governing as well: alms-giving had fallen, government projects lay neglected, funds were mismanaged, and public officials bickered and vied for influence.

All of this in three months since the transition. It beggared belief.

She knew her church wasn’t spotless, and that many of her lackeys were corrupt and vain people; but she never imagined they would be so ineffective when given power. They had run decently tight ships when it came to their religious duties, so what happened to them? Was it really only their fear of her authority that had kept them in line all these years?

Was the Imbrium simply cursed to be unable to exist without a dictator?

They needed her to rule them; after her retreat, Solcea was all too easily falling apart.

Millennia thought bitterly about the retreat and death of the Emperor Fueller.

How could she possibly escape from this world if she had to manage it so closely?

Thinking about it all made her cling tighter than ever to Salvatrice in bed.

She never wanted to let go.

But Salvatrice’s ministrations could only do so much. By the time they arrived in the waters of Zazisce, Millennia was almost back to looking as haggard as she had been in the relic room. Her ambitions were crumbling all around her; all of her dreams looked ever more and more distant. She felt her skin pressing tighter on her flesh than ever, felt the weight of her bones and body fat like never before. Aer, this dead world, tightened its grasp on her.

“We have to settle this episode quickly.” Millennia told Salvatrice.

Barely disguising the note of desperation in her voice.

“We will arrange a meeting with representatives of the rioters, to lure them out.”

“And what then?”

Millennia flashed the red rings around her irises. It was enough of an implication.

“You must assist me as well.” She said.

Salvatrice bowed her head in deference. “Of course.”

If she was lucky, she could potentially end the confrontation bloodlessly.

Had it been feasible she would have wrung the entrails out of every one of those peasants for their insane defiance, but she needed Solcea to withstand this crisis. Being able to say she ended the bloodshed would hopefully have a stabilizing effect throughout the duchy. It would likely result in more of the incompetent bureaucracy relying on her–

–but one problem at a time.

The Marder-class Frigate Exigo approached Zazisce and received permission to dock from the occupiers. Zazisce was an interior station with larger surrounding stations in its region, so unlike larger stations, it had no military defenses. So even the darkly cunning rioters that had hijacked the station controls could do nothing against approaching vessels. Thankfully.

Millennia had a brief discussion with the port control staff about her visit.

“I do not desire to invade the interior station and cause tension. I would like to meet with representatives of the protester’s agenda and hold a discussion in the port. My aim here is to deescalate. I have already instructed the remaining Securitas to hold position. That’s my gesture of good will, and all I ask is to receive this measure of good will in return.”

“Of course, Pontiff. You are always welcome in Zazisce. I will relay your wishes.”

Millennia did not think much of the answer from station control, but the Exigo docked into Zazisce regardless. Millennia entered the station with a retinue of ten of her powered armor troops and Salvatrice at her side. They stepped off the boarding chutes and entered the station terminal, waiting in an open area where seating and refreshments were available. Flanked by the long, empty bench seats beneath the arched ceiling, Millennia kept her eyes peeled on the large hallway on the opposite side of the room, from which her greeting party would soon be coming. As the minutes went by, she grew anxious of the situation.

“Would they try to kill me?” She asked Salvatrice. “Does their grievance extend so far?”

“To be honest exalted one, I am not sure how the general population views you.”

Mostly, they hadn’t– aside from her slew of decrees upon the founding of the Solcean regime, and her recent address, she had not appeared among ‘her flock’ in months now. Since then, her government had been represented exclusively by failures like Buzun who had tormented the commoners incessantly. Was her inaction to blame for all of this mess?

Her mind again drifted to the late Emperor Fueller.

She still understood nothing of his actions; and yet she was proving no better than he.

She didn’t want to surpass him; she didn’t want to be alive in this wretched place!

But there was so much pressure upon her not to repeat his mistakes.

Such a bitter pill; and Millennia’s throat was so dry.

“Ma’am, I don’t like this.” said one of the power-armored men at her side.

He was the Sergeant in charge of these marines.

As if in answer to his complaint, the striking sound of footsteps started to close in on them.

“Running?” Millennia said.

Shadows painted on the far wall in the center of the corridor presaged the arrival.

“Ma’am, it’s an attack.”

