Beyond our existance
“What you call ‘life’ is irrelevant, youngling,” Lysvita’s mother, Arcaell, had told her once, a look of amusement on her face.
“Irrelevant?” The very notion had infuriated her. She was still but a child in the terms of her people, the immortal Angelos, and their sense of superiority and supremacy had bothered them. She’d always found her kin to care nothing for the lives of anyone without wings. And here was her own mother confirming her suspicions. “You can’t be… Are you really saying that all the humans of this world, their hopes, their dreams, they don’t matter?”
“In the grand scheme of things, no, they do not.” Her mother gave her a patronizing smile. As if she were talking to a simpleton. “Child, this world is but an insignificant part of a cosmos beyond mortal comprehension. The peasants who toil to maintain our great city lie to themselves and insist that their struggles have meaning, and you, being a child, believe the lies as well. You do not understand; nor can you, until you’ve had your first Reaping.”
They had argued for a while after that, Lysvita’s growing outrage contrasting with her mother’s serene and condescending tranquility. Finally, she had stormed out of their manse, and calmed her mind by doing what she found gave her life purpose, being the guardian of humanity. She healed the masses and assured them their existence was valued by the Council of the Elders, the ruling body of the most powerful Angelos, on which both her parents held seats. And yet all the while that same conversation remained stuck in the back of her mind. Her own mother had confirmed her worst fears: The Angelos cared nothing for their subjects, or indeed anything beyond their golden walls and golden spires. Her association with, to the other Angelos, were equal to animals isolated her more and more. They saw her hobbies as a youthful fancy, the harmless folly of the youngest of their race. “In time she will learn,” they said. “She will understand when she has Reaped.”
And she did. She truly did.
One moment she had been in Galenave, contemplating on the ruinous misfortune that had been sweeping her lands. Two consecutive years of crop failures had left her people starving, and the rest of the Empire was indifferent to their plight. It was not a natural disease, the exarch knew: logic said that crop diseases did not stop at political borders, and her instincts as the last of the winged born screamed the presence of foul magic. Then the next instant she was gone. She was now everywhere, and yet nowhere. She flew, but her wings did not beat, nor did she feel the rush of air hammering at her. She saw everything, and yet could not make out anything. The entirety of Ethica seemed at the same time to be both tiny and yet hopelessly far away.
She knew, however, that this was a Reaping. It happened at different times for the first time to all Angelos, some after a hundred years, some after ten thousand, but for her it had not occurred until then. She’d heard about it, been taught about it, by the elders in Old Galenave. But even beside that, she knew on an instinctual, inner level. This was the reason for her existence, whispered a voice in her head, and she could not argue. It was not even a suggestion: It was reality.
Part of her struggled against it. I must return to my people. Galenave needs me.
That is not Galenave. It is a pebble compared to the glory that was Galenave. And they will never be your people.
They are starving. My people are killing each other. If I don’t return, they will die.
Their lives are irrelevant, her mother had said. She imagined her father was beside her, his giant black wings wrapping around both of them. He grasped her shoulder and pointed forward. “Look. But more importantly, see. See, and you will understand.” His voice was same soft rasp it had been when he lived. She looked. She saw. She understood. She understood her people now.
The world stretched below her. She could sea everything from the shores of Sheol to the savage lands of the west, and beyond even, to queer lands where even the trees seemed alien. And this vast world was not empty. Everywhere she looked, she saw dancing lights, stretching like comets as they floated aimlessly. One wandered the bottom of the eastern ocean, kilometers below the surface. She reached out and touched it, the act defying all conventional logic and senses, but which at that moment seemed as easy as touching your own face. She grasped the spirit, and felt her senses be momentarily overwhelmed as a surge of emotions flooded over her. Horror, fear, despair. Even… anger? She felt salt water fill her lungs, felt herself sink to the depths, thought the same curses at the wretch of a captain that a sailor from Doma had once thought. And then it was all gone, as was the light. The spirit flowed through her for a moment. She felt its gratitude. And then it was gone, sent away her unconscious. She had reaped a soul, sending it on its way beyond their world.
“Nothing on this world matters,” her father murmed. “It is but the first step on a journey beyond years. For them, death is a kindness, and life a cruelty.”
She had heard it all before. She shook her head. Perhaps she understood; that did not mean she agreed. “Their suffering is real, as are their wills. They are like blind kittens. They must be guided.”
