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cosmicwind
Sweden

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Daylight was waning, deepening the azure sky to indigo as the afternoon moved on into evening and the harsh Thulean winter wind blew flakes of crystalized snow towards the window, building up small and delicate heaps of glittering powder against the glass. The storm was departing now, vacating the empyrean for what promised to be a magnificent sunset. Curving from the right, then ahead and up high, before being attenuated to nothing by distance, the scintillating argent planetary ring seemed an artefact, having been shepherded into neat disks by the larger chunks remaining from whatever cataclysm had shattered the unfortunate satellite.

In the warmth indoors Cleanthia sat in her armchair, her forehead resting against the cold glass. It reflected her deep lapis-lazuli colored irises as she gazed with a disconnected yearning towards the city street several stories below. Down there people were passing by in their thick winter attire, clinging to one another against the bitter frost and slippery pavings as they entered and exited the warmth of the various shops and restaurants lining the street. The horse-drawn coaches and the few automobiles were making snaking tracks in the snow, their headlights turning flakes into fireflies. A group of youths about her own age darted between arm-linked couples and light posts, throwing snowballs at each other, laughing out loud and in their midst a large and furry white dog jumped around with the most joyous body language. The sight brought a small melancholic smile to Cleanthia's full, rosy lips and before she could stop herself, she let out a quiet laugh.

"Cleanthia?" A vexed voice conveyed her attention. "Have you even heard a single word of what I said?" In response Cleanthia caracoled her head to the source of the voice, seeing her father leaned against the door frame, arms crossed over his broad chest, biceps bulging and his short hair wet from a shower. She begun a dishonest retort but the look in his ice-green eyes made her rethink her decision.
"No, papá. I'm sorry for my disrespect." The rejoinder sounded unassuming enough, but there was a distance to her voice as if her mind was drifting absently.

Antolas let out a long exhale to cool his frustration as he stepped into his daughter's room to glance through the window at what had taken hold of her attention. The scene playing out down in the street made him take in another long breath and the toes of his bare feet curled against the soft rug as if to dig into it. His eyes refocused on the reflection of the two of them in the window glass and he recognized the sad and frustrated longing in her eyes. Seeing her like this, she resembled another woman closely in appearance, height and even age. To him, it was an unnerving deja-vu, Cleanthia and his memory could be seen as sisters, possibly even twins. Despite the appearance, Cleanthia was much younger. Perhaps still too young.

He had met Cynthia Saviterniou at the opening of an art gallery back in Lealia, and immediately been attracted to her. She had been eye-catching; tall, short blonde hair cut into an asymmetrical bob, sparkling cobalt eyes, small perky breast and dangerous hips. They had talked for hours about art, about Lealia and its people, the terrible war with Umakia which just had ended, about travel and many things in between. Antolas had been happy when Cynthia had accepted his invite to a play then to a concert then to a ballgame; he had taken her to places he felt were suited for her. She had gushed and loved every single outing, feeling at ease in the Celestian high society. He could tell it by the way she carried herself, the way she seemed to blossom in being around the cultured, the wealth and prestige. He on the other hand just knew how to play the part. He'd been doing this enough for a lifetime, the pretention; it was all part of the job, all part of being a Voidwalker.

"Perhaps it would be best if I didn't bring you with me on this mission."
"No, please. I'm sorry." Cleanthia gazed up at her father pleadingly.
"Better to be sorry now – than later for choosing the wrong path in life," Antolas went on as he rubbed his bearded cheek, feeling the rugged fabric of hair against his palm. He glanced back at the street below. "You still want to be part of their lives, and that's beginning to concern me. How can I be sure that you'll be able to cut the connections when it becomes necessary?"

"So we're having this conversation again," Cleanthia tucked a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear. "You've taught me well, papá. I'll be ready and I'll do as I've been taught when expected of me."
"Will you?" Antolas stared down into her eyes. It was almost like looking at a mirror image, but where his own eyes had grown cold in the face of two centuries of reality, her eyes still held that dangerous flicker of hope only seen in the young and the naive. That hope was something a Voidwalker could not afford. "I'm afraid you're still too young for this, my sugarplum. I'll contact my sister; she'll continue your training whilst I'm away."

"No way!" she let her anger show while standing and stalking away from the window. The last thing she wanted was to be passed back over to aunt Melandia. The high-borned Lady would be just as annoyed with the idea of having to stop what she was doing to instead dedicate her time to look after her failure of a younger relative. Alone, after the demise of uncle Varonth. No, Cleanthia didn't feel like putting up with Melandia telling her what a meagre Voidwalker she was turning out to be. The thought of having to listen to Melandia's arrogant tone only pushed her anger further.

"That's what disquiets me, Clea." His voice turned almost mellow while detecting the potent empathic wave of anger emanating from her. "You still haven't learned to fully control your emotional aura. If I'd been a regular human, you might've affected me with your wrath."
"I'm sorry." Lowering her eyes she inhaled, trying to steady her anger and with a thought her aura calmed and dissipated. "I know I've still a lot to learn, but I'm nineteen years old. No longer a child who needs to be kept by her aunt. I'm ready for this."

