by Matthew Reed
A broken man discusses humanity with an inhuman companion.
|For two years, Alvah had kept a poison named Desdomena close to his heart. Indeed, she was the bane of humanity, the stuff of dreams and delusion.
Even during his many years as a demigod which could see from the moon, he witnessed few humans strong enough to destroy their own dreams while there were countless that were brought to ruin by their own ambitions.
Now that he was human, he realized the injustice of the gods. To create an entity that reigns above oneself, servitude was the natural outcome. Gods were no longer fulfilling their purposes, perhaps they never did. They were worshipped by those that forgot that those very deities came from humanity, not the other way around.
If he could feel gratitude, he would thank Amirit, the same way if he could feel resentment, he would swear vengeance upon it. The aberrations robbed humanity of its chance to liberate itself. Ultimately, one ruler was replaced by another. Where the gods used fear and awe to inspire order, the aberrations born of those very same emotions brought chaos.
He now stood in an empty temple dedicated to one of those many dead gods. The altar had once been reserved for the high priest but the seat as with all positions was now vacant.
In front of him, nine metal discs rested over a slowly spinning glass cylinder.
The city let out a gentle hum when the cylinder was touched by a bare finger. The discs made the districts emit anything from a soft metallic ring to a thunderous roar depending on how they were struck. At the moment, he hit the nine drums with the back of his bare knuckles, to a steady, unchanging tune and held down a finger to the cylinder.
He was not alone, Desdomena sat behind him on top of the crown of a large harp. An array of fifty silver string instruments stood in the back of the chamber. Desdomena could grow multiple arms but even she could not play all of them at once.
The cylinder could be used to raise or lower the city’s structure while the discs rotated it. The strings seemed to specify particular buildings so they could be manipulated independently.
Further in the back was a trapdoor that led to the where the sacred texts were once stored. The scrolls were no longer there, that was where he hid his unused glyphs. The number had not grown since the day the two met. They were caught in a state of equilibrium, measuring how much they could accomplish while Desdomena fed from him.
He only kept stock to ensure she did not steal any. Something she claimed to find insulting.
“What is your opinion?” he asked the aberration accompanying him, not turning away from the array as he continued to play.
She had a preternatural aptitude with music, a far better grasp of it than him. As a being born of raw emotion, the arts were very familiar to her. He knew how to operate the devices but she knew what it was the instruments were meant to convey.
She often joined him in that room, offering her expert criticism to the notes he was trying to capture.
“What are you trying to say?” she asked as she leapt from her roost, changing as she did so. “What do you want others to feel from this?”
“I merely want others to know there are other humans still alive,” he answered.
“That explains why your rhythm is so consistent and far removed from everything,” she observed, taking a place beside him. “Are you trying to make sure it feels artificial so there is no chance that those that hear it will mistake it for some act of nature? So, they will not think it is merely the wind or a stream?”
He ceased his playing and turned towards her. “How did you know?” He caught sight of her new latest guise. Her choice of attire reminded him of a prison warden but she was wearing shackles.
Her habit of picking new shapes and outfits was something he had to grow accustomed to. The first few times he met her in a guise he had never seen, he mistook her for a new entity that might have intruded into the city. He slowly came to identify her by how she carried herself, always confident, always unafraid, always overly familiar with him.
“I know you well,” she claimed. “Play it for me again and I will give you a better answer.”
“Why have me play it again? You already heard it.”
“For practice of course. I am more than willing to help you make something someday. If you keep trying, maybe some results will come of your efforts.”
This confused him. “We make something every day.”
She stepped away; her words solemn. “We have made nothing so far. We have only sought to preserve what has already existed. We accomplished less than corpses. At least corpses rot.”
“We made a garden,” he argued.
“True,” she chimed as if in agreement. “But a corpse can feed flowers.”
By what she was saying, she must have considered the garden the product of the plants’ own efforts. She would not be entirely wrong. He planted everything there but it was the trees and other flora themselves that took root and grew.
“Is it possible…” he breathed before he stopped himself.
“Is what possible?” she asked.
“Nothing important,” he assured her. “Just a stray thought.”
Was it possible she wanted to leave something behind? Could she be afraid of disappearing without leaving a trace? That was impossible, she was just showing him what he might want to see.
He pointed to the shackles to stop her from inquiring further. “I thought you abstained from accessories.” He had not even seen her wear bracelets before.
“Accessories only distract,” she replied coolly. “These have meaning. Now stop spinning words with me and play once more.”
He did as she said. The task was monotonous but years of consistent work made him barely take notice. If it troubled him, it was because he was repeating an unrefined tune when he could be performing other labors. He wanted to have at least made a few adjustments for every attempt.
When he finished, she draped herself over him. On the outside, it appeared as a hug but in reality, it was more akin to a lioness or a python atop her prey.