“It is not your place,” her father whispered. “You do not exist to lead them, nor to protect them. Your place is to reap them.”
Closing her eyes, she felt grief fill her. Grief for her father, grief for her mother. Grief for Galenave, the most beautiful city in the world. Grief for her people. “You’re not real, are you? You’re not spirits.”
“No,” her mother said sadly, there again in front of her. “We do not ascend, as mortals do. When we leave our coils, we vanish into nothingness. Their ignorance is a tragedy: they curse their mortality and envy our lack of it, but it is us who are cursed. We remain in this insignificant world, to serve humanity.”
“We are but memories, child,” her father said. “And we ask you to look.”
“To see,” said her mother.
“To understand,” a voice around her boomed, coming from everywhere and yet nowhere.
She looked up. And she gasped.
The sky above was blotted out by a massive vortex that stretched beyond even her gaze. At its heart there was blackness, unfathomably vast blackness, with tentacles that writhed in the air. The only feature it had that could be made out was an eye of unimaginable proportions, its unblinking gaze scanning across the world in instants. It was terror incarnate, an incorporeal nightmare that drove fear even in her heart. She knew it could not see her, but only because to such a thing she was insignificant. It paid paid her no more mind than a king paid a pebble of sand. And the souls…
The souls were floating up to it.
Most resisted its lure, she saw, too attached or distant to be overpowered, but all of them felt the tug of the thing’s attraction. Those lights that reached it, further high than the mountains and further high than the sky, disappeared into its form, absorbed by the nightmare. It was a thing beyond even her existence. And slowly but surely, it was devouring the souls of the dead.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Meanwhile, on Sheol...
Three tired, dirty, and frustrated hooded figures tore apart a small cellar in a forgotten corner of a forgotten ruin on a forgotten island. The two large men, Ganthred and Pirth, tore the room apart, while the aged woman, Nith, paced frantically. "There's got a be somethin' here," she muttered loudly.
"There's nothin'!" Ganthred snarled. She shot him a vicious look. He was angry, she got that. They were all angry. The four of them had pissed away what little coin they had to get to this god forsaken corner of the Empire, a small ruined tower on a rocky peninsula the kind of which Sheol had in abundance. The tower was supposed to have been built by Old Farron, a big sorcerer in olden times. Folks said he had amassed a massive trove of treasure which he had accumulated serving the blood suckers of this mother damned island, and which he had hidden away when he had died of old age.
Thing was, it seemed old Farron had hid his treasure trove too well, the motherless bastard. And the traps! Oh, the decrepit turd had certainly been a magician, alright. Poor Mathos had melted in front of their eyes- just melted. They'd been extra careful after that, but she made a note to herself to arrange for a curse on good old Farron when they went back to Ardaza. Anyway, they had wasted all their money and had a friend die, and they had barely found two metal coins to justify all of it. Damn right they were cranky. Still, she wasn't going to take their crap; with Mathos dead, she was the closest thing they had to a leader, and tough luck to that.
Ganthred rammed into an empty barrel, which crashed onto the floor, the old decayed wood splintering on impact like butter. "What kind of sick fuck was this old wizard? All those damn traps to protect nothing at all!?"
"Hold your idiot tongue for one minute, Ganthred," Nith shot out. She had stopped at a curious alcove in the wall, and was examining some runes etched into its sides. She couldn't make out the words - she was as illiterate as a fish, and proud of it, and besides she had a feeling even a book reader wouldn't be able to make out these words. They seemed to shift as she stared at them.
She had lived fishing the seas and selling her catch in the docks of Ardaza all her life. Both could kill you in a second if you were stupid or unlucky. She had survived to her fourties by being tough as nails and the meanest bitch around besides, but also by knowing when to act on her gut. So that's what she did: she acted on her gut, and started brushing the runes.
"The hell are you doing, you old hag?" Pirth asked.
"Shut up and give me your knife," she snapped.
Brushing the runes with her hands hadn't done much, but as she chipped away at the old stone with Pirth's generously donated knife, she became more and more certain that she had made the right call. She was rewarded when, after defacing yet another letter, the runes all vanished. Just vanished. All that was left of them was a long groove where the writing had been. And the alcove... Ah, there was a handly on it now.