Antolas knew his daughter did indeed have a great deal to learn, but it wasn't so much about controlling her empathy. At almost twenty years of age, Cleanthia was still considered young by their people's standards; therefore her lapse in emotional control from time to time was expected. However that wasn't the real reason Antolas was having second thoughts about taking her with him on this mission. The major concern was her young soul. So very much alike her late mother.

"Look at them!" He nodded towards the window, and they both stepped closer to gaze down in the street. "They live such fleeting lives. Even the longer lived races like the Sprits and the Djinni are still just a blink in the eyes of a Celestian. The humans could be happy to reach 90 – and then they are often in a very bad shape physically. They try so hard to fill those short lives with so much, and they are always striving for company, for companionship. I understand how these associations can be tempting for you. You want to feel it with them and to be a part of it. You want to be surrounded by the strength of their joy and profoundness of their sadness. You want to know them and you want to be known. You want to be seen. You want to exist."

"We do not exist, but allow existence to move around us," she whispered at her own reflection as the glass frosted over with the setting of the sun. The view of the street below became obscured and distorted.
"I know it's hard, sugarplum," he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently. "Our existence is a lonely one. We are so very few, and we're incapable to be a part of the ordinary world. Not even the world of the ordinary Celestians. We cannot be a part of their communities and movements. Yet, I too have stood at this very place where you stand now, hearing my father exhorting about our place in this universe. He told me we must stand apart, but reminded me also that the things we do are important. What we do helps those people out there to continue living their lives freely and secure. In a small way, we exist through each of them, even if they must never know it. Being a Voidwalker is a dedication of a life time, a honorable yet a lonely position."

Cleanthia thought over his words. She knew that part of what her father said was true. She was born a Celestian, and with the capacities to become a fine Voidwalker. Posterity to the gods of old, the real powerful ones who now were gone from the Cosmoses. What was left was this little handful of powerful guardians, who were supposed to look after the world until the gods returned. If they returned.

Still, she couldn't deny the part of her that longed to venture out in the open instead of staying hidden behind false identities and shallow relationships. Her father claimed that her mother's heart gave her this desire to make connections with others and be part of their existence. Cynthia had been a regular woman of Massertia, whose life-span had been just as fleeting as those in the street and there were times when Cleanthia wished to have been more like her mother in that respect. But she was Celestian, a Voidwalker, and it was perhaps time she began acting more like one.

"I understand," she turned her eyes back to him and nodded with a soft smile. "I'm ready to allow existence to move around me if it'll let us do what we are supposed to. To dedicate my life to it, the way I've sworn. Or I'd never taken the oath of a Voidwalker."
"I am so proud of you, dearest," he affirmed and kissed her forehead.

She let the soft, kindling warmth of his aura surround her, but she couldn't impede her eyes from wandering back to the street below, where the lantern men had begun moving from pole to pole, lighting up the lamps with a pale, orange light and where most of the people were vanishing now, only two or three horse-drawn coaches moving down the paved stones.

She may have said the words he wanted to hear yet her hidden yearning couldn't be silenced so easily. The way the Voidwalkers lived their lives, moving through the world without really existing in it, had been approximating a natural law for millennia. Ever since the Seven Pantheons vanished, to be true. The longevity of their race made them slow to change, but Cleanthia felt that things had to change or one day her people would cease to exist entirely, even in the eyes of one another. It was a secret fear that she kept for herself, tucked away in the back of her mind along with this surreptitious longing that she would one day be able to walk down the street outside, having people smile at her because they knew who she was. However her deepest secret was that she would one day love a man, make love to a man and bear a child the way her mother had born her.

It was a secret hope that one day she'd know real friendship and real love, feel something to thaw the winter in her heart which was as relentlessly cold as the one holding Thule in its firm grip, and would do so long into April. Her father had broken that rule once, and if it hadn't been for his great power and high status among the Voidwalkers, he'd been punished severely for taking a mortal woman and impregnating her. Those dreams kept Cleanthia alert and eager and despite her desire to make her father proud, she refused to let them go.

****

Leaning back in her beanbag, Sarah closed her eyes. With the window of her den open, she could hear the sounds in the street. The splash of tyres through day-old puddles, the laughter of children, the rumble of an oncoming storm. She listened to of the neighbors returning, the building coming alive with the clicks of closing doors, the murmur of switched-on tellies and the aroma of different cuisines cooking in different kitchens. It was ordinary, pedestrian and so dismal that she felt herself turning a bit mad.

Fast, determined footsteps pounded up the small stairs, and she shifted her attention. Julianne opened the door only a second later and Sarah immediately understood something was wrong. She sat up, waiting for her mother's words.
"Well, I hope you're happy with all your daydreaming, because all your dreams are about to come true," her mother snapped without preliminaries. Sarah blinked in response.
"Say what?"

