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Retroversion Dissolution

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You are HUGH THE HEIR, a HALF-DROWNED HUMAN.

Honestly, even if you hadn’t BROKEN THREE RIBS in your fall on LOTAR, you’d have been in TROUBLE. You don’t like to ADMIT it, but you’re NOT VERY GOOD AT SWIMMING. So you’re LUCKY, VERY LUCKY INDEED, to have THAT PERSON THERE for a FRIEND.

Oh, you’re still not very conscious. That must be why THAT PERSON is CARRYING YOU through the LAB.

Hmm. If you’re not AWAKE, you must not know where you ARE. That’s UNDERSTANDABLE, but it’s rather INCONVENIENT. And dreadfully BORING. THAT PERSON is interesting, but YOU’RE the person this viewport is FOCUSED ON.

Come now. You’re not going to just LAY THERE in THAT PERSONS’ ARMS, are you? You have so many IMPORTANT THINGS to do. You can’t do ANYTHING if you keep NOT BREATHING. Stop playing around, HUGH. You need to WAKE UP.

Now what’s HE...?

Oh, WONDERFUL!

He’s a HERO OF TIME as well!
-----

His ribcage reversed its breaking; the water in his lungs swept back up his throat and flew from his mouth. Consciousness was restored in a painful heartbeat, and Hugh rolled over onto his stomach with a strangled wheeze. Coughing, he clawed at the floor with one hand and at his throat with the other. Panic blinded him; he rolled onto one side and kicked at the air because he was certain he had been dragged back from the water to be eaten. When a hand fell heavily on his shoulder, he coughed louder than before and threw a flailing punch.

His arm slowed to a halt, pushing through the air as though it was thick soup before stopping. His heartbeat dropped; his breathing stilled. He was not growing calm, lying there. Around him was a faint red gleam, and he knew that he was being frozen in time

A hand closed around his fist and another took hold of the back of his sodden shirt. He was hauled to his feet and made to stand straight-backed and arms at his sides. Though the gray-skinned man before him was taller by barely more than an inch, Hugh could not keep from looking up at him. Where Hugh was blocky and square, the man was broad and flowing. He wore a sleeveless shirt with a symbol Hugh did not recognize dyed a peculiar, dark shade of violet; bands of gold cut across his biceps. A small necklace hung around his neck, a ruby set at its center and resting in the curve of his collarbones. His hair was short, but showed faint waves in the streaks of that same purple from his shirt at his temples. From his hair came long horns, curving inward before arcing back out to sharp points. Hugh could see gills at his neck, and his swept-back, pointed ears had small spines with webbing spread between them.

Hugh felt as though his ears had popped, and he felt time resume. He began to cough once more, stumbling away from the man and staring at him. The man lifted a heavy brow, blinking gold eyes centered by the same violet speckled on his person.

“So,” he said, “you’re my counterpart player.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re British,” Hugh hacked. “You sound like the fucking prince of England or something.”

“And you sound exactly like my favorite fucking mutant,” the man said. He snickered. “Bet she’s confused as hell by your friends having the same accent as her. Then again, she might not even notice it if she happens to see what color your blood is.”

Hugh stared.

“So,” the man said, clapping his hands together, “let’s get started.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“What?”

Hugh took another step back. “Who are you? Where are we?”

The man looked at him with both brows raised a moment. When it passed, he rolled his eyes and growled a sigh. The sight of fangs filling the man’s mouth made Hugh take yet another step away.

“Fuck, brother,” the man said. “The way you acted when I first got here, I thought you’d be smart. Guess I’m shit outta luck for a while.”

“How am I supposed to be smart about anything when some freaky shark alien guy just appears the hell out of nowhere?” Hugh shouted. “And what the fuck do you mean how I acted? I’ve only just met you!”

Now now, just calm down and ask him his name politely.

He screeched, slapping at the air by his ears. “What the fuck was that?”

Oh dear.

He slapped at the air again before simply clutching his ears and staring at the man before him. “What the fuck? What the fuck, are you psychic or something? Who’s talking in my head?”

“An exile,” the man said lightly.

“What?”

The man frowned. “Listen, brother. I have all the time in the universe, but not a lot of patience. Stop losing your shit already. We’ve got work to do.”

Ask him his name! He looks polite enough to introduce himself.

Hugh stared. He breathed in fluttering gasps. Slowly he swallowed and slowly he spoke. “Okay. Okay. So—you—you called me brother.”

“Yeah, that I did.”

“Are you avantGuide?”

The man smirked. “There we go. I figured you wouldn’t really be a dumbass if you pulled me out of our session. Sure, I had a big fucking hand in it, but you can’t be stupid if you can do what the emperor tells you to.”

“What’s your name though?”

“Azriel Makram, emperor of all trolls.” He snickered after a pause. “And of you humans, of course.”

“Trolls? Wait, Amie wasn’t wrong when she called that statue a troll?”

“Brother, I have no idea what your Seer sister said about shit. Look, we have things to do and time tricks to pull. Let’s go.”

With neither a word nor a gesture, he turned on his heels and started away; Hugh hurried after him. They walked through poorly lit hallways that could have been duplicated from any hospital or laboratory Hugh had ever been in, Azriel leading the way past walls stained with gray liquids and red rust. The tiles under their feet were broken in places; the shards crunched and creaked when stepped upon. There was no faltering in the troll’s steps, and so it took very little time to arrive in a room filled with empty vats, raised platforms covered in etchings, and an enormous computer console dominating one wall.

