Hemera awakens in the core of her world in the instant the Frog Temple impacts Earth. By good and standard practice, she is alone. The Land is empty and the session is VOID.
There isn't much to do until the First Guardian establishes. Through the still-cooling tectonics of the planet's crust and the volatile skin of its atmosphere, she senses the light of Skaia and the more tenuous background radiation that is the plural-consciousness of her fellow Denizens. Yaldabaoth was drawn this round, and Abraxas, and Nyx. Hemera directs a fond acknowledgement at the unsettling impression of absence that is the permanent signature of her sister's node and waits for the universe to begin.
GCAT is as a self-absorbed little snit and doesn't officially log in for ages, even though everyone knows she's right there, slacking off. Hemera compiles a series of basic alerts to process in the background and then leaves them to run.
GCAT registers the rise of her primary species and triggers Skaia's prompt cascade, a RNG species roulette for the consorts that brings proto-salamanders to Hemera's Land. They glub willy-nilly in pre-adversarial paradise, fussing with agriculture, architecture, and frogs.
The trees grow. The salamanders need no supervision in establishing communities and they have an instinctive understanding of the request infrastructure required for the puzzles Hemera prefers so much. With above average intelligence by a whole standard deviation, they make Hemera's life much easier. They develop half-baked culture around the profile echo of the Maid. When a party discovers Hemera's slumbering form and also manages to remember its way back to the surface, although they never return, they erect statues in her likeness and generally carry on.
Like the other Denizens, at this point in a session, Hemera tends towards sleep, long and deep, only waking occasionally to supervise the session's progress and gently terrorize the forgetful masses.
In her dreams, she is content. It has been so many sessions since she got the sort that glub.
The reports trickle in from the underground rivers of LOCAH: the tombs near the seventh gate of the southeastern region were raided, the ones near the fifth gate were hit only days before, the second gate, a week ago.
The damage taken to Underling numbers is staggering, even considering their unprototyped natures. Underlings are contracted by the necessities of the Land. They cost grist to make (more specifically, they cost grist to lose), but once generated, they can be safely left to their own devices, their activities only registering again as minute losses to the treasure collective. It's early yet, so they work a skeleton crew, lurking at the edges of paradise and awaiting their cue. Without a prototyping trigger, they are but bare framework models, the unfleshed shadows of default, effective but dull. Or, statistically, maybe just dull.
It is early yet for the kind of destruction implied by the re-spawn count, but the grist rewards of the dungeons remain largely untouched, which only further begs investigation. Someone has been through the temples, sometimes tearing them apart, in the search for answers.
It's not an impulse Hemera can pretend to misunderstand. And so, although she continues to mirror the unbroken sleep-state of The Dreamer, her sleep becomes uneasy. Although she longs for this, it's too early for the Maid. From the heart of Her Land, Hemera dreams up a Minion.
The Hemera Minion is not a subtle avatar. It is large, nearly as large as Hemera herself.
It is also on fire.
Or at least it so appears at first glance, with flickering tendrils of apparent flame that pullulate from the surface of its glittering carapace. The overall effect is that of a figure composed all of light and sheathed in golden, prehensile rays. Made in the image of their Denizens, Minions intimidate and inspire and sometimes run errands; they are not available for Strife except with the most advanced of Players, grinding in preparation for the final Denizen.
> Be the Minion.
Let's just settle this right now. This narrative is given in the third-person and you cannot be the Minion. Only Hemera can be the Minion. Hemera bees the Minion in time to catch the tail end of a Strife that shouldn't be occurring at all. Minions are not like Underlings, created of grist and broken down as grist; they are semi-autonomous extensions, capable of linking directly to the primary consciousness, unaffected by the prototyping. The salvaged memory feed of this one is distorted, corrupt, late, but she retrieves enough to find her bearings.
There is little enough to go on – no visuals, minimal audio, tactiles, kinesthetics. The intruder is classified as a Guardian and evidenced easily dispatching underlings. There were no signs of interest in build grist, but Underling skulls were captchalogued for reasons unknown.
