When Herid heard the scuttling sound, his first thought was of rats. As a Crawler Potentate, he'd been kept in the darker rooms of the Spire, far down below, where the sun did not shine, and where Talin's authority did not reign supreme. It was preferable that those who operated the Crawlers were fearful of everything coming from the outside, so various things were imported. The Spire was a pristine place, so Herid knew that the rats had come from Far Away.
Far Away. A place that once struck terror into his heart, until Lasir and Cari rescued him - of all of his fellow Potentates, only he and one other had chosen to live with the Rebellion rather than die. He'd been 12 then.
But the rats had been imported, and he had hated them. Hated the sounds of their nails clicking against the walls, the floor, the ceiling. He'd only been able to eat after they had finished with his food, had never been able to slap them away as they crawled over him when he slept. The cuffs on his wrists and legs after that first time had seen to it.
The tiny sound of little toes clacking against the walls of the ventilation system caused Herid equal parts distress and anger. So when the thing came tumbling out from behind the thin screen, Herid lashed out with every fiber of his being. And when the ruby clattered to a stop at his feet, the thin wires in disarray, the fragile gem cracked like an eggshell, the pieces still landing with the timbre of silver bells at Christmas. He sobbed, his heart breaking like the little jewel. Lasir had been the closest thing to a mother he'd ever had - and he had destroyed everything she'd hoped for. He picked up the pieces, and set his lips in a grim line, and began walking towards Talin's apartments, like he'd done so many years ago.
Lasir stood, dumbfounded, as the knowledge hit her. Her ruby was dead. Entirely, inconceivably dead. It had transmitted the information just before the electricity that was its blood went out. The alarms were blazing, so they weren't of much help anyway - Serna was dead by now, and though Cari must've been alive to send the ruby on it's way, Herid had not been. Which meant her son was dead. She spent a total of 12 seconds mourning him, there would be more later, but 12 seconds was all she could spare. Serna would take a little longer, but she would come after Herid. She steeled herself, and moved on. Without her ruby, she was nothing more than a cyborg, able to interface with a computer next to her to be sure, but little more than that. And Talin still had a lifetime of grief to pay for.
Serna awoke slowly, her entire body feeling as if it were torn in different directions. It was too dark for her to make out much, but she could see the door of the room she was in and a few sparse light fixtures, the bulbs removed. She sniffed as a hair slid across her face to tickle her nose, and reached to move it. With a moment of cold panic, she realized the reason why her muscles ached so much, why her feet were not touching the ground. She was stretched over a huge metallic board, her wrists and ankles bound by iron. She screamed, struggling vainly, then sagged as her labors proved useless.
A thin laugh rang out through the room, and she turned her head towards the sound. In the doorway, backlit by a single wavering candle, stood a tall man, his hands woven together in front of his chest, his walk deliberate, slow, predatory. His left eye was a brown hue much like the fur of a doe, a ring of yellow outlining the pupil. His nose was hawkish and straight, pointing like an arrow down to his thin lips. A ragged scar ran from his hairline to his chin, breaking up only at his Utachex, a black hole inside the lid, no light, no shadow, the effect making his entire face looks desolate. Short blond hair crowned his head, nearly white, his immaculate goatee was more bronze. His shoulders were wide, making his chest taper down to his waist, his long legs giving him a greater illusion of height. He was disarmingly dressed, as usual, Talin felt no need for dramatics. Black turtleneck, dark blue jeans, socks but no shoes. The index fingernails of both hands were painted black, and he smiled at her as he brought them to his lips, blowing her a kiss.
"Good evening, Serna. Nice to see you among the living again. We were beginning to worry about you for a while - after you cast that spell that splashed your intestines over the ground. Are they backfiring on you again?" He chuckled, running a finger along her jaw line. "Perhaps you're just washed up, hmm? Too old to keep this up. We are getting along in years, after all."
She shivered at his touch, clenching her teeth to keep from screaming. She was desperate to scramble away from him, though she knew that would only please him. He shrugged, and set his hand over the patch of spiderweb on her face, and licked his lips.
"I find something every time I do this, love," he said softly, leaning close to her, his breath next to her skin. She sobbed. "I find that when I Push someone, they get stronger. It doesn't matter how far along they are, you see, how old. It's the Utachex that controls us. Utterly. How arrogant we are, Serna! To think that we'd be able to control it, to control the Powers within us! Forever. Compared the she span of human existence, our time spent nursing at the Utachexes teat has been but moments. You recall Lasir's Change, correct? She's only an example. I was not done with her yet, though. She's so much farther to go. Much like yourself."
