Whisper had not formed an eye in days. Her front half had fused into a domed shell, a blast shield to weather the incessant pummelling of wind in her face as she flew. To lock her in with the warmth and the song.
Aihtiraq's wish had still not left her and Whisper came to accept it would follow her to the grave. That was alright. She could make peace with that much. She just wished she knew whether or not it would stay with her beyond that.
For now, there was just the hymnful duet of the wind and the grey skies, and the chopping of the darkness below...
Slow, painful, and relentless, the Big Sister's journey took her south.
She was a blip on the horizon, a speck of dying colour in a world of grey. The falling star was ash now, and only cinders kept it alight.
She did not stop for the rising storm that blew from ahead. The waves swelled, became hills, then mountains around her. The ocean was no longer far below- It was everywhere. Towers of white-marred abyss rose on either side of her, crashed and disappeared, columns in the great hallway of a single moment.
Whisper didn't even look up. But she stopped.
At last the wind howled its fiercest, and the waters of the Fractal Sea rose up in an apocalyptic wall before her, a shadow that stretched from the grave to the clouds, and made her as a single snowflake before the darkness of the sun. All the ocean bore down on her, and it fell away. And white spray consumed her view.
CHILD, MY CHILD, said a voice from the mist, lit by a ray of sun. WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU?
Many things, thought Whisper. Too much. But she did not answer.
A sigh swept through the world of white, and with its sound the mist was breathed away, leaving pure sunlight on a smooth sea. Before her stood the figure of a man cross-legged, bald with age and fat with health; A long, thin beard trailed from beneath his lidded eyes. He was made of clearest water, through and through.
"My name is Tsunami," said the Spirit of the Fractal Sea. "Yours, I believe, is Diaphane."
The alien body cracked and refolded into the stance of the Fourfold Fish- A bladed wedge for a head, and arms with too many joints, hanging slack to the ground with weariness. It was the shape with which she had slain Feldspar.
The Djinni sighed again, and there was a dip in his choir of disciples, a slow beat in Whisper's song. "You've come so far, my child," said Tsunami, extending a hand as if to offer her a perch. "Was it all for this?"
"I'm not your child."
Tsunami nodded, and straightened. "Very well. Yet I think you and I are closer than you know. We have both been wronged by she who shaped us. She who lies beyond this sea."
One of Whisper's spindly claws rose and shook itself, bending every which way before refolding. She was tired. She could still fight. "What would you know of Jvan?"
Tsunami frowned, and gazed off into the horizon below. He looked back. "My apologies. Age slows me, and my earliest memories of the Grey Plateau are ancient indeed."
"In recent years, of course, the concord of these waters have been challenged. When the Grand Monsoon came to me and bid me hunt down those fae monks that dwelt in my domain, I listened, and agreed, such as it was in my power; Yet little did that weigh, for not often are Sculptors seen in these outer depths, and the Jvanic Peninsula is not part of my territory... Though they may have presumed otherwise."
Whisper listened, for it was in her nature to do so.
"Then... Certain cataclysms struck, which nearly slew me. Water burned, the sky was made into fire, and I saw... Terrible things..." Tsunami closed his eyes and breathed. A being of such power, yet not without fear. "When I recovered, I found Her body encased in charcoal, and greatly reduced. I thought perhaps my time as lesser custodian was to change, but I was wrong."
"They told me to destroy the Jvanic, and I tried, when the towers first grew. But the Lost Tooth spoke to me, with arcane weapons at his side. And I saw that, perverted or no, his cause was just. So I let the towers stand, and still they stand today. The other Djinni have not found them."
A nauseous memory surfaced, and Whisper found herself quoting the Emaciator, its sharp rasp as fresh as ever. 'Ring of abyssal bioconstructs around site of violence...' It wasn't lying.
"At last there came the accord of the Brine and Beck, and I saw the Archduke Salis crowned. And I cast my lot with him, for he was a Sealord as great as any, and my place has never been any but the most patient, the most passive..." Tsunami closed his eyes and inclined his head towards the East. After a while he rose again and faced her.
"The reason I tell you all this, Diaphane Whisper, is because change has come to these waters, and though my heart is troubled, I cannot intuit whether that change will be lasting. Jvan is not dead. She will return. Will then my role here be renewed by that strange land yonder? Or am I to pass away and renew another, as okiami flourish before the long winter's night?"
Whisper looked, and saw the orange flash of krill dancing below her, only to vanish into the darkness of some great maw.
"I do have a role here, Diaphane. This sea has long been known to produce... Many things, of curious persuasion. Even djinni, which rarely last long among their fellows... Though of course, I myself am surely touched with a drop of weird..." Tsunami raised a hand, and examined closely the play of light through clear water.