“That proves that theory,” Azriel said in a sigh.

“What theory?”

“That these places are identical from game to game. Took the third gate off the leader’s planet, which goes to the transportalizer we came in on here, and four lefts and down some steps. It was the same getting off the Land of Sea and Gears.” He went to the console and swept aside pieces of broken glass. “The only thing that’s different is that shit’s broken. My lab didn’t have any problems.”

“Okay, seriously, where are we?”

“Right, yeah.” Azriel tapped the keyboard with one hand and spun a trackball with the other. He kept his gaze focused on the console’s four screens. When the uppermost right corner flickered on, he spoke. “There we go. All right, brother, take a look.”

Each screen was cracked in some places, and the one alight showed dead pixels at the hearts of its cracks. There was no static to see past, however, and the image playing there was clear. Hugh saw a small boy sitting on a porch. His hair was harshly cut, the black strands spiking up naturally. The boy’s lower lip was swollen; blood leaked from a gash that went from lip to chin. Scowling, hunched over his bent knees, the boy stared at the ground with watery gold eyes.

Hugh lifted his hand to his face and touched his chin. He rubbed at his skin, tracing the cut he saw on the boy’s face. A murmur: “Liam has a scar on his chin like that.”

“That’s when he fucking got it, brother.”

“What?”

“This computer locks onto space-time coordinates,” Azriel said. “We’re seeing your Thief of Mind when he was a wriggler.”

“Kid.”

“Don’t correct me.”

“But why are we seeing this?”

Azriel paused, hand hovering over a large blue button. He took his hand away with a wave. “Push this.”

“Why?”

“Because the emperor fucking told you to.” At Hugh’s angry sigh, he smirked. “I’ve got good reasons to tell you to do stuff, brother. Trust me.”

“Fine,” he sighed. He stepped to stand at Azriel’s side and pushed the button. Behind them, machines squealed and came to life. Hugh turned to see, for an instant, a human figure made of dark green slime standing atop a platform set between a quartet of vats. With a lazy splat, the sludge fell formlessly onto the platform; with a noisy gurgle it was sucked through a pipe into one of the vats.

“That should be his custodian,” Azriel said.

Hugh turned back, spotting the whipcord of a man that had moved to stand by the bleeding boy and the target reticule over him before the screen flickered and died. The screen immediately below it turned on, revealing an old woman with a squirming baby girl in her arms. Though her hair was light with age, its sleek silver straightness spoke of its dark color in youth. Despite her wrinkles, she was lively, playing with the baby’s tiny feet and laughing in a silence enforced by the console.

“And I’m thinking this is the ancestor of your Bard, based on appearances.”

“Who, Vita? No, she said she was adopted. It’s just been her and her dad all her life.”

A pause. He smirked and showed his fangs. “Push the button, brother.”

He did, causing more whirring and noise. A glance told him another of the vats had been filled, and he turned back to watch the screens change. The bottom left screen flickered to life. A small girly with long, wavy brown hair sat on a carpeted floor with paper spread all around her. She scribbled on the page before her carefully, tongue between her teeth as she ran the crayons here and there. A door swung open, and the girl took to her feet with a nervous smile. She held up the most recent of drawings to the slender woman who had entered.

“Push the button, brother.”

“Wait a minute.”

The woman patted the girl on the head with a small smile, and then took her gently by the wrist. The image followed them, showing him that they went to a room with a piano. The woman sat on the bench, gesturing for the girl to stand at her side. Tapping the girl’s chin once, she began to play. There was still no sound, but Hugh knew the girl sang alongside the woman’s playing. He frowned.

“That’s Amie, isn’t it.”

“Your Seer? Yeah, she’s the little one.”

“I didn’t know she could sing.”

Azriel shrugged. “Looks pretty fucking sad about it, if you ask me.”

A pause. “Yeah.” He pressed the button and did not look back at the sounds. He instead focused on the final screen and the image it presented. A man, square and ruddy-faced and chin covered in stubble from the late hour, sat beside a boy at a table. They sat bent over paper and books, a pencil held inexpertly in the boy’s small hand. The man nodded every so often, and reached to point out formulas printed in the pages of the open books.

“I was having trouble with math,” Hugh whispered. “I didn’t get numbers. This is me in second grade. That’s my dad.”

“Figured. Push the button.”

“Tell me what I’m doing.”

“Listen to the emperor and you’ll see.”

He frowned. “If you’re going to keep calling yourself the emperor, why are you calling me ‘brother’? We’re not family—I barely even fucking know you, man.”

“Everyone’s my brother. Your Seer and Bard? My Rogue and my Witch? My sisters. You’re all mine. I don’t hate you, so you’re all my relations and you don’t have to worry about it. Now you need to push the fucking button and finish this up.”

“Fine.” He tapped the button and turned to the vats. A fourth figure in the shape of his father appeared on the platform and was sucked into the last empty vat. “Now what are we doing here?”

“You’re the leader of your session. That means you’re the ectobiologist.”

A pause. “The what now?”

Azriel grinned. “You’ll see.”

The machines began to squeal loudly, letters flashing on the screens below the vats too quickly for Hugh to understand. Sparks spat from seams in the metal. He jumped backward when arcs of lightning danced along the surface of another platform, much larger than the one betwixt the vats, on the floor. In a flash, four young infants, two boys and two girls, clad in diapers appeared.

“Holy shit!” He spun to face Azriel, eyes wide and face pale. “What did you make me do?” He pointed to the platform and shouted, “Who the hell are these kids?”

