((66 — Bloscid))
Time is impossible to follow, here.
She’s been running, walking, journeying for…
She long ago lost track of how long. Days, maybe weeks, maybe years.
The gray has taken her through fields, skies, worlds too strange for her to see or comprehend. Always at the edges of her vision, the shadows lurk, swimming about with their blood-hungry red eyes.
The corridor was hexagonal, here. Purple and red flowed together along the walls, tracing patterns of hexagons within hexagons.
Jaz rubbed her face with one hand. She was not tired. She should’ve been tired. Every part of her mind was yelling that she should stop running now, should have collapsed… years? ago, but her body disagreed. She wasn’t tired, and she was still angry.
She slammed a hand against the wall. “What the hell. This isn’t working. This isn’t…. I need to get out.” She turned. “Hey! You! If you’re still around, still following, show me how the hell I get out of here! I need to get back to Kasby…” If he’s still alive, her mind whispered quietly, just loud enough to not be ignorable.
Her words echoed down the corridor, bringing back no response. Only a quiet, dangerous buzzing.
“…Fuck. Fuck!” She looked around at the hexagons. “Alright. Think about this. I’ve been running for…” She stopped, unable to think how long it had been. “I’ve been running. And that hasn’t worked. So there must be some other way out. A door, somewhere.”
Up ahead, there appeared to be a break in the side of the tunnel.
Jaz narrowed her eyes. “Be careful what you demand. Wish and you shall receive…” She headed towards the opening.
The gap—hexagonal, like everything else in this part of wherever she was—opened onto a massive six-sided chamber, which ascended vertically far further than she could see. The shadows filled the space overhead, flitting about wildly. In the base of the room was a pool of sticky red liquid. Occasionally, one of the things would break away from the swarm above, diving down into the pool and re-emerging a moment later.
Jaz’s eyes widened. Her hands tightened on her swords, and she took a cautious step into the room. Her eyes followed the path of the shadows, drawn more and more to the pool.
There was something at the back of her mind. Some memory, tugging. Red…
She approached the pool, in a moment between dives, and knelt by its edge. Her reflection was murky, shadowy, not quite right. Somehow… larger than she was.
She hesitated, for a long moment, before dipping her finger in and gingerly tasting the liquid. It was sweet and sticky, catching her finger. A taste not unlike blood mixed with honey.
She frowned, and quickly stood again. She circled the pool, looking at the room, looking upwards at the things, searching for a door, an opening, a ladder, something. The walls were notched, unsmooth, easily climable, and she headed for the nearest, starting to move away from the pool.
Just as she did, it flashed, emitting a bright yellow glow.
Jaz leapt back, blinking the spots from her eyes, the sudden light startling in the dim of the chamber.
The pool flashed again, and Jaz frowned at it. She looked between the pools and the easily-climbable walls. She chose the walls. Strapping her swords to her back, she found handholds and footholds and started her climb. “Hopefully, whatever it is won’t have wings…”
Behind her, a seven-fingered claw burst out of the pool, the viscous liquid dripping off of it, and grabbed the side of the pool. The first claw was followed by a second, then a third, and together they pulled a dripping-wet robe out of the pool. The bent, spindly figure from earlier dragged itself to the floor before rising on whatever limbs currently bore it.
“YOU!” It raised one of its claw-hands, which began to glow with a cool red light.
The pool pulsed yellow again, brighter, and the light stayed, turning like a spotlight to focus on the thing climbing out of the pool.
Jaz looked back at the creature. “Oh. Hey, is this how I get out?” She nervously eyed the shadows, which had begun to flit closer to her as she climbed. Both hands were holding her to the wall, rendering her swords unusable. She cursed quietly to herself.
The yellow glow continued to narrow on the creature, beginning to coalesce into something like smoke, pouring out of the pool and the beam of light at once. The smoke whirled into the room, circling it once, twice, passing by both Jaz and the creature.
The cowled creature took several steps towards the wall, long, insect-like legs unfolding beneath it. It rose up on its spindly legs, bringing it nearly level with Jaz. It gestured foreignly, seeming to indicate the gas. “You did this?”
“… guess you don’t need wings.” Jaz shook her head. “No, that’s all you.”
“No. No, it is not.”
