I didn't have the slightest inkling of what I was looking at, but it sure was wizard...
--Arminwen Janai T'Evagduran, 2nd Princess of Malan
Bannor pulled Sarai closer as he and she, along with the rest of the sixteen members of their group, gawked at the huge creature that had greeted them. Even wearing the body of an ascendant, Bannor still felt puny compared to Hyperion. In fact, the ancient reminded Bannor a great deal of the Baronian coven dreadnoughts. Marna had mentioned that she felt that the first ones had been meant to fight the Chyrith and their creations the Baronians. The first one was strong evidence to support that theory. Looking around the green chamber, he felt the incredible potential humming in the walls. His bones vibrated. Magic filled this place. Somewhere in the heart of it was Gaea.
The group spread out, gazes locked on Hyperion. The ancient first one took a broad stance and put its hands behind its back. He said and did nothing more. Though one couldn't tell, Bannor felt sure those glowing green eyes were tracking their movements.
Apparently unafraid of the creature, auburn-haired Daena walked right up to him and stared up into his glowing eyes. After Kell's enhancements, she stood head and shoulders above most men, and looked anything but skinny. Compared to Hyperion she looked like a child. "Sooo..." Daena drew the word out. "This is a first one? Dang, I feel like a skinny runt."
Bannor saw Hyperion's gaze focus on her, but he didn't do or say anything. Only the slightest creasing in his brow indicated that he had understood her words in any way.
"Well, I guess you'd say he's half of one," Wren remarked. "He never merged with his tao. Over the millennia I think the pantheon lords continued to get more massive, so they started storing that extra mass in those flux stones. Then they didn't need to look like this anymore."
Glowing blonde Idun, who stood next to Wren, tilted her head. "That's quite a package."
Wren's gaze followed where her grandmother was looking. Her cheeks colored. "Nonna! I swear--you and Des..."
Bannor saw the first one's eyebrow raise. It did seem to understand what they said after a fashion. It either didn't care or simply had no real response. "Wren, the pantheon lords, they aren't--like this. He doesn't seem to have much self-will."
"No," Wren shook her head. "See, Nonna's ancestors were another step more evolved than Hyperion here. No offense to him, they were smarter. Unfortunately, they were so smart that they didn't want their consciousness subverted by the alphas. It's been a lot of generations since then, and as you can tell," she rubbed her grandmother's shoulder. "They've become their own people. Some of them decent, some who need their arses stomped."
"Fascinating," Marna said walking around Hyperion from a safe distance. "It's hard to believe they were brilliant enough to develop a vessel this sophisticated, yet not anticipate the creatures rebelling."
"I don't buy it," Cassandra said also studying him from several steps away. "It's too fundamental. Something else must have happened. The designers designing too well is a convenient theory, but if I were making something like this--and you just did for Wren and the others--you put safeguards in place. The whole lot of them just get up and walk out; one or two maybe, but all of them? That's sabotage or something similar."
"Gaea doesn't seem to know," Wren said with a shrug. "Or maybe doesn't want to tell. One of her children may have lost it and decided to doom the others. Shiva, from what I feel of him in that sword Mon'istiaga--he was a lunatic."
"Power corrupts," Loric murmured.
"I'm pretty darn strong right now," Wren said. "I don't feel this wild urge to destroy everything."
"It doesn't happen in every creature," Euriel said looking up at her mother. "But it does happen--over and over..."
"Odin is an arsehole," Bannor murmured.
Daena laughed and pointed at him. "I was thinking that exact same thing!"
"I don't think you'll hear much argument from our family," Vanidaar growled. "I felt that censure was far too lenient."
"Well, we've wasted enough time," Wren said. "Let's go. This next part is where you'll be impressed." She turned to Hyperion. "Hyperion, authorization granted to proceed to the commune chamber, please pause at the intersection in the nexus shaft and await further instruction."
The massive first one focused on Wren, glowing eyes blinking. <Confirmation: orders recognized and understood. Proceed?>
"Hyperion, continue," Wren acknowledged.
The ancient turned on its heel and boomed away toward the depression in the center of the chamber and started down the steps.