"Tell me everything you know about the Baking Baroness!" (Begins the audio.) The girl that drops from the ceiling to land on her back can't be older than sixteen and is probably less, but she wields a pair of giant rifles full of poorly aimed thunder just short of the length of her body. She moves like a shark. "I know you've got the goods! Spill the beans or I spill your guts!!"
A reflex, automated and automatic: the Minion shakes its carapace violently causing a minor collapse. She tumbles off. There is something like a scuffle, but the intruder is just a human child, and the Minion is a twenty-foot carapacian-like primordial being in miniature, running with tactic algorithms shared by one of the oldest consciousness of this universe.
The girl points the gun at the Minion's head, wavers, then higher at the roof of the tunnel.
Hemera raises the Minion to its full height-- and hesitates.
How else could this go? The gun goes off.
When the dust settles, Hemera finds half of her borrowed body none the worse for wear but inconvenienced by the collapsed roof of the tunnel. There is also a much shorter exit route to the surface. She shakes off the rubble and waits. The girl's eyes dart up towards the sky, then back to Minion. Her pupils are not quite the same size. Directly killing an unrealized Guardian goes against protocol, screws with the Minion's stats, and is just generally not on.
« Leave. » Hemera suggests.
"As if! Don't think I'm letting you off the hook just for a little concussion," says-- a quick scan reveals her to be one JADE
CROCKER halley!!, fifteen years old. She adds, "I thought you'd be bigger. You know, from the statues."
« Have you come to slay me? » Hemera says with the Minion's voice, low and thrumming. Jade leans closer to hear it. « You know, the consorts say I guard a great horde of treasure, » she continues. « It's true. The amount of grist I guard for the Great Alchemy is enough to build right to the edge of this universe. » She makes the glitter of her tail incongruously suggestive.
"No way," says Jade. "I came to bargain with you. I've got your underlings beat, and I think that means you have to hear me out."
« Really? And what makes you think I would bargain with a lusus? All of you only ever want the same thing. » Hemera draws in closer, the light in her concentrating so that her Minion's smaller stature still seems to fill the space in parody of her slumbering body. Her coils tighten so that the walls of the cavern seem to be closing. «What are you bargaining for? Your life? The life of your charge? He isn't even one of mine. »
"No, not for, uh,... him. I just want every scientist wants: to understand the universe." The Minion's expression doesn't flicker, so Jade tries again. "Let me give it to you straight, lady. I want a Choice. "
« You do not get a Choice,» says Hemera, coils lashing gently in casual dismissal. « What do you think this is, an open-source reality? A Guardian does her job. She challenges her player, shores up her—pardon, his— weaknesses, and leads him to his strengths. It's a thankless task, and at the end of it, you get to die. Choices are not a part of the package. »
"You're wrong," Jade says.
Hemera remains impassive.
"You're wrong," she says again. "I know you think you aren't, I know you'd like to think you aren't. But I've seen it. We can do more than meet expectations. There are forces beyond those in our code, beyond physics itself. What is one fallible system or another? Don't you know about Betty Crocker?" From her Memory Modus sylladex, Jade produces a glossy photograph of a towering pile of hair apparently in the process of devouring an equally towering grey-skinned woman. She is crowned by an arcing pair of brightly coloured horns and also by a crown.
The Minion glitches frozen as Hemera shunts her memory through unused pathways to files she hasn't accessed since long before the beginning of this universe.
"I found evidence - she's one of yours, isn't she?"
« ... Meenah. » Hemera breaths. The Minion shakes free of its unguarded expression, softened with fondness or contempt. She resets, brightness settling back from a nervous flicker to a soft glow. « The servant of the invincible demon. And your guardian. Yes, in some ways she was one of mine. »
"She killed my lusus." Jade's voice is neutral, and she gestures at her torso. One. Two. Three. "Nothing leaves marks like 2x3dentkind." She tosses her hair back, all youth and arrogance and devastating loss. "Halley was more Guardian to me than the Baroness ever was, and no one knows her weaknesses like you. I want to figure out how she did it. And I want to make her pay."