Azriel took hold of Hugh’s wrist and made him push a green button. The slime in the vats was shunted into two different sections of the machine, and more code skittered across the screens. Again, lightning sparked and light flashed. Four more infants joined the first quartet, two boys and two girls once again, and Hugh’s jaw dropped. He stared as Azriel walked to the platform and stood at its center.

“Fuck, brother,” he snickered. “You humans have the softest looking wrigglers.” He tilted his head at the touch of a small hand to his foot. Chuckling, he sat down slowly and picked up the baby girl patting his feet to hold her in the air. “Hey there, sister.”

“Dude, wait! You’re gonna scare them!” He rushed over, fully intending to pluck the girl from his hands. When he arrived, though, the girl was giggling and holding onto Azriel’s horns.

“There’s a brave little Seer,” Azriel said. “Already getting to know her king.”

“Why—” He screeched at the sensation of his jeans being tugged at. Another of the girls was at his feet, hanging onto his pant leg with a serious face. He stared; the girl stared right back at him with hard green eyes. He grimaced and looked away. “Why—why’d you call that one a seer? Who are these kids?”

Azriel laughed again and put the girl atop his left shoulder. She sat there calmly, cooing quietly and holding onto his horn both for balance and to examine the texture. “Brother, you don’t recognize them?” He looked about before holding a hand out and pointing at the boy beneath it. “You don’t recognize this little brother?”

His voice cracked when he demanded, “Why the hell am I going to recognize little babies, for Christ’s sake?”

With a snicker, he leaned over carefully and picked the boy up. He held him out to Hugh. “Take a good look at his face, brother. Doesn’t he remind you of someone?”

When Azriel wiggled the boy from side to side, making his head tip back and forth, Hugh yanked him from the troll’s hands with an affronted snort. “Dude, seriously, stop that! Human babies are really delicate!”

“Tell that to this little sister here,” he replied, patting the head of the girl on his shoulder. She giggled, patting at the spines of his ear in turn. “Fuck, brother, I don’t know how it is that she gets to be all scared later. She’s all over seeing who the fuck I am.”

Who are these kids?”

“That wriggler you’ve got there? Look at his eyes, brother.”

“Why?” He glanced at them, frowned, and said, “They’re just blue. A lot of babies have blue eyes.”

“The same freaky bright color you’ve got going on in your eyes, brother?”

“My eyes—what do my eyes have to do with anything?”

Azriel sighed. “Okay, brother. Time for schooling. That machine you used? That’s called an appearifier. It makes things appear, and you were hitting buttons to make the people that the computer locked onto appear.”

“They didn’t appear anywhere, man, we just got a bunch of slime.”

“With a fucking ton of genetic code. And what came out of that coded slime?”

“These...kids?”

“Right. We’re ectobiologists, brother. We deal with paradoxes.”

“Wait, paradoxes? So, we tried to appearify our...parents?”

“Right. But we couldn’t actually make them appear because then we would cause a paradox. They were already in the time stream, so we just got paradox imprints.”

“But we didn’t try to appearify Vita’s dad—”

“Brother, who’d I say was her fucking ancestor? Did I say anything about some guy?”

“But the old woman isn’t her mom—Vita doesn’t even know who her mom is, for God’s sake.”

“Your guardian ever tell you who your mom was?”

“Yeah, she—” He froze. “He said she—he said...that...”

“Never said a word, right?” He smirked. “So we appearified your ancestors. Your dad, the guy with your Thief, and the women with your Seer and Bard. So where did these other little wrigglers come from, huh?”

He looked up to the machine. “The...slime got separated into two groups and then more kids appeared.”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“Then...” He lifted the boy in his hands, staring at the soft, round face. “Then...the genetic code got mixed and split up into two groups. Two sets. Sets of...siblings?” He looked from the boy to the girl on Azriel’s shoulder. She looked back at him with a mild expression, violet eyes calm. “That girl and the boy I have are one. They look like twins, Christ. They’re genetically related and derived from the people we appearified.”

“Yeah, that’s the truth.”

His eyes fell open; his throat twitched. Carefully, he put the boy back into Azriel’s hands and walked away. He went to the corner farthest from the platform and the troll and the infants, got onto his knees, and vomited. When his stomach was empty, he was consumed by dry heaves. He choked and coughed and began to cry. He did not turn around at the sound of steady footsteps that stopped behind him.

“What the fuck,” he hissed. “What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck! You’re telling me I fucking created us? That we were never born and just got made out of some fucking slime?” He stopped abruptly and snatched at his shirt. He slapped his stomach when it was bared and nearly succumbed to dry heaves once more when he found smooth skin. “Ohhhhh fuck! I fucking thought I didn’t have a belly button because it just fucking healed like that! I was never born?”

“And my brothers and sisters just got dropped by the brooding caverns, no hatching or being laid by the Mother Grub. Got rolled back inside by the watchers in the dark to pupate, and we all passed the tests and got picked up by our lusii. Same to our ancestors. And I’m the one who created us.”

He finally turned about, rising onto shaky legs. “How in God’s name does that not freak you the fuck out? We’re—we’re fucking playing God with ourselves! We aren’t normal human beings!”

Azriel grinned. “No, brother, you’re better.” He gestured to the girl on his shoulder with one hand and at the black haired boy clinging viciously to his leg with the other. “These little wrigglers? They were meant for greatness. They were created for the purpose of this game and its brilliant fucking goal.”