Troops stepped forward around Millennia and positioned themselves–

“Hold fire!” Millennia cried out.

And held fire they did– as the opposite hallway filled with people charging into the terminal.

Millennia could hardly believe what she was seeing.

Some had pilfered riot weapons and armor from the Securitas, others had just the shirts on their backs and whatever piece of metal fit in their hands, some had tools and mining gear, it was a mess of people and whatever they had access to do violence with. Across their faces were expressions of rage that felt almost animalistic. None of them said a word or made a sound, simply rushing forward out of the corridor as fast as their feet could carry them.

She felt her heart stop and her eyes cloud over.

In an imperceptible instant, red rings flashed around her irises.

And she saw the blanket of white aura wafting from the horde of rioters.

This is inhuman. This is–

“Don’t shoot!” Millennia demanded of her troops.

She stepped forward through the protest of her retinue, and stood defiantly in front of the stampeding mass just a second from ripping her apart. She met their blank, furious faces and their swinging weapons, planted her feet, and pulled deep from her own will.

King’s Gaze.

From her body, a small beacon amid a rushing ocean of violence, poured a bright wave.

Colors surged across the crowd in the hall and dispersed the uncanny white auras.

Tinging them a deep blue with bands of black and green.

In the next instant, overwhelmed minds led to dropping bodies.

By the dozens the rioters tripped and fell over themselves like stricken dominoes.

Smitten unconscious by Millennia’s uniquely powerful will.

They fell at her feet one after another, barely making it into the terminal.

“Be still. By God’s grace.” She muttered. Trying to put on an act.

From her nose a trickle of blood began to trail, to her lips, until she could taste it.

She felt a sudden weakness, but stood her ground mightily.

Her troops would have applauded the miracle their Pontiff had brought–

But amid the pile of subdued bodies there was still one standing.

A single individual in a black hood had withstood Millennia’s aetheric attack.

All that was visible of them was a flash of a pale face, pale hands and long, bare, pale legs.

“That is the perpetrator! Capture them!” Salvatrice shouted.

Clearly thinking on her feet while Millennia struggled with the backlash of her psionics.

From around Millennia, the guards armed with nonlethal weapons stepped forward.

Realizing they had been compromised, the hooded figure turned to flee.

Fierce barrages of dozens of rubber bullets, beanbags, and gas bullets struck across the figure’s back and legs and knocked them to the ground. Despite the intensity of fire, they almost got back up again to escape, and were only further compromised by the terrain of unconscious bodies around them. Soldiers charged forward, stomping over the bodies to seize hold of the agitator, beating them with vibrobatons while struggling to drag them back. Somehow the attempted escapee, kicking and thrashing, withstood the strength of two men until a third finally applied a shock prod to their gut and knocked them cold.

Millennia and Salvatrice could barely parse the farcical scene of violence.

“Don’t kill them! I need to interrogate them!” Millennia cried out.

Fearing more human waves, and the potential of a bloodier outcome, Millennia ordered a retreat back into the Exigo. They took the agitator and a random smattering of the attacking civilians with them, locking the civilians in the brig. They would be interrogated using ordinary means later on. Meanwhile Millennia had the agitator taken to a private room in the upper deck and bound their arms and legs to a metal chair. She had to deal with this one.

“Leave us.” Millennia said. She waved away her security detail, save for Salvatrice.

Salvatrice retained a vibrosaber affixed to a magnetic belt she wore with her nun’s habit.

She waited at Millennia’s side with wary eyes on the captive.

Once they were alone with the hooded figure, Millennia approached and partially unzipped the figure’s garment, unveiling a pair of small, extremely pale breasts and allowing the once tightly closed hood to be thrown back from their head. She was immediately puzzled by their appearance– a youth of unimpressive stature, seemingly female judging by their chest.

Pale, extremely pale, like a freshly molted insect’s nymph, with long white hair. Skinny, too, with the impression of ribs visible on their thin trunk. Their limbs were long and thin, and they were barefoot. In fact they had no accessories nor possessions except for the hood they were wearing, which was only long enough to cover their body to the upper thighs. It was no design Millennia had ever seen– it almost looked like it was made of one sheet of a leather-like material, and the zipper was made of plastic. It had no brands, no logos, no tags.

