The light around him slowly turns black, green, violet, purple, and blue.
A low rumble of thunder grumbles in the distance.
It sounds like a house falling down right near me from an earthquake.
He feels as though he’s in a huge copper kettle. It has no sides, no top or bottom. It seems vast in size.
A rainless storm surges around him.
Swords clash. Men yell. Grunt. Die.
The colors of light quicken their successive iteration and flash by him. Their motion passes by like wind moving in the treetops.
“So be it said,” he hears himself say.
A large grinding sound occurs.
He is in the middle of an explosion. The searing white light blinds him.
He hears himself singing:
“I’m but a helpless fool, lost in the
weight of this world’s burden.
Around me has been a storm of hunger,
guilt, and grief, a curtain
of isolation that has but cast a pall of
misery around this life.”
“I have sorely tried to overcome evil and,
yet, in the war and strife
against it, I have only been able to see
loss and pain and death.”
“Judge through me this filth, now, I ask
humbly with my last breath.”
He trembles in anger when the jinn laughs in a deep, guttural chuckle.
For some reason he cannot fathom, his sword is sheathed. He holds his right-hand palm outward at chest height. A wave of heat pours forth from it. It looks like vapor rising from the surface of a pond in the early morning hours of the day.
It swirls away toward what seems like a large shadowy figure in front of him.
He hears the bluster of the Valravn. The raven’s prophecy knells out its divination.
But he turns away from it.
He has a long journey ahead.
Sparks are raining down around him.
He is startled when he hears Savage’s voice in his mind.
“So be it finished.”
The blessing of sunlight fell upon him. Once again, he felt the familiar comfort in sitting back against the trunk of a copper beech tree. The duff at the base of the tree smelled like honey. A gentle breeze washed across him and swept the branches above into a rustle of movement. The deep burgundy to purple–colored leaves overhead swayed back and forth, as if swept by the rhythm of a distant music he could not quite hear.
Bird song wrapped a quilt of melodies around him, soothing his frayed nerves. Time itself paused, slept, and dreamed of being free from its own fate.
His eyes closed. His body fully relaxed. His mind became still. He felt on the edge of sleep.
A part of him knew a bird was calling in the distance.
It came closer. Louder. There was no flute–like phrase in the melody of its song. It was an interrupted, abbreviated sound. The beauty of its call was corrupted by its hunger for power.
It was hunting.
A soft trill began, “Prit–prit–prit,” and kept repeating itself.
He heard what sounded like an aggressive snapping of the bird’s jaws.
A large bird. It can’t be from a thrush.
There was a stridency to it, as if the creature giving such an utterance was impatient with its own sense of being. It was a mock signal never made by the mandibles of a bird.
Successively rapid pulses clicked and chittered away.
Sweat broke out on his forehead. Hairs on the back of his neck moved. Goosebumps sprung up on his arms. Phantom wolf spiders skittered across his shoulders. It felt as though he had just stepped through a large spider web. Silk filaments clung to his face stubbornly as he tried to wipe them away.
It was dark out. Lightning exploded around him. It struck in quick succession as he wicked away the water pouring into his eyes.
He stood in mud while rain flooded his awareness.
He saw what appeared to be the liquid outlines of a panther. It transformed quickly back and forth into an immense, engorged snake. This creature stood up on its end. Its body did not creep along the ground. The beast did not have the solidity of reality. It blotched back and forth, morphing from shape to shape.
At times, it seemed to have a snout braced with wicked-looking teeth. Moving low to the ground, it crab–walked toward him. The thing was translucent. It shifted into a shimmering pattern of silver outlines.
Fifteen feet from him, it became a lizard, greedily sniffing the air to savor Pall’s human signature. It paused. It shook its head with agitation. Slaver spilled readily out of its mouth and spooled in loops onto the mud, the spatter of it boiling and foaming away underneath the beast’s belly.
Madness attempted to seize his mind. He shook it off. Instead, anger arose, and he called it by name:
Towering over the young man, the fiend eyed him with a morbid, if not insane, gaze. To Pall’s surprise, the beast started crooning a kind of guttural chant.
“To hell I well fell before the demon king.
Into rock of the seventh circle I landed.
With a rage so beautiful, as if it were a ring
For love given me from my Lord, I then planned,
Centuries ago, to release such wrath upon ...”
Ünger stopped in the middle of his foul psalm. It looked up at the leaves of the copper beech tree. They were swaying in a counterpoint motion to the cadence just used against Pall.
The creature burbled, chirped, and spat more fluid out of its mouth.
It changed into a snake. Swaying back and forth in time with the leaves above him, it said, “Human flea and sentinel tree will not prohibit my power.”
A reddish, orange flame flickered out of its mouth, spewing forth a sickly green, condensed fire.
Saffron, crimson, and copper hues shimmered out from the tree’s leaves. Flames darted from them, lighting up everything around the tree.