"Whoa Wren," Ziedra lauded. "It's almost like you know what you're doing."
"Ha ha," the Kel'Varan said sticking out her tongue at her friend.
The group trailed after Wren as they proceeded down the steps toward an archway. The moment they put foot on the steps Bannor felt a cold draft on his face, and the hair on his arms stiffened. The immense power of the place continued to increase as they proceeded down. The acrid thunderstorm smell grew even stronger, along with an echoing crackle. As they hit the bottom step he saw through the opening what looked like a twisting column of light. Gigantic cords of red, green, and blue energy twining around each other.
Bannor heard Idun, then Daena, then Ziedra and Radian all gasping as they stopped a short distance inside the archway. He and Sarai reached the place on the far side where a circular landing opened out onto the edge of a vast pit more than a thousand paces across. A walkway ten paces wide and two others from the far side of the titanic chamber extended out over the drop to a central platform more than a hundred paces across. Hanging from those seemingly thin rods of metal a giant blister of clear material surrounded the outpouring of energy. Inside that chamber a rainbow of colors reflected and sparked. Smaller shafts of glassy material, all glowing with alien magic, ran out from this hub into parts of the shaft above and below them. As Bannor looked up he realized there was no ceiling. The chamber seemed to go up to infinity.
Hyperion, oblivious to the stunning scenery stomped out onto the bridge. The laced strands of metal crisscrossing the surface clanked under his heavy feet as he proceeded out over the daunting drop.
Wren moved out onto the walkway a few steps, waiting for the entire assemblage to file onto the platform. "This is what Hyperion called a nexus shaft. Starholme Prime has sixteen of these things. Those big colored streams... that's magic. That huge flood of energy, according to Hyperion, is only trace usage." She looked over to Daena. "When we use our powers, it comes from that."She pointed to the colored streams.
Cassandra walked to the edge and looked down. "Damn," she shook her head. "The amount of magic is insane."
Marna stepped up beside her and looked down. "There are bigger shafts than this on Homeworld, but they were built with machinery. Also, they do not transmit magic." She shook her head in wonder. "The potential is truly staggering."
"So, Wren," Loric said, coming up behind Cassandra and putting an arm around her. "So, the energy that defeated Hecate and saved us in Bassil came from here?"
The blonde savant nodded. "There's some kind of thing that beams the magic straight to you when you focus on it." She pointed to the colored stream. "When we're just ordinary savants, our bodies aren't strong enough for that. Apparently, a certain amount of the nola magic is just broadcast across the universe, and we tap into it."
"That doesn't seem right," Bannor said. "I always trace our savant threads back to their source in Eternity. Our power comes from that."
"Right, and this thing apparently dumps the magic into whatever it is that we draw our powers from. I don't claim to understand it on anything more than a rudimentary level. I just know that in a kick-arse form like the one I'm in now," She raised a hand. A white glow spread around her fingers and down her arm. From deep in the bowels of Starholme something vaguely like moans echoed and warbled into silence. The cords of light twisting around in the shaft brightened and began to dance with more speed.
The savant's body started to glow, and Bannor could feel heat coming from her. Gusts of air swirled around Wren and her hair flicked around her face like something alive. The Kel'Varan's glowing blue eyes turned brilliant white like stars. Threads of energy began gathering around the woman's body, the numbers doubling every instant.
Bannor swallowed and his heart started to beat fast. Did she have any idea of what she was doing? Sarai pulled tight against him.
"Uh, Wren," he said, holding out a hand. Already there were tens of thousands of threads, enough power to reduce a mountain to sand. "Wren."
Cassandra's mouth dropped as it seemed that she too feared the savant wouldn't stop. She waved her arms. "Wren! Enough demonstration! Please!"
The savant let out a sigh and dropped her hands. The glow around her faded. "Mmmm, that feels good."
"My heart hurts," Loric gasped, gripping his chest.
Marna and her daughter Dulcere stared. Bannor saw Dulcere reach out and take hold of Corim's arm. The burly warrior looked down where she had taken hold and smiled to himself.
Octavia the physician leaned to one side and studied Wren with a furrowed brow. She didn't seem frightened by the immense display of power, only fascinated by it.