“Salvatrice, I’m going to wake them up. Hold your nerves.” Millennia said.

“Of course.”

In reality, Millennia was probably more nervous than Salvatrice.

On the table opposite the captive’s chair, Millennia had several injectors already prepared with various drugs. There was also a small unassuming grey case that was full of tools. Scalpels, scissors, tweezers, clamps, an electric battery that could affix an electronic branding iron or small shock prods, thin sheets of abrasive and saline material that could go over wounds like bandages that intensified pain. These alone could not be trusted to extract information from a captive. But the torment would weaken their mind’s psionic defenses.

Millennia took a syringe from the table and injected it into the captive’s hand.

In a few moments, their body started to shake, their mouth hung and salivated.

Slowly their eyes began to open. Black sclera with yellow irises.

“What in the world– do you see their eyes?” Salvatrice mumbled.

Just like the monster in her vision–

Millennia concentrated on the being’s aura– blue, green and yellow. Expected of an ordinary person. However, as the captive began to wake further, the density of their aura began to thicken and the colors compacted against their body. They grew to a depth and density that Millennia had never seen in ordinary people. When their eyes fully opened, and they seemed to recognize their surroundings had changed, Millennia finally had her confirmation–

Glowing red rings around those yellow irises, indicating the use of psionics.

This was a supernatural being.

Don’t struggle, or we’ll strike you dead on the spot.

Before their captive could take action, Millennia sent them a psionic warning.

Salvatrice withdrew her vibrosaber, and held it at her side.

Recognition dawned upon the blank white face of their captive.

Their lips curled into a grin.

“You are the hominin’s False Autarch.” They said, in legible Low Imbrian.

You can kill me but you will never be free from Her. You belong to Her.

A telepathic response just as easily sent as her own.

Millennia’s chest tightened upon hearing those words, slick with contempt.

“I am Pontiff Millennia von Skarsgaard. I am your superior. You will cooperate with me or die. And an equally grisly fate will await all of your co-conspirators, until I find one that talks.”

She withdrew a knife from the toolbox and held the blade between the captive’s breasts.

At no point did they even flinch in response to her threats.

“What does one talk to cattle about? You Hominin will soon learn your place.”

Millennia pressed the knife against the skin.

“Maybe you will start making sense after screaming for a bit.” She taunted.

She expected soft flesh to yield to her torment, and was shocked to see no blood drawing.

Her blade almost slid against the suddenly stiffened flesh.

“No, Hominin, you will scream.”

Suddenly, the captive’s tongue sprang forward from their mouth mid-speech.

At the tip there was a glistening, jet black blade with an edge that glowed with colors.

Millennia froze in the instant of the spearpoint blow aimed for her chest–

“Saint’s skin!”

Salvatrice’s gleaming green blade flashed and sent the tongue rolling to the floor.

That fleshy black razor-tip cutting nothing but a small gash in Millennia’s robe.

Then in an instant of panic, Salvatrice turned the blade on the captive in a brutal swing that sliced its sizzling edge across the chest and face of the creature. Splitting open skin and bone and spilling out gore and throwing back the chair to which the beast had been shackled.

Millennia’s back struck the desk in shock, sending her tools crashing to the floor.

Staring at the disfigured abomination split open in front of her.

Its exposed throat still laughing through the clanging of the metal instruments.

Pieces of its ribs shaking like fingers; gushing organs hissing like snake heads.

Severed jaws and boiling eyes still piecing together an expression of glib humor.

“Iä! Iä! Iä!” cheered the writhing flesh thing as if in the midst of euphoria.

What happens to me is irrelevant! Fill this body with pain! I will ascend to join my Autarch!

Psionic screeches filled Millennia’s and Salvatrice’s minds.

Her habit covered in foul-smelling blood, Salvatrice screamed back as she threw her blade against the creature hacking at the flesh in the grip of her own madness. As if taking a pick to a stone she reared back and drew forward, two-handed grip with all of her fear-crazed strength, sending a limb to the floor, pieces of the head flying, sawed ribs spraying fragments of bone. Screaming between each blow until she was out of breath, covered head to toe in gushing filfth, and so bereft of strength her blade simply fell out of her grasp.

Millennia surged forward and wrapped her arms around Salvatrice’s chest.

