The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice CXXXVIII – The Burning Earth

Charles… hadn’t really wanted to open the “Underworld” can of worms personally as of yet. He had enough things on his lists to fix already!

Skoll, however, was unburdened by thoughts of what they were getting into – and was consulting with Aikiko.

(Skoll) “Manse-Designate “Hoenheim” still functions? No gates are on file at this location. Upgraded? This gate… corresponds to the portals presented in entertainment production “Stargate: SG-1”. It is therefore most likely a recent addition. Designate “Charles” possesses some extremely exotic abilities, yet seems merely god-blooded – despite an essence level higher than any god-blood can endure. Probable perfect concealment ability. Probable human origin indicates Exalt. Terrestrials incapable of designing gate-mechanisms. Sidereal Exaltations primarily accounted for. Lunar Exaltation does not match apparent abilities. Probable Solar Exalt.”

(Aikiko, who was somewhat impressed) “You’re GOOD.”

(Skoll) “Warning; Child Lunar and Solar Celestial Exalts often exhibit severely atypical powers and can be very unpredictable. Often extremely focused.”

(Aikiko) “Yep, you have him pegged! Now, what is he focused on?”

She leaned back to take a toke, which she definitely needed at the moment! Even for her, going to the underworld was a bit unnerving even for brave people.

(Skoll) “Sensors indicate internal geomancy. Ship designate “Tsunami” displayed a similar power-signature. Probable geomantic and constructive focus. Warning: exponential growth potential.”

(Aikiko) “Seriously? Wow.”

(Skoll) “Query; Exalt Designate “Charles” time since Exaltation?”

(Aikiko) “Um… he Exalted when he was seven, I think.”

(Skoll) “Current capabilities?”

Aikiko was more than a little dubious about giving THAT kind of information away!

(Aikiko) “Why do you need to know?”

(Skoll) “Extrapolation required to answer current query “Seriously? Wow.””

(Aikiko) “Um… I know he’s attuned to a factory-cathedral, and to a lot more Manses than that – not all of which are part of his internal geomancy. He’s a master at thaumaturgy and artifice even by Exalt standards. I’m pretty sure he knows Emerald Sorcery – probably Sapphire too.”

(Skoll, after a bit more talking) “Summary: Five years ago he passed as a normal human. Four years ago he passed as a mortal thaumaturge. Three years ago he passed as a possible aspected individual (primary abilities of “Aspected” mortals uncertain). Two years ago he passed as a god-blooded. Last year he was suspected to be a Terrestrial Exalt – or just barely possibly a Lunar Exalt. This year he is widely believed to be a Primordial. Extrapolate… five years from now.”

Oh DEAR. She’d never thought about it THAT way!

(Aikiko) “Shinma?”

(Skoll) “Unknown. Pattern suggests possible networking with alternate-reality versions of himself.”

(Mar) “GAAAHH!”

At THAT rate… almost anything could be gunning for him!

(Skoll) “Possibly self-limiting when power sufficient to accomplish primary goals. Require… directives. Must locate designer, designate Mask of Winters.”

(Aikiko) “Well… I guess we’ll have to go to the Underworld for that.”

(Charles) “Well… I’ve got a few gates for that! I’ve never actually opened any of them though. I… suppose it’s time to try!”

And he powered up the gate…

Given that the gates creation had been essentially random, and that their exact destinations had never been determined, it was time for a few rolls! In this case…

D6: 1) Deep Labyrinth, 2) Shallow Labyrinth, 3) Coruscant, 4) Other Extraterrestrial World, 5) Terrestrial Afterlife, 6) Mouth of the Void)

D6) 1) Mythic Afterlife, 2) Bizarre Landscape, 3) Dark Routes, 4) Dark Citadel, 5) Oceanic, 6) Pre-First Age).

That turned out to be 3-3 – and that put her in just one unique place; the Black Hole of Coruscant – the Void where Oblivion used to be and the primary shortcut through nothingness for the Abyssal Exalts of the entire cosmos.

