|諸行無常||Extragalactic Containment Protocol|
|是生滅法||To Kill a God-Emperor|
|生滅滅已||Memories of a Bloodless Thrall|
|寂滅為楽||Destroyer of Universes|
|The One with Several No Good Rotten Space Vermin|
The shore was no longer black; standing beside it was a youngling, its lower beak dangling by a single tendon on the left side.
A claw from behind took her. She felt the panic from before as his talon dug into her wrist. “Damn fool… not there! After them, before they get away! Go! Now!!”
The child had collapsed in the water, listless waves lapping around its frail figure as blood poured down its malachite feathers. Another of its kind, older and crimson-feathered, lay bleeding from many chest wounds on the dunes. He wasn’t moving; the guard’s eyes were a deeper shade of yellow than her hair, and his feathers were blue, and she was less at ease knowing that, though she knew not why.
“I said go! You will obey me, girl! You serve the Crimson Throne!”
He held up a polished ebon-stained wooden stick, esoteric pictographs carved upon its surface in a smooth hand-cut technique. She drew a blank; those alien letters meant nothing to her. But the talisman itself… that was something she knew she knew, although this was her first time seeing it. He held it up to her face, that blue-feathered guard with the crooked beak, like he always did, and squawked, “After them! The assassins! Don’t let them get away, Ahjivash!”
A punch of air tore through her lungs, and she was flying. She could understand them, their beak-clicking and chirping, but who were they, and why was she Ahjivash? That was her name–she knew that. But how? Nothing made sense; she felt bile rising in the back of her throat.
It was a mild evening, for despite the humidity leering out from the jungle, fresh winds rolling down from the northern Ish’kar Ocean pounded the cliff-face every autumn, even after rather dry summers such as this last one. The ocean had been kind to them the past week, she remembered, stopping in mid-air, gasping. She could fly–she knew that. Why was that normal? She didn’t have wings like them. No, she wasn’t one of them at all. That had always been so. Even in the nothingness before, that had been so.
She could smell them. They were not of her tribe. They reeked of the Usa-Kyen Desert, those grim-eyed avians from a land without water, a land of dust and bone and hopeless heat. No wonder they were bitter. She would feast on them, she thought with a shiver.
Again, Ahji came to a stop. This time she did need to catch her breath. “Easy, girl,” she told herself, feeling the pace of her chest with a sweaty palm. “I am Ahjivash, guardian of the Crimson Throne!” Another chill spread across her pale skin. “I am the guardian of the ancient royal bloodline of Emperor Mar Vash, the Mightiest Venator! With my devotion and righteous power, his line shall reign throughout all of time, across all the world!”
Inhaling the approaching night, she soared above the jungle, following a lazy Reitya bird, its featherless wings, reflecting sea-polished topaz, rippling more like water than something living as it strolled above the treetops seeking insects and smaller birds for an evening meal.
They were getting away, using the undergrowth as their cover. She could smell them stronger now. They were foolish, going into the forest. Many creatures lurked in there–many of whom could swallow a Cyren whole. There were three of them, she could tell, or at least three who had gotten away. Theirs was not a pack large enough to ward off the native beasts for long.
She pursued with subtle curiosity that evaporated away the moment she was reminded of that poor bleeding prince, his beak mangled, his father murdered behind him, and was she not their protector? Where had Ahjivash been to prevent the assassins from committing their foul deed in the first place?
Spots of black overtook her sight, and she was without hope. There she felt the emptiness within, derelict as hell itself. This wasn’t her fault, she knew, but basking in the sorrow that came from this injustice served only to fuel her emotions, and she was seeing clearer now.
“No…” she whimpered, raking her teeth across her lip, “I wasn’t called upon. I couldn’t do anything!”
They would suffer. Blood for blood, and she would feast upon them. The thought scared her, but she was aware of what she was thinking. This was right. She had nothing to fear. She would know how to do it soon enough. Anxiety melted away, and she was home again, home with her family, her mother’s wide blue eyes pooling with tears, her father’s upper lip quivering like it always did. Their cheeks were sunken, pale yellow, slicked with sweat. Like mine. Like mine like mine like mine like mine. I’m home. There’s mother. There’s father. There’s the cold.
With malicious intent, her subconscious overpowered her will, lashing out in a flash of light, conveying words, phrases, and meaning on endless cycle in the fraction of a second. She instantly perceived this, and with horror, buried them deep again within her mind. That was a cold land to venture into, the distant past, and she was not right for it.