“Stop.” Millennia mumbled. “Please stop.”

Salvatrice froze, her hands hovering in front of her as if in the midst of another blow.

Even though her enemy had been reduced to a mound of hacked apart meat.

And her blade was halfway across the room.

“Millennia. I– I– You– That–“

Salvatrice’s shaking body settled against Millennia’s chest.

Together, they slowly knelt down on the floor at the foot of the dead thing.

Weeping, screaming, in each other’s arms, until the guards finally rushed in for them.

The Exigo returned to Amaryllis days later.

For now, military response to Zazisce remained off the table.

Millennia embarked on a propaganda campaign, hoping to turn the public against the heresy.

She made several media addresses and wrote pamphlets and scripts for churches to run.

Trying to buy time and gauge the spread of the unrest before making another move.

There was good and bad news on that front, as always.

“What has been the response to my latest address?”

“From what we can actually quantify with data, people are scared and trying to hunker down, but nobody is reacting as badly as what happened in Zazisce. I am not sure that faith in the administration is high, but at the very least, the remaining Patriarchates are continuing to run as usual. We are not seeing signs of rebellion there. But the people are depressed.”

“That’s outside Sandomierz, right.”

“I’m afraid Sandomierz has had a different reaction, yes.”

Salvatrice turned over a portable computer to Millennia with the latest reports.

While most of Solcea simply watched with bated breath, the wound festered.

Zazisce remained out of control and it was the epicenter of a violence that was slow to spread, but was nonetheless spreading within its region. Days after Millennia von Skarsgaard left the station, neighboring Sandomierz, seat of the Sandomierz Patriarchate and still bereft of a Patriarch, began to see the signs of the decline. Doomsayers had begun to appear in public parks and in front of churches in Sandomierz. Many were beaten and arrested, but the public displays of violence seemed to embolden more of them to take up the creed of the “Eclipse” and resist the government. Heedless of the consequences, like a virus of the mind, the doomsayers steadily grew into demonstrations with dozens of people at a time.

“Restrict all travel to and from Sandomierz until further notice. Ships will only go to the Patriarchate of Sandomierz with Imperial sanction and a Papal Guard escort. Ships already in place over there will not be leaving Sandomierz. Quarantine effectively immediately.”

“Of course, Pontiff.”

It wasn’t enough. Sandomierz was teetering just like Zazisce.

Soon, those dozens of dissenters might become hundreds. How soon– nobody could know.

Wherever her so-called flock heard of this ‘coming Eclipse’ they seemed to go mad.

It couldn’t have been that they accepted this creed and truly believed in it.

Millennia wasn’t even so delusional as to believe most people believed in Solceanity itself.

If there was discontent it should have been of the secular kind. Leftists and progressives.

Why would thousands of people begin agitating via this same insane liturgy?

“This isn’t organic. It’s psionics.” Millennia said grimly. “A psionic cabal of some kind.”

Millennia had no way to wrest Zazisce from heretic control; with its government collapsed and its people in thrall, there was no reasonable way to negotiate its return to her authority. Violent reprisals were not off the table, but she had to be careful not to turn manufactured dissent into a real grievance. Getting rid of the station’s population would be a last resort.

Her mysterious enemy might even be counting on the violence.

A panicking public with its government in disarray was easier to manipulate.

Weakened minds, shriveling souls and frail bodies could not resist psionics.

After carefully purging every psychic she had perceived within the church, other than her ally and companion Salvatrice, Millennia never envisioned she would have to fight a psychic threat. She felt both vindicated in taking action before, but also foolish for not somehow finding a way to combat psionics directly, or retain more psionic potential in her employ.

Some part of her found itself wishing she could recapture Maryam Karahailos.

She would be called a madwoman if she went to the public with a confession that she was capable of mind control and that an enemy capable of mind control was subverting the government and fomenting violence. And even if she tipped her hand, the knowledge would do the average civilian no good. If there were multiple psionic infiltrators, and it was likely that there were, Millennia and Salvatrice alone could not uproot them. It would take inducting more psychics to fight back, which could spiral out of control if they betrayed her.

Not only that– these were not ordinary psychics. It was possible they weren’t even human.

It felt like there were no winning moves. Millennia was paralyzed as to how to respond.