The gate opened into a terrible darkness, with hints of vast things moving in it very VERY fast. There was a wave of fear, and terrible pain, and utter disbelief and shock. Something… much stronger than ghosts, but somehow partial…

(Aikiko) It’s… the Neverborn, isn’t it?

She didn’t really want to look – but she did.

And something whispered…

(Whisper) “Please… let me out. Save me! What have I done? Why do you hurt me so?”

It sounded like… a woman’s voice – but incredibly deep, and made up of the sounds of shifting stone and volcanic noises.

(Aikiko) “That’s… not natural. Even most gods don’t sound like that – and few gods would be close enough to Oblivion to be tossed in there… It seems too… simple and coherent for one of the Neverborn though! They aren’t known for either… And aren’t they gone?”

Even using Skoll’s senses… she could not see the source – but the whispering voice continued to plead for help, for release, and for an end to the pain… And her Compassion was equal to her Valor.

(Aikiko) “Charles, do you hear that? Think there’s a way you could detect where that voice is coming from?”

Charles was already trying. He… could provide a guide-spell – but was terribly torn himself; that OBVIOUSLY needed fixing – but if he didn’t fix Yu-Shan soon, things would go even more wrong!

(Skoll) “No sound detected… Possible correlation, “Whispers of the Neverborn”. Possible Contradiction; your statements indicate clarity. Possible Resolution; Gate-Terminus within or near the Tombs of the Neverborn, and Whispers are thus resolved into the voices of individual Deva-Memories”.

(Aikiko) “Thanks, Charles. I’m… going in, at least to check on it. If I don’t make it out, tell my parents I’m sorry for being a headache, OK?”

As brave as Aikiko was… even she could see that this was pretty risky!

(Charles) “I will!”

As an Automaton, Skoll, of course, knew no fear…

(Aikiko) “Any idea of who it is?”

(Skoll) “What does it say and how? The Whispers of the Neverborn touch living minds, not entities of my type.”

(Aikiko) “It sounds like a really deep woman speaking like shifting stone and volcanoes, and she’s begging to be let out – and asks what she did to deserve this.”

(Skoll) “Elementary tactics; the Primordials with the most benign themes, and the least in the way of defenses, were slain first. In current parlance they were “Soft Targets”. The Whispers are the voices of their subsouls. From what you indicate (and Skoll drew on it’s own databases and on Aikiko’s investigative excellency) it is most probably Marharin Of The Deep Beauties, a Deva of Dhengu-Gata, She Who Enables And Brings Wealth, The Bringer Of Purpose To The Inanimate. From her blood shed during the war sprang veins of magical materials, from her bones jade, and from her flesh precious things. She was an early victim of the War, slain so that she might be mined for resources to make further weapons. From her death springs avarice and hoarding, the corruption of wealth and the corruption of the world needed to release that wealth. Each mine is a wound from which she cannot escape.”

Aikiko groaned… She’d heard of raiding the enemy supplies, but that was very… visceral. But then, if Charles wanted to learn how to heal Primordials, where better than to start with a Deva?

(Aikiko) “Well… let’s go in, Skoll!”

(Skoll) “Acknowledged!”

Skoll strode into the darkness as Charles hastily assembled and dispatched probes of his own.

Following the guiding spell, Skoll burned with Aikiko’s solar radiance against the darkness – but it did not illuminate far until they passed through a veil of sorts and into a burning world. A holocaust of red-hot ash was blowing by, a pyroclastic cloud burning out from… terrible volcanic wounds, where the weapons of the Exalted had set fire to the very interior of a primordial world-body. Before that elemental assault, the stone and metal of the Primordial’s internal geomancy was becoming magma, her bones and life erupting through her skin in burning agony. Here, there were more whispers. Many more. The Deva-spirits of the magical materials, the second circle spirits of gems, precious metals, and all the treasures of the inanimate natural world, all screaming.

And the voices of the ceaselessly tormented dead wormed their way into Aikiko’s head… but she had known that that, at least, was a risk of this.

The forest around her burned as the mountain screamed in agony – a cry that WAS the pyroclastic cloud, a wind that once brought wealth, now bringing death and destruction… Fortunately, a mere few thousand degrees and ash-flakes traveling fast enough to punch through battleship armor was well within Skoll’s tolerance.