“You claim to be human but what you are making is inhuman,” she whispered into his ears. “Humans are not mechanical. The very act of expressing oneself incites emotions. Emotions births art and art births emotion. Most humans are not so steady.”
He glared sidelong at her. “Are you lecturing a human on humanity?”
“I am merely reminding you that not all humans are like you. Listen closely.” She covered his ears with her hands. He heard nothing but the thrumming of his own heartbeat and the passage of precious breath from his lungs. After a few moments she removed her hands. “Your tempo does not change but that is the sound of humanity. It races. It ebbs and flows at a moment’s notice. Beautiful, rich, poor, and ugly… I have seen all of their hearts and they are all the same in that they are fickle.”
His features softened and he hesitated to say what he said next. “Thank you.”
She looked down at him and grinned an inhumanly wide grin as if she snatched away some grand victory from him. “You are welcome.”
The shackles would make the occasional appearance again but they remained a rare sight.
“We have been here for five years yet we are the only intelligent beings to be seen,” Desdomena noted. “Do you think it is possible you are the last human?”
The two sat back to back, supporting each yet never seeing the same sight. They had been staring up into the sky after a day’s work. During all those years, the constellations travelled to and fro with every season but always returned the same.
This was the night of the new moon, the best of nights to see such sights. The moon was hidden so the brilliance of everything else could be seen all the more clearly in the darkness.
“I cannot be,” he declared with confidence. “If there is justice, humanity would not end quietly with me, unable to rage or whimper at the loss of civilization.”
She arched back her head so it rested on his shoulder. “You still believe there is justice?”
“If there are evils such as you then there must be justice.” The constancy of the stars reassured him. If he looked away, he might begin to doubt. If there was true divinity, it had to be like them. No, a true deity would be superior to them for even stars might die eventually die. “We are afraid of such things because some part of us is aware of something better. If all there was was this, we would not think it terrible.”
“Evil is the confirmation of good…” she muttered before regaining her voice. “I have heard such sentiment but they falter at the sight of the Great Ones.”
“Humans created the Great Ones. Anything made by mortal hands can not last forever,” he countered. “But if humanity was indeed created by an eternal creator, then humanity itself is everlasting. If not, I at least hope we were wrought by the same force that graced us with the stars.”
Even in his worst imaginings, the world at least continued when humanity passed on. The unintelligent plants and animals would survive. The aberrations would disappear and the sun would rise on a less complicated world.
“Your reasoning is not as sound as it usually is,” she observed. “You scoff at religion enough to turn a temple into a storehouse.”
“I fear you are right. These are insane times so perhaps I have become insane to in my attempts to understand them,” he agreed. “My reasoning should have been called into question the moment I bargained with you, though. I want to believe there will be more beyond this nightmare.”
“The only creators I know of are humans and they are practically gone.” She leaned forward as she brought her knees to her chest to hug herself. “Sometimes I wonder once there are no more humans, if I will just vanish like a mirage with no one to see it.”
“You are an illusion, you need humans to live,” he confirmed, still looking to the sky.
“Oh.” She lowered her head in solemn resignation.
“As do lions need gazelles,” Alvah found himself adding. “And rabbits need grass. Your reliance on another’s existence makes you no less real.”
Though a lion would continue to live even if there was no one to look at it. A lion that was not believed in still had its fangs and was even more deadly than the one that was known of. Real animals had a place in all three aspects of reality, something that did not vanished when unanchored.
He slid his hand to her and she grasped it tightly to confirm her existence. She had no heartbeat but she was there.
He wanted her to be real if only for his own selfish reasons. However, she might as well have been a hallucination. He was no better than a madman. At least he had someone to talk to.
He listened to her move about, loosening her grip only enough to adjust it as she laid down beside him. She rested her head on his lap.
He finally looked at her. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to see what you see,” she answered.
She was not looking at the sky, neither was he. Their eyes were locked together.
The starlight collected in her blue eyes. She had been in a deceptively human form for a long time now. If he remembered correctly, the last time she changed was months before. It was difficult to keep track of days that were so similar.
They stayed like that for a long time. She rested her other hand beneath his chin. “You should tell me your name,” she commented.
He brushed her fingers away. “Why?”
“In case you not correct,” she answered softly. “In case you really are the last human and you die without ever meeting another of your kind. I could then at least carve your name on a grave marker.”
“You will not last long if I am the last one, just long enough to dig my grave if that is your intent.”
“At least there will be proof that one of us existed.” Her eyes trailed away from him as she gazed into the void between stars.
He hesitated. “Promise you will never say it to me. If you intend to carve it, I can give you a grave marker. Carry it with you and plant it where I fall. Just give me a moment to make you one.”
He prepared to leave and find sufficient material to carve a marker from. He intended to head for the garden and make one from a pruned branch. However, he could not move.
He tried and failed to pry his hand from hers. She also refused to lift her head. She held him in place as if she was made of iron.