She cringed. The thought of going through the Utachex again would be enough to make anyone quail, but her especially. Most people knew the feeling of your skin stretching and breaking, the eye falling out and your skull widening or shrinking, even chunks of it coming loose, but few knew the feeling of something crawling inside, and watching as a tiny spider made its web across your face. She'd caught the spider a few years ago, and kept it in a jar, unable to bear the incessant feel of its legs tapping against her skull. The spider didn't eat, never slept, and as far as she could tell, had an endless supply of silk. It had made another web in that jar, and she had noticed it was starting to resemble the shape of her face in the past few days.
She felt the heat start at her eye, then spread along the rest of her flesh, itching. At first she thought about the tiny spider in the jar and wondered if it were possible to force a Utachex when the key element to it was missing. Then she felt the dance of a thousand little legs running over her body and knew that it made no difference.
Lasir gasped for the air that seemed to get thinner every time she took a breath. She hadn't been able to turn off the elevators, so climbing the cables was dangerous. Each time a cart shot past, she leaped off the line to the wall, flattening herself against the steel, sucking in her chest and stomach. Even then, it was occasionally a tight fit. Finally, she reached the level she needed, the second highest on the Spire. She twisted her kwon, freeing the two katanas inside it, letting them clatter to the floor. She rubbed off the excess oil on her leg, hissing as the edge of one of the blades slid into her skin, a tiny rivulet of blood slid down her leg under the armor.
From here, it was entirely up by stairs, no way around it. She took her breaths in unsteady increments, hoping that the blade had not cut deep enough to impair her movement. Unsteadily, she took a hesitant step forward, and when her leg gave little more than a whisper of protest, she began to make her way to her destiny.
Cari looked both ways down the hall and stepped across the multi colored tiles that decorated the floor. Her eye was a dark crimson, and she couldn't see objects very well, though the blackened lights no longer marred her vision. She wondered if this was the view that Lasir got looking through that ruby, then chided herself for thinking of something so trivial at a time like this. Her gut was beginning to throb, a side effect of Jasin's blade, no doubt. She unwrapped part of the makeshift bandage to take a morbid peak at it. The wound seemed almost to be festering, though it was difficult to tell with all the blood. She sighed and redressed it, tying it tighter, gasping at the pain it caused her to do so. Putting down the scythe she brought out her bow. Shoving the quiver a little more to the left, she ran her mind through the remaining passages, only a few more until she would rendezvous with Lasir ear Talin's apartments. The girl would probably move to finish him off, and that would be the end of that.
Serna had screamed and thrashed at first, providing Talin with no end of enjoyment. All too soon his fun ended when the spiders began to crawl all over his skin as well, spinning their webs, and he'd left her still bound to the table. The cuffs would never contain the mess that she was now, but that was something for the cleaning crew to worry over.
He retired to his rooms, shooing the various servants and hangers on to the lower levels, and set behind his desk, resting his head on his arms. He palmed the large crystal ball on his desk, letting it roll along the back of his fingers. It caught and reflected the light like a prism, casting rainbows over the room, illuminating it. Serna's transition had been horrible. No art, no energy, nothing. She had not moved for over an hour after she'd entered the final stage, he could only assume that she was dead. So strange that Jasin had survived the Change, and yet the witch had not. So strange. The wall slid along his fingers, then off of them falling a few inches before the nimble digits picked it back up again, and he looked at the reflection in the ball. It showed only his Utachex, the deep black void staring back at him accusingly. He scowled, and pulled his arm back, launching the ball across the room in a smooth arc where it crashed against the wall and shattered, turning into a million pieces of glittering stardust and light, all in slow motion. He looked away from it, and steepled his fingers in front of him, looking over the immaculate nails.
His eyes drifted across the room until they settled upon the lonely orb in its glass jar. Lasir's eye. It glared at him much like the ball, looking angry for the first time in its life on his shelf. No longer frightened, or just staring, almost malevolent. He crossed the room slowly, and picked up the container, turning it over in his hands. The unblinking blue still glowered at him as he blew the dust off the lid, flowing up in plumes. Unscrewing the lid brought a sick sweet odor into the room of the preservative as well as a slight whiff of decay. Dipping his fingers inside, he took the tiny ball out and held it up, turning it this way and that, the thick fluid running down his arm to his elbow, staining his shirt and skin. He rolled it across his fingers as he had the ball, then let it come to rest in his palm. It spread slightly, already losing its cohesiveness in the warm air.