Part of her wanted to lock herself up in her room and redouble her efforts to escape to another world. In the new world, none of this would matter. As long as she escaped before the violence reached her person, she would be free. But she had no guarantee she would make it out in time. She had no guarantee– that it was even possible to begin with.

Part of her contemplated giving up, too. Giving up in every conceivable way.

“Salvatrice, are we in hell? Is that what I am witnessing?” Millennia asked.

Her voice was haggard.

Salvatrice narrowed her eyes at her from across the desk they were working out of.

“Don’t talk that way.” Salvatrice replied. “Please.”

“Fine. But– I don’t know what to do, Salva. I really don’t.” Millennia said.

Salvatrice reached out her hand and took Millennia’s own.

But she offered no words of comfort nor a plan of action. Only the comfort of a touch.

Their despair grew when the Securitas began bringing them more incongruous sightings.

Security cameras began to capture eerie scenes around Sandomierz, and soon a third station to which the contagion of this ‘Eclipse heresy’ had spread, Torun. Securitas suppressed the strangest footage that was collected by the station’s cameras and brought it directly to the Pontiff’s office for review. It truly felt like she was watching a scene from a grand metaphor on retribution from God. Shadows with glowing eyes. Acting heedless of the cameras.

Sometimes just staring straight into them as if in challenge.

Every piece of video was a sighting of the same sickly pale, white haired beings like the one she had confronted in Zazisce. There were at least two dozen such sightings throughout Sandomierz and Torun. They were haphazard in their targets; breaking into food warehouses, attacking Securitas police boxes, breaking into schools, churches, random small businesses. There was no sense to it. It was as if they were after anything they could grab.

One particularly disturbing video was recovered body cam footage.

Affixed to chest of a Securitas patrolman, the camera shone upon what looked like a small child, lost in the back alleys of a cattle complex in Torun. He approached, calling out to her.

“Hey urchin, you must be really lost. Come here, let’s get you off private property alright?”

He reached out his hand, and the child turned her head over her shoulder.

Her eyes drew wide, and from under her clothes, an appendage suddenly lashed out.

The officer fell over, the camera was knocked off. There were sounds of struggle.

In the darkness, a pool of blood spread to the camera.

“Pontiff, our men have no idea what they’re up against,” said the police surveillance officer, part of a new task force assigned to gather intelligence. “Telling them to watch out for pale freaks in hoods is going to sound ridiculous at best, but it’s all we have. I would like permission to communicate to station commissioners what the situation has become.”

“Granted.” Millennia said. “But keep the web of information as tight as possible.”

It was too little too late; she was organizing task forces, trying to promote decent officers, trying to boost cooperation and share information between stations and branches, but this was all being done at the eleventh hour. She was aghast at how poorly her forces were developed, how much they lacked in support capacities and coordination. As she watched the so-called surveillance officers leave the room, she felt a deepening frustration.

“We have to do something about Zazisce. We have to investigate; gather more info. Our only option is to take action. We can’t just watch from afar, but we can’t burn the whole thing down.” Millennia grit her teeth. She closed her fists. She could do nothing with her current forces– but there was a way to bolster them. An odious way– but becoming necessary.

She cast a glance at her faithful companion once more. Salvatrice held her gaze.

“Salvatrice. Go through the records and see if there any former special forces or Inquisitors among our prisoners. Check if any of them have organized crime backgrounds with ties to Katarrans. Don’t talk to any yet. Just– bring me the files and I’ll decide what to do about it.”

Salvatrice’s expression briefly turned grim before she then bowed her head.

“Right away, Pontiff.”

She turned her back and walked out of the office, leaving Millennia to her thoughts.

This was the first odious, desperate plot of many to come.

Millennia looked down at her own shadow, cast upon the desk.

Her hand felt compelled to go up to her neck, her shoulder, to massage herself.

She felt a strange, sharp pain that she could not place.

The Holy of Empire of Solcea was a lie built upon lies, taking advantage of Humanity’s longing for the Sun to give shelter to its false prophet. Unrest creeps through the fabricated empire, a syndrome born of a growing parasite sucking the blood out of the old faith.

Millennia von Skarsgaard’s cocoon of miracles has become her living hell.

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