Without responding her mother turned to the round attic window and shut it closed with a slam that made the white curtains flutter in the draft. Her body language screamed of frustration, her shoulders cornered with tenseness.
"Mother, tell me what's going on!" Sarah acted very meek and treaded lightly around her mother's powerful temper, having learned the lesson well and often enough.

"This!" a letter was thrown onto Sarah's beanbag next to her lap. Sarah picked it up and unfolded it to admire the writing. The letters and the language was old-fashioned like a Shakespearian play, the handwriting ornate - lines turned, thickening and thinning at even intervals all straight across the page. She could make out a few basic words like the names of her and her mother and the Spanish word 'fiesta'. Excitement rose in her chest, yet she tried her outermost not to look too expectant.

"What does it say?" she asked in a small voice, handing the letter back to her mother. Her mother didn't take it, instead she returned to the stairs, glancing over her shoulder as she left.
"Just read it, will you!"
"But I..."

"Stop asking questions and get on with it! Clean your room, too!" Julianne's voice faded as her feet rattled down the stairs and Sarah looked around at her spotless room. She shook her head and reached behind her, towards the book shelf and brought out a small book in which she could look up all the old fashioned wordings and phrases in the letter. It took her a long time, the lion's share of an hour, but eventually she sounded out some of the words - and realized that her mother and she had been invited to a party at something called Whitehall Palace. The letterhead showed a large, Scottish-looking castle with four mighty towers with toppy roofs and a coat of arms with a dragon and two crossed swords. The invitation was signed by someone named King Angarian and the party was due three Fridays from now.

Sarah so wondered who this mystery King was, and why he had invited her and her mother to his castle. To an event called the Hallow Ewe Fiesta. She couldn't really grasp where this castle was and what kind of party they were to attend. What would she wear? Sarah owned no partywear at all, the best things she had was a sequin tank top and a pair of shiny, black jeans. Nothing to attend a party at the castle of a King, if Sarah's rudimentary knowledge of protocol was anything to go by. Most of all, she wondered why her mother was complying grudgingly, let alone at all.

It had now turned pitch dark outside, since the evening came earlier and earlier as the autumn rolled by, and she lit her floor lamp to be able to read a bit better. Still it wouldn't chase away the shadows in the corners and with them her discomfort. For even as Sarah felt excitement, she also felt tenseness. In her mind the very idea of going away somewhere, even if it was just for a night, felt overly exciting. But that exhilaration mingled with an unexpected fear of the unknown – of meeting people she had never encountered before. People clearly of higher state than anyone she had come across earlier. A King! Whatever he might be king of, one of the now defunct central European monarchies perhaps, he was probably all protocol and manners, and she knew next to nothing about that.

Standing up from her beanbag she walked over to her desk where her laptop sat. Switching it on, she was soon heading for Google and typing in the names Angarian and Whitehall. Turning up with nothing of consequence.

But if you weren't on Google, then you didn't exist, right?

So what was now this all about?
Lord Orinian of Alozzia made his passage down the long gallery, not bothering with either the elaborated elegance of the interior decorations or the people who stopped what they were doing to stare at his unusual appearance. He didn't look twice at the high, thin pillars of synthetic diamond and gold, lit from inside by warm full-spectral light. Nor was he impressed by the high, pointy and gold-mullioned windows, partly in stained glass, from where the sun streamed in and bounced off the polished floor of elaborated mosaics depicting fractals and meandering abstract patterns. He had seen it all before, plenty of times. His junior colleague, High King Angarian was a man who loved opulence, almost in absurdum, he was an ardent collector who filled his palace with furniture, rugs, chandeliers and the finest of arts and sculptures and every time Orinian visited Whitehall did Angarian have something new to present. The overall affect was an abode of power and privilege, just what one would expect from a man who had been king for three millennia.

However today Orinian was fully inclined on asking the King to forget about showing off his latest finding. There would surely be time for that later, what recently occured in Orinian's own realm were far too serious for these kinds of diversions, and something told him also that time was dire. He needed to talk to Angarian about this – and this alone, and he hoped his wordings had been clear enough when he had sent the message of urgency just the day before.

But you never knew with those races of the younger universes, he thought; they were headstrong and flippant, always running head over heels into one adventure more senseless than the next. Yet for him, a Tarondan going on 20 000 years old, he had seen it all by now, even races emerging and dying. Over the last centuries had he felt a certain kind of weariness in his old soul, a longing for peace and quiet more than anything. And then Angarian – less than half his age – may consider Orinian a bit lethargic. He could live with that, if only the right conclusions were made. Not only was his realm in jeopardy, this break in the space-time which held the Seven Cosmoses together – might endanger them all. On top of that, who knew what it was that had come through? It could be anything. Any powerful and horrid kind of specimen, aiming to devour them all.

Again, he thought it over, the course of events, which had brought him here. The piece of Mitarium – that highly radioactive matter, the terrified mortal man who had found it, and who had died of radiation sickness just hours later. Radiation sickness – in Taronda! Unheard of earlier!