Idun stared at her granddaughter. "It is virtually limitless. All that power and you barely even made that thing over there react."
"Yeah," Wren said. She rolled her shoulders and twisted her head side to side. "Whew, feel light. I hadn't tried to really push what this body could do." She bounced up on her toes and stretched. She looked back toward the column of light. "Did you guys really think I would blow myself up?"
Ziedra snorted brushing back her dark hair. "Oh, I think it occurred to oh--all of us."
Wren giggled. "You know me. I always have to test the edges of the box." She looked to Desiray. "That's what my mistress taught me."
Desiray had her arms folded. "In this case, your mistress would prefer you do as I say rather than as I do."
The Kel'varan rolled her glowing eyes. "That's no fun. Anyways, now you see why I had to lock this place up. Imagine what could be done with it."
"I have," Marna said with a frown. "I worry more about what you can do with it."
"Marna, what would I do with it?" She put an arm around Idun and pulled her close. "I have everything I have ever wanted right now."
"Everybody grows up some day," the elder Kriar said with a flat expression. "Shall we proceed? Hyperion seems to be getting impatient."
She looked out to the end of the walkway to the platform where the ancient waited for them. He had his arms crossed and was tapping his toe.
Wren raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Isn't he cute?"
"He's not cute at all," Desiray growled. "He almost ripped me in half."
The Kel'varan sniffed. "You shouldn't have picked on me. Come on, we don't want him having a hissy fit. I have no idea what that would be like but it would probably be messy."
She headed out the walkway toward the center.
With his arm through Sarai's, Bannor stepped out onto the walkway behind Daena and Janai. Being over thirty paces wide the group spread out on the bridge, some gathering toward the middle, others walking near the rail to look down.
Marna was one of those whole strolled along next to the rail with Octavia on her arm. Dulcere stayed next to her mother with Corim at her shoulder. The scholarly Shael Dal warrior seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Bannor had only spent a little time with the man, a few dinner conversations and battle talk. His curiosity and pursuit of knowledge were insatiable. He could see Corim writing books and papers in his head with every step. Cassandra, the golden mage appeared much the same.
"Your daughter troubles me sometimes," Damay said, catching up to Euriel and speaking at her shoulder. Hands clasped at the small of her back, the elder Kel'varan tossed her dark hair, white glowing eyes narrowed as she studied Wren walking at the front of the procession.
Euriel nodded. "She spent so much time without direction and being hurt," she sighed and shook her head. "I think being on the offensive, being in control--it's really euphoric for her."
Damay nodded. She rubbed the side of her face with a jeweled hand and let out a breath. "I used to envy that she was Gaea's favorite. Now, I see how that position drives her. It makes her want to reach further--take on more. Maybe more than she's ready for."
Vanidaar put an arm around his wife. "May, I don't really see what we can do. We have influence, but not the kind of hold that Gaea has on her. She'll accept only so much advice. And how do you tell a young goddess not to overdo?" He thumped his chest. "It's these bodies that Marna gave us. It's tough not to feel a little self-confident." He shook his head. "I'm no youngster, and I catch myself swaggering a bit. Zee, Wren, lords Daena--they're children."
"Really capable children," Euriel said. She glanced back over her shoulder, her gaze meeting Bannor's showing that she realized he was listening to their conversation. "I am so proud of Li, at the way she has held together over the summers."
Bannor leaned close to the three. "Wren will reach, she might even hurt herself, but she learns from it and gets stronger. I've seen that just from the short time I've known her. She jokes a lot, but it's just to keep from being so serious she cracks."
The group reached the center of the span. Intent on the conversation, Bannor hadn't bothered to look over the edge. It was probably best because a glance down revealed what appeared to be a fall into infinity. The light of the magic conduit lit the shaft down to a point that the lines converged in the distance. A league down? Maybe more.
<Continue?> Hyperion rumbled in a tone that was probably the closest thing to irritation the creature could manage.
Wren looked back to everyone and smiled. "Yes, Hyperion, please continue, there will be no more delays."
There was the barest hint of a change in Hyperion's expression. His jaw worked side to side for an instant. He turned and stomped away.
