Prologue: Destruction and Awakening

This is the rough draft of the Prologue for my upcoming book, Pillar of Smoke. Some of it has been released in the past, but much of it is brand new. I like it a lot better now. Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.

– D. Michl Lowe –

Year: NL6655

An Ash Fairy could theoretically fly as high as it wanted. There was a limit in terms of being able to breathe, but fairies were odd in that. Being they were made of pure Smoke; breathing was not as vital as one might think. The winds were still an issue, but even that was not a huge problem. Vellum was more concerned about the temperature today though, that was her biggest issue. Hot fumes seemed to waft from the side of the thing she was flying up the side of. It was odd; when the Armatites had begun burying themselves under the ground, no one knew what was going on, and then the earthquakes had started, the edge of the world had cracked and split open, and then it had begun to rise. Thousands of Fairies had been sent up to look, and see the extent of the damage, their vision being sent back to each Opus of Conception they were tied to so the users could see what they saw.

Vellum had yet to go up to survey this thing they were calling The Pillar. She had seen it from the ground though, like a mountain that continued up forever. But being up this high, she could see that it did have an end, way beyond the height of clouds. As she rose up the side of the thing, she passed through the cloud level and still continued up. It took some real time to ascend. She passed by a large hole in the side of it and looked in. She was still about a mile from the top. The outside edge here created a large lip that led to the hole in the side of The Pillar. She flew down and looked inside. The cavern was enormous, big enough that it had its own curvature, like a planet’s surface.

There were what appeared to be concentric circles of stone inside, large enough that each one could make up a country on its own. She could see many Flemi down there, all working, building. They had on breathing helmets, they would need those, since the air up this high was scarce. She constructed a Sending in her mind and transmitted it to Sellvest back on the ground, the user of her Opus. She would be monitoring this flight.

“What is this?” she Sent.

“From our spies inside, they have told us that it is mainly Flemi inside of there and they are saying it is a new country with separate states. They call the country Bolster Heart. It’s basically a cavern almost as big as the top of The Pillar. The Flemi seem to be using the outer lip of it, the one outside of the actual cavern, as farmland. We believe the rebels intend to live up there, on top and down inside that cavern,” Sellvest Sent back.

Vellum flew out of the cavern and continued up. As she crested the top edge and continued to get a sense of its scale, her estimate was that it was over seven miles high. She continued up, higher and higher. The atmosphere this high was extremely thin, she went further, the curvature of the Earth fully visible at this height. The rings were clearly visible in the sky from where the moon had been destroyed. Every couple of minutes, a meteor would streak through the atmosphere. Scientists said that would happen for some time yet. The resulting tsunami’s that had come about after that had happened several years before now were terrible. Whole cities and even countries had disappeared overnight.

As she continued up, it was then, the full extent and size of the thing became clear. She knew now why it was called The Pillar; it was perfectly circular but immense in scale. It stretched from Firbank in the southwest all the way to Haxby in the northeast. While not the full counties had been raised, in fact, they had been nearly cut in half, which was a diameter of around one thousand miles. So, the top of The Pillar comprised a mass of land over a thousand miles across and raised into the air over seven miles, like a massive plateau. Calling the thing, The Pillar made complete sense to her now.

“Are you seeing this?” she Sent.

“I am,” Sellvest replied. “Why would they do this? What advantage does it serve them? We could always just send tricopters up the side of it and attack them that way.”

Vellum nodded her head, thinking. As she was doing this, a visible vibration ran along the surface of the Pillar. She descended to get a closer look. As she watched, across the land, large towers began to rise out of the ground. Every couple of miles as far as she could see, they would rise up. They were all easily over fifteen hundred feet tall, and then came the clouds, dark and muddy, they came billowing out from these towers, spewing up into the atmosphere. Quickly the land became covered in clouds, obscuring her view of anything. As the cloud cover came to the edge of the Pillar, she realized for the first time that a large wall encircled its lip. As the clouds hit this lip, they rolled back on each other like a wave. As the land filled with cloud cover, it began to slowly cascade over the lip and fall towards the earth below, like a waterfall.