"Jvan did not often speak to me. She simply destroyed my every predecessor until at last I emerged, one content to function in such way that fits her. Thus my duty is clear: I am to administrate the fractal seas beyond her peninsula, and hold the borders of the Cardioid, that they might not be invaded by another lord. One that she would have to evict."
"For she imposes her own Order on her territory, and would not tolerate its interruption. So I live, and I watch, and I guide the tides through neap and spring, as is my way... And there is peace. No one dies."
Something wrenched inside Whisper. He doesn't know.
Tsunami's colourless eyes followed Whisper, as if her thoughts were spoken directly to him. "But you, Diaphane, have a role of your own." It was a question.
"To create something that resolves the deadlock," whispered Whisper, "between..." She gestured to herself, then to Tsunami. He frowned.
"You would cut through the knot," he repeated. "Yet who hangs upon it? Who would you let fall, Diaphane?"
She was silent.
"I know of your Sisterhood, Diaphane Whisper. When your... Mother, I believe, was born, I watched her pass through my waters and grow. When ships were sunk on the Bejewelled Ocean, my distant sons passed on the word. When news spread on the monsoon rain, I listened as I gave it my blessing." Tsunami frowned.
"It is not enough that you hope for change, Diaphane. I regret it, but... your existence is suffering to my people." The sun seemed to catch and condense in Tsunami's eyes. "What will you sacrifice for the resolution you seek? Are you willing to give up your sisters, for the sake of your prey?"
"No," she said immediately. "Never."
Tsunami exhaled, and closed his eyes. His presence brought peace. Whisper hadn't noticed it, but it was true. The water song attested to it.
Whisper clenched herself like a fist until darkness bled from her surface, unfettered by her mortal body. Power flowed into the wind like smoke down a river and she stood against the Sealord as a snowflake before Hell, radiating unspeakable defiance with nothing more than her existence.
The Whisper became a Roar that would sunder the hearts of men.
Shadow loomed over her, crushing the horizon. Diaphane Whisper shot into it and passed through it and it exploded into lightless white.
Twin towers of ocean formed on either side of her and left a bottomless chasm below, sucking down air with the speed of its fall. A long tail flowed from Whisper into the abyss but did not lose its source, and when the walls collided with a clap that quaked the distant earth, they were decapitated by a hurricane of eldritch teeth and foam once more bloomed upon the seas.
Whisper inverted and penetrated the ocean.
Weight. Pressure. The planet smashed her and she cracked it, kicked great fans of sub-surface steam into it, each blow a shock of explosive force. Whisper danced alone against the unseen rage, and every move tore self-crushing whiteness into the blind arena.
But she tired.
The ocean was endless and so was its Lord. Around her was all water and only water, and she could not find a place to place her blows that was any but another face of the storm.
Foam exploded upon the surface of the waters as Whisper drew breath, leaving a vast crater of falling brine upon the face of the sea- Only for it to close, and reveal to her the landscape beyond.
Mountains. Where her burst had leveled a mile around, the waves beyond climbed above and around, their marching away into forever.
The Jvanic inkblot struck through Whisper's heart sustained her and kept her. She made herself into a tail and spiraled, demolishing one of the almighty waves with a blow of her body, reducing it to foam and fog on the wind.
Enough of this, said the colour become the stain. I depart.
The Big Sister blossomed into blades and scythed into the sky. The ocean chased her as she rose, storm waves consuming one another to dwarf her as planets dwarf their dust. On all sides, water. Five hundred metres into the sky- Water.
Whisper incinerated the shadows in her blood and felt the air shatter over her like a struck wall, leaving a burst of sound in her wake.
At last she saw the horizon. She saw the edge of the storm, far away. They were lost to the black of clouds.
Lightning snapped around her, arcs of power striking through her. They burned her and she ate their glow. Electricity seared her into a daze and she slowed, but she kept on.
She left their energy behind and saw only darkness ahead.
It was the darkness of water.
Tsunami's sons collided with Whisper and died, blown apart by the force of impact. Still they came, clinging at her, and the flow of Jvan within her was not strong enough to pull away when she had drained so much of it for acceleration.
The great Ocean was waiting, and it caught her in her palm.
Whisper blasted spokes of mist out from the pillar of water and fought, even as it dragged her tired body down.
I will not die like this!
Chaos reigned and all was storm and Toun's glyph shuffled in the dark.
I WILL NOT DIE LIKE THIS!
Whisper lashed out against the waters as those slender scarlet lines slipped off her body and onto the foam she created-
I WILL SUFFER NO LONGER!
-and from its whiteness was drawn the shape of a blade.
A red glow ignited in the storm-night, barely luminous. It was enough. The tip of Whisper's arm hooked into the ring at the base of the weapon, and as she swung it around her, its unmistakable rune imprinted itself on her mind: Wit's End.