"One of these times, he's going to slap you," Desiray said.
"What?" Wren threw up a hand as she walked. "I didn't do anything."
"Oh it's not what you say," the white-haired guild-mistress said. "It's the imperious tone you use with him."
Wren laughed. She leaned toward Desiray. "I only imitated what I saw."
The older woman flinched back and smiled. "Oh, I'll get you for that."
Bannor didn't get the joke, but the two of them obviously did.
At the end of the long bridge, Wren stopped at another hexagon-shaped panel behind Hyperion. This portal was far more massive than the other they had seen, with giant bolts in the floor and ceiling that secured it. Wren aimed the first one key at it, and colors flashed on the gem.
With a hum and a rumble of metal sliding on metal the bolts retracted, and the giant door split in the middle, the pace thick slabs wheezing as they parted. Warm air wafted in their faces as Hyperion stepped into the widening gap, his feet thumping on the smooth metal floor.
Wren followed as the ancient thundered along. Bannor noticed the other savants flinching as they stepped through the doorway. As he crossed the threshold, he felt a kind of stab in the place where he felt his nola. He recalled getting that same feeling when they had been in the presence of Gaea. They must be getting close.
The corridors here were utilitarian and without adornment, smooth gray walls without even lines of separation, as if the whole area had been carved out of a single gargantuan slab of metal. They came to intersections and other recesses that must be doors, these they passed at a fast walk. Hyperion was taking seemingly random rights and lefts through what must be a vast complex of chambers.
As they moved, that initial ache came back and grew stronger, becoming an uncomfortable pulsing that made halos appear around the objects in his vision. He rubbed the back of his head and winced.
Sarai leaned close to him, strands of silvery hair falling across her face. "Something wrong, my One?"
"Head hurts," he murmured.
Wren looked back, glowing blue eyes narrowed. "You should all be feeling a kind of ache." She brushed strands of gleaming blonde hair from her eyes. "It has something to do with whatever is in this part of the complex. Something to do with however Gaea manifests here."
Hyperion made a right into a corridor that slanted down. The walls went from metallic gray to a greenish marble-like stone. Strange elemental threads ran through the walls here, making Bannor's skin prickle. He noticed the others looking around in apparent unease as they rushed along.
The passage split twice again, giving them glimpses of chambers where ancient artifices pulsed and thrummed with alien energy.
Hyperion stopped at another huge hexagonal valve and waited for Wren.
The savant turned her head. "Hey, this wasn't here before." She aimed her key at it. After a few instants the door split and ground aside for them. Beyond the portal, the passage became a black glossy substance. The black globes that Marna called security nodes lined the passage ceiling.
Hyperion continued, moving at a steady pace.
"Last time we came through here at a run," Desiray said, looking up.
"Damn, my head hurts," Daena said, scrubbing at her scalp. Janai rubbed the girl's back and looked concerned. "Does it get worse?"
"Unfortunately, yes," Wren answered. "Just grit your teeth and bare with it. It will get better in a little bit."
As they descended further into the area, the feeling did get worse, making it difficult to even walk. The corridor would lose focus for moments at a time. His skin itched and a strange crawling sensation worried at his scalp.
Marna frowned. "What you are feeling is etheral chaos."
"Hyperion stop," Wren ordered.
The first one paused and looked back. His heavy brow furrowed.
"Go ahead, Marna, what were you saying?"
The ancient Kriar lady touched the slick green wall with a fingertip, drew it back and rubbed it with her thumb. She pursed her lips. "It appears that this section of the structure actually extends into an etheral subpath. The savants feel it more acutely because of their senses. Our matrixes protect against temporal skewing. Cere, expand your compensation field and I'll spread mine."
The two Kriar closed their eyes and the jewels on their brows flashed and a red illumination spread out from them and over the group.
The uncomfortable pulsation vanished. It was like a great weight had been lifted off his brain.
"Oh whoa," he let out. "I can think again."
"Nice," Wren said. "Thanks! Worth stopping for. Hyperion," she glanced at Desiray. "Please proceed."
The ancient started forward again as if he had never stopped.
