I was dead. Three grotesque tentacles had erupted from the ground, wrapped themselves around me, and dragged me down to my death. That was the only explanation – for if I wasn’t dead, then I was mad, and I much preferred extinction to insanity.
If you have been following this chronicle up to now, you know that I, Telluris, and an intelligent Agori-turned-serpent named Metus had been searching for the cause of the Dreaming Plague that had wiped out the Iron Tribe ages ago. Our investigation had not gone well, considering that we evidently wound up a meal for a monster. But the world beyond death was not at all what I expected.
I was lying on a cot in a large room. There were perhaps three dozen other cots, half of them filled with wounded or ill Agori. Now and again a water Agori would walk by, bringing food and drink to my companions. When she noticed my eyes were open, she dropped her tray and rushed over.
“Sahmad, you’re awake!” she said, smiling.
Agori do not smile at me. Sneer, yes. Curse, certainly. Even spit on occasion – but smile? Never.
Hence my belief that if I was not dead, I was in an asylum of some sort.
I tried to sit up. My body refused to cooperate.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“The healer’s chamber,” she answered. “We thought you would never awaken.”
“Let me rephrase my question,” I said. “Where am I?”
“Where?” A light dawned in her eyes. “Oh, of course you wouldn’t know. This is the city of New Atero on Bota Magna. You were found on northern Bara Magna and they took care of you as well as they could down there, until things were ready here.”
Yes, she was mad. There was no New Atero, certainly not in Bota Magna. And if they found me, they would have found my two companions, but I didn’t see either of them here.
“Telluris, Metus, they were traveling with me. Where are they?”
My deranged new friend looked uncomfortable. “We never found Telluris. Metus survived for a few months – they even used the mask to turn him back into an Agori, but it didn’t help. I’m sorry.”
“I’m surprised you bothered,” I said. “The three of us were not exactly popular with the majority of Agori.”
“That was a long time ago.”
I recognized that voice. It was a little older, a little rougher, but it belonged to Kiina, the water Glatorian. Sure enough, there she was, her armor more battle scarred and her left arm hanging useless at her side.
“Really?” I said. “I didn’t think there was a time limit on hatred.”
“A great deal changed after the fall of the Skrall,” Kiina answered. “You missed all of it. You’ve been asleep for 750 years, Sahmad.”
There was a moment then – just a moment, mind you – when I felt rattled. I mean, it could have been true. The monster might have chewed us up and spat us out. Someone might have found Metus and I and kept us alive. All Agori and Glatorian might be living as brothers and sisters in a beautiful new city, ready to welcome even survivors of the Iron Tribe into their arms.
And Thornax fruit might taste like boiled Skopio meat, and the Great Beings might be handing out gift baskets of implants, but I wasn’t ready to believe that either.
I pushed myself up off the cot, ignoring my body’s protests. The Agori handed me a stick I could use to support myself. She tried to talk me out of leaving the chamber. I told her I had places to go.
Outside, the city was as busy as a nest of dune spiders. Agori and Glatorian ran here and there, interacting with other beings, large and small. The strangers seemed more machine-like somehow. Yet at the same time, their movements were too fluent and graceful to be purely mechanical. My first thought was that they would make good slaves – I guess old habits die hard.
It all looked, sounded, and felt real, but I knew it wasn’t. If I hadn’t been sure before, Kiina’s appearance had clinched it. I don’t care how much time had passed, she would never appear at my bedside except to stab me. And 750 years was not enough to wipe out over 100 millennia of suspicion, fear, and disgust. Someone wanted me to think this was a brand new world. But in my heart, I knew it was the same old one. Worse, even. Before, there had been someone to fight. Who did you battle when the enemy was determined to stay hidden?
As I looked around at everyone laboring together for the greater good, I kept thinking, Whose dream is this? It certainly wasn’t mine. My people were dead. They couldn’t enjoy all this peace and good feeling – and if they couldn’t benefit from it, I didn’t want to either. I would just have soon seen New Atero go the way of old Atero.
I was pondering ways to make that happen when I spotted a flash of familiar armor. The metal bore the colors of latter-day Iron Tribe, post-plague. Okay, I admit it, now I was intrigued. Was this supposed to be some survivor who made his or her way to the city and found acceptance? If there was one in this fantasy, could there be more? I wondered: what if there was a grain of truth to all this? What if any Iron Tribe member who showed up in this illusion really was alive somewhere? Was that the point of all this, to point me in the direction of other survivors?
I started to run, pushing my way past Agori and their mechanical helpers. I rounded the corner and wound up in the middle of a market. Tables were piled high with armor, food, cloth, pieces of art. I spotted my quarry at the far end of the square, turning into a side street. I kept moving, knocking over display stands and provoking angry exclamations all around. Ackar, a Fire Glatorian, tried to stop me, but he was too old and too slow.
I took the corner at top speed and skidded to a halt in the soft earth. An Iron Tribe member was standing in the center of the street, aiming a Thornax launcher right at my head. But this wasn’t just any of my brethren. This was the woman I loved, who died from the dreaming plague more than one hundred thousand years ago. I started to say her name. She fired her weapon. The Thornax sped toward me. I felt an impact against my helmet, saw a flash of light, heard the dull roar of an explosion… and then I was dead. Again.
Darkness became light. I was back in the healer’s chamber. This time, there was no water Agori, no Kiina, no Agori of other tribes in cots. All I saw were Iron Agori. The attendant stopped to stare at me. The patients sat up on their beds and they all spoke at once in the same voice.
“We thought you would be stronger, Sahmad. But you are just as weak as Telluris, Metus, and all the rest. Still, we can take some comfort. Weak souls taste lovely, after all.”