And then it came, a shocking blast. She hadn’t seen anything, but the force of it began to push her away. She couldn’t stop it. It was like a hand of electrified air was punching her repeatedly, farther, and farther out it pushed her. The effect was not only startling but immensely painful. She closed her eyes and screamed. Over and over, it assaulted her. After what seemed like an eternity, it finally stopped and she realized she was falling. It would take some time before she hit the ground of course, but opening her eyes she saw she was falling down the side of the Pillar.

She was passing the lip of Bolster Heart and briefly saw Flemi removing their helmets as a wave of clouds burst from the tunnel entrance, she had first gone in. Vents on the side also burst out streams of clouds. As soon as those clouds came out to where she was, the pain started again. Wracked in agony, her mind couldn’t take it any longer. Blackness overcame her as she continued to fall. She wasn’t afraid, being only five inches tall and only weighing a couple of ounces, she would not be hurt when she landed, but it was a long way down. The darkness then overcame her.

Three days later:

Fredrickson was no longer a peaceful country. The moon had been blown into rubble only a couple of years before this and still, the sky rained flaming rocks from its destruction. Billions had died and devastation was the state of the entire world. War was now commonplace and there wasn’t a country not invaded or invading. Everyone had lost something, be it friends, family, or homes. All because humanity had wanted to be God. The power of creation in their hands and what did they make, a new type of people. The issue was that instead of welcoming these new peoples into the brotherhood of man, they instead forced them into labor and further experiments.

These peoples had revolted against their masters and in many ways, had surpassed them. The lessons of the old world had not been learned well it seemed. The human world was united in mind, through the power of Smoke. All thoughts had melded into a hivemind of human brains, but still, there was hate. Still, there was war. Still, there was evil in the world and the burning buildings and dead all around Patsu were like marked graves for man’s ambitions. The ambitions that were even now shaking the ground he stood upon.

A spider-like leg smashed the ground not twenty paces to his left and the earth heaved in revolt, the leg sinking into the ground. The leg was that of an Armatite, a monster created not by humans, but by the new peoples. Created to upheave the world. There were millions of these creations, and as four walked past Patsu on their spindled legs, they nearly threw him to the ground. However, Patsu’s Smoke enhanced senses allowed him to remain upright, riding the waves of earth as they shifted under him. His fairy, Lince held on to its ring and attached his left shoulder. Her feminine face scowled as she looked up at the thing.

“Those things still unnerve me,” Lince said. “They’re too big and way too loud.”

Patsu nodded his head in agreement, but he was too focused on what he was planning to do next to make conversation with Lince at the moment. She was talkative but also knew when to be quiet as well and a battle was no place to be having a conversation. She was right though, the Armatites were enormous things, nearly twenty stories tall, and their bulbous heads were flared off the back, making them appear to have odd tail feathers. However, it was the legs that everyone remembered. The legs, and the clicking songs. The singing, like the howls of ghosts. It was rumored that the creators of the Armatites had used the brains of whales as a host for the structures that went into making the artificial minds of the Armatites. Specifically, sperm whales. It was horrific to think about, considering their near-extinction status, but their brains were large enough and complex enough to house the needed information. As such, the monsters sang constantly, a haunting alien song, as the lifeforms devastated the world they had been born into, like a spider that devours its mother after birth.

The creature had seven legs; long and with too many segments, they appeared almost serpentine as they walked forward toward the edge of the great wall. Their arms were like that of an octopus and could stretch for several hundred yards. At the end of their arms were three-fingered hands, large enough to grab a carriage if they chose. As they reached the edge of the wall, those hands reached out and they began to climb. They had created it, of course, the wall, or The Pillar as the news was calling it. Looking after the creature, Patsu again wondered where his partner Trance was. There had been a scuffle with a pack of those talking dogs, one of the new races of Peoples the humans had created. The human-like dogs had been one of the first hybrids to have been created. He still couldn’t believe that was a reality now.

Trance had been cut off from him in the battle, and while he had been able to escape, Trance had run the opposite way and despite him directing multiple Sendings to him, all of them had gone unanswered. He tried again. Opening himself up to the vastness of the hivemind, he searched for the marker for Trance and found it. But no matter what he said, none of the Sendings seemed to make it through to his friend.

“Still no answer from Trance,” he told Lince.

“It’s not like him to be so quiet, normally he would be Sending all the time to you. It’s odd. I can feel that something isn’t right with the Smoke today. Something is changing,” Lince said, frowning again.

