There are some days when you feel like every weapon in the world is loaded and aimed at you. There are some days when you know that even your best friend, if you had one, would be pointing you out to a Skopio as a possible meal. I was having one of those kind of days. Let me explain.
I was sitting in an illusory healing tent, facing a bunch of Agori who weren’t really there, yet were all talking in the same voice – and they weren’t sending warm greetings. No, they were talking about… well, let’s just say they were good at making threats and leave it at that. Was I afraid? Sure. But just like you could take a Thornax fruit and turn it into a weapon, you can take fear and turn it into anger. Fear is a rock you can hide under. Anger is a rock you can throw at someone else.
“Are you going to show yourself?” I asked my unseen host. “Or just keep talking through your made-up Agori?”
Laughter filled the room. It sounded like crystal being shattered and then ground into dust. “You think the beings you see before you are the products of my imagination?” my captor asked. “Then look again.”
The Agori were shimmering, fading, and in their place stood Sisters of the Skrall, maybe a dozen. I began to regret my question. I knew what the Sisters could do to your brain. But there’s an old saying: “You don’t get across the Skrall River by just dipping in your toe.”
“So the Sisters work for you? Are they responsible for what happened to the Iron Agori – the dreaming plague?”
There was that laughter again. I was starting to hate that sound. “The Sisters are silly little fools,” came the answer. “They actually believe a Great Being visited power upon them. It was I that gifted them with the psionic powers they wield. I thought it would be amusing to see them destroy the males of their species. But, like you, they were too weak, and allowed themselves to be driven out. They didn’t have the will to conquer – and now they have no will at all.”
“And was that what the plague was, just another one of your experiments?” I demanded.
The mouths of every Sister opened, and the same answer came from them all. “Experiment? Oh, no. That was lunch.”
The Sisters of the Skrall dropped to the ground then, as if their legs could suddenly no longer support them. A pinpoint of light appeared near the far wall and rapidly grew larger and larger. My host was making its appearance. I was about to confront the being that wiped out my tribe.
Imagine staring directly into the sun, and the reddish streaks burned into your eyes taking the shape of things too hideous to describe. Even when you close your eyes, look away, it makes no difference: you know you’ve seen something you can never erase from your memory. Would you be fortunate to stay sane, or would that be the worst possible luck?
“I hungered,” said a voice from the center of the sphere of light. “And when I hunger, I feed. The dreams of your people were a very satisfying meal. Enough so that I did not need nourishment again for many years. Of course, once I was done, your people had no dreams left. But they, like the dreams themselves, were hardly to be missed.”
I needed a weapon. I needed something to blow out this malevolent sun that was still expanding. It filled the room with light, but no heat. Just a bone-chilling cold that made the desert night seem tropical. But I had no weapon. Anger, defiance, stubbornness, a willingness to die to avenge my people – those I had in abundance. They would have to do.
“Nice light show,” I said. “Pretty fancy for something the Great Beings made and threw away. That is what you are, isn’t it? Another one of their projects gone wrong?”
The light flared brighter. Crimson tentacles erupted from the glowing sphere. I barely avoided their grasp.
“I existed before your Great Beings were born,” said the creature. “I sensed their coming and wondered if they might pose some threat to me. I even tried to touch them with madness, but their minds were too… strange. Their minds fed on mine. They took the dreams from me and that energy inspired them to greater and greater feats of creation, and I was forced to hide in the depths of Spherus Magna.”
Hide and wait, I thought. And while waiting, it got hungry. And the Agori paid the price.
I heard noises behind me. I glanced over my shoulder to see Metus and Telluris rushing in – or was it them? Last time I had seen Metus, he was a snake. Now he was walking on two legs, like any other Agori, and there was nothing serpentine about him.
“Dreams,” said the creature, whose brightness filled the room now. “Is he a snake who dreams he is an Agori, or an Agori who dreams he is a snake?”
“Come on!” said Telluris. “We have to get out of here!”
I admit it. I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if my two allies were real or more figments of imagination. By the time I made a decision, the Sisters of the Skrall were back on their feet and heading for us. We ran then, one fellow tribe member and one Agori who shouldn’t have been able to run. We ran through tunnels that stretched for miles, ran until we saw the light from the surface shining up ahead. Telluris let out a whoop, and we forced ourselves to keep going. On the surface, in the sunlight, everything would be alright. We would leave our fears behind us in the dark and then find a way to banish their source forever. All we had to do was make it to the light.
And we did. We climbed and clawed our way back to the surface, back to the bright Spherus Magna morning. For now, we were safe.
Only… only it wasn’t morning. It was the middle of the night. And the light we had seen, the light we had run to past all endurance was not the light of the sun. It was the thing, the creature we had tried so hard to escape. It was on the surface, it was free of whatever had forced it to hide below ground for so long. And somehow I knew it was hungry.