Hemera says nothing. This isn't the first Witch who has wanted to change the world. Hemera loves the Maid with an antagonist's pure longing, but she isn't the first she has loved.
"She didn't pay us much mind, my brother and me, but the carapaces told us a thing or two." Jade shoves the photograph back into other-space. Her voice wavers in the air, but the pair of rifles in her lap are held rock-steady and something in curve of her face is familiar, loathed and beloved, an adversary Hemera was coded around. "I know enough to know that this session is compromised anyway. I just want to know more. If I'm wrong, what is there to lose?"
The Minion shifts uneasily and surrenders, falling into a Granting Audience posture, and Hemera suppresses a shudder. «I can't give you a Choice… » She retrieves her Minion's arms and folds them across her chest. « But I will give you a chance. Tell me what you want to know. »
Jade smiles. Her front teeth protrude unbecomingly and her eyes are Typheus green, wide and glittering behind her glasses, alight with terrible hope.
"Tell me more about this invincible demon."
In a handful of years, Jade comes again. Hemera is unsurprised to find that her placronym reads JADE ENGLISH. With her Minion acting as her avatar once more, their second encounter is pleasant, even peaceful. Jade harasses the consorts in a gentle way and collects the skulls of fallen Underlings she mows down to Hemera's annoyance. Her double-rifle specibus is complimented by a series of defensive computers with a distinct green and flashing roulette theme, and her conversation stays firmly in the realms of gardening and corporate espionage, far from her personal relations.
And she comes again after that. And after that. Jade's visits become a benchmark in a timeless space. Several years pass by Hemera's reckoning, several more by Jade's. Hemera can't remember such a restless period of dreaming. Hemera can't remember having a friend whose life was so transient.
She hears: Skaianet Laboratories loses a baked goods contract to industry dominant Crocker Corporation. Skaianet Laboratories has finally matched its leading competitor in patents, thanks to its CEO.
Jade has met the leaders of several important organizations and they have agreed to back her company. Jade has met a troope of carapaces who will ally with her against the current Black Queen.
Jade has seen her brother's son wandering the future.
Through the Medium, the other Denizens also report encountering a future guardian dropping by, raiding their temples, exciting the consorts, and then flying away cackling in an unaligned ship. They don't mention her saying anything. Jade always has something for her.
She hears: Skaianet Laboratories is sponsoring a global grassroots movement to encourage amateur sky watching. Skaianet Laboratories started an internship program for talented youths in the arts.
Jade has met a nice girl; she makes her feel more daring and less lonely. Jade has met a nice boy; he makes her feel more lighthearted and less lonely.
And then for years, nothing. Hemera has lived (is living, in parallel timelines) universes worth of quiet in the Incipisphere, and she has never had a mortal friend. But she has met plenty of mortals and she knows what they all do, eventually. Guardians don't ascend, even ones who make deals with Denizens.
She puts it out of her mind. This isn't all that difficult; she suddenly has a great deal to do.
Every corruption is instant-bright and cold-sweet-fresh.
Hemera has never been before and has been a thousand times, a billion times, infinite selves stretched through a void where time is meaningless. The paradise land is a cocoon of her potential, secure, enclosing, stifling, all smothering shadows and the weight of earth. When the time comes, she luxuriates in the stretch, awakens to true awareness, clarity at last in the pit of the planet, and her consciousness directs not the fragile crude form of a Minion, but the radiant form of her very own body.
Like unfurling fresh wings, she extends blight across her Land. Across the surface of the planet, trees whither, bleached sickly white. The shrubs and bramble and grasslands and flowering trees that once covered the continents all sicken and eventually die except for what few things that find their way to isolated pockets beneath the surface. In the place of all this diversity comes the seed pods. Emitting helium and releasing water, they are unnatural plants but all that remain for the salamanders.
On other worlds, similar disasters strike. The turtles, the nakodiles, the iguanas – all meet their own end-of-times.
By the time Jade finally comes, long past when Hemera thought ever to see her again, there is little need to monitor the surface.