What goal?” Hugh screamed.

The girl let out a whimper, and Azriel shushed her before raising a brow at Hugh. “You’re scaring your sister.”

“I don’t care! What goal are you talking about?”

Azriel put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re creating universes, brother. I’m always the emperor, but here? In this universe of yours, and even this session? I am a god, brother. The God of Time, with the God of Mind at my right hand.” His grin widened; his eyes closed partway. “And I intend to have more gods join me.”

“We’re not gods! Jesus Christ, we’re just fucking humans! We were supposed to be playing a game!”

“Did you think you would really be having dreams on Prospit about some stupid little wriggler’s game? Your dreams were there to show you what you were going to have to do, not to show you a bunch of sparkly hoofbeast shit.” He jabbed his finger in Hugh’s chest. “You’re the Heir, brother. It’s about time you lived up to it.”

He slapped Azriel’s hand away with a snarl. “Don’t fucking tell me to live up to being the Heir! If I knew what this game was going to do, I wouldn’t have made us play it!”

“No, you would have. You always would, no matter what doomed timeline you make. Because no matter what, brother, you have to get to this point. Otherwise, you don’t fucking exist anymore. And these other wrigglers? Your sister? They don’t exist, either. They’re alive because of you, and they would be dead because of you if you kept throwing fucking fits about all this.”

“And you’re telling me that it’s never even crossed your mind?” Hugh snapped. “Being responsible for creating all of your teammates and how insanely huge that is?”

“Brother, I was happy as all hell when I figured out what I was doing in my lab.”

What?”

“Here, take this little bastard; he’s starting to chew on me.” He bent down and pulled the boy off his leg, putting him into Hugh’s hands. The boy stared at Hugh, gold eyes massive, before swiping at Azriel with a scowl on his pudgy face. “I was excited. It meant that I was chosen to be the person responsible for all of us—that I was already responsible for creating these people of mine because they were all here. And even better? I fucking made me, brother. There was no hand but mine in my creation. If that’s not something an emperor would do, I don’t fucking know what would be.” His grinned returned, wider than before. “It’s sure as fuck what a god would do, and it just tells me that I was always meant to be a god-king.”

“But I’m not a god or a king, for fuck’s sake! I’m not like you!”

“Did you think you’d get all the glory by just fucking around all the time? Brother, do you think I’m just gnashing my fangs over here? I’m making sure I take care of shit, and since I’m a god that had a major part in creating your universe, that means I’m also taking care of all this shit. You’re a Hero of Time, brother. You want to just shoot your teammates in the knees and fucking abscond like a coward?”

Hugh opened his mouth and was forced to close it. He looked at the girl on Azriel’s shoulder; she looked back at him. He grimaced and could not swallow. “No.”

“Good, because I’ve got no fucking patience for cowards.” He smirked and clapped a hand on Hugh’s shoulder. “We’ll make a proper hero out of you, brother. Don’t worry.”

Something shattered behind them.

By the time Hugh looked past him, Azriel was already turned about with a silver handgun in his right hand. The same mark that was on his shirt was engraved and painted the same color on the barrel, and faint wisps of blue mist rose from the seams of the chamber. He stared beyond the platform; none of the children had moved far from where they had appeared. They remained there, but all of their heads were turned toward the single doorway into the room.

Azriel walked with his arm held out before him, moving around the platform in the floor as he went. He stopped at its edge and crouched down to deposit the girl before continuing. When he reached the doorway, he pressed his back to the wall and peeked around the corner.

“Do you see anything?” Hugh asked.

“No, but we shouldn’t have heard a damn thing aside from what we’re doing.” He scowled. “That explains why there’s broken shit everywhere.” He stepped away from the wall, tossing the gun aside to shift it back into his strife deck. He turned back. “We have to pull the time tricks now. I don’t want them here if something’s going on.”

“What would be going on?”

“Anything that’s going on here that doesn’t involve us is something wrong. The players have to be created and sent back through time in order for this game to even start. It’s a self-fulfilling paradox. That means nothing can fuck with these little wrigglers before the Reckoning happens, or everything folds in on itself and explodes.”

“The Reckoning?”

“You ever talk to your sprite about Skaia and all that shit?”

“Yeah,” Hugh said. “He said that Derse wins the war no matter what happens.”

“Right. That’s part of the self-fulfilling paradox. Derse has to win in order for the Reckoning to happen, which has to happen for you to go back in time and grow up in order to start the game and the war. The Reckoning happens when Derse takes the scepter of the White King—it’s a fucking firing squad of meteors aimed right at Skaia.”

“Then why aren’t we pulling time tricks to stop the Reckoning? Isn’t Skaia important?”

“The paradox has to happen, and that means Derse has to try to take down Skaia. Skaia can protect itself a little bit using gates that launch the meteors through space-time, and these wrigglers have to be riding on those meteors to go back in time.”

“You want to put babies on giant fucking meteors?”

“Brother, you being here should tell you that riding meteors is just fine. Put the little bastard down and get over here.”

Hesitantly, he set the boy back on the platform and went to Azriel’s side. “So what time tricks are we going to pull?”

“We, my time brother, are going to lure whatever fucking underlings are running around out of here and then launch this lab forward in the timeline.”

“What.”