Lord Orinian's young countryman Chervin fought to keep up with the fast pace of Orinian, almost running, since he was so much shorter in stature and most of all with notably shorter legs.
"Orinian," he gasped. "What are you really going to tell those Eraldans? Do you think they might listen? Seeing the seriousness of the situation? Since they are not exactly known for..."
"They call us introspective old farts, I know," Orinian cut him off. "Regardless of that, I hope to convince King Angarian of the gravity of this occurrence. I have to let him know about the anomaly deeper down in the cave system."

The same day as the discovery was made had he, Chervin and a few others ventured deeper in the caves. Yet not after taking all kinds of precautions, including weaving protective charms across their forms, arming themselves with both magic and regular weapon, even a laser gun which Chervin had brought back from Earth. Orinian had used his magic to make the ailing mortal man able enough to guide them through the winding systems of tunnels and caves to where he had come upon the structural cessation and the stone of Mitarium. But not even the paramount Alozzian Lord could save the man from dying. It was too late even for Orinian's powerful magic, the mortal with his fragile physics had been injured beyond rescue. In the end Orinian had considered it an act of mercy to just let the mortal's poor soul lose and letting it travel through the under-dimensions to the Lethe – the timeless singularity where it all ended and began at the same time. The unfathomable place where souls were remade for reincarnation.

But before the man had died, had he shown them! Oh horrors!

The universes were always striving for balance, for equilibrium, so the tear in the space-time fabric had almost remended itself, and there was no sign of any more radioactive matter. But tracing his magic across the area indicated by the mortal man, Orinian had felt it. Like a scar in reality, a thinning of the atomic structure, missing quarks and re-arranged electrons. There were even some infinitesimal fragments of anti-matter intermingled with the regular atoms, a clear indication that something was wrong, since anti-matter didn't exist in the universe where Orinian lived.

Obviously the gash had been large and profound, letting through something which was huge and strong and very old. Orinian couldn't even begin to guess what that thing could be, and it frightened him severely, chilled him to the very marrow of his bones. He thought he had seen it all during his long life, but this horrid discovery went beyond everything he had ever encountered before!

There was something else too, a kind of matter staining the stones where the alien thing had obviously come through. A kind of substance similar to ectoplasm, but even more primitive. That discovery convinced Orinian that this thing had appeared from a place much older than theirs. Such primitive matter didn't even exist in their realms – it was devoid even of quarks, molded together by building stones simpler than anything existing in any of the Seven Cosmoses. And still it seemed to have some kind of – intelligence...

-------

"Intelligence?" King Angarian's voice turned slightly pitched at the end of the word as he leaned forward across the desk regarding the small hexagon of hyperdiamond resting on the shiny oak surface. Inside of it was that slimy, ruddy-glowing matter which his senior colleague had collected from the cave in his realm. That unnerving, somewhat flickering glean seemed to attract his eyes, Angarian found it almost impossible to tear his gaze from the matter imbued in the diamond.
"Yes, intelligence. It tried to run away when I began collecting it," Lord Orinian said, feeling a slight shiver run down his spine as he evoked the event. "Some of it slipped between my fingers and seeped through the atomic structure and went – well, somewhere else. Nut much, but enough to have me really worried."
"Couldn't it just be the manifestation of some kind of 'gravity'?" Angarian asked while his sky-blue eyes remained fastened upon the plasma encapsulated inside of the hexagon. "A try to 'fall through' and return where it came from. Similar to the soul of a dying?"

"I'm not sure," Orinian shook his head. "This matter is simpler than a soul. Of an even older kind than what makes up our life essence."
"Still it's perceptible within the visible spectra," the king said, finally lifting his gaze to meet Orinian's. "A soul doesn't manifest itself on any wavelength we can observe when it comes to electromagnetic radiation. You have to have a Fratwian Capacitator to observe it."

"Gentlemen, on certain occasions you can envision the souls of the death through your eyes. It's doable in places like the Earth universe and even more in the Saninger universe," Chervin spoke up. He had been silent until now, while Orinian described the incident, uncomfortably recalling what had happened to him. At one point Chervin had got some of that odd, sticky plasma upon the fingers of his right hand – and horrified had he watched it leak through his skin, dissipating somewhere inside of him. That was something he hadn't dared to even tell his Lord about. Instead he had been vigilant for changes within him, examining himself thoroughly, every minute fearing that he would begin to feel strange. But nothing of significance had occurred and somewhere deep inside of him a hope had begun to grow that the matter was indeed harmless. At least to an old soul like him with a body originating from one of the more durable Cosmoses.

"That's no secret," Angarian replied. "These observations are feasible because both the Humans and the Saningers are young, fast-living races. Just like the Commoners in our world and the Regulars and the Mortals in your own. But also because of the elongated light spectra in their words, however the amount of man-made electricity on Earth has made souls harder to perceive. The Humans are congealing their world rapidly these days. Soon it'll be even as hard as our own, and a long-living race will see the light of dawn." The king shifted in his seat, "but I'm digressing. This bizarre manifestation inside of the diamond is no soul, of that am I sure. At least not what we mean when we talk about souls."