“No!! Stop it! Noooo!! I said no!”
She would not go there. That was the past. That was hell. The cold, dark cell was no more. She had been reborn as Ahjivash, guardian deity of the imperial Mar Vash line. She was the guardian of the most powerful Cyren empire on the planet. She was Ahjivash. There was no other truth, no other reality. It was done.
While spots of blackness, reflecting a deep, impersonal shimmer, faded from her vision, she heard naught but the echo of a voice of a woman speaking a language strange and foreign and forgotten. Yet, when the guardian blinked, the false memory was gone, and she was back to where she remembered.
Darkness returned when she descended through the treetops, and for a brief moment, she lost control. Her memories fractured violently like spiraling glass: a faint outline of a Cyren standing on the shore, a twenty-foot beast tearing off the head of a fleeing assassin, a bug the size of her pinky finger flinging itself up her nose… simultaneously, she saw all and none and was left only with the faint imprints of those which she had once been able to recall.
It was all black, and red, and smoke and the clucking of noble ladies wafted through the air, and she was in the emperor’s nest again, their food spicier than she had expected, but nothing she hadn’t grown accustomed to, and her belly ached, but that wasn’t right either, for it wasn’t humid enough that day–it was always humid, to the point of choking the life out of you, inside the jungle. That was right. She remembered. She had learned that early in her stay, in the before-years, before she had been reborn. It wasn’t entirely dark, she remembered, and it wasn’t entirely light in that wild place where the assassins made their last stand.
Ahji inhaled, taking in the raw, wet smells of the wilderness, and she was there, and it was clear, and it was real, and the screaming was piercing her ears as before. She remembered how she hated that. Running her tongue across the backs of her upper teeth, she approached the dying Cyrens.
One’s head had been torn off; one was fighting the scaly, twelve-foot predator valiantly, but quickly losing ground; one had fallen in the mud, his left arm broken and emerald-staining the undergrowth, and before she knew it, she had pounced. Sweat dripped onto blood in the mud where she pressed his skull until it wouldn’t go any further, yet she kept pushing and pounding and beating and spitting and sweating and crying and painting the mud green with the essence of an impure being, for there was no one there to stop her, and that made it all the better.
“He wishes to see you now, Ahjivash. Get up. Remember your manners.”
With what strength she could muster, she croaked out a meek reply. No one said anything. She was nothing to them. The blue-feathered guard ruffled his mane and took her by the ankle, dragging her out. It was not that she was resisting, but that she had not the vitality to stand any longer in that dank, sunless cell. The ground was always so cold. They hadn’t bothered to replace her long worn-out shoes, either.
She didn’t have claws like them–they didn’t understand.
“How are you?” the old man asked, his voice deeper than any of the guards’.
She bowed before Emperor Mar Vash, never daring to stare for too long at one crimson feather or another. “I feel… rested, my lord.”
“Good. Everything has been dealt with, Minister?”
The one with the multi-colored orange and blue feathers grown out long around his neck and up the back of his head into a frilly pattern above his forehead tittered forward, grinding his beak impulsively. She shuddered, dropping her eyes to the floor again. It was dark in that room, not like usual. They hadn’t lit a fire that night.
Minister Vok bowed deeply. “Emperor, it is done. She is yours.”
“That’s correct.” She could just picture his grin, those pointed yellow teeth of his, and his wide-set eyes shimmering with the intoxication of fervent showmanship. “I performed all of the incantations correctly, my lord. I’ve tested her myself. She’s yours.”
“I’m yours, Emperor.” She bowed again for no reason in particular.
His beak was twisted and scarred from years in the war pits. She could not stare; she would not stare. “And what is your name, child?”
“I am Ahjivash, guardian deity of the Crimson Throne. I am your protector, Emperor, yours to command however you see fit in the protection of your eternal, royal line.”
She had those words memorized still. Funny how things stick with you.
Exploding in plumes of black, serenaded by electric and intolerable wind, the seventeenth Crimson Emperor, Mar Vash, melted along with the landscape and was lost. She needn’t go back. This was smooth. She felt nothing, as if she were suspended in paralyzing foam.
“I summon you, Ahjivash, Guardian of the Crimson Throne, to aid us in our time of need!”