“You’ve been doing the personal timeline dance, brother—just affecting you and where you are. But when there’s two Heroes of Time—one God of Time—you can make a place like this go whenever the fuck you want. Just a matter of fine-tuning everything.” He grinned, patting Hugh on the back with one hand and uncurling the fingers of the other in front of Hugh’s face. “And you and your wrenches, brother, will be providing the fine-tuning.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“We have to lure the underlings out. That means, for now, these little wrigglers and this room have to be undamaged. I can make them a special little time bubble, one where no one but a time player can fuck with it and that I can send forward, but I want you to figure out the exact points on the timeline where it’s best for the wrigglers, the room, and the equipment to get stopped in relation to the rest of the lab.”

He stared at the troll, but swallowed and nodded once. He took a wrench in each hand and caught hold of two separate gears in the air. One gear moved fluidly with the slightest pressure, and he saw flickers in the past of an undamaged console with no broken glass to be found. He thought he saw a shape against the screen when he brought the gear forward slightly, but continued to let the gear move to see only two minutes before, with all the machines activated and a clock frozen above the console.

The other gear did not want to move; his hand nearly slid from the wrench in his efforts to turn it. Azriel put a hand atop his, and the gear squealed as it shuddered backward. The infants blipped out of existence, and back in when the angle of the gear was adjusted. It was turned back until it was only the moment after Hugh had set the boy down, and he held both gears where they were. The children stopped moving; the machines grew quiet.

“That’s a perfect setup, brother.” Azriel moved before him, touching both gears as he went. Copies of the gears came away with his hands, hovering immobile beneath his fingers. He strode to the opposite side of the platform, examining the gears carefully. When he was across from Hugh, he put his hands together. The gears shattered and reformed into a single gear, and he put his fingertips on one tooth. “Ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“Time skip under our feet, brother. Get ready to jump.” He tilted up his elbow, threw his hand down, and made the gear spin. The gears under Hugh’s control hummed, resonating so fiercely that it made his arms vibrate with holding onto his wrenches. The room flickered around them, bolts of red tinged lightning crackling along every hard surface. For a moment, he nearly shouted at Azriel, nearly let go of the gears. It was the sight of the clock’s countdown whirring by that made him keep his grip steady, and he held on until it reached zero.

The room shifted completely without moving an inch, and he wobbled once before tipping backward. Azriel caught him under one arm and dragged him from the room still alight with electricity. When they reached the hallway, Hugh discovered he had stopped breathing. He sucked in a deep rush of air to compensate while Azriel drew his gun.

“All right, brother,” he said. “We saw that the trick worked with no interference. Now we get to work.”

“But we just sent it forward in time, right? What are we supposed to do?”

“Think about it. We didn’t affect its space, right? Galina’s not here, and your Bard isn’t that powerful yet. That means it’s still here, at least until the Reckoning happens and the wrigglers actually get sent out on the meteors.”

“So...until it actually does happen...we have to make sure that nothing can affect the room or the kids. We did send it forward in time, but that doesn’t completely remove it from the timeline.”

“Right. We just put it in a bubble. If everything around the bubble gets blown to fuck, then it wouldn’t have worked. Time players see the outcome of timelines, and then we make the timeline we want work.”

“Then we’re still luring the underlings out the old fashioned way.”

Azriel chuckled. “Interested in seeing how a god fights, brother?”

Hugh managed to smile. “I think I’ll learn a lot more by working with you than by listening to Samsprite.”

He laughed, his smile showing a great swath of his fangs. “The woofbeast might be a good talker, but nothing compares to a god, my time brother! Now come on!”

They sprinted away from the lab, leaving behind the red glow as they rushed up the stairs. At the first fork in the halls, Azriel slid to a stop. In his slide he turned about, and in his turn he spun the gun around his finger. A blue glow suffused the gun as it turned upside down, and the glow brightened to a flash on the revolution’s completion. However, when the flash faded, Azriel had brought up his other hand to catch the longer, larger barrel of a shotgun. Grinning, he pumped the gun, set the butt against his shoulder, and fired.

The roar was tremendous; glowing shards of blue sprayed from the barrel, slashing the walls and peppering the floor and ceiling. He fired the shotgun three more times, ejecting gleaming shells with each pump. The hallway still rang with noise when he spun the gun and returned it to a handgun form. When he looked at Hugh, he laughed aloud at the way he had clapped his hands to his ears.

“Best way to make fuckers notice us, brother!” he said after pulling one hand away. “They should be crawling out of the walls to figure out where we are now!”

He pointed at the gun and asked, “What the hell is that thing?”

“This lovely little thing? The Emperor’s Darling, brother.” He shrugged. “I use gunkind.”

“Gunkind lets you make your gun change shape?”

“When it’s alchemized with fluorite gems.” He looked up at the sound of a low, long screech; his grin widened. “There we go.” He spun the gun once more, bringing his other hand to take away the second handgun that appeared at the spin’s finish.

The lights at the end of the hallway flickered. With each flicker, more underlings appeared. They advanced slowly, almost oozing within their shadows. They bumped against each other, rising and falling as they moved and jockeyed for the foremost position. That position was gifted with a bullet between glowing red eyes. The underling reared back, screaming in a long hiss before bursting. The other underlings halted where they were, looking at the grist that had fallen in their midst. They slowly looked up.

It was an automatic reaction to bring his wrench up and around at the surge of an attack aimed at his throat, and so Hugh slammed the metal down on the head of the lion-headed basilisk that lunged at him. It shattered, and he felled the next two imps that rushed him in the same manner. He heard the sharp pop-bangs of Azriel’s guns firing, and the sparkling explosions from his wrenches were well suited as an aural partner. They moved down the hallway, collecting the grist as they went in their careful destruction.