"It seems to me a fragment of a soul," Orinian pondered as he regarded the pink substance, almost as enchanted with it as the King. It seemed different in this universe. Almost as if it was glowing stronger, trying to shatter the hyperdiamond it had been locked into.  
"But souls as we know them cannot split," Angarian remonstrated. "Because of their old structure, they hold together even if they can be spread very thin and even separated between universes."
"I know," Chervin nodded his head. "If that wasn't the case we wouldn't be able to die."    
"Or at least not completely," Angarian replied, regarding the Alozzian wizard. "If a soul was possible to take apart, we would be faced with partly dead people around us. And I dare not even begin to ruminate how that may affect our universe."

"But what if this thing which came through can split its soul?" Chervin asked.
"Impossible!" Orinian protested, more out of habit than firm belief, as he didn't know what to think now. And yes, the King contradicted him in the very same moment.
"Perhaps impossible within our cosmoses. But not where this thing came from. Consider it coming from a place where souls really can be taken apart. Where souls can multiply and grow. Perhaps that is its way to procreate. Splitting the soul rather than cells within a body. What if this creature is truly bodiless."

"Like the creator god?" Chervin's eyes widened as he was reminded of the old legend which was found almost in every corner of the Seven Cosmoses. The legend of a bodiless yet sentient creator who had rendered these cosmoses alive once billions and millions of years ago. The Humans had their God of Abraham, the Saningers their Cosmic Mother and the Tarondans and the Lealians had always been revering the Starmaker. "You think it's some kind of god which came through?"

"I don't really think anything at the moment," Angarian shook his head. "We know too little to even speculate. We need more information, that's for sure! Now, my Secret Service noted this breach within the space-time fabric too. They have instruments to monitor the universes, they go through the boundaries of all the Seven every week, and then the information is beamed down to powerful supercomputers which analyze what is going on out there. The other night general Tirkar Baitur became alerted that something near your place was not right. One of his agents, a Cyborg, went there to check on it."

"They convened right after the incident and have gone through debriefings and minute-by-minute, step-by-step analyses of the finding ever since," The King went on. "General Baitur has already met with the best physicians and alchemists of my court and alerted them to the event. While troubled by the momentousness, no one was really shocked. For a long time have they been aware of the possibility of a disruption in the time-space fabric that is keeping our universes together, the question has more been a 'when' than an 'if'. Thus I learned about this anomaly even before your arrival, gentlemen."

"But our agent failed to find this odd matter. Not unexpected, since she went there using her astral body, which don't operate on the frequencies where regular souls are found. So if she might have seen this matter in the diamond here, she wouldn't have thought it something out of the ordinary. Her mission was to concentrate on the damage done to the universal edifice, and see if she could mend it."

"Was that successful?" Orinian asked, reminded of his own shortcoming in the same situation.
"Yes it was," the king affirmed, nodding his head.
"That means we only have to worry about this alien intruder," Chervin put in.
"Which is serious enough, I guess it's even more so than a rupture in the structure," Orinian alleged. After a second or so he went on. "Angarian, I wish to speak to this Cyborg of yours. Learn what she saw."
"If you believe that to be helpful, Orinian," Angarian sounded slightly reluctant.
"Yes I do. I'm grasping at strains here, anything could be helpful, any tiny fragment of knowledge."  
"I'll arrange for you to meet her then," the king relented. "Are you staying over the Hallow Night Fiesta?"
"Originally I didn't plan to, but that can be changed," the Tarondan Lord nodded his head and against his will Chervin felt himself brighten up a tad. He had always loved those celebrations and they didn't have them at home in Alozzia.

"There are also a few others I believe we should share this with," Angarian went on.
"Whom?"
"Jareth of Labyrinth. And Queen Sarentona. Besides, and just to be on the safe side, I've contacted a Voidwalker."

Orinian felt his eyes widen at that and he swallowed against his discomfort. Prejudices, he then told himself. Angarian had always been daring and unorthodox when it came to life forms, he didn't hesitate to let a soul bind to a machine or to engage those beings who lived less inside of their physical bodies and more as astrals walking the realms between the atoms. Then again, Orinian himself used Sprits and Ghosts as regular workers and he knew that scared a lot of others.
"I trust your decision," he confirmed. "Have you talked to Jareth and Sarentona yet?"
"I've sent diplomats to Labyrinth and Terandabar already, carrying messages of an extra convention of the Council and I was readying yours when you beat me to it by arriving here. The human Illuminate has been informed too."

-------

The buildings all looked the same. The entire street seemed overcrowded with their matching facades and the nearly identical cars parked out front in the street. Even the landscaping scheme did not deviate from property to property, giving the neighborhood a cohesive appearance. It might be pleasing to the eye, but it showed a lack of personality and a desire for conformity, rules, regulations and standards. She found the whole thing detestable and this afternoon, while walking home from the school bus, it grated at her even more than usual. Perhaps because she was alone, since Doris was ill – or perhaps because Sara was for the first time really observing, taking things in, not just gazing at her surroundings.

