art by Prince Satyrn
During the second week of trekking the wind-swept wastes of Artephius, second Imperial world from the homeworld Sun, Ariachne had suffered a breakdown of sorts. Some of it was homesickness, some the stress of the journey...but mainly it was the double-damned wind. Its incessant howling against her bubble-top helmet seemed to slowly but surely help her abandon the crude automaton her body had become, unhinging her mind from the confines of the flesh, and all that entailed. And didn't.
Each time the disassociations came, Ariachne would watch the shaman's every muddled, cryptic, off-tempo twitch and mutter—every purring, clucking, chuttering motion—with rapt, childlike fascination. That narrow mouth poised at the very edge of the shaman's long, pointed bullet head, was as alarming as the recessed, slanted nostril-slits and neat rows of six perpetually blinking, red-flecked lapis lazuli eyes set into the skull just above it.
"You seek the One Who Is To Come..." the voice sounded as thin as the shaman's strange lips, much like the trail of foetid smoke trickling languidly from his mouth, swirling in parts around the haphazard tombstones of his alarming teeth. "The fire-headed Saviour. I dreamt of your visit. Behold, the True."
Ariachne randomly reflected that back on Terra, those six blue orbs would have been highly prized on several black markets. Indeed, the shaman's entire head would have been severed, taxidermied and hung above some rich fuckquanaut's lacquered-oak mantel, the mellow flames of the fireplace reducing the wisdom in the shaman's weather-worn features to a freak-show conversation piece for the terminally bored upper crust.
For the time being, Ariachne just nodded. "Yes. Yes...I do." The moment carried great weight. She saw herself from on high when she closed her eyes for a moment. Feeling every part of her grimy self intimately while hanging above the back of her own head was disorienting, and she opened her eyes again, still feeling everything.
Her hair, caked with countless generations of skin cells now reduced to a sediment of dandruff, hissed against the confining lining of her bubble helmet like a clutch of elderly serpents waging mutiny against their Gorgon Mama. There was a crippled slug living in her mouth that used to be her tongue. It tasted faintly metallic.
Two entire months, stuck in this brass-and-leather bondage-suit, breathing nothing but stale, recycled air; eating nothing but protein gruel, and quenching her thirst with water harvested from her own secretions. Her entire skin was parched, stretched taut over her bones.
For three days and nights, the automaton that was once Ariachne pumped its feet forward, one merely following the other even as she wallowed inside the primordial ooze that was the borrowed thoughtscape of the Other, gradually draining the swamp of her own reserves of strength.
At some point during that time, things got strange, and her memories grew disjointed and leached of everything but fear. She realized she'd become tangled...with that Other...an Alter, a half-formed personality swimming around in the bottom-muck of her brain, yanked up into being by her own will. And they fought each other in the confines of that walking bag of flesh that their shared body had become.
It was a long time ago, in her mind, and the memories were muddled, but she remembered the two of them clashing like sphinxes in that endless nightmare of battle-dance, all bared fangs and flying claws and manes natty-knotty with blood. The subsequent shower of tattered feathers, bits of wing-bone, pieces of Mind. Pieces of the God-mind brought to the ground in the form of flesh...if you believed.
If she believed. Ariachne made it out of that terrible place, yet the body she was left with felt nothing like hers. Nothing. Not ever since...since.... She was getting there. But Belief was another matter entirely.
At length, she cleared her scratchy throat, and tried speaking again. "I was told he, er...came through here. Before the Rebellion. Anything you can tell me about where to find him would be most—"
A clucking noise, low in the throat contained by that outlandishly segmented neck, which the shaman craned to make that bullet head tower above and loom down at her. The flecked eyes whirled and moved in their sockets, taking her in, reading her to the viscera until she dared not meet the cold light of that multifaceted gaze.
"Please," she rasped at the ground, "I have walked, all the way from Labrum, outside the Exclusion Zone. Before that, I smuggled myself in a Voidcraft that was on an automatic course out of Fulcanelli. I've crossed two planets just to be here."
There was the barest of pauses as the shaman sucked the crooked stalk of his pipe, cheeks sagging and then ballooning outward. "An impressive feat." The shaman's thin blue tongue wriggled like some hideous tapeworm. "One worthy of a Queen's Hound, intent on her quarry."
"I am not a Hound, "Ariachne carefully croaked, drawing the words from the space that was the Other. They sounded genuine enough. "I have crossed half the system to find him. You are my last recourse, wise one."
A most impious snort. "Our Saviour left us on the day the God-bomb tore a hole in our immediate world. Our Soothseers tell us that he bounded through the Nothing before it hit."
"He abandoned you?" Ariachne snarled, her voice tinged with the concentrated spite of the Other, the Alter, the skull just under her skin.
During her journey, she'd skirted through the Uk'Mal crater that had once been a verdant jungle expanse, on a chartered aether-bike, as she sped toward the equatorial wasteland of the Exclusion Zone.
All through her journey through the Uk'Mal, the corners of her eyes detected the lingering shadow-shapes that haunted the point of impact, again and again, and the twisted fauna that howled like wounded children. Strands of glistening grass had caressed her legs and she felt the touch of cracked leather against her skin—even through the suit.
Meanwhile, a miniature storm of glass shards had raged all around, jagged edges burying themselves halfway into dirt that had the density of child-flesh. Kino-forms of this place had made their rounds about the Empire, injected into newscasts spread across the starways as a word of warning, a true show of the apocalyptic might of the Empire.
"There were other worlds for him, other battles—most of us think nothing ill of him. After all, he did bring the Tribes together," the Shaman said, drawing from his pipe, letting out a long stream of smoke that formed a temporary mandala in the air before dissipating. "Did he not teach us how to wield the death-sticks we wrenched from the corpses of Terrans? The Messiah cost us a battle, perhaps. But he gave us the tools to wage war. In time...we will bleed the Dominion dry."
Slowly, the shaman began to pick at the baubles hanging from his kaftan: the hollow raptor-bones, the bits of human skull pilfered from the battlefield, worn smooth and white as ivory.
"Why do you wish to find him?" the shaman asked.
Ariachne spoke the half-truth, biting the inside of her cheek to quell the howl of rage from the Other, hoping the shaman would not be familiar enough with human body language to notice.
"I am his betrothed," she said as a wave of nausea rose inside her, the feeling of poison spilling out into her veins, the rage of the Other pounding against her skull so fiercely she momentarily blacked out.
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to read Part II of
How The Gods Kill