Another fork in the hallways formed a perfect T when they arrived. Both hallways were filled with underlings, hissing and snarling and shrieking in rage at the sight of the duo. They stopped, and Hugh could not help but take a step back to stand with his shoulders to Azriel’s.

“What the fuck,” Azriel snarled. “What are these assholes doing here?”

“Looks like they came to try and kill us before we got to Earth.”

“That doesn’t make any fucking sense, brother. There’s no reason for them to target wrigglers—it would create a paradox that destroys the session completely. No war, no Derse, nothing.” He shot the imps that had crept closer and sighed. “We might have to kill them all to make sure the lab stays safe.”

“You down that way, me down this way?” Hugh asked.

“We come back to this spot in five minutes.”

“Rewind?”

“No.”

He looked over his shoulder, brows raised. “No?”

There was a scowl on his face when he growled, “Something seems wrong here. I don’t feel like fucking around with time dances, brother. Not when we’ve got that bubble back there.”

He snorted, trying to bite down on a smile. “The god-king doesn’t want to use time?”

“Brother, make another comment like that and I’ll slap those stupid fucking blunt teeth out of your head. A god-king knows when not to be an asshole with his powers, all right?” He let out a slow exhale. “You down that way, me this way. Five minutes, brother.”

“Got it.”

Hugh dashed forward as Azriel strode. With the sound of firing at his back, he beat and slammed and smashed and forced his way through the hoard. He rounded the curve of the hallway, continuing onward with neither a misstep nor a missed swing. The hands that reached out to grab him were broken. He stopped a gear with one hand and cracked the skulls of three underlings with the other. Hugh went unscathed, and felt the energy of gained levels surge down his arms as he did.

The junction was far since left behind when he reached another split. Though more underlings dwelled in both, he heard shouting from the left fork. Not screeching or shrieking; he could pick out orders being howled. He kicked an imp, knocking loose a number of its fangs, in order to step closer. No matter how many imps he flung aside, no matter how many basilisks he leaped over, he never heard the orders being aimed at his person. No creatures attacked him under imperative; their focus was turned away more and more the closer he drew to a doorway.

By the time he stood in the doorway, there were no opponents readily charging him. They were acting at the behest of a tall creature that looked very nearly human, were it not for the hard black carapace shell that covered it. Atop the creature’s shoulders sat samurai armor; on its legs were loose trousers; at its waist was a sword so black it was difficult to see. It barked orders through a set of fangs, and each order was, “Kill her!”

Hugh turned slowly. The doorway led to a massive room, twice the size of where the appearifier had been. The underlings were gathered all round, charging forward one by one toward one end of the room. Every few seconds, grist flew across the room; it bounced off the walls and the ceiling. When he looked closer, he could see splatters of deep indigo on the walls. He could not see past the sheer number of creatures, and was shoved back when he tried to push forward.

Kill the bitch!”

An ogre head went flying, briefly visible before popping into a large chunk of gold.

Kill her now, you fucking worthless monsters!”

All at once, the underlings surged forward. Just as abruptly, a rippling shudder passed through them. A moment passed where everything was still. Then the underlings fell upon each other, snarling and ripping each other limb from limb. The manlike underling started, taking a step back as rage filled its face. It drew from its belt the sword, holding it before him, and bellowed, “Come on, Rogue!”

The underlings did not bar their erstwhile target from moving forward. Their dark green cloak was ragged at the end and speckled with the same indigo on the walls. Once more the color showed, dripping down their arms and off the tips of knives extended from wrist gauntlets. When he finally looked up fully, to the gray skin and small glasses hanging shattered off one pointed ear and curved and hooked horns, Hugh stopped breathing.

The woman who had thrown him from the roof so many hours ago lifted a hand. At the uncurling of her fist, the knife slid back into the gauntlet. She took the broken glasses from her face and dropped them to the floor. The indigo slid down her face from a cut on her forehead. Though he suddenly understood it was her blood, it was a fact registered in the very furthest reaches of his mind. What he knew, what he understood, what made him stop breathing, was the sheer unfettered rage on the woman’s face.

“Can’t fucking control an Agent, can you?” the creature shouted. “Never could fucking control us, you little bitch!”

The woman breathed in snarling pants. She walked forward and curled her hand into a fist once more.

“Come here! Fucking try it! I fucking dare you!”

She took two dashing steps forward and leaped into the air. The Agent swore at her, bringing the sword down to swing up as she descended. It swung with a great cry, but—

Hugh did nothing. He did not alter time: he did not slow its flow or bring it to a halt. The woman somehow stopped in the air, feet hanging bare millimeters from where the sword swept through the air. The Agent turned back, lifted its head to look up at her with rage and horror twisting its face. It tried to pull the sword back for another swing, but she finally fell upon him with her lips pulled back in a wide sneer and her eyes stretched open so much they were painful to look at. Her knives stabbed into the Agent’s throat, and red blood sprayed onto her face. The Agent seized, limbs flailing as they toppled to the floor. Its arms and legs twitched, and the woman knelt over it until the spasms had ceased.

She smiled. She licked her fangs and spat the blood from her mouth. A soft hissing chuckle came from between her cleaned teeth.

Hugh choked.

She looked up slowly. The smile lost its cheer; her lips became a flat line. She rose to her feet, opening one hand to wipe the red blood away. When her hand fell to her side, rage had once more filled her face. She closed her hand and started toward him.