Before this fall, Sarah had never felt like she was truly growing older, but now she felt too old, too mature for the way she had lived for so long. She loved her best friend Doris and there were a couple of other girls at school she was found of. But the school itself? It was dreadful! Always the same kind of mind-numbing sameness, every dismal day like the next, no fuel for a spark of creativity or any room for surprises to be thrown in. This narrow life style of the dull London suburb was slowly suffocating her.

Not until her encounter with Umbrianna had she really been aware of it, she had assumed this was what life was all about. That it was wrong of her to expect more. But the strange visitor who had claimed friendship with her mother, she had triggered something within Sarah's mind. A belief that there might be something more out there, something beyond this sad excuse for a life – which was actually just a mere existence, not much more worthwhile than those amoebas in the petri-dishes they had been studying in laboratory class.

It was strange, she thought while passing the open gate to their large townhouse and starting up the shallow, tiled slope through the garden, where the lawns were now littered with fallen leaves and the grass gleamed with wetness in the fading daylight. When she had mentioned Umbrianna to her mother, telling about her visit, without going into any major details, her mother had pretended not knowing what Sara had been talking about. However there had been something there – a slight strain to her voice, a narrowing of the brows, not more than a twitch to be true. Then Julianne had busied herself with emptying the dishwasher, making such a noise out of stacking china on the workbench that further discussions had been impossible. Sarah had shrugged it off and gone into the living room to watch TV, but she still couldn't shake this feeling that there was more to this than just an old acquaintance her mother didn't want anything to do with.

But who was Umbrianna then? Why had she shown up just the very day when Sarah was alone at home and why had she not presented herself with a surname? And how did she know all these things about Sarah's father, while her mother refused to even acknowledge her – refused to even be mad at Sarah for bringing the subject up. What was it Julianne barely managed to gloss over?
King Angarian progressed with an easy stride across the palace's main practice yard, the steel-clad toes of his knee-high dark brown leather boots kicking up whorls of dust from the bare patches of dirt scattered between clumps of dry brown grass. He carried a composite sword in his right hand; his left was free. Practice today was with single swords alone and shields not permitted. He was dressed in a burgundy leather jerkin under a half-sleeved shirt of chain mail of the same semi-transparent, light-gray composite, leaving his lower arms bare. His flaxen, shoulder-length hair was covered by a plain helm with flared cheek-guards.

The heat was stifling, like the hot breath from an oven, but Angarian did his best to ignore it. Instead he focused on his opponent. Anything else - the youths and soldiers talking and sparring in other parts of the yard, the clacking sound of composite striking composite, or a grunt as someone took a blow - was a distraction he could not afford.

Angarian scarcely blinked as he circled his wife. Colombina panted and wiped sweat from her eyes with her free hand. Rapidly her gaze darted about the yard, shifting from Angarian to the swordmaster and back to her husband again.
"Don't keep looking at me, Colombina," said Onir Therain, the swordmaster. With his bull neck, barrel chest and shaved head he seemed as solid and immovable as Paladin's Tower, in which shadow he stood. "I'm not the threat. Concentrate on your husband. I'll wager if you look my way again, Angarian'll make you regret it."

The queen didn't respond, but she no longer glanced at Therain. Instead she made several short thrusts at Angarian's sword, which the King easily knocked aside since he was taller by several inches and had a longer reach. At eight hundred and twenty-two, Angarian, High King of the Celestians, was broad-shouldered but lean, with slender arms and long, agile legs that gave his movements a fluid, graceful flow like a spray from a sprinkler. He had dark blue eyes set above wide cheekbones and a narrow nose over squarely but full lips. Colombina had yet to focus because her mind was starting to form recollections of how these lips felt like when kissing them.

Colombina might be shorter and thinner, but she was fast as the wind in her movement, and her body language appeared moderate, minimalistic as if she was conserving energy. She had her Tremant mother's straight black hair and dark, slanted eyes but her father's elongated but lithe limbs.
"This isn't a ball room waltz," growled Therain as king and queen continued to circle one another. "Remember, you're supposed to be fighting!"

The duo had been practicing for more than three hours by now. They were exhausted, but Therain's chiding spurred them into action. Angarian was certain his wife would attack and he didn't become disappointed. Colombina thrust at Angarian's left side, then pulled back when he moved to parry, she then lunged toward his chest. But he anticipated the move and was ready for it. Knocking her sword aside with a vicious upswing, he drove the blunt tip of his weapon into her stomach. Colombina staggered backward and fell before she could regain her balance, landing hard on the back, but rolling quickly to the side and was back on her legs in a blink of an eye. Then the royal couple stood staring at each other, both panting hard.

Being the first one to regain his equanimity, Angarian shook his head.
"That's the second time I've knocked you down," he said. "What's wrong with you today? It can't be PMS, because then you are often inundated with furor."
"You're such an idiot," spat Colombina, but there was mirth in her soprano.
"Why, because I keep beating you?"