She felt as if cracked from stone, and the gnawing in her belly welled up then so suddenly that she felt as if she needed to vomit all over them. For a moment, Ahji looked out over all of their green feathers. No guards that day. Just hunters. Placing one hand over her heart, she bowed before the young emperor with the viridian eyes, holding her countenance steady. She did well there, she remembered.
“Rise, Ahjivash, and destroy the leviathan–the fabled Ar’Suc, World-eater!”
Gesturing royally, the Cyren made her keenly aware of their place on the shore below his tribe’s nests, which had been built into the cliff-face. Not a mile away, in the Ish’Kar Ocean, in a recluse of rocks and nests, a gargantuan beast was laying siege to their neighbors, the Yurok tribe (if her memory served).
“I am honored to protect the line of Mar Vash,” she said. “Shall I leave now, sire?”
His beak split, the crimson-feathered Cyren scoffed. “We are coming with you, Ahjivash. Lead the way.”
“As you command sire… sire…” For that moment she looked upon him, she knew she could have refrained, but something inside her had pushed her further. This wasn’t right. She wasn’t one of them. She was their guardian, their protector. Her strength was only there to maintain the bloodline of noble Mar Vash. And yet… something compelled her. Remembering it now only tickled her more. “I must say, I do not recognize you.”
“I expected as much, Ahjivash. I am Emperor Bek Raan, the forty-fifth crimson emperor. I’m sorry for the confusion. Please accept my humble apologies.” The emperor bowed low, clasping his claws in front of her, and for the entire show, she had no idea what she was supposed to do, so she just stood there, grunting and swaying, never looking the royal emperor in the eyes. “We have not called you forth in many years… we have not needed your protection since… well, you remember, I’m sure. Anyways, the Ar’Suc is closing in on the northern border of our glorious empire! Soon it will finish with the fish-smelling Yurok and set its sights upon us. The time is nigh, my brothers! Now we fly!”
She remembered the feeling of wind in her hair, of the sun on her cheeks, of adrenaline revitalizing her weary body. The girl would show the forty-fifth crimson emperor just why Minister Vok had been so trusted by his predecessor. She was reborn; Ahji was a pure killing tool, honed to perfection. There were none like her. The line of Mar Vash was blessed to be the only tribe in the region to possess a manifested guardian deity.
Its bronze scales shimmered with an alien luster in the sunset of that half-sunken town. Many of the nests had been ruined or cast into the ocean to be pummeled into oblivion against the rocks. The waves were vicious around the beasts’ legs, which sunk beneath the grey-churning foam presumably all the way to the seafloor.
She didn’t precisely remember how deep the ocean around the Yurok tribe was.
Their tribe had built its lair on a mass of rocks that had once been a cliff-face many generations ago. But after sea levels had risen (this was before Ahji’s time) following the end of the last ice age, the Yurok had been left stranded on three tall spires of rock and around twenty-four smaller spires a hundred yards out into the ocean. That they had remained there to this day was an impressive feat. Nevertheless, the remoteness of their town, coupled with the size of the beast left the area rife with wet, rocky, smoky, gory ruin.
Its jaws opened from a vertical slit. She remembered how that caught her off-guard the first time. One of the heads spit something foul over half a dozen of the emperor’s men. Their bodies melting to the bone in seconds, the Cyrens fell into the rush of the ocean. The emperor led his detachment to the left, leaving Ahjivash to cover the behemoth’s right. The World-eater’s tendril heads, slipping and snaking about like giant tentacles, were too many to count.
One of the arms grabbed a Cyren and squeezed him until his brain oozed out of his eye sockets. She shook her head, scolding herself silently for losing focus. Now was not the time to sight-see. Her side was closer to the rocks. That meant she would be dodging dangerously close to the Yurok remnants.
The adrenaline spike she had felt then was not unlike what she felt in remembering, and so too did the world become more vivid and for a moment fade, spinning up and out of control. Taking several deep breaths, she calmed herself, and she was back in the battle against Ar’Suc, where she belonged. That was right. She remembered it.
They attacked with energy conjured between their claws or from their tails, soaring in a swarm around the monster. It started picking off the green-feathered Cyrens one by one, leaving her little time. She jumped in, feeling energy warm in her palm. Grinning, Ahji shot off the front half of the first head that came swinging in for her, its maw gaping wide, its tongue poking out hopefully. She caught only a glimpse of the brownish-red liquid that lay behind its skull, which dripped onto the open mouth and flexing tongue of the head before the neck’s muscles gave way, and the ocean splashed up around her in a great puff.