He smiled to himself, and closing his hand into a tight fist, punctured the soft fleshy globe with his fingernails. Blood and small vines of nerves slid between his fingers, dripping onto the floor.
She could barely move her head. She felt so very insubstantial, as if she might blow away with the wind on an errant draft of air. The breeze seemed to whistle through her though, as if her skin had been stretched until she was nothing more than a piece of gauze. And yet she felt oddly alive as she never had felt before her mind separated into a million tiny fragments, whole and complete in themselves, but part of a great entity that was more collective than any hive.
She wondered if it was the spiders crawling across the room, skittering over her, through her, that made this. After a time of thinking of herself in the first person convinced her that she was still herself, and she sighed contentedly. She felt torn between rapture and disgust, her revulsion of the chittering arachnids slowly becoming overwhelmed by her wonder. She pushed her mind, and the spiders began to concentrate on one spot near the door. Pushing harder, she began to seep into that spot, the little web makers moving at an incredible rate. Millions of them built her body, making it spiral high, connecting it to the walls for stability as it grew, moving near the ceiling, around the room. She felt as it she was flying, connecting to everything and suspended at the same time, racing through the air as fast as the spider could work. She was a shimmering wonderland, and as she laughed, the chittering was heard through the halls like an eerie symphony.
Lasir stood outside of the room, watching Talin's back, seeing him wipe her eye across the wall to be rid of it. Her ruby shifted, only an inch or so, recording the look of him, the wide shoulders and deep back, the long thin feet with their unnaturally long toes.
"You came," he said, without turning, and she closed her eyes, knowing that she had missed her chance for a clean kill, the fight would come soon. Rush of feet and slap of skin and it would be over for one of them. He pivoted on his heel, and faced her fully, his hand still dripping some of the fluid and blood that he'd smeared over his apartment. Small spots of it showed on his clothes, other than that he was immaculate. She was covered in sweat and the small cut in her leg had torn open, rivers of blood running down her calf, and the smell of it permeated the room. He wrinkled his nose.
"Serna is dead. You'd hardly recognize her. It was some of my best work. She screamed until the end. I asked if she would renounce you, if she might convert to my Faith...but she stayed true to the end. It drove her mad, of course. Regrettable. Shall we die together, Lasir my love?" he asked softly, his one good eye looking at her petulantly, a small boy pressing buttons. He pressed the right ones though. She yanked her sword up, and charged at him.
He pulled up his fist to hit her as she came in range and she dodged, driving the point of the sword into his gut. His hand came whipping back, fingers spread wide, and stabbed his hands through her hair until the pads touched her skin, and her grip fell from the hilt as they fell together, him pulling her head to his for a kiss.
Their lips met and she tried to scream, and failed, tasting his blood on her lips as his heart began to falter, pumping the blood through the skin of his stomach.
Cari stopped in the hall as the spiders spilled out, coating the hall in webbing. Wisps of it reached out to her, grasping for her arms and legs, and she flattened herself against the wall to stay away from them. Serna's face formed before her on a stalk of the stuff, and looked at her curiously. She watched as a small squad of spiders made the sculpture blink. The lips did not move as a soft whisper of a voice found its way to her ears, though the spiders made her hair blow as if in a breeze.
"Cari, Cari, Cari, sweet darling Cari Cari! How nice it is to see you! Fancy that you are here as well!" It exclaimed, melodic and ghostly. Soothing even as it caused the hair on the back of her neck to rise.
"Serna...what have they done to you?" she choked out, her voice loud in the tiny clacking of the spiders.
"Nothing that was not inevitable," Serna breathed the voices of the spiders slightly out of synch, producing an echo. She seemed not to notice. "In time you may become a jewel Cari...I wonder, would you chip?"
Cari swallowed, and looked around her for a clear way out, spying one. "Where is Lasir?"
"In Talin's apartments. I called out to her...but she did not hear me."
Cari ran, leaving Serna far behind.