“You finally gave me your hand. I am not ready to let go and wait another five years,” she explained.
“Fine,” he sighed. “But I need to do this lest I forget.”
“How forgetful are you?”
He remained quiet. He was forgetful enough to let the idea she was a monster slip from his mind. Enough to have lapses in judgement as he was now.
He took two glyph stones from his satchel with his free hand, a yellow one to summon earth and an orange one displaying chains to bind what came to be to the one they belonged to. The glow faded from both as two tablets grew from the dust in the air.
With the drawing of a white glyph depicting an eye, lightning gathered at the tip of his finger and he began to write. Crackling energy loudly broke the silence of night and it was blinding when it first came to life. He reconsidered his choice of elements but he already casted the spell.
His finger carved into stone as easily as charcoal wrote onto parchment. It was a violent and unnecessary display but it was a swift one. The spell fortunately provided its own illumination so he could see what he was doing.
Desdomena had seen his magic countless times before but even she seemed impressed. That or she was intrigued by how wasteful he was being.
He held the tablets by his side at an angle where she could not see the letters. Once he was done, the lightning faded away.
He passed her the two stone plaques. They were turned so their blank sides faced up. “Why two?” she asked.
“To prove we both existed,” he replied.
She overturned them to find her own name was carved in stone as well. He did not bother to explain to her, he did not need to. If she carried that stone with her, even if she vanished it would rest where she last stood.
She closed her eyes as her lips formed a half-smile. For a moment, he thought she might cry. This was perhaps the most human expression he had ever seen from her.
To spend three glyphs on something so trivial would require him to reach into his reserves later or rest from his tasks for a short time. He decided he would rest. He had to be careful with his hoarded stones, for her sake. He was frivolous when they first made their arrangement but that was before things became as they were.
With that name, she could uncover his history. She could discover he was once a prince of the moon.
Still, she had had five years to bring him to tears. The threat of her ever devouring him was just a memory growing more distant with every passing day. She could never break him just as she could never heal him.
“When I die,” he began. “What is hidden under the altar will be yours to use. Let us try to leave it untouched until then. With what is left, you should be able to continue long enough to plague someone else.”
“Oh, you are not about to make me promise to not hurt any other humans or something akin to that?” she playfully taunted him.
“I will not ask the impossible from you,” he declared. He did not expect her to keep a single promise except one. Any day he might hear his name escape her lips in some (joke) of hers.
She smiled yet what he sensed was a frown. “I fear what prey I find will be too fragile for me now. I am too used to trying to bleed a stone. I would tear through soft flesh in an instant.”
“And that is my fault?” he almost exclaimed.
“Indeed,” she laughed. “I need you to survive as long as possible so do not think I will be planting this stone anytime soon.”
It had been seven years since the two met. Desdomenia used to change her shape whimsically. She could transform several times a day without effort, transitioning from a monstrous hybrid of spider and woman to the exact likeness of a lion. She barely did that anymore, usually staying in a human form.
The shape she was most often in was the one she took the day they first met, red hair like fresh blood and eyes like a cloudless sky. Alvah was starting to associate that particular mask as her true self.
He theorized that she was not feeding efficiently enough. She likely lacked the energy to freely recreate her form. That or she was conserving her strength.
She had slowly been reducing the amount of blood she drank. She had completely abstained the previous new moon. She told him she was growing bored of the flavor.
“Are you certain there are no adverse effects?” she asked, referring to her habit of feeding off his emotions as she always had. This, suspiciously, came just a week after her refusal to drink blood.
“Why are you so concerned now?” he replied offhandedly.
“I just am.”
He heard whispers in the back of his mind, telling him to beware. Something was wrong, he just was not sure what. After seven years, could she still be scheming something?
Was she starving herself? He would not have noticed if she ceased her feeding. Then again, he did feel more energetic recently but he attributed it to lack of blood loss.
His head hurt as he feverishly struggled to grasp the possibilities. Many of the scenarios sent a chill through his body. He saw a vision of her crumbling to nothingness.
He rested a hand over his head to alleviate the pain. This was new to him, or perhaps so old to him he had forgotten. “Please stop,” he whispered, almost beggingly to himself.
“Stop what?” She asked as she stared at him. She reached a hand out to him. “Are you alright?”
“I am fine,” he lied. He distanced himself from her, placing himself beyond her reach. “But please stop pretending you are something you are not. You do not feel concern for humans.”
“But I think I do,” she insisted.
“Then you are experiencing all those emotions you have been drinking rather than digesting them,” he reasoned. “Either way, they are not yours.”
Her eyes flared with anger and she clenched her fists. “You call yourself human yet you are cold and passionless.” She pounded on her chest. “Is it so hard to believe something like me might have more than just hunger?”
He had to respond to that. He returned her passionate display with a cold retort. “You do not have a soul to feel anything with.”