Two more came for her, and she was flying, dodging their spit and their teeth, falling low to the water, then weaving between shattered rocks and nests, all the while shooting a stream of golden energy balls back at them. A few hit, but most didn’t do much damage. She had used too much stamina with that maneuver. She needed to end this at once, she remembered. There was little time. She dashed behind one of the larger spires of rock, then came to a stop, waiting for the hungry bastards to come after her.
These feelings aren’t real. I’m just remembering. The black spots faded, and she was alive with the lust of killing, the hunger it induced in her, the need for satisfaction, for increasing her power, for ultimate supremacy. She didn’t get to catch her breath before the slithering alien horrors came around the rock, chomping voraciously.
All it took was a slender white beam of light, which she had conjured from her ring finger, that she had stuck in the first one’s neck, to cause the monsters to give pause for half a moment. The injured one howled, eyeless, jerking, bleeding brown tar out of the puncture hole she had left. His comrade, or perhaps his other one percent of self, paused to whine in empathy. All it took was that one second, however, for her to slice that beam of light across the first one’s neck, and then across the second, and by the time she had finally caught her breath, their carcasses had disappeared into the sea.
And when she came around the rock again, she saw the creature holding Emperor Bek Raan himself, his guards decimated, no more than half a dozen left. The urgency that roused in her, the rising of heat and power and hatred and duty and loyalty and complete and utter awareness of what was going on… it was all so alluring. She remembered this part well.
But it was not there she found herself when she blinked next. No, that was the cold, sunless cell. Watery blue eyes peered down at her in the darkness. “It’s okay, Nae. We’ll be home soon. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
“No!” she screamed, breaking away into the darkness. “I am Ahjivash! I am no one else! Stop trying to twist my memories!”
With his frills preceding him, Minister Vok clicked his beak as he bowed into the light. “She is an excellent candidate… the very best we’ve ever seen.”
“I can’t understand your barbaric language!”
Falling to her knees, she covered her eyes and began to groan to drown out all other sounds. “Stop it, stop it, stop it now! Noo!! I don’t want to go there!”
She felt heat on her cheeks.
There was an emptiness in the response, a memory deliberately buried, and with that emptiness, she cursed herself for basking in the grief she had been trying to avoid to begin with. “Ignore it!” she commanded herself. “I am Ahjivash! I am saving Emperor Bek Raan from the World-eater! I am fulfilling my du–”
“In some time, in some time, girl,” Vok murmured, walking over to her with a sullen look in his eyes. Running a talon down her cheek to her wrist, he giggled, “You aren’t like us. You aren’t Cyren. You are not us. Remember that, girl. You aren’t like us. But…” His yellow teeth split into that rare smile he would give when he was truly enjoying himself. She was bitter for remembering it. There was still meat stuck between the old man’s teeth. “That body of yours shows great potential. If I just tinker with it a little…”
He guffawed into silence, and the age in his voice was only recognizable in the echoes, she thought.
“You’re not one of us. But you can become something truly great in time, by my hand. Come with me, girl… come on… that’s it, come on, stay focused on my voice. Just my voice. That’s it, girl. I’m the only one speaking to you, girl. Follow me. Come along now. Don’t fall behind. There you go. Good girl. Good girl, Ahjivash.”
That had been the first time. She was going so far in the wrong direction. She needed to forget the distant past. Her will was proving to be surprisingly unwilling in this regard, and that scared her more than any of these old memories.
“Kill the girl,” the forty-seventh Crimson Emperor rasped. The gazes of all the blue-feathered guards were mercilessly trained upon her. Their eyes shimmered black in the low light. The emperor’s breath stunk of corruption. He would not be long for this world. She remembered that. “She’ll not be my heir. Go on, Ahjivash. Do it.”
The guards stood silent, some quivering, some smiling. All were relegated to the shadows when she focused upon Princess Cek Rith and tore her little Cyren throat out. Blood sprayed over her hands onto the dirt, the girl gasping, looking up with shocked, innocent eyes, the same shade of viridian as her wound, and the emperor was lying on his bed coughing into his blood cloth.
“As emperor of this land, I name Ahjivash, guardian of the Crimson Throne, my champion!” Emperor Fen Vex, the nineteenth Crimson Emperor, bellowed, running his claws through his crimson feathers in a long-practiced routine.