Lasir's skin began to sizzle where it laid over the bone as molten metal crept underneath it, some of it spreading over Talin's face, sliding inside of the void and disappearing, sealing her to him. She whimpered and whined like a dog with its leg in a trap, her limbs limp and on fire. A blinding light fired underneath her left eye, and the oculus fell to the ground, bursting open to reveal a complex series of wires and nodes, still blinking with thin fiber optic cord. The skin across her brow split and cracked like an overripe melon, blood coursing down around her mouth and into her throat, draining down in-between her breasts and clinging to the tiny blonde hairs on her stomach.
The skin of her arm began to break apart in a tight spiral, strips almost an inch thick unraveled from the bone, showing corded silver muscle underneath. Her fingernails, once just a cosmetic addition to her fingertip, drove back in under the skin, blood sliding and oozing out from beneath the cuticle.
Cari stopped dead just outside the door, Talin's back to her as she entered from the other side. He was bent oddly over Lasir, one of the girl's katana protruding just to the left of his spine, blood covering both him and the girl, mixing and pooling on the floor. Her eyes were as wide as a slou'colnal trapped in a light net, blind and not knowing what will happen next, the eyes flicking into a look of terror as you leveled the gun and blew its little head off. Her mouth moved up and down, gone dry, watching Lasir writhe and shudder, the skin peeling off to show the mechanics underneath. It was like some bondage scene gone terribly wrong, gore strewn over the room that couldn't have come from anything but flesh exploding.
She felt almost as if she were intruding upon one of her parent's arguments, the kind the guests weren't supposed to see. Her fingers reached behind her to the quiver, the arrow clacking against the sides and the bow as she finally brought it up to bear, her wrist resting against her cheek, trembling. The bile rose from her stomach and she bit it back down, the acrid taste in her mouth making her sick. The wound at her side opened again, seeping blood, causing a round of dizziness to come over her. An icy calm descended as she took aim.
Talin pulled back, and lifted her chin ever so slightly, a smile coming over his lips. The madness skittered over his eyes as even more blood found it's way from between his lips, and he flicked his tongue across them, tasting the mingled sanguinity. His smile became wide and full, victorious even as his life drained from him, and he kissed her again, chastely as before, a brother kissing his sister's wounded knee. Then the kiss deepened, suggesting lifetimes unknown, squeezed into the space of a few seconds, a kiss between lovers and old people who've fallen asleep next to each other all their lives. She felt cold to the touch, and did not move, the thin sound of machinery whirring emanating from inside of her.
She felt lost inside of herself, her senses going numb as the nerve endings ceased to exist and then overloaded as new ones took their place, feeding byte of information upon byte of information to her already overcrowded mind. Suddenly she was back at that night her parents died, with the man towering over her, large and scary to a little girl who'd never known pain. But he was not there; there was only this man who kissed her as if he owned her. He made a slight sound, almost a gasp, then a sigh.
A pinprick made itself felt upon her throat, and she came back to herself as Talin slumped against her, driving the arrow rod farther into her throat where the wires and cylinders parted to let it slip through unmolested. It cracked, and the shaft of the arrow fell down into her hands where they circled around to his back. Three feathers were lashed with animal hide to the end, two green, one black. She laid Talin back, and he gurgled, his eye flying open as his mouth and throat tried to form words, the pupil rolling wildly around the room, his arms flailing. A river of blood erupted from his throat to mingle with the blood from his belly, soaking into the wood of the office.
Cari stood still as a statue, her right wrist still perched beside her eye even as the bowstring quivered near her left. Talin's eye bored into hers, and a final bubble of blood crossed his lips. Then the eye died, becoming nothing more than a dead thing, cold and unfeeling and useless. She walked over to where Lasir still sat, clutching the arrow bit in her fingers, looking more like a lost kid than the leader of a huge army, now the leader of a new country. Tiny wires, some bare, some insulated, poked through Lasir's skin around the hairline, twisting around the hair that was left, showing that sooner or later even that would be lost to her. The visage was an almost horrific one, not a blend of woman and machine so much as a hodge podge that was trying to get away from itself. Small flecks of skin still clung in the middle of a sea of metal, and ridges showed under the epidermis - more machinery waiting to burst through.
Cari hefted her up, and looked into the girl's no longer human eyes, searching for something. Eventually she found it - a glint of sanity that still existed. Lasir sagged against her, adding her blood to Cari's own. They headed back down the levels, gathering Herid along their way, Serna trailing behind on strands of web, the spiders chittering. The long trek home began.