We’ve traveled. It’s dryer, here, and my body isn’t quite sure what to make of it. It seems to have decided to complain, so my sinuses are actually worse than at home (though that could easily be the result of the travel itself, and having to interact at close quarters with the filthy mass of humanity: always my favorite) and I’ve spent many an odd moment irrigating them. While creation at large seems to be irritating them. Which in turn vexes me. It’s an uncomfortable, and often unpleasant cycle. But that’s not why you’re here!
Neither is an update on the Wee Horde, really, but you’re going to get that, too. Wee and Wee-er Dave have gleefully joined forces with the more easterly contingent of the Horde, and have spent their time engaging in shenanigans and hijinks. Everyone seems thrilled, despite the occasional friction. The Eastern Horde are off terrorizing the family we don’t share, today, and Mrs. Dave has given me leave to do a runner in order to provide fiction for y’all. She understands obligations and duty, does Mrs. Dave. Only one of the many reasons I chased her until she caught me.
Speaking of duty! It seems the hero of our story has been given one, though he does not yet understand the full scope of it. More pressing, however, than his greater conflicts with Perseus and the forces the Theban prince commands, Dare must somehow extricate himself from his prison within a prison.
I confess it took me far longer than it probably should to figure my way out of the pocket in the stone under Tartarus. I can blame many things. My frankly addled state caused any number of issues. I’d been taken apart, put back together, shown something that I was fairly certain was a history far, far older than the entirety of recorded human history. On top of that, I had powers no human had possessed in millennia. I could make light out of nothing, weave matter into a garment of high sophistication, and hallucinate visions of dead friends. I was pretty sure the last wasn’t entirely me, but it had me pretty rattled.
Worst of all, I was hungry. Not just a little hungry, either: what had been a niggling itch had turned into a grinding ache in my middle. In the hours I’d spent awake after my encounter with the AI, which I’d decided to call Prometheus, further evidence of how my time among Thebans had affected my thinking. He’d given me a kind of fire to light the darkness. For that alone I’d have been grateful to him. Perhaps perversely, I thought the obligation he’d saddled me with might balance it, but my mind shied away from such thoughts. From any thoughts related to the mind-shattering experience I’d endured.
Which was almost certainly why it took me so much longer to figure out my escape than it should have. Done and past done with pacing, I’d lay down on the stone floor some time earlier. It wasn’t comfortable, but my feet had begun to hurt. I missed my prison boots. They’d been made for mining, and even though being pedestrian and below the quality what I’d come to enjoy in the Guard and as a Theban peer, they’d been better than bare skin on hard, gritty stone.
I idly wondered if Prometheus had disassembled them and used their component parts in whatever he’d done to me. Despite the gnawing pain in my middle, I pulled one hand from between my head and the stone and held it up in front of me. My glowing sigil hung in the air a meter above my prone form, taking its position from my navel, apparently. That was the lowest I’d managed to get it to go. Of course, lying on the floor was the lowest I could go.
I tried once more to get the sigil to move by sheer force of will. And once more, though I could feel an odd sort of mental pressure build, nothing came of it. I sighed, and wondered if I should pull out the virtual book the ghost of Massick had given me. That I could manifest at will. I could do almost nothing with it, but I could pop it out of nothing and back again as much as I wanted to.
Learn, my dead friend had told me. Instructed, really. The real Massick had been like that, too, always pushing. I missed him, and Jhadee. And having my own ship. And freedom, dammit, even if it was the freedom to starve. A Theban noble had great privileges, but also great responsibilities. None more than Andi, though Pers always seemed to just do what he wanted. I’d been trying to winkle out the whys and wherefores of that when things went sideways, and I’d woken up on Tartarus.
My mind drifted, and I let it. I pulled the book out, and flipped through a few pages. I knew it was a book, more accurately called a codex for some ancient reason, as I’d seen several in museums in my travels. Most of those were ancient, and only illuminated via a complex arrangement of cameras and wavelength converters in order to prevent the ancient material from further degradation.