"Magic," Pirth said, wide eyed. "We shouldn't be messin' around with magic, Nith. Magic never ends well for anyone, everyone says so."
"We're already knee deep in magic, salt for brains. Mathos got liquified, remember? Might as well keep on going. Ganthred, get over here and pull this handle, I got a feeling there's a hidden path here."
The big man shuffled over and obliged. He gave the handle a hard tug, and the stone wall flung open, nearly making him fall down in the process. "What the hell?" he asked as he got back to his feet.
"Magic," Pirth cursed again.
She shut them up with a glare and went into the next chamber, waving her torch in front of her warily. The next room was small, as pitch black the other rooms they had visited... and cold. Gods, it was cold as winter! The sudden shock made her shiver involuntarily. "Should've brought coats," she pointed out, laughing.
"Wait, there's something," Ganthred said, pointing towards what seemed to be an altar in the center of the small round chamber.
"What do we have here, I wonder?" Nith walked towards it. When the light shone on the object rested on the pedestal, she had a sudden intake of breath.
"What the shit?" she heard Pirth whine behind her.
"Is that an... an egg?" Ganthred's voice seemed strangely muffled, though she couldn't tell if it were in awe or just the small room playing tricks on her deaf ears.
"That's... that's gotta be a dragon egg," she gasped finally after a moment's stunned silence. "Look at it! Look at the size of the thing!" The egg was as big as a dog, its smooth flawless surface reflecting the torch's light as if it were made of some kind of gemstone. "This is gotta be worth a fortune! We'll be rich!"
"I'll carry it," Pirth said quickly, and rushed forward. He picked up the egg, clearly struggling. "Damn this thing's heavy? How much do 'em dragon eggs weigh? It's not even funny."
Ganthred moved next to him, a strange look on his dumb face. "Give that here, Pirth. I can carry it."
Pirth laughed and gave his companion a condescending look. "Fat chance of that. You're a moron, Ganthred. I'm not givin' this to you just so you can drop and break the thing."
"Shut up, I'm stronger than you! I'll carry it!" In a flash, they were tussling, and Ganthred had tossed Pirth to the ground. The egg fell right to the floor with a loud crack, but it didn't look like it was even dented, lucky that. She was going to tell both of them off when she wondered why they weren't even looking at where the egg fell. Then she saw: Between them, a slew of small coins of all kinds of metals were strewn over the floor. They'd fallen out of Pirth's pockets as he had fallen.
Ganthred's face went from confusion to pure rage. "You cheating piece of shit! I'll kill you!"
"Bring it on, ox!" Pirth whiped out his dagger in an instant and charged Ganthred, embedding it into his stomach. Nith pulled out her own knife and jumped in. At the end of the fight, Ganthred was on the floor bleeding out slowly, Pirth was choking on his own blood after she'd slit his neck open, and she was picking up the egg, not even looking at her friends or the coins. "Little help here?" she heard Ganthred call out weakly. "That rat got me good."
She looked at him, as if she didn't even know him. "Yeah, I'd say you're pretty gotten. Tough luck, buddy." She hoisted up the egg; Pirth had been right, the thing weighed more you'd expect, even considering its size. Still, she managed to get in into a sack, and started dragging it away.
Ganthred looked at her go dumbfoundedly. "You're serious? You're just gonna... let me die here? Like a damn animal?"
She laughed as she disappeared from his sight. "You forgot, fish for brains, I'm a bitch, remember? If you somehow manage to not bleed to death, there's probably enough coins there for you to rent a room in some shithouse for a few weeks. I have a meeting with riches. Best of luck!" As she left, her cackling died down, and by the time she had dragged the thing to their dinghy she had realized that she didn't actually know where to sell the thing.
Ardaza was the obvious option, but big Manuel had his fingers in every pie, and his thugs would probably just take the egg from her if she popped up with it. Thultar was too orderly. She didn't even know if the city HAD a black market, and she certainly wasn't gonna put any bets on it. It would be Doma, she decided. A big city, far enough away from this hellhole that nobody would guess what she had, and far away from the families of her former traveling companions, who might ask pointed questions on why she was coming back alone. Plus, she'd been there before, and she knew a few scoundrels who'd probably give up their left testicle to get her egg. That was that, then: Doma it was!
As she started rowing away, watching the collapsed stone tower recede into the distance, she couldn't help but admire her egg. Her dragon egg. She smiled.