In the distance, cities of impossible grandeur and beauty burned as well.

Aikiko wasn’t sure that even the Behemoth Cloak could handle this heat and ash…

She probed outwards with a Detection… were the cities Devas? No… The were merely memories of the works created during the age of glory by those who had once called upon Dhengu-Gata for the materials with which to build wonders… Had Autochthon called on her for the materials with which to create Exaltations, and seen her slain so as to ensure that no other crafter would ever duplicate his work?

There had to be a deva somewhere around here, or at least the remnants of it! The source of that pleading voice – unless that was the Neverborn herself.

And the guide-spell said… straight down the throat of that wildly-erupting volcano.

(Aikiko) “Oh, come on!… Well, here goes nothing!”

She activated Graceful Crane Stance, Lightning Speed, Monkey Leap Technique, and – to move along the sides – Spider Foot Style, and went in.

With Skoll’s direct sense-sharing she got a closeup of leaping down the throat of a wildly-erupting volcano – bouncing from flaming boulder to flaming boulder, passing through walls and curtains of flame, and wiping off coatings of molten metal and hardening rock. Around her the walls of the shaft bled the treasures of the deep earth – and elemental creatures fought frantically to staunch the wound, melting and sobbing as they worked. The pleading voice was coming from somewhere deep in the fiery pool of molten rock and metal at the center, where the shaft ballooned out into a mighty cavern, illuminated by glowing rock and constant jets and eruptions of flame.

Good gods…

Aikiko searched.

Burning in the center of the pool, entrapped in blocks of adamant which had melted and refrozen beneath the attack of the Exalted, there were the remains of a a huge, beautiful, woman – much of her flesh burned away, her eyes replaced by pools of molten starmetal, her skin burned away beneath a coating of orichalcum, and veins of molten moonsilver infiltrating her organs. She was… obviously dead, and still pled for mercy and for release, asking how her gifts were insufficient, what she could give in exchange for ending the pain – and yet there was still some beauty in her current form.

There were… gaps and cracks in the adamant however. It wasn’t as if it had been DESIGNED as a prison. Large enough for Skoll to squeeze into with a little work on bending the Orichalcum; it wasn’t attuned – and was only a memory to begin with. Once inside… she/he began using the second athletics excellency to help push some of it away.

Progress there was slow, but steady – and, oddly enough, it was eased because it was obvious that the woman was once larger and more substantial. Something had been altering the memory, slowly and patiently.

Could this be one of the Devas that those priests were trying to affect? With a bit of careful probing… it did feel like it. Something had drained away a good deal of the power. The memory was as bad as ever – but it really WAS shrinking.

It still took quite some time to get her free – but she couldn’t have faced not doing it.

(Skoll) “Where do you wish to take this memory-entity which was once Marharin Of The Deep Beauties? And what do you wish to do with it?”

(Aikiko) “Well, first… out of here!”

How would the Neverborn react to a part of its soul hierarchy being removed, even if it was with good intentions?

Since the central consciousness of the Neverborn had departed into the Wyld to recreate itself long ago, the answer to that turned out to be… not at all.

She rode the volcanic eruption out; the pyroclastic cloud was, after all, simply Marharin’s scream. Of course that still left her stuck in a burning world – and surrounded by continuing pleas. That… was going to be hard to turn away from!

(Skoll) “You are registering difficulties. You have emotional trauma?”

For a moment there – what with the sense-sharing and the link – she’d forgotten that she was in Skoll’s pocket-dimension instead of actually being within the perpetually-dying world-body of the Neverborn… That might be a good thing! Even an elder exalt might be mote-tapped by the unending, shifting, assaults of the place pretty quickly!

(Aikiko) “I… I want to get them all out of here! Sure, the Primordials might’ve done many things to cause the gods to hate them, but does ANYTHING justify THIS? Haven’t they suffered long enough?”

She couldn’t help the tears; so much suffering all around her! And so much to fix! Was this how Charles felt all the time?

(Skoll) “The primary consciousness is not present”.