Ünger glistened. Vanished. Reappeared in three solid shapes of horror.
Pall seemed frozen in place. Only his eyes moved as he watched the panther, lizard, and snake before him get ready to unleash its terror.
All three shapes swaggered closer to the young soldier in the sheer delight of their supremacy over humans.
Looking at him, they grunted out an insult that was all too familiar to him:
“Immortal you may think you be
In this false light shat by this tree.
Neither sword nor lord will deter
My Master’s will or our hunger.
You may foolishly choose to fight
Us; your splinter has not the might
To vanquish the likes of our spirit.
Your false presence has no merit.”
In his right hand, Pall felt the comforting heft of the falchion sword his father had made him.
In panther form, Ünger ejected a gush of green fire at the tree and charged Pall.
The sword in Pall’s hand became inflamed by the light it had been absorbing from the tree. The weapon burst into a shock of flame. Copper, crimson, gold, and carmine colors exploded into a consuming fire.
He flung it at the creature gloating at him in triumph.
Lizard once again, it tipped its snout back and laughed, puffed up with pride.
The eruption from Pall’s sword enveloped the beast.
It laughed again, filled with an overwhelming sense of its sovereign power over all things mortal.
From inside himself, Pall channeled more energy into the sword.
He shouted, “Ruin!”
A scream of pure anguish poured out of the creature.
The light of the Sentinel Tree burned all the way through it.
It snapped at the tree’s attack.
A circle of radiance erupted out of the center of Ünger’s belly. When it exploded, no sound was emitted.
The searing white light took Pall and flung him into darkness.
Voices sounded. A fully blown argument was raging. They rang out in echoing violence against one another as though they were being dashed violently against a deep canyon’s walls. The language being spoken was filled with various accents, phrasing, and inflections in a tone that he had never heard before. At first, he couldn’t understand what they were saying.
He realized he was hovering above a floor of seamless glass. The light reflecting from it was blinding. He dared not open his eyes.
It’s almost like looking at the sun when you wake up from a nap taken outdoors in the practice fields.
Gradually, he understood they were speaking in his own tongue, yet he had no sense of the meaning of the words he was hearing.
“The instrumentation is off the boards. I keep telling you that!”
“Whatever personal conflict you have with us is immaterial to the interference occurring throughout the whole simulacrum. It started flaring up in the trace.”
“You people, along with your teks, have failed the protocol required for the system to stay in homeostasis.”
“Here we go again. The damn system has been fine until the last several days. Its fluctuation...”
There’s been none of that; you’re covering up incompetence and a desire to sabotage my work.”
“There’s no such sentiment, Gordan, and you know it. You’ve been jealous of this lab being compartmentalized in two major sections. You’ve wanted complete oversight since the Ruling Council considered even the idea of this experiment.”
He realized he was mostly hearing two male voices, with one female voice trying to edge into the argument as well. A deep bass voice responded to the female’s contralto.
“I should be in charge. You should know better, Sahana. You theoretical, genetic physicists have no stomach for management and you don’t understand a thing about wielding power to a bunch of scientists and technicians, humans, replicants, cydroids especially.”
He began to adjust to the strength of the brightness pouring through the room. Patterns of strange-looking equipment emerged. Odd-looking tables with odd-looking shapes on them hummed and poured out a display of various colored lights, sounds, and sinuous figures that danced in the air. Strange-looking creatures moved about them. They chortled, whistled, sighed, and spoke in some form of an arcane whisper to no one in particular.
“Look, Yarrow,” a dark, brown skin man spoke, “cut to the chase here: the instruments are revealing an anomaly we’ve never seen before. This needs to be thoroughly recorded, documented, and evaluated, let alone reported upstairs to the Council’s hyperreality representatives.”
The man called Gordan Yarrow snorted.
Like a horse ready to throw its rider against a stone wall, Pall thought.
“Arya, I want the both of you to leave at once.”
“Son of perdition,” responded Sahana. She had stunning, long caramel brown hair.
Yarrow seemed distracted by her beauty. He looked at her with a decided gleam in his blue eyes. “Again, you people need to be practicing your own jobs. Stay with your TIER work and everything will be fine. I’ve full control over here and there’s nothing happening but a glitch in the power source, which is outside the walls of this facility. Blame it on the trinity star system over our homes. Or, assign the fault to a sprung terminator line on the planet. I don’t care. Just get out of my space.”
A sustained and loud snapping noise began. To Pall, it felt like it was coming from the bottom of his feet and emanating from the top of his head. It crushed his sense of buoyancy, of floating without restraint in the air, searing into him mercilessly.
The three people who stood there all turned and looked unknowingly at him.
“What now,” Arya murmured aloud.
Sparks, pink, purple, and violet, twisted into the air of the lab, spilling onto the floor and splashing against the walls, tables, and scientific equipment thickly clustered everywhere one looked. They made odd sounds, like angry bees, when they smashed into whatever they crashed upon.