The first page was a paragraph in what I presumed was the language I’d spoken upon waking up naked in this hole. The symbols were strange, like nothing I’d ever seen before. I flipped a finger, and the page turned. Down one side of the exposed page marched the alien characters. To each side were the equivalent Standard alphabetics. A muscle to the side of my right eye immediately started twitching. If I had a way to pull that one page out, I could at least make a halting start to translating some of the words in the rest of the book, for all that I didn’t seem to have a dictionary. Which I thought was a serious oversight on Prometheus’ part. Or on not-Massick’s part. I wasn’t sure who was running things, really, at this point. It certainly didn’t seem to be me.
Frustration swirled with a jagged feeling of impotence and flashed over into furious energy. I found myself on my feet, pacing and swearing. What did Prometheus expect me to do at the bottom of a hole in the ground of an alien planet? The poor, dead thing had said he was made insane by his long, lonely existence, but I suspected he’d also been more than a bit senile by the end. Or whatever the artificial equivalent was. Simple pictures would have made this ever so much easier!
Book and sigil kept pace, and I found myself swearing at them, too. The singing lessons Mother had foisted upon me came in handy, despite my raging thirst. There’s a rhythm to a good tirade. You can’t just string obscenities together. You have to pepper a thread of insults with them, calling into question the likely parentage of the insultee, their personal habits, hygiene, sexual proclivities, and likely future prospects. Throughout, you should vary pitch and timbre, increasing and decreasing volume to emphasize the more noxious points.
Done right, you can reduce a target to tears or frothing rage. That my only targets were both inanimate (so far as I could tell) made for a wasted fury. Still, at the end of it, chest heaving and panting, I felt enormously better. My head felt clearer, and if hunger and thirst ground away at me, I was at least relaxed.
The book bobbed in midair, and I swiped at it. Once again, my hand passed through it without encountering any resistance. Like the vision of Massick, it seemed to be something only I could see. Unlike the sigil, which felt a little like a live, low-current contact when I passed through it.
Narrowing my eyes at the thought, I racked my brain for the word I’d spoken to bring it into being. I immediately hit myself in the forehead with the heel of my hand. I hadn’t spoken, at all. On a supposition, I thrust my finger out, and traced over the lines of the sigil.
Immediately, a second burst into incandescent existence. I felt a wave of fatigue crash over me as the second sigil floated up to a spot parallel to the first, but on my left instead of my right.
“Voidspawn,” I swore. Now I was more tired than before, and while I had something to show for it, the pressure of time weighed even more heavily.
“Well, if that didn’t work quite the way you expected, Dare, what about this?” I stretched out a finger that trembled slightly, and hesitantly reversed the symbol. Immediately, the new one disappeared. Curious, I did the same, again, and the first sigil, the companion of many hours likewise disappeared. Leaving me in near total darkness. Near total, for the book still stood out in my field of vision, though the rest of my tiny universe was shrouded from sight.
Something about the book floating in apparent nothingness sparked a memory. In the dreamscape through which I’d drifted after Prometheus dismantled and rebuilt me, I’d seen something very similar. A book had hung in midair, and I’d done … something and then reached through a hole in space and retrieved a cold glass of liquid. The thought of something to drink galvanized me, and I flipped back to the alphabet page. I stared hard at it, trying to commit as much to memory as I could in a few seconds, then started to leaf through the pages while holding onto the thought of that hole in reality. Just hoping something would jump out.
And jump out it did, though not literally, thank the gods. One page scintillated in the void. Almost without knowing why, I held out on hand to the book (or at least to where I saw it) and with the other made a scooping motion. The book closed, and I quickly re-opened it to the alphabet page, scanned it again, and then flipped my other hand over, as though I was turning a thick sheaf of pages all at once.
My heart leapt as the book opened back to the page of scintillating writing. It wasn’t the first triumph I’d experience since waking up in the dark, but it was the first one I’d consciously worked out, and it meant more than the sigil or even the garment keeping me from cooling to ambient. It also gave me the energy to continue on.