Before Angarian could reach out with his hand to take hers, Colombina shoved Angarian playfully in the chest.
"I think we should call it a day," she stated. "I might've been distracted."
"I can tell your mind is elsewhere, honeypie," the king responded, "you're usually keener to beat me than today."
"I had an encounter this morning," the queen said. "I finally went to visit this young woman I've been talking to you about."
"Saphira?" Angarian lowered his sword and Therain bit back on his urge to make them fight again, this was royal business now and not part of his department.
"Yes," the queen said all business now. "But she doesn't even know herself by that name. She has been deprived of a proper education and I don't think she'll be able to acquire what she is destined to do."

"So what do you have in mind?"
"I may have to reconsider certain plans I've been designing regarding Saphira. Re-write the staging. Not an easy thing to do this late in the arrangement. Especially not taking in mind who her parents are. I wish to discuss this with you later," she glanced around the courtyard. "In a bit more private quarters of course," she added before leaving the yard, ripping off her mail and throwing it on the ground. When she was gone, the swordmaster folded his arms across his chest and stared at Angarian. Dark hair covered his arms like a pelt; old scars puckered his skin like dried out riverbanks. The tattoos on the backs of his hands, a moon crescent within a circle - marked him as a Primera of the Hexagon, the most elite class of fighter in all of Eralda.

"You shouldn't taunt her, my lord."
"I was just kidding her a little," Angarian wiped sweat from his face. "But she was bad today; even you have to admit that. And she won't learn if she's not pushed."
"I push Colombina quite enough," said Therain. "She doesn't have the natural ability with a sword that you have, but she's not as bad as you think." He scratched the side of his head, just above his ear. "Though today was an off day, I'll grant you."

"I've seen her practice with some of the guards. She seems pretty good with them."
"She is. It's just you she has trouble with. Perhaps because you're her husband."
"Then maybe she shouldn't fight me anymore. It doesn't seem to be doing either of us any good."
"Aye, we'll see. It's probably a good idea for the two of you to defer practicing together for a while. At least not with swords." Therain chuckled at his own innuendo.

Angarian was not amused though. He picked up Colombina's sword and mail from the ground.
"I'm done for the day. It's just too hot to practice."

That was when a shadow slid out from under the portico vault. First he thought his wife was returning, then he recognized Tirkar Baitur, head of his Secret Service. The Commander came striding across the sand, his mind set upon the king, flanking him was that Cyborg woman Angarian recalled as Atrey Oine. There was a worrying frown marring Tirkar's dark brown forehead, something the king had come to connect with trouble, and he wondered what kind. Were the Umaks stirring again, or had there been another act of terror over at Earth, another set of crazed religious fundamentalists running havoc, killing hundreds?

But it was none of that kind.

"Your majesty," Baitur stopped and saluted, before repeating the gesture towards Therain. "We've had a reality structure break. On subatomic level. And we believe – something came through."
"A break," Angarian found himself mimicking Baitur's concerned mien. "Where?"
"Between the Taronda and Infraheim, according to our instruments of analysis, sir."
"And your instruments are the best money can buy. Sharantean computers and Tarondean alchemic appliances." The king robbed his stubbled chin. "Infraheim, you say. The Labyrinth."
"Yes," the commander nodded his head. "I thought I report it myself as soon as I learned about this. Especially since Labyrinth isn't the most reliable of allies too."

The king nodded his head solemnly as fearsome scenarios became illustrated inside of his head.
"What might have come through, you think?"
"We're not sure," Tirkar Baitur shook his head. "Some... being. Some kind of Alien methinks."
"An Alien?" the king lifted a brow, clutching and unclutching his sword as if he wanted to take on this presumed threat himself, face value and blade in hand like the epitome of a lone hero of ancient legends.
"I've ordered my very best employees to follow it up."
"We need to call together a meeting of the board immediately," the king stated as he tried to hide his dismay. "Including Jareth of Labyrinth and the Human Illuminate. And we'll need Voidwalkers."

At the mention of the Voidwalkers both of the other men paled considerably, while the Cyborg woman hardly batted an eye-lid. But a break in the space-time fabric was a huge threat to their cluster of Cosmoses and that called for special actions to be taken. Including calling in those daunting individuals they rather not talked about.

********

Standing in a narrow window nook on the first floor, her generally so volatile hands now restive on the slick marble sill, Queen Colombina was pensively looking down at her husband conversing the newly arrived down in the sunlit shaft of the courtyard beneath the Paladin's Tower. As the exchange of words went on, Angarian's body language was turning progressively strained. Colombina bit her lover lip, it was evidently bad news being delivered down there in the hot square, and swiftly she regretted not staying behind. But Angarian would inform her when they saw each other for the supper if not earlier, and right now she had things to do, people to see. But first things first, the initial tired elation of the adrenaline infusion had faded and she was drenched in sweat after the heavy regimen of exercise she had just put herself through together with Angarian, she sure needed a shower to wash off all exudate and grime and dirt covering her body.

Minutes later Colombina was lathering up sweet-apply smelling soap between her cupped palms while the steaming hot jets of the shower were flowing over her, soaking her all over, rinsing her hair and her eye channels and her mind, relieving her of both the dirt of the dojo ground and of her troubled mind. While she cleansed herself with systematic movements, she let her mind wander.