The smoke began to concentrate on the far side of the room, coming together, solidifying, forming into a figure. A humanoid figure, an upper torso, with four arms and a head exactly where one should be. At least seven glowing yellow slit-eyes covered its face, with two more on its chest. Its legs simply faded into more of the yellow smoke, just below the waist.
“Fuck.” Jaz stared at the smoke-being, her voice starting to ramble without her paying attention to it. “That’s a demon. Hell, YOU’RE a demon! Remind me why I haven’t killed you yet!?”
The sound of a throat being cleared filled the room, coming from everywhere at once.
With a mass of scuttling, the creature shuffled to face the sound, surprised. It had been too… something… to notice the coalescing earlier.
“Greetings again, Soul Eater.” The words seemed to come from the walls, echoing through the room, but were clearly spoken by the glowing yellow humanoid. “Far too long since last we met.”
Jaz’s eyes flicked to the long-legged thing. Soul Eater?
“I get so many visits now,” the creature said, clearly displeased.
“Am I too unwelcome in your realm, now?” The yellow-skinned being gestured around the chamber with two of its hands, and at itself with the other two. “I, who was once your trusted general? I, who was your greatest asset? I, who thrilled at a thousand thousand worlds under my fingertip?"
Jaz quietly began to half-slide, half climb back towards the ground. Too helpless, like a fly on the wall. Her ears picked out every word the two demons said, rifling through all their possible meanings.
“No. You may enter full-form, conditional: you take nothing with you. Nothing in, nothing out.”
“Of course not, Soul Eater. I am yet loyal to our terms of aeons past.”
“Good.” The creature scuttled back and forth, as if uncomfortable.
“I have come to once again offer my allegiance, under word of a new contract. I owe you a newmade debt, for your selves freed me from the prison that long held me bound.”
Jaz jumped to the ground, and cleared her throat in turn. “Um. Excuse me? I can see you’re, uh, having an important meeting, but unlike you I AM an unwelcome guest, and I would very much like to… leave. If one of you…” She searched for the word. “Gentlemen? Could just show me out, I’ll leave you in peace.”
“An unwelcome soul in your realm, Soul Eater? A curious thing indeed. Are your defenses so weakened?”
The glowing red eyes beneath the hood narrowed slightly. “I have no weakness.”
The being rotated on its pillar of smoke to Jaz. “I owe you no debt, little one, and even if I did, I am under oath to take nothing from the Soul Eater’s realm.”
“You don’t have to TAKE me out, I can go on my own. Just show me the—”
“The huming captine is my new plaything.” It glared at Jaz, as if daring her to disagree.
She stopped, and turned on her feet to face the Soul Eater. “Plaything.”
A booming laughter filled the room, at that. “I see you have learned from I, O Soul Eater! It is true, the lesser of my kind do indeed make fantastic entertainment!
Jaz ignored it, and strode up to the thing, which loomed over her, its attention on the other demon.
“A human in a cage will provide mirth for all eternity, if kept well-fed,” the yellow demon continued.
The Soul Eater bobbed its head. “It feeds?”
Jaz glared up at the creature whose realm she had been in for who knows how long. “You listen to me. I’ve seen you scared and confused, I’ve seen you bewildered. I don’t think you’re so tough. I said I’d like to leave you in peace, and I would. But I’ve had enough. And right now…” In a single motion, she drew her crystal sword and swung it at one of the creature’s stretched-out legs, as hard as she could. “I’d rather leave you in pain.”
((67 — Les Soldats))
The crystal sliced through the leg, taking a chunk of glowing red energy with it as it did. The creature’s eyes glowed bright as a telepathic voice urgently flashed through Jaz’s mind. Careful! Powerful, this one is, dangerous, if it knew of our wea—RRRRRAAAAAADRAGH!
The smoke-man’s nine eyes widened in shock. "YOU LET YOUR TOY BRING A CRYSTAL? THE WORK OF THE SHADOWS IN YOUR OWN REALM?"
The creature flailed, sprouting a new leg in time to catch itself. It kept its distance from Jaz, now.
Jaz’s eyes narrowed. “No. FUCK you and your rules. I don’t fucking CARE if your reputation is ruined, if you die from this, you hear me? You will let me go, and you will let me go NOW. There are people who need me. People I need.”
“No fun,” the Soul Eater says, covering up a whimper. “The toy is no fun if it has no chance.”