The Armatite continued past them. They rarely engaged with singular combatants, only attacking if provoked. In the last week, they had really been avoidant of battle. Ever since the clouds had come down from the top of the Pillar and that electrified field had stopped any form of surveillance at the top of the Pillar, the Armatites had been acting, differently. All of them had been moving towards the Pillar and climbing it. It was as if they knew something was happening and were fleeing. It wasn’t because the humans were winning the war, that was for sure. It had been a near stalemate for years now, but they were running.

He looked again at the Pillar. Over seven miles high, it had risen out of the earth only a couple of days before this. The sides of it were still red hot from being scraped as it had slid upwards out of the crust of the earth. Satellite photos showed that it was perfectly circular in shape; most of the eastern seaboard was now seven miles into the air, but why? Tricopters screamed past him, loosing their missiles as they passed, attempting to kill the Armatites. Was kill the right word? Patsu still wondered about that, were these things a biological or mechanical creation? The line was getting blurred. It had been tried before; everything had been tried.

The humans had created the Great Beasts in direct response to the Armatites creation. It was just like this now, biological weapon after biological weapon. The Genetic War was like nothing that had ever come before. No one was even sure if the Beasts were actually alive or were just machines. They acted like intelligent creatures, they could speak, and they even appeared to occasionally eat, but they were not in any way human. They were weapons of war; nothing was clearer than that. They bled like biological creatures, but they couldn’t be called natural. Nothing about them was natural and just because you bled, these days that didn’t make you natural.

Nothing about the Armatites was natural either though. As the missiles slammed into the side of the one that had just passed over Patsu and Lince they had to shield their eyes. Even still, spots of white flashed in Patsu’s vision. The thermal blasts these weapons gave off were brighter than the sun. Opening himself up to the Smoke from the world around him, Patsu pulled at the Smoke he knew was waiting there for him. Lince began to glow as she felt him start the spell. From the trees in the nearby park, the grass beneath his feet, and even the people who were running to get away from the battle in the city below, wisps of Smoke streamed into him; white Smoke, the raw power of creation, of possibility. The Opus of Conception was open in his left hand, the pages of the book fluttering by, first one way, then the next, the words on the pages fluttering past and scrolling down; too fast to be read by normal eyes. But Patsu wasn’t reading it anyway. Lince fluttered down to land on the edge of the binding, her eyes seeming to glaze over in ecstasy from the amount of Smoke the Opus was handling. This book was a conduit for the power of the Smoke and Lince was its Fairy.

Focusing his eyes on the nearest of the Armatites, he coalesced the Smoke around him and the book. The whiteness of the Smoke focused together and formed a spear in front of his body. It was pure white, so white that it was hard to see, the light of the sky reflecting off it. The white along its shaft and blade was so reflective that it was like the surface of the sun. And then it was loosed, a cannon shot of speed as it sailed through the air towards one of the legs of the Armatite. The spear landed and the leg was cleanly severed. The being, if that’s truly what it was, faltered for a moment, the leg itself falling and crashing to the ground like a redwood, smashing homes and buildings alike. Losing one leg would not stop it. It turned toward Patsu. The single eye on the front of its body narrowed as it scanned for the source of the strike.

It wouldn’t take long, the creatures were able to sense Smoke, and a collection of it like what Patsu held was easily seen. The Armatite turned its body and began running back towards Patsu the segmented legs slamming the ground; an earthquake that moved. They were surprisingly nimble when they wanted to be. When they first appeared, people were confused when fighting them, thinking all the weight was at the top of their giant heads, but the legs were the heaviest part of the creatures. So, when they began to run, the ground shook with their gait.

The arms of the creature shot out toward Patsu, but this was not his first assault on an Armatite. Lines of transparent shielding rippled into being around him and his feet lifted off the ground. As he hovered two feet off the ground, the shield he had created would have been hard to see, save for the slight shimmer in the air, like heat rising from the pavement. The arms slammed into the invisible shield as if they had struck solid stone. The singing was deafening and Patsu was glad for the helmet he wore; the clear ceramic not only protected his head from physical damage but also blocked out much of the sounds from these things. Sounds that would deafen someone were muffled, while normal sounds came through easily. That said, some of the soldiers were still getting hearing loss. While Lince’s hearing wouldn’t be damaged, she was pure smoke, after all, it was still uncomfortable with it and held her small pointed ears.