The last thing he saw was that they left burn marks on the scientists’ clothes and skin.
Darkness ensued. Silence shrieked into nothing.
For what seemed like a long time, he was lost. Unhinged, without an anchor to life. He was in a space without boundaries. Gradually, he sensed a fog swirling around a flat plain. He stood there alone.
Once more, he heard those now familiar voices. Again, they were arguing with one another.
“What have you two done with your experimentation!”
“What have we done, Yarrow? You’re mad. Ambition has closed your sense of objectivity to absolute zero.”
“Look, the polarity of the background configuration here is spiking high enough to cause the whole thing to shut down!”
“That’s because you’ve overloaded the electromagnetic genetic bandwidth...”
Sounds of the feud faded away.
An odd humming began. It was as though someone was dragging a knife against a hollow metal drum.
It became lighter. While he was in a flat space, low canyon walls stretched upwards around him. Scattered atop the steep sides of the canyon stood shadowy figures. Many of them were looking at something they held in their hands. The objects looked like boxes. Others were cheering, laughing, and exchanging something with one another in their hands.
Overhead in the twilight stood a sun in full eclipse. Clouds, like a whirlpool, turned in a slow, spiraling gyre around the occluded orb.
A dark figure emerged from the far end of the canyon. As it approached him, he saw it was a human form all in black. The metal it wore was magnificently made. It fitted him like a second skin, yet it wore a skirt of iron that flowed and followed its wearer in a compact and easy fashion. It had an eerily and impossibly thin waste.
Like a wasp.
Upon its head was a helmet that was fashioned in one piece. The front jutted upward like an eagle’s beak. Iron feathers encircled one another and were placed in the back, as though the warrior were in flight.
A thin halo of light was above his head.
This fearsome being also carried eight–foot spears of flame in each hand.
The apparition stood before him. It looked squarely at Pall and struck the spears it easily held in its hands against one another.
The screeching of the blazing metal spears striking against one another seared through him like nothing else he had experienced before in combat.
It was a challenge not easily ignored.
His adversary paused and looked up to his right at a tall figure standing with arms akimbo.
“You may initiate.”
A low humming sound emanated from the combatant before him. At first, Pall couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Yet as the vibration became louder and more sustained, he saw the halo above its head expand to the width of its shoulders. Likewise, the spears changed to the color of a pure pearl.
A part of him heard sounds of encouragement and cheering above him.
The revenant turned to its left side and charged him.
Pall felt the ground beneath him tremble from the weight of its attack.
As the spears were lifted into a sweeping strike to eviscerate him, Pall suddenly moved to the right side of the warrior and underneath the upraised weapons.
While the spears started their downward movement, Pall took out his sword and sliced it all the way through the giant’s left thigh.
No blood erupted from the gash, but a sound like a bolt from a crossbow hitting a metal gong went off. It was deafening.
The darkly dressed wraith collapsed on itself. The leg crumbled apart. Its crown of light fell away as dust in the wind. The light of the spears crackled then silenced as though a hot iron was being quenched in a barrel of water.
An eerie quiet settled upon him.
The scene, inexplicably, changed. It suddenly flickered away. He was now standing in a large rectangular room. A dull glow lit it faintly. Strange‒looking men and human‒like creatures were ranged around him.
A sign on the wall successively blinked out a phrase in Greek, Chinese, Latin, and English:
Κήπος των Εσπερίδων
De hortis Hesperidum
Garden of the Hesperides
An afterimage of violet formed in his mind when he looked away from the flashing words. Rubbing his eyes to rid his sight of these strange visual impressions only seemed to make them more pronounced. Former battles in which he had fought rippled through his memory. They piled up inside him and clamored for unwanted attention. Flickering through him with gut-wrenching and vivid recollections, they singed, burned, and scorched his sense of rationality.
The furor of war these memories vomited up in his consciousness nearly overwhelmed his senses.
He turned away from the sign.
Pall saw that boxes with moving images abounded on tables and were attached to the walls. Some beings were transfixed looking at them. Unabashed greed reigned rampantly. Money was being exchanged with a bald, seven–foot–eight–inch dealer in the far corner of the room.
Next to him, gathered in a loose circle, were viewers watching two five–dimensional holograms alongside one another. One was of John Savage, while the other was of Evangel. Numbers and abstract symbols scrolled alongside, underneath, and above their bodies.
“Quite the sight, eh?” murmured a voice in his right ear.
Pall turned to see who it was, but no one was there.
“Not used to translocal speech either, hey?” said another just above his head.
The young man looked up but did not expect to see anyone.
From the wash of hologram light, he saw the dealer approach him. Everyone in the tall man’s path moved quickly out of the way. Those who had knees bent them slightly in deference to him.
Pall could tell the man was in rugged physical condition. A brawler, he thought, then added, a killer as well.