She bared her teeth at him. "Explain to me how a man devoid of everything else can be so full of pride."
That much was simple. "What you know as pride is a lack of doubt."
"So, you lack any doubt that I am just a soulless illusion?” she concluded. “Everything I am, everything I’ve done is just something you imagined?”
He could not answer. As much as he wanted it to be true, she could not be real. If she was her own existence, that meant the gods had a chance to be someone. That would mean the family he left behind could have been more than just lies but lies they most certainly were.
Gods were no more than puppets. They expressed what they were expected to express within their roles. The moon being a symbol of fertility, naturally had fertility gods attributed to it and that was how he was conceived and born. He was a product of a ritual, no more. His human side was what gave him free will, nothing else, he was certain.
How else could he have justified abandoning his own mother to die? How else could he have found his mother’s killer beautiful? The moon goddess, Nana, never truly existed. She was just a deception that was unraveled by a greater lie.
She melted into shadow. He did not blame her. What he said would have been cruel if he said it to a human but if did not confront the lie, he might come to accept it. He did not see her for several days.
Their reunion came about when an inky blob fell from the sky into the area beneath the slope. Just as the Great Ones simply rose into existence, lesser aberrations like Desdomenia could be spontaneously born into reality. There was at least one Great One that spawned such things.
“I should go,” she stated spitefully, looking to her destination rather than him. “I do not have a soul to risk.”
“I apologize,” he said calmly. He noted to himself she was wearing shackles.
“No, you do not. You do not think of me as something worth apologizing to. I have no feelings to hurt.”
“I at least know I should not have said what I said,” he replied earnestly. She was not wrong yet she was not right. Even if she was fake, she had been a precious companion, he owed her more.
“I should feed before going after that thing,” she noted, ignoring what he said.
He offered her his hand. She took him by the wrist and pulled him close. Her jaw unhinged and she bit into his forearm.
He winced for a moment as she pressed down with enough force to nearly break bones. If this was her punishment to him, he accepted it. She could not hurt him with words, this was the closest she could get to repaying his disrespect. She did not drink any of the blood though, even as she gnawed on him. It was possible she was savoring his pain, her grip tightened as if readying to rip his arm from its socket.
When she was finally finished, she left behind an ugly bruise surrounded by bite marks. She still held onto him. Some heat gathered at his wrists and elbows.
“Were you always so warm?” he asked.
She let go and wiped her lips. “Maybe.”
Perhaps it had always been that way, but Alvah assumed allus had the same properties as a shadow, being neither warm or cold to the touch. He remembered her being the same temperature as the air. Did he never notice or was he imagining this new sensation?
He bandaged his arm when she departed. Three days passed and an ache settled into Alvah’s chest. Desdomenia had not returned. Their last moments together, her monstrous nature was made very clear. She should have returned if only to satiate her hunger.
The thought of her hunger in mind, he checked his hoard of glyphs. He wished what he found surprised him. The stones were drained of their magic, all of them were. She had sated herself while they were apart.
The sheer number unsettled him though. One was enough to last her a few days if she was willing to be in discomfort, she ate well in excess. Did she gorge herself so she might have strength enough to last until she found another victim? That made the most sense. She used the new aberration as an excuse to leave and get one final feeding opportunity out of him.
He guessed she could probably be as she was when they first met, able to change back forth with a thought for about half a year. She could maybe last over a year if she paced herself. One could never be sure though, especially with her.
A full moon reigned over the sky, casting everything in grey. As he returned to the temple entrance, he saw a large shape roaming the streets ahead of him.
“Des-“ he began but he stopped himself midshout. The thing was thrashing around, it could not be her.
He caught its attention. A train of tumorous growths dragged itself forward like a monstrous caterpillar. Extending from its forefront was what looked like a milky white, limbless human torso. This extension had only a swirling pattern with the occasional bubble at the surface like poorly stirred sap instead of a face or musculature.
He brought himself to the lower steps so he had the advantage of height yet had more room to retreat if he had to as he prepared for its arrival. He organized his glyphs as he noted his more effective spells.
It eventually reached him, stopping a short distance away to stand upright in the closest sense such a thing could accomplish. Predators enjoyed a chase and were not used to prey that did not run away. Its neck stretched as its faceless head came forward while the rest of its body stayed in place.
“What are you?” it hissed with no inflection.
“What do you mean?” he asked, clutching a red glyph with an image of the sun to his side.
Every word it uttered came out the same. “What are you?”
“I am human,” he answered plainly.
This earned what sounded like outrage. “Do not lie to me,” its voice became more pronounced with every syllable, gaining a feminine echo while still sounding like steam or volcanic gas hissing out of an earthen vent. “What is within your chest is neither warming light or soothing darkness. All there is, is a gaping wound. If you ever were human, you are a corpse now.”