He yelled over the sound, “Lince, will the shield hold?”

“Against those arms? A bit. But its legs, not at all!” She screamed still holding her ears. She would have known what he asked even if he had never spoken the words out loud.

The scientists who studied the Armatites said that the sound was so loud, it was reverberating up through their bodies and still reaching their inner ears, causing damage over time. The creature was coming closer the legs shaking the ground. He understood what was needed, three more spears, white as bleached paper, were already formed in from of him and he sent them. Each one slashed a separate leg and the scream that came from the Armatite was immense, it reverberated the shield, and cracks spidered along Patsu’s helm from the sheer force of the soundwave. It was only a moment, but the creature made it to him.

The great head bent down, the fluid-filled eye reflecting the fires and devastation around Patsu. It blinked, a thin layer of lubricant, oily, spread over the surface. Then, it stopped, the head snapping up and the arms pulling back towards the body. The legs extended and it pulled itself up as tall as it could, looking northeast, away from the Pillar. Patsu turned and looked toward where the creature was looking. On the horizon, the night appeared to be sweeping in. But wait, it couldn’t be night thought Patsu. He looked at his watch, it was only 4:00 p.m. way too early for the night. But a black curtain was pressing forward over the horizon.

The Armatite appeared to glance up at that curtain, then it rose, turned, and began running for the base of the Pillar, its arms extending and smashing into the stone side, clawing at it to climb up. Patsu let the shield dissolve, then he heard something off to the right. Glancing over that way, he saw Trance walk up to him, staring off at the curtain quickly making its way toward them. Trance’s fairy Roc sat in the tuffs of Trance’s hair on the top of his head. He must have lost his helm somewhere. He held a Smoke blade, the blade of the weapon nearly seven feet long and almost shining its surface was so white. He would have wielded that blade with one hand, even with the blade being almost a foot wide, but it had no significant weight. He had a bad bite mark on his left forearm and blood trickled down to his wrist, but it would heal with time. His Opus of Conception hung from a chain he wore across his chest.

“Why didn’t you answer my sending?” Patsu asked.

“I never got a sending from you. I think this blackness is something new, maybe it disrupts Sendings? Any idea what it is?” Trance asked.

Patsu shook his head. “No idea. Lince doesn’t know either. But it must be Smoke, but not like any Smoke I have ever seen. There’s too much of it and it’s black. Why is it black?”

A sending suddenly came to the back of Patsu’s mind and he glanced over at Trance, and the man turned away from Patsu, obviously getting the same message. That was an odd holdover from the handheld devices that used smoke in the past. People would turn away from others when speaking or writing on them for privacy. With internal Sending’s, privacy wasn’t needed any longer, they were all in your mind, but some habits die hard. The sending was an announcement from the Fredrickson High Command.

The message said, “Akol has gone rogue. We are no longer in control of him. He has created and launched a worldwide attack against the human nations. He is calling it The Devonian Solution. The Ministry of Smoke has created domes of shielding that should protect specific structures, but we theorize nearly everything this new Smoke touches will be dissolved if it is not natural in its state. The smoke has been weaponized and is dematerializing everything it touches unless it is natural. Be aware that when it touches you, anything in a non-natural state, will turn to dust. Human bodies should be fine, but anything else will be destroyed. It will be easy for the…” the rest of the message cut off as if the data was missing.

Patsu glanced over at Trance and the man frowned. “Devonian,” he said. “It’s like a lame joke. Akol always did enjoy metaphors. He’s referring to a time in prehistory when humans were not the dominant species on the planet.”

The black wall closed in; it was rushing across the land. There was going to be no way the two of them could get to safety. Of course, did they really need to? Beyond their gear, it wouldn’t harm them, would it? Patsu wasn’t sure, but he was well-trained and fully devoted to the cause of liberty. He would not be conquered by a bunch of genetic abnormalities!

He looked back toward Trance and shook his head considering what he had said. “No,” he said grimly. “It refers to a time when humans didn’t exist at all.”

“Patsu, I’m scared,” Lince said, alighting on his shoulder again. “If the Opus of Conception is destroyed, what will happen to me?”

Patsu felt tears sliding down his cheeks. “I don’t know Lince. I don’t know.”