She remembered how readily she had jumped into that pit to fight Gruk Mol, Chieftain of the Vekdus tribe, just to protect her emperor. She was his shield. And when she cut down the tattooed, oversized bird, spilling his guts into the sand, the roar that went up gave her a spike of adrenaline unlike anything before.
The fiftieth Crimson Emperor, Sul Vin, lay dying on the shore, and she could do nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all.
When the spaceship descended from the sky, the sixty-fourth Crimson Emperor, Mar Tulvith, called forth Ahjivash, the guardian of the Crimson Throne, to perform her sacred duty and, at all cost, stop those aliens who wished to eradicated the Cyrens’ way of life and enslave them into an intergalactic planet trading business from succeeding in their wicked plot.
She grew sick thinking about it again.
That hairless purple one with the tail had come right for them, followed by his guards, who wore strange armor, and punched the emperor in the face, killing him instantly.
“I am Cooler, Emperor of the Universe,” the man declared, shaking the blood from his fist, “and your planet is in my territory. Thus, your species belongs to me. Come, Cyrens, it is time for you to join the Planet Trade Organization!”
“You have committed regicide!” she had screamed at him, her voice choked with grief. “Insolent vermin, now you will pay! With the power of the Crimson Throne, I will destroy you!”
She had much righteous fury that day. He caught her first punch, elbowed her in the face, caught her second punch, and kneed her deep in the gut, sending Ahjivash to the ground, gasping for air. She had no memories of facing any beast this strong in her many years of guardianship. Not even the Ar’Suc had wielded half the power Cooler had in that last kick.
There had been no time to mope. She jumped up, charging the false emperor with all her rage and all her power. He had simply shot a purple energy blast at her, and when she went to block it with her own energy, it had grown in size, covering her entire body. Her own beam was a pale imitation of what Cooler hit her with. The struggle didn’t last long; when her beam broke, she was covered in indigo and black, and the sky’s rich blue faded utterly. She could no longer see the world.
He had shouted something at her that she hadn’t been able to hear over the roar of all the energy entrapping her.
Nonetheless, she felt it when he put even more energy into his blast, jolting her up and away from the surface. The heat had overwhelmed her body, the body of a guardian deity, and she had remembered no more… for a time.
The woman’s eyes opened, and she felt the familiar rush of heat, the familiar fatigue, the familiar pain. That hadn’t been a dream. A trickle of rage slowly spread through her body, flowing down from the top of her spine and the ends of her fingers and toes and coalescing in her chest, heating her up in the process. Gritting her teeth, she willed all of the energy she still had into an explosive wave.
Soundlessly in the void, Cooler’s royal energy beam shattered, cracked, and vaporized in a brilliant spectacle of light.
In all directions lay open space, and the distant flickering of alien stars. She hadn’t expected until then that Vok’s meddling would have granted her the ability to survive in space. She still felt as if she needed to breath, but the feeling was no worse than trying to hold in a sneeze. With her energy spent, the girl bit her lip, trying to ignore the pain radiating unceasingly throughout her body.
She had not the strength to fly any longer; nevertheless, the explosive wave had left her with some momentum. Drifting aimlessly, she closed her eyes and saw once more that blue-eyed gaze, brimming with tears, calling her back. She had been such a stupid child back then. But did any of that matter?
She could no longer sense Cyren; she was too tired to panic. Emperor Cooler’s blast had taken her far away from home. She couldn’t sense much of anything at all… well, a faint reading in the direction she was already heading in, but it wasn’t a familiar one. Closing her eyes and focusing on the energy signatures, she confirmed with cold resignation that the nearest inhabited planet was not Cyren.
The guilt came in waves. She absorbed it along with the pain, and by the end of it, as the alien energy readings grew stronger and stronger, the girl knew she was no longer Ahjivash. The Crimson Throne had fallen, and the Cyrens had no doubt been enslaved by that royal bastard. How he had been so strong she still could not fathom. She had failed; the guilt came and went and went and came, and eventually, she was too tired to care anymore.
She needed sleep, she knew, but she no longer needed to relive the horrors and failures of her past. Doing so would only once again rouse unquenchable pain in her heart. The past was the past, and there was no changing it. Besides, she had survived through all of it, hadn’t she? She’d won in the end, she thought, closing her eyes again.