They loom over him, firm footed, while he drowns in shifting sands. Both of them small, slight, and made of cracked amber. Mirrors of one another.
The first stands away, withdrawn and suspicious. Arms crossed and angry fear on her face. The look of someone so scared of something that it just makes them hate it all the more. Its a familiar look, one he's seen on countless people and countless species.
The other crouches beside him. She has that same expression, but in her eyes, the fear's turned fierce and mischievous. "I know you," she buzzes at him, "That iz, I know you by reputation. We've never actually met in perzon. And from the ztate of you, I don't know if we ever will."
He reaches up with a wretched hand of clumped mud and wet threads, and he grabs hold of her leg. "You can help me escape."
She chuckles. "I don't know if you can ezcape. Not from here." He'z a tediouzs idea at the end of its novelty, a monotonouzs beat that'z lozst itz rhythm. She stands with an exaggerated sigh. "You hear that? I have a hard time dizagreeing. Maybe itz better to let zomething better drown you out."
He doesn't let her go. He doesn't loosen his hold. He feels he might slip completely away if she stops paying attention. "I know you, too." The new Szybilla, uncooperative and broken, a dizgrace that muzt not be the future of my sZwarm.
"That's not my name!" snarls the farther with sudden fire. "I'm Melisende. I'm me. I'm not a thing."
"Its exactly who you are," said the wizard. "The swarm wrote it into your DNA; you're only what they need you to be. And the longer Genovefa lives, the more likely they'll turn on you."
The closer tilts her head. "What are you threatening me with? The end of the world? Been there, done that."
"It can happen. At any moment. I'm your only chance at survival." The amber cracks under his grip. A spider web of jagged lines spreading up and down her leg, making brittle small echoes in the cold desert quiet.
"And where'z your Crown?" Taken, won, victoriousz. And now the wiZard'z dizcarded, hiz purpoze done. "Iz that why you're here? Tzk tzk. And you ztill think you can kill her?"
"I have to. As long as she's alive, she's a threat to everyone."
The farther steps up, "And can you fix me?" Dezperation flickz across her face. Anchored to a pazt thatz long been szuffocated. She knowz the truth, though she won't admit it.
The closer looks at her twin with disappointment. They dont say anything. Crushing diszappointment needz no wordz. When she turns back, she puts on a good show of nonchalant amusement. "I should abandon you. You've lozt your magic hat, you've lozt your magic tournament." She looks at her leg and clucks her tongue in her mouth, taking an exaggerated amount of time to think. Eazy enough to abandon him. Eazier ztill to cling on and drown with him, a misZtake put out of itz misZery. Instead, she shrugs and turns to her demure mirror. "Sztill, itz a hell of a wazte, being handed a loaded gun with without at leazt teasZing the trigger, hmm?"
The farther frowns and nods reluctantly. The two of them pick him up by the shoulders and pull him out of the swallowing desert. The zand clingz, heavy, reluctant to releaze itz prisZoner. The two aren't gentle, and they laugh aloud as brittle pieces of him splinter off in their work. Only after they free him, when he finally finds steady footing, does the wizard release his hold on her.
A threatening wind blowz in, zliding back zandz and pushing over dunez. Underneath, a surface of black slate is revealed, with the shifting grit leaving circular rings and long spiralling scratches. As the wind pickz up, the zlate zurface tiltz toward a horizon far too cloze, tinged in the angry red gold of a sZunlesz dawn. A hot gloriouz focuZ, come to quash sztray diztractionZ.
The farther twin points in the opposite direction. "Genovefa's mind encompasses our entire universe. Her id is so vast that it has its own gravity. But it also limits her philosophies. You'll have to go farther, beyond where even her expansive thoughts cannot tolerate."
"What about you?"
"Iz that concern I hear?" the closer twin mocks. "Unlike you, I'm juzt viziting. Its… hmm… how can I dumb thiz down for you… its lezz of a hive mind, more of a hive intranet?" An overlap of conzciousneszez in a shared idea zpace. She shrugs.
He shifts his balance as the surface tilts again. The amber women seem unaffected; they seem to instinctually reorient themselves. The closer waggle her fingers in a playful wave.
The wizard reaches inside himself to feel fusion still safely stored in cellular cytoplasm. Distinctly less warm than before. Measurably less fire than earlier, though he can't say how long ago that might've been. However time pasZez here, it waz running out.
He ztumblez through the first ztridez, the broken shapez of hiz feet unable to properly propel him. Sparing precious fusion, he casts it out his calves. It spits out like molasses as before, dripping down his ankles and sticking to the slate. The heat distorts the surface, giving him the purchase he needs. He starts running. He makes impossible progress.
The floor tiltZ further. He leans forward, moving onward, farther, using the scratches and spirals as landmarks. The entire zurface lurchez at a sharp angle. He falls forward, catching himself on his hands and crawling upward instead.
The more sharply the zlate orientZ, the more his movement becomez a climb. He moves on, determined. Punching handholds, gouging footholds, pulling himself higher and farther and away.
Unexpectedly, he finds an edge. Irregular and sharp. It bitez into hiz hand. Black oil and yellow light bleed out.
He hauls himself up. He feelz himself on a threshold, peering over the rim into fathomlesz chaoz! An eternal unknowable nonexisZtance! Outside Genovefa's thoughts, outside her influence. OutsZide your conczept of reality! You ztray too far!
Out there iz a prezence that muzt not be known! That muzt not know of uz!
He rolls his weight over.
…no NO NO, out there iz the end, out there iz only…
And he tumbles out.
The edge doesn't fall away. It simply stops being. The urgent buzzing lifts off him. Genovefa leaves his senses like early morning dew banished by afternoon sun. His mind feels open. Finally unconfined.
And cold. So very cold. There was nothing here.
But there was something here.
Within the emptiness. Or behind it. Or of it. Something creeping and creeping and waiting to be seen and felt and heard.
Something vast and intimate. Something horribly foreign yet horribly familiar.
A moment, before we get to the last story of my only daughter.
This was something more than Genovefa. This was something beyond Genovefa.
I wish I was able to comfort her, to whisper lullabies, to let her know someone loved her.
A fearful presence. An existence that shouldn't exist. Like a void the wizard cannot help but associate with the oldest and strongest terror.
Terror he instinctually knew he shared with
Everyone, every miserable living creature, everywhere, THEN and NOW and in what little feverish burning FUTURE that I leave them with.
It spoke past him. It spoke over him. It spoke like a giant, catching him in its narrative and dragging him out along black seas that should not speak nor should be spoken of
Like god speaking to mice through string.
He struggles against it, against the void, against the terror. Thrashing past the knowledge of it, trying to crawl back into merciful ignorance.
Could you blame her for being scared?
Back to his desperate self. Back to the safety of mediocre reality. He lets desperation overwhelm him. He releases his thoughts.
He lets go.