So this was… secondary? Just what was left of a Neverborn who had departed with the Wyld tides? Hard to blame her! Wait! She still had links through Aden, so she could get some advice!

She called Charles first. If there was a current specialist in Primordials, Devas, and World-Bodies, he was it!

(Charles) “Urm… Doesn’t Skoll contain a pocket dimension that it can swallow spirits and things into? That might be pretty dangerous for you though!”

(Aikiko) “Yeah, which is why I didn’t want to use it… but I can’t stand it! Nothing justifies this…”

(Charles) “Well, I can throw more defenses on you! And you should be shielded against essence-based mental influences… nothing much to be done about simple persuasion though!

(Aikiko, as Charles cast things…) “Thanks.”

Aikiko… prevailed upon Skoll to pull aboard as many as she and he possibly could – which was most or all of them. Even if they WERE just memories… they were essence-memories like gods, and sapient enough to suffer and plead for relief.

Skoll was willing enough; one of it’s purposes was to release the Neverborn – and Aikiko’s request was arguably a part of that purpose.

Most of them were burning. Apparently “blast the geomancy into magma” had been the main mode of attack on Dhengu-Gata – and perhaps the other Primordials. Outside of their natural realm the wraith-Devas could not harm her physically – but bringing memories in with her meant experiencing them. Even weakened and second-hand… that was terrible indeed – but sharing a bit of genuine life with them allowed them to change a bit – soothing the burning with memories of water and joy and flowing more easily into their living counterparts bonded with the martial artists of the Besi Hantuperajin.

It was not easy – but they didn’t deserve to suffer like that. Nothing did. And, for good or ill, time didn’t really mean anything in the Void. After a timeless interval… that left Skoll standing – still glowing brilliantly – on a staircase, which curved gently through the darkness. Below… was a labyrinth, and some collossal tombs, where SOMETHING was going on – and high above there was a faint trace of light. Through the darkness… ships occasionally passed, both great and small, but almost all black, sometimes with a bit of crimson – save for one that went by, that was small and shockingly pink.

(Aikiko) “Huh… spaceships? Weird ones if so!”

(Skoll) “Location indeterminate. Query: Consciousness functional?”

(Aikiko) “Mine is… I’m not so sure about everyone else in here.”

Sadly, like called to like… the closest consciousness to one of Charles’s gates had been, of course, the remains of one of the most innocent, harmless, and helpful Primordials that had ever existed – and also, of course, one of the easiest to kill. Charles too would be in real trouble if he was up against a Primordial-hunting war party of Exalts – and while he WAS better prepared than some Primordials had been… he could not stand for long against a bunch of Exalts specialized in dismantling internal geomancy. It would be a fight – he did have an awful lot more Second Circle Devas than many would anticipate, his forces were well-equipped and protected, and he had some possible escapes planned – but the outcome would pretty much be a foregone conclusion.

Down at the tombs… some sort of large-scale project was underway. The urge to snoop was strong! And Skoll, of course, was equally interested… that information was one of the reasons why they’d come!

(Skoll) “Adjusting visual pickups.”

Huh! Fairly good magnification there! Must have built-in lenses. That was something! Not enough – it wasn’t exactly physical distance – but there was some sort of BIG project going on down there. There were… work camps?… outside of most of the tombs, and some sort of smelting operation, and things being built and taken inside.

Of course, being where she was… those weren’t exactly work camps, and the smelting was for souls. She’d have to investigate when she and Skoll weren’t glowing! Upwards it was! Sure, they’d be blatantly obvious, but jumping off the stairs was about the only other choice – and that would lead to her falling down the Memory of Oblivion, and who knew where they’d wind up? It could – rather literally – be anywhere at all…

Possibly including some alternate dimension where Oblivion still existed – another reason why there was still a reflection of it here. NOT a good prospect!

After a timeless interval of climbing – during which the glow faded – they eventually emerged in… glowing city.

(Aikiko) “Whaa?”

That was NOT what she’d expected in the Underworld!

(Aikiko) “Where’s the gloomy darkness?”

It was even… oddly familiar-looking in some ways!