Jaz turned to the smoke-thing, glancing at her crystal sword. “This? Why, does this scare you?”
“I am scared of nothing, merely ill-reminded of my time in a cage.The blade you wield is of the same lineage as my jailors.”
Jaz’s eyes widened. A cage… she smiled, tight, angry. “You are a demon, then. Good. I can kill those.”
“A demon?” Without warning, the creature swelled in size, looming over them suddenly, passing through the shadows and shades, filling the room, dozens of meters tall. "I AM NO MERE DEMON, CHILD. I AM MAGID, LORD OF DJINN, A NAME YOU WOULD DO WELL TO REMEMBER."
The Soul Eater whirled, and its limbs became a jumble again as runes flowed in streams out of its missing face.
The Djinn faced the creature from above, staring down its old master. Its four arms splayed wide, somehow, despite it already filling the room with its arms crossed.
The runes glowed the same bright red as the Soul Eater’s eyes, and encircled Magid like chains.
His hands caught the rune-chains, clutching them tight in fists the size of airship engines. "YOUR TIME IN PRISON HAS WEAKENED YOU, SOUL EATER—”
The runes exploded. The blasts caught the Djinn unaware, throwing its hands open wide.
“YOU ARE A FOOL. FOOL, FOOL, FOOL.” The Soul Eater shook its head. “YOU HAVE MAGIC. I AM MAGICK.”
Jaz, still standing beside the creature, swallowed, but her grin was back, small and tight and triumphant. “Yeah. You’re made of smoke, Magid-Lord-of-Djinn. Made of steam. Hot air.” She looked up at him, and threw the words at his eyes, like darts, like flies. Distractions. “Lies.” She didn’t LIKE the Soul Eater, but he wasn’t, at the moment, trying to kill her. Her words appeared to impact against the great being like bullets, leaving holes in its head, holes of drifting yellow smoke.
The Soul Eater took a whistling breath, and continued its rant. “YOU HAVE MAGIC BECAUSE I DO NOT TAKE IT. IT IS A SERVICE FOR YOUR LOYALTY. NOW YOU COME TO MY DOMAIN AND YOU SAY INSULTS AND THREATEN MY TOYS?”
Jaz bristled again, but this time kept quiet.
Magid howled, a sound of fury and rage and captivity too well remembered.
An etheric wind picked up, and started billowing the yet-empty robes. “YOU WILL SUBMIT OR YOU WILL BE STRIPPED OF YOUR POWER. SERVE OR BE BOUND!”
“NO!” The smoke swirled up, glowing blindingly hot, shielding it from the wind.
Jaz raised an arm to ward off the heat, and backed away. “Something tells me you chose wrong,” she muttered.
“You come making claims of DEBTS? Debt of RELEASE?" Red lightning crackled into being, lashing at the smoke. "You are IN my debt, for your continued EXISTENCE."
The lightning cut through the smoke, knocking the Djinn back against the wall. Magid grunted angrily, a strangely small noise from such a huge creature.
"I would have SWALLOWED YOU. AEONS AGO. But you are too loyal and pleading and full of words. 'My gifts will be lost inside you, master.' 'True strength is cunning, not magic.' True, not-true. MAGICK is power. WORDS have magick, but they are not the same."
The runes didn’t bother snaking this time, they just appeared, in a circle missing one link. “So, use your words. You will never walk free, but you have your choices…” The Soul-Eater pointed at the remaining spot in the circle with a two-fingered claw covered in shadowy hair, indicating the last rune to be added. “SERVE me, and in doing so, lead others… or be bound, destroyed, crushed.”
The Djinn’s four arms snapped to points along the edges of the circle, and stuck there. It thrashed wildly against the restraints, unable to break them.
Then it fell still.
Jaz let out a tense breath, still clutching her crystal sword in one hand.
Once more, a booming laugh filled the room. "VERY WELL, SOUL EATER. YOU IMPRESS ME ONCE AGAIN WITH YOUR MIGHT."
“Time is my tool, not my enemy. You remember this, yes?” The runes faded away, flicking out of existence, and the winds died down.