She flew up and placed her hand into one of the tears. As Patsu reached up to shield his fairy, the rushing wall of blackness enveloped them. The folds of his uniform lost tension and began falling to pieces, and the cold rust of the black wind causes him to shiver. He couldn’t see anything and the rushing air was deafening. The Smoke itself was so thick, he believed he could feel it sliding past him, dissolving everything but himself. Then he felt the Opus in his hand fall away, like trying to hold water, it fell between his fingers. In only a moment, the rushing blackness was past and he stood up. Everything was gone, he stood naked on the hilltop with Trance similarly standing as well. Lince lay on the ground beside him, but she was no longer white, her luminescence was dark. Her skin was no longer white, but a dark grey, nearly black. Her wings fluttered a moment and she glanced up at Patsu. Confusion, shock, and horror came over her face. She jumped up and then flew off toward the woods.

“Lince!” Patsu screamed, but it was no use. Roc, Trance’s fairy, was flying away too, but in a different direction. It seemed that when the Opus’ were destroyed, something within the Fairies had been destroyed as well. Patsu wasn’t sure, but something within him made him believe that he would never see Lince again. Looking down towards the town that had been below them, Patsu and Trance could see that none of the buildings remained, at all. There was nothing, just piles of dust where they had been, the wind picking up the leavings and creating a hazy blur over the horizon.

“What now?” Patsu asked.

“I don’t know,” Trance replied. “Maybe we can find something to use as some clothes first. Otherwise, I have no idea.”

They both stared down at the town, already seeing people climbing out from the piles of dust where the buildings had been. Cold nakedness and fear. What would Akol do next? A Devonian era was beginning again.

Over 13,000 years later…

Year: NL20326

The clouds rolled out of the vent pipes at the top of the cavern that was Bolster Heart. A great country that resided within the enormity of Pillar which was a separated and elevated world and the creation of Akol, God of the World, from the beginning of time. These clouds happened every morning and throughout the day, and as a result, it rained often. There was even lightning inside the cavern, and the clouds did reflect the lights from below, which helped with the general dimness of the place. As was normal, the mist had fallen low to cover the streets and the lantern lights along the paving stones had made a milky light that obscured the view more than enhanced it.

Thistlewart Mink, a stubby little fellow of a Flemi, was shuffling along down the sidewalk towards his job at the Bondwarden Keep, a prison of sorts. He was often teased. His neighbor at the boarding house would often flip off Thistlewart’s hat as he passed him in the hall, or tug at his irregular ears. Thistlewart was not an intelligent, clean, or even that likable a Flemi and was often looked down upon and made fun of for a myriad of things.

His room at the boarding house was a closet-sized hole with barely enough space for a cot and he shared the single sink washroom with about thirty other Flemi, there was no toilet, and the only one of those was two blocks away. They were rarely used anyway and only the richest Flemi had them where they lived. He had tried to get close to one of his neighbors once, an attractive female Flemi named Nass. She had perfectly smooth fur around her eyes and her ears were always tied back with a blue ribbon, but she was quick to laugh at him and make fun of him as well. He had cried himself to sleep that night.

His job, as it was, was mopping up the seepage from the center block of the prison. Every day, he walked the half-a-mile stretch down the boulevard, dodging the other people’s pushing carts or hauling goods on their backs, to the outskirts of the southeastern edge of Skalholt Prefecture, where many of the down-and-out Flemi lived.

While it might have been the center of all of Bolster Heart, Skalholt was also the place the poor lived. The good King Pompi had tried to solve homelessness and poverty by providing cheap one-room housing in Skalholt Prefecture, but it had just resulted in a rise in crime and other unfavorable situations. However, while Thistlewart may not have been the smartest Flemi, he was willing to work and although it wasn’t much, he got by. Truthfully though, unlike many of the top countries of Pillar, debt labor was illegal in Bolster Heart, but the ways in which the workers were paid, made it almost the same thing. In any given area, the workers were often paid in wooden chits that the companies around that area used as currency. So, whenever a worker was paid, they basically had to shop at a store owned by the very people that were paying their wage. The control of wages in chits was a way for the corporations to basically have debt labor. Everyone knew this, but there wasn’t much they could do to change it.