She arrives, grief-stricken, down one brother and on the run. Instead of being met, she strides through the final gate and confronts Hemera directly. As per protocol, a Minion attempts to intercept but is kicked aside, by now fairly outmatched by a Guardian at her full power and her charge burbling obliviously from the depths of her sylladex.
Jade climbs over the Minion's un-sploded carcass clear of the path and flings herself through the final gate as though she has always known where it was and where it leads.
She takes the passageways at a run, boots eating dust, white hair flying, only skidding to a stop when she encounters Hemera herself who wakes from her fitful dozing in the aftermath of her Great Work. Jade gapes.
With a modest fleck, Hemera winds her light more tightly around her length, so much more present, somehow, than when she wears a Minion shell. She observes in some amusement, « You're smaller than I expected. »
The tips of Hemera's light tentacles flop against the ground in a half-hearted shrug. « You were gone a long time. »
Jade gestures angrily, waving a salamander skull. "The Land is dying. The consorts say you've been choking it."
« Everyone has an important job to do, » says Hemera. « You may have forgotten, but I am an Adversary. The consorts are not the only ones who prepare for the arrival of the Maid. »
"But you garden—"
« Did you want something? »
Apparently over her awe, Jade responds by sharply kicking the edge of Hemera's corporal form. "As a matter of fact, yes I do! When I was here in the future, I met the Maid's Guardian." She swallows and kicks again. "I knew there wasn't much time left for my brother. I know there isn't much time left for me. I need a place where the queen of Derse won't find me."
So Hemera tells her: an island in the shape of a moon where the forces of Derse would not look and could not reach for their stolen wall and enemy's Hero. An island of white monsters and ancient secrets where she might be left in peace. It's all true, although it won't be enough. There is no place in this universe that would be enough when her object-class marks her for death, and if Hemera could feel pity, perhaps she would feel pity. But she offers the false truth.
Jade must know it for what it is, but she notes the coordinates anyway.
The death of the Maid reverberates through the Incipisphere, a cosmic chucklevoodoo that reaches every world and moon at once, even penetrating the solid skull-matter of the residents of the newly named LOCAH.
And once Hemera knows, she had always known, in the same way she had known that the session was doomed from the first waking of her consciousness to the new session. That knowledge, once set aside, is now taken down from its distant shelf and dusted off and presented before to the Amphibian Council. Their Noble Maid will not come to save them – they must prepare instead for death.
Things continue as they are. The consorts are well off, for a race facing an inevitable. They mill about, as busy as ever, building elaborate crypts that wind beneath the planet's surface, encrusted with miniature games and puzzles. There is no way even relatively intelligent salamanders could carry out the kind of precision measurements and feats of mechanical engineering required, but they do it.
It is hardest on Hemera, who will be left to greet the Maid. She no longer aggrieves with her consorts who have their great works to carry out before their death. The records won't show if they were happy or sad, satisfied or discontent, if they had needed a Hero in the end, and so she doesn't bother to generate that need. It will be enough for the Maid to know that she was expected and honoured and too late.
It is a less wholesome emptiness than the blight, which was, after all, the destiny of the Land in every iteration of this session. The blankness of the future in a doomed timeline speaks of waiting without hope.
The consorts glub their last and only the beetles remain, picking over bones, and Hemera too, waiting for her purpose.
The Maid arrives, setting the planet's surface ablaze with juju energy, life sustained on alien sugars. She arrives again, reeking of corruption and poisoned data. Between sweetness and seg faults, she ignores what remains of LOCAH. Someone else deals with it instead.
Jade Harley radiates First Guardian and the void between universes. Her skin crackles with green, shadows and energy flickering across its surface in turn. She is a Player and a God, and she holds Hemera in place like space itself is an extension of her will. The parts that are human are more horrifying than the parts that are not, and Hemera sneers and uncoils where she hangs in the air, looms in her defiance and denial and all the power of her half-awakened Land. They aren't doomed. They aren't done.
She says, « You are not my first witch. »
She says, « Is this what you've done with your choices?»
She says, « You can tell that irresponsible princess to go to hell.»
Jade's front teeth protrude unbecomingly and her eyes are Typheus green. When her master's master commands it, she completes the Maid's quest.