It transformed as it spoke with him. Platinum hair grew from its head as its pattern morphed into a face and numerous tendrils erupted from where arms would be. It was the type that became more detailed the more it was observed. Such a thing unveiled more insight into the beholders than the beheld.
Inconsistency was a common characteristic to all things related to the mind. Every person had a different interpretation of the idea each aberration represented. Though that often meant subtle differences in outside appearances as their core remained unchanged.
This thing, like Desdomena, was willfully changing. It had started as a blank canvas and was coloring itself with his thoughts. Its tumors started to show outlines of faintly familiar faces. They were visages of dead, the ones that once called that city home before he returned their bodies to the earth.
He knew what face it gained from him before it even formed. Before him was the head of Nana upon an outstretched vinelike neck. Its voice was the voice of a disappointed parent.
“I came here, drawn by traces of civilization. I have already made my journey. If you cannot provide sustenance, you can at least provide amusement,” It mused.
The ends of the tendrils split apart to form hands like buds coming into bloom. They were not much larger than those of a human yet there was a countless number of them that bent incorrectly without joints to constraint their movement. The shadows they cast were of people, laughing, crying and all manner of expression, light piercing through to give a child’s caricatures of faces. The fingers secreted a white film that lingered on anything they touched. They reached out, grasping at anything as if to mark everything in the city as their own.
Seven-fingered hands flailed about. The handprints left behind confirmed the placement of five similarly lengthed fingers in the middle and a thumb on each side.
If not for the additional digits, the ivory limbs would have resembled to him those of Amirit. He remembered the hands that slew gods and took away his mother.
He said and did nothing. All it had done was threaten him. The moment he responded, it would become more aggressive.
“You are a puppet,” it declared as a group of hands twisted themselves into spirals. The makeshift spears lunged forward and he rolled out of the way before backstepping further away. In the place where he once stood were small crafters of broken crystal. It was willing and capable of hurting him. “No, even a puppet is directed by something. You are a doll-“
He interrupted it as he cast a red glyph into the air and the monstrosity combusted. There was no fireball, no stream of fire, it was set directly on fire.
It shrieked yet the flames subsided in mere moments. Was it immune to heat? No, it seemed as though the spell itself ended prematurely.
One of its many limbs backhanded him. He was flung backwards. He had no idea how far he would have been thrown if there were not steps to stop him.
It left a handprint where it struck his chest, cracking at least one rib. He struggled to catch his breath as brought himself back to his feet and turned to run up the stairwell.
He tripped and fell. He looked down to find two hands around his right leg. They twisted it around, filling the air with the crunching and scraping of bones, until it had been spun fully around at least three times.
He gritted his teeth. He could barely breathe; the pain was too intense. Bones pierced through his flesh and every nerve was on fire.
The thing’s head loomed over him. “Doll,” it addressed.
“What?” he spat as he grabbed onto the steps ahead of him to try to pull himself forward.
“Do you still insist you are human?” it inquired. “A human would have given me more. A human might have cried out. A human might have glared at me balefully. A human might have begged for mercy. A human might have rejoiced at the coming of the end.”
He remained quiet. He ceased his struggle. There was some validity in its claims.
It let go of his leg. In that moment, he reached into his satchel and used a glyph with the symbol of a green skull to heal his injury. His leg untwisted itself and bones painfully snapped back into place.
The recovery was not total but enough. He sprung back to his feet and limped for the temple. He turned back so he was facing it. “I do not fear you,” he declared, rejecting its existence as he held a white glyph between two fingers.
A lance of lightning shot forth and struck it in the chest. A large hole was left where its upper body should have been, pierced all the way through. Its decapitated head fell to and its disconnected arms went limp. The severed pieces turned into a black mist.
The remaining body spasmed and vomited out a flood of new limbs from its wound. The hands piled on top of him. They covered him near entirely. He could just barely see from between its fingers. It did not need to constrict his throat the way it did as it already blocked his nose and mouth.
He had not noticed before but the secretions upon the hands were cold. So cold that it felt warm like his was drowning in a frozen lake.
There was a wet sound as a new facsimile of Nana pulled itself out of the mass. “I know,” it belatedly replied. It slowly tightened its grip, moving to crush every bone in his body at once.
“But you are afraid of something.” It sniffed the air, assessing him. “You are scared to feel at all. You are the ultimate coward, you do not even allow yourself to fear, to rage, to celebrate. You know even the slightest emotion is heavy enough to break you.”
His vision darkened. This time, he really did surrender. There was not anything he could do. Just because it was a monster saying those words did not make its statement any less true. It had been born to make such revelations.
There was a terrible tearing sound and the thing screamed as a new shape came into view. The weight on his body grew light as the monster’s grip turned loose, ready to slip away. Something new grabbed onto his face and lifted the obstruction from his eyes.