Muttering to himself, he passed the bakery on the corner and smelled the fresh rolls that the baker had just put out. He had stolen one of those rolls once when the baker’s wife had brought out a pan of them to place out front and left them unguarded for a moment. He had felt a little guilty about that, but it was honestly one of the best days he had ever had. It was much better than the tough biscuits the breadline gave out. You had to soak them for quite a while before they were even edible. As such, it was soggy on the outside and still rock on the inside, not pleasant. But the roll from Victor’s Bakery was just about the best thing he had ever eaten, even if he had done it in an alley, scared that he would be discovered.

As he came into the temple block, he was taken again by how much it didn’t remind him of an actual prison. There were prisons for the Flemi who committed crimes of course, but this was nothing like those, this looked, for all the world like a grand temple, and, that’s exactly what it was, but it was also a prison and Flemi referred to it both ways. It was said that this prison held one of the Great Beasts, legendary creatures that came from the time of creation. Of course, Thistlewart didn’t know much about any of that, he was just happy to have a job. It paid for his room and the stops in the breadlines, but not much else. Still, what was a Flemi to do?

As walked through the large iron gates that surrounded the building, one of the trucks nearly ran him over, “Out of the way, you flaming ash heap!” a man from the cab yelled and Thistlewart jumped to the side. The man wore a ripped tweed ivy cap with his ears pulled back behind it, a common way to get the long ears of a male Flemi out of the way, he spat out the window as the truck moved on through the gate, its fog lights bright.

Lady Flemi tended to tie their ears back with ribbons or a kerchief. Thistlewart’s long ears dangled into his face often, their edges clipped and nicked from the years he had worked in the automobile factory. The machines were always taking bites out of the worker’s ears. He had lost that job when one of them had caught his leg and nearly tore it off. He had recovered, but he wasn’t able to run from machine to machine any longer, so they had let him go.

Bum leg or not, Thistlewart was late today and while the Flemi were typically thought of as punctual, it was just a stereotype. The thought may have come from the fact that the Flemi resembled rabbits, their long fur-covered ears often being long enough to rest on their shoulders and their pronounced whiskered faces were a complete mimic of the animal. But of course, their bodies were much more like a human’s body, only covered in fur.

In literature, rabbits were always thought to carry pocket watches and always be on time, but still. Even as that thought skittered through his mind, Thistlewart looked up at the large inlaid clock on the outside of the main temple prison’s stone-worked facade, 9:09 a.m. He might be a little later than he originally thought. Nothing genetically gave them a greater sense of time or reliability. As it was though, he picked up the pace.

“You’re late Wart,” his manager Mr. Ruffle said, as he walked into the little office that held the equipment he would need for the day’s work.

He punched in on the time clock. Everyone at work called him Wart. A thistlewart was a relatively common flower on the cliffs of Husavik and his mother loved it, thus his name, but he was resentful of it, always. Mr. Ruffle was always mean to him.

“Sorry sir,” he mumbled and walked to the closet in the back room. “I’ll try to be on time tomorrow, this old leg of mine is acting up again. I’ll do better.”

“See that it doesn’t,” Mr. Ruffle grumbled. “I got a whole city full of little pukes just like you that I can fill your spot with. You remember that!”

“Yes sir. I will sir, thank you, sir.”

Someday he would make that man pay. He didn’t know how, or in what way, but he would make him pay. Always yelling, always critical, always a bully. He grabbed the tunic that he was required to wear over his trousers and button-down, then belted on the little tool belt over it.

“Hey, I’m gonna need you to go into the dome room today and manage the valves in there.” Mr. Ruffle said.

“The dome room? I’ve never been in there sir. That’s usually Calbert’s job,” he said. Was Calbert, okay?

“Yeah, well Calbert got canned for messing about and not doing his job. So even though you’re a pitiful excuse for an employee, let’s see how you do with this one, an important job. Just don’t go messing around with the dome itself or staring in at that monstrosity inside, it’ll give you nightmares for sure.”

Maybe Mr. Ruffle was just rough with everybody?

“No sir, I won’t sir. Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down sir,” he stammered a flush rising in his cheeks.

Maybe this was his chance to show everyone that he wasn’t a screwup. He could get things done. Maybe a pay raise would come with this.

“Well?” Mr. Ruffle said. “Get to it then!” “Yes sir!”