Hugh turned and ran.

“Azriel!” he screamed. “Azriel!” There were no underlings to pass, and he nearly ran into the curved wall in his panic. Azriel stood calmly in the junction of the hallway, hands settled in the pockets of his jeans. At Hugh’s appearance, he raised a brow. When the human sprinted past him, turning to run up the hall they had first come down, he blinked, sputtered, and bolted after him.

“Where the fuck are you going?” he shouted.

“Away! Holy shit, man, away! How do we get off this fucking meteor?”

“What are you flipping your shit about, brother?”

“There’s a fucking crazy monster back there!”

“And you think I can’t take it down?” He reached out to grab Hugh’s wrist and forced him to stop. He turned back, drawing out his gun, and said, “Brother, I told you I’d show you how a god fights. That means no fucking running away like a scared little grub.” He lifted his gun and aimed down the hallway.

Under all his panting, Hugh could still hear the pounding footsteps of someone running through the halls. He looked past Azriel almost begrudgingly, still taking steps backward as he watched. Within seconds, the woman had slid into the junction, and she began to sprint up the hallway with her arms trailing behind her, knives glinting in the light.

Azriel froze. “Oh no.” He threw the gun aside into his deck and growled, “Shit!” He turned about, grabbed Hugh’s wrist once again, and hauled him into a new dash. In silence, he dragged Hugh behind him. They ran through halls and doors and rooms and up stairways, and Hugh could always hear the woman’s footsteps and her snarling breath as they went. He dared to turn around.

She was leaping, lunging, reaching out her right arm and knife toward them. When Azriel reached over his shoulder and fired at her, she bent her arm back to guard. The bullet struck the gauntlet, and she stumbled at the unreasonable force from the handgun’s shot. Hugh had time enough to see her shake her arm, flinging blood here and there as it poured up and down her arm, before Azriel pulled him through another doorway. He turned back to look forward, and saw endless black.

Meteors peppered the black, floating and turning slowly. He could see a purple shape in the distance, past the edge of the meteors, but his mind decided to focus on the issue of breathing in what seemed to be outer space. The issue was rendered moot when Azriel continued to drag him along, forcing them to run to the edge of the meteor—

“Dude no no no no nonoNO—”

They leaped off. Hugh’s throat curled in upon itself; he could not scream. They did not fall, and they did not float. They continued to move forward, Azriel pulling him on. When the troll hurled him ahead, he let out a tiny shriek and flailed in space. He managed to turn around, staring as the woman launched off the meteor and flew straight at Azriel. He floated, arms up and hands empty.

With a vicious snarl, she swiped at his face with her wounded arm. He caught her wrist and squeezed hard. She grunted, face twisted in pain as her hand opened. Eyes widening, she lashed out with her legs and kicked at his stomach. He twisted his body up, dodging the kick to come back with his own. It was not at her volition that she froze in the air then, and she wheezed when his heels dug into her stomach. Her response was to stab at his throat; her punishment was to be frozen in time again and punched in the nose. Blood would have spurted to coat Azriel’s knuckles were it not for the time freeze, and he drew back his hand almost leisurely to avoid it.

She gagged and coughed when she was returned to currency, reaching up to clutch at her face. Her eyes were furious when he grabbed her head, but they lost all emotion and focus with the head-butt she received. For a moment, her eyes remained open wide. With the drifting of her hands from her face, though, her eyelids drooped and she went limp.

Azriel let out a long sigh, a growl curling against the roof of his mouth. “Fucking dammit, serpent sister. What’ve you been doing out here?”

“You know her?”

He frowned when he turned around. “Why the fuck wouldn’t I know one of my people? This is my right hand, brother.”

“Your—your what? She just tried to fucking murder us! She was probably going to kill all the kids!”

His frown did not diminish when he looked at the woman. He reached out and caught carefully her by the throat. He held her where she was, keeping her from drifting away. For a long while, he stared at her face, at the blood smeared and still oozing from her nose. There was a clear break there, and he snorted another sigh. “I don’t think so, brother.”

Why the hell not?”

“She wouldn’t kill wrigglers. I told her to never do that.”

“She’s a fucking psycho! What sort of right hand tries to murder her emperor?”

“One that’s been away from her moirail for way too long.”

“What difference does that make?”

Azriel reached up with his other hand. He put his fingers around her nose, felt for the break, and pinched hard. She twitched in her unconsciousness, but there was no longer a twist in her nose when he took his hand away. “When she’s away from my little witch sister, she gets like this. She gets angry and out of control, but most of all? She gets fucking stupid, brother. Stupid and simple. There’s a reason she was up here, and I’m damn sure it wasn’t to cut any wriggler throats.”

“What would she be here for?”

Silence. He looked away from her. He looked beyond the meteors, far down below to the faint blue light there. He looked up to the purple shape. His eyes narrowed. “Brother?”

“What?”

“Which are you, Prospit or Derse? Where’s your dreamself?”

“Prospit.”

“Did your friends ever tell you which moon they’re on?”

“No.” He fidgeted. “But I never saw Amie or Liam on Prospit when I left my tower. Just Vita.”

A long, silent pause. “All right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? What do our dreamselves have to do with this?”

“Do you hear anything right now, brother?”

“Wait, what? Why are you asking me that?”

“Answer the emperor.”

“Fuck, fine—no, I don’t hear anything.”

“Listen harder.”