Before him was Desdomena, starlight drifting through her hair and her face lit by the moon. The silhouette of the monster behind her was missing most of its arms, boneless flaps of false flesh flailing about like branches caught in a gale. This time its neck remained of proper proportion so it seemed to him he was witnessing his own parent’s dismembering.
His rescuer said nothing at first and as he removed himself from his phantasmal cocoon, he noticed just as she had harmed their foe, she was not unscathed. A hand was attached to her stomach, its fingers digging deeply into her like teeth. Multicolored darkness bled from her wound as vapors.
“If you value your life, run!” she tiredly ordered as she struggled to stand. She grasped onto the thing eating away at her as she tried to keep it in check.
“But you are hurt!”
“Listen to me, I said- “
Her words were cut short as the hand loudly ripped itself away, taking something vital along with it. The light faded from her eyes and she fell forward like a puppet whose strings were cut. Her chest had been hollowed out, the hole piercing all the way through to her back.
He ran to her, not noticing all the pain he should have felt. He caught her falling form and found it weightless. His legs turned weak and he fell to his knees. His heart beat rapidly. She faded into colorful darkness and that darkness left behind nothing.
A single word escaped his lips. “Why?”
Why did she save him? Why did she come back only to leave? Why would she do this?
She was never human; she might not have even been real. She was a monster but she was all he had left. He had forgotten this feeling, he thought he had become numb to this gnawing pain. His world was empty once more, leaving only silence and the cold.
He let out a howl and what happened next was as if conducted by someone else. He removed himself from everything. His movements were slow and disjointed. He plunged his hands after his glyphs.
He used an orange glyph to distract his enemy. The aberration’s body slammed against the steps as the weight of the world brought it down. In the same motion he used a blue one to wash away whatever the substance was that covered him.
He ran to the entryway of the temple. There he regained himself and looked to the city and noted the arrangement of each structure. He held a single glyph with a violet crescent moon in his outstretched hand while he held the remaining nine in a half closed fist. The glow of the gathered ones flowed into the violet glyph, its markings became speckled with their colors.
The lights blended together as cracks formed in the stone. The icon turned black then the stone violently exploded. A whirlwind erupted forth from his palm.
The tempest grew to encompass the city. The air blew through the streets in a way to generate the sounds he desired.
“This is my final message to all those beneath the sky,” he proclaimed. “I am Alvah and I am alive.”
His blood heated as his thoughts became music notes. The horrendous noise only fanned the embers within him until they became a raging fire. He did not care if he destroyed the city he worked so hard to restore, not because of indifference but because he wanted to kill the monster within it more than anything else.
The entire city vibrated, ready to shatter beneath the cacophony he summoned. This was the proof of his humanity. There was nothing orderly or consistent about it. This was his song dedicated to the one that never was.
The monster was some distance away. It crawled as its bloated lower body shrank as all that mass collected on its back and swelled into a mountainous hunch. With an inhuman scream, the growth burst. Countless now paper-thin arms erupted out and spread over the city like ribbons. They did not rest where they landed and were drawn back to the main mass like strings being spun back into a yarn ball.
Wherever they went, they left a path of color behind. Each one was as paintbrush dipped in any one of the seven bands of the rainbow. The work was all the more visible in the night it glowed with a light its own or perhaps it stole from the brilliance of distant stars as the night sky seemed less wonderous before such a sight.
If there was a pattern to the madness, the scale was too vast for Alvah to perceive. The light was reflected and refracted among the crystalline structure of the city until it had spread everywhere within its borders.
This was the beauty he might once have sought to restore. He doubted this was the vision the architects had when they constructed it but it was in its own way a masterpiece, at least to him. That thought occurred to him in the same breath that called his heart called out for oblivion. It did not matter what spectacle, the monstrosity created, it was still the thing he hated most in the world, after himself.
The shock receded and white-hot rage swelled in his chest. His head hurt as raw impulse crashed into his skull and burned behind his eyes. The anger flowed relentlessly from him like water from a spring or lava from a volcano, refusing to slip away. The world turned a deep red.
Beauty died. Light was as blood and shadows were just scabs on the edge of his vision. Even as his foe's silhouette was the only thing his anger did not blind him from, the moment of Desdomena's disappearance replayed with perfect clarity over and over as she vanished leaving behind nothing, not even her gravestone.
He waited, watching for the critical moment. When its head nearly became level with his feet, he took his knife, gripping it until the hilt threatened to break. He leapt from the steps; the winds carried him to his target.
With a scream, he plunged his weapon into the abomination’s left eye with both hands. He then unclasped his hand and hooked his free arm around its neck. He lifted the blade to stab again.
“I told you I could make you cry, Alvah,” a familiar voice teased him, inviting color back into the world.
The red was slow to fade leaving everything featureless as he searched for the voice. Only one person should know his name. “Desdomena? Where are you?” he shouted.
He felt a pair of hands clasp over the sides of his head. “Right here,” she soothed him. The world became clearer.