He rushed as fast as he could down the hall from the main passage. He took a doorway to the left. He came to a large steel door, that would lead him down to the dome. The door was massive, easily twenty feet tall, and carved all over with images of the Beasts. Mr. Ruffle was right, seeing one of these would give him nightmares for sure. It had to be that large, of course, to get the occupant of the room inside. It would have taken a door that size for sure. He stepped to the side of the door to a smaller one, this one designed specifically for Flemi. Opening this smaller door, he stepped through into the chamber beyond. These places were nearly all the same. Ratcheting the locks and door bolts back was second nature for him by now, the whole temple was full of these types of doors.

He closed the door but pulled out the small lamp he kept on his belt, so he could see somewhat.

Walking over to the valves on the side of the room he began cranking the wheel to start the motors running so the dim lights would blink on, then he could see the remaining valves and levers that needed adjusting just above him, the rest of the room remained dark while the system booted up. He stepped on a wet spot on the floor, a common thing.

“Dang, the valves must be leaking,” he said to himself.

These systems were always springing leaks and needing to be replaced or fixed. He wasn’t sure how long the whole system would last and with Calbert slacking off, who knew what all could be breaking down in this area.

The system had made it this far though, so he suspected it might last another couple thousand years before smarter Flemi than he would have to fully fix the system. He noticed the liquid he had stepped in was black and little boot prints were leading to where he now stood. He adjusted his tunic. Luckily the Beast within this place was one of the sleepers. All the known Beasts were asleep, but this one was different. While the Flemi didn’t like to say his name, Thistlewart had heard it mentioned several times and of course, had learned it in school when he was a boy.

This sleeper was Dumont, a Beast many said was equal to the leader of the Beasts and arguably the whole world, Ashlynn. She was said to be beautiful, elegant, and kind, while he was said to be dark and supremely cruel. All the beasts save for Ashlynn had been terrible when they were first created, but Ashlynn had tamed them all, save for Dumont, it was said he was untamable and too powerful to bend to Ashlynn’s will. But none of that mattered to Thistlewart, because the Beasts were all asleep and any good or bad, they might represent was locked sleeping away in each of their temples, including Dumont in the one he stood in now.

He twisted a wheel on the wall and it creaked slowly, the hum of the engines within the walls began to give off a sickly-sweet smell that he wasn’t used to smelling. The lights farther in were switching on now as he turned around and he nearly fell back. In the brightness of the now fully lit lamps around the hall, he saw the sleeper’s chamber, a dome the size of a small house, but several of the cords connecting it to the machines within the temple were hanging loose, black fluid dripping from their dangling ends.

He hobbled over to the window of the dome. The metal door was Flemi sized and he wondered how the beast could have gotten into the dome. Even though Mr. Ruffle had warned him not to look in, he stood on his toes to do just that. The sleeper’s chest was still rising and falling as it should have been. Dumont was a great creature indeed, easily the size of a small truck. His long neck was covered in hair, but thick, like quills. His head resembled a horse, but the teeth that jutted from their sides reminded Thistlewart of the pictures he had seen of the animals called alligators. His body was covered in a thick short blueish black fir, and his tail again reminded Thistlewart of an alligator, but much longer and thinner towards the tip.

He had wings like an eagle that were folded along his back, but they were limp and brushing the floor. There was more of the black liquid here and it was pooling around the creature. Its wings appeared to be edging into that liquid, staining their bluish tips black as it seeped up into the plumage. He started for the main door, ready to rush back out to the main hall, to let Mr. Ruffle know about the problem and he thought that the Counsel of Three or even King Pompi would want to know about this, it was serious business! A problem with the dome that kept Dumont sleeping was a big deal. He might even wake up and what would that mean Thistlewart wondered. It wouldn’t be good, that was for sure.

As he was beginning to turn from the dome, a smell of burning metal seemed to waft toward him. It took him by surprise, that he could smell it. In Bolster Heart, that smell was common with all the machines around, but that is why it surprised him, he was used to it and this was a much more pungent version of that smell.

“Would it not be nice, if your boss was nicer to you?” The voice was soft-spoken but deep and sonorous.

It was almost as if someone was down the hall speaking to him, or speaking up from the bottom of a barrel.

“Who?” Thistlewart began. “Who is this? Who’s there?”

 He looked around the room, but there was no one, only himself. There was a drip, drip, drip from the leaking valve. Maybe he had just imagined the voice.