He opened, but closed it and rolled his eyes. In silence he waited. He tilted his head from side to side, twitching his ears every so often. There was nothing but the sound of his breathing to be heard, and he made to open his mouth to report it.

Don’t you hear the singing, Hugh?

“Singing?” He looked about. “What singing?”

“An exile from Derse would know,” Azriel murmured. “Keep listening, brother.”

“For wha—”

A needle squirmed through his ear. He yelped and clapped a hand to the side of his head, but felt no blood on his fingers. A twin for the needle arrived in his other ear, resonating with a sound akin to a screeching violin string. The taste of air and copper filled his mouth, and he coughed out the blood that had flowed down his throat from his nose.

“Jesus Christ, what’s that fucking sound?”

Azriel frowned, eyes narrowing. “Fuck. We’re in the Veil, brother.” Still holding the woman by the throat, he flew to Hugh and took hold of his wrist. “I’m getting you the fuck out of here. The Gods hate Prospit dreamers, and we can’t deal with their singing unless we’re gods.”

They landed on the meteor, gravity reasserting itself and bringing Hugh’s feet hard to the stone. Azriel set the woman down with slight care, letting her fall as though she was boneless once her rear was on the ground. He hauled Hugh back into the laboratory, leading him to a transportalizer.

“Take this back to your planet,” he said. “I’m going to deal with this.”

Hugh winced, feeling as though there were fingernails scrabbling inside his skull. “What the hell is this?” He felt the need to sneeze with all the blood in his nose. Though he struggled against it, he had to spin away from Azriel to keep from spraying blood on him.

“Brother, I’ll explain it later. You need to leave before the Gods really try to sing to you. I’m going to deal with my serpent sister and get back to you, don’t worry.”

He pinched his eyes closed, but opened one partway to look at the troll before him. A high note pierced through the center of his skull, lancing to the needles that had joined the fingernails and making it all resonate with the same screeching wail as before. He choked and nearly screamed.

“Get fucking going, brother!” Azriel snapped. He shoved Hugh backward, and stood by as the transportalizer flashed him away. He watched the tiny wisp of steam that rose from the platform dissipate before turning around and walking outside.

The woman was sitting up, spine bent and shoulders slumped. She swayed from side to side, head almost lolling. When Azriel came to her side and crouched down, her bleary eyes refocused and filled with rage. He slammed her to the ground, pinning her arms and jamming his knee into her pelvis to keep her from writhing and kicking. She snarled at him, but could not throw him off.

“I know you’re listening to me, Devaki,” he said. “You know that I can beat the shit out of you until the end of time, so fucking listen, sister.”

Her snarling died down; she glared at him.

“You’re doing something that makes sense to you when you’re pissed off like this,” he murmured. “That means it got into you before you flipped out. Listen, sister, you need to think. I know I’m not Sitara—I can’t make you calm down. But I need you to tell me what the fuck you’ve got in your head.”

Her jaw twitched; her lips squirmed.

“Come on, sister, one fucking word.”

She snarled, eyes closing tightly. Her head rolled; she beat it lightly against the ground.

Think for me, Devaki. Speak for your emperor.”

“Ssssss...”

Talk!”

She struck her head against the ground once more. She lifted her head and opened her eyes, and there was focus in them. “Sssssseer. Seer.”

He breathed slowly. “That’s what you want?”

A smile broke on her face; she nodded swiftly.

“I see.” He looked over his shoulder toward the purple shape. “And she’s on Derse.”

She nodded again.

He turned back to her. He watched her smile, anxious and hopeful. He watched the smile fade, her eyes growing desperate. Finally, he watched her lips twist in a sneer and held her down as she struggled to throw him off. She howled at him, and he heard it alongside the singing of the Gods in the Veil.

“I’m going to cut you a deal, sister. You always like my deals.”

She went quiet and panted, nose clogged with blood.

“There was a Derse Agent in there. It wasn’t any trouble to kill him, but he recognized me. An Agent of a different session shouldn’t recognize foreign players. Something happened when we got pulled in here.”

She grit her teeth, brows furrowing.

“So, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to let you go.”

Her sneer vanished. Her eyes narrowed slightly, head tilting in to listen.

“I’m going to let you go. I’m going to find Sitara, and then we’re going to find you again.”

She blinked slowly.

“In the meantime? I want you to kill every Derse Agent that you come across, because they’re going to try and fuck with all of us. Those little wrigglers in the lab, too, and we can’t have that happen.” He glanced over his shoulder. “You want the Seer, right?”

Hesitantly, she nodded once.

He let go of her wrists. He took his knee off her and stood up. When he held out his hand, she reached for it. He pulled her to her feet and pointed to Derse. “So go.”

She stared. Her eyes drifted to the planet and its leashed moon and returned to his face.

“I said ‘go,’ Devaki. It’s fine.”

Her smile returned. It became a grin when he ruffled her hair.

“Better hurry up, sister. The Agents are stationed there, and you don’t want to let them beat you to her. Right?”

She blinked. Her smile died once again, her snarl bubbling up when she spun to face Derse.

“Get going, serpent sister.”

She sprinted away and was all but a blur of speed when she leaped from the meteor. As she faded with distance, he chuckled at the fleeting sight of indigo fluttering against the dark.

“Didn’t know it was that important to you, Devaki.” He strode to the edge of the meteor and looked down. Skaia was faint from so far away; the planets were specks barely visible with its light. “Well, if one god’s going to be serious about this shit now, might as well make it two.”

From his back, imperial purple unfurled.

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