He left the air rushing beneath him as he fell to the ground. That meant little as before him now was Desdomena, weeping far too bright red blood from a wound in her eye. In that moment, he mirrored her as tears he did not know he had dripped from his cheeks. She made him cry. She won but it did not feel that way.
Tumorous flesh that once existed was no more, leaving only a faint outline where it once was. The slightest strands of Desdomena’s hair was still platinum and as they were retained their crimson hue.
The tempest caught them, still obeying his unspoken commands or maybe even acting on its own to save her. They floated above the steps for a moment.
Still holding onto him, she smiled knowingly just before their feet touched the ground. “You’re mine now.”
Being there surrounded by a city alight in color, he would think he was dreaming but this was real. The only matters that strayed from his ideal was the fact she had shackles on and the noise in his ears.
He felt the rumble beneath their feet. “We must stop the music,” he exclaimed. The whole place was ready to collapse.
She grabbed his wrist and shook her head. “That is your tune, let it play.” She motioned to the buildings awash in light. “And this is my pattern. I think they go well together. Don’t you think?”
He could not find anything redeeming about the sounds he played. It truly was just chaos. Maybe her design was chaos as well but there was beauty in the light.
They still journeyed to the temple all the same. She had to help him walk, his forcefully healed leg had been given time to swell. It was the only place that remained stable. There she plucked the strings of the harps, bringing some form of harmony to the chaos. With the notes she contributed, a rhythm could be found to it all.
The city twisted and contorted in a manner impossible for stone. Alvah could have been convinced the towers were replaced with massive lumps of molding clay. It started to hurt his eyes to stare for too long.
“What is happening,” he finally asked as he sat beside her.
She continued to play as she spoke, her shackles cracking. “I had seven years to study you. If I did not develop an understanding of your craft after so long, I would have to be a fool. You capture your discarded essence in stone. It only takes you a single day to create your glyphs. I am afraid it took me over two thousand to create mine. I bled you time and again. Every street is stained with your blood, sweat, and now finally tears.”
The city folded into itself. The epicenter of the compression was in front of them. The temple was no longer safe. The roof above their heads began to phase and drift away like sand and the instruments melted. Even, then the music continued somehow. The floor beneath them became as mud.
Desdomena’s shackles broke off as her arms turned to wings. Her feet transformed into talons and she grabbed him by the shoulders before he could sink into the softened ground.
From there, she carried him to where all the mass converged. He recognized the place as the garden though he could see nothing beyond somehow molten crystal.
Finally, the music reached a crescendo as what used to be the temple flowed into the evershrinking well. The light grew brighter and brighter as it grew smaller. Eventually, debris of some sort was left behind. At that point, Desdomena deemed it safe to land.
The music became quieter until all that remained was a single brilliant multicolored crystal the size of his thumb floating in the middle of a garden of rainbow quartz. The plants were forever preserved in crystal.
Desdomena took on her most common guise and brushed her fingers against the mineral leaves. “This was the only thing here worth saving,” she said, answering a question before he ever needed to ask.
Her injury lingered; a fresh scar of discolored flesh surrounded a clouded eye. Looking at it sent a stabbing pain into his chest.
She walked to the glowing crystal. It dimmed at her touched as if neutralized by her darkness. “I will now bestow upon you all that you let slip away.” She cupped it in her hands like it was precious water in a desert. “You will suffer. You will cry. You will struggle but you will live. You will hate. You will laugh but most importantly, you will have a reason to smile.”
So, this was her idea of a glyph. Everything until this point had just been the process of creation. He found himself smiling for how far beyond his imagination she took his craft.
She pressed the crystal into his chest. It hurt. His blood ran hot as rage once again crashed against his skull and despair filled his stomach. He easily remembered these sensations, the burning of anger and the numbing cold of dread.
He looked to her and the surge finally settled into something warm and gentle. This much, he had forgotten.
“You are willing to share this with me?” he asked, incredulously. This was her ultimate feast.
“It was yours all along,” she informed him.
“No, I never would have found this in a dead city,” he argued. “This comes from you.”
“It comes from me then?” She smiled as if to conceal some unspeakable menace. “So, Alvah,” She began her soft spoken words carried a dangerous edge. “Does that mean I have a soul?”
So, she had been holding a grudge.
He had never been more sure in his life as he gave her his answer after taking a single breath. He had to make sure he said it as clearly as he ever could. “Yes, you do.”
If she had no soul of her own, then she certainly had his.
He rested on an exposed root. His leg throbbed when he tried to stand. Now that things had finally settled, he could start to process what transpired that night. His refreshed capacity for emotion provided him new insight just as it tangled his thoughts.
He was devastated that his years of labor now accounted for nothing. He was relieved it was finally over. He was angry at Desdomena’s deception. He was grateful she was alive.