“I can make him nicer to you. I could do even more than that for you. How would you like to run this entire facility? I could do that. I’m willing to. I am a very generous person.”

The voice tickled the back of his mind and he looked around again. It was closer now; he was sure of it. Clearer too.

“Seriously, who are you? Where are you?” he asked again, turning in circles now. “Is that you Brontly? Are you playing your tricks again?”

He was getting a little dizzy now, it felt like he was breathing in a mist.

“My dearest Thistlewart, you have lived such a difficult life. You still do. You are disrespected at your work, ignored where you live, and you have not even touched a female in years. You are alone and sad.”

The voice was empathetic and kind. This person cared for Thistlewart; he knew that. He could feel the emotion of it, even taste it, if that was possible. He was sure it was.

“Friend, I know what it is like to be alone. I too have been alone for so long. You and I are greatly alike, the same really,” the voice said.

Thistlewart felt hot tears sliding down the fur on his cheeks and he wiped his eyes, he hadn’t even realized he was crying until he had felt them. The sadness of his life was weighing upon him now, but he wasn’t sure why. What had happened? All he knew was that this voice cared about him and loved him. It had always loved him, how had he not known that before?

“I can help you, friend. I can bring you peace and happiness. I just need something from you first. A simple thing. Nothing of consequence at all. Will you do this simple thing for me?” the voice cooed, there was a trail of white Smoke slowly curling up out of a place where one of the hoses had been attached to the dome.

He thought maybe the acrid smell was coming from that, he really should get help to fix that issue… what was the issue again? Thistlewart walked slowly back towards the window. The dome’s slanting metal sides were glistening with perspiration as if the inside of the dome was cold. He pushed up on his tiptoes and looked again through the little window in the barred door. The beast was still inside, still not moving, but white Smoke curled from its nostrils and was slowly filling the top of the chamber within.

“Are you… the one talking to me?” Thistlewart asked, a little scared of the answer he might get.

“I am,” the voice said. “And I am not what you have heard about. Do I sound as if I am a bad creature? Do my words sound as if I am ready to bring about doom and dread? Just like you, people have spread nasty rumors about me and it is all lies! All of it. Lies. You believe me do you not?”

The voice was calming. He slid down the door and sat back on his haunches, considering, and thinking. It was all so obvious to him now, as it always should have been. He was embarrassed it had taken him this long to realize the truth about this creature.

“So, you aren’t evil, like they say?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

It was obvious.

“Do I sound evil to you? I want to help you, but I can only do that if you first help me. That is fair, is it not? That I would help you if you first would help me. You wish to be fair, do you not?”

Thistlewart did want to be fair. Wouldn’t that make the world a better place, if everything was fair? He thought. So many things in his life were unfair. It was unfair that he had to live where he did, that he got paid for what he did, and that no one liked him. It was all so unfair. Well, he would be fair, if it was the last thing he could do, he would be fair!

“I know you have been treated unfairly your whole life. The God so many would pray to does not even provide enough money for you to live on.”

The voice was sympathetic.

“You know, I could even heal your leg, and make you whole again. I can make Nass love you if that is something you would want. I can do great things Thistlewart and I am willing to do those great things if you do but one small thing for me… you must release the rest of those cables from this dome.”

Thistlewart nodded. It all made sense.

Ten minutes later:

Tolden Ruffle came into the heart of the temple after hearing the squeal of ripping metal. Everyone in the building came running in. People would have heard it for miles. He had to push through the throng of Flemi that crowded into the doorway leading to where the dome was located. When he had pushed his way in, he stopped, bent over, and nearly lost his footing. The dome looked like the petals of a flower, peeled back, and opened. Inside, it was empty.

The pipes and cables which normally connected to the dome were hanging from their ceiling mounts, the connectors not torn away, but neatly disconnected. The black liquid that had kept Dumont sleeping for as long as anyone could remember was pouring out onto the floor. In the middle of that pool were the ashes of what had been Thistlewart Mink, the small pile soaking into the black and disappearing. Tolden nearly vomited right there. He reached over to steady himself on his friend Monty who had just walked up and stood beside him.

“The fool,” Monty said, shaking his head. “He’s doomed us all, he has.”

Tolden Ruffle merely nodded his head. Doomed us all indeed he thought and tears began cascading down his cheeks.


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