The sword carved into Tsunami's flesh and this time the wounds did not close.
Subtle crimson trails followed Wit's End as it moved, searing Whisper, searing the water. Whisper kicked out at Tsunami, kicked herself out of the water, made a long tail of herself and flicked the sword at his next wave like the tip of a whip; And though the wave still broke, and Whisper still had to blast through it, the Sealord weakened.
The omnipresence that had been Tsunami's strength had now become his weakness. Whisper wrapped herself around the sword as it corroded away layers of her flesh, held it as one drowning who reaches even for a bar of hot iron.
She used it like a sting. Every wall of ocean that Tsunami could conjure she slammed into first with her blade and then with the strength of her body, and she could feel herself slowly clawing back over the edge as her stain healed her. Soon the agony of holding Wit's End surpassed that of Tsunami's bone-shattering pressure, and even then she did not let go.
And she did not let go.
And she did not let go...
* * *
Sunlight glittered over the surface of the Fractal Sea. The last stormcloud was gone. Tsunami was gone. A great cloud of white rose from around Whisper, and a milky ocean bubbled beneath her. She didn't know if the Sealord had survived or not, but she had boiled him alive.
She didn't know where she was any more, or how long it had been. All she knew was the pain of holding on to Wit's End, this curved, spoked shape at the end of a many-thorned ring. Whisper gazed at the bizarre sword, this gift of survival bought at the cost of all she had traveled for, and groaned.
She could not let it go. She had been through too much to even try. But she had to ease the pain. Wit's End was taking from her because she had not chosen anything to give.
But she had given. She'd given a thousand songs and a thousand poems, now lost to plans that could not come to fruition.
"May the one who takes up this sword," swore Diaphane Whisper, "forsake its use, and all other arts of combat, until words fail them."
The burning ceased. Whisper cried out. Wit's End silently folded, revealing its strange rib-like spokes and subtly luminous scarlet cords to be a mechanism. Its hollows closed, its thorns retracted, its light disappeared, and the blade smoothly fell into shape. It was small, now, even and pale, its gaps sealed like chinks in a hain's armour. It might fit a human hand, albeit a large one. And it was still a sword. A ceramic shadow of its true self, but a weapon nonetheless.
It had a rune on each side: One the name of the device, one the oath now required to take it. Not to use it, for that was easy enough, but simply to heft its weight.
Whisper tried to breathe. She barely could.
In the distance, over the calm sea, she could just make out the shape of Jvan rising beneath the waves. She was within reach.
But now, at the end of her journey, Whisper realised she had nothing more to say.
The falling star returned to Lex, extinguished yet still breathing.
A fine mist of particles pattered on Whisper's skin. Unfiltered sunlight took on a pink tint as it blazed through the ring's thin and living atmosphere. The familiar smell of gaian plankton fell into place around Whisper's body.
There were new beings here, she saw. Things of living corrosion, forged of meteors and burning like stars. Clouds of life swam around them, tiny imagen trailing symbiotic nocti, feasting on their excess light as they sat still.
Our stellar remnant returns, said one, in a radiation tongue utterly foreign to that of the Sorority. Yet where is the core that brightened its dust?
As she drew closer, Whisper saw that the being had a human face, wrought from bands of pitted metal. But the resemblance was lost thereafter. Its body was too large, too warped, as if its artisan had gone mad in the crafting. This was Jvanic territory; Here, beauty multiplied.
The being let her pass. It seemed to be meditating. Whisper saw others as she went. All bore a similar whirled style of metalworking, all bore marks of the human semblance they once held. All were far too large, twisted into bizarre yet perfectly symmetrical clumps and discs and towers. And all had been deeply worn and rusted.
Melody, thought Whisper. Melody, my niece.
The inklet drew near, near enough for the Big Sister to wonder at how much she'd grown. "Whisper, why are you so... Dim?"
She made a 'no' motion and flew on. But others came.
"She's so dark..."
"What happened to her?"
"Why is she carrying that... Shell?"
"I wonder where she's been."
"I wonder what she's tasted!"
"...Does she know?"
The shoal quietened. The last voice was Dust, Whisper's grandchild.
Slowly the voices resumed, and more joined them. The shoal swelled. A hundred brilliant dyes, and one drop of sepia.
Another shoal was approaching. At its head was a Sister as big as Whisper.
"Stellar," said Whisper finally. They embraced. The prodigal sister was home. "Stellar," said Whisper again. "Where's Wander?"
Whisper held her so close she could have crushed her.
Whisper dissolved through her and cradled herself, holding her own head, gripping as if to tear. Stellar tried to peel away her claws, but she was too strong. All Stellar could do was hold her.
Whisper crushed herself into a ball of knives and teeth, and for a long time knew no more.