"Major relief." Sighing, Daena pressed her hands to her face and pushed her palms back through her auburn hair and rocked her head forward.
As they walked, Dulcere looked to her mother. <I cannot recall. Did we ever build any installations in subspace?>
"A long time ago, temporary structures were tested," Marna answered. "They were considered dangerous and unstable. So research on permanent structures was halted." Her gaze tracked to their surroundings. "I never saw plans, much less a working model, for something this big."
"I'm curious," Cassandra said, dark eyes narrowed. "Why didn't we feel that when we were inside Gaea?"
"I felt a twinge," Ziedra remarked. "Just not as strong as here. Maybe she shielded us from it. The way we're being shielded now."
"You know," Loric said putting his hands behind his back as he walked. The elder's eyes narrowed as though something he had just realized troubled him. "When Marna asked Gaea what she was, she didn't answer. It begins to occur to me what she really is."
"What's that?" Cassandra asked.
"A really smart bomb for destroying universes," he said with a cold tone.
"Come again?" Cassandra let out with a gasp. "What would ever make you think that?"
"No, I think his rationale is sound," Marna said. "If I turn my thoughts to something really barbaric, I can see that. Bombs come in two parts, an explosive and a detonator. Imagine, you infect the subpaths of a universe with a replicating creature that essentially subverts the universe's entire network of time/space energy flows. Then you have a detonator, this thing called the genemar. Activate the device, the creature's energy and everything associated with it is nullified, and the universe is, for all intents and purposes, annihilated. Of course, like most doomsday weapons, it's not really intended to be used--but it's there as a threat."
"That's insane," Wren said looking back as they turned a corner. The passage walls changed with each intersection, veins of different colors running through the black material like arteries in a living body. "Do we really want to think these Chyrith destroy entire universes?"
<I think the ability to destroy the universe is a side effect,> Dulcere said. <I'm certain the ability to affect the subpaths and create magic as Gaea does, are a way of shaping a universe to make it useful to them.>
"Like making a planet habitable?" Cassandra said.
<Yes, only on a much larger scale. Magic is like air to those creatures, so they ensure that the target universe has that resource for their use.>
"It would explain why we were so outclassed when we fought the Jyril," Marna remarked. "They may have had a creature like Gaea controlling that universe's subpaths as well." She looked to her daughter. "Remember, we never could gate anywhere near their home planet. They kept real space effectively blockaded."
"So, do we think Gaea was intentionally put here?" Bannor asked.
"I don't think so," Marna answered.
"The other thing I don't get is how does a creature like that 'run away'?" Cassandra said. "I mean getting around inside a universe is hard enough."
"There may be inter-universal paths too," Loric said. "Luthice was able to cross outside the boundaries of Eternity. We still don't know how that is accomplished."
"It's all a lot of speculation," Damay said with a frown. "Gaea is my patron and goddess, and the primary principal upon which I have based my entire life. Trying to cast her as some runaway experiment or a cosmic weapon are pointless in any event. The important truth is that she is here, and that she created us and most important--she loves us." She tilted her head. "When was the last time a weapon loved you?"
Corim winced and glanced at Cassandra. "Uh, let's not go there..."
Hyperion turned into a corridor four times the width of the others they'd come down. This one slanted up like a ramp and ended in a much larger portal. Gold, blue, and red veins ran through the shiny black surface of the walls. The air had a caustic sterile smell, and everything in the atmosphere seemed to vibrate.
Wren stepped up to the door and held out the key. She closed her eyes. This one apparently required concentration to perform.
With a flash, the bolts recessed with a heavy grinding sound. Fog hissed into the passage as the seal on the door was broken. The massive construct broke into six parts, the leaves pivoting into the wall hollows.
Beyond the portal, a thick layer of mist tumbled across the floor of a chamber some two hundred paces deep. A reddish light suffused the area and bright sparks slowly rained from the ceiling, illuminating what looked like an amphitheater recessed into the broad floor. Huge crystals thrumming with energy lined the walls, golden motes spiraling in the air near them.
"Welcome children," a deep feminine voice rolled over them from the center of the chamber. "I trust your journey was without incident?"