“I DO, SOUL EATER. SO BE IT. I DO HEREBY SWEAR TO SERVE AT YOUR SIDE, I DO HEREBY SWEAR TO BE YOUR GENERAL, I DO HEREBY SWEAR TO DO AS YOU COMMAND, I DO HEREBY SWEAR FEALTY." Each sentence reverberated through the room, each sentence forming into a solid chain of words around one of the Djinn’s four wrists.
“Good. Go; retake your position, muster your armies. What are still captured will be free soon, so soon." It waved dismissively.
The Djinn shrank down, returning to a more humanoid size, though it still towered over Jaz. “As you command, Soul Eater. I leave you to your devices, and to your… plaything.” The yellow smoke swirled up from beneath it, enwreathing it in a shimmering noncorporeal veil, then faded out of existence, leaving Jaz alone with the Soul Eater.
The creature collapsed, falling against the wall of the room as its various limbs withered and disappeared. The silence in the chamber would be deafening, were not for the still-present buzzing of the shadows overhead.
Jaz coughed. She walked over the creature, the Soul Eater, and stood, for a moment, in silence. “I’m not your toy.” She wasn’t offended, anymore, just… matter-of-fact.
“No. You are headaches.”
Jaz stared at him, and then started to laugh. It was a painful, angry, horrible sort of laugh, edging on hysterical, edging on tears.
It sat up slightly, still little more than an animated robe. Its barely-visible eyes flashed with interest at her laughter.
Overhead, the shadows continued to circle, beginning to grow darker, more real, more solid.
Jaz caught her breath with a wrenching gasp. She looked at the thing, eyes clear. “Get me out of here. Please. I wasn’t kidding, before. I will hurt you, if I need to.”
“You already hurt me more than is possible.”
“And you still won’t let me out.”
“I tell you twice, Headaches, there is no way out. And now we will both die.”
The shadows continued to coalesce above them, now sticking to the walls, beginning to climb down. Points of white light glowed within each of them as they became more and more corporeal, shining through their chitinous exoskeletons.
Jaz’s eyes caught on the things crawling down the walls. “You came out of the pool. You and the smoke thing. What happens if I jump in it?”
“Do not! Put me inside! It is transport, but you don’t have place!” Since Magid’s departure, the Soul Eater’s voice had lapsed back into being a dozen different voices, layered and fading in and out of each other. Its grasp of grammar had also inexplicably collapsed again.
She blinked. “What?”
“Eeeeuh.” It flopped over and wriggled pathetically towards the edge of the pool.
The buzzing grew louder, joined by a clicking of mandibles. The insects continued to skitter down the walls, now crawling over the pool’s surface as well. The only place they steered clear of was the hole in the wall that Jaz came from, still opening back onto that matte gray walkway.
Jaz stepped on the creature’s back, holding it down under her boot. “What about if I get to the top of the walls?”
“No! No top. Infinite hive.” It flailed, seeming to start to panic. “Release! If they reach me, they will lose control! All control!”
“…fuck.” She looked around. “Goddammit! Fucking pointless, this whole thing!” She lifted her foot, and jogged back towards the corridor she came in through.
Quickly, the Soul Eater squirmed and fluttered its way to the pool, and vanished into it, leaving barely a ripple behind as the insects closed over where it had just been.
The insect creatures hissed, trying to block Jaz’s path, skittering in between her and the corridor. She kept going, hacking and slashing anything that got in her way.
Her crystal blades, both now in her hands, hacked off bits and pieces, but only when she pierced the glowing white hearts did the bugs properly break.
She paused, and suddenly smiled. She was angry… and there were a lot of bugs to take her anger out on. She fought to get her back to the corridor, then faced the hordes of bugs, her smile becoming a full-on grin. “Come on. I need this. This, I can do. This, I can understand.”
The room was empty now, save for her and the seemingly-infinite swarm of bugs.
Jaz became a whirl of crystal and flesh, her eyes blank, her mouth in a twisted grin. There was a rhythm to her strikes, a dance, familiar somehow. She felt her heartbeat like drums, saw the walls of the room, hexagons in purple and red. Red… There was something tugging, something pulling at her. She struck, struck, struck at the heart of a bug.
Jaz froze amongst the chittering cries of death, and remembered her dream. “Friends who look like demons… or demons who look like my friends?”
Then one of them came too close, and she snapped back to reality. Or whatever this was.
Putting the thoughts out of her mind, she let herself fade into the bloody red of the infinite battle.