Sarah Seibe! Colombina had begun visiting Julianne's daughter first out of mere curiosity, using the moniker Umbrianna to ensconce her true identity. But her most recent visits had occurred because she cared. She felt repentant for the little Celestian girl having to live in a world of strangers, being conformed to the narrow mind of the short-living and envious humans and the restrictions of their meagre society. Sarah had never been taught about her background or how to bring forth and use her extraordinary powers. Everything was latent within that girl, resting, ready to be brought forth. And the longer the wait the larger the pain and agony when it finally transpired.

Now the girl was fifteen, a slender and exquisite beauty of china-pastel skin, wavy saturated dark-brown hair and with the bluest pair of eyes. Fifteen years of age - that was when a Celestian reached their maturity age and were allowed to carry arms, to vote and become elected and to buy land without their parents or assigned custodians' consent. They were now allowed to join guilds of magic and to seek and be granted permission to research the higher arcanas. Yet Sarah knew nothing about these things. She was struggling with Earth geography, and she has not been taught how to use her brain the correct way, she had almost as hard to learn as a mere human. It was not right to restrain a girl like that, and Columbina wished there was something to be done about that. On top of it was the problem with the horrid prophecy connected to this girl. A prophecy they would have to deal with eventually.

Columbina raised on the tip of her toes and stretched her long, lithe arms up in the air, until she was able to fasten the nozzle in the ceiling hook and then she lowered her feet again, stretching her arms horizontally, craning her neck and letting the steaming hot water lace across her face until she felt her cheeks redden before she quickly pulled the faucet over to cold and tormented her golden body with ice cold spray. Finally she switched off the shower, opened her eyes and stepped out of the glass cocoon, reaching for the bath-robe and letting the soft terry embrace a body which still had to decide if it was warm or cold.

The robe had the same etiolated, minty colour as the serene accents in her restroom, the towel she wound around her hair had a darker, more verdant colour, matching the large plants surrounding the basin, where the water glittered cerulean blue in the sunlight streaming down from the skylights. Columbina gazed with longing dark eyes at the basin beneath its crystal chandeliers, she sure would love to revel in a relaxing bath now, but there was no time. She had meetings to attend to and she had to figure out the best way to involve Angarian in helping poor Sarah. Something she had to do without angering him about not having consulted him in advance before she started to involve herself in the life of Lady Julianne's daughter. After all Julianne had been married to his old arch enemy Reikan, and Sarah was their daughter together.

********

A gust of wind rattled the skeletal branches of the elms and shook free some of their few remaining dirt-yellow leaves, which drifted down like stripped-off skin in the moonlight. The rabbits fled into the undergrowth as a still and oppressive heaviness weighed the air. Seemingly from nowhere, the being stepped into view, looking like the walking desiccated corpse of a human who had once been burnt to death. Walking woodenly between the trunks and down the rock-scattered slope to the silvery mirror of the lake, this zombie creaked and crunched with each step, dry or charred skin flaking away from it. In its legs dry fibrous muscle was visible, fraying and splintering while worked by other fibrous tendrils wound through it. Reaching the gritty shore, the creature knelt and dipped its hands into the peaty water. From those hands fibrous tendrils sprouted and grew, expanding as they absorbed water, diving finally into the fertile mud of the lake bottom. Thus the Being began to change, to adapt to this strange world it had brought itself into.

In gradual stages it transformed from a desiccated corpse into something newer, fresher. Skin, previously burnt black, became grey and slimy, and slewed away from red surfaces glistening with phlegm and dotted with blood. Around deeper burns, lumps of seared fat and muscle dropped away to expose cartilage surfaces. Exposed bone stretched and writhed to expose gleaming white, which was then marred and given a metallic hue before becoming covered by a writhe of veins across its surface.

The Being tilted its head one way and the gristly structure supporting one side of it turned soft and wet and began to sink into exposed raw flesh. Then it tilted its head the other way and the top surface of its newly formed head became flooded with hair-like tendrils which deformed themselves against the head. Then muscles were opening like summer flowers. The only sign remaining of what once had been an original sensory organ was a glint of green deep in the empty eye socket, yet even this blinked out when, starting as a shiny black bead extruded into position, an eyeball expanded to fill the cavity.

Skin formed first as a layer of clear slime which grew opaque, began to knit, thickened and toughened and finally conformed itself to the growing structures underneath. Briefly, it covered completely the new-grown eyeball, before it split into lids that sprouted lashes. Brown hair then issued from the bare scalp, while the skull underneath still shifted and deformed, as if the head itself was having difficulties finding its designated shape with all the extras it now contained. But eventually this settled down too. Now the mirage of a human man removed his hands from the water - no sign of those tendrils he had earlier extruded - and watched his fingernails grow. Eventually he stood, naked in the pale moonlight, and looked around, a smirk forming on thin, bloodless lips. On the horizon he located the yellow-orange glow of city light and began walking towards it.

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