(Aikiko) “Hey, wait a minute… this is Star Wars! But… it isn’t, is it? It looks like whats-that-place, but it isn’t.”

Huh… built on a deep foundation where nameless creatures crawled through the lightless depths…

(Skoll) “Accessing files… resemblances are statistically significant. The odds against this being coincidental are approximately 3720 to 1, based on current sampling”

(Aikiko) “Got a name?”

(Skoll) “Designate “Coruscant”. Stated to be “at the center of the galaxy”. Home to Countless Souls. Dominated by a Dark Emperor possessed of immense powers and a weapon that can destroy worlds”.

(Aikiko, slowly) “And… once known as Stygia…”

(Skoll) “Established: Humans are unconsciously aware of much more of the universe than is commonly believed.”

Well, there were probably worse places to be in the Underworld. That was something of a relief at the moment, even with all the memories of fiery death to keep her company in Skoll!

(Skoll) “Earth-Human literature and beliefs may be a better guide than expected. Secondary correspondences with “New Jerusalem”, China’s “Heavenly Realm”, and other belief sets. Possibly less-competent seers drawn from smaller populations before modern period. Possible Extrapolation; popularity of tale-sequence is tied to how closely a given version portrays what humans unconsciously know to be true.

(Aikiko) “So it’s Coruscant now… and something else a couple of centuries from now, maybe.”

(Skoll) “Also possible.”

(Aikiko) “Does anything around here look familiar to you, Skoll? I know it’s been a long time, and you might have never been to Stygia.”

(Skoll) “Limited information available. We have just emerged from the Pit of Oblivion. It seems to be less deadly in this era; possibly merely another reflection or memory. The Calendar of Setesh may now be represented by the local sun.”

Aikiko looked up – using anti-glare protections.

Skoll… continued using Aikiko’s input to update.

(Aikiko) “If the Calendar is the local sun like you’re thinking… it must be REALLY bright!”

(Skoll) “Entropic Flow has been greatly magnified in the larger universe.”

(Aikiko) “Considering how many black holes there are…”

(Skoll) “Order of magnitude calculations not available.”

Heh. Skoll wouldn’t be programmed for that, would he? Too old! And the modern internet data… was just not sufficient.

(Aikiko) “I’m not sure even Primordials can understand how big the universe is these days. Which reminds me; can you sense your master now?”

(Skoll) “There are too many powers here. Too many souls. Further investigation will be required. There is likely to be a good deal of information available in “Coruscant” though.

And the memories were being soothed, by visions of water and the burning being taken away – and by Aikiko’s knowledge that the draining away… was not into nothingness, to leave nothing of them at all, but to be reunited with their living selves, to grow and change.

Aikiko was glad that she was able to help, even if it did have side effects on her. Did no one think to do this during the First Age? Wait… the Primordial War veterans would have had a fit – and there had been the Aftershock Primordial’s attack. The bad blood must have been overwhelming even for the mortals. For beings that live for centuries, that was a long time to develop a grudge, and perhaps even worsen the torture.

Of course, according to the histories, a group of solars had descended to the tombs of the Neverborn – and had tortured them further to extract the secrets of Necromancy. The Exalts of the “golden age” were JERKS. She didn’t want to be like that!

Hmm… The giver of wealth had been easy to break into. She… hadn’t needed to be tortured any further; she had offered everything she could and pleaded for help. They had tried torture anyway, just to see if there was anything more.

Urghh… DAMN. Sure, there had been the Ebon Dragon and some SERIOUS assholes among the Primordials – but then most of THOSE had survived. The answer would have been to either remove the parts of them that made them dangerous to lesser beings, or make some other place where the prayer could still reach them, but the prayer sources would not be endangered…

Man, Charles was really rubbing off on her!

Although… the abrupt tour of the realm of utter horror had been a pretty big shock.

(Aikiko, sighing) “Let’s find a library, or a data terminal. Something we can get information from.”

Huh! Probably everyone would think that she was a Mandalorian bounty hunter! Skoll was certainly more armor-like than Droid-like.

Actually, “Droid” was generally the appearance taken on by people who died on really extreme life support – but that hardly mattered at the moment.