During that time, she explained to him how she had defeated the actual threat. She absorbed its existence and took on its form and mannerisms enough to fool him. He relived his encounter with her, admonishing himself for hints that were obvious in hindsight. Her ability to extinguish his flames suggested she was familiar with his spells and her reference to corpses resonated with a previous conversation.
He contemplated on something she said. “Do you really think I am a doll?” he asked humbly. “Or was that an act?”
“If I used the words I would have preferred to use, you would have known it was me,” she replied candidly. “But what I said was not entirely untrue. Indeed, I questioned your humanity until now. But now we both know you truly are human.”
“Thank you for being honest with me, Desmonenia.”
“You are welcome.” Her eyes settled on his bandaged arm; she pointed a finger at his concealed bruise. “And I am sorry about that.”
He rubbed his arm. Even with the deluge of sentiment poured upon him, he found no trace of resentment towards her from that act. His leg was a different matter but even that was not at the forefront of his mind after all that he witnessed. “You are forgiven,” he assured her before hold it high to grant her a promise. “And soon enough it will be forgotten.”
“By you perhaps,” she specified as she traced her scar, reviving guilt within him. “But I would rather not forget. Not one thing. Everything led to this.”
“I am sorry,” he whispered.
“No need to apologize, about that at least. You thought you were avenging me.” She paused and began to quiver. She hugged herself as if to restrain the laughter that burst out from her. “You should have seen your face. So twisted. So horrifying. I would think you were the monster. And all it took to tear your brittle stone heart to pieces was the thought I died. I would have sacrificed both eyes for such a sight. So delicious.”
He smiled. This was the person he cared about most, a wicked creature that laughed at his torment. Even if it was from a drama of her own devising, she still saved him. Even this ugly side of her seemed endearing to him.
She sat in his lap. She faced him as she rested her hands on his shoulder. He stared into her damaged eye, it was reddening as if it was a pool of water and one placed in it a drop of paint.
“This wound you caused will never mend. But I do not want you to remember the strike that delivered it when it comes to view,” she instructed him. “Remember forever the cold and cruel words you said to me when you thought I might never leave and remember what you felt when you thought I was forever gone.”
“I understand,” he obeyed.
“Good.” She kissed his brow. “Now I will be claiming what is mine.” She began to fade, turning into something fantastic like a dark rainbow littered with diamond dust.
She entered through his left eye, maybe out of vengeance for her new scar. She said he need not apologize but that did not mean it was entirely forgiven. The process was not painless. It felt similar to staring into a pyre for too long.
He blinked as their visions overlapped. Her own sight was hazy on the left side yet her uninjured side saw everything so vibrantly. He would have thought she and him were looking at two different worlds.
“This place is unsurprisingly boring,” she commented as she swam through his thoughts. Her voice echoed in his mind as if it came from himself. “It is too orderly.”
He anticipated her claiming his mind was empty. Just that night he realized how much of his world was just her. It was reassuring that he had something to offer.
He felt her revel in her victory. She sat at the forefront of his mind, gloating. He let her. Her joy was his joy, her victory was his victory.
They both laughed as they considered how letting her into his mind might have been the cure for him all along. It was not though. If she had entered earlier, her influence would have slipped away as easily as everything else did.
Just as he felt her emotions, he sensed his own slowly being leeched. Just by being there, she took in his experiences but she paced herself taking the excess he was still unable process. If she became ravenous, she might take too much. One day, she might kill him but that would be proof he lived.
He was not entirely fixed. They both knew that. The font she bathed in was still shallow. They both looked forward to seeing what came next.
With the dawn came numerous inhuman silhouettes as distorted titans approached from a great distance away. It appeared that it was more than humans that his message reached.
They came from all directions. With her superior vision, he could see Cuh’rana, the very one that first brought death to the place as a hybrid of a lion and dragon, half rotted and skinless but draped in the flesh of its victims. With it were a collection of stingers, teeth, and claws, a wasteland that moved at its own accord, a headless humanoid figure of ice with a mouth in its chest where its heart should have been, something with the traits of a sacrificial goat with three eyes, something humanoid but stretched, not angular but lacking any rounded surface as if it’s constantly twisting and curving into a spiral, among others.
He saw them as she saw them and she saw what he saw. They were less terrifying to know how the other interpreted them.
“It would be rude not to greet them if they came all this way for us,” she jested.
“I would rather not,” he replied, speaking aloud, taking her words to heart. “Not yet.”
He could not bring himself to hate the Great Ones. If not for them, he would never have been human. Still, he could tolerate them no longer. He wanted to live and if they were to interfere in that, then they were his enemies.
They left the missing city’s parameter. Their prison was finally gone. They had waited long enough. If there were other humans, they would find them for themselves.
They made a walking stick from the branches of the first tree they came across. His leg would eventually heal but they would continue to carry it with them in memory of their first steps together.